The sailor hovered nervously beside the throne, awaiting his instructions from the Necromancer.
“Are they returned?” came a low, hollow voice that made the hair on the back of Boy 412’s neck stand up.
The sailor bowed, avoiding the Necromancer’s gaze.
“The boy is returned, my lord. And your servant.”
“Is that all?”
“Yes, my lord. But…”
“The boy says that he captured the Princess, sire.”
“The Queenling. Well, well. Wonders will never cease. Bring them to me. Now!”
“Yes, my lord.” The sailor bowed low.
“And—bring up the prisoner. She will be interested to see her erstwhile charge.”
“Her what, sire?”
“The Queenling, wretch. Get them all up here. Now!”
The sailor disappeared through the hatchway, and soon Jenna and Boy 412 could feel movement below their feet. Deep in the hold of the ship, things were stirring. Sailors were tumbling from their hammocks, putting down their carvings, knottings or unfinished ships in bottles and turning out onto the lower deck to do DomDaniel’s bidding.
DomDaniel eased off his throne, a little stiff from his doze in the chill drizzle, and blinked as a runnel of water from the top of his hat landed in his eye. Irritated, he kicked the sleeping Magog awake. The Thing oozed itself out from under the throne and followed DomDaniel along the deck, where the Necromancer stood, arms folded, a look of anticipation upon his face, waiting for those he had summoned.
Soon a heavy footfall could be heard below, and a few moments later half a dozen deckhands appeared and took up their positions as guard around DomDaniel. They were followed by the hesitant figure of the Apprentice. The boy looked white, and Jenna could see that his hands were trembling. DomDaniel barely gave him a glance. His eyes were still fixed on the open hatch, waiting for his prize, the Princess, to appear.
But no one came.
Time seemed to slow down. The deckhands shifted about, unsure of what they were actually waiting for, and the Apprentice’s nervous tic below his left eye started up. Every now and then he glanced up at his Master and quickly away again as if afraid DomDaniel may catch his eye. After what seemed an age DomDaniel demanded, “Well, where is she, boy?”
“Wh-who, sir?” stammered the Apprentice, although he knew perfectly well who the Necromancer meant.
“The Queenling, you beetlebrain. Who do you think I meant? Your idiot mother?”
More footsteps were heard below.
“Ah,” muttered DomDaniel. “At last.”
But it was Marcia who was pushed out through the hatch by an accompanying Magog, who held her arm tightly in its long yellow claw. Marcia tried to shake it off, but the Thing was stuck to her like glue and had covered her with streaks of yellow slime. Marcia looked down at it in disgust, and she kept exactly the same expression on her face as she turned to meet DomDaniel’s triumphant gaze. Even after a month locked away in the dark and with her Magykal powers drained from her, Marcia cut an impressive figure. Her dark hair, wild and unkempt, had an angry look to it; her salt-stained robes had a simple dignity and her purple python shoes were, as ever, spotless. Jenna could tell that she had unsettled DomDaniel.
“Ah, Miss Overstrand. So kind of you to drop by,” he murmured.
Marcia did not reply.
“Well, Miss Overstrand, this is the reason I have been keeping you. I wanted you to see this little…finale. We have an interesting little bit of news for you, do we not, Septimus?” The Apprentice nodded uncertainly.
“My trusted Apprentice has been visiting some friends of yours, Miss Overstrand. In a sweet little cottage over thereabouts.” DomDaniel waved his ring-encrusted hand toward the Marram Marshes.
Something in Marcia’s expression changed.
“Ah, I see you know who I mean, Miss Overstrand. I rather thought you might. Now, my Apprentice here has reported a successful mission.”
The Apprentice tried to say something but was waved quiet by his Master.
“Even I have not heard the full details. I am sure you would want to be the first to hear the good news. So now Septimus is going to tell us all. Aren’t you, boy?”
The Apprentice stood up reluctantly. He looked very nervous. In a reedy voice, he started to speak hesitantly, “I…um…”
“Speak up, boy. No good if we can’t hear a word you’re saying, now is it?” DomDaniel told him.
“I…er, I have found the Princess. The Queenling.”
There was an air of restlessness among the audience. Jenna got the impression that this news was not entirely welcome to the assembled deckhands, and she remembered Aunt Zelda telling her that DomDaniel would never win over the seafaring people.
“Go on, boy,” prompted DomDaniel impatiently.
“I—the Hunter and me, we captured the cottage and, um, also the White Witch, Zelda Zanuba Heap, and the Wizard boy, Nickolas Benjamin Heap, and the Young Army deserter, Expendable Boy 412. And I did capture the Princess—the Queenling.”
The Apprentice paused. A look of panic had appeared in his eyes. What was he going to say? How was he going to explain away the lack of the Princess and the disappearance of the Hunter?
“You did capture the Queenling?” asked DomDaniel suspiciously.
“Yes, sir. I did. But…”
“But. Well, sir, after the Hunter was overpowered by the White Witch and left to become a buffoon—”
“A buffoon? Are you trying to be funny with me, boy? If you are, I would not advise it.”
“No, sir. I am not trying to be funny at all, sir.” The Apprentice had never felt less like being funny in his entire life. “After the Hunter left, sir, I managed to capture the Queenling single-handed, and I nearly got away but—”
“Nearly? You nearly got away?”
“Yes, sir. It was very close. I was attacked with a knife by the mad Wizard boy Nickolas Heap. He is very dangerous, sir. And the Queenling escaped.”
“Escaped?!” roared DomDaniel, towering over the trembling Apprentice. “You come back and you call your mission a success? Some success. First you tell me that the wretched Hunter has become a buffoon, then you tell me that you were thwarted by a pathetic White Witch and some pesky runaway kids. And now you tell me that the Queenling has escaped. The whole point of the mission, the whole point, was to capture the upstart Queenling. So what part of it exactly do you call a success?”
“Well, we know where she is now,” the Apprentice mumbled.
“We knew where she was before, boy. That was why you went there in the first place.”
DomDaniel raised his eyes to heaven. What was wrong with his cabbagehead Apprentice? Surely the seventh son of a seventh son should have some Magyk about him by now? Surely he should have been strong enough to triumph over a ragtag group of hopeless Wizards holed up in the middle of nowhere? A feeling of rage bubbled up through DomDaniel.
“Why?” he screamed. “Why am I surrounded by fools?” Spitting with anger now, DomDaniel caught sight of Marcia’s expression of contempt mixed with relief at the news she had just heard.
“Take the prisoner away!” he yelled. “Lock her up and throw away the key. She’s finished.”
“Not yet,” Marcia replied quietly, deliberately turning her back on DomDaniel.
Suddenly, to Jenna’s horror, Boy 412 stepped out from the shelter of the barrel and moved silently toward Marcia. Carefully, he slipped between the Thing and the deckhands who were pushing Marcia roughly back toward the hatch. The contemptuous expression in Marcia’s eyes changed to astonishment, then rapidly to a studied blankness, and Boy 412 knew that she had seen him. Quickly, he took his dragon ring from his finger and pressed it into Marcia’s hand. Marcia’s green eyes met his as, unseen by the guards, she slipped the ring into her tunic pocket. Boy 412 did not linger. He turned away, and in his haste to get back to Jenna, he brushed against a deckhand.
“Halt!” shouted the man. “Who goes there?”
Everyone on the deck froze. Except for Boy 412, who darted away and grabbed hold of Jenna. It was time to go.
“Interlopers!” screamed DomDaniel. “I can see shadows! Get them!!”
In a panic the crew of the Vengeance looked around. They could see nothing. Had their Master finally gone mad? They had been expecting it long enough.