Jannit Maarten, boatbuilder, was on her way to the Palace.
Jannit, a lean, spare woman with a long stride and a sailor's pigtail, had never in her strangest dreams thought that she would one day be tying up her rowboat at Snake Slipway and heading for the Palace Gates. But, on a chilly gray spring day, here she was, doing just that-and feeling more than a little apprehensive.
Some minutes later Hildegarde, the sub-Wizard on door duty at the Palace, looked up from her night-school assignment titled "The Politics, Principles and Practice of Transformation." She saw Jannit hesitantly walking over the wide plank bridge that spanned the ornamental moat and led to the Palace doors. Happy to have a break, Hildegarde jumped to her feet with a smile and said, "Good morning, Miss Maarten. How may I help you?"
"You know my name!" said Jannit, amazed.
Hildegarde did not tell Jannit that she made it her business to know everyone's name. Instead she said, "Of course I do, Miss Maarten. Your boatyard repaired my sister's boat last year. She was very pleased with the work."
Jannit had no idea who this sub-Wizard's sister could possibly be, but she could not help wondering what boat it was. Jannit remembered boats. She smiled awkwardly and took off her battered sailor's boater, which she had worn especially for her visit to the Palace-it was Jannit's equivalent of a party frock and tiara.
"Ladies are welcome to keep their hats on," said Hildegarde.
"Oh?" said Jannit, wondering what that had to do with her. Jannit did not think of herself as a lady.
"Is there someone you wish to see?" Hildegarde prompted, quite used to tongue-tied visitors.
Jannit twisted her boater around in her hands. "Sarah Heap," she said. "Please."
"I will send a messenger. May I tell her what it is you wish to see her about?"
After a long pause Jannit replied. "Nicko Heap," she said, staring at her hat.
"Ah. Please take a seat for a moment, Miss Maarten. I will find someone to take you to her right away."
Ten minutes later Sarah Heap, thinner than she had been but still in possession of the usual quota of Heap straw-colored curls, was at the small table in her sitting room. She gazed at Jannit with worried green eyes.
Jannit was perched on the edge of a large sofa. Although Jannit felt ill at ease, this was not the reason she was on the edge of her seat. It was because that was the only space left on the sofa-the rest was covered with the clutter that always seemed to follow Sarah Heap. With a couple of plant pots digging into her back and a teetering pile of towels settling cozily up against her, Jannit sat up very straight and then almost jumped off the sofa as a soft quacking came from a pile of clothes beside the fire. To Jannit's amazement, a pink-skinned, stubble-covered duck wearing a multicolored crocheted waistcoat emerged from the pile, waddled over and sat beside her feet.
Sarah clicked her fingers. "Come here, Ethel," she said to the duck. The duck got up and went to Sarah, who picked it up and sat it on her lap. "One of Jenna's creatures," Sarah said with a smile. "She never was one for pets and suddenly she has two. Strange. I don't know where she got them from."
Jannit smiled politely, unsure how to begin telling Sarah what she had to say. There was an awkward silence and at last she said, "Um. Well ... it's a big place you have here."
"Oh, yes. Very big," said Sarah.
"Wonderful for a large family," said Jannit, immediately wishing she hadn't.
"If they want to live with you," said Sarah bitterly. "But not if four of them have decided to live in the Forest with a coven of witches and they refuse to come home, even for a visit. And then of course there's Simon. I know he's done wrong, but he's still my first baby. I miss him so much; I would love to have him living here. It's time he settled down. He could do a lot worse than Lucy Gringe, whatever his father says. There's plenty of room for them all here-and children, too. And then there's my little Septimus. We've been apart all these years and there he is, stuck at the top of that Wizard Tower with Marcia Fusspot Overstrand, who whenever she sees me has the nerve to ask if I am enjoying seeing so much of Septimus. I suppose she thinks it's some kind of joke, since I hardly ever see him now. In fact ever since Nicko ..."
"Ah," said Jannit, seizing her chance. "Nicko. That's what-well, I expect you can guess why I'm here."
"No," said Sarah, who could but didn't want to even think about it.
"Oh." Jannit looked down at her boater and then, very purposefully, put it on top of a pile of something behind her. Sarah's heart sank. She knew what was coming.
Jannit cleared her throat and began. "As you know, Nicko has been gone for six months now and as far as I understand, no one knows where he is or when-indeed, if-he is ever coming back. In fact-and I am very sorry to say this-I have heard that he will never return."
Sarah caught her breath. No one had dared to say this to her face before.
"I am very sorry to have to come here like this, Madam Heap, but-"
"Oh, it's Sarah. Please, just call me Sarah."
"Sarah. Sarah, I am sorry, but we cannot struggle on without Nicko any longer. The summer season is looming, when even more foolhardy idiots will be putting to sea to try and catch a few herring. They'll all be wanting their boats ready, plus the fact that the Port barge is in ...
Excerpted from Septimus Heap, Book Four: Queste by Angie Sage Copyright © 2008 by Angie Sage . Excerpted by permission.
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