Sally Mullin’s cafe was a busy, steaming hut perched precariously over the water. All shapes and sizes of boats would moor up at the cafe pontoon, and all sorts of people and animals would tumble out of them. Most decided to recover from their trip by having at least one of Sally’s fierce beers and a slab of barley cake, and by telling the latest gossip. And anyone in the Castle with half an hour to spare and a rumbling tummy would soon find themselves on the well-trodden path down to the Port Gate, past the Riverside Amenity Rubbish Dump, and along the pontoon to Sally Mullin’s Tea and Ale House.
Sally made it her business to see Sarah every week and keep her up to date with everything. In Sally’s opinion Sarah was much put-upon with seven children to care for, not to mention Silas Heap, who did very little as far as she could see. Sally’s stories usually involved people Sarah had never heard of and would never meet, but Sarah looked forward to Sally’s visits all the same and enjoyed hearing about what was going on around her. However, this time what Sally had to tell her was different. This was more serious than everyday gossip, and this time it did involve Sarah. And, for the first time ever, Sarah knew something about it that Sally did not.
Sally swept in and closed the door conspiratorially behind her.
“I’ve got some terrible news,” she whispered.
Sarah, who was trying to wipe breakfast from Jenna’s face, and everywhere else that the baby had sprayed it, and clean up after the new wolfhound puppy all at the same time, was not really listening.
“Hello, Sally,” she said. “There’s a clean space here. Come and sit down. Cup of tea?”
“Yes, please. Sarah, can you believe this?”
“What’s that, then, Sally?” asked Sarah, expecting to hear about the latest bad behavior in the cafe.
“The Queen. The Queen is dead!”
“What?” gasped Sarah. She lifted Jenna out of her chair and took her over to the corner of the room where her baby basket was. Sarah lay Jenna down for a nap. She believed that babies should be kept well away from bad news.
“Dead,” repeated Sally unhappily.
“No!” gasped Sarah. “I don’t believe it. She’s just not well after her baby’s birth. That’s why she has not been seen since then.”
“That’s what the Custodian Guards have been saying, isn’t it?” asked Sally.
“Well, yes,” admitted Sarah, pouring out the tea. “But they are her bodyguards, so they must know. Though why the Queen has suddenly chosen to be guarded by such a bunch of thugs, I don’t understand.”
Sally took the cup of tea that Sarah had placed in front of her.
“Ta. Mmm, lovely. Well, exactly…” Sally lowered her voice and looked around as though expecting to find a Custodian Guard propped up in the corner, not that she necessarily would have noticed one amid all the mess in the Heaps’ room. “They are a bunch of thugs. In fact, they are the ones who killed her.”
“Killed? She was killed?” exclaimed Sarah.
“Shhh. Well, see here…” Sally pulled her chair closer to Sarah. “There’s a story going around—and I have it from the horse’s mouth…”
“Which horse would that be, then?” asked Sarah with a wry smile.
“Only Madam Marcia”—looking triumphant, Sally sat back and folded her arms—“that’s who.”
“What? How come you’ve been mixing with the ExtraOrdinary Wizard? Did she drop by for a cup of tea?”
“Almost. Terry Tarsal did. He had been up at the Wizard Tower delivering some really weird shoes that he had made for Madam Marcia. So when he had stopped moaning about her taste in shoes and how much he hated snakes, he said that he had overheard Marcia talking to one of the other Wizards. Endor, that little fat one, I think. Well, they said the Queen had been shot! By the Custodian Guards. One of their Assassins.”
Sarah could not believe what she was hearing.
“When?” she breathed.
“Well, this is the really awful thing,” whispered Sally excitedly. “They said she was shot on the day her baby was born. Six whole months ago, and we knew nothing about it. It’s terrible…terrible. And they shot Mr. Alther too. Dead. That’s how come Marcia took over…”
“Alther’s dead?” gasped Sarah. “I can’t believe it. I really can’t…We all thought he’d retired. Silas was his Apprentice years ago. He was lovely…”
“Was he?” asked Sally vaguely, eager to get on with the story. “Well, that’s not all, see. Because Terry reckoned that Marcia had rescued the Princess and had taken her away somewhere. Endor and Marcia were just chatting, really, wondering how she was getting along. But of course when they realized Terry was there with the shoes, they stopped. Marcia was very rude to him, he said. He felt a bit strange afterward, and he reckoned she’d done a Forget Spell on him, but he’d nipped behind a pillar when he saw her muttering and it didn’t take properly. He’s really upset about that as he can’t remember whether she paid him for the shoes or not.”
Sally Mullin paused to draw breath and have a large gulp of tea.
“That poor little Princess. God help the little one. I wonder where she is now. Probably wasting away in some dungeon somewhere. Not like your little angel over there…How is she doing?”
“Oh, she’s just fine,” said Sarah, who usually would have talked at length about Jenna’s snuffles and new tooth and how she could sit up and hold her own cup now. But just at that moment Sarah wanted to turn the attention away from Jenna—because Sarah had spent the last six months wondering who her baby really was, and now she knew.
Jenna was, thought Sarah, surely she must be…the baby Princess.
For once Sarah was glad to wave good-bye to Sally Mullin. She watched her bustle off down the corridor, and, as Sarah closed the door behind her, she breathed a sigh of relief. Then she rushed over to Jenna’s basket.
Sarah lifted Jenna up and held her in her arms. Jenna smiled at Sarah and reached out to grab her charm necklace.
“Well, little Princess,” murmured Sarah, “I always knew you were special, but I never dreamed you were our own Princess.” The baby’s dark violet eyes met Sarah’s gaze and she looked solemnly at Sarah as if to say, Well, now you know.
Sarah gently laid Jenna back in her baby basket. Her head was spinning and her hands shook as she poured herself another cup of tea. She found it hard to believe all that she had heard. The Queen was dead. And Alther too. Their Jenna was the heir to the Castle. The Princess. What was happening?
Sarah spent the rest of the afternoon torn between gazing at Jenna, Princess Jenna, and worrying about what would happen if anyone found out where she was. Where was Silas when she needed him?
Silas was enjoying a day’s fishing with the boys.
There was a small sandy beach in the bend of the river just along from The Ramblings. Silas was showing Nicko and Jo-Jo, the two youngest boys, how to tie their jam jars onto the end of a pole and dip them in the water. Jo-Jo had already caught three tiddlers, but Nicko kept dropping his and was getting upset.
Silas picked Nicko up and took him over to see Erik and Edd, the five-year-old twins. Erik was daydreaming happily and dangling his foot in the warm, clear water. Edd was poking at something under a stone with a stick. It was a huge water beetle. Nicko wailed and clung on tightly around Silas’s neck.
Sam, who was nearly seven, was a serious fisherman. He had been given a proper fishing rod for his last birthday, and there were two small silver fish laid out on a rock beside him. He was about to reel in another. Nicko squealed with excitement.
“Take him away, Dad. He’ll frighten the fish,” Sam said crossly.
Silas tiptoed off with Nicko and went to sit beside his oldest son, Simon. Simon had a fishing rod in one hand and a book in the other. It was Simon’s ambition to be the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, and he was busy reading all of Silas’s old magic books. This one, Silas noticed, was called The Compleat Fish-Charmer.
Silas expected all his boys to be some kind of Wizard; it was in the family. Silas’s aunt was a renowned White Witch and both Silas’s father and uncle had been Shape-Shifters, which was a very specialized branch, and one that Silas hoped his boys would avoid, for successful Shape-Shifters became increasingly unstable as they grew older, sometimes unable to hold their own shape for more than a few minutes at a time. Silas’s father had eventually disappeared into the Forest as a tree, but no one knew which one. It was one of the reasons why Silas enjoyed his walks through the Forest. He would often address a remark to an untidy-looking tree in the hope that it might be his father.