The bright midday sun seemed to reflect off of everything – the polished stone floor, her sword, her hair, the buckles on her boots.
It was hot, but not unreasonably so; she still panted and could feel her shirt clinging to her sweaty body. Yet she pushed herself harder and faster, without mercy, until she felt her arms begin to quake. Parry, strike, duck, twirl, slash, repeat. The handle felt slick from sweat.
With a final swing, her sword sliced through the neck of the last dummy, the straw stuffing cascading to the floor along with the head.
Adeline gripped her sword tighter and wiped the perspiration off her brow with the back of the other hand. She took a moment to observe the carnage, trying to calm her breathing after the past several hours of heavy exertion.
The secluded courtyard in the back of the palace had been easy to find, walled off from any prying eyes, open only to the bright blue sky above. She'd come down the moment she'd awoken, not even joining the others for breakfast. She knew that at least Izzy would understand, and hopefully discourage anyone else from searching for her.
With little effort she'd found the closet of practice equipment, full of the straw dummies, and in short time her sword had been slashing through the air, the familiar rhythm bringing her frayed temper a strange sense of comfort.
Now, however, all the dummies lay in pathetic shreds all over the courtyard. She looked down to see the remnants of an arm at her feet; her hand started to shake uncontrollably and her gaze shifted to the blade of her sword. It was smeared with faded blood and dirt; she couldn't remember the last time she'd given it a thorough cleaning.
Sheathing the weapon with unnecessary force, she considered cleaning up her mess but then decided the servants were well used to it; this seemed to be the private training arena for the monarchs, and in any case she wouldn't know where to find a broom.
She left the same way she came, and after a bit of searching found it: a room with crossbows lining the walls, javelins on racks by the window, and shelves of armor and shields in the corner. A large table sat in the middle of the room, with a small pile of clean rags lying beside a squat little jar.
Once again, the familiarity of it all soothed her. She took a seat on one of the stools that fit underneath the table when not in use, and set her sword on the surface. The jar proved to be full of some sort of polish, and she set to work, determined to get every last bit of grime off her sword.
She grit her teeth, rubbing with particular vigor at some dried blood, and jumped when the door suddenly opened.
"Oh!" Peter looked surprised, then apprehensive. "Er, sorry, I'll come back-"
"It's fine," she broke in, "I don't mind."
How odd, she mused, that here she was a guest in his home, yet she was the one giving him permission to come or go. It spoke volumes of how highly they regarded her, of how much they thought of her as a friend and an equal, and for some reason the thought only added fuel to the already raging fire within her.
Peter seemed to sense her climbing temper, but took a small step into the room anyway. When she said nothing else he joined her at the table, leaning on his elbows, hands clasped in front of him on the tabletop. He watched her silently for a moment, appearing to be lost in thought, so it was a surprise to Adeline when he spoke, quietly.
"It's a fine sword."
Her motions slowed for the briefest of moments; she glanced at him, then back to the blade in her hands.
He was right, it was a fine sword. It was a gift to her from the Anvard nobles, after her victory over Telmar. They'd presented it to her at the ceremony when she'd been inducted into the Royal Guard.
Adeline cherished it, loving the way the slim handle fit perfectly into her hands, and the balance of the narrow blade worked well with her speed. It was a part of her.
"How are you, Addie?"
Peter's voice was still soft, but she jerked as though he'd shouted at her. She stopped working completely, meeting his eyes and finding genuine concern.
"I'm fine." She replied shortly, going to get more polish out the jar, but his hand stopped hers gently. Reluctantly, she looked at him again, and even though she'd been avoiding this conversation like the plague, she knew he didn't deserve the cold shoulder. She sighed.
"He did it for me, Peter. He murdered my sister because of me."
She felt herself almost choke on the words, but she stubbornly pushed the tears down, refusing to cry any more.
"No he didn't." Peter's tone had gone from gentle to mildly surprised.
She stared at him, confused, and he went on, "He didn't kill Gwen because of you, Addie. He killed her because he's a selfish monster. He's using you as an excuse to make it sound better, that's all."
Finding it a bit hard to breathe, she stood up.
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" she snapped, her temper leaping at a target, at anything to shout at, because all she'd wanted to do for the past two days was shout until her throat was hoarse.
"You shouldn't need to feel better, Adeline." He snapped back, and she flinched in surprise. Of all the reactions and sorts of treatment she'd been expecting, anger was not one of them.
"Gwen is dead. I'm sorry, and so is everyone else, but it had nothing to do with you. Xaviar's mental, he's absolutely stark raving mad, and he's trying to play with your mind, get you to think that it's somehow entirely your fault."
"It is my fault!" she cut him off, her voice tight with anger. "You think I can just brush off the murder of my best friend? You think that I am completely innocent, that I couldn't have done something, anything differently? I know I could have, Pete."
He watched her in surprise as she got up, pacing back and forth, pulling her braid of hair over one shoulder so her fingers could nervously fondle the bottom of it. Her movements were agitated, the result of bottling up every ounce of her anger and frustration for the past month.
She'd cried, mourned, wept, and grieved for Gwen. She'd dealt with the sorrow, but as of yet she hadn't had a chance to properly deal with the anger left simmering in her gut. It was so unfair, so cruel that Gwen had to die when she did, and nothing Adeline could do would ever bring her back.
That was the most infuriating thing of all. Adeline was good at taking charge; Izzy had called her a 'lifesaver' many times, and it was something she secretly prided herself on, the ability to have others rely on you, to be needed. It was where she did best.
But Gwen didn't need her anymore.
Adeline had never felt more useless in her life, and the irritation of it was beginning to make her temples pound.
She kept pacing, aware that she probably looked demented, and was probably scaring Peter to death, but she didn't care. This fury and resentment would drive her insane if she ignored it any longer.
She found that it felt much better to shout than to decapitate straw dummies, and poor Peter was the nearest animated target.
"Why are you staring at me?" she all but snarled at him.
To his credit, he didn't flinch, instead meeting her gaze calmly as he answered, "Because I want to make sure you're going to be alright."
Something in her snapped, and she grabbed the jar off the table and hurled it against the far wall, relishing in the sound of shattering crockery.
"I hate him," she spat, "I hate him so much. He thinks he's doing everyone such a favor, just killing off Gwen like that, thinking he's better suited for the job. I'll tell you now, Peter Pevensie," she rounded on him, and thought he might have looked a trifle intimidated, "He will not be king. I don't care if I have to slaughter every last one of his men, I don't care if it takes me the next thirty years. The only way he's getting to that throne is if he steps over my lifeless corpse."
His eyes widened slightly, and she realized how brash her words must have sounded. She considered taking a deep breath and rephrasing, if only for propriety's sake, but then decided that she meant every word.
He seemed to understand, a bit, at least, and he nodded, looking oddly pleased with her.
She stood there, trying to slow down her madly racing pulse and get the roar out of her ears, and he rose to his feet, coming around the table and hugging her. Surprised, she stiffened for a brief moment before returning the embrace, feeling the hot tears prickle at the back of her eyes.
She blinked stubbornly, and he pulled away to grin down at her fondly.
"Addie, you'll be alright. You'll see."
Most of her objected, quite strongly, to the idea of ever being anything but miserable. But deep down, a secret part of her believed him. She clung to his words, repeating them to herself.
You'll be alright.
Much to Peter's relief, Adeline had joined them for lunch the next day, although she hadn't contributed much to the conversation. She'd sat and ate, which had pacified Izzy, and then disappeared again until dinner.
He knew he'd been a bit harsh, but he honestly believed that Xaviar was just playing with her. Her guilt still bothered him, but her reaction had proved that she would work past it on her own time. For now, all they could do was silently offer their support.
Thankfully, she had come back for dinner, and had shocked all of them speechless by asking Edmund to play chess. She seemed to be in much better spirits, even teasing Edmund occasionally, although her smile looked a bit strained at times, and no doubt she would be frequenting the practice arena in the near future.
At the moment, however, Peter wasn't worried; he was more concentrated on hiding his laughter at his brother. Edmund was practically giving the game away, which was rather unusual, since he was a natural at strategy, but his mind clearly was not on the game tonight.
The memory of Edmund very nearly knocking his chair over in his haste to fetch the chess board made Peter's shoulders shake with suppressed laughter, and it had become glaringly obvious over the past half hour why he'd been so eager.
The Just King spent very little of the game actually looking at the board; his eyes seemed to be constantly riveting on his opponent's face. Peter's grin threatened to stretch off his face when he remembered the conversation he'd had with Fitz a few days ago. Edmund was, without a doubt, smitten.
The question was, whether or not his pride would prevent him from admitting it.
"Oh, honestly, Ed, you call that a good move?"
"What's wrong with it?" the dark-haired king demanded indignantly, glaring down at the checkered board.
Adeline rolled her eyes, reaching down and knocking over his king with her bishop.
"That's what's wrong with it, Eddy. Checkmate."
Peter fought the urge to laugh as his brother's face morphed into one of shock.
It was Adeline's turn to laugh now. "How would I have cheated?"
"You distracted me." Edmund proclaimed, with his signature grin firmly in place, eyes locked on Adeline's.
"And, pray tell, how did I distract you?"
Instantly, Edmund's demeanor changed. His eyes widened slightly as though his words had just registered with him, and Peter saw him swallow heavily before opening his mouth to reply.
"Addie." Caspian strode into the room. He exchanged a brief, uneasy glance with Peter.
Adeline's head snapped to attention, her conversation with Edmund forgotten as she took in the grave expression on Caspian's face.
"What is it?"
He paused, unsure, and finally said, "You'd best come and see for yourself."
She frowned, confused, but got to her feet and followed Caspian out, with Peter and Edmund close on her heels.
Caspian didn't seem to be in the mood for chatting as he led them to the entrance hall, where Lucy and Susan were waiting. Adeline gained the top of the staircase and Peter heard her sharp intake of breath before he drew alongside her, and his insides dropped when he saw Omri glowering up at them from the bottom of the stairs.
"What do you want?" Adeline's voice was ice cold, but the enormous man wasn't fazed.
"I have a message for Lady Adeline, from the Heir of Anvard."
A silent beat later, Adeline's puzzled look changed to one of absolute disgust. She snorted contemptuously.
"Is that what that imbecile is calling himself now?"
Omri nodded, looking rather smug as he answered, "Prince Xaviar wished me to deliver this to your hand."
Peter noticed the muscle in Adeline's jaw clench, once, twice, before she took the steps – slowly – down, only until she was close enough to snatch the proffered slip of parchment. She immediately retraced her steps, gesturing for the five Narnian monarchs to follow her.
She slipped in the nearest empty room, a simple chamber with nothing but a few bookcases and a couple of chairs. Peter was the last inside, and he shut the door behind him and leaned against it, watching Adeline carefully.
She stood quietly, looking down at the letter with no small amount of trepidation written on her features, but suddenly the vulnerable look was gone, replaced with that familiar expression of emotionless steel. She ripped the seal, unfolding the missive harshly to squint at the handwriting in the dim light.
The message must not have been overly long; a few moments later her gaze moved to stare sightlessly at the wall in front of her, absently holding the letter between limp fingers. Abruptly, she crumpled the note in her hand, chucking it into the lit fireplace as though it had contaminated her skin, and she watched the flames lick at the edges as her bosom rose and fell rapidly.
Peter hadn't the foggiest of what to do, but he'd just opened his mouth to ask Adeline if she was alright when she suddenly crossed to the door, wrenching it open and fairly exploding into the corridor with the others at her heels.
She returned to the top of the staircase; Omri hadn't moved, but Peter noticed that his eyes widened just slightly upon observing how angry Adeline was.
"What is your rank?" she bit out.
Omri's smug expression returned, and Peter found himself resisting the temptation to smack it off his face.
"I was promoted to General yesterday. The Prince had need of a capable leader for his army."
Adeline hesitated, just briefly, and Peter knew what she was thinking – Xaviar actually had an army, which meant he had been quite serious when he'd threatened war. The moment of uncertainty passed, and Adeline raised her chin ever so slightly before speaking.
"Well, General, you may tell Lord Xaviar that I have no intention of reconsidering anything. My answer is unchanged, and if he sends you back here again, my reply shall be given in form of your detached head sent catapulting over his castle walls."
Omri's jaw dropped open, and Peter's almost copied it. Before anybody could say a word, Adeline had spun on her heel and marched out the way she had come, head held high in the air. After a moment of stunned speechlessness, they all turned to follow her, leaving behind a dumbfounded general.
Adeline took turns and shortcuts almost haphazardly, reaching the private residence section of the palace in record time. She headed straight for a small sitting room on the far end of the corridor, barging through and not even apologizing to Fitz and Izzy, who sat on one of the low sofas.
She waited till the others had joined them, and Caspian shut the door just as she cleared her throat.
"Xaviar sent me a message." Her voice trembled slightly, and Fitz came to his feet, crossing to her and guiding her to sit in a stuffed armchair.
"What did it say?" he asked, and Peter was glad to notice that neither of the Archenland royals seemed to be angry – yet. Immediately becoming infuriated would hardly help matters, but he doubted their calmness would last after Adeline divulged the letter's contents.
"He wants me to marry him."
The words were said so quietly, so dejectedly, that Peter almost missed them, but even if he had, Fitz's response would have been a clue. Warm brown eyes hardened with anger, and his large hand squeezed Adeline's reassuringly.
"You're sure, Addie?" Izzy questioned softly, and Adeline nodded, looking more resigned than angry now.
"He said that it's all a big misunderstanding, that he needs me to be his queen, and that he's sure in time I'll see that Gwen's death was necessary."
A stunned silence met her words, broken only when Lucy said, "Oh, Addie, I'm so sorry."
Her voice sounded absolutely heartbroken, and Adeline smiled sadly before straightening her shoulders, trying to look a bit less victimized.
"Moping about it won't change a thing, Lu. Thanks though. I did notice something that Omri said. He mentioned an army – do you really think he's planning a revolution?"
Fitz didn't seem surprised by the news; he glanced at his wife before answering, "We've been receiving news of a suspected uprising for quite some time now. We didn't have any of the details; it was just significant enough for us to keep our eyes open. But now we know the leader, and that his assassination of Gwen had probably been planned for months."
Nodding slowly, Adeline mused, "I suppose he'll be hoping to attack while you two are away from Anvard, then."
"Most likely," agreed Fitz, "but that's only if we assume he's only interested in the Archenland throne."
"You think there's more?" Caspian asked, and Fitz shrugged.
"I've thought about it, and it doesn't really make any sense why he would wait to murder Gwen in Calormen. If he wanted her out of the way, then he could have snuck into the castle quite easily, since he's a relative."
"You think he was hoping to sabotage your relations with Calormen." Adeline supplied, looking aghast.
"Precisely. Didn't you say that the Tisroc had proposed only that night?"
"He did, yes. But he took her rejection quite well, in fact he seemed understanding. Gwen was very relieved."
"That's good," Fitz said, "because that supports my theory. Xaviar was trying to frame the Tisroc for Gwen's murder. A rejected marriage proposal could have very well angered him enough to send a guard to her chambers that night. What Xaviar wasn't counting on, however, was that you would find him, Addie."
"And he definitely wasn't counting on me figuring out it was him." Adeline continued.
"Right, that's a solid plan for deflecting the blame for the crime," interrupted Susan, "but what does that have to do with Xaviar's interest in other countries than Archenland?"
"If Calormen had been blamed for Gwen's death, then there would have very likely been war, or at least damaged relations. Overthrowing the current rulers would have been much easier, and so would have invading the other country. Once you have the combined armed forces of two nations behind you, then it's much easier to finish off the third. In this case, he'd probably have saved Narnia for last."
"You think he'll try us first, since Addie foiled his plan?" Edmund queried.
"He might." Fitz replied gravely.
"He's already got an army," Peter reminded them all, "though I'm not sure where he got it."
"My guess would be the giants of the north." Adeline supplied. "If his original plans have required altering, then he'll need forces that have an intense hatred for Narnia in general. There will most likely be a few Telmarine sympathizers amongst them as well."
Peter let out a long breath, the sudden gravity of the situation hitting him in the stomach.
"How much time do you think we have?" Caspian asked Fitz.
"Probably not very long. A week, at most."
The young king nodded turning to his fellow monarchs.
"That's settled then. Tomorrow, Narnia prepares for war."