Cat Chant had always been vaguely irritated by the way everybody referred to all the people who dined together at Chrestomanci Castle as The Family. Family, in Cat's opinion, meant people who belonged together and looked after each other. Chrestomanci and Millie and Julia and Roger were a family, and anybody could see it. But government-appointed officials weren't family, no matter how friendly they all were with each other.
Cat didn't think about it often, but he had a feeling that he hadn't really had a family in a long time. He remembered being small, on his mother's lap, tired and worn out after the cramps Gwendolen gave him. His mother and father had been talking in low, worried voices over his head, their eyes on Gwendolen who was in glowing, outraged disgrace on the other side of the room, her back straight as she stood facing the corner. Cat had been too tired to make sense of what they were worried about, but he'd felt his mother's slow, warm hand rubbing circles into his back.
That had been the last time, maybe.
There had been Gwendolen, after his parents died. Gwendolen had been family, Cat had thought. Gwendolen let him cling, and she was a constant when other things changed. Gwendolen said things like, "Oh, you would need looking after, Cat; must you be such a baby?", but she looked after him anyway. In a Gwendolen sort of way.
When they had first been orphaned, and the town councillors began coming around, paternal and concerned and towering in expensive waistcoats, Gwendolen had looked at Cat going shrinkingly small and large-eyed and had promptly directed all the councillors' attention to herself. Her brave smile and golden hair and the way she shielded her brother had made a touching picture. Cat had thought that, in a distant sort of way.
"Don't worry," Gwendolen had said once they were gone, sitting up close against Cat. She had hugged her knees, sounding satisfied. "I'll make sure they look after us. They think I'm wonderfully beautiful and talented, so you needn't do anything at all."
Cat had nodded his head against her shoulder.
Only, of course, in the end Gwendolen hadn't taken care of him at all. Cat didn't like to think about it, still. Mostly he tried not to think about Gwendolen at all.
Sometimes Janet being around made it difficult to Not Think About Gwendolen. Most of the time it didn't, because even though she was Gwendolen's replacement, she was really so very different. Cat had tried, once, to work out how Gwendolen could have been brought up in a way that made her like Janet rather than like herself. He didn't think it had only been that Gwendolen was a witch. Witchcraft didn't make that much difference to your character. Cat hadn't even noticed that the servants here were witches.
Maybe it had been Cat himself. Maybe if you grew up with an enchanter for a younger brother, and you were a rather strong-minded person, you needed to make yourself even more strong-minded and extraordinary so that you didn't get eclipsed.
Cat liked thinking that Gwendolen had been his fault even less than he liked thinking that Gwendolen had just not cared about him very much, so he stopped.
Janet was entirely different, anyway. She didn't even look very much like Gwendolen. That was partly because of the way she dressed and the way she never combed her hair very carefully, but mostly because of the downright way she held herself, as though people were just waiting for her to give herself airs or be silly in some way and she was not going to give them the satisfaction. Also, she made jokes about things - even at her own expense. That had taken Cat the longest to get used to. Gwendolen took herself so very seriously that she had convinced Cat to do so too.
But Janet wasn't family. When she'd first come she'd needed looking after a lot, because she didn't know anything. She didn't really need that anymore, but the two of them had got into a habit, and she never tried to look after Cat at all, really.
Cat liked Janet a lot, and he still felt a little responsible for her, but she wasn't his sister.
Janet had been left behind at the castle today, along with Roger and Julia, and Millie and the rest of The Family too. Chrestomanci had only taken Cat with him to London.
Chrestomanci had found Cat in Syracuse's stall that morning. Cat had been pretending to himself that he was reading the geography textbook propped in front of him, but really mostly talking to Syracuse.
"Ah, Cat." Chrestomanci had given him an especially vague look.
Cat had scrambled to his feet, faintly wary.
"How do you feel about piracy?" Chrestomanci had asked, in a tone that suggested that it was no great matter either way.
Cat hadn't been sure that he thought anything in particular of piracy.
"The Minister for Offworld Trade tells me that legal traders are having something of a time with shipments to world Twelve G," Chrestomanci said. "Their counterparts there are refusing to engage in further business, because nothing they buy from us is reaching them these days. Somebody's managed to set up some sort of redirectional spell in the World Edge between there and here." Chrestomanci raised his eyebrows. "It's a government matter, of course, and you're not a government employee yet. But I thought you might help anyway?"
Cat had thought about it. "I don't mind," he'd decided eventually. Chrestomanci had given him a swift smile.
Cat had rather enjoyed the trip to London, to be honest, and he'd rather enjoyed the great Interference Spell he and Chrestomanci had taken part in, there in the parliament with all those other government wizards and sorcerers. All that power rushing through them was something of a thrill, and it was nice to feel that you were the most powerful one there, other than maybe Chrestomanci himself. (Cat hadn't settled with himself whether he was more powerful than Chrestomanci. It didn't seem to matter very much.)
Only now he was feeling rather wrung out and exhausted, and Chrestomanci had more business to conduct, and Cat wasn't in the least interested in any of it.
"May I go and walk around a bit outside?" he asked. Chrestomanci looked down at him with an air of faint surprise, as though he had forgotten Cat was there.
"Oh," he said. "If you'd like. Be back here by three o'clock."
He didn't tell Cat to be careful. Cat was a nine-lifed enchanter, so it would have been a little silly, probably.
He'd been wandering for nearly an hour, feeling even more tired and sick of London, when Cat saw the fire.
It was a little bakery that had caught alight. Angry flames were billowing out of the doorway and smoking the front windows black. They were snaking out of a part of the roof, too, and it was clear that in a moment they were going to catch the adjoining roofs on fire.
Cat stopped and watched the flames for a moment. They were flickering rather prettily, even though they were also burning hot enough for the heat to reach him here, over the other side of the street. The problem, Cat realised with an irritated feeling, was that nobody was doing anything about them. There were lots of people milling about and shouting to each other, and a man with a rather scorched apron who might have been the baker was bent double, and might have been laughing or crying or having a nervous attack - Cat wasn't really close enough to tell. Nobody was doing anything useful, though.
Cat thought somebody must be about to do something to deal with the fire, or failing that that the fire brigade must be about to turn up. But the fire continued to burn, flames licking at the dressmaker's shop that was pressed up against it, and the crowd around continued to mill and argue and generally behave in an unhelpful manner.
Cat glared at them, because he really was awfully tired. Then he glared at the flames and told them to go out.
He'd used up too much magic in the spell with Chrestomanci, though. His magic felt thin and distant, a pitiful sort of trickle. The fire ducked down a bit, trying to obey him, then roared up again.
Cat sighed, going up closer, and closer again. Someone shouted and told him to get back. He ignored whoever it was and closed his eyes, swaying a bit on his feet. He concentrated on drawing on as much of his magic as he could and focused on the fire again. It was a bit easier now that he was nearer, but he still couldn't just tell the flames to go away the way he would normally be able to. Instead he pulled in cold, because that was easier. It came sluggishly, but it came, freezing into him as well as the beams of the bakery.
The flames sputtered against the ice and went yellow and sputtered again and eventually sputtered all the way out.
Cat swayed backwards, really exhausted now. Somebody caught him.
"Woah, there," he heard from a long way away. "Look at what the little fellow did!"
Somebody else should have done it, Cat wanted to complain, but he was too tired, and cold. He could feel ice on his skin, and he couldn't seem to remember how to heat it up again. Even the air in his lungs was cold.
"The poor little thing's freezing," whoever was holding him said.
Somebody else laughed, the sound nervous. "I don't know that 'poor little thing' is quite the term," they said. "The boy just put out a house fire. That's wizard magic at the least. Maybe sorcerer."
There were murmurs of agreement. Cat forced his eyes open and focused on the people around him. He tried to talk, but his lips were too numb with cold.
"Who do you suppose he belongs to?" a woman in a nurse's cap asked. "Someone should find out and get him home."
"Where do you belong?" the person holding Cat's shoulder asked him directly. It turned out to be a gentleman with wide mustaches and a worried expression. Cat blinked at him. He wasn't sure he could remember.
"That castle?" Cat asked eventually, forcing the words past shivering lips. He frowned, because that didn't sound quite right.
Evidently the crowd around him agreed. At any rate, they didn't seem to find it very useful.
"We haven't got a castle nearby, have we?" the nurse asked. "Do you suppose he means the Tower of London?"
A man in a tall hat scoffed. "Nobody lives in the Tower, woman. Don't be an idiot."
"Do you think he might be one of the little princes?" a girl asked, her voice wondering. "Like a ghost? That might be why he's so cold."
That got a lot of murmurs. The man in the tall hat scoffed louder, but that didn't stop people shuffling away from Cat a little way. Cat was finding it hard to keep his eyes open again, and he couldn't seem to stop shivering. He wished they would all shut up.
"There's a pub a few blocks down called the Castle and Claw," a man in a butcher's apron was offering tentatively, when he was interrupted by the rattle of a hire carriage jangling down the street. Cat blinked his eyes open again, swaying a little on the spot, in time to see it draw to a stop. The door opened and Chrestomanci stepped out. He was holding, of all things, a heavy silk dressing gown in his hands. It was brocaded with a pattern of ripening apples growing improbably on twining green vines.
Chrestomanci blinked at the scene for a moment. Then he strode forward, politely detaching Cat's shoulder from the hand of the worried man with the mustaches, and bundled Cat up in the dressing gown.
Warmth enveloped Cat immediately, and he sighed out loud in pleasure.
"You do seem to get into trouble," Chrestomanci observed, frowning down at Cat. Around them, the crowd was buzzing happily with this new excitement.
"Definitely a sorcerer," the tall-hatted man was saying importantly to anybody who would listen.
Cat nodded in agreement at Chrestomanci - Yes, getting into trouble. He was enjoying the warmth too much to talk. He swayed forwards again.
Chrestomanci sighed and reached down to heft him up, one arm beneath Cat's legs and one under his shoulders, then carried him over to the carriage. Cat let himself be bundled inside, curling his legs up on the seat beneath the dressing gown. It was more like a blanket on him than anything else; Cat felt wrapped all around in it.
The woman in the nurse's cap followed them over to the carriage. "I'm so glad you turned up, sir," she chattered. "We hadn't the least idea who his family was or where he belonged, and the poor boy was so very cold."
Chrestomanci blinked at her, polite incomprehension sliding across his face.
"He belongs with me, of course," he said.
Oh, Cat thought as the carriage jerked into motion. Oh, of course.
He fell asleep against Chrestomanci's shoulder on the ride back.