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Another Country

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The apple is red and rounded, and gleams like waxed paper in firelight. Without even biting into it you can tell the flesh will be sweet and white, and the smell of it will be summer orchards and winter crumble and eve's pudding and baked raisins. Imagine the most beautiful apple you have ever eaten in your life and then imagine one twice as beautiful and you might be halfway there. It is an apple straight out of a fairytale.

~*~

"I say Pole," Eustace said, and stopped walking.

They were standing on the wall, and behind them was the garden, and in front of them all of Narnia stretched out as far as the eye could see. Narnia deeper and richer than Narnia-that-was, with all it's woods and rivers and mountains new-minted and clean in sunlight. From where she stood Jill could see the blue of the sea and the white of Cair Paravel with the High King's flag flying from the topmost turret.

"Have you noticed...something strange?"

"No," Jill said. "What is it, Scrubb?"

"It's just that..." Eustace had his hands in his pockets, although his clothes were nothing like you would imagine when you think of clothes: they were soft and comfortable and beautiful all at once and had never seen a starching-iron nor a cake of laundry soap.

"Does it seem to you that people keep disappearing?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well," Eustace said. "When was the last time you saw Caspian? Or the Pevensie's people?"

"Oh don't be silly," Jill said. "Look, Eustace,-" and her voice changed. "Look Eustace, there's Jewel and Puzzle too! Come on."

No one could see a unicorn without wanting to pat it on the nose and feed it the most exquisite of sugar-lumps, and Jewel was the daintiest and most noble of unicorns: his hooves would fit in a tea-cup and his ears were as soft as chinchilla fur, and it wasn't until Jill was tucked up in bed that she remembered what Eustace had been talking about and realised that, actually, he might have been right.

It's not easy to measure time in a country where winter never comes and each day dawns more beautiful than the last. But Jill, thinking, could not remember the last time she had seen Caspian, who had sailed to the Lone Islands and beyond the Eastern Sea, nor his bride, Ramandu's daughter, who carried the blood of stars in her veins. They had not been at the last great feast, or with the dear dogs and the Talking Horses for the last hunt, or at Cair Paravel for the last tournament. Or the one before that. But they must be somewhere, for people didn't just disappear, not in Narnia-that-is. Scrubb must be wrong.

She turned over and went back to sleep.

~*~

However, Jill, who was not stupid despite everything the people at Experiment House had told her when she was very young, did not forget Eustace's words. She took to going for long walks through the garden, often with Puzzle or one of the dogs, and when after a while she hadn't seen Caspian or his Queen she started going for longer walks in Narnia itself. Don't imagine these walks were anything like the walks you take in England, when it rains half the time and the mud sticks to your boots and the path disappears in a patch of bogland. In Narnia-beyond-the-wall the hills were always gentle, even when they were mountains, and there were always cool streams and brambles and a party of dryads or woodmaidens to picnic with. Wherever she went and whoever she asked, though, Jill did not find any trace of Caspian.

~*~

"Do you think, "she said to the High King Peter at Cair Paravel, the next feast, "he's missing?"

Peter frowned and thought for a while. He was a grave and splendid King, Peter: not quite as grand and glorious as King Frank and not quite as boyish as Professor Diggory who never seemed to have quite grown up, and Jill was just a little bit shy of him.

"But Caspian came through the gates with us," Peter said. "He would never...get lost."

"Are you sure?" Jill asked. "Quite sure?"

"Yes," Peter said. "Our sister Susan was..." He shut his mouth then, but it was too late.

"Do you miss her?" Jill asked, and then could have kicked herself for the words. Peter's face went closed the way yours does when you bite into a sour apple.

Back in England, Jill and Susan had never got on, for Jill liked ponies and riding stables and Susan had discovered lipstick and invitations and the two did not mix. Worse yet, Jill knew visiting Narnia was the most exciting and wonderful thing that had ever happened in her life and Susan thought Narnia was just a game the Pevensies had played when they were children. But for Peter she was both his beloved younger sister and the gracious queen with whom he had shared his throne. The High King looked, quite suddenly, miserable and lonely.

"You do miss her," Jill said.

"Yes," said Peter.

Behind his shoulder Edmund looked round.

"Do you remember the tournaments we used to have, when the knights from Calormen and Tashbaan came and jousted for her hand?"

"We have more splendid feasts now, my noble friend," Peter said.

"And..." Edmund laughed. "Sire, do you remember, when once we found that dead mouse within the lumber room and chased her round the garden?"

In Edmund's defense, you should realise that although Edmund had been quite spiteful when he was a small boy that was a very long time ago and well before he met Jill.

"Yes," Peter said.

"And how our lady our sister tried to halt the hunt, when years ago we pursued the white stag?"

"Yes," Peter said.

"I wonder what became of the lady?" Edmund said.

There was a moment when they all thought of England-that-was, which, when one is wearing the most elegant of clothes and sharing a table with fauns and dwarves and the odd giant (because there are only so many giants one can fit into a single room, no matter how big) seemed rather old and tired and rather a long way away.

Then Edmund said, "Do you think Aslan would-"

And Peter said, "I wonder if she-"

Jill said, "Could we ask Susan herself?" Then she added, because although all of them had felt the breath of the King-beyond-the-sea there was one Daughter of Eve he loved best, "Could you ask Him?" And she said it to Lucy.

Most of the time you could forget Lucy was a Queen of Narnia. She was little and lithe and gay and she smiled as often as she spoke and laughed as often as she smiled, but when Lucy turned round to answer she was all Queen.

"Do you truly want me to?" she asked.

And Peter said nothing, nor did Edmund, but Jill who was a little bit ashamed of how she'd judged Susan and thought it would be awfully jolly to have the four Pevensies together again, said-

"Oh, yes please, would you?"

Lucy straightened up in her seat. For a moment, she looked stern and tall and terrible, almost as terrible as the White Witch, the Queen of the Underworld. Her face was pale.

"I will ask for you," she said.

Then she looked away to her friend Mr. Tumnus who was sitting at her right hand and all of a sudden she was Lucy again, laughing and helping herself to a second helping of strawberry trifle.

~*~

So it was that, a few days, a fortnight later - but nobody measured time in Narnia in the way we do - Jill stood above the great golden gate and watched Susan walk up the hill to the garden. From the wall, Susan looked small, although she held herself very upright and the clothes she wore were those of a Narnian Queen and not of a London stenographer, which Susan had been wearing when Aslan called her name. She had a bow on her back and a horn in her hand and her hair was long and black and loose. Before, Jill had been a little bit frightened of Susan with her painted lips and her permanent wave and her boyfriends, but here in Narnia Susan seemed nothing more than lonely. Jill leaned over the wall and shouted her name.

Susan looked up.

She had blue eyes, Susan, a blue so dark it was almost black, and skin as white as the flesh of a snowberry, and it was not for nothing that the knights of seven countries had fought for her hand. She was the most beautiful woman Jill had ever seen.

'Oh,' Jill thought to herself, and looked away, and when she looked back the gates were swinging open and the High King was hugging his sister, with Edmund and Lucy by his side. Jill slipped away and went to talk to Puzzle, who was not the cleverest of creatures but was sweet and wise about things he understood like fresh grass and where to find clover.

After that Jill rather assumed Susan had joined the others in Cair Paravel, and so was quite surprised when she came back late that night to find Susan sitting on her bed with a tray of cocoa and marshmallows.

"I thought you'd be hungry," Susan said. "I ran the bath for you...and we haven't had a chance to catch up. You've grown up a bit, Jill, did you know?"

Jill had forgotten that of all the friends of Narnia Susan was the only one who always called her Jill and not Pole or you or even Sweet Lady Jill, which is what Professor Diggory said. It made her feel young and a bit uncertain.

"Er..thanks," she said.

"And I brought towels," Susan said.

Narnian towels were the fluffiest and biggest towels you could imagine, and Narnian baths were deep and hot, so big you could almost swim in them, and smelt of summer flowers.

"Thanks," Jill said. She took off her clothes, folding them neatly, in the bathroom, but left the door open so she and Susan could talk, and when she was sitting in the bath and feeling lovely and warm and relaxed Susan brought in the tray and sat on the bathstool in the most companionable way. She talked about horses, and how lovely it was to see the Talking Horses again, and how splendid Fledge was, and how beautiful Jewel, and how even Puzzle was an absolute dear. Before Jill knew it the water was cool, the cocoa drunk; it was nearly time for bed, and she'd had the nicest evening for ages.

The next evening she came back to Susan sitting on her bed again.

And the next.

And when Susan went to Cair Paravel for the great welcoming feast - which is not something you can organise in a day - Jill went too.

Cair Paravel was decked in her best. There were flags flying from every tower and bunting stretched across the hallways: there were thousands of tiny candles like stars and bowls of peppermints and ginger biscuits and Turkish delight with sesame seeds. There was even deep rich straw in the stables for Snowflake who carried Susan and Puzzle, although Jewel had been climbing stairs since he was a foal no bigger than his prince and would stay with Tirian.

In Jill's bedroom there was a fire with pinecones, a massive bed with velvet curtains and a wardrobe full of the most splendid clothes, which in Narnia is very splendid indeed. Jill was staring at the silks in indecision when there was a knock on the door and Susan slipped inside. She was already dressed, Susan: she wore white, a white robe that glittered almost enough to hurt the eyes, and her lips were very red, but there was still enough of Susan left in her face for Jill to say--

"I can't decide, what do you think?"

--because Experiment House had never approved of dances or dressing up and Jill had never been a Queen in Narnia. Susan looked, every inch of her, regal.

"What have we got? Oh," Susan said. "That's beautiful..and this. Take your dress off."

So Jill stripped down to her underthings while Susan pulled dresses from the wardrobe and held them up to the mirror. In the end Jill wore a red dress that burned against her hair and bared more skin than she had ever showed before. Susan had smoothed down the fabric and fastened her necklace and walked with her down to the great hall, but it was Eustace, dancing, who said a little later:

"You've grown up. You're not a little girl any more, Pole."

Jill looked up. She was not the only one who had grown. Eustace's eyes had once been level with her own.

"Do you like it?"

"It's different." Eustace circled them round the dance floor in meditative slowness. "Look, Pole-"

"What?" Jill asked sharply. She'd wanted Scrubb to at least say...something.

"You remember what I was saying about Caspian?"

"Yes," Jill said.

"Well, I rather think...the same. I'm.."

"Jill!" Susan said, tugging at her sleeve. "Jill, did you ever meet..?"

And to Jill's disappointment that was the last thing Eustace said to her all night.

In fact, it was not a good night at all. Peter and Edmund seemed tired and strained. Lucy's laugh was too high and the lights too bright. Susan went past, dancing, in the arms of one man after another. Jill felt small and young and out of place, and after midnight when she could leave quietly she slipped away to the stables and buried her face in Puzzle's mane. She felt rather queer and all choked up, as miserable as if she was getting a cold, but no one got ordinary illnesses in Narnia. She sniffed twice and told herself to buck up, and she was just thinking about patting Puzzle on the nose and going to bed when she heard footsteps behind her.

She turned round.

Susan was standing in the doorway. She was smiling very faintly, and her gown in starlight was all gauze and iridescence and her skin inside it as white and soft as a Christmas rose. Her hair had come loose and hung in shining waves over her shoulders, and her eyes were very bright.

She was holding out her hand, and in it she held an apple.

Finish.