I thought I'd better write all this down in case I forget what happened. Not that I think I ever could, but Avon seems to have. Or he's pretending he has. Bastard.
I never liked Xenon from the moment we arrived. All right, it wasn't under the best circumstances, what with losing Cally and the Liberator, and, you know, in the case of the Lib, it was just as careless as that sounds. I wanted to go round that cloud. And then Dorian turned out to have a thing in the basement (mind you, all this place is basement if you think about it) and a bit of a literary bent. I mean, Dorian? And all the clothes in the place being grey? Or black and white which is just grey separated out. Only Tarrant got that reference. The others aren't big readers, and he goes for tunic-rippers, but we had a bit of a laugh about it ("wouldn't Oscar be wild, ha ha") after we got over our mutual surprise.
The whole place gave me the creeps. All right, Avon shot the thing and we blew the cellar up (well, down really) but that didn't mean it was dead, did it? I used to lie in bed and wonder if there was still something in the rocks. If you listen when it's really quiet, you can hear creaks and little noises you can imagine are more, maybe whispers and faint footsteps. Not that the others were all that sympathetic.
"It's all that wine that used to be in the drinks cabinet," Dayna gave me that melon-slice grin that would be really nice if it was, if you see what I mean.
"Look, I drink that stuff so I can sleep."
"Nightmares, then," said Tarrant. "Or the DTs are already setting in."
That hurt. The only thing I was ever valued for was picking locks; did he think I'd give myself the shakes? "Oh come on, Tarrant. You must've heard noises too."
"Is that a theory or an opinion?"
"Don't worry, Vila." Avon gave me a smile that said the opposite. "It's only the weight of the mountain above us pressing down and causing stress in the walls."
And in me too, now he'd made me think of it.
I noticed Soolin didn't say anything so I asked her later.
"Oh, Dorian did a lot of experiments and collected all sorts of strange things. Who knows?" And she smiled that smile that was shut up tighter than a safe.
So half the reason I wandered about the place opening rooms and drawers and cupboards was to convince myself that there wasn't anything wrong, half was to get away from that lot, and half was just to find out what Dorian had squirreled away, and yes, I know that doesn't add up.
A chap can hoard a lot in a couple of centuries: books and vids, some of them classics banned in the Federation, and some of them banned in a lot more places; strange devices I couldn't make head or tail of; wine and brandy almost as old as he'd been; and what looked like abandoned experiments I told Avon about in the hopes it'd take his mind of trying to get us all killed now he'd decided to play rebels.
Then one day, as I passed a storeroom, I felt something.
Just a touch on my face, as if someone had breathed on it.
I stopped still. There it was again. You'd think I'd be scared, wouldn't you, but I wasn't. I can always sense danger, you know. Yes all right, sometimes when there isn't any, but I've never not felt it when it was there, and it wasn't. I thought maybe it was just a stray draught from the air conditioning and I almost ignored it, but it, well, smelled of outdoors and when I was a nipper and sneaked out of the dome. It smelled of spring and green and flowers and days spent exploring.
So I pushed the door open and went in.
It was dark and dusty and full of abandoned equipment, and I had to squeeze between the piles, and all the time the air smelled... not musty at all, but alive. There was a light ahead somewhere on the far wall, I thought, but it moved a bit like sunlight through branches, and I could hear birds. Birds?
And when I got to the wall, there wasn't one.
Beyond what looked like the mouth of a cave, there was sky and hills and trees, and not far from me was a river, glittering in the sun. All right, all of that could be Xenon, but I knew it wasn't. The sun was brighter and the colours were stronger, and everything seemed, I dunno, somehow newer.
So Dorian had developed a teleport between planets. Fair enough; I knew it could be done (though I wouldn't care to fall down that wormhole or whatever it was again, not unless I was certain Kerril was on the other side of it) but I'd never seen one with a preview. I wasn't about to leap in where angels and all that, so I took a cautious step forward, then looked back. Yes, the storeroom was still there. So I took another step. So far, so good, Then I was standing on grass and I hadn't felt the transition, not like the teleport on the Liberator and Scorpio where you usually got the feeling you'd left your breakfast behind.
I thought, why not explore? No harm in a look, and my danger antennae weren't even twitching.
So I went down to the cheerful river (well, it did look cheerful, and I found out later that it was sort of alive, dryads and naiads and all that, though why they can't spell those the same way, I don't know; Slave had to put me right), then looked back to check the cave was still there and I still had a way back. Not that I was that keen on Xenon, but I'm a professional and I like to be able to make a quick getaway.
"Hello," someone said behind me.
I almost jumped out of my skin. I turned round, but all I could see was an animal crouched by the river, looking at me with bright black eyes. "Hello?" I said, peering up and down the river. "Who's there?"
"Me, of course," the animal said, except that she couldn't be, could she? She (you could tell by her voice) was glossy and brown with little droplets of water glistening on her coat.
"Ah." Hairy alien. Always knew I'd come across one. "Um, pleased to meet you."
"And I you." She smiled at me with a mouth full of pointy little teeth, and still managed to look friendly even though she should've looked more frightening then Avon doing his crocodile look. "You're a son of Adam—"
"Eh?" I blinked. "Never knew who my father was, sorry."
"—and you're too light-haired to be a Telmarine—"
"I've never told anything to a marine, but then again, I've always heard they're a bit sceptical."
"—or a Calormene, so I thought you'd be safe to talk to."
"Oh, I am! And I like being talked to. Doesn't happen that much these days. It's mostly at, you see."
She put her head on one side. "Otto sometimes says I do that. Oh, do forgive me, where are my manners?" She stood up on her hind lags and came over to me and held out a paw. "I haven't introduced myself. I'm Octavia Otter."
I shook her paw. "I'm Vila Restal." I'd heard of otters. "So you are an animal. I've never met a talking one."
"Probably because you've never been to Narnia. You're not from here, are you?"
I pointed back to the cave. "From Xenon. Through there."
Octavia looked over my shoulder (yes, she was as tall as me) and shook her head. "Through where? I don't see anything."
"That room you can see in the cave, that's part of it."
"But I can't see either. Just bank and trees." For a moment, I thought she was going to write me off like the rest of the crew, but then her face lit up. "I've got it! You're from another world, like the high kings and queens! Are you one like Peter the Magnificent, Susan the Gentle, Edmund the Just, and Lucy the Valiant?" She reeled them off like something she'd learned in school.
"Sorry to disappoint you, but I'm Vila the not anything in particular."
She laughed and patted my arm. "You're funny, and I can tell you're kind. Most humans these days treat us as if we're inferior or stupid."
"My sympathies," I said. "I know exactly what that feels like."
"You do?" She sighed and her whiskers drooped. "A lot of us have just given up and decided to live well away from humans. Not worth it. Present company and the princess excepted of course."
"Iriana." Octavia's face lit up. "As beautiful as a lake in autumn, with hair like an young otter's pelt, skin like the sun on water, and eyes like the pebbles in a brook."
Oh, very attractive.
"You'd like her."
I thought, Me and royalty, me a Delta and a rebel to boot? Don't make me laugh. I didn't say anything though. I liked Octavia to much to put my foot in it.
"Do you know," Octavia took my arm, "I rather think it's time for afternoon tea. Do come and have some with us." She led me along beside the river.
Now that sounded promising till I thought about what otters probably ate. Raw fish, and possibly live ones. I hung back a bit. "Thanks, but I don't know that I'm all that hungry."
"Oh, pish tosh."
Eh? Was that otter for shut up, Vila?
"It's 3 o'clock. Of course you're hungry."
I shrugged and let myself get led to a hole in the riverbank. I didn't mind. Someone who wanted to be friendly to me wasn't to be sniffed at.
"Here we are." Octavia went down on all fours and crawled in.
I followed her, expecting a smelly, dark burrow, but the tunnel opened up in to large, comfortable room, a bit dome-shaped, actually. Home away from home. The walls were made of earth, but that was the only burrowy thing about it. There was a wooden table and chairs, several large comfy armchairs, a sideboard with blue and white china, pictures of otters on the walls, and round doorways to other rooms. And in one of the armchairs was a newspaper with two paws holding it and two sticking out underneath it.
At this point, I decided I was dreaming. Look, this was as logical as any other theory. When you wake up, you can't hang on to what you dreamed any more than you can grab a bit of smoke, so how did I know this wasn't what a dream felt like while I was still in it?
"Otto, we have a guest. This is Vila."
Otto lowered The Narnian Chronicle and looked at me over his spectacles. "I say. You're not a vole."
"I never said I was."
"You have a volish name."
"Of course he's not a vole," Octavia said, putting a red and white checked cloth on the table. "He's a son of Adam and he got here just like the high kings and queens did." She started putting out plates and food.
"Oh!" Otto got up and offered me his hand. "I say. Do you happen to know them?"
"I thought you might know when they were coming back. Aslan said they would."
Who was Aslan? Probably someone else with a poncy title. Vila, I said to myself, just go with the dream. It's a nice one for once.
"Here we are. Hot toast," said Octavia, "and sardines and boiled eggs."
Well, that looked all right, then I had a second thought. "Um, they're not talking sardines, are they?"
"Of course not!" Octavia looked shocked. "One doesn't eat anyone who can talk."
Sounded like a good rule of thumb to me, though mine had always been not to eat anything I could be friends with. Or Avon.
"And besides, fish can't talk."
That was a relief, and I'd never considered them all that affectionate anyway.
"Come along, sit down you two. There's also hot buttered crumpets, a teacake, and a nice cup of tea."
That settled it. This had to be a dream. Not even mum had put out a spread like that.
"Here you go." She poured me a cup.
"Thanks." I lifted it to them. "Cheers, mates!"
They both smiled at me with their pointy teeth. "You'll have to stay for dinner," Otto said. "I've got some very good ale."
It wasn't a dream. It was heaven. "You're a person, I mean otter after me own heart!"
I did stay too. I stayed till it was dark, sitting there in their cosy house, eating them out of it, and hearing all about Narnia, which was how I found out about the dryads and naiads and the White Witch (which made me wonder if Servalan had spent some time there) and the Battle of Beruna and the Telmarines. And one thing led to another and I stayed for tea (something with smoked fish and rice and curry, called a kedgeree, with jam roly-poly to follow as good as my mum's) and we sat around the fire with wine and chocolates. And that wine! It tasted alive, of summer and joy and excitement and dancing and music, and Otto said that was because some bloke called Bacchus had made it.
I ended up spending the night, and when I woke up the next morning, I didn't even have a hangover. I'd like to get hold of this Bacchus fellow and get some more of his stuff. Left Dorian's for dead. In fact it made Dorian's taste dead.
However I thought I'd better get back to Xenon before Avon did his nut. Assuming anyone had missed me of course. "Thanks very much," I said to Octavia and Otto, "I had a wonderful time."
"Come and see us again." Octavia picked a golden flower by the river and gave it to me.
I stuck it behind my ear and smiled at her. "Oh I will, I promise. As often as I can!"
Well, I thought it'd be easy, you see.
"Look, sorry I was away so long."
"You weren't," said Avon, not even bothering to look up from whatever he was fiddling with. "Not nearly long enough."
"Oh, very funny. Too much to expect, I suppose, that anyone would worry about me being gone all night."
"Night?" Avon put his laser probe down and looked at me. "You were out of this room for no more than half an hour. And what the hell are you doing with a flower behind your ear? I assure you, the girls do both know you are available and yet somehow they fail to care."
I'd forgotten the flower. I grabbed it and held it out to him. "Look, proof! Dorian built a working teleport after all. You don't get anything like that here." It was a soft gold, and I mean the colour of the metal, with tiny little silver veins.
Avon barely looked at it. "Orac?" he said. "Has Vila left the base in the last 24 hours?"
"How long for?"
"Three minutes and seventeen seconds."
I was stunned. "But I was away almost a whole afternoon and a night!"
"I don't know what game you're playing, Vila, but you just went outside and got that flower."
"I didn't! I'll prove it to you! I'll show you!"
And wouldn't you know it?
"Tell me what you see, Vila." Avon got that quiet level dangerous voice that made me go all cold.
"And what's on the wall?"
"You were drunk."
Well, I had been while I was there, but that wasn't the point. "Do I look drunk? Do I smell drunk?"
"Then you dreamed it."
I gave up. I knew it wasn't a dream—you don't remember dreams as clearly as what you did yesterday, do you?—but there wasn't any point in arguing.
I pressed the golden flower though, and when it was dry, I put it between two bits of plastisheet and put it in my tunic pocket, to hang on to like a bit of bright hope.
I went and looked each day, but there was only a grey wall with a dusty light on it. So I drank Dorian's dead wine and thought about better and happier worlds, and that included the good old days on the Lib, and I'd never have guessed at the time I'd ever think that.
Then we got our new and super-fast stardrive which ought to have thrilled me because I've always liked being able to outrun all of those people who'd like to get their hands on me (and in the wrong way too, I might add) but all I could think about was how Avon had sent me and Dayna down as live Space Rat bait and fried poor Dr Plaxton. All right, it was her or us, but he didn't care, that's the thing. When Dayna mentioned her, he just said "Who?"
I could imagine him doing the same with any of us, and the old Avon wouldn't have. So, soon as we landed, I said to him, "I've had enough. I'm leaving. I'm going to sit beside that bloody wall till it opens," and I walked off.
And I did too. I sat down on a crate and stared at it, willing it to become Narnia. I think I was there for about three hours, and just as the wall started to shimmer and dematerialise, I heard someone come into the storeroom behind me.
"Vila. Stop being more stupid than usual, which is saying something. I need you to do some calibrations on the stardrive."
I stood up. "Sod that, Avon. I'm off. Goodbye." And I walked through into the bright green fields, blazing with sunshine.
Except that Avon grabbed my arm and he ended up coming along too.
"What're you doing here?" I demanded.
"I saw you start to walk through the wall." He stood there, blinking in the sunlight. "You're right. Dorian must have built a teleport."
"I don't suppose I'll get an apology, will I?" I gave him a push, surprising myself and him. "Go back to where you came from. This is my place."
His eyes flashed. "Don't touch me again," he said very quietly.
"Fine." I turned and walked away, down to the river.
Otto was there, sitting on the bank with a fishing rod in his hand and his feet in the water. Well, paws really, I suppose. He turned around. "Hello, Vila. You took a long time to come back."
"Only a couple of weeks."
"Months, lad. It's high summer now." Otto stood up and picked up his basket of glistening fish. "I see you brought a friend."
"That's not a friend," I said bitterly. "That's Avon."
Otto gave him a cautious glance. "He does have a Telmarine look about him."
Avon laughed, but not in a nice way. "Well, well. A hairy alien, Vila."
"He's an otter, you prat," I said. "And I told you to go away."
For a moment Avon almost looked shocked, but it must have been a trick of the light reflecting off the water. "As it happens, I have no wish to explore this planet in the company of a fool," he said and started off down the river.
"Not a friendly chap," said Otto.
"That, mate, is an understatement."
"You look a bit down in the mouth, old thing. Come on, let's go and see Octavia."
Octavia was reading the Narnia Chronicle with her feet up on a little embroidered stool. "Oh hello, Vila. I thought you'd be back before now."
"So did I. It wasn't for want of trying."
Octavia nodded sagely. "Portals between the worlds are strange things, the old stories say. What would you say to a nice cup of tea?"
"I'd say, hello tea, feel like getting drunk?" I tell you, I was cheering up already.
She laughed and got up to make it. I picked up the newspaper and had a look at it. There were pictures of various animals and some furry spotted cats with black stripes either sides of their noses and eager expressions. "What's this then?"
"Some of the competitors in the summer Games next month." Octavia set a plate of fish-shaped shortbread on the table. "Sebastian—" she pointed at one of the pictures, "—says he's made good times in trials this week. Aurelia looks good too, and I do like her. She's a bit of a chatterbox, but she runs well if she's not distracted."
"They can talk too?"
Octavia looked shocked. "Of course! They're Narnian cheetahs."
I suppressed the desire to make the obvious pun and looked at the pictures again (very nice shaded drawings) and I was almost overcome by the desire to stroke a cheetah's soft fur. I've always liked cats, but tame ones that talk? Not a chance I wanted to pass up. "Can I come too?"
"If you're here, of course you can."
Determined that this time I was staying, I looked through the rest of the paper to see what I was getting myself into. The front page had a story about the Princess Iriana who had been shut away because of her friendship with Narnians. As in animals. Apparently it was for her own good, while she learned to be a well-behaved Telmarine royal, and this worried me a bit. It smacked of Deltas being fourth-class citizens, and people like me who didn't fit being reprogrammed so they would.
Octavia looked over as she poured the tea. "Oh yes, that's a sad state of affairs. Poor princess."
In a tower too, just like all the stories. Sounded like she needed a dashing knight to rescue her—and here was me all out of Tarrants.
"We're hoping," said Otto, sitting down at the table, "that Aslan might do something about it. It's been a while since we've seen him." He gave me a sharp look. "Perhaps that's why you're here. The high kings and queens arrived from somewhere else like you did in Narnia's hour of need."
Oh, wonderful. I'd had enough of being expected to be useful and sent off to places I'd rather not go. "You're looking at the wrong person. You need a hero. Probably a good-looking third son come to that."
They blinked at me. "What would being a third son have to do with it?" asked Otto.
"Well, you know the old stories."
Octavia shook her head. "This isn't a story, Vila. This is real life."
I felt a bit ashamed. But all the same, I wanted a quiet one myself, not more sticking my head in the lion's mouth.
Lucky I didn't know then who Aslan was.
After lunch, we packed a picnic basket and set off to watch the pre-Games races. We weren't very far down the river path when Otto stopped and said, "Blow me down, I forgot the thermos flask."
"No tea? Can't have that!" said Octavia, and turned back. "Things just aren't the same without tea."
Funny thing was, I could see her point. She didn't just make a nice cuppa, it, well, meant something, like the hot cocoa Gan used to bring us on the flight deck. Friendship and warmth and belonging, which is a damned sight more than a bottle of Dorian's finest red on me own ever did.
When we got back to the door, Octavia fumbled for her key, going through all her pockets. "Now, where did I put it?" she muttered to herself. "Somewhere safe."
"Allow me," I said, wanting to show off a bit, and opened the door (a doddle, just a simple mechanical ward, the sort I cut my teeth on—literally to hear my mum tell it).
Otto and Octavia stood there with their mouths open and, in Octavia's case, the key in her paw. I wasn't sure whether it was admiration or the unreasonable attitude people sometimes have about thieves.
"I suppose I should tell you, I'm a—"
"Locksmith!" said Otto, grinning with delight.
"You were sent!" Octavia grabbed my arm with excitement. "You can unlock the princess's tower!"
"Oh now look! You've got the wrong person. Do I look like a storybook hero? I'm not even wearing tights!"
This seemed to pass the Otters by, probably because they didn't bother with clothes, and I wouldn't either if I had fur. I've thought about this since, you know, and humans really ought to. Keeps you dry and warm and even old animals are still beautiful; none of that wrinkly-old-pickle look for them. Mind you, there'd be a couple of disadvantages like having fewer places to store lockpicks—a tool belt'd be a dead giveaway—and nicked stuff for that matter.
"I say," said Otto, coming out with the thermos. "We should just forget the picnic and go straight to the city." He closed the door. "Could I ask you to lock it again, old chap?"
I did so, feeling as if my grasp on a nice peaceful riverside ottery (or voley for that matter) life was slipping away. "But I wanted to meet cheetahs," I complained as I followed them back down the road. "Can't we go tomorrow?"
Octavia thought about it. "I suppose we could."
"After all, the princess isn't going anywhere," I said. All right, that's a bit mean, but it was true.
"But would we enjoy the races, knowing that?"
Well, I knew I would. I've got practised at getting a bit of pleasure where I can, not there've been that many opportunities lately. "She's a princess, lap of luxury and all that. How many chances do the masses get for a helping of bread and circuses?"
"There's plenty of both, lad."
"What about cheetah races?"
"They're holding those right up to the Games."
I stopped and put my hands on my hips. "Oh well, it's easy enough for you to say let's not go, then. I've never been to a Games, or a circus for that matter."
"Oh, you poor thing." Octavia came back and took my hand. "You must come from such a boring and unhappy world."
I'd almost forgotten what sympathy felt like. "Oh, you don't know the half of it," I said sadly. "People I've never met are always trying to kill me, and lately I've even begun to wonder about my friends. Or what I thought were fr—"
But then we heard a roar so loud it almost shook the hills. "Someone sounds a bit peeved," I said, then heard Avon's voice in between the angry roars. "And I think I might know why."
The Otters looked excited. "That's a lion!"
"And there aren't many in these parts."
"It's probably Calormene—"
"But it might be—"
"It could be, what with Vila being here."
"Could be what?" I asked.
They grabbed me by the hands and ran towards the woods.
"Hey!" I said, somewhat alarmed. "You're going the wrong way!"
Avon must've heard my voice. "Vila!"
Oh, sod. I supposed I'd have to rescue him, and what would I get for it? Just a joke about my intelligence, and that's if I was lucky. I let myself be pulled through the trees.
Avon was lying spread-eagled on his back in a clearing, the whites of his eyes showing, and a lion was standing over him with a paw on each of his hands. Avon turned his head to look at me. "Vila, do something!"
"Got any suggestions?"
He rolled his eyes "I don't know, take a thorn out of its paw."
You'd think I'd have been scared, but if that lion had wanted to, it would have already killed and eaten Avon (or the other way round) so it must be the talking kind. "What'd you do to annoy it?"
"Just what makes you assume I did anything?"
I almost laughed at him playing the arrogant Alpha lying flat like that; the old look-down-the-nose ploy doesn't work that well in those circs. Then I saw his clip gun lying on the ground not far from his right hand. "Bloody hell, Avon." I picked up the gun and put it in my pocket. "You tried to shoot it, didn't you?"
"Of course I did. It's a lion."
"Not here, it's not. It's a person." Not that I thought Avon cared much for that fine distinction these days. "I bet you didn't give it a chance to say hello."
"Don't be more ridiculous than you already are."
"That," the lion looked at me, "is a very good point." He stepped off Avon and sat down on his haunches. "You are a sensible, clever, and brave young man."
Well, there was a collection of adjectives I hadn't heard for a while. "Thanks!"
"Oh, spare me," said Avon, getting up and dusting himself down.
Aslan did a better job of the looking-down-the-nose thing, mainly because he had so much more of it. "I did, yes."
"I'm Vila," I said. "Very pleased to meet you, I'm sure." I held out a hand, then wondered if lions shook paws.
He did, and a nice soft one it was too, at which point I realised he must have sheathed his claws or Avon would've been just a bit shredded. The lion's eyes looked as if he was smiling. "I am Aslan."
The Otters squeaked with excitement and ran forward and knelt in front of Aslan. "At your service, Aslan!" "We're yours to command."
"Very feudal," Avon said. "You should like this place, Vila, born serf that you are."
I glared at him. "And I suppose you don't because of the lack of dim-witted priestesses."
"Dear children," Aslan rumbled to the otters, even though they were married and struck me as a bit middle-aged to tell the truth.
"We'll go with you to the capital," said Octavia.
"Or wherever you're going," said Otto.
"Good Otters." Aslan licked them both on the forehead. "The capital is no place for talking beasts, but you have good, kind, and brave hearts. Go on your way and live long, happy and peaceful lives."
Nice! I hoped he'd say something like that to me because so far mine hadn't been much of any of that and the possibility of it being much longer was getting to be a worry.
The Otters got up with shining eyes. "Goodbye, Vila," Otto said and held out his hand. I was so sorry they were going—and I wasn't—I gave him a hug. "I say, let's not get carried away, old chap," he said, but he smiled a bit.
Octavia kissed me on the cheek with her soft moist nose. "Don't worry. You'll do well. You're a hero, and I'm proud I met you."
"Of course. Why else would Aslan choose you?"
Because I can get through locked doors, that's why. Only ever wanted for one thing. I kissed her furry check. "Enjoy the races. Say hello to the cheetahs for me."
They waved goodbye and set off.
And there I was, stuck with a Lion and Avon, and what did they have in common? Danger and predilection for pushing unwilling Vilas into situations they'd rather not be in, that's what.
"Come on." Aslan turned and started to move off through the trees, his golden fur shining where the sunlight hit it.
I sighed and followed. "You know, one thing always bothered me about those old sword and sorcery stories. The heroes are always royal, even when they start off as kitchen slaves."
"If you're hoping you'll turn out to be a prince in disguise, Vila, you're dreaming."
"What're you still doing there? Go away."
"Leave him be," Aslan said serenely. "He will do no harm here."
"You don't know Avon."
"I do, actually. I said 'here'."
"Oh." I went back to my argument. "What's wrong with the rest of us, that's my point? I mean, would you have got me here to rescue a peasant?"
"If the peasant was important to the well-being of Narnia, yes. Or a thief for that matter." Aslan looked at me as if he knew me. And liked me.
"How d'you know that? I didn't tell you."
"I am the lion that walks between worlds."
"Cryptic to the point of opacity," said Avon.
I ignored him. I was too busy trying to work out whether I was flattered or annoyed at being loaded and aimed and fired once again.
And another thing about those old stories: you always have to walk everywhere. I don't know why magicians can't just abracadabra you to wherever you have to be for your quest, but it seems that you have to get there by foot. When I started to broach the idea of teleporting us, Aslan just gave me a look. "In a hurry, boy?" Um, not when he put it that way. Arriving at where I'm going has been a disappointment recently, to say the least.
So I decided to enjoy an pleasant amble with a friendly lion (well, relative to most lions) in a safe world full of sunshine and green leaves and bright flowers (a nice change to the usual rocky and arid run of planet) and one black cloud which had some silver lining on the outside.
While we walked, Aslan told me about Lucy and her brothers and sister. I liked Lucy best; at least when she was a little girl, but I suspected she grew into a right little madam after she was queen, especially starting out as an Alpha. She'd have the background, see.
"Why do you think that?" Aslan asked when I said so.
"Well, private school, big house, none of them being scared when they got here. Mark of the ruling grade, that."
"Hahhhrmph." I think that was a liony laugh. Aslan looked sideways at me. "Do you know who the first king and queen of Narnia were?"
"Couple of talking animals? Lions? You and someone else?"
"Not at all. Frank and Helen were a London cabby and his wife." Aslan looked straight ahead, all dead furry pan. "You'd call him a transporter driver, and he'd be a Delta in your world."
Avon snorted. "And now I suppose Vila is imagining himself an exiled royal."
"I'm not, as a matter of fact. I'm not ashamed of who I am. And besides, it'd be a bit clichéd, wouldn't it?"
That shut him up.
And then we got to the capital city. Well, dunno about you., but I wouldn't call a village with a wall around it and a castle in the centre a city. There was a bloody great gate in the wall with guards outside checking the people going in and out. Especially those going in, which is always a bonus for a bloke in my profession. A sign fixed to the wall by the gate said "No animals allowed".
"I'd like to see them keep you out," I said to Aslan, but he wasn't there.
'Your friend appears to have chosen safety and abandoned us to our own devices."
"Yeah well, I'm used to that," I said bitterly and set off towards the gate. Not that I was keen on being the dutiful little princess-rescuing peasant, but I didn't have anywhere else to go.
"It gained us the stardrive. You wanted a ship with legs, Vila."
"Yeah, and those Space Rats wanted 'em and all. Mine, and I'm not even sure they'd have bothered roasting them first."
"Halt," said one of the guard, a big ugly fellow with a warty nose, a black beard and what looked like a well-used sword. He gave me a funny look. "What in the world are you?"
Now who goes there I'd have expected, and I know I'm no oil-painting, but I looked a lot better than he did.
"I assure you," Avon said in his most superior smooth-as-melted-chocolate voice, "he is mostly human."
Oh ha ha, very funny.
"And who are you?"
Avon gave him one of his looks.
The guard shuffled "Sir?"
"Lord, actually. Lord Avon. I am surprised you don't recognise me."
I rolled my eyes; I knew that Meegat business had gone to his head, no matter what he said afterwards to Blake.
"And this is my servant."
"Now hang on a bloody min—"
Avon kicked my foot.
"Why's his hair look like that, then?" Another Avon glare. "My lord?"
I was hurt (not to mention insulted about the servant thing). I didn't think it was receding that much. And a quick look around showed me plenty of worse cases not to mention a couple of completely bald noggins.
"You mean the colour? Merely an accident with some chemicals. I am a scientist and he helps me with my experiments."
It was only now I noticed that everyone had dark hair and pale brown or golden skin. Avon fitted right in, especially with that fake tan of Dorian's he was plastering on these days.
"I trust that has answered your irrelevant questions." Avon swept past the guard. "Come, Vila."
What did he think I was? A dog? Not an analogy I wanted to pursue, now I'd thought of it, bit close for comfort, that one. I didn't have anything better to do so I followed him. "Where are we going?"
"To the castle of course. And it should not be hard to find, even for you."
I ignored the last bit. "What for? To rescue the princess?" I still felt resentful about that bit. I mean, I like being valued for my skills, but not when that's all I'm ever wanted for.
"You may do what you wish. It is however where they would keep their wealth."
I cheered up a bit at that.
We got into the castle pretty much the same way. "I am Lord Avon. Do stop waving that thing around unless you intend to use it." Old Ave didn't even have a sword but let me tell you he could look daggers. "I am expected." Not a word I'd have used for him myself.
"You're not on my list."
"Then it is an oversight. I am a scientist and this is my assistant."
"You're a what?"
"I study nature."
"Ah, you're one of those natural philosophy fellows?"
"A geek," I said, trying to get my own back.
The palace guard took a step back. "He eats the heads off live chickens?"
"Ignore my servant." Avon tapped his head. "Too much mercury."
And we were in.
I could see Avon's eyes light up like the LEDs in an old cash register. The place was full of stuff collectors would go for: antique vases, tapestries, swords with jewelled hilts, suits of armour, none of it that easy to stroll out with though. "We need something a bit more portable," I said.
"Jewellery. Gold. A rebellion needs funding."
I had an idea Aslan wouldn't be too impressed, but like I said, I was a bit tired of being wanted in all the wrong ways. "All right," I said, heading up the stairs to where I thought the living quarters might be, "we'll split up then."
I was just contemplating a string of iridescent pearls and wondering if Soolin would like them—I mean, how many chances do I get to find a good fence?—when I heard an outraged shriek.
"Get out of my boudoir, you... you cad! That's my necklace! And give me my lorgnette back! Take that!" and there was a series of thuds and someone saying "Ow!"
It wasn't that I was concerned about Avon, you understand, just that you don't get that many chances to see him being beaten up by an old trout. So I dropped the pearls and went out into the hallway just in time to see him emerge from another room pursued by a woman twice his size, heaving both her bosom and a weighty handbag at him.
"Need any help?" I asked.
Avon thought I meant him. "Vila! Get her off me!"
"He has an accomplice!" Lorgnette-lady lunged at me with her bag, and judging by the noise it had made on repeated impact with Avon, I decided to leg it.
I ran down the hall and into another, made several more twists and turns, then, driven by the sound of bells and shouts and the thought of the guards downstairs with their sharp swords, up the first lot of stairs I came to. I could hear Avon pounding along behind me, and was surprised that he hadn't tripped on the winding steps; Avon isn't the most graceful on his feet which is probably why he went in for the white-collar sort of crime.
Hang on: winding? We must be in one of the towers. This wasn't good, but I had no intention of going back down. Castles, and Federation bases for that matter, usually only have one or two main doors, all the better to keep the riff-raff out. Or in.
So I kept going till I burst into a round room, all grey stone and windows which I could see how high we were from so they weren't much help. I stopped and stared at the strange thing in the centre of the room, and Avon almost knocked me flying when he cannoned into me from behind.
"Move, you idiot!"
"Where to? I think this is it." Well, there was a little doorway opposite with some more stairs which looked even windier and narrower, but I didn't see the point in going any higher. I looked around for a place to hide.
"A what?" I'd never heard the word and it had too many Rs for me to have a go at while I was getting my breath back.
"That." Avon pointed. "A mechanical model of their solar system."
The thing was all gears and clockwork but now he'd mentioned it, I could see that the balls on wires were planets and moons. "Not very to scale, is it?"
"Of course not. If you wanted to be able to see the planets, it would be several kilometres across with the sun the size of this castle." Avon walked around the thing, his face all lit up. "Beautiful thing though."
He was right. Each planet was made of a precious stone, inlaid to show continents and weather patterns, and the moons were also worked to show tiny little craters.
"Any idea what this would be worth?"
I thought about it. "Nice workmanship. Quite a bit, provided you could move the thing."
"A fortune. I could sell it as an antique or a unique work of art." Avon took a planet from its mounting and examined it. "Do you realise, it's all handmade?" He slipped it in a pocket and started plucking moons. "These are all I need; I can build new works back on Xenon."
I picked up a jewel-encrusted tube I thought might be a kaleidoscope like the one I'd nicked from an collector once, but when I put it to my eye, all I could see was beige. Took me a second or two to realise it was Avon's face all magnified. "Look at this. A little telescope."
"It's a spyglass, used for detecting enemies." He grabbed it off me.
"Doesn't work too well then, does it?" I said, getting a dig in. It didn't work.
"Beautiful piece," he said admiringly, turning it in his hands.
I heard footsteps on the stairs opposite and dithered, wondering whether to take my chances on a lower level or bluff it out here. I settled for getting behind Avon.
It was a nipper, all of twelve or so, with a mop of black hair—only some of it tied back—dusty old clothes, and a dirty face.
"See, Vila? That animal was right: there are Deltas here."
"Who are you?" the kid asked. "And what are you doing?"
Avon did his looking down the schnoz thing. "I might ask the same questions."
The grubby little scrap looked annoyed, then sly. "I'm Rian and I was cleaning Master Sorillar's big telescope." He looked at the spyglass in Avon's hands. "What are you doing with that? It's not meant to be moved."
"Then it's hardly much use, is it?" Avon said loftily. "I, child, am the astronomer Lord Avon and this is—"
"Vila," I said, having had enough of the incompetent assistant line.
Rian narrowed his eyes at Avon. "No, you're not. Master Sorillar is the only one in Narnia and I've never heard of you."
"Did I say I was from here?"
"Well, you're not from Calormen. The Master knows Parveen and Sahrazad and he's never heard of any other astronomers." Rian took in the depleted solar system and the bulges in Avon's jacket. "You're thieves!" Far from sounding accusing, he was downright delighted. My heart warmed to him.
"We most certainly are not," Avon said coldly. "We were admiring the ingenious mechanism of your orrery."
Rian screwed his face up. "Pull the other one."
"All right then." I grabbed three inner planets and began juggling them. "I needed something for my act."
Rian stared, round-eyed, then laughed with delight. "That's wonderful! I've never seen anything like it!"
"Most people haven't," said Avon. "And it's not just the hair."
I rolled my eyes. "Ignore him." I put two moons in the mix and did a bit of clowning, pretending to almost miss catching some of them but always keeping at least three in the air.
Rian jumped up and down, clapping his hands.
"There you are, Vila. You'd fit right in here—as court jester. You've even got the experience."
"No thanks." I caught the little worlds one by one and started putting them back in their places. "I'll stick to what I'm really good at."
"Oh, but you underrate yourself. You're unequalled as a fool."
Rian frowned at him. "That's not very nice. And put those back!"
"Here." Avon tossed him one of the planets he'd nicked. "That should both fetch something, and keep your mouth shut."
Rian caught it. "Narnia!" He traced the outline of one of the countries on it, and held it out to me. "Where do you come from, Vila?"
I pointed upwards.
He wasn't slow. "Another world! Like the High Kings and Queens!"
"Except," said Avon, "that he's rather low."
"And so's that!" Rian looked at him, all bulgy with little hidden balls. Um, you know what I mean. "And you are too a thief."
"I am not."
"Oh, come on." Rian put his head on one side. "How are you going to hide the spyglass?" he asked with interest. "It's too long to fit in a boot. Down your trousers?" His eyes flicked to the stairs and back, then caught mine
I grinned, thinking about Avon with a stiff leg going head over heels down them. "Unfortunately it wouldn't fit. He wears his trousers so tight that once when he was fixing a console, he couldn't get up afterwards and Gan had to help him to—"
"Shut up, Vila."
"You're not very nice to your friend," said Rian and looked at me. "Why do you put up with it?"
"He can leave any time he wants to." Avon tried to straighten his bumpy jacket.
"And I did!" I said. "But you followed me."
Funny thing, Avon looked a bit taken aback like he had at the river, but it was probably the weight of the worlds getting him down.
"It's a bit obvious what he's got in his clothes," Rian said to me confidentially. "Spoils the cut, rather."
"Not only that," I said, "but it'll slow down his getaway."
"He's not a very good thief, is he?"
"I am not a thief!" Avon was starting to look a bit disconcerted though. He wasn't used to being talked about like that, and I think he was a bit embarrassed about being caught in possession.
"Avon prefers more syllables," I said. "He likes the term 'embezzler'."
"What's a 'bezzler?"
"Someone who sits all safe in a little office and nicks other people's money by playing with figures."
"Oh! Like Uncle Beridian!"
"Who's Uncle Beryllium?"
Then all the pieces rearranged themselves and fell into the proper places. "You're the princess!"
Rian's, well, Iriana's face fell. "Does it make a difference?"
"Not to me." Well, not now I'd met her.
Avon started laughing, but it was a real laugh for once. "All that talk about not being a fairytale cliché and you end up rescuing her anyway."
"You don't like princesses?" Rian (well, I still thought of her as Rian) asked me anxiously.
"Not in general," I said. "I thought they'd be a bit stuck up going by certain Alphas I've met, but I like you."
"I thought you were locked up though."
She shook her head. "Just forbidden to leave the castle. I have to do lessons all day."
"And clean the telescope?"
"Master Sorillar says it's the practical part of the course."
"And you let them tell you what to do?"
"I'm just a princess. I won't be queen till I'm 21."
"Why not? Lucy was only about your age."
Rian stared at me. "Lucy the Valiant? A president!"
"No, I think she was a—" then I realised what she'd really said.
She didn't get any taller, but her chin came up and she looked like a princess now, even with the dirt on her face. "Thank you, Vila. And you," she said sternly to Avon, "should put all those planets and moons back. It won't work without them."
He did too. I suppose he was thinking of doing a bit of embezzling of his own now we were in good with royalty. I couldn't see the spyglass though, and I was going to say something when Rian winked at me. "Let him keep it. It didn't work that well anyway."
Long story short and all that: I did in fact use my professional skills to search old Beridian's apartments and office, and Avon used his to find the evidence Rian needed to get him exiled to some little island somewhere, then she claimed the precedent of Queen Lucy and got herself crowned. Just in case anyone objected to her cabinet of mixed animals and humans including me as Royal Advisor(!) and Avon as Financial Security (which effectively stopped him doing a Beridian), Aslan attended the coronation and roared his approval and terrified the wits out of most of the Telmarines. And Avon; I noticed his hand going for the gun I still had in my pocket.
I'd like to tell you I lived a long and happy and peaceful life there like Lucy and the others did before they went back to Earth, but about a month later when we were strolling outside the walls, suddenly Aslan was there.
"Well done, Vila," he said.
I wondered whether I ought to tell him I'd only done it by accident. "Look, I only did it by accident."
"And she wasn't even locked up. You didn't need a thief at all."
"Did I say I did? I needed you, Vila Restal, not a thief."
"Oh." I felt... I dunno, like someone worthwhile.
Aslan nodded his big head at me as if he knew what I was thinking.
"Now you're here," said Avon, "I should like to know how Dorian managed to build a teleport spanning, going by the constellations, at least a galaxy."
"Dorian. Harrrrhrmph! Dorian built nothing; he simply found a portal between the universes and I closed it."
"Universes?" Avon looked stunned.
"Of course. Put in terms you would understand—" it was rather nice to see Avon condescended to, "there are many, each with a different set of universal constants. Or as those here would understand it, with different deep magics." Aslan lowered his head and huffed at us. "And now, you must return to yours."
"You do not belong here, Vila."
"But I wouldn't do any harm!"
"I know that. However your destiny lies elsewhere."
Destiny? Me? "Can't I at least say goodbye to Rian? She'll worry."
"I shall explain to her."
"And the Otters? I was going to see a cheetah race with them."
"Vila." Aslan looked bigger than I'd thought he was, but his eyes were kind and sad all at once. "You must go, both of you. This is not your world or your future." He looked even bigger. "And what you take with you will define that."
Avon, who had that spyglass broken down into pieces in his jacket looked expressionless, but I thought about that flower. "I've got a flower."
"Yes." It was barely a breath. "I know. " Then the breath got stronger and became a wind and all the grass and trees and city and castle and sky whirled around us until it was just a blur of colour and speed and all at once we were lying on the floor of that dusty old storeroom on Xenon.
Avon picked himself up, wincing and gave me a sidelong look. "That can not have happened."
"Yes, it did," I said. "You hurt yourself landing on that spyglass."
Avon pulled a length out of his jacket, all bright (and sharp and hard) with jewels. "Let's just keep this between us, shall we?"
Funny thing though, he just started to forget bit by bit. When I mentioned it, at first he'd say it had been a stupid game, even though he hadn't played one since the Liberator, then later on he just told me I was dreaming or drunk. He gave the spyglass to Zukan the other day as part of the deal to set up that warlord conference they're going to hold here, but now he thinks it was something of Dorian's.
So that's why I've written this down to keep with the flower, in case I forget too. Not that I have, so far. I sometimes wonder if Aslan did it to Avon because he stole that spyglass, or if it's just that Avon isn't the sort of person to believe in magic. Maybe he can only handle universal constants he can calculate.
I know it was true though, and I can hold on to it during the dark and lonely times when I need to remember something bright and warm.
I didn't think I was going to add any more to this, but that just shows you never can tell.
After the mess on Gauda Prime, I wasn't feeling any better than I had on Xenon towards the end when I'd seriously considered drinking myself into a state where I might slip between universes, or out of them altogether.
All right, I was alive (lucky Blake had good med staff), but I just felt... lost.
Blake wasn't Blake, not the one I remembered, and I don't think I was the Vila he remembered either because he hardly bothered to look at me let alone speak to me. Avon, well, Avon hadn't been Avon for a long time. The old one wouldn't have tried to kill his friends and damn near succeed in Blake's case—even with the armoured vest he wore, that huge great gun Avon found had let quite a bit of blood out at point blank range.
So Blake was lumbering about like a thunder cloud about to let loose with a big bolt, Tarrant was moping (what he probably thought was soulfully) about having got it wrong, Dayna was up and about again and furious about having been taken down by that bitch Arlen, Soolin was as cool and closed as ever, and Avon? You'd think he'd have been up against the nearest wall, wouldn't you, but Blake said no, we'd all come in useful.
Nice, that. I felt as if nothing we'd been through since the London meant anything. Or that we did.
Anyway, no one was speaking to Avon, who just sat in the room he and Tarrant and I had been given and looked at nothing much. Maybe he felt as numb and empty as I did.
One day when I was just sitting in the canteen deciding whether or not to eat a limp filled roll, Soolin came and sat beside me.
"I know what it feels like," she said. "When you've been aiming for something for a long time and you finally get it. You need something else or you're just..."
I knew what she'd been aiming for after her family was killed—who, more like. "I wasn't, though. I was just—"
"Trying to survive?"
I stared at her.
"People will get through all sorts of disasters and then give up when it's all over." She patted my arm and stood up. "You just have to find something."
Maybe that was why she'd stayed with us: we were what she'd found. Poor Soolin. Wasn't much, was it?
And what did I have? I sat there feeling even worse because I wasn't used to sympathy, then I thought of the little dried flower I still had in one of my hidden pockets. I got it out and looked at it and I didn't realise I was crying until a tear fell on it.
The flower shivered. Then the whole room around me shivered, and suddenly I was somewhere else.
I was on a mountainside, sitting on grass dotted with tiny white and yellow flowers, looking out over rolling hills and fields and forests to the sea, faint and pale in the distance.
There was a huff beside me and I turned. Aslan was there with his nose on his paws and his eyes on me, looking like a pussy cat about to pounce. His eyes looked sad and knowing, though.
"Can I stay this time?"
"Is that what you want?"
"Of course! I could go and see the Otters and Rian."
He just looked at me and I remembered how much time had passed in my universe. "They're dead, aren't they."
"Iriana was a great queen."
I couldn't talk for a while. "Was she happy?"
Aslan's eyes wrinkled up a bit and he sat up. "That matters more to you, doesn't it? I chose well. Yes, she was happy and much loved."
I was glad. I looked down at Narnia and wondered if it was as peaceful as it looked; planets from orbit often fool you that way.
"You may stay if that is your choice," Aslan said, but he sounded, well, a bit more dangerous now.
"Why wouldn't it be?" Then it was as if I could see Avon sitting in that little grey room with his face in his hands, and Soolin and Tarrant and Dayna.
"It is your decision."
"They don't need me."
"Don't they? I thought you were their friend."
I could only see Avon now. "He isn't a friend."
"I didn't say that."
Then I thought about how I'd felt and how it had helped that Soolin had understood, and how worse it must be for Avon and how no one even spoke to him. I wanted to say it served him bloody well right, but I couldn't.
"It's not fair."
"Did I say it was?"
I stood up. "Look, I'm not going to forget like he has, am I?"
"No." Aslan came close so all I could see was his face and his big golden eyes. "You will remember all your life, and tell your grandchildren."
And I was back in the canteen on Gauda Prime. Grandchildren? Somehow I knew it wasn't just an expression and you know, that cheered me right up and made me feel sort of invulnerable too.
So I went over to Blake where he was sitting with Deva and Klyn. "Look, Blake, what did you expect, playing those silly games with Tarrant? What was he supposed to think? And all right, Avon believed him, but when you said you set it all up, well, I did too. Do you know how many people did the dirty on us since you left? And if no one's told you how hard Avon tried to be you after we lost the Liberator, well I am."
Then I turned around before he closed his mouth and laid into me and went across to Tarrant. "Yes, you got it wrong. But it wasn't your fault that Avon shot Blake? That was his choice, mate."
Then I marched down the corridor to our room. I don't know if it was the adrenaline (without the soma) or my imagination, but just for a second I thought I felt a warm breath on me and heard someone padding beside me.
Avon was sitting there like I'd seen him.
"I thought you weren't talking to me."
"Well, you're wrong. Demonstrably." Using one of his own words made him take his hands away and look.
I held out the flower I still had in my hand. "Remember this?"
"Yes, It's the flower you picked on Xenon when you told that silly story."
Oh well, couldn't have everything. I put it away and got out the little chess set someone had left in the room. Now I come to think of it, maybe it was Blake. "Remember this then? How we used to play?"
"You're a fool, Vila."
He sounded like the Avon I used to know, just a bit, so I started setting up the pieces. "Shut up, Avon."
I'm still in the rebel business and so's Avon. He does a lot better as second-in-command where he can get snarky about the decisions without having to make them himself, and sometimes he even does what I say. No, I'm not the boss, but I bet, just for a moment, I had you going there. That's Blake of course, with Klyn and Deva and Avon helping him. Me, I'm the diplomatic corps, the one they send out to make friends with other groups. Blake says I have a talent for getting on with people, and Avon said something had to have kept a person as exasperating as me alive so long. Tarrant's the pilot on a lot of these missions with Dayna on weapons, me too if needed, and Soolin goes with me as my bodyguard just in case my charm doesn't work. I think I'm growing on her and I haven't forgotten what Aslan said.
You never know your luck, do you?