"Where did the summer go?" Meghan wondered aloud, looking out the window of the Princesses' room at the gaudy patchwork of an autumn forest. "It seems like almost yesterday we got here by boat, with Oren, and saw Caelin chasing Gilles out of the kitchen."
"It does, in some ways," said Hermione, turning her page. "But in others, it doesn't. We had the Calormene ambassadors here, and now they've gone again…"
Meghan giggled. "Not before one of their young knights saw you reading in the orchard!" she sing-songed.
Hermione snatched up a spare bit of paper, crumpled it into a ball, and hurled it at Meghan, who dodged adeptly. "And he wrote you poetry!" she caroled, hugging herself around the middle and wriggling in glee. "He wrote you poetry and left it where he thought you'd find it, and the boys found it instead!"
"He wrote me very bad poetry." Hermione spoke with as much dignity as she could muster for the vibrant blush now staining her cheeks. "Which I certainly never asked for. And speaking of the boys…" She waited until her face had cooled somewhat, and until Meghan was calm enough to sit back down on the window seat and look at her curiously. "What do you think of…Ray?"
"I don't like him." Meghan's response was immediate, as was her pout. "I don't like him any more than I did when he was still Draco. I don't like him, I don't trust him, and I don't see why Caelin and Gilles and Ardan and Ilana do." She cocked her head at Hermione. "Do you?"
"I might." Hermione set her book aside and joined Meghan on the window seat, gazing out into the golden Narnian afternoon. "They're giving him a chance, Pearl. The same chance they're giving all of us. He's not doing quite the same thing with it that we are, but we started from a different place. He's got a lot of ground to make up."
"But what if he doesn't want to make it up?" Meghan objected. "What if all he wants is all he ever wanted—to be rude and nasty to people and lord it over them, and someday be King all by himself, without any of us? What if all the Kings and Queens are doing, trusting him, is giving him the chance to make that happen?"
"I think they're smart enough to spot it before he gets very far." Hermione smiled at the girl she was coming to regard as a little sister, with all the dovetailing love and annoyance that entailed. "And you and I and Harry would have a thing or two to say about it as well."
Meghan sighed. "All right," she said, sitting back in the corner and folding her arms. "But I still don't like him."
"I'll make a note of that."
Prince Ray of Narnia sat in the library of Cair Paravel, an elaborately inscribed scroll on the table in front of him, his left hand tapping an unloaded quill against a clean sheet of paper as he skimmed the lines of verse in front of him.
"O Princess, in your sky-blue raiment clad,/ With one fair look, I beg you, favor me /As favor to your book and apple had / You shown when I saw you in yonder tree." Can we tell that Narnian is not this gentleman's native tongue? And that he's read far, far too much really terrible epic poetry?
He and Harry had shared a good laugh over the flowery, stumbling phrases in which the youngest of the knights the Calormenes had brought with them had chosen to address their sister in royalty, but Harry's interest in the so-called poem had ended there. Ray had found it holding onto his mind, and thought he might now understand why.
Hermione may be a bookworm, but that doesn't mean she's not a girl too. She likes to be told she's pretty, and that you want her to think well of you. It's just that this is the wrong way to go about it. He tapped the scroll with his right hand. So I'm going to see if I can't find the right way. Working a bit from this, maybe, just to prove there's a few seeds in even the least promising ground.
"And if I can get that right," he murmured aloud, "why not do one for everybody? Not long, just a few lines apiece, but real. Personal."
Proving that Ray pays attention to who and what people are, where Draco never did…
The double-think entailed by the shift in his personal nomenclature (which, despite what Ilana had originally said on the beach, looked like it was going to stick for the long haul) would, Ray thought, have been difficult for anyone who hadn't grown up in a pureblood household.
But we get used to having more than one face. A different one for every situation, really. And all of them different from the person you are when you get home and you can finally take the mask off…
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. And I'm not so very sure I know who that was for me, anymore. Or that I ever did. I thought I did, but was I really being me? Or was I just being the perfect son my parents wanted?
"Because a lot of what I'm finding in Narnia, I like." Ray pushed back from the table and walked over to the window, leaning on the sill and looking out across the sea. "And I want to keep it. Even when I know my parents wouldn't approve, that they'd be screaming in horror at some of it and turning up their noses at the rest…"
But that, as he had to keep reminding himself firmly, was a problem for another day, or possibly another year, if the pattern held true. For this day, this moment, he needed to concentrate on rewriting the young Calormene's doggerel verse into something more closely approximating real poetry.
And then ask Garnet, very nicely, if she'll copy it out for me in that fancy handwriting I know she does, and maybe get Nata to do an illustration or two to go along with it…
He rolled his left wrist absently, easing the ache in his arm, as he returned to the table and picked up the scroll once more.
Princess Hermione's natal day opened with music, as had those of her siblings in royalty over the course of the summer. To her surprise, Ray was among the musicians who came to her chamber to play her awake, concentrating hard on the correct execution of the simple stepwise melody of an ancient Narnian song of joy. "I didn't know you'd come so far already," she said when the song was finished, applauding along with Meghan.
"I practiced a lot." Ray looked like he wanted to duck his head or hide his multiple pipes behind his back, but instead smiled at her, the expression sweet and almost shy. "Thanks."
"No, thank you." Hermione beamed at him, and at Caelin, Ardan, and Garnet. "What else are you going to surprise me with today?"
"And if we told you that, my Princess, it would no longer be a surprise, now would it?" chuckled Ardan, cradling his fiddle in the crook of his arm. "Come, now, up and dress. The day awaits you."
"And you, and our young Prince, will await it elsewhere," said Caelin firmly, opening the door. "Out, the both of you. Mere males are not welcome here."
Ray winked at Hermione before he exited the room.
Meghan's gift to Hermione was a new writing set, with gorgeously colored inks and quills so soft Hermione spent a few moments brushing them against her face to luxuriate in the touch of the feathers. Harry's, given over breakfast, was a bound and intricately illustrated version of the legend Gilles had told them shortly after their arrival in Narnia, that of the first Kings and Queens to reign as a group of four from Cair Paravel. Ardan and Gilles gave her a beautifully wrought silver dagger, its hilt ornamented with a translucent stone of her favorite blue, and Ardan girded her with it ceremoniously, looking into her eyes levelly when the belt was buckled. "Do not be too quick to deal out death and judgment, young Princess," he murmured. "Even the very wise cannot see all ends."
"Yes, sir." Hermione inclined her head, then, obeying impulse, leaned forward and kissed Ardan on the cheek.
The High King blinked, and Hermione felt a small, ignoble rush of glee. She had managed what all the young royals had begun to think was an impossible task—she had, without prompting or help of any kind, surprised Ardan of Narnia.
A moment later, she was startled in her turn, as a man's arms closed tightly around her.
"Such a Queen you will make, my child," Ardan said softly, cradling her against him. "Such a marvelous, unexpected Queen."
Hermione willed away tears of happiness at the compliment and hugged him back fiercely.
The Queens' gift to the elder Princess of Narnia was her wardrobe for the autumn and winter months of the year, "for though clothing should not be our first concern, neither should it be our last," said Ilana, showing Hermione the fabrics she and Caelin had tentatively chosen for day dresses, formal gowns, and riding habits. "Others judge us, and decide how seriously to take our words and our ideas, based on what we do or do not wear, and how we do or do not wear it."
"Clothes convey a sense of the wearer, just as movement and tone of voice speak as much or more than words," Caelin added. "They are languages of their own, as complex and nuanced as any spoken or written words. And we, if I do say so myself, speak them fluently."
"Or we hope we do, in any case!" Ilana added with her merry laugh.
Kargin, the tips of his ears glowing brightly, handed over three elegantly simple sets of jewelry to be worn with the new clothes. "Garnet and I told our brothers about you, and this is what they made," he said as Hermione exclaimed over the interwoven links of rose and yellow gold, the hammered silver circles of differing sizes which formed their own chain, and the griffin-shaped pendant of bronze. "I hope you like them."
"Oh, they're lovely." Hermione blew him a kiss. "Thank you so much."
"You're welcome, Princess," Kargin mumbled, looking at the floor.
Hermione was about to remind him what she preferred to be called, but Ardan tapped a finger against the table until she looked his way, then shook his head very slightly. With a nod, Hermione acknowledged the command. She supposed she had to get used to her title sometime, and here at home, with her friends, seemed like as harmless a way to do it as any.
Oren and Nata, attending both in their own persons as Hermione's friends and as representatives of their respective peoples to the Princess, jointly presented her with an elaborately carved harp, its reddish-brown wood gleaming. "But I've only just begun lessons," Hermione protested, running her hand regretfully along the upper curve. "I can't possibly play as well as an instrument this beautiful deserves!"
"All the more reason for you to keep up your practice," said Caelin firmly. "I tell you now that if you are faithful to it for a year, you will in that time become worthy of a harp of this quality." She planted her hands on her hips. "Or do you doubt my expertise in this area?"
Hermione shook her head, momentarily speechless.
"And now, the final gift of the afternoon," said Ilana, waving to Ray, who had remained in the background through most of the gift-giving.
Swallowing her nerves and reminding herself that she, like the rest of the Narnian royalty, had agreed to treat Ray as though he truly were a separate person from Draco Malfoy, Hermione turned to face him.
"Princess," Ray greeted her, dipping an elegant little bow, not in the least off-balanced by the wrapped rectangle in his hands. "Many happy returns."
"Thank you." Hermione received the parcel and surreptitiously felt it as she seated herself. Something framed—a portrait, or a picture? But whose, or what—
She stripped off the paper and felt her eyes go wide.
"Calligraphy by Garnet, art by Nata," Ray said from beside her. "Words…" Another little bow, this one with a self-deprecating flourish. "By yours truly."
Hermione let her fingers trail across the glass which protected the items he'd named, taking them in a bit at a time. The picture at the top of the page showed a girl of about fifteen perched in a tree, one bare foot swinging below her branch of choice, brown curls tumbling carelessly over blue-clad shoulders, brown eyes fixed firmly on her page. A half-eaten red apple lay momentarily neglected in her other hand, and a silver diadem set with a blue stone, along with a pair of sensible shoes tied together by their laces, hung on the branch above her, ready to her hand when she needed them.
Beneath the picture, in most elegant handwriting, were the words.
The Princess sits, in blue of cloudless sky,
Atop her tree; below, the world goes by.
She'll soon return there, make her swift descent;
For now, a book, an apple—she's content.
"Ray, it's wonderful." Hermione set her gift carefully down on the floor beside her. "And when I think of what you had to start with—"
"No, it wasn't very promising, was it?" Ray grinned, keeping his eyes level on hers this time, though his cheeks were starting to pink up once more. "Took me a while to get it done properly, but once I'd started, I couldn't very well stop. Otherwise I'd have been admitting he was better than I was."
"Which isn't something you've ever known how to do," said Harry. "Even when it's true."
In the midst of the laughing war of words, only Oren noticed it when Meghan got to her feet and slipped out of the room.
I hate him. Meghan scowled as she stormed her way down the back corridors of Cair Paravel, ignoring the startled looks from satyrs and dryads in livery as she passed them without so much as a nod or a smile. I hate, hate, hate him. It isn't enough he has to come along to Narnia and ruin everything, now he's got Harry and Hermione liking him too, and trusting him—I can't believe they're this stupid, I thought they were my friends—can't they see what he's doing? Can't they tell he'll never change? He's not a nice person, he never will be—no matter what he calls himself, or what he does, he's always going to be—
"Your Highness!" gasped a startled faun, leaping backwards from Meghan and dropping his pile of books as they nearly collided in a cross-corridor. "Oh, I do beg pardon!" He looked distractedly at the mess all around him. "Oh dear, and I had them just in the order the High Queen wanted, too…"
"And I made you drop them." Meghan hunched her shoulders momentarily, swallowing against the taste of shame at the back of her mouth. "I'm sorry. Shall I see if I can stack them up for you again? With this?" She drew her wand, careful to keep its tip pointed at the floor. Some of the Narnians who hadn't yet seen their young royals' magic, only heard stories about it, were a bit skittish the first time it was demonstrated to them.
"Oh, if you would…" The faun backed away a pace or two. "Thank you, Your Highness, that will save me some time. If you're not busy, of course."
"No, I was just thinking too hard." Meghan swirled her wand a few times, recalling the feel of the charm Hermione had taught her a few weeks ago. "And you don't have to keep Highnessing me when nobody's here to be bothered. My name is Meghan." She smiled, and saw a tentative smile appearing in return. "And my friends call me Pearl."
"As you say, Your—Meghan." The faun watched her wand's motions in fascination. "Mine is Velyan. Is it true—they say you can do almost anything with your little stick, if you have the proper words for it—"
"Almost anything, yes. Though I don't know very many spells yet, and Harry and Hermione and…Ray don't know a lot more." The name still stuck in her craw, but it was the one by which her Housemate had asked to be known and she wasn't about to be so rude as to ignore that. "We haven't finished our schooling yet, and I suppose we won't, not until after we're done being Kings and Queens. So we must already know what we'll need, at least with our wands." She waved the item she'd named in a large circle, encompassing the area in which the books had been dropped. "Mobililibris!"
Velyan's eyes widened even further as the books obediently lifted themselves from the floor and floated together in front of him.
"Which one was first?" Meghan asked, trying not to laugh. It wasn't polite, especially not to so new a friend.
"Er—this one." Velyan tapped a particular green-bound spine tentatively, and blinked in delight when a twitch of Meghan's wand laid it neatly in his hands. "And then these two over here, the ones bound in blue—and then the fat red one—"
Step by step, they rebuilt the pile of books, and Velyan managed when Meghan had finished to bow without losing any of them. "My thanks, Princess Meghan," he said fervently. "Not that it would have been so terrible to pick them all up again, but—"
"But it would have been work, and work you shouldn't have had to do. Because I'm the one who wasn't looking where she was going and almost ran into you." Meghan curtsied, enjoying the brush of her layered violet skirts against her legs. "Caelin says the Harvest Festival will be held next week. Maybe I'll see you there."
"Of course." Velyan braced the books against his cheek, almost but not completely hiding his smile. "Pearl."
Meghan stepped back, clearing the way, and watched the faun scurry up the corridor and out of sight.
"Kindly done, my Princess," said a voice from behind her.
A little shriek escaped Meghan as she whirled. "Oren!" She pressed a hand to her heart, giggling. "I didn't know you were there."
"I had wanted to see what sent you so quickly out of the room." Oren came forward to stand beside her, his hair, streaked brown and green with traces of leaf-patterns in it, trailing over his shoulders. "Are you well?"
"I don't know." Meghan sighed, the momentary charm of her unceremonious meeting with Velyan fading. "I just don't know. I'm worried, Oren, I'm worried and frightened and a little bit angry—maybe a lot bit angry—and I can't talk about it with anyone else, because they'll only pat me on the head and tell me I'm being silly…"
"Will you walk outside with me, then?" Oren offered her his arm. "I will listen."
"Yes, you will." Meghan accepted. "You always do."
Together, Princess and dryad slipped out one of the many doors of Cair Paravel and meandered down to the bank of the Great River, the afternoon sun sparking brightly on the swift-flowing waters.
"It's Ray," Meghan said after a few moments of silence, sitting down to pull off her shoes and stockings. "Well, it's a little bit everybody, but mostly it's Ray. Why should we believe he's changed, just because he wants to be called something else now? Just because he's behaving a bit differently, and doing a few nice things here and there for people? That doesn't change what he used to do, what he was like back where we came from—"
"And what would change that, my Princess?" Oren inquired mildly.
Meghan paused in the act of taking her first step into the shallows of the river. "What?"
"What act of the Prince's has the power to change what is already done?" Scooping up a stone, Oren weighed it in his hand for a moment, then tossed it into the water. "I had thought not even Aslan himself was capable of such a thing."
"That's not what I meant," Meghan started to object, then wilted. "All right, that's what I said. But it isn't what I was thinking."
"Then what were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that he's putting on an act!" One small bare foot stamped into the water for emphasis, splashing high enough that even the tied-up hem of its owner's gown developed a damp spot or two. "That he's learned how to pretend he cares for people, and he's fooling everybody else with it, but I know him better than anybody else who's here and I know it's not real! Because if it were real, if he really cared about people, then maybe by now he'd have thought to—"
Behind her, someone coughed.
Meghan spun around, shoulders square, fists balled up. "What do you want now?" she snapped at Ray.
Oren made a tactful withdrawal down the riverbank.
"I was coming out to see if you were all right. Running out of the room like that, I thought you might be sick or something." Ray had his arms folded across his chest. "But I guess all you wanted was a chance to talk about me behind my back—"
"And what else have you ever done to me?" Meghan shot out an arm, indicating the palace. "What else have you ever done to them? Except you didn't bother to do it behind our backs, you went and said all these horrible things right to our faces, because you thought you were funny, because you liked to watch us get angry, or cry, or get in trouble for hitting back when you were always the one who started it—"
"Oh, like you've never done anything you were sorry for afterwards!" Ray glared at her. "How would you like it if someone kept throwing in your face the stupid things you did when you were too young to know any better?"
"Too young?" Meghan bristled. "You were older than I am now! And you weren't sorry, you were never sorry, you thought it was the most fun you could possibly have—"
"Maybe I wasn't sorry then, but I am now!" Ray had his fists clenched by his sides, matching Meghan's hands on her hips. "And I may not have been all that young, but I didn't know any better, because by what I was always taught, what I was doing to you was just fine! Except now I see it wasn't, and I'm sorry, all right? I'm sorry I used to tease you!"
"I don't believe you!" Meghan stamped her foot in the water again. "I don't believe any of this! You're lying just like you always lie, and I'm not listening to you!"
"Well, fine!" Ray turned his back on her. "Be that way!"
"Fine!" Meghan wheeled around, facing the center of the river. "I will!"
The silence seemed to stretch into years. Meghan listened to her own breathing, her own heartbeat, and the ripples of the river. Is he still there? I don't know if he's still there. I'm not going to turn around and look, I'm not going to crack first, he's going to have to be the one to say something if he's still there—
"Is it just me," Ray said conversationally, "or did we sound a bit ridiculous?"
Meghan fought to stay angry for several seconds, but her giggles got the better of her in the end. "A bit," she managed to say through them, turning around again. "Just a bit."
Ray was smiling at her, the sort of smile she had never seen on his face before Narnia, that reached and warmed his eyes, softening them and making him look surprisingly unlike the boy she'd tried so hard to avoid through her two years of schooling. "I really am sorry," he said, holding out his hand. "For the things I used to say, and do, to you. That's what I hadn't thought to do, isn't it? Apologize to you, and mean it?"
"Mm-hmm." Meghan gathered her courage and met Ray's hand with her own. "I'm sorry too," she said, looking into his eyes over their handclasp. "I wasn't being fair to you. We were supposed to put aside our old world at the Silver Spring, start fresh in Narnia, and instead of that I was still judging you by who you used to be."
"That's only natural. What else would you have to judge by?" Ray gave her hand a little squeeze. "Offsetting penalties, you think? No harm, no foul, and move on from here?"
"I'd like that." Meghan glanced at the palace, then back at Ray. "Are they going to miss us in there, or do you want to stay out here for a little while?"
Ray chuckled. "Why don't we stay out here? See how long it takes them to notice we're gone?"
"That sounds like fun." Meghan tugged on Ray's hand, pulling him a few steps closer to the river. "Do you want to wade with me? Just in the shallows, unless the river naiads want to play. Then we can go in deeper, because they won't let anything happen to us."
"I…think I'd like that." Ray seemed surprised at the words coming out of his mouth. "Yes. I will." Sitting down on a handy rock, he began undoing the laces of his boots.
Meghan stooped to trail her fingers in the water, watching him through her eyelashes. "You never had much fun, did you?" she asked quietly. "Back in the other world, where we grew up. You had a lot of money and a lot of things, but I don't think you ever had friends who'd ask you to go wading in the river with them. Did you?"
"Give that girl a fluffy bunny." Ray pulled off one boot and set it aside. "Nope, never did. Never thought I'd want to. It wasn't proper." He drawled the last word in the tones he'd most often used before Narnia, winning another giggle from Meghan. "Only now…" He paused, his fingers stilling on his other bootlace. "Now, I'm starting to think that being proper isn't so much what you do as how you do it. And it starts…" He touched a hand to his breastbone. "Here. With how you look at other people, and what you see in them, and what you show them of yourself."
"Like the story of the true and false Princesses, that Gilles told us last week on the terrace, when we watched the shooting stars." Meghan tilted her head back, remembering the breathless sense of wonder which had filled her as the half-familiar Narnian constellations were all but hidden by darting streaks of light. "They both treated everyone the same, but the false Princess scolded and shouted at her ladies-in-waiting like they were nothing but scullery maids, and the true Princess was as polite to the scullery maids as she was to her ladies."
"Which was how they told the difference, in the end." Ray finished unlacing his second boot and removed it, setting it with its mate and tucking his socks into their tops, then folding up his trouser legs to the knee. "But that's Princesses. Not Princes. The rules are different for us." He grinned, his pale eyes sparking with mischief. "Especially where little sisters are concerned."
Before Meghan could react, he took two rapid strides forward and hooked a foot around her ankles.
The resulting splash was quite impressive.
"Are you sure you wanted to do that, my Prince?" inquired Oren, drifting back towards the two. "Given where that places the Princess in regards to you?"
"What?" Ray looked down—
Just in time for Meghan to surface, spit out a mouthful of water, and tackle his legs with her whole weight.
Oren dodged nimbly aside from the second, even larger, splash.
"There," Meghan said in satisfaction as Ray came up spluttering. "Now we're both wet."
"Not nearly as wet as you're about to be," Ray growled, shoving his hair out of his eyes. "C'mere."
Meghan shrieked gleefully and bolted down the riverbank with Ray in hot pursuit.
Oren strolled after Prince and Princess, pausing for a moment to look up at a particular window in Cair Paravel. A slender, pale hand waved a greeting to him, then was withdrawn.
The young royals of Narnia were better watched over than they knew.
(Next chapter: a visit to the Dwarves, a Narnian Christmas, and we learn a bit more of some of the Kings' and Queens' stories…stay tuned!)