Note: The title of this story, as well as the chapter titles, comes from a series of tapestries made in the Netherlands around 1500.
Warning: This story contains depictions of cruelty to animals.
"I'm so glad you'll be shooting with us after all," said Amelia Allworthy, bright-faced and relentlessly cheerful, about as comfortable to look at as the sun at midday. But it was not midday now. Usually at this hour, Gabriel would be in his bed, not tromping across the castle grounds in pursuit of partridges, of all things.
"Your father—Monsignor Allworthy insisted," said Gabriel, with only a glance at Amelia. One might think that anyone who knew two dozen death spells would be able to carry a fowling piece without worrying that he would take his own foot off if his attention wasn't on it every second—but that one wouldn't be Gabriel de Witt. He didn't like guns, and that was that. "I don't see why. It's got nothing to do with—" Then he remembered who else was walking with him, and shut his mouth.
Geoffrey Allworthy made no bones about his opinion that he, and not Gabriel, ought to be the next Chrestomanci. Justice demanded it. There was no law that Chrestomanci had to have nine lives, just because the first two had. And Edmund Monjoie hadn't had any sons of his own—it was an entirely different case.
Gabriel would have been tempted to agree with him on purely selfish grounds were it not for two things. First, Geoffrey wasn't an enchanter, but only a fairly good sorcerer. Second—and more important—Gabriel wouldn't have trusted him with a pocket-watch, let alone the regulation of all the magic in the world.
In any case, it didn't matter what either of them thought. It wasn't their decision. But Geoffrey did not seem to realize this. He acted as though if only he shouted enough—if only he could goad Gabriel into shouting back—matters could be arranged to his satisfaction. The flaw in his plan was that Gabriel didn't shout. It gave him a headache.
"It's going to be splendid," Amelia went on relentlessly. "It's been a great year for chicks, Elijah says, and the Miss Littles have come out from Hopton . . ."
"Surely you don't want to draw de Witt's attention to the competition before you've got him firmly in your clutches," Geoffrey drawled. "You know which way the wind is blowing, don't you, Amelia?"
"Don't be a beast," said Amelia. "The pair of you are determined that I shan't enjoy the first shooting day of the season, aren't you? Well, I will. And so will you—that will be my revenge."
Gabriel could hardly think of anything less likely—in his case at least. Geoffrey's temper would no doubt improve as soon as he'd killed something.
The path turned into Home Wood, and even Amelia could not chatter cheerfully beneath its trees. The silence was only broken by the shrill cry of a crow. Amelia stumbled backwards into Gabriel. Somewhat to his surprise, he didn't take off his own foot. "How horrible!" she said.
To the side of the path, the gamekeeper, Mr. Farleigh, was nailing the still-living crow to a wooden framework, where there were also nailed various other birds of prey and scavengers in various states of decay. He turned and glared at the newcomers from under knotted gray eyebrows.
"Meant to horrify," he said. "You oughtn't be in the woods, not today. I won't have you mucking things up."
There was a young, long-legged boy with Mr. Farleigh, and he took advantage of his master's turned back to reach out to the crow. Gabriel knew two dozen death spells, but nothing as gentle as what the gamekeeper's boy used. The cries quieted, and something like peace settled over the wood. "Sorry," the boy whispered. Gabriel thought the apology was probably for the bird, and not for Mr. Farleigh.
"Of course not," said Amelia. She hadn't noticed what had happened. No one seemed to have, apart from Gabriel. "It's only the shortest way to the drive. We won't disturb anything."
"As you're here," said Mr. Farleigh ungraciously, "may as well go on as back."
The drive was swarming with people and dogs already when they arrived, from village boys to act as pickers-up, to the usual run of castle wizards, to Monsignor Allworthy's splendid guests, to Monsignor Allworthy himself, more splendid than any of them, even in a worn-out tweed shooting jacket. "Layabouts!" he boomed cheerfully. "If I don't bag two hundred birds today, it will be your fault."
"De Witt's, you mean," said Geoffrey. "We'd have been here ages ago if not for his dawdling."
"That's not so," said Amelia. "I'm afraid I was awfully long getting dressed, Papa."
"Don't fret, girl," said Monsignor Allworthy. A long, haunting whistle drifted over the drive, and conversation everywhere stopped. "Let's find our pegs. You're next to me, Gabriel—we don't want you standing next to anyone with just one life when you start shooting, eh?"
Gabriel took up the post he was directed to, privately thinking it was an entirely sensible precaution. Amelia stood by the peg on his other side. "Really, Papa. Mr. de Witt may not be an experienced shot, but he's a very careful person. I shall always feel safe in his presence."
"Hark to the gentle huntress," snorted Geoffrey. "It's no use aiming for the heart, Amelia; he hasn't got one."
"If I hadn't," Gabriel returned quietly, "I'd turn you both out of your house when Monsignor Allworthy died for good, wouldn't I? But I won't, no matter what you say. So Miss Allworthy may spare herself any trouble on my behalf."
Amelia's eyes were suddenly bright with anger. "Is that what you think of me, Gabriel de Witt?"
Gabriel wasn't aware he'd said anything about what he thought of Amelia. He was only talking about himself. "I can't see why else you'd be kind to me," he said.
Amelia's knuckles went white on the stock of her gun, and she lifted her chin and looked at Gabriel without speaking. It wasn't anger making her eyes bright, or not only. Tears spilled out of them, and her mouth trembled, and she disappeared.
Geoffrey had left his peg and was standing at Gabriel's shoulder, shouting, "Don't you dare speak to my sister that way, you sniveling little—"
"Now, Geoffrey," said Monsignor Allworthy, striding up between them. "Gabriel didn't intend any insult, I'm sure. He just has a mouth that doesn't know what it's saying sometimes, don't you, my boy?"
Geoffrey stopped shouting and settled for seething quietly. Gabriel did too. He'd rather swallow Geoffrey's forthright insults than Monsignor Allworthy's jovial ones any day—Monsignor Allworthy's tended to be too accurate for comfort.
"And if Amelia would rather sulk in her room and miss out on a fine day's shooting, that's her foolishness and none of Gabriel's," Monsignor Allworthy went on. "But here's the trouble, Gabriel: I don't think Amelia is in her room. Some local working or freak of the weather's been playing hell with translocation today—which I'm sure Amelia would have noticed if she hadn't been distraught. And Mr. Farliegh tells me there's things abroad in the woods. I'd be after her like a shot, if it weren't for my guests. You find her." Monsignor Allworthy's smile went wider and harder. "And, Gabriel, if my daughter comes to any harm because of your damned rudeness, I'll have your life. You can spare one."
Gabriel didn't feel as though he could spare one. It was true that Monsignor Allworthy made do with three, and sometimes wondered aloud what sort of milksop nine-lived enchanter managed to make it to his majority with eight, but they were Gabriel's lives. It didn't seem right that Monsignor Allworthy should threaten them as casually as his masters at school used to confiscate his pocket-money. But he didn't argue, just stared to translocate to Amelia's room at the castle. If she was there, it would save everyone trouble, although the mood she'd been in it might also mean things thrown at Gabriel's head. And if she wasn't there, it seemed possible that his attempt to translocate there would take him wherever her presumed attempt to translocate there had.
The world started to dissolve around him, not smooth and orderly as it usually did, but swaying like the deck of a ship in a storm. If Amelia didn't notice this, he thought, she must have been furious . . .
He came out of the translocate sick and dizzy, staggered, bumped into something, and leaned against it with both hands and a shoulder—at least it was a fixed point in all this swaying motion. It turned out to be a tree. He swallowed, breathed deeply, and looked around. He was in a forest, more precisely than that he couldn't say. The sun was still shining, now filtered through the treetops, the air had the same bite of frost, neither warmer nor colder, and the trees were the same sorts of trees that he was familiar with, so he hoped he hadn't gone too far. Amelia was nowhere to be seen. The source of his distress, however, was. Someone had taken a length of twine and affixed a pocket-mirror to a branch of the tree he was leaning against. The mirror was heavily bespelled, in a way he didn't recognize, and described slow circles in the air above his head. It was no wonder that translocation was unreliable. The question was, who'd done it, and why?
There was a pair of legs dangling from the tree above him, long and grubby and boyish, which might know the answer. "What are you doing?" Gabriel asked them.
The legs were joined by the rest of a body, a face, and a shock of chestnutty hair, leaning out along the tree limb. It was the gamekeeper's boy. His scowl made Gabriel recoil.
"What I'm told," said the gamekeeper's boy. "I always do what I'm told, because I've got a duty, and it's important, or so I've been told. I'd like to tell them to take their duty and stuff it up their arses."
Gabriel was torn between being shocked at the boy's language and manners, and wholehearted agreement. "But if it's got to be done," he said, using the argument he often used on himself, "better you than someone like—like Mr. Farleigh."
The boy dropped out of the tree, landed neatly at Gabriel's feet, and frowned up at him. "I never thought about it like that. Could be you're right. But I can't believe—there's got to be some other way. Someday I'll find one."
The last four words hung in the air with a resonance like a crystal goblet struck with a spoon. They were true. "When you do," said Gabriel, "let me know, will you?"
"Why?" said the boy, with an expression of friendly interest, as if he was prepared to listen to Gabriel's troubles all day.
"I don't want to be Chrestomanci any more than you want to be a gamekeeper," Gabriel admitted.
"Shit." All the friendliness went out of the boy's face, and all the color too. He took a step backwards. "You mean you're—shit. Fool, son of a donkey, Elijah Pinhoe."
Gabriel was stung. It was bad enough that he had to be Chrestomanci, bad enough that Geoffrey and maybe Monsignor Allworthy himself hated him for it, but did this grubby boy have to hate him too? "They do say," he said, "that prophecy is only given to idiots nowadays."
If he'd said that to Geoffrey, it would have been shapechanging at dawn for sure. This boy—Elijah—just went even paler. "Was that—was that prophecy I spoke? You're not having me on?" His voice was high and pleading.
"I don't lie," said Gabriel. "I don't have the knack."
"Don't you," Elijah breathed. "You'd be doing me a service if you never spoke to Gaffer Farleigh, then. Bleeding shit." His eyes were very round, and he stood for a long moment staring at nothing. Then he shook himself. "Likely it means my death. That'd be the simplest way to fulfill it," he said with a spreading manic grin entirely at odds with his words. "Either way, I can't possibly get into worse trouble if I let the unicorn escape, now can I?"
"The what?" said Gabriel. He had the horrible feeling that the conversation he thought he'd been having wasn't the same as the one Elijah had been having.
"I can't tell you. If you're going to be the next Big Man, I really can't tell you. But," said Elijah, throwing a grin over his shoulder as he slipped between the trees, "if you come with me, I can show you."