Chapter One: In which Sophie plans two weddings

Sophie knew when she agreed to marry the Wizard Howl that she wasn't letting herself in for an easy life.

"That's all right though," she told her veil quietly as she pulled it over her face and tried to keep her balance and her temper while standing on the well-polished dining room chair. Her future sister-in-law, Megan, had made her stand on the chair while Megan and her friends, Sioned and Gwenno, fussed about with the hem of Sophie's wedding dress.

Sophie peered down to inspect their handiwork. It seemed they were making a lot of fuss over an uneven seam that was almost invisible and, in any case, could be quite easily fixed. "Why don't I just put a stitch--" she began.

"We know what we're doing, thank you, Sophie," said Gwenno, sounding very brisk and businesslike. The three women had refused all of Sophie's offers to help with her wedding dress, even though Sophie had pointed out to them several times that she was a hatmaker by trade and that dressmaking was practically second nature to her.

"Surely you know, Sophie," added Sioned, "That you should never, ever sew anything at the same time you're wearing it. It's terribly bad luck!"

Sophie hadn't known. Wales was such a strange world, she thought. It seemed altogether too easy to attract bad luck with the smallest actions - why, you only needed to spill a little salt or sew a button on your coat while you were wearing it. Things were especially bad, it seemed, when you were preparing for a wedding. It didn't surprise her one bit that Howl had decided to learn as much as he could about charms and spells - it was probably the only way he'd have a fighting chance against all the bad luck in his world. The really amazing thing was that most people in that world weren't in the least bit magical and a surprising number of them didn't even believe there was such a thing as magic. Sophie wondered whether she'd ever get used to all the funny customs and beliefs the people had there. The most difficult thing to get used to, though, was Megan. To say Sophie and Megan's personalities clashed would be putting it mildly.

Sophie and Howl had been staying with Megan's family while the wedding preparations were under way. At first Sophie didn't understand why Howl couldn't simply explain to Megan that the front door of "Rivendell", the little yellow house in Wales, was one of the portals to his moving castle which hovered on the outskirts of a town called Market Chipping in Sophie's home world. As she came to know Megan better, Sophie realised that this information would only have caused Megan to fuss and fret and worry what the neighbours would think of them. So Sophie didn't argue when Howl said it might be better if she could stay in Wales for the week, until the wedding was over. "At least she'll think one of us is respectable," he'd pointed out. But living with her future sister in law wasn't easy - even if it was only for a short few days. "Never mind." Sophie spoke softly because she knew Megan wasn't over fond of her as it was. She certainly wouldn't understand why Sophie felt it necessary to speak to her veil. "At least we won't see Megan all the time when we're on our honeymoon," she reassured it.

In fact Sophie was looking forward to the honeymoon much more than she was to her wedding. Even though she had no idea of their destination and Howl was being as infuriatingly secretive as ever.

"I just want to surprise you," he'd told her, just the evening before. He was laughing at her persistance, as she tried to pin him down for the hundredth time. "Now stop nosing, Mrs Nose. You'll love it! I promise."

Sophie believed him. At any rate, she knew the honeymoon was going to be a lot more fun than the wedding, which was being organised by Megan and her friends with a military precision Howl seemed to find alarming. Sophie, who by her own admission liked to be in charge, found herself in the frustrating position of having little or no say in the arrangements.

This was partly because the wedding was taking place in Howl's home country of Wales. And weddings in Wales, as it turned out, were rather different affairs than they were in the land of Ingary, where Sophie had grown up. A wedding in Wales required what struck Sophie as some rather exotic paraphenalia.

"We're going to have to order flowers, sausage rolls, chicken drumsticks," Megan muttered through a mouthful of pins. "I'll call Dewi and see if he can bring his mobile disco over to the rugby club for the reception. Huh, I'll have to phone the rugby club and get them to confirm they can fit us in." She sounded annoyed, as if Howl and Sophie had forced her to organise their wedding and it was all rather more trouble than she needed, but Sophie was quite sure Megan wouldn't have given the project up for anything. She might have said it was because she didn't trust Howl and Sophie to organise "a get-together in a brewery", as she put it, but the truth was that Megan loved being in charge at least as much as Sophie did.

"Oh, yes!" Megan sighed irritably. She smoothed out a piece of lace against the hem of Sophie's dress with one hand and spat a few pins into the other. "And I'll have to call the preacher about conducting the wedding in chapel - although, heaven knows, I wouldn't blame the poor man if he turned us down, seeing it's for our Howell who hasn't set foot in the place in donkey's years and would probably be struck by lightening if he tried to do so."

At this, there was a loud exclamation of outrage and a skidding of boots on linoleum as Howl emerged from the kitchen and appeared in the doorway of the dining room. "How many times, woman?" he began. "We are not--"

"You! Who let you in?" Megan let out a little scream and, with the help of her friends, tried to push her brother back out into the kitchen. "Get out of here!" she squawked. "Don't look at the dress! Idiot! Don't you know, with all your fancy education, what bad luck you'd be asking for, seeing the dress before the wedding?"

From her slippery pedestal, Sophie tried to give her husband-to-be a supportive smile as he was manhandled back into the kitchen by three indignant women. She wasn't sure it was very noticable through masses of gauzy white veil, however.

"We're not getting married in chapel," she heard Howl protest. "No I've nothing against the preacher, but if I've told you once I've told you a hundred times - we're getting married in the register office."

Their voices grew fainter as Howl was hustled further into the kitchen. Sophie heard the back door being unlocked and opened and wondered whether Howl was leaving by choice or by force. Either way, somehow, she didn't think he'd be all that sorry to make his escape.

"A register office! Well, really, Howell! I must say I don't think that's very romantic," Megan was saying disapprovingly. "Why, even the name sounds so. so." She struggled to pluck the words from the air and, after a few attempts, gave up with an irritated wave of her hand. "And I don't suppose you care how it looks - no, of course you wouldn't, would you? You know your photo will be in the local paper, don't you? There's always a weddings section. Have you thought about your children - you are planning to have children I take it? Or do you have to be different on that count as well?" This last part sounded as if she was calling out of the door after someone. A certain Someone who was doubtless already slithering away across the back garden and down the road to a pub called The Ship which had the largest and most magnificent magic-picture screen Sophie had ever seen. There, he would meet with various disreputable characters who shared his taste for rugby and warm beer. Sophie envied him.

"Cofia, Megan," Howl's voice came wafting faintly from somewhere beyond the back door, "No chapel, iawn? Just remember!"

"Nobody asks me what I want," Sophie told the veil indignantly. "Not that I've any idea what the choices are here in Wales. Oh, it's all too annoying! I tell you, when we get back to Ingary, we're going to get married all over again and then I'll have the wedding I want, with my friends and my family -- you see if I don't!"

Not having all her friends and family with her for the wedding was the one thing that Sophie really was sorry about. Ideally, she would have liked the wedding to take place in Ingary. Her home town of Market Chipping was a perfectly respectable place, especially if you ignored the forbidding towers of Howl's castle as it roamed around the outskirts of town. But Sophie could see that Howl might have a problem explaining about Ingary to Megan and her family. And she had no doubt that it would be next to impossible to get Megan to accept that her brother lived in a moving castle there.

Sophie had shared this worry a few weeks earlier with her sister Martha, when she visited Martha at the bakers shop she worked at in Market Chipping.

"Megan already thinks I'm very strange," Sophie had explained, eyeing a custard tart hungrily. She'd been doing so much dashing about from world to world lately, trying to ensure that no one was feeling left out of her wedding plans, that she quite often missed meals, as she had that morning. "And she knows exactly what Howl's like. And, in Megan's view, strange is not good. Showing her the castle - showing her Ingary, even -- would only confirm her worst suspicions." Sophie gave a heavy sigh. "Martha, I'm so tired! I just know I'm going to lose my temper and I'll only be sorry afterwards. I don't want to give Megan any more ammunition."

Martha had been busy serving at the bakery counter. Expertly, she popped half a dozen cheese scones into a big white paper bag and flipped the bag over like a diabolo to twist it closed. She passed the bag to a waiting customer. "Well, I don't think there's really a problem," she'd assured Sophie as she put the money in the till. "If you have the wedding in Wales, we could all go there, couldn't we?"

"Mmm, that would be nice," Sophie had said, absent-mindedly breaking off the crust of the custard tart and putting it into her mouth as she reflected on the idea, but she still looked doubtful. Martha and their other sister Lettie might manage to fit in in Wales - well, at least they wouldn't fit in any worse than Sophie did, although that wasn't saying much. But what about Fanny? Sophie shuddered, remembering Fanny's rather forthright and uncomplimentary opinions about the clothes she had seen people wearing when they came from Howl's world. Fanny was Sophie's step- mother and although she was a good-hearted person and meant no harm with anything she said or did, somehow Sophie did not believe Fanny would be very comfortable with Wales. She was even more certain that Wales would be distinctly uncomfortable with her.

In the end, Sophie, Martha and Lettie had decided between them that the best thing would be for Sophie to have two weddings, one in Wales and one in Ingary.

"And we'll come to both of them!" said Lettie, laughing delightedly.

Unfortunately, although Fanny was rich enough to have paid for both weddings, Sophie knew that her step mother would have been very upset and hurt to discover that she was one of the main reasons for the decision.

"It's easy. We'll just not mention to anyone that we're having two weddings," Howl had whispered to her that evening when Sophie was back in Wales and had confided her idea to him. "We'll have the wedding here. A quiet one, just Megan and her lot, your sisters, Michael and Ben. Then we'll go on honeymoon. Then we'll have the wedding in Ingary."

It was one of the rare occasions they had the place to themselves. For once, the moving picture box - the TV, it was called, Sophie reminded herself - was silent. She and Howl were snuggled up on the battered orange sofa that was more usually loaded with a fast turnover of laundry, schoolbags and TV magazines, the trappings of Megan's busy life.

Although their son Neil spent as much time out of the house as possible, Megan and her husband Gareth were both homebodies by habit. That evening, however, Howl had persuaded Megan that it was high time Gareth took her out for a romantic meal at the local Indian restaurant. With their little daughter, Mari, also out, sleeping over at a friend's house, peace reigned in the little yellow house. Sophie relaxed a little for the first time in weeks as Howl nuzzled her ear. "If nobody knows there's more than one wedding," he murmured, "nobody will have any reason get upset."

Sophie yawned, stretching her arms and legs and not even pretending to cover her mouth. It felt luxurious to be able to do so without having to worry that Megan would cluck her tongue at Some People's Manners. "Honestly, Howl," Sophie said, "sometimes I think I'm turning into as much of a slitherer-outer as you."

It was knowing she had another wedding in Ingary to look forward to that helped Sophie refrain from being downright rude when Megan bustled back into the dining room, red-faced and puffing with indignation, with Sioned and Gwenno in attendance.

"That no good brother of mine!" Megan snorted. "Not a responsible bone in his body! I like the way he just slopes off like that, leaving me to make all the arrangements. Leaving muggins here to book the chapel and fix his wife's wedding dress while he swans off to the pub."

Sophie was tempted to point out that Megan hadn't given Howl much of an option as far as helping them with the wedding dress was concerned. However, if she was going to have an argument with Megan she thought at least it might as well be about something that made a difference. "He doesn't want anyone to book the chapel," Sophie pointed out, in a tone of voice that she hoped didn't sound too close to the not entirely rational irritation that Megan so often inspired in her. It'll all be all right once we're off on honeymoon, she reminded herself. That thought was keeping her sane - although, surprise or not, she thought it would contribute even more to her sanity if she knew exactly where they were going. There were far too many things going on, in Sophie's opinion, that she didn't seem to have any control over. "He wants the register office." Whatever one of those is, she added silently to herself.

"Indeed!" said Megan in a very cold voice and began filling her mouth with pins once more. She threaded a needle and began tacking the piece of lace to the bottom of Sophie's dress with a brisk finality that gave Sophie a clear warning that she could expect no more discussion on that particular matter or -- for the time being at least -- any other.

+++ All characters belong to Diana Wynne Jones