Ball Games

The problem, Christopher thought, was that Conrad was so damned nice. Even when the Staff was snubbing Christopher and fawning sickeningly over Conrad, even when Gabriel DeWitt baby-stepped Conrad through easy things like levitation but turned his withering scorn on Christopher for not working hard enough for transformations, which were much more difficult, even when Throgmorten sat on Conrad's lap and purred, Christopher couldn't help but like him. Hell, Christopher even knew that every time he had a fight with Millie she went running to Conrad and the pair of them sat around taking the piss for an afternoon, and he still liked Conrad. He was even sort of grateful, because after her gripe session with Conrad, Millie often felt guilty about complaining and apologized first. This was probably very lucky for Christopher, because apologies were not his strong point. Which is to say that he never made them.

But when it turned out Conrad was an absolute whiz at cricket, that was the last straw.

They'd had to teach him how to play. Cricket in Series Seven was slightly different, anyway -- a bit more like rounders, with some tackling thrown in -- though Conrad had never played there, either. He wasn't a particularly athletic boy but he had to be better than Bernard, who was obsessed with money and invested all his pocket money in stocks and shares, and had gotten so good at it that Flavian had started asking him for advice on investing the Castle's endowment. Conrad was agreeable about learning to play -- but then, Conrad was agreeable about everything.

It turned out Conrad was a demonically good bowler. Once he understood the rules -- while he was learning, he kept saying, "Oh! That's what Peter Jenkins was talking about in Peter Jenkins and the Cricket Caper!" -- he took wicket after wicket. Normally, this wouldn't have bothered Christopher at all. In fact, he would have been thrilled. Between Jason and Christopher and Henrietta and Conrad, there were enough good cricket players amongst the children of the Castle that they could actually field a team against the adults. There was just one problem.

Conrad didn't care about cricket.

It was absolutely criminal, Christopher thought, that a bowler as good as Conrad needed to be nagged into playing. He understood when Conrad wanted to study magic rather than play cricket. After all, because of his dreadful uncle, he was years behind the other students. Conrad's magic worked sideways, besides, so he was having a lot of trouble in classes. But Conrad would rather read silly adventure novels than play cricket. Or he'd talk to Millie, or convince the kitchen staff to show him how to cook things. "I only know how to make frozen quiches," he would explain. "Or burnt bacon and eggs. And I never again want to find myself eating burnt bacon and eggs every meal for two years."

"But it's a sunny day!" Christopher would shout. "And we have a match against the village on Saturday. How can you want to make soufflés and stews and things when you could be playing? Don't let us down."

But Conrad calmly and implacably turned back to his bowl of eggs and thyme and peppers and what-have-you, and Christopher stuck his nose in the air and coldly walked out, saying as he left, "I'll just inform the others that your culinary skills are more important than this cricket game, shall I?"

"Yes, do," and Conrad said, annoyingly refusing to take offense.

It wouldn't have been a real problem if it hadn't been for Antonio Montana. Conrad was just too nice to stay angry at, and not the sort of person who stay angry at you, either. For goodness' sake, he hadn't gotten angry at his horrible uncle until it was abundantly clear that Conrad had been off to murder someone just so the man could get rich. So, though Conrad and Christopher argued all the time (not as often as Christopher fought with Millie, but really, Christopher fought with everybody), it was never serious. Christopher did wish that Conrad weren't wasting his amazing cricket talent, but he learned to live with it.

Then, one sunny but cool October day, Francesca Montana came to the Castle. She needed to consult with Gabriel about something -- some powerful and evil warlock or another, Christopher supposed, but he didn't know the details. You would think that once a person had been Chrestomanci for day, he thought huffily, and had helped save the day from the Wraith and rescued Gabriel from the Dright, that he would be taken seriously and involved in Castle business. After all, wasn't he going to be the next Chrestomanci? But no, instead Miss Rosalie had bustled all the students out of the Castle as soon as Francesca and her brother Niccolo had arrived. "Now don't you worry your heads about this kind of thing,"she'd said. "Gabriel and the staff won't let anything dangerous harm you lot. Look, Niccolo brought his children along for the journey. Isn't that lovely? Why don't all of you go play in the garden?" And she had hurried back and who the Castle, ignoring the looks of withering scorn she was sent from all directions.

Then there was a rather awkward silence, while the Castle students stood around Christopher in a knot, and the Montana children clustered around a boy who had been introduced as Antonio. When Miss Rosalie was no longer there to be glared at, the two knots of children glared each other instead. At last, just when Christopher was going to say something awful about finding some toys and dolls for the Montana children, because he was so angry at Miss Rosalie and the Montanas made him nervous, Antonio spoke up. "We shall play football," he demanded. And his brother and sisters nodded emphatically.

"Don't be stupid," Christopher said. "We play cricket. Why would we play football? It's a stupid game."

"Stupid?" asked Antonio. "Stupid is a game that takes three days where all you do is run back and forth between sticks planted in the ground. Soccer is a man's sport."

At that, Christopher lunged at him. Antonio slugged Christopher in the face, shouting something rude in Italian. Henrietta -- who loved cricket, and who spoke some Italian because her parents had lived in Venice when she was little -- jumped at him, clawing at his face. Antonio flinched back, but didn't strike back. Wouldn't hit a girl, Christopher thought disdainfully, which was the kind of chivalry that didn't last when you lived with Henrietta. Gina Montana, on the other hand, was perfectly willing to hit another girl, and she socked Henrietta right in the gut. After that, it was a free for all, with yelling and hitting until suddenly Christopher realized he couldn't move, and no one else was moving either. He looked around. Conrad was frozen hanging on to Christopher's arm, as if trying to pull him out of the fight. Lorenzo Montana was doing the same thing to his brother Antonio, and Maria Montana was huddling in the back, looking annoyed. Gina and Henrietta were rolling around in the mud, still like statues of wrestlers. Christopher wasn't sure what Jason had been frozen in the act of doing, but since it involved putting something down Antonio's shirt, he probably didn't want to know. Bernard just looked scornful.

And Millie, scowling and forceful like a goddess, stood a ways away from all of them and finished casting her spell. "Will you children stop acting like babies?" she asked. "Because this is not entertaining. Let's play football, and then we can play cricket, and then we're all playing a sport we like and a sport we hate."

She let the spell go, and Christopher stumbled as he could suddenly move again. "Millie --" he began. His black eye hurt terribly.

"I don't want to hear it," she said. "Do you want Miss Rosalie, or worse, Gabriel, to come out here and patronize us again? Because I'd rather not deal with it, myself. I don't get many holidays at the Castle, and I'd like to enjoy the ones I have."

The football game went very, very badly, and not just because Gina Montana kept knocking them down and rubbing their faces in the dirt. The Castle students knew how to play football in theory, but in practice they had never really bothered, so they didn't understand the strategies or rules. They weren't even sure if what Gina was doing was allowed; she insisted it was legal, and Antonio just raised his eyebrows and said nothing. But even without Gina, the Castle was outclassed. Christopher decided that the important part of football was scoring goals, so all the athletic students -- Christopher, Conrad, and Henrietta -- should be playing offensively. He put Bernard in the goal, were he would be out of the way and couldn't cause any problems.

That was clearly a very bad strategy. Antonio and Gina drove goal after goal past Bernard, who didn't even looked distracted, just overwhelmed. And even Henrietta, who was frighteningly aggressive, got almost nothing past Lorenzo, who was keeping the Montana's goal. By the time Christopher realized that he needed to swop with Bernard, it was too late. The final score was 27-3. Even Christopher knew enough about football to know that was a terrible score.

While Gina Montana crowed, Christopher ground his teeth. Payback would be sweet. "Right," he said. "You won the football game. Time for cricket?"

Which is when Conrad, traitor Conrad, the beast, said, "Oh, let's not. I'm tired."

Even the Montanas looked aghast at Conrad's declaration. Henrietta was apoplectic. "What the hell are you talking about, Conrad?"

Scraped up from the fight and the football game, dirty, and with nine other adolescents glaring at him, Conrad still looked unruffled. "I'm exhausted, Henrietta. And I don't care. We don't know how to play football, so we lost. They don't know how to play cricket, so we'll win."

"Not necessarily," growled Lorenzo, who was promptly suppressed by his sister Maria knocking him down and sitting on him. Maria was watching Conrad with all the fascination of a theatergoer at a scandalous play.

"Conrad --" began Jason, but Conrad waved him off.

"Why don't you play without me? There are six of us and only four Montanas, anyway, so we'd have to take turns sitting out to be fair, and that's not even enough people to fake a team."

Play without Conrad? The Castle team erupted in protest. They besieged Conrad, clustering around him, all talking at once. Conrad started to look -- well, not upset. He never looked that upset. But frustrated, and a little annoyed. He tried to raise his voice above the babbling, but Jason and Henrietta kept shouting him down. All Christopher would say, cooly, was, "Well, if Conrad doesn't care about the honor of the Castle, I'm sure that's none of our business, is it?" And then, once again, he froze, unable to move or blink or even smack Millie as she so richly deserved for this low trick.

When the paralysis suddenly left him and he could move again, Christopher spun around to glare at Millie. "Stop that!"

She giggled.

"It's one thing to use magic on us when there's real trouble," he insisted. "But not every time you don't like what's going on."

"You're being a very silly child," she said. "Conrad, come with me." When Millie was being imperious, it worked on people far less suggestible than Conrad. Conrad obediently disentangled himself from the crowd and walked toward Millie.

"Millie, what the hell you think you're doing?" demanded Christopher.

But Millie merely smiled a smug little smile and escorted Conrad just out of earshot.

Maria Montana looked enthralled.

When Millie and Conrad returned a few minutes later, Conrad looked resigned. "Fine, I'll play," he said shortly.

What on earth? "What did Millie say to you?" Christopher asked. If Millie and Conrad were getting ... close, he had a right to know.

"I said I'll play," said Conrad, and went off with Jason to get the equipment. Millie just gave Christopher a smug and mysterious grin. He knew she was just trying to get to him, but honestly! Did she have to be so, so Millie, and in front of Antonio Montana, too?

The game itself didn't go so well. The Montanas could play cricket. Not well, but better than the Castle students could play football. Christopher wasn't sure how they knew how to play at all. Wasn't cricket an English game? Perhaps they'd practiced before this trip in order to show up the English wizards.

He glared at Gina Montana. That's just the kind of trick he'd expect of someone like her.

Conrad, too, wasn't helping. He was bowling lackadaisically. True, Conrad being lazy was better than most of them in top form, but did he really need to allow so many runs?

He called a time to talk to Conrad. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he asked. Millie glared at him from where she was wicket keeping.

"Playing cricket?" said Conrad, mildly.

Argh. Why couldn't Conrad care about anything? Christopher didn't know how to explain why this game mattered. It just did.

"Couldn't you put a little more heart into it, at least? So Millie and Henrietta don't get disappointed at a bad score, you know."

Conrad smirked at him knowlingly. "Let's play cricket, shall we?" And he returned to his lazy bowling.

Antonio and Gina sneered at them. "This is your star bowler? What, will you tell us he's holding back? Heh, stupid English."

Christopher was getting more and more fed up, and was going to call another time out, when a commotion from the castle made them all stop and look. A small tornado of magic was pouring out one of the turret windows. Miss Rosalie and Mordecai Roberts were leaning out after it, shouting and casting spells. Gabriel was down on the grounds, peering up and looking very stern indeed. Flavian, looking petrified, was casting entanglement and imprisonment spells to no effect. And Francesca and Niccolo Montana, looking murderous, raised their voices in an infuriated song with a beat made Christopher resolve never to be enemies with Antonio's father and aunt, no matter how infuriating Antonio himself was. But the song seemed to have no effect on the tornado, which grew larger as it spun.

"That's Strego Tramontana," whispered Antonio, harshly.

"He's why Aunt Francesca came to see the Chrestomanci," continued Maria. "He shouldn't be powerful, but he is."

Lorenzo looked frightened. "He's got some medallion that prevents magic from being used against him. We hoped nine-life enchanter magic would be stronger."

And Gina, fierce Gina who had rubbed mud in Christopher's face, huddled on the ground and hugged her own knees. "They took us with because he's so dangerous they thought he could overcome all the Casa Montana defenses. He's going to kill Papa!" she wailed.

Christopher was determined. The Wraith hadn't gotten him, the Dright hadn't gotten him, and none of the adventures he'd had since had harmed him at all. No stupid Italian hedge witch would hurt guests at Chrstomanci Castle while he was here.

"Jason, Bernard, make a distraction. Millie, you and I will --"

He stopped as he saw motion behind him.

Slowly, Conrad was winding up, stepping forward with one foot, and letting go with a gorgeous, perfect, powerful off cutter headed right at the still-growing tornado. It must have been magically enhanced; nobody could bowl that far. Though Christopher couldn't taste any magic in the throw...

The ball shot beautifully and hard smack into the middle of the tornado. There was a thunking sound they could hear from where they were, then the wind suddenly stopped. Where a whirling twister of leaves, magic, and dust had been a moment before a small man fell 20 feet and smacked on the ground at Gabriel's feet. Gabriel smiled grimly at the moaning warlock as he ripped a piece of gaudy jewelry from the man's neck. Only then, as Francesca and Niccolo ran up and bound the man with magical songs, did Gabriel look at the cricket pitch and nod at Conrad.

The Castle team won the cricket game, after that. The Montanas were too busy watching Conrad with awe to pay much attention to hitting the ball, and he took four wickets in short order. Christopher was pleased.

It was, after all, hard to stay angry with Conrad.