For the first time, my three protagonists are together in the same room!
The first bell of morning came after an eternity. A knock rattled the outer doors, and one of the girls went to open them, admitting several knights. The knights, their armor laid aside, looked like ordinary men (and seemed mysteriously much smaller than last night). They brought breakfast. Tray after tray of breakfast, enough for an army.
The girls straightened the big canopied bed, fussing over it, even though Christopher had barely rumpled the covers. They brought him water to wash his face, set up a table and laid plates and cutlery for him. The table was just for him; the girls ate sitting on cushions on the floor, on the far side of the room. The two tallest served him at table. He was beginning to be able to tell them apart, the older girls anyway. The little ones seemed all the same height, all with huge scared eyes, all too quiet—not a peep out of them. They weren’t like boys. He didn’t even want to go near them. There were seven older girls, one of whom seemed to have taken the younger ones into her care, but he didn’t remember any of their names.
“What will they do to us?” he asked them finally.
The calm one answered at once. “Sir Inconnu said that we older girls would begin sword-training this afternoon. We’re to be tested first—”
“Tested for what?”
“For courage and wit. My brother was tested when he was eight,” she went on, sounding thoughtful. “Remember, Seventh?” That was to another of the girls—the plain one, with the face like a horse. “He wouldn’t talk about it after. Seventh’s older brothers were all tested and nobody passed.”
“But what will they do to me?” Christopher said.
The calm girl sat down opposite him at the breakfast table. Her eyes were clear grey, her hair smooth brown, and everything about her was neat, her hands folded on the lap, not a hair out of place. She’d been up half the night, and spent the rest of it sleeping on the floor, and yet somehow her shirt was uncreased? Girls were amazing.
“Sir Inconnu said the knights will tutor you. What year are you in at school?”
Christopher had never been to an actual school. He just shook his head. How could he even explain?
“I’m Mere,” she added. “And you’re Christopher?”
He was about to answer when the chamber doors slammed open.
In strode Princess Alexane.
He recognized her from the day before, the golden horsewoman who’d crunched down his apple, core and all, and grinned at him. Then, she’d been ablaze with cheer. Now she was a thundercloud spitting angry lightning. The doors crashed shut behind her. She crossed her arms. “I should have known. All the names on Father’s list? You’re all here. And you too, Mere?”
“I was the first name on the list, remember,” said Mere.
The princess was a head taller than Christopher. She had to be older. He hoped she was at least five years older, or more; at her height, if she was his age, the world wasn’t just. And not only that, but the springy yellow hair sweeping back from her forehead, those wide-set eyes—she looked exactly like her brother, right down to the swift step and the scowl. Same chin too. He stood up slowly from the table, and then cursed himself because now they were both standing and she was so much taller. But he wasn’t about to back down. She said, “What’s your name?”
“I’m Christopher.” Was he supposed to bow? Maybe if he was nobly-born he was. He touched a hand to his forehead. “Your grace.”
“Oh, don’t be so chivalrous, you were much less formal yesterday. I remember you. You’re the apple-thrower boy. The one who caused the riot.”
“Your knights did that!”
She only shrugged. “And you have to call me Crown. That’s who I am now, crown heir. Created by royal edict. My brother has been disinherited.”
From the listening girls all around came gasps of shock. The princess shrugged. She glanced around the room like a conqueror about to sack and pillage, and then began to prowl, picking up weapons and swinging them experimentally, pouring herself a cup of wine. She tossed down the wine like an old trooper. Unwatered wine—she must have a hard head. Next thing she was trying on her brother’s leather jousting gloves, pulling them on and clenching her fingers. She was exactly the same size as her brother, the right size for all the weapons. And for the armor too. Christopher could have kicked the wall in envy. She glanced at him and said casually, “I’ll take all this. It would never fit you.”
“It’s not yours. It’s your brother’s.”
Her eyes narrowed, but then she clapped her hands, laughing. “Don’t worry, Christopher! We wouldn’t have you risking your skin.” Then something changed in her face. She looked down, up, sideways, at her hands. She rubbed at her fingers, chafing them.
“Why do you care? But I don’t blame you.”
That calm girl Mere interrupted. “You’re confusing him, Alexane.”
“I’m never confusing!” she said at once. “How could I be?—I’m never confused. And, Mere? You have to address me as Crown now.”
Mere said, “Did they tell you why your father wants us here, though? We girls are going to start learning to fight this afternoon.”
Crown flapped her hands, then punched the air victoriously. “Yes, yes. It was going to be my brother Alexander the lout—him and his stupid swaggering cronies. But now it’ll be me and all of us here. All us girls.”
He wondered if she was drunk. Look, there she was rubbing at her fingers again. When she noticed he was looking, she put her hands behind her and lifted her chin.
“But not you,” she said.
“What?” He wasn’t going to be intimidated by her. “You can’t just say that. Why?”
“You’ll learn tomorrow morning, when you’re presented to my mother.”
“When I’m … what?”
“Formally presented to the queen. And to Father. Better not let Father catch you looking witless like now, he’s deadly when he’s bored.” She eyed him. “Your hair needs cutting. We’re already having better clothes made for you—the knights gave the orders. If you go all tongue-tied and ridiculous, I’ll punch you.”
With elaborate unconcern she went on, “Because I’m going with you to see her too. Mother.”
Then: “And I’m definitely taking all this stuff of my brother’s. Look at that saddle! Oh, are you going to argue, Christopher?” She looked down at him with a lazy glint in her eye. It was just ridiculous that she was so much taller. “Don’t.”
Mere held up a hand. “Why don’t we visit the stables this morning, then? Go riding. If it’s permitted. We can at least choose a mount for Christopher.”
Christopher wanted to hug her.