Characters this chapter: Howl, Michael, Sophie, Hunch, Mrs. Pentstemmon

Rating: K+

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Chapter 21: In which Howell becomes very nervous

Knowing he was likely to be deposited in the Court once more while Sophie had her interview with the King, Howell spent extra time getting ready. He didn't realise just how MUCH time he'd spent until he pulled out his gold pocket-watch for a quick shine and saw the time. They didn't have long before they were due at Mrs. Pentstemmon's. Howell rushed to complete the finishing touches to his appearance, not only because he'd promised to be prompt, but because he'd learned long ago--the hard way--how intolerant his tutor was of tardiness.

Finished and perfumed, Howell raced out of the bathroom to gather up his brood. Sophie was sitting dressed and ready by the hearth, talking with Calcifer, but Michael was nowhere to be found. "MICHAEL!" Howell bawled. "We're going to be late!" To his relief, his apprentice clattered down the stairs a moment later, fully dressed, if a bit rumpled. Howell made an impatient gesture for him to come over so that he could fix him. As he straightened Michael's lapels and used a bit of magic to smooth the stubborn wrinkles in the velvet, his apprentice turned to compliment Sophie, who stood waiting for them, on her new look.

Howell glanced at her from the corner of his eye and saw what Michael had said was true. The clothes fit her perfectly, in manner as well as size. He had made excellent choices, as always. "She does me credit," he said. "Apart from that awful old stick." Howell realised he should have got her a proper cane while he was in Kingsbury yesterday. But he hadn't thought she would actually take that dreadful old thing.

Howell was thinking of Sophie more and more as her true age, and therefore no longer considered points such as her needing a walking stick. At his best guess--which was admittedly better than most--the one she always had with her was really more of an emotional crutch at this point than anything. She didn't need it physically after what he and Calcifer had done the other day. It was a filthy old battered thing and looked as though she'd just picked it up in the road one day. Knowing Sophie, that was not out of the realm of possibility. Howell wished she could be persuaded to give it up, but he knew Sophie well enough by now to know that attempting to do so would have been a waste of breath.

"Some people," Sophie sniffed, "are thoroughly self-centered. This stick goes with me." Of course she would not leave it behind. "I need it for moral support."

If a day ever came that Howell was wrong about Sophie, he would be surprised. Knowing it was futile to argue the point further, he merely rolled his eyes heavenward to express his sentiments. With Sophie, one had to pick one's battles.

Seeing that they were all ready, he walked to the door and spun the knob red blob-down. Calcifer would turn it green-down, after they were out, as part of their predetermined safety measures. "Come along, mother." He held the door for Sophie, who glowered at him in silent protest as she stepped through to Kingsbury.

Predictably, once she was out she immediately had to turn round and nose about whatever the entrance looked like from the outside, as this was her first time stepping through the Kingsbury door. Howell was amused, but her blocking the door did interfere somewhat with his and Michael's exit. As his apprentice hovered on the threshold, uncertain of which way to step around Sophie, Howell gave him a good shove and stepped out behind him, making eye contact with Calcifer and nodding to remind him of what to do once they'd left before shutting the door behind them. Apparently his encouragement to Michael to move had caused him to nearly stumble into a pile of horse dung which lay to one side of the door, for when he turned round Howell found his apprentice glaring at him most ungratefully.

He ignored Michael and moved to stand in front of Sophie, obscuring her snooping view; a handy tactic for obtaining her undivided attention. "Before you ask, it's really just a disused stable." Sophie looked round them at the mews and her respectable nose finally caught the scent of horse on the wind--and the heap near Michael's foot. She nodded, not approvingly, but in acknowledgement of Howell having answered the question she had just been about to ask. He tried not to feel too smug that he had anticipated her. Sophie was nothing if not predictable, after all.

Howell led the procession to Mrs. Pentstemmon's, walking ahead of the other two not only because he was the one who knew the way, but because his legs were longer and he felt the pressure of their imminent tardiness pushing him forward. An extra incentive to walk briskly was that afternoon was already wearing on, and the sun down here in Kingsbury was boilingly hot. Howell couldn't wait to get indoors where it was cool. He heard Michael huffing and puffing behind him to keep up, but Sophie seemed to manage without too much difficulty, much to his surprise. When he cast a glance over his shoulder to discreetly check on her, Sophie was stumping right along with her stick, like a venerable steam engine, looking vaguely round at the extravagant buildings and gardens they passed.

Thinking of something, Howell slowed just enough to give Michael a break and allow her to catch up to him. "By the way, Mrs. Pentstemmon will call you Mrs. Pendragon. Pendragon's the name I go under here."

With her usual tact and aplomb, Sophie demanded to know why, as if it such a thing could serve no purpose but to satisfy his craving for dishonesty.

"For disguise," Howell told her, his tone indicating it should be obvious. Even laypeople knew about the Law of Names. But apparently Sophie was not one of them, another mark in favour of his belief that she could not possibly be a witch. Still, he would leave the final verdict to be determined by Mrs. Pentstemmon's trained eye. Her predictions were so seldom wrong that one could say they never were without a guilty conscience.

His mind once more on their conversation, Howell smirked to himself, thinking how wonderful it was there existed a world where he could filch the name of the most famous king in history for his own and no one would be the wiser. "Pendragon's a lovely name," he continued. "Much better than Jenkins." Howell thought it rather unfair to be named 'son of John' when his father had, in fact, not been named John at all. (Regrettably, his father's name was even more common as Welsh names go, having been named for the patron saint of Wales.) He blamed the Flemish for aiding the Norman invasion of Wales in the Dark Ages.

They reached Sedge Court at last, and Howell gladly stepped into the shade of the high old townhouses as they turned onto the narrow street. Sophie was looking at him as if she were affronted by his last statement. Perhaps she was still put out with him for commenting on her old grey dress this morning. Or perhaps she was just being argumentative for the sake of it; it would be just like her. After a meaningful glare, she told him that she had always thought a plain name quite adequate

Howell's memory, photographic for a clever quip, recalled Michael's joke of the night before and, without missing a beat, he replied, "We can't all be Mad Hatters."

When Sophie did not respond, even with her usual snort of temper, Howell looked at her to make certain she was all right. She didn't look well; perhaps the heat was getting to her. There was a spell in Howell's suit preventing him sweating to death in Kingsbury. He realised now he should have done Michael and Sophie the same courtesy. Now that they'd reached Mrs. Pentstemmon's, it would be pointless, but Howell made a mental note to cast it on his companions before they left.

Hunch answered the door in his butler's livery and stood aside while their small progress traipsed inside. Howell clapped him on the arm, making a show of not having seen him for some time to prevent Sophie knowing he'd been just the day before, setting her up. "Hunch old man, delightful to see you again!"

Hunch's expression remained implacable as ever as his stone-grey eyes drifted over Sophie and Michael, attempting to discern in his own quiet, observant way why Howell was behaving in this manner. Howell would have introduced him to Sophie and Michael, but of course that would have been completely improper. So instead, he chattered away at the old gentleman as they were led down the hall, Howell's nervousness showing in the sheer number of bad puns and pointless jocular remarks he made to Hunch between the door and the stairs. On the way, he saw Michael surreptitiously attempting to wipe sweat from his face onto his brand new custom-made suit and quickly drew a handkerchief from his sleeve and handed it to him.

At the stairs, Hunch bowed and left them in the hands of a little page boy Howell had never seen before, who took them up the stairs to the drawing room. Howell was relieved Mrs. Pentstemmon was feeling well enough to receive them properly today. In fact, he noted upon entering the room and seeing her seated in her throne-like chair Mrs. Pentstemmon looked to have dressed even more formally than usual this morning, wearing her most expensive silk and extravagant gold coronet. Howell took it as a compliment that she had gone to so much trouble to meet Sophie.

She greeted them as they entered, pretending too as if they had not just spoken the day before. Howell crossed the room in two long strides and took her proffered hand. As he bent to kiss it, he noticed Michael had come in with them and was standing just inside the doorway, gaping like a fisherman's son at the delicate finery of Mrs. Pentstemmon's decor. Howell's manner with Mrs. Pentstemmon remained courtly and calm, but behind his back he gestured wildly for Michael to get back outside with the other page boy. He had spent so much time yesterday preparing Sophie for her interview with the King that he had not given Michael a refresher course on the simple etiquette needed to act a proper servant. It was an oversight he regretted now, as his apprentice took FAR too long to get Howell's point and finally left. The one saving grace was that at least Michael had had the sense to back out of the room, as a servant should.

Relieved that that small hurdle of protocol had been jumped, Howell straightened and turned partway to introduce Sophie properly, gesturing grandly as he did so as if revealing the prize behind the velvet curtain. Unfortunately, Sophie immediately proceeded to embarrass him by cowering at the other end of the room like the frightened mouse he'd first met. Howell waved her over to come join them, and when she did not begin to make her way, he had to flap his hand at her in a manner both unsubtle and uncouth. This was not a faux pas he could have hidden from Mrs. Pentstemmon, who noticed everything. Howell only hoped that she would forgive it.

In her generous way, he watched her do just that, ushering Sophie over with a polite acknowledgement of his introduction. Howell attempted to read the nuance in Mrs. Pentstemmon's tone. She sounded genuinely pleased, which came to him as a great relief.

Having joined them at last, Sophie blinked down at Mrs. Pentstemmon's proffered hand as if she were not quite sure what to do with it. Howell wanted to bang his head against the fine lacquered end table at his elbow in frustration. Then, a miracle seemed to occur. An angel must have drifted into the room and carefully placed Sophie's hand on top of Mrs. Pentstemmon's. She offered the grand old dame a shy, uncertain smile, so utterly Sophie that Howell wanted to kiss her. Or applaud her finally having done something right. Or perhaps both.

Then Mrs. Pentstemmon excused herself for not standing due to her health, effectively distracting Howell from his nerves with concern for her. He looked more closely at her and realised she was looking quite pinched, as if sitting up in her throne-like chair was proving somewhat painful to her. He felt a pang of guilt as she explained that her health had forced her into retirement several years before.

Cold grey eyes moved to meet his briefly, and the message there said to him very clearly, Stop that nonsense. Howell immediately straightened up and cast about the room for something else to look at. Mrs. Pentstemmon never had tolerated sympathy.

She invited them to sit down and Howell waited for Sophie to choose a chair before taking the one right beside it. He could see her practically shaking with nerves and wanted to reach out and tell her it was all right, but of course that would be problematic to protocol as well as The Plan, and disrespectful of Mrs. Pentstemmon besides. He wouldn't be able to reassure Sophie when she was in to see the King, after all, so Howell let her work it out for herself. He settled into his own chair, appearing much more casual than he felt.

Howell was terribly nervous of the impression Sophie was leaving on his old tutor, but there was nothing he could do but wait to hear the verdict and hope she approved. So far, things did not seem to be going too badly, Sophie's nerves and trying too hard notwithstanding.

Mrs. Pentstemmon broke the ice to begin conversation, As Sophie was clearly not going to open the conversation, and Howell felt it best to stay out of the way of their interaction, Mrs. Pentstemmon broke the ice by stating her age and asking Sophie hers. Howell attempted to hide a smirk as he waited for Sophie to react. Anyone who thought the young wizard had come by all of his devious traits by nature did not know his old tutor very well.

Sophie's expression went blank for a moment, and then she seemed to select a number out of thin air. It amused him that she seemed to have never thought before about the physical age she'd been brought to. It was clear, even to Howell, that the Witch had made her old, but not quite so old as Mrs. Pentstemmon.

Howell had never before considered Sophie's thought process regarding the matter of her curse. Knowing Sophie, she'd never thought of it at all, but simply stumped on, determined to do what she had to do regardless of how she looked or the difficulty of the task ahead of her. Admirable, stubborn old mule. Vain was one thing Sophie was not, which was just as well, as Howell was vain enough for the both of them.

"So old?" Mrs. Pentstemmon asked, and he had to cover his mouth with the back of his hand and feign a yawn to keep from laughing as his tutor subtly hinted at Sophie's lie. "How lucky you are to move so nimbly still." Howell did not think Sophie had yet noticed that the age of her body and health had been returned, if not her looks. Of course, he didn't expect thanks from her. But it might have made things easier on her if she noticed something every now and then.

He decided to attempt to draw Sophie's attention to this fact, and participate in the wonderful joke Mrs. Pentstemmon was making. "Oh yes, she's so wonderfully nimble that sometimes there's no stopping her." And even that was an understatement.

Mrs. Pentstemmon appeared not to want to share her subtle jest-making process with him, however, for her keen old eyes turned on Howell like scorching sunlight through a magnifying glass. He remembered that harsh tutorial tone of censure well as she scolded him for interrupting. Howell did not miss the triumphant little smirk on Sophie's face to hear him scolded by someone apart from herself, either.

As his old tutor went on to speak of her and Sophie's hand in forming him, Howell began to grow nervous. Just what was she driving at? There was a power behind her words that indicated one of her subtle and almost invisible spells was being cast, but he could not think just what it might be. Sophie, have a hand in forming him? Not likely. If there was one thing Howell had taught the scores of women who had briefly come and gone from his life these last twenty years, it was that he could not be changed.

Her words made his skin prickle, and Howell had to say something in response to such an assertion. "Don't you think I did any of me myself then?" he said, jokingly. "Put in just a few touches of my own?"

From the look on her face, Howell could see Mrs. Pentstemmon was not through with him, and she was not in a mood to tolerate his flippant behaviour and commentary, either. "A few," she replied stiffly, "And those not altogether to my liking."

Howell had to try very hard not to roll his eyes at such a predictable response, given her mood. Sophie was looking on at this exchange in awe, as if she had never imagined anyone but herself remotely capable of standing up to him, much less putting him in his place. He felt castrated and shamed by her presence in these circumstances. But Mrs. Pentstemmon seemed to have the solution to that. "But you will not wish to sit here and hear yourself being discussed."

She knew full well that there was nothing Howell would have liked more, even among total strangers, than to hear himself discussed, much less in this situation, which had so much riding on it. Howell made as if to protest, but the old dame railroaded right over him, telling him where he would go when he left, and to take Michael with him. She knew he could not defy a direct order, and Howell knew she had no moral qualms about putting a geas behind it if he objected. Even at her age, Howell was no match for Mrs. Pentstemmon's will, and he knew he had to give in when she insisted, much as he wanted to stay.

Howell rose from his chair, both his posture and expression sullen and rebellious. He had not expected to be driven from the room for their interview, but he supposed he should have. Mrs. Pentstemmon worked best one on one. When he remembered Sophie was watching, Howell pretended not to care that he was being made to leave, his posture going idle and nonchalant as he shrugged it off. There was nothing to be done. His eyes met Sophie's one last time before he turned to go, and as she blinked at him in frightened mouse-surprise, he cast her a look warning her not to dare take pleasure from his defeat. Then he turned to Michael and waved his apprentice out of the room ahead of him.

The door opened without either of them having to touch it, and Hunch waited for them to join him in the hall. It gave Michael a start, but Howell was used to Hunch anticipating Mrs. Pentstemmon's wishes. They were halfway to the stairs when the door opened again and Howell turned to see the little page boy come out into the hall after them. He stood there looking confused and slightly lost before Hunch indicated that he should follow them. Apparently Mrs. Pentstemmon was serious about wanting privacy for her interview with Sophie.

Howell tried not to worry. If anyone could hold her own against the old dame, it was Sophie. But the memory of that frightened mouse look on her face kept returning to his mind's eye, and it was difficult not to fret.

"This is Niccolo." Hunch interrupted his thoughts by introducing the page boy. "He came to us from Caprona six months ago." This didn't seem to be anything like a formal introduction, for Hunch kept moving as he spoke. Howell had to turn and look down at the boy as they reached the stairs in order to acknowledge it.

Niccolo looked to be perhaps three years Michael's junior. Descending the stairs together nearly side by side, they looked like the Prince and the Pauper in spite of the fact his apprentice's new velvet suit was far more sumptuous and better-fit than the house colours the other boy wore. Where Michael was broad and stocky, Niccolo was delicate and fine-featured. His patrician's hands looked very out of place protruding from the too-long sleeves of his livery. He was clearly a princeling out of water, and he would look less and less like a servant the older he became. Howell considered Mrs. Pentstemmon had always been in the habit of surrounding herself with attractive people. It was part of what added to her personal aura of quality and respectability. Even Hunch had the look of a gracefully aging James Bond. And Howell himself...well, that went without saying.

"Caprona?" Howell said. The name did not bring back altogether fond memories. "That city-state doesn't exist in this world." He knew this because he'd been to the world in which it did exist, though it had been as an unwilling visitor, at first.

Toward the beginning of his magical career he'd had the misfortune of inadvertently attracting the attention of one Chrestomanci through an elabourate university prank involving the use of his already respectable powers. In short order, Howell had found himself dragged by the ear into yet another world for a bout of tongue-lashing and threats he would never forget. Apparently, the Powers that Were "frowned upon" the way Howell made use of his gift in his home world, where magic had diminished to hardly more than myth.

The experience had decided him on a permanent move to Ingary once he'd finished his bachelor's degree. Howell could not tolerate being fenced in on any world, yet that pompous old buzzard had proved to him beyond shadow of a doubt that he could, in fact, do just that, should Howell refuse to willingly follow the Rules.

As he had evidenced some inherent gift for trans-dimensional travel, there had been talk of joining the network of Rulemakers as a Magid, but Howell had had absolutely no interest in becoming an inter-dimensional policeman. Rules were made to be artistically bent if not dodged all together, as far as he was concerned. This did not stop him from taking an expensive European Grand Tour of Chrestomanci's world, financed by the Powers in question before he declined the offer, however.

Caprona had been one of his stops in what passed for Italy there. It had seemed a nice enough place if one had the right sort of connections, which Howell sadly had not had. He thought Niccolo probably had not either, if he'd ended up in Ingary. Howell had not thought Mrs. Pentstemmon capable of giving up her teaching career altogether. Clearly this boy was her newest pupil, though she'd attempted to disguise him as a servant in her household. Niccolo was no more a page boy than Michael was the Earl of Sandwich.

As these thoughts flitted through Howell's mind, Hunch turned to him with the hint of a smile that would have been invisible to anyone who did not know him well. "You did not come to us from this world, either, as I recall," he reminded him gently.

"Yes, well. No," Howell admitted. Then he halted their progress to the terrace and turned to the boy in order to make up for his rudeness at having spoken about his home as if he were not present, addressing him graciously in Italian. "Ma che razza di imperdonabile maleducato sono stato. Scusami per favore, Signore Niccoló. E' sempre un piacere conoscere qualcuno che proviene da una terra così bella." He made a graciously deep bow that was utterly inappropriate for a nearly-Royal Wizard to be making to a mere page boy. But Howell did so enjoy making displays. "Howell Pendragon, at your service."

There followed an awkward pause where the boy's soft brown eyes gazed through him, looking vaguely confused. Howell had no doubt he'd used a different dialect of Italian from that spoken in Caprona, considering he was using school-learnt Italian from his own world. But as far as he could recall, they had managed to understand him when he'd been there several years ago. Michael, too, was gawking at him as if he'd sprouted a second head. Howell had never spoken anything but Inglish with the occasional Welsh expletive around his apprentice, and no doubt Michael hadn't thought him capable of more. He smirked inwardly. It pleased Howell to draw these parlour tricks from his sleeve and amaze even those who thought they knew him.

Hunch, who was waiting nearly-invisible off to one side for them to finish their exchange, nodded encouragingly to Niccolo, who tendered an embarrassed little bow before finally speaking. "You have great kindness in speaking to me my own language, Signore Pendragon. But I must work to practice my poor Inglish. I beg your pardon."

It was convenient for Howell to be relieved of speaking any more Italian, as his linguistic prowess did not extend beyond what would do to woo a woman or briefly impress a foreign dignitary. He hadn't actually intended to speak any more, but no one else need know that. Howell nodded in generous acceptance of the boy's proposal and apology for his imperfect grammar.

"I have great honour in meeting Maestra Pentstemmon's favourite pupil," Niccolo finished somewhat awkwardly, and Howell bowed at the compliment. Before the two of them could begin a back and forth display of deferential bows that might go on all afternoon, Hunch reappeared and, without a word, indicated they should all continue to the terrace. Michael and Howell took their seats in ornately wrought iron chairs in the shade while Hunch disappeared to get their refreshment, taking Niccolo with him.

"This house makes me nervous," Michael said, as soon as they were alone.

"I suppose it does take some getting used to," Howell said, reclining easily in the chair, which was not half as uncomfortable as it should have been.

"D'you think..." Michael cast around before continuing, making certain they were not being overheard. "D'you think Sophie will be safe up there alone?"

Howell laughed. "Mrs. Pentstemmon may be imposing, Michael, but she doesn't devour young ladies." He smirked and tipped his face up to the afternoon sun, closing his eyes. "That's my forte." He felt an ungentle poke in his arm.

"You'd better stop talk like that if you want to win over Sophie," Michael told him.

Howell sighed. "I know what I'm doing, Michael."

His apprentice snorted, showing he had spent too much time around the woman in question. "Oh, I forgot. Coming down to breakfast and showing us your pants was very charming. I'm sure Sophie can't wait for you to kiss her now."

Howell cracked an eye open and glared at the source of sarcasm. "I was in a playful mood."

"When aren't you?" Michael asked, wryly.

Howell ignored the question, and the two of them sat in semi-comfortable silence for a few moments. Then his apprentice changed the subject. "So how did you know? About Sophie?"

Howell opened his eyes, blinking leisurely like a content cat. "Know that she wasn't what she seems, you mean?" Michael nodded. "That's simple, Michael. You'll find as you progress in your lessons, the more difficult spells you master, the more spells you'll be able to spot right off. I would never do the sorts of spells the Witch of the Waste has been casting at our expense lately, but I understand how they work, and it's quite simple to see through them really."

Michael was looking at him rather dubiously, as if there were something he wasn't quite confident enough to say. "But I can't see through spells."

"Of course you can, Michael. This terrace, for instance. Tell me what you see."

His apprentice looked around, rather hopeless that he could discover anything. "I see…a terrace. That's all."

Howell had dealt with Michael's obtuse side enough not to become frustrated. "Let's try this again," he began. "When I say 'see through' a spell, I don't necessarily mean literally."

"So you DON'T know what Sophie really looks like."

Howell smiled fondly, his expression going a bit dreamy and vaguely stupid. "Oh, I do."

Michael was trying hard to work it out. "So…in that case, it is literal."

Howell reclined, settling into his chair for the long story. "Actually," Howell drawled with the leisure of superiority that came from knowing something his companion did not, "Sophie and I have met before, though she's so far pretended we haven't."

His apprentice blinked at him in confusion. "You mean. When she was young?"

Howell chuckled. "Yes, when she looked her age."

"But when? How?"

Just then, Hunch arrived with two iced teas and some dry, wafer-thin biscuits. If he and Howell had not been close, he could have easily and silently placed the tray between them and left without being noticed. But their relationship was different, and Hunch placed the tray between them and then waited for an opportunity to speak, having a servant's politeness and timing in not interrupting a conversation in progress. Howell knew the signs. "Yes, Hunch?"

"From what I can tell, Master Howell, the interview seems to be going well. I should say there's no need to worry."

"Of course there isn't," Howell said just a bit too quickly. "I wasn't worried." A brief spurt of nervous laughter betrayed his lie. He hadn't realised just how tense he was.

"And if I may add…" Hunch cast a sidelong glance at Michael, as if he wasn't sure it was all right to speak freely in front of Howell's page boy/apprentice.

"What's this formality between us, old man? If it's Michael you're concerned about; don't be. He's family." His apprentice gave him a strange look to hear that and then, after a moment of looking strange, a tearful smile slowly grew on his face. Luckily Howell was left out of the emotional display because his attention was focused on Hunch at the time.

"I like her," the old footman said plainly. "I think you've made a good choice." And there was the merest pause before he added, "For once."

Howell chuckled. "Touché. I suppose you did get caught in the aftermath of a few too many of my affairs back in those days." Hunch merely raised a disapproving eyebrow. Michael looked on in fascination at the exchange.

Hunch recovered from his little nonverbal lesson in morality and went on. "I don't feel it premature to say that I believe Madam feels the same." Howell's face broke out in a genuine smile of relief.

"Wait," Michael cut in. His eyes narrowed a bit as he looked at his master, suspiciously. "Why did we really come here, Howl?" Hunch bowed gracefully out of the conversation and left them to it.

"Well, just why I said, Michael," Howell answered him smoothly. "I wanted to give Sophie some practice before we go to see the King."

"And?" Michael prompted, knowing there was more.

Howell smiled. "And…I'd asked for Mrs. Pentstemmon's expert opinion on Sophie's curse. Naturally she had to meet her in person to take a proper look at it."

"You think she'll be able to break it?" Michael asked, hopeful.

"I doubt that," Howell frowned. "But she might be able to tell me something that will help."

"Oh."

They sat in contemplative silence for several minutes before Michael returned to the previous subject. "So…you met Sophie before?"

"Ah yes," Howell said, happy to remember.

"When?"

Howell settled in for some storytelling. "On your birthday, actually."

"Really?" This seemed to please Michael, for reasons unknown. Howell nodded.

"As you may recall, we'd both wandered into Market Chipping to take a look at Calcifer's fireworks from an appreciative distance."

"And you were looking for some women," Michael added.

Howell nodded, amiably. "I had gone to Market Square to admire the ladies in their holiday dress, while you…where did you go, Michael?"

Now it was his apprentice's turn to smile fondly and go vaguely stupid. "I went to Cesari's to buy myself a birthday cake. That's when I first met her."

Howell smiled kindly. "Your Lettie?" Michael sighed, dreamily. "Seems it was a good night for both of us."

Michael blinked and seemed to come back to himself. "So…you saw Sophie in her holiday dress?"

Howell laughed. "Knowing Sophie, Michael, can you imagine her dressed up in any sort of elabourate, colourful costume?" He watched the gears turn in his apprentice's head as Michael attempted to picture the 80-year-old Sophie they knew in a festive holiday kirtle complete with corset. He went a funny colour and shook his head no. "If I'd been looking merely at clothes, she would have stood out because of how plainly she was dressed."

"But you weren't," Michael put in.

"Of course not. I was approaching a storefront to gain a better vantage from which to watch the crowd, when I noticed a lone timid figure holding to the wall as she attempted to make her way around the crowd. She looked terrified."

Michael looked confused. "Sophie, terrified?"

"She's quite different as a young lady," Howell told him. "Or at least, she was then."

"You terrified her," Michael said, accusingly. "I've seen how you go at a fresh catch."

"On the contrary, Michael, I was a complete gentleman."

His apprentice made a face. "You always SAY that…"

"Our exchange was very brief, in fact," Howell continued, ignoring Michael's disbelief. "I merely asked her to join me for a drink…" Michael rolled his eyes. "…she declined, and then I tried to escort her to wherever it was she was going. She looked scared to death of the crowds."

"But she was more scared of you," Michael said, observantly.

"Well. She politely declined my help – you know how stubborn she is – and ran off into the night. Of course I couldn't let her go alone."

"Of course," Michael said, sarcastically, biting into a biscuit.

"So I followed her at a discreet distance in order to make sure she got where she needed to go, safely." Howell tapped his lips, thoughtful. "Come to think of it, I did seem to lose her right around Cesari's."

"She must have been going to see Lettie," Michael said. And then a realization seemed to dawn on him. "Wait! I think I was there when she came!"

Howell sat forward in his chair, looking at Michael with interest. "Were you really?"

Michael nodded and nodded, very excited. "Yes! I mean, I was at the back of the throng, but I saw a girl push her way to the counter, and then Lettie said something about wanting to talk to her sister." He looked thoughtful. "I never thought before that might've been Sophie." He looked up at Howell. "She had sort of blondish-red hair..." He seemed to take Howell in for a moment. "Rather like yours, only...a natural colour."

Howell smiled. "Didn't you wonder why Sophie turned my hair such a strange colour?"

His apprentice returned a blank look. "She did? I thought you were just blaming her because you were upset at getting the wrong tint."

Howell sighed, long-sufferingly. "Michael. Just because I'm overwrought doesn't mean I'm incapable of speaking truth."

"You do tend to exaggerate," Michael said, prudently.

"Well, I wasn't about that," Howell answered, testily.

"But why would she change your hair to look like hers?"

"Ah, but that's just it. It was an accident."

Michael looked confused and wary. "I thought you said she did it on purpose."

Howell was beginning to feel the way he had during their infamous Lettie conversation the night before. He explained, slowly. "She didn't do it on purpose, Michael. But she did tamper with my hair tint."

"How?" Michael asked. Then it dawned on him. "Ohhhh, when she was cleaning."

"Actually, when she was snooping."

Now Michael looked a bit more sympathetic. "She is awfully nosy. Especially where you're concerned."

"Really?" Howell was suddenly all ears, leaning on the arm of his chair toward Michael, smiling winningly. "I'd love to hear about it."

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Hunch came out just then, interrupting their conversation. "Madam has dismissed your -- mother, Master Howell." Howell tried not to chuckle at the meaningful pause the old footman had thrown in. Hunch had a wonderful sense of humour if you knew what to look for. "It's time for her rest."

"So soon?" Howell asked, rising.

Hunch looked pained. "It's already been quite longer than she's been able to manage lately."

As they followed him out to the hall, Howell placed a hand on Hunch's elbow, concerned. "That bad?"

Hunch nodded slightly. "The doctor says she just needs to take things slower, now, but you know how she is. She says it's the end of her anyway." He had to stop and, drawing a large silk handkerchief out of his sleeve, he dabbled at his eyes. "There's no sense in her slowing down just because she's reached her time limit."

Howell felt nearly as bad as Hunch at this news. "She would say that," he said, but he left his hand on Hunch's elbow in silent commiseration.

"I wonder how Sophie's doing, if Mrs. P needs a rest," Michael wondered aloud.

Howell turned to look at him. "Well I hope, considering the interview sounds to have gone well."

"I don't know..." Michael hedged, reluctant to say anything about the effect Mrs. Pentstemmon might have on a lone victim, given the timing and their recent talk.

Not long after they reached the door, Niccolo appeared at the top of the stair, and Sophie's crackly old voice could be heard grumping at him to slow down. Howell turned and gave Michael a look of "told you so," assuming that if Sophie was in a good enough mood to gripe, she must be fine.

The page boy did slow, and then both of them saw Sophie come into view at the top of the stairs. She looked like death warmed over. In fact, if Niccolo hadn't just then offered her his arm to help her down the stairs, Howell would have leapt up them to do so himself. He had half a mind to do so anyway.

As Sophie approached, Michael elbowed Howell sharply in the ribs, telling HIM so. But Howell was too concerned for Sophie to argue with Michael who, once again, seemed to know his beloved better than he himself did.

As she and Niccolo reached the bottom of the stair, Howell stepped forward, feeling horribly guilty for having put Sophie through such a harrowing experience that she looked this way afterward. Doubly guilty, as apparently Mrs. Pentstemmon had not been up to the interview to start with. Her premonition of her own impending death was something Howell refused to think about.

He managed to find his tongue as rheumy turquoise eyes met his, making a carefully understated remark about her present looks and suggesting they skip seeing the King. It was as good an excuse as any to return to his original plan of visiting only Mrs. Pentstemmon today. "I'll go and blacken my own name when I make your excuses," he offered. "I can say my wicked ways have made you ill."

Sophie began to wobble a bit, and Howell reached out to steady her, but she thumped her walking stick on the floor quite forcefully, catching herself and looking less vague than she had a moment before. Still, she clearly needed rest. "That could be true, from the look of you," Howell finished.

Sophie seemed to consider this for a moment, but Howell could tell from her expression that she was in no mood to suddenly start taking his advice. She shook her head regretfully, resolutely and told him, "After Mrs. Pentstemmon, the King of Ingary will seem just like an ordinary person."

Howell was too worried about Sophie to consider dashing upstairs for Mrs. Pentstemmon's abridged verdict, a fact he would come to deeply regret later. Hunch had disappeared to take care of his mistress, and so Niccolo let them out.

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Author's Note: There are many more original DWJ quotes in here than I usually include. So many, it would take too long to point out which are hers and which are mine. Hopefully a lawsuit is not imminent.

Credit for the quote in Italian goes to my friend Ester, who was a wonderful help in giving me the right words for Howl's florid apology to Niccolo for his rudeness and random pointless compliment of his country.