“No,” said Sophie. “Is it under the sea?”
The Witch found this funnier than ever. “Not at the moment,” she said. “It’s where Wizard Howl comes from. You know Wizard Howl, don’t you?”
“Only by hearsay,” Sophie lied. “He eats girls. He’s as wicked as you.” But she felt rather cold. It did not seem to be due to the fountain they were passing at that moment. Beyond the fountain, across a pink marble plaza, were the stone stairs with the Palace at the top.
“There you are. There’s the Palace,” said the Witch. “Are you sure you can manage all those stairs?”
“None the better for you,” said Sophie. “Make me young again and I’ll run up them, even in this heat.”
“That wouldn’t be half so funny,” said the Witch. “Up you go. And if you do persuade the King to see you, remind h
im that his grandfather sent me to the Waste and I bear him a grudge for that.”
Sophie looked hopelessly up the long flight of stairs. At least there was nobody but soldiers on them. With the luck she was having today, it would not have surprised her to find Michael and Howl on their way down. Since the Witch was obviously going to stand there and make sure she went up, Sophie had no choice but to climb them. Up she hobbled, past the sweating soldiers, all the way to the Palace entrance again, hating the Witch more with every step. She turned round, panting, at the top. The Witch was still there, a floating russet shape at the foot, with two small orange figures beside her, waiting to see her thrown out of the Palace.
“Drat her!” said Sophie. She hobbled over to the guards at the archway. Her bad luck still held. There was no sign of Michael or Howl in the reaches beyond. She was forced to say to the guards, “There was something I forgot to tell the King.”
They remembered her. They let her inside, to be received by a personage in white gloves. And before Sophie had collected her wits, the Palace machinery was in motion again and she was being handed from person to person, just like the first time, until she arrived at the same double doors and the same person in blue was announcing, “Mrs. Pendragon to see you again, Your Majesty.”
It was like a bad dream, Sophie thought as she went into the same large room. She seemed to have no choice but to blacken Howl’s name again. The trouble was, what with all that had happened, and stage-fright again into the bargain, her mind was blanker than ever. The King, this time, was standing at a large desk in one corner, rather anxiously moving flags about on a map. He looked up and said pleasantly, “They tell me there was something you forgot to say.”
“Yes,” said Sophie. “Howl says he’ll only look for Prince Justin if you promise him your daughter’s hand in marriage.” What put that into my head? she thought. He’ll have us both executed!
The King gave her a concerned look, “Mrs. Pendragon, you must know that’s quite out of the question,” he said. “I can see you must be very worried about your son to suggest it, but you can’t keep him tied to your apron strings forever, you know, and my mind is made up. Please come and sit in this chair. You seem tired.”
Sophie tottered to the low chair the King pointed to and sank into it, wondering when the guards would arrive to arrest her.
The King looked vaguely around. “My daughter was here just now,” he said. To Sophie’s considerable surprise, he bent down and looked under the desk. “Valeria,” he called. “Vallie, come on out. This way, there’s a good girl.”
There was a shuffling noise. After a second, Princess Valeria shunted herself out from under the desk in sitting position, grinning benignly. She had four teeth. But she was not old enough to have grown a proper head of hair. All she had was a ring of wispy whiteness above her ears. When she saw Sophie, she grinned wider yet and reached out with the hand she had just been sucking and took hold of Sophie’s dress. Sophie’s dress responded with a spreading wet stain as the princess hauled herself to her feet on it. Staring up into Sophie’s face, Valeria addressed a friendly remark to her in what was clearly a private foreign language.
“Oh,” said Sophie, feeling an awful fool.
“I understand how a parent feels, Mrs. Pendragon,” said the King.
In which a Royal Wizard catches a cold.
Sophie rode back to the castle’s Kingsbury entrance in one of the King’s coaches, drawn by four horses. On it also were a coachman, a groom, and a footman. A sergeant and six Royal Troopers went with it to guard it. The reason was Princess Valeria. She had climbed into Sophie’s lap. As the coach clattered the short way downhill, Sophie’s dress was still covered with the wet marks of Valeria’s royal approval. Sophie smiled a little. She thought Martha might have a point after all, wanting children, although ten Valerias struck her as a bit much. As Valeria had scrambled over her, Sophie remembered hearing that the Witch had threatened Valeria in some way, and she found herself saying to Valeria, “The Witch shan’t hurt you. I won’t let her!”
The King had not said anything about that. But he had ordered out a royal coach for Sophie.
The equipage drew to a very noisy halt outside the disguised stable, Michael shot out of the door and got in the way of the footman who was helping Sophie down. “Where did you get to?” he said. “I’ve been so worried! And Howl’s terribly upset—”
“I’m sure he is,” Sophie said apprehensively.
“Because Mrs. Pentstemmon’s dead,” said Michael.
Howl came to the door too. He looked pale and depressed. He was holding a scroll with red-and-blue royal seals dangling off it, which Sophie eyed guiltily. Howl gave the sergeant a gold piece and did not say a word until the coach and the Troopers had gone clattering away. Then he said, “I make that four horses and ten men just to get rid of one old woman. What did you do to the King?”
Sophie followed Howl and Michael indoors, expecting to find the room covered with green slime. But it was not, and there was Calcifer flaring up the chimney, grinning his purple grin. Sophie sank into the chair. “I think the King got sick of me turning up and blackening your name. I went twice,” she said. “Everything went wrong. And I met the Witch on her way from killing Mrs. Pentstemmon. What a day!”
While Sophie described some of what had happened, Howl leaned on the mantelpiece, dangling the scroll as if he was thinking of feeding it to Calcifer. “Behold the new Royal Wizard,” he said. “My name is very black.” Then he began to laugh, much to the surprise of Sophie and Michael. “And what did she do to the Count of Catterack?” he laughed. “I should never have let her near the King!”
“I did blacken your name!” Sophie protested.
“I know. It was my miscalculation,” Howl said. “Now, how am I going to go to poor Mrs. Pentstemmon’s funeral without the Witch knowing? Any ideas, Calcifer?”