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"Conrad's Fate"

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

There was never an idle moment. We were kept so hard at it that I never managed to read one word of my Peter Jenkins book. Most nights I fell into bed and went straight to sleep. But I did notice, that second night, while we were getting into the nightshirts, that there was no sign of the ring or the chain around Christopher's neck. Hidden by magic, I thought, and then fell fast asleep.

Then - you know how it is - after three more days I began to get into the rhythm of things and to know my way about. Everything started to feel much more leisurely. I had time that day to be maddened with curiosity about what Christopher was really doing at Stallery and about where he had come from. In fact I had time to be maddened by Christopher generally. He would keep calling me Grant in that superior way, and there were times when I wanted to hit him for it, or shout that it was only my alias, or - anyway, he really annoyed me. Then he would say something that doubled me up with laughter, and I discovered I liked him again. It was truly confusing.

There was a full moon that fifth night. Christopher said, "Grant, this darned moon is shining right in my eyes," and he pinned our curtains together so that the room was almost completely dark.

As I lay down and shut my eyes, I thought, Ah! He wants me to be asleep while he goes off like he did before. I was annoyed enough to do my best to stay awake.

I didn't manage it. I was sound asleep when I somehow realized that the door had just shut softly behind Christopher.

By then I was so maddened with curiosity that I more or less tore myself out of sleep. I stumbled out of bed. It was cold. Stallery didn't provide you with dressing gowns or slippers, so I was forced to climb quickly into my velvet breeches and drag the bedspread off my bed to make a sort of cloak. With the undone buckles of the breeches banging at my knees, I raced out into the corridor just as Christopher flushed the toilet and came out of the bathroom. I dodged back into our room again and waited to see where he would go.

"And a right idiot I shall look if he just comes back to bed!", I thought.

But Christopher went straight past our room and on in the direction of the lift. I tiptoed quietly after him, trying to tread on the parts of the chilly floorboards that didn't creak. But Christopher himself was making the floor creak so much that I almost need not have bothered. He strode on as if he thought he was the only person awake in the attics.

He marched straight past the lift and toward the clothing room. He stood there in front of the slatted doors for a moment, in moonlight blazing down on him from the big skylights, and I heard him mutter, "No, it is farther on, then." Then he swung half around and marched off down the corridor that led to the line painted on the wall and the women's rooms beyond.

I must admit I nearly didn't follow him. It would be a disaster to be sacked from Stallery before I had met Count Robert and settled my Evil Fate. But then I thought that there was no point in getting up half dressed in order to follow Christopher if I didn't follow him. So I went after him.

When I caught up with Christopher, he was in a wide bare space where moonlight shone bright and white through a row of windows. He was shivering in his nightshirt as he turned slowly around on the spot. "It is here," he was saying to himself, quite loudly. "I know it is! So why can't I find it, then?"

"What are you looking for?" I said.

He made a noise like "Eek!" and jumped around to face me. It was the nearest to undignified that I had ever seen Christopher be. "Oh," he said. "It's you. For a moment I thought you were the ghost of a hunchback. What are you doing here? I left a really strong sleep spell on you."

"I made myself wake up," I said.

"Bother you!" he said. "You must have a bigger talent for magic than I realized."

"But what are you doing here?" I said. "You'll get the sack. This is the women's part."

"No, it isn't," Christopher said. "The women's part is along there." He pointed. "There's a painted line there, too, that I suppose they're forbidden to go past as well. Go and look if you like. This part of the attics is empty, right from the front to the back, and there's something very odd about it. Can't you feel it?"

I was going to say, "Nonsense!" I was quite sure he was just trying to distract me from my curiosity. But when I had my breath all drawn in ready to say it, I let it out again without speaking. There was an oddness. It was not unlike the peculiar buzzing I used to feel in Uncle Alfred's workroom after Uncle Alfred had been doing magic, except that this strange vibration felt old and stale. And it did not feel as if it had been made by a person. It felt like a sort of earth tremor, only it was magical instead of natural.

"Yes, and it feels pretty creepy," I said.

"It goes right down through the building," Christopher said, "though it's strongest up here. I've been all over this beastly mansion by now, so I know."

I was distracted, even though I knew he meant me to be. "What, even into the women's part and Mr. Amos's pantry?" I said. "You can't have."

"I couldn't get into the wine cellar," Christopher said regretfully, "but I've been everywhere else. Mr. Amos's pantry stinks of cigars and booze, and Mrs.Baldock's room is full of crinoline dolls. Mr.Amos's bedroom is even more spectacular than the Countess's is. He has a circular bed. In mauve silk."

I was even more distracted. I tried to see Mr.Amos rolling about in a round mauve bed. It was nearly as hard as seeing the Countess in a row of chorus girls. "You're joking," I said. "I've been with you all the time."

Christopher gave a chuckle that was half a shiver. He wrapped his arms around his nightshirt and said, "Ah, Grant, what an innocent you are! It's not difficult to make an image of yourself. I simply made an illusion of me standing by the wall while the Countess wolfs down her dinner. It's the one time I know Mr.Amos is busy waiting on her. Think about it, Grant. Have I looked at you or talked to you much during these last few dinnertimes?" I realized that he hadn't. I was amazed. It was hard not to be even more distracted and pester Christopher to tell me how he did it, but I took a stern grip on myself. "Yes, but what have you been looking for? Tell me. You owe me."

"Grant," Christopher said, "you're a pest. You keep your nose to my trail like a bloodhound. All right. I'll tell you. But let's go back to our room first. I'm getting frostbite."

Back in our room, Christopher put on his smart linen jacket and wrapped himself in his bedclothes. "That's better," he said. "Why does it get so cold at night? Because this place is up in the mountains? How high is Stallery, Grant?"

"Three thousand feet, and you're trying to distract me again," I said.

Christopher sighed. "All right. I was just wondering where to start, really. I suppose I'd better begin by admitting that I don't come from this world of yours. I come from another one, a different universe entirely, that we call Series Twelve. This one, where you live, we call Series Seven. Do you have trouble believing that yours is not the only world in the world, Grant?"

"Not really," I said. "Uncle Alfred told me there might be other ones. He says it's all to do with possibilities."

"Right. Good," said Christopher. "One hurdle cleared. The next thing you should know is that I was born a nine-lifed enchanter - and that, believe me, Grant, is a great deal more than just being a magician - and although I only have a few lives left now, that doesn't make any difference to the kind of powers I have. And it means that, at home in my own world, I'm being trained to take over as what we call the Chrestomanci. The Chrestomanci is an enchanter appointed by the government to control the use of magic. Are you with me so far?"

"Yes," I said. "And what happens if you don't want the job?"

"Shrewd point," said Christopher. "I take off to Series Seven, I suppose." He laughed in a way that was not quite happy. "To be truthful," he said, "I was almost looking forward to being the Chrestomanci until I had a bad disagreement with my guardian, who happens to be the present Chrestomanci. He's a very serious and correct person, my guardian - one of those who knows he's always right, if you follow me, Grant."

"Then can't he train up someone else that he gets on with better?" I asked.

Across the dark room I could just see Christopher shaking his head. "No. As far as we know," he said, "there is no one else he can train up. Gabriel de Witt and I seem to be the only nine-lifed enchanters in all the known worlds. So we're stuck with each other. He disapproves of me, and I think he's boring. But the disagreement wasn't really about that. He's guardian to a lot of people my age - most of us live with him in Chrestomanci Castle - but one of us, an enchantress from Series Ten who likes to be called Millie, is a sort of special case. She only lives with us in the holidays because the people she came from insisted on her going to boarding school. Her latest school's in Switzerland..."

"Where's that?" I asked.

"You don't have it in Seven," Christopher said. "It's in the Alps, squashed in among France, Germany, and Italy..."

"I don't know of a Germany either," I said.

"The Teutonic States, then?" Christopher guessed.

"Oh, you mean the Slavo-Teutonic States!" I said. "I know about those. Mum says the Tesdi - my father's ancestors - came from there during the Conquest."

"You don't have to tell me history and geography are different here," Christopher said. "I have been educated. Do you want to hear the rest or not?"

"Go on," I said.

"Well," Christopher said, "Millie was really unhappy at this Swiss school. She said the girls and the teachers were horrible and she didn't learn anything and they were always punishing her just for being different, and she didn't want to go back last term. But of course our guardian sent her back because it was right. She cried. She's not one who usually cries, so I knew she was having a really horrible time. I tried to tell our guardian she was, but he wouldn't listen, and we had our first row. So then Millie got desperate, and she ran away from this school. Being an enchantress, she did it very cleverly, in a way that made the school and my guardian think she was hiding somewhere in Series Twelve. But I knew, right from the start, that she was in a different Series. I told my guardian, but he told me he wasn't going to listen to juvenile maunderings. That was our second row."

There was a short silence here. I could feel Christopher brooding. I knew it had been a very bad row. At length Christopher sighed and went on.

"Anyway, soon after that, I began to be sure that wherever Millie was hiding, she was in some kind of trouble. I even got worried enough to go to my guardian again. He more or less told me to shut up and go away." There was another short, brooding silence here. "That made our third row."

Christopher said. "He said they were doing all they could to find Millie and I was to stop wasting his time, and I said, no, they weren't because he wouldn't listen to me. Honestly, Grant, if he hadn't been a nine-lifed enchanter, too, I'd have turned him into a slug, I was so angry!"

"So you came to look for her yourself," I said.

"That," said Christopher, "makes it sound much easier than it was. It's taken me weeks just to get this far. Finding out - secretly, of course - where Millie had gone was hard enough, and I now see that was the simple part. I got her pinned down in this part of Series Seven in a couple of days, and I worked out what I had to do to stop them coming after me in a matter of hours. My guardian thinks I'm hiding in Twelve B, but that's just cover for the way I cadged a lift from the Travelers. That's what started the delays. Travelers, you see, are some of the few people who are always moving from world to world..."

"You mean those two... three... five... caravans and that horse go to other worlds!" I said.

"All the time, Grant," Christopher said, "and there are tribes more of them and much better organized than they let you see. They go in a sort of spiral around the worlds - that was something I didn't know either, and I nearly went mad while they did. And they're more important than anyone thinks. You wouldn't believe the delays and disasters there were, while they coped with crises in Series One and so on, and I chewed my nails. It's been over a month before we even got into smelling distance of Series Seven. Then we had to get here. Luckily they always go to Stallery. There's something about Stallery that they need to keep contained, they tell me. The only good thing is that my guardian is probably as confused as I am about where I've been."

"You'll be in awful trouble with him, won't you?" I said.

"Grant, you are putting that too mildly," Christopher replied. "Trouble is not the word for what will happen if he catches up with me. You see..." Christopher paused, and this time he seemed to be seething with bottled-up misery, rather than brooding. "You see, Grant, when I was younger, I kept losing my lives. And my guardian, in his usual high-handed way, tried to stop me losing any more of them by taking one of my lives away and locking it in his safe under nine high-power charms that only he was allowed to break. As long as he had that life, I knew he could trace me wherever I went. Anyway, I felt I had a right to my own life. So, before I left with the Travelers, I broke the charms, opened the safe, and took my life away with me. He's not going to forgive me for that, Grant."

"That gold ring!", I thought. I bet that's his life. This guardian of his sounded to be a total monster. "So what are you going to do," I asked, "when you find Millie?"

"I don't know! That's just the problem, Grant. I can't find her!" There were pounding noises across the room, where I could dimly see Christopher's fist rising and falling, beating at his knees. "I can feel her," he said. "She's here, I know she is! I felt her when we were coming here across the park, and I keep feeling her inside this house. When I get to that queer part beyond that line of paint, it almost feels as if I'm treading on her! But she's not there! I don't understand it, Grant, and it's driving me mad!"

He was pounding away at his knees in a frenzy by then. I was surprised because Christopher always seemed so cool. "Take it easy," I said. "Does she seem unhappy - as if she was a prisoner or something?"

"No, not really." Christopher calmed down, enough to stop beating his knees and think about this. "No, I don't think she's a prisoner - exactly. But she's not happy. It's - it's more as if she was stuck somehow, in a way she didn't expect to be - in a maze, or somewhere like that - and can't work out the turnings to find the exit. I think she panics quite often. My first idea was that she was working as a maid here and had signed a fifty-year contract or something, but I've seen all the girls who work here now, and none of them is Millie, not even in disguise."

"And the only place you haven't looked is the wine cellar?" I said.

"Yes, but I couldn't feel her at all when I stood outside the cellar door," Christopher said. "Though - come to think of it - that cellar door is right in the center of the strange bit of the house..."

"We'd better get inside it, then," I said. "We could get round Mr.Maxim to take us in there for a wine tasting. And have you looked out-of-doors yet? There could be a maze in the gardens where she's stuck. Don't forget it's our free afternoon tomorrow. Let's go out and search the grounds then."

"Grant, you are a genius," Christopher said. "It feels like a maze, where she is - although she would have been inside it for months. There must be magic in it, or she would have starved to death by now."

"There is lots of magic in Stallery," I said. "Everyone in Stallchester complains about it. We can't receive television because of it."

"Oh, I know there's lots of magic here all right," Christopher agreed. "It's all over the place, but I haven't a clue what most of it's doing. Some of it's to keep trespassers out, so that the rest of the magic won't be interrupted, but..."

I think I fell asleep at this point. I don't remember anything else Christopher said, and the next thing I knew, beastly Gregor was battering on our door, shouting that we were lazy lumps and to get out and get those shoes collected or he'd tell Mr.Amos.

"I hate Gregor," I said while we were going down in the lift with the shoe basket. "You couldn't do some magic to make him fall face first into the sandwiches at Tea, could you?"

Christopher was pale and tired and thoughtful that morning. "It's tempting," he said. But I could tell that his mind was on this Millie he was looking for. If it was me, I'd have been worrying more about that dreadful guardian of his, but I could see that Christopher was just angry, really, and hardly scared of his guardian at all.

"Oh well," I thought, and got on with the day.

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