He did not have long to wait before a tall young woman wearing the severe black cloak and deep red tunic of an Assassin walked briskly in and bowed low, her long slashed sleeves sweeping across the stone floor.
“The Queenling, my lord. She has been found,” the Assassin said in a low voice.
The Supreme Custodian sat up and stared at the Assassin with his pale eyes.
“Are you sure? I want no mistakes this time,” he said menacingly.
“Our spy, my lord, has suspected a child for a while. She considers her to be a stranger in her family. Yesterday our spy found out that the child is of the age.”
“What age exactly?”
“Ten years old today, my lord.”
“Really?” The Supreme Custodian sat back in the throne and considered what the Assassin had said.
“I have a likeness of the child here, my lord. I understand she is much like her mother, the ex-Queen.” From inside her tunic the Assassin took a small piece of paper. On it was a skillful drawing of a young girl with dark violet eyes and long dark hair. The Supreme Custodian took the drawing. It was true. The girl did look remarkably like the dead Queen. He came to a swift decision and clicked his bony fingers loudly.
The Assassin inclined her head. “My lord?”
“Tonight. Midnight. You are to pay a visit to—where is it?”
“Room 16, Corridor 223, my lord.”
“Heap, my lord.”
“Ah. Take the silver pistol. How many in the family?”
“Nine, my lord, including the child.”
“And nine bullets in case of trouble. Silver for the child. And bring her to me. I want proof.”
The young woman looked pale. It was her first, and only, test. There were no second chances for an Assassin.
“Yes, my lord.” She bowed briefly and withdrew, her hands shaking.
In a quiet corner of the Throne Room the ghost of Alther Mella eased himself up from the cold stone bench he had been sitting on. He sighed and stretched his old ghostly legs. Then he gathered his faded purple robes around him, took a deep breath and walked out through the thick stone wall of the Throne Room.
Outside he found himself hovering sixty feet above the ground in the cold dark morning air. Instead of walking off in a dignified manner as a ghost of his age and status really should, Alther stuck his arms out like the wings of a bird and swooped gracefully through the falling snow.
Flying was about the only thing that Alther liked about being a ghost. Flying, or the Lost Art of Flyte, was something that modern ExtraOrdinary Wizards could no longer do. Even Marcia, who was determined to fly, could do no more than a quick hover before crashing to the ground. Somewhere, somehow, the secret had been lost. But all ghosts could, of course, fly. And since he had become a ghost, Alther had lost his crippling fear of heights and had spent many exciting hours perfecting his acrobatic moves. But there wasn’t much else about being a ghost that he enjoyed, and sitting in the Throne Room where he had actually become one—and consequently where he had had to spend the first year and a day of his ghosthood—was one of his least favorite occupations. But it had to be done. Alther made it his business to know what the Custodians were planning and to try and keep Marcia up to date. With his help she had managed to stay one step ahead of the Custodians and keep Jenna safe. Until now.
Over the years, since the death of the Queen, the Supreme Custodian had become more and more desperate to track down the Princess. Every year he would make a long—and much dreaded—trip to the Badlands, where he woud have to report his progress to a certain ex-ExtraOrdinary Wizard turned Necromancer, DomDaniel. It was DomDaniel who had sent the first Assassin to kill the Queen, and it was DomDaniel who had installed the Supreme Custodian and his henchmen to scour the Castle and search for the Princess. For while the Princess remained in the Castle, DomDaniel dared not come near. And so, every year, the Supreme Custodian would promise DomDaniel that this year he would be successful. This year he would get rid of the Queenling and at last deliver the Castle up to its rightful Master, DomDaniel.
And this was why, as Alther left the Throne Room, the Supreme Custodian wore what his mother would have called a silly grin on his face. At last, he had done the job he was sent to do. Of course, he thought, his silly grin changing to a smug smile, it was only due to his superior intelligence and talent that he had discovered the girl. But it wasn’t—it was due to a bizarre stroke of luck.
When the Supreme Custodian took over the Castle, one of the first things he did was to ban women from the Courthouse. The Ladies’ Washroom, which was no longer needed, had eventually become a small committee room. During the past bitterly cold month, the Committee of the Custodians had taken to meeting in the former Ladies’ Washroom, which had the great advantage of a wood-burning stove, rather than the cavernous Custodian Committee Room, where the chill wind whistled through and froze their feet to blocks of ice.
And so, unknowingly, for once the Custodians were one step ahead of Alther Mella. As a ghost, Alther could only go to the places he had been to in his lifetime—and, as a well-brought-up young Wizard, Alther had never set foot in a Ladies’ Washroom in his life. The most he was able to do was hover outside waiting, just as he had done when he was alive and courting Judge Alice Nettles.
It had been late one particularly cold afternoon a few weeks ago when Alther had watched the Custodian Committee take themselves into the Ladies’ Washroom. The heavy door, with LADIES still visible in faded gold letters, was slammed behind them, and Alther hovered outside with his ear to the door, trying to hear what was going on. But try as he might, he was not able to hear the Committee decide to send their very best spy, Linda Lane, with her interest in herbs and healing, to live in Room 17, Corridor 223. Right next door to the Heaps.
And so neither Alther nor the Heaps had any idea that their new neighbor was a spy. And a very good one too.
As Alther Mella flew through the snowy air pondering how to save the Princess, he absentmindedly turned two almost perfect double loops before he dived swiftly through the drifting snowflakes to reach the golden Pyramid that crowned the Wizard Tower.
Alther landed gracefully on his feet. For a moment he stood perfectly balanced on the tips of his toes. Then he raised his arms above his head and spun around, faster and faster until he started to sink slowly through the roof and down into the room below, where he misjudged his landing and fell through the canopy of Marcia Overstrand’s four-poster bed.
Marcia sat up in a fright. Alther was sprawled on her pillow looking embarrassed.
“Sorry, Marcia. Very ungallant. Well, at least you haven’t got your curlers in.”
“My hair is naturally curly, thank you, Alther,” said Marcia crossly. “You might have waited until I had woken up.”
Alther looked serious and became slightly more transparent than usual.
“I’m afraid, Marcia,” he said heavily, “this won’t wait.”
Marcia Overstrand strode out of her lofty tower bedroom with adjoining robing room, threw open the heavy purple door that led onto the landing and checked her appearance in the adjustable mirror.
“Minus eight-point-three percent!” she instructed the mirror, which had a nervous disposition and dreaded the moment when Marcia’s door was flung open every morning. Over the years the mirror had come to read the footsteps as they crossed the wooden boards, and today they had made the mirror edgy. Very edgy. It stood to attention and, in its eagerness to please, made Marcia’s reflection 83% thinner so that she resembled something like an angry purple stick insect.
“Idiot!” snapped Marcia.
The mirror recalculated. It hated doing math first thing in the morning, and it was sure that Marcia gave it nasty percentages on purpose. Why couldn’t she be a nice round number thinner, like 5%? Or, even better, 10%. The mirror liked 10%s; it could do them.
Marcia smiled at her reflection. She looked good.
Marcia had on her winter ExtraOrdinary Wizard uniform. And it suited her. Her purple double silk cloak was lined with the softest indigo-blue angora fur. It fell gracefully from her broad shoulders and gathered itself obediently around her pointy feet. Marcia’s feet were pointy because she liked pointy shoes, and she had them specially made. They were made of snakeskin, shed from the purple python that the shoe shop kept in the backyard just for Marcia’s shoes. Terry Tarsal, the shoemaker, hated snakes and was convinced that Marcia ordered snakeskin on purpose. He may well have been right. Marcia’s purple python shoes shimmered in the light reflected from the mirror, and the gold and platinum on her ExtraOrdinary Wizard belt flashed impressively. Around her neck she wore the Akhu Amulet, symbol and source of the power of the ExtraOrdinary Wizard.