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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

The Goddess was in her bedroom-place, sitting cross-legged on the white cushions with her chin on her fists, evidently brooding. Though she did not look ill anymore, there was a new feeling about her, like thunder in the air, which Christopher rather wondered about as he came in.

The Goddess's jewelry went tunk as she looked up and saw him. "Oh good," she said. "I'd been hoping you'd come back soon. I've got to talk to you - you're the only person I know who'll understand."

"The same goes for me," Christopher said, and he sat down on the tiles with his back against the wall.
"There's you shut up here with your Priestesses, and me shut up in the Castle with Gabriel's people. Both of us are in this tunnel - "

"But that's just my trouble," the Goddess interrupted. "I'm not sure there is a tunnel for me. Tunnels have ends, after all." Her voice filled with the new thunderous feeling as she said this. The white cat knew at once. It got up from among the cushions and climbed heavily into her lap.

"What do you mean?" Christopher asked, thinking once more that girls really were a Complete Mystery.

"Poor Bethi," the Goddess said, stroking the white cat with a rhythmic tink-tink of bracelets. "She's going to have kittens again. I wish she wouldn't keep on having them - it wears her out. What I meant is that I've been thinking of all sorts of things since I was ill. I've been thinking of you and wondering how you manage to keep coming here from another world. Isn't it difficult?"

"No, it's easy," said Christopher. "Or it is for me. I think it's because I've got several lives. What I think I do is leave one of them behind in bed and set the other ones loose to wander."

"The luck of it!" the Goddess said. "But I mean what do you do to get to this world?"

Christopher told her about the valley and The Place Between and how he always had to find a corner in the bedroom to go around.

The Goddess's eyes traveled reflectively around the dim archways of her room. "I wish I had more than one life," she said. "But with me - you remember how you said when you were here last that I'd stop being the Living Asheth when I grew up?"

"You told me that when I first came here," Christopher reminded her. "You said, 'The Living Asheth is always a little girl.' Don't you remember?"

"Yes, but nobody said it the way around that you did," the Goddess said. "It made me think.

What happens to the Living Asheth when she isn't a little girl any longer? I'm not little now. I'm nearly the age when other people are officially women."

That must happen remarkably early in Series Ten, Christopher thought. He wished he was anything like officially a man. "Don't you get made into a Priestess?"

"No," said the Goddess. "I've listened and I've asked and read all their records - and none of the Priestesses were ever the Goddess." She began sticking the white cat's fur up in ridges between fingers that trembled slightly. "When I asked," she said, "Mother Proudfoot said I wasn't to bother my head because Asheth takes care of all that. What do you think that means?"

She seemed to Christopher to be getting all emotional again. "I think you just get shoved out of the Temple and go home," he said soothingly. The idea made him feel envious. "But you've got all your Asheth gifts. You must be able to use those to find out for certain."

"What do you think I've been trying to do?" the Goddess all but screamed. Her bracelets chanked as she tossed the unfortunate Bethi aside and bounded to her feet, glaring at Christopher. "You stupid boy! I've thought and thought, all this week, until my head buzzes!"

Christopher hurriedly got to his feet and pressed his back to the wall, ready to go through it at once if the Goddess went for him. But all she did was to jump up and down in front of him, screaming.

"Think of a way I can find out, if you're so clever! Think of a WAY!"
As always when the Goddess screamed, feet flapped in the rooms beyond and a breathless voice called, "I'm coming, Goddess! What is it?"

Christopher backed away into the wall, swiftly and gently. The Goddess flung him a brief look that seemed to be of triumph and went rushing into the arms of the skinny old woman who appeared in the archway. "Oh, Mother Proudfoot! I had such an awful dream again!"

Christopher, to his horror, found that he was stuck in the wall. He could not come out forward and he could not push through backwards. The only thing he could seem to do was use what Flavian had taught him to make himself invisible. He did that at once. He had been moving with his face forward and his rear out, so that most of his head was outside the wall. Invisible or not, he felt like one of the stuffed animal heads on the walls of the Castle dining room. At least he could see and hear and breathe, he thought in a stunned way. He was confounded at the treachery of the Goddess.

She was led away into the further rooms, with soothing murmurs. After about ten minutes, by which time Christopher had a cricked neck and cramp in one leg, she came back again, looking perfectly calm.

"There's no point in looking invisible," she said. "Everyone here has witch sight, even if you don't. Look, I'm sorry about this, but I do terribly need help and I promise I'll let you go when you've helped me."

Christopher did not make himself visible again. He felt safer like that. "You don't need help - you need hitting over the head," he said angrily. "How can I help anyone like this? I'm dying of discomfort."

"Then get comfortable and then help me," the Goddess said.

Christopher found he could move a little. The wall around him seemed to turn jellylike, so that he could straighten up and move his arms a little and get his legs into a proper standing position. He tried doing some rapid squirming, in hopes that the jelly would give enough to let him out, but it would not. He could tell that what was holding him there was the same thing that the Goddess had used to fasten his feet to the floor when he first met her, and that was still just as mysterious to him as it had been then. "How do you want me to help?" he asked resignedly.

"By taking me with you to your world," the Goddess said eagerly, "so that I can go to a school like the one in the Millie books. I thought you could hide me somewhere in your Castle while I looked around for a school."

Christopher thought of Gabriel de Witt discovering the Goddess hiding in an attic. "No," he said. "I can't. I absolutely can't. And what's more I won't. Now let me out of here!" "You took Throgmorten," said the Goddess. "You can take me."

"Throgmorten's a cat," said Christopher. "He has nine lives like me. I told you I could only get here by leaving one of my lives behind. You've only got one life, so it stands to reason that I can't get you to my world because you'd be dead if I did!"

"That's just the point!" the Goddess whispered at him ferociously. He could tell she was trying very hard not to scream again. Tears rolled down her face. "I know I've only got one life and I don't want to lose it. Take me with you."

"Just so that you can go to a school out of a book!" Christopher snarled back, feeling more than ever like an animal head on a wall. "Stop being so stupid!"

"Then you can just stay in that wall until you change your mind!" the Goddess said, and flounced away with a chank and a jingle.
Christopher stood, sagging into the jelly of the wall, and cursed the day he had brought the Goddess those Millie books. Then he cursed himself for thinking the Goddess was sympathetic. She was just as selfish and ruthless as everyone else he knew. He squirmed and struggled and heaved to get out of the wall, but since he had not the first idea what had gone into the spell, it held him as fast as ever.

The worst of it was that now the Temple had woken up from its midday sleep, it was a decidedly busy place. Behind him, through the wall, Christopher could hear a crowd of people in the hot yard counting the cats and feeding them. Mixed with those sounds was a female voice barking orders, and the sound of armor clashing and spear butts thumping on the ground. Christopher began to be terribly afraid that his invisible backside was sticking out of the wall into that yard. He kept imagining a spear plunging into him there, and he squirmed and squidged and pulled himself in to make sure that it was not. He was not sure which he dreaded most: the feeling of a spear driving into him, or what Gabriel would do if he lost another life.

From in front of him, beyond the archway, he could hear the Goddess talking with at least three Priestesses and then all their voices muttering prayers. Why hadn't Flavian taught him any useful magic? There were probably six hundred quiet ways of breaking this spell and sliding invisibly out of the wall, and Christopher did not know one. He wondered if he could do it by blasting loose in a combined levitation, whirlwind and fire-conjuring. Maybe - although it would be terribly hard without his hands free - and people would still come running after him with spears. He decided he would try argument and
cunning first.

Before long, the Goddess came in to see if he had changed his mind.

"I'll fetch it, dear," said one of the Priestesses beyond the archway.

"No, I want to have another look at Bethi too," the Goddess said over her shoulder. For honesty's sake, she went over to look at the white cat, which was lying on her bed cushions panting and looking sorry for itself. The Goddess stroked it before she came over and put her face close to Christopher's.

"Well? Are you going to help me?"

"What happens," asked Christopher, "if one of them comes in and notices my face sticking out of the wall?"

"You'd better agree to help before they do. They'd kill you," the Goddess whispered back.

"But I wouldn't be any use to you dead," Christopher pointed out. "Let me go or I'll start yelling."

"You dare!" said the Goddess, and flounced out.

The trouble was Christopher did not dare. That line of argument only seemed to end in deadlock. Next time she came in, he tried a different line. "Look," he said, "I really am being awfully considerate. I could easily blast a huge hole in the Temple and get away this minute, but I'm not doing it because I don't want to give you away. Asheth and your Priestesses are not going to be pleased if they find out you're trying to go to another world, are they?"

Tears flooded the Goddess's eyes. "I'm not asking very much," she said, twisting a bangle miserably. "I thought you were kind."

This argument seemed to be making an impression. "I'm going to have to blow the Temple up before long, if you don't let me go," Christopher said. "If I'm not back before morning, someone in the Castle is going to come in and find only one life of me lying in bed. Then they'll tell Gabriel de Witt and we'll both be in trouble. I told you he knows how to get to other worlds. If he comes here, you won't like it."

"You're selfish!" the Goddess said. "You aren't sympathetic at all - you're just scared."

At this Christopher lost his temper. "Let me go," he said, "or I'll blow the whole place sky high!"

The Goddess simply ran from the room, mopping at her face with a piece of her robe.

"Is something wrong, dear?" asked a Priestess outside.

"No, no," Christopher heard the Goddess say. "Bethi isn't very well, that's all."

She was gone for quite a long time after that. Probably she had to distract the Priestesses from coming and looking at the white cat. But soon after that, smells of spicy food began to fill the air. Christopher grew seriously alarmed. Time was getting on and it really would be morning at the Castle soon. Then he would be in real trouble. More time passed. He could hear people in the yard behind counting the cats and feeding them again. "Bethi's missing," someone said.

"She's with the Living One still," someone else answered. "Her kittens are due soon."

Still more time passed. By the time the Goddess reappeared, desperation had forced Christopher's mind into quite a new tack. He saw that he would have to give her some kind of help, even if it was not what she wanted, or he would never get away before morning.

The Goddess in her ruthless way was obviously meaning to be kindhearted. When she came in this time, she was carrying a spicy pancake-thing wrapped around hot meat and vegetables. She tore bits off it and popped them into Christopher's mouth. There was some searing kind of pepper in it. His eyes watered. "Listen," he choked. "What's really the matter with you? What made you suddenly decide to make me help you?"

"I told you!" the Goddess said impatiently. "It was what you said when I was ill - that I wasn't going to be the Living Asheth when I grow up. After that I couldn't think of anything else but what was going to happen to me then."

"So you want to know for certain?" Christopher said.

"More than anything else in this world!" the Goddess said.

"Then will you let me go if I help you find out what's really going to happen to you?" Christopher bargained. "I can't take you to my world - you know I can't - but I can help you this way."

The Goddess stood twisting the last piece of pancake about in her fingers. "Yes," she said. "All right. But I can't see how you can find out any better than I can."

"I can," said Christopher. "What you have to do is go and stand in front of that golden statue of Asheth you showed me and ask it what's going to happen to you when you stop being the Living Asheth. If it doesn't say anything, you'll know nothing much is going to happen and you'll be able to leave this Temple and go to school." This struck him as pretty cunning, since there was no way that he could see that a golden statue could talk.

"Now why didn't I think of that!" the Goddess exclaimed. "That's clever! But - " She twisted the piece of pancake about again. "But Asheth doesn't talk, you know, not exactly. She does everything by signs. Portents and omens and things. And she doesn't always give one when people ask."
This was annoying. "But she'll give you one," Christopher said persuasively. "You're supposed to be her, after all, so it only amounts to asking her to remind you of something both of you know already. Go and tell her to do you a portent - only make her put a time limit on it, so that if there isn't one, you'll know that there isn't."

"I will," said the Goddess decisively. She stuffed the piece of pancake into Christopher's mouth and dusted her hands with a determined jangle. "I'll go and ask her this minute!" And she strode out of the room, chank-chink, chank-chink, sounding rather like the soldiers at that moment marching around the yard behind Christopher's back.

He spat the pancake out, shut his eyes to squeeze the water out, and wished he was able to cross his fingers.

Five minutes later, the Goddess strode back looking much more cheerful. "Done it!" she said. "She didn't want to tell me. I had to bully her. But I told her to take her very stupid face off and stop trying to fool me, and she gave in." She looked at Christopher rather wonderingly. "I've never got the upper hand of her before!"

"Yes, but what did she say?" Christopher asked. He would have danced with impatience if the wall had not stopped him.

"Oh, nothing yet," said the Goddess. "But I promise faithfully I'll let you go when she does. She said she couldn't manage it at once. She wanted to wait till tomorrow, but I said that was far too long. So she said that the very earliest she could manage a portent was midnight tonight..."

"Midnight!" Christopher exclaimed.

"That's only three hours away now," the Goddess told him soothingly. "And I said she had to make it on the dot, or I'd be really angry. You must understand her point of view - she has to pull the strings of Fate and that does take time."

With his heart sinking, Christopher tried to calculate what time that would make it back at the Castle. The very earliest he could get it to was ten o'clock in the morning. But perhaps the maid who came to wake him would simply think he was tired. It would take her an hour or so to get worried enough to tell Flavian or someone, and by that time he would be back with any luck. "Midnight then," he said, sighing a bit. "And you're to let me go then, or I'll summon a whirlwind, set everything on fire and take the roof off the Temple."

During those three hours, he kept wondering why he did not do that at once. It was only partly that he did not want to lose another life. He felt a sort of duty to wait and set the Goddess's mind at rest. He had started her worrying by making that remark, and before that he had made her discontented by bringing her those school stories. He had a lot of fellow-feeling for her in her strange lonely life. And of course Papa had told him that you did not use magic against a lady. Somehow all these things combined to keep Christopher sagging in a half-sitting way in the wall, patiently waiting for midnight.

Some of the time the Goddess sat on her cushions, tensely stroking the white cat, as if she expected the portent any moment. Much of the time she was busy. She was called away to lessons, and then to prayers, and finally to have a bath. While she was away, Christopher had the rather desperate idea that he might be able to get in touch with the life he knew must be lying in bed at the Castle. He thought he might be able to get it to get up and do lessons for him. But though he had a sort of feeling of a separate piece of him quite clearly, he did not seem to be in touch with it - or if he was, he had no means of knowing. Do lessons! he thought. Get out of bed and behave like me! And he wondered for the hundredth time why he did not simply blow up the Temple and leave.
Finally the Goddess came back in a long white nightgown and only two bracelets. She kissed Mother Proudfoot good-night in the archway and got among her white cushions with her arms lovingly around her white cat. "It won't be long now," she told Christopher.

"It had better not be!" he said. "Honestly, I can't think why you grumble about your life. I'd swap your Mother Proudfoot for Flavian and Gabriel any day!"

"Yes, maybe I am being silly," the Goddess agreed, rather drowsily. "On the other hand, I can tell you don't believe in Asheth and that makes you see it quite differently from me."

Christopher could tell by her breathing that she dropped off to sleep then. He must have dozed himself in the end. The jellylike wall was not really uncomfortable.

He was roused by a strange high cheeping noise. It was an oddly desperate sound, a little like the noise baby birds make calling and calling to be fed. Christopher jumped awake to find a big bar of white moonlight falling across the tiles of the floor.

"Oh look!" said the Goddess. "It's the portent." Her pointing arm came into the moonlight, with a bracelet dangling from it. She was pointing to Bethi the white cat. Bethi was lying stiffly stretched out in the bar of moonlight. Something tiny and very, very white was crawling and scrambling all over Bethi, filling the air with desperate high crying. The Goddess surged off her cushions and onto her knees and picked the tiny thing up. "It's frozen," she said. "Bethi's had a kitten and - " There was a long pause. "Christopher," said the Goddess, obviously trying to sound calm, "Bethi's dead. That means I'm going to die when they get a new Living Asheth." Kneeling by the dead cat, she screamed and screamed and screamed.

Lights went on. Feet flapped on the tiles, running. Christopher struggled to get himself as far back in the wall as he could. He knew how the Goddess felt. He had felt the same when he woke up in the mortuary. But he wished she would stop screaming. As skinny Mother Proudfoot rushed into the room followed by two other Priestesses, he did his best to begin a levitation spell.

But the Goddess kept her promise. Still screaming, she backed away from Bethi's pathetic corpse as if it horrified her, and flung out one arm dramatically, so that her dangling bracelet flipped Christopher's invisible nose. Luckily the bracelet was silver.

Christopher landed back in his own bed in the Castle with the crash he was now used to. He was solid and visible and in his pajamas, and, by the light, it was nearly midday. He sat up hastily. Gabriel de Witt was sitting in the wooden chair across the room, staring at him even more grimly than usual.

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