The kitchens were dark and empty when Mrs Beamish let herself in from the courtyard. Moving on tiptoe, she peeked around corners as she went, because she knew how Cankerby the footman liked to lurk in the shadows. Slowly and carefully, Mrs Beamish made her way towards the king’s private apartments, holding the little wooden foot so tightly in her hand that its sharp claws dug into her palm.
At last she reached the scarlet-carpeted corridor leading to Fred’s rooms. Now she could hear laughter coming from behind the doors. Mrs Beamish rightly guessed that Fred hadn’t been told about the Ickabog attack on the outskirts of Chouxville, because she was sure he wouldn’t be laughing if he had. However, somebody was clearly with the king, and she wanted to see Fred alone. As she stood there, wondering what was best to do, the door ahead opened.
With a gasp, Mrs Beamish dived behind a long velvet curtain and tried to stop it swaying. Spittleworth and Flapoon were laughing and joking with the king as they bade him goodnight.
‘Excellent joke, Your Majesty, why, I think I’ve split my pantaloons!’ guffawed Flapoon.
‘We shall have to rechristen you King Fred the Funny, sire!’ chuckled Spittleworth.
Mrs Beamish held her breath and tried to suck in her tummy. She heard the sound of Fred’s door closing. The two lords stopped laughing at once.
‘Blithering idiot,’ said Flapoon in a low voice.
‘I’ve met cleverer blobs of Kurdsburg cheese,’ muttered Spittleworth.
‘Can’t you take a turn entertaining him tomorrow?’ grumbled Flapoon.
‘I’ll be busy with the tax collectors until three,’ said Spittleworth. ‘But if—’
Both lords stopped talking. Their footsteps also ceased. Mrs Beamish was still holding her breath, her eyes closed, praying they hadn’t noticed the bulge in the curtain.
‘Well, goodnight, Spittleworth,’ said Flapoon’s voice.
‘Yes, sleep well, Flapoon,’ said Spittleworth.
Very softly, her heart beating very fast, Mrs Beamish let out her breath. It was all right. The two lords were going to bed… and yet she couldn’t hear footsteps…
Then, so suddenly she had no time to draw breath into her lungs, the curtain was ripped back. Before she could cry out, Flapoon’s large hand had closed over her mouth and Spittleworth had seized her wrists. The two lords dragged Mrs Beamish out of her hiding place and down the nearest set of stairs, and while she struggled and tried to shout, she couldn’t make a sound through Flapoon’s thick fingers, nor could she wriggle free. At last, they pulled her into that same Blue Parlour where she’d once kissed her dead husband’s hand.
‘Do not scream,’ Spittleworth warned her, pulling out a short dagger he’d taken to wearing, even inside the palace, ‘or the king will need a new pastry chef.’
He gestured to Flapoon to take his hand away from Mrs Beamish’s mouth. The first thing she did was take a gasp of breath, because she felt like fainting.
‘You made an outsized lump in that curtain, cook,’ sneered Spittleworth. ‘Exactly what were you doing, lurking there, so close to the king, after the kitchens have closed?’
Mrs Beamish might have made up some silly lie, of course. She could have pretended she wanted to ask King Fred what kinds of cakes he’d like her to make tomorrow, but she knew the two lords wouldn’t believe her. So instead she held out the hand clutching the Ickabog foot, and opened her fingers.
‘I know,’ she said quietly, ‘what you’re up to.’
The two lords moved closer and peered down at her palm, and the perfect, tiny replica of the huge feet the Dark Footers were using. Spittleworth and Flapoon looked at each other, and then at Mrs Beamish, and all the pastry chef could think, when she saw their expressions, was, Run, Bert – run!