Here lies a she sun, and a he moon there;
She gives the best light to his sphere;
Or each is both, and all, and so
They unto one another nothing owe;
And yet they do, but are
So just and rich in that coin which they pay,
That neither would, nor needs forbear, nor stay;
Neither desires to be spared nor to spare.
They quickly pay their debt, and then
Take no acquittances, but pay again;
They pay, they give, they lend, and so let fall
No such occasion to be liberal.
More truth, more courage in these two do shine,
Than all thy turtles have and sparrows, Valentine.
- John Donne, Marriage Song
In the land of Ingary, where poems become prophecy and hearts can be held in your hands, gossip could be called the younger sister of incantation. Just as words of power can change the temper of the sky and fight off encroaching scarecrows, the eager repetition of village talk can easily stir people to a frenzy. The more fantastic the story, the more powerful the magic. So it was hardly surprising how quickly word of the wedding of esteemed sorceress Sophie Hatter and Royal Wizard Howl Pendragon whirled like a frantic typhoon up and down the Folding Valley. The deceitful, wicked, heart-eating Wizard Howl to be married? And to possibly one of the most willful women in all of Ingary?
And as the day came, sitting heavily in one of the Vale End mansion's grates and heaving a smoky sigh, Calcifer realized the whole thing had Howl windblown.
Howl paced fretfully before the hearth, ornate sleeves whipping about behind him. He was dressed in a purple suit for the occasion—aubergine, he'd said, offended at Calcifer's observation of eggplant—trimmed and embroidered with teal, silver accents polished to a mirror shine in his restless fervor. His hair was somehow even more meticulously arranged than normal, almost that same pink which had prompted him to slime the whole castle mixed with a subdued blond. It showed Howl's sentimentality and cowardice all at once. He murmured anxiously to himself, nearly reaching him to run a hand through that hair before stopping himself, flattening his lapel instead.
"Oh, calm down will you?" Calcifer huffed. "You can hardly scare her off now."
Howl shot Calcifer an irritated look before sitting down heavily in one of the parlor's red-velvet chairs, leaning his forehead against his hands. Calcifer saw his shoulders rise and fall weightily. "What'd you go and say something like that for, you insensitive wick? Can't you see I'm suffering?"
"Oh, for—" Calcifer said, puffing a great cloud of smoke into the chimney. "Get a hold of yourself. You couldn't have had second thoughts any earlier than now?" Calcifer could hear the faint sound of chatter from the mansion's front lawn, where a swath of decorations had been arranged under the critical eye of Lettie Hatter and a great many tables—placed by Howl himself, the windbag—were filling with guests even as they spoke. He and Howl had even placed a glamor over the whole event to waylay attack by magical assault or vengeful use of hat pins. It was late in the game for Howl to start behaving so characteristically.
"I am not having second thoughts!" Howl snapped, affronted. In the corner of the room, a vase full of chrysanthemums and pearly stones exploded in a shower of rock and glass. Howl glanced over his shoulder and swore quietly.
Calcifer sighed. "Then what is it?" he asked.
"It's just nerves," Howl answered snippily, pressing a hand to his chest. "Bother this heart. I wish she'd never given it back to me."
Calcifer did not have to see the lie in Howl's clear eyes to know that wasn't true. But that heart did present quite a problem. Strong emotions from the wizard had been dangerous enough when Calcifer held the thing at a safe distance (he flickered at the thought of green slime). But now with it so close at hand, and with Howl as anxious and unused to it as he was—well, the vase had hardly been the first casualty.
"You've had plenty of time to get used to it," Calcifer said. "And it seems to have steered you better than your head so far." Oh, how he hated gushiness, sickly sweet on his flame-tongue. "Now stop whining. You're liable to blow the roof off at this rate."
Howl took a few deep, calming breaths. Or at least, that was the idea. A minute later he was up again, pacing the sitting room enough to erode the carpet. "Blasted superstitions," Howl said irritably. "It'd hardly be like this if I'd had a chance to see her!"
"You're hardly in a position to criticize," Calcifer pointed out, though largely to be contrary. He admitted this one was a bit strange, and he could hardly deny Sophie's participation in the matter. Still, conflicted loyalties flamed up in him nonetheless.
Howl didn't like that at all. He actually did run a hand through his hair this time, his nostrils flaring, before he realized what he'd done and went quickly to the mirror. "Besides," Calcifer said, "even Sophie can't defy that many other Hatter women. It'd be a fool who'd try."
Howl was silent, carefully rearranging the part in his hair. He seemed to be thinking. Calcifer didn't like that at all. "Howl—" he started.
"Just a peek won't hurt," Howl announced, flipped a last lock of hair into what Calcifer supposed was 'place,' and made for the door.
Calcifer flared up in alarm. "She's under an enchantment!" he cried. "You know you won't be able to see her! You'll just make her angry." Angry Sophie may have been even worse than green slime.
"Not you too!" Howl huffed, sending a glare Calcifer's way as he took hold of the doorknob. "Has everyone around here forgotten I'm a wizard? Never you mind. Just be ready for me when the time comes, will you?" Without waiting for an answer, Howl shut the door behind him, leaving Calcifer with only the sounds of the cheery crowd outside to keep him company.
"Oh, curses," Calcifer spat, then shot up the chimney. Only a fool would go against the wishes of the Hatter women, and Howl was perhaps the greatest fool of them all.
"Oh Sophie, do try to calm down," Lettie sighed, affixing another bright blue bloom to her sister's hair. "There's no need to be so nervous."
"There's always a reason to be nervous when Howl is involved," Sophie said curtly. Lettie had to slap her sister's hand to keep her from curling her fingers in her dress. "He's a no-good, dishonest, slippery slither-outer. How am I to know he's even here?"
"You're being silly. Ben went to get Howl himself," Lettie reminded her for the fifth time, her smile starting to waver. "And I doubt you'd be trying to marry him if you really believed all of that."
"I do believe it," Sophie answered stubbornly, turning her head and making Lettie misplace another flower entirely. "It's the truth, and everyday he finds new ways to prove it."
Lettie put her hands on Sophie's head and turned her back around. "Oh, do stop your fidgeting Sophie, or I'll never get this done! I'll have to call Fanny in to help me."
That quieted Sophie for the moment, just as Lettie knew it would. Fanny was a busybody at the calmest of times, but at the wedding of her oldest stepdaughter to an infamous heart-eating sorcerer, she was quite beside herself. Sophie had experienced that firsthand not an hour before, during Fanny's final appraisal of the dress, prodding and critiquing and crying and advising. Lettie knew Sophie would rather hike barefoot through the Waste than deal with that again.
After a few moments of dour silence, Sophie leaned very slightly toward the mirror, reaching up to touch a rose on the top of her head. "You're sure this isn't too much?"
Lettie couldn't hold back a heartfelt laugh. She'd been buried under a small mountain of silk, lace and pearls for her own wedding—poor Ben had had trouble getting close enough to lift her veil, with the volume of her skirts. By comparison, Sophie's soft purple dress—a fine silhouette with bared shoulders and a modest ball-gown skirt—looked practically plain. Howl, of course, had wanted for something much more extravagant when he'd heard it described. After a few spats and with a bit of Lettie's help, they'd compromised on the colorful floral accents in Sophie's hair that had her so fretful now.
"Howl's just so excessive," Sophie went on. "You saw the guest list, and the decorations, and the cake—"
"Well, that was Martha's doing—"
"—and a certain someone I won't mention him inviting, like we couldn't have just gone to see her later—"
"You can't really be mad about that! I'd be heartbroken if you didn't invite me—"
"—so it makes good sense to worry," Sophie said as Lettie slipped in another blossom. "I don't want to be as—as peacockish as him."
"Nonsense," Lettie said. "You look lovely." It was true. Sophie, despite her thoughts to the contrary, was already pretty, and in the dress she was positively striking. It made Lettie tear up a little—her dear Sophie, getting married! To a right scoundrel perhaps, but Lettie had experienced firsthand how Howl regarded her sister. When he was trying to court her his interest in Sophie had been plain as day, and the way he and Sophie could lock out the world when they were around each other—well, it didn't leave much to question. "He'll trip over himself to give you the ring."
Sophie took a deep breath, letting it out with a sigh. She reached forward, tapping the mirror absently. "More like the moment he sees me he'll put on that wounded face and pout about how cruel I am."
"Oh, Sophie . . ."
"I just wish I hadn't had to steal out of my own home like a criminal," Sophie said, sounding deflated.
"Is that all?" Lettie said with a gentle smile, checking the neatness of Sophie's plait. It was tradition in Ingary that bride and groom not see each other for the week before the wedding, to symbolize the end of their separation, guarantee life-long harmony and other such things. Lettie thought it was all quite silly, if she were being honest. Another bout of giddy superstition, nothing more, and she herself had only observed it out of novelty. Sophie, though—Lettie would have thought she'd had enough of silly superstitions to last a lifetime. But Sophie had followed it anyway. She'd even grudgingly agreed to Fanny's insistence that Mrs. Fairfax put a concealment spell on her. Until the ceremony she could only be seen by someone who already knew where she was—that someone, of course, pointedly excepting Howl. It was a bit much, Lettie thought, but did not bring it up as she fastened one last lily to Sophie's braid. "I'm sure he'll understand."
Sophie raised an eyebrow at her in the mirror. Lettie, finding no way to counter such a solid argument, smoothed down a last unruly strand of red-gold and set her chin on her sister's shoulder. "You look beautiful, Sophie," Lettie said, making her own point that could not be argued. "I'm so happy for you."
Sophie's face softened. She leaned into Lettie a bit, turning her head and studying Lettie's work. "Only with your help," she said. "Thank you."
"N-no trouble," Lettie said, and had to stand quickly to conceal the mist at her eyes. "I'll go see how things are going. Shouldn't be long now!" She smiled over her shoulder as she made for the door. "Stay right there," she chided goodnaturedly, and shut it behind her.
It was supposed to be a joke, really it was.
Oh drattit, this wasn't going well at all, Michael thought miserably.
He poked his head into the mansion's magically renovated kitchen for the fifth time, wiping his brow from the heat of the ovens. He glanced amongst the crowd of cooks and bakers (who, by their numbers, must have made up the entire extended Cesari clan), searching for a swath of familiar dark hair. No such luck. If Martha was in there somewhere, she was well concealed amongst the bustling bodies and rapidly amassing food.
Michael turned away, sighing mightily. He patted at his pocket, screwing up his face as he tried to think. Perhaps this wasn't the best time. He knew how dreadfully busy Martha was, how important the wedding was to her—so much that she might end up missing the ceremony to finish preparing for the reception. Still, he really had hoped . . .
A swish of air both hot and cold brushed past his shoulder, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. "And why the long face with you?" Calcifer said, managing to roll his eyes even when they made up most of his body. "Why do you humans even bother with these things if you're so determined not to enjoy them?"
"I-It's nothing!" Michael said, quickly folding his arms together. "What're you doing out here? Aren't you supposed to be with Howl?"
Michael moved from the gloomy kitchen hallway into the main hall with Calcifer bobbing at his shoulder, great high windows filling the room with sunlight. It was all quite a bit cleaner and brighter than it had been a week before, the castle entrance temporarily moved to a far back bedroom, the interior magically whitewashed and cleaned—Michael remembered how fervently Howl had grumbled about the concept and how quickly he had taken to the task anyway. It was also relatively empty, with only Martha's mother, Mrs. Fairfax, and an unfamiliar guest chatting at the door. The majority of the noise came from outside, behind the mansion, where the crowd of guests had grown rather impressively over the last hour.
"Gone missing," Calcifer said dryly. Michael immediately felt his face turning white, and the demon added, "He wanted to see Sophie and couldn't be persuaded to see reason. He's gone looking for her."
Michael groaned. "Why didn't you stop him?" he said, using that defeated tone he often did with Howl.
"I'm not his keeper!" Calcifer said.
"Yes you are! At least for today!" Michael said, then rubbed the back of his head. "Well, he hasn't gone far. But the way he is right now, he could end up causing even more trouble than normal." If Howl did anything to make a mess of today, with Sophie, Lettie, Martha and their mother all here, Michael shuttered to think what could happen. "Do you know where he went?"
"No," Calcifer answered. He at least seemed displeased about it. "And I have to be careful looking for him. Don't want her to see me, or he'll be in even more of a state."
Michael nodded sympathetically, then caught Calcifer's look. He stiffened slightly. "I can't convince him any better than you can! In fact, I'm a lot worse at it!"
"At least you can move around!" Calcifer retorted. "And you know if me makes Sophie mad, none of us will hear the end of it."
That was unfortunately true. "He won't come quietly."
"He never does," Calcifer agreed.
They shared a comradely silence, souls alike in their suffering at Howl's hand. "He's not having doubts," Calcifer said after a moment. "Not about her. But there is something worrying him."
"And of course he has to be dramatic about it," Michael said, pressing a hand to his forehead like a much older man. "All right. I'll try to find him."
"Do that," Calcifer said. "Or we might have a lot worse than green slime on our hands."
Michael shivered. "Right."
As Calcifer zoomed up to the ceiling and vanished into the light, Michael headed for the yard (as good a place to start as any), anxiously patting his pocket.
There was something not quite right about this place, Megan thought suspiciously.
She sat a table in the corner of the yard, beneath the shade of some great tree she couldn't identify, nostrils half-flared. From the corner of her eye she watched Mari try to catch a distressed pink butterfly, Neil planted at the table playing some hand-held computer game Howell had spoiled him with. Her eyes fixed for the fourth or fifth time on the bunch of flowers placed on the table: a dark blue rose, red lilacs, green lilies. Her nose twitched. Their strangeness had Howell written all over it.
Lifting her eyes to the rest of the party did nothing to assuage her. The garden was full of delighted, finely dressed guests, who would have looked like the company at any other wedding if not for small, strange details that assaulted Megan's attention. A set of great, long sleeves here, an unforgivably odd hat there, strange ornaments and far-too-vibrant colors here and there and here again. The snatches of conversation she managed to catch made no sense to her, talking of High Norland and Prince Justin and Strangia and seven league boots. When any of the other guests came close enough to introduce themselves or engage in conversation (and there were few), they seemed all together guarded, as if worried to speak around her. Strangest of all, each and every one of them seemed to find Howell utterly respectable. No, something was definitely wrong here.
"Don't go too far, Mari," Megan warned as the girl lost her butterfly in the shrubs. "And Neil, could you ask someone when things are getting started? This is all dragging on."
If Neil heard her at all, he wasn't inclined to let her know. His game pinged on, his eyes locked on the tiny screen, and he didn't so much as twitch in acknowledgment. Megan sighed mightily.
"Oh, watch your sister then!" she snipped, giving him a sharp tap on the shoulder and indicating where Mari had started to pick dandelions out of the grass. Neil grunted and glanced up for a bare moment, before nodding briskly and snapping his eyes back down. Megan supposed that was the best that she could hope for.
She strode between the other tables that littered the lawn, looking for someone with a sense of authority that didn't recoil or smile too cheerily when she approached. She glanced from party to party, catching a few nervous glances if they cared to mark her, and more bizarre conversations when they didn't. Downright peculiar was the kindest way she could describe the whole situation.
Her eye caught for a moment and fixed on the mansion. It had so bewildered her when Howell brought them here. Rental, he'd assured her in that smirking, Howell-ish way that he did things. Even then, to be able to afford something like this—it made Megan think back to that cantankerous old woman he had brought with him some year ago (the experience was difficult to forget). The servants are selling the gold plate, she remembered, and snorted. Was it really possible that Howell could be so properly set? The woman had acted like something of a servant, and the boy . . .
The boy! She caught sight of him milling about, looking taller and better groomed, craning his neck and glancing around as if he were searching for someone. Megan quickly changed course and marched toward him, ignoring a table of people that went clumsily silent as she passed. "Boy! Err, Markel, was it?" she called when she got close enough.
The boy's dark skin turned a shade paler when he caught sight of her. "Michael, actually," he said with the voice of a mouse, then quickly cleared his throat. He twisted abnormally long sleeves between his fingers as he said, "Hello, Miss Megan. Lovely day, isn't it?"
"It is," she answered. Perhaps a bit too lovely, she secretly thought, to be a normal day in the northernmost parts of England, where Howell had insisted they'd arrived when they awoke from unwitting naps on the train (all three of them, even Neil with his waiting game, which Megan noted as particularly odd). "Do you happen to know when we get underway? Mari's getting restless. Or do you know where Howell is? I haven't seen him since he dropped us off here. Rude, really."
"Aah, yes," Michael answered, and seemed to be struggling not to stammer. "Well, Howl, you see is, aah, very busy, and once I've found hi—err, once everyone is ready, which should be soon, I'm sure—!"
Megan felt her face screwing up more with every word. Michael seemed to see that, and the way he raised his shoulders to his ears gave the impression he was shrinking. "Found him?" Megan said.
That seemed to take the words right out of the boy. His mouth dropped open, letting out a strangled little half-laugh and a few failed attempts at speech. Megan's eyebrow rose until it had stretched to its limit.
A great hand came down on Michael's shoulder, making him jump. Megan turned with him toward the red-haired, craggy-faced gentleman who had appeared at his side. "Ah, Michael, good to see you," the man said just as craggily, but with a certain note of cheer, not to mention a familiar accent. "You seem to have survived the afternoon."
Despite the imposing nature of the man, Michael looked utterly relieved to see him. "Yes," he said breathlessly. "Barely."
A neat smile spread across the gentleman's face. "Good lad," he said, giving Michael's shoulder a squeeze before turning to Megan. "Pardon my interruption, ma'am. I'm Ben Suliman, brother-in-law to the bride. You must be Mrs. Parry. Howl's spoken quite highly of you."
"Has he now?" she said, politely accepting Mr. Suliman's hand when he offered it. Despite herself (and the man's own long sleeves), she found she rather liked him already.
"Often and fondly. I'm sorry to disturb you, but I've been told to send the lad on a last minute errand," Mr. Suliman said, glancing at Michael.
Michael perked up immediately. "She had a question," he quickly informed, already edging away. "About, um, the schedule and Howl." They pronounced his name so strangely, Megan thought, eyebrows furrowing.
"Aah," Mr. Suliman said matter-of-factly, looking back at Megan. "I might be able to answer, if you don't mind."
"Not at all," Megan said. It was nice to talk to someone who seemed respectable and didn't react to her like she was a poisonous tree-frog.
"Off then, lad," Mr. Suliman said. "They're looking for you in the kitchens. Go on."
A light flared up in the boy's eyes then, and he seemed to be restraining himself from bursting into a full sprint as he left. Megan didn't notice she was watching him go until Mr. Suliman cleared his throat.
"He's a good boy, if a little excitable," he said. "Now, what was it you wanted to know?"
Megan felt the corner of her mouth turn slightly. At least a bit of good conversation might make this affair go faster.
Howell couldn't help the smile of triumph that touched his face as he moved away from the window. He had to hand it to Suliman, the man was dependable. Whether it was combating the Witch of the Waste or neutralizing Howell's utterly respectable sister, he'd go to pieces before he failed at it. All the better for Howell. Now he could concentrate on his much more important task.
The first floor yielded nothing but dust and cobwebs where he and Calcifer had neglected to upset the spiders. He poked his head into the castle (Suliman had ushered him out with starchy haste), found nothing, then zapped up to the second floor and reappeared with his foot through an ancient and probably valuable canvas. He swore as he kicked it off and stalked along the second floor balcony overlooking the entrance. He tried muttering a simple finding spell again, and again Sophie's glamor denied him.
He pressed his hand down on a side table that had begun shaking as he approached. He felt tempted to zip down to kitchens and steal a bottle of champagne for his nerves. Blast Sophie, this was her fault. Hadn't she learned anything from traipsing about as an old woman? That garbage about being the eldest of three had kept her ninety years old weeks longer than it should have. Hadn't she realized a thing about what harm superstitions could cause—or more importantly, what harm they could cause to him? He was a victim in his own betrothal!
At the same moment Howell swallowed a thick lump from his throat, a door to his right crashed open, banging back and forth on its hinges. He jumped, his mind flying instinctively to vengeful witches with spade-bearing fathers and vicious brothers and aunts. However, the doorway was empty. The room beyond was much more organized and free of dust than the others. Poking his head inside, Howell found a discarded gray dress, lace draped over a chair, and a vanity littered with flowers, familiar-looking creams and powders. Sophie's dressing room, but no Sophie. He swore again, and a few tubes rolled agitatedly off the tabletop.
Vexing woman! Shutting the door, he marched off down the hall, trying to think where a darling bride like his could have gone.
Sophie peered around the corner, through the mansion's back entry into the yard, then realized she needn't bother peering. None of them could see her anyway.
She stepped awkwardly through the doorway into the courtyard, lifting up her skirts to keep them from dragging. It would be just like her to ruin her wedding dress pulling it through the mud, and she had no intention of letting that happen. Just as soon as she found Howl, she could go happily back to her dressing room and behave sanely again.
The spell worked better than she had imagined. It blinded everyone to her unless she personally requested their attention, and did it well: not a single head swiveled toward her as she approached. It was set to end at the beginning of the ceremony (which she didn't quite understand, but between Lettie and Wizard Suli—Ben they seemed to have it parceled out), but until then, she was no more obvious a presence than a ghost.
Sophie felt it was a bit extreme. With this and having to steal away from the castle, leaving only a note before she slipped out the Market Chipping door, these wedding traditions were feeling downright silly. Still, she thought as the smell of the floral decorations almost overwhelmed her, there was something in her that very much wanted to go along. It was a confusing feeling, and one she didn't particularly like.
To distract herself, Sophie looked around the garden. Lettie and Fanny had really outdone themselves. Neatly arranged round tables with cream tablecloths were topped with vases of the flowers Sophie had been tending for weeks. The seats were filled with such a population guests—humbly-dressed Porthaven friends and perfumed Kingsbury associates on Howl's side, a good portion of Market Chipping on hers—that Sophie was sure she couldn't name half of them without getting dizzy. Garlands weighted down with hundreds of blooms from the shop stretched from the door to the altar, looking so heavy that they seemed to be hanging by magic—and probably were. An aisle of pink cloth cut through the tables, looking so pristine that Sophie was careful not to step on it. Hedges surrounding the mansion framed everything in, drawing her eye to the altar, a great tall wooden thing where several hundred flowers had been enchanted to grow.
Something about that altar twisted Sophie's stomach. She had to keep looking.
She edged to a nearby table, telling herself she simply didn't want to interrupt as she silently listened to her guests' conversation. Not that she expected to find Howl out here, but since she couldn't very well ask anyone this was certainly better than nothing. She was bound to catch a hint sooner or later.
She listened for a moment, and felt herself growing irritable. Being invisible at her own wedding made her feel rather strange. She had spent so much time being invisible in her life, and she suddenly had the urge to shout out loud in the middle of the garden so everyone could see her. Instead, she took a deep breath to calm herself down (a man so polished he had to be from Kingsbury turned and glanced over his shoulder, confused) before moving to another table. She listened with one ear as she craned her neck, squinting to see if Howl was out here after all, gadding about. No such luck—while she heard his name a good dozen times, his whereabouts remained a mystery, and he neglected to appear in a cloud of anything at all. Sophie huffed indignantly.
Then, when she glanced down, she accidentally locked gaze with a pair of harsh, anxious blue eyes that seemed to be staring right into her. She was thankful, once again, for her renewed youth—the way her heart leaped in her chest would've put her ninety-year-old self out. She stared helplessly back into those eyes, afraid to move.
Megan squinted. Her face, so like Howl's, turned just slightly, as if she were trying to focus on something that she couldn't quite put her eye on. Right, Megan couldn't see her either. Sophie relaxed a little. Still, when Megan finally lowered her eyes and went back to listening to . . . was that Ben?—talking, Sophie couldn't help but feel unnerved.
It didn't last long. Seeing Megan jogged her memory, and that fear that had started her heart pounding transformed seamlessly into irritation. She regretted not being able to properly stomp away as, aborting her garden search, she huffed grandly back to the mansion. She'd find him, Sophie thought with more righteous fervor than ever. There were only so many places a wizard could hide!
(Her stomach did something strange and unpleasant when she thought that; she stubbornly ignored it.)
"Breathe, girl!" called one of the cooks, laughing heartily through the kitchen steam. Martha ignored him as she dashed past, wiping her forehead with her sleeve.
The manor's kitchen banged and dinged and clattered with activity, cook and their apprentices cutting and mincing and stirring and arranging and speeding along to finish the reception dinner on time. The room, magically resized to fit the crowd of chefs, was sweltering from the ovens, and in the July heat it was nearly unbearable. Trying to battle her way through the cluster of bodies made Martha anxious enough, but then the misted clock on the wall had to be thoroughly unsympathetic.
Murmuring and twisting her fingers into a nervous bundle, Martha went over the menu once more in her mind. All she knew of the dinner was what she'd seen while scouring the order—salad, lamb, light greens, some strange thing called terrine that Howl had requested specially. What left her in a panic was dessert. Eclairs, honey cakes, stewed blackberry crumble, apple pudding—she tallied each carefully, trying to remember where each was in its process. The pies were taking too long, the crumble was being temperamental. Then, there was the cake.
"Martha!" she heard Connor call from across the kitchen, and turned to see his mop of curly red hair as he leaned back from the door. "Michael's here! Said someone sent for him?"
Martha nearly plowed both of the boys over as she rushed for the door. Connor had the sense to leap out of the way, and Michael the kindness to thrust his hands out to catch her, but she was too frantic to appreciate either. "Thank goodness!" she cried.
Michael stood with his hands out dumbly, and Martha grabbed one before he could tuck them away again. "Come on!" she said, tugging Michael into the kitchen, accidentally making him stumble before he clumsily righted himself.
"Le—Martha, what's wrong?" he stammered as she dragged him to a basement pantry.
"Just come on!" she yelped as she pushed back the curtain. "I need your help. It's an emergency!"
She all but pitched Michael in to the cupboard-sized room, pulling him toward the shadowed corner. The shelves stood empty and dusty. Light stretched from a small, ground-level window, filtered through grubby strands of cobwebs abandoned by their owners. It was just enough light to see the cake by, sitting on a small table against the windowless wall.
Martha curled her fingers instinctively around Michael's as she examined the cake for the hundredth time. Sophie's wedding cake. She'd poured her heart and soul and every ounce of skill into it, right alongside the sugar and cream. She remembered every detail just as she'd placed it—two layers of that chocolate cake that everyone loved so much, with buttercream frosting and chocolate and cherries carefully arranged along the edge; a strange fruitcake (of Howl's again) sneaked into the middle layer, frosted with royal icing and delicate fondant blooms that she had labored over for days. And she could see the frosting starting to turn shiny and liquid, the petals starting to droop. Even in a cooler, dark, underground room like this, cakes were not meant to survive this long in the summertime.
She rounded on Michael, taking him by both hands and squeezing them hard. "You know some kind of freezing spell right? Or a cooling charm? Just something to keep it from melting!"
"Erm," Michael started, clinging back. "I—I think so. But I'd have to go back to the castle to make one up. I should—maybe I should—"
"Oh, please, Michael!" Martha said, not meaning to whine. "It'll start to come apart if you don't! I know you can do it. For Howl and Sophie?"
Michael's face seemed to be doing several things at once, not knowing how it wanted to look. Eventually, his mouth twisted into a half-frown and his brows slanted. "Okay. Okay, I'll try, but—"
"Thank you!" Martha cried, so sincere in her joy that she grabbed his face and kissed him. He seemed downright bewildered when she jumped back, waving as she dashed away and mounted the basement's few steps. "I'll see you soon!"
"Wait, Martha!" he called as she flew through the door.
She slid to a stop and turned around, pushing back the fabric. "What is it?" she asked.
He was standing there strangely, one hand held out to stop her, the other sitting unnaturally on his hip and his mouth hanging open slightly. Martha blinked and looked up him up and down. Maybe he'd tried a spell in that second and froze himself up! Had she asked him for too much? She felt her expression softening, and was about to apologize and tell him it wasn't so important (she had never been good at lying, though) before he shook his head—a small one to himself, then a normal one to her. "N-nothing, nevermind."
"Oh—um, okay," Martha said. Not knowing what else to do, she nodded in agreement. "We'll be bringing it outside before the ceremony. I'll come get you then!"
If she hadn't been watching him as she turned away, and confused thoughts hadn't been battling fiercely with her list-making, she might have noticed a strange little shape skipping past the pantry window.
Yes, Ben thought, his patience wearing slightly, this was quite educational indeed.
He folded his hands neatly together as he listened, careful to properly arrange the feigned interest on his face. Mrs. Parry was not a dull woman precisely—she was typical for the place from whence she came, in a wearying sort of way. Her question of the day's schedule had shifted slantwise into an inquiry of Howl's participation in the arrangements, skepticism as to his planning abilities, curiosity over just how he and the bride had met, again? Things became a mite bit trickier when she started to query about the countryside, and he had to carefully recall the lines about Northern England and Berwick-upon-Tweed that Howl had fed him. She seemed comforted, though, by the presence of another Welshman. He supposed that and his native knowledge of the other world were why Howl had approached him with the task of minding the Parry family.
"I will admit it is quite lovely here," Mrs. Parry said, taking a moment to look around the shaded garden. "I do wish Gareth could have seen it. But of course Howell had to schedule on a Wednesday when decent folk are working." She paused a moment at that, clearly realizing too late what she had said. She coughed and amended, "I hope you didn't have to schedule your work around his bad planning, Mr. Suliman."
"Not at all," Ben replied evenly, careful to smile. "I . . . work from home."
She answered with a slow nod, eyebrow rising. "And what do you do, if I may ask?"
"Government work," he answered, smoothly. "Engineering contracts." It was a fair summation, appropriately translated.
Mrs. Parry seemed a bit taken aback by that, though not displeased. "Well, that's an honest living," she said, her cool veneer peeling back a moment before she coughed and composed herself. A put-upon sigh followed quickly after. "If only Howell could be so diligent and apply himself."
Ben smiled noncommittally. This was all very instructive. With her every word, Mrs. Parry made Howl's overwrought, extravagant, and evasive—sometimes even downright slippery or . . . what was it that Sophie called it?—style of self-management downright logical. He prepared for another series of criticisms directed at the groom, reminding himself that any number of them may give him insights in how to deal productively with his colleague.
"He really," Mrs. Parry said, anxiously plucking at a maroon tulip in their table's vase, "he's dreadfully smart, I know that. He's been too smart for his own good since we were children. But it doesn't do a bit of good when he spends all his time laying about like he does. Bringing shame on the family, wasting his schooling, not living up to his potential!"
Ben raised an eyebrow. He detected a note of worry at the edge of Mrs. Parry's voice, different from her anxiety. Concern, he decided, nodding perhaps too thoughtfully.
Then, with a puff of breath like an exasperated dragon, Mrs. Parry waved her hand dismissively. "Perhaps this will straighten him out," she said, gesturing about the garden as if she still wasn't sure it was real.
Ben's smile grew a genuine inch. "Sophie's much like Lettie," he said. "I doubt she'll tolerate anything less."
"Yes," Mrs. Parry answered slowly, looking at the grass with a squint of disapproval. "She did seem to be, when I met her." Ben's eyebrows had begun to rise when she added, "The same with that older woman he brought before. Was Sophie named for her grandmother?"
His brow settled again. "Indeed," Ben said. "With all her fire. I believe it safe to say not a one of the Hatter women tolerates nonsense of any sort—"
"Ben!" he heard behind him. He had barely a moment to turn around before he was assaulted from the side by a wave of Lettie's ocean-colored skirts. "Thank goodness!"
His wife's arms followed quickly after, silken gloves brushing the sides of his neck as she flung them around him. He was not used to this sort of thing yet—it took him a moment to recover and assist Lettie backward a step, where he could properly see her (trying, for once this afternoon, to contain his smile rather than magnify it). "What is it, darling?"
"It's Sophie," Lettie said, all but frantic, gripping his hands tightly. "She—oh, pardon me," Lettie addressed wide-eyed Mrs. Parry, when she finally noticed her, and deemed that enough consideration to go on. "I can't find Sophie. Oh, Ben, she's left her room and I can't tell where she's gone!"
Well, that complicated things slightly. Ben remained calm despite Lettie's panic (and, he admitted quietly to himself, her subsequent loveliness; she had an odd habit of being at her most beautiful when at her most frantic, or determined, or wrathful, and it made it rather difficult to focus properly), squeezing her hands lightly to comfort her. "Darling, I'm sure she just stepped out for a spell," he said soothingly, brushing a chocolate-colored lock from her forehead. He could see immediately, however, that she was not going to accept that; her eyes had that determined flame that always cropped when she was too sure of her position to be dissuaded. He stood without letting go of her hands, and knew this would require some indulgence. "I can help you look, dove. She couldn't have gone far."
He thought that settled it. Lettie's face softened considerably, relief flooding those eyes as she gave him a gentle tug to pull him toward the house. That, however, was when Mrs. Parry chose to speak up. "Mari?" she said, fright edging swiftly into her voice. She stood, and both Ben and Lettie turned to watch her move quickly toward her son. "Neil, where is your sister?"
Ben saw the boy look around, noticed his lips moving but couldn't hear the words. It didn't matter. Mrs. Parry's suddenly raised voice, her panicked looks back and forth, the hands cupped around her mouth to call out the name Mari made the situation quite clear.
More—Ben thought as Lettie tugged at the arms of his jacket, her voice taking on a tone of anxious and immediate action—than slightly complicated, now.
This was getting downright ridiculous, Howell mused as he slammed the door to another intricate, dusty, neglected parlor with resentful flourish. He set his teeth and took a deep breath through the nose, saving some valuable old planter or other from popping at his heart's behest. The last unchecked room on the second floor, and nothing to show for it. He was half-certain she was doing this on purpose, just to upset him.
He paced across the balcony. It was no good asking Sophie's family, enamored with their bizarre traditions as they were. They'd chase him off as soon as look at him, and probably put their backs into hiding her with even more righteous fervor. What friends he had in this scenario were no help either: Suliman was otherwise occupied, Calcifer was willfully unaccommodating, and who could say where Michael had gotten to. It reminded him of one of the old wedding traditions in Wales, which he guessed he was playing at now—he was just lucky enough to have the worst hunting party in history.
He marched irritably back to Sophie's dressing room (putting his ear to the door a moment, all the better to avoid the uncharmable Lettie) and slipped in, dropping into a decorative and terribly uncomfortable chair by the window. In two snappish motions he crossed his legs and folded his arms, calling up his best put-upon expression. She had to come back sooner or later.
It quickly became obvious that it was going to be later. Howell fidgeted impatiently. He checked his hair in the mirror across the room, sat still for another few minutes, then got up to check it properly. With nervous fingers he pressed back an already obedient lock, surveying the whole picture. He should have gone with black. Sophie did say she liked it black. At that thought, the tubes and bottles on the vanity began to shiver as if caught in a small earthquake. He turned on a heel, back to the relative safety of his stone-hard seat. Then, his eye caught her veil, hanging on a neighboring chair.
Howell paused. He carefully edged up to it, as if approaching a wild animal, and lifted it from the back of the chair. It was a slightly lighter purple than his suit and trimmed with small complimentary roses at the top (the very ones he'd watched her work so intensely to perfect these last few weeks; he had wondered what her fascination with them had been for). It felt soft as silk in his hands, which made sense with Sophie's mastery over hats and clothes. He wondered what she had told it, that it was made for a lovely bride or it needed to look its best or—no. Sophie, that ridiculous woman, would never say something so kind about herself.
He ran it through his fingers, appreciating it as befitted a man of fine taste, and felt something he still wasn't used to yet. The beating in his chest had turned to a hammering, and it hurt terribly, like his misbegotten heart was trying to twist itself into some new and fascinating shape. He had to be careful not to fist his hand in the fragile fabric. Maybe she had muttered to the veil that it must do everything in its power to reel him in (ha, what poetic justice, though he had no part in that debacle). But whatever the reason, as lovely as it was, it gave him a horrible fright. Could he—could he really do this?
"Howl!" he heard faintly, and was knocked out of his trance. A roaring in his ears he hadn't noticed vanished instantly as he lifted his head. "Howl!" it came again from outside the window. "I know you're in there. Do something!"
Setting the veil down gently (and taking care not to be drawn in by its paralyzing charm again), he went to the window and heaved it up. It opened onto a clear blue sky, fields carrying on from the mansion toward the distant hills. He looked down. On a strip of lawn between the mansion wall and a nearby hedge, Howell spotted a familiar blue dot, flitting fearfully away from a small, equally familiar someone. "Stop her!" Calcifer cried, dodging as Mari tried to slap her hands around him. "She keeps following me! I don't deserve this abuse!"
Oh dear. The whole situation almost made Howell forget his fears and smirk a moment (retribution for Calcifer, ignoring his heartfelt worries) before it demanded some critical thought. Mari catching Calcifer would surely lead to her showing her prize off, resulting in a lot of unnecessary questions from Megan, explanations to the wedding party when she lost her respectable temper, and dealing with a terribly dramatic Calcifer and a very mad set of Hatters by the end of it. Howell twitched at the thought.
"Cariad!" he called down to her. Best snuff out this flame before it took to tinder.
Mari turned, swinging around before she caught sight of him at the sill overhead. "Hi uncle Howell!" she said, then seemed to remember what she was doing. She whirled around just in time to block Calcifer as he made a break for it, focus unfettered.
"What're you doing down there?" Howell cried, trying to give Calcifer some leeway. No such luck—Mari refused to be distracted, backing the demon into a corner of the hedge. Calcifer dipped and bobbed, looking like he meant to dive through the leaves, though something seemed to be holding him back.
"It's a wisp!" Mari shouted back, and Calcifer yelped indignantly as she made a snatch for him. "I'm gonna catch it and give it to you for your wedding!"
No sane man could be angry about something so precious. Howell chuckled. "Are you now?" he said, leaning against the sill. "Now Mari, you know better than to go and try to catch a wisp. It'll play a nasty trick on you!"
"I'll get it first!" she said with the sort of certainty only a five-year-old could command. Like a feisty house cat, she made a leap for the demon. Calcifer, however, had had enough. With a sputter of nonsense and flame he zipped into the hedge, leaves smoldering gently in his wake. For a moment, Howell thought that a misguided respect for property value had kept Calcifer steady despite the threat to his personal space. An instant later however, Mari made the true reason clear as she leaped through the bushes after the demon.
Howell's heart spun in his chest. There was nothing beyond that hedge but the unkempt fields that surrounded the manor, and whatever beasts had taken up residence in them. And Mari was about to disappear right into the heather.
"Mari!" he called, leaning out of the window. "That's not safe, cariad. Mari!"
There came no answer from either her or the irresponsible demon, and Howell didn't waste any more time begging. He snapped his fingers and with a pop, vanished from the window frame.
From where Sophie stood, carefully arranged to take up the smallest possible amount of space against the wall, she could just glimpse what was going on outside. She craned her neck this way and that, high-set shoes already putting her on tiptop. There was something of a frenzy sequestered to the corner of the garden where it was frustratingly difficult to see. What she could see was Lettie's familiar dark hair and light blue bridesmaid dress, darting back and forth beside the even vaguer shape of Howl's sister. The purple form of Suliman appeared to be trying to talk to Lettie, to short-lived avail. The rest of the guests looked as bemused as Sophie, muttering amongst themselves and watching the frenzy with thinly veiled concern. A few seemed to offer their help to Lettie, though for what Sophie was still not sure. She had just decided to sneak outside and find out for herself when a great mass of cream and sugar strode into her path.
"Careful," Sophie heard, and turned to find Martha anxiously following in the wake of the extravagantly large, copiously decorated wedding cake. The Cesari sons and apprentices each held part of the table on which the cake sat, edging inch by inch out the door. If she hadn't known better, Sophie would've thought they were performing some intricate and deadly spell, not moving a confection. Martha looked pale. Michael brought up the rear, looking weary and defeated beyond his years, casting a spell repeatedly on the cake as they moved it along. Sophie only had a moment to feel sorry for him before she realized the assemblage of bakers had filled the door, blocking her exit.
"Botheration," she murmured, and sneaked quietly away. Fanny and Mrs. Fairfax had already been invited to see her, so she couldn't chance the front door. She'd have to find another way out.
She gripped her skirts in frustration, pulling them up scandalously near her knees. There wasn't anyone around to see, so what did it matter, Sophie thought. She did loosen her grip some a moment later, feeling guilty at the thought of wrinkling the dress. Lettie, Fanny and Mrs. Fairfax had put so much work into it. Even Howell had gotten in on the planning, if only at first—insisting with elaborate sighs and infuriating, cheeky smiles that no matter how much she wanted to, he would not let her wear a 'plain and shapeless sack' to their nuptials.
Sophie flushed at the thought. It was as if the dress were getting married instead of her! She had half a mind to march out the front door after all—Howl had always managed to stop her leaving the castle before, so maybe that would help grab whatever wizardly attentions he had focused on her. But then there was the confusion outside to consider. Thinking about Howl would just have to wait.
Except that, in as infuriating a manner as everything else about Howl, it refused to. As she pushed opened a side door near the kitchen (servants quarters, she thought, as she edged between pieces of dusty furniture toward a doorway to the left) Howl made a mockery of her mind, rudely jutting into it where he wasn't welcome. When he hadn't been arguing with her over wedding colors and huffing dismally when she couldn't take any more oddities, he was panicking over the best way to trick his sister's family into believing they hadn't left the world of Wales. There was the incessant scrutinizing, and needling Sophie with long fingers on her shoulders at the most inconvenient times. Her thoughts even zipped to Howl with Lettie in Mrs. Fairfax's garden and the Witch of the Waste before coming back around to how doleful he was bound to be over her sneaking off. Her insides were doing strange things that she didn't like one bit. Trust Howl to make her angry without even being around!
Sophie stopped, taking a moment to breath deeply. She was being unfair. Howl had always been excessive, so that wasn't unusual, and it was nice to not to worry so much about the arrangements. She sighed grudgingly. He did it all in a very Howlish sort of way, but he'd been helpful, and he hadn't once tried to slither out of anything.
She slipped through the door, saying a word she shouldn't know when her dress brushed a dusty loveseat. She wiped at it grumpily as she shuffled into the next room. There was less furniture here, and the curtains were pulled back where someone had apparently tried to brighten the place. ("Nice thought, whoever you were," Sophie said, finding the effort admirable but futile.) They were wispy, nearly clear, and hung limply from their rods, revealing a view of the hedges outside. No door, Sophie thought with a huff, and turned to go.
Then, she caught a glimpse of purple and blue out of the corner of her eye, and stopped in her tracks. Slowly, she turned back around. She edged cautiously toward the window—then, recognizing her own cowardice, huffed and sped up, marching toward it with dignity. She was being hopelessly silly, wedding jitters or not! It was just her eyes playing tricks. She couldn't have seen what she thought she saw. There was likely nothing out there at all, and certainly not—
There, in all his finery and luster, stood Howl, his head and shoulders planted squarely in the hedge. Even without seeing his face, she recognized that agonized-over suit as easy as any other part of him. Sophie felt her mouth hanging open as she pushed back the curtains. She was sure this was some sort of sin against fancy clothes. Yet there he was, leaning further into the shrubbery, thrusting his hands into the leaves like he was the mansion gardener. She wasn't even angry at him ruining his wedding outfit. Excluding the infamous jellying of his blue and silver suit, Howl being careless with clothing was so unheard of that Sophie wasn't sure how to feel. That was, until he pushed further through the hedge, coattails and the ends of his sleeves trailing behind. It hit her that he was sneaking away. He was slithering out.
Sophie felt a twisting in her stomach so violent she was nearly ill. Any thought of tradition vanished in a flash of fire that shot up through her, hot enough to make Calcifer sweat, and she raised a wrathful fist.
"Howl Jenkins!" she shouted, and banged viciously on the windowpane.
The garden shook.
Ben had to pause to make sure he hadn't imagined it, and evaluate the situation. The guests seemed more unanimous in their nervous murmuring than before, while Mrs. Parry appeared suddenly divided in her terror.
"What was that?" she said, voice stretching into an area of hysterics it seemed most unaccustomed to, straining and cracking with anxiety. "An earthquake? God, of course that'd be my luck!"
Lettie gripped Ben by the elbow, and when he looked down she gave him a knowing, worried sort of look. He barely noticed Michael suddenly freezing, straightening, apologizing frantically to Martha, then darting clumsily away and around the side of the house. He didn't see at all the blue speck of light that plunged into an empty window box. He was too preoccupied for that, hoping he was mistaken about the cause of that tremor . . .
Howl jumped, and only seemed to get more stuck. He staggered on unsteady legs, looking as if he was trying to pull the bushes up by their roots to escape them. Sophie had time to pound on the window twice more before Howl emerged with a jerk, a leafy and sniffling Mari in his arms.
That gave Sophie pause. Her fist stilled in midair, sinking slightly as Howl tried to regain his balance, adjust his hold on his niece (who seemed to be having something of a temper tantrum), act thoroughly surprised and look about all at the same time. Once he had for the most part mastered the first three, his gaze snapped toward the window and latched onto Sophie.
He stood still for a moment, brows rising to meet a hairline which had been upset by a respectable collection of leaves. By some undoubtedly strong and intentional magic he maintained an air of dignified loveliness, even while ruffled by shrubbery and holding a stubbornly upset toddler. And, despite the obvious demands on his attention, he seemed unable to take his eyes off Sophie. She felt a blush creeping across her face. Then, she remembered how horribly angry she was (the why might have been a mistake, but the feeling was still rolling around inside her like overboiling stew and she was sure he deserved it for one reason or another) and huffed, folding her arms dangerously.
Howl seemed to be in the process of understanding that look when something finally jerked his attention away. He whipped his head to the side, and a moment later Michael skidded into view. His words were muffled, but Sophie could tell by his frantic flailing and twisted-up expression that Michael's nerves were stretched perilously thin.
Howl ignored him grandly. He turned to Mari, speaking to her in a very purposeful and parental way (that, truth be told, rather surprised Sophie) before promptly setting her in Michael's unprepared arms. He spent another minute talking to them both in rapid succession. Mari sniffed and nodded somewhat guiltily. Michael seemed even more tightly strung than before, face awash with indignation, gritting his teeth and holding Mari as if she were made of porcelain. He twitched as Howl waved them off, breathing deeply and walking away with a hunch of defeat. It was only when they were gone that Howl looked back to the window.
Sophie pulled her arms tight against her torso, feeling like a puffed hen as Howl strode toward her. He gave his wrist a flick as he walked. The leaves and twigs vanished from his suit, and even if his hair was still unkempt, he was looking much more like his tidy and groomed self. Sophie didn't care. This wasn't about a messy suit.
She looked down at the window frame for a lock, grunting in annoyance when she didn't see one. "Don't let him in," she said to the frame instead. "Do what you're supposed to. He's not welcome if he has to open you from the outside!"
She stepped back as Howl reached the wall and grabbed the window to heave it up. It held firm. Eyebrows knitted, he gave it another tug. Still it kept him out, and Sophie felt triumphant. An odd mix of annoyance and confusion crossed Howl's face (and hurt, she realized when he met her gaze, but she knew just as well as anyone what an actor he was) as he dropped his arms to his sides. Taking a deep breath, he let a great, dazzling, utterly unconvincing smile take over his face as he leaned close to the glass. "Sophie. Darling," he said, muffled. "I don't suppose you'd like to tell me just why you've locked me out in the cold? On our wedding day, I might add?"
"It's midsummer," Sophie answered. "And do you mind telling me what exactly you're doing out there? Playing hide and seek I suppose?"
"I happened to have been averting disaster," Howl said. He clasped his arms behind his back, the purple jewel in his ear catching the light. "Which I had to attend to in the midst of looking for my lovely bride, despite her abandonment, and all I get for my trouble is a glare to turn me to stone."
Sophie sputtered. "Clearly the time alone hasn't made you any more reasonable," she said, pursing her lips. Howl's words landed solidly on her guilty feelings, which did not improve her temper.
"Oh, was that the concept?" Howl said scornfully. He seemed to be looking along the frame, as if searching for a weak spot in Sophie's charm. "I could've sworn it was another silly superstition of yours."
"It's tradition," Sophie snipped. She had to stop herself from stomping her heeled foot. With her luck, she'd break her shoe. "Which involved a lot of being pinpricked and fussed over. And before you ask, I didn't tell you beforehand because I knew this was exactly how you'd act!"
"Imagine that!" If it were possible, Howl made himself look more wounded and noble than Sophie had seen in recent months: shoulders hunched, brows knitted, and hand (oh, that fraud!) over his heart. "A loving husband-to-be, hurt by his fiance's negligence, shunned by her cold temper the day of their wedding. It's a wonder I'm not chipper as a songbird."
"I would've thought you'd like it," Sophie said. "It gave you plenty of time to gad about all you liked, or slither out of things."
That seemed to stop him. Howl's eyes went wide, his shoulders stiffened. His mouth dropped open slightly and failed spectacularly at producing anything. "Slither out of things?" he said eventually, sounding horribly affronted.
Sophie felt quite chastened by that look. But she lifted her chin anyway, not to be cowed. "It just wouldn't surprise me," she said.
Calcifer knew things had taken a turn for the worst when the ground started to shake in earnest. The guests made all sorts of noisy protests, gasping and squawking and jabbering in confusion. He watched nervously from the dusty window box as the well-dressed people nearest him ducked frantically under their table, decorative vase diving after them. He saw Michael off in the distance, handing Howl's niece to Megan then rushing over to Suliman without bothering to stop. Decorations fell from the altar, and the table with the cake shook. Sophie's other sister looked like she was about to faint. Michael came sprinting toward the house. Megan dropped beneath the table with her family. All around, the whole wedding party scrambled and screamed, thoroughly terrified.
Not nearly as much as they should have been, Calcifer thought, and dove further into the dirt.
Howell would've been well within his right to cover the surrounding mile in green slime if he'd felt so inclined. Or worse—green slime was kind compared to what his temper could truly evoke, and Sophie Hatter was dangerously, willfully close to making him lose it. It was only thanks to years of practice that he got it under control. In place of that, with a clipped invocation, he strode forward and walked cleanly through the mansion wall.
Sophie didn't like that. He could see it in her eyes as she stepped backward, clearly shocked at nearly being trod on. Sophie hated being bested. "Stop him!" she cried. "Don't let him in!"
Howell felt himself jerked to stop. He was well within the room now, the scent of dust and mothballs assaulting his nose, but something was holding him back. Glancing over his shoulder, he found his sleeves trapped in the wall, protruding from the plaster. The holding spell was even stronger than before—not too strong for him, but he felt sure pushing back against it would escalate things beyond what he could foresee. He felt the ugliest sort of expression cross his face. Damnation! This woman!
He whirled on Sophie sourly. She seemed about as surprised as he had been, but tried to hide it, standing with her arms crossed and looking assured.
"First you accuse me of being a slither-outer," he said angrily, "and then you stop me trying to come back in. I'm not sure you could be more impossible, but I am certain you'll find some way of proving me wrong. Tell me Sophie, are you going to talk my hair into becoming a nestful of toads next?"
A flash of guilt crossed Sophie's face, and Howell felt an ounce of vindication. But if Sophie was anything, she was stubborn. Her brows furrowed a second later.
"It's nothing you don't deserve," she said. "Complaining like you're the only one being put out by all this! And you know as well as I do what you're like about obligations. You're a master of slithering out."
His heart felt like it was writhing. Howell stood up as straight as possible, wiping enough of the hurt from his face to look dignified, but leaving enough to make her feel horribly guilty. "And why precisely would I go to all this trouble if I were planning to slither out, dear Sophie? Need I remind you I've even accommodated Megan for the occasion? How easy do you think that was?"
"It was foolish if you ask me," Sophie said. "Just a chance for you to be even more extravagant and show off. I'm certainly not elegant enough to take credit for any of this."
He should have been angrier. He was angry. But her last words tripped him up. "So this was all some sort of break from your frivolous fiance, then?" he grumbled, his confused heart only half in it.
"Tradition, Howl!" she said harshly. "It's supposed to make the bond stronger. You didn't get that from Fanny?"
"Oh, yes, I see that's working beautifully," Howl said, tugging meaningfully on his anchored sleeves.
That did not calm Sophie down at all. Her eyes lit up with an angry fire and she huffed shortly. Howell glared back. He didn't feel like cowering today. "I've endured all this extravagant wedding nonsense for you, you can stand a bit of superstitious nonsense for me!" she said.
"Nonsense, is it?" Howl retorted, lip twisting in an ugly way. "Well, if you'd told me you thought our wedding was nonsense—"
"Oh honestly Howl!" Sophie said, exasperated, and stomped her foot. Oh, they were down to being childish, now!
"Clearly I'm misunderstanding you, Sophie," he said with sarcastic nonchalance, shooting his irritation straight for her vicious heart. "Though through no fault of my own! Would you prefer I'd ignored the whole thing?"
"I'd half expected you to!" Sophie cried, throwing down clenched fists. "You said yourself the only way you can do something is to tell yourself you're not doing it. But here you are, throwing yourself into it all like—like you've done all those other times!"
A fledgling retort dying on Howell's lips. He stared at her, those great, fiery brown eyes, and they seemed filled with something besides anger. He felt distinctly as if he'd been punched in the chest. "What?" he managed.
"And then," Sophie charged on, "I find you sneaking around outside and—and just think how it looks to me, Howl!" She looked up at the ceiling, her lips pressed into a thin line.
God help him, he felt his heart softening a little. "Sophie," Howell said quietly.
"And if you're not frightened," Sophie said, and almost didn't seem to be talking to him at all anymore, "maybe that means you're just used to these kinds of things, because of all the gadding and courting you got up to, and if it's that—"
Something biting shot through Howell—panic, and it propelled his heart up to take control of his vocal cords. "I am frightened!" he said, quite reaching indignant. "How hard-hearted do you think I am?"
Sophie's head shot up again, and she glowered at him.
"Do you really think that little of me, Sophie?" he said, meaning for it to come out harsher than it did. Instead it sounded like the sort of thing a dog might say after being left out in the rain. He didn't like what was happening inside his chest, a twisting and drumming and general unpleasantness he couldn't escape from. He felt like an open target out here like this. He felt laid bare.
"No!" Sophie said quickly, and didn't seem sure what feeling she should have been putting into it. All he could tell was that she meant it wholeheartedly. "But—how can you be afraid, as many women as you've courted? Compared to them, I'm just—!"
Martha stumbled back against the terrace wall, holding onto it for dear life. The shaking came in great, angry spats, starting and stopping so the jerking was almost unbearable. She threw her arms up over her head to protect herself. The bakers who hadn't retreated inside were pressed to the wall beside her, trying to keep their footing. People dashed back and forth, scrambled beneath tables, tried to find any safe place to hide—
She had her eyes open just enough to see two legs of the cake's serving table vanish and—as her gasp filled the terrace—topple over.
"That's the problem!" Howl cried, and he was so adamant and raw-sounding that Sophie froze in her tracks. Howl took advantage of the silence and dashed on. "I don't remember the last time I loved a woman properly. I don't think I ever have before. So I don't know if I can do everything right, and it's terrifying! If I can't I'd rather live like a leper in the mountains than stay here and not treat you the way you deserve!"
"And I don't know I'm worth the trouble!" Sophie found herself bellowing back. "I'm plain and ordinary as a peahen! What's to say I won't bore you to death?"
It was Howl's turn to go silent. He stared at her for a long moment that seemed to drag on, stretching double and triple. Sophie slowly put her hands over her mouth, as if that would do her any good. Yet again, she didn't think everything through. And now she was realizing again how great and clear Howl's green eyes had become, as they refused to move from her.
Sophie cleared her throat and shifted nervously, meeting his gaze as best she could. After a moment, Howl shook his head and dropped his eyes. An unpleasant jolt shot through her. Oh no, Sophie thought. She'd done it now, and she suddenly felt ill again—
Then Howl started chuckling. "The woman who has me stuck to a wall with magic thinks she'll bore me," he said, and when he lifted his eyes, she could see how his wry smile reached them. They had the soft shine of sunlight through water, Sophie thought. She didn't have much time to think on that, or to let her stomach settle, or to do much of anything before Howl made two lines in the air with his fingers, and his sleeves were slashed cleanly off.
Sophie barely had time to jump in surprise before Howl reached forward and put his hands on her shoulders. "You are the most insufferable woman I've ever met," Howl said, squeezing lightly. "You break into my home, scrub my castle raw, terrify my apprentice, compromise my demon's loyalty, ruin my best suits," he leaned a bit closer, and Sophie felt herself blushing, a warm thing that was more inside her than out, "and by the time you'd given my heart back you'd burrowed so deep into it that even if I wanted to, I'd probably die before I could get you out."
"And you'd have to use extreme and violent magic to do it," Sophie added shyly.
Howl laughed again, and Sophie started to wonder if that was from excess nerves, too. "More than that, I think."
"You're being honest."
"Yes, you have a nasty habit of that, too." Howl's hands seemed as nervous as the rest of him. They anxiously moved up to smooth the side of her hair, and lightly touch the base of her braid. "I wasn't sincere a day in my life until you showed up and made an honest man out of me. The least you could do is take responsibility."
"I intend to," Sophie said, and meant it. "Unlike some people, I'm not a slither-outer."
Perhaps that was not the best response, Sophie thought. As Howl's nose started to wrinkle, she put a moment more thought into what she meant to do next. Finding nothing but nerves stopping her, she put her hands on Howl's cheeks and lifted her face to his.
The shaking stopped, and like after most calamities, everything was eerily quiet. A few last, weak decorations fell from their perches. The guests slowly and anxiously began emerging from their hiding places. Martha stood a good few feet away from the broken table, hands held out uselessly, mouth open. And Michael, bent double to prop up the table's broken end, looked slightly sick.
"Help!" he gasped, looking like he might buckle under the weight of the cake at any moment. The remaining Cesaris leaped into action, dashing to take whatever part of the table they could support. The cake sat regally in place, standing with dignity and not looking at all like it had just faced certain destruction. Martha took up the head of the table, tightly gripping the edge and staring down at her ill-looking betrothed.
"Michael," she gasped. "You—oh thank goodness, Michael, you saved it! I can't thank you enough—"
"Martha," Michael said in ragged gasp, and he sounded so insistent that Martha couldn't help but pay attention. Still on his knees, he reached weakly into his pocket as the other bakers lifted the table away. He held up a small blue box, little enough to fit in the palm of his hand. He tried to speak through his panting. "Wanted—saved up—p-proper—"
He clumsily pushed the box open with a shaking thumb. Inside sat a silver ring, inlaid with a brilliant white stone surrounded by small blue gems. Martha gasped.
The Cesari sons carted the cake away, calling for some guests to give up their table. People muttered, staring. Martha didn't hear or see any of it. Michael lifted his head, looking horribly put out, but triumphant. "For you," he said.
Gently, Martha took the tiny box, looked at the ring another moment, and lightly clicked the box shut. That safe, she wasted no time—or, yes, perhaps a half-moment with a small glance toward the cake, but only just—in throwing her arms around him.
At some point Howell had been backed against the window. He wasn't sure when precisely that had happened, or how he'd gotten that far without noticing. But then, there were much more interesting things on his mind.
"Why ever did you invite your sister?" Sophie asked from the vicinity of his shoulder as he replaced a bloom that had slipped from her braid. "It's a horrible hassle keeping her from hearing anything about magic. You know we could've gone to see her some other time and suffered through that instead."
Howell took a moment to consider that, and couldn't help the fool smile that crossed his face. She toyed absently with a long lock of his hair, twining it around her fingers—he'd never allowed that with another living soul, but he supposed it wasn't so bad. He shifted, trying to take his weight off the windowpane and curling his arm more securely around her waist.
"Why ever did someone take the invitation I'd written with no intention of sending it, and open the door black-side-down to let it through?" he murmured into her ear.
He felt Sophie stiffen. When she pulled back to look at him properly, he felt a little smug at the look of horror on her face. He laughed quite accidentally and, feeling brave, tapped the bridge of her nose. "That's what you get for snooping, Mrs. Nose."
Sophie sputtered outright and took hold of his hand, curling her fingers around his and pulling them away from her face. "I do hope you don't intend to keep calling me that when we're—"
A few strange things happened at once. From the look that crossed Sophie's face and the sudden rush of awareness that gripped Howell, they both realized that they had spent an awful lot of time not being married, and they neither was sure how long that had been. Howl was about to conjure a clock when he heard the door to the next room burst open. He and Sophie looked up to find Mrs. Fairfax staring at them through the joining doorway.
"Oh! Well," she said, averting her eyes and wiping the hint of a scandalized look from her face. She raised her voice to shout behind her. "Lettie darling, they're in here, the both of them!" She turned back to look at them in an amused but matronly way. By the time she had, he and Sophie were standing stiffly shoulder to shoulder. "Honestly, you two!" she said.
Sophie blushed a furious red. Howell looked up to the ceiling and had to fight to keep from grinning.
Lettie Hatter came rushing in as if on a wind. "Oh Sophie," she said, sounding horribly exasperated, and fussed about with great abandon (shooting Howell an annoyed look) before dragging her sister out by the hand. Mrs. Fairfax followed on their heels with a last, half-smiling glance at Howell.
Suliman was standing at the door when Howell dodged past the room's ancient furniture and emerged into the corridor. He looked as august and craggy as usual, if a bit frazzled. For lack of something better to do, Howell nodded at him. Suliman gave Howell a knowing sort of glance in return, and after a moment's consideration, coughed and gestured to his mouth. Howell looked at him strangely, then ran a knuckle across his own lip. It came up a light, cosmetic shade of coral.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could have sworn he saw Suliman smile.
Calcifer carefully glanced around, looking down on the back of Howl's head. The official from Kingsbury stood behind him, looking thoroughly stiff, with Michael on Howl's left. The crowd before them, arranged into perfectly lined seats, was as great and loud as all of Market Chipping on May Day. Calcifer, meanwhile, sat silently nestled amongst the flowers on the altar, stretched into a great blue lily with an orange center.
He had decided on hiding in plain sight after the harrowing afternoon, and knew this was where he was least likely to be spotted. He could just see the little monster that had chased him, Howl's sister holding the girl tight in her lap, her expression horribly sour. The older boy was at her side, looking chastened and pouting. They were in the front row of the wedding party, opposite the much more excitable Hatters: Lettie looked unsure whether to be exasperated or faint; Martha gabbed excitedly on her left and thrust the back of her hand into her sister's face; Wizard Suliman sat with stately dignity on her right; and Fanny and Miss Fairfax perched beside Martha, looking inches from dripping on each other. He still couldn't grasp the need for all this foolery—it was a bit much just to celebrate Sophie moving from downstairs in the castle to upstairs, even with all that entailed—and he had long since stopped trying. He chalked it up to a combination of Howl's vain nature and the strange things sisters and mothers and aunts liked to do for their sisters and daughters and nieces, so he supposed it couldn't be helped.
He looked Howl over. The pacing had stopped, and whatever had started him shaking the whole of the Folding Valley had apparently blown over, but there was still no hiding those nerves as he shifted anxiously about. He tried to distract himself by talking to Michael (who, despite looking exhausted, had a great, wide grin on his face), but that seemed to help very little. Calcifer was glad he'd rejected Howl's offer to rest on his lapel. Calcifer couldn't have handled all that shaking.
Howl looked up suddenly. No one else seemed to notice, and Calcifer might not have either if Howl hadn't gone still and stood up straighter. Calcifer couldn't see past him to whatever it was, but he could see the way Howl followed it with his eyes, his head moving slowly until he'd turned to the empty space to his right. The chattering of the party had died down to a few mutters by the time he held out his hand, curling his fingers around nothing. Then, without any pop or fizz of magic, as if Calcifer had simply missed her when he looked the first time, Sophie was standing at Howl's side, taking his hand.
She jerked in surprise at the gasps and gleeful cries that went through the party, sounding from here like a rushing wave of noise. Her cheeks were pink when she turned back to face the altar. Howl smiled gently at her.
After the Kingsbury official cleared his throat to get Michael's attention and Michael tied a piece of cloth around Sophie and Howl's clasped hands (which Howl seemed to find peculiar), the man launched into a great, eloquent speech. Several minutes of florid talk went by before he mentioned Wizard Howl Pendragon and Sorceress Sophie Hatter, which made Sophie twitch a little. All the while, Howl stared ahead. Calcifer guessed he was trying to keep himself from turning some poor guest's seat into a mound of snakes or a matchbox-sized version of itself. And Sophie kept glancing at him, eyes flitting this way and that, as if she had something urgent to say.
The official was just launching into a passage about the importance of prosperous grounding unions in Ingary's early colonial period when Sophie turned her face slightly toward Howl. It was a moment before he noticed. Then, his eyes shifted toward her like those of a statue. It'd come on slowly, but Calcifer suddenly realized just how terrified Howl really was. It was a miracle he hadn't made for the hills yet.
"Howl," Sophie murmured. The Kingsbury man went on about the historic marriage of Rolland I to Queen Mab of the nomadic forest dwellers as if he hadn't heard a thing, and probably hadn't. Howl blinked his acknowledgment. "You," she started, then paused, then started and stopped again, as if she weren't sure what words were or how to use them. Then, in a string of speech that seemed to tumble out of her mouth, she said, "You're good to me. You've always—always been, in your way."
Finished, Sophie straightened up, the color of her face making her resemble a dignified brick wall. Howl continued to stare ahead, though his eyes were wider than they'd been a moment before. Then, his face slowly broke out in a smile.
After a further twenty minutes of extravagant speech, the official finally got to the do-you-take bit that Calcifer recognized. Howl and Sophie turned toward each other, nervously locking their free hands, looking as anxious and young as Calcifer knew they were. There was a bit of a to-do about the rings as Michael lost focus again and forgot what pocket he'd put them in (Calcifer could see Sophie's teeth setting, and wondered if Howl would burst into laughter from sheer nerves). Somehow, both of them eventually managed to slide a ring onto the other's hand with great effort and anxiety.
Something happened between Howl and Sophie then. With the fine gold bands finally in place, they looked up and really seemed to take each other in. Howl's grin, which had been in place in various nervous versions since Sophie had praised him, grew to a ridiculous size. As if by magic (of a sort), it seemed to infect Sophie, and a similar smile sprouted on her face. By the time the I-now-pronounce-you part came along, they were both smiling and smiling, looking quite unable to stop.
Sophie's hand went to Howl's cheek and his beneath her chin and they kissed, the wedding party bursting into cheers a moment later. Calcifer shrank a bit in embarrassment. He supposed he'd be seeing a lot more of that around the castle, now.
By the terrace, garland blooms burst like firecrackers. Some of those cheers turned to screams of terror, others cries of joy as sparks of magic flitted through the air in elaborate patterns. A vase erupted colorfully on one table, nearby ones following in turn. Howl and Sophie seemed quite unaware of it all. It was only when Howl's wayward magic went to work on the altar flowers that Calcifer responded, yelping indignantly and zipping into the cover of some nearby rose bushes.
The Kingsbury official stood, thoroughly unamused but tolerant. Lettie and Martha were on their feet, clapping tearfully. They had nothing on the blubbering Fanny and Mrs. Fairfax, who clung to each other as if that was all that was keeping them from descending to further depths of hysteria. Suliman clapped and bore it all with saintly patience. When he thought no one was looking, Michael skittered over to Martha, and gleefully accepted her crushingly joyful grip. And, as Sophie and Howl pulled themselves together, then apart, then stepped down the aisle to meet their guests, Calcifer caught a look at Howl's sister, smiling herself.
And Howl's niece, grinning grandly, looking right at Calcifer.
It was going to be an interesting new life, Calcifer realized, and went zipping on a winding path to the window box.