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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 next twenty-four hours were the busiest Christopher had ever spent. They held a council-of-war in Gabriel's twilight office, where Christopher discovered that some of the dark panels rolled back to connect it with the rooms on either side. Christopher had the desks and the typewriting machines shoved to the walls and turned the whole space into one big operations room. It was much lighter like that, and became more and more crowded and busy as the various plans were set up. There were, everyone told Christopher, many different ways of divining whether a living person was present in a world. Mr.Wilkinson had whole lists of methods. It was agreed that they try to use these to narrow down Tacroy's search for Gabriel. One of every kind was set up, but since nobody was sure if Gabriel's separated lives quite counted as alive, they all had to be set to maximum strength, and it turned out that, apart from Christopher, only the Goddess had strong enough magic to activate them and tune them from Series to Series. But anyone could watch them. The room was soon full of tense helpers staring into globes, mirrors, pools of mercury or ink, and spare sheets coated with liquid crystal, while the Goddess was kept busy adjusting the various spells and making a chart, in her foreign writing, of the readings from all the
devices.

Miss Rosalie insisted that the council-of-war should also decide how to tell the Ministry what was going on, but that never did get decided, because Christopher kept getting called away. First, Dr.Simonson called him down to the hall to explain how they planned to make the birdcage. Dr. Simonson was taking it much more seriously than Christopher expected. "It's highly unorthodox," he said, "but who cares so long as it catches our man?"

Christopher was halfway upstairs again when the butler came to tell Christopher that they had done all they could think of to defend the grounds, and would Master Christopher come and see? So Christopher went - and marveled. The main gates, and the other smaller ones, were hung with curses and dripping poison. Brambles with six-inch thorns had been grown along the walls, while the hedges put Christopher in mind of Sleeping Beauty's castle, so high and thick with thorns, nettles and poison weeds were they. Ten-foot thistles and giant cactus guarded the fences, and every single weak place had been booby-trapped by the bootboy. He demonstrated, using his pet ferret, how anything that stepped here would become a caterpillar; or here would sink into bottomless sewage; or here would be seized by giant lobster claws; or here - anyway, he had made nineteen booby traps, each one nastier than the last. Christopher ran back to the Castle thinking that if they did manage to get Gabriel back, he would have to ask him to promote the bootboy. He was too good to waste on boots.

Back in the operations room, he had a set of magic mirrors set up, each focused on a different part of the defenses, so that they would know at once if anyone tried to attack. Flavian was just showing him how to activate the spells painted on the backs of the mirrors, when it was the housekeeper's turn to interrupt. "Master Christopher, this Castle isn't supplied to stand a siege. How am I to get the butcher and the baker and the milk through? There's a lot of mouths to feed here."

Christopher had to make a list of when the deliveries arrived, so that he and the Goddess could conjure them through at the right moment. The Goddess pinned it up beside the mirror-watch rota, the divining charts, the duty rota, the patrol rota - the wall was getting covered with lists.

In the midst of all this, two ladies called Yolande and Beryl (whom Christopher still could not tell apart) sat themselves down at the typewriters and started to clatter away. "We may not be sorceresses any longer," said Beryl (unless she was Yolande), "but that doesn't stop us trying to keep the usual business running. We can deal with urgent inquiries or advice at least."

Shortly they were calling Christopher away, too. "The trouble is," Yolande (unless her name was Beryl) confessed, "Gabriel usually signs all the letters. We don't think you should forge his signature, but we wondered if you simply wrote Chrestomanci..?"

"Before you conjure the mailbag down to the Post Office for us," Beryl (or maybe Yolande) added.

They showed Christopher how to set the sign of a nine-lifed enchanter on the word Chrestomanci, to protect it from being used against him in witchcraft. Christopher had great fun developing a dashing style of signature, sizzling with the enchanter's mark that kept it safe even from Uncle Ralph. It occurred to him then that he was enjoying himself more than he ever had done in his life. Papa had been right. He really was cut out to be the next Chrestomanci. But suppose he hadn't been? Christopher thought, making another sizzling signature. It was simply luck that he was. Well then, he thought, something could have been done about it. There had been no need at all to feel trapped.

Someone called him from the other end of the room then. "I think I've got much the most restful job," Tacroy laughed up at him from the couch in the middle, where he was preparing to go into his first trance. They had agreed that Tacroy should try a whole lot of short trances, to cover as many worlds as possible. And Miss Rosalie had agreed to play the harp for him, despite not having any magic. She was sitting on the end of the couch. As Christopher passed, Tacroy shut his eyes and Miss Rosalie struck a sweet rippling chord. Tacroy's eyes shot open. "For crying out loud, woman! Are you trying to clog my
spirit in toffee or something? Don't you know any reasonable music?"

"As I remember, you always object to anything I play!" Miss Rosalie retorted. "So I shall play something I like, regardless!"

"I hate your taste in music!" Tacroy snarled.

"Calm down, or you won't go into a trance. I don't want to have sore fingers for nothing!" Miss Rosalie snapped.

They reminded Christopher of something - of someone. He looked back on his way over to the pool of ink where Flavian was beckoning. Tacroy and Miss Rosalie were staring at each other, both making sure the other knew their feelings were deeply hurt. Who have I seen look like that before? Christopher wondered. Underneath, he could tell, Tacroy and Miss Rosalie were longing to stop being rude to one another, but both too proud to make the first move. Who was that like?

As Christopher bent over the pool of ink, he got it. Papa and Mama! They had been exactly the same!

When the pool of ink was showing World C in Series Eight, Christopher went back past Miss Rosalie staring stormily ahead and playing a jig, to where Yolande and Beryl were typing. "Can I send someone an official letter of my own?" he asked.

"Just dictate," Yolande (or possibly Beryl) said, with her fingers on the keys.

Christopher gave her Dr. Pawson's address. "Dear Sir," he said, in the way all the letters he had signed went. "This office would be obliged if you would divine the whereabouts of Mr. Cosimo Chant, last heard of in Japan, and forward his address to Mrs. Miranda Chant, last heard of living in Kensington." Blushing a bit, he asked, "Will that do?"

"For Dr. Pawson," Beryl (or perhaps Yolande) said, "you have to add, 'The customary fee will be forwarded.' Dr. Pawson never works without a fee. I'll put the request through Accounts for you. Mr.Wilkinson needs you at the quicksilver bowl now."

While Christopher rushed back across the room, the Goddess remembered that Proudfoot the kitten would be starving by then. He conjured her from the tower room, scarf, bottle and all. One of the helpers ran for milk. It took a while. Proudfoot, impatient with the delay, opened eyes like two chips of sapphire and glared blearily around. "Mi-i-i-i-ilk!" she demanded from an astonishingly wide pink mouth.

Even when an ordinary kitten opens its eyes for the first time, it is a remarkable moment. Since Proudfoot was an Asheth Temple cat, the effect was startling. She suddenly had a personality at least as strong as Throgmorten's, except that it seemed to be just the opposite. She was passed from hand to hand for people to take turns at cooing over her and feeding her. Flavian was so besotted with her that he would not let go of her until Tacroy came out of his trance, very dejected because he had not been able to sense Gabriel in any of the three worlds he had visited. Flavian gave him Proudfoot to cheer him up. Tacroy put her under his chin and purred at her, but Miss Rosalie took her away in order to give Tacroy a strong cup of tea instead, and then spent the next half hour doting on Proudfoot herself.

All this devotion seemed to Christopher to be unfair to Throgmorten. He went out on the stairs to see if Throgmorten was all right, where he paused for a moment, struck with how different it all was. The green from the dragons' blood was fading, but there was still quite a greenish tinge in the light from the dome. Under it, Dr. Simonson, Frederick Parkinson, and a crowd of helpers were sawing, hammering, and welding in their shirt-sleeves. The hall was littered with timber, tools, and metal rods, and more helpers were constantly bringing further wood and tools in through the open front door. Various people sat on the stairs drinking cups of tea while they waited to take a turn in front of the divining spells. If someone had told Christopher a week ago that Chrestomanci Castle would look like a rather disorderly workshop, he would never have believed him, he thought.

The candles were still burning, flaring sideways in the draft from the front door, and there in the blackened pentacle Throgmorten sat like a statue, staring fiercely at his Uncle Ralph mousehole. Christopher was glad to see that he was surrounded by all that a cat could desire. An earth-tray, a bowl of milk, saucers of fish, a plate of meat and a chicken wing had been carefully pushed between the candle-holders to the edges of the star. But Throgmorten was ignoring it all.

It was clear no one had liked to disturb Gabriel's life. It was still lying on the floor where Uncle Ralph had thrown it, limp and transparent. Someone had carefully fenced it off with black rope tied around four chairs from the library. Christopher stared down at it. No wonder Tacroy couldn't find anything and none of the divining spells showed anything, if all the lives were like this, he was thinking, when one of the gardeners ran in through the front door and waved at him urgently.

"Can you come and look?" he panted. "We don't know if it's the Wraith or not. There's hundreds of them, all around the grounds in fancy-dress-like!"

"I'll look in the mirrors," Christopher called back. He raced back into the operations room to the magic mirrors. The one trained on the main gate was giving a perfect view of the peculiar soldiers staring through the bars. They wore short tunics and silver masks and they were all carrying spears. Christopher's stomach jumped nastily at the sight. He turned around and looked at the Goddess. She was white.

"It's the Arm of Asheth," she whispered. "They've found me."

"I'll go and make sure they can't get in," Christopher said. He ran back down the stairs and through the hall and then out into the grounds with the gardener. On the lawn, Mr. McLintock was lining up all the rest of the outside workers and making sure each of them had a billhook or a sharp hoe.

"I'm not letting any of those heathen bodies into my gardens," he said.

"Yes, but those spears are deadly. You'll have to keep everyone out of throwing range," Christopher said. He felt a sharp stabbing pain in his chest just at the thought.

He went around the grounds with Mr. McLintock, as near as they dared to the fences and walls. The soldiers of the Arm of Asheth were just standing outside, as if the spells were keeping them out, but to be on the safe side, Christopher doubled the strength of each one as he came to it. The distant glimpses he got of silver masks and spear points made him feel ill.

As he turned and hurried back to the Castle, he realized diat he was not enjoying himself any longer. He felt weak and young and anxious. Uncle Ralph was one thing, but he knew he just did not know how to deal with the Arm of Asheth. If only Gabriel was here! he found himself thinking. Gabriel knew all about the Temple of Asheth. Probably he could have sent the soldiers away with one cool, dry word. And then, Christopher thought, he'd punish me for hiding the Goddess here when he told me not to, but even that would be worth it.

He went back through the hall, where the birdcage was only a pile of sawed wood and three bent rods. He knew it would be nothing like ready by the night, and Uncle Ralph was bound to try to come back tonight. Past Gabriel's limp fenced-off life he went, and up the stairs into the operations room, to find Tacroy coming out of another trance shaking his head dismally. The Goddess was white and trembling and everyone else was exasperated because none of the various shadows and flickers in the divining spells seemed to be anything to do with Gabriel.

"I think I'd better conjure out a telegram to the Ministry to send in the army," Christopher said dejectedly.

"You'll do no such thing!" snapped Miss Rosalie. She made Christopher and the Goddess sit beside Tacroy on the couch and made them all drink the hot, sweet tea that Erica had just brought in. "Now listen, Christopher," she said. "If you let the Ministry know what's happened to Gabriel, they'll insist on sending some adult enchanter to take over, and he won't be the slightest good because his magic won't be as strong as yours. You're the only nine-lifed enchanter left. We need you to put Gabriel back together when we find him. You're the only one who can. And it's not as if the Arm of Asheth can get
into the grounds, is it?" "No - I doubled the spells," Christopher said.

"Good," said Miss Rosalie. "Then we're no worse off than we were. I didn't argue all this through with Dr.Simonson just to have you let me down, Christopher! We'll find Gabriel before long and then everything will be all right, you'll see."

"Mother Proudfoot always says the darkest hour is before the dawn," the Goddess put in. But she did not say it as if she believed it.
As if to prove Mother Proudfoot right, Christopher was just finishing his tea when Flavian cried out, "Oh, I understand now!" Flavian was sitting at the big dark desk trying to make sense of all the shadows and flickers showing up on the divining spells. All the people sitting slumped around the operations room sat up and looked at him hopefully. "It's taking Gabriel's lives a long time to settle," Flavian said. "There are clear signs of one drifting about Series Nine, and another in Series Two, but neither of them have come down into a world yet. I think we may find that the rest of them are still floating about the World Edge if we retune all the spells."

Tacroy jumped up and came to look over Flavian's shoulder. "You may be right at that!" he said. "The one time I thought I caught a whiff of Gabriel was on the World Edge near Series One. Does anything show up there?"

The World Edge meant The Place Between, Christopher thought, as he hurried with the Goddess to adjust all the divining apparatus. "I can go and climb about there and bring them in," he said. There was an instant outcry against him. "No," said Flavian. "I'm still your tutor and I forbid it." "We need you here to deal with your uncle," Tacroy said.

"You can't leave me here with the Arm of Asheth!" said the Goddess. "Besides, what happens if you lose another life?"

"Exactly," said Miss Rosalie. "Your last life is shut in the safe under charms only Gabriel can break. You daren't risk losing another one. We'll just have to wait until the lives settle. Then we can set up a properly guarded Gate and send you through to collect them."

With even the Goddess against him, Christopher gave in for the moment. He knew he could always sneak off to The Place Between if he needed to. Just now, Uncle Ralph was more important than Gabriel and probably more of a danger even than the Arm of Asheth.

He arranged watches and patrols for the night with Tacroy and Mr. McLintock. They had supper camped about the hall and up the stairs, under the ladders and planks Dr. Simonson was using to lower the chandelier. At this stage, the birdcage was still only a collection of metal hoops and wooden rods. The cooks carried cauldrons and casseroles to Dr. Simonson's team as they worked, so that they could carry on until the daylight failed, but Christopher knew they were not going to get it finished that day. Throgmorten came off duty long enough to eat a plate of caviar to strengthen him for the night's work.
Proudfoot was taken to the kitchen for safety, to be doted on there, and everyone settled down tensely for the night.

Christopher had arranged the watches so that there was always a mixture of able-bodied people with ones that still had magic. He took the first watch himself. The Goddess took the next one. Christopher was asleep in the library next to Frederick Parkinson when something happened in the middle of the Goddess's watch. The Goddess was panting and flustered and said she was sure Uncle Ralph had tried to come through the pen-tacle. "I conjured him away," she kept saying. There was certainly a wild hullaballoo from Throgmorten. But by the time Christopher got there all he saw was a wisp of steam rising from the invisible mousehole and Throgmorten pacing around it like a frustrated tiger.

Oddly enough, there was no smell of dragons' blood. It looked as if Uncle Ralph had either been testing their defenses or trying to deceive them about his plans. The real attack came just before dawn, when Tacroy and the bootboy were on watch. And it came from outside the Castle grounds. Bells rang all over the Castle, showing that the spells had been breached. As Christopher pelted across the dewy lawn, he thought that the screams, yells and clangs coming from the walls would have woken everyone even if the bells had not rung. Again he got there too late. He arrived to find Tacroy and the bootboy furiously chanting spells to fill two gaps in Mr. McLintock's vast spiny hedge. He could dimly see a few figures in silver armor milling about beyond the gaps. Christopher hastily reinforced the spells for all he was worth.

"What happened?" he panted.

"The Wraith seems to have walked into the Arm of Asheth," Tacroy said, shivering in the early mist. "It's an ill wind." While the gardeners hurried up with cactuses to fill the gaps and the bootboy booby-trapped them, he said he thought that a small army of the Wraith's men had tried to break into the grounds. But the Arm of Asheth must have thought the Wraith was attacking them and accidentally defended the Castle. At all events, the attackers had run for their lives.

Christopher sniffed the reek of dragons' blood in the mist and thought Tacroy was certainly right.

By the time he got back to the Castle, it was light enough for Dr. Simonspn and his helpers to be hard at work again. Flavian was stumbling about the operations room, pale and yawning from having been up all night. "I was right about Gabriel's lives!" he said jubilantly. "They're all settling down into the Related Worlds. I've got six of them more or less pinpointed now - though I can't spot the seventh at all yet. I suggest you go and collect those six anyway as soon as they've finished that lobster pot of yours."

The Lobster Pot, as everyone came to call it, was hoisted triumphantly up into the air above the pentacle soon after breakfast. Christopher jumped into the star himself to test it. The spell tripped, just as it was supposed to, and the cage came crashing down around him. Throgmorten looked up irritably. Christopher grinned and tried to conjure the thing away. It would not budge. He rattled the flimsy bars with his hands and tried to heave up one edge, but he could not budge it that way either. In something of a panic, he realized that the thing was impossible to get out of, even though he had set most of the spells on it himself.

"Your face was rather a study," the Goddess said, with a weak chuckle. "You should have seen the relief on it when they hauled it up again!" The Goddess was not at all happy. She was pale and nervous in spite of trying to joke.

She has only one life, Christopher reminded himself, and the Arm of Asheth is waiting outside for her. "Why don't you come with me to collect Gabriel's lives?" he said. "It will puzzle the Arm of Asheth no end if you start hopping from world to world."

"Oh may I?" the Goddess said gladly. "I feel so responsible."

There had been much discussion, some of it very learned, among Flavian, Beryl, Yolande and Mr.Wilkinson about how to collect Gabriel's lives. Christopher had no idea there were so many ways to send people to different worlds. Miss Rosalie settled it by saying briskly, "We set up a Gate here in this room and send Mordecai into a trance with a spirit-trace so that we can focus the Gate on him as soon as he finds a Gabriel. Then Christopher and Millie go through and persuade the Gabriel that he's needed at the Castle. What could be simpler?"

Many things could have been simpler, Christopher thought, as he and the Goddess worked on the complex magics of the Gate to Flavian's endless, patient instructions. He felt slow and reluctant anyway. Even though only Gabriel could give him his ninth life back, even though Gabriel was desperately needed, Christopher did not want him back. All the fun would end then. Everything in the Castle would go quiet and respectable and grown-up again. Only the fact that he always liked working on magic that really did something kept Christopher working properly on the Gate.

When it was finished, the Gate looked simple indeed. It was a tall square frame of metal, with two mirrors sloping together to make a triangle at the back of it. No one would know, to look at it, how difficult it had been to do.

Christopher left Tacroy lying on the couch with the little blue blob of the spirit-trace on his forehead and went, rather moodily, to conjure the baker's cart into the Castle grounds. This is the last time they'll let me do this, he thought, as the Arm of Asheth angrily shook their spears at the baker.

When he came back, Tacroy was pale and still and covered with blankets and Miss Rosalie was gently playing her harp.

"There he is in the Gate," Flavian said.

The two mirrors had become one slightly misty picture of somewhere in Series One. Christopher could see a line of the great pylons that carried the ring trains stretching away into the distance. Tacroy was standing under the nearest one, wearing the green suit Christopher knew so well. It must be what Tacroy's spirit always wore. The spirit had its hands spread out frustratedly.

"Something seems to be wrong," Flavian said.

Everyone jumped when the body lying on the couch spoke suddenly, in a strange, husky voice. "I had him!" Tacroy's body said. "He was watching the trains. He was just telling me he could invent a better train. Then he simply vanished! What do I do?"

"Go and try for the Gabriel in Series Two," Miss Rosalie said, plucking a rippling, soothing tune.

"It'll take a moment," Tacroy's body croaked.

The picture in the Gate vanished. Christopher imagined Tacroy scrambling and wafting through The Place Between. Everyone around him wondered anxiously what had gone wrong.

"Maybe Gabriel's lives just don't trust Mordecai," Flavian suggested.

The mirrors combined into a picture again. This time they all saw Gabriel's life. It was standing on a hump-backed bridge, gazing down into the river below. It was surprisingly frail and bent and old, so old that Christopher realized that the Gabriel he knew was nothing like as elderly as he had thought. Tacroy's spirit was there too, edging gently up the hump of the bridge towards Gabriel's life, for all the world like Throgmorten stalking a big black bird. Gabriel did not seem to see Tacroy. He did not look around. But his bent black figure was suddenly not there anymore. There was only Tacroy on the bridge, staring at the place where Gabriel had been.

"That one went, too," Tacroy's body uttered from the couch. "What is this?"

"Hold it!" Flavian whispered and ran to check the nearest divining spells.

"Stay there a moment, Mordecai," Miss Rosalie said gently.

In the mirrors, Tacroy's spirit leaned its elbows on the bridge and tried to look patient.

"I don't believe this!" Flavian cried out. "Everyone check, quickly! All the lives seem to be disappearing! Better call Mordecai back, Rosalie, or he'll waste his strength for nothing."

There was a rush for the crystals, bowls, mirrors and scrying pools. Miss Rosalie swept both hands across her harp and, inside the Gate, Tacroy's spirit looked up, looked surprised, and vanished as suddenly as Gabriel's life. Miss Rosalie leaned over and watched anxiously as Tacroy's body stirred. Color flooded back to his face. His eyes opened. "What's going on?" he said, pushing the blankets back.
"We've no idea," said Miss Rosalie. "All the Gabriels are disappearing..."

"No they're not!" Flavian called excitedly.

"They're all collecting into a bunch, and they're coming this way, the lot of them!"

There was a tense half hour, during which everyone's hopes and fears seesawed. Since Christopher's hopes and fears on the whole went the opposite way to everyone else's, he thought he could not have borne it without Proudfoot the kitten. Erica brought Proudfoot with her when she hurried in with a tray of tea to restore Tacroy. Proudfoot became very busy taking her first long walk, all the way under Gabriel's black desk, with her string of a tail whipping about for balance. She was something much better to watch than the queer clots and whorls that Gabriel's lives made as they drifted steadily towards Series Twelve.

Christopher was watching Proudfoot when Flavian said, "Oh dear!" and turned away from the scrying pool.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

Flavian's shoulders drooped. He tore off his tight, crumpled collar and threw it on the floor. "All the lives have stopped," he said. "They're faint but certain. They're in Series Eleven, I'm afraid. I think that was where the seventh life was all along. So much for our hopes!"

"Why?" said Christopher.

"Nobody can get there, dear," said Miss Rosalie. She looked as if she might cry. "At least, nobody ever comes back from there if they do."

Christopher looked at Tacroy. Tacroy had gone pale, paler even than when he went in a trance. He was the color of milk with a dash of coffee in it.

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