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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 27

Catherynne M. Valente

  Goldmouth moaned in ecstasy as his fingernails scraped against the blue match head in Tamburlaine’s chest, the little talisman of her life his magic could distill out of a person if he could get his fingers far enough into them. He never knew what it would be, the surprise of it was half the point. Tamburlaine sighed and relaxed. She relaxed that part of her that had always struggled against her desire to wreck and ruin and burn and tear apart everything she touched. She gave in to it and it felt like eating a whole cake when she’d only had plain crackers since the day she was born.

  Tamburlaine exploded. She went up in blue-gold flames that turned quickly to angry, bloody red. The flames of her engulfed the clurichaun, boiling away his tattoos, his scarlet thread, even the SPALDING on his back sizzled away.

  Blunderbuss roared in depthless marsupial grief and bounded to Hawthorn’s side. But together, Tamburlaine and Goldmouth burned to the ground, and when it was over all that remained was a blackened slab of wood shaped like a girl.

  And a blue boy, singed out of the sky, lying in a crumpled heap in the center of Runnymede Square.

  “Saturday!” It was September’s turn to cry out. A-Through-L folded back his wings and shot earthward. She tumbled off his back to Saturday’s side. The Marid did not move. She touched his forehead, his cheeks, his lips, his shorn-off topknot, the tattoos on his arms so like hers. She whispered all the things a girl can whisper when she bargains with what has already happened: Please wake up, please be all right, please don’t go.

  She looked at her love and she understood him. She understood the workings of him like the workings of Fizzwilliam and Mrs. Frittershank and Aroostook. And her mind leapt over itself to fasten everything together. She whistled softly.

  The troll’s alphabet came dancing toward her from their hiding places, for when they’d left the House Without Warning, they’d known at once this was no place for nice words. All the copper and tin and wood and silver and glass and bone letterpress type-blocks rolled toward her like kittens who’ve heard their mother coming.

  Madame Tanaquill simply could not believe that she was being ignored. It had never happened to her before, not really. She found she hated it.

  “If you’re going to make it this easy for me,” she scoffed, and strode toward September with a long, old-fashioned sword in her hand.

  “Don’t you go near her,” snarled Mallow. She put herself between the great former Fairy Queene and pointed a long, soup-beaten wooden spoon at her face. “If you take another step, I will take your breath from you and give it to the wind.”

  Madame Tanaquill tried to dazzle the girl who didn’t even know she’d chosen a boy’s title with her eyes. It was one of her favorite tricks with humans. She flared her wide, ultraviolet wings and made her eyes into planets of joy and despair in which any human mind would wander, mad, forever.

  “No,” Mallow said simply. It had always been her best magic. Her first magic. The No filled her up with its heat so completely that it left no room for anything else, let alone a Fairy’s bedroom eyes. Tanaquill ignored her. She slapped Good Queen Mallow hard in the face, so hard her nails drew blood. “No,” Mallow said. Tanaquill drew a slender sword. But Mallow waved her Spoon, and it melted away like ice. “No.”

  September stroked Saturday’s scorched brow, the Saturday who did not remember her, even a little, whose memory had been cut away by terrible teeth. “I can fix it,” September said.

  “How can you fix it?” Ell whispered. “Oh, I didn’t meant to say you couldn’t, it’s only … how?”

  September knuckled away tears from her eyes. She looked up into the warm orange eyes of the first creature in Fairyland who ever loved her.

  “I think it’s because I called myself the Engineer. When they said I had to choose a title. I can see how things work—how everything works. And I saw how Aroostook worked, the ballast down inside it. And I can see how Saturday works, all the places he’s broken. And Ell … I know what the Heart of Fairyland is.”

  She coaxed the type-blocks up onto Saturday’s skin, smoothing them all right side up with her careful hands. September drew the Greatvole’s whisker and held it at its tip like a long, black, crystal pen.

  “The Heart of Fairyland is a story,” she said, and she felt so warm and light and full of the rightness of it that she thought she might faint. “It’s a story that gets told over and over, a million different ways, with a million different boys and girls and Marids and wombats and Wyveraries and trolls. It’s a story that keeps all of us moving through the world like blood through a body. Like a race. Like a hunt. Like a Cantankerous Derby. We were always making the Heart. Under the sea and in the Land of Wom and in the Great Grand Library. And what do you need to make a story? What has Fairyland got where Aroostook has its ballast?” September smiled up at all. “You need a pen”—she waved the whisker—“you need words and letters and capitals and lowercases.” The letter blocks shivered with the pleasure of being needed. “You need paper.” She touched Saturday’s blue chest with her shaking, exhausted fingers. A large, bold letter S hopped up to cover the spot. “And you need ink.”

  September pricked her tattooed arm with the point of the Greatvole’s whisker. She cut deep, so there would be enough—but she needn’t have worried. The cuttlefish’s ink, black and green and blue and gold, flowed out of her arm, out of her wrist and her elbow and her shoulder and her bicep, out of every part of her that Sepia Siphuncle had painted. The ink flowed down over the crystal whisker and dripped over the letter blocks and onto Saturday’s blue skin. But still, he did not wake.

  “It’s not working,” fretted Ell.

  “Someone still has to tell the story, silly,” September said. She traced the whisker over and around the letters and whispered their story to Saturday.

  “Once upon a time, there was a girl from very far away and a boy who lived every which way at once…”

  The tales lovers tell each other about how they met are hushed and secret things. They change year by year, for we all meet many times as we grow up and become different and new and exciting people—and this never stops, even for a minute, even when we are ninety. I have told you September’s every little secret. I have never held back even once. But I will let her have this last one, for you have heard already how the girl from very far away found a boy in a cage, and what they did after.

  When September finished her tale, she laid her head on Saturday’s chest. The ink smeared and ran and turned her face quite blue. She couldn’t breathe or move. I’m right, I know I’m right—aren’t I?

  She felt a cold, hard hand on her head. As cold and hard as stones in the sea.

  “Hullo, September,” whispered Saturday. “I thought you’d never come back.”

  September sucked in her breath so fast she choked. She held her Marid as tight as anything. “Saturday! Oh, Saturday! I missed you so!”

  “HELLO!” bellowed the First Stone of Fairyland, late to Mummery, sitting against a marionette and watching everything with great interest.

  “Who cares?” Madame Tanaquill snorted. “The rest of us are still here, you know—the ones who didn’t wander around like morons with a seventh grader’s badge on their coats.”

  “No, they’re not,” September whispered. “No one’s here but us.” She kissed Saturday just as though it was her First Kiss. And he kissed her back like it was his last.

  “We won,” the Marid said to her, touching her face all over now that he knew it so well again. “We won, so you’ll stay.”

  “Yes. Yes. I’m staying.”

  But Tanaquill was right. The Winds still circled slowly in the sky along with Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord, and several other flying racers. A few still wandered about the fighting field, dazed. The fliers began to descend, seeing the clurichaun bonfire had burnt itself out.

  Madame Tanaquill had not come all this way to be threatened with a spoon and a disgusting display of romance. She would not have it. She would not. She had been bor
n to stand astride this world—and though she had done it for a time as a signpost, she knew who she was and she knew her destiny, which none of the clowns around her constantly throwing pies about and calling them great deeds ever had. Not the way she knew. And Tanaquill knew very well that the final act can only end with a wedding or a mass slaughter—and the way those two mewling simpletons looked, she didn’t like her odds. But the Fairy Prime Minister had no worries to spend on it. You could always change the ending. Spoil it, rip it to pieces. Fairies loved to do it. They’d built their first city just to do it bigger and grander. It was easy. All you needed was the want—and a dart gun strapped to your thigh.

  It all happened very, very fast.

  Madame Tanaquill hurled her sword up and cut Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord, out of the sky before he could squawk any cryptic final word. She ducked beneath Mallow’s Spoon and drew one of the Knapper’s daggers from some poor sap’s back and sent it flying into the chest of the Emperor of Everything, who toppled forward onto his face. He managed to squawk out a final word, but I shall not repeat it, or your parents would scold me. The Winds sped toward her in a rain of color. The Green Wind lead the squadron, the Leopard of Little Breezes roaring her own spotted war songs.

  “September, are you all right?” Green called down. “Get down! Find cover!”

  Tanaquill laughed. Her iron dress blistered her skin. Mallow swung her Spoon at her—and the Fairy Prime Minister shoved her away with a wave of diamonds that streamed from her hand like lace. Mallow landed on the far side of the square, half buried in jewels. Tanaquill bent down and yanked a lily-tangled crossbow out of Whipstitch, the Elegant Emperor’s hand. It was going better than she had imagined it could. He tried to fight her, but Whipstitch had If something is good, it is off-limits written on the underside of his name tag, so for the moment, he could not touch anything he wanted to have at all. Madame Tanaquill spun round and fired the crossbow—and shot Ajax Oddson clean through. He crumpled to the ground in a heap of silks.

  September gasped and leapt up. She could hear the gulping sound Ell made before his flame came bursting out. Blunderbuss lowered her head and got ready to charge the tart in the scrapheap dress, as she thought of Tanaquill. Saturday tried to get up, but coughed out smoke and staggered. The Green Wind landed and drew a green sword.

  Tanaquill laughed roughly at him. “Oh, please. You’re nothing but a bag of hot air.” She unstrapped her favorite bronze dart gun from her thigh, its vicious dart snug inside. She held it up to her perfect lips.

  September ran toward the Green Wind. She didn’t say a thing. She didn’t say No! Or I won’t let you! Or Don’t you dare! Or even Stop. She didn’t think about it. She didn’t think about home or Saturday or Ell or how much it would hurt. She didn’t think about never seeing her mother or father again, or never finishing school, or never being Queen or anything else. She simply stepped between her friend and his death.

  Tanaquill’s dart took September in the throat. The poison spread through her like a quick green shiver and she fell. The crown of Fairyland rolled off her head with a terrible clang, spinning across the stones, coming to rest against Blunderbuss’s paw.

  * * *

  Only a moment later, sleigh drawn by a team of strangely colored hippopotami tore into Runnymede Square.

  Susan Jane, Owen, and Aunt Margaret came just in time to see a crimson Wyvern throw back his head and sob fire into the empty sky.



  In Which Not All Is Lost

  September woke to the smell of mushrooms all around. It was a warm, comforting smell—and leaves, too, Autumn leaves, and deep, dark dirt. She opened her eyes: All round her rose tall black distaffs wound around with fuzzy silk and wool and fleeces, all colored as Autumn woods are colored, red and gold and brown and pale white. They crowded close together, fat and full, like pines and firs.

  The moon peeked shyly out of the clouds above. Only one moon. September lay in a little clearing. Many parchment-colored distaffs had left their fibers all over the forest floor like pine needles. In the corner of the clearing sat a lady. September brought her hand to her throat, searching for her wound, but found only smooth skin. She sat up in the crisp night and looked into the eyes of a lady sitting on a throne of mushrooms. Chanterelles and portobellos and oysters and wild crimson forest mushrooms piled up high around her, fanning out around her head. September knew that lady. But this time she was not herself made out of mushrooms, but simply a vast, impossibly tall woman dressed in simple black—the last member of Lye’s tea party, who only comes too early or too late. Death.

  “Good evening, my lady,” said September, as she had done long ago, when her death was small.

  “Good evening, September,” said her death. “I am sorry I could not make it in time for tea. But you seem to have done well enough without me.”

  “Not well enough. You know, I really thought I would win. I thought … I thought I would have been a good Queen.”

  “You would have been a good many things. I should know. The Country of Would Have Been is my home.”

  “You’re so big,” September breathed softly in the dark.

  “I told you once: When I am distant and far off, I seem small to you. But when I am near, I look ever so tall. Would you like to come and lie in my lap? I will sing you to sleep, if you are tired.”

  “I’m not.” But September walked over to her death anyway. “I’m not sleepy at all.”

  “I’m glad. It would be very awkward for me if you died just now,” said Death, and folded September up in her arms warmly.

  “What? I thought I was dead.”

  “And I thought I said I was near. Near, not here. Not certain. You know, I always think somehow people will listen when I talk, but they never do.”

  “But I felt the poison. I felt the barb in my throat.”

  “Do you feel it now?” Death’s dark dress rustled in the Worsted Wood.

  “Well, no,” said September, touching her throat again.

  “That should have been your first clue.” Death chuckled. “I haven’t gotten to do this often. Forgive me, I am enjoying it so much.” The lady in black looked pointedly at September’s feet. She followed the dark gaze of her own death.

  September was wearing a pair of rich, soft green hunting boots. She had never seen them before in her life.

  “What’s happening to me?” She searched the face of her death and found only mischief there.

  “I only ever got to see it once before. A man named Mabry Muscat. He gave his life for a girl he loved. King Goldmouth cut him down and I picked him up again.”

  September looked at her legs again. Now, she was wearing green jodhpurs. And green gloves. And a green dress. And her own green smoking jacket. And a green carriage-driver’s cloak.

  “The Green Wind told you: The new Blue Wind must steal something from the old one to take her place. The Red Wind must be bested in single combat. And the Green Wind … whoever gives up their life to save the old wind blows green and bright through the world on the back of a Leopard.”

  September laughed. She touched her long hair—it had gone a deep, wonderful green.

  Death curled September into her great long arms, so long that they swallowed up all the green of her into shadow. And in the moonlit half-world of the Worsted Wood, Death began to sing September Bell awake.

  Go to sleep, little skylark,

  Fly up to the moon

  In a biplane of paper and ink

  Your wings creak and croon,

  borne aloft by balloons

  And your engine is singing for you.

  Go to sleep, little skylark, do.



  In Which Everyone Arrives at Their Destination

  September opened her eyes. All she could see were clouds streaming by and a sky so blue it dazzled her. All she could feel was the beating of a Leopard’s fierce, th
undering heart beneath her.

  “Hullo, Imogen,” the Green Wind said to the Leopard of Little Breezes.

  “Hullo, September,” said the Leopard to the Green Wind. “I solemnly swear I will never bite you.”

  The Green Wind laughed. “I don’t mind. I know a wombat who has quite a philosophy about biting.”

  “So do I,” purred the Leopard of Little Breezes. “She’s just down there.”

  September looked down and felt sick for a moment—she could see all of Fairyland racing by, every beach and mountain and long desert. And down by one particular sea and one particular shore lay Pandemonium, its bright woolen towers so achingly familiar and beloved, the green spike of the Briary gleaming in the sun. The two of them drifted slowly down past the clouds and the torches and the towers. The Leopard of Little Breezes took extra care not to jostle the landing. A handsome young man with a neat golden mustache and golden hair met them at the Ghostloom Gate. He wore a plain but very handsome maroon shirt and trousers.

  “Mabry Muscat,” he said, kissing her hand. “At your service.”

  And then he seized September up in his arms and spun her around so that her green carriage-driver’s cloak and her green dress fanned out like sails. “Everyone’s been waiting for you,” he said. “I told them what happened—I couldn’t let your mother worry like that! Seeing you sprawled out on the ground like a crime scene! My stars!”

  “My mother?” September gawped. “What are you talking about?”

  But Mabry Muscat only laid his finger aside his nose. “Wait.”

  “How long has it been?”

  “Two days,” answered the old Green Wind. “Enough for us to sort what needed sorting and you to get a new pair of boots, you clever cat. It takes time for … it takes time for a new Wind to stir up in the east and get herself huffing.” He stopped and touched her long green hair. “Thank you, my daring darling. For saving my life. Such a funny tawdry thing to say. But it must be said or your father would never forgive me. And I shudder to think what your aunt Margaret would do.”