Christopher Key, chapter eleven scene one

I’ve been away for a week! In Glasgow. It was great.

Now, when last seen, Crown’s mother had been struck down by poisoned tea …

———

Time passed for Crown in a blur of terror.

She’d been barred from her mother’s presence since, oh, she was three years old. Maybe four. She didn’t remember her exact age, only that Father, blast him, had decided she was old enough to be turned over to governesses. Mother had wept. But Mother had never said a word to stop it; Mother knew her duty too well. Alexander had always been allowed to visit, because he was crown heir. Alexander could straighten a horseshoe with his bare hands. She’d seen him do it. The touch of a Key could give the strength of ten.

Never her, though—a mere younger princess wasn’t important enough to waste a Key’s power on.

Now it didn’t even matter. She sent all her halberdiers to guard the boy Christopher on his way back to his chambers: not a long walk, he’d be safe. She herself stayed, standing in the furthest corner of Mother’s sickroom, making herself very still and quiet. If she reminded Father she was there, he’d probably send her away.

She couldn’t remember ever wanting to be invisible before.

The patch of sunlight through the big windows inched across the floor. The bells of the passing hours chimed faintly from the palace heights. Her clearest memory of those hours was an image: the king and all eleven of the knights-royal gathered around Mother’s bed, their faces stark with fear. How often did anyone even see all eleven knights together? Even Alaric and Sherwood, both fresh from their own sickbeds. She didn’t even know how Sir Sherwood could stay on his feet—not the way he’d been burned by dragonfire just yesterday on Folly Hill. They were, after all, the queen’s own first and foremost.

Doctor Cecily’s calm voice gave orders. The knights obeyed without protest. Mother lay on her bed, wrapped in warmed blankets, fighting to breathe. Crown craned for glimpses of her. Her skin was as white and bloodless as wax. But she didn’t get worse, and finally she slept, and Doctor Cecily tiptoed toward the door where Crown waited. She had a finger pressed to her lips, but she was smiling at last.

The knights began to talk among themselves, in low relieved voices. Doctor Cecily went out. So too did several of the knights: back to their duty, no doubt, though reluctantly. Father stayed, standing over Mother’s bed, very straight with his hands joined behind his back; Crown couldn’t tell from his back how he felt. Eventually, though, he stirred and clapped Sir Percevale on the shoulder, and spoke in a low tone to him as man to man.

He spied Crown where she hovered. But instead of throwing her out, he nodded curtly and crooked a finger.

She crossed to him. The knights moved quietly around them, neatening things and putting them away, having a bite to eat; Sir Sherwood had collapsed into an armchair and seemed to be just as fast asleep as Mother. Better not shout.  “Who did this?”

“Now, the only way I could know for sure,” Father said, “would be if I was the poisoner. I don’t know. Once I do, though—” He turned his hand over and closed it sharply, making a fist.

She approved. Something else struck her, an absence. “Where’s Alexander?”

“Your brother is no longer admitted here.”

“Good, he’d exhaust Mother,” Crown said heartlessly. It was always easy to be heartless about Alexander, because he was Alexander. “Listen, Father. He burst into Christopher’s rooms today and made a beast of himself.”

He raised an eyebrow. “I believe a report on the subject has crossed my desk.”

“Have you done something about it?”

“That is,” Father said, “a fool’s question. Of course I did. Are you going in some direction, or just being exhausting?”

“Christopher needs to be better guarded, and not just by the Royal Halberdiers. Two knights both day and night. I’ll take a pair of them back with me now. What if the poisoner tries for him too? Like Mother—” She let out her breath in a sudden low growl. “I’ll help you find who did this. And kill them.”

“No, you won’t. You’ll keep your big feet off the trail, girl. Let me do the hunting. And stay away from the Gloxian prince. Go.”

Crown backed out of her mother’s bedchamber. Only then, safe away and unobserved, she let herself shake.

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