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The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 5

Catherynne M. Valente

  “The Zinnias wouldn’t let us leave once they stowed us here,” explained Tamburlaine, who lay dreamily on her back before a sweetstone fireplace of every color, plus two the Briary had invented just for its own use. It took up the whole west wall of the room. “They’re being very strict with everyone—I suppose they don’t want anybody getting strangled in the hallways with all these old devils creeping about.”

  Fire roared cheerfully in the hearth and the silver wood-rack groaned with glittering fresh logs brought all the way from the Glass Forest. Beside the fireplace rested a glorious golden cabinet filled to bursting with records of every size and sort. Scratch hopped and clattered like a newborn horse, using his needle to flip through albums with a thrill only a gramophone can know. Tamburlaine laughed, but not cruelly. Her hair was blooming brighter and thicker than it ever had in the human world, not only plum blossoms now but pomegranate and wild lobelia, too. The Leopard of Little Breezes stretched out beside her to soak up the fire.

  “Hey! What’s yours, Tam?” Hawthorn asked suddenly. “The old house put out presents for everyone like it’s making up for a hundred Christmases. But I don’t see any paints or books for you. I didn’t even think.”

  “It’s the fireplace,” Tamburlaine said softly, sinking to her walnut-wood knees beside the hearth. “Of course, I would like paints and brushes, but the Briary knows what I am. I’m a Fetch. My heart is a little burning coal. I tried to tell you that once, but I don’t think it came out right. Fire calls to me and I call to fire. It was all I could do not to burn the house down when I was little. Not because I didn’t love my house, but because I’m built to burn, and to love things that burn.” She tore her eyes from the blazing glass logs and laughed a little, wiping her eyes. “You all got the sort of things an auntie would give you, if she were specially rich—but me? The Briary’s telling my secrets. Naughty thing!”

  Several pots of paint and long pearl-handled brushes appeared guiltily out of the top of a blackberry-bramble sideboard.

  Down below the wide windows, September could see the lights of Pandemonium swirling. She could see Groangyre Tower and the Janglynow Flats and even the movie theatre where she and A-Through-L had eaten lemon ices together. Suddenly, glasses and plates rose up out of the table-for-one in the center of the room like apples bobbing up out of a pail of water: a glass of golden-colored milk, a snifter of bright green liquor with emeralds floating in it, and a stack of magenta cakes with coppery butter melting on top.

  The Green Wind quirked one green eyebrow. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to eat breakfast and dinner, as Mr. Crunchcrab had a very busy day being deposed and forgot his flapjacks.”

  September smiled at all of them, safe and happy and in one place for once. She looked up at the Green Wind. “Why should I have to eat Charlie’s breakfast? I’m sure it’s gone cold by now.”

  “You are the Queen of Fairyland. Everything you do echoes in Fairyland, one way or another. If you do not have the milk of a dun cow, a snifter of liegelime cordial, and a shortstack of magnamillet flapjacks each morning, the Greatvole of Black Salt Cavern will wake from her thousand-year slumber. I only hope we’re not too late!”

  September sat down. Pandemonium floated up to her on one side, in smells and in the sounds of a million voices, belonging to a million people she had never met. On the other side crowded round the faces she knew best in all the world, save her own mother and father. Ell seemed very curious about the flapjacks. She sipped the liegelime cordial; she cut into the magnamillet flapjacks. It all tasted like limes and pancakes ought to, and she said so. Certainly nothing tasted like the defeat of a Greatvole.

  The Green Wind went on. “And every night for dinner, you must dine upon roast legislamb cutlets, gruffragette salad, and wash it down with hot regicider, or the Wickedest Whale will rise from the deeps and swallow us coast-first. This is the Second Munificent Mystery—as Queen, even your snacks are a spell.”

  “Are all the rules about what I’m meant to eat?” asked September between mouthfuls. The moment she finished her milk, the plate before her vanished and another appeared, piled high with glistening blue-black meat, something that looked a bit like eggplant and a bit like eggs, and a wooden mug of steaming cider that smelt of apples and anxious dreams.

  The Green Wind laughed and floated up into the air, turning a somersault in the firelit air. “Certainly not!” he cried. “But it is a bit important to avoid Greatvoles and Wickedest Whales, don’t you think?”

  “I’ve never met either of those things, but they sound like dreadful houseguests. I’d wager they don’t do a lick of washing up!” agreed Blunderbuss.

  The Green Wind stood on his head by the draperies. “Now! Rule the second! You may only oppress the people horridly on Wednesdays, Fridays, Sundays, and public holidays. Thirdly, the use of magic mirrors, dragons, and popes is strictly prohibited. Fourthly, you must swim in the Parliamentary Pool one hour after eating every day in order to prevent hurricanes in Brocéliande. Fifthly, all monarchs are required to give two weeks’ notice before any significant act of tyranny. Sixthly, war is like a dress in a department store. It may look very tempting on the rack, but once you’ve got it on it’s nothing but a mess. Seventhly, tax collection occurs on second Fridays. Eight, you may do mostly as you like, but so may everyone else, only you get to do it in a nicer house. The ninth rule is, be nice to Fairyland. She is old and tender of heart and when her feelings are hurt, she cries volcanoes. Ten, you may not abdicate. You may only be deposed, transmogrified, or killed. Or outraced on Thursday, if you’re not careful! And eleven, though this is less a rule than a public service announcement—there is a kraken with a rather unpleasant personality living in the cellar. Good luck!”

  “That is a lot of rules,” Saturday said with a frown.

  “Don’t worry, there’s plenty more! She’ll need to braid her hair in a Titan’s Knot to keep down the infinite furious kobolds that dwell beneath Lake Hobble-on, that sort of thing. You’ll find a diagram on your bedside table, September. Oh, my sweetest of scalawags, I’m afraid it’s ever so much more complicated to run Fairyland than to run off to it. I have never sought after power, myself. You’ve got to set an alarm clock to be a powerful man and I won’t have it. I never even meant to be a Wind! I thought I’d marry a girl named Jenny Chicory, and that was all my ambition in the world. But I tripped and fell into the sky instead, ring-o the bluebells! Do you know how your friend Blue got to be the Blue Wind in the first place? She stole the old Wind’s skates! That’s how it’s done for Blues. Single combat for Reds. I think the Goldens have singing competitions. But not a one of us went seeking our lots.”

  “I didn’t seek after anything! The Crown just … well, it ran me over like a squirrel in the road. I shall be glad when the Derby’s done with and I can braid my hair as I like!”

  The Green Wind put his head to one side. “Will you? I have kept an eye or six on you. It seems to me that wherever you’ve landed, you’ve gone straight at whoever was in charge like a bull at a matador and knocked them right off their particular chair. Not that I’m not proud! I could fairly burst. But you do have your little habits, my autumnal acquisition. I think you like bossing around a world or two. You’ve been doing it all along, only now you’ve got a very fine hat. Of course, it is always easier to fight the powerful than to wield power yourself.”

  And that is the last lesson of childhood: You spend all your years fighting against the injustice of big folk and their big rules until you are ready to rule yourself.

  September finished her meal. She felt quite sore from eating, and her belly let it be known that it wanted nothing more to do with her. She stared out into the soft, breezy night. Perhaps she wouldn’t be glad when the Derby was over and she lost—for of course she would lose, that wasn’t even a question. She liked folk talking to her as though her answers mattered as much as anything ever had. She liked her crown. But her heart felt very still. “Green, if you’ve kept all those eyes
on me, you must have seen all the things I’ve done. In Fairyland-Below and on the Moon and … just everything. You saw my father become the Alleyman and how lonely I was sometimes and how often I spoilt things when I was trying so hard to do well. You must have seen me with the Yeti. You must have seen me grow from fourteen to forty in the space of an hour. You must have seen us all locked away with the Redcaps and their rum. Green, why didn’t you help me? I got so lost and you didn’t help me.”

  As if in answer, the gramophone spun his handle gleefully. A black and bright record slid out from its friends. It was called Siren Sings the Greens. On the cover danced a real siren, kicking her long heron-legs, spreading her great blue-green wings round a lovely lady’s face, with long red hair full of starfish and sapphires. Beside her howled a dark, curly-haired hound, which, if September had been the one choosing music, she might have recognized, for she met that very dog on the Moon not so long ago. The Black Cosmic Dog has a surprising number of hobbies.

  Scratch had played hundreds of records in his life, for he needed them to speak, having no mouth or tongue or lungs of his own. But this one was different. This was a Fairy record. No one would call anybody baby on this record. No one would forget to hire a bass player. Maybe Fairies had never even heard of those blasted C, F, and G chords that humans loved so well. (All gramophones have strong opinions on popular music, though they cannot tell anyone what they think of jazz.) Tamburlaine laid Siren Sings the Greens carefully onto Scratch’s turntable. He spun his crank and an achingly beautiful voice poured out of his brass bell, a voice both deep and sweet, raspy with loneliness and late nights and seaside air, but bottomed in bronze and moonlight.

  The greens ain’t nothin’ but a fire in your heart

  A spark in the dark when you and your song have to part

  I know I ain’t nothin’ but a hawk without a home

  But I got the greens on my side so I’m never alone

  The Green Wind turned a lazy backflip in the air and drifted down to the table. He sprawled out on it, crossing his legs before him. The Leopard of Little Breezes yawned by the fire. “Miss September, who do you think I am? Nothing but a Wind in a green handbag, that’s who.”

  Perhaps he would have said more. Perhaps he would have told September that he had no more power to save anyone than a green balloon, unless what that anyone needed most was a gust of air or a well-timed cloud. Perhaps he would have told her that he had been busy with his own adventures, his own loves and losses and prisons and Yetis. Or perhaps he would simply have kissed her on the forehead and winked and flown off, for that is what most adults do when they don’t want to answer a question straight. But the Green Wind did not get a chance, for as soon as he called himself a handbag, a knock came at the door.

  Hawthorn ran to the fireplace, ignoring it, speaking urgently to his friend: “You know, Tam, I’ve been thinking—”

  “Yes, so have I,” Tamburlaine answered.

  “Only that we must do it together. Tom and Tam, like it was back home.”

  “But do you think she’ll be angry?”

  “I don’t know, shall we ask the dragon?”

  “Pardon me,” said A-Through-L, looking up from fussing with his nest, a bit of batting stuck to one horn. “But in the first place, I am not a Dragon, and in the second place, it’s very rude to hatch plans without including your new flatmates. Unless you’re hatching schemes rather than plans, in which case it’s downright mean.”

  “You’ll just have to get used to it, Big Red! They do it all the time,” groused Blunderbuss, buried gleefully under half a foot of moss and dirt. “Only include me when they decide their little plots require an armored combat wombat, or at least a good roar. And he’s a Wyvern, dum-dums! Count the feet. Get your taxonomy straight, you’re embarrassing all of us!” Hawthorn and Tamburlaine hung their heads. “My favorite dum-dums! Best dum-dums since sliced tomfoolery.”

  Tamburlaine began: “We only wanted to know if September would get mad at us if—”

  “How could I be mad at anybody?” interrupted September. She stood up from the table, so full of feast and feeling she thought she might pop like a soap bubble. For a moment she stood there, a bit stiff, for Queens are not meant to tumble headlong around a room and tackle their favorite people in it. She didn’t know much about being a Queen, but she knew that. And they’d all seemed quite happy and at home without her. The room hadn’t made anything to welcome her, after all, except a bit of supper. Perhaps she wasn’t welcome.

  But she tumbled anyhow, while the knocking at the door sounded again and no one paid any more attention than they had the first time. September darted across the lovely carpets and leapt into Ell’s nest. As she jumped, the Watchful Dress folded itself out of being a ball gown and into being a knockabout orange shift with sturdy stockings. She landed against the warm scarlet flank of her Wyverary, giggling madly. It was so nice to leap and land without the littlest creak in her bones. She held out her arms for Saturday and he leapt, too, all three of them ending up in a pile of laughter and mussed hair.

  “How could I be mad at anybody? I started out today in prison and now I’m Queen! And it’s hardly past eight o’clock! By midnight I expect I’ll have turned into a basilisk and started a career in the ballet!” She looked round the wonderful room and pressed her lips together. Perhaps it was bad manners to feel jealous when you were a Queen.

  “There’s nothing for me here at all,” said September, a prickling of hurt in her voice.

  “Well, it’s not your room, is it?” said Hawthorn. He sat back in a great, soft troll-sized armchair. “Oh, I don’t mean it like that! You can come by whenever you want! But you’re the Queen! I’m sure the house has got something better for you. Something really spectacular.”

  Saturday put his hand on hers. “Let’s go find your room. We can repaint it—I’m sure Crunchcrab wallpapered in barnacles or something. Let’s go find it and spill food on the floor and break all the lamps and stay up all night together like we used to do in the rum cellar. Did you know Blunderbuss can shoot passionfruits and horseshoes out of her mouth? It’s fantastic!”

  “Yes, let’s!” agreed Blunderbuss heartily. “And maybe on the way we can find a library for Ell to nosh on? Castles always have libraries, usually with Forbidden Tomes in them. It’s the law.”

  And September felt quite as though she had skipped several chapters in her favorite novel and opened it up again only to find everyone much further along than she.

  “Come in!” sang Hawthorn and Tamburlaine together. Scratch gave a jaunty little squeak with his needle.

  The Scuttler cleared his throat and opened the door with a grand sweep of his claw.

  “SPOKE!” hollered September, clambering down from the nest to greet him.

  “Miss! Oh, it is lovely to see a familiar face, isn’t it? I hardly meet a soul from the old lunar days anymore. Came down from the Moon when the quakes cracked my shell a good one. Good thing scuttling is almost exactly like taxiing! Come when you’re called, show company around the place, know what’s needed before it gets to needing, take the occasional trip below stairs and forward in time—just like home! Ah, I should say something fancy, shouldn’t I? How’s about: Greetings to you upon this fair evening, Your Highness?”

  September wrinkled her nose.

  “Naw, you’re right, it don’t fit me any better than a pair of pants. Anyhap! I’ve come to deliver an invitation to you and deliver you to the invitees.” Spoke held up one black-and-white claw with an elegant calling card snared between the pincers. “Your Most Grand High Tip-Topping Such and Such, You Are Cordially Demanded to Attend the First Meeting of the Reconvened Once and Future Club at Nine in the P.M. This Very Night in the Rex Tyrannosaur’s Room Because His Is the Biggest. Bring Your Own Brandy and Ancient Resentments.”

  “A club? Already?” Tam said.

  “Can we come this time?” Ell pleaded. His great, orange, hopeful eyes loomed above them all like lanterns.

>   “Invitation is for one, lads,” Spoke answered with chagrin. “And arguing with that lot is like arguing with the Code of Hammurabi.”

  “I don’t know what that is but it sounds very boring,” snorted the scrap-yarn wombat.

  “I’ll come back soon,” September said. “We’ll throw passionfruits at my bedroom walls, I promise.”

  September followed the former Taxicrab out of those cluttered, cozy quarters and the circle of her dear ones, where, it seemed, she could not be allowed to stay for a moment. But a moment later, she ducked her head back round the edge of the door.

  “What did you think would make me angry?” she asked Hawthorn and Tamburlaine.

  “Oh,” he answered her. “We wanted to know … if it would upset you. If we entered the race on Thursday. Since you don’t want to rule Fairyland and we … well, we do.”

  The Green Wind began to laugh. After a moment, the Leopard of Little Breezes joined in, and even her laughter had spots.



  In Which September Is Inducted into a Secret Society, Meets a Number of Nefarious Ne’er-do-wells, Interrogates a Dinosaur, and Comes to a Decision

  Imagine a room where George Washington, Queen Victoria, Ivan the Terrible, Montezuma, Cleopatra, and Eleanor of Aquitaine were sharing brandy and cigars and making splendid jokes at one another’s expense, demanding that Emperor Qin let them all have a slice of his poppy seed cake, Charlemagne put a pot of coffee on, and Artemisia of Halicarnassus tell the one about that time she defeated the Greeks at sea. Now, imagine standing outside that room, knowing just who was in there and how fiercely and strangely they all would behave once the door opened and you had to squeeze in between Caesar and Queen Isabella and hope you knew which fork to use for poppy seed cake.