"Welcome to the Palace," piped Barney Pot, resplendent in a gray Palace tunic and red leggings. "Who do you wish to see?"

Lucy did not have a chance to reply.

"Barney!" came a lilting voice from inside. "There you are. You must go to bed; you have school tomorrow."

Lucy's companion went pale.

Barney looked back inside. "But I like doing the door," he protested. "Please, just five more minutes."

"No, Barney. Bed."

"Snorri?" The faltering word came from the woman.

A tall girl with pale blue eyes and long, white-blonde hair stuck her head out of the night door and peered into the dark. She blinked, stared straight past Lucy and gasped. "Mamma!"

"Snorri . . . oh, Snorri!" cried Alfrun Snorrelssen.

Snorri Snorrelssen threw herself into the arms of her mother. Lucy smiled wistfully. Maybe, she thought, it was a good omen. Maybe later that night, when she knocked on the door of the North Gate gatehouse, her mother would be just as pleased to see her. Maybe.

Chapter 3 Birthday Eve

But Lucy did not go to the North Gate gatehouse that night - Sarah Heap would not allow it.

"Lucy, you are soaking wet and exhausted," Sarah said. "I am not having you wander through the streets at night in that state; you'll catch your death of cold. You need a long sleep in a nice warm bed - and besides, I want to hear all about Simon. Now let's find you some supper . . ."

Lucy gave in gratefully. The relief she felt at Sarah's welcome made her feel suddenly tearful. She happily allowed herself to be led along the Long Walk with Snorri and Alfrun and sat down beside the fire in Sarah Heap's little sitting room at the back of the Palace.

That evening, as flurries of snow blew in from the Port, Sarah Heap's sitting room was the warmest room in the Palace. Piled on the table were the remains of Sarah's famous sausage and bean hot pot supper, and now everyone had gathered around the blazing fire, drinking herb tea. Squashed in with Lucy and Sarah were Jenna, Septimus and Nicko Heap, along with Snorri and Alfrun Snorrelssen. Snorri and Alfrun sat close together, quietly talking, while Alfrun kept hold tightly of Snorri's hand. Nicko sat a little apart from Snorri, talking with Jenna. Septimus, Sarah noticed, was not talking to anyone but was gazing into the fire.

There was also a menagerie of animals: a large black panther by the name of Ullr, which sat by Alfrun's feet; Maxie, an ancient, smelly wolfhound who lay steaming gently in front of the fire; and Ethel, a stubbly, featherless duck wearing a new knitted waistcoat. Ethel sat resplendent on Sarah's lap, nibbling delicately on a piece of sausage. The duck, Jenna noted disapprovingly, was getting fat. She suspected that Sarah had knitted the new waistcoat because the old one had gotten too small. But Sarah loved Ethel so much that Jenna merely admired the red stripes and the green buttons along the back and said nothing about Ethel's expanding girth.

Sarah Heap was happy. In her hand she clasped a precious letter from Simon - a letter that she had read and reread and now knew by heart. Sarah had her old Simon back again - the good Simon, the Simon she knew he had always been. And now here she was, planning the party for Jenna's and Septimus's fourteenth birthdays. Fourteen was a big milestone, particularly for Jenna as Princess of the Castle, and this year Sarah had at last got her wish: the celebrations for both Jenna's and Septimus's birthdays were to be held at the Palace rather than at the Wizard Tower.

Sarah glanced up at the old clock on the chimneypiece and suppressed a feeling of irritation that Silas was not back yet. Recently Silas had been what he called "busy," but Sarah did not believe it - she knew Silas well enough to know that he was up to something. She sighed. She wished he were there to share the moment of everyone being together.

Pushing her thoughts about Silas to one side, Sarah smiled at Lucy, her daughter-in-law-to-be. Having Lucy there made her feel as if Simon was with them too, for there were moments when Lucy echoed Simon's eager, intense way of talking. One day, thought Sarah, maybe she would have all her children and Silas with her - though how they would all fit into the sitting room she was not sure. But if she ever got the chance she'd give it her best try.

Septimus too was glancing at the clock, and at 8:15 PM precisely he excused himself from the gathering. Sarah watched her youngest son, grown tall and gangly in recent months, get up from his perch on the arm of her battered sofa and pick his way through people and piles of books toward the door. She saw with pride his purple Senior Apprentice ribbons shimmer on the hem of the sleeves of his green tunic, but what pleased her most was his quiet, easy confidence. She wished he'd comb his hair more often but Septimus was turning into a good-looking young man. She blew her son a kiss. He smiled - slightly strained, Sarah thought - and stepped out of the cozy sitting room into the chill of the Long Walk, the wide passageway that ran along the length of the Palace.

Jenna Heap slipped out after him.

"Sep, wait a mo," she called after Septimus, who was striding off in a hurry.

Septimus slowed down unwillingly. "I've got to be back at nine o'clock," he said.

"You've got tons of time, then," said Jenna, catching up and walking along beside him, matching his long strides with smaller, faster ones.

"Sep," she said, "you know how I told you last week it was really creepy up by the attic stairs? Well, it still is. In fact, it's worse. Even Ullr won't go there. Look, I've got the scratches to prove it." Jenna rolled up her gold-hemmed sleeve to show Septimus a flurry of cat scratches on her wrist. "I carried him to the bottom of the stairs and he totally panicked."

Septimus seemed unimpressed. "Ullr's a Spirit-Seer cat. He's bound to get spooked sometimes with all the ghosts around here."

Jenna was not to be put off. "But it doesn't feel like ghosts, Sep. Anyway, most of the Palace ghosts Appear to me. I see tons of them." As if to prove her point, Jenna nodded graciously - a real Princess nod, thought Septimus - at what appeared to him to be thin air. "There. I've just seen the three cooks who got poisoned by the jealous housekeeper."

"That was nice for you," said Septimus, speeding up so that Jenna had to trot to keep up with him. They traveled quickly along the Long Walk, moving from the dancing flames of each rushlight into shadows and back into the light of the next.

"So I'd see if it was ghosts," Jenna persisted. "And it's not. In fact, all the ghosts are keeping away from that part of the corridor. Which just goes to show."

"To show what?" Septimus said irritably.

"That there's something bad up there. And I can't ask Marcia to check it out because Mum would throw a fit, but you're almost as good as Marcia now, aren't you? So please, Sep. Please just come and see."

"Can't Dad do it?"

"Dad keeps saying he'll have a look but he doesn't get round to it. He's always off somewhere. You know what he's like."

They had reached the large entrance hall, the light from a forest of candles illuminating its elegant flight of stairs and the thick old doors. Barney Pot had at last gone to bed and the entrance hall was empty. Septimus stopped and turned to Jenna. "Look Jen, I've got to go. There's loads I have to do."

"You don't believe me, do you?" Jenna sounded exasperated.

"Of course I do."

"Huh! Not enough to come and check out what's going on up there."

But Septimus wore the closed expression that Jenna had seen so much of over the previous few months. She hated it. It was as if, when she looked into Septimus's bright green eyes, there was something shielding him from her.

"Bye, Jen," he said. "Must go. Tomorrow's a big day."

Jenna made a big effort to shake off her disappointment. She didn't want Septimus to leave with bad feelings between them.

"I know," she agreed. "Happy birthday, Sep."

Jenna thought Septimus looked slightly surprised.

"Oh . . . yes. Thanks."

"It'll be such fun tomorrow," she said, linking her arm through his reluctant one and walking him toward the Palace doors. "It's great us having birthdays on the same day, don't you think? It's like we're twins. And on the Longest Night too, it's so special with all the Castle lit up. Like it's especially for us."

"Yeah." Septimus looked distracted, and Jenna could tell all he wanted to do was to get out of the door as fast as he could. "I really must go, Jen. I'll see you tomorrow evening."

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