The girl who fell beneat.., p.13
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       The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, p.13

           Catherynne M. Valente
 
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  September felt suddenly very secretive. The wine-colored coat approved. It closed in tight as if to say, Yes, tell no one anything. It isn’t safe out there. She must protect herself. There would be no one to do it for her. A plan started to prick up its ears inside her, slowly, but getting stronger.

  September quietly pulled herself up out of the basket without waking the Marid. Careful not to wake anyone, she climbed up and out of the basket and scrambled down from the statue, stepping lightly on a hovering shard of frosted rosy-orange rock in the Floatstone Pavilion. Other shards floated here and there about her, making a very strange scene, as though the slabs were sleeping birds, waiting for sunrise to shake off their dreams. She knelt at the feet of the forest-green statue and in the cold morning of Tain and shook Aubergine awake.

  The Night-Dodo yawned, showing pink at the back of her feathery throat. She started to squawk up at the day, but September shushed her.

  “Hush! You mustn’t wake anyone else!”

  Aubergine snapped her beak shut and looked up at September with large, soft eyes. Could she trust the bird any more than the others? Perhaps, because Aubergine had no one else, just like September. I will be right back, September thought, looking at the dear shadows of the Wyverary and the Marid. I will come back once I know what to do, and we will all go together.

  “I’m going to go see the Physickists,” she said finally. “And I want you to come. You’re one of them, after all.”

  Shearcoil Tower is a perfect shadow of Groangyre, its twin in Pandemonium. Where lumpy, bulbous Groangyre stitches up its heights in cracked leather, Shearcoil is hard and alive, a long, spiraling black narwhal’s horn filled with hundreds of clean white rooms in which Extremely Pleasant and Possibly Flammable Physicks might be practiced. At the very tip-top of the horn perches a peculiar library, a peculiar librarian, and a total devotion to the pursuit of Questing Physicks. Along with Queer Physicks and Quiet Physicks, this discipline completes the Three Q’s that make up the Noblest Study. When your parents remind you to mind your P’s and Q’s, these are the Q’s they mean, and the P’s, too! Children are natural practitioners of the Queer and the Questing, for childhood is nothing but a quest through a queer country. Of course, they often have a good deal of trouble with the Quiet.

  When September and Aubergine finally got to the top of the horn, out of breath and aching with the effort of a thousand and more stairs, they saw the Questing Floor stretched out before them, bright lamps lit and a little lunch boiling over the hearth in a burnished pot. Books and scrolls and folios lined the walls in every direction, towering and tapering up to the tip of the horn. Little wisps of clouds played up near the highest shelves. Ladders chased each other lazily around the rotunda. And a little creature lay on her stomach on a stack of diagrams piled up upon a desk much too big for her, littered with papers and inkwells, waggling her feet back and forth while she read. She was quite tiny, little bigger than a footstool, wearing great wide-brimmed black straw hat and a little caramel-colored monk’s habit with ash-colored beads around her neck. She clicked them together idly. Her olive-colored hair was cropped short under her hat. She had a wide brown face and dark green lips to match her hair and fingernails and zebra-like stripes on her skin, peeking out from under her habit.

  “Excuse me,” said September, when the creature did not look up at them. She cleared her throat.

  The small monk arched her eyebrow at them and returned to her book.

  “The sign at the bottom of the stairs said to look for Questing on the one hundred and forty-fourth floor,” she tried again, determined to appear as brave as she could. That was what was called for, she was sure of it. “And Ell said that this was where the Physickists lived, and he’s never been wrong about anything yet, so I do believe you must be a Questing Physickist. My name is September. I want to go on a Quest.”

  The monk looked up again. “We discourage casual inquiries. You might try the Bards down on ninety-seven—they dabble in a little of everything, and they’ll sing whatever you like for a penny. I believe they’ve put the Second Law of Dragon Dynamics to some sort of tune. Goodness knows their bassoons keep me up late enough.”

  Aubergine spoke softly—so awfully softly September could hardly hear her. “But you are a Physickist? A real one? You…you went to a university, and they put a laurel on your head, and you turned into a respected scholar, and from then on they let you speak up any time you wanted?”

  The little monk slapped her hands down on her papers.

  “What a gentle voice you have,” she said, her gaze calculating. “I can feel it wrap me up like a woolen scarf, rubbing my cheeks and insisting that it would hardly hurt me to help a poor young girl from out of town.” She hopped down from her papers and off the lip of the desk, using her wide black hat to float a little ways before landing before them. She poked her finger up at Aubergine. “You’re a Quiet Physickist if I ever heard one,” she accused, but she did not seem terribly upset. Indeed, when Aubergine inclined her head to admit that she was indeed, the tiny girl burst out in a brilliant smile. “Why didn’t you say so? How wonderful to meet a cousin in the Odd Arts! My name is Avogadra, and you…well, I’ll confess I haven’t seen you at any of the conferences. Are you registered with the union or are you a dabbler like those dilettantes down on ninety-seven? Forgive me, I’m just so excited. I’m the only one here, you see.”

  “My name is Aubergine, and I have only just begun my Quiet Studies,” the Night-Dodo demurred.

  “Nonsense, you’re quite advanced!” Avogadra enthused. “I nearly gave in before I caught myself. And I didn’t even hear you on the stairs! This one I heard clumping through the lobby, but you? Silent. Sublime.”

  “Where are the other Physickists?” asked September, who thought she had stepped as softly as possible.

  “Doing fieldwork, obviously,” Avogadra said, and hopped down from her book to finally greet them. “We are nearly all Monacielli—that’s what you call a beast who looks like me! We used to hide in the cellars of monasteries, waiting for the brothers to hurry up with the beer-brewing or the mushroom harvest. We’d upset their inkpots and build our houses out of their hymnals and tap their barrels when they had a nice chocolatey porter coming along. But if one of the brothers got lost in the catacombs or the woods beyond the abbey, or if something dreadful befell one—at sorest need, when they’d passed beyond all human aid—we’d come in the dark and show them the way out. The way home. It’s in our blood—we heard their distresses like a rung bell in our bones. We lived reasonably well, but before too long we’d learned a great deal about manuscripts and contemplation, and realized that we had got a fair sight better at it than the monks themselves! So we left. We came to the city, two by two and three by three, and Shearcoil took us in. We made our own rectory, our own cathedral up here. We kept our Complines and our Vespers. When the ink and the beer and the hymnals belong to you instead of to big folk who flap their arms ridiculously when they get upset, it’s not so much fun to spoil them as to use them well and put them away after. And no one else is quite as deft at the Third Q as we. We can’t cut out the part of ourselves that feels the ringing of the bell when our old brothers are lost or in despair. We learned to Quest by following them into all their black places.”

  “Humans can quest, too. I’m certain of it. Lancelot and Galahad and Jason who had the Argonauts and those sorts,” September said shyly. She felt as she often did in class when she was nearly sure she had the right answer, but could not always make herself raise her hand.

  The Monaciello put her hand over her small heart. “Of course, we owe a debt of gratitude to those early theorists! And any number of posthumous doctorates! But they were amateurs, really. They didn’t choose their Quests, the Quests chose them. They would have been happy to be done with them, from beginning to end. We seek out Quest-Dense Zones and hop in with both feet. We Experiment. We Prove. Mersenne has gone off into the Jargoon Mountains to work on his thesis, investigating the
spiritual connection between dragons and maidens. Candella last reported from the bottom of Blackdamp Lake, conducting experiments on free-range treasure. Red Newton wholly devoted himself to the study of magic apples, immortality causing and otherwise, and that means setting up a year-round camp in the Garden of Ascalaphus. Questing Physicks isn’t like the Quiet and Queer branches. You can’t do it at home in a comfortable chair—you have to be out in the thick of the business, with your tools on your belt and your heart on your sleeve! It’s my turn to stay home and keep the light on for the others, though. I only finished up my Grail Equations in the fall.” Avogadra clearly hoped that one or both of them had heard of her work, but finding no recognition on their faces, sighed a wistful weary sigh. “It is my dearest hope that one day I shall be the one to discover the GUT—the Grand Unified Tale, the one which will bind together all our Theorems and Laws, leaving out not one Orphan Girl or Youngest Son or Cup of Life and Death. Not one Descent or Ascent, not one Riddle or Puzzle or Trick. One perfect golden map that can guide any soul to its desire and back again. I will be the one to do it, I know it. I hope I know it. I know I hope it.”

  “Well, I want to go on a Quest,” said September stubbornly. “Not for research but because it needs doing. Even if I am human, even if I fail. I have some experience, and I am good at sticking things out till the end. If I am good at anything, I am good at that. I wanted to consult with an expert, but I’ll do it myself if you don’t want to be bothered. And I’ll almost certainly muck it up, and it’ll be a mess, but I’ll keep going anyway.”

  Avogadra scratched under her hat. “Well, what sort of thing did you have in mind? An Object Quest is a nice beginner’s run. Or a Damsel in Distress. The Conservation of Princesses Law figures in there, but the math isn’t hard.”

  September did her best to fix Avogadra with a steely gaze. “I want to go down into Fairyland-Below and wake up the Sleeping Prince,” she said. Aubergine turned to her, surprised. She fluffed her feathers in distress.

  “No one even knows where he is, September,” she fretted. “Or how to wake him up. Or if he’s even real—the Dukes and Countesses like to talk about him, but that doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean he’s a real person who really ought to have been King of Fairyland-Below and who can really stand up to Halloween, even if the rest were so!”

  Avogadra put a small hand on Aubergine’s purple breast. “Thank you, Sister,” she said solemnly. “Well done.”

  Aubergine bowed. “Most welcome,” she answered.

  “First Law of Heroics.” The Monaciello grinned up at a confused September. “Someone has to tell you it’s impossible, or the Quest can’t go on. Your friend has volunteered herself as a Non-Euclidean Companion, which is also necessary to proceed to the next stage.”

  Avogadra darted off toward the towering bookshelves, leaping onto a ladder and riding it like an unbroken pony as it bucked and shot upward. September reached out for a second ladder, but did not manage to catch hold before the wine-colored coat swept open, revealing the beautiful, coppery Watchful Dress beneath. September tried to pull her coat closed again, but the dress had other ideas. The two pocket watches that draped so gracefully from her waist unspooled themselves and shot upward, hooking around the swan-like necks of a pair of gargoyles further up the stacks and swinging her into the air, reeling her up and onto a safe wooden ledge next to Avogadra.

  “Well, that’s a Useful thing and no lie!” said the little monk.

  September could not help herself—she laughed. Her cheeks flushed; her heart beat wildly. Aubergine stared up silently from below, flightless.

  “I had no idea!” September exclaimed.

  Avogadra nodded as she ran her fingers along the book spines. “That’s one of the four Object Types: Useful, Wonderful, Deceitful, and Mutable. Mutable Objects always seem like something silly or plain, when they are actually marvelous. Or they appear marvelous while being secretly useless. But if I’m not mistaken, that’s a Bandero dress! I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never seen one.”

  “Is that…a wicked thing?” September asked.

  “Well, it all depends on how you look at it. Most things do, down here. The Bandero are spies. Girls with bat wings and lion tails and scarlet eyes that can see a thousand yards in the dark. All women—and don’t ask me how they make more of them because they keep it a secret. Fiends for secrets, the lot of them. They collect secrets. They have a vault made of whispering glass up in the mountains, past the fireline. Some say they eat them—they need secrets like you need bread. Some say they sell them at prices only the stars could pay. Perhaps I’ll send Mersenne after the secret of their secret! Or go myself. I’m exhausted with all this sitting still. Anyway, they all wear getups like that. To help them in their spycraft. But I’ve never seen one on a plain girl with no wings or tail at all. They guard those dresses something terrible. Ah, here we are.”

  Avogadra reached up on her tiptoes, her caramel-colored sleeve spilling down into her tiny face. September reached up to help her and pulled down a large velvet-covered dove-gray book embossed in silver. It read, Sleeping Royalty and Other Politickal Conundrums. The Monaciello flipped past beautiful illustrations of sleeping maidens, spinning wheels, a cross-section of a mountain, and one very complex diagram of an apple. The chapter she settled on had no pictures at all.

  “Other than revolution and assassination, falling asleep for a hundred years or more poses the biggest danger to royalty these days. They’re all at risk, though just try to tell them that! You’d think one of them would keep a Physickist on retainer for these kinds of emergencies but no—it’ll never happen to them, they invited all the right people to their coronation! They don’t even have a stepmother!” Avogadra frowned. “Prince Myrrh sleeps at the bottom of the world, yes, yes, we know that,” she scolded the book as if it was an erring child. “Why do you vex me?” The book riffled through its pages, embarrassed. It settled on a page thick with text. “Ah, now there’s something!”

  “Does it say where he is?”

  “Oh, no, nothing like that. But if my numbers are right, there’s a minotaur involved, which lets us know we’re running a basic Theseus Quest-model, and that’s a great help!”

  “Is it?”

  “Certainly! It means there’ll be a labyrinth somewhere—where there’s a labyrinth, there’s a minotaur, and vice versa! I can’t imagine a decent maze that would be caught dead without a minotaur. It’s not done! You don’t go out of your house without any clothes on, and a minotaur doesn’t go into the world without a labyrinth to keep him warm.” The monk hopped to another ladder, which whirled her up and away, further into the heights of the horn. The Watchful Dress suddenly filled its skirt with air, a great balloon, and just as quickly puffed it out through the bustle, shooting September up like a little orange rocket. It repeated this several times until she came to rest once more beside the Physickist, who had hauled out another enormous book. This one was powdery white, with onionskin pages like a dictionary September had once seen in the huge library in Omaha. It read, A Ryte and Goode Historie of Fairyland-Below (Unabridged). This book did not wait to be scolded, but whacked open and flew through its chapters without being asked. The Monaciello beamed at September, as if to say, “Look how well my babies behave.”

  “Just as there are different types of stars—red and white and brown and blue and dwarf and giant and all that lot—there are different types of Quests, and if we determine what type you face, we shall have a much easier time managing the whole business. We’re doing very well. Already we know that Prince Myrrh is an Endgame Object Type W—that’s Wonderful, since we have yet to see if he will be any Use in governing. He sleeps suspended in a Theseus-type narrative matrix, however he does seem to have some gravitational pull on events, which is unusual for a T-Type. After all, we still remember him even after all these years. It’s far easier to forget something than to remember it. Remembering takes all kinds of magic. No one knows who he is or what he looks
like or where to find him, and yet we all know of him. We all know he sleeps in an unopenable box on an unbreakable bower. That’s a frightfully strong E.K.T. Field for one little creature!”

  “What’s an E.K.T. Field?”

  Avogadra grinned. “Whilst on an expedition to prove the Rule of Three, my honored colleague Black Fermat hypothesized that certain Quest Objects cast a field around them, like a magnet or a planet—an Everyone Knows That Field. This is how they draw in unsuspecting Heroes. When an E.K.T Field is in effect, everyone within its power will know a good deal about the Object, even if they can’t say where they heard about it or why it’s so deathly important to remember all that dusty old nonsense. They’ll chat about it with any passing stranger like it’s sizzling local gossip. ‘Oh, the Troll-Goblet of Clinkstone Hall? A Forgetful Whale swallowed it, and took it to her pod so they could bring the Whale-Maiden Omoom back to life. Everyone knows that!—the sword Excalibur? Nice lady down by the lake will let you see it for a dime, swing it for a dollar—Everyone knows that!’ Trust me, if you want to know the score, just find out What Everyone Knows, and you’ll be on the scent. Of course, the Field might not be on his own account. See here: ‘Long ago, a great Sorceress pulled up the earth over the Prince like a blanket, and sang him to sleep in the dark at the bottom of the world. She called on her Powers to guard him, and these were horses and bulls and tapirs and other beasts. Then she whispered in his ear the time and manner of his waking, but only the earth heard it.’ So it might be the Sorceress bending the tale to her boy. He might not be a proper Prince at all, I suppose. Being the subject of sorcery tends to elevate one in society.”

 
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