Now, when last seen, Crown had just got a passionate love-letter from Perry, whom she adores but is forbidden to be with …
Christopher looked up. He’d been thinking gloomy thoughts—about running away, about how the knights would likely hunt him down, about the dragon on Folly Hill, the queen in her seclusion, all the things he’d been told. Poison tea. Keys. About ways to escape the castle, if he decided not to stay. About staying.
Well, there was the princess, Crown. As always, she seemed to fill the room just by walking in, and the other girls had broken off whatever they’d been doing—fretful whispering in the corners, mostly—and rushed to curtsey to her; halberdiers looked in at the door behind her. She stood tapping a folded letter against her forearm. When one of the girls fussed at her hair, straightening the untidy strands, she jerked away abruptly.
“Where’s Mere?” she repeated.
More curtseys. “She went out. Your grace, how does the queen?”
Crown let out her breath. “She does well,” she said, “she’s still sleeping,” and the girls all sighed deeply. “Mere’s gone? Then the rest of you can get out too. I want to talk with the boy. Go, go, are you deaf? Now.”
They went, protesting to the end, shooing the littlest ones along with them. Christopher thought: This is the first time I’ve been alone with a girl. Is it different from being alone with ten of them? Maybe. But Crown hardly seemed like a girl, with her borrowed uniform and her horrid hacked-off hair—she was a different being from the fairytale princess he’d first seen in the procession, going to be married amidst knights and pageantry. She was staring at him, brows drawn together, her lower lip caught between her teeth. And mangling the folded letter between her hands, until she started and smoothed it again, as if it was precious.
“So now you know what you’re here for,” she said
He didn’t know. He stared blankly at her—no, wait, did she mean about marrying her?
Marrying the crown heir. He hadn’t taken it in before, too much had been flung at him, and all completely unexpected—he’d never have guessed at the half of it. Not in his wildest dreams.
Too sudden, too confusing, and too ridiculous. Like some kind of joke.
He didn’t believe a word of it, except apparently he had to, because everyone else took it seriously.
It seemed like he was supposed to answer now with a meek, “Yes, your grace.” Maybe a tug on his forelock too? She’d crossed her arms and uncrossed them, and tapped one foot, waiting. Now she flung up her hands. “You look a perfect donkey. Were you dropped on your head as a child? You should be thanking us.”
“Aha. He has a temper. Well, we didn’t make you a Key—we’re merely going to give you everything you could want for the rest of your life, that’s all. Because you’re my Key.”
What made her think she knew what he wanted? “No. I’m not yours. And I’m not a, a Key.”
“Yes you are.”
“Yes, you are!”
He couldn’t answer. She was over a head taller than him, for all that was holy. How could he marry a girl that tall? Or one who shouted, the way she did. And he had to stay here, the rest of his life, with her? He felt as if the walls were closing in. It wasn’t as if she was going to listen to a word he said anyway.
He still said it. “I’m not this Key thing. I’m not marrying anyone.”
“You are, you will, and I’ll thank you to show some enthusiasm. You’d think I was the pig-faced girl. And as for those blackguards who were holding you prisoner, you should be kissing our feet for rescuing you from them!”
He’d wanted to run away from his magicians, but never because he disliked them. But this girl was crazy.
“Look at you, backing away like a coward. I have no respect for anyone who backs down from a challenge.” All the while she spoke, she clutched her letter, pressing it to her heart. “What’s wrong, cat got your tongue?”
Christopher was actually shaking. He couldn’t hit her, because one didn’t hit a girl; he turned his back on her and went to the windows, right out onto the little balcony.
“You’re a fool!” she said, behind him.
The doors slammed.
No, he wasn’t staying here.