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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 12

Catherynne M. Valente


  “After an epoch or two, however, the new world began to visit less often. When he did come, he was sullen and sorrowful. Finally, Fairyland asked what could be the matter. And he answered:

  “‘Must you keep your gravity so untidy? It’s all rumpled and uneven. Every day I see folk flying about who should walk on the ground! Anyone could shoot up into the air or dive down through the earth at any time, and there’s no rhyme or reason to it!’

  “‘I like my untidiness and rumpledness and unevenness!’ replied Fairyland, and would not discuss it further. After another era had passed, the new world sighed and said:

  “‘Must you allow Physicks to run rampant the way you do? It’s a ruffian, I tell you, a delinquent! It does what it pleases and obeys no sensible law!’

  “Fairyland drew herself up proudly. ‘Physicks is my friend, and I love to watch him play. If he vandalizes a thermodynamic or two, what’s the harm? They’re prettier when he’s done with them, anyhow.’

  “The new world shook his head and tried to eat his seed cake, but he had lost all his appetite. At last, after a long age in which many things happened, including dinosaurs, Atlantis, and several uninvited comets, the new world tried to coax Fairyland round to his way of thinking once more.

  “‘Oh, what is it now?’ said Fairyland crossly.

  “‘It’s your biology, I’m afraid. I can’t bear to see it lying about in lumps and tatters! You’ve got people with the bodies of horses or dragonfly wings. You’ve got folk who can grow to great heights and shrink down to nothing anytime they need to reach something from the top shelf. You’ve got talking rocks and underwater horses and lions with eagle wings. It’s unseemly! Please, you must make it listen to reason.’

  “Fairyland grew so angry that six new volcanoes twisted up out of her northern reaches.

  “‘You are a rake and a rascal and a boring old dunce. How can a world as young as you have such a fusty mind? You cannot order my darling gravity, my beloved biology, or my dear dashing Physicks to do as you say. Have it your own way in your own home, and let me have it my own way in mine. I shall never listen to you on these matters. Go away and never come back!’

  “And so the new world slunk away and tried to forget about Fairyland. But he couldn’t. He spent most of his time collecting pictures that reminded him of her and telling stories of their adventures to any folklorist who would listen. Nor could Fairyland, proud as she was, forget her old friend. She missed his funny, stick-in-the-mud ways and the way he danced when the harvest came in and all seemed golden and good. As the ages turned ancient between them, Fairyland began to sneak out at night to spy upon that other world. Occasionally, she would steal a rose from his garden or a nail from his door or even, every now and again, a sunny-faced child who wandered too far from the gate. And in their sleep, each world would sometimes turn over and reach for the other’s hand, interlacing their fingers like two sets of forever-turning gears. But when they woke, their hands were always empty once more.

  “Fairyland lives happily, but she has never lived quite alone again. This is the sorrow of the human world and the Fairy world, who cannot get along, but cannot part.”

  Saturday finished and stood back.

  “What does all that mean?” asked Blunderbuss.

  “It means Fairyland’s Heart is broken,” came a cool, crisp, disapproving voice.

  September spun round to see the Headmistress standing behind them.

  CHAPTER IX

  I PUNISH, YOU PUNISH, HE OR SHE PUNISHES

  In Which September Learns a Spot of Latin, Fights Her First Duel, and Is Banned from the Library for Life

  “What are you doing here?” Ell demanded sharply. “No one could have gotten here faster than me!”

  The Headmistress rolled her eyes. “You are not the only member of the Catalogue in good standing.” She had lost her enchanted school bell at the firing of the starting catapult, of course. But she seemed entirely disgusted with her replacement—a cloud of colored bubbles in the shape of a large and friendly butterfly. It kept trying to wrap its pastel wings around her and nuzzle her ear.

  “Ugh! Get away from me, you overgrown cupcake!” the Headmistress snarled. She tried to beat the wings back but the butterfly just snuggled in again to hold her. “It’s utterly useless. It belongs to the Happiest Princess—have you met her? She’s got hot cocoa for blood and whipped cream for a soul. She’s just full of joy and wonder and merriment and she ruled with an army of sherbet ponies and buttercream giants. Oh, but everyone loves her! I tried to bring a little discipline and order to this bucket of lunatics. I had them up at a decent hour and working toward reasonable personal goals. I got them to eat sensible meals and go to bed early! I gave out detention slips only when absolutely necessary and all anyone wants is to go back to Macaroon Mondays and infinite slumber parties! I think she calls this thing Treacle. If I didn’t need it to finish the race I’d have set it on fire.”

  Treacle patted her head with one bubbly wing.

  “I am a serious person!” the Headmistress wailed. “I do serious things! This is intolerable!”

  Ajax Oddson’s voice filled the Mystery Kitchen. A few thrillers trembled from inside the cabinets.

  “Do my little eyes spy a pair of Cantankerous Contenders occupying the same square? You know what that means!” A thunderclap echoed through the Great Grand Library and a number of purple fireworks went off high above them, spelling out the words:

  The Wonderful World of Duels

  The Reference Desk frantically stamped out any stray bits of violet flame before they could singe a single book. When the sparks faded, a handsome oval frame hung in the air, the sort you might expect to hold a very fine mirror or a portrait of someone whose name no one remembers anymore. This frame did not hold a portrait or a mirror, but rather, Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord. Or at least a doppelgänger of him, sent with love by a nice lady in Mummery named Quintuple Pod. Hushnow squawked loud and long. He appeared to be struggling mightily with his new mount, which September recognized as Penny Farthing’s velocipede.

  “Curse all bicycles and little girls!” screeched the bird-king. “I ate the sun! I’ll do it again if I get peckish, just you watch!”

  “Hush now, Hushnow,” chuckled Blunderbuss, nosing at the cover of Detective Mushroom and the Case of the Peculiar Pooka to see if it seemed tasty. Greenwich Mean Time gave her a look so dark even the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord clammed up. The scrap-yarn wombat let Detective Mushroom lie. “You’re meant to referee, you daft parrot!” she yelled. “On you go!”

  “Oh! Er. Yes. A duel. That’s a fancy word for wedding, is it? All right, all right, don’t get your feathers mussed.” He cleared his throat. “We have gathered here together to join together the Headmistress and Queen September in holy matrimony…”

  “No!” cried everyone all together.

  “We’re meant to fight each other,” September said, and not without a spark of fear singeing her voice. “Though I really would rather not. I’ve never had a duel before, unless you count Martha May at school back home, and I didn’t come out well in that.”

  “Right!” cawed Hushnow. “No one cares! As Officious Officiant, it is my duty to choose your weapons so that neither of you can stick it to the other by picking Complaining or Pulling a Gormless Face or whatever human girls excel at. And I choose—”

  “No!” roared Greenwich Mean Time. “No dueling in the Library! Don’t you dare! Books are flammable, drownable, rippable, stabbable, and explodable! And very easily shocked! The whole Mathematicks section faints dead away at the sight of blood.”

  But the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord quite ignored the spluttering time ball. “I choose … Latin Conjugations! Turn back to back and walk off ten paces!” Hushnow shook his feathers and eagerly puffed up his chest.

  “But that’s not fair at all!” protested September. “I don’t know any Latin!”

  The Headmistress smiled coolly and turned round, s
howing the back of her gray bustled gown. “But I do, my dear. After all, Latin is a dead language, and I have been dead for ever so long. We’ve learned to get along terrifically over the centuries. And if I can come back to life, why can’t the Roman tongue? I think it’s a perfectly fair choice. Hushnow is such a level-headed fellow.”

  “He’s fixed it so you’ll win,” Saturday glowered.

  “If you say so,” said the Headmistress, who, after all, cared only for the rules that tipped their hats her way.

  “Paces!” squawked Hushnow. His screeching echoed up to the high ceilings of the Mystery Kitchen. “Turn around, you daft monkey! I can’t dawdle all day. I’m having a spot of manticore trouble at the moment and this idiot bike is no help at all!” A growl sounded faintly in the distance. Wherever Hushnow was, he was not alone.

  September turned around. The Headmistress stood only a little taller than she. Their shoulders touched briefly, and then the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord began counting to ten. “One for sorrow, two for joy! Three for the bites I gave the Changeling boy!”

  “But I have no weapons!” hissed September. She could feel it all closing in on her. The duel, the race, the walls of the Library, everything. She’d thought she left feeling helpless behind long ago—only we never leave helpless behind. It is a country in which we all hold passports. I am going to lose, she thought. I am going to lose quickly. Though at least I’m unlikely to be killed by a verb.

  A-Through-L arched his long spine. His eyes twinkled at her. “September, I have known you since the only thing you wanted in the world was a slice of cake and I have never once seen you without weapons. At the very least, you always have me. You don’t need to know a lick of Latin! I know plenty! Latin begins with L! Just say what I say!”

  September walked back toward her friends, counting her steps. Losing only means going home, doesn’t it? Back to where I came from. I would see Mother and Father and Aunt Margaret again. I would sleep in my own bed. But a hot desire not to lose stole through September. It burned out everything else. The Headmistress was a tyrant. She’d said so. You stand up to tyrants. That’s what all her father’s books said.

  Did she know any Latin at all? City Hall had a Latin motto on the front of it. September wracked her memory searching for it. All that she found was that it started with F. Saturday and Blunderbuss very much wished they could help, but neither of them had actually heard the word Latin before and could not begin to guess what would happen next, except that it would probably be over quickly. Saturday twisted his opal necklace fretfully. He could not even enter the dueling grounds. The air around September and the Headmistress had gone hard as glass.

  Hushnow cawed out: “Ten for the crown I’m going to prance around in while you all blubber and moan, see if I don’t!”

  The Headmistress whirled around, her gray skirts flaring, showing fiery-colored petticoats beneath. Treacle, the butterfly, hovered behind her, and for a moment it looked as though the lady herself had a pair of bubbling wings of every color. She drew a quill pen from her hair and leveled it at September.

  “Amo, Amas, Amat!” the Headmistress thundered.

  The air before her quivered, then sizzled, then snapped open. Three knights appeared, slender and short and dreamy-eyed. They wore rose-colored armor with blazing hearts painted on their helmets and their shields, for the words the Headmistress had flung at September were I love, you love, he or she loves. One carried a sword, one carried a poleax, and one carried a lance. They each had their names engraved upon their magenta-and-gold breastplates: AMO, AMAS, AMAT.

  Ell whispered urgently—September did not understand a word he said, but she repeated after her Wyverary, beating her voice into shape, hammering it into something strong and bold and fierce. She’d never made a battle cry before, but she did her best.

  “Exsarcimus, Exsarcitis, Exsarciunt!” she cried out. The flying Reference Desks above startled and snapped into formation.

  The air before September quivered, then bulged, then parted like a theatre curtain. Three fellows marched out, all very grubby and muscly and ruddy in the cheeks. They wore armor, too, but theirs looked like steel overalls with blazing hammers and needles etched on them, for the words Ell had given September were We fix, you fix, they all fix. One carried a pair of screwdrivers, one carried a saw, and one carried a wrench not unlike September’s own. They each had their names embroidered on a patch above their hearts: EXSARCIMUS, EXSARCITIS, EXSARCIUNT.

  The soldiers flew at one another. Amo skewered Exsarcitis with his poleax. Exsarciunt fenced Amas deftly, sword against saw. They ranged all over the Mystery Kitchen while Greenwich Mean Time raged against them, flying helplessly up and down his brass pole. Finally, they managed to break each other’s defenses at the same instant, and both fell. Exsarcimus twirled her screwdrivers like six shooters and leapt onto Amat, piercing him through the heart on his pink breastplate. All six of them vanished into smoke where they collapsed, no more alive than the dust on an overdue book.

  “Castigo, Castigas, Castigat!” screamed the Headmistress.

  This time there was no quivering of the air. Her army of verbs seemed to fly directly from her fingers—three soldiers all in black. Their shields showed an awful crest: a child standing in a corner with his hands over his eyes, for the words the Headmistress had parried with were I punish, you punish, he or she punishes. One brandished a ruler for the rapping of knuckles, one held a wooden paddle for cruel spankings, and one hoisted a quiverful of forks for the suppers wicked children had to go without. They each had their names pinned to their chests: CASTIGO, CASTIGAS, CASTIGAT.

  Ell paused for a moment, thinking furiously. Then, suddenly, he laughed, and the laugh of a Wyverary, terribly pleased at his own cleverness, bouncing off the walls of a library is a wonder to hear. He whispered his magic words quickly into September’s ear. This time, he only needed two.

  “Vincam! Vincemus!”

  Twin warriors burst into thin air. They wore crowns, one of gold and emeralds, one of laurel leaves. They had forged their armor from shining trophies and medals. Garlands and sashes hung from their necks and their shields bore the sigil of a prize ribbon with dozens of ruffles, for Ell’s fighting words were I will win. We will win. Yet their weapons were nothing like swords and maces. One took aim with a tiny glass dart, dancing with blue light. The other took off her gauntlet to reveal a silvery mechanical hand. They each had their names stitched onto glorious long cloaks: VINCAM and VINCEMUS.

  The crowned pair looked pityingly at the Headmistress’s punishments. Vincemus did no more than waggle her finger at Castigo and Castigas. Green fire flowed out from her metal knuckles in a thin, sharp jet. I punish and You punish fell instantly to the ground. Vincam tossed his dart casually, as though he had only dropped it, silly him! But it caught Castigat between the eyes and he vaporized before he could throw a single fork.

  A-Through-L had used the future tense. His duelists brought weapons no one would get bored enough to invent for a hundred years. Vincam and Vincemus bowed, first to each other, then to September, shaking her hand, then Saturday’s hand, then patting Blunderbuss on the head and punching Ell playfully on the knee. They saluted, clapped each other on the back in a brotherly fashion, and disappeared in a golden fire burst.

  The Headmistress had gone both red and black in the face. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “You’re a nasty little cheat,” she snarled between the hitching of her tears. “You copied off your classmate there. Everyone saw you. You fail. You will be held back for eternity! See me after class!”

  “Don’t be a bad sport, Olivia,” crooned Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord. “It’s not her fault you don’t have a second. Nobody makes friends with the strictest sourpuss in school.”

  “But I just got here,” the Headmistress whispered, whose name was indeed Olivia. Once, long, long ago, before she ever heard the word Fairyland, she taught in a very famous school. If I were to tell you what it was called, you would be
shocked out of your shoes, and I should get a very stern talking-to from the administration. “I don’t want to go back. It’s lonely when you’re dead and you’ve only got Latin to talk to.”

  And we might feel sorry for her—September certainly did. She had gone to the underworld herself, after all. But if only Miss Olivia had decided on a sensible retirement in the Autumn Provinces instead of trying to become a terrible tyrant once more, then we would instead be telling the story of the kind lady who does her crosswords every morning by the window and likes mugwort cakes for tea, instead of the woman in the gray bustle crumbling before them like the pieces of a shattered eggshell. Tiny dark shapes ran toward her, hurling tiny growls and roars before them. The book bears dove into the Headmistress, trying to get a bite of her narrative before the Dodo’s Egg took her back completely, snatching at her syntax and her orderly punctuation until nothing remained but her quill pen lying on the floor of the Library.

  September looked away. She could not help it. Even if the Headmistress had only gone back where she’d come from, the sight of it made her want to cry, and she did not want Hushnow or Greenwich to see her do it.

  “You’ve got to take it,” cawed the Raven Lord. “The pen. It’s your proof of victory. They’ll want to count up at the end.”

  “I don’t want it. That’s ghastly,” September said evenly, quietly.

  Hushnow worried his feathers with his long black beak. “Everything good is also ghastly. Your lovely roast chicken dinner was once a live rooster singing up the dawn. Your toasty woolen jumper was cut off the back of a happy sheep. Even those pretty books I can see behind you—most of them got written by someone as dead as dust and you spend your afternoons dog-earing ghosts. You can ignore the ghastly, but it doesn’t go away. Might as well enjoy the good. Even the demented know that. And it’s such a nice pen.”