Dear, dear Adeline,
How I wish I could see you now. Fitz and I have been trying our best to pick up and move on, but without the war giving us a purpose, some days are a struggle. Cristoff and his men returned, along with your father – it baffles me that that man would sneak in among the ranks of our soldiers just to see you again, especially since he gave no signs of acknowledging the news that you'd been killed in Tashbaan, but I gave up trying to understand your father long ago – and our good general reported to us all that transpired during the battle.
You are a woman of such courage. I only wish you could also be a woman of equal happiness. The thought of you leaving Edmund behind to join Xaviar as his wife…it is too much for Fitz and I to bear, at times. How I wish there was something we could do, some manner of extricating you from this horrid arrangement without restarting the entire rebellion, but short of bashing our heads against the wall in frustration there is nothing we can think of. It leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
Has he harmed you? I know you may not be able to write back, but Tomas will tell me if you are well. Please don't leave out any details for my sake, Addie.
How you've grown so. How strong you've become, how intelligent and beautiful and brave. How wonderful a woman you've grown up to be. Gwen would be so proud, dear. I know Fitz and I are.
Addie, dear, you know we care for you as though you were our own flesh and blood. In a matter of weeks after you moved into the castle, you became part of our lives, just as Gwen did when she was born. For this reason, Fitz and I offer you the same advice we gave our daughter on numerous occasions:
Follow your instincts.
You know how many offers of marriage Gwen received, how many hopeful suitors came for a visit, only to depart again empty-handed. You may think this is because Fitz and I encouraged Gwen not to marry young, but that is only half true. Were an honorable man, a man with good intentions and kind heart, to approach her, if she were to trust and love him, her father and I would not have stood in her way, apart from offering any counsel or advice she would request of us.
Our most fervent wish was not for our daughter to learn how to run a country before she married, but for her to still live a life as a woman that was full of joy and happiness and security. No parent should want any less for their child, and it is my firm belief that politics have no place in decisions that involve matters of the heart.
For so long you have been governed by duty. Your childhood was sacrificed so that another might have hers, and although neither Fitz nor I expected you to take your charge so seriously, you have our undying gratitude for doing so.
And yet…oh, Addie, and yet I fear your duty has blinded you. Blinded you to the possibility of a happy life, to the goodness of the man who has offered his complete heart to you, to your own merits and entitlement to a life with the man you love.
I know your heart is his as well. I know you as well as I knew Gwen. You are my child in all but blood. I see how you look at him, how you care for him.
How much you must be hurting now, having to give him up for the sake of three countries, two of which are not your own.
While I don't want more war and bloodshed any more than you do, Addie…if the moment arises, take it. If you see one opportunity, a chance for you to have both honor and love, my dear, you must take it. Life is nothing if you do not have both.
I have every faith in you, Adeline. Every confidence in the world that I shall see you again, alive and whole and, as Gwen would say, "gloriously, disgustingly happy" beside the man you love. I pray that you have this faith in yourself as well, dear. Your limitations are only as finite as you imagine them to be.
I've prattled on long enough. Keep your wits about you, your sword (though I doubt he's allowed you to have one) at the ready, and as always, keep Fitz and I's love for you close to your heart.
Adeline folded up the letter slowly, not even trying to hide her tear-streaked face. She took one, two shaky breaths, and said, "Thank you, Tomas."
That good man nodded deeply. "She worries for you, my lady. As does the king. And the general paces his office, trying to think of a solution."
She managed a weak smile. "That sounds like Cristoff, alright." Resolutely, she tucked the letter away and forced her mind to more important matters. "What news is there?"
Tomas immediately withdrew a large scroll – briefly she wondered if he was growing tired of playing courier – and unfurled it on the small writing desk that sat in the corner of her room. By the light of the tiny flickering candle and the waning moon, she peered over his shoulder at the map, littered with circles, arrows, X's and various other markings.
He pointed. "We've successful ruled out these areas for possible locations. The Western Wood hasn't been investigated yet, but it's highly unlikely Xaviar hid them there – it's overgrown and wild, full of Talking Beasts and Dumb alike. But we haven't entirely ruled it out."
"What about the Lone Islands?" Adeline queried, noticing there were no markings on that portion of the map.
"We're unable to physically go and search, due to the extensive rebuilding efforts in Cair Paravel. But we have searched the shipment records from Narnia, the Archenlands and Calormen and found no trace of them."
"Good." She surveyed the map once more. "I didn't find anything last week in Xaviar's study, but I'll see about tomorrow night. There has to be something I'm missing."
"Be careful, my lady." Tomas looked anxious, but she waved a hand.
"Oh, don't worry about me. Xaviar won't kill me; the wedding's in a week's time." Even as she said the words a knot of dread tightened in her gut. A week. Seven days, and she would be attached to that coward's side forever.
"Even so, you're our best hope for finding those children."
She looked up and saw the determined glint in his eye, and nodded. "I'll find them."
The next night, Adeline waited until the moon was high, then slipped out of bed and picked up the dark blue blanket that lay on the chaise lounge that she had not once felt the desire to recline upon. Her nightgown hit her just below the knees, but the blanket was large enough for two – she wrinkled her nose at the implications of that – so it was fairly easy to wrap it around herself, wearing it like a floor-length cloak. She braided her hair back, and tucked it inside before lifting up the cowl to cover her head. The bright gold would catch any torch or moonlight, and she would be easily recognized by even the lowest scullery maid.
When she was satisfied with her disguise, she picked up the dagger that Tomas had brought her on his third visit and tucked it inside the blanket, hidden but accessible. Normally Adeline kept the dagger strapped to her thigh, since the maids didn't help her bathe anymore and didn't assist her with dressing until after she had at least one underskirt on, but the first night she'd done this, nearly three weeks ago, she'd forgotten to take it off before putting on her blanket-cloak. She was unable to reach it after that, since the wrapping was done so tightly, and had wasted precious minutes undoing and redoing the whole thing. She hadn't made that mistake again.
Slowly she cracked the door open, casting a wary eye about for guards, but the hall was empty at the moment, and the door shut silently behind her. Her bare feet made no sound on the cold stone floor, making it easier to dart in and out of shadowy alcoves whenever she heard someone approaching. She made it to Xaviar's private study without incident, and crept inside after picking the lock with the letter opener she had "forgotten" to put back.
The room was large, ostentatious, and had an air of pompous self-importance. Even if Adeline had never been in this room before her first night sneaking out, it would have been easy to identify.
The desk was exactly the same as always – neat and orderly to the point of freakishness, and Adeline stifled a painful memory of Edmund's desk that was eternally littered with papers and documents that needed signing and reminders from Reepicheep that he needed to train this week and the occasional sarcastic note from Lucy or Peter for upsetting one of the nobles with a too-blunt comment during a meeting.
Though they never yielded anything, she meticulously checked all of the desk's drawers and cubbies, looking for false bottoms or hidden compartments. She found nothing, once again, but refused to go to bed empty handed. She lifted out heavy, leather-bound ledgers and volumes from the bottom drawer of a buffet that sat behind the desk. Atop it stood several ornate pieces of pottery and an absolutely ridiculous looking sword hung on the wall above (how was one supposed to use the thing if you couldn't even find the handle amongst all the sculpted metal surrounding the hilt?), but the drawers beneath were large, large enough to hide almost anything.
No secret compartments, no false bottoms, nothing at all out of the ordinary. Adeline cast a worried look out the window – the sky was not yet rose with the dawn, but the inky-black was just beginning to show a hint of blue to the east. She didn't have much time left. Chewing on her lip, she began to replace all of the books into the last drawer when the top one on the stack slid off onto the floor, tumbling a bit and falling open.
Mercifully the thick rug muffled the sound, though she waited for several pounding heartbeats to be sure no one was coming. She gingerly picked it up and started to put it away, but paused.
The inside of the leather cover was sewn to the stiff bindings of the book. She'd seen several volumes like this before, in Fitz's study as well as all of the kings' private studies at the Cair. But this one was peculiar – all of the pages were blank. And the thickness she could feel through the spine was disproportionate to the number of pages she saw. It was as though her eyes and her hand were studying two different books.
Hastily – the sky held the barest glow of pink – Adeline opened the front cover and ran a finger down the inside seam, right beside the left edge of the first page. When she found nothing she did the same inside the back cover, and there, right in the middle, she found it. A tiny, almost perfectly hidden seam.
Heart pounding, she managed to get the edge of the letter opener under the upper flap, and quite suddenly the entire inside backing of the cover came loose, folding back along the edge. The entire binding of the book now flopped over, revealing a sheaf of papers that were carefully stacked exactly behind the ledger so that they wouldn't be felt as out of place through the cover. Frantically, she scanned them all, and her blood ran ice cold when she saw that they were shipping documents – to the Lone Islands. The oldest, by her fast examination, dated three years previously. The most recent was a little over a month ago, and the "Contents" column on all of them read "CHTL".
CHTL. What on earth did that mean?
She looked up again and started – the sky was almost entirely light, though the sun hadn't broken the horizon entirely. She had no idea if Xaviar came here before breakfast.
As quickly as she could she put everything the way she'd found it, then made a nearly frantic pace back to her room, where she nearly ripped the blanket in her haste, then nicked her finger in the process of tying the dagger to her leg. She jumped into bed and had barely settled before the door opened to admit the maids, come to help her dress for breakfast.
"Good morning, my lady. Did you-"the maid stopped, frowning in confusion. "Your hair, my lady…I thought you preferred to sleep with it loose?"
Her hair was still in its braid, she realized, and it took all of her self-control to keep up her drowsy, just-woken mask of nonchalance intact.
"Oh. Er…I kept pinning it beneath my elbow and pulling it."
That seemed to satisfy the woman, and gradually Adeline's pulse returned to normal as she bathed and dressed. All the while, her brain repeated the same letters over and over – CHTL.
Whatever it was, she had a feeling it was the clue to finding the missing children. And she needed to figure it out, soon.
Edmund doubled over panting, his hands on his knees and every fiber of muscle in his body screaming in protest. He ignored every scrap of discomfort or pain, and after only a few moments of rest he picked up his sword again. He'd rid himself of his shirt long ago; the sweat on his chest and stomach reflected the sun as brightly as his sword, but the moisture did nothing to hide his new collection of scars.
He supposed he ought to be grateful it wasn't worse. He knew his back made his front look mild in comparison, but every time he looked down his fist clenched tighter on the hilt of his sword in an effort to ward off the memories those scars kept alive for him. He'd taken to stripping to the waist every time he trained just to make himself get used to it.
It was easier in the daylight, at least. Nights were hard; the nightmares had at first kept him awake until sheer exhaustion wouldn't allow him to go without any more sleep, but he could see some gradual improvement over the past few weeks and was determined to take small victories when they came. Bit by bit, his mind and body were healing.
His heart was another matter entirely.
Unbidden, his mind drew up another, much more pleasant memory – golden hair, ocean-blue eyes, the scent of apple blossoms and the feel of soft lips molded against his own…
His rhythm faltered, and he nearly tumbled to the flagstone floor. He caught himself in time, and used his sword to push himself upright again. After a moment of consideration, he sheathed his sword and crossed to the alcove where he'd left his shirt, deciding he'd fought enough of his demons for one morning.
The door opened behind him quietly, and Edmund didn't even turn around as he pulled his shirt on and said, "It went better today. Slightly."
Peter handed him a small towel so he could wipe off his face and neck. "That's good. I'm glad you're stopping, though. You've been out here almost four hours."
That made Edmund pause. He'd thought it had been only two. Peter regarded him steadily, with no sympathy but a fair amount of worry.
"She came here, you know," Peter said quietly. There was no need for Edmund to ask who she was. He finished packing up his things and lowered himself to the bench that sat against the wall of the courtyard. He swallowed, imagining Adeline out here, her blade nothing more than a blur of shining steel in the bright sun and her feet moving across the stones in that unnaturally graceful way she had. He'd always loved watching her fight. Something within her came alive, something otherworldly that he felt privileged to witness.
"It was right after the truth about Xaviar became known," Peter continued. "She trained all morning, and when I found her she was cleaning her sword in that room over there," he pointed, "and I could tell just by looking that the guilt and anger she was carrying was about to consume her."
At that point Peter's voice changed, subtly, but Edmund knew how to read voices (part of being the Just King and the one responsible for determining the intentions of others, he supposed) and there was an element to Peter's just now that let him know that they weren't speaking only of Adeline.
"She snapped, that morning. I'd never seen her so angry, but she kept rambling on about how it was her fault that Xaviar had murdered Gwen. I told her it wasn't her fault, Xaviar was just manipulating her to feel that way."
Despite himself, Edmund gave a dry chuckle. "I imagine she didn't care for that very much."
Peter looked relieved at Edmund's attempt at humor, pitiful as it was. "No, she didn't," he admitted with a grin of his own. "But she listened in the end. And she learned to use that anger towards Xaviar as fuel for her part in the war efforts. I've never seen anyone work so tirelessly, except for you."
Edmund swallowed again, not sure where his brother was going. He didn't have to wonder long.
"Ed, I know it must feel like you're the reason this all happened." Peter's voice was as gentle as it'd ever be towards him, and Edmund was horrified to feel a lump in his throat. He turned his head away but continued to listen.
"She'd have done the same for any of us. It might hurt in different way for you, because you love her differently than I do, but you can't blame yourself. She wouldn't want you to, no more than Gwen would want her to feel guilty for what happened in Tashbaan."
For several long moments, they sat together in silence. Edmund thought of all the times Adeline had listened to him, or he to her about various troubles. Their talks had been halting and uncomfortable at first, simply because he'd had to earn her trust. But in time, she'd become his confidant, even more so than any of his siblings.
He thought of how awkward she was at expressing her feelings at times, yet she tried so hard anyway to work through her discomfort just so the people she cared for would know that they were cared for. She was the embodiment of selfless, unconditional devotion, and quite suddenly a portion of the hurt inside him mended over. It was still there, but it didn't sting quite so badly. The knowledge that someone so self-sufficient, so reluctant to trust would pour her heart out the way she had in that letter, and would openly proclaim her feelings as she did on the battlefield, was humbling and gave him some measure of comfort, however small it might be.
"In her letter…" He licked his chapped lips. "She said she needed me, but would have to learn how to survive anyway." Shaking his head, he looked down at his hands and admitted, "That hurts worst of all. When she was captured, I knew she needed me then, too. And I was able to be there for her. This time, I can't. I understand why, I just wish it didn't have to be this way."
He heard Peter take a deep breath, and say, "As do I, Ed. I can't tell you how much I want to break down Xaviar's door and bring her here so the two of you could be happy."
Edmund shook his head again as he repeated softly, "Happy." Slowly he stood to his feet and gathered his things. "I'm not sure I ever will be happy, Pete. But…I can at least try not to be miserable. I still have you, and the girls, and Caspian."
Peter's eyes were glistening a bit. "We'll try to be enough."
With enormous effort Edmund managed a grin. "Well, you're not nearly as pretty," his smile grew slightly when Peter let out a choked laugh. "But thank you."
He turned and headed back inside, leaving the morning's battles behind him.
Adeline took a sip of tea, idly wondering if she could perhaps manage to stab herself to death with the sugar spoon if she used enough force.
Beside her on the settee, Xaviar droned on and on, about what she didn't have the foggiest. She was fairly certain that if he continued for much longer her ears would start to bleed.
Not that that would be a bad thing, she mused, almost wishing she would come by some accident that would get blood stains all over this horrific dress. The moss green satin was beautiful, but the style left all of her shoulders and a generous amount of her bust exposed. The gowns had been growing progressively worse as time went on; soon she would resemble a common vixen more than a princess.
She started a bit when she realized Xaviar had been saying her name for the past few minutes.
"Beg pardon, I didn't hear what you said." Polite words, icy tone. Such was her life these days.
Xaviar looked a bit put out that she hadn't been hanging on his every word, but he recovered nicely. "I was just saying that your wedding dress ought to be finished soon. There was problem with the veil – I wanted your hair to be visible, you know, you have such lovely hair – but the seamstress kept trying to go with the latest styles of a full length veil. She chattered on for an eternity before I could get a word in edgewise. But in the end – goodness, Adeline, are you well?"
Xaviar stopped abruptly, gazing at her with some alarm. Adeline couldn't blame him; her fingers held a death grip on her teacup and she would not have been surprised if her face was bone-white.
She swallowed thickly before whispering, "What did you just say?"
His brow furrowed in confusion. "About your hair? Surely you know – "
"No, no, not that." She waved an impatient hand. "After that…something about an eternity."
Xaviar cast about, remembering, then said, "Oh! I said she chattered on about the veil she wanted to use, but – "
"Do you know, Xaviar, I'm not feeling well at all." Adeline put her cup down and stood, barely managing a curtsy. "I shall be in my chambers, resting. Hopefully I'll feel better for dinner."
Xaviar had stood, bewildered, but concernedly replied, "Of course, Adeline. Sleep well."
Numbly she made the journey back to her room, allowed the maids to help her into a nightdress, and climbed into bed.
The door had scarcely shut before she slid one hand beneath the mattress and pulled out a scrap of parchment. She'd written those four letters on it – CHTL – and had studied them ever since finding them in Xaviar's study two nights ago.
Her hand shook as she traced the letters, finally remembering why they had seemed so familiar.
Growing up as an adopted sister of sorts to Gwen had meant she'd been forced to attend lessons until her fourteenth birthday. She learned history, dancing, etiquette, politics…all that the princess learned, so did she, until her military training began. For the most part, Adeline had loathed every second spent indoors under the nose of a stuffy, wizened old tutor, all except the history lessons.
Even now she recalled how the books had smelled old and musty in the castle library, but she'd found it to be a place of peace and solitude. She'd read anything she could get her hands on, and many times she was given books for birthday or Christmas gifts.
At one point during their schooling, their teacher had been discussing the rich heritage that Archenland had, and Gwen had, in jest, visibly puffed up with pride over her country. The old scholar had seen, and even as he chuckled, he had asked them if they were able to name one dishonorable thing in the Archenlands' history. Gwen and Adeline both had been at a loss, and so for homework they were told to find something in the library that did not show their country in a positive light.
It had been a rather bizarre assignment, to be sure. At first Adeline had only found a number of things that were better classified as scandals (mostly to do with court politics), but she'd been all alone one day, escaping from dancing lessons upstairs, when she came across an old, tattered sheaf of documents that had looked promising. The ink was smudged and faded, but that had done nothing to stifle her horror when she read of the accounts of slave trade between Narnia, the Archenlands, and Calormen. It had been a booming industry until a century ago or so; it was now banned in all three of those nations.
But the papers had not merely given financial statements. It had described in great detail the treatment of slaves, how the people were literally taken by force from their homes and sold into servitude without any hope of ever seeing their families again.
Adeline had read on, transfixed in disgust and shame, and had learned that it was not enough that these people were treated as property. No, they were even called property, and a common term used for slaves when referring to them as something other than human beings had been created, even growing into something like slang because so many people used it.
She wished that those four letters stood for something else – but as she fought the sick feeling creeping up her throat, she knew they did not. Xaviar's utterance of the similar-sounding word 'chattered' had triggered the memory of that day in the library, and now, looking at the note in her hand, she knew that there was nothing else those letters could stand for.
Xaviar was resurrecting the slave trade.