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XV. The Hidden Passageway

 

When Saguaro awoke the next morning, she took a moment to remember where she was. She was confused when she looked around the small room, and the mustiness clouded her senses. Even after she remembered where she was, she was overwhelmed by a series of impressions from the events and revelations of the day before.

 

Once her senses cleared, Saguaro discerned the smell of cinnamon and noticed some dishes resting on the bureau. She picked up a note that was tucked beneath them and read the rounded script.

 

Guarie,

 

You were still sleeping, so I left you some breakfast. Nor loves cinnamon toast, and she wanted you to have some. Enjoy.

 

I also told Psudina about you, and she has agreed to meet you. She’ll come by around noon during a break in the meeting, and she’ll bring you some lunch. She is very excited. I told her about what you did yesterday, and she says that you must already be quite a powerful sorceress. From Psudina Glaze, that is certainly a compliment.

 

I hope you’re feeling better this morning, and remember to rest.

 

-Sarima

 

Saguaro took a bite of the cinnamon toast. She was feeling better, or at least well enough to eat. Yes, she was still achy, but she had grown so used to the discomfort that it no longer bothered her.

 

After finishing the toast, Saguaro checked her pocket watch. It was almost ten, which gave her two full hours before Psudina was to arrive. There was no way that she could sit in her room and do nothing until then. She had spent the entirety of the previous day sitting in a carriage, and she did not feel like wasting the morning in bed.

 

Saguaro thought of the library. Since it was connected to the tower, she would not be risking too much by going there.

 

With this decided, she put on a pair of overalls, took Sarima’s lantern, and went downstairs.

 

Despite the size of the library, the books were not as interesting as she’d hoped. Most of them were biographies and records or the verbose journals of Tigelaar ancestors.

 

Although Saguaro had promised Sarima that she would not explore, she found herself itching to do so. She was still upset by Avaric’s and Sarima’s refusal to tell Nor the truth, and the experience had stirred up some doubts about her own journey. Exploring would serve as a distraction.

 

She took the lantern and crept out of the library.

 

The walls of the fourth floor hallway were covered with portraits of Tigelaar royals. Each seemed to have a different opinion of her decision to stray. Princess Glenana II was smiling, as if to encourage her, but Queen Latilda’s lips were pursed in obvious disapproval. Saguaro decided to ignore her.

 

Walking along the maze of hallways, Saguaro approached a corkscrew staircase, similar to the one that led up to her bedroom. The stairs took her up to another tower.

 

This one was about twice the size of her bedroom and seemed to be a lookout of sorts. Its perimeter was lined with a series of freestanding metal torches. The other defining feature was a doorway that was decorated with a pattern of large metal rings. The door appeared to lead to a parapet outside.

 

Saguaro glanced at the unlit torches above her. One in particular was only a little taller than she. She lifted her hand to see if could reach it and was able to brush the sconce with her fingertips.

 

It was as if the torch were lit with fire. She snatched her hand back as an inexplicable sensation swept over her. Everything in the room felt ominously familiar.

 

The intensity of these feelings reminded her of the way she felt when trapped in the Time Dragon tunnel and the circle of Ie’ello’s friends. As she gasped for air, the torches flickered. The next moment, they were ablaze with fire.

 

Saguaro stared at the now lit torches. Sparks had flown in the Time Dragon tunnel, an earthquake had shaken Ie’ello and his friends, and now this. She could no longer ignore the correlation between each of these occurrences and her physical symptoms.

 

Unable to deal with the questions exploding in her mind, she ran towards the stairs. Before she knew what was happening, the floor slid open beneath her.

 

She landed with a thump and found herself racing down a steep slide. The ride to the bottom was so fast that she did not have time to worry or even consider where she was going.

 

Saguaro fell forward when she reached the base of the slide. She was still clutching the lantern, which she used to illuminate her new surroundings.

 

She appeared to be in an underground tunnel. The ceiling was a few inches above her head, which allowed her to stand comfortably. As she shone the lantern around, Saguaro determined that she was at the intersection of two passageways. Each one stretched before her into darkness.

 

It was then that she noticed a faded sign on the wall.

 

<– Badlands

–> Stable

 

To her right was a ladder that led up to a wooden door in the ceiling.

 

Saguaro glanced in the direction of the Badlands first. She assumed that this branch had been built for emergency escapes. She wondered where in the Badlands the tunnel led and whether she had unknowingly passed it on her journey.

 

It occurred to her that if she were to follow the tunnel towards the Badlands, she could probably return home. Never mind that the majority of her things were still in her bedroom, and that she would not have any water or food. If she were to follow this tunnel, she wouldn’t have to worry about encountering any more Ozians and she would have a clear route to the border.

 

The allure of this idea surprised her. Saguaro had been so focused on her quest that she had ignored how homesick she was.

 

Most of all, she missed the time when she and her parents had not been divided by secrets and lies, and they had been an ordinary family. If Saguaro thought that things had changed back home, she would have rushed off in the direction of the Badlands without a second thought.

 

But as much as Saguaro wanted to return to those simpler times, she knew that she could not. She had been miserable in Cascadia, and things would not be different if she went home. If she truly wanted things to change, she needed to find the answers to her questions. Only then would she be free.

 

She forced herself to focus on the situation at hand.

 

Saguaro eyed the ladder to the door above her. Though this seemed like the easiest way out of the tunnel, she had no idea to which room in the castle it led. She suppressed a laugh, imagining what would happen if she climbed out and came face-to-face with a group of Ozian officials. That would give them a proper scare.

 

She turned to the tunnel leading to the stable. As long as she was here, she might as well explore.

 

She followed the twists and turns of the passageway until she reached a dead end. In the ceiling was another door with a sign that read, Tap Three Times.

 

Saguaro put down the lantern and knocked as the sign instructed. The trapdoor swung open, sending a bit of loose straw into the tunnel. Deciding that she had indeed reached the stable, Saguaro used the chinks in the wall to climb through the opening.

 

The brightness of her new surroundings was startling after the dimness of the tunnel. Sunlight streamed through the windows and bounced off the stone walls and the rough wooden floor.

 

It was much bigger than she expected. A series of open stalls lined one section of the room, and she was surprised to see a staircase leading to a level above her.

 

Saguaro walked over to the stalls. Avaric’s shires stood alongside many others, including a brown mare who tried to nuzzle her through the slats of the enclosure.

 

“You’re a friendly one, aren’t you?” Saguaro told her. “You know, I’ve never ridden a horse. But some of my dad’s stories featured a Winkie Prince and his horse, and I’ve always wanted to ride. My mom doesn’t like the idea very much. We house a Horse in our barn at home, and she thinks that riding horses is an act of dominance over them. But I think that horses enjoy it just as much as humans do. What do you say? Would you mind me riding you someday?”

 

The mare whinnied, and Saguaro giggled. She was delighted when the mare allowed her to stroke her velvety nose.

 

“It’s very nice to meet you, too,” Saguaro said. “I think I’m going to look around, but I promise I’ll be back to tell you goodbye. Enjoy this carrot in the meantime.”

 

She picked up a carrot that had fallen on the ground and offered it to the mare. With another happy whinny, the mare gobbled it down.

 

Saguaro followed the staircase to the second level, which was very different from the first. It was heavily furnished and looked more like the second or third floor of Camp Gabryel than a traditional stable. She opened a door and ventured inside.

 

Saguaro gave a start. There before her was a Goat sitting on the sofa of a comfortable living room, an open book on his lap. He was clad in a suit with a checkered tie and seemed to have been reading quite intently. When he looked up, his eyes grew beneath his spectacles.

 

“I’m so sorry,” Saguaro said. “I was just exploring, and I didn’t realize that anyone was here. Please excuse me.”

 

The Goat did not say anything. Instead, he continued to gawk at Saguaro, as if completely devoid of speech.

 

Just as she was about to turn away, she caught a glimpse of the Goat’s book. She reread the title before she spoke again.

 

“Excuse me, but would you mind if I look at your book? I think I saw one just like it on my mother’s shelf.”

 

The Goat held out the book, The Great Drought of Oz: Third Edition. Saguaro examined it and was startled to see that it was indeed identical to her mother’s. If memory served, it was even the same edition.

 

“That’s a strange coincidence,” she said, handing it back to the Goat.

 

For the first time, the Goat opened his mouth. He spoke in a stammering bleat. “W-would your m-mother h-happen to be M-Miss Elpha-baaah Thropp?”

 

Saguaro’s jaw dropped. But before she had a chance to respond to this inquiry, she heard a voice behind her.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

Saguaro snapped around to see a young boy of perhaps eleven-years-old, standing in the doorway. He had wavy chestnut hair that framed a round face that was still softened with puppy fat.

 

He was dressed in the most ridiculous outfit Saguaro had ever seen. Aside from his black dress shoes, everything he wore was either silver or purple. He sported a purple vest, a silver collared shirt, a purple-and-silver striped tie, and unfortunate knickers that had the same striped pattern as his tie. Even his purple socks had a tiny silver flag on them.

 

“I’m not doing anything!” said Saguaro. Between his outfit and his age, it was hard to take this boy seriously. “The two of us were just talking.”

 

The boy glanced at the Goat, who raised his hoof in a small wave. “Doctor Dillamond, I’ll be back later. Now you, come with me.”

 

Saguaro was surprised when the boy pushed her out of the room. “What do you think you’re doing?” she snapped, as the boy continued to force her down the stairs. “I told you, the Goat and I were just talking! I wasn’t doing anything wrong!”

 

When they reached the ground level, the boy stopped pushing her. “You don’t understand!” he said, his voice now softer. “I’m sorry for getting so upset, but Doctor Dillamond is very sensitive. My mother established a school for his rehabilitation, and we can’t interfere with his progress.”

 

“Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I would never do anything to hurt him!” said Saguaro. “I’ve been raised to regard Animals and humans as equals. Besides, it’s you who doesn’t understand. He was starting to ask me about my moth-”

 

A high-pitched voice carried into the room and interrupted Saguaro. “Gabry? Gabry, where are you?”

 

The boy turned to Saguaro with wide eyes. “That’s my mother! I can’t let her see you. I’ll try to distract her, so you can hide.”

 

He rushed in the direction of the woman’s voice. Saguaro, left with no other choice, scurried back into the tunnel and pulled the door shut.

 

I can’t believe that boy broke in on me and the Goat, she fumed. She had been so close to finding an answer. What in Oz’s name was he talking about, accusing her of ruining the Goat’s “progress”? The Goat looked perfectly fine to her! And why did the name, “Doctor Dillamond,” sound so familiar? Had her mother ever mentioned him?

 

She would stay in the tunnel until the boy and his mother left. Then she would see the Goat again and ask him about her mother.

 

“Gabry, are you sure you’re all right?” asked the woman. “You’re awfully flushed.”

 

“I’m fine,” said the boy quickly. “I was just upstairs visiting Doctor Dillamond. I rushed down when I heard you.”

 

“Oh, Doctor Dillamond!” said the woman, sounding delighted. “I’m so glad you said hello. With all the preparations for the meeting, I haven’t had a chance to visit him yet. How is he?”

 

“He’s fine,” said the boy after a short pause. “He just, uh, had a dream about you-know-who again. So he’s a bit confused, I guess.”

 

The woman took a moment to respond. “Well, I can certainly understand that.”

 

Saguaro shook her head. You-know-who? Eavesdropping would be a lot more informative if the boy and his mother were not so mysterious.

 

“What are you doing here, anyway?” said the boy. “I thought Aunt Psudina was going to tell me when it was time for lunch.”

 

“She was, but she has something she needs to do,” said the woman. “I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, but she said she’d be back after lunch.”

 

Saguaro froze. In all of her excitement, she had nearly forgotten about Psudina. She had a strong feeling that she was the mysterious “errand” to which the woman was referring.

 

Though Saguaro wanted nothing more than to visit the Goat again, she knew that it would have to wait. She would be in a great deal of trouble if Sarima were to discover that she was missing.

 

She ran back through the tunnel to the intersection of the two passageways and climbed her way up the slide. After racing back to her bedroom, she was out-of-breath.

 

A woman was there waiting for her. Though her back was turned to the door, she spoke to Saguaro without turning around.

 

“So, there you are.”

 

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