‘Is this it?’ Suraya looked unimpressed. ‘You dragged me all the way through the desert for this?’
‘What’s wrong with it?’ asked Roscoe. ‘I rather like it.’
‘It’s a shack.’
‘It’s not what’s on the outside that matters, my dear,’ he took her by the shoulder and drew her closer.
Suraya looked at the ramshackle lean-to. Nestled in a crevice half way down the sheer rock wall, it clung to a crumbling squat of a building.
‘The roof looks like it’s going to fall in on us. I hope you know that. Bringing your only goddaughter to this death trap.’
Roscoe rolled his eyes.
‘Who is this guy, anyway?’ Suraya kicked at the red dust on the desert path. A buzzard screeched overhead, and Rianya flinched beside Roscoe.
‘A lunatic. A collector. A wise man. And if I remember correctly, he also knows a thing or two about maps. Now, I know my own work, but I wouldn’t put anything past the good Caliph.’
‘A forgery?’ Suraya questioned.
‘Possibly. Who knows? Now come along, we cannot keep him waiting.’
Roscoe ushered them through a heavy faded red curtain, which swept across the entrance of the timber-framed construction. A cockroach scuttled out from under the curtain, sniffing for crumbs of food. Myriads of brass and copper teapots and little cups were hanging dubiously over the doorway, huddled around a wooden plaque that read ‘Livingstone’s’.
Suraya, Roscoe and Rianya stood close together in the cramped space as their eyes adjusted to the darkness within. The air was hot and stifling, and Suraya could feel boxes and chests and bookcases all about her, squashing in at all angles. Rianya grasped at her sleeve in fear, but Suraya roughly swatted her away.
Slowly, emerging from the blackness, flecks of gold began to materialise. Gold, silver, rubies. Everywhere she looked. The dim light bounced off green glass bottles lining every bookshelf, crammed with parchments and trinkets. Baskets filled with pottery shards to Suraya’s left, and to her right was a polished globe sitting in a brass cradle. She reached out to touch it, and it span slowly, rudely awakening a cantankerous parrot in a dusty cage by her feet. The bird squawked irritably. At the end of the room, under a cacophony of saucepans attached to the roof with string, sat a hunched man in an oversized armchair. He squinted though round glasses at a compass, the entire room lit by one small stub of a candle beside him.
‘Livingstone?’ asked Roscoe.
‘My father’s name,’ the hunched man said mildly.
The man looked around, his round face dominated by a large red noise and whiskers of feathery hair that crept over his ears.
‘Can it be? Captain Wells! How? When? What? Why? Oh, it is nice to see you, my very old, very dear friend! Nice to see you, yes. Come, come! Sit with me, long time it has been! And friends, yes. Sit! Mouse?’ He gestured to a plate of dormice beside him, their tails plaited together. ‘Very tasty.’
‘No, thank you,’ Roscoe replied quickly. He picked his way delicately forward and perched on a bookcase edge. ‘It is good to see you again, old friend,’ he clasped Alcester’s hand warmly. ‘It has been many years. How are you? Is life kind? This is my goddaughter, Suraya, and her cousin, Rianya.’
‘Come, sit, kin of Captain Wells. All welcome, most welcome,’ Alcester gestured to a pile of books with a gnarled old finger, and Rianya went forward to sit. Suraya hung back, not wanting to be cramped too closely with the princess.
‘What brings you to my humble abode, after all this time, my southern friend?’ Alcester chuckled to himself.
‘I came to you because you are the best, even after all this time, still the best.’ Roscoe gave Alcester a friendly pat on the shoulder and grinned.
‘Flattery will get you everywhere,’ Alcester chuckled again.
‘Do you remember the map I made the last time I was here?’
‘For the king? Yes, yes.’
‘Well, I need you to authenticate it for me,’ Roscoe pulled the rolled parchment from his satchel and spread it carefully across the cluttered desk.
‘I thought caliph a friend of yours? Perhaps not. No. Not new caliph. Tricky. Treachery afoot, me thinks.’
Alcester looked carefully at Suraya. She tried not to catch his eye, and busily ran her fingers over the graceful curve of a short bow, propped up against a dusty bookshelf. The wood was stained dark, almost black, and the ends were capped in gold. It had been a long time since she had held a bow, but even as she touched it, it seemed familiar to her. All the calloused fingers and bruised arms she had gotten as a child practicing with Roscoe’s weapon seemed to come flooding back, as vivid in her mind as they had ever been in real life.
She looked back to the strange old man with Roscoe, who was now caressing a cockatoo he had pulled out from under the tablecloth.
‘Ahhhh, I look at map for you,’ Alcester said winking, a wide grin spreading over his face, and plonked the cockatoo down onto the table.
Pulling out reams and reams of maps and charts from the bookshelf behind him, he stared thoughtfully through a giant magnifying glass at Roscoe’s map.
‘Yes, lugal amar, yes I see it now. Hmm, pesh didly. Or was it didly pesh? I always forget the grammar. Yes, here. Old, old, old it is.’
‘Not so old’, replied Roscoe a touch indignantly. ‘Is it real?’ he said, careful to keep one eye on Suraya as she wandered through the myriad of objects in the shop.
‘Hmm, nita kalaga. Yes, yes here it is! Just like this, or that, or maybe this one,’ Alcester said, flinging pieces of parchment up at Roscoe. ‘Not seen one like this for long long time. Most interesting, lugal. Yes yes, I think. Most real, I am sure. And here, see, the seal,’ he whispered most urgently to Roscoe.
‘In tact?’ he asked, one eye on Suraya to make certain she did not hear him.
‘Yes. Most certainly. Stupid caliph did not know what he had. But friend Roscoe, it is far, very long way to go. Dangerous,’ Alcester said in a low voice, glancing around to see if anyone was listening. ‘Not safe!’
‘Thank you, Alcester. You are, as always, a most brilliant mind to know,’ Roscoe drew the map back into a scroll, and slipped it into his bag.
‘Dangerous!’ Alcester hissed. Roscoe looked at him earnestly, and put his hand on the old man’s shoulder. Alcester sighed heavily. ‘Map is true, Captain,’ he said at last.
‘What seal?’ Rianya suddenly asked.
Roscoe and Alcester both whipped around at the sound of her voice, apparently having forgotten she was sat so close.
‘Er..seal…of approval!’ Roscoe stammered.
‘Yes, authentic, yes!’ Alcester chimed in, trying his hardest to sound genuine. ‘Very complicated to decipher. You would not see. Too…small.’
‘Don’t you think it’s hot in here? Why don’t you and Suraya step outside? She looks impatient,’ Roscoe suggested buoyantly. Rianya looked uncertain, but Suraya was already making her way out.
‘Go, go,’ encouraged Alcester. ‘We only talk of old times. Very boring.’
As soon as she had left, Roscoe breathed a sigh of relief.
‘Thank you, Alcester. I am most obliged. And I’ve also brought you a bag of your favourite biscuits.’
‘Biscuits, I like. Yes, glad to help! I have plate somewhere. Just let me find it. Under many books…’