The council between the three countries went surprisingly well; it was almost too good to be true, how easily everyone set aside their old prejudices and quarrels and worked together. Their army was working like a well-oiled machine, and no one was more surprised than Peter. He'd prepared himself for the worst, for having to break up fights among soldiers or even the commanding officers, and yet the tension in the ranks remained at a minimum.
The tension among the inner circle of leaders, however, was another matter entirely. He'd been shocked, though not unpleasantly so, to interrupt Edmund and Adeline's embrace; he wondered if he'd handled it correctly and hoped his brother wouldn't be cross at him. The very last thing they needed right now were two bickering kings.
He need not have worried. After the meeting was over Edmund followed him back to his private study, and spoke the moment Peter shut the door.
"I hope you're not upset with me, Pete."
He glanced curiously at Edmund, who looked very serious. "I was about to say the same thing. I wouldn't have come down there if I'd known-"
"I know," Edmund interrupted, one hand waving Peter's apology aside impatiently. "I don't want you thinking that I'm going after her for the wrong reasons. I never liked Xaviar, but I'm not competing against him."
Peter observed him for a moment, noticing the fidgeting and restless hands. Why his brother would be nervous was beyond him – from the way things had looked down in the garden, Adeline welcomed Edmund's affections, and quite enthusiastically, too. He said as much, and Edmund shook his head ruefully. He looked so distraught that Peter felt sorry for him.
"What happened to waiting till the war's over?"
Edmund shrugged. "I overheard her conversation with Xaviar, and he told her that she was blind not to see how I felt. I don't know when I've been more shocked, Peter. A man, and enemy and stranger, could see it. And he told her before I could. I almost walked away and decided to just give up, but then…"
He shot Peter an uncertain glance, as though asking if he really wanted to hear all this, and Peter nodded encouragingly.
"Well, she told him that if it were true, if I really did love her, then I had more of a chance of winning her heart than he ever did."
"She told Xaviar this?" Peter asked, stunned.
Edmund laughed, the sound almost bitter. "She did. Nearly those exact words. I couldn't move after that. I could hardly breathe, Pete. I still don't know if she only said it to antagonize him, or if it's true. Either way, she knows how I feel. I only hope I didn't ruin everything."
Peter took a moment to absorb the information, trying to think back to the scene in the garden. Adeline's face (well, once Edmund had released it, anyway) had not been angry or repulsed. It had been pure, simple shock, and that gave him reason to hope.
He cleared his throat. "Well, Ed, I don't have much experience with these things, so I'm not sure what to tell you. But I hope you do know that whatever happens, our sisters and I will be here for you."
Edmund gave a small smile, clapped him on the shoulder, and left to discuss further battle plans with Caspian.
Peter shook his head, raising his eyes to the ceiling in mock despair. His brother had always been the one they'd predicted as a life-long bachelor, and here he was falling head-over-heels for a girl who probably didn't have a clue what romance was.
He wondered briefly if he should say something to Adeline, and decided against it. He had no desire to make things even more awkward for her; she'd clearly been embarrassed in the garden and speaking with her about it would only make it worse.
Matters were taken entirely out of his hands, however, when a few minutes later Adeline poked her head in the door. "Peter? Do you have a moment?"
Hiding his surprise, he rose from behind his desk and gestured to an empty chair. "Of course, Adeline. Come in."
She did, but remained standing before him, twisting her hands together nervously. Her face was flushed and she was gnawing on her lower lip as though she no longer had need of it. Peter had to suppress a smile, though he did feel a small pang of sympathy for her.
"I wanted to apologize for…earlier." She suddenly blurted, catching him off guard.
He frowned in confusion. "Apologize for…what, exactly?"
She blushed an even deeper red. "For…the garden…Edmund…and…" she trailed off in embarrassment.
Peter sighed. Having this conversation with his brother was one thing. Having it with a woman was another matter entirely. Granted, it was Adeline and she was probably the most no-nonsense person he'd ever come across but deep down she was still a female.
Seeing no help for it, he spoke as gently as he could. "Addie, I am in no way upset. If anyone needs to apologize it is I, for intruding. I would not have come barging in like I did had I known you and Edmund needed privacy."
His words seemed to help a bit. Some of the tension eased out of her shoulders and she stopped chewing her lip. Her gaze was glued to his feet as she said quietly, "You don't have to worry about it being a distraction on the battlefield."
"Such a thing never occurred to me, Addie. I'm not worried about that."
At last she met his eyes, uncertainty and doubt etched in her face. "What are you worried about, then?"
Peter hesitated, not sure if this would help, but she deserved to know.
"I'm worried that you won't let yourself love again. Xaviar used you, Addie, and betrayed you and yet he claims to still love you. Call his obsession with you what you like, it's not love. He is not capable, I believe, of truly loving anyone. I fear you will not let yourself feel that again, and remain too afraid to trust anyone."
Adeline's eyes rounded. "I never loved Xaviar, Peter. I could have, I almost got to that point, but everything got in the way. Then I learned the truth about him."
He took a tiny step forward. "You didn't love Xaviar?"
He stood just outside arm's reach, looking down at her and seeing the vulnerability in her eyes. He was suddenly very glad this discussion was happening.
"May I ask you something, Adeline?"
She nodded slightly, and despite how nervous she was he opted for bluntness. "Do you think you could come to love my brother? Is he the sort of man you could give your heart to, unreservedly?"
Adeline licked her lips and swallowed.
"Yes." The word was whispered hoarsely.
Satisfied, Peter nodded. "Then I have but one request of you, Adeline."
He waited for her to nod again, and continued, "I am sure that you have learned to think with your head, rather than your heart. This is especially important on the battlefield. One cannot afford to be distracted, but I've learned that acting without any emotion whatsoever doesn't work either. You must not turn off your feelings, Adeline. You're still human."
Her brow furrowed. "I don't know what you mean, Pete."
"I mean, you cannot lead with your heart, but rather be driven by it. Fight because of your love for Archenland, for Gwen, for Fitz and Izzy, for Edmund, for anyone. Love cannot lead, Addie; it almost always ends in disaster, but it is the driving force behind everything I do. When I remember that, my sword weighs nothing and my shield is unbreakable."
Adeline's eyes were huge, but she nodded. Peter could see the gears turning and knew he'd made the right choice. She would be fine.
"While you're here, Adeline, I need to discuss the excursion plan with you."
She started a bit at the sudden change in topic, but nodded quickly. "I understand we're to meet them in one of the tents? Do the Rebellion officers have any idea we're coming?"
"No, as far as I can tell they don't even know they have spies among them. Hopefully this is true; if, however, they are anticipating you and Edmund tonight, then your main objective is for all seven of you to make it back here, to the safety of the castle." He didn't miss the furtive glance she threw him, and wasted no time in adding, "Addie, I don't want you risking your life for the sake of this entire mission. Those men are not Narnian, but they did not come into this blindly. They knew exactly what they were signing up for. Don't go overboard protecting them, alright?"
Adeline sighed. "Alright. Are there any other details we need to work out? It's only an hour till dusk; we don't have long to get ready."
"No, that should be all. Just…be careful, Addie."
She smiled briefly, and slipped out the door, hurrying down the hall to her own room, where she shut that door behind her and sat on the edge of her bed, gripping the edge of the mattress and boring a hole through the floor with her gaze. She had half an hour before she needed to meet Edmund down in the stables, which left her approximately fifteen minutes to get dressed and ready to go, and fifteen to think.
In truth, Adeline had never been more astounded in her life. She wasn't exactly sure what she'd been expecting from Edmund, but his staunch declaration of love certainly wasn't it. Add to that the emotional taxation of Xaviar's visit, the presence of her father down in the dungeons, and the knowledge that a battle likely would happen within the next two days, and her head was already spinning. And all of that was before she thought about the kiss.
Adeline closed her eyes, allowing herself for the first time to think back on it. She had no experience to go on, but something told her that Edmund had kissed her in the way many girls only ever dreamed of. Her cheeks flushed as she remembered the way his fingertips had threaded through her hair, his thumbs stroking over her temples as he'd pulled her closer, like he was dying of hunger and she was the first food he'd tasted in weeks.
But he hadn't been alone, had he? No, she could still feel the muscles in his sides beneath her hands, clenching in response to her touch. Never before had a man reacted to her that way, like she was well and truly beautiful.
And she had positively no idea what to do next.
If the man loved her, why in Aslan's name hadn't he said something before now? Why did he wait for Xaviar to be the one to tell her, making Edmund the one to rush in and reassure her it wasn't a joke? How hard could it be to tell a woman how you felt?
There, her disappointment and hurt faded a bit. She imagined Edmund had wrestled with his feelings for weeks on end, and, knowing him, he hadn't decided to keep them from her without a great deal of thought. Her gut clenched in dread as she realized the only way to answer her questions would be to ask him.
Yes, that was sure to be gobs of fun – having a personal, romantic and intimate conversation with a man whom she likely wouldn't be able to talk to without wanting to kiss him again.
She sighed, and pushed to her feet. Overthinking it wouldn't help, that was for certain. She reached for her sword, pushing her uncertainty to the side and as she dressed she reviewed the plan for tonight.
Across the hall in his own room, Edmund was in no better state. He'd spend the past thirty minutes since he'd left Peter's study pacing the floor in front of his bed, mentally bashing himself over the head for being so unforgivably stupid.
Why he'd ever thought not telling Adeline was a good idea was beyond him. He supposed it was mainly due to his pride, and fear of rejection; he'd found a handy excuse in the current war and Adeline's history with Xaviar, and had pounced on it. Then, when she'd learned of his feelings after all, he'd literally pounced on her, leaving no room for her to argue or push him away.
That, more than anything else, bothered him. He'd held her so tightly in the garden, she might not have been able to extricate herself if she'd wanted. He knew that Adeline was much stronger than she looked, and in any case he remembered – in vivid detail – that she'd kissed him back. But what if that was out of pity, or kindness? What if, deep down, she'd found his touch repulsive? His heart felt like lead in his chest at the mere thought.
Still, he'd dumped this squarely in her lap, and he was determined to face whatever consequences there were. And despite what his future with Adeline held, they still had a war to win.
He let out a long, frustrated breath though his nose, and started rummaging around for his armor. He was ready in record time, and took one of his frequent shortcuts down to the stables. As he descended the small, winding staircase down the outside of the palace wall that would land him in the main courtyard, he came around a bend too fast and collided with Adeline on the step below him.
Instinctively he reached to steady her, and unconsciously moved to the step below her, cutting the difference in their heights in half. The top of her head just reached his chin now, and as he leaned back he caught a whiff of apple blossoms from her hair.
Forcing himself away, he removed his hands from her upper arms. "Sorry, Addie, I didn't see you." He hated how his voice sounded, breathless and nervous.
"S'alright, Eddie. I wasn't paying attention in any case."
Something in him soared at hearing what had become her nickname for him, but he didn't miss the rest of what she said either. "Something on your mind?"
Immediately her eyes were glued to his indignantly, and he winced inwardly at his question. "Sorry."
"Now that you mention it…" she started dryly, and he couldn't quite stop the sheepish grin.
"Well, Addie, we have a few minutes. And I think you deserve some answers, so…." He nodded, gesturing her to go ahead.
She took a deep breath. "Why did you decide not to tell me?"
To his profound relief she didn't sound upset, or even hurt. Just curious. And yet her question was proving difficult to answer. He gritted his teeth, swallowed his pride, and looked her square in the eye.
"If you'd asked me yesterday, I would have answered that I was trying to protect you."
Adeline's eyebrows shot upward. "Protect me? From what?"
"I thought you had enough to deal with, enough problems to sort out. And I would only be presenting you with another one, and I didn't want to cause you added stress by dumping something else on your plate. It was cowardly, and selfish. I'm sorry, Addie."
She was silent for the space of three heartbeats, before asking quietly, "Did you kiss me because you were afraid I wouldn't believe you otherwise?"
His heart felt like it was being twisted inside him. "No."
"Then why did you?"
He let his eyes roam over her face, drinking in her beauty. "Because I'd wanted to for a long time and was tired of fighting the impulse, mostly."
A pink flush began to work its way up her neck. He leaned closer. "Why did you kiss me back?"
For a moment that felt like eternity, she said nothing. Then she suddenly reached up, hooked her fingers down inside the top of his breastplate, and yanked him to her, catching his surprised mouth with her own.
His hands landed on her waist as he regained his balance, and he felt his senses swimming as she threaded her fingers through his hair, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and kissing him in a way that made his blood boil. It took a matter of seconds before he was kissing her back, his hands on her back, one fisted around the end of her glossy, slick braid.
She fit against him perfectly, like she was designed just for this moment, to stand here in his arms. His heart pounded a rough rhythm in his chest, and he hooked one arm up behind her shoulder to hold the back of her neck and she inhaled sharply, and scratched her nails against his scalp and it was like molten fire in his veins, burning him from the inside, only the last thing he wanted was water.
Still, the horses were likely waiting for them by now. Reluctantly, and using every grain of self-control he had, he pulled away, placing his palm on her flushed cheek. He did nothing to squelch the foolish grin that bloomed on his face, and it was returned immediately before Adeline's eyes widened in shock, the boldness of her actions registering.
"Oh, Edmund, I'm so s-"
He placed on finger over her lips, looking as stern as possible whilst smiling from ear to ear.
"Adeline, do not ever apologize for that. Ever."
She blushed harder and nodded, and he took her hand in his to finish the walk to the stables together.
Two hours later Adeline silently hoisted herself up into a tree, finding a stout branch to stand on, and waited. She drew her bow, and a single arrow notched to the string.
The signal, a soft whistle from Edmund below, caught her ears. She glanced down and saw him sneak over to the base of the sturdy maple tree, and grinned at him when he looked up to where Adeline perched above in its branches. He smiled back before they both returned to the task at hand, remembering everything that was at stake.
Adeline shifted, ever so slightly, and tightened her grip on her bow. The fletching gently scratched her cheek where she held the drawn arrow, anchored at the corner of her mouth.
One, two deep breaths, and waited for the quiet breeze to move the branch beneath her out of the way. The leaves parted, giving her a clear shot to the unsuspecting guard walking by below.
Her arrow struck with a soft thud, and Edmund was immediately there to slowly lower the body to the ground, careful not to let the armor rattle or clink together.
Adeline had already notched another arrow, guarding and allowing Edmund to creep his way towards the tent some twenty yards away. He stood just beside the door, watching for other guards while Adeline climbed down effortlessly and joined him, and together they slipped inside.
Instantly Adeline felt the tip of a sword on her sternum, but Edmund's voice came softly through the dark.
"It's King Edmund and the Lady Adeline." The weapons were removed, and a single lantern was lit. The faces of five men were illuminated; Adeline glanced around the circle before starting in surprise.
The innkeeper smiled and bowed his head. "My lady. Forgive me for my dishonesty upon our first meeting. Recent events have required me to act with utmost discretion."
Adeline's head was spinning. "You're one of the spies?"
"Yes, m'lady. A quiet inn on the border seemed a good place to keep an eye on things following the murder of Princess Gwen, though your passing through was perfectly timed for my escape. You saved my life, Lady."
She was about to reply, but an elbow nudge from Edmund brought her back to their purpose here tonight.
"Well, we'll have time to chat later. Right now we need to move. All of you follow King Edmund."
The party of seven slipped out a back entrance to the tent in hopes of avoiding any guards. The guard Adeline had shot, and the three Edmund had been forced to kill on the camp's northern border were sure to be discovered. The objective was to retrieve the Archenland spies without being detected coming or going; so far they had four bodies to account for, and they were running out of time. Even though she hoped she didn't have to use it again, Adeline notched another arrow as she brought up the rear.
Edmund moved stealthily through the trees, staying just on the boundary of the small wood Xaviar's forces were encamped next to. Shortly they made it to the southern edge of the camp where there horses were waiting. Adeline stood with her arrow drawn, until the others had mounted. She then turned and easily swung onto her horse, following Edmund towards the castle in the distance.
In actuality, the proximity of the Rebellion camp to the Cair was one of the trickier components of putting together this rescue mission. In the end, however, they'd decided that only two people would be needed if it had any chance of succeeding. The castle remained dark, since the presence of lanterns to guide them home would only alert Xaviar that something was amiss; the best war strategists in three countries had put together this plan, yet Adeline knew that she wouldn't be able to relax until the gates of Cair Paravel shut behind them.
The horses were moving at a steady pace over soft earth, and they weren't riding very close at all to the camp so there was next to no chance that anyone would hear them, but for some reason the hair on the back of Adeline's neck stood on end, and she glanced over her shoulder, just in time to see the soldier jump off a low-hanging branch, where he'd been crouching in plain sight, yet blending in perfectly in his dark surroundings.
He wasn't a very big man, but as was usually the case he was, at least, bigger than she. Her right shoulder caught the full force of his weight, and she felt her ankle wrench free of the stirrup as he tackled her straight to the forest floor.
For some reason he didn't shout, but rather pulled back his hand and made to strike her across the face; she blocked it with one hand and drove the knuckles of the other into his nose. His head snapped back and she took the second of distraction to yank her dagger from her belt and rammed it to the hilt into his chest.
She heaved the body off of her and rolled to her feet; all around seemed to be chaos. Everywhere she looked there was shouting and the clanging of swords. Her stomach clenched, knowing the sounds would only attract more soldiers from the camp, and help from Cair Paravel was far from coming. She shouted, struggling to make her voice heard above the din.
In the dim moonlight she saw five riders, one by one, haul themselves into their saddles. She ran another soldier through, bashed another on the head, and mounted her own horse, shouting again as her heels dug in, taking off at a frantic gallop for the palace. She heard hoof beats behind, and glanced over her shoulder to see the five horses following her closely. Her heart sank; they'd lost a man, likely killed in the ambush.
Fortunately, they weren't being followed, and they gained the front gates in nearly record time. The hooves clattered on the flagstones in the courtyard, and she could just make out the figures of Peter and Caspian hurrying down the front steps, Lucy and Susan just behind them.
Adeline dismounted, and handed off the reins to a servant before turning and facing the four remaining spies.
"If any of you need medical attention, please –" her throat suddenly closed as she realized that all five spies were alive and standing before her, mostly unscathed. One was bleeding from a nasty cut on his arm, and Tomas had busted lip and bloody nose, but all five men from Archenland were accounted for. Which meant…
She'd left him. Run off and deserted him.
A wave of nausea rolled over her, thick and heavy, and she lurched for a horse standing idly nearby; it wasn't hers but she couldn't have cared less, it had four legs and moved fast and would take her back to Edmund, only a pair of arms seized her around the middle and deposited her on the ground. She tried again, but didn't even get one foot in the stirrup before she pulled back, this time the dry sobs choking her.
"Edmund." The name was wrenched out of her. She felt as though a knife had run her through. How could she have let this happen?
"Addie, you'll only get yourself killed if you go back now. We'll get him in the morning." It was Peter, almost cradling her against his chest as he comforted her, though she could hear the tremor in his voice as a horrible thought occurred to her.
They might get Edmund back in the morning, but there wasn't much chance they would get him back alive.