The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 24Catherynne M. Valente
The soap golem’s cheeks glowed. “You cannot have a conspiracy of one. The others have far to come and we did not know when Ajax would play his trick and some of us have strict rules governing where we can and cannot travel. Sit and drink and eat and be yourself and do not worry about your friends because they are very wonderful people who can do wonderful things with and without you and sometimes when all our friends are close round we cannot be ourselves as completely as when we sit alone in a little house in the country where there are ducks and a garden growing. Now I would like to make you tea even though we ought to wait for the others but I am proud of it because I had it sent through the post and it took weeks.”
September sat gratefully at the table. The ducks nosed at her feet for crumbs. “But I’m not alone, Lye. You’re here.”
“I am not a person but thank you for calling me one. It makes me feel very real.”
September thought this a strange thing to say, but she let it lie between them on the table like an unfolded napkin. Lye pulled a copper kettle down from the rack and set it on a great black gas stove. It sat smugly in the corner of the kitchen, assured of its place in the center of the world. I have told you that everything has a heart, and a kitchen is the heart of its house. All the best holidays and feasts and gossip and midnight confessions and schemes and intrigues and biscuits and pies come from the kitchen. And the stove lords over the kitchen, for it makes the feasts, and there is nothing so good for hatching a plot as stirring a pot for hours. That is why witches do it so often.
Lye turned one of the black dials and lit a matchstick—but the stove did not light. She tried again and sighed.
“It is my fault. I do not come to Winesap often enough and a lonely house will break for attention if no one minds it and pets it and tells it it is a good house,” Lye said, deeply embarrassed.
“Let me try? Perhaps I can fix it,” suggested September.
She gave the black range a good long stare down. It glared mulishly back at her, and if it had had two big metal arms to cross over its chest, it would have. September cocked her head to one side. She opened the cold oven and peered inside.
“It’s simple enough,” she said with a little grunt, dropping to her knees, reaching her fingers in, and feeling around for what she wanted. “Her name is Mrs. Frittershank and she’s got so many nieces and nephews she can’t count them but she does try and once she had an ambition to cook something French but she got so busy with other things that it just never happened for her. She fell in love with a woodpile once but it ended badly and if she’s honest she’s never quite gotten past it and she’s very cross with you, Lye, I’m sorry to say. She says you don’t know goulash from guacamole—well, Mrs. Frittershank, I’m not sure I do either! And you only use her to boil up the bathwater and she will go on strike if she doesn’t get something interesting to do and also she has a bent thermo-coupler.”
Lye, being made of soap, thought nothing so odd about a talking stove, even if she couldn’t hear it. She couldn’t hear lots of things. “I am as full of sorry as a golem can be,” said Lye, and folded her hands before her, staring mortified at the well-polished floor.
September could hear Mrs. Frittershank as clear as a blue flame lighting. She could hear where the stove was broken in the lilt and tilt of her voice, and how she stopped in the middle of words like a burner clicking on but not catching fire. “I’ve almost got it!” she reported from deep inside Mrs. Frittershank. Her voice echoed a bit.
Soft, dark laughter rang in the doorway like a shop bell. “If only everyone back home could see the Queen of Fairyland face-deep in an oven! Are we making Queen-pie? I’ll want ice cream on mine!”
September smiled as she popped the thermo-coupler back into place. She knew that voice. She couldn’t help but know it, for the voice was her own. She pulled her head and arms gently out of Mrs. Frittershank, stood, and struck a match. The flame lit without complaint and she put the kettle on before turning around, quite blackened with carbon and grime.
“Hello, Halloween.” September looked fondly into her shadow’s eyes.
Halloween, the Hollow Queen, Princess of Doing What You Please and Night’s Best Girl stood under the lavender and the thyme and the horseshoe, carrying a present wrapped in black paper with a black bow. She wore a shadow of September’s orange dress and a shadow of her smoking jacket, and on her head a crown of autumn mist with a pumpkin-colored jewel floating in it like a harvest moon. Like September, she had grown older. Unlike September, she looked quite well rested and top-full of secret delight.
“How nice of you to dress up for our little party, September. I love your tattoo,” the Queen of Fairyland-Below said, and glided forward to kiss her grubby cheek.
September’s shadow sat at the kitchen table with the ease of someone who has visited many times and has permission to get herself biscuits from the cabinet whenever she likes. But she had not come alone. Another shadow darkened the door. A thinner, more nervous shadow, with violet and blue and silver slights flickering in the depths of her skin. She wore a lacy shadow-dress, with thick shadow-petticoats underneath it, and elegant shadow-gloves and shadow-stockings and shadow-slippers. And the shadow of a very fine hat.
September knew her name—but even if she hadn’t, Mrs. Frittershank was weeping all over the inside of her head, calling it out over and over: Maud! Maud! Maud!
The Marquess’s shadow had brought a small black pot with a lid on it. September reached out to take it.
“Hello, Maud,” she said softly. “I hope you’re well.” And she did mean it, for the Marquess’s shadow was gentle and kind in all the places the Marquess was sharp and unyielding.
Maud held the pot to her chest. “Oh, I’m sorry! I should have thought! But it’s not for you. It’s a pot de crème. Chocolat. For Mrs. Frittershank. She always wanted to cook something French, you see…”
Maud took the whistling kettle off the burner and replaced it with her pot.
“How did you know about Mrs. Frittershank?” asked September wonderingly. Saturday couldn’t hear the Bathysphere. Lye couldn’t hear the stove.
The shadow ran her finger along the oven door affectionately. She reached up to stroke the bottoms of the copper pots hanging from their rack. She lifted a tea towel with a black cat embroidered on it and held it lovingly to her cheek.
“Why, this is my house. I know everything about it. How could anyone not know their stove’s name? Oh! And my ducks!” The cast-iron ducks hopped madly about her feet. She crouched down to let them up into her lap, whereupon they began the earnest work of nuzzling every part of her face with their bills. Lye stroked her hair with one cinnamon-soap hand. “I lived here when I was Mallow. Just Mallow. Not Queen Anything yet. I was happy here. I was a practical girl. I learned the magic of Keeping to Yourself. I ate coal-eggs and swam in the whiskey lake and became an expert in heaps of things. I had a friend who came round every Thursday. I think you met him. He has wolf ears.”
“Shall we have our tea?” Halloween said, clearing her throat. “September hasn’t got so much time as we do. Her appointment book is rather a monster. And gossip without tea has no bite.”
“Is this … is this part of the Derby?” September asked warily. “Is this a trick, to keep me here until someone else has won?”
The soap golem shook her head so hard flakes of soap flew free. “It’s not a trick. You played a trick. You cheated. You had wombat help. If anyone has tricked anyone, it’s you. Oh, but we know it isn’t. This isn’t the Race. This is us.”
And so September sat down to tea with her shadow and the shadow of her enemy. As well as a tall woman made of soap, who poured from a funny fussy little teapot with mauve roses all over it. It made September laugh—though not too loudly, as she didn’t want to hurt Lye’s feelings. But she had grown accustomed to everything in Fairyland looking outlandish. Whether she came across a bicycle or a train or a smoking jacket, they had always gotten tarted up in wild costumes and dashing souls
. But this was the sort of teapot any old grandmother would have. Just squat and porcelain and slightly tacky, for no one in the world needs that many roses.
The soap golem looked toward the door. “But our fifth…”
Maud put her shadowy hand over her friend’s pink Castile fingers. “Lye, she’s on her way. You know her schedule … she never shows up on time. Too early or too late, you know. That’s her.”
The teapot poured a deep green tea into September’s cup, a smoky red one into Halloween’s, and a golden one into Maud’s. Silken strings spiraled up and laid themselves softly over the brim of their cups, growing lovely parchment tea-tags as they came. September lifted hers to read on one side:
ILL-TEMPERED AND IRASCIBLE ENOUGH
She sipped it, and the tea tasted of a warm, sunny wind on her face, full of the smells of green things: mint and grass and rosemary and fresh water, frogs and leaves and hay.
“The Duke of Teatime made it specially for you. He calls it the ‘Bishop’s Best Gambit.’” Halloween sipped from her own cup but did not tell anyone the name of the tea inside, for she was a shadow, and shadows keep secrets out of habit, even when they needn’t.
“I don’t care for gossip…,” began September hesitantly.
“Oh, come now,” Maud said, laughing. “You know it’s only called gossip when girls do it. We mean to parley. We mean to share information. For example, you needn’t worry about your friends. Oddson dropped them off in Mummery. He thinks you’ve had far too much help. They think the local pastries are dreadful. They’ll be waiting when you get there.”
“What about Saturday?”
Halloween fiddled with her tea-tag. “He’s very sick, you know. My Saturday, Saturday’s shadow, is sick, too. He doesn’t remember me at all anymore. Calls me Dryheart. Or just Miss. When he calls me Miss he says it so cheerfully that I feel as though I shall choke to death on his smile. He remembers his own name, of course. It’s only the story of us he’s lost. And he’s started pickpocketing in Tain. He’s very rude to anybody who catches him out. But dear enough that no one asks for their wallets back.”
September smiled sadly. “He was like that before … well, before you, Maud. Before the Marquess locked him up in a cage. I suppose if he lost that story, he’d have no reason left to feel shy. I’m sure if I can fix my Saturday I can fix yours, but I’ve no idea what to do. Do you? Is that what you’ve come to tell me?”
They shook their heads no.
“The Heart of Fairyland, then? Do you know what it is? Where it is?”
Again, the three women shook their heads.
“Then what is this all about?” September demanded. “What is the point of all this?”
Halloween glared at her. “We’ve gone to a lot of trouble, you know. You might act grateful! The point is survival. You might end up Queen, but have you seen the competition? You’ll probably end up dead. I would prefer that you not die, September, as it would have the inconvenient side effect of me dying, and I like not being dead.”
“I would also prefer to keep drinking tea and gossiping and looking after ducks and weeding my garden,” said the Marquess’s shadow. “But the trouble with villains is that they do tend to die at the end of the story. And if she dies…”
“Can’t keep them around to make trouble,” Halloween agreed. Lye whimpered softly. The Hollow Queen pushed the box wrapped in black paper toward September. She watched the sunlight glitter on the black bow.
“Did you grow up? When I did. When I was the Spinster. When the Yeti took my youth away. When I got lost in the rum cellar.”
Halloween said nothing for a long time. Then she reached out and touched September’s hair, her cheek, her long neck. “Yes,” her shadow whispered. “It was frightening. But didn’t we feel strong?”
September untied the black bow and tore open the black paper. She opened the box. Inside lay a green velvet cushion.
On the cushion rested the Rivet Gun.
Halloween, the Hollow Queen, grinned at September. “Okay, Nebraska. I want you to shoot me.”
CITY OF FOOLS
In Which a City Decides to Crash the Party, Resulting in Many Reunions and the Fateful Firing of a Gun
Long, long ago, I told you how to find Pandemonium—the city moves according to the needs of narrative. When it smells a good story, the capital of Fairyland nips up and runs after it.
Mummery is not the capital of Fairyland, though it once was. For Mummery came first of all the Fairy cities, before Kvass or Blancmange or Myrtlewine or Almanack or Winesap Station or Flegethon City or Pandemonium. In Mummery, Fairies learned city tricks, to go along with their ancient country tricks of turning milk sour and beer flat and stealing away Changelings and turning shepherdesses into dragons. Alley Magic and Trapdoor Magic and Electric Magic and Loud Magic and Rubbish Magic and Takeaway Magic. But, like many oldest children, Mummery has always loved to tease and prod and play pranks upon everyone younger than it. (I shall leave you to guess whether your narrator got herself born first, last, or in the middle.) Pandemonium always struck it as an easy mark, too sunny and eager to please.
Mummery moves against the needs of narrative.
When the first Fairy city smells a good story, it cackles to itself and bolts off to break it. Should a young pixie need to rescue the gnome of her heart before the clock strikes midnight, Mummery will plant itself right in her path with a heavy mist on its streets so that she will be sure to lose her way. Should a unicorn seek vengeance against a gang of spoiled huntsmen who have a gentlemen’s club in the chic neighborhood of Foolscap, Mummery will make sure to rush its most fashionable streets under those silver hooves long before the beast finishes her training, or hide away in the hills until long after she has given up.
And should a girl need to find her way to Mummery once she has seized the Heart of Fairyland for her own, the city will seize her first. It will lurk behind a toll road until it can spring out and catch her when she’s got nothing but her wits to show for a long journey through the world. And it will pounce with great delight at having trod all over her third act and left muddy footprints everywhere.
Mummery lives to ruin the ending. And it has been very busy.
September came to town strapped for battle. She didn’t mean to look as fierce as she did, but she didn’t mean to come to town, either, so it hardly mattered. She carried the Greatvole’s whisker on her hip, her cuttlefish tattoo on her arm, the Rivet Gun and her wrench crossed on her back—and her shadow behind her, cast long and tall on the ancient roads of Mummery.
The city threw out its best sea fog so that September wouldn’t know she’d walked out of the woods around Winesap Station and into Mummery until she was deep in the high street of Foliotown. Only then did the sea fog begin to roll itself up like the awning over a shop in the morning. September looked out into a silent city. She knew it at once, without Ell to tell her, the way she knew how to drive the Bathysphere, the way she knew how to fix the gas stove. The thousand and four towers of Mummery loomed over her out of the mist. Curling jester’s hats full of windows and balconies cast harlequin shadows on the narrow roads. Juggling clubs and staves leaned at every angle, with lights on in their penthouses. Topless ladders rose everywhere, up into the fog and out of sight. Aerialists’ silks flowed from rooftop to rooftop to sword hilt to coin edge, connecting colored balls with tiled roofs and torches with shops in their tall trunks, concert halls within towers made of magicians’ scarves and universities within chalices studded with fake glass gems, trick ropes coiled as high as clock towers filled with dressmakers and bread bakers, cathedrals inside giant double-headed cheaters’ coins, blunted scimitars stuck in the earth of that fool’s city, so vast their hollow blades could hold a hundred banks.
And all of them empty.
September walked the streets of Mummery, her blood beating madly in her brow, her nerves sawing back and forth over her senses. The unlit street lamps stared down unsettlingly a
t her—each one was a wooden club ending in a very nearly alive-looking carving of a fool’s smiling or frowning or laughing or weeping face and gaudy hat. The mammoth juggling torches cast a fitful orange light through the haze. She thought she could hear voices, footsteps, but when she followed, she found only another alley ending with a locked door in a house of fortune-teller’s cards or barred windows in the back of a gargantuan fiddle.
“I can’t be the only person in a whole city,” she said to yet another dead end.
Rustling sounds shivered through the sweeping silks overhead.
“Never the only,” they whispered. “Never the only one, no one’s alone, never the only one in a world so full.”
Don’t listen to that stage whispering, September’s shadow whispered, trailing over the cobbles and curbs. She could hear Halloween in her bones, but the shadow’s voice made no sound in the empty, echoing city. Mummery is a bad old girl and she only wants to bruise you up a bit before she pounces. We pull this eerie act in Fairyland-Below all the time. I once made a gnome think she’d gone back in time to the Middle Evil era, just for fun. It’s all just for fun. You are a naughty minx, aren’t you, Mummers? Yes, you are! Who’s a menace? Who’s a creaky old slum?
“Did you hear that?” September said sharply. She had heard it—Ell’s flame popping and roaring into life. He always made a little gulping noise right before he spouted off, and she had heard it, down that street there. She darted off after it, running in the quiet, her own breath as loud as Wyvern’s fire in her ears. The fool’s-head street lamps seemed to laugh silently as she sped by.