Jenna watched the sumptuous stream of guests pour in and find their places at the three long tables that were set down the length of the Ballroom. After much fussing and treading on ribbons, all were finally seated. A small, nervous page was pushed onto the dais by the Steward; the boy ran to the middle, stood on his spot in front of the Queen and rang a small handbell. The tinkling sound immediately brought complete silence. Everyone stopped their chat in mid-sentence and looked expectantly at Queen Etheldredda.

“Welcome to this feast.” Etheldredda's voice rang through the Ballroom like fingernails being dragged down a blackboard. Some people winced, others ran their fingernails across their front teeth to get rid of the nasty sensation. “Held in honor of the safe Return of my deare daughter, Princess Esmeralda, whom we all did think sadly drowned. Who was Much Mourned by her deare mama and who has been welcomed home with Most Great Rejoicing and Motherly Affection, for we have not been out of each other's sight since her Return, have we, my Darling One?” Queen Etheldredda gave Jenna a sharp kick on the shins under the table.

“Ouch!” gasped Jenna.

“ Have we, my Darling One?” Etheldredda's eyes bored into Jenna and she hissed under her breath, “Answer No, Mama, you little fool—else it shall be the worse for thee.”

With all eyes upon her, Jenna did not dare refuse. “No, Mama,” she muttered sulkily.

“ What was that, my most Precious One?” asked Queen Etheldredda silkily, with steel in her eyes. “What did you say?”

Jenna took a deep breath and said, "No, Mama. Indeed, the sight of you is ...

haunting." and then immediately she wished she hadn't, for all eyes were now upon her at the sound of her strange accent and her odd way of speaking. But Queen Etheldredda, who had made a habit of never listening to a word that Princess Esmeralda said, appeared not to notice. Bored with having to think about the wretched Esmeralda for longer than she had ever had to before, the Queen stood up.

With much scraping of chairs, everyone in the Ballroom rose to their feet and turned their respectful gaze away from the odd Esmeralda to their more familiar Queen.

“Let the banquet begin!” Etheldredda commanded.

“Let the banquet begin!” responded the guests. After making quite sure that the Queen was already seated, the throng sat down and an expectant buzz of chatter began again.

Jenna had been worried about the prospect of having to talk to Queen Etheldredda, but she need not have concerned herself, for the Queen did not look once in her direction for the rest of the banquet. Instead, she directed her attention to the dark-haired young man sitting to her left. The man, Jenna noticed, did not wear the Royal Red but wore a striking black and red tunic emblazoned with a dazzling amount of gold. He kept glancing at Jenna with a puzzled look, but with Queen Etheldredda between them, the young man seemed unwilling to say anything. With little else to do—for the Bumptiouse Barrelle of Larde sat on her right and, taking his cue from the Queen, was also ignoring her—Jenna occupied her time listening to the acrimonious conversation between Etheldredda and the young man and was amazed to hear him call the Queen “Mama.”

A gong sounded.

An expectant silence fell upon the hungry crowd. This was the announcement of the first of fifteen courses. They licked their lips, shook out their napkins and, almost as one, tucked them under their chins. The little Door Pages heaved open the doors, and a long line of serving girls in pairs, each one carrying two small silver bowls, filed in. On entering the Ballroom, the girls divided up, one line to serve each table. In a tide of gray, the girls swept along the tables, each depositing a bowl in front of an eager diner. The last two girls to enter the Ballroom made their way up to the dais, and soon Jenna too had a small silver bowl in front of her.

Curious, Jenna looked down at the bowl and gasped in horror. A young duckling, scarcely big enough to be out of the egg, lay in a puddle of thin brown broth. The duckling had been marinated in wine, plucked, and its little naked, goose-bumpy body was slumped in the bowl. Its head rested on a small ledge that stuck out from the special duckling bowl and gazed with terrified eyes at Jenna. It was still alive.

Jenna was nearly sick on the spot.

Queen Etheldredda, on the other hand, looked very pleased at the sight of her duckling. The Queen licked her lips, remarking to the young man on her left that this was one of her favorite dishes—there was nothing like a tender young duckling freshly scalded in hot orange sauce.

The gong sounded for the second time, announcing the arrival of a long line of boys carrying jugs of boiling hot sauce. Jenna watched the boys enter the Ballroom two by two, one line going to the right and one to the left, each boy stopping to pour some of the orange sauce into the waiting bowls of the diners. The two boys at the end of the line with the hottest jugs of sauce were ordered straight up to the dais. Quickly, before the sauce boy reached her, Jenna picked the duckling out of her bowl and thrust it into her tunic pocket, where the tiny creature lay in the soft fluff at the bottom of her pocket, rigid with terror.

Jenna watched the boys thread their way through the throng. Eyes down, trying to avoid spilling the brimming jugs of hot sauce, they stepped up onto the dais, where a burly footman hissed in their ears, “Tarry not, serve the Queen and Princess Esmeralda first.” And so it was that when Jenna looked up to politely thank the boy who had just poured orange sauce into her duckling-free bowl, she found herself looking into the haunted eyes of Septimus Heap.

Jenna looked away. She did not believe it. This boy with the long straggly hair, thin in the face and somewhat taller than she remembered, could not possibly be Septimus. Not in a million years.

Septimus for his part had expected to see Princess Esmeralda—so that was who he saw. He was annoyed with himself for thinking for a few hopeful seconds that the Princess could possibly be Jenna. He had already been fooled like that once before when Princess Esmeralda had stayed with Marcellus just before she disappeared. He wasn't going to let it happen again. Carefully, Septimus poured the orange sauce into her bowl, grateful that for some reason she did not have a small, live duckling in there.

Suddenly there was a loud crash and a collective gasp of horror mixed with glee rose from the Ballroom. At the sight of the duckling in Queen Etheldredda's bowl, Hugo had dropped the jug, and the boiling orange sauce had spilled into the Queen's lap.

Etheldredda leaped to her feet screaming, the Bumptious Barrelle of Larde threw back his chair and grabbed Hugo by the neck and lifted him bodily off the ground, half throttling him. “You little fool!” yelled the Barrelle of Larde. “You will pay for this. You will regret this moment for the rest of your life—which will not be long, boy, mark my words.”

Hugo's eyes were wide with fear. He dangled helplessly from the Barrelle of Larde's pudgy hands, which were tightening around his neck. Septimus saw that his lips were turning blue, Hugo's eyes rolled up and a great expanse of white began to show, Septimus leaped forward. Using more strength than he knew he had, he pulled the boy from the pudgy hands, yelling, “Let him go, you fat fiend!” The sound of Septimus's voice rang through the Ballroom with more effect than he had intended.

Jenna jumped from her seat. She had been watching the Steward throttle Hugo with as much horror as Septimus had been, and now she knew. It was Septimus—it was his voice. She knew his voice anywhere. It was him!

At the same time, the young man sitting on the other side of Queen Etheldredda also jumped up. He too knew his Apprentice's voice—what was the boy doing here dressed as a Palace servant?

Jenna and Marcellus Pye collided in the melee on the dais. Marcellus slipped on the puddle of orange sauce and crashed to the ground. The Bumptious Barrelle of Larde lost his battle with Septimus and let go of Hugo, who dropped to the ground dazed from his grip. Seizing her opportunity, Queen Etheldredda, dripping with orange sauce, aimed a swipe at the boy; she missed and caught the Barrelle of Larde a stinging blow across his ear. The Barrelle of Larde, who was an aggressive man, automatically gave Etheldredda a slap in return—much to the glee of those assembled in the Ballroom, who were watching enthralled, ducklings poised midway to their gaping mouths.

The Barrelle of Larde suddenly realized what he had done and turned white, then ashen gray. He gathered up his sauce-stained robes and fled the banquet, tearing down through the tables, his ten precious gold ribbons flying out behind him. The Door Pages saw him coming, and thinking that this happened at every banquet, they ceremoniously opened the great doors for the fleeing Barrelle and bowed as he shot past them. As they pushed the doors closed, the pages grinned at each other. No one had told them a banquet was this much fun.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com