“Chin up,” said Christopher kindly. “Gabriel’s not so bad.”
He supposed it would have done more good if he had noticed Cat’s nervousness rather earlier during the train ride, or if he sounded as though he believed his own words. At the moment he was rather wishing he had canceled this visit in favor of that appointment with the Great Mages of Series One, come to complain for what must be the twentieth time that a renegade mage from their conclave was attempting to sabotage the Related Worlds. Tacroy had promised to make sure Gabriel was on his best behavior while meeting Cat for the first time, but from bitter experience Christopher knew that didn’t mean much. Only imagine if he brought up that embarrassing mix-up with Series Nine and the blood oranges!
For his part Cat was studying the tops of his shoes, which went to show what little good it did when Christopher tried to be sympathetic. He switched tactics. “Anyway we shall be home by tea,” he said in his lordliest manner and felt quite proud when Cat brightened. That sweet satisfaction lasted all the way into the car that took them to Gabriel’s home and even through the first few moments of Gabriel grumbling, by way of a greeting, “What is it now?”
“Anyone would think you weren’t pleased to see me,” Christopher retorted, and put a hand on Cat’s shoulder to shepherd him forward. “Here, I’ve brought Cat to meet you. He’ll be my successor someday.”
“So I’ve heard,” said Gabriel. He screwed up his face in concentration. “Come here, Eric.”
For an instant Christopher wondered who Eric might be, and then he remembered that was Cat’s actual name, after all. Frank and Caroline would have been horrified. In fairness to Christopher, Cat seemed every bit as flustered. “Hello,” he said, and moved his body all of a centimetre forward towards Gabriel’s assessing eye.
Good heavens. Clearly it was past time for Christopher to intervene. “Cat is progressing very well with his studies,” he said, and added, carelessly, because he did so want a chance to talk about how quickly Cat had mastered teleportation, not to mention his natural affinity for transformation, “especially the practical aspects.”
Naturally this meant Gabriel spent the next fifteen minutes quizzing Cat about the more arcane aspects of magic theory. It was quite clear that Cat did not understand above one word in seven, which was not much better than Christopher’s comprehension of one in five. Gabriel could be outright confounding when he was trying to punish Christopher, which seemed right now to be the case. It was even more undeserved than usual, since Christopher had no idea what he had done to upset Gabriel. Looking at Cat’s mulish expression when asked to explain the thaumaturgic properties of water molecules, Christopher found himself quite in sympathy. He would have to do something very generous indeed to make it up to Cat.
As ever it did not take Gabriel very long to get to the point after that, which seemed to be: “I’m not certain I approve of keeping the position of Chrestomanci in the family line. It is not a cardinalship, to be given out in a Christmas stocking to a favorite nephew.”
“I suppose,” Christopher retorted, “I should go back and choose from those other nine-lived-enchanters I have lying about.”
Gabriel sighed.“I know there were ...extenuating circumstances in your situation. Heaven knows I was pleased when Roger and Julia were found to have doubles. But Christopher, do you really think it wise—“
When the call first came, faint but insistent, Christopher was more relieved than anything else. He did not want to listen any longer while Gabriel cast aspersions on Cat’s competence while poor Cat was standing right there. If it had been anyone else, Christopher would have chalked it up to wandering wits with old age, but Gabriel had never cared much about his audience when it came to criticizing Christopher. He cleared his throat and was just about to excuse himself when the second call came, even louder, and Christopher, with some surprise, noticed Gabriel jump.
The third call made Christopher’s eardrums throb and Gabriel purse his lips, but most alarming of all, Cat turned around, eyes wide and frightened. “What—“
That was all he had the chance to say before the summons took hold entirely. Christopher has time to be terribly glad Cat found teleportation so easy before the world blinked in and out of view, and he found himself on a white-sanded beach that was sickeningly familiar.
“Damnation,” he muttered, because while the situation might call for stronger language, Cat was present to overhear, and besides, he supposed he was on some sort official business now. Then he swung about to make certain Cat and Gabriel had both made the crossing safely.
They had; Cat was scrambling to his feet, patting himself free of sand, while Gabriel was sitting upon a nearby dune, eyebrows raised. “Ahem,” he said, as Cat dashed past him to reach Christopher, and Cat guiltily came to an awkward stop.
“Will this work?” he ventured with a wave of his left hand, and beside Gabriel, the sand surged up to form a chair of sorts that hovered above the ground. Gabriel settled up into with a grunt, and twisted enough of his magic about it that it would move about wherever he pleased.
“It could do with a few cushions--” Christopher rolled his eyes none-too-subtly at Gabriel’s words and conjured a set of frilly white pillows from the air “--but nonetheless I thank you, young Eric.”
“Now that that’s settled, I don’t suppose either of the two of you might be of any help in noticing who might have summoned me?”
“ Us, if you hadn’t noticed,” said Gabriel at the same time Cat burst out: “Where is this place?”
“Series Five, Cat, where the world split up into islands instead of countries.” Christopher began to feel a ferocious headache coming on. “And of course I did. What I can’t see is what to do about it.”
“About what?” Cat must not find this a satisfactory answer. “Why would they want me? I’m not even Chrestomanci yet!”
He looked really alarmed, as though he hadn’t yet realized what a shock to the system it could be to be plucked between the Related Worlds at a minute’s notice. Better now than never, Christopher thought sadly. Because he could not promise Cat that it would not happen again, Christopher settled for looking as vague as possible and hoping Gabriel would assume he was concentrating. It didn’t much work, if the hawkish look Gabriel gave him was any indication, but Gabriel at least took enough pity on him to explain matters to Cat.
“I imagine we have the misfortune to have attracted the attention of several people, all desperately calling for Chrestomanci, in past, present, and future.” He paused, long enough to let Cat work through the implications. “It worked, if not precisely the individuals they wanted. I imagine the proximity of three Chrestomancis, whether or not two of them current held the title at the time, confused the magic into taking us all instead of Christopher alone.”
Cat frowned. “But why here, if it’s different people calling? Shouldn’t we each go to the time we were called to?”
“Because this is the moment the timeline is most sensitive to change,” Christopher said. “Drew us all in like iron to magnets. We haven’t reached that part yet in your studies, but when we do, you’ll see that temporal magic is a dreadful nuisance. Better take my word for it now.”
“But shouldn’t er, Mr de Witt remember what the trouble was? If one of the calls came from the past, he would have heard something about what happened, wouldn’t he?” Cat paused, and seemed to ponder the question further. “Or at least we should know we were able to fix it, or will be able to, so that he didn’t.”
“Time,” Christopher said wisely, “is both fixed and constantly in flux. We might have already done what we needed, or we might come home to find the Related Worlds in shambles. As I said, overall a dreadful nuisance.”
Gabriel let out a cough that sounded quite suspiciously like a snort. “All well and good, but when, Christopher, do you intend to address the fact that we seem to be quite alone on this beach?”
Both he and Cat looked expectantly over as though they expected Christopher to solve all their problems, only because he was the present Chrestomanci. How unfair! The least they could do is be of some use. Christopher sighed, and set himself to concentrating through his headache. “On this beach, yes,” he thought aloud, “but not in this place.” So it had come to this. He had done his best to think up other possibilities, with no luck. Christopher pulled off his shoes and socks, and did his best to roll up his trousers before he stepped into the surf; it did no good, and his heart let out a pang at the thought of what the salt water must be doing to the fine gray silk. At least his dressing gowns might be saved.
Under Cat’s curious eye, and Gabriel’s eternally critical one, Christopher wiggled his toes about in the sea and waited.
They surfaced, of course, if not exactly as Christopher remembered them. To be fair, their hair and skin were still greenish, and their lower bodies ended in the fish-tails and flippers that had confused him so. But the Silly Ladies he remembered he been rather more prone to laugh aloud than look daggers at one, and most definitely they had not all brandished weapons as these did. There were five of them altogether, three with spears wrapped round with jellyfish tentacles, and the remainder with coral clubs and most formidable-looking piercings.
“Yes?” barked the tallest of them, evidently their leader.
Christoper raised his arms in the most impressive fashion he could manage. “It is I, Chrestomanci,” he intoned. Presentation was everything, after all.
Not so to the Not-At-All-Silly Ladies. The mermaid chief raised an eyebrow and glowered. “So? We have heard of such a name, who might have been of service in dire times as these, but did not expect to find it meant only a doddering old man, a half-grown child, and an overdressed peacock. And besides we didn’t call for you, anyway. Nonsense!”
They made to go, and Christopher sighed once more. “It’s me,” he said, “Clistoffer.”
He half expected it not to work, but the leader slowed and stared suspiciously at him over a greenish shoulder. “There was a clan of our sisters,” she snapped, “who lived here once, and spoke of such a creature.”
“Yes,” said Christopher. “That was me, long ago. I don’t suppose they’re still somewhere about? We were quite friendly. They gave me gifts.”
All five of the mermaids twisted about, but looked no less welcoming. “It was a creature,” the first went on, “that brought with it great joy and then great bloodshed.”
“Among their gifts,” Christopher said, pretending not to hear, “was a necklace of pearls carved to look like skulls. In later years I’ve come to learn that was something in the way of adopting me into the clan, which gives me the right to demand an explanation from you ladies, if nothing else.”
“Bother you!” spoke one of the mermaids holding a club, except “bother” was perhaps the word that she used. Rather hastily, Christopher cast a temporary noise-canceling spell over Cat’s ears. “The Nacre-Bone Clan is dead! Why shouldn’t you flipping well be, too?” And this time, “flipping” was certainly not the word she used.
“Because, madam,” Gabriel interrupted, clearly thinking enough was enough, “we may be of service to you regarding those dire matters you spoke, called for or not. Perhaps you might elaborate.”
That very bland introduction was all it took to achieve a detente, inexplicable as it was. The mermaids were much happier to speak with Gabriel than they were to Christopher, so that Christopher was able, reluctantly, to release the noise-canceling spell. It seemed those among them who survived had picked up a talent for star-charting, and had read in the sky portents of danger rising. “We have reason to believe a great dark force shall rise from these very waters before the evening star ascends--but while our scholars might not know what this means yet, they jolly well don’t need your help to do it!”
The summons definitely had not come from them, then. How odd. Christopher knew better to question this, though, not when Gabriel was getting on so well. Before he knew it, Gabriel had charmed his way into asking that the mermaids not only allow to cooperate with a tracking spell, but also to arrange transport to where it might lead. It was, much as Christopher hated to admit, truly impressive.
The mermaids arranged for a sort of raft for the three of them, pulled by laughing dolphins that bobbed up and down so that Christopher had the devil of a time making sure Gabriel’s chair would stay steady. That was not the worst of it; Cat had gone white. He wasn’t to be blamed for having died before by way of drowning (Christopher felt yet again a twinge of remorse at not being able to save his cousins, ingrate and idiot though Francis had been and his wretched daughter, if anything, even worse) but Christopher couldn’t see that there was any way to leave him behind and still ensure his safety.
Christopher opened his mouth to try and say something comforting, but instead Cat squinted up at him. “What are the mermaids so worried for?” he wanted to know. “And what did you mean before, Clistoffer?”
With his customary shrewdness, Christoper elected to tackle the simpler of the questions first. “They have reason to be. Mermaid flesh--though it’s hardly used now, even by those band of reprobates you and Janet unluckily encountered--used to be quite in demand in certain sorcerous circles. They say, if prepared correctly, it can confer immortality, with the unfortunate side effect of sending the consumer stark raving mad in the process.”
“Oh.” Cat was clever enough to see the connotations. A deathless evil enchanter was one of those problems it was better to nip in the bud. “And the mermaids who were your friends?”
He could be quite determined when he wanted. “Among those circles who dealt in mermaid flesh was that of a certain smuggler known as the Wraith. Unfortunately he happened also to be my uncle. I didn’t know until it was far too late.” Christopher’s throat had gone quite tight. Happily it was at this moment that Gabriel bellowed: “Here, boy! Help me with my chair,” and Cat crawled over obediently.
Once they were all settled, the dolphins began to tug the raft and its passengers along, while the mermaids kept pace beside it. Most unfortunately they didn’t seem to be able to provide any information that could be useful in setting up a traditional locator spell, and it all seemed about to descend into another quarrel until Cat thought to ask how the mermaids gave directions to each other.
“Through song, of course,” was the slightly incredulous answer.
“Then why not sing what you know and let the spell do the rest?” Cat said. Gabriel turned such an impressed look upon him that the tips of Cat’s ears went rosy, but Christopher caught him smiling to himself.
Gabriel maneuvered his chair backwards until he was next to Christopher and groused: “Eric is too young by far to be affected by their song, and I too old and ragged, but that doesn’t exempt you, you know. You see they’re about to begin. Pray tell me, why aren’t you ready?”
“I know, I know!” snapped Christopher, and he did. It was only that being in Gabriel’s presence made him feel seventeen and sulky, in the same way that Cat’s presence made him feel about seventy and responsible for everything under the sun. The combination of both simultaneously was powerfully unpleasant. Christoper cast the noise-canceling spell over himself, hoping he might at least get some peace and quiet this way, or perhaps even some rest.
The blazing sun above, however, made it difficult to nap, and the smell of brine made Christopher sneeze. Neither Gabriel nor Cat seemed much disturbed. Cat had been made quite a pet of by their companions, even warlike mermaids having a soft spot for children; and Gabriel, given his excited gesticulations, was clearly discussing music with the remaining mermaids. Bitterly Christopher thought to himself how glad he was that at least some people were enjoying themselves. He hoped, too, that Millie would never find out; he suspect she would find it altogether too amusing how little a desert island on Series Five agreed with him when confronted with the reality of it.
At last they reached the spot where the mermaids’ auguries led them: yet another island, but this one with a sort of shiny black sand that glinted unpleasantly in the light. It seemed exactly the sort of spot for an evil enchanter to build his lair, which Christopher ought to have expected. He stepped off the raft, removing the spell as he did, and onto the island along with Cat, and as soon as Gabriel had levitated his chair to join them, the mermaids had freed the dolphins and gone the next.
Except the other mermaid with the club who hadn’t addressed him earlier. She hung back an instant, only long enough to say, “My mother was hatched among the Nacre-Bones. She said they never knew you as anything but innocent and kind.” Then she was gone, but Christopher found he could stand up a bit straighter after that.
Which meant there was nothing to it but to seek out the maniacal enchanter. To use a spell now would only tip him off, so that Christopher supposed they had to go about it the old-fashioned way. He could only hope, for the sake of his knees, that the lair in question wasn’t up at the top of a mountain, or deep within the bowels of the earth. When he was Cat’s age, he might have been rather excited about this sort of thing. Now he was only exasperated and exhausted, before the dueling and dressing-down had even begun.
“I find myself becoming far too old for this,” Gabriel announced, and wasn’t that just like him? Clearly Christopher wasn’t even to be allowed the pleasure of a good whinge without Gabriel one-upping him. Cat bounded ahead of both of them, quite oblivious to their weariness and suffering. Christopher decided he was annoyed with him, too.
It was just when Christopher was about to propose they take a bit of a rest when yet again, he felt a summons. This was really too much. Didn’t they realize he was only one man? There was nothing for it, however; Christopher tucked Gabriel and Cat alone with him in the transport spell and hoped this new business wouldn’t take terribly long. To his surprise and relief, the new summons seemed to have brought them only to the other side of the same island, if the shiny black pebbles at their feet were any indication. A small squat man with thinning hair was sitting before them at a table. If Christopher had hoped they might have conveniently come across the evil enchanter they sought, he was bound to be disappointed; this man seemed far more likely to convince them to open a new account with his bank than try to take over the world.
But: “Ah!” he beamed. “You’ve come at last, just as promised. I’ve been hoping for so long.”
“Yes,” said Christopher. “It is I, Chrestomanci. What seems to be the trouble?”
This man had the manners to look suitably impressed, or at least to politely ignore Gabriel and Cat’s presence. “No trouble at all,” he said. “Quite the contrary. I have spent—and must I say, it is an honor to meet you at last!—years researching you and all you do. I trust you’ll forgive the intrusion, but you see, it was quite necessary.”
Christopher did not have the heart to interrupt and say he did. Gabriel, though, had no such compunction. “Series One,” he muttered in an undertone. “The scent of it drips off him.”
“I imagine you believe you’ve been brought here to stop an enemy,” the man said, “but I promise you that I, Bixby, rather seek to help you as best as I can! It was the possibility of being of service to you which brought me to this series, nay, this world—“
“Excellent, my dear fellow,” Christopher said, before this could continue for too long. “I don’t suppose you might have seen a madman dealing in mermaid flesh anywhere about?”
“A madman?” Belby chortled. “Not at all. But as for mermaids, well—“ He took out a vial of some greenish liquid and set it before him on the table. “I imagined you would have reservations about the ...untidiness of the whole thing. You see this sample was collected by using natural methods, quite harmless indeed.”
Christopher groaned. It seemed he would have to put down an enchanter after all, embarrassingly inept though he might be. “I see,” he said, and stretched out his hand. “If you’ll just surrender your contraband and come along without endeavoring to swallow it all before I can stop you, Mr. Bailey—“
Begbie’s mouth fell open. “Oh no,” he said earnestly. “You misunderstand me, dear Chrestomanci. The Elixir of Eternal Life isn’t meant for me. It’s for you.”
Christopher stilled. Bellamy apparently took this for encouragement. “Only think of the good you could do. There have been Chrestomancis before you, and Chrestomancis after, but who has had such adventures as you? Who has met with such success? Why risk that someday, someone might take up your position without your intelligence and experience? Take it, for the sake of all the Related Worlds!”
And for one terrible moment, Christopher wondered. He looked at Gabriel, rendered gaunt and gray from responsibility, and at Cat, healthy and hopeful. He thought of the prospect of passing off the title and the guilty twinge it caused. He wondered if—
But then Cat wrinkled his nose. “I should think he won’t!” he said. He glared daggers at Blakely. “No matter what you say.”
“I should think not,” agreed Gabriel, looking sidelong at Christopher. “Come here, Cat. Show me what you make of that dreadful vial.”
Cat squinted at it, flicked his hand, and suddenly a crystalline dragonfly was sitting on the table instead. It flapped glassy wings with clear delight, and took off into the great blue sky. Which left Berry for Christopher to manage. He did not seem so much like a harmless banker. His smile had grown very sly indeed, and the cast of his eyes outright malicious.
He jeered, “In the end you prove yourself as rule-bound as the rest. I had so hoped for some free thought from you.”
“I do hate to disappoint,” Christopher said blandly and, taking a page out of Cat’s book, decided transformation would make it easier to transport Bellini, or whoever he truly was, back to Series One where he might be tried as a renegade from the Conclave of Mages. He waved his hand and just like that, Bonney was a round, armless seal that glared up at them with baleful beady eyes.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” pronounced Gabriel, except “rubbish” was very definitely not the word he used.
Later, when Brinsby had been disposed of and two quick bouts of temporal translocation performed in order to see the past and future summons made that would lead all three of them here, Christopher and Cat found themselves both precisely where they had started, standing at attention before Gabriel once again, awaiting what devastating appraisal he would make.
But Gabriel only snuffled and said, “I find myself growing chilled. Run and see if you can find Rosalie, Eric, and ask her for a posset.”
Given an opening, Cat fled. Christopher did not think he was quite quick enough, however, to miss Gabriel muse aloud as he went: “What a strange, reserved boy he is.”
“Really?” Christopher wanted to know, and ignored Gabriel’s answering scowl. Then Gabriel’s face softened, and he said: “I do hope you aren’t still offended, Christopher. I didn’t mean to cast aspersions about your ward’s competence before, or your family line. It’s only…” Gabriel heaved a sigh. “It’s difficult, you see, looking at a child you’ve come to love and knowing you mean to someday cast your own burden upon them. I can only imagine it would be more difficult when it’s a question of your own blood.”
“Not so,” said Christopher. “I can’t imagine you would have raised me any better if I were, or felt any more wretched. And I wanted the post, and had for years.”
There was no denying this. Cat still looked faintly green whenever he contemplated his future, far enough though it might be. It was what made him feel so guilty whenever he thought with pleasure about giving Cat all his responsibilities and going off to enjoy himself for once, so much so in fact that he had even been tempted to impose it upon himself for all eternity.
“Eric will grow into it,” said Gabriel reassuringly. “And you won’t even have to fear that he’ll make a mess of it because he doesn’t understand the seriousness of what he does.”
“Please,” replied Christopher, “you’ll make me blush.” But he found he was smiling again after all. “You called him ‘Cat,’ before.”
“I did no such thing. I called him ‘Eric,’ as is his given name.”
“You must be careful,” Christopher went on. “Soon he won’t be terrified at the thought of visiting you, and then what will I do when I need to discipline him?”
Gabriel snorted. “I assure you I have no fear on that account. I’ve been terrifying young rascals since before you were one yourself. Now go away, if you please. I’m tired and I want to sleep.”
And Christopher did, because somewhere deep in his bones, he could not help but do precisely what Gabriel wanted in the end. First he bent to brush a kiss on Gabriel’s wrinkled brow. “Good evening, old man,” he said, even though Gabriel had gone ahead and closed his eyes. “I couldn’t have asked for a finer father.”
Then he went downstairs to collect Cat. They might make it home in time for tea after all, and Millie had promised them eclairs.