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Dragon Blood Bonus Scene #2: Fowl Friends

| Posted in Cut Scenes and Fun Extras |

17

When I wrote the first Dragon Blood bonus scene, I wasn’t thinking about making a series of them, but when I was working on my Colonel Therrik side project (yes, he and a new heroine are getting their own book), I mentioned that a certain thing had already happened, and one of my beta readers pointed out that some readers might not appreciate it if they didn’t get to see that certain thing on the page (don’t you love it when authors are mysterious and vague?). So… I’m planning a couple more of these bonus scenes. At the end, the certain thing will happen.

Thanks to Rue Silver for the inspiration for this one (she wanted to see some more of Cas and Tolemek).

Dragon Blood Bonus Scene #2: Fowl Friends

Cas clasped Tolemek’s hand as they turned off the main street and onto the dead-end road where Ridge and Sardelle lived with a passel of houseguests who ranged from occasional to constant. Tylie, whose birthday it was today, should be excited to see her brother. Even though Cas and Tolemek had leased a cozy house between his lab and the army fort, Tylie still spent most of her time here, wandering around the woods and the pond to collect animal friends when she wasn’t busy studying magic. Tolemek kept hinting to her that she could move in with him now that he had a suitable house, but she seemed to prefer this quasi-rural living to the city life. Cas could understand that. She had grown up with room to roam and explore, at least when her father hadn’t been stifling her with mandatory athletic endeavors and shooting practices.

“I hope Zirkander doesn’t ask me to make him anything,” Tolemek grumbled. “The pharmacy isn’t open today.”

“I’m sure he won’t,” Cas said.

“I don’t know how he ever accomplished missions before he had me to rely on.”

“It is a mystery.”

Tolemek gave her the squinty eye.

Dragon Blood Bonus Scene #1: Fowl Advice

| Posted in Cut Scenes and Fun Extras |

43

If you’ve finished Soulblade, and you’re looking for an extra Dragon Blood fix, I hope you’ll have fun with this short scene. There are a couple of spoilers for Book 7, so you might want to wait until you’ve read that before hopping into the duck blind.

Still here? Okay, good.

This scene came out of a discussion with beta readers along the lines of… does Ridge have a “man cave” in the new house? If so, what goes on there, since televised sports haven’t been invented in Iskandia yet? Let’s find out.

Dragon Blood Bonus Series #1: Fowl Advice

Character Interviews: Sespian (on fathers, cats, and man-to-man advice)

| Posted in Cut Scenes and Fun Extras |

15

As many of you know, Amaranthe, Sicarius, Sespian, Maldynado, Tikaya, and several others have been dealing with a few… troubles of late. After the events of the Forged in Blood books, everyone expected a long vacation, but transitioning from an empire to a republic is a difficult business, and there have been a few… incidents.

It’s a little early to go into the specifics, but I’ve managed to pull aside one of the key players in these events, the former emperor Sespian Savarsin, to field some questions. I tried to get the notorious assassin Sicarius to join in the interview as well, but after our last chat together, he was oddly disinterested in speaking with me again. I believe you’ll find Sespian’s point of view interesting, however, and with the help of a number of citizen journalists on my Facebook page, I’ve put together an interesting list of questions for him.

**This interview contains spoilers for earlier books in the series and is recommended for those who have read through Forged in Blood 2.

Sespian Interview

LINDSAY: Greetings, Sespian. Come in. Sit down. Thank you. You’re already being more amenable than your father was in his interview. I appreciate that.

SESPIAN:

He glances around the room.

He’s here?

LINDSAY: No, no. I was referring to an interview from a couple of years ago. As far as I know, he’s not around. Please feel free to answer your questions openly and honestly.

SESPIAN: Of course. I would do so no matter who is in the room.

A concerned frown crosses his face.

The questions aren’t going to be about him, are they?

LINDSAY: It’s possible his name comes up from time to time, but, no, these are about you.

SESPIAN: About… me? Wouldn’t people be more interested in hearing about recent events in the capital? Or about the transition from empire to republic, as seen by the emperor-turned-common-man? Perhaps some speculation on the future of international relations with the enemies we now seek to make peace with?

LINDSAY: Uh, it’s possible something like that will come up. Not… likely, but possible. Shall we start?

SESPIAN: Suspicious squint. All… right…

LINDSAY: Good. Oxalis asks, “You took Sicarius’s hand at the memorial for Books. That seemed to mark a turning point in your relationship. Did you have a chance to follow up on that before he and Amaranthe left on their vacation? If so, how did that go?”

SESPIAN: That evening… I believed that my father, whether he shows his feelings or not, considered Books a friend, and I wished to express my empathy. I also felt the loss of the professor, though I did not know him as well. It seemed a fitting gesture. After that, Father was busy preparing for his trip with Amaranthe. They left as soon as the voting had been completed. There was not much time for us to d anything together, though I confess, we have very little in common, and it is difficult for me to know what to say to him when we are alone anyway.

LINDSAY: Thank you for your honesty. How about a lighter question? Katie wants to know about Trog. Where did you get him, and how did you train him to leave “presents” for people you don’t like?

SESPIAN: I… believe the “presents” are delivered to people Trog doesn’t like and has little to do with my own wishes. Fortunately, he does have good taste and chooses his allies and enemies wisely. I got him from a breeder on the coast, the same one who once gave my mother a kitten from a similar line. Come to think of it, that one may have occasionally left presents too. I’m quite certain Commander of the Armies Hollowcrest cursed that breeder from time to time.

LINDSAY: An interesting line of cats. Next, Rebekah has a question for you: “Hi Sespian! How are you? My sister and I are wondering how weird it is for you to not be the Emperor. How are you adjusting to civilian life?”

SESPIAN: It’s a relief. I was willing to accept the responsibility of emperor when I believed the right—the obligation—was mine, but it was a great burden that always accompanied me. Now, I need only worry about taking care of myself. And my cat.

Granted, I do miss some of the conveniences of having a cleaning staff slipping in and out of my rooms several times a day. Learning to do laundry was an interesting experience. And keeping my little flat clean has been more challenging than I would have imagined. My whole life, I thought I was a fairly tidy person; it turns out there were just people whisking in at all hours of the day, clearing my clutter and putting things away for me. I have recently learned a new-to-me term: dust bunny.

LINDSAY: Yes, authors deal with such things, too, I fear. Here’s a question from Pw Finkle: “You have grown up quite a bit lately. What was the best piece of advice given to you during this time?”

SESPIAN: Well, I can promise you it wasn’t from Maldynado… Ah, let’s see. You may have heard I’ve gone to school to study architecture. I’ve been a little… concerned about public expectations. That people will either have high expectations because I was the emperor or they’ll believe I was a mindless figurehead and not take anything I do now seriously. It’s hard to dismiss the concerns, but President Starcrest told me, “Figure out what fulfills you, do it to the best of your abilities, and don’t give power to your critics by paying them too much mind.”

LINDSAY: Nice, I’m sure that one will end up in a fortune cookie soon.

SESPIAN: A… what?

LINDSAY: Never mind. I think you can only get them in Nuria. The next question is from Cindy. “What happened to that box of art supplies that Sicarius gave you when you were a kid? Did you use that a lot?”

SESPIAN: Art supplies? That Sicarius gave me? I have no recollection of him giving me anything. I rarely saw him as a child, and when I did… I always found it—him—disturbing.

LINDSAY: You don’t remember having some nice drawing items mysteriously delivered to your bedroom when you were a few years old?

SESPIAN: I… He gazes off thoughtfully.

LINDSAY: Next up, Ronmae asks, “After meeting Amaranthe and her gang, you seemed very calm and cool about it, how do you maintain your composure specially when Maldynado is concerned?”

SESPIAN: Maldynado is a trying individual, but I dealt with many such persons as emperor. Unlike so many of them, there’s no maliciousness about him. For all that it took me a while to adjust to the idea of having an assassin for a father, nobody in the group truly offended me. What they think of me is anybody’s guess.

LINDSAY: Sharni asks, “Now that you are getting along with Sicarius a bit better, what things do the two of you do together to bond?”

SESPIAN: …Bond? Er. Thus far we seem to have most to talk about when there’s someone else present, such as Amaranthe. Our private conversations are generally awkward. I suppose if we’re working together to infiltrate an enemy camp, we can get along without too much trouble. Opportunities for such activities are somewhat limited though.

LINDSAY: Kelly asks, “Do you want to continue your involvement in the Turgonian government now that it is a republic and you don’t have to act as head of state? Are you interested in studying the fields of biopolitics or post-colonialism?”

SESPIAN: At the risk of sounding like my monosyllabic father… No.

LINDSAY: All right, I have a lot more questions here from the citizen journalists that I could ask, but we need to get this out in a timely manner. One last one from Ameera. “Did you have friends growing up? If not, who did you spend a lot of time with and what did you do?”

SESPIAN: I had playmates brought in from a short list of warrior-caste candidates deemed suitable. They—and our parents—seemed to think we should shoot bows, wrestle, run races, and practice gouging each other with wooden swords. I wandered off whenever possible to read or draw.

LINDSAY: Thank you for your time, Sespian. Say hi to Mahliki for us.

SESPIAN: Er, why would… she wish to hear from me?

LINDSAY: Oh, no particular reason.

Authorial smile.

~

Thanks for reading everyone! Republic will be out within a day or two.

Republic Teaser: Chapter 1, Part 2

| Posted in Cut Scenes and Fun Extras |

13

And the second half of the rather long opening chapter… 😉

Republic Chapter 1, Part 2

“I liked it better when you were going along with my orders,” she mumbled and started out along the branches, hoping she could get closer to those rocks before climbing down. She decided her last words hadn’t been fair—she hadn’t given any orders, after all—or particularly true. After being responsible, however inadvertently, for the deaths of so many during the upheaval in Stumps, she wasn’t eager to deliver orders to anyone anymore. These last couple of months free of responsibility had helped her heal, but some scars would remain forever.

Amaranthe passed the snake as it continued along the branches on its way to sun itself on the beach, or whatever snakes did. She gave it a wide berth—fortunately, it didn’t pause to contemplate her in the way one might an Emperor’s Bun, a pastry that would need a new name now that an elected president ruled the nation—and found a likely spot to go down.

Using the palm trees for camouflage, she picked her way to the promontory without attracting attention from the men farther up the beach. Nothing grew from the volcanic rock itself, but its humps and craters offered numerous hiding places. Staying low, she jogged along the bottom of a crevice heading toward the water. Though she wasn’t working as hard as she had been during the run, sweat slithered down her back and dripped into her eyes. The sun was dipping lower toward the horizon, but the air remained warm and humid.

When she reached a protrusion jutting up like a thumb, she peeked around it to study the lagoon. The aborigines on the beach were gone, and rowers were paddling one of the canoes toward the shore. Unfortunately, the other craft remained by the submarine with six natives sitting all-too-vigilantly inside. One man’s eyes came close to settling on Amaranthe’s spot, so she lowered her head.

The canoe floated near the submarine’s hatch, but if she could sneak past the men somehow and slip inside, she could seal that hatch and keep them out while she started the engine. Once the craft dove, they would have no way to track her. Picking up Sicarius would be a simple matter.

Yes, but how could she reach it without being seen? Swim underwater? The pale blue lagoon was clearer than any lake back home. She had thought it beautiful when they had arrived. At the time, she hadn’t been contemplating sneaking up on boats. It was a long swim from the rocks or from the beach. There was no way she could stroke the whole way underwater while holding her breath. She remembered old stories of clever soldiers sneaking up on riverside enemy camps by cutting reeds and using them to breathe through. Alas, this island had only coconut trees, spiky ferns, and at least seven types of foliage that made her skin itch every time she brushed against them. No reeds.

A splash came from below, and Amaranthe chanced lifting her head. An enormous turtle paddled away from the rocks. It was either done sunning itself for the day or…

Ah. Another one of those green snakes was slithering along near the waterline. She wouldn’t think it big enough to swallow a turtle, but maybe the turtle knew something she didn’t.

Amaranthe touched a finger to her lip. If the snake’s approach had alarmed a turtle, might it alarm a canoe full of men? She had a sword. If she could distract those islanders for a moment, long enough to clamber into the craft, she might be able to get the best of them. Six on one wasn’t ideal, but they would have a hard time attacking her all at once in the narrow canoe.

“So how do I get that snake from here to there?” she murmured.

Giving up on the turtle, it slithered inland and dipped into the shady crevice. Amaranthe tapped the hilt of the sword thoughtfully. She could get to it without being seen now, but that didn’t answer her question.

“Shouldn’t have left that purse full of trade goods in the village.” Not that she ever would have been able to stuff the big snake in a purse. She snorted at the image of herself trying. No, she would need something larger. Her hand strayed to the buttons of her shirt. “Well, that can be my second distraction for the men if the first doesn’t work.”

After removing her shirt, Amaranthe crept from her hiding spot, staying behind cover as she angled toward the snake. Out in the water, the big turtle had stopped to nosh on a straggly clump of seaweed bobbing with the tide. She wondered if turtles could be coerced to paddle in a desired direction.

In the canoe, the islanders maintained their vigilance, despite numerous shouts that had arisen in the jungle. One man pointed toward the dented green crown of the dormant volcano at the center of the island. A thin line of dark gray smoke wafted toward the blue sky.

Amaranthe grinned. “Sicarius, you’re getting crafty now that you’re not simply killing everyone in your way.” The villagers probably believed the volcano dormant, too, but a wisp of smoke still wouldn’t be taken lightly. “I hope that’s his work anyway.”

After a deep breath that wasn’t as fortifying as she would have liked, Amaranthe descended into the crevice with the snake. Its tail was to her, though she didn’t know if that mattered. It might sense her creeping up through vibrations in the rock. Her grip tightened around her sword. Lopping of its head wouldn’t leave her with a very effective distraction, though she would reserve the tactic if necessary.

She tiptoed closer, trying to estimate the snake’s size—and whether it would fit in a shirt. It lay stretched out rather than coiled up—taking a nap, she hoped. It didn’t seem as big as the one in the tree… maybe only six feet long and with less girth. She passed the brown-spotted tail and approached the back of its head, suspecting it would be the most dangerous part. Though that was a guess; for all she knew, it was some species of constrictor.

The flat, arrow-shaped head reared up, its maw opening, fangs catching the fading sunlight…

Amaranthe lashed out with the flat of her blade. She aimed for the back of the head, but the snake had been spinning toward her and she connected with the side instead. The maw smashed into the side of the crevice with a crunch. Doubting it would be stunned for long, if the tough creature was stunned at all, Amaranthe leaped in, thrusting her shirt over its head. She had buttoned it and done her best to turn it into a bag, but, even as she stuffed the long sinewy body into it, she feared her flimsy trap wouldn’t be sufficient.

The fear spurred her to speed. With the sword in one hand and her “bag” in the other, she raced for the water, toward a spot that was out of the canoe’s line of sight. They would see her if she swam toward them, but maybe…

She paused to poke her head over the ridge and check on the turtle. It was still floating beside the seaweed. Good.

Amaranthe immersed herself in the cool water, took a deep breath, dunked her head, and pushed off the rocks. Swimming with her hands full was a challenge. She would have thanked Sicarius for all the horrible sculling and treading-water drills he had inflicted on her if she weren’t so busy. The sword didn’t weigh much, but the snake was stirring, bulging and flexing against the confines of her bag. Snakes doubtlessly had the same concerns about drowning as humans.

The clearness of the lagoon allowed Amaranthe to navigate, and she spotted the dark shape above her. She came up a couple of feet behind the turtle and angled herself so its bulk would hide her from the canoe. She rapped the snake a few times with the flat of the blade, hoping to stun it again, though she was probably irritating it to a murderous state instead. Then she switched the sword to the same hand that held the bag and grabbed the back of the turtle’s shell. She expected it to take off or turn around and snap at her, but the large thing didn’t react. Maybe it was too busy eating to care that she had latched on.

Amaranthe kicked, trying to propel the turtle forward, away from the seaweed and toward the canoe. It snapped up a few more bites of its meal. She was about to give up, to swim over to the canoe on her own, hoping the men were too focused on the volcano to notice, but then the turtle started paddling. It nearly clobbered Amaranthe with one of its fins, or flippers, or whatever sea turtles had. She would have to ask Starcrest’s biologist daughter Mahliki about them if she survived this craziness.

Whatever its limbs were called, the turtle swam away from the seaweed, not bothered, or at least not overly slowed, by its tagalong. Amaranthe kicked as well, trying to guide the creature in the direction she wanted. It chose its own route though, one that headed toward the second rocky promontory that framed the other side of the lagoon. The path would take Amaranthe close to the submarine and allow her to remain hidden, so she judged it close enough.

A soft tearing sound reached her ears. Uh oh. The shirt.

The canoe was less than thirty meters away. That would have to be close enough. She took another big breath, submerged, then smacked the side of the blade against the shirt again. A foot of snake body stuck out through a tear. At least it wasn’t the head. Amaranthe angled toward the canoe.

Her burdens made the swim slow, but the wooden bottom of the vessel came into view before her breath ran out—or her prisoner escaped. She didn’t hesitate. She angled toward the bottom of the lagoon, so she could push off for momentum, then burst out of the water inches from the canoe’s near side, thrusting the shirt into the craft. She dropped back down and swam under the hull to come up on the far side.

Pausing only long enough to ensure nobody waited with a spear aimed at her head, Amaranthe pulled herself over the side. The volume of the men’s shouts made her wince, but at least nobody was facing her. The snake had shredded the shirt and escaped—she glimpsed its green body on the other end, with four men backpedaling from it. Four men. The other two… She glanced over her shoulder, making sure nobody was behind her. No. They were in the water swimming away. Good.

Amaranthe slammed the hilt of the sword into the back of the closest man’s head. He didn’t crumple into unconsciousness the way people did when Sicarius clobbered them, but he bent in half, his spear falling into the water. She shoved him over the side. Three left to go.

At that point, someone noticed her. Fortunately, it was the man farthest from her and on the other side of the snake. He would have a hard time throwing his spear or getting to her through his comrades. But his shouts made the other two men glance in her direction.

Though fighting in a wobbling, tilting canoe wasn’t her forte, Amaranthe darted in quickly enough to catch the first before he could do more than gape. She sliced her sword through his spear, cutting it in half, then slammed the flat of the blade into his side. He grunted, but didn’t tip into the water. He hurled the broken half of his spear at her. She could have simply ducked but thought it might worry him more if she displayed some unexpected weapons prowess, so she whipped her blade up and sliced the wood haft in two before it could strike her head. The ends veered away, splashing harmlessly in the water. Not as impressed as she’d hoped, the man launched himself at her. Amaranthe dropped to her knee and thrust up with her arms. With her help, his trajectory took him over her shoulder and into the water.

When she stood again, the man behind him had a spear raised to his shoulder, ready to throw. The obsidian point was aimed at her heart. She forced herself to relax, the sword ready before her. She had deflected the stick. She could do this too.

Before he could throw, the man flung his head back and screamed. The snake had plunged its fangs into his calf. He jabbed down at it with his spear. The last man, the one behind the snake, forgot about Amaranthe and also tried to stab the snake to death.

She thought about hurling them both in, but decided they were busy enough where they were. The natives she had flung overboard already weren’t waiting around—they were headed toward shore.

“Always nice to have a little luck,” Amaranthe said and dove out of the canoe.

She reached the submarine and unfastened the hatch, hoping none of the natives had been clambering about inside. As fine of an engineer as President Starcrest might be, she imagined a spear through the navigation controls—or maybe that glowing orb that powered the engine—would be trouble.

Fortunately, the floor was dry with no sign of wet footprints. She pulled the hatch shut, securing it behind her, then double-checked to make sure she was alone before starting the engine. Angry clangs reverberated through the hull—someone banging at the hatch with a spear. Though she doubted they could find a way in with their primitive tools, Amaranthe was glad when the power dial on the control panel hummed to life, showing the engine ready. For all that the glowing energy source in the back unnerved her—even after being around Akstyr for a year, she wasn’t fully over her Turgonian superstition toward magic—she appreciated that it didn’t take the twenty minutes to fire up that a steam engine would.

Beyond the viewport, the scenery shifted as the submarine descended. Dials and gauges warned her of the shallow floor and other obstacles as she navigated toward the deeper ocean. She spotted a sea turtle chewing on waving grasses growing on the bottom of the lagoon. It might not be the same one, but she gave it a quiet salute anyway. She would owe Sicarius a salute too. She doubted she could have handled two canoes, though throwing the snake in had upset them more than she had dreamed it would. After seeing the bite it had inflicted on that fellow’s calf, she could see why. She had a feeling only luck had kept her from a nasty bite of her own. And here she had been warning Sicarius to be careful because they were so far from civilization.

By the time she came up in deeper waters on the other side of the promontory, the sun was about to dip below the blue horizon, and reds and oranges filled the western sky. After scanning the shoreline with the periscope and not spotting anyone, Amaranthe risked opening the hatch. Figuring it would take Sicarius a few moments to reach the meeting point, she allowed herself to admire the view. They hadn’t decided how much longer their vacation would last, but she would miss these tropical waters, inhospitable natives notwithstanding. Back in the capital, there was probably still three feet of snow on the ground.

An uncomfortable feeling disturbed her moment of sunset appreciation, the sensation that she was being watched. Sicarius? She checked the shoreline again and spotted a bare-chested man with a spear raised to throw. Not Sicarius.

The submarine had to be close to fifty meters from the shore, but she lowered herself anyway. No need to present a tempting target. Maybe she ought to simply shut the hatch and wait for Sicarius to swim out and knock.

She’d no more than had the thought when a naked man glided out of the foliage behind the islander. Mud and blood smeared Sicarius’s flesh, though he didn’t appear wounded, at least not significantly. Normally, he wouldn’t make a sound sneaking up on someone, but he must have cleared his throat, for the native spun around. Sicarius held his dagger and could throw the weapon easily enough—probably faster than that fellow could throw his spear—but he hadn’t lifted it from his side. It didn’t matter. The islander threw down his spear and sprinted down the beach and into the brush.

Sicarius strode down the sandy swath as if he had expected no less. He waded out, then stuck the dagger between his teeth and swam toward the submarine. Amaranthe wondered if he would chastise her for gaping at the sunset like some mawkish poet composing verse.

She dropped inside so he would have room to enter, which he soon did, clanging the hatch shut behind him. The water had cleaned him of grime and blood, leaving a sleek, powerful form that a panther would envy. It crossed her mind to help him dry off, but she waited for him to comment on the spear wielder she almost hadn’t noticed. At least she had thought to change clothes—and dig out a clean shirt—before bringing the submarine up. His sardonic eyebrow would have even more reason to twitch if she’d been standing shirtless before him, trying to explain what happened to the garment.

But there was nothing sardonic about his gaze when it landed on her, nor did he open his mouth to deliver a lecture. Rather he used his mouth for something exceedingly rare… a pleased smile. “You did well.”

“Hm?”

His smile always warmed her, but surely he didn’t refer to her shirtless acquisition of the submarine. He would have been too busy in the jungle to watch that.

Sicarius stepped toward her, slipping an arm around her waist. “Bagging up a poisonous snake to hurl at one’s enemies is dangerous, but it was effective, as so many of your schemes are.”

Amaranthe would have liked to bask in this rare praise, but her mind hiccupped at one of his words. Poisonous? Dear ancestors, he had said the one in the tree looked similar to a poisonous breed, hadn’t he? And she’d even noted that the one on the rocks was smaller. The markings had been the same, hadn’t they? She decided not to ask how poisonous the snakes were—or how close she had danced to her death. Instead she offered an eloquent, “Uhm, yes.”

“You handled the men on the canoes easily as well,” he said, bringing the other arm around her waist. “However interestingly clothed.”

Erg, he had seen that. He’d seen it all. Well, he was praising her instead of mocking her, so she couldn’t complain. Unless it was to point out that he was getting her wet; but she wouldn’t push him away for that. She had spent too many months dreaming of having a nude Sicarius pressed against her to have grown blasé about it yet. She wished she had managed to secure her trade before that scout had burst into the village… She would have to tell him, especially since his eyes had softened and his mouth had drifted closer to hers…

“I, ah… I’ve seen you dispatching enemies while utterly nude before, so it could be said I’m only emulating my tutor.”

“Hm.”

“Remember that discussion we had as to whether or not you could be menacing without wearing black all the time? It’s clear that those people were intimidated by you. That fellow with the spear nearly pitched backward into the ocean when you strode out of the jungle. Naked. That should prove that I was right.”

“In that discussion, you argued that I could be menacing in a lemon yellow shirt and plaid shorts. That has not been proven yet.”

“Yet? Does that mean you’re willing to don such clothing for an experiment?”

“No.”

“Only nudity, eh?” Amaranthe rested a hand on his shoulder, thumb brushing his collarbone, the defined muscle beside it…. “I suppose I wouldn’t mind seeing you roam around menacingly in your… natural state. So long as you don’t get cold.”

Sicarius caught her hand, his gaze locking onto hers. “I am not feeling cold right now.”

She wanted to ask him what he was feeling, but stopped, sighing. “My… shopping mission failed. I suppose we shouldn’t contemplate further heat today.” Or tomorrow, she thought glumly. Or the next day, or any other day until they returned to the empire or somewhere else that they could restock certain supplies. “Although I do wonder. I don’t even know if I need egata tea, or whatever the islander equivalent is. I may not be able to…” She avoided Sicarius’s eyes. He had never proclaimed that he wanted to have children with her, but he had hinted from time to time that a second chance at fatherhood might have its appeal.

“There is a way to find out,” Sicarius said softly. His hand lifted, as if to stroke her cheek, though he hesitated. They had grown closer and more comfortable with each other in the past months, but he still didn’t quite seem to know what to do in situations that involved her feelings.

Amaranthe caught his hand, kissed it, but ultimately released it. “That is true, but I don’t want to find out by becoming pregnant. I mean, eventually I could see having children,” she rushed to correct, lest he think she was eternally opposed to the idea, “but I don’t think I’m ready yet. I’m still trying to figure out… I’m not sure who I am now that I’m not fighting to save the empire. A mother should know who she is, shouldn’t she? And I’m not sure I’m ready to give up having adventures yet, either, though I’m terribly relieved not to be responsible for anything or anyone anymore. Out here… it’s been quite delightful seeing and experiencing new places. Though I suppose one needn’t stay locked in a tower once one has a baby. The Starcrests went all over the world, raising their children on a submarine, didn’t they? And it worked out. Their kids are all bright. Though they’d have to be, you’d think. With, uhm.” She realized she had been talking for a long time. The topic made her nervous and brought back her burbling tendency, as Sicarius called it. They had never discussed children other than obliquely. Just explaining that she had lost her special tea—yes, she had called it “special tea” like she’d been talking to a toddler rather than a grown man—to the pirates had been difficult.

“I meant you could see a doctor,” Sicarius said.

“Oh.” Amaranthe flushed. He hadn’t been suggesting sexual abandon after all. “Yes, that makes sense. Though I’m not sure I trust imperial medicine in this manner. Er republican medicine.” She grimaced, not sure if that was the right term. It would take a long time to get used to thinking of Turgonia as anything except an empire.

“We could visit the Kyatt Islands,” Sicarius said. “Their scientists are known for medicinal acumen.”

“That’s true. We could even visit Akstyr.”

Sicarius’s expression grew flat.

“I didn’t mean visit him for medical advice,” Amaranthe said, in case that hadn’t been understood—Akstyr might have healed her before in an emergency, but she shuddered at the idea of asking a teenage boy for advice on her… womanly parts. “I meant we’d stop by and check on him as long as we’re there.”

Sicarius grunted. She supposed she couldn’t expect more enthusiasm. Those two had never bonded.

“While I’m there,” Amaranthe said, “you might be able to get in to see some of the other submarines Admi—President Starcrest built there. I understand there’s a whole fleet of science vessels.” There, that ought to stir his interest more than chatting with old comrades.

Before he could verify her supposition, an unfamiliar noise came from the sleeping cabin, a long beep that repeated three times. Amaranthe had grown used to the various glowing and blinking doodads—or Made devices, as the practitioners called them—around the sub, but she hadn’t heard this before.

Sicarius headed for the compartment. The cabin didn’t hold much more than a bed, but that bed had cabinets beneath it, and he delved into them. As soon as he opened the one on the left, a bright yellow glow washed over him.

“Er.” Amaranthe hadn’t realized she had been sleeping above some strange wizard device during the whole trip. “What would that be?”

Sicarius set it on the bed. “A communication artifact.”

“Oh, right.” She had seen a set of those before—her first nemesis Larocka Myll had communicated to her Forge allies with them. “Is someone trying to reach us? Or maybe someone’s trying to reach Starcrest.” Who from superstitious Turgonia would know how to use one of these devices? Maldynado would probably think it a lamp or a hand-warmer. She smiled at the thought, a twinge of homesickness touching her. Though she had enjoyed her time with Sicarius, she did miss her friends back home.

Sicarius placed a hand on top of the orb. This seemed to be the required gesture, for the yellow glow faded, and shadows stirred behind the opaque surface. President Starcrest’s head and shoulders came into view. The short gray hair, dark eyes, and handsome if determined visage were as Amaranthe remembered, though the furrows along his forehead and the creases framing his eyes seemed deeper, his face more tired.

She would not want that man’s job.

Starcrest turned his head toward something or someone out of sight—the orb showed only him and a few maps on a wall behind him.

“Ready,” a faint voice said. Professor Komitopis?

Starcrest nodded and faced forward, giving the illusion he was gazing at them.

Sicarius straightened like a soldier coming to attention. Amaranthe found herself leaning forward with interest. Nobody had contacted them before. This might signify trouble.

“Sicarius and Ms. Lokdon,” Starcrest said, his voice sounding tinny through the device, not quite the rich baritone she remembered. “I trust you are both there and well. I apologize for interrupting your vacation, but we have… a problem here.”

“Just one?” came the faint voice from the side again. Yes, judging by the fondness in Starcrest’s not-quite-squelching glower to the side, that was definitely his wife.

Starcrest faced forward again. “We have one problem in particular that’s proving nettlesome, and I hate to ask, but…”

Amaranthe braced herself, anticipating some soul-devouring favor. A request to return to the capital to lead her men again. A request for Sicarius’s assassin skills, skills she wanted him to be able to retire. Some mission that would thrust them both into the deadliest dangers again.

Starcrest cleared his throat. “We need the sub back.”

“What?” Amaranthe blurted, but he was still talking. This wasn’t a live conversation, she realized, but a message that had been saved to display when she and Sicarius noticed the flashing orb.

“Building a new one would take time,” Starcrest said, “and if there are any Makers looking to open their shops in the new Turgonian Republic, I haven’t heard of them yet. Again, I apologize for this inconvenience, but I would appreciate it if you would return as soon as possible. Thank you.”

The orb went dark, though Sicarius continued to gaze at it for a time.

“What do you think’s going on in the city?” Amaranthe asked. “Or in the lake?” Starcrest couldn’t need the sub for any land-based purposes, surely.

“Unknown.”

Amaranthe tried to decide if he looked pensive, or if she was, as usual, reading things into his bland features that weren’t there.

“We’ve left a few, uhm, inconvenient relics on the lake bottom in the last year,” she said, thinking of the underwater laboratory in particular. “Someone might have dug them out. Or started up a new underwater base from which to vex the city. Forge? No, we decimated them, and Starcrest’s new economist is working hand-in-hand with that Curlev woman, right? Some other enemy then? The Nurians? They couldn’t have been pleased with how things worked out.”

Sicarius was watching her, his face unreadable.

“What?” she asked, wondering if the term burbling would come up.

“You sound intrigued.”

Huh. Was she? A minute ago, she had been cringing at the idea of being called back for some mission. Was it possible she had missed the chaos of the previous year? The need to come up with harebrained schemes on the fly? The need to talk fast and promise faster in order to win allies to her cause? She did miss her friends, that much she had no trouble admitting. As to the rest… perhaps she would welcome new challenges into her life.

“Maybe I am,” Amaranthe said. “Aren’t you?”

“Perhaps. Though…” Sicarius let his fingers trail down the riveted steel bulkhead next to him.

“You don’t want to give back the submarine?” Amaranthe grinned. “Because it’s a sleek mechanical wonder, a Starcrest original, and a prototype among the fledgling new generation of underwater exploration conveyances? Or—” she wiggled her eyebrows, “—are you reluctant to let it go because we made so many unique memories in this little cabin?”

“Yes,” Sicarius said, the familiar glint in his eyes.

 ~

Grab the rest at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes, and Smashwords.

Republic Teaser: Chapter 1, Part 1

| Posted in Cut Scenes and Fun Extras |

14

For those who have wondering about the progress of Republic (the next novel with Amaranthe, Sicarius, and the rest of the Emperor’s Edge gang), I’m doing my final edits now and hope to send it off to my editor at the end of next week. the novel is now out! 🙂

You can pick it up at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes, and Smashwords.

Here’s a preview of the first chapter:

Republic: Chapter 1, Part 1

Amaranthe sprinted down the narrow, muddy trail, leaping past snarls of mossy roots and ducking leaves so large they felt like wrecking balls when they smashed against her face. The shouts behind her had dwindled, and she wondered if she might have outrun her pursuers.

A stone-tipped spear blurred past her ear, almost depriving her of a chunk of hair—and scalp. Ah, there was that pursuit.

The weapon slammed into the trail in front of her. It landed at an angle, and she almost impaled herself on the butt of it. Fortunately, a year of training with Sicarius hadn’t been undone by a couple of months of vacation, and she twisted to evade the obstacle at the same time as she ducked under a branch thoughtlessly growing across the path at eye level. She did bump into a bush before finding her way back onto the trail, and thin branches shuddered, raining droplets of water onto her head. Monkeys howled in the treetops, either irritated by her disturbance or entertained by her plight.

Amaranthe eyed the foliage to either side of her. Getting off this main route and finding another way to the beach might be wise, but the lush jungle grew denser than soldiers in a Turgonian infantry unit. And some of those spiky vines were just as dangerous. If she had thought to bring her sword, she might have cut a path, but she had gone to that village to trade, not to start a war.

She plowed onward, sticking to her trail and hoping to reach the lagoon before her pursuers caught up. She thought about hollering for Sicarius, but it was his presence on the island that had gotten her into this predicament. If he started slitting throats…

As Amaranthe leaped over another mossy log, something snatched her about the waist, yanking her into the foliage. She kept from yelping in surprise, but barely. And only because she had a hunch as to her captor’s identity.

Yes, the blond hairs on the muscular arm wrapped around her waist were familiar. As usual, Sicarius put action above words and hauled her several dozen meters into the jungle before pausing to discuss anything. He had a sword, of course, and used it to cut canes and vines, though he had a knack for weaving through the dense undergrowth as if he were simply pushing aside silk curtains. Having a woman—a woman who was more than ready to start using her own feet again—tucked against his side didn’t slow him at all.

Finally, he stopped, crouching in the hollow of a giant red tree that was broader than some of the shopfronts in Ink Alley back home. Amaranthe wriggled free, noting for the first time that he was carrying his black dagger clenched in his teeth, because he was—

“You’re naked,” she whispered. As much as she usually appreciated the view of those lean powerful muscles, it seemed foolish to run through the jungle without protection. She already had numerous gashes from those razor ferns. And the spiky vines? She would hate to have anything important punctured by them.

Sicarius removed the dagger. “I was fishing.” Despite the shouts of the male villagers racing past on the trail they had just left, his tone was as dry and unconcerned as ever. The dampness of his short blond hair attested to how recently he had left the water. “You assured me that you would find no trouble in the village.” His eyebrow twitched.

“And I wouldn’t have, but—”

Foliage rattled in the direction of the trail, and a clunk sounded, an axe sheering away a branch. Sicarius peered around the tree, lifting a hand for silence. The villagers must have realized Amaranthe had left the path.

She dug into her pocket and pulled out a crinkled piece of parchment, deciding it could do the talking for her. The yellowed sheet held a portrait of a face. The black ink had faded to dull gray over the years, but it was still possible to make out the familiar features. A younger and harder—at least to Amaranthe’s eyes—version of Sicarius without the recently obtained knot of scar tissue at his temple. She didn’t recognize the language of the lines written below the portrait, but she knew a wanted poster when she saw one.

Sicarius knew it too. What he thought of it, she couldn’t tell. Even though they had been friends for over a year and lovers for the last couple of months, she still struggled to read his angular face, one he’d learned to craft into an emotionless mask from his earliest childhood. When he did show emotion, it seemed a conscious effort, as if he was trying to please her by doing so, but when other things were on his mind, he grew as hard to decipher as a granite slab.

“Is there a way we can get back to the beach?” Amaranthe whispered.

“Yes, but there are men on it.”

“Men with spears?”

“Yes.” Sicarius gazed into her eyes, waiting, she sensed, to see what she wanted to do. He had been an assassin all of his life and still tended to think in terms of eliminating people as answers to problems, though he’d gradually grown willing to accept less violent solutions if she could propose feasible ones. Or unfeasible ones that she could finesse—or manhandle—into working, regardless.

“Lead us as close as we can get without being seen,” Amaranthe said, aware that the rustling of leaves and hacking of branches was drawing nearer. “Then we’ll… think of something creative.”

The other eyebrow twitched, his silent version of, “Oh, really? This should prove interesting, challenging, and crazy all at once.”

She smiled.

Without a word, Sicarius led off toward… hm, was the beach in that direction? Amaranthe didn’t think so, but he must want to throw off their trackers. This time, he let her walk, though he did glance back often to keep an eye on her, or maybe to ensure she wasn’t leaving a riotous trail of footprints for their pursuers to follow. How he could walk over the same ground without leaving a trace, she would never know, but she did her best to emulate him, stepping on rocks and roots whenever possible, hard items that wouldn’t hold a print. Nonetheless, he slipped behind her a few times to scatter dead palm or fern fronds over her inadvertent smudges in the mud. She kept from rolling her eyes at this overzealous tidying, especially since the sounds of their pursuers had grown more distant, though she did huff in exasperation when, without warning, he jumped several feet, caught a vine one-handed, and whisked himself into the canopy.

“I need a running start for that,” Amaranthe whispered, waving behind her, “and that’ll leave a long streak of footprints and broken branches.”

She stood on a boulder, the same one from which he had launched himself, and eyed the distance to the vine. It hung three or four feet above her and out several more feet, with some of those spiky ferns waiting below if she jumped and missed.

Sicarius gazed down impassively from a branch. Deciding whether she was whining or if she spoke the truth? Amaranthe propped a fist on her hip. He knew her physical abilities better than anyone else, even herself.

Sicarius bent and pulled the vine to the side, as far from his position as he could, then let it go. What was that supposed to do to help?

A distinct call came from the jungle a hundred meters back. The language was gibberish to her ear, but she guessed it to be the villager equivalent of, “They went this way!” Either way, it reminded Amaranthe of her predicament—if she didn’t follow Sicarius quickly, or if she allowed herself to be trapped, he would stop playing Hide and Sneak and start dispatching people.

“Amaranthe, now,” Sicarius whispered and pointed to the vine.

It was swaying back and forth like a pendulum. Oh, so that was his idea of help. Now, if she timed it precisely, she only had to jump eight feet instead of ten. Lovely.

She crept to the edge of the rock and waited until…

“Now,” he ordered.

Amaranthe jumped. The vine swung to its peak and started to fall backward. Cursed ancestors, she was going to miss it. She lunged out with one arm and caught it with the tips of her fingers. She closed those fingers like a vise. When gravity caught up with her, it jolted her shoulder, but she didn’t let go. She swung her other hand to the vine and climbed the twenty feet to join him.

“Hm,” Sicarius said, then rounded the trunk of the tree and headed out onto a thick limb on the far side.

Up here, the branches crisscrossed each other like a latticework—an agile squirrel might run for a mile without touching the ground. Oh, she realized. They were going to do that too.

“What do you mean, hm?” Amaranthe whispered, using her hands on the upper branches to help with her balance as she skipped along the narrow perches. “My performance didn’t even rate an ‘adequate’? Because you had to help with the vine?”

“Our lives have been indolent of late,” Sicarius observed.

Amaranthe grimaced. That hm had been a rating, a dubious rating, of her performance. “We’ve been on vacation, remember? And how much exercise can one get in a tiny submarine? Aside from certain bedroom activities, which I thought were actually quite vigorous and challenging in a cardiovascular way, surely as good for training as jogging around the lake.”

Sicarius kept skating through the treetops without so much as a backward glance. She thought she had gotten past trying to impress him at these physical challenges, but she found herself disappointed. Maybe she shouldn’t have balked. Maybe she could have made it if she’d had her original momentum. Maybe she shouldn’t have acted as if some sharp plants were the equivalent of phalanxes of upturned spears. Maybe—

Sicarius stopped to wait on a thick branch, with his sword arm wrapped around a moss-carpeted trunk. The canopy, thick and green above and below, hid them from the ground. As he watched her approach, his expression didn’t seem disappointed. In fact, was that the faintest hint of a smile?

“You’re teasing me.” Amaranthe swatted him on the chest.

“Yes.” He flipped his dagger so his forearm sheltered her from the blade, pulled her close, and kissed her. Not a long kiss, but there was certainly a promise of later in it before he drew back.

“Dear ancestors, Sicarius,” Amaranthe said, breathless from more than the exercise, “has being chased through the treetops by aborigines always been the key to putting you in an amorous mood? Or was it my talk of cardiovascular challenges that roused your passion?”

His dark eyes glinted. “Yes.”

She thought about kissing him again—surely they could spare another minute or two—but he pointed at something on the other side of the trunk. “We’ve arrived at the beach.”

They had? Amazing how disoriented one could become while running across branches. She would think more highly of squirrels when next she visited a climate that had them.

Using Sicarius to brace herself against—his chiseled flesh made a more appealing handhold than a mossy tree—Amaranthe leaned around the trunk for a look. And barely kept herself from groaning. No less than ten bare-chested, brown-skinned men stood at the lagoon’s edge with knives and spears in hand. Out in the water, two outrigger canoes carrying more spear wielders floated on either side of the oblong black hull of the submarine.

“You’ve formulated a plan?” Sicarius asked.

“Well, I would have, but you distracted me with that kiss. Now I’m going to need another minute.”

She smiled at Sicarius, but his face had lost its humor. A distant shout drifted up from the jungle floor. Their pursuers might have fallen farther behind, but they were still coming.

Movement overhead distracted Amaranthe. She lurched backward and might have fallen off the branch if not for Sicarius’s grip about her waist. A large green snake with black spots was slithering down the mossy trunk toward them.

“Uhm,” she blurted, pointing.

“It’s not poisonous,” Sicarius said, though he hadn’t looked up. Doubtlessly, he had noticed it when they first jumped into the tree. “It feeds on fish, birds, and small mammals.”

“Yes, but it’s big. And I…” Amaranthe tried to tell herself that there was no reason to worry if he wasn’t worried, but she couldn’t help but think of the last time she had dealt with a large snake. She had been naked and wounded, having escaped that awful alien ship and the more awful torture-loving Pike, and that cursed snake had wanted to eat her. She hated anything that reminded her of that time. “I’d prefer not to share a tree with it,” she whispered. “Mind if I borrow your knife?”

Sicarius tilted his head back, considering the snake. It did, she admitted, look like it might slither past without bothering them. “I can see your reason for alarm. It is similar to the green marshal, a snake also indigenous to these islands and one that is poisonous.”

Yeah. That was why she wanted it out of her tree.

Afraid the real reason would make her seem weak, Amaranthe braced herself to let the creature slither off the trunk and out onto one of the branches. She forced herself to return to the problem. Finding a way past those men without causing a massive throat-slitting. She needed a clever idea. Such as setting a fire in their village to draw them all back? The times she or her team had used arson before, it had never turned out well, usually causing far more damage than she had intended. How could she justify doing that to these people, especially when their interest in Sicarius seemed more about ridding their home of an assassin before he could hurt them, rather than collecting a bounty? What did these aborigines care about money, and to whom would they turn in a head, regardless?

“They are after you because they saw me,” Sicarius said.

Amaranthe didn’t know if it was a statement or a question, but she nodded slightly. “A scout ran in while I was trying to explain to the old medicine woman what it was I wanted to trade for. He raced into the chief’s hut and came out waving that poster and pointing at me and at the beach. I’m not quite sure how all those chaps got here ahead of me…” she tilted her head toward the lagoon, “but they did.”

“It is my responsibility then. I will distract them so you can swim to the submarine.”

Amaranthe shook her head as he spoke, but he kept talking.

“You can take it out beyond the lagoon. If you come up again on the other side of those rocks—” he pointed to a promontory jutting into the ocean at the end of the beach, “—I will attempt to join you. After nightfall, I might—”

Amaranthe hushed him with a finger to his lips. All those months they’d worked together, trying to save his son, she had never dared such an intimacy. She was pleased to see it worked, though his eyebrow was in danger of twitching to express indignation.

“If you try to distract them without simply… dispatching them, you might get yourself killed,” she said.

His chin rose. “We have not been that indolent.”

“Forgive me, you might get yourself injured, and, as you know from first-hand experience, I’m not the most skilled medic. We’re all alone out here, with a lot of days of travel to get to a civilized port. We’re still in a bind from our last mishap.” The pirates who had presumed to steal from them wouldn’t do so again—Sicarius’s justice remained harsher than she would prefer, but she’d had a hand in sending their ship to the bottom of the ocean, so who was she to judge? But either way, she and Sicarius had lost half of their provisions overboard.

“They are simple hunters. Those spears were designed for slaying boars, not men. I can deal with them without killing them or being injured.”

“What are you going to do? Call out to them from the wilds and tie them up one at a time as they come to hunt for you?”

“Precisely. It will be dark in an hour as well. A better time to hunt.”

“They know every inch of this island,” Amaranthe said.

“They don’t know me.”

“Oh? I’m sure that poster had some choice words to say about you in whatever language that is.”

Something disturbed a flock of birds in a tree twenty meters away. Colorful wings batted and a dozen tanagers flew inland.

“There isn’t time for further debate.” Sicarius pressed the sword into her hand, keeping his black dagger for himself. “I will distract them. You will take the sub out of the harbor.”

“Fine, fine.” Amaranthe stepped onto a neighboring branch for a better look at the rock promontory. “Where do you want me to wait while you’re distracting people?”

She didn’t receive an answer. He was gone.

~

The second half of Chapter 1 is now up!

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