‘What are you doing?’ Dustfinger tried to snatch them out, but Basta pushed him away.
‘Those stay where they are,’ he growled.
Dustfinger stepped back, holding the can behind his back, but Basta grabbed it from his hands. ‘Why, it looks as if our fire-eater would rather let someone else light the fire today,’ he mocked.
Dustfinger cast him a glance full of hatred. Face rigid, he watched Capricorn’s men throw more and more books into the braziers. In the end there were over two dozen copies of Inkheart on the piles of firewood, their pages crumpled, their bindings wrenched apart like broken wings.
‘You know what always got me down back in our old world, Dustfinger?’ asked Capricorn as he took the petrol can from Basta’s hand. ‘The difficulty of lighting a fire. It wasn’t any problem to you, of course – you could even talk to fire, very likely one of those grunting brownies taught you how – but it was a tedious business for the rest of us. The wood was always damp, or the wind blew down the chimney. I know you long for the good old days, you miss all your chirping, fluttering friends, but I don’t shed a tear for any of that. This world is far better equipped than the one we had to be content with for so many long years.’
Dustfinger did not seem to hear a word of what Capricorn was saying. He just stared at the petrol and smelled its fumes as it was poured over the books. The pages sucked it up as greedily as if they were welcoming their own end.
‘Where did they all come from?’ he stammered. ‘You always told me there was just one copy left – Silvertongue’s.’
‘Yes, yes, I told you all kinds of things.’ Capricorn put his hand in his trouser pocket. ‘You’re such a gullible fellow, Dustfinger. It’s fun to tell you lies. Your innocence always amazed me – after all, you lie very cleverly yourself. But you’re too ready to believe what you want to believe, that’s your trouble. Well, you can safely believe me now. These,’ he said, tapping the petrol-soaked pile of books, ‘these really are the last copies of our ink-black home. It’s taken Basta and the others years to track them all down in shabby lending libraries and second-hand bookshops.’
Dustfinger looked longingly at the books, as a man dying of thirst might look at the last glass of water in existence. ‘But you can’t burn them!’ he stammered. ‘You promised to send me back if I found you Silvertongue’s book. That’s why I told you where he was. That’s why I brought you his daughter.’
Capricorn merely shrugged his shoulders and took the book from Cockerell’s hands – the book with the green binding that Meggie and Elinor had been so eager to give him, the book for which he had made his men bring Mo all this way, the book for which Dustfinger had betrayed them all.
‘I’d have promised to fetch you down the moon from the sky if that would have done me any good,’ said Capricorn, looking bored as he flung the last copy of Inkheart on to the pile with its companions. ‘I’m happy to make promises, especially promises I can’t keep.’ Then he took a lighter from his trouser pocket. Dustfinger was about to leap at him to strike it out of his hand, but Capricorn made a sign to Flatnose.
Flatnose was so tall and broad that beside him Dustfinger looked almost like a child, and indeed the man took hold of him as if he were a badly behaved little boy. Fur bristling, Gwin leaped off Dustfinger’s shoulder. One of Capricorn’s men kicked out as the marten shot past his legs, but Gwin got away and disappeared behind one of the red columns. The other men stood there laughing at Dustfinger’s desperate attempts to free himself from Flatnose’s iron grasp. Flatnose thought it greatly amusing to let Dustfinger get just close enough to the petrol-soaked books to touch the top volumes with his fingers.
Such cruelty made Meggie feel quite ill. Mo took a step forward as if to go to Dustfinger’s aid, but Basta barred his way, a knife in his hand. Its blade, narrow and shiny, looked terribly sharp held against Mo’s throat.
Elinor screamed, and directed a torrent of curses at Basta that Meggie had never even heard before, but she herself could not move. She just stood there, in numb and silent terror, staring at the blade against Mo’s bare throat.
‘Let me have one of them, Capricorn, just one!’ Mo cried, and only then did Meggie realize that he had not been going to help Dustfinger but was thinking of the book. ‘I promise never to read aloud a line of it that mentions your name.’
‘You! Are you mad? You’re the last man I’d give one to,’ replied Capricorn. ‘One day you might be unable to control your tongue after all, and I’d land back in that ridiculous story again. No thank you very much!’
‘Nonsense!’ cried Mo. ‘I couldn’t read you back into it even if I wanted to – how often do I have to tell you that? Ask Dustfinger. I’ve explained it to him a thousand times. I myself don’t understand how or when these things happen. For heaven’s sake, believe me!’
With a chilling smirk, Capricorn answered merely with a smile, ‘I’m sorry, Silvertongue, but the fact is I don’t believe anyone. You ought to know that by now. We’re all liars when it serves our purpose.’ And with those words he flicked the lighter and held its flame to one of the books. The petrol had made the pages almost transparent, like parchment, and they flared up at once. Even the stout cloth bindings caught light immediately, the linen turning black as the flames licked round it.
When the third book caught fire, Dustfinger kicked Flatnose’s kneecap so hard that the man screamed with pain and let go of him. Nimble as his marten, Dustfinger wriggled out of those powerful arms and stumbled towards the braziers. Without hesitating, he reached into the flames, but the book he plucked out was already burning like a torch. Dustfinger dropped it on the flagstone floor and reached into the fire again, with his other hand this time, but by now Flatnose had already grasped him by the collar and was shaking him so roughly that Dustfinger was gasping for air.
‘Look at the lunatic!’ sneered Basta as Dustfinger stared at his hands, his face distorted with pain. ‘Can anyone explain what he wants so much? Maybe those ugly brownie girls who thought him so wonderful when he juggled in the market-place? Or the filthy hovels where he lived with other vagabonds? They smelled even worse than the rucksack he carries that stinking marten around in.’
Capricorn’s men laughed as the books slowly crumpled into ashes. There was still a smell of petrol in the church, such an acrid smell that it made Meggie cough. Mo put a protective arm around her shoulders, as if Basta had threatened her rather than him. But who, thought Meggie, who could protect Mo?
Elinor was looking at his neck as anxiously as if she feared Basta’s knife might have left its mark there after all. ‘These fellows are out of their minds!’ she whispered. ‘You know what they say: when people start burning books they’ll soon burn human beings. Suppose we’re the next to find ourselves on a pyre?’
Basta seemed to hear what she was saying. He caught her eye, and with a twisted smile kissed the blade of his knife.
Elinor fell silent, as if she had swallowed her tongue.
Capricorn had taken a snow-white handkerchief from his pocket. He cleaned his fingers with it carefully, as if to wipe even the memory of Inkheart off his hands. ‘Well, that’s done at last,’ he remarked with a final nod at the smoking embers. Then, with a satisfied expression on his face, he climbed up to the chair that had replaced the altar. Capricorn sank into its red upholstery with a deep sigh.