Characters this chapter: Howell, Sophie, Michael, Calcifer

Rating: T (for a charmed suit)

Chapter 22: Pepper and Pitfalls

Out in the street once more, the sun beat down on the cobblestones, making Howell wish sunglasses had been invented in this world. They took the few short blocks to the Palace slowly, Michael walking on one side of Sophie while Howell tried not to hover on the other. She did a good job of ignoring both of them, stumping down the street with a bulldogged look of determination on her face. Afraid she might give him a sharp rap or five with her stick should he attempt to help her in any way, Howell worked a number of minor spells during the course of their walk, giving Sophie back some of her energy and keeping some of the brutal heat off her. He also cast an equivalent air conditioning spell on Michael so that his suit would not be stained with sweat by the time they arrived.

When they reached the bottom of the Grande Stair, Howell was just about to suggest an alternate route when Sophie moved on ahead, hobbling up the stairs like some stubborn old engine that cannot be stopped once set in motion. He looked at Michael, shrugged, and they followed. Both Howell and his apprentice were used to traversing these stairs, and yet it was an effort to keep up with Sophie's relentless pace. He took this as a sign that his spells had worked.

Howell breathed a sigh of relief when they finally reached the shade of the colonnade and began to be handed into the heart of the Palace by the series of clerks. As the cry of "Mrs. Pendragon to see the King!" was passed on and on and on, Howell found himself feeling quite smug at the fact they would be saying the same once he and Sophie were married. …Unless, that was, she decided to make an issue of keeping her own name, turning them into a family of Mad Hatters. Howell could only hope she would see reason. The name Pendragon seemed to suit Sophie even better than it did him today, stately as she looked tramping down the royal halls. He was quite proud of her, especially knowing how ill she had looked just a short while ago. Now Sophie was capably holding her own, though he thought she must still be quite nervous. He could only admire a woman whose nerves turned to steel under pressure.

Howell was disappointed when he was held back before they reached the stairs to the royal apartments, though he'd known it would happen. As Sophie and Michael proceeded on without him, his apprentice looked back at Howell with a panic-stricken expression. He merely returned a look that told Michael he was responsible for bringing Sophie back safely.

After they'd disappeared from sight, Howell turned to the clerk at his elbow, turning on one of his charming smiles. "Having made it so far up in the ranks, I can see you must be terribly good at your job." The young man nodded warily. "I'm sure you could arrange it so that I would be able to wait for my dear old mother a bit closer to where she's going to emerge," he wheedled. "She's been ill, you see, and I worry about her going up and down all these stairs with just my pageboy to look after her." The clerk looked hesitant. "I'm confident you understand, having a mother of your own," Howell pressed on, toying with the idea of magically compelling the young man to grant his request. "Surely it would do no harm for me to be taken upstairs."

"My instructions are to--" the clerk began.

"Instructions," Howell said, indulgently. "You wouldn't have got to where you are today if you'd only ever followed instructions. Am I right?" The clerk eyed him dubiously. "I assure you, my good man, I am a trustworthy personage. Perhaps you have not heard that the King has unofficially appointed me one of his royal wizards?" The clerk shook his head. "Well, it's quite true. Now if I'm entrusted with a position like that, surely I would be allowed upstairs now, wouldn't I? I used to spend a great deal of time at Court, to tell the truth."

This seemed to put the odds in his favour at last. The clerk heaved a sigh of relief and offered a tentative smile. "Oh, the Court!" he exclaimed. "Of course I could arrange for you to wait there without any trouble." This was, in fact, the last thing Howell wanted, but before he could object he was being passed from hand to hand, up the back stairs and through a set of double doors that seemed vaguely familiar. The clerk at the entrance announced him, and Howell suddenly found himself in the salon adjoining the King's war room, which was presumably where he was meeting with Sophie.

He tried to look nonchalant as all eyes turned to him. "Wizard Pendragon!" a voice clear as a bell called to him from the far end of the room. Howell glanced in that direction to find the Queen was spending the day with the Court. She waved at him with an ivory fan from her seat on the dais. Making his way through the crowd of loosely-arranged cliques, Howell noted with disappointment that Jasper did not seem to be present today, before greeting the Queen.

"Your Majesty." He went down on one knee and kept his head bowed. A delicate pink hand wearing a gold ring the size of a human eyeball was offered him and Howell took it, brushing her knuckles with his lips. "Truly an undisguised pleasure. It's been far too long."

"There's no need to be so formal," the Queen told him kindly. "I'm not seated in audience, after all." Some ladies standing nearby tittered at this, and Howell got back to his feet and bowed again.

"Very generous of you, Madam."

The Queen opened her fan and gazed almost coyly at him over it. "Rolland tells me you've been at the Palace quite a lot lately, Pendragon. I feel slighted you did not come to see me on any of those occasions." She was acting awfully strange, to Howell's mind, and speaking to him in a tone he had never before heard from her. Queen Amelia had always been kind and easy-going in formal settings, but today she was acting…overly familiar. They had exchanged pleasantries and polite conversation in the past, but they were hardly what might be called friends.

"A dreadful oversight on my part," Howell told her, and bowed in apology. "I was given to think you were not present at the Palace, as the Princess was keeping company with her father the King."

She made a face, the delicate cherry of her lips contorting in a frown. "Yes, that was strange. Rolland is terribly fond of our little Princess, but he's kept her by his side more than usual since we received that threat from the Witch of the Waste months ago. Still, I thought it odd he asked to borrow her the other day."

"Borrow?"

"Yes, he said he needed her to test some strategic theory. Of course, I told him he was not using her as a counter in one of his war games, but he just laughed."

Howell had gone very quiet at this news. Could it be the King had purposefully tricked him into being honest after all? He did not want to believe it, and yet he could not think of any explanation that better fit the news he'd just been given. "Thursday last, was it?" he inquired politely.

"Yes," the Queen replied. "How did you know?"

"Just an educated guess, Madam. I believe that was when I last saw Princess Valeria in your husband's charge." Howell was not pleased at this news. Not pleased at all.

"Tell me," she went on, thoughtful. "What is the King like with his daughter? I know how he behaves with her when I myself or the nurses are watching, but when he's alone…is he as affectionate? I do wonder." She leaned close and touched Howell's arm in a way he was not certain he was altogether comfortable with. "I feel I can trust you, Pendragon. You do not seem to me the sort of man who lies about important things. And I know you surmise more than you let on."

Howell took the compliment as well as he could with the Queen leaning closer and closer to him by the moment. And then a thought struck him. An awful thought. Diabolical, one might say. Suddenly, he knew exactly how he could get back at the King for the trick he'd played on Howell yesterday. "As a matter of fact, Your Majesty," he began carefully, "I was somewhat surprised at your husband's behaviour with the Princess the other day."

"Really?" She was eating out of the palm of his hand, blinking long blond eyelashes that had been expertly darkened with mascara and eyeliner. Howell pretended to hesitate, uncertain whether he should reveal this bit of information. "Please," the Queen encouraged him. "You may speak freely." She cast a meaningful look at the women hovering close by, and they subtly dispersed.

He waited just a moment longer. "Well…"

"Yes?"

"I did wonder what the Princess was doing unattended in a room all alone."

"What!"

"I'm not very good with children," Howell lied through his teeth. "But it doesn't seem a very safe practice, what with the open fireplace..." Seeing that the Queen was seething, he continued. "I did my best of course, once I'd arrived, to keep her out of danger."

She pressed his hand in nonverbal thanks. "You're a good man, Wizard Howl."

He inclined his head, generously. "You are too kind to say so. I merely did what anyone with a conscience would have done under the circumstances. Of course, the King did arrive and take charge of her…after a mere 30 or 40 minutes…"

The Queen looked nearly ready to interrupt Sophie's interview in order to rain down her wrath on the King. "That irresponsible…!"

"It's difficult," Howell stalled her, "I'm sure, to be a man burdened with so much responsibility and then add that of parenthood. But one can hardly blame him for wanting to keep his daughter close, given the threat you mentioned."

"But to send the nurses away!" she declared, rising from her seat. "Wizard Pendragon, if you'll excuse me…"

"If you're worried about the princess now, I assure you, she's quite safe for the moment."

The Queen turned back. "Oh?"

"Yes." Howell offered a reassuring smile. "You see, my old mother is currently meeting with the King, and she's very good with children." He had no idea whether he was lying or not, but he had to keep the Queen from interrupting the meeting somehow.

"Oh." She looked thoughtful, as if trying to remember what she might have heard about Wizard Howl's old mother. Considering he had lied gleefully and incessantly about his background in his old days at Court, Howell thought it best to prevent her thought process on the matter.

"So there's no need to worry, Your Majesty. At least…for now."

She nodded. "I am eternally grateful for this news you've passed on to me, Pendragon. And thank you for looking out for the safety of the Princess."

Howell graciously inclined his head. "Any way I may be of service." He smirked to himself, watching as she swept over to the guards at the doors leading to the war room and informed them she was to be notified as soon as the King became free. Howell knew better than anyone there was nothing like a woman's wrath to ruin one's day.

He was just beginning to feel smug when a shadow loomed over his complacency and he turned warily toward the source. It was Lady Bumblefry, the official court gossip, no doubt descending upon him to catch him up on recent rumours. "Wizard Pendragon, so delightful to have you with us again," she said in that dreadfully contrived tone most of the middle-aged women at Court practiced.

Howell stood, so as to be less easily overwhelmed by her enthusiasm. "It is my honour, Lady Bumblefry, as always."

"My dear!" she exclaimed. "Have you heard the news?"

Howell did not particularly want to wile away his time waiting for Sophie listening to gossip, but as Jasper did not seem to be at Court today, he supposed there were worse ways to spend his time. Now that the Queen had left, he did not think it his imagination that various of the younger Court ladies were slowly edging closer, like lions on the hunt. He gladly turned to his companion instead, "Lady Bumblefry, if I say I have will that prevent you from telling me?"

She tittered as well as a woman of her years was able. "Always ready with a clever quip, our Wizard Pendragon. But surely you must have heard this news. It has import to yourself."

He raised an eyebrow. "Does it now? And what news would this be?"

"Have you not noticed?" Her gesture took in the room. "A particular presence which today our Court finds lacking?"

Howell humoured her and looked around the Court, noting several noble faces which were not among those gathered. He tried to think which of them she could mean. Then he noticed the salon was rather subdued. There was no feast of sycophants transpiring, no particularly loud strutting idiot to divert the attention of the room from the rest. "The Viscomte," he said.

"Exactly." She gestured approvingly with her fan. "But you have not heard why?"

"No," Howell replied. "Did something dreadful happen to him, I hope?"

She tittered again like a dying crow and waved her fan in the air, enjoying his candour immensely. "Such a cad! You are truly deplorable, Wizard Pendragon!" Then she turned to him, lowering her voice conspiratorially. "But yes, my dear. That is precisely what has befallen our good friend from Low Norland."

"Has it now?" Howell asked with interest. "Do tell."

She leaned closer, delighted to have his interest at last. "Well it seems he was hospitalised after an injury resulting from his duel with the Count of Catterack this morning."

"The Count of Catterack?" Howell asked, incredulous. "Why, he couldn't get the better of a lame dog in a duel." He did not add that the Viscomte had often boasted of his fencing prowess.

The look on Lady Bumblefry's face was near ecstatic as she revealed what she obviously felt was the piece de resistance. "Ah, but he cheated."

Howell found this equally difficult to believe. But his informant seemed to be waiting for him to comment before she continued, so he obliged her. "Cheated, you say?"

"With magic!" she finished with relish.

Howell looked puzzled. The Count had come to the Kingsbury door for magical assistance a time or two in the past, and he seemed as incapable of magic as he was of everything else. In fact, Howell had made Michael write out detailed instructions for each of the spells they'd sold him, doubting the Count's ability to get it right even with them. "What happened exactly?" he asked her.

"It seems to have been some type of curse," she said, and the way she stressed 'curse' made it sound like the Viscomte had been hospitalised with leprosy. "Those who were present at the time say the Count tossed a sort of powder into the air at the start of the duel, and the Viscomte fell to the ground, screaming that his eyes and nose were burning - in that dreadful mother tongue of his, of course."

Howell tried to think what sort of spell it could have been. Disappointingly, it didn't sound like any of the curses which had sprung immediately to mind when he'd first heard of the Viscomte's misfortune.

Lady Bumblefry was looking at him with an odd twinkle in her eye. "But of course this will not be news to you. We all know where the nobility go in Kingsbury for their spells."

"I beg your pardon?" Howell asked, uncertain whether he was more offended at the accusation of having sold a curse or confused to be informed he had.

"Oh, there's no need to be coy." She tapped him playfully with her fan. "Though I understand you might not want to acknowledge it, now the solicitors have been involved. Still, it seems unavoidable, given the Count has confessed it himself."

Howell was no longer enjoying this exchange, and his collar had suddenly become strangely constricting. "Solicitors?"

"Oh yes," she nodded with certainty. "You can expect no less from a man of the Viscomte's temperament. He's suing the Count outright; papers served not an hour ago. It's only logical he will also pursue the Wizard who sold the Count that spell. But of course there's only been talk of that so far. Unless...?" She looked to him expectantly, but Howell was no longer paying attention. He could only assume that the Viscomte had implicated him out of pure malice, for it was certain he'd sold no such thing to the Count. Michael could hardly put together the simple spells he'd been taught, much less construct a curse from scratch, neither would he have done, being frighteningly moral and upright.

"I'm sorry to disappoint you," he told the gossip monger. "But that can't possibly be. Neither my apprentice nor I deal in curses. In fact, there's no one in my household who would even be cap--" He stopped suddenly as a dreadful thought occurred to him. Sophie. She was so well-meaningly incompetent, he did not put it past her to have attempted to help a customer in his and Michael's absence. Knowing her natural talent for chaos and destruction, he would not be surprised in the least if she'd accidentally thrown together a curse out of random ingredients. And it would be just his luck, considering how things had been going, recently.

Lady Bumblefry heard his promising hesitation and leaned into it. "You were saying, Wizard Pendragon?"

Howell reinforced his courtly mask and turned on his smile. "Oh, nothing whatever, Lady Bumblefry. Of course, you must understand I can't make any public statements on the subject, now the solicitors have become involved. My own has advised me as much."

"Ahhh, I see," she said, leaning back in her chair and fanning herself as the wheels of presumption turned in her mind.

"Quite." Howell rose to take his leave of her, having spied the Count of Catterack hovering rather forlorn as usual in a corner of the room alone and intending to have a few words with him. "It's been lovely speaking with you again," he lied. "But if you'll excuse me, there's something I have to--!" Howell's sentence derailed with a jump as a soft gloved hand came into contact with his crimson-suited backside. Howell stepped forward to extricate himself before turning to address his assailant.

"Countess," he forced another smile. "How lovely to see you again." She approached, opening eager arms to embrace him, and Howell retreated. "I'm afraid I must run just now. We shall have to catch up another time." Before she could respond, he beat a hasty retreat into the cigar parlour he and Jasper had found solace in the other night. Unfortunately, Howell's departure had not gone unnoticed this time, and a veritable flock of eager ladies followed in hot pursuit. He had no idea what could have gotten into them, but Howell was not about to repeat his experience of the other afternoon or be shamelessly groped in public without an invitation. He spent the next half hour playing a mad game of hide and seek around the Palace with his pursuers. When Howell finally realised he would not be able to lose them through art alone, he cast a transport spell to take him to wherever Michael was waiting for Sophie so that they could leave as quickly as possible.

Much to his surprise, Howell found himself out of doors, at the top of the Grande Stair. "I've lost Sophie!" Michael cried.

Howell felt a pounding headache coming on. "How could you possibly lose Sophie, Michael?"

His apprentice wrung his hands in worry. "I was waiting outside the door, right where I was supposed to. I waited and waited. Then I heard shouting from inside. But it wasn't Sophie. The guards turned me away, saying the King and Queen where having a private meeting, and I asked what happened to the old lady who'd just been in to see the King. They told me she'd left. I didn't know there was another door!" Michael cried in despair. "I came to wait out here, thinking she would have to come out eventually, but she hasn't. Do you suppose she could've gone home already?"

Howell considered this. "With Sophie, anything is possible." He patted his apprentice on the shoulder, comfortingly. "Don't despair, Michael. You did your best. With a woman like her, these sorts of things are inevitable." In order to prove his point, he told Michael about the impending lawsuit over the spell he suspected Sophie had sold as they walked home.

"Oh, that!" Michael said, and burst out laughing. "She told me all about that."

Howell was not pleased. "And you didn't see fit to share that bit of information with the master of the house?"

"No, no." Michael waved his hands to show it was all right, seeing Howell's temper had been kindled. "She didn't sell him a spell at all." He started to laugh again. "It was an envelope of pepper!"

"Pepper?" Howell considered this. "Well, I suppose that would explain the burning…" He looked at Michael and Michael looked at him and they paused each waiting for some reaction from the other. Then both of them burst out laughing. "Pepper!" Howell declared. "That pompous windbag can't be injured in the least! Though I hope it stung! Couldn't have happened to a nicer person!"

Michael wiped his eyes. "Sophie was embarrassed when I explained to her what she'd done."

"And well she should have been," Howell said. "She has no business selling spells from my front door in any case."

His apprentice looked sheepish. "I suppose that was my fault for leaving her alone again."

Knowing that his arch-enemy at Court had suffered an embarrassment due to Sophie's mistake had put Howell into a much better mood; a mood to be more forgiving. "Well, hopefully it won't come to anything," Howell said. "But I'd better talk to a solicitor all the same." He shook his head. "With Sophie, if it's not one thing, it's another."

Michael elbowed him, amicably. "I think you secretly enjoy it."

"I will admit no such thing, Michael," Howell told him mock-sternly as they walked up to the Kingsbury door.

It swung open before he could even reach for the doorknob, and Calcifer bellowed from within, "Howell, you'd better get in here! We have a problem!"

Howell dashed inside, his jovial mood of the previous moment forgotten. "What's happened?" he asked, leaping up the stairs. "Has she gotten to Neil?"

One of Calcifer's blue hands emerged to point a finger at a speck of dust on the floor in front of him. "We have a visitor." Howell's brow furrowed as he stepped over to the hearth. "Careful where you step," the fire demon warned. "He's quite small."

Howell did as he was told, his eyes trained on what he'd first mistaken for a stain on the ash outside the grate. As he approached, he heard a high-pitched squeaking that hurt his ears, and realised it was not a stain, but a tiny brown mouse, trembling in the ashes at Calcifer's feet. "I don't think I've seen a mouse since Sophie's come to live with us," Howell mused aloud.

Michael hovered round the door, pretending he was not afraid of rodents but just casually hanging up his cloak. "That's because she drove them all off," Calcifer said. "Can you blame them? Most people take one look at Sophie with her besom and run the other way. Everyone except you," he added smartly.

"All right, all right," Howell said, squatting down to get a better look at the tiny creature. "That's enough of that subject for one day, Calcifer."

"If you think I'm ever going to let you live down breakfast…" the fire demon began, but Howell was no longer paying attention. The closer he got to the squeaking, the more it seemed to take on a specific shape, intelligible words emerging. The voice was so high, however, it was difficult to make them out. He scooped up the mouse and brought it closer to his nose for inspection. The trembling thing gazed back at him, terrified, with pathetic soft brown eyes. "Good gods!" Howell exclaimed. "It's Niccolo!"

"What?" Michael said, freezing as he was edging toward the stairs to make his escape. "Someone turned him into a mouse?"

Howell grimaced as he knelt down in the ash, cradling the mouse-boy carefully. "Not someone, Michael. The Witch of the Waste."