"And if your mother hadn't gone running off after a duck she would have had time to get out too," Silas pointed out. "But that is beside the point," he added quickly, noticing Jenna's stormy expression. "We need to get to the Wizard Tower. Marcia will need all the help she can get."
They walked out the door in the kitchen garden wall and stepped into the small alleyway that ran along the back, going toward Wizard Way to the left and to the river to the right. Silas led the way with Maxie; Jenna and Hildegarde followed in silence. At the end of the alleyway Jenna stopped.
"I'm not going to the Wizard Tower," she said angrily. "I'm sick of Wizards. And I'm sick of Wizards messing everything up - especially on my birthday."
Silas looked at her sadly. He didn't know what to say. Jenna seemed so irritable nowadays, and whatever he said was never quite right - and, he thought, it didn't help that she was dressed in that awful witch costume, either. He rummaged in his pocket, brought out a large brass key and handed it to her.
"What's that for?" asked Jenna.
"Home," said Silas. "Our place in the Ramblings. I've been fixing it up. Making it just how your mum always wanted it to be. It . . . it was going to be a surprise for her next birthday. She's always wanted to go home. But now . . . well, now you at least can go home."
Jenna looked at the key lying heavy and cold in her palm. "That's not home, Dad. Home is where Mum is. Home is there." She pointed back at the Palace, the top row of Darke attic windows just visible over the alley wall.
Silas sighed. "I know. But we'll need somewhere to sleep for now. I'll meet you there later - Big Red Door, There and Back Again Row. You know the way."
Jenna nodded. She watched Silas walk briskly away, heading toward Wizard Way.
"Shall I come with you?" asked Hildegarde, who had kept a discreet distance behind Jenna and Silas. And then, receiving no answer, asked, "Jenna - Princess Jenna, are you all right?"
"No. And no," Jenna said sharply, cutting Hildegarde short before her sympathy got too much for her. She turned and ran back up the alley.
Hildegarde decided not to follow. Princess Jenna needed some time on her own.
Jenna followed the alley back up past the kitchen garden wall, around the dogleg turn that skirted the edge of the Dragon Field, and headed toward the river. The freezing night air bit into her as she ran, and she pulled her witch's hood up over her head to keep warm. The dark, dull shine of the river came into view and, breathless now, she slowed to a walking pace. The alley came to an end at a small, neglected jetty, which Jenna wandered onto. At the very end of the jetty she sat down on the damp and mossy wooden boards, wrapped her cloak around her and gazed at the sluggish black waters flowing silently beneath her feet. And there she sat, thinking of Sarah imprisoned in the Palace, wondering what was happening to her. She remembered childhood stories, Darke tales told around the fire late at night when she was meant to be asleep, tales told by visiting Wizards to the Heaps' crowded room in the Ramblings, of people emerging after years inside a Darke Domaine, their eyes wild and empty, their minds gone, their voices babbling gibberish. She remembered the whispered discussions on what could have reduced people to such a state, all kinds of ghastly details that came into people's heads late at night. And she could not help but think that all these terrible things could now, at that very moment, be happening to her mum.
Jenna sat, silent tears dripping down her neck, gazing out at the river. Flakes of snow began to settle on her witch's cloak, and the cold coming from the water set her shivering, but she did not notice. All she wanted was to find Septimus and tell him what had happened.
But where was he?
Chapter 23 Safety Curtain
Marcia and Beetle crossed the Cordon using the same method that Silas had, although with greater efficiency. Once they were on the other side, Marcia stood back and looked at the Palace. She saw the purple Magykal shimmer covering it and the two torches on the outside of the main doors, which were still lit. Her Quarantine had worked. There was, however, no sign of Hildegarde, Sarah or Silas. Marcia felt worried. She scanned the inscrutable windows of the Palace and concentrated hard. Her heart sank. There was no escaping it - she Felt the presence of two humans inside the building. It did not bode well for Sarah and Silas - or was it Hildegarde and Silas - or Sarah and . . . Marcia briskly told herself to stop worrying. She would find out soon enough.
Marcia now began the next stage of isolating the Palace from the rest of the Castle. This was the stand down, from which the raising of the Safety Curtain would follow. She picked the two nearest members of the Cordon: Bertie Bott, Ordinary Wizard and dealer in used (or pre-loved, as Bertie liked to say) Wizard cloaks, and Rose, the sick bay Apprentice. To each one she said the prearranged stand-down password. Immediately they stopped their low hum. Rose sent the password around to her right, and Bertie sent it to his left. Like a retreating wave, the low drone faded and was replaced by the whispering of the password. Soon silence had fallen. It spread to the crowds who had gathered at the end of Wizard Way, waiting expectantly for the next stage. Word was that the Raising of a Safety Curtain was worth watching.
At first it did not seem particularly promising. Each person in the Cordon was now busy knotting his or her Cord to their neighbor's. They laid their joined Cord on the ground, making sure it had no twists or kinks in it, and walked carefully away so as not disturb the delicate Magyk - for Magyk involving so many participants was a fragile thing. Within minutes of Marcia giving the password, a huge circle of Cord lay on the ground like a purple snake encircling the Palace. Beetle, who was feeling rather melancholy after Jenna's outburst, thought the fragile Cord looked sad as it lay abandoned in the trampled grass.
Meanwhile, the Wizard Way audience had drifted in through the Palace Gate in order to get a closer look. People waited patiently, with only the occasional smothered cough giving their presence away. They watched as the ExtraOrdinary Wizard kneeled down and placed her hands a few inches above the Cord. Nudges and excited glances were exchanged - now at last something was happening.
Totally unaware of her audience, Marcia was concentrating hard. She felt a faint current of Magyk running unimpeded through the Cord, which told her that everyone had let go. Now for the difficult part, she thought. Still kneeling, Marcia kept her hands low and close to the Cord. What she had to do now required a huge amount of energy. She took a long, deep breath in. Beetle, who was watching Marcia intently, had never seen anyone breathe in for so long. He half expected Marcia to blow up like a balloon and float away. Indeed her cloak seemed to him to be moving outward as if it really was filling with air.
Beetle was actually stepping back in case Marcia did indeed go pop, when she at last stopped breathing in. Now she began to breathe out, her lips pursed as though she were blowing on hot soup. From her mouth came a shimmering stream of purple, which was drawn to the Cord like iron filings to a magnet. The stream of purple kept on coming; it settled on the section of Cord in front of Marcia and grew steadily brighter. When it was so bright that Beetle had to look away, Marcia at last stopped breathing out.
Now came the part that demanded real skill. Marcia placed her hands in the brilliant light and very slowly she began to raise her hands. Behind her the crowd gave a subdued murmur of appreciation as the blinding purple light began to move upward, following her hands while still remaining anchored to the Cord. Slowly, carefully, biting her lip in concentration, Marcia drew up the light, taking care not to pull it too fast, which could create weak spots or even holes in what was now a shimmering purple curtain. Beetle saw Marcia's muscles trembling with the effort, as though she were lifting a tremendously heavy weight. The curtain of light followed Marcia as, arms painfully outstretched, she got up from her knees and staggered awkwardly to her feet. Beetle resisted his instinct to help her up, knowing well enough not to break Marcia's immense concentration, which reduced her brilliant green eyes to pinpoints of light in her pale skin.
Suddenly, what everyone in the audience had been waiting for happened. With a shout of something long and complicated - that later no one could remember - Marcia threw her arms into the air. There was a loud whoosh, and a curtain of blindingly bright purple light shot as high as the very tips of Marcia's fingers, then raced off along the Cord with the zipping fizz of fire along a fuse.