BEETLE IS FINE
It was easy to read - each letter was placed neatly in a square on a grid. Perhaps, thought Marcia with a wry smile, she ought to get Septimus to write like that in the future. She fished her pen out of her pocket to write the reply, and the edge of her sleeves brushed the remaining toast crusts off the table. Irritably Marcia yelled for the dustpan and brush to come and Sweep. As the dustpan and brush whooshed in, Marcia carefully filled out the reply grid on the back of the message:
SEPTIMUS: RECEIVED NOTE. SAFE VOYAGE. WILL MEET YOU AT PORT
ON RETURN OF CERYS. MARCIA X
Marcia rolled up the piece of paper and replaced it in the capsule. She twisted the two halves of glass together and held them in place until the glass had ReSealed. Ignoring the clatter around her feet as the brush swept a panicking toast rack into the dustpan and refused to let it out again, Marcia scooped up the pigeon and reattached the capsule to the tag on its leg. Clutching the pigeon - which pecked happily at a few stray toast crumbs on the sleeve of her tunic - she walked over to the tiny kitchen window and opened it.
Marcia plunked the pigeon outside on the window ledge. The bird shook itself to settle its ruffled feathers and then, with a clattering of its wings, it rose into the air and flapped off toward the higgledy-piggledy roofs of the Ramblings. Oblivious to the sound of the dustpan emptying its contents down the kitchen rubbish chute and the victory dance of the coffeepot among the dirty plates, Marcia watched the pigeon as it headed over the bright patchwork of rooftop gardens and out across the river, until she finally lost sight of it over the trees on the opposite bank.
There was, however, one more message to be dealt with.
The hands of the kitchen clock (a frying pan that Alther had converted and that Marcia did not have the heart to throw out) were just coming up to a quarter to twelve, and Marcia knew she had to hurry. She strode into the sitting room and from the wide, semicircular shelf above the fireplace she took the stiff Palace card that was propped up against a candle. Marcia did not like messages from the Palace, as they were generally from Sarah Heap with some picky inquiry about Septimus. However this message, which had arrived very early that morning, was not from Sarah but was equally - if not more - irritating. It was from Aunt Zelda, written in an impossible-to-ignore thick black ink, and it read:
I must see you as a matter of urgency. I shall come to the Wizard Tower at midday today.
Marcia glanced once more at the message and felt the usual flicker of irritation that accompanied anything to do with Aunt Zelda. She frowned. She had an important appointment at the Manuscriptorium for three minutes past midday. It went against all her principles to be early for an appointment with Jillie Djinn, but this time it was worth it - if she hurried, she could just get to the Manuscriptorium before Zelda came trundling up Wizard Way. Right now she could do without a white witch burbling witchy nonsense at her - in fact, she could always do without a white witch burbling witchy nonsense at her.
Marcia threw her new summer cloak of fine wool trimmed with silk over her shoulders and rushed out of her rooms, taking the large purple door by surprise. As she hurried across the landing to the silver spiral stairs, the door closed very carefully - Marcia did not like doors that banged. The spiral stairs stopped dead and politely waited for her to step on. Farther down the stairs, a series of Ordinary Wizards all had their journeys suddenly halted. They tapped their feet impatiently while far above, on the twentieth floor, their ExtraOrdinary Wizard stepped onto the stairs.
"Fast!" Marcia instructed the stairs, and then, at the thought of bumping into Aunt Zelda, "Emergency!" The stairs whizzed into action, spinning around at top speed, and the waiting Wizards below were pitched forward. Two of the Wizards who did not have time to grab on to the central handrail were unceremoniously flung off at the next landing. The rest had to go all the way up to the top of the Tower and come back down again once Marcia had alighted at the Great Hall. Three complaint forms were signed and handed in to the duty Wizard, who added them to a stack of similar forms relating to the ExtraOrdinary Wizard's use of the stairs.
Marcia hurried across the Wizard Tower courtyard, relieved that there was no sign of Aunt Zelda, who was always easy to spot in her billowing patchwork tent. As she strode into the shadows of the Great Arch, the tip-tap of her pointy purple python shoes echoing off the lapis-lazuli walls, she glanced down at her timepiece - and cannoned into something soft and suspiciously billowy and patchworky.
"Oof!" gasped Aunt Zelda. "Do try and look where you are going, Marcia."
Marcia groaned. "You're early," she said.
The tinny chimes of the Draper's Yard clock began to sound over the rooftops.
"I think you'll find that I'm exactly on time, Marcia," said Aunt Zelda as the clock chimed twelve times. "You did get my message, I hope?"
"Yes, Zelda, I did. However, what with the disgraceful state of the Message Rat Service and the consequent length of time it takes mere Wizards to get messages across the Marshes, I was unfortunately unable to reply that I had a previous engagement."
"Well, it's a good thing I bumped into you then," said Aunt Zelda.
"Is it? Well, I'm terribly sorry, Zelda. I would love to have a little chat, but I simply must rush." Marcia set off, but Zelda, who could be quick on her feet when she wanted to be, jumped in front of her and barred Marcia's way out of the Arch.
"Not so fast, Marcia," said Aunt Zelda. "I think you will want to hear this. It concerns Septimus."
Marcia sighed. What didn't? But she stopped and waited to hear what Aunt Zelda had to say.
Aunt Zelda pulled Marcia into the sunlight of Wizard Way. She knew how voices under the Great Arch carried across the Wizard Tower courtyard, and she did not want any nosy Wizard to hear - and all Wizards were nosy, in Aunt Zelda's opinion.
"There's something going on," whispered Aunt Zelda, keeping a restraining hand on Marcia's arm.
Marcia adopted a bemused expression. "There usually is, Zelda," she observed.
"Don't try and be clever, Marcia. I mean with Septimus."
"Well, yes, obviously there is. He has flown all the way to the Trading Post on his own. That is quite a big something."
"And he is not back?"
Marcia did not see what business it was of Aunt Zelda's where Septimus was, and she was sorely tempted to say that he was back, but mindful of the ExtraOrdinary Wizard Code, Section 1, clause iiia ("An ExtraOrdinary Wizard will never knowingly promulgate a falsehood, even to a witch"), she replied, rather shortly, "No."
Aunt Zelda leaned toward Marcia in a conspiratorial way. Marcia took a step back. Aunt Zelda smelled strongly of cabbages, woodsmoke and marsh mud. "I Saw Septimus," she whispered.
"You saw him? Where?"
"I don't know where. That's the trouble. But I Saw him."
"Oh, that old Saw."
"There's no need to be so sniffy about Sight, Marcia. Sight happens. And it happens to work. Now listen to me - before he left, I Saw a terrible thing. So I gave Barney Pot - "
"Barney Pot!" exclaimed Marcia. "Whatever has Barney Pot to do with all this?"
"If you would stop interrupting, you might just find out," said Aunt Zelda sniffily. She turned around as if looking for something. "Oh, there you are, Barney dear. Now don't be shy. Tell the ExtraOrdinary Wizard what happened."
Barney Pot emerged from behind Aunt Zelda's voluminous dress. He was pink with embarrassment. Aunt Zelda pushed him forward. "Go on, dear, tell Marcia what happened. She won't bite."
Barney was not convinced. "Um...I...er," was all he could manage. Marcia sighed impatiently. She was very nearly late, and the last thing she needed just then was to have to listen to a stammering Barney Pot. "I'm sorry, Zelda. I am sure
Barney has a fascinating story to tell, but I really must go." Marcia shook off Aunt Zelda's restraining hand.
"Marcia, wait. I asked Barney to give Septimus my live SafeCharm."
This stopped Marcia in her tracks. "Heavens above, Zelda! A live SafeCharm? You mean - a jinnee?"
"Yes, Marcia. That is what I said."
"Goodness me. I really don't know what to say." Marcia looked stunned. "I had no idea you had such a thing."
"Betty Crackle got it. I daren't think how. But the thing is, Septimus wouldn't take it. And yesterday I got a letter from Barney." Aunt Zelda rummaged through her pockets and drew out a crumpled piece of paper that Marcia thought smelled suspiciously of dragon poop. She thrust it into Marcia's unwilling hand.