The girl who fell beneat.., p.19
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       The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, p.19

           Catherynne M. Valente
 
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  The shadow of the Marquess ran her fingers along the Panther’s back—once, she would have come up with something marvelous, a plate of Fairy food or a pair of magic shoes or a bow and a quiver of arrows wound around with icy leaves. But her hand rose up with nothing. She just petted him absently. “I don’t have my magic down here,” she said mournfully. “My beautiful, muscular, brute magic. I feel it there, like I’ve got it in my pocket, but when I reach for it I find only myself. I’m just Maud. Just a tomato farmer’s daughter. The shadow of Maud, not even Maud proper. But that’s really what you ought to call me.”

  “What’s in a name?” rumbled Iago. “People will call you whatever they want. New owner, new name. If it bothers you, you oughtn’t come when you’re called. They’ll learn eventually. I rarely come trotting when someone hollers for me. That’s all a name’s for, in the end.”

  “You seem very much the same, Iago, though you’re Iago’s shadow and not the Panther himself,” observed September with some concern, for if Iago was the same, the Marquess might be the same, and Saturday, and Ell.

  Iago yawned so wide his eyes bulged and his white teeth showed sharp. He licked his dark muzzle. “Cats don’t have dark sides. That’s all a shadow is—and though you might be prejudiced against the dark, you ought to remember that that’s where stars live, and the moon and raccoons and owls and fireflies and mushrooms and cats and enchantments and a rather lot of good, necessary things. Thieving, too, and conspiracies, sneaking, secrets, and desire so strong you might faint dead away with the punch of it. But your light side isn’t a perfectly pretty picture, either, I promise you. You couldn’t dream without the dark. You couldn’t rest. You couldn’t even meet a lover on a balcony by moonlight. And what would the world be worth without that? You need your dark side, because without it, you’re half gone. Cats, on the other hand, have a more sensible setup. We just have the one side, and it’s mostly the sneaking and sleeping side anyway. So the other Iago and I feel very companionable toward each other. Whereas I expect my drowsy mistress Above would loathe this version of herself, who is kind and quiet and lonely and rather dear, all the things the original is not. My love stands for both. This one pets me more; that one let me pounce on anything I wanted.”

  “I am nice,” Maud said softly. “I can be nice, September. I can help you and pet you and give you lovely presents. I can be a faithful guide.”

  “But not for nothing,” said September. She felt as if she were in a dream, repeating the words she had said so long ago. As if she were a shadow of her old self, as if being here now, speaking with the Marquess, were a shadow of every other time she had spoken with the Marquess. “Never for nothing,” she finished.

  “Not for nothing. Take me with you. I am not really wicked at all. I can be so terribly kind, September. I feel very warmly toward you, and I only want to protect you, as I wish someone had protected me.” Maud shook her head again. She covered her face in her hands for a moment, and then dropped them again. “Take me with you. Where is your Wyvern? Your Marid? You need someone. I should know—a Knight always needs a companion.”

  “I’m not a Knight. I’m a Bishop. Or at least I am trying to be. And traveling with you is the most slantwise, backward thing I can possibly think of, which in this place probably means it’s the right thing to do.”

  Iago crouched down low so that the girls could climb up on his back. Perhaps the most astonishing thing to happen in that lonely courtyard was this: The Marquess demurred the seat of honor and let September ride in front of her. She put her arms around September’s waist and did not once reach for the Rivet Gun or slide an arrow up into her heart. September took a deep, nervous breath.

  “Up till now I’ve found a door everywhere I’ve gone. But there are a hundred doors here. I wish I had Belinda Cabbage’s Barometer! But I haven’t, so I will have to choose, and hope I have chosen right. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, and just passing through a door is enough to keep following the tunnel in Avogadra’s book. Perhaps we shall go through a door and find only a pastry shop. I suppose I could use my last ration card, but the last one didn’t do me much good, and there may be a long ways to go yet. I shall try to be…practical. As you said, Maud.”

  Maud said nothing. She held September a little tighter and rested her head against her back.

  “That one has a sign over it, and it talks about ‘Anything Important,’ so I’ll cast my lot with it.”

  Iago padded over to the sagging door frame. It had a glass revolving door set into it. A few of the panes had gotten shattered in some long ago robbery or escape. As they approached, it creaked, screeched, and began to turn.

  CHAPTER XVII

  A HOLE IN THE WORLD

  In Which September Loses Her Temper, Nearly Boxes a Minotaur, Accomplishes Some Magic, and Sees Her Mother Through a Hole in a Very Strange Wall

  Darkness.

  The revolving door spun shut behind them and vanished. Satiny, perfect blackness greeted them, blacker than the Panther of Rough Storms in the midst of the most livid thundercloud, blacker than the ink-sodden page in Avogadra’s book. September’s eyes ached with trying to see through the crowblack air. Iago, being a cat, had a somewhat better time of it. He stepped forward carefully, his paws landing quietly as footsteps in snow.

  Someone lit a candle.

  The orange flame snapped into life, its sudden brightness causing both September and the Marquess to shield their eyes. One, two, three candles lit up, and then three more, the crown of a cast-iron candelabra. The firelight rippled over the round base of the candlestick, where an engraving read: Beware of Dog. Slowly, as the candles settled, the place they had found themselves in came into focus. First the candelabra, then the vast, ancient desk it rested upon, polished teak with an ink pot the size of a pumpkin in one corner, with a long peacock feather dipped into it. Then the walls, also scrubbed, gleaming wood, and hung with artifacts like the study of a big-game hunter. Six long, spangled spears hung in a neat row over a dormant, cold fireplace. Seven Greek bronze helmets stared out through empty eyeholes along with seven wide bronze necklaces that covered the chest like breastplates (September knew the helmets were Greek because in one of her books a fellow named Perseus had worn one). A portrait of a beautiful girl wearing a dress of every color and holding a spindle full of thread hung under an arch of three leather shields.

  The hand that lit the candle belonged to a well-dressed and bespectacled Minotaur.

  The Minotaur rested in a luxurious chocolate-colored chair, like those one might find in a lawyer’s or principal’s office. September had got quite used to thinking of Minotaurs as boys in her reading, for they always seemed to be—but this one was most certainly a lady. Enormous, curving dark horns crowned her head. She had a very wide nose with a light covering of nearly invisible fur, save that the candlelight made her scant pelt ripple with fire when she moved. She wore a thick brass ring in her nose, and her ears were furry and long like a cow’s, but beyond that her face was quite human, with big, liquid brown eyes behind her librarian’s glasses, and full, dark lips. Her hands folded gracefully in front of her. Under the desk, strong, hard hooves peeked out from under a plain brown schoolmarm skirt.

  “This can’t be right,” said September, climbing down from Iago’s broad back. The Marquess’s shadow followed her, but hung back, close to the Panther’s glossy flank. “A Minotaur lives in the center of the labyrinth, and I haven’t set foot inside one! I think I would know a maze if I had already solved it!” She peered over the desk at the Minotaur, who might have been a statue, she sat so still.

  Slowly, the Minotaur laid her head to one side. “What did you think you were doing, then, when you went up through one door and down through another, turning this way and that, through the pages of a book and a deep mine and an entire ocean and the hideout of a wise woman? My dear, labyrinths ensnare and entangle; they draw one inexorably inward—but it would not be much of a labyrinth if you waited in line with a ticket to get in and
the door was clearly marked, like some country-harvest hay maze. All underworlds are labyrinths, in the end. Perhaps all the sunlit lands, too. A labyrinth, when it is big enough, is just the world.”

  “Is Prince Myrrh here, then? Do you have his unopenable box in your collection?”

  “No. I am here. I am the dark anchor at the bottom of the world. And I will decide whether to let you go further down.”

  September knew she ought to be asking important, urgent things of the lady Minotaur. But a statement jumped the line and leapt out of her ahead of all those questions. “I thought only bulls had horns.”

  The Minotaur’s thick eyebrow quirked. “And I thought all human girls wore dresses. Yet I am sure you have worn trousers in your life. Do you never prefer to wear boy’s clothes when they are more suitable, and more sensible?”

  “I suppose so, when I have hard work to do.”

  “Ah, my dear girl! I always have hard work to do.” She stood up. The Minotaur towered over all of them, her shoulders muscled, her legs powerful—that was easy enough to see, even with the plain skirt to cover them. She crossed to a home-hewn rocking chair near the hearth and settled herself into it, taking up a scrap of knitting from a basket, the ball of translucent yarn looking very much like the spindle in the painting above her. She gestured absentmindedly at the black logs with one knitting needle. They burst into eager flame. Her fingers wrapped the yarn deftly as she talked.

  “Minotaurs are all descended from the same poor, sorry fellow. You have probably heard of him—Grandfather is quite famous. The Queen of a distant land fell in love with a bull. Nevermind how odd that sounds! The ancient world was an appalling place. Even if it were not, love may unclose itself between any number of seemingly upside-down and turned-around folk. Especially if one is a Fairy Bull who can talk and write poems and have tea and discourse on natural philosophy. In any event, a Queen and a bull are not mixable elements, and so she called on a Fairy Inventor to help her. I believe you met his great-granddaughter. In those days one could transit between worlds as easily as one takes a trolley now. The Inventor came on a pair of wax wings he had invented himself and made a heifer out of ivory and leather and mirrors for the Queen to live inside, so that the royal wedding could take place. When their first child came, he was, as might have been predicted, half bull and half human, huge and monstrous and frightening. His own mother hid behind the bureau when he cried for milk. So the Inventor built a labyrinth to hide the child, so that his mother would not have to look at him, yes, but also so that no one in the country would try to stab him or vanquish him in some way to prove their strength. Every once in a while, they would try to send that first Minotaur friends to play with, but a Minotaur’s play is rough, and some did not survive. Others must have. Eventually, the Fairy Bull died in battle with a certain Babylonian scoundrel and his hairy giant of a brother. The Queen found a nice young man who did not inquire into her previous marriage and had a perfectly lovely daughter with him—that’s her there, my Auntie.” The Minotaur gestured at the portrait above her head. “And all the while, down in the labyrinth, a whole village had grown up in the dark. Grandfather lived quite well with the youths and maidens who had gone down, not very eagerly, to make nice with the monster. They built houses together in the maze, traded grain and oil, had country dances and learned to make cheese and beer. The youths and maidens grew up and found it pleasant that no one bothered them about things like taxes and foreign wars. They stayed in the labyrinth-town to have children or open up a nice carpentry service. The Minotaur wasn’t so bad, once you got to know him, and if you were nimble enough to avoid the horns. And it must have been possible to love Grandfather if you were not his mother, for some brave girl made him her husband, and the rest of us owe our lives to that noble maid. We are all Tauruses, naturally. We are good, wholesome monsters. I am named Left, for generally speaking, if one keeps turning left, one finds one’s way out of a maze, no matter how tangled.”

  “Miss Cabbage said I was born under the sign of the Bull,” ventured September, hoping to make a beginning of friendship.

  “Well, perhaps you have a little Minotaur in you, child. Of course, the town didn’t end well. Some years later, a ruffian broke into the place and bashed Grandfather’s head in, just to impress his daddy with how big and strong he was. Still, we all remember, somewhere deep and untouchable, that town, those dark corridors. Something in our monstrous blood still seeks the underground, still wants to be wrapped up cozy in a maze, wants to draw youths and maidens to us and judge them, wants to guard, wants to hide. You cannot escape where you come from, September. Some part of it remains inside you always, like the slender white heart in the center of the thickest onion.”

  “I’m a monster,” said the shadow of the Marquess suddenly. “Everyone says so.”

  The Minotaur glanced up at her. “So are we all, dear,” said the Minotaur kindly. “The thing to decide is what kind of monster to be. The kind who builds towns or the kind who breaks them.”

  Iago yawned, showing his generous shadowy pink tongue. “There’s something to be said for breaking things. They make a satisfying sound when they crunch.”

  “I break everything,” whispered Maud. Her hair hung deep blue around her shadowy face.

  “Hush,” purred Iago. “All that’s done now.”

  “I need to get to the Prince,” said September, resting her hand on the great desk.

  The Minotaur did not look up from her knitting. “I am aware.”

  “Well…are you going to show me the way or not?” September asked.

  The Minotaur laughed. “You’re terribly impatient! And a bit ill-tempered, I must say. Is there some reason you’re in such a damnable hurry?”

  “The Alleyman takes more shadows every day, and the magic in Fairyland-Above is leaking out. Soon there will be nothing left.”

  “Oh? Is that all? Well, perhaps they could do with a bit less magic up there. You saw what this one did with it.” The shadow of the Marquess narrowed her eyes in disdain, the old fire sparking in them. “Well, certainly, let’s get on with things!” The Minotaur put her knitting aside and stood up. She slipped her long fingers over the mantel of her fireplace, feeling for some hidden thing. “Of course,” she mused, “if that’s all the danger you’ve discovered on your journeys, perhaps you aren’t the right beast for this sort of thing at all. A more curious child would have arrived at the end with all the knowledge she needed.”

  “I am curious!” said September indignantly. “If there’s some other awful thing afoot, you should just tell me, instead of teasing me. It’s not very nice.”

  “We’ve already discussed the fact that I am a monster, and that I play rough. I’ll tell you what. Give me that fine gun of yours, and I’ll let you pass.”

  September put her hand on the grip of the Rivet Gun. She’d only just gotten it, and she’d promised to take copious notes for Belinda Cabbage, which probably did not mean handing it over to the first person who asked and taking notes on what she got for it. But more than that, she wanted it with her. It had chosen her. She felt safer with it, even though she knew it was probably quite dangerous.

  “No,” she said finally. “I can’t. What if I need it?”

  “Good girl,” said the Minotaur. “A warrior never gives up her weapon.”

  “I’m not a warrior.”

  “No?”

  Something boiled up in September’s heart, hot and furious. The moment she started to raise her voice, Maud put a charcoal hand on her shoulder. This only made the boiling thing spill over. “Stop it! I am tired and hurt and all my friends have abandoned me except the one girl I never wanted to see again. I don’t even know where I am, and I don’t know how to get out. Either help me or fight me or say I’m not what’s wanted and a disappointment to the Minotaur Nation, but speak plain and let me keep moving. I want to keep moving! Now.”

  A wisp of green smoke puffed up from the pocket of the wine-colored coat, smelling sharply of sunn
y grasses and warm winds. “Oh, no!” September cried, fishing out the smoking, charred magic ration book. It had no more cards, and, in a moment, had crumbled entirely to green ash. “But I didn’t ask it to do any magic! I was saving it!”

  But the Minotaur had already found the latch on her mantel and turned it. The fire in the hearth went out, and a pearly, waxen light appeared deep in the fireplace, which yawned up and in, becoming a long tunnel.

  “You have your shadow with you,” said the Minotaur. “Right at your back, holding on tight. I admit, I feel a little silly—I had meant to hold out on you. But you do Want things so terribly hard. Magic gets what it wants. I’m only one monster.”

  “She’s not my shadow!”

  Maud took September’s slightly scorched hand. “We are alike, I said. I said that before. I did say it, I’m sure of it. I am her shadow, but I can stand behind you, too.” She paused for a moment, as if digging something up from the bottom of her heart. “It would break your heart, September, how alike we are.”

  “You Wanted it—that was like kindling. That shadow was a spark, and the ration card caught flame. Now, if you’re going to snap at me, you might follow me when I am so good as to hold the door open for you.” The Minotaur wrinkled her velvety nose.

  September yanked her hand away from the Marquess. She did not for a moment want to hear how alike they were. Once had been enough. She stepped over the charred logs and into the tunnel, which seemed to be made of a very nice mud brick, like the basement of some ancient pyramid.

  September fell out of a patch in the sky. Iago floated down, and the Minotaur, even larger in this place than her study, simply lifted her skirts and stepped out into a wild, tumbling expanse of moorland, gray and purple and black with mist. Heather and gorse and long curlicued vines of rampion and icy hard peas grew everywhere.

 
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