Marcia was right, Septimus had missed a lot of fun.

While he had spent his month belowground, Septimus had missed a sunny Big Freeze—what people in the Castle called a Bright One. Most Big Freezes were dull and overcast with biting winds and freezing fog, but every now and then along came one with clear blue skies and brilliant winter sunshine. This Bright One was particularly welcome: it felt to the Castle inhabitants as though it was chasing away the very last shadows of the Darke Domaine.

Everyone had been determined to make the most of it. Nicko had arranged a series of Moat skating races (much to Jannit Maarten’s annoyance). Jenna had organized a snow-sculpture park on the Palace lawns and the Chief Hermetic Scribe had held a series of Manuscriptorium sled races down Wizard Way and allowed the scribes to leave two hours before sunset every day to enable them to enjoy the snow. Hot food carts selling chestnuts, sizzling sausages and warm toffee bananas had been set up along Wizard Way and proved highly popular. More controversial was the igloo village populated by young teens that had sprung up on Alchemie Way, which, according to the disapproving older people who lived nearby, was the source of much loud music and bad behavior. The long ice-slide that zigzagged down the Municipal rubbish dump, ending outside Sally Mullin’s Tea and Ale House, was probably the most popular—and dangerous—innovation. Sally took advantage of this by setting up an outside hot-barley-cake stand and, after the first few days when the slide had become treacherously fast, a first-aid tent.

After the Darke Domaine, Sarah and Silas Heap had moved out of the Palace back to their old room in the Ramblings, leaving Jenna in sole possession of her Palace for the very first time. When the four Forest Heap boys came to the Castle for Simon and Lucy’s wedding, Sarah had insisted they, too, stay in their old home in the Ramblings. But after only one night, she had had to admit defeat: even half her family no longer fit into one room, so Jenna invited Sarah, Silas and the Forest Heaps into the Palace for the duration of the Big Freeze.

The Palace began to fill up. Simon and Lucy visited almost every day and the Forest Heaps—Sam, Jo-Jo, Edd and Erik Heap—roamed the corridors in much the same way as they had roamed the Forest paths, loping along and blending into the shadows.

For Sarah, it was a magical time. At long last she had all her children back in the Castle. She stopped worrying that something awful was going to happen to one—or all—of them and began to unwind. Silas was pleased to see the change in Sarah; her permanent air of concern had lifted and she had even stopped carrying that daft duck-in-a-bag around everywhere. Silas, too, became less distracted, he enjoyed getting to know his Forest sons once more; he even broached the subject of them considering Wizard Apprenticeships, although only Sam showed any interest. Silas didn’t mind; he was just pleased to have his boys back.

Jenna, too, was pleased to have her brothers back, but she was less happy about Sarah. Jenna thought of the Palace as her territory now and she did not like the way Sarah had taken charge as soon as she had returned. The way Jenna saw it, Sarah had moved out and was now back as her guest. Sarah, however, did not see it that way.

It was the little things that annoyed Jenna.

For instance, Jo-Jo Heap had developed a fascination with Gothyk Grotto, the shop at the end of Little Creep Cut, and soon some members of the staff became regular visitors to the Palace. Sarah Heap did not object to two of them: Matt and Marcus Marwick, Wolf Boy’s brothers, were “nice young men,” she said. What she did object to was “that sulky young witch, Marissa.”

“But Mum,” Jo-Jo protested, “Marissa’s left both Covens.”

“Both?” Sarah was horrified. “You mean she’s a Port Coven witch as well?”

“No, Mum. I told you. She not with either of them anymore,” Jo-Jo insisted.

“Once a witch, always a witch,” Sarah declared. “And no witch is going to set foot in my house.”

Jenna pointed out that the Palace was her house now and she would decide who was welcome in the Palace, not Sarah. Ever since Marissa had helped her escape from the Port Witch Coven, Jenna had come to like her. To prove a point she had invited Marissa over that very evening. Jo-Jo was delighted. Sarah was not.

Another day Jenna found Sarah in one of the disused kitchens, loading Lucy up with a pile of saucepans. “We don’t need all this stuff,” Sarah told Jenna when she had come to see what all the noise was. Jenna felt annoyed. Even though she was perfectly happy for Lucy and Simon to have things from the Palace, she did think Sarah should have asked her first.

While Sarah managed to irritate Jenna in a hundred little ways, Milo Banda was having the same effect on Sarah. “He’s hovering round the Palace like a bad smell,” Sarah complained to Silas one afternoon, after bumping into Milo in the shadows of the Long Walk for the fifth time that day, carrying something covered with a cloth. “And he’s always got some kind of junk with him. And when I ask him what it is he just smiles and goes shhh. What’s that about, Silas?”

“Don’t ask me,” said Silas. “The man’s a total fruitcake.”

Sarah sighed. “I know I shouldn’t complain. He is Jenna’s father—oh, Silas, don’t look so crotchety—and this is his home. But usually he’s here one day and gone the next.”

“The sooner he’s gone the better, if you ask me,” said Silas. “He unsettles Jenna.”

Silas was right; Milo’s presence did unsettle Jenna. Some mornings later, just as Septimus was getting his Flyte Charm returned to him, Jenna was leaning over the balustrade of the gallery that ran along the top of the Palace entrance hall. She was gazing at the patterns cast by the snow-bright sunlight glancing in through the windows when she saw Milo stride across the hall, his shiny black leather boots click-clicking on the stone floor, his red-and-gold cloak billowing out behind him as he rushed out of the Palace on yet more “business.”

Suddenly Jenna had the oddest sensation. She felt as if she had been transported to the life she would have had if her mother, Queen Cerys, had not been gunned down by an assassin’s bullet. It was so real that it made Jenna feel quite strange.

In the what-might-have-been world, Jenna (except she wasn’t called Jenna. She had a longer, more ancient name) was the oldest daughter—the Crown Princess. She had two younger sisters and a brother, all of whom had dark hair, violet eyes and found Magyk weird, just like her. Her two sisters looked a lot like her and her little brother looked like a young Marcellus. The what-might-have-been Palace was a busy place, the center of Castle life with coming and goings, and somewhere close by—in the Throne Room, probably—she knew that her mother was getting on with the business of the day. In fact, her mother was waiting for her to go to her, to spend the morning helping with Castle business and learning how to be a Queen. All was as it should be and at that moment it seemed to Jenna that her whole life up until now was no more than a long and complicated dream out of which she had just stepped.

Jenna was so caught up by the sensation of what-might-have-been that when Milo—sensing she was there—looked up at her and smiled, she blew him a kiss. She saw Milo stop dead as though someone had hit him; then she saw his face break into a smile of happy amazement. Milo blew her a kiss in return, and was out of the door and gone.

“Binkie-binkie-boo . . . binkie-binkie-boo . . .”

The spell was broken. Maizie Smalls, the Palace and Castle TorchLighter, was wandering down the corridor. “Excuse me, Princess Jenna, have you seen Binkie?” asked Maizie.

“Binkie?” Jenna tried to pull herself back to reality.

“My cat.”

Jenna was puzzled. “I thought Binkie had gone. In fact I thought all the Castle cats had gone. Jo-Jo said they were living in the Forest with the Wendrons.”

Maizie tutted; she did not approve of the Wendron Witches. “My Binkie wouldn’t do that,” she said. “Anyway, he came home a few days ago.” A frown flitted over Maizie’s face. Binkie had not been exactly friendly since he had returned; she had the scratch marks to prove it. “But he’s disappeared and I’m worried he might have gotten shut in a cupboard or something. So, if you do hear anything I’d be very grateful if you would check it out.”

“Yes, of course I will.” Jenna was not Binkie’s biggest fan, but she knew how much Maizie loved her cat. She watched Maizie wander off along the corridor making binkie-binkie-boo noises.

Tags: Angie Sage Septimus Heap Fantasy