It was a beautiful day in the Ingary countryside. The sun shone, birds sang...and a castle moved at a gentle pace down a hill, startling a few sheep.
Inside that castle, and also strangely at the little town of Market Chipping (you may have noticed this was a magic castle), was a family getting ready for their holiday. Ingary seemed to be perfectly safe for the time being and not needing its Royal Wizard. Preparations were going about as well as one might have expected, given this particular family.
Sophie Pendragon, mistress of the moving castle and a witch in her own right, counted her dresses for the third time, to make sure she'd have enough for the trip. You didn't pack often when your home travelled with you. Her son Morgan stood beside her and was carefully counting along with her.
"Eight, ten..." said Morgan, trying not to smile.
Sophie looked down at him. "I'm sure you have other mischief to attend to."
Morgan looked up angelically at her. "No, mum. You already packed my bags."
"Maybe I should unpack them, and you can pack them again."
In his workshop, Howl -- husband of Sophie, master of the moving castle, and wizard (In fact, the Royal Wizard of Ingary. Well, one of them.) -- was giving his former apprentice Michael directions on what to do as his stand-in in his various identities whilst he was on holiday. This already confusing affair was complicated by the sheer number of aliases Howl used (mostly to avoid trouble or get out of the trouble he was already in).
"And I think I left some spells that need filling out for the king over here..." Howl was saying, as Michael made 'I am paying close attention, honestly' noises.
Sophie poked her head out of their bedroom to look down the stairs to Howl's workshop. "You don't have to come! You can stay!"
Howl looked up, wounded. He did wounded very well, his eyes and mouth artfully arranged to convey the most 'You are so cruel to me' feeling as he spoke. "You aren't still trying to make me not go, are you? They're our friends, Sophie."
"No, Howl, they're my friends. And I'm the only reason they let you off so lightly after all the trouble you caused in their world."
"It was in the service of justice! It was the only way to stop that rogue wizard." Howl radiated sincerity and a feeling of being deeply wounded that his wife could even suggest that he'd done wrong.
"It was in the service of you having a lark and slithering out of your real job!"
"I caught him, didn’t I?"
"After they dragged you in for misuse of magic and I rescued you! You only did it to prove you were on the up and up about being there to do good! You could have done it before any of the trouble started!" Sophie was yelling now.
"I have a thing called style, Sophie!"
Michael edged out of the room to find something else to do with himself, while the loving couple employed their favourite mode of communication: Shouting.
Morgan looked out from behind Sophie and waved to Howl happily. Howl waved back.
"Just be on your best behaviour, Howl. Be friendly, if nothing else."
"You know..." Howl looked speculative. "If the problem you're worrying about is simply me being there, there's a solution. Maybe it's time for the return of Twinkle."
Sophie closed the bedroom door behind her and walked slowly down the stairs to Howl. Howl watched her come, smiling pleasantly. When she got up close to him, her hand shot out, grabbed him by the collar, and pulled him nose to nose with her.
"Urk!" went Howl.
"Howl," she said, not very sweetly, "if I see hide or hair of 'Twinkle', I will drown you in a cistern. In fact, if I even hear you lisp, it shall not go well for you."
Howl stopped making choking noises and looked pitifully at her. Sophie snorted, for she knew she hadn't grabbed him hard enough to cause him the least bit of harm.
His eyes got wider and sadder. "Sophie, I almost think you didn't like that disguise of mine."
"I liked Twinkle, Dad," said Morgan loyally.
"You're a good son," said Howl.
"No, Howl. No. No Twinkle. I never want to see Twinkle again," growled Sophie.
Howl gently pried her fingers off his collar. "I have other ideas. I could be your handsome valet, silent, but with an air of... mystery. And danger. Everybody loves a bit of danger. Or!" His face brightened. "I could be one of your princess friends! That would impress Millie. They do have royalty in that quaint world she comes from, don't they? They haven't overthrown them all?"
Sophie covered her face with her hands. "No disguises, Howl. None."
Howl pouted. Sophie made a frustrated noise.
"I think you're just miserable from having to do the packing," he said.
Sophie made another moan of frustration.
"Oh, don't be like that." Howl waved his hand. The sound of clothing fluttering, then a suitcase snapping itself shut was heard from their bedroom. "There. Let's get some tea." It worked, for Sophie immediately relaxed. Packing was not something she enjoyed. They adjourned to the kitchen for teatime.
"Why didn't you do that earlier?" said Sophie, getting out the teapot, much cheered up, despite the unresolved question of Howl's possible slacking off.
"I didn't know what clothing you wanted." Howl picked up Morgan and tapped the tip of his nose. "You're a frog."
"Am not," said Morgan, who wasn’t.
"Oh, so you aren't," replied Howl in a surprised voice.
"Turn me into a cat!" Morgan demanded, now that the threat of frog had passed. His demands were in vain as Howl frowned and quickly put his son down. Morgan went to sulk in the corner.
"Just don't... Howl, please let me have a holiday without any worry," said Sophie as she set the kettle to boil. "You do that. You know you do, don't try to slither out."
"I'm just making things interesting." The injured pose was on again.
"For you, maybe. Millie and I have been planning this for a year. And..."
"I know, I know. It's a whole new world. Don't worry, Sophie." Howl leaned in and kissed her cheek. "The door back will be part of the holiday home. You just have to go through it to get home safe and sound. Even if something does go wrong and the door fails, I can always make a new one."
"I'm holding you to that, Howl," she said, smiling and reassured. It wouldn't be her first time in a new world, but it would be the first time taking Morgan with her and the idea of something happening (as it seemed to nearly every time she and Howl went anywhere) had started creeping into her mind at night.
"You're holding me to a lot of things. Sophie, I solemnly swear to let you enjoy your holiday with Millie Chant, her lovely children, and that pompous Chrestomanci of hers."
Meanwhile, in another world entirely (it was, in fact, Britain -- but not our Britain) (it’s complicated), a lesson was taking place.
"The important thing," said Chrestomanci to his student, Cat Chant, "is to not think of the wrong place midway."
"So don't think of Gay Paree," said Janet, from her perch on the luggage. She didn't look happy, which was understandable. She'd just learned that this was Cat's first lesson in teleporting people into another world, and that it would involve her. Not to mention Roger, Julia, and Klartch. The fact that Millie and her husband Chrestomanci -- Janet and Cat's guardians and both incredibly powerful enchanters like Cat -- would be doing most of the magical heavy lifting did not comfort her.
Roger and Julia watched their father teach Cat, not a trace of worry on their faces. Chrestomanci glanced at Janet, but said nothing.
"Janet," said Cat. "Now all I'm going to think of is Paris."
"I wouldn't mind Paris," said Julia to Roger. "It's lovely this time of year."
"Remember the pastries?" said Roger with a hungry look.
"We're going to end up on Mars," said Janet, holding her head in her hands. She still hadn't fully adjusted to magic being used on her.
"Janet." Hearing Chrestomanci's voice, she looked up to find him gazing at her with a quirked eyebrow. "Your faith, not in my abilities, but in my willingness to put you in danger, is not endearing."
Janet went bright red to the roots of her yellow hair.
"Back to the lesson."
Janet knew why the lesson had been put off. First there'd been the dragon's blood smugglers. Then there'd been the gnome infestation in Chrestomanci Castle (no thanks to Cat for setting them free a year earlier in the Incident with the Pinhoes), and then a million little things. But Chrestomanci had wanted to make sure Cat got some practical work out of their annual summer holidays trip.
Cat just looked gloomy. And Janet knew why that was too. While things were being arranged, Millie had told them that they could invite Joe and Marianne Pinhoe with them to the holiday, if their parents would allow it. Cat had looked eager each time he'd gone to talk to Marianne, but hadn't said anything when Marianne had waffled over going. In the end, she and Joe had decided to spend the first weeks of holiday with their family. Klartch, Cat's griffin friend, had tried mightily to cheer Cat but had failed. Klartch was currently sitting in front of the luggage, head resting against Janet's feet. Leaving behind Syracuse, his horse, for weeks wasn't helping Cat's mood either.
Janet felt for Cat. He was like a brother to her. Well, technically, he was her brother. She was from another world, but he would have been her brother if she'd been born here. (It was complicated.) And she didn't like seeing him sad, but she supposed it was his own fault. If he'd just say things. She wasn't sure why he didn't. Perhaps it had been how he'd been terrorized by his sister in this world, Gwendolen. Or Janet's Evil Twin, as Janet liked to think of her.
"Oh, stop looking like that," said Chrestomanci to Cat. "If you've suddenly decided you can't do magic I know you've mastered by this point, there's no point in making you."
Cat looked up. "I can!" He looked as though he wanted to add something, then went quiet.
"Good," said Chrestomanci. He tugged his dressing gown into proper place. Today's was a bright green piece, covered in elegantly embroidered daffodils, like a beautiful summer field. His travelling trunk was stuffed full of more of the same.
Millie Chant, Chrestomanci's wife, bustled in with their packed supper. "So we have something when we get there, to settle in easier. Here, Cat." Millie handed him a biscuit. "You're going to a beautiful place, do cheer up."
"Merph," was all Cat said, chewing on the biscuit. But the poor mood seemed to lift from the room. Even Janet wasn't worrying anymore. Millie's excitement was infectious. Apparently she was going to be seeing a friend she hadn't seen in years, who was from another world.
"When we get there, do you want to see Conrad right away or later?" Millie asked Chrestomanci.
"Hm..." Chrestomanci considered. "Later. I want to get some time relaxing by the ocean first."
Their destination was an island in a world that Chrestomanci and Millie had spent time in before. From their descriptions and pictures they'd shown Janet and the children, the island the Chants were visiting (though not where the elder Chants had spent their time years before) was a popular holiday spot that to Janet's eyes looked like (somewhat, not exactly) some Greek towns she'd seen in calendars of her mother's.
In every picture there'd been black cats lounging all over. Millie said the island was famous for its cats. When Janet asked if they could bring one back as a pet, Millie had laughed and said the castle cats wouldn't stand for it.
"Are you ready, Cat?" asked Millie with a kind smile.
Cat nodded, wiping away biscuit crumbs.
"Think of what we saw when we went last month," said Chrestomanci, holding out his arms.
Cat nodded again, holding out his left hand. Millie mimicked Chrestomanci.
And at once, the entire party, luggage and all, was gone from that world.
Back in Ingary, the Pendragon family still hadn't left. Howl had decided he needed to recolour his hair, and Sophie was waiting impatiently outside the bathroom door.
"You know that peacock Chrestomanci will find something to say!" yelled Howl through the door.
"Howl..." Sophie muttered.
"I can't be shown up, Sophie. I can't."
Morgan held Sophie's hand and looked at the bathroom door. "My hair?" he asked.
"No, Morgan, we are not colouring your hair. Unlike your father, you are not going to be a slave to vanity when you grow up," said Sophie, with an edge to her voice.
"Don't discourage the boy!" said Howl from inside the bathroom. Tufts of steam came out under the door. "It's never too early to take an interest in beauty. It's called style, Morgan!"
Morgan tugged at his hair. As he had grown up to, in Morgan's eyes, the fine old age of eight, it had shifted to become a red gold like his mother's. "I want to be blond!"
Howl finally opened the door and looked out. He was wearing his undershirt, with a towel draped over his shoulders. His hair was a gleaming platinum. "It'd just take a moment, Sophie."
"We're going to be late, Howl."
"I'm sure they'll be too busy settling in to notice we're not there yet!" cajoled Howl. "He'll look adorable."
"Or black! Make my hair black, dad!" said Morgan, remembering a colour from long ago.
"I can do that too," said Howl. "Or half and half."
Sophie crossed her arms. Howl sighed, looking down at Morgan. "Not going to happen today, my little man. Maybe some other time." He ducked back into the bathroom to finish getting ready and properly dressed. Morgan sighed in frustration and stomped off down to sit by the bags.
In the fireplace, Calcifer stirred from his nap and opened his eyes at the noise Morgan was making. "Is it time yet?"
"No!" said Sophie from the stairs. "He's still primping."
"All right," said Calcifer, sending out some gently glowing balls of light to distract Morgan from the awful cruelty of his parents. While Morgan ran around them, Sophie leaned against the door, still waiting for Howl.
After what seemed like forever to Sophie, but was really just a few more minutes, Howl finally came out in a blue silk suit with flowing sleeves, edged in expensive lace. "My dear, let's make some magic," he said, holding out an arm for Sophie.
"You do look nice," admitted Sophie, taking his arm. "But it's still ridiculous." She inhaled a bit, smelling Howl's perfume, scented with a flower she could not name. She liked it, despite herself.
Howl just grinned and went down the stairs with her, grabbing his paint bucket on the way.
The closet door was waiting for them. It had a newly attached knob on it, twin to the one on their their front door, and chalk lines drawn all around. It was Howl's self-declared brilliant plan: go on their holiday without leaving their home at all.
Letting go of Sophie's arm, he walked up to the door and summoned a brush, which he dipped into his paint bucket. The brush came out with silver paint on it, which he dabbed at the top of the knob. "There," said Howl. "It's finished. Our door to another world. I'll get rid of it once our trip is over."
Sophie hefted up her bag and Morgan's. "You will be all right without us, won't you, Calcifer?"
The fire demon nodded from his log in the fireplace. "I'll be all right. Don't have too much fun without me. I'd come along, but... I like my world well enough, thank you."
Morgan leaned up by the fireplace and looked solemnly at Calcifer. "Bye, Calcifer." He waved.
"Bye, kid," said the demon.
Howl grabbed his two bags and nodded to the door, which opened obligingly. "Ladies first, my love."
"Goodbye, Calcifer!" called Sophie as she walked through the door, followed by her husband and son.
And just like that they were in another world.
The trip, readers, had been planned via a veritable flurry of trans-dimensional letters. There had been many stumbling blocks. For one, Howl could not come to Millie's world. This was because Howl had been born in Janet's world, which meant he was from the same series as Millie and her family. (The worlds, you see, are all separate, with each world containing a series of nine versions of itself. It's complicated.)
When he had leapt into Millie's series those years ago in pursuit of a magical ne'er do well, he'd knocked every Howl from that series into the next one over, like magical dominoes. Howls across the entire series had found themselves where they hadn't belonged. An accountant Howl had ended up in the middle of a lost temple, stolen idol in hand. Howl the explorer had found himself literally walking a tightrope. Tightrope Howl had... well, as I said, it's complicated.
Sophie's world, however, was not part of Millie's series at all. She'd assumed it would be easy to just visit her friend again on her own. But when she suggested it, everywhere she'd looked for the next week had somehow contained Howl looking at her with puppy-dog eyes. Sometimes he had been an actual puppy.
Sophie was beginning to suspect he simply got bored when she was away.
And so a compromise was reached. Millie had mentioned that one of her wards needed to improve his skill at travelling between worlds, and she thought it might be an interesting experience for the other children. For herself and her husband Chrestomanci, it was also an opportunity to visit an old friend of theirs who came from that particular world.
And that was how their trip came to be.
The town, which went by the name of Hermatse, was beautiful. Small, wonderfully designed white buildings populated the town, with sparse, vibrant green grass here and there. The smell of the ocean was in the air and the sky was an amazing blue. It was also completely covered in cats. Everywhere the children looked, there were black cats. Perched on windowsills, lounging in doorsteps, sitting on walls and benches, and all of them eyeing the family contentedly.
"It's just like the pictures," said Millie with a pleased look. "Where's our cottage, do you know, Christopher?"
Chrestomanci looked at the signpost, then his map. "Ah, we're just down this lane. But first..." He looked at Klartch, then waved his hand. Klartch seemed to shimmer, then returned to normal. "A simple charm. Whoever looks at you will see an ordinary human boy. I don't think you want to spend the entire excursion explaining to people you're not a wild animal."
Klartch tried to catch his new reflection in a window. A griffin was a perfectly excellent thing to be, but there was no sense in frightening people; he agreed with Chrestomanci's plan.
Millie picked up her bag. "Come along, children." She kept looking around happily at the town as they walked, it seemed to have met all her expectations.
As they walked, black cats started following them, rubbing up against their legs. The walk took twice as long as it should have, as everyone kept stopping to pet and fuss over the cats, which just encouraged more cat-stalking. By the time they got to their vacation home, Millie had to gently shoo them away with her foot to shut the door.
"Oh, this is lovely. Cat, Roger, Klartch, you'll be sharing the room to the left. Janet, Julia, you're the room on the right. Everyone, let's get our bags unpacked and we'll go talk to our guide. He'll tell us what there is for you kids to do while we're here," Millie said, heading to her and Chrestomanci's room to start the unenviable task of unfolding all of Chrestomanci's many dressing gowns.
The children rushed to get their things put away, except Cat who dragged behind. The teleporting had tired him; as well, he still was not particularly happy. Janet looked back, then went to catch his hand. "Come on, Cat. You're on holiday. Try to enjoy it."
"I will, Janet," replied Cat. "I really am trying."
"That's good," she said, feeling a little better at his assurance.
An hour later, they were at the tour guide's office. On the wall there were maps of the island, with a variety of things marked out on them. On other walls, there were nautical maps, and pictures of points of interest. There was also a cat on the desk. It meowed at them.
"Hello!" said their guide. She was a young, dark woman, curly haired, and with freckles across her nose. "Welcome to Hermatse. I trust you're all settled?" At their nods, she continued. "We're pleased you made us your destination! There are many local shops, full of handcrafted goods, ruins on the north of the island, and a beautiful beach. As well as..."
Janet and Julia had stopped hearing anything at "ruins."
They exchanged grins. Ruins for them to explore!
The children knew this about the trip: They were seeing Millie's good friend Sophie. So when they walked into the restaurant the next day at noon for their first lunch in Hermatse, they were not surprised to see Millie make a beeline for a woman with a small boy and (in Janet and Julia's opinion) a beautiful man.
"Sophie!" said Millie with delight.
"Millie!" replied Sophie, getting up and kissing her friend on the cheek. "So these are your children."
"Yes," said Millie. "Wards and all. Sophie, these are Roger, Julia," she pointed to each in turn, "Cat, Janet, and Klartch." At the last, the man, Sophie, and the little boy looked at Klartch, surprised by his name. Cat assumed they could see through Klartch's disguise easily, as any friend of Millie's and Chrestomanci's invariably turned out to be powerful magicians. But the little boy, he wasn't so sure about.
"Hello, dears," said Sophie, smiling a wonderfully friendly smile. "This is my son, Morgan, and my husba--" The man stood up suddenly.
"Chrestomanci, you old dog!" he cried out.
"Oh no," said Sophie in a low horrified voice.
"You didn't tell me you'd be here!" continued Howl in the same booming voice.
Chrestomanci, who had been hanging near the back of the group studying a menu, looked nonplussed.
Howl went up to him, grabbing him around the shoulders and leading him off. "We have so much to catch up on!"
Chrestomanci regained his composure."Indeed. I would love to know what adventure brought us so close. I'm sure it's fascinating."
Howl laughed hugely and walked off with him.
"I am so sorry," said Sophie. "I think he might be unhinged."
Morgan tugged Sophie's sleeve. "You told him to be friendly!"
"Yes. Yes, I did." Sophie's voice had a low, hunted tone to it.
Millie sat down beside her. "Let's just have lunch. I'm sure Christopher can handle your husband."
On the windowsill of the restaurant, a black cat yawned.
"Dears, will you look after Morgan for us?" said Millie, grabbing her parasol. "Sophie and I are just going out for a stroll to explore the town."
The kids had been expecting this as soon as they saw how much younger than they were Morgan was. He was at least four years younger than Cat, the youngest of the group. Janet mock-saluted. "Captain, I will take this mission. Come on, Morgan."
The little boy gave a bit of a sniff and tried to stand taller than he was. "I can take care of myself."
"You'll be bored all on your own," said Sophie, patting his head.
"Come play with us, so we don't get bored," said Janet.
"I suppose," said Morgan, mollified.
Klartch was watching Morgan expectantly, like he expected the boy to do a trick at any moment. Janet took Morgan's hand and led him to where the other children where waiting.
"We're doing exploring today too. There's old ruins on the other side of the island that I do so want to see," said Julia. "I expect they're full of evidence of ancient rituals."
Morgan perked up. "Rituals?" He seemed to delight in the word.
"Mhm. Sacrifices to the gods, masked women screaming out prophecy. Places like this were full of people who did that," Julia said, tapping her new book. In the spirit of the holiday, Millie had found her a book of the adventures of a girl in ancient Greece. They weren't terribly accurate, but Janet and Julia had found them to be an exciting read.
Roger and Cat looked excited themselves. Ancient civilizations, especially as foreign as this, quite had their attention. Klartch, however, was still watching Morgan.
"Is that all right, Morgan?" said Janet, ready to talk the little boy into it if he objected.
"Is anyone being sacrificed right now?" asked Morgan.
Roger considered, then said, "Probably not."
Morgan's face fell a little.
"But we may get lucky," Roger added.
Morgan grinned broadly.
And so they followed the path, remembering the guide's directions. The conversation moved from the adventure books, to how handsome Sophie's husband had been (Cat and Roger had just looked bored at this talk. Klartch merely looked at Morgan), and wouldn't it be interesting if they did come across strange people worshipping at the ruins?
Morgan came to understand, after a bit, that the man that the girls were simply calling 'that handsome man' was his father. "He's not handsome," said Morgan, "he's my dad." (Morgan had no idea that his father's heart would have been shattered if he'd heard that.)
"Oh, you don't get a say," said Janet. "What's his name?"
Morgan hmphed. "Howl. He's the best wizard in the world. And I'm gonna be just like him."
Janet grinned. "Best in the world? You don't know Chrestomanci. And you certainly don't know much about Cat then."
"Janet," said Cat, looking awkward. But Janet continued.
"Cat's got nine lives. He's going to be the next Chrestomanci."
Morgan stopped and looked hard at Cat, then at Klartch. "Are you all like that? And that," he said, pointing at Klartch, "is not a boy. I just noticed."
Klartch raised his crest. "I am! Just a griffin boy."
"Oh!" said Morgan. "I can see you all proper now!"
"How do you do?" said Klartch.
"Very well," said Morgan.
Julia smiled. "Me and Roger are witches."
Janet sighed. "I haven't got any magic, really."
Morgan looked at each of them in turn. "Is Cat really the most powerful ever?"
Janet nodded, feeling proud of her sort-of-brother. "Super magical power."
Morgan let go of Janet's hand and walked up to Cat. Cat was bright red and looking awkward still. Morgan got closer and up on his tiptoes to look at Cat in the face. "I like your name. I like cats. I was born a kitten," said Morgan.
Roger examined him. "That seems to have changed."
Janet said, "Cat was nearly born dead. I was born a girl. But I had a lovely head full of hair."
"Dead?" Morgan continued to eye Cat with a look of interest. "I guess that's a bit interesting. But not like a kitten."
"Oh good. Glad you think so," said Cat gruffly. He very much wanted to know more about being a kitten, but wasn't sure how to ask. Thankfully, Janet solved the problem for him.
"So that man, Howl, stole you from a cat and turned you into a boy to raise?" she asked. She was upset at the thought. How could that handsome man have done that to a poor little kitten? Then she reconsidered. Perhaps he and Sophie were barren, and had desperately wanted a child. Why, it was nearly romantic!
Morgan gave a bit of a sigh. "No. It's complicated. There were djinn."
"Ah," said Janet knowingly. "Djinn."
Morgan affected a tragic, sad air. "I still remember it, in my dreams. What it felt like. I'd love to feel it again." He put on a more artificial way of speaking, remembering how his father did it.
"Well, why doesn't your father turn you back for a day? Or why don't you?"
"He's terribly cruel. I haven't got the power myself." said Morgan. "Yet."
Cat frowned. He was sure he'd felt power radiating off Morgan, but now that he looked again it was like Morgan was just the barest flicker of power, even less than Janet! He shook his head, trying to clear it. He must still be tired from the trip to this world if he was getting confused like that.
Janet looked pityingly at Morgan. "You poor thing! Cat, wouldn't it be nice to help him? Just for a bit?"
Cat's eyes widened. "I... I don't think I'm allowe--" He trailed off. Morgan was looking directly at him now. Morgan had huge pale green eyes that looked at Cat entreatingly. In fact, Morgan's entire body seemed to be pleading.
"Oh, would you? Just... just for even a minute?"
"Be a sport," said Julia. "And maybe do us next."
"He looks so sad," said Janet.
"He does, rather," said Roger looking at Morgan. "Father probably won't be able to tell if we do it quickly. I'll even help, if you need it."
Feeling trapped, Cat rolled up his sleeves. "I can do it. All right. I'll do it."
Morgan's face lit up. "Thank you! Thank you!" Every inch of him was radiating gratitude now. He looked almost angelic with the sweetness in his face.
Cat held out his hands, imagining Morgan as a cat. Within seconds the little boy had become a small black cat.
Morgan-turned-kitten looked up at Cat and meowed.
Cat smiled down at him. And that was when it all went wrong. Cat swore he saw a smirk cross the kitten's face when suddenly his ability to tell that the kitten was, in fact, Morgan vanished, along with the tendrils of control he'd had over his spell. Before he could think to grab or freeze Morgan, the kitten had disappeared in a streak of black under the fence and out of sight.
"Oh no," said Cat.
"You are in so much trouble," said Roger.
"Your crowd of children are pleasant little creatures, aren't they," said Sophie as she walked with Millie. They were eating yogurt with honey they'd bought from a stand.
"They are," agreed Millie.
Sophie looked over at her, stepping over a black cat napping in their path. "How do you deal with the magic?" she asked carefully.
"Oh, we have rules. No magic in the castle, things like that," said Millie.
"Do they obey?" said Sophie.
"I'd like to think so, but I'm wrong more often than I'd like. Is this about Morgan?"
"Mhm," said Sophie. "Lately he's had a passion for shapeshifting. But not just any shape. He wants to be a cat again. And he doesn't like changing back. Fits, screams, and hiding." She sighed. "We had to put a magical injunction on him to keep him from being able to transform himself. It doesn't stop him from trying whenever he can. I caught him trying to mix up a potion for it the other week. It set fire to Howl's work-table."
"He'll grow out of it," said Millie firmly. "Children go through phases of wanting something terribly, and then once they realize they can't have it, they grow out of it. You just need to keep yourself from giving in and indulging them." She added ruefully, "It's not the easiest thing in the world. It's how my children ended up with a killer horse."
"Nearly killer. It's complicated."
"It's all fine now."
"Hm." Sophie didn't look entirely convinced, but she let the matter rest.
Millie took the last bite of her yogurt, then gazed down the path beside them to the gleaming blue ocean. "I wonder if we have time for a swim before we get the children. I'd like to get in some swimming without having to keep an eye out."
"They do dress decently here at their beaches, don't they?" asked Sophie.
Millie grinned. "I hope we dress decently enough for them."
She waved a hand, transforming hers and Sophie's clothes. A black cat leapt away, startled at the sudden burst of magic. "Let's get some swimming in now. It'll keep be a nice way to cool off with the sun having snuck up on us while we walked."
Sophie looked down at the odd suit that went from her knees to her elbows. "This is what you wear to swim?"
"What do you wear?" said Millie.
Millie waved her hand again, adding a lovely skirt to the striped bathing suit Sophie wore.
Sophie smiled. "Perfect!" It occurred to her that perhaps she shouldn't have worried so much about having enough clothes, since she had wizards handy.
The children had been too stunned for panic, initially.
After a long pause, Roger finally asked, "Why did he do that?"
Janet said, "We are in so much trouble."
Julia was leaning over the wall to see if she could spot the kitten. "It's black cats all the way down!" she said. "I don't know which is him!"
Cat was waving his left hand, trying to get a handle on which one was Morgan, but it was as though the little boy had ceased to exist. Whatever magic he'd used to hide himself was powerful.
"Won't his mother miss him?" asked Klartch.
This stirred the children into action, Klartch in the lead. He bounded after the cats with a eager cry, front claws out to capture the smaller cats for inspection.
Behind him Cat yelled, "Klartch, be gentle!"
The rest of the cats, seeing things were suddenly going awry, bolted. The children went this way and that way after them, Janet, Klartch, and Roger leaping at them, Cat freezing them in place, and Julia tying her handkerchief in knots over and over to trip them up and slow them down.
The cats were having none of this, and cats, being naturally magical, weren't giving the children an inch. For each one Cat froze, another somehow wiggled free, and Julia could barely tie knots as fast as the cats were bolting.
Janet was having an easier time, in a way. She and Roger had teamed up, with her chasing the cats to him, whereupon Roger threw his coat over the cat and they made their inspection.
"Are you Morgan?" Janet shouted at each one they caught. "If you are, confess! Or we're throwing you into that well!" She had no intention of throwing a defenseless cat into a well, of course, but Morgan didn't know that, and she hoped it would inspire the little wizard to honesty. What she and Roger got for their efforts however were scratches and yowls.
The cats did not appreciate any of this. Within an hour, the children sat underneath an olive tree, looking miserable. They were covered in cat scratches, had traumatized dozens of kittens, and hadn't come close to finding Morgan.
"This is ridiculous," said Julia. "If he wants to be a cat so much, we should just leave him."
"It'd serve him right," agreed Roger.
Janet was looking more and more worried as they talked. Finally, she said, "My mum had a calendar of a place like this. And there were cats in it."
"Yeah, so?" said Roger.
"She also had a friend. When he saw a page with cats on it, he told us..." At this point in the story Janet swallowed nervously. "He told us that at the end of each tourist season, to keep the number of cats from going out of control, they would leave out poison for them."
There was a long, uncomfortable pause.
"We are in such a lot of trouble if Mum's friend's son dies of poisoning," said Julia finally.
"Chrestomanci will be sarcastic at us," said Janet.
"He always is, but we should find the little beast anyway," said Roger. "Look, we're not going to do this on our own. We should confess and get some proper help."
Cat looked as though he had a horrible headache starting. He was the one who'd turned the little boy into a cat, and it was doubtful that 'He asked nicely' was a good enough excuse.
Julia patted Cat on the shoulder. "I heard Mother and Father talking about the boy's parents once. Apparently his dad is awful for tricking people. It might be hereditary." She clearly expected this to comfort Cat and, surprisingly, this did.
"But where are your parents? Or Morgan's parents?" said Janet. "Really, anyone's parents will do at this point."
"Oh, they're around, I expect," said Roger. "I'll look to the west of the island, you take the east, Julia south, et cetera." Roger set off on his search as he finished talking. He'd cheered up visibly, now that he had a plan in mind.
Janet and Julia shrugged and went on their ways. Cat looked down at Klartch, who looked up at him. "Isn't north the ruins?"
"They could be at the ruins," replied Klartch. Cat nodded and set off with the griffin.
It turned out that north was indeed the right direction to go. Once the two women had finished swimming, they'd decided to go along a path that led them right up to the ruins. They were surprised when they heard a sudden clatter of shoes and claws, shortly followed by the appearance of Cat and Klartch.
"Hello, dears," said Millie. "Playing a game?"
Cat gave them a wide-eyed, panicked look, and Klartch took pity on him. "Your son's a cat!" Klartch said to Sophie.
"Ah," said Sophie, not seeming at all surprised.
"We'd better deal with it," said Millie.
Millie and Sophie went onto the path that led to the village proper, Cat and Klartch trailing in their wake. As she walked, Millie worked a charm to summon the other children.
When all were assembled in the town square, Millie had them form a line. She walked back and forth in front of them, looking each in the eye. She wasn't smiling. "I want you to find as many cats as you can, and bring them here. Can you do that?"
The children nodded, hoping obedience would lessen their failure and possible punishment. Soon the air was filled with the smell of sardines and other cat delights created by enchantment. Roger and Julia worked spells together, sweeping the cats that were lured in into a big circle. The cats were only too happy to stay, as long as they could have a chance at finding the tasty, tasty food.
Cat had been wondering how this would help to find Morgan, until he noticed a subtle, familiar tingle on his skin. Millie was making them invisible to the cats! More and more cats were gathered, until Sophie suddenly cried, "There you are!" and strode into the sea of cats, reaching down quickly to scoop up a flailing little kitten.
"Oh Morgan," she said sadly and walked off, mewling kitten in her arms.
"We will discuss this later," Millie told the children, and hurried off after her. The children were left alone, apart from several hundred cats.
"Let's throw him into the ocean tomorrow," suggested Roger.
Millie and Sophie found Howl and Chrestomanci just in time. The two men were in a cafe, caught in a battle of wills. Chrestomanci sat perfectly straight, in his hands a cup of black tea with a twist of lemon. His face was the very picture of vagueness, as though he wasn't attending to the slightest thing Howl said.
And Howl was saying a lot. The vaguer and less attentive Chrestomanci was, the more it seemed to drive Howl to new heights as Chrestomanci's sudden new best friend. He was determined not to lose the game.
"Howl!" called Sophie. Howl stopped his latest volley, involving polo ponies and the correct temperature at which to serve crumpets, and looked back at Sophie. Sophie held out kitten Morgan, who was still meowing sadly.
"Oh blast," said Howl. "Excuse me, Chrestomanci, old chum." He got up and strode over to his wife and the kitten. "Really, Morgan? Again? How did he do it, Sophie?"
"Tricked one of Millie's children," said Sophie. "Oh, Morgan."
"Cat?" said Chrestomanci to Millie. Millie nodded.
"He is a cat," said Howl. "Well spotted, old thing!"
Chrestomanci ignored Howl.
Howl took Morgan from Sophie's hands. Morgan feebly bit at Howl’s fingers, trying for freedom, but Howl placed him on the floor and no matter how he struggled, Morgan couldn't seem to flee the spot. Howl ran his hand over the kitten and suddenly Morgan was a little boy again.
Morgan looked up at his parents and their friends, and burst into tears.
It was the next day, another beautiful one in Hermatse. The duly chastened children had been brought to the Pendragons’ holiday residence by Millie. Chrestomanci had found something else to do rather than endure Howl’s company again.
Cat had spent the night -- after his Talk with Chrestomanci about misusing his powers -- remembering the time that Chrestomanci had once warned him, with the tale of Puss in Boots, about people tricking him into using his powers to his own disadvantage. It would have been good to remember that eight-year-olds were amoral little beasts, he thought to himself.
In any case, Cat was tired and cranky. The frolicking black cats rubbing up against him only served to make his mood darker.
When they entered the house, the Pendragons were in the front parlor. Morgan stood between his parents, Howl's hand on his shoulder. "Go on," said Sophie, not unkindly.
Morgan swallowed. "I'm sorry for what I did."
The children (and griffin) looked at him, feeling their bruises and cat scratches. But Morgan looked so tiny and miserable, it was hard to hold it against him. Morgan sniffled. "I just wanted to be a cat again," he said.
Howl sighed and dropped to one knee and tugged Morgan into a hug. "You can be. When you get older and learn moderation. We can't have you turning into a cat and spending the rest of your life living on an island without us, can we?"
"I could be a cat at home. Wouldn't I be a good cat?" Morgan asked.
"I much prefer you as my son," said Howl. "I need someone on my side!"
Morgan looked at Sophie, who held out her arms. He shuffled over to her, where she tugged him into a hug as well. "I would have felt terrible if you'd actually managed to lose yourself here, Morgan. Remember that."
Morgan sighed, then looked over her shoulder at the children. "I really am sorry."
Janet crumbled first. "It's all right," she said. "I might've tried too. I always did want to be a wolf." Feeling brave, she turned to Sophie. “How on earth did you find him, out of all those cats?”
Sophie smiled at her. “I know my own kitten when I see him.”
Later, as they were getting ready for bed, Janet was reading a book on the couch with Cat resting beside her. Cat turned to Janet and said, "I barely thought about... Syracuse at all during that."
"Oh good," replied Janet. She tactfully didn't mention that she didn't think Syracuse had been what Cat was moping over until their cat adventure. "Because Morgan'll probably do something else terrible before the holiday's up. Lots of distraction for you."
"Oh," said Cat. "Oh dear."
Janet read for a few moments more. Then she looked up at Cat. "I don't suppose you could turn me into a wolf, could you? Just for a little while?"