Christopher Key, chapter two, scene three

By nightfall—a dead-black night noisy with rain—Christopher and Master Ward were in a house in an obscure corner of the city, well away from the major markets and the Grand Gate. They’d arrived soggy-wet and cold to the bone, to find a magician waiting at the door. He had lank hair and a wilted shirt, qualities which went well with his downturned mouth and his air of deep, dark gloom, and he introduced himself as Master Dust.

However dour his face, he gave them a warm welcome. His manservants converged on Christopher and Master Ward, snatching their rain-soaked coats away. They brought blankets. They brought hot-water bottles. In moments they had them seated in front of a leaping fire, warm rugs tucked around their feet, food and drink at ready. They offered hot cocoa in a steaming mug, for Christopher, and mulled wine for a visibly weary Master Ward. And ploughman’s sandwiches built like monuments from slabs of bread and cheese, with pickled eggs on the side. And then gingerbread soldiers. It was wonderful.

Master Dust sat to eat with them, his brow wrinkled in worry. “No one can get a message to Steppingstone,” he said. “I fear the worst. Who knows where he’s whisked himself off to? If only he’d stayed put for once, you could have been safe in Lamarck already.”

“Just when we needed him,” Master Ward agreed.

“Isn’t it always that way? Never mind us, young Christopher, we’re just talking shop. Have some more gingerbread. You wouldn’t remember it, but I had the care of you for six weeks when you were, oh, barely big enough to toddle. Time flies. I apologize for the rooms we have to put you up in tonight—they’re a girl’s rooms, I just hired this house, everything’s upside-down. I’m very sorry about that. If things had gone as they ought, I was supposed to be your guardian for a month the summer. Oh, well. I suppose it was unavoidable.”

He didn’t say why he thought Master Ward’s sudden appearance was unavoidable. But his tone suggested gloomy disaster.

Master Ward paid no attention. He sat with his elbows propped on the oaken table, staring into his empty tankard. Eventually he sighed, and said, “As to that. Christopher, you ran away this morning. I’m afraid that I must seal this house against you running off again. I shall put spell-walls completely around it. Don’t try to wriggle through them, I’ll be very thorough.”

They’d never done that to him before.

He must have given them even more of a fright than he’d thought.

“And now. Please go upstairs and stay there until I come to fetch you. Other magicians will be arriving soon, and we’ll be holding a long meeting. Probably all night long. Try to get a good sleep, we have to travel far and fast tomorrow. Good night, Christopher.”

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