That spell was for the King. Another overdressed and scented messenger arrived with a letter and a long, long speech in which he wondered if Howl could possibly spare time, no doubt valuably employed in other ways, to bend his powerful and ingenious mind to a small problem experienced by His Royal Majesty—to whit, how an army might get its heavy wagons through marsh and rough ground. Howl was wonderfully polite and long-winded in reply. He said no. But the messenger spoke for a further half-hour, at the end of which he and Howl bowed to one another and Howl agreed to do the spell.
“This is a bit ominous,” Howl said to Michael when the messenger had gone. “What did Suliman have to get himself lost in the Waste for? The King seems to think I’ll do instead.”
“He wasn’t as inventive as you, by all accounts,” Michael said.
“I’m too patient and too polite,” Howl said gloomily. “I should have overcharged him even more.”
Howl was equally patient and polite with customers from Porthaven, but, as Michael anxiously pointed out, the trouble was that Howl did not charge these people enough. This was after Howl had listened for an hour to the reasons why a seaman’s wife could not pay him a penny yet, and then promised a sea captain a wind spell for almost nothing. Howl eluded Michael’s arguments by giving him a magic lesson.
Sophie sewed buttons on Michael’s shirts and listened to Howl going through a spell with Michael. “I know I’m slapdash,” he was saying, “but there’s no need for you to copy me. Always read it right through, carefully, first. The shape of it should tell you a lot, whether it’s self-fulfilling, or self-discovering, or simple incantation, or mixed action and speech. When you’ve decided that, go through aga
in and decide which bits mean what they say and which bits are put as a puzzle. You’re getting on to the more powerful kinds now. You’ll find every spell of power has at least one deliberate mistake or mystery in it to prevent accidents. You have to spot those. Now take this spell…”
Listening to Michael’s halting replies to Howl’s questions, and watching Howl scribble remarks on the paper with a strange, everlasting quill pen, Sophie realized that she could learn a lot too. It dawned on her that if Martha could discover the spell to swap herself and Lettie about at Mrs. Fairfax’s, then she ought to be able to do the same here. With a bit of luck, there might be no need to rely on Calcifer.
When Howl was satisfied that Michael had forgotten all about how much or little he charged people in Porthaven, he took him out into the yard to help with the King’s spell. Sophie creaked to her feet and hobbled to the bench. The spell was clear enough, but Howl’s scrawled remarks defeated her. “I’ve never seen such writing!” she grumbled to the human skull. “Does he use a pen or a poker?” She sorted eagerly through every scrap of paper on the bench and examined the powders and liquids in the crooked jars. “Yes, let’s admit it,” she told the skull. “I snoop. And I have my proper reward. I can find out how to cure fowl pest and abate whooping cough, raise a wind and remove hairs from the face. If Martha had found this lot, she’d still be at Mrs. Fairfax’s.”
Howl, it seemed to Sophie, went and examined all the things she had moved when he came in from the yard. But that seemed to be only restlessness. He seemed not to know what to do with himself after that. Sophie heard him roving up and down during the night. He was only an hour in the bathroom the next morning. He seemed not to be able to contain himself while Michael put on his best plum velvet suit, ready to go to the Palace in Kingsbury, and the two of them wrapped the bulky spell up in golden paper. The spell must have been surprisingly light for its size. Michael could carry it on his own easily, with both his arms wrapped round it. Howl turned the knob over the door red-down for him and sent him out into the street among the painted houses.
“They’re expecting it,” Howl said. “You should only have to wait most of the morning. Tell them a child could work it. Show them. And when you come back, I’ll have a spell of power for you to get to work on. So long.”
He shut the door and roved round the room again. “My feet itch,” he said suddenly. “I’m going for a walk on the hills. Tell Michael the spell I promised him is on the bench. And here’s for you to keep busy with.”
Sophie found a gray-and-scarlet suit, as fancy as the blue-and-silver one, dropped into her lap from nowhere. Howl meanwhile picked up his guitar from its corner, turned the doorknob green-down, and stepped out among the scudding heather above Market Chipping.
“His feet itch!” grumbled Calcifer. There was a fog down in Porthaven. Calcifer was low among his logs, moving uneasily this way and that to avoid drips in the chimney. “How does he think I feel, stuck in a damp grate like this?”
“Then you’ll have to give me a hint at least about how to break your contract,” Sophie said, shaking out the gray-and-scarlet suit. “Goodness, you’re a fine suit, even if you are a bit worn! Built to pull in the girls, aren’t you?”
“I have given you a hint!” Calcifer fizzed.
“Then you’ll have to give it me again. I didn’t catch it,” Sophie said as she laid the suit down and hobbled to the door.
“If I give you a hint and tell you it’s a hint, it will be information, and I’m not allowed to give that,” Calcifer said. “Where are you going?”
“To do something I didn’t dare do until they were both out,” Sophie said. She twisted the square knob over the door until the black blob pointed downward. Then she opened the door.
There was nothing outside. It was neither black, nor gray, nor white. It was not thick, or transparent. It did not move. It had no smell and no feel. When Sophie put a very cautious finger out into it, it was neither hot nor cold. It felt of nothing. It seemed utterly and completely nothing.
“What is this?” she asked Calcifer.
Calcifer was as interested as Sophie. His blue face was leaning right out of the grate to see the door. He had forgotten the fog. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “I only maintain it. All I know is that it’s on the side of the castle that no one can walk around. It feels quite far away.”
“It feels beyond the moon!” said Sophie. She shut the door and turned the knob green-downward. She hesitated a minute and then started to hobble to the stairs.
“He’s locked it,” said Calcifer. “He told me to tell you if you tried to snoop again.”
“Oh,” said Sophie. “What has he got up there?”
“I’ve no idea,” said Calcifer. “I don’t know anything about upstairs. If you only knew how frustrating it is! I can’t even really see outside the castle. Only enough to see what direction I’m going in.”
Sophie, feeling equally frustrated, sat down and began mending the gray-and-scarlet suit. Michael came in quite soon after that.
“The King saw me at once,” he said. “He—” He looked round the room. His eyes went to the empty corner where the guitar usually stood. “Oh, no!” he said. “Not the lady friend again! I thought she’d fallen in love with him and it was all over days ago. What’s keeping her?”
Calcifer fizzed wickedly. “You got the signs wrong. Heartless Howl is finding this lady rather tough. He decided to leave her alone a few days to see if that would help. That’s all.”
“Bother!” said Michael. “That’s bound to mean trouble. And here was I hoping Howl was almost sensible again!”