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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

Christopher must have used some magic then.

He and the dog both stopped as if they had run into a wall. I overran a little and stopped myself on a doorknob on the other side of the corridor. The Count turned himself so that his frosty look could hit me as well as Christopher.

I had no idea what to do, but Champ had no doubt. His tail thumped. He crawled forward, quivering with shame, to the full stretch of Christopher's neckcloth, and tried to get into licking distance of the Count's beautiful, shiny shoes. Christopher just stood and looked at the Count as if he were summing him up. This was where being an amateur was a big help. Christopher would not have minded being sacked on the spot. He had more or less found Millie now, and he could make himself invisible and come back to finish the job, but I still had my Evil Fate to think of. I stared at the Count, too, hoping and hoping to know he was the one causing my Fate, but all I could see was a young fellow in expensive evening dress who had every right to stare at us in outrage.

"Come on," Count Robert said. "Explain. Why are you dragging poor old Champ around up here?"

"It's more that he was dragging us," Christopher said. "From the look of him, I think he caught your scent, my lord."

"Yes, he did, didn't he?" Count Robert agreed, looking thoughtfully down at Champ, who wagged and groveled more than ever. "But that doesn't explain why he's here or why all of you are covered with black gunk." At this, Christopher drew breath, presumably to begin on the drains story. "No," said the Count. "Not you. I can see you'd just tell me something glib and untrue." Christopher looked hurt and indignant, and the Count turned to me. "You tell me."

It seemed to me that I'd nothing more to lose. I knew I was about to be sacked and sent home in disgrace. Wondering what Uncle Alfred would say, and then thinking dismally that I would be dead by next year anyway, so what did Uncle Alfred matter either, I said, "We went past the painted line in the attics. Champ was at the bottom of a wooden tower there, but we couldn't have got him back up it, so we waited until it changed into an empty slate building."

Christopher muttered, "Believe it or not, I was going to tell you that, too." The Count gave him a disbelieving sideways look. "Honestly," Christopher said. "I thought you'd probably guessed."

"More or less," said Count Robert. His frosty look tipped up at the edges and became a slight grin. "You were unlucky to get those two towers straight off. Hugo and I didn't run into them for years. Well, now what shall we do about it? I don't think any of you should be seen as you are. Amos is prowling round the next floor in a rage - "

"About us?" I said anxiously.

"No, no - about something I told him," the Count said. "But he'd certainly better not see you or Champ as you are. He'd fire you both on the spot if he knew where you'd been, so..." He considered for a second. "Give me the dog. Hugo and I can get him cleaned up in my rooms - luckily Champ is well known to be a friend of mine - and then I can take him down to the stables. You two go and get fresh clothes, or you'll be in real trouble."

We both said, with real gratitude, "Thank you, my lord."

Count Robert smiled. There was a sad sort of look to him, smiling. "No problem. Here, Champ!"

Christopher let go of the neckcloth. It was an ex-neckcloth really, more of a dirty string by this time. Champ immediately sprang to his hind legs and attempted to put both his paws on the shoulders of the Count's evening jacket. The Count caught the paws just in time, in a way that showed he had had a lot of practice, and said, "No, down, Champ! I love you, too, but there's a time and a place for everything." He put Champ down on all four feet and took firm hold of the ex-neckcloth. "Off you go," he said to us. We scurried away to the attic stairs. I looked around as we went and saw Count Robert using one of his gleaming shoes to urge Champ into the Family lift. "Get on, stupid!" he was saying. "It's quite safe. Or do you want to meet Amos in a rage?"

Christopher was very excited as we sped back to the clothes store. "My guess was right, Grant! You heard the Count, did you? There are lots more places beside those two frightful towers. Millie must be in one. Will you come with me to look for her tomorrow on our morning off?"

Well, of course I would. I could hardly wait to explore. Next time, I thought, I would take my camera with me, too, and collect some real evidence of other worlds, or dimensions, or whatever they were.

Before that, of course, we had to get into new clothes, hide the gunky ones in an empty room, and rush off to our supper. Then we had to stand by the dining room wall with those stupid cloths over our arms while Mr. Amos, Andrew, and two other footmen served the Family with their Dinner. Neither of us dared do a thing wrong. Mr.Amos was still in a rage. Whatever Count Robert had said to him, fury about it was bottled into Mr.Amos, so that he was like a huge pear-shaped balloon full of seething gas. Andrew and the other two tiptoed around him. Christopher and I tried our best to look like part of the wall.

The Countess was in a rage, too, but she wasn't doing nearly such a good job of bottling it as Mr. Amos was. I suppose she had no need to bother.

Nothing was right for her that evening. There was a thumbprint on her wineglass, she said, a speck of dirt on her fork, she said, and iron mold on her napkin. Then she found a smear of pink polish on the salt cellar. Each time one of us was sent whizzing away to fetch a new one of whatever was wrong, and then, while she waited for it, she turned to Count Robert, opened her eyes wide, and did her "Why?" at him. When I came back with a shiny new salt cellar, she was saying, "Really, darling, you must grow out of this habit of only pleasing yourself."

Count Robert stood up to it better than I would have done. He smiled and said, "But you asked me to arrange it, Mother."

"But not now , Robert. Not when we've got company coming to celebrate your engagement!" the Countess said. "Amos, this plate is dirty. See this speck on the edge here?"

Mr.Amos leaned over her shoulder and inspected the plate. "I believe that is part of the pattern, my lady." He shot Count Robert a mean look while he said it. "I'll have it replaced at once," he said, and snapped his fingers at Christopher.

By the time Christopher whizzed back with a fresh plate, Count Robert was really getting it in the neck. "And you haven't even considered where this hireling of yours will eat," the Countess said. "When I think of all the trouble I went to, to teach you that a gentleman should consider others, I quite despair of you, Robert! You behave like a greedy child. Greedy and selfish. Me, me, me! Your character is so weak. Why can't you learn to be strong, just for once? Why?"

Christopher rolled his eyes at me as he took up his place by the wall again. And it really was amazing the way the Countess went on at Count Robert, who after all owned Stallery, as if he were about six years old, just as if there were no footmen standing like wooden statues, or us listening to her, or Mr. Amos by the serving table looking meanly glad that the Count was in trouble. I was quite embarrassed. But I was also pretty curious to know what Count Robert had done to annoy the Countess and Mr.Amos so.

By this time the Countess was on about the way the weaknesses of Count Robert's character had shown up when he was a toddler and kept reminding him of bad things he had done when he was two and four and ten years old. The Count just sat there, bearing it. Lady Felice kept her head down over her plate. But the Countess noticed her, too.

"I'm glad to see that your silly little eating disorder is over, dear."

"It was nothing, Mother," Lady Felice said.

So then the Countess decided that the fish was overcooked and told Mr.Amos to send it back to the kitchen. Mr.Amos snapped his fingers at me to take it. "And be sure," he said, handing me the loaded tray, "to tell Chef exactly what her ladyship found wrong with it."

I missed the next bit, while I went away through the hall and the swing door, down the steps to the undercroft, and on to the kitchen, but Christopher said it was just more of the same. In the kitchen the Chef put his hands on his hips and stared at me humorously. All the footmen called him the Great Dictator, but I thought he was quite a nice man. "And what's supposed to be wrong with it?" he asked me.

"She says it's overcooked," I said. "She's in a really bad mood."

"One of those evenings, eh?" the Chef said. "Slimming spells disagreed with her, and she's saving herself for the roast, is she? All right, get back and tell her that yours truly grovels all over the carpet and you needn't mention that this fish was perfect."

Back I went, all the way to the dining room, where I managed to go in almost exactly as I was supposed to, slipping in sideways with nearly no noise. Mr.Amos was waiting there for me. Behind his bulky pear shape the room felt like a thunderstorm. "And what has Chef to say for himself?" he demanded, low and urgent.

"He grovels on the carpet and I'm not to say the fish was perfect," I said.

That was stupid of me. I think it was Christopher's influence that made me say it. Mr. Amos had the perfect opportunity to get rid of some of his bad temper on me. He gave me a glare from his stone-colored eyes that made my knees go weak. Luckily for me, Lady Felice chose that moment to jump up from her chair and fling her big white napkin onto the table. Two wineglasses went over.

"Mother!" she said, almost in a scream. "Will you stop going on at Robert as if he'd committed a crime! All he's done is hire the librarian you asked him to hire! So leave him alone, will you!"

The Countess turned to Lady Felice. Her eyes went wide, and her lips began shaping the "Wh..." of one of her dreadful " Why?"s.

"And if you say, "Why, dear?,' once more," Lady Felice screamed, "I shall pick up this candlestick and brain you with it!" She gave out a sound like a laugh and a sob mixed, and rushed for the door. Mr.Amos and I both had to dodge. Lady Felice stormed past us and crashed out of the room like a warm, scented hurricane and slammed the door behind her.

In the rest of the room she left a feverish dead silence. Andrew and the other footmen sprang into action, silently and on tiptoe, mopping up spilled wine, taking away the fallen glasses, and whipping away all the knives, forks, and spoons still there at Lady Felice's place. The other two at the table simply sat there, while - just as if nothing had happened - Mr.Amos walked around to speak gently in the Countess's ear.

"Chef sends his profound apologies, my lady, and says it will not occur again. Allow me to bring on the next course, my lady."

The Countess, in a frozen way, nodded. Because the footmen were still busy wiping up wine, Mr. Amos beckoned Christopher and me over to the food lift and passed us tureens and sauceboats to carry over to the table. I was not sure where to put things, but Christopher whirled everything across and dumped them any old where and then bowed and patted the mats with both hands, as if he knew just what he was doing. Mr. Amos glowered at him over his shoulder as he picked up a massive platter piled with meat.

The Countess, still looking frozen, said to Count Robert, "Felice is so tiresome these days. I think it's high time she was married. I shall invite that nice Mr. Seuly to dinner with our other guests. I feel sure I can induce Felice to marry him."

Count Robert said, "Are you making some kind of a joke, Mother?"

"Not at all. I never joke, dear," said the Countess. "Mr.Seuly is Mayor of Stallchester, after all. He is wealthy, and widowed, and he has a very respectable position in life - and it's not important who Felice marries, the way it is for you, dear. You are engaged to a title, but..."

"Give me patience !" Count Robert suddenly shouted out. He leaped to his feet, whacked his napkin on the table and - like Lady Felice - made for the door with great strides just as Mr.Amos arrived with the platter of meat.

I never could work out how Mr. Amos missed Count Robert. The Count did not seem to see either Mr. Amos or the meat. He just charged out through the door and banged it shut behind him. Mr. Amos somehow managed to raise the vast platter above both their heads and then to twirl himself away. The Countess sat, still frozen, watching Mr. Amos waltzing around with the great steaming dish.

When at last he stopped twirling, she said, "I don't understand, Amos. What is making my children so very tiresome lately?"

"I believe it is their extreme youth, my lady," Mr. Amos replied, laying the platter reverently down on the table. "They are mere adolescents, after all." Christopher's eyes swiveled to mine in amazement. As he said to me afterward, you called people adolescents at his age and mine. "Lady Felice has come of age," he said, "even if they did have to cancel the party for it. And Count Robert must be in his twenties! Grant, do you think that the Countess is mad and Mr.Amos humors her?"

He said that much later, though. At that time we had to stand there while the Countess obstinately plowed through three more courses, half a bottle of wine, and dessert, and looked angrier with every mouthful. Mr. Amos's bottled rage grew so huge that even Christopher hardly dared move. The footmen all pretended they were invisible, and so did I.

And it did not stop there. The Countess laid down her napkin and went to the Grand Saloon, telling Mr.Amos that the Improvers could bring her coffee there. This meant that Christopher and I had to race upstairs after her with trays of comfits and chocolates, while Mr.Amos followed us with coffee, herding us like a rather heavy sheepdog.

The Grand Saloon was vast. It stretched from the front to the back of the house and was full of things to fall over, like golden footstools and small, shiny tables. The Countess sat in the middle of it, where Christopher and I had to keep dribbling coffee for her into a cup so small that it reminded me of the crucibles Uncle Alfred did his experiments in. I drizzled in coffee, and Christopher dripped in cream, while Mr.Amos stood by the distant door, rocking on his small, shiny feet and waiting for us to make a mistake so that he could vent some of his rage on us. We knew that the very least that could happen was that Mr.Amos would cancel our morning off, so we were very, very careful. We tiptoed and poured for what seemed a century, until the Countess said, "Amos, I wish to be alone now." By that time my arms were shaking and my calves ached with tiptoeing, but we hadn't made any mistakes, so Mr.Amos had to let us go.

"Whew!" I said when we were safely out of hearing. "What has Count Robert done to make them both so angry? Did you find out?"

"Well," Christopher said, scratching at his head so that his sleek hair separated into curls, "you probably know as much as I do, Grant. But while you were away with the fish, the Countess did say something about hiring penniless students to catalog the library here. Though why that should make anyone angry, I haven't a clue. After all, she's supposed to have asked Count Robert to hire someone. The Librarian at Chrestomanci Castle says you have to have a proper list of the books you've got or you can't find any of them. And I can't see why that should make Mr.Amos angry as well."

I felt suddenly full of an idea. "Could it be," I said, "that they have secret books in there? You know, books about pulling the possibilities or explaining how to work the changes at the top of the house?"

Christopher stood still in the passage outside our room. "Now that is a notion!" he said. "Grant, I think we ought to take a look at this library when we're free tomorrow morning."

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