“I’m just very glad you’re here,” Jenna said quietly. “I was so afraid you wouldn’t be.”
“I very nearly wasn’t,” said Nicko. “There were so many times when I decided to leave. The doors are open and they don’t stop you, you know. But they tell you that you could go out into any Time at all. Even a time before”—Nicko shuddered—“before there were any people around. Before the House of Foryx existed—so you could never get back.
Snorri always said we should wait. She was right—but then she usually is.” Snorri blushed.
“Yes,” said Jenna, thawing a little toward Snorri. “She was right.”
A pensive silence fell in the checkerboard lobby, but it did not last long. Suddenly there was a loud rapping on the silver doors, followed by a frantic rattling—someone was trying to put a key into the lock.
“It won’t go!” came the Guardian’s angry voice. “Guards, break down the doors!”
At once Nicko was on his feet, his eyes wild. “They won’t get me,” he declared. “I’ll Go Out and take my chance rather than that.”
“I will come with you,” said Snorri. She picked up Ullr. “Ullr, too. He will come.”
“And so will we,” said Jenna solemnly. She looked at Septimus and Beetle. “Won’t we?”
Septimus glanced at Beetle. “Count me in,” said Beetle.
“And me,” said Septimus.
“Really?” asked Nicko. “But it’s me they’re after, not you.”
“We’re in it together now, Nik,” said Septimus. “Whatever happens.”
Now rhythmic thumping began. Fowler was hurling himself at the doors. Soon the lock, which was the weakest point, began to give.
“I’m Going Out now,” said Nicko, very composed and sure, his hand rested on the heavy iron latch that fastened the great ebony door of the House of Foryx. He looked at Jenna, Septimus and Beetle. “But I want you to stay,” he told them, raising his voice against the rhythmic thudding behind him. “You still have a chance to go home, to see Mum and Dad and tell them what has happened. To tell them I’m sorry…”
Septimus took a deep breath. “No, Nik. We’re coming with you,” he said, glancing around at the others. Four pairs of terrified eyes met his—the enormity of what they were about to do had just hit them.
Nicko’s eyes felt blurry. He blinked. “Okay,” he said, “here we go.”
Nicko went to lift the latch of the ebony door, which would take them to the outside Time—whatever that might be. And as his hand touched the latch, there came a furious knocking on the door that drowned out the thuds behind them.
Septimus gave a loud whoop. There was only one person he knew who ignored a perfectly serviceable doorbell and attacked a door knocker like that. He threw open the door to the House of Foryx.
“Well,” said Marcia with a broad smile, “aren’t you going to ask me in?”
“No way,” Septimus replied. “We are coming out!”
From the wide sweep of the marble terrace, Sarah Heap watched her two youngest sons and her daughter walk out into the white, misty air and break into whoops of joy. She watched them envelop Marcia Overstrand in an onslaught of hugs and she hardly dared to believe what she was seeing. Sarah leaned against a solid dragon neck for support and Spit Fyre thumped his tail tiredly. It had been a long, cold flight.
The thud of the tail drew Nicko’s attention. “Mum?” he said, ignoring the dragon and seeing only a thin windswept figure wrapped in an old green cloak. “Mum?”
“Oh…Nicko,” was all Sarah could manage.
ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS…
ALICE AND ALTHER
The ending of Alice’s life was in fact the beginning of Alther and Alice’s long and happy time together. During both their Living times, Alther in particular—but Alice too—had each been too busy with their own careers to be together.
Now Alther was determined that this would change.
Twenty-four hours after she was shot, Alice’s ghost Appeared on the Palace Landing Stage to find Alther waiting for her. All ghosts must spend the first year and a day of their ghosthood in the very place where they became a ghost. This is known as their Resting Time. It can be a difficult time for a ghost who has met an unexpected end, and Alther was determined that he would stay with Alice for the whole of her Resting Time and help her through it. He may not have been there for Alice when he should have been while they were Living, but he would be there for her from now on.
It did not matter to Alther and Alice whether they were indoors or out. Weather does not generally matter to a ghost—except blustery winds, when a ghost feels Blown Through. Even though Jenna knew this, she hated the idea of Alther and Alice spending a whole year and a day just drifting around the Palace Landing Stage, so she got Billy Pot to help her set up a large red-and-white-striped tent—or the Pavilion, as she liked to call it—on the very spot where Alice had been shot.
Jenna was glad she had. There were some bad storms that year, but the inside of the Pavilion was always an oasis of calm. Jenna was determined to make Alice—and Alther—feel at home. The planks of the landing stage were strewn with a thick layer of patterned rugs from the Palace and she filled the Pavilion with furniture, cushions, books and various mementos. There was an ornate inlaid wooden chest, whose open lid revealed many of Alice’s favorite treasures from her old warehouse aerie—a marble chessboard with ships for chessmen, a hand-knitted scarf from one of her many nieces, some letters from Alther tied up in a red ribbon and her old judge’s wig from many years back. There was Alther’s favorite chair—a moth-eaten old leather thing that Jenna had taken from Sarah Heap’s sitting room and placed in a corner, next to the pink and gold overstuffed sofa that Sarah had insisted Alice would love. Alice didn’t, but a tacky sofa no longer mattered to her in the way that it once would have.
Knowing that Alther and Alice would have many visitors, Jenna had set a low table with a jug of fresh juice, a plate of savory biscuits and a bowl of fruit for the Living.
The most regular visitors were Jenna and Silas Heap. Silas could no longer talk to Sarah about Nicko and he needed to talk to someone. Alther, his old tutor, listened for long hours to Silas, and they had endless discussions about Nicko, Time and more recently, forests. Late at night Silas would stagger back across the long lawns to the Palace, feeling as though his head were stuffed full of cotton wool. Alther did not always look forward to the moment when Silas would stick his head out through the tent flap and say, “Um, Alther. Can you spare a few minutes?” But he never refused.
Jenna loved the Pavilion. Most mornings she would pay a short visit and talk quietly to Alice, who had saved her life.
They would chat about Alice’s Living time and how much she had enjoyed being a judge at the Castle Courts in what everyone now called the Old Days. Alice would tell Jenna about her apartment at the top of the warehouse—which she had loved—and recount the interesting cases she had dealt with as Chief Customs Officer at the Port. But sometimes Alice would suddenly get up and say that she must
get back to work now, and Jenna would have to gently remind Alice that she was no longer Living. Those times were difficult—Alice would grow sad and thoughtful and Jenna would leave her and Alther in peace for a few days.
The night that Alther was Gathered was the first time he had been away from Alice. Being Gathered was a shock to Alther. All ExtraOrdinary Wizard ghosts expect it at the end of an Apprenticeship, but an unexpected Gathering was extremely rare and did not bode well. To Alice’s amazement, Alther was suddenly whisked out of the Pavilion and, although her sense of time was still not good, it felt like a few days before she saw him again.
Alice loved Alther and was touched by his sudden devotion, but in Life she had been a solitary person who had enjoyed her own company. Alther’s absence gave Alice time to think her thoughts once more and to begin to understand what had happened to her that afternoon on the Palace Landing Stage.
When Alther returned from the Siege—frazzled and very apologetic—Alice was, of course, pleased to see him. But that evening she persuaded him to return to his old habit of visiting the Hole in the Wall Tavern. It would be good for them both, she said.