My Bookish Ways

EXCERPT: Fade to Black by Francis Knight

Next month, FADE TO BLACK, the debut fantasy from Francis Knight will be available from Orbit Books!

Here’s the scoop: 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.

While you wait for its release, you can read Chapter One at Orbit Books, I’ve got Chapter 2 for you below, and Bookworm Blues has Chapter 3! You can also click the book cover to the right to pre-order. Enjoy!

CHAPTER TWO

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.

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