Poor Christopher. Locked away. I’d feel sorrier for him if he wasn’t so good at getting into trouble …
The palace was huge, he knew as much; he’d seen it from the city below. He’d never been in a place so large before. He went out onto the narrow balcony, leaned over the wrought-iron railing and breathed deep. It was cooler out here, and breezy. Above were Doric columns interrupted by bands of relief-worked stone, everything much in the classical style. Below was some kind of courtyard or enclosed garden, with pathways of bright white gravel, and narrow beds in a knot-pattern. High walls framed it, all columns and relief bands. He didn’t know where in the palace these state apartments were located, except they were high up.
He wanted to explore.
All this strict geometric order—even the flower-beds looked barbered—was interrupted only by five rosetrees. They grew near the edges of the courtyard, flowerless, clambering up the columns. Their branches were black. Mage-queen roses.
He’d heard that the mage-queen roses could change size without notice. Overnight they would grow, or vanish. People said the trees walked on moonless nights.
He looked up. The rosetrees weren’t nearly tall enough to reach his balcony, but the wrought-iron railing’s design echoed them. Above, a thin tracery of iron climbed skyward diagonally, still in the shape of the roses. It was far too delicate to support an adult’s weight.
Easy for him to climb, though. In moments he was a full storey higher, finding his way. The wrought-iron swayed whenever he shifted his weight, threatening to pull out of its pins, but as long as he kept moving it wasn’t dangerous. It showed no signs of rust-damage.
The other thing, though, was that it went nowhere, curling across the columned palace wall, ending in a flourish of black buds and black iron leaves. But once he got that far, he saw he could get onto the band of relief stonework. It was deeply enough cut for him to climb along, though as with the iron-work, no adult could have done it.
Soon after, he ended up hanging upsidedown with his knees securely hooked over an edge, the breeze in his hair, and a clear view through the top of a tall glazed window.
Its lower pane had been cranked open, and voices carried through. Sir Argan and Sir Inconnu.
He could see a marble floor, glossy as a mirror, and a writing-desk in marquetry and gold leaf. Not much more. No, wait, if he craned, he could see the two knights standing together, their backs to him, talking.
“—any other boy would surely ask a thousand questions,” Sir Inconnu was saying. “But from him, not even one. Not to you, nor any of us. I suppose he has no reason to trust us.” His tone altered. “Mistress Cicely. Does the queen need us?”
“Her grace has been napping all the day.” The doctor who had examined Christopher yesterday moved into sight. “And given that all the other doctors in the palace are male, your young court of maidens must be under my care. I came to meet them. I trust you’ll use them gently.”
“Well, at present Percevale and Balsam are thwacking them with wooden practice swords—the older ones, at least. We have to be hard on them. They can’t just be trained in arms, but must become knights-royal. More than mere soldiers. We need to learn their quality. So we need to exhaust them, and once we do, Balsam will send them to this room to be tested.”
“But this is just an empty room.”
Christopher, eavesdropping in fascination, shifted sideways and tried to get a better view of the room. Mistress Cecily the doctor glanced around, straight at him.