I’m on a roll here, and posting scenes is a good motivator, so guess I’ll keep doing it:
The knights had left Christopher alone.
Locked in someone else’s enormous bedchamber—how could anyone have seen that coming? Christopher’s skin crawled with wrongness. They hadn’t explained what a Key was. He wasn’t one anyway—no matter what it was. Or if he was, he didn’t care. They hadn’t been unfriendly, but he didn’t want to be here.
Out of one prison, and into another.
An adventure, but not one he liked. He was so tired that he ached, but he couldn’t settle down. Instead he prowled all around the big chamber, searching it. He crossed his fingers and hoped to find a secret passage. Or how about a revolving bookshelf? Though with the luck he’d been having today, it would only lead to a torture chamber or something … Anyway, it seemed that Prince Alexander didn’t enjoy reading. No bookshelves of any kind, and no books of any kind either. The prince was an idiot.
Christopher decided he had no patience for someone who could have all the books in Everie for the lifting of a finger, but hadn’t cared enough to bother.
On the other hand, the prince owned his own arsenal, and who wouldn’t like that?
He rapped on the walls, opened various doors and found, yes, a garderobe and closets and a dressing-room. One of the tall windows was hinged, swinging outward like a door, admitting upon the balcony he’d seen before. He didn’t go through, because climbing down unfamiliar walls at midnight was only a good idea in desperate straits. If he was still here tomorrow, he’d take a good long look up and down.
He looked under all the carpets, but found no trapdoors, alas.
Well, the search for a secret way out was going nowhere, so he abandoned it and began playing with all those interesting weapons. He’d never had the chance to examine a suit of actual armor, cunningly riveted and articulated, with the steel gauntlet fingers so beautifully jointed that they moved as freely as glove-silk. The prince’s swords were just as well-made as his armor, three swords of different styles: saber, jousting-field broadsword, shortsword. Christopher swung the shortsword and made practice jabs. It looked like an old weapon, unlike the other two which were gleaming-bright new and which had probably been custom-forged for the prince. It was heavy, its blade wide and dangerous—a real weapon. Shortswords were the army of Everie’s regular issue to infantrymen, the soldiers who did the hardest work on the battlefield. Double-edged weapons for stabbing and chopping. A blow from the flat of one could break bones. They were like clubs with cutting edges.
Prince Alexander had a crossbow. He had a six-foot longbow, and a pair of somewhat shorter sport-bows. Christopher braced one of the sport-bows, half-drew it and imagined shooting at the wand in an archery competition, applause from the watching crowd, winning the silver arrow—
The chamber doors opened. He lowered the bow and glanced back over his shoulder. In came a flood of girls.
A torrent of them.
Two dozen. No, two score. No, more. They were all heights, all ages, but definitely all girls. Some of them were very small girls. They piled to a standstill, round astonished eyes gazing at Christopher, and he gawked back.
Several knights followed. Christopher wanted to back away, maybe into a closet with a door he could close. He wasn’t used to so many strangers, all crowded together, all looking at him.
Sir Gawaine cleared his throat loudly. “Christopher.” He began to introduce the girls, name after name passing right over Christopher’s head. Christopher was counting: eight, nine, ten … Ten girls, just a jumble of names as he locked gazes with first one, then another and another. Ten girls, too many to believe in, as if they were mythological monsters. Ten.
“Er,” he finally said.
Another throat-clearing from Sir Gawaine. “Tomorrow we start your training. You must learn the sword and the bow.”
Christopher wanted to cheer. Would they let him use some of Prince Alexander’s enormous collection? He’d been riding tilt at the quintain for over a year now, and Master Lamplighter had engaged a armsmaster to train him and the apprentices, because every young man ought to know how to ride and defend himself and shoot a bow for the pot in time of need. At fifteen paces he could put a lance through the garland every time.
Then he noticed the reactions from the girls.
One of the taller girls was grinning. Another had gone beet-red and clapped both hands to her cheeks. The very-small ones simply looked blank.
Some servants came in, bearing barrels full of blankets, clothing and gear. Someone must have scrambled to gather so much so quickly, because Christopher saw one barrel full of novice-boys’ blades, some matching daggers too, and other equipment. Boys’ bows. Blunted fighting axes. Practice laths. Enough that they must have been scavenged up from all over, far too many just for him–at a glance, at least eight or nine full sets of gear, or– No.
His mind went blank.
“It’s not what you think,” Sir Gawaine said. “Christopher, I know this seems strange to you, but you must be guarded. Our daughters will be your bodyguards. They will serve you as, as pages would also, but they must learn to fight too. They will stay with you at all times, and keep you safe. This will be their duty. And it will be your duty to accept their service.”
A pair of red-headed moppets at the edge of the pack of girls burst out giggling in disbelief. The tomboy girl who had grinned was now shaking her head; she looked as if she was thinking twice about everything. The beet-red girl’s eyes had overflowed with helpless, terrified tears. The rest just looked appalled, every one of them—no, wait, that tall one in back seemed more thoughtful than anything. She said, “Father, your knights can show us the arts of war, but what about our other duties? Cooking, other services? We are not maidservants. Will one of the palace chatelaines be set over us, and teach us?”
“No. That would be impossible. You must teach yourselves.”
“Why?” Christopher asked.
Sir Gawaine said, “Because you are a Key, Christopher. We’ve been looking for someone like you for a long time, though not—well, never mind—we’ve been looking for you, and now that you’re here, these daughters of knights will care for you. It’s their duty. And in time, they will become the next generation of knights. It is the nature of a Key that this happens. You girls will be the next court of knights-royal, the defenders of the kingdom, and Christopher will be your Key.”
The girls looked at Christopher, and he looked back. Finally, one of the red-headed moppets marched up to him. She was a head shorter than he was, and had several hundred freckles.
She said, “That’s horrible!”