Jeanette watched as six tall paladins with torn cloaks and armor shattered like panes of glass brought Oberon in to the receiving hall of the palace. He was carefully arrayed on the pallet with a white cloth covering all but his head, and he wasn’t crowned, Though he often went without even a circlet when she had known him. The cloth had had hundreds of jewels of all colors and sizes dumped on him in no pattern. Some of them, she saw, appeared to have melted, and she wondered if they were really ice.
She was standing between her father and Magister Tanbark Cyrrh. Both had their hands on one of her shoulders--and, she noticed with a twinge of irritation, both there, not to comfort her but to keep her from running forward.
The paladins laid the pallet down on a tangle of golden wires, and stepped back, One of the paladins disconcertingly burst into flame, but he was immediately surrounded by red-robed black-haired maidens who brushed the fire off as if it were dust, and cradled him as he was taken away,
The circle around the king was broken by the biggest man she had ever seen in Avalon, with the giant well-defined muscles of a bodybuilder. He had long stringy black hair and clumpy beard. His clothes were ripped and of a brown coarse weave, and it looked like his feet were in shackles, though folds of cloth obscured them.
Tanbark Cyrrh stepped forward and raised a hand tangled in a golden chain. “Meleagant,” the Magister said.
“Aye,” he said in a deep rough voice.
“You have a death to redeem on the part of the King.”
“Oh. And here I thought you were giving me a chance to look at the bastard’s dead face because I’d been so good lately.”
“You could be more tiresome, but it’s hard to see how.” Tanbark Cyrrh said wearily. “Will you bring him back, or will I send a wight clad in your skin to do so. It grows back slowly beneath the roots of the Great Ash.”
“Save your unimaginative threats. I will. You know I require a dead knife and a guide back, if he’s gone so far that you need me.”
The Magister wrapped a big misshapen knife in the gold chain and tossed it to him. Meleagant caught it with a lightning-like gesture.
He grinned. “And for my guide, I choose--”
He snapped his fingers, and suddenly Jeanette was standing right before him.
Terence Ransom cried out, “NO!”
Meleagant snapped his fingers a second time.
Jeanette came to the instant conclusion, plain old human b.o. was worse than most of the unearthly monster death smells she’d experienced. Was it fair that it would follow over into the afterlife?
Meleagant looked down on her, solemn. “Jeanette Ransom. I’ll readily admit I chose you almost exclusively because it would piss that scumbag Tanbark Cyrrh off the most, but I bear you no ill will. An ye don’t panic or lose yer shit, we’ll get through this all right.”
Jeanette really wanted to come up with a cut-him-dead insult, but she couldn’t come up with anything besides “you smell.” She noted sourly that he would probably not be cut dead by it in the least, so she just turned away.
She was disconcerted by the fact that she wasn’t wearing her gloves, her necklace or her bracelets. She did appreciate that she had been left her embroidered dress and not running around in her old Earth undershirt or worse. But that was a bunch of weapons she now didn’t have.
The afterlife seemed to be mostly mist as they headed out. She knew that she had been here once, and that Oberon had rescued her--and that was probably the reason--or at least the other part of the reason she’d been chosen. But she had absolutely no memory of that, so how she could help--guide them back?--was a complete mystery. Still she really liked Oberon, and if she could help bring him back to life, well, she’d do it without question.
“The consummate bastards of the city of Avalon have always been the most self-satisfied bunch ye could dream up with over a barrel of ale and a cord of woodsmoke, and yet they come to me over and again when there’s Death to be cheated. Thing is, they always need to have a reason to be fair to win a scuffle, and that’s how the afterlife gets you, because it’s the lack of referentiality that sops up nobility of purpose like thin gravy. They just dinna understand that the petty joy of bringing the trick off is what does it, so they keep coming back to yours truly. Nobility and courage will have you dissolving into your constituent elements in no time.”
Jeanette could hardly figure out how Meleagant was negotiating this completely uniform mist, but he wasn’t just walking. He took turns and lengthened or shortened his stride without any notable signs or indicators. It made her nervous that she had been referred to as a guide for the return voyage, because there was no way she could duplicate his performance.
He stopped. There was a darkening in the mist ahead of them. “OBERON!” Meleagant bellowed. “Get yer sorry ass over here and don’t stop to wipe, cause it’ll do you no good, ye’ll stink no matter what!”
A figure moved forward into visibility, and Jeanette caught herself. The figure before her was thin and delicate, with enormous iridescent wings twice the size of its body. The eyes were mesmerizingly dark and deep, and its hair a crown of peacock’s feathers.
“Whoo, ye’re not half too far gone, ain’tcha? Hardly worth trying to put you back into bloody flesh and unmentionables, is it?”
“Hello, Meleagant, my dear friend. So sorry to put you out. Hello, Jeanette. This is a lovely surprise!”
The voice reminded her intensely of the music of the Pilgrim’s communications between themselves, this had the pull of one of her favorite songs when she was feeling down. Here was the end of a long journey, rest and return to her favorite things. It almost dispelled a little tinkling bell of alarm going off in a different version of her life, somewhere far away.
Meleagant, in two brutal strokes, cut off Oberon’s streaming wings. The rest of the elegant form seemed to collapse in on itself, and she was once again overpowered by Meleagant’s loathsome b.o.
Part of her understood what was going on, and in that corner her estimate of him went up significantly, but the other part just found him infinitely unpleasant.
“All right, my stuck-up little girl, time to do your fuckin’ job. Hop to it and dinna whimper.”
And he cut loose with an immense fart.
It was impossible to stay in that vicinity, and she set out at a blistering pace, trying to get away from him without giving him the satisfaction of actually running.
And the next thing she knew, the three of them were in the reception hall, and she was at the top of the platform, cradling Oberon’s old head in hers.
Meleagant was standing to one side, and for a moment she saw him taller snd straighter, and his clothes the iridescent color of faerie wings, until he slouched and scowled as his old self.
Oberon turned his head to look at the giant. “Spoiled another one, I see. Sees right through you now.”
“Go fuck yourself,” said Meleagant, as a brace of armored men escorted him away.
Oberon got up, shifting his legs off the platform in a way that almost made him tumble. “Thank you, my dear. Now you’d best go to your father. He’ll be in a state.”
Jeanette turned and ran to him, standing next to Tanbark Cyrrh. “I’m sorry again, dada, but it wasn’t my fault this time.”
Terence Ransom looked at her and said, “Who are you?”