Out in the corridor, Flatnose was still muttering angrily to himself.
‘I’ll say I have to go to the loo.’ Meggie was clutching her rucksack. ‘Then I’ll just run off.’
Fenoglio took her by the shoulders. ‘No!’ he whispered emphatically. ‘No, you won’t! We’ll think of something. Thinking up ideas is my job, remember?’
Meggie tightened her lips. ‘Yes, all right,’ she murmured, getting up to go back to the window. Dusk was already falling outside. I’m going to try, all the same, she thought as Fenoglio stretched out with a sigh on the narrow bed behind her. I’m not just going to sit here like bait! I shall run away before they catch Mo too.
And for the hundredth time, as she waited for darkness, she tried to push away the question that kept coming into her head: where was Mo? Why hadn’t he come?
‘You think this is a trap, then?’ the Count asked.
‘I always think everything is a trap until proven otherwise,’ the Prince answered. ‘Which is why I’m still alive.’
The Princess Bride
It was still hot when the sun had gone down. There was not a breath of wind in the darkness, and the glow-worms were dancing above the dry grass as Dustfinger crept back to Capricorn’s village.
Two guards were strolling around the car park, and neither of them was wearing earphones, so Dustfinger took a different route to Capricorn’s house this time. The streets at the far end of the village had been so utterly destroyed by the earthquake which drove out the last villagers that Capricorn had not had them rebuilt. These streets were still blocked by the rubble of ruined walls, and it wasn’t very safe to walk there. Even after so many years, loose stones might fall. So Capricorn’s men avoided that part of the village, where dirty dishes left by its long-gone inhabitants still stood on many tables behind dilapidated front doors. There were no floodlights here, and even the guards seldom came this way.
Tumbled heaps of broken tiles and stones stood more than knee-high in the street that Dustfinger chose. They slipped beneath his feet as he clambered over them, and when he listened to the nocturnal sounds again, afraid the noise might have attracted someone’s attention, he saw a guard appear among the ruined houses. His mouth was dry with terror as he ducked behind the nearest wall. Swallows’ nests clung to it, one above another. The guard was humming as he came closer. Dustfinger knew him; he had been with Capricorn for many years. Basta had recruited him from a village in another country. For Capricorn had not always lived among these hills. There had been other places, remote villages like this one, houses, abandoned farms, even a fortified castle once. But a day had always come when the web of fear so expertly spun by Capricorn tore, and the attention of the police was drawn to his men and what they were up to. Eventually the same thing would happen here.
The guard stood still to light a cigarette. Its smoke drifted to Dustfinger’s nostrils. Turning his head, he saw a thin white cat perched among the stones. It sat there perfectly still, its green eyes staring at him. ‘Sssh!’ he wanted to whisper. ‘Do I look dangerous? No, but that man there will shoot first you, then me.’ The green eyes went on staring. The white tail began twitching back and forth. Dustfinger looked at his dusty boots, at a twisted iron bar lying among the stones, anywhere but at the cat. Animals don’t like you to look them in the eye. Gwin bared his sharp teeth whenever Dustfinger looked straight at him.
The guard began humming again, the cigarette between his lips. At last, just as Dustfinger was beginning to feel he would be crouching behind this ruined wall for the rest of his life, the guard turned and strolled off. Dustfinger dared not move until the sound of his footsteps had died away. When he straightened up, feeling stiff, the cat raced away, spitting, and he stood there for a long time among the empty houses, waiting for his heartbeat to slow.
No other guard crossed his path, and soon he was vaulting over Capricorn’s wall. The scent of thyme greeted him, a heavy scent that usually filled the air only by day. But everything seemed to be aromatic this hot night, even the tomato plants and lettuces. Poisonous plants grew in the bed just outside the house. These the Magpie tended herself. Many a dead body in the village had smelled of oleander or henbane.
The window of the room where Resa slept was open, as usual. When Dustfinger imitated Gwin’s angry chattering a hand waved from the open window, and then quickly disappeared. He leaned against the grating over the door and waited. The sky above him was sprinkled with so many stars there hardly seemed to be any space left for the darkness. She’s sure to have found out something, he thought, but suppose she tells me Capricorn has locked the book in one of his safes?
The door behind the grating opened. It always squealed, as if complaining of being disturbed at night. Dustfinger turned, and looked into a strange girl’s face. She was young, perhaps fifteen or sixteen years old, her cheeks still chubby like a child’s.
‘Where’s Resa?’ Dustfinger clutched the grating. ‘What’s happened to her?’
The girl seemed to be transfixed by terror. She was staring at him as if she had never seen a scarred face before.
‘Did she send you down here?’ Dustfinger wished he could put his hands through the grating and shake this silly little goose. ‘Tell me! I don’t have all night.’ He ought not to have asked Resa to help him. He ought to have gone searching for the book himself. How could he have endangered her? ‘Have they shut her up somewhere? Tell me!’
The girl looked at something over his shoulders, and took a step back. Dustfinger spun round, to see whatever she had seen – and found himself looking into Basta’s face.
Dustfinger’s mind raced. Why hadn’t he heard anything? Basta was notorious for his silent tread, but Flatnose, who was with him, was no master of the art of stalking. And Basta had brought someone else too: Mortola was standing beside him. So it wasn’t just fresh air that she had been enjoying last night. Or had Resa betrayed him to her? The idea hurt.
‘I really didn’t expect you to venture here again,’ purred Basta, pushing him against the grating with the flat of his hand. Dustfinger felt the iron bars pressing into his back.
Flatnose was grinning as broadly as a child at Christmas. He always grinned like that when he was allowed to put the fear of death into someone.
‘And what have you to do with the lovely Resa?’ Basta snapped his knife open, and Flatnose’s smile widened as fear brought out beads of sweat on Dustfinger’s forehead. ‘I always said so!’ continued Basta as he slowly brought the tip of the knife closer to Dustfinger’s chest. ‘The fire-eater’s in love with Resa, I said, he’d devour her with his eyes if he could, but the others wouldn’t believe me. All the same – to think of a lily-livered coward like you venturing here!’
‘Ah, but he’s in love,’ said Flatnose, laughing.
But Basta merely shook his head. ‘No, our dirty-fingered friend wouldn’t have come here for love, he’s far too cold a fish. He’s here for the book. Am I right? You’re still homesick for those fluttering fairies and stinking trolls.’ Almost tenderly, Basta ran the knife across Dustfinger’s throat.
Dustfinger forgot how to breathe. The trick of it seemed to have escaped him.