Valanice and Jack stepped within the open courtyard of Daventry. Jack was scanning his surroundings with considerable interest, and Valanice realized that since he had only seen the castle in his “magic stories” (as Valanice had silently named them, in spite of his assertions that they weren’t magic), he would probably be savoring every tiny detail before he would have to return to his own time.

But would he be able to return? Valanice had no idea how he had arrived in Daventry, nor any idea how he would return to wherever and whenever her came from. She hoped that he would somehow find a way back.

They finally stepped within the castle and closed the heavy oak doors behind them. Jack jumped slightly at the sudden booming, but quickly regained his composure and continued walking with Valanice across the crimson carpet, deeper into the vastness of Castle Daventry.

When they finally reached the twin thrones, Valanice noted that there was a man seated in the right throne. She immediately recognized him as her husband, King Graham of Daventry, her devoted soul mate for the last eighteen years of her life. Graham raised his head and shook it in bafflement at the strange animal at his wife’s side. His eyes had met with those of the most bizarre of creatures, leprechauns, gnomes, rocs and even mermaids, but Jack was one beast that he had never before imagined.

“What – Who is that, Valanice?” he stammered, trying to remain calm in spite of his wide eyes and slack jaw.

“I found him near the gardens,” explained Valanice. “His name is Jack. He’s apparently visiting our time from a time in the future.”

“I couldn’t have said it better,” said Jack, smiling contentedly. “And King Graham,” he continued, bowing exuberantly, “I am honored to be in your mighty kingdom of Daventry. It has to be the coolest place I ever – oops!”

Jack had began flickering again, like he had within the gardens. Graham bore the same look of shock that his wife had when she saw it happen. And again, Jack quickly muttered something in what the king and queen presumed was an ancient dialect, and gradually faded back into view.

“I’m sorry, your majesty,” Jack said. “Whenever I speak in the voice of my time, I start fading and my head starts throbbing. I have to speak something in the old tongue if I don’t want to disappear.”

“It’s a long story,” said Valanice.

“But I think I have the time,” said Jack. “Shall we go someplace less formal than here?”

“If you say so,” said Graham. He rose from his gold and velvet throne and beckoned at Jack and Valanice. They followed him through the large door to the left of the two thrones and into the gargantuan dining hall. Graham and his wife sat down on two wooden chairs near one of the ends of the table, while Jack took slightly longer. The solid backs of the chairs made it difficult to settle on with his tail constantly getting in the way. After several minutes of his frustrated attempts, Graham began snickering slightly, and, in spite of herself, so did Valanice.

“Is that – is that a real tail you have there, Jack?” asked Graham, trying not to laugh.

“Why else would I be having all this trouble?” snapped Jack, though not without irritation in his voice. He finally found the only position that was compatible with his anatomy. He straddled the chair sideways, facing the royal couple with his tail dangling down on the side that wasn’t facing them.

“That’s better,” he sighed. “Now, what do you want to know about me, King Graham of Daventry?”

“I don’t really know where to begin,” confessed Graham, shrugging.

“I know most of what there is to know about Jack,” volunteered Valanice. “He comes from a time far into the future, where our family’s adventures have actually become stories that the readers themselves control. Doesn’t that sound amazing?”

“It sounds like magic,” said Graham in bewilderment.

“And believe it or not, it isn’t,” said Jack. “But to add to the irony, technology is what made those stories possible, and I know how the people of Daventry dislike technology, no matter how convenient it makes life.”

“Oh, but technology is fine to some extent,” said Valanice. “As long as it benefits humankind, there’s no real harm in it, right Graham?”

Valanice,” said Graham in astonishment, “I had no idea you thought about it that way. Have I been married to you all this time without knowing that you supported the idea of technology as a benevolent thing?”

“I haven’t thought about it that way for that long – “ Valanice explained, “That is…not until a few minutes ago, when Jack told me how he was able to arrive here. I think technology is worth looking into if it can bring such fascinating – pardon me for saying it – creatures to this world.”

“Thank you, Valanice,” Jack said, “And you may be right. Perhaps what we call technology is really magic after all.”

Graham, Valanice and Jack talked for almost an hour in the vast dining hall, during which they ate several slices of bread brought to them by a servant, who looked at Jack only once and never did again, as if fearing that someone granted permission to dine with the king and queen was just as high in rank as them, and wasn’t to be stared at, no matter how bizarre in appearance he was.

Valanice was surprised at the way Jack ate the bread. He didn’t rip off pieces of it and swallow it whole, the way the queen had seen all of the local stray cats eat, but he nibbled at it just like a human, chewing it thoroughly (almost too much, Valanice thought). He politely asked for another slice when he was finished with his first and ate it in the same way, and Valanice could not help watching him as he chewed. As human as his manners were, Valanice still glimpsed the sharp canines of a predator whenever he opened his mouth. The idea of such a strange animal within the castle walls was frightening to her, but she felt that she knew him well enough to trust him, and Graham seemed to share her thoughts.

Just as they were finishing their meal and the sun had set, one of the servants, Roland, ran into the room, requesting that Graham and Valanice attend an impromptu meeting that had just popped up. The king and the queen, feeling the urgency of Roland’s words, rose from the table and left for the throne room, completely forgetting about Jack, who was still seated “sidesaddle” on his chair.

The meeting turned out to be a very brief one, and while Graham was speaking with one of the messengers, Valanice suddenly remembered Jack and quietly excused herself from the room and ventured back to the dining hall to see if her friend was still there. He wasn’t. The chair he had been sitting in was still out, and so was the bread he had been eating. At first, Valanice was going to tell Graham that Jack had vanished, but something caught her attention. Something had been etched into the dark exterior of the thick bread slice. Valanice drew closer to it and realized it was an arrow. It had been scratched into the upright piece, pointing…

Valanice paused to remember her orientation. The sun was shining through the windows across the table an hour ago, so that would make that wall west, she decided. And the arrow is pointing to that corner, so it must be pointing southwest. Jack must have shown me where he was going. But how far southwest did he go? Did he go back to the gardens? Into the dark forest? Out of the kingdom? I guess there’s only one way to find out, Valanice thought.

She left the dining room, walked through the large main hall, out through the giant double doors and into the misty twilight. The stars were just coming into being in the gentle night, and the trees resembled dark monsters in the moonless landscape. Valanice strained to remember which direction was southwest, and when she pointed herself in the right direction, began walking along, listening for any sound that would alert her to Jack’s presence.

For a while, she heard nothing but her own footfalls, but as she was walking under a massive oak…

“Valanice! How splendid to see you again!”

She looked up and saw two glowing eyes peering down at her from a branch. In the semidarkness, she could also make out a tail dangling over the same branch.

“Jack!” she whispered. “What are you doing up there?”

“Trying to make myself as comfortable as I can so I can sleep,” Jack said, “But I can always talk to you, highness.”

As he spoke, he clamped onto the branch with his hands and swung downwards, nearly colliding with Valanice, who stepped aside just as Jack planted his feet on the soft grass.

“You found my marker, I presume?” he asked.

“Yes, of course,” said Valanice. “How did you make such a clean mark on that bread anyway?”

Jack raised one hand so that Valanice could see it silhouetted against the stars. As she looked at it, a shining, sharp thing slid out of each of the long, furred fingers. Valanice stepped backwards in shock. Jack looked at his hand and smirked.

“Don’t worry, Valanice. All cats have claws. We just don’t like to show them to people often.” He slid his claws back into his fingers and flexed them calmly.

“I see. Do you have any other…cat attributes, Jack?”

“Not really. I have teeth, claws and agility. That’s all we’re really made of.”

“Agility?” Valanice queried. “What kind of agility?”

“Oh, many kinds,” said Jack, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “For example…”

Jack suddenly leapt forward, and before Valanice could dodge him, he had removed the earring from her left ear as quickly as if he were plucking a cherry from a stem. Then, using his one free hand and two feet, the cat shimmied up the large oak tree they were standing beside and was quickly lost in the highest branches.

“Why you little imp!” Valanice cried in more surprise than anger. “Give that back, Jack!”

“Come up here if you want it, Valanice!” Jack yelled. Valanice hesitated for a minute. Why would a queen such as her attempt such an immature thing? Rosella had never dared her in such a way…well, perhaps once or twice, but still…

“I still have your earring, Valanice!” taunted the cat from high in the tree. The queen suddenly forgot her maturity and dignity. That earring was hers, and this stranger had no right to take it. If he wouldn’t give it back to her, she would get it herself.

Valanice tried to get a foothold in the thick bark of the tree, but her slim shoes wouldn’t permit such an action. Finally, after several frustrated seconds, she kicked off her shoes and wrapped her arms as far around the trunk as she could and began climbing up.

“That’s very graceful, Valanice!” laughed Jack, “But by the time you get up here, I shall be in the next tree!”

“No you won’t!” snapped Valanice, slipping several inches back down the trunk as she shook her fist at Jack. She continued climbing up, not thinking what state her dress would be in by the time she got to the top of the tree. But Jack’s words were true. By the time she had gotten her first hand on the lowest branch, she glanced to the left just in time to see Jack leap into the crown of one of the neighboring oaks. Still, she heaved herself up into a flat area of the tree she was in, panting with exhaustion. She hadn’t felt this worn out in years.

But then Jack reappeared, but this time to her right. He had somehow done a complete circle through the branches of the trees and ended up in the tree just to the right of the one the queen was in. He gracefully leaped through the air and landed in a cluster of branches just above Valanice’s head.

“Well done, my queen,” he purred. “Do you think you can climb up here?”

“Of course I can,” said Valanice, grabbing onto a higher branch with one hand and attempting to pull herself up.

“Here, let me help you,” offered Jack.

“Don’t touch me,” snapped Valanice. “I can make it myself.”

After several seconds, she managed to hoist herself up to Jack’s level, where she leaned against an upward-slanting branch, angrily glaring at him and keeping as far from him as possible.

“May I have my earring back?”

“Sure, sure. Here you are,” said Jack sheepishly, handing back the golden earring to the queen. Valanice put it back on her ear, looking at Jack with considerable hostility. After she did, she suddenly realized that she was not sitting on the coarse bark of a tree, but on a soft, thick fabric that covered the space she and Jack were sitting on. Behind Jack was a small bag, bulging with whatever was inside.

“I wondered why you came here with no supplies,” Valanice exclaimed. Is this where you’ve hoarded all your things?”

“Here and in a couple other trees. I have a map,” explained Jack.

“Is that where you’re keeping all our magic stories? In that bag?” she asked, pointing at the sack.

“No no no…don’t touch,” said Jack, blocking Valanice’s hand. “It’s best that you and everyone here should not lay eyes on what I’ve brought here. Who knows how it might affect history.”

“All right,” said Valanice, leaning back against her branch. After several silent seconds of listening to the breeze whispering through the leaves and owls calling from far away, Valanice spoke again.

“You say that you know all of our history up until now.”

“Yes, I do, Valanice.”

“Do you know what will happen to us beyond the present?”

“Indeed I do.”

“Well then,” she said, humoring him, “Will my son survive his quest to the Green Isles?”

“You already know the answer, queen,” Jack said. “Alexander knows where he’s going, just as Rosella knew when she departed for Tamir. Your family was destined for adventure, and also for returning home when you’re through, safe and sound.”

“You’re right, Jack,” pondered Valanice. “But will I ever be forced to go on a quest like my husband and my children?”

“Welllll…” said Jack, leaning back against a limb of the tree and folding his arms behind his head, “I’d better keep my mouth shut about that.”

“Do you know or don’t you know? Or do you just not want to tell me about it?”

“Yes and no, Valanice.”

“Yes and no what?”

“Yes, I know what will happen to you, and no, I ain’t telling you.”

“You are a nasty little creature,” said Valanice irritably. “If you weren’t so courteous the first time we met, I could just push you out of this tree!”

“But,” said Jack, raising a finger, “I would always land…”

“On your feet, yes,” groaned the queen, rolling her eyes.

“You’re smarter than you look, highness,” muttered Jack. “At least, the way you looked on your first journey…”

“Ah-ha! So I am going on a quest after all!”

“Yes, and you will be turned into a creature half deer and half rabbit.”

Valanice screamed with laughter. “Oh, I’m glad I probably won’t remember this,” she yelled, putting a hand to her forehead. “But I think I should be headed back to the castle. Graham will have missed me.”

“Don’t let me stop you,” said Jack. “Shall I help you down, highness?”

“No,” said Valanice, starting to descend from the cluster of branches, still facing the cat. “I can get down myself.”

“Don’t forget your shoes, Valanice,” called Jack from above her.

“Yes, yes,” muttered the queen as she began climbing down the trunk. “I won’t.”

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