It started with a letter from Sophie in the morning mail. That is to say, this particular day started with a letter, 'it' having begun a long time ago, with a lubbock, keeping house for Great-Uncle William and the Elfgift.
Waif had come trotting in at breakfast, having jaunted down to the town to collect the mail as she did every morning. They all liked Waif to collect the mail, as nothing went astray and it arrived much sooner than anything delivered by the postman or other magical means. Not even Charmain had worked out how Waif managed it, but the King had remarked several times that she had delivered letters he was only thinking about writing -- a tremendous help when his arthritis began to play up.
They had made a rather scruffy trio that morning. Peter and Great-Uncle William had only just returned from a trip to the outer attics the previous evening and were still rather tired. Charmain was in yesterday's clothes, having finally arranged the chapter on Sphinxes in her Bestiary-in-progress to her satisfaction, and was rather looking forward to a nap after breakfast.
The nap, however, was not to be.
Waif nosed a letter insistently into Charmain's hands, interrupting Charmain's absent-minded attempt at spreading her toast with milk while she thumbed through her notes to check just one more reference.
'Oh, thank you Waif.' Charmain looked down at her toast, and then at Waif.
Waif looked back.
Charmain sighed and ate it, and buttered a fresh piece for Waif.
In the meantime, Peter had picked up the letter. 'It's from Sophie! Charmain, shall I read it?'
Charmain nodded, feeding Waif another piece of toast.
I'm afraid Howl unadvisedly borrowed Laura Chant's book on Hurroks, Hellhounds and Horribles from your Uncle, and Morgan has managed to summon... something. On fire.
If you're not terribly busy, would you please do us the favour of coming to visit? Calcifer is exceedingly distressed.
'Oh dear,' Great-Uncle William said mildly.
'On fire?' Peter said excitedly.
'Fire?' Charmain said thoughtfully. 'I wonder, perhaps I should compile an elemental index, it'd be a lot more useful than an alphabetical list of creatures...'
'You should find out what this one is first, Charmain! It might be something completely new, knowing Morgan.'
Morgan and his cousin (and usually a moving castle besides) had begun spending some time with them every summer since a regrettable incident with a cloak of invisibility, seven league boots and accidental dimension hopping.
It worked out very satisfactorily for everyone. Howl got to prod through the House and its space with Great-Uncle William, Sophie and Calcifer had a nice holiday (even if Charmain suspected they were both relieved to get Howl and the trouble that usually followed him back at the end of the summer), Lettie and the Wizard Suliman were usually busy with a new baby and glad for help with their exceedingly magical eldest, Charmain had discovered she rather liked teaching, and Peter was spared having to act even the slightest bit royal.
'Yes, you should use this as a chance to get out of the house, my dear,' Great-Uncle William said gently. 'A holiday isn't just a new book in a different room!'
Charmain thought that was a little convenient, forgetting that his idea of a holiday was finding that different room in the first place, and that he spent more on books in a month than Charmain did in a year.
'Better yet, bring back an apprentice,' he continued. 'It'd do that boy good to start a solid formal apprenticeship, and we can get you all started on some proper teaching.'
Peter and Charmain shared an excited glance. That meant he wouldn't be leaving any time soon!
Peter had remarked gloomily that when Great-Uncle William finally did leave to write his second book on dimensional travel with Howl, like he had been suggesting for the last few months, that they'd probably have to get married for 'decency's sake,' as neither of them could bear to leave the house for good, even if Peter was having to spend an increasingly large amount of time at the castle.
When Charmain thought of Peter's mother and her Standards, she had to agree.
She liked Peter, she really did. He just wasn't for her. His magic was a familiar comfort that meshed with hers perfectly through years of practice, but the thought of being married to him left her - gloomy. Besides, the small secret part of her that whispered that being Queen one day would be wonderful was drowned out by the far more sensible part of her that pointed out that the King and Princess worked very hard, that ruling a country was nothing like the books Charmain had read when she was little, and that they did not get to spend nearly enough time in the library.
At least the hints from Peter's mother were because of the harmony of their magic, even if she didn't fully approve of Charmain's less than immaculate house-keeping, which would always take a backseat to books and study - much to Great-Uncle William's relief at that.
Charmaine's mother on the other hand had long since worked out that Charmain and Peter would most likely not be forming an attachment. This left Charmain far from pleased, as it meant many casual mentions of 'Richard, such a nice steady man, a gentleman, an accountant is a useful thing to have in the family, you must come for tea when he next visits your father' and 'You must attend the Darling garden party next week - Michael is a lawyer you know, and wouldn't Charmain Darling be a lovely name? '
Charmain loved her mother, she truly did, but she did wish at times that her mother could be a little prouder of her accomplishments. She was working on her third book, and even Great-Uncle William now deferred to her in the field of thaumazoology when visiting wizards came through, but Charmain had dark suspicions that her mother would be far happier being presented with a grandchild than with the finest Adar Llwch Gwin or any of the other creatures that Charmain had tracked down and researched during her apprenticeship.
And as for Charmain Darling - as far as Charmain was concerned, she was going to change her name once, when she took up the mantle of High Wizard Norland. Or as Great-Uncle William had it 'I'm going to saddle you with all of those dreadfully spelled and impossible to read letters people send me, and take a lovely retirement in one of those nice pocket dimensions down the back of the ballroom.' As Charmain had been answering the vast majority of his correspondence for the last ten years, she didn't think that was much of a threat.
'Aren't you going to see Sophie then?' Peter asked through a mouthful of toast, interrupting Charmain's tapping on the table as she thought.
Getting away from all of that didn't sound so bad after all. She could really get stuck into that elemental index if she could get her hands on just a few books from the Suliman's library.
And so Charmain packed her suitcase, tucked Waif under her arm, and headed off to the moving castle.
She did not notice the smug looks that Great-Uncle William and Peter exchanged upon her exit.
'So what kind of fire -'
Charmain had opened her suitcase, intending on pulling out a sheaf of notes and half-finished chapters that was her Bestiary in current form.
It showed clear signs of being packed by someone completely different to her. There were six bathing suits, twelve hats and only one pair of shoes, suitable for very little other than beachside wear.
Charmain looked up suspiciously.
Four innocent faces stared back at Charmain. Well, three faces and a fire demon's spark.
'I rather think I've been set up,' Charmain said, and stared back down at her suitcase in the hopes that her books would appear, maybe a notebook or two, or her pens at the very least.
She grasped at the only scrap of paper in the suitcase and stood, singling out Morgan with a glare.
'It was mum's idea!' Morgan immediately caved.
Sophie glared at him, and then glared back at Charmain. 'Your Waif has delivered me a total of forty-two letters from seven different people in the last two weeks, all telling me that you need to take a holiday. One of them was from me!'
Charmain looked down at Waif, who wagged her tail. Innocently.
'My Bestiary is just going so well at the moment, you see...' Charmain flushed red, and felt uncomfortable, tallying up what she'd missed in the last few months since she'd started to really write. Oh no - had she missed Peter's birthday? She was sure she'd given him a present. A nice Scytale called Peachblossom. Or was that last year? Oh dear. When was the last time she'd been to see the King and Princess Hilda?
'There really is a Bonnacon too!' Morgan said excitedly, and pointed towards an upside-down mixing bowl glowing a faint blue on the kitchen table with six books stacked on top. 'We accidentally conjured one from a book that Dad stole-'
'-from Great Uncle Norland and Mum and Dad and Uncle Ben and Auntie Lettie all can't figure out how to get rid of it.'
'There was flaming dung,' Sophie said flatly. 'Piles of it.'
'Is that what 'distressed' Calcifer?' Charmain said, embarrassment fading a little into amusement.
'I am distressed!' Calcifer crackled. 'Look! It's so small, and we can't work out how Morgan managed to summon one four inches high. At least, we think they're not normally that size. Chant's book said that it could shoot its dung over seven furlongs, and unless that little thing has better aim than it has shown so far, there's no way it can do that.'
'Professional pride, you know. We can't work out how it does it - let alone how it got here.' Howl added.
'Do stay,' Sophie said.
Charmain looked at the tiny scrap of paper in her hand.
'I've tucked just one or two books away in your blue sundress. A holiday completely without books is not a holiday after all.' - Princess Hilda.
A holiday really didn't sound so bad after all.