I stood there, feeling utterly let down. I didn't know what to do or what to think. Then, when I next caught up with myself, I was racing downstairs, waving the School Leaver's Form. I rushed into the shop, where Uncle Alfred was standing behind the pay desk, and I wagged the form furiously in his face.
"What the hell do you mean by this ?" I pretty well shrieked at him.
A lot of customers whirled around from the shelves and stared at me. Uncle Alfred looked at them, blinked at me, and said to Daisy, "Do you mind taking over here for a moment?" He dodged out from behind the desk and seized my elbow. "Come up to my workroom and let me explain."
He more or less dragged me from the shop. I was still flapping the form with my free hand, and I think I was shouting, too. "What do you mean - explain ?" I screamed as we went upstairs. "You can't do this to me! You've no right!"
When we reached the workroom, Uncle Alfred shoved me inside into a strong smell of recent magic and shut the door behind both of us with a clap. He straightened his glasses, which I had knocked crooked. He was panting, and he looked more worried than I had ever seen him, but I didn't care. I opened my mouth to shout at him again.
"No, don't, Con," Uncle Alfred said earnestly. "Please. I'm doing the best I can for you. Honestly. It's your Fate - this wretched bad karma of yours - that's the problem, see."
"What's that got to do with anything?" I demanded.
"Everything," he said. "I've been doing a lot of divining about you, and it's even worse than I realized. Unless you put right what you did wrong in your previous life - and put it right now - you are going to be horribly and painfully dead before the year's out."
"What ?" I said. "I don't believe you!"
"It's true," he assured me. "Lords of Karma will just scrap you and let you try again when you next get reborn. They're quite ruthless, you know. But I don't ask you to believe me just like that. I'd like you to come to the Magicians' Circle this evening and see what they say. They don't know you, I haven't told them about you, but I'm willing to bet they'll spot this karma of yours straight off. To be brutally frank with you, it's round you in a black cloud these days, Con."
I felt terrible. My mouth went dry, and my stomach shook, in wobbly waves. "But," I said, and found my voice had gone down to a whisper, "but what's it got to do with this ?" I tried to flourish the leaver's form at him again, but I could only manage a feeble flap. My arm had gone weak.
"Ah, I wish you'd come to me first," said my uncle. "I'd have explained. You see, I've discovered what you did wrong. There was someone in your last life Lords of Karma required you to put an end to. And you didn't. You lost your nerve and let them go free. And this person got reborn and continued his evil ways in this present life, too..."
"But I still don't see..." I began.
He held up a hand to stop me. It was shaking. He seemed to be shaking with worry all over. "Let me finish, Con. Let me go on. Since I discovered what caused your Fate, I've done every kind of divination to find out who this person is that you didn't put an end to. It's been really difficult - I don't have to tell you how the magics up at Stallery interfere with spells down here - but it was pretty definite even so. It's someone up at Stallery, Con."
"You mean it's the new Count?" I said.
"I don't know," said my uncle. "It's one of them up there. Someone up at Stallery has a lot of power and is doing something really bad, and they've got the exact pattern of this person you should have done away with last time. That's all I can find out, Con. Look on the bright side. We know where to find him or her. That's why I arranged for you to get a job up at Stallery."
"What kind of a job?" I asked.
"Domestic," said Uncle Alfred. "The kind of thing you're used to, really. The steward up there - butler, whatever - is a Mr. Amos, and he's reckoning to take on some school leavers shortly, to train up as servants to the new Count. Day after the end of term he'll be interviewing a whole bunch of you. And he'll take you, Con, never fear. I'll put a really good spell on you, so he'll have no choice. You don't need to worry about getting the job. And you'll be right in the middle of things then, cleaning boots and running errands, and you'll have ample opportunity to seek out the person responsible for
this terrible karma you carry..."
I thought, Cleaning boots ! And nearly burst into tears. My uncle went on talking, nervously, persuasively, but I just couldn't attend anymore. It wasn't simply that my careful plan had been no use at all. It was more that I suddenly saw where the plan had been leading me. I hadn't admitted it to myself before, but I knew now - I knew very fiercely - that what I wanted was to be like Anthea, to leave the bookshop, leave Stallchester, go somewhere quite different and make a career of some kind. I hadn't actually thought what career, until then, but now I thought of flying an aircraft, becoming a great surgeon, being a famous scientist, or perhaps, best of all, learning to be the strongest magician in the world.
It was like peeping past a door that was just slamming in my face. I could have done so many interesting things if I had the right education. Instead, I was going to spend my life cleaning boots.
"I don't want to!" I blurted out. "I want to go to Stall High!"
"You haven't listened to what I've been telling you," Uncle Alfred said. "You've got to get this evil Fate of yours cleared away first, Con. If you don't, you die in agony before the year's out. Once you've gone up to Stallery, found out who this person is, and done away with him or her, then you can do anything you want. I'll arrange for you to go to Stall High then like a shot. Of course I will."
"Really?" I said.
"Really," he said.
It was like that door softly swinging open again. True, there was an ugly doorstep in the way labeled "Bad Karma, Evil Fate," but I could step over that. I found myself letting out a long, long sigh. "All right," I said.
Uncle Alfred patted my shoulder. "Good lad. I knew you'd see reason. But I don't ask you to take my word alone. Come to the
Magicians' Circle tonight, and see what they have to say. All right now?" I supposed I was. I nodded. "Then could I get back to the shop?" he said. "Daisy hasn't the experience yet."
I nodded again. But as he pushed me out onto the stairs, I had a thought. "Who's going to do the cooking with me gone?" I asked. I was surprised not to have thought of this before.
"Don't worry about that," my uncle said. "We'll hire Daisy's mother. Daisy's always telling me what a good cook her mum is."
I stumbled away up to my room and stared up at Stallery, twinkling out of its fold in the mountains. My mind felt like
someone in the dark, stumbling about among huge pieces of furniture with sharp corners on them. I kept barking myself on the corners. No Stall High unless I went and cleaned boots in Stallery - that was one corner. The Lords of Karma scrapped you if you were no good - that was another. A person up there among those glinting windows was so wicked he had to be done away with - that was another - and I had to deal with the person now because I'd been too feeble to do it in my last life - that was yet another. Then I barked my mind on the most important corner of the lot. If I didn't do this, I'd die. It was this person or me, him or me.
Him or me, I kept saying to myself. Him or me.
Those words were going through my head while I helped Uncle Alfred carry the bottles of port up to his workroom that evening. I had to back into the room because I had two bottles in each hand.
"Dear me," someone said behind me. "What appalling karma!"
Before I could turn around, someone else said, "My dear Alfred, did you realize that your nephew carries some of the blackest Fate I've ever seen?"
All the magicians of the Circle were there, though I hadn't heard them arrive. Two of them were smoking cigars, filling the
workroom with strong blue smoke, which made the place look a different shape and size somehow. Instead of the usual workbench and glass tubes and machinery, there was a circle of comfortable armchairs, each with a little table beside it. There was another table in the middle loaded with bottles, wineglasses, and several decanters.
I knew most of the people sitting in the armchairs at least by sight. The one pouring himself a glass of rich red wine was Mr.Seuly, the Mayor of Stallchester, who owned the ironworks at the other end of town. He passed the decanter along to Mr. Johnson, who owned the ski runs and the hotels. Mr. Priddy, beside him, ran the casino. One of those smoking a cigar was Mr. Hawkins, the tailor, and the other was Mr. Fellish, who owned the Stallchester News . Mr.Goodwin, beyond those, owned a big chain of shops in Stallchester. I wasn't quite sure what the others were called, but I knew the tall one owned all the land around here and that the fat one ran the trams and buses. And there was Mr. Loder, the butcher, helping Uncle Alfred uncork bottles and carefully pour wine into decanters. The thick nutty smell of port cut across the smell of cigars.
All these men had shrewd respectable faces and expensive clothes, which made it worse that they were all staring at me with
concern. Mayor Seuly sipped at his wine and shook his head a little.
"Not long for this life unless something's done soon," he said.
"What's causing it? Does anyone know?"
"Something - no, someone he should have put down in his last life, by the looks of it," Mr. Hawkins, the tailor, said.
The tall landowning one nodded. "And the chance to cure it now, only he's not done it," he said, deep and gloomy. "Why hasn't he?"
Uncle Alfred beckoned me to stop standing staring and put the bottles on the table. "Because," he said, "to be brutally frank with you, I've only just found out who he should be dealing with. It's someone up at Stallery."
There was a general groan at this.
"Then send him there," said Mr. Fellish.
"I am. He's going next week," my uncle said. "It couldn't be contrived any sooner."
"Good. Better late than never," Mayor Seuly said.
"You know," observed Mr. Priddy, "it doesn't surprise me at all that it's someone up at Stallery. That's such a strong Fate on the boy. It looks equal to the power up there, and that's so strong that it interferes with communications and stops this town thriving as it should."
"It's not just this town Stallery interferes with," Mayor Seuly said. "Their financial grip is down over the whole world, like a net. I come up against it almost every day. They have magical stoppages occurring all the time, so that they can make money and I can't. If I try to get round what they do - bang. I lose half my profits."
"Oh, we've all had that," agreed Mr. Goodwin. "Odd to think it's in this lad's hands to save us as well as himself."
I stood by the table, turning from one to the other as they spoke. My mouth went drier with each thing that was said. By this time I was so horrified I could hardly swallow. I tried to ask a question, but I couldn't.
My uncle seemed to realize what I wanted to know. He turned around. He was holding his glass up to the light, so that a red blob of light from it wavered on his forehead as he said, "This is all very true and tragic, but how is my nephew to know who this person is when he sees him? That's what you wanted to ask, wasn't it, Con?" It was, but I couldn't even nod by then.
"Simple," said Mayor Seuly. "There'll come a moment when he'll know . There's always a moment of recognition in cases of karma. The person he needs will say something or do something, and it will be like clicking a switch. Light will come on in the boy's head, and he'll know ."
The rest of them nodded and made growling murmurs that they agreed, it was like that, and Uncle Alfred said, "Got that, Con?"
I managed to nod this time. Then Mayor Seuly said, "But he'll want to know how to deal with the person when he does know.
That's quite as important. How about he uses Granek's Equation?"
"Too complicated," said Mr. Goodwin. "Try him with Beaulieu's Spell."
"I'd prefer a straight Whitewick," Mr. Loder, the butcher, said.
After that they all began suggesting things, all of which meant nothing to me, and each of them got quite heated in favor of his own suggestion. Before long, the tall landowning one was banging his wineglass on the little table beside his chair and shouting, "You've got to have him eliminate this person for good, quickly and simply! The only answer is a Persholt!"
"Please remember," my uncle said anxiously, "that Con's only a boy and he doesn't know any magic at all."
This caused a silence. "Ah," Mayor Seuly said at length. "Yes. Of course. Well then, I think the best plan is to enable him to summon a Walker." At this, all the others broke into rumbles of "Exactly! Of course! A Walker. Why didn't we think of that before?" Mayor Seuly looked around the circle of them and said, "Agreed? Good. Now what can we give him to use? It ought to be something quite plain and ordinary that no one will suspect... Ah. Yes. A cork from one of those bottles will do nicely."
He held out his hand with a handsome gold ring shining on it, and Mr. Loder passed him the purple-stained cork from the bottle he had just emptied into a decanter. Mr. Seuly took it and clasped it in both hands for a moment. Then he nodded and passed it on to Mr.Johnson, who did the same. The cork slowly traveled around the entire circle, including Uncle Alfred and Mr.Loder, standing by the table, who passed it back to the Mayor.
Mayor Seuly held the cork up in his finger and thumb and beckoned me over to him. I still couldn't speak. I stood there, looking down on his wealthily clipped hair, which almost hid the thin place on top, and wondering at how rounded and rich he looked. I breathed in smells of nutty, fruity wine, smooth good cloth, and a tang of aftershave and nodded at everything he said.
"All you have to do," he said, "is first to have your moment of recognition and then to fetch out this cork. You hold it up like I'm doing, and you say, "I summon a Walker to bring me what I need." Have you got that?" I nodded. It sounded quite easy to remember.
"You may have to wait awhile for the Walker," Mayor Seuly went on, "and you mustn't be frightened when you see the Walker
coming. It may turn out bigger than you expect. When it reaches you, the Walker will give you something. I don't know what.
Walkers are designed to give you exactly the tool for the job. But take my word for it, the object you get will do just what you need it to do. And you must give the Walker this cork in exchange. Walkers never give something for nothing. Have you got all that?" he asked. I nodded again. "Then take this cork and keep it with you all the time," he said, "but don't let anyone else see it. And I hope that when we next meet, you'll carry no karma at all."
As I took the cork, which felt like an ordinary cork to me, Mr.Johnson said, "Right. That's done. Send him off, Alfred, and let's start the meeting."
I didn't really need Uncle Alfred to jerk his head at me to go. I got out as quickly as I could and rushed upstairs to the kitchen for a drink of water. But by the time I got there, my mouth was hardly dry at all. That was odd, but it was such a relief that I hardly wondered about it at all. I wasn't even very scared anymore, and that was odd, too, but I didn't think of it at the time.