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The foreigner

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Belazir Tarkaan is not the sort of man who makes the long journey to Narnia on a whim, nor is he particularly inclined to tolerate the insolent looks the Narnians throw his way as he strides down the dock towards Cair Paravel, followed by a foolhardy pair of Dwarves that are clearly more suited for interrogations than for diplomatic welcomes.

“Your arrival comes unannounced, Tarkaan, which leaves us somewhat unsure as to how to receive you,” says the red-haired one of the two, a clumsy creature with a most despicably ragged beard. “Had you sent word—”

“I am not an emissary for the Tisroc, may he live forever,” Belazir snarls, pulling his cloak closer around his shoulders. He forgets, every time, how intolerably cold the North is, even during what they call autumn. “Nor out of obligation to the Four. My visit, esteemed Dwarf, is out of generosity to your monarchs, a benevolent act on my part which I did hope would be better received.”

The dark-haired Dwarf, clearly even less versed in niceties, snorts. “Had you a mind to at the very least mention your intentions here, then there’d be something worth considering. As it is, you’re lucky you’re being received at all.”

He has been stripped of his bodyguards and left to walk as a commoner; to be expected, Belazir thinks resentfully, from such an undignified nation as Narnia. There is hardly any protocol here, and what little there is, is absolutely unintelligible, as it varies upon the number of limbs and amount of fur on each member of its population and the particular whims of its much-too-young rulers, which leaves experienced Tarkaans like Belazir in the most uncomfortable position of walking into Cair Paravel with as much diplomatic ceremony as a common stable-boy.

Absolutely unacceptable, and yet so typical of Narnia that it does feel rather disingenuous to be surprised.

“Private hearings are upon appointment,” the Black Dwarf has the gall to tell him.

“I am a private informer to your King, Dwarf,” Belazir snaps. “If this is the manner in which your leaders treat those who risk their lives for their sake, then I should be hard pressed to find the sense in serving them at all.”

King Edmund is the one to receive him, in the end, after nearly half an hour of waiting on his feet in the echoing Entrance Hall. He is taken to a sitting room and given a chair, and Edmund offers him Narnian wine as per usual, which Belazir takes with a sniff, because incensed as he may be, he’s not a fool enough to refuse one of the best brews found under the sun.

“You must forgive them, Belazir,” Edmund says, with that half-smile that never quite reaches his eyes. “Given recent events, I’m sure you understand why the unannounced arrival of a Calormene ship to our shores raises some hackles.”

“I was under the impression that being at your service, as it were, qualifies me for a somewhat better treatment than one of your war prisoners,” Belazir replies stiffly.

“And it does,” Edmund replies smoothly. “Which is why you sit here now, sipping wine with the King.”

King Edmund has always been too skilled in these things for Belazir to hold grudges for long, a quality that Belazir dislikes as much as he appreciates. He sets the goblet down gingerly and leans back in his seat, letting out a breath. The whirlwind of the South still weighs on his mind, and although he knows the Narnians better than anyone west of Zalindreh, the mystical tone politics have taken as of late has left him more ruffled than he cares to admit.

“Is it true?” he asks, having mustered the courage to ask the question. “What was done to Prince Rabadash?”

“I would have thought you'd have seen that for yourself.”

“I was not in Tashbaan at the time. But the rumors…”

Edmund never touches his wine. He turns his cup pensively upon the desk in front of him, but Belazir doubts he has ever seen the man take a drink at all. Perhaps, like many other things in the King’s life, this too is merely another mask he wears in his web of discreet negotiations.

“It is true,” Edmund replies calmly.

Belazir does not know what to say to that. It feels wrong, somehow, to question the barbarians on the abilities of their god and how often he decides to reach into the politics of men to issue judgement. It feels, in fact, like a rather dangerous question to ask. May Tash protect them all, if the Narnians’ god has the urge to meddle in international relations more often.

“But you are not here to question me on what happened in Anvard, Belazir,” Edmund insists gently, expression impassive. “Any cousin of yours in Tashbaan might have told you the same. What warrants the urgency of your visit?”

Belazir swallows down his misgivings related to the spiritual and brings his mind back to the earthly. Narnians will be Narnians, after all, and there is a more pressing conversation that must be had.

“It relates to the same matter, Your Majesty,” he says, steeling himself for the difficult debate that lies ahead. “To what happened in Anvard, and the startling way in which our nations now find themselves entwined. There is a question that shall soon be asked. A question for which Narnia must have an answer.”

Edmund’s expression tenses, and Belazir feels the quiet gravity of the room sharpen. He feels, for a small moment, finally justified in his long journey. This is why he has come: for Edmund’s eyes to sharpen so, and for the kingdom of Narnia to see the magnitude of what Belazir himself has predicted.

.

He is left alone in a council chamber soon after, hearing the murmur of voices on the other side of the door. Edmund heard all he had to hear, and promptly ushered him to this place, to wait. For what, he did not say.

Waiting; clearly another idiosyncrasy of the Narnians, although perhaps he is being petty – the Tisroc himself, may he live forever, is hardly a punctual man… heretic as such thoughts are. Shaking his head, Belazir helps himself to one of the peculiar biscuits the Narnian monarchs see fit to place on every flat surface they have in their palace – too salty, as usual; the barbarians have no concept of sweetness, or the importance of rosewater.

Nevertheless, it is strengthening; which he is glad of when the door swings open and the High King Peter himself strides in.

It’s not that he has never spoken to the High King before, but he has never been in a room alone with him. As of late, King Peter has been more occupied with matters in the far North than with the squabbles of the South, more focused on the mystical that Belazir does not wish to think of too much than on the matters Edmund normally has a hand in.

Which is why it’s rather surprising to now face the High King, when Belazir was under the impression that his duty is to report to Edmund, not Peter.

“I know you are surprised,” Peter tells him, with a more genuine smile than his brother, once formalities are exchanged and they are both seated. Formalities in Narnia, disappointing as they may be, are much less taxing than the elaborate protocol of speaking to the Tisroc, may he live forever, for which Belazir is grateful. “But the issue of Calormen is rather delicate these days, and my brother and sisters and I have decided that I am likely the best suited to tackle this matter.”

He is a tall man, the High King, with the blue eyes and fair hair Calormene maids say belong to barbarian demons. He is rather imposing, Belazir has to admit, although in a different manner than his younger brother. Unlike Edmund, Peter is easier to read – less secretive, less visibly distrustful. But that openness does seem more volatile, sharp as an unsheathed sword, blatant and shining and rare in the shadowy world that Belazir commonly operates in.

“I suppose Queen Susan would be weary of dealings with Calormen,” Belazir says, choosing his words with care and keeping his tone more guarded than he might with Edmund. “But I am glad to bring this matter to the most capable hands in the nation.”

Peter dismisses the compliment with a barely-noticeable nod of his head. “Tell me, then, why I should be so concerned with Calormen’s interest in a private citizen of Archenland.”

This is the manner of the High King, then – to strike at the matter quickly instead of floundering in niceties. Belazir wonders how much Edmund has already told him, and cannot avoid feeling a strange sense of glee at the fact that he can now argue his point with Peter. Unlike Edmund, Peter will likely be easier to read. The often mysterious thought process behind Narnia’s decisions may, if only briefly, become clear to him.

“Because the ‘private citizen’ in question is not of Archenland at all,” Belazir replies. “Aravis Tarkheena is the daughter of Kidrash Tarkaan of Calavar, who is descended in a direct line from Tash and has rank before the very eyes of the Tisroc, may he live forever. She is of Calormen, and her current living arrangement in Archenland is utterly unjustified.”

“Then why have you come to us?” Peter asks, eyebrows drawing together. “Would it not be more fitting to bring the matter to King Lune?”

Belazir refrains from allowing himself the sigh of irritation he desires to indulge in. The Narnians’ odd belief in honorable intentions never ceases to surprise him. He is of Calormen, and his current alliance with this foreign nation is a matter of convenience only – he will die before he bows to the gods of the North. “Because I have dealings with you, not with Lune, and my interests lie in Narnia’s survival, not in Archenland’s. And yes, Your Majesty, this is a matter of Narnia’s survival.”

The High King lets out a skeptical laugh. “The matter of a Tarkheena’s permanence in Calormen? As far as I am aware, she is a runaway Lune has adopted.”

“A runaway bride who was betrothed to none other than Ahoshta Tarkaan himself, the Grand Vizier of Calormen,” Belazir says, forcing himself to meet the King’s gaze. This conversation is much too important to allow nervousness before the King. “Lune has foolishly stolen the wife of the most powerful man in the Empire besides the Tisroc himself!”

Peter stares at him a moment longer, as if trying to measure him. Doubtless King Edmund has already told him of Belazir’s outspokenness – monarchs are never used to being challenged outright, and indeed Belazir would only ever dare to speak so to the barbarians. A Tisroc would have had his head for such a tone.

But a moment later Peter looks away, frowning. “You believe that there will be repercussions for the North because of the Grand Vizier’s failure to marry?”

“This is a diplomatic trap, Your Majesty.” Belazir says firmly. “Narnia must decide: to accept Aravis Tarkheena as a lawful citizen of Archenland, and in so doing, estrange herself from Calormen for giving legitimacy to a claim neither Lune nor the Tarkheena herself can allow – or to prevent a fallout and strengthen an alliance with the leaders of the greatest Empire south of Narnia, at very little cost.”

For it is little cost, as much as the high-minded Narnians might want to uphold the girl’s future in principle. What happens to her is of little consequence for a country such as Narnia, while a renegade Tarkheena is dangerous even as a concept in Calormen.

But with a mere glance at the Narnian King, Belazir knows that arguing this point will be harder than he thought. The High King’s expression has turned stony.

“Firstly,” he begins, his tone calm but intense – he is truly different from Edmund, whose every gesture is pre-planned and calculated. “My brother and sister have just returned from war against your Crown Prince. It shall not be forgotten quickly; what we have now is far from an alliance. Secondly, the Tarkheena was to be married as a woman of age might be, which makes her an adult free to wander what lands she pleases and pledge her allegiance to the monarch of her choosing.”

Belazir nearly lets out a laugh. “Your Majesty, the Tisroc – may he live forever – will never admit to authorizing the attack on Anvard. As far as Calormen has publicly acknowledged, Prince Rabadash was an unruly son whom you chastised fairly for his misdemeanors, and none of what took place in Anvard between the three nations has any place in international conversation. No changes have been made to trade deals or travel allowances. It is as if none of this ever happened.”

The High King’s eyes flash. “Susan and Edmund escaped from Tashbaan, where their permanence as prisoners was all but announced!”

“But it was not announced, and therefore it was not imprisonment any more than their hasty retreat was an escape. Which leaves Narnia still in quite a close relationship with Calormen, for as long as you choose to remain.”

Peter presses his fists against the table in front of him. His jaw is clenched, and Belazir wonders how it must have been for him, to return from a war against the terrors of the North only to find his own family ravaged by betrayal and a Southern ambush. Well have the poets said that it is easier for a man to face the most terrible wars on foreign soil, than to find conflict within his own house.

“As to your second argument, Your Majesty,” Belazir continues after a pause. “I believe some clarifications must be made regarding Calormene law. The Tarkheena is not yet in the age of adulthood, therefore she is not qualified to leave the house of her father without his permission, much less leave the Empire. Neither does she have the station to make a pledge of any sort. And beyond that, she is a woman – which entitles her to neither of those choices, unless Kidrash Tarkaan himself gives her away to King Lune – an act that will never happen so long as Tash rules over this earth.”

The King’s features twist into a look of bitter distaste. “So you deem a child old enough to be married, but not old enough to have a say in the life she wants for herself?”

“Not I, Your Majesty,” Belazir says archly. “The law.”

There is a moment of silence, and then Peter rises from his seat, folding his arms in front of him. He paces slowly behind the desk for a moment.

“If she is not yet married to the Vizier, then he has no claim over her, and the argument is with the father,” he says finally. “We are a third party, removed from this quarrel, and have no need to make a statement.”

Belazir clenches his fingers together. He has no desire to irk the King, but it cannot be helped. “Do forgive me, Your Majesty, if I say that you are being shortsighted. The girl has been brought into the house of a King, to reside alongside his sons. She is now as much a part of the royal family as she can be without blood ties. Sooner or later, she shall visit Narnia, and she shall be introduced to you as Lady Aravis of Archenland. What shall you say, then? She will mingle with Princes and Lords now; what will happen when she inevitably weds one of them? What will happen if she were to marry the Crown Prince?”

Peter fixes him with a sharp gaze. “You speak in hypotheticals.”

“This conversation is already being had in the South, in full,” Belazir says with some exasperation. “To the Tarkaans, this is a much more sinister tale. To them, Archenland’s Crown Prince effectively stole the wife of the Grand Vizier. Her family in Calavar has seen no sign of her for nearly three months now, and are in unspeakable anguish. Now she is in servitude of a barbarian King, forced to leave behind her culture, her beliefs, and her people.”

Kidrash Tarkaan’s angry letters to every son of the royal family are no secret, and after the embarrassment of Rabadash’s return, the gossip-mongers are glad to have another scandal to hold over the Northerners. Belazir knows nothing about Aravis Tarkheena firsthand, but he has heard stories both of the girl’s weak-mindedness and of her brutish tendencies. Doubtless, all tales have been exaggerated in one sense or another – but hyperbole is the currency of gossip, and so it matters not how much truth there is to any side.

“You must understand, Your Majesty,” he continues. “The weight the title Tarkheena carries in Calormen. She is a descendant from the gods, a jewel of the Empire. For Lune to have plucked it so carelessly is in itself an act of war, and might have had more consequences had Prince Rabadash not acted so rashly.”

Peter sighs. Closing his eyes briefly, he takes a deep breath, and when he looks at Belazir again he is the picture of the magnificence that gives him his title. Tall, his hands clasped before him, he speaks calmly. “What would your recommendation be, then, were you to have a say?”

“I would not dream to speak upon the decisions a King might make. However, if I may presume…” Belazir clears his throat, and straightens in his seat. “I would recommend that Your Majesty write to King Lune and present the difficulty of the situation to him. Then, Narnia might do well in communicating this stance to Calormen. The Tisroc, may he live forever, will never speak openly against what was done to the Tarkheena – but there is yet a web of trade deals and alliances to navigate, and here is where the Tarkaans will have their revenge.”

“I doubt our trade with Calormen would change over so small a matter. Calavar is a horse-breeding province, is it not? We do not trade in horses with them. Fabric and spices are from further East, where our greatest trade deals lie.”

“But the Tarkaans are all kin, and they might yet find a new kingdom from which to purchase. There is Telmar.”

Peter laughs outright now. “Telmar is a budding country, with scarcely enough manpower to fill one fortress, much less pose a rival to us!”

“Not now, perhaps. But trade deals with Calormen traditionally last thousands of years. A shift in the Empire’s stance towards Narnia might signify investment elsewhere. As trifling as this choice may seem, it might spell the advancement of Telmar above Narnia’s own.”

The High King is aware of the longevity of Calormene treaties, naturally. But of course the Narnians struggle to envision Telmar’s potential – a kingdom so young has no shared history, and the enchantress that ruled over Narnia for one hundred years likely destroyed the knowledge that might have existed before her. In the end, Belazir knows, Calormen has the advantage of thousands of years of memory – and the High King would be a fool to dismiss such expertise as his own.

“Your Majesty, I do not ask that you engage in war with Archenland over the Tarkheena’s future. Only that you reject the girl’s claim on principle, and in so doing ensure the sympathies of the Tarkaans.”

Peter has turned away from him, and stands facing the window behind the table. From where he sits, Belazir cannot know what the man is looking at. But when the High King speaks again, his voice has taken on a new, much darker tone.

“I will not bow to the wishes of a nation that has caused my sister unspeakable suffering. Aravis Tarkheena would not have run if she had not felt the urgent need to do so. The girl may have been born a jewel, but she is not an object to be plucked; she is of Archenland now, as much as the Crown Prince is.”

Ah, the naiveté of the Narnians rears its foolish head once more. Belazir leans back in his chair, turning his eyes to the heavens, now that the King is not looking. “The cold skies of the North cannot remove the darkness from her skin, or our accent from her tongue,” he says, more venomously than he perhaps intended. The Tarkheena’s ambitions may be understood; she is a foolish girl-child. But monarchs should not indulge in such delusions. “The blood of Tash flows in her veins, and she cannot relinquish that.”

And yet, as soon as the words leave his mouth, Belazir knows he has said the wrong thing. Before him, Peter lets out a breath and turns to meet his gaze. His mouth is a thin smile, proud and unforgiving.

“You speak to the wrong man, Belazir. I too was not born in this country, but in a far land we called Spare Oom; and yet I am Narnia’s High King. I can count on scarcely one hand the Crown’s subjects whose appearance resembles mine; and yet I am High King. Am I not Narnian?”

Though several decades his senior, Belazir feels himself quell under that gaze. There is fire there – a fierce relentlessness that both inspires and terrifies.

“Narnia,” Peter continues. “Is a land comprised of Beasts and Beings of many kinds, and appearance has never set any one of them apart. It is their love for our land that makes them Narnian.” The smile widens slightly, but it is not a happy smile – it is one of pity. “In seeking to persuade me to reject the Tarkheena, you have only succeeded in sealing my decision.”

Gulping down his unease, Belazir grips the arms of his chair. “Your Majesty,” he says, pushing back against the sense of finality in Peter’s tone. “If Calormen turns its gaze elsewhere – if the Tarkaans come to favor Telmar… You must reject the girl’s claim!”

“Narnia does not exist to bend to the will of ancient notions of human enslavement. I will not deny Aravis Tarkheena the right to pledge herself to Archenland if she so pleases.” The High King’s eyes flash. “And if the Tisroc takes issue with our stance, then he will have to confront the Northern powers he so terribly fears to openly face.”

Belazir Tarkaan is not a man of war; he is, above anything else, a diplomat. He operates in darker, more complex fields of battle than the sword. But pinned down by Peter’s gaze, he feels like neither. The sun, shining through the window behind the King, makes Peter's golden hair gleam as if its edges are pure fire, and that, paired with his burning eyes, makes Belazir wonder if this is how the barbarian god operates – turning monarchs into lions.

The gods of the North are strong.

He bows his head low, momentarily forgetting that it is not the Tisroc’s presence that he is in. “Far be it from me to disagree with the High King,” he says, though he feels the sting of disagreement in his very bones.

Peter slowly returns to his seat, folding his hands in front of him, over the table. The fire in his eyes dims, and Belazir is no longer sitting in front of a god. The High King is a man again, a barbarian, a child-turned-monarch. And some of the fear diminishes.

“Thank you for your services,” Peter tells him, and the finality in his tone is unmistakable. “Rooms have been arranged for you, that you may rest for a day or two before returning. I wish you a safe journey.”

He stands, and as Belazir prepares to stand as well, he feels some of his own fierceness come to life again. He is older than this barbarian King, after all, with much more knowledge of the world than him. He did not travel all this distance to be dismissed on a matter that so clearly requires Calormene expertise.

Still, he rises, and with a short bow of his head, makes his way to the door. But he cannot hold himself back from one last remark. With one foot at the threshold, the peculiar Narnian guards only a few steps away, Belazir turns and makes eye contact with the High King one last time.

“A tree might be planted anew, but that does not make it native. Aravis Tarkheena is, in blood and in soul, of Calormen – just as the Four are of Spare Oom.”

Then he turns, and hurries from the barbarian halls with admittedly little decorum, as if their very lion-god were at his heels.

He will sail for Zalindreh that day, after indulging in as much wine as he can stomach, and persuade himself to think no more of the exchange – or dwell on the foolishness of the Kings and Queens and the traitorous Tarkheena.

Narnians will be Narnians, after all. There is nothing Belazir can do about it.