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Seven Sisters A-Swimming

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Cat - I need you in Caprona. Bring your best. - Tonino.

The overnight train roared down the Italian countryside. In the first class car, two powerful enchanters and their plus one were napping gently. The plus one was a griffin. One enchanter was a woman in a tweed suit and a red cloche hat. The second was a young blond man in a white linen suit, sporting a brave attempt at a mustache.

The young man was a nine-lived enchanter. His name was Eric Chant, also known as Cat, and he had been Chrestomanci -- a civil servant of the British government responsible for magical regulation across the multiple worlds -- for two years.

The other two were his colleagues, the most important of which was Marianne Pinhoe. Cat thought of Marianne as his indispensable partner, but Marianne always insisted she was his secretary, and that was her official title.

Klartch, the griffin he'd raised and trained at Klartch's mother's request, rounded out the trio. Klartch had no official position, but traveled alongside Cat whenever possible.

The train rounded a turn on the tracks and the early morning sun blasted the car. On the floor between his and Marianne's seats, Klartch lay and snored. Marianne was doing much the same in her chair. Between the two of them they made a noise that sounded like a whistling saw.

Cat made a snuffling noise in his sleep and stretched out his legs. He'd long since kicked off his shoes and was warming his feet in the fur of Klartch's back, between his wings.

Directly in the line of sun, Cat gave in and woke up. He blinked away the vestiges of sleep as he looked out the train window at the fiery coloured autumn trees and tried not to worry about Tonino just yet.

Cat had received the hasty message from his old friend and gotten Marianne and Klartch on their way to Caprona within the hour. He was concerned that Tonino had chosen not to use a phone, or offered more of an explanation for why he needed Cat so urgently.

Cat wondered if Tonino needed Cat, or if Tonino needed Chrestomanci.

At the train station in Caprona, Tonino Montana waited. His eyes were focused on the schedule board for any notices of delay, and pacing to work off his nervous energy. The sun had risen and was gently heating away the autumn morning fog.

In the distance, a train whistle blew. Tonino's shoulders lost a fraction of their tension and he sat to wait for Cat's train to pull into the station. He glanced from side to side to make sure he hadn't been followed, but the only others waiting for the train were an elderly couple who had told him they were there to pick up their granddaughter when he'd made polite conversation, and the various station workers.

The train pulled in smoothly, bright blue and powerful. Porters leapt to attention and began unloading the luggage, and opening the doors, so the late night passengers could exit the train.

Tonino's hopes of discretion were dashed when Klartch, the least discreet sentient being ever to exist, bounded out of the car first. Klartch, who was the size of a lion with the head of an eagle with long dotted feathery ear tufts, a mane brushed daily by Cat, and wings capable of carrying himself and a human passenger aloft, searched the platform until he spotted Tonino.

He gave a cheer and came rushing towards him. Porters yelped and dodged, not realizing Klartch was more than smart enough not to send them tumbling onto the tracks. "Tonino!"

Tonino crouched down and held his arms out to hug the griffin. Part of his precautions may have been ruined, but he was still happy to see Klartch. They'd met previously during one of Tonino's terms of study at Chrestomanci Castle and become instant friends, helped in part by Tonino's ability to communicate with cats on a entirely different level than most people. Klartch's lion side was particularly fond of Tonino.

Tonino was ruffling Klartch's mane when Cat and Marianne caught up.

"Hullo," said Cat in Italian with a smile.

"Hello," replied Tonino. "I brought a car. I hadn't thought you'd bring Klartch."

Klartch's head-tufts went down in sadness. Tonino rubbed Klartch's mane more quickly to reassure him.

"It's good to see you, really! I just wasn't planning on you!"

"You should always plan on me," said Klartch with great dignity. His accent was terrible. Italian wasn't easy with a beak.

"I'm sorry. Hello to you too, Ms. Pinhoe," said Tonino. "Shall I take your luggage?"

"I'm fine," said Marianne. "It's a small bag. We didn't know how long we'd be here and I can always just clean what I brought."

Tonino stood up and brushed off his knees, dusty from where he'd crouched on the ground. "I'm so glad you all came."

"What's this all about, then?" asked Cat. "And it's not far to Casa Montana from here, is it? I can walk with Klartch if the car is a problem."

Tonino shook his head. "We're not going to Casa Montana. My problem's on the other side of the city. And, actually, being seen is also a problem." As they talked, he led them off the platform to a more private cloakroom.

Cat looked at Marianne, who smiled. "I can solve that one," said Marianne.

"Please don't make me look like a dog again," said Klartch.

"You make a terrible little boy," she replied. "Your hindquarters are always getting stepped on by people who can't see them. But... I'll see what I come up with."

She had Cat, Tonino, and Klartch stand together and she focused on them, then closed her eyes. In her head, she began to picture them with different features. She turned Cat into a taller, older, ginger man with a proper mustache to tease him. Tonino became a brunet, and much fatter. She gave herself a similar build and colouring, to appear to a possible sibling. Klartch, to his great unhappiness, became a labrador.

Klartch sighed as he looked down at his black dog paws.

"I'm sorry," said Marianne. "Nothing else came to mind."

They bundled into Tonino's car, Klartch filling up the entire backseat none-too-comfortably, with the other three squished into the front.

Tonino pulled onto the streets of Caprona, beautiful with the morning sun shining on the city's golden stones. Red shingled roofs glinted with dew, and the last fading flowers in balcony gardens gave flashes of colour to their ride.

Tonino filled Cat and company in on the situation on the drive over.

"Really?" Marianne kept saying over and over.

"Really," said Tonino kept replying.

Tonino's big secret was in a small apartment he'd been renting for some solitude, having gained a taste for it in his time at Chrestomanci castle. He loved Casa Montana, but there was no getting around the fact that the Montanas were a huge, bustling, and ever-present family. He'd been comforted by their presence as a child, always knowing family was near and safe, but having a little piece of the world just for him had been exciting. He did have a feeling it wasn't a true secret from his family, but the other Montanas were polite enough to let him have it without comment.

Still, he didn't spend much time in his hideaway. It was just handy to have it.

Klartch headbutted Tonino's leg. "Come on, open the door!" he said.

"You are the most talkative dog in the world," chided Tonino as he searched for the right key. Finding it, he fit in the lock and opened it up. The apartment was nearly empty, apart from the bare necessities, but it was the bathroom they were interested in. The sounds of light splashing could be heard from it.

"She's really there?" said Marianne with wide eyes.

"I certainly hope so," said Tonino as he led them to the bathroom. "I found her on the riverbank. I was off to deliver a love letter to a girl at Casa Coletti that my brother Paolo had fallen for, and saw a flash of pink hair in the mud. I went down and saw her, realized what I had found, and I brought her here as quickly as I could."

In the bathroom there was a toilet, a sink, a large white clawfoot bathtub… and a mermaid.

Amaranta turned a sweet, unforced smile on Barone Erasmus Arrigoni. "Barone, we continue to search for the last piece of your collection. I assure you, it will be found."

Amaranta was beautiful, short and full-bodied, with long thick black hair and smoky eyes. Her mother would brag she had the smile of an angel. It never met her eyes.

Right now she was using her smile to calm the good Barone, who did not like it when he paid top dollar for an incomplete product.

"Young lady," he said with a thunderous look, "your Mr. Abbot assured me that I would receive satisfaction. Instead, what do I have? Incompetence! He uses inferior materials and the inevitable happens!" Arrigoni reached out to touch Amaranta's cheek. "And he lets a poor sweet child like you deal with the fallout. A real man would have faced me himself."

Amaranta managed to look touched by the Barone's concern. "My Mr. Abbot is a busy man. But we have sent a man on the trail of our missing item. You will have it soon and then all will be well." She smiled again and the Barone calmed a fraction.

Amaranta liked the Barone calm. When he was calm, his horrible little pet was calm too.

She tried not to look at it. As they were in the Barone's secret drawing room, the entrance to his personal collection, the horrible little thing had a throne made just for it in the corner. Right now it was watching her, wings twitching and horns looking sharper than ever. The shining beady eyes narrowed when her own darted to look at it against her will. She was rapidly starting to dislike rabbits.

The wolpertinger stood and stretched, wings spreading to their full length of three feet, and hopped towards the Barone, who picked up his pet. The anger drained out of him as he held his beloved beast.

"Ah, Guido, what do you want, my little boy?" he cooed at it. "Do you want to talk to the pretty girl? Go on, my dear girl, give him a pet."

Amaranta shuddered inside, but held out her hand to pet Guido the wolpertinger's head cautiously. As he had every time before, he whipped his head around and sunk his teeth into her hand.

As the Barone apologized profusely, she thought to herself that this business deal couldn't end fast enough.

Coral wasn't a large mermaid. She was about the size of a small twelve-year-old girl, if twelve-year-old girls had fish tails. Klartch was immediately drawn to her, one hybrid magical creature to another. Coral, likewise, found Klartch enchanting and spent much of Cat and Marianne's questioning giggling and splashing him.

She had bright pink hair and kept grinning widely from ear to ear. She couldn't keep from laughing at the smallest things. Cat understood why Christopher Chant, his mentor and the previous Chrestomanci, had referred to them as the giggling ladies.

"Lovely voice," said Marianne to Cat in English. "Wish she knew more words to use it with."

Questioning had not been successful.

Coral's grasp of any language but her own was shaky at best. However, Tonino had managed, before the arrival of Cat and company, to determine that she'd been stolen with her six sisters.

"This is where it gets confusing," said Tonino, "I had to teach her this word. She says she was kept in a cave."

Coral nodded, smiling happily that Tonino was using a word she understood. But that was as much as they could determine from talking with her.

Coral's limited ability to converse with her rescuers did not cause her any frustration. And with a peal of sweet tinkling laughter, the little mermaid ducked under the water, pink hair spreading out like the petals of a water lily. As best as they could make out, Coral seemed to have total faith that the problem would be solved now that Cat, Marianne, and Klartch had arrived.

However, Cat's expression had become noticeably grim since he'd seen Coral. After he, Tonino, and Marianne left Coral with Klartch in the bathroom, he turned to his friend.

"Tonino," he said, switching back to Italian, "this isn't good."

"I know, I do," said Tonino. "Mermaids don't exist here. Our old Chrestomanci told me about them. It has to be world crossing, and I know it takes a powerful enchanter to even consider that. That's why I called you."

"That's not what I mean." Cat's frown deepened. "People don't want live mermaids in this world. Christopher's mermaids didn't have a happy end."

"Coral's alive," said Tonino. "Her sisters were too."

"There's a chance," said Marianne gently, "that whoever brought them here wanted fresh ingredients."

Their voices had become hushed.

"But you'll still look, won't you, Cat?" said Tonino. "I promised her. I've even worked out any place there might be caves here in Caprona to search." He glanced at the bathroom. Coral was giggling again. She sounded like a delighted child.

"Of course I will. The moment that this turned out to be smuggling was the moment this became an issue for the Chrestomanci. And," he added, "I'd do it as your friend. And for her. Not all sisters are the best, but she seems to like hers."

"Where do you want us to begin, Tonino?" said Marianne. She stifled a yawn. The train trip had been very long and she hadn't gotten nearly enough rest.

Tonino pulled a tightly folded out map from his pocket and laid it out on the table. "Here," he pointed at the mouth of the river as it led into Caprona. "There might be caves within the cliffs. And I thought, perhaps, she might have been in the sewers. I've marked them here. Uncle Umberto was very helpful with the city plans. He was very sure to say 'anything for a nephew', then called me Paolo. That's Uncle Umberto for you."

"Did you ever deliver Paolo's love letter?" asked Marianne. Tonino froze.

"Oh. Oh no. I rather got caught up in this."

"Is she a forgiving girl?" said Marianne, smiling at Tonino's panic.

"Nooo. No, I would say Amaranta Coletti is the opposite of forgiving," said Tonino. "Oh, damn it. Paolo's going to get it. Then I'm going to get it because Paolo got it. This is what I get for being the only one except Old Nicolo with a car, I get all the errands that take forever. Of course, I had a mermaid to save. Paolo's got his heart set on this girl, and woe unto the younger brother who ruins his chances."

"You were near her house when you found Coral?" said Cat thoughtfully, looking at the map. "Where is that?"

"Casa Coletti is outside of the city, yes. It's a small spell-house, but well regarded. Not as well-regarded as Casa Montana, of course. Or," he added in a sense of fairness, "Casa Petrocchi."

"Maybe we should extend apologies to Amaranta on Paolo's behalf," said Cat. "I want to walk that river and if the smugglers managed to track where their mermaid's gone, it's best we have a good excuse to be looking around."

Marianne nodded, and nearly tipped over from exhaustion. She gave another huge yawn. Cat found himself following suit.

"I think perhaps it's time for you to be announced to the family as a random visit," said Tonino. "I can search the cliffs while you sleep at Casa Montana. They'll be thrilled to see you."

Cat yawned again. "Thank you," he managed.

"Klartch!" called Marianne. "We're leaving."

Klartch poked his head out of the bathroom. "I want to stay. Someone needs to guard Coral."

"I've got good privacy wards on here," said Tonino. "That's what this place is for."

Klartch shook his head and looked determined.

Cat shrugged and said to Tonino. "It's not a bad idea. Klartch has his own magic, and he might be able to get more out of Coral."

"Plus," said Marianne, "I expect the poor thing's lonely."

Tonino gave in. "As long as you handle the questions if anyone sees a griffin around Caprona and wonders why yours isn't with you."

"I'll say he's gone rogue," said Cat. "Let's go." He grabbed his jacket off the hook. As he stepped out the door, his pocketbook slipped from his pocket. He bent to pick it up -- and the light fixture behind him exploded into a ball of flame.

Cat ducked down, waving his left hand frantically to summon a protective shield. The next explosion ricocheted off his shield and into a nearby potted plant. His shield spell was not yet formed well enough to block the shards of pottery, which cut his cheek and hand.

Behind him, Marianne was shouting angrily and waving her hands.

At the end of the hallway and the source of the attacks was a huge man, holding up paper charms. He sang in a low, menacing voice as he read them. His attention to the charms had the lucky result of interfering with his aim, sparing Cat his head.

He was near the end of his third charm when Cat and Marianne's combined defensive spells hit, binding him in invisible rope, and gagging him with a rotten tomato. Marianne could be spiteful when her boss was in danger.

Tonino called into the apartment. "Stay inside, Klartch! Protect Coral!" Klartch yelled back in assent.

Cat brushed the remaining shards of pottery from his coat and nodded thankfully to Marianne as she placed plasters on his cuts with a quick spell. They walked towards their gagged -- and gagging -- attacker. The man laid on the ground, shuddering and spitting out pieces of rotten, squishy tomato. His whole body was shuddering from the taste.

"Answer nicely and I'll take that taste out of your mouth," said Marianne, crouching beside him and lifting his head up by his ear. "You've made a big mistake."

"Very kind of you to be so helpful, Marianne," said Cat. "Offering favours and good advice." Cat crouched down too to look the man in the face.

The man had a distinct green tinge to his face. He was even bigger up close, with hair covering the knotted muscles of his arms. He hadn't bothered to shave recently, and his eyebrows were more of an eyebrow.

"What's your name?" said Cat. "And do remember that my associate can make more tomatoes if she pleases."

"Orso," the man said, gagging as his tongue made contact with the rotten fruit residue in his mouth.

"Orso who?" said Cat.

"Orso Spataro!" Orso yelled, eager to avoid another tomato.

Cat glanced up at Tonino, who shook his head. This man was not known to him.

"Mr. Spataro," said Cat. "Do you know who you just tried to kill?"

Orso had the look of a man who didn't care who Cat was, only that he wished he'd never gone near him.

"I'm the Chrestomanci and you're performing a serious misuse of magic. Cooperate, or there'll be serious consequences." He paused, then added, "More consequences."

"You're a thief," muttered Orso, spitting out more tomato. "The mermaid was stolen with HIS car." He glared at Tonino for emphasis.

Tonino had to admit that maybe his bright green car with the Montana crest was a little distinctive.

"You can't steal a sentient being, Mr. Spataro," said Cat. "And now's not the time to throw insults. Who am I 'stealing' from?" Cat glanced up at Marianne to see how he was doing. They'd spent years developing the tough Chrestomanci act. Cat relied on her superior grasp of visual cues to tell him if he was actually succeeding in intimidating the criminals.

Marianne nodded, and an emboldened Cat continued. "Please be clear and concise."

Orso weighed the options of his clients versus the Chrestomanci, and Chrestomanci won out. "That cafone Englishman and his little witch. Look, I tell you, and you call it even? I'm just some warlock from Pisa, I'm not even part of this mess. Not like them. I just needed the money," Orso's rough voice took on a wheedling tone.

"Names, Mr. Sparato," was Cat's only reply.

Orso opened his mouth to break his apparently very weak bond of trust with his employer. But before a sound could come out, his eyes glazed over. Then they seemed to focus again, but Orso was now looking at the world as if it were completely new.

"He asked you a question," said Marianne, kneeling on Orso's back. It was clear she didn't take kindly to people who'd take part in hurting someone like Coral.

Orso yelped. "Stop! Stop!" Then he made an agonized noise. "What is this TASTE?"

Tonino, Cat, and Marianne looked on in confusion as Orso seemed to realize his situation all over again, but with more noise and frantic struggling.

"Hey, what are you doing! Why can't I move? What's going on? Where am I?" Orso yelled, moving so much that Marianne lost her grip on him. Orso wiggled around on the floor like a panicking snake.

"Huh," she said.

Cat waved his left hand to freeze Orso and stop his panicking. Tonino stepped forward, going through Orso's pockets and pulled out a thin pink and black scrip. He studied it, not sure why the paper seemed familiar, then sighed. "I don't know this one, but I definitely see the words ‘forget’ and ‘duty.’ I think our Mr. Sparato was boobytrapped -- against himself."

"I hate this series," said Mark Abbot to the mirror in his hand. "Everyone is incompetent."

"This series has what we need for now," the mirror replied. It had a woman's voice.

"How long is 'for now?'" said Mark, sitting at the desk in the rented office he'd been living out of for his time in this world so far. "You're not going to tell me there's more idiots I need to kill and rob here once I'm done with the current one, are you, Your Highness?” He rested his chin in his hand, the other hand holding out the mirror.

"How many loose ends are left?" asked her highness.

"Orso's no longer our concern, the great idiot. I've got just the spell to get rid of the girl when it's time. I'm planning to just cut the old man down, and then his horrible little pet too," said Mark, in a tone of utter boredom. He had a special spell for that particular finality. "And I suppose I have to find out who stole our mermaid. It's one of the idiot spellcasters in this city, the trick is knowing which one. A flying horse crest was painted on the automobile that took her, so we're following that lead."

"I suppose your girl told you that?" said her highness.

"Yes, my native guide to this world has been quite helpful. Shame she has to die, but she'll be absolutely useless anywhere else," Mark admitted. The no loose ends policy had saved him a lot of trouble, but he did hate wasting good resources.

He continued. "That's where we lost Orso, when he said he'd found the automobile. Oh well." Mark made a show of examining his nails. He liked to appear to be totally at ease when talking to her highness.

"Mm. There's something I want you to do, while you're in the neighbourhood. Because if you've been as stupid as you seem, he's already been called in. His name, and do not repeat me lest you summon him, is Chrestomanci." As the voice said that, the mirror cracked with a loud snap. "He's an old… friend of mine. If you kill him, Markus, I will return to you one of your lives."

Mark's eyes lit up. "You swear?" Markus Abbot hadn't controlled his own lives since Gwendolen had found him when he was young, using his power as her own. The last he'd seen of them was a small jar she'd hidden away from him, his lives trapped in small glittering glass marbles. He knew they were nothing but power to her, to be used up and thrown away. And one day his lives would run out and he'd be dead.

"You know that I reward good behaviour," said her highness. "Now go raid that old fool's collection. The ingredients he has are priceless. And when that's done, I'll tell you the many uses of the parts of a mermaid."

Marianne, Tonino, and Cat decided against sleeping until they'd done some footwork. They bought some pep-up charms from a stand along the Old Bridge and decided to start with the search down the river.

There had been a meeting with the local officials. Orso had been turned over to them and searching the cliffs and sewers had been deferred to the superior manpower of Caprona's police force. That left Cat and company with the riverwalk.

Cat was hard at work squishing down the part of him that felt like he wouldn't be a proper hero for Tonino if the Caprona officials discovered the missing mermaids first. Tonino had looked up to him ever since he and Cat had saved themselves from Spiderman. Cat had never quite lost the urge to look after Tonino since that experience.

Marianne had changed their disguises around. Now Cat was fat, with a large bristling black beard and short-cropped hair, and she had become as thin as a rail and the very picture of an English tourist. Tonino was not disguised this time, to facilitate their admittance to see Casa Coletti and the delivery of the love letter.

"I'm not sure if it would be a bad thing if she dropped Paolo," said Tonino. "I don't like her eyes. They're mean."

"Ah, if my brother had cost me a boy I liked..." said Marianne meaningfully.

"If I interfered with Janet," said Cat. "Well, I think. I'm not sure. She's never really spoken on it."

Through much persuasion to his family, Tonino had managed to become the owner of the fine automobile. His prime argument had been how useful it would be to have a car for delivery. He'd also mentioned what a waste of him learning to drive in England would be if he never got to use the skill. He succeeded and as a result got a new job of delivery boy for Casa Montana, but he had a car. He felt that was a fair trade off.

He was still essential to Casa Montana with his unique magic, but he enjoyed doing delivery work. His young cousins and nieces and nephews adored the car and begged constantly for rides. At the moment the beloved car smelled of river mud, from Coral's ride in the backseat after being rescued from the riverbank.

Every few meters Cat would send out a feeling, for empty spaces around them, in the hopes of finding Coral's caves. Thus far the riverbank was free of any spaces big enough to hold one mermaid, let alone seven.

In the distance, Casa Coletti was rising up. It had the look of new work that didn't match the old architecture of the original building. It was built partially over the river, as if to pretend it had half of a very large moat.

Tonino was pulling up in front of the Casa when Cat finally found empty space.

He was out of the car before Tonino had fully parked, almost stumbling face-first onto the ground. "This way!"

Tonino looked relieved as he finished parking. Now he didn't have to deal with Amaranta.

He and Marianne followed Cat to the end of the trail, which was the docks over the river from the Casa. It looked like ground had been washed out, and if you laid on the dock and peeked underneath, you could see holes in the side of the bank. There were grey corners of marble boxes visible in the holes.

"I think they have a mausoleum down there," said Cat. He shuddered.

Marianne was taking off her nicer bits of clothing and folding them up on top of the dock. She ignored the two men as she magicked her underthings into a proper bathing suit and climbed into the water.

"Well?" she said.

Cat shuddered again.

"It's real cats that don't like water," said Marianne. "You're confused."

Cat looked down at the deep river water. He could see that Marianne was actually holding very tightly to the dock to keep from being swept away. His mind was replaying with extra detail the time he drowned and hadn't realized that it hadn't just been very unpleasant, but had actually been his death. One of his deaths.

Marianne held out her hand. "Come on, you'll be safe, and the hole's really near. I can practically touch it with my foot."

Cat took her hand with his right, and waved his left. His crisp white linen suit became a white wetsuit and he climbed into the water, holding tight to the same pole as Marianne.

"I'll go see if I can find out who's upstairs at the Casa," said Tonino. "You two be safe."

"You too," called Marianne as she and Cat cast a combined spell to divert the strong currents so they could safely dogpaddle to the hole.

Cat scrambled through first, then reached back to help Marianne. Inside the mausoleum, it smelled of decay and damp earth. The hole was just high enough the river wasn't flooding it, but examining it Cat could see where tiny hands had clawed at the earth to get over the side to the water.

"This must be where Coral escaped," he said. He summoned a floating light and they began to follow a trail in the old dirt and dust made by a mermaid dragging herself along.

Marianne had changed her shoes to swim slippers; the odd splat noises of wet cloth were sucked away by the roar of the river through the hole. "At least they won't hear us," she said in Cat's ear. Cat nodded and dimmed his light to not forewarn anyone up ahead.

As the light went low, he realized they wouldn't be able to hear the smugglers either.

Tonino was sitting in the front room of Casa Coletti. Amaranta's mother was fussing over him, apparently under the impression that Paolo's letter was just an excuse and he was here to court Amaranta himself. His protests to the contrary went ignored. Signora Coletti tutted Tonino for shyness after he insisted yet again that he was just there for Paolo.

"Such a lovely girl, so popular with all the boys!" said Signora Coletti. "I suppose you saw her in the marketplace, that seems to be where all grand romances start. My my, TWO Montana boys!"

Tonino had given up and was drinking the espresso Signora Coletti had fetched for him. He glanced around the room. It had many fancy decorations, but underneath it the room was actually quite shabby and in need of repair. He could see barely concealed cracks and flaking around the edges.

It was like the work outside the house, it hadn't fixed what was broken, just added a new spot polish. Tonino rather felt that was a waste of money to slap a fresh coat of paint on a rotten piece of wood, but as no one had asked him, he kept it to himself.

"She should be home soon. Off seeing another boy," said Signora. "You have competition!"

Tonino thought of how scandalized his family was when his sister Lucia had done something similar, but she'd shouted them down just as she did with everything else. He supposed Amaranta had done the same with the Colettis or they hadn't cared in the first place. "It's a new decade," had been one of Lucia's favourite sayings when she got as passionate as Aunt Gina. "Just make sure it doesn't lead to a secret wedding like Rosa," her mother had replied.

Tonino sipped the espresso. It was very good espresso. That almost made up for feeling like he was lying to a woman who seemed to like him well enough she was already extolling the virtues of him being her son-in-law. She'd moved onto Casa Coletti working hand in hand with the Montanas.

"Of course, that other boy..." she said. "Englishman. Your mother, she's one, yes?"

"Yes, signora," said Tonino. He smiled and tapped his light-coloured hair.

"Well, I see it worked out for the Montanas, but I'm not sure I want that for Amaranta! Mr. Abbot will just have to find some other Italian girl. He can barely sing, you know. He had too much spritz the last time she brought him around here and terrible! Just terrible!" Her chest heaved from the memory of how terrible it had been.

Tonino had mentally noted the Englishman detail. Things were not looking good for Paolo's romantic intentions.

Signora Coletti had stationed herself by a huge picture window, with the Coletti emblem, an eagle killing a fish, in stained glass at the top. She suddenly ceased talking about how little competition this 'Mark Abbot', as she said his name was, was to Tonino to encourage him and grinned widely. "She's home!" The rumble of a car came from outside.

Tonino sat to attention, not looking forward to what was next. He also wondered what he would say if she declared she would 'head down to the mausoleum for a tick'. Yelling and tackling seemed impolite. You just didn't do that to a lady.

Amaranta breezed in, followed by two men. One was much younger than her, barely more than a teenager, and clearly not Italian in origin. The other was an old man that looked vaguely familiar to Tonino.

"Barone!" said Signora Coletti. "This is a treat! Sit, I'll bring more espresso."

The man's identity snapped to in Tonino's mind. This was Barone Arrigoni, a man that Uncle Umberto had brought over to dinner one night hoping to entice the man to donate to the university. The man had spent it talking about his strange pet (Tonino couldn't remember the name of it for the life of him, something German?) and his collection of the parts of many magical creatures who had shuffled this mortal coil. Tonino had found it all ghastly. One of Rosa's daughters had begun crying when the Barone talked about having the horn of a unicorn.

Amaranta gave Tonino a chilly and questioning smile. "I do not know you," she said.

"But he's here to see you," said Signora Coletti. "With a love letter!"

Tonino got up. "It's from my brother Paolo."

"Oh!" said Amaranta. She gave an apologetic look to the two men she was with. The young man looked... Tonino shivered. He looked ready to kill at this interruption. Amaranta held out her hand for the letter.

Tonino handed it over quickly, mind racing. He had to keep them out of the mausoleum, because that was surely where they were headed once they were free of distractions. He'd looked into the young man's eyes and seen a very powerful, very cruel, enchanter.

Mark Abbot was not there to court Amaranta.

"Horrid down here, isn't it?" said Marianne in English. "I don't fancy spending my next trip to Italy here again."

"Remember Paris?" said Cat.

"I remember Paris. I remember the catacombs. I remember saying this exact thing about them that I'm saying now. And yet I never seem to get my way." The path in the dirt was getting further defined as they went deeper into the mausoleum.

"Well, dark dead places make good spots to hide a crime."

"I don't like what you find in dark dead places. They're often things that shouldn't be moving."

Cat walked past the grave of another long gone Coletti, the light in his hand bouncing off the damp walls. "I don't want to find dead mermaids, Marianne. Coral was so..."

"I understand," said Marianne, and that was that.

Amaranta gave Tonino another chilly smile. "Thank you for the letter, but I am tired and I must rest. You may tell your brother I will reply soon."

"Oh, but--" began Tonino.

"He should stay for supper!" said Signora Coletti. "It would be an honour to host a Montana."

"Mother," said Amaranta. "Mark is tired. I'm tired. And I'm sure Barone Arrigoni would like to leave soon. We really must attend to business."

"Business!" yelled Signora Coletti. "What possible business could you have?"

"Barone Arrigoni is very interested in the history of Caprona, mother. I said I would show him our mausoleum," Amaranta said stiffly. Tonino's knuckles went white as he held his cup.

"Yes," said the Barone. "Mr. Abbot has extolled to me about the virtues of your family graves quite a bit." He sounded eager.

Signora Coletti looked annoyed. "What would Mr. Abbot know about our family graves?"

Mark Abbot was still staring at Tonino with the murderous eyes. But at the signora's words, he turned to the signora and she went silent, then fell, body stiff as a board. Tonino ran to her, but suddenly stiffness overtook his body as well and he too fell.

Tonino tried to struggle, but the only part of him that still moved was his mind.

"Oh, Mark," said Amaranta. "It's going to take forever to make her forget that one." She didn't sound angry, just resigned.

"I have no time for this. This Montana. What can he do?" said the man, who was barely an adult. His voice had murder in it. He was too young to sound so cold.

"They're just another one of those well-regarded families," said Amaranta. "I'll make him forget too. We don't want his family to start investigating."

Barone Arrigoni made a reluctant noise. "I do not like freezing people's mothers. It is uncouth."

"Well, what we're doing is uncouth, sir," said Abbot. There was no apology in his tone. "We need to get in and out, before more go missing, or the water fouls and they all end up floating facedown. Come along."

Amaranta sighed. "I worked so hard to get everyone out of the Casa today, why did mother have to be stubborn?" She followed them out of Tonino's line of sight. Tonino tried to open his mouth to shout a warning to his friends, but his body was completely frozen.

Cat and Marianne heard the singing first. They were far enough from the river now that the roar of the waters had died down to a dull white noise. The song that floated through the mausoleum was beautiful and sad, and sung with many voices. A huge grin spread across Marianne's face and she grabbed Cat's arms. "That's them! That's got to be them!"

They ran on ahead, figuring that if the mermaids were singing, their captors couldn't be nearby. They had been traveling through a tunnel for most of their journey -- a tunnel with several branches. But they stepped quite suddenly out of the tunnel into a large chamber. Against the wall was a giant makeshift fish tank filled with six mermaids. The tank was tied down with netting that surrounded it, around the sides and over the top, so that even if the tank was smashed, no escape was possible.

Evidently they'd learned from when Coral had made her escape.

The water was clouded, and the mermaids had to push up the netting as far as they could for air and for their song. They were all bigger than Coral.

"Oh, those absolute beasts," said Marianne with feeling. "How could they do this?"

Cat had no answer and waved his left hand, snapping the ropes of the netting. The singing stopped and the mermaids turned to stare at Cat and Marianne. Marianne gave a little wave as she started yanking the netting away from them. "We need some way to get them out!" she said as she dragged the netting off the tank.

Cat nodded. In his hand he had a chunk of rock that he was worrying between his two fingers. As he rubbed, it got larger and smoother. Cat worked at it, turning it into a sleigh with sides high enough to keep a half dozen slippery mermaids from falling out.

Then Amaranta and her two guests came thundering down the old stone steps, Mark Abbot at the lead.

The Barone reacted first. "Thieves!" he yelled. "Filthy thieves!"

Amaranta ran forward, singing a spell. Cat dropped his unfinished mermaid transport and added his own counterspell. Marianne began a binding spell for Amaranta while moving away from the mermaids to keep them out of the intruders' line of fire.

Mark simply looked at them, then waved his hands and ripped away their disguises so powerfully that they could feel it.

"You're Chrestomanci," he said. "Amaranta, stop. And do stop bleating, Arrigoni. It's tiring."

Surprised, Arrigoni obeyed quickly.

Cat stood up straight. Mark looked like no one he'd ever met before. He couldn't even quite place where Mark may be from. His Italian had an accent that was English but not quite English.

"My Queen doesn't like you, Chrestomanci," he said. "I thought you'd be older."

Cat groaned. A worst case scenario had just sprung to mind. "Gwendolen?"

"She promised me one of my lives back if I killed you," said Mark. He gestured and the air around Cat was filled with stiletto knives. All Cat's attention went to turning the deadly knives into birds. Marianne meanwhile had to deal with Amaranta's renewed attack. Two very different magics clashed.

Barone ran out of range. "No one said anything about killing!" he yelled. In their tank, the mermaids were shrieking.

Mark set a new set of knives at the Barone to deal with that loose end. Cat managed to deflect the knives from the Barone just in time, but his inattention to his own dangers got Cat's ear clipped badly by a spell knife. He clutched his bleeding ear with his right hand.

A multi-lived enchanter. With Mark's power, four or maybe five lives. If Cat had guessed right, that would also explain how Gwendolen had had the power to re-open her world. She was feeding off a new enchanter. Cat was disgusted with himself for not even noticing that the world was open again. He'd gotten so used to it being gone, cut off from everything, he'd simply stopped looking in its direction. He vowed to not make this error in the future.

Mark had his teacher's nasty streak. His attack was unrelenting and getting closer by the second. The Barone had run away up the stairs after Cat saved him. Cat made a mental note to himself that if he survived this, he would make sure the Caprona government threw the full force of the law at the Barone for illegal trading.

Things were going better for Marianne. She'd transformed Amaranta's clothes into binding ropes and sent her tumbling down in a heap. Marianne conjured a proper gag for Amaranta this time, instead of just fouling her mouth with rotten fruit.

Marianne made Amaranta sleep and turned her attentions to Cat and Mark's duel. Finding a weak spot without interfering with Cat's efforts was Marianne's main priority. After some thought, she decided the simplest strategy was best, picked up a rock, and flung it at Mark's head.

The decidedly non-magical rock, unaffected by Mark's protective spells, struck him right on the temple. He screamed and clutched his head, giving Cat a chance to get out of danger.

Cat began weaving a spell to nullify Mark's powers.

"I know the sort of things she is capable of," Cat said. "We can offer you protection. Let us help you."

Mark snarled and grabbed the cracked mirror from his side, and disappeared into it with a flash. The mirror dropped to the ground, a new crack running across its surface.

Cat sighed and went to pick it up. "I've got to reseal it. Once I've figured out how she did it in the first place."

"It was your sister then?" said Marianne.

"Well, it was her little queendom's world. If they didn't revolt against her in the first ten minutes after she took their queen's place, at least. Limits the suspec--"

"You miserable little brat!" yelled the mirror. Gwendolen, now an adult, looked out, face distorted by the cracks in the mirror. "I should never have left you with so many lives!"

Cat's face went deathly pale as he looked at the mirror in his hands. The mirror flashed, and its surface turned an opaque grey.

"Oh," said Cat in a faraway voice. "I figured out how to block off her world again."

Marianne gently took Cat's elbow and sat him down on an old stone coffin. He didn't seem to have died like the last time the world had been sealed off, but he did have more regard for himself than Gwendolen ever had.

Tonino called down, sounding worried. "Is everyone alive down there?"

"Yes, thank you!" Marianne yelled back.

"Where is my Amaranta!" yelled Signora Coletti.

Amaranta was still sleeping soundly in her bonds, Marianne's spell holding fast.

"Please tell whoever that is not to come down!" yelled Marianne. "And if you see an old man, please detain him!"

Giving Cat time to compose himself, she turned to the most important task at hand: Getting the mermaids out of the filthy water. She pressed her hands against the tank and thought light thoughts. Slowly it started to shift under her touch, as though it had no more mass than a balloon. She pulled it out from against the wall, then got behind it to push.

The mermaids had stopped screaming and were watching her excitedly, some even laughing.

"Ladies," said Marianne, "if you can understand me, I ask that you please stay nearby once you're in the water."

The mermaids just laughed, waving at her. One leaned out of the top of the tank to pet her hair. The mermaid's skin had a green sheen from the nastiness of the water she'd been kept in.

"I need to get you back to Coral," said Marianne. The mermaids stopped laughing and looked at each other, yelling 'Coral!' to each other as they recognized their little sister's name.

"I hope you understand me," said Marianne.

The mermaids got much louder and excited as they saw sunlight from the hole in the wall. "Second to last stop," said Marianne as she tipped over the tank at the hole enough that the mermaids could wiggle out into the river, laughing and cheering.

Marianne pushed the tank away, it was starting to become heavy again, and leaned against the hole looking down. The mermaids were bobbing happily in the water, smiling at her.

"I'll get you back with Coral," Marianne said. The mermaids cheered.

And several miles away, in a bathtub in Tonino's apartment, Coral cheered too, as if she could already hear her sisters' voices. Klartch didn't know why, but Coral's cheering, like her giggling, was infectious, and he joined in as well.

Barone Erasmus Arrigoni never did shake the scandal of being arrested for illegal trading, and his collection was seized. He did, however, come to feel he got the better end of the deal after Mark Abbot's attempt to dispose of him.

Amaranta Coletti came to feel the same way once she'd served her time. To her mother's lasting disappointment, her courtship with Paolo Montana fell through. Amaranta was too busy enjoying surviving a bad life choice to care.

Coral and her sisters were returned to their world, and their rocky home was protected by wards to prevent another mermaid-napping.

Marianne, Cat, and Klartch eventually got to Casa Montana where they were fussed over. Then they finally got to sleep.

Paolo did not hold Tonino responsible.

And that, madams and sirs, is my report on the matter of the mermaid smuggling, said Cat's official summary of the incident.

Arrigoni and Coletti will face their time for their crimes. Gwendolen Chant and Mark Abbot, however, must face the punishment of simply being forced to share a world with each other.

Yours in service,

Chrestomanci