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The Cats of Caprona

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It was a sweltering day. The sun shone as brightly as it had all the preceding week; there was not a cloud in the sky (not even those puffy high ones that just move across the sky, bringing no rain). At noon the courtyard was so bright it hurt the eyes. There was no shadow of respite; and the entire household had gone to their rooms for siesta – and not before time, in Benvenuto’s view. The sole remaining occupant of the Montana courtyard sprawled in its centre, legs akimbo, belly to the air, soaking up the rays. He had been there all morning, ignoring all admonishments to move, making family carefully step round him. Now, unseen by any save the bees buzzing round the tubs of pelargoniums, he chose to shift, lazily stretching before he moved to the one corner of shade beneath a hazelnut tree planted in the southwest corner by the gate, and curled up again.

Once every five years the world spell-masters convention was held, and it started tomorrow, here in Caprona. The world and all its friends had been arriving for the last few days; but the official opening took place tomorrow, which meant, of course, that today was incredibly frantic with last minute preparations. Luigi Petrocchi was to give the opening keynote address, Umberto Montana the closing. Tonino had been surprised to learn Chrestomanci was not speaking; but the adults had laughed when he asked – though it was kind laughter – and explained he didn’t like public speaking. The matriarchs of both great spell-houses of the city were in charge of the sumptuous banquet. Even the youngest Montanas had been busy with the celebrations, helping to write out spells for the firework displays that would be put on each night of the conference. Tonino had been pulled this way and that, rushing hither-thither reinforcing incantations. He looked frazzled and very tired.

Benvenuto, however, had resisted the fuss. The finest fish had been offered to tempt him; he had accepted it as his due, then turned and leapt over the wall disdaining coaxing to return. The family had had to make do with his offspring, superior felines all, but none so powerful as him. Vittoria had been just the same, Renata explained, when Paolo complained to her. Cats could be counted upon in a major crisis like war, it seemed. But unless they thought something important (and clearly they did not where the world magic congress was concerned) they simply would not cooperate. And so he lay curled up like a donut, snoozing, as the sun passed its zenith and the sky turned golden pink.

He opened one amber eye as Tonino slipped down the stairs just before the rest of the house stirred, pulled ajar one of the great gates, and made his escape. Benvenuto followed a few paces behind. After all, the last time Tonino had slipped away he had been caught in the White Devil’s enchantment. Powerful he might be, but Benvenuto knew he did not have the sense of a kitten to come out of the rain.

Tonino wandered along the streets heading for the bridge. It was always crowded with merchants but this week a number of stalls had been set up selling fairground treats. He had slipped away before evening meal, not daring even to raid the kitchen before he left, lest he be stopped from leaving. Hungry, Tonino fished in his pocket, finding a conker, two marbles, an old crumpled spell, a dusty lemon drop with one chocolate brown cat hair stuck to it, and a silver coin. The lemon drop (minus hair) went into his mouth. He bought honey cakes with his last money and made his way to a bench by the old pine tree at the south corner of the bridge and paused to gulp down the food before continuing on his way. Benvenuto paused too, munching on an unwary mouse that had been enjoying crumbs from the honey cake kiosk, before he followed again. Caprona was full of salesmen and touts who had travelled to take advantage of the business generated by the conference. Who knew what else they would take advantage of?

“Make way! Make way!”

At the crossroads the other side of the bridge a veritable cavalcade of brightly-hued caravans clogged the high street, bringing all else to a standstill. An incoming retinue had met an exiting supply train from a local farm creating – as anyone with an ounce of sense could have predicted – a chaotic traffic jam. Benvenuto slinked past a fat merchant and rubbed his head against Tonino.

“Come to explore too,” Tonino remarked looking down; and deftly caught the large tom as he leapt upwards.

Benvenuto butted his head against Tonino’s chin before climbing onto his shoulder to get a good look. The draft horses pulling the incoming parade of caravans appeared placid. The donkeys and oxen pulling the outgoing carts, however, were another matter. The advantages of paper horses were immediately apparent; these animals were all too real. The loud cacophony of bellowing and braying drowned the argument between the two train masters and Benvenuto’s nose wrinkled at the pungent stench of urine and dung as one frightened jennet reacted to the pack of hounds accompanying the visitors. He was no respecter of the brainpower of equines, let alone bovines, and also had a proper feline disdain of the canine race. However, even Benvenuto had to acknowledge those dogs had a certain presence. He asserted his superiority by arching his back, and hissed, hair standing on end.

“The Irish delegation,” murmured Tonino, having been told about them in school a few days ago. He reached up and stroked Benvenuto’s ears in reassurance. “Their sorcery is quite unlike other nations.” Benevenuto wrapped his tail round Tonino’s neck. “They do have cats in Eire,” he explained, “but it seems the Irish wolfhounds play the more important part in spell-casting.”

Tonino refrained from recounting what his mother had added when he’d come home from classes excited by the pictures he’d seen. She had met an Irish princess years before in England when the girl had spent a year studying with Chrestomanci; but it was rare for them to travel abroad, and almost unheard of for them to bring their hounds. As far as she knew, they had never sent delegates to the international convention before, so Caprona was specially honoured they had agreed to attend.

As the pair watched, a beautiful strawberry blonde woman emerged from the rear caravan, harp in hand and began to play gentle rippling notes which seemed to have no real tune, but cascaded over and over, like a bubbling brook, or the seaside, or a waterfall, or a.... It was enchanting. Benvenuto hissed loudly in his ear and dug his claws into Tonino’s shoulder. It was enchantment. Tonino came to his senses to realise he was alone at the intersection, carts and caravans long gone and crowds dispersed. The last of the purple sun disappeared behind the hills as Tonino made his way home, where he received a scolding for being out so late and was sent straight to bed.

Benvenuto saw him into safe hands from his perch on the gate angel’s shoulder before he was off again. The glorious day had been followed by a lovely clear night. A full moon had risen and the stars were calling; Benvenuto was off to the hills for the real convention. The great and the good of the wizarding world had converged on Caprona over the last three days, most bringing with them their cats.

The mountains surrounding Caprona were old and worn down, rounded on top and terraced on the sides, planted with grape vines. Houses Petrocchi and Montana might be known for spells; but Mario Andretti, who did all the repairs to their great houses, was the younger son of Ricardo Andretti who owned the famous winery (yes, that Andretti). The terraces did not simply go round and round the lower mountains. In accordance with the spells created by the founders of clan Petrocchi and Montana centuries before, they had been carefully laid out in the form of a magical maze so they grew the biggest and sweetest grapes in the world. Benvenuto entered the terraces at the lower west corner and trod the path widdershins, rising ever upwards, until he exited close to the crest of the hill, where he found the rest of the clowder waiting: fluffy longhairs from Persia, slinky Siamese from Egypt, huge Norwegian forest cats, and Manx without tails. Cats of all shapes, sizes, and colours – old and young – male and female. As the dominant Tom of Caprona he hosted the feline conference. Benvenuto swaggered to the centre of the gathering, leapt onto a low stone pillar, bared fangs, then lifted his glowing eyes to the sky and yowled. He was answered by a collective trill before the mass split off into smaller groups for a good night’s hunt.

As he surveyed the group below, one bold female scrambled up beside him. She was quite young, very small, and delicate in build. Her exotic silver-tabby coat gleamed in the moonlight. Politely she touched noses with him, then turned her back, deliberately swiping her tail across his muzzle as she took one dainty step away. Benvenuto’s ears pricked and he growled. That aroma... that dappled bottom.... He pounced; she hissed – but she also crouched in submission to her Prince. Others might stalk mice amongst the vines; Benvenuto had been hunted, been caught, and had caught in his turn. As he asserted his authority, growling and biting the little Queen’s neck, the heavens opened in a deluge that left all the cats of Caprona yowling.

The next day saw a drizzly dawn, the previous heat wave well and truly broken. Tonino woke to a household that once again was a flurry of last minute preparations as it seemed everything that had been done before now needed to be redone. Decorations hung days before now were soggy and bedraggled. New and stronger spells were needed for all the parade horses, lest they collapse in the rain. In the end, using them at all was deemed too risky and the Rolls Royce was pressed into use instead. Until now it had been considered too dull for such a special occasion, but now it was festooned with flowers and pronounced quite pretty after all.

Previously predictions had foretold a long hot dry summer, very typical for this part of Italy. Everyone marvelled openly at the sudden change in weather. Everyone except Elizabeth, however, who went about muttering, “I told you so” under her breath, and “wouldn’t listen to me – the only person in Caprona who’s ever met an Irish enchanter – Oh no!” (this to Aunt Francesca who was lamenting the change in banqueting from outdoor buffet to indoor). From being sidelined (“just because she is pregnant and shouldn’t be burdened with this on top of everything else!” protested Aunt Francesca), now Elizabeth was consulted about every aspect of the revised plans, until, harried and harassed she locked herself in her private workroom and refused to answer any more questions.

Finally everything was ready and Tonino stood waving with the rest of the younger Montanas as the adults (minus Elizabeth) set off to the town hall where the opening ceremonies were being held for the convention. Rinaldo had been left in charge of the main workroom with strict instructions to bolster the spells on the fireworks to make them foolproof against all weathers. He quickly conscripted all the children to his aid, saying this would supplement the theory they learned at school. He seemed, however, to do remarkably little himself, delegating it all to the juniors. Sotto voce Paolo pointed out to Tonino this was not why school classes had been cancelled and the two slipped surreptitiously away.

Hungry as always, they made their way to the kitchens; but after snatching jam tarts and getting their fingers slapped by a kitchen maid, they beat a hasty retreat. The Montana family was responsible for the desserts for tonight’s banquet (the Pettrochis taking charge of the main meal). It was clear if they hung round there they’d be put to work again – probably chopping almonds or glace cherries. Tonino had had enough of that at Christmas and endorsed Paolo’s suggestion they ask Mother if they could go into town.

Elizabeth’s room was an oasis of calm after the frenetic activities of the rest of the household. Her door, locked to everyone else, magically opened at their approach and she smiled warm welcome. She laughed when they confessed to playing hooky from the damp-proofing spells.

“They won’t work,” she explained. “It may be only drizzling now but we’ll have a proper deluge by nightfall; nothing can make a firework spark in that.”

Paolo’s eyes grew round and he glanced at the crystal ball. Everyone knew it was not her favourite instrument. Relegated to one corner of the room, it normally just gathered dust (and it looked as if no one had taken it off its shelf in years).

“No, that’s not an oracle,” Elizabeth smiled, seeing where her son looked. “It's experience. That year Princess Siobhan and I studied together with Chrestomanci was the wettest on record in England for 300 years. Didn’t you know it always rains in Eire? She told me the heavens are still sorrowing for Deirdre; that’s one of their legends, you know.”

At their blank looks she went to her bookshelf, selected a slender volume, and handed it to them: Traditional Irish Myths and Folk Legends.

“Plus, of course, their familiars are wolfhounds.” She laughed again at the boys’ astonishment. “We have cats, so it’s no surprise we have an abundance of warm, sunny weather. They have hounds with thick fur coats that insulate them from the rain and cold, so.... Just make sure you dress warmly,” she reminded and pushed them out the door.

Tonino heard the lock click behind them. The boys looked at one another and shrugged; they had permission. Rain gear was less easy to locate; eventually they found some hidden away in a dark nook of the stables.

*Took you long enough* remarked Benvenuto, who was sitting on a rain hat that had fallen from its hook.

He led the way down the high street toward the Town Hall. He avoided the main entrance marked with impressive Grecian-style columns, which was manned with attendants behind trestle tables checking the credentials of all delegates. Instead he took them round back to a small door with the sign ‘Employees Only’. A simple charm took care of the lock and the boys sneaked in. Benvenuto again led them, this time through a rabbit warren of corridors and passages until they came out into the central rotunda. They ignored signs directing them to “Room B.2 – Etheric Disturbances and their Impact on Thaumatological Reactions in Sulphuric Compounds” and “Room L.18 – Cosmological Determinations and their Relationship with Combustive Incantations in H2O Saturated Climates” and such like. The rotunda was where the really interesting stuff was happening.

Paolo and Tonino marvelled at one wizard whisking in circles round a tower spun from sugar (for a minimal charge one could break off a gargoyle and watch it re-grow while sucking on the confection). Another booth had a huge display of magical insect nests (with smaller starter kits for sale). A third had dancing shoes (the waltzing slippers were apparently best sellers, but the boys thought the jigging clogs looked more fun). They stopped in wonder before the white unicorn whose horn nestled in the lap of the cerise-veiled young Indian witch. Neither boy had ever seen a real live unicorn before. Benvenuto approached, touched noses, and appeared to converse with her for a while but declined to enlighten anyone about the content of their conversation. Inevitably the boys felt hungry and finished their explorations with a visit to the food hall, where they enjoyed lemonade and fairy cakes, before moving on to the outdoor displays. They were a bit of a disappointment; the rain had limited the number of displays and relatively few delegates were venturing out of doors, particularly now that the misty showers of morning had thickened to proper rain. Nonetheless they enjoyed one ride on the magically-powered midair-coaster before its operator decided it was just too wet to continue and closed down for safety. The sight of an announcement cancelling the evening’s firework display told them it was time to leave. Tonino sheltered Benvenuto under his rainproof cape and they made their way home as the sun began to set.

Notwithstanding the continuing storm, once evening had fallen Benvenuto again made his way through the maze up to the crest of the mountain. The first night’s congress had been reserved for cats, as it should be. But there were other magical creatures, after all, even if they did not hold the power of nine lives within their paws. The clowder was joined by a selection of owls, several nightingales, a few English robins, three phoenixes, two griffins, and one Komodo dragon. The unicorn had decided not to join them. Over the rest of Caprona the rain had continued to deepen. Now it was a thundering downpour; but here, on higher ground, there was clear sky. It was, so to speak, the eye of the storm, created largely when the birds arrived, as they found it difficult to fly properly with wet feathers. To each his own magic; no cat was about to complain about dry weather.

The difficulty arose when the wolfhounds arrived about an hour later, bringing a distinctly damp ambience with them. Worse, they clearly enjoyed one another’s company but showed utter disregard for other species. Hauteur and disdain showing in every whisker twitch, Benvenuto watched as they antagonised all the other familiars, and particularly upset Madam Dragon who had settled into a small nest tramped down for her by the griffins, and begun to lay her clutch. A few hisses united the feline Queens, normally solitary hunters, to act in concert against the intrusive hounds. There was nothing quite like the motherhood of all kinds supporting one another. Besides, these eggs were promised to the European conference delegates – one even was reserved for Casa Montana – and nothing must be allowed to disrupt the cross fertilisation of magical talent. Once the wolfhounds were expelled from the mountain top, the gathering progressed amicably. Benvenuto sprawled on a large bed of Nepeta Cataria before a sleek tortoiseshell caught his eye. He growled and lunged; but his coordination had been affected and she slipped out of his grasp. He sneezed several times to clear his head, then gathering the remnants his dignity, went in search of companionship. At the edge of the herb bed he stumbled over the pretty silver-tabby whose company had proved so pleasant the night before.

Benvenuto did not return to Casa Montana until dawn. Tonino woke when a cold wet nose was pressed to his cheek; it was accompanied by whiskers, which tickled, and a demanding and somewhat damp paw. When he would have rolled over and gone back to sleep, Benvenuto purred in his ear. Reluctantly Tonino climbed out of bed and went to the bathroom; Benvenuto padded after him and snaked round his legs as Tonino used the toilet. As Benvenuto commenced loud insistent meowing, Tonino hastily splashed water on his face and pulled on trousers and top, all the while reassuring the cat he was going as fast as possible. To say they crept into the kitchen would not have been true. Given the early hour, Tonino did his best to tread quietly but Benvenuto’s meowing grew ever louder. He practically attacked the leftover roast chicken Tonino found for him; and once that had been consumed wanted more. Fortunately he slowed down by the time he was offered cheese, having gulped the fish with gusto. Tonino blearily ate leftover cake from yesterday’s banquet and a glass of milk whilst awaiting Benvenuto’s next command. He was relieved when the cat signalled a return to bed; five in the morning was just too early.

The day was well forward by the time Tonino woke the second time. Most of the adults had left for the conference leaving instructions for Rinaldo to gather the younger members together and bring them along to hear Uncle Umberto’s closing address later in the day. However, no sooner had they left than Rinaldo, in a huff, had donned his finest velvet cape and stalked off. Once more Paolo had ventured to his mother’s workroom. (She had remained locked inside since yesterday, with a ‘do not disturb’ sign magically affixed to the door). Elizabeth had taken in the situation at a glance, put aside her incantations, and organised games for the little ones. Paolo and Tonino she sent off to the conference.

“Now mind Benvenuto,” she admonished. “He’ll keep you safe.”

Today was at least dry, albeit overcast, cold and windy. The final programme was again being held in the Town Hall, in the Council Chamber which had been magically transformed to hold double the usual number. Paolo and Tonino quietly found two seats at one side close to the back. They could see Renata and Angelica Petrocchi sitting with their parents in the next row on the other side. Chrestomanci was at the podium announcing the next speaker, and clapping began as a tall blond man dressed all in green crossed the stage to take over. He, in turn, announced several compatriots; it seemed the delegation from Eire was to make a presentation. Tonino recognised the willowy blonde lady from the caravan collision two days before. With a few gestures from his co-presenter, images began to play on a backdrop while the man at the podium droned on, periodically directing listeners to a picture to illustrate his point. He used big words in lengthy sentences that never seemed to end, though the images were interesting. Nonetheless, the boys were rather bored.

The pretty lady started playing her harp just when the wolfhounds began to make their way through the audience, weaving intricate patterns. One dun coloured bitch butted her head against Renata’s hands until she began fondling her ears; a small grey puppy jumped up on Paolo’s lap and began licking him furiously. Benvenuto hissed, bit Tonino’s wrist sharply, drawing blood to shock him out of his trance, and leapt onto Paolo’s shoulder where he draped himself round the boy's neck. Thick mist had drifted through the room, obscuring what was happening; now there was a bright flash and loud bang and suddenly the room cleared. As delegates roused from the spell, they realised the Irish contingent had taken their leave. When Mrs Petrocchi screamed, the delegates realised they had not gone alone: Renata was missing. Tonino hastily looked sideways, and to his relief found Paolo still there. Alone amongst the audience he appeared mesmerised – by the puppy who was enthusiastically wriggling as Paolo tickled his tummy.

Confusion and consternation reigned supreme and the conference came to an abrupt end, as delegates checked who was and was not still there and streamed out of the hall to check the wellbeing (whereabouts!) of others in their party who had not attended the final morning. Amidst all this no one paid much attention to Uncle Umberto’s grumblings that his speech had been cancelled. Old Niccolo simply told him abruptly to be quiet and went to Guido Petrocchi to offer what help he could. When consulted, however, Chrestomanci, reminded them that the last time the Irish attended a world conference – which he admitted had been a very long time ago – they had co-opted more than just one magician to join their Court.

“You can try diplomatic channels,” he said, “though I don’t hold out a lot of hope. Those children they stole four hundred years ago never were returned, though they did leave a few changelings as compensation.” To Rinaldo’s bluster and Guido’s angry determination to mount an expedition against the kidnappers, he cautioned, “I’d advise you against going to their Court to get Renata back. They do have Sidhe blood in their veins; and you will undoubtedly find time operates somewhat differently there. In my view, you’d make better use of your magic protecting young Paolo there, since they clearly have an interest in him.”

Horrified heads turned toward the boy, who remained focused on his new puppy. The little dog stood on Paolo’s lap, pawing his chest and barking excitedly. Paolo was listening intently. While he might struggle to understand cats, it appeared he had no such difficulty where this puppy was concerned. Fortunately, Benvenuto remained on his shoulder, clearly alert; although it appeared the imminent danger of kidnap had passed.

“Yes, for now; thanks to Benvenuto,” Chrestomanci conceded, when this was put to him by an anxious Antonio, “but they have left the puppy behind, which suggests they have not totally abandoned all idea of luring him to the faerie side. What shocks me is that Vittoria let Renata be taken.”

But a tearful Angelica explained that her cat had not been with them because she gave birth to another litter of kittens the night before and they were too young to be left. Sombrely the Pettrochis gathered themselves together to go home, Rosa supporting her mother-in-law, whose hysterics had now calmed to quiet weeping. The Montanas also did not linger. Somehow news had travelled before them, so that when they arrived at Casa Montana a great fuss was made of Benvenuto. Everyone felt the need to touch him and praise him until he hissed and bared claws.

“Thank you for my boy,” Elizabeth said, and she poured him a dish of cream and shooed everyone away.

They left Benvenuto washing his paws in the middle of the sun-drenched courtyard with a dainty, dapple-bottomed, silver tabby curled up beside him.