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Excerpt: 'The Lost Conspiracy'

by Frances Hardinge
Dec 8, 2009

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'The Lost Conspiracy'

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Prelude

It was a burnished, cloudless day with a tug-of-war wind, a fine day for flying. And so Raglan Skein left his body neatly laid out on his bed, its breath as slow as sea swell, and took to the sky.

He took only his sight and hearing with him. There was no point in bringing those senses that would make him feel the chill of the sapphire-bright upper air or the giddiness of his rapid rise.

Like all Lost, he had been born with his senses loosely tethered to his body, like a hook on a fishing line. He could let them out, then reel them in and remember all the places his mind had visited meanwhile. Most Lost could move their senses independently, like snails' eyes on stalks. Indeed, a gifted Lost might feel the grass under their knees, taste the peach in your hand, overhear a conversation in the next village, and smell cooking in the next town, all while watching barracudas dapple and flit around a shipwreck ten miles out to sea.

Raglan Skein, however, was doing nothing so whimsical. He had to take his body on a difficult and possibly perilous journey the next day, and he was spying out the land. It was a relief to see the world plummet away from him so that everything became smaller. More manageable. Less dangerous.

Scattered around the isolated island of Gullstruck, dozens of other minds would be adrift. Lost minds occupied with the business of the island, keeping it functioning. Scrying for bandits in the jungles, tracing missing children on the rises, spotting sharks in the deeps, reading important trade notices and messages long-distance. In fact, there might even be other Lost minds floating near him now, indiscernible to him as he was to them.

He veered toward the mountain ridge that ran along the western coast, seeing the individual peaks emerge from the fleece of clouds. One such peak stood a little apart from the rest, its coloration paler. It was Sorrow, the white volcano, sweet, pure, and treacherous as snow. Skein gave her a wide berth and instead veered toward her husband, the King of Fans, the tallest, middlemost mountain of the ridge, his cratered head forever lost in clouds. For now the King was docile and hazy with the heat, but he too was a volcano and of uncertain temper. The shimmering air above his slopes was flecked with the circling forms of eagles large enough to carry a child off in each claw. Villages on this coast expected to lose a couple of their number to the eagles each year.

But these eagles would have no interest in the little towns that sprawled below. As far as the great birds were concerned, the towns were just more animals, too vast and sluggish for them to bother with, scaled with slate and furred with palm thatch. The muddy roads were the veins; bronze bells in white towers told out their slow, cold heartbeats.

For a moment Skein wished that he did not know that every town was really a thriving hive of bitter, biting two-legged animals, full of schemes and resentment and hidden treachery. Yet again the fear of betrayal gnawed at his mind.

We will talk to these people, the Lost Council had announced. We are too powerful for them to ignore us. Everything can be settled peacefully. Skein did not believe it. Three days more and he would know if his shadowy suspicions had flesh to them.

There lay the road he would travel over during the next few days. He scried it carefully. Even though he had left for the coast quietly and with haste, there was always a chance that news of his arrival had outstripped him and that enemies lay in wait.

And it was no mean task, spying out ambushes and surprises on this coast of all coasts. Everything about the coast reeked of trickery and concealment. There were reefs beneath the water of the bay, betrayed only by the foam fringes on the far waves. The cliff face itself was a labyrinth. Over centuries the creamy limestone had been hollowed and worn until it was a maze of tapering spires, peepholes, and snub ridges like sleeping lions. So it was all along the west coast of the island, and it was this that had given the Coast of the Lace its name.

The tribe who lived here nowadays was also known as the Lace, and they too were full of ins and outs and twists and turns and sleeping lions pretending to be rocks. You never knew where you were with the smilers of the Lace. They were all but outcast, distrusted by everyone, scratching out a living in outskirt shantytowns or dusty little fishing villages.

Villages like the one that now came into view, nestled between a cliff and a beach in a rocky, half-hidden cove. Here it was, Skein's ultimate destination: the village of the Hollow Beasts.

It was a Lace village. Skein could see it at a glance, even though he was too high to make out the turbans on the grandmothers, the young men's shark's-tooth anklets, the bright stones in everyone's teeth. He knew it from the furtive location, the small pearl-fishing canoes cluttering the waterline.

He descended until the freckling of two-legged specks on the beach became foreshortened human figures. His sight alighted on two young girls, one supporting the other. The taller of the girls was dressed in a white tunic, and he guessed instantly who she must be. Arilou. Arilou was the only Hollow Beast whose name he knew, and it was the only name he needed to know. She was easily the most important person in the village, and arguably the only excuse for its existence. He contemplated her for a few seconds before soaring again and preparing to return to his body.

As it happened, the girl supporting Arilou had a name too. It was designed to sound like the settling of dust, a name that was meant to go unnoticed. She was as anonymous as dust, and Skein gave her not the slightest thought.

Neither would you. In fact, you have already met her, or somebody very like her, and you cannot remember her at all.

From The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge. Copyright 2009 by Frances Hardinge. Published by HarperCollins. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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