A/N: Okay, here goes! Last chapter everybody! Thanks for sticking with this story, and I really appreciate the comments that I've received over the (very) long evolution of State with Kings. Oh, and to clear up a bit of confusion, the way I write Sophie is a combination between book verse and movie verse. I referred to Sophie as "the witch" last chapter, so that was a little taste of the book Sophie. Otherwise this is pretty much based off of Miyazaki's creation.
Anyways, thanks again and enjoy!
Chapter 8: In Which There Is Much Mention of Moonlight
The Prince stared at the tips of his well kempt black boots and let the full force of Sophie's command wash over him. Leave... How was it possible for this misunderstanding to escalate into such a situation, and why was he always looking to the meanings of things? That unwanted characteristic was what had brought him to his knees that evening, what had made him believe that Sophie was in love with him. Sure, when he had first knocked on the door of the very establishment he was now standing in front of he had known that Sophie had chosen to live with the wizard. But he had seen this preference as more of a means of comfort and security, rather like a child's attachment to a blanket or stuffed bear; perhaps at most a mild attachment with delusions of grandeur. But he had seen the way that Sophie had fought her way into the wizard's castle...and away from himself. Leave. It was such a cold thing to say, though he could hardly expect any better.
Then suddenly a thought was brought to the forefront of the Prince's mind where it had no doubt been lurking for quite some time. This blatant refusal of Sophie's put him at a great inconvenience. Now he would have to go through with the promise he had made to his father so long ago. The Prince bit his lower lip in annoyance. This type of thing would happen to him wouldn't it? It wasn't enough that he had been turned into a scarecrow for those long months...
Without allowing himself to turn back towards the scene of his latest discomfiture, he turned on his heel and motioned to his footmen to attend him. It was time to go home.
Sophie's first instinct was to check the closets, for some reason. Upon entry she immediately ran towards the steps, anxious to be upstairs and ignoring the fact that Calcifer sat quietly in his grate, watching the proceedings with a blank stare and a bluish pallor. His subdued mood did not disturb her as much as the silence that muffled the rest of the house. She cursed Howl for not causing a fit, not spreading goo across the floor she had recently cleaned. Then she would know where to find him and she wouldn't feel the least bit sympathetic, no matter what his reasons for treating her so coldly were. Finding no luck with closets she began to open the various rooms upstairs. The magical almanacs spread across the floor of Markl's room didn't faze her, nor did the sullen colors of the Witch's tidy room. She hurried past them both and moved towards Howl's door while both craving and dreading to arrive there and see what she would find. As her hand pressed against the door handle Sophie was expecting to find Howl's room altered. The last time she had entered his room in such an agitated state there had been two tunnels awaiting her instead of the cold glow of the wizard's prized possessions. She turned the handle full of expectation and pushed the door open with a taste of the old vengeance she had felt outside. The door slammed into the wall behind it, but it was not the hallow sound of wood meeting rock.
Sophie blinked. The room was empty and there were plenty of odd gold instruments twinkling happily as if nothing were amiss. She walked into the room not at all squeamish to enter when Howl was not in bed. The atmosphere there was too calm, yet the silence pressed heavily against her, making her more anxious and weary. Sophie turned her snowy head towards the narrow beams of moonlight that pierced through the heavy curtain that Howl normally kept drawn. She lifted herself off the bed and stumbled towards the dull light, her foot catching on the edge of Howl's massive four poster bed. She steadied herself against the window ledge and looked out at the midnight view of the castle's yard framed against wispy gray clouds that flitted around the edges of the moonlight, casting patches of deeper darkness against the grass. How many evenings had she sat in the yard while watching Markl catch fireflies, when the castle had flown low enough to attract them? How many more had she spent with Howl, standing out on the tallest balcony and gazing down at the picturesque villages and landscape below? And now Howl was trying to take that lifestyle from her. She had never been so happy in the short amount of time that she had been alive and he had told her to marry the Prince.
Suddenly her heart caught in her throat as she spotted a lone figure on the balcony where so many of her memories lingered. She cursed herself for not checking so obvious a place. Her feet could not possibly carry her fast enough to this confrontation. The castle was dark but she did not stumble again. Sophie ran down the stairs and grabbed the back door's handle. She thought she heard a small word of encouragement from the fire grate, but the sound did not faze her. She pushed into the cool of the backyard and wasted no time in climbing the winding stairs that led to the balcony. She made no effort to muffle her steps against the iron staircase. Let Howl know that she was coming, let him be anxious for once that night. Sophie paused on the last step, breathless and angry yet suddenly reluctant. Howl's solitary figure had not turned to face her, and yet how could ignore the stare that was boring into the back of his head?
Even by the dull moonlight and distant starlight Sophie could make out the bluish tint to his hair and the porcelain fragility of his features. Howl had always struck her as a particularly beautiful man, yet now his beauty held no fascination for her. Part of the reason that Howl's presence had affected her in the past was because she believed that she had been held in the same awe and that even though their physical beauty did not compare, their esteem for one another was equal. But there was nothing like that to depend on now. Sophie took a deep breath and stepped forward to touch the very edge of Howl's shoulder. He did not turn to face her as the gentle touch swayed his body towards the railing and back to its original position. She called his name softly, though her original intent had been to scream it out over the darkness. When he failed to acknowledge her again, she did shout, and perhaps he could feel the force of her words because he finally stirred from his stiff stance.
Howl shifted his feet so that he could see her out of the corner of his eye. "You're back then?" he asked with a degree of surprise and what Sophie could only place as disappointment.
Sophie's brows furrowed into a single, deadly point. "You've always been a bright one, haven't you?" she retorted huffily. "How dare you leave me like that? What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking that it was time I left the palace," Howl replied calmly. "I knew my company...well, it would not be desirable much longer. Besides, it would have been tragic to disrupt the Prince's dinner in such a way." Sophie could detect the loathing that dripped from Howl's words, but the observation did nothing to allay her temper. "You did disrupt the dinner! But I didn't care because I thought I knew the reason why," Sophie said. "It's obvious I didn't."
Her thoughts raced to recover all the points she had wanted to make since she left the palace. "If you wanted me to marry the Prince you're going to have to get used to disappointment because unlike you I have a backbone and the guts enough to confront someone every once in a while." She paused, her breathing heavy and her attention focused on Howl.
"But what will you do?" Howl asked quietly.
"I'm a housekeeper, remember? I may not be 'Grandma Sophie' anymore but my hands still remember work."
"But why would you?" Howl countered with a sudden fierceness that started Sophie. He turned on his heel to face her for the first time. "Why would you settle for such a life when you could be Queen?"
"Because it's the life I want!" she cried out, her eyes beginning to swim with her frustration and the emotional force of their words. "I don't want him!"
The words knocked the breath out of Sophie but the little that remained caught in her throat. This was it- either Howl was going to reject her once and for all or...
She took another cautious step forward and looked Howl square in the eye. "I want you, Howl," she said determinedly.
The breeze stirred, bringing with it a light salty scent of the sea that was shining quietly below them. The castle was cheerfully silent as the two figures on it's highest balcony stared at each other, their countenances lit only by the moon that had burst forth from a particularly troublesome black cloud. Breaking the peace, Howl turned towards her with a familiar smile playing across his features. "Then perhaps we should make our arrangement a bit more respectable, hm?" he said in his normal, steady voice. Sophie gave a gasped laugh, incredulous. She found she could not bring herself to words until she processed what her love had said.
"What do you mean?" she asked lamely.
Howl chuckled in his practiced, patronizing manner. "I am surprised that a clever woman such as you would not recognize a marriage proposal when presented to her," he answered.
All traces of Sophie's former emotional confusion disappeared. "Don't toy with me," she warned using a tone that left no excuse for offense.
"Who's toying with whom?" Howl replied in mock indignation. "I believe it was you, dear Sophie, who first toyed with me."
When Sophie shot him a disbelieving look he continued. "Coming into my home, pretending to be a withered old maid? Tricking Calcifer into entering a deal with you and completely rearranging my hair dyes?" Howl shook his head, a smile playing on his face. "You have really turned this place upside down, haven't you?"
"No, you're the one who has done all the messing around in this household," Sophie countered, not quite ready to forgive and let the subject lay. "I thought you were content with the way things were, but then you attempted to evict me from the castle and lock Markl outside the door." "At night," she added as a second thought.
"Did you really expect me to open my home to that royal monstrosity?" Howl asked incredulously. "Sitting there like a warped watchdog waiting for you to come back? He shouldn't have left the palace."
Sophie sighed in exasperation. "You heard what he said: he wanted to marry me. You didn't do anything to make him think that his admiration was in vain." Howl looked pained for a moment as he looked into Sophie's face. It seemed as though he were searching for something, but as a result the close observation made Sophie uncomfortable.
"I had to let you make a choice. I didn't know why you stayed here," Howl started as if he were confessing a sin he had long kept inside his breast. "I had to know. I couldn't let you stay here, thinking that you were doing me a favor. We don't need you here-"
"What?" Sophie glared at the wizard in disgust. "You don't need me?" Howl opened his mouth to finish his sentence, but Sophie allowed him no time to speak. "You and Markl would be living under a pile of rotting garbage if it weren't for me! And Calcifer, poor Calcifer would be extinguished by now and you'd be dead along with him!"
Howl shook his head in alarm. "No, that's not what I meant. I meant that we could get along without you if you ever wanted to leave," he said quickly.
"Well, I won't be leaving, so you'll have to live with the disappointment," she answered, though she had to hide a quirk of amusement from overtaking her brow. She turned on her heel and walked back towards the stairs. She was halfway down flight of steps before Howl caught up to her. He lightly grabbed her upper arm and drew her close to his side.
"But I don't want you to go," he said quietly. "If you don't want to go," he added. Sophie shook the wizard off of her arm and continued down the stairs.
"I'm not going anywhere," she coolly called behind her.
"Then will you marry me?"
"Ask me in the morning," she replied firmly. "Now if you'll excuse me, I think there are a few people that need attending to."
The bright sunlight filled the kitchen, outshining even the glow of the household fire demon. "Will you be done with the eggs soon?" Calcifer cried out in agony. "My head's beginning to hurt."
Sophie lifted the pan from the fire and cautiously slid the eggs onto a nearby plate. "Sorry Calcifer, I wasn't paying attention," Sophie said as she laid the plate of eggs on the table.
The fire demon shook his blazing head at her. "Just because you have that ring on your finger does not make you head of this household! There was a time when no one but Howl was allowed to cook on me!"
"Speaking of Howl, why isn't he up yet? It's nearly noon," Sophie asked, ignoring Calcifer's half-hearted outrage. The sound of little feet descending the stair was soon audible, followed by the morning appearance of Markl.
"Eggs?" Markl observed. "Is there any cheese?"
"Yes, I bought some yesterday; it's in the cupboard," Sophie replied as she drew her gaze away from the stairs and employed herself with filling the seated Witch's plate. A sudden thud shook the rickety Porthaven door frame.
"Markl, I think that was the paper. Can you fetch it?" Sophie asked. The young boy hurried to place the block of cheese he had found on the table and ran to the door. As he cracked it open the sounds and smell of the sea greeted them, as well as the sight of the town's fishing boats making harbor.
Before Sophie could take the paper from Markl's hand, a familiar shadow moved past her and reached past her outstretched hand. "Good morning everyone," Howl called cordially, not taking his eyes off the newly acquired paper.
"Good morning Howl," Sophie replied, busying herself with preparing the bacon strips for cooking. As she passed by Howl's distracted figure now sitting at the table, she bumped against him gruffly, causing the paper to fall into his lap. "What's in the paper, dear?" she asked innocently with a sickly sweet voice she only used when she felt unjustly bothered.
"I'll have a look, love," he answered with mock agitation. He was silent for a few moments, a particularly interesting article apparently catching his eye. Around the time that the bacon had finished and Calcifer had retreated to a far corner of the hearth in indignant misery, Howl looked up from the paper with a pleased expression that Sophie remembered seeing only a few times before.
"Well?" she asked inquiringly as she seated herself next to him at the table. Howl smiled.
"It appears that we are to congratulate our Prince. It seems he's gone and gotten himself engaged," he reported with apparent satisfaction. Sophie looked up from supervising Markl's cheese intake in surprise.
"Really?" she asked interestedly. "To whom?"
"Do you remember fair cousin Jocelyn?" Howl asked. "It seems her beauty has captured more than the attention of the local bards." He held up the paper again. "It also seems that this arrangement has been in effect for a while."
Sophie snapped to attention. "He's been engaged? This entire time?"
"Apparently since birth," Howl replied gleefully.
"He's going to marry his cousin?" Markl gave a look of disgust. "People of royalty usually do," Sophie replied, more to herself than Markl.
"Are you upset?" Howl asked, putting his paper down.
Sophie scoffed. "Of course not. I should think that obvious by now," she said. She glanced at the simple silver ring that adorned her pale hand. Her other hand, resting in her lap, was soon intertwined with Howl's.
"I think a stroll in the meadow would be nice today," Howl said, though only Sophie could hear due to the noise of the plates and silverware as Markl hurried to clear the table.
"It's lucky it looks like rain in Porthaven. Otherwise I'd leave today and probably never come back," Calcifer grumbled from the fireplace. "Cooking eggs and bacon on me almost every morning now. What are they thinking treating me like a slave?"
"Oh, what a pretty fire," the Witch observed happily.
A/N: Review, review, review please! Also, I didn't have much time to proofread this, so please forgive my lackluster grammar! Thanks for reading!