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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 26

Catherynne M. Valente

  Mallow smashed the hourglass against the floor of the House Without Warning. Red sand flew in every direction. The last grain skittered across the tiles and came to rest against the lip of the broken fountain.

  And nothing else happened.

  September remained, standing much taller than she ever thought she’d be when she was twelve, her feet firmly on Fairy ground.

  And she could not breathe. You are never going home. Her heart felt as though it had vanished from her body and left nothing but a hole. You will never see your parents again. September shut her eyes against her tears.

  The soap golem led them to the center of the House Without Warning, which was really and truly a house now, with all the people Lye cared about inside it. At least for the moment, everyone the golem loved was collected within its long tiled halls and courtyards. All the crumblings and cracks looked suddenly charming and busy, covered in soft mosses and green with age. They began to build themselves merrily up again stone by stone. The soft smacking sounds of the golem’s soapy heels against the floor were light, cheerful. Everyone walked quietly in a long train brought up by the softly grumping engine of Aroostook. Everyone was afraid speaking would spoil it and bring back the brawling they’d only just escaped. Finally, they entered a large courtyard. In the midst of copper statues and fountains shaking off their verdigris rested a huge bathtub, hollowed out of a single rough stone. The floor showed two winged hippocamps rampant in cobalt and emerald. The tub covered one of their hooves like a great horseshoe.

  Lye pulled at Mallow’s jacket and she wriggled out of it with a little laugh. She did not even seem to notice them watching her. She hesitated for a moment, then climbed into the stone tub, her skin flushing red with the heat. Her shadow eased in behind her, wrapping her long black arms around Mallow’s thin, pale chest.

  “Is this my punishment?” Mallow asked tremblingly. “Will you boil me alive?”

  Lye snapped off her right hand at the wrist. It made a dull chunking sound, and September gasped. She had seen Lye break off her fingers before, but her hand was so much, so much!

  “This is the bath for washing your anger,” the golem said solemnly. She dropped her hand into the water. It fizzed up in bruised purples and reds and yellows. It smelled of dusty attics and the Briary gardens and the walls of the Lonely Gaol, of blue lions and black panthers and wooden spoons.

  Mallow shut her eyes and shook her head. “You can’t wash my anger, Lye. It’s too big. It’ll never come out. Never.”

  Maud, Mallow’s shadow, dunked a bucket into the bath and poured the scalding water over her head. “When you are first hurt, your anger is fresh and bright and clean. It is hot and eager to defeat injustice. It makes you sharp and keen and quick, so that you can outrace your hurt and leave it lying on some faraway ground where it happened. This is why children cry so bitterly and scream until their faces go red at the smallest hunger or loneliness. They must get terribly, piercingly angry so that they can get out in front of all the little hurts of being new, or else they will never get free of them. But anger can go off like milk in the icebox. It can go hard and rotting and turn everything around it rotting, too. By the time you have made your peace, your anger has reeked up your whole heart, it’s so gunked up with fuming. That’s why you must wash your anger every now and again, or else you can’t even move an inch.”

  September took the bucket from Mallow’s shadow, filled it, and poured it over the girl who had been the Marquess’s head. The cuttlefish colors all ran out of her hair. She wept and was Maud again, blond and young and running away over and over again. The girl who was once the Marquess clung to Lye. September felt she ought to turn away, that such grief was not hers to comfort, and so she did.

  She walked over to Aroostook and put her hand on its hood. “What adventures you must have had!” September said, and was very glad the Model A had come through without a dent or a prick in her windshield. The engine warmed under her hand with recognition and tired happiness.

  And then September heard Aroostook’s voice in her head, just as she had heard Fizzwilliam the Bathysphere’s voice and Mrs. Frittershank the gas oven’s. It told her all about how it had escaped from Madame Tanaquill’s impound garage and gone wildly wandering through Fairyland, changing whenever some old part of it felt wrong in this new place. It wanted stripes and scales and tangerine scrimshaw and a sunflower steering wheel and great gryphon feet so very badly. It had always had those things, Aroostook told her, even when Mr. Albert first bought it from the lot, it was only that no one else could see them. When September drove it through to Fairyland, it woke up, just as September did the first time she soared across the worlds. It would wake anyone up! And the more the Model A wandered, the more it yearned, the more it began to look on the outside as it had always known it should. Aroostook was a Terrible, Wonderful, Splendid Engine now! It fought a valkyrie and won! That was her helmet, there, in the desert-stone backseat! Be proud of me, September, be proud of your Splendid Engine. Lift my hood and look at what I’ve made of myself! And tell Mr. Albert I’m sorry but I shan’t ever be coming back, ever, ever.

  September popped the clasp on the Model A’s hood and raised it up. Inside lay an engine all of glass and wildflowers and stalactites and bright sapphire cogs wrapped round with striped fur, all turning gracefully and sipping from the fuel tank still brimming with Ballast Downbound’s sunshine-gas. It was a cave of wonders. And she understood it, just as she understood how to drive Fizzwilliam and fix Mrs. Frittershank. She understood Aroostook’s workings top to bottom, and so she knew that if she lifted that ring of toadstools there, she would find what Ballast Downbound, the stalwart Klabautermann who had helped her to the Moon, said lay inside ships and people and everything alive: ballast. Anything that ever fascinated the ship, made it sail true, patched it or broke it, anything the ship loved or longed for, anything it could use, B.D. had said. It all just sort of sinks down and jumbles up together into something hot and heavy inside you, and the weight of everything you ever wanted in the world will keep you steady even when the worst winds blow.

  She lifted the ring of toadstools and moss and there it was. Small, because Aroostook was only a baby, really. But it lay nestled in the deep of her Splendid Engine—a little tight jumble of lunar rock and strands of Almanack, the Whelk of the Moon’s hair, scraps of September’s black criminal’s silks, a stump of a candle from the Candelabra Desert where they’d been taken captive, a few chicken feathers from Mr. Albert’s prize rooster, all wrapped around her carburetor, beating away like nothing so much as a heart.



  In Which Many Plans Find Their Ends

  September stepped out of the House Without Warning and into a clanging, bonging, crashing, blinding riot of color and chaos.

  Saturday giggled and swooped out behind her, soaring up to meet the madness, his blue limbs disappearing into the throng.

  “I think we’re late,” A-Through-L said, his orange eyes widening to take it all in.

  A twisted silver sign arched between two blazing juggler’s torches, its letters spangling in bright, fogless sun:


  Below it hung a long silk banner painted red:


  Pinecrack, the Moose-Khan, antlers and all, rocketed through the air and slammed through the sign, sending pieces of RUNNY and MEDE showering down to the square below, onto the heads of a furious throng of would-be Kings and Queens. Curdleblood, the Dastard of Darkness, fired his onyx flintlocks at Horace the Overbear’s roaring ivory-armored face. A woman with long, terrible teeth put her hands to her sides, screamed up to the heavens, and shivered into an enraged woolly mammoth, charging the Happiest Princess, tossing her tusks like a bull in the ring. Penny Farthing fenced the Ice Cream Man, whose pistachio epaulets hung in bloody tatters round his shoulders. Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord, darted in and out of the mob, pecking at heads and eyes and the od
d fallen jewel he wanted for his new nest. Queen Mab chased Hushnow through the air in her hazelnut chariot, wrested back from poor Sadie Spleenwort who’d gotten it in the lottery. Sadie had only lost one finger to Mab’s wrath, which both ladies considered fair. Sadie shot her sourbolt crossbow at Madame Tanaquill, but they only shattered into green smoke against the Fairy Prime Minister’s back. Horace the Overbear had already bitten the Knapper six or seven times, but it didn’t seem to slow the assassin-king down much. Half of them, comically, still wore the name tags they’d been assigned in the Briary grand hall. Winds of every color spun and sprang through the spires of Mummery on catback, whooping, hollering, blowing war-horns, shouting: Behind you! Down below! Incoming emperor!

  And in the midst of it, Gratchling Gourdbone Goldmouth bellowed his fury at a troll, a wooden girl, and a gramophone. Scratch sang defiantly back at the clurichaun King in the voice of the Siren who once sang the greens:

  Huff, puff, and howl, but I ain’t afraid

  Can’t make a girl cower and a bird can’t be swayed

  Go on, turn out the sun, slap the moon up in chains

  I’ll just sit on my rock in the sea and the rain

  Singin’ these greens till the dawn comes again

  Ajax Oddson danced above it all, the points of his racing silks bouncing from racer to racer to juggling club to torch to card-house to jester’s cap to his own broad banner.

  “Welcome, one and all, to The End!” he cried in his radioman’s voice. “As none of you followed instructions and brought me the Heart of Fairyland, you’ll just have to fight it out between you! It’s one for the ages, yes sir, a Battle Royale to end them all! I, for one, can’t wait to see how it shakes out!”

  “I’ll take the elephant if you knock Curdleblood into a primary color,” said Mallow. She wore her old black dress and petticoats and splendid stockings, but not her hat. Never again.

  September turned to her. “I didn’t think you’d come. You didn’t have to. I didn’t ask.”

  “Do you see that red stitching over Goldmouth’s shoulder? That’s where I cut off his arm. You need me. You’ve come a long way, Susie One-Shoe, but I don’t think you’re the arm-severing type. This is my last fight. I wanted it to be a good one.” Mallow winked at her and ran her hands through her short blond hair. It curled and thickened and lengthened and went black with electric blue ends once more. “I fought a cuttlefish for this hair! It’s mine, fair and square.” She mounted Iago and rode off into the fray.

  “Up you go!” cried Blunderbuss, butting into September from behind and wrestling her up onto the scrap-yarn wombat’s back. “Ready to bust heads?”

  “I wish there were another way,” September said with a sigh.

  “There isn’t!” Buss assured her. “Good thing you’ve got a combat wombat and a fire-breathing Library on your side!”

  September shook her head. “No, no, Ell, you should go somewhere safe! You are not a combat Wyverary!”

  The Wyverary nuzzled her with his red snout. “Are you suggesting that I would ever leave you, September? You might get squashed or roasted and if you get squashed I’ll be squashed and roasted right along with you because we go together like two chapters, small fey. Besides, if I go, there’s no telling which of those beasties will lock down my wings next. I can be very useful. It’s the best part of being big.”

  September held up her arms and A-Through-L, half Wyvern, half Library, bent his neck low so she could climb up onto his back. Blunderbuss felt cheated for a moment. But she knew it was right and proper and she’d get to bite things anyhow. September lay flat against her Wyverary, feeling the heat of his huge heart booming away inside him. And now that she looked, really looked, she could see a history of balloon travel written on his wings, ever so faintly, in red ink on red skin.

  They soared up into battle, gouting jets of indigo flame. Hawthorn and Tamburlaine snapped their heads up when the first tendrils of fire shot over their heads. It was the signal they’d been waiting for.

  “September!” Hawthorn yelled up to her. He still wore his pirate’s tricorn—and his leather jacket trimmed in gold necklaces. He grinned as wide as a troll can grin when they know an unanswerable riddle, and that is wider than continents. “Watch this!”

  The troll drew his pencil from his coat pocket, held it over his head, and snapped it in two.

  Half the contenders for the crown went stock-still and staring, their eyes bulging—the half with their name tags still pinned primly to their chests. They all began saying the oddest things.

  The mammoth trumpeted in frustration. She struggled against her own words. Finally, she lifted her long, furry trunk and cried out: “There Is No Such Thing as Magic!” And shivered back into the long-toothed lady once more. She pointed a terrible finger at Hawthorn, and clearly she meant for some awful thing to come out and set him on fire, but nothing did.

  Curdleblood, the Dastard of Darkness, threw his head back so hard his black minstrel’s cap flew off and all his black hair came free. He screamed: “Go to Bed!” And fell down fast asleep.

  The Knapper, whom September had not even seen, he’d busied himself so diligently with sneaking silently behind the Ice Cream Man in order to get his daggers into him, fell to his knees and wept: “Knives and Scissors Are Sharp, but Different from Swords, and You Can Only Use Them to Fight Cucumbers and Onions and Packages from the Postman!” He tried to make good on his sneaking, but his knives would not even pierce the Ice Cream Man’s butter pecan cloak.

  The Ice Cream Man himself was whispering: “There Are No Such Things as Ancient Enemies from Beyond Time,” and as he repeated it, he melted slowly into the stones of Runnymede Square, being himself an Ancient Enemy from Beyond Time.

  A giant by the name of the Ogre Underlord gritted his blue teeth and wailed helplessly: “I Am Not an Ogre! I Am Not an Ogre!” And then promptly disappeared.

  The Happiest Princess looked up at Tamburlaine with a puzzled expression on her beautiful, cheerful face. “That Power Is Broken and All Go Free,” she said, and laughed like a school bell ringing for summer vacation. She ran out of Runnymede Square and out of the story, for no spell, not Ajax’s nor the Dodo’s nor the Headmistress’s long curse that would not let her grow up, nor even Hawthorn’s, held her any longer.

  Reynaud the Fox God twisted his long red tail in his hands. But he smiled his foxy smile. He’d been tricked—finally, after all these thousands of years of trickstering, he’d been tricked himself. What an extraordinary feeling, he thought to himself as he howled: “Go Play Outside!” and winked out of Fairyland altogether—out of our world, too. He reappeared somewhere far from any place I have ever written about or ever will, Outside Story and Tale and Song. Someplace new, where everything smelled like ancient jokes that hadn’t yet been told, even once.

  In the Outside, Reynaud began to run across hills beyond any rule of narrative.

  But in Runnymede Square, Gratchling Gourdbone Goldmouth raked his claws down his own cheeks. His magenta eyes wept fire. He stared down at Hawthorn with a hatred beyond time and death and baseball. “I Am to Do as I Am Told,” he growled.

  Hawthorn the troll giggled maniacally. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you idiots not to tell anybody your true name?” For he had written out all their name tags, their full and true names, on the backs of strips of paper torn out of Inspector Balloon, his beloved notebook. And the rules for human living he’d written out so that he could try to understand the strange world of school and his parents’ apartment and Chicago that were still written in his powerful pencil on the other side of each one. Some more complete than others, true, but they’d done their work and bound these impossibly powerful Kings and Queens as surely as rope. It had worked even better than he’d thought. He hoped September saw it. She’d couldn’t help but be impressed. It’d been ever so long since he’d gotten a good grade on something.

  Hawthorn opened his mouth for his master stroke. He opened his mouth to tell his old baseball to
drop dead. Goldmouth would have to Do as He Was Told. But Madame Tanaquill was faster. She brushed a shimmering pale lock of hair out of her face and said sweetly and clearly and quite calmly:

  “All right, Goldmouth, kill them both.”

  The clurichaun was pleased as punch to do as he was told. He seized Tamburlaine in one colossal fist and brought her close to his burning eyes, baring his golden teeth.

  “Tam!” Hawthorn shrieked. “No, Tam! Goldmouth, let her go! You Are to Do as You Are Told!”

  But he was already Doing as He Was Told. He grinned at the wooden girl, the Fetch who had grown up fighting not to listen to the Changeling voice inside her that said she was made for causing trouble, for burning down human lives, for wrecking and ruining and never feeling bad about it. She’d loved her mother and her father, her flowers and his books, and because she loved them she’d strapped that voice down to the floor of her heart and never done a single bad thing.

  “I broke your leg once,” rumbled Goldmouth. He ran his hand over her head and snapped off every one of her plum blossom branches, letting them fall in splinters to the ground at Hawthorn’s feet. “And now I’m going to eat your heart. Are you ready? You are the first meal of my new reign. And I am going to reign forever.”

  “Tam!” Hawthorn screamed, weeping and stabbing at Goldmouth’s calves with Cutty Soames’s cutlass. The clurichaun didn’t pay him the slightest attention. “You can’t, you can’t, she’s my Tam, I need her…”

  “Hawthorn,” Tamburlaine called down. “Hawthorn! Tom! Thomas!” She called him by his old human name. “It’s all right, Tom. Remember?” She turned her eyes to his, grinning like a fool who has finally thought of a way to make the King laugh. “I like to wreck things. Nothing feels as good as the moment right before you break something.”

  Goldmouth shoved his tattooed fingers into her mouth, just as he had done to Hawthorn the day he dragged them into Fairyland. Just as he had done to countless folk when he ruled these kingdoms, reaching into her, searching for the tiny, hard nut of her soul, his favorite food, his only food. Tamburlaine’s jaw cracked sickeningly, stretching as he scrabbled in her for the core of herself. Just a little farther, she thought as all the timbers of her body groaned and cracked. Just a little farther, you ugly, useless baseball.