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The court wasted a week in fruitless searches and denial, sure that their kings and queens had found the White Stag and been whisked away on a new adventure, or that they had been captured by a band of marauders from the north or west, or any other tale that would end with their friends returning -- dusty, tired, and triumphant -- to the gates of Cair Paravel.

Finally, though, the privy council admitted that Tumnus had been right when he said, shocked and grief-stricken on the first day, "They came into Narnia in Lantern Waste; they have gone out again the same way. Aslan has called them home to their other world."

Lord Peridan of Scrapemoss sat slumped near the head of the oval table in the council chamber. Mere days ago, he had felt honored to sit at the High King's right hand. Now the empty chair, and its three empty fellows at the other cardinal points of the table, seemed to accuse him for that worthless, baseless pride. If he had simply ridden faster, if he had been with his friends at the moment they were snatched away...

"Aslan has called them home," he said bitterly. "Home! This was their home: the land they loved and bled for. And what are we to do without them?"

"We endure, and we grow past the wound," said the Dryad Melia of the southern groves. Her robe rustled like windswept leaves as she laid her hands flat on the polished table. "Narnia is and ever was a living land, changing as her people do. Our lost friends were themselves a departure from old ways, for they bore no blood from the ancient kings."

"They bore Aslan's mark," Sallowpad the Raven pointed out in his scratchy, creaking voice. "Who here can say the same? Without that, we have scores of claimants by blood, starting with Lune of Archenland and the other mountain kings, continuing through most of the island lords, and ending with two at this very table."

Peridan exchanged a tired look across the table with Lady Seren of Marshedge, neither being new to the whispered game of 'what-if' and 'by whose right' that foreign ambassadors and no few of those Narnians returned from a century of exile had played in the shadows of the Pevensies' court. Of late the whispers had turned toward marriage alliances rather than outright treason, but now all such restraints would dissolve.

"Archenland will stand with us, but every moment we spend with no clear head of state is a risk," Tumnus said. He sat stiff in his chair, his face blank and his voice colorless, so different from his usual good cheer. "Feyraud of Sarovence has long resented the treaty terms that ended his pretense to our throne. The giants of Ettinsmoor and Harfang can scent weakness. And the Western Wild is ever a source of danger."

A murmur of worried agreement swept the room, but Penarkin of the Red Dwarfs slammed his hands on the table. "Weakness! We'll show them weak!" he snapped. "I have two strong arms and a hammer, to say nothing of my bow. So do all my folk, and many of yours besides. Let our enemies invade. We'll send them running, same as ever."

"I don't doubt the strength or valiance of our people," Seren said. "But--"

"But nothing!" said Penarkin.

"But war requires order," Seren continued, raising her voice. "You know as well as I that Beasts dislike serving under Beings, and vice versa. We see the worst results of that path in the Western Wild, where every hand and claw are turned against each other. Narnia is not so steeped in grudges. We would turn to apathy, not wrath. But without a clear voice of authority, an army is naught but rabble."

"Peace, too, requires order," said Anaprisma the Cat from her seat on the windowsill. "Consider how much time we've wasted before admitting this conversation was needed. Then consider what would have happened were even one of the monarchs still with us."

There was a long, uncomfortable silence.

Eventually Peridan recalled that as Steward of Cair Paravel, he was entrusted to lead the council in the Pevensies' absence. "From your words and silence, I take it we are agreed to choose a new king, or queen," he said. "If Aslan appears--"

"I have some questions, if he does!" said Penarkin.

"As do we all," Melia agreed, her voice as dry as kindling before a fire.

Peridan cleared his throat. "Even so. And I hope-- I am sure he has answers." Whether he would share them was another question. Aslan kept his own counsel, and while no one could see him and doubt his love, neither could one doubt the terror and danger he embodied. The balance of his true nature was both unknown and unknowable.

"Regardless of that, it has always been Aslan's right to grant the throne of Narnia. If Aslan speaks, his choice will bind us, but we cannot merely wait for him to come. We must make our own choice and present that person to all of Narnia for acclamation as soon as we may, to stave off chaos." Peridan paused and glanced around the table, seeking any disagreement. He received none. "The House of Col has the best claim by blood. Archenland is our sister country and Prince Corin knows Narnia well," he concluded.

"Prince Corin would be a disaster, and has made his opinion of thrones very clear," Anaprisma said flatly. "Prince Cor has his own land to think of. We choose a Narnian or no one." She stared at Peridan. The tip of her tail twitched back and forth, steadily.

"Just so," agreed Sallowpad, shifting his talons on the back of his chair.

Peridan began to feel slightly hunted. "Marshedge has the most recent claim by blood among the Greater Houses," he said.

"Sarovence would not respect a ruling queen," Seren said, "and I am no general."

"Nor am I," Peridan said. "And Scrapemoss is a Lesser House. Our claim by blood is old and unlikely to carry weight among the Greater Houses, to say nothing of the world beyond Narnia's borders. "

"You are a knight of the Most Noble Order of the Lion, which is no light honor, and have served as Steward these past three years. You are known and respected," Tumnus said. "As for the rest, what does it matter? When he crowned our lost friends, Aslan showed that claim by blood is of lesser import than claim by worth. You love Narnia and have served her faithfully. That and our backing should be more than enough to establish your right to the throne."

"If knighthood and love of Narnia alone were enough to claim a throne, we should have half a hundred kings. The High King and his siblings saved Narnia from the White Witch. Find the man or woman who has done a deed to equal that, and I will gladly swear to him. But I am not worthy," Peridan insisted.

Sallowpad pounced on his words. "You excuse yourself on grounds of worth."

"Yes," said Peridan.

"Thus you allow Tumnus's assertion that worth is the measure of the throne."

"Yes," said Peridan, more cautiously.

"Then if you were worthy, you would serve?"

"I-- that is--"

"It follows from your own words," Sallowpad croaked. "Do you withdraw them?"

Peridan slumped in his seat, defeated. "No. But none of this hair-splitting is relevant, since the main point stands. We are the children of those who fled, those who hid, and those who compromised with evil. None of us have done aught that compares to freeing Narnia from the Long Winter."

None of them were beloved of Aslan. Though perhaps that was more a gift than otherwise.

"That lack can be remedied," said Cloudstrike the Centaur, speaking for the first time in the session. All eyes turned to her, and she continued: "You say we have done no great deeds. Therefore, let us set a challenge to those who would rule Narnia. Find a deed to equal a throne, and he who returns with glory shall be our king."

There was a brief silence while the council digested her words, thinking of the great deeds that decorated Narnia's past like jewels: King Frank who built a country at the world's dawn, King Gale who slew a dragon, Queen Swanwhite who surrendered alone to an army and returned with their general's head, the Pevensies who broke the Witch's reign. It seemed to everyone that those days were past. They were not legends, merely those who followed after: the golden glory of dawn dwindled to the prosaic light of day.

Then -- and nobody could later remember who made the suggestion (or perhaps nobody wanted to admit to it) -- somebody said, very quietly, "There is a garden at the end of the world, beyond the Western Wild. If we took an apple..."

This time the silence was longer, as everyone thought about the legendary Tree of Protection that had kept Narnia safe for nearly a thousand years, until the White Witch had sent her servants secretly to poison it. The Lord Digory had planted it at Aslan's bidding. The Pevensies had cleansed the Witch's taint from the old Tree's grave, but Aslan had not said anything about a replacement.

Even so, Peridan reminded himself, they could not always wait for Aslan's command. His purposes were not their own, and Narnia continued whether he was present or not. They had to prepare their own defense.

"The Tree was not awake, as we are, but we have missed our cousin's voice in the chorus of spring," Melia said after a time.

"The Western Wild still harbors remnants of the White Army, in addition to its other dangers," Anaprisma said. "The journey would be no small challenge."

"I always heard the Tree was meant for the Witch, something about magic against magic," Penarkin said. "Would it work against armies? Or would it just make pretty flowers?"

"We cannot know unless we make the venture. Even so, protection against magic is no small thing," Tumnus said. He looked down at his hands and would not meet anyone's gaze. "I wonder: if we had had such a Tree, would the power that stole away our friends have found purchase in Lantern Waste? Or would they have remained with us?"

"If it was Aslan's will..." Seren began, only to trail off.

Yes, Peridan thought, Aslan's will. That was the heart of the problem.

"It was. It must have been. I am sure there was a reason," said Tumnus. He laced his fingers together very tight, and when he looked up, fury and grief burned black in the depths of his eyes. "And yet."

"And yet," Cloudstrike agreed. "The stars are silent on this matter."

Suddenly Peridan could bear no more. He pushed his chair back in a great screech of wood on stone, and stood from the table. "I will go," he said. "I will bring back an apple from the uttermost west, in memory of King Peter, Queen Susan, King Edmund, and Queen Lucy, who are taken from us. I will bring it to protect our land from all dangers, whatever face they wear. And when I return, if you still wish it, I will serve Narnia as king."

"I assent to this plan," said Tumnus. "Does any disagree?"

"I also assent," said Melia, and the rest of the council followed quickly. Only Seren remained silent, but she nodded when Peridan caught her eyes and that was close enough.

"Seren shall be Steward while I am gone," he said. He laid his hand upon the hilt of his sword, which the High King had used to knight him years ago, when his family had first returned to Narnia. He had not deserved that honor then. He did not deserve this new honor the rest of the council was determined to thrust upon him.

But he would do his best, as he had always tried to do. He would do whatever was necessary to keep Narnia safe, to make Narnia strong, so that no one else would ever be stolen away from their friends and their home. And if the new Tree kept Aslan out, if it blocked his power and his will, then that itself would be a sign.

For the apples were a spell of protection, and magic always worked according to its nature.