Septimus returned to his place by the fire. He and Marcia sat in silence for a while until Marcia broke it by saying, "I don't want to lose my Apprentice. More than that, Septimus, I don't want to lose you."
"You won't. I promise," Septimus replied.
"Don't make promises that you can't be sure to keep," Marcia told him.
A silence hung in the air.
"Sner . . . urrrufff!"
"Oh, for goodness' sake," Marcia muttered, casting an irritated glance at the jinnee. "Septimus, I didn't want to mention this in front of Mr. Pye, but I am concerned about the recent glitches we've had here in the Tower. Going into the Darke is a two-way thing. It can open up channels for the Darke to come this way too."
"I know," said Septimus. "I've been practicing Barriers all last week."
"Yes, indeed you have. But it's still risky - and particularly so at the Dark of the Moon. I am asking you to reconsider your decision and go at the full moon instead."
"But Marcellus says that this timing is my best chance to get Alther back," said Septimus. "Probably my only chance."
"Marcellus! What does he know?" snapped Marcia. And then, knowing she was not playing fair, said, "Alther would agree with me."
"How can you know what Alther would think?" retorted Septimus. "You don't even know if he can think anymore."
"Oh, Septimus, don't," Marcia protested. "You don't know how often I wish I had stopped the Banish in time. Not a day passes when that awful moment doesn't come back to me. And then telling Alice . . ." She shook her head, unable to go on.
They were silent for a while and then Septimus said, "Marcia?"
"You know how you are always saying that we must be honest with each other?"
"Sner . . . snurrrufff . . ."
"There's something I want to ask you and I want you to be honest with me."
"Of course I will be, Septimus." Marcia sounded offended.
"If you were me and you had this one chance to bring Alther back - even with all the risks - would you take it?"
"But I don't have that chance. I have already been into the Darke and therefore I am Known. There is no way I could get into the Darke Halls now."
Septimus got to his feet and stood by the fire. He felt he needed the advantage of some extra height. "You haven't answered my question," he said, looking down at Marcia.
"No, I suppose I haven't," Marcia replied meekly.
"So, if you were me and had this one chance to bring Alther back, would you take it?"
A silence ensued into which even Jim Knee's snores dared not intrude. At last Marcia answered.
"Yes," she said quietly. "Yes, I think I would."
"Thank you," said Septimus. "Then I shall go tonight. At midnight."
"Very well," said Marcia with a sigh. "I'll start getting things ready." She got to her feet, picked up the Apprentice Almanac and walked out to her study. She was back a few minutes later carrying a large iron key on a loop of black cord. "You'd better take it now, before I change my mind," she told Septimus. "It's the key to Dungeon Number One."
Septimus buttoned the key into his secure pocket. It felt heavy and awkward - a weight he would rather not carry. He'd be glad when he no longer needed it, he thought.
Hoping to make Marcia feel better, Septimus said, "I'll be okay. I shall have something to protect me."
Marcia looked very annoyed. "If that Marcellus Pye has promised you some kind of Alchemie KeepSafe knickknack - he has, hasn't he - don't you dare believe it's going to make a scrap of difference. It won't. All it will do is lull you into a false sense of security. Alchemie stuff is nothing but smoke and mirrors, Septimus. All talk and no action. None of their stuff ever did work. It was complete rubbish."
"But Marcia, I'm sure Marcellus - "
"Marcellus! Forget about Marcellus. Septimus, you must rely only on yourself and your own Magykal powers." Marcia looked at her timepiece and sighed. "Midday already. As if it isn't enough that I have to put up with a meddling Alchemist - any minute now there will be a meddling Princess at my door declaiming from that wretched book with its tiddly-squiddly type, which is the bane of every ExtraOrdinary Wizard's life. I really could be doing without fourteenth birthdays right now." With that, Marcia stormed off to her study.
Septimus sat for some time, looking into the fire and relishing the quiet - apart from an occasional snurrrufff. He thought about what Marcia had said. Deep down he felt she was wrong about Marcellus - not all Alchemie was rubbish, he'd seen that for himself. But he knew Marcia would never agree. The buildup to the Darke Week was horrible, Septimus thought. Somehow it drove a wedge between you and everyone you cared about. He really wanted Marcia's approval for what he was going to do but it was he who was going into the Darke, not Marcia. He must do it his way - not hers.
Septimus got to his feet. It was time to go and see Marcellus.
Chapter 7 The Bringer of the Book
The meddling Princess, like Septimus, had had an unusually formal birthday morning. At nine o'clock precisely, a tall woman dressed in Palace robes so ancient that they actually had long gold ribbons dangling from their sleeves banged on the Palace doors.
The duty Door Wizard was having his breakfast, so it was Sarah Heap who eventually opened them. "Yes?" she asked irritably.
"I am the Bringer of the Book," the woman announced imperiously. Without waiting to be asked, she swept inside, bringing with her a pungent smell of mothballs and the faint whiff of fish.
"Presents go on the table," said Sarah, indicating a large table already piled with assorted colorful packages. "We are not opening them until this evening."
The Bringer of the Book made not the slightest move in the direction of the table. She towered over Sarah, her height increased by great swathes of white hair piled precariously on the top of her head and secured with a wild assortment of combs. She looked at Sarah in disbelief. "But I am the Bringer of the Book," she said.
"I know. You already said. That's very nice; Jenna enjoys reading. Just put it on the table. Now excuse me, I really must go. You know the way out." Sarah indicated the doors, which were still thrown wide open.
"The way out?" The woman sounded incredulous. "I am not going out. I have come to see the Princess. Now, my good woman, I will trouble you to announce my presence."
Sarah spluttered indignantly, but Jenna's timely arrival stopped any further escalation of hostilities.
"Mum!" she said, rushing in from the Long Walk. "Have you seen my - oh!" Jenna stopped and stared at the tall, imperious woman in the ancient Palace uniform. The old red and gray robes with their gold ribbons gave her the weirdest feeling, transporting her back to the frightening few days she had spent at the Palace in the ghastly Queen Etheldredda's Time. "Who . . . who are you?" she stammered.
The Bringer of the Book swept down into a deep curtsy, her long, fragile ribbons falling gracefully to the dusty floor.
"Your Grace," she murmured. "May I offer you my humble congratulations upon your Day of Recognition. I am the Bringer of the Book. I come to you as I came to your mother, and as my mother came to her mother before her, and as her mother came to her mother before her. I come to you to bring you the Book."
Sarah felt the need to translate. "She's brought you a book, Jenna. That's nice, isn't it? I've told her to put it on the table as we're not opening the presents until this evening."
The Bringer of the Book rounded on Sarah. "Mistress, I would ask you to hold your tongue. You may return to your duties - whatever they may be."
"Now look here - " Sarah began. She was stopped by Jenna, who was beginning to understand that something important was going on.
"Mum," said Jenna. "It's okay. I think it's - you know - Princess stuff." She turned to the woman and spoke in her best Princess voice. "Thank you, Bringer of the Book," she said. "May I introduce to you my mother, Madam Sarah Heap?"
The Bringer of the Book gave Sarah a small, perfunctory curtsy. "I apologize, Mistress Heap. I assumed from your dress that you were a menial."
"There's a lot of work to do around here and someone has to do it," snapped Sarah. "You can talk to Jenna in my sitting room if you want to go somewhere warm. I've just lit the fire." With that she walked off, head held high, stray wisps of straw-colored hair bouncing crossly as she strode into the Long Walk in search of Silas Heap.