In which a young girl named Mallow leaves the country for the city, meets a number of Winds, Cats, and handsome folk, sees something dreadful, and engages, much against her will, in Politicks of the most muddled kind.
This novella was acquired and edited by editor Liz Szabla, and shares a universe with Catherynne M. Valente’s latest novel, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland And Cut the Moon in Two.
History is a funny little creature. Do you remember visiting your old Aunt that autumn when the trees shone so very yellow, and how she owned a striped and unsocial cat, quite old and fat and wounded about the ears and whiskers, with a crooked, broken tail? That cat would not come to you no matter how you coaxed and called; it had its own business, thank you, and no time for you. But as the evening wore on, it would come and show some affection or favor to your Aunt, or your Father, or the old end-table with the stack of green coasters on it. You couldn’t predict who that cat might decide to love, or who it might decide to bite. You couldn’t tell what it thought or felt, or how old it might really be, or whether it would one day, miraculously, decide to let you put one hand, very briefly, on its dusty head.
History is like that.
Of course, unlike your Aunt’s cat, history is going on all around you, all the time, and is often quite lively. Sometimes it rests in a sunbeam for a peaceful century or two, but on the whole, history is always plotting, and it bites very hard. It stalks around the world, fickle and dissatisfied and often angry. It demands to be fed just a little earlier each day, until you find yourself carving meat from the bone as fast as you can, faster than you thought possible, just to satisfy it. Some people have a kind of marvelous talent for calming it and enticing it onto their laps. To some it will never even spare a glance.
No matter where one begins telling a story, a very long road stretches out before and behind, full of wild and lovely creatures performing feats and acts of daring. No matter how much a narrator might want to, she cannot pack all of them into one tale. That’s the trouble—history goes on all around the story at hand, it is what made it happen and what will happen after, all of those extraordinary events and folk and dangers and near-misses, choices that had to be made so that everything after could happen as it did. A single story is but one square of blueberries growing in one plot, on one farm, on the fertile face of the whole world. A heroine steps in, and sees a wickedness in need of solving—but she is never the first, or the last. She plays her part, blessedly and necessarily innocent of that fat old cat sneaking around the borders of her tale, licking its paws while she bleeds and fights, whipping its tail at her trials and yawning at her triumphs. The cat does not care. It has seen all this before and will see it again.
In short, Fairyland has always needed saving.
This is a story about another girl, and another time, and another terrible thing that wanted very much to happen in Fairyland. You may have heard of her, for that striped old monster called history sat very happily in her lap and let her feed it milk.
Her name was Mallow.
Once upon a time, a girl named Mallow grew very tired indeed of her little country house, where she grew the same enormous luckfigs and love-plantains every summer, slept on the same talking bed, and studied the same tame and amiable magic. Her friends would visit her from time to time, for she lived on the shores of a whiskey lake where trifle-trees hung heavy with raisin and soursop tarts, but they had their own quite thrilling lives, and Mallow did not insist that they stay just to make her happy. She was not that sort of girl, and prided herself on it. One of her dearest and handsomest friends was a sorcerer, and from him she had learned so much magic even her hairpins got up and started living serious-minded lives, writing hairpin-ballads, celebrating hairpin-holidays, and inventing several new schools of philosophy. But still Mallow was discontent, for all the magic she knew was Dry Magic, and she longed for more.
Now, magic, like people, turns out quite differently depending on how it was brought up. Long ago a quorum of the sort of folk who knew about such things (almost all young, excitable, and prone to declaring things at high volumes) decided that mere Light and Dark Magics were insufficient to Fairyland’s needs, and rather boring to boot. Soon after the mystical scene exploded with new notions: Dry Magic and Wet Magic, Hot Magic and Cold Magic, Fat Magic and Thin Magic, Loud Magic and Shy Magic, Bitter Magic and Sour Magic, Sympathetic Magic and Severe Magic, even Umbrella Magic and Fan Magic. Fairyland knows more sorts of magic than I could ever tell you about, even if you and I had all the time and tea we could wish for.
But Mallow’s sorcerer friend had been a Dry Magician, and though Mallow did not really think of herself as a magician yet—more of a freelance wizard or part-time hag—she belonged to the Dry School as well. Dry Magic, having been invented by a middle-aged museum curator on her night shift, consorts with inanimate objects, books and maps and lamps and doors and hairpins. The Sands of Time also figure in the higher levels, as well as the Dust of Ages and Thirsts of all kinds. It is a difficult discipline, and Mallow had mastered it. Yet still she yearned to know Wet Magic too, which had to do with living things, with tears and rain and love and blood. Truly, Mallow yearned to know everything. Curiosity was part of her, like her short blond hair and bitten fingernails. The best thing in the world was not her luckfigs or her whiskey lake, not her weeping-orchid garden or the cast-iron ducks that thudded heavily on her windowsills every morning, hoping for a bit of onion oil to moisten their bills, not even her friends or her little country house, but having curiosity satisfied, feeling the warm, sure spread of knowledge through her body.
If this is so, you might well ask, why do you stay in your cozy house, Mallow, and not venture out into the wilder bits of Fairyland looking for things to know? Are you fearful? Are you ill?
If I am to tell you the truth and I think that I must, if I am to do my job well, Mallow was not like the other creatures in Fairyland. She had used her magic to make a pleasant life for herself, where she could be alone as she preferred, and where nothing would disturb or hurt her if she did not want to be disturbed or hurt. This was important to her, for she wished to be safe, and she wished to live in a kind world, which on the best of days Fairyland could only manage for an hour or two before getting bored and playing a trick on a maiden or nine.
I will tell you what her ducks would say on the subject, for Mallow herself would, with a bright smile, tell you to mind your business and send you on your way with a warm soursop pudding. Her ducks, after all, knew her quite as well as anyone, and since she gathered their coal eggs for breakfast every morning (do not worry! once cracked open the little black things overflow with smoky, rich yolk the color of ink) they felt she was in some sense their rooster and therefore family.
All three of the cast-iron ducks would tell you quackingly: “Mallow is the cleverest girl since the first girl, so she knows the magic of Keeping to Yourself. When she first built her little house—we saw it! With her own hands! And only a few of the windows were mysticked up out of candy or wishes—the villagers couldn’t leave her alone. That’s Winesap village, just down the road, population two hundred Fairies, one hundred Ouphes, fifty Tanuki, several Gnomes, and at least one Jack-in-the-Green. Practically all of them showed up at her door with Fairy food and gold, looking helpful and honest as best they could. Where did she come from? What did she do for a profession? Why had she chosen Winesap? Did she find any of the Fairy youths attractive in a marrying way? What sort of magic could she do and would she do it right now for all to see? Would she represent her Folk in the Seelie come harvest time?”
Mallow’s bed would then ruffle its linens, plump its pillows into a mouth, and join in to explain the situation: “We beds know quite well that in addition to all the other kinds of magic there is Yes Magic and No Magic, and Mallow is wonderful fierce at No Magic. Sometimes that is the last magic you can hold on to, when all the rest has gone. No, she said to all of it. ‘I want to live a little life in a little house by a little lake. I do not want to be bothered by anyone. I do not want to marry a Fairy boy. I do not want to ply my trade at the market. I do not want to pass laws at the Seelie which will vanish up in green smoke by dawn when everyone does as they like anyway. I do not want to muddle about with Politicks, and whenever two Folk of any sort are in a room together there are always Politicks to be muddled in. I have all the books I could need, and what more could I need than books? I shall only engage in commerce if books are the coin. Come to my door if you have a book—and a good one, not just your great-aunt’s book of doily patterns—and I will give you an egg or a cake or a pair of woolen socks. I am a practical girl, and a life is only so long. It should be spent in as much peace and good eating and good reading as possible and no undue excitement. That is all I am after.’ Poor thing has had troubles in her youth. She only wanted a gentle, slow sort of living from then till forever.”
Mallow’s hairpins would clack together into a little wiry homunculus and finish up: “No one in Fairyland had ever met a practical girl before, who looked to the future and expected winter to come. They were deathly curious, but hermits are greatly respected. A village counts itself blessed to have one, and Mallow had done just as well as announcing she meant to be a country witch in commune with the cosmos. Every so often a book would appear on her doorstep—good ones, such as Cabbage’s Index of Wunnerous Machines and Their Moods and Buttonwood’s A Redcap’s Carol and even Arthur Amblygonite’s Advanced Manual of Questing Physicks for Experts Only—and she would leave that cake or those woolen socks or a bit of home-cut soap, and all of these economies happened in quiet before the sun came up and everyone counted it well done. Before long, the villagers had decided that ‘practical’ meant ‘extremely magical and full of interesting objects’ and had officially subtitled themselves, Winesap: A Pracktical Towne.”
But ducks must always have the last word, and they are very much heavier than hairpins. “It all went along nicely for a good while, and you would almost think Mallow the usual sort of hermit, save that once, when her sorcerer friend visited, we saw her crying in his arms, and him patting her hair, as though she had been hurt a long time ago and reminded of it all unwanted. It’s true the world will always hurt you, we say, so best to stay with your ducks by a pleasant lake, and feed them the sparks of your dinner-fire, the fat ones with orange bits especially.”
And Mallow might have, for all her days, but for Temptation. Temptation likes best those who think they have a natural immunity, for it may laugh all the harder when they succumb. Temptation arrived at Mallow’s house one soft-edged morning when the peaty fog on her lake hung thickest, in the form of a broadsheet plastered by an innocent wind against her strong black door. Golden ink swirled into beautiful calligraphy; bold red and black words leapt up at her hungry eyes.
King Goldmouth (the Mad) Byds a Happy Cherrycost to Alle
And Issues The Followyng Compulsion to His Fairylanders:
Present Theeself to Pandemonium Upon Applemas
For the Commencement of the Most Excellent
Fairyland World’s Foul!
Feasting, Fighting, Frolyck!
Exhibitions of the Many Counties of Fairyland!
Demonstrations of Every Kind of Magic and Machine!
See, Savor, Seize!
Festivities to Culminate
In the First Tithe in a Thousand Years.
Merchant Boothes Still Available!
Mallow looked out at the caramel-colored whiskey lake, and the grey-green islands floating off in the reaches of it, the first plum-tailed buffleheads hiding in those ferny trees, honking up the dawn. The fog thinned as if to say: I will protect you here no more. The practical country witch of Winesap looked down at her mournful cast-iron ducks, who could read very well, even backward through the thin vellum sheet, as Mallow did not believe in letting any creature, no matter how strange or small, live in ignorance.
“They are sure to have a showing of Wet Magic there, and perhaps Shy Magic, too, and even Fat Magic,” she said softly, a thrill in her voice. “And besides, the story had to start sooner or later. I had only hoped it would be a little later, and I could rest for another spring in my library. I believe I was just starting to get the hang of Questing Physicks. But there’s no practice like real living, and anyway it’s mandatory. What do you suppose a Tithe is? It sounds marvelous.”
But neither her bed nor her hairpins nor her ducks had an answer for dear Mallow, for the Tithe had not been seen or heard of in Fairyland since long before their making. At that very moment, even Winesap’s friar was busy looking it up in his oldest book, and finding only a reference to another, more ancient volume, which he had long since traded away for a round of cheese and some very dubious mushrooms.
Thus, when she appeared on the carriage platform at Winesap Station, the many bright-winged Fairies, glowering Ouphes, stripe-tailed Tanuki and violet-capped Gnomes gathered there saw a near-total stranger. Seventeen and taller than she knew what to do with, she wore a boy’s practical clothes, black breeches and grey tights, a cream vest over coffee-colored shirt (she had spoiled herself with a bit of lace at the cuffs, for she enjoyed tatting), and no wings or horns or Sunday hat at all. Instead, she kept her hair bobbed short about her chin, as it was an indistinct, noncommittal sort of blond that would do itself no favors by flowing long or wild. Her sword, which was in fact a very long, very serious-looking silver sewing needle, hung at her side, a pack of supplies (mostly books) hung from her strong shoulder, and a cast-iron duck clunked along behind her, trying determinedly to be taken along. Mallow turned and shook her finger at the dark-billed little beast, who looked appropriately ashamed.
“You and your mother must stay and look after the bed,” she said firmly. “Or it will be lonely. You may sleep on it, but only at night, and when it wants to recite its poetry, you must look as if you think it’s very good. Do you promise?”
The duck quacked miserably as she turned it firmly round and pushed it toward home.
A Fairy lady with glossy plum-colored hair and buttercream wings shifted her luggage and whispered something to her bespectacled, behoofed friend, who puffed at a tamarind pipe and nodded agreement. Mallow felt very seen, in a way she did not quite like. The spring sun glittered through the many wings belonging to the suddenly silent Fairies, spread out and unfurled to catch the warmth and the light. A little Fairy boy, his hair a wild mass of sticky, pomegranate-colored curls, ran fearlessly to her.
“Hullo! Are you the hermit?” he asked excitedly. “Will you sign my schoolbook? Or! Oh! Would you like my schoolbook? It’s not very good, but it has long words, and gloss’ry, and a fellow on the front, see?”
The boy held up a large volume with a stern-looking Nålegoblin embossed onto the cover, admonishing, with one long knitting needle, every child to pay attention and not pull faces. Around the Nålegoblin’s huge bullfrog head the title danced: Carolingus Crumblecap’s Guide to Being a Small, Helpless, and Probably Too Clever By Half Fairy (Abridged).
“I’ll take socks!” chirped the magenta-haired child, eager to make a deal. “Or a pipe, or a muffin but only if it hasn’t got any nuts in it. No soap, please.”
Mallow smiled and though she knew children ought not to sell their textbooks, she wagered he would get top marks if he made a mean bargain and she hadn’t the faintest idea what Fairy educations were made of. She had tutored a bee-nymph or two in her day, but Fairies only taught their own. She rummaged in her pack and drew out a pair of good, sturdy mittens, which she handed over to the wide-eyed boy. He took them reverently and gave the book up without a glance before shoving the mittens onto the tips of his little wings and jogging back to his mother and a group of young Fairy girls and boys that had gathered to see if he’d pull it off. They welcomed him with impressed sighing and much crooning over the woolen prize.
Nevertheless, when the family carriages began to approach, no one kept an empty seat for Mallow, least of all the small, helpless, and too clever by half Fairy or his mother, who crammed his friends in until they hung out the window, waving their little woad-painted arms at her. One by one the stagecoaches pulled into Winesap Station and one by one they departed, drawn by alligators, llamas, bulls, even a pair of toads with bright pink markings around their eyes. The World’s Foul would begin in a fortnight, and King Goldmouth had given them all so little time. The toads raced off, sending up a spray of mud.
Finally, Mallow alone remained on the carriage platform, and the evening had begun to set the sky for her supper. Idly, she opened Carolingus Crumblecap’s primer and rifled through the pages. On Curdling Cream, one chapter announced. On Spoiling Beer, said another. On Acquiring Humans, On Shoe Magic, On Leaving Unseelies Alone. Her ink-stained and page-chapped finger rested in the crease of: On Being Last Man Out.
“Happens to everyone,” Carolingus grumbled, his bullfrog face looming large and wriggling with life from the page, his spectacles a pair of perfectly round cat’s eyes, their slitted pupils glaring at the imagined student. “Best to think of it as being First Man In, and thump the next poor fellow who comes along for his tardiness. A Fairy must make her own way in the world, for the world will never make way for her. That, incidentally, is the First Theorem of Questing Physicks, which you’ll learn all about when you’re older and don’t care anymore.”
Over the Nålegoblin’s raspy voice, Mallow could hear a carriage approaching. It clopped up to the station—a black iron horse whose belly swelled very wide and large indeed and had tall, red-curtained windows where its ribs ought to have been. Its head curved with terrible grace and nobility, its mane curling like fireplace pokers, its nose aflame with embers. Mallow cried out in delight, for she did so love iron creatures, and reached out to pat its decidedly un-velvet nose.
“That’ll be mine, Miss,” came a soft, lilting voice, and Mallow saw that she was not alone on the platform at all, but a slim young gentleman leaned up against a cheerful lamppost a little ways away. He had not been there before, she felt certain, he simply had not. He wore a neat, trimmed and pointed beard the color of lamplight, had wicked silvery eyes, and a dashing black velvet coat, the color of the horse and the lamppost and her ducks. In the center of his flame-blue cravat, a lamplighter’s key pinned the silk in place.
“Mabry Muscat,” he said finally, by way of introducing himself. “Your servant.”
“Oh, I doubt it,” said Mallow, but not unkindly. One cannot live in Fairyland too long, even closed up in a country house with hairpins for company, before discovering that Fairies like little better than to leap headfirst into dramas of the first order, to make trouble if they’ve a mind, love if they can, and mischief at any cost. “But my name is Mallow.”
“Listen to all those Ms!” Mabry marveled softly, and began to sing very gently: “Oh, Mallow Met a Marvelous Man, by the name of Mabry Muscat…”
“Listen,” Mallow interrupted. “I haven’t any interest in following you to a stash of gold in the hills or dancing at a Fairy ball or answering riddles or meeting any eligible Fairy dukes who have a castle just on the other side of a curtain of mist—no. I am a magician—mostly—and I am on my way to the Foul like everyone else. Don’t try to charm me, please. I am a practical girl.”
“Those are my favorite kind,” grinned Mabry Muscat. He changed the subject as though she had said nothing at all. “Do you admire my horse, Mallow?” Mabry said without moving.
“I do!” Mallow said, louder and happier than she meant to, her delight in new things bubbling out.
“Well, my young witchly friend, come and ride with me. You will find no better, for this is the Carriageless Horse, Belinda Cabbage’s newest invention, which I am testing for her, and delivering to the Foul at earliest convenience. I promise to feed you regularly upon the way, not bother you with questions of personal history or future marriage, and refrain from making too many puns. But I cannot promise not to charm. I am quite helpless in the face of my own winning nature.”
Mabry Muscat removed himself from the lamppost with an easy, nimble hop, and as he did his velvet suit shifted to the cobblestone greys and whites of the platform, to the brown and green of the trees, and finally to the black and red of the Carriageless Horse as he opened a door for her in the beast’s vast belly and gave, very briefly, a half-smile and a half-bow. Mallow saw no wings at his shoulders (though that certainly did not mean he had none) and wondered if this was the “at least one” Jack-in-the-Green of the Winesap census. It was, however, never polite to inquire after a creature’s nature. If he wanted you to know, he’d have made it apparent. Anyway, Jack-in-the-Greens were tricky folk—they had a wallop of a talent for hiding and a passion for stealing.
Mallow knew better than to get into a strange carriage with a strange man who might or might not love thievery better than his own mother, but no other seemed forthcoming, and attendance was, after all, mandatory. She felt that if she had to, she could thump this skinny fellow solidly, get out, and walk the rest of the way if the whole business became entirely too winning.
The interior of the Horse glowed with the light of a little red lantern; the walls shone cream and damask, the seats a plush scarlet. It was all anyone could want of a carriage, save that they rode inside the body of another creature, which unsettled Mallow. A slender horn curlicuing down from the roof allowed Mabry to tell the beast to be off. He called it Peppercorn, and it harrumphed gruffly back that they would rest for dinner in two hours, and to please not bother it, as it had to concentrate.
“Shall we play Bezique? Or Nightjack? I’ve cards, or chess if you prefer, but I’ve always found chess to be a bit too much like real life to provide much enjoyment as a game.”
Mallow did not play cards, as that often led to losing things, since Fairies cheated as a matter of honor. It’s not a game if you don’t cheat, Carolingus Crumblecap would have told her, had she opened the book to On Taking Tricks. It’s just two sods making a mess with fifty-two pieces of paper. But Mallow did not open her newest literary acquisition. “How long have you lived in Winesap?” she countered instead.
“Oh, off and on, off and on, for nearly just about forever,” answered Mabry in a dreamy tone. “Since my love vanished, at least, and before that, too, I think, though it gets jumbled the further back one goes. When you’ve lost your girl, it doesn’t much matter where you live. Everywhere is just The Place She Isn’t, and that’s the front and back of it.”
Mallow looked out the window into the rolling golden valley, the winerows and the red sundown. Not a Fairy living didn’t have a tale of love lost or found. They traded them like money. Mallow had always found love to be like a spindle or bobbin she could take up for a time—when her sorcerer friend visited, for example. But she could always put it down when she liked, and be quite all right until the time came to dust it off again. The endless reeling affairs of Fairies exhausted her. But all the many social circles of Fairyland held in agreement that if one brings up the subject of one’s love, the other party is obligated to ask after it and listen to whatever ballad might follow. To do otherwise would be just terrible manners.
“Tell me about your love,” Mallow sighed, observing form.
Mabry Muscat looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “Oh, it’s a long and exciting story, sure to charm and make you swoon over me. Let’s call custom satisfied and skip the tale, shall we?”
Mallow’s attention sharpened to a point. “It must be a very good story if you don’t want to tell it. Everyone wants to tell theirs. When I first set up my house I could hardly keep Myfanwy Redbean from reciting the tale of the boy she loved for seven years before some kirtle-tying trollop named Janet stole him away. In alliterative verse. With a tambourine.”
“It is the very best of stories. She left me for a cat and a cloud, ring down the bluebells-o. She left me for a storm and a coat of green. Down fall the lilies-o.” His voice was so sad and gentle that Mallow felt tears coming to her eyes all unbidden.
“But that was a hundred years ago if it was a minute past.” Mabry shook himself like a wet bird and came up as bright and beguiling as before. “And what matters it if a girl runs off, or gets done in by pirates, or gets a better job than her lesser half? Let us speak of something less common and more thrilling. What news have you of the World’s Foul? The delegates are already there, I’ve heard, filling up the hotels and mumming in the streets. And at the end of it all! King Goldmouth’s Tithe. Back to tradition, he says. Time-tested values and solid, Fairylike customs. We’ll be giving people donkey’s heads next, I suppose. I don’t think he’ll go through with it, myself. Tithing is such a revolting, old-fashioned practice. Of course one goes through the motions for the sake of culture, pour out a tenth of a glass of wine every couple of years if you must or I suppose if you have ten children one of them might go into government, which is the same as losing a child really, but a real Tithe? Disgusting—and unsanitary if you ask me. I think in the end it’ll all be a ruse, a trick done with mirrors. Somehow it’ll all end in laughter and a chocolate for each of us, mark me.”
“What is a Tithe? Not even the Scotch-nymph who lives in the north crannies of my whiskey lake knew, and she’s the oldest thing I’ve met.”
Mabry Muscat rubbed his long fingers, and Mallow felt certain he was a Jack-in-the-Green. His cravat glowed the crimson shade of the seat cushions, but his hair had gone as deep a blue as the sky outside. She could hardly see him. “I am older still, dear Mallow. And old as I am, I can just barely remember, when I was a child with my mother’s milk on my chin and my father’s holly upon my bed, the last Tithe Fairyland could stomach. It’s a blood price, paid once every seven years, or ten, or a hundred, or seven hundred, depending on who you ask and how sick folk feel about it at the time. Every Tithe looks different—we’ll see what this one will grow up to be, I suppose. I hope there will be fireworks, at least. Perhaps a commemorative spoon. These are days of old barbary and new revivals.” He fell quiet for a while. Finally, when she could see the night hills showing on his inky skin, Muscat said: “Have you a love you wish to sing? Tell me who you are, pretty Mallow, sweet Mallow, my practical rose in a sea of silly daisies.”
Mallow looked him levelly in the eye, and hardly a soul in the world has yet to be half-smitten and half-frightened by a level look from that girl. She told him the truth. “I have never lost a love and I do not intend to. One can only lose love if one is careless, and I am never careless. You might say, really, that of anything I am best at caring, at paying close attention and minding what I’ve got. The King says I must go to the Foul—very well, I shall go. And I hope to find a Wet Magician or two while I am there, and learn, and buy several new books if I can.”
“Ah! She does want something! Well—it’s easy enough. Find the Nephelo tents, where the great cats of that city laze and lie. They practice the Wet Arts as well as any soul in Fairyland, and will let you have a saucer of milk besides. Perhaps I shall even go with you. I once lived in Nephelo after all, and one is always homesick for places where one came to grief.”
Outside, the night road to Pandemonium ran smooth and swift through the northern counties of Fairyland. Valleys bloomed around them, full of gnarled egg trees and waving coalflowers, falling away into meadows full of brownie villages bustling and bright-heeled river-nymphs lassoing their blue currents around distant hills. The notion of a blood price, the very words Mabry Muscat has spoken, hung between them inside the Horse, too hot and terrible and heavy to be touched. They did not touch it, but after a day and a lunch and an apple for the Horse, Mallow consented to play Bezique—as long as they played for no bets. Later they tried Fool’s Hand as well, but that’s no fun at all without a wager. All the cards had Mabry’s face on one side, and Mallow’s on the other. She did not find this unsettling or charming, which clearly saddened Muscat deeply.
Occasionally, when they were very bored, they would open up Carolingus to a random page and listen to him holler: Never marry a Fairy Queen! They’re murder on the digestion and you’ll never get a career girl to care about the tarts you spent all day slaving over a hot stove to make. On a stop-in to a village hostel, Mabry let Mallow open up the Carriageless Horse’s neck and peer at the workings inside, which popped and hissed and burbled away, white and pink and green. I recognize some of the thought that went into the beast, Mallow said. It’s quite high-end Questing Physicks. See the vials of Purposeful Syrop, and the Hero’s Alembic? Mabry did see, and the Horse felt terribly pleased to be so regarded by such wise people.
Only once did Muscat ask if he might kiss her. Mallow declined, very reluctantly, more out of favor to that mysterious vanished love of his than because she did not wish to be kissed. He simply dealt the cards once more, and Mallow called the next trick.
Once or twice along the way, she heard ducks hooting, and held her books tight to her chest.
Pandemonium, after much fuss and many tantrums thrown and tears shed, had agreed to settle down in one place for the duration of the Foul. The capital of Fairyland has always been accustomed to moving however it pleased, drifting across glaciers or beaches or long, wheat-filled meadows. It moved at the need and pace of narrative, being a Fairy city and thus always sharply aware of where it stood in relation to every story unfolding in Fairyland at every moment. The King’s pets, as he called his soldiers, had persuaded the city to put down roots, if only for a little while. Already, the streets seethed with restlessness and the signposts quivered with barely contained energy. The King’s pets were, of course, large, lithe, rain-dark and snow-light clouds, lassoed and captured by several lightning-wights before being pressed into royal service. Even the thin, jagged-hearted Hobwolves of the Sniggering Mountains quailed in the face of those canine, long-toothed clouds.
But the sky shone glassy and gleaming on the day Mabry Muscat and Mallow rode into the capital, quite late, having started so far away. Only two days remained till Applemas and the Tithe. The Carriageless Horse clopped over a charming ivory bridge spanning the spinning Barleybroom River which surrounds the city, pointing and marveling and grinning wide-eyed at the great number of creatures flying, swimming, riding, striding, and leaping across to Pandemonium. Overhead, a huge, motley-colored, silk-ballooned zeppelin drifted majestically over the river. From a hanging basket beneath it, an Ifrit girl with burning hair played a fiery and furious mandolin. Music came from all corners, barghests squeezing accordions, satyrs blowing pipes, and drums everywhere, pounded, tapped, rat-a-tatted, and booming out across the plain where Pandemonium had come to rest, chained to the earth with long bronze links.
Mallow had never seen anything so wildly, savagely, noisily beautiful in all her days.
But when they finally crossed into the city proper with the throng, her bones ached and her heart could hardly bear the sight of it. The buildings of Pandemonium must have been lovely once, must have been diamond towers and golden storefronts and winding wrought-vine balconies, open flowers and briars and mosses genteelly drooping trees, violet peony-windows and blue lobelia-doorsteps. It must once have bloomed, the whole city, fruits and flowers with gem-spires and silver streets winking and glittering through the fertile, greening riot of the living capital. But no longer. Leaves had gone brown, vines had shriveled, flowers shrunk and wrinkled up, thorns gone dull and mosses gone grey. Where stone and jewel and metal showed through, the flank of a bakery or terrace of a bank or clerestory of a grand theatre, huge, gaping holes showed through, as though some awful giant had taken bites out of the city itself, in its highest and deepest and most secret and most open places. Applemas approached, high summer, and yet Pandemonium seemed to live in the dregs of autumn, when the brilliant colors have gone and left only brown sticks waiting for snow.
But for all that, Fairyland would not let her city go ungarlanded. The World’s Foul had swung through, leaving red and violet and green ribbons streaming from streetlamps, bundles of wildflowers and clovers on every cornice, the streets lined with booths and stalls hoisting gaily painted signs: The Famous Dancing Silkworms of Mararhadorium! Guess Your Death for a Nickel, Very Accurate! See the Crocodile-Beauty of Bitterblue Ridge! Test Your Morals, Everyone Gets a Prize! Feats of Queer Physicks Performed, Two Bits! Lamia’s Kissing Booth, No Refunds!
And in the center of the city, on a long, wide lawn, a clutch of kobolds had erected a miniature model of Pandemonium as it was, blooming and glorious and whole. The Green City, they called it, for no longer could the capital bear the name herself.
Mallow wondered if Fairyland had always been like this—this loud and fast and frightening and wonderful—and she had only forgotten, letting the pleasantness of Winesap seep into her bones. She wanted to do everything—to watch the worms dance and the crocodile-girl preen and oh, especially to see the Queer Physicks which she had been curious about for so long, and to test her morals, and to kiss a lamia. All of it, and eat a slab of honeycomb from the bee-nymphs of Pennyroyal Pond to top it all.
But instead, they lashed the Carriageless Horse to the post outside Groangyre Tower, where Belinda Cabbage and the rest of the Mad Inventors’ Society made their laboratory, and Mabry Muscat completed a vellum questionnaire the Horse thoughtfully provided.
“Allow me to take you for a special treat,” Muscat implored, and Mallow, who felt quite warm toward the dashing Jack, took his arm. He guided her directly, as though he’d a compass in his heart, to a little pavilion carved out of ice, with chaises and thrones and fountains all of frost and snow, and a furry tent covering it all. Huge cats lounged on every surface—Tigers and Lynxes and Panthers and Lions and skinny Cheetahs licking at what appeared to be lemon popsicles. Richly dressed folk petted and conversed with them, their hands full of thick, steaming mugs of something herbal and fragrant. In the center of all of them, a great solemn Leopard watched her with deep, liquid eyes.
“Hullo, Imogen,” Mabry Muscat cried joyously, and flung his arms around the great cat’s neck. For her part, she purred contentedly, and nuzzled his head with a soft thump. “I have brought you a friend! This,” he indicated the Leopard, who interrupted him with a long, rough lick across his chops, “is Imogen, the Leopard of Little Breezes. You’ll see her brother Iago, the Panther of Rough Storms, over by the fishbroth fountain. And there’s Cymbeline, the Tiger of Wild Flurries, and Caliban, the Unce of Sudden Blizzards—Unce is French for Snow Leopard you know, but Imogen and Caliban had a wrestling match over the L-word and my girl won. Oh, you’ll meet them all sooner or later. And that lady in the shimmery sneeze of a gown is the Silver Wind, that gentleman with the sapphire belt is the Blue Wind, and this ravishing thing is the Red Wind, come to meet you, Mallow, and learn your name.”
The Red Wind stood before Mallow, very tall and very beautiful, her long black hair hanging down one side of her face, spilling over an ancient coat of beaten beast hide of a deep, dark shade, dyed many times, the color of wine. Creases and long marks like blade-blows crisscrossed the cloth. Around the neck a ruff of black and silver fur bristled forbiddingly. Her fingers were covered in rubies and garnets and carnelian and coral. Iago the Panther padded up to her and the Red Wind lost her fingers in his fur. The black cat stared at Mallow for a while, as if waiting for something. And perhaps that something was the lady standing behind them, for when Mabry Muscat saw her his voice went still and quick all at once, and the expression on his face was like stars suddenly appearing out of the darkness.
“And this is the Green Wind,” he said softly.
The Green Wind wore a long dress of perfect emerald, springtime green, belted with a length of peridots sewn on green brocade, and over that a long green coat, green snowshoes, and green jewels threaded all through her green hair. She stood quietly, her eyes clear and bright. Finally, she shivered and held out her arms. Mabry went to her inside two steps, and not the Red Wind nor the Blue nor the Silver nor any cat watched their embrace, but turned away to give them peace. When Mabry Muscat touched the Green Wind, his suit flushed the color of jade and oak leaves. Mallow smiled to herself, with a pang of regret. She did not think she would get any kisses of him now.
“Oh my love,” said the Green Wind, wiping glad tears from her lovely cheeks. “I had hoped, if we all had to be here together to witness this poor joke, that I’d find you in the crowd. Thank Pan for the smaller blessings.”
The Leopard of Little Breezes trotted across the ice and plunked down on her haunches between Mallow and the lovers. “She was called Jenny Chicory, when her hair was brown,” the cat said with a rumbly, velvety voice. “She’s my mistress and I love her. But I let her love him for a little while, when he happens by. I’m a generous cat.”
“Is that his love, then? And you are the cat she left him for. Why may they not be together—they seem able to touch and speak, and no Sour Magic crackles between them.”
Imogen shrugged her spotted shoulders. “Our work bears no competition, and our home bears ill will toward anyone not of the family—the cold and harsh air would strip even him to his bones.”
It bears mentioning that Winds in Fairyland have little in common with the faceless, invisible breezes of our world. Whenever a storm or a tornado or a gust happens by, a sudden shower or snow flurry, somewhere in all that rushing air is a wild soul seated on a wild cat, whipping the sky into a riot, and singing the storm all the way down. They are a rare and feral sort, and no one knows their customs but they themselves. The Winds live in Westerly above the clouds, but the cats call Nephelo home, their village of ice and starlight, far up in the most vicious of Fairyland mountains. They come together when they please, and part only when they must. Between the two cities the Many-Colored Moon Bridge once hung, but that was long ago, and today is not yesterday.
Mallow spent her first night in Pandemonium in the Nephelese tent and much of the day after, sipping the hot, resinous wine of the Winds and wrestling the great cats, who all seemed to enjoy it, and only Iago bit her, but very gently, and she did not bleed. The great Panther took her up into the sky upon his dark back, to show off the strength of his flying. Mallow held on to his fur, and waved to Imogen below, and whooped over the towers of the city. They swooped low to sample real moonkin pastries from the far south, and met a sweet young Wyvern who confessed with a blush to her spring-green scales that she had, of late, become betrothed to an eligible young Library.
All the while the horns played and the lamias kissed and Mabry and the Green Wind played croquet with balls of thunder and snow. They talked the quiet talk of old lovers. They sang the evening ballad together, while the rest of Pandemonium sang their own sundown songs, all together in what ought to have been cacophony, but melted into the saddest and sweetest of harmonies.
Mallow asked after Wet Magic, eager to hear the Lays of Dripping and the Eddas of Seeping. The Cats of Nephelo knew it well, being intimate with rain and the sea and the blood of all bodies as they were. But Imogen would only say to her: You will have had enough of Wet Magic forever by the end. And though the Leopard loved to be cryptic and serenely mysterious, Mallow found she liked her best, and slept curled against her furry white belly while the stars moved over broken, hollow Pandemonium.
In the dizzy night following the Applemas Eve feast, Mallow woke. She heard a swinging, sighing sound beyond the ice tent. Curiosity woke with sharp teeth within her. She crept out of the Leopard of Little Breezes’ heavy protecting paws and out of the tent, drawing a pale, glimmering robe belonging to the Gold Wind over her shoulders. The Winds lay snoring, all about, Green in Mabry Muscat’s Arms, Red with her Panther, Gold with his arms flung over his head, as if in his sleep trying to stop some fell act. Mallow left them behind and peered out from the flaps of fur that served as Nephelo’s current gate. The long, wide boulevard of central Pandemonium lay silent and black all up and down, streetlamps guttering and flickering, the moon a great blue mirror in the sky.
Mallow heard the sound again.
She squinted to see, up the street one way and down the other. She might have ducked into a near alley to follow it, but her eyes finally seized the prize—a long figure waddling down the cobblestones, shoulders hunched, cloak drawn up to its face. Wisps of fog billowed at its feet. Mallow froze; she could not have begun to convince her feet to move. The figure drew closer, into the lamplight, and where the beams struck it a thousand colors sprayed out as if a vein had been cut in the side of a rainbow.
It was King Goldmouth.
Mallow knew him from every coin and portrait in a Seelie hall. A huge clurichaun, hunched down in his cloak of jewels, voluminous brown leather stitched with every gem, so heavy it stooped him, dragged him down. His nose bulged, barrel-thick, hanging down so far as to hide his mouth and mustache, his lips of gold. Furry eyebrows concealed his gaze, and his bald head had been tattooed with astrological gibberish, the graffiti of a hundred royal stargazers.
With a garumph and a groan and a grinding creak, Goldmouth extended his long arm and his six long, spidery fingers. In the lamplight Mallow saw them shine, perfect gold, even the fingernails burnished. Not just his mouth then, but more, and from the sound of his steps, maybe a foot, too. He was getting old, much older than anyone had really suspected. A leprechaun spent his days guarding gold—but a clurichaun drank and ate and gluttoned and over the centuries slowly turned to gold, becoming his own treasure.
As Mallow watched, King Goldmouth scratched a scrap of fog behind the ear and whispered to it. The mist scampered off and returned in less than a moment with the sleeping body of a strong, handsome Gremlin, his buttery pelt gleaming, his wings a pale, leathery orange. Grumbling and grunting and groaning softly all the while, Goldmouth stretched his long, gold fingers, popping the knuckles. He drew all six of them together and gently pushed them into the Gremlin’s mouth, under his long thin nose. He worked his thumb, pushing further and further until the King had his whole arm down the poor creature’s still-sleeping throat, grasping, scrabbling, looking for something in the depths of him. Mallow felt ill. Finally, with a cluck of triumph, King Goldmouth withdrew his arm, and held up what he had found to the moonlight: a single lovely, faceted topaz. He popped it into his mouth and chewed, savoring it.
When he had done, the King breathed upon the dreaming imp, and his body shivered into yellow ash, wafting away while the clouds of fog whirled and cheered in their silent, wispy way.
Mallow watched the King at his night feast for another hour, her calves aching, her skin frozen, unable to move or even weep, her horror a heavy, real thing that moved up her legs and stilled her mind. She watched him prod the sides of buildings and bridges and towers, wiggling his fingers inside them, plucking out some secret, tiny heart—a brick or a pebble or a china cup or a lump of mortar—devouring it, and striding on as the wall or terrace or window crumbled away into one of the great gaping holes Mallow had seen all over the city.
Bit by bit, the King was eating Pandemonium.
“Everyone is hungry,” Imogen growled quietly behind her, startling Mallow out of her spell. “But only the King can eat his fill.”
That night, Mallow wept bitterly into the Leopard’s fur, and did not know what was to be done. The Leopard licked her gently, in a sleeping rhythm, and did not know, either.
The day of the Tithe arrived suddenly and with a tremulous energy in the morning air. Fairyland’s whole nation prepared breakfast and drank their coffees and teas and stiff peach-liquors, nibbled at brioche and iced cake and crisp bacon, but found itself not very hungry. Mallow told her tale and the Red Wind turned her face into her hair. Iago laid his head on her red knee. The Green Wind and Mabry Muscat exchanged fearful glances. It will be more than Pandemonium one day, those glances said. He’ll want all of Fairyland on his table sooner or later. And maybe one day is today and that is the awful reason for the dead, dark Tithe coming back into the light. They held hands, and for once, Mallow wished she had a hand to hold.
Before her thought could finish itself, Mabry took her fingers in his, and the Leopard dropped her head into her lap, looking up at her with those black, kind eyes. “Tell him no,” she begged. “All of you together. He cannot eat you all.”
The Blue Wind stroked his indigo beard and sighed. “Perhaps he is right, and the Tithe is good and and honest and will make us strong. We did it for a hundred thousand years, or anyway a lot of years, before it stopped. There must have been a reason. We cannot know until we try. And maybe he will be sated.”
The Silver Wind blushed storm-grey. “Next Saturnalia, perhaps, the wheel will turn and some young maid will tip his throne. That’s how he got it, after all, from the Chamomile Prince, when he was young and his nose had not yet reached his chin. Politicks are an unlovely sport.”
But the Green Wind would not look at her brother or her sister. She stared at her hands in her lap as though by staring she could set them aflame. It was time. They had to go.
The Tithing Ground had been festooned with banners and garlands of apples, torches blazing by day and wreaths of colorful mushrooms. A crowd had already gathered, but no one wanted to get too close. They hung around the edges, some weeping, some trying too hard to laugh.
In the center stood a monstrous, outsized faucet, rusted and chained with iron bands, the sort which has a great wheel at the top for turning water hot or cold. It seemed to come up directly out of the ground. Dust and cobwebs clung to it—it had not seen use in ages. Before it stood King Goldmouth, his jeweled coat a throng of color, his nose brushing his chest. He held up his hands and more Fairylanders crowded the square. He raised them higher, and all fell silent, the Winds and the Cats and the Fairies and the Ouphes and the dryads and the Ifrits and all the folk of the world. They strained like strings sure to be cut.
“Welcome, my countrymen!” bellowed Goldmouth, his voice a round brass bell. “The Foul has come to a close and I know you have all had as marvelous a time as I. But the time has come to put aside fun and frolick and attend to business! Too long have we let the old ways sag and rot—time, I say, to be Fairies once more! In just a moment I will ask the help of the Nephelese Cats and the first Tithe of a new age will begin. Don’t be afraid! Bring your children close, line them all up so I can see their merry little eyes. They’ll tell their grandbabies about this day—well, some of them.”
But no one came forward. A tall, spindly birch-dryad began to cry audibly, and soon the square had filled with frightened, uncertain tears.
“Hush it!” hollered Goldmouth. “Is that any way to greet your destiny? Are you Fairies or aren’t you? We are a great, powerful people, and we will not cry! The King may do as he likes! That’s the whole point of being King! And I shall be King for a good long while yet so stop your blubbering. Take your Tithe like grown-ups! Get over here, you mongrels,” he snapped at the Cats. “You too, Jack, and your Windy friends.” Mabry Muscat looked pleadingly at Mallow, and she could not understand why they all obeyed him—except that of course the King could eat them, and of course he was King, and did not people everywhere do more or less as they were told when someone with a crown did the telling?
Mabry and the Green Wind, the Red Wind and the Blue Wind and the Silver, all laid their hands to the great, heavy chains that bound the faucet. Instantly, boils and hives and long red wounds appeared in their hands wherever they touched the iron, for Fairyland Folk cannot bear it. Yet they pulled on, all of them crying out in agony, screaming up at the empty sky as their bodies bled and scarred and tore. The chains, wet with blood, loosened at last. The Cats shook their great heads miserably, but they came forward when called. Iago and Imogen and Cymbeline and Caliban put their strong mouths to the wheel and began to walk.
A screeching creak filled the air, and then a knocking, thudding noise, and finally a whistling, rushing, wet sound moving under the earth. Goldmouth hurried to place a crystal goblet beneath the faucet to catch the single enormous, blindingly blue drop of water that issued from its grimy mouth.
“The blood price,” he said in awe. “The blood of a whole world.” The drop splashed into the goblet, filling it utterly and sloshing over the side. The water was not water—it shone blue and swirling, with white wisps floating through it like clouds. “Why did we stop this? When we could feast every seven years on the price paid by other men in some ridiculous world that’s nothing to do with us?” Goldmouth lifted the goblet high. His sleeves fell away from his golden arm and a gasp rippled out, which he did not hear. “In the old days, the days of our youth, we received the Tithe from a hundred worlds. We took their bounty and gave it out among our kind. We were so strong; we lived practically forever. Every time we took the Tithe, more magic leaked from their worlds to ours, more folk crossed over, more spells and wonders and riches!”
Mallow covered her eyes with her hand. It seemed obscene to look at the blood, somehow. “You said blood price, Mabry! I thought you meant we would pay it—we would all prick ourselves and bleed a little, or the changelings would be bled, or a great deal of cattle would be slaughtered.”
Mabry’s eyes turned rueful and creased. “Oh, no, Mallow. The blood price is paid to us. I thought you knew. From a hundred worlds and more, every seven years, or ten, or a hundred, or seven hundred. They pay their Tithe and we collect it.”
“Which world is that?” Mallow asked. Her voice seemed so loud in the square.
“I’ve no idea,” Mabry sighed. “Blood has no name. Some place with less magic and less joy than it had a moment ago, that’s certain. In days past the whole of Fairyland shared out the stuff, with reverence, and strength like nothing you’ve known flowed through us. I had but a sip when I was a babe and I’ve lived a thousand years. But we stopped it—we had to stop. It was the Sympathetics who discovered the how and why of it. We were bleeding worlds dead, and none of us could bear it. We can be cruel, if it is fun to be cruel, but we are never callous. Never unfeeling. We would not make ourselves vampires for a few more years’ revels. you have never heard of it, because we buried our secret shame as deep in a library as a stone may fall into a well sunk through the world, one end to the other.”
King Goldmouth, with his goblin’s ears, snarled into the heart of their talk. “Who cares? If a vampire I must be to live and dance and howl at the sun, then let me show my teeth! They paid their price, we’re fools not to take it! To have let them hoard it all this time. And I shall take the first, all of it, for I alone thought to turn the wheel again. I shall drink it and live forever and rule forever and eat forever and turn utterly to gold—don’t you look at my arm like it’s poison!—and none of you will ever be able to stick a knife in me. Goldmouth’s Feast, Ten Thousand Years Long!”
“No,” Mallow said softly, but in her voice moved a hardness she had always known she owned in some deep cupboard of her heart, but rarely taken out, even for company. No Magic turned inside her, end over end, growing cold and implacable. She strode forward and leveled her needle-sword at the King’s throat. It joined there a sudden and unexpected green lance, balanced in the Green Wind’s lovely, jeweled hand. The Wind’s stare could have curdled stone, but she said nothing.
It happened so quickly Mallow could not afterward say for certain who moved first. Goldmouth broke the green lance as easily as a branch and seized the Green Wind’s neck in his fleshy fist. As soon as he turned from her, small and not green and with nothing but a needle as she was, Mallow buried her blade in his side. The Winds sprang toward their sister, and Mabry, too, all screaming and bellowing and Mallow could not even hear herself think. Blood gushed warmly over her hands, black clurichaun blood, night blood, and full of stars. Goldmouth pressed his golden fingers together and pushed them into the Green Wind’s throat. Green tears spilled from her eyes. She choked and gagged as he worked his hands into her.
And then the King reeled, screeching. Black starry blood streamed everywhere in inky ribbons. Mabry Muscat had drawn the Blue Wind’s azure cutlass and sliced Goldmouth’s arm off at the shoulder. The Green Wind fell to the ground, clawing at the severed arm in her mouth, dragging it out of herself, slipping in the spreading blood. Mallow tugged her needle free of the King’s sodden body. And three things happened in the same moment:
Goldmouth’s cloud-hounds shot into the air, knotting around Mabry Muscat’s throat and tying off before he could gasp. The light blew out of his eyes and his body fell to the streetside.
The Leopard of Little Breezes roared so loud and long every soul in Fairyland clapped hands over their ears.
Goldmouth’s broken hand opened on the cobblestones beside the body of the Green Wind. In its golden palm lay a tiny, dazzling green leaf.
A great battle followed—but that is not important. To be sure, Goldmouth’s clouds frothed into a rage, and the Great Cats of Nephelo rose up to fight them in the great, stormy sky. In years hence they would call the battle the Nor’Easter, for its squalls turned the heavens black and brought rain onto every head. The Red Wind shot so many clouds with her scarlet pistols and Iago, her Panther, tore so many with his teeth that afterward she would be called Cloudwyf, and the cowed nation of clouds would be hers to rule and ride. A bonny knight, Mallow rode upon Imogen, the Leopard of Little Breezes. With her needle stitched cloud to cloud until a thread of wind pierced a hundred hearts all in a row. Great cries were uttered, loyalties made, and far below the people of Fairyland fled home or took up their brooms and bird-mounts and carpets to join the fray. Grandbabies would be told of the day, rest you certain.
But that is a battle story, and battle stories belong to those who fight them. How a battle feels is impossible to tell, except by nonsense: It felt like a long rip. It felt like a weight landing upon me, over and over. It felt like red. It felt like a bell unringing forever. What can be told is that when Mallow and her Leopard and the Red Wind and all her brothers and sisters landed, Goldmouth still lay in the wreckage of his black blood, dying in between his breaths. Beside him, two strangers stood whole and with so much sorrow in their faces that the Red Wind staggered to see it. But beside the sorrow lay a rueful humor, as though a joke had been told while the war raged, and only now did these two youths catch the punch line.
One was a pretty young woman with brown, curling hair and a simple white dress with a few pale ribbons trailing from it. She wore a bonnet of valerian and heartsease. The color in her cheeks gleamed rich as bread and sun-rosy, and her feet were bare.
The other was a man with a neat, pointed beard and kindly eyes which had become the most beguiling shade of green. He was dressed in a green smoking jacket, and a green carriage driver’s cloak, and green jodhpurs, and green snowshoes. In his hands he held a long green lance, quite whole.
“He died to save her,” the Leopard growled. “And now he must take her place. It’s different for each Wind. Red will need to be tricked by her replacement into putting on a white gown. Gold will be killed. So it goes. Long ago, a girl named Jenny Chicory loved a boy, and meant to be a water-duchess in the Seelie before going on the Great Hunt. She drowned saving a little boy in green, a boy she did not know from a stranger, from a pirate band with a whale on their side. She could not let him go down into the waves, and woke up all in green with a job to do and no more a happy maid with a suitor at her door. Now Mabry’s done it, and he can’t take it back, nor go home with her to Winesap any more than she could leave the sky windless. The gales of the upper Fairyland heavens would shatter her, as they would have shattered him. In the doldrums of summer, sometimes, they arrange to meet at sea, where the sails droop and crow’s nests swelter. I imagine they’ll keep that date.”
Jenny looked at her Leopard with a grand and sorry love. “We are used to it,” she said thickly. “And storms must sometimes come to Winesap, too.”
Mallow looked down at the dying King. His breath did not stop or slow—a clurichaun his age had reserves of will waiting to be tested. He might live years in distress but not die. She considered what to do. She considered the Gremlin and the Green Wind. She considered poor, crumbling Pandemonium. She considered the shattered goblet and that blue and cloudy blood, the wettest of all possible Wet Magics, mingling with all the other blood that had poured out onto the square, wretched, dull, of use to no one.
Mallow knelt. She drew her needle and pricked the thumb of King Goldmouth’s golden hand. Slowly, as slowly as he had pushed his fingers into helpless mouths, she pushed her needle in, pulled it through, and made her stitch. Beneath her hands, a thick, glassy thread appeared. She made another stitch, and another, hauling up the clurichaun’s feet to his chest and beginning to cry a little despite herself, so exhausted and revolted and determined and sorry was she.
“I told you,” she said as she sewed. “I didn’t want to muddle in Politicks—and there is always Politicks, even when folk promise it’s just a party, or a revival, or an exhibition of every kind of magic. I didn’t want to meet a Fairy boy or dance at Fairy balls. I only wanted to read my books and learn a bit of magic. Why couldn’t you have been a better King? Why couldn’t you have left that poor world alone? Why couldn’t you have been better?” She hit him with her fist and he did not protest. She had not hit him hard.
By now, Goldmouth’s knees covered his face. He could not speak. A very neat seam ran across his nose. His eyes pleaded, but Mallow went on sewing up the King, stitch by stitch, into a package no bigger than her hand. The last of his astrological tattoos showed on the top of it, and she handed the whole thing over to the Red Wind to close away. Mallow’s skin dripped starry streaks of royal blood.
The girl who would find herself, against long odds, Queen before dinnertime stood up and looked at her new friends, at her darling Leopard, at the glittering needle in her hand. Then she looked to the empty, hollowed-out city.
“Well,” Mallow said, feeling a wave of powerful practicality break on her heart. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
For more tales set in this particular Fairyland, check out Catherynne M. Valente’s newest novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, out now from Feiwel & Friends.
Copyright © 2011 by Catherynne M. Valente
Art copyright © 2011 by Ana Juan