It seemed that even the king had to listen when the queen put her foot down: the knights, the king, anyone. So her chambers were like a little kingdom, where she ruled. Once they had all reluctantly retreated, she warmed her hands at her teacup, and looked thoughtfully at Christopher.
She did resemble Crown, even if only a faded ghost of her vivid daughter. It was plain in the shape of her face. All the joints of her fingers were knobbly, though, and her lips were sunken, and there were shadows under her eyes.
Christopher didn’t think she looked like him, though—not like the face he saw in mirrors—no matter if they were both from the same family. Not at all.
She studied him.
“We’ve searched for you for a long, long time,” she said. “Now you’re here at last.”
“Am I really related to you?”
“Oh, you picked that up, did you? Clever boy. Well, you are and you aren’t. There is an old blood passed down in our kingdom of Everie, and it crops out without warning—the Key blood. I can tell what you are just by looking around you, even this soon. It’s not a lie or a fairytale. There have been Keys in Everie since the Mage-queen’s day.”
She sipped her tea, her gaze becoming distant.
“Let me tell you a little of my story, shall I? I was very young when I first came to live here at the palace. Ten years old. The king was only crown heir then, some years older, but we grew up together. It’s the old custom … There’s a reason. We are keys in truth, keys indeed. Or another word is wellsprings.”
Maybe being a Key was like gaining a knightly power. “Do we … do we belong to the knightly families then? Will I become a knight?”
She dimpled. “Do I look like a knight to you?”
Christopher had to shake his head.
“No. We are something different, you and I. We have something no knight has—a magic more powerful. That’s the secret of the Keys.”
“I don’t have any magic!”
“You do. We Keys unlock the power in others. They gather around us, and we unlock them. Rather like opening a sort of box, you see, so all sorts of … surprises can spill out. The Kingdom Magic. The powers of the knights. We are not like them, we seem to have no power of our own—but their magic comes from us, all the magic in the kingdom, everywhere. The knights, the king, they’re nothing without we Keys.”
That was ridiculous. Absurd. No one would believe it.
He sat there staring at her, and she said, “Without a new Key, without a new generation of knights, we’ll have no hope against our enemy. Gloxia.”
Then he remembered they were at war—something that had always seemed remote from him.
“Now we’ve found you,” she went on relentlessly, “we know there will be another generation of knights-royal. Another ruler—my daughter—to take up the Kingdom Magic. In this time of war. Christopher, your arrival has saved us all.” He sat frozen, listening in disbelief. And the queen straightened, her gaze suddenly compelling. “No, you won’t become a knight. A Key has no power in his own right. This is how it was explained to me: You must sacrifice everything, but if you do, the rest of us will become impossibly powerful.”
Her moment of vigor seemed to leave her exhausted. She slumped in her chair, then took several slow sips of tea. “Alexane,” she said faintly. “You’ll marry her.”
“But,” he said. “But—but, but—”
“Don’t worry how it will be,” she said, her head nodding far forward. But there was a frown on her creased cheek. “It happens very naturally. My daughter … my Alexane …”
He pictured Alexane. And Alexander, drunk and shouting, breaking the furniture—throwing blows with more than mortal strength.
“The crown heir marries the Key.” Her voice was almost nothing. “But she is wild. Like her brother, I fear. Be careful … Now you may go.”
Stunned, he backed toward the doors. At her table in the sun, the queen seemed to be dozing away.
He would never be a knight. He had to stay here forever? Shut up in the prince’s former chambers, with all those girls jammed in with him, and he could never, ever get away?
He knocked numbly on the doors. The knights came in, three going immediately to her side. Two remained with Christopher; they looked kindly at him, as if at a favored son. “Lad, Princess Alexane is in the hall. You shouldn’t keep her waiting.”
He went, with one last glance at the queen.
Crown leaned against the wall outside, kicking her heels. He went all hot at the sight of her, remembering the queen’s words—I have to marry her?—but she didn’t act as if anything had changed. As soon as she spotted him, she caught his arm and hustled him down the corridor. Christopher’s pair of knights followed at a more sedate pace. She scowled at them, then blurted into Christopher’s ear: “Father’s a liar. Don’t you trust him.”
“Y-your mother said things—”
Sacrifice everything, she said.
They were about six yards from the queen`s chambers. A sudden commotion from that quarter interrupted.
A crash. Shouts. Other sounds.
One of the knights burst out and went past them at a dead run, shouting for servants. “And her doctors! Call Cecily! At once!”
Crown bolted for the queen’s doorway. Christopher, left alone, hesitated; then his escort knights closed in on him. Sir Marchmain said, “Come with us.” They hadn’t gone after Crown, but stayed with him. They all but picked him up and carried him bodily with them, back into the queen’s chambers.
The queen had fallen from her chair. She lay with her head in a knight’s lap, a second knight kneeling and chafing her hands. “Amily—the floor is cold—let us take you to bed,” the second knight was pleading, but she rolled her head weakly in a gesture of denial. Her eyes slid shut.
Crown cried, “Where’s Father? Call him!”
All the knights looked at her, their heads turning in unison. One said, “The tea was poisoned.”