Here’s the end of the chapter.
A halberdier picked Rosamotte up and carried her. The child didn’t understand—how could she, at her age?—but she put her arms around the halberdier’s neck and nestled into his hold. By the time they got back to the palace, all the halberdiers would be her adoring slaves for life.
Dimity and Seventh and Merriment, the twins, and all the little ones. Herding all those bewildered girls through the palace, through drafty unfamiliar halls and up steep stairs, was no joy. Mere ended up carrying Rosamotte. Small Bramber was soon crying, with the soft hiccupy sobs of thwarted sleepiness, and Merriment’s little sister Mirth stumbled along with a doleful face, her thumb tucked into her mouth. The palace’s long corridors were so dark, so echoing. No wonder the tiny ones were scared.
Pell and Mell trailed behind, clutching each other’s hands, subdued for the first time in Mere’s memory.
At last they all arrived at the state apartments, fulfilling the king’s orders.
“Father? I’ve brought them.”
Father stood at the guardpost adjacent to Prince Alexander’s chambers, conferring with the guards; as he turned away from them, the guards saluted, saying, “Yes, Sir Gawaine. As you say, Sir Gawaine. We’ll see that done.” He smiled at Mere.
“Thank you, Mere child,” he said. Sir Surrey was with him. “Well done. Waking people in the middle of the night is a thankless task.”
She’d wondered at the need for hurry.
“What’s happening, Father?”
The smallest ones collapsed right there in the grand corridor, sleeping in heaps, mostly with their heads pillowed on Dimity’s skirts. Small Bramber snored—tiny kitten snores, adorable. On the other hand, Pell and Mell were upright, wide awake, and no longer subdued, it seemed. “We’re hungry,” Mell announced. “Very hungry. Where’s breakfast?”
“Gawaine, pardon me,” Sir Surrey said. Father nodded. Sir Surrey whisked Pellmell off into the corner, where he seemed to be delivering a strict lecture with finger-wagging. The only effect was that with every word, their eyes got bigger and more innocent.
Mere had to smile. Father took her arm and walked her down the corridor, out of earshot of the others.
He said, “Surrey found the next Key.”
A Key? A wave of cold went over Mere’s skin. She imagined the preparations among the knightly families, the uproar that went with the next generation’s inheritance of power. The sons of the knights had been groomed all their lives for this. Now they’d be brought together to serve the new Key—a young circle of knights falling into place, immediately and smoothly. Prince Alexander, the sons of the current knights, they all knew their future roles. They’d be the Key’s guards, her servants and confidants. Her very own, always. No other men would be allowed near her. Only them, her court.
Soon enough they’d gain their knightly magic—the power to conquer kingdoms. Ruthven too. Ruthven would be a knight, just like Father.
Whoever became the Key’s consort would ascend to the throne.
That would be Alexander—
She stopped short. All her thoughts tumbled head-over-heels, and instead she saw what had just happened. Alexander disinherited. Alexane put in his place, named Crown Heir. The daughters of the knightly families, assembled in such haste.
“The new Key’s not a girl? A boy instead?”
“You knew?” Father said. “How—?”
“A guess. No—because we’re being gathered. We girls.”
“Yes. It’s madness. What the king intends is impossible and wrong.” Father looked along the corridor, at the little ones. “You know what is required of a knight.”
She looked at the little girls too, and saw their future. They’d be the new Key’s private guard; she imagined them at it, small and serious, with pikes that wobbled in their mailed hands. The older knights would drill them in the martial arts. These infants … would one day become the kingdom’s fighting guardians. They’d have to play maidservant too, something none of them had been raised to expect. Knights did everything for their Key. Did any of them even know how to cook?
Alexane had to marry the Key.
“That’s why Alexane can’t be betrothed to Prince Perrin. Isn’t it, Father?”
“She at least is suited to knighthood.” Her father picked up Mere’s hands, turned them palm-up and brushed them with a fingertip. “But you, sweetheart. Your hands are so soft.” His own fingers were hard as saddle-leather. “When I agreed to your plans for your life, I never saw this.”
Then Mere remembered that her name was on the king’s list, too.
She was going to become a knight. She had no choice. And she would—what? Be trained as a warrior. As was her duty. Learn to handle weapons—to handle battle-magic—be forced into war, forged into a weapon to defend Everie. Serve the new Key. Become part of the Key’s new court. All the plans she’d made—that she’d talked over with Father, persuaded him of, obtained his consent for—she might as well have whistled them to the wind, because they meant nothing now. Because she had the ill-luck to be born a knight’s daughter.
Gone, the serene life she’d planned for herself, doing what she pleased, never marrying, bound to no one. Discovering what she wanted from her time, free to pursue it as she pleased.
“I wish it had been otherwise,” Father said.
No choices. No freedom. No right to her own life. Trapped forever, with no way out.
“At least nobody can make me marry now,” she said, groping for some consolation, any consolation.
His hands tightened on hers. “You don’t understand yet,” he began, and stopped. Then he shook his head and said, “Well. We’ve sequestered the Key in one of the state apartments. Come, it’s time for you girls to begin your new life.”
Here’s the end of the chapter.