‘Dustfinger, go to the kitchen and get Mortola to put something on your burns,’ he ordered in a commanding voice. ‘You’ll be no use for anything without the use of your hands.’
Dustfinger looked at Mo for a long time before obeying this order. Head bent, with unsteady steps, he walked past Capricorn’s men. The way to the church porch seemed endless. For a moment, as Dustfinger opened the door, bright sunlight shone into the building. As it closed behind him, Meggie, Mo and Elinor were left with Capricorn and his men – and the reek of petrol and burnt paper.
‘And now let’s come to you, Silvertongue!’ said Capricorn, stretching his legs. He was wearing black boots. He examined the gleaming leather with satisfaction, removing a scrap of charred paper from the toe of one boot. ‘Until now I, Basta and the unfortunate Dustfinger are the only evidence that you can conjure up extraordinary magic out of little black letters. You yourself don’t seem to trust your gift, if we’re to believe you – which, as I was saying just now, I don’t. On the contrary, I think you are a master of your craft, and I can scarcely wait for you to give us another taste of your skill at long last. Cockerell!’ His voice sounded irritated. ‘Where’s the reader? Didn’t I tell you to bring him?’
Cockerell stroked his beard nervously. ‘He was still busy choosing books,’ he stammered. ‘I’ll fetch him right away.’ And with a hasty bow, he limped off.
Capricorn began drumming his fingers on the arms of his chair. ‘No doubt you’ve already heard that I had to resort to the services of another reader while you were hiding from me so successfully,’ he said to Mo. ‘I found him by chance five years ago, but he’s useless. You only have to look at Flatnose’s face.’ Flatnose lowered his head, embarrassed, when all eyes turned on him. ‘And Cockerell owes him his limp too. As for the girls he read out of his books for me, you should have seen them. It’d give a man nightmares just to see their faces. Finally, I had him read to me only when I felt like amusing myself with his monsters, and I actually found my men in this world of yours, just by recruiting them when they were still young. There’s a lonely boy who likes to play with fire in almost every village.’ Smiling, he inspected his fingernails like a satisfied cat examining its claws. ‘I’ve told the reader to find the right books for you. At least the poor fool does know his way around books – he lives in them like one of those pale worms that feed on paper.’
‘And just what am I supposed to read out of his books for you?’ Mo’s voice sounded bitter. ‘A few monsters, a couple of human horrors to suit the present company?’ He nodded in Basta’s direction.
‘For heaven’s sake, Mortimer, don’t put ideas into his head!’ whispered Elinor, with a nervous glance at Capricorn.
But Capricorn merely flicked some ash off his trousers and smiled. ‘No, thank you, Silvertongue,’ he said. ‘I have enough men, and as for the monsters, well, perhaps we’ll get around to them later. For the time being we’re doing very well with Basta’s trained dogs and the local snakes. They make excellent and deadly presents. No, Silvertongue, all I want today as a test of your skill is gold. I have such an appetite for money! My men do their best to squeeze all that can be squeezed out of this part of the country.’ At these words from Capricorn, Basta lovingly stroked his knife. ‘But it’s never enough for all the wonderful things that can be bought in this infinitely wide world of yours. A world of so many pages, Silvertongue, so very many pages, and I want to write my name on every one of them.’
‘In what kind of letters?’ enquired Mo. ‘Is Basta going to scratch them into the paper with his knife?’
‘Oh, Basta can’t write,’ replied Capricorn calmly. ‘None of my men can either read or write. I’ve forbidden them to learn. But I got one of my maidservants to teach me how to read. And when there’s something to be written the reader does it. So you see, my dear Silvertongue, I can make my mark on your world.’
The church door opened as if Cockerell had just been waiting for this cue. The man he ushered in had his head hunched between his shoulders and looked neither right nor left as he followed Cockerell. He was small and thin, and couldn’t be any older than Mo, but his back was bent like an old man’s, and his arms and legs moved awkwardly, as if he didn’t quite know what to do with them. He kept nervously adjusting his glasses. The frame was held together over the bridge of his nose with sticky tape, as if it had often been broken. He was clutching a number of books to his chest with his left arm, as if they offered some protection from the stares turned on him from all sides and the sinister place to which he had been brought.
When the two men eventually reached the foot of the steps Cockerell dug an elbow into his companion’s ribs, and the man bowed so hurriedly that two of the books fell to the floor. He was quick to snatch them up, and bowed to Capricorn a second time.
‘We’ve been waiting for you, Darius!’ said Capricorn. ‘I trust you’ve found what I wanted.’
‘Oh yes, yes!’ stammered Darius, casting an almost reverent glance at Mo. ‘Is that him?’
‘Yes. Show him the books you’ve chosen.’
Darius nodded and bowed again, this time to Mo. ‘These – these are all stories with treasure in them,’ he stammered. ‘Finding them wasn’t as easy as I had expected,’ he added, with the faintest note of reproach in his voice. ‘After all, there aren’t so many books in this village. And however often I ask no one brings me any more, or if they do the books are useless. But never mind that – here they are. I think you’ll be happy with my choice, anyway.’ He knelt down on the floor in front of Mo and began setting out the books side by side, so that Mo could read the titles.
The very first one alarmed Meggie. Treasure Island. She looked uneasily at Mo. Not that one, she thought. Not that book, Mo. But Mo had already picked up another book: Tales From the Thousand and One Nights.
‘I think this will do,’ he said. ‘There’s sure to be plenty of gold in those stories. But I’m warning you again, I don’t know what will happen. Because it never does happen when I want it to. I know you all think I’m a magician, but I’m not. The magic comes out of the books themselves, and I have no more idea than you or any of your men how it works.’
Capricorn leaned back in his chair looking expressionlessly at Mo. ‘How many more times are you going to tell me that, Silvertongue?’ he asked in bored tones. ‘You can say so as often as you like, but I don’t believe it. In the world on which we finally slammed the door today I frequently mingled with magicians, wizards and witches, and I very often had to deal with their obstinacy. I know that Basta has given you a graphic account of the way we used to break their will. But in your case, and now that your daughter is here as our guest, I’m sure such painful methods will not be necessary.’ With these words, Capricorn looked pointedly at Basta.
Mo tried to hold on to Meggie, but Basta moved faster. Pulling her towards him, he quickly put an arm around her neck and held her in a headlock.
‘From now on, Silvertongue,’ continued Capricorn, his voice still sounding as indifferent as if he was talking about the weather, ‘from now on, Basta will be your daughter’s personal shadow. This will provide her with reliable protection from snakes and fierce dogs but not, of course, from Basta himself, who will be kind to her only as long as I say so. And that in turn will depend on whether I am pleased with your services. Have I made myself clear?’