Christopher Key, chapter two, scene one

chapter two

And into a Mystery

They didn’t speak to him, just hurried him along, almost at a run.

The two manservants were right on his heels, and Master Ward strode beside him, gripping his arm. Christopher kept quiet. And walked very fast. They’d punish him for sneaking away, he expected that, but it hardly mattered. It had been worth it to see the knights.

He’d dreamed of them as long as he could remember, the king’s knights-royal. Riding home from some heroic quest, with pennons and trumpets and shields bravely emblazoned. And despite their splendid surcoats (he’d pictured cloth-of-gold) their swords would be workaday and very sharply edged, deadly weapons that had seen serious fighting. Against monsters, in warfare, and on the tourney field … They were the kingdom’s greatest weapons. Each wielded a different magic, each the equal of an army on the battlefield. If he could be one of them, if he could just be lucky enough even to see them …

Now he had. So he’d smile, and take his punishment.

He reminded himself: smile. He had to remind himself, because what had just happened left him desperately baffled.

What was going on?

Those knights had seen—what, Master Ward?—and instantly gone straight for him. Right for his throat without an instant’s hesitation, or so it seemed.

Who were the masters, that the knights-royal hated them so?

They were all magicians, he’d known that for so long that he never wondered about it anymore and didn’t think it the least bit odd. They belonged to the Order of Oroboros. Aside from that, he didn’t know anything.

More surprises awaited.

They weren’t going back to the house. The Master Ward began taking unexpected turns, into alleys, down obscure lanes hung with washing, and now they were hurrying along streets unfamiliar to Christopher even from his long-pored-over maps. (He’d handled those maps so much they were falling apart.) Maybe they were nearing the wharfs and the riverfront quarter, but he didn’t know. If he ran away now he’d be well and truly lost. It was thrilling.

“Here.” It was an inn. Master Ward strode through its gates as if he owned the place, and went straight across the stable-yard and into the taproom. Christopher was right on his heels, fascinated. He’d certainly never set foot in a taproom before. The smells of ale and beef-pies and sweaty hard-drinking men, the clatter of mugs, a hubbub of talk and a din vaguely resembling singing—these things hit him like a slap from a mail gauntlet and made him straighten right up, trying to look everywhere at once.

Master Ward said, “Don’t stare at the ale-girls, Christopher, it’s rude,” and then shouted above the uproar, “Bernard!”

There were girls in here? Never mind, though. He’d known a Bernard once, the baker at Master Windalley’s manor in Fleet Gardens. A year ago, had it been? Before the Master Lamplighter’s house. But here he was, the very same Bernard, all covered with flour. His brawny arms and huge scarred hands were white with it. He’d evidently been up to his shoulders in a bread-dough trough, battling tonight’s batch of loaves. Definitely Bernard. He wore a huge welcoming smile, but it vanished the instant he saw Master Ward’s grim face.

“What’s afoot?” he said.

“Bad news, Bernard,” said Master Ward. “But it gives you a chance to say hello to Christopher again.”

“Bless you, yes! My hand upon it!” He shook Christopher’s hand amidst clouds of flour. “I’m Master Cloudvane now, if you’ll believe it, Christopher, and this inn is mine. All at your disposal of course. What can I do?”

“I need messages sent,” said Master Ward. “Writing paper, ink, quill, and runners to go to Dust and Steppingstone and Wakener. And everyone else in the city at the moment, but those three first. Especially Steppingstone. Give us a private parlor. We have to hide. Can you manage a late luncheon for Christopher? And we want a heavy rainfall for the afternoon, please. Quite heavy.”

Bernard was now clapping his hands together in consternation, his jaw fallen. The billows of flour were like a seafog.

“A knight saw us,” Master Ward finished. “Sir Surrey.”

“Oh, dear. This way! At once!”

Bernard seized Master Ward and Christopher both, one hand for each, and towed them after him.

By the time he had seated them in overstuffed chairs in a private parlor, and (with his own hands) brought in the teapot, currant buns, strawberry jam and clotted cream, rain was beating on the inn-roof so heavily that the window-shutters rattled and quaked.

The buns were tasty. Christopher ate three very fast, and then slowed down. He hadn’t had currant buns since Master Windalley’s. Master Lamplighter’s cook had been indifferent, and Master Ward’s was adept with roasts and popovers but left the bread-making to the scullions, who were terrible at it. He wished Bernard had stayed, so he could thank him.

“Eat more,” Master Ward said. “I’m not sure when we’ll get our next meal.”

A life with adventures. He’d always intended to have one. Well, it looked like it was happening at last.

“Master Ward?” he said. “Why are we hiding from the king’s knights?”

Master Ward looked at him with what appeared to be regret. “I wish we could tell you. In my opinion you’re old enough to be taken into our confidence. More than old enough. I argued for it. But I was outvoted.”

“But where are we going? We’re not going home?”

“No. To another house. One they can’t trace us to, I hope. And from there, out of the city entirely. Maybe as far as Landsend—I argued for that too. This city was never a safe place for you.”

“Me?”

“It’s you they want. You deserve to know that much. You’re the one we have to hide.”

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