The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Page 9Catherynne M. Valente
“I grew up in the human world,” September said crossly.
“It’s not the same.” Hawthorn sighed. “You don’t know what it’s like to always, always feel that you don’t belong, to your family, to your city, or your school, knowing there’s something different about you, something off, that you’re not like the others, that you’re an alien all alone.”
September crossed her arms. “Hawthorn. Everyone feels like that.”
But the troll shook his head. “You were human. You matched. You don’t know what it’s like to be stuck in your own body like a trap.”
Oh, but Hawthorn, my best and dearest boy. Listen to September, who knows a thing or two about living in a strange body. Max could tell you, too, and Thomas Rood and Penny Farthing and even the boy named Humphrey who carved his name in your desk. You could tell him, and so could I. No one belongs when they are new to this world. All children are Changelings.
“We have to try,” Tamburlaine said gently. “And we’re not the only ones! That’s Sadie Spleenwort over there, with the mushrooms in her hair.” A girl with auburn braids was kissing a giant jackal on the nose and reaching up on her tiptoes to scratch his ears. “She’ll probably beat us, actually. She’s stubborn and sour and stupendous. And Penny Farthing, on the velocipede!”
September looked and saw the little girl she had met on the back of a wild velocipede the first time she came to Pandemonium. Penny was quite grown now, whooping and laughing on top of her steed while her mother, Calpurnia, sipped a coffee and grinned with pride.
“Ladies and Gentlemen and Everyone Else!” bellowed the Stoat of Arms. Several invisible horns sounded, shattering the merry noise into a hundred million pieces, leaving only quiet behind. “Welcome to the Cantankerous Derby! Let us all get this over with as soon as possible for I am already bored with every single one of you! Please behave yourselves while Mrs. Grandiloquent Cockscomb, the Royal Bookmaker, commences the Reading of the Odds!”
A gorgeous old basilisk wearing deep black sunglasses hobbled forward, carrying a book nearly as large as herself, which was no small feat, as Mrs. Grandiloquent Cockscomb was a scaly reptile the size of an igloo. Her orange-and-violet-feathered tail rose up even farther than her head, which looked very much like the head of a stegosaurus September had seen illustrated in one of her history textbooks.
“After conferring with the twenty-one members of the Society of Probability Paupers,” began Mrs. Cockscomb in a reedy, raspy voice, “I am honored to recite to you, gloriously gathered Fairylanders (and Others), the Hallowed Odds. The Paupers prefer to begin with the winners: We find Madame Tanaquill favored to take the crown at two to one, followed by the Marquess and Queen Mab at three to one. A surprising upstart rising up the rankings—Gratchling Gourdbone Goldmouth comes in at four to one, and old Hushnow close behind. Now, on to something more interesting! We are offering generous odds on Thrum being effervesced into his constituent atoms by lunch, the Blue Wind snatching the crown and hiding it for not more than three years, but not less than two, causing three-quarters of a revolution in Pandemonium, and that bloody great wombat unraveling completely before all is said and done. Please see myself or one of my Lamblers to place your bets. Gold and silver not accepted—today we are taking foreign currency only! Human dollars, pounds, rubles, drachma, et cetera, chimeric lodestones, kneecaps, or firstborn children, but only nice ones, let’s not have a repeat of the Bleakness Cup incident!”
The Stoat of Arms sighed with relief. “Thank you, Mrs. Cockscomb. And now, may I introduce the Racemaster, who will, if everything goes swimmingly, make sure I never have to see most of you again!”
The horns sounded again. A-Through-L hid his head under one wing. September and Saturday clapped her hands over their ears—and when they uncovered them again, they were alone.
The Plaited Plaza stood empty, not a single long-dead monarch, waving dryad, or pastry seller remained. No Stoat of Arms, no Mrs. Cockscomb, no scrap-yarn wombat, nor even one solitary spot from the tail of a Leopard.
And no Aroostook.
The sun still beamed overhead; the fountain still gurgled pleasantly; the grass on Gingham Green still sparkled with yesterday’s rain. But September, Saturday, and Ell stood by themselves in the middle of a suddenly silent Pandemonium.
THE MAN FROM BLUE HEN ISLAND
In Which September Meets Babe Ruth, Acquires a Steed, and Learns a Great Deal About What Lies Ahead
“What’s happened?” Ell bellowed, spinning in a great red circle on the empty cobblestones.
September squeezed her fists together. “Have we lost already? Is everyone else that much faster? Where’s Aroostook? And Hawthorn and Tam and Blunderbuss?”
Saturday wanted to comfort her, but he had no good thoughts to offer. “Maybe we did something wrong,” he fretted. “Maybe we’ve been disqualified. Or the Marquess has done something awful to everyone.”
“Ought we to just … start running? The Ghostloom Gate is open, perhaps that was the starting gun. How are we to know?” September took a step forward, but she was not at all sure of the step.
“Races begin with R,” Ell said mournfully. “I much prefer Dances. And Fairs. And Ball Games.”
An ear-battering smack of drums and firecrackers echoed through the air. A swirl of a thousand colors filled up September’s eyes so that she could see nothing else. The colors whirled and spun round one another, spinning out in front of A-Through-L and up into the air. Finally, they unfolded and became an impossibly slender, pointed man made all of racing silks and checkered flags, in every color and every pattern, as though someone had ripped off a patch from the costume of everyone who had run a race since before the mile was invented. He did not seem to have hands or feet so much as the twisting silk of him came to graceful points at the ends of his arms and legs. His face was a marvelous origami—noble crests, green chevrons, black stripes, lace handkerchiefs given as favors in some long-forgotten joust, all folded tight together to make a sharp, clear face with searching, canny eyes.
Now, all races must have a Racemistress or Racemaster. To find an ideal Racemaster, first track down a school principal who loves nothing better than tricking students into misbehaving, unless it was coming up with the most joyfully complicated punishments. Make certain that she has studied all her life to become an expert in every sport and game, from poker to croquet to Arcanasta to Daemoninoes to the Royal Game of Ur, the way ninjas train to perfect every martial art. For the Cantankerous Derby, the Stoat of Arms would sooner have lived out its days in a petting zoo than chosen anyone other than the greatest Racemaster who has ever lived or breathed or fired a starting catapult directly in the ear of a Glashtyn—and just such a one floated nimbly before them.
The man made of flags bowed, flourishing his arms and bending his head. “Good morning, Queen September, I will be your Racemaster for the next many days. Years, possibly! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. My name is Ajax Oddson. By my reputation, you will know you are in hands both good and fair.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know a thing about you,” September said cheerfully. She had long ago ceased to be embarrassed by not knowing a thing in Fairyland.
Saturday squeezed her hand. “Is there anyone in the human world who plays a game so well that everyone knows his name, so well that his name becomes the game, and you can hardly think of one without the other?”
September thought for a moment. “I suppose there’s Babe Ruth. That’s baseball. It’s a bit like sword fighting and a bit like juggling but far less interesting to watch than either one.”
“What a funny name!” said A-Through-L, his nostrils flaring. “Babies oughtn’t play with swords, unless they are trolls.” He rocked from one great red leg to the other. “If Fairyland has a Babe Ruth, then Ajax Oddson is him. I’m very pleased and also nervous to meet him. I thought we might. Who else would take charge of the most important race that’s ever cried on your mark?”
acemaster inclined his head demurely. “You’re too kind, Master Wyverary. Your Majesty, allow me to put you at ease. I had my education at the Home for Excessively Competitive Children on Blue Hen Island, where any child who loves to win more than he loves to eat or sleep or drink or have one single friend goes to be among his own kind. There we can be cared for by folk who understand our needs and wants and need-nots and want-nots. On our first day, we found a single blue poker chip lying on our pillows with the motto of the school stamped on it in gold. IN LUDO VERITAS. In the Game Is Truth. The day we turned that one chip into one thousand, we graduated. And my specialty has always been Derbies.”
Ajax Oddson twirled around, his chevrons and checks and diamonds flying. “Now, I am a Dandy. You may think me large and grand and beautiful, but”—he leaned in and held one pointed silken hand to his mouth, sharing a delicious secret—“in actuality, I am no bigger than a bullfrog. I have short, thin, highly breakable legs—anyone could beat me in a race. My old headmaster, Babel Y. Hexagon, whom I could defeat at Go while underwater and half asleep, could gallop all the way round the world faster than I could crack the four hundred meters. I could not get much better, tiny as I was, without wings or any particularly pragmatical magic. Oh, I am a dismal magician. My only aptitude is for Odd Magic—I can feel the improbabilities of any event with an outcome as surely as I feel the swelling of my nose when I am sick.”
“Improbabilities?” asked September.
“Oh yes. Even Magic handles the probabilities—whether or not a thing is likely to happen given this and that and the other thing. Odd Magic deals in imp-probabilities—which is more like gym class than math. The Imp-probable Master can look at that happening and tell just when and where to put his finger or move a teensy little stone or place a dinner plate in the middle of the road to send all those fuddy-duddy probabilities flying off in every direction, to cause the most trouble, the most chaos, the most Unlikeliness. But that’s not much good to a soul who longs to play fair. My Odd Heart could only tell me how astronomically Unlikely I was to come out the victor, down to the last and loneliest and moldiest decimal. So depressing! Knowing that you will lose is as disheartening as knowing that you will win. It’s the unknowing that quickens the spirit and puts sweat on your brow! But the Derby!” The Racemaster leapt from the fountain to the awnings of the shops to the ledges of windows and back down to balance on the tip of Ell’s wing. “The Derby is not just a race, it is a battle and a dance and a scavenger hunt. It is not won by the swiftest, nor the strongest, nor the creature with greatest lung capacity or slow-twitch muscle mass. No! The Derby is won by the cleverest, the most devious, often the most vicious, but sometimes the most kind, and always, always, by the seat of one’s wits! For just as I was growing bored with the same old games, Fairyland was growing bored of racing with Dodos and tracks and linear thinking. It was, indeed, Headmaster Hexagon who invented the first Derby—for each Derby is unique, with its own laws and customs. Hexagon’s Derby took seven years, flattened two separate villages, used up all the salt in the sea, and everyone still feels rather uncertain about who won. Isn’t that just the best thing you’ve heard all week? Yes, in the Derby I found the grand love affair I had always sought. And I found myself. For when Dandies come of age, we make new, fleet, nimble bodies out of whatever obsesses us, whatever we adore unreasonably. My mother is a creature of arrows and catgut strings and curving bows, my father a marvelous beast of folded sheet music. And I? I gathered together the racing flags of every Derby I won, and the proud silks of every opponent I defeated until I could stitch together the finest limbs anyone has ever made—a body of victory! After all, my darlings, the clothes make the man!”
The Racemaster spun round again and bowed. September could not help herself, she clapped without meaning to, and then felt quite silly.
“That’s all wonderful, Mr. Oddson, it really is … but … where has everybody gone? Have we won already? Or lost?”
The Racemaster stroked his chin with one blue-and-green-checked hand. “Ah. Ah-ha. Stoatums did tell me one of you was a foreigner and wouldn’t know a Derby from a dervish. Are you her?”
“I usually am,” September said with a sigh.
Ajax Oddson smiled with the tips of two pink flags. “It’s to keep the whole thing fair. If everyone could see where everyone else dashed off to first, then you’d all have a pretty good idea where to start looking for the Heart of Fairyland and there wouldn’t be any sport in it. Besides, people tend to make a hash of the starting line. Pushing and shoving and stabbing and turning into turtles. As a courtesy, all racers have been enclosed in a small bubble of space and time. They cannot see us and we cannot see them, but I assure you they are all safe and sound and so are you. These bubbles will last for a few hours after the Ready Steady Go to ensure a fair start for all. It’s a fantastically difficult bit of hexing, I’m told. Something about Wet Magic and Severe Magic and Shy Magic all at the same time and also a certain very expensive opossum. At the same time, all participants have been delivered to their individual and individualized Starting Lounges, arranged in a large circle around the city of Pandemonium, so that no one has an advantage. Some of them are quite near to us right now—but our little space-time opossum has provided this lovely peace and quiet before it all goes absolutely mad. Within their bubbles, each registered racer is at this very moment hearing this exact speech from their own personal copy of Ajax Oddson. The race will begin once everyone has heard the rules and asked whatever adorable questions they have in their back pockets.”
“So you’re not really here?” asked Ell uncertainly.
“Oh no, Master Wyverary! I am where I belong—at the finish line. It’s all done with mirrors! And a dash of Hot Magic from a bruja named Quintuple Pod. She’s a doppelgänger and my right-hand man. Got a cabinet full of copies of herself hanging up like winter coats. She can do this sort of thing while eating scrambled eggs with one hand and reading the newspaper with the other. Now, let’s take attendance and make sure it’s all gone to plan. It’s not easy to coordinate mirrors and opossums and Quintuple, you know. We could all lose our heads. Or the spare change in our pockets. Is your team all present and accounted for?”
“No!” cried September. “No, they are not. Aroostook is gone.”
Ajax Oddson unfolded his forearm and peered at the silk. “I don’t have anyone registered under that name.”
“It’s my … it’s a car. A Model A Ford with a burlap potato sack over the spare tire and a green sunflower for a steering wheel.”
“Ah. Ah-ha. And by car you mean a carriage?”
“Any carriages, cars, catamarans, or other conveyances are classed as steeds, my dear.”
“Aroostook is not a steed! Well, it might have been, but it’s been through a lot.”
The Racemaster seemed terribly excited. “I have invented a number of thrilling, terrific, tremendous rules especially for the Cantankerous Derby, the most spectacularly important Derby in the history of Fairyland, but this is my favorite. All Steeds Shall Be Collected and, at the Firing of the Starting Catapult, Redistributed to Racers at Random!”
Saturday frowned deeply. “What? Do you mean … someone else is going to drive Aroostook, and we’ll get … what? Queen Mab’s hazelnut coach?”
Ajax clapped his own hands in delight. “Yes, you’ve got it! Isn’t it genius? No one will have the vehicular advantages they so carefully planned out or built or tamed or enchanted. It will be gloriously, brilliantly fair. Let’s hope you don’t nab the nut, though, eh? I shouldn’t like to be in possession of anything belonging to Miss Mab. And no abandoning your steeds just because you got a rocking horse instead of a rocket! Anyone crossing the finish line without a mount shall be disqualified!”
“Poor Aroostook,” September said softly. She did hope someone not too terrible got her beloved Model A. She shouldn’t like to think of Tanaquill grinding the gears.
“Poor us,” Saturday whispered
back. “Did you see the magma skis Our Lady of Lava brought? Or the Knapper’s gyroscope of daggers?”
“At least they didn’t put me down as a steed,” Ell sniffed.
“You rode round my neck once, Ell,” said September, reaching up to touch his warm, scaly flank. “On the Moon, when you were small. So if you’re a steed, then I am, too. No one had better call you one unless they’re prepared to saddle me up alongside. It’s not a very nice word, really.”
Ajax clapped his silken hands. “Let’s not hold up the whole Derby, boys and girls! Shall I tell you my second one-time-only special Cantankerous Rule? I shall! If You Should Encounter Another Racer, the Two of You Shall Be Said to Occupy the Same Square on the Playing Board and Shall Duel at Once. The Opossum of Space and Time will provide a Dueling Ground in which both fighters will have access to the same magic, no matter their species or education. Quintuple Pod and I Will Doppelgäng a Random Racer to Your Side Immediately to Officiate the Duel. Hopefully this will winnow down the numbers a bit. It’s dash crowded out there.”
“Duel to the death?” September asked. She would not kill anyone. She would not. How could she ever go home if she did such a thing? How could she ever stay? A death is too big to forget.
“We are not barbarians, madam!” Ajax Oddson held his hand to his breast, mortified. “No, these will be Duels to the Dodo! Well, to the Dodo’s Egg, to be exact. The loser of the duel shall be considered Out of the Game. Disqualified, three strikes, offsides! They will find themselves safely returned to the Egg—to wherever he or she came from, be that the Moon or Nebraska or primordial chaos or the land of the dead. It’s quite humane. After all, everyone was content in their own good homes or graves or prisons three days ago—no reason to fear such places now! No harm, no foul.”
“And the … Officiants will be just like you?” asked Saturday. “We’ll be able to hear and see them, but they can’t touch us or harm us. They’ll still be running the race, wherever they are. Or, I suppose, we will, if the lot falls to us.”