But Capricorn had already noticed the boy.
‘Stop!’ he commanded, so sharply that Mo broke off in mid-sentence and raised his head.
Abruptly, and rather unwillingly, Capricorn’s men returned to reality. Cockerell was the first on his feet. ‘Hey, where did he come from?’ he growled.
The boy ducked, looked round with a terrified expression, and ran for it, doubling back and forth like a rabbit. But he didn’t get far. Three men immediately sprang forward and caught him at the feet of Capricorn’s statue.
Mo put the book down on the flagstones beside him and buried his face in his hands.
‘Hey, Fulvio’s gone!’ cried one of Capricorn’s men. ‘Vanished into thin air!’ They all stared at Mo. There it was again, the nervousness in their faces, but this time mingled not with admiration but with anger.
‘Get rid of that boy, Silvertongue!’ ordered Capricorn angrily. ‘I have more than enough of his kind. And bring Fulvio back.’
Mo took his hands away from his face and stood up.
‘For the millionth time, I can’t bring anyone back,’ he said. ‘The fact that you don’t believe me doesn’t make that a lie. I can’t do it. I can’t decide who or what comes out of a book, nor who goes into it.’
Meggie reached for Mo’s hand. Some of Capricorn’s men came closer, two of them holding the boy. They were pulling on his arms as if to tear him in half. Eyes wide with terror, the boy stared into their unfamiliar faces.
‘Back to your places!’ Capricorn ordered the angry men. A couple of them were already dangerously close to Mo. ‘Why all this fuss? Have you forgotten how stupidly Fulvio acted on the last job? We almost had the police down on us. So it’s the right man to have gone. And who knows, perhaps this lad will turn out to have a talent for arson. All the same, I want to see pearls now. And gold and jewels. After all, they’re what this story is all about, so let’s have some!’
An uneasy murmuring rose among the men. Nonetheless, most of them returned to the steps and perched once more on the worn treads. Only three still stood in front of Mo, staring at him with intense hostility. One of them was Basta. ‘Very well, so we can dispense with Fulvio,’ he said, never taking his eyes off Mo. ‘But who is this wretched wizard going to magic into thin air next time? I don’t want to end up in some thrice-accursed desert story and find myself going around in a turban all of a sudden!’ The men standing near him nodded in agreement, and looked at Mo so darkly that Meggie almost stopped breathing.
‘Basta, I won’t tell you again.’ Capricorn’s voice sounded menacingly calm. ‘Let him go on reading, all of you. And anyone whose teeth start chattering with fear had better go outside and help the women with the laundry.’
Some of the men looked longingly at the church door, but none ventured to leave. Finally, even the two who had been standing beside Basta turned without a word and sat down with the others.
‘You’ll pay for Fulvio yet!’ Basta whispered to Mo before he stationed himself behind Meggie again. Why couldn’t he have disappeared? she thought.
The boy still hadn’t uttered a sound.
‘Lock him up. We’ll see if he can be of any use to us later,’ ordered Capricorn.
The boy did not resist as Flatnose led him away. Apparently numb, he stumbled along as if he were still expecting to wake up. When would he realise this dream was never going to end?
When the door closed behind the two of them Capricorn returned to his chair. ‘Go on reading, Silvertongue,’ he said. ‘We still have a long day ahead of us.’
But Mo looked at the books lying at his feet, and shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You saw. It happened again. I’m tired. Be content with what I’ve brought you from Treasure Island. Those coins are worth a fortune. I want to go home, and I never want to set eyes on you again.’ His voice sounded rougher than usual, as if it had read too many words aloud.
Capricorn looked at Mo appraisingly before turning his eyes to the bags and chests his men had filled with coins. He seemed to be working out how long their contents would keep him in comfort.
‘Yes, you’re right,’ he said at last. ‘We’ll go on tomorrow. Otherwise we might find a stinking camel turning up here next, or another half-starved boy.’
‘Tomorrow?’ Mo took a step towards him. ‘What do you mean? Aren’t you satisfied yet? One of your men has disappeared already. Do you want to be the next?’
‘I can live with the risk,’ replied Capricorn, unimpressed. His men leaped to their feet as he rose from his chair and walked slowly down the altar steps. They stood there like schoolboys, although some of them were taller than Capricorn, hands clasped behind their backs as if at any moment he would inspect their fingernails for cleanliness. Meggie couldn’t help remembering what Basta had said – how young he himself had been when he had joined Capricorn – and she wondered whether it was out of fear or admiration that the men bowed their heads.
Capricorn had stopped beside one of the bulging moneybags. ‘Oh, I have a great many plans for you, Silvertongue, believe me,’ he said, putting his hand into the sack and running the coins through his fingers. ‘Today was just a test. After all, I had to convince myself of your talents with my own eyes and ears, right? I can certainly use all this gold, but tomorrow you’re going to read something else out of a book for me.’
He strolled over to the boxes which had contained the books that were now burnt to ashes, and reached into one. ‘Surprise!’ he announced, smiling as he held up a single book. It didn’t look at all like the copy Meggie and Elinor had brought him. It still had a brightly coloured paper dust-jacket with a picture that Meggie couldn’t make out from a distance. ‘Oh yes, I still have one!’ remarked Capricorn, scanning the uncomprehending faces with pleasure. ‘My own personal copy, you might say, and tomorrow, Silvertongue, you’re going to read to me from it. As I was saying, I like this world of yours very much indeed, but there’s a friend from the old days that I miss. I never let your substitute try his skill with my friend – I was afraid he might fetch him here without a head, or with only one leg. But now I have you, and you’re a master of your art.’
Mo was staring incredulously at the book in Capricorn’s hand as if he expected it to dissolve into thin air at any moment.
‘Have a rest, Silvertongue,’ said Capricorn. ‘Spare your precious voice. You’ll have plenty of time for that, because I have to go away, and I won’t be back till noon tomorrow. Take these three back to their quarters,’ he told his men. ‘Give them enough to eat, and some blankets for the night. Oh yes, and get Mortola to bring him tea. That kind of thing works wonders on a hoarse, tired voice. Didn’t you always swear by tea sweetened with honey, Darius?’ He turned enquiringly to his old reader, who simply nodded, and looked sympathetically at Mo.
‘Back to our quarters? Do you mean that hole where your man with the knife put us last night?’ Elinor’s cheeks were flushed red, whether in horror or indignation Meggie couldn’t guess. ‘This is wrongful detention! No, worse – abduction! That’s it, abduction. Are you aware how many years in jail you’d get for it?’