They had all hoped that the portal would open out onto some inconspicuous corner in Storisende, but such was not their luck. Instead, the portal opened in the center of an immense and probably decorative stone slab facing the top of a long freestanding staircase in an open space in full view of hundreds of people of varying species.
The Queen of Hearts responded by placing herself in front of the others and giving her cloak a dramatic swirl. A small gesture brought Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone to join her at the front, with the rest walking meekly behind. A last adjustment was the clambering up of the mechanical lynx to the Queen’s shoulder, while the white bunny found a more aesthetically appropriate place in Jeanette’s arms.
Storisende, at least here, was as sleek and modern and magnificent as Radiant City had been, and though there were far more species walking around, they all seemed neatly and richly dressed. “The key to all of this is what we do when we reach the bottom, and there doesn’t seem to be obvious choices.” Senhor Capoeira Capybara said. Jeanette saw that he was right: finding a stairway and walking down it was something anyone could figure out, but if they stood at the bottom bewildered and unsure, too much of the wrong kind of attention would be paid. And there had been enough people who stopped to watch them go all the way down that there was no ducking out of it.
A dozen stratagems were picked up and thrown away as they descended. Jeanette could sense one of the group moving just a little bit forward, only to retreat again.
Then the rabbit started to struggle in her arms. They were near the bottom of the stairs when he jumped out of her grasp and ran off into the crowd to the right. “BARNABY!” She shouted. “BARNABY BARTLEBY RUDGE!” And she took off at speed after him.
As she struggled to keep him in view, Jeanette realized that it was perfect: The Queen and the Tiger would pause, irritation clouding their magnificent brows and, abandoning their very important plans to go after a little girl and her bunny rabbit, would stalk off majestically after her.
Even better: she turned aa corner in a far less sleek and open area of Storisende, to see a handsome young man--a very handsome young man in a uniform--bend down and scoop up Barnaby. “There now, what’s a cute little fellow like you running around loose?” Just in time for Jeanette to run up breathlessly, do a hasty curtsy, and say, “I’m terribly sorry, sir, but Barnaby Bartleby Rudge can be a very bad bunny rabbit at times, and I thank you an awful lot for catching him.” He handed Branaby to her, who was quiet now, his mission accomplished. “Her Majesty will be very upset with me for letting him escape again, you naughty rabbit.”
That got his attention, and in a good way, “Her majesty?”
She said, “Yes. Barnaby is her favorite, and she lets me tend to him when we’re on trips. Only this time she’ll be very cross and she might not let me come any more…”
He crooked his index finger under her chin and said in a silky voice, “You seem like a very good girl--”
“Jeanette, and I’m sure she’ll forgive you.” In a slightly different tone, though still nice, he said, “You must be a very smart girl to speak Yndos so well. It’s a difficult language to learn.”
She did another rapid curtsy. “Thank you. They all say I’m smart.”
And that was enough time for the Queen of Hearts to show up.
Jeanette hard heard her father use the phrase “fall for her like a ton of bricks,” but seeing the young man, she knew for the first time what it meant. He fell to one knee, bent his head, and said “Your Majesty.”
Jeanette perked up and said, “Your Majesty, he helped me--he caught Barnaby when I couldn’t, and is a very nice man and--he speaks Yndos!”
“Indeed. How advantageous! Arise, sir…”
“Octavian. Lieutenant Quintus Octavian, attached to the Ecbatenophore Trade Mission to Storisende.”
“Better and Better. The combination of Jeanette and Barnaby can be a handful, and I hope you weren’t too put out by their misbehavior.”
“How may I be of service to Your Majesty?”
“We had something of a turbulent transit to Storisende, and before we go further, I would like to have some refreshment. If you could recommend a place that would not be startled by my, er, entourage?”
“I know of several commendable places, your majesty!”
“Excellent. Would you be so good as to be our guest, Lieutenant Octavian?”
“I can think of no greater honor.”
As they walked down the street, Jeanette, holding Barnaby, fell back to walk between her father and Senhor Capoeira Capybara. The latter said, “I hope you appreciated the opportunity, my dear, to watch an absolute master at work.”
Jeanette nodded. “Like a ton of bricks.”
“Like a ton of bricks,” her father echoed.
Over an excellent meal, they found out about the world of Ecbatenophore, the Yndos language, and a great deal of working knowledge of Storisende. They also acquired Lieutenant Quintus Octavian. Yndos was a minority language on Ecbatenophore--a nomadic group spread out over a dozen or so planets, and respected on none of them, so Octavian (not an Yndos name) was especially ambitious to prove his excellence. It did remain to come up with a commercial matter somehow connected to the Yndos, but that would come.
“In the mean time, we’re being conspicuous enough to let a certain powerful entity know that the attempt to kill me has failed,” the Queen said to the rest while the lieutenant was out of earshot.
“We have to be ready for a powerful attack,” said O Tse.
“I worry about our young lieutenant,” said the Queen.
They managed, for Octavian’s benefit, a retroactive lease on a magnificent hospital (as it was called here) and after settling down with elegant familiarity in it, sent him back to his trade delegation.
Having made their preparations, the companions sat together at the dining room table, and waited.
They did not have to wait long.