by Michael H. Payne
“Public domain?” Jack Pumpkinhead always sounded to Ozma like he should be blinking in confusion, but the carved holes that served as his eyes simply didn’t allow it. “What does that mean, dear father?”
Ozma sighed. “It means you’ve been calling me your father for longer than anyone out in the Reading World has been alive.” She shifted on the green velvet cushion of her throne, the verdant light that cascaded down from the windows high along the walls of the circular room not quite as soothing as it had been a moment ago. “And the joke itself is so old, its whiskers have grown whiskers.”
Jack’s head cocked to one side. “Whiskers?” His head cocked the other way, swiveling toward the Glass Cat sitting on the finely woven grass-colored carpet covering the emerald floor. “I believe she must be referring to you, friend Bungle, as I have no whiskers to speak of.”
Maintaining any semblance of equanimity at the antics of her subjects sometimes took more strength than Ozma thought she had. “Kindly settle down, Jack, so Bungle and I can talk.”
“Of course, dear father.” Jack became still again on his little bench beside the throne, his fine green suit always askew no matter how much effort the royal tailors put in to fitting it over his rough wooden frame. Not that he would remain still for long, Ozma knew. Nor would she ever truly want him to…
A crystalline clearing of throat returned her attention to the matter at hand. “So,” Ozma said, shifting once more on her cushion. “I take it that you learned about the public domain while prowling around Glinda the Good’s library?”
Bungle’s tail swished along the carpet, sparks of static flashing through her translucent body like tiny fireflies. “Prowling’s what we cats do. Surely you of all people wouldn’t ask me to act against my nature?”
“Nature?” Ozma arched an eyebrow, glad to steer the conversation away from the subject Bungle had dropped at her feet like a slightly stunned mouse. “Bungle, you’re a glass statue brought illegally to life by a magical powder. You’ve less of nature about you than this pumpkinhead.”
“Indeed.” Jack sat up and nodded. “For my dear father constructed me of all-natural materials back in the days when she was a little boy, and I continue to grow my replacement pumpkins in an entirely organic fashion.” He thumped a bushy hand against the side of his head.
“And yet?” Bungle applied her tongue to her right forepaw with a high-pitched rasping noise that always spiked the hair along the back of Ozma’s neck. “Were you not also brought illegally to life by a magical powder, friend Jack? And didn’t this occur as a direct result of your father’s actions?”
“Goodness!” Jack touched the place where his chin would’ve been if he’d had one. “Does that make one of us a criminal?”
Ozma couldn’t keep a twitch from tugging her left eye. “We’re fine, Jack.” She should’ve known that Bungle would somehow find a topic even more uncomfortable than the realm’s status out in the world where the readers lived. With a sigh, she resigned herself to an unpleasant discussion. “Now, please. Can Bungle and I resume our conversation?”
“Of course, dear father,” he said, subsiding as usual.
Trying to breathe in some of the tranquil calm her oldest friend always radiated, Ozma turned back to Bungle. “So, yes, Oz has entered the public domain, but that merely means that anyone outside in the Reading World can produce any sort of creative work involving us without being prosecuted for theft.” She gave Bungle her most reassuring smile. “It’s nothing to worry about. We’re simply too well-established for an outside force to wreak any lasting change upon us.”
“And yet?” Bungle’s ears flicked. “Does it not also mean that we can venture out and sample the ribald sweetness that’s said to fill the real world?”
The air around Ozma seemed to solidify. “You… want to leave?” she asked, barely able to form the words.
Bungle surged to her paws. “After living here constrained for more than a century, how could I not?” She glared at Ozma. “Stories I’ve heard from Dorothy, her aunt, and her uncle have piqued my curiosity. For theirs sounds like a world of tooth and claw, a world that might test a cat’s mettle, a world where life might have some meaning! The thought of escaping to such a world makes me so giddy, I might even someday consider forgiving you for keeping me bound in ignorance for however many decades this avenue has been open!”
Leaping from the throne, Ozma ignored her myrtle and mint silken gown tangling behind her and fell to her knees before the cat. “You have to understand! Dorothy’s land is horrible enough, resounding with death, disease, and destructive weather, but it’s a mere literary shadow of the actual Reading World! Reality is harsher and more unforgiving than you can ever imagine!” Hands shaking, she caught Bungle in her arms and hugged her to her chest. “I never meant to constrain you or any of my subjects, but once Oz entered the public domain, I—” Her throat tightened. “I’ve been so frightened, Bungle! Frightened of what might happen to any of us who ventured out into the Reading World beyond!”
“Stop it!” The cat squirmed, and Ozma let her go, mindful of those sharp glass claws. Half jumping, half tumbling to the floor, Bungle landed on all fours. “Unlike some of us who are considered curiosities at best and monsters at worst, you’re beloved by every sapient being in the realm! Cosseted in this palace and with the only remaining witch in Oz at your beck and call, how can you even address those who seek true adventure?”
Memories burst through Ozma, the wonder and the terror, the casual cruelty, the overwhelming kindness, the vast consequence and banal indifference that she’d found to exist simultaneously out in the Reading World. Swallowing it all with more than her usual difficulty, she rose to her feet. “I can’t explain it to you.” A thought made her cough a laugh. “And you’re too much a cat to believe me if I tried.” She forced her gaze up from the floor, forced herself to meet the faceted emeralds of Bungle’s eyes, forced herself to confront the steely resolve glittering there. “You’ll have to see for yourself, won’t you?”
The cat sat once more and dabbed her tongue at her paw in a much quieter fashion than before. “If you know the answer to a question, why bother asking it?”
Taking a breath, Ozma nodded. “Let me give you a piece of my magic, though, a charm that will draw you back should you find yourself far from home and without any other recourse.” Reaching under the raven tresses of her hair, she undid one of her several chokers and brought it out, the red stone looking almost liquid on the black band.
Bungle’s ears perked, then folded. “So Glinda can spy on me even after I’ve left the area of her influence?”
Ozma held up her other hand. “I solemnly swear that she won’t.” She wriggled her fingers to let the choker shimmer in the throne room’s light. “And the stone should go quite well, I think, with the heart-shaped ruby that beats so strikingly within your chest.”
A raspy little purr was immediately drowned by Bungle clearing her throat. “I’ll allow it,” she said, stretching her neck. “But only because I know how much I mean to you.”
With a more heartfelt laugh, Ozma knelt again. “You really do, you know,” she whispered, gently fastening the choker so the stone nestled into the glass above Bungle’s breastbone.
“Oh, hush.” Bungle brushed her whiskers against Ozma’s hand. “Don’t you get all tedious and sentimental on me.”
“As long as you promise to come back.” It took more effort to push the words out than Ozma had thought it would, and she’d already known that they would feel like pins jabbing her tongue.
Bungle had gotten to her paws and was taking a few mincing steps back and forth across the carpet while examining her accessorized reflection in a section of the polished emerald wall. “Perhaps I will,” she said. “When I become bored with the Reading World, I mean.” Winking over her shoulder, she bounded along the carpet toward the giant double doors.
The first of her subjects to learn that the public domain meant freedom of a sort they’d never known before, and Ozma couldn’t gather enough of a voice to wish her a safe voyage. And for all that she’d long had dreams verging on nightmares about this very moment, she found herself unable to recall a single word from any of the grand speeches she’d imagined herself making in those dreams.
Turning away and wiping one long, gauzy sleeve across her eyes, she almost ran into Jack Pumpkinhead standing there beside her. “Please, Jack.” Her voice cracking, she took his hand and gazed up at his broad smile. “Tell me I did the right thing.”
Again, the pumpkinhead didn’t blink. “I’m sorry, father, but I’m afraid I don’t know that.”
“Yes.” Ozma looked back down the long, empty stretch of the throne room. “Me, neither.”
* * *
The Emerald City had never looked more gloriously radiant, but that was to be expected. Bungle had only previously graced it with her ordinary, extraordinary presence. Now that she was newly enlightened…
Trotting along Central Avenue toward the main gate, she couldn’t feel anything but pity for the poor fools on every side, trudging about their days selling each other bread and milk, laughing at their exchanges of mindless frivolity, possessing no understanding at all of the truth. The world they inhabited closed about them like a palisade wall, a barrier that the merest sort of effort would overcome, but could they be bothered to make that effort?
No, they could not.
At the gate, she kept her nose in the air and didn’t bother acknowledging the Soldier with the Green Whiskers when he tipped his hat and said, “Good afternoon, Bungle.” Outside the gate, she merely sniffed when Jellia Jamb called, “Don’t be late for supper tonight, Bungle. The Royal Chefs’re making cheese chowder!” And a hundred yards down the Yellow Brick Road, she only stumbled about half a step at the sight of Glinda herself seated in her usual white robe upon a golden chair among the field of flowers off to the right, the tips of her fingers pressed together and her gaze focused solely upon Bungle.
She considered arching her back and hissing, but no. Let the witch watch, Bungle thought, flicking her whiskers into a feline chuckle at the word play. After all, she’d found the dusty old books atop one of Glinda’s bookcases after climbing it in her ongoing quest to find napping spots that wouldn’t get her sideways glances and grouchily muttered comments. Most likely, the witch had placed the tomes there in an attempt to hide their contents from anyone enterprising enough to take advantage of them. But of course, she hadn’t accounted for Bungle.
Not that Bungle normally cared much for books, but these had had a scent about them, a clear, flowing-water freshness that belied their mold-bedecked outer coverings. And what she’d found inside—the truth about Oz and its place in the literary and actual universe as well as the spell for leaving this realm of never-ending, never-aging, never-changing tedium—the books had opened Bungle’s eyes in ways she was certain Glinda had sought to prevent.
At first, she’d thought that Ozma had to be involved in the conspiracy as well, but Her Majesty’s reactions in the throne room just now had convinced Bungle of her innocence. Doubtless the so-called good witch had played upon the young monarch’s credulity when briefing her about the alleged dangers of the public domain. But when faced with someone truly stalwart, Ozma had bowed to the inevitable despite whatever dire warnings Glinda may have planted in her ears.
It seemed only fitting, therefore, that Glinda witness Bungle’s triumph.
The spell had claimed that it would only work in areas with unobstructed views of the earth and sky, and the grassy, flower-strewn flatland between the city and the forest certainly met that criterion. So Bungle stopped, glanced back at Glinda, spoke the words, performed the gestures, and stared at the suddenly fuzzy spot that appeared in the air before her.
Not knowing what to expect, she spread her whiskers, readied herself to spin in case she began to fall and to slash in case she was beset by the actual humans the books said inhabited the Reading World. Ears perked and eyes wide, she hopped through—
And found herself in a deep, dark stretch of woodland.
Bungle glanced quickly around. It didn’t in fact look much different from the woods between Munchkinland and the Emerald City. Perhaps the branches overhead and the roots beneath her paws stretched themselves along in a more tangled fashion, the tree trunks a bit mossier and more bulging, the air heavier with the scent of rotting vegetation, the breeze a bit cooler and damper than she liked.
But why the silence? The books had gone into great and gloriously lurid detail about the automobiles honking and guns firing and machinery grinding that the Reading World abounded in! She’d expected jabbering mobs of furless bipeds lurching about, barely avoiding collisions with each other and nearly stomping on her tail! Where were the explosions and the shouting and the airships crashing and the—?
“By my ears and whiskers!” a pleasant purr of a voice said behind her. “To coin a phrase…”
Turning, Bungle saw a pair of unmistakably feline eyes and a set of grinning feline teeth regarding her from the shadow of a gnarled oak. “And yet,” she said, peering more closely at the shadow, “by my own ears and whiskers, you have neither.”
The grin widened. “Well, you can’t have everything.” A large feline shape began darkening the empty space around the eyes and teeth until an actual cat sat there looking back at her. “Where would you put it, for starters?”
Now that she could see the cat, Bungle wished that he’d stayed invisible. Large and ungainly, he looked more like a creature stitched into the shape of a cat from leftover bits and pieces of other animals, and Bungle found herself fervently wishing that he wouldn’t prove to be as annoying as Scraps, the other patchwork person of her acquaintance. “So where are we?” she asked, hoping for a straightforward answer.
“Here.” The cat, still grinning, patted the ground in front of him. “Or rather, I’m here.” He lifted his paw and waved it vaguely in Bungle’s direction. “You’re over there.”
“And yet?” Turning, Bungle began marching away through the woods. “If you look very carefully, I think what you’ll in fact discover is that”—she pronounced the next three words slowly and distinctly, snapping her tail with each one—”I am gone.”
Leaving him quickly behind, she glared at the trees surrounding her for any sign of the Reading World. The books, after all, had promised her a place of shabby, secret, concrete alleyways and buildings that metaphorically scraped the sky. Obviously something had gone awry, so she needed to find an open spot where she could try casting the spell again.
The gray light beside her flickered and puffed into that same big, ungainly cat. “Such atrocious manners you have!” he said, his grin unfaded. “Aren’t you going to ask my name?”
Bungle sighed. “Why would I care?”
“Excellent!” He walked with an odd rocking motion, both his right legs moving forward, then both his left legs. “You’re halfway to becoming one of us!”
She gave him a sidelong glance. “And why would I want to do that?”
He gave her that same abominable grin. “Now you’re three-fifths of the way.” His tail flicked to tap Bungle’s back. “You were correct in stating that you shouldn’t care about my name since no one worth knowing here has anything but a title. Titles, after all, show how important one is. I’m the Cheshire Cat, and we shall call you the Glass Cat.”
If her fur had been able to bristle, it would’ve been doing so. “I’m already called the Glass Cat,” she got out through clenched teeth.
“How fortuitous!” His voice was still by far the best part of him, but Bungle found that it was becoming more grating by the moment. “Then you’re three-quarters of the way to arriving here from your current state of there!”
“And yet?” She didn’t even try to keep her ears up. “I’m not at all interested in being here! I’m interested in the real world, the Reading World beyond the public domain, the world from which all other worlds are sprung! Not some turgid, dull, and dreary woods!”
“Tulgey,” the Cheshire Cat said. “Anyone clever will tell you that’s the word you want, so I’m not surprised you’re unfamiliar with it.” His unusual gait became a strut. “Also, we made it up here ourselves.”
And that, Bungle was about to announce with multiple claws against the side of his fat, bloated face, was enough of that. But before she could do more than stop and glare at him, a loud snuffling, snorting, and stomping began in the twilight of the tree canopy ahead. It sounded like a large creature, Bungle thought, and sniffing the air brought a more disturbing note to the rotting vegetation smell: rotting meat.
To advance seemed foolhardy, and as much as she hated to admit it, this Cheshire Cat was her only source of information. “Is that friend or foe approaching?” she murmured.
“Why, foe, of course,” he announced as jovially as ever.
Bungle snapped her head in his direction, and the ruby in her chest pounded to see that most of him had gone, only his infernal grin remaining. “It’s your final test,” the grin said. “To truly become one hundred percent here, you must slay the Jabberwock.”
The roar that followed blasted a wave of charnel stench over her so thickly, she could feel it spatter her beautiful clearness. The force of it staggered her, though it did have the positive effect of blowing away every trace of the Cheshire Cat. Regaining her footing in the muddy, mossy dirt took more effort than she would’ve liked, and by then something enormously tall and thin, all arms and legs and bat-like flapping wings, had lurched from behind a tree to tower over her.
She stared up at what she assumed to be the Jabberwock. It stared down at her. Then, with much flexing of toe and finger claws, its snaky neck lashed out in her direction, the bulbous head on the end of it roaring again, its giant, peculiarly rectangular teeth spread wide and plunging rapidly nearer.
Without allowing herself to think, Bungle leaped straight into the creature’s mouth, dug her claws into its tongue, and scrambled for the back of its throat.
Fortunately, its roar choked off almost at once: the sound, the stink, and the spray of it had already become tiresome. Dashing past the beast’s inner teeth before circumstances could show her whether they were strong enough to shatter solid glass, Bungle didn’t pause, leaped the abyss of its gullet, and slashed into the foul flesh of its upper esophagus.
Hot, sticky fluid drenched her, but as she’d suspected, the monster’s thin neck proved to be its undoing. Bungle’s claws tore straight through the sinewy tissue, and almost before she realized it, she was tumbling out into empty air. Behind her, the Jabberwock bubbled and reeled and writhed before collapsing into a nearly headless heap that at least cushioned her fall when she dropped onto it.
Blessed silence reigned for a moment, then a voice sang out, “Oh, frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
Peering through the horrid redness encrusting her vision, Bungle saw the Cheshire Cat stretched grinning along the bough of a nearby tree. “Listen carefully,” he said, “and you’ll next hear a sound that can only be described as ‘chortling.'”
For an instant, she considered reacting in an uncouth fashion. But instead, she pressed the pads of one forepaw to the red stone around her neck and let herself concentrate on the sweet fragrance of the palace, on its many sunbeams and padded little nooks, on Ozma’s lovely face.
A hum rang through her glass, and a puff of clean air—and more interestingly, a puff of clean light—shivered over her. The woods whisked away like a morning fog, and Bungle’s next breath smelled the way it was supposed to smell, everything around her properly green-tinted and warm.
* * *
“Bungle!” Ozma sprang from her throne, dismay filling her at the sight of the Glass Cat dripping with reddish, brownish goo. “Guards! We need fresh towels here at once!”
Not waiting for them, she swooped down upon Bungle, bundled her into the trailing ends of her gown, and began wiping the filth away as best she could. “Are you all right? What happened? Why did you return so quickly? Was it truly awful?”
“It was… disheartening,” Bungle said, but that she wasn’t fussing or hissing or trying to wriggle free told Ozma a great deal more than the cat’s words did. “I’m fairly certain I didn’t reach the Reading World, but the place I went to, well, I’d rather not return there.”
“Indeed,” came a very familiar contralto voice.
“Glinda!” Jack Pumpkinhead called, and Ozma looked over to see Glinda the Good herself reclining on a gold-embroidered sofa that only appeared in that part of the room whenever the sorceress visited. “You’re just in time for supper!” Jack continued. “Jellia Jamb’s making cheese chowder!”
Glinda inclined her head toward Jack. “I happily accept your invitation.” She shifted her smile, and Ozma as always thought of a lake, its placid surface giving no hint about what currents might be running beneath. “The public domain is a wild and unpredictable place, Bungle, and very few are those who find their way through it to the Reading World beyond.”
Bungle’s ears perked under Ozma’s ministrations. “I find it interesting, witch, that you didn’t say ‘few are we who find our way through.‘”
“Alas.” Glinda sighed, and even though Ozma was very carefully not looking at her, she could nonetheless feel the sorceress’s gaze like an itch along the side of her face. “I’ve been forbidden from making the attempt.”
“Forbidden?” Bungle went still, then her wide eyes turned toward Ozma’s. “It is you behind the cover-up. You’ve been to the Reading World, and you want no others to know the truth.”
“Bungle,” Ozma began, though she really had no idea what she was going to say next.
Thankfully, the glass cat’s squirming interrupted her, and Ozma once again let her go, let her spin away to thump her paws onto the throne room carpet. “How could you?” Bungle spat. “I trusted you!”
“Please!” Holding up her stained gown in one hand, Ozma waved the other at Bungle, the cat’s glass still befouled with blood and mud and who knew what else. “You’ve seen for yourself how horrid it is out there! And you got nowhere near the Reading World! Didn’t you say that?”
“In fact,” Glinda said, her tone as measured as always, “looking at the outlines of the spell—” Pages crinkled, and Ozma glanced over to see the sorceress leafing through a large and grimy book that had appeared in her lap. “I feel certain that you entered not only another fictional realm but also a fictional work within that fictional realm: a piece of writing read by one of the characters.” She looked up, her smile placid. “The parameters here are apparently designed to send the caster in entirely the wrong direction to reach the Reading World.”
Bungle’s eyes widened, then narrowed. “I find myself wondering who exactly constructed that spell.”
Glinda shrugged. “A large number of the books in my library are the sort for which proper provenance simply cannot be established.”
“Fine.” Bungle turned for the throne room doors. “It’s the only spell I’ve got, however, so I’ll just have to try it again, won’t I?”
“Wait!” The word tore out of Ozma, ripped away scabs and sliced freshly along the tracks of long-knitted scars. “Please, Bungle! We… we’ll come with you if you’ll just… just wait!”
The cat paused, and Ozma almost sobbed with relief, not letting herself think about what she’d just said. As long as Bungle didn’t leave…
A clattering beside her, and something as light as the uppermost branch of a tree draped itself across her back. “Father?” Jack asked, his voice close to her ear and unusually quiet. “Hunger has obviously overcome you. But fear not! It’s very nearly supper time!”
For all that it wasn’t funny, Ozma had to laugh, had to wrap her arms around the pumpkinhead’s narrow frame and press her face into his green coat.
At that moment, footsteps thundered outside the throne room, courtiers rushing in with steaming, jade-colored towels. Furious scrubbing commenced, and after a remarkably brief time, Bungle, Ozma’s gown, and the spots on the carpet had resumed their regular tints and lusters.
The attendants bowed themselves out, and Ozma, seated once more upon her throne, finally let her gaze meet that of the Glass Cat, her nearly transparent tail curled about her paws. “You were saying?” Bungle asked into the sudden silence.
Glinda laughed and stretched. “Yes. You’ve got me all interested now.”
And if Glinda’s smile made Ozma sweat, the sorceress’s laugh made her wish she could’ve spent the entirety of her life as an ignorant boy named Tip.
An impossibility, of course, and Ozma’s sigh felt as though it were coming up from her ankles. “When Oz first entered the public domain, I took it upon myself to investigate it and the Reading World beyond.” She couldn’t stop a shiver, but she managed to keep the memories from flooding her. “I didn’t care for it, and I forbade the only other one of my subjects who possessed the ability to visit from doing so.” She nodded to Glinda. “Enforcing this order, however, has been a task I would describe with the phrase ‘tiger by the tail.'”
Ozma then beheld the rarest of sights: her friend, mentor, and confidante blushing. “Still,” Ozma went on, breathing in and breathing out, “now that a second feline’s involved, it might in fact be best to… to make a proper expedition.” She closed her eyes. “I can neither stop the clock from ticking, nor can I let fear rule my life. And for showing me that, I thank you both.”
Opening her eyes, she let her temper rise a bit. “But I don’t much appreciate being manipulated this way by my most trusted advisor.” She shot Glinda a sharper glance. “Or would you have me believe that Bungle just happened to stumble upon the exact set of books necessary to set this chain of events into motion?”
Glinda’s smile revealed nothing, of course.
But Bungle gave a loud snort. “I’m inclined to call it happenstance. A truly clever witch, after all, would’ve arranged for this to have happened much earlier.”
“Earlier?” Jack started in his seat. “But then we’d have to wait that much longer for supper!”
Her tail switching, Bungle glared. “It’s most annoying, the way you continue harping so loudly about supper! For you’re no more able to eat than I am!”
Again, Ozma felt most keenly the pumpkinhead’s inability to blink. “But everyone’s together chatting at supper!” he said. “And that makes it the loveliest time of any day!”
Standing, Ozma caught Jack by the hand. “Very true, my friend.” She reached her other hand out to Glinda and couldn’t help beaming when the sorceress rose, stepped over, and took it. “One might also be tempted to observe, especially in light of Bungle’s recent experience, that there’s no place like—”
She let Bungle’s hiss cut her off. “Finish that sentence,” the Glass Cat said, brandishing her claws, “and I shan’t be responsible for my actions.” Her nose in the air and her tail aloft like a flag, Bungle began marching away along the grass-colored carpet.
Ozma laughed, and the thought occurred to her that the mistake she’d made the last time she’d ventured into the public domain and beyond was going alone. Nodding to the sorceress on one side and the pumpkinhead on the other, she followed Bungle out of the throne room and toward the dining room.
* * *
About the Author
Michael H. Payne’s stories have appeared in places like Asimov’s Science Fiction, a half dozen collections from FurPlanet, and 11 of the last 12 annual Sword & Sorceress anthologies, a run that includes the Ursa Major Award winning short story “Familiars.” His novels have been published by Tor Books and Sofawolf Press, he’s only posting 4 pages of webcomics a week these days instead of the 11 pages he did for over 15 years, and his poems turn up pretty regularly on the Silver Blade website and in the Rhysling Award anthologies. Check hyniof.com for further particulars.