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Charmed Life

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

Cat SCREAMED. Flames burst out of him all over. He screamed again, and beat at himself with flaming hands, and went on screaming. They were pale, shimmering, transparent flames. They burst out through his clothes, and his shoes, his hair, across his face, so that, in seconds, he was wrapped in pale flame from head to foot. He fell on the floor, still screaming, and rolled there, blazing.

Janet kept her presence of mind. She dragged up the nearest corner of the carpet and threw it over Cat. She had heard that this smothered flames. But it did not smother these. To Janet's horror, the pale, ghostly flames came straight through the carpet as if it was not there, and played on the black underside of it more fiercely than ever. They did not burn the carpet, nor did they burn Janet's hands as she frantically rolled Cat over in the carpet, and then over again. But no matter how much carpet she wrapped around Cat, the flames still came through, and Cat went on blazing and screaming. His head was half outside the flaming bundle she had made of him, and it was a sheaf of flames. She could see his screaming face inside the fire.

Janet did the only other thing she could think of. She jumped up and screamed herself. "Chrestomanci, Chrestomanci! Come quickly!"

The door burst open while she was still screaming. Janet had forgotten it was locked, but the lock did not bother Chrestomanci. She could see it sticking out from the edge of the door as he flung it open. She had forgotten there were guests to dinner too. She remembered when she saw Chrestomanci's lace ruffles, and his black velvet suit which glimmered all over like an opal, blue, crimson, yellow, and green. But that did not seem to bother Chrestomanci either. He took one look at the flaming bundle on the floor and said "Good God!" Then he was down on his elegant knees unwrapping the carpet as frantically as Janet had wrapped it.

"I'm awfully sorry. I thought that would help," Janet stammered.

"It ought to have done," said Chrestomanci, rolling Cat over, with flames whirling through, over, and along his velvet arms. "How did he do it?"

"He struck one of the matches. I told him..."

"You stupid child!" Chrestomanci was so angry that Janet burst into tears. He lugged at the last of the carpet and Cat rolled free, flaming like a straw faggot. He was not really screaming anymore. He was making a long thin noise that had Janet covering her ears. Chrestomanci dived into the heart of the flames and found the book of matches. It was tightly clasped in Cat's right hand. "Thank God he didn't have it in the left one," he said. "Go and turn your shower on. Quick!"

"Of course. Of course," Janet sobbed, and raced to do it.

She fumbled with the taps and had just got a strong spray of cold water hissing into the sunken blue bath as Chrestomanci hurried in carrying Cat, in a ball of roaring flame. He dumped Cat down into the bath and held him there, turning him this way and that to get him wet all over.

Cat steamed and hissed. The water coming from the sprayhead shone like water against the sun, golden as the sun itself. It came down like a beam of light. And, as the bath began to fill up, Cat seemed to be turning and threshing in a pool of sunshine. He boiled it into golden bubbles. The room filled with steam. Coils of smoke drifted up from the bath, smelling thick and sweet. It was the same smell that Janet remembered from the morning she had first found herself there. As far as she could see through the smoke, Cat seemed to be turning black in the golden pool. But the water was wet. Chrestomanci was getting soaked.

"Don't you understand?" he said to Janet over his shoulder while he heaved at Cat to keep his head under the spray. "You shouldn't go telling him things like this until the Castle has had time to work on him. He wasn't ready to understand. You've given him the most appalling shock."

"I'm truly enormously sorry," Janet said, crying heavily.

"We'll just have to make the best of it," said Chrestomanci. "I'll try and explain to him. Run along to the speaking tube at the end of the corridor and tell them to send me some brandy and a pot of strong tea."

As Janet raced away, Cat found himself soaking wet, with water hissing down on him. He tried to roll away from it. Someone held him in it. A voice said insistently in his ear, "Cat. Cat, will you listen to me? Do you understand? Cat, you've only got three lives left now."

Cat knew that voice. "You told me I'd got five when you spoke to me through Miss Larkins," he grumbled.

"Yes, but you've only got three now. You'll have to be more careful," said Chrestomanci.

Cat opened his eyes and looked up at him. Chrestomanci was fearfully wet. The usually smooth black hair was hanging over his forehead in wriggles, with drips on the ends. "Oh. Was it you?" he said.

"Yes. You took a long time recognizing me, didn't you?" said Chrestomanci. "But then I didn't know you straightaway when I saw you, either. I think you can come out of this water now."

Cat was too weak to get out of the bath alone. But Chrestomanci heaved him out, stripped off his wet clothes, dried him and wrapped him in another towel in no time at all. Cat's legs kept folding. "Up you come," said Chrestomanci, and carried him again, to the blue velvet bed, and tucked him in it. "Better now, Cat?"

Cat lay back, limp but luxurious, and nodded. "Thanks. You've never called me Cat before."

"Perhaps I should have done. You just might have understood." Chrestomanci sat beside the bed, looking very serious. "You do understand now?"

"The book of matches was my nine lives," Cat said. "And I've just burned one. I know it was stupid, but I didn't believe it. How can I have nine lives?"

"You have three," said Chrestomanci. "Get that into your head. You did have nine. In some manner and by someone, they were put into that book of matches, and that book I am now going to put in my secret safe, sealed with the strongest enchantments I know. But that will only stop people using them. It won't stop you losing them yourself."

Janet came hurrying in, still tearful, but very thankful to be of use. "It's coming," she said.

"Thank you," said Chrestomanci, and he gave her a long, thoughtful look. Janet was sure he was going to accuse her of not being Gwendolen, but what he said was, "You may as well hear this too, in order to prevent more accidents."

"Can I get you a towel first?" Janet said humbly. "You're so wet."

"I'm drying out, thank you," he said, smiling at her. "Now listen. People with nine lives are very important and very rare. They only happen when, for one reason or another, there are no counterparts of them living in any other world. Then the lives that would have been spread out over a whole set of worlds get concentrated in one person. And so do all the talents that those other eight people might have had."

Cat said, "But I haven't any talents," and Janet said at the same time, "How rare are these people?"

"Extremely rare," said Chrestomanci. "Apart from Cat, the only other person with nine lives that I know of on this world is myself."

"Really?" Cat was pleased and interested. "Nine?"

"I did have nine. I've only got two now. I was even more careless than Cat," Chrestomanci said. He sounded a little ashamed. "Now I have to take care to keep each life separately in the safest place I can think of. I advise Cat to do the same."

Janet's ready brain promptly got to work on this. "Is one life here and the other downstairs having supper at this moment?"

Chrestomanci laughed. "It doesn't work like that. I..."

To Janet's disappointment, Euphemia hurried in with a tray and prevented Chrestomanci explaining how it did work. Mr.Saunders came in on Euphemia's heels, still unable to find evening clothes that covered his wrists and ankles.

"Is he all right?" Euphemia asked anxiously. "My Will was uttering threats, but if it was him I'll never speak to him again. And whatever happened to this carpet?"

Mr.Saunders was looking at the wrinkled and heaped-up carpet too. "What did it?" he said. "There were surely enough charms in this carpet to stop any kind of accident."

"I know," said Chrestomanci. "But this was amazingly strong." The two of them looked at one another significantly.

Then everyone fussed over Cat. He had a most enjoyable time. Mr.Saunders sat him up on pillows, and Euphemia put him in a nightshirt and then stroked Cat's head, just as if he had never confessed to turning her into a frog. "It wasn't Will," Cat said to her. "It was me." Chrestomanci gave him a fierce swig of brandy and then made him drink a cup of sweet tea. Janet had a cup of tea too, and felt much better for it. Mr.Saunders helped Euphemia straighten the carpet, and then asked if he should strengthen the charms in it.

"Dragons' blood might do the trick," he suggested.

"Frankly, I don't think anything will," said Chrestomanci. "Leave it." He got up and turned the mirror straight. "Do you mind sleeping tonight in Cat's room?" he asked Janet. "I want to be able to keep an eye on Cat."

Janet looked from the mirror to Chrestomanci, and her face became very pink. "Er," she said. "I've been making faces..."

Chrestomanci laughed. Mr.Saunders was so amused that he had to sit on the blue velvet stool. "I suppose it serves me right," said Chrestomanci. "Some of the faces were highly original."

Janet laughed too, a little foolishly.

Cat lay, feeling comfortable and almost cheerful. For a while, everyone was there, settling him in. Then there seemed only to be Janet, talking as usual.

"I'm so glad you're all right," she said. "Why did I open my big mouth about those matches? I had the dreaded umjams when you suddenly flared up, and when the carpet didn't work, the only thing I could think of was to yell for Chrestomanci. I was right. He came before the words were out of my mouth, even though the door was locked. It was still locked when he opened it, but the lock isn't broken, because I tried it. So he is an enchanter. And he ruined a suit over you, Cat, and didn't seem to mind, so I think that when he isn't being like freezing fog over the Grampians, he's really very nice. This isn't for the benefit of the mirror. I mean it. I suppose that mirror is the magic equivalent of...."

Cat thought he had been meaning to say something about freezing fog in the Grampians, but he drifted away to sleep while Janet talked, feeling snug and cared for.

He woke on Sunday morning, quite the opposite: cold and quivering. This afternoon he was due to be turned into a frog or face a tiger - and a rather heavy strong tiger Will Suggins would make too, he thought. Beyond the tiger - if there was a beyond - lay the horrors of Monday without magic. Julia and Roger might help there, except that it would be no use when Mr.Baslam came on Wednesday and demanded twenty pounds Cat knew he could not get. Mr.Nostrum was no help. Mrs.Sharp was even less. The only hope seemed to be to take Janet and some dragons' blood to the forbidden garden and try to get away.

Cat climbed out of bed to go and get some dragons' blood from Mr. Saunders' workshop. Euphemia came in with his breakfast on a tray, and he had to climb back into bed again. Euphemia was quite as kind as she had been last night. Cat felt bad. And when he had finished breakfast, Millie came. She scooped Cat off his pillows and hugged him.

"You poor silly darling! Thank goodness you're all right. I was aching to come and see you last night, but someone had to stay with our poor guests. Now, you're to stay in bed all today, and you must ask for anything you want. What would you like?"

"I couldn't have some dragons' blood, could I?" Cat asked hopefully.

Millie laughed. "Good heavens, Eric! You go and have that fearsome accident and then you ask for the most dangerous stuff in the world. No, you may not have dragons' blood. It's one of the few things in the Castle that really are forbidden."

"Like Chrestomanci's garden?" Cat asked.

"Not quite like that," Millie answered. "The garden is old as the hills and stuffed with magic of every kind. That's dangerous in another way. Everything's stronger there. You'll be taken into the garden when you know enough magic to understand it. But dragons' blood is so harmful that I'm never happy even when Michael uses it. You're on no account to touch any."

Julia and Roger came in next, dressed ready for church, with armfuls of books and toys and a great many interested questions. They were so kind that Cat was quite unhappy by the time Janet arrived. He did not want to leave the Castle. He felt he was truly settling in to it.

"That lump of dough is still stuck to your carpet," Janet said gloomily, which made Cat feel rather less settled. "I've just been seeing Chrestomanci, and it is hard to be punished for other people's sins," Janet went on, "even though I've been rewarded with the sight of a sky-blue dressing gown with golden lions on it."

"I've not seen that one," said Cat.

"I think he has one for every day of the week," said Janet. "All he needed was a flaming sword. He forbade me to go to church. The vicar won't have me because of what Gwendolen did last Sunday. And I was so cross at being blamed for it that I'd got my mouth open to say I wasn't Gwendolen when I remembered that if I went to church I'd have to wear that stupid white hat with little holes in it - can he hear through that mirror, do you think?"

"No," said Cat. "Just see. Or he'd know all about you. I'm glad you're staying behind. We can go and get the dragons' blood while they're at church."

Janet kept watch at the window to see when the Family left. After about half an hour, she said, "Here they are at last, walking in a crowd down the avenue. All the men have got toppers, but Chrestomanci looks as if he's come out of a shop window. Who are they all, Cat? Who's the old lady in purple mittens, and the young one in green, and the little fellow who's always talking?"

"I've no idea," said Cat. He scrambled out of bed and scuttled up to his room to find some clothes. He felt perfectly well - marvelously well, in fact. He danced around his room while he put on his shirt. He sang putting on his trousers. Even the cold lump of dough on the carpet could not damp his spirits. He whistled tying his boots.

Janet came into the room as Cat was shooting out of it, pulling on his jacket and beaming with health. "I don't know," Janet said, as Cat shot past her and hammered away down the stairs. "Dying must agree with you, or something."

"Hurry up!" Cat called from the bottom of the stairs. "It's on the other side of the Castle from here. Millie says dragons' blood is very dangerous, so don't you touch it. I can spare a life on it and you can't."

Janet wanted to remark that Cat had not spared the last one very easily, but she never caught up with Cat sufficiently. Cat whirled through the green corridors and stormed up the winding stairs to Mr.Saunders' room, and Janet only reached him when he was actually inside it. Then there was too much else to take up her attention.

The room was heavy with the scent of stale magic. Though it was much the same as when Cat had seen it before, Mr.Saunders had tidied it a little for Sunday. The cresset was out. The torts and limbecks and other vessels were all clean. The books and scrolls had been piled in heaps on the second bench. The five-pointed star was still there, blazoned on the floor, but there was a new set of signs chalked on the third bench, and the mummified animal had been neatly laid at one end of it.

Janet was immensely interested. "It's like a laboratory," she said, "except that it isn't. What weird things! Oh, I see the dragons' blood. Does he need all that huge jar? He won't miss a bit out of that lot."

There was a rustling at the end of the third bench. Janet's head perked towards it. The mummified creature was twitching and spreading its filmy little wings.

"It did that before," said Cat. "I think it's all right."

He was not so sure, however, when the creature stretched and got to its doglike feet, yawning. The yawn showed them dozens of small, sharp teeth and also let out a cloud of bluish smoke. The creature ran pattering along the bench towards them. The little wings rattled on its back as it came, and two small puffs of smoke streamed behind it from its nostrils. It stopped at the edge of the bench to look up at them inquisitively from a melting glitter of golden eyes. They backed nervously away from it.

"It's alive!" said Janet. "I think it's a small dragon."

"Of course I am," said the dragon, which made both of them jump violently. Even more alarming, tiny flames played out of its mouth as it spoke, and they could feel the heat from them where they stood.

"I didn't know you could talk," said Cat.

"I speak English quite well," said the dragon, flickering flame. "Why do you want my blood?"

They looked guiltily at the great jar of powder on the shelf. "Is that all yours?" said Cat.

"If Mr.Saunders is making it give blood all the time, I think that's rather cruel," Janet said.

"Oh, that!" said the dragon. "That's powdered blood from older dragons. They sell it to people. You can't have any of that."

"Why not?" said Cat.

"Because I don't want you to," said the dragon, and a regular roll of fire came from its mouth, making them back away again. "How would you like to see me taking human blood and playing games with it?"

Though Cat felt the dragon had a point here, Janet did not. "It doesn't worry me," she said. "Where I come from we have blood transfusions and blood banks. Dad once showed me some of my blood under a microscope."

"It worries me," said the dragon, uttering another roll of fire. "My mother was killed by unlawful blood-stealers." It crept to the very end of the bench and stared up at Janet. The flickers in its golden eyes melted and changed and melted again. It was like being looked at by two small, golden kaleidoscopes. "I was too small to hold enough blood," it flickered softly to Janet, "so they left me. I'd have died if Chrestomanci hadn't found me. So you see why it worries me?"

"Yes," said Janet. "What do baby dragons feed on? Milk?"

"Michael tried me with milk, but I didn't like it," said the dragon. "I have minced steak now, and I'm growing beautifully. When I'm big enough, he's going to take me back, but meanwhile I'm helping him with his magic. I'm a great help."

"Are you?" said Janet. "What do you do?"

"I find old things he can't find himself." The dragon fell into a flickering croon. "I fetch him animals from the abyss - old golden creatures, things with wings, pearl-eyed monsters from the deep sea, and whispering plants from long ago." It stopped and looked at Janet with its head on one side. "That was easy," it remarked to Cat. "I've always wanted to do that, but no one let me before." It sighed a long blue fume of smoke. "I wish I was bigger. I could eat her now."

Cat took an alarmed look at Janet and found her staring like a sleepwalker, with a silly smile on her face. "Of all the mean tricks!" he said.

"I think I'll just have a nibble," said the dragon.

Cat realized it was being playful. "I'll wring your neck if you do," he said. "Haven't you got anything else to play with?"

"You sound just like Michael," said the dragon in a sulky roll of smoke. "I'm bored with mice."

"Tell him to take you for walks." Cat took Janet's arm and shook her. Janet came to herself with a little jump and seemed quite unaware that anything had happened to her. "And I can't help the way you feel," said Cat to the dragon. "I need some dragons' blood." He pulled Janet well out of range, just to be on the safe side, and picked up a little china crucible from the next bench.

The dragon hunched up irritably and scratched itself like a dog under the chin until its wings rattled. "Michael says dragons' blood always does harm somewhere," it said, "even when an adept uses it. If you're not careful, it costs a life."

Cat and Janet looked at one another through the smoke it had made with its speech. "Well, I can spare one," said Cat. He took the glass stopper off the big jar and scooped up some brown powder in the crucible. It had a strong, strange smell.

"I suppose Chrestomanci manages all right with two lives," Janet said nervously.

"But he's rather special," said the dragon. It was standing on the very edge of the bench, rattling with anxiety. Its golden eyes followed Cat's hands as he wrapped the crucible in his handkerchief and pushed the bundle cautiously into his pocket. It seemed so worried that Cat went over to it and, a little nervously, rubbed it under the chin where it had been scratching. The dragon stretched its neck and pressed against his fingers. The smoke came out of its nostrils in purring puffs.

"Don't worry," Cat said. "I've got three lives left, you see."

"That explains why I like you," said the dragon, and almost fell off the bench in its effort to follow Cat's fingers. "Don't go yet!"

"We've got to." Cat pushed the dragon back on the bench and patted its head. Once he was used to it, he found he did not mind touching its warm, horny hide a bit. "Good-bye."

"Good-bye," said the dragon.

They left it staring after them like a dog whose master has gone for a walk without it.

"I think it's bored," Cat said when he had shut the door.

"It's a shame! It's only a baby," said Janet. She stopped on the first turn of the stair. "Let's go back and take it for a walk. It was sweet!"

Cat was sure that if Janet did any such thing, she would come to herself to find the dragon browsing on her legs. "It wasn't that sweet," he said. "And we'll have to go to the garden straightaway now. It's going to tell Mr.Saunders we took some dragons' blood as soon as it sees him." "Yes, I suppose it does make a difference that it can talk," Janet agreed. "We'd better hurry then."

Cat walked very carefully through the Castle, down and out of doors, and kept a hand on his pocket in case of accidents. He was afraid he might arrive at the forbidden garden with one life less. He seemed to have lost three of his lives so easily. That kept puzzling him. From the look of those matches, losing life number five ought to have been as much of a disaster as losing the sixth one last night. But he had not noticed it go at all. He could not understand it. His lives did not seem to be properly attached to him, like ordinary people's. But at least he knew there were no other Cat Chants to be dragged into trouble in this world, when he left it.

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