Today I get to do a bit of a happy dance, Gus is taking over my blog and I couldn’t be happier.  Not only is she the author of Ash and Echoes, which if you like fantasy, you have to read, she also did the awesome map for the Last Grand Master.  Ice and Embers, the second book of the Blessed Epoch series and the sequel to Ash and Echoes – is now out. So if you’ve read Ash and Echoes, get book two now, if you didn’t read the first one, buy them both and be prepared to be happy.

Today, Gus is going to tell us a bit more about Sasha, one her favorite characters ever.  I have to say that after reading Ash and Echoes, Sasha was my favorite character from the book as well. And if that wasn’t enough, she has graciously proved us readers a rather lengthy excerpt from Ice and Embers. So settle in, read up and tell Gus what you think when you’ve finished.


The Unlikely Favorite

Hello all! Augusta Li here, better known as Gus. Many thanks to Andy for the kind invitation to guest blog today. I’ll be talking about tropes in romance, taking chances on characters, staying true to them, and one of my favorite creations.

Please be warned, this post contains some small spoilers if you haven’t read Ash and Echoes.

Sometimes a writer is fortunate enough to encounter a character who they understand so well he seems to write himself. Meeting such a character, for me as an author, is the most fun you can have, because it takes a good deal of the drudgery out of character creation and removes a lot of the doubts. It can feel like just chasing after him holding a camera and a pad to jot down his dialogue. So, when a writer is lucky enough to cross paths with such a character, they shouldn’t fight him or try to change him, right?  What if he is, in many ways, the absolute antithesis of what romance readers expect from a protagonist? Does the author present the character as he has presented himself, or try to reshape him into something a little more expected and likable?

chibi Sasha

If you haven’t guessed or aren’t familiar with my work, I’m talking about my assassin, Sasha. He’s quite possibly my favorite character ever, and he’s very easy for me to write, down to small gestures. He’s also duplicitous, manipulative, cold, often void of compassion, and an unapologetic killer. I knew as soon as I met him that Sasha wasn’t the type of assassin who did what he had to do and then felt guilty, was haunted by his deeds, or secretly had a heart of gold. He has been trained from early childhood to mistrust and repress his emotions, to use subtle facial expressions to coerce or influence others, and most importantly, to form attachment to nothing. He is a master of stealth, poison, tracking and of course combat. Sasha likes his work and is proud of his skill. Nor is he above taking advantage of the uneasiness he inspires in others. He’s also happy to use more pleasurable means of manipulation. Results are his only concern.

When I decided not to soften Sasha to broaden his appeal, I also knew I couldn’t force him into the “redeemed by love” trope. Though he does grow throughout the series, he never does a complete reversal, renounces his evil ways, or becomes a “good” character. He remains a paragon of neutrality: calculating, pragmatic, and in favor of efficiency over morality. While Duncan (my knight, on the cover of Ice and Embers) will do what is right even if it isn’t effective, while Sasha will do what’s effective even if it’s nowhere near acceptable by most people’s standards. He stays distant and retains his mystique—except in regards to his partners, Yarrow and Duncan. Sasha also kills on camera. I wanted to show how he could be scary, not just tell readers he was dangerous. Even his “good deed” at the end of Ash and Echoes, was, by his own admission, motivated by selfishness.

So I left Sasha as he wanted to be, because I liked him and couldn’t imagine him otherwise. I waited for readers to hate him and braced myself.

Something surprising happened, though. As reviews started to come in and I talked with readers on chats, Goodreads and Facebook, I found, overwhelmingly, Sasha was their favorite of the three protagonists. I wondered why. Was it his tight leather armor? His unabashed exploitation of his own sensuality? I can’t speak for anyone else, but those are part of the reason I love Sasha. I also admire his level of skill. I can count on him to get the job done. As deceitful as he can be when it serves him, he doesn’t lie to himself. He knows what he is and isn’t ashamed. Sasha has never valued anyone or anything—he’s been taught doing so is a weakness—but when he finds Yarrow and Duncan, he’s willing to anything to keep them from harm. He has a sense of honor, it’s just uniquely his.

IceEmbers_color-1 (2)Ash and Echoes and Ice and Embers are both available from Dreamspinner Press. Here’s the blurb and an excerpt from the latest, Ice and Embers:So, fellow authors and readers, how do you feel about morally ambiguous characters who lean a little (or more than a little) toward the dark side? What is it that makes these characters likable? The aura of mystery? Their practicality and the stones to do what needs to be done without moral vacillation? Is it just that bad boys are hot? Is it respect for such polished skill, or something else? If you have read my work, what’s your opinion? Do you like Sasha, and why? If you don’t, feel free to say so. I promise I won’t tell him….

Despite their disparate natures, Yarrow, Duncan, and Sasha united against overwhelming odds to save Prince Garith’s life. Now Garith is king and the three friends may be facing their undoing.

Distraught over Yarrow’s departure to find the cure to his magical affliction, Duncan struggles with his new role as Bairn of Windwake, a realm left bankrupt by his predecessor. Many of Duncan’s vassals conspire against him, and Sasha’s unorthodox solutions to Duncan’s problem have earned them the contempt of Garith’s nobles.

When word reaches Duncan and Sasha that Yarrow is in danger, they want nothing more than to rush to his aid. But Duncan’s absence could tip Windwake into the hands of his enemies. In addition, a near-mythic order of assassins wants Sasha dead. Without Yarrow, Duncan and Sasha can’t take the fight to the assassins. They are stuck, entangled in a political world they don’t understand. But finding Yarrow may cause more problems, and with his court divided, King Garith must strike a balance between supporting his friends and assuaging the nobles who want Duncan punished—and Sasha executed.

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THE bairn of Windwake cast off his golden ceremonial cloak emblazoned with the crag eagle livery and let it fall heavily to the stone floor of his chambers. Duncan collapsed into an upholstered chair by the inglenook and rubbed his forehead. The fire had long ago diminished to embers, leaving the expansive suite dark and chill on this early spring night. Ruling Windwake had turned out nothing like he’d imagined, and the stresses of yet another day of listening to the demands of squabbling nobles wore on him. When Duncan had been granted his lands and title, he’d anticipated protecting and providing for his people, much as he’d done when he’d been a knight. The reality clashed hard against his expectations. He’d rather face an entire field of soldiers than those nattering, duplicitous aristocrats any day. At least men with swords were honest about wanting to destroy him, and he knew how to counter them.

Duncan had no sooner let his eyes fall shut and his head rest against the padded velvet of the chair when he heard a sound, even softer than the flutter of a night bird’s wings, on the balcony opposite his hearth. He tensed, his exhaustion replaced by alertness. Many of his vassals couldn’t be trusted; he found them avaricious, their only loyalty to their own treasuries. Some of them still owed fealty to Taran Edercrest, the traitor whose mantle Duncan had assumed after the man’s death in a failed attempt to overthrow Selindria’s true king. Duncan knew at least a few of the backstabbing nobles might stoop to murder if they could profit from it. He crept as quietly as he could to the weapons stand and picked up his greatsword. He held it in both hands as he approached the balcony, ready to defend himself.

With the sole of his boot, Duncan nudged the wooden double doors, and they swung open with a rasp and a groan. The red-tinged crescent moon provided little light as he glanced from one end of the parapet to the other. Nothing moved except a few leaves tumbling across the stone in the light breeze. Duncan blinked hard as sweat dripped into his eyes. He knew he’d heard something, but now he wondered if the combination of his weariness and the ever-present threat of treachery toyed with his mind. He’d never been a paranoid man, but as he stood looking out from the western side of Windust Castle, over the deep, round Barrier Bay, sheltered on three sides by high cliffs, he heard nothing but the gentle lap of the waves against the strong, gray ironstone that made up so much of Windwake. On a clear day, Duncan could see almost to the southern shore of Lockhaven from this balcony, but the gloom of the night and the chill mist rising from the water restricted his vision to the dozens of ships huddled close to the shore, bobbing gently on the calm tide.

“You should be more careful.”

Duncan started and turned toward the low, velvety voice. He scanned the shadows but couldn’t locate the speaker. Then, at the opposite end of the terrace, a sliver of shade separated from the wall, and a lithe silhouette tiptoed along the thin, stone railing before leaping down in front of Duncan without even disturbing the leaves. His boots met the stone silently, and the leather armor he wore didn’t even creak or rustle.

Duncan blew out an extended breath and lowered his weapon. “Goddesses, Sasha. Why must you sneak around like that? I could have cut you in two before I recognized you.”

Sasha answered with a sensuous laugh devoid of any genuine amusement. “I don’t think you could have.”

“Perhaps not,” Duncan conceded, his happiness at his lover’s return trumping his slight annoyance. Besides, he knew Sasha spoke not out of arrogance but simply stated the truth. Sasha had been trained by a cult of assassins so legendary and feared most doubted they even existed. The Order of the Crimson Scythe held mythical status throughout Selindria and Gaeltheon, and Duncan had witnessed Sasha’s lethal skill on more than one occasion. If he’d been inclined, Sasha could have cut Duncan’s throat while Duncan stood watching the boats like a dull-witted child.

Sasha’s training was also responsible for what Duncan saw when he stepped closer to his partner: a face that, while exotically beautiful, betrayed no hint of emotion. Shrewd, black eyes offered no clue of the intentions behind them. Though they hadn’t seen each other in weeks, Duncan looked into the cold face of a killer, not the warm smile of a lover. He tried, unsuccessfully, to staunch the hurt by reminding himself Sasha had been taught almost since birth not to feel love or attachment, let alone show evidence of what he’d been told was weakness.

Duncan reached up and stroked the soft, black hair that fell to Sasha’s slender shoulders. Sasha batted his long, thick lashes and smiled mischievously. He had the most amazing, full, dark lips Duncan had ever seen, and the sight of them curling up and parting slightly sent a tremor of desire down Duncan’s spine. He hoped Sasha showed sincere pleasure at his touch, as much pleasure as he experienced feeling the smooth skin of Sasha’s cheek again after what seemed like forever. Sasha had no reason to perform with Duncan, but Duncan knew old habits held on tenaciously sometimes, like a cough that lingered after the fever had passed.

“I missed you,” he said, pressing a kiss to Sasha’s forehead. “But you could try using the front gate like a normal man. Or are you trying to impress me?”

Sasha curled his body against Duncan and brushed their bellies together. He rubbed his face against Duncan’s whiskers and whispered close to his ear. “Did it work?”

Duncan glanced over the railing at the sheer, four-story drop to the sharp rocks surrounding the fortress. A wide gravel road wound out around those cliffs from the docks to the gate at the southern wall, on the opposite side of the fortress. Aside from that entrance, Windust was virtually impenetrable. “I suppose it did. Did your—” Duncan still felt uncomfortable discussing Sasha’s work. “Were you successful?”

Sasha snorted as if insulted and crossed his arms over his slim chest. His devastating smile widened. “Pym Goodsal and his associates will cause no more trouble for your friend Garith.”

“His Majesty will be pleased,” Duncan said, taking Sasha’s gloved hand, careful of the thin blades hidden at his wrists and the razor-like spikes over his knuckles, and leading him inside.

Sasha shrugged. “So long as he produces the agreed-upon gold.”

Duncan almost asked what Sasha would do if Garith, High King of Selindria and Gaeltheon, the largest and most powerful kingdom in the known world, withheld the payment. He thought better of it, though, and went instead to add logs to the fire and stir up the coals. By now, Duncan knew Sasha regarded a prince and a beggar alike only as men who bled and died for his Cast-Down god.

Sasha removed his gloves, loosening the buckles and then tugging them off one finger at a time, while Duncan poked at the ashes in the hearth. Sasha unbuckled the belts over his hips that held daggers and pouches likely full of poisons, and then he unfastened the strap crossing his chest, along with the weapons it held, and let it drop onto a wooden bench. Sasha effortlessly disarmed himself in absolute silence. Duncan admired Sasha’s grace and fluidity of movement from the corner of his eye as he tended the fire. The room soon glowed warm and bright as the flames flickered and grew. Orange light reflected off the snug, deep-red leather wrapping Sasha’s slender limbs and made shadows dance across his face. The fire couldn’t melt the icy mask the assassin wore, but Duncan knew what might. He replaced the iron poker and crossed the room to Sasha, who stood only a few feet from the balcony door, as if waiting to be invited inside, seemingly unsure of his welcome.

Duncan curled his big hands around Sasha’s waist, almost encircling it. He drew Sasha’s chest against his, rubbed his palm up Sasha’s back to his neck, and guided Sasha’s head to his shoulder. Burying his face in the top of Sasha’s hair, he inhaled the spicy fragrance that almost masked the scents of leather, steel, and blood. “Sasha, this is your home as much as mine. I wouldn’t have any of it if it hadn’t been for you. You don’t have to enter it in secret.”

Sasha laughed icily, but his lips and nose felt warm as he nuzzled against Duncan’s neck. The tickle of his breath against Duncan’s dampening skin when he spoke made Duncan shudder. “So, you’d parade me before your nobles and officials? Claim me as part of your household, as your friend?”

Holding Sasha’s cheeks in both hands, Duncan tilted his face upward and made Sasha meet his eyes. He searched for some trace of emotion in those glittering, black orbs but saw only his own conflicted face reflected back at him in distorted miniature. “I would. Why do you make it sound so absurd? I’ll tell them anything you like, anything that will make you happy. Sasha, you know I love you.”

“I know.” The assassin tried to look away as he furrowed his brow and turned down his lips, but Duncan held him, not letting him hide what he felt.

A fake smile replaced Sasha’s concerned expression. “You’d lose your bairny if anyone discovered the nature of our association,” he said with false cheer. “I understand better than most the need for secrecy. It’s of little consequence how I enter the castle, anyway. I’m used to standing in the shadows.”

Duncan hated it when his partner walled himself off, but he didn’t know how to breach barriers that had been in place so long. Battering them down would not do, he’d learned. If he pushed too hard, Sasha would instinctively close him out, so he slid his hands down Sasha’s lithe arms, clasped his hands, and led him to the massive bed canopied in gold and black velvet. They sat facing each other on the edge. Sasha pulled his heel to his crotch.

“Are you hungry?” Duncan asked, stroking up and down Sasha’s thigh, savoring the feel of taut muscles beneath buttery leather. “Shall I have something sent up from the kitchens? My servants, at least, still respect my wishes.”

Sasha edged closer and draped his hand over Duncan’s knee. “Thank you, my friend. But not just now. Is there nothing on your mind besides food?” He moved his hand to Duncan’s groin and cupped his balls as he leaned in and brushed his lips against Duncan’s. When Duncan tried to return the kiss, Sasha pulled away with a grin. He wrapped Duncan’s ponytail around his hand and tugged Duncan’s head back so he could nibble up and down the side of Duncan’s neck. As he dragged his magnificent lips over Duncan’s rapidly heating skin, Sasha squeezed and fondled his balls through his cloth trousers. Duncan caught himself on his palms as Sasha pulled lightly on his hair, urging him to move farther onto the bed. Sasha swung his leg across Duncan and straddled him with his knees on the mattress and his thighs tensed and straight. When he looked down at Duncan with his lips even more swollen from Duncan’s coarse whiskers and a beautiful, red flush across his high cheekbones and the straight, slender bridge of his nose, Duncan sensed a minute crack in the icy sheath Sasha wore like armor. Sasha never looked more desirable to Duncan than when he gave Duncan a glimpse at everything he hid from the rest of the world.

Duncan fell lightly on his back and grasped Sasha’s hips just where the buckles of his armor crossed over the prominent curves of bone. He tried to pull Sasha into his lap so he could feel the contact between them he craved so much, feel Sasha’s heat against him, but Sasha resisted, instead grabbing Duncan’s wrist and bringing it to his mouth, where he ran his tongue over the sensitive skin and bit softly at the mound of flesh below Duncan’s thumb. When Duncan reached for the tantalizing erection obvious beneath Sasha’s skintight armor, Sasha again caught his hand, wove their fingers together, and let them fall next to his hip.

Sasha pressed Duncan’s hand to his heart and just looked down at Duncan, his need and devotion radiating from him like a physical force. He smiled, and Duncan had no doubt he felt everything he showed in his expression, and it was Duncan’s alone.

“I neglected to say I missed you too.” Sasha released Duncan’s wrist and scraped the back of his hand down Duncan’s bearded cheek. “I’m not used to noticing the absence of another, and I was surprised how much it hurt to be without you. Truly, Duncan, I almost didn’t enjoy my work.”

“I’d hate to be the one who put you off murder.” Duncan ran his free hand up Sasha’s leg and over his chest until he could cup his shoulder. “Goddesses, you’re beautiful.” He worked the buckle over Sasha’s throat free, then moved to the one across his collarbones, peeled the leather armor open, and bunched up the snug, hooded tunic beneath it. Duncan touched Sasha’s warm, deep gold skin as he revealed it an inch at a time and watched Sasha’s frozen blockade melt away with his arousal. Finally he pulled the armor open up the center and ran his hand over Sasha’s lean, defined stomach, shaved, as always, and like silk beneath Duncan’s palm. Duncan reached inside the leather to push it off Sasha’s shoulder. “You could give it all up, you know. Never have to leave me.”

Sasha shrugged out of his protective clothing and let it fall across Duncan’s legs behind him. He pulled a small knife in a leather sheath from the waistband of his trousers and tossed it to the floor. “What, never leave your bed? Just be here naked and ready whenever you might want me?”

“All right.” Duncan tugged at the buckle below Sasha’s belly button, all his earlier worries forgotten. Nothing mattered to him but pleasing Sasha, feeling Sasha shiver with bliss and drop all the veneers he wore. Only in these intimate moments did Sasha completely bare himself for Duncan, and it drove Duncan crazy. He also knew Sasha liked to be in control, so when Sasha caught his hands, he allowed it. For the moment.

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