‘Visitor for you, Dustfinger,’ he announced derisively as he lit the lantern. ‘Silvertongue’s little girl wants to say goodbye. Her father brought you into this world and his daughter will make sure you leave it again tonight. I wouldn’t have let her come, but the Magpie’s going soft in her old age. The child actually seems fond of you. It can hardly be your pretty face, can it?’ Basta’s laugh echoed unpleasantly back from the damp walls.
Meggie went up to the grating behind which Dustfinger stood. She looked at him only briefly, and then gazed over his shoulder. Capricorn’s maid was sitting on a stone coffin. The lantern Basta had lit gave only a dim light, but it was enough for Meggie to recognise her face. It was the face from Mo’s photograph, except that the hair surrounding it was darker now, and there was no sign of any smile.
As Meggie came closer to the grating her mother lifted her head, and was now looking at her as if nothing else in the world existed.
‘Mortola let her come here?’ said Dustfinger. ‘That’s hard to believe.’
‘The girl threatened to bite her own tongue.’ Basta was still standing on the stairs, playing with the rabbit’s foot he wore round his neck as a lucky charm.
‘I wanted to say I’m sorry.’ Meggie was speaking to Dustfinger, but as she spoke she looked at her mother, who was still sitting on the stone coffin.
‘What for?’ Dustfinger smiled his strange smile.
‘For what I must do this evening. For reading aloud from the book.’ If only she could have let the two of them know Fenoglio’s plan.
‘Right, now you’ve said your piece!’ barked Basta impatiently. ‘Come on, the air down here could make your voice hoarse.’
But Meggie did not turn. She clung to the bars of the grating as firmly as she could. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I want to stay a bit longer.’ Perhaps she could think of some way to tell them, some apparently innocent remark. ‘I read something else out of a story,’ she told Dustfinger. ‘A tin soldier.’
‘Did you, though?’ Dustfinger was smiling again. It was odd, but this time his smile seemed to her neither mysterious nor supercilious. ‘Well, nothing can go wrong this evening, then, can it?’
He was looking at her thoughtfully, and Meggie tried to tell him with her eyes: We’re going to rescue you. It won’t work out the way Capricorn expects, believe me! Dustfinger was still looking at her, trying to understand. He raised his eyebrows enquiringly, and then turned to Basta.
‘And how’s that fairy, Basta?’ he asked. ‘Still alive, is she, or has your company done for her?’
Meggie saw her mother get up and come towards her, walking tentatively, as if she were treading on broken glass.
‘She’s still alive,’ said Basta sullenly. ‘Tinkling all the time. I can’t get a wink of sleep. If she carries on like that I’m going to tell Flatnose to wring her neck, the way he does the pigeons when they poo on his car.’ Meggie saw her mother take a piece of paper from the pocket of her dress and surreptitiously press it into Dustfinger’s hand.
‘That would mean at least ten years’ bad luck for you both,’ said Dustfinger. ‘Take my word for it – I know about fairies. Oh, watch out, what’s that in front of you?’
Basta leaped back as if something had bitten his toes. Quick as a flash, Dustfinger’s hand came through the grating and gave Meggie the note.
‘Dammit, there’s nothing there!’ swore Basta. ‘Don’t try that again, you hear me?’ He turned just as Meggie’s fingers were closing round the paper. ‘A note, eh? Well, well!’
Meggie tried in vain to keep her hand closed, but it was easy enough for Basta to prise her fingers apart. Then he stared at her mother’s tiny writing.
‘Read it, go on!’ he growled, holding the note in front of her eyes.
Meggie shook her head.
‘Read it!’ Basta’s voice was dangerously low. ‘Or do you want me to carve a pretty pattern on your face like your friend’s here?’
‘Go on, read it, Meggie,’ said Dustfinger. ‘He knows I like a good drop of wine anyway.’
‘Wine?’ Basta laughed. ‘You wanted the child to get you some wine? How did you think she’d do that?’
Meggie stared at the real note. She concentrated on every word until she knew it by heart.
Nine years are a long time. I celebrated all your birthdays. You’re even lovelier than I imagined you.
She heard Basta laughing.
‘Just like you, Dustfinger!’ he said. ‘You think you could drown your fears in drink, but a whole cask of wine wouldn’t be enough for that.’
Dustfinger shrugged his shoulders. ‘It was worth a try.’
Perhaps he looked a little too pleased when he said that, for Basta frowned and looked thoughtfully at his scarred face. ‘On the other hand,’ he said slowly, ‘you always were a crafty dog. And there are rather a lot of letters there just for a bottle of wine. What about it, sweetheart?’ He held the note in front of Meggie again. ‘Are you going to read it to me now, or shall I show it to the Magpie?’
Meggie snatched the note from him so fast that she had crumpled it behind her back while Basta was still wondering where it had gone.
‘Give it here, you little brat!’ he hissed at her. ‘Give me that note or I’ll cut off your fingers.’
But Meggie retreated from him until her back was up against the grating. ‘No!’ she said, clinging to the bars with one hand and pushing the note through them with the other. Dustfinger caught on at once. She felt him taking the paper from her fingers.
Basta hit her in the face so hard that her head struck the grating. Immediately, a hand stroked her hair, and when she looked round, dazed, she was gazing into her mother’s face. He’ll notice any moment, she thought, he’ll understand it all, but Basta had eyes only for Dustfinger, who was waving the note back and forth behind the grating as if he were brandishing a worm in front of a hungry bird’s beak.
‘Well, how about it?’ enquired Dustfinger, taking a step back. ‘Do you dare come in here with me, or would you rather go on hitting little girls?’
Basta stood there motionless, like a child whose ears have suddenly and unexpectedly been boxed. Then he seized Meggie’s arm and dragged her towards him. She felt something cold on her throat. She didn’t have to see it to know what it was. Her mother screamed and pulled at Dustfinger’s hand, but he only held the note higher in the air. ‘I knew it!’ he said. ‘What a coward you are, Basta! You’d rather put a knife to a child’s throat than venture in here. Of course if Flatnose were here to back you up, too, with his broad back and his great fat fists – but he isn’t. Come along, you’re the one with the knife! I’ve got nothing but my hands, and you know how I hate to misuse them for fighting.’
Meggie felt Basta’s grip relax. The blade was no longer pressing into her skin. She swallowed, and put a hand to her throat. She almost expected to feel warm blood, but there was none. Basta pushed her away so hard that she stumbled and fell on the damp, cold floor. Then he put his hand into his trouser pocket and brought out a bunch of keys. He was panting with rage like a man who had run too far and too fast. Fingers trembling, he put a key into the lock of the cell. Dustfinger watched him, his face impassive. He gestured to Meggie’s mother to step back from the grating, and retreated himself, nimble as a dancer. You couldn’t tell from his scarred face whether he was afraid or not, but the scars looked darker than usual.