Billy heard Rex muttering the mysterious words again. He wondered if it was only his imagination that, this time (though he still couldn’t make out a single word), they sounded different. Not just different, but stranger. And stronger.
Then, just as suddenly the voices and noises of Mrs. Delaney’s classroom, they ceased, and were replaced by complete silence.
It took Billy a moment to realise that he wasn’t sitting down anymore. He was standing. He felt hard ground under his shoes. Shoes? They felt more like boots.
“Mr. Cunningham?” he asked. “Should I take the blindfold off?”
There was no answer.
Had something gone wrong? Or was he just supposed to wait for Rex’s command?
Then he noticed something else. The smell. Smell wasn’t even the right word; it was a stench. It was the smell of stale sweat, rotten vegetables, and much worse. But it didn’t bother him as much as he thought it should. It was impossible, but he felt like he’d grown used to it.
“Mr Cunningham?” he asked again.
Once again, there was no answer. But this time Billy noticed how his words echoed around him.
Cautiously, expecting Rex’s voice-from-heaven to scold him, he reached up and began to take the scarf off. Even when he’d removed it, he kept his eyes closed for a few moments.
It was cold. It was very cold. But somehow, he felt used to that, too. He’d only been here for a few seconds and he felt used to the temperature.
He opened his eyes.
He was in a small room. It was almost completely dark; it would have been completely dark apart from a strange glow in the air. This occupied his attention for the first few moments. At first, he thought it was blue; then he decided it was green; after that, it looked distinctly purplish. It was then that he realised the glow was changing colour all the time.
The glow wasn’t even enough to light up the room; all Billy could see was that it was about the size of a small bathroom. And it seemed to be completely empty.
He touched the nearest wall. He felt tiles there; small tiles, many of them missing and cracked, and all of them grimy. He kept running his hand along the wall, looking for the door.
He was straining his ears, but he couldn’t hear anything. Nothing at all, except his own breathing.
His fingers ran along the wall, quicker and quicker. He started to feel along the cold surface in zig-zags, to avoid missing anything. He had to find something soon. A button, or a latch, or a chink, or—- surely—- the edge of a door-frame. It couldn’t be just tiles, tiles, tiles, all the way around....
But the more he felt, the more it seemed to be just that. He’d turned four corners when terror began to close in on him; terror that felt like the first signs of insanity.
“Rex!” he began to shout, so that the sound bounced off the walls and sent echoes reverberating through the tiny room. Room? It was obvious now that it was no room, but a cell. “Rex! I’ve changed my mind! I don’t want to do this! Let me out!”
He wasn’t really expecting a response, of course, so he was surprised when one came. It came from above him, but it wasn’t the voice-from-heaven that had spoken to him on the other occasions. In fact, it wasn’t Rex’s voice at all.
“Shut up!” cried the voice. It was an English accent; a sort of a Cockney accent, even. “What are you making such a racket for now, after three years of saying nothing? Are you going to crack a few hours away from getting out?”
“Who’s up there?” cried Billy.
There was a moment of silence; and then a burst of harsh laughter. “The Emperor Dextron himself!” cried the voice. “With all the Imperial Council and the Splendid Sisterhood. Why don’t you join us for a banquet, sir?”
“Where am I?” shouted Billy.
There was a longer silence this time; and this time, the voice was more cautious. “Have you got a fever or something?”
The caution in the jailer’s voice made Billy cautious, too. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to admit he didn’t know who he was or what he doing. In any case, all he felt now was a sweet, piercing relief that somebody was up there.
But what was Rex Cunningham doing? Was the old man some kind of maniac after all?
“No fever”, shouted Billy. “I just woke up from the strangest dream. I was...confused.”
“It took you three years to talk about your dreams?” the jailer shouted back. Now his voice was suspicious; suspicious, and uneasy. “What game are you playing, Chester?”
Chester? What kind of a name was Chester, Billy wondered? And yet, the strange thing was...he liked the name. It seemed familiar somehow...
And then he remembered. When he was a little kid, he’d had a teddy bear called Chester. He couldn’t remember why he’d called it that. It went missing after his cousin Annabelle visited for a weekend. He begged his mother to phone Annabelle’s parents, to get back his beloved teddy. But she only said, “People don’t do things like that, Billy.”
“You know I’m going to have to report this” shouted the guard. He seemed angry, for some reason. “Any tricky business and I promise you, you’ll never see the lights of day again.”
The lights of day? Billy wondered over the phrase for a moment, but he had more important things to worry about. “No tricky business.” he called back. “Don’t worry. When exactly do you let me out, anyway?”
This was followed by a very long silence, as though the guard was wondering whether he should tell him or not. Billy had decided that no answer was coming when the guard finally shouted down, “Seven hours. Emerald time. And if I was you, I wouldn’t say another word or do another thing until then. There are lots of people who’d like to see you locked up for good, Chester. That, or even worse.”
“Thank you”, shouted Billy, deciding that it was best to be polite. But after that, he would take the guard’s words and keep his mouth shut.
Seven hours? Despite his recent relief, Billy’s heart began to sink. He had another seven hours to spend in this smelly, dark, uncomfortable cell. And it was obvious now that Rex Cunningham wasn’t going to fish him out. He was on his own.
He sat down, crossing his legs beneath him. Seven hours. What was there to do for seven hours? He could go to sleep, except he was feeling far too frightened. And far too excited.
Now that the first panic was over, he noticed that his body felt very strange. Something kept brushing off his chest, though he’d hardly noticed in until now. He raised his hand, and got a shock when he realised it was a long growth of beard.
He had a beard. Billy Reynolds, fourteen years old, whose voice showed no sign of breaking, had a beard that Rip Van Winkle would be proud of. Nobody in his class even shaved yet. Damien Power said that he did, but his own sister said that it was just bum-fluff. Billy felt ridiculously pleased.
He was a man, then. He wondered how old he was. Was he married? Did he have children? Now there was a thought.
He felt his clothes next. He was wearing what felt like a bathrobe to him; a particularly thick and rough bathrobe, one that was belted at the waist. He reached under it; there was something like a string-vest beneath. Curiously, he poked finger through the vest, and stroked his own chest. Yes, it was hairy. How strange it felt!
Next he reached out to feel one of his arms, and when he’d grasped it, he actually cried out in surprise.
Arm? It felt like the stem of some enormous plant, like the ones he’d seen in tropical hothouses. He flexed it, and it grew even more gigantic. He ran his hand down his forearm, his wrist—- they’d both been swollen to ridiculous proportions. He felt his chest, his shoulders, his neck.
Rex had turned him into some kind of Arnold Schwarzenegger!
He thought of PE classes in school. He’d never been able to climb more than half-way up the rope. He’d never been able to manage more than twelve push-ups. Push-ups...now there was an idea...
A moment later he was facing down towards the cold, hard and invisible floor of the cell, propped up on his palms. He lifted his knees, and then began to push.
When he passed twelve, he felt jubilant but not surprised. When he passed fifty, he began to feel giddy. By the time he’d passed two hundred, he was feeling bored. This was a little like throwing a tennis ball from one hand to another.
Suddenly, as though his muscles had a memory of their own, he threw his legs in the air and began to do press-ups head downwards, his toes uppermost. Whoa, he thought. This is pretty freaky.
But it was tiring, too, even for a muscle-monster like him. He’d counted fifty, when he decided he’d had enough and let himself drop to the floor. He rolled gently on his shoulder and down onto his side. Then he realised that Billy Reynolds—- the boy Billy Reynolds, not the man Chester-- probably would have smacked straight down onto his back instead. It took skill to fall so gracefully.
He lay on the floor, hardly noticing the roughness of the tiles against his body. He felt so good. It was a bit like he’d felt after he’d run home from school, as he did now and again; after he’d rushed through the door with no thought except getting water into his body to satisfy his raging thirst. After that. Once you’d had a drink and your heart had slowed down, you felt washed out inside, even glowing. That’s how he felt now. It had something to do with antibodies, he knew. Or was it endorphins?
And then, despite all his anxiety and excitement, and the cold hard floor of the cell, he fell asleep.
He was woken hours later by the sound of trumpets. He opened his eyes.
A square had opened in the ceiling, and coloured light—- the same glow that he saw in his cell, except much stronger and much more vividly coloured—- was flooding into the cell. It dazzled his eyes, so accustomed to darkness, and he closed them again immediately.
It was fully five minutes before he could see what was above him.
It was a group of men—- no, a troop of men. They were obviously guards, from their armour and their weapons. They wore metal helmets and breastplates and armguards, and the armour was so bright and in so many different colours that it reminded him of the Beatles on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band.
They carried spears and swords, and some of them carried what looked like a cross beween a spear and a sword. Others carried bows and arrows. And all of their weapons were pointing straight at Billy.
But the thing that struck Billy the most was the expression on their faces as they looked down at him.
Every single one of them looked terrified. Utterly terrified.
“Move back, Chester” bawled a gruff voice. “We’re going to throw down some manacles.”
“Manacles?” asked Billy, who didn’t recognise the word.
“Don’t worry”, said the voice. Now Billy saw that it was a tall fellow in a ladybird-red and pea-green armour who was speaking. He was wearing a helmet with a strange wheel-like symbol jutting up from its top. He was obviously a commander of some kind. “We’ll take them off you once you leave the borders of Gillian.”
Gillian? Billy wondered why this country should be named after a girl in his class.
Billy moved back towards the wall, and a few moments later something small and heavy was thrown into the centre of the cell. It landed with an echoing thump.
“Put them on, Chester”, came the gruff voice, after Billy had stood motionless for a few moments. “You’re not getting out until you do.”
Billy walked towards the manacles—- whatever manacles were. He bent down and took them in his hand. Handcuffs! That’s what they were. He recognised them from the toy handcuffs he’d played with as a kid, as well as seeing handcuffs on TV. But they looked bigger than any of those handcuffs. He was surprised by how light they were, too. They felt more like a hard plastic than metal.
“Put them on”, repeated the commander. He spoke even more roughly than he had before; but now Billy could hear the anxiety in his voice.
Billy put the manacles on. It wasn’t difficult; just like the toy handcuffs, you put them over your wrists and then slid them shut. The only difference was that, instead of a click, he heard a musical sound; like the sound a musical clock might make when it struck the hour. It was a cross between a whistle and a chime.
The manacles weren’t tight, or uncomfortable. They fit his hands perfectly—- as though they’d been made for them.
“Throw down the ladder”, the commander shouted. “And keep your weapons pointed at him, lads. One sign of trouble-— and give it to him.”
The cell was full of the glowing light now. It was a little like being in a disco, though the colours weren’t as intense. Billy noticed that, though there were a whole range of colours—- violet, gold, peacock blue, amber—- the main colour seemed to be green. He remembered the guard saying he would released in the emerald hour.
A grey rope ladder descended towards Billy. It looked a lot like the rope he’d hated so much in PE class.
As he waited for it to reach him, he thought about the guard’s accent. It was just like the accent of the guard from the day before; a plummy English accent, like old BBC announcers. Except that they would probably never have heard of the BBC. Or England, for that matter.
He grabbed onto the rope ladder and began to climb. As he emerged from the cell, he noticed one or two of the guards stepping a half-pace backwards.
He looked around him as he climbed out of the opening. The hall they were all standing in looked like a much bigger version of the cell he’d just come from. The tiles that ran along the walls and ceiling were bigger, and in the greater light, he could see that they were brightly-coloured, in a complicated pattern of red and green and blue. There were no windows, only a large arched opening in the furthest wall. The hall was about the size of the assembly hall in his old school, and it was full of the multicoloured glow that seemed to be the only form of illumination in this place.
The guards surrounded him in a ring two or three men deep. Billy noticed that the man in the mask had retreated behind some spear-carriers.
Now he was standing on the same level as them, he realized how short all the guards were. Not short like dwarves—- not so short that anyone would even give them a second glance on an Irish street. But still short. Or was it just that Billy—- or rather, Chester—- was abnormally tall?
“Take it easy, Chester”, said the man in the mask. “You’re going to be hit by a wave of dizziness any second now. Don’t reel too much or you’ll get a salamander spear in the guts.”
As soon as the masked man spoke the last word, the dizziness he’d predicted hit Billy. After three years in a cell, it seemed, even the short climb up a rope ladder was a strain to the system. It took a few moments for the dizziness to pass, and after that he moved more carefully.
They passed underneath an arch, through a long corridor, through another cavernous hall, up a staircase of hundreds of steps, through another stretching corridor. The many-coloured glow was everywhere; so were the brightly-coloured tiles, in different patterns and sizes. There were no windows and not a glimpse of sunlight.
Sometimes the walls they passed were decorated. There were sentences marked out in letters formed by coloured tiles—- they seemed like quotations, but they didn’t make much sense to Billy. One siad, “There many provinces in the Kingdom of Fear”. Another said, “Edward ran and ran, but the Thing moved closer.”
There were paintings, too; enormous paintings, in heavy black frames. They all showed rather spooky scenes. One showed a run-down house under a full moon, with one window lit up, and a pale face staring out from it. Another showed a dozen crows feasting on a dead knight, straight out of the Middle Ages. Another showed the Grim Reaper standing in the middle of a banquet hall, unnoticed by the banqueters. All of the paintings seemed to belong to the world Billy had come from, not the world he was in now.
When the man in the mask saw Billy looking at one particular painting—- one that showed a ghost rising from the deathbed of an old man—- he said, “That’s a new one. A genuine Cranshaw. We took it from Cabra. Glory and distinction to Gillian!”
He shouted the last words, rather than speaking them; and immediately after him the other guards also cried, “Glory and Distinction and the World’s Wonder to Gillian!” The guards seemed a little less nervous now. But only a little.
They passed other groups of guards from time to time; but Billy guessed they had reached their destination when they came to a long hall with more than a hundred armed men standing in it. Some of them stood in balconies, balconies from which hung many-coloured banners with the word Gillian written in black across them, over the image of a grey skull.
The guards who had brought Billy here slowed down. The whole hall seemed full of anticipation, and every eye was upon Billy.
Then somebody stepped out from the middle of a group of guards. It was a woman. She wore a flowing, silky, frilly gown of electric blue, streaked with deeper blues. Her hair was long and curly and red—- exactly the kind of red hair Billy liked in women. But he couldn’t see her face, since she too wore a mask—- a mask just as ghoulish as the one the captains of the guards were. Its mouth was open in a silent scream, and scars ran all along its green skin. Along with the flowing curls and the gorgeous gown, it looked utterly bizarre.
The captain of the guards fell to his feet and cried: “Glory to Gillian! Honour to the Crimson! The Moon, the Moon!.
“May you be worthy of Gillian” replied the red-headed woman, a mechanically as somebody saying “good afternoon”. “You may rise, Rayut. I am going to speak to Chester in my study, alone. Remove his manacles.”
Billy heard gasps and murmurs from the guards around him. Every one of them looked completely astonished.
“Majestic Crimson” said the man in the goblin mask. Behind the mask, Billy could see a wild look in his eyes. “Your will is our will, but this man is a vicious savage who—“
“Come, come, my dear Rayut” said the red-headed woman. There was amusement in her voice. “Surely you have enough men to deal with him here? If not, there goes the honour of Gillian!”
“But, majestic Crimson”, the captain went on, darting looks from the red-headed woman to Billy and back again. “Alone? You and him, alone?”
The mask woman shrugged. She did it gracefully. Billy guessed she did everything gracefully. “I have heard all of the tales of Chester Vagabond”, she said, staring straight at Billy. “Men he may have killed by the hundred, bulls and bears and kamarasks too, but I never heard tell of him injuring a woman.”
“I don’t want you to be the first” said Rayut. “Oh, majestic Crimson”, he added, after a pause.
The Crimson laughed. “We have nothing to fear, my good sir. Because today I can offer Chester Vagabond more than his freedom. I can offer him what he has been seeking his entire life. Release him from the manacles.”
Standing inside the study of the Crimson was like standing inside a huge snow-globe. Only the floor was flat. The walls and the ceilings were curved into a dome. It wasn’t an especially large room—- about the size of Billy’s sitting room—- but every inch of it was pretty. The dome had been made to look like the night sky, painted a deep blue with sparkling white gems for stars. A painting of a wolf standing over the body of a dead young woman, who was dressed like someone in a Jane Austen novel, stood behind the Crimson’s desk. Banners, streamers, pennants and ribbons covered the rest of the wall space.
A man with long black hair, a long black robe, and an intense stare stood beside the Crimson’s chair. He was not masked. He was holding some kind of ledger in one hand, and a pen in the other. When the Crimson brought Billy into the study, the man with the black beard scanned him with his eyes, then wrote something in his ledger.
“You may recognize my scribe, Precious Dust”, said the Crimson, nodding towards the bearded man.
Billy couldn’t help giggling. Precious Dust? Really?
Both the Crimson and the bearded man seemed surprised at his laughter—- and Precious Dust didn’t seem at all amused.
“I know that in these days, scribes aren’t given very much respect” he said (and his voice went with his name—- rasping and dry, as though he had just swallowed a throat full of dust.) “I don’t expect bowing and kneeling. But I had heard that you respected Scribes, Chester—- even if you respect little else.”
There was anger in Precious Dust’s pale grey eyes. But there was fear, too. Billy remembered how a dozen armed guards had watched him with terror, and he couldn’t help feeling respect for the frail-looking man before him.
“I meant no disrespect, Scribe”, he said. He had opened his mouth to say more when instinct told him to stop there.
Once again, the Crimson and Precious Dust seemed surprised.
“Perhaps it is a mellower Chester Vagabond who has come from his cell?”, asked the Crimson, her fingers playing with a little figurine on her desk—- it looked something like a werewolf.
“Perhaps”, said Billy, reminding himself to stop being polite. It obviously wasn’t expected of him.
He noticed that the glowing colours in the air were now dominated by a deep blue. He wondered what they called it. The Navy Hour? The Aquamarine Hour? It was surprising how easy it was to see by the many-coloured light. You got used to it and it wasn’t difficult working out what colours things actually were. It was a bit like watching a black and white movie. Pretty soon you forgot it was any different from what you were used to.
“Well, enough of pleasantries”, said the Crimson, tapping the werewolf figurine against the wood of her desk. “To business. Chester, the whole world knows what it is you want most in life.”
The whole world? For a moment, Billy felt surprised that the whole world would be interested in him. Then he remembered that this was his world,; it was all a fantasy spun out Billy’s mind by Rex Cunningham.
He looked around the strange room, startled at the thought. This—- all of this—- had come out of his own mind. The dome-shaped office, the man with the long black beard, the spooky paintings—- all of it came from Billy Reynolds.
It was hard to believe. He’d never imagined anything like this. It all seemed so strange. And yet—- his own dreams often seemed strange to him, and they bubbled up out of his own brain, didn’t they?
“Chester?” asked the Crimson, a little anxiously. “Is there something wrong?”
Billy realised he’d been staring into empty space. He focused his eyes back on the Crimson (and what kind of a name was that, anyway?) and said, “What could possibly be wrong? I’m just after finishing three years of captivity in a filthy cell and now you want me to talk about my future life? What are you, my guidance counsellor?”
The reaction Billy’s words provoked was not the reaction he was expecting. But there was no doubt about it; the Crimson and Precious Dust (ridiculous name!) seemed relieved by his words. The Crimson even sat back in her chair a little, like someone who’s just finished an examination paper. Obviously, this was how they expected him to react.
“Well, I’m sorry the accommodation was not to your taste”, she said, sarcastically. “I guess you should have found something better for someone who slaughtered twelve of my men, simply for doing their duty.”
Twelve men? Slaughtered? Despite all the treatment he’d been getting from the soldiers, despite having been told that he’d killed men by the hundred, he couldn’t helped feeling shocked at the idea.
“Did they all die?” he asked.
The Scribe’s eyes widened with surprise, and there was a long pause before the Crimson answered.
“Do men often recover from being beheaded?”, asked Crimson, and now her voice was not sarcastic, but baffled. “We all know you’ve seen strange things in your wanderings, Chester, but surely not that?”
“I don’t remember beheading them all” said Billy. He was astonished and horrified, but he kept his voice calm, and his face straight.
“No, not all of them”, said the Crimson, staring at him. “But, take my word, there was no chance of them going home to their wives after you’d finished with them. Doesn’t that bother you, Chester? All those widowed women, all those orphaned children?”
“A warrior must be ready to die.” As soon as he’d spoken the words, Billy wondered why on earth he’d said them. It was like the moment he’d hesitated before putting on the manacles. For those moments, he felt as though it was Chester Vagabond who had taken over.
(And when it came to ridiculous names, by the way—- Chester Vagabond? Had the parents he’d never seen called him that, in the past of this other world he’d stumbled into?)
“I thought you might say that”, said the Crimson, her voice colder now. “But that’s all beside the point. The point, Chester, is that the world has changed in the last three years. It’s changed drastically.”
“Doesn’t it always?” asked Billy.
”True”, said the Crimson, glancing at Precious Dust. “But this is different. It seems that the Ancient War is finally ending, and that victory is with the Gold.”
There was a long silence. The Crimson and the Scribe were both watching Billy intently, expectantly. He had no idea what they expected him to say.
“Really and truly?” he asked, trying to sound knowing even while he asked.
“Oh, I understand your scepticism” said the Crimson, nodding briskly. “The Ancient War has been declared won many times throughout the centuries. But this is different, Chester. The Green now hold only a tiny smattering of towns and villages. Their false Scribes are mostly imprisoned, or dead. Their leader is a sixteen-year-old girl. I have no desire to be triumphalist. My own parents were Green, you know. But it really seems like the end has come.”
There was another long pause, so Billy said: “And what is this supposed to do with me?”
“The same old Chester”, said the Crimson, shaking her head. But there was a grudging admiration in her voice. “Independent to the last, eh? The eternal neutral?”
“I have more respect for the Greens themselves”, said Precious Dust, passionately, “than for a confirmed fence-sitter.”
“Well, don’t worry, Chester”, said the Crimson, raising her palms in a gesture of resignation. “I’m not going to try to win you over. I know that it’s utterly hopeless. But I do think...I do think that we can help each other. Without you giving up your precious neutrality.”
“And how is that?”, asked Billy, wondering what the Crimson looked like underneath the mask. She might have been anything from eighteen to forty-five, for all he could tell.
“The Sea of Steam”, said the Crimson. “You want to cross the Sea of Steam. Everyone from the merchants of Marmorea to the ragamuffins of Ridermount knows that.”
“It seems pointless to deny it, then.”
The Crimson gave a little bow of her head. “Just so. Well, as it happens, there is one man in the Ten Thousand Realms who can help you cross the Sea of Steam. And he is someone who we would dearly like to have on the other side of the Sea of Steam, too.”
“Or dead, preferably” said Precious Dust, with surprising bitterness. His voice was harsh, almost like the caw of a crow.
“The Scribes hate this man with all the force of their papery souls” said the Crimson, with a gentle laugh. “Me, I am not so bloodthirsty. But it doesn’t matter what we want—- you wouldn’t kill one of our enemies anyway, would you?”
“Not unless he got in my way” said Billy, quite pleased that he was beginning to get the hang of the conversation.
“Ah!”, said the Crimson, raising her finger in the air. “But that’s just the thing. He’s not the kind of fellow to get in anyone’s way. In fact, he shows an extraordinary ability to keep out of the way.”
“Stop talking in riddles” said Billy. “What is this fellow’s name?”
The Crimson shrugged, tossing her read curls from her shoulders. They shimmered a dozen different colours as the strange lights played upon them. “We don’t know that either. But we call him—“
“The Thief of Thoughts” interrupted Precious Dust, slamming his fist upon the desk so that the werewolf figurine shook. “Or just the Thief, for short. In all the centuries that Scribes have existed, nobody has stolen and abused our wisdom like the Thief.”
“Stolen your wisdom?” asked Billy, confused.
“You’re not turning into a Green, are you, Vagabond?”, asked Precious Dust, his eyes flashing. “Stolen, for sure. Any man, woman or child who learns to read or write is stealing from the Scribes. But the Thief—- he did something far, far worse...”
For a moment Precious Dust seemed unable to speak, overcome with emotion. His cheeks had reddened and there was sweat on his forehead. Eventually, he said: “The Thief has somehow taught himself wisdom and learning that is beyond all but the greatest Scribes. Knowledge to which he is not entitled. Knowledge that is a danger to the whole Ten Thousand Realms, inside any mind except the mind of a Scribe."
These Scribes have a pretty high opinion of themselves, thought Billy.
“So that’s why we would like him safely across the Sea of Steam” said the Crimson, “out of the Ten Thousand Realms altogether. Into whatever lies beyond the Great Sea.”
“And what makes you think I can do that?”, asked Billy. He was confused now. If it was his dearest desire to get across this Sea of Steam, why wouldn’t he have done it already?
“But that is the whole point”, said the Crimson, “if only you would stop interrupting. It would seem that this Thief of Thoughts knows the way across the Sea. He made it part of the way himself, apparently—- according to a manuscript written in his hand. This fellow is forever writing manuscripts, and of couse the Greens are just as quick to copy and spread them”.
“Curse them” muttered Precious Dust.
“Curse them indeed” said the Crimson, almost tonelessly. “But he couldn’t make it across without the help of a man of great strength and agility and endurance—- and that’s where you come in. He even suggested you himself.”
“He certainly did. In his manuscript, An Account of a Failed Expedition Across the Sea of Steam. It’s my guess that, once he hears you’re free, he’ll come for looking for you.”
“I suppose that’s why you let me out?”, asked Billy, feeling a little dazed from all this new and startling information.
“Don’t be so cynical, Chester”, said the Crimson, wagging her finger at him, rather playfully.
“Don’t the Greens know who the Thief is?”, asked Billy. “They must know, if they have his manuscripts.”
“Apparently not” said the Crimson, in a resigned voice. “Plenty of Green prisoners have been—- let us say—- questioned about it. Not here, of course. We don’t do things like that in Gillian. In other places. But nobody seems to know who he is, anyway. He leaves manuscripts lying in jars and barrels and bottles, cuts messages into tree trunks—- that kind of thing.”
“How does he know the way across the Sea of Steam, anyway?” asked Billy.
Precious Dust coughed, frowned and said: “There are said to be some old books which describe the route, though all of them were thought to be lost. Journeys to the Centre of the World and Beyond by Atlantio Hummingbird, for example. Incredible as it seems, the Thief must have found one of these old books. And they are all written in antique language, what is more.”
“So you see, this scoundrel is an out-and-out genius”, said the Crimson. There was a mischievous amusement in her voice.
“He is the greatest villain to walk the Ten Thousand Realms since—- well, since the beginning!” said Precious Dust, who was almost writhing with suppressed fury now.
Billy closed his eyes. The Scribes. The Sea of Steam. Rex Cunningham. Beheaded men. It was all too much to take in. And he was hungry. Very hungry.
“Can you give me something to eat that isn’t prison food?” he asked, still with his eyes closed. “You don’t have spaghetti bolognese, by any chance?”
“I know nothing of these exotic foods you came across in your wanderings” said the Crimson, with a hint of disdain. “But we have good plain Gillian food. Ready and waiting for you, as a matter of fact. So eat up, because I have one last ordeal for you, before we let you go.”
“Ordeal?”, asked Billy.
“Let’s just call it a test of bravery” said the Crimson. Through her mask, he saw her eyes sparkle with amusement—- but it was a cold amusement, and it troubled Billy. “I want to learn if the great Chester Vagabond can take a dose of his own medicine.”