no place like oz Page 27

“Oh,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“But, you know, when Queen Lurline and her band of fairies first came to this place, ages ago, Oz was nothing but desert. It wasn’t quite so deadly back then—Oz had no magic to speak of in those days—but it was still dry and hot and dusty and flat and it went on and on and on. There was no Emerald City. There wasn’t even a tree. It was no place for life.”

“Sounds like Kansas,” I said. “Though, at least we have trees there.”

The princess gave me a curious look. “I’ve always thought Kansas sounded very nice,” she said. “Anyway, the fairies were passing through the desert on their way to somewhere else, and they had been traveling for a long time. A very long time. They were hungry and tired and thirsty. They had used the last of their magic.”

“Where were they trying to go?” I asked.

“No one knows,” Ozma said. She plucked a blossom from a vine overhead and tucked it into her hair. “Pieces of the story get lost over time, you know. All we know is that they were coming from somewhere and they were going somewhere else, and wherever it was, they had to cross Oz on foot to get there. But Oz is a big place. You probably know that better than I do. I have a carriage, after all, and you’ve walked so much of Oz. Can you imagine doing that without anything to drink or eat? Fairies are powerful, but even they have their limits. After a while, Lurline and her people were too exhausted to go any farther. She knew that resting really meant dying, but what else could she do?”

“So they stopped. They just sat down and stopped, right there in the sand. Their travels had finally come to an end. Well, they thought they had, at any rate. But just when she had given up hope, Lurline put her hand down and felt a dampness in the dirt. When she scratched at it a bit, she could hardly believe her eyes—it was water, the first she’d seen in weeks. It was a cool, fresh spring. It was mostly covered over by the sand, but it only took a minute of digging for it all to come bubbling up.”

“Someone put it there by magic,” I said. “To help her.”

“No. It was just good luck. Lurline was the magic one. And as she drank from the pool, she felt her magic coming back to her. With the little bit of energy the water from the spring gave her, she was able to conjure a pomegranate tree, and she and the rest of the fairies ate. The food made her stronger, and so Lurline summoned another tree, and then another and another until a whole orchard had sprung up.”

The path began to curl into a spiral. Ozma’s voice was dreamy and far away, and I wondered if she was talking to herself more than to me.

“They rested there for eight days, eating and drinking and dancing, regaining their strength after all the hardship they had been through, and on the eighth day, Lurline was so grateful and happy that she pricked her thumb with her knife and let a drop of her blood fall into the pool. I don’t know why she did it, really. Just to say thank you, I guess. But whatever the reason, she gave Oz a piece of herself, and as soon as her blood hit the spring, the land began to change around them. Just like that. Lush, green grass grew where there had only been dirt and sand. Rivers sprung up, and they wandered wherever they wanted to wander. Hills and mountains burst out of the flatness. On the path that the fairies had walked, yellow bricks began to sprout like flowers. Lurline’s blood had blessed the spring with magic, and that magic began to flow through everything.”

The spiral we were walking in grew tighter and tighter as it looped in on itself toward a center. The path grew narrower and narrower until my shoulder touched Ozma’s. Then it was narrower still, and I felt my nervousness mounting. I dropped behind her as she continued with her story. She didn’t bother looking back at me.

“What had once been a barren desert had become a magical, untamed wilderness. It became Oz. But the queen knew that she and her band had already stopped for too long. It was time for them to keep going where they were going. And yet—it was so beautiful. She couldn’t just abandon it. So she left her favorite daughter behind, a girl not much older than me, and the smallest of the group. She was small but tough. It was left to her to look after the land in Lurline’s absence. To take care of it and nurture its magic the way you tend to a garden.

“That daughter stayed behind, alone, to become Oz’s first true princess. That daughter was my grandmother. Or was it my great-grandmother? Or my great-great-grandmother?” Ozma shrugged, finally stepping forward through an arbor into a clearing where the sun was warm and bright again. Birds were chirping.

We had come to the center of the maze.

And as soon as the sunlight hit her green eyes, the laughing, girlish Ozma who had greeted me at the gate returned in a flash. She giggled a little to herself, putting a hand to her mouth. “Great-great-great-grandmother? Well, who knows! At any rate she was the first princess—whatever her name was. I honestly have no idea! Me, I’m the last. At least for now until the next one comes. Sometimes I wish she would hurry up.” She gave a theatrical sigh.

The center of the maze was a circular area paved with flagstones. It was about fifteen feet across, with a ring of squat little trees inside the larger ring of tall hedges.

In the very center of it all was a single wooden bench that had obviously seen better days: it was silver and weathered and close to rotting. At the foot of the bench was a muddy, mossy puddle. All of it had a burned-out, sun-bleached look to it, as colorless as one of the old sepia photographs Aunt Em kept of herself as a child.