The Knight of the Day had not quite given up all thoughts of keeping his head. He took hold of Jenna's arm and marched her off, saying, “Thy mama will worry, fair Esmeralda. Thou must not stray from thy Chamber. 'Tis past six of the clock and all Princesses should be abed. Come now.”

Jenna could not escape the Knight's steely grip. At top speed, he propelled her along the corridor, and before she knew it, she was hurtling toward her bedroom doors—and a surprised Sir Hereward.

Sir Hereward was not alone. A short fat man with a bright red face and a bulbous nose was banging furiously on the bedroom door. The man was almost swamped in his gray silk Palace livery, which had five very long gold ribbons dangling from each sleeve, plus two large gold epaulettes, which had been added at his own request.

“Open!” he shouted. "Open up in the name of her most Gracious Majesty, Queen Etheldredda. Open up, I say!"

The Knight of the Day saw his chance to hand over his troublesome charge. “Percy,”

he said loudly over the din of the banging, “cease thy bellowing. I have here Princess Esmeralda.”

The red-faced man wheeled around in surprise. “Why is she not abed?” he demanded.

The Knight of the Day thought fast. “Princess Esmeralda is a most delicate flower, Percy. She didst have a Fitte of the Vapors and I, mindful of her dear mama's concerns for her Most Precious and now her Onlie daughter, did—”

“Oh, cease thy mitherings,” snapped the beribboned man. He turned to Jenna and gave her a curt bow. “Princess Esmeralda, her most Gracious Majesty, your deare mama, requests your Royal Presence at a banquet held this night to Celebrate your Safe Return from the Cold Waters of the River. Follow me.”

Jenna glanced in panic at Sir Hereward, who whispered, "It be the Queen's Steward.

He will not be gainsaid. Thou hast best obey."

“But, she—I mean, Mama—said that I must stay here,” protested Jenna. The Steward shot Jenna a questioning look. Esmeralda had certainly changed for the worse since he last met her. She was far too daring, and he didn't like the way she spoke one bit.

“I do not think thou truly wishest to disobey thine own deare mama,” said the Steward stonily. “I myself would not wish it, if I were in thy place.”

“Thou best go,” whispered Sir Hereward. “I will stay by thy side. He will not see, for I do not choose to Appear to this Bumptiouse Barrelle of Larde.”

Jenna smiled gratefully.

With a horrible sinking feeling in her stomach, but with the faithful Sir Hereward by her side, she followed the Bumptiouse Barrelle of Larde along the candlelit passageways, cutting a swath through the bustle of servants and sweeping down the great stairs toward the ominous sounds of preparations for the banquet.


The Banquet

“Sit here!” Queen Ethddndda barked sharply at Jenna, pointing to a small, uncomfortable gold chair. The chair had been set next to Queen Etheldredda's generously upholstered throne, which dominated the top table set up on the dais of the banquet hall. Queen Etheldredda was not a generous hostess and gave as few banquets as possible.

She considered them a waste of both good food and precious time, but sometimes they had to be done.

The Queen had been taken by surprise at the speed at which the news of the Return of the drowned Princess had spread not only through the Palace, but also through the entire Castle. However, along with the news, a certain opinion put about by the Knight of the Day was gaining a worrying foothold. Many thought that the Queen was displeased to see her poor Returned daughter and had locked her away, and what was worse, from the look upon her face when she had first beheld her dear drowned one, anyone would have thought that she had wished her daughter dead. Or, and this was delivered in hushed tones after much looking over the shoulder to check for eavesdroppers, people whispered that the Queen had drowned the child herself. The imparting of this news was invariably accompanied by gasps of dismay and amazement followed by an overpowering wish to find someone else to tell it to and enjoy the dismay and amazement all over again.

The gossip had spread faster than a forest fire and by nightfall Queen Etheldredda knew she had to do something—fast. And so the Palace Scribes were set to work on writing the invitations to:

A Magnificent Banquet, being A ThanksGiving for the Safe Return Of our Beloved Daughter,

Princess Esmeralda.

Bring your own plates.

The hastily assembled throng gathered outside the great doors to the Ballroom—the largest room in the Palace where all banquets were held. Jenna nervously perched on the wobbly gold chair and surveyed all before her. She shook her head, trying to get rid of the bizarre feeling she had had ever since she had jumped through the Glass, that she was actually at home in her own Time and in the middle of one of Silas's extended practical jokes. Jenna still remembered fondly her sixth birthday when she had woken to find that she was on board a ship bound for, as Silas had put it, Birthday Island. The whole room had been made to look like the inside of an extremely untidy ship. Her brothers were dressed as pirates and Sarah as the ship's cook. When Simon had shouted out, “Land ahoy,” everyone had climbed down a rope ladder hung precariously from the window to a real boat waiting for them below in the river, which had taken them to a small sand spit upriver, where Jenna discovered a treasure chest with her birthday present inside it.

However, Jenna thought ruefully as she stole a look at the Queen, she could not imagine the mother of poor Esmeralda and the little Princesses pretending to be a ship's cook for a day. It seemed to be almost too much for her to pretend to even like her supposed daughter. Jenna turned around and stole a quick glance at Sir Hereward. She felt better seeing the old ghost standing behind her, still on guard. He caught Jenna's eye and winked.

Jenna watched Queen Etheldredda take her place on the throne. The Queen sat down as if she was expecting a nasty surprise to have been left on the chair. Sitting bolt upright, as though someone had tied her to a plank, Etheldredda settled herself onto the throne: a lavishly gilded chair upholstered in deep red velvet and dripping with gemstones. The Aie-Aie scuttled under the throne and curled its tail around one of the carved legs, flicking its tooth in and out and staring at the tasty ankles passing by. Stonily the Queen's hooded violet eyes stared at the great doors at the end of the Ballroom, which were still firmly closed against the rising hubbub outside. Jenna stole a glance at the living Etheldredda. She thought that the Queen looked remarkably like her ghost: the same steely gray plaits were coiled tightly around her ears, and the same pointy nose sniffed the air in the familiar disapproving manner.

The only difference was that the living Etheldredda smelled of old socks and camphor. Suddenly, the unforgettable voice drilled out, “Let the rabble in!”

Two little boys, Door Pages for the night and up well past their bedtime, ran and heaved on the golden door handles, pulling the doors open in unison as they had practiced under the stern eyes of the Royal DoorKeeper for the last four hours.

A most exotic and highly polished group of people began to file into the Ballroom, two by two, each one clutching a plate. As each pair came through the doors, their gaze turned immediately to the Returned Princess, and even though Jenna had become used to being stared at during her walks around the Castle in her own Time, she began to feel very self-conscious. She flushed bright pink and could not help but wonder if anyone was going to notice that she was not Esmeralda.

But no one did. A few people thought that Esmeralda appeared in much better health than she had been, and looked, not surprisingly, much happier for her time away from her mama. Gone was the drawn look to her face, the anxious frown that always hovered over her eyes. She had filled out a little too, and no longer looked in need of a good meal or two.

For having sent an invitation with such short notice, Queen Etheldredda had rustled up an impressive-looking group of guests. Everyone wore their very best set of clothes; most wore their wedding clothes, although the more scholarly ones, particularly the Ordinary Wizards and the Alchemists, wore their graduation gowns adorned with fur and richly colored silks. The Royal courtiers and officials, noses in the air, strutted importantly through the Ballroom doors in their ceremonial robes.

These were made from dark gray velvet edged in red and were adorned with long gold ribbons that hung from the sleeves, the number and length of which depended upon the status of the officials. On the robes of important officials, the ribbons reached the floor, and on the robes of extremely important officials, the ribbons trailed along on the floor and were often—accidentally on purpose—stepped on. It was not unusual to see a long gold ribbon lying forlornly in the Palace corridors, and some officials had even taken to carrying spare ribbons with them, for the number of ribbons on one's sleeves was highly significant, and it would not do for a five-ribbon official to be seen with only four or, perish the thought, three.

Angie Sage Books | Fantasy Books | Septimus Heap Series Books