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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

The magics and the shouting stopped.

Everyone stared. Mr. Prendergast stood aside from the doorway and announced each person as he or she came in. There was quite a crowd of them. The first two were large solemn men in dark suits, who went at once to stand on either side of Mr. Amos.

"Sir Simon Caldwell and Captain William Forsythe," Mr.Prendergast boomed, "personal wizards to His Majesty the King."

Mr.Amos looked from Sir Simon to Captain Forsythe in an astonished, hunted way and then looked a little happier when two smartly dressed ladies came to stand on either side of Count Robert.

"The Princess Wilhelmina and Madame Anastasia Dupont, Sorceresses Royal," Mr.Prendergast announced. Count Robert went very pale, hearing this.

Quite a lot of the guests went pale, too, as the next group was announced. Mr.Prendergast intoned, "Mrs. Havelok-Harting, the Prosecutor Royal; Mr.Martin Baines, Solicitor to His Majesty; Lord Constant of Goodwell and Lady Pierce-Willoughby, King's High Justices..." I forget the rest, but they were all legal people, and Mrs.Havelok-Harting in particular was an absolute horror, gray, severe, and pitiless. They all stared keenly at everyone in the Saloon as they spread out to make room for the next group of people.

"The Chief Commissioner of Police, Sir Michael Weatherby, Inspectors Hanbury, Cardross, and Goring," Mr.Prendergast boomed. This lot was in police uniform.

It dawned on me around then that these were all the people the Countess had told the courier to send to a hotel in Stallchester. I felt a trifle dizzy at the Countess's nerve. I tried to imagine them all crowded into the Stallchester Arms or the Royal Stag - probably both, considering how many of them there were - and I simply could not see it. The Countess obviously knew what she had done. She had both hands to her face. When the woman Inspector Goring came and stood stonily beside her, the Countess looked as if she might faint. The other two Inspectors went to stand by Hugo, who looked grim, and Mr.Seuly, who went a sort of yellow, and the Chief Commissioner marched through the Saloon and went to stand by the doors to the Banqueting Hall. Some of the guests who had been edging toward those doors went rather hastily to sit down again.

"The household wizards to the Royal Commissioner," Mr.Prendergast announced, and another group of sober-looking men and women filed in. They brought with them a cold, clean buzz of magic that reminded me somehow of the Walker.

"And," Mr.Prendergast proclaimed, "by special request of His Majesty the King, the Royal Commissioner Extraordinary, Monsignor Gabriel de Witt."

"Oh no!" I thought. Gabriel de Witt was every bit as terrifying as Christopher had led me to believe. He made Mrs.Havelok-Harting look ordinary. He was very tall, and dressed in foreign-looking narrow trousers and black frock coat, which made him seem about eight feet high. He had white hair and a gray, triangular face, out of which stared the most piercing eyes I had ever seen. He brought such strong age-old magic with him that he made my whole body buzz and my stomach feel as if it were plunging down to the center of the earth. "I must warn Millie!" I thought. But I didn't dare move.

After all this, I was not surprised when Mr.Prendergast swept his large right hand toward his own chest and added, "And also myself, the King's Special Investigator." "Of course Mr.Prendergast was a detective", I thought. It made perfect sense.

Gabriel de Witt stepped slowly forward. "I must explain," he said. He had an old, dry voice, like a corpse speaking. "I came to Series Seven initially in search of two of my young wards, who seemed to have got themselves lost in this world. Naturally I went to the King first and asked his permission to continue my search in this country. But the King had problems of his own. It seemed that somebody in this country kept changing the probabilities for this world. There had been so many shifts, in fact, that all Series Seven was in danger of flowing into Series Six on one side and Series Eight on the other. The King's wizards were very concerned."

Mr.Amos, looking very startled, shook his head and made denying gestures. "It couldn't possibly have that effect!" he said.

"Oh yes, it could," Gabriel de Witt said. "I assure you that this is true. I noticed it from the moment I stepped into this world. There are beginning to be serious climate changes and even more serious disruptions to geography - mountains subsiding, seas moving about, continents cracking apart - as this Series tries to conform to the Series on either side. Altogether these changes constitute such a serious misuse of magic that when the King asked me for my help, I had no hesitation in agreeing. I and my staff started to investigate immediately. As a first result of our inquiries, a woman calling herself Lady Amos was arrested yesterday and her offices in Ludwich closed down."

"No!" Mr.Amos cried out.

"Yes," said Gabriel de Witt. "I fancy she is your wife. And" - he looked at Hugo - "your mother, I believe. We now have enough evidence to make further arrests here in Stallery. Mrs.Havelok-Harting, if you would be so good as to read out the charges."

The gray, pitiless lady stepped forward. She rattled open an official paper and cleared her throat with a rather similar rattle. "Robert Winstanley Henry Brown; Dorothea Clarissa Peony Brown, nee Partridge; Hugo Vanderlin Cornelius Tesdinic; and Amos Rudolph Percival Vanderlin Tesdinic," she read, "you are all four hereby charged with treasonous imposture, the working of magic to the peril of the realm, fraud, conspiracy to defraud, and high treason. You are under arrest..."

"Not high treason!" Mr.Amos said. He had gone a queer pale mauve.

Count Robert - or plain Robert Brown, as I suppose he really was - had turned the same sort of color Christopher went when he touched silver. "I deny treason!" he said chokingly. "I told Amos I wasn't going along with his pretense anymore. I told him as soon as I got back from marrying Anthea."

My sister, who was clearly trying not to cry, opened her mouth to speak, but Mrs.Havelok-Harting simply turned implacably to one of the legal people. "Make a note," she said. "Tesdinic the elder andthe male Brown enter pleas of not guilty as charged."

"And I am innocent!" the Countess said sobbingly. If she was not crying, she was doing a good job of pretending to. "I never did any of this!"

"No more did I," Mr.Amos said. "This is all some kind of trumped-up..."

He stopped and backed away as the red rubber ball came sailing through the Saloon. When it reached Mr.Amos, it began bouncing up and down vehemently in front of him.

"Mistake," Mr.Amos finished, eyeing the ball queasily.

"One moment." Gabriel de Witt held up his hand and strode toward the bouncing ball. "What is this?"

"It's a ghost, Monsignor," said one of the royal wizards beside Mr.Amos.

The other wizard added, hushed and shocked, "It says it's been murdered, sir."

Gabriel de Witt caught the ball and held it in both hands. There was dead silence in the Saloon as he stood there inspecting it, his face growing grimmer every second. "Yes," he said. "Indeed. A female ghost. It says the evidence for the murder will be found in the library. Sir Simon, would you be so good as to accompany this unfortunate ghost to the library and bring the evidence back here to me?"

He passed the wizard the ball. Sir Simon nodded and carried it away past Mr.Prendergast and out through the door.

"This has nothing to do with me," Mr.Amos declared. "You must understand, all of you!" He spread his arms pleadingly. The trouble was that everyone was so shocked and frightened by the presence of a murdered ghost that nobody really took Mr.Amos seriously. My thought was that Mr.Amos looked like a short pear-shaped penguin as he went on passionately. "You must understand! I only acted for the sake of Stallery. When my father, Count Humphrey, died, Stallery was bankrupt. The gardens were a wilderness, the roof was falling in, and I had to mortgage everything to pay what Staff we had - and they were a second-rate, slipshod lot anyway. It nearly broke my heart. I love Stallery. I wanted to have it as it should be, well run, restored, beautiful, full of properly respectful servants. I knew that would take millions, I knew it would take all my time and energy, I knew it would take magic - specially applied magic, magic I invented myself, I'll have you know, and secretly installed in the cellars! And in order to make my money, I had to have control of those cellars. The only person who has control of the cellars is the butler, so naturally I had to become the butler. You must see I had to be the butler! I paid a young actor to take my place - Rudolph Brown and I looked much alike in those days..."

"Yes, and you turned your own brother - my husband - out," my mother said, suddenly and bitterly. "So he wouldn't get in your way. Hubert never got over it."

Mr.Amos stared at her as if he had forgotten she was there. "Hubert was quite happy running a bookshop," he said.

"No, he wasn't," my mother retorted. "The bookshop was my idea."

"You are ignoring two things, Count Amos," Gabriel de Witt put in. "First, that your elevation of your actor friend meant you were deceiving the King, which is treason, and second, that your attempt to restore Stallery was bound to come to nothing."

"Nothing?" said Mr.Amos. He held up a hand and flourished it around the Grand Saloon, the guests, the chandeliers, the beautifully painted ceiling, the golden chairs and sofas. "You call this nothing."

"Nothing," Gabriel de Witt repeated. "You must have seen that all the other buildings constructed over this probability fault are, without exception, empty ruins. This probability fault is like a sink. It would have pulled Stallery into the same ruined state in the end, however much magic you used, however much money you poured into it. I imagine this place costs more to run every year... Ah, here is Sir Simon again."

He turned away from Mr. Amos's look of horrified disbelief as Sir Simon came striding among the lawyers and wizards. Of course, on this floor, he could go in through the balcony to the library and be there and back in minutes. Sir Simon came up to Gabriel de Witt, holding the rubber ball in one hand. With the other hand he was dangling my camera.

"Here we are, Monsignor," he said. "The victim claims that the murderer killed her by trapping her soul in this camera."

For a moment I could not breathe. I swear my heart stopped beating. Then, all of a sudden, my heart thundered into life again, hammering in my ears until everything went gray and blotchy and I thought I was going to pass out. I remembered then, I had parked that camera on a bookshelf when Christopher got cramp. I remembered the flashlight going off in the face of that witch as she started to put a spell on me. And I remembered that peculiar magazine, illustrated with bad drawings. Not photographs, drawings. The witch came from a world where nobody dared take a photo, because that trapped the person's soul inside the camera. I was a murderer. And I thought, I really do have an Evil Fate, after all.

I only dimly heard Gabriel de Witt saying, "I must ask every person here to wait, either in this room or in the Banqueting Hall with the servants. I or my staff or the police must question each of you under a truth spell."

Quite a number of the guests protested. I thought, I must get out of here! I looked around and realized I was quite near the service door. I had been pushed back toward it when all the people had come in with Gabriel de Witt. While Gabriel de Witt was saying, "Yes, it may indeed take all night, but this is a case of murder, madam," I began backing, very slowly and gently, toward that door. I backed while more guests protested. As I reached the door, Gabriel de Witt was saying, "I apologize, but justice must be done, sir." I went on backing until the door had swung open, just a small bit, behind me. Then, quite thankful that Mr.Amos had made me practice going in and out of rooms so much, I took hold of the door and slid myself around it. I let it close itself on top of my fingers so that it would not thump and then stood for a moment, hoping that no one had noticed me.

"Gabriel de Witt's in there, isn't he?" somebody whispered.

I shot sideways and saw Millie pressed against the wall beside the door. She looked almost as terrified as I was. "And the house is full of policemen," she said. "Help me get away, Conrad!"

I nodded and tiptoed toward the service stairs. I told myself Millie would be much more frightened if I said why I needed to get away even more urgently than she did. I just whispered to her as she followed me, "Where are they mostly, these policemen?"

"Collecting all the maids and the kitchen staff and taking them to the Banqueting Hall to be questioned," she whispered back. "I kept having to hide."

"Good," I said. "Then we can probably get out through the undercroft. Can you make us both invisible?"

"Yes, but a lot of them are wizards," Millie whispered. "They'd see us."

"Do it all the same," I said.

"All right," she said.

We tiptoed on. I couldn't tell if we were invisible or not. I think we must have been, though, because we passed the lift before we got to the stairs and a policeman came out of it, pushing Mrs.Baldock and Miss Semple in front of him, and none of them saw us. Both housekeepers were crying, Mrs. Baldock in big, heaving sobs and Miss Semple noisy and streaming. "You don't understand!" Miss Semple wept, "We've both worked here most of our lives! If they turn us off over this, where do we go? What do we do?"

"Nothing to do with me," the policeman said.

Millie and I dodged around them and fled down the stairs to the ground floor. I pushed the green cloth door open a fraction there. There was a lot of noise in the entrance hall, where more policemen seemed to be marshaling gardeners, stablemen, and chauffeurs up the main stairs. Most of them were protesting that only Family were allowed to go up this way. I let the door shut itself, and we scudded away, down to the undercroft.

I had never seen the undercroft so deserted. It was dim, empty, and echoing. I could almost believe that the probability fault had already swallowed all the life down here. I led Millie as fast as I could toward the door between the kitchens and the cellars where the gardeners usually brought their vegetables and fruit.

This bit was not empty. Light was shining up the cellar steps from the open door at the bottom. There were sounds of people busy in the cellars. Millie and I both jumped violently when a strong, wizardly voice shouted upward, "Go and tell him that shift key is completely stuck at on! If I turn the power on, we'll have changes all over the place again. Go on. Hurry!"

I nearly laughed. "Christopher stuck that key down!" I thought. But somebody began coming up the steps at a run. Millie seized my wrist, and we sprinted past the top of the stairs and into the produce lobby, before the person could get to the top of the cellar steps and see us. I opened the door, and we tiptoed out. Really out, outside into the gardens.

I was very dismayed to find that it was pitch-dark out there, but I said, "Now, run!"

Actually we went at more of a lumbering trot, with our arms out in case we hit something, trying to follow the pale lines that were probably paths. I think that misled us a bit. We may have been following things that were accidentally pale. At any rate, after lumbering for what seemed half an hour, we found ourselves bursting out beyond some midnight black bushes into the wide-open spaces of the park, not the garden as I had expected. It seemed much, much lighter out there.

"Oh, good, we can see!" Millie said.

"And be seen!" I thought. But we had to get outside the grounds somehow. I began to run, quite hard, toward where I thought the main gate was, taking a straight line over the driveway and across the mown turf of the parkland. I felt I couldn't get away from Stallery fast enough.

There was a deep woof, somewhere near us, followed by the pounding of mighty paws. I had forgotten Champ. I said a bad word and slowed down. So did Millie.

"Is that a guard dog?" she asked. She sounded even more nervous than I felt.

"Yes, but don't worry," I said, trying to sound thoroughly confident. "He knows me." And I called out, "Champ! Hey, Champ!"

We could trace Champ by the paws and the enormous panting at first. Then his huge dark shape appeared out of the gloom at a gallop. Millie and I both panicked and clutched at each other. But Champ simply swerved toward us, showing us he knew we were there, and went hurtling on, uttering another deep woof.

A second later there was the most terrible noise in the distance. Champ burst out barking, a deep, chesty baying, like thunder. Another dog joined in, this one high and ear-piercing, and yapped and yapped and yapped, making even more noise than Champ. A horse started whinnying, over and over, madly. Mixed in with the animal sounds were human voices shouting, some high, some low and angry. We had no idea what was going on until another human voice shouted ringingly. "Shut up, the lot of you!"

There was instant silence. This was followed by the same voice saying, "Yes, Champ, I love you, too. Just take your paws off my shoulders, please."

Millie shouted, "Christopher!" and ran toward the voice.

When I caught her up, she was hanging on to Christopher's hands with both hers, and I think she was crying. Christopher was saying, "It's all right, Millie. I only had a little bother with the changes. Nothing else was wrong. It's all right!"

Behind them, looming against the dark sky, was a Traveler's caravan drawn by an irritated-looking white horse. Beyond its twitching ears and flicking tail I could just see a man on the driving seat. His skin was so dark that I never saw him clearly. All I saw were his eyes, looking from me to Millie. The small white dog sitting beside him was much easier to see. Last of all I picked out the faces of a woman and two children looking at us over the man's shoulders.

Here the small white dog decided I was an intruder and started yapping again. Champ, on the ground beside me, took this as a mortal insult and replied. The two yelled abuse at each other, fit to wake the dead.

"Do shut them up!" I bawled across the din. "The mansion's full of lawyers and police!"

"And Gabriel's here!" Millie yelled. She seemed to be having some kind of reaction to our narrow escapes. Anyway, she was shivering all over.

Christopher said to the dogs, "Shut up!" and they did. "I know he's here," he said to us. "Gabriel and his merry men were all over the towers and empty castles yesterday, having a good look at the changes. I had an awful job keeping out of sight."

"We have to get away," Millie said.

Christopher said, "I know," and looked up at the Traveler driving the caravan. "Is there any chance you can take us all a bit farther?" he asked.

The man gave a sort of mutter and turned to talk with the woman. They spoke quickly together in a language I had never heard before. When the man turned back, he said, "We can take you down to the town, but no farther. We have a rendezvous to make just after dawn."

"I suppose we can get a train there," Christopher said. "Fine. Thank you."

The woman said, "Climb in at the back, then."

So we all scrambled into the caravan, leaving Champ as a melancholy dark hump in the middle of the parkland, and the Traveler clicked to his horse and we drove away.

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