Chapter 1: Cakes were not meant to fly
Angelica Petrocchi had been incensed. "Well, I don't care," she'd said hotly. "I'm to go next year, you know. So it doesn't make you more special! Ha, so there!"
Tonino Montana had been confused. He didn't think he was 'more special' to have been given an invitation to stay at Chrestomanci Castle in England. He knew it was only so that his peculiar magic could be studied. In fact, although Tonino had always been curious about England, his reluctance to leave Casa Montana was stronger.
Yet everyone in his family had been thrilled for him, especially his mother who was English and once had stayed at the Castle herself as a girl. He couldn't face them with his ungratefulness when they were all so pleased on his behalf.
He'd thought Angelica might understand. But then every sort of bread and bun and pastry imaginable had been visited upon the Casa Petrocchi, raining down on their towers, bouncing about in their courtyard, bursting from their closets. The knee-deep piles of baked goods had made it rather difficult to walk. He'd accidentally stepped in one of the cakes; it had been somewhat squashed looking before, so Tonino thought it probably was not salvageable anyway.
After Chrestomanci had told them that Angelica's unique form twisted-sideways-and-backwards magic was a source of pride rather than embarrassment, her family had been anxious to grant her more liberty to use spells. As a result, Angelica had become famous throughout Caprona for more than her father's occasional green hair. Tonino had slipped quietly by the shouting queue at the Casa gate of angry bakers from all over the city, who'd immediately arrived to demand the return of their morning's work.
Because she had stomped off with a shout of rage when he'd asked, Tonino still didn't know what Angelica's spell had really been meant to summon, or even if it had been a summons at all. He supposed that teasing out the twisted logic of it might give him something to do on the lengthy trip, besides being seasick, and train-sick, and carriage-sick. Perhaps even something other than being homesick.
Tonino should have known that Benvenuto would be more understanding.
"Why can't you go with me?" Tonino said, stroking the day's mats from Benvenuto's mottled fur with his brush. "I shouldn't mind it if you were there."
Benvenuto flicked his tail in annoyance, and pointed out that a boss cat could not abandon his responsibilities in such a fashion. For example, the recent rapprochement of the two feuding spell-houses had given the Petrocchi cats far too puffed an opinion of themselves. He was needed to keep them firmly in their place -- and out of the Montana courtyard at night.
"And I have no responsibilities," Tonino sighed. "Angelica is right. I'm useless and can be sent off to England without a thought."
Ridiculous, Benvenuto said. He had thought Tonino had set aside such childish notions. If Tonino were truly useless, why would Benvenuto continue to bother with him? After all, how would attending to such a person reflect on Benvenuto?
"Oh. I'm sorry, that isn't what I--"
At any rate, Benvenuto said, now grooming his right paw, even though the English were known for their independent attitude, Tonino would no doubt uncover a means to be of use. Such things were a matter of time. Rats who ran from their holes at the first sight of a cat were hardly worth the trouble of catching.
"I hadn't thought of it like that."
That was because Tonino was barely past kittenhood, Benvenuto pointed out kindly. Benvenuto was pleased to offer him the benefit of Benvenuto's own experience.
"I have always been grateful," Tonino said with perfect sincerity. "I say, that reminds me. Would you know of anything special about buns?"
Benvenuto knew only that they were amusing for batting about the floor once in a great while. He preferred steak.
"Oh. Yes, of course."
Benvenuto wondered at his question.
"Angelica and the bakeries."
Benvenuto stretched. He had found Vittoria to be quite as perplexing, he admitted. But Benvenuto knew that Tonino would solve this puzzle much faster than he could himself. After all, Tonino's talents inclined in that direction -- had he not found the Angel of Caprona? Also, Tonino should now brush under Benvenuto's chin.
So Tonino did.
Later, Angelica wrote to him in England rather constantly, a cherry red beacon amongst the grove of green Montana missives. In with the usual insulting remarks, she told him about the Casa, about school, about odd things the Duke had done lately. But she never once referred to the bakery incident, so Tonino tactfully did not bring it up either in his replies. He would figure the spell out on his own.
Chapter 2: Cakes were not meant to fly
Cat Chant's future as an inadvertently evil enchanter had been placed indefinitely on hold. For one thing, he had recently met an actual evil enchanter. The brief apprenticeship with Neville Spiderman had proven unpleasant, not to mention smelly and grubby. Cat, who was quite fond of bathing, felt that, if evil required going without, he should work more strenuously to avoid such a fate. He had meant being kind to Tonino as a step along the road to redemption, which would, in the natural course of events, include frequent stops for hot baths and perhaps the occasional hols by the sea.
For Cat had discovered that he didn't mind Tonino. He thought this rather odd, as he had minded him before. He had minded him very much indeed. But after they had been locked together in the dank cellar under threat of mildew and gruesome death, he had changed his mind and rather thought he should be minding him instead.
At which point, Cat's mind had been deeply confused.
He'd thought that perhaps Master Spiderman's mouldy basement had affected him somehow. He had mentioned this to Chrestomanci.
"I may have a dread disease," Cat had announced hopefully.
"A developing conscience does not require antifungal treatment," Chrestomanci had suggested mildly, whilst vaguely examining a rosette on the candelier.
At which point, Cat's mind had become even more deeply confused.
He shouldn't have believed that a near-death experience could change one's perspective so thoroughly. But then again, he wasn't in a position to judge; the variety of accidents and murders had given him only actual-death experiences, and only three remaining lives of his original nine.
Or perhaps, technically, he had four lives. He wasn't entirely certain whether the violin counted.
In any event, Cat did arrive at one firm conclusion amidst the perplexity: He would look after Tonino. As he had gone to great pains in making this decision, he found it tiresome of Tonino to never do anything that required heroic action.
Well, until that morning -- Tonino now required saving.
Tonino was tucked into the side of one of the shabby play-room sofas, smiling to himself, reading yet another of those tedious letters. Every few days the post would bring one of those garish red envelopes with a silly black leopard seal.
Cat knew he needed a miracle for his examination in Advanced Magic Theory that afternoon with Chrestomanci; yet, despised textbook before him, he found himself unable to stop studying Tonino instead. He was as baffled by Tonino as he was by his problem sets. Cat did not see why Tonino would waste so much of his time reading scrawls from mingy little Italian hedge witches.
"Angelica is of Casa Petrocchi, the rival spell-house of my family," Tonino had explained.
Cat expected that this Angelica Petrocchi was as ugly as her handwriting. Not that Cat had bothered to examine it closely, of course. Cat had no interest in Petrocchis at all.
Besides, they were all written in Italian.
"Something is the matter?"
Cat started badly, realising that those brown, habitually worried eyes were now fastened on him.
"Nothing at all," Cat blurted hastily. "I was just wondering what was funny," he lied. He pondered how to extricate the younger boy from his obvious peril.
"Oh, this," Tonino waved the letter, and in his lilting English explained, "Angelica says that Vittoria has had her kittens. One is black and long haired as Benvenuto, but the others are tabby as are all Petrocchi cats." He shrugged. "She says, 'Ha, so there'."
"Benvenuto," Cat repeated stupidly. Tonino had mentioned of him before. Cat had assumed that he'd meant a family servant or a tutor, not a, a--
"The boss cat of Casa Montana," Tonino said proudly. "As I have said, he looks after me."
"Oh." The Montanas were, quite possibly, as loopy as the Petrocchis, Cat concluded. "We've cats here as well, you know."
"Lady Millie did mention them," Tonino said, "but she has been too busy to introduce me."
Cat assumed that 'introductions' must be some secret ritual shared among potty cat fanciers. The subject of cats brought several interesting ideas to mind. He thought perhaps this was a good opportunity to give Tonino the Castle tour that Cat gave to people he liked. Rather than the tour he gave to people he resented quite fiercely. Tonino had already had that one.
"We'll go out this afternoon," he decreed. "After I'm finished with, er, and you've done with Michael up in the tower."
Tonino's pleased expression settled the matter.
"I say," Tonino said suddenly. "I had meant to ask, but had forgotten. Do you know of anything special about buns? Or, perhaps, bread?"
Cat peered at him. "With or without marmalade?"
"Ah. I wonder if that matters?" Tonino frowned in thought, then shrugged. He gestured toward Cat's textbook. "I have also wondered: That is boring for you?"
"Er, not as such," Cat said, flushing. "I just don't like them."
"No? Could perhaps I see as well?" he asked wistfully.
"Ughn, if you want," Cat said, relieved to shove it all away, even for a moment.
Tonino rose, walked over, and leaned over the textbook. A few moments later, he caught his breath and pointed to the page. "This problem is so interesting, is it not?" he said, pleased.
"Interesting?" Cat gaped at him. Ghastly, mortifying, perplexing, and frustrating, all sprang to mind, but 'interesting' never.
"Ah," Tonino said. "I only had meant how it is actually applied, you see." He smiled. "For I have seen several of these used in the past in duels. Would you like to hear of them?"
"Duels?" Cat blinked at him, intrigued. He shrugged. "Why not?" He knew his tutorial doom was already ensured, but the distraction served another goal.
Tonino put his letter away.
Chapter 3: Twins may be vexing
Janet Chant, who had been more ill than anyone else in the outbreak of measles in Chrestomanci Castle, had only that morning been allowed the company of the two similarly convalescing Chant cousins. Roger was now crouched on the floor by her bed arranging his soldiers for their upcoming siege of the pillow fort, the provisions of which were the bag of sweets Julia had brought for Janet. His twin Julia was tucked up comfortably at the foot of Janet's bed knitting a mysterious fluffy object, helping herself to the bag of sweets Roger had brought for Janet, reading a book of cooking spells, playing snap with Janet, and generally ignoring her twin's preparations to attack her fort.
Janet had, of course, wanted to know how the other children had been getting on while she'd been confined to her own room. But the answers to her questions had taken a peculiar turn. She had a nagging sense that events had moved in mysterious directions.
"Well, I must admit," Julia said, never pausing in her knitting, "that they seem much closer."
"Of late," Roger added. The twins exchanged a placid look, and Roger returned to meditating over his men, very like a small fair-haired Buddha.
"Inseparable," Julia agreed.
"Oh, indeed," Roger added. "Like unto, er, tree and vine."
"After a fashion." Julia was tottering precariously on the verge of a smirk.
"Imprisonment, escape from the jaws of death, all rather, er, bonding."
"So like a novel. Quite, er, gripping."
At which point, Julia tumbled off the edge into a snort. Roger merely shook his head.
"But I should think that's good," Janet insisted, annoyed. She'd been worried at how Cat had seemed to take such an immediate dislike to Tonino Montana. And clearly Tonino had been miserable as well. If the situation had indeed changed, that was only for the best. The twins' clear amusement at the idea seemed odd.
"It is good," Roger nodded. "Perhaps he will pay more attention. Daddy did say that if Cat were to get himself killed again, he'd stop his pocket money for a month. I, for one, do not look forward to Cat trailing pathetically at my heels making sad eyes."
"Because you inevitably give in," Julia said. "You and Janet both lack a firmness of character."
"I suppose I do," Roger said agreeably. "But for Janet's part, she's merely being an ideal sister."
"It's been so lovely to see that," Julia said. "Honestly, you've no idea." Both twins looked up to beam at Janet in genuine happiness.
She blushed. She knew they'd just as genuinely despised Gwendolen, Cat's actual sister, who'd imperiously yanked Janet into this parallel world to act as her Dear Replacement. So, although Cat wasn't, in the strictest and most technical sense, her little brother, Janet keenly felt the responsibility to compensate for what had gone before.
But, flattered as she was, Janet recognised a ploy. She refused to be dissuaded. "You are changing the subject. Cat and Tonino weren't getting on well at all before I got sick."
"Well, Cat wasn't. But yes, that's also a great relief to all concerned," Julia said with a vague wave. She set aside her knitting and picked up her handkerchief, making a loose knot in one corner. To Roger she said, "Are you ready yet?"
"In a few moments."
"You know, it won't matter a bit how much you prepare," Julia said.
"This time will be different," Roger vowed with a frown of concentration. "I've a cunning plan."
Julia did not appear worried. She lazily flicked a page of her book and popped another sweet into her mouth. "So very kind of Euphemia to provide," she murmured stickily. "Were it not for the wretchedness, I could enjoy being violently ill more often." She picked her knitting up again.
Janet sighed. These uninformative conversations served as reminders that their father was Chrestomanci. They came honestly by their genteel, well-bred habit of sliding away from unpleasantness. Janet, dead-common government ward that she was, chose direct, frontal assaults.
"I do realise that there's something you're not telling me. What is it?" she demanded.
"Nothing to tell," Roger assured her.
"At all," Julia added. "Never fear."
Janet harumphed and scowled at her cards.
Julia gave her a considering look. "Janet, you've read all of Mummy's collection of 'Millie' books, haven't you?"
"What? Oh. Yes." Janet mentally stumbled over this swing of topic. She had, in fact, read the entire series numerous times. She secretly pined for committees and midnight feasts. Were it not for Cat, she might have asked to be sent to a public school herself, rather than being tutored alongside the twins.
"So you've read that one?" Julia pointed a knitting needle at the shelf, and a single volume smoothly slid outward several inches.
Janet peered at the spine. "Millie in the Lower Form? Er, yes?"
"Then you recall the Head Girl that year, Angela Hayawatha-Brazil."
"Oh, of course," Janet said, warming immediately to the recollection. "Brilliant at maths, and good at games, with beautiful long, black braids." Janet sighed appreciatively. "Angela took Millie over and protected her when the upper form bullies were being hateful to her, and Millie utterly lost her heart to her. Angela's family returned to Atlantis at the end, Millie was so horribly crushed, but Angela had told her that one day they'd--"
"Enough, enough!" Roger interrupted, his chubby face gone pale. "I dare say Tonino may enjoy reading those, but I prefer to remain blithely ignorant. It is sufficient unto the day that you recall the basic plot."
"He's most immensely squeamish. One must forebear," Julia said sadly. She jerked a length of yarn from her basket. "De toute façon, I believe you have grasped the pertinent theme."
Janet blinked at them both. "The pertinent theme?"
"Why yes. One of them, at any rate." Julia exchanged another secretive look with her twin. "You may ponder it at your leisure. Snap."
"What?" Janet stared at the cards, for a moment confused. "Oh bother!"
Chapter 4: Cats also seldom listen
"Someone must look out for him, you know," Cat said sulkily. "And why wouldn't he be perfectly pleased to do whatever I like?"
Not a week can go by around here, Janet thought. Last week, Humble Cat had been pleading with her to 'please, please do something about that Tonino.' This week, Imperious Cat seemed to be monopolising every moment of the other boy's life, from what she could discern. Cryptic literary allusions now made more sense.
Janet found Cat's sudden change of heart troubling. What she knew of Cat's childhood in Wolvercote convinced her that he'd not grown up with the best of role models. Tonino seemed an agreeable boy, but entirely too meek and obliging. He'd no doubt be flattened under Cat's peremptory version of care. She was reminded a great deal of an absent someone she'd heard so heard much of but never met.
"Why can't he look out for himself?" she asked.
"You weren't there, so you wouldn't know how it was," Cat said with a broad wave to encompass several day's worth of imprisonment. "He doesn't do magic like me. He doesn't even have strong magic."
"No one does magic like you, Cat. You're an enchanter," Janet pointed out, exasperated. But she knew from listening to dinner table discussions that Tonino's natural talent was unique in this world: amplifying and reinforcing the magic of others around him. She had no idea what that might entail, but wondered if it ought to be dismissed as easily as Cat seemed to believe.
"Who's a pig-headed porcupine then. Never mind," she muttered, tossing herself back on the pillows and feeling drained. Her first morning of receiving guests had started out feeling so grand, and she'd been anxious to see Cat again and hear more about his and Tonino's escape. How irritating that it had so quickly descended into an exhausting squabble.
Cat still looked mutinous, but now also faintly ashamed. "Are you feeling all right?" he asked.
"Why how kind of you to inquire," she said pointedly, as it was the first time he had. She wished, not for the first time that week, that her parents had thought to provide for a measles injection in her own world.
"Er, sorry," Cat said, suddenly contrite.
"No, I'm fine, really," Janet relented. "Just tired, is all. Nothing to be sorry for."
"No, there is." He dug his toe into the rug. "I meant, for the row before you were sick. And, er," then it tumbled out in a rush, "well I think perhaps I didn't want you to get sick because you know and maybe that was what made you worse."
"What was that?" She sorted through it all. "Oh."
He continued to glare at the rug, for its sins. "I might have."
"You don't know?"
"Well, no. Not really." His expression shaded into that peculiar combination of sullen and miserable that was Familiar Cat.
Janet sighed. "Don't be an ass," she said. "Millie said that magic has no affect on measles."
But now she would wonder about this as well. Cat was still proving to be painfully slow at learning the theory that might help him sort out the confusion. His inability to understand or control what he could do was a problem, only made worse when he intended to do something. And now Cat intended to look out for Tonino. She wondered if the Castle would survive.
"This reminds me. You had an examination today, I hear," she said.
Cat started. "What?"
"A test. Of your schoolwork." She added smugly, "That labour of which, at present, I am free."
"Well, yes," Cat glowered, kicking his toe into her abused rug.
"So how did you do?" she demanded.
"Fine," Cat scowled.
"You never passed?" she said, and winced at her own tone of incredulity. This was not 'ideal sister.' She needed more practice.
"'Course I did," he said, irate. "I got them all. Why is everyone so surprised? I'm not completely stupid you know."
"Just a little stupid."
Cat glared at her. "You've got your night-dress on front to back."
"Witness the triumph of common sense over nonsense," she said grandly, flipping the lacings at him. "But you must admit that this suddenly sterling mark is worthy of note?"
"Maybe," he muttered. "Your hair's a mess as well."
"All the better to frighten you into subservience. Some of us can do that perfectly well without magic, you know."
"It was better when you were sick, you know. More peaceful!"
"How unfortunate for you that I'm getting well."
"Not yet, but soon," she promised darkly. "I hope that you're properly afraid." Chrestomanci had said she'd be given Gwendolen's magic, still stored in the Castle safe, as soon as she'd passed her elementary theory levels. Even with that, she was aware that she'd only have an ounce in comparison with the sheer tons of magical firepower that Cat could wield with a flick of a left finger.
Which he knew as well as she did. Which was why he was now cowering in Proper Fear.
She leaned forward and cuffed him. "Stop that. Why not go out on the grounds today? You could show Tonino the tree-house in the horse chestnut."
Cat went red and avoided her eye. "No, we're going to do other things."
"Other things. We can all go to the tree-house when you, and Roger and Julia, can go out again."
"It may tumble from the tree under our combined weight," she mused. She didn't press the issue. She suspected where Cat intended to go -- because he was Cat, and Cat was nothing if not stubborn.
Well, invalid girls who were tired and rash-ridden and confined to their rooms couldn't be expected to tell tales. She could look forward to more company after the two of them were grounded to the children's wing for the rest of their natural lives.
Janet plumped up her pillow and settled in comfortably. Tonino seemed a gentle breeze after a bracing monsoon of Cat. She entertained herself for a brief instant with offers of international winds-trade.
"He is to introduce me to the stable cats this afternoon, after his lesson with Chresto-, er, Sir Christopher," Tonino was saying happily.
"Oh really?" Janet hadn't expected that at all. "Cat's not that fond of them that I'm aware of."
"He is not?" Tonino's face fell. "But I was certain he said that you had a cat."
"Well, yes, I do," Janet said, frowning. This discussion needed to be gently steered elsewhere. "So you're fond of cats, then."
"But of course," Tonino said absently. "Benvenuto would not be pleased if I did not pay my proper respects. The Castle cats here are special."
"Special in what way?" Janet asked guardedly.
"My mother has told me that they are descended from Lady Millie's boss cat Throgmorten, who was an Asheth Temple cat. The Temple cats are renowned for their magical properties," he explained.
"Oh, really." Janet was fascinated. "No one's ever told me that. Where is the Asheth temple?"
"The Temple of Asheth is in a parallel world in our own series," Tonino explained. "The parallel worlds are--"
"Oh, I do know about those," Janet said. "Is that why they've extra toes then? More and more fun facts I've yet to learn," she said ruefully. Then she laughed. "I think your mother must have spent more time in this Castle as a girl than I have."
"But is this not your home?" Tonino said.
"Well, yes, it is now," Janet said. "A rather strange and Edwardian home, but I grow accustomed to its quirks."
When Tonino looked perplexed, she said, "I thought you knew. Cat wasn't always my brother. I'm from one of those other worlds in this series myself."
At his blank expression, she could see that no one had explained. Once she was well enough to attend services with the Family, Tonino would no doubt wonder why the vicar called her "Gwendolen" and shook his head at her so mournfully.
"A rather different world," she admitted. "A rather long story for another day." She wiggled two fingers over her head, "But look, no antenna! I'm perfectly safe."
To her horror, Tonino became sad and thoughtful and considerate. "But, but that means you must be -- are you alone here?"
"No, no, it's not like that," Janet said hastily. She'd forgotten how sensitive Tonino was. "I'd just meant that I can understand too well how you'd be homesick at times. But truly, I'm happy enough here, measles aside. And Cat needs someone to keep him in line, you know."
At that, like Cat before him, Tonino began to study the carpet intently.
"I know, I know. Cat's been making life a trial," she said.
"Oh, but no," Tonino said, flushing. "He, he's been awfully decent."
Janet studied him narrowly. That did not sound like this morning's Cat at all. Perhaps it meant something different in Italian. "Are you certain you didn't mean 'awfully despotic'?"
"Right." She waved a casual hand. "Cat can be clingy and moody as the murk over the moors at times. If you've discovered a means of finessing him, I salute you."
"He's not like that at all," Tonino protested mildly.
"Then only you think so," Janet assured him.
Tonino shifted uncomfortably and examined his hands. Then he suddenly said, "If you do not mind, may I ask? Do you know of anything special about buns or bread?"
"Sorry?" Janet blinked. "Oh, I see, I've kept you. Is it already tea-time?"
"No, no, it is not." He assured her, smiling. "I was thinking of something said to me at home that I do not understand yet."
"I see," she said, not really seeing at all. "Nothing leaps to mind. But speaking of home," she said kindly. "Your Benvenuto sounds rather domineering himself."
"It is only because he knows so many things," Tonino said. "For instance, Benvenuto tells me that cats are fond of the English, so I will like them as well. As always he is correct." He beamed.
It was Janet's turn to blush. Eccentricities aside, Tonino could be oddly charming.
In that moment, Janet had a curious impulse. It was, she thought, probably a terrible idea. In fact, when questioned about it later, she did honestly wonder where the notion had come from.
But as easily as that she came to a decision.
"You also might be interested in meeting the, er, boss cat of Chrestomanci Castle," she told him.
Chapter 5: Disobedience can be amusing
"But I do not understand why--" Tonino began, panting a little in Cat's wake as he was towed along by his sleeve.
"Because," Cat cut him off, "we've very little left of the afternoon, and we've somewhere else to go."
"Do hurry," Cat said urgently. Then he glanced behind them, and bit his lip: The gardeners were even closer than he'd thought. "Down!" When Tonino didn't immediately follow the suggestion, Cat helpfully shoved him into the nearest bush among the ruins, then dived into it himself.
Tonino flailed a bit in the leaves. He brushed his fair hair from his eyes, and stared at Cat, eyes round in surprise.
Cat held a finger to his lips and hissed. "Don't move."
On discovering Tonino's fondness for felines, Cat had had no compunctions about using them to lure him out into the gardens. He'd taken Tonino to the stables and had let him frolic a bit. That, in Cat's opinion, had been enough to comply to the letter of his promise.
Cats were fine -- in moderation. Tonino had been paying far too much attention to them. In fact, he'd been talking to the cats. He'd acted as though he were chairing a conclave. He'd been wallowing in cats.
Perhaps it might be a psychological thingummy. Cat decided that Tonino needed to be rescued from it.
Besides, Cat had been bored. He already had other plans for their afternoon. From their vantage point in the bush, they could see the gardener's feet clearly enough.
"Could have sworn I saw someone over here," a deep, masculine voice remarked, somewhere above the muddy boots planted several inches before their noses.
"Dreamin' on the job, Nate?" came the shouted reply. "Or just did you just drink your lunch at the pub?"
Gardener Nate's response to that was both lengthy and sufficiently detailed to leave both boys delighted. Nor would it go to waste, as Cat could see Tonino mouthing several of the phrases to himself, with a look of deep fascination.
After the path was free again, Cat allowed himself to sag in relief. "Too close," he muttered, "this isn't as easy to do in the middle of the week."
"What are we doing?" Tonino asked plaintively.
"Today," Cat told him, "we're going to Chrestomanci's garden."
"Er," Tonino said, "perhaps I did not understand. Isn't it forbidden?"
"Yes," Cat agreed.
"And does not 'forbidden' mean, ah ... forbidden?"
"'Course," Cat stated with a grand wave of his hand. "That's why we're going."
Cat waited as Tonino thought about that.
"I see," Tonino said at last. "It is a secret mission."
"Precisely," Cat said. He hadn't himself considered it in quite that light, but it served well enough. Cat was always surprised how Tonino so easily fell in with his wishes.
Millie had declared Tonino a 'blessedly well-behaved boy.' In fact, Miss Bessemer and Michael Saunders and Euphemia and Mary and Nancy-the-cook and even the old lady in mittens all had said the same thing.
It had not escaped Cat's notice that the twins had begun to exchange Significant Looks with each iteration of the theme.
And thus, as part of his own programme of dedicated good, Cat believed it his duty to introduce Tonino to a less well-behaved life before the twins were issued their clean bills of health. Sneaking into the garden would be an excellent start. He'd always wanted to see it again himself, this time without an impatient baby dragon. Also, Cat wanted snow.
Janet had proven difficult to convince, but Tonino was quite tractable really.
"Let's go." Cat signalled him. "The stairs begin just at the end of the path. Just stay with me, and you'll be fine," Cat told him.
"Snow!" Cat crowed. "I knew it!"
"Snow," Tonino repeated wonderingly, squinting against the blinding sun on white. "In the middle of summer."
"I never got the chance to walk this far in the garden," Cat said. "But I always thought this must be beyond autumn."
Cat thought Tonino had taken marvellously to the entire idea of a garden that toured all four seasons; in fact, Cat hadn't had to explain it at all. Tonino had guessed the idea even faster than Janet had, and had had a great deal more enthusiasm for exploring farther into the cooler parts.
Cat celebrated their discovery by dumping an armful of snow over Tonino's head while he was mooning over his steaming breath and the frosty landscape. A small scale war followed in short order.
Later, damp and panting, Cat gloated. "This is so perfect. He'll never see it coming."
"He?" Tonino asked, dusting off his hair.
"Roger," Cat said, with dour emphasis. "D'you remember two weeks ago, he ate the last crumpets at tea, when neither of us had gotten more than one apiece?"
Tonino nodded. "Janet and Julia also had two."
"They're girls," Cat said with a dismissive wave. "I did vow to pay Roger back for that, but then he got sick before I could think of something to do."
"They'll be allowed out tomorrow," Tonino mused.
"Yes, and he probably expects I've forgotten, which is why this is even better," Cat explained. "Snowballs, next he sets foot outdoors."
"Ah," Tonino breathed. "An unsuspected revenge."
"Well, they do say it's best served cold," Cat said, happily weighing frosty vengeance in hand. "And, in the midst of summer, he couldn't possibly retaliate in kind."
"But will they not melt before then?"
"No," Cat said simply. "I'll tell them that they don't melt, so they won't."
"Like on the stairs," Cat reminded him. No one had noticed them climbing it. But then Cat realised that Tonino might not have heard him telling the estate at large not to look their direction, for he'd been singing to himself the entire time. Cat had assumed it was to give himself courage; Tonino had said he wasn't afraid of heights, but Cat thought the dilapidated, overgrown stone and the sheer drop off the side would be enough to give anyone pause.
"But what shall we carry them in?" Tonino was wondering aloud.
"Carry?" Cat repeated stupidly. "Oh. Er. I hadn't thought of that." He frowned, considering the matter. He didn't think they could manage the stairs again with arms loaded with snowballs. His jacket only had two small pockets. He sighed, kicking the snow. "I don't know," he admitted at last.
Che peccato, Tonino murmured. A few moments later he shrugged, slipped out of his jacket, and held it out to Cat. "Could you not tie them together in this?" he said diffidently. "Like a,a. . ." He made a motion over his shoulder.
"Oh." Cat stared. "Oh! Of course, a sling! But I can use mine for that," he insisted. "You needn't--"
"It is fine," Tonino insisted stoutly. "Because you need to make them. But, I think, I will need to go where it is warmer."
He was already shivering, Cat saw. He felt pangs of guilt. "Do you mind awfully?"
"Not at all. This is a good cause, is it not?" Tonino said, grinning. "I can wait for you in summer."
Cat could find no argument with that. "It shouldn't take long," he promised.
Chapter 6: Bad behaviour is its own reward
"So all roads do lead to Rome," Tonino grumbled to himself. For no matter which path he had tried, he always came out in the same place. By the fourth time he had walked into this clearing, with its stone archway and slab table, Tonino had grown quite frustrated.
He'd meant to wait for Cat by the wall, but, in that brief amount of time, he'd become hugely lost. Tonino recognised that magic was responsible, magic that felt oppressively, uncomfortably strong here. He would have preferred to leave this clearing as soon as possible -- if only he could figure out how.
Perhaps it was similar to the enchantment hiding the base of those terrifyingly steep, overgrown stairs they'd had to ascend to enter this garden. Cat's solution had been to shuffle toward them backwards so that they couldn't be tempted to peek; for looking directly at the stairs, he'd explained, always shifted them elsewhere. As they'd fallen right over the bottom step, it had proven a successful, if slightly painful, solution.
Tonino decided it was worth a try. He screwed his eyes shut, extended his arms out before him, and cautiously walked into the trees. After a few minutes of feeling his way from trunk to trunk, he opened his eyes: He was standing before the stone arch once again. Tonino sighed moodily, and poked at finger at the damp moss on the stonework. So that hadn't been the answer either.
A bored voice behind him suggested that he try widdershins. Obviously.
Tonino whirled about. "What?"
Wandering about with one's eyes shut only succeeded in making one look ridiculous, the large, stripy cat told him. Of course, a cat could go anywhere he liked, but anyone who was not a cat needed to leave widdershins.
The cat yawned, rose stiffly to his feet from the corner of the stone-slab table where he'd clearly been napping, and began a complex series of stretches. Then he began a few preliminary washes with his left paw.
"Oh." Tonino blushed. Now that the cat had explained it, it did seem obvious. He apologised hastily: "I'm sorry that I did not notice you before."
The cat informed him that he hadn't wished to be noticed. He paused in his ablutions long enough to point out, with some asperity, that the garden was off-limits to visitors; so he rather wondered at seeing someone tumbling into the clearing repeatedly.
"Er, well, no," Tonino stammered, "we aren't supposed to be here, but--"
We? the cat interrupted.
"I am here with Ca--, er, Eric Chant," Tonino admitted.
The cat flicked his tail. That one, he said simply. Well, he supposed it came as no surprise then.
Tonino had a sudden inspiration. Janet had told him that Fiddle slept on her bed most nights, and had suggested Tonino stop in after dinner. Tonino wouldn't have expected to find Fiddle in this garden, but, as he had pointed out, a cat could go wherever he liked.
"Pardon me," he asked him eagerly, "but you are Fiddle, are you not?"
A moment of half-lidded suspicion, and the cat turned smoothly to jump from the table.
"Oh, please wait," Tonino said desperately, wondering what he'd said wrong. "Benvenuto will find it unforgivable if I have offended the boss cat of the Castle."
The what? The cat paused, and looked back. Who is Benvenuto? he added.
"Benvenuto is the boss cat of my home, Casa Montana. It is the finest spell-house in Italy," Tonino told him. "Are you not Fiddle? Janet did tell me that Fiddle was the boss cat of the Castle here."
At the mention of Janet's name, the cat seemed a trifle mollified. He acknowledged that he was indeed Fiddle, and also said warmly that Janet was an excellent judge of character.
Tonino breathed a sigh of relief as Fiddle settled back onto the table.
Fiddle then suggested to Tonino that perhaps explanations were in order. And proper introductions.
Tonino blushed at this reminder of his manners. "Er, I am Antonino Montana the younger, of the Montana spell-house in Caprona," he said and approached the stone table. He held out a finger. "Everyone calls me Tonino," he added.
After a few moments' deliberation, Fiddle rose and sidled over to tentatively sniff it.
The pop of static startled them both.
Tonino nursed his shocked finger, and wondered why that sensation had felt strangely familiar.
Manners on the continent leave a great deal to be desired, Fiddle stated coldly from the far end of the table where he had landed. His tail lashed angrily.
"But did you not do that?" Tonino protested.
No, Fiddle informed him stiffly, he had not.
"I do not understand," Tonino said. "Are you not an enchanter?"
The cat now studied him with a thoughtful expression. Why, he asked, would Tonino think that?
"Er, your eyes, Tonino admitted humbly, "I could not help but notice." He did wonder why Janet hadn't mentioned it. Tonino hadn't even known before now that a cat could be an enchanter. But then he hadn't known that a rat could be a sorceress either, which was why he believed that, in the interests of self-preservation, he should accept such intuitions at face value.
Fiddle told him firmly that he was quite mistaken, and his expression now seemed speculative. He strolled back to the side of the stone table where Tonino stood. Fiddle said he was certain the other one would come looking for Tonino eventually; however, in the meantime, he might tell Fiddle more about why he was staying at the Castle.
Fiddle also told him that just behind his right ear would be a good place to begin.
Cat rubbed his nose, puzzled. As he'd been neatly stacking his snowballs, he'd felt an odd tingle. It had resembled nothing so much as someone flicking the tip of his nose with a finger.
Perhaps, he thought warily, it could be incipient frostbite. He'd read of it in books; he was still trying to remember how long it was supposed to take before one's nose turned vivid colours and fell off when something else, far more peculiar, occurred.
Someone began to scratch his back. Or rather, it felt as though someone were, only in the most gratifying sort of way imaginable, in all the hardest to reach places where one's back always seemed to itch the most.
Cat trembled. Nothing like this had happened the last time he'd been in the garden. He wondered if perhaps losing one's mind was a symptom of frostbite as well.
But really, he found it an enjoyable hallucination for all that. He felt rather warmer now.
As Tonino scratched just above Fiddle's tail, the cat arched his back and the rasping deepened. To Tonino, the sound was remarkably like the lowest notes being sawed upon a violin. He supposed that must be why he was called Fiddle. Or perhaps it was the smoothness of his fur, satiny to the touch, like the finest varnish. "You know," he mused, "my family would love you very much, I think. They are all musical."
Fiddle sneezed. Farther to the right would not be amiss, he said, kneading at the stone.
"So, you see, at first I was so very homesick," Tonino continued, "but Cat made that much better."
Fiddle commented drily that Tonino must enjoy being dragged into trouble then.
Tonino thought about that. "Ah. No. I meant that, that I am very much liking to be with him."
Fiddle said that he himself preferred Janet's company. He rolled onto his back.
Tonino palmed Fiddle's belly with wide strokes. "Oh yes, she is very nice," he agreed. But, on reflection, Tonino decided that he should not attempt to explain the difference. Instead, he changed the subject, "Before I left home, someone said something to me that has confused me. If I might ask you?"
Fiddle stretched contentedly, and told him to feel free.
"Ah, thank you," Tonino said happily. "I told you of the Casa Petrocchi? One of that family is Angelica, and she--"
But Tonino never got the chance to finish the explanation, for just then he pressed a ticklish place low on Fiddle's stomach. In reaction, the cat sank the claws of his left paw into Tonino's hand.
Whereupon, Tonino said, "Ooph."
And Fiddle said, Urgh.
And Cat said, "Wh-aaah!"
And the world around them lurched.
Chapter 7: Consequences can be unpleasant
"I say. What was it that representative at the Asian divination conference told you last winter? That he'd read an unusual karmic concatenation in your future?" Michael asked. He examined a scone, and brushed off a few chips of plaster.
"So he did," Chrestomanci said, fixing his assistant with an unusual, direct glare. "I'd forgotten."
Michael simply threw back his head and gave a bark of laughter.
Returning to contemplation of his tea, Chrestomanci said, "And thus I speak from experience when I say that Eric and Tonino will find the next month or so an educational experience. Reassembling and repairing the kitchen crockery alone should provide them with, I'd estimate, four days' worth of amusement."
"Longer," Miss Bessemer said, "if we include the windows and porcelain in other rooms."
Cat and Tonino shrank. They'd been attempting, with no success, to blend into the large chairs where they'd been dropped across the table from the assemblage.
"The structural damages need to be attended to first," Bernard insisted.
"The drains should be first," the old lady in mittens snapped.
"Er, quite," Chrestomanci said, looking bemused.
"I'm surprised that telephone in the hall hasn't begun ringing off the hook by now," Millie sighed, polishing the cracks from another teacup.
"It can't," Miss Bessemer told her, "the line was snapped in two out on the lane."
"Oh dear," Millie said, pleased. "I'm sorry to hear it."
"Not that it will help," Chrestomanci said, in his mildest tone. "Fleet Street has had a dull summer. They are always appreciative of Cat's efforts on their behalf."
"Growing accustomed to adverse publicity," Michael said, dribbling crumbs. "Have a notion it will be a characteristic of Cat's career."
"We shall have to apply to Parliament for an increased budget for the quarter," Bernard was muttering to himself. "I've made a few preliminary notes about the surveyor's fees and structural integrity inspections. The hedging and fencing demands have already begun to come in from the local farms. . ."
For, that afternoon, the land for a radius of approximately a mile around the garden had, unaccountably, rotated exactly one inch widdershins. And, of course, Chrestomanci Castle and the estate upon which it stood had shifted along with it. A mere inch made a vast difference in many, many things, Cat was learning.
"I don't suppose," Michael said, "there's any hope of nudging this pile back into true?"
"No, there doesn't seem to be," Chestomanci said cooly. With that, he began to absently study the air about a foot over Cat and Tonino's heads, as both boys cringed in terror. "Which brings us to back to the question," he said distantly, "of what, exactly, were they doing in the garden?"
Cat swallowed, and glanced at Tonino, who was rubbing several scratches on his hand with a stricken expression. Not that Tonino had anything to feel guilty about; Cat knew that somehow, as usual, he'd been to blame. No one else had had any doubts in that regard either: Michael had plucked him bodily from the snowbank to subject him to a bellowing lecture and a good shaking, just before Chrestomanci had arrived dragging a dazed-looking Tonino by the collar.
Cat stretched the numb fingers on his left hand nervously, they'd still been tightly buried a frozen ball of snow when Michael had dropped him into this chair.
But in all honesty Cat had no idea what had happened. One moment he'd been neatly stacking his ammunition, the next he'd felt that peculiar, if nice, sensation along his back. He coloured again, recalling it. He'd been too caught up in enjoying it to question why it might be occurring.
But then, it had gradually changed, as though the hands were gripping and stroking, like a deft sort of massage. He shivered; really, he hadn't found that entirely unpleasant either. In fact, it'd felt rather swimmy and blissful.
Until it the sensation had abruptly moved forward. That had been a great deal less relaxing, yet somehow far more exciting. Cat grew warm again at the memory. He'd felt almost as though he might go up like a torch, as he'd done once before. Only it hadn't been as agonising as he recalled immolation could be.
Or rather, not as agonising in quite the same way.
In the interests of avoiding a second round of combustion and thus preserving his pocket money for the next month, he'd cast himself into the nearest snowbank. Oddly, it hadn't helped a great deal in the end, yet at least it had given him an excuse for looking flushed, damp, and crumpled which he might not have had otherwise.
Somehow he had missed the earth-moving part, although the evidence was all around him in tilted portraits, cracked plaster, and chipped china.
Cat wondered if perhaps he'd been hit by a bolt of lightning this time, but he decided against suggesting it. For although he did recall an instant of feeling utterly stunned and even a trifle deaf, he did seem suspiciously uncharred. And if he'd lost a life, surely someone might have mentioned it by now.
"Well, Cat?" Chrestomanci's tone was dry as the dust in Master Spiderman's basement.
Cat choked. And trembled. And opted for the safest explanation.
"Demon possession," he said.
Michael spat out his tea.
Chapter 8: Music soothes the domestick cat
"No one ever believes me," Cat said mournfully. "I shall miss hot baths."
Rather than ask why Cat intended to give up bathing, Tonino addressed his complaint. "It was not a bad idea," he said judiciously, "but I believe that a devil needs longer to take over one's life properly."
"Oh. Wish I'd known that." Cat eyed the table before them. "D'you want platters or tureens next?"
"Platters," Tonino decided. He scooped the pile of shards across the table. "Still, I am happy that we went. It was very pleasant, was it not?"
Cat went red, and began to mutter desperately to his bits of soup tureen, trying to persuade it that, really truly, it did wish to reassemble.
Unfortunately, no one seemed to find Cat terribly persuasive that day. His second explanation had proved only marginally more successful.
"Actually we were, er, plucking flowers," Cat had said. "For Janet and the twins. For, er, get-well purposes."
"Oh indeed," Chrestomanci had said stonily. "Do share with us the rationale for plucking those particular flowers, in that particular garden."
Tonino, who for his own reasons had been feeling a bit stunned just then, had tried the best he could to help. "But the more effort to obtain them, the more they would mean," he'd said.
Although Lady Millie and the other the women had found the idea endearing, it had prompted the discussion among the men of whether meting out mutual punishment would only be encouraging Tonino's further descent into some sort of Cat-inspired delinquency.
Tonino shrugged. Either way, he had suspected they would both end up in the kitchen, and he'd been right. It was not nearly as chaotic and noisy as Aunt Gina's, so Tonino didn't mind overmuch. As Tonino pieced his first jigsaw of platter together, he glanced at Cat's current project, which seemed artistic to him but not very tureen-like. "I can hold this in place," he offered, reaching over.
As his hand brushed Cat's hand, both froze at the slight shock, like static.
"I, er, I've got it," Cat said, jerking away. "Thanks."
Tonino blinked, startled. He now realised why that sensation had felt so familiar to him in the garden. 'Felix' had often dragged 'Tony' about by the hand, in the cellar and later over the roofs, when they'd both had their memories taken away. Tonino rubbed his fingers together thoughtfully, finding the tingle quite agreeable.
Well, hadn't Old Niccolo warned him that nine-lived enchanters did not work in normal ways?
Cat inadvertently provided him with answers, not only to Tonino's most recent puzzle but to his outstanding one as well.
For Tonino had been about to travel to England, and, in English, flour was used for baking, a flower was plucked from a garden. In the end, it had been as simple as that. Tonino smiled to himself, satisfied.
"You should not concern yourself overmuch," Tonino said to Cat. "They will find this is good preparation for next year, I think."
Cat looked at him inquiringly. "What's next year?"
"You did not know?" Tonino smiled. "Next year Angelica is invited to visit you."
Cat's thunderous expression did not faze Tonino at all. As Cat continued to grump at his recalcitrant soup tureen, Tonino translated the other boy's magic into a pleasant canzone for his platters, who clicked their pieces together rapidly, flawlessly for him in appreciation.
In just the same way, Tonino knew that Cat and Angelica would come to like each other very much indeed, for they both had such powerful magic. He had yet to begin arranging their notes, but, in the end, he would ensure they liked each other as much as he did.
For even as Tonino had been studied by the inhabitants of the Castle during his visit, he had been studying them in turn. He found the English admirably discreet. He saw no reason why a similar arrangement could not work for them as well when they were grown.
For now, they were all three, as Benvenuto had pointed out, still young. Tonino could take his time over persuading them to see things in the proper way, and he was confident that everyone would enjoy the results.
For Benvenuto believed Tonino had a talent for working out such puzzles. Benvenuto was never wrong.