Fly by Night
by Frances Hardinge
HarperCollins, 2006
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Since there was little he could do about his situation, he seemed determined to strike as picturesque and dramatic a pose as possible. The back of one hand rested despairingly across his forehead, while his other arm was thrown wide in a flamboyant attitude. The only part of his face visible, therefore, was his mouth, which was pursed and plump, as if the world were too hot and coarse for his palate and he felt the need to blow it cool. The mouth was moving, spilling out long, languorous sentences in a way which suggested that, despite his predicament, the speaker rather enjoyed the sound of his own voice.

". . . before even the Travesty in Three Acts had seen print . . ." The speaker sighed deeply, and combed his fingers through his disheveled hair before placing his hand back across his eyes. ". . . and this is to be the end of Eponymous Clent, left out in the wilderness to be devoured by the savage geese and weaselly faced imps of the forest—" The flow of words stopped abruptly. Cautiously he uncovered his eyes once more. "Are you human?"

It was a fair question. Rust, grime and lichen covered Mosca's face like warpaint, and dove feathers still clung to her hair and arms. The unlit pipe in her mouth also gave her an otherworldly, young-old look.

She nodded.

"What do you want?"

Mosca swung her legs over to sit in the "saddle" more comfortably, and took the pipe out of her mouth.

"I want a job."

"I fear that adverse circumstances have deprived me of all monetary advantages and simple luxuries and . . . did you say a job?"

"Yes." Mosca pointed to the stocks. "I got the keys to those, but if I let you out, you got to give me a job and take me with you."

"Fancy," Clent said with a faint, desolate laugh. "The child wishes to leave all this." He glanced around at the dripping trees, the bone-white stones and the cold colors of the distant village.

"I want to travel," Mosca declared. "The sooner the better," she added, with an apprehensive look over her shoulder.

"Do you even have the first idea of what my profession entails?"

"Yes," said Mosca. "You tell lies for money."

"Ah. Aha. My child, you have a flawed grasp of the nature of myth-making. I am a poet and storyteller, a creator of ballads and sagas. Pray do not confuse the exercise of the imagination with mere mendacity. I am a master of the mysteries of words, their meanings and music and mellifluous magic."

Mendacity, thought Mosca. Mellifluous. She did not know what they meant, but the words had shapes in her mind. She memorized them, and stroked them in her thoughts like the curved backs of cats. Words, words, wonderful words. But lies too.

"I hear you told the Widow a story 'bout how you was the son of a duke and was going to marry her when you came into your lands, but how you needed to borrow money so you could hire a lawyer and make your claim."

"Ah. A very . . . emotional woman. Tended to take, ah, figures of speech very literally."

"And I heard you told the magistrate a story 'bout how there was this cure for his aches which you just needed to send for, but which cost lots of money. And I heard you told all the shopkeepers a story 'bout how your secretary was coming any day and bringing all your trunks and the rest of your money so you could pay all your bills then."

"Yes . . . er . . . quite true . . . can't imagine what can have happened to the fellow . . ."

"They brand thieves' hands, don't they?" Mosca added suddenly. "S'pose they'll brand your tongue for lying. S'pose it stands to reason."

Everything was very quiet for a few moments except for the rattle of water on rock and the sound of Clent swallowing drily.

Yes, I . . . I have quite lost patience with that secretary of mine. I suppose I must let him go, which means that I have a vacancy. Do you . . . do you have any qualifications or assets to offer as a secretary, may I ask?"

"I got these." Mosca jangled the keys.

"Hmm. A practical outlook and a concise way of speaking. Both very useful qualities. Very well, you may unlock me."

Mosca slid down from her stone throne and scrambled up the craggy pedestal to slot the key into the lock.

"Purely out of interest," Clent asked as he watched her, upside down, "what so bewitches you about the idea of the traveling life?"

There were many answers Mosca could have given him. She dreamed of a world without the eternal sounds of glass beads being shaken in a sieve and goblins chuckling in the ravines. She dreamed of a world where her best friend did not have feathers and a beak the color of pumpkin peel. She dreamed of a world where books did not rot or give way to green blot, where words and ideas were not things you were despised for treasuring. She dreamed of a world in which her stockings were not always wet.

There was another, more pressing reason though. Mosca raised her head and stared up the hillside toward the ragged treeline. The sky was warmed by a gentle redness, suggesting a soft but radiant dawn. The true dawn was still some three hours away.

"Very soon," Mosca said quietly, "my uncle will wake up. An' when he does . . . he's likely to notice that I've burned down his mill."

Excerpted from Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge. Copyright © 2006 by Frances Hardinge. All rights reserved. Excerpted by permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.