The great hall at Caer Paravel had hardly ever been more beautiful or more crowded, for it was on this night that the twenty-eighth birthday of their High King, Peter the Magnificent, conqueror of Giants, Protector of the Realm, was to be celebrated.
The four siblings stood together on the balcony overlooking the sea, rather loathe to have to go inside and greet the massive crowd of their assembled guests. For now, they treasured the minutes spent in privacy, with little conversation but much warmth and love, exchanging smiles and softly spoken jokes.
All of them felt the same sort of wistful sorrow. During the last year, starting with Lucy during the period of her abduction, they had been visited at different times by Aslan, warning them that this year, this single, golden year, was to be their last in Narnia. Though each of them would have thought that such news would be devastating, oddly enough, they found that they were able to bear it well.
But each moment, therefore, was precious. Even this cool February night, watching the ice motes float idly along the currents of the bay while the storm clouds chased each other in wild play across the troubled sky was (they felt) the most beautiful sight they had yet seen.
The crowd's clamor inside brought them abruptly back to themselves, and almost as one, they began straightening themselves for the friendly fray below.
"Well, I mean not to be unhappy tonight," Lucy declared stoutly, tugging at her evening gloves as though putting on a pair of gauntlets, "I noticed two or three young gentleman who might have the strength to last the night on the dance floor, as I intend to do."
"Heaven preserve them, Sister," Edmund laughed, "for I know how you dance!"
"Just because you cannot keep up, Ed," Susan smiled, still poised next to Peter by the table, "they might well be able to."
"Well, I will take my chances and ask you, Sisters, to reserve at least a pair of dances for me."
"They were yours before you asked, Brother," Lucy said gaily, planting a firm kiss on his cheek.
Susan moved to join them, leaving Peter's side, and Lucy looked back at their silent Brother, who seemed entirely lost in reverie. While Susan and Edmund bantered back and forth of how they intended to spend the evening, she moved over to him.
"Brother? Are you well?"
He took a deep breath and turned his gaze from the sea, and met Lucy's eyes. She was astounded to see that they were wet.
"I am well, Lucy. I am well."
Gently, Lucy placed one hand over his and squeezed, the pressure letting him know that she shared his reluctance and sorrow at the prospect of leaving their beloved kingdom.
"Then let me see you smile, Brother. You shall break a good many hearts if you do not do your duty on the floor."
"When we enter, you shall see me smile. I shall then have reason to."
Lucy could not quite bring herself to smile at this comment, and she broke from him to join her siblings as they prepared to enter the hall.
Among great and loud cries of rejoicing, they entered and saluted their assembled guests.
"Long live King Peter! Long live Queen Susan! Long live King Edmund! Long live Queen Lucy!"
"Happy Birthday, Your Majesty!"
Lucy stole a sidelong glance and was very glad indeed to see that her brother was indeed smiling, and that the momentary sorrow had stolen (or been banished) from his eyes.
Almost immediately, after the storm of welcoming cries had passed and toasts had been given, each of the Royal siblings was asked to dance by various partners. Lucy, as always, threw herself onto the floor with all her enthusiasm, which her partner, a handsome knight from the Islands, found infectious, and the two of them made vigorous progress across the floor. Susan was a swan on the dance floor, her beauty radiant and her movements clean and graceful. Even Edmund, solemn and awkward as he could sometimes be, cut an elegant figure as he guided his partner through the mass of dancing couples.
Peter's first partner, a pretty girl from Archenland, a light of worship almost idolatrous in her eyes, plied him with questions of his latest venture into the Northern wastes, and he found himself tolerably well amused (much more so than he had expected) in answering her questions as the two of them danced.
The succession of partners, though, with the same questions and the same comments, broken only by breaks to eat a few mouthfuls and take a glass of wine, grew wearisome, and Peter's oppressed spirits were soon almost entirely overcome. Excusing himself at the end of the dance, he practically fled up the stairs back towards the balcony, praying that his inexplicable behavior had gone unnoticed.
The balcony was now open to whoever wished to use it, but Peter hoped that it would be empty enough to provide some sort of balm to his troubled mind. Thank the Lion, when he reached it, there was only a single woman there, sitting at the table he and his siblings had abandoned, gazing out towards the ocean.
Peter's sudden arrival seemed to jerk this lady out of her thoughts, and she stood and curtseyed hastily.
"I beg your pardon, Your Majesty. If my presence disturbs you, I will leave immediately."
"Of course not," he reassured her, "I was just searching for some peace. Please, do not trouble yourself."
"Thank you, Your Majesty," she said, curtseying again and reseating herself, stealing anxious looks at him from beneath her eyelashes.
Peter ran through his memory, trying to see if he could figure out who she was, for her face was unknown to him. She was not a lady of Archenland, nor yet a noblewoman of the Islands, and among those of consequence in Narnia, he could not recall seeing her before.
She sat quietly, hands folded, moving only occasionally to take a few sips from her glass of wine on the table, and her demeanor was peaceful, eyes alight with calm pleasure as she watched the waves break on the jagged rocks of the bay. Wrapped in a heavy fur pelisse, she seemed not to feel the cold at all.
Somehow, her presence was enough to make Peter feel a bit less lonely. With the sounds of revelry beating up noisily from the hall behind them, it was enough to make a person alone feel an exile. As it was, the two of them were an island of blessed calm, and Peter found himself wanting to know more of this woman.
"Your name, Lady? I have thought, but I fear I cannot remember your face. If we have been introduced, I beg your pardon."
"Nay, my King," she said, large brown eyes earnest in her pale face, as if wanting to prevent his anxiety on her behalf, "we have never met. I am the youngest daughter of merchant Elessan of Beruna, Irene by name. Until four months ago, I was not well enough to venture into court, and thus have never been presented to you."
"You were unwell?"
She nodded, matter-of-factly. "Unwell all my life. When I was born there was a paralysis on my legs that might have caused me to be bedridden all my life. I have been blessed, though. My father was able to procure me the care of very able doctors, though walking and dancing is still very strenuous to me. So I must take care not to tire myself out."
"So you seek refuge here?"
"Yes. I am not used to all this noise, either…my childhood was a quiet one, and I thought no one would want to use this balcony as the night is rather cold."
Peter nodded, drawing a chair from the table and sitting down himself. The night was rather cold, certainly…even he felt it, though it felt as though he had spent half his life in the North, battling the giants. For another few minutes, the two sat in silence.
"If it is not too bold of me to ask, Your Highness, why do you seek refuge here?" There was a delicate blush discernable on the young woman's features, and Peter chuckled.
"I confess that the noise and good spirits of those below somewhat oppress me tonight."
Again, a look from those painfully earnest eyes. "Your Majesty is in poor spirits?"
"I confess I am."
There was a pause as Irene struggled to muster the courage to ask her question.
"Your Majesty must forgive me. I am unpracticed in the ways of court, so if my question is inappropriate, I beg you to pardon me. Would it be too bold of me to inquire as to the reason?"
Peter felt the tension between his shoulder blades relax as he laughed heartily. "Lady Irene Elessan, I am a soldier. I know that you wish me all respect, so you may simply call me Peter, and I shall call you Irene."
Irene's face burned. "No, my Lord, that cannot be! I would not take such a liberty with you for the world. I should be honored that you use my name, but please allow me at least to address you with some amount of respect."
He sighed. "Very well. So, Irene, you ask why I am troubled. I am not certain it would help to explain the reason."
"Sometimes it does. Your Majesty has siblings in whom to confide his troubles, but mine were often absent, and when they were in the house, they did not care to make me their playfellow. I had a faithful nurse, though, who listened to my fears and gave me advice."
Peter knew it would make her uncomfortable, but he could not help teasing her gently by saying, "And you would fancy yourself my nursemaid?"
This time, however, she seemed to realize that he was joking. "Who better to offer herself to such a position than an unknown, half-lame woman?"
"At least you could not spread the shame of my weakness very far."
Irene giggled as she replied, "Wicked, Your Majesty, wicked, to take advantage of my weakness to such an extent!"
It was such a relief to laugh again.
"As far as I am concerned, Nurse, you give your medicine exactly to fit the illness. The cure for heaviness of spirit is levity, and I will gladly take your dose."
Irene smiled and lowered her eyes. "I am glad to be of service, my Lord."
Silence reined again, and as the wind freshened, Irene drew her pelisse closer around her shoulders. Peter proposed returning to the hall, where it was warmer, but she would have none of it.
"It is not often, recently, that I can find such quiet. Since I have become well enough to pay calls to the neighbors and attend ceremonies and dances, I have had little time to myself."
"Are you not afraid of catching cold?"
"No. Besides my legs, little has been wrong with my health, and I have often sat out in colder weather than this. I even traveled to the mountains, once, to Omelan, to try the sulfur springs at the base of them. It was far colder there."
"I am familiar with Omelan. I wonder that your father took you to such a troubled place; it is right on the border of the wastes."
"It was an exercise in desperation, Your Majesty. That was the last cure the doctors could recommend. However, after six months spent in those springs, my legs were far stronger, so desperation worked well, that time."
"That is well, at least."
"I saw you there, once."
"Yes. Your army was passing through, and I was being readied for a trip to the springs. Sitting in my chair outside the door, I saw you riding past with your generals, behind the division of centaurs. It was snowing, and I remember thinking that you ought to take better care of your health, for you looked tired and your hair and beard were full of snow."
"A pity it is that war allows for few concerns over the welfare of those in command."
Irene sighed. "I have seen so little of the world. I am as old as your Sister, Queen Lucy, and yet how little I know!"
Peter shook his head. "He who knows little yet may observe much. I wish the world had more to offer to such an inquisitive mind, but I am afraid that men do not vary to such an extent as you might think."
"Still, there is much to observe. I am certain that there will be more to learn than I may ever know."
The heavy curtains behind them, leading back into the great hall rustled suddenly, and Queen Lucy came onto the balcony, eyes lighting rapidly on Peter.
"Lady Irene, you have found him! Peter, you've left a good many ladies in the lurch, down below," Lucy cried, smiling a rueful smile in her recalcitrant brother's direction. "I was delegated to find you."
"Forgive me, Sister, but I have been engaged in some interesting conversation." Peter said, smiling at his seated companion, who, upon being thus thrust into their discussion, looked slightly alarmed.
"I apologize if I caused the King to be distracted from his duties," Irene said, rising immediately and curtseying to the Queen, "such was not my intention."
Lucy laughed. "If I know my Brother aright, Lady, he allowed himself to be distracted, and no blame could possibly lie with you. Had you attempted to hold his interest, he would have escaped beyond both our reaches, by this point."
The three of them shared a joined laugh, after which Lucy, still chuckling, said, "If, Brother, you showed the ladies assembled below that you have a chosen companion for the evening, they would be able to pin their hopes elsewhere, for this evening, at least. Do you have an interest in dancing, Lady Irene?"
"Should not that be my question, Sister?" Peter remarked bemusedly, always amazed at his sister's ability to guess his intentions before he had clearly thought them through himself. "Do you think you have the strength, my Lady?"
"I—" she began shyly, "I think my legs have the strength, King Peter."
He found the way in which she spoke his name to be charming. Rising suddenly, he offered his arm as support as she found her way to her feet, and he noticed how she leaned on his arm as they walked down the stairs, to the murmurs of the assembled crowds below. Lucy smiled as she walked behind, glad that the worries of her brother had been dispelled, well and truly, for this one evening at least.
Lady Irene's steps were uncertain and she faltered often as the pair of them moved across the floor, but Peter's strong arms and lead gave her courage, and eventually a smile of true pleasure crossed her face and she leaned less and less on him and trusted more and more to the strength of her legs.
Laughing, the pair of them sat at a table and continued their conversations over dinner.
"Well, so was that so very terrible?"
The four siblings sat in Lucy's room, admiring the moon as it set slowly into the sea. Lucy turned from her vanity and started brushing out her long light brown hair, smiling impishly at her brother's grimace.
"No, Sister, you cannot tease him so." Susan cried, "For given all our feelings upon the affair of this evening, we none of us expected to get much pleasure out of it. Be fair."
"Fie on you, Susan, to so curtail an exercise in my wit! Though Peter may be grateful to you, I most certainly am not."
"Then I shall answer for myself," Peter said, chuckling, "and say that it was not as bad as I thought it would be."
"Lady Irene is a good woman, from what little we know of her," Edmund said quietly, a smile playing around his mouth. "Perhaps we should invite her oftener to affairs at Caer Paravel."
"I am heartily in agreement with you, Brother. I could use the society of a woman closer to myself in age."
"Oh, Lucy, do my years make me tiresome to you as a companion?"
"Of course, Susan! I merely conceal my disgust at your haggard appearance out of the sisterly love I bear for you."
Susan threw a pillow at her grinning sister.
"You may invite her if you wish," Peter said quietly, "but I feel it would be unwise of any of us to form a very close attachment to her."
A silence, oppressive and thoughtful, filled the room. Even Lucy found herself unequal to make a cheerful retort, and toyed instead with the metalwork on the handle of her hairbrush.
"Returning will be difficult," Edmund finally broke the silence, "but we will come back, at least. We have that promise."
"But are we to live our lives in constant repining for this life?" Susan said, gesturing aimlessly around her.
"That would be the death of us all." Lucy murmured, though she would usually never speak such grim words.
"It is just that this life is so familiar to us all…when we return, though, that life will become familiar again." Peter declared firmly.
"It will seem strange to be so young, after so many years of independence." Edmund said. "I think I will miss it."
"And yet, we'll have Mother and Father back, and our old home." Lucy replied, brightening slightly.
"If Father survives the war."
"Let us make each other a promise," Lucy said, rising from her chair to kneel in front of her siblings. "We have been given this life, and that is a blessing. We have been given knowledge of this place, and these people, but like all things, they too are to pass away. This is no worse than death to one life, to be reborn in another. Aslan guides us and will care for us, no matter what world we are in."
"You speak truth, Sister. What promise shall we make?"
"Never to regret or resent having been given this life," Lucy said, brown eyes serious and earnest. "We will live here until it is time to leave. And then…we will live there."
Peter set one hand on top of Lucy's closed fist and said, "I so promise."
Susan knelt and embraced her sister. "So do I."
"For no matter what, we have each other. And we have Aslan."