Velveteen vs the seasons, p.1
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       Velveteen vs. The Seasons, p.1

           Seanan McGuire
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Velveteen vs. The Seasons


  Other Books by ISFiC Press

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  Every Inch a King by Harry Turtledove

  The Cunning Blood by Jeff Duntemann

  Worldcon Guest of Honor Speeches edited by Mike Resnick and Joe Siclari

  Outbound by Jack McDevitt

  Finding Magic by Tanya Huff

  When Diplomacy Fails edited by Eric Flint and Mike Resnick

  The Shadow on the Doorstep by James Blaylock

  Assassin and Other Stories by Steven Barnes

  Aurora in Four Voices by Catherine Asaro

  Win Some, Lose Some by Mike Resnick

  Velveteen vs. The Junior Super Patriots by Seanan McGuire

  Velveteen vs. The Multiverse by Seanan McGuire

  The Goblin Master’s Grimoire by Jim C. Hines

  Harvest Season by the SF Squeecast

  Bimbo on the Cover by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff

  VELVETEEN VS. THE SEASONS

  Copyright © 2016 Seanan McGuire. All Rights Reserved.

  Cover Art Copyright © 2016 Dylan Meconis

  Without limiting the right under copyright reserved above, no part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written consent from both the authors and copyright holder, except for a reviewer who may want to quote brief passages in review.

  Published by ISFiC Press

  725 Citadel Court

  Des Plaines, Illinois 60016

  www.isficpress.com

  Editor: Bill Roper

  ISFiC Press Logo Design: Todd Cameron Hamilton

  Book Design by Bill Roper / ISFiC Press

  First Edition

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  ISBN: 978-0-9910026-7-2

  e-book ISBN: 978-0-9910026-8-9

  PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

  by McNaughton & Gunn, 960 Woodland Drive, Saline, Michigan 48176-0010

  www.bookprinters.com

  For Rand and Erin.

  It’s a strange four-color love.

  Velveteen vs. Hypothermia

  Velveteen vs. Santa Claus

  Velveteen vs. Global Warming

  Velveteen Presents The Princess vs. Public Relations

  Velveteen vs. The Thaw

  Velveteen vs. Balance

  Velveteen vs. Spring Cleaning

  Velveteen Presents Polychrome vs. The Court of Public Opinion and Not Punching Anyone

  Velveteen vs. The Melancholy of Autumn

  Velveteen vs. A Disturbing Number of Crows

  Velveteen vs. Trick and Treat

  Velveteen Presents Action Dude vs. Doing the Right Thing

  Velveteen vs. The Consequences of Her Actions

  Velveteen vs. Going Home Again

  Velveteen vs. Everything You Ever Wanted

  Velveteen vs. The Retroactive Continuity

  Velveteen Presents Jacqueline Claus vs. The Lost and the Found

  The door that opened in the fabric of reality had no foundation, no wall to hold it in place or justify its existence: it simply was, a twisted thing of knotted paper roses that dripped with black type and red ink. Here and there, someone had crossed out a line of text, and slashes of whiteout ran across the entire thing, marring and warping the words that remained. Anyone who chanced to look through the door would have seen absolutely nothing, a blackness so deep and so complete that it allowed for no thoughts of anything existing, ever again.

  Fortunately for the sanity of that theoretical onlooker, no one was there; no one looked through the door; no one saw.

  The air blowing across the door’s face grew cold, and smelled of blood. The door swung open, hanging in its frame of braided paper brambles like a love letter to the dead. There was a long pause, as if the world held its breath, and then the body of a woman was shoved out of the nothing to collapse to the rapidly dying grass like a sack of so much wet cement. She was brown of skin and hair, too thin, like she had run very far without eating or drinking. The wind seemed, for just a moment, to be trying to carry her away, and succeeded only in ruffling the torn fabric of her uniform. It had been a brown leotard once, before being faded and stained by whatever trials she had been through. A tattered rabbit ear still clung to her headband, stubborn to the last.

  Had our theoretical onlooker been less theory and more fact, they could not have been blamed for mistaking the woman on the grass for a corpse. She did not move as the door swung shut behind her, slamming into its frame with a sound like a thousand mirrors being broken. She did not stir as the wind gathered speed and the door dissolved into so much confetti, blowing away into nothingness. She did not react as the night grew deep and still around her, and the hours slipped by, and the grass beneath her finished dying.

  Velma Martinez—better known by some as “Velveteen,” superheroine to the city of Portland, Oregon, architect of the downfall of The Super Patriots, Inc.—had come home.

  But ah; we are getting ahead of ourselves. That is the difficulty, once holidays become involved. They want everything to be a fairy tale, and nothing to be true. Perhaps this would not hurt so much, except that they remember the meaning of fairy tales, before we sanded off their edges and called them suitable for children.

  The holidays remember how to bleed.

  So much as it hurts, we must leave the body in the grass, alone and unattended, with no one to confirm whether she will live or whether she has already died. For all things must begin at their beginnings, and the beginning of this tale is far, far behind us…

  *

  Three years ago…

  The doorway leading into Winter stood unsupported in the middle of the small green garden belonging to the superheroine known as “the Princess.” Velveteen stood in front of it, studying it for a few precious seconds. It was made of braided candy canes and silver tinsel; through it she could see the rolling, snow-covered hills that formed the vista outside of Santa’s Village, dotted here and there with the proud sentinel spires of evergreen trees. The village itself would be just past that rise, she knew, and there would be hot cocoa waiting for her when she got there. All these things were normal, for a certain, very strange definition of the word.

  But once she stepped through the door, she wouldn’t be able to come back. Not for a while: maybe not ever. The holidays would do whatever they felt they had to in order to convince her to stay, and while Velveteen trusted Santa to keep his word, she wasn’t so sure about the others. These breaths might be the last ones she ever took as a free woman.

  She had promised. She had taken the gifts that the holidays were willing to offer her, and she had always known that they weren’t free; she’d always known that she would have to pay for them, in the end.

  Velveteen took a deep breath, resisted the urge to cross herself, and stepped through the doorway into Winter.

  *

  The Seasonal Lands have always existed. They may even, some suggest, predate humanity: after all, the sun moved even before there were humans to watch it go. Water froze, leaves fell, flowers bloomed, and fruit ripened on the vine. Adding people to the mix only meant that those things were observed, remarked upon, and—in time—turned into myths and legend. Perhaps it was not always Persephone who brought the spring; her name and face may well have been human inventions, meant to explain the seemingly unexplainable. But the spring always happened, all the same.

  Even those who theorize about the history and origins of the Seasonal Lands agree that humans have shaped the holidays. For proof, we need look no further than Santa Claus himself, that jolly old soul with his white beard and twinkling eyes, a true credit to the marketing genius who first designed him. He had l
ooked very different, in the past, and might yet look different in the future. The power he had was rooted in the strength of the season, but it was shaped by the belief of the humans he so willingly served. The Snow Queen, who drew more purely upon the cold and dark of the natural world, was both less protean and less powerful. She remained her own self, unchanged by what people thought of her, and the price she paid was a narrowing of focus, a reduction of potential. She would never shake the world into winter, but neither would she be bound to come when children called her name.

  All the holidays are like that, crewed by spirits both human and not, both bound to their personifications and struggling to be free of them. The Spirits of the Season are individuals, as mercurial and mulish as any superhero, and sometimes, historically, they have chosen to step down from their posts, turn away from their duties, and move on with their lives. Because of this, the Seasonal Lands have been known to recruit replacements from the human world, claiming people who are in some way connected to the holidays and keeping them in reserve against the time when a new Spirit must be formed.

  No one knows quite how Spirits of the Season are made. Only that the people claimed by the Seasonal Lands very rarely make it home, and that when they do, they are never the same again.

  *

  Normally, stepping into Winter was like coming home. Normally, the snow was warm and smelled like peppermint, and the transition would convert any visitor’s clothing into something more appropriate for both the weather and the local theme. Not this time. Velveteen stepped through the doorway and into a snowdrift that reached all the way to her thighs, instantly chilling her to the bone. She shrieked with shock and indignation, and shrieked again as a cascade of snow fell on her from above.

  “WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK!” she yelled. The snow did not respond. Frustrated and freezing, Velveteen forced her legs—which were growing rapidly numb, conjuring worrisome thoughts of frostbite—to turn the rest of her around, intending to dive right back through the doorway and into the safe green warmth of the Princess’s garden.

  The doorway, naturally, was gone.

  Velveteen stared at the place where it had been for almost a full minute, too cold to make herself react at a reasonable pace. Finally, she opened her rapidly bluing lips and uttered the only words she could think of that would suit the situation: “Oh, you have got to be kidding me.”

  As the doorway did not reappear, she was forced to admit that it was not, in fact, kidding her. She was alone in the middle of what felt like a blizzard. No one from Winter was appearing to get her out of the snow before she froze to death. And she could no longer feel her toes.

  “I hate you all,” Velveteen muttered, and began slogging forward, first toward and then past the place where the doorway had been (and now wasn’t). Every step sent more snow cascading down the front of her costume, and the cold was continuing to creep up her legs, turning them more and more unresponsive. She wasn’t dressed for this sort of weather. No one was dressed for this sort of weather, except for maybe bears.

  Velveteen put her head down, raising one arm to shield her eyes against the cold, and slogged on.

  *

  “This isn’t fair,” protested Jackie, her eyes remaining glued on the surface of her mother’s magic mirror. The image of Velveteen fighting through the snow was crystal clear, and made Jackie’s heart hurt more than any blade of ice ever could. “No one told her. No one warned her.”

  “No one warned me either,” said the Snow Queen calmly. She moved her hand, and a flurry of snowflakes fell across the mirror’s face, matched by a sudden gust of wind in the image that blew more snow into Velveteen’s face. The heroine staggered, nearly fell, and soldiered on. “I had to find my way to the Aurora on my own, with none to aid me. So did your father. So did the Snow Queen before me, and the Jack Frost before him. We have raised you to be too soft, my daughter. You do not understand the price of staying cold.”

  “She’s not coming here to become the Snow Queen,” objected Jackie. “She doesn’t have the right powers. She’s here to be an elf for Santa.” And maybe Santa herself, in another hundred years or so, when the myth changed faces again and the gentle soul who currently held its mantle in his broad, generous hands was allowed the opportunity to rest. Or maybe she would be an addition to the myth, a permanent helper, as Krampus and Black Peter were, only kinder and less inclined to harm. All of Winter was open to her…assuming she could make it to safety before she froze.

  “The season chooses the trials,” said the Snow Queen. There was no mercy in her tone. Maybe there never had been; maybe the times Jackie had imagined it there were just that, imaginary, the wistful dreams of a little girl who only ever wanted her mother to love her. “You should never have become her friend, Jacqueline. I tried to warn you. You did not listen. Consider this, then, your punishment: because you could not keep your heart from thawing for this girl, you get to suffer as you watch her freeze.”

  Jackie—who knew full well that her friendship had been the honey trap that lured Velveteen into trusting Christmas, and by extension, trusting all the holidays, and the seasons that housed them—said nothing. She just turned her eyes to the mirror, and prayed silently to the Northern Lights that Velveteen would make it through the storm.

  *

  Walking was the only thing keeping Velveteen from freezing to death, and she wasn’t sure how much longer she’d be able to do it. “This is fu-fu-fu—” she stammered, before giving it up as a waste of breath. She was too cold to form a coherent sentence, and for the first time, dimly, she realized that she could very well die out here if she didn’t do something about it. Part of her wanted to object to the idea; after all, the holidays had been trying to recruit her for years. Surely they wouldn’t kill her now, not when she was finally within their grasp. But the bulk of her knew better, knew that the Spirits of the Season might look human—might even have been human, once upon a time—but that they weren’t human anymore, not even Jackie, who came closer than any of her compatriots. They were perfectly capable of leaving her to freeze to death, and while they might mourn, they wouldn’t be sorry.

  Well. Jackie might be sorry. Jackie probably would be sorry, because she’d spent too much time people who were still mostly human, and she’d caught compassion from them like it was some sort of disease. Jackie would probably cry and hug the Princess and apologize to Velveteen’s corpse. As Velveteen would still be dead, she really didn’t think this was much of a consolation.

  Velveteen stopped walking, and started filling her arms with snow.

  Growing up in California hadn’t really taught her much about dealing with winter weather, but being friends with Jackie Frost had meant more than her fair share of trips to Santa’s Village, where building snowmen was considered an excellent way to pass the time. The snow there was warm, true, and she’d always had people to help her, but the principle seemed like it would remain the same. Velveteen rolled, stacked, sculpted, and shoved at the snow until she had managed to construct the rough outline of a man. He was on his back, not standing up like snowmen generally were, but she needed him to have arms and legs, and those were things that she wasn’t really equipped to construct on a free-standing snow homunculus. His face was set in a permanent scowl.

  “Please work,” she whispered, and leaned down, and touched the snowman’s forehead with shaking, frozen fingers.

  The snowman opened his eyes.

  He stood up like an avalanche happening in reverse, shedding snow in all directions as his outline winnowed itself down to the hard, clean shape that she had intended. Velveteen collapsed, and the snowman was there to catch her, sweeping her into his strong, frozen arms. He was cold. Of course he was cold, snow is always cold. Velveteen didn’t care.

  “Take me to where it’s warm, Frosty,” she slurred, pressing her face into the snow of his chest. Her cheeks and lips were already numb. It wasn’t like he could do her any more harm.

  The snowman nodded silently, and the las
t thing she knew before the cold claimed her was the sensation of being carried through the white and drifted snow, over the river, and through the woods.

  *

  Velveteen woke on the floor of an icy cavern, curled up next to a blazing fire. Everything hurt. She sat up slowly, wiping the snowmelt from her eyes, and blinked at the flames, which were dancing in a fireplace made entirely of ice, but which showed no signs of melting. The ice was filled with colors, blue and green and dancing gold, like someone had snatched the Northern Lights down from the sky and frozen them solid. She stared at them for a moment, trying to figure out what they could mean, before she twisted and looked around herself.

  The snowman—snow golem, really, considering how he’d been made—was standing against the cavern’s far wall, well out of reach of the fire’s warmth. The fireplace was the only thing that looked manmade; everything else was blue glacial ice and hard gray stone, created by erosion and time, and not by any craftsman’s hand. There was no furniture, and outside the cavern’s narrow entrance, she could see the blizzard raging on. She was trapped.

  “Oh, isn’t this dandy,” muttered Velveteen, staggering shakily to her feet. Her legs were still numb, but she could feel them, and they responded when she asked them to; there didn’t seem to have been any nerve damage. “I get to skip freezing in favor of starving to death. Lucky fucking me. Why did I think Winter was the nice season again?”

  The snowman didn’t answer her. He just kept watching her reproachfully, like it was somehow her fault that he was now trapped in pseudo-human form and standing within spitting distance of a fire, rather than enjoying a thoughtless existence as part of a snow bank. Well, technically it was her fault, since she was the one who’d made him, but that didn’t make it appropriate for him to blame her. It wasn’t like she’d volunteered to be dropped into the middle of a blizzard.

  A blizzard…“Yo, Jackie!” Velveteen braced her hands on her hips and scowled up at the distant, frozen ceiling. “You’re magic mirroring me right now, aren’t you? I know you, you little voyeur. Tell your mom to stop trying to kill me! I didn’t sign up for this!”

 
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