“Now just hold on a minute…!” Said Dr. Ransom.

Lord Elphinstone stepped forward. “What Dr. Ransom meant to say is ‘NO.’”

Ngozi Makena Odile leaned back to look at the irate pair. “It’s not like I’m actually going to ask her to do anything. Let me explain the strategy--”

“Nothing except walk into a dangerous situation which, if you were to do it, would get you vaporized,” said Dr. Ransom.

The Captain’s face assumed a set that was the same as an admission of guilt.

“What Dr. Ransom meant to say again is ‘NO.’” The tiger in mirror armor shifted his feet into a dangerous stance.

Sensing that this had the potential for escalating out of control, Diotima walked in front of the man and the tiger, and asked, “Why her? Why not any of us?”

The Pirate Queen of the Night, took a deep sigh, and said, “Because she is the only one among you who has died and come back to life, and raised someone else from the dead. Will you please let me explain?”

That startled the group, though one of the crows (Thyrsis probably) spoke through Jeanette’s own bracelets, “It was just a big alligator, and he wasn’t completely dead.”

“He was a dragon , and yes he was,” the lynx shot back.

“Please?” Said Ngozi.

“These canisters, full of variant space, are not something we can just walk into a market on Suq and hawk by swinging it over our heads. There’s only one place that have heavy enough players to do such a deal--do such a deal and not have three empires descend immediately and take it. It’s a place everyone knows about, but I’ve never been, called The Court of Miracles. And the qualifications for admission are what I’ve just said: that you have died and returned from the dead--and resurrected someone from Death. They have ways of ascertaining this that cannot be fooled.”

She looked around. “I am not making this up.”

The energy levels having gone down, the companions nodded--even Jeanette, who was still too flabbergasted to speak.

“The entrant can have a retinue--most do. And I can say without fear of contradiction that you all are one of the most heterogeneous and exotic retinues they are likely to have seen--especially with a few minor adjustments. All Jeanette will have to do is sit there and look impressive, and act like the retinue is acting on her bidding. It will work, I know it. And we will have something of incredible value to sell, and that lends an air to the proceedings.”

“The only person that can’t be in the retinue is me, because that would blow everything wide open. Do you understand?” The Captain asked, with a bit of tiredness in her voice.

No one said anything, but there was an atmosphere of acquiescence. Neither Silvertyger nor her father were happy about it. Jeanette finally found her voice: “Um--about looking impressive…”

Now Ngozi smiled broadly, “You can leave that to us, little Jeanette.” She got up. “While you are considering among yourselves, we will adjourn to my daughters’ cabin. You are all welcome to join us at any time.” She extended her hand, and Jeanette took it. Diotima Urantia Gearheart followed.

When they entered the cabin, Wynken, Blynken and Nod were bouncing with excitement, and had a dozen drawers and doors open that Jeanette hadn’t even noticed before. Most of them were filled with glistening fabrics and jewelry. On one bunk was a set of colored pots and brushes.

Jeanette had been to a makeover party only once in her life, at a rich schoolmate’s who thought it might be a fun idea to have a nerdy-yet-cute friend in her circle, so this wasn’t altogether new. Indeed, the three black girls were draping necklaces and scarves over themselves as they whirled Jeanette around (she was down to her underwear--her beautiful Avalon underwear--for only a few seconds.), laughing and oohing and aahing. And as one was replacing a scarf, another was brushing her eyelids with color.

While this was going on, Grandmère Hutan came ambling in and parked her long arms and legs next to the lynx. When finally the crew of the Paradox Swan was done, they presented Jeanette to the pair, while holding up a mirror so Jeanette could see herself.

Grandmère and Diotima, allowing for the species difference between orangutan and lynx, made similar faces of disapproval.

“The clothing is good, my dears, ”said Grandmère. “But the face--!”

Jeanette looked in the mirror. I look like a clown, she thought.

“She looks like a ten-year-old drag queen,” added Diotima.

Wynken, Blynken and Nod pouted as one.

“Come here, Jeanette. Bring those pots of paint, you,” commanded the orangutan.

And her two companions went to work.

After cleaning her face with a very expensive-looking scarf, Grandmère started swiping and dabbing. The lynx used her claws to add tiny touches of color, and separate and groom her eyelashes and eyebrows. Diotima then produced a small case which opened with a whirr, made some adjustments, and said “Eyes wide, Jeanette. Wider. Trey not to twitch.” The orangutan was running her very long fingers through Jeanette’s hair, shaping it and making it smell like spices.

In less time than the trio took, they were done, and when the orangutan and lynx turned her for display, Wynken, Blynken and Nod gasped.

“You’re gorgeous,” they said, more or less in unison.

Wynken held up the mirror for her, and she gasped too. It was still her, but the curves of her face where shaded and lit with mystery. Her lips, while not poisonously red, had contours and moist glistenings that had been trivial but were now major. And her eyes…

She turned, but not all the way, towards Diotima. “My eyes are like yours!”

“Just the effect needed, don’t you think?” The lynx said.

Grandmère turned to the crewmembers. “You’ve just never had the experience af working wwith skin Jeanette’s color. It requires a much more subdued touch.” She touched the hair of the three of them in turn.

When the five ushered Jeanette into the Captain’s cabin, Ngozi, Terence, and Lord Elphinstone got to their feet in surprise. It was her father who started to clap, slowly and then faster, then all of them. The crows clacked their beaks.

“Now with a few wardrobe changes--mainly on your part, Doctor--” the Captain said, “I think you will be ready. Given your remarkable work with her eyes, lynx, I think she should carry you as you walk. The others--make sure your immortal orchids are prominent. And I have a suggestion. ”

She extended a hand with shining necklaces with small clips. “I think it would be a nice touch if you each wore your Last Train Out railpasses. There’s an outside chance there will be those familiar with that, and it will be a nice touch. The crows too: they’re adjustable. And Diotima, you will wear Jeanette’s.”

Dr. Ransom stepped forward. “There’s one thing I want to do in preparation for this--escapade. Death mission, take your pick. It means revealing to you one of our aces in the hole, but my daughter’s safety trumps everything else. First: do you have a facsimile of the area where the Court of Miracles is located?”

A 3D picture of a market square floated in the air. “What is that?” Terence pointed.

“It’s called The Well at World’s End. Very ancient, but now a thing to take pictures in front of.” The Captain said.

“It’ll do.” Dr. Ransom took out the packet of chalks. He walked through the cabin. Jeanette stiffened, hoping that he didn’t choose her special cabinet door, but he decided on the back of the main door. He pulled out the black chalk and sketched out a big generous black shape. Then the white chalk and a little tunnel exit in the center. He took the purple chalk and drew a children’s version of a well in the white. He edged the black area in red. He said to the crows, “Thyrsis, Antithyrsis--would you mind doing a little reconnoitering? See that the other end is not in too obvious a place?”

“Sure thing,” Jeanette’s jewelry responded, and Terence drew the Decision Tree in white.

The Captain betrayed no surprise outwardly as the crows vanished into the black spot. About a minute later, they returned. “Perfect,” Thyrsis said. “In a corner, facing a wall.”

Terence reached up and erased the red edge with a cloth. “That turns this into a one-way escape route,” he explained to the captain. “If we have to leave in a real hurry, this will prevent us having to get back to the ship,” he said. “And just FYI--this only works for those of us with the gloves.”

The Captain said nothing.

The Paradox Swan made its approach into Suq--or as Ngozi preferred to call it, the Mall of Orion. Lower orbital space was extremely crowded, and planetside docking seemed completely full.

“Isn’t there some method for checking in?” Senhor Capoeira Capybara asked, standing at the stern with the rest. (The daughters were up in the rigging.)

“You must be joking,” the Captain said.

“You mean we have to keep orbiting until something opens up? What a stupid system!”

“That’s the way it works downtown,” Dr. Ransom said, with a conspiratorial glance at Jeanette.

Eventually a ship pulled out and, with only a small energy beam shot at another ship trying to butt in, they landed. And down the ramp came Jeanette and her entourage.

Even in the bewildering mix of species, Jeanette had to admit with a certain lift to her spirits, that they were a conspicuous group, and she herself not the least part of it. She thought that she could get used to having lynx eyes, if not all the makeup. They walked through the crowded narrow streets, with merchants hawking everything from peaches to one furry character that resembled the Cookie Monster in front of a cone of white powder shouting “Ketamine! Only the finest ketamine! Good for what you think ails you!”

They reached the Well at World’s End, which didn’t seem to be at the end of much of anything, but was a very long distance from the ship if they were being chased.  After looking around they found a dusty worn set of stairs that descended into a blank wall covered with peeling posters. Jeanette walked proudly, carrying Diotima in front of her down the couple of steps--and through the wall.

The thing was, it was just as dusty and misshapen on the other side, but it led into a corridor of dim light.Slowly the crude stone turned into fresco with pillars, and finally opened up to the right.

The Court of Miracles wasn’t huge, but seemed massive and ancient. It was an irregular shape, with about a dozen niches, all filled with a wild variety of creatures. In each of them there was one larger creature with others clustered around her. There was one step in front of her going down to the center, which looked like a half-destroyed floor of faded multi-colored tiles.

She stood forward, and Diotima in her arms said “I am Jeanette Ransom, and I have come here across many worlds. I have died and been reborn, and have raised one from the dead, and I have something of great value to sell. I request admittance.”

They all looked at her, but incuriously, and no one responded. She stepped down onto the single step.

A burning shaft of light transfixed her from above.

You are a liar, little girl, and full of pretense. You do NOT qualify to belong here. The voice was in her head, but also deafening.

The light grew as bright as a burning wire. Agony shot through her, and searing fire.



next chapter