Christopher Key, end of chapter six

Well, this just proves there’s nothing messier than a dead dragon …

——

They emerged from hiding to find wreckage strewn over the riding-green. No more velvet grass. “This way,” Sir Argan said, leading them downhill at a walk. “Take care.” The knights had drawn their swords. Smoking holes pocked the hillside, and what looked like huge red-streaked shards of whitish substance stood upright, speared raggedly into the turf. Christopher’s roan shied away from a blackened twisted heap, and he realized it was a body, charred almost to nothing. Fallen debris and more burned corpses were everywhere. Entire trees had toppled, and lay collapsed in a ruin of shattered boughs.

“Here be dragons,” Sir Argan said.

The grass under the roan’s hooves had curled and gone brown. It was the same all over the hill, everywhere Christopher looked

Something long as a road lay across the way, near the foot of the hill.

It was sawtoothed, jagged, broken in many pieces, heavier than a ship’s mainmast—like the bone of an elephant, only larger. Christopher had seen penny-book illustrations of elephants. Maybe this was more like a whale’s bones. He’d seen engravings of whales too. Like a whale if whales were long, if whales were covered with thorns and teeth and knife-edged scales … Smoke hung hazily over it, but it kept shifting, its surface twitching, and sparks flaring off it.

It seemed to be collapsing, or melting away. Or burning. Whole sections flaked off, whirling up like ashes on a breeze. Christopher’s roan shied. The dead grass under its hooves looked oddly slimy, unclean. It smelled like filth.

Christopher was having real trouble keeping the roan in order now. Sir Inconnu, at his right, took its bridle and turned it (and Christopher) away from the monster. He had already tucked his daughter’s face against his chest, hand over her eyes. Another knight rode at Christopher’s left, close as a guard. He said across Christopher, “Argan, this isn’t safe yet.”

“It looked bigger before,” Christopher said, craning over his shoulder. “When it was in the sky.”

“D’ you think so, lad? But we’re not looking at the beast itself. Just one shaft of its wing. And the wing itself, the whole wing—it fell across this entire side of the hill, eh? everywhere you see the grass dying. It’s that big, it is. And we’re riding on it.”

Riders in armor and uniformed cavalry soldiers cantered to an orderly halt near the gigantic irregular fragment of … pinion? Bone? They dismounted en masse. Charcoal uniforms with blue piping and epaulets, and polished silver buttons flashing. Engraved plate armor, with surcoats grey and blue. One rode a winged horse.

Its rider swung down, boots hitting the turf, gaze on the felled dragon; someone ran to take his mount’s reins. He wore a plain gold circlet riveted to his helm, a simple crown. He was the king. “—clearly magic,” he said, as the others gathered around him. “Deplorably so. This is the closest view I’ve had of a dead one, and it’s no clockwork, nor any kind of engine. Magical.”

The last of the wing-shaft collapsed, no more than a reeking shadow on the grass.

“This ends the truce,” the king said. “And with infernal speed, too.” He sighed. “Call in three more squadrons from the south. Order reserves raised from Dover and Whitfields too. I think I’ll keep my knights-royal in the city for now: the treasure we must defend is here.” He glanced aside, at the group of riders surrounding Christopher: the girls, their guardian knights, his daughter. “And arrest Prince Perrin.”

“What?” That was Crown, in a shout. She kneed her white purebred and it stamped three strides forward. Now she was almost on top of him, looking down from horseback, and he looked back up undisturbed with his hands on his hips. “You can’t,” she said. “Perry had nothing—”

“To do with this? Of course he had. He’s Gloxian. This is a Gloxian battle-dragon.” To his staff officers, the king added, “Arrest the ambassador and his suite too. House arrest, no dungeons, but confine Prince Perrin in isolation. I want him questioned. This attack, within hours of the engagement being broken? And now the truce is also broken. How did it happen so fast?” He jabbed a finger at Crown. “I blame you too, daughter. You don’t have a diplomatic bone in you.”

“Then it’s a shame I’m more like you than like Mother!”

They glared at each other for seven long heartbeats—Christopher counted, fascinated—before they both glanced away at the exact same moment.

“Sir?” Crown said. “Is Mother well?”

“The queen is safe. Five knights are with her.”

Crown seemed to deflate. “Er … so Alexander’s safe too?”

“I have no idea,” the king said. He looked past Crown. “I sent Gawaine and Surrey to fly over the city. Just in case. Because it’s a good thing that Christopher wasn’t hurt. Isn’t it, Inconnu?”

The four knights shepherding Christopher’s group all moved as one. They came off their horses and to their knees on the filthy grass, heads bowed. Even Sir Inconnu did it, though he looked ridiculous because he scooped up his daughter and carried her with him, cradled in his arms the whole time. All four knights were grim-white. Christopher had only a moment to gawk, though, because the girls around him were dismounting too, the littlest ones with squeaks of dismay, almost tumbling to the ground. “You too,” Mere said up to him. “Kneel.”

He dismounted and knelt. Everyone knelt. Last of all, Crown bent one knee. “It was my idea,” she said.

The king frowned. He took Crown’s hand and lifted her. “Never do that again. You’re crown heir now and you never kneel, even to me. Even when you’ve made a mistake, as now. And I like you better when you’re standing up to me and shouting.”

Her whole body seemed to shine with gathering confidence and pride.

“Sire,” Sir Argan said. “We are abashed. You think this wasn’t a coincidence?”

“That it was Folly Hill that came under attack? Just as you went out riding? No. You’re forgiven—but don’t err again, no matter what my devil of a daughter says.” The king strode away, accompanied by his staff. Over his shoulder, in Crown’s direction, he threw one last command: “And don’t disappoint me, daughter.”

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