The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 3Catherynne M. Valente
You would not think a room could empty so quickly, but given the chance at a bit of cake and a place to plot in private, few creatures will dawdle. Half the Kings and Queens of Fairyland vanished in the space of a hiccup, blinking out of the grand hall and appearing in the Second-Best Parlor before anyone could tell them not to drink all the brandy. A quarter flew or hopped or bolted straight to the Helledoors, the blooming doors of the Briary proper, each violet petal etched with scenes from reigns long forgotten—though perhaps not quite so forgotten today as they were yesterday. The stragglers slipped through halls and secret nooks and trapdoors they knew like their own best beloved brothers and sisters. And the Stoat of Arms, with all its many and varied limbs, pushed, prodded, nudged, and jostled September away from her friends toward a long, slender hallway with no splendid flowers or decorated door. It looked dark and lonely. September protested loudly, but Stoats have won several prizes for stubbornness over the centuries, and you would have better luck protesting the sun.
“I want them to come with me!” she cried.
“You haven’t any right,” snarled Saturday.
“I’m not afraid to roast a stoat or a unicorn,” warned A-Through-L.
Hawthorn and Tamburlaine exchanged looks, not at all sure what they ought to do or say, having only met September a few hours before. Perhaps they were not included in her protests. Perhaps they ought to have slipped away with the rest.
“They absolutely may not come with you,” insisted the Stoat of Arms. “And thank you for encouraging them, young lady! A coronation is a private affair! You might as well ask to watch her dressing in the morning! It’s shameful! Go to your rooms, sit down, be quiet, have a bath or play a bit of pooka poker, do try not to turn anyone into kangaroos, and I’m certain Her Majesty will attend you as soon as she is able!”
September disappeared down the dark and lonely hall, pursued by a Stoat. Saturday, A-Through-L and Blunderbuss, Hawthorn and Tamburlaine and Scratch were left suddenly alone to find their own way. The Briary was not their old friend, full of familiar spots and happy memories. It was their new and wild and unknown maze, and they had no bread crumbs to mark their path. They all stood very still for a moment, glancing at one another uncertainly.
A clicking, scuttling, businesslike clatter saved them from simply bedding down in the center of the grand hall: the smart, swift footsteps of a broad, polished, black-and-white-checkered crab. He looked up at them with glittering crustacean eyes and snapped his great fore-claws.
“Hullo, misters and missuses! My name’s Spoke, and I’ll be your Scuttler this fine evening. First visit to the Briary? I can always spot first-timers…”
* * *
When all the glittering mob had gone and the floor of the grand hall stood empty of all but their boot-scuffs and discarded gum wrappers and magic cloaks and loose change and lost hair combs, a figure peeped in from the sunny afternoon. He had cloven feet and shaggy fur upon his legs. He had horns upon his head and a devilishly handsome beard. He looked all round the grand hall, but there was nobody left to greet him.
“Am I late?” said Pan.
SOMETHING NOT SO GRAND AS A GRYPHON
In Which September Collects Herself, Meets an Iron Lady, Acquires Her Regalia, Finds Several Lost Items, and Discovers an Old Friend Lying in Wait
The Briary is not alive in the way you and I are alive. But it is alive. Its roots, if I may be forgiven for discussing such things in public, go all the way through Fairyland and come out the other side as a small hut covered in black tulips. This is a very secret place, so I’ll thank you not to tell anyone about it, or else I shall be sacked. Think of the Briary as a very large, very old Burmese python in whom you can very happily live; a python tastefully furnished with gilded couches and fringed lamps and a great lot of paintings in every imaginable style. The Briary can squeeze up and in until it is almost unnoticeable if no one is at home. It can stretch up and out and twist round and about if guests have arrived for supper and more room is needed. It is quite an understanding Royal Residence.
Through all these snakelike halls and ways, the left-hand stoat of the Stoat of Arms pushed her velvety nose at September’s back. The left-hand stoat was called Gloriana, the right-hand, Rex. September hopped a little, walking faster up a long, rose-patched hall winding its way to the heart of the Briary.
It was the first quiet September had held in her hand since that ridiculous, astonishing wombat had barged through the walls of her prison cell. Sunlight drifted through the green walls like a breeze, chasing shadows, brightening their edges, and running off again down staircases and laundry chutes and dumbwaiter shafts. She remembered the first time she set foot in the Briary, a thousand years ago and a thousand more, it seemed to her now. How frightened she had been! And all she’d done was stand very still while the Marquess sneered at her and say no when she tried to have her way. September had never even thought to wonder what that polleny palace looked like further in and farther out. All she could see then was the Marquess and her terrible smile.
But now, it was her house, at least for a little while. September tried to pull that thought over her head, to get her arms in the sleeves, to smooth out the skirt of it. This is my house. I live here. But it wouldn’t smooth. All she could think of was her own dear house in Nebraska with her father and mother in it, only now she pictured the creaky old farmhouse covered in far too many flowers, their small and amiable dog jumping up on everything and snapping at visiting bees. I probably have my own bathroom, she thought idly.
That did it.
It all came rushing in at her: escaping prison and falling backward into seventeen again and the terrible look in Madame Tanaquill’s eyes and the crown on her head and how much she did, finally, miss home and her parents and that silly, daffy dog and the big rude roan at the Killory farm and her school with its nice, safe, quiet essays to be written and equations to be solved. The smell of flowers in her nose got so thick and heavy that September couldn’t breathe. She wanted to sit down. She wanted to sleep for a hundred and fifty years. She wanted her father. She wanted to have nothing to do today but fix an old fence. She wanted her mother to appear and fix everything for her, to just take it all over and make the decisions and sweep up all the nastiness into a bin. Her mother would make a good Queen, September thought. Her mother wouldn’t blink.
But the Stoat of Arms would not let September rest. Her mother did not appear. The stoats nipped at her heels; the human girl pushed at her back; the unicorn whinnied softly; the chickens grumbled; and the Fairy on top kept tossing shimmers from her tiny wand to mark the path. September squeaked, trying to breathe in the perfume and the gloam, but the chickens squeaked louder.
Finally, they came to a plain, round door in the lush wall. It didn’t have a knob in the shape of a magical flower. It didn’t have any copper or gold or little rubies in it. It was just a few birch-trunks slapped together, hardly even a door at all. It reminded September of the janitor’s closet in her old school, full of mops and bleach and napkins, never meant to be noticed among the classrooms.
The Stoat of Arms bowed slightly. It couldn’t manage more than a slight bow, being made of two stoats, three roosters, three silver stars, a little girl, a unicorn, and a Fairy. More than a little bow was simply too much choreography. “If you please, madam. The Royal Closet will only open to the hand of the Queen.”
September’s curiosity swept aside her worry. Her curiosity had always lorded it over most of the rest of her, and by now, it was mightily accustomed to getting its own way. September put her hand flat on the pale birches. She didn’t know whether to push or pull, and didn’t want to make a fool of herself by getting it wrong. But in the end, the door swung inward as soon as it felt her fingers land. Within, she saw only a wide, soft darkness.
“We shall wait here for you, Your Majesty,” said the Stoat of Arms, and all of the creatures that made up the Stoat of Arms bowed as one.
r reached out one hand and scratched Rex behind one ear. Rex felt quite, quite humiliated, but he did not protest, for a Queen has the right to pet anyone she likes. “You don’t have to be so formal with me. We have met before, you know.” Which was how she knew he hated being scratched.
“Have we?” The Stoat of Arms wrinkled its several noses doubtfully. “I’m sure we would remember.”
“Oh, I’m terribly easy to forget!” September said airily, and smiled a much older woman’s smile, the sort of smile a girl learns on the back of years of holding her tongue. “When Madame Tanaquill and Charlie Crunchcrab locked me away in the Redcaps’ cellar, you were having a cup of punch and chatting up an undine. Come now! You must remember! It was the night of the Summer Sabbat and I’d only just come back from the Moon. My friend, the Vicereine of Coffee, swiped an invitation for me. I do have so many friends in Fairyland these days, it’s quite extraordinary! Saturday and I drove across the Wishbone Wastes in my darling Model A Ford Aroostook while Ell flew gaily overhead. It was our favorite way to travel. We all arrived at the border of the Candelabra Desert just as the sun set. How the lanternweeds blew in the summer wind! How the absinthe cacti bubbled and overflowed! How beautiful all the Fairies shone and spun! They were everything I could have imagined. Their wings glittered like all my old dreams. And I saw you nibbling on a great huge slab of saguaro cake, surrounded by Fairies who laughed at every joke you made. I’m sure they were really wonderful jokes, Sir Stoats! I should love to hear them someday. Yes, the night we met, I wore orange; you wore chickens. The brass band struck up ‘The Kraken’s Waltz.’ Saturday and I took to the desert dance floor. He put his arm around my waist. Ell let a gout of indigo flame erupt into the air for the delight of all the gathered lords and ladies. My love and I saw the violet sparks reflected in each other’s eyes. And then—oh, I just can’t recall what happened next! You must help me, Sir Stoats! What was it? You do remember now, don’t you?”
The Stoat of Arms, for perhaps the first time in its long, long life, looked distinctly embarrassed. “Then you were arrested by Madame Tanaquill’s personal constabulary and buried in a cellar for two years. The car was impounded, I believe.”
“Yes, that’s it! How silly of me to forget.” September quirked her eyebrow and laughed quite deliberately, a hard, barbed laugh she had learned long ago from the dancing, dastardly Blue Wind. “She who blushes first loses,” she said in a gentler voice, and tapped the Stoat on the nose.
My darlings, I am quite as surprised as you! A narrator looks away from her charges for half a tale and returns to find they’ve gone wily and wild in her absence, and learned all manner of new magics she intended to teach them much later.
September straightened up and tugged on the (rather oversized now) long blue dress she’d worn when she was the Spinster and hatched her plots from the depths of a rum cellar. “This is where I’m to be coronated, is it? Well, Stoats, we’d best get it over with. Will you be all right on your own? I wouldn’t want you to get bored.”
“We have brought a magazine, and our pipes.” The two stoats, three cockerels, unicorn, Fairy, and human girl that made up the Stoat of Arms each produced handsome churchwarden pipes and waved them at September.
“Very well, then!” said the Queen with a deep breath, and stepped inside the great round door.
It shut behind her with a satisfied clunk. September calmed her hammering heart. She was not so wily or wild that it did not terrify her a little whenever she had to pull on haughtiness like a party dress and whirl about in it.
Within the Royal Closet, lamps bubbled to life all along the walls, glass goblets filled with liquid light of blue and gold, like cups of punch at a birthday party. September stared—the room yawned on forever. She could see neither ceiling nor walls. A beautiful velvet floor spread out before her so that her feet fell without the littlest sound. Everywhere she looked she saw splendid clothes hanging neatly, or displayed on dress forms, or laid out for mending, or soaking in laundry tubs. Hatboxes towered up into the shadows beyond the goblet-lamps. A sea of shoes lapped at the hems of the hanging gowns and suits and cloaks and trousers. Umbrella stands bristled with swords, canes, scepters, staves, wands, and the occasional umbrella. The ranks of shining clothes were only broken by mirrors here and there, mirrors taller than a Wyverary and framed in gold, in ice, in green flame or indigo, in ancient oak, in unicorn and narwhal horns, in ships’ ropes, in curious, blinking eyes, in gemstones September could not name, in pocket watches, in brocade, in lost love letters. In the center of the vast wardrobe stood a little podium with a large and beautiful book lying open on it, along with a pot of scarlet ink.
September could hear her footsteps echo wildly as she crossed the hall to peer at the book. At the top of each thick, parchment page, she read:
PLEASE SIGN IN.
And below that, a number of neat columns with titles like NAME, SPECIES, and TIME IN/TIME OUT, each one brimming with magnificent signatures. She ran her fingertips over the last two entries in the lovely ledger: The Marquess. Human. 2:15 p.m., April 2nd, the Year of the Yellow-Tongued Hobgoblin/Deposed via Ravished Girl, 10:58 p.m., May 24th, the Year of the Valiant Teacup. Charles Crunchcrab. Fairy. Midnight, August 9th, the Year of the Unhappy Hippogriff/Deposed via Dodo’s Egg, Teatime, March 15th, the Year of the Emerald Acrobat. September searched for a quill pen—under the edges of the book, on the ledge of the podium. She felt a little like the older kids who scratched their names—and other, bolder things—on the bathroom walls at school. Surely, someone would come along and scold her any moment now. But she found nothing.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” came a brisk, tidy voice, a voice like snug seams and straight hems. “How unprofessional of me! Wait just a moment.”
September whirled round. A creature clattered forward through the rows of wonderful clothes. Her slender limbs were made all of wrought iron, curling and twisting in lovely patterns like the ones in a fine old gate. The wrought-iron girl stood much taller than September, her long legs bent backward like a heron’s, her hair forged in a crown of leafy iron vines round her dark skull. As September stared, the lady opened her wrought-iron rib cage like the lid of a secretary desk. A sewing machine unfolded out of her, kept hidden where her heart might have been. She reached down and pulled a coil of plain linen from a scrap basket sandwiched between an Elizabethan gown and a motorcycle jacket and fed it through her machine heart. The needle moved up and down merrily and when the linen emerged, it had become a graceful quill pen with a sharp bronze nib. The quill was a real quill, too, a sturdy turkey feather with gold and red speckles.
September pulled it free and dipped the new pen into the scarlet inkwell. She bent down to the guest book, trying to make her face as brave and bold as the one she’d shown to the Stoat of Arms, and she only hesitated a moment before writing: September Bell. Human. A Bit After Teatime, March 15th, the Year of the Emerald Acrobat. She frowned at her handwriting—it looked rather plain next to the dashing flourishes above, the t’s crossed with rapiers and i’s dotted with alchemical sigils of the other “guests.”
“Most excellent. Now we can begin!” said the wrought-iron lady, folding up her black rib cage again. “I am the Archbishop of the Closet, the Sartorial Seneschal. You may call me Jacquard. Jack, if you are lazy and cannot manage two whole syllables. I’m here to help with your fitting.”
September smiled broadly. “You didn’t call me Your Majesty or Your Grace or Your Highness.”
Jacquard shrugged. Her eyes were the only part of her that wasn’t smelted out of iron, but delicately etched silver with warm sunstone irises. They glittered like real eyes when she blinked. “Oh, I don’t trouble myself with that sort of thing. I’ve seen so many of you under my tape it would be like bowing to a buttonhole. But I can try to remember if you’d prefer.”
September sighed with relief. “I wouldn’t, at all! Really, I don’t see why anyone does! I didn’t ask them to! Anyway, it see
ms to me that whenever a person says: Your Majesty, they mean: I would rather drink a glass of gasoline than spend another moment with you.”
Jacquard grinned. Her lips had ribbons carved into them, all tied in smart bows. “Good girl. Perhaps you’ll last longer than the soup course in your supper tonight.”
“I don’t want to last at all. I don’t want to be Queen. I keep telling people that, but no one listens to me. I just want to be left alone.”
Jacquard chuckled. She produced a measuring tape from her metal arm the way a lady might produce a handkerchief from her sleeve. “Young miss, if you didn’t want to be Queen, perhaps you shouldn’t have kept whacking every monarch you met with quite such a large and pointy stick. The trouble with upsetting the applecart is that you’ve got to clean up the fruit when you’re done.”
“How do you know what I’ve done?”
Jacquard wrapped the tape round September’s waist. “If you had to mend the trousers of Fairyland’s masters, you’d learn the name September quick as a stitch, my humble hellion. I’ve heard your name along with the most dreadfully impolite language—you’d blush if I repeated it. I’ve heard it hissed, hollered, snarled, cursed, and flung against the wall. You’re quite famous, I’m afraid. Public menace number one. I’m just fiendishly pleased to meet you! I would shake your hand, but Fairylanders are quite allergic to me. Now, we have a great heaping basket of decisions to make and not much time, so why don’t we buckle down to our task?”
“Why don’t we have much time? If I’m Queen, surely I can take as long as I like to decide whatever it is that needs deciding.”