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The Case of the Descending Debutante

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If you were to be stuck in the dull, stuffy house of an equally dull and stuffy relative for the entire summer holidays -- a fate which Edmund Pevensie would not wish on his worst enemy, and he had enemies -- Harold's and Alberta's house was exactly the worst sort of house to be pent up in. All of the furniture had fussy uncomfortable covers to keep it from getting dust on, and all the pictures on the walls were ugly smudgy rectangles, and all of the food was boiled. Edmund couldn't talk to his aunt and uncle because he couldn't bear to call them Harold and Alberta and couldn't quite get his nerve up to call them hey, you; he couldn't talk to his sister because Lucy was quite literally bouncing off the walls and it was impossible to get a word in edgeways; and he couldn't talk to his cousin because Eustace was, in plain speech, a dreadful prat.

Well. Perhaps not so much a dreadful prat lately. But these transitions take time, and Eustace Clarence Scrubb was showing, at best, the first signs of transforming himself into a rather halfway decent prat. The pratness itself, tragically, seemed to be permanent, and probably congenital.

Edmund had at first resorted to his usual habit of plundering his hosts' bookshelves for reading material. He knew, of course, that the trick to finding the interesting books was generally to look behind the rows of books on the shelves, and see what had been shoved back there; but Harold and Alberta were Modern and Open-Minded and so all their books were lined up neatly on the butcher paper with their spines facing outwards, even the ones with sex in them. (These last were, in fact, the dullest of all, Edmund found, not to mention entirely implausible, mechanically speaking. He didn't think the authors had done any research at all.)

Eventually even Edmund had to give up on the books, which had been his last source of hope for some time. None of them had stories in them, and all of them had their dust jackets still, and too many had their pages still uncut. Their titles were dull abstract things like Testament of Youth and Ends and Means, and their subtitles were long dragging affairs that turned you round and about and put you down more confused than you were when you started. It was repulsive.

"Just as the last three times, I agree," Lucy announced cheerily, scaling the doorframe. Edmund threw himself down full length on his bed and sighed dramatically. He'd hoped to sleep in late enough to miss at least half of today's portion of boredom and irritation, but Lucy and Eustace had apparently chosen to deal with their own boredom by bothering him. It was awful -- his cousin was impossibly tiresome -- and the whole matter might have been bearable were Lucy not so inhumanly charitable.

"No, Eustace," she was saying patiently, swinging from the lintel and eyeing the chandelier, "I don't think your schoolmistress is a German spy."

Edmund thumped his head softly against the bed-frame and wished desperately to be anywhere but here. Eustace just frowned and scribbled in his "field notebook" (it was, as Edmund had pointed out repeatedly, just a notebook). "She speaks German, though, I heard her," Eustace was insisting.

"She's Dutch, Eustace."

Lucy's voice was piercing. Edmund felt like he had a hangover, even though he wouldn't be able to drink for years, which was bloody unfair. He buried his head in the (stupid, scratchy, decorative) throw pillow and declined Latin verbs in his head to try not to listen. Amo, amas, amat, why was Eustace such a prat? Amamus, amatus, amant, how was it that ten years of Beasts and Birds had never come close to being this annoying? He was trying not to be a rotter -- a blind mole could see that -- but, by the Lion's Mane, there was such a thing as trying too hard.

Before the Suspicious Schoolmistress (as Eustace titled the case in his journal, which was kept in a pathetically obvious hiding place and in a pathetically obvious code), there had been the Punctilious Postman, and the Rotten Radishes, and the Dubiously Dead Man, and before that the Dogeared Diary. And before that had been the Largish Lizard, which even Eustace didn't so much like to talk about.

(Edmund had nightmares about that one.)

So, all things taken into account, it really wasn't Edmund's fault that he took so long to take an interest in the Case of the Pacifist Parents.

The beginning of it wasn't particularly auspicious. Eustace leaned across the tea-table, upsetting his teacup, to announce loudly but with a conspiratorial sort of manner, "I think Harold and Alberta are members of a secret society!"

Edmund set down his fork and contemplated his dining companions. His aunt and uncle were ignoring the small commotion to indulge in the peculiarly confident philosophizing common to the under-educated. Lucy had somehow obtained two -- no, three -- knives, and was disemboweling her bread and butter with a terrifying intensity.

His problem, then. "Don't let your mouth run when your brain's on hols, Eustace," Edmund said, with the kindly manner of one giving counsel to his lessers.

"They're always getting brown paper packages," Eustace continued, apparently under the impression that Edmund had invited him to continue with this train of thought, "and everyone knows that brown paper packages are how you smuggle things if you want to look Inconspicuous. And envelopes with no return address -- and sometimes they talk to the postman."

"We covered the postman issue some time ago," Edmund pointed out, inwardly grieving the biscuits. His appetite was ruined; he couldn't possibly give them the appreciation they deserved.

Lucy was evidently thinking in the same direction, because she dropped the knives she had begun juggling with a clatter, sung out "may-I-be-excused-thank-you-bye," and slipped out to the garden. Traitor.

"And," (was Eustace still talking?) "they have Meetings with Lowered Voices -- and Alberta's cheque-book doesn't balance, I did the sums twice."

"That's rubbish, Eustace."

Eustace nodded wisely. "I thought it might be -- like the Rotten Radishes, you know. But then this morning I saw a cat, and I just know -- I just know Aslan is speaking to me. Aslan!"

Edmund broke the teapot. "Well," he said. "Look at that. Terribly sorry. I suppose I must go change my trousers now."

"But Aslan," Eustace whined after Edmund's retreating, tea-soaked rear end, and began to sop up the tea puddle with the corner of his sleeve.

That was that for the moment as far as Edmund was concerned, mostly thanks to the barricade he built inside the door of the guest room over the next half hour. It was a miracle of engineering if he did say so himself, composed of the bed-frame and desk and a mostly dismantled lamp, and the mattress to reduce impact, and most of the bedclothes tied round the doorknob for torque. And the window-box Victory Garden on top. Because it looked better that way.

Alberta, who had apparently grown more or less accustomed to the Pevensies, nudged the door open a crack three times a day and passed dry rations to Edmund, which suited him well enough; and Lucy did the same with books, slightly more often. (Edmund was a voracious reader.) Eustace could be spotted trying to scale the wall to the tiny window a handful of times, but was (unsurprisingly) incompetent.

The detente lasted until Wednesday evening, when Edmund heard a scuffle outside followed by a dull thump against the door (Eustace's head) and then a series of sharper raps (Lucy's knuckles).

Edmund jammed a sharp pencil through the keyhole, drew blood (Eustace's), and in the ensuing silence began to reinforce the barricade, because he was not an idiot.

About half an hour after that, there was another set of miscellaneous noises -- from above, this time -- followed by a Lucy, covered in plaster dust, plummeting straight through the ceiling with a mighty din and landing on all fours like a cat.

"Aah!" said Edmund, articulately.

"Hi!" Eustace called from above, sounding not at all dismayed at the wanton destruction of property. "Want to come investigate a Conspiracy?"

"Aah," said Edmund again, in a more considered tone this time. Then, brushing plaster dust from his hair: "--a conspiracy? Really, Lucy, you too?"

"It turns out Wednesday Bingo Night is," Lucy said cheerfully, "--is a conspiracy, that is."

"A conspiracy to kill Fritz with boredom?" suggested Edmund.

"Don't be absurd, Edmund," Lucy sighed. "It's a saving lives sort of conspiracy. Obviously. They're vegetarians."

"...obviously. Right. Very good. Whatever will prevent--" Edmund was interrupted by another clattering fall and accompanying flurry of dust. "--more people falling through my ceiling," he finished wearily, looking down at his nice black shirt, which he had just managed to get nearly clean.

Now on the one hand, when Lucy was certain about something, she was pretty much always right. (See: everything, ever.) But on the other hand, all of the actual evidence was still pointing in one direction, and that was the direction of Eustace Is A Total Nutter As Usual. So Edmund was surprised, to put it lightly, to shin up a drainpipe and peer in the parlor window and see a bevvy of dumpy middle-aged ladies sitting in a circle nattering about invading occupied Greece.

Well. That wasn't it exactly. As Edmund clung to the drainpipe (Lucy hanging from the eaves above him, Eustace clutching the sill beneath), he managed to garner some more detail without risking detection. There were some middle-aged men among the middle-aged ladies (in their dumpiness, best distinguished by the lack of sewing in their laps), and they weren't proposing an invasion as such. Some -- cautious excursions, rather, to bring food to the starving children of Greece. (They said "starving children" rather a lot. Apparently the adults were at most a bit peckish.)

A spare-faced older gentleman, with tufts of white hair above his starched white collar, was playing the devil's advocate in the discussion. "The blockade alone would doom it," he insisted, waving his tobacco pipe for emphasis. "And it would ruin the reputation of the PPU to openly thwart the Allies!"

"Hardly openly, Russell," snorted a bony, nosy old woman in a kerchief. "And it's not as if our reputation could be any worse. The real difficulty is to feed the children without feeding the soldiers, and I think we've covered enough why that won't do."

"Rose has the right of it, as usual." The speaker this time was a man, out of Edmund's line of sight. "We must send someone in, undercover as it were, to see to it that the food is brought only to those in real need. Someone not too recognizable -- and someone who has a reason to be about children. A schoolteacher, if we had a schoolteacher."

"A schoolteacher -- no," Russell snapped, "don't be a fool; we have contacts in Greece, the problem is one of organization. If we could smuggle in food, and if we could smuggle in a person or persons with it -- which I do not grant you -- their role would be to inform those we trust, see to it that the first delivery made it into friendly hands, and bring back word of the safest routes. Rose?"

"Yes -- that's all very well, if we want to live in the clouds, but you're squeezing blood from rocks to ask for such a person at all. Someone the Germans wouldn't suspect any more than our own people would! Someone at home among children -- easy to smuggle -- who could run half a covert operation from the inside -- who's not already occupied in wartime -- they're hardly going to fall into our laps!"

It was at that exact moment that Edmund fell through the window.


 

Edmund was provided with a pile of forged documents, Lucy with half a dozen knives; Eustace had his notebook. Edmund knew a little of both Greek and German, and Lucy learned languages quick and sweet as a mockingbird.

"I speak Greek," Eustace insisted to the little pacifist cabal. "I learnt it years ago -- 'μηνιν αειδε θεα Πηληιαδεω Αχιληος'!"

"Just don't say anything," said Edmund, through gritted teeth.

By the time they'd been smuggled past the Allied blockade, the Commandments of Eustace had expanded to include "don't poke Lucy," "don't make faces," "don't fidget," "don't point out interesting insects," "don't breathe," and "no, really, don't poke Lucy -- she has knives."

The German border patrol officer was less easily fooled. He frowned down at the pathetic little band, disguised as farm children carrying crates of produce remnants.

"Our parents will be waiting," Edmund hinted, in his best attempt at Greek-accented German.

"No one is allowed into Greece from the north," the officer said firmly.

Edmund slumped a little, tried to look tired and unthreatening. "We're coming from Greece! Did we cross the border? We just went up the brook and then took a left like we always do..."

For the dozenth time in the past ten minutes, Lucy dropped the prop they had provided her, a dingy ball of yarn. This time it bounced out of the wagon and between the legs of an extremely patient donkey, nearly down to the officer. Lucy scrambled after it; the officer ignored the distraction and focused on Edmund. "I can't let you past. Your papers are out of date."

"I didn't know, sir, I can't read."

"The rules are the rules."

"I know a reason you should break them for us."

"What's that?"

"Knitting needle."

"What?" asked the officer, as Lucy put a dagger through his spine.

Edmund frowned. "I thought you were going to go with a knitting needle to the neck. That would have been funnier."

"I like pointy things better." Lucy wiped her blade on the grass before disappearing it back into her petticoats.

Eustace gaped from the wagon. "You killed him! It didn't say to kill him! It said to get the officer we've bribed promoted! I read the mission instructions!"

"That was your first mistake," Lucy contributed helpfully.

Edmund stowed a fistful of incriminating documents about the dead man's person. "There. Promoted. Thank the Lion we're done with that, I was starting to run out of German. I didn't think I even knew the word for 'knitting needle.'"

"Sorry I ruined your line," said Lucy.

They made their contacts all the way to the school without incident, Eustace jotting down salient facts in his obnoxious notebook, so future shipments would know about such dangerous obstacles as The Slightly Muddy Ditch, The Woman Who We Thought Only Spoke Chinese But Is Actually Just Deaf, and The Dog Who Is Only Placated By Giving Him Lucy's Knitting As A Toy. On the whole, everyone ignored them, because three British schoolchildren trying to make their way into German-occupied Greece was exactly the last thing anyone expected to see, and also most people are dumber than a box of rocks.

At the school there was a minor commotion when Edmund asked after Outis, which turned out not to be the janitor's real name after all.

"Obviously," exclaimed Eustace, puffing along after Edmund as they tried to escape a very suspicious maths teacher.

"What, was that in the mission briefing too? 'When we say Agent Outis, we don't actually mean an individual by that name, but are using a moniker which we insanely came up with just for this briefing despite the fact that you will never have to use it at any other time -- because we are a social club with delusions of being a secret organization --"

"It's Odysseus' code name! It means 'nobody'!" Eustace said, outraged. "How do you not know that I thought you were supposed to be the smart one -- sorry -- I mean --"

"I spent my adult life in a different world where we had a completely different mythology will you shut up," Edmund groaned.

Once they escaped the irate mathematician, they did manage to deliver the crates of not-actually-books to not-actually-Agent not-actually-Outis, who turned out to be a particularly innocuous librarian capable of smilingly slipping ration bars inside of the duller books he loaned out. He couldn't take home a group of apparent students himself without suspicion, but a Greek mother of a huge flock of hungry-looking children was willing not to ask too many questions, so they had bed for the night, if very poor board.

Come morning, Eustace was not in his generously provided bed, the sheets left ruffled and the window half-open. "Coffee," sighed Edmund, longingly, and went after him.

Eustace was not far off, but uncomfortably near the houses where the German soldiers were put up, his pencil in his mouth, using a rubber to finish up his anatomical sketch of a dung beetle. It was awful.

"Why are you drawing the German encampment where they held us for nine hours because they thought our parents were coming," asked Edmund, eyes firmly shut because his life was terrible.

"It's a dung beetle!" said Eustace.

"No, it's an encampment," said Edmund.

"Dung beetle."

"Encampment."

"Dung beetle."

"Encamp -- right, why am I having this argument with you. Give it here, you duffer, you'll have us all shot."

"It's a disguised encampment," Eustace said, clutching his notebook to his chest like a fainting maiden. "I got the idea from Robert Baden-Powell's autobiography, haven't you read anything?"

"We are all going to die," said Edmund, looking mournfully at the dung beetle, which was really obviously an encampment.

The German officer who searched them at the train station disagreed. "Bugs?" he asked, flipping through the notebook. "Did you draw these yourself?"

"Yes," said Eustace, squirming a little. Lucy kicked him. "Ja! Yes. Me!"

The soldier peered more closely at them. "Good God!" he exclaimed. "These are awful! Here, Henri, come look!"

Henri, who looked to be about a hundred and ten, shuffled over and agreed that the drawings were terrible. Then they let the children through.

"Huh," said Edmund, when they were safely out of earshot. "Guess the Germans aren't putting their best and brightest on searching-kids-at-train-stations duty."

"Wow," said Lucy, getting a look at the sketches for the first time. "Those are awful."

Eustace beamed and clapped them both on the back.


 

"Attention all passengers," said the train broadcast system, "we have reports of suspicious activity. Please remain calm while your friendly neighborhood police sweep the cars for possible infiltrators."

"Huh," said Edmund, who really didn't speak all that much Greek. "I wonder what that means."

"I think," said Eustace, armed with a map and a shaky knowledge of Homeric Greek, "it means 'next stop, Skopje.'"

"I think," said Lucy, who was facing the other way, "it means 'quite a lot of men with big guns are going to make everyone get up and face the walls while they search them.'"

"Wow," said Eustace, "you really are good at languages."

"I suddenly need to use the lavatory," said Edmund, and got up. The policemen shouted, and one pointed a gun. "Or maybe not so much." He sat back down.

"Maybe we shouldn't have been speaking so much English," said Eustace helpfully, because everyone in the car was looking at them now. One of the policemen said something and gestured with his gun, and the rest all started moving towards them.

"Geronimo!" said Lucy, and jumped out the window. Edmund followed posthaste, before the policemen could get over their surprise enough to shoot at children.

A moment later, a small brown hand reached back in the window from above, snagged Eustace by the collar, and dragged him out the window, clutching his notebook. Then there was a sharp retort, and a scramble, and all three children were clinging to the roof of the train, Eustace white as a sheet and bleeding from the leg.

Edmund cursed, folded his handkerchief, and pressed it against the wound, pushing hard to stem the flow of blood. Beneath, the Germans were discovering with a great racket that a grown man wouldn't fit through the window, and shouting at each other in progressively angrier tones.

"We haven't got long," said Lucy to Edmund, "do you think Eustace can jump and roll? we might be able to lose them if we have a head start, they haven't got dogs--"

"No," said Edmund, and then, "Damn it, Eustace, you had to go and get shot--" the tone was as sharp as the words, but he was still clinging onto the train with just one hand, the other firm and steady on the bloody handkerchief.

Eustace wasn't crying, but he was making a sound low in his throat that was much worse. There was quite a lot of blood.

"Look," said Lucy, kneeling up to peer skywards. The rushing air snatched the braid from her hair and tossed it golden in the wind. "Planes -- Allied, I think."

"Please the Lion, not bombing," Edmund breathed. Eustace's grip was beginning to slip; Edmund moved to straddle him, pinning the smaller boy to the train with his body. Eustace closed his eyes tightly and turned his face to the side.

"Edmund," Lucy breathed. Edmund looked up from Eustace a moment to see where she was looking: a dark shape rapidly descending from the sky, some ways ahead of them.

"Its path intersects ours," Edmund said, and then, a breath later, as another dot appeared some distance off: "Paratroopers."

The dark figure came up ahead of them quickly, nearly on a collision course -- it deployed its parachute at the last moment, and, as it landed neatly on top of the train, all four of them were engulfed in a rush of fine fabric. Then it must have released some catch, because in the next moment the silk was snatched away by the wind, leaving them clear.

Crouched on the train before them was Susan, all in black combat gear, dark hair tied back, a gun at her lovely hips. She was wearing lipstick.

"Susan," said Edmund, relief heavy in his voice.

"Susan!" said Lucy, and leapt up lightly to hug her sister as the countryside rushed by.

"Susan?" said Eustace, half-choking.

"Hi," said Susan, hooking her foot under a bar to anchor herself and Lucy.

"I agree with Eustace," said Lucy, her voice muffled in Susan's shoulder. "Why are you here? I thought you were in America!"

"Wait," said Edmund, momentarily distracted from the gravity of the situation, "you actually believed that?"

Everyone stared at him.

"I thought it was obvious!" Edmund defended. "Sure, Susan's going to America for fun! In the middle of a war! When fuel is rationed! Never mind the U-boats!"

Susa sighed, disentangling herself from Lucy. "It's not the story we usually give experienced counterespionage agents. Which you are. But that's not exactly generally known information. What have you done to Eustace?"

"Narnia and a bullet," Eustace got out, his voice only catching a little. "--I'm not actually sure which was more--"

"Yes," Susan agreed. "Don't talk. Hold tight--" this last to Edmund and Lucy. It was meant literally, because a minute after she strode away over the train-cars, the whole affair slammed to a stop, and Susan came striding back with blood (not hers) on her cheek.

Edmund, with the warning to brace himself, had just barely managed to keep from flying off the train, along with Eustace whom he was still mostly sitting on. Lucy, who was lighter and only had herself to manage, was better off, and had managed to keep a grip on Eustace's precious notebook as well.

"So," Lucy said conversationally, when Susan was within speaking distance, "why are you in Macedonia? For the sights?"

"I'm invading," said Susan, handing Edmund a first-aid kit from her belt. "Why are you in Macedonia getting shot at?"

"Also invading," said Lucy.

"There's another front? No one tells me anything!" complained Susan. She bent over Eustace to lend a hand with Edmund's battlefield dressing.

"We're not actually invading," Edmund clarified. "We're assisting with humanitarian efforts. There's a supply chain of relief aid into Greece now."

"Great. I'll try to avoid blowing it up. Can you kids get home on your own? I've got a country to invade." Susan was a quick hand with a needle; Eustace barely had time to whimper. The bullet had gone clean through the meaty part of his thigh.

"I think we can manage it," said Edmund dryly. "Got a compass? Mine is on the train somewhere."

"And a spare sidearm," said Susan, providing the former to Edmund and the latter to Lucy. "Head northeast, there's a safehouse there, I assume you have identification."

"So many kinds," Edmund said cheerfully.

"Please tell me they have drugs," said Eustace.

"Eustace Clarence Scrubb, asking for drugs. Will wonders never cease," said Susan. "Yes. Lots and lots of drugs. I'm off to kill Nazis; take care."

"Wait!" Eustace called, and Susan stopped halfway through swinging herself over the side of the car. "I have spy things!"

"Spy ... things?" asked Susan, returning. Lucy handed Eustace his notebook; he tore out the relevant pages and handed them to Susan. "Oh. Spy things. Is there a reason they look ... kind of like ... drawings of bugs?"

"Because they're spy things," said Eustace, giddily.

Susan's eyes were gradually growing wider as she flipped through the stack of torn pages. "This is good. This is very good. Excuse me," she said, and this time as she jumped off the car she was already radioing her commander with the new intelligence.

"Right," said Edmund, "very good spying, excellent spying, you're a first rate spy. Let's work on the not getting shot part, though."

"It is going," Lucy predicted, "to be a very long walk to that safehouse."