Author: Spouse of Orestes PM
When Peter comes home successful from his battle with the giants, not everyone rejoices. Oneshot, sort of companion piece to Mothering.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Drama - Words: 5,805 - Reviews: 28 - Favs: 38 - Follows: 2 - Published: 05-27-06 - Status: Complete - id: 2960813
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Aravis tried not to stare at the unusual legs of the Narnian courtier she was introduced to. Tumnus. That was his name. She remembered Queen Lucy talked about him as her oldest and best friend in Narnia. She assumed then that he was human that it was rather startling to find that he was a creature that was half-man and half goat called a faun.
But as the introductions went on, Aravis found that Tumnus was one of the least odd creatures in Narnia. There were the centaurs who were half-man and half horse with their fierce faces that made Aravis cower at them. There were the mermaids who jumped up from the sea when Aravis was standing by a balcony facing the ocean and murmured greetings while Queen Lucy introduced the young Tarkheena and Prince Cor to them. And then of course there were the assortment of talking animals that chatted casually like ordinary men. Aravis had to remind herself constantly about them, lest she may offend one of them by treating them like she would non-talking animals in Calormen.
But perhaps most frightening for Aravis were the nymphs. Her first encounter with a nymph was the minute she arrived at the gates of Cair Paravel with the Archenland monarchs and their royal entourage. She had just stepped out of the carriage with her hand assisted by Cor's father, the gallant King Lune. She was rather surprised that there was no one there to greet their royal party. Suddenly, she felt the air around her stir. And then to her horror a smoke-like figure emerged right in front of her and formed into a ghost of a woman emerging from a fog. Beside it, Aravis noticed a pool of water moving on the floor, rising in the air and forming another feminine figure. At the same time, a third wonder emerged. A cluster of leaves came flying out of nowhere and morphed into another woman. To the former Calormene princess, it was like seeing all those horror stories she had heard about in her youth come to life. She opened her mouth to scream, but someone else beat her to it.
"Relax Cor! It's just the nymphs!" admonished his twin brother Corin.
"There, there dear," whispered King Lune as he patted her shoulder affectionately. He must have noticed her shocked expression. "These are courtiers of Narnia, come to welcome us."
The three mysterious women introduced themselves but Aravis was too much in awe of them she didn't register any of their names. What she remembered was that they were three different kinds of nymphs. The ghost-like one was an air nymph, the one that emerged from a pool was a water nymph and the third that came from leaves was a tree nymph.
The last one was the friendliest of them all and walked beside Aravis and led the rest of her companions inside. Cair Paravel proved as splendid inside as it was from the outside. She couldn't really say that it was grander than the Tisroc's palace, but it had its own charms with its marble floors, pillars and statues, its stained glass windows, and rich tapestries. The architectural style and interior was similar to Archenland's palace in Anvard though this was obviously the grander one.
When she had come to live in King Lune's castle in Anvard last week, she thought it was already something grand by royal standards. However, Cair Paravel proved to be the superior structure, a fitting capital for a beautiful country that Aravis was already growing to love more and more by the minute. The woods they passed by on the journey north from Anvard had been wonderfully fascinating to Aravis. It was interesting to see so many different varieties of trees. In addition, the colder climate was something attractive for someone who had lived all her life in a hot country.
When they reached the throne room, Aravis found two familiar persons: Queen Lucy whom she had befriended a week earlier and her brother King Edmund. There was another young woman with them that Aravis immediately knew as the Queen Susan.
"Aravis, how wonderful to see you again!" greeted the younger queen as she embraced her friend. Aravis hugged her back briefly but she was a bit distracted by the sight of the older queen. Now that she had seen Queen Susan, she realized why Prince Rabadash wanted her enough to risk a war with Narnia. She was indeed a very beautiful woman and she had such perfect grace in her manner that Aravis couldn't help but feel slightly intimidated.
She hugged Corin and kissed him affectionately as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Then she turned to Cor.
"So this is your twin Corin, the one I mistook for you," she said.
Cor was looking a bit embarrassed at her but Queen Susan smiled at him, whispered something in his ear then kissed his cheek the same way as Corin. Aravis noticed Cor blush shamelessly though the queen didn't appear to notice it. She now turned to Aravis.
"And this is the brave young Tarkheena who has come to live with you. I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Aravis and I hope we could be good friends." She kissed Aravis on the cheek. Aravis didn't return it but managed only a fake smile. She had noticed that Cor was still staring at the older queen. Something about Cor's expression made Aravis feel reluctant to be friends with Queen Susan.
Aravis felt grateful when Queen Lucy called her attention again to introduce her and Cor to her other subjects. The introductions went on for several minutes and Aravis found herself simply overwhelmed by so many odd creatures. She reminded herself that it was not polite to gape, but found it was rather difficult not to. The Narnians however, didn't appear to mind and looked just as interested with her as she with them. Perhaps her darker complexion was something novel to them who were used to humans who were more lighter-skinned.
There was a sudden blast of trumpets outside and Queen Lucy burst out excitedly: "They're here! They're here!"
Everyone quickly moved outside the entrance doors. It seemed like the entire Narnian populace had come out to watch as the Narnian legion successful from their conquest at the north, paraded towards Cair Paravel. From where she stood, Aravis could see Narnians waving branches of leaves and shouting praises while an assortment of centaurs, fauns, horses, and other creatures she couldn't name marched in a straight line on the road towards the gate of their capital. Their path was showered with flowers and leaves and occasionally they would receive fresh garlands from the eager well-wishers. The mermaids and the nymphs began a haunting victory song that went in harmony with the beat of the military drum. It seemed to stir everyone's spirits, even more. Aravis had never seen anything so grand.
Suddenly the trumpeters blew a more important note and a herald announced the coming of the High King of Narnia. Aravis craned her neck to look. When the victorious banners had cleared the path of her eyesight, the first thing she saw was a grand white horse with a single horn on its spectacular head. Aravis had never seen a unicorn in her life and simply marveled at the beautiful creature. Her sight then moved upwards to the rider of the unicorn. He was a handsome man, clad in full shinning armour with the symbol of the lion in gold over red on his chest. He was bare headed except for his golden crown and his glorious blonde locks shone in the sun. Aravis thought about the male gods of Calormen—for she could never compare him to any of the Tarkaans she knew or even the Tisroc—and wondered if this person was truly a god in human form. There was something about the way he smiled as he waved to his people that stirred a rush of warmth even from her. There was pride in his eyes, but not arrogance. It was pride in the faithfulness of his subjects, of their loyalty and their love. Aravis suddenly understood why the High King of Narnia was called "Magnificent."
At last the procession had reached the gates of Cair Paravel and stopped before the long steps that led to the front doors. Aravis moved down a few steps below to get a better view of the High King. She saw him get off his unicorn gracefully and he stared up at his home with fond affection.
"Peter!" came a joyful cry that startled Aravis. She looked up and saw Queen Lucy running down the steps as fast as she could. It rather surprised the Tarkheena to see the adult warrior queen behave in such a juvenile manner as she bounded the last few steps and leaped into her brother's waiting arms. The High King laughed and lifted her high in the air as if she was no more than a small child and twirled her around. They began what appeared to be an impromptu dance that ended with Queen Lucy raining kisses on her brother's face.
Something stirred in Aravis at the sight. She remembered how she too used to run like that when her brother Ardeeb came home after being away for a long time. How many times had he walked into the door of their home when he came home from training camp or the military outpost where he had been assigned, and she greeted him with fond embraces? She used to watch from the second floor windows of their house for his arrival. When she saw the flash of his armour and heard his jolly voice crying for her, she would stop whatever she was doing and just run to him, give him kisses then beg for stories of all his adventures in camp.
Only the last time he went away… he never came back, she thought sadly.
Aravis stopped for a moment to admire her handiwork. She was satisfied that she outdid herself this time. The combination of colours and her own original design on the fabric would make a lovely coat for Ardeeb. He would be arriving home any day soon. In his last letter he said he and the Tisroc's elite band of armed men had managed to chase the rebels into the far western borders of Calormen. It won't be long before they had totally subdued them and Ardeeb would get his leave.
Aravis sighed. How she missed her older brother. It had been six moon cycles since he had bade her farewell. She could just imagine him having such a grand adventure and he was sure to have interesting tales to tell when he returned.
Aravis often envied her brother for being able to go out in the world freely. He often told her stories about his exploits: his learning to fight with a scimitar, his rides into the edges of Calormen whenever he was assigned to patrol the country's borders, his visits to other lands when he joined the Tisroc as a royal guard, and his fierce combats with the rebels.
"Oh if I were a man!" Aravis used to say to him. "Then I shall ride and go to battle with you."
"And we shall make a great pair of soldiers!" Ardeeb would reply generously. "The finest of the Tisroc's men!"
Ardeeb always gave her such praise. He never treated her as a fragile creature as was usually accorded women in Calormen. In fact, from early childhood Ardeeb considered her more like a brother and never hesitated to have a wrestling match with her when they argued or played. When they grew older, he taught her to ride a horse, wield a scimitar and shoot with bows and arrows, though they did it in secret as their father didn't approved of such things.
Their father Kidrash Tarkaan, the Lord of Calavar was never a soldier but a high-ranking public official through and through. He expected only the most proper of decorum from his children. So when Ardeeb had gone on to the military to serve the Tisroc as was expected of a Calormene nobleman, Aravis had been left at home to be the docile daughter. It was a tolerable enough life for Aravis. Her father was rarely at home so she often amused herself by riding outside, playing with their dogs, and practice shooting with her bow in his absence. But that all changed when Kidrash brought home a wife.
Jezebel, Aravis' new stepmother was only seven years older than Aravis herself, but they had little in common. While Aravis was fond of exercise and outdoors, Jezebel preferred staying inside. The new mistress of Calavar lavished herself with fine clothes and jewels and liked big social gatherings. It was clear from the start that she hated Aravis and would always find fault in her so much that Aravis decided to avoid her all the time.
When Jezebel gave birth to a boy, Aravis thought her new baby brother would be a comfort to her in Ardeeb's absence. But Jezebel had refused Aravis to even come near him. Now, at almost three years of age, Aravis' younger brother showed an unreasonable abhorrence to Aravis—no doubt ingrained in his innocent mind by his mother.
Aravis went back to the loom and started her weaving again, but this time she didn't hum. She heard familiar footsteps from the other room. Her stepmother was there with her infant brother.
There was a sudden sound of approaching horse hooves. Aravis glanced through the window to see who it was. Her heart jumped in excitement when she caught glimpse of the official banner of the Tisroc carried by a single rider in soldier's armour.
"Ardeeb!" she cried happily as she ran out the room. Jezebel screamed at her but Aravis didn't care. Her brother was home!
Aravis scrambled down the steps of their staircase until she finally came to the front door. But when she opened it, the man outside waiting with his horse was not Ardeeb. It was easy to mistake him wearing a captain's uniform from a distance. But now that he was closer, Aravis could see from his attire that he wasn't a Tarkaan at all but a low-ranking Calormen foot soldier.
"Peace to the house of Kidrash Tarkaan," he said in a rather gravely voice. "The Tisroc (may he live forever) sends his lowly servant to give a message to his faithful Lord."
"Greetings, soldier," replied Aravis. "My father, the Kidrash Tarkaan is not in the house. He is away on business. May I offer you food and rest until he arrives tonight?"
He looked at her with sad eyes. "Thank you, noble Tarkheena," he said quietly.
Aravis motioned for one of the grooms to take his horse but the soldier stopped him.
"No," he said as he held on the back of the horse. Aravis noticed there was something the horse was carrying on his back that was covered with a sheet. She sensed it was something important that the soldier would not willingly let the groom take it away. "I would rather Tarkheena, I remain here with the horse."
"Of course," said Aravis. She ordered another servant to bring refreshments then turned back to the messenger. "But pray tell me, sir. Have you been to the western outpost? What news from my brother, the Ardeeb Tarkaan?"
The soldier hung his head, his lips trembled but he didn't say a word. Aravis was puzzled.
"Sir?" she asked but the soldier remained silent.
A groom had come out bearing water for the horse and instinctively the tired creature moved forward. As it did, something fell out of the bundle it was carrying under the sheet. It struck the ground and reflected beams from the sun. Aravis saw that it was a scimitar—Ardeeb's scimitar!
Aravis turned to the soldier and gave him a half-confused, half-suspicious look. The soldier however shook his head and turned to uncover the sheet. Aravis' eyes widened at the things tied to the horse: a shield, a dagger, a steel pointed cap, a breast plate, arm and leg guards, and a piece of coloured tunic whose design came from her own imagination—her own creation.
"The Tisroc (may he live forever)," said the soldier forlornly. "Entails his humble servant to inform the house of Kidrash Tarkaan that his noble son the Ardeeb Tarkaan has fallen during the battle with the rebels of the west. He has been buried as is custom before sunset on the day of his fall with all honours befitting his title."
Aravis heard the soldier but didn't understand what he just said. She picked up the scimitar and saw the bloodstains in them. Then she untied the pieces of the armour from the horse and caressed each one until she came to the piece of fabric that had been torn in several places. There was a large splotch of dried blood at the chest area.
"No! I cleaned this before he left!" she cried. "This was clean! This was clean! He never was good at cleaning out stains! But his sword—he should have cleaned them! He should have! He taught me that! Always clean your sword after!"
"Tarkheena?" said the soldier apologetically.
"He's not dead! He's not! He's coming home! He always comes home!"
The soldier didn't say anything, or if he did Aravis no longer heard it. All she knew was the cold feel of steel from the breastplate of Ardeeeb's armour that she pressed to her cheek.
King Peter put one arm protectively around his sister's waist, while the other on his brother's shoulder and the three of them turned towards the castle and climbed the steps together. When they almost reached the top step however, the younger king and queen pulled away, leaving the High King to come up alone. Aravis was so busy watching them that she hadn't noticed Queen Susan come out from the crowd. Unlike Lucy, Queen Susan stood calmly with a quiet dignity and a garland of flowers in her hands. Aravis had known her only from their introduction an hour ago, but she could tell she was a great lady.
Queen Susan offered a smile to the victor and put the garland around his neck.
"Su!" The vulnerability of his voice startled Aravis. She didn't expect such frailty in one who seemed so supreme. Suddenly he was holding the older queen in a fierce embrace and Aravis could see he looked like he was almost in tears as he shut his eyes while his cheek was pressed to his sister's.
"I was so worried!" he said in a choking voice. "If Rabadash had taken you as a slave… I don't know what I'd do!"
"Hush," she replied as she pulled away but held his face in her hands. "I'm alright. I'm here, I'm home and so are you..." Suddenly Queen Susan's calm exterior fell as she let out an agonized sob that betrayed her distress. "You don't know how hard it was for me… after worrying over Ed and Lu… and then you were out there battling the giants…"
Her brother pulled her again to him and he pressed his lips to her forehead in a fervent kiss.
A flood of memories came to Aravis' mind and she found she couldn't watch anymore. She turned and fled the scene as tears clouded her vision, almost blinding her completely. But in her mind she could see clearly those familiar dark eyes framed by elegant eyebrows, the fine carved nose and smiling lips outlined by stubbles that never had a chance to grow thick enough to be a proper beard.
It's unfair! It's unfair! She raged inwardly. He was the only one I have left, the only one that truly cared.
She ran through the marble halls, not knowing where she was going. She passed a few magical creatures who gave her puzzled looks but she ignored them. She just wanted to get away from here, away from that happy scene of sisters hugging their brother.
She finally came to an empty balcony slightly hidden by curtains. She clutched at a tall pillar and pressed her wet cheeks against the cold marble. She felt the sun's morning rays on the left side of her face and she knew she was facing south. She stared at the view before her. Narnia's beautiful land appeared to her in all its glory. It was the height of summer and all the trees were at their most green, the fields had turned splendid gold and there were summer flowers blooming as if they too were rejoicing in the reunion of the High King and his siblings. But Aravis could not share in their joy. She felt that the whole of Narnia was mocking her with their gaiety. She never felt so alone.
"Aravis? Are you there?" a familiar male voice called.
Aravis didn't reply. She hoped he would not find her. But he peered past the curtains that hid her from view.
"Oh there you are," he said. "We were wondering where you have gone."
"LEAVE ME ALONE, SHASTA!" her own outburst surprised her. She realized too that she used his old name, but she was too angry to correct her mistake.
"I'm not Cor," he said. "It's Corin. Are you crying?"
Aravis tried to hide her tears. It was bad enough if Cor had seen her cry, but it was doubly embarrassing to have someone she barely knew like Corin to see her so weak. It was too late however, for Corin had seen the tears and her pathetic attempt to wipe them away with the back of her hand only served as confirmation.
"Is something the matter?" he asked politely.
Aravis shook her head. "It's nothing." She hated her voice for sounding so hoarse.
"Well you're obviously upset, is there anything I can do?"
Aravis shook her head again and wished he would just go away.
"Well…" he began uneasily. "Queen Lucy asked me to find you. She was wondering why you disappeared. She was just introducing Cor to King Peter and she wanted to introduce you as well…"
Aravis didn't say anything. She couldn't bear to go down there and see them again.
"And Queen Susan said she is looking forward to talking to you and getting to know you more."
Aravis didn't know why, but suddenly the thought of the older queen made her boil with fury.
"Well I don't want to talk to her!" she cried. "I don't want anything to do with her!"
Corin looked taken aback. "But… why?"
"Because I hate her!"
"Hate her? But you hardly know her. You haven't even spent more than two hours with her."
"I don't care! I just hate her!"
"Aravis, that's just being silly. Why would you hate her when she hasn't done anything to you?"
Aravis knew he was right, but she was on a roll and suddenly she couldn't stop the feelings that were welling up in her. "Well what does she care for me? Does she even know how I feel? What I've been through! She knows nothing! Nothing! She just sits here in her castle all day, being queen with no worries! And why does she have to? She's got armies and servants to do things for her."
"That's not true!" said Corin hotly. "Queen Susan's not some silly idle queen and you're wrong accusing her like that! It's true she didn't ride to battle with her siblings, but it's not like she doesn't do anything here. She coordinates and sends messages and supplies to everyone and takes care of the wounded that are brought home, not only from Anvard but also from North for the High King. Every kingdom at war needs someone to do that even if it's not a very exciting job."
"Oh really?" she scoffed, thinking the queen still had such simple things to do compared to what she had been through and what she had lost. "Then tell me has anyone forced her to marry anyone? Has she ever had to disguise herself in her brother's armour to escape the home she despises or take a perilous journey through the desert with strangers to gain her freedom? NO! SHE DIDN'T! And I hate her for it! I hate her because her family would never force her to marry against her will! I hate her because she has siblings who would fight wars to defend her honour! And I hate her BECAUSE HER BROTHER CAME HOME TO HER VICTORIOUS FROM BATTLE WHEN MINE NEVER DID!"
She sank down into the floor in a fit of sobbing. For a long moment she heard nothing but her own moans that she thought Corin had left her. But when she finally managed to look up, he was still there with a look of genuine concern.
She whimpered then added quietly: "If he were alive he would not let my father promise me to Ahoshta. 'I will only give you up to a man that is worthy of you,' that was what he used to say… I waited for him everyday, my brother, Ardeeb. He said he would come home…" she paused as tears choked her throat. "…but he never came home. I never got to see him again. All I have is his sword, his dagger and his armour."
She didn't know why she was telling him this. She never even told Cor how her brother's death pained her and here she was sobbing out her feelings to an almost complete stranger. She suddenly felt self-conscious around him. She must look a state. She searched in her pockets for her handkerchief. She couldn't find one and she cursed herself inwardly for losing the one she brought along earlier when she got dressed.
"Here." Corin thrust something white at her.
Aravis looked at him in surprise and blushed as he realized he was offering her his handkerchief. Of course he has one. He's a prince and was raised properly. He would know those things unlike Shas—I mean Cor. But what must he think of me, crying and without even a proper handkerchief at hand.
"Go on take it, it's clean," he said.
Aravis felt her cheeks grow even warmer and she reluctantly accepted the piece of fabric. She wiped her cheeks but didn't blow her nose. She was dying to do that but was rather afraid of offending him. Instead she inhaled deeply and promptly choked on her own tears.
"Er… I think you should have exhaled. That always works better than getting it back in…"
Aravis fought back a laugh that resulted in a rather unattractive snort. Corin just burst out laughing.
"Sorry," he said. He seemed to be remembering his manners. He tried to keep a straight face, but he failed miserably. He snorted even louder than she did. Aravis didn't even try to hold it in. She laughed so loudly, the mucous still left in her nose went out. She managed to contain it in the handkerchief but it was useless to hide it. If it was possible, Corin's laugh rang even louder and this time Aravis found she didn't care about proper manners in front of him anymore.
It took a while before they managed to calm down. When they did, Corin sat down unceremoniously on the marble floor next to her.
"I know what it's like to lose someone too," said the Archenland prince in such a serious tone that didn't quite become him. "Two years ago, my mother died. I hated everything and everyone. I refused to come out of my chamber for days and I wouldn't speak to anyone. It was Queen Susan who got me to come out. I've never had a sister but she'd always been like that to me since I was a babe."
"What did she do to get you out?" asked Aravis curiously.
Corin suddenly blushed and shook his head. "Nothing… she sort of threatened me."
"Threatened you?" Aravis couldn't imagine what the gentle queen could possibly threaten the prince with that could make him come out.
"It doesn't matter what it was," said Corin, still red-faced. "The point is she got me out and she had a good talk with me when I did. She told me, nobody could replace my mother but if it helps, if ever I feel I need a friend that could be motherly, she could be that for me. And she has been for these two years. We've been closer friends since."
Aravis was touched. She understood what he was offering her.
"Well…" he continued uncomfortably. "I don't have the authority to declare war on a country that tries to take you as a slave—you have to ask father that and eventually Cor but… I can box any man who insults you… if that's alright?"
Aravis gave him a genuine smile. "Yes, Corin, I'd like that very much. Thank you."
The curtain of the balcony was suddenly wrenched open and a girlish face appeared.
"So this is where you two have been hiding!" exclaimed Queen Lucy. "We've been waiting for you forever. Corin, I sent you to find her, I end up having to look for you as well," she admonished lightly though her voice was teasing.
Aravis was surprised to find Corin looking so red while stuttering an incomprehensible reply to the Narnian Queen. Queen Lucy looked slightly amused and gave a wink to Aravis as she pulled at the Tarkheena's arm.
"Coming Corin?" asked Queen Lucy to the Archenland prince after a few steps forward. Corin appeared to be glued to the marble floor.
The boy blushed even harder and got on his feet. Aravis grinned and she wondered if Queen Susan's threat to Corin two years ago had something to do with the prince's obvious infatuation over Queen Lucy. Perhaps Queen Susan threatened to send her younger sister to deal with him if he still refused to come out of his room and talk to her.
They arrived at the great hall in Cair Paravel which was now filled with guests. Queen Lucy pried the High King away from half a dozen admiring ladies and introduced Aravis to him.
For a moment, Aravis's instinct of Calormene etiquette kicked in. She was just bending her knees ready to fall prostrate on the floor in front of him when he gave her a gallant bow and kissed her hand. The move was so startling that she blushed to the roots of her hair and muttered an apology.
"I'm sorry Your Highness, may you live forever…"
The words were out of her mouth before she could stop herself. However, the High King smiled good-humouredly at her.
"I thank you for the compliment," he said. "But I'd really rather not live forever."
Aravis bit her lip and felt her cheeks grow even warmer. She heard an undisguised chuckle from behind her and she turned to see Cor standing a few feet away with an amused smirk on his face. He was obviously enjoying her little mistake and he didn't have the decency to hide his gloat. Someone really needs to teach him better manners.
Fortunately, the High King and Queen Lucy didn't hear it. They were pulled away by another group of well-wishers.
Aravis openly glared at Cor but the newly-found crown prince of Archenland stuck his tongue out at her and strutted away like a peacock.
Aravis clenched her fist at her sides. She noticed Corin watching them with an amused expression. She met his eye and Aravis thought that this was a perfect opportunity for Corin to fulfill his promise to box someone for her.
Apparently Corin understood her unspoken wish but he merely shrugged. "He's my brother," he said apologetically.
Aravis gave him a disappointed pout.
"Tell you what," he said as he sidled up next to her. "Dance with me and you'll get your revenge."
Aravis gave him a confused look. "How so?"
Corin gave her a conspiratorial grin. "Here's a little bit of Narnian protocol for you. The royal family members and the visiting royalty are required to open the ball. That means all of us have to dance. I could help you through the moves and I've heard Tarkheenas are trained to dance so I'm sure you'll be fine. But I bet Cor doesn't know a thing about dancing. If I get you as my partner, Cor has no choice but to find another girl to dance with him. You can watch him make an ass of himself with someone else."
Aravis returned his grin. Corin could never replace Ardeeb, it was true, but he certainly got the brotherly role down. "Well then," she said as she placed her hand in his. "Lead on."