Rumor Has It…
by San Antonio Rose
Ardeeb's mouth hung open in astonishment as he and his cousin Rasheed entered the tiny coffeehouse. He was from one of the far-flung desert provinces of Calormen and had just come to Tashbaan to serve in the Tisroc's personal guard, and he had wondered aloud to Rasheed why the Tisroc seemed disinclined to go to war against any neighboring kingdoms. Rasheed told him the story of the Tisroc's last attack on Archenland while he was still a prince and in love with the barbarian queen of the North. (You may read the story for yourself in a book called The Horse and His Boy.) The pair barely took notice of the four nomads sitting at a table in the corner of the coffeehouse, still wearing the veils that protected their faces as they traveled.
"That's preposterous!" Ardeeb exploded once Rasheed finished his tale.
Rasheed shrugged. "I know many people who saw him during that year. They say it is true."
"This Aslan, then, is he a magician? Somewhere I heard that he once loved a sorceress who kept the North under a spell of winter."
"Nay, they say he is a great lion—or perhaps a demon who looks like a lion. The barbarians seem to worship him as a god, and they revile Tash the inexorable."
Ardeeb took a sip of coffee as he pondered this information.
"Somebody once told me that the younger queen is especially… devoted to Aslan, if you take my meaning," Rasheed went on with a leer.
"What, like a maiden of Zardeenah?"
"That, or she's wedded to a man with the legs of a goat."
Ardeeb looked disgusted. "I've heard of him… he came with Queen Susan when the Tisroc, may-he-live-forever, sought to marry her. But the captain of the watch said he thought Queen Susan was more interested in her sister than in the Tisroc, may-he-live-forever."
"Personally, I think the High King likes to keep Queen Susan for himself."
"That's not what I heard."
"No, the word is that King Peter is much more interested in King Edmund."
As he laughed, Rasheed saw out of the corner of his eye that one of the nomads made a move to get up, but the man sitting next to him put a hand on his arm to stop him. Rasheed paid them no mind and drank his coffee, trying to remember any other salacious rumors he might know about the barbarian rulers of the North.
Outside, a cry of "Way, way, way for the Tarkheena Aravis" drew closer until it appeared that the Tarkheena had chosen to halt outside the coffeehouse. She entered with some ceremony, and the proprietor hastened to welcome her and provide her with the best coffee in the house. With much bowing and scraping, Rasheed and Ardeeb convinced her to take their table, but strangely, she did not send them away, as most Tarkheenas would have done. Instead, sitting so that the soldiers had to turn their backs to the nomads, she asked them to continue whatever discussion they had been engaged in when she arrived.
"I do not know that our discussion would interest you, oh my mistress," Ardeeb replied. "We were talking about love in the North."
Aravis laughed. "Why, Azaroth must surely have sent me here, for I have just returned from the North."
Rasheed's face lit up. "Then perhaps, oh my mistress, you can enlighten us as to whether the rumors we have heard are true."
"In the North," Aravis replied, "there are four words for love. There is eros, which is physical; storge, which is affection; philos, which is brotherly love; and agape, unconditional love which is an act of will. Of which kind of love do you speak?"
Rasheed smirked. "We speak of eros, oh my mistress, for we hear that the barbarian kings and queens exhibit their love in ways we find strange."
Aravis raised an eyebrow. "Take care to whom you say such things. In Narnia, that would be considered slander."
"How would word reach the North of what we say here in Tashbaan?" Rasheed asked incredulously, forgetting his station for a moment. "And what would the barbarians do if they heard?"
Chairs scraped across the floor behind them, and a Northern voice said, "Stand, sirrah, and thou shalt learn the answer to thy question."
Ardeeb and Rasheed turned and paled as they rose. The nomads stood before them, moving in unison to lower their veils and reveal their identities: King Peter and King Edmund of Narnia and Prince Cor and Prince Corin of Archenland. All four were stern of face, and righteous anger blazed in their eyes. Aravis stood and moved around the table to stand beside Cor.
"We have heard thy words with our own ears, sirrah," Cor continued. "Ye have impugned the honor of the Four Sovereigns of Narnia and, what is far more grave, ye have blasphemed against Aslan, the High King above all kings and Son of the Emperor-over-Sea. My wife has already informed you that this is slander; we can justly demand satisfaction."
"By Calormene law, you could be punished by flogging, dishonorable discharge from the army, and sale into slavery," Aravis informed them. "We find this punishment too harsh for a crime of ignorance."
"By Narnian law," Edmund added, "my royal brother and I could challenge you both to a duel. However, as ye know only the scimitar and we know only the rapier, we find that this, too, is not the wisest solution."
Cor turned to Peter. "This being so, my liege, shall our judgment be as we discussed?"
"Even so," Peter replied, clearly making an effort to control himself.
The last thing either Rasheed or Ardeeb knew for some time was Corin's fist connecting with his jaw.
"Now you know why I wanted you to hear it for yourselves," Corin said as the five friends left the coffeehouse. "And you were right, Edmund. Justice tempered by mercy will teach them a greater lesson about our character."
"I cannot but wonder where these ideas come from," Cor sighed. "Tash is evil, but whether these tales are of his making…."
"If not," Aravis interjected, "then I must wonder what kind of lives the people who created such rumors must lead. Even as a Calormene, I cannot understand it."
Edmund shook his head. "Can they really think so poorly of us here that they would believe such lies?"
Peter wrapped his arm around Edmund's shoulders. "They don't know Aslan, Ed," he replied softly, his voice filled with sorrow.