Christopher Key, chapter seven scene two

Back to Christopher. Crown and Mere get to inspect dead dragons, but what does Christopher get? Stuffed indoors out of the reach of any danger.

———-

While they were gone, someone—probably a whole squad of someones—had been in the prince’s former chambers, working like demons. The last traces of Prince Alexander’s temper tantrum had been made to vanish; so too were most of the prince’s possessions. Including his weapons and armor, unfortunately.

Pallets had replaced them, along with an old-fashioned trestle table, and a row of wooden clothes-chests stood along one wall. A cheery fire burned in the hearth, and the table had been put up, boards on trestles, neatly dressed with a cloth and set with an enormous lunch. Christopher’s knight-guards looked on it with approval. Not because they were hungry, but because the littlest girls, tired out by their riding and the fear and danger, had sniffled all the way back to the palace and were now sobbing openly. They didn’t want to go back to Prince Alexander’s chambers; they wanted their own nurseries. They bawled, “Want to go home!” They wailed, “Want my mother!” The older girls tried in vain to comfort them. Christopher retreated to a corner and observed them, amazed.

He wished he could be with Crown and Mere, outside in the sun, looking at dragons.

The knights tsked, shook their heads, shooed the bedraggled girls to the table and ordered them to eat. That helped. Enormous Sir Balsam went out and returned carrying a basket full of kittens, which he emptied onto the floor. That helped too. Soon enough the littler girls were all on the floor too, cheeks stained with dried tears but also with jam, playing happily with the kittens, thank goodness.

The girls’ luncheon was hearty, with porridge and sausages, toast and jam, and fried apple slices. Sir Inconnu served Christopher decidedly different fare: pheasant in aspic, asparagus and watercress, five kinds of cheese and a covered dish of hot spice-cake. The best he could say for it was that the cake was good. “Princess Alexane was to have lunched with you,” Sir Argan said, somewhat testily. “Where is that girl?”

She didn’t arrive. Instead the other girl Mere did, letting herself quietly in through the enormous doors—they dwarfed her with their height. She carried a sheaf of papers under one arm. “Here, Christopher,” she said.

“And the princess?” Sir Argan asked.

“She sent her apologies,” Mere said. Christopher made a silent bet with himself that Crown had done no such thing.

“Enough.” Sir Argan beckoned, and his fellow knight came over, clapping his hands loudly. Girls came swiftly from all corners of the state apartment. “Mere, bring something to eat with you. You have a busy afternoon ahead.” The other knight, Balsam, took the older girls in charge—not just Mere, but five more whose names eluded Christopher—what were the redheaded twins called again? All six were ushered firmly out of the room, Mere in the lead and the rest lagging behind, dismayed. “Today they begin their training in the knightly arts,” Sir Argan said. “Because they will be the next generation of knights-royal.” As for the smaller girls, he shooed them off as well, looking like a sheepdog with a flock of dismayed lambs.

They took the kittens along with them, though.

“Stay here, Christopher.” Those were Sir Argan’s final words as he chivied his flock along. “Rest. Later I’ll test your academic grounding. And tomorrow, now—tomorrow will be grueling.”

He shut the door.

Christopher looked at Mere’s papers. Brown chalk drawings covered them, both sides of every sheet—a dozen sheets of papers showing a dozen views of Folly Hill. A gigantic skull, a sketched-in horse and rider next to it showing its scale. Bones so irregular they seemed more like tree boughs, crooked and twiggy. Notations: ash-smears on grass all over the Hill and the bones sigh and crumble when touched. Mere had worked hard at this.

And yet. He remembered the dragon’s shadow writhing underfoot, dappled like leaf-shadows. Yes, like the shadow of a whole forest of leaves whirling through the sky. No living creature was that insubstantial. No living creature that size could fly, could it? It would be far too heavy, it would never get off the ground.

That thing hadn’t been natural. Was it made of magic? But he’d read that other kingdoms didn’t have magic like Everie’s. Gloxia’s genius lay in the areas of clockwork and strange engines. But this was certainly not a clockwork dragon.

He let the drawings fall. When all those girls were around, the room seemed much too small, state apartment or not; now they weren’t here, it all but echoed. For a day and a half now he’d felt surrounded by staring eyes every moment, stifled, not even enough space to turn around in. But now …

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Christopher Key, chapter seven scene one

The knights hurried everyone back onto their mounts with the urgency of shame. They weren’t listening to protests; their snapped orders rose even over the roaring of the twins Pell and Mell. Mere realized they should never have come out in the first place, that they should never have endangered the Key. If Christopher had been injured—if Christopher had been killed— The very thought left her cold and shaken. They might never find another Key, not in their lifetimes. The ruination of the kingdom, if they lost this one.

Alexane ignored the knights. She stood staring at the burnt shape on the grass, all that was left of the dragon’s wing-shaft; she rubbed the line of her jaw, brows set in thought. Mere watched her. They’d grown up together but still she could never predict what Alexane—no, Crown, she was Crown now—would do next. Crown’s face showed everything; Mere could always tell what she was feeling; but she could never tell what Alexane would do.

“Crown?” Mere said quietly.

“Go on without me.”

“Trying to see Prince Perrin,” Mere said after a moment, “that’s not a good idea just now.”

“I know, I know, I’m not a fool.” She raised her voice: “Sir Inconnu, I’m staying, I want a better look at the dragon.”

For a moment Mere caught sight of the boy Christopher’s expression, as he was taken away with a knight riding on either side. Like a cat exploring the outdoors for the first time, that is dragged struggling back inside, the door shut in his face.

The look in his eyes gave her a shiver of sympathy. She called after him: “Christopher! I’ll bring you back exact descriptions! And a drawing, if I can!”

Crown was already riding off. Mere swung up onto grey Lady’s back, and cantered after her.

The whole pleasant hilltop had been rendered hideous by the dragon’s remains, by the stench of burning flesh, by the bodies that had come down as the monster was felled. It had been carrying as many soldiers as a naval ship’s crew, two hundred or more. All dead, now. Grey Lady snorted wide-eyed and wanted to flee; Crown, meanwhile, had her equally skittish gelding on a strict rein. Mere found herself swallowing and looking away from the broken corpses. But for everything else, she committed what she saw to memory as carefully as she might study a lesson-book. Once they returned to the palace, she’d make drawings for Christopher.

Near the foot of the hill, on the far side, the bones of the dragon lay jumbled like a landslide. Long thin colorless flames licked out from them, and greasy ash crusted the ground. All the grass had been eaten black as if by acid. The rose-trees had been crushed to matchsticks. And rose-petals scattered on the black grass, bright yellow, bright pink, spots of brilliant coral in the sunlight.

Crown had made her gelding stand. Here was the monster’s skull, a great black ruined crag on fire. Intact, it would have measured seven feet between the eye-sockets, Mere thought.

Petals dotted it, until fire washed over them, and they flared up and went out.

“This is the enemy,” Crown said.

“Yes.”

“I thought it would be far bigger,” Crown said. Mere threw her a startled glance; that skull was  bigger than anything she ever wanted to see. “I thought we’d all be paralyzed with blind panic. They say you are, the first time you see a dragon. You’ve heard about dragonspeech, haven’t you? That terror they cast. I don’t think it affected me at all.” This came out in a rush, followed by a thoughtful pause. “Everything’s changed since yesterday.”

Mere peered at her. “About Prince Perrin?” she ventured.

Silence. A few more petals whirled upward, flaring, and became ash. Rose petals on fire, and Crown staring at them. She didn’t say a word.

Mere said, “All we were fit for was to breed future knights-royal.” And Alexane was worth enough to be bartered in marriage for peace; she counted for more than any mere knight’s daughter. But it was still the same, wasn’t it? That was why she’d been planning to leave court, and why Alexane had grown up seething with envy at her brother. “Because we were just girls. Yesterday.”

A still, silent Alexane was foreign to Mere’s experience; she was always moving, speaking forcefully, gesturing with a fist. Even while asleep she wouldn’t lie quiet, but wrestled the bedclothes into defeat every night, springing up in the morning with a final kick at her quilts. Awake, she couldn’t keep still to save her life. But now she was.

“Now we have to defend Everie,” Mere said, watching her. “We’ll be knights-royal. And fight dragons someday.”

Crown nodded, looking at the immense, burning bones.

“We’ll have to go to war.” And she couldn’t escape, she couldn’t have a future of her own, she was bound to the palace and the kingdom. To the other girls also, not just Alexane. “And we have to take care of that boy. We have a duty.”

From Crown, a blank look.

“To the Key? To Christopher?”

Crown didn’t answer; she had gone back to staring at the rose-petals.

“We’re chained to him,” Mere said. Her future stretched ahead of her, full of bleak demands. “We can’t escape.”

“What are you going on about?” Crown said, moving at last. “Escape, duty? Chains? We aren’t chained anymore. We’re free, Mere.” A long hard look at what remained of the dragon. “One day we’ll rule Everie. And listen, the way dragonspeech barely affected me—do you suppose it’s the magic already? Knightly magic. If only we had another dragon, then we could find out.” She stretched, face lifted to the shining sky. “I feel I could slay monsters already.”

Christopher Key, end of chapter six

Well, this just proves there’s nothing messier than a dead dragon …

——

They emerged from hiding to find wreckage strewn over the riding-green. No more velvet grass. “This way,” Sir Argan said, leading them downhill at a walk. “Take care.” The knights had drawn their swords. Smoking holes pocked the hillside, and what looked like huge red-streaked shards of whitish substance stood upright, speared raggedly into the turf. Christopher’s roan shied away from a blackened twisted heap, and he realized it was a body, charred almost to nothing. Fallen debris and more burned corpses were everywhere. Entire trees had toppled, and lay collapsed in a ruin of shattered boughs.

“Here be dragons,” Sir Argan said.

The grass under the roan’s hooves had curled and gone brown. It was the same all over the hill, everywhere Christopher looked

Something long as a road lay across the way, near the foot of the hill.

It was sawtoothed, jagged, broken in many pieces, heavier than a ship’s mainmast—like the bone of an elephant, only larger. Christopher had seen penny-book illustrations of elephants. Maybe this was more like a whale’s bones. He’d seen engravings of whales too. Like a whale if whales were long, if whales were covered with thorns and teeth and knife-edged scales … Smoke hung hazily over it, but it kept shifting, its surface twitching, and sparks flaring off it.

It seemed to be collapsing, or melting away. Or burning. Whole sections flaked off, whirling up like ashes on a breeze. Christopher’s roan shied. The dead grass under its hooves looked oddly slimy, unclean. It smelled like filth.

Christopher was having real trouble keeping the roan in order now. Sir Inconnu, at his right, took its bridle and turned it (and Christopher) away from the monster. He had already tucked his daughter’s face against his chest, hand over her eyes. Another knight rode at Christopher’s left, close as a guard. He said across Christopher, “Argan, this isn’t safe yet.”

“It looked bigger before,” Christopher said, craning over his shoulder. “When it was in the sky.”

“D’ you think so, lad? But we’re not looking at the beast itself. Just one shaft of its wing. And the wing itself, the whole wing—it fell across this entire side of the hill, eh? everywhere you see the grass dying. It’s that big, it is. And we’re riding on it.”

Riders in armor and uniformed cavalry soldiers cantered to an orderly halt near the gigantic irregular fragment of … pinion? Bone? They dismounted en masse. Charcoal uniforms with blue piping and epaulets, and polished silver buttons flashing. Engraved plate armor, with surcoats grey and blue. One rode a winged horse.

Its rider swung down, boots hitting the turf, gaze on the felled dragon; someone ran to take his mount’s reins. He wore a plain gold circlet riveted to his helm, a simple crown. He was the king. “—clearly magic,” he said, as the others gathered around him. “Deplorably so. This is the closest view I’ve had of a dead one, and it’s no clockwork, nor any kind of engine. Magical.”

The last of the wing-shaft collapsed, no more than a reeking shadow on the grass.

“This ends the truce,” the king said. “And with infernal speed, too.” He sighed. “Call in three more squadrons from the south. Order reserves raised from Dover and Whitfields too. I think I’ll keep my knights-royal in the city for now: the treasure we must defend is here.” He glanced aside, at the group of riders surrounding Christopher: the girls, their guardian knights, his daughter. “And arrest Prince Perrin.”

“What?” That was Crown, in a shout. She kneed her white purebred and it stamped three strides forward. Now she was almost on top of him, looking down from horseback, and he looked back up undisturbed with his hands on his hips. “You can’t,” she said. “Perry had nothing—”

“To do with this? Of course he had. He’s Gloxian. This is a Gloxian battle-dragon.” To his staff officers, the king added, “Arrest the ambassador and his suite too. House arrest, no dungeons, but confine Prince Perrin in isolation. I want him questioned. This attack, within hours of the engagement being broken? And now the truce is also broken. How did it happen so fast?” He jabbed a finger at Crown. “I blame you too, daughter. You don’t have a diplomatic bone in you.”

“Then it’s a shame I’m more like you than like Mother!”

They glared at each other for seven long heartbeats—Christopher counted, fascinated—before they both glanced away at the exact same moment.

“Sir?” Crown said. “Is Mother well?”

“The queen is safe. Five knights are with her.”

Crown seemed to deflate. “Er … so Alexander’s safe too?”

“I have no idea,” the king said. He looked past Crown. “I sent Gawaine and Surrey to fly over the city. Just in case. Because it’s a good thing that Christopher wasn’t hurt. Isn’t it, Inconnu?”

The four knights shepherding Christopher’s group all moved as one. They came off their horses and to their knees on the filthy grass, heads bowed. Even Sir Inconnu did it, though he looked ridiculous because he scooped up his daughter and carried her with him, cradled in his arms the whole time. All four knights were grim-white. Christopher had only a moment to gawk, though, because the girls around him were dismounting too, the littlest ones with squeaks of dismay, almost tumbling to the ground. “You too,” Mere said up to him. “Kneel.”

He dismounted and knelt. Everyone knelt. Last of all, Crown bent one knee. “It was my idea,” she said.

The king frowned. He took Crown’s hand and lifted her. “Never do that again. You’re crown heir now and you never kneel, even to me. Even when you’ve made a mistake, as now. And I like you better when you’re standing up to me and shouting.”

Her whole body seemed to shine with gathering confidence and pride.

“Sire,” Sir Argan said. “We are abashed. You think this wasn’t a coincidence?”

“That it was Folly Hill that came under attack? Just as you went out riding? No. You’re forgiven—but don’t err again, no matter what my devil of a daughter says.” The king strode away, accompanied by his staff. Over his shoulder, in Crown’s direction, he threw one last command: “And don’t disappoint me, daughter.”

Christopher Key, chapter six, scene three

It’s not for nothing that this chapter’s title is “and attacked by a dragon”!

Or, they little know what’s coming–

——

Christopher had ridden often, in tiltyards and schooling-rings, and once when he’d been taken for a week to a secluded country estate. Cross-country, that day—no walls, no need to hide indoors, just open wood and meadow, sun and speed and the breeze in his hair. That ride had been one of his most treasured memories. This was even better.

The palace grounds adjoined a lawned avenue sweeping downhill. Trees edging it in double rows gave the impression of solitude. The small party of riders went directly from the stables, crossing a lane and passing through an arched gateway, to this: smooth ground, green grass cropped short, more than a mile of empty track before them. It seemed endless.

The perfect illusion of freedom.

The perfect straightaway for a gallop.

That girl Mere almost smiling, as she rode her grey Lady.

Knights had come with them, two in back and two in front. Christopher caught himself eyeing them in dismay. Four knights-royal. Wasn’t that excessive, even to guard Princess Alexane? Didn’t they have better things to do?

All the girls had come, even the tiny ones chugging along behind on fat little ponies. Mere rode by Christopher’s side. Crown had started out next to Mere, but soon enough she roared on ahead, in the forefront with the leading knights, and she shouted with delight at the speed of their charge. Of course their route was her idea in the first place.

The long avenue ran all the way to the foot of Palace Hill, where the star-shaped fortifications jutted out over the City below. It passed between a matched pair of redoubts, level with the top of their walls, and rose steep and straight up a second, even higher hill.

This was Folly Hill, where the Mage-queen had built her fortress. Two hundred and twelve years since her death, and nothing was left on Folly Hill except foundation-stones and climbing roses gone wild, and a scattering of windswept apple-trees. Bare though it was, the same fortification walls as Palace Hill still enclosed it, and the straight, green avenue swept to its very crown.

“There,” Crown called, bringing her mount down from the gallop to a walk. “Months since I’ve seen this view. I promised myself it, all the time I was in Gloxia. Folly Hill in the sun. The city and the river. Home.”

Christopher had seen all this from below—Palace Hill and Folly Hill—looking out windows from various points down in the city. He’d studied his city maps. Now he could look across the City and the city, from above, spread out as if on the maps. When he was small, he’d never been able to grasp the distinction between the inner City and the outer city. Now it was plain, the concentric rings of fortifications, and the zones of rooftops they encircled. The inner City was of an earlier era, its roofs shingled with coastal slate, the buildings pillared in the classic style, and enormous trees obscuring all. The outer city’s houses were tall and jumbled, their facades streaked black from coal-smoke, the streets straight and flint-grey; trees clustered in groves in the parks, and the trees themselves were different: peach and apple and what was called the Mage-queen’s roses.

Christopher filled his eyes, trying to look everywhere, naming off the different districts to himself: Riverside, the Fleet Gardens, Oddmarket, Southwarf and London Old City. He twisted around, eyes tracing the fortification walls. The innermost wall was perfectly symmetrical, enclosing Folly and Palace hills in mirror-image eight-pointed stars, linked by the causeway between the hills, cannon bristling atop. The next circuit of walls was less regular, but made up for it in scale; the same with the enormous outermost circuit. Christopher had read that it took a horse and rider half a day to gallop around the outermost. He’d also read that there were over two hundred cannon on that wall alone.

Sunshine warmed his forehead. The air was so clear that he could see laundry spread drying on hedges all the way to the fields beyond the Fleet.

Dozens of balloons drifted lazily over the city, and dozens more floated tethered by ropes to anchorage points along the walls. Hippogriff patrols circled among them.

A scene of peace and pageantry.

“Yes, it’s an amazing view,” said Sir Argan, breaking in annoyingly on Christopher’s thoughts. “No wonder the Mage-queen was moved to raise these hills. She built her fortress in a single night, they say. Have your teachers told you much about her?”

“After the autumn rebellion, she promised the rebels mercy, then had their sword arms dipped in pitch and used as torches to light her victory feast,” Christopher said.

Sir Argan eyed him. “Yes, she was a tyrant. Less is known about her consort, Prince Simon.”

“Simon the Gypsy.”

“You will not use that name here. Call him Simon Alfheed if you must, but no mention of gypsies. Imagine her knights-royal riding to war—more than two hundred knights with battle-magic.” He sighed. “As if wild beasts roared over the earth and stars dispersed, when her army rode, and mountains walked, when it marched, and tombs were overturned, when it encamped. Kingdoms trembled before them. And yet she raised these hills, she left us the Kingdom Magic. Have you been taught much history?”

“Yes, I was,” Christopher said. Much more than was good for any one student, in his opinion.

“But you haven’t attended school, you were privately tutored,” Sir Argan said. “Or so I presume. It’s good that your … guardians … whoever they were, took a care for your education. I’ve been asked to continue your studies.” The other riders were scattered across the hilltop, some having dismounted to walk their mounts. Princess Alexane—Crown—was still astride, leaning forward to point over her horse’s neck, naming landmarks in a near-shout and talking about things she’d seen in Gloxia.

“I’d like you to tell me,” Sir Argan went on relentlessly, “where you stand in mathematics, the natural sciences, history, rhetoric and classics, literature and the arts.“

“I want to become a knight,” Christopher said.

“You want to … of course you have that ambition. Well, let’s discuss academics—”

“I can hit the quintain four times out of five,” Christopher said desperately, “and hit a wand at archery at three hundred paces already, and handle a sword. Sword-and-dagger too. And with a shield. My guardians taught me.”

“Those guardians of yours. Let’s talk about them. Who were they, and how did you come to be in their care?”

“Argan.” Another of the knights interrupted. “Do you hear what I hear?”

A mutter like thunder rolled over Folly Hill. Christopher had been about to say something about archery, but he forgot it, putting his head down and his fists to his ears. His skin went clammy and cold. The noise got closer. Louder. An incomprehensible confusion of noise. He couldn’t think. Horns blew, sudden and multifold, from both the palace and the city walls. A great bell tolled, followed by many others. Bells throughout the city. Bells sounding the alarm.

The enormous impossible noise drowned it all out.

A monstrous shadow fell over Folly Hill.

Christopher Key, chapter six, scene two

The knights, consulted, gave their permission. Grudgingly. Christopher got the impression they only did it because Crown wouldn’t take no for an answer.
He didn’t care. The palace stables held the best horseflesh he’d ever seen. “Father holds three stud farms among the family estates,” the girl Crown said. “We get a fifth of our crown revenue from supplying the army with horses. Mules too—nothing bothers good mules, not even dragonfire, they’re worth their weight in gold. Look at that mare. She’s got a fine head, and good legs too. Sir Inconnu, what became of the gelding I was riding last year? The chestnut hunter with the stockings.”
“That gelding? Melinda Solmont has it. It’s stabled at Solborough House.”
“I want something even better then. Let’s look.” She strode off down the stable aisle.
“Christopher, I’ll pick you out a quiet mount,” Sir Inconnu said. He was a short man, gone grey early at the temples, with a bony intelligent face and a direct look, like a born teacher. Whenever he looked at any of the girls, he pulled thoughtfully at his mustaches. When he looked at Christopher he winced and looked away. “Have you ridden before?”
“Yes, sir, I have, many—”
Mere came toward them, leading a haltered grey mare. “I’ve found my old Lady,” she said. “How pleasant.”
“Ah,” Sir Inconnu said. “Your Lady has the best manners and the smoothest gait of anything here. I’ll put Christopher up on her.” He held out his hand. “Well done, Mere.”
Mere didn’t say a word. She only stood still for a moment, looking at nothing, and then let Sir Inconnu take the grey’s reins.
Crown reappeared at this point, riding down the aisle at a reckless swift trot, girls and stableboys scrambling out of her way. She was on a white hotblood with a raking stride. Christopher thought she rode well, and she seemed to have a shrewd eye, because she took in the scene and said at once, “Sir Inconnu, you’re not to take Mere’s mare away from her. I’ve already lost my chestnut hunter, it would be one injustice too many,” and she and Sir Inconnu began to wrangle.
Everyone was looking at them. Christopher moved quietly off to the side, and then went down the stable aisle and through a doorway.
No one had noticed. And now that he was away from the others, no one looked twice at him. He walked as if he had an errand, threading his way through a knot of stableboys, rows of stalls and horses on either side. These stables were huge. Maybe he’d find out where the knights kept their destriers. Or if he discovered a way into the rest of the palace, he could explore.
“Christopher!” Sir Inconnu, his voice raised. “Come back here.”
Christopher halted. “I was looking at this roan mare,” he said. “Can I ride her?”
He expected to be scolded. But Sir Inconnu barely said a word (though he looked long and critically at the roan mare) and what was more, he let Christopher tend to his saddling himself. Christopher mounted very fast as soon as he was done, to avoid being offered a hand up.
Crown waited, drumming fingers on her saddle leathers, while everyone else scrambled to get mounted and it was determined that, yes, Christopher knew how to handle his reins—she looked bored, impatient, a little scornful. Her eye on Christopher, as he acquainted himself with the roan mare, was even more critical than Sir Inconnu’s. Christopher decided she was the sort whose face shouted out her every thought for good or ill.
She said abruptly, “I know. Let’s go to the top of Folly Hill.”
Sir Inconnu inclined his head. “Your grace, we shouldn’t leave the palace.”
“Nonsense. There’s nowhere to ride here. And no harm in it. Is there?”
Sir Inconnu looked severe as stone (he looked like even his mustache would be rock-tough) but then a tiny perfect doll of a girl ran up crying, “Da, put me up on my pony,” and his face went soft as summer butter. Crown flung her arms up as if that settled everything, and rode off toward the stableyard.
A reedy voice drifted to Christopher’s ears. “Cousin Alexane’s got a lover.”
A second, identical voice commented: “She’s seething because the betrothal’s been called off.”
“Quiet, Pellmell,” Mere said.

Christopher Key, chapter five, scene two

At this point, I shortened my chapters drastically, following what I suppose might be called the Patterson Maneuver. So this chapter only has two scenes, and here’s the second:

—————-

Long past midnight.

Christopher couldn’t sleep.

His magicians … they were out there somewhere, and he couldn’t believe they wouldn’t be back. In the quiet cold hours before dawn, it was easy to understand why they’d abandoned him. If it had come to a fight with knights-royal, the house would have been wrecked—that whole quarter of the city might have been wrecked, the knights were that powerful—and everyone could have been killed. So his magician-guardians had retreated, but they’d come back for him. No doubt about it.

The girls—all those girls—would they always be in the same room with him? They had bedded down like servants in the prince’s bedchamber—his bedchamber—on blankets around the hearth where it was warm. He’d heard them rustling and turning over; he heard their breathing now. Nothing separated them from him except the bed-canopies. One had a snore like a kitten.

He parted the bed-canopies, and looked through with one eye. Just one candle burning on the far side of the room to see by, but there they were, all those dark hummocks of blankets near the hearth. Not one moved. Christopher slid out of bed and walked barefoot and soundless past them to the chamber doors.

He slid one door open, barely making a sound.

Lamps burned along the length of the hall. A long slice of light fell across the chamber floor, and outside, two big men in armor turned at once to look at Christopher. They’d set up a table, and had been quietly engaged in a game of triumph.

“Go back to bed, Christopher,” said one, and Christopher shut the door and retreated from it, biting his lip.

The knights. They were standing guard outside in the corridor.

Christopher Key, chapter five, scene one

I’m on a roll here, and posting scenes is a good motivator, so guess I’ll keep doing it:

——-

The knights had left Christopher alone.
Locked in someone else’s enormous bedchamber—how could anyone have seen that coming? Christopher’s skin crawled with wrongness. They hadn’t explained what a Key was. He wasn’t one anyway—no matter what it was. Or if he was, he didn’t care. They hadn’t been unfriendly, but he didn’t want to be here.
Out of one prison, and into another.
An adventure, but not one he liked. He was so tired that he ached, but he couldn’t settle down. Instead he prowled all around the big chamber, searching it. He crossed his fingers and hoped to find a secret passage. Or how about a revolving bookshelf? Though with the luck he’d been having today, it would only lead to a torture chamber or something … Anyway, it seemed that Prince Alexander didn’t enjoy reading. No bookshelves of any kind, and no books of any kind either. The prince was an idiot.
Christopher decided he had no patience for someone who could have all the books in Everie for the lifting of a finger, but hadn’t cared enough to bother.
On the other hand, the prince owned his own arsenal, and who wouldn’t like that?
He rapped on the walls, opened various doors and found, yes, a garderobe and closets and a dressing-room. One of the tall windows was hinged, swinging outward like a door, admitting upon the balcony he’d seen before. He didn’t go through, because climbing down unfamiliar walls at midnight was only a good idea in desperate straits. If he was still here tomorrow, he’d take a good long look up and down.
He looked under all the carpets, but found no trapdoors, alas.
Well, the search for a secret way out was going nowhere, so he abandoned it and began playing with all those interesting weapons. He’d never had the chance to examine a suit of actual armor, cunningly riveted and articulated, with the steel gauntlet fingers so beautifully jointed that they moved as freely as glove-silk. The prince’s swords were just as well-made as his armor, three swords of different styles: saber, jousting-field broadsword, shortsword. Christopher swung the shortsword and made practice jabs. It looked like an old weapon, unlike the other two which were gleaming-bright new and which had probably been custom-forged for the prince. It was heavy, its blade wide and dangerous—a real weapon. Shortswords were the army of Everie’s regular issue to infantrymen, the soldiers who did the hardest work on the battlefield. Double-edged weapons for stabbing and chopping. A blow from the flat of one could break bones. They were like clubs with cutting edges.
Prince Alexander had a crossbow. He had a six-foot longbow, and a pair of somewhat shorter sport-bows. Christopher braced one of the sport-bows, half-drew it and imagined shooting at the wand in an archery competition, applause from the watching crowd, winning the silver arrow—
The chamber doors opened. He lowered the bow and glanced back over his shoulder. In came a flood of girls.
A torrent of them.
Two dozen. No, two score. No, more. They were all heights, all ages, but definitely all girls. Some of them were very small girls. They piled to a standstill, round astonished eyes gazing at Christopher, and he gawked back.
Several knights followed. Christopher wanted to back away, maybe into a closet with a door he could close. He wasn’t used to so many strangers, all crowded together, all looking at him.
Sir Gawaine cleared his throat loudly. “Christopher.” He began to introduce the girls, name after name passing right over Christopher’s head. Christopher was counting: eight, nine, ten … Ten girls, just a jumble of names as he locked gazes with first one, then another and another. Ten girls, too many to believe in, as if they were mythological monsters. Ten.
“Er,” he finally said.
Another throat-clearing from Sir Gawaine. “Tomorrow we start your training. You must learn the sword and the bow.”
Christopher wanted to cheer. Would they let him use some of Prince Alexander’s enormous collection? He’d been riding tilt at the quintain for over a year now, and Master Lamplighter had engaged a armsmaster to train him and the apprentices, because every young man ought to know how to ride and defend himself and shoot a bow for the pot in time of need. At fifteen paces he could put a lance through the garland every time.
Then he noticed the reactions from the girls.
One of the taller girls was grinning. Another had gone beet-red and clapped both hands to her cheeks. The very-small ones simply looked blank.
Some servants came in, bearing barrels full of blankets, clothing and gear. Someone must have scrambled to gather so much so quickly, because Christopher saw one barrel full of novice-boys’ blades, some matching daggers too, and other equipment. Boys’ bows. Blunted fighting axes. Practice laths. Enough that they must have been scavenged up from all over, far too many just for him–at a glance, at least eight or nine full sets of gear, or– No.
His mind went blank.
Ten.
“It’s not what you think,” Sir Gawaine said. “Christopher, I know this seems strange to you, but you must be guarded. Our daughters will be your bodyguards. They will serve you as, as pages would also, but they must learn to fight too. They will stay with you at all times, and keep you safe. This will be their duty. And it will be your duty to accept their service.”
A pair of red-headed moppets at the edge of the pack of girls burst out giggling in disbelief. The tomboy girl who had grinned was now shaking her head; she looked as if she was thinking twice about everything. The beet-red girl’s eyes had overflowed with helpless, terrified tears. The rest just looked appalled, every one of them—no, wait, that tall one in back seemed more thoughtful than anything. She said, “Father, your knights can show us the arts of war, but what about our other duties? Cooking, other services? We are not maidservants. Will one of the palace chatelaines be set over us, and teach us?”
“No. That would be impossible. You must teach yourselves.”
“Why?” Christopher asked.
Sir Gawaine said, “Because you are a Key, Christopher. We’ve been looking for someone like you for a long time, though not—well, never mind—we’ve been looking for you, and now that you’re here, these daughters of knights will care for you. It’s their duty. And in time, they will become the next generation of knights. It is the nature of a Key that this happens. You girls will be the next court of knights-royal, the defenders of the kingdom, and Christopher will be your Key.”
The girls looked at Christopher, and he looked back. Finally, one of the red-headed moppets marched up to him. She was a head shorter than he was, and had several hundred freckles.
She said, “That’s horrible!”