"Um, no thanks, Beetle."

Beetle shrugged. He gingerly negotiated his way around Spit Fyre's nose and regarded Septimus with a grin, which faded when he saw Septimus's frown. "Spit Fyre okay?" he asked.

"Yep."

"So what's up?" asked Beetle, settling himself down beside Septimus. Septimus shrugged.

Beetle regarded his friend quizzically. "You had a fight with Nicko or something?"

"Nope."

"I mean, I wouldn't be surprised if you had. He's a bit edgy, isn't he?"

"He's different," said Septimus. "He's not like Nik anymore. And even Jenna's gotten weird - acting all Princessy, like she owns the ship or something."

Beetle chuckled. "That's probably because she does," he said.

"She doesn't. It's Milo's ship."

"It was Milo's ship. Until he gave it to her."

Septimus stared at Beetle. "What, the whole ship?"

Beetle nodded.

"But why?" asked Septimus.

"I dunno, Sep. Because he's her father? I suppose that's what fathers do." Beetle sounded wistful. "But if you ask me, it was to win Jenna over."

"Huh," said Septimus, sounding remarkably like Silas.

"Yeah. It was weird, you know. A real coincidence. We bumped into Milo when we went out to get food. He was so thrilled to see Jenna, but I could see she didn't feel the same way. Then, when he found out we were camping in a rundown, filthy old net loft he insisted we stay with him instead. Nicko and Snorri really wanted to - you know how Nicko loves boats and stuff - but Jenna refused. She said we were fine in the net loft."

"Well, you were," said Septimus, thinking that was the first sensible thing he had heard about Jenna for a while.

Beetle pulled a face. "Actually, Sep, it was horrible. It stank of putrid fish, and there was a big hole in the roof, and it was soaking wet and I fell through the rotten floor and got stuck forever."

"So what happened to change Jen's mind?" asked Septimus. And then, answering his own question, "I suppose Milo gave Jen his ship, just so she would come and stay with him."

Beetle nodded. "Yep. That's about it."

"And now she's going to sail home with him?"

"Well, yes. He is her father, I suppose. But look, Sep, if you want some company on the way back, I'd be happy to come with you."

"On a smelly dragon?"

"Yeah. Well, he is smelly, you got to admit it."

"No, he's not. I don't know why everyone goes on about that, I really don't."

"Okay, okay. But I would like to come back with you, honest."

"Really?"

"Yeah. When do you want to go?"

"As soon as Spit Fyre wakes up. This ship is really getting to me. And if Jen wants to stay on her ship, she can. And so can Nicko and Snorri too."

"Jenna might not want to stay," said Beetle hopefully. "You never know. She might really want to fly back on Spit Fyre."

Septimus shrugged. "Whatever," he said.

Spit Fyre slept on. By the evening Septimus had given up any hope of getting away that day and had resigned himself to another night on the Cerys. He and Beetle stood leaning over the gunnels, watching the twilight come creeping in. Everywhere pinpoints of lights were beginning to shine as lamps were lit on the ships and the shops and eating houses on the quayside began to open for the evening's trade. The sounds of the day's work were quieting. The thud s and thump s of cargo being shifted had ceased, and the shouts of the dockhands had dulled to a quiet chatter as they made ready to go home. Something was on Septimus's mind.

"I promised Marcia I'd be back by midnight tonight," he said. "But I won't be. It's the first thing I promised her as Senior Apprentice, and I've broken my promise."

"It's tough at the top," Beetle said with a grin.

"Oh, do stop it, Beetle," Septimus snapped.

"Steady on, Sep. Look, I reckon you've earned those purple stripes and then some - okay?"

"Okay."

"Anyway, it's not midnight yet," said Beetle, bringing out his precious timepiece.

"And it won't be midnight at the Castle for ages yet."

"It makes no difference. I still won't get back in time."

"Well, tell her you've been delayed. She'll understand."

"How can I possibly do that before midnight?"

"Easy," said Beetle. "Send a pigeon."

"What?"

"Send a Trading Post pigeon. Everyone does it. They're really fast, especially if you use the express service."

"I suppose that will have to do," said Septimus. "The thing is, Marcia trusts me now. I don't want to let her down."

"Yeah, I know. Come on, I'll show you the Pigeon Post Office."

Chapter 16 The Pigeon Post Office

T he Pigeon Post Office was a long, low stone building that formed the boundary between Harbors Twelve and Thirteen. On the ground floor was the actual Post Office and above it were the pigeon lofts, home to hundreds of carrier pigeons. Two large lamps - with pigeons on the top - flanked the wide double doors that led into the office itself. Its long white roof shone in the light of the newly lit lamps and, as he and Beetle got closer, Septimus realized that the whiteness of the roof was because it was thick with pigeon droppings. It did not smell great. They ducked inside and only just avoided what was known in the Trading Post as "pigeon shoulder" (considered marginally better than "pigeon head").

The Post Office was quietly busy. A line of businesslike white lamps hissed softly overhead, reminding Beetle of Ephaniah Grebe's basement. Along the length of the office were seven counters with signs reading SEND, RECEIVE, LATE, LOST, FOUND, SPOILED and COMPLAINTS, all of which had one or two people waiting - apart from COMPLAINTS, which had a long line.

Septimus and Beetle made their way to SEND. They waited patiently behind a young sailor, who was soon done, and less patiently behind an elderly man, who spent a long time writing his message and then argued at length over the cost. He eventually wandered off grumbling and joined the line at COMPLAINTS.

At last they stepped forward to the counter. Wordlessly the tight-lipped clerk - a gray and dusty man with what looked suspiciously like a bad case of pigeon head - handed them a form and a pencil. Beetle made a request and then, very carefully, Septimus filled in the form:

RECIPIENT: Marcia Overstrand, ExtraOrdinary Wizard

ADDRESS: Top floor, the Wizard Tower, the Castle, the Small Wet Country across the Sea

SENDER: Septimus Heap

ADDRESS OF SENDER: The Cerys, Berth 5, Harbor Twelve, The Trading Post MESSAGE (one letter, space or punctuation mark only in each square of grid): DEAR MARCIA. ARRIVED SAFELY. EVERYONE HERE. ALL WELL BUT RETURN

DELAYED. SPIT FYRE VERY TIRED. WE ARE ON MILO'S SHIP. WE HAVE NOT LEFT YET

BUT WILL ASAP. LOVE FROM YOUR SENIOR APPRENTICE, SEPTIMUS XXX. PS PLEASE

TELL MRS BEETLE THAT BEETLE IS FINE

SERVICE REQUIRED (SELECT ONE ONLY):

AT OUR CONVENIENCE

EXPRESS

He circled EXPRESS and handed in the form.

The clerk checked the form and frowned. He stabbed a grumpy finger at the box that read SENDER. Septimus had signed his name with his usual illegible flourish. "What's that?" he asked.

"My name," replied Septimus.

The clerk sighed. "Well, that's a start, I suppose. So where are the actual letters, then?"

"Do you want me to write it again?" asked Septimus, trying to keep his patience.

"I'll do it," snapped the clerk.

"Okay."

"So what is it?"

"What is what?"

The clerk sighed once more and said, very slowly, "Your name, sonny. What is it? I need to know so that I can write it down, see?"

Septimus was not surprised that there was a long line at the COMPLAINTS counter.

"Septimus Heap," he said.

Laboriously the clerk got out a glue pot and stuck a piece of paper on top of the offending signature. He got Septimus to spell out his name three times and made a good deal of fuss writing it down. At last he finished and tossed the message into a box marked Sealing and Dispatch. A general sigh of relief accompanied Septimus paying the postage and at last leaving the counter.

"Hey, you! Septimus Heap!" a voice called out. Septimus spun around and saw the clerk at the RECEIVE counter beckoning to him. "I got a message for you."

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