Fandom: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Notes: FINALLY DONE. I started writing this the day I came home from seeing PC at the cinema, and like most of my fics written for movies it became less a sensible narrative and more a complex scaffolding on which for me to display what I thought of the movie/Caspian's character/Narnia as a concept. I'm not quite sure what it is with me and second voice when it comes to male protagonists; I think the act of addressing them helps me settle into their thoughts.
This is based on movie canon. Ergo: everyone talks slightly less like they stepped out of an Enid Blyton Special, and Caspian is not nine years old. Susan was meant to have a lot more screentime but then my Caspian developed a raging crush on Peter as well, so I had to radically readjust what the emotional drive of this story was.
Enormous thanks are due to liminalliz, who looked over my first skeleton-draft and told me what needed to be fixed. Without her this would have been a much poorer story.
Final notes: yes, I nicked a line from Peter Pan. Yes, my Heaven is less creepy than everyone else's Heaven -- I had to do this so that I didn't depress myself into oblivion. The epigraph is from Viva la Vida, around which the heart of this was woven and written -- be my mirror, my sword and shield -- oh, who would ever want to be king? -- and the title is from The Last Battle.
one minute I held the key
next the walls were closed on me
and I discovered that my castles stand
upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand
You fall in love with Susan the moment you set eyes on her.
Twigs and rustling grass bend under your feet with a loudness that makes you want to wince, especially with the Narnians melting silently through the woods around you and Peter striding at your side as though he is merely out for an afternoon stroll. You grew up on stone streets and were taught to fear the wilderness; this is not your world, and these are not your people, and you are afraid that this uncertainty is branded on your face. You would have laughed if someone had told you, five days ago, that soon you would be hunted by your own family and at the head of an army of myths, grasping at memories of your lessons in battle strategy and trying to hold onto an authority that you don't actually possess.
And you wouldn't have minded handing over this authority to any king who walked out of Cornelius' histories, but the High King Peter is an angry adolescent who carries the battle-pitted sword of a much older man, and casts you occasional glances like those of the cook who has returned from the garden, only to find that you have knocked down the plates she spent all morning stacking.
Queen Susan's horn is a strange thing indeed.
"Why is it -- how is it -- that you were made young again?" you ask him, when the silence has become taut, and he frowns.
"Time is a strange thing, between the worlds." The vowels of the Narnian accent are still a novelty to you. For a moment it looks as though this is all Peter will say, but he bursts out with: "We saved Narnia once and now it turns out that we have to do it all over again, like we didn't do it properly last time. Like it's a exam. Or a jigsaw puzzle."
A puzzle. How very dignified.
"By all means, don't feel obliged," you snap. "I had not thought the kings and queens of old would grumble like fishwives at the prospect of taking back their kingdom, and that the determination should be left to someone who is not even Narnian."
"No, you're not, are you?" he says, and strides ahead of you, and both of your hands become silent fists.
"So you too will blame me for something that happened long before I was born."
"What d'you mean, me too?"
"You Narnians seem quick to cast blame and slow to accept help." You duck to one side to avoid a treebranch that whips back after he has stepped past it, and you wave your fingers at his back in a signal approximately as impolite and juvenile as flicking branches. "My people may have invaded your kingdom, but that is no reason to pretend that your people are perfect."
He stops and turns to glare at you, a boy's glare, even though his voice is cold and formal. "You'll forgive me for not being very glad to arrive in Narnia and find that everything we knew is gone, and my army is a group of fugitives led by a symbol of those who destroyed my home."
You glare back. "I will forgive you nothing. And I am not a symbol."
"This is Narnia," he says, turning away again. "Everything is a symbol."
You do not understand what he means until you walk beneath the line of the centaurs' swords, feeling clumsy and misplaced as you tread over the marks that the four of them have left in the dust.
King Edmund looks at you with more intentness than his brother, but less heat. He speaks little during the battle plans, but his suggestions are always pointed and good, and when the council breaks for a meal you sit next to him and offer him some water.
"Thanks." He takes a sip.
"I wish to ask you a question."
"Is it about Pete?"
It had been; you find something rare and cautioning and loyal in his expression, and change your mind in an instant. Which is perhaps why you let the next question out before you are quite aware of how badly you need to know the answer.
"What is it like, going to war?"
"There has been no need." Embarrassed, you take back the cup of water and busy yourself with its ripples.
"It's not glorious, you know." Edmund sighs. "All the chaps at school talk about duty, and doing their bit, but they don't talk about the real things. They know it's bad but they don't know all of it. Children sh-- don't know."
You swallow hard. "I'm afraid. Is that -- all right, for a king?"
Edmund snorts and nudges you. Some of the water spills onto your hands. "I nearly fainted, before my first battle. Nearly threw up afterwards. But you're too busy to do anything in between but keep your head steady and your sword moving."
You try to remember his advice, as your grand attempt at an attack goes from bad to worse, but Miraz smiles above your steel and admits to killing your father, and the steadiness of your head is lost in fury. It does make it easier, though, easier to set aside your heritage in the time it takes to lift your sword in defence against your own countrymen, creating an accidental echo of Susan's swift movements off to your left. Her bright eyes are full of the night and the line of her back makes your heart glow through your own fear.
"Queen Susan the Gentle," you smile, hoping to coax some amusement out of her in turn.
But Susan draws another arrow from her quiver and pulls the fletching to lie flush against her dirty cheek, unsmiling. "I detest war," she says as her arrow buries itself in the eye of a soldier.
In a very short time you agree with her whole-heartedly. This is not glory -- it is chaos. Your wrist hurts and you should probably be keeping track of the whole army but you are consumed with the need to keep yourself alive. A choking sound behind you and you turn to see Peter pulling his sword from the open-mouthed corpse of a man whose name you think you might be able to remember, given a little peace and little time, but whose own weapon was a hair's breadth away from striking you down.
"Welcome." Peter sucks in three fast breaths and gasps them out again, and then he pulls a tired smile from somewhere and lifts the bloodied tip of his sword in salute, and even though ghastly things are happening around you, you can't help but smile back, so maybe this is what it means to be a king.
But later, watching his face as he turns away from the screams and the rising gate, you realise that you were wrong: this is what it means to be a king, and this is why, when asked much later, you will declare yourself unready.
"Stop it!" shouts Edmund, and as Queen Lucy's cordial brings breath back into the chest of someone who almost died, your own wild urge to inflict pain is dulled.
Oh, you are fine leaders indeed, you and this boy who mirrors your shame on his fluid grieving face. Standing in Aslan's How slicing each other down with words, and with swords bared in anger against your own allies.
You watch the rise and fall of Trumpkin's chest and you think: no matter what it takes, I will bring us victory.
Though you will not realise it until later, you fall in love with Peter as you are lying sprawled and gasping on the floor of Aslan's dark hall, your ribs bruised and painful where he drove his shoulder into your body and broke the spell of desperate calm that the Witch's eyes were pulling over you.
He says, "Get away from him."
Which is why, even as Susan turns and leaves you wrapped in her reproach and standing knee-deep in your own guilt, even as Edmund wipes off his hands and slips away with a new peace in his face, it is to Peter that you feel your explanation is owed.
You swallow. Your throat is lined with the twin dusts of ash and ice. "I wouldn't -- I never wanted --"
"I understand." Peter looks shaken and very pale in the firelight. "I nearly...yes, I know. You're a better man than that."
And he holds out his hand; no sword, and no audience, just the two of you standing in the light that flickers upwards below the figure of the lion. A king's apology.
You call up the fear that grappled with desire in his face as he, too, stood motionless under the Witch's melting-frost voice, and something crumbles within you.
"Look, don't be offended," he says when your palm touches his own. "But I keep forgetting that you're still -- well, young."
Your mouth curves; you raise your eyebrows and Peter laughs, squeezing your hand before he releases it. "I know. It's a queer thing for me to say."
"Aslan returned you to your world and you were young again." Between Lucy's chatter and Edmund's silences, you are piecing their history together. "I cannot think how strange that must have been."
Peter presses the tips of his fingers to his forehead, as though the memory can be reached more easily that way, and one blue eye hooks yours from beneath the angle of his hand.
"It's hard to explain. Maybe -- imagine you wake up and discover that you're five years old. And it's not just that you're small again, or that you're suddenly rubbish at things like fighting or dancing, it's that you have to pretend to be five years old. For the sake of the people who love you, you have to act as though you've never ridden a horse, or wielded a sword, or expressed your opinion knowing that it will be listened to. So you learn all over again what it means to be so young, how you're expected to act -- you pretend as hard as you possibly can, but you don't want to pretend, and you don't want to sleep, because every night you're afraid that you'll wake up having forgotten everything you knew and everything you loved. That one day you'll have pretended so long that you'll just be a kid again, truly."
His voice is loud and lonely against the crackle of oil-flame, and the idea is too large; too terrible.
"That sounds like it might be easier," you venture. "Forgetting."
"Oh, it would be. Susan knows that; Susan's the sensible one." He smiles, not quite sounding amused. "But if we forget, then it doesn't mean anything, does it? Everything we did and everything that was done in our name. Everyone who died because of my mistakes." He turns his face to you, and in his eyes is the rising shadow of the castle gate. "Mistakes like the one at the castle. I've made them before -- made worse ones, back when I was younger than you. People died, and I learned. I can't let myself forget that."
You stare at the ground and find a smile on your lips that you are almost afraid to show him in case he misinterprets your self-mockery as something cruel. "And I thought my life was hard."
"Well, you know." Now he sounds awkward. "I've got Su, and Edmund and Lucy. It's hard for all of us. You've just got -- you."
You don't know what to say to that; if it would be more polite to accept his sympathy or to try to explain that you never really thought of what your life might have been like if your parents have lived; that such contemplation is not the Telmarine way. So you stay silent.
"About what happened," Peter says finally, and you look up. "During the attack."
"I don't --"
"I think...I needed it to be perfect. I needed to prove to myself that I hadn't forgotten how to be -- you know."
"Older than five."
A short smile. "Exactly."
"I'm sorry." Without the anger that followed his first accusation, coming as it did in the midst of your exhaustion and raw horror and grief, you see things more clearly. And the fault is yours, at least in part. The plan was sound.
"No. I'm sorry. Your father…I understand why you needed to know. Family is important."
He lifts his chin and looks like Susan; he brushes back his hair and you see a flash of Edmund. In the face of his fierce despair you can do little more than show him your own.
"I am not a king, Peter."
"You'll learn," he says, and moves so that his shoulder is steady and warm against your own.
Lucy grins down at you with a pure-hearted confidence that lifts your spirits. Susan sits with her back erect and her fingers clasping the reins with practiced ease; you want to tell her that she has the gentle fire of a Telmarine woman, but you suspect she may not take it as the great compliment that you intend. Telmarines are her enemies, the invaders of her kingdom.
Your hand falls from the saddle.
By the time you return to the field, thanking the gods of your childhood -- and, feeling something of an intruder, thanking the Narnian Lion as well -- that your instincts made you follow the Queens into the forest, the duel is hard underway. The sudden blaze in Peter's face as his sister slides off your horse lets you realise that you have just, unknowingly, given him thanks enough for the task he is undertaking for you. You are still warm with the press of Susan's body against yours and the image of her standing amongst the leaves with her hands and arrows creating a deadly flicker. For a moment the urge to hold her again is so large that it wipes out everything else, and then she turns with a tight frown to watch her brother, and you hurriedly find your focus. War. The duel. Your uncle. And Peter, who is a quick gash of vivid red against the landscape.
To your eye he and Miraz are matched but for the fact that Peter is fighting for far, far more than his own skin.
To your eye, this is why Peter wins.
Miraz says, "Perhaps you have the makings of a Telmarine king after all."
It's transparent. But that does not render it any less true.
The sword drives into the ground, the force shuddering up your shoulders and down your back, and you wonder if Peter will be angry at you for wasting his gift.
Susan meets your eyes and her smile is faint but bright, like starlight at dawn.
Someone has removed the ragged curtains from around your bed. It's only to be expected, of course -- you never really thought that such blatant evidence of assassination would be left hanging, not even by someone as arrogant as Miraz -- but the last glimpse you had of this room was a backwards glance in the midst of panic, and the shreds of the curtain created savage shadows in a room which had been a haven since childhood, and something about it helped you to run without hesitation. So the image remained. And so you pause in the doorway and are surprised, if only for a moment, not to see those shadows again.
"Was this your room? It doesn't look very cheerful." The Queen Lucy wrinkles her nose. She's right, and she is made even more so by the contrast that she herself creates. The dress she has found is a speck of springtime in the severe corridors of this palace.
"I'll open some windows," you laugh.
The idea of choosing another room doesn't occur to you until someone awkwardly offers to show you your uncle's chambers, and your hand recoils from the door. You leave it closed. The palace is alive with confusion and celebration, politics and renewal, and your feet keep leading you back to your old room through dint of habit, even when your thoughts are far away.
Susan's room faces west, and both Lucy and Peter choose rooms with wide views of the land, but you can never find out where Edmund sleeps because he seems to spend every hour of the day and night either talking to five people at once or flicking through Cornelius' books. It takes you a while to adjust to their peacetime presence in the architecture of your past; you had only just become accustomed to seeing them as warriors, and now they are walking the corridors of this palace as though they are remembering how to breathe. Within a couple of days their speech is more Narnian, their manner more assured, and even Susan is laughing freely. You find yourself watching her, startled, searching for hints of battle-hardness in this girl who likes to wind pearls through her hair and who sits for hours with her eyes on the horizon and a strange, wistful hunger on her face. You feel a kinship with that longing of hers, feel something inside you reflecting it like a shield turned to the sun and set ablaze, and so you seek it out.
"Am I intruding?"
"Not at all." Her back is straight and does not touch the chair. She sets a slender brush down on the table. "I was just passing the time."
Over her shoulder you gaze down at the beginnings of a painting which looks nothing like the view from the window, but is instead a silhouette which you recognise from another picture, in a book shown to you long ago. Cair Paravel in shades of orange and gold; just an outline, as though it were being viewed through water, but beautiful.
"You have great skill," you say honestly.
"Yes." Her lips press together above the page. "Everyone in -- at home is amazed at how skillful I became in such a short time."
If there is an appropriate response to that -- something witty, or even something socially harmless -- then it is beyond your grasp. She isn't looking at you, so perhaps she doesn’t expect one; you sit carefully down on a rug that is woven in a pattern of grapes and ivy, and lean against the padded leg of a chair.
"I used to paint sunsets sometimes," she says, just as you have become convinced that the conversation is over. "For Peter. Whenever I was somewhere new, or he was somewhere else. "
When you glance at her, thinking about her west-facing windows, there is a fleeting moment in which her eyes are ancient and her smile is girlish -- but then it is as though she has turned a key in a lock, and then the conversation is over. But you find that you do not mind; Susan the Gentle has a composure about her that demands nothing from you, nothing like the same itch of instinct to engage that Peter sparks. You did not have to fight your way into loving Susan: it was easy. You wonder that any man can lay eyes on her and not find loving her to be as easy as the action itself.
With your head against a cushion you watch the slow artistry of Susan's hands, finding peace in her presence, listening to the half-songs she creates and destroys under her breath.
"Not one like you."
"What was that?"
Edmund moves closer and leans against the banister. "Sorry, that was clumsy. You said, not one like you. To Miraz."
"I didn't think you heard."
He moves from foot to foot, clearly indecisive, and then his weight settles and he smiles. "I knew some excellent Telmarines, a long time ago. We know you're not all like Miraz, you know."
You didn't know. Something of your gratitude must show, because Edmund looks slightly embarrassed, but he taps his fingers against the wood and keeps smiling at you. "Tell me about your people, Caspian."
So you do. You tell him about their good traditions and their ancient honour, their tapestries and the skill of their metal-workers, and their pride in propriety. You tell him about the rulers who won respect and whose blood you were proud, for most of your life, to share.
"Good," Edmund says, when you pause. "Now forget that you are a Telmarine."
Your head snaps up. "What?"
"I'm serious, Caspian. And I'm sorry, but you're going to have to become pure Narnian, or you're going to have more than the safe amount of unquiet talk. Let your people keep their crafts and their histories, but make sure they learn new ones as well. You're going to be far more than a king of Men. D'you understand?" He rubs at his neck and ducks a look up at you, all solemnity. "This is important. You've given the Narnians back their kingdom: now you have to show them that you will rule it in the way that it should be ruled. For the centaurs, and the dwarves, and the talking beasts, and the dryads, and every kind of person."
He gestures into the hall below, where Peter is mingling with some kind of loose council of fauns, and you follow the line of his hand.
"What is he doing?"
"Laying some groundwork." Edmund laces his hands together on the banister and looks down, his eyes darting from figure to figure with a sharpness of comprehension that makes you feel awkward.
"I'm afraid I lack a head for statecraft."
"Nonsense." He turns the smile back upon you, suddenly boyish. These quick transitions of character still make you blink. "You've got exactly the same head as Pete: one that people will follow. And he had even less idea of how to rule a kingdom than you did, when we began. Be the kind of king that people will die for, and the rest is just surrounding yourself with clever people and listening to what they say."
You laugh to hide the echo of Peter's voice in your head, telling you about death and mistakes. "I don't suppose you could write some of this down for me?"
"I could. I mean, I did." He turns away again, smile slipping. "Pity that Cair Paravel's library is probably rotting under a yard of dirt and grass, or I'd find my book for you."
"You could write it again."
"Ha. No, I probably couldn't remember much more than the dedication."
"And what was that?"
This time his smile is true. "For the Valiant."
For a while you are silent, following the glint of fractured sunlight off Peter's hair as he moves around the room below, and then you turn to look at Edmund. "What do I need to know?"
Over the next few days you learn that your political education, which you had thought to be thorough, was in fact woefully inadequate; some of this is almost certainly due to the fact that your uncle never intended for you to take the throne at all, and so clipped your wings by limiting your knowledge, but some of it is because Edmund was right: Narnians cannot be ruled by a Telmarine. Narnians must be ruled by a Narnian, and a Narnian must know things that no Telmarine could ever have dreamed of, rites and festivals and magics and ancient laws. Edmund and Peter are very helpful and very patient and by the day before your coronation your head feels almost like it will shatter with the weight of hasty teachings.
Lucy finds you sitting in the dining room as people dart around you, laying down plates and cutlery and baskets of bright flowers, and she pulls up a chair so that her small chin is resting comfortably on her hands.
"Good evening, your Majesty," you greet her.
"Good evening, Caspian." She turns her head with a smile that is serene, albeit not a little impish. "I hear Ed and Pete have been trying to kill you with politics."
You laugh and admit, "It feels a little like that, at times. But I am grateful."
"You'll be fine," she says with that same simple confidence, the one that warms you. "Just remember to have fun sometimes. Aslan doesn't make a person a king or a queen because he wants them to stop having fun. Oh, Edmund!"
She leaps up and dashes across the room in a swirl of green fabric, and you smile as she takes her brother's hand and rises on her toes to share some piece of private humour. Susan and Peter follow, walking just as close to one another, and for a short moment -- looking at the four of them -- your heart stills in a selfish kind of sorrow.
Susan smiles at you as you pull her chair out, and you wonder if she too will have some piece of advice to impart, but she just smoothes her skirts across her lap and shakes out her napkin with a graceful flick that reminds you of the way she releases her bowstring.
You have never seen a Telmarine coronation, but a Narnian one is much shorter than you expected it might be, and includes more laughter. The crown settles on your head and you stand; Peter smiles as he stretches up to kiss you on one cheek and then the other.
"It's heavy," you whisper into his ear, plaintive and daring.
"Stop whining, your Majesty," he murmurs back, and gives a flash of a grin for your eyes alone, and then you turn as one to face the crowd's cheers.
"Caspian." By the look on Lucy's face when you turn to her, she has been trying to gain your attention for a while. "Are you going to ask me to dance some time within the next year?"
You blink in surprise, and Edmund laughs.
"Don't worry," he says. "You're one in a long line of noblemen to be taken aback by my sister's efficiency in selecting her dancing partners."
You've noticed them slipping into these forms of address, shifting from the diminutives into the more formal use of sibling titles. What little you have learned of politics allows you to appreciate the power of these habits, the continual reminder that they are in themselves an unbreakable alliance, but Edmund does not say my sister as though he is making a point; he says it with warmth, and with a teasing smile. Family is important, in Telmar as in Narnia, but to these four people family is everything.
Edmund kicks your leg under the table and you stand with more haste than grace, extending your hand. "Queen Lucy, would you care to dance? I'm afraid you will have to show me the steps."
Lucy grins and takes your hand in both of hers, her dark hair shining against the blue of her dress, which is the blue of the summer sky just as twilight starts to fall. "That's all right," she says. "There aren't really any."
This is certainly the most chaotic ball you've ever been to. The general noise of talk and cheers and laughter sometimes threatens to overshadow the music; a group of talking mice is dancing on a table nearby, their tails linked to stop them from falling off; there are stars above your head and lanterns hung all around the expanse of the courtyard, and the crowd spills out into the open grounds of the palace, where centaurs and fauns and dryads and all manner of Narnians are celebrating your coronation.
Dancing with Lucy is something akin to a race without a clear winner, and you are driven by her energy and her infectious laughter and the way you find yourself able to relax into the dance, put your responsibilities aside and simply enjoy this time when no conversations or decisions are expected of you. Lucy ducks under your arm and snatches your hands again and her feet move against the swept stone as though she is barefoot on grass. When you swing her to a halt, to the dying chords of the song, wild orange light is reflected in her eyes and she seems taller, stronger, a creature of the breeze that tastes your skin and the trees that adorn the horizon. You blink and it's gone, so perhaps it was the wine and your own breathlessness, but perhaps not. This is Narnia, after all, and though you haven't seen Aslan for hours you already know enough to recognise his breath, even when it is hidden on the edge of the wind.
"That was fun!"
"Indeed it was." You nod the rest of your agreement, still catching your breath.
"You're going to be a great king, Caspian." Lucy squeezes your hand, and it looks as though she might say something else, but she is interrupted by a pointed cough from the vicinity of your knees.
"If your Majesty would do me the honour?" Reepicheep sweeps an elegant bow in Lucy's direction, and she giggles and curtseys low.
"I'd love to. Caspian, why don't you -- Su! Su!" Off to your right, Susan excuses herself from a conversation and takes the few steps required for Lucy to say, "Caspian, why don't you ask my sister to dance?"
You and Susan inhale in the same instant. "You -- you don’t have to," you hear yourself saying. "If you don't want --"
"Oh." Susan's voice is cool and poised, but her shoulders rise by the slightest amount, and you could hit yourself.
"But I would be delighted," you hasten onwards, "if you would."
When you straighten up from the bow, one of her hands is already in yours, and the other is looping her skirts. It seems that she expects you to lead, and so you begin one of the old court dances that your body remembers without effort; it doesn't suit the music as well as Lucy's careless improvisation, but there's a steady rhythm and the two of you fall into it.
"How are you enjoying your coronation ball, my lord Caspian?"
"Very well, so far."
She nods and adjusts her hand where it lies against your shoulder, a picture of elegance and diplomacy. You have the awkward residual feeling that you are a foreigner intruding upon her court, that she has danced with a thousand men and she could despise you and you wouldn't know it, because of her ability to control the face that she presents to the world. But then she glances down and looks, just for a second, as awkward as you feel. Blood heating her cheeks.
You pull back a little, keeping hold of her hand and her waist but granting her some distance, and she looks back up at you with a transparent gratitude that is in one sense more beautiful than every practiced movement of her wrist or toss of her hair.
Someone is singing above the music, without words. The rhythm to which you are forcing your steps fades into the melody and so you slow to a pause. You are barely touching Susan at all but she holds your gaze with that same clear emotion and you feel closer to her than ever have before.
"I'd like to cut in."
There are years of authority in Peter's tone, years of being obeyed, and a large part of you rebels against it instantly and wants to sweep Susan to the other side of the courtyard simply to be contrary. But Peter is looking at you and the challenge is plain on his face, so you laugh instead. This isn't a night for conflict.
It is impossible to say who moves first, if Susan's hand leaves yours or if Peter takes it himself or if there is a moment where you are placing Susan's fingers across her brother's and all three of you are in contact. The music leaps into life again and you lean against the nearest wall, enjoying the coolness of the stone against your back, and watch them. The thread of Peter's tunic catches the light of the lanterns just as brightly Lucy's eyes, creating thin patterns of molten gold against the black velvet and a gorgeous backdrop for Susan's dress. Every time she spins the fabric reveals another shade between orange and red, another vivid sunset pigment melting into the firelight.
It is closer to dawn than midnight and the noise of the party is finally dwindling when Peter finds you feeding the blaze that some thoughtful servant has kept alive in your grate.
"Sleep well, King of Narnia." He taps his knuckles against your doorframe, an idle and belated announcement of his own presence, and turns as if to leave.
"Wait. Come in."
He raises his eyebrows but does as you ask, and you stand up after shoving one more log, which throws dancing sparks into the air, onto the fire. Perhaps you are misinterpreting things, but you would not have him go to bed thinking any ill of you.
"What is it?"
"About -- Susan," and his face changes as you say her name. "I wish you to know that my intentions are --" Are what? In honesty, you have no idea. You barely know her. You loved her after an instant. You do not want her to walk out of your life with the same abruptness that she entered it. "I would die before doing her dishonour," you say, as gravely as you can. That, at least, is true. "And as she does not seem overfond of me, I doubt you have any cause to worry."
"She does." A smile lifts Peter's lips, one side at a time. "I know her. She likes you a lot."
"You think so?"
He laughs at your eagerness. "None of us ever married, you know," he says then. "I think…Aslan knew there were some things that children shouldn't remember."
"What do you mean?"
"Isn't it a bit odd, the fact that two Kings and two Queens grew to adulthood, a single generation of rulers of a great power, and not one of them ever thought to produce an heir?" He sighs, noiselessly, through his wry smile. "I suppose we should have recognised how strange it was, but one didn't think that way. Aslan had given us everything -- why should we have suspected that he had planned all along to snatch it back?"
This is deeper water than you were expecting. Before you can even begin to think of a politic response, Peter shrugs.
"The point is...no man has ever come between my sister Susan and myself. Not in any true sense."
"You love your family very much." You struggle, with all the democracy Edmund has been instilling in you, to keep your jealousy from becoming audible. My sister and my brother and that easy intimacy at the heart of the words.
Peter doesn’t answer directly. He seems to hesitate, and then lifts his hand to your shoulder, the same shoulder where Susan's hand rested less than an hour ago. "I would have liked to meet your father. He must have been a good man, to produce such a son as you." His hand tightens. "You -- are not Miraz."
Lucy told you of the ruins of Cair Paravel and yet here Peter stands, giving honour to a man who from his point of view was little more than a pretender to a stolen throne, with that fierce expression on his face -- pride and certainty and something more private -- and for a moment you can't decide if you are a tower embedded in the rock or if a breeze off the ocean could knock you over. This is the king you hoped for when you closed your eyes and poured your desperation into an ancient horn, and just as Susan's longing resonates within some part of you, so too do you feel your own pride swelling upwards to match Peter's. Pride, and an immense gratitude, and before you can think you kneel down before the High King. There is no crown on your head, and no ceremony to carry you forth, but you reach for his hand and kiss his knuckles; too simple an action for the breadth of what you are feeling, but it will suffice.
"Caspian," he says.
It is not the first time he has said your name without the sharpness of anger or the urgent roar of the battlefield, but the word is soft and uneven and so for a moment it doesn't sound like him at all. You glance upwards and are shocked by the age that has fallen over his face.
"By the Lion's Mane, Caspian. Stand up."
But something keeps you on your knees, your fingers feeling the red blisters that have formed on Peter's hand. It seems wrong; every other man you have known who can wield a blade with his skill has had the warrior-stamp of callouses along his fingers and palms.
"Stop that. Caspian." Your name, again, as though by naming you three times he can bind you to his will like in the oldest stories. The sound of it is like a curious finger pressed against a bruise: it hurts, but you push down despite yourself.
"I don't think I want to stop." You are not holding his hand so very tightly; if he wished to, he could pull it away.
"Please." Something in his voice, now, something smooth and wretched. "I can't -- I can't have you, do you understand? This isn't my world any more. And you can't -- Susan and I, we're stories to you. Peter the Magnificent and his sister, the most beautiful woman in this or any other land." He exhales in a puff, suddenly looking younger again. "I thought that might be what you wanted from her."
"Then you do me dishonour," you say, and you seize his hand tighter and pull yourself upright and close. "Because I have fought by your sides and you are both of you far more than stories." On impulse you kiss his cheeks, the one and then the other, a gesture still alien to you but one of which you find yourself growing fond. When you pull away he looks even more uncertain, the gap between his lips a sliver of heady doubt, and he lifts his free hand to touch on your own face the place where a kiss might fall, if he were to return the greeting.
It's true that none of Cornelius' stories could have prepared you for how you feel in this moment. Nothing you have experienced has ever been like this: Peter's thoughtful face tilted and his breath almost audible, his fingers against your cheek, as though he is remembering something.
"Narnia may not be your world any longer," you say, tasting your thoughts, held frozen by the sheer complexity of what you are feeling. "But I know of an army and a summoning horn that tell me you still belong to Narnia."
"Yes," Peter says, almost a sigh, "I think that might be the problem," and just as you are about to ask what the problem is, something releases in his face and he is so beautiful that your breath slips from your mouth and is caught by his own, pressing close and firm and as new as everything else that these past few days have brought you, but better.
Telmarine society has invisible lines, defining the proper spaces of partnership and duty, that fall on either side of this, whatever it is; from what little you have heard of their world, you suspect that its lines are ruled in a similar pattern. But Peter is unhesitant and generous with his kisses, and you remember the sure curve of his arm around Susan's waist as they danced. You wonder if this is Narnia, the heart of it: a truth so vast and so powerful that it exists outside of convention and restriction. A truth wherein all that matters is that you love, and love well.
Some part of your mind is still dividing Peter into his dichotomies, the authority of his hand at the angle of your jaw set against your own knowledge of his age, set against the sounds he makes when your teeth scrape his lips: low sounds, lion sounds, chords of promise and threat that tighten your stomach and quicken your breath.
When he pulls away -- is it him? or is it you? -- his eyes are wide and now, now he looks truly young. He swallows and your gaze finds the hollow of his throat, the boundary of skin and black fabric, and for a fleeting moment you feel dizzy.
"Peter," you say, hopeless, praying that he knows what comes next.
"Don't," he whispers then. "No more. I can't -- keep any of this."
His hand is still against your cheek, and it lingers there a final moment before he exhales and takes a step backwards. Disappointment trickles through you, but passes after an instant; it doesn't seem appropriate. A smile breaks Peter's face into soft lines, and he bows a little, from the waist.
"Goodnight, my lord Caspian."
"Goodnight, your Majesty."
And that is where you leave it: with titles, and silent agreement, and the warmth of his smile still tingling on your lips.
The sun is shining as Aslan looks at Lucy and says, "Your brother and sister have learned all they can from this world."
Your hand clenches by your side and you release it immediately, but not before you can think: is this, then, the fate of Narnia? To shape the characters of the people of another world, and in all other times to be left to fend for itself?
Peter saying, People died, and I learned.
Two kings and two queens reigning heirless for the sake of the children they once were and would be again; two kings and two queens disappearing with no trace and leaving their country crippled with grief and disorder.
And now this.
You think: this world has not yet learned all it can from them. But you recognise, with a twinge of shame, that the anger you are feeling is on your own behalf and not Narnia's. Such a noble start to your reign.
Do you want your uncle's blood? Nikabrik asked. Do you want your throne?
But it's Peter who gives you the both of them, in the end, simply by turning his sword and offering you the hilt with the golden lion atop it. Once on a battlefield and once in farewell, and both times you hold his gaze in gratitude and in shared awareness of the crowd below. Everything is a symbol. You're learning.
Peter hands you his sword and Susan kisses you, and only their belief in your own unselfishness keeps you from throwing away your heavy crown and following them into their world, where wars are not fought by children and where Susan sits alone and Peter needs someone to remind him that he is and was and will always be magnificent.
When no trace of them remains beneath the uneven arch of the tree, you exhale. Aslan steps closer to you.
"Have courage, noble king," he murmurs, and his breath is bittersweet and warm against your face.
You tighten your grip on Peter's sword and then you turn to your people and show them your smile; the kings and queens of old have taught you this much, at least.
A noble contradiction, Cornelius said, and your nobility is certainly stretched to the limit when it comes to your new life, a Narnian King born to the Telmarine throne and ruling over a mixture of the two. In Cornelius' library you find, after careful searching, some extracts from the writings of King Edmund the Just. Not the whole book, but enough for you to smile as you throw wood onto the fire and read late into the night, finding hints of the boy you knew in the voice of the man whose intelligence and political cunning shines through every paragraph.
And yet nothing can match the advice he gave you face-to-face, in the brief moments that Aslan allowed you: you surround yourself with clever people and listen to what they have to say, and you learn the Narnian ways until they sing between the two sounds that your heart makes. There are weeks when you cannot sleep for the worry that consumes your mind; there are weeks when you could collapse and sleep for days but instead you force yourself to read and write and reason until dawn touches your eyes. You make war. You make mistakes, and you learn, and Narnia's wild magic seeps into your bones. There are more nights of starlight and laughter, there are warnings of witchcraft and giants stirring in the north, and somewhere between the two you are learning to be a king.
Aslan is there at the beginning, but less and less as time passes.
You learn not to depend on him.
Lucy is a joy and a lioness; Edmund is clever and brave and in every way the kind of counselor, and brother, that you have often wished for. But they are not their siblings. You stare across the waves and think, as you have not done for many months, about the wind sweeping through Susan's hair as she rode behind you, and about Peter's sad wonderful eyes as his hand fell from your cheek.
Edmund joins you and, after a moment, bumps your shoulder with his. Your wooden cup jostles a little and spills -- fresh water over your fingers, falling into the salt. "They're adjusting."
You consider pretending, but there seems little point to it.
"That is good to hear."
"I hope that when Aslan tells me it's my turn to leave I can do it with so much -- well --"
"Grace," you say, watching your knuckles turn sea-foam white against the wood.
"Yes," Edmund says, and he sounds far too knowing; you can't meet his eyes. "Grace."
Hanging on your cabin wall, Aslan shakes his mane and the warmth of spring floods your cheeks. Once he has shamed you into silence, his face gentles. "There will be other and greater adventures to come, Caspian of Narnia."
Your feet are flat on the wood but you are rocked by a force greater than any tide or sea-storm -- how did you reach this point, how have you slipped so far backwards from the man you are trying to become? To make demands of the Lion like a petulant child, to once again hold your own desires higher than what is best for Narnia.
But you know where your juvenile instincts come from; you remember the last time you were given friends and had them snatched away again. You remember wanting to follow them anywhere. You would lie down upon the deck, scream your lungs out and beat your fists if you thought there was any chance that Edmund and Lucy might be able to stay, but it's useless: Narnia is their transient teacher just as England's sons and daughters have always been yours, and if they can learn to handle the transience then you can as well.
Why should we have suspected that he had planned all along to snatch it back?
But this is Aslan, and this is his world, and there is no argument to be made. Your breath is foreign and difficult in your throat but you force it all out, your heartbeat fades from your ears and all of a sudden you find yourself calm; tired, and deeply sad, but calm.
"Yes," you say.
After the farewells you turn the Dawn Treader and sail towards a girl who has Susan's smile and Peter's golden hair and a delicate charm that is entirely her own, and for which you felt an overwhelming rush of gratitude when you first laid eyes on her -- both to the girl herself and to whatever miracle allowed your heart to expand again and find joy in the presence of yet another person. You take her hand in yours and it feels like a sunrise. It feels like a reward.
Aslan is right, of course.
To live is a great adventure.
Death, on the other hand, is an unstiffening.
Some time passes in Aslan's Country, perhaps a lot and perhaps none at all, and then there is a crowd at the gates and horn music singing in your ears and someone's palm finds yours.
"King Caspian the Seafarer, I presume."
Peter is exactly as you remember him, only more so. He grips your hand tightly and laughs at your surprise, he kisses your cheeks and says, "There, now, you see how odd it is?"
"Being young again, having lived so long."
Peter's face glows with humour and with that effortless golden authority that in your lifetime you strived always to achieve, and you laugh in turn. "I do not think many things could seem strange to me, in this place."
"Perhaps not. Hang on, I think Lu's calling me," and then he's gone and there are new people to greet. What's strange is that by the time Peter finds you again you have remembered how to miss someone, even though it is little more than a soft tugging, and you turn away from watching the horizon with a question on your lips.
The set of Peter's mouth tells you that he has been hearing this question since his arrival, and he is no fonder of his own answer.
"No," he says quietly. "Not -- not yet, at any rate. But I can't imagine. I mean. Aslan wouldn't." He smiles again, finally, and the peace of the Country is in it. "Once a King or Queen of Narnia, you know."
"Time is a strange thing, between the worlds. It could be hundreds of years before she arrives." You search his face and find, behind the serenity of his smile, the lord to whom you owe your allegiance, and the man to whom you have freely given your heart. This is no longer complex. It is the simplest thing in the world.
"And it could be ten minutes," Peter says, and rests his forehead against yours for a moment. "In the meantime, my lord Caspian, I think I saw some new mountains just beyond the edge of Ettinsmuir. Do you feel up to an adventure?"