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What Dreams

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1

It wasn't just luck that Millie was watching the garden from her window that night, although later on Christopher was to call it the most beastly kind of luck. But he was tired and out of sorts -- he'd been like that for months -- and Millie generously forgave him.

But that was later. At the time, when she saw Christopher heading across the smooth moonlit lawn toward the garden again -- such a familiar silhouette, though taller lately than she'd quite gotten used to -- she didn't even think about what to do, she simply slipped on her dressing gown and her oldest pair of fuzzy slippers and tiptoed down the stairs and out into the cool spring night.

It was late enough that the world was silent around her. She couldn't even hear Christopher's footsteps ahead of her and she kept losing sight of him in the shadows, but she knew where he was going. Even so, he got there before her, and she followed him up the steep, overgrown stair, all the time fighting the sensation that she was climbing up into a moonlit dream.

If she concentrated, she could sense the too-smooth texture lining that feeling: it was just a stray bit of magic Christopher had left behind him to distract anyone following him. But two could play that game, and Millie was good at remembering what was real. She brushed away the gossamer strands of dreamy confusion, and climbed faster.

When she reached the garden, it was a crisp autumn night and golden leaves were rustling in the branches of the ancient trees. She hurried onward, through a brief winter snow-shower: fat flakes falling and melting in her hair as she emerged into spring again. She had the most dreadful feeling that she was going to be too late.

That feeling was Christopher's fault too, she decided, pursing her lips and deliberately slowing down before she tripped over something.

She caught up with him in the center of the garden. He was standing by the stone archway that marked the very center of all the possibilities that this garden contained, and he had his hands on the stonework and she could feel the power building. Christopher was a nine-lived enchanter, the very strongest kind of enchanter, and he was calling on great deal of power indeed, but Millie couldn't tell exactly what he was trying to do with it, alone at night in this forbidden garden.

"Christopher!" Millie called softly. "It's me."

He ignored her entirely. That was both so typical she ought to have expected it and so annoying that it didn't matter what she'd expected, and she instantly forgot all about the nice ways she'd thought of to lead into insisting that he tell her everything.

"Oh, fine," she said crossly. He wasn't going to listen to her with all that magic going on anyway, and she'd already tried being nice a dozen times before now. "I'll just wait until you're done, and then we can talk." She put her warmest kind of steel in her voice, and even though he was ignoring her, the shadow of an irritated expression passed across his face. Clearly, that was the best she was going to get.

It was more than she'd gotten the first time she'd tried to talk to Christopher about what was bothering him. She hadn't realized how big a thing was lurking under the surface, and when she'd caught him yawning at the breakfast table, she'd just casually asked "Is everything all right?"

The cold, completely blank look he'd given her and been enough to make her shiver.

"I was just asking," she'd said, in precipitous retreat. And he hadn't even apologized.

She'd kept an eye on him after that, because whatever else lay between them, she was the oldest friend Christopher had among all the young magic workers at Chrestomanci Castle, and the more she saw, the more she worried. It wasn't anything big, but he always looked distracted -- more distracted than usual -- and when she asked around, no one had had a good conversation with him for months.

"He's been training a lot," Conrad said. "And I have too, but if you think I should..."

"Oh, no, I'll take care of it," Millie said.

"Isn't he always off in Series Four? Shadowing the Chrestomanci, I think," Jason said. Series Four was a series of alternate worlds that was especially full of intricate magic, so it made sense that the future Chrestomanci would need to know it well. And Jason was probably right, because Millie couldn't find anyone who'd seen much of Christopher in this world lately. Not since his eighteenth birthday party, when he'd been blithe and charming and talked to everyone.

So whatever it was, it must be something that happened after that.

After some careful thought, she'd made him muffins and tried to get him to settle in for a nice long chat, but he'd scarfed down two of them, talked a little about how to hire a cook, which was a subject she couldn't imagine he had much interest in, and then conveniently been called away by the Chrestomanci for special training. She wasn't sure how he'd managed that, but she hadn't been able to catch him alone since then.

She had passed him in the corridor late one night, and collected a little more evidence to add to her growing store of worries. She was on her way back to her room from a girl's night with some of the other students, still giggling helplessly over one of those jokes that wouldn't be funny in the morning, and she hadn't registered the strong sense of strange magic until she was already past him.

She'd run after him, but he hadn't answered the knock at his door.

In the morning, when she'd pressed him, all he'd told her, looking pained, was "I haven't been sleeping well."

"Christopher, it's me," she'd said patiently. "You can tell me anything, I promise." But that just made him look haughtier and more aloof. She hadn't known what to say then. It confused her, not knowing how to talk to Christopher. She hadn't even mentioned the strange magic.

Now she could sense more of the strange magic, pouring out from whatever Christopher was doing over by the archway, and she wished she'd pressed a little harder, because she was just dying to know what on earth he thought he was doing. It was something big, that much was easy to tell, but there was something elusive about it too. Dream-like? Something not quite real...

And as Millie stared, her witch-sight fully extended, she didn't sense anything she could put her finger on, but that didn't mean it wasn't filling the whole meadow -- maybe the whole garden -- with...something. The best comparison she could come up with was a great black panther, somewhere out there in the night. Something dark and wild and menacing, that didn't want her here.

"Stop it, Christopher," she muttered, and began to pace along the edge of the meadow. That helped a little, and when Millie reached into the pocket of her dressing gown and closed her fist around a sixpence she just happened to have there, that helped even more, which settled it. Christopher was repelling her -- his biggest weakness was silver, so of course contact with silver would help her escape the effects.

Her mind felt clearer with the silver against her skin, but even without the vague sense of dread pressing against her and clouding her judgment, Millie wasn't at all certain what to do now. The problem with Christopher was that he never looked like he was in trouble, even when it was dire. Like now: the panther-magic was Christopher's doing, but maybe it was all part of some secret thing that only Chrestomancis knew about.

But it wasn't his normal kind of magic, and she couldn't shake the feeling that there was something off about it all.

Millie walked faster, circling the edge of the meadow in a widdershins direction. Christopher's magic swirled about the meadow, shifting and pushing and prying and poking her away, and no matter how she tried to pin it down, all she could tell was that it was coming from the center of the meadow, and it really didn't want here here. Every step she took was a tiny bit more work until she was breath hard to keep going at an amble, and it demanded all her concentration to keep from spiraling out of the meadow altogether.

She shook her head and stopped. With her feet planted firmly and her toes curling inside her slippers, and with one hand holding onto silver and the other outstretched, she tugged the edge of the meadow like it was a string. She kept pulling until the meadow was back to its normal size. "Ha!" she said, pleased, and then, "Don't bother trying to get rid of me. I'm not leaving."

Christopher ignored her, of course.

The look on his face was blanker than his normal blank look, blank like something had been erased, and Millie suddenly had a dreadful feeling that she'd made a big mistake when she assumed that Christopher knew what he was doing.

She started running toward the center of the meadow, but it was bigger again, and she found herself rushing uphill across the flat meadow, pushing through brush and brambles and right through long lines of barbed wire, forcing the worst of it to part in front of her and trampling the rest.

Just like Christopher lately, Millie thought unhappily. One day birthday picnics and appealing eagerness, the next day thorns and brambles and complicated tangles of looks and twitches, something she'd once relied on suddenly unstable.

Just like -- the ground crumbled away beneath her feet, sending her tumbling down to a halt at the bottom of a dusty crater.

She waited until she could breath again, then sat up and looked around, no longer sure where she was, not exactly. This was Chrestomanci's garden, it was the garden that connected all the different worlds together so that the Chrestomanci could access them and no one else could cause any trouble.

Millie wasn't any sort of Chrestomanci, but when she looked up and saw lights streaking across the sky and felt an earthshaking rumble, like something big was tunneling through the ground beneath her, for a moment she thought she might have fallen into a different world. But then she saw Christopher peering down at her with a horrified expression on his face. "You can't be here!" he said. "Go away!"

And then she was back in the meadow, her head whirling from the strength of the magic he'd used.

"Christopher!" she shrieked, really mad now, with a blazing, righteous anger. That magic he'd used was strong, and it wasn't very nice. It was the sort of thing Christopher was supposed to be guarding against, not using.

If he wasn't going to do his job, someone else would just have to do it for him.

She put the strongest blocking spell she knew on the broken archway that was channeling Christopher's spell, gripping the sixpence so hard it hurt the palm of her hand. Moonlight fell on her skin and gave it a silver glow.

Everything stopped.

Millie walked the rest of the way across the meadow in frozen silence, waiting for Christopher to say something. Dreading what he might say. Had she ruined everything? She'd only wanted to help, and for things to go back the way they were supposed to be.

Christopher looked past her, his eyes wide open but glassy and unseeing. His expression was blank and his magic was pouring out from him like blood from a wound.

He was sleepwalking! Trust Christopher to put on a dressing gown, even when sleepingwalking, Millie thought indignantly. She knew from a thrilling school adventure she'd read a long time ago that you weren't supposed to wake sleepwalkers, but she thought this was an exceptional situation.

"Christopher!" Millie shouted.

His eyes snapped open, darted around, and focused on Millie. His expression was frantic. "You're still here! What are you doing here?"

"I saw you come out--"

"The most beastly kind of luck," Christopher said, sounding frustrated. "It's dangerous here, don't you know that? I told you to stay away!"

And she saw that he was still half asleep. "All you have to do is stop the magic," she said, ignoring the rudeness and getting down to the essentials before something else happened. "Christopher, slow down and think a moment, and stop the magic so that we can talk. We need to talk far more than you realize. Do you even know--"

She stopped talking, because the magic had stopped and she hadn't realized how oppressive it had been. It felt like emerging from a dreadful storm into the sunlight, even though it was still night.

"Oh, that's so much better," she said. She wiggled her shoulders with the relief of it, and impulsively grabbed Christopher's hand in hers and dragged him toward the edge of the meadow, away from the broken archway. "So much better," she repeated. "What were you doing?"

Christopher followed along obediently, more still than aloof. At first she was afraid that he wasn't going to answer her, but then she saw that he was only trying to gather himself and his dignity.

"I've been having bad dreams," Christopher said finally.

"Oh, you poor dear," Millie said instantly. "Isn't that the worst? I hate it when I have nightmares, I just don't know what to do."

Some of his stiffness melted a little. She strongly suspected that he'd been afraid she might laugh, or at least not understand. For a long time she'd lived in fear of that very same thing, she'd had far too much of the brittle laughter of stuck-up girls, and she still found herself waiting for the blow to fall every now and then. And she didn't even mind a little quiet laughter if it was kind, but Christopher didn't like being laughed at at all. "Do you want to tell me about them?" she asked gently.

If he hadn't been in an excited state from his nightmare, he might have stiffened up again, but right then he simply wanted to tell her.

"It's awful stuff, Millie," he said. "I don't think I can tell you how it makes me feel. It started when de Witt and I went to Series Four to investigate some pretty bad magic. It was..." He hesitated, editing for the lady. "It was grim. Both sides were using -- did I say they were all at war with each other? -- they were using magic ruthlessly, to capture and interrogate and blow things up, and the whole world was just one big ball of fear --"

Millie sat down by a big oak tree and drew Christopher down next to her. He barely noticed, unbottling his experience for her, words flowing first in a trickle, then in a whitewater rush. "--and there was one kid, younger than me--"

He shuddered.

"...and there was this building that had been bombed, and there were people stuck--"

"...we did everything that we could, more than de Witt thought was necessary but I couldn't just leave, Millie, but we couldn't find her..."

"And for a moment, I was--" He stopped, lips pressing together. He didn't want to tell her that part.

"It sounds horrible," Millie said sympathetically. "Is that what you were dreaming about?"

"Almost," Christopher said. "It was-- You know how dreams are. It was worse -- it felt worse -- but it was all mixed up, powerful magic, and things exploding, and buildings surrounded by barbed wire and spells, and going inside to find that they're developing even worse spells..." He shuddered, and looked at Millie unhappily. "We shut down the facility, it was blatant misuse of magic, but they're still at war, you know."

And that was where the stiffness was coming from. Christopher was miserable about that world in Series Four.

"Oh dear," Millie said. "Your nightmares have got mine beat to smithereens."

Christopher looked unhappy. And then slowly, as he quit focusing on being unhappy and took in his surroundings, that turned into being bewildered. "But Millie, how did we get here?" he asked.

So Millie told him about the sleepwalking, and the magic he'd been doing, which didn't make him any happier. "I thought I was just dreaming," he said. "I was just dreaming. I'd know if I was really going somewhere, like I used to when I was younger..."

As Christopher's oldest friend, Millie was the only one among the enchanters and magicians in training at Chrestomanci Castle who knew that when Christopher was younger, he used to travel to other worlds in his sleep. But back then, he'd left one of his lives behind, and she could see that he had both of them with him -- the life he was using, and the golden ring on the chain around his neck.

"You were doing something magical," she said. "And I think I fell into the world you just described for a second, but I couldn't have really, could I? Not if they're not doing the worst stuff in your dream there any more. I saw spells streaking across the sky, and I felt explosions and something underground--"

Christopher absently brushed a bit of pollen off of the lapel of his dressing gown. Then he bit his lip. "You must have been in my dream," he said. Reluctantly, he added, "I remember that you were there. The garden must have made that happen somehow. It's a garden with a lot of possibilities..."

"Or maybe it was your magic? There was a lot of it," Millie said.

"I don't remember that," Christopher admitted. "I hope not. But...I think...the garden will take care of it."

"Hmm," Millie said, feeling like she was back amidst the thorns again. Looking at Christopher gave her the courage to say, hoping it wouldn't make Christopher too unhappy, "The garden is hiding something. I wouldn't trust it."

"Bother." And then he searched, she'd give him that much. She looked too, and the first thing she saw was the giant trail of magic that Christopher had left behind when he pushed her out of the dream. Lurking in the shadows nearby, she could still sense some remnant danger-feeling hanging around.

But Christopher must not have sensed all that pent up panther-magic. He said eventually, "I think it'll be okay."

"But it's still there," Millie said. "Here, I'll go get some of it to show you--"

"Stop!" Christopher shouted, before she'd done anything more than lean forward.

Millie blinked at him. "I was just--"

He was quite pale. "If it's really my dream, I don't think you want to go anywhere near it," he said. "It's not safe."

"We can't just leave bits of dream laying around," Millie said practically. "Should we go get the Chrestomanci?"

"No!" Christopher said, even more vehemently. "I can handle it. It's my dream, I ought to take care of it, you know," he added persuasively, and Millie looked at him carefully. She thought he really meant it -- but he also didn't want to expose his dream to de Witt.

"Will you let me help?" she asked, venturing into the realm of brambles again. Christopher twitched. Millie looked at him severely. "I'll be very offended if you don't let me help," she said gently, helping him along a bit.

"Oh fine," Christopher said with ill grace. "We'll have to take it apart from the inside, that's the only way with dreams. Shall we go now and get it over with?"

Millie nodded, emptied her pockets of silver, and took Christopher's hand. They stepped onto the magically traced pathway Christopher had left behind at exactly the same instant, and tumbled into the dream together.

The first thing Millie noticed was the smell. It was a greasy, rather metallic smell that got up her nostrils and poked right upward through the top of her nose toward her brain. She'd never smelled anything half as pungent in a dream before. Usually she didn't smell anything at all. Christopher must have a very different sense of the world, she thought, and looked around.

It was still night, and the sky was still bright and the ground still unsteady. Christopher was holding on to her hand very tightly. In the distance, Millie could see shadows -- trenches, glowing gas, barbed wire and tents that glowed with patterns that looked magical in every direction. Far away, against the horizon, she could vaguely make out an archway rather like the one in the garden, the one Christopher had been using to channel his magic, except that this one was complete, with a flat top as well as two sturdy sides.

"Is this it?" Millie asked.

An siren screeched to life before Christopher could answer. "They've detected us!" he shouted, and made them invisible. Of course then Millie didn't know where he was or what he wanted to do, and had to levitate herself up above the level of the tents so that the soldiers rushing around in response to the alarm wouldn't run into her.

"This will never do," she said crossly. "Christopher? Oh drat, I've lost him."

She looked around to try to find the center of the dream, because if it was Christopher's dream, then that was where he ought to be. To the south, away from the ripples that Millie thought were trenches, there was a large building that was trying to be stealthy and failing entirely. For one thing, it was too large, and for another, it was the center of all the activity. She could hear bangs coming from inside, and soldiers streamed in and out through the dragon-sized door at the front.

Millie picked an upstairs window and sneaked in past the magical defenses, and tiptoed through a dark room and out onto a balcony overlooking a giant space filled with people and machinery. There were cogs and gears and long shuttles moving back and forth and strands of various colored cord made of fibers with magic twisted in.

In the middle of it all, there was a tank, with its gun pointing straight up.

The tank was suspended from cords, and the machinery was moving all around it, but it was all such a pother of colors and magic that Millie couldn't make any sense of it at all.

"There you are!" Christopher said behind her. "That's the kind of gun that leveled the building in Four. It doesn't look like they're going to be able to use it to blow anything up any time soon," he added. He sounded subdued, but more cheerful than she expected. "They've got the gun dissembled on the inside, I checked."

"Is the machinery from Four too?" Millie asked.

"No, I don't know what that is. I've never seen it before."

"I think I have," Millie said, but she couldn't remember exactly where. It had been a long time ago, but she didn't think it was something she'd seen in Series Ten, her own home series.

"Anyway, this isn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be," Christopher said. "Shall we blow it all up and get out?"

"That's not going to help," Millie said. "We won't stop the dream by believing in it," she said. She made herself smile cheerfully, because that's what you had to do with bad dreams. Just refuse to accept them.

Christopher looked doubtful, but he couldn't argue with her dream logic. "You're probably right," he said. "What did you have in mind?"

Millie thought about the last time she'd seen Christopher looking really cheerful, for his birthday picnic. "Let's have a picnic," she said. In the logic of dreams, that ought to change the whole thing.

Christopher gave her a dubious look. "I'll hold them off, and you concentrate on having fun," Millie said.

She positioned the picnic table inside one of the dark rooms, and conjured up a great deal of hot food, and then, thinking of another recent picnic she'd had with Christopher -- a perfect golden day, just the two of them, before thorns started coming up between them -- she conjured up something resembling the best linen and china from Chrestomanci Castle. Christopher did like his picnics to be more like formal dinners that happened to take place outdoors.

Or indoors, in a grimy room on the upper level of some kind of war factory, but that wasn't hers to fix. "Isn't the sun nice and warm?" she suggested, to give Christopher an idea of what to go for with this dream. She'd conjured some hot food too, but she found that she wasn't in the least hungry. Maybe the problem was that it was actually late at night and she wasn't hungry, though that shouldn't matter in a dream.

"Have you met Conrad's new pet dog?" she asked next. "He's very excited to have a pet, and the dog is such a sweet little thing. You'll have to be careful to keep him off of your clothes, though, because Conrad says he doesn't know how one dog could possibly produce so much hair."

Christopher gave her a very polite smile. "I haven't had the pleasure, but do tell me more," he said.

"Well, Conrad wanted to get--"

"Watch out for the magic gas," Christopher said tensely.

"I'm taking care of it," she said serenely, making a ball of good air around them that the poison gas couldn't get into. "You know, if you try to dream about a dog at our picnic, that might make this all more funny," she suggested. "Maybe one that begs for scraps?"

Christopher got an intent look on his face, but no dog.

"Oh come on Christopher, you're not even trying," she said.

"I am trying," Christopher said. "But I don't think this dream wants to change."

"Try harder," Millie said. She hoped she didn't sound cross, but they'd moved on to hand grenades, and she was distracted making sure she didn't miss disabling any of them before they went off.

"And dogs are very cheerful, you know. And whatever you do, don't invite Throgmorten into the dream, or he'll be chasing soldiers all day," she said.

"Millie, this isn't working," Christopher said.

"Check for silver," Millie suggested. She set up a shield to keep the bullets from hitting them, and cast around for some other innocuous topic of conversation. This was so much harder than she'd expected, she didn't know how a dream could be so strong. Hers never were.

"You know, that machine down there look a lot like a loom," she said to keep the conversation going. It wasn't exactly innocuous, but it was the best she could do. "They used to have something a lot like it in the village just down from the school I used to go to. It was on display in a restaurant, and it wasn't nearly as advanced."

They had some sort of gun on a trolley now, they were setting it up, and Millie gave up. "And I think we'd better go now," she said to Christopher.

He'd been waiting for that; he waved his hand and they were back outside, just as the wall of the factory exploded.

"Ugh, this is impossible," Millie said. "What kind of a dream is this?"

Christopher, impossibly, had an excited look on his face. "Millie, I don't think this is a dream. It's not mine, at least, because I've never seen a loom in my life."

"But then what is it?"

"That's what I'm trying to figure out," Christopher said. "But if that machine is a Series Twelve type of machine -- are you sure?"

"No, I'm not sure," Millie snapped. For a moment, everything seemed too much. If this wasn't a dream, then Millie had almost just killed them in there, trying to influence it. No wonder it hadn't seemed properly dreamlike. "But I think so," she said quickly, almost instantly sorry for snapping. "Christopher, I'm sorry--"

Christopher seemed oblivious to the nuances of her feelings. "No, no... But it would explain what you said about the garden being untrustworthy." That was him talking to himself, but it didn't last long. "Don't you see? The garden is like a garden of worlds, and part of the Chrestomanci's job is to keep it all tidy and organized, because worlds always want to grow and the ones in this garden need to be kept in check, controlled and used to maintain the Chrestomanci's influence.

"You see, every now and then, when a world is about to split, if it's about to split for a reason that's not right, it can be stopped, and there's one in particular from the time of the second Chrestomanci, there was a group of evil enchanters were trying to break the Chrestomanci's power by splitting this world in two--"

"Those were dangerous times, full of evil enchanters," Millie said. She might not know a lot about the history of this world, but she knew that much.

"If the Chrestomanci had caught it an instant later, it would have been too late, but she caught it just in time, before it was more than a fragment of a world. She stuffed it in this garden," Christopher explained. There was a dreadful whine coming from the sky -- some sort of missile -- but Christopher waved his hand and kept talking into the frozen silence that followed.

"It's very important to the garden, because it's what connects the garden to our world," he added. "So you can see, it's not something that we should be messing with."

"Well, I wasn't the one messing with it," Millie said tartly. "How did you get it in your dreams?"

Christopher looked abashed. "I must have been walking between worlds, just a little bit. And this world fragment was split as an act of war, so there was that to link us together. I was dreaming of war, and got snagged."

"But it can't be that easy," Millie said. "Where was this baby world before? If it's always been here, then why hasn't it ever done anything like this?"

"I think it must have been properly pruned, like a well-behaved tree that spends all its time dreaming," Christopher said. "Until I distrubed it just enough, with my own dreams..."

"Oh," Millie said. "Oh," she repeated in a different tone, as it all fell into place. "That does explain why it was so hard to change anything. You can't change a world too much, just nudge it here and there, because a world is full of inertia and gravity and magic and all kinds of forces to keep it exactly the way it should be. But that means there's nothing much we can do, doesn't it?"

Christopher made an inarticulate noise, and Millie looked at him sharply. He was turning white. "Christopher, what are you doing?" she asked, alarmed, but she didn't really need him to answer. He'd put a strong stasis on this entire world fragment so that he could explain what he'd figured out to her.

"You've got it, now please go tell de Witt," he said, sounding strained. "I'll keep anything worse from happening. And please hurry."

"Christopher, don't be a fool," Millie said. "I'm not going to leave you here alone."

"We started a war," Christopher said. "They overreacted to us, and the whole world is full of missile now, the kind that can kill everything. I don't think I dare let go."

"But--"

Millie could see that there was no use arguing. She had to do something, because clearly Christopher couldn't. He was connected to this world fragment that was determined to blow itself up, when it really ought to be asleep, just like Christopher ought to be in bed asleep...

Millie started humming a lullaby. Christopher, dreaming the dream of a fragment of a war-like world... Christopher, connected and attuned... She dropped sleep on him like a blanket, waves and waves of sleep until she could barely think.

Christopher yawned, and the whole world wavered. Millie redoubled her efforts, and suddenly the world collapsed around her and she found herself sitting in the garden, under an oak tree, with Christopher asleep with his head in her lap.

Millie smiled down at him. "See, that wasn't so hard," she said. "And I promise, I'll guard your sleep, until we can find a permanent solution."

And that's exactly what she did. In the morning, the Chrestomanci found them and brought everything in the garden back into balance. A permanent solution, he agreed, and then gave Christopher and Millie a thorough scolding. After almost dying inside a world fragment they hadn't realized existed, they thought they'd gotten off lightly.

 

3

In due time, Gabriel de Witt retired from the post of Chrestomanci -- in fact, he left the post as soon as he decently could after Christopher came of age (which only made Christopher unbearably nervous for a year or two). Christopher settled into being Chrestomanci and final port of call for those in magical trouble with remarkable ease, which meant that he only cursed the job once or twice a week, and then eventually, as he got even better at it, only once or twice a month -- quite silently, of course, behind his best vague expression so no one would ever know.

(He often thought, either smugly or sympathetically, depending on his mood, that Gabriel de Witt would have cursed it once or twice a day, if de Witt had been the cursing type. So it was probably just as well de Witt wasn't; cursing was a bad habit for a powerful enchanter to get into.)

As Chrestomanci, Christopher learned more about the garden and the worlds that it contained and linked, and how to control them before they had a chance to control him (at least most of the time, though there were a few notable exceptions which his family sometimes liked to tease him about, especially around Christmas time -- but all's well that ends well, Christopher liked to retort).

Eventually, he thought he knew everything there was to know about the care of world fragments, guiding and pruning them to get the most out of them, forming them into bonsai worlds like the Japanese liked to do. But since one of the things he'd learned as Chrestomanci was that even an expert can benefit from the advice of other experts, he asked the castle gardeners to look in on the ancient garden frequently too.

With all that attention, there should have been almost no possibility of anything getting out of hand in that garden, but another thing that Chrestomanci had learned quite well over the years of responding to people in dire distress was that almost no chance was not the same thing as no chance at all.

He just didn't like it when the million to one chance caused trouble at home as well.

He'd been Chrestomanci for many years when the ancient world-spanning garden started acting strangely again. At first, it was nothing very much, just things showing up that didn't belong, an occasional lost soul wandering out of the garden needing directions. The company of trained dire-wolves, clad in armor made of stiff magical cloth, was a bit more disturbing, and when the floating balloon-tank appeared above the garden, Chrestomanci dealt with it with a strong homing spell, but it was clear that something had to be done to solve the problem at its source.

He assigned Jason Yeldham to the task, because Jason was good with plants and growing things. Unfortunately, Jason got lost in the garden for a week, and returned with a sunburn, a broken arm, and the burning conviction that he didn't want to set foot in that garden again.

"It's not the plants that are wrong in there," he told Chrestomanci. "It's something bigger."

So Chrestomanci turned the task over to Michael Saunders, who had a good understanding of the theory of magic behind how the garden had been put together originally, and Michael went to work. A week later, he hadn't made much progress, but hadn't gotten lost in the garden and he hadn't let anything else escape, so Chrestomanci assumed he had the problem well in hand and left him to it, with only the occasional suggestion.

About that time, Millie started fussing about Julia. Julia had decided that she wanted to study art intensively, and when none of the Family had volunteered to take on the job of teaching her, Julia had declared that she wanted to go to a boarding school. She'd been very persuasive for long enough that Chrestomanci had seen no option but to give in, and despite Millie's qualms, Julia had gone away to school that year.

Chrestomanci gathered that Millie was worried that something was wrong at school, and that Julia would talk more easily to Christopher, who hadn't had such a bad school experience when he was younger. He also gathered that Millie wanted him to be prepared to sit down with Julia -- casually -- over Easter hols and dig every single detail about her school experience that he could out of her.

Since Chrestomanci depended on Millie to detect these sorts of problems and come up with the correct solution to them, he didn't even think about not doing what she requested, but he did turn down her offer of a batch of muffins to smooth the way.

"I'll ask to see her portfolio," he suggested blandly. "She said she'd be bringing it home over hols, and that will naturally lead to talking about how she's getting on at school."

"Yes, that'll do you both good," Millie said, which made Chrestomanci briefly wonder if he'd been getting too involved in the garden problem.

The next day, Chrestomanci found Julia in the schoolroom, with her artwork spread out over the desks and some of it stuck to the wall, all ready to be viewed. Julia herself was looking out the window toward the ruined garden, and when Chrestomanci came in, she turned with a slightly wistful smile. "I didn't realize how much I missed..."

"Speaking as a constant traveler," Chrestomanci said, "Having a place to call home simply can't be beat."

"Yes, but you don't know that until you've been away," Julia said. "And then you come back and you see it differently."

"Not always," Chrestomanci said. "But yes. So how is school treating you?"

Julia straightened her shoulders. "I wanted to talk to you about that," she said.

"Good," Chrestomanci said. "Carry on," he added when Julia didn't launch immediately.

Julia tapped her finger against the windowsill. "It's made me think about everything a bit differently, being away at school," she said eventually. "And I had an idea about what I might do when I was older..."

"Not art?" Chrestomanci asked.

"Oh, don't look at me like that, I had to try," Julia said. "But no. I think art is a means for me, not an end. One of my teachers made me see that. And so I started thinking, about travel, and about magic, and about the Family, and what I was thinking was that I should be part of the Family for Cat."

Chrestomanci cleared his throat, not entirely sure what to say, but Julia rushed on, not leaving him any room anyway. "What I mean is, Cat's not going to be exactly the same kind of Chrestomanci as you are, is he? Anyone can see that," Julia said.

"It seems unlikely," Chrestomanci inserted smoothly.

"And Cat's going to be the kind of Chrestomanci who needs people in front more, and people to talk for him, and I can do that. I can make people comfortable, and get them to talk about what's bothering them, and then I can tell Cat what he needs to know, because he's not the kind to really delve, is he? And I do want to travel as well, and maybe Cat will want someone who will travel and investigate for him. What do you think?"

"I think it sounds like an interesting possibility," Chrestomanci said. "Have you talked to Cat about your plans?"

"Oh!" Julia said. "No, I thought I should talk to you first. But I don't think he'd mind, do you?"

"You should talk to him," Chrestomanci said. "He may have some ideas about what kind of a Chrestomanci he'll make." Chrestomanci picked up one of Julia's drawings and examined it with interest. "But don't feel like you have to hurry. There is still some time before it becomes urgent, you know."

"Well, I didn't mean..." Then Julia smiled comfortably at Chrestomanci, seeing that he was teasing. She leaned in to see what he was looking at. "That's a drawing of the train station at Morton Howe," she said. "Isn't it lovely?"

"Are we lucky you're not a nine-lived enchanter? We'd have never kept you home for this long," Chrestomanci said.

"Oh, but I like home too," Julia said earnestly, then saw that Chrestomanci was still teasing. "I'll talk to Cat if you think it's okay," she said.

"I have no objections," Chrestomanci said. "Please, talk to him as soon as possible, and in the meanwhile, perhaps you'd like to show me your art anyway?"

Julia laughed, and stuck the tip of her tongue out, something she would normally never do in Chrestomanci's presence, but she was in a heightened state because of how very easily that had gone, and how much like an adult it made her feel to talk about her future so sensibly, without using guile or begging or anything!

"Here's the one that made me realize..." Julia sorted though a stack of paintings and pulled one in particular out. A little nervously, she handed it to her father, "There's something else..." she was beginning, but Chrestomanci wasn't listening. He was staring at Julia's painting with a shocked feeling of recognition.

"Daddy?" Julia asked, puzzled.

The painting was colored in dark colors, the scene of a war between a band of dire-wolves in armor and a division of humans in grimy uniforms. A floating tank hovered above, and in the distance, very clear against the horizon, there was an archway that Chrestomanci recognized as belonging in his garden, although it more usually had a fallen slab of stone, not an intact lintel across the top of the archway.

"Do you have any more like this?" Chrestomanci asked. He recognized the scene; it would be hard not to.

Julia brought out a half a dozen more, one at a time, all of them easily recognizable.

"Julia," Chrestomanci said, hiding his concern behind a lazy drawl. "I think there's something you ought to see. Would you mind coming with me?"

"Umm, okay," Julia said, a bit put off.

Chrestomanci led Julia out of the castle and straight into the ruined garden, which obligingly stood still to let them in. They hurried past the winter, past the buds of spring, and stopped in the meadow where the doorway lived.

"Why, it's that place where we had Pirate Christmas!" Julia exclaimed. "How funny."

Pirate Christmas had been one of those magical accidents that Chrestomanci tried to avoid. Luckily, the children hadn't been badly traumatized, they seemed to think it was funny, but Chrestomanci preferred not to dwell on it.

"It's also the center of a very powerful world-spanning garden," Chrestomanci said repressively.

Julia nodded, a bit more subdued. "I know. I remember that time Cat came here and summoned all your enemies." She tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. "What did you want to show me?"

Chrestomanci went forward until he was standing just in front of the place between the two pillars. He'd have to do this carefully, because he didn't want to actually open the door, he just wanted to look.

He got things arranged the way he wanted them, and stepped away so that Julia could have a look. It was daylight on the other side of the door, but otherwise it was a scene that could have been taken directly from one of Julia's paintings.

"Oh," Julia said, looking guilty.

"Oh?" Chrestomanci asked, politely.

"Don't be like that, it isn't so very bad," Julia said. "I was only trying to help, and in fact I wanted to talk to you about that too, before I go back to school. You see--"

"Let's start from the beginning," Chrestomanci said, and smiled to take the sting out of it. "How did it come about that your art is connected to this garden?"

"Well, I think it started with Pirate Christmas," Julia said readily. She frowned. "I'd never really thought about why, but I suppose it was because we saw a bit of what a war is, you know, and I realized just how bad it was. So of course when I saw the soldier trying to get away, I helped him. And one thing led to another, and I suppose... I don't know really."

"You helped a soldier from the garden?"

"Oh, dozens. All from that place, you know. With the war," Julia said. "They didn't want to go back to the war, and I didn't blame them."

"You let fragmentary people from a fragmentary world loose, in our world?" Chrestomanci asked. The familiar bumptious feeling that something here needed to be fixed was rising strongly in him. For one thing, he'd have to track down all the soldiers and make sure they hadn't caused any problems, or started anything too important that might cause a problem if they all disappeared some day. And then there was Julia.

"Not exactly," Julia said. "I could see that wasn't going to work, so I helped them figure out how to get back to a different part of their world, where things weren't so bad."

"You..." For a moment, Chrestomanci was at a loss. He wouldn't have imagined that was possible, because the world fragment the soldiers came from wasn't very big. But Julia wouldn't lie to him, so it must be true in some way or another.

Setting that problem aside for now, Chrestomanci asked, plaintively, "But why didn't you come to me for help?"

Julia squinted at him, trying to gauge whether he was really upset. "Umm. Because you were still upset about Pirate Christmas?" she hazarded. "You were upset for years, in little ways. I didn't want to bother you." She smiled placidly, regaining her confidence as she spoke. "It was all right, really. I could handle it."

"Oh, could you?" Chrestomanci asked, in the very tone he often used to try to bring sense to wrong-doers. He couldn't really help it. The thought of his comfortable daughter getting all tangled up in such a mess was enough to make him want to take on every bit of that world fragment and tie it into knots and prune the life out of it, no matter the consequences. And then lock Julia in her room for perhaps a few dozen years.

Julia nodded, uncertainly. But mostly, she was inured to all of Chrestomanci's tones, and didn't seem to realize just how unsettled she was making him. He'd have to talk to Millie before he decided how to deal with Julia, Chrestomanci decided, looking at Julia's uncertain expression, caught half way between pride at her ability to deal with things, and confusion as to whether she'd done the right thing.

"Let's take a closer look," Chrestomanci said, quite gently. Unfortunately, that seemed to unsettle Julia even more.

"All right," she said. "What do you want me to do?"

"Just stand back," Chrestomanci said, and got to work.

The world fragment he was concerned with had grown into a very long strand, and when Chrestomanci tried to thread it through the archway, it tended to get knotted up. He worked patiently, until he had it all in a heap next to the doorway, part tangle, part intangible. The intangible parts shouldn't be there, and they seemed to all be connected to Julia.

That was the worst news possible, because this world fragment was always causing trouble. It was the same one he'd woken up years ago with dreams of war, and then it had woken again to cause the disaster the children called Pirate Christmas. By all rights, they ought to call it War Christmas, but he supposed it was just as well the pirate ship had stuck more firmly in their minds. Better remember the good than the bad.

The point was that Chrestomanci knew first hand the power of this world fragment, and he'd paid it special attention, and struggled to keep it under control ever since. He hadn't been vigilant enough; until Julia was here, making the problem plain by her presence, it had been able to hide itself.

"Hmm," he said. Julia leaned in closer, nodding at what she saw.

"Hmm," Chrestomanci said, more loudly. "We're going to have to do some serious pruning here," he added. Julia seem taken aback, but also interested. She peered into the tangle.

"Do we have to?" she asked. "What did I do wrong? I've never seen it all laid out like this, Daddy, sort of miniature and all there at the same time. I wish you would show me how you did it."

Chrestomanci snatched her hand up before she could touch a tangle of world strands. Julia didn't seem to understand the gravity of the situation.

"Julia, be careful," he said. "We don't want to make it worse."

Julia sighed in exasperation. "I just want to know what's wrong," she said.

"You're caught up in a world that's not yours," he said.

"Well, what's so strange about that?" Julia asked. "You are too. You're caught up in all the worlds."

"I have a post," Chrestomanci said. "It's expected."

Julia just looked at him.

"This world fragment was created by an evil enchanter," he said. "It's steeped in war and treachery, and it's part of the Chrestomanci's job to keep it under control. We had dire-wolves in the garden the other week, and a floating tank. Something must be done."

Chrestomanci made a dramatic gesture. The world fragment came more clearly into view, dark and scrubby against the prettiness of the meadow, overshadowing all the nicer, more well-behaved parts of the garden like the wolves that lurked in the forest waiting for little girls to stray from the path. There was a path, too, winding through the tangles of barbed wire and flashing war spells. Chrestomanci wouldn't want to follow that path.

"Oh, is that all? I can fix that," Julia said. She reached into her pocket and brought out a drawing. She looked at it a bit regretfully, as Chrestomanci looked at her apprehensively, then rolled it into a tube and then tied the tube into a knot. It went easier than Chrestomanci would have expected with stiff art paper; Julia had always had an affinity for knots in her magic. "I was afraid it might be getting a bit grim, when I kept thinking of new ways to draw war," she explained. "So I thought of new ways to draw peace too, because that's what they really need."

She gave the piece of paper a shake, and the knot untied itself. The paper was blank now, and the path looked a tiny bit less sinister. "It's going to take some time," Julia said. "But give me some credit, it's only this messy because I didn't realize what would happen when I went away..."

"Did you realize," Chrestomanci said carefully, "That it's grown up all around you?"

"Well, I did wonder why I kept dreaming about it, and it kept creeping into half of the things I was drawing," Julia admitted. "But..."

She seemed to realize for the first time just how concerned Chrestomanci was. "I'll fix it," she said in a smaller voice.

"Indeed you will," Chrestomanci said. "There will be pruning and burning before today is done, but first, I'm going to have to untangle you, so that you don't get hurt." And while he was doing that, he'd check to see just how far that world had dug its claws into Julia, and what he'd have to do to counter its influence. It had been at her dreams, and that was not a good sign.

"But--" Julia said.

Chrestomanci swiftly conjured up his world-gardening tools, forged by one of the most talented blacksmiths in Britain using metal from every different world the Chrestomanci visited regularly. "Stand still," he ordered.

Julia shrank back a little, and Chrestomanci realized that his question had been quite frigid, and that he was, in fact, terrifyingly angry. But he might as well use the anger to get Julia free of the world fragment. His magic would be quite powerful, with that urgency behind it.

He reached out toward the world-tangle, his magic hooking in and starting to work, while he held the gardening tools ready just in case.

But after only a few seconds, Julia squeaked "You're hurting it. Please wait, I can fix it! I have another idea!" and stepped back into the tangle of world fragments, a few step along the path.

Chrestomanci grabbed the end of the path and started pulling, before the world fragment could claim Julia for its own. She kept running, but she wasn't getting anywhere, but neither was Chrestomanci. He couldn't pull her out again, and every moment the fear in his heart grew icier. What if it had happened a long time ago? What if the world fragment had changed Julia? What if it was too late?

Julia stopped running, and when she turned, Chrestomanci could see that she had something that glittered silver in her hands. It waved like cloth as she tied it into a knot. It wasn't a strong as pure silver, but for the moment it took him to cut through the spell, Chrestomanci was undone.

Of course Julia knew all of his weaknesses.

"I'm not one of your callings," she said from very far away, a sob in her voice. "Please don't--"

He broke her spell and reached, but she was gone.

Chrestomanci panicked. Luckily, he only panicked a little bit, so he didn't hack the garden to pieces, or turn every piece of world in the garden inside out searching for Julia, which were both things he was strongly tempted to do. He just summoned Millie.

"It's Julia," he said as soon as she appeared, slightly crouched over with a pen in her hand, as if she had been writing letters. "And--" He gestured toward the ugly bit of world spread out across the slope of the meadow.

"Oh dear," Millie said. She handed Chrestomanci her pen and reached out toward the world-tangle, and then hesitated. It was a very tangled bit of world, and it wasn't at all obvious how to approach it.

"And the rather bigger problem is that it might not be entirely Julia," Chrestomanci said, giving voice to a thought that had held his heart cold and fearful ever since he saw the intangible strands reaching out toward Julia. A world fragment was an insidious thing, a thing of dreams and possibilities, and it could make changes to people if they weren't careful.

"She was talking about wanting to travel," he added. "And we both know this bit of world likes to try to escape its bounds. I'm afraid, if it has taken her, given her a dream of escape, bound her and changed her..." He shook his head. "I'm afraid." he admitted.

"My dear, remember that she's my daughter," Millie said. "But of course we must get her out. Shall we summon her together?"

"You don't think that might be too dangerous? She was very strongly connected, and if we pull and it holds her, like a horrible tug of war?"

"She's my daughter," Millie said, and this time Chrestomanci understood what she was saying. The world fragment could not contain any part of Julia, because Julia was a daughter of Series Ten on her mother's side, not Series Twelve, not World Twelve-A, the only world where the fragment had power.

"Oh, thank goodness," Chrestomanci said. "It can't hold her."

With two enchanters working the summoning, Julia popped out again quickly. She was tear-stained and grass-stained and radiating defiance and as soon as Millie saw her she wrapped her in her arms and hurried her away with a look at Chrestomanci that spoke volumes about the conversation they'd be having later.

Chrestomanci supposed he deserved that.

 

"You frightened her," Millie told him the next evening. She was sitting at her vanity taking off her jewelry and unpinning her hair, and Chrestomanci's long form was draped across the lounge nearby in an attitude of exhaustion. This was the first chance they'd had to talk, after he'd been called away yesterday afternoon and then spent most of today catching up. He'd been worried about Julia, but with Millie taking her in hand, he'd been able to do his job.

"But it could be worse," Millie continued. In her mirror, he could see her eyes watching him, and the slight frown on her face. "She was at least as angry as she was frightened. She thinks you're being unfair."

Chrestomanci reluctantly raised his head to show he was taking this seriously. He was wearing a deep purple velvet dressing gown embroidered with mountains: tall, rocky, snowy mountains like those found on the northern continent of Atlantis. His face rose above the jagged mountains and made them seem quite civilized.

"What do you think we should do?" he asked.

"Why do you think we have to do anything?" she returned as neatly as a tennis player.

Chrestomanci sat all the way up. "Because, my dear, Julia is all tangled up in magic in a way that I find unsettling. The only real question is how to go about it."

"I talked to Gabriel about it once," Millie said thoughtfully. "And he said that anyone that grows up, or really anyone who lives for any length of time at all in Chrestomanci Castle... Well, my love, they simply have to expect that their peace will occasionally be broken and their idea of ordinary will never exactly match those around them. And you and I know that's true."

Millie set a handful of golden hairpins in a shallow enamel dish and shook out her hair. "Julia showed me some of the bits of magic she's scavenged from that world fragment over the years, and I think you should take a look at them. And at the work she's done--"

Chrestomanci leaned forward, but Millie's eyes bored into the mirror. He waved a hand at her to continue, leaning back again.

"Underneath the surface tangles, she's shaped the heart of that world fragment into something beautiful, my love. I think Julia's dealt with her brush with the otherworldly rather well."

By this time, Chrestomanci had dealt with his first rush out outrage and was able to say quite calmly, "You know that I can't take any risks with that particular world fragment. Its history, the way it was formed, everything it stands for is repugnant."

"So it's personal," Millie said.

"It's outrageously dangerous!" Chrestomanci said. "If it were to cause any harm to Julia, I would be remiss in my duties."

"Do you trust Julia?" Millie asked.

"That has nothing to do with it," Chrestomanci said, getting up and rapidly pacing the well worn five steps back and forth just behind Millie. "I need to keep that world fragment under strict control, or it could unbalance the entire garden, and without the garden, our control over world-spanning magic could be severely compromised, and without control over magic, the entire structure of the Related World could be put at risk. One little girl--"

Millie turned around and took Chrestomanci hand, halting his pacing. "My darling, that's not the question. Do you trust Julia to know bad magic when she sees it? She said you were open to her training as one of the Family here, and to me that says that you do trust her."

"Of course I trust her," Chrestomanci said. "She's talented at magic and usually sensible, but that doesn't mean she can't be tricked--"

"Like you were," Millie said gently. Her grip on his hand was firm.

Chrestomanci nodded slowly.

"Which only goes to show that it happens to the best of us," Millie said. "And that sometimes you have to depend on others, your family, the Family, to do the things that you can't. It's always been that way, hasn't it?"

"But you're not the Chrestomanci," Chrestomanci said. "I'm the front line, so I... Do you think I'm wrong about that world fragment? Truly, utterly wrong?"

"My love, I'm simply saying you can't allow the past get in the way of the future," Millie said. "That's why I asked you to talk to Julia in the first place, because I'm not at all unbiased about schools and I thought she was having a school problem, but ... oh dear, we've both got history here."

"I simply cannot risk another Pirate Christmas," Chrestomanci said. "Surely you can see that? I know exactly how bad it can get, and I don't want that fate on my head. I woke up that world fragment originally, I failed to contain it, I became part of the problem. Chrestomanci Castle itself was threatened, the office of the Chrestomanci could have been eliminated, and the fate of all the Worlds was at stake because I made a mistake. It's one thing to take a few risks out there in the Worlds, but at home--"

Millie let him go, and he returned to pacing.

"We've talked about this before," she said. "You can't do everything, and this home is my responsibility. My gift to you. And I will always be here for you, no matter what danger threatens. No matter what you do, you can't get rid of me, and you can't stop me from keeping this home safe for you."

"You do like being generous, don't you?" Chrestomanci asked, a little bit comforted in spite of himself. Millie would always be his safe place. But he still wanted to be a pillar of strength, for her and for anyone else who needed and depended on him. He wanted to be the one who tore in like a knight and conquered all the monsters. He wanted to make up for the last time, for Pirate Christmas, when Millie had been true to her word, but he had not.

"Generosity suits you," he added, only hearing the tinge of aridity in the words after he'd uttered them.

Millie didn't seem to notice. "But of course. It's lovely to have something to be generous with," she said. "All my talents, to use exactly as I wish. After all these years of not being a Goddess, it still amazes me sometimes, because the past is hard to leave behind. I understand, my love, I truly do. But do you know, I tried for the four-armed look the other day, and couldn't manage it?"

"I freely admit that you have a point. I just don't know..." Chrestomanci forced himself to laugh, which was clearly what Millie intended. "Why were you trying for a four armed look?"

"Trying to impress cook," Millie said promptly. "She was going to ask for a raise, and we can't afford it quite yet."

"I take it she wasn't impressed?"

"Oh, she was impressed, I just had to do it another way," Millie said.

Chrestomanci threw himself back down on the lounge. "Tell me about it," he invited, lazily. "It sounds like the kind of story that I really must hear."

"Well, you remember how we had fish the other night?" Millie began, then paused. "I only have one more thing to say about Julia, first," she said. "Whatever you do about the world fragment, Julia needs to be able to make her own choices, like you and I did. Encourage her, my love. Can you do that?"

"I'll do what I can for Julia, of course," Chrestomanci promised, too readily.

"Just think about it," Millie said.

But Chrestomanci was thinking about Pirate Christmas. It all came down to Pirate Christmas.

 

2

It would have to happen on Christmas Eve, Millie had thought unfairly, the night before the Christmas that would later be known as Pirate Christmas. Unfairly, because she'd had many Christmases married to Christopher, and this was the first one he'd disappeared for. But it was also the only Christmas they'd ever been so ambitious as to buy a giant play pirate ship that was supposed to float across the well maintained lawns of Chrestomanci Castle with their young children happily screaming inside. Good for hours of enjoyment at a time, Christopher had suggested.

She'd expected him to be the one who had to put it together. He was good at that sort of magic. Actually, he was terrible at that sort of magic, but good at imposing his own magic over the top of the inbuilt magic and getting it to work flawlessly. It came to the same thing in the end.

Millie had needed to study the thing, and fit it together properly, and then take it apart and fit it together all over again, and in the end, the best she could say was that at least it'd distracted her all night, after she'd put the children to bed. But there it was in one of the parlors, gleaming with potential fun.

It had been around midnight when she'd checked in with the young woman on duty to see where Christopher was off to this time.

“Very close,” she'd been assured. “He's only a world or two away.”

“It would have to be on Christmas,” she'd said ruefully, and gone off to bed.

She'd woken up alone.

“Chrestomanci, dear, you know how much the children enjoy your presence on Christmas morning,” she said, shading the spell so that he would hear but not be called back. Oddly, she couldn't feel him wiggling like a fish on the hook at the end of the name spell -- very often she could.

She sighed and went to see if it had snowed overnight and saw that there were floating tanks in the garden. She watched just long enough to see another emerge from the ruined garden like an octopus popping out of a bottle. They had big guns and shimmered all over with battle spells.

The timing of Christopher's absence suddenly seemed suspicious.

She rushed up the stairs to find the children in the playroom bouncing with excitement. "Did you get us real soldiers for Christmas?" Roger asked. Julia looked interested too.

"No, dear," Millie said helplessly. "In fact, I think your father is going to have to come back and deal with this," she said, just before the rest of the Family burst in, clamoring for instructions.

"Chrestomanci," Millie said, her voice cutting through the uproar.

But Chrestomanci did not come.

"I can't find him at all now, not with any of the spells," the young woman on duty said anxiously. "I'm sure I did everything right."

The clamor threatened to turn into a ruckus. Everyone had something to say, even the children. Roger was shouting about presents and Julia was shouting about Daddy.

"Listen to me!" Millie said, putting a compulsion on the words. The ruckus turned into a silence. "Let's all say it together," she suggested calmly. There were murmurs of agreement, and the Family quickly organized. Millie pulled Julia and Roger up next to her, and the rest formed a circle, holding hands. "On three," Millie said.

"Chrestomanci, Chrestomanci, Chrestomanci," they all said, as strongly as they knew how.

But still no sign of Chrestomanci, not even a whisper in her mind.

And the castle shook as the tanks in the garden opened fire.

After that Millie barely had an instant to think, organizing the Family into a defense and trying to comfort the children, while trying to extend some of the muffling and peace-making spells from the Castle out into the garden.

It didn't seem to do much good.

Platoons of soldiers swarmed the garden and began erecting stone pillars at regular intervals. It was the same kind of stone as the broken archway in the garden, and Millie could tell that they were connected somehow, even before the soldiers started weaving giant magical ropes in among the pillars, in and out and up and down.

"Has anyone seen Michael?" Millie asked when a pattern started to emerge amongst the strands. Michael was good at magical theory -- but the word came back that Michael had taken it upon himself to go try to open negotiations with the invaders, and no one had seen him since, or dared go after him.

And no one could agree on a precise answer to Millie's question as to whether the spell they were doing was at all related to weaving, but for herself, she was satisfied that it was weaving, and she had a feeling she'd seen similar weaving before, all around a tank in a warehouse in a dream that wasn't a dream, in a world fragment with ambitions. Could it have ambitions of weaving itself into this reality?

And where was Christopher?

"We're seeing a lot of similarities between the soldiers and us," a message from the outer line of defenders came back, carried by an excited young witch who was usually a parlor maid. "They're probably from Series Twelve!" she added. "So just in case there's any confusion about duplicates, I'm to tell you the password, which is 'largesse'."

"Largesse?" Millie asked, dubiously.

"Miss Rosalie got it by sticking a pin in the dictionary," she said, which explained it. "And Mr. Roberts said to tell you they're going to need more dragon's blood to shore up the walls. The magic is holding, but it won't hold forever, he says."

"Yes, thank you," Millie said, and conjured more dragons blood from Michael's laboratory for the young woman to take back.

A moment of silence ensued.

"Chrestomanci," Millie whispered. And then "Christopher," and with that word in the silence she felt a whisper of response.

Meanwhile, Roger had opened a package of toy soldiers that had been meant as his Christmas present, and spoke a moment later, instructing them. "You must be brave in your hearts, and everything else will follow from that," he said.

She took courage from both of these things, and knew what she had to do.

The children struggled gamely into their coats and hats and mittens, but they were reluctant to follow her out through the side door, even after she'd made them all invisible. She hated to bring the children along, but she knew she was going to need them.

"You must be brave, like soldiers," Millie said.

Julia's voice sounded mutinous. "Are we going to fight them? What are we fighting for?"

"We're fighting because they're fighting, silly," Roger said. Julia's stubborn silence was not convinced.

"We're not fighting, we're going to find Daddy," Millie said.

That met with their approval, and the children consented to be led outside.

Out in the garden, the invaders were setting up tents made of magic fabric. The garden already looked like it belong to a strange world with strange magic. Remembering what she'd done years ago in similar circumstances, Millie levitated herself and the children. "Shh," she warned them as they floated up, just before she ran them into an invisible strand of rope.

"Ugh," Roger said.

"It's sticky," Julia complained in a whisper. "Mummy--"

Millie ripped herself off of the sticky rope, leaving behind a great swath of fabric from her coat. The rope was quivering all along its length, and now that she knew to look, she could see other invisible ropes converging on them. The air was full of strands, weaving in and out and into the more visible pattern below.

She ripped Roger free as well; Julia was already free. "We need to get to that floating tank," she whispered, concentrating very hard. There must be some space around it to allow it room to float, and it was so big just a little leeway would allow her and the children to slip by.

She pulled them upward, away from yet another snapping rope that was trying to find them, through a gap that was trying to close on them, and then, gaping, scrambled backward through the gap, blasting the ropes to keep them from closing over herself and the children.

Winged boats darted down from the floating tank, swift as hummingbirds and just as maneuverable. They used their wings for propulsion and their monkey-like tails to grab onto the ropes and change direction, and there were dozens of them converging on the gap Millie had just made.

"Retreat," Millie breathed, and pushed the children in front of her. "Hurry!" she shouted, and turned to hold off the boats while the children got away. To her shock, she recognized the man in the front boat. "Michael!" she shouted, not pausing to think of how he could have gotten there.

It was only when he sent a silver lightning-bolt sizzling toward her that she realized it wasn't exactly Michael, even though he was wearing Michael's clothes.

She had the opportunity to witness a dozen soldiers in the very intense thirty seconds it took the footman inside to unspell the door and let them back in. Some of them were in neat uniforms, some of them were like Michael, and she recognized a few of them from the nearby village.

"The password is largesse," she told the insistent footman as he slammed the door shut. "But I don't think they're trying to sneak in. Even the one wearing ordinary clothes had at least a smart military cap and a silver insignia pinned on their shoulder."

"Thank you, ma'am," the footman said. "But we'd best be safe, don't you think?"

Millie sighed. "I only wish that was an option," she said. Through the window, she could see that the tops of the stone pillars were starting to glow, and the children were bedraggled and drooping, but she still couldn't think of anything better to do.

"Christopher," she whispered, just to make sure. She could still feel the response. He was out there somewhere, and if he was out there, she had no choice but to go after him.

"Let's try another door," she told the children. "No, let's try the roof."

As she was leading them up the stairs, she had an idea, and made a detour to the parlor where the tree and the presents were all laid out and forgotten in the press of events. The children were reluctant to open the presents -- "We should wait for Daddy," Julia said -- but Millie insisted. They ripped open the presents under the Christmas tree and armed themselves with sabers and fighting hooks.

"Arr!" Roger shouted enthusiastically. Julia set aside the book-shaped parcels with care and fitted a pirate's hat over her pony-tail. "Arr, matey," she agreed, waving her sabre.

"Think sharp," Millie said, herding them into the pirate ship and undoing the anti-break spell on the window. "And keep your head down!" she shouted as she pushed the pirate ship into motion and jumped on just before it hit the window and sailed in a graceful arc down onto the lawn.

The children screamed "Arrr!" as their pirate ship skimmed across the lawn, its prow shoving aside tents and cutting through strands of spell, as sharp as any sabre with the keen magical edge Millie had given it.

The soldiers scattered in front of them, and Millie found herself laughing with glee as the high walls of the ancient garden approached. She sailed her good ship right up the staircase and into the hot summer sun. They took a shortcut through winter and ended up in the meadow with the broken archway, where Christopher was waiting for her.

It was worse than she'd expected -- he was wearing one of the invaders' silver insignia pinned to his favorite dove-mauve waistcoat in a casual way, he wasn't wearing a suit jacket, and he had his sleeves rolled up. He also had a couple dozen soldiers at his command, a tall stone pillar towering over him, and a giant loom with most of the magical strands from outside the garden converging on it, but Millie had expected that.

"Christopher?" Millie said, uncertainly.

He was taller than the crowd of people around him, and she on the deck of a pirate ship. He looked up and their eyes met, and for a moment Millie might have believed that it was her Christopher. Something about his expression, even at a distance, was familiar. But then he raised his hand, and his expression changed to something more remote. At his command the soldiers rushed the pirate ship, and Millie had to concentrate on maneuvering, throwing the wheel this way and that.

The soldiers couldn't stop the ship, and they couldn't easily board it either, but Millie's disadvantage lay in trying to get to Christopher. They soon figured out that was her goal, and they were able to block her with magic, and crowd her toward the stream and the trees.

“Make a spell for Daddy,” Millie said every time they swung closer to where Christopher stood amidst a crowd of people and a haze of magic. The children stopped waving their sabres and throwing stunning spells at the soldiers to shout out “Daddy!” and occasionally “Chrestomanci!” Neither one had any effect that Millie could sense. Not close enough, or not true enough, Millie didn't know which, but she kept maneuvering the pirate ship until one of the invaders' spells descended around them and the ship cracked in two. It was only meant to be a toy, after all.

Julia was already in the air, and Roger followed quickly. “Split up!” Millie called, trying to send every protection she had after them. They got away. Millie didn't.

“An enchanter,” Christopher said in his most enigmatic tone of voice, staring at her piercingly. But Millie was used to far worse from Christopher when he was in the mood, and anyway, the rolled up sleeves ruined the effect.

“Move her to the front of the line,” he told his minions, and as one of them grabbed her arm, Millie recognized Joss Callow, the stableman. “Joss Callow,” she whispered, and for a moment, saw a gleam of recognition in his eyes. It wasn't impossible, then.

“You will listen to me,” Christopher said. “Madam Enchanter. I have a need of enchanters to help me with my work, so if you will simply stand over there--” He gestured toward a clear area between the pillar and the loom.

There was some kind of spell on the ground there, and Millie didn't want to step on it. She levitated a fraction of an inch off the ground, and hoped that Christopher wouldn't notice.

Christopher smiled at Millie. “You are quite strong, aren't you? Even for an enchanter. I wonder if you could tell me a little about yourself?” He almost sounded friendly, but it was all fake, like a friendly sort of schoolmaster who wanted you to think he was on your side. Unluckily for him, Millie had memories of people who sounded like that and then tried to make her ashamed of being herself and of the the world she'd come from. She automatically resisted, and his sudden push failed to push her into the ground. She stayed an inch above the spell, just out of reach of the clamps and hooks that were waiting to grab her.

“Why do you want to know?” she asked, as if she hadn't even noticed.

Christopher pretended he hadn't noticed either, but she could see the slight indentation in his brow that showed he was troubled. “Madam, I have the honor of being the Somniomanci, and my job is reading dreams and assigning the correct fate to everyone. I need to know more about you so that I can weave your fate into the world that this world is in the process of becoming.”

Behind him, the loom suddenly looked much more sinister.

“You can do that?” Millie asked faintly.

“Of course.”

“And what if I don't want to have my fate woven?” Millie asked, and blocked another attempt to push her down onto the spell so strongly she popped up to a foot above the ground.

“Then I will have to take strong measures,” the Somniomanci said. “Our side is going to win the war, and this world is only a stepping stone along the way.”

“And if you cause harm?”

“Harm? If we win the war? Nonsense.” Christopher looked at her shrewdly, and maybe it was her imagination, but she thought she saw confusion for a second. “Are you trying to delay me? I assure you, a few seconds here and there will make no difference to your fate.”

“Christopher,” Millie said, just as he was raising his hand to call the soldiers once more. He paused, the confusion growing stronger. “Do you know my doppelganger? It's strange that I don't know you.”

“Christopher, I'm your wife,” Millie said. And while she had him off balance, she added, “Christopher, you're the Chrestomanci.” Names had power, but the name of Chrestomanci had more power than most.

The confusion grew, and for a moment she thought that had been enough. But a commotion from the side of the meadow drew all attention, including Christopher's.

“Ah, the boy,” the Somniomanci said, gesturing the soldiers forward.

“Christopher, he's your son.”

“Then perhaps he still will be, when his fate has been determined. I've always wanted children, to serve...”

Another flash of confusion. “Christopher, you have always been a kind and generous father,” she said, trying not to imagine Roger as a drummer boy in an army of conquest.

“I look forward to the experience,” Christopher said, and responsive to his gesture, one set of soldiers dragged Roger forward toward the spell on the ground while another set tried to pull Millie away.

“Christopher, no. Not Roger,” she said wildly, loosing all sense of control. “You wouldn't do that to your own son. I will beg you, I will do anything--”

“It won't hurt him. In fact, it will be good for him.” Christopher said.

“No!” Millie shouted.

“Mummy!” Roger shouted.

“Arrrr!” Julia shouted, appearing at the edge of the clearing, carrying a handful of knotted handkerchiefs and mittens. Her coat was tucked under her arm, the sleeves all in knots too, and one of the big strands of invisible rope was carrying her along. Two large knots to either side of her perch kept her in place.

As her rope swept across the clearing, Millie broke free of a distracted Joss Callow and dived onto the spell on the ground before the soldiers could place Roger there.

She felt the hooks scratching for purchase, but they didn't seem to hook onto anything. Millie ripped them out of the ground and threw them at Christopher. They stuck to him well enough.

“Mummy!” Roger shouted. Christopher was struggling with the spell, some of the soldiers were running to help, some of them were falling into formation facing Julia, and all of the soldiers were distracted.

“Call Daddy now,” Millie shouted.

She made her spell like a lancet, a precise surgical instrument that used the power of Chrestomanci calling-spell, one of the strongest spells in all the Related Worlds. But she stretched the spell around a slightly different identity. Roger and Julia's "Daddy" fed into it, with all the strength and certainty of children who knew exactly who they wanted to come back to them in time for Christmas.

"Christopher," Millie said, remembering the boyish young man in the dressing gown in this very same garden, and with the name she pushed her spell into the exact places that already had spell-hooks from the other spell. She could feel Christopher twitching.

"Daddy," Julia and Roger said again. One was sprawled on the ground and the other high above on a strand of spell, but their words merged together. "Daddy Daddy Chrestomanci," and the echoes of the incomplete spell of earlier united them all as well, when the whole Family had said it together.

Christopher squirmed and lashed out with all his magic, and soldiers fell all around him. Millie ducked the harsh waves of magic -- harsher than her own Christopher's magic, and bitter, she thought.

From flat on the ground, she said it again. "Christopher." Her spell pushed past Christopher, following the threads that were woven through the pattern on the loom. She remembering teasing her own Christopher about fish-hooks attached to him, whenever he was called away. Teasing him about being a stately koi, a big fish in the biggest pond in all the Related Worlds. She made her spell into a million tiny hooks, to catch every fragment of her stately koi.

Christopher stood up, and Millie felt a moment of doubt. He was tall and powerful, a nine-lived enchanter gathering his power. And he looked angry, with the hooks of her spell digging into every part of him, bringing him back to himself. Not for the first time, she thought about how it was for him, always on call, always ready for duty. What would a Somniomanci think of that?

She pushed her scalpel deeper, cutting away the ties that bound Christopher and the Somniomanci together, but she knew that if he acted now, he could turn her spell to dust and ashes.

He looked right at her, and he did nothing.

"Christopher," she said, the third time to complete the most powerful version of the charm. Thinking about all the years she'd known him, all the years she hoped she would know him in the future, growing old together. Christopher who'd chosen to be called. Born to it, true, but he chose to do it again and again, with the style and flair she knew so well.

Christopher -- her Christopher -- smiled at her, his black eyes flashing behind his familiarly vague expression as he gathered all his magic, pulling it out of the Somniomanci's spells. “Hello, dear.” A second later, a disturbed expression displaced the vague one, and he started rolling down his sleeves.

That wasn't the end, but it was close. They had a lot of cleaning up to do, reassuring confused men and women from the village, getting the Family back in order, and tidying away all the bits of world that had grown out of the garden. Julia and Roger wanted to use the pirate ship, because it had cut through everything so quickly, but it couldn't be revived, not even by Christopher.

"Never mind," he told the children. "Pirates improvise." And soon he had them skimming around in a converted monkey-hummingbird-boat salvaged from what the invaders had left. The children called them monkingbird boats, and Millie thought she might have a hard time prying their new toy away from them.

"This is the best Christmas," Roger said at one point, which made Millie laugh a little helplessly.

And at the end of the day, Christopher led Millie and the children back to the castle. They moved the Christmas tree to an undamaged parlor and opened all the rest of the presents, together. "Happy Christmas," Christopher said. "And let's all hope that tomorrow will bring a little more peace on earth."

 

4

When Chrestomanci stepped through the broken archway into Series Seven, a fanfare sounded. The local ruler liked a lot of pomp and circumstance. Cat stepped through next, and was greeted with a slightly less impressive fanfare, which didn't phase Cat at all. Julia, on the other hand, was thrilled to get any fanfare at all.

There would have been speeches, but Chrestomanci quietly but firmly suggested that it would better to get to work as soon as possible. As Chrestomanci and his party followed a functionary toward the courtyard where the stray dragon from Series Eight had been confined, Chrestomanci pointed out all the important sights, but when they got to the courtyard, he stood back to see how the trainees would handle this.

Julia gave him a confident smile and started chatting with the functionary, working her way around the edges of the courtyard while drawing him out about containment spells in use in Series Eight. Cat, meanwhile, had quickly sidled up to the dragon and was soon engrossed in a silent conversation with it.

They had promise as a team, Chrestomanci had to admit. And he was glad to see Julia so confident. Only a few weeks ago, she'd been tearful and defiant.

"Do you think I'm treating Julia like one of my callings?" he asked Millie a few days after the original incident. Julia was still refusing to even consider detaching herself from what she insisted on calling my baby world, and Chrestomanci was almost at his wit's end. And that particular accusation was still bothering him, like a grain of sand in an oyster. He kept trying to formulate excuses around it, but it was still rough and irritating.

"My dear, is that how you treat your callings?" Millie asked him, in a tone that told him to think before he answered. "Do you settle their fate with a few well chosen instructions and a pruning spell?"

So Chrestomanci thought about it, and the conclusion was inescapable. "Most of the time, the best I can do is give the parties most closely involved the space and the freedom to fix things for themselves. They usually do rather well, I must say."

Millie grinned. "That's what I thought. Julia had it backwards; you'd only try that kind of thing at home, with your family, and only because you love us. But we're on to you, my love. We won't let you have your way here either, most of the time. We'll just love you and always give you a home to come back to."

"That's all I could ask," Chrestomanci had said, and then he'd gone to find Julia.

"If you want to work with Cat and I on Chrestomanci business, you can't be tied to a hostile world-fragment," he'd told her. As Chrestomanci, he couldn't possibly say anything else. "But you may take it in charge yourself, and if you really value the connection so much..." He'd hesitated, but it seemed right to offer. "We can try to work something else out, so long as you're willing to accept that you can't travel between worlds while you're connected to that world fragment. It would be...unwise."

It was amazing how quickly Julia had learned how to use Chrestomanci's world-pruning tools, though she'd insisted on doing it herself. "I feel responsible, you see," she'd said.

Chrestomanci did see, and he thought it was a good sign for the future.

"Can you show me how that works?" he could hear her asking now, bright and cheerful. Julia was right, Chrestomanci thought to himself. He did want to fix everything for her. But part of that was giving her, and Cat for that matter, room to grow.

As the functionary began the spell, Chrestomanci remembered something else Julia had said.

"Everyone else has their own kind of magic, why shouldn't I? No one ever stopped you from doing magic, or from fixing things as best you could!"

He wasn't going to stop her, and someday, with her and Cat, and maybe some of the other children like Roger and Marianne as well -- he rather thought he'd be leaving the worlds in good hands.

Chrestomanci wondered if Gabriel de Witt had ever thought the same thing, despite all the headaches a younger Christopher caused.

He hoped so.