Silas gasped. This was a terrible insult. “But, Marcia. I’m not a Stranger. I’m Silas. You know me.”

Marcia rounded on Silas. “I thought I did. Now I am not so sure. Take him away.”

25

THE STRANGER CHAMBER

The Stranger Chamber had been set up some seven hundred years previously after a disastrous rampage through the Wizard Tower by a highly plausible Grula-Grula. It was a large, windowless room on the opposite side of the Great Hall from the duty Door Wizard’s cupboard and was used for visitors who were considered a potential threat to the Tower. Although it showed no sign of being so, it was a completely Shielded and Secure area, and was the one place in the Wizard Tower that was devoid of Magyk. All the protective Magyk surrounding the room—and there was a lot—was sealed away in a second skin buried in the walls.

Behind its smart blue door, the Stranger Chamber looked comfortable and inviting. It was intended to put visitors at ease and give them no cause to suspect that they were, in fact, imprisoned. It was carpeted with a thick, finely patterned rug laid beside a fake fireplace, which contained a fire basket full of welcoming candles, burning brightly. There was a squashy sofa on the near side of the fireplace with its back to the door, and on the far side facing the door was a comfortable armchair strewn with cushions. Beside it was a table piled high with interesting books to read, a welcoming bowl of exotic fruits, a tin of biscuits and a jug of fresh water. It was to this armchair that the Stranger was always shown. The reason for this was that the Stranger’s chair was placed on top of a large trapdoor over which the rug had been carefully cut out. Beside the entrance to the Chamber next to the Alarm button, and also beside the sofa, were discreetly hidden levers. These, if given a sharp tug, would open the trapdoor and send the Stranger, chair and all, hurtling down a chute. Depending on a master lever set in a small box beside the door, the chute would send the Stranger either on a rapid descent under the Wizard Tower Courtyard and eventually out into the Moat, or straight down into a cell hewn from the bedrock of the Castle.

No Stranger had ever realized the purpose of the Chamber—until it was too late. They would be offered the very best food that the Wizard Tower could supply and be provided with the companionship of a highly attentive Wizard. If the Stranger was thought to be potentially dangerous or Darke, very often the attendant would be the ExtraOrdinary Wizard herself.

The true purpose of the Stranger Chamber was a well-kept secret even within the Tower, and many of the junior Wizards assumed it was merely a waiting room. But Silas was an old hand: he had once been the ExtraOrdinary Apprentice. He had even once been Attendant Wizard in the Stranger Chamber to a particularly odd character that Alther Mella had been convinced was a Chimera. Alther had, of course, been right, and Silas had actually got to pull the lever that had sent the Chimera hurtling on her way to the Moat. The Wizard Tower had escaped with no more damage than a few scorch marks to the Stranger Chair inflicted when, at the very last moment, the Chimera realized what Silas was about to do.

So, as Silas was ushered into the Chamber by his three escorts, he knew that he was no longer trusted in the Wizard Tower. He was, in fact, considered to be no better than a foul-smelling, fire-breathing, malevolent hybrid that wore way too much lipstick. It was utterly humiliating.

The first thing that struck Silas as he stepped into the Stranger Chamber was its complete lack of Magyk. After so recently rediscovering his love for Magyk after many years, Silas felt its absence all the more keenly. As he walked slowly across the soft patterned rug and was shown to the comfortable blue velvet chair strewn with multicolored cushions, Silas felt desolate. He watched his three escorting Wizards take their place on the sofa opposite. But no one needed to try to fool Silas, so he did not receive the usual sociable chitchat. Instead, the Wizard guards sat like three stone monkeys, staring at him in a most disconcerting way—especially as Silas knew one of them quite well. Bernard Bernard was a regular player in Silas’s Counter-Feet league and had even been to the Palace for supper. It was excruciating. Silas could not bear to look at them. He stared at his boots and tried to imagine what could possibly have happened to cause his incarceration. But his imagination failed him. All he knew was that it must be really, really bad. He would put a big bet on it being something to do with Edmund and Ernold—but what?

After what felt like hours, but was only ten minutes, the door opened and Marcia came in.

Silas leaped to his feet. “Marcia!”

To Silas’s horror, Marcia immediately placed her hand on the lever. “Sit!” she barked, as though Silas were a dog. Silas sat.

Marcia nodded to the three Wizards on the sofa. “You may go.”

Silas watched the Wizards file out, each one avoiding his gaze. He saw them close the door and, although he heard nothing, he knew that they had Locked it. Silas looked up at Marcia. “Marcia, please. Tell me what has happened,” he pleaded.

Marcia walked across to the fake fireplace and stood with her back to the candles, placing her hand on the other lever.

“I suggest you tell me, Silas,” she said coldly.

“But I don’t know,” Silas very nearly wailed.

“You don’t know?” Marcia spluttered incredulously. “You are telling me that you don’t know that your brothers are in fact two extremely skilled and daring Darke Wizards.”

Silas’s laugh bordered on hysteria. “What?”

“It is no laughing matter, Silas. You presented these as your two bumbling, Conjuring brothers eager to learn from us. When in fact they are two of the most skillful Wizards I have ever had the misfortune to come across.”

“No, that’s not possible.”

“Unfortunately it is perfectly possible.”

“Well, they certainly had me fooled,” muttered Silas.

“It doesn’t take a lot to do that,” snapped Marcia.

Silas was about to say that they had had Marcia fooled too, but he stopped himself. He noticed with dismay that Marcia’s hand was not only resting on the lever, but was impatiently drumming her fingers on it.

“Marcia . . .”

“Yes?” Marcia waited for what she thought was a confession coming.

“That lever—it is on a hair trigger.”

Marcia looked surprised. She did not realize that Silas knew about the workings of the Stranger Chamber. She stopped drumming her fingers but Silas saw that she did not take her hand away.

“I will remove my hand when you convince me that you have not been party to this.”

“Party to what?”

“Party to a conspiracy to introduce two Darke Wizards into the Wizard Tower for the purpose of theft and burglary of the most serious kind. Party to aiding and abetting the two said Wizards in pursuit of their plan. Party to expediting their escape from the Castle.”

Silas spent some seconds trying to work out exactly what it was that Marcia had said. But his brain was in panic mode. All he could manage was, “Marcia, please. I don’t understand. What have they done?”

Marcia did not reply. There was an odd look in her eyes that Silas found disconcerting. Silas had never progressed to the MindScreen level of his Apprenticeship and he did not realize that Marcia was trying—without the aid of any Magyk—to catch a glimpse of his thoughts.

Marcia just about managed it. She got panic, anger with his brothers, but overriding everything was utter bewilderment. The bewilderment was, she could tell, completely genuine. Marcia took her hand off the lever and sat down on the sofa opposite Silas. Silas breathed a sigh of relief and fell back into the cushions. Marcia believed him.

“Silas Heap,” she said, “I accept that you have not conspired against the Wizard Tower.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” breathed Silas.

Marcia held up her hand. “However . . .”

“Oh,” muttered Silas.

“You have neglected your duty as an Ordinary Wizard. On your Induction all those years ago you promised to protect the Wizard Tower at all times. You promised to honor your word. At some time in the last twelve hours you have broken both those promises with disastrous consequences.”

“No! No, I haven’t.”

“You have. You promised to accompany your brothers in the Wizard Tower at all times.”

“But I have.”

“If that is so, then that makes your position even worse.”

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