Chapter One: Sophie's Guest
Sophie took a sip of the hot ginger tea in front of her and turned to smile at Markl. He was in his old man guise and was busy with a customer from the yellow portal. It was interesting; Sophie had never seen Markl interact with a customer for as long as he was now. The customer, a middle aged woman with dark brown hair, was making her decision between two different orders of potions. Markl was patiently, albeit grudgingly assisting her. Sophie's eyes lingered on the woman's hair. It was very similar to the color hair she had once had. She took another sip of tea. It wasn't that she minded her hair now. Sophie thought the grayish color lent her appearance an age and wisdom that made her features softer. But the brown reminded her of her life before the Castle, and she had to admit she did miss it a little.
"Thank you very much! Come again!"
Markl's old man voice shook Sophie out of her thoughts. She heard the front door slam and the familiar pop of Markl shedding his disguise. The young boy stomped up the stairs by the door and came to stand by Sophie, who was seated at the kitchen table. "I hope she never comes again!" he said, slamming his face against the tabletop. "Did you see how long she took?" he continued incredulously. Sophie steadied her teacup against Markl's violent movement. "Yes, she did take an unusually long amount of time," Sophie conceded. "It must have been something very important."
"No," said Markl in a disgusted voice. "It was something to strengthen wool dye."
"Wool dye. Hm."
Sophie and Markl turned to see the Witch slowly make her way down the stairs. "Good morning," Sophie said as she got up from the table. She quickly placed her teacup in the sink and climbed halfway up the stairs to assist the older woman. "Thank you, my dear," the Witch said in response. When they had reached the bottom of the stairs, the Witch started for the door. "Do you want to come outside with me, Markl?" she asked as she grabbed a shawl from the conveniently placed coat rack. "Sure!" Markl replied. "Where's Heen?"
A loud wheeze was heard from somewhere in the room. A furry old dog crept out from underneath the couch. "Come on, Heen! Time to go outside!" Markl called. The young boy pulled a scarf around his neck and headed towards the portal that doubled as their front door. "Standby!" Markl said. The circle changed from yellow to blue, and the door opened to reveal the little bit of yard that the Castle had. Then, beyond that, the open sky. Markl held open the door for the Witch and then quickly closed it behind him.
Sophie was left alone in the kitchen. It seemed that one member of the family was missing, and Sophie knew exactly where to find him. She climbed the wooden steps, which led her to the second floor of the Castle. She passed the bathroom and Markl's room, and placed her hand on a familiar door. Howl's room. Sophie gently pressed against the wood, and the door creaked open a bit.
"Howl?" she called quietly. No answer.
"Howl?" Still nothing.
"Howl!" she cried loudly.
"Mmmh?" came the reply.
"Aren't you up yet?"
"I'm coming in." Sophie pushed the door open, and a glimmer of gold came to meet her. Howl was lying, eyes closed, in bed. He was wearing his usual white shirt; the only type of shirt Sophie could ever recall him wearing. Sophie didn't move from her spot by the door.
"Don't you want some breakfast?" she asked. She could see Howl's blue eyes open. His bright face turned towards her.
"You can come in, you know," he informed her. Sophie looked down at her feet. Suddenly she felt slightly timid. She hadn't actually entered Howl's room since before everything had happened, and the prospect seemed strange.
Howl saw her hesitate, and he sat up in bed and smiled at her. "Never mind, Sophie. I'll be downstairs in a few minutes." She looked up from the floor. He was smiling at her, something he often did but she never failed to value. His dark hair sat perfectly straight against his face. Even in the mornings, it was never otherwise. But his blue eyes were the features that perplexed her. They seemed to say that they knew much more than she did and had seen much more than she had.
Sophie snapped out of her sudden wariness and smiled back. She gently closed the door behind her, slowly pulling her hand from the handle.
She made her way back downstairs to the kitchen. Once there, Sophie reached into the cupboards below the sink and produced a frying pan and a spatula.
She suddenly felt a hand touch her waist, and nearly dropped the pan. "Good morning, Sophie," said Howl, from behind her. She turned to face him. He was fully dressed and already downstairs. "That was quick," she answered. "Good morning." Howl's smile brightened in response, and he leaned down to give her a quick kiss on the cheek. Then he took the pan from Sophie and turned towards the stove.
"Good morning, Calicifer," Howl said, greeting the small flame that looked as tired as he had five minutes ago.
"What? Oh. Good morning," the flame said, opening its eyes. The flame looked at the pan in Howl's hands. "I suppose you want me to heat that up for you?" it said with sigh.
"If you would be so kind," Howl replied. The flame abruptly sprang up, almost singeing Howl's hand. "Oh come now, Calicifer. There's no cause for that," Howl said, flipping the eggs and bacon with the spatula that he took from Sophie.
Sophie leaned back against the sink and watched. It was as true now as it had ever been: she was in love with Howl. Their relationship never really progressed, but that was how Sophie wanted it. Howl never seemed to want for anything more than to grab her hand when leading her somewhere or hold on to her waist when he took her flying off of the Castle. And, of course, the occasional kiss. Sophie knew that he loved her, and that was enough. He had his own business to attend to, his own life to live. She was glad that he could remain as free-spirited as he had been before.
It was then that Sophie heard a knock on the door. The color on the circle switched back to yellow. Now that the war was over, Howl went by his own name in the two cities that he was the potions master of.
"Could you get that Sophie?" Howl asked as he flipped the bacon and eggs over again. Sophie pushed herself off the counter and walked over to the door. The door opened before her, and a young man with long blonde hair stood in the doorframe. He was dressed in red satin and velvet, and he had a black top hat sitting precariously on his head. The young man smiled upon sighting Sophie and took off his hat with a grand sweep.
"Hello Sophie. How have you been?" he said. Sophie was confused. She did not know who the man was. Suddenly, it dawned upon her. "Turnip head?" she cried, letting the first thing that came to her mind come out her mouth. Howl turned around from his cooking at the mention of the name. The young man smiled. "Whatever you wish to call me. Sophie, darling," the Prince paused dramatically, taking her hand in his. " I've come to make you my bride."
"Your bride?" Sophie gently loosened her hand from his. "No, I'm sorry, there must be a mistake. You don't want me. I live here… my family is here. Besides, it's been months…"
"Almost a year." The Prince walked into the Castle, and the door closed behind him. The color circle changed back to blue. Markl pushed through the door as soon as it changed. "Finally! I've been hungry for breakfast for ages, and this door wouldn't open!" the boy said, almost knocking into the Prince. The small boy looked up at the newcomer. "Oh! Turnip head! I haven't seen you in a while! Are you staying for breakfast?" The Prince jumped at the invitation. "Breakfast sounds wonderful. I would be much obliged if I could stay."
Sophie glanced up at Howl for the first time since she had opened the door. His eyes had an unnatural glint to them, much like they were when he changed into his bird-like form. However, his face remained just as placid as always. "Yes, it would be an honor to have the Prince for breakfast," Howl said, calmly. The old Witch walked through the door.
"Oh? Company?" she said, happy to see the newcomer. Sophie closed the door behind the old woman. For some reason she felt like running to her room.
She certainly didn't want to deal with this.