Keeping her head down and avoiding as many ghosts as she could, Snorri followed her map. It was a good map, and very soon she was walking through the old brick archway that led into the Traders' Market Palace, where she made straight for the Traders' Office. The office was an open hut with a sign above it saying HANSEATIC LEAGUE AND NORTHERN TRADE ASSOCIATION INCORPORATED. Inside the hut were a long trestle table, two sets of scales with assorted weights and measures, a large ledger and a wizened old Trader counting the money in a large iron cash box.
Suddenly Snorri felt nervous, almost as nervous as when she had entered Sally Mullin's. This was the moment when she had to prove that she had a right to Trade and a right to belong to the Association. She swallowed hard and, head held high, strode into the hut.
The old man did not look up. He carried on counting out the strange coins that Snorri had not yet become used to: pennies, groats, florins, half crowns and crowns. Snorri coughed a couple of times but still the old man did not look up. After a few minutes, Snorri could bear it no longer. “Excuse me,” she said.
“Four hundred and twenty-five, four hundred and twenty-six...” said the man, not taking his eyes off the coins.
Snorri had no choice but to wait. Five minutes later the man announced, “One thousand. Yes, miss, can I help you?”
Snorri put a crown on the trestle table and said fluently, for she had rehearsed this moment for days beforehand, “I wish to buy a license to Trade.”
The old man looked at the girl in her rough woolen Trader dress standing before him, and he smiled as though Snorri had said something foolish. “Sorry, miss. You have to be a member of the League.”
Snorri understood the man well enough. “I am a member of the League,” she told him. Before the man could object, Snorri took out her Letters of Charter and put the roll of parchment with its red ribbon and great blob of red sealing wax in front of the man. As if humoring her, the old man very slowly pulled out his glasses, shaking his head at the impudence of youngsters today, and slowly read what Snorri had given him. As his finger moved along the words, his expression changed to one of disbelief, and when he had finished reading, he held up the parchment to the light, searching for signs that it was a forgery.
It wasn't. Snorri knew it wasn't and so did the old man. “This is most irregular,” he told Snorri.
“Ir-regular?” asked Snorri.
“Most irregular. It is not usual for fathers to pass their Letters of Charter on to their daughters.”
“But all appears to be in order.” The old man sighed and rather unwillingly reached under the table and pulled out a stack of licenses. “Sign here,” he said, pushing a pen over to Snorri. Snorri signed her name and the old man stamped the license as though it had said something extremely personal and rude.
He pushed it across the table to Snorri. “Stall number one. You're early. The first one here. Market starts at dawn two weeks from Friday. Last day is MidWinter Feast Day Eve. Clear out by dusk. All trash to be removed to the Municipal Rubbish Dump by midnight. That will be one crown.” The man took the crown from where Snorri had laid it on the table and threw it into another cash box, where it landed with an empty clatter.
Snorri took the license with a broad smile. She had done it. She was a Licensed Trader, just as her father had been.
“Take your samples to the shed and leave them for quality control,” the old man said.
“You may collect them tomorrow.”
Snorri left her heavy bag in the sample bin outside the shed, and feeling as light as air, she danced out of the marketplace and bumped straight into a girl wearing a red tunic edged with gold. The girl had long dark hair and wore a gold circlet around her head like a crown. Beside her stood a ghost dressed in purple robes. He had a friendly expression in his green eyes and wore his gray hair neatly tied back in a pony-tail. Snorri tried not to look at the bloodstains on his robes just below his heart, for it was impolite to stare at the means by which the ghost had entered ghosthood.
“Oh, sorry,” the girl in red said to Snorri. “I wasn't looking where I was going.”
“No. I am sorry,” said Snorri. She smiled and the girl smiled back. Snorri went on her way back to the Alfrun, wondering. She had heard that the Castle had a Princess, but surely this could not be her, walking around just like anyone else?
The girl, who was indeed the Princess, continued on her way to the Palace with the purple-robed ghost.
“She's a Spirit-Seer,” said the ghost.
“That young Trader. I did not Appear to her but she saw me. I've never met one before. They're very rare, they are only found in the Lands of the Long Nights.” The ghost shivered. “Gives me the creeps.”
The Princess laughed. “You are funny, Alther,” she said. “I bet you give people the creeps all the time.”
“I do not,” replied the ghost indignantly. “Well ... only if I want to.”
Over the next few days, the autumn weather closed in. The north winds blew the leaves from the trees and sent them skittering down the streets. The air grew chill and people began to notice how early it was getting dark.
But to Snorri Snorrelssen, the weather felt good. She spent her days wandering around the Castle, exploring its highways and byways, looking with amazement into the windows of all the fascinating little shops tucked away underneath the arches in The Ramblings and even buying the odd trinket. She had gazed up at the Wizard Tower in awe, caught a glimpse of what appeared to be an extremely bossy ExtraOrdinary Wizard, and been shocked at the great piles of manure that the Wizards kept in their courtyard. She had joined the crowd watching the old clock in Drapers Yard strike twelve noon and laughed at the faces that the twelve tin figures had made as they sauntered out from behind the clock. Another day, she had walked down Wizard Way, taken a tour of the oldest printing press, and then peered through the railings at the beautiful old Palace, which was smaller than she had expected. She had even talked to an old ghost called Gudrun at the Palace Gate, who had recognized a fellow countrywoman, even though they were divided by seven centuries.
But the one ghost that Snorri had hoped to see in her wanderings eluded her.
Although she only knew what he looked like from a picture that her mother kept at her bedside, she was sure that she would recognize him if she saw him. But despite constantly scanning the crowds of ghosts that wandered by, Snorri caught not so much as a glimpse of her father.
Late one afternoon, after exploring some of the darker alleyways at the back of The Ramblings where many of the Traders took lodgings, Snorri had had a fright. It was getting near sunset and she had just bought a hand torch from Maizie Smalls's Takeaway Torch Shop. As she walked back along Squeeze Guts Alley to the South Gate, Snorri had the uncomfortable feeling that she was being followed, but every time she turned around, there was nothing to see. Suddenly Snorri had heard a scuffling behind her, she spun around and there they were—a pair of round red eyes and one long needlelike tooth glinting in the light of her hand torch. As soon as the eyes saw the flame, they melted into the twilight and Snorri saw no more of them.
Snorri told herself that it was only a rat, but not long after, as she walked briskly back to the main thoroughfare, Snorri had heard a shrill scream coming from Squeeze Guts Alley. Someone who had ventured down the Alley without a torch had not been so lucky.
Snorri was shaken and in need of some human company, so that evening she had supper at Sally Mullin's. Sally had warmed to Snorri because, as she had said to her friend Sarah Heap, “You can't blame a young girl just because she's got the misfortune to be a Trader, and I suppose they're not all bad. You've got to admire her, Sarah, she's sailed that great barge all on her own. Don't know how she did it. I used to find Muriel difficult enough.”
The cafe was strangely empty that evening. Snorri was the only customer. Sally brought Snorri an extra piece of barley cake and sat beside her. “It's terrible for business, this Sickenesse,” she complained. “No one dares stay out after dark even though I tell them that rats run a mile when they see a flame. All they have to do is carry a torch. But it's no good, everyone's scared now.” Sally shook her head gloomily. "They go for your ankles, see. And quick as greased lightning they are.
One bite and that's it. You're gone."