“No, no—I mean the Ceremonial Way. In the old days when the Great Chamber was operating and we had the chimney at the end of it—as we soon will again—it used to be called Alchemie Way. I wonder if you would allow it to resume its old name?”
“Oh,” said Marcia. “Well, I suppose so. It was called Alchemie Way before so it is only right that it is Alchemie Way once more.”
“Thank you!” Marcellus beamed. “And soon Alchemie Way will lead to the newly built Alchemie Chimney.” He sighed. “Well, it will when the builders bother to turn up.” A sudden outbreak of cheering and clapping signaled that the wedding party was beginning to head off to the Palace. Marcellus slipped away before Marcia had a chance to ask any more awkward questions.
Marcia felt dismal. An evening spent with a mixture of Heaps and Gringes did not figure anywhere on her good-nights-out list—not even at the very bottom. She glanced back longingly toward the Wizard Tower, wondering if she could make a run for it.
Septimus intercepted her glance. “You can’t leave now. That would be very rude,” he told her sternly.
“Of course I’m not leaving now,” Marcia said tartly. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
The wedding supper carried on late into the night. Heaps and Gringes did not always mix well and there were a few tricky moments, particularly when Mrs. Gringe put the duck stew suggestion to Sarah Heap. But nothing, not even Mrs. Gringe’s insistence that it would be no trouble at all to take the duck home, and seeing as it was nice and plump it would do enough for everyone and she could bring the stew over the next day to save Sarah the bother of cooking could dent Sarah’s happiness for long. She had all her children with her for the first time ever, and that was enough for her.
Marcia was surprised to find that her evening was not as bad as she had feared. After some very tedious speeches by various increasingly merry Heap uncles, a welcome distraction appeared. Through the long windows of the Ballroom, which reached to the floor and looked out across the Palace lawns down to the river, a barge ablaze with lights was seen drawing up at the Palace landing stage.
“Goodness, who can that be?” Marcia commented to Jenna, who was sitting next to her.
Jenna knew who it was. “It’s my father. Late as usual.”
“Oh, how nice,” said Marcia. And then, hurriedly, “Not nice that he is late, of course. Nice that he has made it to the wedding.”
“Just about,” said Jenna.
Silas and the four Heap uncles, glad of an excuse to escape, went to inspect the barge and escort Milo back to the wedding supper. He arrived resplendent in what some people thought was the dress uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet and others were sure they had seen in the window of a fancy dress shop in the Port—but whatever it was he was wearing, Milo caused a stir. He strode up to the bride, bowed, kissed her hand and presented her with a tiny ship of gold in a crystal bottle, much to Lucy’s delight. Then he congratulated Simon and took his seat next to Jenna.
It was not long before Jenna made an excuse to go and talk to the Forest Heaps at the far end of the table. Milo then took Jenna’s place next to Marcia and from that moment Marcia found the evening was much improved. So much so that she stayed rather longer than she had planned.
It was nearly two o’clock in the morning when Marcia made her way toward the Palace Gate across the well-trodden snow. A cold wind zipped in off the river and she pulled her winter purple cloak, lined with indigo blue fur, tightly around her. Her companion, the Chief Hermetic Scribe, did the same with his thick dark blue cloak. They made an impressive pair as they strode across the snow, cloaks fluttering in the wind. The new Chief Hermetic Scribe was now very nearly as tall as the ExtraOrdinary Wizard. Marcia was convinced that Beetle had grown since he had been Inducted as Chief Hermetic Scribe—or maybe, she thought, he now stood up straight and held his head high. Either way, Beetle could easily look Marcia in the eye, as he was doing right then.
“I’d like your advice,” he was saying. “There’s one not too far out of your way, if you wouldn’t mind taking a look.”
Septimus was spending the night at the Palace and Marcia was only too happy to put off the moment she returned to her rooms alone, to the ghost of Jillie Djinn, the previous Chief Hermetic Scribe, sitting mournfully on her sofa. “Beetle,” she said. “I’d be glad to.”
As they walked out of the Palace Gate together, Marcia thought how this conversation would never have happened with the late (and little lamented) Jillie Djinn. She realized how much easier, how much more pleasant and, yes, how much safer it felt to have someone she liked and understood as Chief Hermetic Scribe. She turned and smiled at Beetle. “So glad the Pick got it right this time,” she said.
“Oh!” Beetle blushed. “Well, thank you.”
The pair walked up the middle of the newly named Alchemie Way, making fresh footprints on the snow. The Way stretched out before them, empty, wide and lit only by the brightness of the snow reflecting the moonlight. Near the Palace it was particularly desolate. Here once was the Young Army Barracks, now boarded up and falling into ruin. Beetle and Marcia hurried by and the army buildings soon gave way to large houses, which were equally run-down and, at that time of night, dark and quiet. Many of the houses had boarded-up shopfronts on the ground floor. These were shops that had once serviced the thriving industry generated by the Great Chamber of Alchemie. But after the Great Chamber was closed down, the life went out of Alchemie Way and it had become an empty, windswept place—only to be briefly revived as the drilling ground for the Young Army and a venue for the lavish processions and displays that the Supreme Custodian enjoyed holding.
Beetle found it eerie and sad. He was pleased when a lantern hanging from a post showed the entrance to Saarson’s Scurry, the alley he was looking for. The Scurry, as it was commonly known, was much more cheerful. It was clearly occupied by sociable night owls: a hum of conversation and the merry clink of glasses drifted out of the tiny but well-kept houses. Lighted candles in the windows reflected off the snow and lit their path. A short distance into the alley, Beetle came to a halt by a puddle of water lying incongruously in the snow. Marcia crouched down and dipped her finger in the water. She looked anxiously up at Beetle. “How many of these did you say there were?”
“There are eight that I know about.”
Marcia made a teeth-sucking noise. “And you think they are all—what did you call them . . . vents?”
Beetle nodded. “Yes. Apparently it’s a system of cooling.”
“Really? What does it cool?”
“Well, that’s the thing,” said Beetle. “I don’t know. Romilly Badger found an old plan and—” A movement caught his eye. He looked around and saw three amazed faces at a window, staring out at the sight of the Chief Hermetic Scribe and the ExtraOrdinary Wizard inspecting a puddle outside their front door. “Best if I tell you as we go, I think.”
Beetle nodded toward the window.
“Ah.” To the shock of the onlookers, Marcia—still buzzing from the excitement of the evening—gave them a cheery wave. Then she put her arm around Beetle’s shoulders and said, in a manner reminiscent of Milo Banda, “Righty-ho, Beetle. Fire away.”
As they wandered along the snowy alleyways, heading toward Wizard Way, Beetle began to explain.
“Frankly, Marcia, the Manuscriptorium is in a real mess and we don’t know where half the stuff is. I decided to recatalogue everything, and last week I began with the Vaults. I was shocked. There are piles of paper all over the floor and in the tunnel section there’s a stack of stuff that’s been left to rot in a pool of water, which even Ephaniah says he can’t fix.”
“It must be bad,” said Marcia. Ephaniah Grebe was the Manuscriptorium’s Conservation Scribe, who was known to be able to restore pretty much anything.
“It is,” said Beetle. “We have lost an awful lot of information about what’s beneath the Castle. Anyway, I started with the Ice Tunnel shelves and I got Romilly Badger—she’s the Inspection Clerk—to help because I wanted her to understand as much as possible about them. You wouldn’t believe it, but she hadn’t even been given a proper map.”