A Boy Less Ordinary, part three
Tom fell to his knees. He was no longer screaming, but tears were welling up in his eyes, making his vision swim. He was sobbing, great gulping sobs of the kind that would normally have embarrassed him, but now such things did not seem to matter one little bit.
"He's dead," he sobbed. "Dead, and I called him here. It's my fault."
"Oh, what angst!" the hamster exclaimed.
Tom crawled over to where Chrestomanci's broken body was lying. "I didn't mean to. I didn't know you were going to come here when I said your name. I didn't know you'd be trapped. I didn't mean for Dad to kill you. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
The hamster whistled. "Oh my! What a little drama queen you are. Who'd have thought it, for a mousy little lump like you?"
"Be quiet!" Tom clenched both fists against a surge of father-like rage. "How can you be so unsenstive. He's dead. Dead! It's your fault, too."
"I didn't do anything," the hamster said smugly. "I mean, weren't you there? Your father was the one who did that rather impressive finger of death thing, not me."
Tom wanted to argue. He wanted to argue until he was in a screaming rage, throwing the cage around, unleashing his grief and fury on this infuriating creature. Laughing! He imagined himself doing it. Just sitting there laughing when Chrestomanci lay dead! And you weren't even a proper hamster! All I wanted was a proper hamster. Was that too much to ask for?
"Go on," the hamster goaded him. Its silver eyes were shining with gleeful interest. "You know you want to. You are your father's son after all."
His father's son, yes. And if he did this, perhaps his father would notice him at all. Perhaps, for the first time ever, Tom would receive a "well done, my boy," from his own father, and a pat on the back, and a promise of further evils to be done together one Sunday afternoon, father and son together.
He let out a long breath, let his hands fall to his side. No, it was barely even a temptation. Chrestomanci was dead, but killing another creature would not bring him back. Tom's father had done the deed, casually, brutally. Never in all his life would Tom want to do such a thing himself.
"No," he whispered. "But please be quiet. Please don't laugh. He's dead."
"Is he?" the hamster said. Tom presumed that he was being sarcastic, and ignored him.
Chrestomanci was lying so still. Tom could hardly bear to look at him. He looked so small, so faded. He had been a tall boy, but he had seemed even taller because of his style and his confidence and the shining intelligence in his eyes. It seemed an abomination against nature, that such a person was dead.
"There's a thing about a Chrestomanci," the hamster said casually.
Tom ignored him. Kneeling beside Chrestomanci, he addressed the boy who would never answer again give a smug answer to any question. "Though you were very irritating," he said sadly. "I wanted to slap your smug face half the time. But I didn't want you dead."
"Consider, if you will, your father," the hamster said. "There he is, down there at his table, wolfing down his roast elf, enjoying it all the more because he thinks he's killed an enchanter, right before the eyes of his no-good son. It's lucky for us all that he left before he could find out that it wasn't true."
Tom turned round slowly. Through teary eyes, he saw that the creature was leaning upright against the side of its cage. "But, then, you don't want to hear this. You told me not to say anything." It looked around innocently, its little voice humming.
"What is it?" Tom rasped. "What do you know?" The hamster continued to whistle. "Tell me!" Tom demanded. "Tell me!"
The creature shrugged. "Probably nothing relevant, of course. Just a little thing about how Chrestomanci is always a nine-lived enchanter."
"Nine… lives…" Tom croaked. His heart started to flutter with wild hope. "You mean…"
"My, you are slow." The hamster yawned, covering its mouth with a pink paw. "Do I have to spell everything out? Nine lives, I said. That means… Or perhaps I'm wrong in presuming that you can count. Nine equals eight plus one. He's just lost one, which means he has eight spare."
"Eight." Tom lurched back to Chrestomanci's side. "You mean… He's dead, but… not dead?" He looked around, wondering where the new Chrestomanci would come from. The body on the floor did not stir. No new apparition materialised in the air. "You're not… You're not lying, are you?"
"Patience," the hamster said. Then, when they had waited for a good minute, or more, it said, a little more doubtfully, "Of course, it might not be eight. He might have lost a couple along the way. But he's not old. Surely he can't lost more than two or three." Another minute. "I mean, he'd have to have been ridiculously careless to have lost more than that. Could he…? No, not even the worst fool in existence could have lost the full eight before he was eighteen."
"Touché," Chrestomanci's voice said. His eyes were open. Pink life was beginning to flood back into his skin. "I was foolish, but somewhat conspired against, too. I only lost seven, and then I got one back. Of course, now I've lost that one again. Only two left now." He grimaced. "Dear me."
Tom watched, blinking away tears that wanted to flow even more profusely now that he had a happy ending. With every second, Chrestomanci seemed to grow. Although Chrestomanci's body did not change at all, it seemed to Tom as if it was swelling, like a limp balloon being filled with air. It went from a dead, discarded thing, to a living being, vibrant with power and energy. It was a remarkable thing to see. It made Tom quite forget that he was consumed with guilt.
"Well, now." Chrestomanci stood up, and smoothed down his clothes. "It's been a while since that happened. I'd forgotten how unpleasant it can be, dying." He grimaced. "Your father… Not pleasant. I've never seen such a fearsome and nasty use of death magic."
Tom fiercely brushed away his tears. He wanted to look controlled and not afraid, but his trembling voice gave lie to his intentions. "I thought you were dead for real."
"Of course you did." Chrestomanci frowned in irritation. "You had to believe it, in case your father can read your emotions. I expect he can, too. Though probably he prefers not to. I can't imagine a Dark Lord like him would like to sense your little thoughts of wishy-washy goodness. They would probably give him indigestion. Still, I could not risk it."
"You mean…" Tom staggered back until he could sink down on the bed.
"Of course, what was more important was that your father believed it," Chrestomanci said. "Perhaps he would have recognised Gabriel de Witt, and known that he had to kill him many times over, but fortunately he didn't know me. He thinks I'm truly dead. That gives me a respite."
"You mean…" Tom's hand rose to his mouth, muffling his words. "You mean you let him kill you deliberately?"
Chrestomanci frowned. "Of course not. Do I look stupid? It was just a contingency plan. A wise man always has a contingency plan. Of course, I have not often been accused of wisdom. Still, a man has to learn it some day, and today was the day."
"But what…?" Tom still had his hand over his mouth. "What…?"
"Pathetic, isn't he?" sneered the hamster creature. "A self-pitying, spineless little mouse. Look what I've had to put up with in my captivity."
"You be quiet." There was a true snap of command in Chrestomanci's voice. "He's not so useless, not if he's managed to stay normal in a family like this. Not many children could manage it, you know."
Tom found the sudden sincerity in his eyes frightening, and looked down at his lap. He was wrong, too. His family was normal, and Tom was the weird one, unable to do the destructive magic that everyone else could do, unable to take any pleasure in normal family pastimes like torture and conquest.
Chrestomanci settled beside Tom on the bed. "Actually," he admitted, in a confiding sort of fashion, like a friend to a friend, "I had hoped to get away with invisibility. Few enchanters in all the known worlds could have seen through a spell such as the one I cast. It was fearsomely strong. I was intending to observe him, make a few tentative stabs at his defences, take his measure… That sort of thing. I didn't intend to be captured." He flicked some dust off his cuff. "I can't say I enjoyed it. Look at this suit. Ruined!"
"You grovelled," Tom found himself saying resentfully. "Father says that all prisoners grovel. He says there is no such thing as selflessness, and no true heroes. He says his enemies pretend to be noble and virtuous, but only think of saving their own skins in the end."
"Of course I grovelled," Chrestomanci said with feeling. "Who wouldn't grovel when faced with all that? I was desperate for him to kill me nice and cleanly. I didn't fancy an eternity of torture, I can tell you!"
"Oh." Tom felt flat inside, and he was not sure why. When he spoke, even his voice was dull and level. "So what are you going to do now?"
Chrestomanci stood up, smoothing out the creases in his trousers as he did so. "Get out, of course. Go home."
"Oh." Tom folded his hands in his lap. It was the only answer he could have expected, of course. Why would Chrestomanci want to stay in a place that had already killed him once? He would get out as fast as he could, go home, and forget them all. Life for Tom would continue just as it always had done. It would be a lifetime of loneliness, ridiculed as an outcast, unless, one day, he finally yielded and became like his father, just to make people like him.
"Easier said that done, of course," Chrestomanci said. "In the normal way of things, it would be lovely and easy. My spare life is in the castle, and it draws these lives inside me a little like a magnet. It's always easier to return home than to go anywhere…" He paused, and gave a little shiver. "This life inside me, I mean. Singular. Goodness, Tim. How naked it feels to carry only one life around with you. How ever do you people manage?"
"We're not used to anything else, I suppose," Tom muttered.
"Ah well…" Chrestomanci sighed. "Got to get used to it, I suppose. No use crying over spilled lives. Gabriel will tell me off when I get back, though. Dear me. I'll never hear the end of it. He gave one of his own lives in order to get this third one back from the Temple of Asheth, and now I've gone and lost it again. He will consider it both careless and ungrateful."
Tom wondered who Gabriel was. He wondered where the Temple of Asheth was, and what Chrestomanci's home was like. He wondered what the world was like outside the Citadel. He knew he would never see such things, except in books, and they were made-up, anyway.
"Are you going now?" he asked.
"You know I can't." Chrestomanci sounded impatient. "You saw what happened last time I tested these wards with my magic. It set all sorts of magical alarm bells ringing, and brought your father here in a rather overdone torrent of special effects. No, I can't vanish in the ways that are normal to me. To be honest, I'm not sure if I dare do any magic at all. I'm not sure just how sensitive those alarm bells are."
The hamster laughed. "So you're just planning to wander out through the front door?"
Chrestomanci gave the creature a mild look. "Well, I had hoped for a back door, but apart from that, yes."
The hamster laughed. Tom walked to the window. Ashen rain was falling outside. He thought it was very apt. Chrestomanci was going to die again. Even if he didn't die, he was still going away.
"And how do you propose to get through the back door, of handsome young man of mine?" mocked the hamster.
"Easy," Chrestomanci said calmly. "I'm going to get Tom to take me through."
end of part three