6

LISTENING

Septimus’s month in the Great Chamber of Alchemie was not as interesting as he had hoped. After the initial excitement of removing the sand—which he managed in three days by fixing up a siphoning arrangement that drew the sand out through the Labyrinth, scouring it clean as it went, and sending the sand into the UnderFlow Pool—Septimus spent his time cleaning, unpacking and doing more cleaning. Marcellus was forever disappearing—checking things, Apprentice—and Septimus spent a lot of the time on his own. He began to count down the days to his return to the Wizard Tower.

Marcellus’s disappearances were, of course, when he was tending the Fyre. It was going well but he dared not leave it for too long. The water flow was good—he had been a little anxious about dumping the sand in the UnderFlow Pool, but it was deep enough to take it. His main concern now was venting the Cauldron heat, which was growing daily. Toward the end of Septimus’s month, Marcellus took a reluctant decision to open four more vents. He chose their positions carefully and hoped that no one would notice.

On a beautiful, bright dawn two days before the end of his month with Marcellus, Septimus was trudging to work, heading for the entrance to the Great Chamber that Marcellus had recently opened. His journey took him past the Palace and the bizarre collection of snow sculptures that were being created on the lawns in front. He stopped for a moment to look at the new ones and then reluctantly set off. It was going to be another beautiful day, but he would spend it underground in candlelight and it would be dark by the time he returned.

On the other side of the Palace, Jenna was drawing back the curtains from her bedroom window. She saw the sun climbing over the snow-covered hills in the distance, the pinky-green streaks of cloud low in the sky and the sparkling orange glints of light on the shining black surface of the river. It was beautiful—but it was cold. Jenna shivered. She was not surprised to see ice frosting the windows; it was now more than four weeks into the Big Freeze and a deep chill pervaded everything. She dressed quickly in her winter robes and, wrapping herself in her fur-lined cloak, was out of her bedroom fast.

The ghost of Sir Hereward, who guarded her bedroom door, woke with a start. A ghostly “Good Morning, Princess” followed Jenna as she strode briskly down the corridor.

“Morning, Sir Hereward,” she called back over her shoulder, and disappeared around the corner.

Sir Hereward shook his head. The Living were always in such a hurry, he thought. The ghost performed an old-fashioned military about-turn and began a slow march down to the Palace doors where, once the Princess had left her room, he now spent his days on guard.

Downstairs, Jenna grabbed a few leftovers from the supper table, pulled her red winter fur-lined cloak tighter around herself, and headed out, winding her way through the assortment of snow sculptures, stopping briefly to admire her favorites. As she drew near the Palace Gate, Jenna saw two large, ungainly figures loitering on either side. She approached cautiously, wondering who they might be. And then she remembered—it was the day of the annual Castle snowman competition. She pushed open the Gate and walked out through two guard snowmen.

“Happy Snowman Day, Princess!” one of the snowmen said.

Jenna jumped in surprise. Then she saw the bob of a red bobble hat followed by the cheeky grin of a small boy peering from behind the bulk of the snowman. Perched on the shoulders of a much taller friend, he was in the process of putting the finishing touches to his snowman.

“Happy Snowman Day,” Jenna replied, smiling in return. “He’s good,” she said, pointing at the snowman.

The boys laughed. “We’re going to win!”

“Good luck!” Jenna walked off into Wizard Way, her fur-lined boots pressing the fresh snow beneath. With her red cloak standing out against the more sober colors of most people’s winter robes, Jenna was easy to spot as she made her way along the freshly cleared path that ran beside the shops. She passed by a motley assortment of snowmen. Larry’s Dead Languages sported a surprisingly upbeat snowman with a large melon-slice grin and Larry’s favorite scarf. Jenna suspected that once Larry saw it, both the scarf and the grin would rapidly vanish. Wizard Sandwiches boasted an eye-aching snowman made from rainbow-colored snow, and outside Sandra’s Palace of Pets was a disconcertingly giant rabbit complete with a supersize carrot. Jenna walked slowly on past a trio of small printing shops, each with an identical little snowman wearing a printer’s apron and reading a book. As she neared the Wizard Tower, she saw a familiar figure heading toward the Great Arch. He was wearing the still—to Jenna—unfamiliar dark blue robes of the Chief Hermetic Scribe and had a long metal cylinder tucked under his arm.

“Hey, Beetle!” she called, picking up speed.

The Chief Hermetic Scribe turned and waved, then waited for Jenna to catch up.

“Hello,” puffed Jenna. “How’s it going?”

Beetle smiled. “Good,” he said. “Really good. And you?”

“Great. Yes, fine, thanks.” Jenna regarded Beetle shyly. He seemed so very different in his official robes. It was hard to believe this was the same Beetle who had been working for the irascible Larry not so very long ago. He seemed taller, older, and his brown eyes regarded her with an expression that was strangely distant. Beetle used to look so happy to see her, thought Jenna, but now that he was Chief Hermetic Scribe he was much more reserved. She wasn’t sure if she liked that. The gold bands on the sleeves of Beetle’s robes glittered as he raised his free arm to shield his eyes against the bright morning sun and then, in a happily familiar gesture, run his hand through his unruly black hair. Jenna smiled.

“Better get going, got to meet Marcia in”—Beetle looked at his timepiece—“five minutes and forty-two seconds precisely.”

Jenna looked horrified.

Beetle broke into a broad smile. “Gotcha!” he said.

“Oh, you pig,” said Jenna, laughing—happy to see a glimpse of the old Beetle. “For a horrible moment I thought you’d turned into Jillie Djinn!”

“Nope. Not yet, anyway.”

“Um . . . so how are you? I haven’t seen you for ages. Since . . . gosh . . . Simon’s wedding, I suppose. Are you busy? Well, I guess you must be—”

The old Beetle disappeared and the Chief Hermetic Scribe looked at his timepiece. “I’m sorry, Princess Jenna. I really must go. Stuff to do and all that.”

Jenna could see that Beetle was longing to be off. She felt as if she was being a nuisance, and that wasn’t good. Jenna had an uncomfortable sense that she had once made Beetle feel just like she was feeling now.

“Oh, yes, of course,” she said. “Well. I’ll see you around, then. Have a nice day.”

“You too.” With that, the Chief Hermetic Scribe strode off, his long blue robes brushing the snow, leaving a softly flattened wake behind them. Jenna watched Beetle walk into the shadows of the lapis lazuli–lined Great Arch and disappear into his new, unknown world. She took a deep breath, trying to shake off the melancholy that had settled on her, and walked on toward the gap between the last two houses on Wizard Way. Here she made a left-hand turn into a snow-filled alleyway, which led to the Castle Wall. The alley was about a foot deep in snow, which Jenna waded slowly through. She was in no hurry to get to where she was going.

But soon enough Jenna reached a flight of stone steps that led up to the path that ran along the top of the Castle walls, just behind the battlements. Kicking newly fallen snow away so that she could see where the steps were, Jenna climbed up and found herself standing on a wide, flat snow-covered path, which bore traces of footsteps blurred with snow from the previous night’s fall. Jenna stopped at the top of the steps and looked around. She loved this part of the Castle. Not many people chose to walk along the walls. It had been forbidden during the rule of the Custodians in the Bad Old Days—as they were now known—and many people still believed that only the ExtraOrdinary Wizard and the Princess were allowed to use the path. Jenna was happy with that. It was one of the few places in the Castle where she could wander without feeling she was public property.

The battlements were low at this point and Jenna could easily see over them. She looked across the iced-up Moat to the tall trees on the opposite bank: the outriders of the Forest. Their branches were laden with snow, thick and stark against the black bark of their trunks. Jenna thought of her four Forest Heap brothers. She was so glad that Sarah had persuaded them to stay in the Castle for the Big Freeze. She shivered. Even with a campfire burning day and night, even with all the smelly furs they wore, they must have been so cold in the Forest.

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