No one took any notice of her. A couple of the Black Jackets laughed. Teresa moved closer to the bars, clutching their cold metal with her fingers, never taking her eyes off Meggie.
Capricorn left the bloodstained fabric lying over the arm of his chair. I know that rag, thought Elinor. I’ve seen it somewhere before. They’re not dead. Who else would have started the fire? The matchstick-eater, something inside her whispered, but she refused to listen. No, the story must have a happy ending. It wouldn’t be right otherwise! She had never liked sad stories.
My heavens are brass my earth is iron my moon a clod of clay
My sun a pestilence burning at noon & a vapour of death in the night.
Enion’s Second Lament
In books hatred is often described as hot, but at Capricorn’s festivities Meggie discovered it was cold – an ice-cold hand that stops the heart and presses it like a clenched fist against the ribs. Hatred made her freeze, in spite of the mild air wafting around her telling her that the world was a good, safe place. She knew it was not – as the bloody cloth on which the smiling Capricorn had laid his ringed hand showed all too clearly.
‘Well, so much for that!’ he cried. ‘And now for the real reason we are all gathered here tonight. Not only are we about to punish the traitors but we’re also going to celebrate a reunion with an old friend. Some of you may remember him, and as for the others, I promise that once you have met him you will never forget him.’
Cockerell twisted his thin face into a sour smile. He was obviously not looking forward to the reunion and, at Capricorn’s words, alarm showed on several other faces.
‘But that’s enough talking. Now let’s hear something read aloud to us.’
Capricorn leaned back in his chair and nodded to the Magpie. Mortola clapped her hands, and Darius came hurrying across the arena with the casket that Meggie had last seen in the Magpie’s room. He clearly knew what it contained. His face was even more haggard than usual as he opened the casket and held it out to the Magpie, his head bowed humbly. The snakes seemed to be drowsy, and this time Mortola did not put on a glove before she lifted them out. She even draped them over her shoulders while she took the book out of its hiding-place. Then she put the snakes back as carefully as if they were precious jewels, closed the lid, and handed the casket back to Darius. He stayed on the rostrum, looking awkward. Meggie caught him looking sympathetically at her as the Magpie made her sit down on the chair and placed the book on her lap.
Here it was again, the unlucky thing, in its brightly coloured paper jacket. What colour was the binding under it? Raising the dust-jacket with her finger, Meggie saw the dark red cloth, as red as the flames surrounding the ink-black heart. Everything that had happened had begun between the pages of this book, and only the words of its author could save them now. Meggie stroked its binding as she always did before opening a book. She had seen Mo doing the same. Ever since she could remember she had known that movement – the way he would pick up a book, stroke the binding almost tenderly, then open it as if he were opening a box full to the brim with precious things. Of course, the marvels you hoped to find might not be waiting inside the covers, so then you closed the book, sorry that its promise had not been kept. But Inkheart was not a book of that kind. Badly told stories never come to life. There are no Dustfingers in them, not even a Basta.
‘I am told to tell you something!’ The Magpie’s dress smelled of musty lavender, its fragrance enveloping Meggie in a suffocating threat. ‘Should you fail to do what Capricorn asks, should it occur to you to stumble over the words on purpose, or distort them so that the guest Capricorn is expecting does not come, then …’ Mortola paused and Meggie felt the old woman’s breath on her cheek, ‘then Cockerell will cut the old man’s throat. Capricorn may not give the order himself, because he believes the stupid lies the old man told him, but I don’t, and Cockerell will do as I say. Understand me, my little cherub?’ She pinched Meggie’s cheek with her bony fingers. Meggie shook off her hand and looked at Cockerell. He moved up behind Fenoglio, smiled at her, and ran a finger across the old man’s throat. Fenoglio pushed him away, and looked at Meggie as if one look could convey everything he wanted to say to her and give her: encouragement, comfort, and maybe even a little amusement in the face of all the horrors surrounding them.
Whether or not their plan worked depended on him and his words – and Meggie’s reading.
Meggie felt the paper in her sleeve, scratching her skin. Her hands seemed like the hands of a stranger as she leafed through the pages of the book. The place where she was to begin was no longer marked by a folded corner. A bookmark as black as charred wood lay between the pages. ‘Push your hair back from your forehead,’ Fenoglio had told her. ‘That will be the signal to me.’ But just as she raised her left hand the crowd on the benches became restless again.
Flatnose was back, with soot marks on his face. He hurried to Capricorn’s side and whispered something to him. Capricorn frowned and looked towards the houses. Now Meggie saw two plumes of smoke rising into the sky from behind the church tower.
Capricorn rose quickly from his chair. He tried to sound composed, ironic, like a man amused at some childish prank, but his face told a different story. ‘I am sorry to have to spoil the fun for a few more of you, but tonight the red rooster is crowing here too. A feeble little rooster, but its neck must be wrung all the same. Flatnose, take another ten men back with you.’ Flatnose obeyed and marched off with his reinforcements. The benches now looked a good deal emptier. ‘And don’t any of you show your faces back here before you’ve found the fire-raiser!’ Capricorn called after them. ‘Whoever it is, we’ll teach him not to start fires in the Devil’s own domain – we’ll teach him a lesson, right here and now!’
Someone laughed, but most of those who had stayed behind were looking uneasily in the direction of the village. Some of the maids had actually risen to their feet, but the Magpie called their names in a sharp voice, and they were quick to sit back down with the others, like schoolchildren unfairly slapped on the hand. Nonetheless, the restlessness persisted. Scarcely anyone was looking at Meggie, almost all the members of her audience had turned their backs to her, and were pointing at the smoke and whispering to one another. A red glow was creeping up the church tower, and grey smoke formed a dense cloud above the rooftops.
‘What is all this? Why are you staring at that little wisp of smoke?’ There was no missing the anger in Capricorn’s voice now. ‘A bit of smoke, a few flames – so what? Are you going to let that spoil our festivities? Fire is our best friend, have you forgotten?’
Meggie saw the doubting faces turn back towards him. Then she heard a name. Dustfinger. A woman’s voice had called it out.
‘What does that mean?’ Capricorn’s voice was so sharp that Darius almost dropped the casket of snakes. ‘There is no Dustfinger any more. He’s lying up there in the hills with his mouth full of earth and that marten of his on his breast. I never want to hear his name again. He is forgotten as if he had never been—’
‘That’s not true.’
Meggie’s voice rang out over the arena so loud and clear that she herself was alarmed. ‘He’s here!’ She held up the book.’ Never mind what you do to him. Everyone who reads this story will see him – you can even hear his voice, and see the way he laughs and breathes fire.’