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 written for lady_songsmith as part of the 2011 Narnia Fic Exchange, in response to the following prompt:
What I want:
-moral/ethical dilemmas: doing the wrong thing for the right reasons
-Susan solves a major national/international problem with her wits/words
-the first time (any of) the Pevensies leave Narnia-the-country or the first time they meet someone from another country.
-a crisis at Cair Paravel told from a non-Pevensie perspective
home, allegiance, discovery, secrecy, oath, perception
The first part of this story was beta-read by the ever-amazing Theodosia21, but she was unable to read the final two thirds because I utterly blew my deadline. Those sections are therefore entirely my fault. Warnings for background presence of slavery and discussion of and planning for the sacrifice of a sentient being (i.e., a Talking Beast).
Summary: In the fourteenth year of Rishti Tisroc's reign, a demon in the shape of a beaver is captured and brought to Tashbaan. Shezan Tolkheera, high priestess of the goddess Achadith, is given the responsibility of guarding the demon until its sacrifice at the Spring Festival. Complications ensue.
Out of Season, part 1
Shezan was halfway through the morning invocation to Achadith, chanting the hymn thanking the queen of heaven for the favor she showed to Idrath World-Conqueror at the birth of Calormen. In a moment she would lift the heavy onyx bowl from its niche in the wall and pour water on the feet of the goddess's statue.
Sometimes people came to watch the ritual - young initiates in training, older women seeking a moment of communion with the goddess, powerful men reminding themselves of the origins of the empire - but they were always quiet, respectful, as they should be. They asked permission, purified themselves, and watched the entire rite.
They did not flurry in unannounced like agitated pigeons, squabbling over bread in the streets.
Shezan stuttered for a moment over the final verse. Then she ruthlessly shut out the commotion behind her and finished the invocation. She returned the onyx bowl to its resting place, faced the goddess, and said, "Great Achadith, Queen of Heaven, Counselor of Tash, we abase ourselves before you and beg you once again to bring us wisdom unlooked for, as all gifts from heaven arrive beyond our understanding: like thunder, like comets, like rain in the desert." She clapped her hands and bowed. She added, as always, a silent prayer for the goddess to favor Prince Rabadash with wisdom and patience.
Then she turned in a whirl of white linen skirts and silver bells and glared at the three initiates who had nearly disrupted the ritual. "What were you thinking? Never interrupt an invocation! The gods favor us because we show them the honor they deserve, not because we think ourselves strong enough to disrespect them."
Had one of the other priestesses sent them as a secret test? Sometimes Shezan suspected them of wanting her to fail and shame herself before the goddess.
The girls had the good sense to look ashamed of themselves for a moment, before excitement overcame them again and they all began talking at once.
Shezan cut them off with a curt gesture. "Stop. You talk," she said, pointing at the middle girl, who was short and dark with a hawk-like nose. "You two, be silent."
The initiate glanced at her companions, then took a half step forward and bobbed in a hasty courtesy. "Shezan Tolkheera, the garrison down the coast at Elith took a ship of pirates and smugglers, and when they searched the hold, they found one of the northern demons - the spirits of chaos who take the shape of beasts - and they've brought it here to Tashbaan to be given to the gods in the Spring Festival. Nakdeh Tolkaar says that since the demon is in the shape of a female beast, it should be our burden to guard and ward it until the sacrifice." She bobbed in another courtesy and stepped back to huddle with the other two girls.
Shezan frowned. Not a test, then - or at least not a test devised by humans. "Nakdeh has no right to decide the affairs of the priestesses without consulting us, but if the demon is female in body, it would be improper for men to watch it alone. Beast shape or not, spirits are subtle, and there is no telling what harm this one could cause. Where is it being kept?"
"In the Courtyard of Willows, between the great temple and Zardeenah's shrine," the initiate said. "Deel Tolkheera is with the soldiers in case it attempts sorcery. She sent us to find you before Nakdeh Tolkaar is summoned to the palace."
It was well done of Deel to stand watch and to publicly remind Nakdeh that he was only first among nine equals, not a king or god to stand above them. Shezan made a note to thank her fellow high priestess for quick thinking.
"A demon is clearly a thing out of season and thus within Achadith's domain. I will go help Deel and decide what is to be done with it," Shezan said to the three initiates. "Attend me."
"To hear is to obey," the initiates murmured.
Shezan strode out of the inner shrine, leaving the goddess to bask in the flickering light of oil lamps and their pale, wavering reflections shining up from the shallow water pooled about the statue's silver feet. The initiates fell in behind her like squabs following a grown bird, waiting to be taught its secrets.
Had she ever been that young, Shezan wondered as she hurried through the temple complex, keeping her strides short and even so they didn't disturb the fabric of her skirt and thus hid, to some degree, the fact that she was hurrying. She didn't remember being that foolish. But then, she had grown up in the palace as milk-sister to Prince Rabadash and granddaughter to Axartha Tarkaan, the Grand Vizier. She had danced with snakes since before she could speak. That made a difference.
Shezan had yoked her knowledge of politics to her zeal to serve the goddess. That combination had made her high priestess of Achadith in her twenty-seventh year - the third-youngest woman to ever hold that title, and the first under forty who had been appointed in nearly three hundred years. Now came her first great challenge in that role.
She would rise to meet it.
The great temple - Tash's temple, though all the gods had subsidiary shrines within its embrace - dominated both the temple complex and the city of Tashbaan itself. Even the palace of the Tisroc (may he live forever) lay slightly lower and to the west, while the temples of the other eight gods lay scattered to the east like a half chain of brilliant jewels. Zardeenah's shrine - for the goddess of maidens and the night preferred wild places to cities, and so had the smallest home among men - lay immediately south of the temple's carved and gilded front gates, for Zardeenah the Pure was the dancer before Tash's throne. It was meet and fitting for the beauty of her shrine to prepare a worshipper for the splendor of Tash and his court.
Achadith's temple lay on the exact opposite side of the temple complex, connected to the great temple by a graceful colonnade, just as Achadith was connected to her husband by the bond of marriage and the respect he gave her for her wise counsel. Shezan left her three initiates inside the great temple with orders to wait on her return. Then she pushed open the small door set within the lower panels of the great, gilded main entrance and started down the steps to the Courtyard of Willows, with its central pool and three ancient, weeping trees.
The courtyard was generally busy, as the rich and powerful of Tashbaan came to worship the nine gods and temple workers moved around them performing rituals and maintaining the grounds. This morning it was strangely empty save for a huddled group of soldiers - their clothes and skin streaked with the dust and sweat of travel. Six faced inward, their swords drawn and ready. Six more faced outward, swords still in their sheaths, their eyes darting lightly over the edges of the surrounding buildings. The rest of the troop must have gone to help the temple guards direct people away from the courtyard.
Deel and Nakdeh stood between the two rings of soldiers, heads bent toward each other in whispered discussion. Judging by the angle of Deel's chin and the set of Nakdeh's broad shoulders under his golden tunic, they were, as always, arguing.
The demon was not visible.
"Nakdeh. Deel. I hear you have requested me to deal with a demon," Shezan said as one of the soldiers spied her and moved tentatively to rouse her colleagues' attention.
Deel glanced up, a quick smile ghosting over her wrinkled face. "Shezan, thank you for coming. I trust the initiates didn't interrupt you?"
Shezan flicked the fingers of her left hand, dismissing the incident. "Oh, if it comes to that, interruptions are within Achadith's domain, are they not? As are demons. Let me see this one so I can determine where and how to hold it until the Festival."
"It has taken the shape of a beaver, a creature common in the western provinces, that cuts trees with its teeth and builds dams and houses of sticks in a clumsy imitation of man." Nakdeh said in his deep voice, every word smooth and slow like honey over ice. "It is a foolish shape in many ways, being neither an eater of meat nor of a threatening size, but beavers are known for their cunning and persistence, much like the demons and the unquiet dead that the Accursed Lion leads against the fortress of the heavens. Move aside," he added to the soldiers. They parted obediently.
The demon was sitting upright on its hind legs, hunched over with its gaze on the courtyard stones. Shezan estimated its head would reach partway up her thigh if it adopted a less shamed posture. Its fur was thick and reddish-brown, its head rounded with small ears and huge front teeth, and its tail curiously wide, flat, and scaled, like a fish beaten into the shape of a paddle. Someone had fixed a leather collar around its neck, hung with warding charms made of silver and iron. One of the soldiers held a rope attached to the collar. It was badly frayed in two places, as if the demon had chewed on it.
First things first.
"One of you fetch a metal chain, a hook, and a good set of pliers," Shezan said to the soldiers. "That rope is a disgrace."
"To hear is to obey," said the soldier holding the rope - evidently he was the commander of this squad. "You, go," he told one of his men, who bowed and hurried off at a half run toward the gatehouse, presumably to ask the temple guards for help.
Shezan examined the demon more closely. Its front paws looked nearly like hands - fingers and palms were clearly visible, lacking only a thumb. The rear paws seemed more like the feet of waterfowl, with thick, leathery webbing between the long, clawed toes. That skin was cracked and scabbed in several places, as was the tail.
"Does it speak?" Shezan asked the commander.
"A better question would be, what does it take to make it stop speaking, O most excellent Tolkheera," he said. "It is only silent now because it talked so much that its throat wore dry, and we gave it no water to refresh its voice."
The demon twitched at that, turning its head to look at the commander with what, if it were human, Shezan would almost have called an accusing expression. It opened its mouth and wheezed something that might have been meant as words.
"Silence, beast," the commander snapped, jerking on the rope. Across the courtyard, the soldier sent to fetch a chain reappeared with his hands full of something metallic that glinted in the morning sun.
"The beaver," said Nakdeh in his smooth, deep voice, "is a water animal, despite that it breathes air and nurses its young. This unnatural mixture of habits is shown by the fish-nature of its tail and the duck-nature of its feet. Depriving this demon of water, therefore, while a useful punishment, may kill it too soon." He shot a poisonous look at Deel. "It is plainly our duty to sacrifice the demon on the altar of Tash in six days. The charms around its neck have kept it contained thus far. As the poet Roondeh has said, to pluck out an eye to stop the pain caused by a grain of sand is both foolish and short-sighted."
"You would leave the female initiates only half-protected from a demon in their midst?" Deel said, returning the glare with added venom. "For shame. Beware your own god does not cast his bolt upon you, as those who harbor snakes in their households deserve."
Shezan wanted to roll her eyes and make horrible faces the way Rabadash did in a temper, but she stifled the impulse. She stepped between Deel and Nakdeh and placed one hand on each of their shoulders. "O my brother, O my sister, let us not argue here. I will take the demon to Achadith's temple, which has wards against demons and sorcery worked into all the doorways. It will be safe there for a week until the Festival. Nakdeh, your wisdom on the subject of beavers is most welcome. Deel, I thank you for your concern about the safety of my initiates."
She pushed her way between them, forcing them to separate by a good two feet to let her through, and held out her hand for the chain that the soldiers had just finished fixing to the demon's collar. The commander placed it in her palm and bowed.
"I will bring news of the demon to the Tisroc, may he live forever," Nakdeh said. "He will doubtless send someone to investigate. Have everything in order as soon as possible."
"I will inform the rest of the temple," Deel added.
"Thank you," Shezan said to both of them, and strode through the circle of soldiers toward the steps of the great temple, tugging the beaver demon behind her.
Shezan gathered the three initiates from the entrance of great temple and sent them to find a porcelain tub, a bundle of the food given to eaters of plants in the royal menagerie, and the menagerie keeper who could ensure that the demon did not die before the Festival. Then she looked down at the demon, which had been shuffling slowly and awkwardly behind her on its cracked and bleeding feet.
It was of compact build and likely weighed more than it looked as though it should, but Shezan doubted it was heavier than a five year old child, and she could carry one of those well enough. Sometimes children were abandoned at the temple gates with a token tribute for the gods, cut out from their family lineages in return for a chance at a better life. They were always taken in and trained until they were of an age to speak their vows or to choose a secular life. Some even rose to become Tolkaars or Tolkheeras of their own temples despite their low birth and lack of family support. Shezan had cared for dozens of those children before she had climbed to her current authority.
"If you scratch or bite, it will go hard for you," she said to the demon. Then she crouched down, slid one arm underneath its belly, and hoisted it to her shoulder. They must have looked a peculiar picture: a tall, thin woman dressed in flowing linen skirts and sleeves, her long black hair bound up in intricate braids, carrying a short, squat animal whose fur was caked and matted with the filth of the road. Shezan made a note to change her clothes and ritually wash her face and hands at the first chance.
The demon was still as stone all the way to Achadith's temple.
In addition to the courtyards and colonnades, all the nine temples and shrines of the complex were connected by tunnels underground, so the inhabitants could get from place to place even through the great, packed crowds at the solar feast days and other major festivals. Shezan took those ways to keep the demon away from curious, unprotected eyes. She climbed a narrow flight of stairs back into sunlight in the side chambers of Achadith's temple, where her priestesses lived.
Muthori, a stocky middle-aged woman who had been Shezan's rival for high priestess and was now her most likely successor, was passing down the hallway as Shezan appeared in the archway at the top of the stairs. She saw the demon on Shezan's shoulder, stopped, and gasped.
"Hush," Shezan said, somewhat out of breath. "We are keeping this demon, which has taken the shape of a beaver, until it is sacrificed to Tash during the Spring Festival. Go tell the others while I put it in the contemplation chamber of Soorabadeen Takhun."
"To hear is to obey," Muthori said, with a twist of wry curiosity in her voice and face. "Shall I gather wards to tie on the window bars as well?"
That was a good thought. "Do so," Shezan agreed, and turned down the hallway toward a small room in the back of the temple.
Soorabadeen Takhun had been first wife to Ardeeb Tisroc and mother to Ilsombreh Tisroc, and had favored her second son rather than her first in their war for their father's throne. Ilsombreh had killed his rebellious younger brother, but filial piety kept him from visiting the same fate on his mother. Instead, he had imprisoned her in Achadith's temple under the guise of a contemplative retreat. The room where Soorabadeen had spent the final twenty years of her life was a single square box, twelve by twelve feet, with one narrow, barred window in each of the two outer walls and no other features. The walls were unpainted plaster, the floor was of plain white tile, and the ceiling held none of the fantastical chandeliers common in the solitary retreats of highborn ladies.
It was, in other words, an obvious prison cell.
It also had a highly illegal spellstone concealed behind the plaster in an upper corner of the walls, carved with runes that would both record and transmit sound to another stone carved with the mirror form of those runes. Ilsombreh had rightly suspected that his mother would continue to stir conspiracies and rebellions through conversation with her visitors, and had judged it more useful to let Soorabadeen act as his inadvertent double agent than to keep her from all contact with his court. The sorcerer who made the stones had done so in return for an honorable execution on false charges instead of public denunciation and the death of a thousand cuts. Ilsombreh had never revealed the stones to his heir. Achadith's high priestesses were thus the only ones who still knew of their existence.
Shezan wore the second spellstone on a chain around her neck. Usually it was an inert symbol of her office, but if she whispered the correct word, the stone would signal her whenever the demon spoke. Another word would bring the demon's voice to her ears as if on a spirit wind that no one else could feel or hear.
Shezan was not sure what a demon might speak of when it believed itself alone, but she suspected it might be revealing.
When not in use, the contemplation chamber was left open with the key in the door. Shezan set the demon on the floor and moved back to stand in the doorway. "This will be your home until the Festival," she told the demon. "You will be given food and water. Do not try to tempt the initiates; they are trained to resist your lies. Do not try to escape, either; the walls are stone behind the plaster and the window bars are solid steel. You cannot chew through them like rope or wood. For now, you may rest."
She shut and locked the door, taking the key out of its hole so the demon could not attempt to turn it from the inside. She hung the key on a hook beside the doorframe so the initiates and the menagerie keeper could bring the demon its food and water, and inspect its damaged feet and tail.
Then she walked down the hallway to her chambers, woke the spellstone to the first of its duties, and rang the bell to summon an initiate with wine, bread, and dried fruit so she could break her fast while she waited for the representative of the Tisroc (may he live forever) to arrive.
Shezan had finished her breakfast and was reviewing the tithing records from the previous month when a faint knock sounded on her chamber doors. "Enter," she called, without rising from her desk.
The door opened, revealing a stooped and aged man with deep seams lining his face, a long, iron-gray beard gracing his chin, and a modest green turban circling his head. "Shezan Tolkheera, my day is grown brighter at the sight of you," he said, stepping forward and closing the door behind himself.
Shezan sprang up from behind her desk. "Grandfather!" She hurried forward to help him to the sofa along the side wall. "You are, as always, the delight of my heart and eyes, but why are you here? Surely you have a younger man whose observation and discretion you trust, who could have come to see the demon in your stead."
Axartha Tarkaan, the Grand Vizier of Calormen, sat down on the sofa with a tired sigh. Shezan hastily picked up a cushion to place between his back and the wall, and another to place between his side and the arm of the sofa. He settled against them, making his bones as comfortable as he could.
"I have men whose observation I trust and men whose discretion I trust, but finding the two qualities together without the poison of vaunting ambition is like finding a shining pearl in the depths of a coalmine. Besides, I take any reason I can manufacture to see you, O my granddaughter. A demon is an excellent excuse."
Shezan smiled and knelt at her grandfather's feet. "Any excuse is excellent when spoken from your lips," she said. "In any case, the demon is locked in Soorabadeen Takhun's contemplation chamber with only a porcelain tub of water and a pile of aspen twigs and lily roots to break the monotony. It has done nothing but splash about and noisily chew on wood for the past two hours. Meanwhile, the room is ringed with warding charms, the demon wears more wards on the collar about its neck, and I have given orders that the door must not be opened without at least two people present, so the demon will have no chance to escape."
"That is well done," Axartha said, laying his thin, wrinkled hands on Shezan's unbound hair. "I will tell Rishti (may he live forever) that the demon is in hand and the Festival will be graced by its death. Now. Let us talk of more important things, for I know you are close to your milk-brother as I am not, and I value the quickness of your mind when unraveling knots in the silk of the court."
It pained Shezan that her grandfather, whom she respected above all people except perhaps for the Tisroc (may he live forever), so lightly dismissed the affairs of the gods in favor of the affairs of men, but if he asked for her attention, he had it. Always. "O my grandfather, what knots have tangled the court since last we spoke?" she asked.
Axartha stroked her hair once and returned his hands to his lap. "That is a long story. You know, of course, that Malindra Takhun is ever seeking a way to stain Rabadash with the brush of treason or any other flaw that would make him unfit to rule, so that her son Ilragesh might inherit instead. Two nights ago, your mother brought news to me that Malindra spoke with Ahoshta Tarkaan, who lately has Rishti's ear nearly as much as I, purporting to have evidence that Rabadash is plotting a coup during the Spring Festival."
Ahoshta Tarkaan was baseborn, as Axartha was, but while Axartha had won Prince Rishti's favor during the wars and struggles of Zarman Tisroc's later reign, backing his advice with the strength of his sword arm and showing loyalty when there was no guarantee that Rishti would succeed his father, Ahoshta had won favor through boundless flattery and groveling now that Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) was the unquestioned ruler of all Calormen. Ahoshta had no scruples and, so far as Shezan had heard, nothing worth naming as a soul. He would doubtless become one of the unquiet dead and rail against the heavens when he died.
"I would doubt Malindra and Ahoshta if they told me water was wet," Shezan told her grandfather. "If they speak of plots, who will believe them?"
"I fear that Rishti (may he live forever) will listen," Axartha said heavily. "He drinks Ahoshta's flattery like wine, and as he grows more removed from the vigor of his youth, he appreciates the lust Malindra feigns when she gazes upon him. What I fear even more is that they may speak truth. I have seen Rabadash's companions in whispered discussions in the palace, which they break off when anyone comes near. Your milk-brother is, as we well know, still impetuous with youth. He lacks his father's patience to temper his strength and wit."
Shezan thought of the myriad near-disasters Rabadash had plunged into over their childhood, and the way his reputation as a general was built on forced marches and daring battles rather than supply trains and cold-blooded sieges, and could not help but agree. "He will make a brilliant Tisroc, an emperor for the ages, but not yet. And never as a patricide. It is one thing to kill a brother or a son. To kill a father..." That was abomination in the eyes of the gods.
"Yes, yes, my delight, you would hate to see him condemn his soul," Axartha said indulgently. "I would hate to think of him running the empire to disaster, the way he rides horses to death on a whim. We must think of a way to unravel this plot without ever letting it come to light. Rabadash must not kill his father, but equally he must not be exposed. If he falls, so do I, and your mother, and perhaps even you, though Rishti cannot officially extend his hand against one sworn to the gods. Moreover, Prince Ilragesh lacks the temperament to rule and a Tisroc governed by Malindra Takhun and Ahoshta Tarkaan does not bear thinking of. Therefore set your mind to this problem, O my granddaughter and O the light of my eyes, and find a thread to lead us through this labyrinth."
Shezan bent her head. "O my grandfather and O the treasure of the empire, I will do my best," she promised. "I will find Rabadash this evening, if possible, and see what I can persuade him to tell me."
"Excellent," Axartha said. "Now, let us go observe your demon so I may report truthfully to Rishti (may he live forever) that I have seen it with my own eyes and verified that your custody is right and proper."
Shezan helped her grandfather stand laboriously from the sofa, and he leaned on her shoulder as they went to look in on the captive demon.
Shezan's day passed in the usual round of rituals, interspersed with meetings about the demon and its planned sacrifice, most of which degenerated into arguments and resolved nothing. When evening stole across the sky like a thief through a treasure room, trailing stars in its wake like diamonds and pearls scattered from a torn bag, she left the temple complex and entered the palace through the Courtyard of Butterflies, which lay opposite the Courtyard of Bones that separated the temples of Tash and Achadith. Rabadash kept his rooms in the new palace, in the spacious interior of a second story wing overlooking the Courtyard of Broken Spears and its politically pointed fountain.
There were guards stationed at the top of the spiral stairs and outside the door of his suite, but they let Shezan pass without question. Rabadash was her milk-brother, after all; her mother had nursed them both after his mother, Nurneesh Tarkheena, had died in childbirth. They were as close as blood siblings but much less likely to kill each other, since neither Shezan nor her hypothetical children could inherit upon Rabadash's death. Her family's status depended on his eventual rise to the throne.
"How is his mood this day?" Shezan asked the guard at the doorway.
"Bored, O my mistress," the guard said as he swung the heavy door open on soundless hinges. "You will be a welcome distraction and may save him from inventing something at which to take offense."
"Mind your tongue," Shezan said as she entered the receiving room. "The prince only takes offense at matters that are offensive. He would not conjure them from nothing."
In truth, Rabadash might take offense at something petty and react out of proportion - Shezan suspected he found it amusing to order outrageous punishments for minor infractions, and hoped he would grow out of the tendency - but he was not the sort to invent an insult where none had occurred. His father, now... but no. She would not think ill of the Tisroc (may he live forever) who had plucked her family from obscurity and remained loyal to her grandfather through the twenty years while Axartha toiled to win Rishti the throne and the fourteen years of intermittent rebellions since their victory.
"Greetings, Prince Rabadash, O my honored brother and O the delight of my heart," Shezan said as the door closed behind her. "Forgive my intrusion on your privacy."
Rabadash was lounging on the balcony outside his receiving room, idly tossing scraps of smoked fish to the gulls that screeched and flapped around the frothing water in the fountain below. One of his companions - Ilgamuth Tarkaan, whose otherwise mild, dark face was rendered ferocious by the scar that twisted his lip into a teeth-baring sneer - sat cross-legged by his side, reading a slim book of poetry in the light of a candelabra carelessly set on the floor between the two men.
"O my sister and O the beloved of Achadith, how can family intrude upon one another?" Rabadash said in a lazy tone, not bothering to turn and meet her eyes. "Come. Sit. I hear you have a demon in your temple. Tell me all about it. Ilgamuth has been reading poetry at me this past hour and more, and I long to hear something to wake my mind."
Ilgamuth closed his book and rolled his eyes at Shezan. She smiled briefly, then composed her face before Rabadash could turn and see either of them. Ilgamuth was her favorite of Rabadash's friends, precisely because he did not always take the prince as seriously as Rabadash might have wished and yet was loyal anyway. Shezan liked the clarity of vision that implied.
She sat in a billow of linen skirts and a stifled ring of the silver bells at her right ankle, and leaned casually against the carved stone of the balusters that edged the balcony. "The demon was taken at Elith, as part of a crew of pirates and smugglers from the north," she said. "The coastal guard fought long and valiantly to bring the barbarians to bay, and hanged them one and all for their crimes. The demon was hiding in the hold, which shows the truth that all such creatures are cowards at heart when faced with the wrath of Tash's loyal servants, but it was discovered, captured, and brought to Tashbaan to be sacrificed in the Spring Festival along with the yearling bull."
"Yes, yes, I know," Rabadash said, tossing another scrap of fish to the gulls, which screeched and postured to seize it from one another. "I heard as much from those who heard your grandfather's report to my father, who seems certain to live forever. What kind of demon is it?"
"It wears the shape of a beaver," Shezan said.
"Truly, a beaver?" asked Ilgamuth, leaning forward with interest in his eyes. "That seems a peculiar choice for a demon. Beavers have fearsome strong teeth and jaws, but they use them only on trees, not to fight. They eat nothing but bark, roots, and the green scum that floats on ponds, and they spend the western winters hiding in their houses of sticks and mud rather than brave the snow like the eaters of meat or their fleet-footed prey. They are useful only for their fur and for the oil on which the best perfumes are built."
"Nonetheless, it is shaped like a beaver," Shezan assured him and Rabadash. "The soldiers say that its voice marks it as a female demon, though I cannot see how anyone could tell male from female through all that fur. It may be a kindness to kill it soon rather than try to keep it cool and watered through the high summer at the desert's edge."
"Many creatures might be better served to die in a useful fashion instead of outliving their time in physical discomfort," Rabadash agreed.
Shezan thought of the Tisroc (may he live forever) and the way he had grown increasingly ill-tempered as his weight blossomed, his joints swelled, and his digestion worsened. She suspected Rabadash was thinking along similar lines. Behind her milk-brother, Ilgamuth looked sideways, the good side of his mouth pressing together in a hard line.
"Perhaps so," Shezan said, noncommittal. "In any case, Nakdeh Tolkaar and I have been arguing over the form of the sacrifice. I told him that I should wield the knife, since demons are within Achadith's domain. He said there is no difference between a demon and a bullock, and he will perform both sacrifices since the shedding of blood falls within Tash's domain. Pfah. Nakdeh is a fool. If nothing else, I must be present to carry the wards against sorcery lest the demon take the chance to kill the Tisroc (may he live forever) while his guards are distracted by prayers."
Rabadash twitched. Ilgamuth went very still for a moment. Then the two men glanced at each other and relaxed into a semblance of normality. "Surely not even a demon would risk the wrath of Tash in his own temple," Ilgamuth said.
Rabadash laughed. "Truly, the bolt of Tash would not have to fall very far to strike it down! Come, O my sister, spin a tale from thread and wisdom, not from madness and smoke."
They were very natural. To anyone who hadn't been looking for signs of treason, they might well have been convincing. But Shezan knew.
Rabadash was plotting to kill Rishti Tisroc, and - though she had spoken a real fear of what the demon might do, never dreaming her milk-brother would truly go so far as to break both Tash's law of filial respect and the peace of the temple at the same time - he was planning to use the Spring Festival as their cover. Perhaps this was new. Perhaps he had only picked the time and place when he heard about the demon. But he had a plan, and it was monstrous.
"If demons feared the wrath of Tash, they would not have spurned him and left his lands in heaven to follow the Accursed Lion," Shezan said lightly. "But you are right, O my prince. Your father (upon whom the gods smile) is doubtless in no danger. The demon's death will be a sign of the gods' approval of his reign and the breaking of the western rebels last autumn."
"Indeed it will, O most excellent of sisters," Rabadash agreed, laughing again. "Indeed it will. But enough of this talk. Let us call for supper and speak of less portentous matters."
The demon was silent all night and through the dawn while Shezan performed the invocation to Achadith, but when she returned to her chambers the spellstone vibrated against her skin. Hurriedly, she left a note in her receiving room instructing the initiate to leave the breakfast tray without waiting for her to acknowledge the delivery, and locked herself in her bedroom to listen.
The demon was singing, loudly, in a voice that might have belonged to any of the younger initiates - a sickeningly perfect imitation of a human girl. The song itself was of no importance, merely some long and tedious recounting of the deeds of an ancient barbarian warrior, but the demon was singing at the top of its lungs as if trying to batter down the silence of the contemplation chamber.
Shezan had nearly decided to return to her normal routine when the demon abruptly stopped in the middle of a verse. The sound of wings and scrabbling feet echoed in her ears.
"Here you are," said a scratchy voice, akin to an older woman with a chest congestion. "I've been looking everywhere. This city is built like a maze, and do you know how many hidden tunnels and windowless rooms there are? If you weren't so loud, I might never have found you."
"That's why I was singing," the demon said in its girlish voice. Then it burst into thick, heaving sobs. "Oh! Oh, Hkreegah, they're going to kill me! Look at my feet! Look at my tail! They put a collar on me and they think I'm a demon and they're going to kill me before next week!"
"No, they won't," the scratchy voice - a demon in the form of a bird? - said with calm surety. "Narnia will not abandon you, Marigold Beaver. The minute I knew the Calormenes were taking you to Tashbaan, I flew to Cair Paravel and told Queen Susan of our ship's fate. She swore in the names of Aslan and the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea that she would do everything in her power to bring you safely home. So hush your blubbering and tell me what you know about your captors."
Shezan listened to the beaver demon tell its avian counterpart the little it knew of its circumstances, but her main attention was turned inward. Demons were notoriously craven and selfish; only their fear of the Accursed Lion kept them in any semblance of order. Yet here were two demons acting almost as if they were friends. Did they know she was listening? Were they shamming for her ears?
And what of this Queen Susan they mentioned? Shezan paid little attention to external politics - tracking the mood of the court and the rise and fall of rebellious sentiment was much more immediately important - but she knew, in a vague way, that Narnia had acquired new rulers in the same year that Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) had taken the throne of Calormen. In defiance of all sense, these tetrarchs were four siblings who shared the power that should belong to one alone. Yet somehow they made it work. Perhaps it took four humans to guard each other's backs when surrounded by their demon subjects, and the drain of that constant watch left them no time to turn on each other?
In any case, whatever this Queen Susan of Narnia had promised her unholy lackeys, there was no way for Narnia to reclaim the beaver demon. Archenland was at peace with Calormen; its king would never allow Narnian soldiers through his territory, for fear of restarting the endless cycle of raids and trade warfare. Narnia might have a deepwater navy, but even if its ships could pass the harbor defenses they could never carry enough men to break through Tashbaan's walls. And if this Queen Susan thought she could ransom her wayward demon, she was dreaming. Narnia was a tiny land, still recovering from a century of sorcerous winter, and had nothing to offer Calormen that was worth the implied humiliation of allowing a demon - which was also a convicted pirate and smuggler - to live and go free.
"But what is Queen Susan going to do?" the beaver demon said finally, its voice breaking with the threat of renewed tears. "She doesn't go to the wars; she can't come save me. Where are the other three?"
"King Edmund is in the Lone Islands dispensing royal justice, King Peter is in the Western Wild negotiating with the exile communities, and Queen Lucy is riding the mediation circuit in the north," the avian demon said in its scratchy voice. "They cannot reach Tashbaan in five days. Even if they could, Narnia cannot afford a war with Calormen. The only way out is through treaty or trickery, and Queen Susan's words and wits will serve you as well or better as those of her siblings. Tell me again about the sacrifice. Does it take place in a courtyard or in one of the temples? How many people will attend? How will you be bound?"
"I don't know!" the beaver demon cried. "I don't know, they didn't say. All the Calormenes already know and they don't think I'm a person. Who tells dinner how you're going to kill it, anyway? They're going to kill me and it won't even be like a dumb beast killing me for food. They're going to kill me for fun. I don't want to die!" It broke down into hiccupping sniffles.
Shezan could not help but be disgusted. Even baseborn slaves faced execution more bravely than this. They didn't wallow in self-pity like children. Besides, a sacrifice was not for fun. The death of the yearling bull in Tash's name was a sign of fealty to the gods, a payment for success in war, and a symbol of the turning year - immediately after the young bull died, a newborn male calf would be brought to the altar, marked with fresh blood, and raised for the next year's sacrifice. Its health was a sign of plenty; if it sickened or died, that presaged famine. None of that had anything to do with frivolous amusement.
"I told you, you won't die," the bird demon said. "I'll pass your information to the ravens. They'll report to Cair Paravel while I fly around this horrible city and learn what I can about the Spring Festival. You stop crying and see what you can pry out of your captors. Be strong, Marigold. This isn't what any of us expected for your first voyage, but we'll see you safely home."
The sound of wings came again, nearly drowned out by the beaver demon's cry of, "Wait, Hkreegah, come back, don't leave me!"
Silence, for a long moment. Then the beaver began to cry again, soft and despairing like an abandoned child.
Shezan frowned in sudden thought. How old was the demon? Was it possible that it truly was a child, as its kind counted such things? How could one tell the age of beasts and demons and compare it to the age of men?
If the demon was a child, did that change anything?
No, Shezan decided. Child or not, the beaver would die. That was what the law decreed for its crimes, and it was unforgivable for the servants of the gods to let a demon escape to fight heaven once again. She put the spellstone back to its silent guard and returned to her duties.
Still, her breakfast sat uneasily in her stomach and Shezan went through her day with a frown tucked into the corners of her eyes, making the initiates bite their tongues and hurry about their tasks and lessons twice as efficiently as usual for fear that she was displeased with them.
Zardis Tarkheena, Shezan's mother, had no official position at court and her blood was suspect despite being a child of Axartha Tarkaan's middle age and second, noble, wife. She was nevertheless widely known as the best hostess in Tashbaan, and invitations to her gatherings and parties were eagerly sought by one and all. Zardis both enjoyed intrigue and genuinely liked people from all factions and classes, so she had no objections to occasionally tailoring her invitations to suit the Grand Vizier's purposes.
Tonight was the eve of Endweek, the seventh day when servants and slaves were released from heavy work, merchants kept minimal hours, and the great and good of Tashbaan threw off the cares of their positions for a night and day. Therefore, the party to which Zardis had asked both Ahoshta Tarkaan and Malindra Takhun was larger and more elaborate than usual - held on a pleasure barge a mile upriver from the heat and smell of the city, with musicians, dancers, and all manner of expensive delicacies to tempt jaded appetites.
Shezan accompanied her grandfather at his request.
"You are certain that Rabadash plans to use the Spring Festival in this way?" Axartha asked as he and Shezan rode through the city gates in their palanquin. They each held enough authority to cause the gates to open during the night, but power was best saved for matters of true importance. Shezan had delegated the morning invocation to Muthori, her second, and planned a leisurely trip back to the temple tomorrow.
"O my grandfather," she said now, "I am as certain of Rabadash's plans as I am sure the sun will rise in the east. We were children together. I know how to read him. Grandfather, we must stop him from this blasphemy."
"Yes, yes, we must," Axartha agreed. "This would-be coup proves that he is not ready to take the reins of the empire. Even if he could lay Rishti's death (the gods forbid it to occur) at the demon's feet, it would be a terrible omen to start his reign. Despite the breaking of the rebel armies, the western provinces are still restive after the great drought this past decade and would take that as an excuse to rise again. The treasury is recovering, but we cannot afford a new civil war for at least three years."
"Even if we could afford a war, we couldn't let Rabadash do this evil thing," Shezan insisted. "Tash will not suffer a patricide to sit long on the throne, and the other gods will raise their hands against us if we turn a blind eye to such a sin."
"The people will certainly share your horror," Axartha said indulgently. "Therefore, it is best to stop the prince before he gathers himself to strike. Tonight, I hope to hint to Ahoshta - who is not half so subtle as he believes himself to be - that certain parties may think the Spring Festival an opportune time to strike. Then you will help me direct his suspicions toward Malindra Takhun and Prince Ilragesh, and thus both send him to warn Rishti (may he live forever) and turn him against one of Rabadash's rivals."
"To hear is to obey," Shezan said, modestly lowering her head and setting the bells at the end of her braids chiming.
Axartha laughed. "Neither you nor your mother have an obedient breath in your lungs, whatever you feign to flatter me. She chose her own marriage, and when she wished to arrange a marriage for you, you claimed the gods had called you to other purposes. I am simply grateful that you humor an old man and that you are both clear-eyed and discreet."
"We follow your esteemed example, O my grandfather," Shezan said with a smile.
She did have an obedient breath, though. No matter what Axartha thought of her vocation, Shezan had truly heard the goddess call. That to answer that call also freed her from the prospect of marriage to a man twenty years her senior had merely been a happy coincidence.
But enough of memories. They were nearing the banks of the Shirush, where the barge her mother had rented was moored to a dock amidst weeping willows and banks of artfully scattered wildflowers. Already noise and light streamed through the gathering dark as Tarkaans and Tarkheenas ate, drank, and traded gossip like barbed and jeweled daggers.
The six slaves lowered the palanquin to the ground, and Shezan helped her grandfather stand and step onto the packed earth of the narrow road down to the river.
Zardis Tarkheena met them as they crossed the wide, iron walkway that connected the barge to the dock. She was dressed in swathes of sky-blue silk, with her black hair braided and pinned into something nearly as elaborate as a man's turban. Silver stars hung from artfully scattered points and a few wilder curls escaped in planned disarray. Silver powder accented her dark eyes, and her lips were stained the wine-red of ripe raspberries.
"O my father and O the light of my eyes," Zardis said, reaching forward to embrace Axartha and help him down the shallow step from the walkway to the deck of the barge. "My heart sings with gratitude that you found a moment to attend my little gathering. And Shezan, daughter, how pleasant to see you! You should come home more often. The cats take to sharpening their claws on the sofas without you to distract them."
"You should come worship more often," Shezan said, and smiled to take the teeth out of the old, well-worn disagreement. "If you wish, though, I will come spoil the cats tomorrow morning."
"I do so wish," Zardis said. "Now, come greet your fellow guests and take something to eat. You're too thin, as always. I'm sure Achadith doesn't wish for you to waste away in her service, and I know the temple has more than enough gold to buy you proper meals. Father, you should eat as well. Some wine will warm your blood and do your heart good."
Shezan and Axartha looked at each other over Zardis's head and smiled. Then they allowed her to lead them into the silk-shrouded pavilion that filled the center of the barge and introduce them to people they already knew.
It was well known that Zardis arranged gatherings at Axartha's request, so each one needed an overt political purpose to hide its true goal. In this case, the guests were a mix of people who had the ear of Rishti Tisroc (may he live forever) and those who had survived their association with the western rebels and presumably still had knowledge of any brewing unrest in the provinces. If useful information passed from the west to the Tisroc quickly enough for him to respond and forestall anyone from raising arms anew, that was all to the better. As Axartha was fond of saying, if two birds could be brought down with one shot, where was the sense in wasting one's effort and arrows?
Shezan spent a pleasant half hour talking with Alicheen Tabek, the Tisroc's third wife, about her planned pilgrimage upriver to the great temple of Achadith at Ulvaan, where Idrath World-Conqueror had begun to unite the cities of Calormen under the goddess's direction. "I spent two years at that temple before returning to Tashbaan," she told Alicheen, "and while it is not so huge or rich as the temple complex here, when you walk in the sacred grove of the battlefield or follow the labyrinth built out of the shattered swords of Idrath's enemies, it's impossible not to feel the weight of the goddess's regard on your shoulders."
"My shoulders are not so strong as many people's, but surely Achadith will take mercy on me and not watch so very hard," Alicheen said with a careless laugh. "I thought that I might bring my brother's sword as an offering along with the diamonds and onyx. His spear was burned on his pyre, of course, for him to lay at Tash's feet when he joined the army of heaven, but I kept his sword as a memento."
"That would be a worthy gift," Shezan said, and would have explained how the labyrinth was constantly being reconstructed as old swords fell to rust, but her mother swept up and tapped lightly on her shoulder.
"O light of the nation, please forgive the interruption," Zardis said to Alicheen Tabek. "My esteemed father has requested the presence of my daughter, and it is meet and fitting to honor an elder's wishes."
"O my hostess, do not fear; I take no offense," Alicheen said. "We were simply talking about the temple of Achadith at Ulvaan. Have you ever traveled there?"
Zardis began reminiscing about her trip south after she married Dinar Tarkaan thirty years ago, laying her hand on Alicheen's arm and turning her to face upstream though nothing was visible beyond the curtain of silk and light that defined the barge in the darkness of the river and the surrounding gardens. Shezan took the chance to slip away and find her grandfather.
He was seated on a hard, narrow divan, kept upright only by a single cushion placed between his back and the bare wooden arm of the couch. Ahoshta Tarkaan, a short, hunchbacked man with a sly face and an overly large turban for his station, sat on the other end of the divan and leaned in with an unhappy expression, intent on catching Axartha's every soft word.
"Are you certain? I find it difficult to believe that the Takhun-" Ahoshta was saying as Shezan ghosted up behind him. Axartha caught her approach and made a beckoning gesture with one hand, which Ahoshta failed to notice.
"O my grandfather, and O most esteemed counselor, please forgive my interruption," Shezan said, making Ahoshta twitch in surprise. "My mother said you wished me to attend you."
"So I did, O my granddaughter and O the comfort of my age," Axartha said as Ahoshta twisted, attempting to look at him and Shezan at the same time. "You have met Ahoshta Tarkaan, the junior advisor to the Tisroc (may he live forever), have you not?"
"I have," Shezan said neutrally.
"Shezan Tolkheera is the one who informed me that someone might use the presence of a demon at the Spring Festival as cover for a coup," Axartha said softly, forcing Ahoshta to lean toward him again. "As you may easily guess, this worried me, and I began to investigate who might benefit from such perfidy. I have come to believe Malindra Takhun is behind the plot."
"But surely others have equally much to gain-" Ahoshta began.
Axartha cut him off with a shaky wave of his hand. "Rishti Tisroc is not the only target. Tell him, O my granddaughter, what you learned from your milk-brother yesterday evening."
Shezan hid her surprise behind a practiced mask of calm. "O Ahoshta Tarkaan," she said, "know that when I called upon Prince Rabadash in his chambers by the Courtyard of Broken Spears, I chanced to see a servitor pull a knife from within his robes when he came bearing supper for the prince and his companions. The most worthy Ilgamuth Tarkaan, valiant despite the lingering effects of the wounds he took at Zulindreh last autumn, struck the traitor down before he could touch the prince. Thus we failed to learn who had sent him, but he is known to have accompanied Malindra Takhun on her sojourn at Lake Jaboor this winter." She spread her hands as if to say the inference was obvious.
In truth, the servitor had died as a hasty punishment for spilling coffee on Rabadash's hand when a gull had swooped too near the nervous slave's face, but what Ahoshta didn't know would not hurt him, and Rabadash would find it amusing to inflate the minor incident into something more exciting. Besides, Malindra had been behind at least two assassination attempts Shezan knew of. Ahoshta likely knew of them as well, since he was her creature. That would lend weight to the tale.
Ahoshta frowned. "If that is true, it is a most weighty charge."
"So it is," Axartha agreed, "which is why I have not brought it to Rishti's ears. You know he dislikes turmoil within his household. But there is no harm in advising him to be on guard during the Festival and the sacrifice. He thinks I see conspiracies everywhere in my age, but if the warning comes from you..." He spread his hands in the same gesture Shezan had used.
Ahoshta's frown deepened. "I will think on your words," he said.
"That is all I ask," Axartha said, and smiled.
The spellstone vibrated twice while Shezan lingered on the barge and then rested in a room of the nearby pleasure mansion her mother had rented for the night, but when she listened briefly, she heard nothing but the demon weeping or telling itself maudlin stories of its home. Both times she silenced the stone and returned to conversation or sleep.
She ate a late breakfast with her mother - her grandfather had already accompanied Ahoshta Tarkaan and the two royal wives back to the palace - and then spent a pleasant hour in her mother's house playing with the sleek, haughty cats her mother took in from the streets and spoiled with food and leisure. They lunged after the tip of a peacock feather that Shezan dangled near their paws, scrabbled to catch themselves after any falls, and washed themselves with studied unconcern as if to pretend they had never lost their dignity.
They were rather like the members of the court, Shezan thought, and reminded herself to relate that observation to her grandfather when next they spoke. He would appreciate it.
Regretfully, Shezan left the now-mangled feather for her mother's house slaves to dispose of and rode the smaller of the family palanquins up the hill to the temple complex. She dismissed the bearers at the gates, of course, since everyone navigated the temples on their own feet or not at all; it was disrespectful to the gods to do otherwise.
The sun had just begun its long slide down from zenith and the courtyards were bright and warm with the desert breeze. The gilded clock set in the gateway arch proclaimed that the sixth hour of day had come and gone and the seventh was fast approaching. The noon rituals should be done, then, and Shezan could confer with her colleagues about the beaver demon and the Spring Festival.
She should tell them about the bird demon. In fact, she was unsure why she hadn't already shared that information with either Nakdeh or her grandfather.
Shezan set out through the courtyards toward the temple of Soolyeh, lady of the sun and the growth of summer. When she arrived, she found the other three high priestesses already there and waiting for her: Deel Tolkheera, who served Zardeenah the Pure, Falna Tolkheera who served Soolyeh the Fair, and Izelichoor Tolkheera who served Nazreen the Wise. It never ceased to amuse Shezan that Deel was eldest of the three and Izelichoor barely two years older than Shezan herself, when symmetry with the goddesses they served should have it the other way around.
Falna did not live in the temple complex - she and her husband kept a household in the upper city - and so she had turned her private chambers into four receiving rooms, each decorated in the motif of a different season. The three priestesses were drinking honeyed coffee in the winter room, talking idly of the weather and the difficulty of keeping ice so near the desert. Falna looked up when an initiate led Shezan to the door and clapped to gain their attention.
"Ah, Shezan, did our message reach you?" Falna asked, setting her coffee down on an extravagant table inlaid with shards of white glass among ripples of blue, green, and violet, creating the effect of ice in a river. Falna was one of the temple orphans who had fought and maneuvered her way ever upward, and Shezan suspected that she surrounded herself with luxury in reaction to her impoverished origins - that or she simply loved color and texture and had no care for what her personal decorations cost. Either was possible. For all her surface approachability, Falna kept her thoughts tight within her hands.
Shezan shook her head, still crowned with the intricate braids and bells from last night. "No, I came on my own. What did you need me for?"
"To help us convince Nakdeh, before his next audience with the Tisroc (may he live forever), that while the sacrifice of the yearling bull can and should occur in the great temple as always, the sacrifice of the demon should occur in more neutral ground. The war against demons is the province of all the gods, not Tash alone," Falna said, her plump, smiling face gone hard and serious.
Izelichoor took up the thread as Falna paused for breath. "The great courtyard extending down the eastern steps is the best place," she said in her thin, bubbly voice, "as it faces all the temples except Zardeenah's and Achadith's, and it will be simple enough to set statues of the goddesses flanking the eastern doors to remind the crowd that all nine gods are watching. Deel has agreed to that compromise, as have our brother priests. If you add your voice we can face Nakdeh as one."
"What say you?" Deel finished.
The three high priestesses watched Shezan in silence, waiting for her answer.
Shezan thought of the bird demon and its complaint about windowless rooms. She also thought about Rabadash and his plot. For security of the sacrifice, it would be best to stay indoors at the altar of Tash. But for the security of the Tisroc's life (may it continue forever), it would be best to move into the open where any false move would be witnessed by several thousand people. Furthermore, Falna's point that the beaver demon's death should be dedicated to all the gods was well made.
"I say yes," she said.
Deel and Izelichoor smiled. Falna simply finished her coffee as if the outcome had never been in doubt. "Let us go pull Nakdeh's beard until he cries mercy," she said, and set her empty cup aside.
Shezan stepped aside to let the other women pass through the doorway, then followed, pausing only to snatch a handful of roasted garlic cloves and a piece of bread from the stained glass table, since it appeared she would get no time for lunch.
They wore Nakdeh down within an hour, and he promised to tell the Tisroc of the new plans for the Festival. Shezan returned to Achadith's temple and set about her paperwork with the satisfaction of a job well done. She led the initiates through the dusk invocation to the goddess, returned them to Muthori's care, and looked in on the beaver demon. It was paddling aimlessly in its porcelain tub, singing softly to itself like a lost and homesick child. No change there.
The demon glanced up upon hearing the door swing open, then pointedly turned its back on Shezan and chewed viciously on a stick of aspen wood.
"Would you like to talk?" Shezan heard herself asking.
The beaver demon whirled around in a splash of water and leaves, and stared. "What?"
"Never mind," Shezan said hastily, wondering what had come over her. Just because a demon sounded like one of the younger initiates was no reason to let herself be lulled into sympathy. It was an enemy of the gods and in four days it would die, as all enemies of the gods were fated to do.
She locked the door and returned to her rooms.
As she fell asleep, she realized she had forgotten, again, to tell anyone about the bird demon. Tomorrow, Shezan promised herself. Tomorrow she would do her duty.
She dreamed of Achadith's regard pressing heavy on her shoulders, the echoes of the goddess's heartrending voice lingering incomprehensibly in her ears.
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.