… “A mother’s blessing,” she said.
“Amily,” the king warned. “Watch yourself.”
“It’s done,” the queen said. Maybe there was a flush to her cheeks; as for Crown, her face was bright red with emotion. She backed all the way across the room, joining the knights at the doors. There, hands behind her back, she stood staring and fidgeting.
“Enough. Wine, Christopher?” The king gestured; a knight approached and poured steaming mulled wine, then retreated (much as Crown had) to wait on the far side of the room. The king said, “There, lad. Sit down. Be at ease.”
Christopher sat in one of the chairs the knights had left empty, keeping his bandaged hand below the table-rim. He stole a glance at the queen. Her cheeks were soft pink, her hair faded almost to colorlessness, and she looked older than the king her husband, worn away by long sickness maybe? She couldn’t be as old as she seemed. The corners of her mouth drooped, and her shoulders were bowed.
Then her blue eyes met his, wickedly amused. He knew he went red. His whole face was hot. But she only patted his wrist, and smiled.
The king, meanwhile, watched him closely. He stroked his chin. “Christopher, be comfortable. Enjoy your wine. I hear your current rooms are cramped. We’ll have them in better order soon. And if there’s anything you want, just mention it to Alexane—she’ll see you get it. Have patience and let us make you a home here.” He nudged the wine-cup closer to Christopher. “We’d like you to tell us about your time with your guardians.”
Christopher sneaked a glance upward. “Did you arrest them? Are they in a dungeon?”
“Certainly not. Nothing like that. We assure you, we did nothing to them.”
“Then why don’t you bring them to the castle and ask them?”
“A fair question,” said the king. “They seem to have vanished. Would you know where they went?”
“No I don’t,” Christopher said truthfully.
The king sipped from his winecup. “We don’t want to arrest them. I don’t think they were enemies of the kingdom. But they were hiding you from us. Weren’t they?”
As far as Christopher knew from listening to his guardians, they were certainly enemies of the monarchy. He said, “They’re my guardians, shouldn’t they protect me?”
“Hm. Not your legal guardians. You were not their ward in court, not in any court in my kingdom, anyway. Do you know your parentage?”
“You don’t, do you,” the king said.
“… Who am I then?”
“You belong here, in the palace. There’s no doubt about that. Your parents were certainly … very special. They were undoubtedly of my queen’s own line, as you are. About this, too, there is no doubt whatsoever.” The king sipped wine, his gaze always direct. “The Key lineage. That makes you, ah, not precisely Alexander and Alexane’s cousin. But it is as if you are.”
That didn’t make any sense.
“You must consider it as if you were stolen at birth and hidden by those men you called your guardians. Maybe they seemed to have strange powers, to be magicians of some sort, or maybe just deluded in the belief that they could work magic.” The king waved the subject away. “Now you must have many questions to ask us. Your name is Christopher Key. The Key lineage is almost extinct—you and my beloved queen are the only two remaining. As a Key, you command, well, as much wealth and privilege as any young man could desire. Your place is with the royal court, even above the knightly families, directly beside the throne.”
This was so bizarre that Christopher just listened. He couldn’t drink the mulled wine. His throat had closed up tight.
“In time, you will help the new knights rule the kingdom, you and my daughter when she is queen. Together.” There was a faint stir near the door, where Crown waited. The king smiled just a little. “That’s a long time from now, of course, I hope—pardon me for it, Alexane. Now, young man. Two days ago you didn’t dream of all this, did you?”
He went on without giving Christopher time to answer.
“But don’t fear you’ll be forced into anything. Above all, we want you to be happy. To feel your place is here. Especially … well, I especially wish you won’t forget the friends of your previous life. Your young friends, whoever they are? They’re our friends too.”
“I didn’t have any friends.”
“No? Ah. Your guardians—didn’t they allow it? All young boys should have friends. For adventure’s sake, if nothing else. It’s a shame you haven’t had the pleasures that come from knowing people of your own age.” The king’s brow creased. Then he smiled lightly. “No young ladies? Well, you have plenty of time to grow up. How old are you?”
Why didn’t they know his age, if they knew his mother and father?
The queen spoke unexpectedly. “I think—”
“What? Amily, my love?”
“I think you should all leave. Everyone except Christopher.”
The king seemed taken aback. As if a beloved statue had suddenly gained a voice.
“Amily—be calm. You’ll overtire yourself. Of course you don’t mean—”
All five knights had moved forward, gathering around. The queen waved them off. She had straightened, no longer leaning so obviously against the arm of her chair. The pillow behind her had slipped aside.
Gentle eyes, a gentle smile. All the colors of her person were somehow faded, especially compared to her daughter: Crown’s scarlet cheeks and burning gaze. The queen’s skin was softly creased and her hair, maybe once blonde like Crown’s—the king’s hair was silvered russet—was almost pure white.
“I won’t be overtired,” she said. “Percevale, if you would just pour me a cup of tea? And then I’ll talk with Christopher. Alone.”