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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 4

Catherynne M. Valente

  “The Cantankerous Derby begins in three days’ time. Unless you are much faster and cleverer than you look, your reign will go down in my book as precisely seventy-two hours long. Not the shortest—that honor goes to the Blessed Bonk, a hobgoblin who lasted all of fifteen minutes before falling down a flight of stairs, hitting his head on a china cabinet, and drowning in a mud puddle. The mud puddle turned out to be the very river nymph who succeeded him. But three days is not quite long enough to stretch out in. No, you must choose your regalia quickly. You must get ready for the Race. If the Queen stood at the starting line in her street clothes, I would die of shame.”

  “My regalia?” September had to admit her Spinster dress no longer fit her. It was too long in the arm and the hem. But regalia did not sound like the sort of thing you could ride a Wyverary in.

  “Oh yes!” cried Jacquard. “A ruler must have regalia, just as a businessman must have his suit and briefcase, just as a soldier must have his rifle and his cap, just as a flying ace must have her aeroplane. How will anyone take you seriously as a Queen if you do not look like one? It is the dearest duty of the Archbishop of the Closet to assist you in choosing all the tools of your trade.” The wrought-iron girl spread her long arms to indicate the vast reaches of the Royal Closet. “Your name, your scepter, your costume, your shoes, and your steed. You have your crown already.” September touched the circle of jeweled keys on her head. She hardly felt its weight anymore.

  Jacquard led September to a row of drawers with glass tops, like a jeweler’s case where engagement rings might be kept. Inside lay ribbons of every color and fabric, olive lace and copper silk and crimson damask and orchid rope. Each one had tiny words woven into them, winding round and round the ribbon like lengths of black thread. “Firstly, you must choose a name.”

  “My name is September.”

  “No, no, you misunderstand, my dear! You must choose a dynastic name. You can be anything you like—a Queen, a Sultana, a Caesar, a Marquess, an Empress, a Baroness—any sort of Ess you can think of.” Jack opened the drawers and pulled out a length of ribbon for each title. “You could even be a King, if you liked—Fairyland is wonderfully modern on that point. If you don’t care for old-fashioned courtly ranks, you could be the Sheriff or the Cannoneer or the Dark Horse, the Alewife or the Tobacconist or the Hydronaut—oh, we haven’t had a Hydronaut in centuries! And it needn’t be so plain as one word. You might be the Princess of Pluto or Lady Ironbones or Count Fortune or the Wintry Warlord. The choice is yours—your first choice. Your name goes before you—it tells everyone what you’re about. Names are awfully old magic, older than the monarchy, older than me. Your name is the armor you wear in the Battle of Everyday. Hardly anyone gets to pick their own. It is one of the privileges of your position. When your parents choose your name, they make a little wish for your future and fold it up inside your heart forever. When you choose your own, you make your own wish.”

  “What others call you, you become,” said September softly, remembering the words a Yeti had once spoken to her.

  “Oh yes. If you were to choose Lady Brightbat, for instance, I daresay you’d find your vampire teeth half grown in by bedtime. If you wrap Warlord round your shoulders, soldiers a thousand miles away will wake up with a start.”

  September considered. She had been a Knight and a Bishop and a Criminal and a Spinster—so many titles for a girl from Nebraska with the smell of chicken feed and dish soap still on her! But she never stayed in any of them long, always running out of one name and into another. Would she really transform into whatever she called herself? Perhaps it should be something big and powerful, then. The Gryphon or the Valkyrie or the Giantess. But if she became a Giantess, she would have a devil of a time explaining to her parents why she suddenly needed a horse-acre bed instead of her sweet old pillow. And now that she was free, she would go home when her hourglass ran out, wouldn’t she? Those were the rules. Even being Queen did not change them. The Marquess knew that and so did she. Would her parents know her at home, if she came back a Giantess? Something not so grand as a Gryphon, then. And thinking of home, September’s heart ran ahead in front of her mind, and before she knew it, she had decided.

  “Could I … could I be the Engineer? My mother’s one, you see. And for a long while I didn’t think much about anything except Fairyland—getting here and being here and staying here. But I haven’t seen my mother since before I went up to the Moon and I miss her. I miss her so much. And she fixes things. Mends things. Makes them good and sound and flyable again. Even if I’m only Queen for a little while, that’s the sort of Queen I’d like to be.”

  “Done,” said Jacquard, and drew a great length of sturdy grass-green suede from the drawer. “Next, you must select your Royal Scepter. You will use it to make Decrees, which is a jumped-up way of saying Get Your Own Way at Once.” Jacquard pointed at the crowded umbrella stands. Ivory-handled canes glimmered, as well as golden staves topped with opals and tiger’s eyes, shoehorns and fireplace pokers and rapiers and bullwhips and parasols. “A Royal Scepter is not quite so blunt as a sword, nor quite so fancified as a magic wand—though of course you could choose a sword or a magic wand if you wanted to bore me half to tears. You might have seen Royal Scepters and never known what you were looking at. Your predecessor used a crab hammer.”

  “What did the Marquess use?” September said quietly. If she had to be Queen, the most important thing was to be nothing like the Marquess, she felt.

  “She lost hers. She replaced it with a Spoon, I believe. I should mention, in the event of loss of any regalia, you must provide your own replacement. The Royal Closet is not responsible for articles lost or damaged in the process of monarchy or other shenanigans.”

  A thought occurred to September. “Could I … could I have my old wrench? The one I pulled out of the casket in the Autumn Provinces.”

  The wrought-iron lady rummaged through the umbrella stands, pushing aside raccoon caps and woolly scarves and sealskin kirtles. Finally, she produced, from a blown-glass stand half squashed beneath a pirate’s chest full of spare buttons, the long, sturdy wrench September had won from the Worsted Wood so long ago.

  “Everything ends up here, sooner or later. At least, it ends up here if it’s any good. Many of the gowns and suits and winter coats and waistcoats and shoes you see in the Royal Closet belonged to some King or Queen once upon a time, was worn and loved and twirled about in.”

  “What about the rest?”

  “I made the rest. I am a Mantelet. I must make something, or I will die. Mantelets were one of the first beasts to crawl out of the cauldron when Fairyland was new and could not yet sleep through the night. We looked around us and saw trees, rivers, deserts, fields, even the Perverse and Perilous Sea—all the things that grew and lived according to their own cantankerous nature. But nothing made. Nothing woven or hammered or erected or distilled or sculpted or painted. We yearned to be the ones to weave and hammer and erect and distill and sculpt and paint. We saw visions of a Made World alongside the Wild World. I was born in the Houppelande Hills before the calendar learned to count to thirty-one. My father was a printing press with kind letter-block eyes. My mother was a blacksmith’s forge with warm, molten arms. But I? I loved to sew. Every kind of stitch looked like scripture to me, scripture and starlight! Anything I could get my hands on I put under my needle—until I became so skilled that I didn’t need anything under my needle to make a pair of seven-league boots, or a dress of fondest hopes, or Groangyre Tower with its silk balloon. The Elegant Emperor asked me to come and live at the Briary long ago. No one can touch me, on account of my iron, but I touch everything that touches them. Between fittings—which is what a Mantelet calls a coronation—I make the regalia of the future. A thousand skirts for a thousand Queens to come. I even made the Marquess’s hat.” Jacquard smiled modestly. “There is nothing here that is powerless. I’ve soaked even the smallest lace ruffle and fleece lining in magic, in every kind of magic. This kimono?�
� She pulled a glittering white-and-black robe free of its cousins. “This kimono can call down the snow no matter how hot and high the sun rides. My chartreuse tuxedo can turn you into a lightning-breathing bird of paradise. This purple petticoat forces the wearer to tell the truth no matter how much they may wish to lie, while the black one compels them to sing a song for everything they do. I must have a little fun, after all. You may choose your Royal Costume from anything you see, or I will make you something new out of your name and your scepter and your longings and your needings. And perhaps … perhaps I can make you something to help with the Cantankerous Derby. Something swift and armored and full of tricks.”

  September did not need to look through the racks of beautiful clothes. She had been thinking hard all the while the Mantelet spoke and knew already what she wanted.

  “Jacquard, I do not want anything in this wardrobe. It’s all more wonderful than anyone could ask for—Cinderella would take one look in here and lose her entire mind, I think. And perhaps I ought to think practically and let you sew me a Racing Suit that would let me cross the world in two steps. But what I want, what I really want, isn’t here. I want everything back, Miss Jack. Everything I’ve had and lost—my wrench and the Witch’s Spoon and my Watchful Dress and my emerald-green smoking jacket. The Red Wind took her coat back and I suppose that’s her right, so I can do without as I only borrowed it. For my steed, I want Aroostook with its ratty old potato bag over the spare tire and its sunflower steering wheel, and for my shoes I want my old mary janes, both of them, on both my feet. I want all my things back again and in one piece, for when I have them, I shall be all one piece!”

  The Archbishop of the Closet blinked her wrought-iron eyelids over her silver eyes. “Queens never listen,” she said. “I’ve told you: Everything that’s any good is here. You must understand, September. Today is not your coronation day. It is more like your wedding day. A Queen weds Fairyland, and though Fairyland is a tempestuous spouse, she keeps a very fine house.” Jacquard wrapped the length of green ribbon round September’s finger like a ring—and in a moment it had become one, a cuff of plain, rough, green stone clutching her finger. The stone felt warm and alive. “And if it is your wedding day, you ought to have your own dress.”

  Jacquard opened up her black rib cage into a sewing machine once more. The needle whirred to life, pounding the presser foot furiously. But there was no fabric beneath it, no silk, no goldcloth, no wool, no linen. Just air. For a moment the needle pattered against nothing. And then—a scrap of orange appeared against the Mantelet’s black heart like the first crocus of Spring.

  It all came roaring out of her in a rush: the orange explosion of her own Watchful Dress, stitched with droplets of gold, garnets hanging from its familiar neckline, its skirts dimpled with black rosettes, its green silk rope circling the waist, even the twin pocket watches dangling from the bustle. The warm wooden handle of the Witch’s Spoon, the gleaming patent leather of her dear old mary janes, somewhat larger now, for she no longer had twelve-year-old feet. Hello, shoe! September has missed you so! And finally, a green velvet cuff shot free of Jacquard’s chest. The emerald smoking jacket flew off the needle joyfully, flinging itself toward September and wrapping her up safe in its plush arms, tying its sash round her waist with a great sense of personal satisfaction.

  Somewhere far away from the Royal Closet and far below the towers of the Briary, September could hear a horn honking.

  “Thank you! Oh, thank you, Jack!” cried September, hugging herself tight so as to hug the smoking jacket. For the first time since she fell off the Moon, she felt quite herself again. Such feelings rarely last long, for the meaning of oneself changes as quick as clouds skipping. We ought to let our girl roll around in it while she can, don’t you think?

  * * *

  When she had quite recovered, September went to Jacquard and held out her hand. “I am a human girl. I am not allergic to you.”

  The Mantelet took her hand, hesitantly, as though she expected the Queen to yank it away at any moment. Though September could not know it, no one had touched Jacquard in two thousand years. So you understand why, without either of them understanding how it happened, the handshake turned, as if by magic, into a long embrace.

  “Are you quite certain you don’t want to be Queen?” Jacquard whispered into the jeweled crown of the one girl in all the world who could hug her and live.

  Just then, September was not certain at all.

  * * *

  September closed the birch-trunk door of the Royal Closet. She looked round for the Stoat of Arms, but the crotchety old menagerie seemed to have abandoned her.

  In its place stood a man with a neat green beard, wearing a green carriage-driver’s cloak and green jodhpurs, and smart green winklepicker boots. Beside him, a large and handsome Leopard sat on her haunches, licking one paw with casual interest and purring loudly.

  The Green Wind had found his moment. A Wind always looks for his moment, knowing it will come and the whole of the world will be better for his having waited. Hamlet arrives on his cue, and not a moment before. The Green Wind leaned casually against the wall of the Briary, green out of green, shining from his shoes to his cap, as though he’d been there for a hundred years.

  “You seem an ill-tempered and irascible enough child,” he said with a grin. “How would you like to be stuck in the middle of a hopping grand mess?”

  “Green!” September cried, and dashed across the copper and jade floor to throw herself into his arms. “I thought you’d got lost forever!”

  “A Wind never gets lost. Only distracted,” he answered, and squeezed her tight. “You mad little thing. I leave you alone for one minute and you go and make friends with a wombat!”



  In Which September Has Her Supper, Learns a Number of Rules (One Involving a Kraken), Beds Down in a Wyvern’s Nest, and Receives an Unusual Invitation

  “Now,” said the Green Wind, when he and September and the Leopard of Little Breezes had turned thirteen corners, run down six blind hallways that led nowhere, and opened three doors onto scenes they certainly ought not to have witnessed, and come at last to a curtained archway in the viny walls, “there are important rules in governing Fairyland, rules which cannot be broken, jostled, or teased. Oh, I suppose you will break them, being yourself and not another. And in fact, if you want to win the Derby, you should probably get to breaking them sooner rather than later. But I gave the Stoat of Arms the night off on the condition that I would look at you very sternly and shake my finger most emphatically whilst laying it all out. We have always been aces at rules, that girl and I, I told him. While you are mainly aces grumbling. So let us pretend for a moment that you, September, cannot break these rules, even though you have never met anything so small as a leg nor so large as a moon that you could not break in two.”

  Two Zinnias guarded the archway, their flowered helmets shading steely, determined eyes.

  “Tell me the rules,” said September, laughing as she leaned her head against the Leopard of Little Breezes’s spotted fur. She felt she would never stop laughing now the Green Wind had come back. Nothing could go too terribly awry when he was about.

  “Firstly, dinner is served promptly at six o’clock in the evening in the Moonwort Pavilion,” answered the Green Wind, and drew aside the rich curtain onto a vast and lovely room that looked as though it had been waiting all its life for a motley gang of Changelings alongside a Marid, a gramophone, an outsized red reptile, a Queen, and a woven wombat the size of an overambitious elephant. A great cheer went up from all of them when they saw September, who gasped as Saturday and Ell barreled toward her across the bright floor.

  Saturday called: “September! I thought we’d never find you in this place!”

  “The Scuttler said you’d come,” trumpeted A-Through-L. “Do you know, he’s a Taxicrab! Our Taxicrab! Do you remember Taxicrabs? I don’t suppose there was much work on t
he Moon after we finished with it. Oh! You’ve got your jacket back!”

  The place felt like the common room of a particularly unhinged college or a particularly well-behaved madhouse. September supposed it had once been a billiards room. Someone had stacked six colorful feather mattresses on a stately old pool table to make a kind of nest—a nest considerately furnished with river rushes, silk batting, and old bones. Just the thing for a Wyvern’s nap. Beneath a bank of green glass windows stood a marvelous brass soaking tub big enough for ten or twelve dolphins and a few of their friends, filled invitingly to the brim with salty ocean water, cold enough for a Marid who had not seen the sea in ever so long. A round, dark table stood in the center of the room, set for one. One plate, one goblet for water and one for wine, one knife, one fork.

  “Dinner is served promptly at six o’clock in the Moonwort Pavilion,” said the Green Wind again. “Though we’ll make an exception, just for tonight.”

  Saturday held her tight.

  Chessboards and checkerboards and brownie backgammon and pooka poker lay on twisted, tangled tables fashioned out of ivy and willow whips and marigolds and fig flowers. And there lay Blunderbuss, the combat wombat, rolling and snorting in a huge tangled burrow along the east wall. Raspberry vines and old eucalyptus leaves and banksia flowers like orange ice cream cones thatched together over a patch of rich, dark dirt as thick as a Persian carpet.

  “Oh! Oh!” cried the scrap-yarn wombat, scrabbling in the dirt with both front paws. “I never thought I’d get to dig again! I thought I’d got so big I’d never again know the joy of hiding underneath the brush and waiting for someone startleable to come wandering by! Don’t bother me, darling dimwits! I washed up to go exploring, but now that’s done, I’m gonna get good and dirty again. How’s Queening? Is it marvelous? Do you like it? Have you spat out any good laws yet?”

  Hawthorn the troll grinned at his friend. He was sitting on a pistachio flower stool beside a handsome cinnamon-wood desk, which he knew was meant for him, as it said HUMPHREY! in a fancy cursive hand on the left-hand corner. He touched the edges of a stack of fresh notebooks and the points of nine pencils sticking out of an old-fashioned inkwell. He kept pulling them out and smelling them when he thought no one was looking, the wonderful scent of anything freshly sharpened.