“I’m your daughter!” Jeanette cried out.
Terence Ransom looked at her, not crazy or in a trance, and said calmly, “II had a daughter but she died.”
Jeanette Ransom fainted.
Magister Tanbark Cyrrh came between the two of them, and called, “Bring Meleagant back. This is some of his doing.”
King Oberon got up from his pallet, adjusted his frock coat, and walked over to Ransom, who was staring with mild puzzlement at the little girl on the palace floor. Two servants hurried up to hold the King’s elbows, and he didn’t chase them away.
“Can you tell me how your daughter died, Dr. Ransom?” He asked mildly.
“She--was eaten by a monster. I tried to save her, but it was no use.” He showed sincere emotion at that statement, but it was a pain long since dealt with.
From one side, guards brought the huge Meleagant, shuffling in leg irons, while Senhor Capybara, Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone, and O Tse hurried to the other.
“What do you see, Senhor?” Oberon asked.
“That--that’s Jeanette! But that’s impossible! She’s dead!”
“Are you insane?” roared the mirror-armored tiger. “She came to the palace with us, just now!” He stooped to pick her up, tiny before his huge paws, but Oberon signaled with a raise of his wrist. “Your pardon, milord, but I think she should stay in place until this is resolved.”
“Let it be soon,” said Lord Elphinstone, rising reluctantly.
Meleagant also stared down at Jeanette. “None of my doing. Seemed sturdy enough, if overly fastidious.”
“Nothing happened on your way to me?” Oberon asked.
“Of course nothing happened! That’s the definition of the place! You really are as dumb as you look.”
Oberon turned back to Jeanette. “That faint is taking longer than usual,” said the tiger.
“We’ll be doing her no favors by having her wake before this is resolved,” answered the king.
Oberon, still supported, made a gesture, and tree branches grew up around Dr. Ransom, which caused him to become partly transparent. Ransom looked at--and through--his own hands with surprise.
“There is a power on the Doctor that is something I’ve never seen before, and of immense magnitude.”
“Well, that explains it! Can I go now? I’ve lost precious time in the dungeon, growing friends with my chains,” sneered Meleagant.
“Hush. You have a nicer apartment than mine,” said Oberon, irritated.
“Focus, ye little twerp,” answered the giant.
Oberon nodded, and turned to Silvertyger. “Where were you last?”
“We came here via chalk from the Night Land. An inadvertent side-trip where we nonetheless picked up a map of some interest.”
“Mm. And before that?”
“A palace by the name of Civitate Rhei, where we met a fish-woman who called herself Change.”
The king stiffened, and shrugged off his attendants. “Really. Change Herself. You have been busy.”
“We tend to be,” said the tiger.”
“And did she do anything to you? Specifically, to Dr. Ransom?”
“She asked us what we wanted most of all, and Dr. Ransom said he wanted his daughter safe.”
“Ah.” He turned to Tanbark Cyrrh. “Do we have any sprigs of the Decision Tree left in our possession?”
It was the deer-man’s turn to stiffen. “Three. Your majesty, is he worth that? Using one would severely weaken Avalon’s defenses.”
“You heard the Earl of Maurya invoke the name of Change. I believe he is, even were he not our friend and a courageous man. Fetch me the smallest branch.”
“There is no other way?” Asked the Magister.
“If I’m correct, Terence and Jeanette’s problem is neither scientific nor magical, but, mm, Boolean. If Change’s gift to the Doctor was to have his daughter safe--and his daughter nonetheless dies before his eyes--which she did, thanks to Meleagant--then, by the power of the gift, she ceases to be his daughter. QED.”
“All these deaths and rebirths have cracked your intellect but good, ye bloody goofball. Boolean! Can I go now?” Said Meleagant.
“There is a crack here that has dire consequences to all we know if it isn’t fixed.”
Tanbark Cyrrh handed him a tiny sliver of wood. Oberon turned to Dr. Ransom, surrounded up to his shoulders and by now almost completely transparent. Oberon closed his eyes and held the sliver between thumb and forefinger, up to his face. Then he looked at Ransom.
“Dr. Terence Ransom,” Oberon intoned, “There is no such thing as Death.”
The sprig caught fire, and burned within a second.
Ransom stood there, opaque and with no branches around him. He looked down and cried out, “Jeanette!” fell to his knees, and cradled her in his arms. Her eyelids flickered.
“So Terence Ransom no longer believes Death is real?” Asked Lord Elphinstone.
“Oh, it’s more than that. It quite literally doesn’t exist for or around him. A major dislocation in reality. It would be completely impossible if it weren’t in one sense or another true.”
Silvertyger lowered his head. “I desired a useful death,” he rumbled.
“Then you will die apart from him.” Oberon said with finality. Silvertyger growled.
“Can I go now?” Meleagant shouted.
“Take him away, Chain him up, since that seems to be what he wants.”
“You COCKSUCKING LITTLE BASTARD!” He bellowed as the guards hauled him away. “After all I’ve done for you!”
King Oberon put a hand each on Terence and Jeanette’s shoulders. “We are going to have a feast, both for our victory in the Wombflash Forest, and for the return of our dear friends. And then you shall sleep in fine beds and have your laundry done. You both need haircuts.”
“I just scared myself thinking how long I’ve been wearing these clothes,” Dr. Ransom smiled.
“We’ve all had a busy time of it.”
In the same room she had had an eon ago, Jeanette sat on the edge of the bed. This would do just fine as home, she thought. Even with Diotima Urantia Gearheart, Ngozi Makena Odile, Wynken, Blynken and Nod all gone. It was a major twinge of sorrow, and another of shame that the first one wasn’t bigger. She knew that would happen, and she hated it. But Oberon could almost certainly make sense of what they’d been through--the new map, and the Pilgrims, and Change, and everything else. There was such a nice sense of allowing herself to be helpless, just for a little while.
So she washed her face and hands, combed her hair with a comb not from her backpack, brushed her embroidered dress, and left for the banquet hall.
She didn’t see the black thing in the mirror follow her with its eyes, or slip into the shadows after her.