But it was a shame, she thought, about the Heaps. They were a disreputable-looking bunch, and there were so many of them. Everywhere she looked she saw the distinctive curly straw-colored Heap hair topping a scruffy-looking individual. The Gringes were massively outnumbered.

A shout of laughter drew Theodora Gringe’s attention to a group of four noisy men who reminded her of Silas Heap and who, she supposed (correctly), were his brothers. Mrs. Gringe grimaced and cast her critical eye over the Heaps she recognized. She grudgingly admitted to herself that Silas and Sarah looked smart enough in their blue and white wedding clothes—if a little eccentric with Sarah carrying that ridiculous duck-in-a-bag. Mrs. Gringe eyed up the duck: ready-plucked, perfect for a stew. Deciding to suggest that to Sarah later, she scrutinized the Heap boys with mixed feelings. The two youngest, Nicko and Septimus, weren’t too bad.

Septimus in particular looked rather fine in his impressive formal Apprentice robes with the long purple ribbons dangling from his the sleeves. He was taller than Mrs. Gringe remembered and she noticed that his typical Heap hair had actually been combed. She didn’t approve of Nicko’s sailor’s braids wound through his hair, although she supposed that his sober navy-blue boatyard tunic with its rather fetching sailor’s collar was acceptable.

But at the sight of the remaining Heaps, Theodora Gringe’s mouth puckered in distaste. The four Forest boys were a disgrace. She tutted as she watched Sam, Edd, Erik and Jo-Jo straggle along beside the bridegroom like—she searched for the right words—yes, that was it, like a pack of wolverines. At least they could have had the decency to keep to the back.

(While the wedding party had been in the Wizard Tower Courtyard, Mrs. Gringe had tried to push the Forest boys to the back. A struggle had ensued and her husband, Gringe, had had to drag her off. “Let it be, Theodora,” he’d hissed. “They are Lucy’s brothers now.” Mrs. Gringe had felt quite faint at the thought. She had had to take a long look at their trophy guest, Madam Marcia Overstrand, ExtraOrdinary Wizard, to get over it—which had been a little embarrassing as Marcia had asked her, rather sharply, if there was something wrong.)

Mortified by the memory, Mrs. Gringe sighed and then realized that she had been overtaken by the crowd. Happily unaware that the tall, pointy felt triangle perched on top of her hat gave onlookers the impression that a shark was cruising through the wedding party, stalking the bride, Mrs. Gringe began to elbow her way back up to the front.

At last they reached the Palace Gate. The onlookers clustered around, offering congratulations, gifts and good wishes. Lucy and Simon accepted them all, laughing, exclaiming, handing the gifts to various friends and relations to carry for them.

Sarah Heap linked her arm through Silas’s and smiled at him. She felt unbelievably happy. For the first time since the day Septimus had been born, she had all her boys with her. It seemed as though a heavy weight had been lifted from her shoulders—in fact right then Sarah felt so light that she would not have been surprised if she had looked down and seen her feet floating a few inches above the pavement. She watched her gaggle of Forest boys, all young men now, laughing and joking with Simon as though he had never been away. (“Away” was the word Sarah used to describe Simon’s Darke years.) She saw Septimus, confident in his Apprentice robes, talking with her little Jenna, who looked so tall and Queenly now. But best of all, Sarah saw her oldest son’s eyes—bright green once more—shining with happiness as he looked around, no longer an outcast, back where he belonged. In the Castle. With his family.

Simon could hardly believe it himself. He was stunned at all the good wishes and the feeling that people actually seemed to like him. Not so long ago, when he had lived below the ground in a Darke place, he’d had dreams just like this. But he would wake from them in the middle of the night, distraught when he realized they were only dreams. Now, to his amazement, they had come true.

The crowd continued to grow and it looked as if Simon and Lucy were going to be at the Palace Gate for a while yet. On the edge of the crowd, Marcia Overstrand cut an imposing figure. She was wearing ceremonial ExtraOrdinary Wizard robes of embroidered purple silk lined with the softest, highly expensive Marshmouse fur. From below the robes two pointy shoes made of purple python skin peeked out into the white snow. Marcia’s dark wavy hair was held back in a formal gold ExtraOrdinary Wizard headband, which glinted impressively in the winter sunlight. Marcia looked impressive—but prickly. Her green eyes found Septimus and she beckoned irritably to her Apprentice. Septimus excused himself from Jenna and hurried over to Marcia. He had promised Sarah that he would “make sure Marcia didn’t take over,” and he could see the warning signs.

“Septimus, have you seen that mess?” Marcia demanded.

Septimus followed the direction of Marcia’s pointing finger, although he knew exactly what she was talking about. At the end of Ceremonial Way—which led straight up from the Palace Gate—a tall column of scaffolding covered with a brilliant blue tarpaulin reared up, garish against the snow. Around it were scattered untidy piles of bricks and a clutter of builders’ equipment.

“Yes,” Septimus replied—not very helpfully, in Marcia’s opinion.

“It’s Marcellus, isn’t it? What is he doing starting already?”

Septimus shrugged. He didn’t see why Marcia was asking him, especially as Marcia still hadn’t set a date for him to begin his month with Marcellus. “Why don’t you ask him?” he said.

Marcia looked a little guilty. “Well, I promised your mother when she came to see me that there would be no . . . er, arguments.”

“Mum came to see you?” asked Septimus, surprised.

Marcia sighed. “Yes. She brought me the guest list and said that if there was anyone on it I didn’t like, she would quite understand if I didn’t come. Naturally I said that of course I was coming to Simon’s wedding and it didn’t matter at all who was there. She didn’t look convinced, I must say. I ended up promising her that I would be, well”—Marcia pulled a face—“nice to everyone.”

“Wow.” Septimus glanced across at Sarah Heap with new respect.

“Apprentice! Marcia!” Marcellus Pye’s voice caught their attention. Marcellus had escaped the clutches of Mrs. Gringe and was desperate to talk to someone—even Marcia. “Well, well,” he said jovially. “You both look very splendid.”

“Not quite as splendid as you do, Marcellus,” said Marcia, eyeing the Alchemist’s new set of black robes, the sleeves of which were slashed to show the red velvet shirt he was wearing underneath. Both cloak and tunic were liberally sprinkled with gold fastenings that glittered in the sunlight. Septimus could tell that Marcellus had made a big effort. His dark hair was freshly cut in a short bob and brushed forward over his forehead in the old-fashioned style that the Alchemist still favored on special occasions, and he was wearing his favorite pair of red shoes—the ones that Septimus had given him for his birthday two years previously. Marcia noticed the shoes and tutted. They still gave her an uncomfortable twinge of jealousy of which she was not proud.

Marcia waved her arm in the direction of the tarpaulin. “I see you have already begun,” she said, a little disapprovingly. She forced herself to refrain from adding that Marcellus had agreed not to begin building the chimney until the Great Chamber of Alchemie had been reopened.

Septimus saw Marcellus give a guilty start. “Goodness! What, um, makes you say that?”

“Well, I should have thought it was obvious—that rubbish at the end of Ceremonial Way.”

Septimus saw a look of relief fly across Marcellus’s face. “Ah. The chimney,” he said. “I’m merely making preparations. I know you do not wish to keep the Two-Faced Ring for longer than necessary. Keeping that ring safe must be a nightmare.”

As she had promised Sarah, Marcia made an effort. “Yes, it is. But at least we have it, Marcellus. Thanks to you.”

Septimus looked impressed. His mother had done a remarkable job, he thought.

Marcellus felt encouraged. He decided to ask a favor. “I wonder, Marcia, if you would object to a change of name?”

Marcia was flummoxed. “I am perfectly happy with Marcia,” she said.

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