Authors: Frances Hardinge
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
To Martin, for being my partner in crime, fellow adventurer and one true love, and for being wiser than anybody has a right to be
‘Read the paper for you, sir?’
One small voice strove against the thunder of rain, the shuffle and huff of the passing mules, the damp flap of canvas as the last sodden stallholders gave up their fight against the dismal weather. Market day was coming apart like a biscuit in coffee, fragments of it running for cover with trays and baskets held over their heads.
‘Oi! Gentlemen! Read the paper for you?’
The two farmers that had been hailed hurried on, without looking up to see where the voice came from. And so they did not notice a small figure that had found, if not shelter, at least a place where the rain simply pelted her instead of pummelling her. The upper storeys of the courthouse, debtors’ prison and magistrates house all jutted themselves forward like three frowning foreheads, and beneath this the figure hunched against the wall, bowing so as to shield a crumpled, sodden copy of a much-travelled
from the worst of the rain. Small wonder that the poor
drooped so forlornly. Even in the cities reading was a rare talent, and here in the little sheep-farming town of Grabely none of the inhabitants could read the tiniest tittle.
The rain washed people, stalls and barrows from the market square, leaving only that one figure like a particularly
stubborn stain. Drips fell from the tip of a pointed nose. Beneath a drooping bonnet with a frayed brim, hair spiked and straggled like a tempest-tossed blackbird’s nest. An olive-green dress two sizes too big was hitched at the waist and daubed knee high in thick yellow mud. And behind the clinging strands of damp hair two large black eyes glistened like coal and gave the marketplace a look that spoke of coal’s grit, griminess and hidden fire.
This shivering, clench-jawed scrap of damp doggedness had a name, and that name was Mosca Mye. ‘Mosca’ meant fly, a housefly name well suited to one born on an evening sacred to Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butterchurns. It was a name that would have been recognized in her home village, where a number of people would have had questions to ask about the burning of a mill, the release of a notorious felon and the theft of a large and savage goose. In Mandelion, a city port to the west, a well-informed few would have known her name, and how it fitted into the tale of conspiracy, murder, river battles and revolution that had turned the city upside down and shaped it anew.
Three months had now passed since the gates of Mandelion closed behind Mosca. Those three months had brought in winter, eaten the soles of her shoes to a paper thinness, pinched her cheeks, emptied her purse and, most importantly of all, used up her last ounce of patience with her travelling companion.
‘Mosca?’ A faint, querulous voice sounded behind her, rather like that of a dying great-aunt. ‘If you do not wish me to perish from want, you might try to use a little charm. The flower girls manage to coo or sing their wares – they do not shriek like an attacking hawk.’
The voice came from a narrow, barred window set in the wall of the debtors’ prison. Peering in, Mosca could just make out a ponderous figure lying in its shirtsleeves upon a bed of straw. The man in question had allowed a tragic and injured expression to settle upon his plump face, as if it was he and not Mosca who was braving the elements. His coat, wig and pocket-watch chain had all been sold, leaving his much-patched waistcoat on display. Eponymous Clent, poet extraordinaire, word-wizard laureate and eternal bane of all those mean-minded enough to expect him to pay his bills. Once upon a time Mosca had thought it a good idea to continue travelling with him instead of settling in Mandelion. They shared a love of words, a taste for adventure and a dubious relationship with the truth, but such common ground can take two people only so far – and it was starting to seem as if it would take them to Grabely and no further.
‘What’s your charm done for us, Mr Clent?’ snapped Mosca through her teeth. ‘Why don’t you charm your way out of that cell? Why don’t you charm us some dinner?’
‘She mocks me,’ murmured Clent with a maddening air of stoic forgiveness. ‘It is her nature. Those of tottering intellect and meagre spirit always turn against their best friends and protectors as soon as they face real hardship. She cannot help it, Fates.’ He sighed. ‘Madam, you might reflect upon the fact that you at least have your liberty.’
‘Yeah, it’s lovely out here.’ Mosca glared up at the louring sky of her liberty. ‘If I was any freer, I’d have influenza already.’
‘Or,’ Clent continued with a hint of bitterness, ‘you might reflect on the reason I find myself thus incommoded. After all, you would insist on bringing
into this accursed town.’
Mosca made a crab-apple face, but here sadly Clent had a point. If it had not been for her, Saracen would not have been with them. For a good deal of her childhood Saracen had been the orphaned Mosca’s only friend and ally, and so she had taken him with her when she fled her damp and miserable home village. Since then she had resisted all Clent’s attempts to sell him, lose him or lure him into a pie-case. Mosca usually kept Saracen on a muzzle and leash, but on their first night in Grabely a laughing ostler had made the mistake of assuming that if something waddles it is funny, and that if it is funny then it is harmless, and that if it is harmless there is nothing to be lost by removing its muzzle . . .
Clent had been thrown into the debtors’ prison due to his inability to pay for the resultant damage to the inn. The ostler, who was somewhat damaged himself, was carried off demanding that Saracen be put in the stocks (into which his wings would hardly have fitted) and that he be publicly flogged (which nobody seemed willing to attempt). And by the time the townspeople had collected their courage and an array of long sharp objects, Saracen had escaped into the countryside.
Since that time Saracen had been making a name for himself. That name was not ‘Saracen’. Indeed the name was more along the lines of ‘that hell-fowl’, ‘did-you-see-what-it-did-to-my-leg’, ‘kill-it-kill-it-there-it-goes’ or ‘what’s-that-chirfugging-goose-done-now’. Every time Mosca begged, stole or earned almost enough to pay off Clent’s debt, another bruised and bleeding farmer would limp into town to report a shattered roof or a stunned mule, Clent would be blamed for Saracen’s doings and they would find themselves right back where they started.
‘Naturally I would earn our way if I could,’ continued Clent in the same dolorous tone, ‘but since the Stationers stopped buying my poetry . . . what am I to do?’
Although nobody usually admitted it, everybody knew that between them the powerful guilds that represented the main professions and crafts of the land held the country together. The formidable Guild of Stationers controlled the printing of all books in the Realm, and burned any book they considered dangerous. Most people were glad to leave them to this, for it was believed that reading the wrong book could drive you mad. The Stationers appeared the lesser of two evils, albeit one with a tendency to correct your grammar while burning your neighbours. Clent had once worked as a spy for the Stationers, and it was on their orders that he had travelled to Mandelion with Mosca at his heels. The Stationers had not, however, ordered him to help overthrow the city’s government, and had been unamused by Mosca and Clent’s involvement in Mandelion’s revolution. Over the last three months they had shown their lack of amusement by refusing to buy any of Clent’s work, not so much as a limerick.
‘Why do you not cut off my hand if you will not let it write?’ Clent had railed at them. ‘Why not cut off my head if you will not let it dream?’
‘Don’t think it wasn’t considered, Mr Clent,’ had been the curt response.
Remembering all this did nothing to improve Mosca’s mood. At the moment the most marketable commodity Mosca owned were her eyes – and the fact that she and Clent were the only people in Grabely who knew how to read. Newspapers sometimes washed up in Grabely, declarations and wanted posters were pinned to the door of the courthouse by the decree of the nearest cities, but they might have been covered in bird footprints for all the sense the inhabitants could make of them. And so every day for the last two weeks Mosca had been standing in the square offering to read newspapers, letters, wanted posters and pamphlets to anyone who would pay her a penny. Mosca had always felt a passionate hunger for the books everyone else feared, but right now most of her waking thoughts were taken up with a far more ordinary sort of hunger.
Most people were interested in the copy of the
, of course, wanting to hear more of the strange rebel town of Mandelion that had overthrown its duke and, with a reformed highwayman as its leader, still held out against the disapproval of its neighbours. Unfortunately after the first week there was nobody in town who had not heard every word in the newspaper, so Mosca had started making up more stories, and she was afraid that people were beginning to notice.