Posted in Fantasy / Science Fiction, My Ebooks | Posted on 24-05-2014|
Deathmaker, the new fantasy/steampunk adventure in the Balanced on the Blade’s Edge, world is ready to go.
When Lieutenant Caslin Ahn joined Wolf Squadron, she was prepared for the reality that she might one day be killed in the line of duty. She was less prepared for being shot down, assumed dead by her own people, and dragged off to the Cofah Empire as a prisoner of war. As if being thrust into a dungeon and interrogated wasn’t bad enough, the sadistic commandant decides to give her a cellmate: the notorious pirate Deathmaker. Given the crimes he’s committed against Iskandia, Cas owes it to her people to try and kill him.
Part warrior and part scientist, Tolemek “Deathmaker” Argoson has not only slain thousands with his deadly concoctions, but he has a special loathing for Iskandian pilots. It was Ahn’s commander, Colonel Zirkander, who ruined his military career, forcing him to leave his country in shame and join a pirate organization. Years later, he uses his dreadful reputation like a shield to keep people away; all he wants is to be left alone to work in his laboratory. But when fate lands him in a cell with Zirkander’s protégé, he sees a chance for revenge. Why kill the lieutenant when he can use her to get to his old nemesis?
There’s just one problem: it’s hard to plot against your enemies when you’re in prison with them. Cas and Tolemek will have to work together if they hope to escape the Cofah dungeon. In the process, they may find that neither is what the other expects, and that they have far greater problems to worry about than ensnaring each other…
Cas didn’t like her new cell. After having spent two weeks jammed into a dark locker on a Cofah warship, the space so confining that she couldn’t stand up or stretch out straight, she probably should have considered this an improvement. But she wasn’t one of those irritatingly cheerful optimists. She hadn’t liked the last cell, and she didn’t like this one either. The window might let in the ocean breeze, but it was too small to climb through, not to mention barricaded with iron bars. The cries of parrots and the yowls of monkeys beyond it were a reminder that she was in a strange land, far from home, without hope of rescue.
Heavy footsteps and the jangle of weapons sounded in the hallway.
Cas bared her teeth, hoping the guards would only stroll past on their way to attend to another prisoner. It had been scarce minutes since her welcome-to-the-Dragon-Spit-prison-and-here’s-a-thorough-beating-to-make-you-feel-at-home greeting. She was still lying on the floor and recovering, so she flinched at the idea of another round with those bone cudgels. For all her vows to stay strong, she had spent most of her first beating curled in a ball on the ground, clutching her gut, and doing her best not to whimper. Whimpering wasn’t expressly forbidden in the “Survival, Evasion, and Recovery” chapter of the army field manual, but the line about the “inherent stoicism of soldiers” seemed to discourage it.
The footsteps stopped, and the door opened. Yellow lantern light spilled in from the hallway, making Cas realize that twilight had fallen outside. Not that the time of day mattered much.
A guard scurried inside carrying a stool. He set it down, the legs scraping against the hard sandstone floor, then he stood beside the door. Thanks to the shaven head, scarred face, and broad shoulders, he would have been ominous and forbidding even without the bone cudgel and short sword secured on either hip and the shotgun gripped in his hands.
Another shaven-headed man walked in, this one older and wearing a tiger fur cloak over his brown uniform. It didn’t look particularly climate-appropriate. The man wasn’t carrying any visible weapons, but Cas assumed he was in charge. If the Cofah military was anything like her own, only important people got to tinker with the dress code. For a moment, she thought of her own commander, Colonel Ridge Zirkander, and the way his non-regulation cap was always tilted at a rakish angle, but she hurried to push the image away, lest tears form in her eyes. She could be tough while they questioned her, but only as long as she didn’t let herself think of comrades—friends—back home… and whether she would ever see them again.
“Lieutenant Caslin ‘Raptor’ Ahn,” High Lord Cloak said, settling on the stool. “Wolf Squadron.”
Cas searched for something cocky to say, something to show that she wasn’t intimidated by him or this situation—Zirkander would have had a witty riposte for this statement of the obvious—but all she got out was a muffled, “Yeah?” Her lips were split and swollen from the beating. Even that single syllable hurt.
“Raptor?” Cloak made a point of eying her up and down, or rather, since she was on the floor, forward and back. Then he smirked. “Truly?”
Cas would have liked to stand up and tower threateningly over him, but she had to wear her thick-soled combat boots to brush the five-foot-two mark on a measuring wall. So far, she hadn’t managed to tower over anyone older than ten. It would have hurt too much to climb to her feet anyway.
“I didn’t give myself the nickname,” she grumbled. Not that she minded it; most of the squadron had embarrassing nicknames, especially the other young lieutenants. Pimples and Snuggles came to mind.
“Well, Raptor, our latest intelligence confirms that your people know your damaged flier sank during the skirmish in the Seven Tides Strait. They believe you’re as dead as the other pilot.”
The other pilot—Dash. Her eyes threatened to water again. She had seen the fire in Dash’s cockpit, seen him burning, his skin charred, his mouth open in a scream of pain right before his flier plunged into the ocean. There was no chance he had swum away as she had, having survived by clinging onto a piece of a wing until someone pulled her out of the water hours later. The wrong someone.
Cloak leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped as he regarded her. “That means nobody’s coming for you.”
A monkey howled in the distance. Cas wouldn’t have minded making a similar screech. She muttered a, “No kidding,” instead. Maybe she shouldn’t be saying anything. But if she responded to him, she might get a scrap or two of information in return. Though she wasn’t sure how she could manage it at the moment; escape had to be her priority. That was specifically mentioned in the field manual. Escaping and reporting back, that was her duty.
“That means we can keep you here as long as we need to.” Cloak smiled. Someone who found joy in his job. What a soul to be treasured.
“Oh, good,” Cas said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t get to thoroughly appreciate this hot, humid-as-spit climate before getting shipped somewhere else.”
“We’ll interrogate you, of course,” the man continued, as if she hadn’t spoken. Maybe he was used to talking to himself. “I doubt you know much. What are you, a year out of the academy?”
A year and three months, thank you, but she kept the thought to herself. No need to start giving away intel before they began the interrogation; no matter that they already seemed to know more about her than she would like.
“But you are Wolf Squadron,” Cloak went on. “If you’ve served under Zirkander for a year, my emperor will want whatever information you can supply on him.”
Cas had been beyond proud when she had been selected for Wolf Squadron straight out of the academy—she had done her best to live up to the prestigious unit’s reputation—and she would never regret that choice. But, for the first time, she realized her position might not serve her well. Everything that made her commander a lauded hero in Iskandia would make him a loathed enemy here.
“Zirkander?” she asked, licking her lips—odd how dry her mouth had suddenly grown, humid air notwithstanding. “His favorite color is green; his favorite meal is pot roast; he prefers beer to straight spirits; and, when winter comes, he’ll throw a snowball at anyone, even officers who outrank him. If that’s enough intel, you can leave my cell door open, and I’ll be happy to show myself out.”
Neither the guard nor Cloak seemed to find her sarcasm amusing. Given how much saying all that had made her mouth hurt, she shouldn’t have bothered.
Cloak pulled a dagger out of a sheath that his furry garment had hidden. Cas tried to draw back, or at least manage a sitting position, but he moved quickly for an old prison commander. The blade came up beneath her chin, the sharp point digging into tender flesh. She froze, but that didn’t keep a drop of warm blood from welling and dripping down her throat.
“I’ve sent a communication to the emperor,” Cloak said. “It’s possible he’ll simply want to hurt Zirkander by sending him your head. As a sign of his failure.”
Cas lifted her chin, part defiance, and part an attempt to put some air between her and that blade. “The colonel wasn’t even in command of the squadron at Seven Tides. He didn’t fail at anything.” Although Cas couldn’t help but feel that she had failed. Due to her inability to dissuade a Cofah diplomat from groping her, the colonel had stepped in and punched the man, a move which had resulted in disciplinary action. It was Cas’s fault the colonel hadn’t been flying with the squadron that day. The man who had taken over, Major Pennith, was a good officer, but Zirkander never would have accepted the mission, one that ultimately cost the squadron four fliers and Dash’s life. The colonel would have known the odds were too poor and would have pushed back against the general, maybe even the king, or he would have changed the situation, changed the odds somehow. As he always did. As Cas should have done in facing that diplomat. She shouldn’t have needed rescuing. Her father would have been embarrassed for her. Rightfully so.
“Yes,” Cloak purred, “we’ve heard that he hasn’t been flying of late. Care to tell me where he’s been?”
“Not that I would tell you anyway, but I have no idea. You’re right that lieutenants fresh out of the academy don’t get told much by generals and colonels.”
Zirkander had barely had time for more than a goodbye wave to all of them before disappearing to who knew where. Reassigned, he had said, his face almost ashen. Cas had never seen that expression on him before, and it had alarmed her. But he’d told them he couldn’t say more, simply giving everyone pats on the back and encouraging words before collecting his lucky charm from his flier and walking out of the hangar.
“You’re sure you’re not anyone’s bedroom confidant? You’re young and pretty enough. Under the blood.” Cloak traced her jaw with his dagger, his dark eyes growing thoughtful.
For a moment, rage replaced fear, and Cas spat at his face. It was stupid, but it felt good. She found the strength to pull away from him, too, not that she could go far. All he would have to do was get off that stool. If he couldn’t corner her on his own, the guards surely would.
Cloak snorted and wiped his face. “It’s unfortunate there are rules against jailers raping prisoners. If the Iskandians are stupid enough to put women in their military, they’re asking for it, after all. Besides, after all of our men your flier squads have brought down—killed—you deserve it.” He looked at the soldier standing next to the door.
Cas gripped the sandstone bench lining one cell wall, pushing herself into a standing position, bruises and pain notwithstanding. Rules were good, but if Cloak wanted to break them, she meant to face him on her feet.
“If you want me to shut the door and see nothing, I will, sir,” the guard said.
Loyal to his commander, was he? How sweet.
Cloak’s thoughtful expression returned to her. There was far too much consideration on his face.
Cas dug through her mind, looking for a way out of this mess. To distract them, if nothing else, and make them forget about her for the night. “Since you seem to know quite a bit about me, you might have heard of my father. He wouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss me as dead when he heard the news. He could be over here, hunting for me already.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of your father, and my research tells me that he hasn’t spoken to you in three years. I understand he didn’t approve of your decision to join the army and serve the king instead of going into the family business.”
Cas swallowed, disturbed by how much intelligence the Cofah had on specific Iskandian personnel. They couldn’t know this much about every soldier in the army, could they? Maybe the flier pilots had been singled out because they were particularly irksome.
“I doubt he’ll be looking for you,” Cloak finished. “No, you’ll stay here with us for a while. We’ll break you and get every iota we can out of you while waiting for word from the emperor.”
Break you. That did not sound promising.
More footsteps sounded in the hallway.
“Any chance that’s dinner?” Cas asked, hoping this chat was over. “They didn’t feed me regularly on that glorified tug. As you can see, I’m getting a little waifish.”
“You missed dinner. I’ll be sure to tell Captain Trivolt that you called his warship a tug though. I’m sure that will make him more hospitable to the next prisoner he captures.”
A guard jogged into the cell and whispered something into Cloak’s ear. Cas took the opportunity to move farther from him and his dagger. She put her back to the window wall, her canvas prison smock little insulation from the cool, coarse stone against her shoulder blades. Coarse or not, she liked having it behind her and putting as much distance between her and the men as she could.
“Yes, I’d heard about his capture,” Cloak said when his man straightened. “An even more intriguing prisoner. Yes, I’ll question him immediately.”
As he stood up, Cas allowed herself a hint of relief. Good, someone else for the commander to harass.
Cloak paused before walking out the door though. He looked thoughtfully back at her, his hand on the door jamb. Then he threw back his head and laughed, a deep hollow laugh that reminded her of the big bell clanging in Sky Tower back home.
“Sir?” the new guard asked. Judging by the way his mouth dropped open, his commander didn’t laugh like this often.
Oh, good, that meant he had come up with something special. Cas prayed it had nothing to do with her. Would the seven gods hear her prayers over here in enemy territory? Or did they think her dead too?
“Bring him here, Corporal,” Cloak said, his lips still stretched with mirth. Mirth Cas couldn’t help but find alarming, especially when he turned that smile toward her. “I believe we’ll save space by having our two new prisoners share a cell.”
The guard’s brow wrinkled. “But there are plenty of empty cells, sir.”
“Ah, but nobody hates Zirkander and Wolf Squadron more than the Deathmaker.”
Cas stared for a stunned moment as the words sank in. Deathmaker. Cas closed her eyes. She would have liked to scoff at the overly dramatic name—pirates couldn’t ever call themselves Thon or Jed, could they?—but she had been to Tanglewood Peninsula, seen the memorial there, the graves. Six years earlier, the entire village—every man, woman, and child—had been slain by a horrible biological agent that melted their lungs and other organs, killing them from the inside out. There was nothing about the Deathmaker that should make one scoff. The evil scientist belonged to the Roaming Curse, one of the biggest pirate outfits flying the Targenian Sea. Wolf Squadron had battled with them just that past summer, taking back a pair of dragon-flier energy sources the pirates had stolen during a raid. Zirkander hadn’t been lenient, and Cas had been along on that mission. She had helped bring down their flagship. She shouldn’t be surprised that Deathmaker had gotten away. He was one of the few pirates who had a reputation even more horrendous than that of his bloodthirsty leader, Captain Slaughter.
But what would he be doing here? Why would a nefarious pirate scientist be roaming about where he could be captured?
“But won’t he kill her, sir?” the guard asked after scratching his head a few times.
“Possibly. Though I’m hoping he’ll want to prolong her torment a bit.” Cloak turned his unfriendly smile back onto Cas. “The rules say nothing about what prisoners may and may not do to each other.” Cloak laughed again. He even wiped tears from his eyes. What a dung flinger. “If nothing else, she’ll be less lippy in the morning, I’m sure.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll get him.”
Cas stared at the floor, trying hard not to feel defeated… and failing.
Deathmaker. Fate was hating her this month. When she had gone to flight school and joined Wolf Squadron, she had known she would make enemies. Even if Iskandia merely defended its homeland and rarely looked for trouble beyond its borders, the Cofah believed her people were rebels who should be reconquered. Hundreds of years may have passed since her ancestors had killed their externally imposed rulers and cast the Cofah off their continent, but the empire had a long memory. The Cofah had never stopped wanting Iskandia, and they would always believe themselves the righteous ones. When Cas had started shooting down their dirigibles and attacking their ocean warships, it had been inevitable that she would become a target herself.
Well, she didn’t have to be an easy target.
Cloak and the new guard had gone.
Cas eyed the remaining guard. He was watching her right back, his shotgun aimed in her direction. Surprising him and escaping would be difficult, but the door was still open, and he was alone. This might be the only chance she got.
She subtly slid her hands along the wall behind her, hoping to find some crumbled piece of rock that she might hurl as a weapon. There were such chunks in the corners of the floor, but he would notice if she bent to pick one up. Oh, what she would give for the powers of the sorcerers of old, the ability to convince one of those noisy parrots out there to swoop through the window and claw this man’s eyes out. She would have to settle for a more personal attack.
She shifted her weight and found one of those rocks with her toe. She nudged it away from the wall, thinking to kick it across the room. If she could distract him for a second, maybe she could wrestle that shotgun free from him. She might not be much more than a hundred pounds, and little more than salt and vinegar in a fight, but with a projectile weapon in hand, the odds should shift in her favor.
The footsteps returned in the hall. Out of time. She cursed under her breath.
The guard glanced toward the doorway. Cas kicked the rock.
It skittered across the room, banging him in the toe. Not much of an attack, but he looked down, and she leaped across the room. Her wounds protested the sudden movement, but her nerves flooded her limbs with fire to compensate. She grabbed the barrel of the rifle, trying to yank it free before he recovered.
He snorted. His eyes met hers, and there wasn’t a glimmer of concern in them. He lunged at her, bowling her off her feet, and slammed her into the side wall so hard that it knocked her breath away. She tried to knee him, but he thrust her against the wall again, the back of her head thumping the stone this time. Blackness rimmed her vision, and dots of light floated through the air before her. She was vaguely aware of her feet dangling several inches off the ground.
“Women make pathetic soldiers,” the guard said. “That you’re here is a sign of how desperate the Iskandians are.” He rammed her against the wall again.
“That’s enough, Sergeant,” Cloak said from the hallway.
He had returned, along with more guards, a lot more guards. And another man.
Cas blinked, trying to clear her eyes. The man standing in the doorway, his hands shackled before him, appeared more warrior than scientist, with a hide vest leaving his muscular arms and part of his chest exposed. She had expected a crazy old man with spectacles or magnifying goggles and white hair sticking out in all directions. The figure in the doorway appeared to be about thirty, and his long black locks fell down his back in matted ropes. In contrast to the tangled hair, his mustache and goatee were trimmed, and his bronze Cofah skin was clean of grime, but nothing about the dark scowling eyes, the shark-tooth necklace, or the spiked leather wrist cuffs invited one to venture closer. Amazing that the guards had been able to get his shackles on over all that pointy metal.
They were watching him now, far more warily than they had watched her. No less than four pistols were aimed at the pirate.
“Deathmaker,” Cloak said, extending a hand toward Cas, who was still pinned by the guard. “Allow me to introduce your new roommate.”
The guard stepped back, letting Cas drop to the floor. She braced herself against the wall. Her heart was beating a couple thousand times a minute, and she needed the stone for support. So much for her grand escape attempt.
The pirate stared at her. Full darkness had fallen outside, and she doubted he could see much in the shadowy cell, but she didn’t see how that helped her.
Out of some sense that she shouldn’t let him know she feared him or that he had any power over her whatsoever, she said, “How come you got to keep your trendy pirate clothes, and they forced me to put on this potato sack?”
The prisoner turned his dark glower onto Cloak. If he found anything amusing about her question, it didn’t show on his face.
“Ah, are introductions in order?” Cloak grabbed a lantern from the wall and hung it from a hook in the cell—Cas eased back into the shadows near the window again. “Deathmaker, this is the Iskandian, Lieutenant Ahn. From Wolf Squadron.”
That got a reaction. The pirate’s nostrils flared, and his head jerked back toward her, his hair whipping about his face.
Cloak waved to one of the guards. He stepped forward warily and unlocked the pirate’s shackles. The metal fell away, clanging to the stone floor. The pirate lunged inside, springing toward Cas like a lion taking down its prey.
She could only take a step before her back smacked into the wall. She tried to duck and dodge away, but even in the darkness, he anticipated which way she would go and grabbed her. Much as the guard had done, he slammed her into the wall. Her already battered body betrayed her, and a gasp of pain slipped out. She wanted to fight, to spit curses if nothing else, but a calloused hand wrapped around her neck.
Cloak’s dark chuckle came from the hallway, then the door thudded shut, leaving Cas along with the pirate. The hand about her neck tightened.