Sophie thought uneasily about the gray-and-scarlet suit. She had darned the seams without noticing it had anything particular about it. But Mrs. Pentstemmon was an expert on magic, and Sophie was only an expert on clothes.
Mrs. Pentstemmon put both gold mittens on top of her stick and canted her stiff body so that both her trained and piercing eyes stared into Sophie’s. Sophie felt more and more nervous and uneasy. “My life is nearly over,” Mrs. Pentstemmon announced. “I have felt death tiptoeing close for some time now.”
“Oh, I’m sure that isn’t so,” Sophie said, trying to sound soothing. It was hard to sound like anything with Mrs. Pentstemmon staring at her like that.
“I assure you it is so,” said Mrs. Pentstemmon. “This is why I was anxious to see you, Mrs. Pendragon. Howell, you see, was my last pupil and by far my best. I was about to retire when he came to me out of a foreign land. I thought my work was done when I trained Benjamin Sullivan—whom you probably know better as Wizard Suliman, rest his soul!—and procured him the post of Royal Magician. Oddly enough, he came from the same country as Howell. Then Howell came, and I saw at a glance that he had twice the imagination and twice the abilities, and, though I admit he had some faults of character, I knew he was a force for good. Good, Mrs. Pendragon. But what is he now?”
“What indeed?” Sophie said.
“Something has happened to him,” Mrs. Pentstemmon said, still staring piercingly at Sophie. “And I am determined to put that right before I die.”
“What do you think has happened?” Sophie asked uncomfortably.
“I must rely on you to tell me that,” said Mrs. Pentstemmon. “My feeling is that he has gone the same way as the Witch of the Waste. They tell me she was not wicked once—though I have this only on hearsay, since she is older than either of us and keeps herself young by her arts. Howell has gifts in the same order as hers. It seems as if those of high ability cannot resist some extra, dangerous stroke of cleverness, which results in a fatal flaw and begins a slow decline to evil. Do you, by any chance, have a clue what it might be?”
Calcifer’s voice came into Sophie’s mind, saying, “The contract isn’t doing either of us any good in the long run.” She felt a little chilly, in spite of the heat of the day blowing through the open windows of the shaded, elegant room. “Yes,” she said. “He’s made some sort of contract with his fire demon.”
Mrs. Pentstemmon’s hands shook a little on her stick. “That will be it. You must break that contract, Mrs. Pendragon.”
“I would if I knew how,” Sophie said.
“Surely your maternal feelings and your own strong magic gift will tell you how,” Mrs. Pentstemmon said. “I have been looking at you, Mrs. Pendragon, though you may not have noticed—”
“Oh, I noticed, Mrs. Pentstemmon,” Sophie said.
“—and I like your gift,” said Mrs. Pentstemmon. “It brings life to things, such as that stick in your hand, which you have evidently talked to, to the extent that it has become what the layman would call a magic wand. I think you would not find it too hard to break that contract.”
“Yes, but I need to know what the terms of it are,” Sophie said. “Did Howl tell you I was a witch, because if he did—”
“He did not. There is no need to be coy. You can rely on my experience to know these things,” said Mrs. Pentstemmon. Then, to Sophie’s relief, she shut her eyes. It was like a strong light being turned off. “I do not know, nor do I wish to know, about such contracts,” she said. Her cane wobbled again, as if she might be shuddering. Her mouth quirked into a line, suggesting she had unexpectedly bitten on a peppercorn. “But I now see,” she said, “what has happened to the Witch. She made a contract with a fire demon and, over the years, that demon has taken control of her. Demons do not understand good and evil. But they can be bribed into a contract, provided the human offers them something valuable, something only humans have. This prolongs the life of both human and demon, and the human gets the demon’s magic power to add to his or her own.” Mrs. Pentstemmon opened her eyes again. “That is all I can bear to say on the subject,” she said, “except to advise you to find out what that demon got. Now I must bid you farewell. I have to rest awhile.”
And like magic, which it probably was, the door opened and the page boy came in to usher Sophie out of the room. Sophie was extremely glad to go. She was all but squirming with embarrassment by then. She looked back at Mrs. Pentstemmon’s rigid, upright form as the door closed and wondered if Mrs. Pentstemmon would have made her feel this bad if she had really and truly been Howl’s old mother. Sophie rather thought she would. “I take my hat off to Howl for standing her as a teacher for more than a day!” she murmured to herself.
“Madam?” asked the page boy, thinking Sophie was talking to him.
“I said, go slowly down the stairs or I can’t keep up,” Sophie told him. Her knees were wobbling. “You young boys dash about so,” she said.
The page boy took her slowly and considerately down the shiny stairs. Halfway down, Sophie recovered enough from Mrs. Pentstemmon’s personality to think of some of the things Mrs. Pentstemmon had actually said. She had said Sophie was a witch. Oddly enough, Sophie accepted this without any trouble at all. That explained the popularity of certain hats, she thought. It explained Jane Farrier’s Count Whatsit. It possibly explained the jealousy of
the Witch of the Waste. It was as if Sophie had always known this. But she had thought it was not proper to have a magic gift because she was the eldest of three. Lettie had been far more sensible about such things.
Then she thought of the gray-and-scarlet suit and nearly fell downstairs with dismay. She was the one who had put the charm on that. She could hear herself now, murmuring to it. “Built to pull in the girls!” she had told it. And of course it did. It had charmed Lettie that day in the orchard. Yesterday, somewhat disguised, it must have had its secret effect on Miss Angorian too.
Oh, dear! Sophie thought. I’ve gone and doubled the number of hearts he’ll have broken! I must get that suit off him somehow!
Howl, in that same suit, was waiting in the cool black-and-white hall with Michael. Michael nudged Howl in a worried way as Sophie came slowly down the stairs behind the page boy. Howl looked saddened. “You seem a bit ragged,” he said. “I think we’d better skip seeing the King. I’ll go and blacken my own name when I make your excuses. I can say my wicked ways have made you ill. That could be true, from the look of you.”
Sophie certainly did not wish to see the King. But she thought of what Calcifer had said. If the King commanded Howl to go into the Waste and the Witch caught him, Sophie’s own chance of being young again would have gone too.
She shook her head. “After Mrs. Pentstemmon,” she said, “the King of Ingary will seem just like an ordinary person.”
In which Sophie blackens Howl’s name.
Sophie was feeling decidedly queer again when they reached the Palace. Its many golden domes dazzled her. The way to the front entrance was up a huge flight of steps, with a soldier in scarlet standing guard every six steps. The poor boys must have been near fainting in the heat, Sophie thought as she puffed her way dizzily up past them. At the top of the steps were archways, halls, corridors, lobbies, one after another. Sophie lost count of how many. At every archway a splendidly dressed person wearing white gloves—still somehow white in spite of the heat—inquired their business and then led them on to the next personage in the next archway.
“Mrs. Pendragon to see the King!” the voice of each echoed down the halls.