‘The maid they call Resa,’ she said, her heart beating in her mouth. ‘Was she one of them?’
Darius took his hands away from his face. ‘Yes, she came out quite by chance,’ he said huskily. ‘Capricorn had really wanted another of them, but suddenly there was Resa, and at first I thought I’d got it right for once. She looked so beautiful, almost improbably beautiful with her golden hair and her sad eyes. But then we realised she couldn’t speak. Well, that didn’t bother Capricorn, in fact I think he liked it.’ He searched his trouser pocket and brought out a crumpled handkerchief. ‘I really could read better once,’ he said, sniffing. ‘But this constant fear … May I?’ With a sad smile he took another apricot and bit into it. Then he wiped the juice from his mouth with his sleeve, cleared his throat, and gazed straight at Meggie. His eyes looked curiously large behind the thick lenses of his glasses.
‘At the – er – festivities that Capricorn’s planning,’ he said, lowering his gaze and running his finger awkwardly along the edge of the table, ‘the idea, as you probably know, is for you to read from Inkheart. The book’s being kept in a secret place until that time comes. Only Capricorn knows where it is. So you won’t see it before the – er – occasion. Which means that we’re to use another book for the latest test Capricorn wants of your talents. Luckily, there are a few other books in this village, not many, but anyway I’ve been told to choose something suitable.’ He raised his head again and gave a small, slight smile. ‘Fortunately I didn’t have to look for gold and such treasures this time. All Capricorn wants is proof of your skill, and so,’ he said, pushing a small book over the table, ‘so I chose this one.’
Meggie bent over the cover. ‘Collected Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen,’ she read aloud. She looked at Darius. ‘They’re beautiful stories.’
‘Yes,’ he breathed. ‘Sad, but very, very beautiful.’ Reaching over the table, he opened the book for Meggie at a place which he had marked with a couple of long blades of grass slipped between the yellowed pages. ‘First I thought of my favourite story, the one about the nightingale. Maybe you know it?’ Meggie nodded.
‘But the fairy you read out of the book yesterday isn’t happy in the jug where Basta has put her,’ Darius went on, ‘so I thought it might be better if you tried the tin soldier.’
The tin soldier. Meggie did not reply at once. The brave tin soldier in his little paper boat … she imagined him suddenly appearing beside the fruit basket. ‘No!’ she said. ‘No. I’ve told Capricorn already, I won’t read anything out of a book for him, not even as a test. Tell him I can’t do it any more. Just tell him I tried and nothing came out of the story!’
Darius gave her a sympathetic look. ‘Oh, I would,’ he said quietly. ‘Really I would. But it’s the Magpie—’ he said, quietly putting his hand to his mouth as if he had said too much. ‘Sorry, I mean the housekeeper, of course, Signora Mortola – it’s her you have to read aloud to. I’ve only chosen the story.’
The Magpie. An image of her flashed into Meggie’s mind, watching her with her birdlike eyes. Suppose I bite my tongue, she thought. Very hard. She had done that a few times by mistake, and once her tongue had swelled up so much she had to talk to Mo in sign language for two days. She looked at Fenoglio for help.
‘Do it!’ he said, to her surprise. ‘Read aloud to the old woman, but make it a condition that you can keep the tin soldier. Tell her anything you like – say you want to play with him because you’re bored to death – and then ask for something else: some sheets of paper and a pencil. Say you want to draw pictures, understand? If she agrees we’ll take it from there.’
Meggie didn’t understand a word of this, but before she could ask Fenoglio what he was planning the door opened, and there was the Magpie herself.
Darius leaped to his feet so quickly at the sight of her that he pushed Meggie’s plate off the table. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, so sorry!’ he stammered, picking up the broken pieces in his bony fingers. He cut his thumb so deeply on the last piece that blood dripped to the wooden floorboards.
‘Get up, you fool!’ snapped Mortola. ‘Have you shown her what she’s to read from?’
Darius nodded, and looked unhappily at his bleeding thumb.
‘Then get out. You can help the women in the kitchen. There are chickens to be plucked.’
Darius made a face, looking disgusted, but he bowed and disappeared into the corridor, but not without casting Meggie a last sympathetic glance.
‘Right!’ said the Magpie, waving to her impatiently. ‘Start reading – and put your mind to it.’
Meggie read the tin soldier out of the story. It was as if he simply fell from the ceiling. ‘He dropped down three storeys to the street and his bayonet stuck in the earth between two cobblestones.’ The Magpie reached for him before Meggie could, and stared at him as if he were just a painted toy, while he looked back at her with horror in his eyes. Then she put him in the pocket of her coarse-knit woollen jacket.
‘Please can I have him?’ stammered Meggie, just as the Magpie reached the doorway. Fenoglio placed himself behind her as if to cover her back, but the Magpie just looked at Meggie with her sharp-nosed gaze. ‘I – I mean, there’s nothing you’d want to do with him,’ Meggie went on uncertainly, ‘and I’m so bored. Please.’
The Magpie looked at her, unmoved. ‘You can have him back when Capricorn has seen him,’ she said, and then she was gone.
‘The paper!’ cried Fenoglio. ‘You forgot to ask for paper and pencil!’
‘I’m sorry,’ murmured Meggie. She hadn’t forgotten, it was just that she didn’t dare ask the Magpie for anything else.
‘Ah, well, I’ll just have to get it by other means,’ said Fenoglio. ‘The only question is, how?’
Meggie went over to the window, rested her forehead on the pane and looked down at the garden, where a couple of Capricorn’s maids were busy tying up tomato plants. What would Mo say, she wondered, if he knew I can do it too? ‘Who did you read out, Meggie? Poor Tinker Bell and the Steadfast Tin Soldier?’ … ‘Yes,’ murmured Meggie, tracing an invisible ‘M’ on the pane with her finger. Poor fairy, poor tin soldier, poor Dustfinger and – she thought again of the woman with the dark blonde hair. ‘Resa,’ she whispered. TeResa. Teresa was her mother’s name.
She was about to turn away from the window when out of the corner of her eye she saw something appearing above the sill outside – a small furry face. Meggie retreated in alarm.
Do rats climb walls? Yes, but that wasn’t a rat, the animal’s muzzle wasn’t pointed enough. She quickly ran back to the windowpane.
The marten was sitting on the narrow sill, looking in at her with sleepy eyes.
‘Basta!’ muttered Fenoglio behind her. ‘Yes, Basta will get me the paper. That’s a good idea.’
Meggie opened the window very slowly, so that Gwin wouldn’t take fright and perhaps fall off the sill. Even a marten would break all his bones if he fell into the paved yard from this height. She put out her hand, still very slowly. Her fingers trembled as she stroked Gwin’s back. Then she grabbed him before his little teeth could snap at her, and quickly lifted him into the room. She looked anxiously down, but none of the maids had noticed anything. They were all bending over the vegetable patch, their clothes drenched with perspiration from the heat of the sun burning down on their backs.