Christopher Key, chapter two, scene four

The rooms they gave Christopher had been a girl’s, all right. In fact they had obviously been a nursery for small girls, several of them. Three beds stood in a neat row; he had his choice of them, so it was just too bad that none of them was long enough. No matter which he took, his feet would stick out all night long. Also, everything was pink and beribboned. A pink baby doll with porcelain face and hands slept tucked into a cradle in one corner, and there was a rockinghorse. A pink rockinghorse.

No books.

He ended up at the gable windows, the shutters thrown back, leaning out over the sill and breathing the wet night air. The rainstorm had changed to a rattling good thunderstorm. The rain still drove hard, lightning-flashes like fireworks high above, thunder growling and booming. Water cascaded down every rain-chain, filling the run-off gutters that irrigated the gardens. Christopher’s window was, luckily, on the lee side of the house. He drummed his fingers on the pink window-frame. No books, no explanations; all he had was boredom.

Boredom, and a view. He could see almost the whole house from here, lit by lightning-flashes. Despite the run-down lane they’d ridden to reach it, this was a surprisingly large place, sprawling in all directions, set in a maze of boxwood hedges in the most interesting way, with all sorts of odd outbuildings. As if it had been planned to delight and distract a boy. All the houses that he’d visited with various ‘guardians’ had been the same, large and intriguing, and carefully locked and guarded. With high walls.

Something else bothered him now. None of these houses had ever had maids. They had butlers, but no housekeepers; they had no female staff at all. No women of any kind. His guardians had all been unmarried men. The manservants who served them all belonged to the Order of Oroboros, just like their masters. Even the scullions belonged to the Order.

They were some kind of secret society, he’d known that for a long time, but now he guessed he didn’t know the half of it.

He’d never had a governess for lessons; the masters themselves always taught him. He’d never played with girls. He’d never been allowed to talk to a woman.

He’d never been allowed to talk to any strangers, mind you.

Well, all his life he’d expected someone would someday sit him down and explain everything. Yet here he was, almost fifteen and still mystified.

He craned out of the window, looking for a rain-chain close enough to climb down, or maybe a handy tree. But if he tried to get out, Master Ward’s magic would stop him.

He was a prisoner, wasn’t he? He always had been. In a comfortable prison with kind, wise guards, but still a prisoner.

He chewed his lip, considering. The magicians had been arriving for several hours now; he’d watched from his window as they came, riding quietly in by twos and threes. With nothing else to do, he’d even counted them. The heavy rain hadn’t kept them away. Almost thirty were meeting right now somewhere downstairs.

He couldn’t sneak past Master Ward’s spell-walls and out of the house, but nothing kept him from going downstairs and trying to overhear the magicians.

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