The Lion, the Snake, and the Safe Room
Chapter 10: Friends
Hermione lowered her bow for a moment to flex her tired fingers. It may be traditional for the elder of the Queens of Narnia to be an amazing archer, but that's one tradition I think we're going to be honoring in the breach. I can hit the target most of the time now, but that's as good as I'm going to get without a lot more practice.
But we will have an archer-Queen. Just…not me.
Meghan, three targets down, was systematically lining its inmost ring with her arrows, her rate of fire steady and crisp. Harry, beside her, was keeping pace with her shots, though his aim was nowhere near as sure as hers. Still, Hermione thought most of his arrows would have crippled, if not killed, the imaginary enemy the target was meant to represent.
And that's as good as we really need to be.
Though that certainly doesn't mean we can stop practicing!
Garnet, beyond Meghan, was almost as quick and sure with her shots as the younger Princess, though Hermione suspected that was less a matter of inborn ability and more one of years of practice. Kargin, at the end of the row, was a bit slower, but all but one of his arrows had embedded themselves within the inner two rings of his target, and his powerful arms had driven them more deeply home than anyone else's had yet gone.
Again, practice, and in his case strength. He's probably been pumping bellows and hefting hammers since he was tiny, so he's going to have more of a pull to his bow than the rest of us. Harry might eventually train up that far, but it's going to take a year or two…
Which brought her to the person standing next to her, whom she'd been avoiding on general principles.
Though he isn't nearly as bad as he once was.
As Hermione watched, Draco Malfoy pulled an arrow from his quiver, nocked it, drew back his bowstring, and loosed. His motions were practiced, as well they should be after the three and a half months the young royals and their training partners had spent doing very little else but this, but somehow Hermione sensed a jerkiness to them, a feeling of discomfort.
And it isn't just that he thinks this is beneath him, that he shouldn't have to learn how to handle these "clumsy Muggle toys"—not after the drubbing Gilles gave him the first week we were here. Hermione swallowed her laugh at the memory. Their trainer-King had armed himself with only a quarterstaff, allowed Draco full use of his wand, and still claimed his victory in less than a minute. No, there's something else happening here. He's trying to do it wrong, or it's wrong for him…
But how can it be? We all learned at the same time, Gilles showed us the proper way to do it, and we were able to mirror him exactly because he's left-handed and we're all right—
She stopped and looked at that thought again.
Or are we?
Draco hissed between his teeth in frustration, lowering his bow. "I'm never going to get this," he grumbled, glaring at his target, which was peppered with apparently random shots, including one arrow hanging drunkenly from the bottommost edge. "Look at that! A five-year-old could do better!"
"Maybe a Narnian five-year-old could." Hermione hung her bow on her shoulder so as to stretch her left hand as well. "I don't think you had lessons in archery when you were five."
"No, no archery." Draco laughed reluctantly. "Lessons in just about everything else, mind you, but not that. Maths, elocution, foreign languages, reading and writing…" He grimaced. "Didn't like those much. My tutors had some very strict ideas about what was and wasn't proper."
"And was part of that what hand to use for your quill?" Hermione asked, her thought recurring to her. "So you wouldn't smear your ink, maybe?"
"I'd ask how you knew that, but I don't think I actually want to know." Draco arched his shoulders, stretching. "Put it down to your usual genius brain, I suppose. Why bring it up?"
"Why not try it the other way around?" Hermione gestured to the bow Draco was gripping loosely in his left hand and the quiver which poked over his right shoulder. "Just for fun, to see if anything changes."
"Couldn't hurt." Draco handed her his bow. "Hold that?" Swiftly, he unslung his quiver and draped the strap across his other shoulder, settling it into place, then reclaimed his weapon and weighed it in his right hand. "Hmm." Taking his stance, he planted his feet, flexed his knees once or twice, and reached for an arrow.
Hermione couldn't keep herself from grinning as the center of Draco's target sprouted first one, then two, then three tufts of feathers.
"Oh." Draco lowered his bow again, looking from it to his tightly clustered arrows with a considering expression. "So that's what it's supposed to feel like." He glanced over at her, a smile blossoming on his face which could almost have been described as shy. "Thanks," he said, a trifle awkwardly, as though he were unused to the word. "I don't know that I'd have thought of that for myself."
"You're welcome." Hermione felt a small, wicked urge and promptly submitted to it. "What else are friends for?"
Draco blinked at her, startled. "Yeah," he agreed after a moment. "What else."
Draco toyed with the remains of his apple tart and considered the word. It wasn't one which had ever had much bearing on his life, at least in the sense that the other young royals understood it.
Potter and Granger—Harry and Hermione, I suppose I should be thinking of them, don't want to ruin my cover story—Harry and Hermione, then, they're Lions, not Snakes. More than that, they were Muggle-raised, both of them, they didn't know anything about magic until those letters from school showed up. Freeman, Meghan, she may be a Snake like me, and she may have known magic existed, but she still grew up more Muggle than magical in all the ways that count.
Ways like having friends. Like knowing how to have them.
Across the table, Harry and Meghan were discussing some esoteric bit of trivia from a Narnian legend with Caelin and Gilles, while Hermione, next to him, was chattering away with Ardan about the Calormene ambassadors who were expected within the week. Ilana was sipping her tea and gazing into the distance, apparently lost in her own thoughts but occasionally interjecting a remark into one conversation or the other.
I don't know that any of them, even the Kings and Queens, could really understand where I come from. What my world was like before I went off to school, and after it too. Meghan might have more of a clue than the rest, from what she's seen the other Snakes doing and heard us talking about, but that depends on how observant she is…
For the simple fact was that friendship, in the sense Harry and Hermione had it for one another, were learning to have it for Meghan and teaching her to have it for them, was nothing that Draco Malfoy had ever learned to do for himself.
It's not that Snakes can't like each other. Can't want to do each other good turns, or have some fun together. We can, and we do, a lot more often than the Lions or the Eagles or the Badgers would ever think we did. It's just… He crumbled a bit of the tart's crust between his fingers. There's always that little, underlying question of, "what's in it for me?" That running tally of who owes whom what sort of favors. The other Houses don't do that, at least not consciously.
He didn't know if his own House's constant awareness of underlying suppositions about the actions of others was a good thing, a bad thing, or just a Snake thing.
Or possibly all three.
Whichever it might be, though, it was a hard habit to break, and Hermione's actions before lunch had put him very definitely in her debt on his personal score sheet.
And indebted is not a condition in which I like to be. Especially not to Hermione Granger.
But how, without knowing what she valued most, was he supposed to pay her back?
A hand touched the back of his gently. Startled, he looked up.
"You seemed far away," said Ilana, smiling as she sat down beside him. The rest of the motley crew of royalty had left the table, and three dryads in palace livery were beginning to clear the dishes, giggling behind their hands as they did so. "Was it a pleasant place that you were visiting?"
"Inside of my own head?" Draco pursed his lips, as though considering. "More pleasant than some, less than others." More pleasant now than it once was, since I got rid of that one voice which sounded like Father, back on our first morning here at the palace. Still not a garden spot, but I've dealt with worse. "Did I miss something I should have heard?"
"Not precisely. But you did, and do, look as though something is troubling you." Ilana pointed to the pile of crust crumbs under his fingers. "Since I doubt the apple tart had offended you in such a way as to deserve death by slow disintegration."
Draco laughed once, acknowledging the joke. "It's nothing really important," he said. "Just thinking about…well, thinking. And how different people do it differently, how they see the world, where they place value."
"And this is 'nothing really important'?" Ilana tipped her head to one side. "I must beg to differ with you there. It seems a most important subject, and one that perhaps we could discuss further. If you can spare me some time, of course."
"I…think I can do that," said Draco, after a moment spent making sure his mouth wasn't hanging open. If I can spare her some time? She's the bloody High Queen, I'm nothing but a Prince, and one on sufferance at that—she could have just given me an order—
But she didn't. She doesn't. None of them do. His lips twisted briefly as he recalled, once again, his dressing-down by High King Ardan on his first afternoon in the palace. Everything here is backwards to everything I ever learned about power and propriety, and there are days I don't think I'll ever be able to get the hang of it…
"Come, then." Ilana stood, as graceful as the dryad servants, and smiled at them before extending her hand to Draco. "Walk with me, if you will."
Draco accepted the hand, and matched his steps to the High Queen's, out of Cair Paravel proper and down to the seashore, where the noonday sun drew patterns on the dancing water and the seagulls cried overhead, soaring and circling in flocks of dazzling whiteness. Their feet made tiny crunching noises in the sand as they walked, and waves came foaming up the beach towards them but retreated before they so much as threatened the lace on Ilana's skirts, as though they too were Narnians and respected, admired, even loved, their Queen…
"People love you," Draco said, breaking the silence. "You, and Ardan, and Gilles and Caelin, they love all of you, even when you do things that they don't like or don't agree with. I know there are some Narnians who hate Calormen, who think we shouldn't be receiving their ambassadors, but they haven't run out of the kingdom or started a rebellion or even gone underground to sulk because you're going to have the delegation here next week anyway. They said their piece, and you made your decision, and it went against them, but we're still all one kingdom and they don't even seem to be holding a grudge. I don't understand that."
"It is not always so." Ilana turned her face upward, towards the sun. "But often it is. As for your lack of understanding…whom does a grudge benefit?" She squeezed his hand and released it. "Who is helped, who is aided, who is given more of what they need, or anything they need at all, by determinedly holding to wrongs, real or imagined? Tell me that."
"If you remember who did you wrong, and make sure to get back at them properly, no one else will do it again," Draco answered promptly. "And the same goes for someone who did right by you—you pay them back in full, give them everything they gave you. Fair's fair."
"So it is, and of that I approve. But you have answered only part of my question." Ilana adjusted the fall of the chain of bronze which was serving her today as a belt over her gown of crystalline blue. "There is merit in the idea of ensuring that wrongdoers do not strike again. But payback, revenge, suffering in return for suffering…is this a philosophy you would advise the whole world to take up? Or is it only for you and yours?"
"It's the philosophy most of the world does work on." Draco kicked at a rock moodily. "At least it is where I come from."
"And where you come from is a marvelous place, so rich in delight that you long to return there as quickly as possible?" Ilana's tone was teasing, but Draco could hear the undercurrent of true question underneath it. "Does our Narnia pale in comparison to your homeland, even such recollections of it as you still have?"
Damn it. Damn her. Since when have I been this transparent? "I don't remember enough to really compare," Draco hedged. "Besides, they're so different it's hard to find anything that would be a good starting point."
"Oh, I would not say they are so very different as all that." Ilana's voice had cooled, taking on a distinct note of warning. "I have seen your world, Draco, in the dreams Aslan is pleased to send me, and I have learned much about it from your siblings in royalty as well. There, as here, people have desires, and dreams, and hopes, and fears. And there, as here, people come together to help fulfill the first and withstand the last. So I ask you again. Which of your worlds do you prefer?"
Draco growled under his breath and kicked the rock again as they came up to it. "Here," he said grudgingly. "I like it better here."
Because here, if I make a mistake, I might get whacked for it, but I also get help with it. I don't just get beaten about the head until I fumble across the answer on my own. And here, there's such a thing as fun. Like those midnight revels with the dancing, or learning music and showing it off, or having the occasional afternoon off studying to go on a picnic like we did the other day…
He looked up as a seagull mewed above him. Or walking on the seashore after lunch and talking, just talking, with a grownup. Hashing things out, learning what we both think and feel and believe, and even some of why. Not my being told what I'd damn well better think and feel and believe, if I know what's good for me.
A new thought began to form in his mind. He held back, letting it crystallize piece by piece. Ilana seemed to be able to sense that something of the sort was happening, as she was humming softly under her breath, one hand tangled in her skirts, holding them clear of the sand.
Finally, the thought settled into a clear form, and Draco allowed himself to think it.
It was just as unsettling as he had suspected it might be.
These people are willing to let me have a choice. To let me decide for myself.
My parents, and the people they're in with, never wanted me to choose anything, or even to know there was a choice. Just do as you're told, follow the rules. Make yourself strong by trampling weakness. The hell with everyone else, why should we care about them and what they do, or why they do it? They're not as good as we are, not by a long cast, because they're weak and we're strong and the strong should always rule over the weak…
But if he still wanted to choose the side of strength over that of weakness—which I do—what did it say when one side was so confident in its own ways that it did not fear to let its children think new thoughts?
"I don't know how to do what everyone's expecting from me."
The voice was hesitant, quiet, almost timid.
It was also, Draco realized with a mounting sense of dread, his own.
"You do not know how to live, and learn, and grow in knowledge and friendship?" Ilana stepped carefully over a small trench in the sand. "I find that hard to believe."
"The last one is," Draco shot back. "For me, it is, because what do I know about being friends? What do I know about what someone like Harry or Hermione expects from a friend, or even Meghan? How am I supposed to keep things even between us when they're not so much as watching the score?"
"Perhaps you are playing different games." Ilana's smile flickered for a moment, then smoothed out into seriousness once more. "As for friendship, try turning the question about. What, if you had the choice out of all the world, would you want from a friend? What qualities, what characteristics, would you value in one who might be your companion?"
"How should I know?" Draco kicked the rock once again, this time angling it towards the water. It clipped the top of a cresting wave, then sank with a small splash. "I never had friends, not the sort Harry and Hermione are, not the sort they're making with Meghan…"
"And yet I see you in converse with them, sharing your lessons with them, even sometimes a little, foolish, commonplace joke." Ilana bent without breaking stride to pick up a broad, curved shell. "On such foundations are friendships built every day."
"Not for me," Draco muttered. "Not for Draco Malfoy."
"Then why must you continue to be Draco Malfoy?"
Draco laughed once. "Good question. One I ask myself every day…"
He stopped in mid-stride and listened to Ilana's question again in memory.
I don't think she was joking.
Turning his head, he looked at the High Queen. She had halted when he did and was facing him, her brown eyes meeting his gray without a trace of laughter in them.
Apparently not joking. Though I can't see what else she could be getting at…
"If you truly believe Draco Malfoy is a person unable to make or keep friends, then I would say Draco Malfoy has outlived his usefulness," Ilana said softly, her hands cupped in front of her, holding the shell with its pearly interior facing him. "You have partly shed his identity already by stepping through the wardrobe, by accepting the title of Prince of Narnia. But still he holds you fast, or you hold him, or both. So I ask you, my young Prince: is Draco Malfoy, as he has been for these fifteen years, the person you wish to continue being for the rest of your life?"
Two utterly opposed reactions erupted within Draco at the same time. Yes, one of them clamored, of course I want to be me, I'm not about to abandon everything I am and believe just because of some stupid disagreement about friends! Who needs friends? I'm going to be a King someday, and Kings don't have friends, they have subjects, obedient and loyal subjects, that's all I'll need, all I'll ever need…
No, whispered the other one, the voice which had begun, tentatively, to emerge in the few months he'd spent in Narnia, living in close quarters with his former enemies, watching the way they treated one another, seeing firsthand what all the tales he'd never understood were really about. I don't want to keep being the person I've been, the person who never got a choice about what he wanted to think and believe. I'm not sure who I do want to be, not yet, but I'd like to have a chance to find out…
"I don't know," he said aloud. "I wish I did."
Ilana smiled. "A good answer, and a truthful one," she said. "May I make a suggestion?"
"Why not try being someone else, in a small way, for a short while?" Ilana made a motion with the shell in her hand as though she were pouring something onto his head. "A change in, let us say, the name by which we call you in our everyday doings. You will thus be freed from any prohibitions you feel binding on Draco Malfoy, because, for this little time, you will not be Draco Malfoy. If you do not like it after a few days or a week, we can easily return to our original style, and no harm is done. What do you say?"
He eyed the shell warily, but did not move away from it. "What did you have in mind?"
"A simple derivation. A nickname, if you will." Ilana repeated her pouring motion, smiling more broadly this time. "Ray."
The name trickled through his consciousness, setting off the same thought processes he had once expounded to Nata along another patch of this same seashore, when he had told her about his daydream of seeking out the sun. That, he thought hazily, had been more Ray than Draco. It seemed like something Ray would do.
Half-consciously, he turned to face the ocean, bringing up his right hand as though it gripped a bow, his left as though drawing back a string. He had used his left hand more in his childhood, he recalled now, until his tutors broke him of the habit, but his right eye was the stronger of the two, so it only made sense that his aim was truer if he loosed his arrows with that eye on his target.
I'll have to thank Hermione for spotting that. Maybe do a couple of chores for her, or even get her a present. Her birthday's coming, isn't it?
It was like the Silver Spring all over again, only this time he was doing it to himself, almost as a game. This mysterious boy named Ray, who had never existed before—or had he, in the corners and crevices of Draco's mind, and was he only now getting a chance to come forward? Whichever it was, Ray was taking firm hold, settling himself in for the duration, but somehow Draco hadn't been pushed out by it. They were sharing, inhabiting the same skull without crowding one another, the same but yet not the same—he thought it would be nearly impossible to explain to anyone who hadn't experienced it—
Ray's everything I am that I know they'll like to see. Along with all the things I wasn't allowed to be, or supposed to be, back where I came from, but always wanted to be anyway. All the rest of me, the things I've been hiding, the things I don't want them knowing about, I can pack that off with Draco, because I won't be needing him for a while. He folded his hands and flexed his fingers backwards, then gripped his wrists and arched his arms behind his head for a stretch, incidentally putting his hand in the proper place to rub a certain spot on his left forearm which had started to ache. Not until the time is right. Not until they trust me all the way, and think Ray is all I am anymore.
He ignored the tiny whisper of thought which wondered what he would do if, when that day came, Ray was all that he wanted to be. Instead he smiled broadly at High Queen Ilana, stepping back a pace to give her his best and most courtly bow.
"Your Majesty," he said. "Allow me to introduce myself. Prince Ray of Narnia, very much at your service."
Until it's time to be of service to myself.
"I am pleased to meet you, your Highness." Ilana curtsied in return, laughing through her words. "Will you escort me back to Cair Paravel, that I may introduce you to my royal siblings, and to your own?"
"I would be delighted, madam." Ray offered the High Queen his arm, and together they walked up the beach, discussing the weather and its effects on the upcoming harvest.
Ilana's shell lay forgotten behind them on the sand, until two hissing waves in quick succession broke over it, the first filling it with water, the second drawing it out to sea, leaving no trace behind.
Variable chapter length seems to be my watchword for this story. Monthly updates, or possibly a bit more often than that if I get inspired, do for people?
More Surpassing Danger on the way, and please do check out my very first DV-based original, Homecoming, now available on a website near you (Amazon and Smashwords for e-book, Createspace and Etsy for paper) and lots and lots of fun, if I do say so myself!
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