The first time Lucy called him "Your Majesty," he almost snapped and said something unforgivable.
It wasn't the first first time. They'd been "Majestying" one another for years by then. But that was in Narnia, where such words rose easily to his lips, the courtly cadences of Cair Paravel. In England, the words fell like rocks on bruised flesh.
Because here, he wasn't anybody's Majesty. He was a ten-year-old boy in the middle of a war, and no magical lion would come roaring back from death to save their land.
He bit down on the unkind words that wanted to burst forth, and said only, "We aren't kings and queens here, Lu. And people will think you're playing silly games if you say that." Lucy huffed something about not caring what people thought, but he didn't hear, because he was already walking away.
England wasn't a place for majesty, in speech or in deed. But the habits were still there, and they got him into trouble. The boys at school set into him the first time he slipped up and called them "fair friends" -- not that he considered them friends at all, even before Conwin threw the first punch, but the words were reflex, echoes of a time he hadn't yet accepted was lost. That was enough to get him branded a nancy boy, and the judgement stuck.
You can't even imagine, he wanted to say. None of you have led an army in battle against giants. None of you have fought a werewolf with nothing more than a knife in your hand. None of you have faced the White Witch, brought your sword down to shatter her wand. You'd soil yourselves at the thought.
But he couldn't speak the words. Not because people would think he was playing silly games, and not because he would lapse into Narnian speech again and be mocked all the worse for it.
Because the words hurt worse than "Your Majesty" hurt, cutting deep into a heart that could not stop asking, "What did we do wrong?"
"Nothing," Peter always said, whenever Lucy or Susan asked. "I think we were meant to find the lamp-post again, and get back into the wardrobe, and come back to the lives we'd left."
"Why would Aslan do that to us?" Edmund said one night, when they were sitting on the roof of Peter's dormitory. They weren't supposed to be up there, of course, and Peter -- King Peter the Magnificent, eldest and best, good down to the bone -- had made a token protest, more for Edmund's sake than his own. Edmund got into trouble less often now than he had before Narnia, because the festering sore of bitterness inside him had been lanced and drained, but it still happened.
Which meant he sneaked out when he shouldn't, and sat in places where he shouldn't. And Peter humoured him, because the Pevensies had only each other, now -- each other and their memories.
"I don't know," Peter admitted, in the quiet voice that meant he was only showing his uncertainty because it was dark and they were alone and Edmund wasn't looking at his face. "I worry about Narnia, sometimes. We didn't make plans for what would happen after we were gone. I didn't think we needed to. There were suitors for Su's hand, of course, and I might have married, too . . . eventually we would have thought about heirs. But we were living in a story out of -- oh, King Arthur or some such. Nobody in those stories thinks about politics, and how to make sure the government will go on working after they die."
Or after they vanished without a word, pursuing the White Stag. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. "Maybe Aslan needed us gone." Maybe he had wanted them gone.
"Maybe," Peter said, and neither of them spoke the next thought. But he could have been decent enough to say it.
Su, he thought, was hurt the worst of them all. Lucy seemed fine -- nothing could squelch her spirit for long -- and Peter would soldier on, but when Edmund saw his older sister, he knew she was bleeding inside.
"She's so wonderfully grown-up," the grown-ups all said. Which had always been true, in its way; Susan was the eldest daughter, the surrogate mother, expected to look after her younger siblings when their actual mother could not. But now she carried the adulthood of grief: of having loved something with all her heart, and then lost it.
Edmund couldn't speak to her about it. Anything he said would only hurt them both. Peter and Lucy might take comfort in remembering Narnia, but the two of them did not. Susan spoke of it only once, after the initial shock of their return had faded, after they had chewed over the questions of why and how and what now until there was nothing new to say.
"I'm not twelve any longer," she said, after a patronizing old man had patted her on the cheek and gone his way. "Whatever I may look like. I can't wait to be an adult again."
Men and women in the bodies of boys and girls. Queen Susan the Gentle, her hand sought by the kings of the countries beyond the sea, reduced to this: a schoolchild in an uncomfortable school uniform. Edmund looked at his blurred reflection in a glass window, with the shock of dark hair on top and the sullen face beneath, and fled.
Lucy found him down beside the pond, when he should have been in lessons. And so should she have been; but then Lu was always one to hold to what she knew was right, in the face of what others told her to do.
He was in the hollow formed between two oaks, tossing pebbles and twigs into the water to break its still surface. Lucy paused, hand on the trunk of one tree, gazing up into its leaves with the wistful expression that meant she was listening, waiting for the slightest hint of the spirit within. She insisted they must be there, just sleeping; this world, after all, had stories of dryads and oak men and the like, which must exist for a reason. Edmund tried not to think about it at all.
But she heard nothing, as she always heard nothing, and came to sit next to him with a sigh. "In Narnia --"
"Don't," Edmund said, and threw a larger rock. It hit with a dull glunck and sank.
She fell quiet, studying him. He could not meet her gaze; it was unnerving when she did this, looking at him with the eyes of Queen Lucy the Valiant in the face of Lucy the eight-year-old girl. But he could not avoid her words, unless he got up and walked away, and he was still sitting there when she said, "Pray tell, brother -- is this how you intend to pass your days? For we have each found our own path onward, myself and Peter and Susan; but if this is yours, then my heart cannot rest easy."
"Don't talk like that," Edmund snapped. But curiosity niggled at him, and he added, less irritably, "What do you mean?"
Lucy stretched her feet out before her, crossing her ankles primly in the dirt. "Peter worries endlessly for the well-being of our erstwhile subjects, his mind half in Narnia still. Susan turns her face from it entirely, addressing herself to the task of living in this world."
He couldn't keep from asking, "And me?"
"You . . ." she said, and a weight of sorrow rested in that one word. "At times I fear that you would turn back the clock, and be the Edmund you were before, as if we had never set foot in Narnia."
There were no more convenient stones to throw. He locked his hands around his knees, knuckles tight and aching. "Part of me wishes we hadn't."
"Why?" Lucy asked, and now she sounded more like herself -- like a girl, anyway -- and less like the queen she'd been. "If we hadn't gone, Narnia would still be locked in winter."
He remembered that winter all too well. The perfect snow and perfect quiet, the perfect malice of the White Witch. Edmund gritted his teeth and kicked one foot out so that a mess of leaf-mould scattered across the surface of the pond, breaking its stillness once more.
Lucy saw the movement, and understood its cause. "Edmund . . ." she said, soft as a Narnian summer breeze. "Why don't you want to see your face?"
He bent his head to his arms, hiding that face from her, but the gentleness of her question dragged the answer from him when no command could have. "Being this age again . . . do you remember what I did, Lu?"
"I remember," she said, with no hint of accusation. "You helped save Narnia."
"After I betrayed it."
"We forgave you for that years ago, Ed. Aslan forgave you."
The great lion himself, who was tortured and killed to save Edmund from the fate he'd earned. They'd all forgiven him, and in time -- in much, much longer time -- he'd forgiven himself. Or so he thought. But then something, Aslan or their own folly, had thrown them back into the lives they'd left behind. And now -- "The last time I was this age, I was a traitor. I can't shake that, Lu. You didn't notice it then, we had so much else to do, but I couldn't look at myself in a mirror for a good year after it was all done. I hated the sight of my own face. I got over it . . . but now I'm ten again and that feeling is back. Like I'm still that traitor, and I'll never be able to make amends for what I did."
Lucy was wise enough not to touch him. "But you did make amends. You broke the White Witch's wand; and then you went on to rule Narnia wisely and well. You're the same age now that you were then, too -- the age you were when Aslan named you King Edmund the Just."
"I'm not King Edmund the Just," he said violently, coming out of the shell he'd built with his arms and thighs. "That's a Narnian thing, and we're not in Narnia anymore. Here I'm . . ." He caught the words he'd been about to say, laughed bitterly, and said them anyway. "I'm just Edmund."
"So?" Lucy tucked her skirt under her knees and sat back on her heels, facing him. "You get to decide what that means. We aren't who we were in Narnia, Ed; but we're not the children we were before then, either. You can be King Edmund the Just if you want."
"King George might have something to say about that."
She waved his objection away with an impatient hand. "I'm not talking about ruling the country. I'm talking about who you are. You were once great in council and judgement; does all that experience and wisdom go away just because you're back in this world?"
The fight drained out of his body, leaving him tired. "Nobody listens to a ten-year-old boy."
"Other boys do," Lucy pointed out. "Don't they count for anything? And adults do, if they see you being responsible and trustworthy. In time. I'm not saying it's easy. But once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen -- even if I'm not in Narnia. Don't you see? That's who I am. I just have to find ways of being that person now that I'm here."
The mere prospect of trying called up the weary impossibility he felt when he and Peter faced the White Witch's army, with Aslan dead and gone. It couldn't be done; there was simply no chance of success.
But he'd fought anyway. To make amends, and because Peter needed him, and . . .
All the reasons boiled down to one, really: because he'd looked at that army and known that, win or lose, live or die, he couldn't walk away.
That had been the thought of a king -- long before Aslan crowned him at Cair Paravel.
He was that boy, too, as much as he was the traitor and King Edmund the Just. He couldn't do anything for the Narnians they left behind, and he couldn't forget about Narnia either . . . but Lucy's way, impossible though it might be, was one he could try to walk.
After facing giants and werewolves and the White Witch herself, what did he have to fear from the scorn of others?
Edmund stood, incautiously, and saw movement in the distance: the school groundskeeper, who spotted him and shouted. "Stay down," he said to Lucy, stepping between the two oak trees. "I'll distract him, and you can slip away. No sense in both of us being caught." He'd have to give some thought to school. Much of it was a waste of his time, but not all, and flouting their rules as openly as he had only courted trouble, for no real gain.
So instead of fleeing, he walked forward to accept the punishment for his truancy. After that was done . . . then he'd consider what a King of Narnia should do.
Behind him, he heard a giggle. "As you command, Your Majesty."