Spec-Fic Month: An Excerpt from Starlight's Children
The following excerpt is from the second book in Darian Smith's Agents of Kalanon series, Starlight's Children. You can read our conversation with Darian Smith and James McNaughton about speculative fiction, magic systems, and the genre vs. literature divide.
Taran leaned over and studied the gravel path. The alley smelled of old urine, rotted scraps, and horse dung. Garbage was piled against the walls. In a more affluent part of the city, it would have been cleared and sanitised. Here, it merely collected, growing like moss over the brick. Foot traffic in the time since the killing had churned the stones, making the evidence difficult to see. Even taking that into account, there was less blood than there should have been. It speckled the gravel but there was no sign of pooling where the body had lain. “Hmmm. Are you sure this is where he was actually killed?”
“Yes, yes, of course. We have a witness, remember?” Magistrate Gawrick hugged himself and glanced up the alleyway for what seemed like the hundredth time. “I do wish you’d waited for my guards to attend the scene with us.”
Taran picked up a stone with a splash of red on it. He wrapped it in a handkerchief and put it in his pocket. “It’s best to see the scene as quickly as possible. Before things get disturbed too much.”
“This is a less than savoury part of the city,” the magistrate said, louder.
Taran nodded, keeping his expression mild. “Mmm. Many poor people live here.” He gestured to the other end of the alley. “My monastery brings food to an orphanage just down there. A lot of children lost parents in the war. Not everyone is paid to pass judgements, Magistrate.”
Gawrick’s eyes narrowed. “You’ve been spending too much time with your boss.”
Taran widened his eyes and spread his hands innocently. “The goddess, Ahpra?”
Taran turned away to hide his smile. “Perhaps.”
“One should always be careful who one’s mentors are.”
The smile vanished. Taran swallowed. “That’s true.”
A few steps on, the blood had sprayed up the wall, drops splashing on the collected refuse, dark red. Still less than he’d expect from a sword strike to the heart, but a better indicator of where the man whose blood it was had been attacked.
It had sprayed in an arc, like water from a wet umbrella as it lowered, but thicker, congealing as it dried, almost like a paint.
Taran heard the memory of a past mentor in his mind.
“That’s what a shallow wound looks like,” Fressin had told him the first time he’d seen such a spray of blood. The older boy had just two years on Taran in age, but his training was much further along. “You could clean it up quickly, but it won’t kill your target.”
The pig they’d cut wriggled and squealed beneath Taran’s hand, but the ropes binding its feet held strong. They were in one of the storerooms on the far edge of the compound, away from the rest of the livestock and where they were unlikely to be disturbed. “Are you sure we should be doing this? It seems cruel.”
“We’re supposed to be Children of Starlight, Taran. Harden up. Besides, I brought this pig down here especially so you can get a head start on the others this time.” Fressin pointed to the creature’s belly. “Stab it there. Deep, but don’t kill it yet. We need the heart pumping for the next examples.”
The pig squealed again and Taran, still just a boy, hesitated. The knife in his hand dripped blood down onto the hilt and over his fingers.
“Come on. You need to see how the blood pools. Don’t want to fail another class, do you?” Fressin folded his arms. “If you’re giving up, then I don’t know why I bother teaching you out of class. You can end up like your friend or worse if you want. I don’t think the Master likes you anyway.”
Taran sliced the knife downward and the pig screamed.
Magistrate Gawrick’s voice intruded on the memory, pulling Taran back to the present as the black robed man leaned down to pick up a child’s discarded shoe from beside the bloodstained refuse. “One shoe. There’s a frustrated parent somewhere.” He dropped it onto the pile and wiped his hand on his robes. “Ah, the carelessness of children. Not a worry in the world. Wouldn’t you love to go back to those days?”
Taran considered his childhood training. He pulled a flask from his pocket and took a long swig, draining it. “I can’t think of anything worse.”
“Fine.” Gawrick’s jaw tightened and he gestured to the entrance of the alley. “Well, the guards have arrived so my job here is done. Tell Sir Brannon he can interview the witness whenever he likes but that I expect this case to be finished up quickly and with a minimum of fuss since we’ve pretty much already solved it for him. You can also tell him that if he’s this desperate to find something for your team to work on, perhaps he can report to King Aldan that there’s little need for it in the first place. Good day.” He strode away, barking orders at the guards as he passed.
Taran blinked at the magistrate’s back, then shrugged. The man had done as he was asked so Taran put him out of his head and focussed on retrieving samples. Given that the blood was spread out, he thought it best to collect from multiple sources. There was always the chance that more than one person had bled here. If that were the case, test results on different samples would give different results.
He scraped flecks of dried blood from the wall and collected another of the stones from the gravel path. He looked more closely at the pile of garbage, looking for any blood that broke the spray pattern or seemed out of place.
The shoe Magistrate Gawrick had dropped lay on its side in the pile. Blood coated the sole.
“Blood and Tears,” Taran swore under his breath. Blood there meant the shoe had been in the blood while it was fresh. Either dropped or, more likely, the child who’d worn it had stepped in blood. “We might have another witness.”
Leaving the guards to keep the scene secure til Brannon was able to inspect it, he took the shoe and hurried to the end of the alley. The last door on the left was a wooden panel covered in faded red paint in a stone frame with cracked mortar. Above it was a sign that read “Lady Magda’s Orphanage” and a roughly drawn image of a child.
Taran rapped on the door.
A few moments later, it opened to reveal a tall woman with grey hair pulled back into a messy bun. She wore a green dress with colourful paint splotches around the lower part of the skirt where children had grabbed at it for her attention during a crafts session. She wore a crown of paper flowers. Behind her, the sounds of children playing spilled out into the street.
She smiled. “Brother Taran. It’s been a long time. Come in.”
Taran followed her into the house. He had no idea if Magda had ever actually held the title of Lady or whether it was an affectation of the orphanage, but the building had once been quite a grand home. Years and lack of maintenance had given it a worn air now, and the many children who lived or spent time here had hastened that wear even more. Still, it had a feeling of warmth to it. Magda did the best she could with her resources and the Alapran Third Monastery supported her with donations and food brought in by their congregation.
“There wasn’t a service this morning, so I assume you’re not here with a delivery,” Magda said.
Taran nodded. “Um…I need your help. I’m helping Sir Brannon with an investigation and I’m hoping you might have some information for me.”
She frowned. “Sir Brannon? Bloodhawk? The King’s Champion?”
“Yes.” Taran held up the shoe. “Do you know who this belongs to?”
She looked at it closely. “That looks like Shalyn’s shoe. Her father usually leaves her here during the day while he works at the cobbler’s four streets over. Her mother died in the war. You can see he made them especially for her with her initial in the stitching.” She reached closer to touch the spot, then pulled her hand back all the way to her shoulder. “Ahpra’s Tears. That’s blood, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Taran tucked the shoe into his knapsack. “Do you know where Shalyn is now?”
Magda let her hand settle on her chest. “No. I haven’t seen her or her father for two days. Do you think…has something happened?”
Taran looked away, staring instead at the threadbare pattern on the mat they stood on. Nothing in his training had covered comforting those left behind after a death. “If…um…if Sir Brannon could ask you some questions about them…” He took a breath and raised his gaze. “Do you think you could identify the father’s body if you had to?”
Magda closed her eyes. The muscles in her throat moved as she swallowed. When she spoke it was in a very small voice. “Yes. Yes, I could do that. When? I’ll need to arrange for someone to take care of the children while I’m gone.”
“In the next day or so. I’ll send word for Sir Brannon to get in touch with you.”
She nodded. Children were laughing in the next room, the sound strangely incongruous for the seriousness of the moment.
“I’ll see you later then,” Taran said. He turned and reached for the door but Magda put a hand on his shoulder.
“Bishop Naran was here last week,” she said. “He was asking questions about our guest.”
Taran’s stomach twisted as if he’d been punched in the gut. “How did he find out about her?”
“I don’t know.” Magda shrugged. “He didn’t say.”
Taran scratched at his arm and turned to look at her. “What did you tell him?”
“Nothing. But he seemed oddly interested. I thought you would want to know.”
He nodded, swallowing. “Thank you.”
“Since you’re here,” she said. “Do you want to see her?”
He took a slow breath before answering. “I suppose I should.”
“I think she misses you.”
He shook his head. “I doubt she even remembers me.”
“Shall we go and see?”
She led him up two flights of stairs and down a corridor. While old and worn, the house was clean and tidy but for the children’s toys scattered here and there. More than once Taran heard a door slam and giggling behind him as if he and Magda were unwitting participants in some giant game of hide and seek.
As they approached the end of the corridor, however, the signs of children vanished. The last part of the hallway was separated from the rest by a wooden fence that came up to his waist. Magda opened a gate in it and ushered him through.
“The older children know to stay away but we had this installed to keep the younger ones out.”
A few steps past the gate, the corridor ended with a single locked door. A heavy wheel, like that for steering a ship, was set into the wall and thick chains ran from the barrel behind it and threaded through an aperture in the wall into the room beyond. Magda took hold of the wheel and turned it, winding the chains around the barrel and pulling. A woman’s wild voice screamed behind the door as the chains pulled through.
Taran peered through the aperture. The gap was very small – space for the chains but little else. He could see little of the room beyond.
Magda watched him, continuing to turn the wheel until finally the chains would move no more. “I don’t like doing this but...”
Taran nodded, his face a grimace. “It’s the only way to be safe.”
Magda clamped the wheel in place and then unlocked the door. Taran hesitated, then stripped the daggers from the sheathes hidden in his sleeves and left them in the corridor before stepping through the doorway.
The room inside was sparsely furnished with a bed, small table, and a chamber pot in the corner. The table had remnants of a meal but much of the food was on the floor. The chamber pot had been tipped over and the contents smeared on the carpet. Star-shaped symbols were etched into the walls as well as drawn in food and faeces. The smell hit them like a solid thing, crawling up Taran’s nostrils to burrow down into his throat.
“I have one of the older children clean up in here once a day,” Magda said quietly. She moved aside, letting Taran go ahead of her into the room. “But it doesn’t last.”
On the bed was a thin woman in a nightgown that billowed around her like a ghost. Her hair was dishevelled and her hands filthy. Manacles on her wrists were attached to the heavy chains which where, in turn, guided through pulleys and back through the hole in the wall to the wheel outside. Magda’s turning of the wheel had shortened the length of play on the chains, forcing the woman back onto the bed whereas before she’d had the run of the room. A red circle painted on the floor around the bed indicated a safe distance.
“Marbella,” Magda called gently. “Look who has come to see you.”
Taran edged forward. “Marbella?”
The woman on the bed had stopped screaming when they’d entered and now sang softly to herself. The words were a garbled version of a child’s nursery rhyme. Taran wondered if she’d heard it from the other inhabitants of the house – the free inhabitants.
As he came closer, she stopped singing and looked up. Her lips pulled back into a smile, showing teeth yellowed with grime. “Ah, the Lord of Stars has come to see me. All hail the Lord of Stars.” She fell into a fit of giggles, her body convulsing on the bed like a seizure.
Taran reached forward to touch her foot. “Marbella? Are you…okay?” His voice trailed off. It was a stupid question.
It was Magda who answered. “The madness grips her hard most days, but we do our best to keep her in good spirits. The sedatives do help but she seems to have figured out that it’s in her food so she doesn’t always eat. It’s rare for her to injure herself these days and as long as no one gets too close, she can’t hurt anyone else.”
Taran nodded. “Thank you. Has she said anything about her life before?”
“Nothing that makes a lick of sense, I’m afraid.” Magda clucked her tongue like a worried mother hen. “The poor dear. She’s lucky you brought her here when you did.”
Taran forced himself to give an appreciative smile. “I suppose she is. Do you think I could have a few moments alone with her?”
“Of course, dear. Take as long as you like. I’ll have one of the girls come and clean up when you’re done. It upsets her to be pulled back to the bed so there’s no point doing it more often than we need to.” She scurried out and Taran waited until he heard the click of the wooden gate in the corridor before he stepped forward again and sat on the edge of the bed next to the mad woman. There was more grey in her hair than he remembered.
She lay facing away from him, trembling but silent.
“What we were doing was wrong. You gave me no choice. You know that, right?” He closed his eyes against the burning guilt. “Somewhere inside, you must understand my decision. You have to.”
Marbella’s weight on the bed shifted. Taran opened his eyes just in time to see her arm swinging at his head. The metal shackle struck his forehead before he could get his arm up to block it and a burst of pain shot through his skull.
“Blood and Tears!” He’d let down his guard. He knew better than that. “Marbella, stop! Stop!”
She was on top of him, stretched to the maximum length of chain remaining to her, but determined. She pulled at his clothes, not to hurt him but searching with a feral desperation to get what she wanted. He batted her hands away, fighting past the ache in his head, but it was too late. She’d found the flask.
She sat back and quickly raised it to her lips. Her tongue hung out like a panting dog, eager to catch the smallest drop. Nothing came out. Her brow crinkled and she shook it vigorously but still the flask was dry.
“It’s empty, Marbella.” Taran held out his hand to take it from her. “It’s empty.”
A wail burst from her throat, raw and despairing. It was the sound he imagined Ahpra made when she discovered her husband and brother had fought to the death and she was alone in the world. The sound a parent might make at the death of a child. The sound of lost hope and horror. And it was aimed at him.
She hurled the empty flask across the room and screamed at him, spittle flying from her filthy teeth. “You did this! You did this! May the Hooded One feed you to his wolves! Get out! Get out!”
Taran stumbled back, his face hot and his hands trembling. “Marbella, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
And then he fled.
Read a conversation with Darian Smith and James McNaughton about speculative fiction, fandom, magic systems, and the genre vs. literature divide.