Gabriel had his elbows on the arms of the chair and his long, knob-knuckled hands together in a point under his eagle nose. Over them, his eyes seemed as hard to look away from as the dragon's.
"So you have been spirit traveling," he said. "I suspect you do so habitually. That would explain a great deal. Will you kindly inform me just where you have been and why it took you so long to come back."
There was nothing Christopher could do but explain. He rather wished he could have died instead. Losing a life was nothing compared with the way Gabriel looked at him.
"The Temple of Asheth!" Gabriel said. "You foolish boy! Asheth is one of the most vicious and vengeful goddesses in the Related Worlds. Her military Arm has been known to pursue people across worlds and over many years, on far slighter grounds than you have given her. Thank goodness you refrained from blowing a hole in her Temple. And I am relieved that you at least had the sense to leave the Living Asheth to her fate."
"Her fate? They weren't really going to kill her off, were they?" Christopher asked.
"Of course they will," Gabriel said in his calmest and driest way. "That was the meaning of the portent: the older Goddess dies when the new Living Asheth is chosen. The theory, I believe, is that the older one will enrich the power of the deity. This one must be particularly valuable to them, as she seems to be quite an enchantress in her own right."
Christopher was horrified. He saw suddenly that the Goddess had known, or at least suspected, what was going to happen to her. That was why she had tried to get him to help. "How can you be so calm about it?" he said. "She's only got one life. Can't you do something to help her?"
"My good Christopher," said Gabriel, "there are, over all the Series of all the Related Worlds, more than a hundred worlds, and in more than half of them there are practices which horrify any civilized person. If I were to expend my time and sympathy on these, I would have none left over to do what I am paid to do - which is to prevent the misuse of magic here. This is why I must take action over you. Do you deny that you have been misusing magic?"
"I..." said Christopher.
"You most certainly have," said Gabriel. "You must have lost at least three of your lives in some other world - and you may, for all I know, have lost all six while you were spirit traveling. But since the outer life, the life you should have lost, was lying here apparently asleep, natural laws have been forced to bend in order to enable you to lose it in the proper way. Much more of this, and you will set up a serious singularity throughout Series Twelve."
"I didn't lose one this time," Christopher said defensively.
"Then you must have lost it last time you went spirit traveling," Gabriel said. "You are definitely one short again. And this is not going to occur any more, Christopher. Oblige me by getting dressed at once and coming with me to my office."
"Er - " Christopher said. "I haven't had breakfast yet. Can I..?"
"No," said Gabriel.
By this Christopher knew that things were very bad indeed. He found he was shaking as he got up and went to the washroom. The door of the washroom would not shut. Christopher could tell Gabriel was holding it open with a strong spell to make sure he did not try to get away. Under Gabriel's eyes, he washed and dressed quicker than he had ever done in his life.
"Christopher," Gabriel said, while he was hurriedly brushing his hair, "you must realize that I am deeply concerned about you. Nobody should lose lives at the rate that you do. What is wrong?"
"I don't do it just to annoy you," Christopher said bitterly, "if that's what you think."
Gabriel sighed. "I may be a poor guardian, but I know my duty," he said. "Come along."
He stalked silently through the corridors with Christopher half running to keep up. What had become of his sixth life? Christopher wondered, with what bit of his mind was not taken up with terror. He was inclined to think that Gabriel had miscounted.
Inside the twilight office, Miss Rosalie and Dr. Simonson were waiting with one of the younger men on the Castle staff. All of them were swathed in a shimmering transparent spell. Christopher's eyes flicked anxiously from them to the leather couch in the middle of the dark floor. It reminded him of a dentist's chair. Beyond it was a stand holding two bell jars. The one on the left had a large bobbin hanging from nothing inside it, while the one on the right seemed to be empty except for a curtain ring or something lying at the bottom.
"What are you going to do?" Christopher said, and his voice came out more than a little squeaky.
Miss Rosalie stepped up to Gabriel and handed him some gloves on a glass tray. As Gabriel worked his fingers into the gloves, he said, "This is the severe step I warned you of after your fire. I intend to remove your ninth life from you without harming either it or you. Afterwards I shall put it in the Castle safe, under nine charms that only I can unlock. Since you will then only be able to have that life by coming to me and asking me to unlock those nine charms, this might induce you to be more careful with the two lives you will have left."
Miss Rosalie and Dr. Simonson began wrapping Gabriel in a sheeny spell like their own. "Taking a life out intact is something only Gabriel knows how to do," Miss Rosalie said proudly.
Dr.Simonson, to Christopher's surprise, seemed to be trying to be kind. He said, "These spells are only for hygiene. Don't look so alarmed. Lie down on this couch now. I promise you it won't hurt a bit."
Just what the dentist said! Christopher thought as he quakingly lay down.
Gabriel turned this way and that to let the spell settle around him. "The reason Frederick Parkinson is here," he said, "and not patrolling the World Edge as he should be, is to make sure that you do no spirit traveling while your life is being detached. That would put you in extreme peril, Christopher, so please try to remain in this world while we work."
Someone cast a very strong sleep spell then. Christopher went out like a light. Dr. Simonson turned out to have told the truth. He felt nothing at all for several hours. When he woke up, ravenously hungry and slightly itchy deep inside somewhere, he simply felt rather cheated. If he did have to have a life taken away, he would have liked to have watched how it was done.
Gabriel and the others were leaning against the black desk, drinking tea and looking exhausted. Frederick Parkinson said, "You kept trying to spirit travel. I had my work cut out to stop you."
Miss Rosalie hurried to bring Christopher a cup of tea too. "We kept you asleep until your life was all on the bobbin," she said. "It's just winding down into the gold ring now - look." She pointed to the two bell jars. The bobbin inside the left-hand jar was almost full of shiny pinkish thread, and it was rotating in a slow stately way in the air. In the right-hand jar, the ring was up in the air now too, spinning fast and jerkily. "How are you now, dear?" Miss Rosalie asked.
"Can you feel anything? Are you quite well?" Gabriel asked. He sounded rather anxious.
Dr.Simonson seemed just as concerned. He took Christopher's pulse and then tested his mind by asking him to do sums. "He does seem to be fine," he told the others.
"Thank goodness!" Gabriel said, rubbing his face with his hands. "Tell Flavian - no he's out on the World Edge, isn't he? Frederick, would you put Christopher to bed and tell the housekeeper that he's ready for that nourishing meal now?"
Everyone was so nervous and concerned about him that Christopher realized that no one had ever tried to take someone's spare life away before. He was not sure what he felt about that. What would they have done if it hadn't worked? he wondered, while he was sitting in bed eating almost more chicken and cream puffs than he could hold. Frederick Parkinson sat by him while he ate, and went on sitting by him all evening. Christopher did not know which irritated him most: Frederick or the itch deep down inside him. He went to sleep early in order to get rid of both.
He woke up in the middle of the night to find himself alone in the room with the gaslight still burning. He got out of bed at once and went to see if the split in the Castle spells had been mended. To his surprise, it was still there. It looked as if nobody had realized how he went to the Anywheres. He was just about to go through the split, when he happened to look back at his bed. The boy lying there among the rumpled covers had a vague unreal look, like Tacroy before he was firmed up. The sight gave Christopher a most unpleasant jolt. He really did have only two lives left now. The last life was locked away in the Castle safe and there was no way he could use it without Gabriel's permission. Hating Gabriel more than ever,
he went back to bed.
Flavian brought Christopher his breakfast in the morning. "Are you all right for lessons today?" he asked anxiously. "I thought we could take it easy - I had a fairly heavy day yesterday, in and out of the World Edge to absolutely no effect, so I could do with a quiet morning too. I thought we'd go down to the library and look at some of the standard reference books - Moore's Almanac, Prynne's List and so forth."
The itch inside Christopher had gone. He felt fine, probably better than Flavian, who looked pale and tired. He was irritated at the way everyone was keeping watch on him, but he knew there was no point in complaining, so he ate his breakfast and got dressed and went along the corridors with Flavian to the pink marble staircase.
They were halfway down the stairs when the five-pointed star in the hall filled with sudden action. Frederick Parkinson sprang into being first. He waved at Flavian. "We've got some of them at last!" His jubilant shout was still ringing around the hall when Miss Rosalie appeared, struggling to keep hold of an angry old woman who was trying to hit her over the head with a violin. Two policemen materialized behind her. They were carrying someone between them, one at the man's head and one at his legs. They staggered around Miss Rosalie and the fighting old woman and laid the man carefully on the tiles, where he stayed, spread out a bit as if he was asleep, with his curly head turned peacefully towards the stairs.
Christopher found himself staring down at Tacroy.
At the same moment, Flavian said, "My God! It's Mordecai Roberts!"
"I'm afraid so," Frederick Parkinson called up to him. "He's one of the Wraith gang all right. I followed him all the way into Series Seven before I went back to trace his body. He was one of their couriers. There was quite a lot of loot with him." More policemen were appearing behind him, carrying boxes and the kind of waterproof bundles Christopher knew rather well.
Gabriel de Witt hurried past Christopher and Flavian and stood at the foot of the stairs looking down at Tacroy like a black, brooding bird. "So Roberts was their carrier, was he?" he said. "No wonder we were making no headway." By then the hall was filled with people: more policemen, the rest of the Castle staff, footmen, the butler, and a crowd of interested housemaids. "Take him to the trance room," Gabriel told Dr. Simonson, "but don't let him suspect anything. I want whatever he was fetching if possible." He turned to look up at Flavian and Christopher. "Christopher, you had better be present at the questioning when Roberts returns to his body," he said. "It will be valuable experience for you."
Christopher threaded his way across the hall beside Flavian, feeling rather as if he was out of his body too. He was empty with horror. So this was what Uncle Ralph's "experiments" really were! "Oh, no!" he thought. Let it all be a mistake!
He found it quite impossible to concentrate in the library. He kept hearing Miss Rosalie's voice saying, "But Gabriel, they had actually butchered a whole tribe of mermaids!" and his mind kept going to those fishy bundles he had loaded on the horseless carriage in Series Five and then to the silly ladies who had thought he was something called a clistoffer. He told himself that those fishy bundles had not been bundles of mermaid. It was all some terrible mistake. But then he thought of the way Tacroy had tried to warn him off, not only the time the dragon came, but several times before that, and he knew it was no mistake. He felt sick.
Flavian was almost as bad. "Just fancy it being Mordecai!" he kept saying. "He's been on the Castle staff for years. I used to lie him!"
Both of them jumped up with a sort of relief when a footman came to fetch them to the Middle Drawing Room. At least, Christopher thought, as he followed Flavian across the hall, when everything came out nobody would expect him to be the next Chrestomanci any longer. Somehow the thought was not as comforting as he had hoped.
In the enormous drawing room, Gabriel was sitting at the center of a half circle of gilded armchairs, like an old black and gray king on his throne. To one side of him sat serious and important-looking policemen with notebooks and three men carrying briefcases who all wore whiskers more imposing than Papa's. Flavian whispered that these were men from the Government. Miss Rosalie and the rest of Gabriel's staff sat on the other side of the semicircle. Christopher was beckoned to a chair about halfway along. He had an excellent view when two sturdy warlock footmen brought Tacroy in and sat him in a chair facing the others.
"Mordecai Roberts," one of the policemen said, "you are under arrest and I must warn you that anything you say will be taken down and may be used in evidence later. Do you wish to have a lawyer present with you?"
"Not particularly," said Tacroy. In his body, he was not quite the Tacroy Christopher knew. Instead of the old green suit, he was wearing a much smarter brown one, with a blue silk cravat and a handkerchief that matched it in his top pocket. His boots were handmade calf. Though his curls were exactly the same, there were lines on his face that never appeared on the face of his spirit, laughlines set in a rather insolent and bitter pattern. He was pretending to lounge in his chair with one handmade boot swinging in a carefree way, but Christopher could tell he was not carefree at all. "No point in a lawyer," he said. "You caught me in the act after all. I've been a double agent for years now. There's no way I could deny it."
"What made you do it?" Miss Rosalie cried out.
"Money," Tacroy said carelessly.
"Would you care to expand on that?" Gabriel said. "When you left the Castle in order to infiltrate the Wraith organization, the Government agreed to pay you a good salary and to provide comfortable lodgings in Baker Street. You still have both."
So much for the garret in Covent Garden! Christopher thought bitterly.
"Ah, but that was in the early days," said Tacroy, "when the Wraith only operated in Series Twelve. He couldn't offer me enough to tempt me then. As soon as he expanded into the rest of the Related Worlds, he offered me anything I cared to ask." He took the silk handkerchief out of his pocket and carefully flicked imaginary dust off his good boots. "I didn't take the offer straightaway, you know," he said. "I got deeper in by degrees. Extravagance gets a hold on you."
"Who is the Wraith?" Gabriel asked. "You owe the Government that information at least."
Tacroy's foot swung. He folded the handkerchief neatly and his eyes went carelessly around the half circle of people facing him. Christopher kept the vaguest look on his face that he could manage, but Tacroy's eyes passed over him just as they passed over everyone else, as if Tacroy had never seen him before. "There I can't help you," he said. "The man guards his identity very carefully. I only had dealings with his underlings."
"Such as the woman Effisia Bell who owns the house in Kensington where your body was seized?" one of the policemen asked.
Tacroy shrugged. "She was one of them. Yes."
Miss Bell, the Last Governess, Christopher thought. She had to be one of them. He kept his face so vague that it felt as stiff as the golden statue of Asheth.
"Who else can you name?" someone else asked.
"Nobody much, I'm afraid," Tacroy said.
Several other people asked him the same question in different ways, but Tacroy simply swung his foot and said he couldn't remember. At length Gabriel leaned forward. "We have taken a brief look at that horseless carriage on which your spirit smuggled the plunder," he said. "It's an ingenious object, Roberts."
"Yes, isn't it?" Tacroy agreed. "It must have taken quite a while to perfect. You can see it had to be fluid enough to cross the World Edge, but solid enough so that the people in the other Series could load it when I got it there. I got the impression that the Wraith had to wait until he'd got the carriage right before he could expand into the Related Worlds."
That's not true! Christopher thought. And I used to load it! He's lying about everything!
"Several wizards must have worked on that thing, Mordecai," Miss Rosalie said. "Who were they?"
"Heaven knows," said Tacroy. "No - wait a minute. Effie Bell dropped a name. Phelps, was it? Felper? Felperin?"
Gabriel and the policemen exchanged glances. Flavian murmured, "The Felperin brothers! We've suspected they were crooked for years."
"Another curious thing, Roberts," Gabriel said. "Our brief inspection of the carriage shows that it seems at one time to have been almost destroyed by fire."
Christopher found that he had stopped breathing.
"Accident in the workshop, I suppose," Tacroy said.
"Dragon fire, Mordecai," said Dr. Simonson. "I recognized it at once."
Tacroy let his bitter, anxious, laughing eyes travel around everyone's faces. Christopher still could not breathe. But once again Tacroy's eyes passed over Christopher as if he had never seen him before. He laughed. "I was joking. The sight of you all sitting around in judgment brings out the worst in me. Yes, it was burned by a dragon objecting to a load of dragons' blood I was collecting in Series Eight. It happened about a year ago." Christopher began breathing at that. "I lost the whole load," Tacroy said, "and was nearly too scalded to get back into my body. We had to suspend operations most of last autumn until the carriage was repaired. If you remember, I reported to you that the Wraith seemed to have stopped importing then."
Christopher drew in some long relieved breaths and tried not to make them too obvious. Then one of the whiskered Government men spoke up. "Did you always go out alone?" he asked, and Christopher almost stopped breathing again.
"Of course I was alone," said Tacroy. "What use would another traveler be? Mind you, I have absolutely no way of knowing how many other carriages the Wraith was sending out. He could have hundreds."
And that's nonsense! Christopher thought. Ours was the only one, or they wouldn't have had to stop last autumn when I went to school and forgot. If he had not realized by then that Tacroy was protecting him, he would have known by the end of the morning. The questions went on and on. Tacroy's eyes slid across Christopher over and over again, without a trace of recognition. And every time Tacroy's answer should have incriminated Christopher, Tacroy lied, and followed the lie up with a smokescreen of other confessions to take people's minds off the question. Christopher's face went stiff from keeping the vague look on it. He stared at Tacroy's bitter face and felt worse and worse. At least twice, he nearly jumped up and confessed. But that seemed such a waste of all Tacroy's trouble.
The questions did not stop for lunch. The butler wheeled in a trolley of sandwiches, which everyone ate over pages of notes, while they asked more questions. Christopher was glad to see one of the footmen taking Tacroy some sandwiches too. Tacroy was pale as the milkiest coffee by then and his swinging boot was shaking. He bit into the sandwiches as if he was starving and answered the next questions with his mouth full.
Christopher bit into his own sandwich. It was salmon. He thought of mermaids and was nearly sick.
"What's the matter?" whispered Flavian.
"Nothing. I just don't like salmon," Christopher whispered back. It would be stupid to give himself away now after Tacroy had worked so hard to keep him out of it. He put the sandwich to his mouth, but he just could not bring himself to take another bite.
"It could be the effect of that life-removal," Flavian murmured anxiously.
"Yes, I expect that's it," Christopher said. He laid the sandwich down again, wondering how Tacroy could bear to eat his so ravenously.
The questions were still going on when the butler wheeled the trolley away. He came back again almost at once and whispered discreetly to Gabriel de Witt. Gabriel thought, decided something, and nodded. Then, to Christopher's surprise, the butler came and leaned over him.
"Your mother is here, Master Christopher, waiting in the Small Saloon. If you will follow me."
Christopher looked at Gabriel, but Gabriel was leaning forward to ask Tacroy who collected the packages when they arrived in London. Christopher got up to follow the butler. Tacroy's eyes flickered after him. "Sorry," Christopher heard him say. "My mind's getting like a sieve. You'll have to ask me that again."
Mermaids, Christopher thought, as he crossed the hall after the butler. Fishy packages. Bundles of dragons' blood. I knew it was dragons' blood in Series Eight, but I didn't know the dragon was objecting. What's going to happen to Tacroy now? When the butler opened the door of the Small Saloon and ushered him in, he could hardly focus his mind on the large elegant room or the two ladies sitting in it.
Christopher blinked at two wide silk skirts. The pink and lavender one belonged to Mama, who looked pale and upset. The brown and gold skirt that was quite as elegant belonged to the Last Governess. Christopher's mind snapped away from mermaids and dragons' blood and he stopped short halfway across the oriental carpet.
Mama held out a lavender glove to him. "Darling boy!" she said shakily. "How tall you are! You remember dear Miss Bell, don't you, Christopher? She's my Companion these days. Your uncle has found us a nice house in Kensington."
"Walls have ears," remarked Miss Bell in her dullest voice. Christopher remembered how her hidden prettiness never did come out in front of Mama. He felt sorry for Mama.
"Christopher can deal with that, can't you, dear?" said Mama.
Christopher pulled himself together. He had no doubt that the Saloon was hung with listening spells, probably one to each gold-framed picture. I ought to tell the police the Last Governess is here, he thought. But if the Last Governess was living with Mama, that would get Mama into trouble too. And he knew that if he gave the Last Governess away, she would tell about him and waste all Tacroy's trouble.
"How did you get in?" he said. "There's a spell around the grounds."
"Your mama cried her eyes out at the lodge gates," the Last Governess said, and gestured meaningly around the room to tell Christopher to do something about the listening spells.
Christopher would have liked to pretend not to understand, but he knew he dared not offend the Last Governess. A blanketing spell was enchanter's magic and easy enough. He summoned one with an angry blink and, as usual, he overdid it. He thought he had gone deaf. Then he saw that Mama was tapping the side of her face with a puzzled expression and the Last Governess was shaking her head, trying to clear her ears. Hastily he scraped out the middle of the spell so that they could all hear one another inside the deafness.
"Darling," Mama said tearfully, "we've come to take you away from all this. There's a cab from the station waiting outside, and you're coming back to Kensington to live with me. Your uncle wants me to be happy and he says he knows I can't be happy until I've got you. He's quite right of course."
Only this morning, Christopher thought angrily, he would have danced with joy to hear Mama say this. Now he knew it was just another way to waste Tacroy's trouble. And another plot of Uncle Ralph's of course. Uncle Wraith! he thought. He looked at Mama, and Mama looked appealingly back. He could see she meant what she said, even though she had let Uncle Ralph rule her mind completely. Christopher could hardly blame her for that. After all, he had let Uncle Ralph fascinate him, that time when Uncle Ralph tipped him sixpence all those months ago.
He looked at the Last Governess. "Your mama is quite well off now," she told him in her smooth, composed way. "Your uncle has already restored nearly half your mama's fortune."
Nearly half! Christopher thought. Then what has he done with the rest of the money I earned him for nothing? He must be a millionaire several times over by now!
"And with you to help," said the Last Governess, "in the way you always used to, you can restore the rest of your mama's money in no time."
In the way I always used to! Christopher thought. He remembered the smooth way the Last Governess had worked on him, first to find out about the Anywheres and then to get him to do exactly what Uncle Ralph wanted. He could not forgive her for that, though she was even more devoted to Uncle Ralph than Mama was. And remembering that, he looked at Mama again. Mama's love for Christopher might be perfectly real, but she had left him to nursery maids and Governesses and she would leave him to the Last Governess as soon as they got to Kensington.
"We're relying on you, darling," said Mama. "Why are you looking so vague? All you have to do is to climb out of this window and hide in the cab, and we'll drive away without anyone being the wiser."
I see, Christopher thought. Uncle Ralph knew Tacroy had been caught. So now he wanted Christopher to go on with the smuggling. He had sent Mama to fetch Christopher and the Last Governess to see that they did as Uncle Ralph wanted. Perhaps he was afraid Tacroy would give Christopher away. Well, if Tacroy could lie, so could Christopher.
"I wish I could," he said, in a sad, hesitating way, although underneath he was suddenly as smooth and composed as the Last Governess. "I'd love to get out of here - but I can't. When the dragon burned me in Series Eight, that was my last life but one. Gabriel de Witt was so angry that he took my lives and hid them. If I go outside the Castle now I'll die."
Mama burst into tears. "That horrid old man! How awkward for everyone!"
"I think," said the Last Governess, standing up, "that in that case there's nothing to detain us here."
"You're right, dear," Mama sobbed. She dried her eyes and gave Christopher a scented kiss. "How terrible not to be able to call one's lives one's own!" she said. "Perhaps your uncle can think of something."
Christopher watched the two of them hurry away, rustling expensively over the carpet as soon as they came out from the silence spell. He canceled the spell with a dejected wave. Though he knew what both of them were like, he still felt hurt and disillusioned as he watched them through the window climbing into the cab that was waiting under the cedar trees of the drive. The only person he knew who had not tried to use him was Tacroy. And Tacroy was a criminal and a double-crosser.
And so am I! Christopher thought. Now he had finally admitted this to himself, he found he could not bear to go back to the Middle Drawing Room to listen to people asking Tacroy questions. He trudged miserably up to his room instead. He opened the door. He stared.
A small girl in a dripping wet brown robe was sitting shivering on the edge of his bed. Her hair hung in damp tails around her pale round face. In one hand she seemed to be gripping a hanful of soaking white fur. Her other hand was clutching a large waxed-paper parcel of what looked like books.
This was all I needed! Christopher thought. The Goddess had somehow got here and she had clearly brought her possessions with her.