A few minutes later Septimus and Hugo were standing in the main kitchen corridor in the middle of what appeared to be frantic preparations for a banquet. A wave of servants swept past them while the boys stood like two rocks in the middle of a fast-moving stream, watching the great stacks of plates, trays of goblets and tubs of golden knives pass by. Two servants almost bumped into them as they staggered past with a massive silver tureen between them; they were followed by a swarm of girls, each carrying two small silver bowls. From each bowl, the head of a duckling poked out.
Septimus was amazed. He was used to the Palace being a quiet and almost empty place. He had expected to be able to sneak in and find his way to the turret that housed the Queen's Room unnoticed. His plan was to follow the Queen or Princess into the Room while the invisible door was still open. He would then sneak down to the Robing Room and try to go through the Glass once more. Septimus knew it was a desperate plan with little chance of succeeding but it was worth a try. But now he could see that if the Palace was this crowded everywhere, he had no chance, especially standing out as he did in his gold-emblazoned Alchemie tunic.
In fact, Septimus's strange attire was already attracting glances. Servants were slowing their pace and staring at him, Soon a jam of people began to build in the corridor, causing a large and impatient footman, who was trying to get out of a linen cupboard just behind Septimus and Hugo, to push his way forward and barge into them. Angrily, the footman grabbed Septimus's collar. “Thou art a Stranger here,” he said suspiciously.
Septimus tried to pull away, but the footman held on tight. Suddenly Hugo piped up,
“Sire, we are but Messengers, come with urgent tidings for the Pastry Cooke.” The footman looked at Hugo's earnest expression and let Septimus go.
“Take you the third Turning and then the second Entrance. Madame Choux may be found therein. Treadst thou softly, for she did burne four dozen Pies but one houre past.” The footman winked at Septimus and Hugo, stepped into the stream of servants and was carried away.
Hugo looked at Septimus, trying to understand what he wanted to do. Hugo liked him, for Septimus was the only person he knew who did not shout at him or order him around as if he were no better than a dog. “Buzzoff?” asked Hugo as three fat women bearing great baskets of bread rolls pushed past.
Septimus shook his head and glared at the women who had all turned to stare at him.
“Not buzzoff,” he replied. “There is something I have to do.” In Old Speak, Septimus said, “I have ... a Queste. Here, in the Palace.”
Hugo understood Questes. All knights and pages had them and he didn't see any reason why an Alchemie Apprentice should not have one too. He had never heard of a Queste starting in a Palace, but anything was possible with the Alchemists. He took Septimus by the hand and pulled him into the flow of servants. Following the smells of hot water and soap suds, Hugo soon found what he was looking for: the laundry room.
Several minutes later—and two groats poorer—two new Palace servants, dressed in clean servants' attire, slipped out of the laundry room and set off, the small sandy-haired one trotting behind the taller one with tangled curly fair hair. They had gotten no farther than the corner when a large woman in a stained apron stepped out of the sauce-kitchen doorway carrying two ornate gold jugs. She thrust the jugs, which were full of hot orange sauce, into their hands, saying, “Make haste, make haste,” and pushed them off to join a long line of other boys, each carrying an identical golden jug.
Hugo and Septimus had no choice. Under the eagle eye of the sauce cook, and followed by a large Palace footman carrying a crisp white cloth in case any boy might spill the sauce, they followed the line of boys up the long and winding back stairs and emerged into the gloom of the Long Walk. As they progressed slowly, the chatter and clatter of a banquet beginning in the Ballroom drifted toward them.
Suddenly the great doors to the Ballroom were thrown open and a roar swept over them. The long line of boys began to file inside.
Septimus and Hugo trailed into the Ballroom at the end of the line and the footman closed the doors behind them, Open-mouthed, Hugo stared at the sight before him.
He had never seen such a huge room packed full of so many people wearing such rich and exotic clothes. The hubbub was almost deafening and the rich smells of the food made the boy's head swim, for no one ever remembered to feed Hugo very much. Septimus, who was more used to such occasions—Marcia was a generous hostess at the Wizard Tower—was also open-mouthed but for another reason. Sitting at the top table, a familiar figure surveyed all before her and, as ever, Queen Etheldredda wore her usual expression of disapproval.
Snorri Snorrelssen's Trader's barge had just tied up at the Traders' Dock at the Port. Alice Nettles, Chief Customs Officer, stood on the quayside looking at it suspiciously.
Alice was a tall, gray-haired woman with an imposing manner acquired during her time many years ago as Judge Alice Nettles. But now she wore the official blue robes of a Customs Officer with two gold flashes on the sleeves. People at the Port did not mess with Alice, or at least not more than once.
“I'd like a word with your skipper,” Alice told Snorri.
This was not a good start to any conversation with Snorri. She glared at Alice and did not deign to reply.
“Do you understand what I'm saying?” demanded Alice, who was sure that Snorri did. “I want to speak to your skipper.”
“I am the skipper,” Snorri told Alice. “You will speak to me.”
“You?” asked Alice, shocked. Surely the girl was no more than fourteen at the most.
She was far too young to be skippering a Trader's barge on her own.
“Yes,” said Snorri defiantly. “What do you want?”
Alice was nettled. “I want to see your Castle Inspection Papers.”
Glowering, Snorri handed them over.
Alice perused them and then shook her head. “These are incomplete.”
“They are all that I was given.”
“You have failed to comply with the emergency Quarantine regulations. I am therefore impounding your boat.”
Snorri flushed with anger. “You—you cannot do this,” she protested.
“Indeed I can.” Alice motioned to two Customs Officers who had been hanging around in the shadows in case of trou ble. They produced a great roll of yellow tape and proceeded to cordon off the Alfrun.
“You must leave your boat immediately,” Alice told Snorri. “It will be towed to a dock in the Quarantine area until the emergency is over. You may then reclaim it on full payment of dock dues and inspection fees.”
“No!” said Snorri. “No! I will not let you!”
“Any more trouble and you will be spending time in the Customs House lock-up,”
Alice told her sternly. “I shall give you five minutes to pack a bag. You may bring your cat if you wish.”
Five minutes later, Snorri Snorrelssen was homeless. From their perch up the mast, Stanley and Dawnie watched Snorri trudge off with her bag slung over her shoulders, Ullr trailing at her heels.
“That's a bit much,” Stanley muttered to Dawnie. “Nice kid like that. What's she going to do now?”
“Well, at least we're in time for a late lunch,” said Dawnie. “I fancy something from that nice pie shop over there.”
Stanley didn't fancy anything, but he followed Dawnie down the mast and scuttled off after her to the pie shop.
Snorri wandered away, lost in her thoughts. It had been one long disaster ever since she had arrived at the Castle. She must have seen nearly all the ghosts in the Castle—except for the one she had really wanted to see. She had been thrown out of the Castle just before the Market was due to start and nearly sunk by a dragon. She had only just got rid of the wretched creature and now this had happened. Snorri was so annoyed that she did not at first hear Alice Nettles calling after her. And when she finally did, Snorri made a point of ignoring the Customs Officer.
But Alice was not to be put off. “Wait—I say, wait a moment!” She ran after Snorri and caught up with her. “You are young to be alone in the Port,” said Alice.
“I am not alone. I have Ullr,” muttered Snorri, glancing down at her orange cat.
“It is dangerous here at night. A cat may be company but it will not protect you—”