Jeanette kept staring upward until the sky was blue again, and not Jimmy Newman’s face. She brought her hand down: she hadn’t realized that she had waved to him as he expanded into infinity. It was definitely a stupid gesture, but around her, her friends, the Chancellor, the guards, and a few others were staring up at the sky in astonishment. There were men and women standing at balconies and crenellations, and even burning roofs of the city of Broceliande, staring in the same direction. The enemy was gone, their black ships either annihilated or teleported away, and the battle over--but no one thought to cheer.
What ran through Jeanette’s brain was is that me? Am I that?
They walked back indoors to the throne room, and the panels wheeled shut. Once everything was closed, light started to filter through the towering stained glass windows. Outside of the table on which the boy had lain, which was a crushed wreck, very little had been disturbed.
Chancellor Acquin faced them, body erect, and said, “None of you expected anything like this--yet it has everything to do with you.”
None of them said anything: it had been what they all were thinking.
He then said, “I don’t think I have any choice but to have you stay with us until we’ve had the opportunity to learn more.”
That caused them all to shift. Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone was the first to speak, and his tiger’s anger was fearsome. “That is an ill return for our assistance, and a high-handed request.”
Acquin’s face hardened. “You offered your help in our fight, and that fight is far from over. Our king may release you from your offer, but I can’t--and won’t.”
Senhor Capoeira Capybara stepped forward. “It’s quite true that the transformation we all witnessed is wrapped up in the mystery of our sodality--our kind. It’s also true that the essence of our travels is to learn the truth behind what happened to us, and that may be helped by consultation with someone as learned as yourself. But we are not in your debt: you are in ours. We will stay of our own free will, or not at all.”
The Chancellor may not have been used to being dressed down by a big rodent, but he knew when he had been. “I of course can’t force you: you could re-embark on that unguessable railway of yours before I could muster enough force to keep you here--if I could at all. But please understand that this manifestation is beyond all my knowledge, and that my duty is safeguarding the city. I must know more. I must.”
In a bravura move, Capoeira turned and walked toward an arched doorway to the side of the throne, and the others followed without a word. It turned out to be only the landing of a staircase, but it would do for a conference.
Dr. Ransom spoke first. “The thing is, we have been batted around from pillar to past and/or simply on the run since this--adventure--started. Now that we have a major--if bewildering--piece of data and, for the first time, someone with at least some expertise in this whole magic thing, maybe we should further our investigations by staying?”
He looked at his daughter, who was scowling furiously, but obviously unwilling to go up against her father. So he said, “Jeanette, tell us what you think.”
She blurted out, “I don’t trust him! I don’t like the way he looked at my jewelry, I don’t like the way he looked at me, or at any of us!”
Grandmère said, “I agree. He is hungry for this power.”
Capoeira said, “I agree as well. However, , if we do this with our guards up, we may get information about us, our kind, that we could spend ages looking for otherwise. Would we ever be able to trust any magician we met with this knowledge? Anyone?”
Lord Elphinstone said quietly, “I am not of your kind, so I will say only this: that these people are not evil. I do not think they will accede to treachery for expedience’s sake.”
Grandmère said, “That, I think, is also true. If we remember not to be with this Chancellor alone, we may be safer.”
“And then there is the undeniable fact that he is scared shitless of us,” said the capybara.
“I don’t like it, but you guys are right,” Jeanette agreed.
Of course he’s scared shitless of us, Jeanette thought. Right now, I’m scared shitless of us.
The victory celebration in Broceliande was less exuberant than it might have been: no fireworks or dancing, but many tables were set out under the (untouched) trees, and lavish feasts were set out, with bells ringing out from many towers. The companions were given a magnificent building of their own, with luxurious apartments and a tall central hall, where a heavily laden table was set out for them. Chancellor Acquin knew enough not to be in attendance, but well-dressed ladies and gentlemen attended on them, and some sat down and ate with them. They were, all of them, open and pleasant, and ended up lightening the mood. And while many of the dishes were strange to Jeanette, the sweets were sweet, the pastries were flaky, and the meats were tender. (The vegetables were, well, vegetable-y, but no one forced her to eat any.)
In the next day or so, the Chancellor was also not in evidence. He might be hungry, but he knew enough about cooling-off periods to hold off on whatever horrible experiments he was dying to perform. Silvertyger, as might be expected, fell right in with the paladins and was engaging in enthusiastic sword-practice with them. Her father, the orangutan, the capybara, and even the crows were given amiable companions.
Jeanette’s companion was a tall woman with plaited dark hair, no longer a girl but not yet motherly. She introduced herself as Parise d’Avignon, and she came with clothes over her arm and a comb and a brush in her hand.
“I find you to be quite a pretty girl, Mademoiselle Ransom, but you should know that your blouse and your pants are in rather horrifying condition, and I think you misplaced your hairbrush a few adventures ago.” This was all said with a wry humor that Jeanette at first met with hostility--but after she acknowledged to herself that she was meeting everything with hostility, she had to acknowledge that Parise was right. She took the clothes and grudgingly admitted that they were beautiful--and a blouse and pants and not a dress, as every female in the city happened to be wearing.
Instead of allowing the woman to brush her hair, as seemed to be the intent, she grabbed the clothes and the implements, ran into the bathroom (or whatever it was called--no bath and no flush toilet (because really--!)--and slammed the door. She took off her clothes, the jewelry, but not her white gloves, put on the tunic (which hung long on her and was almost a dress) and started to brush her hair. She yelped loudly as she ran into the first tangle.
Parise knocked on the door, and opened it a crack. Her hand held out some white underwear. Jeanette looked for a place to stash her not-so-white underwear, but finally decided to be an aristocrat and let it fall to the floor for the servants to pick up. After a few minutes of that, Parise entered the room, sat her down on the chair and proceeded to expertly decode her hair. When Parise straightened her shoulders to look at the mirror, Jeanette had to admit she looked like an entirely adequate Dungeons and Dragons heroine. (Except for the running shoes, but they weren’t in the mirror.)
She hastily put on her jewelry, and they adjourned to the bedroom. Jeanette was well aware that all this was to put her at ease and to make her feel better towards them--but was also aware that it was unfair to ascribe to this woman the Chancellor’s creepy intentions.
Nonetheless, she came out of her corner aggressively. “So what do women do here in Broceliande? Questing knights I understand, but what do you do. Do you have women knights?”
“Every once in a while we have one or two--but those with those proclivities do not tend to--hm--gravitate here,” Parise said.
“So what do you do? Embroidery?” Jeanette said, pointing at the front of Parise’s dress, which was a spectacular example.
Parise was, apparently, not so easily provoked. “Yes, and we cook and we weave and spin, those that like to--but we also forge weapons, and heal, and speak to the forest. Those that like to do those things.”
She got up and held her hand out to Jeanette. “And then there are some of us who do other things.”
They walked down the hall, up a couple of flights of stairs, and a bit further on, to a hallway with a number of doors. Parise took up a golden key on a slim chain that rested on her hips, and opened the lock. They walked into a small study, with a desk, a quill and an inkwell, a glowing orb for a lamp, and stacks and stacks of books. There was another door, and Parise opened that one.
“And some of us,” she said, “are librarians.”
Beyond the second door were shelves and shelves of books. When they got to the end of them, they turned right, and saw more shelves filled with books. Another turn, and still more.” As Parise guided them back to the study, she said, “Although there are no impressive lines of sight, you will not encounter the end of them. It’s not infinite--which would generate absurdities--but there are more than the human imagination can encompass.”
Jeanette’s hostility had vanished, and in its place was an amazing thrill.
“The problem with this collection is that none of it is in any order--probably it can’t be. So what our task is as librarians is to find the books we think are important, read them, and write reports on them in our personal indices. We can recommend the ones we have found to kings, or wizards, or naturalists historians and jongleurs--but it is a personal selection, and hard to collate with others.”
“It is a moderately useful life, and a good one, Jeanette.”
After that, though she still had the voice inside her head to be careful and not to succumb, she started spending all her time with Parise in the study and the stacks behind, to the point that runners had to come up to tell her that her father or her friends wanted to see her. She showed Parise her tablet with all the books on it, and followed her around in her daily explorations of the stacks.
Once Jeanette asked if there was any dangerous magic in these obviously magical bookstacks, and Parise answered “There’s one I know. Oh yes, there are books of spells that are inadvisable to read aloud, but that’s not the stacks fault. However, if any librarian makes the mistake of picking up her book--that is to say, the book of her--‘she will softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be heard from again,’” she said in an eerie singsong voice.
Late one night, Parise said, very quietly, “You will come to no harm, Jeanette Ransom. We’ll see to that.”
But even later than that one night, Jeanette awoke from sitting on her stool in the study. Parise was slumped on her desk, fast asleep. The door to the stacks was open, and Jeanette did the only thing possible: she went in.
She was determined not to go very far in, because she wasn’t that stupid. What she wanted to do was look at some of the books Parise passed by on their excursions that looked intriguing: The Dragon At The End Of The Sky, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, What To Be Sure To See When You Get To Heaven, to start with. She pulled them out and sat down in the dim hallway and started to read.
When she raised her head, she had no idea how long it had been, but it had been too long. She got up--and the cases looked unfamiliar. She ran in the direction of the study, and came to a turn in the stacks. She turned around and ran the other way--and came upon another corner.
She shouted for help--and the books deadened the sound.