Dustfinger spat out one last fireball into the air – its size made even the bravest in the audience step back – then he put down the torches and picked up his juggling balls. He threw them so high in the air that the spectators had to tilt their heads right back to watch, then caught them and knocked them up in the air again with his knee. They rolled along his arms as if pulled by invisible threads, emerged from behind his back as if he had plucked them out of empty air, bounced off his forehead, his chin, such light, weightless, dancing little things … it would all have seemed easy, cheerful, just a pretty game, if it hadn’t been for Dustfinger’s face. That remained deadly serious behind the whirling balls, as if it had nothing to do with his dancing hands, nothing to do with their skill, nothing to do with their carefree lightness. Meggie wondered whether his fingers still hurt. They looked red, but perhaps that was just the firelight.
When Dustfinger bowed and put his balls back in the rucksack the spectators were slow to disperse, but finally only Mo and Meggie were left. Farid was sitting on the paving stones counting the money he had collected. He looked happy – as if he had never done anything else in his life.
‘So you’re still here,’ said Mo.
‘Why not?’ Dustfinger was collecting his props: the two bottles he had used in Elinor’s garden, the burnt-out torches, the bowl into which he spat and whose contents he now tipped carelessly out on the pavement. He had got himself a new bag; the old one was probably still in Capricorn’s village. Meggie went over to the rucksack, but Gwin wasn’t in it.
‘I’d hoped you’d be well away by now, going back north or somewhere else. Somewhere Basta can’t find you.’
Dustfinger shrugged his shoulders. ‘I have to earn some money first. Anyway, I like the weather here better, and the people are more likely to stop and watch. They’re generous too. Right, Farid? How much did we make this time?’
The boy jumped when Dustfinger turned to him. Farid had put aside the dish with the money in it and was just about to place a burning matchstick in his mouth. He quickly pinched it out with his fingers. Dustfinger suppressed a smile. ‘He’s dead set on learning to play with fire. I’ve shown him how to make little practice torches, but he’s in too much of a hurry. He has blisters on his lips all the time.’
Meggie looked sideways at Farid. He seemed to be ignoring them as he packed Dustfinger’s things back in the bag, but she felt sure he was listening to every word they said. She met his eyes twice, those dark eyes, and the second time he turned away so abruptly that he almost dropped one of Dustfinger’s bottles.
‘Hey, go carefully with that, will you?’ snapped Dustfinger impatiently.
‘I hope there’s no other reason why you’re still here?’ asked Mo as Dustfinger turned back to him.
‘What do you mean?’ Dustfinger avoided his gaze. ‘Oh, that. You think I might go back for the book. You overestimate me. I’m a coward.’
‘Nonsense!’ Mo sounded irritated. ‘Elinor will be home tomorrow,’ he said.
‘Nice for her.’ Dustfinger looked impassively at Mo’s face. ‘So why aren’t you with her?’
Mo looked at the buildings around them and shook his head. ‘There’s someone I have to visit first.’
‘Here? Who is it?’ Dustfinger put on a short-sleeved shirt, a bright garment with a pattern of large flowers. It didn’t suit his scarred face.
‘There’s someone who might still have a copy.’
Dustfinger’s face remained unmoved, but his fingers gave him away. They were suddenly having difficulty getting the buttons of his shirt through the buttonholes. ‘That’s impossible!’ he said hoarsely. ‘Capricorn would never have overlooked one.’
Mo shrugged. ‘Maybe not, but I’m going to try all the same. The man I’m talking about doesn’t sell books either new or second-hand. Capricorn probably doesn’t even know he exists.’
Dustfinger looked round. Someone was closing the shutters in one of the surrounding houses, and on the other side of the square a few children were playing about among the chairs of a restaurant until a waiter shooed them away. There was a smell of warm food and the liquid spirits Dustfinger used in his fiery games, but no black-clad man could be seen anywhere, except for the bored-looking waiter who was straightening the chairs.
‘So, who is this mysterious stranger?’ Dustfinger lowered his voice to little more than a whisper.
‘The man who wrote Inkheart. He lives not far from here.’
Farid came over to them, holding the silver dish with the money in it. ‘Gwin hasn’t come back,’ he told Dustfinger. ‘And we don’t have anything to tempt him. Shall I buy a couple of eggs?’
‘No, he can look after himself.’ Dustfinger ran a finger over one of his scars. ‘Put the money we’ve taken into the leather bag – you know, the one in my rucksack!’ he told Farid. His voice sounded impatient. Meggie would have given Mo a hurt look if he had spoken to her like that, but Farid didn’t seem to mind. He just hurried off purposefully.
‘I really thought it was all over, no way to get back ever again …’ Dustfinger broke off and looked up at the sky. A plane crossed the horizon, coloured lights blinking. Farid looked up at it too. He had put the money away and was standing expectantly beside the rucksack. Something furry scuttled across the square, dug its claws into his trouser legs and clambered up to his shoulder. With a smile, Farid dug his hand into his trouser pocket and offered Gwin a piece of bread.
‘Suppose there really is still a copy?’ Dustfinger pushed his long hair back from his forehead. ‘Will you give me another chance? Will you try to read me back into it? Just once?’ There was such longing in his voice that it went to Meggie’s heart.
But Mo’s face was not forthcoming. ‘You can’t go back, not into that book!’ he said. ‘I know you don’t want to hear me say so, but it’s the truth, and you’d better resign yourself to it. Perhaps I can help you some other way. I’ve got an idea – rather crazy, but still …’ He said no more, just shook his head and kicked an empty matchbox that was lying on the paving stones.
Meggie looked at Mo in surprise. What kind of idea? Did he really have one, or was he just trying to comfort Dustfinger? If so, it hadn’t worked. Dustfinger was looking at him with all his old hostility. ‘I’m coming,’ he said. His fingers had left a little soot on his face when he stroked his scar. ‘I’m coming when you go to visit this man. Then we’ll see.’
There was loud laughter behind them. Dustfinger looked round. Gwin was trying to climb on to Farid’s head, and the boy was laughing as if there were nothing better than to have a marten’s sharp claws digging into his scalp.
‘Well, he’s not homesick, anyway,’ muttered Dustfinger. ‘I asked him. Not homesick in the least! All this,’ he added, waving a hand at his surroundings, ‘all this appeals to him. Even the noisy, stinking cars. He’s glad to be here. You’ve obviously done him a favour.’ The look he gave her father as he said these words was so reproachful that Meggie instinctively reached for Mo’s hand.
Gwin had jumped down from Farid’s shoulder and was sniffing curiously at the road surface. One of the children who had been romping among the tables bent down and looked incredulously at the little horns. But before the child could put a hand out to touch, Farid quickly intervened, picked Gwin up and put the marten back on his shoulders.