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The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, Page 7

Catherynne M. Valente

  September wondered quietly whether a Duke was very much like a Marquess and what in the world a Vicereine was to begin with. This Ell wouldn’t take her to a wicked Duke in a wicked house, would he? She simply could not be sure.

  The whipping violet whiskers on Ell’s dark muzzle quivered with delight. “No, I mustn’t spoil it for you! The other Ell wouldn’t; he’d wink and wait, because that’s how you make a surprise, and so I shall, too.” A-Through-L winked one great, hopeful black eye at her and sped up his chicken-like gait. Quite soon they had reached the porch. September could hear a bubbling mix of murmuring and laughing and clinking inside.

  Ell knocked his shadowy head gaily against the door of the Samovar, exactly like the other Ell had once knocked into the trunk of a persimmon tree to shake down breakfast. From within a rich, musical voice trilled, “Recite the Periodic Table of Teatime, in correct order, with Elemental Symbols, please.”

  A-Through-L sat back on his handsome black haunches, shut his eyes, and said: “Hot Tea (H), Herbal Tea (He), Lingonberry Scones (Li), Berry Jam (Be), Butter (B), Cream (C), Napoleons (N), Orange Marmalade (O), Frosting (F), Nettle Tea (Ne)…”

  “Well enough, well enough!” The voice laughed. A lock and bolt slid open with a merry ring and the door to the Samovar swung open to admit them.

  A plume of fragrant steam whistled out of the silver doorway. Out of the mist emerged a handsome, round, brown-cheeked face framed in curling brown and green leaves. The leaves gathered together into fat rolls and a little ponytail tied with linen string like an old-fashioned wig. His eyes shone warm and amber and liquid; he wore a fabulous suit of hundreds and hundreds of tiny white flowers. Two crisp, sweet-smelling teabag epaulets told September that this was most likely the Duke. He beamed down at her.

  A-Through-L did a Wyvernish curtsy and introduced her. “May I present my friend September of Nebraska? September, the Duke of Teatime, and his wife, the Vicereine of Coffee.”

  As the tea steam cleared, the Vicereine seemed to appear out of mist beside the Duke, though of course she had been there all along. Her dark brown hair piled up in a complicated crown not unlike the golden bouquet on the roof of the Samovar. Red berries and green, unripe coffee beans, studded her curls like gems. She wore a shimmering hoopskirt of a creamy, swirling caramel color, with a single black bean at her beautiful brown throat. All around their feet scampered children with the same rosy brown cheeks and berries or leaves in their hair. Behind them all the great belly of the Samovar opened up before September’s eyes as a curtain of steam wafted toward the ceiling and the chimney.

  A great party whirled within. Luxurious couches of every color lined the walls, and little samovars stood between them, exact copies of the house in red or green or purple. On every couch lounged a well-dressed lady or fellow. Some were shadows and some were not. September saw a handsome old man with deep red-violet skin whose clothes looked like the iron-bound slats of an oak barrel. A girl leaned in to whisper something in his ear—she was completely and utterly white from her sleek, brilliant hair (out of which poked two neat little cow horns) to her frothy, creamy lace dress to her pearly feet. Everyone laughed and talked in elegant voices, their accents crisp and sharp, like movie actors when they played someone very fine. A boy with bright blue hair, a suit of silver bubbles, and a collar of huge jade stones like olives danced on tables swathed in velvet. A big, happy girl with golden skin and golden eyes and long hair that was not hair, but stalks of wheat and curly sprigs of green, played the spoons in a dress of deep brown and vermillion and gilded yellow. Others piped on penny whistles or sang snatches of songs. A smartly dressed, spike-haired lady-gnome played a black cello made of raven’s feathers so fast September thought the pair of them might soon take flight. The Duke and the Vicereine were undeniably not-shadows. But several dark shapes spun around the ceiling in a dizzying reel. The shadow of a mermaid carefully dipped her inky tail into the topmost glass of a champagne fountain, turning all the fizzing falls of wine black, one by one by one.

  “Most welcome, Maid September!” cried the Vicereine, and September recognized her musical voice as the one that had asked for the password at the door. She kissed September’s cheeks; a lingering scent of spice remained as she pulled away. Her children looked eagerly at September with bright, interested gazes. “These are my darlings—Darjeeling, Kona, Matcha, Peaberry, and of course, the pride of my pot, the Littlest Earl.”

  Darjeeling, the oldest girl, wore a flapper dress of thin, glittery silver chains, dozens of them, each ending in ball-strainers full of tea leaves. The Littlest Earl, youngest and smallest of them all, stopped scampering and smacked the ball-strainers of his sister’s dress to watch them whack against each other like abacus beads. His hair was all a tangle of thin black leaves pinned into curls like his father’s, with thin bright orange rinds and wrinkled mauve flower petals. He pointed at September with one fierce finger.

  “It’s the Queen! The Queen’s come to see me! Has she come to give me presents?”

  The Duke and Vicereine blushed with embarrassment and hushed their son.

  “But she is the Queen!” insisted the Littlest Earl. “Look at the mole on her cheek! And the pretty blue stripes in her hair!”

  “What have we said about shadows?” admonished the Duke sternly. “You mustn’t embarrass her that way.”

  The Littlest Earl squinted at his father. He did not seem convinced.

  “So she’s the Queen’s shadow, then,” the child said with finality.

  “The other way ’round,” said September with a gentle smile, but this idea seemed to frighten the Earl terribly, and he hid behind his mother’s skirt.

  The Duke of Teatime spread his hands. “It’s a difficult thing to explain to children, you understand! The shadows have been coming down so thick and fast we can hardly keep up with the ethics of it all. But now that the boy brings it up, what does that make your rank, my dear? Certainly you are not a Queen, but I’m hard-pressed to say you’re not nobility of some sort…”

  “Oh, no, Sir, I’m not in the least noble! I’m not a…a maid, either. I’m just September, that’s all.”

  But the Duke was already deep in thought, tapping his temple with a ringed forefinger. He mused while leading the troupe of them further into the massive, crowded central hall of the Samovar. “Rank is defined by one’s relationship to the Queen, so naturally you’ve got to be called something. Or else how should we know how to treat you? We might commit some grave breach of etiquette! Just September won’t do at all. We could call you the Princess of Nebraska. That might sum up the speed of things nicely.”

  The Duke shooed a pack of sleek black dog-shadows off a cerulean couch so that Ell could sink onto his haunches and lap at a barrel of fine, hot tea. September perched on a golden chaise and accepted a black porcelain cup from the Lady Grey. But the cup was empty. The child called Matcha, whose long green hair floated around her head as though it was underwater, waited with several lacquered teapots balanced in her hands.

  “Our family supplies all of Fairyland with tea and coffee,” said the Vicereine with clear pride. “Morning and Teatime are our Duchies. Without us, no tea plant would bloom, no coffee cherry would grow, no pot would whistle, no leaf would steep. Our families were once savage enemies. How vicious and cruel were the Wars of Cream and Sugar! Hardly a soul lived who did not take a side. I met my husband on the battlefield, in my Roasted Armor, my Clove Mace held high over his head—but I saw the gentle face beneath that Oolong Helm, and I was lost. I offered him my hand instead of my blows, and the houses joined. Heralds trumpeted the Afternoon Treaty! Our marriage was celebrated with full cups all round!”

  The Duke wiped away tears of memory. “Please, precious bean, we must determine her title before we proceed further, or I shall become terribly uncomfortable. This is a Royalist House, after all. And we cannot serve her until it’s settled! Imagine if I were to pour you the blend we call the Redcap’s Ruby Whip, and you were not a Princess a
t all but a Viscountess! It would taste foul to you, and you would have bad dreams.”

  “Husband, she may prefer something stronger,” the Vicereine interrupted haughtily. “But, of course, if you were really and truthfully a Baroness, and I brewed the Grootslang’s Plunder for you, with its bite of cardamom and cayenne? Why, it’d taste like licking a penny, and you’d develop a nasty case of wanderlust.”

  September had only had coffee once, when her Aunt Margaret had snuck her a sip while her mother wasn’t looking. It tasted bitter, but wild and strange. She rather wanted to taste it again. “Why do I have to be anything? It’s only a cup of tea. And I’m not the Princess of Nebraska, I’ll tell you that for certain.”

  A-through-L laughed. It was almost the same laugh September remembered. A little darker, a little heavier. The shadow of a laugh. The Vicereine of Coffee sat daintily on the arm of the golden chaise.

  “Did anyone ever read your tea leaves, back home where you live?” she asked. A green berry came loose from her hair and rolled lazily down to the shining floor where Kona picked it up and flicked it at one of his sisters.

  “No,” September admitted. “Though my mother used to pretend she could do it. She put a scarf around her hair and peered at the cup and said I was destined to fly to the moon or be the captain of a beautiful golden sailing ship.” September blinked and laughed a little. “I suppose I was the captain of a sailing ship, if you look at it sideways!”

  “That’s the only way to look at things, I always say,” propounded the Duke. “Slantways, sideways, and upside down.”

  The Vicereine put her brown hand on September’s arm. “Tea leaves are nothing to the reading of coffee grounds, if you want the unvarnished truth. Coffee is a kind of magic you can drink.”

  “My caffeinated bride! You malign me!” the Duke protested. “Tea is no less high enchantment! My family are all great and learned wizards of tea, and our children will carry on the family lore,” he assured September.

  “They will sing the Carols of Wakeful Working!” insisted the Vicereine. “They will cast the Jittery Runes!”

  “Not before the Glamours of Soothing Souls!” roared the Duke. “Not until they have mastered the Calm Crafts!”

  Darjeeling kicked the carpet with a dainty foot. “I’m rotten at Turkish, you know,” she confessed.

  Peaberry tossed her nutmeg curls. “Well, I loathe the Lemon Sabbat,” she sniffed at her sister.

  “They will know both,” the Vicereine said, laughing and holding up her hands for peace. “You see how it all went so wrong! In the old days, the Robust Cavalry and the Chamomile Brigades tore each other to bits. We are Wet Magicians, all of us royal bodies. We are loyal to our bailiwicks. We’ve lived in Fairyland-Below since before they hung the stars up, and we’ll be here after they burn out. After all, coffee plants come up from under the ground, and yes—tea plants, too! We’re the ones who coax them along, who tell them who to be when they grow up strong. There’s loads of us down here. That’s Baron of Port.” She gestured to the man with the violet skin. “That is the Waldgrave of Milk with the horns and the pale hair, the Pharaoh of Beer with the wheaty hair, the Dauphin of Gin dancing up on his table. And the dark lady reclining with cacao seeds around her waist is the powerful and sought-after Chocolate Infanta. We practice our Wet Magic, deep and mystic and difficult, hard to hold in the hand but sweet in the belly. Coffee is the best of them, obviously. It’s a drink that’s a little bit alive—that’s how it makes you feel so alive and awake.”

  Matcha tugged her mother’s shimmering skirt. “Tea is alive, too, Mummy. That’s why we have tea parties. So the teas can play together, and tell each other secrets.”

  The Vicereine picked up her green-haired girl in her arms. “Yes, of course, my little leaf. And when you speak of tea or coffee or wine or any of our liquid spells, the drink must be matched perfectly with the drinker to get the best effect. If the match is a good one, the coffee will get to know you a little while you drink it, to know you and love you and cheer for your victories, lend you bravery and daring. The tea will want you to do well, will stand guard before your fear and sorrow. Afternoon tea is really a kind of séance. And at the end of it all, the grounds—or leaves!—left in the bottom of your little cup are not really prophecies but your teatime trying to talk to you, to tell you something secret and dear, just between the two of you. So my husband is being a bit boorish about it, because he is a Duke, and Dukes are the wild boars of the noble kingdom, but he only wants to know what tea is your tea.”

  September thought about her pink-and-yellow teacups in the sink back home, and how she had hated them and their slimy clumps of leaves. She felt poorly on it now, thinking of tea as a thing alive, which wanted only the best for her.

  “I don’t want to be a Princess,” she said finally. “You can’t make me be one.” She knew very well what became of Princesses, as Princesses often get books written about them. Either terrible things happened to them, such as kidnappings and curses and pricking fingers and getting poisoned and locked up in towers, or else they just waited around till the Prince finished with the story and got around to marrying her. Either way, September wanted nothing to do with Princessing. If you have to mess about with that sort of thing, she reasoned, it’s better to be a Queen, anyway. But the thought of a Queen made her think of Halloween, and her hand tightened on her cup.

  “I suppose we could just call you September, Girl of the Topside. That doesn’t sound very grand, though.” The Duke scrunched up his long nose.

  “What about a Knight?” suggested Ell shyly.

  September brightened for a moment, but the memory of her shadow still hung in her mind, and she slumped again. “I used to be a Knight,” she said. “It’s true. But a whole year has passed. And I haven’t a sword anymore, not even a Spoon, and I haven’t a quest, except for a hope of fixing things that I broke myself, and questing is really about fixing things that other people break. I don’t know that I am a Knight any longer. A Knight should feel triumphant about their adventures, and I suppose I do, but I also feel strange and sorry because of all that happened after.”

  “It doesn’t trouble me to tell you,” said the Vicereine, in the tone mothers use to talk children out of too-expensive toys, “Knights are a dreadful sort, when you get to know them. Oh, in storybooks it’s all shining armor and banners, but when it comes to it, they’re blunt weapons, and always wielded by someone else.”

  “Perhaps…” An odd idea was forming in September’s heart like tea slowly steeping. “Perhaps, if I am to look at everything slantways and sideways and upside down, as the Duke says, and I’m not a Knight any longer, I could be a Bishop instead. In chess, Bishops go diagonally. They’re surprise attackers, and you hardly ever see them coming.”

  “I feel a Bishop ought to have a Bishopric—that’s like a Duchy for priestly sorts. And a really spectacular hat.” The Duke of Teatime pointed out a small teapot from his daughter’s collection, a steel-blue one with etchings of clouds and winds upon it. “But you are closer to the Hollow Queen than any of us, and I expect that earns you the right to name yourself. September, Fairy Bishop of Nebraska, for you I steep the Crocodile’s Long Dream.”

  “Nonsense,” snapped the Vicereine, who clearly felt she had been patient enough. She chose a deep-red pot from the lot, with roaring tigers engraved upon it. “She does not need sleepiness or gentleness! She needs to wake up, the brightest and hottest waking that has ever rubbed its eyes. For her, I brew the Elephant’s Fiery Heart!”

  The Duke held his hand to his mouth as though he meant to blow a kiss, and blow he did, but instead of kisses, indigo-and holly-colored tea leaves spun up from his palm, dancing through the air toward September’s cup. The Vicereine made an outraged noise and snapped her fingers. Out of her hand whirled flaming rose-and tangerine-colored coffee beans, which ground themselves to powder in midair and out-raced the tea to hover over the little cup, scorching the blue leaves as it shot by them. Matcha sh
rugged and decided for her mother, pouring scalding water from the red pot over the glowing grounds and offered cream or sugar. September took both. The coffee bloomed black with a crimson froth, and in its depths garnet flames flickered. The cream made strange pink clouds in the brew, and when it was done, a slim strand of silk spooled up and out of the coffee, as though it had really been tea all along, draping over the side of the cup and growing an exquisite parchment tag, which read: WHAT GOES DOWN MUST COME UP. The Duke smirked.

  “The Sibyl had a teabag like this!” she exclaimed.

  The Vicereine nodded. “Our blends go everywhere, even to Fairyland-Above.”

  September drank. A huge, thundering warmth filled her from bottom to top. Even the roots of her hair went hot and seemed to crackle.

  “You know, September,” said Ell, who seemed content to observe as her own Wyvern had rarely been in Fairyland-Above. He rested his enormous dark chin on her shoulder. “Bishop begins with B, and Chess begins with C, and I know a few things concerning the history of Bishops…”

  But Ell did not get a chance to tell her what he knew about it, for a great ruckus went up from one of the other tables, upsetting teacups and saucers. The various music that had tinked and plinked lazily burst out in a sparkling cloud of noise, then skittered about, looking for the rhythm again. The Ducal family, Ell, and September all turned to see what was the matter. All of them saw what September saw, but only September gasped and covered her mouth with her hands.

  The shadow of a Marid was dancing on one of the tables with the Dauphin of Gin, throwing his long, inky arms up in the air, kicking his smoky legs in a graceful pattern. His charcoal topknot came loose and flew wildly, whipping in time to the gnome’s quick cello and the Pharaoh of Beer’s clacking coffee spoons. Swirling electric-blue spirals moved over his skin, and September knew immediately that it was Saturday, her Marid, even as he leapt into the air and boldly spun three times as she could not imagine her Marid daring to try.