AN: So I couldn't help myself. I am delving into a completely different category, and I'll probably confuse a whole lot of readers. But I'd like to point out this is not a Cinderella story. It's a mishmash of fairytales and legends, a pinch of myth and a dash of lore. Not to mention the magical dueling. Okay, one more thing…
Disclaimer: I do not own Howl's Moving Castle nor do I claim to have written the novelized version. I own a copy, but I don't think that's illegal… of course, it's legal if I didn't steal it from a Hong Kong triad and now they're after my head because the boss has a strange fantasy fetish…yeah.
Sophie Hatter was a sensible girl.
Every morning she'd wake up at exactly 6 AM, open the curtains and the window, go to the bathroom and brush her hair. Before half past 6 she'd be in her grey dress and in the kitchen, pouring herself milk in a small cup. She'd take a handful of cereal and hungrily gulp down her milk. Her stomach usually growled before she left her apartment.
Sophie Hatter lived a drab little life. She could hardly afford a ride on the trolley, much less a nutritious breakfast. She disliked asking for help, so she often ended up fending for herself in the streets. Sophie also disliked change. She was deathly afraid of changes, actually, and she didn't mind clinging to the remnants of her past. Her hat, for example, wasn't very pretty, and did not match her ensemble very well, but nevertheless it held some sentimental value.
As she traveled down the main road, passing luxurious carriages and sparkling automobiles, a group of squealing girls gathered around a particular shop window. Sophie proceeded past them with barely any interest, but did manage to catch a small conversation.
"They're holding a ball for the Prince!"
"You mean Prince Justin? He's the younger brother of the King, isn't he?"
"I hear he's going to become the leader of Ingary's armed forces!"
"After he finds a wife in the Ball, right?"
Sophie ignored the squeals from behind and continued her halfhearted jaunt. A ball for the prince and his hopeful future wife: How very cliché. She had no interest with true love, simply because she had no time for such things. All she cared about was her savings and the prospect of a full course meal. Food was more important than love, after all.
As she walked the last block to her destination, a familar scene met her. A little more interested with this crowd than the last squealing fanatics, she stopped and listened to the gentlemen arguing amongst themselves. Most of them were rich farmers here to nab the best deals from the prosperous town of Market Chipping. The shop window they were standing in front of held a lopsided wanted poster, crudely taped by shaky hands.
"They're offering a reward for the Witch?"
"Is the King mad?
"Well, the Witch did threaten his daughter's life. Princess Valerie, was it?"
"Wanted Dead or Alive… It's pointless either way!"
The men heartily laughed as Sophie walked away. The Witch of the Waste, as her full title went, was said to be a seductive enchantress. A carefully beautiful woman, she once stole the heart of three kings and five princes in less than one month…allegedly. But that was then, and this was now. It seemed like the Witch had lost herself after a short fling with the fabled Wizard Howl.
"Oh, Sophie," her boss, Fanny, said with a glance. "You're early as usual. The shipping just arrived last night. You should pick up the materials."
"Yes Fanny," Sophie placed her small purse by the counter and went into the backroom. Fanny was a kind woman, if not a little extravagant. She was the type to indulge in jewelry and the latest fashion craze. Fanny had two daughters with two different men; Lettie, the older of the two, was an exceptionally pretty girl with an even more exceptional bust size. Martha, the younger girl, was a dreamer. Her ideas were original and brilliant, and her precious daydreams created new line of products every year. They were the two Hatter sisters.
Sophie may share the same surname, but she was not at all related to the girls or their mother. It was pure coincidence, and the fact was supported by her looks—she could not compare with the two beautiful sisters. Nor did she share the qualities that made them stand out.
She scrounged through the boxes for the new hats. Seven Larges, ten Mediums, and four Smalls; she had quite a load to finish before lunchtime. Hopefully by then the crowd gathered outside the Café would have dispersed. She was still hungry, and if the farmers were still standing around and talking about that Witch…
The other worldly Wizard Howl…
The very mention of the Wizard's name sent shivers down Sophie's spine. She had been told numerous times the dangers of traveling alone at night and in alleyways, for the Wizard only showed his face to vulnerable females. That was how the legend went, anyway, and he was so handsome he had dared toy with the heart of the Witch of the Waste, and not only did he succeed in making her fall in love with him: He had made her crazy. They say the Witch was a complete mess, a ghost of her former beauty, and she had declared to rip out the heart of the Wizard Howl just two months prior to the start of this story.
Sophie thought the two made a wonderful pair. Let the Witch and the Wizard fester in their meaningless quarrel.
As she sat down to begin her work the doorbell rang. Bessie, the only remaining shop assistant, came in with a flock of customers waiting on her. She had the tongue of a fickle fairy, able to convince a woman in buying more than the woman would ever need in one shopping trip. Sophie's deft needlework seized when her stomach growled. Her mind wandered to Lettie. The girl worked at Cesari's Bakery and often received custards and other delicious treats as payment.
Sophie, as you all know, disliked asking for help.
Setting down her needle and the unfinished hat, she got off her stool and patted her dusty dress. She checked herself in the small mirror. The bags under her eyes weren't as noticeable as she had thought. And her hair didn't look too frizzy. Picking up her hat from the coat hanger she tiptoed out of the shop like a mouse, grabbing her purse from the counter. Lettie had a day off today, so if Sophie was to go to Cesari's she wouldn't feel too awkward…
She walked out the backdoor of the shop and slowly started down the alley. It was half past 8, and the streets were crowded enough to make a morning trek a tiresome expedition. The buildings blocked the sun, giving the alleyways the illusion of nighttime. As she made a turn she saw a soldier, a bushy man disobeying the law and taking a cigarette break. Of course, soldiers were common now that they were returning after the victorious Strangian War. The soldiers still unnerved her, however, and she took a detour through another alley.
Passing two taverns and a suspicious bar, she self-consciously tugged at her hat and quickened her stride. She thought she was safe until she came face to face with a grinning man. A young soldier with a smug smirk at the corner of his lips, he looked down at her with laughing eyes. Behind him was an older soldier with a thick mustache.
"You're very pretty," he commented without any hesitation. His eyes unnerved her, and, unbeknownst to Sophie, her hand shook.
"T-thank you." Sophie inwardly belated herself; her voice shook, and she didn't have the courage to look him in the eyes. A bad way to avoid being accosted.
"Hey, take a look at this mouse," the soldier called for his older companion. "I think this one's lost her way."
"Well now, she's a cute one," the other's response was identical to the first soldier. "What's the matter? I hope I'm not scaring you." Even he noticed her shaking by now.
Sophie glared at her shoes, still unable to look at them with a straight face. If she had the courage she could've told them off. She had the mindset to do so, but it was the consequences that frightened her more so than the soldiers. It was looked down upon to oppose Ingary's soldiers…
"Why don't we treat you to a drink?"
Sophie snapped her head up. "No, I'm afraid I'm not…"
"She mustn't be of the right age," the old soldier wisely deducted. "I think we can keep a secret though. So how about it?" He fingered his mustache with a lethal look in his eyes, an obvious sneer running across his aged face.
"I… I don't…" Her voice died halfway up her throat as a warm arm comfortably rested on her small shoulders. Her heart beat so fast she was sure her ribcage would crack. Along with her spine.
"There you are honey. I've been looking all over for you."
The two soldiers were surprised, as they stepped back ever so slightly, not having seen this gentleman approach the three. But they were not deterred, as the first soldier challengingly stepped forward and scrunched his nose at the newcomer that dared move into his territory. "Hey, we saw her first," was his pathetic excuse, and, momentarily, grasped for the rifle slung over his shoulder. "You better get out of here if you know what's good for you."
"I think you two should leave," the deep, alluring voice held a hint of amusement. Sophie saw the hand that was hanging limply beside him rise and point his delicate index and middle finger at the soldiers. The two soldiers in question suddenly straightened with their chests puffed out. Their faces couldn't hide the fact that they were shocked, and soon, with little protest, the two marched away as if pulled by invisible strings. Sophie would've found this humorous if she wasn't confused herself.
"Now," the blonde man pulled her attention with a dazzling smile. "Where were you headed?"
"To…to Cesari's…" Sophie kept her answer short for she did not trust her mouth right then and there. If she didn't watch herself she would start stuttering all over again, and she had experienced enough embarrassment to last a whole week.
"Wonderful!" said this advanced man. "I was meaning to get some breakfast myself. Why don't we keep each other company?" Without waiting for an answer he began to pull her forward, arm still rested on her shoulders. He walked calmly and gracefully, making Sophie feel all the more clumsy walking beside this man. She stole small glances when she thought he wasn't looking, and saw that he must be well into his 20's. His bright, almost contrived blonde hair shimmered even in the dark alley. She noticed a slight glint underneath his hair as she stole another glance, and wondered if he was actually wearing earrings. Sophie looked down and hid behind her hat when she thought she had caught his eyes.
The silence that followed was unbearable, to say the least, but she had the distinct feeling that this man was having quite a time. She saw that his smile had grown and an uneasy hand seemed to twist her innards when she, again, caught his eyes.
"I think," Sophie slowed, forcing the man to stop in his tracks, "I should go back to work. I didn't think it'd take this long to go to Cesari's." To her surprise he was unfazed. Actually, his smile seemed to widen even more.
"Nonsense!" he said and leaned down to reach eyelevel with Sophie. "It'd be a shame to see you go without breakfast. Come, it'll be my treat." The prospect of not having to pay for breakfast was almost too welcoming to refuse, but walking so close to this man was not helping her appetite. Sophie Hatter was a sensible girl, after all.
She tried to step away, which took a lot of her meager courage, when it looked like he would pull her forward again, but an odd sensation forced her feet to follow the man's nimble footwork. Step by step the two were in sync, and the dread in the pit of Sophie's stomach deepened. She was sure this man had cast some sort of spell on her. Sophie tried with all her might to pull away, but it was a fruitless attempt. She now understood how the two soldiers had felt.
Soon the two walked out of the alleyways and into the crowded streets. The day being May Day, the crowd was more festive and louder than Sophie would've liked. All over town girls pruned for this day were being serenaded with music and sweets; men were accosting women and buying them drinks; the farmers' sons were laughing and jostling through the crowd, dashing past Sophie in a manner that nearly gave her a heart attack. She didn't realize she was pressing into her escort until they were in front of Cesari's.
"Take a seat," he took one of the white metal chairs outside the bakery and beckoned her to sit. Sophie, still a little dazed, slowly sat down and clutched her purse, twisting it a little too tightly. All around her people were screaming and celebrating. Gorgeous ladies were flaunting their news hats or dresses in front of the men without hesitancy. Sophie was the complete opposite—a shy gray mouse that looked too plain to be in this crowd.
"Two cream cakes," he quickly said to the waiter, handing the menu over, "and a glass of lemonade for my lady."
Sophie lowered her head and blushed. She would've normally been infuriated if someone had introduced her as his lady, but right now the idea of eating without having to pay seemed rather important, at least more than defending herself. Her stomach attested to that, as it took all her might to not let it growl in front of this man. She had the feeling she was being watched and couldn't help but look up.
The man, hair pulled back behind one ear and indeed revealing a jade earring, had one elbow elegantly propped on the table and his chin on the back of that hand. He watched her with unwavering blue, marble-like eyes. She couldn't pull her eyes away, and this staring contest continued until the waiter came back with a tray filled with the most beautiful sight Sophie had ever seen.
Food—delicious nourishment, enough to last till lunchtime if she was lucky.
Not caring if she would be thought a pig, she shakily picked up her fork and knife as soon as the plate was placed on the glass table. She ignored her escort's chuckle and cut a small piece. It tasted like heaven.
Her escort watched her eat with an everlasting smile that seemed to be stapled to his face. "I knew you'd like it." He watched as she proceeded to gulp down her lemonade and finish her cream cake. She had a satisfied little smile on her face as she put down her fork and knife and finished her drink. Her smile disappeared, though, when she saw the man sitting across her and his untouched food.
"You haven't…" she spoke, almost a whisper because she was so reluctant.
"Oh, I'm not very hungry." He snapped his finger and immediately a waiter came to his side. "Please refill her glass. Oh, and another cream cake please. Also, would you mind packing this one up?" The waiter graciously bowed and took the untouched cream cake with him. Sophie was feeling overly pampered, and her unease came back with full force.
"Thank you," Sophie said when the waiter came back with another tray, "for treating me to this, I mean."
"But of course," he nodded and crossed his arms. "It's the least I could do as a gentleman." He seemed to be more satisfied to watch her eat, and that unnerved her even more. Not wanting to upset him, she went back to her food. Sad to say it wasn't as delicious as the first cake, and she was sure it didn't have anything to do with the ingredients.
When the bill was paid and the packaged cake was given to Sophie, she found herself once again under her escort's arm. Though she wasn't as tense as when they were coming to the bakery as they were now leaving it, it was still an uncomfortable position. Holding her purse and the little package with a tight grip, she wished for the journey to end soon. As if reading her thoughts the man leading her through the crowd looked down. "I hope you're not too weary."
The thought that he would think the short trek was tiring her angered her, but she wasn't about to snap on a stranger. "No sir, I'm just… I didn't have enough sleep, that's all."
"Oh, you have a roommate?"
Sophie was confused at first. She didn't understand why he would ask her that when all she said was she lacked sleep. Then it dawned on her: If she was tired because she didn't have enough sleep…and if she lived with someone else… he thought she had… oh.
"No!" she answered a little too forcefully. "I live alone. By myself…" She looked down, embarrassed at her outburst.
Her escort took it in stride, though, and the two entered the alleyways as he said, "Well, I used to have a roommate, of sort, myself. She was an interesting thing, to say the least." He did not see the look of horror that struck Sophie's face… he was telling her about his love life? "But, alas, things just didn't work out as she had hoped. Now I have a Witch after my heart."
Sophie would've stopped if her feet weren't controlled by his steps. Did he just say that? Sophie looked up at the man's face with unbelieving eyes and stared without realizing what she was doing. Had he just said…?
Her question was left unanswered as she found herself in front of the backdoor of the Hatters'.
"Well, thank you for keeping me company," he said, sliding his hand down her shoulder and forearm, almost caressing the skin beneath her sleeve. "I enjoyed our breakfast."
Sophie was breathless. It was like electric shocks were being sent through her nerves. His hand traveled all the way down to her wrist, softly, lovingly, and held her petite hand in his own. He raised her hand and bent down, kissing the back of her hand with an elaborate slowness that caused her heart to skip a beat. His lips lingered there, much longer than necessary, and when he was finished his casual smile was even wider than before.
"I hope you will accompany me for dinner tonight."
Sophie blinked, overwhelmed and yet, strangely enough, a little touched by his gesture. "I don't know… it's a long walk to my home, and I wouldn't want to be caught walking at night—"
"My dear Sophie," he said, cutting her off with a wave of his hand. "Don't you know a Wizard can provide a better traveling option?"
Sophie's eyes widened. That was all she could do, as she was glued to the cement at the moment.
"I'll see you at eight, on the dot. That's when you get off your shift, isn't it?" Knowing the answer he turned around and walked away, just like that. She didn't turn to watch him go. She didn't see the shadows cloak him as he disappeared down the alley. Nothing seemed to matter except for his words.
He was a wizard.
He somehow knew her name and when she got off work.
And, if she remembered correctly, he said he had a witch after his heart.
Sophie leaned back, her back against the door, having lost the will and the strength to stand. If she was still sane, if she hadn't gone mad, and if her memory was still good, then she had just had breakfast, and was going to have dinner, with the fabled Wizard.
The Wizard Howl…