Authors: Frances Hardinge
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
Idiot! Idiot idiot idiot! You fleawit, Mosca, you puddinghead, you muffinskull. Let your guard down, didn’t you, you gormless grinning gull? Even when he agreed to a price he should have choked on. Even when he stood right there and near as skin asked you if there was anyone who’d miss you . . .
There was a sack over Mosca’s head, and a tight grip around her middle that pinned her arms to her sides. The roar of the rain drowned her screeched curses, and as the sackcloth around her grew sodden she knew that she had been carried out of the barn once more, twisting, kicking and hating with all her heart and soul.
Someone gripped her wrists and tied them behind her. Then she was hefted on to what felt and smelt a lot like the back of a rather damp horse. One of her clogs fell off with a splotch, and she doubted that anyone would stoop for it. A few juddering, unwilling horse breaths, the sound of hoofs, and she was lurched into jolting motion.
She was rollicked along in this undignified way for what seemed like hours, hearing nothing but the rain and the clop of other hoofs on either side. All the while she listened for the sound of new voices or a passing wagon, some cue for her to yell for help. But no, it seemed that all the world but Mosca and her captives had the wisdom to hide from the rain.
Just when her ribs were bruised with bouncing and her limbs soaked to the bone, she was tugged off the back off the horse and set on her feet. The sack was dragged off her head.
The town was gone, and all around was nothing but craggy moor. She was standing beside Skellow and two of his men in the shelter offered by a crab-apple tree, the grass still dotted with the amber pulp of rotting fruit. The clouds had come down to earth and oozed softly between the heaped granite, the throaty purple of foxgloves.
‘Come on.’ Skellow took hold of her arm and gestured towards a shadow in the face of the nearest crag. Staring at it through her wet lashes, Mosca realized that behind the dismal trickle of water from above was the entrance to a cave. ‘And try to look grateful. Not many girls like you will ever get a chance to attend a Pawnbrokers’ Auction.’
Mosca might have found it easier to feel privileged if she had not been sopping, half shod and all too aware of a knife prodding her in the back as Skellow followed her into the cave. His comrades made no attempt to accompany them.
Mosca had heard of the Guild of Pawnbrokers, though until now she had had little expectation of attending one of their auctions. Once the pawnbrokers had simply been a means by which desperate people could gain money quickly, leaving their valuables in the care of the pawnbroker in exchange for a small sum, in the hope of returning later and buying their possessions back. During the last thirty years, however, the Realm had seen countless times of trouble, and the Pawnbrokers had found themselves in possession of varied and valuable things whose owners were a little too dead to reclaim them.
Their subsequent auctions of these curious items had become legendary. Over time the auctions had become stranger, more secretive and more exclusive. It was said that if you could only earn an invitation to one such auction you would find all sorts of unusual and unimaginable things on sale – the skulls of kings, the services of assassins, crystal balls with wicked spirits trapped in them, deadly secrets, beasts with tusks and wings . . .
Just within the cave an iron hook had been hammered into the wall, and from it hung a dark-lantern. In its narrow bar of light stood a walnut desk, at which a man in a smart waistcoat and cravat sat with his quill poised expectantly over a great leather-bound book. He looked like an ordinary clerk but for one thing – he had no head. Then Mosca drew closer and realized that he did have a head, but that it was shrouded in a black hood with eyeholes. Above him hung a frame on which were suspended three metal globes, the sign of the Pawnbrokers.
‘Heydayhare,’ murmured Skellow in his gravelly tones, and the man nodded. Mosca guessed that this must be a password. ‘Name of Skellow.’
‘Expected.’ The hooded man ticked something in his book. ‘What’s that?’ The quill pointed at Mosca. Mosca opened her mouth to speak, then felt the point of the knife press against her spine and closed it again.
‘It’s my scribe,’ said Skellow.
‘Very well. You are responsible for its behaviour during the auction.’ Two grey cloth masks were pushed across the desk. ‘Once past this point you must not remove these masks, nor must you speak a word to anyone but each other, and even then not loud enough for others to hear. If you break these rules, you will lose
There was something in the man’s cold, incisive tone that suggested that breathing might be one of these ‘rights’.
Despite herself, a little flame of curiosity started to burn in Mosca’s chest as she walked down a narrow, rough-hewn passageway, the mask feeling rough but dry against her cold cheeks.
Well, these might be the last things I see, so I might as well get an eyeful.
At the end of the passage the rock opened out in all directions, and Mosca found herself standing on the edge of a huge cavern, some of it craggy and natural, some bearing the marks of picks and chisels. Dozens of lanterns dotted the darkness, each resting on a table at which a grey-hooded figure was seated. From the cave roof hung a far larger pawnbrokers’ sign. The globes were circular cages in which many candles had been set, so that the contraption helped illuminate the chamber like a peculiar chandelier and silently dribbled pale wax on to the cave floor.
Against the back wall stood a timber frame platform, to which was still affixed a pulley that had once been used to lower buckets into a square shaft in the floor below. On this platform stood a pulpit-like structure, behind which stood a black-hooded figure in black overalls. Other similarly clad figures scurried through the cave, taking slips of paper from those seated at the tables and carrying them to the waiting hand of the auctioneer at the front. He in turn read each slip and called out a series of numbers in a nasal monotone.
Bidding on pieces of paper. No wonder Skellow needed a scribe.
Skellow was shown to one of the empty desks and yanked at Mosca’s arm so that she was forced to kneel beside him.
The current auction seemed to be entering a state of subdued frenzy, and Mosca listened spellbound to the auctioneer.
‘. . . thirty-five guineas . . . forty guineas . . . gentlemen, remember the sacred nature of these relics; surely a few guineas more . . .’
On the pulpit before the auctioneer was a candle in its last throes, scarcely more than a cratered stump. Mosca realized that this must be an auction ‘by candle’. When the candle died, the auction would be over. As its flame flickered blue, several bid carriers broke into a run, and it was all the auctioneer could do to seize the flourished papers in order.
‘. . . we have fifty . . . we have . . . done! The candle is dead, gentlemen. The knucklebones said to have belonged to Saint Wherrywhistle herself go to Guest Forty-nine . . .’
‘No!’ An echoing cry filled the cavern, as one of the grey-hooded figures in the main body of the cavern leaped to his feet. ‘This is an atrocity! Why will you not wait until we have more money? The knucklebones should never have been stolen from our cathedral in the first – what? – wait!’
A dozen black-masked figures had homed in on the shouter without the slightest fuss and laid hands upon him. In a second he was swept off his feet and borne forward towards the auctioneer’s platform. Legs cycling furiously, the hapless rule-breaker was hurled without ceremony into the waiting shaft, which threw back only his descending, despairing wail.
‘Guest Twenty-four’s rights revoked,’ the auctioneer declared sharply, tapping at his gavil with his hammer.
Skellow’s cloth-covered face leaned close to Mosca’s cloth-covered ear.
‘Hush up,’ he whispered almost inaudibly. The injunction was unnecessary. Mosca had never felt more like hushing up in the whole of her life.
‘Now,’ the auctioneer continued unflappably, ‘we are pleased to place on auction the services of one Romantic Facilitator.’The mess of the last candle was scraped away with a knife, and a new stub lit in its place.
Skellow nudged Mosca vigorously with his elbow and pushed the quill and ink on the desk towards her hand.
What the blinkin’ ’eck’s a Romantic Facilitator? This chisel-faced maggot can’t have kidnapped me because he needs someone to help him get a ladyfriend, can he? Mind you, how else would he get one?
However, she obediently wrote down the sum that Skellow whispered in her ear, and handed it to one of the swift-footed messengers in black masks as they hurried by. She thought about writing, ‘Help, I’ve got a knife in my back,’ but decided against it. She had the feeling that nobody except Skellow would care.
‘Five guineas.’ Mosca’s eyes crept to Skellow’s hood again as his bid was read out. Surely even Skellow couldn’t be
desperate for a ladyfriend? And could he really have that sort of money?
For the first two minutes the bids came slowly, intermittently. Skellow turned out to be someone who cracked his knuckles when he was nervous, and Mosca winced each time he did so, in case the sound was enough to see them shafted. Then the lip of the candle collapsed, hot wax spilling creamily on to the tabletop, and the room was galvanized. There was a frenzy of scribbling, then the pat-a-pat of feet as the bid-carriers ran to and fro. Clearly Skellow was not the only person interested in the Romantic Facilitator.
Six guineas. Eight. Twelve. Frantically Mosca wrote down each sum Skellow growled in her ear. The candle’s flame was growing squat and uncertain.
‘Fifteen guineas!’ hissed Skellow. ‘Write it fast! Faster!’ The knifepoint jabbed at her spine. Hand shaking, Mosca scribbled the bid, waved the paper over her head and watched heart in mouth as a runner tweaked it from her fingers and sprinted to join the gaggle clustered about the auctioneer.
The auctioneer had just time to snatch one last paper as the candle flame flared, buckled and died, leaving a faint quill of smoke trailing from its wick.
‘Done! Last bid before the death of the candle . . .’ The auctioneer unfolded the paper in his hands. ‘. . . fifteen guineas . . . sold to Guest Seventy-one.’ A runner trotted over and placed a small wooden token on the desk before Skellow.
The pressure from the knifepoint diminished, and Mosca let out a long breath of relief. The next moment, however, Skellow had taken her by the collar again and tugged her into whisper-range.
‘Write down exactly what I tell you,’ he hissed through the double layer of cloth. ‘You write a word awry and I’ll spike you.’
Mosca nodded and listened, her quill poised.
You are recommended me on account the Auctioneers say you have a name good enough for daylight. We are wanting you about a matter of a gentleman in the town of Toll who would marry the daughter of the mayor but for the difficulties put in his way by her family who are not being amiable on account of some damage recently done to his good name. And it have been put to him that sometimes the course of true love does not run smooth but needs help, and sometimes a few coins changing hands and a bit of sword-work like. And if you please I would meet with you at the old bastle house on Moordrick’s Fell tonight to discuss how we can come by the lady and have her all safely wedded before she or her family can make any trouble about it. It is best that we discuss it there for it shall be devilish tricky to meet inside Toll. If I do not see you at the bastle house however I shall look for you just after Toll’s dusk bugle in Brotherslain Walk the day after tomorrow. And with this letter you will find moneys for paying of the toll and living comfortable in the city.
This was the letter that was dictated to Mosca. However, it must be confessed that it was not
the letter she wrote.
letter, while similar in many respects, was a bit longer and a lot more creative.
Barely five minutes later, a response was brought by one of their black-hooded hosts.
Dear Mr Scragface Pimplenose,
Many thanks for your eloquent epistle. I am sure you cannot possbly be as grotesquely ugly as you claim, and I look forward to making your acquaintance. I always say that a man who can laugh at himself is a man worth knowing.
Your star-crossed lovers sound quite charming, and
would be delighted to help.
One little superstition of mine I hope you will indulge. I never meet with perfect strangers bastle houses or alarmingly named alleyways at twilight. This trifling quirk I developed shortly after acquiring a large number of enemies. I would therefore purpose that, instead of meeting at either of the places you suggest, we meet at nine of the clock by the stocks in Lower Pambrick on goodlady Joljock’s Morn. I shall be wearing a Fainsnow Lily pinned to my pocket.
Your faithful servant
Mosca let her black eyes dart from line to line, then she glanced up at the ominous outline that was Skellow, his pale amber eyes glowing softly through the holes in his mask.
‘I’m not reading this to you,’ she hissed, ‘until I got some certainty that I’m gettin’ out of all this alive.’
You . . .’ Skellow winced at the sound of his own voice and looked about nervously, but his squawk of indignation seemed to have gone unnoticed.
The auctioneer appeared to be starting the next auction. ‘Now, we have on sale the services of a lady who has made her name in one of the quick-fingered professions . . .’ A black-masked messenger had materialized next to Skellow’s desk with the air of one waiting to tidy it. Skellow rose, yanking Mosca to her feet.
‘Outside,’ he spat.
Mosca tensed as they left the cave, looking for a chance to pull her arm loose and sprint to the cold and rain-sodden freedom of the moors. Skellow seemed to have read her mind, however, and kept a cruel grip on her until they were surrounded by his friends once more. A sharp shove sent Mosca back against the rocky face, and she found herself ringed by a set of very damp men who appeared to be losing their sense of humour.