The Palace Guard
Chapter 9 – Subject, Soldier, Guard
Less T than the last chapter, but still, T.
Still Not King. Still Don't Own This.
Year 7 of the Golden Age and the same day as Chapter 5, The Cheetah Guard of the High King
It was Lambert, not Wrasse, who was waiting when Jalur left the bizarre event some significant time later. It felt to be hours. His distraction and mortification were so great Jalur did not even know when Wolf had replaced Panther during his long incarceration with the enthusiastic, persistent, and thoroughly demented Physician.
"Jalur?" Lambert asked as the door shut behind him.
It took him a moment to register that the Wolf was concerned.
Unsteadily, he responded to the unstated worry, "I am well."
"Are you certain?"
"Yes," Jalur managed, more firmly. He searched for the words, and found that though he had used or thought them several times today, it did seem to cover the whole of his experience. "Humans are very strange."
The Wolf nodded his head and there was a crease of humor in his somber demeanor. "They are, Friend."
"Why do they make simple things so very complicated?" Jalur huffed, feeling uncommonly frustrated with all this bother.
"They do not perceive as we do and it leads to much misunderstanding."
Lambert's suspicious hostility of earlier was gone, and Jalur felt strangely, well, comfortable was not the word. Two large predators would never be at ease with another. There was acceptance, as if Jalur had endured some further steps on the path to Guard, and the Wolf was acknowledging him as a peer.
The Wolf pointed his muzzle away, down the hall. "Wrasse needed to return to the Monarchs' wing. We both thought you might wish company to discuss the day, solitary though you are."
"Thank you," Jalur said. "I admit to being unsettled."
"Would you walk with me?"
He followed the Wolf back into the foyer, through the Great Hall to the Council Room beyond. "At this time of night, there is often activity in the servants' wing," the Wolf explained. Jalur could hear sounds in the dining room; the two Dryads of earlier were cleaning in the Great Hall. "I know it would be our preference to go outside, but it is difficult to assure privacy so close to the Palace."
Jalur knew the Council Room well. His failure as Guard to Queen Lucy had begun here. He wondered if Lambert intended this reminder. The Wolf pushed the door open with his nose and walked into the room; Jalur followed and Lambert shut the door again. He found himself mimicking the Wolf's searching behavior, sensing with nose, eyes, and ears for any disturbance.
Satisfied, Lambert sat on a rug that smelled greatly of him; a rug next to his smelled of Briony. The odor of Cheetah and Hound were also strong in the room. "Yes," Lambert said, tilting his head with a confirmatory nod toward a rug on the far side of the great council table, "that was where Merle would sit when King Edmund was here."
"May I ask you something, Wolf?"
"You may ask," Lambert replied.
"What bonding system do Humans follow? Wolves bond, Cats do not. What of Humans?"
"We have little to judge. Mostly we know of the behavior of Humans in other Courts than this. In my observation, there are cultural differences at work and it is not consistent."
Jalur grumbled. So not only were Human societies inconsistent, there was also significant variability within individuals. King Edmund the Inconstant.
"The Physician said Humans engage in mating without intending offspring, and even if they are not in season or rut. That is very strange."
"Yes, it is," Lambert replied carefully. Jalur had the sense the Wolf was weighing every word. "Though it is not unknown in Primates and some other Beasts. Such matters are best addressed to an adult Human, not another Beast. "
Jalur growled his aggravation at the Physician's impossible long winded theorizing.
"Indeed. In my judgment, the Physician's enthusiasm for the subject outmatches his knowledge."
"The Physician said Primates at the Cauldron Pool mate for entertainment. Surely that cannot be so."
Lambert awarded him a long, bland look, though Jalur did sense some minor annoyance. "Further commentary of that nature could potentially implicate private matters in the future. I decline to discuss the issue any further with you."
Jalur swiveled his back ears and withdrew slightly in apology, remembering the strict injunctions of privacy. On that, the Physician had been painfully clear and had reinforced Wrasse's warnings. "Forgive me. I did not consider how my questions might become impertinent."
The Wolf again stared at him steadily, eyes just askance to avoid the direct gaze that would signal a challenge. "As you have gathered, the matters of Rats and Crows would bring us into closer quarters, Jalur." With a sad sigh, Lambert concluded, "I mean no disrespect to Merle in saying you would be a change I would welcome should you become Guard."
"Rats and Crows," Jalur repeated. His anger of earlier returned, though less sharp. "You all spied upon me."
"Based even on the little you learned today, you understand why we must be sure of you?"
"Yes, but still I do not like it."
"Of course you do not like it," Lambert said, not responding to the anger but to the words. Undoubtedly, he had learned this from his Queen. "But Rats and Crows can be uncomfortable and if Guard to King Edmund you would know of it."
Uncomfortable. Elusive. Confusing. Could anything be less like a Soldier's Order?
"I understand if you cannot, but Lambert, can you tell me something of what occurred today?"
The Wolf paused, and Jalur felt himself searched, by eyes, nose, and ears. "Are you sincere in this? My instinct agrees with what Willa also said, that you do not ask for gossip."
Jalur snarled and Lambert arched an eyebrow, certainly not a Canine mannerism.
"Ask your questions, Tiger. If I may answer, I shall. Understand though that if I find you have gossiped, the repercussions will be severe."
Jalur managed to not growl too loudly.
"The splints. They were near the strong box on the floor and it deeply concerned King Edmund and Sallowpad. Why?"
The Wolf sighed. "So you begin with a thing of which I can say very little." He shifted his weight, let another pause string out. "Suffice to say that splints are part of a security measure and someone may have attempted to breach the locked strong box in the Library."
Jalur lashed his tail and a hiss rose, unbidden. "A theft?"
" Perhaps. Perhaps it was error by King Edmund himself. We do not know."
We. Jalur noted its inclusiveness. The Raven and the Rat were deeply involved in the secrets of King Edmund and, as the Wolf was, so too must be Queen Susan.
"These things are weighing on me, Lambert, and more than the private matters, which, while strange, are not sinister."
"They should weigh upon you," the Wolf said simply. "Though it was not intended thus, you could not be unaffected by what you heard in our conference."
"As a former Soldier, I know of what I speak when I say that a Guard's province is broader than that to which you are accustomed. As Soldier, you perform the orders given to you. As Guard, you come to share your Monarch's responsibility for all of Narnia."
Jalur rose to pace the space between the Wolf and the great conference table. He envied the composed dignity of Lambert, again a manner that was very reminiscent of the Queen he served. He would like to say that a Tiger was a more restless Beast, but could not. The Wolf had simply learned superior self-control and how to tamp down his natural inclinations in order to present an impassive public face.
He measured the distance in his pacing, scenting King Edmund's dead Hound everywhere in the room. "I admit the day has left me feeling very protective of King Edmund and dissatisfied with my limited role."
Lambert considered this then slowly responded. "It is unavoidable, loyal and intelligent Soldier that you are. You trust others. You must. But, as to King Edmund, you are finding you trust yourself more to protect him and his interests."
The Wolf was uncommonly perceptive for a Canine.
Jalur turned again to the empty places in the room, the corner Merle had occupied, and the one bearing the strong stamp of female Cat, Dalia, and then Wrasse on top of that. Would he add his own scent and presence here? Could he?
His questions were best directed to a Cat, yet Lambert was here. "You have observed Dalia in this position, Wolf. How difficult is it for a Feline?"
A Human would not have sensed it. He barely did, for Lambert's control over himself was so great. But, Jalur was certain the Wolf flinched.
"It is difficult then?" Jalur pressed.
The Wolf did not answer right away, which was in itself a response. Jalur was a predator and a Cat and he could wait.
"I can say little, Jalur," the Wolf said. "These are deep matters of Guard business. It is Dalia's story and that of the High King, for a Guard's story is necessarily entwined with that of the Monarch served."
Again, the Cat waited.
"Dalia served for love of the High King alone." The phrasing made Jalur wonder if Dalia was not returning to Guard; he now knew better than to ask. The Wolf continued, "The High King is a very social Human. That forced society was against Dalia's natural inclination and very stressful for her."
Jalur sensed there was more the Wolf could say, but Lambert did not elaborate further.
"So it would not become easier," Jalur concluded.
"For a Cat, no, I do not believe so. The opposite in fact; I believe the stress of it would accumulate. Are you truly thinking seriously of becoming Guard, Jalur?"
He was a long time in answering. Yet, the Wolf was a patient predator as well.
"I do not know. My failure with Queen Lucy rankles still." Jalur looked about the Council room remembering the day he had chased the Valiant Queen straight into a tree in his misguided efforts. He was disturbed to realize that all this time later he would likely still do the same thing and make the same mistakes. "Perhaps this is a second chance."
"Do not do this looking for redemption, Tiger." The Wolf spoke so sternly, Jalur shrank back instinctively with a hiss.
"Then perhaps I should abandon this effort." He did not feel sad about this, merely inadequate and humbled, seeing himself bettered by virtually every other Creature of Narnia who could do what he could not.
Lambert rose from his sitting position and stretched. "It is late and we should both to bed, Friend. You ask the right questions and unfortunately you also only know their answer."
"You have been very careful to not say whether I should or should not pursue this, Lambert."
"A Cat values the opinion of a Dog?" the Wolf asked dryly.
"I value the opinion of a loyal and distinguished Guard, who has long experience I do not."
"Thank you." The Wolf inclined his head in acknowledgement. He had picked up many Human mannerisms. "From you, that is a high praise and I value it."
"Were this any other Monarch, I would strenuously oppose it, Jalur, for your sake and theirs. However, of all the Four, the King Edmund is the least consistently social. I have come to know him well and I would not be happy serving with him; nor would Briony. He is the most difficult of the Monarchs, and sometimes suffers, as the High King says, of an excess of personality. He has a brilliant and cunning mind and can also be taciturn, sullen and even rude."
Jalur felt his fur bristle.
"Already you defend him?"
"Then your decision may already be made. I intend no disrespect to an unquestionably great man. I merely point out that those things that make him an ill fit for me or my mate might make him suitable for you."
"Because I am taciturn and sullen, I would tolerate it as Guard." Jalur had not considered this before.
"It would be rude were I to say so, of course, but Feline may tolerate what Canine would not." With the wit displayed, Jalur wondered again just how much of his Queen's temperament the Wolf had absorbed. "Do have care, Jalur. It is counter to your nature, to how Aslan made you, and being Guard will come at cost."
Do you think I should? Do you think I suit?
He wanted to ask this. But, it was not in a Cat's nature to be so confiding. He would have to decide himself.
They left the Palace silently. It was finally quiet about them, most of the night staff off to their own beds. Lambert confidently led him through the forbidden kitchens, leaving Jalur to muse on the prerogative and assurance of the Guard. On the path to the Beasts' lodgings, Jalur suddenly spied the same glowing golden eyes of earlier that evening.
"Lambert!" he hissed, turning off the path toward the eyes blinking at him in the darkness. He could make out the cat's outlines. "Over there! It is the cat that I chased into the Palace!"
"Cat?" Lambert asked, stopping abruptly. The Wolf inhaled deeply and turned about toward where the cat crouched in the darkness, observing them warily.
"I see," the Wolf said slowly. Yet, Jalur thought that the Wolf did not in fact perceive the cat – so much for the Wolf's vaunted sensitivity. "Wrasse said that you claimed you saw one sneak into the Monarchs' wing."
"I did not claim anything," Jalur retorted with asperity. "I saw it and it's right there."
"You should follow it then," the Wolf said firmly.
"I shall." Jalur stalked toward it. "You are not coming?"
"No, Friend. I'm off to be with my mate, however brief. This is your story, now."
With a chuff of annoyance, Jalur ignored the Wolf to follow the cat. The cat led him back toward the Palace, but not into it. Rather, it wove through the many winding paths and arbors of the gardens. He could never quite catch up to it, which was irritating. Following it through a stone arch, Jalur found he was back in the walled gardens adjacent to the kitchens. Jalur had not been in this garden since he had abandoned Queen Lucy in a tree to the better protection of Briony so many years ago. First the Council Room, and now here in this garden, he was revisiting the places of his past failure. The cat walked straight to the tree the Queen Lucy had climbed and walked around its trunk, rubbing against the rough bark, purring.
Tigers do not purr.
"Pleased that you remind me of weakness you are too dumb to comprehend, cat?"
The garden was so still, the cat's purring seemed overly, obscenely loud by comparison. There was a pond here and he had heard threats that Cook would cut the tails off any Beast that ate the goldfish in it – which of course, just increased the thrill of it for those so inclined. Fish were fine, but too easy. Jalur preferred Otter.
Hearing a scraping sound above, Jalur looked up. A light spilled from the doorway of a balcony overlooking the garden. Crouching, Jalur crept back into the shadow of the wall, not wishing to be seen lurking about the garden. He flicked his ears to listen; his eyes, hugely dilated, saw more at night than any Hound or Wolf. He heard above the sounds of someone coming outside on to the balcony. He recognized King Edmund immediately; the scent drifting down confirmed it a moment later. Other sounds from inside the Palace followed the King and drifted out into the night. With a gesture that at this distance Jalur could not interpret, the King shut the door on the noise, but remained standing on his balcony.
Jalur did not like this.
He presumed the Night Guard was out in the hall, separated from the King now by a room and two doors. True, those doors could not be locked and clumsy paws could open them but there was the distance itself to consider.
And other things to consider as well.
There was the shadowing of the Queen Lucy's ship and the interviews to come with the crew. There were the winemaking Galmans, perhaps another set of Queen Lucy's merry friends, perhaps not. There was a closer re-examination of what had seemed at the time a random and ill-fated skirmish that had left Merle dead. There was his King's concern about the breaching of a strong box in the Library and whether there were scents in that room that should not have been there. Lambert had repeated again, in ways as subtle as a Cat, that Jalur's ill ease was not unfounded.
The code Rat, Crow, and Wolf had used was referring to these unsettling events. Crow thinks Tinker Tailor may have scrumped the sound.
Something may be amiss in Cair Paravel.
Looking up to the balcony, Jalur felt his King was too exposed idling out at the stone rail. There were no obvious threats, true, but the threats he felt growing around them were not obvious either.
Lambert had said it best. Of course Jalur trusted Wrasse, Hunfrid, Otieno, and the other Good Beasts of the Royal Palace Guard and the Night Guard. But, where King Edmund was concerned, he trusted his own judgment more. In the shadow of the wall, under the guiding eye of a cat, Jalur settled himself, in sight of the King's window.
It was what a Cat did and what a Guard would do.
There were screams. There was no Otter taste, though, which was unfortunate.
There was more screaming and the sensation of something large and smelly landing on his head.
Jalur opened his eyes with a snarl and swatted at the smelly thing. It was … a vegetable? There were no vegetables in the Tree.
Another vegetable, equally stinking, sailed through the air. Jalur leaped into the air and batted it down, shredding it in his claws.
The shrieking was abruptly cut off with the sound of a door slamming.
Oh. I am not in the Tree. I am in the kitchen garden. And the shrieking, vegetable hurling monster must be the formidable Cook.
"Ha!" said a familiar voice above. "Cook only hit him with one cabbage, not two. You owe me a Shiny, Harah!"
"Kangee, I'll wager you that and one more besides that there're lumps in the breads this morning," another voice, Harah presumably, cracked.
"I'll take that bet," Kangee said, "and raise you pits in the juice, leaves in the tea, and grounds in the coffee."
The two Crows in the tree branch above peered down at him. Jalur stretched, making certain his claws extended fully into the grass for the Crows to observe and yawned, exposing his fangs for full, intimidating effect.
"Why sleeping in the Garden, Sir Jalur?" Kangee asked.
So, the Crow has learned my name.
"I fancied fish to go with the Otter I ate last night," Jalur said. "I understand Crow is delicious for breakfast."
The other Crow, Harah, glanced at the balcony above, then down to him, a shrewd look in her eye. "He spent the night camped under King Edmund's window, that's what. Back to the Roost, Kangee, and not a word, mind you. I need to place my bet on King Edmund's next Guard before the odds change!"
Harah flew off, Kangee scrambling after her, cawing insults about the wager on fouled breakfast.
Jalur shook himself thoroughly, scattering cabbage leaves. It might be early, but he would check in with Mrs. Furner and Mr. Hoberry's wall chart and wait for King Edmund's bell.
He decided not to go through the kitchens but would go the long way around. He could still hear screaming, though it wasn't about vicious Tigers, cabbages, and Crows.
Mr. Hoberry was in the cookbook room, scribbling notes on the wall. New rows had been added for the Galmans.
"Good morning, Jalur. Did you have a good evening?"
"Well enough," he grunted back at the Faun.
Jalur glanced at King Edmund's schedule, which so far included only the morning meeting with the ship's crew. Wanting to make some contribution he forced himself to say, "This afternoon, I will growl until King Edmund goes to the training yard."
"Thank you," Mr. Hoberry said, still writing. "I shall pass that along. Thank you also for giving us word of the Galmans. We had some redundant notification, but that's never a bad thing."
The Human complement of Cair Paravel had more than doubled overnight. Jalur felt sympathy for the Faun, but was unsure how to express it. "The Galmans," he began awkwardly.
"Do you and Mrs. Furner need…?" Jalur trailed off helplessly.
The Faun paused in his wall writing. "Are you asking if Mrs. Furner and I require any assistance given the size of Queen Lucy's surprise?"
"Yes," Jalur said. Simple yes and no questions were so much easier!
"Thank you for asking. I admit, for your ears only, we would have preferred a smaller surprise. Mrs. Furner is out now in the Groves asking for Dryad support in the Guest Wing and kitchen. We will manage. We always do. I will say, however, that King Edmund does not usually concern himself with such domestic matters."
"No," the Faun repeated.
In Jalur's estimation, the logistical demands of the Palace household were as complex as any Army campaign, though admittedly with less killing of combatants. Though, Cook was pretty accurate with her cabbage tossing. He wondered if King Edmund or Queen Susan had ever tried recruiting Cook for a Giants' incursion.
"Well, if you need me to growl at King Edmund about something important, I will do so. If I think it important," Jalur added hastily.
Mr. Hoberry nodded, a gracious gesture, and there was real warmth in his manner. "Thank you, Friend." He began scribbling more notes about Queen Lucy's activities with the Galmans. "Is there anything from last night or this morning I should know about?"
Jalur appreciated Mr. Hoberry's direct questions; it made it easier to think of things to say in response to them. He thought over the events of the evening and deemed most of them not for the Faun; Mr. Hoberry either already knew or it was not his business.
"The Crows are wagering I'll be the King's Guard," he said. "And I startled Cook this morning."
"We heard the screaming," the Faun said blandly. "As for the Crows, that is to be expected. Mrs. Furner and I both learned some time ago to be very guarded around them and frankly they wager with no provocation at all."
Mr. Hoberry was transferring everything from the High King Peter's enumerated duties for the day to Queen Susan's row, adding an ever longer list of tasks to her Majesty's responsibilities while erasing all of those for the High King. Giving the High King the day off?
"There was also a dumb cat wandering about last night. I followed it into the kitchen garden."
Mr. Hoberry stopped writing and slowly faced him. "A dumb cat you say?"
"Yes. I chased it into the Palace as well, so we'd best be on the lookout for it."
The three bell signal rang.
Jalur turned to obey the summons.
He swiveled his head to look again at the Faun.
Mr. Hoberry was looking at him very solemnly, but kindly as well. "With all regard to Merle, and to your solitary nature, I do believe you would serve the King Edmund well in a permanent capacity."
"I do. It would not be easy; I believe the society surrounding the High King has been very difficult for Dalia. King Edmund, however, is a very different man than his brother and the challenges, such as they are, would likely not arise from the social calendar. Once through his grief, I believe he would profit from your management."
"That is an odd way to put it," Jalur replied. He had been thinking only of whether being a Guard would suit him. He had not considered what advantage there might to the Monarch, other than obvious toothy protection of a bodyguard.
"The Guard offers far more than a Soldier's protection. What more that might be depends upon the individuals and..." The three bell signal sounded again. "There is your second summons." It was as if Mr. Hoberry could predict what would happen before it did, which Jalur supposed was a hallmark of such as skilled and competent housekeeper.
"Aslan walks with you, Friend," the Faun called as Jalur left the cookbook room.
"He said he wanted to see you in his rooms," Hunfrid grumbled. "So get on then. Then, I can get out."
"And good day to you, Bear," Jalur replied. Hunfrid was so irritable, Jalur wondered if he might be Feline rather than Ursine.
"See any more cats?" the Bear asked with a grunt.
"I did and it is no further concern of yours, Bear. Get to your den. The King is my responsibility, now."
Jalur felt himself daring and presumptuous, but this was what Dalia, Lambert or Briony would do, he was certain. He was Guard. He would assert the prerogatives.
He hesitated at King's door, unsure of the protocol to follow.
"Your Majesty?" he called.
"Come in, Jalur."
Jalur pushed the door open; there were no locks on Cair Paravel doors.
At the threshold, he was shocked into stillness. The King's private rooms were overwhelming. There were many, so many, strong and competing scents in so personal a space, he could not sort them. It was like the Tower Library, but far more intense. More than any other though, rising to the fore and covering all, the room smelled of the King and his dead Guard.
The room was not neat, but it was not the haphazard disorder of that cookbook storeroom either. Jalur's eyes were immediately drawn to a large, sloppy, soft-looking thing set on wood, piled with blankets.
"It is a Human bed," the King said, walking over from the balcony where he had been. "I have noticed most Beasts outside the Palace staff do not know what it is. Soldiers have only seen camp cots and bedrolls."
"A Human bed," Jalur repeated. This contraption was more elaborate than the soft, lined bowls, hollows, and nests of Good Beasts and Birds. Maybe this was more common for Humans and Near Humans; Centaurs he knew preferred straw.
"I have heard of them. It appears comfortable."
"I would offer to let you jump up upon it, but…"
The King's voice trailed off into the unspoken grief Jalur had felt before. It was difficult because it was never clear what might bring back the Merle's memory and the pain of it. Maybe loss was always like that for someone who felt it, just around the corner, unseen, but ever present, the way the Good Beasts understood one another without speaking, the way predator and prey communicated.
The King began straightening the twisted and bunched things on the bed in studied way, with more attention than the task seemed to demand.
"I understand you had an eventful night, Jalur."
This was confusing. What did the King think was eventful? Did he know that Jalur had loitered under the window? Or that the Night Guard had evicted him from the Monarchs' wing? Or how he had chased a dumb cat?
"Your lecture from the Physician?" the King prompted.
"It was lengthy," Jalur finally said.
With very keen interest, the King probed further. "Did he use the charts? The diagrams? I understand he has been after the Dwarfs to build scale models so that he might demonstrate behaviors."
There was a disturbing glint of reckless humor in the King's manner; Lambert and the High King had called it an excess of personality.
"The Queen Susan is opposed, but I may commission the models regardless."
Jalur turned this over in his mind. Slowly, he said, "I do not believe, your Majesty, that it is the mechanics of mating that is so confounding to a Good Beast."
"No? Do tell then?"
"To a Good Beast, mating is a simple thing that Humans apparently make needlessly complex. I had assumed Humans to be more rational."
The King emitted a most Tiger-like chuff. "That, Good Cat, is one of the many roles of the Guard, to remind us to be rational where our inclinations might lead us otherwise."
Jalur pondered the King's disclosure. "Yes, I can see the merit in that."
The King's hands, smoothing out the blankets, lingered at one end of the bed. Jalur sensed Merle's imprint was especially heavy in that place.
So, the Guard had shared a den with the King, as if they had been littermates? When the King had been a cub, boy, Jalur corrected, Merle had been his companion. Like a brother? Though, the King had a brother.
Pet? Jalur was beginning to think that this was also something of what had been between the two, given that they had shared a bed. It further explained some of the censure for Merle he had encountered.
Observing his silent study, King Edmund said with a hint of anger, "I know what others said of Merle. The whole of the Palace, everyone, all said bluntly or secretly that he was not fit to be a King's Guard. You have heard this?"
Jalur did not think the question was really one intended for an answer.
"Tash take them all!" King Edmund's anger was now open, raw and painful. Jalur felt he was intruding on the King's mourning. "It was my decision and I was not going to overthrow a gallant Hound because he did not meet someone else's idea of royal sartorial splendor."
"Of course you would not," Jalur said firmly, surprising himself. He recalled what Master Roblang had said the lifetime of two days ago, what Mr. Hoberry had repeated and now he knew the truth of it. The bond between Guard and Monarch was deep and not understood by those who were not party to it. Had he not seen that in Lambert's own regard for Queen Susan?
King Edmund had understood his bond with Merle; Merle had understood his duty to his King. That was enough, and as King Edmund said, Tash take the rest.
The King looked at him quizzically, as surprised by Jalur's support as the Tiger was himself to offer it. "Do you know the ones who never criticized, Jalur?"
"No," the Tiger said, though he could guess, having already observed it.
"My brother and sisters, and their Guards never spoke ill of Merle. We all understand what it means to be that close to another. And of the many things that bind my brother, sisters, and I together, one of the most firm is how much we all deplore others making decisions for us presumed to be for our own good."
The King turned away abruptly toward his balcony doors, to stare out into the gardens below and the trees beyond. "And so, Friend, I think it is time I end this game with you."
"I was determined to take my own Guard, in my own time, and I will not have one foisted upon me. I knew that if I asked for the most unsuitable Beast in all of Narnia, I would have some peace. When I was ready to select my Guard, everyone would be so relieved it was not Sir Jalur the Irascible, I would have my pick."
Jalur had sensed something peculiar yesterday, forces that were at work, pursuit of ends that were hidden. "It was a ploy."
"Yes. A gamble of sorts."
"With me as the wager," Jalur said.
"Yes, the King said. "For that, I ask your forgiveness. It was most wrong to try to use you so. I have too high a regard for you and cannot continue to countenance my deception."
Jalur considered this carefully. "I accept your apology," he announced. "I admire the strategy, however. It was sound."
The King gave bark of laughter. It sounded remarkably like a Hound. "I was using you, Sir Jalur. That is most unconscionable."
"Is it? You use me in combat for strategic purpose. Is this so different?"
The King laughed again. "You are a Feline. I assure you, a Canine reaction would be different."
"I do not doubt that." To the point, however, "So are you saying you would not wish me as Guard? Have I displeased you?" Jalur did not think he felt disappointment; such an emotion was not one a Tiger would feel. He was curious and deflated.
"No, Friend. Not at all. I believe we suit, you and I, of a sort. But, you are a Great Cat and, even by the standards of that kind, as unsuited by temperament to Guard as any in all of Narnia."
"So you take the decision from me, and make it yourself, for my own good?"
The King became very still. "Well played, Jalur."
"Yes," the Cat said, "it was."
The King sighed. "Let us be honest with another. I did not believe you wished to be a Guard anymore than I wished to have one forced upon me before I was ready."
Jalur walked over to the King, inhaled deeply of the scent; let it settle in his mind. The King's hands hung limply at his side.
"I did not wish to be a Guard," he finally said. Jalur pushed his nose against a dangling hand. It was not the demand of a dumb cat to an owner, but the gesture such as Good Beasts or Humans might exchange, friend to friend, brother to brother, mate to mate, as he had seen the King with his brother last night, and with Queen Lucy on her safe return.
"I may wish to be your Guard, if you so will."
"May?" the King repeated.
"I admit to misgivings, King Edmund."
"You are right to have them, Friend." The King's hand moved briefly over Jalur's head. He returned the gesture Jalur had given, not as a stroke or a pat, but an acknowledgment of the contact and the connection. "None of us understood it fully when it began. The Guard swears his Oath to the Monarch, alone. It will bind us, both of us, on to death and beyond. It carries to the end of Narnia herself, and to Aslan's own country."
"Oh. That," Jalur said, dismissively.
"Do not take it lightly," the King warned.
"I do not. What concerns me more is you would have me attend parties and occasions to world's end. That would make me very irritable."
"It would make me irritable as well, good Tiger. I do enjoy society to a point, however, and that will require your occasional accommodation."
"For you, I could do that." Looking again at the bed that smelled so strongly of Merle, Jalur said slowly, "But, I cannot fill the empty place Merle has left. If you wish that intimacy, you will need another."
There was another, very heavy and sad sigh, and the King's blessing hand moved away. "I do not wish that, good Tiger. You are as different from Merle as two Beasts could be."
In the pause that followed, Jalur sensed that shift in mood he had observed before as the King moved from sad to caustic. "You are befitting Our Most Royal Dignity."
"I am more mindful of your dignity than you are, King Edmund." Jalur growled. "You ask of my suitability to you, but I ask in return, will you tolerate my management of yourself?" This was, he now understood, what Mr. Hoberry had implied.
"You would dare criticize your Monarch?" King Edmund asked. He was mocking, but there was a serious and subtle undercurrent to his question as well.
"As subject or Soldier, no. As Guard, yes, I would."
"That is not the typical role of the Guard," King Edmund countered crossly.
"Not with Merle, no. But, it would be with me. Also, can we really know of the bonds between your royal brother and sisters and their Guards? Their Guards would not discuss it with me."
Stillness settled once more on the Just King and the anger seeped away. "Well played, again. The regard and trust is obvious, of course, but the depth and contours of it, we do not really know, do we?"
Jalur did not answer. There was no need.
After a silence that became more comfortable as it lengthened, the King said, "Years ago, Aslan instructed me that I should knight you into my Order; Peter had intended to do so, but Aslan said he wished it of me.
So they had been on this road a long time, then. "The Great Lion sees all ends."
"He does. I, however, do not. I did not seek this, Jalur."
"I fear it will change you, good Tiger."
"It will," Jalur agreed, "though I do not fear it. I fear more for you without me."
"You may change me."
"By Aslan's Grace, I hope so."
The King exhaled another chuff of laughter. Jalur preferred that to the bark that was too Canine in aspect. He heard a scratching and caught the whiff of Rat from the hall. "Lady Willa comes."
"Leave us a while longer, good Rat," the King called.
Jalur sensed her retreat.
"I will not ask you unless you are certain, Jalur. I will not have us bound to one another out of a Soldier's and subject's duty to his Liege."
In this, Jalur heard Edmund the Just, the King appointed and anointed by Aslan, severe and merciful, wise and subtle, brave and cunning. It was the voice of command and one he would obey loyally and to whatever end. But Guard was altogether different.
"Guard is beyond the bounds of mere Soldier or subject. I understand this and ask you, King Edmund, the same. Will you take me, in this world and beyond?"
They had stood, side by side, looking at the morning breaking over Narnia, out windows facing West. The King now turned to face him and knelt. Jalur was going to protest, but then realized this was part of the ceremony. For this, they would look upon one another.
"Do you know the Oath, my Friend?" the King asked, placing his hands on Jalur's head.
"No," Jalur said, rumbling with disappointment. "Should I go study it?"
"You may repeat it."
The King began, "I promise to never cause you harm and to protect you from all ill and danger."
"I give you loyalty with love, respect with fealty, and discretion with honour."
"I place my body, mind, and heart in service to you."
Jalur slowly repeated each line. In the pause that followed, Jalur felt the hands on his head tremble.
"You will do this?" King Edmund asked so softly that only the Tiger could hear. "Forever?"
The Tiger repeated his King's words, "I swear this Guard's Oath before Aslan and in His Name, until you release me, until death takes you, or the world ends."
Rth Stewart October 2009
This is the end of The Palace Guard, for now. For a long time, the last of this chapter read, Lantern Waste, Aslan's Country, for the Guard is sworn to the end of Narnia. As Ruan Chun Xian and others have pointed out, the assumption that the Guard is always with his or her Monarch means the Guards must have been very close at hand when the Four Returned. It is a story I intend to tell. But, to do so is necessarily to tell the tale of Lambert and his Queen, and to do that, I need to tell more of The Stone Gryphon. So, that bittersweet story will have to wait.
Further, yes, in Year 7, something is amiss in Cair Paravel. That is a story I tried to tackle as a fourth chapter of Black as Rat and Crow. The contemplated story, Black, White, and the Gray In Between, is a brooding meditation to come.
Thank you. I am very grateful to all of you. This is a story that would not have ever been written save for the questions asked by Autumnia, Miniver, Ilysia, Doewe, Min23 and others. Thanks to Anastigmat and Metonomia for their unstinting support.
If you are the sort who waits until all is done, it's done and you can put a fork in it. I'd love to hear from you.
Thank you again,