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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

Catherynne M. Valente

  “But if I keep my tentacles, I will one day forget how shamefully I insulted the Queen—I mean, the Engineer! I will do it again! I must be reminded!” wailed the Octopus Assassin.

  “Good! Wonderful!” September cried. “Insult away!” She felt very silly all of the sudden. Her cheeks burned. All their subterfuge and careful creeping and they could just have told everyone she was the Queen and had their pick of Mumkeep’s plunder! Now she had a tattoo and might possibly be married when all she had to say was I’m the Queen, give me what I want.

  That’s all right, my girl. Don’t fret. Power is a coat that’s always too small. It takes time to wear it in, to feel like it’s really yours, to fill up the pockets with your own lint and house keys and slips of right and wrong with cat’s fur hanging off them. And for people with hearts as quick and raw and hungry as September’s, that coat will never fit quite right.

  “If you’ll excuse me,” said the Blue Wind, tapping a wrist with no watch on it. “I’m rather busy with a rabid cloudicorn just now, so if we could speed things along, that’d be swell, thanks. Another heist or two and I’ll have the Heart in my hands.”

  “You’re lying,” September said hopefully. Could they be so far off track? No, no, there was something important here. There had to be. The Blue Wind winked at her and shrugged. I might be. I might be Queen already.

  Cutty Soames stomped his foot twice, and then again, as doing anything only twice always left him feeling unfinished. “Name the weapons, you half-boiled robin’s egg! By lime and vinegar, I’ve met doldrums quicker than you.”

  The Blue Wind stroked the ends of her azure hair and thought. She took her time, but only because she knew it galled everyone something fierce. She’d chosen before Cutty called her an egg. Just after the octopus called the Coblynow’s beloved robber’s paradise, Port Pelerine, by the perfectly delicious name of Snotropolis.

  “Very well!” The Blue Wind raised her sapphire-ringed hands inside her porthole. “Hold on to your parasols! I choose … Insults! That way at least I’ll get a giggle out of it. And the cloudicorn may overhear and start feeling bad about herself. Without their bottomless cauldrons of scalding self-esteem, cloudicorns have no power.”

  September grimaced in her mask. “Can’t it ever be anything I’m good at?” She knew it wasn’t Queenly to complain, but she didn’t feel particularly royal just then. But then, what would that be? Sailing a raft with a dress? Singing? Competitive automotive tinkering? Infuriating the upper class wherever she found them?

  “Nope!” the Blue Wind said cheerfully. “Where would be the fun in that? Come on, September, you can’t always be so nice all the time! Get ill-tempered for me! Show me irascible! Or are you just a fluffy little dandelion seed waiting to be huffed and puffed into nothing by a drunken field mouse? See? It’s easy!”

  The Night Wagon came about, turning the broad, bony breast of its sea horse body to September, who suddenly wished she hadn’t gotten out of Fizzwilliam’s nice, safe, very metal tub. The Pieces of Eight bolted back into their glass jars like a flock of fiery rare birds who had just sighted a man who works for the city zoo. Sepia and Brother Tinpan shrunk down into the coral opera house. The cuttlefish went dark, snuffing out all the lovely lights under her skin.

  Cutty Soames got a good gust of breath up under his lungs. He boomed out: “Go pick lice off your mother’s backside, you lazy, saucepan-headed ape! You couldn’t rule a side of steamed carrots, you unbearable, unremarkable, unmagical sack of giggling baby toys!”

  September recoiled as though he’d shot her in the chest with his flintlock. Part of her, the part that had been the Spinster, thought he could have done better than lazy, but the rest was quite good stuff. But the part of her that had always been September felt herself right back in school, staring at Martha May, a girl with red hair who’d just slapped her for no reason but that she could and no one would punish her. Hearing all the whispers of Martha May’s friends rising up like a nasty cold tide, filthy with words like freak, crazy, nitwit, and weirdo. She’d run home and got down on her hands and knees, trying to scrub those words out of her mind. But it never worked. She could always still see them, no matter how hard she scoured. She couldn’t think of anything to say to Martha May that day, even though it would have felt so good to lash out with something unspeakably clever and devastating. She’d reached for words to use like armor, but found nothing there. She was right. I am a freak. I am unremarkable. Everything that’s happened to me has only happened because of other, more interesting, stronger, more wonderful people. I’m nobody.

  The waters of Mumkeep Reef bubbled as though they meant to come to a boil. But they didn’t.

  A squadron of gorillas and orangutans bubbled up into the ocean from nowhere at all. They wore diving helmets hammered out of saucepans, having no friendly Fizzwilliam to help them to a shave. They shrieked and hooted and giggled out their primate war cries. But the helmets made them look like hideous, monstrous astronauts. Their faces were invisible behind metal grills, long, hairy arms beating back the water, bearing down on September and Saturday. The diving apes brandished baby rattles and dollies with buttons for eyes and dynamite for hair. One swung a baby’s mobile full of painted sailboats in one fist and a knitted blanket in another like a trident and net. Another twirled a wooden train round his head like a ninja’s flying wooden sticks.

  Saucepan-headed ape. Sack of giggling baby toys.

  September could almost have laughed, if she weren’t about to be thumped soundly by an underwater gorilla wearing a saucepan on his head and pointing a toy fire truck at her face.

  September turned to Saturday. “I can’t think of anything!” she whispered.

  “Of course you can,” Saturday reassured her. “I heard you call Sir Sanguine a great talking punch-bag with rum barrels for ears in the Cellar.”

  “I know! But Sir Sanguine’s my friend. It’s easy when you’re friends. Then it’s just like a hug that’s got its love on backward. But he’s right, he’s right. I am an unremarkable ape.”

  Saturday ran his hand over the carved copper hair of her breathing mask. She could not feel his dear fingers, but she could feel their comforting weight. “Don’t say that. Never, ever. You are my remarkable ape. Don’t go beating yourself up before the gorillas get a chance.” He clapped his long blue hands and gave her a playful push. If we win, she will stay. He had to get her to fight. “Let’s get mean! You can do it! Everyone’s got a big hot sour lump of everything hateful they didn’t say because their manners outboxed their cussedness. I know you can be a grumpy, ornery, bitey old bear. Pretend you’ve only just woken up in the morning. What did you call me last Sunday when I tried to rouse you by seven?”

  “A vicious rotten blueberry,” September said, and blushed shamefully. She never meant anything she said before ten in the morning.

  “See? You’re a natural. But you’d better be quick with your blueberries, or else I think we’ll both get a rocking horse to the head.”

  The army of undersea gorillas and orangutans had gotten their sea legs under them. They’d be on her in nothing flat. One orangutan the color of rust on a steamship aimed his pale pink rattle with lavender bows painted all round it directly between her eyes. September thought the ape meant to taunt her, but six quick bolts of lightning fired out of the rattle. Three forked off harmlessly into the deeps, one pranged off a jagged shard of coral—and two caught September squarely in the face. One scorched her left temple; the other charred her right cheek. If not for Fizzwilliam’s shaving-cup mask, September would have burnt out like an old lamp. She smelled baby powder as the smoke cleared, the way you smell ozone after a thunderstorm. You just got lucky, September thought. What if he’d aimed for your chest? Say something! Anything! Come on, self, hit back!

  September dug deep for muck to fling at Cutty Soames. But all she found were freak, crazy, nitwit, and weirdo lying around at the bottom of her heart like skinny old rats in a cellar. But no—something else glinted o
ut from under her pride. She kicked backward suddenly, swimming well free of Saturday, a maniacal adrenaline grin aching on her face.

  September poked herself in the chest and lashed her voice up into a stern whip. “September, you are nothing but a grumpy, ornery, bitey old bear! You can’t even boss Sunday morning around, what do you want with a crown?” And it was true, it was true—if she couldn’t even tell off one solitary undead pirate, how could she manage the giants and dragons of ruling Fairyland?

  The waters of Mumkeep Reef closed in on her, black and blue and heavy. It felt like slipping into one of the expensive fur coats down at the Brandeis & Sons department store on Douglas Street. She always knew she oughtn’t—her mother could never afford one of the long black minks or the custard-colored beaver-fur capes. Those were for fancy people, not for them. Oh, Mom, if I come through this I will find a way to get you all the capes in the world. I will. How she’d loved to hide in the coats, closing them up until only her little nose peeked out. Now, at the bottom of the ocean, September felt a thick, stout, white fur button up around her. This time, not even her nose showed.

  September was a polar bear.

  The roar came all the way from the pads of her shaggy paws, up through her powerful snowy haunches, her huge, fleecy belly, slurping loudness from her bear-bones and her bear-blood all the way up. She’d never owned something so big as that roar in her life. It was as big as an ice floe, as big as a fat, tasty, unsuspecting seal asleep on the snow, as big as Aunt-Arctica. September swung her great furry arms wide, slicing through the water with her fabulously vicious claws, and roared like every bear who’d ever tried to sleep through five more minutes of winter rioting all at once. The ape army recoiled. A gorilla threw his dolly at September. It bounced harmlessly off her strapping fuzzy chest, exploding meekly when it hit the reef, quite embarrassed to have even made the effort. September roared again. Roaring was really the most perfectly excellent thing in the world. She told herself to do it more often.

  September banged her front paws together. When she pulled them apart, fiery balls of sleepy morning sunshine skewered themselves on each black claw. The ape army charged the sun-wielding polar bear. They swung their wooden trains against her and fired their rattles. Her fur smoked where she took her hits, but they only annoyed September, like bees buzzing in her ears. She flung her little morning suns at gorillas and orangutans alike, whanging their saucepan diving bells around, setting their fur on fire, roaring all the time, roaring fit to deafen a thundercloud.

  The apes vaporized into seawater bubbles. The September-bear lunged to chomp the bubbles in her snout and pop them with her claws. A giggling polar bear is a very disconcerting sight, let me tell you. It is probably for the best that as soon as the last baby rattle disappeared, her bear-head fell back like a hood and her shaggy chest split down the middle. September stepped out of her bear-skin just the same way she stepped out of the coats at Brandeis & Sons when her mother found her at last: a little chagrined, but not in the least sorry to have done it.

  Cutty Soames let out his own roar on the bridge of the shadowy sea horse. September might have been frightened, had he done it five minutes earlier. But now she just laughed.

  “You should work harder on your roar,” she said breezily, still giddy with bear-ness. “Use your diaphragm! Really give it some proper breath, you’ll get a much deeper pitch.”

  The Captain of the Coblynows gripped the hilt of his cutlass until his knuckles looked like they might make a run for it. His red eyes smoked like coals in a furious hearth.

  “I’m going to hang your bones from my mainsail, you ladle-brained peasant! You’ve got the brain of a sunburned badger, the courage of a bowl of porridge, and the grace of a giant with a head injury! You prancing, marshmallow-hearted cow!” Cutty’d run out of breath by the end of it, but he yanked out that last with a hoarse belch.

  “That’s the second time I’ve been called a cow today.” September sighed. “I don’t know what’s so horrid about being a cow. Mrs. Powell’s cow is called Marjorie and she’s well behaved and very useful. But I suppose I did jump over the Moon.”

  September talked slowly to buy herself time. He called me an ape, she thought furiously. That’s all right, humans evolved from apes, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t get sad, get smart! Think! Coblynows evolved from … I think Sir Sanguine said chimneys? There ought to be something juicy there …

  The waters of Mumkeep Reef roiled and glugged again. A gang of giants with bandaged heads galloped out across the ocean floor. They wore peasants’ rags and rode majestic, ice-hoofed cows with horns forged from beaten plowshares. Marshmallow bells hung from the beasts’ necks, skins crinkling black, as though roasted by an invisible campfire. The deep water slowed them down, but they did not wait. Each giant hoisted a monstrous ladle aloft and whirled it round his head like a mace. Every time the ladles came round, they lobbed boiling black porridge at September, Saturday, Sepia, Brother Tinpan, the Pieces of Eight, anything they could see through their bandages. The dark globs ate through whatever they landed on like acid with butter and brown sugar on top. A mob of flaming badgers wove in and out of the cows’ legs, scampering across the dueling field, their fur burning the water around them into acrid steam and smoke.

  September tried to get a roar going down in the bottoms of her feet, but it would not come. The giants hollered out battle songs in the old tongue. She took a deep breath through the mouth of her mask.

  “Go eat an anchor, you soot-addled pile of bricks!”

  It wasn’t bad. She put a nice, solid sneer on it. The Blue Wind clapped her hands in her judge’s frame—she always wanted September to learn to sneer properly. And it did genuinely hurt Cutty’s feelings. But all she got for her efforts was a shower of chimney-bricks floating down to her like flakes of fish food dropped into an aquarium. They mortared themselves neatly into a wall any garden would love to bring home to meet the tomatoes. September and Saturday crouched quickly behind it, but the wall could do nothing more for them than be the best wall it knew how. So it swiveled round and circled them safely, mortaring up its own seam quick as oats.

  “I tried!” September insisted. “It’s hard enough to think of something cutting without having to make it something that’s good for battling as well.”

  “Go again,” urged Saturday. “He got about twenty in one breath, surely you get more than one.”

  “That was the best I had!”

  September felt a small hand tug at her recently tattooed wrist. It gave her such a startle she nearly vaulted over the wall and into a gaggle of giants. She turned to look what had her by the arm, her heart bouncing all round her insides like a lost pinball.

  A small boy squeezed her hand. A small blue boy. A small blue boy with a topknot and the very beginnings of a long, lovely tattoo that would one day look like curling waves breaking over his shoulder blades. It was Saturday, when he was young and small, a Marid in his natural habitat: out of time and out of order, popping out of the past to pull on her sleeve.

  “Hullo, Bear Lady,” said this new Saturday. He was no more than four or five, his little black eyes quick and mischievous. “I saw you be a bear so that’s what I’m going to call you.”

  Saturday blinked at his younger self. Then he laughed, really rather loudly, as though he’d only just understood a joke he’d heard years before. “Hiya, Little S,” he said, and tugged affectionately on the boy’s much-shorter topknot.

  Four-year-old Saturday hopped up on his own blue feet. “Hiya, Big S! I came to help! I’m top of the food chain when it comes to name-calling.” He put his hands on his hips. “Slights, mockeries, slanders, cheap shots—if you want someone to run home crying, I’m your fish.”

  “Saturday!” September gasped. “That’s not you! You wouldn’t curse a storm if it flooded your house!”

  The older Marid shrugged, half embarrassed, half proud of the pixyish little hooligan he’d once been. “I wasn’t always quiet, you know. Befo
re I got locked up in a lobster cage and wrestled every day for wishes, I ran wild through the Sea. Marids are all orphans for a while. We live in jumbled-up order—what Papa could keep up? I told you I met my mother on a beach when I was twelve and she was twenty-four. I gave her a dune daisy. But all the versions of me before I turned twelve still had to have something to do while they were waiting to be born. Some of me sold cockleshells, some of me played high-level hopscotch with the narwhals, and some of me picked pockets and ran with the rougher schools of mackerel and mermaids.”

  “You said you’d never stolen anything before.”

  Saturday laughed. “Well, only some of me has. It wasn’t really a lie. Don’t be angry.” He turned to Little S. “I remember being you. It was fun. Before the Marquess’s nets came down.”

  Little S didn’t seem too worried about the nets or cages in his future. A Marid lives all at once, like sparkles of sunlight darting through moving water. Why wear yourself out gnawing on the rind of the future? Right here and now, Little S meant to call some giants nasty names, which was the most fun he could imagine. “Let’s not tell our life stories when we’ve got a pirate to put down and flaming badgers to put out!” he scolded them. “I’m small, but I have a big mouth. You have to, on the mean old Seas! Grammy doesn’t like it when I swear, and she won’t let me drown anyone because it makes a mess, but I can do you at least a hundred bang-up taunts and five or six scorchers without breaking her rules. This is gonna be a day for my scrapbook!” The boy bent down and kissed September’s hand quite gallantly. He deliberately twinkled his eyes at her. “I’m gonna love you some day, Bear Lady, so I wanna get started on impressing you.”

  Little S put his foot into a crack in the brick wall. The wall dug out a row of handholds for him and he scrambled up, sticking his nose up over the ledge.