She can barely remember her life before, in that other place, that other world. All her memories are of Narnia: spring-time on the Dancing Lawns; the morning sun glinting on the sea, viewed from an upper window of Cair Paravel; summer rains and winter frosts. Parties and receptions, the drudgery of rule (although Narnia governs itself, really) and all its related joys. She wakes in the night sometimes, grasping vainly at fast-fading dreams of somewhere other; somewhere louder, harder, dirtier. They don't linger for long, though, and she never recalls them when she reaches full wakefulness.
For years she doesn't know to be lonely for her own kind. Why would she? She has her brothers and her sister; her friends and her companions and her subjects. She's happy. She's loved. She wants for nothing.
The loneliness comes like the blood, unheralded and without warning. She doesn't recognise the ache that overwhelms her. She knows only that she's lost something, and she couldn't even say what it is. Her tutors are knowledgeable and caring. But they're not human. They can't know what it's like. They just can't.
Her brothers are no more use. They seem always to have been grown up. They've moved from puppy fat to lean, energetic manhood with no evidence of the turmoil that Lucy is experiencing. And besides, her education may be lacking in some areas but in simple biology she's been supplied reasonably well. She knows they're different. She just doesn't know what that means.
That leaves her sister. Susan, to whom she has always told everything. Susan: understanding, infuriating, compassionate, bossy, kind, condescending, gentle. Most of the time Lucy doesn't know whether to hug or slap her, to smile or to scream. But she needs her. She can't imagine being without her.
“I don't think you understand how important it is to know this, Your Majesty,” Shatterstaff says, his brow furrowing with something close to exasperation. “Narnia's relationships with her neighbours are of the utmost importance to her security, and as queen you need to grasp their intricacies.” If he condescends to her it's only because his entire race knows itself to be the most learned in the whole kingdom. Lucy knows he can't help his upbringing.
Lucy is 16 years old, a queen – if she is honest – in name only. There is little she wants to know about less than this. She purses her lips, fixing the centaur with a glare, drumming her fingers on the table. He stumbles to a halt, squirming under her gaze.
“Would you care to tell me precisely why I need to know the exact tonnage of our exports to Calormen, Shatterstaff? Or the name of the Tisroc's third wife? Is anything you're telling me intended to be useful for anything? Or are my darling siblings so intent on keeping me out from under their feet that they would have you waste both your time and mine?” Lucy's voice, calm at first, becomes more irate as she continues. “Why are you telling me this?”
She stands so violently that her chair falls backwards and concludes her outburst at a level barely less than a scream. “And why won't you actually tell me anything that will help? What are you for? What's the point of you if you can't help me?”
His face remains impassive but she can see the hurt in his eyes. She flees as her tears begin to fall, the door slamming behind her.
She hurts everyone. It's right that they should hate her.
The stables are less than five minutes away (Lucy is grateful, briefly, that centaurs are less than comfortable with stairs) and this side of the castle is quiet at mid-morning. Now, if only …
Lucy turns a corner and stops short, her path blocked by Tumnus and a flushed looking Edmund, sword in hand, clearly fresh from the exercise yard. Edmund grins at her.
“Ah, little sis. Just the person we need. Tumnus is being wrong again. Perhaps you can make him see sense.”
Lucy doesn't even respond. She can't. She knows the tears she's holding back will overwhelm her if she does. She shakes her head, pushing past them.
“Hang it, Lu. Have a care, will you?” Edmund says sharply. “Hey, what's up?”
He's speaking to her back, though. She knows she's being unforgivably rude. She finds she doesn't care.
It's ten minutes' hard ride to the outskirts of the forest, half an hour more to a suitable glade. She has passed no one – human or animal – since Tumnus and her brother. It doesn't surprise her. She radiates anger, distress and dislike like a dark sun; many of her subjects are sensitive to such things. And besides, so few of Narnia's human inhabitants have returned from exile, even now. A hundred years of winter, banished overnight? There are some, still, who believe that victory came too easily to be final. As a result, Narnia's human population is tiny. Just big enough to remind Lucy of her loss.
Sliding from the saddle onto close-cropped grass Lucy loops the reins over the branch of a birch tree and sinks to the ground. The sun will be high soon. The shadows invite her in. She accepts their embrace, finally allowing her tears to come. They are brief but bitter. Sleep claims her before they pass.
She is momentarily disoriented when she awakes. The ground is lumpy and cold, and her discomfort is only intensified by the aching behind her eyes. She is certain she's outside, yet voices – soft, playful, musical – ripple nearby. She eases her eyes open. Her first sight offers no clue to the source of the sound. Holly, her mare, is lying beside her, nibbling at the grass. Lucy can't tell how long she's been asleep. The shadows are deeper; the leaves of the birch trees are a darker green, approaching black.
There is still a chill in her bones now that echoes the one in her heart. The warm spring day will be gone soon enough and Lucy will regret leaving the castle in such haste. Her tunic and breeches (her subjects have long since ceased to be scandalised by her choice of attire though her brothers still rib her over it) are made for comfort, not warmth. Lucy suppresses a shiver and rolls, so, so slowly onto her back, still looking for the source of the sound.
She isn't sure what she's looking at at first, it takes her a little while for her vision to resolve into a picture that she understands, and even then she can't quite comprehend what she is seeing.
Before her is a mass of pale limbs and green hair, snaking and writhing with, every so often, a flash of torso and soft breasts. The sounds that overlay the images – playful laughter, breathy moans, low gasps – fascinate Lucy as much as the scene before her. She had thought herself familiar with the ways of dryads. This, though, is something she has never dreamed of. She watches, entranced. It's too beautiful; she couldn't avert her eyes even if she wanted to. Her breath is coming faster now, it's almost painful to stay quiet, although she is certain that the dryads wouldn't care that she is watching. The chill is forgotten, and there is a warmth between her legs that she has only felt before on awakening from fleeting, all too quickly forgotten dreams.
Heat pooling in her belly, Lucy presses her thighs together, shifting in a discomfort that's simply not. She knows that, here of all places, her responses are of no consequence. There is no decorum to upset, no court to scandalise. She is alone in the only sense that she doesn't find unbearable these days: in the company of people who don't know her and care little for her presence. People who won't observe, judge, advise and comment.
Two bodies break away from the writhing mass of limbs then, crawling, giggling, towards Lucy. Their progress is slow, haphazard. They are so busy exploring each other that they seem entirely blind to their surroundings. Finally, here is clarity. Not a shadowed, confusing tangle of arms, legs and torsos, green hair blanketing everything. Instead, Lucy watches, spellbound, as one figure raises herself on her hands and knees, the other dipping her mouth to the apex of her thighs. Lucy's breath catches as a shaft of late afternoon sunlight illuminates a face, sheened with sweat, eyelids flickering, lips slightly parted. The dryad's breathing is soft and quick, punctuated with moans that are almost musical, and Lucy can't help but think that it's simply beautiful.
She feels something tighten low in her belly; senses a growing wetness between her legs. Her heart is racing and her own breathing is as quick as that of the figures before her. Unthinking, she drops a hand to the source of her almost discomfort, unlacing her breeches and slipping it inside. She can't help but gasp at the heat and slickness she finds there. The gasp penetrates the distraction of the form before her; her eyes flicker open, catching Lucy's and holding them. Lucy feels herself flush even further, her face prickling with embarrassment. And yet she cannot avert her eyes. They're locked helplessly, staring into the other's eyes that are vibrantly green and seem to alternate between sharp focus and near blindness. Lucy is blinking rapidly now, but each time her eyes open she is caught again by the dryad's gaze.
She presses hard against herself, her hand moving awkwardly, caught as it is between her body and her only partly unlaced clothing. Her fingers slip-slide through soft hair, against hot, wet flesh as she tries, unthinking, desperate, to soothe the ache that is growing there. Jolts pass through her as she brushes once, twice, three times, against a tiny bundle of almost-fire. She shifts her focus there, rubbing the side of her palm roughly and inexpertly against the source of those shuddering flashes of… what? She thinks it's pleasure but it's so unlike anything she's ever experienced, she can't even put a word to it.
Lucy has had no real sense of the passing of time since she entered this clearing, the dappled green shadows have frozen her within a single unending now. Her reality is marked out by the rapidly cooling, uneven ground beneath her; the roughness of her palm against the sodden, pulsing heat between her legs; the face – beautiful, yearning, vulnerable – before her; and her own breathing, intertwining with, and indistinguishable from, the gentle, hissing rasp of the figure before her.
And then it happens. The dryad's mouth has fallen open, her eyes widening one last time before drifting closed. She releases a high stuttering cry and, almost as if her arms can no longer support her weight, her elbows buckle and she drops, shaking uncontrollably. Lucy winces as she catches fingernails in tender skin and, with one last, almost violent, stroke, she is overtaken. Her body tightens and releases in waves and she squeezes her eyes tightly. She can't breathe, her voice is gone, she can focus on nothing but the sensations overwhelming her. Each haphazard stroke sets off another wave, and another, until she comes to a juddering stop, allowing her body to still completely.
She drifts for a while then, eyes open just far enough that she can watch the two before her embrace tenderly. For now, at least, she no longer feels alone.
It gets better in some ways and, in others, so much worse. The images haunt Lucy constantly, although she doesn't return to the grove; isn't sure if she would find them again if she did. A kiss had roused her from her stupor – she's as certain of that as she can be of anything – but she opened her eyes to nothing but dappled sunlight on lush grass, the trees moving gently in a breeze she couldn't feel. She doesn't return, except in dreams, waking and sleeping, and she sees them then, foam green hair and soft white skin, long limbs and small breasts. And with each repetition, her reactions become more intense and her fingers more practised.
She knows nothing. She has been taught nothing. And yet, she's not ashamed. Shame, too, requires knowledge, of a kind. She's only now understanding how little of that she has.
Spring blooms into summer. The days are warm and gentle; rarely too hot, occasionally rain-lashed, often blessed by the breath of the Great Eastern Ocean. More and more, Lucy craves solitude. It isn't hard to find in Cair Paravel (Lucy often wonders who built this place and why there are so many rooms), but a queen's time – even that of a 16 year-old one – is all too often not her own.
Those first few years they had ruled in name only. Nothing in their lives had prepared them for this and even Peter – confident going on arrogant at the best of times – could see that they were out of their depth. He has grown into the crown that was thrust upon him, they all have, and he is ever keen that Lucy will be queen in fact as well as name. Lucy loves him for that – sometimes at least. Now though? Now it's a curse.
In deference to the centaurs who most often use it, the library of Cair Paravel is on the ground floor. Lucy curses that too. She comes here for distraction, and finds it often enough, but she is all too easily discovered.
The flora and fauna of Narnia is spread out before her, all the extraordinary array of her subjects. Volume after volume, exquisitely detailed, the life's work of a hundred, a thousand, long-forgotten scholars. Narnia may take little enough governing, but, when it does, she will be ready to play her part, and she will know her people. She tells herself that that's the whole reason she is here. She tells herself she doesn't linger over the pictures of the ladies of the court, all elegance and hauteur, and of the naiads and dryads, earthy and open and beautiful. And she turns the page when the door opens.
Peter storms into the room, a curse on his lips. A taller man, sandy haired and a few years older, is on his heels.
“By the Lion's Mane, Rhyddion, did they think they'd get away with it? Do they think, just because Narnia no longer summarily executes its subjects, that we've somehow become soft? If the Tisroc thinks that we can be bullied into this he's going to be sorely disappointed.”
Lucy has rarely seen Peter so angry. She closes the book before her quietly and rests her chin on her palm, studying him intently. She wonders how long it will take him to realise that she's there.
Rhyddion responds quietly, ever a calming presence. “My Prince, do you really think he expects you to cave in to his demands? The Tisroc has been doing this for longer than you and I have been alive. It's part of the negotiations, nothing more. He demands more from you than you could ever possibly give, you counter. If he's lucky, you'll end up conceding more than you would have and still believe that you're getting a good deal.
“It's the politics of the market place, Peter. If you let him get to you, you lose. Really, don't you understand that by now?” Rhyddion finishes, a hand on Peter's shoulder. Peter relaxes, his shoulders slumping.
“Oh, I know, Rhydd. I just can't help it, sometimes. It's just... Ach, thank the Lion I've got you, eh, old friend? I'm telling you, if the Tisroc expects me to marry that harridan of a daughter of his ...” Peter says, almost shuddering.
Rhyddion laughs, cuffing Peter gently round the shoulder. He raises his eyes then, seeing Lucy apparently for the first time. He bows slightly, his easy smile not leaving his lips for a second.
“Your Majesty. I'm sure we apologise for the interruption. I'm afraid your royal brother was a little blind-sided by some of the demands of the Calormene delegation. We thought it best to adjourn for a while before we ended up sparking a war.” He can barely keep the smirk from his face.
Peter glares at him before he speaks. “Don't listen to Rhyddion, Lu. We were at least half a day away from declaring war,” he says. “We really are sorry to disturb. Aslan, this castle's big enough. How is it so hard to find an empty room?”
Lucy quirks a smile at them, her chin still in her hand. She's circling the middle finger of her right hand on the desk. “Well, really. You thought that the library would be empty? I don't know what that says about your opinion of the rest of us.” She pauses for a moment, enjoying the look on Peter's face as he realises that – yet again – he's somehow unwittingly offended her. “I don't blame you for being riled, though. Every time I meet the Calormene ambassador, I'm sure he's sizing me up as potential marriage material. Ugh. Horrible.”
Peter grimaces, looking dangerously like the recently dispersed storm is about to return. “You, too?” he says, no trace of humour in his voice. “Sometimes I swear the Tisroc is determined to tie us all up in a nice little dynastic knot. You should see the way they look at Susan.” He shakes his head and sighs heavily. “Rhyddion, would you be so good as to cover for me for the rest of the afternoon? Tell His Excellency I've been taken ill, or something. I believe that the best thing for both our countries at this point would be if I spend a nice peaceful afternoon with my youngest sibling.”
Rhyddion smiles indulgently. “Of course, Your Majesty,” he says, bowing ever so slightly. “If you'll excuse me, I have an entire diplomatic mission to lie to.” From the look on his face, Lucy is fairly certain that he's relishing the prospect.
The gardens of Cair Paravel are beautiful, always. It's a beauty that's lost on Lucy as she walks with Peter the length of the Yew Alley that's long been one of her favourite spots. She would flee if she didn't know it would make their next meeting all the more awkward.
“It's been months, Lu.” They're arm in arm; she can't escape. “Shatterstaff tells me that your studies are suffering. The Lion knows that you haven't been the most gracious queen recently. And Su and Ed tell me you'll hardly look at them, let alone talk, and you certainly don't talk to me. ”
She's trying to ease her arm from his, as tactfully as she can. There's no way to do it without him noticing though. He releases her with a sigh.
“What's wrong? We're worried. I'm worried. Why won't you talk to us?”
“Oh, Peter, what makes you think anything's wrong? A girl just needs her peace and quiet sometimes, that's all. Surely Su's told you that.” She laughs, trying for light and carefree. She winces inwardly at the sound. Too much. She can tell from his pained expression that he doesn't believe her for a moment.
“Sometimes? Hang it, Lucy, didn't you hear me say it's been months?” he says, very nearly snapping at her now. He opens his mouth again, drawing a harsh breath, readying himself. He loses his chance, though, as Lucy rounds a bend in the alley, a stride ahead of him.
The alley opens onto a wide, walled lawn, bordered by cherry trees and roses. Archery targets are set at the far end of the lawn. The sun is well past its zenith but the lawn is protected from the wind, and even the lengthening shadows do little to cool it. A lone bird sings in a cherry tree, undismayed by the oncoming voices. Peter's voice has stilled now, though. And Lucy? She couldn't find her voice now if she tried.
Susan is alone in the garden. She has her back to Lucy, a bow raised and at full draw. She sights along the arrow, almost kissing her fingers. Out of courtesy, both Peter and Lucy are silent (they will be until she takes her shot, however long that may be). They are still, studying Susan's form as she considers her shot (Lucy loves to shoot, she feels that it's one of the few things she's truly good at). Susan's arms are bare, save for a guard on her left forearm. The tension there, and in her shoulders, isn't betrayed by so much as a quiver.
Lucy smiles. Archery hasn't come easily to Susan. She's practised hard to get here, and Lucy is surprised for a moment by a feeling of pride. She maintains her regard, looking at her sister fondly. She's wearing a simple dress in a red that complements her skin and hair (as pale, and as dark, as they've always been). Lucy's always loved it, and she's more than a little envious of how beautifully Susan wears it. Her eyes travel the tensed left arm, taking in the swell of her chest – and only there is there the slightest movement, an oh-so-slight rise and fall. There is tension in Susan's throat too; it appears unyielding, like marble. A strand of hair has escaped the single braid and curls down her neck, falling forward over her shoulder. Lucy fights the urge to approach so that she can tuck it behind her ear. (She knows well enough not to approach anyone with a bow at full draw, thank you so much.)
Lucy drops her gaze, smiling, amused at her own internal monologue, to see that Susan's feet are bare, as they so often are. Unbidden, an image flashes into her mind of those same feet in her lap as she soothes away the tensions of another day. She has good fingers; Susan has always said so.
The heat that rises in her belly is intense and entirely unexpected. A single image flashes to her mind, of long, smooth limbs, entangled in dappled shadows, overlain with breathless sighs. She shakes her head, desperately attempting to dispel it from her mind, but already the blush has begun to rise up her neck, spreading onto her cheeks.
She doesn't know where to look. Peter, to her left, is smiling easily. He turns the smile on Lucy, and, Aslan, her face is burning. She can't even meet his eyes. Turning back to Susan, who, with an easy motion of three fingers, has finally released her arrow, Lucy takes in the relaxation of her shoulders, the long-drawn breath that swells her chest even further. As the arrow strikes its target – a little off-centre, but a respectable shot – Susan turns to her audience. She looks at Lucy first, a welcoming smile on her full lips.
Lucy feels a pooling in her lower belly, a heat that is almost unbearable. She can do nothing other. She turns and flees.
Her bedroom door remains closed and locked for the rest of the day and all of that night. Susan ceases her knocking after a while (Peter hasn't even tried, recognising, perhaps, that in this he's certainly out of his depth). The few servants who have business there have been warned not to try by the first, to whom Lucy gave the shortest of shrifts (and, oh, that's just wonderful, thank you. That guilt to worry about, too?).
Lucy is sleepless, confused, guilt-stricken (and she's not even really sure over what, not really). She seeks solace in her own body, tracing ever more knowing fingers down her belly, stroking in quick circles, middle finger and index firmly gripping. Still she slips in her own wetness, more than once falling away from her release, so maddeningly close. She forces the images that so often grace her dreams, and her reveries, to replay in the space just behind her eyes. She never tires of them, has found release the same way so many times. It's been months since that day in the forest, though. The images have become more than a simple memory. It's a fantasy now, part memory, part dream, part hope. Over and over. Repetition, variation and addition. Flesh, and hair, and soft, smooth, intertwining limbs.
She feels herself becoming dry beneath her fingers, and reaches desperately for that final image that will unravel her, ignoring the tenderness that threatens. It happens before she can stop it. The swell of a breast in profile, framed by arm and yew. A curve of full red lips in a smile of welcome. Black hair, pale skin, green eyes. Lucy comes undone in waves, tensing and releasing under her own fingers, biting her lip hard so as not to cry out.