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The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, Page 21

Catherynne M. Valente

  “Oh, I know who you are! He dreams about you all the time. Not the cat, but then, I never paid much mind to cats. They don’t dream, so they’re of no interest to me. My name is Nod, if it matters.”

  “Do you mean Prince Myrrh?” September asked.

  “Who else?”

  “How could he possibly dream about us?”

  The tapir shrugged. “That’s what magical objects do. They dream of the day when heroes will come and claim them.”

  “But he’s not an object at all, he’s a boy, even if he is a boy in a box.”

  Nod jostled the trunk with his round flank. It rocked a little. “Nope. He’s an object. Never comes out, never wakes up, could be picked up, put into a wagon, and moved like luggage.”

  “Don’t you think it’s a bit awful, you hiding down here and…well, eating him, bit by bit?”

  The purple tapir widened his eyes. “Oh, no, you misunderstand. It’s not like that at all.”

  September flushed. “Well, I do misunderstand sometimes, when folk are slow about explaining.”

  Nod chuckled, a watery, snorty, pleasant sort of sound. “I guard him. Surely someone told you that all magical objects have guardians. It’s good work when you can get it—times being what they are. When I was a calf, I just wandered from town to town, munching on an innkeeper’s nightmare about an endless hall of empty rooms with his lost loves’ names on the doors, or a wizard’s worried dream of retaking the same examination over and over again. Occasionally, I would find others like me, and we’d go in a pack for a while. We’d head down to Baku-Town in Pandemonium and rollick about, go to a dream café and sample something really exotic, maybe a Pooka in her real, original shape lost in a forest of all the faces she’s ever worn—maybe a changeling child dreaming of home. But I wasn’t a serious fellow. I didn’t have a calling and I didn’t have a care.” September’s heart leaned in to listen, for she had hardly yet heard of someone in Fairyland without a calling, who didn’t know exactly who they were. “But one night, I had too much vintage leprechaun gold-fever to drink and fell asleep in a twisty old alleyway. I dreamed that I was a zebra instead of a tapir. A lion asked me to dance, and I did, the way you do inadvisable things in dreams. But, lo, what do you know? All of the sudden someone was eating one of my dreams, which I did not approve of at all. The lion turned into a fellow Baku, a big, green female with a golden rump. I squirmed under the press of her snout on my dream, but I could not shake her. So I bit back—and discovered that she was the guardian of the Widow’s Polearm, a weapon that once belonged to Myrmo the Striped. Some witch somewhere says it cannot be wielded again until the end of the world. The Baku had gotten quite fat on the dreams of the Polearm, which were interesting and quite unlike the dreams of creatures who walk and talk and fight on their own steam. I suppose it would be like you were the first person in the world to ever taste caviar. It’s a bit funny, but you could really get to like it, if you hold on tight and take it slow. So when I woke up, I joined the union, Local Number 333—Guardians, Sibyls, Junkyard Dogs, and Scarecrows. That was ages ago now.”

  The Marquess paid no attention to Nod. She walked slowly around the box as he spoke, prodding the wooden pallets with the toes of her black boots. Suddenly, she knelt and slipped her fingers into the lock. The gap where a key might fit yawned quite big enough to fit her hand. But though it was a good idea to pick that monstrous lock with her own deft fingers—one does not get to rule much of anything without good ideas—nothing happened.

  “Not so fast, young lady,” snapped the Baku.

  “I am not young,” shot back the Marquess.

  “And not a lady, either, I expect. But I can’t let you do that.”

  September frowned at him. “We have to get the box open, and the Prince waking, and I don’t mind telling you that sometimes I do manage to get my way, and when I do, I leave a big mess behind, as often as not.”

  “I’m a guardian, girl. It’s my whole job to make sure no one harms or bothers the lad. I eat his dreams, yes, but he’s been down here a good long while, and I have to keep living so I can keep guarding. You wouldn’t have me eat what’s in these jars would you? What if the folks who put up all this rot came back and expected a nice mature bottle? I’d be stomped on, you can bet on it. And I keep him company, in his dreams. I dance with him, when he wants to dance. I shoot dream-pheasants with him, when he wants to see something beautiful fall apart. We talk about our troubles, and I tell him about the world. He’s my friend, even though he’s never once opened his eyes. You don’t even know him at all.”

  “There has to be a key,” September said, ignoring the argument of the Baku.

  “Don’t you have ears? It’s an unopenable box. The whole idea is you can’t open it.” Nod sneered.

  September grinned. “It’s a riddle then! I mean, it must be. Everyone keeps saying unopenable—they never say locked or closed or shut. I shall figure it out, presently. I must only think slantwise and backward, as a proper Bishop should. How do you get something out of a box without opening it?”

  “You frighten it until it gets out of the box on its own if it knows what’s good for it,” purred Iago.

  “You outlaw all closed boxes,” said the Marquess.

  September looked around the cellar. She felt sure that she had all the pieces of the puzzle, if only she could think of the solution. When she’d stood in the terrible, wonderful room full of clocks with the other Marquess, the real one, as she could not help but think of that cruel queen, everything she’d needed to defeat her had been lying around her. She’d only needed to think hard enough, and want it enough. Her eyes fell on more jars, more sacks, old, broken wagon wheels and spools and butter churns. Nothing useful, nothing that even looked like a key or a wedge or a hammer. Anansi’s No-Weight Silk Yarn. Erishkegal’s Black Label Whiskey.

  And then her eyes fell to the earthen floor, illuminated by the ashen light of the hurricane lamp.

  The steamer trunk cast a long, deep, dark shadow.

  “Oh!” said September. “Oh. Marq…Maud, come here. You must come here.” She could still hardly call the shadow-girl in her shadow-petticoats by her poor, small human name. Nevertheless, the Marquess came. Her black hat jingled softly. September pointed at the shadow on the floor. “Don’t you see? You’ve got to open the shadow! It’s not opening the box at all. Whatever a thing does, its shadow does; but perhaps, here in the undermost of the underneath and the furthest down of the Upside-Down, it could work the other way, too, and whatever a shadow does, its thing must do, too.”

  “Why can’t you open the shadow?” said Maud. She seemed suddenly reluctant, as though something in the box might hurt her, though only a moment ago she had had her hand inside the lock.

  “You understand I don’t know how anything works. I only think it might be that this isn’t a shadow like you’re a shadow. It’s not alive. So a shadow has to touch it and move it, because no person can move a shadow, only a shadow can even touch another one. If this is to happen, it must happen all in shadow, or it would count as opening the box. But I’ve gotten very good at thinking these things out! I’ve got you to thank for that in a slantwise way. I wonder if thinking can become muscular, like your magic, if you train it up enough. My thinking has become muscular, like your magic used to be.”

  Nod furrowed his brow. The scarlet stripes on his neck bunched together as he frowned deeper than any tapir has ever frowned.

  “It’s not openable,” he said firmly. “Not any way under the sun. I was told. I was assured. This won’t work.” But his voice trembled, and when Maud, never taking her eyes from September, touched the lid of the box’s shadow, the dream-eating tapir bit her wrist to yank it away.

  The Marquess screamed. All this time, she had been small and cowering, nothing like herself, a shadow of a shadow. But when Nod sunk his squarish teeth into her dark skin, she screamed and hissed—and then suddenly stood. She stared at the creature clamping down on her wrist. He shook his muzzle
to get a better grip on her. Her spine straightened, and September saw her face settle into its old self, a face used to power, to getting her way, and never balking at any single thing.

  “How dare you,” the Marquess snarled. “How dare you put your teeth on me?” She clamped her hand down on his snout and tore him free of her flesh. Shadow-blood welled up and fell. The tip of his elephant-like nose stretched far longer than September would have thought possible. It sought and found her wound as she held him fast. She threw him aside like a doll; his weight shattered a crate stamped with Pluto’s Fancy Mushrooms. Dark soil spilled out. The Marquess reached down and opened the shadow of the box, her eyes blazing. She opened it as herself, as the Marquess in all her fury and beauty and terror. And for a moment, nothing happened.

  Then a clicking and grinding and groaning belched forth from the huge lock. It crumbled as it came open, turning to rusty dust. The lid sprang back—and September looked down on a handsome young man asleep in the steamer trunk, his hands folded over his belly. He wore fine black clothes and a healthy red color in his cheeks. He had brown hair the color of winter branches and a pair of small, furry wolf’s ears just like those September had seen on a certain cartographer long ago.

  “I thought he would wake up,” September said. “I thought opening the box would be enough.”

  The Marquess put her hands over her mouth. Her eyes slid shut and she shook her head, as if she wanted it all to go away. The fire drained out of her and she was Maud again.

  “It can’t be,” she whispered. “It can’t be. How can it be?”

  “Of course it can,” said Nod, shaking Pluto’s Fancy Mushrooms off of his pelt. “I’ve known since I first set eyes on you. I expect you couldn’t have opened the box otherwise—a damnable loophole I’ll be speaking with management about.”

  “I don’t understand,” said September.

  “Neither do I,” answered the Marquess, shadowy tears spilling out of her eyes.

  The dream-eating tapir took her hand in his mouth—gentler this time. He drew her down onto the ground beside him; she sank to her knees. “Listen,” he said, his voice full of rough kindness, the sort an old carouser gives to a young one, or one soldier to another. “Did you ever hear a story where a lady and her fellow desperately wanted a child, but couldn’t have one? And they wanted it so much day in and day out that one morning a peach floated down the river, or a bamboo tree grew near their house, or a clay vessel washed up on the shore, and there was a magical child inside? Those children always do marvelous things—they conquer Ogre Island or marry the moon or bring down a wicked emperor. But those little babies inside the peaches and bamboo and clay have to come from somewhere, you know. And mostly, mostly they come from someone who meant to stay in Fairyland, who meant to be a mother and a knight there, or at least a smashing wizard, but the season turned or a banishing storm struck her ship or…or her clock simply ran out. Ladies with child who fell back into their own worlds and their own child’s bodies, opening their eyes not a moment after they left. The children they were carrying in Fairyland fall down through the earth, and eventually they come to rest down here until some farmer and his wife want a child so terribly much that a peach comes sailing by to claim them. Only this one had all sorts of magic, on account of his parents. His box did not go to some nice tailor or miller. He used the Map Magic in his blood to burrow down as low as any object can go. The burning Wanting Magic he was heir to he used to wait, to wait ages upon ages, and let the peaches and bamboo pass him by. He became an object, one whose dreams touched the roots of everything that grew in Fairyland-Below, until everyone knew who he was, because they’d been eating his beets and onions and drinking his wine, because he slept at the bottom of the world, and his dreams became the water that every root drank. All this time, sleeping and dreaming with me, just waiting. Waiting for his mother to come and wake him up.”

  “That’s why he’s a Prince,” September said, and almost laughed at the strangeness of it. “He’s Queen Mallow’s son. He’s asleep because he’s never been born.”

  “But he still grows, slowly, terribly slowly,” the Baku agreed. “And we’ve got to know each other quite well, in his dreaming.”

  September took the Marquess’s hand. “Come on,” she said. “I know what to do.”

  After all, in fairy tales, there was only one thing to do. In every story with a long sleep and a waking in it. An easy thing, a pretty thing. Standard currency.

  September and Maud bent over the box, over the boy and his shadow. And gently, sweetly, September kissed the Prince. The Marquess, dark, swirling tears flowing down her face, kissed her child’s shadow.

  His eyes opened.

  A pain like the hands of a great clock ticking together burst in September’s chest, and the world went out like a candle.



  In Which Prince Myrrh Receives Some Career Advice, September Receives a Silver Bullet, and the Alleyman Is Unmasked

  The darkness that swallowed September up snapped back just as quickly. She did not feel dizzy or ill at all—but her head still spun and she stumbled a little under the force of sudden noise and light.

  Everyone was yelling very loudly and all at once.

  Prince Myrrh, quite awake and red with passion, shouted out in pain. Iago snarled and hissed at a red hat with two feathers in it floating in the air. The Alleyman had his Woeful Wimble out and was screwing it into the shadow of Prince Myrrh, while a lovely lady all in silver hurled loathing at the shadow of the Marquess. A big, burly man in a broad, black fisherman’s hat and rain slicker cried out for September to snap to, do something, and another lady, this one in a flaming red gown and red scarves and a red war helmet, leapt at the red hat, which bobbed and dodged nimbly.

  September looked down. The pale Goblin’s brooch had gone dark. She had lost an hour, and in that hour, somehow, everything had changed. They all stood on the roof of the Trefoil, with the glittering lights of Tain spreading out below them and winds howling all around. The silver lady sat astride a great tiger, and the black-jacketed man rode a striped and hungry-looking lynx of enormous size. Winds, September’s heart knew before her head had quite caught up.

  The Red Wind feinted and lunged for the invisible Alleyman, catching him with a loud crunch of bodies. Prince Myrrh, finding himself suddenly free, rushed to hide behind his mother. The shadow of the Marquess stepped aside in dismay. He reached out for her, wordless and sorrowful. “I can’t protect you,” the Marquess said desperately. “I have no magic. You should have waited for her. Your real mother, who looks like you and could break them all with a word.”

  The Red Wind and the Alleyman suddenly disappeared over the edge of the roof, and all the shouting stopped.

  “What’s happening?” September cried. “A moment ago we were in my house, or her house—”

  “You followed me, child,” said the Silver Wind. “As you’ve been following me all the while. I am weak and small under the world, for there is no open air to whip me into my full power. But I could be a silver thread for you, flashing on in the dark. It is one of my specialties. The Green Wind loves to spirit away the discontent. I love to pull lost things out of the dark. You followed me across your own cornfield with the Black Wind in my boat. You saw me in the Upside-Down, in the onion-field, and in the cellar at the bottom of the world, a little silver sigh on the stairs when you did not know how to get out. You followed me again, back through the doors until you caught me, and I brought you here, just as fast as wind. The Alleyman was waiting for us,” the Silver Wind added darkly. “You rode on Cymbeline here, the Tiger of Wild Flurries, and you said your name was Glasswort, which I thought very strange, and that you very much enjoyed being a heroine and might look into it as a new career.”

  September had to laugh, even in the midst of the chaos on the roof. I hope you did enjoy it, she thought. Because I do not enjoy at all not knowing what happened to me between the bottom of
the world and the top. And to miss riding a tiger!

  Prince Myrrh looked startled at the sound of her laugh. He stared at her with big, dark, wounded eyes.

  “Hullo, Myrrh,” September said.

  “H…Hullo,” he said softly.

  But though he might have said more, the Red Wind swirled up behind him, her scarves flying. The Black Wind drew a crossbow covered in burls and blackberries and shot just beneath the red hat, which seemed now to be in the Red Wind’s grip, now to be gripping her. The arrow winged too far to the left and missed. He fired once more, and this one connected, driving home beneath the hat, but too far beneath and off center to be a fatal shot. Still, the cap crumpled to the roof, and the Red Wind stood over it, her face blazing.

  Where the Alleyman fell, a stone knocked loose. Beneath it, a little plaque gleamed. September and the Winds crowded close around to read it.









  “But I know those words!” September cried. “I’ve been seeing them everywhere!”

  The Black Wind nodded. “The Rules are older and deeper than groundwater. They are always in motion, always making themselves understood and obeyed. They are always following, always a part of the very land. They are Physicks—not Queer nor Quiet nor Questing, but pure Law. Halloween destroyed all the postings, but she couldn’t destroy the Rules. And here in Tain, the center of everything, she couldn’t even smash all the words themselves. This one, loyal public service board stayed whole. And haven’t you been following them, even if you didn’t know it? Haven’t you paid and paid, haven’t you found things in threes, haven’t you been tempted in your need?”