But Lucy did not go to the North Gate gatehouse that night - Sarah Heap would not allow it.

"Lucy, you are soaking wet and exhausted," Sarah said. "I am not having you wander through the streets at night in that state; you'll catch your death of cold. You need a long sleep in a nice warm bed - and besides, I want to hear all about Simon. Now let's find you some supper . . ."

Lucy gave in gratefully. The relief she felt at Sarah's welcome made her feel suddenly tearful. She happily allowed herself to be led along the Long Walk with Snorri and Alfrun and sat down beside the fire in Sarah Heap's little sitting room at the back of the Palace.

That evening, as flurries of snow blew in from the Port, Sarah Heap's sitting room was the warmest room in the Palace. Piled on the table were the remains of Sarah's famous sausage and bean hot pot supper, and now everyone had gathered around the blazing fire, drinking herb tea. Squashed in with Lucy and Sarah were Jenna, Septimus and Nicko Heap, along with Snorri and Alfrun Snorrelssen. Snorri and Alfrun sat close together, quietly talking, while Alfrun kept hold tightly of Snorri's hand. Nicko sat a little apart from Snorri, talking with Jenna. Septimus, Sarah noticed, was not talking to anyone but was gazing into the fire.

There was also a menagerie of animals: a large black panther by the name of Ullr, which sat by Alfrun's feet; Maxie, an ancient, smelly wolfhound who lay steaming gently in front of the fire; and Ethel, a stubbly, featherless duck wearing a new knitted waistcoat. Ethel sat resplendent on Sarah's lap, nibbling delicately on a piece of sausage. The duck, Jenna noted disapprovingly, was getting fat. She suspected that Sarah had knitted the new waistcoat because the old one had gotten too small. But Sarah loved Ethel so much that Jenna merely admired the red stripes and the green buttons along the back and said nothing about Ethel's expanding girth.

Sarah Heap was happy. In her hand she clasped a precious letter from Simon - a letter that she had read and reread and now knew by heart. Sarah had her old Simon back again - the good Simon, the Simon she knew he had always been. And now here she was, planning the party for Jenna's and Septimus's fourteenth birthdays. Fourteen was a big milestone, particularly for Jenna as Princess of the Castle, and this year Sarah had at last got her wish: the celebrations for both Jenna's and Septimus's birthdays were to be held at the Palace rather than at the Wizard Tower.

Sarah glanced up at the old clock on the chimneypiece and suppressed a feeling of irritation that Silas was not back yet. Recently Silas had been what he called "busy," but Sarah did not believe it - she knew Silas well enough to know that he was up to something. She sighed. She wished he were there to share the moment of everyone being together.

Pushing her thoughts about Silas to one side, Sarah smiled at Lucy, her daughter-in-law-to-be. Having Lucy there made her feel as if Simon was with them too, for there were moments when Lucy echoed Simon's eager, intense way of talking. One day, thought Sarah, maybe she would have all her children and Silas with her - though how they would all fit into the sitting room she was not sure. But if she ever got the chance she'd give it her best try.

Septimus too was glancing at the clock, and at 8:15 PM precisely he excused himself from the gathering. Sarah watched her youngest son, grown tall and gangly in recent months, get up from his perch on the arm of her battered sofa and pick his way through people and piles of books toward the door. She saw with pride his purple Senior Apprentice ribbons shimmer on the hem of the sleeves of his green tunic, but what pleased her most was his quiet, easy confidence. She wished he'd comb his hair more often but Septimus was turning into a good-looking young man. She blew her son a kiss. He smiled - slightly strained, Sarah thought - and stepped out of the cozy sitting room into the chill of the Long Walk, the wide passageway that ran along the length of the Palace.

Jenna Heap slipped out after him.

"Sep, wait a mo," she called after Septimus, who was striding off in a hurry.

Septimus slowed down unwillingly. "I've got to be back at nine o'clock," he said.

"You've got tons of time, then," said Jenna, catching up and walking along beside him, matching his long strides with smaller, faster ones.

"Sep," she said, "you know how I told you last week it was really creepy up by the attic stairs? Well, it still is. In fact, it's worse. Even Ullr won't go there. Look, I've got the scratches to prove it." Jenna rolled up her gold-hemmed sleeve to show Septimus a flurry of cat scratches on her wrist. "I carried him to the bottom of the stairs and he totally panicked."

Septimus seemed unimpressed. "Ullr's a Spirit-Seer cat. He's bound to get spooked sometimes with all the ghosts around here."

Jenna was not to be put off. "But it doesn't feel like ghosts, Sep. Anyway, most of the Palace ghosts Appear to me. I see tons of them." As if to prove her point, Jenna nodded graciously - a real Princess nod, thought Septimus - at what appeared to him to be thin air. "There. I've just seen the three cooks who got poisoned by the jealous housekeeper."

"That was nice for you," said Septimus, speeding up so that Jenna had to trot to keep up with him. They traveled quickly along the Long Walk, moving from the dancing flames of each rushlight into shadows and back into the light of the next.

"So I'd see if it was ghosts," Jenna persisted. "And it's not. In fact, all the ghosts are keeping away from that part of the corridor. Which just goes to show."

"To show what?" Septimus said irritably.

"That there's something bad up there. And I can't ask Marcia to check it out because Mum would throw a fit, but you're almost as good as Marcia now, aren't you? So please, Sep. Please just come and see."

"Can't Dad do it?"

"Dad keeps saying he'll have a look but he doesn't get round to it. He's always off somewhere. You know what he's like."

They had reached the large entrance hall, the light from a forest of candles illuminating its elegant flight of stairs and the thick old doors. Barney Pot had at last gone to bed and the entrance hall was empty. Septimus stopped and turned to Jenna. "Look Jen, I've got to go. There's loads I have to do."

"You don't believe me, do you?" Jenna sounded exasperated.

"Of course I do."

"Huh! Not enough to come and check out what's going on up there."

But Septimus wore the closed expression that Jenna had seen so much of over the previous few months. She hated it. It was as if, when she looked into Septimus's bright green eyes, there was something shielding him from her.

"Bye, Jen," he said. "Must go. Tomorrow's a big day."

Jenna made a big effort to shake off her disappointment. She didn't want Septimus to leave with bad feelings between them.

"I know," she agreed. "Happy birthday, Sep."

Jenna thought Septimus looked slightly surprised.

"Oh . . . yes. Thanks."

"It'll be such fun tomorrow," she said, linking her arm through his reluctant one and walking him toward the Palace doors. "It's great us having birthdays on the same day, don't you think? It's like we're twins. And on the Longest Night too, it's so special with all the Castle lit up. Like it's especially for us."

"Yeah." Septimus looked distracted, and Jenna could tell all he wanted to do was to get out of the door as fast as he could. "I really must go, Jen. I'll see you tomorrow evening."

"I'll walk you to the gates,"

"Oh." Septimus did not sound very enthusiastic.

They made their way down the drive, Septimus hurrying, Jenna trotting along beside.

"Sep . . ." said Jenna, breathless.

"Yeah?" Septimus sounded wary.

"Dad says you're at the same stage in your Apprenticeship as he was when he gave up.""Mmm. S'pose I am.""And one of the reasons he gave up, he said, was because he was going to have to do a bunch of Darke stuff and he didn't want to bring it home."Septimus slowed down. "There were lots of reasons Dad gave up, Jen. Like he'd heard about the Queste too soon, and Mum was finding it tough on her own and he was going to have to work nights. All kinds of stuff.""It was the Darke, Sep. That's what he told me.""Huh. He says that now.""He's worried about you. And so am I.""Well, you shouldn't be," Septimus said irritably."But, Sep - "Septimus had had enough. Impatiently he shook Jenna's arm off."Jen, please - leave me alone. I have stuff to do and I'm going now. I'll see you tomorrow." With that Septimus strode off, and this time Jenna let him go.Jenna walked slowly back across the grass, her feet crunching through a dusting of frost, and fought off tears - Septimus hadn't even wished her "happy birthday." As she wandered miserably into the Palace, Jenna could not get him out of her mind. Recently she had begun to feel like an outsider in his life - an annoying outsider from whom secrets had to be kept. In order to understand more about what Septimus was doing, Jenna had begun to ask Silas questions about his own Apprenticeship to Alther long ago, and she did not always like what she heard.Jenna did not feel like going back to the happy group clustered around Sarah's sitting room fire. She took a lighted candle from one of the hall tables and made her way up the wide flight of carved oak stairs that led from the Palace entrance hall to the first floor. She walked slowly along the corridor, her footsteps muffled on the threadbare carpet, nodding to the assorted ghosts who always Appeared when they saw the Princess. Ignoring the short, wide passageway that led to her bedroom, Jenna decided to take one more look at the attic stairs - Septimus had made her wonder if she was indeed worrying about nothing.A rushlight burned steadily at the foot of the stairs, for which Jenna was grateful - because looking up the flight of bare, worn wooden stairs that disappeared into the darkness gave her the creeps. Telling herself that Septimus probably was right and there was nothing at all to worry about, Jenna began to climb the stairs. She told herself that if she got to the top and everything was all right, she would forget all about it, but when Jenna was one step below the top she stopped. In front of her was a deep darkness that seemed to move and shift as she looked at it. It felt as if it were alive. Jenna was confused - part of her was terrified and yet another part of her suddenly felt elated. She had the strangest feeling that if only she stepped up into the darkness, she would see everything she had ever wanted to see, even her real mother, Queen Cerys. And as she thought about meeting her mother, the feeling of terror began to fade and Jenna longed to step into the dark, into the best place to be in the whole world - the place she had always been searching for.Suddenly Jenna felt a tap on her shoulder. She wheeled around and saw the ghost of the governess who Haunted the Palace looking for two lost princesses staring at her."Come away, Esmeralda, come away," wailed the ghost. "It is Darke in there. Come away . . ." Exhausted by having Caused a tap on Jenna's shoulder, the ghost of the governess faded away and was not seen for many years hence.Jenna's desire to step into the darkness evaporated. She turned and ran, clattering down the stairs two at a time. She did not stop running until she reached the broad, bright corridor that led to her bedroom and saw the friendly figure of Sir Hereward, the ancient ghost who guarded the double doors to her bedroom.Sir Hereward sprang to attention. "Good evening, Princess," he said. "Early to bed, I see. A big day tomorrow." The ghost smiled. "It's not every day a Princess turns fourteen.""No," said Jenna despondently."Ah, the pressure of advancing years already, I see." Sir Hereward chuckled. "But let me tell you, fourteen is nothing to worry about, Princess. Look at me, I've had hundreds of birthdays - lost count of 'em in fact - and I'm fine."Jenna could not help but smile. The ghost was anything but fine. Dusty and faded, his armor dented, he was missing an arm, quite a few teeth and - she had recently noticed when he had removed his helmet - his left ear and a fair chunk of the side of his head. Plus, of course, he was dead. But that didn't seem to worry Sir Hereward. Jenna sternly told herself to stop being so miserable and enjoy life. Septimus would get over whatever it was and things would be fine again. In fact, tomorrow she would go to the last day of the Traders' Market and get him something for his birthday that would make him laugh - something more fun than the Compleat History of Magyk that she had already bought him from Wyvald's Witchy Bookstore."There, that's better." Sir Hereward beamed. "Fourteen's an exciting day for a Princess, you'll see. Now, here's a good one. This will really cheer you up. How do you put a giraffe in a wardrobe?""I don't know, Sir Hereward. How do you put a giraffe in a wardrobe?""You open the wardrobe door, put it in and close the door. So how do you put an elephant in the wardrobe?""I don't know. How do you put an elephant in a wardrobe?""You open the door, take out the giraffe and put the elephant in. Hur hur."Jenna laughed. "That is so silly, Sir Hereward."Sir Hereward giggled. "Isn't it? I mean, I'm sure you could fit them both in if you really tried.""Yes . . . well, good night, Sir Hereward. I'll see you tomorrow."The ancient ghost bowed, and Jenna pushed opened the grand double doors and went into her bedroom. As the doors closed, Sir Hereward resumed his post on guard, extra vigilant. Every Palace ghost knew that birthdays could be a dangerous time for a Princess. Sir Hereward was determined that nothing was going to happen to Jenna on his watch.* * *Once inside her room, Jenna could not settle - she felt a strange mixture of excitement and melancholy. Restless, she went to one of the tall windows and drew back the heavy red curtains to look out at the river. Watching the river at night was something she had loved to do ever since Silas had made her a little box bed in the cupboard in the Ramblings, where there was a tiny window that looked directly down on the water. In Jenna's opinion, the view from her grand windows at the Palace was greatly inferior to the one she had had in her cupboard - from her old perch at the Ramblings she had been able to see the tide's ebb and flow, which had always fascinated her. Very often there had been a few fishing boats tied up to one of the huge rings set into the walls far below, and she would watch the fishermen clean their catch and mend their nets. Here all she ever saw were distant boats passing back and forth and the moonlight reflected in the water.That night, however, there was no moon. It was, Jenna knew, the last night of the old moon, and the moon did not rise until very nearly sunrise. Tomorrow night - her birthday night - would be the Dark of the Moon, when it would not rise at all. But even without the moon, the night sky was still beautiful. The clouds had blown away and the stars shone bright and clear.Jenna drew the heavy curtains behind her so she was in the dark, cold space between them and the window. She stood still, waiting for her eyes to become accustomed to the dark. Her warm breath began to mist the window; she rubbed the glass clear and peered out at the river.At first sight it appeared deserted, which was not a surprise to Jenna. Not many boats went out at night. And then she caught sight of a movement down by the landing stage. Squeakily she rubbed the window once more and squinted out. There was someone on the landing stage - it was Septimus. He looked as if he were in conversation with someone, although there was no one to be seen. Jenna knew at once that he was talking to the ghost of Alice Nettles - poor Alice Nettles, who had lost her Alther for a second time. Since her terrible loss, Alice had DisAppeared and had taken to wandering around the Castle looking for Alther. She was the source of the disembodied voice that would sometimes whisper in people's ears, "Where has he gone? Have you seen him, have you seen him?"Jenna cupped her hands over her nose to protect the glass from her breath and stared into the night. She saw Septimus finish his conversation and walk briskly away, speeding along beside the river, heading toward the side gate that would take him out near Wizard Way.Jenna longed to throw open the window and climb down the ivy - as she had done many times before - then run across the lawns, waylay Septimus and tell him what had just happened at the top of the attic stairs. The old Septimus would have come back with her, there and then. But not now, Jenna thought sadly. Now Septimus had more important things to do - secret things.Suddenly aware of how cold she was, Jenna slipped out from behind the curtains and went over to the fire, where three huge logs were blazing in the ancient stone fireplace. And as she stood holding her hands out to warm in front of the crackling fire, Jenna wondered what Septimus was talking to Alice about. She knew that even if she asked him he wouldn't tell her.It wasn't only Alice who had lost someone, Jenna thought sadly.