"Yes, it must be destroyed," Marcia agreed. "But we no longer have the Fyres to do it."
Marcellus felt nervous as he offered his solution. "Marcia, I hope you trust me enough by now to consider my offer seriously. I would like to return to my old Alchemie Chamber. If you allow this I could start up the Fyre and within a month we could rid the Castle of the pernicious ring forever. I give you my word I will preserve the Ice Tunnels and meddle with nothing."
"Very well, Marcellus. I accept your word. I shall place this ring in the Hidden Shelf until then."
"Um . . . I have one more request," Marcellus said tentatively.
Marcia knew what it was. "Yes," she said with a sigh. "I will second Septimus to you for the next month; I can see you will need his help. We are all in this together now. We need the Alchemie as well as the Magyk to keep the Darke in balance. Do you not agree?"
Marcellus smiled broadly as his old life opened up to him once more with all its amazing vistas. A wave of happiness spread through him. "Yes, I do agree. I most definitely do."
* * *
While this conversation had been going on, Nursie had taken hold of Merrin's bandaged hand and was tut-tutting over the bandage, which was, even Marcellus could see, a mess. Marcia looked at the pair and felt exasperated. What was she to do with Merrin? She blamed the evil influence of the Two-Faced Ring for much that he had done, but there was no denying that he had chosen to put it on in the first place.
Marcia knew that Nursie was the landlady of The Doll House, a dingy guesthouse in the Port where Jenna and Septimus had once spent an eventful night. Some time ago Aunt Zelda had told Marcia something about Nursie that she had not taken much notice of at the time - but now, as she looked at Nursie and Merrin together, and she saw the awkward way they both stood, their beaky noses and sallow skin, Marcia knew that what Aunt Zelda had told her must be true. She turned to Nursie and said, "Do you take in lodgers?"
Nursie looked surprised. "Why? You fed up with the Tower, are you? Too much cleaning, I suppose. And all those stairs must be hard on the knees. Well, it's half a crown a week, payable in advance, hot water and bedding is extra."
"I am perfectly happy in the Wizard Tower, thank you," said Marcia icily. "However, I would like to pay a year in advance for this young man here."
"A year in advance?" Nursie gasped, not able to believe her luck. She could get the house repainted and, best of all, she could afford to stop working for those ghastly witches.
"To include nursing services and general care and attention," said Marcia. "Also hot water, bedding and food. No doubt the young man would be happy to help around the house once his hand is better."
"It won't ever be better," growled Merrin. "It hasn't got a thumb anymore."
"You'll get used to it," said Marcia cheerfully. "You are free of the Ring now and you have to make the best of it. I suggest you take my offer to go with the Nurse here. Otherwise all you will be seeing for the foreseeable future is the inside of the Wizard Tower Secure Chamber."
"I'll go with her. She's all right," said Merrin.
Nursie patted Merrin's good hand. "There's a good boy," she said.
"Marcellus, do you have six guineas on you?" asked Marcia.
"Six guineas?" Marcellus squeaked.
"Yes. You're always rattling with gold. I'll pay you back."
Marcellus delved into his pockets and very reluctantly he handed over six shining new guineas. Nursie's eyes bulged. She had never seen so much gold. Marcia added a crown from her own pocket and presented the money to the dumbstruck landlady.
"Slightly over, I think you'll find," said Marcia briskly. "But it will cover your fare back to the Port. If you hurry you will catch the evening barge."
"Come on, dearie." Nursie linked her arm through Merrin's good one. "Let's get out of this place. I never did like the Castle. Nasty memories."
"Me too," said Merrin. "It's a dump."
Marcellus and Marcia watched Merrin and Nursie head off. "Well, they seem well suited," Marcellus said.
"So they should be," said Marcia. "They're mother and son."
Foxy was the first scribe Marcia tracked down and sent off to the Manuscriptorium. On his way Foxy met Beetle coming out of Larry's Dead Languages.
They surveyed each other for a moment, smiling broadly.
"You all right, Foxo?" asked Beetle.
"Yeah." Foxy grinned.
"You weren't outside when it got you then?"
"Nah. Fell asleep by the fire and woke up two days later. Mouth felt like the bottom of a parrot's cage, but apart from that all was fine. But . . ." Foxy sighed. "My auntie's missing. She was out when the Domaine came over our way. Never made it back. Can't find her anywhere. And now . . . well, now they're saying about a Dragon taking people." He shuddered.
"Oh, Foxy," said Beetle. "I am so sorry."
"Yeah." Foxy changed the subject. "But hey, you don't look so good. Was it bad in the Chamber?"
"Yeah," said Beetle. "Lots of hammering and trying to get in."
"Not nice," said Foxy.
"No. And I never want to see a licorice bootlace ever again."
"Oh. Right." Foxy decided not to ask why. Beetle had looked strangely desperate as he'd said "licorice bootlace."
Foxy decided to change the subject. "So, um, how's Larry?"
"Not nice either," said Beetle. "Just got fired, in fact. For coming in late."
"Two days late."
Foxy put his arm around Beetle's shoulders. He'd never seen Beetle look so down. "It's all rubbish, isn't it?" he said.
"It's not great, Foxo."
"Want a sausage sandwich?"
Beetle saw the welcome lights of Wizard Sandwiches glowing through the dimming light of the late winter afternoon and he suddenly felt ravenous. "You bet," he said.
Jenna walked slowly up to the Palace, her footprints showing trampled grass through the snow. Ahead of her the Palace was dark against the late afternoon sky, with the winter sun already having dropped down behind the ancient battlements. It was an eerie sight, enhanced by the occasional crow call from the tops of the cedars down by the river, but Jenna did not see it that way. She had turned down offers from Silas and Sarah to come with her. This was the way she wanted to return to her Palace - on her own.
The ancient double doors were half open, left ajar by Simon when he had fled with Sarah in his arms. And guarding them was a familiar figure.
"Welcome home, Princess-in-Waiting," said Sir Hereward.
"Thank you, Sir Hereward," replied Jenna as she stepped inside. A flurry of snow entered with her. Jenna hung up her witch's cloak in the cloakroom and closed the door on it with feelings of fondness. It had served her well and who knew? She might need it again one day.
"You'd better come in too," she said to Sir Hereward, who was still out in the snow.
"Strictly speaking, Princess, now that you have taken possession of the whole Palace rather than just your room, I should stay outside," Sir Hereward replied.
"I'd rather you came in," said Jenna. "I could use some company, if you don't mind."
A smiling Sir Hereward strode in, and Jenna quickly pushed the doors together. They closed with a bang that echoed through the empty building. Jenna looked around the entrance hall, which was full of shadows and ghosts. She reached into her pocket for the CandleLight Charm Septimus had given her that afternoon and began lighting the first of many extinguished candles.
Later that evening Jenna was sitting in Sarah's old sitting room with a bewildered duck in her arms when she heard footsteps coming down the Long Walk. These were not the soft tip-tap of ghost steps but solid boot-wearing human ones. Sir Hereward, who had been standing guard beside the fire, strode off to investigate. He returned - to Jenna's surprise and delight - with Aunt Zelda and Wolf Boy.
Aunt Zelda swept her up into a huge, padded hug and Wolf Boy grinned broadly.
"We're really, really sorry we missed your party," he said. "But it was weird - we couldn't get out of the Queen's Room for two whole days."
Aunt Zelda settled herself beside the fire. She looked at the duck in Jenna's arms. "That creature has been in the Darke, dear," she said to Jenna a little disapprovingly. "I do hope you are not dabbling with things you shouldn't. Some Princesses of your age have done so in the past."