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Josie and Tash had spent a busy few days putting the castle into order to receive visitors. The hall where Blackbriar had once slept was swept out, bedding was arranged there, and wood made ready for the fireplace. Another hall that had seemed like it might once have been a banqueting hall, where the roof only leaked in the strongest rains, was readied with heavy chairs of polished wood and tapestries to be a fit place for holding conference in. Food and drink as suitable for entertaining a prince as could be managed was collected. Many of the nicer things that the ifrits had collected for Yustus were long gone; Turkish delight, for instance, was only a fond memory, and it was a long time since Josie had eaten yogurt or fresh apricots. But they had sugared fruits and pickled vegetables in plenty, a great quantity of roast venison, and enough flour remained for Josie to bake years’ worth of bread. Throughout the preparations for the visit Gerald contrived to be wherever he would be most in the way. He found the flurry of activity most exciting.

‘Daddy, is the owl coming back?’ he asked Tash. ‘Will it bring the gazelle?’

‘That is what he said, little one,’ Tash replied. ‘The owl will be back, and the gazelle too, and some men.’

‘Like you?’ asked Gerald.

‘More like you, but grown up,’ explained Tash. He lifted Gerald onto his shoulder. ‘Try imagining you are about this high, that is what they will be like.’

‘Ooh,’ said Gerald, and laughed.

Josie made sure that she had her finest silks and jewels picked out to wear while the Prince was visiting, and selected things for Tash and Gerald to wear as well.

‘You will have to wear something,’ she told Tash. ‘Even if it is really only a curtain pinned up, we can make it seem splendid. It would be too shameful if you were naked.’

‘As you wish,’ said Tash. ‘I will ornament myself with jewels too. And Gerald: there is that golden ring thing that will look nice on his head.’

‘So long as he does not take it off and lose it somewhere,’ said Josie. But then she laughed, a little nervously. ‘What an old woman I am becoming,’ she said. ‘As if it mattered. There is more jewellery here than we could ever wear.’

Tash said nothing. Of course, being immortal, in principle they would have plenty of time to wear all the jewellery, even if every room of the castle was crammed full of the stuff. But their days together were destined to be short – the Books of Tash had said so, and Aslan had confirmed it. He did not like to think of how short they might be.

During those days Tash played cheerfully with the boy, and was gentle with his wife, and worked hard getting the castle in order without complaint; but inside he felt every moment as if he was teetering on the edge of a black well of fear. All that he had here had been under threat since he had read the Books of Tash, like a village on the edge of a steep mountain that is sure one day to give way in a landslide. And now the earth was trembling, and soon a great wave of stone and earth would sweep the village away.

‘I will not give them up,’ he told himself. ‘I will not.’


The Mistress of Telmar and her retinue – that is, Tash and Gerald – met with Prince Margis and his company at the base of the hill, where the hidden path to the castle began. Tash and Gerald had watched eagerly at the window for the visitors’ approach, so they were in position in plenty of time.

‘Are those horses?’ asked Gerald.

‘I think so,’ answered Tash.

Certainly Gerald had never seen so many people and beasts coming purposefully up to him, and found it quite marvellous and exciting until they were a little too close, when his face crumbled into unhappiness and he hid against Tash’s chest.

‘There is a dog with them,’ Tash said to Josie in a low rumbling voice. ‘I think it might be Blackbriar.’

‘Indeed,’ said Josie, her voice shaking a little.

The riders stopped a good ten paces short of Josie and dismounted. ‘The peace of the Lion be with you, Lady Josie,’ said the first of them, a young man who could only have been Prince Margis. Tash noticed that the Prince and the other men who were with him kept their eyes politely fixed on Josie, but could not help watching him out of the corner of their eyes. They do not know what I am, thought Tash. And they are scared of me. Thinking this made him feel bolder and more cheerful. The men were not dressed all that differently from the brigands he had fought a few years before, though they were better groomed, and all of them except Prince Margis seemed to be concentrating mainly on controlling their horses. Tash knew the horses were frightened of him, too, and the men being frightened of him made the horses more frightened.

‘Greetings to you, Prince Margis,’ said Josie, sounding to Tash very grand and in control of everything. ‘Allow me to introduce my husband, Tash, and my son, Gerald.’

‘It is an honour, Lady Josie,’ said the Prince, inclining his head slightly in a royal bow. Josie responded in the same way. ‘These are my companions: my advisor, Arkalan Jardil; my men-at-arms, Jemin, Hurras, Karifar, and Eyit; Ofrak who is known to you, and Mirilitha.’ As each of the men or beasts were named, they made a sign of obeisance to the Mistress of Telmar.

It was all uncomfortably formal, but the dog chose that moment to come forward and nose about Josie’s feet. She crouched down to pat it. ‘Blackbriar! Is that you?’ The dog licked her hand.

Gerald had begun to peek out again, very cautiously. ‘Doggie,’ he observed.

‘I call her Onyx,’ said Prince Margis.

‘I am quite sure that she is the dog we knew as Blackbriar, though,’ said Josie. ‘Yes, Gerald, it is definitely a doggie. One I did not think I would meet here again.’ She straightened and brushed her hands on her skirts.

Tash watched the men. They did not know what to make of Josie, and they did not know what to make of him. In turn, they reminded him uncomfortably of the brigands. They are not at all the same, he told himself. They look the same, that is all. Gerald must have picked up Tash’s unease, since he began to wriggle and complain.

‘You are welcome in Castle Telmar, Prince Margis,’ said Josie. ‘You and yours, for as long as you wish. Please come in and we will show you to your rooms.’

‘You are a generous hostess, Lady Josie,’ replied Prince Margis. ‘I am most grateful.’

‘We do not have many servants – any servants, really – so all we have is simple, but I hope you will find it sufficient,’ said Josie.

‘We have been sleeping out of doors for months,’ said Prince Margis cheerfully. ‘Four walls and a roof will be luxury enough.’

Josie led the way on into the castle. Tash wanted to walk beside her, but he did not want to get too close to the horses and scare them, so he let the men and their horses go by with plenty of room and brought up the rear with Mirilitha.

‘This lady is a gazelle,’ said Tash to Gerald. ‘If you are quiet and good, maybe she will let you pat her.’

‘Yes, that’s right,’ said Mirilitha. The gazelle did not seem anywhere near as afraid of Tash as the men were. Maybe to her he was not all that different from a human, Tash thought.

‘I am Gerald,’ said Gerald to the gazelle. He held out a hand in her direction, and Tash held him so that he could run his hand over Mirilitha’s fur.

‘Gerald looks very like the Lady Josie,’ said Mirilitha.

‘I look like me,’ said Gerald defensively.

‘Yes, you do, little one,’ admitted the gazelle. ‘No one could mistake you for anyone else.’

‘He is curious about gazelles,’ said Tash. ‘So am I. You are smaller than I thought you would be.’

‘That is fair, Lord Tash,’ said Mirilitha. ‘You are larger than I thought.’

They passed through the narrow doorway that had been closed in the time of the evil magician, and started up the broad winding stairway to the castle proper.

‘No one has called me Lord Tash before,’ said Tash, thinking how very odd it sounded.

‘Since you are the consort of Lady Josie, I thought it would be your proper title,’ said Mirilitha. ‘I am sorry if I have it wrong. I am still quite new at dealing with the Sons of Frank and Daughters of Helen, and here-‘ she looked for a moment like she was going to bolt off in a nervous gazelle manner. ‘Here it is different again.’

‘I do not mind at all being called Lord Tash,’ said Tash.

‘Am I Lord Gerald?’ asked Gerald.

‘I think you are the young Master,’ said Mirilitha. ‘Young Master Gerald.’

‘I like Lord Gerald better,’ said Gerald.


The travellers were shown to their rooms, and Prince Margis pronounced himself amazed by the splendours of the castle. ‘To think that it was made hundreds of years ago,’ he said. ‘Balan was scarcely a huddle of mud huts at that time.’

After the horses were seen to and the men tidied up it was time for lunch, so there was a feast of cold roast venison and pickled vegetables in the banqueting hall. As Josie was not fond of wine herself, she had plenty to share with the travellers, and she made sure that their cups were full.

The food may not have been splendid, but they ate off golden plates the Telmarines had left. The Telmarines had used spoons, but no forks, so Josie had gotten in the habit of eating with her fingers and figured she could do it quite tidily. She could not see what her human visitors were doing, but if her manners were terrible, they had the good sense not to complain.

There was an unspoken agreement not to speak of anything of great importance just yet. Prince Margis conversed with the natural politeness of nobility; Josie replied with what felt to her like ungainly awkwardness; and the others- Margis’ advisor Jardil, the men-at-arms, and still more the two talking beasts – kept the polite silence of underlings. Josie found this most unnerving. She was not at all used to being the centre of attention at a formal meal.

Eventually they had emptied their plates and refilled their cups. ‘With your pardon, Lady Josie,’ said Prince Margis. ‘There is one thing I should not delay any longer. I know we have much to discuss, and it would be best to put off discussing it until the morrow, but there is this one thing.’

‘Of course, Prince Margis,’ said Josie. Gerald had fallen asleep during lunch, and was comfortably tucked away on a pile of blankets in the corner.

‘I have something that I believe is yours,’ said Margis, removing something from a pouch.

‘What is it?’ asked Josie.

‘The ruby key,’ Tash replied in his profoundly unmusical voice, before Prince Margis could say anything. ‘They key to the secrets of Telmar.’

‘Yes, Lady Josie. I do not know whether it is in truth the key to the secrets of Telmar, but I was told it belonged to you.’

Josie realised she was gritting her teeth, and forced her face to relax into a smile with an effort. ‘Thank you, Prince Margis.’

He leant across the table to put the key in front of her, and she lifted her hands to take it from him. As their hands touched she felt all the hairs on her arm stand up on end. It was if he had passed her something invisible and dangerous and powerful, along with the key.

‘How did you come by this key?’ she asked, keeping her voice carefully controlled.

‘A thief was captured, stealing from goatherds at the edge of the great desert. He had this key on him. He was brought to Balan for punishment, and when he was questioned, he admitted that he been part of band that had taken it from a woman far to the northwest – near Telmar, near here. It was a pale young woman, he said, one who had no business being in such a wild country. He said then that their band had been set upon by a monster – begging your pardon, er, Lord Tash – that had taken the girl, and slain a dozen of the band, and that he had been one of the few who escaped with his life.’

‘That makes sense,’ said Josie slowly. ‘Thank you for bringing it back.’

‘It was no more than six,’ said Tash modestly. ‘I am quite sure.’

Josie turned the ruby key over and over in her fingers, reacquainting herself with it. ‘I should put it on a chain, instead of just a bit of ribbon,’ she said, more to herself than anyone else. She set the key back down on the table in front of her. ‘Tash?’ she reached out a hand to take one of his, feeling more ill at ease than before.

‘Well, I am happy to put off any discussion of weighty matters until the morrow,’ said Prince Margis cheerily. ‘But I could not rest with that burning in my pouch, knowing it to be yours.’

‘Thank you again,’ said Josie. She squeezed Tash’s hand.

‘May I fill your cup, Lady Josie?’ asked the Prince.

Josie flinched. ‘No, thank you.’ The return of the key had brought the circumstances in which it was taken from her vividly back to mind. She clutched on to Tash as though his hand was all that kept her from falling into an abyss.

‘As you wish, Lady Josie,’ replied the Prince.

‘I think the Lady Josie may be tired, my Prince,’ said Jardil smoothly. ‘I find I am also weary after our long journey. And there are some few tasks we must still accomplish this afternoon.’

‘Er -of course,’ said Prince Margis. ‘Perhaps you will be so kind as to excuse us, Lady Josie?’

‘Yes, certainly,’ said Josie. ‘Please make yourselves at home in the castle. You are quite right. I find I am quite tired after all the excitement.’ She picked up the key and stood. ‘Thank you.’


That evening Margis and Jardil walked together in the garden where Tash had once been a statue. Only the statue of the queen remained now, tumbled and broken into pieces on the ground, and the lawn that the ifrits had kept in good repair was a wilderness of weeds with a few well-worn trails running through it. Beyond the edge where the garden fell precipitously away, the sun was setting in a blaze of colour – for there were great fires or dust storms far away, and since midday the horizon had been hidden in haze.

‘Jardil, she is more beguiling than ever I imagined,’ said Prince Margis with earnest enthusiasm. ‘There is something about her. When our hands touched, it was as if I touched fire. Oh, she is strange, Jardil, very strange and perilous, but I feel I am half in love with her already.’

Jardil walked on for a moment before answering. He plucked a dead twig from the honeysuckle vine and rolled it between his fingers. ‘But there is Tash, the creature she calls her husband.’

‘In truth, I never dreamed to see such a thing,’ said Margis, ‘I still cannot believe it. She does not seem ensorcelled. It truly seems as if she commands the beast. And she- she-‘ Margis shook his head in honest bewilderment. ‘Jardil, can it really but that she- that they-‘

‘Would it make any difference to your designs, my Prince?’ asked Jardil. ‘We know she is not a virgin. She has a son.’

Margis regarded the sunset. It looked as if the edge of the world had caught fire. ‘No,’ he said, slowly and carefully. ‘No, I suppose it would not. As I said, I am already half in love with her. No, two-thirds.’

‘Well then, you must go on as you had planned,’ said Jardil.

‘Yes,’ said Margis. There was another long moment before he spoke again to his advisor.

‘Jardil, do you think she cannot be parted from him?’

‘I know the ways of a man with a woman, my Prince, and I know you well, and I judge there will be no great difficulty in parting her from the creature; but parting the creature from her, that will be another matter.’

‘Ah,’ said Margis, gazing at the sunset.


At the same time Tash and Josie were talking in the chambers where the evil magician had once lived. The curtains were drawn and no light was lit, but Tash was well used to the gloom.

‘I did not expect it,’ said Josie. ‘I suppose it is a sign. A sign that we have to open up the secret chamber and do something with the things there. And Blackbriar is here. It has to be a sign. Do you think it is a sign, Tash? A second chance, to set things right with the animals here and finish what Aslan wanted?’

‘He wanted you to go away,’ said Tash, smoothing the hair back from Josie’s forehead.

‘Maybe he has changed his mind. Since we made it clear we weren’t going, he made sure that these men came here – with the key, and with the dog.’ She sounded more frightened than she had allowed herself to sound in the presence of the Calormenes.

‘I don’t know,’ said Tash.

‘Maybe once we do what we are supposed to do, they will go again, and-‘ Josie fell silent.

‘And then it could stay like this,’ said Tash. ‘It would be good. I will hope.’ But it was hard to hope, since he had read the Books of Tash, and felt his destiny rumbling down upon him. ‘It could be you are right, and Aslan has changed his mind, and we are not doomed after all.’

‘Can you hear Gerald?’ asked Josie suddenly.

‘I don’t think so,’ said Tash.

‘I think I do,’ said Josie. ‘I will go get him.’ She rose hastily from their bed, threw a wrap around her shoulders, and went into the next room where the boy lay sleeping.