Standing on a second story balcony overlooking the outer walls of Tashbaan, Susan stared up into the night sky with tear dampened cheeks, watching the haunting but beautiful red auroras roll across the hot dry desert like bloodstained celestial waves.
"Confound them!" she muttered angrily, confident that only the large Jaguar curled up at her feet could hear. Her hands turned white under her forceful grip, almost matching the white marble terrace, as she continued, "Oh, just confound them! It's Christmas Eve! I want to be home!"
Suddenly catching a small noise below, she peered down just as two Tarkaans emerged through a doorway across the street. Pausing when they noticed her, they stopped to stare at the blossoming foreign queen with leering grins, pointing at her with licentious chuckles. Instinctively, she started too pulled back, but rooted herself in place with strengthened resolve when the Jaguar's head rose up over the railing like a slow-motion jack-in-the-box.
"Thanks, Onca." she whispered, offering him a small smile as they watched the bearded men slip into the darkness.
"The fools," he replied, with a soft snarl, his golden eyes burning with contempt, "I only wish I could do more. Your brothers and sister will be furious when they hear of the insults that you've endured on this trip."
"I just wish we were together tonight." she sighed, "It wouldn't be like Christmas at home, of course, but at least…" Her voice trail off into a sigh, "But who knew a trade conference would last almost two months? It's like the Calormenes want everyone to spend their Christmas here."
"I wouldn't put it passed them, your majesty," the Cat replied dryly, pinning his ears back.
"I don't want my family finding out about any of this," she continued, gesturing towards the street with a note of authority in her voice.
"My queen…" he protested gently, "Those men, the prince— Your brothers would—"
"No." she shook her head anxiously, "Those men are lost in the darkness. I didn't even recognize them—forget them. And as for Rabadash, while yes, I'll admit, he has been more forceful on this trip, he hasn't been grossly outrageous." She sighed again, "If I complain, he will only say that I am unhappy because the conference didn't go to my liking."
"And that's why I'm still here," she finished, her face setting with determination, "instead of home where I'd desperately love to be right now. I don't want him to be able to say that I'm unhappy with the negotiations."
"Your brothers and sister would be insulted," the Cat repeated, his claws sounding like fingernails on glass as he reflectively sharpened them on the terrace, "if they had heard some of the things that have come out of the prince's mouth in reference to your majesty."
Susan opened her mouth to respond but was interrupted by a booming knock on the apartment's door. Onca growled softly.
"Who is it?" she called cautiously, her head swiveling towards the sound as she laid a light hand on the Cat's broad shoulder. Why hadn't anyone informed her of a visitor?
"A weary traveler and his son from across the desert," a familiar voice called, "come to seek a Christmas audience with the elder queen of Narnia."
Susan squealed with delight as she raced to unbolt the door and she flung her arms around the robust king and his grinning boy, "Come in, come in! Oh, this is a much-needed surprise! Thank you so much!"
"We all need friendly company when we're stuck in Tashbaan for this long," Lune replied ruefully, his eyes sparkling above his bright smile, Leaning close, he whispered in her ear, "The Calormenes do this about once a generation, I think. I was here with my father as a boy the last time and now, it seems, Corin is to have the same pleasure."
"What pleasure?" Corin grumped, making a face.
"You don't say?" Susan's eyes grew wide, "I've been thinking that something was off!"
"As I recall, they're running the ruse just about the same as when I was a boy," Lune shrugged as they settled onto the couches, adding, "Personally, I think it's each Tisrocs' idea of an intimation tactic, since they've never succeed in conquering us. They know how much Christmas means to us Northerners—particularly, I think, you Narnians."
"To go without it for a hundred years is unimaginable to me." Susan mused, shuddering.
"Can I please box Rabadash, father?" Corin groused, folding his arms over his chest, his jaw working from side to side, "What he is doing is completely unfair!"
"Corin," the king frowned sternly, "I brought you here to learn diplomacy, not butcher it." He turned back to Susan, "But, now, my dear, it is time to open your gift."
"My what-" she gasped, "You didn't! But I don't—"
He laughed, waving aside her protest, "It's enough for me to spend Christmas with my son, but to think that I could make this accursed conference a bit more passable for you is a bonus that I won't pass up."
"You have never ceased to amaze me," she replied softly, thinking of everything that he'd gone through as they gripped hands in firm friendship.
"Corin?" his father prompted, "You mentioned pleasure? Well, give her majesty the box and we will see if—"
Grinning from ear to ear, Corin whipped a long rectangular box out from behind his back before Lune had even finished, "You'll never guess what it is!" he teased.
"Oh, really?" Susan teased back, wondering why she hadn't noticed the box when they came in, "Well, I'll have you know that I'm the best guesser in my family!"
"I thought King Edmund was the best guesser," Corin replied, freezing Susan's hand just above the lid.
"Whoever told you that?"
"Oh, well," she laughed, lifting the lid, "that figures. Well, I'll say that King Edmund is better at making jests!"
"Oh, how beautiful!" she gasped, staring down at a single desert lily.
"Merry Christmas, my dear," Lune smiled broadly.
"Admittedly," he continued, "you have something from us that awaits your return to Cair Paravel. But once I realized that we wouldn't be home for Christmas, and since I know that you haven't been through this before, I solicited a Tarkaan to go for a ride in the desert and while we were resting by an oasis, I found this."
"He stole it from the desert," Corin said, behind his hand, grinning like a fox and bringing a round of laughter to the king and queen, "What will the Tisroc do?"
"Oh, you really do never cease to amaze me," Susan repeated, shaking her head as the laughter died down, "Thank you!"
"You are most welcome."
"You know," she changed the subject after a quiet minute, dejectedly bringing the lily up to her face to smell it's perfume, "I never feel farther from Aslan than when I'm here."
"And I often never feel closer," he countered gently, growing thoughtful, "I talk to Him every day, of course, regardless of where I am but, somehow, I'm more fully aware of Him when I'm here. It's a feeling that I can't really explain...but…"
"You feel closer?" she frowned, taken aback, "In this place?"
Corin made another face, "I have to agree with Queen Susan on this one, Father. Ugh, He can't be here."
"Oh, He is here; be sure of that," Lune answered, giving his son a strange look, "No Tisroc could keep Him out."
"Well, that's true." Susan agreed, her face brightening a shade.
"In fact," he went on eagerly, smiling at her lightened mood, "I have no doubt that He is in this room right now because I see His reflection in you."
Author's Note: Merry Christmas everyone!