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Violante went up to Mo and took his arm. "Put the knife away!" she whispered. "The Bluejay won’t die in this castle. I refuse to hear that song. Come with me."
She beckoned to the soldier standing behind Mo — a tall, broadshouldered young man who held his sword as if he hadn’t Used it very often — and made her purposeful way past the stone Coffin, as if this wasn’t the first time she had had to hide someone from her son. More than a dozen tombs stood in the vault. Sleeping stone figures lay on top of most of them, with swords on their breasts, dogs at their feet, pillows of marble or granite under their heads. Violante hurried past them without a glance until she stopped by a coffin with a plain stone lid cracked right down the middle, as if the dead man inside had once pushed it open.
"If the Bluejay isn’t here we’ll go and scare Balbulus a bit, shall we?" There was jealousy in Jacopo’s voice when he uttered Balbulus’s name, as if he were talking about an older brother whom his mother preferred to him. "We’ll go back and you can make fire lick around those books of his!"
The soldier’s young face flushed red with effort as he heaved the lower part of the coffin lid aside. Mo kept his knife in his hand as he climbed into the sarcophagus.
There was no dead body in it, but all the same Mo felt he could hardly breathe as he stretched out in the cold, cramped space. The coffin had clearly been made for a smaller man. Had Violante thrown his bones away so that she could hide her spies inside it? The darkness was almost total when the soldier pushed the cracked lid back into place. A little light and air came in through a few holes forming a flower pattern.
Breathe steadily, Mo, breathe calmly, he told himself He still had the knife in his hand; it was a pity none of the stone swords the dead were holding would be any use.
"Do you really think it’s worth risking your own skin for a few painted goatskins?"
Battista had inquired when he asked him to make the clothes and the belt. What a fool you are, Mortimer. Hasn’t this world done enough to show you how dangerous it is? But Balbulus’s painted goatskins had been very beautiful.
A knock. A bolt was pushed back. The voices came to his ears more distinctly now.
Footsteps. Mo tried to peer through the holes, but he could see only another coffin, and the black hem of Violante’s dress disappearing as she walked quickly away. His eyes weren’t going to help him. He let his head sink back onto the cold stone and listened. How loud his breathing was. Could there be any sound more suspicious here among the dead?
Suppose it isn’t just by chance that Sootbird has turned up now, something inside him whispered. Suppose Violante was only setting a trap for you? "Not all daughters love their fathers." Suppose Her Ugliness was planning to give her father a very special present all the same? "Look who I’ve caught for you. The Bluejay. He was disguised as a crow. I wonder who he thought he’d fool that way?"
"Your Highness!" Sootbird’s voice echoed through the vault as if he were standing right beside the coffin where Mo lay. "Forgive us for disturbing you in your grief, but your son wants me to meet a visitor you received today. He insists on it. He thinks the man is an old and very dangerous acquaintance of mine."
‘A visitor?" Violante’s voice sounded as cool as the stone beneath Mo’s head. "The only visitor down here is Death, and it’s not much use warning anyone against Death, is it?"
Sootbird laughed uneasily. "No, certainly not, but Jacopo was talking about a flesh-and-blood visitor, a bookbinder, tall, dark hair "Balbulus was interviewing a bookbinder today," Violante replied. "He’s been looking for one for a long time now.
Someone who knows his trade better than the bookbinders of Ombra."
What was that noise? Of course. Jacopo hopping about on the flagstones. Obviously, he sometimes acted like any other child after all. The hopping came closer. The temptation simply to Stand up instead of lying there was very strong. It was difficult to keep your body as still as a corpse while you were still breathing. Mo closed his eyes so as not to see the stone around him. Keep your breath as shallow as you can, he told himself, breathe as quietly as the fairies.
The hopping stopped right beside him.
"You’ve hidden him!" Jacopo’s voice reached Mo inside the sarcophagus as if he were speaking the words for Mo’s ears alone. "Shall we look in the coffins, Sootbird?"
The boy seemed to find the notion very enticing, but Sootbird laughed nervously.
"Oh, I’m sure that won’t be necessary, if we tell your mother who she’s dealing with.
This bookbinder could be the very man your father is looking for so desperately, Highness."
"The Bluejay? The Bluejay, here in the castle?" Violante’s voice sounded so incredulous that even Mo believed she was taken by surprise. "Of course! I’ve told my father time and again:
One day that robber’s own daring will be his downfall. You’re not to say a word of this to the Milksop. I want to catch the Bluejay myself, and then at last my father will realize who ought to be on the throne of Ombra! Have you reinforced the guards at the gates? Have you sent soldiers to Balbulus’s workshop?"
"Er. . . no." Sootbird was obviously confused. "I mean. . . he isn’t with Balbulus anymore, he.
"What? You fool!" Violante’s voice was as sharp as her father’s. "Lower the portcullis over the gateway. At once! If my father hears that the Bluejay was in this castle, in my library, and simply rode away again How menacing she made those words sound in the chilly air! She was indeed clever; her son was right.
"Sandro!" That must be one of her soldiers. "Tell the guards at the main gates to lower the portcullis. No one is to leave the castle. No one, do you hear? I only hope it’s not too late already! Jacopo!"
"Yes?" There was fear and defiance in the high voice — and a trace of distrust.
"If he finds the gates closed, where could the Bluejay hide? You know every hiding place in this castle, don’t you?"
"Of course!" Now Jacopo sounded flattered. "I can show you all of them."
"Good. Take three of the guards from outside the throne room upstairs and post them at the most likely hiding places you know. I’ll go and talk to Balbulus. The Bluejay!
In my castle!"
Sootbird stammered something. Violante brusquely interrupted him, ordering him to go with her. Their footsteps and voices moved away, but Mo thought he could still hear them for some time on the endless stairs leading up and away from the dead, back to the world of the living, to the daylight where you could breathe easily. . .
Even when all was perfectly still again, he lay there for a few more agonizing moments, listening until he felt as if he could hear the dead themselves breathing.
Then he braced his hands against the stone lid — and hastily reached for his knife when he heard footsteps again.
It was no more than a whisper. The cracked lid was pushed aside, and the soldier who had helped him into his hiding place reached out a hand to him.
"We must hurry!" he whispered. "The Milksop has raised the alarm. There are guards everywhere, but Violante knows ways out of this castle that even jacopo hasn’t found yet. I hope," he added.