Septimus and Simon headed away from the Barge Quay into the maze of alleyways that would take them back to the harbor front, where they could safely do their Transports back to the Castle. Jim Knee followed, debating with himself whether he might request being an owl for the return journey. He was so hungry that the idea of fresh mouse was quite appealing. And then he thought about mousetail and changed his mind.
Septimus was pleased with the way things had gone. “Bait dispatched,” he said. “Now all we have to do is wait for Edmund and Ernold to turn up for it.”
But seeing Merrin shivering in the barge, setting off into the night—and who knew what danger—had made Simon thoughtful. “Poor Merrin,” he said.
Septimus was not in the mood to feel sorry for Merrin. “None of this would have happened if he hadn’t taken the ring in the first place.”
“True,” agreed Simon. “But then, you could say the same about many things. None of it would have happened if DomDaniel hadn’t kidnapped him instead of you. Maybe you should be thankful to Merrin for taking your place.”
Septimus fell into kid-brother mode. “I wouldn’t have been such a little tick as him, even if it had been me,” he retorted.
Simon smiled ruefully. “You can’t know for sure. Not until you have walked the same road in the same shoes.”
“But my feet are different from his,” said Septimus.
“They are now. But baby feet are soft. You have to take care they don’t get squashed.” Simon grinned at Septimus. “Well, that’s what Lucy says, anyway.”
The alleyway narrowed and Septimus dropped back. They hurried, single file, through Fat Man’s Crush and Weasel Slip Slide and soon emerged onto the deserted harbor front.
“Ready to go?” Septimus asked Simon.
Septimus decided to give Jim Knee the choice of bird to Transform to—the jinnee had done well. “Time to go, Jim Knee. I’ll see you at the Castle—at the Port barge landing stage. We have someone to meet. Transform!”
There was a flash of yellow light, a small pop, and an albatross stood at Septimus’s feet. Septimus heard a sharp intake of breath from Simon.
“It’s okay. I said he could be what he liked.”
“Not the stupid albatross. Over there. Look!”
Heart in mouth, Septimus looked up, expecting to see two wild Heap uncles heading their way. But hurrying out of the shadows came a very different Heap.
“It can’t be,” said Septimus.
“It is. It’s Jenna.”
“Oh, Sep. It is so good to see you!” Jenna threw herself at Septimus and hugged him hard. “And you too, Simon.”
“What are you doing here, Jen?” Septimus whispered.
“You would not believe it, Sep. You just would not. She is totally, utterly impossible.”
“The Queen—my mother. She is a complete control freak. Mum never, ever behaved like that.”
Septimus recognized the expression in Jenna’s eyes. “You mean you had a fight with the Queen?”
“You bet I did,” said Jenna.
“I stuck it out for forever, Sep, until I couldn’t stand it a moment longer. I just had to come home.”
“You walked out?” Septimus was amazed.
“Yep. But I was so mad that I didn’t look where I was going and I ended up here. There’s a kind of crossroads in the Queen’s Way, I think.” Jenna grinned at Septimus. “And now I’m really glad I did.” She stood back and pushed her hair out of her eyes.
Jenna began to notice how oddly her brothers were behaving. They were standing really close to her—like a couple of guards—but neither of them was looking at her. Instead they were gazing around the empty harbor front like they were expecting someone else to arrive at any moment.
“Hey, you don’t look very pleased to see me,” Jenna said.
“We’re not,” said Simon tersely.
“Well, thank you, Simon Heap. Thank you so much.”
“He didn’t mean it like that, Jen,” Septimus whispered.
“Well how did he mean it, then?”
“There’s no time for this,” said Simon, also whispering. “Right now we need to get somewhere safe.”
Jenna was beginning to feel scared. She glanced around and thought for the first time how scary an empty harborside can be. “Why, aren’t we safe here?”
“I guess it is creepy here. Anyway, I’m off. I’ve stayed here too long as it is—I really must get back and see Mum. I’m going to get the late Barge to the Castle.”
“You’ve missed it,” said Septimus.
A gust of wind whipped across the open harbor front, sending the ships rigging zinging, and a rumble of thunder drifted in from the ocean beyond. Jenna shivered. In her time away she had become accustomed to the heat. Suddenly she felt tired, cold and frightened. “Well, I suppose we can go back to the Port Palace,” she said reluctantly.
“Where’s that?” asked Simon, who knew the Port well, but had never seen or heard of a Palace.
Jenna pointed over to the Customs House, a tall building on the edge of the harbor front where Simon had, until recently, lived in one of the attic rooms. “There’s an alleyway down there.”
“No, there isn’t,” said Simon.
“Yes, there is,” said Jenna. “But you don’t see it—unless you’re with me. So, do you want to go there or not?”
A flash of something by the side of The Harbor and Dock Pie Shop caught Septimus’s eye. “Yes, we do. Right now,” he said, accompanied by the bang of Maureen’s broom as she chased out two rats she had found sleeping in the warmth beneath the pie ovens.
“Okay.” Jenna set off across the harbor front. Flanked on either side by her guards and waddled after by a reluctant albatross, who longed to be spreading its wings and lifting off into the wind, she led them into the shadows of an old brick wall beside the Customs House. Jenna turned to her brothers.
“Is that yours?” she asked, pointing to the albatross.
“Yes.” Septimus sighed. “It is.”
Jenna grinned. “You can bring your, er, bird too, Sep. This place even has an aviary.”
The albatross gave a raucous squawk of protest and pecked at Septimus’s foot.
“Ouch!” he said. “Okay, Jim Knee. I give you permission to Transform.”
With another pop and a yellow flash Jim Knee was once more back in human form, shivering in the chill wind. Albatross feathers were remarkably warm.
“I thought it might be you,” said Jenna with a smile. “The yellow beak was a giveaway.”
Jim Knee bowed politely. “Good evening, Your Majesty.”
To Septimus’s surprise Jenna did not object—as she certainly would have in the past. She merely replied, “Good evening, Jim Knee.”
Jenna turned to Septimus and Simon. “We’ll go in now.” She leaned forward and placed her hand on the old bricks. The bricks shimmered like stone on a hot day and slowly disappeared to reveal a ghostly archway. Septimus and Simon were impressed, Jim Knee less so—he’d seen plenty of these Arcane Alleys before, although this one looked rather smart compared to many of the dingy dives he had known. The name of the alley, he noticed, was The Queen’s Way.
“Okay, now it’s like going into the Queen’s Room. We all need to hold hands to get across the threshold,” said Jenna, holding out her hand to Septimus. He took Jim Knee’s hand, who took hold of Simon’s, and the chain followed on quickly, afraid that both the alley and Jenna would disappear. As Jenna crossed the threshold, a line of candles in golden holders sprang alight showing a narrow alley, glittering in tiny red and gold tiles snaking away into the darkness along the side of the Customs House.
Once everyone was safely in, Jenna waved her hand across the entrance and the view of the harbor faded away and was replaced by the other side of the brick wall. “Okay. We’re safe now,” she said. “No one can get in here. Now you can tell me what all the fuss is about.”
“It’s a long story,” said Septimus.