As alarmed as Sarima and Avaric were by the unexpected events of their journey, no one was as upset as Nor. The little girl continued to sob and cling to Saguaro until her mother pointed out that Saguaro needed to rest. Since this made Nor look as though she were going to burst into tears again, Saguaro offered Bramble to her. Nor curled up with the Hedgehog and cried herself to asleep.
“You know, this isn’t what you think,” Sarima said after a few minutes. Her tone made it very clear what she was referring to. “Avaric and I, and the way we’ve chosen to go about our relationship…”
“I wasn’t thinking anything at all,” Saguaro said. Politeness aside, she did not feel comfortable revealing her true feelings to the queen. “It’s none of my business, really.”
“But you were thinking it,” Sarima said. “I understand that you’re probably judging Avaric and me harshly right now, and if that’s the case, I don’t blame you. But at the very least, I should tell you that this isn’t as big a secret as you might believe. My husband knows the truth.”
“He knows he’s not Nor’s father?” Saguaro asked. Sarima nodded.
“You might as well tell her everything, ‘Rima,” Avaric said from the front seat. “That way, she’ll understand.”
“I am a little confused,” Saguaro admitted.
Sarima nodded and then began.
“From the time my mother was young, she knew that she would have to give up her eldest daughter to the royal family. In keeping with tradition, my husband and I were betrothed to each other at a very young age. Do you know much about Winkie history?”
Saguaro shook her head.
“Before Ozma the Two-Faced became Throne Minister, Winkie Country was populated by several nomadic tribes. The Tigelaar family is descended from the chieftains of the Arjiki Tribe. My family’s lineage is also Arjikian, which made me qualified to marry the next Winkie king. I was five-years-old when I was dropped off at Vinkus Castle to be raised as a princess. I never saw my parents or sisters again.”
“That’s awful,” Saguaro said. Her father had never mentioned such a thing happening to Miira, the girl Fyre had almost married, and she was horrified to learn of this cruel tradition.
Sarima waved this aside. “It was a positive experience in the long run, because I chose to do things differently. All three of my children will be free to marry whomever they wish, and no fiancée of either of my sons will ever be torn away from her family. Still, it was difficult for me at the time. King Marillot and Queen Bax were kind to me, but I was very lonely. Tiyago was a few years younger than I was, and I longed to play with someone my own age.” She smiled. “That’s when I met Avaric.”
“I’m not the only person you met,” Avaric reminded her. The smile slid from Sarima’s face.
“Do you think that’s necessary?”
“It’s all part of the story, ‘Rima,” Avaric said. “Besides, Guarie saw you crying over him last night, and I’m sure she heard what Tenmeadows said today. I think it’s significant.”
“I suppose so.” Sarima cleared her throat. “Avaric was the son of servants, and he was good friends with, well, the son of another servant. It didn’t take long for the three of us to become inseparable. We got into all sorts of mischief together, and I was happy for the first time since I arrived.”
“And he died,” Saguaro said softly. Sarima smiled sadly.
“Later. But yes, he died.
“I was always a little in love with this friend of ours. He was the leader of our group and was spirited and full of life. If you think Nor has energy, well, you should have met him! When I finally confessed my feelings to this friend at the age of fifteen, he was very upset. He knew of my betrothal and told me that he did not share my feelings. He went away to school shortly afterwards, and that was the last time we truly spoke. I assume that he met Tenmeadows at school.”
“Just like Fyre and Miira,” Saguaro murmured.
Sarima frowned. “Who?”
“No one,” she said quickly. Sarima’s and Avaric’s friend was the son of servants; there was no way he could be Prince Fyre. “Please go on.”
Sarima continued. “Though I was already married to Tiyago when I learned of this friend’s death, I was devastated. He was the last person I thought would die young, especially in the way that he did. Avaric was the only one who understood my feelings. We grew closer and closer until eventually, we fell in love.”
Saguaro wondered how this friend had died, but decided not to ask. Given Tenmeadows’ previous comments, she didn’t want to upset Sarima further.
“As I mentioned,” Sarima said, finishing, “Tiyago knows about Avaric and me. Since ours was an arranged marriage, we were never truly compatible or happy together, even after the birth of our sons. But as the leaders of Winkie Country, we are required to be faithful and stay together, which is why we can never tell anyone the truth. Tiyago has been very kind to act as Nor’s father in the way that he has. He also has some secrets of his own that I have agreed to keep in confidence.”
Saguaro looked down at the little girl sleeping between them. Nor cuddled Bramble in her sleep, oblivious to the conversation around her.
“But what about Nor?” she asked.
“She’ll continue to be raised as a princess,” Sarima said. “I refuse to part with her in the way my mother was forced to part with me.”
“Of course. But what are you going to tell her when she wants to know more about what you told those men today? Are you ever going to tell her the truth?”
Sarima’s and Avaric’s shared look confirmed Saguaro’s suspicions. “But you can’t do that!” she said. “I’ve seen how much she loves you, Avaric. It might be confusing for her at first, but you’ll be glad you told her in the end.”
“I’m afraid that you don’t understand the gravity of the situation,” said Avaric. Saguaro sat up taller and glared at him.
“That’s where you’re wrong. I do understand the gravity of the situation. There’s nothing in the world I understand more than parents keeping secrets from their children. You might be protecting Nor now, but there will come a day when she learns the truth, and she’s going to be very upset that you kept this from her. I understand that this isn’t an ideal situation, but if you do nothing, you’re giving up.”
She realized that both Sarima and Avaric were frowning at her. Though she shifted under their gazes, neither looked away.
Saguaro was growing more uncomfortable by the minute. She did not want to be stared at any longer, especially since it was obvious that neither would be persuaded to tell Nor the truth. Deciding to put the conversation to rest for the time being, she glanced outside the carriage, where the horses were climbing a steep hill. She could feel Avaric and Sarima turning away.
Saguaro wondered how she would respond if her parents’ secrets were as life altering as Sarima’s and Avaric’s would be for Nor. She had spent so much energy focusing on finding the truth that she hadn’t stopped to consider the implications. Would her own life change?
She pushed this thought aside. Right now, the important thing was to make it to the Emerald City to talk to Glinda. She would worry about the consequences later.
The rest of the day passed more smoothly. Nor awoke in a much better mood, and she even had the energy to engage Saguaro in a game of scratch cradle. Though Saguaro cringed when Avaric assured Nor that she was of royal blood-he had just said otherwise to protect her-Saguaro was, at least, feeling better physically. She ate half a sandwich at lunch and most of her dinner.
At around midnight, Saguaro was awakened to find the carriage going up a steep, bumpy hill. They were immersed in total darkness, and she struggled to make out the trees on either side of the road. She gasped when they reached the top of the hill.
Immediately before them was a large castle with tall turrets that seemed to reach the night sky. It was built entirely from black rock, which blended into the darkness. Though the portcullis was raised and the drawbridge was open for their entry, the bars of the portcullis conveyed a sense of foreboding. Even the boulders and tangled branches of the surrounding forest seemed to be warning them off.
Saguaro was not easily intimidated. Her father had taught her all about castles, and she was thrilled to see one in person for the first time. Sarima, on the other hand, seemed to be having the opposite reaction. From her place beside the sleeping Nor, she was glaring, as if personally offended by the castle.
The carriage pulled to a halt. Although Saguaro had known from her map that Camp Gabryel was a fortress, she had not been sure of this castle’s identity until now.
“Welcome to Camp Gabryel,” Avaric said, turning to smile at her.
As Sarima woke Nor, Saguaro hopped out of the carriage. She stood at the base of the drawbridge and observed the castle. Her father had taught her about different types of architecture, and she recognized the pointed arches of the windows and doorway as characteristics of gothic design.
The others joined her, and Nor looked up at something above her. “Caper!” she said, waving. “It’s me, Nor. I want you to meet my friend, Guarie.”
To Saguaro’s astonishment, a winged Monkey flew down from a tree at the edge of the path. He wore a red button-down shirt, green trousers, and glasses that gave him a scholarly air. By far the most impressive aspect of his appearance was his purple-and-blue wings, which were twice the size of his body.
“We met Guarie on our way here,” Nor said, as the Monkey, Caper, looked Saguaro over. He had an intense way of studying her that reminded her of the Crow Smim. “She had an allergy to woozeberries, so we took her with us, since Mummy thinks that Ms. Psudina might be able to heal her. Guarie’s really nice. Some men were about to kidnap me, and she did a spell that stopped them.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Miss Guarie,” said Caper, extending his hand. “I’m pleased to hear that you protected our Nor.”
“Nice to meet you as well,” said Saguaro, accepting his handshake. “And please don’t call me ‘Miss.’ We’re equals, you and I.”
From the strange look he gave her, she wondered if she had said the wrong thing.
Avaric and Sarima greeted Caper, who had apparently been asked to show them to their rooms. This brought up the question of where Saguaro was to stay. They’d decided to keep her as hidden as possible, but since so many people were staying at Camp Gabryel for the meeting, there were not many open rooms.
“Well, there is always the West Tower, which is out of the way,” Caper said.
Sarima put a hand to her mouth. “But isn’t that where-?”
“Precisely,” said Caper. “Not many people will dare to venture up there. Besides, if my instincts are correct, then I’m sure Miss Guarie won’t mind.”
“I’ll be happy anywhere,” Saguaro said, wondering what was wrong with the West Tower. “Being in a tower sounds like fun.”
“Then it’s settled,” said Caper.
While Avaric stayed behind to tend to the horses, Caper led them through the entryway into a cavernous hall. What Saguaro guessed to be the Ozian flag was hung on the far wall. The flag was divided into four triangles, each painted in a different color to represent the four Lands of Oz. In the center was an emerald green star.
Sarima turned to Caper. “If you don’t mind helping Nor find her room, I’ll see to Guarie. I know my way around, and I want to wish her goodnight.”
“Certainly,” said Caper.
Sarima kissed Nor on her forehead. “I’ll be with you in just a tick, Nor.”
“Goodnight, Guarie!” Nor said, wrapping her arms around her.
Sarima led her to a massive stone staircase. As they climbed the stairs, they passed rooms on the second and third floors that were furnished with silk rugs and ornate furniture. The rooms of the fourth and final floor were considerably more sparse and bleak by comparison. Unlit torches loomed over them, but fortunately, Sarima had brought along a lantern. This proved a necessity, since the fourth floor did not have electricity.
Sarima led Saguaro from the main staircase to the far end of the floor. They entered the largest, dustiest library Saguaro had ever seen. Sarima paused at a bookshelf and gave it a push. The bookshelf creaked open to reveal a winding staircase leading up to another door.
“This was the Tigelaars’ primary home before Vinkus Castle was built,” she said. “It was constructed back when the Tigelaar family was still part of the Arjiki Tribe. It served as a vacation home for a number of years until Neverdale was built. Tiyago’s family and I used to come here when I was young. We spent so much time exploring that I came to know all of its secrets.”
“That must have been wonderful,” said Saguaro, wondering why Sarima seemed to hate the castle if she knew it so well. “I spent a lot of time exploring the forest outside my home, but that isn’t the same as finding secret passageways.”
They went up the staircase and opened the door. Saguaro found herself looking into a tiny tower room, which contained only a bed, a bureau, a bookshelf, and a chamber pot. Cobwebs clung to the black window curtains, and the bed’s quilt was yellowing from age. She could already feel her lungs constricting from the smell of mildew.
“I’m sorry, Guarie,” said Sarima, setting down her lantern. “I wish you didn’t have to sleep here, but it seems to be the only option. I’m not sure how comfortable you are with chamber pots, so you’re welcome to use the bathroom next to the library downstairs. Glinda modernized the bathrooms when she renovated the castle.”
“Glinda?” said Saguaro.
“Glinda took ownership of this after-well, that’s not important. Camp Gabryel is now used exclusively for official government meetings.”
Saguaro noticed Sarima’s swift change of subject. “Did it belong to someone else after the Tigelaars?”
Sarima paused. “Only for a short time. That’s not important in the long run.”
“That’s enough,” said Sarima in a firm voice that reminded Saguaro of her mother whenever Saguaro asked about the past. “Now, let’s do our best to make this room more comfortable.”
They dusted off the curtains and then worked together on the bed. A spare quilt was hidden beneath it, which, although not in stellar condition, was less musty than the one on the bed.
As Saguaro rearranged the pillows, she noticed a cork underneath one of them. The words, “Green Miracle Elixir,” were written on it.
“That’s strange,” she said, taking it in her hands. “I wonder why anyone would put a cork under their pillow.”
Sarima looked up from dusting the bureau. “Hmm?”
“I found this cork under one of the pillows.” She held it out to Sarima. “I was wondering why anyone would sleep with a cork, of all things.”
Sarima’s eyes widened. Although she hastily adopted a more neutral expression, Saguaro knew what she had seen. She had the distinct impression that she had hit on something important.
“I don’t know,” Sarima said. “But I don’t think there’s any use wondering.”
Before Saguaro could object, she continued.
“I want to talk to you about the agenda for tomorrow. The meeting starts early, and with the way you’ve been feeling, I don’t want you to overexert yourself. One of us will drop off your breakfast, and Psudina will be up as soon as we have a break. I’d also feel better if you stayed in the tower and didn’t wander beyond the bathroom.”
Though she did not doubt that Sarima was concerned about her health, Saguaro had a feeling that she was also worried about her being seen. “All right. I promise.”
Sarima drew Saguaro into a hug. “Goodnight, Guarie. Sleep well.”
“Thank you. You too,” said Saguaro.
Sarima kissed Saguaro’s forehead and disappeared out the door.
As Saguaro was too tired to venture downstairs to the bathroom, she forced herself to use the chamber pot. The experience, though unpleasant, was not as bad as Sarima had suggested. Saguaro had had to deal with much worse on her travels.
After she changed into her nightgown, she placed the cork in her bag and settled into bed. Her last conscious thought was of Ozma’s Brigade and whether their prophecy was true. Somewhere out there could be another girl with royal blood, who had no idea that she was the girl described in the prophecy.
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