A Tale of Two Wizards
In which Howl is shoved through a bathroom door, and ends up somewhere else entirely, in the company of an impeccably dressed nine-lived enchanter. Much danger ensures, and even more bickering.
Disclaimer: Howl and Chrestomanci are not mine, though I very much wish they were. I'm playing with them for a while, but will return them unharmed to their rightful owner.
Warnings: Nothing, really. This is set two years after the end of "Castle in the air", and there are a few references to happenings in that book, which could count as spoilers to someone who hasn't read it, but that's all.
In which Howl is shoved through a bathroom door and ends up somewhere else entirely.
"You're drunk." Sophie rammed her hands against her hips.
Howl concentrated on walking. "I only had a… drop." Words were slippery things, that kept wanting to run away and hide from his tongue. Singing was easier. At least those words stayed in the proper place. He started to sing. Songs always charmed a lady. You couldn't nag when you were charmed.
"That song is filthy," Sophie told him.
He jabbed a finger more or less at her face. "That, my dear, is the short of stuff we all stang at rugby club."
"But not here." Her eyes blazed.
She looked a bit like Calcifer when she was angry. He thought it would be a wonderful idea to tell her so. "You look just like Calcifer…"
"And you stink of beer and smoke." She thrust her arm out, pointing at the bathroom. "Get in there. Go on." She clapped her hands, hurrying him on. It really wasn't fair of her. He just wanted a hug, and… "Go!" she commanded.
He flailed for the bathroom door, muttering under his breath. Wives were supposed to be gentle and loving, and he'd only had a drop, and he'd come home early - before three in the morning, at least - and hadn't he saved the world just a few weeks ago, or some of it at least, maybe, perhaps, and did she care? Would she care if he died a tragic death in the service of the king? No, she wouldn't. She was a…
"'snot my fault." He tried to use beseeching puppy-dog eyes. "Door handle's gone slippery. It… It…" He gaped with the horrified realisation. "It's doing it deliberately! It wants to get me into trouble!"
"Get. In. There." She spat out every word.
He conquered the handle at last, and opened the door. He stumbled in, but a towel leapt up and tangled itself around his ankles, and he fell forward. His head sagged, and everything span sickeningly.
When he opened his eyes again, he was not in the bathroom at all.
At least, he didn't think so. He didn't think that grass grew on his bathroom floor, or that trees grew up on either side. He didn't think that the wind blew, or clouds scudded above him in a slate grey sky. I'm back in Wales, he thought. "A good trick, lads," he shouted, but no-one emerged from behind the trees, laughing. No-one leapt out with a camera and said, "You should have seen your face."
Not again, he thought, then his head snapped up. Not again! He pawed at his body in sudden panic, and groped to find his hair. He let out a sigh of profound relief when he found them all in place. At least this time he was not a genie. Hair, he thought. Clothes. He smiled fondly at his gold and fuchsia suit, only slightly ruffled and stained with beer. All was in place. He thought he would just go to sleep on the grass for a moment, and…
"I really must get that seen to," a voice said.
Howl opened one eye. He saw smooth black shoes first, shiny enough to work as a mirror and… Is that what his hair looked like? He tried to smooth it, but his hand kept missing.
"It can be most inconvenient, you know."
With a resentful grunt, Howl opened his other eye. Above the shoes were fawn-coloured trousers, immaculately pressed. A Square, Howl thought. How we would have laughed...
"They just have to say my name three times, and I have no choice but to go. Used to be a secret - 'only use it in time of greatest need'. That sort of thing. But now simply everyone knows it. I was called out three times yesterday before breakfast. Children, mostly, and they just giggle. The older ones are worse. They swoon."
Howl flopped over onto his back. A tall man stood above him, and he was upside-down. No, Howl corrected himself, he was upside-down. The man had impeccable hair, and an exquisitely embroidered waistcoat. He had a haughty look, and he appeared not to have noticed Howl at all.
"And now this. I was quite busy, as it happens."
Running a bank, Howl thought, or maybe valet to the queen. He mumbled something to that effect out loud.
"No, it was my daughter's birthday party, if you must know." The man's clothes had clearly never been near sticky fingers and flying ice-cream, but Howl did not point that out. The man's superior look turned vague, and he still was not looking at Howl. "So shall we get it over with? Why did you call me here, and what do you want?"
"I didn't," Howl protested. He dragged himself into a sitting position, but there was nothing to lean on, and he fell over again. Perhaps Sophie was right, he thought. Perhaps he really was drunk after all. "I went through my bathroom door and then I was here."
"Ah. So we have a problem, then. How inconvenient." The tall man frowned. "It seems as if someone has brought us both here for purposes as yet unknown."
Howl sighed. Enough of the words penetrated. It seemed that he was going to have to use magic to make himself sober again. It really isn't fair, he thought petulantly. I never get to have any fun.
He rolled over onto his stomach, whispering the words of the spell into the grass. This elegant figure was far too buttoned-up and Establishment to know about magic or drink. He probably hadn't even noticed that Howl had been drunk.
"Why are you drunk?" the man asked.
Howl decided that he did not like this man. "Because I'm a slitherer-outer," he muttered.
"A slitherer-outer?" Howl did not need to look at him to know that one elegant eyebrow was arched. "Pardon me, but I cannot see that a slitherer-outer is something that one can just be. A wizard or an enchanter… Those are things that you can be. Slithering out is merely how you act, and that is something you have total control over."
"Well, then you're wrong," Howl told him triumphantly. "I happen to be a wizard and a slitherer-outer, and I… I'm still drunk," he exclaimed. The magic had not worked. Maybe beer caused magic to get confused. He hoped the spell hadn't turned his hair green, or something awful like that.
"No, really, I am interested," the man said. He looked anything but. "What were you slithering out of? It could be relevant to our current situation."
"Oh... um... the king was going on at me to save the world," Howl lied. He waved his hand airily. "You know, the usual stuff. Happens all the time."
"And drinking helps?" This time Howl saw the eyebrow rise. It was worse than he had imagined it.
Howl decided not to answer. He thought he was being mocked.
"I really am interested." The man crouched down beside Howl, but he was careful to tug up his trousers first. He was that sort of man. "Does drinking help you cope with… er… unwelcome demands from the government?" His eyes shone with something that looked like real emotion.
"No," Howl said miserably. "And I don't make a habit of it."
The magic came easily this time. He was sober and tired, and he mourned the loss of the dru… the slight tipsiness, that had been soft and fuzzy and warm like the sun.
"Well, it can't be helped." The man stood up, rubbing his hands together briskly. "Shall we go and find out... Oh, I do apologise. I seem to have forgotten your name."
Howl climbed stiffly to his feet. "Howl." He deliberately said his name the Ingary way, not the Welsh.
The tall man proffered his hand. Howl pretended not to see it. "I should have introduced myself, of course, but at first I was labouring under the misapprehension that you were the one who summoned me here. Are you sure you did not?" He looked almost hopeful. "Never mind. I am Chrestomanci."
"What sort of a name is Chrestomanci?" Howl muttered.
"What sort of a name is Howl?" the tall man retorted. "But you are right. Chrestomanci is not my name, as it happens. It's my title. I regulate magic for the government, and the title goes with the job."
It sounded like a very boring, killjoy sort of job, Howl thought, but this time he refrained from speaking his thoughts out loud.
"So, Howl, where do you come from?" Chrestomanci sounded far too bright. It made Howl's head hurt. It was stupid sort of spell, he thought, that removed the fun parts of drunkenness but left the headache. Maybe magic was like one of those disapproving old ladies, who pressed their lips together and made tut-tutting sounds about wild young men who were no better than they should be.
He decided to tell only part of the truth. "I come from Wales."
"I know that." Chrestomanci looked at him as if he was stupid child. "I can tell from the accent. The thing is, which Wales? There are many, you know. Clearly you don't come from the Wales where they speak French with a frightful Welsh accent. Are you from the one with miners and male voice choirs? Or the rather energetic one with bards and war lords wandering all over the place? Or the Wales that got fed up with being glued to England and floated over to join Ireland?"
Howl realised that his mouth was open, and he shut it with an audible snap.
"I am sorry to be so insistent," Chrestomanci said, not looking sorry at all, "but you are hard to place. I have never seen anyone dressed like you in any version of Wales that I have visited. But perhaps you have been to a fancy-dress party. Perhaps that explains the drink and the home-made pink... er... suit."
"It's fuchsia," Howl said, his voice as cold as ice. "And you're a fine one to talk. You look as if you've come out of a costume drama. And, anyway, it's the bohemian look." He gestured at his flowing hair, combed and styled for hours to look properly tousled. "I wouldn't expect someone like you to understand, of course, but it's incredibly stylish. Ladies swoon."
"Oh, you have that problem, too?" Chrestomanci looked spectacularly unoffended by Howl's insults.
Howl remembered that he was married now, and no-one but Sophie was allowed to swoon before him, even just a little bit, and it really wasn't fair, because he wasn't going to stray, or anything, but a bit of flattery every now and then was good for a poor, hard-working wizard, who was far more powerful than this over-dressed, over-moneyed, supercilious upstart here.
"But we digress," Chrestomanci said, producing a gleaming top hat from nowhere that Howl could see, and putting it on as if it was a crown. "Someone brought me here, and, by the looks of it, brought you here, too. So the questions is, where is here, and who brought us here?"
"I don't care," Howl muttered. "I'm a slitherer-outer, remember. I'm going home to bed."
"But you can't, my dear Howl." The eyebrow went up again. "Perhaps the beer has clouded your perceptions – because I can tell, of course, that you are a tolerably powerful wizard, of a type I have seldom seen. As another wizard famously said, 'We cannot get out.' We are trapped."
Howl concentrated, and realised that it was true. He bit back a curse, then swore out loud, with a defiant look at Chrestomanci. No-one could do creative swearing better than a rugby player.
"Never fear," Chrestomanci said. "I'm sure there's a way home, if we search for it. I'm sure there is a solution to this little mystery."
Then I will find it, Howl swore. I'll find it before you do, you over-dressed killjoy. I will not rest until...
He cursed again. So apparently the best way to goad him into action was to belittle him and make him feel stupid. He sincerely hoped that the king never discovered this. He clapped his hand to his mouth. Even more than that, he hoped that Sophie never discovered this.
"Well, then, Howl, shall we go?" Chrestomanci set off like a gentleman taking an afternoon stroll in the park.
Howl fought the entirely childish urge to stick out a foot and trip him over, but followed behind, glaring at Chrestomanci's immaculate back.