It all began when Janet disappeared.
It was a pleasant spring day. Chrestomanci had been called away the day before and had yet to return, and Millie was away on an errand. Cat and Janet were outside with Roger and Julia, playing tag. Janet had just tagged Roger and was running away, laughing. “Catch me if you c—”
Mid-word, Janet vanished. After another moment, she was back, about a yard away from where she had been, looking off-balance. “Did you—”
It happened again; this time she was gone a little longer. By the time she reappeared, everyone had run over to her. Cat reached out and grabbed her hand with his left before she could vanish again.
He felt the spell as it tried to pull her away—rather like being caught in a strong tide—but he managed to counter it with a sideways jab of magic.
“What happened?” asked Julia.
Janet sat down abruptly; Cat hurriedly took a step forward so as to keep hold of her without falling over. “I though—I was on the street where my parents live. And I saw her. Just for a moment. ”
“My Dear Replacement. She wavered in and out while I was there, but I saw her.”
The next jolt was harder, and Cat slipped. The two of them vanished together.
All of a sudden, the two of them were in Janet’s original world. Cat had never been there—Chrestomanci had taken him to other worlds, of course, but never this one. But he knew it immediately from Janet’s descriptions of the neat symmetrical houses and the sleek cars.
And as Janet had said, her Dear Replacement was there.
She looked very much like Janet, and very much like Gwendolen. But her golden hair was cut short, and her voice was much softer than either of theirs had ever been. “Are you from Chrestomanci?” she asked.
Cat tried to remember what Janet had said about the girl who’d taken her place, so easily that her parents hadn’t noticed the difference. She’d been an orphan, he remembered that much.
“Romillia, right?” Janet asked. “No, Chrestomanci didn’t send us. We’re not here on purpose.”
“Oh, thank goodness,” Romillia said, with a great deal of feeling. “I know this isn’t my world, but I want to stay. And Chrestomanci said that I could, as long as all the others were happy too.”
“Of course you can!” said Janet. She looked ready to take Romillia’s part against anyone.
It seemed obvious to Cat what was going on. Gwendolen had, that terrible day when they’d last seen her, sealed herself in another world—so well that even Chrestomanci couldn’t reach her. At the time, Cat had assumed that was the end of it.
But he’d since learned that the spell Gwendolen had used—besides being so simple that she could cast it without her witchcraft, and so dangerous that he was still a little surprised that the dragon’s blood hadn’t killed her—wasn’t permanent. Given time, it would fade and break.
He’d thought that the time involved would be measured in decades or centuries, not just a few years; but he’d known that one day Gwendolen’s world would no longer be walled off.
He hadn't wanted to see her again so soon—perhaps at all, really. But Chrestomanci wasn’t here, and as his successor it was probably Cat's job to sort things out.
And in the end, Gwendolen was his sister, and her Dear Replacements were family too, in a way.
“It’s Gwendolen,” he said, since they hadn’t yet. “So I’ll have to go and—and stop her, I suppose.”
Janet bit her lip. “Are you sure you want to meet her alone? I can go with you, or Roger and Julia, I suppose—”
Cat shook his head. Janet couldn’t come with him without sending all her doubles willy-nilly throughout the worlds—or dragging them all with her to see Gwendolen.
Roger and Julia, being a Chrestomanci’s children, didn’t have that problem; they might not be nine-lived enchanters themselves, but they didn’t have any doubles to worry about. He could have asked them for help—or even some of the adult witches from the Castle. But he found he didn't want to.
“No,” he said. “I’ll go on alone.” He hesitated. “Tell them at the Castle that I’m all right, and that I’ll be home before tomorrow?”
Janet nodded, and hugged him. Then he sent her back, and tied a knot in what he thought was Gwendolen’s spell, so she wouldn’t be brought back again; did the same for Romillia, and then followed the spell into the next world.
In front of him was a girl who looked a lot like Janet and Romillia (and Gwendolen)—but a little skinnier and much harder-faced, with a tough expression and a patched skirt hiked up to her knees. She had knife in her hand—only a pocketknife, but she was brandishing it as if it were a sword.
“Jen Chant,” Romillia’s Dear Replacement said, and she smacked the pocketknife in her hand for emphasis. "Are you the one who's doing this?"
“I”m Cat,” he said. Before she got any ideas, he added, “I’m trying to fix my sister’s spell so that you can stay here.”
Jen tilted her head. “You sure you’re up to it? Soft kid like you…”
She sounded skeptical, mostly. But—maybe a little worried, too.
Distantly, Cat remembered Chrestomanci saying that the girl who’d taken Romillia’s place was as tough as Gwendolen. It occurred to him now that the main difference between the two of them was that Jennifer Chant hadn’t had a brother, and with no one to take advantage of she’d never gotten to be as ruthless as his sister. It was a strange thought.
Rather than dwell on it too long, or give her a chance to offer to come along, he gathered up the strands of the spell—three of them now, broken ends dangling—and used them to pull himself into the next world.
The next few worlds went quickly. Now that he’d done it twice, he had the knack. He didn't stay long with any of them.
The fourth Dear Replacement mentioned seeing her double for a moment; the fifth and sixth had been in the same world long enough to talk to each other. The seventh seemed not to have noticed anything wrong at all.
But next-to-last world was different. For one thing, he seemed to be in a forest; the trees were gnarled and ancient, the ground at a steep incline, and he could smell salt in the air. Was this place near the sea, in this world?
Looking around, Cat saw that the spell had worked correctly: another of the girls his sister might have been was staring at him.
He had a hard time imagining Gwendolen choosing to live this girl’s life. The girl in front of him had twigs in her hair and dried mud on her skirt—Gwendolen would never have stood for that—and there were scratches on her arms. But she looked very pleased with herself, with the sack of red berries in her hand.
Of course. This was Queen Caroline, the girl whose throne Gwendolen had stolen. Although, from what Chrestomanci had said, Caroline would have been happy to give it away.
“Who are you?” said Caroline. “There hasn’t been a ship in weeks, and the next one isn’t due until next month.”
“I’m Cat Chant,” he said.
“That’s my last name too,” she said. “Anne Chant. Where did you come from?”
“I’m looking for my sister,” Cat said, even though that wasn’t quite the question she’d asked.
It seemed like this was a mistake; like Romillia, Caroline made assumptions. Unlike Romillia, she was quite willing to put her foot down.
“I won’t go back!” said Caroline. “You have no idea what it’s like—never a moment to myself, no one to talk to! Every day was either a ceremony or some beastly party that I had to go to or I’d be insulting someone. None of it mattered. They’d have done just as well to haul around a porcelain doll on my litter! And if I ever tried to do anything that did matter, they’d tell me not to worry my pretty little head about it. Well, I’m done with them!”
Cat wondered about that. Gwendolen wouldn’t like to be told not to worry her pretty head about things either. Maybe that was what was going on. Perhaps she’d realized that she had no real power in her court, and was trying to get out of the position she’d been willing to leave him to die to get into.
“I don’t want you to,” he said. “My sister is the one who took your place, the way you took Anne’s. And she’s the one who’s doing this. She’s a witch, or she used to be.”
“Witchcraft—“ Caroline frowned. “My mother—the old Queen—they say she was a witch. But she died years before I left. I think it was a spell she got wrong, and it’s on account of that that my Regents would never let me study magic. And my—my mother here says that she was a witch when she was a girl, but for years all of her spells went wrong, so she hasn’t done any magic in ages.”
“Well,” Cat said, “I can ground you here. And then I’ll go and—and stop her.” He hadn’t let himself think about that part, that he would have to confront Gwendolen at the end of this.
Caroline didn’t give him time to consider his second thoughts. She nodded—a queen’s nod, incongruous with her dirty dress and tangled hair—and said “Go on then. If she wants the throne she can have it—and if she doesn’t, tell her that sometimes the price of theft is to keep what you stole.”
Cat nodded. He did what he could to anchor Caroline, using the same quick spell he’d used for Romillia and the others, braced himself, and when the next jolt came towards Caroline—weaker, here, than any of the others—he followed it into Gwendolen’s new world.
He was in Gwendolen’s palace. Not a part of it he’d seen before—a wide hall, floored with those familiar tiles and lined with portraits of people Cat almost recognized.
To his surprise, Gwendolen was nowhere in sight. (Had she realized he was coming?) But he wasn’t alone, either. Two richly-dressed men were striding anxiously down the hall, whispering to one another.
They hadn’t seen him yet, perhaps because of their large wigs, which almost reminded Cat of a horse’s blinkers. Still, he hastily made himself invisible, and stepped back so that their elaborate clothes wouldn’t bump into him and give him away.
A moment later, he wondered if he should have bothered; neither of the men even looked in his direction.
“… Banned Lady O’Neir from her Royal Presence…” one of them was saying.
“I’ve never seen her in such a state!” said the other. He sounded terribly alarmed.
That didn’t sound much like the Gwendolen he remembered; she’d have taken worse revenge than refusing to see people.
Perhaps this was all a queen was allowed to do about people who annoyed her. A strange thought, that the position Gwendolen had fought so hard for might have ended up holding her back from doing her worst to people.
Still. Cat might not have ended up in Gwendolen’s Royal Presence straight away, but the knotted ends of magic told him just where she was. Cat made his way through the card palace, and wondered.
“That took you longer than I expected.”
Gwendolen was wearing a cloth-of-gold robe and the same kind of sharp-pointed shoes as Cat remembered from the last time he’d seen her, but she wore no headdress, and her hair was only braided with gold thread. Although it was very late here, she hadn’t been sleeping; the ridiculously ornate desk was covered in papers, as if she’d been studying. Cat couldn’t make out the words, but they didn’t seem to be spells.
That wasn’t like her. For as long as Cat could remember, Gwendolen had ignored all of her studies other than magic.
She’d changed, since he’d seen her; she was softer to look at, but her expression was more guarded. She looked a little less like Janet (or Caroline, or Romillia, or even Jen), and a little more like the distant queen she was trying to be.
“I didn’t think you meant me to come at all,” Cat said.
“Well, I didn’t mean you to, originally. But since my spell went wrong, I knew you’d come eventually—you or the Big Man,” she said airily.
If she’d really thought that Chrestomanci might be the one coming, would she have been so unconcerned? But perhaps she had just learned to control her face and voice, since he had seen her last. It had been a long time.
“If your spell went wrong, what did you want it to do?” He’d assumed that she wanted to escape this world, that she had regretted her choice. But seeing her now, and seeing that desk, he began to doubt it.
“Oh, I was trying to take a bit of my counterparts’ magic. Just a little bit. Nothing they’d miss, really; it would have grown back in less than a year. But m-the old Queen left terrible notes. Either she never got the spell right, or she simply couldn’t explain the matter well.”
It was like Gwendolen, Cat supposed, to never accept responsibility for a mistake that she could blame on someone else.
“What did you want it for?”
“Why, to make my magic grow back faster.” Gwendolen smiled, the same pretty expression that had once had the neighborhood at her feet. “Witchcraft can be taken away, but it doesn’t always stay gone, you know.”
“So you weren’t trying to get out of this world?”
Gwendolen laughed. “Why would I ever want to do that? I was promised that I would rule the world, and I do. Why should I give all this up?” She gestured airily at the room, the overdone luxury of her palace.
“I don’t see that you do rule it,” Cat said, surprising himself a bit.
“I have regents, because I’m a child,” Gwendolen admitted. “But they won’t be there forever. When I come of age they shall have to give way to me. And in the meantime, I have to make plans for the future.” She smiled again, that old winning expression. “Even a queen isn’t invulnerable. I’ve learned that. Magic makes things a bit more sure.” She scowled, ruining the impression. “But the spell didn’t work. Instead of giving me the other Chant girls’ magic, it tried to pull them towards me, into this world. Why, if I hadn’t compensated for it, there would have been two Queens in court yesterday! ”
And because this world had been sealed out of the cycle, they’d snapped back into their own new worlds, instead of being pulled all the way back to their original ones. Probably that was what had gone wrong with the spell in the first place; it had been meant to work with a full cycle, drawing power from both directions, so that they balanced out. (Cat’s mother had never quite been a witch. Perhaps she might have been. Perhaps if the last Queen of this world had not been altogether too much like Gwendolen, their mother might not have drowned.)
She looked him in the eye. “I won’t go back, you know. This spell may have failed, but I can still stop you from doing that.”
Cat had missed Gwendolen; as little sense as it made to miss someone who’d been willing to see him dead for her own convenience, he had. But he’d miss Janet too; and neither he nor Gwendolen had a right to uproot her and Romillia and Caroline and the others the way she’d done before.
And there was a difference between missing Gwendolen and wanting her back. Maybe she was better off here, as all the others were. He thought he hoped so. But he didn’t want to live with her again, after what she’d done.
If she was truly happy here, let her be happy; if she was putting on a brave face, let her do that too.
In this world, she would have to change herself if she wanted to get anything done. She clearly wasn’t reigning as a tyrant here; the most she could do to hurt her servants and courtiers was ban them from her Royal Presence, which really wasn’t as terrible as they seemed to think. (Let her think it was terrible, too. Then she wouldn't try to do anything worse.)
If she wanted power as well as luxury, she would have to learn to use it—to study politics with the same focus that she’d once given to her witchcraft. And it seemed that before she’d decided to cut corners by stealing her counterparts’ magic, she had been doing just that.
“I don’t want to,” he heard himself say. “But you can’t go on stealing magic from the others.”
“I’ve always taken whatever I needed—or wanted,” Gwendolen said airily.
Such as Cat’s magic. It had taken him so long to even be properly angry about that. But that was who Gwendolen was—so confident and self-assured, so certain that everything she could ever want already belonged to her by right. It had been easy to believe her. Much easier than arguing.
He’d changed. Maybe she had too.
“Aren’t you clever enough to get what you want without magic? He gestured at her desk. “You’ve always been good at the things you really cared about.”
While he spoke, Cat reached out with his left hand and took the thread that led out of this world, to Caroline, and he snapped it — the last one. Carefully, he took the broken ends of the spell and knotted them together, so that any attempt to leech magic off of Caroline would lead right back to Gwendolen.
She realized what he was doing almost at once. For a moment, Cat wondered if she would attack him; Gwendolen had always had a vicious temper. But instead she laughed.
“Well,” said Gwendolen, with more grace than Cat would have expected from her, “As I said, it didn’t work properly anyway. But the way back won’t be open until midnight. Fancy a game of snaps before you go?”
It had been years since Cat had played snaps with anyone. But he still remembered how.