A Boy Less Ordinary
Thomas Brown was not an ordinary boy. People told him so frequently, so it had to be true.
"The trouble with you," his mother would say, peering down her sharp nose, "is that you're just not normal. Now, I'll ask you again, and this time I want a sensible answer: What do you want for dinner today?"
As Tom dragged himself up the winding stairs, after another humiliating day of lessons, his little sister jostled past him. "Out the way, weirdo," she spat. Obligingly, he pressed himself against the wall and let her slither past him. He suspected that the elbow she jabbed into his stomach was entirely deliberate.
"What did I do to produce a son like you?" his father asked loudly and often, throwing his hands up in the air. "Two normal sons - sons any father could be proud of. Two enchanting daughters. And then you. Weird. Up in your room doing the devil knows what. Though better in your room, I'd admit, than embarrassing me in front of my visitors."
Sighing, Tom opened his bedroom door, and threw his school bag onto the bed. Books spilled out, books with dark covers. What no-one knew was that some of the covers contained other books, stolen from guests. It was the only way Tom could get through a day of lessons. He would sit at the bench, muttering the rote words, but under the desk a forbidden book would be open, and in his heart he would be dreaming of other worlds.
Tom walked over to the window. In the courtyard below, his older brother was swaggering up and down with his followers. His older sister was watching, all curves and enchanting smiles, and his little sister was playing hide and seek. The evening sun was red, and smells of roasting flesh were seeping out of the kitchen.
Just a normal evening. Tom looked at his hands, then looked at himself in the mirror. Why did he find it so hard just to get up, go downstairs again, and join in, doing the sort of things that were expected of him? Why did he spend every evening closeted in his room, fighting urges to do forbidden things?
The door was thrown open, heavy feet stamping in without a knock or an invitation. "Knew you'd be here," said his twin.
Tom did not turn round from the window.
"Visitors coming tonight," his brother said. "Important ones. Dad says you're to make yourself scarce. Says he's got an image to keep up. Doesn't want it ruined by weirdoes and freaks."
Tom waited until the feet clattered out again. Turning away from the window, he went back to the bed. He opened the first book that came to hand, and started reading.
"Knew you'd be doing that," his brother taunted, through a crack in the door. "Reading stupid books and fantasies. Mum says it's unhealthy. She wants to burn them, so you have to live in the real world. Be a real member of this family, not a…"
"Weirdo," Tom said sadly. "I know."
Tom tried to lose himself in the book, but it was hard to keep the words in his head. Somewhere downstairs, his family was gathering, all thinking the same way, all wanting the same things. They were getting dressed, readying themselves for important visitors, and all the while he was banished to his room, because he was strange, and an embarrassment.
Books were his only comfort. Yes, he knew that the worlds he read about in stories did not really exist, but while reading them, he could pretend. The heroes of stories were often like him. They thought like him, and they dreamed of the same things that he dreamed of, and they lived in worlds where such things were completely normal. Fantasy, of course, but one day, perhaps… One day, if he longed for it enough…
He threw the book across the bed. Of course such things would never come true. His family were normal, and he was strange. The rest of the world was like them, not like him. Tom would never fit in.
"But I wish," he admitted out loud, "that they'd like me, just a little bit." Because in the stories, a child's parents usually loved them, even if they did unusual things.
"Maybe," said a reedy voice, "the fault is with them, and not with you."
Tom tore the covering off the cage. "How many times do I have to tell you not to do that?"
The creature in the hamster cage blinked up at him with silver eyes. "Oh, at least a hundred more." It danced in a circle around its water bowl. "Or you could try saying please."
"Please." Tom paused, tilting his head to one side. "Has it worked?"
"No." The creature beamed placidly. "Nice to hear it, though. I haven't heard a single polite word since I was enslaved. First it was the foul torments, of course, and then an eternity of hamster food and your self-pitying ramblings."
"It's not my fault," Tom protested. "I didn't ask for you. I just wanted a normal hamster. Besides," he added, "you're not enslaved. Or, if you are, you probably deserved it."
"Me?" The creature opened his eyes wide in pretended innocence. Then it turned its back, and pretended to be studying its food. "Of course I didn't, and if only you'd open your eyes…"
"Oh, be quiet," Tom commanded. "Besides," he said, wrinkling his nose, "you stink."
"Only because you don't clean the cage out often enough," the creature said sulkily.
Tom cleared his throat, all too aware that the accusation was true. He went to open a window, but all he let in was the smell of roasting meat, and the sound of screaming. Smoke prickled his nose, and dark birds flew across the bloody sun. As he leaned out, he heard the sound of rattling wheels, and saw one of his father's guests appear in his carriage, drawn by six black horses. The family was lining up, ready to greet him. They looked complete, nothing to show that one of their number was missing.
He slammed the window shut. "I wish I could show them!"
Shredded parchment skittered in the hamster cage. "Show them what?" The creature was alert again, silver eyes gleaming, all trace of sulkiness gone.
"That I have as much right as they do to be down there." He threw a few more books around. One hit the wall, and fell apart, the dark cover going one way, the forbidden pages another.
"Is that what you really want?" the creature asked.
Tom looked at it. Yes! he wanted to declare. They were his family. They were his parents, his brothers, his sisters. He was one of them and had as much right to…
"Do you really want to be ordinary," the creature asked quietly, "if they are the definition of what ordinary means?"
Tom let out a long breath. "No," he admitted. "I don't want to be like them. In fact…" He clenched a fist. "I want to…" He could not say it.
"Crush them?" the creature suggested gleefully. "Get your revenge for all those years of slights? Overthrow them?"
Tom shook his head. "I don't know. I just feel so alone. And, no, before you say it, strange creatures that are not quite hamsters don't count as company."
"I only look like this," the creature said, "because you wanted a hamster so much. Whatever a hamster is. Something from one of your books, I expect." It wrinkled its nose in disgust. "No, my true shape is beautiful. Be wasted on you, of course. Sadly, I'm under an enchantment to take the form of whatever my captor most wants to see. I bet you'd like to see what I looked like when your father had me."
"No." Tom shook his head vehemently. He could imagine it. "I don't know why I'm talking to you anyway. You never say anything useful."
"Just testing you, dear boy." The creature's voice sounded different. "You'll be pleased to hear that you've passed. I can give you the word now."
Tom frowned. "Word?" Muffled in the courtyard, trumpets sounded.
"That I came here to say, of course." The creature sounded impatient. "Of course, I was captured before I could say it. It doesn't seem to work in this pathetic little voice I've got now. Ages ago, I was captured. The hair and the clothes were frightful. I shudder to think of how I looked... But I digress." It drew itself up. Tom thought it was trying to look portentous, but was hampered by being in the body of an almost-hamster, with sawdust on its nose. "Years I have waited until there was someone worthy to… Oh, forget it. Just say the word."
"The word?" Tom leant close to the cage, then wished he hadn't. The smell was very horrible.
"Chrestomanci," whispered the not-quite-a-hamster. "Say it three times, and he will come, and your troubles will be ended."
"Chrestomanci," Tom said dubiously. "Chrestomanci?" He moistened his lips. "Chrestomanci."
Nothing happened. Tom let out a breath, annoyed with himself for even trying it. "That's it. That's the…" He felt a whoosh of air behind him, but he would have felt stupid to stop now. "…last time I listen to you," he finished, with less conviction than when he had started.
"Very wise," said a voice from behind him. "Talking animals are notoriously self-serving. Why, once I… Well, never mind. Another day, perhaps."
Tom had tried to whirl around, but his body would not obey him. The best it managed was a slow and creaky turn, with his mouth hanging open. "Are you…?" He tried to make the voice form words. "Are you…?"
"Chrestomanci?" the man said. "No… I mean, yes." He drew himself up, rather like the hamster-thing had done, and sounded booming and important. "I am Chrestomanci."
"No you're not," the hamster said.
The possible Chrestomanci shot him an angry look. "Yes, I am."
He was not really a man at all, Tom realised. The elegant and formal clothes had fooled him into thinking that he was, but this Chrestomanci looked no older than seventeen. He was tall, though – perhaps as tall as Tom's father – and very good-looking. Just looking at him made Tom feel childish and clumsy, but he reminded himself that this boy had invaded his room, so he tried to feel angry instead.
"Now, look here…" he began.
The boy ignored him. "I will have you know," he said to the hamster, "that I am Chrestomanci. I came to the summons, didn't I? Surely that proves it."
"Proves nothing," said the hamster. "I happen to be a close personal friend of Chrestomanci. Well, I met him once. I know for a fact that Chrestomanci is older. Not as handsome, though." Its voice went a little wistful. "Not as well-dressed."
"Thank you." The boy gave an elegant bow, looking very pleased with himself. "I do try. But do you think a burgundy suit would look better? I've never been summoned before, you see, and first impressions matter."
"Yes, they do." Tom managed to find his voice again. "And you haven't made a very good one. Who are you?"
"Chrestomanci." The boy turned mildly towards him. "Or, rather – for I see the suspicion furrowing your rather stupid face – I will be Chrestomanci one day. However, my guardian, who is the current Chrestomanci, is in bed with flu. He asked me to take over. He did it all properly, of course, with all the proper rites, which was why your summons reached me, rather than him." He frowned, apparently struck by a thought. "Which is just as well. Imagine what you would have thought if you'd suddenly got a grumpy old man in a nightgown appearing in your room. Dear me. Probably worse for him, though."
The hamster creature gave a soprano snarl, whiskers quivering. "So we've got a trumped-up apprentice, not the master. Just typical. I've endured a lifetime of foul captivity waiting for this."
"Is it always like this?" Chrestomanci looked genuinely interested.
Tom nodded. "Worse, sometimes. I only wanted a normal hamster, like in the books…"
"Better cover it, then." Chrestomanci flicked his fingers, and the cover landed on the cage. The creature continued to squeak, slightly muffled, but Chrestomanci waved his hand again and it fell silent.
"You've killed it?" Tom asked.
"Of course not." Chrestomanci frowned. "What sort of a person do you take me for? Come to think of it, what sort of a person are you? You don't look like anything special."
"Oh, but I am," Tom told him. "I'm very unusual. Weird. The thoughts that come into my head… The things I want to do…" He looked at his hands. Sometimes he thought there was power in his hands – the power to create marvels.
"Oh?" Chrestomanci pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his hands, although surely they were not dirty. "One of those magical boys, trapped in a family that doesn't understand you? That's common enough, hardly worth a summoning. At least you've got your own room. There was one last year… Lived in a broom cupboard, would you believe…"
"I'm not magical," Tom protested. He felt a sudden urge to hit this superior boy in his smug face. "And I hardly think my situation is common."
"Yes, yes." Chrestomanci had moved to the mirror, where he appeared to be studying the useless item of clothing he had tied around his neck. "Yes, I think I was right to go with the white."
"Are you actually going to do something useful?" Tom demanded.
"Apologies." Chrestomanci's smile looked genuine enough, almost charming. "I'm new to this, as you know. I want to get it right now, for when I do it full time. You see, when people summon Chrestomanci, they're normally at their wits' end. World collapsing around them, and things like that. I need a look that will inspire confidence."
"So you went for velvet?" Tom said incredulously.
The smile vanished. "No." Tom glanced round to see if he window had swung open, for the room seemed suddenly so much colder. "I like to dress well. Still…" He smiled, and the room was warm again. "A man can't wear a suit all the time. What will happen if I'm summoned at night, I wonder? It would hardly do to turn up in a crumpled nightgown."
"Get a good dressing-gown, I suppose." Tom was feeling grumpy.
"Dressing-gowns… Yes!" Chrestomanci's eyes lit up. "Excellent idea, er… What did you say your name was?"
"Tom," Tom said, "and I didn't. You didn't ask."
"Apologies," Chrestomanci said airily. He settled himself carefully on the bed. "Now, where were we? Why did you summon me?"
"I didn't know I was summoning you." Tom stayed near the window. Distant sounds told him that his father's guests were still arriving. "But it's my family. They keep saying I'm strange. They don't let me join in…"
"You mean you summoned me here because you had a childish squabble with your siblings?" Chrestomanci's voice had gone impossibly cold again. "They called you names, so you want me to use my powers to… what? To turn them into hamsters?"
Tom felt himself turning red. "It's not like that. It's not just names. They… Sometimes they hurt me, and Dad… Dad…"
"Father beats you with his slipper, I suppose." The mockery sounded only gentle this time. "As it happens, Tim, I know a little bit about unsatisfactory parents. I'll help you, though really it is a gross waste of a Chrestomanci's talents. Normally we're busy putting the world to rights, not sorting out a weedy little boy's family issues."
"I don't think you're very nice," Tom said sulkily. He knew he sounded like a little child, but he did not care.
"No." Chrestomanci smiled. "Others have said that, too. But where would we be if Chrestomanci was nice all the time? The evil-doers would have a field day."
"I'm not an evil-doer." Tom felt ridiculously close to crying. "That's the whole point."
Chrestomanci looked at him. "I'm sorry. Cockiness is my fatal flaw, I'm afraid. At least, my guardian often says so. That, and a certain… er… disregard for what other people are feeling. I assure you it's nothing personal. I'm sure your problems are very real to you, but I had hoped for something a bit more spectacular and pivotal for my first summoning. You have to understand my disappointment."
"Fine," Tom exploded. "Go. See if I care."
Chrestomanci raised his hand casually. Then he frowned, and raised it a bit higher. He swallowed hard, and suddenly his clothes did not look quite so perfect as they had done so a moment before.
"It seems that I can't," he admitted. "There's fearsomely strong magic around this place, stopping me from leaving. In fact…" He stretched out his long legs. "It seems that I'm a prisoner here."
"Oh." Tom twisted his hands in front of him. "I… I'm sorry."
Chrestomanci looked at him, his expression mild, almost vague. "Your name isn't really Tim, is it?"
"Tom," Tom corrected. He swallowed. "No. No, it isn't. I took that name from a book. It… It sounded more like who I wanted to be. Better than Talon." He swallowed again. "That's my real name. I just liked Tom. Thomas Brown. From a book called…"
"I think at this point I should ask who your father is?" Chrestomanci was milder than ever, but Tom felt ice creeping down his spine.
He twisted his fingers so tightly that they hurt. "The Nameless One. The Dark Lord. He Who Brings Fire and Destruction."
"Oh." Chrestomanci dabbed at his brow with his handkerchief. "This is not good, Tim. Not good at all. I rather suspect that I am doomed."
End of part one