A/N: Sorry for being so long, again! I had writer's block. And to those who are reading "Tintin and the Red Sari", thank you for your continued patience. I'm working on it.
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Aravis tread at an even pace down the corridor that her ancestors had walked for one hundred years. A guard led the way in front of her and another kept pace behind her. She held her head high as she went, looking neither to the left nor to the right. She did not need to look around, she remembered every inch of her former home, her former life.
They were just upon the doors of Kidrash Tarkaan's audience chamber when a dark object on the left wall appeared in her periphery.
That's new. Aravis stopped abruptly causing the guard behind her to almost run into her.
"My lady, what—?"
The guard in front turned and seeing what stopped Aravis, looked at his companion, shook his head and motioned him to wait.
Aravis reached out a hand and reverently touched the gilded leather scales of her brother's armor. His great scimitar hung horizontally above his golden, pointed cap. The crude dagger of a bandit, the last enemy he defeated before succumbing to his wounds, hung below his boots.
Tears that had not been shed for five years began to flow freely.
"Ahmet," Aravis choked out. She got up on her tip toes and kissed one of the leather scales. After the death of their mother, Ahmet had been the only buffer between the strong wills of Aravis and her father. Always the peace-maker and mediator, he would have made a far better head for Calavar than Kidrash.
The guard in front of her cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, Tarkheena . . ."
Aravis quickly swiped a hand at her tears and turned from the memorial. They would not have the pleasure of seeing her cry.
The doors to the audience chamber were massive and covered with intricate carvings depicting Ardeeb Tisroc, her ancestor, assisting Tash in defeating his enemies. Aravis had never taken a good look at it before. To little girl's eyes and attention span it had just been decoration.
Now, Aravis looked at it.
The violent representation of the fallen enemies being crushed under foot and eaten by a vengeful Tash caused a shudder to course through her. On closer view, the enemies were Archenlanders. Fawns, satyrs, centaurs of Narnia were there, too. Even worse, this made Aravis almost howl with rage; on another panel it showed Tash rending a lion to pieces. There was no doubt who the lion was supposed to be.
"Enter!" The booming voice of her father reached through the doors, which were opened immediately by two attendants.
Aravis beheld the familiar audience chamber with a pang of nostalgia. How often she used to come here when she was very small and sit in her father's lap while he resolved local disputes.
"Attend closely, my flower. One day you may have to help your future husband with things such as these."
"I'm never going to get married!" four-year old Aravis declared, snuggling further into her father. "I'm going to stay right here with you."
Her father laughed and gave her a quick squeeze before returning his attention to the two arguing merchants before him.
Palace life was laid back before her mother died and Samira came, everyone respected Kidrash Taarkan, but no one feared him. Back then there was no screen separating the commoners from the Tarkaan. Now there was.
Only the corrupt Tisroc had such devices in his palace. Aravis could just make out her father's outline through the scarlet veil.
The simmering fury and indignation she had been keeping down this whole time finally came to boil. This was the last straw. Aravis leapt forward and, before the guards could react, thrust the screen aside.
"How dare you!" Aravis cried with all the indignation she could muster.
"No, O' treacherous daughter of the sun, how dare you!"
Aravis' felt the bottom of her stomach drop out. The face she beheld, red with rage, was not that of her father . . .
But of the Tisroc.
"Tisroc!" Aravis' knees automatically began to bend for the customary bow of submission when she stopped and instead performed a simple Archenladean curtsy. A scandalized murmur went through the crowd.
Kidrash Tarkaan, who was sitting in Ahmet's chair while the Tisroc sat in his, leapt to his feet.
Aravis turned to look at her father at last. He had aged considerably since she saw him last. His beard, once dyed crimson, was pale with the invasion of white. His eyes were tired and red-rimmed. The laugh lines around his eyes had all but disappeared from neglect and creases of sorrow around his mouth were now the more prominent.
The bitterness and anger she had been holding against him since his harsh letter began to dissipate.
"By our laws," the Tisroc continued, "once a Calormene forsakes his fatherland, they forsake Tash the Great and are considered forever banished, never to return under penalty of enslavement."
Aravis swallowed. "I did not—"
"Since your defection, new laws have been set in place: If a Calormene defects to the barbaric North where the evil Lion reigns the penalty on return is death."
Aslan . . .
Aravis clenched her fists and willed herself not to tremble. She struggled to school her features into unwavering contempt, but the Tisroc caught the flash of fear and smiled.
"O' mighty Tisroc, may you live forever, I crave permission to speak." Abtin had stepped away from the wall where he had been standing among the other officials, clear distress on his handsome features.
"I convinced Aravis to come here. I had hoped the punishment would be lifted in her case. Consider her flight the foolishness of youth and forgive her."
Kidrash Tarkaan came to his feet. "O' Great Tisroc, may you live forever, I crave permission to speak."
The Tisroc hesitated before acquiescing.
"I ask clemency for this girl. Consider her royal lineage and lessen the punishment."
"Father . . ."
Kidrash spared Aravis brief glance before sitting down again.
"Her royal blood makes the betrayal all the more abominable. The lower masses know of it and it set them talking. Talking of Narnia with curiosity. She has damaged our authority."
"I would think that the defeat of Prince Rabadash by the Narnians would have more to do with damage to authority," Aravis murmured.
"Silence!" the Tisroc screamed, his face livid. "I had nothing to do with that! Rabadash acted on his own and is now paying for his foolishness by being forced to dwell in the temple of Tash like an impotent acolyte."
Aravis stayed silent. Revealing the Tisroc as a co-conspirator in the Rabadash vs. Archenland debacle was not going to do her any favors except send her to the executioner faster.
Abtin stepped forward again. "O' wise Tisroc, may you live forever, I—"
The Tisroc impatiently waved his hand. "Yes, yes, you may speak."
"I had brought Aravis Tarkeena back here in the hopes of reconciling her to her people by the merging of my house with hers."
"What?" Aravis ground out, whipping around and pinning Abtin with a glare that caused him to take a step back.
The Tisroc stroked his plum-colored beard. "Hm. The idea has merit . . . and the irony is delightful. Running away to escape marriage, only to be forced into it anyway to save her neck. Very well. You will marry Aravis Tarkheena, daughter of Kidrash Tarkaan . . ."
Aravis' head was spinning. Only yesterday she was safely ensconced in Anvard and now she was here, getting engaged to Abtin with the death penalty looming over her head. Were Cor and Corin coming to her rescue? She was hoping they were, but to attack Calormen would be asking for open war. Maybe that's what the Tisroc wanted. Marrying Abtin was better than marrying Ahosta . . . but Cor . . . was in love with someone else anyway, so it did not matter. It would hurt at first, but she was sure she would get over it. And she could use her influence to benefit Archenland. Aslan would use this situation for good, somehow.
". . . On one condition." Kidrash, Abtin and Aravis looked up sharply at the Tisroc.
"Aravis Tarkheena must renounce her allegiance to Aslan the deceiver and declare Tash the inexorable, the supreme god."
Aravis' heart sank. The whole room looked at her expectantly. Maybe she would consider marrying Abtin to save her own neck, but denounce Aslan? Her heart wavered, but deep down inside she knew that that was something she could never do. Aslan was the one who opened her eyes to a whole new way of life, gave her a new family, softened her heart. He tenderly guided her steps. She could no more denounce him than cut off her own right arm.
"I will not."
"Aravis!" Her father wailed.
The Tisroc's face darkened. "Then, I sentence you Aravis Tarkheena, once daughter of Kidrash Tarkaan, to death. You shall be taken to the great temple. There you shall be sacrificed to Tash, at the dawning of the day. Take her away."