Disclaimer: The Chronicles of Narnia is the intellectual property of C. S. Lewis and his estate. No money is being made from this story, and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author's Note: This story was inspired by the 8/20/11 word #194 on the 15_minute_fic livejournal community. I wrote the first four paragraphs or so on Friday the 9th while at the grocery store waiting for a bus, after which my handwritten sheet breaks off with the note: blah, blah, convo. w/ Edmund. The remaining 2,000+ words were written over about two hours on Friday the 16th and slightly revised and expanded on Monday the 19th.
"Any Sentry from His Post" can be read as a prequel to "The Courting Dance," though it stands alone equally well. As always, book canon only.
Summary: A week after the battle of Anvard, Shasta despairs of fitting in to his new life, until a chance meeting with King Edmund of Narnia opens his eyes to new perspectives.
Any Sentry from His Post
One of the hardest things to get used to in Archenland is servants. Shasta - or Cor; he should really learn to think of himself by the name everyone's going to call him for the rest of his life. Anyway, whatever his name is, he grew up doing everything for himself. As soon as he was enough to haul water in the big wooden bucket and light the old charcoal stove without burning down the hut, Arsheesh dumped all the chores onto his narrow shoulders so the fisherman could have more time at sea or down in the village sharing a pipe with other old men and complaining about the inevitable changes of time.
In Anvard, people chase Shasta out of the kitchens and insist on filling tubs and pitchers for him. There's nothing for him to mend, no animals for him to look after, nothing that he can set to work fixing and point to afterward and say, "There, I made that." He's just grateful people don't try to dress him too, like he saw a lady doing to Aravis when he rushed into her room once without knocking. (Now he always knocks.)
In Calormen, he sometimes daydreamed of joining the army, doing vague but undeniably brave deeds that won him the notice of the Tisroc - may he choke on a sweetmeat and die, Shasta thinks, still feeling the bubbling fizz of breaking the rules and getting away with it - and being raised up and rewarded with a huge estate and more money than he could spend if he lived a hundred years. He thought it would be brilliant fun to have no work at all. The trouble is that he never thought about what he'd be doing instead.
He doesn't know how to read. (The king promised Education, but apparently that takes time to arrange.) He doesn't have any friends. (Aravis is different and Corin doesn't count, and anyway, they both fit in better and always seem to have things to do.) Learning to fight with swords is boring. (The arms master won't let him do anything but hold a giant, heavy wooden fake for hours and hours while he yells about posture and elbow position.) Nobody will let him out of the castle to have adventures - though Shasta supposes that's only because the king is afraid of losing him again. So he mostly feels useless and stupid, like a little baby nobody trusts not to spill things.
He can't talk to King Lune. Shasta doesn't dare disappoint him or remind the king how completely unsuitable he is as a son and prince. (It still seems impossible that he has a father at all, let alone that his father's a king.) He won't talk to his brother. Corin would just laugh. (Somehow, having Corin for a brother is less unbelievable than having a father. It's probably the way he keeps knocking Shasta down and then grinning like a hyena. Well, and the way looking at him is like looking in a backwards mirror.) He doesn't want to talk to Aravis. She grew up as a lady, so she wouldn't understand. It might make him feel better to argue about the whole mess with her, though, so he tucks that idea away for later.
Shasta - or Cor, he reminds himself, trying to get used to his new-old name no matter how awkwardly it fits him - finds himself up on the watchtower a week after the battle, looking down over the neat rows of tents and firepits that mark the Narnian camp. The Narnian colors, a red lion on a white field, ripple gently in the warm summer air. Beneath the flag, a mixed group of humans, beasts, dwarfs, and centaurs is preparing the army's midday meal. They're as much strangers to Archenland as Shasta is, but they don't look like they feel out of place.
Queen Lucy went home over the pass two days ago, taking a third of the army with her in case of a sea attack on Cair Paravel, but King Edmund is still here until they know how the Tisroc will react to his son's humiliation. Rabadash and the other Calormene prisoners were sent back by sea three days ago, as soon as Queen Lucy finished seeing to their wounds. (She even healed a few on the brink of death right after the battle, Corin told Shasta in a breathless, annoyed tone of voice. "It's far more than they deserved, the cowards," he said, while Shasta just thought of the men at arms and the local farmers and hunters busy at work digging three score graves for the ones who'd died for nothing before the Queen could reach them.)
He didn't funk the battle, but he wasn't much use either. He has no idea how to fight, no idea how to lead, no idea how to rule. Yet King Lune wants him to be his heir, to inherit the throne someday.
How can he be a king if nobody lets him do anything he's actually good at?
Maybe he should grab Aravis and two horses and sneak off to Narnia to find Bree and Hwin, who left with Queen Lucy. They won't make him do anything he doesn't want to. He can settle down near Cair Paravel and be a fisherman, Aravis can live as a guest at the castle - it won't be any different from living as a guest at Anvard, maybe even better because of the two queens - and everything will make sense again.
He's almost decided to find Aravis and start the inevitable argument over what a mess it would be to leave now, when he hears someone climbing up the spiral stone stairs to join him on the flat, open top of the tower. Probably a servant sent to fetch him back down so he can go on being useless, Shasta thinks, and turns to tell whoever it is to leave him alone. Nobody listens to him when he gives orders, but at least he can pretend it's practice for being king.
It's not a servant, though. It's King Edmund, out of his armor and looking tired around the eyes and shoulders, like he's been carrying sacks of charcoal from the yard to the shed all day long and now he's stealing a minute to himself before he has to go rake the yard, feed the chickens, weed the garden, muck out the donkey's stable, draw water, wash up, light the fire, cook dinner, and have the nets out so Arsheesh will see him tying knots when he gets home and not yell at him for shirking.
"Oh, Corin - no, not Corin. You look much too sane to be Corin," the king says as he shuts the wooden cover over the stairwell. "Good afternoon to you, Prince Cor. May I impose upon your solitude for a few minutes? I promise not to interrupt your thoughts."
It's so strange to have someone ask Shasta what he wants. King Edmund even sounds like he'd go away if Shasta said he'd prefer to be alone.
So of course he stammers out that the king can stay.
"My thanks," King Edmund says, and leans against a merlon, looking down at his people. He sighs and scrubs a hand through his hair. Even without a crown, wearing a tunic and boots more suited for travel than for court, he manages to somehow look dignified, like a proper king. King Lune can do that too. Shasta is pretty sure he looks like a slave sneaking around in his master's clothes. The bright colors and stiff newness of the clothes that sevants keep shoving into his new wardrobe are like a phantom itch against his skin, an unwashed bowl or a clump of leaves telling Arsheesh that he snuck an extra meal while the fisherman was gone.
Shasta fidgets for a minute, then can't hold his tongue any longer. "Is, if I may ask - is there going to be trouble? Your Majesty?" he asks. "With Rabadash, I mean?"
"Of a certainty," the king says, straightening slightly as he turns to face Shasta. "Even if Rishti Tisroc is made aware that we know that he countenanced a strike without formal declaration of war, he must pretend to be innocent and therefore outraged. He will be outraged in truth at his son's transformation, for that is a blow to the honor and self-respect of all Calormen."
Shasta sucks in his breath at the truth of that. Just one month ago, if he'd heard that northern barbarians had turned the crown prince into a beast... Oh, why did he laugh? Rabadash will remember them laughing for the rest of his life. All the gods in their glory wouldn't be strong enough to wipe the humiliation from his mind, even if they were inclined to be merciful toward the north.
King Edmund nods. "I see you comprehend the issue. There remains only the question of the form in which the Tisroc's outrage will manifest. I would almost wish for war. That, at the least, is clean and direct. The other chances, such as assassins or embargoes, are both more likely and more difficult to counter."
"Oh," Shasta says, and then blurts, "It sounds complicated - being a king. There are so many people you're meant to protect from so many things. I don't think I'll be any good at it. I don't even know what I'm supposed to worry about."
Astonishingly, King Edmund laughs, the tired set of his face opening and relaxing a fraction. "There's no shame in that, Prince Cor. I and my siblings knew just as little when we were crowned in Narnia, yet we learned and persevered. You have advantages we lacked, such as your father, the Great Council of Archenland, and a country not ground down by a century of artificial winter. So long as you remember that your goal is to protect and serve your people, you should do very well."
"But how?" Shasta says. "I can't read, I can't fight, I don't know anything about Archenland. All I know how to do is catch fish and do chores, and I can't do any of that here. People keep doing all the chores for me and nobody will teach me what I ought to be doing instead. Father's going to make me be king, the country will sink to the bottom of the sea in a storm, and it will be all my fault."
He realizes he's waving his arms around and drops them back to his sides, flushing with embarrassment and nerves. He yelled at a king. If he ever dared to yell at Arsheesh, he ended the night with his boxed ears ringing and his stomach empty from no supper. Surely he'll be in trouble here too, no matter how friendly the northerners seem.
But King Edmund just smiles and puts one hand on Shasta's shoulder. "That you worry about your people already is a sign that you are worthy to be king. The rest can be taught. It is to our shame that neither I nor your father realized how much at loose ends you have been."
Shasta looks down and feels his cheeks burn hotter. "You should just go back to having Corin be Father's heir. At least he knows what he's doing."
"Come now, Prince Cor," says the king. "Be honest - would you want Corin as your lord? Ruling a country is much like an endless age of chores. No sooner is one dealt with than another arises, and there is little scope for glory and adventure. You kept house for the Calormene fisherman who brought you ashore, did you not?"
"Most of a king's work - or a queen's work, as my sisters would remind me - is much the same," King Edmund says. "We ensure that food is taken from where it grows to where it is needed, that the roads are in good repair, that the borders are watched, that tariffs are fair, that the people of one town or forest or valley are not in conflict with their neighbors, that when conflict does occur the law can find a resolution, and on and on in such a manner." He claps Shasta's shoulder again, then drops his arm. "And from time to time, we go to war or fence wits with foreign kings, who are trying to do the same for their own people - if, that is, they are kings worth their titles."
Oh, Shasta thinks, remembering the work gang of prisoners who came by the village one year to repair the road that led south to the port city of Firoz, and the imperial auditors Arsheesh loved to complain about but to whom he once took a case for arbitration when he thought he'd been cheated at the village market. Of course. Things like that don't organize themselves, any more than a donkey could muck out its own stable. Someone has to make them happen.
"I don't think Corin would like that much," he tells King Edmund. He frowns. "I don't think I'd like that much either." It was tricky enough getting Bree, Hwin, Aravis, and himself to agree on their plan for crossing Tashbaan. Getting a whole country to agree on something sounds impossible.
"Few people would," the king says. "But there the task sits, waiting for someone to take it up. What say you, Prince Cor? If you truly feel unequal to the responsibility, you can abdicate your right to Archenland's throne. I will plead your case with your father King Lune and allow you refuge in Narnia so as to lessen the potential for malcontents to make you a figurehead against your brother's eventual rule." His eyes are steady and calm, his face unreadable behind the surface weariness, as if he's weighing Shasta's response on a scale to see how many crescents and minims he's worth.
Shasta swallows and looks away. He could run away to be a fisherman in Cair Paravel with permission. He could let Archenland go back to the way it was before he blundered into the country and upset everyone's plans. He could stick with a life that makes sense, a life he knows how to deal with, a life where he's only responsible for himself and somebody else has to worry about the big questions and problems.
He could. He wants to.
"Thank you, Your Majesty, but I'll stay here," he says.
King Edmund smiles. "As you wish. Now, would you like to come down to the council chamber and help your father and me as we consider Rishti Tisroc's likely response? You have a more intimate knowledge of Calormen than either he or I, and I have often found that following other people as they struggle with a thorny tangle is a good way to learn how to deal with a similar situation myself."
"Will Corin be there?" Shasta asks.
King Edmund shakes his head. "Your brother has never had any love for such matters," he says. "That has worried your father greatly these past several years. Your interest will ease his mind."
"Oh," Shasta says. It's strange to realize that King Edmund is implying that he'll make a better king than Corin would. And yet, if ruling a country is like living with Arsheesh, maybe the king has a point. Corin would have provoked Arsheesh into selling him years ago, or he would have run off and fallen in with bandits. Shasta buckled down and did the work. Maybe he can buckle down and learn how to be a king, too. Maybe he can live up to the name his parents gave him.
"Can we bring Aravis too?" he asks. "I grew up in Calormen, but I only know about ordinary things. She knows what the great houses are like. And kings need to have good counselors, right?"
King Edmund nods as he crouches to lift the covering from the stairwell. "That we do, for no person can know everything there is to know, and friends who have stood fast through trials such as you and the Lady Aravis endured are worth more than any material price." He smiles. "That was an excellent suggestion, Cor. Keep that up and you will go far."
Cor smiles back.
AN: Thanks for reading, and please review! I appreciate all comments, but I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.