On the outskirts of the arena, right beside the entrance and carefully segregated from the men, sat the women who worked for Capricorn. They showed none of the men’s ghastly excitement. Most of their faces were downcast, but again and again their glances strayed to Resa with expressions of pity – and dread.
Capricorn arrived when the long benches were full. There were no seats for the boys, so they squatted on the ground in front of the Black Jackets. His face emotionless, Capricorn strode past them all as if they were nothing but a flock of crows that had assembled at his command. Only in front of the cage containing his prisoners did he slow his pace to examine each of the three with a small, satisfied glance. For the fraction of a second life came back into Basta as his former lord and master stopped by the bars; he raised his head, his eyes pleading silently, like a dog begging for forgiveness, but Capricorn walked on without a word. When he had seated himself in his black leather armchair Cockerell placed himself behind it, legs planted wide apart. Obviously, he was the new favourite now.
‘For heaven’s sake, stop looking at him like that!’ Elinor snapped at Basta when she realised that his eyes were still following Capricorn. ‘He’s planning to feed you to his friend like a fly to a frog, so how about a little indignation? You were always so ready with a choice selection of threats: “I’ll cut your tongue out, I’ll slice you to pieces …” What’s happened to all that, then?’
But Basta only bowed his head and stared at the floor beneath his boots. Elinor thought he looked like an oyster with the flesh and life sucked out of it.
When Capricorn was sitting down the blaring music fell silent, and they brought Meggie forward. They had put a horrible dress on her, but she held her head high, and the old woman whom they all called the Magpie had difficulty dragging her up on to the rostrum which the Black Jackets had set up in the middle of the field. A single chair stood on the rostrum, looking as forlorn as if someone had left it there and forgotten it. Elinor thought a gallows and a rope would have looked more suitable. Meggie looked down at them as the Magpie forced her up the wooden steps.
‘Hello, darling!’ called Elinor when Meggie’s frightened gaze recognised her. ‘Don’t worry, I’m only here because I didn’t want to miss hearing you read!’
Everything had fallen so still on Capricorn’s arrival that her voice echoed over the whole arena. It sounded brave and fearless. Fortunately, no one could hear how hard her heart was hammering against her ribs. Nor did anyone notice that she was almost choking with fear, for Elinor had put on her armour, the impenetrable and extremely useful armour behind which she had always hidden at times of need. It had become a little harder with every grief she felt, and lately there had been grief enough in Elinor’s life.
One of the Black Jackets laughed at her words, and a faint smile even flitted over Meggie’s face. Elinor put her arm round Teresa’s shoulders and held her close. ‘Look at your daughter,’ she whispered. ‘As brave as … as …’ She wanted to compare Meggie to a hero from some story, but all the heroes she could think of were men, and anyway none of them seemed to her brave enough for a comparison with the girl standing there perfectly straight, scrutinising Capricorn’s Black Jackets with her chin jutting defiantly.
The Magpie had brought not only Meggie but an old man. Elinor guessed that this was the writer who had caused them so much trouble – Fenoglio, the creator of Capricorn, Basta and all the other monsters, including the terrible creature Meggie was to bring to life tonight. Elinor had always thought more of books than their authors, and she looked at the old man without much goodwill as Flatnose led him past their cage. There was a seat ready for him only a little way from Capricorn’s armchair. Elinor wondered whether that meant Capricorn had found a new friend, but when Flatnose placed himself behind the grim-faced old man she concluded that Fenoglio was more likely a prisoner himself.
Capricorn rose as soon as the old man was seated. Without a word, he let his gaze pass slowly over the long line of his men, as if recalling every one of them, remembering what good and what bad service each had done him. The silence in the arena smelled of fear. All the laughter had died away, and not a whisper could be heard.
‘There is no need,’ Capricorn finally began, raising his voice, ‘for me to explain to most of you why the three prisoners you see here are to be punished. For the rest, it is enough for me to say it is for treachery, loose talk, and stupidity. One may argue, of course, over whether or not stupidity is a crime deserving of death. I think it is, for it can have exactly the same consequences as treachery.’
As he said this there was a restless stir on the benches. At first Elinor thought Capricorn’s words had set it off, but then she heard the bell. Even Basta raised his head as its tolling sounded through the night. At a sign from Capricorn, Flatnose beckoned to five men and strode off with them. Those left behind put their heads together uneasily, and some even jumped up and turned to look at the village. However, Capricorn raised his hand to quell the murmur that had arisen. ‘It is nothing!’ he called in so loud and cutting a tone that everything immediately fell still again. ‘A fire, that’s all. And we know how to deal with fire, don’t we?’
There was laughter, but some of the crowd, both men and women, were still looking anxiously at the houses.
So they’d done it. Elinor bit her lips so hard that they hurt. Mortimer and the boy had started a fire. No smoke yet showed above the rooftops, and, reassured, all the faces turned back to Capricorn who was saying something about deceit and falsehood, discipline and negligence, but Elinor only half heard him. She kept looking at the houses of the village, though she knew it was dangerous to do so.
‘So much for the prisoners we have here!’ cried Capricorn. ‘Now for those who got away.’ Cockerell picked up a sack that had been lying behind Capricorn’s chair and gave it to him. Smiling, Capricorn put his hand into it and held something up: a piece of fabric from a shirt or dress, torn and bloodstained.
‘They are dead!’ called Capricorn to his audience. ‘I’d rather have seen them here, of course, but unfortunately there was nothing for it: they were trying to escape and had to be shot. Well, no one will miss the treacherous little fire-eater – almost all of you knew him – and fortunately Silvertongue has left us his daughter, who has inherited his gifts.’
Teresa looked at Elinor, her eyes glazed with horror.
‘He’s lying!’ Elinor whispered to her, although she too could not take her eyes off the bloodstained rags. ‘He’s using my lies, my tricks! That’s not blood, it’s paint, or some kind of dye.’ But she saw that her niece did not believe her. She believed in the bloodstained cloth, just as her daughter did. Elinor could read this on Meggie’s face, and she longed to call out to her that Capricorn was lying, but she wanted him to believe his own story for a little longer – to believe that they were all dead, and no one would come to disturb his festivities.
‘That’s right, boast of a bloodstained rag, you miserable fire-raiser!’ she shouted through the bars. ‘That’s really something to be proud of. Why do you need another monster? You’re all monsters! Every one of you sitting there! You murder books, you abduct children …!’