“So who’s the cat?”
“His name is Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone.”
“Of course it is. And?”
“He’s Earl of Maurya.”
Terence, still desperately weak, leaning to stay upright, looked at his daughter, one eyebrow raised.
“Do you trust him?”
He made the effort, stood up by himself, and beckoned to the figure in mirror-bright armor, who came over to him.
“A word with you.”
“Certainly,” the tiger rumbled.
“While I am truly grateful for all you’ve done, I would appreciate it of you didn’t call Jeanette ‘daughter.’ She’s mine, and you can’t have her.”
The tiger fell to one knee, brought his head within a foot of the floor, and said, “I apologize and humbly beg pardon. I am in debt for your forgiveness.”
“Just so we’re clear on the subject.”
They were being led by the mantis along a passageway of ubiquitous black stone, since Grandmère Hutan had expressed a strong desire to see the sun--a desire everyone shared. It was indeed strange that an ancient fortress such as this should have absolutely no windows, but that was the way it was. After two or three turns, The mantis stood before a door and gestured, and the thick door before her swung open.
The sun was low in the west (‘sun’ and ‘west’ being terms of convenience) as they stepped onto a parapet high on the fortress wall. There were forests and lakes in the distance, and mountains rising on their left, but the fortress was surrounded be a tangle of railroad tracks, all curling upward at a distance to vanish into the sky like half-woven basket. The air was warm ands fresh, with only a whiff from the firepits below.
“You’ll excuse me for saying this, but this fortress and its works don’t seem to be the work of your, er, kind,” Terence said, all politeness towards his torturer. “How did you come to be here?”
The mantis’s jewelry spoke, “You’re correct in your surmise, Dr. Ransom. If you will look up the mountain to your left, I will tell you the story--briefly, for I know you wish to execute me.”
They saw, a few miles away, something that looked like a pile of colored sticks covered in cobwebs. “This is the ruin of the great ship on which we traveled, that crashed here generations ago. Some scattered pages in her log called her the Moorglade Mover--others the Dawn Treader. It is my personal opinion, however, that these were actually pages in the captain’s personal library. Whatever the name, the ship had been fatally damaged by steering too close to the Edge of Everything, and, while making for this fortress, the name of which has not survived at all, it crashed instead.”
“We were not the remnants of the crew; we were simply the vermin in its hold. But the forces of the Edge made us grow in size and intelligence, and we took possession of this fortress and its works, and made it a going concern.” She bowed her head. “That is the core of it. The sun is going down, and you no doubt wish to be quit of this place, and of me.”
They went back in, and descended the stairs they had come up. At close to ground level, the mantis suggested that the blankets Dr. Ransom had been carrying might have some virtue to make him and Grandmère Hutan more comfortable. “I’ll get them!” Jeanette cried out, and rushed towards the dungeon. She spotted the knapsack almost immediately, and came back with one already draped over one arm.
He put it on Terence and the other one on the orangutan, and the result was immediate, if not miraculous. Dr. Ransom straightened, color coming back to his face, and Grandmère sighed.
They emerged from the fortress to the west and the setting sun (still used for convenience’s sake.) There was a smell Jeanette wrinkled her nose over, but then felt mildly guilty about, since it was from the smoking wreckage of the train they had crashed coming here. She had been feeling awfully hungry, but then she realized that her last meal might have only been early this morning. Nonetheless, her father was probably desperately in need of some food, and the same went for the orangutan. She put it on her mental list.
They started to walk down an empty train platform. The mantis paused for a second in front of her, assuming an odd posture. Jeanette was horrified and disgusted because she thought that the big insect was about to poop on the concrete. But she was startled (and more concerned) to see that on the platform was a glistening green egg. Before she could say anything, Grandmère’s prodigiously long arm shot up, grabbed the egg, and wrapped it in her blanket. She gave a warning look to Jeanette, who took the hint.
A few paces later, the mantis stopped. The sun was brushing the far hills, and all was ochre and brown-black. “When you are done, my ornaments will allow you to commandeer one of our trains to your choice of destinations, but not forever. The Emperor-God is preoccupied, but not completely inattentive, and in a matter of days my status may be revoked.”
“Now I am ready to take the last train out.”
Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone strode up to her, and drew his longsword. “Sister, we are aware of the dread reasons for your actions, and be aware that we are pledged warriors in that same battle. It is a mighty cause. However, you have acted cruelly, employed pain and disfigurement against the helpless, and let neither mercy nor pity slow your course for a moment. Your crimes are ones against Honor, and for those I will now kill you.”
The mantis turned her insect-face to the tiger. “I am ready. It doesn’t matter.”
“OH YES IT DOES!” The tiger snarled. “If you learn nothing else in your misbegotten life, you WILL learn this NOW, that your last minutes may be worth anything at all!”
The mantis’s mouth pieces worked, and worked again, but no sound emerged from the jewelry. Then, a mass of chittering, followed by a small, “I understand.”
As the limb of the sun passed behind the hills, Lord Elphinstone ran her through. The mantis’s wings released and went upward in spasm, a panoply of overlapping colors that made Jeanette gasp. Then, as the insect fell down and forward, all the beautiful scales paled to white.
For a long time no one said anything. The tiger shook the ichor from his sword with a snap and sheathed it. Senhor Capoeira stepped forward, and said in an even voice. “Given her speech patterns, however translated, that phrase of hers, ‘the last train out’--it bespoke a difference in tone. Still, given the setting, it’s an appropriate metaphor.”
Terence said “I’m not so sure about that,”
The capybara said, “Oh?”
“If it’s a metaphor,” and Dr. Ransom pointed, “How do you explain that?”