Night and a cold drizzle were falling fast when the Port barge drew up at the New Quay, a recently built stone jetty just below Sally Mullin's Tea and Ale House. Accompanied by assorted children, chickens and bundles, the frazzled passengers rose stiffly from their seats and stumbled down the gangway. Many of them made their way unsteadily along the well-trodden path to the Tea and Ale House to warm themselves by the stove and fill up with Sally's winter specials: mulled Springo Ale and warm spiced barley cake. Others, longing to get home to a warm fireside, set off on the long trudge up the hill, past the Castle amenity rubbish dump, to the South Gate, which would remain open until midnight.
Lucy Gringe did not relish the thought of the walk up the hill one little bit, especially when she knew that the Port barge was probably passing by where she was headed. She glanced at the woman sitting beside her. Lucy had spent the first half of the journey trying to avoid her oddly unsettling gaze but, after her neighbor had ventured a tentative question about directions to the Palace - which was where Lucy's first errand was taking her - they had spent the second half of the journey in animated conversation. The woman now rose wearily to follow the other passengers.
"Wait a minute!" said Lucy to her. "I've got an idea . . . 'Scuse me?" she shouted at the barge boy.
The barge boy swung around. "Yeah, darlin'?"
With some effort, Lucy ignored the "darlin'." "Where are you docking tonight?" she asked.
"With this North wind blowin' up, it'll be Jannit Maarten's," he replied. "Why?"
"Well, I just wondered . . ." Lucy gave the barge boy her best smile. "I just wondered if you could possibly let us off at a landing stage on your way there. It's so cold tonight. And dark too." Lucy shivered expressively and looked mournfully up at the barge boy with her big brown eyes. He was lost.
"'Course we could, darlin'. I'll tell Skip. Where d'you want to get off?"
"The Palace Landing Stage, please."
The barge boy blinked in surprise. "The Palace? You sure, darlin'?"
Lucy fought down an urge to yell "Don't call me darlin', creep boy!" "Yes, please," she said. "If it's not too much trouble."
"Nothin's too much trouble for you, darlin'," said creep boy, "though I wouldn't have put you down for the Palace meself."
"Oh?" Lucy was not sure how to take this.
"Yeah. You know that landing stage is haunted, don't you?"
Lucy shrugged. "Doesn't worry me," she said. "I never see ghosts."
The Port barge cast off from the New Quay. It made a U-turn in the wide part of the river, rocking scarily as it cut across the current and the chop of the waves whisked up by the wind. But as soon as the barge faced downstream all became quiet once more and, about ten minutes later, it was gliding to a halt beside the Palace Landing Stage.
"Here y'are, darlin'," said the barge boy, throwing a rope around one of the mooring posts. "Have fun." He winked at Lucy.
"Thank you," said Lucy rather primly. She got up and held out her hand to her neighbor. "We're here," she said. The woman gave Lucy a grateful smile. She got stiffly to her feet and followed Lucy off the barge.
The Port barge drew away from the landing stage. "See ya!" yelled the barge boy.
"Not if I see you first," Lucy muttered. She turned to her companion, who was gazing at the Palace in amazement. It was indeed a beautiful sight - a long, low building of ancient mellow stone with tall, elegant windows looking out over the well-tended lawns that swept down to the river. From every window, a welcoming candle flickered, making the whole building glimmer magically in the deepening twilight.
"She lives here?" the woman murmured in a singsong accent.
Lucy nodded shortly. Anxious to get going, she started purposefully up the wide path that led to the Palace. But her companion was not following. The woman was still on the landing stage, talking to what appeared to be an empty space. Lucy sighed - why did she always pick the weird ones? Reluctant to interrupt the woman's one-sided conversation - which seemed to be a serious one, for she was now nodding sadly - Lucy carried on, heading toward the lights of the Palace.Lucy did not feel good. She was tired and cold and, above all, she was beginning to be anxious about the kind of welcome she would receive at the Palace. She put her hand in her pocket and found Simon's letters. She drew them out and squinted at the names written in Simon's large, loopy handwriting: Sarah Heap. Jenna Heap. Septimus Heap. She placed the one addressed to Septimus back in her pocket and kept hold of the ones addressed to Jenna and Sarah. Lucy sighed. All she wanted to do was to run back to Simon and know that it was "all right, Lucy-Lu." But Simon had asked her to deliver the letters to his mother and sister, and - whatever Sarah Heap thought of her - deliver them she would.Lucy's companion was now hurrying after her."Lucy, I am sorry," she said. "I have just heard such a sad story from a ghost. It is sad, so very sad. The love of her life - and of her death - has been Banished. By mistake. How can any Wizard make such a mistake? Oh, it is a terrible thing." The woman shook her head. "Truly terrible.""I suppose that must be Alice Nettles," said Lucy. "Simon said he'd heard that something horrible had happened to Alther.""Yes. Alice and Alther. So very sad . . ."Lucy did not have much time for ghosts. The way she saw it, ghosts were dead - it was being with the person you wanted to be with while you were alive that mattered. Which was, she thought, why she was back at the Castle right now, shivering in the bitter north wind that was blowing in off the river, tired and wishing she was wrapped up warmly in bed."Shall we get going?" said Lucy. "I don't know about you, but I'm frozen."The woman nodded. Tall and thin, her thick woolen cloak wrapped around her against the wind, she stepped carefully, her bright eyes scanning the scene in front of her because, unlike Lucy, she did not see a wide, empty path. For her, the path and the lawns bounding it were full of ghosts: hurrying Palace servants, young princesses playing tag, little page boys, ancient queens wandering through vanished shrubberies, and elderly Palace gardeners wheeling their ghostly wheelbarrows. She went carefully, because the trouble with being a Spirit-Seer was that ghosts did not get out of your way; they saw you as just another ghost - until you Passed Through them. And then, of course, they were horribly offended.Unaware of any ghosts at all, Lucy strode up the path at a fast pace, and the ghosts, some of whom were well acquainted with Lucy and her big boots, got smartly out of her way. Lucy soon reached the top path that encircled the Palace and she turned around to check on her companion, who was lagging behind. The oddest sight met her eyes - the woman was dancing up the path on tiptoe, zigzagging to and fro, as if she was taking part in one of the old-fashioned Castle dances - on her own. Lucy shook her head. This did not bode well.Eventually the woman - flustered and out of breath - joined her, and Lucy set off without a word. She had decided to take the path that led around the Palace and to head for the main front door rather than risk no one hearing her knock on the multitude of kitchen and side doors.The Palace was a long building, and it was a good ten minutes before Lucy and the woman were at last crossing the flat wooden bridge over the decorative Palace moat. As they approached, a small boy pulled open the night door - a little door set into the main double doors."Welcome to the Palace," piped Barney Pot, resplendent in a gray Palace tunic and red leggings. "Who do you wish to see?"Lucy did not have a chance to reply."Barney!" came a lilting voice from inside. "There you are. You must go to bed; you have school tomorrow."Lucy's companion went pale.Barney looked back inside. "But I like doing the door," he protested. "Please, just five more minutes.""No, Barney. Bed.""Snorri?" The faltering word came from the woman.A tall girl with pale blue eyes and long, white-blonde hair stuck her head out of the night door and peered into the dark. She blinked, stared straight past Lucy and gasped. "Mamma!""Snorri . . . oh, Snorri!" cried Alfrun Snorrelssen.Snorri Snorrelssen threw herself into the arms of her mother. Lucy smiled wistfully. Maybe, she thought, it was a good omen. Maybe later that night, when she knocked on the door of the North Gate gatehouse, her mother would be just as pleased to see her. Maybe.