“Madam Sorceress, for pity’s sake!” he said. “I have to fight a duel at dawn tomorrow. Give me something to make sure I win. I’ll pay any sum you ask!”
Sophie looked over her shoulder at Calcifer, and Calcifer made faces back, meaning that there was no such thing ready-made. “That wouldn’t be right at all,” Sophie told the boy severely. “Besides, dueling is wrong.”
“Then just give me something that lets me have a fair chance!” the lad said desperately.
Sophie looked at him. He was very undersized and clearly in a great state of fear. He had that hopeless look a person has who always loses at everything. “I’ll see what I can do,” Sophie said. She hobbled over to the shelves and scanned the jars. The red one labeled CAYENNE looked the most likely. Sophie poured a generous heap of it on a square of paper. She stood the human skull beside it. “Because you must know more about this than I do,” she muttered at it. The young man was leaning anxiously round the door to watch. Sophie took up a knife and made what she hoped would look like mystic passes over the heap of pepper. “You are to make it a fair fight,” she mumbled. “A fair fight. Understand?” She screwed the paper up and hobbled to the door with it. “Throw this in the air when the duel starts,” she told the undersized young man, “and it will give you the same chance as the other man. After that, whether you win or not depends on you.”
The undersized young man was so grateful that he tried to give her a gold piece. Sophie refused to take it, so he gave her a two-penny bit instead and went away whistling happily. “I feel a fraud,” Sophie said as she stowed the money under the hearthstone. “But I would like to be there at that fight!”
“So would I!” crackled Calcifer. “When are you going to release me so that I can go and see things like that?”
“When I’ve got even a hint about this contract,” Sophie said.
“You may get one later today,” said Calcifer.
Michael breezed in toward the end of the afternoon. He took an anxious look round to make sure Howl had not come home first and went to the bench, where he got things out to make it look as if he had been busy, singing cheerfully while he did.
“I envy you being able to walk all that way so easily,” Sophie said, sewing a blue triangle to silver braid. “How was Ma—my niece?”
Michael gladly left the workbench and sat on the stool by the hearth to tell her all about his day. Then he asked about Sophie’s. The result was that when Howl shouldered the door open with his arms full of parcels, Michael was not even looking busy. He was rolling around on the stool laughing at the duel spell.
Howl backed into the door to shut it and leaned there in a tragic attitude. “Look at you all!” he said. “Ruin stares me in the face. I slave all day for you all. And not one of you, even Calcifer, can spare time to say hello!”
Michael sprang up guiltily and Calcifer said, “I never do say hello.”
“Is something wrong?” asked Sophie.
“That’s better,” said Howl. “Some of you are pretending to notice me at last. How kind of you to ask, Sophie. Yes, something is wrong. The King has asked me officially to find his brother for him—with a strong hint that destroying the Witch of the Waste would come in handy too—and you all sit there and laugh!”
By now it was clear that Howl was in a mood to produce green slime any second. Sophie hurriedly put her sewing away. “I’ll make some hot buttered toast,” she said.
“Is that all you can do in the face of tragedy?” Howl asked. “Make toast! No, don’t get up. I’ve trudged here laden with stuff for you, so the least you can do is show polite interest. Here.” He tipped a shower of parcels into Sophie’s lap and handed another to Michael.
Mystified, Sophie unwrapped things: several pairs of silk stockings; two parcels of the finest cambric petticoats, with flounces, lace, and satin
insets; a pair of elastic-sided boots in dove-gray suede; a lace shawl; and a dress of gray watered silk trimmed with lace that matched the shawl. Sophie took one professional look at each and gasped. The lace alone was worth a fortune. She stroked the silk of the dress, awed.
Michael unwrapped a handsome new velvet suit. “You must have spent every bit that was in the silk purse!” he said ungratefully. “I don’t need this. You’re the one who needs a new suit.”
Howl hooked his boot into what remained of the blue-and-silver suit and held it up ruefully. Sophie had been working hard, but it was still more hole than suit. “How selfless I am,” he said. “But I can’t send you and Sophie to blacken my name to the King in rags. The King would think I didn’t look after my old mother properly. Well, Sophie? Are the boots the right size?”
Sophie looked up from her awed stroking. “Are you being kind,” she said, “or cowardly? Thank you very much and no I won’t.”
“What ingratitude!” Howl exclaimed, spreading out both arms. “Let’s have green slime again! After which I shall be forced to move the castle a thousand miles away and never see my lovely Lettie again!”
Michael looked at Sophie imploringly. Sophie glowered. She saw well enough that the happiness of both her sisters depended on her agreeing to see the King. With green slime in reserve. “You haven’t asked me to do anything yet,” she said. “You’ve just said I’m going to.”
Howl smiled. “And you are going to, aren’t you?”
“All right. When do you want me to go?” Sophie said.
“Tomorrow afternoon,” said Howl. “Michael can go as your footman. The King’s expecting you.” He sat on the stool and began explaining very clearly and soberly just what Sophie was to say. There was no trace of the green-slime mood, now things were going Howl’s way, Sophie noticed. She wanted to slap him. “I want you to do a very delicate job,” Howl explained, “so that the King will go on giving me work like the transport spells, but not trust me with anything like finding his brother. You must tell him how I’ve angered the Witch of the Waste and explain what a good son I am to you, but I want you to do it in such a way that he’ll understand I’m really quite useless.”
Howl explained in great detail. Sophie clasped her hands round the parcels and tried to take it all in, though she could not help thinking, If I was the King, I wouldn’t understand a word of what the old woman was driving at!
Michael meanwhile was hovering at Howl’s elbow, trying to ask him about the perplexing spell. Howl kept thinking of new, delicate details to tell the King and waving Michael away. “Not now, Michael. And it occurred to me, Sophie, that you might want some practice in order not to find the Palace overwhelming. We don’t want you coming over queer in the middle of the interview. Not yet, Michael. So I arranged for you to pay a call to my old tutor, Mrs. Pentstemmon. She’s a grand old thing. In some ways she’s grander than the King. So you’ll be quite used to that kind of thing by the time you get to the Palace.”
By this time Sophie was wishing she had never agreed. She was heartily relieved when Howl at last turned to Michael.