The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels ThereCatherynne M. Valente
September twisted her cold hands. “Will things work themselves out?” The Watchful Dress was valiantly trying to dry itself, but having little success. Parts of it inflated and deflated as it shook off the Forgetful Sea.
“They usually do. If you take the long view, as I do. Formally, I’m a Queer Physickist, but I dabble in Questing, too, hence my Barometer. We Queerfolk are big-picture types. You have to be, to see how the Queerness of the World works itself through everything. Queer Physickists are so terribly Queer that most people don’t even like to have us for tea. We might wear the tea on our heads to prove our theory on the Gravitationals of Guest Magic. We might be practicing Being a Broom or on a Visibility Fast. So many just shun us altogether. You have to be able to see the world as a whole to bear it—to see the Queerness that moves in every bit of Fairyland, how it threads through every heart and field, how we are all bound together up in the Weird Well of the World. Can’t get too upset about folk being wicked. The Queer old world does so love to turn itself on its head on the regular. Anyway, Fairyland has a kind of weight to it. It tends to settle back into its own ways. Oh, we’ll have a wicked Thorn-King for a century or nine, but in the end, where there’s a Thorn-King, there’s a Rose-Maid to throttle him silly. It might take her a while to get here, but like I said, you have to take a long view.”
“That’s not much comfort to people who have to live their whole lives with a Thorn-King being wretched to them!”
“Isn’t it? I think it’s comforting. I thought about it a great deal when the Marquess was making her mess. I had a good place to watch it all happen, up in Groangyre Tower. I could see her warping the weft of the world. And I certainly didn’t appreciate her telling me to stop my Electricks program or to fire Miss Lovewool just because her Reign Gauge said the old tyrant wouldn’t last. Well, I know what loyalty is, thank you very much. And at night I comforted myself by lathing out a Calendar Centrifuge—to whirl out the present, dark day and leave behind only the distant tomorrow when I would be able to breathe again. It was comforting. Of course, Fairies can afford to look at things that way. We live so long.”
“But…Miss Cabbage, do you really? I know something’s happened to the Fairies up above. There are rather few of you left. Do you really live so long? If it’s something the Marquess did, shouldn’t it be all mended by now?”
“You know,” said the Mad Scientist, “many years passed between Queen Mallow and the Marquess. She was hardly the only person capable of making dreadful things happen. I am working on the problem. I and all of us in Groangyre and Shearcoil both. You needn’t worry about it. What I mean to say in plain Professorial terms is mind your own business, begging your pardon. I know humans have sensitive manners.”
September minded her business. She didn’t know quite what else to say, however. An awkward silence fell between them like a curtain.
“Would you like to see what I’m working on now?” Cabbage said hopefully.
“Certainly!” said September gratefully.
The Fairy rummaged behind her Dread Device, leaning over it to get something on the far side of her worktable, kicking her legs up into the air as she reached. She came back with a most peculiar object which she pointed alarmingly at September, a strange sort of gun made of brass and silver and mother-of-pearl. It had a big barrel, as big as a grown man’s fist, and a long pneumatic tube hanging from it, attached to nothing in par tic u lar.
“Oh, don’t worry!” Cabbage laughed, seeing September’s understandable concern at having a gun pointed at her. She had not even known Fairyland had guns, and she would really rather it didn’t! “I haven’t invented bullets for it yet.”
“What is it?”
“Well, it’s a Rivet Gun, obviously.”
“What is it meant to rivet?”
Belinda Cabbage looked at the Rivet Gun curiously, peering down its monster of a barrel. “That’s not how Science works, love. First, you build the machine, then it tells you what it’s for. A machine is only a kind of magnet for attracting Use. That’s why we say things are Useful—because they’re all full of the Use that chose them to perform itself. Understand?”
“Well, take the Dread Device. Do you think I had the first idea what a squidhole was when I invented it? Certainly not! I was just messing about! That’s when the very best and very Maddest Science gets done, you know. I thought, Why, this alabaster octopus looks like it wants a nice transmission inside it, and fairly soon I had a thing that obviously had a Use, though what that Use could be was a total mystery. I set it out to cool on the windowsill of Groangyre and what do you know, within a year or two it had punched six holes in the damask of space-time (that’s what it’s made out of, if you didn’t know it, and of course, I’m sure you did) and I had a lovely vacation in Broceliande! Take my Sameness Engine over there.” She pointed to the other end of the room, where a huge silver-green machine squatted. It looked like a printing press had grown claws and teeth. “I haven’t the first notion of what it’s for! That’s not why I made it—I made it for the sheer joy of making something new! It’s getting up to telling me what it wants to do, though, I can just feel it. It’s been giggling a lot at night. I expect sooner or later the Rivet Gun will tell me what it’s good for, and until then I have patience. Patience is always the last ingredient in any spell, the last part in any machine, whatever your original blueprints say.”
All the while the Fairy Scientist talked, the gun’s pneumatic tube had crept across the floor toward September like a careful snake. It snuffled at her feet, and at the hem of the Watchful Dress.
“It seems to like you,” Belinda Cabbage said. “If you’re willing to report back in detail, I don’t mind letting you take it for field testing. Sometimes you have to get out in the thick of things to get a really good Use going.”
September did not know how to answer. She had seen the veterinarian Mr. Walcott’s revolver, when he went out to put down a horse that had broken its knee or couldn’t pass a stone, and her swimming coach had a starting pistol, but that was the beginning and end of her experience with guns. Only it wasn’t really a gun, she supposed, not like Mr. Walcott’s revolver was a gun. She knew a little about rivets from her mother, who made use of them on airplane bodies that had to hold together very tightly. But to be sure, a Rivet Gun and Mr. Walcott’s revolver were in the same family, perhaps even siblings. The Rivet Gun looked solid and powerful to her, and she hadn’t a weapon to protect herself except for her Dress, whose feats she could never predict. Now that Ell and Saturday had abandoned her—and she winced, remembering that—she had to take care of herself somehow. She held out her hand, trembling a little, shy.
Cabbage tossed the gun up and caught it by the barrel, handing it over grip first. September took it. It felt heavy and good in her hand. The pneumatic tube snaked up to her waist, tucking its loose end in her little bustle.
“See? You’ll be fast friends in no time. Be sure to keep good and copious notes, time and date stamped, and if at all possible, collect samples of anything it Rivets.” Belinda Cabbage took up a lightning rod and touched each of September’s shoulders with it. “I dub thee September, Temporary Mad Assistant.”
September holstered the Rivet Gun in a silken pocket that formed helpfully in the hip of her dress, just the right size for it. “Do you know which way I ought to go? To get to the bottom of the world, I mean. Where Prince Myrrh sleeps.”
Belinda Cabbage cocked her eyebrow skeptically at September. She turned to the Narrative Barometer and cracked open its glass bell. The Fairy flicked one of the hands to MUSICAL THRONES.
“There’s usually a door of some sort,” she shrugged. “I’m sure there’s one lying around.” Cabbage put both hands against a pile of machinery on her left-hand workbench and shoved it to the back wall of her shop. In the rough wood of the bench gleamed a safe-door. She spun the combination and hauled it open.
“Copious. Notes,” she said in a tone that no one,
even in their wrong mind, would argue with.
September took Cabbage’s hand and climbed up onto the bench. “One last thing,” she said. “I wonder if…being a leader of the Scientifick community, I wonder if you ever knew a…a highly puissant Scientiste, who wore the biggest pair of spectacles ever built, and lived with a lady-Wyvern, and had a wonderful Library?”
Cabbage put on her own pair of spectacles, square industrial nickel-rimmed goggles. “Of course,” she said. “That’s my father you’re talking about.”
September shook her head and laughed. Then, holding her gun tight to her hip, she jumped feet first into the safe and disappeared from Belinda Cabbage’s workshop.
A PRACTICAL GIRL
In Which an Old Foe Returns, but Not as Expected
September fell out of the workbench, through the safe, and into a courtyard. She was alone, as she had not been since her first step in Fairyland-Below. The gray and black and muddy white cobblestones of the courtyard stretched out into alleys narrow and vast, cobbles upon cobbles, as far as she could see. A few bare birch trees stood with their wide branches leaning over empty benches and empty shop fronts where no one displayed their wares. Over one, an old painted wood sign read: ANYTHING IMPORTANT COMES IN THREES AND SIXES.
Snow began to fall, quiet and slow.
In the center of the courtyard stood a little garden with a low wall around it. Withered-up basil and sage and crushed mallow flowers tangled together around the black, broken roots of a fig tree. Husks of old fruit hung from the branches, and wrinkled dead toadstools ringed the roots. In the center of the garden sat a dry fountain—a high, dark marble bowl with a statue of a maiden sitting cross-legged in it, cradling a horn of plenty in her arms which must once have overflowed with clean, starry water. September had never been so tired, but still she knew that face.
It was a statue of Queen Mallow.
The wine-colored coat wrapped itself tight around September, its fur collar keeping out the soft, dry snow. She took a step forward—and saw a figure sitting on the far lip of the fountain. A young girl sat with her chin in her hands, kicking her feet in the air. September held her breath and walked a little ways around to get a better look. The girl was a shadow, violet and silver and blue lights flickering in the black depths of her skin. The shadow wore a lacy shadow-dress, with thick shadow-petticoats underneath it, along with elegant shadow-gloves and shadow-stockings and shadow-slippers.
And a very fine hat.
At her side, the shadow of a panther stood guard, quietly licking one massive dark paw.
September didn’t move. She wanted to laugh, and she wanted to run, and she wanted to take out her Rivet Gun and fire it straightaway. She didn’t do any of that. She just stood there and watched the girl who was the shadow of the Marquess. In the end, she waited too long and the Marquess saw her first.
“Oh!” said the Marquess, dropping her hands into her lap. “It’s you.”
“It’s me,” said September.
Iago, the Panther of Rough Storms, turned his great head to look at her. His gaze was as unreadable as any cat’s. Even his shadow would never leave her, September thought, and it awed her a little.
“I’m only passing through,” September said finally. “I don’t want any trouble with you. I don’t want anything at all to do with you, really. I’ve had a very bad day, and you are just the last thing I can bother with right this second. I know you must feel poorly about how things went when we saw each other last, but you’re just going to have to keep feeling poorly.”
The Marquess stood suddenly.
“Did you come all the way here in those shoes?” she asked slowly, as if remembering something from long ago.
September looked down at her shoes. They were her plain school shoes, and she had to admit they had gotten rather shabby with all the Reveling and dancing in onion forests and tromping through mines and diving through an entire sea. Still, at least this time she had brought both shoes along.
“That must have been just awfully painful. How brave of you,” the Marquess said in the same slow voice—but it held no bitterness or cruel jokes. Rather, the Marquess’s voice seemed entirely genuine in its pity and sympathy. She shook her head to clear it. The shadow-feathers and shadow-jewels on her hat jingled and quivered.
“You said that to me before,” said September curtly.
“I did,” the Marquess agreed, but she did not seem happy about it.
“Listen, Mallow, I don’t mean to be rude, but whatever game you want to play, I don’t know the rules, and I’d really rather sit this round out.”
The Marquess’s head snapped up. Her thick sausage curls flushed lilac. “Don’t call me that,” she said, and the old power bloomed in her voice. “It’s not my name. I’m Maud. I was Maud.”
“Yes, when you lived on your father’s farm in Ontario.”
Maud started as if she’d been slapped. “I hate my father. I will never go back. You can’t make me go back.”
“I know,” said September, softening a little despite herself. At least back at home, her own mother loved her, and her father did, too, wherever he was.
“I’m sleeping,” Maud whispered, her dark shadow eyes large and worried.
“What do you mean? You’re wide awake. You oughtn’t to be, but you are.”
Iago’s shadow finally spoke, his rumbly thundering voice rolling over September like a shiver. “She means that she is sleeping, the Marquess up Above, on a bed of tourmaline in the Springtime Parish, where the plum blossoms are always falling. I’m there, too, only I’m not sleeping. Well, really I am sleeping a lot of the time. Springtime has a surplus of sunbeams, and I am only feline. But I’m not sleeping in an occupational way, whereas she has been working on a good sleep for a couple of years now, and it’ll go on a good while yet. When our shadows got Siphoned down, we woke up—I’d been napping, and don’t you dare judge me, it was four in the afternoon, and all cats know four in the afternoon is Twelfthnap, right after Teanap. The trouble is, with her Topside self in such a powerful unnatural sleep, it’s addled her a little. Sometimes she thinks she’s her old self, sometimes she remembers she’s a shadow and doesn’t have to be a Marquess anymore.”
“I’m a practical girl,” the Marquess whispered. Iago licked her cheek fondly.
Suddenly, as quickly as a knife in the ribs, the Marquess put her arms around September and buried her face in her neck.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I only wanted to stay. You had it so easy.”
September stood stiff in the Marquess’s embrace. This girl had imprisoned her friends and twisted her like a rag doll and ruled Fairyland with the very hands which now held her. But she had been so wounded, too. September had wept for her, once. And this was the shadow of that girl. Had not Saturday and Ell and the Vicereine and Halloween and just everyone told her that shadows were not exactly the same as their owners? Hadn’t Halloween done things she herself would never do? Hadn’t Saturday?
September did not want to feel for the Marquess. That’s how villains get you, she knew. You feel badly for them, and next thing you know, you’re tied to train tracks. But her wild, untried heart opened up another bloom inside her, a dark branch heavy with fruit.
Poor September! How much easier, to be hard and bright and heartless. Instead, a very adult thing was happening in that green, new heart. For there are two kinds of forgiveness in the world: the one you practice because everything really is all right, and what went before is mended. The other kind of forgiveness you practice because someone needs desperately to be forgiven, or because you need just as badly to forgive them, for a heart can grab hold of old wounds and go sour as milk over them. You, being sharp and clever, will have noticed that I said “practice.” Forgiveness always takes practice to get right, and September was very new at it. She had none of the first sort in her. But the shadow of the Marquess wept so bitterly against her shoulder. All creatures are sometimes wretched, an
d in need.
Slowly, September put her arms around the Marquess. The two girls stood together in the falling snow for a long moment. The Panther watched them, purring deeply.
“Are you doing something daring and clever now?” asked Maud when they pulled apart. Shadow-tears stood unashamed on her cheeks. “You were always so clever. Like me.”
“I am going to wake up the Sleeping Prince,” September said before she could think better of it.
A strange, canny look moved across the Marquess’s face. “It’s not always nice to wake up,” she said. “It’s better to dream. You don’t remember the things you’ve done in dreams.”
“You are not like I remember you.”
The Marquess shrugged. “I’m a shadow. I do know I am a shadow, Iago. I know most of the time. It’s only when I cannot bear how everyone looks at me down here that I make myself forget it. Shadows are the other side of yourself. I had longings to be good, even then. I was just stronger than my wanting. I’m stronger than anything, really, when I want to be.” The Marquess’s hair turned white as the snow. “Do you know, we’re right underneath Springtime Parish? This place is the opposite of springtime. Everything past prime, boarded up for the season. Just above us, the light shines golden on daffodils full of rainwine and heartgrass and a terrible, wicked, sad girl I can’t get back to. I don’t even know if I want to. Do I want to be her again? Or do I want to be free? I come here to think about that. To be near her and consider it. I think I shall never be free. I think I traded my freedom for a better story. It was a better story, even if the ending needed work.”