The pillows were cool when I woke up, but they still smelled of Polychrome—fresh ozone and petrichor, sweeter than a thousand flowers. I swore softly as I got out of bed and crossed to the window, opening the curtains to reveal a sky the sunny fuck-you color of a Munchkin swaddling cloth. There was no good reason for the sky to be that violently blue this time of year—no good reason but Ozma, who was clearly getting her pissy bitch on again.
Sometimes I miss the days when all I had to deal with were wicked witches and natural disasters and ravenous beasts who didn’t mean anything personal when they devoured you whole. Embittered fairy princesses are a hell of a lot more complicated.
I showed the sky my middle finger, just in case Ozma was watching—and Ozma’s always watching—before closing the curtains again. I was up, and my girlfriend was once again banished from the Land of Oz by unseasonably good weather, courtesy of my ex. Time to get ready to face whatever stupidity was going to define my day.
As long as it didn’t involve any Ozites, I’d be fine.
The hot water in the shower held out long enough for me to shampoo my hair. That was a rare treat this time of year, and one I could attribute purely to Ozma’s maliciousness: lose a girlfriend, get enough sun to fill the batteries on the solar heater. It was a trade I wouldn’t have needed to make if I’d had any magic of my own, but magical powers aren’t standard issue for little girls from Kansas, and none of the things I’ve managed to pick up since arriving in Oz are designed for something as basic as boiling water. That would be too easy.
I was toweling off when someone banged on the bathroom door—never the safest of prospects, since the hinges, like everything else in the apartment, were threatening to give up the ghost at any moment. “Dot! You done in there? We’ve got trouble!”
“What kind of trouble, Jack?” I kept toweling. My roommate can be a little excitable sometimes. It’s a natural side effect of having a giant pumpkin for a head.
“I don’t know, but Ozma’s here! In person!”
My head snapped up, and I met my own startled eyes in the mirror. The silver kiss the Witch of the North left on my forehead the day I arrived in Oz gleamed dully in the sunlight filtering through the bathroom skylight. “I’ll be right there. Just keep her happy while I get dressed.”
“I’ll try,” he said glumly. His footsteps moved away down the hall. My surprise faded into annoyance, and I glared at my reflection for a moment before I turned and headed for the door to my room. Ozma—fucking Ozma—in my apartment. She hadn’t been to see me in person since the day she told me we couldn’t be together anymore, that I had become a political liability thanks to my unavoidable association with the crossovers.
I would always be a Princess of Oz. Nothing could change that, not even the undying will of Her Fairy Highness. But I was no longer beloved of the Empress, and if I wanted to see her, I had to come to the palace like everybody else. So what the hell could have brought her to the crossover slums at all, let alone to my door?
I wrenched drawers open and grabbed for clothing, only vaguely aware that I was dressing myself for battle: khaki pants, combat boots, and a white tank top—none of which would have been anything special outside of Oz. Here the tank top was a statement of who and what I was, and why I would be listened to even if I were a crossover and not a natural-born citizen. Only one type of person is allowed to wear white in the Land of Oz; it’s the color of witches, and I, Dorothy Gale, Princess of Oz, exile from Kansas, am the Wicked Witch of the West.
Putting in my earrings took a little more care. I would have skipped it if Ozma had sent a representative instead of coming herself, but it was the very fact of her presence that both made me hurry and take my time. Ozma needed to see that I was taking her seriously. So in they went until my ears were a chiming line of dangling silver charms: slippers and umbrellas and field mice and crows. I checked my hair quickly, swiping a finger’s-worth of gel through it with one hand. The tips were dyed blue, purple, red, and green—the colors of Oz. The tips were dyed blue, purple, red, and green—four of the five colors of Oz. I’m a natural blonde. I didn’t need dye to display the colors of the Winkie Country.
Clapping the diamond bracelet that represented the favor of the Winkies around my left wrist, I gave myself one last look in the mirror and left the room. I could hear voices drifting through the thin curtain that separated the apartment’s narrow back hallway from the main room: Jack, a high tenor, almost genderless and perpetually a little bit confused; a low tenor that had to belong to one of Ozma’s guards; and Ozma herself, a sweet, piping soprano that I used to find alluring back when it whispered endearments instead of excuses. I stopped at the curtain, taking a breath to bolster myself, and then swept it aside.
“I’m flattered, Ozma,” I said. “I didn’t know you remembered where I lived.”
The main room served as both our living space and as the reception area for my duties as the Crossover Ambassador. It was shabby, as befitted both those roles. Ozma stood out against the mended draperies and twice-repaired furniture like an emerald in gravel.
Her back was to me, facing Jack and a guardsman in royal livery. If we could have conducted the entire meeting that way, I would have been thrilled. Sadly it was not to be. Her shoulders tensed, and then the Undying Empress, Princess Ozma, turned to face me.
She was beautiful. I had to give her that, even if I never wanted to give her anything again. Her hair was as black as the midnight sky, and like the midnight sky, it was spangled with countless shining stars, diamonds woven into every curl. Red poppies were tucked behind her ears, their poisonous pollen sacs carefully clipped by the royal florists. It all served to frame a face that couldn’t have been more perfect, from her red cupid’s-bow mouth to her pale brown eyes, the same shade as the sands of the Deadly Desert. Her floor-length green silk dress was more simply cut than her court gowns; I recognized it from garden walks and picnics back in the days when I was in favor. She wore it to throw me off balance. I knew that; I rejected it…and it was working all the same.
“I granted you this space,” she said sweetly. “Of course I remember. How are you, my dear Dorothy?”
“Peachy,” I snapped. “What are you doing here, Ozma?”
“It’s such a beautiful day outside, I thought you might need some company.” A trickle of poison crept into her words. That was all it ever took with Ozma. Just a trace, to remind you how badly she could hurt you if she wanted to. “Don’t you love the sunshine?”
For a moment I just gaped at her, inwardly fumbling for some reply—any reply, as long as it didn’t involve hurling something at her head.
Finally I settled for, “Not really. What do you want, Ozma? Because I don’t want you here.”
“Ah. It’s to be like that, is it?” The sweetness vanished from her face in an instant as she straightened, looking coldly down her nose at me. “There’s been a murder. I expect you to deal with it.”
“Uh, maybe you’re confused. I’m not a detective, and I’m not a member of your royal guard. I’m the Crossover Ambassador and the Wicked Witch of the West. Neither of those jobs comes with a ‘solve murders’ requirement.”
“No, but both of those jobs come with a ‘control your people’ requirement, and Dorothy, one of your people is a murderer.” Ozma’s lips curved in a cruel smile. I balled my hands into fists, pushing them behind my back before I could surrender to the urge to slap that smile right off her smug, pretty little face. “The body was found Downtown, in the old Wizard’s Square. My guards are holding it for you. Find the killer, and deliver him to me.”
“Or what?” The challenge left my lips before I had a chance to think it through. I winced.
“Or I find a new ambassador to keep the crossovers in line. A proper Ozite, perhaps, one who will have the nation’s best interests at heart.” Ozma kept smiling. “And you, my dear Dorothy, can look forward to an endless string of cloudless days. Sunshine does keep spirits up in the winter, don’t you think? Rinn will stay here to show you to the body. Whenever you’re ready—but it had best be soon, for everyone’s sake.”
She turned, leaving me staring, and swept out of the room. Her guard remained behind, standing uncomfortably beside the door. Jack stepped up beside me, his big orange pumpkin-head tilted downward to show the unhappiness his carved grin wouldn’t let him express.
“Well, that wasn’t very nice,” he said.
“Get my pack,” I replied, snapping out of my fugue. “I’ve got a murder to solve.”