Nicole Givens Kurtz, writer, publisher and educator, works to amplify marginalized voices in speculative fiction and writes stories that explore race, sexism, and the weird. This month, she’s generously giving Midwest BSFA readers a sneak peek at the first chapter of her novel, Kill Three Birds, which is currently available for pre-order.
Kurtz’s work has appeared in Stoker Finalist Sycorax’s Daughters, Baen’s Straight Outta Tombstone, and her Cybil Lewis SF Mystery Series. You can support diverse voices in speculative fiction by joining her Patreon.
“You wanna see what a killer looks like? Look in the reflecting glass,” Prentice Tasifa said over her shoulder. Her voice rose above the evening’s insects chittering. Not getting a reply, she stood up and looked over to Dove Baltazar. “Anyone is capable of killing.”
“Those that are with the goddess and follow along her path, don’t slaughter others.” Dove Baltazar said, with a sweeping arm across the bloodied body between him and Prentice. The white, gold-trimmed sleeves of his cloak just missed the carnage. “Hawk Prentice, try to remember how this woman lived. Holy. Pure.”
“She’s a teenager.”
Prentice pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. Baltazar, like most in the rural egg, was about to discover the true nature of human beings. Anyone was capable of great violence when dumped in the right situation. Doves like him only saw goodness in people. That was their role.
She put her attention back on the body. Despite the velvety darkness enveloping the site, Prentice used her skill to observe what most people missed. This wasn’t a homicidal rage.
The body was covered in blood, but Prentice could tell she’d been hit with a blunt object. Her hands bore defensive wounds. There was a pit in the bottom of her stomach.
“Do you want to talk about the skeletal remains found over there in the woods? We can wait on that one.” Prentice watched his face.
Baltazar paused, his index finger pointed at Prentice’s chest. Her long, scarlet robe, cinched at the waist and crossed with a leather gun belt that contained her talons, covered her entire body. Boots and her utility belt completed her look. She pushed back her own long sleeves, and with her hand, moved his finger from her personal space.
“Skeletal remains?” He gaped.
“There’s no rush. There’s a depression in the grass. The trail has gone cold, anyway. Body’s been there awhile.” Prentice shook her head. She stepped back from the current corpse, moving to the trail that snaked through the woods behind the church. Like most eggs, this one had a centralized location to worship. “The two men who came here.”
“Two men? How do you know they were men?” Baltazar followed her to the worn path, his white cloak grabbing leaves and other ground debris in his wake.
Prentice took out her cigarette, hand-rolled with tobacco. She snapped her fingers, sparking a small flame. She touched the cigarette’s tip and inhaled deep and long. When she exhaled the stream of purple smoke through her nostrils, Baltazar scowled.
“Answer me, Hawk Tasifa.” He coughed. “Can you stop furiously smoking?”
“No,” Prentice said.
“No, you can’t stop or no you can’t answer me?” Baltazar’s thick eyebrows rose in question. He removed his hat, decorated in white and cold as was custom for doves. “We requested, I requested, help from the Order. We have a real situation here. Some of my nesters are dead. The eagles have no idea what’s going on.”
Prentice sighed. “Yeah, and the cardinal sent me. I’m the hawk. Let me work. The smell of blood is disturbing. I’m not a condor, okay?” She didn’t want to explain to him that smoking kept her from puking at death scenes. The smell of blood turned her stomach. Yet underneath the putrid odor was something else. It hinted strongly of earth magic tinged with something black.
“How did you know about the skeletal remains? We searched the grounds after we found Gretchen…”
“Hawks see the unseen.”
Prentice pointed to her hazel eyes, wide and large, stretched from the bridge of her nose out toward her temples. From a young age, Hawks’ appearance unsettled others. She spent a lot of her childhood in the nyumbani with her family, her male siblings went out, to school, to work. Their mother and others from the Order Prentice and her sisters were homeschooled by the rooks.
As a hawk, she saw what ordinary people missed. She’d been born with this gift. Her mother was a hawk, too. Trained as the investigative arm of the Order, hawks were dispatched to see what others could not. Now, here she was, in the remote Gould egg, a small community of 300 to 500 people. It was a scenic gem situated on four thousand acres of sprawling woodland.
“We have a real problem here. Someone is using your woods as a dumping ground.” Prentice rubbed her right temple. She adjusted her habit. Emblazed on the breast of the white material was the silhouette of a hawk, her designation and profession. She dropped the cigarette and ground it out with the toe of her boot.
Baltazar threw up his hands. “Obviously. Who? You mentioned two men.”
Prentice peered across the grassy swatch of land. Her eyes widened, growing and allowing in the unseen. As she did so, her wings free through the slits in her robe, lifted her from the ground. She’d done an aerial view before, but only a cursory look around. This time she meant to see everything. A significant amount of blood had been spilled on this U-shaped patch of land in the center of the woods behind the church. It was everywhere. Prentice hated her abilities sometimes. There’d been no evidence to suggest there’d be more killings, but Prentice could tell someone had been using this recreational section to dump bodies. As she soared, she searched for disturbances in the soil or newly dug graves. She spied the heaps of what looked like a burned corpse. The eviscerated body left in ashes. The hint of burnt flesh it her nose making her gag. She spied tiny bits of bone and teeth buried in the ashes. That burned wasn’t natural. Someone would’ve seen the blaze, and nothing around the body itself was charred. It could’ve been dumped here and scattered, but who had the time? As she flew, she could see Baltazar’s confused and frustrated face. He wanted a fast answer and resolution. She didn’t blame him. People were afraid.
As she landed beside him, she stumbled and grabbed his shoulder to steady herself.
“Sorry.” She pushed herself to a standing position. As she tracked her vision, her stomach ached and her vision narrowed, growing more limited until all she could make out were shadows.
“Are you all right?” Baltazar touched her shoulder. “We need to get you back to the church.”
Prentice nodded. “Yes. We can speak more there.”
She made out that Baltazar had nodded and gestured to the carriage driver. The dover started for the carriage, and she followed, her hands out in front of her to keep her from walking into him or something else.
“Here, let me help.” Balthazar took her hands in his and helped her climb into the back of the carriage.
Once inside, she ran her hands over the hard leather seats. The door’s creak and then clattering told her she’d been locked in. Balthazar’s girth rocked the carriage back a bit. In minutes, they lunged awkwardly forward through the woods along its worn path. His quiet loomed in the small carriage. She could almost feel his questions. Indeed, she got them every time the Order dispatched her to another egg. The doves all had the same nosy inquiries.
“It’s stuffy in here,” Baltazar said at last.
Prentice heard the creaking of the window as he rolled it down.
“One of my abilities is to be able to see the unseen…”
“Yes, that is what makes your kind so invaluable to the Order.”
“…but what many do not know, is that using the ability costs me some of my own natural sight.”
“How do you mean?” Concern crept into Baltazar’s tone, coupled with surprise.
“Each time I use my abilities, I am limiting my own sight. Eventually, I will be blind.”
He gasped. “By the goddess! Is it so for every hawk?”
“It is.” Prentice thought of her mother, very much alive in her later years, except she could no longer see. The Order retired her forthwith and she spent the rest of her days in the cottage with her family. She could no longer see with her eyes, but her other senses more than made up for it. For her mother, her hearing became excellent and she worked at the church as an organist. She had a great ear.
“Sacrifice is in the blood.” Prentice muttered her mother’s favorite saying. It was true for all daughters of hawks.
The sacrifice ran in the blood.