The banquet in the Palace of Avalon outdid Jeanette’s fondest memories. When they had first come here they had been celebrated, but their return was another thing entirely. The food had always been amazing at the palace, but was now presented far more elaborately. Although her father assured her that it wasn’t unearthly, she had never had Baked Alaska before, or even heard of it. (There was a dessert between every course, which sounded eminently proper to her.) And there were numerous performances, but all by the guests: the sword juggling by six of the paladins was breathtaking. None of it seemed to reference the battle specifically--or for that matter, of her helping bring the King back from the dead, which also pleased her.
O Tse was given a special place at the long curved table as a first-time visitor, and was served even before the King, and a lot of toasts were drunk in his honor. She did notice, with both a pang and a nod, that there were two empty chairs near her that were bound with silver-edged ribbon: they had to be for Grandmère Hutan and Diotima Urantis Gearheart. They both had goblets filled with something golden before them, but no place setting. She and Oberon were continually poured drinks from a short thick crystal bottle held by a servant on a big gold plate that Jeanette suspected was something closer to medicine than a treat, since she felt a kind of dullness rise from her that she hadn’t even noticed before, as the celebration went on.
At length the light changed, some guests yawned and left, others (snoring) were carried away by servants, and folding screens were set up. There were a dozen or so Avalonians still there, including a couple who seemed very young.
Jeanette decided to say something that she was itching to say before everything got all ceremonial.
“Your Majesty, I heard them talking about you sacrificing a sliver of the Decision Tree in order to save Dada and me. Well, I’ve seen the Tree. I was there. I know where it is.”
What conversation there was stopped. The King leaned closer to her. “And where is it, Jeanette?”
“Well, when we left the Night Land, we went to a world called Grammar, and found a portal that took us back in time to a world where there were fixed Gateways, and we went through one, and…” she faltered, realizing how she sounded. “...And none of this would help you find it, not in a million years. I’m sorry.”
A fat, white-bearded Avalonian said, “The fact that you stood before the Tree is very important, even if it doesn’t help us replace the sliver.”
She nodded, lowered her head and leaned against her father, “I feel so stupid,” she muttered. Her father put his arm around her.
Oberon said, “I think we would all benefit by an account of your group’s journeys. The fragments of it alone sound--remarkable.” There was a murmur of agreement.
As he had done before, Senhor Capoeira Capybara took it upon himself to tell their story, from the Powhatan Shipyards forward. When he reached the part of the destruction of the Paradox Swan, he faltered and took an extended drink. Oberon said, “Captain Ngozi Makena Odile sounds like an extraordinary individual--and I know the qualities of Diotima Gearheart. It must have been a terrible blow.”
The capybara continued, and a number of things--Jeanette’s ambiguous encounter with the Decision Tree, the Pilgrims, and the Civitate Rhei--caused an almost continual stir. There were things Senhor Capoeira left out--any mention of the Universal Library, and the world of the Red Queen--for the very good reason that she hadn’t talked to him about them. About them yet, she protested to herself defensively but unsuccessfully.
When he was done, Oberon inclined his head towards the capybara. “Think you, Senhor. I’m sure that was both exhausting and unpleasant for you. At this point, I’m not sure what assistance Avalon can offer you beyond rest and a safe haven, but those you shall have for as long as you need them. Do you have questions for me?”
Jeanette, though her eyes were red, asked “Is Queen Parise all right? Did she make it home okay?”
Lord Elphinstone said, “Similarly I will ask after the paladins of Broceliande.”
The King smiled. “I am glad to give you some good news at least. Although Charles Martel and Parise are leading the paladins in a great battle at the edges of Broceliande Forest, I can tell you that they live unvanquished, and that the paladins of your acquaintance are covered in glory--sticky and bad-smelling though that can be. Otherwise I would have them here at this table.”
“My best suggestion is that we take to our beds and resume talk on the morrow. I will then be able to say ”I’m afraid I don’t know” in far more impressive and elegant ways then.”
After she said goodbye to her father at her door, Jeanette, though tired and full--maybe dessert between each course wasn’t such a wonderful idea after all--and though the soft warm bed looked as inviting as it ever could, she wondered whether she would rather sit up and read. She hadn’t had a chance to do that in an eon either, and there was still a nervous and unsettled feeling inside her that maybe a good read would cure. The book Master Overend-Watts had given her, On the River to Find Out, might be good to finally open--but maybe one of the books on her tablet.
She was still sitting in a chair next to the bed in her undershirt and panties when there was a knock at the door. She said “Come in!” And grabbed at her dress. All she managed to do was drape it over her lap, which was silly but somehow satisfied her sense of protection.
It was King Oberon, still in his banquet costume but barefoot and the elaborate tied up thing at his throat gone. He was holding something in a cloth.
“I haven’t thanked you personally for bringing me back from the dead or to apologize for Meleagant’s vulgarities, but I didn’t intrude on your privacy to do that,” he said.
He put the wrapped object on the night table, and the cover fell away. It was a particularly elaborate clockwork construction. “Diotima told me before she left with you that if you were ever to return here without her, that I should present you with this at the first opportunity. It was particularly oracular of her, but it is one of her better qualities--and I hope you’ll pardon me for speaking of her in the present tense.”
He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead, “I am very to glad to see you again, Jeanette Ransom. Sleep well.”
When he left, she let her dress slip to the floor (she could do that again!) And picked up the clockwork thing. It was half again as big as her wish-teleporter, and much more complicated. What it did--and of course it had to do something--wasn’t the least bit obvious. But she felt calmer and more secure with it sitting there. She decided to skip the book and go right to bed.
In the dark of the night she was thrown awake. There was a heavy weight on her body. A hot rough hand was over her mouth. Red-yellow eyes opened themselves right in front of hers, and a dark red mouth hinged open, full of hot breath and fangs.