Edmund dragged one hand wearily across his face, reaching for yet another stack of parchments. He picked up the quill, noticing that he was nearly out of ink, and searched the documents for the place he was to sign.
It was the more tedious aspect of being a king, to be sure, but it was important nonetheless. Despite the impending war with the Archenland Rebellion, Narnia still had other matters that needed tending to. Days like today, with meager preparations being made towards the war efforts, were ideal for digging into the mountain range of paperwork that always resided on his desk.
He was, at least, thankful for the solitude in his private study. His siblings, and by now Caspian, knew that Edmund worked best when left to his own devices, and hadn't come near his door since breakfast that morning. Without conversation to distract him, he'd made significant progress, and once he'd finished the sheaf he was currently working on he decided he'd earned a break.
Standing slowly, and working out the kinks in his cramped muscles, Edmund crossed to the window and gazed out over the palace walls. The current situation with Xaviar had brought an atmosphere of uneasiness over the entire city, one that could be seen in the hurried way mothers shepherded their little ones through the markets, never stopping to gaze at the wares as they had before, instead purchasing essentials and returning to the safety – if one could call it that – of their homes.
It was monumental, the amount of trust these people had in the five young monarchs who sat up in the palace. If Xaviar were to win this war, they would be entirely at his mercy. Edmund doubted the man would stoop to massacring them, but a less-than-adequate ruler was still a troubling threat to the country.
A soft knock brought his head round; Lucy poked her head in, and seemed relieved to find him at the window rather than at his desk with his face buried in parchments. She nudged the door open with one hip, balancing the full tea tray on the other as she crossed to the table that sat in the middle of the room. Edmund felt himself smile automatically, appreciative of his sister's knowledge that sometimes, a good cup of tea was all one needed.
He crossed to join her, taking a seat as she poured them both a cup. They ate the biscuits and scones in companionable silence, and Edmund had nearly finished his second piece of toast when Lucy wiped her mouth, and settled a rather stern gaze on him as she set down her napkin. He finished chewing, but after that simply raised one eyebrow in question. Whatever was troubling her, it was difficult for her to speak of. He was about to ask if everything was all right when the words literally burst from her.
"Are you going to tell Addie?"
That took him a moment. He blinked, trying to figure out what he'd missed, and asked, "Er…tell Addie...what, exactly?"
When Lucy's only response to give him a knowing look, alarm bells sounded in Edmund's head. That look had last been seen on his mother's face when she'd come under the impression that he fancied a girl that worked in the department store near his university. Every time they'd been anywhere near the place Mrs. Pevensie would give Edmund that look and ask, rather pointedly, if he'd like to meet them later so he could go see "his young lady" alone. It had taken nigh upon months to convince her that the closest thing he'd ever had to a relationship with said young lady was the time he'd asked for help finding a scarf for Susan's birthday.
It was an entirely different matter, however, to witness that dreaded expression on his younger sister's face. She looked so much like their mother it was startling, and his default reaction bubbled to the surface without him realizing.
"I don't know what you're on about, Lu. I haven't got anything to tell Addie."
Lucy rolled her eyes dramatically, sighed and said, "Alright, then, you leave me no choice but to embarrass you." She paused, no doubt for further dramatic effect. "Were you planning on informing Adeline that you love her, or were you just going to cross your fingers that both of you will come out of this alive and you'll be able to tell her then?"
It was several moments before Edmund became aware of his jaw hanging open. Lucy, looking smugger and more satisfied than he'd ever seen her, merely smiled.
"Goodness, Ed, did you think no one else noticed? It's written all over your face whenever you look at her."
At that he sprang to life. He placed one hand over hers, leaning forward to express how serious he was.
"Lucy, she mustn't know. Do you understand? She can't."
"Why ever not?" she demanded.
"Because, I'm not ready to tell her. And honestly, I'm not sure she's ready to hear it."
"Edmund, you can't be meaning to go into this war without telling her how you feel!"
"That's exactly what I mean to do. She has more than enough to be going on about now, and my piling something else on won't help anything. Besides, there's every chance in the world she won't return the sentiment, so I don't understand why everyone is so gung-ho about –"
"Everyone?" Lucy cut in. "Who else has said something to you?"
Here, the red crept up his neck despite himself; he swallowed before replying, "Alvaro mentioned it to me, when I was bringing Addie back here, but since then – "
"Hang on." She interrupted him again, her eyes wide in disbelief. "Alvaro, a man you hadn't known for twelve hours, was able to decipher your affections for Adeline. He then proceeded to advise you to tell her, before it was too late, or at least out of respect for her feelings. You return to the Cair, dance with her at Susan's wedding in front of everyone, nearly get caught kissing her…and you still think your best option is to keep this from her?"
Yes. Of course he did.
"Look, Lucy, I…" he struggled to find the words, "I just think that, with everything that's going on right at the moment, it'd be best to wait. I'll tell her eventually; I can't keep this to myself forever. But I just don't think it'd be fair to her."
Lucy was silent for long moments, scrutinizing him over the remains of their tea. At last she sighed heavily, and gathered the tray back up again to leave. As she crossed to the door, she paused.
"You know, Ed, if you honestly think that Adeline wouldn't be able to handle the truth, then you're not giving her nearly enough credit. I don't think it would upset her, to be honest. If anything it would help ground her, give her something solid to hold on to, amidst all this turmoil."
His mouth felt dry. "I'm not sure telling her that I love her would be enough, Lucy."
With a sad smile, she replied, "Then, you are only underestimating your love. I've seen how you care for her, Eddy. Your feelings are strong enough to move mountains if need be. Don't sell yourself short."
With those parting words she was gone, and he knew with unshakable certainty that he wouldn't be getting another scrap of paperwork done today.
Adeline was going stir-crazy. Since the incident nearly a week ago, there had been no word from Xaviar's forces. They were back to playing the waiting game, and it was driving her absolutely mad. Her patience was often her weak-point, something Gwen had always teased her about, but at times she really couldn't help it. Adeline was a person who lived by doing. And, at the moment, there wasn't all that much to do.
Peter must have been of the same mind, because he'd tracked her down after breakfast that morning and suggested sparring in the private training courtyard. She'd agreed instantly, and had all but run up to her chambers so she could change into more suitable clothing.
It was an unreasonably hot day for the time of year, so she didn't bother with her usual long-sleeved tunic with the leather vest over it. Instead she donned an old, sleeveless shirt that had seen better days. It was a bright red, with a few fraying threads at the hem, but it was comfortable and light and that was all that mattered. She buckled her sword and dagger on overtop the garment, and tucked her knife into her left boot.
Hair neatly plaited, armed, and raring to go, she quickly exited her room and made her way through the palace. As she hurried along she became conscious of stares, from servants and creatures that normally greeted her politely, and otherwise let her be. Her brow wrinkled in confusion over everyone's odd behavior, and she nearly questioned one young faun who took one look at her, dropped his jaw wide open, and promptly walked straight into a marble column.
Worriedly Adeline looked herself over. She hadn't forgot anything, had she? No vital pieces of clothing were missing? No, everything seemed to be in order…except for the Narnian staff.
Shaking her head in puzzlement, she pushed open the door and entered the courtyard to find Peter waiting, but not alone. Trumpkin and Reepicheep stood with the king, something that made her momentarily forget her discomfort and smile in genuine pleasure. She and Trumpkin had gotten along fairly well, both respecting the other on and off the battlefield. Reepicheep, however, was a Mouse after Adeline's own heart. Two kindred spirits, forever having to prove themselves because of their size, were bound to become fast friends, and they had.
The noble Mouse spotted her first as she approached, and her uneasiness grew to mild irritation when she saw a dumbfounded look on Reepicheep's face as well. He nodded meaningfully in her direction, and Peter, who'd been standing with his back to the door, turned to face her.
Immediately his eyes widened to the size of saucers as they travelled up and down her frame; his mouth slightly open and he appeared to be rendered speechless. Trumpkin looked more amused than anything, glancing back and forth between the two humans.
Adeline stopped just before Peter, doing little to disguise her annoyance.
"Peter, if you would be so kind as to stop ogling me and explain why every face I've passed this morning has looked like that I would be forever grateful."
Her sharp tone seemed to snap him out of the trance he'd fallen into; he jolted and laughed sheepishly as he ruffled the back of his head with one hand.
"Er, sorry, Adeline. It's just that…wow, er…you…well, you look especially…fierce this morning."
Eyebrows raised, she echoed, "Fierce? What do you mean by that?"
Now Peter's cheeks were stained slightly pink as he looked at her, but true to the honest nature of their friendship, he didn't hold back.
"When you say everyone you've passed this morning 'ogled' at you, do you mean everyone? Or every man?"
Now she was blushing, and nowhere near as discreetly as Peter had. Stammering, she looked herself over once more, spreading her arms in confusion.
"But…but why? I don't look any different; this is the oldest article of clothing I own. Surely no man would find me fetching in this rag."
Genuine amusement lifted the corners of Peter's mouth.
"Lion's mane, Addie, is there even a mirror in your chambers?" his voice shook with suppressed laughter, but his merriment only made Adeline scowl.
"Of course there is, but I didn't exactly do a great deal of primping this morning. I didn't think it was necessary, given that I would be sweaty and dirty within the hour."
Uncomfortably she tugged at the bottom of her shirt, wishing she'd gone to the library instead, wearing a nice, boring dress that nobody thought she looked fierce in.
"Rest assured, you didn't need to do anymore primping," Trumpkin put in dryly. "I'd advise you to stay away from King Edmund, though, until you change after your training session."
Surely her face was on fire, and this time Peter didn't stifle his guffaws. She scowled at him again, but her hands wouldn't stop tugging on her shirt, at the neckline or the hem, even grabbing fistfuls of fabric to stretch it out so it wouldn't cling to her form.
"Oh, Addie, it's not any of that," Peter told her between chuckles. "It's the color."
Now it was Adeline's turn to stare. "What?"
The King was past his earlier awkwardness. He shrugged and grinned again. "Red suits you, Addie. You ought to wear it more often."
She snorted. "Not likely. I think one of your servants has a concussion now."
Even Adeline was hard pressed not to smile, albeit grumpily, when Peter threw his head back and roared with laughter. Glancing down at Reepicheep, she found an apologetic smile on his features.
"You look most fearsome, Your Ladyship. I am certain none of the servants meant their scrutiny as an offense."
She smiled gratefully. "Thanks, Reep."
Peter had calmed himself by then, though he still grinned impishly at her. She rolled her eyes.
"Could we perhaps get started?"
His eyes still twinkling with mirth, Peter drew his sword and adopted his stance across from her. She mimicked him, letting the soothing, calculating feel of her sword's handle banish her embarrassment. Here, she was fierce, but not because of what she wore. Here, the only rules were the ones you made for yourself.
She grinned back at Peter, and took the first swing.
Nearly three hours later, the merry foursome left the courtyard. They'd all sparred each other at some point, and one match between Peter and Adeline had lasted nearly half an hour and was brutal to the very end. Another match, Trumpkin against Reepicheep, had barely lasted five minutes and the verbal sparring accompanying the blades had brought tears of laughter to Adeline's eyes.
Now, however, they were all filthy, ravenous, and exhausted. Adeline didn't know if she wanted a nap, a bath, or lunch.
That decision was taken out of her hands, however, when an anxious nymph approached them.
"Your Majesty, my Lady." She curtsied quickly. "There is a party in the Entrance Hall. They wish to see both of you."
After exchanging a confused glance with Adeline, Peter preceded her through the corridors. As they neared the hall she could hear voices, seemingly numerous ones, and her curiosity increased.
Upon entering, however, her vision tunneled.
The stocky man, in his late twenties, whirled in place from where he'd been speaking with Caspian. Edmund, Susan, and Lucy stood on the far side of the hall, along with Glenstorm and a few other Narnians. Cristoff, however, had eyes for only Adeline.
"Lady Adeline!" he exclaimed, striding over to her quickly, and drawing her in for a warm embrace that she returned with equal gusto. Abruptly he pulled back.
"We thought you dead, m'lady. The news of your well-being was received with much rejoicing in Anvard."
His tone was solemn, but she saw the joy and relief in his eyes, and that was enough for her.
"I didn't know," she told him, "I hadn't the foggiest I was assumed dead. Otherwise I would have sent word, but things have been…complicated ever since."
He nodded. "So I've heard, m'lady. And I'm afraid things are only about to become even more complex."
Suddenly she became aware of Peter's presence next to her, and she started.
"Oh, Peter, forgive me, I've forgotten my manners. This is General Cristoff, Archenland's finest and my colleague. He's trained me since my first day handling a blade, and is a valiant warrior for the crown of Anvard."
Peter greeted the man graciously, even as Cristoff's eyes turned steely.
"The rightful crown of Anvard, you mean to say."
She sighed. "You've heard of Xaviar's treachery, of course."
"Aye, madam. The news spread like wildfire once their Majesties returned. 'Twas the only dark spot on their joy over discovering you were alive."
Adeline smiled ruefully, already tired of the talk of war. She glanced around Cristoff's shoulder and noticed the company of thirty men or so, gathered in the hall. But something was off…not all of them bore Archenland's crest on their armor.
"Cristoff, who are these others?"
"This is the delegation party. There are eight thousand more, to be coupled with Narnia's forces."
"Eight thousand?" Adeline was shocked. "That doesn't leave very many to defend Anvard. What if Xaviar strikes there first?"
"Alvaro's forces, when joined with ours, are more than enough. The Calormen army is a force to be reckoned with, m'lady. Half the number sent here to Cair Paravel are of Calormen."
Understanding dawned. They were to unite three nations, in order to defeat one rebel seeking to rule them all. It was their only hope.
"Are Fitz and Izzy alright without Narnian reinforcements?" Peter asked, sounding troubled. Cristoff shook his head, already knowing what the High King would offer.
"Yes, Sire, they asked me to assure you and your fellow Kings and Queens that the situation at Anvard is well in hand. I have a missive from King Fitzgerald, for the Lady Adeline. He requested me to deliver it to you in person."
She unfurled the offered scroll of parchment, and read through it briefly. Her heart dropped a little further with every sentence, and by the time she finished her stomach was in knots with dread. She glanced up and across the room to find Edmund's gaze trained heavily on her.
All of a sudden heat coursed through Adeline's veins, and Trumpkin's words from earlier that morning, about staying away from Edmund until she'd changed clothes, rang in her ears.
With effort she tore her eyes from his, struggling to ignore the swirling sensations in her gut caused by the fierce look he'd just given her – and in a room full of people, no less.
Now's hardly the time to be fantasizing about how he thinks you look in red, she chastised herself, stamping down the blush that was creeping up her collarbone.
Clearing her throat, Adeline addressed the room at large.
"Soldiers wait here. Your Majesties, a word if you please."
Without another word the five Narnian monarchs followed her from the room, meeting in the small private dining room they'd used frequently. Caspian shut the door behind him, and five pairs of inquisitive eyes turned to Adeline. She wasted no time beating about the bush.
"Alvaro has given me full command over Calormen's forces here in Cair Paravel. I already have enough rank in Archenland to do as I see fit with those soldiers, so it seems that I've been appointed a stand-in for Fitz and Alvaro. I'm to work alongside the five of you, and do whatever I deem necessary to defeat the Rebellion."
"Yes, of course you're in charge, who else would they choose?" Peter waved his hand impatiently. "What else?"
Taking a deep breath, she gave the bad news. "Archenland spies have successfully infiltrated the Rebellion encampment here in Narnia, where Xaviar's headquarters are. They report that an attack is scheduled sometime within the week. It will be at night, and it will be against Cair Paravel itself."
After a moment of grim silence, Lucy prompted, "Is that all of it?"
Here, Adeline hesitated. She despised bringing up touchy topics, but this entire bleeding war was a touchy subject. It couldn't be helped.
"The spies also report that Xaviar's planning to come and try to speak with me again before the bloodshed starts. The letter doesn't say, but I'd wager he'll try to sway me so I won't fight against him."
As she'd predicted, Edmund had stiffened visibly at her words, so she hastened to continue.
"I want to see him."
At that, the other four tensed as well.
"Addie, are you daft?" Caspian demanded. "He can't be trusted as far as you could throw him."
"That doesn't really prove a point, seeing as she could probably throw him from here to the Great River if she wanted to." Lucy muttered.
Adeline shot Lucy a look. "I'm not saying I trust him. I just want to see him is all. One of you can even be in the room if it brings anyone comfort."
There was a moment of silence, then Peter abruptly said, "Susan will go with you."
"Why?" Edmund asked sharply, glaring at his brother. Peter glared right back.
"Xaviar's been on the receiving end of your wrath, Ed. If you're in that room he won't speak freely to Addie. Lucy, and myself, are no threat to him. He's had to work around Caspian's reign for however long he's been concocting this scheme, so he's likely aware of Caspian's ins and outs. Su's the only one who has ambiguity on her side. He doesn't know what to expect from her."
His reasoning was hard to argue with. Edmund seemed to know it too; he shot his brother one final dark look before mumbling, "I still don't like it. What if that oaf he's using for a general is with him?"
"You leave Omri to me." Adeline's voice was cold, and she registered the shock on all of their faces, but she didn't care. They'd granted her request, and now all they had to do was make sure their melting-pot army was ready for battle. "If that's all, I'll go inform Cristoff where he and the other commanding officers can lodge."
Peter nodded his head in dismissal, and with a final, uneasy glance at Edmund, she left.
The moment the door shut behind her, Edmund rounded on Peter.
"Peter, I'm trusting you on this. If that lunatic harms her again…"
"I know, Ed."
Peter knew his brother; even as the Just King, Edmund often led with his heart. It was something that Peter often envied of him, the ability to simply feel, without overanalyzing the consequences. But they couldn't afford to lose their heads here. They had to think rationally. Their entire world depended on it.
Lucy touched his shoulder consolingly. "Eddy, I'm sure she'll be fine. You know Adeline can take care of herself."
"That doesn't mean she always has to."
Peter didn't get a chance to question that statement before urgent knocking sounded at the door. He opened to see Trumpkin.
"You lot better get in here, quick." He told them. They wasted no time, gaining the entrance hall to see Adeline facing off one of the soldiers who looked worse for the wear. His blue eyes peered blearily around the room, his face was sallow and filthy, and his hair, once a well-kept blonde, was matted and faded with age. Adeline seemed to be talking to him quietly, her hands up in a non-offensive gesture.
Peter frowned. There was something eerily familiar about that man….
The soldiers had cleared center of the room, leaving Adeline in the circle with the stranger. Everyone was deathly quiet, watching the strange scene unfold.
Adeline's face was streaked with grime and sweat from her earlier training session, her hair was coming loose in little wisps around her face and ears, and her bright red tunic was a bit dirtier and tattier than it had been that morning. Her eyes were wide and alert, but Peter caught the glimmer of shock that remained on her face.
Whoever this was, she knew him, and hadn't been expecting him.
The stranger was talking, but his speech was so slurred Peter had to strain his ears.
"Y'look just like your mum."
"I've been told," Adeline replied curtly, and the man frowned a bit.
"Not your colorin' though, that you get from me, don't you lass?"
Peter had to stifle his gasp. Even half-drunk, the man's eyes were unmistakably blue, like the color of the Eastern Sea in early summer. His hair, though thinning and dirty, was a burnished, radiant golden color, the exact same as Adeline's.
His gaze shifted to the woman herself. Adeline's face was completely expressionless, her eyes wary.
The man laughed darkly. "What's amatter, lassie? Ain't you gonna introduce me to your friends?"
Adeline's jaw clenched. "Your Majesties, General. This is my father, Nabal."
Out of the corner of his eye, Peter caught the stunned expressions of his siblings.
Nabal laughed again. "C'mon, girl, you can do better than that. Ain't you proud of your old man?" His voice was taunting, and across the room Peter didn't miss the flash of anger in Adeline's eyes. She lifted her chin.
"Everyone, this is my old man, Nabal. His name means fool, and so is he." Her voice rang clear through the hall.
Nabal's face twisted with a scowl. "You'll pay for that, wench."
Adeline had a snarl of her own. "I fail to understand how you can make me pay for anything, when a beggar such as yourself can't even afford one drink at the local tavern."
With surprising speed, Nabal's fist came across Adeline's face. There was a deafening crack, and she hit the floor, hard, sprawled at his feet.
Peter started forward, as did Edmund and Caspian, but suddenly Adeline pressed her hands into the marble floor, using the traction to swing her body like a pendulum across the smooth surface. Her legs swept Nabal's out from under him, and before anyone had had a chance to move she'd lifted one leg straight up in the air, and brought the heel of her boot crashing down into her father's nose.
There was small crunching sound, and quite a bit of blood, but Nabal's chest still moved rapidly with his breathing.
"Your Ladyship." Cristoff strode forward as Adeline clambered to her feet, swaying slightly. "Do you wish him to be taken out of the city?"
"No," she quickly replied, briefly pressing one hand to her temple. "Take him to the dungeons. See that's he's taken care of, but under no circumstances is he to be given any strong drink."
Cristoff hesitated, looking to Peter for permission to use the Cair's dungeons. Peter nodded, and under the general's orders four men came forward and carried the unconscious drunk out of the room.
Once they were out of out of sight, Caspian spoke up quietly. "Trumpkin, you and Reep show the soldiers to their lodgings. Have the kitchens informed of our increased number, and see to it that General Cristoff has his chambers on the hall adjacent to ours."
In short order, the entrance hall was empty save for the six of them. For a moment no one said anything, but at last Susan spoke up cautiously.
"Adeline, are you alright?" she asked gently, and something in Peter's chest twisted painfully when he saw the struggling emotions in Adeline's face. But he knew what Adeline's answer would be, so he caught Lucy's eye and nodded her forward.
The young Queen, with great care, turned Adeline's face so that the light would fall on her swollen cheek. Peter watched his sister's mouth press into a firm line, and knew a moment of brief, white-hot anger.
"You'll have a most impressive bruise, Addie. I'm surprised you didn't lose consciousness." Lucy stepped back, observing their friend with concern.
Adeline shrugged. "I've developed immunity to him over the years." Her voice was bitter, something Peter had never heard from her, and a lump of sorrow worked its way into the anger that was still making his fists clench.
He knew he wasn't alone; he didn't dare look at his brother for fear their tempers would feed off the other. The last thing they needed was for two kings to storm down to the dungeons and beat Nabal to a pulp.
Lucy's eyes were sad as she draped an arm around Adeline. "Come, let's get you cleaned up, then we'll have a tray brought to your room. You need rest and quiet."
Perhaps the worst thing was that Adeline didn't protest, instead allowing herself to be guided towards her chambers. Susan squeezed Caspian's hand, then followed, leaving the three men alone.
For a moment Peter stood, his eyes shut as he tried to slow his breathing. It would not be acceptable for any of them to lose their temper, hard as it may be.
"What else has she had to fight against?" Edmund muttered angrily, and Peter opened his eyes in time to see him rake a hand angrily through his dark hair. Caspian stood quietly, but Peter knew he was just as furious as they were. He'd learned to read his brother-in-law over the course of their time in Narnia, and knew that if not anything else, Caspian was a gentleman. To see a woman mauled like that, in his own court, surely had made his blood boil.
With a sigh, Peter pushed his anger to the side. Adeline had the girls with her now, and there wasn't anything else he could do. Right now his country needed him more than she did.
"Come on. We'd better gather the officials who are here. We've got some preparing to do."