Marcia had an added reason for being uneasy about Septimus's Darke Week. Recently she had noticed that the Wizard Tower was requiring more Magyk than usual to keep everything running in perfect order. There had been a series of minor breakdowns - the stairs had suddenly stopped one day for no reason, and the floor had begun to display the odd, jumbled message. The previous week the Wizards had had to Fumigate a severe outbreak of Darke spiders, and only the day before Marcia had needed to reset the Password on the doors twice. Each incident on its own would not have worried her - these things happened occasionally - but the cumulative effect had made Marcia jumpy. Which was why she now said to her Apprentice, "I know it's your choice, Septimus, but I would rather you didn't begin your Darke Week right now."

Marcia was perched precariously at one end of her sofa. This was because most of the sofa was already occupied by a willowy man with a pointy beard who was curled up like a cat, fast asleep. The man's long, elegant fingers rested delicately on the purple velvet of Marcia's sofa, the color of which contrasted vividly with the yellow of his costume and his tall hat, which looked like a pile of ever-decreasing doughnuts crammed onto his head. This bizarre sleeping figure was Jim Knee - Septimus's jinnee - who had gone into hibernation. He had been asleep for some four weeks now, ever since the weather had turned wintry. His breathing was slow and regular, except for a loud snore that escaped now and then.

Marcia did not welcome having to share her sofa, but she preferred it to the alternative of Jim Knee being awake. Ignoring a sudden snurrrufff from the jinnee, she opened the Apprentice Almanac - a large, ancient book bound in what had once been bright green leather - which she was balancing on her knee. Slowly she turned the parchment pages until she found what she was looking for. She peered through her new tiny gold spectacles at the closely written text.

"Luckily you became Apprentice at a time that gives you the widest choice of when to do this. You actually have up to seven weeks after the MidWinter Feast in which to undertake your Darke Week. Is that not right, Marcellus?" Marcia looked over her spectacles at a man sitting opposite Septimus in an upright chair, daring him to disagree.

It was only the second time that Marcia had invited Marcellus Pye to her rooms in the Wizard Tower, and she had done so out of a wish to honor an old tradition. In days past, the Castle Alchemist - which Marcellus had once been - was consulted in the timing of the ExtraOrdinary Apprentice's Darke Week. The moment when an Apprentice went alone into the realm of the Darke was an important one, and Alchemists were known to have a much closer connection with all things Darke - not to mention something of an obsession with propitious timing.

The consulting of the Castle Alchemist had, naturally, lapsed with the demise of Alchemie in the Castle. But now, for the first time in many hundreds of years, there was, with Marcellus Pye, a true Alchemist available once again. After much thought, Marcia had decided to include Marcellus in the discussion. She was now regretting her decision - something told her he was going to be awkward.

Marcellus Pye glinted spectacularly in the firelight. He was dressed in a long, black, fur-lined velvet coat, which sported an extravagant array of shiny gold fastenings. The most unusual thing about him, however, was his shoes. Long and pointy, in soft red leather, they tapered to three-foot-long thin strips of leather that ended in black ribbons, which were tied just below his knees so that he did not (very often) trip over them. The onlooker, if they managed to stop looking at his shoes for a moment, would also see that below his dark hair brushed low over his forehead - which gave him an old-fashioned appearance - he too wore a small pair of gold spectacles. He also had a book on his knees, although it was smaller than Marcia's tome. His book, written by himself, was called I, Marcellus. Marcellus Pye was carefully consulting the last section, titled "The Almanac," before he answered Marcia's question.

"That may be true according to the Apprentice calendar," he said. "But - "

"But what?" Marcia interrupted irritably.

"Snur . . . snurrrufff!"

"Goodness me, what is that noise?"

"It's Jim Knee, Mr. Pye. I told you before - he snores. I do wish you would listen."

"Jim Knee?"

"I told you - Septimus's jinnee. Ignore him. I do."

"Ah, yes. Well, well. As I was saying before I was interrupted, according to my own Almanac, which gives considerably more accurate detail, and which my Apprentice helped to - "

"Ex-Apprentice," said Marcia tetchily.

"I have never revoked his Indentures, Marcia," Marcellus countered, equally tetchily. "I regard him as my Apprentice."

The subject of their discussion squirmed uncomfortably.

"Those Indentures were meaningless," snapped Marcia, refusing to let the subject drop. "Septimus was not free to become your Apprentice - he was already Apprenticed to me."

"I think you will find he was Apprenticed to me before he was Apprenticed to you. About five hundred years before, in fact," Marcellus said with a slight smile that Marcia found intensely annoying.

"As far as Septimus was concerned," countered Marcia, "your Apprenticeship came later. And Septimus is the one who matters. In fact, he is the very reason we are both here right now - because we are concerned for his safety, are we not, Mr. Pye?"

"That goes without saying," Marcellus Pye said stiffly.

"And so let me repeat what I said earlier, just in case that too has slipped your mind. Septimus has a window of seven weeks in which to commence his Darke Week. I am worried that if he goes tonight, at the Dark of the Moon, as you have suggested - "

"And as he wishes," interrupted Marcellus.

"He wishes it because you have suggested it, Mr. Pye - don't think I don't know that. If Septimus embarks on his Darke Week tonight, he will be in greater danger than on any other night. Far better that he waits until the full moon in two weeks' time, when it will be less risky for him and also for the . . ." Marcia trailed off. She was anxious that if Septimus entered the Darke at such a potent time it would unbalance the Magyk in the Tower even further, but she had no wish to tell Marcellus Pye her concerns - it was none of his business.

"Less risky for him and also for the what?" Marcellus asked suspiciously. He knew Marcia was keeping something from him.

"Nothing you need to worry about, Marcellus," Marcia replied.

Marcellus was annoyed. He snapped his book closed and got to his feet. He made a slight, old-fashioned bow. "ExtraOrdinary Wizard. As you requested, I have given my opinion. I regret that it was not to your liking, but I repeat: the Dark of the Moon is the most effective time for Septimus to embark upon his Darke Week. It is the most effective time for him to go and, as I understand it, effective is what Septimus wishes it to be. He is fourteen now - today I believe." Marcellus smiled at Septimus. "Fourteen is considered old enough to make important decisions, Marcia. I think you should respect that. I have nothing further to add and I bid you good day." Marcellus bowed once again - deeper this time - and headed for the large purple door.

Septimus leaped to his feet. "I'll get the stairs for you," he said. Marcellus had had trouble with the stairs when he came up and had arrived in Marcia's room somewhat dizzy and dishevelled.

As Septimus escorted Marcellus Pye along the landing, his old tutor looked behind him to check that Marcia had not sent some kind of eavesdropping creature to follow him. He saw nothing and said in a low voice, "Septimus, I hope you realize that I would never have advised you to go into the Darke at this time if I did not have something for you that I truly believe will completely protect you." Marcellus fixed his deep brown eyes on his Apprentice - or not, depending on who you sided with. "I care about you, just as much as Madam Marcia Overstrand does."

Septimus turned a little pink. He nodded.

Marcellus Pye continued, "I did not mention this to Marcia because I believe that even now there are things that should be kept secret from the Wizarding community. They are such gossips. But for you, as my Alchemie Apprentice, it is different. Come and see me this afternoon; there is something I wish to give you."

Septimus nodded. "Thank you, Marcellus. I'll see you later."

Septimus helped Marcellus onto the stairs and set them moving downward on delicate mode - normally used for elderly Wizards and visiting parents. He watched the apparently young Marcellus Pye disappear from view. He smiled - it was in the little details that Marcellus gave his true age away.