Christopher Key, chapter six, scene three

It’s not for nothing that this chapter’s title is “and attacked by a dragon”!

Or, they little know what’s coming–

——

Christopher had ridden often, in tiltyards and schooling-rings, and once when he’d been taken for a week to a secluded country estate. Cross-country, that day—no walls, no need to hide indoors, just open wood and meadow, sun and speed and the breeze in his hair. That ride had been one of his most treasured memories. This was even better.

The palace grounds adjoined a lawned avenue sweeping downhill. Trees edging it in double rows gave the impression of solitude. The small party of riders went directly from the stables, crossing a lane and passing through an arched gateway, to this: smooth ground, green grass cropped short, more than a mile of empty track before them. It seemed endless.

The perfect illusion of freedom.

The perfect straightaway for a gallop.

That girl Mere almost smiling, as she rode her grey Lady.

Knights had come with them, two in back and two in front. Christopher caught himself eyeing them in dismay. Four knights-royal. Wasn’t that excessive, even to guard Princess Alexane? Didn’t they have better things to do?

All the girls had come, even the tiny ones chugging along behind on fat little ponies. Mere rode by Christopher’s side. Crown had started out next to Mere, but soon enough she roared on ahead, in the forefront with the leading knights, and she shouted with delight at the speed of their charge. Of course their route was her idea in the first place.

The long avenue ran all the way to the foot of Palace Hill, where the star-shaped fortifications jutted out over the City below. It passed between a matched pair of redoubts, level with the top of their walls, and rose steep and straight up a second, even higher hill.

This was Folly Hill, where the Mage-queen had built her fortress. Two hundred and twelve years since her death, and nothing was left on Folly Hill except foundation-stones and climbing roses gone wild, and a scattering of windswept apple-trees. Bare though it was, the same fortification walls as Palace Hill still enclosed it, and the straight, green avenue swept to its very crown.

“There,” Crown called, bringing her mount down from the gallop to a walk. “Months since I’ve seen this view. I promised myself it, all the time I was in Gloxia. Folly Hill in the sun. The city and the river. Home.”

Christopher had seen all this from below—Palace Hill and Folly Hill—looking out windows from various points down in the city. He’d studied his city maps. Now he could look across the City and the city, from above, spread out as if on the maps. When he was small, he’d never been able to grasp the distinction between the inner City and the outer city. Now it was plain, the concentric rings of fortifications, and the zones of rooftops they encircled. The inner City was of an earlier era, its roofs shingled with coastal slate, the buildings pillared in the classic style, and enormous trees obscuring all. The outer city’s houses were tall and jumbled, their facades streaked black from coal-smoke, the streets straight and flint-grey; trees clustered in groves in the parks, and the trees themselves were different: peach and apple and what was called the Mage-queen’s roses.

Christopher filled his eyes, trying to look everywhere, naming off the different districts to himself: Riverside, the Fleet Gardens, Oddmarket, Southwarf and London Old City. He twisted around, eyes tracing the fortification walls. The innermost wall was perfectly symmetrical, enclosing Folly and Palace hills in mirror-image eight-pointed stars, linked by the causeway between the hills, cannon bristling atop. The next circuit of walls was less regular, but made up for it in scale; the same with the enormous outermost circuit. Christopher had read that it took a horse and rider half a day to gallop around the outermost. He’d also read that there were over two hundred cannon on that wall alone.

Sunshine warmed his forehead. The air was so clear that he could see laundry spread drying on hedges all the way to the fields beyond the Fleet.

Dozens of balloons drifted lazily over the city, and dozens more floated tethered by ropes to anchorage points along the walls. Hippogriff patrols circled among them.

A scene of peace and pageantry.

“Yes, it’s an amazing view,” said Sir Argan, breaking in annoyingly on Christopher’s thoughts. “No wonder the Mage-queen was moved to raise these hills. She built her fortress in a single night, they say. Have your teachers told you much about her?”

“After the autumn rebellion, she promised the rebels mercy, then had their sword arms dipped in pitch and used as torches to light her victory feast,” Christopher said.

Sir Argan eyed him. “Yes, she was a tyrant. Less is known about her consort, Prince Simon.”

“Simon the Gypsy.”

“You will not use that name here. Call him Simon Alfheed if you must, but no mention of gypsies. Imagine her knights-royal riding to war—more than two hundred knights with battle-magic.” He sighed. “As if wild beasts roared over the earth and stars dispersed, when her army rode, and mountains walked, when it marched, and tombs were overturned, when it encamped. Kingdoms trembled before them. And yet she raised these hills, she left us the Kingdom Magic. Have you been taught much history?”

“Yes, I was,” Christopher said. Much more than was good for any one student, in his opinion.

“But you haven’t attended school, you were privately tutored,” Sir Argan said. “Or so I presume. It’s good that your … guardians … whoever they were, took a care for your education. I’ve been asked to continue your studies.” The other riders were scattered across the hilltop, some having dismounted to walk their mounts. Princess Alexane—Crown—was still astride, leaning forward to point over her horse’s neck, naming landmarks in a near-shout and talking about things she’d seen in Gloxia.

“I’d like you to tell me,” Sir Argan went on relentlessly, “where you stand in mathematics, the natural sciences, history, rhetoric and classics, literature and the arts.“

“I want to become a knight,” Christopher said.

“You want to … of course you have that ambition. Well, let’s discuss academics—”

“I can hit the quintain four times out of five,” Christopher said desperately, “and hit a wand at archery at three hundred paces already, and handle a sword. Sword-and-dagger too. And with a shield. My guardians taught me.”

“Those guardians of yours. Let’s talk about them. Who were they, and how did you come to be in their care?”

“Argan.” Another of the knights interrupted. “Do you hear what I hear?”

A mutter like thunder rolled over Folly Hill. Christopher had been about to say something about archery, but he forgot it, putting his head down and his fists to his ears. His skin went clammy and cold. The noise got closer. Louder. An incomprehensible confusion of noise. He couldn’t think. Horns blew, sudden and multifold, from both the palace and the city walls. A great bell tolled, followed by many others. Bells throughout the city. Bells sounding the alarm.

The enormous impossible noise drowned it all out.

A monstrous shadow fell over Folly Hill.

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