Possible Spoilers/Warnings: None
Summary: In which Edmund and Susan discover that Rabadash manages to be a pain even when he’s an ass.
If You Only Walk Long Enough
"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where-" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"-so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough.” -- Lewis Carroll
Edmund was frequently amazed by how fast news traveled. In Narnia it made sense; she was a little country and a Bird could fly from Cauldron Pool to Cair Paravel in a day if the need was great. Between the swiftness of some Animals and the magic-assisted travel of water and forest spirits, news of import could spread throughout the kingdom in two days, and lesser gossip in three. (Narnians, it must be confessed, often had unusual ideas of ‘import’ and ‘lesser’, but the concept was there.) No, it was other countries that amazed Edmund. He had a vague sense -- perhaps from Back There? -- that it should not be possible for news to travel so swiftly by ship and horse. And yet the moment anything shifted in the delicate balance of the continent’s politics, it seemed everyone not only knew about it but had already instructed their ambassadors on the matter. Lucy, frustrated once at this apparent omniscience, had exclaimed, “It’s like they all have tele-- tele -- oh, you remember, those things from Spare Oom, the ones everyone hated getting.” With which they all had to agree, even if none of them could call to mind the thing’s correct name.
So it was this time. They hadn’t been back at Cair Paravel a full day, and Peter was not yet home from the war with the giants of the north, when the first ambassador strolled casually out of a doorway in which he’d probably been lurking for an hour and intercepted Edmund.
“Your majesty!” he exclaimed in poorly faked surprise. “How fortunate to encounter you here! If I might have just a moment of your time...” And he fell into step with Edmund without invitation. The king’s guards bristled at this, and Feilus the satyr stepped forward to remove him, but Edmund signaled them down. Trying to escape the man would take longer than hearing him out.
For his part, Ambassador Carius was oblivious to the silent exchange (probably willfully; Edmund suspected Carius was a good deal more observant than he let on), continuing blithely, “This matter of the Prince Rabadash, your majesty -- I am sure a man such as yourself can see how rumors might be exaggerated to a, hm, disturbing degree? If your majesty might clear up a few misconceptions, I am sure my king’s mind would be much eased.”
Edmund put on his most careless, charming smile.“Carius, I’ve not been back long enough to have heard all the wild tales yet.” He laughed a little, inviting the ambassador to share the joke. “If you want me to refute things, you’re going to have to tell me what they are.”
“Of course, sire.” Already looking much relieved, Carius unbent so far as to smile. “Well then. Firstly that Prince Rabadash was killed -- to be certain,” he hastened to add, “it is not a common rumor, but, that is --”
Edmund put up a hand to stop any further hedging. “That I can most assuredly and categorically refute,” he said. “Prince Rabadash is alive and in good health, and our cousin King Lune has arranged for his return to Calormen in the comfort befitting his station.” Archen hay was said to be very good, and who would know better than a Horse?
“Naturally. Your majesties could hardly treat him otherwise, being know for your good courtesy and --”
“Carius, you’re rambling,” Edmund broke in patiently. It was an unfortunate tendency of his, but fortunately he was easily recalled to the point.
“Apologies, sire.” Carius visibly gathered his thoughts before plunging on. “That the prince has been stripped of his birthright?”
In his most bland tone, Edmund replied, “I could not venture to say what the Tisroc will do.”
“Ah, yes. Of course. Ah...”
“Was there anything else?”
Startlingly, Carius looked truly uncomfortable, not merely mildly flustered as was his common aspect. “Well, to say truth, your majesty, yes. I hesitate to mention such an... outlandish rumor...”
“There is -- you understand, I give little credence to such tales -- there is a rumor that his highness was... Bluntly, your majesty, they say he was turned into a beast!”
“Oh, that one is true,” Edmund replied cheerfully, and watched Carius’s jaw drop. He could have been more gentle about it, he supposed, but this was more entertaining.
“It - but - sire -” Carius stammered, unable to frame a coherent thought.
“It’s not permanent,” the king assured him. “Well, unless his pride is stronger than his desire to return to human form, anyway. But I’m sure he’ll be back to himself soon, and a better man for it.”
“I... see,” Carius replied weakly. “Will you pardon me, your majesty? I think I must write to my king. He will hardly be expecting that tale in particular to be true.”
“Of course,” Edmund said waving him off. “No doubt the entire tale will soon be circulated by the bards; they were already working out verses before we left Anvard. If you wait a day or two you will have plenty of details for King Marius.”
“I shall consider it, majesty.” Bowing, Carius withdrew, and Edmund considerately hid his smile until the man was out of sight.
“There’ll be plenty more of that,” observed Edmund’s Terrier guard.
“No doubt, friend,” Edmund replied. “Come, then; the queens await.”
* * *
His guard was entirely correct. Carius was not the last envoy to approach him, and his sisters said the same. The transformation of Rabadash had spread far and wide, supported by poets, minstrels, and even playwrights. At the moment these were Narnian versions, which were at least passingly accurate; Edmund dreaded the results when the islands and foreigners inevitably picked up the theme.
So a week after their return to Narnia, three days before Peter was expected back, Edmund found himself cornered by another ambassador. Navain represented the lands south of Carius’s, west of Narnia just north of Cauldron Pool. He was as different from Carius as it was possible to be, as if the two nations’ persistent rivalry extended even to their choice of envoy. Navain was the sort who would fight you tooth and nail on some point and drink with you afterwards, whoever won. Edmund rather liked him, though he only admitted it to himself during the drinking part.
“King Edmund, if I may be frank,” Navain was saying.
“Please,” Edmund invited. “I find I much prefer good northern plain speaking, of late.”
Navain smiled slightly. “I can well imagine, sire. Plainly, then: my king is concerned by this assault on Calormene sovereignty. Despite its strangeness, Narnia’s dealings with us have always been honorable; we have no desire to see that alter. But such a blatant attack on --”
“Calormen was the aggressor, not Narnia,” Edmund broke in coldly. “Unless you feel we should merely have surrendered our person and that of our sister the queen Susan? Or perhaps forfeited the fortress of Anvard, and asked our royal cousin Lune to abandon his throne?”
“No, of course not, sire.” Navain raised his hand placatingly. “No one could argue that Calormen was the aggressor at Anvard, no matter that the Tisroc disclaims all knowledge.”
"In confidence, Navain," said Edmund, who knew nothing spread so fast as a secret, "he knew and approved, but planned to be able to deny it. A very brave young lady heard him and the prince plotting."
He could see Navain filing that tidbit way for later dissemination, just as he'd hoped. "Truly, sire? Then you will be pressing the matter against him?"
"Alas, no," Edmund sighed. "Of course we accept our fellow sovereign's word on the matter, whatever suspicions may have been raised by one less exalted. To do otherwise would be unaccountably discourteous. And if the Prince Rabadash was solely responsible for the assault on our dignity, we must be content in the loss of his."
"To that end, majesty," Navain began cautiously, wary of provoking another display of royal temper. "Any actions taken in battle were of course self-defense. But as I hear the tale, Prince Rabadash was your majesties' prisoner within the citadel when his transformation was enacted."
"That is so," Edmund acknowledged, waiting for the rest. It was harder to contain his temper than it should have been, harder than it had been in many years, a disturbing shift. He schooled himself to patience and braced himself for Navain's next words.
"It was then incumbent in your majesties to regard his highness as his rank should attest. To work magic against his person -- to strip him of his very shape, a blatant insult to Calormen and the Tisroc his father, and lock him into a depraved--"
"Have a care, ambassador," warned Edmund, teeth grinding against a sharper remark. "We should not like to think you were insulting any of our good subjects."
"I apologize, your majesty, if I have misunderstood," Navain said smoothly. "I was under the impression the prince's temporary form was dumb." It was a neat save, and Edmund acknowledged it with a grave incline of his head. "The point remains, it was a truly exceptional choice for your majesties to make."
"It was not our choice, ambassador. Aslan himself pronounced judgment on Rabadash."
There was a moment of stilted silence. Edmund could read the thought behind Navain's frozen expression clear as text on a page: gods are what kings invoke to sanction their own deeds. He did not say this, of course. When he spoke, voice and face both were smooth as glass, with no trace of skepticism. "As you say, your majesty."
The silence returned, a little lighter but still tense. This time Edmund broke it, saying idly, "Men have died for lesser crimes."
"Lesser men, perhaps," Navain returned, matching his tone. He bowed. "I fear I have encroached too much on your majesty's time. With your permission, I will withdraw."
Edmund dismissed him with a wave. Long after the ambassador had departed, he sat thinking, wondering how many other lands believed Narnia arranged for Rabadash to be... strategically removed. He very carefully didn't wonder why he hadn't thought of that before.
* * *
It hurt Peridan to see his queen like that. They’d hardly anchored when the messenger reached then, and King Edmund rushed off to join the preparations Queen Lucy was making. Of course there was no question of leaving the Cair unguarded, but Queen Susan insisted her sister go with the army, as she so clearly wished to do. The elder queen was more comfortable defending than attacking – or, no, perhaps it would be more fair to say she was better at it. All of that family had a gift for strategy, but while the High King was making a name for himself as the greatest general in the Eastern lands before he could shave, Queen Susan’s gift lay in knowing how to extract the most usefulness from every resource at her command. She was competent on the battlefield, but in a siege she was brilliant.
So they left her at the Cair and the last Peridan saw of her as they rode out the gates was of a queen standing in the courtyard ordering the hum of activity surrounding her as supplies were laid ready, defenses manned, and nearby residents called in to safety. It was their return that was shocking.
Of course word had gone back to Cair Paravel the moment the battle ended. From there it would go north to the High King, and Peridan could imagine his frustration as news of their Calormene adventure, and Rabadash’s invasion, and the victory at Anvard all arrived practically atop one another. If the fighting wasn’t already over, it would be soon; King Peter would be wild to get home to his siblings.
With the word gone ahead of the victory and of Aslan’s interference, Peridan didn’t expect to see the Cair still prepared for siege. And as they rode back everything seemed normal; Narnians of all sorts hailed them and some fell in after the party like an impromptu parade. A festival atmosphere prevailed; there would be music and dance before dark. There would undoubtedly be a reception party waiting at the Cair, Queen Susan at its head, ready to sweep them all off to baths for the road-dust and clean clothes for the feast to follow.
But no such party materialized. They were greeted at the Cair by a small swarm of servants, who divested them of packs, armor, and dumb horses, before sweeping them along inside. Everyone surrendered willingly to this, eagerly anticipating the night’s celebrations. As they climbed the stairs the party shrank, people slipping off to their chambers. Peridan’s were on the same floor as the royal wing – a great honor – so he was one of the few to observe Queen Susan’s appearance. She came running out of the royal wing, her hair loose and from the sound of the tiles, her feet bare, and flung herself upon her sister, who was nearest. Queen Lucy was taken aback by this, he thought, for though the siblings were deeply affectionate and not shy of public displays, Queen Susan was not prone to demonstrative impulses. Still, she returned the embrace and King Edmund, rather than wait his turn to greet Queen Susan, simply gathered both sisters into his arm.
He did not think it polite to linger, and quickly turned toward his own rooms, but before he left Peridan heard Queen Susan say, “I was so worried.” He should hardly have imagined it of his indomitable queen, but at that moment he was sure she was crying. Foolishness, of course. A trick echo in the corridor. But he found he could not shake the impression, and it shook him.
* * *
“A donkey?” Peter dropped into a thickly upholstered armchair, hooking an ottoman closer with one foot. “Just like that?”
“Just like that,” Edmund confirmed, pouring them both drinks. “It seemed incredibly funny at the time.” Drinks in hand, he cross the room to join Peter, settling in a matching chair and nabbing space on the ottoman for his own feet. He handed over one glass. “Hope you don’t mind Lightning. I’ve had enough of sweet and spiced stuff.”
“Nothing wrong with good Narnian liquor,” Peter replied easily. “Thought it’s a shame you couldn’t bring back any arasagi.”
Edmund grinned. “The Tisroc gave me three bottles as a welcome gift. They were already in the hold when we — fled.”
Peter, who’d been grinning too as Edmund spoke, abruptly sobered at the last word. He took a gulp of the alcohol, then exhaled hard.
“If you’re going to drink it like that, I should get the bottle.”
“If you’re going to tell me about Calormen, I may need it.” But he rested the glass on his knee.
“You could tell me about the giants instead,” Edmund offered, watching the light play off the liquid as he swirled it.
Peter made a sound which was not quite a laugh and not quite a snort. “They’re big, stupid, cruel, violent, and they smell,” he said shortly. “There’s also a great deal fewer of them now. Your turn.”
Edmund huffed, and took a swig of his own drink. "Well, if you want to make a report of it --"
Peter extended a foot, jostling his legs hard enough that he had to uncross them or let them fall off the ottoman. "Talk, brother."
Resettling himself, he tipped his head back against the chair, gazing at the carved molding running along the ceiling. "It doesn't seem so funny anymore," he said.
There was a moment while Peter cast his mind back along their conversation. "Rabadash?" Edmund made a soft noise of agreement. "It doesn't sound particularly funny, to be honest. I grant you, donkeys are not the most elegant of creatures, but I should not have called them comical."
"Nor I." He sipped, brows drawn together in deep thought. "It seemed the funniest thing I'd seen, when he was changing. Huge ears sprouting, nose lengthening, voice changing --" he shook his head, dragging his gaze back down to his brother. "I can see the humor, I suppose. Were it a fairy tale, I would laugh -- it's just the sort of thing, isn't it? -- but thinking about it now the most I summon is a sort of amusement that he should become what he despised, and even that I should sooner term satisfaction." He hesitated. “I find myself torn.”
“Between?” Peter prompted.
“Vengeance and… not mercy. Compassion, perhaps. He has such a horror of both beasts and humiliation, it might have been kinder to kill him cleanly. And yet, to spend less than a year in a beast’s shape, well-tended all the while? Hardly a punishment for war brought to the very gates of Anvard and the insults against Susan.” He sighed, and knocked a good half of his drink back in one hard swallow. “But it’s not my place to judge.”
"For what it's worth," said Peter, "I agree."
”What, that it's not my place?"
His brother kicked him again. "You are not allowed to sound so cynical until you are a good deal drunker."
Edmund lifted his glass, considering the amount within seriously. "I shall require a refill, then, for I cannot help being cynical."
"I'll get it," Peter said, laughing, and unfolded himself to retrieve the bottle. "It strikes me," he said, splashing more into both their glasses, "that we'll have no end of trouble from this. The Tisroc will be furious--"
"Already is," provided Edmund.
"-- the other nations will be wary --"
"-- and we'll have to deal with a new heir in Calormen." He glanced at his brother expectantly; when no comment was forthcoming, he prompted, "Edmund?"
Edmund ran a finger over the rim of his glass meditatively. "We would probably have had to deal with that regardless. He failed; he'd look weak even if he'd returned as a man. He's got too many brothers left."
"He's managed to survive this long. He might have, if he wasn't executed."
"No fear there," said Edmund. "I should have liked to kill him; I think Lune would have too. But it couldn't be done. Not to a prince."
"Then perhaps the bright side of this is that the Calormenes will do it for us."
Once again there was a thoughtful pause. “The other princes will certainly try.”
“You can’t think he’ll survive it?”
“Perhaps not,” Edmund said. “But were I in his place, I would find it very easy to point the finger at Narnia, to say what happened was an insult to all of Calormen. I would tell the people that Narnia was laughing at them, that she thought them weak and toothless. And I would keep saying it until the army and the populace were so riled up they forgot about my failure — and then I would promise them revenge.”
Peter’s face grew grim at this prospect. Edmund knew his brother could envision what came next; a population stirred to anger was a terrible force indeed. “Aslan forbade him to leave Tashbaan again, though, didn’t he?”
“Well and good,” Edmund said, “then he has an excuse to send anyone plotting against him away to command troops.”
“Damn.” Peter considered his drink for a moment, then drained it and stood, pacing from chair to window and back. “And we can’t call in much of the navy, not unless we want to declare it open season for pirates.”
“I’ve had Birds and seafolk out since we got back,” Edmund said, “but I still can’t get any sort of accurate positioning on forces in the Eastern.”
Peter stared at him, looking anything but kingly. “Edmund, I know I joke that Narnian Intelligence can do the impossible, but counting all the ships in the Eastern is a bit much even for you!”
Edmund shrugged irritably. “We have the resources to do it; it’s just a matter of working out a system. I don’t know why we haven’t done it sooner, in fact. We’ve been wasting a valuable opportunity.”
Peter was still staring, but he looked less like the time Lucy had decided to adopt dryad dress — leaves and all — for a festival and more like the time the Lone Islands declared they weren’t going to pay taxes unless a monarch came to collect them personally. “We haven’t done it before because it exhausts the Birds and oceanids to criss-cross the ocean like that, and it’s not fair to ask it of them when we don’t need to.”
“We do need to!” Edmund snapped. “Have you looked at a map recently, Peter? We’re vulnerable every which way, and the ocean’s the worst! Think how much damage Calormen could do to us without ever touching the mainland! They wouldn’t even need to use force in the Lone Islands, just ask for a rebellion.”
“We’ll deal with that if it happens, Ed.” Peter was now giving him a concerned look, the deep crease between his brows showing as it always did when he was worried. He eyed the glass in Edmund’s hand as if considering taking it away; defiantly, Edmund took another gulp. “Right now there’s no reason to think—”
“Peter! It’s the Islands! You were the one complaining that they were just looking for an excuse!”
“Which they haven’t found yet, so let’s not give them one,” Peter said firmly. “Lion’s mane, I sound like you.” He sat down hard and rubbed a hand over his face. “Ed, what’s wrong? Really?”
“Aside from half the continent howling for our blood, you mean?”
“Your sarcasm really isn’t up to par, little brother. Are you going to tell me, or am I going to have to beat it out of you in the salle?”
“As if you could,” Edmund snorted, finishing off his drink.
“Don’t tempt me.” Peter scowled. “I don’t think I’ve seen you in this sort of temper in ages.” He paused, oddly hesitant, then plunged on, “Was it that bad in Tashbaan?”
“Wasn’t any different than usual,” Edmund said, contemplating his empty glass with studious interest. “Hot, dry, overly formal, thinly disguised contempt for us… Normal.”
“Anvard, then.” But almost at once he shook his head. “No, it can’t have been. That wasn’t much more than a skirmish.” Pursing his lips, he considered the matter while Edmund considered another drink. “It’s either Tashbaan -- and you’re avoiding the subject, don’t think I didn’t notice — or Aslan’s judgment. Which means either way it’s Rabadash.” He sighed, and pulled a leg up, wrapping his arm around his knee. “I’m really starting to hate the man, you know? Susan’s not herself either — what he did to her —”
“I was there,” Edmund pointed out. “I don’t need you to tell me.”
“Then you do the talking. What did he do to you, to get you in this state?”
Edmund shot upright. He hurled his glass at the fireplace, where it shattered nicely. Later he would probably feel bad about that, but right now the motion and the noise suited his mood. “Dammit, Peter, how the hell am I supposed to feel?” he shouted. “He threatened Narnia, threatened all of us, he hurt Susan, and I couldn’t do anything! Not in Tashbaan and not in Anvard!”
“You did what you could —”
“Stood about uselessly? Yes, I suppose I did.”
“Ed,” Peter said patiently, “you couldn’t be useless if you tried.”
Edmund deflated slightly, easing back into his seat and pinching the bridge of his nose to ward off headache. “You couldn’t prove it by this last month.”
Peter tapped a knuckle on the arm of his chair, thinking. “You can control a lot of things, Ed, but people make their own decisions,” he said finally. “Susan made hers, Rabadash made his… Aslan made his. Sometimes there really is nothing you can do but watch.”
“What’s the point,” Edmund complained, without any real heat in his voice, “of being a king if you can’t make things better?”
* * *
After Rabadash Susan felt as though she had been the one changed. She didn’t fit within her own skin any longer, and the familiar rhythms of life in Cair Paravel clashed against whatever internal beat she was keeping. She didn’t know that she had ever felt so out of place before; it was in her nature to fit, either by shaping herself or her surroundings, usually something of both. The worst of it was, she didn’t entirely want to fit – she wanted to hide herself away and to run wild all at once. It should have been an easy desire to fulfill, in Narnia, and if she hadn’t been a queen she might have been able to indulge it. But once again other countries consumed her attention, and she was allowed no respite from petty human concerns. She was so very sick of foreigners.
She could hardly escape them, however. What Aslan had done had loosed woodpeckers in the dryad grove but proper. Not a day passed that Susan wasn’t asked to field some question or concern on the matter for a foreign visitor, and of course the correspondence poured in as well. The others helped but they all had their duties and this was hers. Edmund was trying to take some of it off her shoulders and Lucy was charming anyone who held still long enough, but Susan still spent hours each day dealing with the complaints, questions, and threats. Worse, it was the height of trade season, and all of the puling little cowards to the west were threatening to close their borders to Narnian goods! She expected their merchants to raise a ruckus at that – merchants were eminently more practical than nobles, even if their morals could get somewhat twisted from time to time. Still, it was a pleasure to deal with people whose motives were straightforward for a change. They practiced deception and plot as much as any noble, of course, but one always knew what they wanted as a general category. Unfortunately, no such uproar manifested, except in Navarus where they raised enough fuss that the borders stayed open – but at the cost of tariffs so high it wasn’t worth the trip. Only the Tradelands and, oddly, Telmar, remained open to Narnia. Sea trade was still unhindered, but for how long? She now had Narnian merchants besieging her as well as foreign envoys.
Life in Narnia did not stop for foreign quarrels. High summer was upon them, the best of seasons usually. It meant work, of course, for anyone concerned with feeding and housing Narnians. Summer meant repairs to homes and roads and wharves, inspections of storehouses before the autumn grain harvest, and endless rounds of crops to be gathered in – hay and vegetables of all kinds and one type of fruit after another until the scents of jams being made seemed to seep into the walls of the Cair’s kitchen. In Narnia, though, such work was a joy. Everyone pitched it when extra hands were needed, and in such company it was more game than labor. Susan had climbed trees, barefoot and with her skirts rucked up (Lucy preferred trousers for climbing, but a kilted skirt made such a handy basket) to pick handfuls of cherries gleaming brighter than any ruby, and peaches fuzzed softer than goose down. No time for that this year. Scarcely any time, eve, to inspect the harvests; mostly she received report on their progress. Not that she mistrusted her people, but she had always preferred taking a hand in these matters herself. She’d tried every skill practiced at the Cair at least once – sometimes with horrific results; she was all but banned from the loom-houses – and while she rarely did any of the labor necessary to put up supplies, Susan liked seeing the stores grow week by week with her own eyes. It was deeply satisfying, and comforting as well.
But summer was also the visiting season. The true social season in most courts was winter, when lords were not needed on their own lands for harvest or planting, and the end of harvest began a round of balls, hunts, and banquets that would last all winter. Travel in the winter, though, was no joke. The White Witch could not have found a better way to lock Narnia away without building a dome over the whole country. Even when the season took its proper place and scope, it slowed roads to a crawl, sometimes a standstill, and stopped all but the most urgent sea travel. So guests who came for the winter season, unless they lived nearby, generally stayed the whole season. Summer was the time for visitors who could not afford to be away so long, and the time to invite guests one did not wish to have stay long. It made for a constantly shifting roster of guests, all of whom needed to be welcomed and entertained in fit style. Normally this could have been done in relatively leisurely fashion; guests arrived with plenty of notice, were content to join the court’s amusements (a little grander when important visitors were present, a little more informal when it was mainly friends), and rarely stayed beyond their planned departure. This year, the Cair was inundated. Anyone who might legitimately claim to have been invited came, and no few took advantage of Narnia’s well-deserved reputation for hospitality and turned up completely without invitation. Every schedule Susan drew up dissolved into uselessness, and between meeting with the castle staff to ensure we could host so many, and the hosting itself, she scarcely had time for royal duties. She was sitting up so late into the night, working or entertaining, that her guards and her maids conspired and started chasing off anyone who tried to wake her before the appointed hour for less than impending invasion – which no longer seemed quite the distant prospect it once had.
Rabadash had come far too close to success. Only luck and two children had kept him from claiming Anvard. He would not have been able to hold it; the citadel relied far more on location than construction for its defense, and it would take more than two hundred men trained to cavalry fighting on open ground to hold it against forces who knew both the castle and the mountains. If nothing else, a siege of any length would oust them; Calormene cavalry officers had no notion of supplying a castle. Half of them had no notion of supplying their own forces, preferring to leave the work of command in the hands of servants. But retaking Anvard would have been a difficult and bloody proposition, and if Rabadash had managed to secure Lune’s person, the ransom demanded would have been crippling. The thought of Calormen at their border, with no buffer by the mountains, was enough to make one ill with fright. Too many times in the past, even before the Witch, the only thing preventing all-out war between Narnia and Calormen was the presence of a small, level-headed ally between them, which very much did not wish to be the site of a war. Already, with such a narrow miss, Susan woke in cold sweats from dreams of armies arrayed in the southern meadows. It would take so very little to push them into open war; she was in almost daily contact with Lune, thanks to the Birds, joining forces to soothe the Tisroc’s temper at his heir’s fate by a carefully crafted balance of threats, accusations, apologies, flattery, and hinted promises.
Narnia couldn’t go on like this. Susan couldn’t go on like this, but that was hardly consequential. Any of them would have worked themselves into the ground for Narnia. Her brothers dragged themselves home from wars and slept the day through in vain attempt to recoup weeks of sleepless nights and fighting. If her battles were fought with words and on ballroom floors and parchment, they were no less necessary to Narnia’s security. The trade disruption was the worst of it at the moment. It wasn’t bad yet; Narnia had a century of self-sufficiency to fall back on, and no need now for dryad magic to coax the crops into winter ripening. But an isolated Narnia was a poor Narnia; she had survived the Winter but no more than that. Even where the routes were still open, Narnian goods were getting a cold eye; nothing touched with magic passed, nothing suspected to be touched with magic. Susan reminded herself to tell the dryads not to plan for more winter-harvest than could be consumed locally; no sense wasting their time and energy on fruit that will rot. Even dry-silk, as the western nations call it (poorly named; it was nymphs that made it, not dryads, but most foreigners can’t tell them apart anyway), so highly valued in other courts, and Dwarven metal-work, both the practical and the decorative, were going wanting. The sea traders were loading their ships at killing prices; they were the only ones buying and they knew it. Narnia could take the loss this season, but another year of it would hurt; two will start the treasury bleeding. She made a note to look at ways they might economize, and to consider other sources of revenue – somewhere in her copious free time, oh, Aslan! – but the main thing was to put an end to this silly paranoia.
Susan was grateful for the work even as frustration piled on frustration. The immediate needs kept her from thinking overmuch on what had passed in Calormen. Some days she managed to put it from her mind entirely, but the evenings brought It rushing back. Narnians loved stories, and the only thing better than a new tale was one they knew well enough to join in. Their Calormene misadventure suited both; moreover, it had adventure, battle, humor, and Aslan in it. In short, it was irresistible. Susan couldn’t begrudge them the tale, but she did grow weary of hearing it night after night, and some of the versions making the rounds were less than flattering. She was not proud of her actions in Tashbaan, start to finish, but she was certain she had never broken down weeping helplessly, as one tale had it. She knew well, though, that a story once released took on a life of its own, and no one could claim to control the one true version. So she set herself to endure the retellings with her court smile firmly in place, and counted the worse versions part of her penance for the affair. It might even have faded, in time, except that Peter’s return with half the army provided an influx of new, eager listeners, all of whom wanted the battle described blow-for-blow.
It was this which finally drove her from the hall. Listening to the stirrings of war fought ostensibly in her name was unbearable, and she could not help recalling every name from the casualty lists. Supper sat like lead in her belly, until she had to excuse myself from the ‘over-warm’ hall ‘for some air.’ Thinking she might as well to the thing properly, Susan wandered out to the nearest courtyard. The abundance of these was one of the finer features of Cair Paravel, though it took a small army of gardeners to maintain them all, and the vast grounds. So many Narnians, though, preferred to be outdoors, even those who lived in remarkably human-like dwellings. It was lovely to have outside only a few steps away from anywhere in the castle.
This particular one was more formally arranged than most, being so close to the great hall and so meant as much for impressing guests as for the comfort of the Cair’s residents. Its centerpiece was a round fountain with a statue of Aslan, life-sized (or nearly so; no one could agree how big the Lion was when he was not present) and posed as if leaping. The fountain’s jets sprayed up from around his great paws, and the whole effect was of a splash rising from a puddle. More than one guest had flinched back on first sight, so alive was the carving, and only relaxed when the green stone registered. Susan admitted the green was rather an odd effect, but Narnians had a horror of grey stone, especially for anything life-size, so one quickly became accustomed to sculptures in white, black, pink, green, and every other color of stone imaginable.
She settled on the broad rim of the fountain, leaning back on her hands to look up at the red-streaked sky. The spray dampened her hair, but she hardly cared. If she had to dry it, it would be that much longer before she had to go back inside. Perhaps she could arrange to fall into the fountain? No, no one would ever believe it; she’d just garner more attention. Which was the last thing she needed. She hated the notion of battles being fought over her; she was no Helen. But Helen wasn’t especially beautiful, was she? Not like Swanwhite… The face that launched a thousand ships… Susan shook off the musings, abruptly getting up to pace in a fit of restless energy. Most of the time, she knew that Rabadash wanted Narnia and Archenland more than he wanted her. Most of the time. But when the bards insisted on putting the romance in – inflamed by the scent of her raven-wing curls / and the taste of her jewel-red lips – she couldn’t help but wonder. If she had refused him at the start, had laughed at his proposal as Edmund had (in private), instead of agreeing to think on the matter…. If she had made it clearer, while they dallied, that she would marry for the good of Narnia and for no other reason… … would he have been quite so determined to follow them? He might have been willing to accept that they had slipped his net, and let them return quietly to Narnia. Or would rejecting him outright have, as she’d thought at the time, only offended him? Thinking about it wasn’t agreement, and there were a hundred reasons to break a match between royals with no shame on either side. And as long as he thought he might persuade her, negotiations were easier…
Besides, there were good reasons to think seriously about it. A marriage alliance between Narnia and Calormen would have eased tensions considerably. If the Tisroc had offered a younger son she might have accepted at once; a lesser prince would have been obliged to come to Narnia and live in their court. The Tisroc’s heir was a very different matter. He would have to remain in Calormen, and he would have expected her to live with him the greater portion of the year, perhaps even to abandon Narnia entirely. But Susan was a queen regnant; leaving her country was no simple matter. Still it was worth considering. When he wished to be, Rabadash could be gracious and charming. He was intelligent and clever, and made good company when he had his court manners in place. They might have managed well enough – royal marriages were never grand love affairs, and a partnership of mutual respect and attraction was more than most achieved. Alliance with Calormen was worth personal discomfort. And the marriage – any marriage – would have been good for Narnia.
It weighed on her, the knowledge that, without a stable succession, all they’d worked so hard to build would be lost with them. Some nights she could not sleep, or dozed fitfully and woke chilled from dreams of their tombs and blood running in the halls of the Cair. Foolishness, of course. Narnia would not decay so quickly; their good subjects would not turn on one another for the throne. Not in this generation. But the fear and urgency of those nightly visions stayed with Susan, and as none of her siblings showed signs of fulfilling that duty, she took it to herself. Then, too, there was the small matter of her own desires. She wanted – she could admit it – she wanted a child of her own. It was true that she had an entire country to nurture, but a part of her ached to be a mother in truth. “Is that so wrong?” she asked the Lion, but the stony gaze had no answers for her.
If any of her siblings could settle down to the business of producing heirs, she could have had her wish easily enough. A queen had no shortage of willing lovers, and if she chose to raise a child alone, well, many Narnians did the same. The Cats would probably applaud, having little use for males except in mating season. But such a child could not be the first, could not be Narnia’s only heir. Even if she thought for a moment that other countries would recognize ‘the bastard spawn of a trollop queen’ – oh, she could just hear King Farn’s tirades! – how could she ask her Narnians to accept a part-human, after the Witch? The father had to be human, and he had to be a human whose allegiances were known – the fewer, the better. A hundred quarrels of clan and race relied on the thrones’ neutrality to keep the peace. Subverting those disputes was how the Witch took power to begin with; Susan could not – would not – open the door to them so soon, not while the fear of Winter still showed in her people’s eyes.
Barely repressing an undignified squeak, Susan whirled. Only the knowledge that her guard would have alerted her to any danger kept her hand from the knife in her sleeve.
Lord Peridan stood framed in the archway, looking chastened. “Forgive me, your majesty, I thought you knew I was here.”
Normally she would have; she would have to speak with her guards. “What is it, Lord Peridan?”
“Your royal brother is looking for you, majesty.” Susan drew breath to answer – she knew not what – but he pressed on before she could speak. “The bards have finished, and the dancing is about to begin. I think their majesties have some hope you might fill a set with them in the Centaur’s Gallop.”
She smiled; that was the boys’ favorite, likely for the vigorous stomping required at intervals. And she appreciated the grace with which he told her she should not have to hear any more tales. Peridan was proving to be a most astute companion. Susan nodded, and he bowed gracefully, extending an arm. “May I escort you back to the hall, majesty?”
“I should be pleased, my lord Peridan.”
* * *
Less than a fortnight after the Battle of Anvard, the High King returned from the north, nursing a wound that was the cause of more than one fight between the brothers. King Edmund thought he should take the cordial, but King Peter insisted the wound was not serious enough. Queen Lucy settled the matter by examining the wound, declaring it free of infection, and slipping a drop of cordial into the High King's wine whilst he was shooting triumphant looks at his brother.
The first order of business had been the war in the north, which was still in the mopping-up stages despite the fact that the Ettin king had given the High King his surrender and fealty. When that was accomplished, though, all those who had traveled with the king and queen to Tashbaan were summoned to council.
The monarchs sat together, their chairs shifted into a horseshoe so they could speak more easily. Chairs, perches, and cushions had been put out for the rest of the company, according to their comfort. Peridan found himself conducted to the chair at King Edmund's right hand, and blushed at the honor done him. Their majesties had always been clear he had their favor, but it was one thing to be the kings' preferred companion in the training yards and on the hunt, and quite another, he thought, to be given such a place in matters of state. He took the seat feeling something of an impostor.
"Stop fidgeting," King Edmund murmured, and he stilled instantly. "Peter won't bite, you know."
It hadn't actually occurred to him to be nervous about the High King's reaction to the debacle. "Of course, sire."
Indeed, King Peter appeared to be in a more pleasant mood than might be expected, hearing of threats to his family and country. He had obviously heard the story already, perhaps several times, and was more interested in getting the details straight and in extracting any useful information about the Calormene military, economy, and attitudes toward Narnia. Of course King Edmund and Queen Susan, who between them managed most of Narnia's intelligence, had been there and would have been able to tell him anything he wished to know, but the High King clearly wanted it straight from the source.
Now that he thought of it, Peridan reflected, watching King Peter question each in turn, it was odd this hadn't been done sooner. He had accompanied Queen Lucy to Galma, two years ago, and upon their return everyone had been called in by Queen Susan, one by one, and questions in just such a fashion. And Galma was as loyal a subject as Narnia ever had, more steadfast a friend than even Archenland, which after all had its own concerns. Was it that trip or this which was odd?
He glanced across to Queen Susan. She wore an expression of polite interest, but he thinks he's spent enough time with her to recognize when she's distracted. Her eyes don't track the speakers as they normally would; instead her gaze flits about the room, never quite settling. Strange. Then it's his turn to answer questions, and despite King Edmund's favor he finds himself sweating under the High King's regard. Impossible to recall, just then, that he'd bagged the most game at their last hunt, before Calormen and the giants, and King Peter had only laughed and flipped him a golden Lion, twice the wager made at the start. He felt just as he had when, new to Narnia, he had been called on to offer his experience in the Eastern Ocean.
He'd been little more than a boy then, just confident enough in his old Narnian blood -- for his great-grandfather had been a lord in the last true court of Narnia -- to claim a place in the fledgling Navy. He hadn't thought to resume his family's holding; they had lived quietly on Muul since his grandfather left the Archen court where he was raised to go to sea. But Narnia needed experienced sailors; Galma had re-taught them shipbuilding and sailing, and they'd been working flat out to rebuild the navy. Narnia quickly developed a reputation for being remarkable at sea. No one knew wood like a dryad, so her new-built ships were always sturdy and sleek. No one knew winds like the sea birds, so her sails caught every breath that stirred -- or spilled it, when wanted. No one knew the waves like the oceanids, so her ships could find currents on no other map, currents that weren't there half the time. The first time Peridan had gotten a good look at a Narnian sea-chart (closely held secrets, never sold or shared) he'd been dizzied by the sheer volume of information packed into every scrap of the oiled parchment. Narnians were the first ships into port in the spring and the last to turn for home in the fall, when any other sensible captain would have been settled in to wait out the winter storms. Even on ships bought or captured, Narnians sailed like devils; on a Narnian-built ship nothing in the ocean could match them.
The one thing they lacked was knowledge of the lands in the Eastern. No mainland Narnian had visited another land for a century, and even Galma had little knowledge of the broader ocean; their ships had rarely escaped the ceaseless winter storms. Archenland, Covarr, Bwehil, perhaps Terebinthia once in a decade, but never further. And as knowledgeable about the waves as the oceanids and merfolk were, the doings of land-dwellers remained a mystery to them.
So when humans like Peridan offered their service -- some for old loyalty, others for fortune or adventure -- Narnia snapped them up eagerly. Far from the anonymous soldier he'd expected to be, Peridan had found himself invited first to the captain's cabin, then before the High King, who listened intently to everything Peridan could tell him about the Isles.
And hadn't it been a shock, that first time, to make his bow before the king and look up to find a boy younger than himself staring back. The whole ocean buzzed with the rumors of the four young rulers who had defeated the White Witch, of course, but he had thought 'young' meant 'young for conquerors.' Nothing had prepared him for the eldest of them to be a mere sixteen! And yet, there was doubt he was a king, despite his youth. King Peter commanded a room the moment he entered it, men turning to him as naturally as flowers to the sun. He knew is business, and yet, with more wisdom than men twice his age he was willing to admit what he did not know -- and promptly seeks out someone who did. so Peridan, who had sailed the Eastern for three years, and whose family was well-off enough to be welcome in the halls of the Redhaven gentry, came to be assigned to the High King's own flagship, racking his brain to answer the High King's increasingly detailed questions while the fleet made its steady way to the Seven to 'discuss' certain matters of piracy.
Before those discussions ended with the Master of Redhaven on his knees before Peter, Peridan had had dared to offer tactical advice (being familiar with Lord Aymar’s preferred methods) and saved the life of one of the High King’s royal guard. On the way back to Narnia, Peter had still questioned him intently, but the focus was his background, and Peridan squirmed under this scrutiny. Shortly after they landed, he was summoned to court, and there created a lord with a grant of lands – not his family’s former holdings, but a similar endowment.
He met the other monarchs, and they all took to him, he thought because in those early days when humans were such a rarity, most of their courtiers were much older. A human near their own age (for Peridan was a mere two seasons the High King’s elder) was a novelty. By the time Narnia collected a wider court, they were accustomed to him and not inclined to withdraw their favor.
Peridan didn’t sail much these days. For some years he had continued serving with the Navy, an ordinary officer at sea and a lord at court when they were winter-berthed. Then as things settled down on the Eastern, King Peter asked him to help train the new recruits, and these days he spent most of his time within sight of the mainland, and a great deal of it at court. But he still wasn’t used to taking part in the business of governing more than his estate and his ship. He was considerably relieved when the High King was finally satisfied with his answers and turned to the next member of their party.
King Edmund leaned over to whisper, “See? No bite-marks.”
“Titanic Devilfish don’t leave them either,” Peridan muttered back, just for the sake of watching the king’s face contort to hold back laughter. Edmund grinned broadly at him, then returned his full attention to the proceedings, and Peridan relaxed. This he knew how to do, to be companion to his sovereigns and lighten their cares for a moment. His gaze caught Queen Susan, turning a ring around and around her slim finger, and he wished it were so easy to make her laugh.
* * *
Peridan had just led his horse back into the stables when he nearly crashed into Queen Susan. In between steadying her and fumbling out apologies, he noticed that she was dressed for riding and her guard nowhere to be seen — which explained how he’d gotten close enough to bump into her. “Majesty?” he asked tentatively. “Where’s your guard?”
“I dismissed them,” she answered airily, unlatching the stall of her favorite mount. “I wanted a little peace and quiet, for a change. Everyone’s yammering at me; I’m getting a headache.”
The area around the Cair should be safe enough, but then the Cair itself should be as well, and Lion knows they’ve had need of the Royal Guard there. He watched her go about saddling her horse with brisk efficiency but gentle hands, growing more nervous all the while. “Might I accompany you?” he asked before he could think better of it. “I was going riding myself.”
He saw her eyes go to his horse — not over-tired from a leisurely ride, but clearly not fresh either, and held his breath that she wouldn’t call him on the lie. “I promise to keep silent,” he offered, smiling charmingly (he hoped).
Finishing with the tack, she led the horse out of the stable, Peridan trailing in her wake. Outside, mounted up, she gazed down at him thoughtfully. “I suppose if I refuse, you’ll follow anyway.”
Possibly. “I would never go against your majesty’s wishes,” he replied carefully, “but I would be … uncomfortable seeing you ride out completely alone.” If she forbade him to follow, he could ask a Bird to keep an eye on her, he decided. That should be unobtrusive enough.
She sighed. “You may come.” Kicking her horse into motion, she tossed back, “I’ll even let you talk!”
Peridan blinked, and wondered what changed her mood so swiftly. Perhaps he should be wondering what she had up her sleeve. But there was no time for such woolgathering, as she was pulling further ahead every moment he stood there stupidly.
So he mounted up and followed her out, nodding politely to the guards at the gate. "Nice day for a wander," he said to them, which every guard in the Cair knew meant 'the monarch is restless and running away,' and they blinked because it was usually Queen Lucy who warranted the phrase. The kings were roughly tied for second place, although since about a third of those rumors about unrest or Fell Creatures didn't really require a king's personal attention, their numbers were probably a bit skewed. Queen Susan was the least likely to pull such a stunt, but Peridan was reasonably certain she hadn't so much 'dismissed' her guard as 'ditched' them, and perhaps this way the kings would only send a couple of squads out rather than the entire army when they discovered she was missing.
They rode for a long while, and despite her permission there was no speech between them, just an easy, companionable quiet and the sound of their horses' hooves. The queen had turned them along the coast road, the sea stretching away on their left with the glitter of afternoon light reflecting off the waves catching their eyes oddly now and again. Peridan was half convinced she meant to ride all the way to Glasswater, and he began nervously plotting ways to either turn her around soon or persuade her to spend the night there, because Narnia might be safe but he still didn't want the queen riding around at night with only one sword to her defense. Shortly after he decided that an appeal to her pity would work best -- 'the High King will have my head if I endanger you so' -- she reined in her horse and turned to watch the ocean.
"It's beautiful," she murmured, and he let his eyes wander across the view, trying to see what she did, because he thought she'd left a finer view behind at Cair Paravel. But then he was an island brat, and the sea was nothing strange to him; the wonder and glory of Narnia was in her rolling hills and vast fields and deep, cool forests with trees so large he could not span them with his outstretched arms. He kept his silence, and let her watch the waves in peace, until the lengthening shadows made him restless.
"You're being very patient, Lord Peridan," she said. He'd thought she'd forgotten he was there, and he'd been wondering how to interrupt her gently. "I suppose you would like us to head back."
"We -- could go on to Glasswater, Your Majesty," he offered hesitantly, because he can't quite tell whether she's ready to go back. "But I would prefer to be off the road before nightfall, yes."
She didn't turn to look at him, and he couldn't read her voice. "It's safe here."
"There are always pirates and raiders," he pointed out, not sure whether he wanted her to look at him or not. Her face probably wouldn't tell him anything; Queen Susan could tell a room full of distinguished ambassadors that Narnia could simultaneously blockade every port in the Eastern and be utterly believed. Two treaties had been signed that same day. If she looked at him he might catch her reaction to his list of threats; that would be something. "And not everything that lives in these woods is an Animal." It had taken months to learn the subtle accent that distinguished Animal from animal, a peculiarly Narnian quirk for which even Galma, Narnian holding though she was, had little use.
The Queen Susan stared out at the sea long enough that he thought she would refuse both suggestions, then with a soft sigh she turned her horse for home. "I didn't plan for an overnight stay," she remarked, sounding a bit regretful.
Either she was opening up to him or she felt the loss deeply; either way he felt obligated to offer a sop to her feelings. "Perhaps we might make an outing of it later this week."
"The Duke of Rosewrathe arrives tomorrow." Peridan knew this meant more to her than it did to him; he made an inquiring noise and the queen elaborated, "There will not be a free night again for nearly a fortnight."
"I see." And he did; Narnia was famous for its revels and hospitality, largely due to the woman riding beside him. "Perhaps after, then -- as a holiday?" He wasn't sure what made him press, dangling the offer like a treat, but something told him the queen needed more of an escape than these stolen hours.
"Perhaps," Queen Susan allowed, but said no more.
They were an hour, perhaps an hour and a half, out from the Cair and the sun was almost fully down, sea and sky melting into seamless midnight, when Peridan spotted the Eagle overhead. It stooped directly above them, and a few minutes later two other Birds -- an Owl and another Eagle, he thought, but he found raptors hard to distinguish in flight -- joined the first. He was more relieved than not, though he wouldn't be willing to say whether it was because of the extra protection for her Majesty or because His Majesty had apparently exercised some restraint for once.
Queen Susan wasn't as distracted as he thought; she spotted their avian escort not long after he did. "Four Trees there's a full escort waiting for us before the Singing Cliffs," she said, head tilted back to watch the Birds gliding along above them.
He wasn't quite certain whether she meant the bet or it was rhetorical, but he was certain she'd underestimated her brother. "By the Star Cove, surely."
She laughed, and turned to face him fully. "It's a bet," she said, and offered him a hand, grinning broadly.
He shook it, answering her grin with one of his own. Oddly enough, her brother's protectiveness seemed to have restored her good humor.
They met the escort as they turned the jog in the path just past Star Cove, and squabbled amiably the rest of the way back over who won the bet. In the end, Peridan laughed and counted the four silver coins into the queen's palm, happy to see her happy. He'd get them back in the form of some token; that's just the way the monarchs were. It was never about the bet anyway.
Surrounded once again by her (slightly disgruntled) royal guard, Queen Susan swept into the Cair. Peridan waved off the stablelad who tried to take his mount, and went to care for the horse himself.
* * *