The prince had thought it might be difficult to find the home of a wizard once infamous for slinking around the countryside like a cat stalking its prey, but to his pleasant surprise, he seemed to have finally established a permanent (and indeed, well known) residence. Between their adoring glances and flustered bows, all the innkeepers he'd met along the way had been more than eager to point him in the right direction.
He sighed under his breath, absently smoothing the papers beneath his gloved hand. Truth be told, the lack of difficulty was rather depressing. A Howl still living in the shadows kept alive the vision that he was dragging his beloved Sophie down into a life of depravity; but their apparent home, described as being perched on the crest of a hill surrounded by fields of flowers, demonstrated a man more dedicated to pleasing his love than he would have liked. It showed he was committed to settling down, to living cheerfully and normally in the open, and even (he shuttered to think of it) to starting a family.
He looked down passively at the letters that lay under his fingertips. She'd written to him faithfully, describing events such as improving the flower garden and redecorating the main room in great detail and mentioning her wizard lover little. However, he'd managed to work out the man's weaknesses by her few mentions.
"Howl insisted on bluebells near the window." Clearly, he was a man that ruled the household with an iron fist.
"Howl forbade Markl from ever attempting the spell inside the house again, save we lose more than the curtains next time." Yes, a harsh disciplinarian.
"Our fire demon sneezed a cloud of ash on Howl's favorite silk cape. He was furious." With obvious anger management issues, and vain on top of it all.
She'd of course hinted at the wedding, not being a woman prone to dishonesty, but had conveniently failed to mention a date or include an invitation. No doubt the wizard's doing, and so, after a few days shut up in his bedroom, he had forgiven her. Visions of storming the wedding with a small army had slipped in and out of his mind, of course, but in the end he realized that Sophie was not a lady to be won over by force.
She was one, however, who clearly possessed a good deal of common sense – and he intended to use that entirely to his advantage.
He started, jolted from his thoughts, at a sharp knocking on the carriage door. Swiftly, he pulled up the shade, looking down gravely into his Captain's face.
"Sire, we are now approaching the premises," the man said firmly. And sure enough, beyond the glimmer of sunlight on the man's silver helmet, he could see a grassy hill rising up into the distance, its peak covered with blurs of brilliant color that could only be large patches of flowers.
"Most excellent," he replied, straightening his tie with a sharp jerk of his hand. "I don't believe the trumpets shall be necessary this time."
"Howl, someone is approaching the castle!"
A man snorted unhappily in the chair pulled closest to the fire, his eyes pressing shut in protest beneath his disheveled mop of raven hair. Drearily, he opened one eye, his pupil drifting slowly up toward the ceiling.
He slammed his bottle weakly against the hearth, grunting slightly with the effort.
"No," he mumbled loudly, "Don't … don't cut me off. I just … one more drink!"
Calcifer scowled as he sunk lower into the hissing dark flames gathered beneath the single charred log that sustained him, mumbling choice words in quite unhappy little puffs of ash.
"You're not at a bar, you incompetent, pathetic lush," he said loudly, eying the bottle with cynic disgust. "You're in your filthy, equally pathetic dark castle, near to which a carriage and a bunch of men on horseback are approaching."
The man shot up out of the chair, swaying heavily with the effort. After nearly falling over, he braced his two hands on the hearth, his blue eyes sparkling for a moment out of the murky darkness.
"Sophie?" he questioned, blinking heavily as he tried to smile.
"Not unless she's taken up traveling with a horde of armed guards," the fire demon answered tartly, rolling his glowing coal eyes.
He settled back in his chair with a muffled thud, his shoes skidding against the floor as he tried desperately to push himself upright. An exasperated groan came from the very center of the hearth, along with another sigh of smoke.
"You're lucky it isn't her," Calcifer continued drolly. "I wouldn't touch you, let alone take you back into my loving arms. Even the green slime was better than this."
"Ish it … the King?" he asked, alarm creeping into his slurring voice.
"Don't think so," the demon replied curtly. "Better hope not – you'll be out of a job if it is. Who would trust an immensely powerful spell concocted by a wasted wizard? Even I couldn't explain away that one."
"Then … who?" he asked, blinking again at the black log in front of him.
"How should I know?" he snorted. "Someone rich. You know, Sophie will kill you when she sees this. The castle is a filthy mess. I think those spirits of darkness even killed the herbs she was growing by the window."
The drunk man sighed heavily, letting the bottle drop from his hand with a loud chink. He eyed it with blank curiosity as it rolled toward the table, then let his eyes drift mindlessly back toward the small crimson fire.
"Sophie already … hates me," he groaned, tilting his head back into the darkness. The snarled raven hair fell away, revealing a pale, gaunt, exhausted face. "She … mhmm. I miss Sophie."
"Now there's an understatement," the demon hissed from beneath his log. "This is absolute proof that you're nothing without her. Worse than nothing. A drunk, stupid, filthy nothing."
"Stupid," he moaned, blinking lazily. "So .. so .. stupid."
"Yes," Calcifer said firmly. "Yes, you're an idiot. Not because this is exactly your fault but because you're here completely incapacitating yourself when you could be seducing your wife back to where she ought to be, which is right here with me, in that chair you're defiling."
"Mhmm," Howl answered drearily. "Remember how .. how she never cared what I was wearing?"
"Sure I do," the fire demon answered gruffly. "But then again, none of us did. Only those girls you used to … yeah, well. But that's not even the start of it. Remember how she would give me a really yummy stick of wood on Sundays?"
"Yeah … and make … that bread with … nuts."
"A really thick, delicious stick."
"Eat it hot with … uhh … butter."
"And she looked really pretty in her … nightgown."
Calcifer paused a moment, silently raising his burning eyebrows. For a long moment, he simply stared appraisingly at the drunk before him, and then tentatively began his questioning.
"By pretty, do you by any chance mean … curvaceous? Alluring? Sensuously revealing?"
Howl took in a long, slow breath, his eyes closing as he let his head fall back again. A dribble of drool was making its way down his chin.
"No," the fire demon said sullenly to himself. "I didn't think it would be that easy."
He sunk lower onto his coals, cringing as the man before him let out what sounded like a half-choked snore. Estimating that the log would last until Howl sobered up (provided he had no more bottles in hiding), he settled down for a long, well-deserved rest.
And then, suddenly, there was a loud knock at the door.
He shot his flames up around the log immediately, his eyes narrowing intensely on the door. Cracking briskly at full attention, he leaned as close to the sleeping drunk seated before him as he could.
"Howl!" he hissed loudly. "Wake up! It's the scarecrow! He's back!"
The raven-haired man stirred, but barely, his eyelids sliding open to reveal blank, glazed-over eyes. He groaned a little as he stared up at the ceiling.
"Don't be daft, Calshifers," he answered mockingly. "The scarecrow turned into a prinsh, remember?"
"A prince in love with your wife!" the demon nearly shouted, his red-orange flames licking the top of the hearth. "Now listen, you idiot! I may have been your understanding buddy up until this point, but if you let that blonde creampuff steal my Sophie, I'll have your severed limbs for kindling!"
Howl sat up slowly, bracing his weight on the arm of the chair.
"Are you saying he wants … Sophie?" he asked, squinting in the harsh darkness.
"Yes! Yes, you drunk fool, that's exactly what I'm saying!" the demon hissed again. "Now go out there and … I don't know … turn him into a donkey or something!"
"She'll just kish him and make him blonde again," he spat resentfully.
"Then erase Sophie from his memory! Send his carriage flying back a thousand miles! Make him fall in love with some other girl! I don't know but do something, you idiotic almighty wizard!"
"Right," he answered, standing suddenly. He swerved violently, his ash-covered cape sliding to the floor. "I'll jush tell him to … go away."
"What? No!" the demon shrieked, rising up out of the hearth as high as he could, but it was too late. His former master was already stumbling toward the doorway, his raven hair sticking up unattractively on one side of his head. He could see only his backside now, but he wouldn't have been surprised if there was still drool running down his chin.
Howl flung open the door, leaning against it for balance.
A frighteningly perfect face filled the open doorway, surrounded by several fierce-looking guards in shining silver armor. The blonde man bowed neatly, taking his hat from his head as he did so, then righted himself with a charming smile.
"Why, my old friend, the great Wizard Howl," he said graciously. "Surely you remember me from our old adventures when I was merely a ragged but friendly scarecrow?"
The raven-haired man narrowed his eyes deeply, a lopsided scowl sinking into his face.
"Go away," he said loudly, blinking slowly before pushing the door shut. A guard on one side of the prince caught it easily, holding it open with a metal-gloved hand.
"Come now, Wizard Howl, surely you do remember," the prince continued, his smile a bit uneasy now, and certainly forced. "I wonder, is Miss Sophie available for introduction?"
"She's not Miss Sophie anymore, Prince," Howl spat triumphantly. "She's Miss Howl … I mean Miss Jenkins Sophie Howl … Miss Sophie Howl … she's my wife!"
The Prince stiffened, his lovely practiced smile slipping away into something of an ugly, disgruntled frown. Narrowing his own eyes, he placed his hat stiffly back on the top of his head.
"Really," he asked tartly. "Were you married quite recently?"
"Yesh, quite recently," Howl replied with a slight tilt of his head. "In fact, you are quite interrupting our honeymoon."
"Really," the Prince continued icily. "My apologies. I do wonder, however, why it is that I was not warranted an invitation for such a felicitous event?"
"Probably because you swore to return and seduce her," Howl replied with equal, if more clumsy, contempt. "But maybe I just don't like yellow."
Though it seemed impossible, the Prince stood yet more rigid, his frown stiffening into a scowl frightening enough to send a shiver down the back of any typical man. For a long moment, he said nothing, then gave each of his guards a cold, meaningful glance before turning back to the man before him.
"Quite understandable," the Prince said shortly. "You may be surprised to realize, however, that since said proclamation your wife and I have become quite tenderhearted friends. We've kept in touch through rather frequent written correspondence."
"I was aware of such a correspondence," Howl answered stiffly. He blinked several times, trying to keep his focus steady.
"Then you are aware that I am aware that you are nothing but a vain, impertinent and violent individual to whom the affections of a woman possessing the beauty and grace of my beloved Sophie are completely and totally undeserving, if not indeed blasphemous?"
The raven-haired man straightened his back, coldly staring down the man on his doorstep with a nasty look that was returned in full force. Finally, he took in a long, deep breath, clutching the side of the door for support as he stood.
"Bastard," he spat. "You smell like apples."
The Prince recoiled slightly, stunned, before his mouth fell open in disgust.
"Good God, sir," he spoke in unmasked horror. "Are you under the influence?"
"That is completely irrelevant to thish … verbal wordplay."
"I should have known, an alcoholic on top of it all," the blonde man muttered to himself in revulsion. He looked up suddenly, his narrowed eyes filled with renewed passion. "Do you mean to say you've intoxicated yourself on your honeymoon?"
"That is completely irrelevant to thish … no."
"Tell me you haven't forced Sophie to join in this debauchery!" the Prince nearly shrieked, pushing forward against the door to have a better look inside the castle. "Where is she? I need to speak with her immediately!"
"I shink …" Howl began with a deep, unsteady breath, his hand tightening on the door. "That I'm going to have to tell you to … go away … now."
"I won't leave here until I witness Sophie in a secure and mindful state!" the blonde man hissed, taking a step forward. The wizard widened his eyes, sliding a bit further behind the door.
"She doesn't want to shee you," he blurted out aggressively. "She finds your attentiveness to be … quite creepy!"
"Nonsense!" he shouted, now attempting to pry the door open with his pale, lovely hands. "Sophie would never find me creepy in any sense! Now open this door immediately, in the name of the Throne!"
"Wrong country!" Howl hissed, shoving the door a few inches closer to being closed. From the corner of his eye, he saw the guards reach down for their swords.
"Allow my entrance, or my guards and I shall storm your shabby excuse for a …!"
"Take one step into this castle and you will all transhform instantaneously into donkeys!" the raven-haired man yelled, pushing desperately against the door. The Prince pushed back with equal force, but behind him, Howl saw the barely perceptible sight of the guards' eyes widening in hesitation.
"Yesh!" he said, seizing the moment even in his drunkenness. "Donkeys! My evil fire minion and I have laid this trap upon the castle as protection against intruders such as yourselves! Not even a kiss could save you!"
The Prince laughed, but as he turned back to make his orders, he too saw the fear that Howl had witnessed gripping his men.
"You fools!" he screamed, laughing a little wildly still. "Can't you see the man is lying?"
The guard to his right frowned, then slowly, hesitantly, spoke.
"Yes, but Sire, even you were turned into a scarecrow."
"And you were a scarecrow for a long time, Sire," the guard to his left added, grimacing at the doorway where Howl stood bracing the door, attempting to look as malicious as possible.
"Nonsense! Rubbish! Have you no courage for the sake of a lady!" the Prince continued to shout, pushing desperately at the door that was slowly, painstakingly, being shut on his face. "Have you no honor! No loyalty to the Throne! Well, have you!"
"With all due respect, Your Highness," the first guard spoke tentatively, "We would be no help to the lady as donkeys, as it were."
"And most unfortunately, a donkey would have no honor at all, Sire," the other conceded.
Howl heaved all his weight against the door, a smirk blooming slowly from his mouth.
"I'll be back with an army, Wizard!" the blonde shrieked as the window on his face grew steadily thinner and thinner. "Mark my words, you've not seen the last of me!"
"You always were shush a shtick in the mud, Prince," the raven-haired man sang out, laughing triumphantly as he finally pushed the door closed. He locked it with a resoundingly click, then collapsed against it, still laughing hysterically, tears running down his face.
"Fantastic job, Howl," Calcifer called out cynically from his place in the hearth. He rolled his glowing eyes as the man's laughs collapsed into fitful giggles, letting out a long tunnel of smoke as he sighed. "There's only one problem."
"Shank you, Calshifer," he announced happily in reply. "What problem?"
"We're safe in here," he answered, letting his eyes drift meaningfully toward the window overlooking the town. "But we've locked him out there – with Sophie."
Howl frowned, his head jerking toward the window.
"And it's only a matter of time," the fire demon continued eerily, "Before he finds out exactly where she's hiding."
"Bastard," he swore under his breath, narrowing his blue eyes. "You had to strike when I wash … vulnerable."
"Pity," the demon said drearily from the hearth, and then, with a cruel amount of enthusiasm creeping back into his raspy voice, "Well, then. Time for the first cold shower of your miserable, pampered life."
Drunk Howl: The aushress … would like you to know that it wash very difficult to portray me both in character and drunk, whish is why I wash prevailing drunk.
Prince: And yes. I am a true nutjob excessively fond of the word "quite". That was quite intentional.
Ms. Rose: Is there anything else you'd like to say to our audience?
Drunk Howl: Yesh. In regards to the apple reference – apples, I am shorry. You do not shmell that mush.
Prince: SOPHIE! SOPHIE, IF YOU'RE LISTENING – I'M ON MY WAY! Don't let his mind spells fool you any longer!
Drunk Howl: I would shink of shomething clever to shay, but I'm too … washted.