It's The Thought That Counts
Glimpses from the whole of By Royal Decree, The Palace Guard, and The Stone Gryphon in this season of giving.
Chapter 2: In the House of Russell
Christmas dinner always required a Venn diagram and spreadsheet at Russell House. Not that Mary was any sort of cook; she was the tactician and organizer. But, Kwong Lee would sometimes, in her irritation, become a little careless and slip fish sauce into the vegetables Polly ate, or bacon into the dressing Asim ate, or beef flavor into the samosas Mr. Patel ate. They could have just gone completely vegetarian, but poor Digs always came away looking alarmed and half fed unless there was something dead and bleeding on the table.
Never mind the fact that a full third of those sitting at the table did not celebrate the nativity of Jesus of Nazareth at all. Granted, it wasn't as if anyone actually knew the birth date of the Jewish Carpenter turned Rabbi and Prophet. The early Christians just co-opted a slew of those Roman and pagan celebrations and plugged Christmas into… oh blast what was the name of it, that festival associated with the winter solstice. Emperor Elagabalus introduced it…or was it Aurelian? They had the right idea though, one festival to celebrate all the different sun gods everybody worshipped in the third century. It was Latin. That was why she couldn't remember it. Well at least that Peter Pensieve wouldn't know it either. Deo Invictus?
Digs would know. But, if she asked, then Digs would know she didn't know, and that would be embarrassing…
They were in the drawing room. Lee was serving the tea; Mary had cleared the dishes; Mr. Patel was enjoying a smoke in the kitchen and helping Lin Kun with the dishes. Polly and Digs were exchanging their gifts – it was always the same. All year, they each scoured everywhere looking for something with a flying horse – books, drawings, figurines. She had been with both Polly and with Digs when it had happened – they would be in some shop, or city or another, and if either spotted a flying horse, it was purchased, stored, and literally trotted out months later at Christmas. They really had some ghastly specimens.
Richard was lightly dozing on the chaise; Mary curled up at his feet. It had taken all the energy he had to get from the downstairs bedroom to the dining room table. He had eaten the whole meal with his knife. He had refused to let her cut his food, but allowed Polly to do it without a protest. He had yelled at her when she would not let him drink wine because of the medicines. Mr. Patel had poured water into a wine glass, and with that simple subterfuge, Richard had been happy. Or perhaps it was because Mr. Patel had offered. Mary sniffled a little and pushed the grim thoughts aside, enjoying the moment.
Richard was smiling now, watching Digs and Polly coo over the ugliest piece of statuary (it was a purple flying horse) Mary had ever seen.
"Richard, do you recall the name of the Roman festival at the winter solstice co-opted by the Christians to become Christmas?"
"Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – the birthday of the unconquered Sun. Other sources suggest Christmas as the celebration of the Christ's birth comes from counting forward from the Conception, at the Spring Equinox. Of course, that is speculative as well. The whole of the Christmas celebration is a hodgepodge of pagan traditions."
Mary blinked back her tears. "Yule comes from the Norwegians, I think. The gifts and greens from Saturnalia, perhaps?"
Richard nodded. "Though a true celebration of the god Saturn would have us eating children rather than giving them gifts."
His hands rattled the china of his tea cup so severely, Mary started to reach over and take it from him.
Richard grimaced and snapped, "I'm not a child!"
Lee magically appeared with a tray. "May I warm your cup, Richard?"
"Yes, damn it! It's too cold!"
Lee gently took the cup and saucer. "I'll see to that right now."
Mary knew the tea would not reappear. Richard settled back with a satisfied glower, mute and resentful, again.
With a welcome and well-timed distraction, Asim slipped in and took a seat next to hers. He had arrived only for the very end of dinner, still in his uniform and had only now changed to his more familiar robes. He was very tired. The invasion and retaking of North Africa had kept him out, about, and elsewhere for days at a time. Mary did not even feel she could ask how he had spent his day or if he was satisfied with it. Instead, she said, "It is wonderful to have you with us for dinner."
Asim grunted wearily and stretched out his legs, cradling the tea in his hands. "Thank you, it is good to be here, for however short it is."
With a wincing nudge to Digs' ribs, Polly exclaimed, "Asim! You are finally here!"
Digs rubbed his side and shot Polly a look of amused annoyance.
"Was my arrival so eagerly awaited then?" Asim asked them dryly.
"Yes!" Polly said. "Digory, would you?"
The Professor was already rising. "Don't steal my port, Polly."
Digs walked back out of the drawing room as Polly explained. "We have a gift for you, Asim."
His trepidation was warranted. Mary could not imagine Digs and Polly coordinating on any gift, save one involving flying horses. Or lions, come to think of it. They exchanged a lot of tacky lion paraphernalia as well. Whatever Polly and Digs gave together would be something that you would really loathe, but as a gift from two dear old friends, you would have to graciously accept and display.
"Take that skeptical look off your face!" Polly scolded, taking a sip of Digs' port. "It's not actually from us."
Digs re-entered the room, now carrying a flat, brown wrapped package. "I saw that, Polly. Put the port down. You get very silly when you drink it."
Richard grunted. "Amorous, too! Or is that just with gin?"
They all laughed, except Digs who pretended he didn't hear a word and handed the package over to Asim.
"It is actually from the Pevensies and their cousin, Eustace Scrubb," Digs said.
Polly smartly tapped the card. "Best read that first."
Looking confused, cradling the package in his lap, Asim pried open the envelope, Digs and Polly both looking over his shoulder.
"Is that Lucy's writing?" Polly asked.
"I thought it might be Edmund's," Digs countered.
Curiosity burning, and disgruntled that she couldn't see the card, Mary asked, "Can you read it aloud?"
"For a Friend on the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Isa," Asim read.
Isa was the Muslim name for Jesus.
He continued, "There follows a quotation, 'No, no! The adventures first,' said the Gryphon in an impatient tone: 'explanations take such a dreadful time.'"
Mary smiled. "They are quoting Alice!"
"Indeed," Asim said, prying the paper off what looked to be a wooden picture frame. The paper slid away to the floor with a rustle and crunch.
Asim turned the picture over to look upon it and froze. His face blanched in what Mary could only assume was shock. She had never seen such an expression on him. His hands, gripping the edges of the frame shook as Richard's did.
Mary leaned over to look at the painting he held. It was simple and a little strange, a small wooden boat, painted green, with a dragon carved on to her bow, and a purple sail. It seemed peculiar and wholly unremarkable to her.
Fingers tracing the ship's outline, Asim looked up, stunned, at Digs and Polly, standing shoulder to shoulder, both looking uncommonly solemn, serene, yes, but serious too.
"How…" Asim stammered.
Mary had never seen Asim so unnerved.
"Her name is The Dawn Treader," Polly said.
"Peter thought she was familiar to you," Digs added quietly.
Asim nodded, leaving Mary ever so confused. Again. Why did this always happen when those bloody Pensenvees were involved? Without doing anything, she somehow always ended up the outsider, a step behind.
"But, how?" Asim repeated, staring again at the painting.
Digs shrugged. "You ask us?"
"Nor is it our story to tell, Asim," Polly added gently. She handed Digs' port back. "And explanations take such a dreadful time."
RthStewart December 2009
So ends my nominal holiday gift to you in gratitude for the emails, posts, reviews and commentary of the last eight months. Thank you also for the nominations in the Narnia Fanfiction Revolution Awards.
Make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Prayer of St. Francis