A threadbare red carpet that covered the old stone flags ran like a broad path in front of Jenna and Septimus. The Long Walk always felt to Jenna as though it went on forever, although now it was more interesting than it had been, since her father, Milo Banda, had brought back all kinds of strange and bizarre treasures from the Far Countries and set them up in its empty niches and alcoves. In fact, Milo had been so pleased with what he had called “brightening up the place” that he had soon set off on another voyage to bring back even more treasures.
When they passed by what Jenna thought of as a particularly weird section—the area where Milo had displayed some shrunken heads from the Cannibal Islands of the South Seas—Septimus lingered, fascinated.
“Come on, Sep,” Jenna chided. “Don't stop here, this is a really creepy part.”
“It's not the heads that are creepy, Jen. It's that picture. Isn't that old Etheldredda?”
It was an imposing, full-length painting. Queen Etheldredda's sharp features gazed down at Jenna and Septimus with her usual expression, accurately caught by the artist. The Queen was posed haughtily against a backdrop of the Palace.
Jenna shivered. “Dad found it in a Sealed room in the attic,” she whispered as though the portrait was listening to them. “He took it out 'cause he said it was frightening his new Counter Colony. I'm going to ask him to put it back.”
“The sooner, the better,” said Septimus. “Before it scares the shrunken heads.”
A few minutes later, Septimus and Jenna were outside the Queen's Room on the top floor of the turret at the end of the Palace. A tall golden door with beautiful emerald-green patterns glinted in the dusty shafts of the early-morning sunshine.
Jenna unclipped a large emerald and gold key from the leather belt that she wore over her gold sash. Carefully, she placed the key in the keyhole that was in the middle of the door.
Septimus stood back and watched Jenna put the key into what appeared to him to be a completely blank and rather cracked wall. This did not surprise Septimus, for he knew he could not see the door to the Queen's Room. Only those who were descended from the Queen could see it.
“I'll wait for you here, Jen,” Septimus said.
“No, you won't, Sep. You're coming with me.”
“But—” Septimus protested. Jenna said nothing; she turned the key and leaped to one side as the door came crashing down like a drawbridge. Then she grabbed hold of Septimus's hand and pulled him toward what looked to him like an extremely solid and very hard wall.
Septimus resisted. “Jen, you know I can't go in there.”
“Yes, you can, Sep. I can bring you in. Now keep hold of my hand and follow me.”
Jenna pulled Septimus forward. He saw her disappear through the wall until only her hand, stretched out behind her and clasping his, remained visible. It was one of the strangest things that Septimus had ever seen, and instinctively he held back, unwilling to be dragged through a wall, even by Jenna. But an impatient tug pulled him so that his nose was right up against the wall—no, it was in the wall. Another insistent tug followed and suddenly Septimus found himself in the Queen's Room.
At first Septimus could see little, for there were no windows and the Room was lit only by a small coal fire. But once his eyes became used to the dimness, Septimus was surprised. The Room was much smaller than he had expected; in fact, it was rather cramped. It was furnished simply, with just one comfortable chair and a worn rug laid in front of the fire. The only thing of interest that caught Septimus's eye was an old cupboard set into the curve of the wall on which was written in familiar gold letters: UNSTABLE POTIONS AND PARTIKULAR POISONS. It was identical to the cupboard that Aunt Zelda had in her cottage in the Marram Marshes, and it gave Septimus a sudden longing for one of Aunt Zelda's cabbage sandwiches.
What neither Septimus nor Jenna could see was the occupant of the fireside chair—the ghost of a young woman. Turning to look at her visitors, the young woman gazed at Jenna with a rapt expression. Around her long, dark hair, the ghost wore a gold circlet, identical to the one that Jenna wore. She had the red and gold robes of a Queen, which were heavily bloodstained over her heart. Having looked her fill at Jenna, the Queen turned her gaze toward Septimus, taking in his green Apprentice tunic and cloak, his brilliant green eyes and, in particular, his ExtraOrdinary Apprentice silver belt. Seemingly satisfied that Septimus was a suitable companion for her daughter, the young woman relaxed back into her chair.
“Feels funny in here,” Septimus whispered, looking at the apparently empty chair.
“I know,” Jenna replied in a hushed voice. Remembering what Etheldredda had said, she looked around the room, half hoping to see the ghost of her mother. She thought there was a faint glimmer of something in the armchair, but when she looked again there was nothing. And yet ... Jenna shook the thoughts of her mother out of her head.
“Come on,” she told Septimus.
“Come on where, Jen?”
“Into Aunt Zelda's cupboard.” Jenna opened the door to the cupboard and waited for Septimus.
“Oh, great, are you taking me to see Aunt Zelda?”
“Stop asking questions, Sep,” said Jenna a little sharply. Septimus looked surprised, but he followed her into the cupboard and Jenna closed the door behind them. The young woman in the chair smiled, happy to think that her daughter was going through the Queen's Way to see the Keeper in the Marram Marshes. She would, thought Jenna's mother, make a good Queen. When the Time was Right.
But, unknown to her mother, Jenna was not going to the Marram Marshes. As soon as she had closed the door behind Septimus, Jenna whispered, “We're not going to see Aunt Zelda.”
“Oh.” Septimus sounded disappointed. And then he said, “Why are you whispering?”
“Shhh. I don't know. Now there's a trapdoor here somewhere. Can you see it, Sep?”
“Don't you know where we're going either?” he asked.
“No. Look, can you shine your ring down here? I expect it's in the same place as Aunt Zelda's trapdoor.”
“You're being very mysterious, Jen,” said Septimus, shining his Dragon Ring so that the glow lit up the floor. Sure enough, the trapdoor in the Queen's Unstable Potions and Partikular Poisons cupboard was indeed in the same place as it was in Aunt Zelda's. Jenna lifted a carefully concealed thick gold ring (Aunt Zelda's was only brass) and pulled. The trapdoor lifted easily and silently, and Jenna and Septimus peered warily into the hole.
“What now?” whispered Septimus.
“We've got to go down,” Jenna replied.
“Where to?” asked Septimus, beginning to feel uneasy.
“To the Robing Room. It's the room below. Shall I go first?”
“No,” said Septimus, “let me go first. Just in case ... and, well, I've got the light from my ring.” Septimus lowered himself through the trapdoor, and instead of the rickety old wooden ladder that led down from Aunt Zelda's trapdoor, he found a flight of fine silver steps with open filigree treads and a polished mahogany banister on either side. Climbing down backward, for the steps were steep like a ship's ladder, Septimus called up to Jenna, “It's okay, Jen. I think.”
Jenna's boots appeared through the trapdoor, and Septimus went down the steps and waited at the bottom. As Jenna jumped from the last silver step and her feet touched the fine marble floor, two large candles at the foot of the steps burst into flame.
“Wow,” said Septimus, impressed. “It's a bit nicer than upstairs, Jen.”
The Queen's Robing Room was more than nice—it was opulent. It was larger than the upstairs room, for the turret widened on the lower floor. Its walls were lined with a burnished gold leaf that, although it had dulled over the centuries, glowed deep and rich in the candlelight. On the wall facing the silver steps was an old looking glass in an ornate gold frame, but it seemed to be of little use, for much of the reflective silvering was gone after years of dampness. The glass was dark and showed only a blurred reflection of the candlelight.
All along the walls were solid silver hooks, each one a different, intricately cast shape. One was shaped like a swan's neck, another like a snake; another was cast from intertwined initials of some long-dead Queen and her soul mate. Some hooks were empty and some had robes or cloaks hanging from them, reflecting the different styles popular through the previous centuries, but all in the traditional red and gold that the Queens of the Castle had always worn. What amazed Jenna—although Septimus did not notice—was that not one of the robes had any dust upon them. All looked as new and fresh as if they had just been made by the Palace seamstress.