Fade to Blackby Francis Knight
From the depths of a valley rises the city of Mahala
It's a city built upwards, not across - where streets are built upon streets, buildings upon buildings. A city that the Ministry rules from the sunlit summit, and where the forsaken lurk in the darkness of Under.
Rojan Dizon doesn't mind staying in the shadows, because he's got things to hide. Things/b>
From the depths of a valley rises the city of Mahala
It's a city built upwards, not across - where streets are built upon streets, buildings upon buildings. A city that the Ministry rules from the sunlit summit, and where the forsaken lurk in the darkness of Under.
Rojan Dizon doesn't mind staying in the shadows, because he's got things to hide. Things like being a pain-mage, with the forbidden power to draw magic from pain. But he can't hide for ever.
Because when Rojan stumbles upon the secrets lurking in the depths of the Pit, the fate of Mahala will depend on him using his magic. And unlucky for Rojan - this is going to hurt.
The persistent sense of lurking danger along with Rojan's inner conflict between apathy and authentic emotion contribute to an absorbing read."RT Book Reviews"
Knight's debut recalls the vibrant, urban-based fantasies of China Miéville, Jay Lake, and Glen Cook. Combining traces of steampunk with urban noir fantasy, this story should appeal to fans of most fantasy variants."Library Journal"
A brilliant adventure/mystery which totally lived up to the cover... A thoroughly enjoyable read with plenty of twists and turns, and darkness enough to make the title perfectly apt. Highly recommended."thebookbag.co.uk"
Fade to Black is superb, and raises the benchmark quite high indeed for 2013's other debut fantasies. Very highly recommended."Civilian Reader"
A savage stab at organised religion and social control... emotionally powerful."Sun (UK) on Fade to Black
Read an Excerpt
Fade to Black
By Francis Knight
OrbitCopyright © 2013 Francis Knight
All right reserved.
I forced the door, nice and quiet, with my ever-so-slightly-illegal pulse pistol at the ready. Magic wasn’t usually on the agenda for runaways, but this little madam was exceptional: booby traps a speciality – I’d almost gone up in flames this morning. Twice. If it wasn’t for the obscene amount of money her parents had offered me to find her, I’d have given it up as a bad job.
The room beyond the door was even more dingy and rubbish-strewn than the corridor, and that was saying something. Rainwater had driven through a broken window and the faint stench of synth drifted up from where it pooled. I sidestepped around it. You could catch a fatal dose and never know until it was too late. Residents hurried away behind me with a mutter of footfalls. One sight of me, a burly man in a subtly armoured, close-fitting all over with a flapping black coat, and the scavenge-rat teens that called this place home took to their heels. I dare say it looked too much like a Ministry Special’s uniform with an added coat. Living this far down, a nose for trouble was essential.
I checked around carefully, trying to listen past the far rumble and thump of factories above us. A flash of movement off to my left, a hint of bright blue shirt. Lise, the girl I was after. With nothing to alarm me – yet – I made my careful way in. There it was again: a flicker of blue, floating in the gloom. I slid my fingers round the pistol’s trigger and pointed it. It wouldn’t kill her, but it would give me just enough of an edge. I didn’t understand it myself because it’s not my kind of magic, but the man who sold it to me had explained it as a way of interrupting thought processes, quite abruptly. An almost painless magical cosh, if you will. It would shut her down, at least for long enough for me to restrain her. Killing people wasn’t my line of work, or my style. If I’d had a taste for it I’d have stayed with the guards or, Goddess forbid, gone into the Ministry Specials, but I hadn’t liked the amount of paperwork, or the restrictions. I preferred the more freeform business I was in, where responsibility wasn’t something I needed to worry about.
I slid forwards, making sure there were no nasty surprises waiting in the rubbish at my feet. She moved again and black hair whirled out as she ran down a short corridor. I followed with exaggerated care, in case she had any more tricks in store for me. She wasn’t stupid. There had been those booby traps. Plus, she’d covered her tracks like a professional. It had taken me a week to find her, a length of time almost unheard of. I’d nearly had to resort to magic, and I never like to do that.
The information from her parents had shown me she was book-smart at least, a high-ranking fifteen-year-old student in alchemy. Bright enough to cover her tracks almost seamlessly; and ruthless, or desperate, enough to defend her retreat. Clever enough to come down here, on the border of Namrat’s Armpit and Boundary, right where the people she normally mixed with wouldn’t dream of coming. Where people minded their own business or else, and she had a hope of hiding without falling into the black hole we knew as Namrat’s Armpit, or the ’Pit for short. I tried not to think of the alchemist’s brew of toxic chemicals, residue of the synth disaster, just below the floor.
Rain rattled a broken window and a door snicked closed ahead of me. The little brat had led me a merry chase, but I had her now and the fat pay-purse was all but in my hand. She knew I was there though, and she’d proved resourceful so far. I decided not to trust the door, or the girl. Trust wasn’t a luxury I could afford in this line of work. I had a small wooden baton attached to my belt and used it to push the handle down.
As I pushed, fat sparks bloomed from somewhere above and dripped down the doorframe. I leapt back just in time to avoid the blast. Heat seared the exposed skin of my face and hands and the stench of burning clothes choked me. I rolled until I was sure the flames were out.
Electricity was a new development, and not more than two or three of the really good alchemists had got a grip on it yet. Luckily. Yet she’d learned from my earlier care with her traps, wired the whole damn thing and rigged it up to black powder just as an added bonus in case I avoided the electricity. I was reluctantly impressed.
Runaways had never given me this much trouble before; it was the bounties that did that. This girl had a powerful desire not to go home. Having met her parents, I could sympathise, but a paying job is a paying job, and once I took one on it was hard not to follow through.
I slipped through the door with the pulse pistol held out in front of me. The room was dank and gloomy, lit with fifth-hand light bounced down from better areas far above. Among heaps of rubbish, a parade of small puddles rippled on the bare stone floor where rain leaked through two broken windows. The water gleamed with an oily glint – synth, almost certainly. A thin, filthy mattress contaminated the end of the room. A small light, a rend-nut-oil lamp with a glass cover, scented the air as it glowed next to the makeshift bed, casting a pool of warm light on the sodden blanket that was littered with food wrappers – pretend meat, fake gravy, the tarted-up processed vegetarian shit that was the only kind of tasteless junk available down here. Or pretty much anywhere under Trade.
The wavering light of the lamp made the room behind seem black as Namrat’s heart. Namrat: tiger, stalker, winner in the end. Death. If I was a religious man, I would have prayed to the nice Goddess that he wasn’t stalking me today. As it was, I kept still and kept looking. She had to be in there somewhere.
My finger tightened on the trigger at a shadowy movement in the dark beyond the mattress, and something flew towards me. I leapt away, but not in time to completely avoid it. It smashed on the stone and let loose a rush of greenish gas. Streamers of it ballooned like smoke, sticking in my throat and blinding my stinging eyes. Oh, she was good, more than good. She was making me work for my money. That’s nearly as bad as using magic.
Footsteps pattered on the concrete as she passed me and I aimed the pistol blindly. Pain leapt through me where the blade on the trigger bit my skin, not much but enough to give me some power to fire. The pistol let loose a buzzing pulse in a wild trajectory and I was rewarded with a snatch of a scream that ended with a heavy thump as she fell to the floor.
I took a few moments to drag myself away from the gas, wiping my streaming eyes and coughing it up. Finally it began to clear, helped by the breeze from the broken windows, and I could see her. She was stretched out in an ungainly pile, face-down in a puddle. Before I did anything else I cuffed her. She’d given me too much trouble already; I wasn’t taking the chance of her escaping now, or maybe pulling something else out of her bag of tricks. I rolled her out of the puddle, saw to my bleeding thumb with a quick bandage from the stash in my coat, and had a look around as she came to.
It was, quite simply, a shithole. Walls crumbling where they hadn’t been strengthened against the ravages of prolonged synth contact. No window intact. No direct light, not ever, not down this far, yet no Glow tubes to light the room. No nothing really, except that mattress and the oil lamp, something only the poorest of the poor ever used, because of the rancid smell. Even the people who lived in Boundary didn’t live in this sort of place, unless they were seriously desperate. The rats weren’t keen either, which was its only plus.
I had to wonder why she thought this was preferable to living with her very well-off parents, albeit an arrogant bully of a father, and a mother sneaky where he was blunt. Another three months, her sixteenth nameday, and she could have left them to themselves.
They were made for each other. He’d been a big man, fifty perhaps, had once been muscular by the looks but running a little to fat. Two streaks of grey sliced through his black hair like arrows and he had a way of walking as though he owned anywhere he was – or, perhaps, anyone. He’d given me the creeps, especially as there had been something so oddly familiar about him. Not the face as such – bland in a fleshy kind of way – but the way he held himself, the gestures of his hands. It had brought back long-buried memories, but I’d shrugged off that creepiness, told myself I was imagining the familiarity, when I’d seen how much he was willing to pay. I’ll forget a lot for that much cash.
As he’d shouted and railed, threatening to have my licence withdrawn if I should even dare to think about refusing the job, his wife had winked and flirted and hinted at other methods of payment. She was perhaps ten years younger than him, carefully trim to the point of being haggard, with a shrewish mouth and watchful eyes. I’d been tempted to refuse them, just to see what would happen, but the money was good and I preferred the runaways to the bounties. They were easier to find, less likely to try to kill me, and I could pretend I was doing something towards setting the world right rather than souring my underdeveloped conscience by condemning some small-time fraudster or petty thief to twenty years or, worse, a one way trip to the ’Pit.
Well, runaways had been easier, until this one.
She groaned as she came back to herself and I stopped looking in the tatty cloth bag that probably held all her possessions. There was little enough in there, except for a large stack of money. I was a good boy for once, and kept my fingers away from shiny temptation. Daddy probably knew how much she had, down to the last copper penny.
“Come on, Lise, time to stop playing house and go home. For some reason your parents are looking forward to seeing you.”
I hauled her up to her feet, not as gently as I could have; the wired door could have caused me a lot of pain, or worse, and she’d burned a hole in my best coat. She obviously hadn’t been thinking clearly, didn’t know I was a mage or didn’t know that pain is a very good source of power for magic. Not many people do, because there aren’t supposed to be any pain-mages any more, not since the Ministry took over. My pistol isn’t the only possession of mine that is ever-so-slightly-illegal.
She wasn’t very steady but I grabbed her bag and half pulled, half carried her back to the carriage. On the way she regained the use of her voice and I was treated to a stream of language I was sure a girl of her age and privileged background shouldn’t know. By the time we reached the carriage and I had the door open ready to throw her in, she was kicking and biting and doing everything in her power to get me to let go. I was tempted once or twice to dump her as hard as I could on the floor, or maybe use the pistol on her again, but I held on to myself with all the restraint I could muster. Her screeches brought a gaggle of spectators to see us off, and I had a reputation to keep clean. In public anyway.
I dumped her in the back of the carriage, behind the metal grille I’d had installed for just this sort of thing. She tried to bite my hand when I threw in her bag and slammed the door in her face. I suppressed a smile as she shrieked with rage, and used my spare juice for a little more magic. If you know what you’re about you can store it, for a while anyway. It didn’t take much to mould my face into an approximation of her father’s – one of my talents, my Minor, to change the way I look. Not for long, or very much, which makes it fairly useless most of the time, but handy for getting a rise out of people when I’m feeling, shall we say, less than well disposed towards them?
She spat through the grille. “You bloody bastard!”
“Technically, no. But I can understand why you might think so.” I wiped the spit off my cheek and her father’s face off mine. Moulding my features like that always gave me a banging headache, and I soon regretted using it to satisfy my little urge for revenge.
I fiddled with the valves and flicked the glass vial with the Glow in it. Should be enough left to get her home, and me home after without going to the expense of getting another. That wouldn’t stop me charging her father for a new vial. I started up the engine with a yank on the frayed cord, wincing at the grind of metal as the gears mashed. I’d never quite got the hang of carriages, or getting them started anyway.
The Glow doesn’t work as well as the synth did, not on carriage engines. The synth had been engineered for this sort of thing, brewed up in an alchemist’s tubes to power the city, the factories, carriages, everything. Cheap and easy to make. A glorious achievement for Mahala and the Ministry which ran Alchemical Research along with everything else. Also a handy way to get rid of the mages who’d powered everything before, and had thus had way too much power for the Ministry’s liking. Shame synth turned out to poison people too. Glow was the replacement: clean, just as cheap and not given to killing anyone. They said.
The newer carriages managed the switch from synth to Glow better of course, but this one was old when they stopped the synth, and the conversion from one fuel to another had been a rush job. It made for a clunky ride, not helped by the fact I was too stingy to sort out the springs in the suspension; the upholstery, which had long since got ripped out in the back there; and the general dents, gouges and what-not from unhappy passengers. Not much of a ride, my carriage, but at least there was a ride. I took us out into the choking flow of rattling, creaking traffic that surged through Boundary and on towards the more exalted areas where her parents lived.
“Why are you taking me back?” She’d settled down into a morose, accepting huddle.
“Because I was paid to.” I thought about the electrified doorway. “Not for fun, I can assure you.”
“I’ll pay you,” she said, and I wasn’t surprised. It was a usual tactic.
I shook my head. “They’re paying me more than a young girl with no income could afford to match.”
“I’m shocked they even noticed I wasn’t there.” Her voice was quiet, suddenly sullen. All the fight had gone out of her. It usually did when they realised it was a lost cause, but the look on her face as I glanced backwards before I overtook a lumbering beer wagon made me pause in my standard responses. There was a panicked look to her, a thoughtful desperation behind her eyes. She turned away, maybe angry that she’d been caught feeling something.
“Your father was very concerned,” I managed to lie; though I was pretty sure it was the fact that he wanted to avoid any gossip or scandal that had prompted his concern. I’d half expected him to say, “What will the neighbours think?”, though he’d fallen just short of that.
“Concerned he won’t have anyone to blame now,” Lise said. “Concerned he’s lost his personal punchbag and scapegoat. Concerned he’s lost the money he paid to you.”
It took a tricky bit of manoeuvring to get us on to the road through the slaughterhouse district, which these days had nothing much to slaughter, and on to the ramp that led up to No-Hope and beyond, past the thundering factories of Trade, up to where the sun actually shone on people, to Heights and Clouds and beyond. The slaughterhouse was almost empty of any animals, and full of people making use of the space anyway. You could no longer tell where you were from the waft of blood and the stench of the tannery’s main consumable as you headed down Pigeon Shit Lane. Nothing much to slaughter meant nothing much to tan either.
Once we turned the corner on to the Spine, the twisting road that led from the rarefied heights of Top of the World right down to the sunless depths of Boundary, adverts shrieked from every shop, the little blinking Glow lights that powered them shining red and yellow against the planking. We got caught up in a snarl of wagons, carriages and walkers so I was pushed to find a way through. I managed by not caring about scraping the shit out of my carriage – it was too screwed to worry about, with every last scrap of decorative brass rubbed or gouged off years ago. Other people did care, and when they saw I wouldn’t give way they usually made a hasty swerve to save their paintwork and the little brass icons of the Goddess, saints and martyrs that were so in fashion in these days. I took particular pleasure in knocking them off.
Glancing in the mirror, I saw what should have been obvious from the start. The fading yellow bruise, a sallower counterpoint to her dusky skin, all along the whole of the left side of her face, half covered by her dark swing of hair. She fiddled with her sleeves, ensuring they were pulled well down over her wrists, making me wonder what could be worse to see under the cloth than was apparent on her face. “Your mother?”
She laughed, a short snatch of cynical wretchedness. “She wouldn’t notice if the world ended, as long as she could keep finding new boy toys to play with. She doesn’t notice half the things he does, or if she does she doesn’t care.”
Somehow that didn’t surprise me. These days, not much does. I miss it sometimes. “So, just wait three months, till you’re sixteen, and then go. There won’t be a damn thing they can do.”
“I won’t last that long. It was only luck that I managed to get away this time. He can make me stay, if he doesn’t finish me off by then. There’s a lot he can do. He’s in the Ministry. If I don’t stay, I’ll end up in the ’Pit, dead first or not.”
That made me suppress a shudder. The Ministry were sticklers for appearances, that everything should be seen to be perfect. They ran the guards, were experts in making people disappear, usually sending their corpses to the ’Pit to save their precious crime statistics, or so rumour had it. It would never be common knowledge: they ran the news-sheets too and guarded that privilege jealously. The Ministry ran everything, and had done since well before I was born, though Dendal says they didn’t used to be as paranoid. That had started around the same time as the synthtox, when they began slowly and subtly drawing the strings ever tighter round us, till now you hardly dared breathe without permission.
I wasn’t surprised that my background check into her father hadn’t turned this Ministry connection up. It was standard practice among Ministry men to hide who they were, even when someone probed as thoroughly as I did. Secrecy was almost like a second religion for them.
I should take her home. My personal motto runs: Mine is not to do and die, mine is to find the warm body and take the money. Motto number two is: Don’t mess with the Ministry, it’s bad for your health.
We all have our off-days.
Maybe it was the soft pinging noise inside my head – Dendal trying to get hold of me. Maybe it was the name that accompanied the pinging, one I never wanted to hear again. Or maybe I have a rebellious streak a mile wide. Never fails to get me into trouble. I swung the carriage round with a crunch of gears and headed back down the ramp, making a dray almost crash into the back of me in a welter of swearing and skid marks. We headed for some of the less salubrious addresses, like mine. I liked the lower-rent places; it meant I could save more money for when I got out of this trade. Plus, people in those areas tended to mind their own business, if they liked their ears where they were. I wasn’t about to lose the cash for this job, but, contrary to popular opinion, I’m not completely heartless – provided it doesn’t cost me anything.
I glanced in the mirror again; Lise’s eyes were wide and wet with surprise. I coaxed the Glow to churn faster, skittering the carriage round corners, turning always downwards, towards the workshop of the little man who had made my pulse pistol. Dwarf ran a business making outlandish, and ever-so-slightly-illegal, instruments for a hefty price. He could use an alchemy-student apprentice with a talent for booby traps. I slowed the carriage to a crawl as we passed his workshop. I couldn’t afford to give up the cash for this job, and I really didn’t want to piss off her Ministry dad by not taking her back, but I could make sure she had somewhere safe to run to next time.
“I’ve got no choice but to take you home. I don’t mess with the Ministry, they don’t break my door down and drag me off to the ’Pit. But a girl with your talents should be able to blow a damn big hole in her father’s house to escape, right?”
She looked thoughtful, and I detected a hint of deviousness about the quick smile. Good – she was going to need it, but I reckoned she had the brains to figure it out.
“Next time you run away,” I said. “Come here.”
By the time I reached the shabby little rooms in No-Hope that Dendal laughably called his offices, it was mid-afternoon. The brief minutes when real, actual daylight shone through the windows were long gone, and the tatty signs proclaiming our business looked forlorn in the almost perpetual half-light of dim Glow globes that had seen better days. Dendal’s sign said MESSAGES SENT IN MAHALA, 6M. MESSAGES FURTHER AFIELD, 6M + 1M PER MILE. OTHER SERVICES ON REQUEST. He’d left out the part about magical services only after a long and detailed argument. Mainly about how I didn’t want to be arrested for being a mage. It’s the only argument I’ve ever won against him. My sign said simply, PEOPLE FOUND, REASONABLE DAILY RATES, DISCRETION GUARANTEED. Both the signs were rather incongruous, as Dendal had never got round to replacing the bright red flashing sign over the door that stated brazenly, MA’S KNOCKING SHOP, CHEAP BUT CHEERFUL. We still got the occasional confused customer.
Still, in my rather shady line of work, an address to work from got you out of hired-thug territory and into the licensed-bounty-hunter area. There isn’t much difference, I’ll grant, except you tend not to get arrested so much in the second category. Being arrested was a somewhat permanent position in this city. Basically, it often meant you were dead. I didn’t want to be dead. I still don’t.
Dendal was happily absorbed in his work, surrounded by candles of every size and colour. Not to mention a few shapes that would make an acolyte blush. If he’d used his magic he could have lit the room up brighter than noon at Top of the World, that rarefied place at the pinnacle of the city that soaked up sunlight and blocked it for us lesser mortals. Unfortunately for him, and me, our magic wasn’t something you spent lightly. Unless you were kinky that way. Instead, he was busy writing, probably a missive for someone who’d not learned their letters, which was most people down here. That’s how he earns most of his cash. The magic is a sideline, and one we have to be both discreet and careful about using.
I handed the pay-purse to our secretary, Lastri, and considered asking her to make me some tea, but changed my mind. Lastri always answered the request with a look that seemed to intimate she’d rather stab me.
She raised a cool, dark eyebrow my way and the corner of her mouth slid up in that superior smile that always made me wonder why Dendal kept her on. She must be one of the few attractive women I’ve met that I’ve never tried to talk into bed. She’d eat me alive and spit out the bones to use as toothpicks.
“You have a message,” she said with a pleased purr that I didn’t like one little bit. “Several, actually.”
I waited for her to carry on, but she pinched her lips together and wrinkled her nose. Not out of reluctance to share bad news, of that I was sure. Lastri had never quite approved of me. I felt a need to twist her a bit, make her say it when she so obviously wanted to string it out and make me squirm. “If you’d care to share?”
“Message number one is from Val.” Ah, yes, the delectable but not exactly bright Val. Nice line in massages, great pair of legs and tonight’s lucky lady. I had the whole thing planned, the food specially smuggled in from the takeaway down the road, the wine that was stronger than it appeared, even had a scented candle I’d pilfered from Dendal’s collection. Not that I’d need those things, but you had to make it look right.
“It reads, ‘Screw you’.”
Ah. Well, not entirely unexpected. At least there was still Nirma—
“Message number two is from Nirmala.” Lastri was trying hard not to grin by now. “It also reads, ‘Screw you’.”
Sela wouldn’t let me down. Long-term girlfriend, for me that is: must be at least two weeks. Only Lastri looked insufferably smug. She calls me the Kiss of Death, and I am that to any fledgling relationship. Any hint of it taking wing, I kill it. Not intentionally, not even consciously, but I manage it just the same. My trouble isn’t that I dislike women or enjoy messing them around. It’s just I like them all, and the chance to flirt is one I can never pass up. Except with Lastri. I’m not irretrievably stupid or suicidal. “Message number three?”
“Message from Sela reads, ‘Screw you sideways’. The PS reads, ‘Hope you like how we decorated your rooms. I’m sure you’ll like the abstract art. Blobs of red paint are very in this season, but may clash with the curtains’. Seems like your diary is suddenly free, Rojan.” Lastri was openly grinning now.
“Anything else?” I kept myself as still as I could, given the circumstances. One hint of weakness and Lastri would never let me forget it. Besides, no point dwelling on it. Only I would, if I didn’t do something to take my mind off them. All of them. How the fuck did they find out about each other? It didn’t matter. What mattered was that my rooms were splattered in paint and lonely time stretched ahead with little to fill it but work. I was going to miss them. All of them.
I threw myself into my shabby chair behind the desk with no two legs the same length and a complicated system of books and pieces of folded paper trying to keep it level. I’d long since come to the secret conclusion that the desk was alive. I’d get it level, go home, come in the next day and it would be more uneven than ever. We’d come to an uneasy truce, me and desk. I stopped trying to make it flatter than a flatbread, and desk made sure it wasn’t so tilted that my cup slid off when I wasn’t looking. I’d taken to taping my pens to the surface, none the less.
I reached into one of the drawers, gingerly: we had yet to come to a truce about the springs that made the drawers snap back shut on unsuspecting fingers. My hand darted in, grabbed the bandage and was out again before desk knew what I was about. A small but satisfying victory.
I laid my right hand on the desk, palm up, and undid the hasty bandage from earlier. My finger throbbed with the release of pressure and a runnel of blood oozed out. Luckily, I was used to this sort of thing. It still hurt though. I used the old bandage to clean the wound up as much as I could and got a dollop of the thick green salve that Dendal swore by poised and ready. This was going to sting something chronic. You could etch steel with that salve, I was sure.
“Told you, shouldn’t use the pistol.”
Dendal’s papery voice startled me and the salve dropped from my fingers and splatted on to the floor.
“Namrat’s bloody balls, Dendal, you almost gave me an apoplexy.”
He grinned at me in an absent-minded way, his thin, grey hair flying about him haphazardly. A spare sort of figure, quite a bit older than me, though I’ve no idea how much. He’d just always been around. He had thin, fleshless cheeks, a shy smile that could transform his face into a kindly grandfather’s, and a sort of air that he should be meditating, or was. His thoughts were probably a thousand miles away, playing with fairies. He wasn’t always very here, if you see what I mean. Too obsessed with his work. Lastri made sure he ate occasionally and didn’t fall out of the window thinking it was the door or something. But Dendal wasn’t just another absent-minded idiot with fly-away hair. When he managed to get his head out of his books he was sharper than the blade on my pistol and shrewder than ten rich traders. When he spoke, I listened. Well, mostly.
“Pistol’s clumsy for someone like you, Rojan.”
I looked up sharply. It wasn’t often he could recall my name. “No, it’s a pretty efficient way of producing pain. I promise you that.”
Dendal hummed a tune under his breath and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. My thumb was forgotten as his eyes detached from the now. He linked his hands together and twisted, bringing a great crack from his hand and a breathless cry. Shit, I hated it when he did that.
His eyes flew wide and he began to babble, nonsense things at first, gradually becoming more coherent. One of his fingers stuck out at an odd angle. Dislocated. Double shit.
Lastri stood behind him, her usually bland face looking worried now as she mouthed something over his shoulder. Something about Dendal trying to contact me all morning. That explained the pinging noise in the carriage – I’d been too distracted by Lise at that point to answer.
The quality of Dendal’s voice changed, became deeper, younger. A voice I knew and never wanted to hear again, channelled through Dendal, who would take any pain for his magic, to fulfil his gift and communicate.
“Rojan, at last!” Perak’s voice was rasping and weak and I wondered what trouble I’d have to get him out of now. We hadn’t spoken in almost eight years, and that was how I liked it.
“Perak.” I tried to keep my voice steady as I swore in my head. My brother was trouble, always had been, and if I got involved I knew the trouble would end up being all mine while he waltzed off into another daydream, unaffected. He didn’t have his head in the sand about life; it was so far down he could see bedrock.
“Rojan, you have to come.” There was that rasping again, and a bubbling sound in his voice. He spoke so low I could barely hear him, but the panic was obvious as he rambled. He’d always seemed to float through life, never seeing or hearing any dangers, and this fear seemed so unlike him I sat up and really listened.
“I’m in the Sacred Goddess Hospital. They took her. They shot us and took her. You have to come, you have to help find her. That’s what you do, isn’t it? Find people? Please, you have to come.” He trailed off and it was only then that I realised he was crying.
My teeth became islands in a mouth as dry as desert. “Find who?”
“Elsa’s dead,” he said, as though I hadn’t spoken. “They killed my wife, they almost killed me, and they took my daughter. You’ll come, won’t you?”
I didn’t hesitate. He’d caused me enough grief to last a lifetime while he sailed through every calamity without scratch or punishment, left all of it for me, but I couldn’t leave him with this. I hadn’t even known he was married, never mind a father. Yet now his wife was dead and his daughter was missing. The years, and with them the animosity, rolled away. No matter how much I hated it, I was always going to be big brother. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Dendal staggered to a chair and began the painful business of putting his finger back. At least he’d have enough power from that for a spell or two later, storing the pain, the power, in his muscles for a time until it leaked slowly away. One advantage of the dislocation over the cut, as he often told me, at infinite and tedious length. Pain dislocating and pain putting it back. Twice the pain, twice the power. Which is all very well, but I’d rather have as little pain as possible.
Seeing Perak again was going to be a different sort of painful. On my own personal scale of bad days, this was shaping up to be at least an 8.4.
The Sacred Goddess Hospital was one of the plusher ones, up above Trade, and it took me most of the rest of the afternoon to negotiate my way up the ramp. Mahala’s Spine they call it, the link between each layer from the depths of Boundary to the pinnacle of Top of the World. By the time I reached the right level, the sun was setting behind a rack of rainclouds. I stopped the wheezing carriage and watched for a while. It wasn’t often I got up high enough to see the sun directly, normally relying on second- or third-hand light bounced from mirrors or seeping dimly through light-wells.
From here, I could see right out over one side of Trade, the huge, hulking factories that seemed to permanently shake the feet as they pounded out Mahala’s lifeblood – the technology we invented and made so well. Behind them sat warehouses, black and squat and menacing. No buildings above the factories or warehouses – they’d have been shaken to pieces – so I could see, far off and grey, the tops of the mountains that surrounded the city, that gave us our strength, and our weakness, the reason we built up rather than out. The reason we had to trade for food, because we had so little land left to farm.
Mahala was built to make you look up, and then up again. The other side of Trade, the merchant houses, shops, arcades, markets, showrooms and laboratories were all covered by more buildings, so that all I could make out in the lowering light were facings, flashing red Glow lights shouting out wares, and black chasms between. Walkways clung to them like spider’s webs, as if they were spiders trying to spin a city. Above lay Heights, on graceful spires and spindles, then Clouds, giant platforms that I would never see except from underneath, full of gardens and rarer wonders, or so I’d heard.
Above everything, on a spire so thin it seemed it must break, with only the gossamer strand of the Spine reaching its dais, sat Top of the World. Heart of the Ministry, home of the Archdeacon, far off and impossible to reach. All the better to look down on us, mere mortals, unworthy of divine notice, or sun, at least once you got down past Trade. I supposed you couldn’t see us from up there; Under-Trade, or the area they called the Buzz, was where rich men might come if they were feeling adventurous, but not too grubby. Down further into the murky depths where the sun was a rumour, buildings squashed together as though for comfort, was the area once called Hope City, now known as No-Hope Shitty, and, at the bottom, Boundary. The city used to go further, before the synth.
Ah yes. Synth. Hailed as the great invention to save mankind from pain-mages and from the city’s reliance on the power they had, the way they could run all the machines in Trade, make us the city that everyone looked to. Only magic had its side effects: odd splurges that got out of control, weird fogs that choked and fumed; the pain-mages either falling into the black or going mad and blowing up portions of the city, or each other, on a fairly regular basis as the workload increased and the number of mages didn’t, or not very fast. So when the Ministry discovered synth, they knew they could topple the King – a mage himself, with a habit of defending every mage’s action even when they were blowing each other and the non-magical populace up. With a new power source behind them, the Ministry had banned us, for “the good of the city”, introduced synth to run the machines, and all had been well. The Glorious Revolution had saved the city and of course, as the instigators, the Ministry had become the new government. Fair, even-handed – or they were to start with. Never stays like that, does it? But most importantly, they were not magical. The air cleared, no one blew anyone else up except the odd alchemist. All the same, it had taken them years to realise synth was killing people.
No one knew of the toxic properties of synth to start with, and it was only when a new and virulent form of disease had swept over the plains north of Mahala, and then raced through the lower layers of the city, before it ate its way through most of the rest of the continent, that they’d realised something was amiss. The synthtox. It seeped into every part of you, from the rain, the water you drank, the food you ate. In itself it wasn’t harmful, but it did something to the body, made it retain all the toxins that should have been flushed out, until the system could take no more and the tox took over. It was a long, painful death, as I could attest. Watching my mother die of it over a period of ten years was the single most gruesome experience of my life.
We couldn’t go back to pain magic: all the mages had either left, been sent to the ’Pit or been driven into hiding by the Ministry. The King they’d beheaded – the surest way to kill a pain-mage, because it’s so quick – and shoved his body off the edge of his own palace in Top of the World and left him for the rats. Without him and his absolute authority to protect them, and with the sight of his headless body plunging a hundred levels or more imprinted in their minds, the mages had scattered.
Even if the Ministry hadn’t got rid of all the mages, synth had been more powerful. Mahala had grown so much on the extra trade in the only way it could – up – that even if we’d had all the mages back they wouldn’t have been able to power a tenth of the new machines. So the powers-that-be had panicked, and pulled together. Synth had been banned and the alchemists and priests had come up with a new fuel, Glow, one shrouded in mystery, not as powerful as synth but at least clean. Of course that’s what they’d said about synth, but people would have believed anything at that point and maybe it was even true. No one has ever been known to die from Glow, but it’s early days yet.
The lower places were the worst-infected by the synth, where the tainted water pooled. They’d cleared them out, sealed them off in Namrat’s Armpit, cleaned the remaining water supplies Upside. Over the course of the next few years the synth levels had dropped dramatically, though those who had it in their bodies already couldn’t get rid of it, and so they still died. Fewer each year, until now, almost fifteen years later, it was becoming a rarity except far down in Boundary.
If it was as bad as this, why didn’t I leave? Why didn’t we all? I could see those mountains, grey, mythical shapes. I knew they existed. Probably. I knew there had to be an Outside. I had yet to meet anyone who’d been there. For all any of us knew, it could be worse. According to the news-sheets it didn’t even exist, not really, a story the Ministry stuck to despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Even if I’d been tempted, two very real things kept me here. One, getting Outside would take more money than I could blag in a lifetime. Oh, things went out, machines, inventions, all the little things that kept us in crappy vegetarian mush. People didn’t, though. Maybe the occasional Special, the élite Ministry guards who escorted the merchandise out. But anyone else? If you weren’t Ministry, forget it.
The general feeling Under-Trade was either that, given the lack of people who’d actually seen it, it was mythical, or you’d die trying to get out. Neither appealed. Besides, reason number two: Dendal. I owed the old bastard – quite a lot, and not money. Lastri would look after him if I went but… but I’ve abandoned a lot of people in my life. I just can’t quite see myself abandoning Dendal. Not least because, if he wanted, I’d be a smear of blood on his carpet, the knowledge of which sharpens the mind wonderfully. Only idiots tried to get Outside, that was the crux of it, and they died, or got sent to the ’Pit. I kept telling myself that, and never failed to stop to look at the pale ghosts of mountains when I got the chance.
But I didn’t stop to stare at the mythical Outside and the not-so-mythical but highly pungent Inside for long, because the view always left a bad taste in my mouth.
The Sacred Goddess Hospital was a great grey building, squashed between the outer boundary of Trade that supported its base and the more graceful area of Heights above.
I left the carriage and negotiated the clanking iron walkway that led out over the gap. I’ve said I prefer the lower-rent districts because it saves me money. It also saves my head. With one hand firmly on the handrail, I stepped out, eyes fixed ahead. Just keep the hospital in view. Don’t look down. You’d think I’d be used to it after a lifetime in this city, but I’ve seen too many fallers who’ve missed the nets and bounced their way down twenty or thirty levels. Or rather, I’ve seen what was left of them once they reached Boundary.
The walkway swung alarmingly with all the people crossing, barging and pushing to get home before the sun went, but I managed to get across without screaming like a little girl. The hospital was new, scavenged from the guts of the old building that had stood here and refaced with a newer type of steel that shone faintly in the lights of the Glow globes hung around it. I made my way towards the larger glow of open doors. The Sacred Goddess Hospital never shut.
Inside was more traditional: lots of wooden panelling, floors that squeaked under my shoes and the scent of every hospital everywhere – disinfectant, boiled cabbage and death waiting to happen.
It didn’t take long to find out that Perak was in one of the private rooms on the top floor, which made me raise my eyebrows, though not as much as the phalanx of hatchet-faced guards outside the door. They stood out like blood on a bandage with their bright red uniforms, red linen over pale body armour. Each of them had a gun at his hip, a new innovation. Mahala alchemists had used black powder for various things in our less salubrious past; the ability to use that powder to launch a piece of metal into someone’s body was relatively recent. Luckily, that meant it was also too expensive for most people, especially the sort of small-time low-lives I dealt with on a daily basis. It should also be out of the reach of guards – the Ministry had yet to equip them with guns due to the cost – and the fact that it wasn’t was unnerving.
I recognised one of them, Dench. He often gave me surreptitious tip-offs on bounties coming up in return for a small cut. He nodded almost imperceptibly to the other guards, murmured he knew who I was, and let me in.
It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim interior. The room was small but well appointed, much more so than the open wards below. Instead of bare whitewashed walls, lush hangings in muted green and gold softened the square room. The Glow globes, while dimmed, were top-notch quality; and proper fruit, not reconstituted crap, sat on the side table in enough variety to shame all but the best grocers. Perak must have done well for himself, or had powerful friends.
He was asleep, the dark hair that we’d both inherited from our father mussed and clumped with blood. He’d always taken after our mother more than I had. His skin was lighter, a creamy brown like Ma’s, his cheekbones somewhat broader than my own too-gaunt ones, the nose shorter. But that we were brothers showed in the rounding of our chins, the downward tilt to our eyes, the shape of our mouths.
A sheet covered him below the waist and blood spotted a large bandage that was wrapped tightly around one shoulder and over his chest. A doctor with a sharp, dark face leaned over him, his fingers registering Perak’s pulse.
The doctor scowled at me. “No visitors, not yet.”
I shrugged. Putting this off would be a relief, but Perak didn’t have that luxury. “I’m his brother.”
The doctor laid Perak’s arm down and regarded me critically, maybe assessing the likeness. He seemed convinced. “Hmm. Well, when he wakes up again you’ve got two minutes. We managed to get one bullet out. The other’s still in his chest somewhere.” He shook his head so his hair flopped over his forehead. Suddenly he lost his arrogance and looked young and tired and pissed off. “This is only the third bullet case I’ve ever seen. The others were minor, but the potential for damage – the wounds are nothing like knife or sword wounds and we’re still learning. That bullet might be fine, or it might kill him, and I haven’t a clue which it will be. Whoever invented guns, I just hope Namrat takes the guy’s soul and balls when he dies.”
The doctor made for the door, trailing weariness in the slump of his shoulders. He turned at the doorway with an afterthought. “I haven’t told him everything about his wife. He just knows she’s dead. Perak said you find people for a living and you’re going to find his daughter. If you think anything about the mother’s death would help, come and find me after. Ask for Doctor Whelar.”
The room was deathly quiet when he left, with only the bubble of Perak’s breath to break the silence. I went over his words earlier, the way he’d sounded as though tears were choking every word. I’d never known Perak cry before. I’d rarely seen him any other way than in his own head, grinning at what went on there and occasionally trying it out in the real world, generally with disastrous consequences.
Of course the consequences had always been left for me to deal with, like that time he’d mixed together all the powders, liquids, bits of soap, paint and scraps of wood he could find with a thimbleful of black powder he’d found somewhere, and lit the resulting mess. Right near the guard’s station. It was a clear area, he said, like that was an obvious place for an experiment. Well, yes, it was clear because no one went close if they could avoid it, so as not to get arrested for being alive. Which at least meant no one got hurt when it all exploded, but the station had a large hole in its side and the guards were seriously pissed off. Who did they chase? Oh yeah, me. Almost caught me too. I suppose it was inevitable that Perak would end up in Alchemy Research.
Still, he’d never meant any harm, which was part of the reason it rankled so much. Now real life had finally caught up with him.
I was just beginning to doze myself when Perak woke up. He struggled to sit and I helped him get settled on some pillows and tried not to see the way his eyes tracked me. When I sat back, he couldn’t hold it in any more. Tears choked him until I thought he’d open up his wound with the wrenching sobs. Or maybe I just worried about that to take my mind off the misery that seeped into me. I was reminded just how much I loved him, even if he had almost got me thrown in jail at least four times, more than one of which would have meant a one-way trip to the ’Pit. I remembered what I’d made myself forget when I’d cut myself off from him: his generous heart, a complete faith that everything would work out; one I could never share. That faith was stretched to its limit now.
“She’s only six,” he kept saying. He couldn’t seem to say anything else without it coming back to that. “Only six.”
I didn’t know what I could say to him that would help. In the end there was only one thing I could do, the reason he had called me. “What happened? And since when have you been married?”
He managed to pull his sobs back into him, and gave me a ghost of his old smile. “Not long after I saw you last, when you—” He didn’t need to finish that sentence.
The last time I’d seen him had been just after our mother’s funeral, when it had seemed that I was going to be the only one responsible for him. As I’d been for so long growing up, since our father disappeared not long after Ma got sick, before we knew for sure what it was, that it would kill her. I was ten and all I really remembered of my father was his dark hair, his bitterness and his voice. I remembered the timbre of that voice, the way the rhythm of it seeped into your head and conjured pictures there. It stayed with me long after his face had become a blur, or I’d learned to hate him for leaving us. Leaving me. I’d been responsible for both Perak and Ma since then and when she died I’d wanted to be free of it, of responsibility, of people depending on me.
After the funeral, Perak and I had had words, you might say, although the words were all mine. I’d pretty much told him the only reason I’d put up with him that long was for Ma’s sake. I hadn’t meant it; her death had still been too raw then, and all the bitterness and despair of her long, slow decline had come spilling out in a black torrent of abuse. So I’d just spewed it all over him, watching the acid in my voice dissolve his smile till all I could see was a desperate, shocked hurt. I’d stopped looking at him so I couldn’t see that hurt, but I couldn’t stop the bile. I turned to face the wall and my words fell out of my mouth without thought. When I turned back he’d gone and I hadn’t seen him since. If I was truthful, it was shame that had kept me from getting back in touch.
“So what happened?” I asked.
He shrugged as well as he could, his mouth dragging down into a grimace of pain. “We went out, for lunch. Left Amarie with a sitter, young girl from Under.”
“Under where? Where are you living?”
“Clouds,” he said, and I was frankly astonished. How had my daydreaming little brother managed to get a place in the rarefied air of Clouds? It seemed he almost read my mind. “I made a very lucrative discovery. They gave me a job in Alchemy Research.”
Now I was speechless, and he smiled again at the look on my face. Alchemy Research was the single largest, and richest, arm of the Ministry, ever since the disaster with synth when the ’Pit had been sealed off, years ago. Given the way our mother had died, and the long-hidden alchemical poisoning that had caused it, it was a subject close to both our hearts.
“You were right, what you said about me,” he said. “Took me a while to see it, but you were right. So I got my act together. Got myself a good job, a lovely wife, and Amarie. She was the pinnacle of everything I had.” He blinked back fresh tears. “We’d used this sitter before, nice young girl, Amarie liked her. We came home early – Elsa wasn’t feeling so well – and when we got in…”
“And when you got in, what?” I had to prompt him; he was lost in his thoughts again.
He blinked back to reality. “We must have disturbed something, someone. The sitter was dead on the living-room floor. Elsa screamed and ran for Amarie’s room. I was frozen, just looking down at the body. There – there was blood everywhere. I couldn’t believe it. Then there were shots from the bedroom. That’s irony, isn’t it? I worked out how to get black powder to launch bullets, I invented the concept of the gun and then – I ran in but Elsa was already dead. Amarie was there with two men, but she looked glazed, like they’d drugged her maybe. She tried to say something, but it was all slurred and—” He broke off again, and this time he couldn’t stop the tears.
“And that’s when they shot you and took her,” I said, when it was clear talking was too difficult for him. He nodded.
This wasn’t like any case I’d had before; I found runaways and bounty-hunted small-time thieves and embezzlers on the run, not kidnappers or anything that might turn too violent. I value my own arse too much and the responsibility of a life depending on me gives me the jitters. But the look on his face, and shame for the way I’d treated him, forced me to say what I did.
“I’ll find her for you, if the guards don’t first. You concentrate on getting well; when you are, I’ll have her here.” He looked so pathetically grateful that I had to turn away for a moment. “You have a picture?”
He nodded towards the locker by the side of his bed and I took out the slim wallet, noticing it was real leather, a rarity these days that made this wallet worth about as much as everything I owned. First thing I saw in there was a card giving his rank at Alchemy Research.
“You’re a cardinal?” Cardinals were one step down from the Archdeacon, who ran everything like the spider at the centre of the web. The Mouth of the Goddess, who spoke her words to us for her. Supposedly. That was how he kept control, anyway. He spoke for the Goddess and everyone else jumped to obey, first the cardinals, who passed on orders to the bishops and down through the ranks. Everyone jumped, excepting maybe the Specials, but they swore to the Goddess herself, not the Archdeacon, so they had some leeway there. I couldn’t remember the last time they’d used it – they were usually pretty forward about doing the Archdeacon’s bidding.
Perak’s smile was small, lonely and rather shame-faced. “An honorific one only, because I’m head of research. I’ve never even been to Top of the World, and I only met the Archdeacon once, when I got the promotion. Too busy with my work.”
“What’s he like?” Not a pertinent question perhaps, but the Archdeacon ran my life whether I wanted him to or not.
“What? Oh. Ordinary. Just… just like anyone else really. Nothing memorable about him. He shook my hand, gave me a funny look like he recognised me but couldn’t remember where from, said well done and then he was gone. I couldn’t pick him out in a crowd.”
Same old daydreaming Perak – he met the man in charge of the city, the man who loomed large in every aspect of Mahala, and couldn’t remember him bar he was ordinary. I went back to the wallet.
Behind the Alchemy Research card was a tatty and much-thumbed picture painted in oils, nicely done. I could imagine Perak showing it at every opportunity, to anyone who asked and anyone who didn’t.
The thin scrap of paper showed a vibrantly pretty girl of about five, fair hair blowing under a pretend tiara and eyes shining as she waved and said, “Daddy, Daddy, look, I’m a princess!” A ten-second loop, a hideously expensive piece of tech and just the sort of thing a proud father would carry. A niece I had never met because of my own stubbornness. There was a picture of his wife there too, and I could see that Amarie took after her, the delicate prettiness, the intelligent eyes, the bright blonde hair.
“What did the men look like?”
He shrugged, and I had to stop myself asking why he couldn’t pay attention to what was under his nose – it was obvious he’d thought of no one but his daughter.
“One tall and thin, scarred face – a cut across one eye,” he managed eventually. “The other was younger, but they looked similar, brothers maybe. They were dressed oddly – I don’t know, but not like I’ve seen anyone else dress. Lots of leather. I don’t remember anything else.”
Leather, which only the rich could afford, and even then only in small pieces. There weren’t enough animals left to warrant killing them for their skin, though some got out when the few fattened ones were slaughtered for their equally expensive meat. Sometimes we got some leather in Trade, but its very rarity made it dearer than gold. Most of the farm animals had died of the tox and now it was more efficient to grow crops, which were more resistant to synth.
“You really think you can find her?” Perak asked, and for the first time he let a desperate, pleading hope into his voice.
“I’m sure I can,” I lied. What else could I say?
At least there would be no angry girlfriends, or rather exgirlfriends, waiting to launch another paint broadside.
It wasn’t a whole lot of comfort, if I’m honest.
Perak’s eyes were drooping and red-rimmed. I left him with a solemn promise to find Amarie and he promised he would sleep. I wasn’t so sure either promise would be kept any time soon.
I slid out of the door and blinked at the brighter lights of the corridor. The guards either side of the doorway made me feel both that Perak was safer, and more in danger. Ministry paid the guards’ wages. Perak, my daydreaming little brother, had invented the gun – that incident at the guards’ station with the black powder now seemed prophetic – and now he’d been shot, his wife was dead and his daughter kidnapped. I caught Dench’s eye and we didn’t need to exchange words. I had to talk to him soon though, and from the worried pinch of the skin round his eyes he wanted to talk to me. He palmed me a piece of paper as I made my way past, and I took pains to hide it from the other guard.
The nurses’ workstation was a blur of activity along the corridor and I read the note as I walked. Beggar’s Roost, midnight. Dench’s favourite pub, where the women were cheap and the beer cheaper, but only just. Well, it would be rude not to go, right? Besides, it wasn’t like I’d had anything planned for that night, not now.
The nurses were efficient and scrubbed to shiny-cheeked perfection, their acolytes’ robes brilliant white and stiff with starch. One of them – the name “Lilla” was embroidered on her robe – led me along corridors, down stairs, past wards that wafted the stench of synth at me so I hurried to get away, up another set of stairs and round till I was lost. I didn’t mind too much: the nurse was pretty in a clean and clinical way and I flirted my best. Even got a promise of dinner at a later date. Nurses: clean on the outside but, in my plentiful experience, absolutely filthy in bed.
Finally, with a dimpled smile and a giggle that hinted at much naughtiness, she showed me through a door. The room I entered was, simply put, staggering. I’d expected a cramped office overflowing with charts and bits of doctorly paraphernalia with cut-away diagrams of ears and hearts and livers. Maybe a skeleton grinning at people. What I got was a full-blown laboratory.
Glassware covered every surface of one half of the room, sadly not bubbling in a mad-scientist kind of way. I kind of hoped something green and seething would emit a whiff of gas that would give me visions, but no such luck. A half-dissected pig lay across a table, but that wasn’t much of a consolation. Mainly due to the smell of shit, which made me think it might have still been alive when the good doctor started. Wait, wait. I backed up a bit.
A pig. A real live, er, dead pig. How much money did this hospital have? Pork was even more expensive than beef – pigs had suffered more than cows from the synth. And the skin: pigskin was worth more than gold – shit, more than diamonds, pound for pound. Altogether the pig was worth more than everything I owned or was ever likely to. Plus, I’d heard they tasted nice. I’d smelled bacon once, and I still dreamed of it sometimes. It smelled crispy and crunchy and a hundred, maybe a thousand times better than any of the processed slop that was all anyone from Under-Trade could usually afford to eat. And Whelar was cutting it up.
“Mr Dizon.” Whelar appeared as if out of nowhere, though in reality it seemed his desk lurked behind a display of pickled organs and animals with more than the usual number of limbs. A three-headed cat stared at me gloopily through the thick preserving fluid and I tried not to stare back. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
It took a moment to regain my composure. That pig was unnerving me. So was the cat. “I, er, oh yes. Elsa Dizon. You said if I had any questions?”
He looked me up and down. I seemed to meet his approval, because he indicated a chair next to his desk. He sat in the desk chair and swung it to and fro, his hands elaborately loose in his lap, but his lips were pinched tight. Trying to look unconcerned and failing.
“So, what do you want to know?”
“I’m not sure. What can you tell me?”
One of his fingers twitched to life and tapped out a staccato rhythm on his thigh. “Not much. She died very quickly. Two shots, as with your brother. One was directly into the heart, the other shattered her jaw. Not pretty.”
I shut my eyes briefly against the image of the delicate face in Perak’s picture shattered by a lump of metal. Not pretty indeed. “What about the bullets?”
The finger stopped its tapping for half a heartbeat before it continued. “What about them?”
“I’d like to see them, if you have them.”
Whelar’s lips pinched just a fraction more, then he relaxed and gave a curt nod. “A moment, please.”
He left and I took the opportunity to nose around. I kept away from the pig though; I didn’t like the way it grinned at me, or the smell. There wasn’t much else of interest, only instruments that I couldn’t name and which seemed designed for torture, messy stacks of paperwork and a framed letter from the Archdeacon thanking Whelar for his sterling work in medical research.
It didn’t take long for Whelar to return; I guessed he’d only gone to order a subordinate to fetch the bullets.
“They won’t be long,” he said. “Is there anything else?”
I cast a sidelong glance at the pig. A neat little hole marred the skin by its neck. “The pig – seems a rather expensive thing to just chop up in a lab.”
To my surprise he didn’t become evasive or defensive, but instead grinned like a kid on his nameday. “Ah, yes, but it’s important, you see. More important than money. Did you know that pig’s flesh is more like ours than almost any other animal? One reason they succumbed as badly as us to the synth. So, very important in my research.”
Excerpted from Fade to Black by Francis Knight Copyright © 2013 by Francis Knight. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Francis Knight was born and lives in Sussex, England. She has held a variety of jobs from being a groom in the Balearics, where she punched a policeman and got away with it, to an IT administrator.
When not living in her own head, she enjoys SF&F geekery, WWE geekery, teaching her children Monty Python quotes, and boldly going and seeking out new civilizations. Find out more about Francis Knight on her blog http://knightknoir.blogspot.com/ or on twitter @Knight_Francis.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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First person POV has become a hallmark of the Urban Fantasy genre. But this is more than urban fantasy. The author uses the term “noir” and that’s fitting. Noir needs voice, grit, and colorful characters. Add to that a government that holds its people in an iron grip, poverty, lingering seepage of a substance called Synth that was an alternate power source until they realized it was killing everybody, and the sorts of people that flourish in the dank and dirt of a city choking on it’s own populace, darkness, and fear. This is the setting alone. As for plot: Rojan is a pain mage who prefers not to resort to pain. He’s good at finding people, especially through magical means, but as that is illegal, he does his best to do it without cutting himself or dislocating a finger. (ouch) So, you know what’s ahead, right? You don’t get to be a pain mage and sit on the sidelines when your niece is kidnapped. He has to use his magic to find her, and it tells him she’s in a place she should not be. A place cut off long ago due to the Synthtox. But down there he must go. This book gets going and really rolls. Snappy pace, great characters, secrets upon secrets, I’m almost afraid of giving too much stuff away! I really recommend this if you enjoy Urban Fantasy, dark fantasy, thrillers with fantasy elements. It’s a great read.
I chose to read this book because I ran across a blurb for it online, and it just looked interesting. It was a page turner and I never stopped wanting to learn what would happen next (in fact, I put down the other books I'm reading in order to finish this one first). I enjoyed Rojan, the protagonist. He had a clear and distinctive voice and enough pathos to be intriguing but with plenty of redeeming features which came out more and more as the story unfolded. The author dribbled the information and backstory into the tale at just the right pace to create a sense of mystery without confusing me about the premise. The other two major characters felt a little more flat to me, but this was a consequence of the novel being in first person. The reader had to learn about their personalities and motives as Rojan did. I also enjoyed the setting and the world. It was fantasy, but it was not set in a standard quasi medieval or pre-industrial settings. The world in some way resembles a futuristic high tech nightmare like in Blade Runner, or even the Fifth Element (with Bruce Willis, but with no space ships or aliens). At first it seemed like the magic was going to be very subtle/peripheral in the world, and I wondered why it wasn't written as a science fiction story instead of a fantasy. But the role that magic played became much more clear as the story unfolded. Some world building purists may pick nits about people still using swords and only just recently having discovered guns/projectiles in a magiteck type setting (where magic works in lieu of electricity). But for me this was a minor concern, as it was a very atmosphere and character driven story. I thought there were possibly a couple of minor plot holes regarding the antagonist's rise within the social order and his motives for setting things up the way he had. Since I tend to be more intrigued by characters and setting (and this was a very character drive and setting driven novel) than all the nuts and bolts of plotting, for me, this was a relatively small flaw. I felt the resolution was satisfying and I look forward to reading the next installment in the series.