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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 6

Catherynne M. Valente

  September could not decide how to knock. It had come upon her suddenly and frozen her to the spot. She had never thought much about knocking before. But, knowing what lay on the other side of that door, she could not decide whether one decisive knock was more monarchical, or a polite two raps, one after the other, or perhaps three casual whacks—how did she knock at home? How did normal people knock? What if they could hear in her knock that she was just a human girl, not even so much as the Spinster anymore, just a terribly quick and easy midnight snack for a Rex Tyrannosaur?

  September read the sign hanging on the door a few more times while she considered the question. It had been written in red pen on the back of a takeaway menu from one of Pandemonium’s more elegant noodle houses. There seemed to have been some disagreement about the rules.

  The Once and Future Club

  Est. 1000 Years Ago 2000 Years Ago None of Your Business About Two Hours Ago

  You Must Have Ruled with an Iron Golden Velvet SOME KIND OF FIST for at Least 5 Years 1 Year a Solid Week to Enter

  No Casual Dress, Cussing, Dairy Products, or Commoners Allowed

  The Watchful Dress shivered and wriggled and writhed, shaking itself out of a shift and into a lovely long tangerine-colored evening gown with a green sash. It had read the dress code instantly, and knew what was expected of it. The emerald smoking jacket felt it was already quite formal, thank you very much.

  Do Queens even knock at all? September supposed they didn’t. All doors were open to a Queen. All doors belonged to the Queen. And besides, this was her house now. She shouldn’t be any more fearful of it than of her own bedroom door. But she had not ruled for a solid week yet. Not even a solid day. But surely some exceptions must be made for the current monarch? In the end, though her manners shuddered and hid behind her heart, September turned the knob and entered the drawing room without announcing herself in the least.

  She half expected the Once and Future Club to be as crowded and noisy as the grand hall had been, with Kings and Queens hanging out of every window and dueling over dessert. But a pleasant, hushed, and half-empty room greeted her instead. Several lounge chairs and sofas had been hauled in from other parts of the Briary, for a Tyrannosaur has little need of footstools and tastefully plush pillows. Dinosaurs do, however, have great need of high ceilings and room to thrash a tail about. September could hardly see the chandelier; it hung so far up in the shadowy rafters that it looked like a distant moon. Someone had set up a slapdash bar on one end of the enormous parlor. Fringed lamps made little pools of soft, friendly light here and there, polished end tables hoisted drinks and sweets, and there was even a hastily hung portrait over the fireplace, slightly skew in its heavy silver frame. September recognized it—the portrait of Queen Mallow she had seen in the grand hall the first time she had ever set foot in the Briary. Only someone had painted Fairy wings onto her and pasted antlers cut out of another portrait onto her golden hair. The whole place looked like an illustration from an old detective novel involving men who smoked elaborate pipes.

  September recognized several club members: There sat Madame Tanaquill, smoking a cigar in a black leather armchair, her iron dress swapped out for a graceful gown the color of lime juice. She turned and whispered something to old Charlie Crunchcrab, who’d dug up his old Ferryman’s peacoat and shoved his wings through it once more. He glared at September, but neither of them said a word to her. Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord, preened on a mahogany perch. The Headmistress bustled about, clearing glasses and plates, her stern cobalt dress still buttoned all the way up to her throat. Pinecrack, the Moose-Khan, drank from an elegant copper soaking tub full of mulled wine while Cutty Soames, Captain of the Coblynows, straightened his cravat in a long mirror. Curdleblood, the Dastard of Darkness, stoked the fire with a long, cruel-looking poker. Thrum, their host, the Rex Tyrannosaur, stood gallantly by the fireplace, his teeth and green scales glinting in the ruddy light. He was deep in conversation with a large panther.

  “Iago!” September exclaimed, louder than she meant to.

  The panther turned toward her and purred. He padded across the floor of the Once and Future Club. The Rex Tyrannosaur looked much insulted, and went to fetch ice.

  “Hullo, September,” rumbled Iago, the Panther of Rough Storms. He jostled her shoulder with his great dark head. “I presume you know everyone?”

  September wanted to hug him, but she was not sure it would come out right. You never could be sure, with Iago. “But you’ve never ruled Fairyland. How can you be a member?”

  “Cats go where they like. Besides, I was thinking of racing myself on Thursday. I do love a good lope. I like to get a good whiff of my competition before I commit to anything.”

  “You? You want to be King of Fairyland? I thought you belonged to the Marquess.”

  “I belong to no one. I let her stroke me when I was in the mood for scheming. I carried the Red Wind when I wanted to stretch my legs. I hunted cloud-mice and pounced upon lightning bolts and enjoyed my own company when I couldn’t stand either of them. A cat’s love gets bored easily. But we are naturally suited to leadership. Most people obey us without even having to be hissed at. Would you like a drink?”

  “HELLO,” said the First Stone, who had installed himself behind the bar, fixing drinks with more grace than you might think a boulder could muster.

  However, few seemed interested in his concoctions. The First Stone pushed a brandy snifter at September. She peered inside. Water so cold it had begun to turn to ice at the edges, ancient gray moss, several small fern and snail fossils, and a half-burnt stick still smoking at the tip. The First Stone beamed at her with his rough half-hewn face, clearly feeling that he had given her a great gift worthy of a Queen. Perhaps these had been the most precious things in the world once upon a time, in the primeval age before even dinosaurs: water, the first baby plants and animals, fire. But Madame Tanaquill and Cutty Soames clearly preferred brandy in their brandy snifters. September sipped it politely.

  “Mmmm!” she said, even though it tasted mostly like very wet dirt and unfathomable secrets from before the invention of dreams. The First Stone beamed even more broadly.

  “So you’re her,” said the Headmistress, eyeing September appraisingly. “I am the Headmistress. I reigned eleven centuries ago, before I was deposed by the bint with the cigar over there. I was very good at it—I am sure I would have much to teach you.”

  “Oh yes, terribly good,” cooed Madame Tanaquill, seeming to take notice of September for the first time. “Go right ahead. Teach little September all about the Caged Wood.” The Prime Minister of Fairyland glided across the drawing room to September’s side. Her lime-juice gown trailed invitingly behind her; her violet hair floated round her head in a delicate bob. She draped one long arm around September’s shoulders. “My friend here put each and every Fairy into an iron cage and hung us up on the boughs of a babbling baobab forest. She left us there for a hundred years with only the kindness of crows to feed us—and crows are vicious little cretins, you know.”

  “Oy!” squawked Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord. “I’m right here!”

  “Fairies were rather shy and curious creatures before she got ahold of us,” Madame Tanaquill continued, ignoring Hushnow entirely. “A hundred years of listening to babbling baobabs and begging crumbs from crows will drive even a doctor mad.”

  “Now, that’s a lie,” snorted Pinecrack, the Moose-Khan. “How do you fit such a big lie in your mouth, Tansy? She put you in cages because you and yours couldn’t stop stealing the wings off a dragonfly’s back and the horns off a goat and the tusks off an elephant! Let me tell you, kid, tusks looked a thousand kinds of stupid glued to frogs.”

  “How dare you,” Tanaquill hissed. “How dare you call me a frog? You’re nothing but a ruined horse.”

  And the Prime Minister of Fairyland flicked her fingers at Pinecrack. A sizzle of ultraviolet bubbles snapped, popped—and the Moose-Khan’s antlers turned to ash
, falling from his head and into his bathtub of wine in a fine gray spray. Thrum roared in reptile rage.

  “Lovely. Lovely behavior. Ever been bitten by a moose? I know how you like new experiences.” Pinecrack turned on her, his eyes gone molten blue with hatred and rage.

  “Put them back or you’ll have my cutlass for a spine,” snarled Cutty Soames, who had crept up on her, even in a pair of marvelous high-heeled boots covered in shells and jewels. September had seen him moving on Tanaquill, but had kept her mouth shut.

  “Come now,” sighed Curdleblood, tamping a long black pipe. “This is unworthy. One does not behave this way in a gentlemen’s club. We agreed to refrain from magic and other weapons while the club is in session. I know some of us are very cranky, having only recently come back from the dead, but reanimation is no excuse. Tanaquill, put his antlers back. September, good evening. I’m pleased you accepted our invitation. Welcome to the Society of Tyrants.”

  “I’m not a tyrant,” protested September.

  Madame Tanaquill smirked. “Only because you don’t know how yet.” She flicked her fingers again and two bony nubs appeared at Pinecrack’s temples, growing quickly into new antlers. It did not look like a comfortable process.

  “I’m not a tyrant because I don’t want to be a tyrant.”

  “Who wants to be a tyrant?” asked the Headmistress, sipping a glass of champagne. “I certainly didn’t. Did you, Hushnow? You, Cutty? No? And yet—Hushnow stole the sun and held it hostage. Cutty Soames stole the three most precious things from every house in Fairyland. Yes, the Headmistress put all the Fairies in cages—but Pinecrack outlawed magic except for those in the Cervidae family—that’s anybody who’s part deer, love. Hushnow forced all of Fairyland to grow wings whether they liked it or not, Thrum ordered anyone herbivorous to present themselves at the palace every morning for convenient devouring. And I expect you know about Madame Tanaquill already. Even our quiet friend Mr. Q. Humdrum there cast a terrible spell so that everyone could only repeat the day he came to power over and over, so that nothing would ever change and he would never have to suffer surprise. And yes, me too. Fairyland was such a disorderly place when I deposed the Happiest Princess and ascended the throne. I had to make it better. I had to make it right. You see, sweetheart, nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks: Today I shall be a wicked murderous tyrant and crush something nice under my boot. It just happens to you. Like catching a cold. It starts the first time someone says no to you and goes on and on until everyone is saying no and saying it so loud you can’t sleep for the din.”

  “What about him?” September asked, pointing at the First Stone, who had just finished adjusting a paper umbrella on a goblet of mud.

  “The Stone?” the Headmistress asked, nonplussed.

  “Yes, the Stone. Was he a tyrant?”

  “I don’t suppose there was anyone to tyrannize, except ammonites and will-o’-the-wisps.”

  “HELLO,” said the First Stone amiably.

  “See? He wasn’t a tyrant, so it’s possible not to steal and crush and outlaw and cast terrible spells. Not that I shall have time to do any of those things. I’ve only got two more days as Queen. Which I think is awfully unfair. You all got to be in charge as long as you could hold on to it. I still don’t understand why I can’t just keep on being Queen.”

  “I thought you didn’t want it,” said Madame Tanaquill coolly.

  September’s cheeks burned. “I didn’t want to do my mathematics homework back home. Or mend the fence or mind the chickens. But I did it anyway. Just because a person doesn’t want to do a thing doesn’t mean they ought to shirk.” The words came out before September could stop them. She tripped and fell into honesty at the worst times, and came up with the truth all over her dress. The crown felt suddenly warm on her head.

  “It’s hardly a usual situation,” the Elephanta said.

  “Be grateful, girlie,” huffed Cutty Soames. “Fairyland likes you. She’s doing you a favor. Because, if not for the Derby, one of us would probably have killed you before you even got to meet our Jack. I think Titania already had a plan involving a mud puddle.”

  “Where is Titania?” September asked, choosing to ignore the threats of a goblin in a pirate coat. “And all the others?”

  “We didn’t invite everyone,” Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord, crooned. “Only people who’ve decided to race already. Oh, and of course, only people we can stand to share the air with. Goldmouth is a brute and the Knapper would murder us all inside a minute and never spill his drink. Titania’s halfway to Buyan by now. She had enough of Queening before Tansy there was even born. Oh! How she and her man used to fight! Sank half of Fairyland underground by the time they got themselves tuckered out. A lot of us feel that way. Getting cast down by some young upstart once was quite enough.”

  “So this is it? You’re the only ones racing?”

  “Two more days, child,” said Curdleblood softly. “Everyone must decide in their own time.”

  “Well, I oughtn’t to be here at all, then,” said September, setting her snifter down. “I haven’t decided yet. Whether I’m going to race in the Derby.”

  This caused some uproar among the members of the Once and Future Club.

  “See?” bellowed Charlie Crunchcrab. “See? She doesn’t even want it. She’s a disgrace! Why did the crown pick her when she’s just a little nobody with no ambition?”

  “Come off it, Chuck,” Madame Tanaquill snorted. “You hired those two kids to find a way for you to abdicate. We all know it. You didn’t want it, either.”

  “Well, I do now. I didn’t abdicate! I meant to, yes, but I didn’t! The crown was taken away from me. There’s nothing like a robbery to sharpen your priorities.”

  “And I didn’t depose you on purpose, Charles!” snapped September. “I don’t know why you’re so cross with me. It’s not like you were doing such a marvelous job at it, you know.”

  The Panther of Rough Storms interrupted them. His golden eyes gleamed in the lamplight. “I’m sorry, September, but you have to race. Hasn’t anyone explained it to you? The Derby won’t work if you don’t compete. You cannot abdicate, remember. We must take Fairyland from you. You are the Queen; you have the crown. It is only half a Race. The other half is a Hunt. And I suspect we will end up with a Duel as our third half before it’s all done. It’s hardly a Derby without Duels. We are Racing one another. We are searching for the Heart of Fairyland. We will Duel to determine the strongest. But we are Hunting you. You are the fox, and we are the hounds.”

  “Well, that is the oddest way to run a government I have ever heard of,” September said stubbornly. “It’s just absurd to elect a leader with a race or a chase or a hunt for a heart!”

  “What’s an ‘elect’?” asked Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord.

  “It’s how we decide who’s in charge where I come from. Everyone in the whole country votes for the President and the man who gets the most votes wins.”

  A chorus of gasps went up from the club. Madame Tanaquill held a handkerchief over her mouth.

  “That’s ghastly!” cried the Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord.

  “What if everyone chooses the wrong man?” gawped Pinecrack. “And if it’s always a man and never a moose or an octopus or a spriggan I think that’s just obscene, and prejudiced, and you ought to leave right now.”

  September frowned. “Well, sometimes people do. But it’s only for a few years, and then there’s another election.”

  The Rex Tyrannosaur looked nauseous. “Quite, quite horrid,” he whispered.

  “Yes, I think we’d all better collect ourselves,” said the Headmistress. “Nothing like that could ever happen here, of course. Perish the thought.”

  “Well, it could, you know…,” began September.

  “Perish the thought!” the Headmistress roared. She cleared her throat and composed herself, wiping her hands on her skirt.

  “Please.” September held
up her hands. “I didn’t mean to offend. Let me ask a question instead: Why do you want to rule Fairyland? Why are any of you so riled up to get the crown? It seems like a bit of a raw deal to me, if I’m to be honest. Assassinations and intrigue and eating the same thing for every meal in case a Greatvole comes to tea and on top of it all you can’t ever quit, even if you want to. Yes, I understand it’s devilish fun to be in charge of things and tell everyone what to do, but I can think of at least three things that I like better! And one of them is being left well enough alone!”

  “Well, it’s hard to get anyone to let you eat them if you’re not King,” said the Rex Tyrannosaur thoughtfully.

  “If you’re on top, you can make certain you and yours never have to live in a cage again,” Madame Tanaquill said through clenched teeth. “And, even better, you can fill those cages up again with everyone who ever hurt you.”

  “Or, if certain folk are gobbling up the whole world for themselves, you can stop them so there’s something left for everyone else,” snarled Charlie Crunchcrab.

  “It’s the biggest heist there is.” Cutty Soames sighed dreamily. “The big score, the last hit. When you’re King, you’ve won.”

  Tanaquill couldn’t leave it at one answer. She tapped her glass with one long fingernail. “You can make the whole world look just like you, and never have to look at anything frightening or different ever again.”

  “And when you see something dreadful, something that needs mending, something that cries out in pain, you can fix it. You can make it right and no one can stand in the way of your rightness,” the Headmistress said softly.

  “Yes, that’s the main thing,” crowed Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord. “No one can stand in your way. No one can talk back to you or call you a stupid crow or make you feel small ever, ever again. You get to feel big forever.”