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It's Hard Out There for a Princess (The Princess Peony Pavane)

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Princess Even More Dim.

The words rang in Peony's ears, even though they had been muttered, and not meant for her to hear. It was a wonder she had heard them at all, really, with all the noise and commotion going on at this Narnian Occasion.

It was luck, really, that the wind had carried the words to her, just at the right moment. Bad luck, she supposed. She hadn't meant to listen to King Edmund's conversation, and she turned away immediately upon realizing she had – despite what the Narnians thought of her and her sister, Peony was a Princess of the House Siphard, and her family had been on the throne of the Isle of Toph for over three hundred years. She knew how to behave in polite company.

Which King Edmund was not. He had proven that the other morning, dumping the entire pitcher of juice down the front of her bodice. Yes, her dress had been low cut. Yes, she had tried to have a conversation with him, when he clearly had been in a foul mood. That was her fault. But his rudeness and the pleasure he had taken in it were uncalled for, and Peony had embarrassed herself by fainting dead away at the time.

But earlier this evening, over dinner, King Edmund had apologized, and Peony had accepted, and apologized herself for causing him such discomfort with her dress and her attentions. And then had followed a conversation in which Peony tried her best to make amends, to listen carefully to the king, and to try and understand what it was about herself that bothered him so. She had thought they had come to an understanding.

And indeed, King Edmund was very attentive to Peony after that – he had offered her refills on her wine, and had danced with her, and had even gone off with her to a quiet spot and exchanged several really lovely kisses with her. But it wasn't long before an expression of distaste had crossed his face, and he led her back to his sisters, almost as if he couldn't wait to be rid of her.

Now that she had overheard his words, she knew that was truly the case. She knew when she heard that mocking name that King Edmund was referring to her, and Peony felt a hot flush on her cheeks. Anger, embarrassment, shame – they all washed over her in a hot rush, and she lifted her cup to take a steadying gulp of the sweet summer wine King Edmund had so scorned. No, he hadn't spoken the words out loud, but Peony, Princess Even More Dim, had seen the look in his eyes, and the curl of his lip every time she lifted the cup to her mouth. And despite what King Edmund thought of her, Princess Peony Siphard was no one's fool.

It had been a mistake, she knew now, this visit to Narnia. But the invitation had been so graciously extended by the Queen Susan last summer, when she had made her tour of the Seven Isles, and visited Toph, and spent several weeks in Peony's father's court in the great palace of Baedcove that towered over White Boulder Bay. Queen Susan had been a lovely guest, so interested in the history of Toph and the other Seven Isles, and their history and alliances with Narnia over the years.

Queen Susan had also seemed fascinated with King William's twelve daughters, of whom Peony was the eighth. She and Peony and Peony's sister Begonia had spent many long afternoons, walking through the palace gardens and along the streets of Oldtown, speaking of the politics of the Toph and the other islands, and how a woman could never sit the throne, not if there was a male heir. Close kin or distant, it never mattered – there had only been one hereditary Queen of Toph in 300 years, Queen Esabell the First (and Only, Peony often thought), who had immediately become Queen Regent upon the birth of her son, King Reeve.

King William had gone through three wives and twelve daughters before his fourth wife, Queen Ymanye, had finally delivered him a son, Peony's baby brother Sweet William. With the problem of succession finally solved King William turned his mind to the problem of his twelve daughters, and what to do with them. Her two eldest sisters, Princess Rose and Princess Ivy had been married off immediately, Rose to the heir of the throne of Muil, and Ivy to the second son of the King of Brenn. Her third sister, Amaryllis, was the Tisroc of Calormen's newest wife. Her fourth sister, Azalea, was married to a cousin of King Lune of Archenland, her fifth sister, Camellia, had taken the vows of the order of the Sisters of the Sea, and her sixth sister, Clover, who had always been so clever, had departed for the Lone Islands last spring, to apprentice at one of the banking houses there.

That left Begonia and Peony, and their younger sisters Bluebell, Tulip, Hyacinth, and Magnolia (and of course, Sweet William) at home in Baedcove Palace when Queen Susan had visited. As fascinated as the Narnian Queen was by the thought of the twelve princesses all needing to be wed or dealt with in one way or another, Peony was equally fascinated by the things Queen Susan had said about Narnia, how she was a queen in her own right, and one of four rulers, with her two brother-kings, and a sister-queen. It sounded incredible to Peony – a land where women could rule, and where they didn't have to marry at the whim of their father, where they wouldn't be tossed away for not having sons, where they could be allowed to do what they wished, pursue their own interests, make their own matches if they preferred, or not marry at all if they'd rather that. Queen Susan had made the land of Narnia sound like paradise to Peony.

Of course, her father had been more fascinated by the fact that Queen Susan had two brothers, both of marrying age, and both eligible bachelors. So when Queen Susan had issued her invitation for Peony and Begonia to visit Narnia the following spring, King William had readily agreed, and after Queen's Susan's departure, had sent Peony and Begonia to visit their sisters, first to Muil, and then to Brenn, and finally to Calormen, to learn the ways of courts and courtship, to learn the fashions and flirtations, and to learn what they must do to land a king for a husband.

After a long winter of such tiresome lessons (although Peony had to admit, she had met some very nice young men among those three courts, and had enjoyed their company very much), of learning how to admire and flirt and ask the right questions and listen attentively when men spoke, and to never speak of oneself, and what one might like for one's own future, or one's own choice in husbands, Peony had been very happy to leave Tashbaan, and sail north with Begonia for Narnia.

And it was lovely to see Queen Susan again, and she was as kind and gracious to Peony and Begonia in Cair Paravel as she had been in Baedcove Palace. And Queen Lucy was lovely, funny and clever and always inviting the visiting Princesses off on adventures. But High King Peter and King Edmund had been different stories.

King Peter wasn't interested in a wife of any sort, Peony noticed immediately. He was polite enough, and tolerated the presence of the two visiting Princesses with mostly kindness. But it hadn't escaped Peony nor Begonia's notice that Peter had a favorite dryad, a lovely one who spent much time wrapped around the High King. King Peter was devoted to his country and his people above all, and it was clear that finding a queen was not a priority for him.

King Edmund… well. He was another story. Cranky at best, and rude at worst, and despite the Narnians' much vaunted tolerance of all kinds, had taken one look at Peony and her sister, in their fashionably cut gowns, and decided they weren't worth his time or patience.

Peony had to admit, their gowns were rather low cut by Narnian standards, and that neither Queen Susan nor Queen Lucy wore their corsets laced so tight as she and her sister did. But it had been the fashion in all the courts they had visited, and they had no other clothes, and neither of the Queens offered them any more suitable for Narnia.

And Peony knew, too, that the Kings and Queens of Narnia found her and her sister's husband hunt quite distasteful. She knew Queen Susan understood, after her visit to the Isle of Toph, what it was like to be one of King William's daughters, how there was no choice and no other option for a Princess of House Siphard – she either married, or she went in for religious life. Even Clover, who was so very smart, hadn't been sent to the Lone Islands just as a banking apprentice. The hope, of course, was that she might make a match with a highborn or visiting lord, and if not, at least she had learned some skills that would be useful in her father's court upon her return, and make her a more marriageable prospect. When Begonia and Peony had departed last winter, their father had told them not to return if they were not betrothed. "If you can't find a match, you can stay with Azalea in Archenland. Or go back to Amaryllis in Calormen – surely the Tisroc or his sons need another wife."

So Peony and Begonia had tried hard in Narnia, had tried hard to win the attentions of King Peter and King Edmund, had stayed up late into the nights discussing how the royal brothers were clearly not interested, and what to do about that. There wasn't much they could do, the sisters had decided. But they had to keep trying – word could not get back to their father that they hadn't done their best to interest the kings.

But after King Edmund's astonishing rudeness at breakfast the other morning – he had ruined that dress completely, and she knew her father wouldn't want to send her funds to have another made – she had decided it wasn't worth a real attempt any more. Edmund, king though he was, didn't deserve any sincere attention on Peony's part. She'd not be rude, of course, but her polite talk and flirtations had been half-hearted at best since then.

The worst part of the whole thing, Peony thought, was that she had so looked forward to visiting Narnia, a land where women weren't held to the impossibly high standards and wishes of a single king, like her father. But Narnia, although the land was lovely, and the people gracious and kind and welcoming, hadn't proved to be much better. She and Begonia had been judged and found most wanting, for being such fools as to obey their father's wishes, and to seek husbands for themselves. King Edmund had never once asked her about Toph or her father's court – she was quite sure he knew nothing about her other sisters, or her only brother, or her father's orders.

And now Peony knew, from the snatch of conversation that she'd overheard, that he'd given her and her sister most unkind nicknames, and was very eager to see her and her sister depart for Archenland in the morning.

Very well. Peony had had enough herself, of this land where only certain women were deemed intelligent enough to speak to – although evidently it was all fine and well to kiss dim Princesses, as Edmund had demonstrated earlier in the evening – and where King Edmund felt it perfectly fine to have his Tiger Guard lecture her on proper Narnian behavior, while he sat back with a most smug smile on his face.

Peony was mortified beyond belief to realize that her and Begonia's manners had been scrutinized and found wanting weeks ago, and not a single soul in the entire palace had thought to often them correction or advice, instead preferring to sneer and snicker behind their backs. Not even Queen Susan, whom she had considered a friend.

But Peony had seen that Narnia wasn't quite the paradise that Queen Susan had made it out to be – just as Peony and her sisters were under pressure to marry, so were Susan and her siblings, although for quite different reasons. The Narnians needed, wanted, indeed, they demanded that their sovereigns produce heirs, and they weren't shy about talking to visiting Princesses about their wishes for their Kings. And from the conversations that she'd had with Queen Susan during their visit, she knew that it weighed heavily on the Gentle Queen's mind, that she had a duty to her country, and that at least one of the Four must marry soon, and present the country with a little prince or princess. And considering the indifferent and rude behavior of the Kings over the past several weeks, it seemed like it all would fall on the Queens' shoulders.

Narnia wasn't all that different in its demands on women than any other kingdom, Peony thought as she finished her wine and went to collect her sister. And the Narnian kings certainly had no interest in the plight of Princesses in the same boat – looking for a much needed match.

Peony was glad to find Begonia and say her goodnights to the assembled Narnians. And she was glad to be leaving in the morning, and glad that they would soon be with Azalea in Archenland. The kindness of Narnia left much to be desired.