Christopher Key, chapter eight scene one

And now things start to change, first for Mere and soon for all of them …

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The girls returned an hour later, first the little ones, faces bright and arms laden with kittens, and then their elders with dragging steps and weary sighs.

It seemed that the small girls had been taught simple moves with blunted wooden daggers. The older ones didn’t talk about what they’d done. Instead, nursing their bruises, they did the work of servants to clear lunch away, took the table apart and stored its trestles and boards, and then cleared half the room of its furniture and practiced unhappily with wooden blades. One had a dreadful limp. Falling over a kitten halfway through her sword practice didn’t help, either. (And then she cried.) The knights had gone out and left them in privacy. They were probably standing guard in the hall.

A doctor visited—a male doctor—and examined him, taking him behind the same folding screen Mistress Cecily had used. Christopher certainly didn’t want all those girls watching while he took off his shirt, anyway. The male doctor stroked his beard, nodded his head, prodded Christopher and pronounced him in excellent health. Christopher felt like a calf being priced for the market.

Sir Argan came in, with many books, sat Christopher down and interrogated him. He pronounced him well-taught, especially in history, and said it would be a pleasure to advance his studies. “Her grace Crown will come to dine with you tonight. Don’t let her ride roughshod over you. You have to get along.”

Afterward, Christopher poked through the stack of books left behind by Sir Argan, but they were all textbooks, and boring.

Crown didn’t appear.

The girls set up his table, laying places for two. If he even twitched, they all swiftly looked his way, but nobody spoke a word. They put up their own table. The guards passed a series of covered plates through the doorway, and the girls took them from there, serving Christopher first. Even the tiniest girl tottered across the room holding up a napkin-draped silver basket fragrant with the scent of bread, and Mere walked next to her and steadied her grip.

“Er. Mere?”

All he had to do was speak, and she was in front of him, waiting.

Her eyes were the color of water, calm grey. She even stood in a calm way, hands behind her back, her posture relaxed. Not a hint of awkwardness. It seemed like expressionless was her expression of choice. Her hair had looked brown by daylight, out in the sun, but now that evening had come and the candles were lit, it seemed silvered. Not a strand out of place in the whole length of her maiden’s braid.

“That test you took. What happened?”

“I think we all failed,” she said.

He didn’t know what to say next, how to answer. She waited, and then excused herself and went back to her work. Talking with girls seemed harder than he’d ever guessed—was it always like that?

In the end, he filled a plate with food—far too complicated and far too rich food, so that he looked longingly at the girls’ table—and retreated into the fastness of the bed. He pulled the heavy curtains shut behind him. The canopy hung like a tent overhead and the curtains muffled any sounds from the room beyond. There, in solitude, he was able to swallow his supper. No eyes watching every twitch of his fingers, no strangers hovering too close. No more feeling surrounded.

Those girls were probably lined up in rows around the bed’s exterior, but if they were, he didn’t want to know. Dozens and dozens of girls—well, almost a dozen. He couldn’t hear them talking. It was uncanny. Were girls really such silent creatures?

Like Mere, with those eyes still he couldn’t help marveling over.

Thinking of his magicians, he curled up under the topmost blanket and slid gradually into sleep.

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