The knights hurried everyone back onto their mounts with the urgency of shame. They weren’t listening to protests; their snapped orders rose even over the roaring of the twins Pell and Mell. Mere realized they should never have come out in the first place, that they should never have endangered the Key. If Christopher had been injured—if Christopher had been killed— The very thought left her cold and shaken. They might never find another Key, not in their lifetimes. The ruination of the kingdom, if they lost this one.
Alexane ignored the knights. She stood staring at the burnt shape on the grass, all that was left of the dragon’s wing-shaft; she rubbed the line of her jaw, brows set in thought. Mere watched her. They’d grown up together but still she could never predict what Alexane—no, Crown, she was Crown now—would do next. Crown’s face showed everything; Mere could always tell what she was feeling; but she could never tell what Alexane would do.
“Crown?” Mere said quietly.
“Go on without me.”
“Trying to see Prince Perrin,” Mere said after a moment, “that’s not a good idea just now.”
“I know, I know, I’m not a fool.” She raised her voice: “Sir Inconnu, I’m staying, I want a better look at the dragon.”
For a moment Mere caught sight of the boy Christopher’s expression, as he was taken away with a knight riding on either side. Like a cat exploring the outdoors for the first time, that is dragged struggling back inside, the door shut in his face.
The look in his eyes gave her a shiver of sympathy. She called after him: “Christopher! I’ll bring you back exact descriptions! And a drawing, if I can!”
Crown was already riding off. Mere swung up onto grey Lady’s back, and cantered after her.
The whole pleasant hilltop had been rendered hideous by the dragon’s remains, by the stench of burning flesh, by the bodies that had come down as the monster was felled. It had been carrying as many soldiers as a naval ship’s crew, two hundred or more. All dead, now. Grey Lady snorted wide-eyed and wanted to flee; Crown, meanwhile, had her equally skittish gelding on a strict rein. Mere found herself swallowing and looking away from the broken corpses. But for everything else, she committed what she saw to memory as carefully as she might study a lesson-book. Once they returned to the palace, she’d make drawings for Christopher.
Near the foot of the hill, on the far side, the bones of the dragon lay jumbled like a landslide. Long thin colorless flames licked out from them, and greasy ash crusted the ground. All the grass had been eaten black as if by acid. The rose-trees had been crushed to matchsticks. And rose-petals scattered on the black grass, bright yellow, bright pink, spots of brilliant coral in the sunlight.
Crown had made her gelding stand. Here was the monster’s skull, a great black ruined crag on fire. Intact, it would have measured seven feet between the eye-sockets, Mere thought.
Petals dotted it, until fire washed over them, and they flared up and went out.
“This is the enemy,” Crown said.
“I thought it would be far bigger,” Crown said. Mere threw her a startled glance; that skull was bigger than anything she ever wanted to see. “I thought we’d all be paralyzed with blind panic. They say you are, the first time you see a dragon. You’ve heard about dragonspeech, haven’t you? That terror they cast. I don’t think it affected me at all.” This came out in a rush, followed by a thoughtful pause. “Everything’s changed since yesterday.”
Mere peered at her. “About Prince Perrin?” she ventured.
Silence. A few more petals whirled upward, flaring, and became ash. Rose petals on fire, and Crown staring at them. She didn’t say a word.
Mere said, “All we were fit for was to breed future knights-royal.” And Alexane was worth enough to be bartered in marriage for peace; she counted for more than any mere knight’s daughter. But it was still the same, wasn’t it? That was why she’d been planning to leave court, and why Alexane had grown up seething with envy at her brother. “Because we were just girls. Yesterday.”
A still, silent Alexane was foreign to Mere’s experience; she was always moving, speaking forcefully, gesturing with a fist. Even while asleep she wouldn’t lie quiet, but wrestled the bedclothes into defeat every night, springing up in the morning with a final kick at her quilts. Awake, she couldn’t keep still to save her life. But now she was.
“Now we have to defend Everie,” Mere said, watching her. “We’ll be knights-royal. And fight dragons someday.”
Crown nodded, looking at the immense, burning bones.
“We’ll have to go to war.” And she couldn’t escape, she couldn’t have a future of her own, she was bound to the palace and the kingdom. To the other girls also, not just Alexane. “And we have to take care of that boy. We have a duty.”
From Crown, a blank look.
“To the Key? To Christopher?”
Crown didn’t answer; she had gone back to staring at the rose-petals.
“We’re chained to him,” Mere said. Her future stretched ahead of her, full of bleak demands. “We can’t escape.”
“What are you going on about?” Crown said, moving at last. “Escape, duty? Chains? We aren’t chained anymore. We’re free, Mere.” A long hard look at what remained of the dragon. “One day we’ll rule Everie. And listen, the way dragonspeech barely affected me—do you suppose it’s the magic already? Knightly magic. If only we had another dragon, then we could find out.” She stretched, face lifted to the shining sky. “I feel I could slay monsters already.”