As Meggie came down the nave with Mo and Elinor, Dustfinger raised his head briefly. Gwin climbed up to his shoulder, baring his tiny teeth, sharp as splinters of glass, as if he had recognised the hatred in Meggie’s eyes as they rested on his master. Now she knew why the marten had horns, and why his twin was shown on the page of a book. She understood it all: why Dustfinger thought the world too fast and too noisy, why he didn’t understand cars and often looked as if he were somewhere else entirely. But she felt none of the sympathy Mo had shown for him. His scarred face only reminded her of the lies he had told to lure her out to him, like the Pied Piper in the story. He had played with her as he played with fire, with his brightly coloured juggler’s balls: come along, Meggie; this way, Meggie; trust me, Meggie. She felt like running up the steps and striking his lying mouth.
Dustfinger must have guessed her thoughts, and was avoiding her eyes. Not looking at Mo and Elinor either, he put a hand in his trouser pocket and brought out a matchbox. As if unconscious of what he was doing, he took out a match, lit it, and gazed at the flame, lost in thought as he passed a finger through it almost caressingly until it singed his fingertip.
Meggie looked away. She didn’t want to see him; she wanted to forget he was there. To her left, at the foot of the steps, stood two drum-shaped iron braziers, rusty brown, with wood heaped up in them: pale, freshly cut firewood, log upon log. Meggie was just wondering what the wood was for when more steps echoed through the church. Basta was walking down the nave with a petrol can in his hand. Reluctantly, Cockerell and Flatnose gave way as he pushed past them.
‘Ah, so Dustfinger’s playing with his best friend again,’ he sneered as he climbed the shallow steps. Dustfinger lowered the matchstick and straightened up. ‘Here you are,’ said Basta, putting the petrol can down at his feet. ‘Another toy for you. Light us a fire; that’s what you like best.’
Dustfinger threw away the spent match and lit another. ‘So how about you?’ he asked quietly, raising the burning match to Basta’s face. ‘Still afraid of fire, are you?’
Basta knocked the match out of his hand.
‘Oh, you shouldn’t do that!’ said Dustfinger. ‘It means bad luck. You know how quickly fire takes offence.’
For a moment Meggie thought Basta was going to hit him, and she wasn’t the only one. All eyes were turned on the two men. But something seemed to protect Dustfinger. Perhaps it really was the fire.
‘You’re lucky I’ve only just cleaned my knife!’ spat Basta. ‘One more trick like that, though, and I’ll carve a few nice new patterns on your ugly face. And make myself a fur collar out of your marten.’
Gwin uttered a soft, threatening snarl, and wrapped himself around Dustfinger’s neck. Dustfinger bent, picked up the spent matches, and put them back in the matchbox. ‘Yes, I’m sure you’d enjoy that,’ he said, still without looking at Basta. ‘But why would I want to light a fire just now, I wonder?’
‘Never you mind that, just do it. Then the rest of us can keep it fed. But make sure it’s a large, hungry blaze, not one of the tame little fires you like to play with.’
Dustfinger picked up the petrol can and slowly climbed down the steps. He was standing beside the rusty braziers when the church door opened for the second time.
Meggie turned at the sound of the heavy wooden door creaking, and saw Capricorn appear between the red columns. He glanced at his statue, as if to make sure it still gave a flattering enough image of him, then strode quickly down the nave. He was wearing a suit as red as the church walls. Only the shirt beneath it was black, and he had a black feather in his buttonhole. A good half-dozen of his men were following him, like crows following a peacock. Their steps seemed to echo all the way up to the ceiling. Meggie reached for Mo’s hand.
‘Ah, so our guests are here already,’ said Capricorn, stopping in front of them. ‘Did you sleep well, Silvertongue?’ He had curiously soft, curving, almost feminine lips, and as he spoke he kept running his little finger along them as if to retrace them. They were as bloodless as the rest of his face. ‘Wasn’t it kind of me to reunite you with your little girl last night? At first I meant it to be a surprise present for you today, but then I thought: Capricorn, you really owe that child something for bringing you what you’ve wanted so long, and of her own free will too.’
He was holding Inkheart. Meggie saw Mo’s gaze linger on the book. Capricorn was a tall man, but Mo stood a few centimetres taller, which obviously displeased Capricorn. He stood very upright, as if that would make up for the difference.
‘Let Elinor take my daughter home with her,’ said Mo. ‘Let them go and I’ll try to read you back again. I’ll read you anything you like, but let the two of them go first.’
What was he talking about? Meggie looked at him in horror. ‘No!’ she said. ‘No, Mo, I don’t want to go away.’ But no one was paying any attention to her.
‘Let them go?’ Capricorn turned to his men. ‘Hear that? Why would I do such a crazy thing now they’re here?’ The men laughed. But Capricorn turned to Mo again. ‘You know as well as I do that from now on you’ll do whatever I want,’ he said. ‘Now that she’s here, I’m sure you won’t go on denying us a demonstration of your skill.’
Mo squeezed Meggie’s hand so hard her fingers hurt.
‘And as for this book,’ said Capricorn, looking at Inkheart with as much dislike as if it had bitten his pale fingers, ‘this extremely tedious, stupid and extraordinarily long-winded book, I can assure you I have no intention of ever again letting myself be spellbound by its story. All those troublesome creatures, those fluttering fairies with their twittering voices, the swarming, scrabbling stupid beasts everywhere, the smell of fur and dung. All through this book you kept falling over bandy-legged brownies in the market-place, and when you went hunting the giants scared the game away with their huge feet. Talking trees, whispering pools – was there anything in that world that didn’t have the power of speech? And then those endless muddy roads to the nearest town, if town it could be called – that pack of well-born, finely dressed princes in their castles, those stinking peasants, so poor there was nothing to be got out of them, and the vagabonds and beggars with vermin dropping from their hair – oh, how sick I was of them all.’
Capricorn made a sign, and one of his men brought in a large cardboard box. You could see from the way he carried it that it was very heavy. The man put it down on the grey flagstones in front of Capricorn with a sigh of relief. Capricorn handed Cockerell, who was standing beside him, the book that Mo had kept from him so long, and bent to open the box. It was full to the brim with books.
‘It’s been a great deal of trouble finding them all,’ said Capricorn as he reached into the box and took out two books. ‘They may look different, but the contents are the same. The fact that the story has been printed in several languages made the search even more difficult – a particularly useless feature of this world, all those different languages. It was simpler in our own world, wasn’t it, Dustfinger?’
Dustfinger made no answer. He stood there holding the petrol can and staring at the box. Capricorn strolled over to him and threw the two books into one of the braziers.