Two Wizards, sisters Pascalle and Thomasinn Thyme, stepped forward. "We are happy to be your escort, Mr. Beetle, if you need one."
Beetle thought he could use all the help he could get. "Thank you," he said. He took a deep breath and pushed open the door. There was a loud ping and the door counter clicked over to the next number. The Front Office was a shambles and it made Beetle feel sad. The large desk, which he had kept so neat and organized, was a disgusting mess of papers and half-eaten sweets, the floor was unswept and sticky underfoot and there was a distinct smell of something small and furry having died under one of the many untended stacks of papers.
Beetle's gaze traveled around the dingy room, taking in the flimsy half-wood, half-glass panel that separated the Front Office from the Manuscriptorium itself, the ancient grayish paint peeling off the walls and the festoons of cobwebs looping down from the ceiling. He wondered if perhaps he hadn't noticed how run down it all was when he had worked there. But one thing he knew he would have noticed was the state of the small, reinforced door behind the desk that led to the Wild Book and Charm Store - it was nailed shut, with two thick planks across it. Beetle wondered how anyone managed to get in to clean. He presumed they didn't. The state of the Wild Book and Charm Store did not bear thinking about.
Suddenly the half-glass door that led into the Manuscrip-torium flew open and the Chief Hermetic Scribe bustled out. She carried a large handkerchief on which, Beetle noticed, in addition to the letters CHS, her collection of qualifications were carefully embroidered around the edge in different colors. So that's what Jillie Djinn did in her long evenings alone in her rooms at the top of the Manuscriptorium, thought Beetle.
Jillie Djinn blinked in surprise at the sight of Beetle flanked by two Wizards.
"Yes?" she snapped.
Beetle had been clutching the Emissary scroll tightly, waiting for this very moment. Quickly he twice-tapped the scroll and held it at arm's length. With a faint buzz a flicker of purple ran around the edges of the scroll, a waft of heat hit him, and suddenly he was holding the full-size version. It felt surprisingly thin and delicate (because in Magyk matter can neither be created nor destroyed), but Beetle thought that only added to its air of mystery and importance. He caught Jillie Djinn's gaze and saw she was, for a moment, impressed - then her default expression of mild irritation quickly reasserted itself.
Beetle was determined to be scrupulously polite. "Good evening, Chief Hermetic Scribe," he said. "I am here as Emissary of the ExtraOrdinary Wizard."
"So I see," Jillie Djinn replied coolly. "And what does she want now?"
Getting into his official role with some relish, Beetle began to read from the words busily arranging themselves on the scroll.
"Please be informed that a Castle Call Out is in progress. The presence of all Indentured Scribes is Called for with immediate effect," he proclaimed.
Jillie Djinn went straight to major annoyance.
"You can tell the ExtraOrdinary Wizard that important work is in progress here," she snapped. "Manuscriptorium scribes will not drop everything and rush off on the whim of the ExtraOrdinary Wizard." From one of her many pockets she took out a small timepiece and squinted at it. "They will be available when the Manuscriptorium closes in two hours, forty-two minutes and thirty-five seconds precisely."
Marcia Overstrand's Emissary was having none of it. He tried - not entirely successfully - to suppress a smile as the exact words he needed scrolled up before him. Savoring the moment, Beetle slowly read them out.
"Please be advised that Call Out Conditions state that Manuscriptorium scribes will be available as and when required. Failure to provide them on demand will invalidate your Terms of Office."
Jillie Djinn sneezed into her overqualified handkerchief. "Why are they required?" she demanded in an indignant splutter.
The words on the Emissary scroll continued to roll up, all gaining Beetle's approval - he could not have put it better himself.
"Please be informed that I am not at liberty to pulge that information. Any questions or complaints relating to this matter may be addressed in writing to the Wizard Tower once the Call Out is stood down. You will receive an answer within seven days. I now require you to make your scribes available immediately. So be it."
Jillie Djinn spun on her heel and flounced off into the Manuscriptorium, slamming the flimsy door behind her. Beetle glanced at his two escorts, who looked taken aback.
"We'd heard she was difficult," whispered Pascalle.
"But we didn't know she was that bad," finished Thomasinn.
"She's gotten worse," said Beetle. "Much worse."
From behind the partition Beetle heard a sudden burst of excited chatter, followed by the thudding of twenty-one pairs of boots as the scribes jumped down from their desks.
Above the hubbub came Jillie Djinn's squawk, "No, Mr. Fox, this is not time off. You will all stay two hours, thirty-nine minutes and seven seconds later tomorrow."
The door to the front office burst open and Foxy emerged at the head of the scribes. At the sight of Beetle he looked startled.
"Hey, Beet. I'd make yourself scarce. We're on a Call Out practice and you-know-who is in a foul temper."
"I know." Beetle grinned, waving his scroll at Foxy. "I've just told her."
Foxy gave a low whistle. He grinned too. "Wish I'd thought of that. So we've got the Longest Night off after all. Thanks, Beet!"
"No, Foxy. This is for real. You are on a Call Out."
"And you're running it? I'm impressed."
"I'm just the messenger, Foxo." With a flourish, Beetle twice-tapped the end of the scroll and popped the Reduced - and now very cold - version safely into his pocket. He raised his voice. "Outside please, everyone, and join the Ordinaries. We are to make our way to the Palace Gate, where we will assemble and await further instructions. Once outside, please be quiet - this is a silent Call Out. Fast as you can please - ouch! Partridge, mind where you're putting your fat feet, will you?"
"Nice to see you too, Beetle." Partridge grinned as he and Romilly Badger squeezed by in the crush of eager scribes. The excitement of the Call Out was infectious, and no one seemed to mind that they would have to work late the next day. Beetle counted the scribes out until it was just himself and Foxy left in the Front Office.
"D'you want Miss Djinn too?" asked Foxy warily. "I can go and get her if you do."
"Thanks, Foxo, but Marcia said she'd rather not."
"Yeah. Quite understand," said Foxy. "Look, I gotta go and Lock the Charm cupboard. Part of the job. Not that I got any Charms to Lock up, but it doesn't look good if I don't."
Beetle glanced outside. The crowd of Wizards, Apprentices and scribes were waiting, looking expectantly at him. "Be quick," he said.
Foxy nodded and scooted off. A minute later, Foxy was back, beckoning frantically to Beetle.
"Beetle - he's here. Again."
"Who do you think? Daniel Dingbat Hunter."
"Yeah. Whateverhecallshimself. Him."
Beetle asked his two Wizard escorts to take the waiting Wizards and scribes down to the Palace. "I'll catch up with you as soon as I can," he promised. "Okay," he said to Foxy. "Quick. Show me."
Very quietly Foxy pushed open the door into the Manuscriptorium and pointed inside. Beetle peered in. All he could see were the ranks of tall, empty desks, each under its own pool of dim yellow light. Of Merrin there was no sign - or, indeed, of Jillie Djinn.
"I can't see him," Beetle whispered.
Foxy looked over Beetle's shoulder. "Shoot. I did see him. I know I did. He's probably in the Hermetic Chamber."
Beetle was indignant. "He shouldn't go in there."
"Try telling Miss Djinn that - he goes wherever he wants," said Foxy gloomily as he quietly closed the door. "He's up to something, Beet."
Beetle nodded. That was most certainly true.
"Little toad," said Foxy.
The little toad was indeed up to something. He was, as Foxy had suspected, in the Hermetic Chamber.
Merrin was waiting - and he didn't like it. To pass the time he was eating a long licorice bootlace pulled from the secret siege drawer of the large round table in the middle of the Hermetic Chamber. The drawer was now crammed with a stash of sticky licorice, while its rightful contents languished in the garbage bin in the yard.