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Courting Gifts

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A visit by a King was always an event, even when he turned up without notice and with apparent casualness. Aravis was so quickly swept up in frantic preparations for a grand feast in King Edmund's honor that she barely had a chance to greet him.

She found this very frustrating. She’d enjoyed the few and brief exchanges they’d had before, and had hoped to someday get a chance to converse with him with more leisure. But she had no intention of sitting back in silken pillows and letting others do all the work. So when she saw everyone rushing madly about with sacks of flour and baskets of apples, she went to the kitchen and offered her help. And if she punched down the dough with more than necessary vigor, well, its texture would be all the finer and more befitting a King.

At the feast, King Edmund was given the place of honor at the right hand of King Lune himself. His chief minister sat to his left, with Corin at his side. Cor sat across from Corin and beside Edmund. Aravis was placed beside Cor. It was kindly meant—for all of their arguments, she and Cor were very close—but it meant that to say anything to Edmund, she would need to speak across Cor.

Once again, she and Edmund had only a brief and rather formal exchange, under the eye of King Lune and his chief minister. At its most exciting point, when Edmund asked after Hwin, Aravis leaned too far over and nearly sopped her sleeve in the gravy. After that she kept a more upright posture, which befitted the Tarkheena she’d once been, but which prevented more intimate exchanges.

And that was how it went for the rest of his visit. King Lune arranged for a hunt, and Edmund, in the place of honor, was beside him for almost the entire time. The one exception was the brief moment in which he and Aravis outpaced the rest of the hunt and found themselves riding side by side, sweating and exhilarated. Edmund’s cheeks were flushed and his hair clung to his forehead.

“Shall we leave them all behind?” he called to her.

Aravis gave a fierce grin and nodded. But then they came to a river, where the rest of the hunt caught up with them, and the boar and the moment were lost.

There were more moments, but always brief. He was a King and honored as a King, which meant ceremony and crowds and celebrations. Frustrated, Aravis considered sneaking into his bedchamber in the dead of night. But that might be misinterpreted. Or interpreted correctly, but unwelcome. And short of that, she could never catch him alone.

Never, that was, until Edmund very firmly declined a third grand feast in as many nights.

“I know you honor me,” he said to King Lune. “But I must depart early in the morning, and I do not want to sleep heavily. I will have some bread and wine and cheese, no more.”

King Lune, not wishing to have Edmund served such humble fare when others ate richly, had the cooks set out bread and wine and cheese for all that evening. Aravis had never acquired a taste for Archenland cheese. The Archenlanders praised it as “delicate” and “a fine accompaniment to wine and bread” and gave it many names. But to Aravis it all tasted of nothing in particular, and she could identify the varieties only by color and whether or not they had holes. She nibbled, no more.

Around Cor’s now-broad shoulders, she caught a glimpse of Edmund, also nibbling. Neither said anything, but she could feel their mutual amusement.

He retired while the night was still young. Aravis did as well, but even after the castle was dark and silent, she could not quiet her mind enough to even attempt to sleep. She finally left her bedchamber to pace the halls of Anvard, hoping to tire herself out.

With anything in the world to think about, she found herself dwelling upon cheese. It had been years since she had come to Archenland, and yet she still failed to appreciate theirs. In Calormen, she had never been exceptionally fond of it. But now, whenever the bland, dry white-without-holes or bland, dry yellow-with-holes was served to her, she imagined soft salty squares dripping with brine and eaten with watermelon, or hot strands of melted orange-yellow scooped up with flatbread and sprinkled with tangy red sumac and toasted sesame seeds.

Aravis, turning a corner, almost collided with Edmund. Like her, he was fully dressed.

“I beg your pardon,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“Nor could I.”

“You seemed deep in thought,” said Edmund. “What were thinking of?”

A little embarrassed, she admitted, “Cheese.”

“Really? I had thought you weren’t fond of it.”

She hesitated, reluctant to admit that she still had some fond memories of Calormen. Cor was sympathetic when she mentioned it, but he had wholeheartedly adopted Archenland as his home—which made sense, as he was an Archenlander born. His happiest memory of Calormen was leaving it.

But Edmund had observed her during those endless feasts, just as she had observed him. And not in the manner of a spy, or he wouldn’t have so easily revealed what he’d seen. He’d wanted to speak with her, perhaps, and had waited in vain for an opportunity. Or maybe he’d noted her likes and dislikes the way she had noted his, so in the unlikely chance that it became relevant, she wouldn’t serve him anything he wouldn’t enjoy. He was a Narnian, not a Calormen… but he hadn’t liked the cheese either.

“I’m not fond of Archenland cheese,” she said. “I miss the cheese of Calormen. You wouldn’t like it, I’m sure. It’s very salty, or hot, or sharp, or earthy. Nothing like the food here or in Narnia.”

“We have some sharp cheeses in Narnia,” said Edmund.

Aravis gave an unladylike snort. “You call those sharp. They don't cut. They barely even tickle!”

Slowly, Edmund said, “We had sharp cheeses in England.”

Aravis had forgotten, and rebuked herself for forgetting, that Edmund, King of Narnia, was not a Narnian born. The tale of how he and his brother and sisters had come through the wardrobe was told again and again, but the story began when their journey began. Aravis had never heard them speak before of the country they’d left behind.

She wondered if he had loved his parents, and if they had loved him. She wondered if he missed them and hoped to see them again, or if he had been glad to escape them. But she had learned a thing or two since coming to Archenland, and curbed her tongue. Instead, she said, “What were the cheeses of England like? How did you eat them?”

Edmund spoke as if half in a dream, reaching for some distant, faded memory. “There was one that was orange and hard. That was a sharp one. It was called… let me see… Cheddar, I believe. It was eaten after supper, with fruit and nuts, but I preferred the fruit and nuts. I liked it melted over toast. And a soft one, white with blue veins. It crumbled easily. My father enjoyed it, but I didn’t. I thought it tasted like dirt.”

Aravis spoke softly, as one might cup a butterfly with gentle hands, rather than snatching at it and frightening it away. “What did you enjoy eating, in England?”

“Sweet things. Everton toffee and sherbet pips and humbugs. Summer pudding and queen of puddings and six cup pudding. Spotted dick.” He chuckled. “The name was a joke—Dick was the piebald pony who pulled a cart, and the spots were raisins.”

Aravis, who had never heard of any of those sweets before, said, “Are all those delicacies unknown in Narnia?”

“They do a smashing summer pudding at Cair Paravel. With lashings of cream. But no, not the others. Boiled sweets were made in a factory, I think. The others… I suppose I could describe them to the cooks, and have them try to make them. It's strange, I never thought of doing that before.” He frowned, and his gaze sharpened. “It's strange that I almost never think of England. It seems like a dream. I suppose that's how it goes with childhood memories."

"I can remember my childhood quite vividly. But then, it was when I was happiest. Before my mother and my brother died."

They called Edmund the Just and Susan the Gentle, but gentleness was not a virtue possessed only by his sister. Aravis rarely mentioned her mother and brother, for she disliked pity. But Edmund spoke with thoughtfulness, not pity, when he said, "I can't think what I'd have done if Mother or Peter had died. But I know I'd never have let go of so much as a scrap of memory, if that was all I had left of them. I suppose, being happy in Narnia, I don't need to remember England."

"But your mother...?"

"It must seem strange to you, but I always feel as if I only left her a short while ago. I don't miss her any more than I miss Lucy, who I saw a few days ago and will see again tomorrow. I missed her terribly when we were sent away to the countryside, but now I only feel as if I'll be very happy to see her, when I do. And though I know years have passed, I feel sure that it's the same for her."

In a low voice, Aravis said, "I wish I felt like that."

"Maybe you will, some day..." After a pause, he went on, "Do you ever ask the cooks to make food in the way of Calormen?”

She shook her head. “I’d be the only one who’d eat it. But to be truthful, I too never thought of doing it.”

“Do you miss it?”

“At times.” Then, compelled by honesty, she said, “It’s what I miss most about Calormen. My mother and brother were already dead when I left. I have more friends here than I ever had there, and Hwin and Cor came with me. I prefer the clothing of Archenland—so much easier to ride in—and I’ve gotten used to the weather. But it lacks… spice.”

Hearing her own words, she was about to explain that she meant that it was the food that lacked spice, not the weather or Archenland in general. Then, reconsidering, she decided that her words required no correction.

“I had wondered,” said Edmund. And somehow she knew that what he had wondered about was what she had said by accident, and known for truth: it wasn't only the food of Archenland that lacked flavor. Then, rather abruptly, he said. “I didn’t come to Archenland to visit King Lune. Or Cor and Corin, fond as I am of them. I came to see you, Aravis.”

She was so startled that she didn't reply at all. He hurried on, as if worried that she did not understand. “To court you. I brought gifts, but I was waiting for the right time to give them, and it never came. I didn’t announce it because I wasn’t sure if you would wish it, and I wanted to find out before I put you in an awkward spot. I thought we had much in common, and I have enjoyed our conversations, and you are very beautiful… If I am putting you in an awkward spot now, please say so, and I will never mention it again.”

“Oh no!” Aravis burst out. “I only wish I had known earlier, so I could have courted you properly in return.”

He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. Aravis found herself thinking of the desert sun, which warmed and brought life as well as burned.

“How would you have courted me?” Edmund asked.

“No grand feasts. That’s for afterward, when formal arrangements are made. Before that, I would have made you courting pastries. In fact…” Aravis smiled. “Are you still hungry?”

“I am,” he admitted.

She seized his hand, and together they stole into the kitchen. They lit lamps and they made an inventory of its supplies, which were somewhat lacking. There was flour and oil and sugar in plenty for the pastry, but no dates or pistachios for the filling.

“Can you substitute?” asked Edmund. “Walnuts instead of pistachios, perhaps?”

“And raisins instead of figs.” She handed him a mortar and pestle, and directed him in shelling and crushing the walnuts, while she set the raisins soaking in brandy. Adding powdered ginger to the mixture, she said, “At least this recipe calls for it to be dry and ground. When I first came, I thought it so barbaric to not keep fresh ginger at all.”

“It doesn’t grow here, I believe. The winters are too cold.” The dreamy look returned to his eyes. “In England Mother made us gingerbread men. It’s not actually bread—no yeast. More like halfway between cake and biscuit. I remember how to make them, because we always came to the kitchen to cut them out into little men and give them clothes of icing.”

“I would find gingerbread men a very suitable courting gift,” said Aravis. “I shall pretend to be Lasaraleen when I clothe them, to ensure that they befit a King.”

Edmund laughed.

They worked together side by side, in a kitchen that soon grew warm and cozy and filled with the scents of sugar and spice. While her courting pastries and Edmund’s gingerbread men baked, they sat side by side, holding hands and speaking of the lands they left, but also of the lands they had come to and the new lives they’d made.

When their sweets were done and cool enough to try, Aravis gave him a courting pastry.

“The honey is for the sweetness of love,” she said. “The brandy is for the intoxication of romance. And the ginger is for the heat of passion.”

He bit into it. She didn’t have to ask if he liked it; she could see his pleasure for herself.

“I wish mine had that kind of symbolism,” said Edmund regretfully, handing her a gingerbread man. It was, she noted with amusement, one which he had decorated with more enthusiasm than skill. He had started to throw it out, saying that it looked like it was being embraced by a kraken, but Aravis had rescued it and popped it into the oven with the others.

Aravis nipped the tentacle-wrapped arm off the gingerbread man. Swallowing, she said, “But it does. Treacle for love. Ginger for passion. And the clothes look like he was intoxicated when he got dressed!”

Edmund laughed. They ate in companionable silence. When the time felt right, they turned to each other and kissed.

"You taste of spice," she said.