Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire
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Velveteen vs. The Melancholy of Autumn.

Title: Velveteen vs. The Melancholy of Autumn.
Summary: The trials of a formerly retired superheroine are destined never to be done, especially when the heroine in question was foolish enough to agree to serve the seasonal lands...

***

Velveteen opened her eyes to find herself staring up into the rafters of a house that should probably have been condemned five minutes after it was built, just to prevent this inevitable future. The wood was dark with water damage and mold, rotted cleanly through in spots. Thick, filthy cobwebs covered the entire edifice. Velveteen was more than reasonably sure that they were holding the whole place up. Clean the house, watch it fall down around your ears.

This was the autumn country. There was no place else that it could be. The slant of the roof and the single small, round window, like a ship’s porthole, told her that she was probably in the attic of this particular haunted house, which made sense; attics were where the broken toys went. She had visited the autumn before, usually in the custody of Halloween, which was the season’s dominant holiday. She knew their sense of humor.

Breathing slowly and evenly, so as to keep herself from freaking out, Velveteen lifted her hand off the bed and raised it to the level of her eyes. As she had expected, she no longer had skin in the human sense; instead, she had threadbare brown velvet, patched with swaths of brighter fabric. One of her fingers was gone. Not missing: gone, leaving her with a four-fingered hand that would have been easier for a seamstress to stitch together. Her arm was more of the same.

Despite the apparent lack of bones, she didn’t feel floppy or formless as she sat up and examined herself further. Her tail was attached to her ass, naturally, a tuft of cotton fluff that she couldn’t see, but presumed would be distressingly white. Speaking of her ass it, like the rest of her, was sewn out of the same material as her hand, and arm, and costume. She was, for all intents and purposes, anatomically incorrect.

“Even fucking Santa Claus left me with a goddamn vagina, you autumnal pervs,” she muttered, and stood, casting around until she found a cloth-shrouded shape that could be taken for a full-length mirror, if she cocked her head and squinted. Walking was more difficult than it normally was, but easier than it should have been, considering that she was now an ungodly combination of a scarecrow and a life-sized creepy doll. After being made of ice and rooted to the earth, it was getting easier to roll with the punches.

The mirror showed her what she was expecting to see: her own face, somehow rendered perfectly in cloth and canvas, crowned with a pair of brown velvet ears lined in pink satin. They had wire inside to keep them upright. When she bent them, it didn’t hurt. When she pulled them, it did. There were rules to being a living doll, apparently, and she was going to need to learn them as she went. Halloween would never be kind enough to supply her with an instruction manual.

Velveteen sighed, lowering her hands. “Fucked-up times way too many to count,” she said bleakly, looking at her reflection. Last season. Last temptation. She could do this. She had to do this.

If she could survive one more season, she could go home.

*

The exact relationship between the Seasonal Lands and what they call the “calendar country” is a matter of some debate in academic circles, where it is believed that a better understanding of the Seasonal Lands will lead to a better understanding of the world in which we live. If the Seasonal Lands were created by the needs of the calendar country, what created the calendar country? Are the worlds symbiotic, or are the Seasonal Lands magical parasites, drawing sustenance from the flesh of a universe they have no business intruding upon? The conversation has been going for years, but became both louder and more vicious after the fall of The Super Patriots, Inc., which had previously controlled much of the dialog surrounding the origins and impacts of superhuman abilities.

If the Seasonal Lands are symbiotic, runs one argument, then it stands to reason that it is within the public interest to keep them healthy and well-supplied with the heroes they require to remain stable. The records of Velveteen’s childhood encounters with the residents of Halloween, combined with the documented powers and careers of Trick and Treat, both known to have originated in the Autumn, makes a compelling argument for this position. Without a strong connection between the Seasonal Lands and the calendar country, it seems likely that both worlds would suffer.

According to the other school of thought, which holds that the Seasonal Lands are parasitic, and do not give anything the calendar country cannot survive without, the suffering that would follow a severing of that bond would actually be the process of our reality healing, recovering a measure of its equilibrium and beginning to return to normal. Yes, it would hurt, and yes, people would probably pay the price for cutting that tether, but in the end, our world would be healthier for it. All that they need is someone willing to wield the knife.

Thus far, neither school of thought has been in a position to put their theories to the test, something which may well have prevented their academic disagreements from escalating to outright warfare. “When you have someone using a mechanical breathing device, and someone else swearing that it’s killing the patient, what do you do?” asked one scholar, who elected not to be named. “You can leave them connected, and maybe it’s making them sick and maybe it’s not, but at least you know they’re going to live. Or you can unplug the whole thing, and pray that the person who says they’ll be better off is right. If they’re not, and the patient dies, it’s not like you can bring them back to life by plugging them back in.”

More interesting is the theory that the Seasonal Lands, by tying mankind to a world where myth and reality are indistinguishable, are fully responsible for the existence of magical heroes, even those whose powers do not manifest in any clearly time-related way. The Princess, Dame Fortuna, and Jolly Roger are all unique in their manifestations, but they are all, in some way, metaphor made flesh. Without the Seasonal Lands to continually remind mankind that metaphor is sometimes another way of saying “the thing that’s about to kick your teeth in,” would these heroes be able to exist at all? Would breaking the tether strip them of their powers? Would it strip all superhumans of their powers? Perhaps these abilities are a byproduct of the connection between our universe and these smaller ones, whether they be symbiotic or parasitic.

And more, would the loss of all superhuman abilities truly be as bad a thing as it might initially appear? By reducing the human population to a single power level--none to speak of--we might finally create a level playing field, and stop the fighting once and for all.

Until the connection between the Seasonal Lands and the calendar country is broken, there is no way to say for sure. Still, people wonder; the discussion continues.

*

The room where Velveteen had awakened was empty of anything that could have better prepared her for whatever was going to come next. The closet door creaked ominously, but there were no weapons inside. There were claw marks in the wood under the bed. No monster, though. Finally, Velveteen was forced to admit that she needed to leave the room if she wanted to find out what was going on.

“Look at it this way,” she muttered to herself, turning toward the door. “This is Halloween. Halloween has always been the land of assholes. It’s not like they can break your heart the way Christmas did.” Somehow, when she said it like that, it didn’t feel as encouraging as she had hoped. Halloween couldn’t break her heart, but that didn’t mean it was going to be kind to her. None of the seasons had been. Why should this one start?

The door moaned like a thing possessed when she opened it, revealing a second-floor hallway cordoned off from the empty air by a rotten-looking bannister. A flight of stairs descended from the hall’s far end, the distance between her and them choked with cobwebs. Velveteen wrinkled her nose and started walking.

By the time she reached the stairs, the fabric of her skin was gray with grime and she was beginning to consider the virtues of taking a ride in the nearest washing machine. At least her feet hadn’t punched through the floor at any of the many rotten spots. She placed her hand on the bannister, only grimacing a little at the feeling of the wood squishing under her fingers, and descended into the foyer.

There was no one there. That wasn’t really a surprise. The furniture seemed to be aesthetically inspired by a combination of the Addams Family and A Nightmare on Elm Street. That wasn’t a surprise either. Some of the dark patches on the floor looked like they could have started out in somebody’s veins. Velveteen wrinkled her nose and stepped around them, trying to get a feeling for the layout of the house. It was dark and oppressive. It didn’t feel like the sort of place where anybody actually lived.

Probably because nobody did. Normally when she awoke in one of the many haunted houses that studded the Halloween portion of Autumn, either Hailey Ween--the current spirit of Halloween--or her sidekick, Scaredy Cat--the prior, somewhat more dangerous spirit of Halloween--would be waiting to tell her why she had been kidnapped this time. That hadn’t happened. Why?

Because she hadn’t been kidnapped. She had come voluntarily. This was a test.

“Fuck all you people and the horses you rode in on,” muttered Velveteen, and started for the front door. It was locked. The doorknob was shaped like a grinning jack-o-lantern. Velveteen narrowed her eyes and reached out with her mind, ordering the object to do her bidding. Its smile widened. The lock clicked; the knob turned; the door swung open.

Velveteen stepped out onto the porch, and was wearily unsurprised to see that the house opened onto a graveyard filled with listing, moss-encrusted tombstones. Hailey and Scaredy were there, using a fallen tomb door as a picnic table. Their meal seemed to consist entirely of candy, Halloween-frosted cupcakes, and apple cider.

Hailey was the first to notice her. The Halloween teen turned and grinned, showing teeth that were too white for someone on an all-candy diet and too sharp for someone who didn’t mean any harm. “There you are,” she said, voice smug. “I knew you’d find your way out.”

“Pardon my French, but what the fuck are you talking about?” Velveteen folded her arms. “It’s not a maze in there.”

“Because someone didn’t want it to be,” said Scaredy. He looked like a little boy in a one-piece cat costume, the sort of kid who would swarm down the sidewalks on October thirty-first, pillowcase in hand and sugar on his mind. Only looking closer would reveal that the costume didn’t come off, and that his eyes were cat-slit and calculating. “Look behind you.”

Velveteen didn’t move. “What are you playing at?”

“We’re not playing at anything,” said Hailey. “You’re here voluntarily this time, remember? We don’t have to play games with you. We can just show you what we’ve got, and trust that you’ll see us for the superior season. Now take a look behind you.”

Velveteen turned.

The house was, as expected, towering and terrible, painted in peeling black paint and studded with cracked and broken windows, like blind eyes staring out on the uncaring world. But...when Velveteen squinted, she could see how all those attributes came together to form a single scowling face. The house had a face. And that meant...

“It’s mine,” breathed Velveteen.

“It is,” said Hailey. “It has a face. So does everything inside it, from the furniture on down. If you’ve ever wanted to play out some demented Beauty and the Beast enchanted castle fantasy, this is the place to do it. Everything here will do what you say. So when you wanted the house to let you out, it made itself simpler to make you happy.”

“Wow.” Velveteen turned to face the pair. “I’m not that easy to buy, you know. A house of faces isn’t enough to get you on my good side.”

“Maybe not, but I’m sure it can’t hurt,” said Hailey. “We want you to be happy and comfortable. We’re not going to turn you into snow or make you sleep in a meadow, or any of that bullshit. We’re going to show you that you’re part of the team.”

Velveteen raised an eyebrow. She gestured to herself with one hand before saying, in the slow and careful tone of someone who was fighting very fucking hard not to lose her temper, “You turned me into a possessed Raggedy Ann doll from hell. That doesn’t say ‘part of the team.’ That says ‘still your plaything.’”

“That says ‘trying to protect you,’” corrected Hailey. There was an odd tone in her voice. It took Velveteen a moment to realize what it was: kindness. The normally sarcastic, frequently cruel teen was trying her very best to sound kind. “That says ‘Halloween transforms everyone who enters one way or another.’ Didn’t anyone bother to tell you why you kept changing?”

“No,” said Velveteen.

“The Seasonal Lands are alive,” said Hailey. “Not in the ‘treat the Earth like a living thing’ animist nonsense sense--”

“It’s not nonsense,” said Velveteen, stung.

“--but in the literal, factual, no-bullshit ‘this is a living organism’ sense,” continued Hailey, as if Vel hadn’t spoken. “You are standing in the gut of one of the biggest creatures in existence. People like me and Scaredy, and maybe you if you take the job, we’re the immune system. We’re what keeps bad shit from getting in here and wreaking havoc. That’s why the Seasonal Lands call and claim people. Because they need to be protected, or they’ll die.”

“That’s not what Santa said. Or Persephone.” Velveteen struggled to keep her voice level. She was so tired. No matter what she did, no matter how far she went, it felt like there was always one more contradictory story to listen to, one more impossible mountain to climb. “Nobody’s mentioned this but you.”

“Because whatever’s true for them isn’t necessarily true for me; not in the details,” said Hailey. “You’re standing in the middle of a metaphor. It’s going to be self-contradictory from time to time, because that’s how symbols work. Think of the Seasonal Lands as monsters or memories or whatever. The fact remains that everything that enters here has to change.”

“You didn’t,” snapped Velveteen.

Hailey’s face fell. “I am the teen witch guardian protector of the season, because I haven’t been able to find anyone to take my place,” she said, voice going low and tight, throbbing like the beat of a tell-tale heart. “I am the cool kid who still likes trick-or-treat, the one who tempts you to leave the sidewalk and come on an adventure through the graveyards and the alleyways. I am safe scares in the shadow of the Halloween tree. Do you really think I didn’t have to change? Do you really think I didn’t have to pay?”

“Now you’ve gone and done it,” said Scaredy, selecting another cupcake from the pile and turning it over in his gloved paw like it was the most interesting thing in the world. “I hope you have a strong stomach.”

“What?” asked Velveteen. Her attention flickered to him. Only for a moment.

More than long enough for Hailey to undo the ties on her blouse, and pick up the knife.

“Well?” she snapped, bringing Velveteen’s head whipping around. The Halloween girl was standing there with black bra and pale skin exposed, holding the point of a wicked-looking carving knife against her stomach. She gave Velveteen a challenging look. “You really think I didn’t have to change?”

Velveteen’s eyes widened. “Hailey, put down the knife,” she said.

“You know, I could have done what Santa did,” said Hailey. “I could have found some sweet little thing with candy corn teeth and hair like corn silk and ordered them to become your best friend. I could have wooed you with all the sweetest, brightest parts of the holiday, and hid the things I knew you wouldn’t want to see until it was too late. Because there is a point of no return, bunny-girl. There’s a point past which it doesn’t matter if you accept the holiday, because the holiday will have fully accepted you. You’ll be digested and remade, and your own mother wouldn’t recognize you.”

She didn’t pause long enough for Velveteen to say anything. She just rammed the knife into her stomach, sliding it home until the handle formed a seal against the skin of her stomach. She grimaced.

“Fuck, that stings,” she said, and pulled the knife out, opening a gaping tear in her abdomen. Leaves poured out. Autumn leaves, in gold and red and orange; all the colors of harvest, all the colors of the flame. They were mixed with corn husks and fresh green pumpkin vines, like intestines. They fell at her feet as she looked defiantly at Velveteen, expression challenging the other woman to say a single word.

Velveteen blinked. Velveteen didn’t say a damn thing.

“I didn’t realize at first what was happening, because Halloween took me as I was: flesh and blood and ambition like a flame,” said Hailey. “I still bled when I skinned my knees or bumped my nose--until the day I didn’t. Until the day there was just a sweet trickle of maple sap. My skin still feels like skin, because every pretty lure has to fool the fishes, but my bones? My flesh? That’s all long gone to dust, replaced by whatever pretty bits of the season were lying around. Everything changes. You change so dramatically because right now, you’re a tourist. Transforming you like this protects you.”

Velveteen opened her mouth, intending to protest. What came out was, “Didn’t it hurt?”

“It would have, if I hadn’t come willingly,” said Hailey. “I wanted this. The big difference between vampire stories and zombie stories is whether the person wanted to be bitten. I wanted the bite. I wanted to live forever in the space between seasons, and never get old, and never go back. I made my choice. But it would have happened either way. Willing victim or kidnapped hostage, the change would have come.”

“I didn’t change,” said Scaredy. He looked calmly at Velveteen, and his eyes were a sea of silent screams. “I was born here, like Trick and Treat. Like your friend Jacqueline. What the seasons make, they don’t have to transform, because we’re already suited to living in a place that isn’t real. Hailey, though, she was a human girl when she came to Halloween. She had something she could lose, and so she lost it.”

“You had something you could lose too,” snapped Hailey. “Don’t forget that.”

To Velveteen’s surprise, Scaredy Cat laughed. “I lost it the second the season started shopping for my replacement,” he said. “I was already half-dwindled by the time you got here. You never saw me at my best. I was the monster in every closet and the nightmare under every bed. You were the face of a kinder, gentler Halloween, and now the season’s trying to bring in something even kinder and gentler than you. It’s all rolling with the times. My day will come again, and then I’ll devour each and every sorry one of you.”

“You don’t have many friends, do you?” asked Velveteen.

Hailey chuckled grimly. She ran her hand across the skin of her stomach and the tear disappeared, sealed up by the touch of her fingers. “Of all the seasons, autumn is the one that tells the fewest lies about ‘friendship,’” she said. “Winter says ‘oh, things will get better, come warm yourself by our fire,’ and ignores all the children freezing to death in the snow. Spring says ‘we’re the kind one,’ and pretends nature isn’t red in tooth and claw. Summer says ‘frolic in our fields,’ and turns your eyes away from the men who break their backs to bring about the harvest. Autumn says ‘try and survive me.’ At least we don’t dress ourselves up for your funeral.”

“And again, not many friends,” said Velveteen. “Look. It sucks that your guts are made of dried leaves and whatever. It sucks and it’s creepy and it’s not my fault. You keep saying that the seasons transform everyone, but I visited Winter dozens of time before they decided to turn me into Frosty the Snowman. You people turned me into a rag doll the first time I came here.”

“Because unlike your precious Winter, we were never interested in winning you by lying to you,” said Hailey. “You didn’t transform because you were a tourist. You weren’t property. If you ever said ‘you know what, this is where I live now, here, forever,’ you would have changed in an instant, and you would have had no warning or way to influence what you became. Here, we may have forced you into a starting position, but Halloween is all about the masks we wear. We don’t care what you become, as long as you’re willing to take up the role you were meant for.”

Velveteen was silent for a long moment, taking this in. Part of her wanted to call Hailey a liar, and maybe demonstrate why giving an animus a house with a face that could be used to hit things was a bad idea. The rest of her, though...

The rest of her was thinking about how many times she’d gone to the Winter without being introduced to Aurora, or to Lucy, or to the dark things that lurked in the snow-swept woods. They had shown her the theme park version of the holiday, and she had been willing to accept it, because she had loved them, and she had wanted them to be telling her the truth. She had wanted someplace where she could belong, even if that place was straight out of a children’s storybook. They had lied to her, sure. And she had let them.

“Be a haunted doll, ready to show children the way out of the darkness, if they’re good, or deeper down, if they’re bad.” Hailey’s tone turned cajoling, trying to lure Velveteen down her own kind of rabbit hole. “Be a scarecrow, with birds on your shoulders and husks in your hands. You could even take my place, be a pretty, smiling teen who knows all the best places to go for candy, as long as no one minds that you won’t have a heartbeat anymore. You could chose, Vel. That’s what we’re offering you. That’s the thing no one else would let you have.”

“Persephone said that I was the last animus in the world.” Velveteen looked at Hailey, trying not to show how much the other woman’s words had shaken her. “She said that if I chose Spring, there wouldn’t be any more animus for a long, long time. Forever, maybe. Because absence is a kind of balance. Is that what happens if I stay here?”

“Fuck if I know,” said Hailey. “That’s not my department. I’ll take you to see Scream Queen, if you think you’re ready to have a conversation with someone who won’t put up with you insulting them constantly. See? We’re the buffer. We’re here for your protection.” Her smile was quick and almost shy, affording a glimpse of the teenage girl she’d been, once, before she’d traded her mortal life for a Halloween night that would never end. “Without us, you’d already be a sweet treat in somebody else’s pillowcase.”

“You know, this is the third season in a row where a woman has been in charge.”

Hailey shrugged. “That’s because here, they can be. The calendar country has been run by men for a long, long time. Why would any woman with superpowers and ambitions to match ever choose to stay there, when here, she can write her own ticket? If I’d been a boy, I might have decided not to go with Halloween. I would have had options. But that was a hundred years ago, and things were different then.”

“I guess so,” said Velveteen. She looked down at her patchwork hands, and sighed. “All right. Let’s get this over with. Take me to your leader.”

Scaredy and Hailey both smiled, and both their smiles contained too many teeth.

“Oh, goodie,” said Hailey. “I thought you’d never ask.”

*

They walked through an endless autumnal forest, leaves crunching underfoot and occasionally drifting down from the branches above them, even though those branches seemed, to the casual eye, to be completely skeletal. Strings of carved turnips and tiny jack-o-lanterns were twined throughout the wood, each containing a tiny candle. Their light was small individually, but was collectively enough to brighten the night, turning into something akin to a dusky, twilit day.

“Scream Queen was Halloween Princess for about three hundred years before I came along and took over the job,” said Hailey, stepping around a muddy hole that bubbled and rippled with unnatural life. “She was more than ready to pass the pointy hat. It was a good role for her when she was younger, but as she aged, she wanted something with a little more gravitas.”

“Wait,” said Velveteen, glancing over her shoulder at Scaredy. He was swatting at the falling leaves, more feline than boy, and more monster than either. “I thought Scaredy was the guardian here before you came.”

“He was,” said Hailey. “Back then, the Halloween Princess was the big candy apple, and Scaredy Cat was the guardian. Things had been shifting away from him for a while, and he’d been losing power. That was how Scream Queen knew that things were about to change. She needed to take on more darkness, to keep things balanced, and she needed to pass her name to someone who had a little bit more light.”

The thought of Hailey as someone with “a little bit more light” was unsettling enough that Velveteen walked in silence for several minutes, thinking about it. It didn’t get less disturbing. “Where do Trick and Treat fit into all this? Where are they?”

“Around.” Hailey flapped her hand vaguely, indicating the forest to the left. “There’s a whole Halloween city here, did you know? How could you, we’ve never taken you there. Anyway, it’s a nice little suburb full of nice suburban monsters, and it’s where most of the people who stumble into Autumn these days wind up. Trick and Treat have a lot of good press from their time gallivanting around in your world, and that daughter of theirs, yeesh. She’s like the poster child for why raising your kids with no sense of their heritage can backfire. They’re living out there until Mischief can be properly socialized into the holiday, and while they’re at it, they’re serving as sort of PR for the people who pass through. ‘Look, Halloween cares so much about your safety that we have real superheroes patrolling our streets,’ that sort of thing. Besides, the season developed a couple of thematic supervillains after the jerks went off and got themselves identified as heroic. They need to mop up their own short-sighted mess.”

“How many people do you have just stumbling in?”

Hailey shrugged. “More than Spring or Summer, not as many as Winter. Halloween and Christmas are the big draws--naturally--and have their own dangers.”

“People who wind up in Winter when Santa’s not prepared for them are likely to freeze to death.” If they were lucky. There were wolves, and worse, out there in those endless evergreen forests.

“And people who wind up here when no one’s prepared could find themselves at the mercy of an awful lot of monsters.” Hailey glanced at Scaredy. “Some of them are supposedly the good guys. So we set up buffer zones to try to catch the ones who shouldn’t be there. We give them a good, enjoyable scare and we send them home with a story to tell. It’s better than the alternative, where they wouldn’t be making it home at all.”

“That’s a lot more compassionate than I expected from Halloween.”

Hailey shrugged. “Halloween has always been compassionate. You just haven’t been in a position to see it.”

“And you kept lying to me.”

“We did,” said Hailey unrepentantly. “We’ll do it again. But I’m not lying to you right now. Come on.” She stepped off the path and into the trees with Scaredy at her heels, leaving Velveteen no choice but to follow or be left behind in the dark Halloween wood.

“Fuck everything,” she said philosophically, and followed.

There was no path through the trees that she could see: she had to follow the trail of crushed leaves and broken branches, hoping that she was tailing Hailey and Scaredy, and not, say, the local equivalent of the grizzly bear, which would probably have chainsaws for paws or something equally unnecessary. If there was one thing she had learnt from her time in the Seasonal Lands so far, it was that any time something seemed like it was just too damn much, someone in charge was going to think it was a great idea. The best idea. Let’s do that.

“This is Halloween,” she muttered. “They’re probably a-okay with murdering people, as long as you throw some candy around when you’re done. I bet I can find some candy. I’m good at finding candy.”

She stepped out of the trees and into a broad clearing. Hailey and Scaredy were standing on the other side of it, flanking a throne that appeared to have grown straight out of the ground, all twisted roots and tangled branches. There were bats roosting there. There were bones held captive in the knotty snarl of twig and thorn and rotting trunk. And on the throne, there was a woman.

She was beautiful: there was no denying that. Her skin was deep brown, never quite shading into full blackness, although her African-American roots were apparent in everything from her bearing to the cornrow perfection of her hair. She wore a dress that would have been perfectly at home at a 1970s prom, layer upon layer of pink taffeta. Somehow, it wasn’t anything the Princess would have worn; it wasn’t a fairy tale dress. It was a horror movie dress, stolen from the seconds before the blood started flying. No: not quite. There were little red dots on the hem of her dress, some dried to a deep brown, others arterial-fresh and almost unnatural-looking. The sash across her chest read PROM QUEEN.

She was terrible: there was no denying that. She smiled like the moon coming out from behind the clouds on Halloween night, and in her eyes lingered an eternity of screaming. Her nails were bloody red and filed to stiletto points, and the bouquet she nestled in the crook of one arm was corn stalks and dead roses, ringed with tiny waxy orange berries, like dollhouse pumpkins.

“Hello, Velveteen,” she said, and her voice was a mug of hot apple cider at the end of a long night’s trick-or-treating; it was a poisoned caramel apple on an oleander stick. There was no contradiction in those things. They were simply and entirely what she was, no omissions, no lies. “I was pleased when you chose to come to us last of all. It means we still might have a chance to make you stay.”

“Scream Queen, I presume,” said Velveteen. Aurora had been cold, which suited the heart of Winter; Persephone had been welcoming and warm. Scream Queen was somewhere in the middle, a bonfire of a woman, blazing bright and burning.

“In the flesh, such as it is,” said Scream Queen. She smiled, and her teeth were white and even and very, very sharp. “I’ve been waiting for such a long time to meet you.”

“You could have come to say ‘hello’ the first time your minions decided to kidnap me.”

“I couldn’t and you know it. Please, don’t be foolish, Velveteen. I have been looking forward to meeting you, and I would very much like it if you chose to stay here with us, in Halloween forever. That doesn’t mean I’ll tolerate disrespect. I’m still the Queen here. The one and only Scream Queen. Although I suppose you might be able to depose me, if you chose to stay. It would take a hundred years or more. It would be a glorious battle. The calendar country would ring like a bell from the force of our fight. You’re welcome to stay if that’s your intent. But until you’re strong enough to take me on, don’t disrespect me.”

“Sorry,” said Velveteen. It was clear from her tone and her posture that she didn’t mean it, but that had never been the important part: it was the apology that mattered, not the reason it was given. “May I ask a question?”

“I don’t think I could stop you, could I?” Scream Queen smiled again, settling back in her throne.

“Are you an anima?”

“No,” said Scream Queen. “I never was, not even when there were so many of you that people knew how to talk about them. I’m an empath. What I feel, you feel. What you feel, I feel. What I want you to feel, you feel. People used to call it a plaything power, something for nursemaids and women of the evening and other folks as didn’t matter. There’s nothing toy-like about the way I use my skills.”

“I guess there wouldn’t be. Especially not here.” In the Seasonal Lands, the emotional landscape mattered as much if not more than the physical one. Scream Queen would be able to rule forever, if she felt it strongly enough. “What do you want from me?”

“Oh, my darling girl.” Scream Queen looked at Velveteen, and the sadness of the season swept over her, dead and dying leaves, rain and cold and the rot at the heart of the late apples on the trees. Velveteen swayed. Velveteen staggered. Velveteen dropped to her knees.

Scream Queen rose. She walked to where the young animus lay, and knelt, running a hand over the rough yarn of her hair.

“I only want what the others got,” she said softly. “I want everything you have to give, and when you run out, I want just a little bit more. I’ll keep you if you let me, but if I can’t, well. I’ve lost out on better. I’ll lose out on worse. Right now, I just need you to serve me. Understand?”

Velveteen moaned. Scream Queen straightened, turning to look back at Hailey and Scaredy.

“Well?” she said. “Get her up and get her home. When she wakes up, we’ll get started.” Her smile was a dead moon at midnight, unforgiving and eternal, as her subjects hurried to do her bidding.

“There’s so much for her to do,” she said, and no one in the season argued, and the night that never ends went on.
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