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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 10

Catherynne M. Valente


  Oddson steamed on.

  “Deftly explanated, Mr. Blue! Any Cheating, Rule-Trampling, Duel-Tampering, or Belligerence Toward Myself will earn you a visit to the Penalty Box! Which brings me to my last invention: Halfway Through the Derby, Everyone Shall Switch Places According to Whatever Scheme I, Ajax Oddson, Deem to Be Most Hilarious at That Time. That is all! And I must inform you that everyone else has finished talking to me and seems quite anxious to begin! Are you ready to meet your steed and hit the road? Shall I fetch the starting catapult?”

  September looked to Saturday and Ell. They’d been cooped up in the cellar so long. It would feel wonderful just to run and run and run together. And who knew? Perhaps at the end of all that running, she might still have her crown.

  “We’re ready, Mr. Oddson,” she said firmly.

  The Racemaster reached into his left sleeve, covered in zigzagging golden lines. He drew out a little catapult—and as he drew it out it grew and grew until it was bigger than Ajax himself, made all of obsidian and wolf-bone. The pocket overflowed with bizarre and mysterious objects, some colorful, some drab, some large and covered in spikes, some soft and small and well-worn.

  “Ladies and lads and gentle-wyverns, Queens and Questers! I have packed my personal catapult full of items you would find incredibly useful in the running of a Derby, from Seven League Boots to salamander cloaks to Belinda Cabbage’s new and untested Geographickal Engine! I have selected these objects with love and care and malice aforethought, to protect and guide you on your way. Let the Cantankerous Derby begin!”

  A dagger flashed in Ajax Oddson’s hand. He slashed through the Sauterelle’s ropes. The catapult sprang forward and fired all those wonderful, useful things into the sky. They soared over the spires of Pandemonium and far away, so high and far that September lost sight of them long before they landed. The invisible horns sounded, fireworks exploded over the Plaited Plaza, raining confetti down into the Mallow and Goldmouth fountain. The Gabardine Gate raised up slowly, showing the road out of Pandemonium and the sparkling waves of the Barleybroom river.

  The Racemaster seemed to deflate like a hot air balloon. His silks drooped to the ground, suddenly empty. His crisp points started to come loose, his cheeks and eyebrows unfolding and untying until there was nothing left but a great pile of old flags on the patchwork cobblestones. But no—not only a pile of flags. From the depths of all that fine, painted fabric, they heard several snorts, a furious squeal, and an indignant roar. Then the loud, horrid rip of silk tearing in half, and then in half again. Something was trying to come out from inside the rags that had, only a moment ago, been Ajax Oddson, Blue Hen Island’s greatest student. September’s stomach went cold. She remembered Tanaquill’s dreadful horse, Hushnow’s gargantuan Roc, Curdleblood’s hideous shade of black.

  “Get off!” snarled the silk-heap. “Get off me, you nasty old bedsheet! I’ll bite you stupid! THIS IS THE WORST THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED I HATE YOU AND I HOPE YOU COME APART IN THE WASH.”

  An orange spike snagged through a flag showing a noble crest with polar bears rampant and a hobgoblin with spectacles on. Then another spike. Then a pair of chomping, gnashing, vicious teeth.

  Wombat teeth.

  Blunderbuss burst out of Ajax’s racing flags, shredding them to stitches and tatters.

  “TA-DA!” she bellowed. “Did you hear those snobs calling me a steed?”

  CHAPTER VII

  EVERYTHING HAS A HEART

  In Which No One Is a Steed, Cross-Referencing Proves Unhelpful, and A-Through-L Proves Himself a Librarian in Good Standing

  September grabbed Saturday’s hand. Her whole body shook with the need to go, go, go, run, faster, get ahead of the pack, find a shortcut, pound the road. The Marid looked up and down the Barleybroom for a ferry, for the other racers, for anything the catapult might have dropped. But the scrap-yarn wombat was in no such hurry. Blunderbuss stomped up and down the shores of the windy river. She snatched at the chinstrap of her grass helmet and tore it off, kicking it along the sunny grass like a ball that had greatly disappointed her.

  “A steed! Me! A mount! And this is the second time, too! That dull battle-ax Tanaquill put me in a stable, if you can believe it. A stable! As if I’m nothing but a pitchfork! Don’t I talk? Don’t I know my multiplication tables? Don’t I have my own tender ambitions? Don’t I bite with conviction? I busted on through an apartment wall into Fairyland just the same as anybody else. I am not a Chevrolet! I am a stupendous splendid fantastic amazing combat wombat. I am! I’ll steed them!”

  A-Through-L stomped beside her, his orange eyes filled with sympathy. She was only somewhat smaller than the Wyverary—the ground trembled a little as they squashed it underfoot.

  “My father was a Library,” Ell said comfortingly, “and when I was young my family all lived together among his strong, sturdy stacks. Back then, my brother T-Through-Z used to say the world is divided into the riders and the ridden, and I always thought he was being pompous and grim because those are his favorite things besides roasting romance novels, but I believe him now. Half of everyone thinks I’m September’s horse. As if I don’t know my multiplication tables! As if I wasn’t there when the Marquess fell! I know that I can be ridden, but I needn’t be. I could ride somebody, if that somebody was big enough. It’s not my fault I’m too heavy. It’s their fault they’re so little.”

  Blunderbuss sniffed a little. She tore up a patch of Barleybroom grass and clover and flax flowers and chewed resentfully.

  “We were gonna win,” she huffed. “Me and Hawthorn and Tam. We were gonna do a double flip and land on the Briary with all our feet planted and a crown for each of us. I wanted to see the look on Scratch’s bell! Now who’ve they got with them? Probably Sadie’s mangy dumb jackal with his face stuffed full of biscuits. And he’ll get to wear a crown while I get nothing! I never get anything!”

  “We might win, you know,” said Saturday, who certainly felt their chances were better than a couple of Changelings fresh from Chicago, wherever that was. If they won, September would stay. It was all he could think. You couldn’t be a long-distance Queen. She would stay and he would never have to turn to say something to her and find no one there ever again.

  Blunderbuss gave him a pitying look. “No offense, but your girl doesn’t even want to boss Fairyland about. You can’t win without a want boiling in your belly. Besides, my kids have magic leaking out of their ears. None of this would have happened without them.”

  “Oh yes,” said September slyly. “Thank you, Hawthorn and Tamburlaine, for bringing Goldmouth back to life. A king so wicked there’s a statue of him dying in the capital for everyone to wash their stockings in. I’m sure we’re all terribly grateful.”

  “I wouldn’t go talking about bringing ornery things back to life, Miss Egg. It doesn’t look too good on you.”

  September laughed. She knew the wombat meant to sting her, so she laughed instead of blushing or sputtering, which never got a girl anything but rolled right over. It was a fair point, anyhow. She pushed her hair out of her eyes. The wind pushed it right back, hot and sweet and full of the best sorts of city smells. She took a breath and said the thing that had spent the last three days pacing all the rooms of her mind. “Maybe I don’t want to be Queen, exactly. But if we don’t win, then someone dreadful might. We’ve got to win, because we can’t count on the Marquess or Tanaquill or Goldmouth losing. And … and I’d be a good Queen, I think. I wouldn’t be bad, anyway. Maybe I could be the opposite of a tyrant, an un-tyrant, and Fairyland would be, well, like a story in a book.”

  And if I were Queen, I could stay, she added silently. I could stay in Fairyland. I could be good at Fairyland, the way the Sibyl was good at guarding the entrance to the underworld and the Calcatrix was good at the magic of money. A terrible longing for her mother pressed on her chest. Her mother would tell her that if there was ever a chance to do something extraordinary, it ought to be snatched immediately. Only, if I stay, will I ever get
to hear her tell me a single thing again? Perhaps … perhaps I could bring my parents through the Closet Between the Worlds and we could all be together here. Halloween brought my father to Fairyland-Below, and she’s only my shadow. You’re allowed to do that sort of thing when you’re Queen.

  Darling September! That is why anyone wants to rule. Oh, they would never admit it. But at the bottom of their hearts, anyone who longs for power longs to have everyone and everything they love safe and happy forever in one place, no matter the cost. It’s only what happens to those they do not love that makes it all go wrong-headed and hard.

  Saturday stared out over the river, into the dry hills beyond. He could not quite tell where Pandemonium had settled herself. They had to get moving. If they won, she would stay. He whispered it over again in his mind like a song. “It doesn’t matter. We’ve got to figure something out before the opossum’s bubble pops and we’re surrounded by the worst family reunion that’s ever packed itself a picnic.”

  “I shall be honest,” began September, pulling her emerald smoking jacket tight round her. “I haven’t any little idea what the Heart of Fairyland is or where to find it. I had hoped someone else might.”

  Saturday, Ell, and Blunderbuss exchanged guilty looks. “We’ve been whipping our brains against it for days,” the scrap-yarn wombat said. “I’ve only just got to Fairyland so don’t look at me. I hardly know where the broom closet is! But if you ask me, anything important is in the Land of Wom, and if it’s not in the Land of Wom, it’s not awfully important.”

  “I don’t know,” said Saturday. “But I know where I would hide something, if I needed to. I would hide it way down deep at the bottom of the sea, snug under the weight of water and safe from all those silly toy monarchs who can only breathe air.”

  “Hearts begin with H, Ell,” September said to the Wyverary. “I thought you might know where we ought to go. Where Fairyland hides its heart. Because Saturday’s right. It’s got to be hidden, or else the Derby would be over in a minute and a half.”

  The Wyverary fretted and clawed the earth. He wanted so to be useful. “But, September, everything has a heart! Well, mostly everything. I can tell you all about Wyvern hearts, if you want. Or Periwig hearts or Fairy hearts or Marid hearts or even a little about human hearts. But you can’t leave it all up to me! I thought you would know! It sounds like the sort of secret a Queen would learn on the occasion of her coronation, doesn’t it?”

  “Just try, Ell,” coaxed Saturday.

  The huge red Wyvern cocked his head to one side and spoke slowly, as if reading from a book. “Hearts: hollow pumping organs that move blood throughout the body or any similar thing. The center of a body. The part of a creature that feels and fears and wants and swells with courage. The important bit—the heart of the matter. A suit in a deck of playing cards. The shape of a Valentine with two round parts and one pointy part.”

  September grinned. “Cross-reference! Heart begins with H and Fairyland begins with F!”

  A-Through-L scrunched up his snout. His long whiskers flicked and snapped. “The Dun Cow Café in Gingham Green serves a drink with melon chunks in it called the Heart of Fairyland. When Cutty Soames was King, he had a grand pirate ship built out of dryad bones and starlight and he called it the Heart of Fairyland. It’s also the name of Queen Mab’s sword, only it’s not really a sword so much as a spindle. Oh, and they used to call the Moon the Heart of Fairyland, in the days before astronomy was born.” The great Wyvern sighed. “September, my father was only a little local Library. Worlds don’t print their secrets in encyclopedias! I wish it were as easy as reading off the population of Pandemonium! I would have read the H’s more carefully if only I’d known.”

  “Oh, Ell, don’t worry! You know I can’t bear to see you frown. Goodness, I wish I’d paid more attention to my lessons twice an hour!” She touched his scaly skin. It was so warm, as warm as Summer.

  Blunderbuss gnawed at her own whiskers. “What’s that bit about the center of a body?” she said thoughtfully.

  “Oh!” exclaimed September. “Could it be that easy? Ell, what’s the exact center of Fairyland? Where I come from, it’s somewhere off the coast of Africa, I think. What’s neither east nor west nor north nor south, but perfectly in the middle? Center begins with C!”

  Ell did not even take a moment to consider it. “Why, Meridian, of course!” The Wyverary’s voice grew quiet and full of awe. “The Great Grand Library lives there. The biggest and widest and deepest and oldest Library in all of Fairyland. My great-great-great-greater-than-great-grandmother. She hatched all the other Libraries. Even the Fairyland Municipal Library. Even the Lopsided Library on the Moon. Even my father, Compleat. Fairyland has a Library in the center of it—maybe the Heart is there! Maybe the Grand Library is the Heart! But I suppose we would have a terrible time trying to carry the Grand Library to Runnymede Square. Still, even if the Library doesn’t have the Heart of Fairyland, surely someone, sometime, wrote something about it! A thing is hardly real if no one’s written about it. It’s the writing that makes a thing proper and solid and true in the first place.”

  A-Through-L nodded firmly, agreeing with himself. Though the red lizard didn’t know it, he had just spilled the first law of Dry Magic. It is true in our world, too, and this is why the first thing we do when a child gets born is write down her name and her weight and everything else we know about her.

  “Does anyone know where we are, exactly? I’ve been trying to pinpoint us, but I can’t tell,” Saturday said. He added quietly to himself: “I can’t smell the sea.” It is very frightening for a Marid when he cannot smell the sea, or hear it, or see it glimmering in the distance. If he cannot smell the sea, he cannot find his way home. “I think those are the Handhills—but then that bit of mist over there might be the Inksop Marshes, except they should be west of the hills…”

  “Oh, it doesn’t matter,” chirped Ell cheerfully.

  “Doesn’t it? I rather reckon it does, if we’re headed toward your gran,” groused Blunderbuss.

  “But it doesn’t. I am a Librarian! Well, Assistant Librarian. And I haven’t worked a shift in ever so long. But that’s only because I was in prison! I wasn’t shirking. So I should still be a member of the Catalogue in Good Standing.”

  “What does that mean?” asked September.

  Ell beamed. “All Librarians are members of the Catalogue. That’s what you call a coven when it’s made up of Librarians instead of witches. Librarians have sorted and alphabetized all the magic that ever thought to put a rabbit and a hat together. Who do you think invented Special Collections? Severe Magic and Shy Magic, Dry Magic and Wet Magic, Umbrella Magic and Fan Magic and all the rest? Librarians, that’s who! And of course they learned a thing or two along the way. The Catalogue connects every Library to every other Library just the same as if they shared one long hallway. No one wants to wait for On the Criminology of Fairies to arrive by stagecoach when you could just pop out of the Municipal stacks and into the towering shelves of the Crowdleian Library and have it back in half a wing beat! It’s very necessary magic. I’m not meant to tell anyone—it’s one of the High Secrets of Circulation. The Catalogue would turn me into a bookmark if they knew! September? Is this right? Is this the way to win the Derby? Should I take us to Meridian? Or Wom? Or under the sea? Only I think Saturday would have to manage that.”

  September squared her shoulders. She was the Queen of Fairyland, if only for a little while. She had better get used to deciding things, even if the idea of getting it wrong frightened her all over.

  “Yes, Ell. Take us. We won’t tell anyone how you did it.”

  A-Through-L stretched out his long crimson wings to gather them all close in. Blunderbuss snagged a bit of her yarn on his talon. September tucked it back into place without a word, and at that moment, the wombat began to love her a little. Hawthorn would have fretted over it something awful, but September simply fixed her up without a fuss. The truth was, Blunderbuss hated to be re
minded that she was made of yarn while everyone else was more or less made of meat or meatlike stuffs. September peeked under his wing at the deep, rolling Barleybroom. She remembered the first time she saw it, how wide and wonderful it seemed—until the Glashtyn came roaring out of it. What lived beneath now, she wondered?

  The Wyverary danced from foot to foot. His orange eyes blazed with glee. He carefully laid one long black claw against his snout and whispered:

  “SHHHHHH!”

  And all four of them disappeared with a sound like a date-stamp clonking down, leaving behind a puff of dust that smelled strongly of dictionaries, first editions, and the complete works of everyone ever.

  CHAPTER VIII

  GREENWICH MEAN TIME

  In Which September Visits the Great Grand Library, Is Threatened by Numerous Bears, and Consults the Reference Desk

  It is true that everything has a heart. The hearts of towns and villages and cities do not look very much like the heart of a person, but they have hearts all the same. Sometimes it looks like a train depot, sometimes it looks like a university, sometimes it looks like a castle, sometimes it looks like a river, sometimes it looks like a factory. A town must dream or it will die, and a town’s dreams come from its depot or its university or its castle or its river or its factory. It longs for marvelous folk to come through the village center on a shining train and stay. It longs to make steel so strong it can build the whole of the rest of the world, or to see its river filled with great ships trading one thing for another until no one lacks any longer. It yearns to protect its villagers from the rampages of time and economics. It wants to make wisdom so bright it can keep the lights on for the whole of the rest of the world. If you look at the center of any city, you can see what it wants to be when it grows up.

  The Great Grand Library did not know Meridian was the exact center of Fairyland when she settled there. She did not even know it was called Meridian, for it was not called anything at all yet. She was but a young and reckless hut whose owners had abandoned her during the first Fairyland Ice Age, which was caused by Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord, biting off chunks of the sun for his children to gobble up. This is why ravens are wiser and wilier than most other birds and some people, though it also covered Fairyland in green glass glaciers. But without the glaciers, there would have been no ice wyrms, so on the whole, it all comes out reasonably even. The sun sulked and moaned for a thousand years or so and then got over it. But the Great Grand Library knew only that the family of were-mammoths whom she loved and sheltered had run off at the first sign of wyrms and left her alone with nothing more to her name than a candlestick with no candles, a porridge bowl with no porridge, and a single book without a bookshelf to keep it safe from the storms.