CHAPTER SEVEN: ARAVIS IN TASHBAAN
WHAT had really happened was this. When Aravis saw Shasta hurried away by the Narnians and found herself alone with two horses who (very wisely) wouldn’t say a word, she never lost her head even for a moment. She grabbed Bree’s halter and stood still, holding both the horses; and though her heart was beating as hard as a hammer, she did nothing to show it. As soon as the Narnian lords had passed she tried to move on again. But before she could take a step, another crier (“Bother all these people” thought Aravis) was heard shouting out, “Way, way, way! Way for the Tarkheena Lasaraleen!” and immediately, following the crier, came four armed slaves and then four bearers carrying a litter which was all a-flutter with silken curtains and all a-jingle with silver bells and which scented the whole street with perfumes and flowers. After the litter, female slaves in beautiful clothes, and then a few grooms, runners, pages, and the like. And now Aravis made her first mistake.
She knew Lasaraleen quite well – almost as if they had been at school together – because they had often stayed in the same houses and been to the same parties. And Aravis couldn’t help looking up to see what Lasaraleen looked like now that she was married and a very great person indeed.
It was fatal. The eyes of the two girls met. And immediately Lasaraleen sat up in the litter and burst out at the top of her voice.
“Aravis! What on earth are you doing here? Your father-“
There was not a moment to lose. Without a second’s delay Aravis let go the Horses, caught the edge of the litter, swung herself up beside Lasaraleen and whispered furiously in her ear.
“Shut up! Do you hear! Shut up. You must hide me. Tell your people-“
“But darling-” began Lasaraleen in the same loud voice. (She didn’t in the least mind making people stare; in fact she rather liked it.)
“Do what I tell you or I’ll never speak to you again,” hissed Aravis. “Please, please be quick, Las. It’s frightfully important. Tell your people to bring those two horses along. Pull all the curtains of the litter and get away somewhere where I can’t be found. And do hurry.”
“All right, darling,” said Lasaraleen in her lazy voice. “Here. Two of you take the Tarkheena’s horses.” (This was to the slaves.) “And now home. I say, darling, do you think we really want the curtains drawn on a day like this? I mean to say-“
But Aravis had already drawn the curtains, enclosing Lasaraleen and herself in a rich and scented, but rather stuffy, kind of tent.
“I mustn’t be seen,” “she said. “My father doesn’t know I’m here. I’m running away.”
“My dear, how perfectly thrilling,” said Lasaraleen. “I’m dying to hear all about it. Darling, you’re sitting on my dress. Do you mind? That’s better. It is a new one. Do you like it? I got it at-“
“Oh, Las, do be serious,” said Aravis. “Where is my father?”
“Didn’t you know?” said Lasaraleen. “He’s here, of course. He came to town yesterday and is asking about you everywhere. And to think of you and me being here together and his not knowing anything about it! It’s the funniest thing I ever heard.” And she went off into giggles. She always had been a terrible giggler, as Aravis now remembered.
“It isn’t funny at all,” she said. “It’s dreadfully serious. Where can you hide me?”
“No difficulty at all, my dear girl,” said Lasaraleen. “I’ll take you home. My husband’s away and no one will see you. Phew! It’s not much fun with the curtains drawn. I want to see people. There’s no point in having a new dress on if one’s to go about shut up like this.”
“I hope no one heard you when you shouted out to me like that,” said Aravis.
“No, no, of course, darling,” said Lasaraleen absentmindedly. “But you haven’t even told me yet what you think of the dress.”
“Another thing,” said Aravis. “You must tell your people to treat those two horses very respectfully. That’s part of the secret. They’re really Talking Horses from Narnia.”
“Fancy!” said Lasaraleen. “How exciting! And oh, darling, have you seen the barbarian queen from Narnia? She’s staying in Tashbaan at present. They say Prince Rabadash is madly in love with her. There have been the most wonderful parties and hunts and things all this last fortnight. I can’t see that she’s so very pretty myself. But some of the Narnian men are lovely. I was taken out on a river party the day before yesterday, and I was wearing my-“
“How shall we prevent your people telling everyone that you’ve got a visitor – dressed like a beggar’s brat – in your house? It might so easily get round to my father.”
“Now don’t keep on fussing, there’s a dear,” said Lasaraleen. “We’ll get you some proper clothes in a moment. And here we are!”
The bearers had stopped and the litter was being lowered. When the curtains had been drawn Aravis found that she was in a courtyard-garden very like the one that Shasta had been taken into a few minutes earlier in another part of the city. Lasaraleen would have gone indoors at once but Aravis reminded her in a frantic whisper to say something to the slaves about not telling anyone of their mistress’s strange visitor.
“Sorry, darling, it had gone right out of my head,” said Lasareleen. “Here. All of you. And you, doorkeeper. No one is to be let out of the house today. And anyone I catch talking about this young lady will be first beaten to death and then burned alive and after that be kept on bread and water for six weeks. There.”
Although Lasaraleen had said she was dying to hear Aravis’s story, she showed no sign of really wanting to hear it at all. She was, in fact, much better at talking than at listening. She insisted on Aravis having a long and luxurious bath (Calormene baths are famous) and then dressing her up in the finest clothes before she would let her explain anything. The fuss she made about choosing the dresses nearly drove Aravis mad. She remembered now that Lasaraleen had always been like that, interested in clothes and parties and gossip. Aravis had always been more interested in bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming. You will guess that each thought the other silly. But when at last they were both seated after a meal (it was chiefly of the whipped cream and jelly and fruit and ice sort) in a beautiful pillared room (which Aravis would have liked better if Lasaraleen’s spoiled pet monkey hadn’t been climbing about it all the time) Lasaraleen at last asked her why she was running away from home.
When Aravis had finished telling her story, Lasaraleen said, “But, darling, why don’t you marry Ahoshta Tarkaan? Everyone’s crazy about him. My husband says he is beginning to be one of the greatest men in Calormen. He has just been made Grand Vizier now old Axartha has died. Didn’t you know?”
“I don’t care. I can’t stand the sight of him,” said Aravis.
“But, darling, only think! Three palaces, and one of them that beautiful one down on the lake at Ilkeen. Positively ropes of pearls, I’m told. Baths of asses’ milk. And you’d see such a lot of me.”
“He can keep his pearls and palaces as far as I’m concerned,” said Aravis.
“You always were a queer girl, Aravis,” said Lasaraleen. “What more do you want?”
In the end, however, Aravis managed to make her friend believe that she was in earnest and even to discuss plans. There would be no difficulty now about getting the two horses out of the North gate and then on to the Tombs. No one would stop or question a groom in fine clothes leading a war horse and a lady’s saddle horse down to the river, and Lasaraleen had plenty of grooms to send. It wasn’t so easy to decide what to do about Aravis herself. She suggested that she could be carried out in the litter with the curtains drawn. But Lasaraleen told her that litters were only used in the city and the sight of one going out through the gate would be certain to lead to questions.
When they had talked for a long time – and it was all the longer because Aravis found it hard to keep her friend to the point-at last Lasaraleen clapped her hands and said, “Oh, I have an idea. There is one way of getting out of the city without using the gates. The Tisroc’s garden (may he live for ever!) runs right down to the water and there is a little water-door. Only for the palace people of course – but then you know, dear (here she tittered a little) we almost are palace people. I say, it is lucky for you that you came to me. The dear Tisroc (may he live for ever!) is so kind. We’re asked to the palace almost every day and it is like a second home. I love all the dear princes and princesses and I positively adore Prince Rabadash. I might run in and see any of the palace ladies at any hour of the day or night. Why shouldn’t I slip in withyou, after dark, and let you out by the water-door? There are always a few punts and things tied up outside it. And even if we were caught-“
“All would be lost,” said Aravis.
“Oh darling, don’t get so excited,” said Lasaraleen. “I was going to say, even if we were caught everyone would only say it was one of my mad jokes. I’m getting quite well known for them. Only the other day- do listen, dear, this is frightfully funny-“
“I meant, all would be lost for me,” said Aravis a little sharply.
“Oh – ah – yes – I do see what you mean, darling. Well, can you think of any better plan?”
Aravis couldn’t, and answered, “No. We’ll have to risk it. When can we start?”
“Oh, not tonight,” said Lasaraleen. “Of course not tonight. There’s a great feast on tonight (I must start getting my hair done for it in a few minutes) and the whole place will be a blaze of lights. And such a crowd too! It would have to be tomorrow night.”
This was bad news for Aravis, but she had to make the best of it. The afternoon passed very slowly and it was a relief when Lasaraleen went out to the banquet, for Aravis was very tired of her giggling and her talk about dresses and parties, weddings and engagements and scandals. She went to bed early and that part she did enjoy: it was so nice to have pillows and sheets again.
But the next day passed very slowly. Lasaraleen wanted to go back on the whole arrangement and kept on telling Aravis that Narnia was a country of perpetual snow and ice inhabited by demons and sorcerers, and she was mad to think of going there. “And with a peasant boy, too!” said Lasaraleen. “Darling, think of it! It’s not Nice.” Aravis had thought of it a good deal, but she was so tired of Lasaraleen’s silliness by now that, for the first time, she began to think that travelling with Shasta was really rather more fun than fashionable life in Tashbaan. So she only replied, “You forget that I’ll be nobody, just like him, when we get to Narnia. And anyway, I promised.”
“And to think,” said Lasaraleen, almost crying, “that if only you had sense you could be the wife of a Grand Vizier!” Aravis went away to have a private word with the horses.
“You must go with a groom a little before sunset down to the Tombs,” she said. “No more of those packs. You’ll be saddled and bridled again. But there’ll have to be food in Hwin’s saddle-bags and a full water-skin behind yours, Bree. The man has orders to let you both have a good long drink at the far side of the bridge.”
“And then, Narnia and the North!” whispered Bree. “But what if Shasta is not at the Tombs.”
“Wait for him of course,” said Aravis. “I hope you’ve been quite comfortable.”
“Never better stabled in my life,” said Bree. “But if the husband of that tittering Tarkheena friend of yours is paying his head groom to get the best oats, then I think the head groom is cheating him.”
Aravis and Lasaraleen had supper in the pillared room.
About two hours later they were ready to start. Aravis was dressed to look like a superior slave-girl in a great house and wore a veil over her face. They had agreed that if any questions were asked Lasaraleen would pretend that Aravis was a slave she was taking as a present to one of the princesses.
The two girls went out on foot. A very few minutes brought them to the palace gates. Here there were of course soldiers on guard but the officer knew Lasaraleen quite well and called his men to attention and saluted. They passed at once into the Hall of Black Marble. A fair number of courtiers, slaves and others were still moving about here but this only made the two girls less conspicuous. They passed on into the Hall of Pillars and then into the Hall of Statues and down the colonnade, passing the great beatencopper doors of the throne room. It was all magnificent beyond description; what they could see of it in the dim light of the lamps.
Presently they came out into the garden-court which sloped downhill in a number of terraces. On the far side of that they came to the Old Palace. It had already grown almost quite dark and they now found themselves in a maze of corridors lit only by occasional torches fixed in brackets to the walls. Lasaraleen halted at a place where you had to go either left or right.
“Go on, do go on,” whispered Aravis, whose heart was beating terribly and who still felt that her father might run into them at any corner.
“I’m just wondering…” said Lasaraleen. “I’m not absolutely sure which way we go from here. I think it’s the left. Yes, I’m almost sure it’s the left. What fun this is!”
They took the left hand way and found themselves in a passage that was hardly lighted at all and which soon began going down steps.
“It’s all right,” said Lasaraleen. “I’m sure we’re right now. I remember these steps.” But at that moment a moving light appeared ahead. A second later there appeared from round a distant corner, the dark shapes of two men walking backwards and carrying tall candles. And of course it is only before royalties that people walk backwards. Aravis felt Lasaraleen grip her arm – that sort of sudden grip which is almost a pinch and which means that the person who is gripping you is very frightened indeed. Aravis thought it odd that Lasaraleen should be so afraid of the Tisroc if he were really such a friend of hers, but there was no time to go on thinking. Lasaraleen was hurrying her back to the top of the steps, on tiptoes, and groping wildly along the wall.
“Here’s a door,” she whispered. “Quick.”
They went in, drew the door very softly behind them, and found themselves in pitch darkness. Aravis could hear by Lasaraleen’s breathing that she was terrified.
“Tash preserve us!” whispered Lasaraleen. “What shall we do if he comes in here. Can we hide?”
There was a soft carpet under their feet. They groped forward into the room and blundered on to a sofa.
“Let’s lie down behind it,” whimpered Lasaraleen. “Oh, I do wish we hadn’t come.”
There was just room between the sofa and the curtained wall and the two girls got down. Lasaraleen managed to get the better position and was completely covered. The upper part of Aravis’s face stuck out beyond the sofa, so that if anyone came into that room with a light and happened to look in exactly the right place they would see her. But of course, because she was wearing a veil, what they saw would not at once look like a forehead and a pair of eyes. Aravis shoved desperately to try to make Lasaraleen give her a little more room. But Lasaraleen, now quite selfish in her panic, fought back and pinched her feet. They gave it up and lay still, panting a little. Their own breath semed dreadfully noisy, but there was no other noise.
“Is it safe?” said Aravis at last in the tiniest possible whisper.
“I – I – think so,” began Lasaraleen. “But my poor nerves -” and then came the most terrible noise they could have heard at that moment: the noise of the door opening. And then came light. And because Aravis couldn’t get her head any further in behind the sofa, she saw everything.
First came the two slaves (deaf and dumb, as Aravis rightly guessed, and therefore used at the most secret councils) walking backwards and carrying the candles. They took up their stand one at each end of the sofa. This was a good thing, for of course it was now harder for anyone to see Aravis once a slave was in front of her and she was looking between his heels. Then came an old man, very fat, wearing a curious pointed cap by which she immediately knew that he was the Tisroc. The least of the jewels with which he was covered was worth more than all the clothes and weapons of the Narnian lords put together: but he was so fat and such a mass of frills and pleats and bobbles and buttons and tassels and talismans that Aravis couldn’t help thinking the Narnian fashions (at any rate for men) looked nicer. After him came a tall young man with a feathered and jewelled turban on his head and an ivory-sheathed scimitar at his side. He seemed very excited and his eyes and teeth flashed fiercely in the candlelight. Last of all came a little hump-backed, wizened old man in whom she recognized with a shudder the new Grand Vizier and her own betrothed husband, Ahoshta Tarkaan himself.
As soon as all three had entered the room and the door was shut, the Tisroc seated himself on the divan with a sigh of contentment, the young man took his place, standing before him, and the Grand Vizier got down on his knees and elbows and laid his face flat on the carpet.