It is often said that the darkest hours of the night are those just before dawn. Those moments before the sun sends its first pink tendrils fingering over the horizon are all the more dark and oppressive, as though the sun wishes to make itself brighter and more glorious by contrast.
Lit torches lined the walls in their brackets, and the waning moon cast dim light through the windows, and yet here, just two hours before sunrise, the corridor outside Edmund's room had never felt so black to Peter.
He let his head fall dully against the stone behind him, wondering at how something that should have been greeted with such joy had been tainted by sorrow. Their relief over Edmund's return had been somewhat squashed by the absence of Adeline, and even as they had hurried to get the healers assembled in his room they all were struggling not to lose control.
Beside him, Caspian shifted. The two of them were seated on the floor opposite Edmund's room; Susan and Lucy had disappeared within, accompanied by the royal healers and handful of servants. All was quiet on the other side of the closed door, and while Peter knew that anyone being tended by Lucy would be fine, he couldn't bring himself to move until he'd seen his brother.
If he were honest with himself, Peter knew his concern had little to do with Edmund's wounds from his time in captivity, but rather the emotional state in which he'd returned to the Cair.
After Adeline had walked away with Xaviar, Edmund had attempted to follow. Though it went against every instinct in his body, Peter knew the consequences if Edmund were to succeed. Together, he and Caspian managed to pull Edmund back, where they'd all stood rather helplessly as their friend had ridden away.
The moment they were out of sight, Edmund's legs had buckled, and he'd ended up riding Glenstorm back to the palace. He had looked to be so close to passing out from exhaustion that Peter and Caspian had ridden on either side of him in case he fell off. Peter fought a shudder now, remembering the amount of blood on Edmund's torso and the bruises that littered his face.
Worst of all, however, was his brother's silence.
No pleas to go back for Adeline.
No shouting at Peter for letting her go.
No asking when they would be going to rescue her (Peter had dreaded this, because he wasn't entirely sure they should attempt rescuing Adeline).
After all of his frantic shouting and yelling while Adeline struck her deal with Xaviar, Edmund had been as silent as the dead on the return trip. Peter suspected that part of this might be due to shock – Lucy's cordial literally worked miracles, but not even starflower juice could make up for that much blood loss – and part of it due to a different kind of shock, the kind where you were unable to come to terms with what had happened.
That feeling was no stranger to the Pevensie siblings. Discovering an entire forest inside a wardrobe, meeting a slew of talking animals, rediscovering Britain inside the wardrobe – outside it? – and, most especially, losing their parents were all more than sufficient reasons for the human brain to more or less shut down and refuse to accept any more information.
And so while Edmund's silence was worrying, Peter thought it might be for the best. His body would have a chance to heal while his mind caught up a bit.
His thoughts were derailed when Edmund's door opened and his sisters appeared. He and Caspian stood immediately, the latter drawing Susan into a quick hug before taking her hand.
"How is he?" Peter hardly recognized his own voice.
"He's on the mend." Lucy replied simply. He could see the toll of the past several hours on her, and he pulled her into his arms when he noticed her tear-filled eyes.
"I just…I just don't understand what she was thinking," Lucy choked out. "Surely there must have been some other way."
Caspian shook his head. "When you love someone, there is no measure too extreme if it guarantees that one's safety."
"But now she's stuck, at least until we go for her – "
"Lucy," Peter interrupted gently, "I'm not certain we ought to. This…this might be as far as we need to go."
Lucy turned outraged, red-rimmed eyes on him. "How can you say that? Just beyond that door is our brother, and when he comes to he's going to be positively heartbroken! Why on earth would we not go for her? She sacrificed herself for him!"
"It was more than that, Lu," Susan said quietly. "She ended the entire war. There still might be some conflict in Anvard with Fitz and Izzy, but I wouldn't be surprised if by sundown there isn't a trace of Xaviar or his forces in all of Narnia."
For a moment Lucy looked betrayed by the fact that Susan had taken sides against her, but then her shoulders slumped in defeat. "So what you're saying is, is if we make any attempt at all to rescue Addie, then we risk restarting this whole mess."
"I'm afraid so," Peter said heavily. "It's mainly because she's not Narnian. Fitz and Izzy could probably try to rescue her, but considering the terms of her agreement with Xaviar it still might not be the best idea. I hate it as much as you, and I'm dreading having to break the news to Edmund, but there's nothing to be done. We can't start a war over one woman. Adeline wouldn't want that much bloodshed on her account."
The words tasted bitter and sour in his mouth, and more than anything he wanted to take all of them back, to reassure Lucy that they wouldn't rest until Adeline was safe with them once more. But he knew it was pointless, just as Adeline herself had no doubt known when she had let herself be led away.
It was cruelly ironic, he thought. Narnia had won the war, but it felt like they'd lost.
It was somehow fitting that she'd arrived here as a prisoner of war, bound and riding a horse surrounded by guards, and then was promptly taken to a luxurious suite in one of the towers. Even Gwen's rooms in Anvard couldn't compare to the lush surroundings Adeline found herself in now.
Of course, she would probably be able to appreciate Xaviar's hospitality a bit more had they not tied her to a chair in the center of the room and left her there all day long.
Adeline attempted to blow a wisp of hair out of her face, and huffed in annoyance when it caught in her eyelashes. It tickled and stung, but her wrists were tightly bound behind her. She'd lost feeling in her fingers long ago, and her legs ached from their prolonged confinement. Her shoulder, which had suffered a moderate injury during the battle, was throbbing dully. That particular wound did nothing to assuage the guilt that rolled thick and hot in her stomach. If only she'd been more alert, hadn't let out one stupid cry of pain, Edmund would've won his duel with Xaviar and she wouldn't have had to see that heartbroken look in his eyes as she left.
She was suddenly distracted from her discomfort when the door opened, and what looked to be a small battalion of soldiers, accompanied by a handful of maidservants, filtered in. None of them spoke, but rather moved to surround her in a half-circle. The door banged closed again, and Adeline felt herself grow twitchy under all the scrutiny.
"What?" she finally snapped, causing more than one armored guard to jump. She hid her amusement, not really wanting to terrorize the maids. It was unlikely all of them were here by choice.
"Prince Xaviar wishes for you to join him for dinner. He has sent an appropriate change of clothes for you."
Has he now? Adeline barely concealed an eye roll. "I'm not hungry," she announced stoutly.
The spokesman had to swallow several times before he tried again. "He…Prince Xaviar was most adamant."
"I'm sure he was," Adeline returned smoothly, "but I'm not hungry, and I'm not changing into some blasted dress just to traipse downstairs and watch someone else eat. You can tell Lord Xaviar that his fiancé," here, she resisted the urge to vomit, "is feeling unwell and will be retiring early."
"Lady Adeline, I'm afraid I must insist on His Grace's behalf."
Briefly she felt sorry for the man in front of her; it was clear that he was terrified of both her and Xaviar, and she was putting him between a rock and a hard place. But she remembered Gwen's lifeless eyes, Xaviar's sword being inches away from being plunged through Peter's back, Edmund's lips pressing frantically against her own before she wormed her way out of his grip to stand beside Xaviar, and her heart hardened.
At that the maids stepped forward. As one they dragged her chair behind a screen in the corner, where Adeline was horrified to find a large bathtub waiting. She heard the door open again, and a moment later more guards appeared behind the screen to empty their buckets of steaming hot water into the tub before they disappeared.
One of the maids reached to unlace the front of Adeline's tunic, and she felt every muscle in her body snap to attention.
"Don't touch me," she spat with enough venom to make the hand retract. All the maids paused, one in the midst of unbraiding her hair, and she could see the question in their gazes. She hated it, hated them, but so far that lunatic had taken her sister, her family, the man she loved, and countless Narnian, Archenlandian, and Calormen lives. She wasn't about to let him take her dignity as well.
They must have sensed her defeat; one of them turned away and scattered some white powdery substance into the bath water. Immediately the scent of wild roses assailed Adeline's nostrils, so powerful that she struggled not to cough. Another maid untied her bonds, and although every part of her screamed for her to run, to knock the maids aside and bolt for the door, she knew she'd never make it past the guards. She was injured and unarmed.
Reluctantly she undressed, loosed the braid in her hair and stepped in. She hissed slightly when the hot water met the cut on her shoulder, and jumped when one of the maids began to wash her back. She started to protest, but she caught the barest flicker of regret and fear on the young woman's face. Pity stirred deep within her, and she faced the front again, forcing herself to focus on washing her hair.
In short order she was clean, though the overpowering fragrance of the bath salts made her feel like she needed another bath. One of the maids went around the screen, reappearing with a double armful of fabric. They assisted her into the required undergarments, but Adeline faltered when they pulled out the corset.
"Is that really necessary?" She asked, trying not to sound intimidating. It was obvious that the maids weren't treating her this way out of spite, but rather out of fear of Xaviar. She hadn't thought it possible to hate the man more than she already did.
"It is, m'lady," one of them replied simply.
Adeline had worn corsets before, but on very rare and special occasions. They greatly hampered her movements, so it not only brought extreme discomfort but also made her less capable as a bodyguard for Gwen. The maids tried to be gentle, but when they were finally done tugging the laces as tight as they could possibly be tugged Adeline's head spun.
Once she caught her breath again she allowed them to assist her into the dress. It was a deep, rich turquoise in color, with long sleeves that had slits running from wrist to shoulder, allowing the skin of her arms to be covered but still peek through. The material was luxurious but not heavy, and Adeline was just about to reluctantly admit to herself that it was a beautiful gown when she caught sight of herself in the mirror – and almost gagged.
She hadn't noticed when the maids held up the dress before her, but the bodice of the dress was cut much lower than she was used to. It really wasn't that bad, she knew that deep down if she took a moment to think logically; she'd seen Izzy and Gwen wear similar gowns on numerous occasions. But that wasn't the point. The point was that Adeline herself had never worn such a garment, because never in her entire life had she sought to have everyone's attention focused upon her, the way it surely would be dressed like this. It was not the attire of a guard and companion, but rather a royal dress, down to the last stitch, and it served no purpose other than to restate Xaviar's intentions with her – to replace Gwen.
She was horrified to feel her eyes prickling. Impatiently blinking away the tears, she set about fixing her hair. She'd planned to wear it loose about her shoulders, pinning the sides back and allowing the rest to give her some semblance of coverage, but the maids stopped her.
"My lady, His Grace asked that you wear this in your hair."
It was an elaborately jeweled hair comb. Adeline could tell by looking at it that using it would require all of her hair to be scooped on top of her head, leaving her shoulders, neck, and much of her chest bare. Her heart sank but she caught the strange, sad look in the maid's eyes again, and she swallowed thickly.
When they were done, one of them stepped forward again and placed an intricate necklace of glistening silver and diamonds about her throat. Adeline saw no purpose in protesting this time. She stood quietly while they made some final adjustments to her skirts, and at last she was released. She felt strange in the extravagant attire, and when she saw the finished product in the full length mirror her breath caught in her throat.
The gown, while far more revealing up top than she preferred, fell in rich folds, accentuating her petite frame without making her look like a small child. The necklace shimmered above the neckline, the metal and jewels uncomfortable and cool against her skin, and her hair was twisted and pinned into an elaborate mass on the top of her head, with the jeweled comb nestled in the front. It bore a suspicious resemblance to a crown, something that was not missed by her scrutiny.
Adeline drew in one shaky breath, and lifted her chin. If Xaviar wanted her to look like a queen, then she'd act the part.
When she stepped around the screen, she wasn't surprised to find all the guards still there. They surrounded her on the way downstairs, while the maids stayed behind to clean up her room – at least, she supposed it was her room.
The journey to dinner didn't take long; Adeline hadn't seen the extent of the building when she arrived but it was obviously a manor, a bit on the larger side though nowhere near the grand elegance of Cair Paravel or Anvard. Every square inch of wall, floor, or ceiling was adorned with tapestries or rugs or ornate murals. Adeline caught herself wrinkling her nose at it all.
Suddenly a pair of double doors opened, and the guards in front of her parted, giving her room to pass through and enter a dark, enormous dining room. It was empty, and when she'd gone in the guards shut the doors behind her, leaving her alone.
Adeline repressed the urge to shiver in the revealing dress; she moved to the fireplace and tried not to think about living here permanently. Surely some of the staff would warm up to her, given time. She'd have to find a way to make the best of it. There was no turning back now.
A door opened behind her, then shut again after soft footsteps had entered.
Even at Xaviar's voice she didn't turn around; she was determined not to act jumpy, but give off the impression of someone who was resignedly bored. Her blatant rudeness did little to deter him, however, and in moments he was standing opposite her at the fireplace, openly staring and making her skin crawl with the look in his eyes.
"You look heavenly," he said. She remained silent, gazing instead into the flames and desperately wishing she could wake up from this awful nightmare.
Once again he wasn't put off by her ignoring him. He gestured to the table and said, "Please, come eat."
When she turned in that direction he offered her his arm, but Adeline immediately headed for the table on her own, pulling out her own chair and taking her seat before he could take more than two steps away from the fireplace.
He pretended not to notice her brush-off, and came to sit in the chair next to hers. The table was empty of food, but he rang a small golden bell and servants immediately entered bearing platters and bowls. Somehow she managed to eat, though everything was like ash in her mouth. Xaviar attempted several times to engage her in small talk, but she never said a word in reply. Eventually he gave up, and when they were at last finished he rose to escort her back to her room. Something told Adeline that protesting against this would be pointless, but she made sure to remain just outside arm's reach as they walked the corridors.
When they reached her chambers she turned and gave the faintest hint of a curtsey before heading inside, but at the last moment he seized her wrist.
"Adeline – "he started but faltered when she wrenched out of his grasp, standing and looking at him with every drop of malice and hatred she felt evident in her features.
"I may have agreed to marry you, Xaviar, but if you touch me again before our wedding night, you will be dead before your body falls to the floor."
She derived some savage pleasure from the way his eyes widened, and he forced his hand back to his side.
"Very well," he agreed, "but I think we should talk a bit before the wedding."
"Do you?" she couldn't keep the scorn out of her voice, not that she was trying.
"Adeline, my love –"
Adeline felt something in her snap. "Don't," she snarled, taking a threatening step towards him, "Don't you dare call me that." Anger began to glimmer in his eyes, but she wasn't finished.
"I don't even like you, Xaviar. I am your prisoner, not your love."
He scoffed. "Oh, then, I suppose you're Edmund's love, are you?"
"Till the day I draw my last breath, yes, I am."
Her words seemed to knock the wind out of him; he stood gaping at her in astonishment, and inwardly Adeline was surprised at her vehemence, but found that she was most surprised at how much she meant it. The realization gave her courage to turn away from him, and shut the door in his face before he could say another word.
Peter felt as though his body had melted into the chair. He knew there were lists of things that he needed to be doing, but he couldn't bring himself to move away from Edmund's bedside. It was the middle of the afternoon, the day after they'd returned to the Cair from the battle, and Edmund had only awakened for brief moments to ask for water. Each time he seemed more coherent, yet Peter was dreading his brother's full return to consciousness, because then he'd have to tell Edmund where Adeline was, and that she was likely to stay there.
Edmund suddenly stirred, and his eyes flew open as he gasped. Peter was instantly hovering over him.
"Ed?" he asked quietly, trying to figure out how lucid Edmund was without disturbing him in case he was already half way asleep again.
Edmund's eyes found his, however. "Ugh…" he moaned, reaching up to clutch his head with one hand.
"Easy," Peter soothed, "you've got a concussion. And a lot of other things, too."
Edmund nodded, closing his eyes again as his breathing evened out. "How many days?" he rasped.
"We brought you back early yesterday morning. Lucy's been keeping an eye on your wounds in case of infection, but she says you're healing nicely so far. Her cordial's been a great help."
A rough, choked laugh escaped Edmund's chapped lips. "Yeah, I can believe that. Saved my life earlier…" he trailed off, and the look in his eyes was the only clue Peter needed to know where his thoughts had gone.
"Ed…Addie…," he licked his lips and swallowed past the lump in his throat, "she…Ed, she left, and –"
"S'alright, Pete," Edmund whispered hoarsely. "I remember now."
Peter fought the urge to wring his hands as he watched his brother stare up at the ceiling. He didn't remember even having to tell the others about their parents' deaths hurting this much. He swallowed again and forced himself to continue. Edmund deserved the truth.
"Ed..I-I'm sorry, so sorry…but, we…we can't…"
Edmund shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut. One of his hands groped blindly on top the bedclothes, and Peter knelt and took it, feeling his brother cling to his hand with all his feeble strength. He tried again.
"Edmund, we can't-," he was interrupted again.
"I know," Edmund choked. "I know."
Peter watched helplessly as, for the first time since they were children, tears ran in rivulets down Edmund's face. For a moment Edmund tried to control himself, breathing hard, but eventually gave up and let out the deep, wracking sobs. Peter was unsurprised to feel his own face wet with tears, and after a few moments he lowered his forehead to rest on the mattress, gripping Edmund's hand in his own.