Archive | March, 2017

Why Identity Politics Are Bad

28 Mar

(Not something I was planning to write about, but I was having a chat about it and the subject came up …)

First, it is a basic fact of human nature that, the larger any given group, the greater the number of a-holes. A group composed of 50 or so human beings will include a couple of people whom everyone else in the group dislikes. Past a certain level, it is very difficult to keep out the a-holes. Group loyalty overrides personal dislike.

The people who are inside the group will not be aware of this. As I have noted before, ‘us’ is a group of individuals and ‘they’ are one vast hive mind. The idea that all will be judged by one is not something we are programmed to accept.

Second, it is a basic fact of current politics that the enemies of that particular group will not hesitate to use the a-holes as poster children for the group If 99 out of a 100 nerds are decent people, with only one of them an a-hole (however defined), that a-hole will be used to smear all the nerds.

In addition to this, people are influenced more by bad encounters than good. (The old ‘one slap is remembered longer than a thousand caresses’ issue.) A person whose first introduction to nerd culture, for example, is a misogynist a-hole ranting about how women ruin everything isn’t going to be inclined to give the other nerds a chance to prove they are good people.

Third, thus causes problems for the group’s leadership (however defined) as well as the rest of the group.

If they denounce the a-holes, they will be accused of both betraying the group and selling out to the group’s enemies. One act of appeasement, their followers will insist, will naturally lead to others. And they will probably be right.

If they do not denounce the a-holes, they will be accused of being a-holes themselves, because – quite rightly – they’re sheltering genuine a-holes.

If the outsiders are good actors (but who is in politics?) they’ll understand the limits of the possible, that the a-holes cannot be easily ejected. The leaders may not have the power to evict the a-holes (either because the group’s rules won’t let them or it will spark a much greater exodus) or the a-holes may only be part of the group by association. The outsiders will not hold the a-holes against the rest of the group.

But if the outsiders are bad actors, which describes just about everyone in politics these days, they’ll turn the a-holes into a club and use it to beat the rest of the group.

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This provokes one of two responses. The original group may disintegrate under the force of the attack and fragment as it frantically tries to please the attacker (who will see this as evidence of weakness and continue the attack). This makes it impossible for the group to actually do what it’s meant to be doing because it’s gotten bogged down in politics. Or the original group may harden its attitude – having seen more than enough evidence that the attack comes from bad actors – and embrace the a-holes before concentrate on counter-attacking. In a sense, it’s fluid identity will have hardened (as the less committed members back out) into something rather more solid (and cultish).

If your identity is defined by your group – you’re an ‘X’ politician instead of a politician who happens to be ‘X’ – you’ll find yourself caught in a trap. On one hand, as you are part of a group, you will be unable to publicly question the group without being unceremoniously kicked out (or worse). And on the other hand, outsiders will define you as being part of the group, which means you’re either an a-hole or tolerant of a-holes.

In short, you are no longer an individual but just one of the group.

And if your group defines itself by its identity …

… Outsiders may define themselves against it.

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Braveheart: The Geopolitics of Scotland

27 Mar

Scotland is both immensely difficult to conquer and immensely difficult to rule.

This simple fact has shaped much of Scottish history. The Romans raided Scotland during their rule of Britain, but they never managed to invade and ‘permanently’ occupy Scotland; the English, more persistent than the Romans, never held full control over Scotland even during the darkest years of the Wars of Independence. It was not until 1746 – nearly thirty years after the Act of Union – that London managed to assert full control over Scotland …

… And, even then, revolutionary movements continued to pose a threat.

This owes much to Scotland’s geography. While the ‘Lowlands’ are easy to reach from England, the ‘Highlands’ are much less so. Moving an army up to the far north was a daunting task – it still is, although these days there’s no risk of a real war. The clan chiefs had a great deal of autonomy, allowing them to evolve their own customs and wage private wars and feuds. These engagements didn’t always coincide with wars outside the Highlands. It was often claimed that the Lowlands were civilised while the Highlands were not. As odd as it may seem, there was some truth in this.

The downside of this was that strong government was extremely difficult. The king in Edinburgh had nominal rule over the entire country, but in practical terms his authority was very limited. Even strong kings – Robert the Bruce, William the Lion – had trouble asserting their rule in the Highlands. The smarter kings attempted to play the various clan chiefs off against one another, balancing their power so the king could become the power-broker and thus claim ultimate authority. Failure to maintain the balancing act meant disaster.

This had unfortunate implications for the monarchy. Scotland was never, historically, a rich country. Large-scale taxation was difficult, rarely bringing in enough money to support the king and his court. Scotland could not hope to build an army strong enough to confront England, let alone strike towards London. The Scots could (and did) raid the north of England, but they never posed a serious threat (apart from 1745, which we will come to in a moment.) Because the Scottish Crown was weak, England could meddle at will – English claims to overlordship could be maintained by backing pro-England factions in Scotland and trying to keep outsiders out. The Scottish Kings were never strong enough to drive out their treacherous lords.

At the same time, England had problems asserting its control over Scotland. Edward I could and did crush resistance wherever he found it, but he couldn’t reconcile the Scots to English rule. (A problem made worse by English overseers treating the Scots with contempt.) Set-piece battles almost always ended badly for the Scots, but long-term insurgencies caused far more problems for the English. So too did English wars with France – Edward I was more interested in pressing his claim to France than waging wars in Scotland.

In short, for much of its history, Scottish politics could be described as a nest of vipers – or as a crown of thorns. Feudal politics, for example, ensured that Scottish nobles – most notably ‘The Disinherited’ – often had ties to England, something that made it harder for them to be genuinely patriotic, insofar as that concept existed in 1269. (This was far from uncommon – in those days, noblemen might owe homage to several different kings, creating nightmarish conflicts over loyalty.) The Wars of Religion only made matters worse as conflicts between Catholics and Protestants (and various spin-offs) spread into Scotland. Worst of all, the Stuart Dynasty had a claim to rule England … something that caused a great many sleepless nights in London.

Balancing all these competing problems was not easy. Mary (Queen of Scots) could not maintain the balancing act and eventually fell from power, once she was forced into a position where she could no longer remain above the fray. She could – and did – have some successes, but they were always tactical. She could no more stamp her authority on her own nobility – let alone the rest of the country – than any other king.

Scotland did try to balance the English through ties to France (the Auld Alliance). Mary Queen of Scots was actually Queen of France, until her husband died. However, this rarely translated into practical help. The French were only interested in Scotland insofar as they could distract the English during wartime.

The death of Queen Elizabeth put James VI and I on the throne of England. However, this union of crowns did not reshape the political dynamic between Scotland and England. James understood Scotland well enough to rule by proxy, once he had parked his rump in England, but Charles I lacked his father’s political talent. (Worse, he was under the impression that he did have such talent.) Scotland resented his heavy-handed interference and rose up against him twice, then joined Parliament during the English Civil War. Charles lacked the ability to bring the Scots to heel, but Cromwell – a far more capable ruler – was still unable to crush Scotland completely.

(It is worth noting that the only time Scotland genuinely outmatched England was during the Bishops Wars. But Charles could not convince Parliament to fund an army – Parliament’s later New Model Army did not have that problem.)

Despite this, power was shifting rapidly to England. Scotland’s sole attempt to found an overseas colony failed spectacularly, allowing the pro-English nobles/politicians to ram through the Act of Union, uniting Scotland and England into a single country. This was bitterly resented in parts of Scotland, particularly the Highlands (many of the arguments put forward against Union would later be used against the EU.) It was generally felt that Scottish interests would be sidelined, which wasn’t entirely true. Arguably, the Scots got more representation at Westminster than they genuinely deserved. (This was no consolation to the vast majority of Scots, who didn’t have a vote.)

Scottish Nationalism, at this point, became entangled with Jacobitism. The Jacobites – supporters of the exiled James II, James Stuart and Charles Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie) – saw Scotland and the Jacobite clans as potential allies in their quest to put the Stuarts back on the English Throne. Scottish Nationalists were less keen on the idea of merely replacing one English overlord with another, but they saw the Stuarts as natural allies – the Stuarts were a Scottish dynasty. (Although how Scottish they were at that point is open for debate.) This resulted in a series of farcical uprisings, most of which were quickly suppressed. Notably, there were no major government reprisals after the Rebellion of 1715 because, simply put, the government didn’t see any major threat.

The rebellion of 1745 was a great deal more serious. Bonnie Prince Charlie had many flaws, but he was a charismatic and bold leader. He managed to unite the Jacobite clans and lead them into England, a task made easier by the fact that loyalist clans had been disarmed while rebellious clans had kept their weapons. Charles Stuart managed to pose the single greatest threat from the north that England had ever faced. However, the promises he’d made caught up with him and he was forced to withdraw back to Scotland.

It was a fatal mistake. It will never be known if Bonnie Prince Charlie would have won, if the Highlanders had pressed on to London, but they both threw away their sole chance for victory and convinced the government that the time had come to crush Scottish Nationalism once and for all. After the Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Culloden, London embarked upon a program of ethnic cleansing that smashed the old clan structure beyond repair.

In name, Scotland was still a region of the United Kingdom. In reality, this was nothing more than a formality. The handful of post-1746 uprisings were nothing more than minor headaches – many have vanished from remembered history. Real power rested in London and continues to do so.

***

Scotland’s major problem, therefore, is that England has always overshadowed it and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. England’s ability to generate military and economic power is far superior to Scotland’s. Scotland’s only real advantage, therefore, is the ability to use its terrain to its advantage, exhausting any invading army while depriving it of the chance to score a killer blow. Much of Scotland’s current prosperity is owed to England – to Britain.

The problem is made worse by intermingled loyalties. In the past, there were ‘Scottish’ noblemen who held lands in England and vice versa; now, there are countless Scots who consider themselves British. The economic and currency union between Scotland and England is merely the tip of the iceberg – Scotland and England have been tied together for so long that separation will be immensely costly. To all intents and purposes, Scotland is not a nation in any real sense.

Internationally, Scotland occupies an important strategic position. Naval and air bases in Scotland allow NATO to dominate the region. (That’s why the Royal Navy was based in Orkney during WW1 and 2.) However, Scotland does not have the independent power to take advantage of this, let alone protect itself. Nor is there any guarantee of NATO membership for Scotland, certainly not on good terms. On one hand, NATO does need Scotland; on the other, the Scots will have caused a great deal of disruption simply by withdrawing from the UK.

These factors throw the future of an independent Scotland into considerable doubt.

The Zero Blessing: How Did She Get In?

24 Mar

One of the reviews of The Zero Blessing asked, quite reasonably, how Caitlyn managed to enter Jude’s in the first place. Why wasn’t there an entrance exam? Or even a test for magical ability?

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The short answer is that there is no entrance exam. Anyone willing to pay the fees (or have their parents pay the fees) can get a place at Jude’s. The general assumption is that anyone can use magic, so it’s really just a matter of practicing and practicing until even the slowest students can use spells. (Or keep failing the exams to move up to the next level, at the end of the first year.) Cat’s father registered her (and her sisters) and no one thought anything of it. They would have been more suspicious if he hadn’t.

Rose was tested for magical ability – it was how she won the scholarship. (If you consider magic to be similar to music, Rose is the untrained talent who could be great with some proper tutoring.) It was assumed that she would pick up all the background knowledge from the other students, which is – to be fair – what happened.

Obviously, there are details I’m not going to go into about how magic works in this world, because they’re major plot points for the next two books. However, if you think about it, you’ll see that Cat’s is actually in a very lucky position – she has both the background knowledge and the training she needs to make use of her true talents. Others like her might well pass unnoticed.

<grin>

OUT NOW–The Long Road Home (A Learning Experience IV)

23 Mar

(Sorry about the delay on this – we had to travel at short notice.)

In the wake of the Solar Union’s stunning victory over the Tokomak – the masters of the galactic community – humanity has been invited to send a diplomatic mission to the Kingdom of Harmonious Order, one of the oldest and most significant races in known space. It is an opportunity that cannot be missed, a chance to forge ties with a powerful ally. And so a lone starship is dispatched to the galactic core to open discussions …

… But when that starship runs into a deadly trap, she and her crew must battle their way home before they are merely the first casualties in a renewed war.

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Sturgeon Must Go

19 Mar

As a general rule, I’m not in favour of driving politicians from office for anything less than outright criminal activity. There are several reasons for that, but the most important ones are two-fold. On one hand, politician who is forced to fight to defend his position, as Bill Clinton did during his term in office, is a politician who cannot do his job; on the other, threats of immediate removal may make it impossible for a politician to tackle any long-term project, particularly one that won’t show any short-term gains. Indeed, one of the problems pervading our current politics is a complete lack of long-term thinking.

But recent events in Scotland have convinced me that Nicola Sturgeon must go. And the sooner the better.

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The SNP had its chance to make the case for independence in 2014, when we held the ‘once in a lifetime referendum.’ It failed. There were no real grounds to vote for independence and, as I noted at the time, a large number of reasons to vote against it. History has vindicated Scotland’s choice. We now know that the SNP painted a rosy picture of Scotland’s post-independence situation that was too good to be true – and it wasn’t. The SNP either didn’t know what it was talking about or it lied. Neither one is particularly reassuring.

And yet, the SNP and Sturgeon are trying to make their case for another referendum.

The situation is worse now. BREXIT is going to happen. Scotland will find itself separated from both England and the EU. It has been made clear, just as it was made clear back in 2014, that an independent Scotland would not automatically be granted a place in the EU, let alone a significant seat at the table. Britain – or England – has enough economic clout to make the EU handle it carefully. This is not true of Scotland. We would have to accept whatever terms the EU chose to offer, if we wanted to join. (And the SNP hasn’t made a convincing case that we should join.)

It seems clear to me that Sturgeon – and the SNP – are more interested in their own power and position than Scotland’s future. They want to be leaders of an independent country, not a small political party on the fringes of a much larger political entity. There does not appear to have been any serious look at a post-independence Scotland, let alone any contingency planning for the days and weeks after a successful referendum. They want independence without, in any way, being prepared for it.

Indeed, the demand for a second referendum alone has harmed Scotland. Investors do not invest in politically-unstable countries. An independent Scotland will be a less attractive place to invest for several years, at the very least. What sort of investor would invest in a country where the laws might change tomorrow? And how is the SNP going to tackle the financial shortfall that will result from independence? As I see it, they’ll have a choice between massive spending cuts – on a scale far beyond anything London has proposed – or raising taxes. But both of these options will bring major problems in their wake.

Spending cuts will cause unrest, of course. They will be staggeringly unpopular. But raising taxes will also be disastrous. Large corporations will flee Scotland; smaller companies and business will fold. And high-earning Scots will also flee. There’s an entire community of Scotsman who work in London and live in Edinburgh. All they have to do is move south to avoid paying such high taxes! Somehow, I can’t see London bothering to stop them when it means more money for England.

Nicola Sturgeon is simply unfit for office. Instead of doing what she can to improve Scotland’s position – and prove that the SNP is fit to actually govern – she is trying to grandstand on the global stage. Picking a fight with London when London is trying to negotiate the best BREXIT terms possible merely undermines Britain; taking cheap pot-shots at Donald Trump was stupid when there was a possibility, however remote, that Trump would be elected President. Sturgeon would have enough problems negotiating with Washington over Scotland’s NATO commitments without some degree of personal dislike.

Sturgeon will not suffer if independence came to pass. Even in a worst-case situation, with the economy collapsing into rubble, Sturgeon would survive. She might be voted out of office, but the book deals would keep her afloat. She would not end up being kicked out of her home because she can’t keep up with the mortgage and begging in the gutter because she cannot afford a place to stay. But hundreds of thousands of ordinary Scots will suffer. The glory of an independent Scotland will not feed and clothe them. Sturgeon is, in short, grossly irresponsible. In many ways, she is gambling with neither cards nor stake.

Nor, perhaps, will the SNP. Scotland is effectively a single-party state. The SNP has not had to fight for victory, not really. But single-party states – at best – stagnate because there is neither competition nor an influx of new blood. Will the post-independence Scottish Tories prove competition? Or will the SNP grow fat and complacent until more radical parties rise up to demand change? Will the SNP forget – as some say it already has – that the will of the people is paramount? The SNP has already shown a dangerous disregard for democracy.

What will it do if Scotland becomes independent?

It is time for some realism. And that means acknowledging that independence is not on the cards, not now. Scotland is part of the UK and will remain so for the foreseeable future. And that means dismissing Sturgeon from office before she damages Scotland’s position beyond repair.

Sturgeon must go.

OUT NOW– The Zero Blessing (The Zero Enigma I)

18 Mar

The start of a new fantasy trilogy!

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Caitlyn Aguirre should have been a magician. Her family certainly expected her to be a magician. But by the time she reached her twelfth birthday, Caitlyn hadn’t even managed to cast a single spell! In desperation, her parents send her – and her magical sisters – to Jude’s Sorcerous Academy, her last best chance to discover her powers.

But as she struggles to survive her classes without a single spell to her name, Caitlyn starts to uncover an ancient mystery that may prove the key to her true powers …

… If she lives long enough to find it.

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The Fists of Justice Chapter One–DVD Commentary

15 Mar

Chapter One

The air … smelled.

Emily was dimly aware, at the back of her mind, that someone was knocking on a wooden door. And yet, it didn’t seem important. She wasn’t even entirely sure where she was. The ground was shifting beneath her, sending up alarm bells she couldn’t quite hear. And yet …

“Emily,” a voice called. A male voice. “Wake up!”

My original intention was to have Emily have a nightmare, which would do double duty as a brief recap. I did that before, so I decided she deserved a more sedate waking this time <grin>.

Emily jerked awake. She was on a ship, she recalled; a merchant ship that did double duty as a warship, when the seafaring states went to war. And she was heading to Beneficence. And Casper was dead …

“I’m awake,” she managed. She opened her eyes. Her stomach muttered rebelliously. “I’ll be along in a moment.”

“Good,” General Pollack said. His voice was so close that she looked around in alarm before realising that he was on the far side of a wooden door. “Come meet me on the quarterdeck when you’re ready.”

Emily nodded to herself as she heard the sound of his footsteps striding away. She was, as far as she knew, the only woman on the ship, although General Pollack had told her stories of young girls who’d run away to sea and somehow managed to conceal their gender for decades. Emily wasn’t sure how that was possible – she’d seen the crew quarters and their complete lack of privacy – but she was prepared to take his word for it. She might have tried to run away too, if she’d thought it possible. And, perhaps, if she’d had any stomach for seafaring. She’d been on the boat for five days and she still felt seasick.

It would be very difficult for a young girl to conceal her gender in such circumstances, although it might be possible if she was very careful. There are only a handful of cases that I know about in the Royal Navy – but, of course, those were the ones who were caught. A girl who established herself as a reliable hand before being discovered might be able to rely on her fellows to keep her secret.

Obviously, Emily isn’t even trying.

She sat upright, glancing around the cabin. It belonged to the captain, who’d flatly refused to let anyone else give up their sleeping space to the young sorceress, noblewoman and war heroine. Emily would have been more impressed if she hadn’t known that the captain had moved into his first mate’s cabin, who in turn had displaced the officer directly below him … she shook her head, telling herself that she should be grateful. The cabin was cramped and smelly, despite the gilded wooden bulkheads, but it was private. She’d seen the way some of the sailors – and officers – looked at her when they thought she wasn’t looking.

Swinging her legs over the side, she stood, careful not to bang her head on the low ceiling as she slipped on her shoes. Sleeping in her clothes made her feel icky, but there was no way she’d wear a nightgown, let alone sleep naked, on the ship. She took some water from her canteen and splashed it on her face, then examined her face in the mirror. Her hair was a mess – she hadn’t had a chance to take a hair-growth potion back in Farrakhan – and her face was pale, dark circles clearly visible around her eyes. She looked distressingly like a raccoon – or, perhaps, someone who’d come off worst in a fight. Her shirt and trousers looked unclean, as if they hadn’t been washed for a few days. The only real consolation was that most of the crew looked worse.

We should have teleported, she thought, as she felt the deck shifting beneath her feet. Her legs felt wobbly, just for a second. I could have teleported us both back to Cockatrice and we could have crossed the bridge there.

As a general rule, the dead are brought back to Beneficence via sea – the sea being an important part of the city’s life. In this case, Emily and the General travelled to a port five days from the city and boarded Willow there.

She took a sip of seasickness potion – it wasn’t strong enough to provide more than minimal relief, but anything stronger would have impaired her mind – and headed for the door. General Pollack had insisted on taking his son’s remains home via ship, despite her objections. In hindsight, Emily told herself, she should have asked to remain at Farrakhan with Sergeant Miles or even asked the sergeant to prolong her apprenticeship for an additional couple of weeks. But she hadn’t.

I was in two minds about cursing Emily with sea-sickness. On one hand, it’s a reasonable weakness; on the other, it seems a little pointless after a while. I was pretty seasick the first time I went on a large ship, although that faded soon enough. But a wooden sailing ship would be considerably less stable than a cruise liner.

The smell – too many humans in too close proximity, mingled with salt water – grew stronger as she pushed her way out into the corridor. She could hear chatter coming from far too close to her, but she couldn’t see anyone. A metal grate, set within the wooden deck, led down to the lower decks. The sailors would be down there, she knew; the night crew would be trying to rest, even as the day crew went to work. She wondered, absently, why some of the crew were talking. They’d be keeping their comrades awake.

Or maybe not, she thought, as she walked into the next compartment. They’ll be so tired they can sleep through anything.

She drew in her breath as she saw the coffin, mounted neatly on a wooden block. It was a simple design, with a name and a handful of runes carved into the wood. And yet, it was empty. Casper’s body had been blasted into dust, the remains drifting down towards the nexus point and vanishing. No spell she knew could salvage anything that was indisputably Casper. But General Pollack had insisted on taking a coffin home anyway. Emily didn’t think that was healthy, yet she knew everyone grieved in their own way.

Never having had children or siblings, Emily doesn’t quite grok any of this.

You’d think differently if you lost a child, she told herself. You’d want to believe that some of him had been laid to rest too.

A small book lay on top of the coffin, protected by a simple wardspell. Emily felt a twinge of pain, remembering just how many magicians and officers had written a brief farewell into its pages. Casper had deserved better, even if he had died a hero. Far too many others had already been forgotten, after dying in defence of the Allied Lands. No one, as far as she knew, had any idea how many soldiers and civilians had actually died. Most of them would only be mourned by their families.

Because common soldiers are largely worthless, as far as the nobility and sorcerers are concerned. That’s going to change, as firearms become more common, but for the moment it’s just a fact of life. Countless tiny heroics will be forgotten because they were done by a commoner. On the plus side, Gaius won’t be forgotten for a long time either.

She shook her head, then turned and headed for the outer door. A gust of cold air struck her as she pushed it open and stepped out onto the deck. Willow was rolling, gently, as she made her way along the green coastland, her deck shivering as she ploughed her way through the uneven waves. Emily felt her stomach twist and swallowed hard, promising that she wouldn’t throw up in front of the sailors. Her legs felt unsteady as she forced herself to walk towards the quarterdeck. Every movement felt, to her, as though the ship was on the verge of capsizing. She told herself, firmly, that her mind was playing tricks on her, but it didn’t feel very convincing. She’d never managed to get her sea legs.

Willow felt small to her, even though she’d been in more confined spaces. Emily couldn’t help thinking that she was tiny, compared to a ship on Earth. Ninety crew and ten guests, all crammed into her hull … she turned as she heard a shout, just in time to see a young boy scrambling up the mainmast and into the crow’s nest. The boy couldn’t be anything like old enough to shave, let alone go to Whitehall. It still surprised her, even now, to see children performing adult tasks. The four sailors who scrambled up to the forward sails dwarfed the cabin boy.

The Nameless World doesn’t really believe that childhood should be prolonged – kids start working as soon as they’re physically capable, even moving to more advanced and dangerous work fairly quickly. This wasn’t uncommon during the Age of Sail – Nelson joined the Royal Navy at twelve. Here, young boys are actually nimbler than their older peers.

Emily finds this rather disquieting, of course.

“My Lady,” Captain Rackham said. “Thank you for sharing my table.”

Emily – reluctantly – held out her hand for him to kiss, then withdrew it as soon as she decently could. Captain Rackham looked like a pirate, right down to the black waistcoat and the cutlass on his belt. He probably was a pirate from time to time, she knew; Willow was fast enough to catch and overwhelm anything smaller than a full-fledged warship, if there were no witnesses. No one would ask too many questions either. The Empire had worked hard to keep the seas clear of pirates, but it had been a long time since anyone had been in a position to patrol the waves.

Like many other traders from the Age of Sail, Captain Rackham (named for a pirate) has no particular qualms about a little piracy from time to time.

“Please, be seated,” Captain Rackham added. “My table is your table.”

“Thank you,” Emily said.

She sat next to General Pollack, silently welcoming the older man’s presence as she nibbled a piece of hardtack and salt beef. A midshipman – probably under contract to the captain – passed Emily a glass of lime juice, his eyes flickering over her face as if he were trying to memorise every detail. Emily braced herself, then drank the glass at one swallow. It was so sour that she hadn’t been surprised when the captain had told her that some of the sailors refused to drink it, even though it was the only thing protecting them from scurvy. He’d made it clear that he expected everyone on his ship to drink their juice, even if they weren’t part of his crew. It kept them safe.

The other passengers made small talk, making no effort to include her. Emily was silently grateful, even though she knew they probably considered it standoffishness. Her stomach left her in no state for idle chatter. She listened, saying nothing, as the passengers chatted about the war, bouncing question after question off General Pollack. Thankfully, none of them knew who she was. They’d be much more insistent on trying to open lines of communication if they’d known the truth. She might be in exile – technically – but she was still Baroness Cockatrice. Her word was gold.

One of my readers suggested that this was a little arrogant, if not OOC, for Emily. It probably does need revising. On the other hand, Emily’s word does carry weight – more, perhaps, than she realises. She could probably make the difference between success and failure for any number of business ventures, if she offered her verbal backing.

King Randor probably feels otherwise, she thought, ruefully.

General Pollack elbowed her, gently. “Eat more,” he warned. “We’ll be heading into land soon.”

Emily made a face as the midshipman placed a small bowl of stew in front of her, but tried to eat it anyway. It tasted faintly unpleasant, as if the meat had been cooked in vinegar. And yet, she knew she was eating better than any of the sailors. They were lucky if they got hardtack and salted fish. She’d seen a number of crewmen fishing during the voyage, trying to catch something to supplement their rations. Apparently, anyone who caught a fish was allowed to keep half of it for himself.

She glanced from face to face, reminding herself – again – that the Nameless World was strikingly diverse. Four merchants, one of them accompanied by his eldest son; three noblemen, who could presumably have used a portal and a lone man who said nothing, his eyes flickering everywhere. The merchants were chatting loudly about steam engines and what they’d do to shipping, once the first steamboats set out on the open sea. Emily couldn’t help noticing that the captain seemed vaguely affronted by the suggestion. Willow wouldn’t be able to compete if – when – the steamboats lived up to their promise.

As long as they have wood or coal to burn, she reminded herself. All this ship needs is a strong wind.

“Come,” General Pollack said. Emily looked down at her bowl and discovered, to her surprise, that she’d finished it. “We’re just rounding the headland now.”

Emily followed him, all too aware of eyes watching her as they climbed down the ladder and headed to the prow. The sailors might enjoy looking at a young woman, but the passengers were more interested in marriage alliances. General Pollack had had to explain that his charge was already engaged, much to Captain Rackham’s amusement. He was the only one who knew the truth. Emily would have found it amusing if it hadn’t been so annoying. Had they really expected that General Pollack would give them her hand in marriage?

My original intention was that everyone would know who Emily was, then I decided that Emily wouldn’t want to be publicly recognised. Having her pose as the General’s distant relative – on his side of the family – provides a workable cover story. Hardly anyone, in the days without wiki, could poke holes in the story without an insane amount of research. Captain Rackham knows the truth, but he’s the only one – keeping her identity secret means a bonus for him.

They think you’re his niece, she reminded herself. And your uncle would have considerable power over your marriage.

She pushed the thought aside as she joined General Pollack at the prow. A young lad was sitting at the very front of the ship, mounted on the bowsprit above the wooden mermaid figurehead. Emily couldn’t help thinking that he looked awfully unbalanced as he carried out his duties, but the cabin boy seemed to take it in his stride. He practically had the sea in his blood. Chances were, Emily recalled, that he was a sailor’s son, born and raised by the docks. Going to sea would have seemed natural.

“The captain is altering course,” General Pollack commented. He pointed a finger towards the shoreline. “What do you make of that?”

Emily frowned, holding up her hand to block out the sunlight as she peered into the haze. A faint smudge of utter darkness could be seen … a black cloud, hanging in the air over a distant bay. It was raining … wasn’t it? Underneath, there were jagged rocks and the remains of a building. A castle, perhaps, or a lighthouse. It stood on its own, completely isolated. There were no other signs of habitation. And yet, the cloud seemed to pulse, as if it had a malignant mind of its own …

A hand fell on her shoulder. She jumped.

“Careful,” General Pollack said. “People have been known to be … to be touched, even at this distance.”

Emily gave him a sharp look. “What is it?”

“It used to be called Roderick’s Bay,” General Pollack said. “Now, everyone calls it Bad Luck Bay.”

He lifted his hand, making an odd gesture towards the cloud. “Roderick was a sorcerer, perhaps one of the most powerful sorcerers in the world,” he added. “He was the lord and master of a small community on the edge of the Barony of Swanhaven. Thirty or so years ago, he vanished into his tower and started work on a new spell. A year after that, the tower collapsed into rubble and that thing” – he nodded at the cloud – “appeared over the remains. Since then, anyone foolish enough to go too close has suffered terrible bad luck. The community he ruled broke up shortly afterwards, most of its inhabitants heading south into Swanhaven. It was quite a scandal at the time.”

Emily frowned. “What was he doing?”

“No one knows,” General Pollack said. “But no one will risk going into the bay. Ships have been known to run aground on rocks that weren’t there before the … well, whatever he did.”

“And no one saw anything of him,” Emily guessed.

“No one,” General Pollack agreed.

I actually enjoy mentioning concepts and story hooks long before they actually come into prominence. You’ll recall that I mentioned the prospect of outright war – a resumption of the war – back in Infinite Regress – and introduced Master Grey in Work Experience. I have notes for quite a few stories, not all of them featuring Emily, that will follow up on these hooks.

Bad Luck Bay … well, we’ll be going there one day.

The mist hanging over the coastline grew thicker as Willow advanced steadily westwards, the captain and first mate barking incomprehensible orders that rang in Emily’s ears. Seagulls appeared out of nowhere, cawing to one another as they landed on the sails. The sailors cheered as the first bird touched down, then returned to their work. It was proof, Emily supposed, that they were nearly home, even though they’d been close to land for most of the voyage. No one in their right mind would want to set sail on the Great Sea, let alone the Roaring Depths. Very few ships that headed away from the mainland were ever seen again.

As of ‘now,’ there’s no way to cross the Great Sea.

But there is a third continent, Emily recalled. She’d seen the map, carved into the stone deep below Whitehall. What’s waiting for us there?

She smiled, despite herself, as she saw the pod of dolphins jumping through the waves, showing themselves briefly before disappearing back under the water. They didn’t show any fear of the boat, even though fishermen sometimes hunting dolphins. Perhaps they were trained … or, perhaps, they realised the large boat wasn’t a fishing ship, let alone a giant whaler. The sailors had told dozens of stories about men who’d set off to hunt the whales, only to discover that the whales could fight back. Without harpoon guns, hunting whales was a dangerous endeavour.

And that might change, she thought. What happens when someone invents a harpoon gun?

“Watch,” General Pollack said. The mist was growing stronger, gusts of wind blowing water into her face. “You’ll never forget this.”

Emily took hold of the rail and held on, tightly, as Willow started to roll alarmingly. She saw – she thought she saw – glimpses of rocks, just below the surface, visible for bare seconds before vanishing under the waves. They weren’t about to run aground, were they? She hoped – prayed – that the captain knew what he was doing. If worse came to worst, she told herself firmly, she could teleport off sinking ship …

… If, of course, she had time to cast the spell.

The mist parted, suddenly. Emily sucked in her breath, honestly awed, as Beneficence came into view. She’d seen the city before, from the shore, but this was different. Beneficence was perched on a towering rock, a strange mixture of buildings mounted on buildings that seemed to reach up towards the sky. Hundreds of people were clearly visible, climbing up and down ladders that went all the way down to the waterline, where they met tiny boats tied up by the cliff face. The sight took her breath away.

My general concept of Beneficence is a cross between Gibraltar, Manhattan and Malé – a mid-sized city perched on a large rock. It owes its independence to a combination of dangerous rivers and a thriving sea trade – blockading the city is impossible with the tech they have on hand. Perversely, that may change in the very near future.

Willow rounded the edge of the rock, then seemed to spin in place before lunging into a giant bay. The Caldron was immense, crammed with ships of all shapes and sizes; behind them, Emily could see ladders and steps that led up to the city above. It felt almost claustrophobic to her, as if it was both large and terrifyingly small; the water heaved and boiled, threatening to push the ship in all directions. The tiny beach on one edge of the Caldron seemed almost an afterthought. There were so many children playing in the sand that there just didn’t seem to be enough room. Their older siblings were scrambling over the rocks, scooping up crabs and dropping them into buckets. They’d make good eating, if cooked properly.

This owes a great deal to a similar beach I saw in Malé, in the Maldives. Pretty much the entire island is a cramped city, save for that little space.

“We’ll be the first off the ship, once we’re tied up,” General Pollack said. “Your bag will be delivered directly to the house.”

Emily nodded. She hadn’t brought much, beyond a change of clothes. Her staff and some of her other tools had been left with Sergeant Miles, who’d promised to take them back to Whitehall for her. There was nothing dangerous in her rucksack, certainly nothing of use to anyone else.

“Ah,” General Pollack said. He pointed towards the docks. “The welcoming committee.”

Emily smiled, despite herself. Caleb was standing there, wearing a long dark cloak. Beside him …

“Frieda?”

“Lady Barb suggested that your friend be invited too,” General Pollack said. He looked oddly amused. “I trust she will be a suitable chaperone?”

The fact that Emily and Caleb are in a relationship isn’t exactly a secret, but there’s a strong ‘what happens at Whitehall stays at Whitehall’ tradition. Here, with plenty of prying eyes, it’s better to have someone playing chaperone. It isn’t a perfect arrangement, as Frieda is also of marriageable age

“I think so,” Emily said.

“Very good,” General Pollock said. Willow bumped against the dock, a trio of sailors scrambling down to secure the lines. “Welcome to Beneficence!”