When I was small, I always thought Stallery Mansion was some kind of fairy-tale castle. I could see it from my bedroom window, high in the mountains above Stallchester, flashing with glass and gold when the sun struck it. When I got to the place at last, it wasn't exactly like a fairy tale.
Stallchester, where we had our shop, is quite high in the mountains, too. There are a lot of mountains here in Series Seven, and Stallchester is in the English Alps. Most people thought this was the reason why you could only receive television at one end of the town, but my uncle told me it was Stallery doing it.
"It's the protections they put round the place to stop anyone investigating them," he said. "The magic blanks out the signal."
My Uncle Alfred was a magician in his spare time, so he knew this sort of thing. Most of the time he made a living for us all by keeping the bookshop at the cathedral end of town. He was a skinny, worrity little man with a bald patch under his curls, and he was my mother's half brother. It always seemed a great burden to him, having to look after me and my mother and my sister, Anthea. He rushed about muttering, "And how do I find the money, Conrad, with the book trade so slow!"
The bookshop was in our name, too -- it said grant and tesdinic in faded gold letters over the bow windows and the dark green door -- but Uncle Alfred explained that it belonged to him now. He and my father had started the shop together. Then, just after I was born and a little before he died, my father had needed a lot of money suddenly, Uncle Alfred told me, and he sold his half of the bookshop to Uncle Alfred. Then my father died, and Uncle Alfred had to support us.
"And so he should do," my mother said in her vague way. "We're the only family he's got."
My sister, Anthea, said she wanted to know what my father had needed the money for, but she never could find out. Uncle Alfred said he didn't know. "And you never get any sense out of Mother," Anthea said to me. "She just says things like Life is always a lottery' and Your father was usually hard up,' so all I can think is that it must have been gambling debts. The casino's only just up the road after all."
I rather liked the idea of my father gambling half a bookshop away. I used to like taking risks myself. When I was eight, I borrowed some skis and went down all the steepest and iciest ski runs, and in the summer I went rock climbing. I felt I was really following in my father's footsteps. Unfortunately, someone saw me halfway up Stall Crag and told my uncle.
"Ah, no, Conrad," he said, wagging a worried, wrinkled finger at me. "I can't have you taking these risks."
"My dad did," I said, "betting all that money."
"He lost it," said my uncle, "and that's a different matter. I never knew much about his affairs, but I have an idea -- a very shrewd idea -- that he was robbed by those crooked aristocrats up at Stallery."
"What?" I said. "You mean Count Rudolf came with a gun and held him up?"
My uncle laughed and rubbed my head. "Nothing so dramatic, Con. They do things quietly and mannerly up at Stallery. They pull the possibilities like gentlemen."
"How do you mean?" I said.
"I'll explain when you're old enough to understand the magic of high finance," my uncle replied. "Meanwhile ... " His face went all withered and serious. "Meanwhile, you can't afford to go risking your neck on Stall Crag, you really can't, Con, not with the bad karma you carry."
"What's karma?" I asked.
"That's another thing I'll explain when you're older," my uncle said. "Just don't let me catch you going rock climbing again, that's all."
I sighed. Karma was obviously something very heavy, I thought, if it stopped you climbing rocks. I went to ask my sister, Anthea, about it. Anthea is nearly ten years older than me, and she was very learned even then. She was sitting over a line of open books on the kitchen table, with her long black hair trailing over the page she was writing notes on. "Don't bother me now, Con," she said without looking up.
She's growing up just like Mum! I thought. "But I need to know what karma is."
"Karma?" Anthea looked up. She has huge dark eyes. She opened them wide to stare at me, wonderingly. "Karma's sort of like Fate, except it's to do with what you did in a former life. Suppose that in a life you had before this one you did something bad, or didn't do something good, then Fate is supposed to catch up with you in this life, unless you put it right by being extra good, of course. Understand?"
"Yes," I said, though I didn't really. "Do people live more than once then?"
"The magicians say you do," Anthea answered. "I'm not sure I believe it myself. I mean, how can you check that you had a life before this one? Where did you hear about karma?"
Not wanting to tell her about Stall Crag, I said vaguely, "Oh, I read it somewhere. And what's pulling the possibilities? That's another thing I read."
"It's something that would take ages to explain, and I haven't time," Anthea said, bending over her notes again. "You don't seem to understand that I'm working for an exam that could change my entire life!"
"When are you going to get lunch then?" I asked.
"Isn't that just my life in a nutshell!" Anthea burst out. "I do all the work round here and help in the shop twice a week, and nobody even considers that I might want to do something different! Go away!"Continues...
Excerpted from Conrad's Fate by Jones, Diana Wynne Excerpted by permission.
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