At last, they stopped outside a door. It was made of different wood from the other doors down here, wood with a beautiful grain like a tiger’s coat that shimmered with a tinge of red under the naked electric bulbs that lit the cellars.
‘And let me tell you,’ Basta whispered to Meggie before he knocked on the door, ‘if you’re as impertinent to Mortola as you are to me she’ll sling you in one of those nets in the church until you’re so hungry you’ll be gnawing at the ropes. Compared to her heart, mine’s as soft as a little girl’s cuddly toy.’ His peppermint-scented breath wafted into Meggie’s face. She would never again be able to eat anything smelling of peppermint.
The Magpie’s room was large enough to hold a dance in. The walls were red, like the walls in the church, but you couldn’t see much of them. They were covered with photographs in gold frames, photographs of houses and people crammed close together on the walls like a crowd in a space too small for it. In the middle, framed in gold like the photos but much larger, hung a portrait of Capricorn. Even Meggie could see that whoever had painted it was no more skilled at his trade than the sculptor who had carved the statue in the church. Capricorn’s features in the picture were rounder and softer than in real life, and his curiously feminine mouth lay like a strange fruit below the nose, which was a little too short and broad. It was only his eyes that the painter had caught perfectly. As cold as they were in the flesh, they looked down on Meggie like the eyes of a man examining a frog he is about to slit open to see what it looks like inside. No face, she had learned in Capricorn’s village, is as terrifying as a face without pity.
The Magpie sat, curiously rigid, in a green velvet armchair directly below her son’s portrait. She looked unaccustomed to sitting down – like a constantly busy woman who resented having to stop, but whose body forced her to rest. Meggie saw that the old woman’s legs were swollen above her ankles. They bulged formlessly below her bony knees. Noticing her glance, the Magpie pulled her skirt well down over those knees.
‘Have you told her what she’s here for?’ She found standing up difficult. Meggie watched her support herself with one hand on a little table, her lips pressed together. Basta seemed to enjoy her frailty; a smile played round his mouth until the Magpie looked at him, wiping it away with a single icy glance. Impatiently, she beckoned Meggie over. Basta prodded her in the back when she didn’t move.
‘Come here. I want to show you something.’ With slow but firm steps, the Magpie walked over to a chest of drawers that looked much too heavy for its gracefully curved legs. Two lamps stood on it, their shades patterned with flowery tendrils. Between them was a wooden casket, decorated all the way round with a pattern of tiny holes. When the Magpie opened its lid Meggie flinched back. Two snakes, thin as lizards and not much longer than Meggie’s lower arm, lay in the casket.
‘I always keep my room nice and warm so that this pair don’t get too sleepy,’ explained the Magpie, opening the top drawer of the chest and taking out a glove. It was made of stout black leather, and was so stiff that she had difficulty forcing her gnarled hand into it. ‘Your friend Dustfinger played a nasty trick on poor Resa when he asked her to look for that book,’ she continued, reaching into the box and grasping one of the snakes firmly behind its flat head.
‘Come here!’ she ordered Basta, and held the wriggling snake out to him. Meggie saw from his face that everything in him felt revulsion, but he came closer and took the creature. He held the scaly body well away from him as it wound and twisted in the air.
‘As you see, Basta doesn’t care for my snakes!’ said the Magpie, with a smile. ‘He never did, not that that means much. As far as I know Basta doesn’t like anything but his knife. He also believes that snakes bring bad luck, which of course is pure nonsense.’ Mortola handed Basta the second snake. Meggie saw the viper’s tiny poison fangs when it opened its mouth. For a moment, she almost felt sorry for Basta.
‘Well, don’t you think this is a good hiding-place?’ asked the Magpie, reaching into the casket yet again. This time she brought out a book. Meggie would have known what book it was even if she hadn’t recognised the coloured jacket. ‘I’ve often kept valuables in this casket,’ continued the Magpie. ‘No one knows about it and its contents apart from Basta and Capricorn. Poor Resa searched high and low for this book – she’s a brave creature – but she didn’t get as far as my casket. As it happens, she likes snakes. I’ve never met anyone who feels less fear of them than Resa, although she’s been bitten now and then, isn’t that so, Basta?’ The Magpie took off her glove and looked scornfully at him. ‘Basta likes to use snakes to scare women who reject his advances. It didn’t work with Resa. How did it go exactly – didn’t she finally put the snake outside your door, Basta?’
Basta did not reply. The snakes were still twisting and turning in his hands. One of them had wound its tail around his arm.
‘Put them back in the casket,’ the Magpie ordered. ‘But be careful not to hurt them.’ Then she returned to her armchair with the book. ‘Sit down!’ she said, pointing to the footstool beside her.
Meggie obeyed. Surreptitiously, she looked around her. Mortola’s room reminded her of a fairy-tale treasure chest filled to the brim. But there was too much of everything – too many golden candlesticks, too many lamps, rugs, pictures, vases, china ornaments, silk flowers, gilded bells.
The Magpie looked at her smugly. In her plain black dress she sat there like a cuckoo that has forced its way into another bird’s nest. ‘A fine room for a domestic servant, don’t you think?’ she said with satisfaction. ‘Capricorn knows how to value me.’
‘But he still makes you live in the cellar!’ replied Meggie. ‘Even though you’re his mother.’ If only words could be swallowed – caught and slipped quickly back between your lips.
The Magpie looked at her with such hatred that Meggie almost felt the woman’s bony fingers on her throat. But Mortola just sat there, her birdlike eyes looking fixedly at Meggie. ‘Who told you that? The old sorcerer?’
Meggie clamped her lips together and looked at Basta. He probably hadn’t heard a word; he was just putting the second snake back in the casket. Did he know Capricorn’s little secret? Before she could wonder about that any more Mortola put the book on her lap.
‘A word about this to anyone here, or indeed anywhere else,’ hissed the Magpie, ‘and I personally shall prepare your next meal. A little extract of monkshood, a few shoots of yew or perhaps a couple of hemlock seeds in the sauce, how do you fancy that? I can assure you you’d find it a hard meal to digest. Now, start reading.’
Meggie stared at the book on her lap. When Capricorn held it up in the church she hadn’t been able to make out the picture on the jacket. Now she had a chance to see it at close quarters. There was a landscape in the background that looked like a slightly different version of the hills surrounding Capricorn’s village. But the foreground showed a heart, a black heart surrounded by red flames.
‘Go on, open it!’ snapped the Magpie.
Meggie obeyed. She opened the book at the page beginning with the N and the horned marten perched on it. How long ago was it since she had stood in Elinor’s library looking at the same page? An eternity, a whole lifetime?