[I turned in my final grades today. Class over, Christmas obligations over, sprained foot much better, slight cold and exhaustion all that remains. There is a bit more of this small story remaining to which I need to make some small adjustments. Hope you enjoy this brief installment. I hope to post the rest of it tomorrow.]
Somehow Howell got himself pulled together, then it was Megan’s turn to start blubbering and she ended up having to borrow Howell’s silk handkerchief. After that couldn’t have told you how long they stood there, their arms around each other, wordlessly trying in that short space of time to clean up the dog’s breakfast their lives had been ever since Mam died.
A light tap at the door brought them back. “Ten minutes, Wizard Howl.”
“Thank you, Justin.” Howell said.
“I guess that’s it, then,” Megan said.
“Wait,” Howell said. “Your highness?”
“Yes, Wizard Howl?”
“Would you be so kind as to show Mrs. Parry the way to the garden?”
A tall man, just this side of middle-aged, popped round the door. He had crisp blue eyes and grey-flecked hair, and he was dressed every bit as splendidly as the King. Resembled him too, though Justin was as lean as the King was plump.
“My pleasure,” he said, bowing gallantly and offering an arm to Megan.
“Wish me luck, Meggie,” Howell said.
She stood on tiptoes to give him a sisterly peck on one cheek. “Pob lwc!” she said. “You’ll be fine. I’ll see you on the other side.”
In the ten minutes it took him to say good-bye to Megan, put the final touches both physical and magical on his appearance, and make his way down and through the back of the house and out to the vast garden, now all garlanded and beribboned, Howell went from nervousness to apprehension to anxiety to despair to a kind of galvanised fatalism.
There was no way Sophie was ever going to show up for this charade. No way in hell.
Plenty of other people had, however. Hundreds of them, in fact: customers of the Sophie’s family’s hat shop and Howell’s magic shops and the flower shop; fisher-folk from Porthaven who’d put on their best faded clothes and made the long trek down to Vale’s End by carrier, some of them leaving the northern coast for the first time in generations; overdressed, heavily perfumed nobs from Kingsbury; cheerful burghers and farmers of Market Chipping and its surrounds. Sophie’s old friend Bessie was there with her new husband, and Jane née Farrier, Countess of Catterack, was there with hers: Jane, not-so-plain any more, positively dripped jewels as she towered over her adoring Count. There was a chattering youthful bevy of Sophie’s old school chums, together with a more mature yet still chattering bevy of Mrs. Fanny Smith’s old school chums. Annabel Fairfax had brought several daughters and sons-in-law and a flock of grandchildren, together with a veritable herd of her clients from over in the Folding Valley. Also there were a handful of Mrs. Pentstemmon’s tall and thrawn elderly relatives, all that remained of that great lady’s noble family; and Ben’s extended famly from Wales, who, being magic users, seemed utterly at home in Ingary; and many others whom Howell had never seen before but took to be associates of Mr. Sacheverell Smith. Half the Court was there, dancing attendance on the King was also there with the Queen and Valeria and Valeria’s nurse and the extensive retinue of each. And, seated just up front and looking as if they might be starting to relax a little, were the Parrys. Howell saw Megan sliding into the seat between Gareth and Neil and taking Mari in her lap, while Justin slipped back to join the Royals.
Good Lord, this had turned into the be-there-or-be-square society wedding of the century! All of which would make his humiliation all the greater, when Sophie failed to appear. And then—and then—the goddesses would have their revenge.
Oh, what precious nonsense, said a voice in his head: the voice of Mrs. Pentstemmon. Man up, you silly fool.
All right, he would try. But he wished with all his heart that that great lady could have been here today to see him joined to Sophie, Sophie to whom with joy and great relief she had bequeathed her tender care for Howell and his moral and magical well-being. He wished with all his heart that his dear old teacher had lived to witness his victory over fire demons and the vicious temptation to power and immortality they offered, and to sit in a place of high honour at his wedding banquet….
All was prepared. The Royal String Orchestra was in the midst of a delightful Mozartian prelude. A few last-moment arrivals were hastily taking their seats.
Through a fog of doubt Howell made his way to the appointed spot, just to the right of the rose-draped table they had rigged as an altar. Michael appeared at Howell’s right hand, and Ben at Michael’s. So far so good. Calcifer hovered nearby. Silly vain fop of a fire demon, he had done himself up for the occasion in a glittering purple glamour that clashed, rather amfully, with the softer colours of the wedding party. The Royal Chaplain, on the other hand, was all in sedate black as took his place behind the altar.
The prelude ended with three graceful chords.
The assembled dearly-beloveds caught their breath.
The musicians began a march, delicate and stately.
Howell’s heart flopped like a fish.