Farid took the piece of paper and looked at it. ‘What does it say?’ he asked.
Elinor took the note from his hand. ‘Heavens above, Mortimer, what’s this?’ she asked.
Silvertongue smiled. ‘Meggie and I have often sent secret messages in this writing – she’s much better at it than I am. Don’t you recognise it? It comes from a book. We’re not far away, it says. Don’t worry. We’ll soon get you out. Mo, Elinor and Farid. Meggie will be able to read the message, but no one else will.’
‘Aha!’ murmured Elinor, giving Farid the note back. ‘Yes, if it falls into the wrong hands it’s better that way. After all, perhaps some of those fire-raisers can read.’
Farid folded the note until it was about the size of a coin, then put it in his trouser pocket. ‘I’ll be back when the sun is above those hills at the latest,’ he said. ‘Or if I’m not—’
‘If you’re not, I’ll come and look for you,’ Silvertongue ended the sentence.
‘And so will I, of course,’ added Elinor, looking fierce.
Farid did not think that was a good idea, but he didn’t say so. He left, going the same way that Dustfinger had gone the night before, disappearing as if the ghosts who lurked in the darkness had eaten him alive.
A Furry Face on the Windowsill
It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.
Through the Looking Glass
Flatnose brought Meggie and Fenoglio their breakfast, and this morning it was more than bread and a few olives. He put a basket of fruit on the table for them, and a plate of small, sweet cakes. But Meggie didn’t at all like the smile he served up at the same time.
‘All for you, princess!’ he grunted, pinching her cheek with his clumsy fingers. ‘To strengthen your little voice. There’s been a lot of excitement since Basta told us about the execution. Well, like I always said, there has to be more to life than hanging up a few dead roosters and shooting cats.’
Meggie exchanged a glance with Fenoglio. The old man was staring at Flatnose with an expression of disgust which suggested that he couldn’t believe such a creature had slipped from his pen.
‘Yes, to be sure, it’s a terribly long time since we had a nice execution!’ continued Flatnose, on his way back to the door. ‘It’d attract too much attention, they always said. And when someone really had to disappear – well, the word was to go carefully! Make it look like an accident. Is that any fun? You bet it isn’t. Not like it used to be, a good execution with eating and drinking and dancing and music, that’s the way to do it in style! And so we will this time – just like we did back in the good old days!’
Fenoglio took a sip of the black coffee that Flatnose had brought him, and choked.
‘Don’t you fancy that kind of thing, grandpa?’ Flatnose looked at him sneeringly. ‘Take my word for it, Capricorn’s executions are something to remember!’
‘Who do you think you’re telling?’ muttered Fenoglio unhappily.
At that moment someone knocked on the door. Flatnose had left it ajar, and Darius the reader put his head round it.
‘Sorry!’ he breathed, looking at Flatnose as anxiously as a bird obliged to get close to a hungry cat. ‘I – er – I’m to get the girl to read something aloud. Capricorn’s orders.’
‘Really? Well, let’s just hope she reads something useful out of a book this time. Basta showed me the fairy. She doesn’t even sprinkle any fairy dust, however hard you shake her.’ Flatnose looked at Meggie with a mixture of dislike and respect. Perhaps he thought she was some kind of a witch. ‘Knock when you want to come out again,’ he grunted, pushing past Darius.
Darius nodded and stood there for a moment before sitting down at the table with Meggie and Fenoglio, looking embarrassed. He stared greedily at the fruit until Fenoglio pushed the basket over to him. Tentatively, he took an apricot, and put it into his mouth as if he thought he would never in his life taste anything so delicious again.
‘Good heavens, it’s only an apricot!’ laughed Fenoglio. ‘Not exactly a rare fruit in these latitudes.’
Darius spat the apricot stone out into his hand, still looking awkward. ‘Whenever they shut me up in this room,’ he said timidly, ‘they gave me nothing but dry bread. And they took my books away too, but I managed to hide some of them, and when the hunger got too bad I looked at the pictures in them. The best was a picture of apricots. I sometimes sat for hours staring at the painted fruit with my mouth watering. Ever since then I just can’t control myself when I see apricots.’
Meggie took another apricot from the basket and put it into his hand. ‘Did they often shut you up?’ she asked.
The thin little man shrugged. ‘Yes, whenever I didn’t read something out of a book properly,’ he replied evasively. ‘Well, that meant all the time, really. Then they finally gave up because they realised that my reading didn’t exactly improve when they frightened me. On the contrary. Take Flatnose, for instance.’ He lowered his voice, casting a nervous glance at the door. ‘I read Flatnose out while Basta was standing beside me with his knife. Well …’ He raised his narrow shoulders regretfully.
Meggie looked at him sympathetically. Then she asked, hesitantly, ‘Did you ever read any women out of that story?’ Fenoglio looked at her uneasily.
‘Certainly,’ Darius replied. ‘I read Mortola out of the book! She says I made her older, and rickety as a chair cobbled together badly, but I really don’t think I got too much wrong with her. Luckily Capricorn agreed.’
‘Any younger women?’ Meggie was looking at neither Darius nor Fenoglio.
‘Oh yes,’ Darius sighed. ‘On the same day as I read Mortola out. I remember it very well. Capricorn was living up in the north then, at a lonely, half-ruined farm in the mountains, and there weren’t many local girls around. I myself was living not far away, in my sister’s house. I worked as a teacher, but in my free time I read aloud now and then in libraries and schools, or for children’s parties, and sometimes on warm summer evenings, I even read in a square or café. I loved reading aloud.’
His gaze wandered to the window, as if he could catch a glimpse there of those long-forgotten, happier days. ‘I think Basta noticed me when I was reading aloud at a party in the village – a passage from Dr Dolittle – and all of a sudden there was a bird flying around. I really didn’t know I had the gift – perhaps it was something to do with Basta being there. Anyway, when I went home Basta caught me as if I were a stray dog and took me to Capricorn. First he made me read gold out of books, like your father did,’ he said, smiling sadly at Meggie, ‘but then I had to read Mortola out for him, and after that he told me to read his maidservants out too. It was terrible.’ Darius pushed his glasses up on his nose with trembling fingers. ‘I was so scared. How can you read aloud well when you’re terrified? He made me try three times. Oh, I felt so sorry for them, I don’t want to talk about it!’ He buried his face in his hands, which were bony as an old man’s. Meggie thought she heard him sob, and for a moment she hesitated to ask her next question, but then she did.