Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 2

Catherynne M. Valente

  “Oh, I see, you’re trying to show me up!” cried Cutty Soames, the Coblynow Captain who sailed Fairyland across the Sea of Broken Stars to its current resting place. He stuck one sooty, filthy arm up with a sneer.

  Others did the same, one by one, more and more, paw and hand and hoof and talon. No one wanted to be singled out as a country rube or an unfashionable cretin who didn’t know the wonder and mystery of the Raised Hand. Finally, the grand hall stood quite silent, filled with all the Kings and Queens of history politely waiting, like schoolchildren, for the teacher to be satisfied with their manners.

  “Thank you,” said Queen September, lowering her hand. “Now, you must stop behaving like a stepped-on sack of scorpions or we’ll be here till Christmas, at least! And I don’t think any of us would really like to holiday together, so let’s all serve ourselves a nice big plate of hush.”

  “HELLO,” said the First Stone from the long lawn of the Briary.

  “Hello!” answered September brightly. “See, isn’t it nice to act like somebody raised us well?”

  “Who the devil are you?” hollered a mermaid soaking in the Briary’s saltwater fountain, resting smugly in the arms of a silver statue of herself.

  “You’re a human being! You’re not even allowed to look half of us in the eye!” howled a man in a waffle-cone hat and doublet and hose made all of mint ice cream. Have a care not to laugh—once, centuries ago, every soul in Fairyland feared the Ice Cream Man. “Get down off that wombat so I can break your neck, there’s a good girl.”

  Madame Tanaquill swept through the throng, her head held high, striding forward with the sure knowledge that the sea of kings would part before her. It did. The train of her iron dress steamed and sizzled behind her, burning the floor of the Briary and several unfortunate toes, any Fairy thing it touched, for none could bear iron but Madame herself. She glared at Hawthorn and Tamburlaine as she approached, but turned her sweetest smile toward September. And it was a sweet smile, the sweetest since the invention of kindness, full of patience and love and understanding. It chilled September to her toes. Madame Tanaquill put a hard, cold, possessive hand on September’s foot.

  “My dear friends!” she sang out. “Most beloved and respected jewels of Fairyland!” The way she said beloved and respected sounded very much like rotten old rubbish and not worth the rust on my décolletage. “May I present to you this marvelous morning, the brave and bold September, our darling monarch, our hallowed Queen! I’m sure you will soon come to love and admire her as I do.”

  September wondered if every word Madame Tanaquill said meant just the exact opposite of what actually came out of her rosy, prim mouth. The Prime Minister did not love or admire her any more than she loved or admired a glass of spilled wine in her dancing hall. This same woman had dropped September and Saturday and A-Through-L in prison and promptly forgotten about them. But just now the great Fairy was looking up at her with every ounce of affection and joy a face could wring out, her wings fluttering demurely, a blush riding high on her glorious cheeks.

  “You needn’t worry,” September said flatly. She didn’t like to say things flatly, but sometimes it is the perfect antidote to someone trying to convince you the noose in their hand is a lovely silk ribbon for your hair. “I don’t want to be Queen. I didn’t ask to be Queen. I shan’t be Queen any longer than lunchtime if I can help it! I daresay a kitchen chair would make a better Queen than me.”

  Madame Tanaquill’s smile grew even deeper and more genuine, even more like a mother filled to bursting with pride. But the bottom fell out of her dark eyes; hateful lightning flashed within.

  “I don’t have a care what you want, you horrid little insect,” she hissed through her smile. “The Crown chose you. You are Queen of Fairyland. It’s about as appetizing to myself personally as a pie full of filthy, crawling worms, but it’s a fact. You can pull and pry and blubber, but that Crown won’t come off until you’re dead or deposed. I could cut you down in a heart’s-breadth, but the rest of these ruffians would have my head. They take regicide terribly personally. Make no mistake; this present predicament is entirely your fault, you and your wretched Dodo’s Egg. You will want my help to sort it limb from limb. You are a stranger in Fairyland—oh, it’s charming how many little vacations you take here! But this is not your home. You don’t know these people from a beef supper. But I do. I recognize each and every one. And if you show them that you are a vicious little fool with no more head on her shoulders than a drunken ostrich, they will gobble you up and dab their mouths with that thing you call a dress. You may not like me, but I have survived far more towering acts of mythic stupidity than you. I am good. I know what power weighs. If you have any wisdom in your silly monkey head, from this moment until the end of your reign—which I do hope will come quickly—you and I shall become the very best of friends. After all, Queen September, a Prime Minister lives to serve.”

  Madame Tanaquill turned her shining face to the assembled Kings and Queens of Fairyland, some of whom still had their hands up.

  “You must forgive her. She is only a new Queen, and new Queens are like baby horses: They do not know what their legs are for yet, but they are perfectly adorable while they try to work it out! All of us remember our first days in the Briary, I’m quite sure. We were all then grateful for the patience shown to us as we searched for the necessaries and put down rebellions and turned our enemies into flamingoes. Ah, memories! Let us now extend that patience with both hands to the newest member of our very exclusive club.”

  She clapped her shimmering hands together—and applause filled the hall.

  “It’s perfectly clear what’s happened—an illicit Dodo’s Egg was brought onto the premises by persons of dubious intent and cracked open on the floor like the world’s worst breakfast. Some of you may recall that a Dodo’s Egg restores what was lost. This is a very dangerous magic, for it can get rather overexcited and run wild where other magics would sit nicely with their eyes on their own paper. This is why we Fairies only used them privately, in the safety of our own homes, and after working hours. But some people haven’t got the class a Fairy holds in her handbag, and so, here we are. All the lost Kings and Queens of Fairyland, dead and alive and other, found and rounded up and come round for supper with no notice at all. It’s very awkward for all of us, I’m sure! But we must make the best of an absurd situation.” Madame Tanaquill held one hand delicately to her forehead, as though all that had thoroughly tired her out. “Goodness! There’s enough out of silly old me! You’d think I had the Crown! I shan’t say another word until we’ve heard from the lady in question.”

  The Prime Minister looked expectantly at September.

  In chess, a Queen can do anything she wants, September thought. No one else is going to come and tell me what to do, so I had better get on with doing for myself.

  “Good afternoon!” September cried out in her best Queenly voice. “I’m very pleased to meet all of you, even though I can tell by the fire coming out of a few of your noses that almost none of you are pleased to meet me. Except the big rock in the back, and I’ve got to tell you: At the moment, he is by far my favorite. Um. I think, for my first decree, I had better insist that no one maim or murder anyone else for at least a week. You can all hold out that long. I know better than to ask for longer. Some of you have very sharp claws.” September took a deep breath. She remembered the Blue Wind—she who blushes first, loses. If she let them think they awed her, she was lost. “For my second decree, I shall have to ask that you all wear name tags. I know you were all very important once upon a time, but you might as well be portraits in a museum to me.” September thought she’d done that quite well. Having spent a little time being forty years old helped a bit, when it came to scowling down Grown-Ups and saying wicked things so that they didn’t sound wicked, only a bit bored.

  A young girl in a black dress and a black hat as tall and tiered as a wedding cake looked up at September from the throng. Her hair glowed deep, angry

  “You know me,” said the Marquess softly—oh, but how sound carries in the Briary! Her hand fluttered to her fine hat, as if everything might be all right, might be just as it was, if only she still had it.

  “Yes,” answered Queen September. “I know you.” A look both dark and bright passed between them. “Perhaps you’d better stay where I can see you.”

  Hawthorn the troll reached into the satchel he still wore slung over his huge, mossy shoulder. He pulled out a notebook and a handsome silver pen with indigo ink inside. He had a moment of panic, for he loved his paper and pen. He’d named them Inspector Balloon and Mr. Indigo back in Chicago, where he’d been a child and a Changeling, stuffed into a human body like a thousand-pound crystal into a brown paper bag. But trolls are canny creatures, and Changelings love little so much as making trouble, and out of both of these together, Hawthorn had stitched an idea. He stepped forward with authority. He was only thirteen, but a troll’s thirteen is a very serious age. Hawthorn didn’t know it, but he sounded awfully like Nicholas Rood, the psychologist who’d raised him. Nicholas had quite the bossiest voice he’d ever heard, and Hawthorn had once done Madame Tanaquill’s laundry.

  “Step right up,” he bellowed, and if you have ever heard a troll bellow, you will understand why even Kings and Queens found their feet obeying before they knew what had smacked their eardrums. “Tell me your name and I shall write it out very nicely for you and pin it to your chest with one of your brooches or cloak-pins or, if you are a dinosaur or a bird or a rock or a slice of cheese, we’ll just sling it round your neck on somebody’s spare jewels. Do remember to spell it out for me if anyone’s got runes or umlauts or apostrophes or extinct letters in! Who’s first?”

  The Marquess stepped forward. She spelled her name through clenched teeth. M-A-R-Q-U-E-S-S. A sour and sneering titter bubbled up from the royal horde.

  “Oh, darling, that’s not how you pronounce it,” clucked Titania. “And anyhow, don’t you know that’s a boy’s title?”

  “How embarrassing!” chuckled Madame Tanaquill, covering her mouth with a shimmering hand. “Who raised you, child?”

  The Emperor of Everything wrinkled his noble nose. “I suppose they’re letting anyone wear the big hat nowadays. Look around; this room is half bumpkins and half barbarians. I’d wager she’s never so much as dog-eared a page of the Whomsday Book!”

  “Or stayed up till all hours reading Ichabod Lurk’s Peerage, Spearage, and Fearage under her blankets!” smirked the Headmistress.

  The Marquess flushed horribly, redder than her hair and blacker than her dress. “If I had my lions, you wouldn’t dare say such things!”

  Whipstitch waved his ringed hand in the air. “If wishes were dishes we’d all tuck in, lovey! If I had my Button-Down Guard, you’d have a poleax in your eye! We all have our disappointments.”

  “Have you got lions? Or have you got a wee brace of kittens you just call lions to puff up their chests a bit, the way a dirty little wastrel calls herself a Marquess and thinks she’s somebody?” Titania asked, tilting her shining head in sympathy.

  Hawthorn didn’t pause. He kept writing out name tags, one by one, tearing strips out of Inspector Balloon, wincing with each tear. Tamburlaine pinned them to chest after chest like particularly unhappy medals.

  “Shut up,” hissed the Marquess. “I chose it, you miserable, rouged-up idiots! Why shouldn’t I have a boy’s title? People listen to boys! They fear boys—they fear a King and hope a Queen will show them mercy! Why shouldn’t I be a Marquess? I rule the world! I say how things are pronounced! I say what belongs to boys and what doesn’t!”

  “You don’t, though,” interrupted September calmly. The calm came up from inside her, pooling into her heart, smoothing everything clean. It had been so long. She had done so much—faced down a Yeti, shot her own shadow, seen the world from a prison cell, raced up to forty years old and back to seventeen again. September found she no longer feared the Marquess much at all. She even looked a bit short and sorry to her now. “You don’t rule the world. You don’t rule anything but yourself. You can still be a Marquess, if you like. But it means nothing more than saying you’re somebody’s old Auntie they only see once a year at Easter. You’re just like everyone else. It’s your turn to hope there’s a box of mercy in the pantry.” September sucked in her breath. The words formed in her mouth but she didn’t want to say them. She needed to think. She needed half a moment to breathe. But you couldn’t breathe in front of this lot. Breathing showed weakness. She didn’t need Tanaquill to tell her that. “I rule Fairyland—”

  “No!” squawked a voice from the rear of the assembly. Not one voice, but eight, all speaking together in perfect harmony. “Nope! Nope! No! Don’t say another word, Missy! Make way!”

  The Stoat of Arms barreled through the grand hall, the seal of a nation come alive. If you have ever seen a passport, try to remember the strange tangle of animals stamped on the cover, for all nations have them. Now, imagine them all leaping off that little leather book and yelling and squawking all together. The Stoat of Arms was not one creature, but a blue-skinned, black-horned unicorn rampant and a little girl in knight’s armor standing upon the backs of two enormous golden stoats. A rainbow of silver stars, black roosters, and sunflowers arched above their heads, and a tiny, twinkling Fairy balanced on her right toe on the tip of the topmost silver star. Applause greeted the miniature zoo—everyone there, save September and her friends, had known the Stoat of Arms long and well in their day.

  “Yes, thank you, cheers,” said the two stoats, the girl, the unicorn rampant, the black roosters, and the Fairy altogether in one voice. “Hortense, kindly refrain from petting us, how many times have we had this discussion? In four hundred years you might have learned to control yourself.” A lady in a samite gown and a hippo’s head snatched her hand back guiltily. “Well, I think we can all agree this is an unprecedented and completely intolerable situation! I know you all far too well to think you will play nicely with the other children! Oh, come now! Has the Knapper stabbed someone already?”

  “Nope!” called a cheerful-cheeked man wearing a cloak of knives. “He’s fine!” He waggled Whipstitch’s hand in the air, but the Elegant Emperor looked very pale and woozy.

  “You see?” cried the stoats and the girl and the unicorn and the chickens and the Fairy. “Be honest, ladies and gentlemen, how many of you have spent the last quarter-hour fomenting rebellion, plotting to murder, or thinking of how nice the city would look if it were on fire?”

  Many, many hands raised up, some sheepish, some defiant, some rather bored.

  “Fortunately,” continued the Stoat of Arms, all eight of its voices filled with disgust, “you won’t get the chance. Fairyland is very well acquainted with all of you and has had quite enough of your nonsense. She is frankly exhausted by the last several thousand years of shenanigans and cannot imagine why all of you are so obsessed with who sits on a certain chair and wears a certain hat. However, if you will insist on treating her as a prize in a silly game, so be it.” The two golden stoats smacked the floor of the grand hall with their front paws twice, in just the same way as a judge might bang her gavel. “In three days’ time, which will be Thursday, for those of you who lived before calendars became sentient, let all who wish to rule Fairyland gather at the Ghostloom Gate on the north side of the city. Thursday shall be known far and wide as the day of the Cantankerous Derby! All hopefuls, thoroughbreds, long shots, cheaters, townies, speed demons, and dark horses shall commence a Wondrous Race, beginning in Pandemonium, and ending at Runnymede Square in the ancient city of Mummery! The winner shall receive the Crown, the Sceptre, and a nice blue ribbon with #1 written on it. All are eligible! Ravished, Stumbled, Changelings, Fairies, Gnomes, Rocks, and Trees! Participation comprises a binding contract to accept the results of the race. Sandwiches and coffee will be provided!”

  “That’s all?” cawed Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord. “Then you shall all cer
tainly be calling me Your Grand High Such and Such by Monday morning! I’m faster than any of you sorry lot!”

  “I beg to differ,” scoffed the Piebald, the Stallion of Time. His mane was all of clock hands, and his tail was a long pendulum.

  “SANDWICHES AND COFFEE WILL BE PROVIDED!” roared the Stoat of Arms. “And that is most certainly not all! You must present yourself at Runnymede Square in the ancient city of Mummery bearing the Heart of Fairyland, or be disqualified! The Cantankerous Derby is a Race with a Hunt hidden inside! In the meantime, the Briary has ample room to accommodate you all in comfort and safety, from inclement weather, privation, but most importantly, from one another. Please proceed in as orderly a fashion as you are capable of to the Second-Best Parlor, where you will find the Scuttler, who keeps the running of the Briary. He will show you to your room and present you with a schedule of meal times, exercise hours, and social activities divided by who is least likely to eat one another before Thursday. Are we understood?”

  A murmur of mixed doubt, eagerness, muffled outrage, and longing for lunch passed through the gathered court.

  “But I am Queen of Fairyland,” September said softly. She nervously touched the crown of jeweled keys upon her head. Now that it was about to be whisked away from her, suddenly September did not feel quite so sure she wanted nothing to do with Queenery. “Why can’t it be me?”

  The Stoat of Arms turned toward her with several haughty gazes—which is the same thing as apologizing to somebody who has been in government as long as the Stoat. “Indeed you are, madam. For three days. And Fairyland is very glad to have you. But please—such things are to be discussed in private, Your Majesty. You and I will adjourn to the Royal Closet, which I have already certified as ruffian-free. As for the rest of you, go! It’ll take the poor Zinnias weeks to make the grand hall livable again!”

  The Zinnias, since our Stoat will certainly not deign to tell you a thing about them, are the Royal Guard of the Briary, a platoon of very stern armored emu-birds with zinnia flowers blooming all over their breastplates and their helmets. This might make them look silly to you or I, but Pandemonians know that each of those flowers can fly free like an assassin’s throwing star, and they are sharper than they seem. Flowers are always more serious than they appear.