Capricorn gave him a look of such contempt that Basta flinched backwards as if he had been struck.
Fenoglio, however, looked as if he were enjoying himself hugely. It seemed to Meggie that he was watching the whole scene as if it were a play performed especially for him. ‘Poor Basta!’ he said to Capricorn. ‘You’re doing him a great injustice again, for he’s right. Suppose I’m not lying? Suppose I really did invent you both – you and Basta? Will you simply dissolve into thin air if you do anything to me? It seems very likely.’
Capricorn laughed, but Meggie sensed he was thinking over what Fenoglio had said, and it made him uneasy – even if he was taking great pains to hide his concern under a mask of indifference.
‘I can prove that I’m what I say I am!’ said Fenoglio, so quietly that apart from Capricorn only Basta could hear his words. ‘Shall I do it here, in front of your men and those women? Shall I tell them about your parents?’
All was quiet in the church now. No one moved, neither Basta nor the other men waiting at the foot of the steps. Even the women cleaning the floor under the tables straightened up to look at Capricorn and the strange old man. Mortola was standing beside his chair, her chin jutting as if that would help her to hear what they were whispering about.
Capricorn inspected his cufflinks in silence. They were like drops of blood on his pale shirt. Then, at last, he turned his colourless eyes to Fenoglio’s face again.
‘Say what you like, old man! But if you value your life say it so that only I can hear.’ He spoke softly, but Meggie heard the fury in his voice, suppressed with difficulty but lurking behind every word. She had never felt more afraid of him.
Capricorn signed to Basta, who reluctantly took a few steps backwards.
‘I suppose the child can hear what I have to say?’ asked Fenoglio, putting his hand on Meggie’s shoulder. ‘Or are you afraid of her too?’
Capricorn did not even look at Meggie. He had eyes only for the old man who had invented him. ‘Well, come on, let’s hear you, even if you have nothing to say! You’re not the first person to try saving his skin in this church with a few lies, but if you hedge your bets any longer I shall tell Basta to wrap a pretty little viper around your neck. I always keep a few around the place for such occasions.’
Even this threat didn’t particularly impress Fenoglio. ‘Very well,’ he said, looking all round him as if sorry not to have a larger audience, ‘where shall I begin? First, something basic: a storyteller never writes down everything he knows about his characters. There’s no need for readers to know everything. Some of it is better kept secret between the author and his creations. Take him, for instance,’ he added, pointing to Basta. ‘I always knew he was a very unhappy boy before you picked him up. As it says in a another very fine book, it’s terribly easy to persuade children that they are worthless. Basta was convinced of it. Not that you taught him any better, oh no! Why would you? But suddenly here was someone to whom he could devote himself, someone who told him what to do – he’d found a god, Capricorn, and if you treated him badly, well, who says that all gods are kindly? Most of them are stern and cruel, wouldn’t you agree? I didn’t write all this in the book. I knew it, that was enough. But never mind Basta now, let’s move on to you.’
Capricorn’s eyes did not move from Fenoglio. His face was as rigid as if it had turned to stone.
‘Capricorn.’ Fenoglio’s voice sounded almost tender as he spoke the name. He gazed over Capricorn’s shoulder as if he had forgotten that the man he was talking about was standing right in front of him, and no longer existed only in an entirely different world between the covers of a book. ‘He has another name too, of course, but even he doesn’t remember it. He has called himself Capricorn since he was fifteen, after the star sign under which he was born. Capricorn the unapproachable, unfathomable, insatiable, who likes to play God or the Devil as the fancy takes him. The Devil doesn’t have a mother, though, does he?’ Fenoglio then looked Capricorn in the eye. ‘But you do.’
Meggie looked up at the Magpie. She had come to the edge of the steps, listening, her bony hands clenched into fists.
‘You like to spread the rumour that she was of noble birth,’ Fenoglio went on. ‘Indeed, it sometimes even pleases you to say she was a king’s daughter, and your father, you claim, was an armourer at her father’s court. A very nice story too. Shall I tell you my version?’
For the first time, Meggie saw something like fear on Capricorn’s face, a nameless fear without beginning or end, and behind it hatred rose like a vast black shadow.
Meggie felt sure that Capricorn wanted to strike Fenoglio to the ground, but his fear was too strong, leaving him helpless to act.
Did Fenoglio see that too?
‘Go on, tell your story. Why not?’ Capricorn’s eyes were unblinking, like a snake’s.
Fenoglio smiled as mischievously as one of his grandsons. ‘Very well, let’s go on. The tale of the court armourer was all lies, of course.’ Meggie still had a feeling that the old man was enjoying himself enormously. He might have been teasing a kitten. Did he know so little about his own creation? ‘Capricorn’s father was an ordinary blacksmith,’ he went on, refusing to let the cold rage in Capricorn’s eyes distract him. ‘He made his son play with hot coals, and sometimes he beat him almost as hard as he beat the iron he forged. There were blows if the boy ever showed pity, and more blows for shedding tears and for every time the lad said, “I can’t” or “I’ll never do it”. “Power is all that counts,” he taught his son. “Rules are made by the strongest, so be sure that you’re the one who makes them.” Capricorn’s mother thought that was the only real truth in the world, and she told her son day in, day out that one day he would be the strongest of all. She was no princess but a serving maid, with coarse hands and roughened knees, and she followed her son like a shadow, even when he began to be ashamed of her and invented a new mother and new father for himself. She admired him for his cruelty; she loved to see the terror he spread abroad. And she loved his ink-black heart. Your heart is a stone, Capricorn, a black stone with about as much human sympathy as a lump of coal, and you are very, very proud of that.’
Capricorn went on playing with his cufflink, turning it round and looking at it as intently as if he were giving all his attention not to Fenoglio’s words but to the little red piece of metal. When the old man fell silent, Capricorn carefully pulled the sleeve of his jacket down over his wrist and brushed a speck of fluff off his arm. With it, he seemed to have brushed off his anger – his pale, indifferent eyes no longer showed rage, hatred or fear.
‘That really is an amazing story, old man,’ he said in a quiet voice. ‘I like it. You’re a born liar, so I shall keep you here – for the time being – until I tire of your stories.’
‘Keep me here?’ Fenoglio stood very straight. ‘I’ve no intention of staying here! What on earth—’
But Capricorn put a hand over his mouth. ‘Not another word!’ he hissed. ‘Basta has told me about your three grandchildren.
If you give me any trouble, or tell your lies not to me but to my men, I shall get Basta to gift-wrap a few young vipers and leave them outside your grandchildren’s door. Do I make myself clear, old man?’