Christopher was right. The big main door of the library opened, and Count Robert came in. He shut the door behind him and stood smiling up at my sister. "Hallo, love," he said. "Are you on the job already? It was only a pretext, you know."
And my sister Anthea cried out, "Robert!" and came galloping down the ladder. She flung herself into Count Robert's arms, and the two of them began hugging and kissing each other frantically.
At this point Christopher got cramp in one leg. I think it was embarrassment, really. Or it could have been running up and down those stairs. But it was real cramp. He whipped himself into a ball and rolled about, clutching his left calf, with his face in a wide grin of agony. I was forced to park my camera on the lowest bookshelf and lean over him, pounding and kneading at his striped silk leg. I could feel the muscles under the stocking in a hard ball, and you know how much that hurts. It used to happen to me after skiing sometimes. I tried to make Christopher take hold of his own foot and pull his toes upward, but he didn't seem to understand that this was the way to cure cramp. He just rolled and clutched.
I kept glancing through the bars in case my sister or Count Robert had noticed us, but they didn't seem to. They were now
leaning backward with their arms around each other's waists, laughing and saying, "Darling!" rather often.
"Ooh-ow! Ooh-ow!" Christopher went.
"Pull your toes!" I kept whispering.
"Ooh-ow !" he said.
"Then use some magic, you fool!" I said.
I heard the main door open again and looked. This time it was Hugo who came in. He stood and smiled at Anthea, too, all over his puggy face. "Good to see you, Anthea," he said, and then something that sounded like "Join the club." But Christopher's knee hit my chin just then, and I went back to kneading. When I next looked, the three of them had gone to the leather chairs by the window, where Count Robert and Anthea each sat on the arm of the same chair, while Hugo leaned on the back of it. Hugo was talking quickly and urgently, and Count Robert and Anthea looked up at him and nodded anxiously at what he said.
I wanted to know what Hugo was saying. I took hold of Christopher's ear, put my mouth to it, and more or less shouted,
"Use some magic, I said!"
That seemed to get through. There was some frantic buzzing. Then Christopher abruptly straightened out and lay with his face in the carpet, panting. "Oh, horrible!" he gasped. "And deaf in one ear, too."
I looked down into the library again in time to see Count Robert kiss Anthea and get up. Hugo kissed her, too, a friendly kiss on one cheek, and they both turned to go. But the library door opened yet again. This time it was Mr. Amos who came in, looking anything but friendly. Christopher and I both froze.
"Has this young person got everything she requires?" Mr.Amos asked, with truly dreadful politeness.
"Well, not really," my sister said, cool as a cucumber. "I was just explaining that I need a computer if I'm to do this job properly."
Hugo said, with an anxious look, "I told you, miss. Atmospheric conditions here in Stallery mean that your programming is liable to random changes."
Count Robert turned to Mr. Amos with his chin up, all lordly. "Have we a computer, Amos?"
It was a splendid cover-up from all three. Mr. Amos gave Count Robert a small bow and said, "I believe so, my lord. I will see to it personally." Then he went away, very slow and stately.
Count Robert and Hugo grinned at each other and then at Anthea. Hugo gave her a wink over his shoulder as he followed Count Robert out of the library.
"Phew!" said my sister. Then she swung around in a swirl of expensive skirt and came marching toward the balcony, looking
really angry. "Come down out of there," she said, "whoever you are!"
I hardly needed to look at Christopher's face, squashed against the carpet, to know that he had forgotten all about his spells of invisibility and silence from the moment he got cramp. I stood up. "Hallo, Anthea," I said.
She caught hold of the stepladder and stared. She was really astonished. "Conrad !" she said. "What on earth are you doing here dressed like a lackey?"
"I am a lackey," I said.
"But that's ridiculous!" she said. "You ought to be at school."
"Uncle Alfred said I could go to Stall High as soon as I had expiated my Evil Fate," I explained.
"What evil fate? What are you talking about? Come down here this instant, and tell me properly," Anthea said. I had to smile. Anthea pointed over and over at the carpet in front of her as she gave her commands. It was so exactly what she used to do in the bookshop when she was annoyed with me that I felt almost happy as I climbed down the steep stair from the balcony. "And your friend," Anthea commanded, jabbing her finger toward another place on the carpet.
Christopher got up, quite meekly, and limped down the stair after me. Anthea looked from him to me.
"This is Christopher," I said. "He's a nine-lifed enchanter, and he's here on false pretenses like I am."
"Really?" Anthea said suspiciously. "Well, I felt someone doing magic, so I suppose that could be true. Now stand there, Conrad Tesdinic, and tell me all about this nonsense that Uncle Alfred's been putting into your head."
"I knew it was nonsense," Christopher said. "But I thought his name was Grant. Are you his sister? You look quite alike."
"Yes. Shut up, you!" Anthea said. "Conrad?"
Christopher, to my surprise, did what Anthea said. He stood there attentively, looking slightly amused, while I told her what Uncle Alfred had said about my bad karma and how it was going to kill me unless I dealt with the person who was causing it. Anthea sighed and looked at the ceiling. So I told her that Mayor Seuly and the rest of the Magicians' Circle had seen my Evil Fate clinging to me, too, and how they had given me the way to know the person responsible before Uncle Alfred sent me to Stallery. Anthea frowned heavily at this, and Christopher looked even more amused. But he seemed quite surprised when Anthea said, "Oh dear! I feel really guilty! I shouldn't have left you. And Mother? Didn't she even try to
tell you Uncle Alfred was talking nonsense?"
"She's always busy writing," I said uncomfortably. "We never talked about my Fate. And it isn't nonsense, is it? Mayor Seuly thought it was true."
"Everyone knows he's a crook. He just wants his chance to make money the way Stallery does," my sister said. "I think he lied to you, Conrad, in order to find out how to pull the probabilities himself." She looked from me to Christopher. "Have you discovered yet who's doing it, and how?"
"No," we both said, and Christopher asked, "So it doesn't happen naturally, then?"
"Some of it does," Anthea said. "But someone is helping it along somehow. This is something Robert and I would really like to know about. It's one reason why I'm here. And what were you supposed to do, Conrad, when you found out who was doing it?"
"Summon a Walker," I said.
Christopher and Anthea both looked utterly puzzled.
"They gave me this wine cork," I said, fetching it out. I was feeling awful by then, stupid and taken in and, well, sort of
pointless. If I didn't have a Fate, then what was I?
I felt worse when Christopher said, "I did try to tell him he hasn't any bad karma."
"But he might have an awful lot if he does what Mayor Seuly and Uncle Alfred seem to want!" Anthea said. She gave me a worried, puzzled look. It made me feel worse than ever. "Conrad, for goodness' sake, what stopped Mother paying for you to go on at school?"
"She hasn't any money," I said. "Uncle Alfred owns the bookshop and..."
"But he doesn't!" Anthea exclaimed. "Oh, I should have written and told you! I admit that puzzled me, too, so I went and looked up Father's Will in the Record Office as soon as I got to Ludwich, and he'd left the entire shop to Mother."
"What? All of it?"I said.
"All of it," she said. "And to you and me after that. He left Uncle Alfred some money, but that's all. Come to think of it, I do remember Father saying to me when he was dying that he hoped Alfred would take his money and go, because he didn't trust him as far as he could throw him..." She tailed off in an uncertain way.
"Now why didn't I remember that before?"
She was looking vaguely at Christopher as she said this. He must have thought she was asking him because he said, "If he's a magician, this uncle, he could cast a selective forget spell quite easily. They're not difficult."
"He must have cast one," Anthea said, and went on decisively, "Conrad, I'm going to ring Mother up - I was going to anyway, and this makes it urgent - and see what she says."
There was a telephone in the corner of the library. Anthea marched across to it and dialed the number of our bookshop. I
hurried after her and tried to listen in. Anthea turned the receiver so that I could distantly hear a bored woman's voice say, "Grant and Tesdinic. How can I help?"
Anthea mouthed at me, asking, "Who?" I said, "Daisy. New assistant after you left."
Anthea nodded. "Could I speak to Franconia Grant, please?" she said.
Daisy said, "Who?"
"The famous feminist writer," Anthea said. "I believe she married a Mr.Tesdinic, but we feminists don't mention that."
"Ooh!" Daisy went in the distance. "I get you. Just a minute and I'll see if she's free."
There were muffled footsteps running about and voices calling murkily. I heard Uncle Alfred, faint and far off, saying, "Not me - I don't have anything to do with those harpies!" Finally there was a clatter, and my mother's voice said, "Franconia Grant speaking."
From then on it was much easier to hear. Christopher was leaning over us, wanting to hear, too.
Anthea said cheerfully, "Hallo, Mother. This is Anthea."
My mother said, "Good heavens," which was not surprising. It had been four years. "I thought you'd left here for good," she added.
"I have, really," Anthea said. "But I thought you ought to know when your daughter gets married."
"I don't believe it," my mother said. "No daughter of mine would ever even think of enslaving herself to a male ethic..."
"Well, I am," Anthea said. "He's wonderful. I knew you'd disapprove, but I had to tell you. And how's Conrad?" There was a
blank pause on the other end of the line. "My little brother," Anthea said. "Remember?"
"Oh," said my mother. "Oh yes. But he's not here now. He insisted on leaving school as soon as he was old enough, and he took a job right outside this district. I..."
"Did Uncle Alfred tell you that?" Anthea interrupted.
"No, of course not," my mother said. "You know as well as I do that Alfred is a compulsive liar. He told me Conrad was staying on at school. I even signed the form, and then Conrad went off without a word, just like you did. I don't know what I've done to deserve two children like you." Then, while Anthea was trying to say that it was not true about me at least, my mother suddenly snapped, "Who is this wonderful man who has lured you into female bondage, Anthea?"
"If you mean marriage, Mother," Anthea said, "it's Count Robert of Stallery."
At this, my mother uttered something that sounded like "That impostor!," though it was more of a strange wailing yelp, and
dropped the phone. We heard it clatter onto a hard surface. There was some kind of distant commotion then, until someone firmly put the phone back and cut us off.
As Anthea hung the whirring receiver back on its rest, I had the hardest job in the world not to burst into tears. Tears pushed and welled at my eyes, and I had to stand rigid and stare at the shelves of books in front of me. They bulged and swam. I felt utterly let down and betrayed. Everyone had lied to me. By now I didn't even know what the truth was.
Anthea put her arm around me, hard. Christopher said, "I know how you feel, Grant. Something a bit like this happened to me, too, once."
Anthea asked him, "Is our mother under a spell, do you think?"
"She just doesn't care!" I managed to say.
"No, Grant, I think it's a bit more complicated than that," Christopher said. "Think of it as a mixture of lies and very small spells done by someone who knows her very well and who knows she'll go where she's pushed if she's pushed often enough and gently enough. It sounds as if much the same was done to you, Grant. What's this Walker you were supposed to summon? Why don't you try summoning it now and see what happens?"
The same dry-mouthed fear seized me that I had felt in the Magicians' Circle. I was horrified. "No, no!" I cried out. "I'm not supposed to do that until I know!"
"Know what?" my sister asked.
"The...the person who's...the one who I should have killed in my last life," I stammered.
I felt Anthea and Christopher look at each other across my head. "Fear spell," Christopher said. "And you don't know, do you, Grant? Then it's much safer to summon the thing now, before there's any real danger."
"Yes, do that. Do it at once, Conrad," Anthea said. "I want to know what he's making you do. And you," she said to Christopher, "if you really are an enchanter, you can stand guard on the door, in case that butler comes back with a computer."
Christopher's face was such a mixture of surprise and outrage that I nearly laughed. "If I am an enchanter!" he said. " If! I've a good mind to turn you into a hippopotamus and see how Count Robert likes you then!" But he went and stood with his shoulders against the door all the same, glowering at my sister. "Summon away, Grant," he said. "Do what the hippopotamus tells you."
Anthea still had her arm around me. "I won't let it hurt you," she said, just as if I were six years old again and she was putting plaster on my knee.
I leaned on her as I took the wine-blotched cork out of my waistcoat pocket. I still felt miserably ashamed of myself for
believing all those lies, but the dry-mouthed fear seemed to have gone. And the cork was so ordinary. It had Illary Wines 1893 stamped on it, and it smelled faintly sour. I began to feel silly. I even wondered if the Magicians' Circle had been playing a joke on me. But I pointed the cork at the end wall of the library and said, "I hereby summon a Walker. Come to me, and give me what I need. I think it's a hoax," I added to Anthea.
"No, it isn't ," Anthea said, sounding sharp and stern. Her arm went tight around my shoulders.
There was a sudden feeling of vast open distances. It was a very odd feeling, because the library was still all around us, close and warm and filled with the quiet, mildewy scent of books, but the distances were there, too. I could smell them. They brought a sharp, icy smell like the winds over frozen plains. Then I realized I could see the distance, too. Beyond the books, farther off than the edge of any world, there was a huge curving horizon, faintly lit by an icy sunrise, and winds that I couldn't feel blew off it. I knew those were the winds of eternity. And real fear gripped me, nothing to do with any fear spell.
Then I realized that I could see the Walker coming. Across the huge horizon, lit from behind by the strange hidden sunlight, a dark figure came walking. He or she walked in an odd, hurried, careful way, bending a little over the small thing it carried in both hands, as if whatever it was might spill or break if it was jogged in any way. So it walked smoothly but quickly in little steps, and the winds blew its hair and its clothes out sideways - except that the hair and the clothes never moved at all. On it came, and on. And all the time I could see the shelves of books in front of me, in ordinary daylight, and yet I could see the distance and the Walker just as clearly.
Anthea's arm was clamped around me. I could feel her trembling. Christopher's shoulders thumped against the library door as he tried to back away, and I heard him mutter, "Gracious heavens!" We all knew there was nothing we could do to stop the Walker coming.
It came nearer and nearer with its strange pattering strides, and the winds blew its clothes and its hair and they still never moved, and it still bent over the small thing in its hands. When it was only yards away, and the room filled with gusts of arctic scent that we could smell but not feel, I could have sworn the Walker was taller than the library ceiling - and that was two stories high. But when it came right up to me, it was only a foot or so taller than Anthea. It was properly inside the room then, and I was numbed with the cold that I couldn't feel, only smell. It sort of bent over me. I saw a sweep of dark hair blown unmovingly away from a white face and long dark eyes. The eyes looked at me intently as it held out one hand to me. I had never seen any eyes so intent. I knew as I looked back that this was because the Walker was bound to get whatever it gave me exactly right. Exactly right. But I had to give it the cork first in exchange.
I put the cork into the hand it was holding out. That hand closed around the cork, and the other hand came out and passed me something else, something cold as ice and about twice as long and a good deal heavier. My face felt stiff and numb, but I managed to say, "Thanks," in a mumbling sort of way. The intent white face in front of me nodded in reply, once.
Then the Walker walked on past Anthea and me.
All our breaths, Christopher's, Anthea's, and mine, came out in a "Whoosh!" of pure relief. As soon as the Walker had gone past me, it had gone. The icy smell and the horizon of eternity had gone, too, and the library was once more an enclosed, warm room.
Christopher said, in a voice that was trying not to sound too awed, "Was it a man or a woman? I couldn't tell at all."
"I'm not sure that applies to a being like that," Anthea said. "What did it give you, Conrad?"
I looked at the thing in my hand. It felt quite warm now, or only cold the way metal always feels.
I looked at it and puzzled. It seemed to be a small corkscrew - very like the one I used to struggle with when the
Magicians' Circle wanted a bottle of port opened - one of those with an open handle that you hook two fingers through, with little curls at either side for two more fingers. But there was a key sticking out from the top of the handle. If I held the thing one way up, it was a corkscrew, but if I turned it around, the corkscrew became the handle of the key.
I held the thing up to Anthea and twiddled it at Christopher. "Look. I'm supposed to need this. What do you think I do with it?"
Anthea leaned over me to look. "It could be the key to a wine cellar."
Christopher slapped the side of his velvet breeches. "That's it! The hippopotamus has got it in one! I knew it was important to get into that wine cellar! Come on, Grant. Let's go and do it before we have to go back on duty."
He rushed off to the gallery staircase. I followed him slowly, feeling upset and puzzled and let down. I had expected the Walker to give me something much more dangerous than a key or a corkscrew.
"Get a move on, Conrad," Anthea said. "That butler..."
So I hurried a bit, and lucky that I did. I had only just climbed into the gallery when the door below opened again. Mr. Amos came importantly in, followed by a line of footmen carrying a viewscreen, a tower, a keyboard, drums of flex, armloads of disks, a stack of power cells, a printer, boxes of paper, and a load of other accessories.
"I shall supervise the setting up of the equipment personally, miss," Mr.Amos said to Anthea.
Christopher dragged me through the door at the back of the balcony. "Good," he said when we were safely out in the corridor. "If he's busy in there, he can't possibly be in the wine cellar. Let's go, Grant!"