… and this is the end of part one.
Mere hurried through a world of shadows. For an instant, as Crown shook her, she’d been stabbed by pain behind her eyes, enough to make her blink. She’d caught sight of Christopher then. He’d been the one clear thing she could see, in a daze of movement and darkness. Christopher at a distance, his back to her. Walking away confidently, his step quick and light. Glancing back over his shoulder for some reason, not because he saw her—he didn’t, she read it in his eyes—and breaking into a sudden smile. That was an expression she’d never seen on his face. No matter the circumstances, it was the look of a boy having the adventure of a lifetime. Once she saw it, she couldn’t see anything else. Just him. Just one boy in all the world.
Going to him was easy then—like walking straight through the shadows that lay between them.
Shouldn’t there have been walls? But there weren’t. Nothing stood in her way.
Christopher saw her.
He stopped short, eyes going wide. From somewhere he’d evidently managed to filch a servant’s grey livery coat. It should never have disguised him—he should have been challenged by the first real servant who spotted him—except that he looked so ordinary, nobody would ever look twice at him. Nondescript features, messy brown hair. And what a pointy jutting chin he had. But still …
“Mere?” he whispered.
So ordinary-looking, but still a Key.
Mere darted toward him, stumbled over something, almost fell. She had the feeling it was something she should have seen. He caught her just in time.
She clutched his arms, her fingers twisting in the wool twill of his sleeves. “What do you think you’re doing!”
“I was just—”
“You were running away. How—how could you? Climbing down the walls—risking your life—I don’t know what I can say—”
He shook loose of her hold.
“I wasn’t risking anything,” he said. “And not so loud! I had half the afternoon to look at the walls. That’s long enough to memorize anything. And what happened to you, how’d you find me like this—do you know what you just did? Do you?”
“You could have killed yourself!”
“You walked out of a wall!”
“I did what?”
He took a step back, then deliberately poked her in the shoulder, as if testing whether she was solid. Mere grabbed his coat-sleeve again. She was shaking all over with fear, her skin cold—she couldn’t let him get loose again—all she could feel was his sleeve pinched between her finger and thumb. She didn’t dare hold him any more securely. What if he ran from her?
Words failed her. She should go to her knees and beg, if it would do any good. Kiss his feet if it made him stay. Promise anything. What would Alexane do?—probably hit him and try to haul him back, a disaster. Alexane always thought she knew what to do. She definitely always had something to say. Mere didn’t. Words meant nothing anyway—any liar could say whatever they pleased. It was what you did that mattered.
Her own raw whisper shocked her. “What can I do to make you happy here?”
“I don’t want to be here!” he hissed back. “Shut up in that room? With guards keeping me in—” He broke off. “Go find some other Key.”
But the knights-royal had been searching for another Key for all the years since Amily herself had been found—she knew that from her father—and in all that time, over thirty years, the only one they’d found had been Christopher. Just Christopher. Queen Amily wasn’t in good health. The kingdom couldn’t wait another thirty years to maybe—maybe— discover some other Key.
“Make a bargain with me,” she said. “You’ve barely been here two days. And we need you, so drive a hard bargain, Christopher. You’ll say what you want your life here to be like, everything you might want, and if I can, I’ll get it for you. Would that do?”
He thought about it, his eyes going vague and his teeth raking his lower lip, and she felt faint with relief that he was taking her seriously. It wouldn’t do to let him see it, though. It would distract him, and be unfair. She hoped her face stayed blank.
But at the same time, she pulled on his arm, taking a step backward, and another step, and another. Drawing him with her. The world had gone confused again, shifting around her, but she thought she was walking back toward the safety of his chambers. Through walls like smoke, through shut doors she could imagine away. As if what she didn’t see, didn’t exist.
“Will you help me?” he said.
“Help me do the things I want?”
She nodded, still towing him along. She thought they were almost there.
“Bargain,” he said.
Suddenly he was gripping her hand, the tables turned. “That’s good. I don’t want to be locked up all the time. In this place? I want to get out and explore. So you’ll help me do that.” Mere tried to pull away, appalled, but he wouldn’t let go. “And all the other things I want to do. You’ll help.” She’d made a mistake. A very bad mistake. His sudden bright-eyed look told her so. “After all, you can walk through walls!”
She twisted around to look, taking in the familiar walls around them—the room, the other girls running toward them, Crown standing there with her jaw dropped. Christopher let go of her hand. “And me too,” he finished in wonder. “I’ve walked through walls.”
She’d done it. She’d brought them both back safe. Why, no one would even know he’d run away.
In that moment, as if there was no more need for it, her sight failed her again. She was blind.
End of part one