"Am I to understand that instead of dispensing with the dragon, as requested by your king, my husband has in fact vanished without a trace?"
The page twisted his hands together and nodded, swallowing hard. "Yes ma'am. I mean, my lady. I mean--"
Sophie frowned at him. "Why are you so scared? Stand up straight and stop cowering like that."
The page quickly unhunched his shoulders and put his hands behind his back.
"Better. Now, where is this dragon?"
The page looked at her askance. "Why?"
"Why? Well, to go after it, of course! I'm not letting a dragon make off with my husband."
The page swallowed again. "But... the king said... I'm here to offer you compensation."
Sophie clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "Well, that is easily dealt with, at least." She stalked over to the fireplace and poked at it until Calcifer opened a sleepy eye to glare at her. "Calcifer! Is Howl dead?"
"We're not connected anymore," muttered Calcifer, closing his eye again. "How should I know?"
"You'd know if he were dead," said Sophie, firmly.
Calcifer woke up a little more. "He's not. He's... north. Somewhere this way." A tendril of flame wavered in a roughly north, north-east direction. Sophie took note of it carefully.
"Thank you, Calcifer." She got up and brushed her sooty hands on her skirts. "I'm going away for a while, try not to move the castle too far, will you? It would be embarrassing if I rescued Howl from a dragon only to find we can't find our home anymore."
The fire flared. "A dragon? Sophie, be careful, he'll kill me if anything happens to you."
Sophie pursed her lips. "Then he should be more careful when dealing with dragons," she declared. "Don't worry about me, Calcifer."
The page was staring at the fireplace. "They told me you were a witch, ma'am, but I didn't believe them."
"More fool you, then," said Sophie briskly. "But I'm not a very typical witch. I'm more stubborn than magical." She dug around in the closet until she found her pair of seven-league boots. "I trust you can find your own way back to your country?"
"B-but you can't face the dragon on your own, ma'am!" The page wrung his hands anxiously.
"You need a powerful wizard or a knight to face a dragon, and you don't look like either." Sophie shrugged. "I'm married to a wizard, so that will have to do."
After she had seen the page off, Sophie retrieved her walking stick from the umbrella stand and set off, telling it to stop her when she reached the dragon's lair.
It was a long journey - at least half an hour of taking careful steps and trying not to fall over as the scenery whizzed by her in a blur. Howl must have taken some other method of travel, since she remembered what he'd been wearing when he left and it would have been ill-suited for seven-league boots.
"Oh, no, he would have taken one of the other doors, wouldn't he?" said Sophie, startling a flock of sheep peacefully grazing in a green field. "I'm not thinking things through again."
Well, there was no choice but to keep going. She apologised to the sheep, curtseyed to the silent scarecrow in the next field, and continued on her way.
She was past the fields in another ten steps and started into the rolling hills that lead up to the mountains. She wondered if perhaps she could get Calcifer to angle the castle in this direction; the scenery was really quite lovely.
At last, she pushed her walking stick into the ground and it stuck. Sophie almost pitched face-first into a pile of long grass.
Taking a moment to catch her breath, she took the boots off, tied the laces together and strung them around her neck. She wished she had thought to bring a bag of holding or a shrinking spell or something to take care of the shoes.
Well, if the dragon was going to be frightened of her, she didn't think a pair of boots hanging over her back would make much difference one way or the other. She brushed herself down and set off at a normal pace, asking the walking stick to guide her to the dragon.
She followed the gentle pull of the walking stick up a steep path lined with overhanging ferns and moss. An unpleasant smell began to make itself known the further up the mountain she climbed.
After a few false turns, the walking stick led her to a wide-mouthed cave. The sulphurous smell seemed to indicate dragon to her. Sophie wondered if the dragon were home.
Sophie turned to the sparkling quartz that lined the rocks on the edge of the cave. "Glow red if the dragon is home," she told them firmly.
The rocks were hesitant, so she repeated the command.
After a moment's thought, Sophie added a second command. "Glow blue if the dragon isn't at home."
She repeated the command, and the quartz began to gently shimmer in a peaceful baby blue.
Sophie thanked the quartz and carefully made her way into the cave.
The cave was lined wall to wall with treasure. Some of it was raw precious metal and uncut gemstones, but there was a fair collection of crowns and necklaces and rings. The far left wall of the cave was dominated by some kind of massive crystalline structure.
Sophie moved closer in trepidation. The treasure clinked and clattered beneath her feet and she winced.
Once she was standing before it, she could make out the shadows of human forms inside the larger crystals. One seemed feminine, another seemed like it belonged to a child, but the third - that was definitely Howl. She recognised the silhouette of the ridiculous cloak he'd been wearing.
Sophie put her hand on the crystal that contained Howl's still form and closed her eyes. "Let them go," she whispered. The crystal shimmered for a moment, but remained whole. "Please?" Sophie repeated.
A soft, hissing voice interrupted her. "That's not very polite."
Sophie turned. Oh no, she thought glumly. I really should have asked the stones to make a noise or something when the dragon returned.
The dragon was smaller than she had imagined. Maybe half again her height, it had silver scales and delicate diamond claws. Its eyes whirred and shimmered in rainbow swirls.
The dragon cocked its head at her curiously. "Are you the most beautiful princess in the world?"
Sophie folded her arms. "Do I look like a beautiful princess?" She slowly began untying the boots from around her neck and inching to a space where she had a clear step to the exit.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," the dragon told her seriously. "I do not pretend to understand human ideals of beauty."
"At any rate, I'm not a princess."
The dragon peered at her. "Perhaps you are a seamstress? Is your embroidery so fine that it can trick a person into believing it is reality?"
"I can make hats?" offered Sophie.
"Hats so beautiful they can make even the ugliest dress look elegant and the plainest woman beautiful?"
That was a tricky one. Sophie wondered if dragons could sense untruths. "Not by virtue of my millinery."
"Then, what are you the best in the world at doing?"
Sophie quite forgot about her escape route. "Is that why you've kidnapped all these people?"
"Of course! Didn't you know? Everything in this room is unique and the very best in its field." The dragon ran a proud paw through the treasure piled on the floor. "The smallest emerald in the world, the best painter in the world, the largest ruby in the world, the smallest gold watch, the most finely cut amethyst, the singer with the most beautiful voice."
"How about that one?" Sophie pointed to Howl's frozen figure.
"The wizard with no heart? He is said to be the most powerful in the world."
"He has a heart, I got it back for him," said Sophie indignantly.
"Woman who got the heart back for the most powerful wizard... No, I'm afraid that just won't do, dear."
Sophie fought the urge to stamp her foot. "I don't want to be a part of your collection. I want you to give my husband back."
"But he's a part of my collection now." The dragon seemed honestly confused.
"You cannot just go collecting people! It isn't done."
"Why not? I've run out of inanimate things to collect. And people are much more interesting to collect."
Sophie decided to change tactics. "Besides, if you want to collect only the best in their field, you can't go encasing them in crystal or they won't be the best in their field anymore. The second-best will take over, and then the third-best, and so on and so on."
The dragon mulled this over for some time. "You may have a point. But then how am I supposed to add to my collection?" she added petulantly.
Sophie hesitated. "Your collection is very impressive. I don't think it needs to have anything added to it."
The dragon sniffed. "You are a human. You do not understand."
"Then..." Sophie thought quickly. "Perhaps you could make a contract with the person?"
Sophie nodded. "Make them sign an agreement to be part of your collection. Then they can continue to be the best in their field. You can offer them your protection and a certificate of achievement, I'm sure they'll be delighted to be a part of it if you butter them up." Howl certainly would, anyway.
"But then what do I do when they are surpassed?"
That only took a second's thought. "A review period in the contract. Make it relevant to their field and revisit the subject whenever that period expires."
The dragon paced around the room, treasure clinking beneath her paws. "Your ideas have merit, human."
Don't give the customer the chance to change their mind. "Do you have any paper? I'll draft you a contract right now."
The dragon found Sophie a few sheets of the finest mulberry paper, a pot of the blackest ink and a pen with an intricately carved base and pure gold nib. Carefully, in her best calligraphy, Sophie wrote a dense contract promising the protection of the dragon in exchange for the subject becoming part of her collection.
"Here," said Sophie. "This is the contract for the most powerful wizard in the world." She handed the paper to the dragon, who held it gingerly between two claws and peered at it myopically.
"This seems to be in order," said the dragon.
"Now, if you release the wizard he'll sign it, and then we can leave and spread the word about your collection."
The dragon swished her tail impatiently. "But what if he won't agree?"
"I think, when faced with the option of imprisonment in crystal or of signing a contract to receive the honour of your protection, the choice is fairly obvious," said Sophie carefully.
The dragon considered this. "Very well."
The crystal shattered with the tinkling of shattered glass, although no pieces appeared to land on the floor of the cave.
Howl gasped for air and stumbled to his knees. Sophie rushed to his side, almost tripping on some doubtless-priceless artifact or other.
"Sophie!" cried Howl, staring wildly into her eyes. "Did the dragon capture you too?"
"No," said Sophie. "I came to rescue you."
"Dear Sophie," said Howl. He glanced behind her. "But the dragon is still here."
"I know. She's agreed to let you go if you sign a contract agreeing that you are a part of her collection." She handed the contract to Howl.
Howl read it quickly. "You wrote this," he accused.
"It was my idea, yes." Howl, this is not the time to be afraid of commitment, she willed him silently.
Howl read through the contract again. "Sophie, I love you more every moment." He got to his feet, a little wobbly, and sauntered over to the dragon. "Lady dragon, I am honoured to be offered the opportunity to be a part of the collection of such a beautiful specimen of dragonhood."
The dragon shook her wings out and ducked her head, pleased.
Howl snapped a pen into his fingers and signed his name with a flourish. The dragon followed by dipping a claw into the ink bottle and gently scratching an indecipherable character.
Howl bowed to the dragon, who returned the gesture with dignity, then turned to Sophie. "Shall we go?" He coughed quite suddenly and violently. Clearly his time encased in crystal had left some mark on him.
"I have to finish writing contracts for the rest of the collection," said Sophie, a little snippily.
"How about the future additions to my collection?" asked the dragon, worried. "I can't write the contracts myself."
"Come see me, and I'll do up contracts and certificates for you," Sophie promised.
"For a small fee," added Howl, coughing again.
The next morning, when they were back at the castle and Howl was completing his morning ritual of stroking a hairbrush a hundred times through his hair, Howl said to her, "Did you really bully a dragon into letting me go or did I dream that?"
"I didn't bully her," Sophie protested. "I merely pointed out the error of her ways."
"Sophie," said Howl sincerely, "you are allowed to bully as many dragons as you like."