Orpheus took the sheet of paper back with an awkward smile. ‘I can’t promise that it’ll be the same time of day there,’ he said in a muted voice. ‘The laws of my art are difficult to understand, but believe me, no one knows more about them than I do. Fore instance, I’ve discovered that if you want to change or continue a story, you should use only words that are in the book already. Too many new words and nothing at all may happen, or alternatively something could happen that you didn’t intend. Perhaps it’s different if you wrote the original story –’
‘In the name of all the fairies, you’re fuller of words than a whole library!’ Dustfinger interrupted impatiently. ‘How about just reading it now?’
Orpheus fell silent as abruptly as if he had swallowed his tongue. ‘By all means,’ he said in slightly injured tones. ‘Well, now you’ll see! With my help, the book will welcome you back like a prodigal son. It will suck you up the way paper absorbs ink.’
Dustfinger just nodded and looked down the empty road. Farid sensed how much he wanted to believe Cheeseface – and how afraid he was of another disappointment.
‘What about me?’ Farid went up to him. ‘He did write something about me, too, didn’t he? Did you check it?
Orpheus gave him a rather nasty look. ‘My God,’ he said sarcastically to Dustfinger, ‘that boy really does seem fond of you! Where exactly did you pick him up? Somewhere along the road?’
‘Not exactly,’ said Dustfinger. ‘He was plucked out of his story by the man who did me the same favour.’
‘Ah, yes! That…Silvertongue!’ Orpheus spoke the name in a disparaging tone, as if he couldn’t believe that anyone really deserved it.
‘Yes, that’s what he’s called. How do you know?’ There was no mistaking Dustfinger’s surprise.
The hell-hound snuffled at Farid’s bare toes. Orpheus shrugged. ‘Sooner or later you get to hear of everyone who can breathe life into the letters on a page.’
‘Indeed?’ Dustfinger sounded skeptical, but he asked no more questions. He just stared at the sheet of paper covered with Orpheus’s fine handwriting. But Cheeseface was still looking at Farid.
‘What book do you come from?’ he asked. ‘And why don’t you want to go back into your own story, instead of his, which is nothing to do with you?
‘That’s none of your business!’ replied Farid angrily. He liked Cheeseface less and less. He was too inquisitive – and far too shrewd.
But Dustfinger just laughed quietly. ‘His own story? No, Farid isn’t in the least homesick for that one. The boy switched from story to story like a snake changing its skin.’ Farid heard something like admiration in his voice.
‘Did he indeed?’ Orpheus looked at Farid again, so patronizingly. That the boy would have like to kick his fat shins, but the hell-hound was still glaring hungrily at him. ‘Very well,’ said Orpheus, sitting down on the wall. ‘I’m warning you, all the same! Reading you back is easy, but the boy has no business in your story! I can’t put his name into it, I can only say, “a boy”, and as you know, I can’t guarantee that it will work. Even if it does, he’ll probably just cause confusion. He may even bring you bad luck!’
Whatever did the wretched man mean?? Farid looked at Dustfinger. Please, he thought, oh please! Don’t listen to him. Take me with you.
Dustfinger returned his gaze. And smiled.
‘Bad luck?’ he said, and his voice conveyed the certainty that no one could tell him anything he didn’t already know about bad luck. ‘Nonsense. So far the boy has brought me nothing but good luck instead. And he’s not a bad fire-eater. He’s coming with me. And so is this.’ Before Orpheus realized what he meant, Dustfinger picked up the book that Cheeseface had put down on the wall beside him. ‘You won’t be needing it any more. And I shall sleep considerably more easily if it’s in my possession.’
Dismay, Orpheus stared at him. ‘But…but I told you, it’s my favorite book! I really would like to keep it.’
‘And so would I,’ was all Dustfinger said as he handed Farid the book. ‘Here, take good care of it.’
Farid clutched it to his chest and nodded. ‘Now for Gwin,’ he said. ‘We must call him.’ But just as he took a little dry bread from his trouser pocket and was about to call Gwin’s name, Dustfinger put his hand over Farid’s mouth.
‘Gwin stays here,’ he said. If he had announced that he was planning to leave his right arm behind, Farid couldn’t have looked at him more incredulously. ‘Why are you staring at me like that? We’ll catch ourselves another marten once we’re there, one that’s not so ready to bite.’
‘Well, at least you’ve seen sense there,’ said Orpheus, his voice sounding injured.
Whatever was he talking about? But Dustfinger avoided the boy’s questioning gaze. ‘Come on, start reading!’ he told Orpheus. ‘Or we’ll still be standing here at sunrise.’
Orpheus looked at him for a moment as if he were about to say something else. But then he cleared his throat. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, you’re right. Ten years in the wrong story – that’s a long time. Let’s start reading.’
Words filled the night like the fragrance of invisible flowers. Words made to measure, written by Opheus with his doughpale hands, words taken from the book that Farid was clutching tightly, and then fitted together into a new meaning. They spoke of another world, a world full of marvels and terrors. And Farid, listening, forgot time. He didn’t even feel that there was such a thing. Nothing existed but the voice or Orpheus, so ill-suited to the mouth it come from. It obliterated everything: the potholed road and the run-down houses at the far end of it, the street lamp, the wall where Orpheus was sitting, even the moon above the black trees. And suddenly the air smelt strange and sweet…
He can do it, thought Farid, he really can do it, and meanwhile the voice of Opheus made him blind and deaf to everything that wasn’t made of the written letters on the sheet of paper…
When Cheeseface suddenly fell silent, he looked around him in confusion, dizzy from the beautiful sound of the words. But why were the houses still there, and the street lamp, all rusty from wind and rain? Orpheus was still there too, and his hellhound.
Only one thing was missing. Dustfinger.
But Farid was still standing on the same lonely road. In the wrong