"Beetle, Beetle!" yelled Jenna, trying to pull the curtain off. "Beetle, stand still. Stop fighting!"
Finally her voice got through. "Huh?" said the curtain.
"Beetle, please, just stay still a moment. And stop trying to kill the curtain."
The curtain settled down and Jenna heaved it off its prey in a cloud of dust.
"Atchooo!" Beetle sneezed.
Jenna regarded the pile of shredded curtain on the floor. "Beetle: one. Curtain: zero." She laughed.
"Yeah," said Beetle, not quite so amused. He dusted off his admiral's jacket and then tentatively waved his arm through the gap that the curtain had covered.
"There's no SafetyGate there," he said. "Or if there was, it's come away with the curtain. I s'pose it could have been Bonded to it. Come to think of it, it did tingle a bit when it landed on me. That's what made me think I was . . . well, being attacked. It wasn't panic, you know. It felt really weird."
"So . . . if Dad did put some kind of barrier up and now it's gone, maybe we should go and tell him?" said Jenna.
"I could have a look first," said Beetle, badly needing to do something constructive after the curtain fight.
"Well . . ."
Unwilling to let his chance to impress Jenna slip away, Beetle headed up the stairs quickly, before she had time to say no.
Jenna's voice came after him. "Beetle, maybe you shouldn't . . ."
Beetle stopped and turned. "It's fine," he said.
"It doesn't look fine," said Jenna. She could see the familiar shifting darkness hovering at the top of the stairs.
"I'll just have a quick look so that we can tell Marcia exactly what's going on," said Beetle.
Jenna followed Beetle up the stairs. He stopped and barred her way. "No, Jenna," he said rather formally. "Let me do this. You did ask me, after all."
Jenna looked past Beetle up to the top of the stairs. "But Beetle, that weird misty stuff is still there. I'd forgotten how scary it is. I think we should get Dad, or maybe even Marcia. I really do."
Beetle did not want to give way. "It's all right," he insisted. "I said I'd have a look and I will. Okay?"
There was something in the way Beetle stood that made him seem so solid, so commanding, that made Jenna step back.
"Okay," she said reluctantly. "But please . . . be careful."
"Of course I will." Beetle pulled out a long chain from his admiral's coat pocket, unclipped his timepiece and placed it in Jenna's hand. "I'm only going to be a few seconds; I'll just have a quick look and see what's going on. If I'm not back in . . . oh, three minutes . . . you can go and get Silas, okay?"
Jenna nodded uncertainly.
Beetle set off up the long, straight flight of stairs, aware that Jenna was watching his every move. As he drew closer to the top, a feeling of fear came over him and he stopped. In front of him, no more than three steps away, was a wall of a shifting, dancing, swirling blackness, which clearly was not just late winter afternoon darkness mixed with some old spell vapors that, deep down, Beetle had hoped it would be.
"Can you see anything?" Jenna's voice drifted up to him. It already sounded far away.
"No . . . not really."
"Maybe you should come down."
Beetle thought that too. But when he looked back and saw Jenna far below, gazing up at him expectantly, he knew he had to go on. And so, determined not to act scared in front of Jenna again, Beetle forced himself to take the last few steps to the top of the stairs.
At the foot of the stairs Jenna saw a few tendrils of darkness move out and curl around Beetle's feet. At the top of the stairs Beetle was overwhelmed by a sudden desire to step into the darkness. He was convinced that his father was waiting for him there. He knew he would find him if only he would step into the swirling gray mist. And so he did. He took a step forward - and disappeared.
Jenna watched Beetle go. She looked down at his timepiece and began to count the minutes. Above her a small, invisible bird noiselessly fluttered, counting long bird minutes, waiting and watching for the moment it could bring the Princess home to its imprisoned mate.
Chapter 11 A Darke Domaine
Beetle stepped into the gloom and a wave of happiness came over him. Suddenly he knew that his father was not dead from a spider bite - as his mother and a well-worn, faded letter of condolence from the Port authorities had always told him. His father was alive. Not only alive but here in this very place, waiting to see him - his son.
Feeling as though he was walking in lead boots beneath a dark and swirling sea, Beetle moved dreamily deeper into the gloom. Everything felt muffled and his breath came slowly. Indistinct shadows of Things - although Beetle did not see them as such - moved and swayed on the edge of his vision, plucking at his clothes, pushing him forward. Feeling that this was the biggest moment in his life, Beetle walked slowly, almost reverentially, knowing that all he had to do was to push open the right door and he would find the person that he always had longed to meet.
Beetle progressed along the seemingly endless corridor, passing rooms piled high with old mattresses, bedsteads and broken furniture - but not one containing Mr. Beetle. As Beetle neared the end, he heard the sound of a sneeze. His heart leaped. This was it. The sneeze belonged to his father - he knew it. What had his mother so often told him? If only your father had not been allergic to just about everything, he would never have swelled up like a balloon when that spider bit him and he would still be alive today. And here, at the end of the corridor, was his father - sneezing just like his mother said he always did. Nervously Beetle approached the room where the sneeze had come from. The door was half open and through it he could see a figure lying on a narrow bed, the blankets pulled up around his ears. As Beetle tiptoed in, the figure shook with another violent sneeze. Beetle stopped. The words he had longed to say, but he had never had anyone to say them to, sat on the tip of his tongue. He took a deep breath and let them go.
"Hello, Dad. It's me, B - "
"Whaa?" The figure in the bed sat up.
"You!" gasped Beetle, shocked. "You. But you're not my . . ."
Merrin Meredith, hair sticking up on end, nose red raw, looked even more shocked. He sneezed violently and blew his nose on the bedsheet.
Beetle came to his senses and realized that he was not ever going to see his father. A great feeling of loss swept over him, which was quickly replaced by fear. His mind cleared and he suddenly knew what he had done - he had walked into a Darke Domaine. Beetle forced himself to stay calm. He looked at Merrin, who was a pathetic sight, hunched up in bed. His long, greasy hair straggled over a fresh crop of pimples, his thin, bony fingers played nervously with the blanket, while his swollen and discolored left thumb sported the heavy Two-Faced Ring that Beetle remembered him wearing in what he now thought of as the old days in the Manuscriptorium.
It's only Merrin Meredith, Beetle told himself. He's a total dingbat. He couldn't do a decent Darke Domaine in a million years.
But Beetle could not quite convince himself of this. The scary thing was, as soon as he had walked into Merrin's room, he had come to his senses. And if Merrin really was Engendering a Darke Domaine, then that was exactly what Beetle would have expected to happen. Merrin would be at the very center of the Domaine - in its eye - where all is calm and free of Darke disturbances. One way to test it was to step outside the room, but Beetle was loath to risk it. He knew that in a Darke Domaine your sense of time and space could change. In what might seem like a few steps you could actually be walking miles - sometimes hundreds of miles. And it had indeed felt like a long, long walk down the corridor. Supposing he was no longer in the Palace attic? He could be anywhere - in the Badlands, in Bleak Creek, in Dungeon Number One - anywhere.
Beetle decided that his only chance was to convince Merrin that his Darke Domaine had failed and get Merrin to walk out with him. That way he'd have a safe passage back. It would be tricky, but it might just work. Taking care not to lie - because lies can fuel anything Darke - Beetle took a deep breath and launched into the attack.
"Merrin Meredith, what are you doing in the Palace?" he demanded.
"Atchoo! I could say the same to you. Someone else fired you, have they? Got nothing better to do than go snooping in people's bedrooms?"
"You'd know all about snooping," Beetle retorted. "And as for being fired - I hear Jillie Djinn's at last seen sense and fired you. What took her so long I don't know."