‘Oh, he has a heart, does he?’ enquired Elinor bitterly.
‘It would be better for him if he didn’t,’ replied Mo. ‘More than a week passed before he was back at my door again. It was night, of course. He prefers night to day. I was just packing. I’d decided it was safer to leave, since I didn’t want to be driving Basta and Capricorn out of my house at sword-point again. Dustfinger’s reappearance showed that I was right to feel anxious. It was well after midnight when he turned up, but I couldn’t sleep anyway.’ Mo stroked Meggie’s hair. ‘You weren’t sleeping well then either. You had bad dreams, however much I tried to keep them away with my stories. I was just packing the tools in my workshop when there was a knock on the front door, a very soft, almost furtive knock. Dustfinger emerged from the dark as suddenly as he did when he came to our house four days ago – heavens, was it really only four days? Well, when he came back that first time he looked as if it had been too long since he’d eaten. He was thin as a stray cat and his eyes were dull. “Send me back,” he begged, “send me back! This world will be the death of me. It’s too fast, too crowded, too noisy. If I don’t die of homesickness I shall starve to death. I don’t know how to make a living. I don’t know anything. I’m like a fish out of water,” he said. And he refused to believe that I couldn’t do it. He wanted to see the book and try for himself, even though he could scarcely read, but there was no way I could let him have it. It would have been like giving away the very last part I still had of your mother. Luckily, I’d hidden it well. I let Dustfinger sleep on the sofa, and came down next morning to find him still searching the bookshelves. Over the next few years he kept on turning up, following us wherever we went, until I got sick and tired of it and made off with you in secret like a thief in the night. After that I saw no more of him for five years. Until four days ago.’
Meggie looked at him. ‘You still feel sorry for him,’ she said.
Mo was silent. At last, he said, ‘Sometimes.’
Elinor’s comment on that was a snort of contempt. ‘You’re even crazier than I thought,’ she said. ‘It’s that idiot’s fault we’re in this hole, it’s his fault if they cut our throats, and you still feel sorry for him?’
Mo shrugged his shoulders and looked up at the ceiling, where a few moths were fluttering around the naked light bulb. ‘No doubt Capricorn has promised to take him back,’ he said. ‘Unlike me, he realised that Dustfinger would do anything in return for such a promise. All he wants is to go back to his own world. He doesn’t even stop to ask if his story there has a happy ending!’
‘Well, that’s no different from real life,’ remarked Elinor gloomily. ‘You never know if things will turn out well. Just now our own story looks like coming to a bad end.’
Meggie sat with her arms clasped round her legs, her chin on her knees, staring at the dirty white walls. In her mind’s eye she saw the ‘N’ in front of her, the ‘N’ with the horned marten sitting on it, and felt as if her mother were looking out from beyond the big capital letter, her mother as she was in the faded photograph under Mo’s pillow. So she hadn’t run away after all. Did she like it in that other world? Did she still remember her daughter? Or were Meggie and Mo just a fading picture for her too? Did she long to be back in her own world, just as Dustfinger did?
And did Capricorn long to be back in his own world as well? Was that what he wanted – for Mo to read him back again? What would happen when Capricorn realised that Mo simply couldn’t do it? Meggie shuddered.
‘It seems Capricorn has someone else to read aloud to him now,’ Mo went on, as if he had guessed her thoughts. ‘Basta told me about the man, probably to show me I’m not by any means indispensable. Apparently he’s read several useful assistants for Capricorn out of a book already.’
‘Oh yes? Then why does he want you?’ Elinor sat up, rubbing her behind and groaning. ‘I don’t understand any of this. I just hope it’s all a bad dream, the kind you wake up from with a stiff neck and a bad taste in your mouth.’
Meggie doubted whether Elinor really had any such hope. The damp straw felt too real, and so did the cold wall behind them. She leaned against Mo’s shoulder again and closed her eyes. She was very sorry she had scarcely read a line of Inkheart. She knew nothing at all about the story into which her mother had disappeared. All she knew was Mo’s other stories, about the fabulous exploits that had kept her mother away, tales of the adventures she was having in distant lands, of fearsome enemies who kept preventing her from coming home, and of a box she was filling for Meggie, putting something new and wonderful in it at every enchanted place she visited.
‘Mo,’ she asked, ‘do you think she likes being in that story?’
It took Mo quite a long time to answer. ‘She’d certainly like the fairies,’ he said at last, ‘although they’re deceitful little things. And if I know her she’ll be putting out bowls of milk for the brownies. Yes, I think she’d like that part of it …’
‘So … so what wouldn’t she like?’ Meggie looked at him anxiously.
Mo hesitated. ‘The evil in it,’ he finally said. ‘So many bad things happen in that book, and she never found out that it all ends reasonably well – after all, I never finished reading her the whole story. That’s what she wouldn’t like.’
‘No, of course not,’ said Elinor. ‘But how do you know the story hasn’t changed anyway? After you read Capricorn and his friend out of it. And now we’re lumbered with them here.’
‘Yes,’ said Mo, ‘but they’re still in the book too. Believe me, I’ve read it often enough since they came out of it, and the story’s still about them: Dustfinger, Basta and Capricorn. Doesn’t that mean everything is still the way it was? Capricorn is still there, and we’re only up against a shadow of him in this world.’
‘He’s pretty frightening for a shadow,’ said Elinor.
‘Yes, you’re right,’ agreed Mo. ‘Perhaps things have changed there after all. Perhaps there’s another, much larger story behind the printed one, a story that changes just as our own world does. And the letters on the page tell us only as much as we’d see peering through a keyhole. Perhaps the story in the book is just the lid on a pan; it always stays the same, but underneath there’s a whole world that goes on developing and changing like our own.’
Elinor groaned. ‘For heaven’s sake, Mortimer!’ she said. ‘Stop it, do. You’re giving me a headache.’
‘It made my own head feel like bursting when I tried to make sense of it all,’ replied Mo gloomily.
After that they said nothing for quite a long time, all three of them absorbed in their own thoughts. Elinor was the first to speak again, although it sounded almost as if she were talking to herself. ‘Heavens above,’ she murmured, taking off her shoes. ‘To think of all the times I’ve wished I could slip right into one of my favourite books. But that’s the advantage of reading – you can shut the book whenever you want.’
Groaning, she wriggled her toes and began walking up and down. Meggie had to suppress a giggle. Elinor looked so funny hobbling from the wall to the door and back again with her aching feet, back and forth like a clockwork toy.