"So you're happy there?"
A huge smile spread across Lettie's face. "Oh, Sophie! You can't even begin to understand. Be- Wizard Suliman is such a good teacher, and he's so nice-"
Sophie laughed and reached across the table to squeeze her sister's hand. "Honestly, Lettie, don't try and pretend to me that he's not something more than a teacher. I know you."
Lettie lifted her chin haughtily, shaking back her dark curls. "I have no idea what you're talking about," she said in a dignified tone of voice. "Wizard Suliman is an excellent teacher, and I'm learning a great deal from him..." A small smile tugged at the corner of her lips. "You've always been able to tell when I was lying, haven't you?"
"Naturally." Sophie smiled at her younger sister. Four months since her curse was broken, four months since Lettie moved to Kingsbury to study with Suliman... Not that they had been an easy four months, of course. War with Strangia had been declared only days after Prince Justin had been reinstated as head of the army, and both Howl and Suliman had been working tirelessly - though not without a great many complaints on the part of the former - to both prepare and counter attacks. Prince Justin was an excellent tactician, but there was a great difference between reading about battles in the papers and actually putting together the spells to be used, Sophie was beginning to realise.
Lettie was talking excitedly. "And I'm sure you think Ben's quite scary - well, he is, when he wants to be - but he's really so kind to me, even when I don't understand things. And he always makes sure that none of his apprentices work for too long at a time, but then I have to practically drag him physically away from his workroom so he doesn't work the whole night through. I'm fairly sure Howl does things differently?"
Sophie smirked slightly. "You could say that. Michael usually has to drag him down to his workroom in the first place."
"Speaking of Howl-" Lettie leant closer in, conspiratorial. "Don't tell him about me and Ben. Please, Sophie."
The older girl frowned slightly and glanced across at the hearth, double-checking that Calcifer hadn't returned while the two had been talking. While no longer being contractually obliged to, the fire demon was still perfectly happy to report anything he heard to Howl, especially if it contained the words 'but don't tell Howl'.
"I won't if you don't want me to, obviously, but why? Howl will tease Suliman mercilessly about it, of course, but nothing more than that."
Lettie waved a hand airily. "Oh, it's not me that minds, but Ben says there's some stupid rule forbidding wizards from having sexual relationships with their apprentices, so we thought we'd wait a while-"
Sophie gaped at her sister. "Lettie? What are you...?"
"Well, there's no need to tell everyone right away, of course..." Lettie broke off at the look on Sophie's face. "Oh. The other thing. Didn't you guess?"
"No. No, I didn't." Sophie dropped her head into her hands for a moment. "Oh, Lettie."
"What?" Lettie shifted nervously in her chair. "Sophie, is something the matter?"
"It's just..." Sophie gestured helplessly. "Oh, Lettie. How could you?"
"How could I what?" Lettie asked defensively, tossing back her dark curls, eyes flashing. "What's so wrong with it?"
"He's so much older than you, for one," Sophie said.
"No," Lettie replied immediately. "He's not, not really. Only two years older than Howl. He looks much younger when he stops being Wizard Suliman and starts being just Ben." She held her hand up before Sophie could interrupt. "And before you say I'm too young, I'm not. I'm seventeen, Sophie, and you wouldn't believe the number of boys who have tried this with me before that I've refused. Can't you just be happy for me?"
"I am happy, Lettie. I really am." Sophie caught hold of both of her sister's hands across the table. "It was just a bit of a shock, that's all. If you're fine, and he's not hurting you, then I'm happy."
"Oh, he isn't hurting me at all!" Lettie reassured her. "I mean, I thought he would, that first time, he's just so strong, but he didn't."
"So being scared is normal, then?" Sophie wondered.
"Oh, yes. Martha told me she was as well-" Lettie winced slightly. "You didn't know about that either, did you?"
Sophie buried her head in her hands. "I know she's fifteen, and perfectly capable of making her own decisions, and she's been with Michael for over six months now, but... Oh, no. I'm not going to be able to look Michael in the eye for at least a week."
Lettie just laughed. "We're not all your responsibility anymore, Sophie. Once you get used to that fact, I'm sure you'll be fine." She hesitated for a second. "So, since we're being all open with each other... How was Howl?"
Sophie wasn't sure what her expression told Lettie, but it seemed to be bad.
"Oh, Sophie! He hasn't hurt you, has he? Is that why you were so worried about me and Ben? If he's tried to take advantage of you in any way , Sophie, I swear I'll-"
"No!" Sophie shook her head vehemently. "He hasn't, I swear." She felt her face crumple then, and curled her fingers into her skirts. "To be honest, I almost wish he would."
Lettie gaped at her. "You mean you haven't...? He hasn't...?"
Sophie looked away, not wanting to meet Lettie's eyes. "No. He hasn't." And then, as though the floodgates had opened, "It's been four months , Lettie, since he told me we were going to live happily ever after, and since then he's barely given me a goodnight kiss. We're just carrying on like we were before my curse was broken - I'm doing the cleaning, and the cooking, and fixing his suits whenever a spell goes wrong, and I don't know what he wants."
"Why don't you just tell him?" Lettie wanted to know. "You're at least as strong-minded as me - although maybe stubborn is a better word - and I solved all my problems with Ben by letting him know in no uncertain terms what I wanted from him. Surely if you just tell Howl-"
"But I don't dare!" Sophie cried. "I know what he's like, or at least what he's been like with every other girl. The minute anyone tells him, he stops paying attention to them!"
"But surely he's already done that?" Lettie asked gently. "Look, Sophie, this is clearly making you unhappy. Just tell him. And if he does anything to hurt you... Well, Ben is all but your brother-in-law now. I'm sure Howl will think twice."
"Think twice about what?" Calcifer drifted down through the chimney and settled onto the hearth.
"About messing up any more suits after what I said I'd do to him," Sophie said, quickly recovering herself. "Since Calcifer's back, Lettie, do you want another cup of tea? Or some of that chocolate stuff that Howl brought back from Wales?"
"No, thanks." Lettie wrapped her shawl around her shoulders as she stood up. "I'd best be getting back, I've got lessons this afternoon. Oh, it is cold outside though - I might just slap that boy if he's put the fire out in the workroom."
"Oh, just another apprentice. Sophie, which colour is Kingsbury?"
"Yellow-down," she called over her shoulder. "It used to be Market Chipping, but we've got the shop door for that now. Calcifer, will you stop being so stubborn and let me put the kettle on already? It was good seeing you, Lettie - you need to come more often."
Lettie paused with one hand on the doorknob. "Remember what we talked about, Sophie," she said meaningfully, then she was gone.
"What did you talk about?" Calcifer asked curiously.
Sophie filled the kettle and waited for Calcifer to lower his head before replying. "Nothing in particular. What time is Howl getting back?"
As predicted, Calcifer flared up a little at the question and didn't seem to notice - or at least not care - about the change in subject. "He's an idiot. He's trying to stay out at Kingsbury market for as long as possible so that he doesn't have to do that spell the King asked for, but then when he finally realises he's only got a day to do it he'll try and get me to do it for him - I know he will. He always does."
Sophie took the kettle back, which had boiled especially quickly due to Calcifer's annoyance, and made a cup of tea for herself. Leaving it to cool, she grabbed an apron and tied it around herself before grabbing a broom and a bucket.
"Calcifer," she said firmly. "If you don't want to get smothered I suggest you leave now."
"Are you cleaning?" Calcifer flew up and hovered just above the hearth. "You're angry-cleaning, aren't you? Was it something Lettie said?"
"Howl," Sophie said grimly, wielding the broom like it was a weapon of mass destruction - which, as far as the men and fire demon of the house were concerned, it was.
"Well..." Calcifer said slowly as he bobbed upwards towards the chimney. "He'll be back in about two hours, so I'll make myself scarce until then, shall I?" Before Sophie could reply, he darted upwards out of sight and she felt the familiar gust of magic as he left.
"Coward," Sophie grumbled, but she couldn't find it in herself to be too annoyed with the fire demon. If she had been faced with herself, she would have left too.
In the end, she spent a rather satisfying rest of the afternoon cleaning the entire castle from head to toe, all except Michael and Howl's rooms. Michael kept his passably tidy now Martha came to visit regularly, and Howl, although he had grown used to having a clean room, did not currently deserve one. Sophie took especial care with her own little cubbyhole below the stairs, and then took a kind of grim pleasure in tidying Howl's workbench. He hated it when she did that. Although she wasn't quite cross enough to kill any of Howl's spiders - she didn't dare - she was rather more violent with them than usual.
It was just over two and a half hours later by the time Sophie had finished scrubbing. She was just sweeping the last of the kitchen floor ready to brush out of the moving castle doorway when the knob twisted back round to yellow-down and Howl entered, stamping his boots on the mat that Sophie had installed there especially for the snow.
"My god, it's cold out there!" he exclaimed. "Got a warm drink for me, Sophie?"
Sophie slid past him, deftly avoiding any contact because she knew what effect that would have on her plan, banged the door shut with her hip, twisted the knob back around to purple-down, opened the door and swept the dirt out, shut it again, and only then answered Howl. "You'll have to light a fire if you want one," she said bluntly, not looking at him as she double-checked there were no ashes from Calcifer's grate blown onto the floor. "Calcifer went out a few hours ago."
Howl grumbled a little under his breath, but then took one look at the results of Sophie's relentless cleaning spree and went to set a fire up. He seemed to know very well what the implications of a spotless house were. He'd only just got the kindling ready, though, when Calcifer dropped back down the chimney.
"It's snowing ," he said, sounding disgusted. "My first winter as a free fire demon, and it starts snowing before we even reach November." Then, as he noticed the kindling in the hearth, "Sophie, are you trying to replace me with a dumb fire?"
"It was Howl," she said, straightening the coverlet on her bed and still not turning around. "He wanted a drink."
"Could have had the decency to wait until I got back," the fire demon grumbled. "Instead of lighting a dumb fire in my hearth."
"So," Howl said, folding his arms with a flourish of trailing mauve sleeves. "Let me get this straight - you complain when I cook on you, then you complain when I light a fire so that I'm not cooking on you?"
In the ensuing argument, the result of which was that Howl didn't get his hot drink after all, both completely forgot about Sophie and her bad mood. Normally this wouldn't have bothered her, but in the aftermath of her talk with Lettie, everything seemed to be bothering her. It was as though telling Lettie about the fears that she'd barely admitted to herself had made her notice Howl's indifference all the more.
"Well," Howl said huffily, turning his back on Calcifer with a flourish. "I will get a cold, and then you'll complain about me throwing tissues into your grate and you'll only have yourself to blame."
Sophie snorted and banged her broom back into the cupboard, and sensed rather than saw Howl's surprise as he swung round to face her, just in time to get distracted again by Michael coming through from the flower shop.
"If you've got a cold," he said, laughing. "You won't be wanting warm Cesari's pastries then." He waved the paper bag enticingly in Howl and Sophie's direction. Sophie felt her face go red at the memory of Lettie's words regarding Michael and Martha.
"I'll have mine for supper," she muttered.
Howl made a grab for the bag. "I think that's best, yes," he agreed. "But still, warm pastries... Sophie, would you mind making sure these stayed warm?"
Sophie automatically took the bag offered to her and bent her head over it. "Stay warm," she told them, rather irritated and feeling extremely used. "Stay warm until we want to eat you."
Tea consisted of omelettes, which were a nice change from the usual bacon and egg, but Sophie couldn't help but notice that she was the one who had cooked them all - all except Michael's, since she was eating her own at that point, and even then Howl complained about being forced into menial servitude as he cracked the eggs until Michael gave up and did it himself. Sophie realised at that point why she always felt so put-upon. She did things if Michael asked, because he tended to ask nicely, and both she and Michael did things for Howl just to stave off his bad moods. It seemed to Sophie that the only person in the castle that could make Howl do anything was Calcifer, if he complained enough. Apparently, the person at the top in the castle was a fire demon. But then, she reflected, she was perfectly capable of bullying and persuading Calcifer into doing things, more so than Howl was. So who came out best here? Whatever way she looked at it, Sophie realised, it was Howl. If he wanted something off Calcifer, he just got her to ask. Even so, that still put her right at the bottom.
This thought niggled at her all the rest of dinner, until Michael had scraped the burnt bits off his plate and fed them to Calcifer, and annoyed her so much that when Howl sat back in his chair and said "And now, pastries. Sophie, I'll have the one with the most cream," she almost slapped him. Or yelled. Or both. She held her tongue as she went to fetch the bag, though. It was Howl she was angry at, not Michael, so she wouldn't make a scene in front of him. Even so, at least a little of her irritation had been picked up on by the pastries, possibly helped along by her muttered running commentary on Howl and his insufferable smugness. While her own pastry and Michael's felt as though they'd just been baked and left to cool – a perfect temperature – Howl swore and yanked the half-bitten pastry out of his mouth.
"Sophie! What on earth have you been saying to these poor pastries? I swear I've just burnt half my tongue off."
"That you wanted them warm," Sophie snapped, feeling like a crotchety old woman again. "If you've got a problem, take it up with the pastries."
Howl looked rather surprised at the vehemence in her voice and Michael sprang to his feet and began to clear the plates with a clatter.
"Martha's finished her shift by now," he called over his shoulder as he dumped the plates into the sink. "So I'll just go and, erm... go." He cast another look at where Sophie was glowering and Howl was sat with a look of bewilderment, and fled.