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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 23

Catherynne M. Valente

  “Well, you won’t beat me, you little turncoats,” groused Charlie Crunchcrab.

  The old ferryman wore his old thick goggles and his wild thick hair billowed over his barnacled ram’s horns. He still wore his name tag. Hawthorn’s own handwriting, reading Charles Q. Crunchcrab. The former King of Fairyland glowered at her from the back of his Roc, clearly airsick and homesick and competition-sick, which Ajax would call a terminal illness. “You were meant to work for me! My personal spies—and now you dare aim those cannons at your King?”

  “Well,” said Tam. “You’re not our King. She is.” The fetch pointed one long wooden finger at September. “For now.”

  “And you hired us to find a way to make you not-King anymore. Which I think we did smashingly! Go us!” Hawthorn grinned.

  “I was wrong,” Crunchcrab said simply. “One minute, everyone looked at me like I mattered more than their own mothers. The next, no one looked at me at all. You try taking that drop with a smile and a curtsy! I will be looked at! I will be seen! I will matter!”

  Ajax Oddson’s voice chimed in her ear like a boxing bell. “Choose weapons quickly—time is shortening its reins! The endgame approaches!”

  “I’m sorry, he says I’ve got to choose weapons,” September called to the Chimbley’s Revenge.

  “You better choose fair, missy girl,” Crunchcrab scowled. “No stacking it for your friends!”

  September turned on him, her heart blazing in her chest. “You know what, Charlie? I have had enough of you. You were only ever nice when you had your wings locked down and your family all turned into pitchforks and typewriters. What’s fair? Handing over Changelings to Tanaquill? Letting Fairies run roughshod over everyone’s faces again just because they could? Making me a Criminal when my biggest heist ended up turning you into a King? You were a rotten King and you oughtn’t be in charge of anything bigger than a gumdrop. You only want the throne because somebody came and took your toy away and, even though you were quite done playing with it, now you’re pitching a fit. I used to think Fairies would be wonderful, glittering miracles but you’re really just the worst lot of brats I’ve ever met. I’ll choose what weapons I like! And do you know what I like? A troll gave me the idea. It’s awfully good. I choose—State Capitals!”

  And September laughed in the Fairy King’s face, for she knew quite well that Hawthorn and Tamburlaine had gone a long way through the Chicago Public School system, and would be able to swing a Springfield without batting an eye. It’s only this once, she told herself. I’ll play fair forever after. But just this once I want to pull out somebody’s rug like they’re always pulling out mine.

  It was over so fast September choked on her own breath. Her duels had gone on and on, round after round. She’d thought they all would.

  Tam rubbed her hands together. “Phoenix, Arizona!” she screamed, and at the same moment, Hawthorn hollered: “Baton Rouge, Louisiana!”

  Crunchcrab sputtered and stuttered, trying to remember that the capital of Cockaigne was Blancmange or that the Buyan courthouse was in sunny Kvass or even that the Queen of Fairyland-Below ruled from Tain. But Charlie had never traveled much in his life nor wanted to. Travel only got you blisters. All he could think of was his home.

  “Pandemonium!” he yelled with what he hoped was gusto.

  The waves chopped and rose between the Roc and the galleon. A mad minstrel spun up from the surf, the bells on her hat jangling, her doublet and hose flashing dark rainbow colors, juggling fire and knives. Her hair flew wild—and September stared, for she could see all at once that the minstrel was made of a million tiny Fairies and sprites and pixies, all jumbled together into a writhing, glittering minstrel-shape. She remembered A-Through-L telling her about Pandemonium the day they met—Population is itinerant, but Summer estimates hover around ten thousand daimonia—that means spirits …

  “And pan means all,” September breathed, just as she had then.

  The mad minstrel burst into flames.

  A great phoenix swooped down from the clouds, its body all one burning ember from beak to tail feather, glowing black and red as a December hearth. In its charcoal talons the bird-inferno carried a long red spear hewn from a bayou cypress—for that is what baton rouge means in French. The phoenix hurled his spear directly between the eyes of the mad minstrel of Pandemonium, who exploded into a million burning sprites raining down into the steaming sea. The phoenix cawed triumphantly and beat his wings against the sky.

  Hawthorn and Tamburlaine lost no time. “Lansing, Michigan!” fired the troll. The fetch put her lovely flowering head to one side and laughed. September knew that laugh, for she had made it herself, when she’d thought of a wild and winning play. Tam squared her shoulders. “Darwin, Northern Territory! Australia!” she added quickly, in case whatever magic made a duel got confused between the countries.

  Charlie Crunchcrab tried to think. Tanaquill told me. So did the Stoat of Arms. The old Stoat made up a song so I could remember. But whoever needed to know such a stupid thing? They always treated me like a schoolboy. They were my states, they’d have whatever capital I told them to have! How does it go? Charlie sang under his breath.

  “Old Brocéliande is a lady fine, her foot’s a shady forest and her head is … Myrtlewine!”

  But it was far too little and late. Useless myrtle flowers spread dumbly over the sea while Charlie howled and a man mounted the flaming phoenix. The man had bushy brown muttonchops with the gray just coming in and a sad, but wise, look in his eye. He wore a velvet coat and a cream-colored cravat and carried a book under one arm. In the other, he hoisted a long tortoiseshell lance fletched with songbird feathers. The man had worn-out boots and sea-worn hands and his name was Charlie Darwin, all sudden-true. The phoenix soared up with one stroke of his wonderful wings, then shot down toward Charlie Crunchcrab. Charles Darwin’s eyes grew keen as he threw his lance.

  “It’s the survival of them that’s best at nicking things, my boy!” the great scientist thundered, and his lance took the Fairy King in the chest.

  “Well, if that doesn’t just top the tart,” Charlie said with a sigh.

  Charles Crunchcrab I looked down. He shivered. And an extraordinary thing happened. A dragonfly buzzed out of his fine peacoat. Then a little brown nightingale flew out of his trouser leg. Then Crunchcrab the Fairy wriggled and writhed and vanished. A pile of peacoat and flying cloak and the most delicate and lovely shoes you ever saw lay on the broad back of Wenceslas the Roc—as well as a cow, an antelope, a goat, and a very confused-looking ifrit with a smoky tail. All the creatures Fairies had evolved from, which is to say all the creatures they had stolen the best bits from, just as Charlie had told September so long ago. Wings from dragonflies and faces from people and hearts from birds and horns from various goats and antelope-ish things and souls from ifrits and tails from cows and we evolved, over a million million minutes.

  Wenceslas grumbled over the extra weight of a sudden cow, but he persevered. He would get them to shore—the Roc could see it in the distance, a beach full of golden scepters and crowns and jewels and necklaces. Inside the left sleeve of Crunchcrab’s peacoat hid a very handsome frog. The frog’s name was Charlie and he knew if he came out from his sleeve the other creatures would be very angry with him. So he stayed where he was. Where he was felt good and safe and, most important, easy. No one would ask him to rule the sleeve or know its capital. No one would tell him he was sleeving wrong. No one would bother him at all. And I will tell you the truth: That frog looked happier than any ferryman ever born.

  “Jolly good!” Ajax Oddson congratulated all of them. Hawthorn and Tamburlaine hugged each other while Scratch danced a pirate jig on the upper deck, singing into the wind. But the Racemaster had not finished. “Now, it’s come to my attention that certain rules have been broken! Certain bad behavior has gone without punishment! Certain cheaters have prospered! Is this so? Not on my watch! Queen September, I sentence you to Lose A Turn! To the Penalty Box with all che
aters, rogues, and silly little girls!”

  September banged on the edges of the frame as they went up around her like steam. “What are you talking about? I didn’t cheat!”

  The Perverse and Perilous Sea grew cloudy and dark in September’s vision—and so did Skaldtown, still sunny and bright beneath the image of the distant dueling ground. So did Ell and Blunderbuss and Saturday and Hemlock the troll.

  Hawthorn waved his hands in the air as he melted away, trying to catch her eye.

  “September!” he called out to her, but his voice faded, too. “September, don’t forget about the name tags!”

  Hemlock the troll stared, dumbfounded, at the empty chimney cones of his village. Only a moment ago, he’d been chatting away to a wyvern and a wombat and a Marid. And then that girl the alphabet loved had gone all thin and misty and there’d been a pirate ship and a ruddy great Roc where she’d been standing. Hemlock had a horror of pirates—always had and always would. Nothing could be worse in this world than a pirate come to take what you loved and then sing a shanty about it. Hemlock had tried to look unafraid—and then there’d been a lot of yelling and exploding, and now they were all clean vanished: wyvern, wombat, Marid, girl, alphabet, pirate ship and all.

  But he’d seen the captain of that ship. The moment the image of it sailed across the hills of Skaldtown. A troll. A troll in a funny coat with a nose like a boulder.

  “That’s my son!” he’d gasped to that absurd wool wombat with her button eyes. Why the beast looked like he’d just told her it was her own birthday he hadn’t the faintest.



  In Which September Finds Herself Alone in a Strange House, But Not for Long

  September opened her eyes and knew three things: She was very far from Skaldtown, she was cold, and she was alone.

  A little country house nestled itself just so on the shore of a caramel-colored whiskey lake. The long, stove-black trunks and warm cream-colored leaves of trifle-trees, heavy with ripe raisin and soursop tarts, bent low to frame a peaked thatch roof and snug stone walls. Someone had planted a kitchen garden: Green luckfig vines and loveplantain creepers chased sage and sweet basil and parsley up toward lattice windows. It needed weeding, but the first tomatoes were already coming in, and the peapods looked so awfully crisp and fat that September’s mouth watered. Three cast-iron ducks waddled and quacked cozily between the brussels-sprout stalks, snapping at ladybugs. The door to the country house stood open. The smell of tea steeping and fresh cut lemons drifted out.

  She was exhausted, hungry, and the chill peat-fog coming off the whiskey lake had already sunk into her bones. All she wanted to do in the world was run straight into that house, shut the door, climb into the warm sheets of the deep plush bed that surely waited inside, and never come out. But September hesitated. She had read far too many stories not to hesitate. When a girl finds a strange and perfect house in a wood, whether made of candy or on chicken legs or puffing smoke roses from the chimney, as this one did, she should never rush inside. The house usually wants to swallow her whole. And this was, presumably, the Penalty Box. She would find the table inside set for punishment. September drew the Greatvole’s crystal whisker from its sheath and held it before her.

  The lady of the house leaned out of the pretty cedarwood door. A rich, clean perfume wafted out into the garden before her, for the woman was carved entirely from soap. Her face was a deep olivey green Castile, her hair a rich and oily Marseille, streaked with lime peels. Her body was patchwork: here strawberry soap with bits of red fruit showing through, there saffron and sandalwood, orange and brown. Her belt was a cord of hard, tallowy honey-soap, her hands plain blue bathing soap. On her brow someone had written TRUTH, though the bold teacherly handwriting stood no longer so deep and sharp on her forehead as it once had.

  Relief flooded up from September’s toes all the way to the top of her head.

  “Lye!” she called out, and ran up the neat flagstone path to fling herself into the arms of the soap golem. One of the awful secrets of seventeen is that it still has seven hiding inside it. Sometimes seven comes tumbling out, even when seventeen wants to be Grown-Up and proud. This is also one of the awful secrets of seventy.

  “Hello, September,” said Lye in her slow, soft way. Warm, soapy bubbles drifted out of her mouth when she spoke. “You’ve grown so since I saw you. Welcome to the Penalty Box.”

  “Oh, Lye, a million million things have happened since I saw you! I hardly know how to tell you!”

  “Don’t worry, child. The gossip in Winesap is of the very best vintage. That’s where you are—just outside the village of Winesap Station, in Meadmarchen County. Nowhere near any part of Fairyland you’ve met. But I have made my friends here. I keep their courage scrubbed and clean and they keep my know-how and my know-who fresh and bright.”

  The soap golem’s face glowed with something like pride. When September had met Lye long ago in the House Without Warning, the poor lady had carried such a big sadness that she never once smiled. September didn’t know what to make of the gleam of wicked delight on that green-soap face, or the tiny points of foam that rose up where a person might have a high-red blush.

  “I made Ajax Oddson bring you here,” the golem confessed without looking the least bit sorry.

  “What? How? You can’t bribe a boy from Blue Hen Island! What did you do?”

  “I didn’t bribe anyone,” smirked Lye. “Mr. Oddson needed my help. He wanted to use the House Without Warning as his headquarters, and that is my house and that means I can leave the door locked if I don’t like who’s knocking. Mallow said that, and she was right. I told that Dandy I wanted to be paid and I thought I might faint when I said it for you know I never ask anything for myself even when I need it but I got my suds up under my bravery and it turns out demanding works very well. The Racemaster said he would make my bathhouse famous all over Fairyland. I would never run out of bathers for all my days. I said I was already famous. Anyone going to Pandemonium for the first time must come through my House. I have no need for advertising. The Racemaster said he’d give me a bucket full of emeralds and I told him I did not eat or drink or wear clothes and I owned my bathhouse and many books already so what use could I have for money and jewels? And the Racemaster thought and planned and laid out his racing blueprints on the tables of the House Without Warning and when he puzzled over how to move his racers when the time came to mix up their positions, I asked for my payment. That I should get to run the Penalty Box, all so that this racer”—Lye touched September’s long brown hair—“should sooner or later come here. After all, why not here? Winesap Station is only a village not near anything much at all, and this is only a little country house where I come to think, and no one could get a strategic advantage out of either of us, and it cost him nothing. I am sure he thought there was a cheat in it somewhere, but he could not find it, and no soap-flake dolly could ever get one over on a boy from Blue Hen Island and so he spit in his silks and shook my hand and I won something, I won something for the first time in my whole life, and it felt like every bubble inside me popping at once.”

  “How did you know I would end up in the Penalty Box?”

  Lye laughed and soap bubbles came dancing from her mouth. “How could you not? Everywhere you turn you bump into rules and knock them off their tables and break them on the floor. You trample half a dozen rules on your way from bed to breakfast. Oh! I am meant to say to you…” Lye straightened her back and made her voice as loud as she could, which was not very loud, but she did try. “September, you have been sent to the Penalty Box without supper for the breaking of Dueling Conventions, vis-à-vis having a great lot of wombats do your dirty work for you instead of biting Thrum definitively with your own teeth and/or other sharp stuff. You may commence being ashamed of yourself.”

  Lye let her body relax again. “I don’t think you have to be ashamed and I knew you’d find your way to me, but, oh, September, the folk I have
had to suffer waiting for you! The First Stone broke my bathtub and Pinecrack, the Moose-Khan, soiled my garden and Curdleblood filled up all the wood boxes with despair and burnt toast. Madame Tanaquill has been here four times already and I’ve had to listen to her tales of the Old Days four times because she never remembers me because I am not important, I am a bar of soap. She told me that and then told me how in her day everything knew its place and no slip of used-up soap would dream of putting on such airs as to speak to her or take her coat or prepare her tea but you know she drank up all my tea anyway and I didn’t have anything left for the dinosaur and I am glad you bit him because he ate my laundry. I had to hide the tea I brought for you under a hearthstone.”

  “Poor Lye! I shall try very hard to be a better guest. Only how long does a penalty last? What’s happened to Ell and Saturday and Blunderbuss?” September looked round for the eleventh or twelfth time, hoping they would come suddenly crashing out of the woods, full of tumbling words. But the woods only rustled with the mist and the wind.

  “I do not know. I asked only to be the Penalty Box so I could catch you up in my house. You can’t leave until Ajax sounds an Oxenfree Horn for you. I will be sorry if you want me to be sorry. It was only my first try at a conspiracy and I am not practiced at it yet. I have not even asked you inside so please come inside and drink the tea I have made for you specially and forgive me that I let you stay in the mist so long.”

  The cast-iron ducks followed September into the achingly cozy house. The kitchen had started modestly and grown to take up nearly the whole of the downstairs. Everything hung smartly in its place. A rack of well-used copper pots hung from the rafters, freshly spun wool hung over the stone hearth. Sheaves of lavender and thyme and hot peppers hung drying over the doorway—along with an old iron horseshoe. September glanced at it and put it away in the pockets of her mind to take out and take apart later. Whose house was this? No Fairylander could have hung that shoe. They were allergic to iron. Lye had laid out tea on a spicy-smelling wood table covered in a handsome black lace tablecloth. She’d made luckfig and pea-shoot sandwiches, lemon and loveplantain pound cake, hard-boiled peacock eggs. Deep magenta dishes dotted the table, filled with sugar cubes, lemon slices, pots of honey, cinnamon stirring sticks, and fresh sweet cream. But it was not tea for two—it was tea for five. Five cups, five saucers, five little spoons.