Christopher Key, chapter ten first installment

This chapter is one long scene with a huge shock at the end. Here’s the first part:

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“You are the only hope for the kingdom”

Maybe he’d broken his knuckles on Prince Alexander’s face, but Christopher didn’t have a single regret. The prince had to be crazy. Breaking in like that, coming across the room like a bull at the charge, scaring the smallest girls witless— Christopher felt his face heat up and his fists clench again just at the memory. Well. He rubbed his shoulder and thought about it, but he still didn’t have regrets. The prince hadn’t been making any sense.

No, wait, he did have regrets. He really, really wished the girls would stop fussing. “He twisted Christopher’s wrist, your grace, we saw it, and he knocked his head into the wall—we failed him, we can’t be his guards, we’re just—“

“That’s enough.” Crown said heartlessly, squashing the tearful protests from the other girls. “Too bad I wasn’t there to see it. Mere, sit down, you’re dead white, you look worse than the boy. That’s a royal order.” She looked Christopher over in a critical way, finally nodding. “You didn’t break your head. Everything else will heal.” Then she about-faced and strode back to the doors, going out and giving orders. “Prince Alexander’s not to be admitted again, no matter what he claims. Why aren’t there knights on guard here? Oh, only at night? That’s not right.” She came back just as swiftly as she’d left, and told Christopher, “I’ll speak to my father about it. You need to be far better guarded.”

He tried to think of a way to stop her, but couldn’t.

“Your grace, your hair is gone,” one of the girls squeaked, and dissolved into tears: “What wicked soul cut it off? Oh, you look like a soldier!”

“Should we call the doctor?” Mere asked.

“Why should we? He’s not made of porcelain. Oh—what’s that?” There’d been a knock at the doors. Two girls leaped to answer it. “If that’s Alexander come back,” Crown said, suddenly wearing a fierce grin, “my turn to hit him.”

It wasn’t. The girls converged on the doorway, burst out in excited comments—“Look, the colors, the gold-tooled leather!”—and returned with their arms heaped with silk and satin. And wool broadcloth, and lawn, and cambric. “New clothes for Christopher!” they told Mere, and “The king’s tailor must have worked through the night,” and “And he only had Sir Gawaine’s description to work from, but this looks like the exact right size!” For some mysterious reason, the delivery of clothing had cheered them immensely. “Look, look, mulberry silk, won’t you try it, Christopher? Please?”

Crown looked on with her hands on her hips. “Speedwell’s a genius with court clothing,” she said. “Go on, Dimity, Merriment. Dress Christopher up.”

Christopher said, “No,” in horror but he had nowhere to retreat to. The clothes were far too sumptuous, much like the far-too-fancy food that was served for his meals, and there wasn’t just one suit, there were three coats and a dozen pairs of gloves, boots and shoes in colored leather, more than anybody needed, and the girls surrounded him, holding up shirts and babbling about mulberry silk. Mulberry broadcloth court coats lined with mulberry silk, to be exact. They forced him into it, made him turn around like an idiot, and clapped at the sight.

“I don’t need all this,” Christopher said between his teeth, half-strangled by the height of his coat-collar.

“Yes you do,” the girls chorused, shocked, and Crown said, “You’re going to see the queen, and I’m going with you.”

“They’re not making you wear fancy dress!”

Worse, the girls insisted on wrapping his bruised knuckles with layer upon layer of bandages.

At this point two knights came through the door, Sir Gawaine and Sir Inconnu, both wrathful. “Outsiders aren’t to be allowed in here,” Sir Gawaine said in a voice that shook the vaults of the ceiling. He was talking over his shoulder, to the halberdiers stationed outside. “Especially Prince Alexander. Christopher is not to be exposed to strangers.”

Maybe that meant he wouldn’t be forced to go out in the mulberry coat, Christopher thought hopefully.

Unfortunately it didn’t. All too soon he was being hurried down a long hallway, dressed up like a prize goose at New Year, knights striding ahead and behind him. Mere and the younger girls had been left behind, but Crown stalked beside him, head high.

“Mother is very ill,” she said. “You’d better not upset her.”

The mulberry coat was rich enough for a duke at a coronation. It was heavy and hot, and worse than that, everyone they passed stared. It was him they were staring at. Some gawked and some talked behind their hands, but that intense interest … it was terrifying. He tried to imagine he was someone else.

He practically was somebody else. In these clothes, in this gilded palace? He’d always pictured the knights far away from here, on quest maybe, riding to the hunt or on the field of war—never at court like this. But of course the knights were, before all else, the servants of the king.

They’d always seemed powerful and free, but they weren’t.

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