1. In Which Sophie Says No
After the curses were all broken, it did not take long at all for Fanny and Mrs. Fairfax to decide between them that Howl and Sophie should have some time alone. They shooed everybody out the door, starting with Prince Justin and Wizard Suliman, and ending with Martha's Michael – who, given that he lived in the moving castle with Howl and Sophie, probably should not have been shooed at all. Lettie, who did not in the least agree that Howl and Sophie should have some time alone, stood her ground as long as she could, but in the end she was shooed out as well. “Leave them be to sort things out!” Mrs. Fairfax told her, winking at Fanny. “You can come back and visit her tomorrow if you like!”
Lettie spent the whole rest of that evening knowing that she should have been delighted, and feeling disgruntled and peculiar instead. She did not know what she had expected to happen once the spell on Sophie was fixed. In the back of her mind she had thought perhaps that Sophie would go back to live with Fanny, and things would be very much as they had been before.
Instead Sophie was apparently going to go on living with Wizard Howl, only young and pretty and without Percival to watch out for her – and Percival was another thing that was making Lettie feel peculiar. “Blast the Witch of the Waste!” said Lettie, and put a pillow over her head.
It did not help that Mrs. Fairfax was very much in favor of Lettie going off with Wizard Suliman, and told her so repeatedly over breakfast.
Lettie hid her consternation with a laugh. “If I didn't know better,” she said, “I would think you were trying to get rid of me!”
“Of course not, my dear!” said Mrs. Fairfax, warmly. “You know how much I've enjoyed teaching you, but you're going to outstrip me, and soon! Now it looks like Wizard Howl's going to have his hands full with your sister, of course – and what a talent there, I can't think why I didn't realize it when you were children – but really, Wizard Suliman's a much steadier sort of person, and will after all be a much better teacher for you. A very reliable man, Wizard Suliman – and really quite handsome, too! And I've said it a hundred times, you deserve to be working with the best!”
It was true that Mrs. Fairfax had said this exact sort of thing a hundred times, mostly during the period when she was hoping to send Lettie off with Howl. It hadn't bothered Lettie then in the least; she had known she had no intention of going away with Howl, and had simply let Mrs. Fairfax's talk pass her by without heeding it.
The fact that she could not do so now told her she really was thinking seriously about taking Wizard Suliman up on his offer. She stood up abruptly. “Mrs. Fairfax, would you mind if I took the day again?” she asked. “I'd like to go see my sister.”
“Of course, my dear!” said Mrs. Fairfax. “Take your time – and if there's anybody else you'd like to call on as well, I can certainly spare you for a few more hours.” She twinkled at Lettie for all she was worth as Lettie headed out the door.
The carrier deposited Lettie in the market square, and from there it was only a few minutes until she walked into the flower shop that had once been her own house. To Lettie's eyes, it looked all wrong. All the pleasant, ordinary hats that she was used to had been replaced with strange-looking hothouse blossoms. Still, the people who filled the shop were all the same people that she had grown up with – including Sophie, in the middle of the throng, looking blessedly like herself. “Well, you see,” she was saying, rather desperately, “Aunt Jenkins was – is – my sister's, er, grandmother, and –”
It was a good thing, thought Lettie, that everybody knew that Martha was their half-sister, or they would find the way she had phrased that rather peculiar. Sophie had never been any good at lying on her feet. “Hullo, Sophie!” she called.
Half a dozen heads turned. Lettie immediately became drawn into the throng. “Here to see your sister? Well! Perhaps you can make her stop sounding so mysterious about where she's been all this time!” said Joe Johnson. “How well you look, Lettie!” exclaimed Mrs. Crosby, squinting at her, and Mr. Poppins remarked, “Fancy bumping into you here, Lettie! Business slow at Cesari's?”
“Yes, a bit,” said Lettie, hoping it was true. She had rather forgotten that Martha was still using her name over at the bakery. “Sophie, can I talk to you?”
Sophie clasped Lettie's hands, looking both glad and relieved. “Of course!” She pitched her voice louder. “Michael, could you come help all these people with their orders? I'm sorry,” she said to Joe Johnson and Mrs. Crosby and Mr. Poppins and all the rest, “but you must know I haven't seen Lettie properly in ages, and –”
“Run along then!” said Mrs. Crosby. “You two always were thicker than thieves – and I'm sure you two have a great deal to talk about now!”
Lettie wondered at the smile that spread over Sophie's face. As soon as they were settled in the kitchen, Sophie told her, “You've no idea how queer it was before, selling flowers to them all and having none of them know me! I never thought I'd be so glad to have Mrs. Crosby making personal remarks.”
“She'll be making a number of them, I expect,” said Lettie, “if you go on living here.” It was not what she had meant to say, or at least not first thing. Sophie looked at her in puzzlement, and Lettie tried quickly to make it a joke. “Well, you know how the Crosbys are! But Sophie, do you mean to go on living with Howl?”
“Well –” Sophie gave her a look that was rather pink and harassed, and then laughed, suddenly. “Bother you! I just hate having to admit you were right, that's all. I can't think how you knew!”
“I know you,” said Lettie, darkly, “and after having him read bad sonnets at me for two weeks, I rather think I know Wizard Howl. And Sophie, I must say I'm worried –”
In the months since she had last seen her, Lettie had somehow managed to forget how Sophie always chose the times when Lettie was most trying to be serious to come over the patronizing elder sister on her. “Lettie,” said Sophie, kindly, “it's very dear of you to worry over me, but really, everything's all right now! I promise you, I can take care of myself!”
To make matters worse, Wizard Howl chose this moment to emerge from the bathroom in a cloud of scented steam. “I'll have you know, Lettie,” he remarked, “I had to forcibly bar your sister from my bedroom when she first moved into the castle. What kind of a scandalous upbringing did you Hatters have?”
He leaned against the table, radiating smugness. Lettie regarded him with extreme dislike. She looked back at Sophie, expecting to see her outraged, but in fact Sophie, pinker-cheeked than ever, looked as if she was struggling not to laugh. “Don't worry,” she told Lettie, loudly. “He won't be getting anybody up there at all until he lets someone clean out those spiders out.”
“What peculiar priorities your sister has! ” Howl told Lettie. “Sophie must be the only woman in the world who'd trade in anything I could buy her in Market Chipping for the chance to dust under my desk.”
“Lettie,” said Sophie, “you haven't seen what happens when someone lets him loose in Market Chipping.”
“Some people know the meaning of good taste, Lettie,” said Howl.
“Well,” said Sophie, “some people have an idea of good taste that means coating everything in gold, as well, but I don't.”
They regarded each other dippily. It was the most disgusting thing Lettie had ever seen. “I must be going,” she announced, and headed back through the main shop at a fast clip.
For a few moments she was afraid that she had misjudged things, and Sophie wouldn't follow; it was a great relief when she heard her jogging up the street after her. “Goodness, my girl,” Sophie said, sounding ninety years old again for an unnerving moment, “you don't appreciate joints that work properly until you haven't had them for a while, let me tell you.” She stretched out her arms out luxuriously and did what looked like a little jig, apparently just for the joy of it. “If you're running errands, I'll come along with you. I could use the fresh air – and we really haven't talked properly yet at all!”
“Well, if you hadn't spent three hours staring into Wizard Howl's eyes yesterday,” said Lettie, still irritated, “we might have talked then.”
To her satisfaction, Sophie did look a little guilty. “I'm sorry, Lettie – you wanted to ask my advice about Percival and Wizard Suliman, didn't you? All right, talk! I'm yours for the rest of the day.”
Lettie sighed. “Oh, I can't even think how to begin!” Her feelings felt as jumbled-together as Prince Justin and Wizard Suliman had been inside of Percival. But Sophie was looking at her in her usual patient way; Sophie's way of listening had always helped Lettie to sort things out before. That was why she had wanted to come talk to her first. “I suppose it's just – well, Mrs. Fairfax is right, you know. I could learn a lot from Wizard Suliman – much more than I can from Mrs. Fairfax, bless her. But it seems that he feels all these things about me, and I don't know him! It was Percival I was fond of, and he's not Percival at all.”
“No, he isn't, is he,” said Sophie, thoughtfully. “Percival was somebody you could order around, rather, and it seems clear that Wizard Suliman isn't. And you can't feel sorry for him the same way.”
Lettie was rather affronted that Sophie would pick these out as the most important points in Lettie's relationship with Percival, but before she could protest, Sophie went on. “I suppose you'd find out what bits of Percival were Wizard Suliman after a time, but – oh, dear! It is awkward, isn't it. I can't even think what I'd say to the man now, and it must be ten times worse for you!”
Now it was Lettie's turn to go pink. She wouldn't tell Sophie, but she was willing to hazard it was more than ten times worse. Kissing was the traditional way to break spells, after all; it would have been irresponsible not to at least try it. “I want to learn from him, anyway,” she said, abruptly. She had only just decided this herself, but now that she had said it she felt quite certain it was true. “I don't care if it turns out I am fond of him or not. He's very good at wizardry, and if he was decent enough to cancel out all the awful bits of Prince Justin, he must be a good person, too – quite unlike Wizard Howl.”
She snuck a glance at Sophie to see how she took this, but Sophie appeared unperturbed. “So you are going to agree to study with him, then?” she asked.
“But I can't if he's really in love with me!” said Lettie. “What if it turns out I don't like him at all? It would be cruel!"
Sophie hesitated. “Well, I suppose – ”
A brilliant idea hit Lettie with the force of a falling star. “Sophie!” she exclaimed, turning to her sister eagerly. “Sophie, why don't you go talk to him for me?”
“What?” said Sophie.
“You're wonderful at talking! You talked life into that demon of Howl's, and the stick into hitting that awful woman –”
“Well, yes,” said Sophie, “but it's not reliable. It all goes wrong, usually.”
Lettie did not pay attention to this. Sophie was always putting herself down. It was impressive, really, how a person could be so thoroughly and at the same time convinced that she was always right and that she was always wrong. “Well, then, you can go ask him about me,” she said, “and if it sounds like he's going to be awkward about it, you can just – well, just tell him that he's not in love with me! Then I can go to study with him and sort it out for myself. And if it turned out I did like him, you could go back and talk to him again, and if I didn't, he'd never have to be sorry about it.”
Sophie blinked at Lettie for a moment, but then her face firmed. She took her hands out of Lettie's. "No, Lettie," she said. "I'm sorry you feel in a muddle, and I do want to help, but I don't think I ought to do that."
Lettie was astounded. "Why not?"
"It's cruel," said Sophie, firmly. "And I think it's wrong. Taking away a person's feelings -- well, look what happened to Howl when he didn't have his own proper heart! And I know how I'd feel if someone had try to take away how I felt about Howl through magic. It didn't even work when I tried to talk myself out of loving him, and nobody else has the right." Lettie tried to look as if the idea of using a spell to safeguard Sophie from her own bad taste had never once crossed her mind. "Anyway, if you're so worried about hurting Wizard Suliman's feelings, you ought to talk to him yourself. And do it honestly!" Sophie concluded, in her most infuriatingly self-righteous elder-sister voice.
“That's not fair!” protested Lettie. “It was magic that caused all the trouble anyway! Why shouldn't magic fix it?”
“Well, my magic's not going to,” said Sophie. “I said no, and I meant it. Aren't you the one who's always telling me not to let people walk all over me?"
This was more unfair still. Lettie had meant people like Fanny and Martha, who, though very dear, did have rather a habit of selfishness – or, more pressingly, people like Howl, who had selfishness running straight through them. Not people like Lettie herself, who only had everybody's best interests at heart! "Wizard Howl's made you as unfeeling as he is," she told Sophie.
"Nonsense," said Sophie, just as briskly she always had done when Martha threw a tantrum because Sophie would not do her homework for her. “You'd be sorry later if I did it really, and you know it --” and that was just what she had always said to Martha too.
This made Lettie more annoyed than ever. She was about to tell Sophie exactly what she thought of people who got all up on their high horse about right and wrong, and then moved in with vain, slithery wizards who hadn't an ethical bone in their body, when she was interrupted a sudden pop.
Nothing had been going right today, so of course the pop heralded the appearance of Wizard Suliman. “Mistress Hatter,” he said – but his attention was on Sophie, rather than Lettie. “I'm very sorry, but the King has asked me to fetch both you and Wizard Howl right away.”
Sophie stared rather. So did Lettie. She'd had no idea that Sophie had anything to do with the King. “What is it?” Sophie demanded. “The Witch is gone, isn't she? What's gone wrong now? Is something the matter with Princess Valeria?”
“No, it's not the Witch,” said Wizard Suliman. His craggy face looked even craggier with the tired circles under his eyes. Lettie tried not to be too obvious about how she was looking at it. “Everything does seem to happen at once, doesn't it? It's Strangia and High Norland – well, it seems that as of this morning, we are at war.”
Sophie was white-faced, but she gave a game nod, then turned back to Lettie. Lettie was still staring. That the King would call Sophie, of all people, to help him with a war, seemed terribly unreal. “I'm so sorry, Lettie,” Sophie said, and pressed Lettie's arm, as reassuringly as she could. “It looks as though I can't give you today after all. But I'll come see you soon, and we'll have a real visit – I promise.”
Wizard Suliman looked at Lettie then at last. “Good day, Lettie,” he said, in the rumbling voice that went with his craggy face. It was not at all like Percival's. Lettie's knees felt shivery and quaky. Then he took Sophie's arm, and, with another pop, the two of them disappeared.
Lettie did not care who saw her; she sat down right in the dust on the nearest stoop, took off her hat, and hid her face in it. She felt queerer and more muddled than ever before. The country was at war, and the version of Percival she had known was gone forever, and so, it seemed, was the comfortable stay-at-home version of her sister that she had left behind at the hat shop all those months ago. Everything was changing, and demanding that Lettie change with it – and Lettie did not feel ready in the least.
2. In Which Wizard Suliman Says Yes
It had been two weeks. Half the young men in Upper Folding had gone off to war, and Sophie had not come to see her. Lettie was tired of waiting. She did not think Sophie was angry at her; she had not seemed angry, anyway, when Wizard Suliman took her off, which made it all the stranger that she had not turned up when she said. Lettie decided she would go to Market Chipping and take Sophie out to Cesari's, as a peace offering. Then perhaps she would ask Sophie again what she could do about Wizard Suliman.
She was even grudgingly prepared to be conciliatory towards Wizard Howl. At the very least, he had now managed to go a solid two weeks without jilting Sophie, which was a longer period of time than she'd ever heard of him devoting himself towards a lady before.
When she got there, the flower shop was closed. Still, having come all the way to Market Chipping already, Lettie was not about to let this stop her. She could see there was a light in the window on top, where Sophie's old room had once been, and banged on the door for five minutes until someone finally opened it.
Of course the someone was Wizard Howl. “I'm very sorry,” he said, pleasantly, “but we're unavailable.”
Lettie stared at him. “What do you mean, unavailable? I only wanted to talk to Sophie for a bit!”
“I mean,” Howl explained, “nobody in this house is doing anything more for anybody today. No exceptions. Come back tomorrow, and perhaps we'll be able to fit you in.” He gave Lettie his most charming smile and attempted to shut the door in her face.
Just as if she was selling buttons, Lettie thought indignantly. She wedged her foot in the door and announced, “I refuse to leave until I see my sister!”
At the same time, Sophie's voice from inside said, “What nonsense!” Howl turned, distracted, and the door opened a little wider. Sophie was on the stairs. She had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, and she looked as tired as Lettie had ever seen her, but that did not stop her from rounding on Howl. “You've not the least right to send Lettie away without telling me she was here!”
“I should have known the only way I'd get any peace and quiet around here would be to move the castle to an iceberg,” Howl snapped back. Now that she was looking properly, Lettie could see that he was as exhausted as Sophie. “Invite the whole clan over, why don't you? Perhaps you can spare me a corner in the back and a blanket to wrap my head in, so that when my migraine comes on –”
“Rot!” retorted Sophie. “If you've had a migraine in your life, I'll – I'll eat the Count of Catterack's whole hat collection!”
This had all the makings of a row that might go on for hours. Lettie stepped backwards quietly and let the door shut again. She did not know what had unnerved her more, the sight of how tired both Sophie and Wizard Howl had been – she'd had no idea the King was asking so much of them – or the fact that Wizard Howl had learned the trick of getting Sophie too busy with arguing to do whatever it was that he did not want her to do. She had thought only she and Martha knew Sophie as well as that.
What was most unnerving of all was that she knew Wizard Howl had been right to send Lettie away. Sophie would never have done it herself, but she was clearly too tired to be giving advice to Lettie about her problems – and deep down, Lettie had to admit that that was really what she had wanted from her. The trouble was that it had always been Lettie and Martha who had more important things to do before, never Sophie. Lettie and Martha had been Sophie's important things to do. Lettie could not get her head to wrap itself around the change.
Still – that was one thing, and that was Lettie's problem to sort out inside herself. The way Sophie and Howl had both looked was another thing, and that could not be let stand. “What is the King doing to them?” she demanded, of the air. She was so busy being annoyed at the King for carrying off Sophie that her annoyance at Howl for carrying off Sophie faded almost to the background altogether.
Then she remembered there was after all one person she could talk to about this. And it was only when she was this distracted that she would have the courage to go talk to him herself anyway – so she might as well. After all, she was meant to be the strong-minded one, wasn't she? It was high time she started acting like it.
Wizard Suliman lived in Kingsbury, where the King could have him convenient. It took a good three hours to get there from Market Chipping by the public carriage, but now Lettie was set on her course and would not be swayed. By the time she had bought a map, asked for directions, and located the handsome narrow house where Wizard Suliman lived, it was nearly dark. She did not at all like the look of the gargoyle knocker on the front door – the falling shadows of the night made it seem to leer most unappealingly – but she supposed wizards had to do something to make their houses look impressive. She seized it and gave a brisk knock.
A dour-faced manservant answered the door, in impressive amounts of gold braid. While Lettie was wondering if Sophie would get menservants as well now that she was a sort of Royal Witch, the manservant said, “I'm very sorry, but the wizard is extremely busy, and is not receiving anyone without an appointment.”
“I expect so,” said Lettie. She drew up all her confidence and strength of will, combined it with her knowledge of her own prettiness, and sent it hurling at the manservant as a sort of weapon. “But he'll see me.”
The manservant blinked at her. “Why should that be the case?” he asked sharply, but he looked slightly uncertain.
“Just you tell him that Lettie Hatter's here to see him,” said Lettie. “I guarantee you.”
The manservant muttered something and disappeared. Lettie waited, and tried to hold onto all the feelings of unstoppable confidence she had summoned to deal with the manservant. She was going to need them.
Wizard Suliman arrived at the front door with remarkable speed. Lettie tried to boost her confidence further on how right she had turned out to be, and not pay any attention to the way in which her heart was racing. “Mistress Hatter,” he said. “This is a very unexpected pleasure.”
“Yes, I know,” said Lettie. “But I've got to talk to you. It's important.”
The house was rather large – much larger than the inside of Wizard Howl's moving castle had turned out to be. She seemed to be trailing after Wizard Suliman down miles of sedate mahogany corridor before he finally opened the door to what appeared to be a study. Wizard Suliman blinked, as if relieved to find it there, and then said, “Please sit down.”
The chairs were more mahogany, with a desk in between them. Lettie sat. Wizard Suliman sat too, and looked at her. He looked as if he'd be content to go on looking at her for years. It was joltingly familiar; Percival had looked at her in just that way, except his gaze had had nowhere near the force of Wizard Suliman's. Lettie began speaking, very hastily. “It's about the King,” she said. “I went to try and see Sophie today. She and Howl are both being worked to the bone! Well, I suppose you are too, come to that – only I don't think I've ever seen you when you weren't looking tired, so it's not as easy to tell.”
To her surprise, Wizard Suliman smiled at that – a tired kind of smile, but for all that it was rather devastating. “Yes,” he said, “I suppose that's so.”
“Well, it seems unjust, I think!” said Lettie, with some heat. “You've all only just got out of being cursed, without the least bit of time to recover – and Sophie's really only a fledgling witch! She's had even less training than me!”
Wizard Suliman grimaced. “I know,” he said. “It's my fault. The King asked myself and Prince Justin to tell him everything that had happened to us, and how we came to ourselves again. Of course your sister came out quite impressively in all of that.” He sounded very respectful as he talked about Sophie. Lettie tried not to feel envious. She knew she had not done much yet that was worthy of respect. Wizard Suliman went on, “Howl's already given me a piece of his mind for that. He said the King would act as if he'd gotten two for the price of one, and now I see his point. I believe he did his level best to undo what I had done, and blacken your sister's name to the King so that she wouldn't have to be included in the war efforts –”
“Oh, I'll just bet he did,” muttered Lettie. If she was forced to, she could grudgingly admit that it seemed Howl had Sophie's best interests at heart mostly, but that did not mean she had to agree with his slithery way of doing things. “And I'm sure Sophie would have none of it, and undid everything he was doing as fast as he could do it! Well, if I were the King, I'd take Sophie over Howl any day – but that doesn't mean he ought to be treating you all the way he does!”
“These things do happen in a war, Lettie,” said Wizard Suliman gently.
“I know,” Lettie snapped back. “That's why I've come – to ask you to take me on as a student, so I can help! I don't have Sophie's gift, but I've learned quite a lot from Mrs. Fairfax, and I'm a quick study. There's no reason I shouldn't be able to do some of the things you're all doing –”
“Let me finish!” said Lettie. She had to get it out now, or she would never get through it. “I can't sit by and let my sister work herself half to death while I'm not doing anything! So I've got to be learning with you. I want to be learning with you. But I certainly can't marry you!”
“Of course not!” said Wizard Suliman. He was really startled.
There was an awkward sort of silence. They stared at each other for a while. Somewhere around the corners of her flaming embarrassment, Lettie found the time to be relieved that Wizard Suliman looked as flustered as she did. At least he was not always six foot's worth of intimidatingly adult wizard. “Perhaps,” Wizard Suliman said, eventually, “we had better start over. Why on earth do you think you would have to marry me to study with me?”
There seemed no way to go but forward. It could not possibly get worse than it already had. “Well, you've got – feelings about me,” said Lettie. “Left over from Percival. You're in love with me, I think. You certainly look at me as if you were! And Mrs. Fairfax certainly thinks that we're going to get married, and I think so does Fanny, and Sophie's living with Howl now just as if they were married already, and – it seems everybody thinks it's the only way things could go!”
Wizard Suliman considered this point by point. “It's true,” he said carefully, putting one finger down on the desk, “I have – er – feelings about you. I would be lying to say I don't have hopes that you might come one day to care for me as you cared for Percival – well,” he amended himself, “perhaps not quite as you cared for Percival.”
“What do you mean by that?” said Lettie.
“Well,” said Wizard Suliman, almost apologetically, “I think I'm rather a more interesting person than Percival.”
“Percival was under approximately twelve different spells!” exclaimed Lettie. “I think he was the opposite of boring, if you please!”
“Yes, that's the thing,” said Wizard Suliman. “Percival was in an interesting situation. I should hope to be an interesting person, if you see the difference.”
Lettie did. She was not sure how she felt about it. She had cared about Percival – but it could not be denied that his personality was a difficult thing to pin down. “Well?” she said, hastily, to move away from this topic. “Go on. You were telling me why I shouldn't think you'd want to marry me – and I have to say you're not doing a very good job of it so far!”
“Right,” said Wizard Suliman, and put down the second finger. “Mrs. Fairfax,” he said, “seems to be jumping to a lot of conclusions. Perhaps it's because you all seem to marry so quickly in this world. It's not like that where I come from, you know. People take time to get to know each other.” He put his third finger down, and cleared his throat. “Speaking of which, Sophie and Howl's situation is rather different than ours. There's a way in which I envy Howl –”
“What! You're not in love with Sophie, too!” cried Lettie in exasperation. That really would be all that was needed.
“No!” said Wizard Suliman, startled once again. “No, of course not! But they've seen all the best and worst of each other already, and I envy them that. You only ever saw the smallest pieces of me. If you and I start to work together in the same way – in a situation like this, we will see all the worst of each other. You and me, and Howl and Sophie as well. We'll all be tired and cross and worked to the edge –”
Lettie felt she knew the worst of both Sophie and Howl extremely well already. She also knew the best of Sophie, although not so much of Howl – and if she had to watch much more of Howl and Sophie being gooey-eyed at each other, Wizard Suliman and everyone else would all quite soon know the worst of Lettie. But this was the price one had to pay.
She said, “But not quite as much to the edge as if I hadn't been helping.”
“No,” agreed Wizard Suliman. “Not quite as much.”
“Well, then,” said Lettie, “I think you're making it far too complicated.” She felt she was beginning to get her confidence back. She lifted her head and glared directly at Wizard Suliman. She knew she could be as forceful as he was, if she put her mind to it. “Will you teach me, and will you not marry me? That's all I came here to ask, if you'll give me a straight answer.”
The forceful glare worked. Wizard Suliman blinked, looking a bit dazed. “Er,” he said. “I don't think I can promise to never marry you. Unless of course you've already decided you don't like me.”
“No,” Lettie said, “I haven't decided that. But the straight answer, please.”
“How about I agree to teach you, and not to marry you while I'm teaching you?” offered Wizard Suliman. “Will that do?”
“Nicely, thank you,” said Lettie. She held out her hand to shake. Wizard Suliman took it, gravely. His handshake was as warm and forceful as his gaze. Lettie decided she was glad the conversation – deeply embarrassing as it had been in all its particulars – had gone the way it had. Wizard Suliman was clearly the sort of person who kept his promises.
And now that she did not have to feel pressured by it, she had to admit that she quite liked the way he looked at her.
The only difficulty was going to be in telling Sophie all that had happened without having to tell her that she had been right, and Lettie had been wrong, about how to handle the Suliman situation. Or having to tell her that Lettie had decided to study with Suliman to help Sophie, come to that. Sophie would only come over all elder-sister again and declare that she did not need to be helped.
No – perhaps it would be best, in this case, not to tell Sophie much of anything about how things had ended up as they had. After all, she and Sophie were both adults, and quite capable of making their own choices!