The girl who fell beneat.., p.16
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       The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, p.16

           Catherynne M. Valente
 
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  And through the great onion-trunks, September thought she saw, only for a moment, a figure all in silver slipping through the wood. She called after it, but it did not pause, so pale and brief it might almost never have been there.

  “Oh, tell me you know the way to the bottom of the world,” whispered September into what she guessed might be the Onion-Man’s ear as he lifted her up at the height of the dance, breathless and flushed, spinning her around and around. The lights of the underworld blurred in her vision.

  He set her down and pointed with one long fleshless arm toward the weather-beaten cellar doors.

  CHAPTER XIV

  THE OAT KNIGHT’S APOLOGY

  In Which September Encounters an Old Enemy, but Finds Him Rather Nice After All, Offers Aubergine Her Freedom, and Ends Up in a Bad Way

  September climbed up onto a dune covered in salt-crusted pink grass. She pulled Aubergine by the talon out of the cellar passage and closed the door behind Ell as he shook his scales like a wet dog. On this side, the door was a slab of shining mahogany with a neat brass knocker. The roaring of the sea greeted them all, a sharp marine wind rippling through the coral-colored dune grass. Big, heavy silver bees buzzed sleepily around a few giant emerald-colored flowers clotted with black pollen. Holding her dark hair back from her face, September looked around for anyone or anything—and saw only a heaving, smoky, frost-colored sea below, a shade just like moonlight, its waves swelling up and rolling into shore, where they crashed against boulders and a long dark beach.

  She shrugged and headed up over the dunes. I’m sure to find someone eventually, she told herself. Every patch of Fairyland-Below seems topful of folk! As they walked, September took Saturday’s hand in hers and squeezed. In a day or two, I may forgive you for the kiss, she wanted the squeeze to say. So long as you stand by me always as you did back there. I want to think you’re my Saturday just as much as the one aboveground. I want to believe it. So I shall, as best as I am able.

  He squeezed back.

  They saw the village as they slid and slipped down the face of a dune patchworked with wild licorice and wintergreen, the perfume of it all as heady as the onion-fumes had been. A ways off from the beach, where a few gentle hills protected it from the sea-wind, several bungalows crowded around a tremendous hearth full of flaming driftwood logs. As they drew closer, they got a better look at the bungalows, all built of braided leather like horses’ reins. On top of each, a great saddle perched as a stout roof, the pommel dappled with sea moss. The window frames were big silver stirrups tipped in spurs, and over each door a golden horse shoe shone like a piece of the sun.

  No one moved between the houses or tended the fire, but as September and her gang stepped onto the sandy meadow, a creature leapt out from behind a wind-warped whitethorn tree and drew a rough bone knife from his belt.

  It was a Glashtyn.

  His soft black horse’s head gazed on them with limpid eyes, his mane wild, wind-tossed, decorated with sharp, jagged shells. The rest of him was naked—a fact September had long since ceased to be particularly embarrassed about—his knees and forearms only sheathed in silver armor. His skin matched the color of the sea.

  The Glashtyn made ready to bar them with his knife—though the green-blue flames like pi lot lights in his eyes would have stopped them quite handily. But something flickered in those flames, something like recognition. He squinted at her.

  “It’s you, isn’t it?” the Glashtyn whispered. “Yes, it must be. I remember you. Do you remember me?”

  He wore a silver ring through his equine nose like a bull. September tried to remember this exact Glashtyn. The Järlhopp’s Clutch warmed against her chest. A memory pricked up in the back of her mind.

  “I…I think so,” she whispered back, and Saturday’s shadow stirred against her. “I think you took my shadow one day a long time ago. On the river.” September tried not to let him see her tremble. He had been terrible on that day, frightening and violent, and she knew the feel of that bone knife.

  The Glashtyn bent his noble head and all his fierceness softened. He spoke quietly and kindly. “That I did, human girl. If you would know me better, I will tell you my name is the Oat Knight. I see in your bearing I was terrible to you. I was terrible then because it was my job to be terrible. I aimed for terribleness, and I like to think I often caught it! But the Hollow Queen, bless her name, let me fold up my terribleness at last and put it in a steamer trunk at the bottom of my spirit, quite locked up. You know, before the Marquess press-ganged us to pull the ferry, I was a peaceful boy who wanted to be a poetry farmer. I suppose that sounds strange to you. It’s such easy work down here—hardly a Knight’s profession. You hoe a blue field and give it a bit of water and moonshine, and poems just come popping out of the earth like winter squash.” The Glashtyn snorted gently, reminding himself to make good conversation. “I hear it is harder, where you come from.”

  September thought of the poems she had been made to write in class, the hours she had spent trying to find a rhyme for this or that thing. She liked poetry, liked how, in a good poem, the words fit together like a puzzle. But she had not, in her estimation, ever managed a good poem. Hers came out fitting together more like a broken faucet and an angry milk-goat.

  “Harder, yes,” she admitted.

  The Oat Knight nodded. “This I have been told.”

  Several lithe, young horse-headed boys peeked out of the rein-houses. They stepped nimbly onto the sand and stared at her, standing stiff and tall. The Oat Knight put a cold, blue-gray hand on her arm.

  “Come,” he said. “We wronged you. Break bread with us and we will mend.”

  The Oat Knight led them to the bonfire, and the other Glashtyn brought out bowls of clean, fresh water, salads of alfalfa and apples, lumps of sugar dotting oatmeal soaked in whiskey and cream, thick, lush seaweed and round, firm fern heads. Inside the oatmeal mash hid a little roasted puffin, glistening with brown fat. The Glashtyn sat cross-legged on the ground and ate with their fingers—which should have seemed vulgar but instead looked rather nice, when they did it. September even saw a few Glashtyn girls, with rings in their velvety ears rather than their noses. Aubergine enjoyed the food greatly, but she kept looking out to sea, as if she expected something to appear over the horizon. Saturday ate with relish. Ell only sampled the vegetables.

  The Oat Knight introduced the others: the Millet Knight and the Corn Knight and the Barley Knight and the Apple Knight and the Bean Knight, and the mares too, called the Buckwheat Knight and the Rice Knight and the Rue Knight. They shook her hand one by one, putting their hands over their hearts as they did so. After supper, the Oat Knight gave them each a clay cup of appley drinking chocolate, and they all walked together onto the dark sand beach. The crystal moon was visible again, showing a bold V on its milky face. Long bleached-wood piers stuck out into the moon-colored sea. September watched the waves break against the shore; they shattered into a foam of tiny black diamonds.

  “I chose, you know,” September said, embarrassed by the silence and the deference the Glashtyn Knights showed her. “I chose to do it. I could have let you take the Pooka girl and kept my mouth shut—though perhaps I couldn’t have. I’m not very good at keeping my mouth shut! But, anyway, you mustn’t feel so bad about it. I made the choice.”

  “But we made you choose,” the Oat Knight said wretchedly. “And we meant it selfishly. A Knight should not be so selfish. But we hated the ferry so. We hated the hauling and the endless work of it! We wanted to end it. We would have done anything to end it.”

  “But it is ended!” Ell said. “You can be happy now!”

  September had not thought a horse could blush, but the Oat Knight did, his whole face heavy and hot with shame. How could she have feared this boy so? He was hardly older than herself!

  “We are free of the Marquess now. We no longer pull the ferry—we no longer have to. You must not think we are ungrateful. We know what it cost. September, look there and see the emblems of
our gratitude.”

  September looked. It took a long time to see it, like a half-finished puzzle whose picture you cannot guess until it snaps into focus all at once. The pleasant hills that guarded the Glashtyn village were not hills at all, but vast, heavy chains, grown over with grass and moss and kelp, with little hardy trees growing up out of their green links.

  Pale scars shone on the Oat Knight’s slender chest where once he had borne those very chains. The Knight touched them lightly.

  “Someday, perhaps, I may sow my poems as I wished to, because of you.”

  “Then what’s wrong?” September asked. “Why do you seem so glum, when you have your own lovely town by the sea?”

  “I mislike telling a lady that we practiced deceit,” the Glashtyn said. She rather liked his formal way of talking. It was how a Knight ought to talk. “In all things we prefer to play fair. Even Fairies obey the letter of their pretty laws.”

  “I forgive you,” September said kindly, even though she had no idea what he meant. But forgiving seemed to be the sort of thing a Fairy Bishop ought to do when faced with a humble Knight.

  “We meant to take her down and use her most selfishly,” confessed the Oat Knight. “Your shadow, I mean. Our Hollow Queen. You cannot blame us. We needed her, you see. Because one of the rules of Fairyland-Below is Do Not Steal Queens. A Girl in the Wild Is Worth Two in Chains. And you gave her to us. Not completely freely, but mostly freely, and one has to work with what one has these days. We said we meant to put her at the head of our parades—and we did. I am sure you have seen it. It is the thing to see in Fairyland-Below, the gorgeous Revels she invents night by night. But we also meant for her to go deep, as deep into Fairyland-Below as anyone has ever gone, and find something. Something valuable to us. Something we have longed for. For at the bottom of Fairyland-Below the Prince of the Underneath sleeps. Prince Myrrh, Who Never Wakes. Princes do that, sometimes, you know. Fall asleep for years at a time.”

  “I do know, actually,” September said.

  The Oat Knight did not seem particularly surprised. “Everyone knows that, I suppose. I did not mean to be prideful in assuming you did not, my lady. We meant for Halloween to do what must be done. To find the Sleeping Prince and wake him up for us. But she didn’t want to do it. She said, ‘I don’t want to marry any silly Prince who can’t even set his own alarm clock. I shall be Queen for my own sake, and if he doesn’t like it, he can have a couple of cups of coffee and come see me about it.’”

  “Good for her,” said Saturday, and September privately agreed. She did not like the notion that her shadow was just a tool for the benefit of a boy neither of them had ever heard of. But then, she meant to use that very boy as a tool for her own use, didn’t she? She looked down at her drinking chocolate, and further, to the waves churning beneath the pier.

  “Yes, well, we didn’t begrudge her,” the Oat Night continued. “Shadows own a wildness we do not. And you defeated the Marquess, anyway, for which we owe gratitude.” The Glashtyn saluted her, putting his hand over his heart. “So we didn’t strictly need the Prince so much, to go up and free us from her. We might have liked to be the ones to do it ourselves, of course. We don’t like to have to say a girl from Away saved us. But that’s no matter, in the end. Everything worked itself out, and for a long while Halloween made things such fun that we didn’t really mind. We asked if we could just call her the Sleeping Prince, to satisfy prophecy and make it all neat and tidy. She said we could, if we didn’t mind being thumped. But…oh, we were not as strong as our Queen! We got so tired, dancing and feasting every night. We needed a rest. So we came here and built our village. We meant to stay for a summer and return to Tain in the fall.”

  “But you couldn’t,” said Aubergine. September jumped a little. The Night-Dodo could be so quiet, September was always startled when she spoke. “No matter how you tried to remember how much you liked it in Tain, or that you really did mean to go back, it just slipped away from you. There was such a lot of good grasses and birds to eat, and the moonset made you so sleepy and happy.”

  “Yes,” sighed the Oat Knight. “You understand.”

  Aubergine clucked lightly. “This is the Forgetful Sea. Over and away in the middle of it is Walghvogel, my home. The sea breeze and the spray makes the mind sleepy, though it’s nothing compared to a dunk in the stuff.”

  “We do mean to go back,” said the Oat Knight plaintively. “The Revels were so beautiful. And Halloween loved us specially.”

  “Of course, you mean to,” Aubergine said comfortingly. “It’s not your fault at all.”

  “If we’re so close, Aubergine,” September said gently, “do you want to go home? I have said it before, but you don’t really belong to me at all. I’ve got terribly fond of you, but you can get away home right here and now. I can go on, we can all go on, and we’ll be all right.”

  The Night-Dodo looked out over the moony waves. “Without a boat, I would not even know my name by the time I got there,” she sighed. “I suppose I could build a Quiet Ship, given enough time. And there would be time here. I could resist the spray for long enough.” Her plum feathers ruffled in the breeze. “But I don’t want to go back,” she said with a savage determination September had never heard her quiet friend use. “They traded me to Glasswort Groof, and though I understand they had a desperation, and though Glasswort looked after me decently, they still used me as money, and I can’t forgive it. I am not a coin. Besides, I want to go back to Tain when this is all done. I want to go back to Shearcoil and study Quietly, to become the Quietest of all, so that whenever a young thing aims to be a Physickist they will say, ‘I want to be just like Aubergine the Night-Dodo, Mummy! Wasn’t she the very best and most powerful Physickist of all of them?’ And their mothers will have to say, ‘Yes, yes, she was.’”

  Once more September marveled that even the Dodo knew what she wanted to be when she was grown. She simply could not think what she herself might do. September expected that destinies, which is how she thought of professions, simply landed upon one like a crown, and ever after no one questioned or fretted over it, being sure of one’s own use in the world. It was only that somehow her crown had not yet appeared. She did hope it would hurry up.

  September hugged Aubergine, who put her feathery head against the wine-colored coat. “I am glad not to lose you,” September said. She turned back to the Glashtyn, her thoughts spinning up to something, though she did not quite know what. “If you love Halloween so and she loves you, why have you not forgotten about the Prince entirely? You live in a forgetting place! I’m only curious, you understand. But the thing of it is, Myrrh might be no better. If I remember my stories, people only tend to sleep that long if they’re very beautiful and very stupid and mess about with things they shouldn’t, like apples and spindles and such.” But she remembered what Avogadra said about the field cast by the Prince, and how folk would want to talk about him. The Glashtyn certainly did.

  September frowned. Everything had rollicked along so fast she had hardly had a chance to consider much of it. But now the considering broke over her like a wave. “It seems rather silly to put all your eggs in one basket, King-wise. Just because he was born to it doesn’t mean he’ll be a good King, or do what you want. He’ll be a real walking, talking person, and maybe he’ll be bad. Anyone can be bad. And I warn you, in chess, Kings are important pieces, but they are very weak. They can only move a little, and the smart money is never on them to do much at all. Why not just have a revolution? It’s easier. Then you can rule yourselves.”

  The Oat Knight looked shocked. “We love our Queen. We don’t want her hurt or banished or embarrassed!”

  “She is a little bit violent,” Ell said by way of explanation.

  “Queens are very splendid things!” the Glashtyn insisted.

  “They are!” agreed Ell happily.

  “How would we count the time without one? How could we have Coronations or Royal Banquets?”

  “You could h
ave a Congress,” September said sheepishly. It sounded a very strange word down here under the world. “And a President. That’s what we have where I come from.”

  “What sort of crown does a President wear?” the Oat Knight asked dubiously. “Does she know enough riddles to rule a country? Is Congress where she keeps her magic?”

  September hid a smile under her hand. “I suppose Congress is where the President keeps magic,” she said. “Laws are a bit like magic. They have a lot of complicated words and they can make you do anything they want.”

  “You can call your Queen a President if it makes you happy.” The Oat Knight shrugged. “It’s not that we didn’t want the Hollow Queen or the Revels. We only wanted our Prince back, too. And though we might forget what we mean to do in the future, what we have done wrong in the past sticks to the heart. We took Halloween and meant to use her, as though she were not her own beast who deserved to choose her fate. I wished to give you my confession, September, for you, too, were wronged in our acts. And I have given it.” He put his hand over his heart once more.

  “Well.” September smiled, putting her hand on his arm. “I do forgive you. And I shall make you a present to show that I do: I am going to wake up the Sleeping Prince.” September wanted to say, Just see if I don’t, but the Glashtyn was so noble and formal that she said instead, “I swear it.”

  A-Through-L and Saturday stared at her. They hadn’t known her plan until now, but they had been so loyal and stalwart in the onion-field, that September judged it safe to let the secret slip.

  They had reached the end of the pier. It stretched awfully far from the shore, out into deep water, filled with shadowy fish and dark shafts where the light of the crystal moon did not fall.

 
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