Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 8

Catherynne M. Valente

  Let us spread out a blanket at the starting line in Pandemonium. I’ve brought a great orange parasol so we don’t get sunburnt, and plenty of fizzy drinks and sandwiches for all. You see, every race begins in Pandemonium. Once, the ifrits tried to start a Firebreak (which is something like a marathon, if all of the runners could fly, travel back and forth in time, and were on fire) in their home of Flegethon City. All the runners stood ablaze at the starting line on Fervor Street, their volcano-batons in hand—but the city of Pandemonium moves according to the needs of narrative. It cannot stay in one place when it has caught the scent of a story. Just as the Firebreak was set to begin, Pandemonium arrived, rudely jostling Flegethon City right out of its pleasant spot on the shores of Braisebottom Lake to get a better seat.

  All races begin in Pandemonium, even if they do not want to, for Pandemonium quite refuses to miss one single second of excitement.

  Come with me. We shall get to the race grounds first, before even the maddest racing fan has thought to put the kettle on and start looking for her lucky socks. We shall kick off our shoes and stretch out our legs on the outskirts of the city, on Gingham Green, right on the lawns of all the rich and famous—they can’t stop us. Narrators may go where they please. We’ve got an excellent view of the Great Foulard, the winding, twisting, curlicuing avenue that connects every street and avenue and boulevard and humble chiffon alley in Pandemonium. Just past the Ghostloom Gate, the Great Foulard dives into the Barleybroom and comes up on the other bank clean and sparkling and called Gadabout Road instead. But from where we sit, we can see everything: the gownstone houses of Herringbone Heights, the glittering Angora Aqueduct, the silk balloon of Groangyre Tower. We can smell the bakeries of Calico Common as they heap pastries and bread and cakes and pies onto carts and wheel their wares into the Plaited Plaza, where they will sell every last cheese pastry and luckfig tart and wish they had baked more. And we can hear folk less industrious than we starting to arrive at the Plaza, yawning, shaking the dew off their wings, taking their morning constitutionals: changing into six or seven animals just to get the blood going. In the center of the Plaited Plaza, a fountain bubbles away happily in blue marble, silver, and watered silk. The great splashing statues depict Good Queen Mallow piercing the heart of Gratchling Gourdbone Goldmouth with her trusty needle while her sensible knit scarf flutters behind her. Already, a family of dryads have gathered to sit on the fountain’s rim, kicking their cedar-bark legs into the air. They wave us over—plenty of room for all. But we’ve already snatched up the best spot for ourselves. From a narrator’s picnic blanket, there’s nothing you can’t see.

  * * *

  The day of the Cantankerous Derby woke up with gold dust in its eyes and three lumps of sunshine in its tea. Garlands of lavender and rowan branches and great bright paper lanterns hung from the noses of all the gargoyles peering down into the Plaited Plaza. The Stoat of Arms paced back and forth nervously, reciting the rules of the race to itself and hoping it had not forgotten anything important, like its racing silks or the finish line. Bakers, spectators, souvenir sellers and bookmakers crowded in from the side alleys and streets and the Great Foulard as it emptied its morning traffic out onto the flame-colored patchwork cobbles.

  September, Saturday, and A-Through-L arrived first. September had felt that it might look tawdry if the Queen came dawdling in when everyone else already had their shoes tied and their various engines purring. She’d set the moon in her bedchamber to wake her long before dawn and crept out of the Briary before even the Zinnias had stopped snoring. Ell soared up into the air and gave a few mighty flaps of his scarlet wings the way a runner stretches on the grass by the racetrack. She wore her Watchful Dress and her emerald smoking jacket as though they were ermine and veils of gold. Saturday wore his best sturgeon-skin trousers and a little blue-white stone on a lash of leather round his neck. September had asked many times why he wore that funny old opal, but he would never say. The Marid’s blue chest and all his marvelous tattoos shone darkly in the sun. Saturday and September, having become rather practical on the subject of adventuring over the last many years, filled a small suitcase with various trifles and pies and samosas and profiteroles from the carts. A pieman with round, friendly cheeks and round, friendly serpents where her hair ought to be insisted on slipping in a little almond-wood barrel of cider.

  “The Queen shouldn’t thirst while I’m on my fourth cup,” crowed the pieman.

  Next came the Once and Future Club, sauntering, swaggering, and staggering, for few of them had anything polite to say to a good night’s sleep. Each of them came well equipped for racing: Madame Tanaquill led the way, riding a magnificent horse with eight legs, a mane of rainbow light, and two vicious, glowing red coals where a usual horse’s kind dark eyes would be. Pinecrack followed by himself, as he felt quite capable of achieving top moose-speeds on his own four legs. The Knight Quotidian drove a sensible four-wing family dragon. Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord, flew an enormous Roc named Wenceslas down from the Herringbone Heights into the Plaited Plaza. A Roc is a great enormous carnivorous bird, bigger than a humpback whale and the color of the sun. Now, you might think a Roc flies faster than a raven, and that was why Hushnow chose one for his mount. But it is not so—Rocs are quite slow as fliers go, somewhere between a bit of dandelion fluff and a paper airplane of middling quality. Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord, was really and truly fabulously demented, much more demented than ancient, and he thought the Roc was a wonderful plan.

  Cutty Soames strutted in in a captain’s tricorn hat, seven gold earrings in each ear, and the polished wooden wheel of his ship, the H.M.S. Chimbley’s Revenge. She waited at anchor on the Barleybroom docks. The Headmistress sat in a prim chair perched atop a magnificent brass school bell that bounced up and down on its clapper. She whacked her bell smartly with a riding crop. It whinnied, a little fearful trill of a ring. Charlie Crunchcrab rode in on a sea-goat with frightful horns like ships’ anchors. He glared furiously at September and refused to speak to her. More came, thick and fast, on horses and gryphons and giant platypi, in carriages that blinked out in one place and reappeared in another, in complicated machines September did not think anyone could get out of without a team of engineers or possibly doctors. And then came the heavyweights, riding nothing because nothing could carry them: Thrum, the Rex Tyrannosaur, the First Stone, and Goldmouth the Clurichaun, his tattoos gleaming black in the sun, his magenta eyes burning with fury that he should have to lower himself to a footrace with the rest of them.

  A sharp pain snaked up through September’s right foot. She lifted her shoe; a tiny creature glared up at her with hatred, no bigger than a stone in a ring. She sat atop a hazelnut carriage roofed in grasshopper wings, whose wheel-spokes were long, slender spiders’ legs. Whatever drew the carriage was so small September could not see them at all—the harnesses floated free, as thin as cobwebs, strung between empty collars made of bright, pale moonbeams. The carriage-driver was a lady caught halfway between beautiful and terrifying—her face so gaunt, her hair so wild, and her eyes so huge that she looked like an electrified dragonfly who had once asked to be made into a human girl for Christmas and almost, almost gotten her wish. She snapped a whip made of cricket’s bone; its filmy lash cracked against nothing, yet the hazelnut flew forward. It barreled toward Madame Tanaquill, who was feeding her horse a lump of fire and making what she considered an extremely fine joke to Curdleblood, the Dastard of Darkness, who simply refused to understand it. He forced a smile and patted his mount, which appeared to be a long streak of the color black and nothing more. But when Tanaquill saw the little nut-coach and its fierce-faced driver, she went quite pale. Her hand fluttered to her iron necklace and the welt beneath it. Tears filled her eyes. And the Prime Minister of all of Fairyland dropped to one knee. She bowed her head, and then covered her face with her hands, letting the other knee fall to the ground, until she was simply crying on her knees like a little child.

sp; “Queen Mab,” she whispered.

  September suddenly felt very self-conscious, standing on her own two feet. She knew that she oughtn’t bow herself, being Queen, at least for the next little while. But she felt terribly cold and uncertain to see Madame Tanaquill shiver as she extended her long finger for Queen Mab to whip mercilessly. The Prime Minister shuddered; September shuddered herself.

  She should have thought to bring a steed. Surely, the Briary had heaps of them. But Ell and Saturday had always been everything she needed. She could hardly run like Pinecrack or whip a bell into fighting shape. Ell could fly, but so could half the other racers—and it’s very hard to balance on a Wyverary’s back when he dashes through the clouds. But September needn’t have worried. I would never abandon her so. I have been waiting for ages and ages to give her my coronation present—and here it comes, huff-puffing across the patchwork cobblestones with a burlap sack that reads AROOSTOOK POTATO COMPANY over its spare wheel.

  Aroostook the Model A Ford sped blithely toward September and Saturday, almost preening in the sunshine. Mr. Albert would never have recognized his old farm car now—Aroostook’s windows had all turned to stained glass, its wheel to a hard, bright green sunflower, its dash to tangerine scrimshaw, its levers to thin golden arms ending in cuff links and balled fists, its squeeze horn to a cobalt-and-white-striped phonograph bell. Since September had seen it last, the Model A had become even wilder. Not a trace of its old greenish-black paint remained. Now Aroostook’s doors and wheel wells were covered in brilliant feathers and striped pelts. Its wheels had outgrown the need for tires and wrapped themselves up in storm clouds—all except for the spare, which, beneath the old burlap sack, was a long, thick cat’s tail, curled up around itself in satisfaction.

  September and Saturday ran to their old friend, patting its engine, asking after its gas tank, exclaiming over its new body. Both tried to hug Aroostook, but it did not come out quite right, for you cannot get your arms around a windshield or a fender, and besides, all Fords are somewhat embarrassed by public displays of affection.

  The Plaited Plaza filled and filled and then overflowed. The Club shuddered at the crowds. It seemed many people meant to race who had never met a snifter in their lives, and the Club did not approve. September hadn’t seen half of them in the grand hall. Not Kings and Queens of days gone by, but fauns and bugbears and gnomes and spriggans who came with knapsacks full of ambition strapped on tight. But September didn’t see the racer she worried about. Perhaps she won’t come, September thought. Perhaps she’ll just lose interest and go learn to knit with the hamadryads.

  Oh, September. They always come. No one in the history of the world has ever been so lucky as to escape confrontations forever. Though, I must admit: The Marquess actually overslept on the morning of the Cantankerous Derby. When you have slept for five years, one stacked on top of the other like mattresses, it’s very hard to convince your body that you’re allowed to wake up again. But I woke her. I crept into her room in the Briary and brushed a lock of her hair from her lips. The lock flushed blue and she sat straight up, gasping. You might think it wicked of me—why not let that awful lady sleep through to the end of time? But, darlings, I have many more stories than September’s to look after, and I cannot neglect even one of them.

  The Marquess stepped out of nothing—she just opened a piece of air like it was a door with a nice sensible handle and stepped into the Plaza with her son Prince Myrrh close behind her. The Marquess smiled at September. Her hair faded from black to deep rose-pink. She gazed up at the statue of herself battling the clurichaun. Goldmouth, his golden teeth as sharp as vengeance, glared at her from across the square. Prince Myrrh waved shyly at September. He had come to see his mother off—and then dash away to his own schemes and trials, for the Marquess had told him when she woke that children should dream greater than their parents’ industries. Perhaps September and Myrrh might have found something to say to one another had the Green Wind not pounced upon another perfect moment and come sailing down out of the dazzling sky on the Leopard of Little Breezes—followed by Iago, carrying the Red Wind, her red coat flapping rakishly, her red pistols glittering. The Blue Wind came after, on her great giant puffin, and the Silver Wind on the Tiger of Wild Flurries, and the Black Wind, on the Lynx of Gentle Showers! And yet another Wind, the only one September had not yet met, the Golden Wind, riding the Jaguar of Soft Showers. A-Through-L roared in delight and flew red circles round them all.

  “Green!” September cried, nearly beside herself. She jumped up and down as though no time at all had passed and she was still washing pink and yellow teacups in her parents’ sink and had only just now seen a man riding a flying Leopard for the first time. “Blue! Red! You came!”

  “Well, of course we came, my sour little blueberry,” cried the Blue Wind, halfway between a sneer and a giggle. “How else am I going to steal a crown?”

  “You’re racing?”

  “Oh yes,” the Red Wind said. “Fairyland is far too important to leave it to the Unwindy. We’ve been lax. It’s not your fault—you’re stuck in one place. You can’t see anything but what you’ve already stepped in.”

  “I can’t let one of them win,” said the Silver Wind, her fine gray hair wafting up round her head in a crown. She jutted her chin toward the other Winds. “Thieves and brawlers!”

  “I’m not one of those,” the Black Wind snapped, wounded. “I’ll have you know I’m a perfectly respectable and responsible creature of the night.”

  The Golden Wind said nothing. September and his Jaguar stared at one another.

  “And you, too, Green?” September said at last. She did feel a little hurt. Didn’t he think she could manage a throne?

  “Oh, I don’t want to lord it over anything much more than my breakfast, but I thought: Why not? Winds always race—it’s our nature!” The Green Wind landed softly. The Leopard of Little Breezes padded over to drink from the fountain.

  “Hawthorn!” September waved, seeing him at last, marching in from the Great Foulard. “Blunderbuss! Tam! Over here!”

  The Changelings rode high atop the scrap-yarn wombat. Blunderbuss wore her full armor, the very armor Tamburlaine had painted for her outside the Redcaps’ cellar. She had once been little and dense and fierce as any wombat—but Hawthorn and Tamburlaine had made her gigantic, stupendous, a first-rate combat wombat. Her armor bristled, all thorny Steppe-grass lashed together like fiery whips, winding round and round her in pumpkin-colored ropes, braided tight. The grasses had thatched up into bright greaves on her legs, a belly-breastplate on the underside of her tummy, a curling orange saddle on her back with long, wheat-sheaf stirrups handing down round her ribs, and a brilliant helmet over her head, with grassy nubs for wombat ears and several splendid spikes. Her fuzzy face was made quite fierce and triceratops-like by all her finery. She tossed her armored head at the sky and hurtled her thrill at the spires of Pandemonium.

  “What do you say to all this?” hollered the combat wombat. “Pretty flash for a game of tag!”

  Hawthorn and Tamburlaine looked guilty—guilty and beautiful. Hawthorn wore the long-tailed cap Gwendolyn, his human mother, had knitted for him with polar bears and kangaroos on it and his father Nicholas’s old leather jacket with Gwen’s gold jewelry sewn all over it. He would never give those up if he lived to be as old as the alphabet. But underneath it all he wore the outfit he’d found laid out for him in their room when he woke up that morning: a fine troll’s tunic woven out of obsidian and granite and shale (for trolls can weave stone into cloth stronger than marble and softer than a child’s cheek—though it’s very hard work and bruises the weavers all over). On his feet he wore the great and powerful Golden Galoshes, only they really were Golden, and embroidered with very probably some sort of enchantments. His hands were sheathed in the rare and precious Carnivorous Mittens, only they really were tigerskin now instead of scratchy orange and black wool, complete with hard silver claws. And over his tunic, the formidable Houndstoo
th Suit, which really was made of fierce hounds’ teeth, thatched together like a coat of mail.

  Tamburlaine’s walnut-wood skin looked as though it had been polished over and over—she shone like something burned inside her. Her hair was in full bloom, purple and crimson flowers cascading down her back like a highwayman’s cape. She, too, wore what the Briary had given her: a dress of thick canvas, belted with a length of green knives from the knife tree in her own forest. She’d fastened lionbone greaves to her legs and wore bear’s claw rings on her fingers. On her back Tam carried a quiver of paintbrushes, and across her chest two bandoliers of paint-pots.

  “Where’s Scratch?” asked Saturday, looking for the gramophone.

  Blunderbuss pawed the Plaza stones ruefully. “He’s such a fragile little fellow, don’t you know. He could snap a leg or a handle as easy as flipping his record. We snuck out while he was snoozing away, snoring out torch songs. He’ll be safer in the Briary. The wilds are no place for delicate technology.”

  Tamburlaine frowned wretchedly, already missing her friend.

  “We’re sorry, September,” Tam began. “It’s only that we’re Changelings. If only Changelings were in charge, nobody else would ever have to get kidnapped just to make the math work out. We think you’d be a lovely Queen, but we can’t trust anyone who hasn’t had to grow up in the human world.”