About halfway, Howl was politely detached and told to wait. Michael and Sophie went on being handed from person to person. They were taken upstairs, after which the splendid persons were dressed in blue instead of red, and handed on again until they came to an anteroom paneled in a hundred different-colored woods. There Michael was peeled off and made to wait too. Sophie, who by this time was not at all sure whether she was not having some strange dream, was ushered through huge double doors, and this time the echoing voice said, “Your Majesty, here is Mrs. Pendragon to see you.”
And there was the King, not on a throne, but sitting in a rather square chair with only a little gold leaf on it, near the middle of a large room, and dressed much more modestly than the persons who waited on him. He was quite alone, like an ordinary person. True, he sat with one leg thrust out in a kingly sort of manner, and he was handsome in a plump, slightly vague way, but to Sophie he seemed quite youthful and just a touch too proud of being a king. She felt he ought, with that face, to have been more unsure of himself.
He said, “Well, what does Wizard Howl’s mother want to see me about?”
And Sophie was suddenly overwhelmed by the fact that she was standing talking to the King. It was, she thought dizzily, as if the man sitting there and the huge, important thing which was kingship were two separate things that just happened to occupy the same chair. And she found she had forgotten every word of the careful, delicate things Howl had told her to say. But she had to say something.
“He sent me to tell you he’s not going to look for your brother,” she said. “Your Majesty.”
She stared at the King. The King stared back. It was a disaster.
“Are you sure?” asked the King. “The Wizard seemed quite willing when I talked to him.”
The one thing Sophie had left in her head was that she was here to blacken Howl’s name, so she said, “He lied about that. He didn’t want to annoy you. He’s a slitherer-outer, if you know what I mean, Your Majesty.”
“And he hopes to slither out of finding my brother Justin,” said the King. “I see. Won’t you sit down, since I see you are not young, and tell me the Wizard’s reasons?”
There was another plain chair rather a long way from the King. Sophie creaked herself down into it and sat with her hands propped on her stick like Mrs. Pentstemmon, hoping that would make her feel better. But her mind was still simply a roaring white blank of stage fright. All she could think of to say was “Only a coward would send his old mother along to plead for him. You can see what he’s like just from that, Your Majesty.”
“It is an unusual step,” the King said gravely. “But I told him that I’d make it worth his while if he agreed.”
“Oh, he doesn’t care about money,” Sophie said. “But he’s scared stiff of the Witch of the Waste, you see. She put a curse on him and it’s just caught up with him.”
“Then he has every reason to be scared,” the King said with a slight shiver. “But tell me more, please, about the Wizard.”
More about Howl? Sophie thought desperately. I have to blacken his name! Her mind was such a blank that for a second it actually seemed to her that Howl had no faults at all. How stupid! “Well, he’s fickle, careless, selfish, and hysterical,” she said. “Half the time I think he doesn’t care what happens to anyone as long as he’s all right— but then I find out how awfully kind he’s been to someone. Then I think he’s kind just when it suits him—only then I find out he undercharges poor people. I don’t know, Your Majesty. He’s a mess.”
“My impression,” said the King, “was that Howl is an unprincipled, slippery rogue with a glib tongue and a clever mind. Would you agree?”
“How well you put it!” Sophie said heartily. “But you left out how vain he is and—” She looked suspiciously at the King across the yards of carpet. He seemed so surprisingly ready to help her blacken Howl’s name.
The King was smiling. It was the slightly uncertain smile that went with the person he was, rather than the king he ought to be. “Thank you, Mrs. Pendragon,” he said. “Your outspokenness has taken a weight off my mind. The Wizard agreed to look for my brother so readily that I thought I had picked the wrong man after all. I feared he was someone who was either unable to resist showing off or would do anything for money. But you have shown me he is just the man I need.”
“Oh, confound it!” Sophie cried out. “He sent me to tell you he wasn’t!”
“And so you did.” The King hitched his chair an inch toward Sophie’s. “Let me be equally outspoken now,” he said. “Mrs. Pendragon, I need my brother back badly. It is not just that I am fond of him and regret the quarrel we had. It is not even that certain people are whispering that I did away with him myself—which anyone who knows us both knows to be perfect nonsense. No, Mrs. Pendragon. The fact is, my brother Justin is a brilliant general and, with High Norland and Strangia about to declare war on us, I can’t do without him. The Witch has threatened me too, you know. Now that all reports agree that Justin did indeed go into the Waste, I am certain that the Witch meant me to be without him when I needed him most. I think she took Wizard Suliman as bait to fetch Justin. And it follows that I need a fairly clever and unscrupulous wizard to get him back.”
“Howl will just run away,” Sophie warned the King.
“No,” said the King. “I don’t think he will. The fact that he sent you tells me that. He did it to show me he was too much of a coward to care what I thought of him, isn’t that right, Mrs. Pendragon?”
Sophie nodded. She wished she could have remembered all Howl’s delicate remarks. The King would have understood them even if she did not.
“Not the act of a vain man,” the King said. “But no one would do that except as a last resort, which shows me that Wizard Howl will do what I want if I
make it clear to him that his last resort has failed.”
“I think you may be—er—taking delicate hints that aren’t there, Your Majesty,” Sophie said.
“I think not.” The King smiled. His slightly vague features had all firmed up. He was sure he was right. “Tell Wizard Howl, Mrs. Pendragon, that I am appointing him Royal Wizard as from now, with our Royal Command to find Prince Justin, alive or dead, before the year is out. You have our leave to go now.”
He held out his hand to Sophie, just like Mrs. Pentstemmon, but a little less royally. Sophie levered herself up, wondering if she was meant to kiss this hand or not. But since she felt more like raising her stick and beating the King over the head with it, she shook the King’s hand and gave a creaking little curtsy. It seemed to be the right thing to do. The King gave her a friendly smile as she hobbled away to the double doors.
“Oh, curses!” she muttered to herself. It was not only exactly what Howl did not want. Howl would now move the castle a thousand miles away. Lettie, Martha, and Michael would all be miserable, and no doubt there would be torrents of green slime into the bargain as well. “It comes of being the eldest,” she muttered while she was shoving the heavy doors open. “You just can’t win!”
And here was another thing which had gone wrong. In her annoyance and disappointment, Sophie had somehow come out through the wrong set of double doors. This anteroom had mirrors all round it. In them she could see her own little bent, hobbling shape in its fine gray dress, a great many people in blue Court dress, others in suits as fine as Howl’s, but no Michael. Michael of course was hanging about in the anteroom paneled in a hundred kinds of wood.
“Oh, drat!” said Sophie.