Actions

Work Header

Ninth Life

Work Text:

It was dashed unfair, Christopher thought—"dashed unfair?" Had Millie's novels worn off on him after all?—that no matter what, he seemed to end up with adults who just didn't listen to him. For years and years, he hadn't tried telling them things to begin with. Talking to Mama was worse than useless. And then Uncle Ralph had listened, after a fashion, but had just taken the parts he wanted and ignored what wasn't useful. So he'd kept his mouth shut for a while, or at least asked more questions than he answered.

But Gabriel de Witt, while he was boring and rule-bound, was also very fair. And he knew the business of being Chrestomanci, which was a business Christopher had realized he wanted to learn.

So when Millie ran away, he knew that Gabriel de Witt had to know, had to be told all of the information so that he could find her. And then he and Millie together could make Gabriel understand about the school. Once Gabriel understood, he would certainly find a new, sensible plan. It was what he did.

But Gabriel hadn't listened; Gabriel had turned from their fight and continued calmly, infuriatingly along the path he had planned. So much for diplomacy. Christopher could hear, somewhere in the back of his head, Millie scoffing at the suggestion that he was diplomatic. But he was on his way to being a Chrestomanci, and surely he had picked some diplomacy up along the way. He would have to take matters into his own hands.

After a couple of days of sneaking away to scry when he was supposed to be doing lessons, he knew where Millie was, more or less. If he armed them with this specific information, would anyone else be able to talk Gabriel into seeing reason? Likely anyone capable of doing it would be equally disinclined to listen to Christopher. And Gabriel had been as furious as Christopher had been; who in the Castle would want to go behind his back when he was in a mood like that? The Chrestomanci's staff were fiercely loyal. The majority of the other students were cowed by Gabriel; the ones who weren't were generally idiots in one way or another. If only Millie—no, no use thinking about how much he wished Millie hadn't gone. There wouldn't be a problem to begin with, if Millie were here.

Did he have the resources to do an end-run around Gabriel? Still no allies there, but perhaps he could talk his way into some help if he disguised it. If he went to find Millie himself, Gabriel would be able to trace him immediately; damn high-handed life-taking enchanters. There was no way to hide in any Series; perhaps if he sent multiple versions of himself—oh, of course. All he had to do was get that extra life back. He had been a child when Gabriel took charge of it; it was time to take back what was his.

***

Flavian was not as easy to talk round as he used to be—he had wised up with the addition of more students, some of them less subtle than Christopher liked to think he was. Old tutors could learn new tricks. But he had his vulnerabilities.

"Oh, yes," Flavian said. "Most of the estate was done over in the eighteenth century; Capability Brown was a friend of that Chrestomanci's. Although the Chrestomanci took the fancy to put some picturesque novelties in the hedgerows. The rustic cottage dates to that period. In fact, many of the plantings—"

"But the castle was here earlier?" Christopher interrupted.

"More or less," Flavian said. "Hardly recognizable as what it is today, I expect, but the earliest part dates to the late medieval period. They must have raised the ceilings with wizardry, now that I think about it, to get these lovely open spaces. Someone practically as willing to shift things around as you are."

"Enlightenment Chrestomanci sounds jolly," Christopher said. In his effort not to sound like he was sulking or plotting, he was definitely falling into more of the language of school novels.

"He also burned several native villages to the ground during the Seven Years’ War, while entire families slept," Flavian said matter-of-factly.

"I would never let the government order me to do something like that," Christopher said. "I should sooner turn the Prime Minister into a toad." And then he remembered that, after he left to find Millie, he would never be in the position to be taking orders from the government anyway. But they were getting off track. "So," Christopher said, still trying to sound casual, "the office is in the older part of the castle?"

"Oh, yes, the oldest I should say," Flavian said. "It's rather—it isn't that the Chrestomanci draws power from the castle, or that the castle is sentient, or any mumbo jumbo like that. But it's helpful for him to stay in a sort of balance with the power that's here. You know there are spells hanging over the Castle, and very strong spells from the past leave part of themselves even when they’re completed. So many Chrestomancis over the years; you can't change certain things without—"

Flavian stopped in his tracks, staring over Christopher's shoulder at the fireplace, where Throgmorten was bracing himself for a jump onto the chimney piece. "Those hideous pink vases," said Flavian, sounding slightly strangled as Throgmorten stared at the objects in question, "are valuable antiques, believe it or not. A gift from a visiting dignitary. Throgmorten, please don't do that." The cat jumped but missed his mark, landing on an ottoman and pretending that he'd been aiming for it all along. Christopher volunteered to take Throgmorten back outside for the sake of any other priceless artifacts, bringing the lesson to an end.

***

The trickiest part was the second charm. It was child's play finding the safe. He waited until mid-morning, when Gabriel and the magic-working staff were off hunting down dead ends for Millie, researching reports of cows turning pink on the southeast coast, and attending the usual meetings in London (tariffs on wizarding supplies had been driving up the black market in toads and newts dreadfully this quarter.) Most students were working on herbcraft out in the woods, but Christopher had begged off to spend more time on independent magic theory study. And the servants were two floors away in the bedroom wing.

So he simply walked into the office wing and shifted things a bit, putting the Castle in the mindset of a time when he himself might be Chrestomanci. Once he felt the castle spells settle into this new arrangement, he walked into the twilight office and sat down at the Chrestomanci’s desk, then asked the room politely to remind him where the safe was.

The office seemed to agree with the request, but Christopher didn’t see anything happening. There were no paintings on the wall to slide away, or bookshelves to swing open. No hidden doors appeared, and nothing materialized hanging from the ceiling. It was quiet—and then he heard a light whumpf, and ah, it was behind him. A small rug levitated at knee height, uncovering a trapdoor in the floor.

Christopher tugged the rug up and wrapped it around his shoulders, feeling like he deserved a bit of grandeur for his cleverness. He sat down cross-legged under the window to examine the door. It had no visible handle or hinge, but its outline was quite clear. It was small and nine-sided, each side slightly different in length.

I AM Chrestomanci, Christopher thought at it. He was suppressing the thought that this might be the only time he played this role. A very serious, orderly Chrestomanci. Nothing happened. He wondered if the castle could hear his sarcasm. Then again, he suspected Gabriel of sarcasm himself at times, so was it really breaking character? He looked at the door again, feeling how the spells were shaped around it, and carefully poked at the edge of the magic.

Ah, there they were. There was one charm that would dye his—the intruder’s—outfit a bilious shade of green, while the next appeared to summon the Arm of Asheth—surely that couldn’t be right; would Gabriel bring them right into the Castle? He had been awfully firm about protecting the extra life; Christopher had put it down to Gabriel’s infuriating need to be in control of every detail, but what happened if there was no new nine-lived enchanter to take over when needed?

He kept looking; several more of the protections seemed to be pointedly designed at Christopher. It wasn’t as if he was the only person who might want to steal it! One charm would cause him to make errors in cricket at match-critical moments. Cruel; more inventive than he might have credited Gabriel with. And one would let him take the life from the safe and think that he'd gotten away with it, but would bounce him straight back into this office if he tried any spirit traveling without dismantling the charm properly.

This would take a good deal of care to do correctly; he kept studying it, trying to pinpoint each protection. If he touched the trapdoor there, a swarm of bees; here, and it would rain for three weeks and everyone would have double lessons. What if—no, that would make everything he ate smell and taste like mushy peas.

Something was tickling at the edge of his attention. It seemed even more twilight than usual in the office; was there something going on with the weather? But he still had another charm to find. His foot was falling asleep, but he just needed to focus for another minute—where had the damn cat come from?

Throgmorten rubbed past him, turned in a circle, and sat down firmly on the trapdoor. "Wong," he said.

"Wong indeed," Christopher said. "I don’t suppose you’d care to help?" Throgmorten began licking himself. Christopher reached a hand out to try to scratch the cat's head, and a switch flipped in his mind. I’ve been sitting here for hours, he thought. Gabriel and his staff will be back—OH. He stood, pulled the rug from his shoulders and tossed it over the back of the chair. Then he shook the remnants of the spell from himself and took a look at it. It wasn’t in the rug, although that had helped keep it in place. He’d been under it since the second he saw the trapdoor.

Head clear now, he peered at the trapdoor. He took off the remaining charms with a flick of his wrist (Millie would have called it showing off), and it opened to reveal the safe. The iron safe, with a very secure-looking combination lock on the top. He had expected something more ornate.

There weren't any spells remaining on it, so he would need to figure out how to magic a lock. They never did teach enough useful things in lessons, he thought grumpily, ignoring the fact that they had covered locks and knots two months ago. It just hadn't seemed relevant to him at the time, when he knew all about binding spells already. He had been eager to get on to secret codes. Now he cast his mind back to what he'd learned and placed his fingers lightly on the dial. He nudged the castle's magic around a bit, and found where the gears wanted to fall into place.

Easy as pie, the safe opened, revealing its intriguing contents: crumbling documents, shiny jewels, and what looked like a skeletal finger in a bell jar. But there it was, a glass jar with a gold ring in it. He would have known it anywhere. The jar was too big to fit in his pocket, so he shook the ring out of it and started to put it on his finger. But something was off about the air. He had spent too long in the office, and the castle spells were bouncing back into place. This room was getting the sense that this was not the Chrestomanci.

Christopher pushed the safe and trapdoor shut, then tried to calmly project the idea that he belonged here as much as every other Chrestomanci. The office was a little brighter than usual, he noticed. There was an elegant brass floor lamp next to the desk, and the desk chair had a plush velvet cushion.

Christopher was frantic for a moment with the idea that he had to change it back, then realized that he wouldn't be here to face Gabriel's reaction anyway. That's just how I would want it, he thought, when—if I were Chrestomanci.

Apparently the office had gotten a good sense of Christopher's style; the walls were lightening to a pleasant sky blue, with a decorative border that Gabriel would positively hate. He almost wished he would be here to see Gabriel's face.

But he had to find Millie, and now there was nothing keeping him tied to the castle. The Travelers could get him to Series Seven; he just had to find them in The Place Between. He slipped away sideways, leaving this world on his own for the first time in ages, and he was on his way to Millie.