The invitation said, "weather permitting," but Susan couldn't have designed a better harvest season. The heat of summer lingers, as if reluctant to cede new-won ground back to winter, and the only rain comes in polite sprinklings that do their work and pass quickly. The Narnians are in ecstasies over the food being brought in, and one can hardly hold a conversation that doesn't drift into raptures over real summer-ripened fruits and plump vegetables.
Oddly, very little of the bounty has made its way to tables, but the storehouses are beginning to strain at the seams. Susan had helped lay up jams and pickle vegetables in the Cair's kitchens, the work familiar after the last year of preparing for war but made infinitely easier by the joy among the workers rather than the anxious tension of England.
Planning a country's stores rather than a household's requires a calculus that makes her head ache, especially when accounting for dozens of different species, but she sits with the numbers every evening anyway, picking away at the puzzle bit by bit, and she is becoming convinced that Narnians are planning for another hundred-year winter. If it gives them any comfort to see the full stores before the snows come, she won't say a word against it. Lion knows — and isn't it odd how quickly that's slipped into her thoughts? She can hardly remember what she would have said in England — Lion knows she finds the neat rows of tidily sealed and labeled jars comforting herself. But she thinks she will insist that at least some of this harvest be eaten fresh, by way of celebration, and to relieve tension — a harvest fair of some sort would be just the thing. Narnians love a party, and hold them at a moment's notice on the least excuse, so the lack here is odd.
They are, at least, turning the work of harvest itself into a celebration. Thus, the invitation for the royals to attend the first wine-grape picking of the New Summer, as the annal-writers are already calling the year.
A party greets them by the River Ardoss, made up of everyone not actively engaged in the work of harvest, and the tumult of greeting is enough to wake the river god, Ismenos. He rises from the waters in a dripping wave, his booming laugh echoing off the valley walls. While he himself will not stray far from his waters, his children eagerly join the throng, bright laughing naiad-daughters and one water-born son shyly hiding amongst his sisters. Susan makes a point to greet him kindly; the water-born look human, but for their damp hair and slightly blue-tinted lips, like a swimmer in the water too long. They were often mistaken for humans and killed by the Witch’s hunters, and even those born in latter years are shy of crowds with good reason.
Their numbers thus swelled, the royal party wends its way onward, up past the wild riverbanks to where the cultivation begins. Neat rows of bright green scallop the hill, and the vines rustle in every small breeze as if talking (which is not such a wild idea in Narnia, but of course these are not talking grapevines). As they climb the terraced hillside, harvesters readying baskets call greetings, and quick snatches of song can be heard on the breeze.
A flattish place about halfway up the hill holds most of the company, along with great vats ready for the grapes. Some baskets have already been brought in; a faun tips one into one of the vats, a beautiful tumble of black fruit. Dryads standing in the vats tread the grapes, and just as the royal party approaches, a young faun strikes up a tune on his pipes and the dryads take up his rhythm like a dance.
Lucy immediately begins clamoring to try it herself, as might be expected where anything musical is concerned. Peter shakes his head, but when the dryads themselves stretch out their hands in invitation, he laughs and surrenders, lifting her up to perch on the edge of the vat while she kicks off her shoes.
A faun comes rushing over bearing a bowl of water and a towel to wash her feet. Lucy giggles to have them handled, squirming so much she would have gone tumbling into the vat if two nymphs had not come over to steady her. They help her turn on the lip and slide down into the grapes, and one of them stoops to kilt her skirts up around her knees. Then they each take her by a hand and show her how to tread the grapes. Soon she is laughing and slipping with them, her dress juice-splashed despite its shortening.
Susan is just on the edge of abandoning dignity herself and joining them when she becomes aware of a sound beyond the single faun's pipe. The breeze carries a deeper, richer sound to them out of the woods beyond the cultivation. She glances at Peter; he is looking towards the woods, and she knows he hears it too: faint strains of wild skirling music, growing louder — closer — with each moment.
Together they drift to the edge of the fields, watching. It isn't a long wait before someone steps out of the trees, though he carries no instrument to explain the music that still plays. He appears to be a human youth in perhaps his late teens, straight-limbed and beautiful, approaching with a stride so light he almost dances across the grass. Reaching them, he pauses and studies Peter intently for a moment. Then he sweeps a deep bow, almost comically flamboyant and yet utterly respectful. When he bobs up again, he seems to have shrunk, and his face is rounder, so that he seems younger, perhaps the same age as Peter or Susan. "My apologies," he says, wearing a grin so broad it ought to have made his apology insincere, and yet it suits his face so well it was impossible to think ill of him for it. "The last king of Narnia was somewhat elder; I do not like to be rude."
Peter appears completely nonplussed by this speech and transformation, but then they'd all got used to shape-shifters. Susan is still trying to work out what sort of Narnian the youth might be: not a river-god, so far from water, and anyway all of Ismenos's children had come with them. Something about his dress (and the vines wreathing his curly hair) suggests an association with the woods and wild places, but he looks utterly comfortable in the open field among the cultivation as well.
"We are quite accustomed to being the youngest present, my lord Bacchus," Peter says calmly, leading Susan to glance at him: how had he known? "What brings you here?"
"Where else should I be, when the first wine is pressed and all of Narnia is in revelry?"
Peter bows slightly to him, so Susan dips a tiny curtsey as well. "You are most welcome at the harvest, then, my lord."
"It has been long since I walked these lands," Bacchus says. "I am glad to be remembered." Something about his smile is faintly mocking, and Susan is shocked to see Peter return it, saying, "Narnia could never forget you, Lord Bacchus," with a cynical twist better suited to Edmund. She fumbles for an apology, but Bacchus only laughs long and loud. So infectious is it that Susan laughs too, and Peter, his grin now only free and joyful.
"Come!" Bacchus cries. "It has been too long since Narnia romped! Euan-oi!" On the last words he throws his head back, caroling them to the sky. They seem to echo oddly, ringing back from branch and leaf, and the air shivers. Susan imagines she can feel the earth beneath her feet shiver too, rippling like the fur of a stretching cat. The pipe music is suddenly much louder, and the vines in the distance stir with the approach of — something, Susan can't see what. But she isn't given much time to look, for Bacchus seizes each of them by the hand and leads them into a wild skipping dance down the rows of cultivation.
Released, breathless and barefoot (when had that happened?), Susan finds a mass of beings where she had thought to find only a small party. It seems to her there are more people than should be accounted for even if all the harvesters left off work. Even if the wood spirits and Animals nearby came to see what the fuss was. She gazes around, puzzling over this. It is hard to see exactly who's here; everyone is in motion, the wild piping setting even Susan's toes to tapping, tired though she is. Someone thrusts a goblet into her hand. She drinks automatically, and almost drops it in shock. It's wine, but not the thin, winter-grown stuff they've been drinking when they drink at all. This is rich and warm with the scent of sunlight and good loam. She hasn't tasted wine like this since their coronation, when some laid down before the Winter was brought out in honor of the celebration. But a hundred years is a long time; all but the finest vintages had been drunk or gone to vinegar. Most of the time they drink water, which is no hardship, for the clear waters of Narnian springs are as heady as any wine found in their old world.
Susan doesn't realize she's staring at the cup until a hand wraps around hers on it. She looks up into a nymph's laughing eyes. "How Narnian wine should be," the nymph says. "Drink, Queen Susan. Drink deep."
Time keeps slipping for her. She would attribute it to the wine, but she doesn't feel drunk. It's more like a dream or a fever; moments surface and you realize they don't link up, but you can't reconstruct the parts in between. In this particular moment, she stands next to Kykeros, the oldest centaur at court, watching a group of women perform a ring dance. Or perhaps a spiral; it seems to involve a great deal of weaving amongst one another. Kykeros sways gently with the music, stomping a hoof in time with the drums. He holds a bowl Susan would consider a serving dish in one broad hand, drinking wine from it. Susan plaits vines into a wreath, leaning against his grizzled flank with a license that would horrify her at any other time.
Once again she is struck by how many people there are, and now with the rush of beings scattered a little she can catalog them. Not that she has to look far for her answers: in the dancers before them there are several women who appear entirely human (and Susan thinks she can spot a spirit by now). They wear pale sleeveless shifts like those the naiads clothe themselves in when they take physical form, wine-spotted and rucked up about their knees to bare strong, tanned limbs beneath, and many of them carry rods wrapped in vines.
"Who are they?" Susan asks, plucking another stem to add to her wreath. "The girls who came with Bacchus?"
"His maenads," Kykeros replies. "His wild girls. They follow the revels, along with Lord Silenus there."
Following his pointing hand, Susan sees an old man, his hair and beard tangled with leaves, so drunk he keeps toppling over and so fat one ought to feel sorry for his donkey, except that the little beast stands placidly beneath him, munching on grapevines.
"And Lord Silenus is?"
"Bacchus's tutor, when he's not drunk." He lifts the mazer to his lips and drains it in one smooth draught.
Susan considers the old man and decides Bacchus has very few lessons. There are a dozen other questions in her head, ranging from where the wine came from to who would finish the harvest, but none of them seem important at this moment. She tucks the end of a vine securely into her weaving and turns to face Kykeros. "You're too tall," she complains. Obligingly, he stoops; she stretches up on tiptoe to crown him with grape leaves.
Susan isn't allowed to rest long, not that she minds. Her toes haven't stopped tapping since the music began and the wine sings in her blood, banishing fatigue. She passes from dance to dance, laughing and taking the hand of any partner who offers. These aren't court dances; they aren't even any steps she's ever learned, but it never matters if her feet miss the patterns. Men, women, children, two legs, four, nothing matters; the dance adjusts and all are welcome.
She's lost track of time again, lost track of the dances — long since lost track of how much wine she's drunk. The odd part is that she doesn't feel drunk at all, though she's certain she's far past the point where she would ordinarily be sleeping it off. No one seems especially drunk; no one stumbles or moves with the wild-limbed gait of the heavily intoxicated. They're all just... cheerful.
Perhaps its because of these musings that she doesn't notice the maenad partnering her lean closer than the dance calls for. But the brush of lips on hers gets her attention, and the heat and tease of something more than lips, accompanied by a flirting glance from startlingly dark eyes roots her feet to the earth for the first time since Bacchus appeared. The maenad giggles, sweeping away with the dancers, who part around Susan like a stream for rocks while she stands stunned.
A warm arm steers her gently out of the dance, and a hand presses a wine cup into hers. She blinks up into the face of a young man. He looks human enough that that damp curl of his hair might just be from sweat, but the slight blue tinge to his lips reminds her of the shy river-born who came with them. "Better, my queen?" he asks when she has drunk a little of the wine.
"I think so," she answers, still feeling the press of lips on hers. She fumbles for his name amongst the haze of mass introductions and wine. "Thank you, Ladon." She smiles at him and watches a slow, sweet smile spread across his face in response.
"I am entirely at your service." He touches his cup to hers, tipping a few drops into her wine. Susan laughs and gives them back. He sucks in a breath, his gaze on her face suddenly sharper. "Would you really?" he asks.
"Really what?" she says, leaning back a bit, flustered and off-guard. Susan hates it when she stumbles into some custom like this; she haunts the library for hours and drinks up everything their tutors offer, but there's so much to learn and there's been so little time to do it.
"You don't know." Ladon slumps a little, gives her a tiny smile. "Of course. Why would you —" He shakes his head. "You could choose anyone you liked."
"I don't understand," Susan says carefully, though she can read the disappointment in every line of his frame.
"To mingle cups is an invitation to mingle... other things," he says with equal care, watching her shyly.
For a moment, she still doesn't understand. Then the penny drops. "Oh," she says lamely, feeling her face heat. "Oh, I see." She looks away, all too aware of her blush, and the first thing her gaze falls on is a couple enthusiastically engaged in the same activity he's invited her to. No one nearby objects, or even seems to notice, but Susan is suddenly vividly aware that Edmund and Lucy are somewhere in this revel.
"I should find my siblings," she says apologetically to Ladon. "Lucy and Edmund are really too young for this."
"Then they won't be part of it," he answers. "Though I think King Edmund is getting to be old enough."
Blinking, she follows his gaze and spots Edmund sitting with a group of satyrs. He isn't exactly watching the occupied couple, but he is peeking from time to time, and his ears are a tell-tale red. Susan frowns and starts forward, but the river-born catches her wrist.
"He's fine," he says. "No one will ask him to take part unless he starts to look a lot more interested, and if anyone does, his friends there will handle it. Satyrs keep their heads well at revels; they're more accustomed."
His fingers are moving on her wrist, the tips tracing along the path of veins as if searching for her pulse. She thinks he might do better just to listen; certainly it's hammering in her ears, almost drowning out the music. "Well, I..." she starts, fumbling for the thread of the conversation. "That is... Lucy."
"She's probably climbing trees and stuffing herself silly on grapes," he says, grinning. "That's what the little ones usually do. Shall I help you look for her? I can ask the waters if she's passed there."
"Please," Susan answers gratefully, slipping her wrist from his grasp but letting him retain her hand.
He guides her down to the river, away from the music and dance. It's a great deal quieter by the water, but they aren't the only ones who've sought a little quiet and they pass many couples — and more than couples — indulging in a more private venue. Taking pity on her blushes, Ladon gives them a wide berth and finds a spot on the riverbank no one else has claimed.
Kneeling beside the water, he touches the surface and murmurs to it for a moment, then smiles. "Come see," he invites, holding a hand out to her. She kneels beside him, letting him wrap an arm around her shoulders. His free hand twines with hers, guiding it to the water. When their fingertips rest in the river, he breathes gently on the surface. Their reflections shiver and break up into little ripples, but when the water stills it isn't her own face Susan sees.
Lucy is standing thigh deep in water, wearing only her shift and soaked to the skin. Her hands are in the river, sending up huge gouts of water to splash... someone entirely obscured by the spray. A small faun, so young his horns barely show amongst his curls, sneaks up behind her and tackles her into the water. The victim of her water-assault is thus revealed to be a centaur lad, well-braced on thin coltish legs. He offers a hand up to his faun ally, then they both look around for Lucy, who hasn't surfaced yet.
Susan tenses, but the river-born squeezes her shoulder gently. "No harm will come to Queen Lucy in my father's waters," he promises. And indeed, a moment later Lucy pops up behind the faun, turning the tables and dunking them both again. The image fades into ripples and settles once more into reflecting the sky, the trees, and the two people kneeling on the riverbank.
"Are you content, my queen?" he asks, meeting her gaze in the water.
She is suddenly aware of their closeness, the way she is tucked into his side and the heat of his body all along hers. "Thank you," she says, licking dry lips and wishing for another cup of wine. With the magic of the revel which Susan is learning not to question, two cups are sitting by the riverbank, looking for all the world as if they had always been there and she simply had not noticed until that moment. She seizes one, drinks deep. "I... Why did you show me this?"
"Should I not have?" His eyes crinkle a little at the corners, and Susan almost puts out a hand to touch them before remembering she's looking at a reflection.
"I know the water-born are shy," she says softly. "I can't say I blame you. But you've helped me twice now..." She twists to gaze up at him in person.
"You were worried," Ladon says, smiling shyly, "and worry has no place at a revel. I wanted you to smile."
She does, charmed by his unassuming sincerity. "Thank you," Susan says, and kisses him.
She'd meant it to be a peck, only a gesture of gratitude — Narnians are so much freer with hugs and kisses than people had been in England; any occasion of greeting, leave-taking, joy or sorrow calls for an embrace. But this kiss lingers, becomes something more interesting. The warmth of his lips surprises her; fooled by the blue tint, she'd expected cold. She tastes the wine they have both drunk, and something else, crisper and lighter, like the water straight from a spring. The tingles from that taste slide all the way to her toes before the kiss fades gently away and they both sit back.
"Are you... content?" he asks again, his cheeks tinted with a faint blush. He fiddles anxiously with his wine cup, sending glances at her that are half shy, half flirtatious. She looks up into his face and finds herself considering it. It's the first time such an offer has been put to her seriously, and she's very tempted to accept.
She knows Peter has, with a very pleased and very eager nymph. Mostly this is because the lady in question was happy to tell everyone how promising the High King was, for such a youth, and how talented he could be 'with a little more practice.' Susan had needed to ask a Dwarf lady to have a word with the nymph about discretion — Dwarfish attitudes being the most similar, as far as she can tell, to human ones. Centaurs are very discreet, but she hasn't quite worked out whether they don’t gossip about sex or simply don't gossip at all, at least by Narnian standards. It's practically the national pastime.
Peter himself had been quiet about the entire — matter, she censors her thought hastily, flushing more than the wine can excuse. He'd been very tired and very happy the next morning, but otherwise gave no sign. He'd even managed an appropriately sober demeanor in court that day, despite the lady flirting with him across the room. Susan hopes Edmund will take his example from brother's conduct — in four or five years.
In England... And that's when it hits her, really hits her, that this isn't England. This is Narnia, and she's a queen of Narnia, and who's going to tell her she can't have a tumble with a perfectly willing fellow in the middle of a revel at which nearly everyone is pairing off?
The realization — revelation — leaves her nearly breathless and sets her heart to racing, as if the kiss hadn't already left it pounding. There aren't words for the heady sense that comes upon her, a fey sort of wildness, like she could do anything, if only she had the courage to grasp for it. The music of the revel comes into her ears again, and it seems to Susan that her pulse matches the drums beat for beat.
I am a queen of Narnia, she thinks, and her smile breaks free. She meets Ladon's eyes boldly, and touches her cup to his, deliberately letting a few drops spill over. His eyes widen and his lips part on a breath, but he never has the chance to speak, because she covers them with her own.
A moment later, the cups tumble to the ground, the rich musk of grapes filling the air as the wine spills over the stone and moss to mingle with the waters of the river.