It begins when Aravis finds a girl lying dead in the courtyard just below her bedroom, skull cracked on the sandstone floor.
Qannar Tarkaan apologizes profusely on behalf of the Tisroc (may he live forever), and assures her that she has nothing to fear—after all, the slave was emotionally fragile, as women of base birth tend to be. Suicides are not uncommon.
Viyya Tarkheena calls a meeting that night, and in the quiet women’s corner of the Tisroc’s household, a war begins.
Aravis never intended to return.
It has been six years since Rabadash assaulted Archenland with his two hundred horse—six years since Aravis and Cor’s plan to go to Narnia and the North nearly came to a catastrophic end.
But times are desperate and King Lune is weakening, no matter how much he may try to hide it; the country is at stake, ties with Calormen are still tentative since Rabadash’s betrayal and subsequent humiliation, and the Council refuses to allow the Crown Prince to venture into a territory known for its treachery, despite the desperate need to establish the treaty that can see them through the following summer.
Cor is furious, the angriest Aravis has ever seen him. He even argues with his father, with whom he never argues—he still has some Shasta in him—and leaves the palace for an entire day when he is inevitably overruled. She finds herself angry at him, resentful that he argues on her behalf out of concern for her safety when she has already accepted the weight of responsibility, resentful that he makes her wish she could stay. They snap at each other over breakfast on the day she leaves and when she reaches the ship she feels tears well up in her eyes.
She has been afraid of this; of falling back into the same pattern they have; of bickering for no reason and letting pride get in the way of whatever has been budding between them. The past few years have been enough to let her know that the skips her heart makes when she sees him aren’t only caused by annoyance.
But she also knows that she is still only Aravis, still a foreigner struggling to understand what is expected of her, still on the receiving end of odd looks from Archenland villagers who have never seen someone that looks like her, a girl of unclear rank among the tall, pale people of Anvard. She does not confuse the looks of jealousy from other Ladies for admiration, is not blind to the resentment she detects among some of the Lords. She is Calormene to them, though she has shed all that remained of the Tarkheena she once was.
With no clear rank, conflicting ethnicity, and a wealth of rising emotions towards the Crown Prince, she finds herself nothing more than dead weight—another burden, drawing on resources and giving nothing. And though she hates Calormen, and hates that she is yet associated with it, she is not a fool—she is of more use in Tashbaan than she is in Anvard.
So when the Council requests that she go, she goes.
“She has offered up her own slaves to wait upon the Northerners,” Negah Tarkheena says darkly, eyes skimming over a piece of ragged, white fabric.
Viyya Tarkheena’s hands do not still on the carpet weaver for a second. “Which ones?”
“Three waited on her children when they were younger, and one is the girl from Ilkeen.”
“The latter is a new one.”
Viyya lets out a noncommittal hum, and her hands finally still. She turns to look at her niece even as a slave approaches her with a cup of steaming coffee. “Inquire as to Kidrash Tarkaan’s daughter. She was friends with Lasaraleen, was she not?”
“I believe they still correspond occasionally.”
The older woman ponders on this for a moment. “Then we shall become acquainted.”
“Auntie, we do not know if she is to be trusted. She abandoned Calormen years ago.”
Viyya smiles over her drink. “She is a runaway. I trust runaways far more than Kings.”
In the stories her father told on the nights when wine flowed freely and she sat at Rahmat’s feet with milky coffee in her hands, the first Tarkaans took to the seas under the iron will of Ilsombreh Tisroc, who discovered the richness of the woods east of Zalindreh and built the first fleet that conquered the Southern Seas. As a child, she often dreamt of seeing the empire from across the vast expanse of water.
The waves here are different than they are in the rocky cliffs of Archenland, or in the sandy beaches near Cair Paravel in Narnia; they are clear and a light, translucent blue. They lap against the ship, fish and small transparent jellyfish floating in them, just as they do in the paintings she has seen of Ilsombreh Tisroc’s fleet. And beyond—the tall walls of Tashbaan rising up against the afternoon sun, minarets gleaming like lighted candles.
Tashbaan is the pulsing heart of Calormen, the poets used to say. And it does resemble a heart, streets winding southward up the valley like veins pulsing red blood to the rest of the country, the wind pushing and pulling at its walls like a steady heartbeat. The great burning desert stretches out northwards, and she can see no sign of Archenland. In the distance, a herald cries out.
Qannar Tarkaan greets her as Our prodigal Tarkheena when she and Corin disembark, saying the words with just the right measure of scorn and respect that is impossible to protest. In Calormen, currency is made of sharp words and even sharper wits, and Aravis feels her body tense again, the way it once was, perpetually—straight back, chin high, Tarkheena—the way Rahmat taught her—you must be ready to defend yourself at all times, little sister.
They have been joined by Lord Dar and knights from the Guard. Corin, looking much more serious than usual, walks at the head of their group alongside the Tarkaan, who proceeds to guide them through the streets towards the palace with an assortment of florid descriptions about the glory of the city. In the hot climate of Tashbaan, with the desert winds whipping at clothes made for a climate much colder than this one, Aravis feels as if the city is swallowing her. She looks up at the gap between the roofs overhead and the blue sky seems far, far away.
Tashbaan tastes like sand and spices and the banquets her father used to hold in Calavar, when she was young and her older brother was still alive. It smells of horses and sweat and burnt sugar, and she wants to block it all out, especially the eyes of the people in the streets, the eyes that look at her…
“It’s all right,” Corin tries to comfort her under his breath. “They’re just looking at us barbarians.”
But they look at her, and Aravis is not a barbarian, though the people in Anvard may call her Lady Aravis and pretend she is from Archenland, though she may wear their linen dresses and flowers in her hair. Her skin is dark and her hair is dark and to those in Tashbaan she is a Tarkheena dressed in Northern frock, being paraded by barbarians into the city…
She tastes her old accent again, tastes the spicy air, and tries to ignore the hundreds of eyes of the people who press back against the walls on either side of the street, pulling ponies, children and sacks of their possessions out of the way as the herald that calls out Make way for the Barbarian Prince and the Tarkheena!
She wonders if she looks like a hostage.
She cannot decide if she would rather be called Lady or not.
She thinks of her brother often lately, perhaps because she is now the age he was when he died. Rahmat Tarkaan, firstborn son of Kidrash Tarkaan: she had dreamt to one day be like him, to ride gloriously into Tashbaan for her victories in the battlefield—to be a man, tall and strong, the pride of Calavar.
She wonders what he would think of her now, standing dressed in Archenland garb in the Tisroc’s palace, gazing at the rooms gifted to her for the duration of her stay. She wonders what Ahoshta Tarkaan would think, were he still alive.
“Your servant was told that these were to be the rooms of a Northern Princess,” a slave girl murmurs with awe from the corner, falling to the ground in profuse apology upon seeing her. Her name is Aini. The rooms seem to stretch out for miles, lavish, exquisitely furnished. “Forgive me, O my mistress; I did not know that you were one of us.”
Aravis’ heart catches in her throat.
She allows them to dress her after the fashion of highly-ranked Tarkheenas, in intricate silks and golden bangles and bells, as if no time has passed at all since Kidrash Tarkaan bargained his daughter’s life away in exchange for the Grand Vizier’s favor. But it would not do to offend the Tisroc by appearing in Northern frock, refusing to wear the clothes she was raised in.
What frightens her is how comfortably the clothes fit her; how much of a relief it is to feel the cool, soft silks against her legs, the looseness around her torso; ease in all the places Archenland fashion irritates her. The bangles around her arms seem to whisper her name against her forearms.
She swallows down the bile in her throat, her mind full of images of red silks and the wedding that could have been.
The throne room of the Tisroc’s palace is large, its ceiling arching upwards with exquisite engravings too detailed to recognize from the ground. Corin has been here before, and he tightens his fists reflexively as they follow Qannar Tarkaan towards the throne. He has not forgotten his previous stay, or Queen Susan’s distress at being trapped in this very city. The beaten-copper doors close behind them with a rumble.
The Calormenes have taken to calling the Tisroc Rabadash the Peacemaker, but Aravis has heard rumors of other, more disparaging names. She, too, has struggled to imagine Calormen without war, its provinces—so dedicated to raising soldiers and horses and supplies, even entire armies—relegated to agriculture and trade like any other nation. Kidrash Tarkaan’s conversation always revolved around the steady supply of horses for the Tisroc’s cavalry, time spread out in a framework of battles, scheduled army movements and the taking of new provinces, with stretches of anticipation in between.
Perhaps Corin does not notice, but to her, the irony of the throne room is marked. The tapestries that decorate the pillars bear tales and tokens of war. The room itself has been built large enough to assemble all the captains. Rabadash the Ridiculous, shame of the empire, ever fearful of the curse set upon him by Aslan, lest his power disappear in the blink of an eye.
Tarkaans and priests—Tashkhid, as they are called in Tashbaan—stand in firm lines along the hall, like walls of turbaned men. The points of the Tarkaans’ helmets glint, their beards dark shadows against colorful clothing. In the distance, Aravis can hear the loud horns of the gates of Tashbaan: sunset.
Fear clenches around her chest like a violent fist. She can feel them watching her. Traitor. Disgrace of Calavar. Many of them were once her brother’s comrades, others with greying beards often corresponded with her father, and some have been locked in bloody dispute with Calavar. Ishaq Tarkaan, the eldest of Rabadash’s brothers, with his untidy beard and reddish eyes, consumed by opium and drinking; Khalid Tarkaan, with sharp eyes and a cunning mouth; Ishamiel Tarkaan, grave and imposingly calm…
She never truly escaped; she has returned to her jail, to be watched and weighed and consumed. She has let them bring her back here; she has let her father win. King Lune does not know Calormen. He does not know the full extent of Calormene viciousness. Some things cannot be known unless one has grown up surrounded by them.
Corin, only a few steps ahead of her, hands still clenched into tense fists, stops beside Qannar Tarkaan’s prostrate body and looks up at the Tisroc himself.
Rabadash looks different now, resting on a raised dais, the turban on his head replaced with the pointed cap of the Tisroc of Calormen. At first glance, he seems vastly different from the young, violently inclined man Aravis glimpsed alongside Lasaraleen that night so many years ago in the Old Palace—but the same darkness is there—the hard, cunning greed that once threatened Queen Susan and the North. His eyes are fixed on Aravis.
“Prince Corin of Archenland and…” he nods his head almost deferentially. “The beloved daughter of Kidrash my kinsman. Friend, I see you bring us our prodigal Tarkheena. You are most welcome."
The alliance between Calavar and Tashbaan has always been a strong one. We are kin, her father used to say. Through the blood of my father Rishti Tarkaan, son of Kidrash Tarkaan my namesake, who was the sixth son of Ilsombreh Tisroc himself (on whom be the peace of the gods), I am descended from the line of Tash, and therefore you are also.
She knows well that it is dangerous to deny the Tisroc the respect he believes he deserves. But she will not bow before him; she cannot. The wall of Tarkaans is long and unmoving behind her, the memory of Ahoshta’s groveling form stark in her mind, and the gleam in Rabadash’s eyes has reminded her, suddenly, of the sight of Cor riding into battle armed with nothing but his exhaustion and his courage.
Corin is smiling coldly. “We are overwhelmed by your generosity. Tashbaan is a beautiful city. As for Lady Aravis,” and Aravis does not know if he says this for her benefit or out of sudden desire to antagonize the Tisroc. “I did not bring her. She came herself, knowing full well the wealth of abilities she has to share, and shall return home with me also.”
“Doubtless, she will be useful for interpretation,” Rabadash says, and smiles thinly. “If I remember correctly, Prince Corin, you were met with some… misfortune, during your last visit. One may easily misinterpret the demands and conditions of a culture when left solely to foreign devices.”
Corin’s jaw tightens. “I do hope that such misfortune can be avoided.”
If Rabadash understands what Corin is implying, he gives no sign of being offended. Aravis almost wishes he did; the cold benevolence he projects is unnerving. She has a sudden vision of the Tarkaans behind them unsheathing their scimitars and hacking them to pieces at the Tisroc’s feet.
“Of course. You will want of nothing.”
“There is only one thing we desire, and we desire it dearly. It is for that reason my father has sent us as his representatives; to add further emphasis to our request.” Corin has rehearsed this multiple times during their journey from Anvard, sometimes vicious, sometimes pleading. Here, to Aravis’ relief, he appears as neither. “The plague that struck our kingdom in summer was devastating, and brought about the death of hundreds, if not thousands. There is only one treatment to the disease: the plant Food of the gods, which your people plant in abundance, and which does not grow in Northern climates. We come to you in hopes of establishing a trade of this leaf between our countries, that our people may be safe when the next year comes.”
“Ah, yes, your land is in dire need, is it not?” Rabadash shifts in his seat, leaning backwards, as if pondering on the state of Archenland. “The plague this spring nearly decimated your population. Is your father well? Perhaps he is sick, and for that reason has not relinquished his eldest son from his side.”
Aravis digs her nails into her palms. Her hands are sweating. Aside from Corin’s burning eyes, however, he seems almost calm. “He is very well,” Corin asserts pointedly. “My brother is concerned with other matters of state. But as you know, the risk of another plague is yet great, and if we could count on your assistance—”
“King Lune knows that I have ever been eager to offer my assistance in times of tribulation. But as I have communicated previously, the use of our holy plant is reserved purely for ceremonies to the gods, and is not to be traded as a common leaf.” Rabadash pauses, his fingers fiddling with the jewels that hang from his neck. “I have also heard, by way of other contacts, that this leaf was obtained through illegal trade between your village healers and Calormene bandits, thus leading to a discovery of a cure through… rather undignified means. It strikes me that a reward for dealings so shameful in nature should be met with a King—and his sons’—approval.”
“It’s in pursuit of eliminating the need for those criminal activities that we desire to establish trade through legal means. We will pay extravagantly.”
Rabadash lets out a low laugh of derision, and murmurs rise about the room. Turning slightly, Aravis can see out of the corner of her eye that the white-turbaned Tashkhid are murmuring amongst themselves. She wonders if Zoshrud Tashkhad is among them, an old ally of her father’s—If he were not my friend, he would be the greatest danger this House has ever faced, her father used to say after his visits. When Tash is wielded as a weapon, entire nations fall.
She swallows. In her mind’s eye, her father stares at her warningly. But the King has sent her here.
“It is a matter of safety, O Tisroc. With the loss of the Four in Narnia, Archenland is your closest ally in the North. If our people fall prey to a plague, there will be no force to keep other enemies at bay from your northern border.”
She knows the fear Tarkaans have for the creatures of the Western Wild and the wild lands of the North. Giants are used in tales to terrorize, and senseless fear of an invasion, sometimes even by Narnia itself, often overtakes Calormene nobility. With the appearance of Telmar, a small yet steadily prospering nation, Calormen is beginning to feel more and more isolated, even in times of peace.
But Rabadash looks down at her, all pretense of a smile gone. “Aravis Tarkheena,” he says, and her name sounds like an insult. “Forgive me; I am not accustomed to be spoken to by women in this setting.”
The words are like an icy wall. Saying nothing more to her, he turns to Corin. “We have yet time, Prince Corin. Let us enjoy the comforts that Calormen has to offer. I will show you the finest places in this land, so that you may entertain your kinsmen with tales of our hospitality upon your return.”
The dismissal is clear. Corin grinds his teeth. “I remember your past hospitality well.”
Rabadash does not rise to the bait. “Good. Perhaps I can rekindle some of your more enjoyable memories.”
“And our conversation?”
“I am eager to continue it. But not today. Today is a day for enjoyment—politics can come later.”
They convene in Corin’s rooms, Corin unlacing his boots and flinging them into a corner with frustration. Aravis sits upon a pile of embroidered cushions and massages her temples, where a headache is gathering. Her heart is still pounding.
Lord Dar remains near the door; despite being a member of the Council, he has always seemed more of a military man, more comfortable on the battlefield than in the comforts afforded by his rank. His brow is furrowed.
“If this sets the pattern for the rest of our stay, Your Highness, I fear that we are at a disadvantage.”
“We were already at a disadvantage when we acted desperate enough to come here,” Corin replies, scowling. “He completely dismissed the conversation; does he have no shame, after everything he has put us through? I wish I had called him an Ass to his face,” he adds darkly.
“I do not think that it was wise to goad him.”
“It was unwise to bring up the subject in the presence of the Tashkhid,” Aravis says, looking at the floor. “They are against using holy materials for commerce, much less with Northerners.”
“Why should he care about them? He’s the bloody Tisroc.”
Aravis shakes her head. “A disagreement between the Tisroc and Tashkhid is one of the worst situations for this country—success hinges on the effective dealing between Tisroc, Tashkhid and Tarkaans; otherwise it’s chaos.” Her mouth suddenly feels dry. “That’s how the rebel wars started.”
Her childhood home had a marble floor like this one, with white steps leading down the front, where her brother Rahmat swung her in his arms and teased that he would bring her a rebel’s head back as a present. She asked her father later if there was a possibility of sending Rahmat a message to tell him that she had changed her mind: an enemy’s sword would do. Her father laughed, and she was confused.
She was too young to understand the political reasons behind the rebel wars that shook the country in the early years of her childhood, but she knew that it was the Tisroc and his sons who called Calavar’s Tarkaans to battle, along with five hundred of their horses. She thinks, now, that perhaps she never forgave them for it.
The wars in Calormen are over, but she felt the tension in the hall, and it made her skin crawl.
Corin is shaking his head. “Well, we can’t be bothered with their politics; we’re offering an exorbitant price and he has no use for so many crops.”
“You don’t understand, Corin.” Aravis looks up. The memory of the Tarkaans and Tashkhid, lined up in the throne room like a silent army, flashes through her mind and makes her shiver. “If the Tisroc goes against the Tashkhid there’s potential for revolt. He won’t risk that.”
When Lasaraleen sees her, she lets out a shriek of excitement, and then a second shriek when she unintentionally steps barefoot onto the sun-heated stone floors. She waves frantically from the courtyard instead, and when Aravis reaches her, she is embraced by her friend’s perfumed scent—one that makes her think of Mezreel, the fruits of her father’s garden, and long walks among roses, arguing over everything.
“Your Princes are nice,” Lasaraleen says once they are inside, balancing a small baby, her firstborn, on her knee. She’s eating dates and having some trouble keeping them away from the child’s grasping fingers. “Of course, I’ve only seen Prince Corin, but I hear the other is identical so there’s no need for confirmation. I am looking forward to the festivities now that you’re here. The Tisroc (may he live forever) will surely make it as lavish as he possibly can! I’ve already ordered five new dresses. Do you have enough dresses?”
“He’s showing off,” Aravis states scornfully, ignoring her and fully knowing that Lasaraleen will be horrified at her disparaging comments about the royal family, even more so about the Tisroc himself. “Trying to sweep his treachery under the rug and pretend it never happened. And the other Tarkaans are just as shameless.”
“Well that’s to be expected, darling,” Lasaraleen replies unexpectedly as she wriggles a small stuffed horse in the baby’s face. “They’re all bastards.”
The Tisroc’s attempt to distract them from their plans comes in the form of a garden party south of the city walls, in a clearing that grazes a stream, where the air is full of Jazmin and a thousand other scents Aravis remembers only from childhood in her father’s summer home. She remembers rolling down hills and infuriating her nurse with torn clothing, remembers when Lasaraleen’s family visited and she coerced the poor girl into going rowing in the lake.
Tables have been arranged on the grass, laden with pomegranates, oranges and dates, and a musician has begun to play the flute under a large tree. While the men sit at the tables, laughing loudly, some smoking from long, sweet-scented pipes, the women linger just beyond the tree line in a separate clearing. Slaves fan them lightly as they lounge on rugs set out on the grass. Qannar Tarkaan stands between both groups, mouth twitching into a sneer at the sight of her. She ignores him.
Aravis has met some of the Tarkheenas before, when she was younger. Many are distantly related to her, and some she has encountered as children in the parties she had been forced to attend. Lasaraleen would have remembered all their names. She is able to identify Aya Tarkheena, Rabadash’s third wife, who was but an infant the last time Aravis saw her, and Negah Tarkheena, the only daughter of the late Prince Jarrash—Rabadash’s older brother, who died some years back under mysterious circumstances, as Crown Princes tend to do. Others, she has only heard of: Izara Tarkheena, the sickly wife of Ishaq Tarkaan; and Zadreh Tarkheena, the wife of Khalid Tarkaan. The latter watches Aravis through thickly painted eyes. She is older than Khalid himself—something uncommon in Calormene marriages.
Sitting in the circle of Tarkheenas, partaking of breads and cheeses and dips of spices, Aravis feels as if she is masquerading as the Tarkheena she was once expected to become. The women keep their voices low, the sound of their occasional laughter melodious; a soft symphony of elegance—an art in which they have all been trained from the moment they were born.
“Does Northern air suit you?” Negah Tarkheena asks after their initial greeting, her green eyes smiling. She sits cross-legged, her ample turquoise skirt making her seem like the perfect painting of a Princess, a few curls springing out from beneath the scarf that loosely falls to her shoulders.
“I hear that the wind of the mountains makes your hair coarse, and that barbarians have poor hygiene,” a Tarkheena mutters to another.
Negah glares at the other woman. “Desist from such vulgarity.”
“Archenland pleases me,” Aravis replies, ignoring the others. “It has become my home.”
There is a sudden shift, and all heads turn as a woman dressed in shimmering lilac approaches, surrounded by her slaves. She fixes her cold gaze on Aravis. “Join me, Tarkheena.”
Aravis catches sight of the silver bangle on the woman’s arm and rises to her feet. This is Durriya Khasik, first wife of the Tisroc. Aravis has heard of Durriya’s marriage—one last attempt to finally unify the cities of Tashbaan and Tehishbaan after years of estrangement between Durriya’s father, Bilash Tarkaan, and the Tashkhid. Looking at her now, she realizes that Durriya is only a few years older than her.
They sit slightly apart from the rest of the gathering, upon soft carpets, bowls of fruit between them. Butterflies flutter along patches of flowers, but the woman’s expression is stony.
“I suspect you intended to approach me eventually,” she tells Aravis, her hands folded carefully over her skirt. Behind her, under a low canopy between trees, Aravis sees a slave playing with a small child. “Therefore there is no need for you to waste time with niceties. Your effort is one I do not endorse.”
Aravis is momentarily taken aback. Habituated to veiled meanings traded with courtesy, Durriya’s openness is both jarring and refreshing. She finds herself suddenly unsure as to how to make her approach; and finally decides that there is no use in keeping her words to herself. “You are right—I would have approached you. The plant has the potential to save hundreds of lives—is that not a goal as sacred as Tash himself?”
Durriya lets out a low laugh, though the sound holds little mirth. “I care not for the ramblings of the Tashkhid… I am no fool. They refuse because they dislike the North and will not yield their sacred charge to anyone they do not agree with.”
“Then why not support our stance?” Aravis presses, lowering her voice. Durriya does not seem wary around her own slaves, but other Tarkheenas sit close in the clearing, some of them other wives of the Tisroc—perhaps rivals. “Calormen’s riches are its greatest asset, and we are willing to pay extravagantly. Persuade the Tisroc to ally himself with us.”
“Do not attempt to school me in the politics of this country—if there is any advantage to my proximity to the Tisroc (may he live forever), it is my knowledge of its intricacies.” Her expression is grave. “My father is Bilash Tarkaan of Tehishbaan. My refusal to support my husband’s position on this matter could spark a war.”
“Why fear the conflict, when your father is so powerful?”
“Because my father would win the war, Tarkheena.”
Before Aravis can reply, there is a sudden commotion from the tables. Turning to look towards where the men are gathered, as all in the clearing do, Aravis catches sight of Ishaq Tarkaan lying on the ground, kicking at a slave even as he rolls over on the grass, dishes falling from the table and crashing against people’s feet and the tree trunks, in full view of the rest of the party.
It is a disgraceful sight; made all the more disgraceful by Rabadash’s attempts to brush it off with a loud laugh, while slaves struggle to lift Ishaq from where he lies. Khalid Tarkaan is forced to seize his brother by the neck of his tunic and pull him off the grass.
Aravis does not miss the venomous look Rabadash throws his brothers when Corin looks elsewhere, or the way the slaves shake as they carry the half-conscious Tarkaan away, stepping backwards, so as to face their ruler at all times.
She looks away. Durriya is watching the scene, her mouth twisted into a bitter line. She looks at Aravis, and her eyes are firm, but—Aravis realizes—not unkind, as she had initially interpreted.
“Tell your Prince not to meddle with our affairs—you know well the delicate balance upon which this empire stands. The slightest shift, and someone slips onto the edge of the knife.”