It was MidWinter Feast Day. Jenna looked out the Palace ballroom window and watched the snow falling fast, covering the lawns, festooning the bare branches of the trees and obliterating all traces of the Darke Domaine. It was beautiful.
Jenna was hosting a MidWinter Feast. She was determined to get rid of all traces of the Things in the Palace and she had decided that the best way to do that was to fill it with everyone she cared about. Silas, Sarah and Maxie had come over from the Ramblings. After a tearful reunion - on Sarah's part, anyway - between Ethel and Sarah, they began to help Jenna get the Ballroom ready for that evening. There was, Jenna said, a lot to do.
Silas smiled. "That's just what your mother would say," he said.
The winter morning drew on. Snow piled up outside the long windows, while the Ballroom was transformed with holly and ivy, red ribbons, huge silver candlesticks and a whole box of streamers that Silas had been keeping for a special occasion.
At the other end of Wizard Way, the Pick for the new Chief Hermetic Scribe was underway.
The previous afternoon Marcia had successfully gathered all scribes together in the Manuscriptorium. In a solemn ceremony she had placed the traditional enamel Pot on the table in the Hermetic Chamber, and then each scribe had gone in and put his or her Manuscriptorium pen into the Pot. The Pot had been left in the Hermetic Chamber overnight, and Marcia had spent an uncomfortable night in the Manuscriptorium guarding the entrance to the Chamber.
Now it was time for the Pick. All the scribes had gathered, robes freshly washed, hair combed. They filed into the dimly lit Manuscriptorium, glancing at each other, wondering who among them would be the next Chief Hermetic Scribe. Partridge had been running bets but no clear favorite had emerged.
A small, beautifully patterned square of carpet had been laid on the floor and Marcia told the scribes to gather around. The older ones looked puzzled - there had been no square of carpet at the last Pick.
Marcia began with a few carefully chosen words about Jillie Djinn, to which the scribes listened respectfully, and then she made a surprise announcement.
"Scribes. It has been a terrible time and, although most have weathered the storm, some people did not. Our thoughts go out to all who have lost anyone."
There were sympathetic glance at scribes who still had relatives and friends unaccounted for. Marcia waited a little and then continued.
"However, I do believe good has come of this. Since The Great UnDoing yesterday, we in the Wizard Tower have seen many stubborn pockets of Darke Magyk disappear and I think the same will have happened here. We have, I hope, at last got our Magyk back in balance with the Darke."
Marcia paused as a small round of applause broke out.
She continued. "During the last few days in the Wizard Tower, when I was trying to find a way to defeat the Darke Domaine, I made many important discoveries. One of them affects us all here today. Recently, in my opinion, the choice of Chief Hermetic Scribe has not been exactly . . . ideal. I believe there may be a reason for this. Over the years the Hermetic Chamber has seen much Darke Magyk, and I suspect the Pick has become corrupted. Now, with everything back as it should be, I am expecting the Pick to take a different form and give us a true result."
The scribes glanced at each other. What did Marcia mean?
Marcia allowed her comment to sink in and then she announced - loudly, to quell the murmuring - "Will the youngest scribe please step forward?"
Romilly Badger, blushing bright red, was pushed forward by Partridge and Foxy.
"Go on," whispered Partridge. "You'll be fine. Really, you will."
"Romilly Badger," said Marcia, sounding very official. "As youngest scribe I ask you to enter the Hermetic Chamber and bring out the Pot."
A muttering spread around the room. Normally the youngest scribe was told to bring out the pen that lay on the table, not the Pot.
"These are the original words as laid down in The Undoing of the Darkenesse," Marcia told the scribes. "And if - as I hope - the Pick has reverted to its original form, there will be one pen only left in the Pot, with the rest thrown out onto the table. The pen in the Pot will belong to your next Chief Hermetic Scribe. Of course, if there is only one pen on the table and all the rest are in the Pot, then we will have to accept that choice as we have done in the past - though personally I believe this method to be flawed. Does everybody agree?"
There was some general muttering and discussion, the upshot of which was agreement.
"So, Romilly," said Marcia, "if there is only one pen on the table, you will bring that out. But if there is a pile of pens, bring out the Pot. Understand?"
Marcia carried on with the prescribed words.
"Romilly Badger, I ask you to do this so that the new Chief Hermetic Scribe may be lawfully and properly Picked. Do you accept the task? Yea or Nay?"
"Yea," whispered Romilly.
"Then enter the Chamber, scribe. Be true and tarry not."
Romilly walked self-consciously into the seven-cornered passage. After what felt like an hour - but was less than a minute - her footsteps were heard coming back along the passage. A spontaneous round of applause broke out when she appeared carrying the Pot.
Marcia broke into a broad grin. She had instantly regretted her words about the Pick, thinking that if the old method remained, then whoever was Picked would not have total authority. But now all was well. The Pick had reverted to the true method and all that remained was for Romilly to take the pen from the Pot.
"Scribe Romilly, place the Pot on the carpet," said Marcia.
Hands shaking, Romilly put the pot down. It stood tall, its ancient dark blue enamel pitted and worn.
"Scribe Romilly, place your hand in the Pot and draw out the pen."
Romilly took a deep breath. She didn't want to put her hand in the Pot - she could not get out of her head thoughts of large, hairy spiders lurking inside - but she bravely reached into the cold, dark space.
"How many pens are there?" Marcia whispered.
"One," Romilly whispered back.
Marcia felt relieved. The Pot had worked.
"Scribe Romilly, take out the pen and show it to the scribes."
Romilly took out a beautiful black onyx pen with a swirling jade green inlay.
"Scribe Romilly, read the name scribed upon the pen."
Romilly peered at the pen. The convoluted swirls made it very difficult to tell what the name actually was.
"A candle, someone please," said Marcia.
Partridge grabbed the candle and held it up so that Romilly could read the letters. Foxy saw the pen clearly for the first time and the blood drained from his face. The next moment there was a crash. Foxy had fainted.
Marcia had a bad feeling. Foxy had recognized the pen - surely the new Chief Hermetic Scribe could not be Foxy? Surely not.
Forgetting the formal language of the Pick, Marcia said urgently, "Romilly - whose pen is it?"
"It says . . ." Romilly squinted hard. "Oh! I see. It says Beetle!"
A loud cheer broke out from all the scribes.
Foxy had a tiny room in a grubby part of the Ramblings and he'd invited Beetle, summarily evicted from his room in Larry's Dead Languages, to sleep on his floor until he found somewhere to live.
When Foxy burst in, red-faced from running all the way from the Manuscriptorium, Beetle was busy scraping some burned soup off the bottom of the pan. He hadn't known it was possible to burn soup - there was more to cooking than he had realized.
"Wotcha, Foxo," he said, a little preoccupied. "So who's the next boss, then?"
"You!" yelled Foxy.
"Barnaby Ewe? Oh well, could be worse. I think I've killed your saucepan. Really sorry."
Foxy rushed over to the tiny sink and grabbed the pan out of Beetle's hands. "No, you dingbat - it's you. You! Beetle, you are Chief Hermetic Scribe!"
"Foxy, don't kid around," Beetle said, irritated. "Give me that pan. I was cleaning it."
"Bother the stupid pan. Beetle it is you. Your pen was Picked. It was, Beetle. I swear it."
Beetle stared at Foxy, pan scourer dripping in his hand. "But it can't have been. How could it get into the Pot?""I put it in. Remember when you got fired and you wouldn't take your pen? Well, I kept it. And that's why I kept it. There are no rules to say you have to be a serving scribe to go into the Pot. I looked it up specially. All that matters is your pen goes in. So that's what I did. I put it in."Beetle was dumbfounded. "But why?""Because you deserve to be Chief Hermetic Scribe. Because, Beet, you are the best. And because you saved the Manuscriptorium. You risked your life to do that. Who else could be Chief now? No one, Beet, that's who. No one but you."Beetle shook his head. Things like this did not happen."Come on, Beet. Marcia's sent me to fetch you for your Induction. She's got the Cryptic Codex ready. And the Seals of Office. Everyone's waiting for you. Come on.""Ah . . ." Slowly Beetle was beginning to believe Foxy. He was aware that he had just crossed over one of those rare watersheds. His life a few minutes ago bore no resemblance to his life now. It was a total turnaround. He felt stunned."Beetle . . . are you all right?" Foxy was beginning to be concerned.Beetle nodded and a wave of happiness suddenly washed over him. "Yeah, Foxo," he said. "I am. I am very all right."The Big Freeze came in fast. It was rare for it to begin on the MidWinter Feast Day but everyone in the Castle welcomed the blanket of white, covering all traces of the Darke Domaine, turning the Castle into a Magykal place once more. Even those who had lost family and friends - and there were more than a few - welcomed it; the silence of the snow felt right.Walking to the Palace that evening, Septimus met Simon going the same way."Hi," Septimus said, a little awkwardly. "No Lucy?"Simon smiled tentatively. "She'll be along later. Gone to collect her Mum and Dad. They're okay, but her Mum's making a fuss.""Ah."They walked through the Palace Gate and headed for the Palace. Breaking the rather uncomfortable silence, Septimus said, "I wanted to say thank you."Simon looked at his brother. "What for?" he asked, puzzled."For saving me. In the river.""Oh. Oh well. I owed you.""Yeah. Well. And I'm sorry I didn't listen about the Paired Code."Simon shrugged. "Why should you? Stuff's happened. And I'm sorry too.""Yeah. I know."Simon turned to Septimus. "Quits?" he asked, smiling."Quits," Septimus smiled back.Simon put his arm around his brother's shoulders - noticing that he was very nearly the same height - and together they made their way up to the Palace, leaving behind them a trail of two pairs of footprints breaking through the frosty covering that coated the blanket of snow.That night the Palace Ballroom was ablaze with light and - for the first time for many, many years - full of people. Even Milo, Jenna's father, was there, having arrived back from a voyage a little late for her birthday, as ever. At either end of the table, at Jenna's insistence, sat Sarah and Silas. When they had first moved into the Palace, Sarah and Silas had sometimes taken those seats as a joke, with Jenna perched uncomfortably somewhere in between, but now the long table between them was full of people, laughter and conversation.At Sarah's end of the table sat Milo, his red and gold silk robes shimmering in the candlelight while he regaled her with the details of his latest voyage. Opposite Milo was the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, who was, naturally, seated next to the Chief Hermetic Scribe. Sarah had insisted that Jenna sit next to her father, but she made a point of talking mainly to Septimus, who was placed next to her, just across the table from Beetle. Septimus looked over at his friend, resplendent in his new robes, and saw how well they suited him. Already Beetle seemed at ease in the heavy dark blue silk with the sleeves hemmed with gold, the colors echoing his Admiral's jacket which, Septimus noticed, he still wore underneath. Beetle had a glow of happiness about him that Septimus had never noticed before - it was good to see.A burst of raucous laughter came from Silas's end of the table, where Nicko was sitting with Rupert, Maggie and Foxy. Nicko was making seagull noises. Toward the middle of the table Snorri and her mother sat quietly talking, while Ullr lay on guard beside them. Every now and then Snorri glanced disapprovingly at Nicko. Nicko did not seem to notice.Next to Septimus was Simon. Simon's attention was mainly taken up by Lucy, Gringe and Mrs. Gringe, who were talking about the wedding - or rather listening to Lucy talking about it. Occasionally Simon glanced down to a small wooden box sitting on his lap and smiled, his green eyes - unclouded for the first time in four years - gleaming in the candlelight. Written on the box was the word "Sleuth." It was a thank-you present from Marcia and it meant more to Simon than any present he had ever received.Igor, with Matt and Marcus and his new employee, Marissa, were in deep conversation with Wolf Boy and Aunt Zelda.Jenna, who was sitting on the other side of Septimus, nudged him. "Look at Wolf Boy. Without his long hair, don't you think he'd look just like Matt and Marcus?""Matt and Marcus?""From Gothyk Grotto. Look.""Almost identical. That is so weird.""They sound the same too, you know. Do you know anything about Wolf Boy's family, Sep? Does Wolf Boy know anything?""Never said anything to me. It was the Young Army way, Jen. I never knew I had a family until I bumped into the bunch of you." Septimus grinned."Bit of a shock, I bet." Jenna smiled back."Yeah . . ." Septimus did not often think about how he might never have known who he truly was but right then, among his friends and family, a feeling akin to terror passed over him as he thought how different life might have been if Marcia had not rescued him from the snow only four years ago. He looked at Wolf Boy and realized that he had never found his family - surely he must have one?"Tomorrow I shall go and ask to look at the Young Army records. There might be something in there about 409. You never know."Jenna smiled - she'd just remembered something. She took a small present out from her pocket. "Happy birthday, Sep. It's a little late but we've been a bit busy recently.""Hey, thanks, Jen. I got you something too. Happy birthday.""Oh, Sep, thank you, that's lovely.""You haven't seen it yet."Jenna ripped open her present to reveal a very small and very pink crown encrusted with glass beads, sporting trailing ribbons and a pink fur trim. She burst out laughing. "That is so silly, Sep." She put the crown on and tied its pink ribbons under her chin. "There, that makes me Queen now. Open yours."Septimus ripped open the red paper and extracted the set of Gragull teeth."Brilliant, Jen!" He put them in and the two yellowing canines slipped neatly over his lower lip. In the light of the candles Septimus looked so realistic that when Marcia finally finished her conversation with Beetle and turned to Septimus to ask him something, she screamed.Queen and Gragull spent the rest of the evening fooling around opposite the two great dignitaries of the Castle - the ExtraOrdinary Wizard and the Chief Hermetic Scribe. Jenna felt indescribably happy. She had her old Septimus back and - as another burst of laughter and seagull noises erupted - her old Nicko too.In the shadows two ghosts looked on contentedly."Thank you, Septimus," Alther had said, when asked to join the party at the table, "but I'd just like to sit quietly and be with my Alice. You Living, you're a noisy bunch."And they were. All night long.As the sun rose the windows to the ballroom were flung open. The party climbed out into the snow and made their way down to the Palace Landing Stage. A lone ghost saw their approach and slipped away onto the trading barge that was moored at the Landing Stage, ready to leave before the Big Freeze began to ice up the river. The ghost of Olaf Snorrelssen wafted down into the cherry-wood cabin that, long ago, he had made for his wife, Alfrun. He sat waiting for his wife and daughter to arrive, as he knew they surely would, and smiled. He was home at last.But the party had not come to say good-bye to Snorri and her mother, who were not leaving until the next day. They had come to bid a final farewell to Jillie Djinn, who lay silent and snow-clad in her Leaving Boat, ready to be cast adrift to float down to the sea on the outgoing tide.As they watched the Leaving Boat drift down the river, a rich blue silk banner fluttering from its flagstaff, Jenna turned to Beetle."I bet you hope she doesn't come back and haunt the Manuscriptorium," she said.The Chief Hermetic Scribe grinned. "I've got a bit of peace and quiet first," he replied. "You know where she'll be for the next year and a day."Jenna giggled. "Oh! Of course - the place where she entered Ghosthood. Marcia's so going to love that!"