As the short daylight shaded towards dusk, a solitary figure made his way through the back streets of the Emerald City, skirting a park whose statues and railings had been melted down for munitions. He looked neither rich nor shifty - the heavy black cloak was needed for warmth at this time of year - and so was largely ignored. The people had more important concerns. Times were bad. As always.
A few flakes of snow drifted down without much enthusiasm, melting underfoot. He passed by bedraggled Lurlinemas decorations and an obscene graffito (fresh) involving women in uniform, and ducked into a doorway. The stairwell was dark and ill-kept; he ran his hand against the wall as he climbed.
A line of light beneath the door: someone home already. Liir went in, shaking the wet off his cloak and hanging it up on a hook. "I got some dried fish and potatoes," he said as he dumped the parcels on the table. The potatoes were soft and wrinkled, sending forth shoots in a last-ditch bid for freedom.
"Three cheers." Trism was sitting up on the bed, reading by candlelight. Liir hadn't seen him in the best part of a week, with one thing or another, but he'd got enough food for two anyway. In rocky soil, he was trying to cultivate the habit of hope.
"Well, it wasn't easy," he said. "We should look into getting fake ration cards."
"With what money? Anyway, they're cracking down hard on that. And we aren't even meant to exist - not here and certainly not together."
"What are you reading?" Liir asked, cracking the ice in the water-pail and stirring up the fire.
"One of ours." Trism tossed the pamphlet away, where it fluttered down to the floor in a rustle of excited capitals. "Surely the people shall recover their true spirit to overthrow the sway of tyranny and restore the government on true principles. That's 'true' twice, anyway. And what's there to restore?"
"So we got that one wrong." It was cold and he was tired. After all the excitement of his youth - ha - it was enough of an adventure to procure bad fish and potatoes, with the city as it was.
They had got it wrong. After all their printing and pamphleteering with the fixed-up old press back at the farm, they had come to the Emerald City for information - for fresh news, for word of the growing list of people Liir was searching for, perhaps for vanity. Had anyone even heard of them, of what they'd written? Well, it turned out that a few people had, but no one had really listened. And then had come the coup d'etat, military rule, the siege, and they had been trapped behind the walls.
"I heard they're upping the pace on the sexual revolution," Trism said. "Five year plan to be accomplished in five weeks - legal transfer of property and so forth."
"At least we've not had a sexual revolution before." He shrugged, chopping. "It's not as much fun as it sounds. Does that mean that I get all your goods, and you can do the cooking?"
Trism shifted uncomfortably. "She's in a tearing hurry, this General."
"She knows she hasn't got much time."
He had seen her - the self-styled General Jinjur - parading at the head of her army after the takeover. She had been dark-haired and fierce-looking under her helmet, and he had thought for a crazy moment…But no, of course she wasn't Nor. Just a full-grown Munchkinlander woman not much older than him, heading an army of farmwives and Shiz graduates and spinsters. And men, of course her army had men. But they knew their place.
"Any word from beyond the walls?" he asked.
"They say Lady Chuffrey has come out to join the besiegers."
"Old tiara-wearing Glinda? You're joking."
"Not joking, and she's hardly old. Prime of life and looking younger every year - it's said she's perfected a spell for prolonging youth, or maybe eternal life altogether."
"Bollocks: it's just another geological layer. You saw how powdered-up she was, even those years ago." He scraped away at the potato, as if for emphasis. '"She offered to make you over."
"Well, maybe I should have agreed," Trism said. "Anyway, she's apparently out there now, and the Scarecrow our rightful ruler."
"The one who went with Dorothy or the one that died in a lighter-fluid accident?"
"Both, supposedly. Neither, probably. One Scarecrow's like another, right?"
Liir pushed the hair back from his face: it was growing long again. "I notice they're excising the Holy Emperor Shell Thropp from the succession," he said. "Wherever he is."
"Well, a theocracy's hard to keep popular long." He had to bite his tongue to avoid pointing out how differently Trism has spoken just a few short years before - it wouldn't do to bring these things up. "His sister found that out in the East, and now this Jinjur coming along like a convenient house….And that's the other thing."
"What?" asked Liir.
"They've got tired of starving us out. There's to be some sort of decisive action soon - aerial reconnaissance or aerial bombardment or aerial assassination, I don't know."
Liir dropped a potato. "Not dragons?"
"Not dragons." He closed his eyes against Liir's searching look and stretched, ribs showing under his thin sweater. "Some sort of tiktok thing, maybe. News from over the wall is understandably scarce."
"You've found out a lot, anyway."
"I'm getting better at it. It's my animal magnetism."
Liir turned away from the pot again, mishearing the initial or misinterpreting it. "So you're, what, mesmerising Animals now? People?"
"It doesn't work like that," Trism said. "Mostly I just look ruggedly charming and buy them drinks. I worked a few days hauling scrap metal," he added, before Liir could ask. "Rest of the money's in the coat pocket if you want to make a grab for those worldly goods. I'm not particularly inclined to move."
Liir looked at him: night had fallen entirely outside, as dark as it ever got in the metropolis, and the light from the fire and candle struck glints of gold from his rumpled hair and left shadows across his face. Liir wondered if he should offer to rub his shoulders - it wasn't a skill he'd ever practiced. Maybe later.
He stirred the contents of the pot, which were looking sadly gloopy but would have to do. They'd both eaten worse in their time.
"It's hot, anyway," he said, handing Trism a bowl and a crust of greying bread. They ate in hungry silence, Trism on the bed and Liir in the room's single chair. The garret had been abandoned in one of the Emperor's last purges - by an impoverished dissident like themselves, most likely - and no one but them had come to claim it since. It was out of the way but reasonably safe, and at least somewhat arranged for habitation. Sometimes he recalled his vision of the green-skinned woman and her lover above the abandoned corn exchange: he and Trism were lucky in comparison.
"What about you?" Trism asked, finished inhaling his food. "Heard anything?"
He sagged back as far as the chair would allow him, overtaken by exhaustion. He had his own heap of scrap metal to haul. "Nothing new. No more graffiti from Nor - I wonder what she makes of General Jinjur? - and no fresh word of a Quadling musician with a weird southern instrument. Maybe I'm not looking hard enough. Or maybe they don't want to be found."
Trism was silent for a while, putting down his bowl and arranging his limbs more comfortably on the faded coverlet. "So what next?" he said finally.
Liir thought about chucking his own bowl against the wall, but he doubted it would make him feel any better, and might attract undue attention. It would certainly break the bowl. "Nothing next," he said. "We're under siege, remember? No exit."
"But after that. There's always something after, right? The next part of history. What will we do then?" We, he had said. That was something.
"It still depends. I'll have to get Phebe from the mauntery, I guess."
(He had left her with their old friends at the House of St. Glinda for safe-keeping before setting out for the capital, feeling unreasonably unsettled. "She'll be fine," Sister Doctor had told him briskly. "We've raised our share of children, you know. You included."
"That crone, Mother Yackle," he'd been moved to say. "Keep Phebe away from her, would you?"
"Won't be difficult." Sister Doctor sniffed. "The old biddy shuffled off nearly three years back, and past time, I'd say. You know, no one could actually remember when she'd come here?"
There had been a rushing in his ears, and words dimly heard: You're on your own now, boy. But though he could only vaguely recall what Yackle had sounded like - gruff, masculine? - this voice had not been hers. It had been Elphaba's.)
"And then what?" Trism said. He'd folded his arms over his chest, like a corpse.
"I don't know, all right? We'll think of something, we'll see how the wind blows. Maybe get away from it all, find some little corner - in Munchkinland maybe -" Or rural Gillikin, he'd meant to say, but didn't get the chance.
"And what, settle down on the farm with your verdigris love-child? Exactly how long do you think we'd last?"
"We managed all right on Apple Press. And you'd be good at farming."
Trism lay back, his eyes drifting half-shut. He was right - it did all sound rather unlikely. No matter how much he thought it through, there was no pattern Liir could make them assume, the two of them and little, lightly green Phebe. They had put themselves beyond the reach of patterns.
"We'll see how it goes," he repeated. "Anything could happen. Queen Jinjur could make something of her half-assed sexual revolution, Glinda Chuffrey could batter down the walls in a puff of glitter and make everything elegant again. Saint Dorothy could return on another tornado. The lost Ozma Tippetarius could turn up."
He had trouble believing it, though. Not yet thirty, and despite the years he'd spent writing about it, he was losing his ability to believe in change. Theocracy or plutocracy or enlightened despotism or junta - it was all the same, in the end. Old lamps for new, feast or famine, and mostly famine as it went….
But maybe something. His old mantra: maybe Candle, maybe Trism. Maybe something, somewhere, all the same.
"All these rubbish ideas about the beautiful lost," Trism said, pointedly enough. He stretched his sore muscles again, pressing on the juncture of neck and shoulder. "They need to imagine Ozma in an enchanted sleep instead of decaying in a grave somewhere. Or worse yet, inbred and fiftyish."
Liir remembered rocking Phebe to sleep, singing tunelessly what he could recall of Nanny's nursery songs: Kumbricia stirs the pot, and licks the ladle…. It was always worth waiting for something, probably, though unlike the deities one did not have infinite time.
"I found you, anyway," he said. He was going to wash up like a civilized person, he thought, and then go to bed. "Or the other way around."
"I wanted to make sure you were all right, that's all."
Liir smiled a little, his back safely turned at the half-frozen ewer, remembering.
The tavern, in a little border town southwest of the Emerald City, was called the Sheep's Head, which would have been inflammatory once but now hardly merited a second glance - it was hard to get lower case on a tavern sign, anyway. It was autumn, and raining.
Liir nursed his mulled cider at the bar, trying to draw the taciturn barman into conversation. It wasn't looking good. He'd taken a room upstairs anyway - there was no moving on in the dark, in this weather. Not for the first time, he was questioning the wisdom of leaving the farm on this wild Goose chase - for a Goose, among others. He ought to go up now, at least for a while, to check….
A figure huddled in a coat streaming rain water fell onto the seat beside him and ordered a whisky. Then he shook the hood back from his damp blond hair and turned to Liir, the familiar face not showing much expression. Liir couldn't guess what his own looked like.
"So it is you," Trism said quietly. "We have got to stop meeting like this."
"Or people will talk?" He drained his cider, but kept his hand clenched around the cup. "Are you planning on killing me this time?"
"I wasn't, no."
"Well, that's progress. Where have you been?"
"In hiding, mostly. Can we go talk somewhere private?"
"I've got a room upstairs."
He tossed back the whisky. "All right. Lead on."
He led. He felt curiously calm, but knew that it was temporary - battle-calm. Given his life so far, it would probably all go to hell soon enough anyway. But it hadn't, it hadn't yet.
The room was dark and chilly. He set down the tallow candle and bent down to poke the dying fire into life. He should have come up earlier - but then he wouldn't have -
"What happened to you?" Liir said urgently.
Trism was dumping his coat over a chair to dry. "Remarkably little, actually. I went to that farm like you asked me, and saw your Quadling girlfriend. She refused to come with me, and I got spooked and left. Went up to Gillikin to try and see the family, but decided best not to - too many questions for them if I turn up now. Hid out in haylofts most of the summer - there was this kid I scared badly, he thought I was a pumpkin come to life….Anyway. Took months before I felt safe enough to come back to the Disappointments, and by then there wasn't anyone there at all, so I've been checking the vicinity for you."
"Oh," he said, feeling foolish. "When Candle wouldn't tell me - I thought -"
"You thought what? I didn't offer her any insult, if that's what you mean." It was his stuffiest St. Prowd's voice. "I don't think we understood each other, that's all. And you could have warned me." He didn't have to say what about.
"She didn't warn me either," Liir said. "It wasn't like that, it wasn't what you must have assumed…"
"Haven't we already established that we mustn't assume things?" He rubbed his hands together over the fire. "Where is she, anyway?"
"I don't know."
"I'm sorry." He sounded sincere enough. He was standing, consciously or not, at military parade rest in the middle of the room. Surmises chased each other through Liir's head, like frightened rabbits.
"I have to think that she's all right," he said. "I've been trying to track her down…"
"And got me instead. What a disappointment for you."
He took a chance: stepped forward and took Trism's clasped hands. They were frozen, a shade darker tan than his own. "I was looking for you, too," he said.
"And now you've found me." He disengaged himself with a sharp tug. "Or whichever. You've got the lost piece of your story, and I've got my peace of mind, and we can go our ways."
Here it was then, the implosion. But he was going to fight it this time - for once he wasn't too late at the field of battle. "Are you kidding?" Liir said.
"Not in the least." His rigid stance relaxed, just marginally. "It wouldn't -"
And that was when Phebe chose her moment - turned in her sleep, murmuring fretfully but not waking. Trism jumped in a way that would have been comic in other circumstances. "What - who is that?" he asked, pointing at the bundle in the makeshift crib.
"Candle's child." Liir twitched back a fold of blanket with his finger. "My daughter."
"Just a little."
"So I suppose this means - you really were -"
"How many green people are there, you think?" Liir had done all his own speculating, in those lonely months at Apple Press Farm - genetics, mutation, reincarnation, his own obvious lack of pigment. But in the end there was only this bundle of human matter who cried for food and soiled her nappy, resisting symbolic reading.
He moved the candle to the nightstand and sat down on the bed, bending to unlace his boots. Trism cleared his throat. "You should know - what happened between us before….Well, like I said. I'm not staying."
"You can't go out in this rain," Liir said. He didn't do disingenuous very well.
"That's not what I mean and you know it. We were both out of our heads back then, what with the dragons, but there's no point being foolish and sentimental about it now."
Liir looked up at him, watched him swallow, the strong line of his throat where it vanished into his open collar. He'd been indecisive for too much of his life, so life was stripping him of choices. He knew he couldn't bear for Trism to leave, but he couldn't think of any way to make him stay.
"Say goodbye in the northern fashion, then," he said. "If you're not feeling too foolish or sentimental." He raised his chin.
If Trism had meant it, he would have said that he wasn't brought up that aristocratic, or that the Home Guard had trained such provincial ticks out of them, which was true enough. He looked pained, stepped forward, shook his head. "Can't do it," he said.
"Then don't leave. I mean, come back to Apple Press with me. I've been repairing the printing press. I think there's work we can do."
He wondered if he should look hopeful, or encouraging, or something, but he didn't seem to have the knack of looking anything on purpose. He just looked up instead, meeting Trism's eyes, and watched his shoulders sag in defeat or relief.
"Are you propositioning me or offering me a job?" Trism demanded finally, not quite managing the right tone for it.
"Both. Either. The former, just at the moment." He kicked off his boots.
It was oddly formal. They undressed as if to sleep, folded their clothes, blew out the candle, got in at opposite sides of the bed - like a couple on their wedding night, Liir thought giddily, sentimental and foolish. He felt the old bed shift as Trism turned toward him, pale as a ghost in the dark despite his summer tan. "We won't - traumatize her or anything, will we?" He nodded towards the cradle.
"She's half a year old, and she sleeps like the dead."
"Still, I feel like she's -"
Liir turned briefly to glance at the bundle. "Paranoia, very attractive. Relax, will you?" He stayed very still, as if bewitched that way. He could yet, at that point, have been mistaken. Then he felt Trism's hands on his body, growing surer, melting the charm, and knew he wasn't.
Later, later, Trism kissed him, on each cheek and forehead. "I was afraid to come back, to see you with - and then everyone gone and I thought -"
"Hush. I know." Although he hadn't of course, not until then.
"I thought you'd never finish," Trism sighed against his ear when he finally came to bed, which was gratifying.
"Can't disrupt my evening routine just because you - decide to drop in -"
"I am a man of danger and mystery."
He propped himself up on his elbows, indignant. "And what am I, the maid?"
"You're Liir the Dragon Slayer…"
"Not that nonsense again!"
"Isn't nonsense. They're composing poems about it, in the Oziad style - Against the plague of dragons shall arise / A hero, dark and noble and devout….And light flood back into the troubled world…"
They weren't asking much if they took him as a model of devotion, Liir would have said if he'd been thinking straight. "You don't impress me when you do that, you know."
"Oh, don't I?"
"Maybe a little…"
It was a far better way to undress, Liir thought dimly, than stripping down by oneself in the icy room, hopping up and down like a demented person on the floorboards. They could have this every day….But maybe Trism was right. Left to themselves they would squabble, and hurt each other, and all the differences between them would flood to the surface. They had managed on Apple Press, but then there had been a difficult and seemingly urgent task to occupy their days, and new things to discover in the nights, and Phebe making her presence felt at any time. What would they do once she got older? What would they…?
They pulled the blankets over their heads, making a firelit tent against the world. He brushed his hands over the planes of Trism's skin, grown still leaner with the siege, kissed his collarbone and his shoulders and his mouth, feeling the old thrill of sleeping with the talent. Trism only got handsomer as he got older, where his own face in shop windows looked sharp and prematurely careworn. He didn't look much like Liir the Dragon Slayer.
I love you, he thought, testing it out. Now that would be brave. He wasn't much good at it, but at least he'd got past viewing Trism as his training-ground for happiness, and seen that - this - was the closest to it he was ever likely to get. He whispered it, just below his ear.
Trism stiffened in his arms and tried to roll over, and they got hopelessly tangled up in the blankets. Well, of course it would be farce, Liir thought. Elphaba had died in a cloud of it, so why should his own life be any different? Finally they managed to get free, and Trism's flushed face leaned over him, his hair standing on end with static. Liir stared up at him defiantly, anticipating the old argument.
"Don't say things like that."
"Why? Because it isn't the done thing?"
"It was Candle you loved, maybe - I've heard the way you talk about her. This is just making do."
"You have a very simplistic way of looking at it," Liir said. "You idiot." He wanted to press Trism's wrists down against the mattress, and, braving the blankets, he did it. There was nothing else to say, so he occupied himself in other ways. From the beyond the window came the noise of doors slamming, people running and shouting, which he ignored.
Trism gasped beneath him, his body straining upward. "Liir, I -"
"It's all right."
His face contorted, as if in pain. It would hurt him, to say it - destroy some part of him he was determined to hold on to: it might kill the feeling in the naming.
Liir kissed him quiet. That was the thing he was only just starting to realize, after three years - Quadling arithmetic. That by uniting two differently broken people one might get something cracked but whole.
They lay together afterwards on the narrow bed, unsleeping with tension. Passing torchlight from the half-shuttered window striped across their faces. Liir stared up at the ceiling and thought, at random, about Kiamo Ko - maybe he could take Trism and Phebe there, meet the relatives….Not that it was likely for Nanny and Chistery to still be alive, but one never knew. They could clean the place up - look for Elphaba's Grimmerie….He wasn't going to suggest it yet, but maybe, maybe. It might be something to do. Finally exhaustion won out and they dozed, Liir lulled by Trism's even breathing against his shoulder. Sometimes he did hum quietly in his sleep, but Liir wasn't suggestible.
He woke when the noise rolled through the city, a low rumbling sound like a distant earthquake - or a tornado, a sign from heaven.
"Do you hear that?" Trism asked sleepily in the darkness. Liir leaned up over him: by the faint cast of streetlight he could see Trism's eyes, wide open and alarmed. He kissed him gently, off target, again and again, and Trism's arms came up around him. "What is that sound?"
Putting scattered facts together, the memory of how the siege began, he thought he knew. He lay back down among the disarranged bedclothes, feeling a cautious happiness that, like all happiness, would likely turn out to have no substantiation in reality. Monarchy or despotism or junta: the daylight would show. He had found someone, at least; they were together.
"It's the city gates being thrown open," he said.