Christopher Key, chapter two, scene two

From end to end of the city, rain fell.

At the palace, the grand procession flounced to a halt in the Little Courtyard, everyone already soaked and the wagons that held Princess Alexane’s ten dozen gowns getting horribly in the way; the courtyard wasn’t big enough. The princess’ ladies looked alert but they were probably longing for cocoa and a nap. The princess’ childhood friend Mere, who had accompanied her all the way to Gloxia and back, was almost sighing—a most unusual sight. The princess’ betrothed, Perrin of Gloxia, managed to seem immaculate, the very image of the perfect courtier, even while rain sluiced down his face. He was the only one. Everyone else was bedraggled. The princess Alexane snarled at everyone except Perrin, and said, “At last. The nightmare’s over.”

Nobody argued with her. A good thing, too, because she was ready to bite someone—Sir Gawaine or Sir Surrey, if possible. If not them, any of the other knights-royal would do. Not that she was upset because they’d disrupted her triumphant homeward procession. She owned them for that, they’d come to her rescue in true knightly style even if they didn’t know it (really, Perrin should have done it) just when she’d been about to perish, stultified with boredom. But spurring into the crowd like a pair of ploughmen into a field? They ought to know better. They did know better. They deserved to be horsewhipped.

The only thing she liked less than the smell of wet horseflesh was the smell of wet wool. Combined, they made her want to hit something. The growl of thunder matched her mood. Yes, a storm was coming.

She dismounted with a furious clatter, flung her reins at a groom, and came face to face with the king her father. Here? In this hubbub with soldiers running every which way, the cavalry troops wheeling off to ride to their barracks, and all the tumult as her procession broke up? Father was afoot, in a plain grey uniform without decoration, and no hat; she hadn’t seen him arrive. Unexpected, unwelcome, his expression sardonic—she hadn’t been this close to him in almost a year. Even her betrothal orders had been delivered by Sir Gawaine.

Her father. Words exploded out of her. “Eleven knights in your court, Father, and the two you gave me went completely mad and caused a riot. They could have killed people. What’s wrong with them?”

Father spared her a wintry smile. “Ah, Alexane. You’ve inherited my habit of sarcasm. Curb it, you’ll shock your betrothed.”

“Oh, he has heard me speak aloud from time to time. He’s over there. I have brought us home a prize, Father.”

She had. Perrin was … astonishing.

Father shrugged. “Gawaine! The girl here claims you’ve lost your wits—you and Surrey both. Explain yourself.”

Sir Gawaine had seen Father and was already striding over. “Arthur, Surrey says—”

And Sir Surrey, right on Gawaine’s heels, said, “I’ve found a Key.”

Two other knights had come with Father—not as guards, because Father didn’t need any such thing, but knights followed him everywhere. Like puppies. They converged on him now, having evidently overheard: Balsam and Inconnu, known at court as ‘the Inseparables’. “I’ll fetch the others,” Sir Inconnu said, “and Prince Alexander,” but Sir Balsam chimed in as if completing his sentence, “No, wait, something’s wrong. Surrey?”

“Yes indeed,” Father said. “I want to hear the rest. Surrey?”

All four knights closed in around Father in a tight knot, with Sir Surrey in the middle, talking. The knights-royal were Father’s closest companions, deep in Father’s confidence, but she’d never caught them showing such informality before. And she could see why, because though Father seldom raised his voice, he could wither pretensions with the lift of an eyebrow. She’d seen him squash his counts when they drank too much, and even the receiver-general of the exchequer, that grand and arid personage, trod lightly in the royal presence.

Ten heartbeats later, Father shouted, “What?” loud enough to make every page in the palace drop dead of fright.

Sir Surrey protested. From their gestures, the other knights were scoffing at him, and then he threw up his hands and made to storm off. Father caught his shoulder and made him stay.

She wished she could elbow in and listen.

“They’re talking about your brother Alexander,” said a quiet voice at her shoulder. Mere had arrived, her closest friend, with an umbrella ready to hold over both of them. As usual she had moved like a ghost to wait just behind Alexane, speaking up only when she had something to say. “You remember that your father wouldn’t consent to Alexander marrying Prince Perrin’s sister Maud. With your pardon, sir,” she added.

She’d brought Perrin along. Alexane reached without thinking for his hand—her Perry, her betrothed, prince of detested enemy Gloxia or not, she didn’t care—and shifted a step closer to him. Her Perrin. Hers by conquest, he’d told her only yesterday. Won with a smile instead of a blow, a prize unexpected. A man who could think, and he loved her. Perrin.

“It was expected,” Perrin said agreeably. “No crown heir of Everie ever marries outside your country. You have very sharp ears, m’lady. Alexane, my heart, introduce me to your lady-in-waiting with the sharp ears and wise-eyed mien.”

“I’ve introduced you to Mere every day for the past two months. Stop that.”

“Is it my fault if I can’t remember any woman’s name but yours?”

“It probably is.”

“And I can say it so many delightful ways. A sigh of Alexane, a plaint, a smile, breathing it against your wrist with a kiss …”

He’d kissed her wrist late last night, when they’d evaded her ladies and walked out to watch the moon rise. First her wrist and then the crook of her elbow, and the hollow of her throat, and finally her mouth. Then they’d stood there endlessly kissing until Mere cleared her throat and let them look around to see her, eyes downcast, just arrived and with an expression of extreme tact. Just remembering those kisses made Alexane melt now. She couldn’t even breathe.

“They’re not talking about your brother Alexander anymore,” Mere said, head tilted. “Nor about Ruthven.”

Perrin said, “Ruthven?”

“Mere’s brother,” she told him, “my brother’s right-hand friend, an oaf, a brute and a bully. Just like Alexander.”

Just then, Father held up one finger, and the knights stopped arguing. They moved back respectfully, while contriving to seem disturbed—arms crossed, troubled glances flung at each other, doing everything but whisper behind their hands. This left Father standing in the rain, lost in thought, rubbing his chin and staring at the courtyard tiles. He looked more unapproachable than usual.

Well, she wasn’t afraid of him—hesitate with Father and you were lost, she’d known that since she was six—so she tucked her hand into Perrin’s arm and stepped forward. “Please show your future son-in-blessing the common courtesy you owe him,” she said. Loudly. She had rehearsed what followed: “Here he is, at your command: his highness Perrin, ducal master of the High Marches and the Debatable Ridings, third-born son of King Math, prince of Gloxia.”

Her father raised his eyes and said, “Prince Perrin. Good day.”

Perrin’s face had gone still and watchful. He didn’t flourish Father a bow, or break into any of the diplomatic niceties called for when a neighbouring prince was given audience by a king. He said simply, “Sire.”

“Gawaine,” Father said. Sir Gawaine nodded. “Escort Prince Perrin to the ambassadorial wing, hand him over to the Gloxian ambassador, and come straight back. With all due common courtesies.” And to her: “We had a banquet and speeches planned, Alexane, and you’d have found them damnably boring, but I’m calling them off. Everything’s changed. So say thank you, shut your mouth, and go straight to your rooms. Take your ladies-in-waiting. Stay put until I call for you. Understood?”

Thunder cracked overhead like an omen.

“No! Not understood. Father, explain yourself. Or else why should I—“

But Father had already turned away, giving orders to his remaining knights. “Call in the others! We’ll need to send pegasus-messengers to bring all of us to the city by evening, but I want all the knights-royal for this. Surrey, you lead—you’re the one with the power of farsight. Find me this boy, wherever he is.” He swept a glance around his knights. “By nightfall we ride to take him. Go.”

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