Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

A Tale of Too Many Worlds - chapter three



Chapter three

In which there are many introductions, and some cats.
___

"You were quite right to summon me, of course." Chrestomanci flicked at some dirt on the sleeve of his ridiculously lavish dressing-gown. "The barriers between the worlds, etcetera, etcetera. It's entirely my area of expertise."

"But I am obviously the key to it," Howl told him. "After all, I'm the only one it's happening to."

He wondered if he had attracted the attention of a glamorous but powerful sorceress, or if a Dark Lord had singled him out as the only opponent worthy of his notice. Such things were inconvenient and uncomfortable, of course, but there was a certain something to be said for them. It was better than sitting back and watching Chrestomanci get all the glory.

"It could be," Chrestomanci said airily. "I remember one terrible incident when a bungling, meddling hedge wizard…"

Howl drew himself up as haughtily as his trailing sleeves would allow. "I am not bungling."

"I never said you were, my dear fellow." Chrestomanci flicked more insistently at the smear of dirt. Howl thought it was probably something unspeakable, left by Bethan. It did not do to look too closely at the leavings of a toddler, but he decided not to tell Chrestomanci that. Serve him right if he caught some horrible toddler illness.

"I'll solve it myself." Howl turned his back on the tall, insufferable enchanter. "I can, you know."

"Better if we solve it together." Chrestomanci's voice was far too mild. He was probably plotting something. "Why don't you come and stay with me for a while? My wife has been begging me to ask you for months."

Howl said nothing.

"You can bring your wife and children, of course," Chrestomanci said. "Millie would love to meet your Sophie. You know what women are like. They can talk about hats, or whatever it is that women talk about."

This Millie sounded like a very dull and brainless thing. She had to be, of course, if she had married Chrestomanci. Someone like him would want a boring wife without a scrap of magic in her, who would press her hands together and coo about how tall and handsome and brave he was, and what a clever thing he was, to do such wonderful, wonderful magic.

He sighed. There was more than a little longing in the sigh.

Then he imagined Sophie pressing her hands together, and looking adoringly at Chrestomanci, so tall, so sleek, so confident. "Sophie's busy," he told Chrestomanci. "She's… er…"

"I'm what?" He wondered when Sophie had entered the room. She did not look angry, so he supposed it couldn't have been long ago. She often got angry when she overheard him talking to people. Can't leave you alone for a minute, she sometimes chided him, which was monumentally unfair, and made no sense, anyway.

Chrestomanci bowed to her. "I was just inviting you and your family to stay for a little while," he explained. "My wife, Millie, would love to meet you, and there's plenty of space for the children to play. But if you're busy…"

"No." Sophie's look managed to be simultaneously all smiles for Chrestomanci, but icy and threatening to Howl, with a we'll have words later message in the eyes. He had no idea how she did it. "We would be delighted to accept your invitation."

Howl opened his mouth, and closed it again, realising that there was nothing he could say that would make the situation better.

"Of course," Sophie said, turning to Howl with a sweet and terrible smile, "I'll stay behind if you prefer. After all, one of those handsome and charming doubles might come along. I'm sure he will keep us busy."

Howl flailed. Chrestomanci smiled. Howl hated him.

"Can I come?" Calcifer surged up in the empty hearth. He must have been eavesdropping in the chimney. Howl decided that he hated him, too.

"Of course." Chrestomanci bowed with a ridiculous flourish. "I would be honoured to admit such an august personage to my hearths. Consider them your own, but please do not frighten the servants. You know what servants are. They do squawk so, and drop china all over the carpet."

"I like him," Calcifer said in a stage whisper. "He knows how to be polite."

"He wears stupid clothes, though," Howl muttered.

Sophie completed his downfall. "The dressing-gown?" she said brightly. "Isn't it just like the one you asked for for your birthday?"

Howl stamped out of the room, and went to dye his hair.

******

They arrived in a pentacle inscribed on a marble floor. How primitive! Howl thought. How barbaric! At least he could travel between worlds without resorting to scribbling silly little shapes, like a baby.

"Summoning me as if I'm a demon." Calcifer drew himself up into a pillar of cold fire.

"You are a demon, Calcifer," Sophie told him calmly. "None of this nonsense. I think it's quite delightful. Isn't it, Morgan?"

Morgan was already scurrying out of the pentacle, heading for a large cat that had appeared at the far end of the room. It was the ugliest cat Howl had ever seen, and it was glaring at Howl as if he was a personal enemy.

Morgan, however, seemed to think it was the most beautiful and wonderful cat in existence. "Cat!" he cried. "Did I look like this before I turned into a boy?"

"No," Sophie told him. "You were much smaller, and black."

The cat's pugnacious look faded, and it looked smaller, and very anxious. It fled, only narrowly avoiding tripping over the tall man who was entering through the door.

"You've worried him now," Chrestomanci said cheerfully. "He's wondering if all cats turn into boys, and he doesn't want to. He doesn't like boys. Doesn't like anyone, of course, but boys are particularly nasty. He has taste there, of course." He looked at Morgan with the air of someone who liked children in principle, but preferred them to keep their sticky fingers well away from his clothes. "Begging your pardon, of course, young sir."

"The cat understands English?" Sophie asked.

"Of course." Chrestomanci pressed his hands together placidly. "His grandfather was a Temple cat, back when my wife was a goddess, and such things stay in the blood. Ah, but forgive me." He bowed, and spread his hands. "Welcome to Chrestomanci Castle. I apologise for not being here to greet you. The passage was… difficult. There was some… interference. You kept trying to fly off into other worlds, to be precise, and my attempts to fight it resulted in… interest. Pray excuse my dishevelled appearance."

There were many things to think of; Howl did not know where to start. Temple… Goddess… Talking cat… Interference… Dishevelled… He focused on the last of these, darkly. Perhaps three hairs had strayed from their position of perfect order, and there was the faintest of creases in the sleeve near Chrestomanci's elbow.

Sophie seemed equally incapable of framing words. Morgan was threatening to cry because the cat had run away. Bethan was licking the floor, and Calcifer was flaring up, as he did when he was angry. Of course, Howl remembered, Calcifer hated cats, and blamed the whole species for the claws that had been stuck into him when he had been a carpet. "No," Howl hissed at him.

"Oh, do go ahead," Chrestomanci said. "There's strong magic here," he explained, when Calcifer had surged out after the cat. "He won't be able to do any harm."

Howl suspected that Calcifer had heard. He knew that Calcifer would take it as a challenge.

"Follow me." Chrestomanci gestured imperiously. "There should be servants here to tend to your every need, and such like, but for the… difficulty. They should be back by tea-time, and, I hope, little changed by their experience. The family is here, though."

He led them into a drawing room, full of far too many children. The woman who was rising from the couch was a little plump, and slightly plain, but with a smile that made her more lovely than any famous beauty. Howl returned her smile, but there was nothing of flirting in it. Only afterwards did he realise how strange that was.

"You must be Howl," the lady said. "Christopher's told me so much about you, but you're not at all how I imagined. But how rude that sounds. Forgive me. And you, my dear, must be Sophie, and these lovely little ones…"

"Morgan," Sophie said, "and Bethan." Howl looked at her anxiously. She was often quite frosty with other women, but with this one she seemed perfectly friendly.

"I'm Millie," the lady said.

Goddess, Howl remembered. Chrestomanci had said something about his wife being a goddess… But, no, that had to be another wife. Or maybe he'd said something else, like… gondolier, or guard, or… or…

Millie was still speaking, going from one child to the next. "Roger and Julia, our children. This is Cat, who's going to be the next Chrestomanci one day…"

Howl thought the boy looked quite miserable at the thought, but Morgan was already pushing forward. "Are you a cat, too? I was a cat when I was born."

The boy called Cat seemed to be uncomfortable with a four year old pressing their face into his. "My real name's Eric," he mumbled. "Cat's a nickname."

"But one of his lives went into a cat," Julia offered. "It used to be a violin."

"And this," said Millie, firmly but brightly, "is our ward, Jan…"

Something flickered, as if the world was a television set that went briefly out of focus, and then came back again, but not the same as before. Howl knew that. He knew that something had changed, but he could not see what the change was. He did not know these people well enough to see the change, but Chrestomanci did.

"Gwendolen," Chrestomanci said, his voice as hard and heavy as a stone. "That's not Janet. It's Gwendolen."

The girl who stood before him was fair-haired and might have looked beautiful if she had not looked so furious. She was drawing herself up for a scream. Howl knew the signs well from Morgan.

He had his ears ready covered. "How dare you?" Her scream was enough to penetrate his shielding hands as if they were not there. "Send me back immediately."

"Believe me, nothing would give me more pleasure," Chrestomanci said mildly, "but this is not my doing."

"Liar!" she shrieked. "Of course it's you! Send me back at once!"

Chrestomanci strolled away, and sat down on the armchair, his elegant legs crossed, his hands pressed together as if in relaxed contemplation. "It seems we are stuck with you for a while. Unless Howl…?" He raised one exquisitely sculpted eyebrow.

"Howl?" The screaming fury that was called Gwendolen turned around, surveying everyone in the room. The children she dismissed, although Cat was squirming miserably on the couch, red-faced and uncomfortable. "Which one's Howl? The jester?"

Howl lowered both hands abruptly. It was not right to shout at a lady, but this… but this… "She's as bad as you in one of your tantrums," Sophie whispered, treacherous minx that she was. "Remember when you spilled dye all over your best suit. She's not equalled that yet."

Howl took a step forward, to stand as nobly as he could. "I am Howl," he declared, "and I am a wizard of the highest order."

"And a guest in this house," Chrestomanci added, "so be polite, Gwendolen, if that is within your powers." He looked amused. At that moment, Howl was not sure who in the room he hated more.

"Then send me back!" Gwendolen commanded Howl. "I was supposed to be there forever. No-one can come along and ruin it, not even him."

"Quite true," Chrestomanci agreed. "She was sealed in that world of hers, and no power that I knew was enough to break the seal. This is truly remarkable." He leant back further in the chair, and yawned. "Pray continue."

"You…" Howl spluttered. "You…"

He was stopped by a firm hand on his collar. Gwendolen had grabbed him with a small, pale hand and was dragged him down bodily to her level. "Send me back, you ridiculous popinjay. I am Queen, I tell you, and I…"

"Get your hands off my husband." Sophie entered the fray, small and terrible. She closed on Gwendolen, until Gwendolen released Howl. Howl tried very hard not to fall trembling to the floor. He wanted a drink. He wanted to go home. "He didn't bring you here, but he'd send you home in an instant if you could. Why, he banished the Witch of the Waste, and she ruled half a world. You are nothing compared with him, and you are unpleasant and rude, and nobody in their right minds would put up with you for a second unless they were forced to."

Dimly, Howl remembered when Sophie had been a mousy little thing in grey, afraid of everything. Now she sparked like Calcifer. I love her, he thought, but I wish she would…

"Because you, little girl," declared Sophie, thrusting her finger at Gwendolen's face, "are nothing more than a spoiled little child. Why, even Morgan has more manners than you, and he's four. A spoiled three-year old, that's what you are. An obnoxious little brat."

Gwendolen shrank and faded. Howl's mouth fell open. Sophie clapped her hands to her face, but Gwendolen continued to shrink, until she was as small as a three-year old, drowning in an oversized dress. "Release me!" she demanded, in her little girl's voice, stamping her foot. The trailing fabric caught around her foot, and she fell over and started to cry.

"I didn't mean to," Sophie gasped. "I still forget sometimes."

Howl put his arm around her shoulders. "You were magnificent," he whispered. "But… But…" He raised his chin. "Of course I could have dealt with her myself. I don't need my wife to fight my battles for me." His laugh sounded a little too loud.

"Yes he does," Calcifer said, darting in tendrils from the chimney. "These hearths are wonderful," he said to Chrestomanci. "Can I scare the little girl? I'm never allowed to scare people at home. Howl's cruel to me. I'm sure you'd be a kinder master…"

"Then go," Sophie said, moving out of Howl's embrace. Her shoulders were as stiff as wood. "We don't keep you. You complain all the time, so why don't you just go."

"I'll do that," Calcifer flounced, after a short pause. "You just see if I don't."

"You…" Howl moved towards him, the flame surged, and then they were somewhere else entirely.

"There he is!" shouted a voice that did not sound friendly. "Shoot him! He can't use his magic if he's busy trying to keep himself alive."

Howl blinked. An army surrounded him, all with guns. He smiled at them sheepishly, but it didn't seem to make a difference.

Calcifer surged up threateningly. "That must be his familiar," someone shouted. "Douse it with water."

"Take his woman unharmed and bring her to me," leered a tall commander. Howl felt coldness wash all over him. Sophie! Sophie was here. He turned to her, his body moving as slowly as if it was lead. Noble words wanted to spill out of his mouth – things like, "Do whatever you like with me, but don't hurt Sophie." Her eyes were blazing fire, but maybe that was just the reflection of Calcifer's fury. His words dried up on his lips, and he could not speak at all.

"Why don't you kill the nasty men?" said Gwendolen, her voice carrying clear across the battlefield. "I would."

They seemed to take that as a signal. They closed on him, and Sophie screamed, and something hit him, and then all there was fire, hot, furious, and ending in blackness, only blackness.

******

End of chapter three
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