Jenna and her invisible bird reached the Palace Gate at the same time as Beetle. Beetle looked flustered.
"Thought I was going to be late," he puffed. "Foxy . . . Chief Charm Scribe, my foot."
"You mean he isn't?" Jenna was surprised.
"Well, he is - if Jillie Djinn would only let him. Foxy said when he got back she'd taken all the Charms into the Hermetic Chamber for what she called stocktaking and wouldn't let him have them."
Jenna raised her eyes to heaven. "That woman. You're well out of that place, Beetle." She looked concerned. "But that means you haven't got a SafeCharm."
Beetle grinned. "That's okay. I probably won't need one. Anyway, I've got this. Foxy found it in the Pending Cupboard." He took a small, slightly curved, flat piece of wood from the inside top pocket of his admiral's jacket and showed it to Jenna. "Foxy reckons it'll be more use than a SafeCharm. He said a sea captain came in a couple of days ago and swapped it for a love Charm. It's a heartbeat thingy. You put it next to your heart like so . . ." Beetle put the Charm back into his top left pocket. "Foxy says that if you get really scared it knows and brings you back to the last place you were safe. Shall we get going?"
Beetle and Jenna walked up the Palace drive under a dark cloud that had blown in from the Port. Jenna did not want to meet Sarah right then, so she took the path around the back of the Palace. By the time they reached the small door into the turret at the far end, a cold wind was blustering up from the river and fat drops of sleety rain were beginning to fall. Jenna pushed open the door and they stepped inside. The door slammed in a sudden gust, the noise echoing down the Long Walk.
It was unusually dark inside the Palace. When Nicko had at long last returned safely home, Jenna had celebrated having both Septimus and Nicko in the Castle once more by asking Maizie Smalls, who lit the torches in Wizard Way, to live at the Palace. In return for two rooms looking out on the river and supper every night, Maizie had agreed to light a candle in every room in the Palace and to light the Long Walk with rushlights. But Maizie did not start "operation light up," as she called it, until a half hour before sunset. And there was, despite the gloom, still more than an hour to go before then.
Jenna always found the Long Walk - with its odd assortment of objects lining the walls - creepy, and that afternoon, in the failing light, she found it particularly so. So when Beetle took his old Ice Tunnel lamp (one of his mementos from his time at the Manuscriptorium) and flicked on its eerie blue light just as they passed a trio of grinning shrunken heads, Jenna shrieked out loud, then clapped her hand to her mouth.
"Sorry," she said, a little embarrassed. "Got a bit spooked."
"Whoooo," said Beetle in a mock ghostly voice, holding the light beneath his chin and grinning.
"Oh don't, Beetle - that's even more horrible!"
Beetle swung the light away from his face and shone it down the wide, amazingly long corridor. Strong as its beam was, it did not reach the end. "Actually, I feel a bit spooked too," he said in a half whisper. He glanced behind him. "I keep thinking something is kind of fluttering behind us . . . but I can't see anything."
Jenna looked around too. She had felt the same thing though she hadn't wanted to say anything. The word fluttering reminded her of the two little birds lying trembling in their boxes. Loudly - to reassure herself more than anything - she said, "No, there's nothing there."
The UnSeen little bird rested a few minutes on one of the shrunken heads, its tiny wings tired with having to keep airborne for so long, and then continued following Jenna.
They walked on quickly past the door to Sarah Heap's sitting room and a door with PALACE PAMPHLETS INC. scrawled on it in chalk, which was Silas's office. Jenna was pleased to see both rooms were empty. They soon arrived at some narrow backstairs and climbed up to the first floor of the Palace. Here were mainly suites of private rooms at the rear of the building looking out over the river, and more public rooms - including the locked Throne Room - at the front. The wide upstairs corridor had a hushed, subdued quality to it. Thick, dusty curtains hung down in front of many of the draughty windows and doors and down the center ran what was known as the longest carpet in the world, which had actually been made there, in the corridor, by an itinerant group of carpet weavers.
They walked silently through the muffled gloom. Jenna was not expecting to see anyone but as they went past Maizie Small's room, the door opened and Maizie rushed out.
"Oh!" said Maizie, surprised. "Oh, hello, Princess Jenna. And Beetle. I didn't expect to bump into you." Maizie cast a disapproving glance at Beetle. "Not upstairs."
Beetle went pink but he hoped it was too dark for anyone to notice.
"You're early, Maizie," Jenna said, rather irritated.
"It's the Longest Night tonight, Princess Jenna. I have to get every torch lit by nightfall, and I always help out with some of the displays on the Way. It's a crazy rush." Maizie took a small timepiece out of her pocket and consulted it hurriedly. "Now then, I've lit all new candles upstairs, and Mr. Pot's coming in to do the downstairs. You're all sorted." A loud spattering of sleet on one of the roof lanterns made everyone look up. "Shocking day to be out," said Maizie. "I must be off."
Beetle and Jenna walked on in an awkward silence past the wide corridor that led to the large double doors - and the ghost of Sir Hereward - guarding Jenna's bedroom. The faint figure of Sir Hereward raised his one ghostly arm in salute as they hurried by, and not long after they arrived at the foot of the attic stairs.
"Oh!" exclaimed Jenna. The entrance to the stairs was covered by an old red velvet curtain, which had been skewered to the wall by an assortment of large rusty nails. Jenna recognized Silas Heap's handiwork immediately. "Dad must have just done this," she whispered. "So he did listen to what I said . . ."
Beetle regarded the old curtain. "It's a bit makeshift," he said.
"That's Dad for you."
"I suppose he's put some kind of SafetyGate on there," said Beetle. "And he's nailed that up to hide it. SafetyGates do look a bit weird sometimes. Shall I have a look?"
Jenna nodded. "Yes please, Beetle."
Beetle took out his pocket knife. He unfolded the tool for pulling-long-rusty-nails-out-of-plaster and set to work doing exactly that. Immediately a great lump of plaster came off the wall and the curtain fell on his head - crump.
"Oof!" gasped Beetle as the curtain enveloped him in a cloud of dust and dead spiders. "Oof - eurgh. Gerroff! Gerroff me!"
The curtain did not do as requested and Beetle, convinced that he had been attacked by something nasty from the attic, began stabbing at it with his pulling-long-rusty-nails-out-of-plaster tool. "Argh . . . help!"
"Beetle, Beetle!" yelled Jenna, trying to pull the curtain off. "Beetle, stand still. Stop fighting!"Finally her voice got through. "Huh?" said the curtain."Beetle, please, just stay still a moment. And stop trying to kill the curtain."The curtain settled down and Jenna heaved it off its prey in a cloud of dust."Atchooo!" Beetle sneezed.Jenna regarded the pile of shredded curtain on the floor. "Beetle: one. Curtain: zero." She laughed."Yeah," said Beetle, not quite so amused. He dusted off his admiral's jacket and then tentatively waved his arm through the gap that the curtain had covered."There's no SafetyGate there," he said. "Or if there was, it's come away with the curtain. I s'pose it could have been Bonded to it. Come to think of it, it did tingle a bit when it landed on me. That's what made me think I was . . . well, being attacked. It wasn't panic, you know. It felt really weird.""So . . . if Dad did put some kind of barrier up and now it's gone, maybe we should go and tell him?" said Jenna."I could have a look first," said Beetle, badly needing to do something constructive after the curtain fight."Well . . ."Unwilling to let his chance to impress Jenna slip away, Beetle headed up the stairs quickly, before she had time to say no.Jenna's voice came after him. "Beetle, maybe you shouldn't . . ."Beetle stopped and turned. "It's fine," he said."It doesn't look fine," said Jenna. She could see the familiar shifting darkness hovering at the top of the stairs."I'll just have a quick look so that we can tell Marcia exactly what's going on," said Beetle.Jenna followed Beetle up the stairs. He stopped and barred her way. "No, Jenna," he said rather formally. "Let me do this. You did ask me, after all."Jenna looked past Beetle up to the top of the stairs. "But Beetle, that weird misty stuff is still there. I'd forgotten how scary it is. I think we should get Dad, or maybe even Marcia. I really do."Beetle did not want to give way. "It's all right," he insisted. "I said I'd have a look and I will. Okay?"There was something in the way Beetle stood that made him seem so solid, so commanding, that made Jenna step back."Okay," she said reluctantly. "But please . . . be careful.""Of course I will." Beetle pulled out a long chain from his admiral's coat pocket, unclipped his timepiece and placed it in Jenna's hand. "I'm only going to be a few seconds; I'll just have a quick look and see what's going on. If I'm not back in . . . oh, three minutes . . . you can go and get Silas, okay?"Jenna nodded uncertainly.Beetle set off up the long, straight flight of stairs, aware that Jenna was watching his every move. As he drew closer to the top, a feeling of fear came over him and he stopped. In front of him, no more than three steps away, was a wall of a shifting, dancing, swirling blackness, which clearly was not just late winter afternoon darkness mixed with some old spell vapors that, deep down, Beetle had hoped it would be."Can you see anything?" Jenna's voice drifted up to him. It already sounded far away."No . . . not really.""Maybe you should come down."Beetle thought that too. But when he looked back and saw Jenna far below, gazing up at him expectantly, he knew he had to go on. And so, determined not to act scared in front of Jenna again, Beetle forced himself to take the last few steps to the top of the stairs.At the foot of the stairs Jenna saw a few tendrils of darkness move out and curl around Beetle's feet. At the top of the stairs Beetle was overwhelmed by a sudden desire to step into the darkness. He was convinced that his father was waiting for him there. He knew he would find him if only he would step into the swirling gray mist. And so he did. He took a step forward - and disappeared.Jenna watched Beetle go. She looked down at his timepiece and began to count the minutes. Above her a small, invisible bird noiselessly fluttered, counting long bird minutes, waiting and watching for the moment it could bring the Princess home to its imprisoned mate.