Sophie banged the suit down on her knees. “Really!” she said. “How can you both talk like that about such utter wickedness! At least, I suppose I can’t blame Calcifer, since he’s an evil demon. But you, Michael—!”
“I don’t think I’m evil,” Calcifer protested.
“But I’m not calm about it, if that’s what you think!” Michael said. “If you knew the trouble we’ve had because Howl will keep falling in love like this! We’ve had lawsuits, and suitors with swords, and mothers with rolling pins, and fathers and uncles with cudgels. And aunts. Aunts are terrible. They go for you with hat pins. But the worst is when the girl herself finds out where Howl lives and turns up at the door, crying and miserable. Howl goes out through the back door and Calcifer and I have to deal with them all.”
“I hate the unhappy ones,” Calcifer said. “They drip on me. I’d rather have them angry.”
“Now let’s get this straight,” Sophie said, clenching her fists knobbily in red satin. “What does Howl do to these poor females? I was told he ate their hearts and took their souls away.”
Michael laughed uncomfortably. “Then you must come from Market Chipping. Howl sent me down there to blacken his name when we first set up the castle. I—er—I said that sort of thing. It’s what aunts usually say. It’s only true in a manner of speaking.”
“Howl’s very fickle,” said Calcifer. “He’s only interested until the girl falls in love with him. Then he can’t be bothered with her.”
“But he can’t rest until he’s made her love him,” Michael said eagerly. “You can’t get any sense out of him until he has. I always look forward to the time when the girl falls for him. Things get better then.”
“Until they track him down,” said Calcifer.
“You’d think he’d have the sense to give them a false name,” Sophie said scornfully. The scorn was to hide the fact that she was feeling somewhat foolish.
“Oh, he always does,” Michael said. “He loves giving false names and posing as things. He does it even when he’s not courting girls. Haven’t you noticed that he’s Sorcerer Jenkin in Porthaven, and Wizard Pendragon in Kingsbury, as well as Horrible Howl in the castle?”
Sophie had not noticed, which made her feel more foolish still. And feeling foolish made her angry. “Well, I still think it’s wicked, going round making poor girls unhappy,” she said. “It’s heartless and pointless.”
“He’s made that way,” said Calcifer.
Michael pulled a three-legged stool up to the fire and sat on it while Sophie sewed, telling her of Howl’s conquests and some of the trouble that had happened afterward. Sophie muttered at the fine suit. She still felt very foolish. “So you ate hearts, did you, suit? Why do aunts put things so oddly when they talk about their nieces? Probably fancied you themselves, my good suit. How would you feel with a raging aunt after you, eh?” As Michael told her the story of the particular aunt he had in mind, it occurred to Sophie that it was probably just as well the rumors of Howl had come to Market Chipping in those words. She could imagine a strong-minded girl like Lettie otherwise getting very interested in Howl and ending up very unhappy.
Michael had just suggested lunch and Calcifer as usual had groaned when Howl flung the door open and came in, more discontented than ever.
“Something to eat?” said Sophie.
“No,” said Howl. “Hot water in the bathroom, Calcifer.” He stood moodily in the bathroom door a moment. “Sophie, have you tidied this shelf of spells in here, by any chance?”
Sophie felt more foolish than ever. Nothing would have possessed her to admit that she had gone through all those packets and jars looking for pieces of girl. “I haven’t touched a thing,” she replied virtuously as she went to get the fry
“I hope you didn’t,” Michael said uneasily as the bathroom door slammed.
Rinsings and gushings came from the bathroom while Sophie fried lunch. “He’s using a lot of hot water,” Calcifer said from under the pan. “I think he’s tinting his hair. I hope you left the hair spells alone. For a plain man with mud-colored hair, he’s terribly vain about his looks.”
“Oh, shut up!” snapped Sophie. “I put everything back just where I found it!” She was so cross that she emptied the pan of eggs and bacon over Calcifer.
Calcifer, of course, ate them with enormous enthusiasm and much flaring and gobbling. Sophie fried more over the spitting flames. She and Michael ate them. They were clearing away, and Calcifer was running his blue tongue round his purple lips, when the bathroom door crashed open and Howl shot out, wailing with despair.
“Look at this!” he shouted. “Look at it! What has that one-woman force of chaos done to these spells?”
Sophie and Michael whirled round and looked at Howl. His hair was wet, but, apart from that, neither of them could see that it looked any different.
“If you mean me—” Sophie began.
“I do mean you! Look!” Howl shrieked. He sat down with a thump on the three-legged stool and jabbed at his wet head with his finger. “Look. Survey. Inspect. My hair is ruined! I look like a pan of bacon and eggs!”
Michael and Sophie bent nervously over Howl’s head. It seemed the usual flaxen color right to the roots. The only difference might have been a slight, very slight, trace of red. Sophie found that agreeable. It reminded her a little of the color her own hair should have been.
“I think it’s very nice,” she said.
“Nice!” screamed Howl. “You would! You did it on purpose. You couldn’t rest until you made me miserable too. Look at it! It’s ginger! I shall have to hide until it’s grown out!” He spread his arms out passionately. “Despair!” he yelled. “Anguish! Horror!”