Back to Christopher. Crown and Mere get to inspect dead dragons, but what does Christopher get? Stuffed indoors out of the reach of any danger.
While they were gone, someone—probably a whole squad of someones—had been in the prince’s former chambers, working like demons. The last traces of Prince Alexander’s temper tantrum had been made to vanish; so too were most of the prince’s possessions. Including his weapons and armor, unfortunately.
Pallets had replaced them, along with an old-fashioned trestle table, and a row of wooden clothes-chests stood along one wall. A cheery fire burned in the hearth, and the table had been put up, boards on trestles, neatly dressed with a cloth and set with an enormous lunch. Christopher’s knight-guards looked on it with approval. Not because they were hungry, but because the littlest girls, tired out by their riding and the fear and danger, had sniffled all the way back to the palace and were now sobbing openly. They didn’t want to go back to Prince Alexander’s chambers; they wanted their own nurseries. They bawled, “Want to go home!” They wailed, “Want my mother!” The older girls tried in vain to comfort them. Christopher retreated to a corner and observed them, amazed.
He wished he could be with Crown and Mere, outside in the sun, looking at dragons.
The knights tsked, shook their heads, shooed the bedraggled girls to the table and ordered them to eat. That helped. Enormous Sir Balsam went out and returned carrying a basket full of kittens, which he emptied onto the floor. That helped too. Soon enough the littler girls were all on the floor too, cheeks stained with dried tears but also with jam, playing happily with the kittens, thank goodness.
The girls’ luncheon was hearty, with porridge and sausages, toast and jam, and fried apple slices. Sir Inconnu served Christopher decidedly different fare: pheasant in aspic, asparagus and watercress, five kinds of cheese and a covered dish of hot spice-cake. The best he could say for it was that the cake was good. “Princess Alexane was to have lunched with you,” Sir Argan said, somewhat testily. “Where is that girl?”
She didn’t arrive. Instead the other girl Mere did, letting herself quietly in through the enormous doors—they dwarfed her with their height. She carried a sheaf of papers under one arm. “Here, Christopher,” she said.
“And the princess?” Sir Argan asked.
“She sent her apologies,” Mere said. Christopher made a silent bet with himself that Crown had done no such thing.
“Enough.” Sir Argan beckoned, and his fellow knight came over, clapping his hands loudly. Girls came swiftly from all corners of the state apartment. “Mere, bring something to eat with you. You have a busy afternoon ahead.” The other knight, Balsam, took the older girls in charge—not just Mere, but five more whose names eluded Christopher—what were the redheaded twins called again? All six were ushered firmly out of the room, Mere in the lead and the rest lagging behind, dismayed. “Today they begin their training in the knightly arts,” Sir Argan said. “Because they will be the next generation of knights-royal.” As for the smaller girls, he shooed them off as well, looking like a sheepdog with a flock of dismayed lambs.
They took the kittens along with them, though.
“Stay here, Christopher.” Those were Sir Argan’s final words as he chivied his flock along. “Rest. Later I’ll test your academic grounding. And tomorrow, now—tomorrow will be grueling.”
He shut the door.
Christopher looked at Mere’s papers. Brown chalk drawings covered them, both sides of every sheet—a dozen sheets of papers showing a dozen views of Folly Hill. A gigantic skull, a sketched-in horse and rider next to it showing its scale. Bones so irregular they seemed more like tree boughs, crooked and twiggy. Notations: ash-smears on grass all over the Hill and the bones sigh and crumble when touched. Mere had worked hard at this.
And yet. He remembered the dragon’s shadow writhing underfoot, dappled like leaf-shadows. Yes, like the shadow of a whole forest of leaves whirling through the sky. No living creature was that insubstantial. No living creature that size could fly, could it? It would be far too heavy, it would never get off the ground.
That thing hadn’t been natural. Was it made of magic? But he’d read that other kingdoms didn’t have magic like Everie’s. Gloxia’s genius lay in the areas of clockwork and strange engines. But this was certainly not a clockwork dragon.
He let the drawings fall. When all those girls were around, the room seemed much too small, state apartment or not; now they weren’t here, it all but echoed. For a day and a half now he’d felt surrounded by staring eyes every moment, stifled, not even enough space to turn around in. But now …