Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

Catherynne M. Valente

  “She’s not a penguin! Even I know that.”

  The cuttlefish oozed out of the coral a little to get a better look.

  “She is flightless, can only breathe underwater for short intervals, and stands upright. I say penguin! And what I say goes. Young penguin, I am Sepia Siphuncle, at your service. Once, the greatest comedienne under the sea, star of the cephalopaudville stage! Now ridiculously retired tattoo artist living by her lights. You can call my Monkfish there Brother Tinpan. He was my stage manager in the good old days—days so good you only appreciate them when you’re old!”

  Brother Tinpan inclined his head toward them. “Time,” he said courteously. Bubbles drifted up from his seaweed cowl.

  Sepia rolled her sorrowful eyes. “Meet the Mysterious Monkfish, Only Two Bits! Forgive him. Conversation with a Monkfish takes some problem-solving skills. They don’t really talk, they just answer riddles, so you have to work backward and figure out the riddle he’s answering before you can get a spotlight on what he means to say. So time will be … ‘Until I am measured, I cannot be known, yet how you will miss me, when I have flown!’ He’s pleased to meet you and can tell you’re a jolly sort he’ll miss once you’ve gone and left him alone with this old pun-and-punchline girl again. Any great actress learns to speak the special language of stage managers if she wants her fins lit right!”

  Saturday put his head to one side, his posture full of longing. “I miss it, too,” he said.

  “Oh! Are you also a refugee of the stage? A mummer, a mugger, a knockabout rogue? Tell me, what did you play? Clamlet? Oedipod Rex? Tuna Tartuffe? Quayrano de Bergerac? No, wait! I want to guess! A quick-change act? A song-and-dance man?”

  “I was in the circus,” Saturday said. The pride in his voice was a wild trapeze singing through the sea. “I only ever had one review, though. In the Almanack Tribune. Page twenty-two, bottom-left corner. In very small print.”

  “No matter, no matter! It’s the praise that counts, my lad, not the page! Let’s have it!”

  Saturday reached up to the blue-white stone he wore round his neck. He put his fingernail against one side and it popped open—a locket! Inside, a scrap of newsprint nestled safely under glass. It read: A promising newcomer. The Marid grinned jubilantly. His fingers shook a little as he closed up the locket again and let it fall where it belonged, over his heart.

  The cuttlefish rippled happily. “Magnificent! Tip-top stuff! Ah, the circus! How stupendous. The circus is pure, I’ve always said. Nothing but spectacle. No squirrelly little words getting in the way of the rings of fire and the dancing bears. Were you a clown? I would so dearly love to talk shop with another practitioner of the comic arts! We could debate the rule of three or the horrors of improv!”

  Saturday’s eyes dimmed and filled with shadows. He shook his head, his topknot floating upward in the seawater like a question mark. “I … I was … not a lion tamer. I don’t think. I have a fear of lions, you know. No!” Relief washed over his face. He’d caught the ragged edge of the answer as it tried to get away. “No, I was a trapeze artist! The trapeze. I flew through the air with the greatest of ease.”

  September stared at him. How could Saturday forget his trapeze, even for a moment? He loved the Stationary Circus almost as much as the Sea itself. Almost as much as her and A-Through-L. How could he let it slip from his mind when he carried his only review in a locket round his neck? September remembered every job she’d ever done. Fixing Mr. Albert’s fence or battling her own shadow in the underworld—any of it sat at the tip of her tongue, ready to perform a death-defying leap of truthfulness as soon as anyone asked. But he had remembered, in the end. Perhaps it was only the excitement of coming home at last.

  “Ah, well, never mind. It does my three hearts good to meet another thespian, whether or not he knows a catchphrase from a callback. Now, you say you’ve married this penguin. Come closer, birdie, let me get a look at those flippers.”

  September swam down to Sepia Siphuncle, breathing easily, though the air tasted salty and thick. The cuttlefish’s spangled eyes roamed over her. She lifted her veils and ran them along September’s arms.

  “Before I get started, princess penguin, tell me: What do you call your mother’s sister?”

  “Aunt … Aunt Margaret!”

  “Bzzz! Wrong! Aunt-Arctica!” Sepia guffawed. Her zebra stripes flushed a dazzling lilac. “You can clap now,” she allowed. September and Saturday did, politely. The Octopus Assassin glowered darkly and refused.

  “Fair enough, one-liners are a chump’s game, after all. Like scrounging up pennies to pay for lunch. You may get what you need, cent by cent, but dollars fill you faster. Give me a role again! Let me be a protagonist once more! Let me trade alliterating insults with a squid for all seasons! Give me a script and I’ll give you anything you ask. A part, a part, my kingdom for a part!”

  “Wheel,” Brother Tinpan admonished gently.

  The cuttlefish wriggled and writhed. “Wheel? Oh, which one is that—no, I know it, just give me a moment. Ah-ha! ‘I go round in circles, but always straight ahead. I never complain, no matter where I am led.’ Well, that’s not very nice, is it, Tinny? He means to tell me you’d prefer I get my inks going and quit talking about myself so much, but you’ve got the kind of stubborn manners that won’t let you tell me to stuff my own tentacles in my mouth and jump off the continental shelf. You’re such a cynic, Tinpan! Trying to saw my audience in half and make them disappear. Fine. I’ll make her the greatest wife ever to trod the aisles. But you have to listen to my new jokes for a full hour tonight. Not a minute less! And if you complain, the hour starts over again!”

  “I think you’re tops. Honest! A-list material,” September said slyly, though she meant it, really. You can be sly and sincere at the same time, though it takes practice and if you’re not careful, you will throw out your back. “A one-cuttlefish show not to be missed. It’s only that we’re running a race, and I don’t have the faintest idea what’s happening on land, or to whom! It took some time to get here. I’ve an awful worry in my stomach that it’s all slipping by up there.”

  “I understand completely,” said Sepia Siphuncle. “The curtain goes up on time, whether you turn up or not. The show must go on. Even if the show is mostly a chase scene. Pull up your sleeve and give me your flipper, pretty penguin. Left or right, doesn’t matter. Whichever one you like best.”

  September held out her left arm. She’d never given any thought to liking one more than the other. But she wrote with her left hand and used left-handed scissors and strummed her aunt Margaret’s funny old mandolin with her left hand, so it seemed to her that her left arm liked her best. The sleek seal-suit the emerald-colored smoking jacket and the Watchful Dress had made together parted along an invisible seam. The cuttlefish wrapped her tentacles around September’s fingers, then her wrist, then swallowed her all the way up to the forearm. It didn’t hurt—Sepia’s suckers rested on her bare skin like kisses. Her glitter-ringed eyes locked on to September’s, deep within her diving mask, black into copper, cephalopod into primate, W into O, sea into land.

  September felt something hot and thick running up her arm. I’m bleeding, she thought frantically. She’s bitten me and I’m bleeding! Oh, it’s so much! I can’t live without that much blood! But she didn’t feel woozy or weak. In fact, she felt strong, really fantastically strong, as though her left arm could battle a hundred Octopus Assassins before her right had even woken up in the morning. She tried to lean back carefully and get a look at what Sepia had done to her. The way she felt just then, she thought that if she raised her arm up, she’d just lift the whole huge cuttlefish up over her head.

  Rivers of black ink began to creep out of Sepia’s mouth onto September’s skin. Not the usual flat sort of black that comes in a paint can, or even the rich, bottomless, gorgeous sort of black that the sea knows how to make in the moonless Winter. This was cuttleblack, traced in speckles of electric blue and green like Sepia’s W-shaped eyes, stippled
all through with feverish, dancing drops of gold. Five bands of ink wound around one another like serpents in love, chasing one another, but slowly, deliberately, up September’s arm, past her elbow, surging for the shoulder. They made graceful, curving lunar patterns on her skin. The patterns seemed to move the longer she watched them—now like waves, now like briars, now like stars parading down the streets of the sky. They weren’t the same as Saturday’s lovely tattoos that she had spent so many days memorizing. These were her own, but they would look very pretty next to his. September thought them so beautiful that she didn’t think about whether or not they were permanent and she’d be stuck this way and have to explain it to most everyone she met until much later. Sepia Siphuncle, star of stage and reef, let September go. Her left arm looked like a map of heaven.

  “Fire!” screamed Brother Tinpan. “Fire! Fire!”

  Saffron ripples of irritation flowed up and down the cuttlefish’s body. “Can’t you let me take my bow at the end of a performance without making it all about you, you, you?” She sighed. “The penguin was about to give me my review! I need it! I’m starving for it! I don’t even know that one. You’ve never yelled ‘Fire!’ before.”

  Hugger-Muggery, who had fumed in silence all this while, snapped to attention, her tentacles locking into position as straight and tense as an arrowhead. “‘I am always hungry, I must always be fed. The finger I touch will soon turn red.’ Someone is coming! Arm the alarums! Assassins, to me!”

  Someone was coming. A black beast hurtled toward them out of the deep salt blue of the sea, a shadow in the shape of a tremendous sea horse.

  Ajax Oddson’s voice filled every nook and cranny of Mumkeep Reef, gurgling happily, like children do when they try to pass messages back and worth under water.

  “I say! What do I see in that sea? Why, it’s two Derbymen about to obey my decree! It’s that time again!”

  Far beneath the surface of the Obstreperous Ocean, purple fireworks erupted into a shower of flame, spelling out:

  Everyone Loves A Duel!



  In Which September Turns into a Bear, Saturday Swims Up the Time Stream, a Pirate Loses His Temper, and an Army of Undead Princesses Is Summoned

  The shadow sea horse drew closer. Its warlike snout pierced the water. Its spine curved down like the neck of a violin. It was made for battle. It was sure and easy and vicious.

  And it was not a sea horse.

  When its bony black tail ran aground on a crag of Mumkeep Reef, sending a school of scarlet fish scattering in all directions, September saw right through into the soul of the sea horse, which contained a small man with a lumpy face and a glorious cravat. The sea horse’s eyes were not eyes, but two glass bubbles. Its snout was not a snout but a cruel cannon. Its tail was not a tail, but a rudder. Cutty Soames, Captain of the Coblynows, spun the wheel of a submarine made of shadows, and he looked quite beside himself with wrath.

  A porthole opened up in the water just above them, growing slowly like a soap bubble until it popped—leaving a bolted ring of brass hanging in the sea. A pane of glass separated the Obstreperous Ocean from the Dueling Officiant: a grinning young lady all in blue, wearing silken indigo trousers and turquoise opera gloves and sapphire-colored boots with crisscrossed icicle laces all the way to the knee. She smirked at September and buttoned her long, beautiful sky-colored coat, trimmed in wild, woolly fur from some impossible, blueberry-colored sheep. Her long, azure hair lay over her shoulders in a serene, glossy style, topped off with a furry cobalt cap with an ice-spike like old pictures of the Kaiser. She chomped on the end of her churchwarden pipe, and blew a great pyramid of smoke into their faces, only it blew apart when it hit the porthole glass, so it did not quite pull off the devil-may-care effect the Blue Wind had hoped for.

  “Girl, ho!” the Blue Wind called.

  “Wind, ho!” September answered happily. She did not trust the Blue Wind any further than a rabbit trusts an owl, but she had missed her, all the same.

  “HALT!” screamed Hugger-Muggery. Many more than four Pieces of Eight fired themselves out of their glass jars all over Mumkeep Reef. The water churned as its tentacled army took flight. “Yes, you! You, Cutty Soames! Cutty Crudheart! Soames, the Slime of the Sea! Captain of the Courageless Cockroaches of Snotropolis!”

  The Blue Wind and Sepia Siphuncle broke into wild applause. The Blue Wind whistled through her teeth.

  “Top-shelf stuff!” the cuttlefish hollered. “No one really straps a good insult on these days, it shocks the matinee crowds! Brava!”

  “Shut up!” snarled Cutty Soames from within his submarine sea horse that wasn’t a sea horse—or a submarine, either. It was, in fact, Curdleblood, the Dastard of Darkness’s steed—a fiendishly clever shade of black. Cutty had nearly set fire to the Barleybroom when he found his prize galleon replaced with a miserable puddle of paint. But when he tried to stab it with his trusty cutlass, the Captain of the Coblynows discovered that a clever bit of black has a thousand and four more uses than a galleon. The Night Wagon, for Curdleblood had given it that name when he found the poor thing hiding in an art gallery, bored out of its wits, had learned to roll itself out into any kind of transportation the Dastard of Darkness wanted, so long as it did not have too many moving parts. The Night Wagon could do you a burnt-black horse as quick as turning the downstairs lights out. A charcoal carriage? An ebony velocipede? A shadow-fueled hot air balloon? Too easy. Once Curdleblood had fancied a coal-souled locomotive to take him in style to visit his mistress, who lived in the Bootbat Forest. This was the Night Wagon’s favorite, up until the sea horse submarine. A locomotive engine has more parts than a horse or a balloon. It almost gave up when it got to the steam pipes and piston rods. But it did love Curdleblood, Dastardly though he was. The Night Wagon longed to please. When it rocketed through the countryside, it felt so black it could burst.

  Cutty Soames, suddenly shipless, had needed the Night Wagon’s help. It listened to the pirate king’s many, many complaints, which he beefed up with plenty of curse words and just plain curses, and rolled itself out into something useful and splendid and deeply, profoundly, magnificently black. Together they had already dueled both Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord, and the Knapper. They’d won handily, both times, for the Night Wagon always took care to brush in a few fire-spewing extras when it did itself up for the evening.

  “Shut up!” Cutty Soames spat again. September rubbed her sleeve on the eye of the black sea horse to get a better look.

  The Coblynow had a rather handsome face, though it was all eyebrows and cheekbones, and much bigger than a face ought to be, considering he hardly came up to September’s waist. He’d slicked his hair down with good red mud and put a few ancient coins in it for that touch of flash for which all pirates have a weakness. He wore a salamander-skin cravat, too, pinned with a polished musket ball—and the name tag Hawthorn had given him, still stuck to his grand coat. “If there’s anything I hate more than an octopus it’s having to talk to one! Yes, yes, I’m a terrible naughty wicked gob of mud and everyone hates me. Good! Fine! I am a pirate. I liked doing pirate things when I was alive the first time and I like it now. I never wanted taxes or treaties! I want to steal your gold and potatoes! I don’t want to dance at the fashionable balls! I want to do that thing where you cut the rigging in just the right spot and shoot up to the crow’s nest! I don’t want to be loved by my subjects! I want them to build barricades and enchant their street lamps into angry giants with candles in their hair so that when I sack their ports, it’s at least a bit of a challenge! That’s the trouble, of course, once you’re King, nobody conjures up gaslight giants when they see your sails on the horizon anymore. They just try to scrape together half of their everything down to their dinner rolls and hand it over with stoic fortitude. Barnacles and bunions! It’s enough to depress the sunshine out of Spring.”

  September scoffed at him. “Good grief, then why bother racing in
the Derby? I’m sure we’d all rather you stayed home and whittled a plank or something. If I end up Queen when all this is over, I shan’t steal anyone’s potatoes or sack their ports! Cutty Crudheart, indeed!”

  Cutty Soames straightened his cravat and dropped his sea-weathered hand onto the hilt of his cutlass—his only true friend, until he’d gotten hitched to the Night Wagon. “Girls must girl and pirates must pirate. If they held an election, I’d spend it down the pub burning it to the ground. But let me win something, let me beat someone else to it, let me swipe it when everyone else has gone to sleep? I can’t help myself any more than a kid can stop wanting the gun-toting dolly in the window.”

  “The Derby? Are you running in the Cantankerous Derby?” Hugger-Muggery said. Her voice changed in the tiniest way. A tremble crept in, like a mouse balancing on the handle of a spoon.

  “Yes,” Saturday said slowly, caught out. They couldn’t hide it now. EVERYONE LOVES A DUEL still hung in the dark water like burning birthday candles. “We didn’t want to say. Grandmother doesn’t like anyone putting on airs. This is September. She’s the Engineer. The Queen. Ruler of Fairyland and All Her Kingdoms.”

  Hugger-Muggery, Sepia Siphuncle, and Brother Tinpan tried to scrub the shock off their faces, but they’d gotten far too used to life in Mumkeep Reef, where they never had to worry about what half-cocked expression hung around on their faces, to manage it.

  “I formally apologize for my behavior earlier, Madam Engineer,” the High Assassin of the Pieces of Eight said stiffly. “You, of course, have every right to visit any benighted corner of your kingdom, from the Hourglass Waste to Mumkeep Reef and anywhere else. You may cut off my tentacles now.”

  September’s copper mask made her look severe and unmoved. Very like a Queen, though she couldn’t know it. Inside the mask, her real face wrinkled up in horror. “I will absolutely not cut off your tentacles! What a gruesome idea! Please don’t let anyone else do it, either! I’m not really Queen yet. It’s only been a few days and if I don’t win the Derby, no one will remember that I wore the crown at all.”