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THE QUEEN OF FAIRYLAND AND ALL HER KINGDOMS
In Which We Begin Just Precisely Where We Ended, Far Too Many People Talk All at Once, an Emperor Gets Himself Stabbed, Queen September Makes Her Inaugural Speech, and a Wondrous Race Is Scheduled for Thursday Next
Once upon a time, a country called Fairyland grew very tired indeed of people squabbling over it, of polishing up the glitter on the same magic and wonder and dashing dangers each morning, of drifting along prettily through the same Perverse and Perilous Sea, of playing with the same old tyrants and brave heroes every century. Because she was quite a large and opinionated country, and because she was as old as starlight and twice as stubborn, and because she had a mountain range on her left border that simply would not be bossed about, Fairyland decided to do something about it one day in March just after her morning tea.
A vast and hungry country takes tea somewhat differently than you and I. Fairyland’s teatime consisted of a dollop of rain in the Autumn Provinces, a particularly delicate icing of clouds over the Painted Forest, a healthy squeeze of blazing sun in the Hourglass Desert, and a fresh, green wind blowing wild through the streets and alleyways and secret corners of Pandemonium.
The Green Wind sailed through the tufted wool cupolas and brocade bridges and taffeta towers of the capital city. He banked off felt and bombazine memorial statues, twirled on his left toe on the copper silk tip of Groangyre Tower, and stopped to kiss every black lace gargoyle on every rooftop and balcony in the place. He was a handsome thing, with a neat little pointed green beard and dancing green eyes. He was dressed in a green smoking jacket, and a green carriage-driver’s cloak, and green jodhpurs—but he had left behind his green snowshoes in his flat in Westerly and swapped them out for green winklepicker boots. Fairyland is warm in March, which is not called springtime, but Bideawhile, for Fairyland has not four seasons, but five and one quarter. In Bideawhile, the bare winter trees put forth tiny paper buds, and on these buds are written secrets, memories, tales only trees can tell.
The Green Wind finished freshening up every curtain and front stoop in town. He straightened his green cravat and soared over the Janglynow Flats, through Hallowgrum and Seresong, stopping only for a short coffee at his favorite crinoline café, and then, without further dawdling, straight through the satin green of Mallowmire Park, to a certain window in a certain palace. The certain palace was called the Briary; of all the lovely towers and castles in Pandemonium, it alone was not made of silk or wool, but of living vines, briars, trellises, and flowers that bloom all year long. The certain window belonged to the Queen of Fairyland.
Pink and yellow peonies chased each other round the window frame. A bluish yellow light fluttered over the walls of the Queen’s bedroom, where wild dahlias of every color crowded together, as close as wallpaper. The light came from a hard-working hurricane lamp on the Queen’s table. The room stood quite bare except for that humble table, two armoires, and the Royal Desk. The Royal Desk was carved out of a single enormous crystal tree that some brave window-maker cut down long ago in the Glass Forest. It still glowed with fiery hot colors though it was a thousand years old and counting. Rich green and violet and scarlet and orange blankets towered on a small thin bed like an embroidered mountain, for the work of a Queen often takes all night long, and even monarchs need naps, from time to time.
But the Queen was not asleep in her bed or at work at her desk. In fact, the Queen had not yet even seen that bed, nor jumped up and down on it even once. The room stood quite empty and prim and full of anticipation, waiting to be useful. The Green Wind made his apologies and sailed out into the sunny sky. He swirled down the buttercup and begonia walls of the Briary, past the tearooms and the coffee-rooms and the saucer-rooms, to quite another window.
This window was round the back, very tall and thin and serious, like a church window, but it offered a far more interesting view than an empty desk and a hurricane lamp at the end of its oil and its wits. The Green Wind put his green eye to the window and saw several alarming things inside: a broken Dodo’s Egg (along with its Dodo), an enormous scrap-yarn wombat, a talking gramophone, a great red Wyverary, a Marid, a troll, a girl carved out of wood, a Redcap, and about a hundred people, animals, Fairies, and other assorted creatures with the power of frowning and shouting, all drenched in jewels and velvet, all expressing those powers of frowning and shouting as hard as they could. In the midst of it all stood the Queen, looking as baffled as a goose in calculus class.
And so the final dish in Fairyland’s tea was a heaping, hideous, unruly platter of shouting, stomping, and rather unskilled fisticuffs.
“You shut up!” screeched Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord, who collected all the bright and shining things from all the worlds and hoarded them in Fairyland before the days of the week had names. Warm sunshine danced through the blooming walls of the Briary’s great hall. Light bounced off the Raven Lord’s onyx-armored wings.
“Emperors do not shut up!” roared Whipstitch, the Elegant Emperor, who ruled Fairyland with a silken fist five hundred years before your grandmother learned to dance. The golden buttons on his peacock-blue cloak trembled in fury.
“Has anyone got a rowan branch?” trilled Titania sweetly—and I’m sure I needn’t tell you who she is. She stared down a certain pale giant by the name of Gratchling Gourdbone Goldmouth, with angry red stitches running all up and down his tattooed skin and SPALDING written on his back in a lovely hand. “It’s just the thing for giving jumped-up sporting equipment a good hiding.”
Goldmouth bellowed rage at the palace hall.
“And you I’ll have for a coat,” Titania purred to Reynaud the Fox, a King so old the word hadn’t been invented when he pounced upon the crown.
“What did you say to me?” the fox snarled, his tail puffing up ferociously, the smell of his wrath filling the crowded room. The room was so crowded, in fact, that some Kings and Queens and duchesses and lords and presidents and empresses and sultans and ancient foxes from before a noun was a noun had begun to spill out into the street. They all wore such fine clothes and finer voices and the very, very finest of tempers that it hurt to look at the great, rude, noisy lot of them all crammed together like a pack of businessmen trapped in an elevator. Everyone who had ever ruled Fairyland, even for the littlest moment, poured into the grand hall of the Briary. More and more came all the time, some still wearing the robes they’d been buried in, others, respectably retired, caught in their dressing gowns, still others, like Reynaud and Horace the Overbear wearing no more than their own good fur.
“You are all despicable fools and if you do not cease your whining I shall cease your faces,” seethed Madame Tanaquill, Prime Minister of Fairyland, and, to her mind, the only one in the room with half a right to speak. The buckles and horseshoes and blades of her iron dress clanked against one another.
“Please!” cried a girl in a blue dress, wearing a crown of glittering jeweled keys. “Everyone please be quiet!”
We know this girl awfully well, you and I. She was born in May, and she has a mole on her left cheek, and her feet are very large, but no longer ungainly at all. Her name is September. She is seventeen years old. She was born in Nebraska, she has not seen her parents in ever so long, and she rather wishes her dress was orange.
She is the Queen of Fairyland and All Her Kingdoms.
In short, everything was just as you and I left it not so very long ago. The world had gotten itself turned on its ear and couldn’t hear itself think for the braying and honking and see here, young goblins of the royal mob.
The trouble was, only a few moments ago, September had been a stately middle-aged woman languishing in a prison that looked very much like a rum cellar. A Moon-Yeti had taken the years of her youth from her. A Dodo had given them back. And somewhere between the Yeti and the Dodo, she’d forgotten what it was like to have a seventeen-year-old voice, a voice that didn’t know its own strength yet, a voice that Grown-Ups felt very safe ignoring completely. No one paid her the mind they’d pay a bus ticket.
“A-Through-L, would you?” September said, looking up, with the impish sort of love that occurs between a girl and a reptile, into the shimmering orange eyes of a towering scarlet Wyvern.
“Oh yes!” A-Through-L cried. After all, he was aces at shhhing, being only half Wyvern. His father was a Library. A powerful shhh is the final test of any Great Librarian, and Ell had been practicing.
The Wyverary opened his long red jaws and roared fit to deafen the moon. A stream of indigo fire erupted from behind his wicked teeth, twisting and crackling over the heads of the furious Kings and Queens of Fairyland. Thrum, the Rex Tyrannosaur, roared right back in Ell’s face. But as he was merely an extinct lizard and not a Wyverary, his roar had no fire in it. No one else so much as took a breath between insults. Half of them had gone red in the face, the other half green, and at least a third had begun to cry.
A great stone strode up to the rear of the crush of Fairies and foxes and gnomes and ravens. It had legs and fists but only the barest beginning of a face. It did not even have a name. It was the last to arrive, but the oldest and strongest of them all—the First Stone of Fairyland, laid down before one seed of glowerwheat, before the first luckfig root went searching in the soil for water.
“HELLO,” said the First Stone politely. It sat on the grass, carefully trying not to crush the violets.
September, Queen of Fairyland and All Her Kingdoms, waved back shyly. She hadn’t the first idea how to be a Queen. She could be a Knight, or a Bishop, or a Criminal, or a Spinster, but what could she possibly do withQueen? She thought of the Marquess and Charlie Crunchcrab. She thought of the Whelk of the Moon. She thought of everyone she’d ever met who was in charge of anything. She thought of her mother bossing around her engines, of her father keeping peace in his classroom—and September knew what to do. After all, in chess, the Queen does whatever she wants.
Queen September put her hand straight up in the air as though she meant to ask a question in class. She waited. It always took a while when her father did it. The Changelings Hawthorn and Tamburlaine understood right away, having been in middle school only last week. They raised up their hands immediately. Hawthorn’s huge, mossy troll fingers and Tamburlaine’s dark, slender wooden palm shot up into the air. Saturday extended his long blue arm. Scratch and Blunderbuss, being a gramophone and a wombat, respectively, could not quite work out how to manage it. They sat up as straight as they could instead, stretching scrap-yarn nose and gramophone bell toward the ceiling.
It was no good. September was not as tall as the First Stone or Gratchling Gourdbone Goldmouth, or even the Quorum of Quokkas wrenching their tails in anxiety.
“May I?” she asked Blunderbuss. The scrap-yarn combat wombat was nearly the size of A-Through-L, made of a hundred different colors of leftover yarn, and, September judged, quite comfortable for standing on. A Wyverary’s back is rather knobbly and pointy—good for riding, but a terrible podium.
“You’d do my fuzzy heart happy,” chuffed Blunderbuss, and got down on her huge knees to let September up. Saturday thatched his fingers together to help her hoist herself. He kissed her cheek as she put her toes into his hands. “Ha!” barked Blunderbuss, when September was safely aboard. “I always thought a Queen would weigh more! I could carry a hundred of you, if you’d all sit still, which you wouldn’t, but I’d make you!”
Once again, Queen September put her hand into the air. She did not say a word. And now, slowly, the others began to notice September and her friends and their funny fingers pointing at the sky. A duchess here, a pharaoh there, a brace of congressional banshees in the corner.
“What’s she doing?” asked Pinecrack, the Moose-Khan. “She looks quite, quite stupid. I shan’t have the first pang of guilt about impaling her with my doom-antlers.”
“Perhaps it’s some new gesture of power at court. We had many in my day,” considered Curdleblood, the Dastard of Darkness, a shockingly handsome young man dressed like a minstrel, if only minstrels wore all black and had long, sharp teeth hanging from his hat instead of merry bells.
“Your day was a thousand years ago,” snapped the Headmistress, who had ruled only a short while before King Goldmouth swallowed her whole, and was extremely unhappy to be teleported from her tidy ghost-crosswords into this intolerable clutter.
“And it was a wretched day, I must say,” said a sweet young lady with candy-cane bows in her hair and a dress all of butterscotch and marshmallows. When she conquered Fairyland, folk called her the Happiest Princess, though at the moment she felt quite cross. But she didn’t stop smiling, even as she spat at Curdleblood: “You painted the whole country black! I was still scrubbing behind the mountains when I lost my crown!”
“Still,” the Moose-Khan mused, “we shouldn’t like to appear ignorant. Much may have changed since the age of hoof and snow. I don’t want the Queen to think me old-fashioned.”
Pinecrack sat back on his haunches and lifted one hoof into the air. The Headmistress, ever conscious of manners, followed suit.
“Her?” snarled Charlie Crunchcrab, who had been King Charles Crunchcrab I only ten minutes ago. It’s very hard to make such a quick adjustment, and we ought not to think too harshly on him for behaving as poorly as he is surely about to do. “Her? She’s not the Queen. That’s just September! And that name is a Naughty Word, you know. She’s the Spinster. She’s a troublemaker. She’s a revolutionary and a criminal and a dirty cheat. She’s a human girl! She hasn’t even got wings! If she’s the right and proper Queen, then my hairy foot is the Emperor of Everything!”
“Sir, I beg your foot’s pardon, but I am the Emperor of Everything,” a young boy in a dizzying patchwork suit interrupted. Though he was a child, his voice rolled deep and sweet across the floor, like cold chocolate poured out of a dark glass. “At least I was,” he finished uncertainly. And he raised his hand in the air.
“Oh, I see, you’re trying to show me up!” cried Cutty Soames, the Coblynow Captain who sailed Fairyland across the Sea of Broken Stars to its current resting place. He stuck one sooty, filthy arm up with a sneer.
Others did the same, one by one, more and more, paw and hand and hoof and talon. No one wanted to be singled out as a country rube or an unfashionable cretin who didn’t know the wonder and mystery of the Raised Hand. Finally, the grand hall stood quite silent, filled with all the Kings and Queens of history politely waiting, like schoolchildren, for the teacher to be satisfied with their manners.
“Thank you,” said Queen September, lowering her hand. “Now, you must stop behaving like a stepped-on sack of scorpions or we’ll be here till Christmas, at least! And I don’t think any of us would really like to holiday together, so let’s all serve ourselves a nice big plate of hush.”
“HELLO,” said the First Stone from the long lawn of the Briary.
“Hello!” answered September brightly. “See, isn’t it nice to act like somebody raised us well?”
“Who the devil are you?” hollered a mermaid soaking in the Briary’s saltwater fountain, resting smugly in the arms of a silver statue of herself.
“You’re a human being! You’re not even allowed to look half of us in the eye!” howled a man in a waffle-cone hat and doublet and hose made all of mint ice cream. Have a care not to laugh—once, centuries ago, every soul in Fairyland feared the Ice Cream Man. “Get down off that wombat so I can break your neck, there’s a good girl.”
Madame Tanaquill swept through the throng, her head held high, striding forward with the sure knowledge that the sea of kings would part before her. It did. The train of her iron dress steamed and sizzled behind her, burning the floor of the Briary and several unfortunate toes, any Fairy thing it touched, for none could bear iron but Madame herself. She glared at Hawthorn and Tamburlaine as she approached, but turned her sweetest smile toward September. And it was a sweet smile, the sweetest since the invention of kindness, full of patience and love and understanding. It chilled September to her toes. Madame Tanaquill put a hard, cold, possessive hand on September’s foot.
“My dear friends!” she sang out. “Most beloved and respected jewels of Fairyland!” The way she said belovedand respected sounded very much like rotten old rubbish and not worth the rust on my décolletage. “May I present to you this marvelous morning, the brave and bold September, our darling monarch, our hallowed Queen! I’m sure you will soon come to love and admire her as I do.”
September wondered if every word Madame Tanaquill said meant just the exact opposite of what actually came out of her rosy, prim mouth. The Prime Minister did not love or admire her any more than she loved or admired a glass of spilled wine in her dancing hall. This same woman had dropped September and Saturday and A-Through-L in prison and promptly forgotten about them. But just now the great Fairy was looking up at her with every ounce of affection and joy a face could wring out, her wings fluttering demurely, a blush riding high on her glorious cheeks.
“You needn’t worry,” September said flatly. She didn’t like to say things flatly, but sometimes it is the perfect antidote to someone trying to convince you the noose in their hand is a lovely silk ribbon for your hair. “I don’t want to be Queen. I didn’t ask to be Queen. I shan’t be Queen any longer than lunchtime if I can help it! I daresay a kitchen chair would make a better Queen than me.”
Madame Tanaquill’s smile grew even deeper and more genuine, even more like a mother filled to bursting with pride. But the bottom fell out of her dark eyes; hateful lightning flashed within.
“I don’t have a care what you want, you horrid little insect,” she hissed through her smile. “The Crown chose you. You are Queen of Fairyland. It’s about as appetizing to myself personally as a pie full of filthy, crawling worms, but it’s a fact. You can pull and pry and blubber, but that Crown won’t come off until you’re dead or deposed. I could cut you down in a heart’s-breadth, but the rest of these ruffians would have my head. They take regicide terribly personally. Make no mistake; this present predicament is entirely your fault, you and your wretched Dodo’s Egg. You will want my help to sort it limb from limb. You are a stranger in Fairyland—oh, it’s charming how many little vacations you take here! But this is not your home. You don’t know these people from a beef supper. But I do. I recognize each and every one. And if you show them that you are a vicious little fool with no more head on her shoulders than a drunken ostrich, they will gobble you up and dab their mouths with that thing you call a dress. You may not like me, but I have survived far more towering acts of mythic stupidity than you. I am good. I know what power weighs. If you have any wisdom in your silly monkey head, from this moment until the end of your reign—which I do hope will come quickly—you and I shall become the very best of friends. After all, Queen September, a Prime Minister lives to serve.”
Madame Tanaquill turned her shining face to the assembled Kings and Queens of Fairyland, some of whom still had their hands up.
“You must forgive her. She is only a new Queen, and new Queens are like baby horses: They do not know what their legs are for yet, but they are perfectly adorable while they try to work it out! All of us remember our first days in the Briary, I’m quite sure. We were all then grateful for the patience shown to us as we searched for the necessaries and put down rebellions and turned our enemies into flamingoes. Ah, memories! Let us now extend that patience with both hands to the newest member of our very exclusive club.”
She clapped her shimmering hands together—and applause filled the hall.
“It’s perfectly clear what’s happened—an illicit Dodo’s Egg was brought onto the premises by persons of dubious intent and cracked open on the floor like the world’s worst breakfast. Some of you may recall that a Dodo’s Egg restores what was lost. This is a very dangerous magic, for it can get rather overexcited and run wild where other magics would sit nicely with their eyes on their own paper. This is why we Fairies only used them privately, in the safety of our own homes, and after working hours. But some people haven’t got the class a Fairy holds in her handbag, and so, here we are. All the lost Kings and Queens of Fairyland, dead and alive and other, found and rounded up and come round for supper with no notice at all. It’s very awkward for all of us, I’m sure! But we must make the best of an absurd situation.” Madame Tanaquill held one hand delicately to her forehead, as though all that had thoroughly tired her out. “Goodness! There’s enough out of silly old me! You’d think I had the Crown! I shan’t say another word until we’ve heard from the lady in question.”
The Prime Minister looked expectantly at September.
In chess, a Queen can do anything she wants, September thought. No one else is going to come and tell me what to do, so I had better get on with doing for myself.
“Good afternoon!” September cried out in her best Queenly voice. “I’m very pleased to meet all of you, even though I can tell by the fire coming out of a few of your noses that almost none of you are pleased to meet me. Except the big rock in the back, and I’ve got to tell you: At the moment, he is by far my favorite. Um. I think, for my first decree, I had better insist that no one maim or murder anyone else for at least a week. You can all hold out that long. I know better than to ask for longer. Some of you have very sharp claws.” September took a deep breath. She remembered the Blue Wind—she who blushes first, loses. If she let them think they awed her, she was lost. “For my second decree, I shall have to ask that you all wear name tags. I know you were all very important once upon a time, but you might as well be portraits in a museum to me.” September thought she’d done that quite well. Having spent a little time being forty years old helped a bit, when it came to scowling down Grown-Ups and saying wicked things so that they didn’t sound wicked, only a bit bored.
A young girl in a black dress and a black hat as tall and tiered as a wedding cake looked up at September from the throng. Her hair glowed deep, angry red.
“You know me,” said the Marquess softly—oh, but how sound carries in the Briary! Her hand fluttered to her fine hat, as if everything might be all right, might be just as it was, if only she still had it.
“Yes,” answered Queen September. “I know you.” A look both dark and bright passed between them. “Perhaps you’d better stay where I can see you.”
Hawthorn the troll reached into the satchel he still wore slung over his huge, mossy shoulder. He pulled out a notebook and a handsome silver pen with indigo ink inside. He had a moment of panic, for he loved his paper and pen. He’d named them Inspector Balloon and Mr. Indigo back in Chicago, where he’d been a child and a Changeling, stuffed into a human body like a thousand-pound crystal into a brown paper bag. But trolls are canny creatures, and Changelings love little so much as making trouble, and out of both of these together, Hawthorn had stitched an idea. He stepped forward with authority. He was only thirteen, but a troll’s thirteen is a very serious age. Hawthorn didn’t know it, but he sounded awfully like Nicholas Rood, the psychologist who’d raised him. Nicholas had quite the bossiest voice he’d ever heard, and Hawthorn had once done Madame Tanaquill’s laundry.
“Step right up,” he bellowed, and if you have ever heard a troll bellow, you will understand why even Kings and Queens found their feet obeying before they knew what had smacked their eardrums. “Tell me your name and I shall write it out very nicely for you and pin it to your chest with one of your brooches or cloak-pins or, if you are a dinosaur or a bird or a rock or a slice of cheese, we’ll just sling it round your neck on somebody’s spare jewels. Do remember to spell it out for me if anyone’s got runes or umlauts or apostrophes or extinct letters in! Who’s first?”
The Marquess stepped forward. She spelled her name through clenched teeth. M-A-R-Q-U-E-S-S. A sour and sneering titter bubbled up from the royal horde.
“Oh, darling, that’s not how you pronounce it,” clucked Titania. “And anyhow, don’t you know that’s a boy’stitle?”
“How embarrassing!” chuckled Madame Tanaquill, covering her mouth with a shimmering hand. “Who raised you, child?”
The Emperor of Everything wrinkled his noble nose. “I suppose they’re letting anyone wear the big hat nowadays. Look around; this room is half bumpkins and half barbarians. I’d wager she’s never so much as dog-eared a page of the Whomsday Book!”
“Or stayed up till all hours reading Ichabod Lurk’s Peerage, Spearage, and Fearage under her blankets!” smirked the Headmistress.
The Marquess flushed horribly, redder than her hair and blacker than her dress. “If I had my lions, you wouldn’t dare say such things!”
Whipstitch waved his ringed hand in the air. “If wishes were dishes we’d all tuck in, lovey! If I had my Button-Down Guard, you’d have a poleax in your eye! We all have our disappointments.”
“Have you got lions? Or have you got a wee brace of kittens you just call lions to puff up their chests a bit, the way a dirty little wastrel calls herself a Marquess and thinks she’s somebody?” Titania asked, tilting her shining head in sympathy.
Hawthorn didn’t pause. He kept writing out name tags, one by one, tearing strips out of Inspector Balloon, wincing with each tear. Tamburlaine pinned them to chest after chest like particularly unhappy medals.
“Shut up,” hissed the Marquess. “I chose it, you miserable, rouged-up idiots! Why shouldn’t I have a boy’s title? People listen to boys! They fear boys—they fear a King and hope a Queen will show them mercy! Why shouldn’t I be a Marquess? I rule the world! I say how things are pronounced! I say what belongs to boys and what doesn’t!”
“You don’t, though,” interrupted September calmly. The calm came up from inside her, pooling into her heart, smoothing everything clean. It had been so long. She had done so much—faced down a Yeti, shot her own shadow, seen the world from a prison cell, raced up to forty years old and back to seventeen again. September found she no longer feared the Marquess much at all. She even looked a bit short and sorry to her now. “You don’t rule the world. You don’t rule anything but yourself. You can still be a Marquess, if you like. But it means nothing more than saying you’re somebody’s old Auntie they only see once a year at Easter. You’re just like everyone else. It’s your turn to hope there’s a box of mercy in the pantry.” September sucked in her breath. The words formed in her mouth but she didn’t want to say them. She needed to think. She needed half a moment to breathe. But you couldn’t breathe in front of this lot. Breathing showed weakness. She didn’t need Tanaquill to tell her that. “I rule Fairyland—”
“No!” squawked a voice from the rear of the assembly. Not one voice, but eight, all speaking together in perfect harmony. “Nope! Nope! No! Don’t say another word, Missy! Make way!”
The Stoat of Arms barreled through the grand hall, the seal of a nation come alive. If you have ever seen a passport, try to remember the strange tangle of animals stamped on the cover, for all nations have them. Now, imagine them all leaping off that little leather book and yelling and squawking all together. The Stoat of Arms was not one creature, but a blue-skinned, black-horned unicorn rampant and a little girl in knight’s armor standing upon the backs of two enormous golden stoats. A rainbow of silver stars, black roosters, and sunflowers arched above their heads, and a tiny, twinkling Fairy balanced on her right toe on the tip of the topmost silver star. Applause greeted the miniature zoo—everyone there, save September and her friends, had known the Stoat of Arms long and well in their day.
“Yes, thank you, cheers,” said the two stoats, the girl, the unicorn rampant, the black roosters, and the Fairy altogether in one voice. “Hortense, kindly refrain from petting us, how many times have we had this discussion? In four hundred years you might have learned to control yourself.” A lady in a samite gown and a hippo’s head snatched her hand back guiltily. “Well, I think we can all agree this is an unprecedented and completely intolerable situation! I know you all far too well to think you will play nicely with the other children! Oh, come now! Has the Knapper stabbed someone already?”
“Nope!” called a cheerful-cheeked man wearing a cloak of knives. “He’s fine!” He waggled Whipstitch’s hand in the air, but the Elegant Emperor looked very pale and woozy.
“You see?” cried the stoats and the girl and the unicorn and the chickens and the Fairy. “Be honest, ladies and gentlemen, how many of you have spent the last quarter-hour fomenting rebellion, plotting to murder, or thinking of how nice the city would look if it were on fire?”
Many, many hands raised up, some sheepish, some defiant, some rather bored.
“Fortunately,” continued the Stoat of Arms, all eight of its voices filled with disgust, “you won’t get the chance. Fairyland is very well acquainted with all of you and has had quite enough of your nonsense. She is frankly exhausted by the last several thousand years of shenanigans and cannot imagine why all of you are so obsessed with who sits on a certain chair and wears a certain hat. However, if you will insist on treating her as a prize in a silly game, so be it.” The two golden stoats smacked the floor of the grand hall with their front paws twice, in just the same way as a judge might bang her gavel. “In three days’ time, which will be Thursday, for those of you who lived before calendars became sentient, let all who wish to rule Fairyland gather at the Ghostloom Gate on the north side of the city. Thursday shall be known far and wide as the day of the Cantankerous Derby! All hopefuls, thoroughbreds, long shots, cheaters, townies, speed demons, and dark horses shall commence a Wondrous Race, beginning in Pandemonium, and ending at Runnymede Square in the ancient city of Mummery! The winner shall receive the Crown, the Sceptre, and a nice blue ribbon with #1 written on it. All are eligible! Ravished, Stumbled, Changelings, Fairies, Gnomes, Rocks, and Trees! Participation comprises a binding contract to accept the results of the race. Sandwiches and coffee will be provided!”
“That’s all?” cawed Hushnow, the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord. “Then you shall all certainly be calling me Your Grand High Such and Such by Monday morning! I’m faster than any of you sorry lot!”
“I beg to differ,” scoffed the Piebald, the Stallion of Time. His mane was all of clock hands, and his tail was a long pendulum.
“SANDWICHES AND COFFEE WILL BE PROVIDED!” roared the Stoat of Arms. “And that is most certainly not all! You must present yourself at Runnymede Square in the ancient city of Mummery bearing the Heart of Fairyland, or be disqualified! The Cantankerous Derby is a Race with a Hunt hidden inside! In the meantime, the Briary has ample room to accommodate you all in comfort and safety, from inclement weather, privation, but most importantly, from one another. Please proceed in as orderly a fashion as you are capable of to the Second-Best Parlor, where you will find the Scuttler, who keeps the running of the Briary. He will show you to your room and present you with a schedule of meal times, exercise hours, and social activities divided by who is least likely to eat one another before Thursday. Are we understood?”
A murmur of mixed doubt, eagerness, muffled outrage, and longing for lunch passed through the gathered court.
“But I am Queen of Fairyland,” September said softly. She nervously touched the crown of jeweled keys upon her head. Now that it was about to be whisked away from her, suddenly September did not feel quite so sure she wanted nothing to do with Queenery. “Why can’t it be me?”
The Stoat of Arms turned toward her with several haughty gazes—which is the same thing as apologizing to somebody who has been in government as long as the Stoat. “Indeed you are, madam. For three days. And Fairyland is very glad to have you. But please—such things are to be discussed in private, Your Majesty. You and I will adjourn to the Royal Closet, which I have already certified as ruffian-free. As for the rest of you, go! It’ll take the poor Zinnias weeks to make the grand hall livable again!”
The Zinnias, since our Stoat will certainly not deign to tell you a thing about them, are the Royal Guard of the Briary, a platoon of very stern armored emu-birds with zinnia flowers blooming all over their breastplates and their helmets. This might make them look silly to you or I, but Pandemonians know that each of those flowers can fly free like an assassin’s throwing star, and they are sharper than they seem. Flowers are always more serious than they appear.
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.
Text copyright © 2016 by Catherynne M. Valente
Illustrations copyright © 2016 by Ana Juan