Thirty one .
No one said it but they all thought it as they one by one stepped into the pool. Thirty one pools, thirty one worlds, and none of them home. Edmund held his breath as the water closed above his head, then closed his eyes as the darkness took him. The split-second of movement as they ceased to be here but not in the new world took him and squeezed him. His muscles clenched, his toes curled inside of his boots. His heart beat, hard, once, twice.
There were rounded pebbles under his feet. He lost his balance, flinging his arms out to catch himself against the wind that buffeted his body. His ears screamed as sharp tendrils of air slammed into them. He ducked his head and dropped into a crouch, hands steadying himself on the ground against wind and vertigo.
The first few seconds were always the worst.
" Rasi's Blinding !"
Edmund jerked his head up, the world exploding in reds and oranges as he opened his eyes. Peter -- or rather the shape that ought to be Peter, based on the voice -- seemed unhurt... though what would have made him blaspheme?
Then, past Peter, he saw it -- oh, may Rasi protect us -- the great sun, dying of age and spilling reds and oranges across a world that ought to have been dead.
"Charn," Susan breathed, still on her feet, then, quicker than the others to gather her composure, added, "Well, it was only a matter of time."
That was completely true. It was also something that he had avoided thinking about for as long as they had known that entering the pools took them through time as well as space. The Professor had told them about Charn but the tales of the dying world had not only come from him, not by a long shot. Charn was not a time and place that any of them wanted to face. Not when it represented being so close (and yet so far) from… home.
Lucy walked past Susan and Edmund, then strode past Peter as well, unerring on her path to...whatever it was that had caught her attention. She hadn't made a sound as she got her bearings, but it had been a long time since she had spoken more than a word or two in a row. What went on in her mind was, to most of them, a question without an answer. Her movement, however, was the catalyst for Edmund to glue his scattered thoughts together again with the ease of long practice. He looked around and took in the world that had once upon a time started their involuntary travels through the pools in the Woods.
They were standing on a cliff, far above a valley cut deep with ravines and decorated with great boulders and little else. Pale gold climbing vines covered large swathes of ground. Their winding stalks were covered with furry leaves and there were tiny flowers the same colour as the rest of the vine that opened up like mouths attempting to swallow the air. Behind him round rocks were stacked haphazardly on top each other so high that he could barely see the topmost of them. There was the scent of water in the air and when he walked over to the nearest edge and looked down, he saw a lake beneath them, fed by springs below, he assumed, as it was deeply embedded in the rock but didn't smell stagnant.
The world shook. Dust danced into the air, tracing patterns around his feet, then fell as the tremor subsided.
"Alive," Lucy pronounced.
Edmund stared at her. She had struck her hand into the ground up to her wrist, her sleeves pushed up to her elbow. He could see the glint of other in her skin and... His throat closed, his head swam. He closed his eyes and counted to five, then forced himself to take a deep breath.
"Jadis hasn't spoken the Deplorable Word yet." Peter's voice was flat. Edmund kept his eyes closed. The change in his sisters might be more obvious, but the change in Peter... It felt odd and not a little uncomfortable.
"This is the second time we've crossed time," Susan noted. "Which begs the question of what we will do."
Edmund strode to Lucy and helped her withdraw her hand. Lucy gave him a quick smile. "We interfered last time," Edmund said, peering into the hole Lucy had made. She was getting stronger, for sure. This wasn't dirt, or even a porous rock. "And with Charn, we are responsible to a certain degree."
"Rasi cautioned us." Peter's voice was still flat. If it was up to him, they would all leave, Edmund thought. Then again, the question wasn't whether he would make that decision, it was whether they would follow. Another question none of them wanted to answer. "We all know what happened when Susan disobeyed."
Not that again. Not another fight.
"That was my decision and my choice to make." If Susan had had an ounce of voice magic, Peter would've been turned into ice. "The price was mine to pay and I paid it."
Peter didn't reply and Edmund sent a quick thanks to Rasi. This wasn't a fight they needed to have again. Susan had been right -- for certain aspects of the word -- but it had also cost Susan her legs, which impacted them all. She would no doubt consider the contraptions made out of steel and wire that had replaced them a fair exchange. Peter, he knew, agreed with none of it.
"Rasi wishes us to fight."
Edmund jumped. Again, Lucy had managed to get past them all. She had climbed onto the rocks above them and was perched on the top of the pile, the red sun turning her hair and robe into the colour of blood.
"Fight." Peter sighed. "Are you sure this is Rasi you hear, Lucy."
Peter should know better. Edmund fought the scream building in his head and counted to five again. Susan needed no such thing.
"Haven't you learned, Peter?" She didn't look at Lucy. "Haven't we done this enough times already?"
You didn't countermand Lucy speaking with Rasi's voice.
Peter took a deep breath. "You're right." He glanced up at Lucy. "I'm sorry, Lucy. I just wish that we didn't have to fight, again." Lucy nodded. Peter's shoulders dropped, all of the defensiveness that had been there gone. "Well then, I guess we ought to plan things out."
"And reconnoitre," Susan added. "Much as I like the Professor and the people that have told us of Charn, I would prefer to have our own information to work from."
"We'll split up," Peter agreed. "We'll make a spellmap out of what Lucy can give us and decide on a meeting place for… let's say, a month's time."
It took time to plan a war and even more to plan with whom to ally. They knew of Jadis' sister, but knew nothing about her.
Edmund closed his eyes, the sun burning patterns into his eyelids. May Rasi's eyes witness us all .
They met in the ruins of Neres. The old capital lay on the shore of Varas-nes, a crater lake that had long since dried out, baring the vertical walls around the edges for all to see. The Lightning Heights of mid-Charn lay at its back, the thunder clouds rolling down their slopes almost daily while the lightning that gave them their name danced along the countryside. Great blocks from the city wall had tumbled down onto roads long since hidden by mudslides, making the approach to the city much harder than it had been with lake access.
Edmund was the first to arrive, departing from the merchant company he had traveled with at the base of the Heights. They had offered to lend him one of their huge beasts of burden, but the mere thought of trying to remain unseen with something that was double the size of an elephant at his side had him politely saying no.
"May your Tidings go well," Basid, leader of the company, told him at the pass into the Heights, "and be sure that you may join us at anytime again."
Edmund would have embraced the man, but as the people of Charn didn't appear to stop growing until death, the difference in height really made it impossible without being put on top of a larbeast. "I hope to see you again," he said instead with a big smile - and said it with more honesty than he would've expected only a month ago. He had grown fond of these people even though it had taken some time to assure them that for all he looked as if he was merely in his teens in their eyes, he really was quite some years older. "Luck be with you."
Basid snorted. "You and your luck."
And that, Edmund thought as he remembered their parting, said a lot about the Charni as a people. You were responsible for your own fate and what you made out of it. Luck wasn't a concept they knew and religion translated more into the science of seeking what is unknown and proving it than a faith. Edmund had to admit he wasn't fully sure of this however, since his knowledge of academia was small. Of his siblings, he most preferred the study of people.
He explored the city for a safe nesting spot and a place to meet. His choice was one of the highest towers still standing, rising above the city from within a building that must have held a place of knowledge once upon a time, based on the architecture of such places that he had observed during a visit to Charn City. If he stood at the parapets that had once surrounded a smaller wooden structure at the top of the tower, he could see both Charn City and, across the tower, the Facet Complexes scattered along the Choshat Pass. At a guess, that view might have been the tower's purpose once upon a time, but there was no way to know now.
Susan was the next to arrive, saying little but carrying herself in a way that told him she had much to share. Once, she would have spoken to him at no end about what she had found out, but that had been a long time ago. What had once been four siblings discussing things they had found out about new world had turned into a council after their first handful of pools, after Lucy's kidnapping. They couldn't afford anything else.
It had been a frightening time when Lucy had been taken from them in one of their first worlds. Finding her had been even more so, until she had stepped into the sun and no one, blind of seeing, could mistake her for anyone but one witnessed by Rasi. There was damage within her, but no one could take her spirit or wisdom. They were, after all, all blinded while she could See.
That had been their first introduction to the cruelty - and kindness - of the world. By now, Edmund thought, the four of them knew both well.
Peter and Lucy arrived the next day. Edmund wasn't sure where they had met up, seeing as he had parted from Lucy in Charn City only a week before. They both looked grave - Edmund knew that at least Lucy carried news that wasn't altogether good - but their joined hands swung between them as they walked. When Peter could manage that and not withdraw into himself, it couldn't be too bad.
Edmund put the spellsilk with maps onto the walls while the others set up camp in the rooms below them. Lucy had, with her usual skill, created what he estimated to be the full map of the world of Charn. At some point she must have found maps, he thought, since most of her mapping skills required inhabited places to map. She couldn't explained how she did it, but Peter and Susan agreed between them that it appeared to be based on the living people that inhabited places.
When the others came upstairs, he had blankets on the floor and a foldable table that Lucy had brought set out with water and food. Susan carried a satchel of scrolls that she set down next to herself, while Peter dumped a thick tome on the table. Lucy's spellsilk was already on the walls and Edmund kept all his information inside of his head.
"Her name is Virid." Susan began, habit formed after years of meetings like these. "She's Jadis' older half-sister, not intended for the throne but not prevented by any law to aspire to it. The war began roughly a decade ago and the opposition to Jadis' rule found Virid three years ago."
Edmund frowned. "Where? I haven't found any indications of organised communities that isolate themselves or choose new names - seven years is a long time to not be found."
"Virid is a scientist." Susan said with just a touch of exasperation. "Apparently she went into the Facet Caves to study 'shash gems' and didn't particularly spend any time outside of the caves. The cave network is very extensive and the people that study the caves and their contents are very protective of their knowledge. Though why, I'm not sure."
"The Words were first Heard in Facet Caves," Peter informed her.
"And no one wants Words to be common," Edmund extrapolated. "A sound idea."
"At first," Susan continued, "I believe the opposition thought Virid would just be a figurehead. It seems like that thought was put from their minds quickly enough - she brought a considerable number of people with her from the community she worked with in the caves. From what I have gathered, they have set up a system of councils to ensure fair representation among her advisors."
"You met her?" Edmund asked.
"Yes." At Peter's look of disapproval, Susan added, "As a representative only! Rasi's Blinding, Peter, don't be a fool. I wouldn't bind us to anything without everyone's agreement."
"I wish you had been more careful, that's all."
"It was either come back with enough information or none." With that out of the way, Susan continued to present her findings regarding Virid until at last she ran out and Peter picked up.
"I travelled to the places where you learn the Words," he said. "I doubt it would be easy without the spellsilk--" Lucy looked pleased. "--since the marks on it were the only way to find several of the places. We'll have to be careful not to let the maps fall into the wrong hands - or make new ones after destroying the old ones."
"What did you learn?" Susan asked.
Peter shifted. "I don't believe that Jadis has learned the Deplorable Word yet. She certainly has a lot of the Words, but from what I gathered, she hasn't found the right place yet."
"Are you sure about this?" Edmund demanded. "From what we have heard, she's quite intelligent. You could've been tricked -- or she might've managed without anyone noticing!"
Peter gave him an odd look. "I'm sure, Edmund. Or do you know something I don't?"
It took effort to suppress the urge to yell. Edmund hid his face in his hands. "No, no, continue." He needed to get a handle on things. He thought he had… but maybe not.
"Are you all right?" Peter hesitated, then reached out to squeeze his shoulder. "Is it… bad?"
The truthful answer was that it was always bad, but that wasn't the answer that anyone -- even Edmund -- wanted to hear. "I'll be all right. I need to do my exercises more often, that's all."
"If you're sure..."
Peter didn't have much left to say after that, so in the end there was only Edmund's short presentation on what he had found out about the Charni people, about their physiology, about culture, about language -- things that might have slipped by his siblings by as they made their own discoveries about the world they had travelled to.
When they parted at the end of the evening to sleep, Edmund chose to climb to the top of the tower for a few minutes, to watch the lightning dance and the clouds roll down over the plains surrounding Charn City.
He hadn't told them about the sweets.
He really should've told them about the sweets.
Virid was a tall woman - half again as tall as Susan, who had towered over them all since her new legs were attached. Not that any human measurement of tallness made sense against the height of the Charni, but Edmund estimated that she might be tall even among the Charni. For a human, the most striking feature of her was her hair which was dyed greener than the mosses that looped along the branches above their heads as they walked down the paths of the main encampment. It was, however, rivalled by her wide eyes that were mostly pupil after years and years of cave living, and her hands, which were covered by a metallic coating that reminded Edmund of Lucy’s hands when she worked the earth. Susan said that Virid had told her that it helped with the shash gem research, but how it did so, Virid hadn’t mentioned.
“If you want to know, ask her yourself,” Susan had told him when Edmund questioned her about her conversations with Virid. “As much as shash gems fascinate me, Virid and I have plenty to talk of that doesn’t concern them at all.”
Edmund could have pointed out that Virid and he barely talked, that the ones who spent time with Virid were Susan and Lucy, but that would be to invite too much scrutinization. His concerns lay elsewhere.
He had heard the tales as he walked among Virid’s people. About an addiction that had spread so far among the people of Charn City that rumours of it had spread even beyond the city. There were even a few, a mere handful of people that had come to the opposition forces in the wake of beating it. They had spread the warning about the addiction, but had not as yet reached the conclusions Edmund knew to be the truth about it.
He wasn’t sure whether he wanted them to. He did know that not wanting them to was pure selfishness. Rasi had opened his eyes once; he wouldn’t close them again.
Their decision at the ruins of Neres was months behind them now. It had taken time to merge with Virid and her opposition, time to figure out what roles they would play in this world. They were no saviours, no ordained people fated to save the world. They were four experienced people with knowledge and skills -- perhaps unique skills in some cases -- but nothing that would make them necessary, or even wanted in Virid’s opposition. That Rasi had sent them here -- that he believed that this was where they were needed -- was a matter of importance to the four of them alone.
When Rasi spoke, you listened. When his eyes were upon you, you witnessed.
“Are you sure that Rasi wants us to be here?” Peter had asked one evening early on, when everything seemed as if it would fall apart, for them and for Virid. “I have to admit, Lucy, that things don’t look very bright right now.”
Virid, who had apparently been walking past their group meeting, had stepped closer then, catching their attention. Lucy noticed it first, grabbing Virid’s hand and pulling her down next to her. Virid let Lucy curl into her side, tucking her into the curve of her waist. “I don’t know much about your Rasi,” Virid said, “beyond what you have told me. Anyone can see, however, that Lucy Light believes. For all that I don’t understand what guides you, something does.”
It was humbling to be reminded by someone that didn’t believe in the Blinding and Sight of Rasi. It was hard to fight the shame of not seeing Lucy’s light when someone that didn’t know of it could.
Edmund would’ve liked to say their doubts ended that day, but they did not. There was, however, always someone to remind them that Rasi witnessed them even when they could not see.
They gathered that morning in the canopied meeting hall woven from liana between rock formations jutting from the slanted cliffs in the gorge in which they lived. Virid had curled up in her favoured hanging mat while Peter sat half-buried in papers at the back, and Susan and Lucy sat sipping on drinks called vshe on mats spread across the ground. Edmund had perched on top of a box of additional mats and blankets, munching on fruits as they listened to the reports of Virid’s informants.
“There is a growing number of people in Charn City that appear to be immune to the addiction,” Avala, the spokeswoman for the informants, said. “We haven’t pinpointed with whom it started, but they seem to be finding each other and forming groups. It took some time to understand what triggers groups to gather, but it appears to be when the sky bell tolls. They scatter maybe two guard bells later.”
“Do we know why they’re gathering?” Edmund asked, pulling up a map of Charn City in his mind. “Or where?”
Avala went to one of the spellsilks on the wall and indicated a few places within Charn City. “These are the most common places, but it changes. As to why… we hear them talking about sunlight often, even when there is none.”
Sunlight, Edmund mused. In a place as often overcast as Charn City, that didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Virid nodded. “We will just have to keep a close eye on how things proceed. Let me know if you find out anything else.”
Edmund finished his fruit as people exited the hall, trying to pin down what had sounded so familiar about the report. He listened half-heartedly as Virid chatted with Susan, then asked Lucy for help updating the maps. Virid and Lucy got on remarkably well for an erudite woman and a woman known more for her lack of speech than for it.
“Lucy Light,” Virid said, just as Edmund decided to leave for his own space to work on influence charts and possible inroads with neutral parties. “If I send people to make camp at the westernmost front, will you be able to add them to the spellsilk?”
Lucy remained silent -- Edmund looked over to see that she was indicating how many people it would need to be for her to mark them. He shook his head in amazed affection -- before Virid, they hadn’t known how they could manipulate the world to draw more use from Lucy’s spellsilk -- and gathered his things.
He had gone past the kitchens -- and taken more fruits for the afternoon -- when it hit him.
Lucy Light. Rasi, who had been Blinded by the Sun and then given his Sight by the same.
Lucy had been in Charn City. She had been the one to get him out of… He abandoned that thought as unproductive and headed straight back to the hall. His sudden reappearance caused a stir, but he ignored it. Lucy still sat on the mats. He knelt at her side.
“The sun’s light, sunlight,” he said. “They’re speaking of you, aren’t they.”
It wasn’t a question. Lucy didn’t answer. She merely held her hand up, the burn scars on her palm bared to the world. If you looked at it knowing what he did, it looked like a shining sun.
Edmund almost stopped breathing.
“Edmund?” Virid asked. “What’s the matter, what’s--”
“Lucy has gathered loyalists for you in Charn City,” Susan said in his stead when he found himself too breathless to answer. Ravi bless her for understanding so fast. “Presumably--” Susan and he both knew that there was no ‘presume’ there, she had done it before -- to Edmund, in fact. “--she helped them out of their addiction. From what we’ve heard, I would assume that they wait each time the sky bell tolls to see if they are needed.” She paused. “I suppose we really ought to make formal contact.”
Lucy stood, suddenly, and strode to kneel at Virid’s feet. Virid stared at her, baffled. Edmund could understand that -- Virid didn’t demand obeisance and certainly not from her advisors.
“Only if needed,” Lucy said, something bare in her face that Edmund could barely glimpse but Virid could fully see.
Virid paled. “I can’t-- Lucy Light, I wouldn’t…” She visibly wrenched herself together. “Only if needed,” she repeated.
Lucy nodded and sat down, leaning her head against Virid’s knee.
Edmund exchanged a look with Susan.
She stood. “I’ll get Peter.”
When Edmund turned to summon Lucy, he found her half-asleep with Virid’s hand in her hair.
He left her there.
The three of them tucked themselves into one of the crannies in the rockwall, half hidden behind foliage that would keep some of the sound from escaping. Not that what they had to discuss was particularly secret, but because they wanted at least the illusion of being alone.
“Rasi is working physically through Lucy again,” Peter surmised at the end of Susan’s retelling of the earlier events. “Is it another prophecy?”
Susan shook her head. “I’m fairly sure that prophecies would gain no hold here -- there just isn’t enough belief in magical phenomena to generate the power for them.”
“As if that stops Powers from generating prophecies,” Edmund retorted.
“There are rules,” Peter reminded him. “Magical worlds versus technological worlds -- or whatever terms we settle on using this time.”
“There really needs to be research done into establishing a vocabulary for these things,” Susan muttered.
“World travel isn’t common,” Peter pointed out. “Think, if it was, if Sarsh, for example, could travel as we do. What mayhem would she cause?”
Susan shuddered at the mention of the woman that had, through her actions, caused the war in which Susan had lost her legs and, briefly, her siblings. “Point taken.”
“Still,” Edmund said, “if Rasi Sees Charn through Lucy’s eyes, that changes matters.”
“He definitely intends for us to do something,” Susan agreed.
An odd expression flashed over Peter’s face, but it was gone before Edmund could identify it. “There’s not much we can do about this beyond keeping our eyes open,” Peter said.
“Isn’t that what we always do?” Edmund replied with a heartfelt sigh.
Rasi was a force of Good and Edmund believed in him with all his heart, but matters often became very difficult when Rasi himself worked through them. They could only hope they would come out on the other side.
Some nights later, weary after days full of problems with no easy solutions, Edmund settled down in his tent for his evening meditation. Through the entire day, the feeling that it was time , that he had to face everything that he had been avoiding thinking about, had been growing inside of him. He was loathe to think that Rasi would poke at him about every personal problem, but this time… it felt like a warning.
That night, he cleared his tent and settled a blanket over his shoulders to keep himself warm. Then, he closed his eyes, and breathed …
The entrance into Charn City was so gradual that Edmund wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t visited other cities of the same sprawling size. Lucy and he separated a day after passing the outer ring of the city -- Rasi would lead Lucy where she was needed and Edmund would walk into the heart of the city to see Jadis actively leading her people.
It wasn’t easy to enter the inner ring of the city, even as a roof-runner. To enter the palace was near impossible -- but not quite so. If Edmund had intended to break in, perhaps it would have been impossible, but that wasn’t his plan.
He only wanted a glimpse of Jadis. For that an audience would do, and he had noticed that even the worst of monarchs tended to at least put up the pretence of benevolence and righteousness. It even appeared that he was in luck, judging by the steady stream of people entering the palace through the great gates.
It was easy to slip in among them.
The crowd was oddly quiet as they shuffled towards the open palace gates. Outside the palace, on the streets, it was anything but quiet. After two days in the city, Edmund had become acquainted with the most common profanities -- thought what half of them meant was anyone’s guess. Inside the outer palace gates, however, there was none of that. Oddly, Edmund didn’t see as many palace guards either.
One of the guards that was present held a big basket filled with very small sweets. From the expressions of the people around him, Edmund suspected they came as much for the sweets as the audience. He palmed his, not foolish enough to eat something gifted to him by a guard -- not again.
The train of people shuffled on and soon enough they passed through the gate. The moment he stepped through it, something flickered in the corner of his eye. Edmund peered towards it, frowned.
“ Edmund .” He opened his eyes. Lucy was peering down at him. “Come.” She took his hand.
He was sweating. There was a sweet taste on his tongue. And it was so loud ! Why did that strike him as weird?
He couldn’t remember.
Edmund opened his eyes, the ghost of the sweet taste on his tongue.
He still couldn’t recall the memories that should’ve been there. Impressions of the great hall, mental notes on the guards and their patrols, the maps he made in his mind of all the places he visited -- none of it was there. It was the most frightening thing of all.
The vague, blissful description of his meeting with Jadis and her wonderful kindness that he had given to Lucy later, wasn’t half as bad. He’d been through that before. It wasn’t a memory, just a trigger. Triggers, he could deal with.
Lucy had indicated that she had found him in the outer courtyard. Back then, he had wondered how. Now, he thought that he wasn’t the only person she had come to fetch from that place. She had taken him to the outskirts of the city and sat him down, taking his face in her hands. He couldn’t remember exactly what she’d said, but it had brought him back to himself.
He was himself.
It wouldn’t do to doubt everything he had done to remain so since the first time his mind had been compromised. He was strong. He knew himself. He could do this.
There was a light tap against the canvas of his tent. Edmund counted to five, taking the time to fully clear his mind enough for a visitor. “Come in.”
It was Peter. Before Susan… before Susan chose a cause instead of her family, it would’ve been her to come to him, to share decisions that she and Peter had made. Now it was rare to even see Peter and Susan speak alone, and Peter had taken over the duty of coming to speak to Edmund.
Guilt and shame, Edmund reflected, could be equally ugly within a relationship.
“We need to make sure that no one learns the Word,” Peter said without any lead-in.
Edmund blinked. “You… know where to find it then?” Peter had never mentioned that -- though he hadn’t mentioned not finding it either.
“I learned it.”
Edmund took a deep breath, then another. His hands shook as he attempted to stop his mind from freezing. “You learned it.” There was no emotion in his voice, he realized. His brain just didn’t have enough energy, enough space, for such thing when everything was just spinning trying to find whys and hows and whens and how could he not have known .
“Yes.” Peter was watching him, Edmund realised. Waiting for something even. He hadn’t come here to tell Edmund the truth, he’d come here to pick a fight . Well, Edmund could give him one.
“What in Rasi’s Eyes has gotten into you!” he shouted.
Peter’s eyes went molten with rage. “What has gotten into me ? Don’t you think that I see it? Every time they mention the addiction, you freeze, Edmund.” Edmund didn’t freeze, thanks to his earlier activities, but it didn’t stop Peter. “How hard do you think it is for anyone that knows you to put two and two together?”
“We weren’t talking about me,” Edmund retorted. “The Word, Peter. Are you insane?”
“It was the only way to keep it out of Jadis’ hands!”
So that was what it was all about, Edmund realised. That was why Peter came to him and didn’t suck it up and go to Susan. “And what did you do to the other people that knew it? Your teachers?” he said carefully. Peter wouldn’t notice the artificial quality of the accusation in his voice, not now, but Edmund knew that he would appreciate it later.
Peter gritted his teeth. “You know what I did.”
Oh, Edmund did. Peter had made the choice that Susan had -- the cause instead of family. Deaths on his conscience to pay for a chance of peace and safety. “For the sake of what’s right,” Edmund said, echoing something that Peter had told Susan all that time ago. “You believe that.”
“I believe that!” Peter agreed. “Rasi’s Blinding! I don’t know why I even told you.”
Edmund did, but he didn’t say so. Instead he let Peter storm out of the tent to Rasi knew where before pulling on a coat and heading for Susan’s tent. When she let him in, he found Lucy already there. He wasn’t surprised.
“Peter took the Word and either had his teachers killed -- or saw them kill themselves,” he said without further ado. He knew that his sisters weren’t going to be shocked -- or, most likely, even surprised.
Susan clenched her jaws, eyes clouding over momentarily. “Well then. Now he knows.” How it feels to make that decision , she left unsaid.
Lucy took both of their hands, holding them tight.
“I don’t think he realises that this won’t stop her,” Edmund admitted. “I think he blinded himself to other possibilities after the Professor’s story.”
“I know. And you know.” Susan blew out a breath. “She has far more to work with than the Deplorable Word. It might be the worst possibility, but it’s not the last.”
Edmund gave her a careful look. “Don’t take it all on yourself.”
Susan smiled. “I won’t.”
That was a lie, but Edmund knew to lie as well. “I will go to Charn City with Lucy when the time comes. Maybe there’s something we can do to make this all end in a peaceful takeover.”
“Maybe,” Susan allowed.
He doubted than any of them believed that.
The banners of parlay weaved through the city below. Winds with the scent of thunder and rain kept the pennants waving in the air, occasionally snapping them straight enough to see Virid’s shash gem emblem. Pathetic , one of the courtiers among whom Edmund had hidden whispered, using something like cheap gems when she could’ve used something impressive like a Tevrith-shal . It was more of an attempt to calm herself than sincere, Edmund thought. The efforts of the opposition had created a force that was truly awe-inspiring to watch. Virid had planned their final breach of the city and procession to the castle. Susan had chosen the emblem to suit the moment, the cultural symbolism supplied by Virid.
From the reactions around him, they had done well.
Far above them all, Lucy perched. Edmund had taken her to a climbing spot that would take her to the sky bell and, by now, she would be hidden on the roof behind crenelations, or even tucked away above the bell itself. If something went wrong, she would ring the bell. None of them wanted that, however. Civilians could fight, there was no doubt about it, but they lacked the training to deal with the aftermath. That, Edmund wanted to spare them most of all: burying children, weeping over corpses of dead neighbours, coping with the nightmares and guilt.
He hoped that Virid’s main forces would be enough and, should they not be, that Peter’s infiltrators would be able to stop and isolate Jadis’ people fast enough. Of course, Jadis could still yield peacefully.
No one believed that.
Virid’s forces grew closer and Edmund settled into a steady breathing pattern that would keep him alert and awake. He made sure that Susan was at Virid’s side, then carefully began to make his way towards Jadis. It was easier than he’d thought it would be to make it into the front row, just behind her back. He would see everything from there that Susan couldn’t see from the front.
Knowing Jadis from her actions, Edmund didn’t think any threat would come from the front.
He listened to the dull introductions, the tense declarations. He studied movements and watched for any changes in the distribution of people. There seemed to be no keyword, no secret order from Jadis to her troops. Whatever she intended to do, she intended to do herself.
“Come then, sister!” Jadis proclaimed at last. “If you wish to have the crown, then come take it from my hands!”
And Virid -- Rasi protect her -- could do nothing but start up the steps to Jadis’s choice of stage, leaving Susan and her immediate protection behind, becoming a direct target.
There was a split second when Edmund thought that he wouldn’t reach her. A split second when he thought that Jadis would have the time to throw her knife.
Then he yanked one of her spare knives out of its sheath and buried it in her back.
Edmund knew how to kill. The body that dropped to roll down the stairs, sprawling into a heap of fine fabrics and precious metals, had no life inside. Virid had managed to step aside and now, without apparent hesitation, climbed the steps to take the throne. She turned, raised the fist with the crown into the air.
In the ensuing chaos, Susan found him. Edmund had dropped to the ground at some point and now sat with his hands stretched out in front of him. He wished they weren’t covered with blood because he really wanted to hide his face in them just then. Susan simply sat down next to him and let him hide his face against her chest instead.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
She had been ready to do it, he knew. She’d had her bow and he didn’t doubt that she’d had an arrow nocked just out of sight. He’d acted so she wouldn’t have to.
“Better we have all the blood on our hands evenly distributed,” he said, then laughed. “I think we’re all beginning to go crazy, Su.”
Susan exhaled against the top of his head, resting her chin on it. “I think we passed that point a long time ago.”
Edmund couldn’t find it in himself to disagree.
They left as soon as they had said farewell to Virid. The purpose of them being in Charn had always been clear, and they had always been open about it. Leaving hurt, as it always did, but there was little else to do, was there? Charn wasn’t their home. They needed to go back to the Wood and try another pool. One day, they must find the right one.
They had to believe that.
The Lion met them as they surfaced from the pool, rings still clutched in their hands.
“Children,” he said, voice like the soft thunder. “You have traveled far.”
Lucy curtsied and Edmund nearly burst out in hysterical giggles when the Lion returned it with a curtsy of his own. “Dearheart,” the Lion murmured, sad and proud at the same time, then looked at them all. “You know that you can’t go back.”
Peter looked as if he wanted to cry. Edmund didn’t think that he had ever seen that look on his brother’s face. “I’m beginning to understand that.”
“That does not, however,” the Lion continued, “mean that you can’t find a new home.”
Susan and Edmund shared a look. “A new home?” Edmund tentatively asked.
For a moment, there was a second presence in the air that Edmund thought he should know, but didn’t. Lucy’s expression said that she did know, and that it filled her with joy.
“You have been given a boon,” the Lion said, his voice more formal now. “If you willingly leave these rings -- and the ability to travel across worlds -- you will be taken somewhere that you will find peace for the rest of your lives. It will not be the world you once called home, but a place that could be home if you so choose.”
Edmund was suddenly filled with a great hope. His hand opened, the ring fell to the ground. He knew, without looking, that the others’ did too. Peter’s was the last to fall.
“Please,” Peter said, finally. “Please.”
The Lion smiled -- though how a Lion could smile, Edmund didn’t know.
“Then you are welcome to Narnia.”