Blood and Masks now available for purchase

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My first novel, Blood and Masks, is now available for purchase on Amazon and other ebook retailers, which you can find a little further down. Blood and Masks is the first book in what will become a series centered on demon hunter Calidus Varin, his assortment of allies, and the city of Neva Cora.

Calidus Varin, a member of an ancient order of elven demon hunters, has lived in the shadow of his master, Tullius the Black, for the better part of a century. Varin coasts on their combined fame, earning a reputation for recklessness, a taste for wine and women, and an irresistible inclination for boasting about his precious few exploits.

When a routine hunt on the city’s outskirts demands the execution of an innocent child, Varin is forced to reconsider his master’s teachings (and sanity). By delaying the execution and investigating a subsequent rash of inexplicable demon infestations, Varin stumbles upon an apocalyptic conspiracy that leads straight to his temple’s doorstep. Everyone he knows becomes suspect. His life—and the lives of his friends—are thrust into mortal peril.

Faced with the sudden arrival of a cunning Imperial magus, Varin enlists the aid of his closest friends: a wizard, a forest spirit, a skilled huntress, and a goddess. He also might have made an alliance with the creatures he’s sworn to dispatch. As the city threatens to sink into the abyss, Varin must fight to protect the city he loves—or die trying.

In preparation for its release, my significant other presented with me a series of questions about the work. A little awkward, right? If you’d like insight into the process of writing Blood and Masks, or to get an idea of its themes and content, you can find all of it below. As a fun note, the book’s cover art is pulled straight from a scene in the book. As in, that’s a piece of art that is a part of the narrative. If you want to know what’s up with it, buy my book! Here are the links:

Where did you get the idea for Blood and Masks? When did you start writing the project? Were there earlier incarnations?

It’s difficult to nail down where I got the idea. This will be my first published work of fiction, so it’s the final product of a long string of ideas extending all the way back to when I first became interested in writing at all. I’ve wanted to write fantasy for years. Little by little, I came to understand what I enjoyed and what I didn’t, what I thought was cool and what wasn’t, and I built up the kind of world I wanted to see in the fantasy genre. In that long process, I found the thing that most grabbed me, and I ran with it.

I think I wrote the first words that would become Blood and Masks and by extension the Neva Cora series around five years ago. None of those words exist anymore. They were not good words and you wouldn’t want to see them. Writing this story turned into a learning experience for me and I spent most of that five years just reaching the point where I felt comfortable in my process and comfortable with my ability to write a narrative someone might actually want to read. Given I started in my early 20s, my process back then was all pop and fire and not much lasting substance. While that’s a lot of fun, it doesn’t make a good story. I finally finished the writing process a little over a year ago, eventually reaching the point it went into revisions and editing with my awesome editor, Jennifer Anderson.

Why elves?

Elves are awesome. Duh.

In all seriousness, the appeal of using fictional fantasy races is, to me, the ability to explore the human condition but different. Humans do not live for centuries or millennia. Well, what if they did? How does that change their perspective? At what point does age cease to matter? How does it change the way they view death? What can a dedicated person accomplish in that much time? Do they get bored of it all? How much power and influence could someone accumulate in a millennia if they set their mind to it?

I think we can all say we aren’t the same person we were ten or twenty years ago. Ten or twenty years from now, we could probably say the same thing about our present selves. If we lived for centuries, would there come a point where our identities are wholly unrecognizable from who we used to be? What is that point? How does that change their relationships? A lot of people in the real world have a hard time shedding guilt from past mistakes. What happens when you need to live with that for hundreds of years?

Exploring what it is to be elven is exciting to me. In some ways, they would be very human. In others, they wouldn’t be human at all. It’s all about perspective. An elf wouldn’t find their existence unusual or incredible. Humans would.

The Neva Cora setting seems to have a lot of Roman inspiration. Why?

My reasons are twofold. One, I’ve felt that many fantasy authors pull from real world ancient/classical cultures for elves anyway. I’m just a little more straightforward about it. Certainly, they don’t live in a carbon copy of Rome, but the inspiration is hard to miss. I actually pull from Mediterranean cultures in general, but the Roman influence is strongest in the city of Neva Cora itself.

The other reason is the Roman inspiration fit my goals. The genre of Urban Fantasy is typically reserved for stories set in the modern day – but Blood and Masks possesses many aspects of that genre. Portions of the city of Rome were densely urban with city features we often believe are newly modern. No, Rome didn’t have modern skyscrapers, but they had apartment buildings. They had sewer systems. They had public services and a form of social services. Those things aren’t necessarily unique to Rome in that period of history, but it’s something often forgotten about their civilization. I find that amazing. I’m using that setting, that inspiration and aesthetic, to try telling the equivalent of a modern urban fantasy story in an ancient, fantastical place.

The history of Rome as an entity is also ripe for politics beyond Kings, Queens, and rights of inheritance (not that I don’t enjoy those stories). Rome has been a village, a kingdom, a republic, an empire, a splintered empire, and an empire that moved its base to Byzantium which later became Constantinople only to finally be conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Depending on how you want to split hairs, or if you want to be clever just for the sake of it, it could be said the Roman Empire didn’t truly fall until the early 1900s. My point being: Rome is a part of history (among many) not often explored in fantasy despite being ripe for all sorts of stories.

Your protagonist is a demon hunter. What makes that compelling?

Demon hunters, known as minari to the elves, are an order of warriors that have existed as long as anyone can remember. In the world in which Neva Cora exists, “demon” is a catch-all term for creatures, monsters, and other beings that dwell in the plane where they had been banished by the gods a very, very long time ago. Demons are bastards and like escaping their prison. Sometimes they have mortal help. Sometimes they don’t. The minari stand against them. They’re wardens, hunters, judges, and executioners all in one package. They span all cultures, all continents, all nations. Minari are the world’s apex predators. Their only governing body is themselves. No one joins the order without being hand-chosen and trained by a master who has, himself, gone through that process. You need to prove yourself as having some exceptional value before you even get a shot at it. And once you’re in, there’s no way out but to die.

What I feel makes the minari compelling is exploring what type of person would sign up for a job like that and why. How does someone become a member of this order? Who signs up to die? Do they stand on duty or honor or is it something else completely? The minari order is one of ancient legend and stellar reputation, but its members are still individuals, each with their own reasons for doing what they do. It’s a heroic calling, but can be grim, hard work. That’s part of what we look at with Varin. He isn’t always on top of his game. His master is highly critical of him and for good reason. If he’s kind of a screwup, what makes him exceptional? Did he deserve his place in this order? What makes him tick? And, as the author, it’s a lot of fun throwing big, nasty monsters at Varin and his friends to see what they do about it.

Your protagonist, Varin, is an interesting man surrounded by equally interesting women. Why?

For one, I’ve just always enjoyed writing women. I’d go as far as to say I prefer it and I always have. Even when I was younger, I found myself gravitating to stories about cool ladies. It’s a pleasure to write them. The setting for the Neva Cora series has both men and women in a variety of roles and positions and that was never an active effort on my part, it just felt right to me in the creative process. It made sense.

I’ve heard the adage “don’t write women, write people” quite a few times. I used to feel that was solid advice, but I think I’ve grown out of it. How a character identifies themselves in terms of gender, or masculinity/femininity, is absolutely a part of making a character real. I think too many people see masculinity and femininity as a one-or-the-other situation. Personally, I see it as a gradient. There are extremes on either end, there’s a point where the two meet, and there are vast swathes of overlap. An interesting cast has characters that fall on many points on that gradient. That’s what I wanted and, during the writing process, it happened organically.

There are men who are warriors. There are women who are warriors. There are women in politics. There are men in politics. In the part of the world in which Neva Cora exists, how you identify barely matters. That includes gender, sexuality, creed, and so forth. You are who you are.

This is your first novel. Will there be more? Is this world bigger than just Neva Cora?

There will absolutely be more. How much more, and how quickly, depends entirely upon the support of those who pick up my work and enjoy it. My productivity is limited to how much time I can spend writing fiction compared to how much time I must spend finding funding elsewhere. If you decide to pick up Blood and Masks and enjoy it, the best thing you can do for me is tell your friends about it. That’s the best thing you can do for any author. Authors live and die by word-of-mouth.

Blood and Masks is intended as the first book in the Neva Cora series. However, it has closure. It’s a contained work. If you’re afraid to invest in the first book of an unfinished series, don’t be. The book ends and, I hope, you will be satisfied by it.

The world is bigger than Neva Cora for sure. There are many stories I want to tell within the world that take place in many different locations. I’ve previously posted a short entitled Blackwater here on my blog. Posting it was a bit dangerous because it’s wholly unedited and not an indicator of a finalized product, so keep that in mind if you read it. All of the fiction shorts currently available on my blog are rough first drafts and not finished products. Blackwater is one item on my list. Blackwater is set in a part of the world that’s the more typical western European sort of thing. Blood and Masks mentions a few other world locations in passing – they’re totally on my radar. If you read the book, come back here, and the Oases mean anything to you, I’d love to take you there.

What are some of your writer inspirations, or other writers you look up to with your work?

Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels always stuck with me and exist as proof that the fantasy genre can support works that blend traditional fantasy and urban fantasy. His “The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature” is also dead-on:

All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ‘em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ‘em, ’cause that’s cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what’s cool.

There are things I like and things I don’t like. I’m going to write the things I like. If someone doesn’t like those things, that’s okay. If there’s someone who does like the same things, fantastic.

Brandon Sanderson is an inspiration for a few reasons. One, his work ethic is ridiculous. That man is a robot. Every time you blink, he announces a new book. Second, he doesn’t rest on his laurels. He’s always trying something new, something creative. He publishes giant tomes and small, easily digestible fiction in equal measure. I’ve read people say they’re tired of Sanderson novels because every one of his books has some brand new magic system … but that’s actually super awesome? He’s always trying something else. Lastly, he supports young authors. I absolutely watched his lecture series during the process of creating Blood and Masks.

There are plenty of other authors I love, but the last one I would cite as inspiration is Sam Sykes for his marketing mojo. Buy his book. Mine, too. Please.

What are your plans for the future?

In the most immediate future, I cross everything I can cross and hope Blood and Masks and the Neva Cora series in general finds an audience. After that, my focus is on the second installation of this series and expanding the Blackwater excerpt into a full story.

If you had to pitch why people should read this book, what would your reasons be?

I think it’s pretty good. It isn’t shit, at least. I think “it isn’t shit” is pretty high praise from the artist regarding his or her own art.

If that isn’t a good enough reason, Blood and Masks has been described as “elves in Rome fight Tinkerbell and then a conspiracy happens.” It isn’t an inaccurate description.

If that still isn’t a good enough reason, it only costs $2.99 and there’s sex in it. Bargain.

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Excerpt from the Journals of Odo the Old

(Now that my book is available for purchase, I’ll add provide a little more information here: this is an excerpt from what you could call “supplemental materials” in Blood and Masks. Odo the Old is a wizard and historian, an actual character in the Blood and Masks narrative. His journals provide additional insight into the world in which the book takes place, fun tidbits and anecdotes that are not necessary to understanding the narrative, bit give a broader look at the world around it. Beta readers generally cited him as one of their favorite characters, which makes me pretty happy. I love him, too.)

On Faith

Before coming to Neva Cora, I had no idea of the scale of elven religious practices. Where I am from, we worship only one god: Khalin. We recognize the existence of other gods, but culturally, only one requires worship. Beyond Khalin, there are seven deities: Truscus, Indora, Krona, the Mother, the Gatekeeper, Sun, and Moon. When I was young, I knew of no others. Now that I live among elves, I have difficulty remembering just how many there truly are.

The gods mentioned above remain the primary pantheon of elves, but there are countless lesser gods among them. Many gods have children, which are then worshipped as gods themselves. For example, Indora and Khalin have a child by the name of Malikh. She is spoken of only in whispers, for she is the goddess of thievery and assassination. The stars are the many, nameless children of Sun and Moon. Sun and Moon, I should note, are considered siblings, so the idea that they have children carries disturbing implications. Beyond that, there are hundreds more minor deities, their roles increasingly narrow in focus.

I once met a man who claimed himself priest to the deities of wine and cups. We spoke in a tavern and he was quite inebriated, so I initially doubted his claim. However, nearby patrons spoke in support of him, and I found myself inquiring as to the specifics of his beliefs. Wine is the domain of a goddess. Cups, a god. If you possess the favor of the goddess of wine, you will never spill a drop while pouring. However, it is the god of cups whom you must please if you don’t wish to spill your drink between the cup and your mouth. A man nearby voiced his displeasure of the god of cups, because he had spilt his drink too often. The priest admonished the heresy. The other man then claimed he didn’t need the god of cups anyway, because he no longer used a cup. He drank from the jug, claiming it would bring him closer to the goddess of wine.

In no other tavern in Neva Cora have I ever heard anyone speak of a god of cups or goddess of wine. And yet, fifteen years later, I could return to that first tavern and find a new audience who always knew of the deities that blessed their drinks.

For this reason, it becomes difficult to discern which gods are real and which are not. We know some gods are real because we see physical evidence: Seruwen’s white fire or that of humanity’s Champions of Khalin. Others are less public with their existence. The god of cups may be real. The god of cups may be a fabrication. To some, it does not matter. Faith is sufficient.

I often wonder how easy it would be to fabricate a god myself. If I told someone about a god of twigs, that a god who only held domain over sticks of a certain length and thickness existed, would he believe it? If he did, would he tell others? Would they believe, too? This is only a wondering, however, because I dare not make such a claim. Should a goddess of twigs exist unbeknownst to me, she would surely be cross with me for mistaking her gender.

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Power dynamics in fantasy

I recently read a fantasy novel (which I shall not name) where, during the climax of the novel, characters essential to the overarching plot of the series are slain in battle. While everyone else grieves over their corpses, one of the world’s deities — who has been present and passive throughout the entirety of the book — manipulates time itself to resurrect the slain. Afterwards, he essentially says he allowed them to die so they could learn an important life lesson. Thereafter, everyone involved finds new love and new hope and it’s supposed to be a very happy and uplifting ending. I don’t buy it.

While the author’s intent is obvious through the characters’ reactions to this — they are all overjoyed at the god’s mercy without exception — it didn’t sit well with me. In effect, this deity allowed monstrous things to happen to these individuals throughout the book, including death, in order to teach them a lesson. Though established as all-powerful in the final moments, this deity chose to do nothing. In my view, that makes this deity complicit in the events. Though the intent was to display a kind and merciful god, I saw cold arrogance — a god that toyed with peoples’ lives and general psychological well-being to prove a point. It’s shown that he could have prevented such horrors, but chose to do nothing so he could grandstand in the aftermath.

Is that a reasonable mindset for an all-powerful god? Yes, it probably is. A being at that level of power might see mortals as mere ants. But you can’t expect a reader to be sympathetic to such a being. You can’t expect that conclusion to be satisfying. More, I find the collective, life-changing joy and adoration from the protagonists an unbelievable outcome. Would these people, who were so clearly manipulated, actually be appreciative for what this deity had done? They would be relieved that their loved ones were alive, yes. But I believe they would also be furious that this deity allowed their deaths to happen in the first place. Perhaps they wouldn’t voice that fury, terrified into silence in the face of a being so powerful, but they would feel it. Those who were allowed to die would find new joy in life, but they wouldn’t appreciate the fact that their murders were allowed to come to pass. At the very least, it seems likely they would feel some emotional trauma over the fact that they died and they know it.

Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic states Limitations > Powers. Sanderson’s laws directly address how he creates magic systems. In short, this explanation states it isn’t necessarily the strengths of magic that make them interesting — it’s their weaknesses. Magical powers are awesome. That’s why we write fantasy. However, a story isn’t very good if your protagonist can resolve the driving conflict with a snap of their magical fingers. In fact, there would be no conflict at all were that possible. Conflict, and stories, can only exist when there is struggle.

While Sanderson’s Laws of Magic aren’t hard rules by which all fantasy authors must abide, I feel it’s a good foundation for modern fantasy. The god who allowed death to prove a point is a good example of what happens when you create all-powerful characters without limitations. When you have a deity that can bend time, raise the dead, and generally do whatever they want to do, their only limitations are those they impose on themselves. The all-powerful characters who can solve all conflict with the wave of a hand are foreced to restrain themselves for the sake of plot. Otherwise, you can’t create meaningful drama. When you finally let that character loose — finally using them for their intended purpose — your reader is going to perceive that character as either incompetent or malicious. “Hi, I could have fixed this 300 pages ago, but I didn’t feel like it yet.” “You jackass.”

At the very least, the less-powerful characters in the story, the characters who suffered from the inaation of the all-powerful, should not have a uniformly positive reaction. Even in a less harrowing example of such a power dynamic, such as a parental figure making their child do chores to learn some responsibility, that child is probably going to feel a little spiteful. “You could at least help a little, mom.”

At the risk of wading into dangerous waters, I think the Biblical Binding of Isaac could be a great example of this power dynamic — of a character who should feel at least a little aggrieved for being a pawn in an all-powerful figure’s machinations. Note that I’m approaching this purely narratively and not making any judgments about anyone’s religious belief.

If you aren’t familiar with the Binding of Isaac, let’s sum it up: God asks Abraham to climb a mountain and burn his only son, Isaac, in sacrifice. Abraham gathers Isaac and goes on his way to do as God requested. When they arrive at their destination, Isaac asks how they’re going to make a sacrifice. The usual sacrifice is a lamb, but they didn’t bring one. Clearly, Abraham never told Isaac what was about to happen. Abraham builds up the wood for the pyre, ties his son down, and is inches away from cutting Isaac open before an angel tells him to stop. By going so far, he proved his loyalty to God and that was enough. The end.

Consider that a.) Abraham didn’t tell Isaac that he was meant to be the sacrifice and b.) Abraham had to tie Isaac down in order to proceed with the sacrifice. Isaac was left in the dark and restrained. That tells me Abraham was loyal enough to God to sacrifice his son, but Isaac was not a willing sacrifice by any means.

We don’t see Isaac’s perspective in this story. But if we did, even if both Abraham and Isaac are extremely devout, you can imagine Isaac had a moment of “what the fuck, dad?” Isaac would undoubtedly be joyous at his release, but he would not be emotionally unharmed by the event. Maybe he would get over it, and he probably did, but his short-term reaction would be more complex than joyous without reservation.

Going back to fantasy, you have to consider that dynamic when including all-powerful characters. I think it’s a wiser choice to not include all-powerful characters, but if you do, your characters will not all feel the same way when a deity finally takes action. There might be some joy, but also fear and anger.

An all-powerful being finally taking action is not uplifting. It’s terrifying.

Most religions of the ancient world were not based on love and happiness. Gods were capricious and often cruel. Even the Greek gods, infamous for their human-like qualities, were feared due to their all-powerful capabilities. Sacrifices to the gods were made to keep them on your good side, hoping they’ll give you something nice, or at least ignore your existence, rather than turn their wrath upon you. Similar belief systems can be found across every sector of the ancient world. In general, it’s only in more recent religions (historically speaking) that love became a factor in belief at all. Christianity, for example, rose to prominence in a time when a downtrodden populace needed love more than fear, needed to know their God was sympathetic to their troubles. Consider, then, that Christianity and similar faiths from that period put a human or human-like figure at their forefront. They did not eliminate their all-powerful gods, but a relatable, sympathetic, less-intimidating figure came into the picture. If Jesus could strike down a city of sinners with fire and brimstone, we never saw it. We did see him physically cast moneylenders and gamblers out of a temple with his human hands. Jesus reacted to situations in a way any of us were capable. Heck, Hercules is one of the most popular figures in Greek mythos. He’s that step between god and mortal, far more relatable than Zeus.

And even Jesus, according to the gospels, did not always feel constant joy at God’s decisions. Christianity believes him and God to be homoousios, made of the same substance, yet even Jesus sometimes has doubts. Jesus asks God if he must be sacrificed and God says yes. Whether you’re Christian or not, that manages to be a more believable narrative than “fantasy deity snaps fingers, all is better, everyone is pleased.”

How is this Biblical stuff relevant? The New Testament’s depiction of a human Jesus is much more relatable to the reader, Christian or not Christian, than the all-powerful Old Testament depiction of God. You can write a story about a character like God, but don’t expect your reader (or your characters) to see all of their actions as uplifting; a figure like that one can be downright terrifying to even the most devout.

An all-powerful character with an active part in your story will, at best, be viewed as arrogant, if not monstrous. At worst, they will trivialized any and all drama or conflict in your narrative.

Gods or other deities are an extreme example of wonky power dynamics in fantasy. This can also apply to, for example, extremely powerful wizards. You need to carefully consider just how powerful your characters are. If you have a wizard that can easily drop a mountain on the bad guys, he needs a compelling reason why he doesn’t. If there isn’t a strong reason for not doing it, then your wizard will be seen as stupid, if it isn’t considered a plot hole altogether. “Why are they going through all of this trouble if this guy just said he can blast everyone into dust?” When your characters are too powerful, all tension is lost. Instead of tension, you have a reader that’s left wondering why your characters are so dumb.

Many authors I’ve read stumble into this accidentally. The “rule of cool” is a fun one — if it’s cool, just do it — but caution is necessary, too. If that cool thing has the potential to completely change your narrative’s power structure in unintended ways, don’t do it, because it won’t be cool for very long. Having gods in your narrative might seem cool. Dealing with the ramifications of those gods isn’t cool. But if you want them to be seen as capricious and unreliable? Have a blast. Just don’t use them to save the day. Nobody likes a literal deus ex machina.

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Blackwater

       “Here’s your grub, kin killer.”

       “Are you really going to use that name every single time?”

       In the bowels of his ship, Cadogan Blackwater, the so-called kin killer, sat in his cage, hands bound behind his back, and watched the guard push his meal through the bars. A bowl of salt pork in broth, topped with a biscuit. The boat lurched. So did the bowl, spilling broth.

       “Fucking hell, man,” Cadogan cursed. “I need that water. Those biscuits are like rocks, you know.”

       “Not my problem, kin killer.”

       Cadogan shoved himself to his feet. The top of his head brushed the top of the cage. “Would you unbind my hands, at least? I’m not a dog. Let me eat like a man.”

       If the guard made any motion, formed any expression at all, Cadogan couldn’t see it. A single lamp lit the packed hold, leaving most in shadow. “You ask every time. The answer is still no.” Having nearly forgotten to say it, he added, “Kin killer.”

       Cadogan leaned against the bars, trying to get a look at the man. It wasn’t necessary, Cadogan already knew him well. He wanted to look him in the eye. His name was Martin, a sailor who served under him before he’d been thrown in a cage. Martin had been a friend. “Honestly, you’re still calling me that?” Cadogan asked. “You don’t really believe I killed him. You know me better than that.”

       “I believe it,” Martin said. He was a young man and spoke as if had a mouthful of marbles. “That’s what you lords do. You shiv each other for rank. They say you killed your brother, so I say you did.”

       Cadogan laid his forehead against the bars. “Come on, man. What would I get out of that? What would I gain from killing him?”

       “I don’t know. Land. Title. Lordly shit. You’re the lord here, you tell me.”

       “Land?” Cadogan asked, laughing. “This is my land, man. This ship. And my title? Captain.”

       “Eat your food and shut up, kin killer.”

       “Look, I get it,” Cadogan said. “The tide’s changed. I was a nobleman. It’s your job to hate noblemen. Now I’m in a cage and you can treat me however you like without punishment. You want to get your lashings in. I understand. I do. But we’re friends, Martin. You have to believe me.”

       “I don’t have to do anything.”

       “I saved your life once. Didn’t I? That big fuckin’ beast snatched you off the deck. I got you back. Didn’t it?”

       “Aye,” Martin said. “You did. Still killed your brother, though.”

       “Why would I go through all the trouble of saving your life then turn around and kill my own blood?” Cadogan asked. “And how many sailors died on my watch in all the years we sailed together?”

       “A few.”

       “A few,” Cadogan echoed. “Aye, a few. How many on all the ships that sail in these waters come back to tell the tale?”

       “A few.”

       “Aye. A few. I kept most of you alive. Because you’re not just men to me, Martin. You’re my crew. You’re my mates. If I care that much about you lot, what makes you think I didn’t care that much about my own blood?”

       “Alright,” Martin said. “Let’s say you didn’t kill your brother. Who did, then?”

       Cadogan chuckled, shifting to lean against the side of his cage instead. “Great cock of Khalin, can you believe you’re the first person to ask me that? Not a damned soul saw me do a thing, they just locked me in chains and shipped me off without a word.”

       “Well, who did it?”

       “My sister did it.”

       “Lady Hawthorne?” Martin asked. His tone was clear: he did not believe. “What a load of shite. Story says she’s too kind to even gut a fish.”

       “You said it yourself just before, man. Nobles are always looking to stab each other in the back. You have to be good at the game to pull it off. Of course you think my sister’s a kindly beauty. That’s what she wants. She’s a killer, mate.”

       “So why are you here and not her?”

       “She set me up. My brother was the heir of Blackwater. I was second in line. She was third. Hawthorne slit his fucking throat and blamed me. Hells, I wasn’t ashore for more than a day before his death. Do you honestly think I even saw my brother yet? Name one sailor that goes home in his first day back. Go on,” Cadogan urged. “Tell me, where were you our first day ashore?”

       “The brothel.”

       “Aye. You and I, both.”

       “I didn’t see you there.”

       “Of course you didn’t. I’m a noble,” Cadogan said. “Nobles use the back door, man.”

       “What girl were you with, then?”

       “Lorna.”

       “Hells,” Martin cursed. He seemed in awe. “Lorna? Shit. If you were still captain, I’d raise my cap to you. She’s a picky one, I been trying to get her for years.”

       “I told them to ask her,” Cadogan said. “But it’s like I told you, they didn’t care what I said. Hawthorne threw me in irons as fast as she could. She wanted me gone before the truth spread.”

       “Why didn’t she just — shit,” Martin cursed. The ship lurched, sending them into a stumble. Martina’s sea legs caught him, but Cadogan was thrown against his cage. His meal was overturned, spilling pork and broth. Martin strode back to the cage, but it was like walking uphill. He gripped the cage and braced. The ship crested its wave and crashed back down, momentarily airborne.

       “We never took waves like that when you were at the helm,” Martin said. “I’ll give you that much.”

       “We’ve killed serpents that didn’t toss us like that.” Cadogan sank to the ground. Standing didn’t seem wise anymore. Not without the use of his arms, anyway. “Who’d they make captain of this fine lady?”

       Cadogan already knew, but he’s gotten Martin to talk and wanted it to stay that way.

       “Lord Brighton. Lord Captain Brighton, I guess.”

       “Brighton.” Cadogan barked a laugh. “Brighton’s a ledger, not a sailor. He doesn’t know shit from shite about sailing. He only knows what a ship looks like when it’s in port. And Lord Captain? He makes you call him Lord Captain?”

       “Aye. It’s a lashing if we don’t.”

       “I outranked him ten times over and I never once made you lot call me Lord Captain.”

       “True enough.” Martin waited a beat before he asked, “Why is that?”

       “Captain is my title.” Cadogan shrugged. “This ship is my land. No lords. No kings. Good men doing what we must.”

       “You were a good captain, captain.”

       “Can I have my hands?”

       “Aye. Turn around.”

       Cadogan turned. Martin untied his hands.

       “I ought to go topside now,” Martin said. “The Lord Captain will give me a lashing already, I’m sure. Not supposed to dally with you.”

       “You go on,” Cadogan said. “You’ve given a framed man a bit of dignity. I’d take the lashings for you if I could.”

       Martin walked away. Cadogan listened to the footsteps, scooping his meal off of the bottom of his cage. The footsteps fell silent. In the darkness, Cadogan didn’t bother masking his grin. Martin returned and spoke at a whisper. “I’m surprised.”

       “Why’s that?”

       “I thought you’d try to kill me when I untied you,” he said. “Or maybe talk me into mutiny. Why didn’t you?”

       “You didn’t put me in here and I’m no murderer. Spilling a friend’s blood would be murder. And mutiny? I’m a prisoner, not a sailor. Not anymore.”

       Martin said no more and went topside.

       Cadogan languished in his cage for days more without another word from anyone. No one seemed to notice he had his hands back when they delivered his meals. Martin only came occasionally, Lord Captain Brighton apparently neglecting to assign someone to the task properly. The men who came never said a word. He kept count of the days in his head, trying to gauge where they were at sea by numbers. After a month of it, he concluded it was a useless exercise. As he’d told Martin, Brighton didn’t know shit from shite. Cadogan knew how long it took his ship to cross the sea with himself at the helm. Brighton would take longer and significantly so.

       Cadogan spent his days alone with his thoughts. There was nothing he hated more than his own thoughts. He considered them poison, the baggage of being raised among nobles, reminders of rank, hierarchy, titles, and service.

       He was born the second son of Dovan Blackwater, lord of their namesake, the island fortress of Fort Blackwater off Khalino’s northern shore. The family of Blackwater served Count Highwatch of Highwatch County, who in turn served Duke Daegal Seaborne, lord of Storm’s Shore, miraculously escaping the curse of being named after a pile of rocks and mud. Even the Seabornes served a high power in the king-in-waiting, Archduke Aliser, who then served their god, Khalin, namesake of Khalino. And there were those below the Blackwaters, men like Lord Brighton, who had little to no land, their titles a courtesy or a reward for a good deed.

       Caged and eastbound, Cadogan cared little for it, wishing his mind would stop playing the sequence over and over again in his mind. He had to memorize it all as a child and his father taught him his place in it. As second son, he could claim no land. His duty was to the heir, his brother. Cadogan’s fate was to sail, defend the realm against raiders, and hunt down demons of the sea to secure passage east. East, to the sands where, regardless of their own desires, hundreds of thousands of men and women fought and bled and died in Khalin’s holy war against the demon hordes. Demon hordes who dwelled in land of no value to anyone, where only the places known as the Oases could support any life at all, the Oases which were part of another nation, a nation they did not seek to conquer. It was madness. All of it. But Cadogan needed only to sail and battle the rare beast of the seas, a task at which he proved proficient. He never needed to actually set foot in the east. For that, he was ever thankful.

       But Cadogan’s brother bled out from a slit throat, Cadogan was in a cage, and Hawthorne was made heir. His days of sailing were over. She damned him to a lifetime of fighting in Khalin’s war. Once he arrived in Storm’s Shore’s eastern holdings, he doubted he’d ever lay eyes on the sea again. Only sand, blood, and the shit of dying men.

       His hands free, Cadogan found new ways to distract himself from thoughts of nobility and murder, but they inspired loathing all the same. He discovered the greasy, filthy mop that’d become of his hair, and the unkempt whiskers of his face. Even at sea, he’d always tried to keep himself clean. He and his crew had a reputation for it. They could cross the sea faster than anyone else and were the only ones who stepped ashore smelling like something other than their own sweat and piss. It was a damned ocean with enough water to bathe the world, yet most didn’t bother.

       Some two weeks after his conversation with Martin, another sailor broke the silence.

       “Oi,” the man whispered, sliding Cadogan’s meal into the cage. Cadogan couldn’t see his face, just as he couldn’t see Martin’s own, but he knew the voice. His name was Conlin. He was only sixteen years old. Tomlin continued to whisper. “I’ve been waiting for my turn down here for weeks. Is it true Lady Hawthorne killed your brother?”

       The ship lurched, and even in the hold, Cadogan could hear pouring ran pounding against the deck above. Waves crashed against the hull. Cadogan had heard the thunder hours before, the barest hint of a storm in the distance. It had only grown louder and more frequent. Brighton had chosen to take them straight through it.

       “Aye,” Cadogan said. The word made his voice crack. He took a drink of pork broth to wet his throat. “Aye, she did. Who told you that?”

       “Martin told me. Word’s getting around, too. You were good to us, captain. We know you wouldn’t have killed your own kin. Still, I’m surprised it was Lady Hawthorne. Pretty thing like that cut a man’s throat?”

       “Watch it,” Cadogan warned. “She’s still my sister. I’ve heard enough boyhood fantasies from you lot.”

       Conlin laughed. “Aye, I’m sure you have. Anyway, I just wanted you to know. We believe you. Those of us that were yours, anyway. Brighton brought some of his own sailors. They’ve got more than we do. Weren’t for them, we might have thrown Brighton overboard by now.”

       Cadogan leaned against the front bars of the cage. He spoke as softly as he could manage, forcing Conlin to move in close to hear him. “That’s dangerous talk, man. Mutiny is an execution. You know that.”

       “I know. We all know. Martin told us what you said about Brighton, too. Man doesn’t know shit about shite. It’s true. He’s taking us right through this storm because he wants to save time all of a sudden. Problem is he knew this ship crosses the sea in two months. Bastard thought the ship did that all by itself. Doesn’t understand we did that. You and your crew. Him and his boys can’t figure out how. We’ve been at sea two months and we’re nowhere close to port. He couldn’t find the wind if it pissed in his eye.”

       “Just keep your head down,” Cadogan said. “Get east, get home, and go back to your parents. Fuck the sea, Conlin, and fuck the east.”

       “No,” he said. “Fuck Brighton. If we don’t get you on the wheel, we’re going to die.”

       Cadogan’s heart joined the cacophony of thunder, pounding against his ribs. He licked his lips, mouth dry. “What are you saying, Conlin?”

       A key splashed into his bowl of pork and broth. Adrenaline shot up Cadogan’s spine.

       “Captain,” Conlin said. He left without another word.

       Cadogan snatched the key in one hand and with the other, stuffed his mouth with pork. He popped the lock of his cage and threw the door wide, storming out into the hold. He ran through the rolling ship, skilled sea legs unaffected by his long imprisonment. Cadogan tore through the ship’s cargo, searching for what he knew would be there somewhere: weapons and armor for the men fighting in the east. He found leather tunics and trousers and pulled them on in a frenzy, foregoing the crates of chain. He took a broadsword from an open crate and used it as a crowbar to pry the lid off of another, revealing a shipment of daggers. He threw the sword down and took a pair of the smaller weapons.

       His bare feet pounded against the floorboards, running for the ladder ahead. The hatch above was open. He ascended and vaulted up to the living quarters, ready to kill. There was no one. All on deck. The rain was louder, a constant torrential roar. He turned and ran for the stairs leading up, ducking his head beneath the bundles of netting hanging from the ceiling, the crew’s personal effects swaying with every lurching motion of the ship. He pounded up the stairs and exploded out the doors, out onto the deck.

       The rain was deafening, hitting the deck in sheets. Wind buffeted the sails. Lightning formed a constant, shifting spider’s web in the sky, lashing the sea in endless flashes. Each flash illuminated waterspouts in the distance, making them seem alive. Men were bucketing water overboard, but for every bucket spilt, the sky added two more. Cadogan barely heard Brighton’s voice from the stern deck above and behind, rough and hoarse. The man screamed orders, but the words were stolen by the wind.

       Cadogan didn’t know if anyone had noticed him or not. It didn’t matter. His blood felt as if it boiled, adrenaline setting his veins aflame. He swung around a railing and took the stairs to the stern two at a time. Halfway up, he saw Brighton, fat and bald. Brighton saw him, too, filthy and full of lust for blood.

       Bald. Cadogan laughed at the realization, the humor cutting through the fury. The storm had stolen his hat.

       Brighton released the wheel to draw his saber, struggling to do so, even with both hands. The wheel spun out of control, the ship jerking in the wrong direction, tossed with the wind. The Lord Captain fell back with the motion, tripping over his own feet. He slid across the slick deck, the ship rearing up like a bucking horse. Cadogan used the momentum to drive forward, grasping a spoke of the wheel even as he continued to grip both daggers. He braced and pulled hard on the wheel, righting the ship as if jerking on that horse’s reins, refusing to bend knee to the beast.

       “It’s the captain!” Cadogan heard the shout from below. “Captain Blackwater!”

       “Kill him!” Brighton screamed. “Kill him, damn you!”

       Cadogan laughed into the wind, his hands on the wheel the most beautiful sensation he’d ever known. Water sluiced down his face. The waterspouts loomed in the distance, throwing the sea into the sky. Below, a pair of sailors rushed toward the stern deck. Two others abandoned their buckets and cut them down. The deck erupted into war, men fighting each other tooth and nail. Some brandished swords and knives, crossing steel and drawing blood. Others had nothing more than the ship itself, strangling men with rope or beating them with wet and heavy nets.

       Cadogan heard Brighton’s footfalls behind him. He threw himself down and to the left, dragging the wheel down with him, ducking beneath the stroke of a saber. The ship leaned low to one side, dipping toward the sea, threatening to capsize. Cadogan released the wheel, allowing it to snap back in the other direction. He whirled to face Brighton, the man careening back and forth in an attempt to keep his feet. Cadogan sank a dagger into the fat man’s belly and danced back to the wheel, holding it steady. Brighton, oblivious to his wound, took advantage of the steadying ship and pressed in again. Cadogan released the wheel and lunged right, out of Brighton’s path. He let the fat man fall against the wheel, blood pouring from his gut to mingle with the rain. Cadogan moved behind him and slit Brighton’s throat, just as he’d slit his brother’s throat. He let the fat man sink to the deck before taking the wheel again.

       “Brighton is dead!” Cadogan called over the rain. His voice carried over the wind and the rain, shouting at sea more natural to him than normal speech. “I’m your captain now. If you want any hope in Hell of living to see tomorrow, get back to work. You can spill all the blood you want when we’re out of the storm.”

       Cadogan stuck his daggers into Brighton’s body for safekeeping and whiteknuckled the wheel, trying to bring the ship about. He wouldn’t voice it to the men, loyalists or not, but he knew well there was no escaping the storm. The wind was pushing them toward the spouts, and once there, there was no escaping. He turned them to face the wind and cried, “Reef the sails!”

       “We’ll fall into the spouts!” Someone cried. Not a voice he recognized.

       “Reef the sodding sails!” He called back. “Reef and row!”

       The wind made the task difficult, but the sails were dragged to their beams in short order, men working ropes and scaling netting like spiders. With the sails reefed, the ship seemed like a skeleton, a rib cage bare of meat and skin. The sailors rushed port and starboard in equal numbers, gathering oars and thrusting them through rowlocks.

       Cadogan wiped water from his face, but the wind put it all right back. “Row for glory and pray to the sea,” he yelled. “We live or die by her grace, lads.”

       “Land, ho!”

       “Land?” He yelled. “Where the fuck are we?”

       “Brighton knows!” Martin’s voice.

       “Brighton knows,” Cadogan laughed. “I like that. I think I’ll use it from now on. How far to land?”

       “Ship ahoy!”

       “Land or ship, which is it?”

       “Land starboard, ship to port. Northmen, sir!”

       Cadogan swiveled his head back and forth, starboard and port. What the man saw as land was barely a speck on the horizon, a jagged little island. The ship was a Northman longship, the raiders he’d faced so often along Khalino’s northern coast.

       “What are they doing here, sir? We’ve been two months southeast.”

       “Brighton knows,” Cadogan said. He watched the raiders through the rain and mist. It seemed they had the same idea, sails reefed and rowing for their lives. Their efforts didn’t help them at all. A waterspout cut across the surface like a predator, swallowing them whole.

       The world turned white and a great crack of thunder deafened Cadogan to the wind. He hit the deck, stupefied. His chest tightened, his heart skipping a few beats before starting again, arrhythmic. He crawled to his knees and looked out over the deck to see the mainmast tumbling down, smoldering splinters of wood scattered across the ship. The sails burned despite the rain.

       “Get sand on those sails!” He cried. Even he couldn’t hear his voice. No one below answered his call.

       Cadogan stumbled from the stern, legs rattled by the shock. He fell down the stairs, but forced himself up once he hit the deck below, searching for the buckets of sand he knew should be there. Sand was the only way to combat fires started by Northman arrows, mere water no answer for burning oil and pitch. Cadogan hoped it would aid against smoldering remains of a lightning strike, too.

       He found no sand. Brighton wasn’t only a fool at the helm, he was a fool in war. No doubt he’d chosen his own quartermaster, ejecting the man that’d served Cadogan for years, and the quartermaster was as much a fool as Brighton himself.

       Cadogan sat against the bulwark. Deaf, tired, and burnt, he looked out across the deck at dead men, burning sails, and a waterspout on the hunt.

       He always hated sailing.

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Excerpt from the writings of the consular Iostes Florus of Neva Cora

No matter the number of your years, whether they be measured in decades, centuries, or millennia, all moments are of equal measure. It is the folly of humanity to believe time carries more or less worth to the elvish. Likewise, it is the folly of the elvish to treat the passage of time with leisure. Every moment is as long as the one that came before and the one that comes after, each of them as important as any other. It is a foolishness not to consider how all are spent.

Time, once passed, cannot be reclaimed. Though events may slip from our own minds, each is written into the fabric of the world, never to be truly forgotten. It must be considered, then, what value our actions hold. Is it a good thing that we do, or an evil thing? Evils committed will not fade, their weight will become no less severe in the passing of days or years. It is a thing you will bear for as long as you are, an action equal in significance to any prior or future good.  If an action cannot be given either title, good or evil, then it is of no value to you nor to the world’s whole, a wasted moment forever lost. Leisure is an ignorance of the value of things. All that is alive must one day die. If you are laid prostrate before the gates to the beyond, tasked to weigh the worth of your time, would it be found lacking?

It would be wrong to encourage acts of evil, we would possess paradise in its absence, but even evil holds more value than leisure. Evil stokes the fires of good, spurring good men to good actions. Leisure serves no purpose but to encourage its own repetition. At this, leisure is efficient. Should we be at rest in this moment, we will surely wish to be at rest in the next. If there comes a day where our moments of leisure outweigh the good or the evil, the world will not lament our losses. Only we will lament and we will be deserving of that fate.

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