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"The Lives of Christopher Chant"

Chapters 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

That night Christopher went around the corner between his trunk and the fireplace all prepared to tear a new split in the Castle spells. To his surprise, the split was still there. It looked as though the Castle people had no idea he had made it. Very gently, not to disturb it, he tore two long strips off it, one wide and one narrow. Then, with a vague shimmering piece of spell in each hand, he went back to the books and wrapped them in the wide piece. The narrow piece he used like string to tie the parcel up, leaving a loose length to tie to his belt. When he spat on the parcel, the spit rolled off it in little round balls. Good.

Then it was like old times, climbing across the rocks the well-known way, in clothes that had got even shorter and tighter since yesterday night. It did not worry Christopher at all that he had fallen last time. He knew this way too well. And again like old times, the old men were still charming snakes in front of the city walls. They must do it for religion or something, Christopher supposed, because they did not seem to want money for it. Inside the gates, the city was still the same loud smelly place, full of goats and umbrellas, and the small shrines at the street corners were still surrounded with offerings. The only difference was that it did not seem quite so hot here as last time, though it was still plenty hot enough for someone who had just come from an English summer.

Yet, oddly enough, Christopher was not comfortable here. He was not frightened of people throwing spears. It was because, after the hushed dignity and dark clothes at the Castle, this city made every nerve he had jangle. He had a headache long before he got to the Temple of Asheth. It made him need to rest a bit among the latest pile of old cabbages in the alley, before he could muster the inclination to push his way through the wall and the creepers. The cats were still sunning themselves in the yard. No one was about.

The Goddess was in a room further along from her usual one. She was on a big white cushion that was probably a bed, with more white cushions to prop her up and a shawl over her in spite of the heat. She had grown too, though not as much as Christopher. But he thought she might be ill. She was lying there, staring into nothing, and her face was not as round as he remembered, and a good deal paler.

"Oh thanks," she said, as if she was thinking of something else, when Christopher dumped the parcel of books on her shawl. "I've nothing to swap."

"I'm still paying for Throgmorten," Christopher said.

"Was he that valuable?" the Goddess said listlessly. In a slow, lackluster way she began stripping the spell off the books. Christopher was interested to see that she had no more trouble tearing it than he had. Being the Living Asheth obviously meant you were given strong magic. "These look like good books," the Goddess said politely. "I'll read them - when I can concentrate."
"You're ill, aren't you?" said Christopher. "What have you got?"

"Not germs," the Goddess said weakly. "It's the Festival. It was three days ago. You know it's the one day in the year when I go out, don't you? After months and months all quiet and dark here in the Temple, there I am suddenly out in the sun, riding in a cart, dressed in huge heavy clothes and hung with jewels, with my face covered with paint. Everyone shouts. And they all jump up on the cart and try to touch me - for luck, you know, and not as if I was a person." Tears began-slowly rolling down her face. "I don't think they notice I'm alive. And it goes on all day, the shouting and the sun and hands banging at me until I'm bruised all over." The tears rolled faster. "It used to be exciting when I was small," she said. "But now it's too much."

The Goddess's white cat came galloping into the room and jumped possessively onto her lap. The Goddess stroked it weakly. Like Throgmorten sitting on my bed, Christopher thought. Temple cats know when their people are upset. He thought he could understand a little, after his own feelings in the city just now, the way the Festival had felt to the Goddess.

"I think it's being inside all year and then suddenly going out," the Goddess explained as she stroked Bethi.

Christopher had meant to ask if it was the curse of Asheth that kept killing him all the time, but he could see this was not the moment. The Goddess needed her mind taken off Asheth. He sat down on the tiles beside her cushions. "It was clever of you to see that silver stopped me doing magic," he said. "I didn't know myself - not until Papa took me to Dr. Pawson." Then he told her about the levitation spell.

The Goddess smiled. When he told her about old Mrs. Pawson and the chamber pot, she turned her face to him and almost laughed. It was obviously doing her so much good that he went on and told her about the Castle and Gabriel de Witt, and even managed to make that funny too. When he told her about the way he kept seeing a lion's paw, he had her in fits of laughter.

"But that's stupid of you!" she chuckled. "When there are things I can't do for Mother Proudfoot, I just pretend I can. Just say you can see his hand. He'll believe you."

"I never thought of that," Christopher confessed.

"No, you're too honest," she said, and looked at him closely. "Silver forces you to tell the truth," she said. "The Gift of Asheth tells me. So you got into the habit of never lying." Mentioning Asheth sobered her up. "Thank you for telling me about yourself," she said seriously. "I think you've had a rotten life, even worse than mine!" Quite suddenly she was crying again. "People only want either of us for what use we are to them!" she sobbed. "You for your nine lives and me for my Goddess attributes. And both of us are caught and stuck and trapped in a life with a future all planned out by someone else - like a long, long tunnel with no way out!"

Christopher was a little astonished at this way of putting things, even though his anger at being forced to be the next Chrestomanci certainly made him feel trapped most of the time. But he saw the Goddess was mostly talking about herself. "You stop being the Living Asheth when you grow up," he pointed out.

"Oh, I do so want to stop!" the Goddess wept. "I want to stop being her now! I want to go to school, like Millie in the Millie books. I want to do Prep and eat stodge and learn French and play hockey and write lines..."

"You wouldn't want to write lines," Christopher said, quite anxious at how emotional she was getting. "Honestly, you wouldn't."
"Yes I do!" screamed the Goddess. "I want to cheek the Prefects and cheat in Geography tests and sneak on my friends! I want to be bad as well as good! I want to go to school and be bad, do you hear!"

By this time she was kneeling up on her cushion, with tears pouring off her face into the white cat's fur, making more noise than Throgmorten had when Christopher ran through the Temple with him in the basket. It was not surprising that somebody in sandals came hurrying and stumbling through the rooms beyond, calling breathlessly, "Goddess dear! Goddess! What's wrong, love?"

Christopher spun himself around and dived through the nearest wall without bothering to get up first. He came out facedown in the hot yard full of cats. There he picked himself up and sprinted for the outside wall. After that, he did not stop running until he reached the city gate. Girls! he thought. They really were a Complete Mystery. Fancy wanting to write lines!

Nevertheless, as he went up the valley and climbed through The Place Between, Christopher found himself thinking seriously about some of the things the Goddess had said. His life did indeed seem to be a long tunnel planned out by somebody else. And the reason he hated everyone so at the Castle was that he was just a Thing to them, a useful Thing with nine lives that was going to be molded into the next Chrestomanci someday. He thought he would tell Tacroy that. Tacroy would understand. Tomorrow was Thursday, and he could see Tacroy. He thought he had never looked forward to a Thursday more.

And he knew how to pretend he had witch sight now. The next afternoon, when Flavian held out a lion's paw to him, Christopher said, "It's your hand. I can see it now."

Flavian was delighted. "Then we'll go on a nice long hike tomorrow," he said.

Christopher was not altogether sure he was looking forward to that. But he could hardly wait to see Tacroy again. Tacroy was the only person he knew who did not treat him as a useful Thing. He scrambled out of bed almost as soon as he was in it and shot through the slit in the spells, hoping Tacroy would realize and be early.

Tacroy was there, leaning against the crag at the end of the valley with his arms folded, looking as if he was resigned to a long wait. "Hallo!" he said, and sounded quite surprised to see Christopher at all.

Christopher realized that it was not going to be as easy as he had thought to pour out his troubles to Tacroy, but he beamed at Tacroy as he started scrambling into his clothes. "It's good to see you again," he said. "There's no end of things to tell you. Where are we going tonight?"

Tacroy said in a careful sort of way, "The horseless carriage is waiting in Eight. Are you sure you want to go?"

"Of course," Christopher said, doing up his belt.

"You can tell me your news just as well here," Tacroy said.

This was off-putting. Christopher looked up and saw that Tacroy was unusually serious. His eyes were crinkled up unsmilingly. This made it too awkward to start telling Tacroy anything. "What's the matter?" he asked.

Tacroy shrugged. "Well," he said, "for a start, the last time I saw you, your head was bashed in..."

Christopher had forgotten that. "Oh, I never thanked you for getting me back here!" he said.

"Think nothing of it," said Tacroy. "Though I must say it was the hardest thing I've ever done in any line of work, keeping myself firm enough to bring the carriage through the interworld and heave you off here. I kept wondering why I was doing it too. You looked pretty thoroughly dead to me."

"I've got nine lives," Christopher explained.

"You've obviously got more than one," Tacroy agreed, grinning as if he did not really believe it. "Look, didn't that accident make you think? Your uncle's done hundreds of these experiments by now. We've fetched him a mass of results. It's all right for me - I get paid. But there's nothing in it for you that I can see, except the danger of getting hurt again."

Tacroy truly meant this, Christopher could see. "I don't mind," he protested. "Honestly. And Uncle Ralph did give me two sovereigns."

At this Tacroy threw back his curly head and laughed. "Two sovereigns! Some of the things we got him were worth hundreds of pounds - like that Asheth Temple cat, for instance."

"I know," Christopher said, "but I want to keep on with the experiments. The way things are now, it's the only pleasure I have in life." There he thought. Now Tacroy will have to ask about my troubles.

But Tacroy only sighed. "Let's get going then."

It was not possible to talk to Tacroy in The Place Between. While Christopher climbed and slithered and panted, Tacroy was a floating nebulous ghost nearby, drifting in the wind, with rain beating through him. He did not firm up until the opening of the valley where Christopher had long ago written a large 8 in the mud of the path. The 8 was still there, as if it had been written yesterday. Beyond it the carriage floated. It had been improved again and was now painted a smart duck-egg blue.

"All set, I see," Tacroy said. They climbed down and picked up the guide ropes of the carriage. It immediately started to follow them smoothly down the valley. "How's the cricket?" Tacroy asked in a social sort of way.

Now was Christopher's chance to tell him things. "I haven't played," he said gloomily, "since Papa took me away from school. Up till yesterday, I didn't think they'd even heard of cricket at the Castle - you know I'm living at the Castle now?"

"No," said Tacroy. "Your uncle never has told me much about you. Which castle is this?"

"Chrestomanci Castle," said Christopher. "But yesterday my tutor said there was a match against the village this Saturday. Nobody dreams of asking me to play of course, but I get to work the score-board for it."

"Do you indeed?" said Tacroy. His eyes screwed into wrinkles.

"They don't know I'm here of course," Christopher said.

"I should just think they don't!" Tacroy said, and the way he said it seemed to stop the conversation dead. They walked on in front of the carriage without speaking, until they came to the long hillside with the farmhouse squatting in a dip halfway up it. The place looked bleaker and more lonely than ever, under a heavy gray sky that made the rolls of moor and hill seem yellowish. Before they reached the farm, Tacroy stopped and kicked the carriage out of the way when it nudged the back of his legs, trying to go on. His face was as bleak and yellowish and wrinkled as the moors. "Listen, Christopher," he said, "those folk at Chrestomanci Castle are not going to be pleased to find you've been here doing this."

Christopher laughed. "They aren't! But they're not going to find out!"
"Don't be too sure about that," Tacroy said. "They're experts in every kind of magic there."

"That's what makes it such a good revenge on them," Christopher explained. "Here I am slipping out from under their stupid stuffy boring noses, when they think they've got me. I'm just a Thing to them. They're using me."

The people at the farmhouse had seen them coming. A little group of women ran out into the yard and stood beside a heap of bundles. One waved. Christopher waved back and, since Tacroy did not seem to be as interested in his feelings as he had hoped, he set off up the hill. That started the carriage moving again.

Tacroy hurried to catch up. "Doesn't it occur to you," he said, "that your uncle may be using you too?"

"Not like the Castle people are," said Christopher. "I do these experiments of my own free will."

At this, Tacroy looked up at the low cloudy sky. "Don't say I didn't try!" he said to it.

The women breathed garlic over Christopher when they greeted him in the farmyard, just as they always did. As usual, that smell mixed with the smell from the bundles as he loaded them. The bundles always had this smell in Eight - a sharp, heady, coppery smell. Now, after the practical lessons he had had from Flavian, Christopher paused and sniffed it. He knew what the smell was. Dragons' blood! It surprised him, because this was the most dangerous and powerful ingredient of magic. He put the next bundle on the carriage much more carefully and as he gingerly picked up the next one, knowing some of the things it could do, he looked across at Tacroy to see if Tacroy knew what the bundles were. But Tacroy was leaning against the wall of the yard staring sadly up the hill. Tacroy said he never had much sense of smell when he was out of his body anyway.

As Christopher looked, Tacroy's eyes went wide and he jumped away from the wall. "I say!" he said.

One of the women yelled and pointed away up the hill. Christopher turned to see what was the matter, and stared, and went on staring in amazement, standing where he was with the bundle in his hands. A very large creature was on its way down towards the farm. It was a kind of purplish black. The moment Christopher first saw it, it was folding its great leathery wings and putting its clawed feet down to land, gliding down the hill so fast that he did not see at once how very large it was. While he was still thinking it was a house-sized animal halfway up the hill, it had landed just behind the farm, and he realized he could still see most of it towering up above the farmhouse.

"It's a dragon!" Tacroy shrieked. "Christopher, get down! Look away!"

Around Christopher, the women were running for the barns. One came running back, carrying a big heavy gun in both arms, which she tried frantically to wrestle up onto a tripod. She got it up and it fell down.

While she picked the gun up again, the dragon put its gigantic jagged black head down on the farm roof between the chimneys, crushing it in quite casually, and gazed at the farmyard with huge shining green eyes.

"It's huge!" Christopher said. He had never seen anything like it.

"Down!" Tacroy screamed at him.

The dragon's eyes met Christopher's, almost soulfully. Among the ruins and rafters of the farm roof, it opened its huge mouth. It was rather as if a door had opened into the heart of a sun. A white-orange prominence spouted from the sun, one strong accurate shaft of it, straight at Christopher. WHOOF. He was in a furnace. He heard his skin fry. During an instant of utter agony, he had time to think, Oh, bother! Another hundred lines!

Tacroy's panting was the first thing Christopher heard, sometime after that. He found Tacroy struggling to heave him off the charred bed of the horseless carriage onto the path. The carriage and Tacroy were wobbling about just beside Christopher's pajamas.

"It's all right," Christopher said, sitting up wincingly. His skin smarted all over. His clothes seemed to have been burned off him. The parts of him he could see were a raw pink and smirched with charcoal from the half-burned carriage. "Thanks," he gasped, because he could see that Tacroy had rescued him again.

"You're welcome," Tacroy panted. He was fading to a gray shadow of himself. But he put forth a great effort. His eyes closed and his mouth spread into a grin with it, all transparent, with the grass of the valley shining through his face. Then, for a second, he became clear and solid. He bent over Christopher. "This is it!" he said. "You're not going on these jaunts ever again. You drop it, see? You stop. You come out here again and I won't be here." By this time he was fading to gray, and then to milkiness beyond the gray. "I'll square your uncle," his voice whispered. Christopher had to guess that the last word was "uncle." Tacroy had faded out by then.

Christopher flopped off the carriage and that disappeared too, leaving nothing but the empty, peaceful valley and a strong scent of burning.

"But I don't want to drop it!" Christopher said. His voice sounded so dry and cracked that he could hardly hear it above the brawling of the stream in the valley. A couple of tears made smarting tracks down his face while he collected his pajamas and crawled back through the split in the spells.

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