With the accompaniment of sympathetic glances, Romilly Badger slipped down from her seat and followed Jillie Djinn into the passageway.
"Ah, Miss Badger," said Marcia as Romilly entered the Hermetic Chamber in the wake of Jillie Djinn.
The Chamber was a small, round, whitewashed room simply furnished with an ancient-looking glass propped against the wall and a bare table in the middle. Jillie Djinn took refuge behind the table while Marcia paced like a caged panther - one of the dangerous purple ones.
"Yes, Madam Overstrand?" said Romilly, convinced that she was about to follow in her predecessor's footsteps and be summarily dismissed.
"Miss Badger, Miss Djinn informs me that the Keye to Seal the Ice Tunnel hatches is not at present available. In other words, it is lost. Is that correct?"
"I, er..." Romilly was not sure what to say. All she knew was that she had only been Inspection Clerk for four days, and she had yet to set foot in the Ice Tunnels due to what her Chief Hermetic Scribe called "a technical difficulty."
"Miss Badger, have you actually seen the Keye since you took up your appointment?" asked Marcia.
"No, Madam Overstrand, I haven't."
"Does this not strike you as odd?"
"Well, I..." Romilly caught sight of Jillie Djinn's gimlet glare and faltered.
"Miss Badger," said Marcia, "this is a matter of extreme urgency, and I would appreciate any information at all, however insignificant you may think it is."
Romilly took a deep breath. This was it. In half an hour she would be out on the street, clutching her Manuscriptorium pen and looking for another job, but she had to answer truthfully. "It's the new scribe - the pimply one who some people say is called Merrin Meredith, although he says he's Daniel Hunter. Well, the day after Beetle left - the day I got appointed Inspection Clerk - I went to have a look at the Keye Safe - that's the box where the Keye is kept when we're not in the tunnels - and he was there. When he saw me he shoved something in his pocket and scuttled away. I told Miss Djinn, but she said it was fine. So I supposed it was, even though I thought he looked really guilty...." Romilly faltered again. She knew she had done an unforgivable thing in the eyes of Jillie Djinn.
Jillie Djinn glared at Romilly. "If you are implying that Mr. Hunter took the Keye, I can assure you that that is not possible," she snapped. "There is a Lock on the Keye Safe that only a Chief Hermetic Scribe can UnDo."
"Except..." said Romilly.
"Yes, Miss Badger?" said Marcia.
"I think that Mr.... er, Hunter, might well know the UnDo."
"Nonsense!" said Jillie Djinn.
"I think the Ghost of the Vaults might have told him," said Romilly tentatively.
"Don't be ridiculous!" spluttered Jillie Djinn.
Romilly did not like being called ridiculous. "Well, actually, Miss Djinn, I think the Ghost of the Vaults did tell him. I heard Mr. Hunter boasting that he and, er..."
"Tertius Fume," Marcia supplied.
"Yes, that's it. He and Tertius Fume are like that." Romilly intertwined her two index fingers. "He said that the ghost had told him all the arcane codes. Foxy - I mean, Mr. Fox - didn't believe him. He's in charge of the Rare Charm Cupboards, so he asked Mr. Hunter what the UnLock was, and Mr. Hunter knew it. Mr. Fox was furious, and he told Miss Djinn."
"And what, pray, did Miss Djinn say?" asked Marcia, sidelining Jillie Djinn.
"I believe Miss Djinn told Mr. Fox to change the Lock," Romilly replied. "Mr. Hunter spent the rest of the day telling us that if we needed to know anything we should ask him because he knows even more than the Chief Hermetic Scribe."
Jillie Djinn made a noise of which an angry camel would not have been ashamed. Marcia was more lucid. "Thank you very much, Miss Badger," she said. "I appreciate your honesty. I realize this may have put you in a difficult position here, but I trust you will not have any trouble." Marcia glared at Jillie Djinn. "However, if you do, there is always a place for you at the Wizard Tower. Good day to you, Miss Djinn. I have urgent matters to attend to."
Marcia swept out of the Manuscriptorium and hurried up Wizard Way. As she rushed through the Great Arch, a bulky figure stepped in front of her.
"Zelda, for heaven's sake get out of - " Marcia stopped, suddenly realizing that it was not Zelda Heap standing in the shadows of the Arch. Swathed in a multicolored blanket stood Zelda Heap's great-nephew Simon Heap.
Chapter 26 Witchy Ways
Merrin Meredith had made the mistake of hiding in the doorway of Larry's Dead Languages. Larry didn't like loiterers and was out the door like a spider that has felt the twitch of a tasty fly in its web. He was nonplussed at finding a Manuscriptorium scribe in his doorway.
"You come for a translation?" he growled.
"Uh?" squeaked Merrin, wheeling around.
Larry was a beefy, red-headed man with a wild look in his eye brought on by studying too many violent dead-language texts. "Translation?" he repeated. "Or what?"
In his jumpy state Merrin took this as a threat. He began to back out of the doorway.
"There he is!" Barney's high voice squealed in excitement. "He's at Mr. Larry's!"
Merrin briefly considered making a dash for it into Larry's shop, but Larry was pretty much blocking the entire doorway, so he scooted out into the wilds of Wizard Way and took his chances.
A few seconds later Barney Pot was clinging to Merrin's robes like a little terrier. Merrin struggled to pry Barney off, but Barney hung on even tighter, until a large rottweiler in patchwork bustled up and grabbed him. Merrin said a very rude word.
"Merrin Meredith, not in front of little children!"
Aunt Zelda looked Merrin in the eye, something she knew he did not like. He looked away. "Now, Merrin," she said sternly, "I don't want any lies from you. I know what you've done."
"I haven't done anything," muttered Merrin, looking anywhere but at Aunt Zelda.
"What are you fish faces staring at?" he yelled. "Go away!" This he addressed to a gathering group of onlookers, most of whom had followed Aunt Zelda down Wizard Way after her argument with Marcia. They took no notice whatsoever; they were having a good day out and were not about to let Merrin spoil it. One or two of them sat down on a nearby bench to watch in comfort.
"Now listen to me, Merrin Meredith - "
"Not my name," Merrin muttered sullenly.
"Of course it's your name."
"Well, whatever you call yourself, you listen to me. There are two things you are going to do before I let you go - "
Merrin perked up. So the old witch was going to let him go, was she? His fear of being taken back to that smelly old island in the middle of the Marshes and being forced to eat cabbage sandwiches for the rest of his life began to subside. "What things?" he demanded sulkily.
"First, you will apologize to Barney for what you did to him."
"Didn't do anything to him." Merrin looked at his feet.
"Oh, do stop playing games, Merrin. You know you did. You mugged him, for heaven's sake. And you took his - or rather my - SafeCharm."
"Some SafeCharm," he muttered.
"So you admit it. Now apologize."
The crowd was growing larger, and all Merrin wanted to do was to get out of there.
"Sorry," he muttered.
"Properly," Aunt Zelda demanded.
"I suggest: 'Barney, I am very sorry that I did such a horrible thing, and I hope you will forgive me.'"
Very reluctantly Merrin repeated Aunt Zelda's words.
"That's all right, Merrin," said Barney happily. "I forgive you."
"So, can I go now?" asked Merrin petulantly.
"I said two things, Merrin Meredith." Aunt Zelda turned to the onlookers. "If you will excuse me, good people, I would like to have a confidential word with this young man. Perhaps you would allow us a few moments?"
The onlookers looked disappointed.
Merrin rallied. "Important Manuscriptorium business," he told them. "Top secret and all that. Good- bye."
Reluctantly the onlookers drifted away.
Aunt Zelda shook her head in exasperation - that boy had nerve. Before Merrin could make a break for it, Aunt Zelda put a hefty boot on the hem of his trailing robes.