Sophie woke up the morning after Midsummer's Day with the feeling that something was not right. The nook she slept in was the same as always, with the same decorations and knickknacks pinned to the walls. She could hear Calcifer crackling and humming, and that seemed perfectly normal as well, Sophie frowned and sat up, only noticing while she did so that her back wasn't stiff and popping, and in fact the normally arduous task did not seem difficult at all. She stood, and that was almost as easy. Too easy, in fact, for she misjudged her own speed and hit her head on the edge of the alcove.
"Ow!" she said, and for a moment she didn't recognize her own voice. Then it hit her. The curse had been broken, and she was no longer an old woman! Not only that, but the curse on Howl had been broken too! She had ended Howl and Calcifer’s contract, and Percival had turned back into Price Justin and Wizard Suliman, and the Witch was dead....
And, perhaps the most unbelievable of all, Howl loved her! And she loved him back!
Sophie found that, young or no, she had to sit down in order to think it all through.
Her head spun. "I have to talk to Howl," she muttered to herself, trying to make some sense of it. "How does one go about living happily ever after anyway? And Lettie! She asked me about training with that Wizard Suliman and I can't for the life of me remember what I told her."
"Good morning," said Calcifer.
"Yes," said Sophie, surprising herself again by sounding young. As she spoke, she turned to the hearth, expecting to see Calcifer's blue face leaning out as usual, but Calcifer was not there. Two half-burned logs sat behind the grate, but the fire demon himself was perched on, or maybe an inch or so above, Sophie's chair. He did not seem to be burning it, but his thin arm was stretched along the armrest, giving him the appearance of having settled in. "Goodness!" Sophie exclaimed. Her heart gave a small jump, only a vague echo of the way it used to leap about when she was old.
"Isn't it wonderful?" Calcifer crackled. "I don't have to be stuck in that damned fireplace ever again."
"Wonderful" Sophie agreed. "But you'd better not get too used to that chair."
Calcifer grinned at her a bit wickedly. "We'll see," he said.
"I am going to want to sit in it later," Sophie pointed out.
"Well I'm frightening and powerful, so don't count on it," said Calcifer. He flickered brightly in a way that was not at all menacing.
Sophie snorted. "And I suppose you won't let me cook anything for breakfast," she said, thinking of bacon.
"No," Calcifer said. "That's your problem now. I refuse to be exploited again."
"Fine," said Sophie, and decided to try standing once more. This time she was very careful that her head went where she wanted it to. The castle looked odd. She realized she was probably an inch or so taller than she had been, now that she was not hunched in on herself and compacted by age. Her hair, which fell in her face in long, unwashed strands, was red gold again.
"Well," said Sophie. She was not at all sure what to do now. She remembered Ms. Fairfax leaving them with quite a lot of honey, so she decided to eat some of that with bread. Ms. Fairfax, along with Lettie, Wizard Suliman, and Prince Justin, were all staying in Fanny's mansion, down the road from the castle's orange-down entrance. Michael and Martha were upstairs in Michael's room, where they had assured Sophie nothing untoward would happen, and anyway it was none of her business. They must still have been asleep, Howl too, because the castle was silent except for the sounds of Sophie rummaging and Calcifer humming.
"Calcifer," Sophie asked, as she slathered honey on a piece of bread. "What's going to happen now?"
"What do you mean?" Calcifer asked.
Sophie was not quite sure. "I mean to us," she said. "And Howl and Michael and everyone. Everything's changed rather a lot."
"Don't ask me," Calcifer said. "I'm just happy not to be attached to Howl anymore. That was draining."
Sophie did not feel very reassured. She chomped on her bread and thought, feeling less and less reassured with every bite. The more she considered it, the more she was sure things could not go on the same way they had been, and that was rather frightening. She and everyone in the castle may have been miserable for the past few weeks, curses weighing heavily on their heads, but if you ignored all that it had actually been rather pleasant. They had really started to feel like a family, and now Sophie suspected they'd all be going in separate directions again.
Wasn't that what 'happily ever after' meant? Sophie had always thought it meant going off in pairs, investing in a house and some fine china, and occasionally entertaining guests. But then, most of the books Sophie read only implied that. They really ended with 'happily ever after.' And that wasn't very helpful, now was it?
But there was nothing to be done about that now. Sophie licked honey off her fingers and decided on the first thing that needed doing. She went into the back room and fetched a bucket and some rags.
It was painfully obvious that something dramatic had happened in the castle the day before. Items belonging to every member of this extended family littered the surfaces. Food and plates and glasses were set down in every corner. Traces of magic still sizzled in the air, giving everything a strange, static-y feeling and setting off spells on Howl's workbench. There were burn marks all over the room, from fire and weedkiller. It was rather remarkable that between Sophie, Fanny, and Ms. Fairfax, this had not been taken care of the day before, but it had turned out there had been too much relief and good feeling in the air for anyone to bother. "I shall just have to do it myself then," Sophie muttered. She rolled up her sleeves and got to work.
Calcifer whined at her. "Not again!" he exclaimed. "Sophie, please."
"This place is a mess," Sophie said. "And it's only going to get worse unless I do something about it."
"I'd just gotten comfortable," Calcifer said, his voice high and plaintive, though Sophie was not at all sure how comfortable an armchair could possibly be to a fire demon. Calcifer really did just look like he was hovering above it.
"And who was it who made it possible for you to leave the fireplace at all?" asked Sophie, as she set to work on a particularly nasty stain next to the front door.
Calcifer grumbled for a moment, and then suddenly flared at the ceiling. "I don't have to stay here for this," he said in indignation, and also realization. "I can go wherever I want!" He shot around the room for a moment, knocking potions and dishes here and there, and then disappeared through the castle wall.
Sophie stared after him. "Some demons have no sense of gratitude," she said. For a moment she considered taking advantage of Calcifer's absence and claiming the chair for herself, but she did not particularly want to sit down. She wanted to scrub the floors down and clean up the mess, and maybe move into sweeping the flower shop...
The flower shop! Sophie stood up abruptly as she remembered that no one had bothered to set up the shop, and it was several hours later than they usually opened. "Drat," she said, and dropped her cleaning supplies immediately. It was too late to pick flowers now, so she'd just have to put a sign out and make sure the door was locked.
But when she got to the shop, she found that someone had already put a sign in the door. In thick, graceful writing that Sophie recognized as Martha's, it said Closed, come back tomorrow.
"Huh," said Sophie. Martha must have put up the sign last night, or possibly early this morning. Either way, it was far more responsible of her than Sophie had been expecting. The thought settled oddly about her shoulders like a particularly itchy shawl.
The shop seemed to be in order, though, and Sophie doubted that after the rush of holiday business anyone would particularly mind not buying flowers today. On a whim, she stuck her head out to look down the street. It was quiet and still, if a bit disheveled from the celebrations yesterday. Petals and streamers collected near the curbs, and the few people walking down the street gave off the impression that they were settling back into themselves after a day of making merry.
"Aren't you the hat girl?" someone said very suddenly. Sophie whirled around, and found a well-dressed woman approaching down the street. She was tall and dark and broad, and held herself confidently. Sophie didn't know her well, and couldn't remember her name, but she was certain the woman had been a frequent customer back when this building had been a hat shop. "The rumor was you'd been taken by that Wizard Howl, but you see, I knew it was only a rumor."
"I think you've got the wrong person, Ma'am," Sophie said automatically. "I'm far too old-"
It occurred to her suddenly that she was not too old for anything.
"I mean, this is a flower shop now," Sophie said. "And we simply haven't got any hats." It wasn't quite the right thing to say, and it didn't address the woman's concerns at all, but Sophie found that she didn't care. She ducked back into the shop and made sure to lock the door. Now all of Market Chipping will know that I live here, she thought. Oh bother! But then another thought struck her. Would that really be so bad if people recognized her? After all, she had just as much right to work here as anyone, young or old.
Still puzzling over this, Sophie returned to the castle and to her cleaning. She was hard at work, and had already ruined two rags by scrubbing at weedkiller residue when Martha came back through the shop. Sophie was rather surprised. She'd been sure Martha was still in Michael's room.
"I planned to sleep in," Martha explained, "but I've gotten so used to waking up early at Cesari's, you see. Michael didn't want to be bothered, so I've been outside, walking and thinking."
Sophie, who remembered quite well countless mornings of fighting with Martha to make sure she was awake enough to get to school on time, was not sure what to say to that except "what were you thinking about?"
"Oh, lots of things," Martha said. She wandered around, leaving dusty footprints on the floor Sophie had just washed. "About yesterday, mostly. So much happened that I haven't quite made up my mind what I think of it all."
And there was another change. Martha had always been very good at coming to conclusions very quickly. Sophie began to feel as though she didn't know her sister at all. Then Martha poked her in the shoulder and said "I can't believe you've taken up with Wizard Howl! How stupid of you!" and Sophie knew that there were some ways in which she'd hardly changed a bit.
Sophie felt herself blushing. "Not at all," she said, flustered.
“Oh really?” said Martha. “You looked quite in love with him yesterday.”
"If you knew what a menace he was you'd rethink that," Sophie said automatically. It was true, but it also didn't sound very convincing, even to Sophie herself. "And besides. He's got his heart back now, so no matter who he was before, he's bound to be different now."
She wondered if now Howl might end up being something closer to respectable. He'd certainly seemed that way yesterday, talking about living happily ever after and all that. Sophie was not sure why that unsettled her.
"Anyway," she said, "I can't be sure that he hasn't run away during the night. I haven't seen him yet."
"What?" Sophie demanded. "It's an honest concern."
"You wound me," said a voice from the direction of the bathroom. Sophie whirled around to see Howl standing in the doorway, looking impeccable in his blue-and-silver suit, and truly saddened. He had a hand over his heart, and his eyebrows were drawn in melancholy pain.
Sophie snorted at him. Martha continued to laugh.
"When did you come downstairs anyway?" Sophie demanded. "I could have sworn you were still asleep." And yet he'd clearly done all his morning preening. His hair shone in the late morning light, and the bathroom behind him was filled with the usual scented steam.
"Why would I be asleep," Howl said, "when I could be preparing myself to see you?" He stared at her, looking very doting and dramatic. Sophie was unsure how to respond.
"I... I suppose I assumed breaking the curse had taken its toll on you," Sophie said politely.
"Yes," Howl said. "It was difficult. But knowing that I could see my charming, uh..." he looked Sophie up and down, taking in her dusty dress and the smoking rags. He let his sentence trail off, and Sophie was glad, because she hadn't known what she wanted him to finish it with.
"Well," Sophie said. "I'm here." She searched for something that a young girl would say to her handsome suitor. "Good morning," she tried.
Howl's lovelorn expression dropped for a minute into one of confusion, but he put it back quickly. "Good morning," he said. He approached Sophie's hand, picked it up, and kissed her knuckles.
Sophie almost felt flustered, before she realized that was exactly what Howl wanted. This was precisely what he would do to any of the girls he courted under false pretenses, she was certain of it. It seemed that he had not changed so much after all. She snatched her hand back to her chest. "Don't you dare," she said sternly.
Howl's doting face dropped thoroughly, though he was still staring at her. "What's the matter, Sophie?" he said, a little pleading.
"You're just trying to charm me," Sophie said. "Well that's not playing fair, is it Calcifer?" She glanced pointedly toward the fireplace... only to realize that Calcifer was long gone.
She looked back at Howl and saw that he was also staring at the empty hearth, a strange expression on his face. "He's not here," Howl said, and for a moment sounded completely off-balance.
"He went out," Sophie said. Then, in an attempt to pull the mood out of whatever uncertain place she'd accidentally knocked it into, she added weakly "he'd agree with me if he was here."
Howl turned back to her. "Darling," he began, laughing a little desperately, "I just wanted to say good morning."
"Well you did a horrible job of it," Sophie said.
"I'm being sincere. You said it yourself, I've got my heart back now!" Sophie looked in Howl's eyes, and they may have been a little less glass-colored, but behind them was the same wizard Sophie already knew.
"I don't believe you," said Sophie. "You only act like this when you want something. When you're being truly kind and charming, you pretend you aren't." She picked up her rags and stomped into the opposite corner of the room, where she began furiously scrubbing a particularly nasty burned patch.
She was rather surprised when Howl didn't say anything else. She'd expected more of his dramatics. But, when she paused her scrubbing to listen, she could hear Martha and Howl whispering to each other. Neither were very good at whispering, but Sophie was too far away to hear most of what they said. She knew they were talking about her.
"If only I could hear," she muttered to herself.
"Well that's stupid," whispered Martha, and Sophie was not sure if she'd just gotten louder, of if Sophie had accidentally magicked herself to be more nosy.
"Oh?" Howl whispered back. "And I suppose you've been out courting across two worlds, so you'd know all about it."
"No," said Martha. "I've been courted, by half of Market Chipping at once."
There was a long moment of silence. "Oh," said Howl.
"See?" said Martha.
"Hmm," said Howl, and then there was the sound of a door closing, and when Sophie looked up, he seemed to have left the castle entirely. The knob was orange-down.
"What was that all about?" she asked.
"Don't act so coy," Martha said. "You were listening in, I could tell. I'm going to see if Michael's awake yet." She ran up the stairs before Sophie could protest that she'd only been listening in to half of the conversation.
"Well I suppose that's that," Sophie said. "It's probably for the best really. He'll find someone else soon, before I've had time to get too attached, and things will move on as usual." But, as Sophie had learned just the day before, she knew she had already gotten too attached.
She returned to her scrubbing with renewed vigor.
Sophie had just finished the first corner, and was moving on to the second, marveling at the ways her knees ached in a completely different way now that they weren't the knees of a ninety year old woman, when the castle door opened again. At first, Sophie thought it would be Howl. It turned out to be Lettie, with Wizard Suliman and Prince Justin close behind her.
"Sophie!" Lettie exclaimed. "What on earth are you doing?"
"Cleaning up," Sophie said.
"Oh, that won't do at all," Lettie said. She crossed the room and pulled Sophie up to her feet. "Where's Howl?"
"I don't know. He went out," Sophie said. "And what do you mean coming in here and telling an old woman what she ought to do?" Sometimes the only way to stop Lettie in her tracks was to make sure she knew you were as strong-minded as she was.
Lettie laughed. "Old woman!" she said. "Not anymore, Sophie, You're going to have to get used to that."
Sophie flushed. She hadn't even thought about it as she was saying it; Lettie and Prince Justin and Wizard Suliman all looked so young!
"And anyway," Lettie continued, "that's what I mean. Your curses have all been broken. You should be celebrating. Oh, but you haven't talked to Howl at all, have you."
"Knowing Howl, I wouldn't be surprised," said Wizard Suliman. He looked slightly less severe this morning. Maybe that severity had just been his reaction to all his parts being jigsawed into several bodies. Sophie could understand that.
"We talked a little, this morning," Sophie said. "Before he left."
"Well you're going to need more than that." Lettie sounded very firm on this fact. "Ben and Justin and I were up all night working things out between us."
"How on earth did you manage?" Sophie asked. She had a vague memory of falling straight to sleep the moment she'd crawled into bed.
"Coffee," Prince Justin said grimly, and Lettie nodded. Sophie could see now that, although she was as beautiful as ever, her eyes were red and desperately wide, and her hair was pulled back as simply as possible. Wizard Suliman and Prince Justin looked just as precariously put together.
"You can't have talked for that long," Sophie insisted. She glared at Prince Justin, who had started helping himself to the bread and honey. She didn't glare at Wizard Suliman, towering behind Lettie and looking fond and intimidating all at once, though he was almost worse.
"Well we did," Lettie said. "There were a lot of things that needed to be said. Do you know what it means to fall in love with someone who's really bits of two someones that got mashed together?"
"Not exactly," Sophie said, but her mind flashed to the moment when she had pinched Calcifer off of Howl's heart. Privately she thought that it was a bit early for Lettie to say things like "in love". But she could see no good would come of lecturing her about it now.
"Neither did we," Lettie explained. "That's why we talked about it."
That sounded almost ridiculously straightforward. "Well I'm glad that worked for you," Sophie said, a little apprehensively. "But that doesn't mean it will work for me."
"So what are you going to do?" Lettie asked.
"Clean the place up." Sophie crossed her arms in an attempt to look capable. "That's what I always do. And you're getting footprints where I just scrubbed."
"That certainly explains why you were cursed for so long," Wizard Suliman said. Sophie glared at him.
"Well at least I wasn't put into a turnip," she said with some dignity. "And if you don't mind, this is my castle. And I'm in the middle of cleaning it." She was being terribly rude, she realized, and she did want to talk to Lettie, but there was simply too much going on.
Neither Lettie, Prince Justin, or Wizard Suliman looked the least bit put out. "We were going to go into town anyway," Lettie explained, "and get something to eat. We were going to ask you and Howl to join us. But maybe next time."
"Come on, then," said Prince Justin, who had finished at least two slices of bread while they were talking. He reached out and took Wizard Suliman's hand, and Lettie took his other, and they left the castle together.
Sophie found that she had very little energy left. She checked her chair for fire demon, then sat down. "What am I supposed to do?" she wondered aloud. The empty castle did not answer. Sophie found that Lettie's visit had disturbed her more than ever. Everything was moving so fast, and Sophie was not at all sure she knew where her part of it was going. With the way Howl had carried on this morning, she was sure he wasn't nearly as sincere today as he'd been yesterday, and it was only a matter of time before he moved on. Or maybe he had been truly sincere, and Sophie couldn't tell the difference anymore. It was impossible to tell.
"So you're finally finished," said a voice, and Sophie jumped clear out of the chair. Calcifer was back, though he still refused to sit in the grate. He hovered over Howl's work table, which was covered in flammable and dangerous magical objects.
"Just for now," Sophie said, and tried to look menacing. She was not sure how effective that was now that she only looked eighteen.
"Where's Howl?" Calcifer asked, and then added "it's such a relief to be able to say that!"
"He went out," Sophie said.
"You two aren't fighting already, are you?" Calcifer asked. He flickered green.
"How should I know?" Sophie snapped. "He didn't stick around long enough for me to find out!"
Calcifer's green began to look a little sickly. "I hope you're not," he said. "Because that means you're going to stick me in the middle, aren't you?"
Sophie opened her mouth to say no, of course not, then realized that was almost exactly what she had tried to do. She closed her mouth again.
"You've both saved my life," Calcifer whined. "And you're going to ask me to take sides. Do you know how difficult that's going to be?"
Sophie hadn't thought about it like that. "I suppose you're right," she said.
"Bonds are tricky things," Calcifer said sagely. "Even when they're not spelled out in a contract."
Sophie nodded. "But," she said, "you have to admit, it's not exactly promising that Howl came waltzing in here, acting exactly the way he does when he doesn't mean it."
Calcifer hissed. "Is that all you're worried about?"
"No," said Sophie. "I'm worried about everything. But that certainly doesn't help."
"Have you ever considered," Calcifer said, "that maybe Howl doesn't know how to actually be in love?"
Sophie flushed at the word. "What do you mean?" she said. "He's got his heart back, doesn't he?"
Calcifer cackled loudly. "He was just using that as an excuse," he said. "I can tell you now. He was just as fickle before I took his heart as after; that was part of the reason why he was so willing to give it to me."
Sophie opened her mouth to protest, but closed it again as she realized that what Calcifer was saying was probably true.
"Howl liked to convince himself he was in love," Calcifer continued. "And then when he realized he wasn't, everything would fall apart, and he would blame it on me. I didn't have anything to do with it! I took his heart to give me life and to bind me to him; the heart is an essential organ, after all. But I certainly didn't take his love away. He just doesn't know what to do with it. But look at the way he's treated Michael and Ms. Penstemmon, and his far away family. And you."
The castle door slammed open. "Sophie, please," Howl said earnestly, sweeping inside. "You mustn't listen to a word he says."
Calcifer looked unimpressed. "You've been listening in again," he said.
Howl waved his hands, sending his sleeves flying. "So what if I have? You're here telling Sophie all of my secrets the second the contract's broken. I have a reputation to uphold."
Calcifer cackled. "That reputation got you kicked out of your own castle."
"I was not kicked out," Howl insisted. He turned to Sophie. "I left because your sister bullied me. And you weren't much better yourself."
Sophie snorted. "What was I supposed to think?" she asked. "You might as well have brought me flowers for all the sincerity you had this morning."
"We own a flower shop," Howl said. "That would have been thoroughly redundant and unoriginal. And besides, I thought I was supposed to dote on people. Isn't that what you wanted?"
"You certainly never doted on me before," Sophie said, "and I fell in love with you anyway."
"Never doted!" Howl cried. "I devoted myself wholeheartedly toward breaking your curse and caring for you in your old age."
"You scared me out of my wits and tried to make me jealous on purpose," Sophie retorted.
"HOLD ON!" cried Calcifer. "Are you two really fighting, or are you flirting?"
Sophie glared at Howl.
Howl glared back.
"Fighting," Sophie said. "I think."
Howl's glare faltered, and then fell away altogether. He started laughing, and couldn't seem to stop. "I think it's both," he gasped finally. "What a mess this is!"
Sophie tried to keep being cross but soon found that she was laughing as well. "It's true, it's really true!" she managed.
"What a life," Howl said, chuckling. "I should have known you'd make even courting you difficult."
Sophie grinned. " I'm making it difficult! And I suppose your unnecessary theatrics are supposed to be convenient."
"You're impossible," grumbled Calcifer.
"Yes, but you love us," Howl said.
"I was coerced," Calcifer complained, but he didn't really mean it. He flared brighter than ever, and darted this way and that above the table in a way that Sophie recognized as pleasure. "Are you two going to argue all day, or are we going to do something? I'm free for the first time in years!"
"And you want us to come with you?" Sophie asked, not quite believing it.
"I don't want you having any fun without me," Calcifer answered.
Howl laughed again. "Sophie, are you going to come along? Or are you going to be miserable unless you're scrubbing the life out of something?" He looked pointedly at the rag in her hands.
Sophie threw the rag at his head. "And leave the two of you to your own devices? Hah. Of course I'm coming." For a moment she thought of her younger self creeping nervously around Market Chipping. She wouldn't be able to cover that fear with old age anymore. But she put it out of her mind. She had more than enough magic and insults to act as old as she wanted.
Howl beamed at her, and this time it was genuine. "I was hoping you'd say that."
"Wonderful!" Calcifer said. "Let's go to Kingsbury and terrorize the nobles."