They were meant to have left on their honeymoon two days ago, but Gabriel de Witt had fallen ill again, and there was a grand dinner that could not be postponed for anything.
“I really am sorry, Christopher,” Flavian had made the mistake of saying, “and of course I hate to ask you, but you did plan the wedding during such a busy month –”
“Oh, certainly,” Christopher had said, with freezing sarcasm. “It would have been far better to schedule it during the peace talks last month, or the global enchanter's summit in December. There would have been no trouble at all sparing me for those.”
He had known he would agree to stay, even as he said it. The truly depressing thing about being an adult was that you started to see why all the things you didn't want to do had to be done regardless. Still, given the fact that he and Millie ought to have been in a Paris honeymoon suite by now, he felt he was well within his rights to take his feelings out on Flavian.
Also, it was better than taking them out on Millie, who was as much of a victim as he was – even if she was being irritatingly unsympathetic about it.
“Cheer up, Christopher,” she told him now, for approximately the fifth time. “We can still leave tomorrow. And you can stop fussing with your cravat, it's fine.”
“There remains the option of the private island in Series Five,” Christopher said, without much hope. But since Millie only snorted at this, there was nothing to do but adjust his cravat yet again, take Millie's arm, and sweep down the grand marble stairs to wait for the Fuhrer King of Druge to arrive.
The Fuhrer King was visiting from Twelve-C to discuss trade agreements. In addition to being a warlord, he was also quite a powerful enchanter, which was why he was always entertained at Chrestomanci Castle instead of up in London. He had a way of squinting around the castle as if he was imagining his own flags hanging from all the windows. Christopher disliked him immensely, but at least he was not dull. The various lords and ministers and secretaries who made up the rest of the dinner guests, on the other hand, were all as drab as overcooked porridge. They were also, as a rule, depressingly punctual, which left Christopher having to diplomatically entertain them until the Fuhrer King's entourage arrived and the banquet could begin in earnest.
There was only one real pleasure to be got out of the occasion. “My wife, Lady Chant,” Christopher informed the Treasury Secretary, and made a grand gesture in Millie's direction. “Millie, this is Secretary – er – Woolsmith.” The Treasury Secretary mumbled that his name was Wellman and wandered off after a valet carrying shrimp hors d'oeuvres. This allowed Christopher to seize on the Minister of Trade and Interglobal Industry and grandly introduce him to Lady Chant.
“Is this really necessary?” Millie murmured, after the fifth Secretary had been presented to her.
“It isn't every day,” Christopher told her, loftily, “that one has the chance to introduce a brand-new spouse, you know. In fact, I fully expect this to be the only time in my life when I have the opportunity to do so.”
Millie looked amused and exasperated in equal parts. “Do you know how ridiculous you are --” she began, when a footman came in to announce that the Fuhrer King had arrived.
Christopher swooped forward and gave the half-bow-between-equals customary on Twelve-C. “So glad you arrived safely, Your Highness,” he said, and looked around for Millie to grandly introduce her, but she seemed to have gotten buttonholed already by one of the Fuhrer King's functionaries. The fact that their official uniform involved orange tartan trousers did not disguise the fact that they were all at least as drab as the British Secretaries and Ministers, and Christopher did not envy her in the least.
“It is a pleasure to be here,” said the Fuhrer King, returning the bow. “I trust we have not kept you waiting too long?” Christopher could feel him assessing the value of the silk in Christopher's waistcoat. He put on his smoothest look, and made a small hand signal behind his back to let the footmen know that it was time to open the doors to the dining hall.
As the acting Chrestomanci, Christopher had to sit at the head of the table, with the Fuhrer King at his right and the Treasury Secretary on his left. All of Chrestomanci's people who had any kind of official titles were scattered among the rest of the guests to make sure that none of the ministers and secretaries did anything to offend any of the Fuhrer King's aides. Millie was all the way at the foot of the table, in between the Minister of Overseas Development and the Twelve-C functionary who had been talking with her earlier. She was wearing her very stupidest expression; it had been good when she was ten, but now that she had added onto it a sweetly puzzled smile, Christopher thought it rather a masterwork. While they were serving the soup he used his magic to pull a lock of her hair free of its pins, just so she would know he had not forgotten about her.
Millie retaliated by sending a small gust of wind to tug his cravat askew, but he could not do anything after that because of having to handle the silverware. Besides, the conversation with the Fuhrer King was taking all his attention; the Fuhrer King kept trying, with little magical jabs, to make him give away things about Twelve-A's magical defenses, and he had to both deflect this and prevent him from trying the same thing to get information out of the Treasury Secretary. He was taken therefore almost entirely by surprise when Millie appeared at his shoulder midway through the meal.
“My love,” Millie said, fulsomely, “I hate to interrupt, but could I steal you for a moment?” She smiled at the Fuhrer King, and added, “We've just been married, you know.”
“Congratulations,” said the Fuhrer King, politely. Christopher put down his fork, cast a vaguely dubious glance at the secretary, and followed Millie through the door into a side passageway.
As soon as they were out of sight, Millie cast a spell of silence, coupled with an illusion. “There!” she said. “If anyone looks in they'll just think we're necking madly.”
“Aren't we?” said Christopher. “No, no, I know, I daren't leave that fool Secretary alone with the Fuhrer King for more than five minutes anyway. What is it?”
“That Madam Zeine seemed far too smug about something,” said Millie. “I thought I'd find out what it was – these Druge people think we're terribly stupid, you know, it barely took her half an hour to let something slip. Once I knew they'd smuggled in something they shouldn't have from Twelve-C, I could locate it quite easily with magic. It was in the Fuhrer King's car.”
“Millie,” said Christopher, quite impressed, “you are a wonder. What was it, do tell, that they were smuggling in the car?”
“A lot of magical weapons,” Millie explained. “I think they were going to sell them on the black market rather than using them themselves. Anyway, I covered the space where they were with illusions and sent them to your office. You'll want to be careful if you go in there tomorrow.”
“Flavian can take care of it,” said Christopher, not without a certain vindictive pleasure. Now that he had spent four courses next to the Fuhrer King, he knew exactly why Flavian needed him there, but that did not make him like it any better. “You know,” he added hopefully, “we can probably take another minute at least before we've got to go back –”
“You can go back,” said Millie. “I feel I've done my bit, and I really am worn out from breaking the protections on all those weapons. I told everyone down at my end that being a new bride was very exhausting and giggled a lot, so they'll think nothing of me going to bed early. I shall read my book and it will be blissful.” She smiled at him, serene in the knowledge that she was never going to be the Chrestomanci and therefore had no obligation to sit out the full length of the dinner. “I shall probably still be awake when you're done. But I suppose I can stay another minute now, if you'd like.”
The rest of the dinner was made far more endurable by Christopher's ability to imagine the look on the Fuhrer King's face when the illusions on his car faded away and he realized what was missing. Still, the next three courses did not exactly fly by, and by the time he had finally sent all the guests on their way it was well past midnight.
He came up to Millie's room first thing – they had not yet gotten around to moving their belongings into the suite they would share in the Castle, as it was meant to have been done while they were traveling.
“Have I told you recently how much I admire your very stupid expression?” he said, as he came through the door. “Nobody at that dinner, my dear Millie, has any idea just how clever you are.”
Millie looked up from her book. “I expect it will come in quite useful,” she said, “if I'm going to spend half my time from now on playing Mrs. Grand Personage.”
Christopher regarded her. It occurred to him to wonder, for an uncomfortable moment, if perhaps she minded being Mrs. Grand Personage. She had once been a Grand Personage in her own right, after all. He had been so busy being glad that she had agreed to marry him, Christopher, that he had not thought much about what it meant for her to be marrying the next Chrestomanci too.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at her seriously. “There's no need to play at it, you know,” he said, “if you don't want to. Hang the Grand Personage.”
“If I thought marrying you would make me unhappy,” Millie said, rather tartly, “I wouldn't have done it.” She saw the look on his face, and her voice softened. “I hadn't quite seen what it would be like before tonight,” she admitted. “But honestly, I think I rather like it. I can find out what would be useful to do, and do it quietly in my own way, without people realizing. I think it's going to suit me, being married to you.”
Christopher did not like to admit how relieved he was to hear this. Instead, he draped himself back across the bed so that he could rest his head in her lap, and looked up at her soulfully. “Speaking of which,” he remarked, “I could do with being called 'my love' more often. It isn't necessary to do it only when you're pretending stupidity.”
Millie laughed down at him. “Christopher,” she said, “do you know how ridiculous you are?”
After that, it was invariably sugary epithets – 'my love,' 'dear,' 'darling' – in front of company, and plain Christopher whenever there was nobody else to hear. Later on, as fewer and fewer people ever called him anything but Chrestomanci, he grew to appreciate that more. It was not that he did not like being called Chrestomanci; in fact, he encouraged it from the start. He rather thought the elegance of it suited him. But his own name meant more, from Millie, because she had the right to say it.
Christopher was quite sure that he could have managed a new baby without difficulty. A baby, after all, was only something like a person that couldn't talk yet, and he could manage most people perfectly well. He was also fully confident in his ability to perform the duties of the Chrestomanci full-time; in fact, he had been hinting as much to Gabriel de Witt for the past three years. But it turned out it was rather more difficult than he had expected to combine the two things at once. He could not get used to the way anybody in all the worlds now seemed to be able to jolt him about wherever and whenever they liked. Between that and the fact that, as it turned out, babies preferred to cry at the most appalling hours, he was having to ask Jason and Mordecai cast energy spells on him round the clock to make sure that he stayed on his feet at all.
Still, when Millie offered to hire a full-time nursemaid to look after Julia while she was away in London, Christopher refused absolutely.
“Are you quite sure, Christopher?” Millie asked. “I don't know how long I'll be gone for. You know the government hasn't the least idea how to treat anybody from Series Ten. And it may take as long as a week to sort the whole business out.”
“My dear Millie,” said Christopher, “you wound me with your lack of faith. We do have a full staff already. Between the six housemaids and myself, we should be able manage the care and feeding of one infant.”
“Well, it's not the housemaids' job to look after her, you know,” said Millie, patiently, “it's mine. And it will be yours while I'm gone, if there's nobody else. That's what I've been trying to tell you.”
Christopher thought this was not quite fair. It was not as if he had been doing nothing to take care of Julia so far. He did take his turn at nappy changing and midnight soothing – although not nearly as often as he had meant to, with all the times he was called away. He felt quite guilty over that. He kept thinking of all the time he had spent as a child worrying over whether he would recognize his father if he happened to meet him in the park. True, Julia was not really old enough to recognize most anybody yet, let alone go walking in the park; still, it seemed better to start as one meant to go on.
“If I find myself tempted to feed her to wild animals or sell her to street urchins,” he told Millie, “I'll make sure to let you know with enough time to talk me down from the precipice.”
“I'll have them put her cradle in your office, then,” said Millie. She did not say 'on your own head be it,' but then, she didn't have to; her face expressed it clearly enough.
Over the next two days, Christopher made sure to travel around to all the areas that he knew were in current states of crisis, creating stop-gap solutions designed to last at least through the week, and impressing on them that they were to deal with any incidents through local channels. The night before Millie left, he was summoned to Series Seven to deal with a yeti emergency, and did not get back until nearly dawn. Still, by the time Millie was ready go the yeti situation was temporarily stable, the kitchen was fully stocked with bottles of milk bespelled to freshness, and Christopher – with the help of another energy spell from Jason – was feeling reasonably optimistic about the prospect of full-time fatherhood.
“Be good for Daddy, my love,” Millie crooned, and added, in her normal voice, “and remember, Christopher, no matter how much of a fuss she puts up, she really doesn't need to eat more than four times a day.” Then she deposited Julia in Christopher's arms, detached Julia's grasping hands from her hair, and hurried out the door to catch the coach.
“I think,” Christopher told Julia, “we shall get on quite well together.”
Julia gummed his shoulder. Christopher chose to take this as a sign of agreement.
The first four or five hours went smoothly enough. Christopher completed the paperwork to serve a summons on an unlicensed witch in Putney, reviewed the figures Miss Rosalie had prepared on yetis in Series Seven, summoned a bottle, fed Julia, had a meeting with Mordecai while bouncing Julia on his shoulder, burped Julia, and called up Grant via magic mirror to tell him what Christopher wanted him to do about the yeti situation. He was in the middle of explaining why Grant's objections that he did not work for Christopher were completely irrelevant when Julia started howling.
“Good God, Christopher,” said Grant, quite startled, “have you got one of the yetis in your office?”
“I think that's a very rude way to speak about your god-daughter, Grant,” Christopher shouted, over the noise. “I'll have to call you back, if that's all right!” This was a nuisance – he was going to have to spend ages talking Grant back around now – but there was nothing for it. He sniffed at Julia, changed her nappy, and then, feeling rather guilty about neglecting her, called up a small illusory dragon to romp around over her pen. Julia laughed and grabbed at it, and Christopher went to call Grant back up.
Half an hour later, Julia set up another howl. This time Christopher was speaking with the Prime Minister of the English Alps. Christopher made a hasty apology and went to feed Julia again. He was settling into the rhythm of this, he thought.
The smugness lasted until about midnight, when Julia suddenly jolted up out of her sleep and started wailing. This was one of the times when she would not settle down to be soothed. She did not need changing, she would not take a bottle, she refused utterly to be entertained by dancing lights or lullabies. She went quiet and mumbled infant mutterings as long as he was swooping her around, but as soon as he attempted to set her down in her cradle again, she opened her mouth wide and shrieked for all she was worth. Christopher's arms were going numb when Flavian knocked on the door.
“Christopher,” he shouted, “sorry, Chrestomanci, it's that coven in Melbourne – you said you'd try to meet with them sometime before you went to bed tonight, and they were wondering where you were.”
For a moment, Christopher was terribly tempted just to shove Julia into Flavian's arms and leave him to deal with her. But he did not like to think of the reproachful look on Millie's face, if she heard. So instead, he bawled back, “You'll have to meet with them instead, I'm afraid! I'll be along if I can!” He and Flavian shouted a few more instructions back and forth, and then Flavian went away again, looking very much as if he wanted his own bed. Christopher did not have much sympathy. It felt like years since he'd gotten a night's sleep.
Then, quite suddenly, Julia gave an almighty hiccup and spat up all over the shoulder of his silk suit. After this she went quiet and pleased with herself. Christopher was so glad to be able to stop swooping her about that he almost did not care about the suit. “Dare we hope,” he said to Julia, “for peace at last?”
Julia blinked at him, squeezed up her plump cheeks, and promptly started crying again. Under the circumstances, however, this was quite a reasonable reaction, as they were abruptly no longer inside Christopher's office, but outside, in the dark night, and the winds were chill.
Christopher squeezed his own eyes shut for a long moment – he was quite blind with rage anyway – relaxed, consciously, his grip on Julia, and took a moment to vanish the spit-up from his shoulder and call up an extra two blankets for his daughter. Then he turned around, mustering all his grandeur, and stared with haughty vagueness over the top of Julia's head. “I trust,” he said, “the situation you require my assistance with is extremely serious.”
The man who had apparently summoned Christopher stared at him, and then, with some dismay, at the wailing bundle of swaddling that was Julia. He was the vice-chancellor of a small Flemish country in 12-G, and Christopher could not for the life of him remember his name. “Er,” said the vice-chancellor. “A rogue enchanter – border dispute – loosed a basilisk –”
Christopher was quite sure that he had visited 12-G just yesterday, and the enchanter had been perfectly willing to wait a week for Chrestomanci to come back and mediate the dispute over rare magical herbs on the border of the kingdom. Over the continuing sounds of Julia's displeasure, he expressed this. The vice-chancellor, when pressed, reluctantly admitted that he had this morning granted permission for a pair of military warlocks to cross the border to – “but really,” he interrupted himself, “there's no time to go into this now, the basilisk may arrive at any minute! If you'll allow one of my staff to take the, er, the child, we shall retreat to the command tent and leave you to, ah, handle the problem.”
“My dear sir,” said Christopher, with icy astonishment, “are you seriously suggesting that I entrust my daughter's safety to you?”
The vice-chancellor took the hint.
The tricky thing about basilisks was making sure they did not see you before you had a chance to get rid of them. As soon as the vice-chancellor and his men were gone, Christopher cast a spell of invisibility over himself and Julia. Julia had settled down by now into a kind of quiet whimpering of protest, which was at least better than the wailing. Christopher patted her back soothingly and leaned against a rock to wait.
The basilisk came waddling hurriedly into view a few minutes later, craning its head back and forth. Grass withered in the path behind it and flowers crumpled in its glare. Christopher dodged out of the heat of its gaze, and, with a flick of his fingers, turned it into a cockerel.
“I say!” said the cockerel. “Who's there?”
Christopher recognized that voice. He undid the invisibility spell at once.
“Chrestomanci!” The cockerel – who was, of course, the rogue enchanter himself – clucked indignantly. “You must understand, they broke the truce first. I only –”
“At the moment,” Christopher said, pleasantly, “I have only one question for you. Do I look, in any way, as if I had the time or the patience to listen to your excuses as to why you took on a lethal shape and went sauntering around the countryside?”
The cockerel looked up at the million miles of Christopher's elegant suited frame, and at his coolly blank expression, and at the baby he was gently jogging against his shoulder. Then he shrank down and tucked his head under his wing. “All right,” he muttered. “I yield. Do as you like.”
There was a half-formed sarcastic comment on the tip of Christopher's tongue about how much he appreciated the permission, but he was too tired to let it loose. He sent the cockerel enchanter to the Bruges office to await a formal hearing, and then went to go find the vice-chancellor.
“Have you taken care of the monster?” burbled the vice-chancellor, as soon as he saw Christopher appear. He went around behind Christopher to peer out the door of the command quarters, perhaps to make sure the basilisk was not following him. “Capital! I was just telling my advisors that you were certainly a man to be counted on.”
“Alas,” said Christopher, “that the feeling is not mutual.” It had taken some effort not to let the words come out as a snarl; it was two in the morning, and he was feeling an earnest if undiplomatic desire to turn the vice-chancellor into a seahorse. “I –”
He paused, distracted by a sudden silence. Julia had stopped crying.
Christopher swore later that what happened next was the first evidence of witchcraft he had ever seen from his daughter. By all rights, when Julia spit up again, it should have splattered all over Christopher's coat-tails and gone no further. Certainly there seemed no possibility, within the realm of physics, that it should have reached anybody else. Nonetheless, the vice-chancellor stared down at his luminescent purple waistcoat, and then flapped his sleeves indignantly towards Christopher. “Chrestomanci, my good man – my council is waiting for me now to discuss our next steps, and I've no time to change. If you might be so good –”
“Unfortunately,” said Christopher, his face as smooth as marble, “infant – er – fluids are quite impervious to magic. I'm afraid there is no assistance I can offer. Please do tell your council that the border is now sealed until I have a chance to render further judgment on the matter.”
He bowed, carefully – Julia giggled as she swung down and up again with the motion – and vanished himself, with a twitch of his immaculate cuffs, back to Chrestomanci Castle.
“I believe our Julia is going to become a great judge of character,” Christopher informed Millie the next day. “Although not, perhaps, a born diplomat.” His face softened as he looked down at his daughter, who was banging a wooden bangle against the mirror in what seemed an earnest effort to break either one or the other. “Then again, it certainly prevented me from doing something unwise, so perhaps I ought not to rule out her diplomatic tendencies yet either.”
Millie eyed him as suspiciously as was possible through the fogginess of the magic mirror. “You're not going to turn into a doting father, now, are you, Christopher? She'll grow up spoiled rotten.”
“Nonsense,” said Christopher, loftily. “I'm merely giving credit where credit is due.”
This was the third time that day that Roger had been caught pulling Julia's hair. To be fair to Roger, Julia had first tied him to a chair.
“I only wanted to make him be less stupid!” Julia had explained, indignant through her tears. Further interrogation failed to shine a light on how exactly she expected tying him to the chair might accomplish this.
Either way, it seemed clear that a temporary separation was the only recourse.
“Well,” said Millie, “Julia can come to tea with me, I suppose.”
Christopher blinked. “Can she?” Millie was going to tea with the wives of several officials that the department rather suspected were involved in illegal potions trafficking.
“Oh, yes,” said Millie, placidly. “Lady Gates will be bringing her daughter too, and I know they'll be ever so pleased to have her.” Well, Christopher supposed, Millie knew what she was doing; nobody ever expected subterfuge from someone who appeared thoroughly occupied in making sure her child didn't spill soup on a new dress. “How about it, darling, would you like to come to tea with Mummy?”
Julia eyed her parents suspiciously. “Is it going to be boring?”
“Yes, terribly boring,” said Millie. “But you do deserve it for tying your brother to the chair, you know. I do hate to leave Roger alone. I suppose I can ask Jason to watch him –”
“Why ask Jason?” said Christopher. “I'll take him.”
Millie frowned at him. “Have you the time?”
As a matter of fact, Christopher did not have the time. He was supposed to be meeting with the German Council for Regulation of Magical Implements in ten minutes. But he had been having dull council meetings all week, and was feeling rebellious – and besides, it annoyed him rather that Millie had not even asked.
He turned towards his son. “Roger,” he announced, “in the interest of fairness, I am going to take you somewhere excruciatingly boring. Shall we go for a drive?”
Roger stopped bawling immediately. “YES!” he shouted, and went zooming for the door as fast as his four-year-old legs would take him. Christopher sauntered after him, feeling rather pleased with himself for guessing correctly about what Roger would like.
Roger had come along quite soon after Julia. This had been seriously thought out beforehand; both Millie and Christopher remembered very well what it had been like to grow up as the only child among busy and important adults, and while students could eventually be brought in to learn magic at the castle when Julia grew older, it was rather more challenging to find an excuse to import other children below school age. It seemed to have worked out well, overall. Julia and Roger were fairly good at keeping each other entertained, although sometimes the form that the entertainment took was hitting each other with blocks.
The one trouble with this was that Julia and Roger were now Julia-and-Roger most of the time, or, rather, 'the children.' Christopher had had a reasonable amount of time to get a sense of Julia as her own person before Roger came along. In some obscure way, he felt this was a bit unfair to Roger, who was quite clearly now a person too.
But Roger seemed to like machines, and Christopher liked machines, too, so that was one thing, and both of them very much liked Christopher's car. It was the latest model of Bentley, long and sleek and black, and it was one of the first things he had gotten around to ordering with his new government salary after replacing Gabriel de Witt. The old car had been a dull sensible brown like all the dull sensible government officials who reported in to the offices in London. But Christopher had a castle, not an office in London, and he firmly believed that the Chrestomanci ought to cut a bit of a dash.
Roger apparently agreed. He made roaring car noises all the way down to the garage, and then ran over to the Bentley. “I want to ride in the FRONT!” he bellowed.
“Reasonable enough,” said Christopher. He detached Roger from the door handle so that he could unlock it, then let him scramble into the seat before walking around to slide onto the other side of the bench.
Just as they were pulling out of the garage, Bernard came flying round the corner. “Where are you going?” he roared.
“Got to check something with de Witt!” Christopher shouted back, in a sudden burst of inspiration. It was true that had been meaning to consult with the former Chrestomanci on some of the more incomprehensible details of the German trade agreements – and besides, he had promised to take Roger somewhere very dull. There could not be many places duller for a child than the London townhouse of old Gabriel de Witt. “You'll have to hold down the fort, Bernard!”
Roger waved gleefully at the fuming Bernard as the car pulled smoothly into the drive.
Once they were on the road, Roger seemed quite content to sit still . His hair – straight and shiny, like Millie's – flopped all around in the breeze from the open roof. (Christopher, of course, had put a spell on his own hair so it would not be disturbed.) After a while, he said, “Daddy, why do cars go?”
“Because of engines,” said Christopher. “And gasoline. It isn't magic, you know.”
Roger chewed on this concept. “Why?”
“Because only some people can do magic,” said Christopher, “and sometimes things stop you doing it, but anybody can make machines work.”
Roger's mouth pursed in a way that looked like another 'why' was about to fly out, but instead, he looked slyly at Christopher and suggested, “I can make a machine work.”
“Not this machine you can't,” said Christopher, amused. “Not until you're of legal age, anyway. That's the law, I'm afraid, Roger.”
Roger lapsed into silence, sticking his hand out the side to let the wind rush through his fingers, so Christopher allowed himself to do the same. He wondered if he ought to be making more of this time alone with Roger – asking him searching questions, perhaps – but this was pleasant, and Roger looked to be enjoying himself, and it seemed a shame to ruin it.
It took another half an hour for them to arrive at Gabriel de Witt's house. De Witt answered the door looking dryer and greyer than ever. “Chrestomanci,” he said, blinking at him. He had been referring to Christopher as Chrestomanci since the moment he relinquished the title. Christopher had been surprised by this at first – he had not thought de Witt one to change his habits so easily – but perhaps de Witt wanted the reminder that he did not have to do the job anymore. “This is unexpected.”
“My son and I were out for a drive,” said Christopher, “and you've not seen him since he was an infant, have you? And I wanted to ask you a few things about the last set of German contracts.” He kept an airy tone in his voice, but he was already wondering if this impulsive visit been a mistake. De Witt was looking at him as if he was twelve years old again and playing hooky from his lessons. “Roger, this is Gabriel de Witt, who was the Chrestomanci before me.”
“Hullo,” said Roger, gamely.
“Ah. Yes,” said de Witt to Roger, and then, to Chrestomanci, “You might have made an appointment, if you wished to consult me. We could easily have spoken through magic mirror.”
Christopher controlled his temper. “Nonetheless,” he said, “we are here now, so perhaps you might invite us in?”
They sat down in the parlor, and began to discuss the contracts, but Roger shuffled about and fidgeted, and de Witt kept breaking off what he was saying to frown at him, which made Christopher feel he had to grow vaguer and haughtier than ever to make up for it. Eventually de Witt's maid produced some dry biscuits for Roger, which quieted him for a few moments until he finished them. “Are there any more?” he asked.
“I'll take him to the kitchen, sir,” offered the maid.
Christopher thought he should protest this – Roger was not meant to be growing any plumper – but he was too relieved to have an excuse for de Witt to stop frowning at Roger to care. He watched Roger follow the maid out of the room, then glanced back at de Witt, but instead of the dry, disapproving expression he had expected, he saw de Witt looking oddly wistful.
“I hear good reports of you,” he said, catching Christopher's stare – which was so utterly unexpected that Christopher had to work extraordinarily hard to keep his expression still. “Though,” he added, “you are still somewhat slapdash, and remarkably irresponsible. I should not have been able to work as you do.”
This was more like de Witt. Chrestomanci wanted to tell him that he was not irresponsible, nor slapdash, not really. It was everybody's right to take an afternoon off to spend time with their children. If they could not do that, they ought not to have any.
But this was of course most likely why de Witt never had. It was hard, sometimes, not to remember the young Gabriel de Witt who had so thoroughly disappeared into de Witt the Chrestomanci, and grow angry at the waste of it.
“Everything does get done,” he was saying, as patiently as he could, when the maid came hastily back into the room. She looked darkly disapproving.
“Mr. Chrestomanci, your son –”
Christopher was up and out of his seat to follow the maid in an instant. He could hear de Witt slowly following behind him – de Witt did everything slowly, these days – as the maid showed him through the open front door of the townhouse to take in the view of Roger's sturdy black boots sticking out from under the car.
“Oh, lord,” said Christopher, and charged off to go haul an extremely dirty Roger out from under the car. A piece of the undercarriage came with him.
Roger protested vigorously. “Anyone can make it work! You said!”
Christopher set Roger on the ground, stuck his feet there with a stasis spell to make sure he stayed, and turned back to de Witt, who was standing in the doorway and leaning heavily on his cane. “De Witt –”
“I shall call a mechanic,” said de Witt, “and arrange for the car to be returned to you. I shall be at your leisure via magic mirror this evening if you wish to discuss the contracts. But first, perhaps, you should take Roger home to, er, perform whatever discipline –”
“Indeed,” sighed Christopher. “Well, Roger, here's two punishments for you, for a start – no car ride home, and no chance to see the mechanic working on the car.” The trouble was, he reflected, that this would be punishment for Christopher too. And an abandoned Bernard to face when he got back.
He took hold of Roger's arm, but before he could teleport them away, de Witt said, “Christopher.”
“You're very fortunate, you know,” said de Witt.
Christopher looked down at his son's small, sulky, grease-stained face and then back at de Witt. “Yes,” he said. “I do know.”
“What a well-dressed person!” said Janet admiringly to Julia, as they passed by the post office. “I hadn't realized anyone in this town besides Chrestomanci had such a sense of style.”
Julia cast a glance around to see who Janet was talking about. So did Christopher, from behind his vaguest and most disinterested face. Then Christopher sighed inwardly, at the same time as Julia groaned out loud. “Don't pay her any attention,” she said loudly. “She's only one of those awful reporters.”
“Reporters!” said Janet, instantly interested. She craned her neck back to look at the Daily reporter, who tipped her fashionable hat. Janet gave a jaunty wave back, and turned back to Julia. “Well, if you haven't got film stars, I suppose the paparazzi have got to make do with dashing government officials. I should have guessed you all were celebrities.”
Cat looked puzzled. “We're not,” said Roger, bluntly, and Millie laughed.
“Truly, Janet, you needn't worry, mostly nobody pays attention to us at all unless they're really desperate. We're much too dull here to make for good copy.”
“Or unless Daddy's gotten everyone upset about something,” Julia put in. “Then they'll try and get us to talk about what a tyrant he is at home.” Millie cast an amused glance at Christopher, which Christopher managed, with vast dignity, to ignore.
“Oh, I'll just bet,” said Janet, meanwhile. “Controversial Chrestomanci – I can see the headlines now. Never fear. I won't spill any Castle secrets to untrustworthy ace reporters, however stylish they be. Onwards!”
They were on their way to church, which Janet, however hard she tried, could not seem to think of as anything other than a kind of dress-up game. It seemed that Janet had been raised in an very scientific sort of household. She did her best to sit attentively and not to look too ironic when the minister went on another one of his weak, wandering sermons, but inevitably, around the halfway mark, she would whisper “I'm sorry, I need the loo,” and slip out the back of the church. She usually returned within a few minutes. Christopher suspected that she needed the time for a private giggle, and did not begrudge her it. She put more effort into looking respectful for their sakes than he would have at her age.
He did not take any particular notice of Janet's absence this time until a quarter of an hour had gone by and she still had not come back. He met Millie's eyes over the top of Roger's head. A fifteen-year marriage was a kind of magic in and of itself; he and Millie were awfully good now at talking to each other without words. The result was that Christopher left an illusion of himself sitting in the pews, and then quietly got up and went out the back to find Janet.
It did not take him very long. Janet was backed up against the back wall of the church, looking white-faced and upset. “I told you, I don't know anything about it!” she was saying. “I can't do magic!”
“Nonsense,” said the Daily reporter, briskly. “My sources told me that you studied with unlicensed hedge-wizards for years before you were adopted by Chrestomanci. Surely you must have some kind of opinion –”
“That wasn't me!” snapped Janet. “That was Gwendolen Chant, and I'm not her! I don't even properly belong at Chrestomanci Castle at all!”
Christopher had seen quite enough by now to know what this was about. As Julia had explained so concisely, it was merely a matter of his office getting everybody upset about something. It was absurd that teachers of magic were not required to obtain any kind of special certification, in addition to their ordinary witchcraft license, that said that they were qualified to influence young minds – at least, Christopher certainly thought so, after the whole Gwendolen incident, and had bent his efforts towards changing the law accordingly. Not everybody agreed with him. Various wizards and witches accused him of taking his meddling too far, and campaigned vigorously against the new legislation. Foolish of him, he supposed, not to realize that somebody might put two and two together.
With three brisk strides, he was in between Janet and the reporter. “I'm very much afraid,” he said, with exquisite politeness, “that this interview is at an end.”
The reporter, undaunted, turned a keen eye on him. “I don't suppose, while you're here, you'd like to make a comment instead –”
“Certainly,” agreed Christopher, propelling the reporter around in the opposite direction. “My comment is as follows: if I hear that any of the Daily staff have been harassing my household, nobody from my office will be granting another interview for your paper for as long as I remember to be annoyed about the incident. And I have a rather excellent memory. Do have a good afternoon.”
Having thus disposed of the Daily, he turned his attention to Janet, who looked warily up at him from what seemed quite a long way down. “Now, I think,” he remarked, “you and I have some things to discuss.”
“I swear,” Janet said, hastily, “I didn't go looking for her or try to talk to her. She cornered me as soon as I got out, and I couldn't think how to get away.”
“Yes, I thought as much,” said Christopher, dismissing this. “No, I was referring to your comment that you don't properly belong at Chrestomanci Castle.”
“Oh,” said Janet. She frowned down at her skirts, tugging down her dress where it had gotten rucked up over her Sunday-best petticoats, as Janet's skirts always seemed to do. “Well – I mean, I don't, do I? It was Cat you wanted really – I mean, you had to have Cat – and you had to keep me, in order to get him. I don't mind,” she added earnestly, as Christopher processed this, and looked up again. “Really I don't. I feel I'm very lucky. Oh, don't be offended!”
Christopher raised his eyebrows. “I am merely confused,” he said, “at this interpretation of the evidence.” It was true he had said something similar of Gwendolen – he tried to remember if it had been somewhere Janet could hear – but Janet was emphatically not Gwendolen, and he had hoped she would realize that. “Pray remind me, Janet, what was it that Millie said when you were sent back from your world?”
“That it was a good thing I was staying, I suppose – but,” Janet explained, “Millie's such a honey, you know. She would like anyone.”
Christopher's eyebrows climbed further still towards his hairline. “Anyone?”
Janet flushed. “I didn't mean – only she's so kind!”
“Millie is certainly very pleasant to the majority of the population,” agreed Christopher. “But quite discriminating, in fact, about the people she really likes. I pined for years, you know, before she'd agree to marry me.”
Janet stared at him, in frank fascination. “Really? I wouldn't have thought!”
“I assure you,” said Christopher. “Which puts me in an excellent position to know that Millie's rather particular about whom she allows into her family. So, as it happens, am I.” He folded his hands together in front of him and regarded Janet. “If you'll recall the events that brought you here, you'll remember that I am really quite a powerful and ruthless person.” The face that Janet made indicated that she agreed, but thought it would be rude to say so out loud. “There are a hundred other arrangements I could have made for you. If we did not want to have you at Chrestomanci Castle, you would not be there. I trust you understand me?”
“Yes, but,” said Janet, and hesitated. She fidgeted with a straggling golden lock, then twitched at a sleeve. “But,” she said, finally, “the thing is, even if I'm nice – I do know I'm nice – but I'm so normal. I can't do magic. I don't fit.”
“My dear girl,” said Christopher, “I do suppose you remember what the purpose of this office is? If the only people of value were witches and enchanters, there would be no point to having a Chrestomanci at all.”
Janet nodded, but she did not look entirely convinced. Christopher quelled his wounded pride and reminded himself it had never been going to be as easy as that. People, in their perverse way, tended to cling on hardest to the ideas that hurt them the most – and that went double for children. He and Millie would have to take turns having this conversation with Janet until she began to really believe that she belonged and was wanted.
Millie, he had to admit to himself, would probably be better at it.
But at least he had made a start. “I should think,” he said, “the sermon will be almost over now. Give it two more minutes, and we'll be able to miss the end entirely.” He smiled down at Janet, and had the relief of seeing her smile hesitantly back. “How shall we waste them?”
Every so often there were days when everything seemed to hit at once. On this particular day, it was an army of golems rampaging through Yorkshire, coupled with an attack on Chrestomanci Castle from a gang of world-hopping magical thieves.
“And to make matters worse,” said Michael, in disgust, “they have the toilet humor of a set of teenaged pranksters.” Michael had good reason to be disgusted; he had just spent half an hour defending his study from an attack of foul-smelling orange goo, and the smell still lingered on his jacket. The thieves had apparently been hoping that they could drive him off with the stench, and then raid his shelves to their liking.
“Indeed,” said Christopher, absently. He was rather reminded of some of the antics that Jason had gotten up to when defending the castle from the Wraith, and that in turn gave him an idea. He sealed the latest set of urgent dispatches, transported them with a flourish to Bernard in Yorkshire, and stood up from his desk. “Michael, please take over for me on strengthening these wards for a moment – and if Bernard calls in, tell him we'll have another set of amulets ready for him as soon as we can get what we need out of the storeroom.” Then he teleported himself to the nursery.
The children were clustered around the window, craning their necks to see outside – all except Cat, who was curled up with Klartch asleep on top of him. Millie sat in the rocker with her eyes closed, cats piled up around her. “I told you, darling, you're going to have to give me some more time,” she said, without looking up. “They've got all kinds of spells set up to grab anything I try to transport, and it's quite tricky to navigate through them and protect this room at the same time. It will take me another few minutes at least.”
“I'm not here to bother you,” Christopher told her. “Don't pay me any attention.” He knew Millie had her own matters well in hand. As he said this, Julia turned around eagerly.
“Oh, do say you're going to let us help! It's so maddening to listen to them running around the castle!”
Christopher smiled. “Indeed I am. Will you all come over here a moment?” Roger and Julia rushed over from the window, with Janet following a step behind. Cat looked up too, rather warily.
“Julia,” said Christopher. “I'm going to take you over to the dining room with Margaret and Miss Bessemer. They're working on disabling the traps in the hallways, but I doubt they've got the mind for it that you do – and once they're gone, I'd like you to help them set up some counter-traps in their stead.” Julia had not inherited any great strength of magic from either of her parents, but she made up for that with cleverness. Even more importantly for this particular problem, she was fully capable of embracing the lowest kind of humor – as he knew all too well. “You're not to go out of Miss Bessemer's sight,” he added, seeing Julia's bright eyes. “Nor to go down any of the hallways until she says it's safe. Is that understood?” Julia nodded and pulled out her handkerchief, and Christopher sent her immediately off to the dining room. She vanished with a pop as the air sucked into the place where she had stood.
“Roger – that contraption of yours is still in working order, isn't it?
“Oh, yes,” said Roger, as eager now as Julia. “We've added a whole new sort of brakes which should work much better than the old ones did, and a gear system that –”
“You'll have to show me later,” Christopher interrupted. “For now, I'd like you to take Joe Pinhoe and go fetch Jason and his wife from the village. Fetch Marianne too, if she's nearby. You should be all right if you come and go from the roof. Call me once you're back, and I'll take you all down to the dining room.” He paused, searching out with his magic. “Where's Joe meant to be now?”
“In the stables,” said Roger, “but we were up awfully late last night, so I think he's having a nap in the linen closet.” In the ordinary way of things Roger would never have given up this information, but he clearly recognized how serious the situation was. Christopher nodded, accepting this trust, and with a snap of his fingers sent Roger, Joe, and contraption up to the roof.
This left Cat, still in the corner, and Janet, looking at Christopher ruefully. “I know,” she said, before he could say anything. “Stay here out of trouble and keep the home fires burning.”
“Well, I do want you stay here for now,” said Christopher, “but not for the reasons you're thinking. Once Millie's got the supplies here, she'll need help assembling the amulets, and quickly. But you can assemble and think at the same time, can't you? As soon as Millie's got the amulets well in hand, I want her to send you down to help Julia come up with traps, and I'll expect you to have a head full of fiendish ideas when you go – Twelve-B-ish ideas that will really puzzle this gang.”
“Ah, I see,” said Janet. “I'm the brains of the operation. I like the sound of that – though I could feel my head going blank, as soon as you said that.” She made a face, but Christopher could see she was looking happier. “But I'll do my best to knock some ideas out of it anyway.”
“Good girl,” said Christopher. “Now, Cat –” He had an order on the tip of his tongue for Cat, too. But now he had a chance to really look at him, he could see that Cat had the sort of puzzled, inward look on his face that Christopher was beginning to learn meant he was having an idea.
Christopher had meant to set Cat on minding the wards with his enchanter-strength, and take off himself to help Bernard with the golems. But Cat had done quite well on his own when Christopher had been trapped by the Pinhoes, without any kind of instruction. “Cat,” he said, instead. “Is there something you think you can do to help?”
Cat blinked at him, roused out of his thoughts, and said, “Yes – not here, but with the golems. But I don't know how to explain it.”
There was no time to hesitate. “Then do it,” Christopher told him, and transported himself back to his office. He was taking a risk. Someone with enchanter-level magic ought to be in the castle to keep the wards going in the face of the attack, and if Cat was going to go – and Millie after him, with the amulets – it meant Christopher would have to stay. But Cat thought he could do something, and Christopher did not think he was making a mistake to trust him.
The next few hours passed in a flurry as Christopher zipped up and down the castle, shouting orders at people and sending dispatches flying to and from Yorkshire and throwing his magic at anything that seemed easily fixable. He was in his element, as he always was during a crisis. So were all his household, who were in top form for all the stress. Christopher enjoyed seeing people at their best. It was one of the greatest rewards of the job, to make up for all the times he had to see people at their worst.
By four o'clock, several of the gang had been turned into caterpillars, three more were trapped by a pillow monster in a storage room, and the last two had run straight out a window and fallen into a vat of paralysing Jell-O. “I was inspired by the Roadrunner,” Janet had explained proudly, and Julia had added, with a bloodthirsty grin, “I thought of the pillow monster.” Christopher decided that it was better not to ask.
At this point, matters at the castle seemed to be well in hand. He left the children with Michael and Miss Bessemer and took himself out to Yorkshire, expecting to be greeted by a diminished but still feisty army of golems.
Instead, he was nearly blinded by a riot of color from a jungle of flowers, growing over a gaggle of small brown hummocks. When he squinted, he could see that each hummock had the outline of a curled-up person, with arms and legs and a bland brown head. Cat was sitting in the middle of the hummocks, frowning.
Christopher walked over and sat down next to him. It seemed definitive, at any rate, that the army was no longer rampaging. “Dwimmer?” he asked, with a careful kind of casualness. He still did not completely understand dwimmer, but flowers and earth did seem a dwimmer-ish sort of thing.
Cat nodded. “Bernard had to get them out of the village first, so I couldn't do it right away. I don't think people would have wanted them in their houses.”
“Almost certainly not,” agreed Christopher. “Is Bernard in the village now?”
“He's helping fix the things that were broken,” said Cat, “but I thought I should stay here until I was sure it had worked.”
He looked around at the hummocks, and Christopher did, too. “Well, it seems to have,” Christopher offered.
Cat ducked his head. “It wasn't hard, really. They're made of earth. That's what they wanted to be.”
Christopher would never have come up with this, and even if he had, he was not sure he could have pulled it off. He thought about how near he had been to telling Cat what to do, instead of letting him come here. Six months ago, he thought, he almost certainly would have. Christopher was good at telling people what to do. It was one of the things that made him a good Chrestomanci.
Cat was not at all good at telling people what to do, or even telling people what he himself was going to do. But he was good at putting things right with magic – and, more important, it seemed that he liked doing it, which Christopher had been nothing like certain of before. Cat was clearly not going to grow up to be the same sort of Chrestomanci that Christopher was, but he was not going to be like Gabriel de Witt either. He was not going to be unhappy.
“Well done, Cat,” Christopher said warmly.
Cat did not glow at the praise, as any of Christopher's other children would have done – Cat was never as easy to read as that – but all the same, Christopher could tell he was pleased.