Preview: Blood in the Gray (Episode 1)
Updated: Mar 17
Below is the complete first episode of J.D. Mankowski's Kindle Vella series 'Blood in the Gray'(releasing in 2023).
Episode 1: The Drop
“We’ve arrived, Captain,” First Mate Roydon stated over the sound of the Gray sea lapping against the siding of the ship. “It’s time.”
“Finally,” Jain Cetmor answered. “Have the plank laid starboard.”
“You’re giving him a chance to swim to the mines?”
Jain waved up toward the starless sky. “There’s a slim chance to find any coast tonight. The Drop will claim him. But on the chance that it doesn’t, the last thing I want him doing is washing up near Copper’s Town.”
“Should we bleed him for the fins?” Roydon asked.
“While I agree with your sentiment, as Bannermen we must abide by Righteous Law. Mr. Cane must enter the Drop unharmed.” Captain Cetmor studied Roydon for a moment as the sound of a trumpet ordered the crew to assemble on the middeck. “That being said,” he continued, “there’s nothing written that states we need to remove his shackles.”
Roydon considered the Drop's undertow. It’d be a more merciful death than letting the murderous wretch swim with the hope of finding land.
“The crew is ready at your request, Captain,” Tilla Verre said. She was the Second Mate of the ship, one of the best.
“Then it’s time,” Jain told her. “I want all swords aimed at the line from the brig to the plank. If Mr. Cane so much as staggers in a direction other than forward, he’s to be killed for attempting escape.”
Tilla nodded before shouting the order to the crew.
Roydon looked out eastward. The night was truly dark. Even the forested peaks of Driftwood Isle were absent from view. If he were a superstitious man, he might have believed that The Collector had swallowed the entire ship whole for Vasil Cane's soul.
“Something troubling you, lieutenant?” Jain asked while examining his own yellow waistcoat.
“No, Captain. I’m just relieved we made it around the Scorpion's Den without any trouble.”
Jain scoffed. “Marauders might attack a Bannerman sloop, but their ships are no match for a Spear.” Jain gripped the helm’s wheel with pride. “And there’s no honor among them. They’re all factions squabbling over merchant ships they’ve raided.”
“But Cane’s as close to a leader as they’ve ever had, they call him the Gray King.”
“Called," Jain corrected. "And they all knew he was just a man." He flicked a clump of sand off of his lapel. “Those pebbledread tales in the papers made him out to be a phantom, but that was all drabble for profit.” His voice echoed loud enough for the crew to overhear.
Roydon watched a few sailors look wearily out into the night as if expecting to see a fleet of smaller ships bearing the Red Sigil.
Having spent the better part of his life aboard The Honorable IV, Roydon had only ever seen marauders try to attack in deep waters twice, and while the Drop was not considered the open sea, its depths, rapids and undertow made it equally deadly. But those marauders who had attacked the Honorable IV hadn't sailed under the command of Vasil Cane, they hadn't sworn their lives to a man so twisted by evil that every settlement in the west feared his name.
“Swords,” Jain growled having now finished his preening.
Tilla parrotted the order and fifty rasping blades shimmered in the ship’s torchlight.
Roydon moved away from the helm and motioned for a cabin boy to approach him. “Inform Dunn and Telimer that the plank is to be positioned starboard.”
The young boy, no older than twelve, bowed his shaved head before running off to deliver the message.
“Do you think we ought to send a few extra sailors to retrieve Cane from his cell?” Tilla asked Roydon.
It was a smart question to raise given the marauder’s record of evading capture. Roydon could see the stiffness in her posture, the calculated fear that scanned the crew. They had sailed together for years, and he had never known her to be visibly anxious like this. It manifested from something more concrete than the descriptions of Cane’s treachery in the pebbledreads. Like the frigid waters of high tide, whatever it was, it crept up in slow oscillating increments.
Then Tilla’s weariness latched onto his own. Ten years worth of the worst tales surrounding Vasil Cane came rushing back. Some were far-fetched, stating that an entire fleet of Bannermen ships had been set ablaze by just a flick of Cane’s hand. But other atrocities had been documented, captured on argenfilm, and shared in naval training. Cane preferred to gut his victims and make art from their innards across the decks of ships he raided.
Roydon had sentenced a dozen marauders from the Honorable IV before tonight. He’d seen them walk the plank on the Drop, flogged at Windfall, and hung in Hogsport.
The patriotism that typically swelled from onlookers had been lost to him for some time. He had grown numb to the delivery of punishment. Until tonight.
An eerie silence hung in the air as the stationed crew waited for their prisoner to surface from the brig below. Roydon could feel the thump of his heart in his chest.
“Do you think we ought to send a few extra sailors to retrieve Cane?” Tilla repeated.
The splash of a kedge anchor stirred Roydon from his thoughts. “No,” he answered quickly. Four armed guards and shackles could hold Cane, he hoped.
“Have you seen him yet?” Tilla asked.
Roydon shook his head in response. “I was in my quarters when they brought him aboard.”
“So was I.” Tilla crossed her arms. “The secrecy surrounding his transport seems pointless, especially after they paraded him through both Port Idon and Diamond Port. This whole ship should have been called to attention when they brought him to us.”
“They needed eyewitnesses for the papers to talk about a helpless criminal, not a fearsome monster that may yet escape.”
“Still, I’ll feel better when the day breaks,” Tilla said. “I need some time back on land.”
“Planning on dining at the Aviary?” Roydon joked.
“I’ll dine just about anywhere with a hot meal or fresh vegetables,” she replied. Her eyes were fixed on the stairs leading up from the hull. "I've been ordered to serve on the Courageous Eight for the next prison transport."
"Lucky you," Roydon mumbled. "Who'd you piss off?"
"Not here," Tilla answered under her breath.
“Copper’s tavern for a hot meal, vegetables, and a story it is then.”
The sharp roll of a snare drum sounded from the middeck. Roydon glanced towards the side of the ship to ensure the plank had been laid into position. Captain Cetmor stared up at the heavy blackness in a half-bored, half-tired way. The man would not leave the helm until Vasil stood before the plank.
“How did they even capture him?” Tilla asked. “I haven’t heard any of the details.” She pulled her hair back into a tighter ponytail, before repositioning her tri-cornered hat.
“Taraan spies got word of Cane’s position,” Roydon said with unwavering certainty.
Then the harsh clanking of metal chain links raked across the wooden steps below deck.
Swords were gripped more tightly. There wasn’t nearly enough light for a moment like this. The sea breeze battled the torches long enough for elongated shadows to play tricks on Roydon’s eyes.
The clanking grew louder. It drowned out the sounds of feverish waves pulling the ship through the Drop.
Two bannermen carrying appeared first from the stairwell. They walked along the path designated by pointed swords. Then came the front guard. His sword was drawn and held ceremoniously across his chest, its tip was aimed over his left shoulder. The sailor took three long paces away from the stairs before turning around. With a flourish of his blade, he then took aim at the gaunt figure that ascended into view.
A wild mane of dark hair fell in slick curls to Vasil Cane’s shoulders. Despite the cold air, the man was shirtless. A mess of open wounds from his flogging in Great Port intersected a myriad of tattoos.
Black lines of various patterns and ancient lettering coiled around the marauder like snakes. The ink trailed from his fingertips to his collarbone, around his torso, and down into the waistline of his bloodstained breeches.
The iron shackles were drawn tight between Cane’s wrists and ankles, forcing him to slouch his way toward the plank. The excess chain weight dragged behind him.
One of the sailors spat at Cane’s face. “That’s for Benri,” they said.
The chained marauder uttered a low and dispassionate laugh. “Do you think I remember who the fuck your Benri was?” Cane replied.
Before the sailor could do anything more, the guard who had followed in Cane’s wake positioned herself sternly between them. Her sword was held only a short distance from the prisoner’s spine, but she looked at her fellow bannerman - challenging him to test her, to test the laws they both had vowed to uphold.
Captain Cetmor cleared his throat, a non-verbal command for Roydon and Tilla to start their own procession. Their movement was a reminder amidst the tension that more righteous eyes were watching. Roydon and Tilla drew their swords and pressed them on a diagonal across their chests.
Roydon felt the pulse of his heart in the palm of his sword-hand. He tried to ignore it. He tried to remain expressionless, but a voice in the back of his head encouraged him to disregard Righteous Law. Roydon didn’t know who Benri had been or how he had died, but Roydon knew there were hundreds, if not thousands of people just like Benri - good people, now dead.
“Kneel,” Roydon demanded through gritted teeth as he came within arm’s length of the marauder.
“I said, kneel,” Roydon repeated.
Tilla signaled to the two armed guards that had escorted Cane to the plank, and they each pressed a hand firmly down on his shoulders.
Cane locked his legs in place. “I’ve never taken an order from a canary. Tonight won’t be any different,” he said.
“If he wishes to stand, so be it. It’ll save us from having to order him to stand up after his sentence has been delivered,” Captain Cetmor said in a haughty tone.
Roydon and Tilla stepped aside so their captain could address the prisoner face-to-face, but not before Roydon could catch a glimpse of Vasil’s unnatural eyes. It was rumored that Cane had once gazed upon The Collector's cursed treasure at the edge of the world, and was marked for doing so.
“Vasil Cane, you have been brought here today by the honest order of Righteous Law. As stated in Taraan's Western Occupation Decree, any turncoat privateer who has succumbed to raiding the good people-”
“Not all of them were good,” Cane interjected. “Some were rather unsavory if we’re being honest.”
Jain frowned despite having heard his fair share of flippant rebukes from marauders before. “You are sentenced here today for raiding, smuggling...”
“I can’t be sentenced for smuggling, I was never caught doing it,” Cane interjected.
“... for committing acts of war against the Righteous Crown, for committing multiple acts of arson both on land and at sea…”
“The pebbledreads blamed me for the Hogsport fire, but that wasn’t my doing.”
“And murder,” Jain finished. “The punishment for any number of these crimes is deliverance at sea. Your constant negligence in following the law as a citizen has consequently stripped you of your right to a public trial. Your crimes and their weight upon your soul will be judged by the Gray. Should you return ashore alive, you will be considered a new man, absolved of your wretched deeds and born anew.”
Cane looked at Roydon. “That seems rather unlikely to me, don’t you agree?” A vile grin revealed yellowed teeth behind his freezing lips.
Roydon heard the captain’s sentencing continue with the mentionings of the Crown, the Good Folk, and the Makar Trade Federation, but he was no longer listening. His free hand twitched for the knuckle knife sheathed on his belt. The fins would be hunting for food until dawn.
“Any last words?” Captain Cetmor asked.
“As if the right people would be here to hear them,” Cane chuckled darkly. "No Jain, let's just get on with it."
Captain Cetmor nodded toward the guards on either side of Cane. They directed him onto the plank as the sharp roll of a snare drum began to play. The crew turned to witness justice. Those furthest from the site sheathed their swords.
Cane balanced himself on the long slab of wood and stepped towards the threshold between the ship and the sea.
"I take it that these are a parting gift?" He asked before giving his shackles a shake.
"A physical representation of the weight of your guilt, should you carry none within," Captain Cetmor answered. He then signaled for Roydon to ensure Cane stepped out to the plank's edge.
The wind swept over the deck and dimmed the torches held by the guards. Roydon sheathed his sword, before drawing his knife discreetly. Then he stepped out over the open water and walked halfway across the plank.
Cane stopped at the edge and turned back to face the ship. The wind pushed his wild hair to one side so that his eyes were visible for all to see - two wells of cursed black water infused with starlight.
The drummer gave a final roll and clap on his snare.
Roydon closed the space between him and Cane. He jabbed his knife into the marauder's abdomen and twisted it.
The waves crashed against the ship, erupting like thunder.
But before Roydon could retract the knife and tuck it out of sight from the crew, Cane caught him by the wrist.
"That wasn’t very righteous of you," Cane said. He pulled Roydon's hand closer to him so that the blade of the knuckle knife pressed deeper still. "It will take a lot more than this to kill me. I'll be seeing you back at port," he said.
Then Cane released Roydon's wrist and leaned back towards the sea. He fell into the Gray and was declared dead by the Honorable IV.