Two days after Saguaro left Ie’ello’s home, she found herself in dire circumstances. She was beginning to run out of food and water, and she had no idea how much further she had to go before exiting the Grasslands. Even her compass and map were of no help.
Late that afternoon, she walked on a road that had been cut through the Grasslands. Despite this obvious hint at civilization, she did not see any houses or people along the road. This was no surprise. The only living thing she had seen in the past few days was a white-tailed deer that had bounded off as soon as it noticed her.
Saguaro paused when she saw a bush with what appeared to be scarlet raspberries growing at the side of the road. Her stomach ached with hunger. She had been forced to eat less in order to conserve her food supply, and her last meager meal had been many hours ago.
She did not waste a moment. She rushed to the bush and began picking the berries as quickly as she could. She stuffed several into her mouth. The berries tasted much like raspberries, but they were a lot sweeter.
Saguaro lost track of how many she ate. Caution and reason had disappeared the instant she’d spied the berries. All she cared about were the intoxicating flavors dancing on her tongue.
Suddenly, she was overcome by dizziness. Her head began to pound, and she started to lose her balance. She reached for the berry bush to steady herself, but she found herself falling to the ground.
Her last thought before darkness overcame her was that if Ie’ello had come with her, perhaps she could have avoided this situation entirely.
Saguaro’s next sensation was of someone poking her arm. The jab was hard, though the fingers were small. “Pst!” a young girl’s voice was saying. “Wake up!”
Saguaro inventoried her perceptions. She appeared to be wrapped in a fleece blanket, lying on a soft mattress. Her entire body was aching as if she had a fever. Perturbed by the unfamiliarity of her situation, Saguaro forced her eyes open.
She found herself lying in the bed of a simple room, looking at a small girl of perhaps six or seven. The little girl had dark Winkie skin and a long black braid that reached the middle of her back. She wore a silk dress and a large bow at the bottom of her braid.
“You’re up!” she said, smiling. “Oh, I’m so glad!”
She threw her arms around Saguaro, who tensed, but hugged her back.
“I’ve been waiting hours and hours to ask you questions,” the young girl said, chattering on before Saguaro had a chance to speak. “Mummy made me promise to let you sleep, but I couldn’t wait any longer! I think you’ve slept long enough, anyway. You’ve been sleeping since we first found you, and I don’t know how long before that.”
“You found me?” Saguaro asked. Her voice was low and raspy, and it hurt a little to talk.
The girl nodded. “I was the one who first saw you yesterday. You were lying right by the side of the road, and I yelled at Uncle Avaric to stop the carriage. Then he put you into our carriage, and Mummy made me promise not to wake you. We were going to spend the night at Vinkus Castle, but Mummy made us stop at this inn in Kvon Altar, since it was much closer and she needed to take care of you right away. I didn’t mind; I’ve never stayed at an inn before. But that doesn’t matter. Now you can answer my questions. I’ve been waiting since yesterday!”
She leapt onto the bed and sat right next to Saguaro. Once again, she began speaking before Saguaro could respond.
“I love your skin. It’s so pretty. Green is my favorite color, though my brother Manek says that’s stupid because of the Wicked Witch of the West. Are you related to her? I bet you are. I bet she’s your mother, and she was so Wicked that you ran away. Then we found you, and now you’re safe, but you’re still scared that your mother will come for you any minute.”
Her eyes were sparkling, as though she truly hoped that this was the case. Saguaro, despite her confusion about her current circumstances, found herself fixating on one thing the girl said.
“I thought the Wicked Witch of the West was dead,” she said.
“Everyone thinks so, but Manek says that’s not true. He told me a secret that the Wicked Witch of the West isn’t really dead. Mummy just told me that she is, so I wouldn’t be scared.” The girl wrinkled her nose. “Does that mean she’s not your mother? I was hoping you could tell me all about her.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” said Saguaro. “She’s definitely not my mother. But I was wondering about you. You said something about your mother. Where is she now?”
“She’s getting some breakfast for you. She asked me if I wanted to come, but I decided to stay with you.” The girl’s eyebrows scrunched together. “Are you sure your mother isn’t the Wicked Witch of the West? I’ve never heard of anyone else with green skin.”
“I’m positive,” said Saguaro. The girl frowned as she took this in and then lit up again.
“Well, even if she isn’t your mother, I think you’re still in danger! I think the Wicked Witch saw you in her crystal ball and is mad that she’s not the only one with green skin. She’s going to fly in on her broom and take you away, and then I’ll never see you again.”
“I’m sure that’s not going to happen,” Saguaro said, amused by the young girl’s imagination. The girl just shrugged.
“You were talking in your sleep last night, too. You said your name was Guarie and then something about a ‘Fyre.’ Were you in a fire? Was it really scary?”
It took Saguaro a few moments to realize what the girl was talking about. Fuzzy images from the previous night flooded back. She saw herself in her bedroom, listening as her father talked. She must have had a dream about listening to a Fyre story, although she could not remember any other details.
“No, I wasn’t in a fire,” she said, not bothering to correct the girl about her name. “Fyre’s just someone I used to know. But enough about me. Tell me about yourself. How old are you? What’s your name?”
The girl made a face. “I’m six, and my full name is Princess Ilianora Tigelaar, but my brothers call me Iliabora. I hate it, so you can just call me Nor.”
Saguaro’s mind seized on one word. “Wait. Princess?”
Before Nor had a chance to respond, the door opened. A tall woman holding a tray of food and a man about the same height stood in the doorway. “Nor!” the woman said. “I thought I told you not to wake her.”
“She’s fine,” said Nor. “Aren’t you, Guarie?”
Saguaro ignored this question and focused her attention on the man and woman. “Thank you so much for saving me, Your Majesties,” she said, struggling to remember everything she had heard about royalty from her father’s stories. “I’m so grateful that you found me. If there’s anything I can do, anything at all, I’ll be more than happy to offer my services.”
Her words were interrupted by a giggle. “That’s Uncle Avaric, not Father,” Nor said, pointing at the man. “He’s our friend and driver.”
Saguaro looked at the adults again. Upon studying them closer, she noticed that although the woman’s dress was made of the same white silk as her daughter’s, the man’s yellow suit was drab and dusty. Both adults appeared to be around her parents’ age. Had Nor not corrected her, Saguaro would have gone on thinking that both adults were the girl’s parents. The queen had the same oval face as her daughter, and the man’s almond shaped eyes were similar to Nor’s.
“It’s quite all right,” the queen said, smiling at Saguaro. “I apologize for Nor waking you, but it’s probably a good thing that you’re up. I was going to wake you myself, because I didn’t want your sleep schedule to get too far off. You appear to have had an allergic reaction to some woozeberries. Most people just get a little sleepy, but my son Manek had a reaction much like yours. Are you still feeling dizzy and achy?”
“A little,” said Saguaro.
“That should pass in a few days,” the queen said. “My son likened it to contracting influenza. The inn’s cook made you some tea with verte leaves, which should lessen the symptoms temporarily.”
She placed the tea on the nightstand and the food tray on Saguaro’s lap. Saguaro stared at the scrambled eggs and the blueberry muffin, overwhelmed by the sight of hot food after so much time eating from cans. She took a bite of the warm muffin and was rewarded by its rich, sweet flavor.
As she ate, the man Nor had introduced as Avaric continued to keep his distance. He did not speak and only glanced at her when she repeated her lie that she was an orphan on her way to find relatives in the Emerald City.
Saguaro found herself oddly grateful for Avaric’s distance. With her aching body and so much confusion, she had almost forgotten Ie’ello’s warnings. Yes, the queen seemed nice, but she could very well have ulterior motives. After all, what other reason was there for a member of the royal family to take a chance on a girl who looked so much like Oz’s most infamous enemy?
She pushed aside her childish excitement at meeting Winkie royalty. Her father’s stories were just that, and it wasn’t as though this queen had been in any of them.
“You’re quite lucky that we planned our journey the way we did,” said the queen, who’d introduced herself as Sarima. As she spoke, Saguaro pretended to sip the tea, wary of poison. “We’re traveling from our summer home in Neverdale, in the Outer Vinkus. We usually take the Winkie River bridge to our castle in Vinkus. But Nor had never seen the Truth Pond, so we decided to take the long way in order to show it to her. I’m speaking for my husband at a meeting at Camp Gabryel the day after tomorrow, which is where we’re headed now. Nor came with me, and her older brothers are fishing with their father.”
“I’m so glad I didn’t go,” Nor said. “I like fishing, but I’m sick of Irji and Manek.”
“Guarie, I’m not sure that you’ll feel comfortable with this, but I have a proposition for you,” Sarima said. Despite being on guard, Saguaro felt comforted by the use of her nickname; it reminded her of happier days when she was younger. “The ambassador of Quadling Country, Psudina Glaze, will be at the meeting tomorrow, and she’s a very talented sorceress and healer. She has experience with this sort of thing, and I think she could help you recover more quickly. You can continue on to your relatives after that.”
Saguaro hesitated. She had been plotting her escape since she’d first noticed Avaric’s mistrust, but she did not feel that she could refuse the queen’s offer.
“Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate that.”
“Wonderful,” said Sarima. “I’ll let you rest, and we can leave first thing tomorrow morning. Now, if you don’t mind, I need to prepare for the meeting. Tell Nor to find me if you start to feel worse.”
“I will, Your Majesty,” said Saguaro.
Sarima smiled. “There’s no need for formal titles, Guarie. As far as I’m concerned, the only reason I’m a queen is because I married a Crown Prince. You’re welcome to call me by anything you like.”
After warning Nor not to bother Saguaro, Sarima took Saguaro’s tray and disappeared out the door. Saguaro was unsurprised when Avaric followed her.
Nor pointed to the still full cup of tea on Saguaro’s nightstand. “You should drink that. It really helped Manek when he was sick.”
“I’m not very thirsty,” Saguaro lied. Nor raised her eyebrows.
“You don’t think it’s poisoned, do you? I met the cook, and she seemed very nice. Of course Mummy and Uncle Avaric wouldn’t have poisoned it, either. You should drink it. It will help.”
Feeling silly about her paranoia, Saguaro took her first real sip. By now, the tea was cold.
“You know, you really shouldn’t believe what your brother said about the Wicked Witch of the West,” Saguaro said, changing the subject. “I’m sure he was only trying to scare you.”
“Well, if she is dead, then she must not have been a very good witch, after all,” said Nor. “It’s silly to die because of water.”
Saguaro was reminded of the way she had responded after hearing about the Witch’s melting from Ie’ello. “I can’t argue with that.”
Nor persisted in asking questions. She seemed particularly interested in Saguaro’s plan to find her “relatives” in the Emerald City, since she’d never been there before. “In the Emerald City, everyone will be green,” she told Saguaro and explained about the green glasses citizens were required to put on before entering the city. Saguaro, who was not aware of this, was intrigued by this information.
She wondered what a place would be like where everyone looked green. In the Emerald City, she would no longer be the only Ordinary person or a look-alike for someone she did not even know. She found herself wondering if her mother had ever been to the Emerald City before leaving Oz. It was strange to think that her mother might have found another place where she fit in long before discovering Cascadia.
Though the food and even the tea made her feel a little better (Saguaro had forced herself to drink the rest of it for Nor’s benefit), she was nonetheless growing sleepy. She told Nor that she needed to rest, and the little girl agreed. Nor decided to stay in the room in case Saguaro needed her. She settled in a chair opposite the bed and took out a book.
Saguaro tried to close her eyes, but her thoughts kept her awake despite her fatigue. In an effort to distract herself, she watched as Nor flipped through her book. For such an energetic girl, she was certainly good at keeping still. Saguaro wondered if she had been the same way at that age.
Saguaro had learned to read before she entered school. This had been thanks to her mother, who was a voracious reader and eager to share her love of books with her daughter. Some of Saguaro’s best childhood memories were of checking out books from the Cascadian library. On those occasions, she had forgotten about life as the Ordinary Child and had lost herself in other worlds entirely.
She wondered if Nor had anything to hide from. She was a princess, and besides her irksome older brothers, she did not seem to have anything standing in her way. Saguaro would give anything to have Nor’s life or even to go back to the simplicity of being six. She missed her life before secrets and adolescence made everything so complicated.
But these thoughts were overwhelming, given how tired she was. So she closed her eyes again and fell asleep.
The rest of the day passed quickly. Saguaro faded in and out of sleep and grew used to the various questions Nor asked whenever she was awake. She ate another meal in bed, and this time, she drank her tea right away.
Despite her trust that the tea was not poisoned, Saguaro was no less wary of her situation. Yes, Sarima continued to be nice, but her behavior was inconsistent with Ie’ello’s warnings. There had to be a catch.
By the end of dinner, Saguaro formulated a plan. She could not slip away under Nor’s and Sarima’s watchful eyes, so she would need to wait until nobody was watching. Her best bet was to wait until everyone was asleep and escape before they embarked on the next leg of their journey.
The first part of her plan went smoothly. Saguaro convinced Nor not to sleep in her room by overplaying how tired she was, and Sarima took Nor back to her own bedroom. Saguaro then took out her pocket watch and waited until eleven o’clock.
When the hour arrived, Saguaro wasted no time. Her belongings were near the bed, so she dropped her pocket watch into her bag and slung her satchel and sleeping sack over her shoulder.
But Saguaro had not accounted for her physical condition. She struggled to stand up and found that her legs were heavy. She took small steps until she reached the door.
Once outside her room, Saguaro found herself faced with another predicament. She was in a long hallway with many closed doors. She had no idea which door led to the exit of the inn and which led to other bedrooms. Deciding to take her chances, she settled on a door at the far end of the hall.
Saguaro realized her mistake immediately. Upon opening the door, she found herself staring at Sarima and Avaric, who stood locked in a fierce embrace. Tears ran down Sarima’s cheeks. Avaric responded by pulling her closer and kissing her.
Saguaro backed away, determined not to let them know that she had seen them. But it was too late. They must have heard her, because they jumped away from each other and looked at her. Their wide eyes confirmed her suspicions.
“Guarie!” Sarima said after a few moments’ silence, finally finding her voice. “What are you doing here? Do you need something?”
“I’m fine,” said Saguaro. “I just…got lost on the way to the kitchen.”
Though the lie was not very plausible since Saguaro was carrying her satchel and sleeping sack, neither adult questioned her. “I can help you find it,” Sarima said, but Saguaro shook her head.
“That’s all right. I’m not that hungry.”
Avaric remained silent. He was still staring at Saguaro, his face devoid of emotion. Sarima glanced at him, then turned back to Saguaro.
“It’s not what you think. Yesterday was the sixteenth anniversary of the death of one of our friends, and Avaric was just comforting me. We both miss him very much.”
“Right,” said Saguaro. “I thought it was something like that.” Still, her words were a little forced.
She looked into the hall, her discomfort growing. “I’m going to go back to my room now. I’m sorry for interrupting you. Please excuse me.”
She bolted before either could protest.
Saguaro flopped onto her bed, feeling surprisingly winded. This was the last thing she had anticipated when she set off just a few minutes before. She was supposed to slip away, not give Avaric and Sarima a reason to mistrust her more than they already did.
There was no way she could leave now. If she were to leave after learning such a secret, Sarima would probably do anything in her power to find her, and she would be in even more danger than she was in already. Saguaro would have to hope for the best and accompany Avaric, Sarima, and Nor to wherever they were going. Then she could make her escape.
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