Septimus shook his head again.

“When?” asked an exasperated Marcellus. “When?”

“In forty-nine hours exactly. Not a moment before.”

Marcellus looked relieved. Two days. He had waited so long already that he could manage another two days. He watched Septimus carefully place the phial back in the glass cabinet and gently close the door. Marcellus breathed out and smiled.

Relieved about his Tincture, Marcellus took time to notice his Apprentice. The boy was pale and thin, with dark circles under his eyes. Of course his appearance wasn't helped by his refusal to cut or comb his bird's nest of hair, but even so, Marcellus felt a pang of guilt.

“Apprentice,” he said, “it is not good that thou sitteth here like a Mole beneath his Mound. Though it be chill and Snow still layeth upon the ground, outside the Sunne doth shine.” Marcellus fished out two small silver coins and pressed them into Septimus's unwilling and inky palm. "The last Winter Faire is set up upon the Way.

Take thee two groats for thy Pleasure and hie thee there."

Septimus looked at them without much interest. “ 'Tis true what they say, Septimus: A Surfeit of Ink Maketh the Spirit to Sink. Begone.” Marcellus wandered back to the large table and picked up the pad of blotting paper that rested at Septimus's place, revealing a red rose carved into the wood—which Septimus stared at gloomily.

“Go,” insisted his master, shooing Septimus out.

Septimus took the scribes' exit from the Chamber. He made his way up a steep flight of steps and emerged into the network of tunnels that would take him to the Wizard Tower. This was the one treat that Septimus allowed himself: Every so often he would walk through the Great Hall of the Wizard Tower, as the Alchemie Apprentice was entitled to do. It was a bittersweet experience, but nevertheless it reminded him of home in a way that nothing else in that Time could. He knew the way well now and walked slowly along the rush-lit tunnels. Before long he reached a small underground archway through which could be seen a flight of steps.

“Good day, Septimus Heap,” said the ghost sitting at the foot of the steps—a fairly recent ghost of an ExtraOrdinary Wizard, judging by the brightness of his robes.

Septimus nodded, but he said nothing.

“Turn left at the top and say the password,” instructed the ghost slowly and extremely clearly. Since Septimus had never spoken a word, the ghost had decided that he was not the brightest of Apprentices and made a point of loudly giving Septimus the same instructions whenever he saw him.

Septimus nodded again politely and headed for the steps with the usual strange feeling lurking in the pit of his stomach. At the top of the steps, he turned left as he always did and went through a small cloakroom, which he still thought of as the broom closet. This was the part that still raised his hopes, no matter how many times he told himself not to be so ridiculous. He pushed open the door and walked out into the Great Hall of the Wizard Tower.

The first time that Septimus had visited the Wizard Tower, he had stepped into the Great Hall and was convinced that he had somehow come back to his own Time.

Everything was the same. The walls had their brilliant, fleeting Magykal pictures floating over them, the same air of Magyk permeated the atmosphere and made him feel dizzy with relief. Even the floor of the Great Hall had the same strange sandy feel as he had run across it, too excited to glance down at the welcome message it was writing him. He had jumped on the silver stairs and ridden to the top of the Tower, just as he had done every day for nearly two years. He had not noticed the confused glances of the Ordinary Wizards on the various landings; all he had wanted to do was see Marcia and tell her what had happened—and to promise her that he would never go along the Outside Path again. Never, ever, ever. On the twentieth floor he had leaped off the stairs and dashed toward the great purple door at the entrance to the ExtraOrdinary Wizard's rooms.

The door would not open.

Septimus had pushed it impatiently, feeling that he could not possibly wait another second to see Marcia, but the door had stayed firmly shut. He could not understand it. Maybe Marcia was in trouble. Maybe she had Barred the door...

As Septimus stood wondering what could possibly be the matter, the door had suddenly opened and a purple-robed fig-ure stepped out.

“Marcia, I'm—”

The ExtraOrdinary Wizard had peered down at Septimus, regarding him with a puzzled air, asking, “How did you get up here, boy?”

“I—I—” Septimus had stammered, staring uncomprehendingly at the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, a thin man with straight fair hair, which flopped over his green Wizard eyes.

Around his neck hung Marcia's Akhu Amulet, and around his waist he wore Marcia's platinum and gold ExtraOrdinary Wizard belt. Suddenly Septimus realized the truth of what he was seeing.

“Be not afraid, child,” said the ExtraOrdinary Wizard kindly, noticing Septimus's sudden gray pallor. “You are newly come, are you not?” The ExtraOrdinary Wizard looked Septimus up and down, taking in his black and red tunic with the planetary symbols embroidered in gold thread down the sleeves. “Surely, you are the new Alchemie boy?”

Septimus had nodded, utterly miserable for having had his hopes raised and then dashed.

"Come now, child. I will take you down to the Great Hall and show you the way out.

Follow me." Septimus followed the ExtraOrdinary Wizard onto the silver spiral stairs, and they stood together in silence as the stairs slowly made their way down through the Wizard Tower.

Now Septimus knew that he no longer belonged in the Wizard Tower, or rather, as he had realized after the first few desperate days, he had yet to belong. But, even so, he found it hard to keep away.

As Septimus walked through the Great Hall, a message in shimmering red and gold saying, WELCOME, ALCHEMIE APPRENTICE, flashed briefly around his feet before moving on to a more important message saying, WELCOME, EXTRAORDINARY APPRENTICE. A slim figure in a green tunic, wearing the silver—Septimus's silver—ExtraOrdinary Apprentice belt, had just come in through the great doors to the Wizard Tower, the ones that he was no longer entitled to use.

Septimus had taken an immediate dislike to the Apprentice, a girl not many years older than himself. He knew it was unfair to dislike her. She was friendly enough and nodded to him in a distant way when she saw him, but she had taken his place.

Or was it, he asked himself, that he will have taken her place—eventually? At that point Septimus's brain refused to think anymore.

Not wishing to have to explain his presence, Septimus slipped into the shadows and headed down the crumbling stone steps at the back of the Wizard Tower. Then he skirted the great base of the Tower and set off across the snow-covered cobblestones of the courtyard toward the Great Arch. It was as Marcellus had said, a beautiful day; the air was chill but the bright, low sunlight glinted off the gold streaks that ran through the lapis lazuli, which lined the Arch. However. Septimus paid it little attention as he wandered through and emerged into a thronged Wizard Way. He stood for a moment and pulled his thick red and gold woolen cloak around him against the frosty air, breathing in the strange smells and listening to the unfamiliar sounds. He shook his head in disbelief, he felt so tantalizingly near to home and yet so impossibly far away—five hundred years away, to be precise.

As Septimus stood in the chill winter sun, a realization stole over him. At last he had a few hours of freedom—he had time to try out his plan. It was a desperate plan but it might—just might—work.

27

Hugo Tenderfoot

As Septimus walked along Wizard Way, his feet did not tread on the pale limestone that he had been used to in his own Time, but on snow-covered earth. The silver torchposts that Septimus had so often watched being lit from his bedroom window at the top of the Wizard Tower were still in the process of being erected in honor of the Queen's Silver Jubilee. The low, yellow stone buildings on either side of the broad avenue, although already old, had a less weathered appearance and showed fine details that Septimus had never seen before.

As he passed the Manuscriptorium at Number Thirteen Wizard Way, Septimus glanced at the window—which looked odd to him, for it was almost empty and very clean—and a wave of longing to see Beetle swept over him. What would Beetle say now? Septimus wondered.

Beetle usually had something to say about everything but he thought even Beetle would be lost for words.

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