"Down here, quick!" Mistiana cried, ducking into a stone stairwell. Lady Charlotte giggled and leapt after her, not the least worried about slipping and breaking an ankle. She'd been in Narnia two weeks now -or was it three?- and had found herself growing bolder, lighter, and gigglier. She and the queen had easily fallen into a routine that satisfied almost every need Charlotte could come up with.
In the morning, they rose early, often waking each other from where they'd fallen asleep next to each other in the queen's ridiculously large four-post bed. They dined together on Mistiana's veranda, watching the tail end of the sunrise. After that, it was down to the sea for a bath and seashell hunt. They picnicked always either on the beach or in the garden, then spent the afternoon reading or lazily chatting with anyone who happened to be around. After perhaps a brief nap, they'd venture out to explore the orchards or fields, meandering further from the castle to play and explore. Back for supper with palace residents, then out onto the verandas again for a dance with the court musicians, who were kept in practice for just such visits as these. They celebrated nothing at all until late in the night, then finally retired, too exhausted to speak another word.
Charlotte felt like a little girl in a way she never had before. Though occasionally something would trigger a smoky, distant memory of America or Paris or England, she found that the real world faded away in only a short time. Hadn't she always been in Narnia? The Royal Four she remembered, of course; hadn't she been with them here during their reign? High King Peter drifted from being a painful, scarcely mentioned topic to the subject of many a lazy, contented conversation. In only a few days, Charlotte wasn't so sure that she and Peter weren't in love. After three weeks, Charlotte believed all of her daydreams, and it was bliss.
The stairs Mistiana was leading her down now led to the royal treasury basement, Charlie knew. She hadn't been down here yet -for some reason, she had been hesitant before, but she couldn't remember why. Now she gladly skipped after Mistiana as they fled the path of Dmetri. That was the guard Mistiana loved. She'd admitted it now, in fits of giggles and sighs of longing because it could never be. Could it? Could a commoner marry a queen? Lady Charlotte certainly didn't see why not.
It was dark in the treasury basement, but the ladies had brought lights with them which now cast a flickering glow on the stone walls. Mistiana went straight for the maps. Despite how silly she generally seemed, she had a quick mind and a strange love for maps. Perhaps it was just a love for the great hide and seek game and a need to strategize.
Lady Charlotte was drawn without realizing it to a small room off the main hall. In here, untouched for quite some time, hung the royal garments of the Four, perched over chests with their most valued items. High King Peter's sword had been in use until Mistiana's time; she'd seen no need to use the legendary sword for daily play and stored it among its sibling weapons here. Charlotte felt a bit disgruntled that such precious relics should be shut away, rather than on honored display, but she didn't voice this.
Instead she ran her fingers over the velvet of Peter's robe. It had almost one hundred years since the High King had worn it, yet the soft blue velvet seemed hardly a day old. It matched the color of his eyes, didn't it? She picked his crown up and placed it her head, but it slid down to rest on her nose. His sword, likewise, seemed almost as tall as she was; certainly it had to be as heavy. It took her both hands to pick it up, and she'd be useless trying to wield it in battle. Peter must have grown even stronger while he was in Narnia to be adept with it.
A flicker of motion behind Charlotte made her drop the sword, embarrassed to be caught playing with such valuable items. Mistiana had never made even the slightest motion to hinder Charlotte's access or right to anything, but Charlotte had always done her best not to push boundaries. She wasn't sure if Mistiana would mind her playing with some of the most valuable items in the kingdom.
Mistiana wasn't in the room, though. Lady Charlotte had been mistaken in thinking Mistiana had entered the room; in fact, she could hear her footsteps now approaching and quickly thrust the crown and sword back into their rightful places.
"Are you all right?" Mistiana asked, appearing in the doorway with concern.
"There was a movement that scared me," Charlotte answered vaguely. Looking around the still, quiet room though, she couldn't determine what it was that could have moved. "Is there someone else down here with us?"
"I didn't see anyone go past me." Still Mistiana went back into the other room and even peered up the stairwell, calling, "Hello-o! Is anything there?" There was no reply.
"I must have imagined it," Charlotte shrugged. But even as she said it, her eyes trailed over the ground until she spotted a drainage hole near the bottom of the far wall. Were those footprints in the dust new? Or were they hers? Was it even possible for someone to have slipped through that small hole?
She decided that it wasn't and, with a smile, followed Mistiana back up the stairs to see if the coast was clear. Dmetri, to their disappointment, had moved on to another part of the castle, so they had to come up with some reason to head to that part of the castle as well. No matter where they wandered, though, Charlotte couldn't quite shake the feeling that someone was watching her.
It wasn't until late that night that Charlotte got her answer. She'd retired temporarily to her room to change into her nightgown before meeting Mistiana in her room, per usual, where they would stay up until the wee hours of the morning talking about anything and nothing. She shooed the maids away, not needing their help once they'd undone the back of her dress, promising to hang her gown up and not leave it in a pile on the floor like the Queen always did when left to undress on her own.
Dressed for bed, Charlotte had her hand on the door to leave when suddenly the candle blew out behind her. This wouldn't have alarmed her if a breeze had accompanied the sudden darkness, but the curtains were already drawn and motionless against the still night outside. Instinctively she spun in surprise
But no, the candle hadn't blown out. The flame had simply fallen off of the candle itself, rolled onto the floor, and was now rolling in a neat, contained little ball towards her.
Charlotte could only stand there frozen, listening to the small, sizzling noises as the flame grew larger in its approach and yet left no trail of scorch marks behind. Nothing caught on fire in its wake. The ball of fire was simply a creature, it seemed, and Charlotte was so assimilated into Narnia that nothing about this surprised her. She forgot that a world even existed in which flames were not living, breathing things.
"Who are you?" she asked instead, her voice trembling only slightly.
"What, not whom," the flame returned. "Don't you remember me? Or has your memory already faded? Narnia does seem to have that effect on the sons and daughters of Eve. Memories even the slightest bit unhappy are washed away and, if we are honest, the truth is always just the slightest bit unhappy."
Charlotte's eyes narrowed as she peered into the flames which had now reach the same height she stood. Vaguely she make out the dark round eyes, the curved smile. Then the tongue flickered from the flames and one withered, scaly hand reached out towards her.
"You!" she cried, remembering only that such a hand had held her once, burned her, and dragged her into the depths of the earth. "I do remember you. You raised me on a pedestal above fire, a sacrifice to your underground-"
"Yes, yes, I'm just awful," the salamander laughed. "But you are not so far behind, are you, Little Miss Lady Liar?"
"What did you call me?" Charlotte asked, standing taller and even taking a step forward angrily. No stranger could come into Lady Charlotte's room and accuse her of anything!
The salamander slid backwards in mock fear, then rushed forward and repeated more loudly, "Liar!"
"I'm no such-"
"Miss Charlotte Auburn of fourteen Rue de Rivoli, number three! Unwanted house guest of Mr. and Mrs. Pevensie, number twelve, Granville Road, Finchley."
Faintly, in the back of her mind, Charlotte got the feeling that this was supposed to mean something to her. The fact that it didn't made the panic begin to rise up her throat.
"What are you that you come into my room to tell me who I am?" Charlotte demanded, this time shrinking back even as she tried to sound intimidating. "You have no business-"
"And you have no business here, Charlie. That mark of yours is darker than ever and is spreading even now onto that stupid queen you love so much." Charlotte said nothing, only narrowed her eyes as she tried to understand. The salamander laughed, "Ah, have I hit a mark?"
"You've been following me," Charlotte said. "That was you in the-"
"I haven't needed to follow you, for you carried me for most of your day. I live in the flame, you remember. I live in your flame specifically, if you haven't figured that out. Someone must live in your flame, after all, and if that cat isn't there, then your flame is mine for the taking."
"I don't know what you're talking about!"
The salamander shrugged, "That's not my problem. But to respond to your accusation, no, that was not me spying over your shoulder today. Another thing you have yet to notice is that I can't touch anything that's not offered to me. I couldn't have made any noise, could I? I can't even grab your hand again unless you offer it to me so you have no reason to cower like that."
"I'm not cowering!" Charlotte insisted. "And I won't be offering my hand to you."
"Ha, you're injured pride. And yet you have already forgotten what I've told you. You've put your queen in danger. Tis not I that stalks you even now, called by that mark upon your face."
Charlotte strode past him to the mirror, no longer much afraid after his admission that he couldn't touch her, and retorted, "You said that before, didn't you? But there's no mark there. Mistiana looked too and said she sees nothing, and she's the queen."
"Not of the dark world, she's not, and it's no light mark you have there upon your forehead." The salamander rolled his fiery encasement closer and peered over her shoulder. The flickering of his flame hit her just so that for a moment her eyes widened and she leaned closer. Had she just seen . . . but no, there wasn't anything there. As soon as he took a step back, the flicker or something Charlotte had seen was gone. It was just a trick of his light.
"You saw it," he gloated. "You don't want to see it, which is why you don't. You are such a good liar, especially to yourself, so that you are able to lie away your mark, but there it still is, calling to the beast that hunts you now."
Charlotte rolled her eyes, "Why would I ever believe you? You have reason to help me. You'd do everything in your power to hurt both me and Mistiana, though, including make up some monstrous beast."
"My hope, of course, is that you will come with me. We can keep you safe from the beast. We can make you a queen among us."
"You weren't exactly treating me like a queen before-"
"You had to prove yourself first. Trial by fire," he smirked. "You chose death rather than discomfort and therefore have proven yourself."
"Well I'm not coming with you, so you'd better leave."
"If you think, you will remember," the salamander suggested. "You will remember that you do not belong here and that you have brought evil into this kingdom. You don't want to believe me when I say that you are putting the queen in danger, but you fear it in your heart. You will continue to hope that I am lying to you now until it is too late, until you hold your dead queen in your arms. And then you'll call for me, and it will be too late for me to help you."
"I'd die before I let anything happen to Mistiana," Charlotte gallantly avowed.
"You will not be the one that dies," was the salamander's casual reply. With a flicker and soft hiss, he was gone and the room was plunged into darkness.
Charlotte took several minutes to compose herself before bounding up the stairs to Mistiana's room. She hesitated only a moment before knocking and throwing open the door, almost scared of what she'd find. But the queen was stretched across the bed, her nose buried in a book, happily alive.
"You took so long!" Mistiana sighed, motioning for Charlotte to crawl into the bed with her. "I'm to the part where the prince discovers that she's not a princess after all, but just a lowly milkmaid. I do hope he loves her enough that it doesn't matter!"
"Does it matter? Does it really?" Lady Charlotte pressed, latching onto the one subject that could pull her out of her dark reverie: love and romance. Hadn't she use to hate both? She got the nagging suspicion that she had, but she couldn't remember why . . . She lounged on the bed beside Mistiana, taking the queen's long fingers and kissing them happily. "Do you really, when it all comes down to it, care that Dmetri is not a prince?"
Mistiana gasped, scandalized. Though it was always understood whom they were discussing when the topic of love came up -always either Dmetri or Peter- Dmetri's name was never explicitly mentioned. To do so now was not offensive, only surprising, salacious even.
Mistiana gasped once again and, giving Lady Charlotte a playful shove, demanded, "What! You laugh at me now, after all this time?"
"I'm not laughing-"
"Then you are serious tonight," the queen reflected, her laughter dying as she studied Lady Charlotte's face. "You are as serious as though death is upon you. What ever is the matter-"
"Oh, nothing is the matter," Charlotte insisted, trying to laugh light-heartedly. "Only I fear you are wasting so much time that you might be happy, all because of fanciful notions of propriety. At the end of the day, do you really, truly love Dmetri? Or do you simply love having someone to love?"
Mistana had never been asked such a question before; she and Charlotte were never so serious. What reason was there to be serious when the world was at play? Still she paused and thought, and Charlotte watched the emotions flit over her face.
"I do love him," Mistiana finally explained, rolling onto her face to avoid Charlotte's face. "He is handsome and kind. He is more responsible than I am and braver. He has fought against the Salamanders multiple times and never hesitated. I suppose . . . I suppose I am simply enjoying the game as long as I can."
"Before there is no going back, and he must admit to me that he does not love me in that way, or that he thinks I'm silly or foolish."
"The queen is afraid of rejection!" Charlotte laughed genuinely this time. She cuddled up closer to Mistiana, forcing the queen to look at her, and insisted, "I do not think that is possible."
"He doesn't talk to me. He'll barely look at me. He is polite only because I am the queen-"
"Or because he's as scared as you are. After all, you are the queen and so he has less hope of success than you do."
"Just because I am queen? But that doesn't matter. You either love or you don't, regardless of your station or access to all the eligible princes and soldiers and sailors in the land."
"Perhaps you should tell him that," Charlotte gently suggested. The queen's expression vacillated between terror and joy. Charlotte watched the changes as soft music began in the background. Trumpets, trombones, a piano, a low, clear cello picked up, the tempo picking up as the volume rose.
The second she realized that music was playing, Charlotte frowned and sat up. Big Band- that's what it was. A brass section playing songs like this had no place in Narnia. Her eyes flitted around the room to the corner where the music seemed to come from, but there was nothing there, certainly not an entire brass band. and why did Lady Charlotte know it was a brass band was to begin with? Why were these songs familiar?
"Charlotte?" Mistiana asked tentatively, sitting as well and delicately taking Charlotte's hand. "Dear friend, what's wrong? You look as though you've seen a ghost!"
"Peter isn't here," Charlotte posed, somewhere between a question and a statement. "He hasn't been here in a long time. I know him from . . ."
"From your own world, of course," Mistiana encouraged. "That England place you used to talk about so contemptuously."
"England . . ." Charlotte repeated. Flashes of memories danced through her mind: a decorated cathedral, a pianoforte in the corner, a plate of cookies, a warm fire.
A sneering blond-haired creature with an upturned nose and a streak of cruelty in her heart.
Even as she remembered England clearly for the first time since her arrival in Narnia, a flash of something dark at the window made her stumble backwards off the bed in fear. Momentarily the moonlight had been blocked out, as though someone had thrown a blanket over it. No sooner had she landed on the floor, she leapt to her feet and rushed to the window. Red eyes met her, peering over the windowsill, but as her hands touched the window, they fled, the moon returned, and the world outside the window was peaceful once again. It all happened so fast that Charlotte hardly realized she'd even moved from the bed.
"Charlotte!" Mistiana had been repeating for several seconds now. She hurried to her friend's side and grabbed her hands, demanding to know what was the matter.
Charlotte continued to look out the window, asking, "Did you hear the music?"
"What music? No, there was no music."
"Music from England . . ."
"From your home!" Mistiana gasped. "Oh, perhaps Aslan is letting you know that you're going home soon! You do seem to have forgotten so much of home; perhaps he is gently reminding you what it's like so that you won't be so started when you return. And then you will be reunited with Peter! I shall miss you dreadfully but will bear the separation knowing you're going back to him."
Charlotte's heart sank as memories crashed heavily on top of her now. She had no home in England. She could never be reunited with Peter because they had never been united in the first place. Perhaps Aslan would send her home, but then she would have nowhere to go. Susan would learn of the wedge Charlie had almost placed between her brother and his love and hate her for it. Even kind-hearted Mr. Pevensie would ask her to leave, and Charlotte would be more alone than ever before. She couldn't go back!
But that hadn't been Aslan at the window, of course. She'd never seen the Lion, but she knew he wouldn't have red eyes and creep around windows. It was the beast, the beast stalking her, the beast that even now was planning the death of Mistiana, if only to punish Charlie. Perhaps the Salamander was lying, but could Charlotte really take that chance?
She turned to face the concerned queen, who even now was calling for a servant to bring her warm milk and a cool cloth, certain Charlotte was about to faint. Never a thought for herself, this queen. Always happiness and light and love. Just the thought of her lying lifeless on the bed made Charlotte nauseous.
She accepted the milk when it was brought and tried to relax. It took only seconds for her to formulate her plan, but it would take a few hours to put it into effect. Just the resolve that she was saving Mistiana's life, though, calmed her.
"There, that's better," Mistiana beamed, gently rubbing Charlotte's back as she sipped the milk. "I'm afraid you are seeing ghosts tonight, but don't you worry. Aslan protect us, we'll be just fine. I'm sure you've just worn yourself out being so serious. No more talk of boys tonight!"
"Fair enough," Lady Charlotte offered meekly. Looking for something to distract the queen and bring back the calm, amiable mood, she asked, "Do you really think we can take a trip to Archenland? I'd love to see more of the world . . ."
It was late before Mistiana fell asleep. Later than Charlotte wished, though she secretly relished every extra moment in her friend's presence. Even once Charlotte had feigned exhaustion and fallen asleep, Mistiana had lain awake beside her for the longest time, her hand resting comfortingly on her hair, as though she sensed the impending departure.
Once Charlotte was certain Mistiana was asleep, she slipped quietly and quickly from the bed. The typical guard stood out the door but only nodded and grinned lazily at Charlotte as she left the room, used to the erratic nightlife of the girls. Charlotte made it to her room unmolested and had her few necessary belongings packed in a matter of minutes: a spare gown, a small bejeweled dagger Mistiana had given her when she'd admired it, a couple of books, and a pretty wooden flute.
She penned two notes by the light of the moon and hurried on tiptoe to slide them under the queen's door and into the barracks:
"My dearest Queen Mistiana, Aslan has called me home and I must answer. I shall never forget you and the kindness you have shown me. May Aslan protect you in all the golden days ahead. Yours always, Charlotte."
"For Dmetri" on the front and inside the folded note: "The queen is shy but loves you dearly. If you love her, as I think you must, please be there for her in the morning, for I must go and she may have need of a shoulder to cry on. Please protect her and lover her as well as she deserves. Your humble servant, Charlotte."
Notes delivered, small provisions stolen from the kitchen, Charlotte sneaked with her bundle down to the shore. The larger docks, which served as the landing point for merchant vessels, ships of war, and visiting royalty, bustled regardless of time of day; Charlotte could see and hear activity even from two hundred yards away. The small pier, though, situated just below the palace for the smaller fishing and play boats, was silent and abandoned at this late hour. Charlotte ran onto it now and eased herself into a medium sized sailboat, small enough she could row it along but large enough it didn't look like it would capsize at the first rough wave. The small sail was folded and tucked by the rudder. She had done a bit of sailing back during her Hollywood days, where yachts and sailboats were all the rage, so she figured she'd be able to get by. She found she perfectly remembered sailing. Memories of America and Paris and England came readily now, as though she'd finally come through the daze of waking from a deep sleep.
For now, though, the tide was out and there was no wind to speak of. Charlotte cast off from the pier, settled in the center, and began rowing. It was slow going but she hoped to at least be out of sight before daybreak. It would be some time before anyone would think to look for her in the sea, and by that time she would be too far gone, she hoped.
Gone, to Aslan's father's country or to the ends of the earth or to her death, but gone nonetheless, where she could finally hurt no one else.
AN: I should probably note that despite "The Last Battle" being one of my favorite books, it doesn't fit into the timeline of this story. In that regard, this would be AU. Thought it worth mentioning so no one is counting the years and realizes it's getting close to trainwreck time . . .