Fly by Night
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Frances Hardinge
All right reserved.ISBN: 0060876271
A Is for Arson
It was often said that only divine flame could persuade anything to burn in Chough. Many joked that the villagers cooked their dinners over marsh lights.
Chough could be found by straying as far as possible from anywhere comfortable or significant, and following the smell of damp. The village had long since surrendered to a seeping, creeping rot. The buildings rotted from the bottom upward. The trees rotted from the inside out. The carrots and turnips rotted from the outside in, and were pale and pulpy when they were dug out.
Around and through the village, water seethed down the breakneck hillside in a thousand winding streamlets. They hissed and gleamed through dark miles of pine forest above the village, chafing the white rocks and learning a strange milkiness. Chough itself was more a tumble than a town, the houses scattered down the incline as if stranded there after a violent flood.
By day the villagers fought a losing battle against the damp. By night they slept and dreamed sodden, unimaginative dreams. On this particular night their dreams were a little ruffled by the unusual excitement of the day, but already the water that seeped into every soul was smoothing their minds back to placidity, like a ducks bill glossing its plumage.
One mind, however, was wakeful and nursing the black flame of rebellion. At midnight the owner of that mind could be found hiding in the local magistrates dovecote.
This dovecote was large, and from the outside its conical roof bore a remarkable resemblance to a castle turret. At the moment, the dovecote was remarkably free of doves and remarkably full of twelve-year-old girl and oversized goose.
Mosca wore the wide-eyed look of one who is listening very carefully, and she chewed gently at the stem of her unlit pipe as she did so, feeling the splinters working their way up between her teeth. Her attention was painfully divided between the sound of approaching voices and the pear-shaped silhouette of a single dove against one of the little arched doorways above her. Trying to balance her weight on the slender perch poles with an agitated goose under one arm, Mosca was already regretting her choice of hiding place.
Each time a bird appeared at one of the openings, Saracen hissed. If the doves seemed to be hissing, this might make someone curious enough to investigate and discover Mosca hiding there at midnight with someone elses goose. Mosca had excellent reasons for not wanting to be dragged back home to face her Uncle Westerly and Aunt Briony. She had plans of her own, and none of them involved the sorts of punishments that would be waiting for her if she was caught on this night of all nights.
Were much beholden to you, sir. If you had not chanced by and warned us, the fellow might have been fleecing our gullible housewives a month hence. It was the magistrates voice. Mosca froze.
It was not entirely a matter of chance. A young man was speaking, his voice gentle and reassuring, like warm milk. When I changed horses at Swathe someone mentioned that a man named Eponymous Clent had been staying here for the last week. I knew him well by reputation as a villain and swindler, and your village was only a little out of my way.
Well, you must delay your journey a little longer, I fear. You shall stay the night and let me thank you in broth, beef and brandy. The snap of a snuffbox opening. Do you indulge?
When it is offered so hospitably, yes.
The dove stared. It could see something crouching among the tangle of perches. Something big, something dark, something breathing. Something that gave a long, low hiss like skates across ice.
Mosca kicked out, and the toe of her boot caught the dove just beneath the snow-white plum of its chest, causing it to tumble backward into flight. Is something amiss?
No, I just thought for a moment . . . Mosca held her breath.
. . . I thought I could smell smoke.
Ah, the snuff does have a touch of brimstone in it.
So . . . The younger man sniffed once, twice, to clear his nose, and then spoke again in a less nasal tone. So you will no doubt keep Mr. Clent in the stocks for a day or two, and then have him taken to Pincaster for further punishment?
I believe we must. Chough has a magistrate but lacks a gibbet . . .
The voices faded, and a door clicked to. After a time, the faint orange ache of candlelight in the nearest window dulled and died.
The roof of the dovecote stealthily rose, and two sets of eyes peered out through the gap. One pair of eyes were coal beads, set between a bulging bully brow and a beak the color of pumpkin peel. The other pair were human, and as hot and black as pepper.
Moscas eyes had earned her countless beatings, and years of suspicion. For one thing, they had a way of looking venomous even when she held her pointed tongue. For another thing, her eyes wielded a power that was beyond everyone else in Chough except the magistrate. She could read.
Everybody knew that books were dangerous. Read the wrong book, it was said, and the words crawled around your brain on black legs and drove you mad, wicked mad. It did not help that she was daughter of Quillam Mye, who had come to Chough from Mandelion amid rumors of banishment, bringing city thoughts crackling with cleverness and dozens of dark-bound, dangerous books. Mosca might as well have been the local witch in miniature.
After her fathers death, Moscas eyes had at least earned her a roof over her head. Her uncle, the older brother of her dead mother, was glad to have someone to take care of his accounts and letters. His niece was useful but not trusted, and every night he locked her in the mill with the account book to keep her out of trouble. This evening he had turned the key upon her as usual, without knowing that he was doing so for the very last time. He was now snoring like an accordion amid sweet dreams of grist and fine grain, with no inkling that his niece was loose yet again and embarked upon a desperate mission.
Mosca wrinkled her pointed nose in a sniff. There was a faint hint of smoke on the night air. Her time was running out.
A week before, a man named Eponymous Clent had arrived in Chough and talked his way into every heart and hearth. He had bewitched the entire village with an urbane twinkle. That afternoon, however, Chough had fallen out of love with him just as quickly and completely. Word had spread that a visitor to the magistrates house had exposed Clent as a notorious trickster and cheat. Dusk had seen him shackled in the stocks and almost friendless.
Almost, but not quite. Since the burning of her fathers books, Mosca had been starved of words. She had subsisted on workaday terms, snub and flavorless as potatoes. Clent had brought phrases as vivid and strange as spices, and he smiled as he spoke, as if tasting them. His way with words had won him an unlikely rescuer.
The magistrates house had originally been built on a raised lump of land with two deep cracks cut around it on either side, providing a channel for the water. This had been all very well, until the water had enjoyed one of its wild nights, in which it pulled the hillside into new shapes and threw boulders like dice. In the morning, the magistrate had found a hill of white silt and rubble piled up against the back of his house, and the sweet spring sunlight gleaming upon the streamlets as they poured across his roof and dripped in diamonds from his thatch.
In an attempt to snatch the magistrates vegetable garden from the domain of the. . .