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Free Fiction: Crazy Canyon (a Dragon Blood short story)

| Posted in Free Fiction |

23

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m returning to my Dragon Blood world. There’s a new spinoff series coming soon (set three years after the events in the original series), and the first two books are almost ready to go. Just waiting for final cover art! There will also be another book coming late winter/early spring with the original core characters.

Those are the guys we’re visiting with this short story. “Crazy Canyon” stars Ridge and Therrik (with a few appearances by the dragon who believes he’s a god, Bhrava Saruth). It takes place after the events in Shattered Past, but you should be able to read it even if you’re not familiar with the series.

It is on the long side for a short story, so you may want to grab a latte or some wine and perhaps some chocolate before diving in…

Crazy Canyon

a Dragon Blood short story

by Lindsay Buroker

Copyright © 2017 Lindsay Buroker

 

“Potted plants?” General Ridgewalker Zirkander scratched his head. “You came to see me about potted plants?”

“Yes, sir.” The young man from the king’s castle—what was his title? Steward?—rolled out a blueprint of the courtyard. Or what the courtyard would look like after the construction finished. Thanks to dragons, demolitions, and a sorceress, the castle was still undergoing “renovations,” as the newspapers called them. “We want to ensure the landing pad for the king’s fliers meets the required specifications, but Lady Dilwandser—she’s overseeing furnishing and decor, since the queen passed away—thought the pad would look too bare.”

“It’s supposed to be bare. So fliers can land on it and so the king, his entourage, and their supplies can be loaded.”

“Lady Dilwandser wants to know if it’s safe to place foliage around the pad. At the corners here and here. And then perhaps a hedge along this side.”

“A hedge?”

“Yes, sir. Unlike the pots, it would be planted and immobile. We were worried about the heat from the thrusters wilting the plants. I brought you a sample of the shrub Lady Dilwandser suggested. It blooms in the spring, and the flowers are delicate.” The man produced a leafy twig, or maybe that was a vine, and a dried red flower. “What do you think?” Very serious, earnest eyes regarded Ridge.

“I think I never imagined meetings like this when I accepted this promotion.” Ridge glanced toward the window. All hint of daylight had disappeared outside, and he could no longer see the flier hangars perched on the bluff to the south of the harbor. To think, he’d believed he would make it home in time to join Sardelle for dinner. “General Ort didn’t mention horticulture when I took over his position.”

“Yes, sir. The foliage?”

“You’ve got Major Sanglor in charge of the king’s personal fliers, don’t you? What did he say?”

“He referred me to you.”

“I may have to rethink my policy of being a lenient commander and not issuing demerits to lower-ranking officers.”

The steward’s brow furrowed.

Ridge sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. He had been at the citadel since before dawn. In meetings. His old squadron had been in the air all morning practicing maneuvers over the harbor. All he’d been able to do was gaze longingly out the window at them while he and the supply captain discussed lead time on ordering flier parts. Not to mention new casters for the rolling door in the hangar. Generals, apparently, had to be consulted on such important matters as casters. And hedges.

“Just plant and pot them outside of the pad,” he said. “It was designed based on the operational guidelines and schematics of the existing two-man fliers. I’ll be certain to let you know if the requirements change when the test models go into production.”

“Excellent, sir.” The man rolled up his schematics, tucked them under his arm, and headed for the door. “Shall I send in your next appointment?”

“There’s a next appointment?” Ridge glanced at the clock. At this rate, Sardelle would be sleeping by the time he got home.

“There’s a surly colonel who glowered at me when I said I had an appointment and pushed my way in first.”

“A surly colonel?” Ridge groaned inwardly. It couldn’t be him, could it? His unofficial but undeniable nemesis ought to have another six months, at least, left as the fort commander for the remote Magroth Crystal Mines.

Very surly.” The steward pursed his lips, shook his head, and walked out.

A second after he disappeared from sight, a large blunt-fingered hand thrust the door open. It was the kind of hand with the power to crack walnuts. Or skulls.

Colonel Vann Therrik strode inside, his customary glower in place. Even though the elite troops colonel had most recently been assigned to command a fort, a job that involved a lot of paperwork, Ridge had no doubt that Therrik and his overly muscled arms were still perfectly capable of killing people. He reminded himself that he outranked the man now and probably wasn’t in danger of being maimed, mutilated, or murdered. Even so, his natural inclination was to keep the desk between them.

“You’re not in my appointment book, Therrik,” Ridge said, swiveling in his chair so he could lean his arm on the backrest. He refused to appear intimidated by the colonel, even if he did prefer it when Sardelle and her sentient—and powerful—sword Jaxi were nearby when he confronted him. “Did you perhaps come by to suggest we go out for beers?”

“No.”

Ridge lifted his eyebrows, assuming Therrik would get right to the point. He did like points. The kinds on the ends of weapons, in particular.

Oddly, Therrik scowled, folded his arms over his chest, and glared… out the window. Ridge peeked in that direction, but all that was visible from the second-story office right now was the dark night sky.

“You didn’t come to tell me the king accepted your application to become his new captain of the guard, did you?” Ridge asked, news he’d heard from his cousin Lilah, an incredibly smart and educated woman who was, against all logic, reason, and the understanding of the gods, seeing Therrik. In a romantic sense. Ridge’s brain still hurt at the notion.

“No.” Therrik’s scowl deepened. “He said I was too valuable to the army. If that were true, he wouldn’t have stuck me at Magroth.”

“Unfortunate. I heard you were looking forward to being outside the military chain of command and thus able to frisk impertinent generals who visited the king.”

Therrik’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Lilah told you that?”

“Lilah told Sardelle, and Sardelle told me.” Ridge had been moderately horrified at the idea of Therrik frisking him, likely with a hand around his throat. The best part of being promoted to general had been getting to the point where he outranked the man. But the king’s guard was a unit outside of the military, and if they wanted to frisk suspicious visitors—and loyal pilots—they had that right. “They’ve become friends now, you know. If Lilah hadn’t been living so far up the coast, I would have introduced them earlier. They have a lot of common interests. The academic ones, not the sorcerous ones, I gather.” Ridge added the last since Therrik loathed everything related to magic.

Therrik grunted. Or maybe that was a growl. Some kind of vocal utterance that portrayed a belligerent lack of enthusiasm.

“The king is also concerned the Cofah will come sniffing around, or send their dragons sniffing around, for their emperor,” Therrik said. “He wants me around in a military capacity in case I’m needed to defend the city or go on incursions.”

Ridge suspected the king simply didn’t want to see Therrik’s scowling face in his castle halls every morning, but he decided not to share the thought.

“So you’re stationed locally again?” Ridge told himself it shouldn’t matter to him, since, as a general, it was unlikely he would be asked to ferry the elite troops around on missions anymore. He wouldn’t need to worry about being stuck flying Therrik and his sunny disposition—and his airsickness-prone stomach—anywhere.

“Back with my old intelligence unit.”

“Were they having trouble functioning without your keen contributions?” Every time Ridge saw Therrik, he resolved to stop goading the man. And every time, he failed. It was so hard to be a mature human being.

“I didn’t come here to pound your face into a wall, Zirkander. Don’t make me change my mind.”

The words, “Just don’t forget to call me sir while you do it,” popped into Ridge’s mind, but he managed to quash them before they came out. Score one point for maturity.

“What did bring you here?” he asked. “I can’t imagine you wanted my advice on shrubbery.”

Therrik took a deep breath, as if he were about to ask for something deeply embarrassing. Or maybe the mere act of having to ask for anything embarrassed him.

“Can you give me the address of Lilah’s mother in Portsnell?”

“Uh, what? Why?”

“I want to arrange for her to come to the capital to visit Lilah.”

“Arrange?” Ridge imagined a team of elite troops planning a mission to abscond with Aunt Dotty before the more rational part of his brain decided that was unlikely.

“Buy her a train ticket so she can come visit us for a couple of weeks.”

Us?” Ridge heard the alarmed squeak in his voice, but it was too late to do anything about it. He’d known his cousin and Therrik had bonded on their adventure at Magroth and that they’d had a… dalliance, but he hadn’t believed it would last. He certainly hadn’t expected them to become an us. They weren’t living together, were they?

“Yes, us. Could you act like a grown-up, Zirkander? Just give me—seven gods, you’re not going to hyperventilate, are you?”

Ridge had no idea what expression was on his face, but he drew back and did his best to straighten it. “Of course not.” Probably. “I just hadn’t realized that you and she… ah. Never mind. Why can’t Lilah give you her mother’s address for this?”

“Because I’m not asking her for it. This is supposed to be a surprise. She’s been talking about her mother being lonely, and I think she’s lonely. She transferred to the university here, but classes haven’t started for the year yet, so she hasn’t met her new colleagues. I thought she might like her mother to visit before summer is over.”

It took Ridge a moment to process Therrik’s words, to realize he wanted to do something nice. Ridge wouldn’t have guessed he had that in him, but he supposed women sometimes had the ability to bring out the best in men. Sardelle certainly did that for him. He wished she were here now for more reasons than one.

“The address?” Therrik asked.

“I don’t know it,” Ridge said.

Therrik’s eyes narrowed.

Ridge spread his hands. “I know where she lives, but I haven’t been up there for a few years, and I don’t remember the house number or postal code.”

Would he have given Therrik the address even if he had known it? He liked the thought of Lilah getting to spend time with her mother, but he loathed the idea that Therrik might be the one to give her that gift. Ridge didn’t think they were a good match, and he hoped Lilah realized that as soon as possible. If Therrik did her favors, then how would she realize what an ass he was?

It was possible that he wasn’t the ass to her that he was to Ridge, but it hurt Ridge’s brain to imagine having to accept that.

“You don’t have it written down?” Therrik stuck a fist on his hip. “What kind of man doesn’t send his family members Solstice Fest cards?”

“The kind whose house was blown up last spring. My address book was inside at the time.”

“Oh, hells.” Therrik dropped his hand. He frowned at the window again, as if some other solution might appear in the night out there.

Ridge’s mother might have the address, but the ride to her house was more than thirty miles round-trip. Besides, he didn’t want to foist Therrik and his dubious charms on her without an introduction. Or with an introduction. Even if it would be amusing to see Therrik attacked by her legion of ham-hungry cats.

An idea popped into Ridge’s mind, and he almost rejected it right away because it sounded like personal torture. Also, he didn’t want to help Therrik. Or do anything to contribute to him and Lilah being a lasting us.

But… he didn’t not want to help Lilah. She would enjoy having her mother come for a visit. And he imagined Aunt Dotty would enjoy visiting the capital and doing some of the historical tours with Lilah.

Ridge leaned his hands against his desk, thinking of the times he’d teased Lilah when they’d been kids. She had preferred reading books to playing with Ridge, her brothers, and their other cousins, which he’d found perplexing at the time. He hadn’t been the sharpest sword in the rack.

“Never mind, then,” Therrik said, turning for the door.

“Wait,” Ridge said, wincing but forcing his offer out nevertheless. “It only takes two hours to fly up there. My last appointment is at four tomorrow. I can take you up there, and you can introduce yourself and ask her in person if she would like to come down.”

The expression in Therrik’s eyes might have been horror or distaste or nascent motion sickness. Ridge expected him to reject the offer outright, and that would be fine by him. He’d made the gesture. Another point for maturity.

“Can’t you just draw me a map?” Therrik grumbled. “I’d rather take the five-hour train trip each way than climb into your back seat again.”

“It would be a crappy map. Like I said, I haven’t been up there for a while. I know I can find it in person, but…” Ridge shrugged. “You’re more than welcome to take the train. It’ll give you time to catch up on your reading. All those fascinating tomes about ancient weapons and killing people.”

“You don’t read about killing people, Zirkander. You just do it. It’s much more satisfying.”

Ridge suspected the man was fantasizing about killing him right now.

Shaking his head, Therrik turned for the door. Ridge scooted papers into a folder, cleaning up his desk so he could leave for the night.

But Therrik paused with his hand on the knob.

“Shit.”

“Something else it’s more satisfying to do than read about,” Ridge offered.

The look Therrik launched over his shoulder was scathing. And definitely conveyed a desire for murder, or at least mutilation.

“I don’t have any days off coming up for weeks,” Therrik said. “I took leave between Magroth and starting up again with my unit here, so I could move my belongings into an apartment big enough for sharing.”

“Unfortunate.” Not wanting to hear about the details of why the man needed to share his apartment, Ridge grabbed his jacket off his chair, turned off the lantern on his desk, and waved his guest toward the door. He was surprised Therrik hadn’t already left.

“So I don’t have time to take an all-day train trip.” Therrik’s tone turned anguished. “Zirkander, I want to do this for Lilah. Before the school year starts back up and she’s working all the time again. I…” The anguished tone turned into an anguished expression, as if he were wrestling with some terrible inner demon.

It slowly dawned on Ridge that Therrik was trying to make himself accept the offer. To ask for and accept a favor. From someone he would love to strangle.

Ridge leaned his hip against his desk and stuck a hand in his pocket, debating whether he wanted to stand there and wait for Therrik to ask, perhaps insisting he throw a please on the end. It would feel tremendously satisfying to have a small amount of power over him, if only for a few seconds. Since Therrik utterly ignored the fact that Ridge now outranked him, lording his generalness over him hadn’t been as fun as he’d hoped.

However, he wanted to get home to Sardelle before midnight. And then there was that maturity thing he was trying to work on.

“Meet me at the hangar after final formation,” Ridge said. “I can have you to Aunt Dotty’s house in time for dinner.”

“Fine,” Therrik said, stalking out of the office.

“You’re welcome,” Ridge called after him.

 

* * *

 

Ridge couldn’t help but smile as he left the tram car and walked across the bluff to the hangars. His butt hadn’t been in a cockpit for more than two weeks. Oh, piloting Therrik would be a test of patience, and he’d probably have to clean the back seat of vomit afterward, but still, it was a chance to fly. To watch the sun over the mountains as he soared northward, the sea breeze rushing past, whipping his scarf about. He missed swooping and diving like an eagle, though he supposed he would have to limit that, and barrel rolls would be out of the question, no matter how fun they were. Therrik got sick just flying straight.

A few young Wolf and Tiger squadron pilots leaving for the day saluted him and one blurted, “General Zirkander, sir. Will you be joining us for the practice maneuvers tomorrow?”

“I have to make sure the new instructors at the flight academy get settled in tomorrow, but I’ll try to come out and watch Wolf and Tiger for a while.”

“Watch, sir? Won’t you fly with us? I’ve heard about—I mean, I’ve never gotten to see.” He glanced at his comrade. “You’re a legend, sir!”

His buddy, Lieutenant Foam, elbowed him and gave Ridge an apologetic, “He’s new, sir.”

“Yes, I know. I approved his application into Tiger Squadron. If there’s time, I would love to fly with you boys.” Ridge patted the men on the shoulder before continuing on.

Seven gods, he would love to go up with them, but he doubted he would be able to slip away for long enough. This little jaunt up the coast would have to satisfy his flying itch, at least for now.

Their salutes and a “Yes, sir,” and “Good evening, sir,” trailed him as he headed for the hangar, but the respect ended after that.

As soon as he stepped inside, Therrik, already standing by Ridge’s flier, growled, “You’re late, Zirkander.” He did not acknowledge in any way that he was pleased Ridge was doing him this favor.

“The castle steward returned with more shrubbery samples. Don’t ever let them promote you to general, Therrik.”

“I won’t. I know I’d be crappy at it.”

Ridge blinked, startled by the honesty. Or self-effacement. Whatever that had been. “Commanding Magroth didn’t agree with you?”

“You know it didn’t.”

Yes, a few months earlier, when Ridge had flown up there to battle the dragon Morishtomaric, he’d arrived in the middle of a riot. The miner-prisoners the soldiers were stationed there to guard had been showing their displeasure at Therrik’s draconian command style. With sledgehammers and pickaxes.

“Well, now that you’re back here, maybe you’ll be sent on some nice covert missions where you can ruthlessly slay enemies.” Ridge didn’t know which enemies those would be, since Iskandia had a ceasefire with the Cofah Empire right now, but surely some inspired intelligence officer could find someone for Therrik to slay.

A hint of hope entered Therrik’s eyes, but then he shook his head. “Lilah tells me I shouldn’t feel wistful about such things.”

“Yeah.” Ridge pulled himself into his cockpit to hide his grimace. It made him uncomfortable to hear his cousin’s name—first name—on the rough colonel’s tongue. He trusted that Lilah, who was in her late thirties and had been married before, wouldn’t get involved with someone who didn’t treat her well, but he did catch himself worrying about Therrik’s explosive temper. If Ridge had his druthers, this wasn’t a relationship that would be happening. But Lilah had told him—firmly—that she didn’t care about his druthers.

Ridge double-checked to make sure the bag of apple pie taffy he’d purchased during his lunch break was safely in his jacket pocket. There was a woman in the capital that made all manner of flavors, and he recalled that Dotty enjoyed this one the best. He had no idea how well Therrik’s offer—or Therrik himself—would be received. If nothing else, the taffy could be a consolation prize.

The flier creaked as Therrik settled into the back seat.

Ridge glanced back at the big man. “You didn’t put on more muscle while you were in that frozen hole, did you?”

“What do you care?”

“I’m concerned the flier won’t get off the ground with our combined weight. Especially your half—two-thirds—of it.”

“I can’t help you with your feelings of scrawny inadequacy. Just fly this boat, Zirkander. I want to get there before the woman goes to bed.”

“Since you asked so nicely, I’ll be happy to take off.” Ridge shook his head, tugged his goggles on, and hit the ignition. The energy crystal that powered the craft flared to life, its soft yellow light illuminating the cockpit.

“No crazy flying on the way there.”

“You’re taking all the fun out of my escape from my office,” Ridge said, though he didn’t want to have to clean the back seat of the flier, so he hadn’t planned any aerial antics. Alas.

He nudged the flight stick, and good old W-63 rolled toward the open hangar door. The sun was setting outside, but he’d flown up and down the coast a thousand times and would have no trouble landing in Portsnell in the dark.

The two-seater had thrusters, so he could have simply rolled out of the hangar and lifted off, but all the early fliers he’d trained on had required getting up to speed until the wheels left the ground, and he enjoyed the feel of the wind against his face, whipping his scarf about. He accelerated down the runway toward the edge of the bluff that dropped off into the harbor.

As he was about to tilt the wings for liftoff, a huge gold figure flew up from below and alighted on the bluff right in front of them.

“Shit!” Therrik swore.

Though startled, Ridge continued his takeoff, veering slightly to the left to avoid the dragon.

Greetings, human worshippers! Bhrava Saruth spoke into his mind—into their minds?

Ridge glanced back as the flier soared over the dragon’s head. Therrik’s eyes bulged, and his hands gripped either side of his seat well. One lurched toward the pistol at his waist.

Ridge made a cutting motion, hoping to stop Therrik’s overtrained warrior instincts from shooting. It wasn’t as if bullets did anything against a dragon, but Bhrava Saruth was one of only two winged allies that Iskandia claimed. And the only one who was enthusiastic about helping the country.

Good evening, Bhrava Saruth, Ridge thought, trusting the telepathic dragon would read his mind.

You are leaving? Behind them, Bhrava Saruth sprang into the air and flapped his wings to trail after the flier. I just located you. You were not in your lair.

My office in the citadel?

The place where you command the legions of my potential worshippers.

Ridge wondered what General Ort and all the high-ranking officers who worked in the citadel would think if he changed the sign out front to The Lair. The General’s Lair. Alas, it sounded more like the name of a tavern in town.

“Zirkander,” Therrik growled, “that dragon is following us.”

“Yes, that’s Bhrava Saruth, our ally.”

“I know that.”

With Therrik’s head twisted to look back, Ridge barely heard him.

“It’s why I haven’t shot at it,” Therrik added.

“So, you’re just fondling your pistol for no reason?”

Therrik glowered at him. “There’s a reason.”

“We’re not going to discuss killing again, are we?”

“Just do something about that dragon. I don’t want it stalking us all the way up the coast. If I show up with a dragon at Lilah’s mother’s house… hells, what kind of impression would that be?”

“A memorable one, I’m certain.”

Therrik’s glower faded, and an expression Ridge wasn’t familiar with took over his face. Concern?

It boggled Ridge’s mind to imagine Therrik worried about making a good impression on… anyone. He was somewhat less of an ass around the king and superior officers who didn’t irk him the way Ridge did, but Ridge couldn’t imagine him having a vulnerable side under all that gruffness. Nor did he particularly want to imagine it.

I’ve come to discuss my temple, Bhrava Saruth announced, speeding up to fly beside them as they soared north, out of the city and along the coast.

“His what?” Therrik asked, and Ridge realized Bhrava Saruth was sharing his words with both of them.

Maybe he hoped that he would be more likely to get a temple if he talked to more people about it.

I have nineteen worshippers now, and I must have a place for them to come and receive my blessings and wisdom.

“It would be nice if that place didn’t continue to be my house,” Ridge said wistfully.

When he and Sardelle had chosen that quiet cottage on the dead-end lane outside of the city walls, he’d imagined it being private. Secluded. Definitely not a destination for mages in training or dragon devotees.

My high priestess has informed me that human money may be required in order to acquire land on which to build a suitable temple. As well as to hire construction crews for the building. Ridgewalker, finding human money would be a simple matter, but is this truly how temples for gods are built? Do not the worshippers simply come together and raise the structure themselves, thus to honor their divine lord?

A loud sigh, or maybe that was a moan, came from the back seat.

“You’re not getting airsick already, are you?” Ridge asked over his shoulder. “I’m flying as straight as I can.”

“For once, it’s not you that’s making me sick.”

Therrik frowned over at the dragon.

Bhrava Saruth gazed back, his leathery wings flapping, easily matching the flier’s pace. His golden scales gleamed beneath the light of the setting sun. He possessed deep green eyes full of power, and if one looked into them, one felt a pull to do everything the dragon wished, no matter how goofy.

“I think it might have happened like that in the old days, Bhrava Saruth,” Ridge said, speaking aloud so Therrik wouldn’t be confused—or miss any of the scintillating details. “But these days, you either have to have money or get the government to pay for it.”

The government? This is your human king, yes? He will pay for my temple?

“Uhm.”

Therrik snorted. “Why don’t you fly that past him, Zirkander? You know you’re one of Angulus’s favorites.”

Right. That hadn’t been true even before Ridge had, against his will, flown an enemy sorceress that wanted to kill the king right to the castle.

“Bhrava Saruth, I think you should discuss this with the king. Since you helped defend the city from Cofah dragons, I wager he likes you a lot more than he likes me.”

You will help me build my temple if your king pays for it, Ridgewalker? You were my first worshipper in this time, you know.

Worshipper?” Therrik growled, half question, half exclamation of disgust.

“Yes, I haven’t forgotten,” Ridge said. “I’ll find a way to help, and if you really need me too, I’ll talk to the king. I’m sure he’ll admit Iskandia owes you a few favors.”

This is glorious news. I’ve been missing my old temple, where the clansmen—and clanswomen—brought me such fine offerings. And I blessed them and made them hale and fecund.

“I have no doubt.”

I must hunt. Then I can muse upon how to recruit more worshippers to my imminent temple while savoring the succulent chops of a sheep.

Bhrava Saruth wheeled away from them, his body swaying and his tail swishing in something akin to a dance  as he flew off.

Ridge looked toward the coastline, shadows darkening the nooks and cliffs as the sun dipped lower over the mountains. A couple more miles, and they would fly past Crazy Canyon. If Colonel Surly weren’t in the back, Ridge would have swooped up the winding river and under the arches. Seven gods, he missed being in the air on a daily basis. He’d almost wished Angulus had demoted him after that castle-sorceress incident. Oh, to be a colonel again and leading one of the flier squadrons.

“Why can’t a dragon build its own temple?” Therrik glared after Bhrava Saruth, who’d turned into a golden speck in the darkening sky as he flew inland. “Or magic one into existence?”

“I imagine he could if he wanted to.” And if his ego allowed it. Ridge suspected the dragon believed one’s worshippers should handle such prosaic work as building a temple to their god. “But I don’t want to suggest it, only to have him plop a massive stone structure down atop the Grand Mason and Bell Hotel. Or any other buildings in the capital on the historic register. It’s bad enough some of them were demolished in the various attacks on the city this year.”

“Damn, Zirkander. You actually care about the city’s architecture?”

Ridge couldn’t tell if he was being mocked or if Therrik was genuinely curious. He suspected the former, but who knew? Therrik came out of the nobility. Maybe he had some notion of it being honorable to defend the country—and its architecture.

“Well, I care about the city,” Ridge said. “And the people in it. I’d hate to see an innocent baker squashed by a dragon temple falling out of the sky.”

Frowning ahead and to the right, Ridge didn’t hear Therrik’s response. The opening for Crazy Canyon had come into view, the striated rock walls rising more than a thousand feet from sea level. Something large, dark, and unfamiliar hulked in the water at the mouth of the river.

“Is that a ship?” he muttered.

“What?” Therrik yelled over the wind.

Ridge pointed and tilted the flier to offer a better view. They were flying closer to the top of the canyon walls than the sea and were about a mile out from land. But Ridge could tell that was a ship in the estuary, even though it lay deep in the shadows, and no lanterns burned on its deck or behind its portholes. Twilight’s approach made it difficult to tell, but he thought it was all black, and it reminded him disturbingly of some of the original Cofah ironclads.

His first thought was that it was some old derelict that had floated to Iskandian shores, but it couldn’t have floated up the river. Even though it was barely inland, it still would have had to go against the current to reach that spot. And for it to stay there, it had to be anchored.

“A Cofah Warstriker 87-C?” Therrik asked. “How in the hells did that get there? The last one was decommissioned more than twenty years ago.”

Ridge wasn’t surprised Therrik knew the exact model. Apparently, he was a student of military history, and some of his interests bisected with those of Professor Lilah, paleontologist and fan of time-traveling historical adventure novels. Ridge, however, liked to pretend they had nothing in common and would soon discover that.

“I’m going to take us closer for a better look.” They had already flown past the canyon, with the ship almost hidden from view again, so Ridge nudged the flight stick to bank.

Therrik’s hand clamped onto his shoulder.

“I promise not to do any loops or barrel rolls in the canyon,” Ridge said. “Unless there are also enemy fliers in there, and we have to fight for our lives.” Damn if his blood didn’t charge up at the thought of that.

Was it possible that ship was part of some nefarious Cofah mission? Just because it was an old warship didn’t mean it didn’t have weapons and couldn’t do damage. And this was the closest place to the capital one could feasibly dock without entering the harbor the city sprawled along.

What if the Cofah had deliberately chosen an old ironclad, believing Iskandia’s magic-wielding allies—specifically, Bhrava Saruth and Sardelle—wouldn’t sense the craft skulking about? The country had lighthouses and watchtowers all along its shores, but a ship running dark could conceivably make it to shore without being spotted. And the highway and train tracks crossed over Crazy Canyon nearly ten miles inland, where the terrain was less treacherous. Nobody would have seen this vessel from those bridges.

“Don’t fly straight in.” Therrik squeezed his shoulder. Hard. “If there are soldiers in that ship, they would see us coming and open fire. If it hasn’t been modified, it has six Trokker guns with explosive shells, not to mention whatever rifles and other hand weapons the crew has.”

“I don’t object to being fired at.”

I do. Because you’re incapable of dodging fire without twirling around like a damn ballerina in a tutu.”

“It’s hard for the enemy to target a flier in the middle of evasive maneuvers.” Ridge did not twirl.

He considered shaking off that hand and taking them into the canyon anyway—he was the higher-ranking officer here—but maybe it would be easier to investigate the craft if they snuck up on the crew. Assuming there was a crew. Sneaking was hard to do in a flier with the propeller noise audible even over the roar of the ocean.

“Take a circuitous route, and park this thing on the floor of the canyon a couple miles up river. If your tender pilot’s feet can’t handle a march, I’ll go in alone and scout, see if there’s a problem.”

“My tender feet don’t object to marches, but I’m a lot deadlier in the air than on the ground.” Ridge had his pistol and utility knife along, since they were part of the military uniform for anyone traveling out of the city, but the sidearm didn’t pack nearly the punch of his flier’s machine guns. And the knife… He mostly used that to cut cheese.

“You’re not going to sink an ironclad with machine guns,” Therrik said. “And if I kill the crew, there’s no need to sink the ship.”

“I thought Lilah spoke to you about not sounding so joyous about the prospect of killing people.”

“It’s different if they’re Cofah scum,” Therrik growled, releasing Ridge’s shoulder, as if the matter was settled.

Ridge sighed. He hadn’t finished his earlier banking maneuver and had flown them north along the coast while discussing the situation. If receiving orders from Therrik could be considered a “discussion.”

Not that he had to obey them. He swung them inland, so they could circle back while he debated the options. Sending Therrik in wasn’t a bad idea, whether to kill enemies or just to gather intel. Both were his job. But Ridge hated losing his offensive firepower. He was just another soldier when he was on the ground, and not one who specialized in making people dead.

Of course, if that was an abandoned derelict, it wouldn’t matter. But he knew it wasn’t. Logic—and his instincts—told him something fishy was going on down there.

Ridge tapped the communication crystal embedded in his flight stick. “This is General Zirkander. Who’s at the desk?”

“Corporal Hannigot, sir,” an enthusiastic young voice blurted. One of the new members of the ground crew. He sounded excited by this after-hours contact. Maybe he hadn’t expected twelve hours of sheer boredom when he’d been assigned to the night shift.

“There any officers left in the hangar?”

“No, sir. Just me.”

“All right. Get a report to…” Ridge snorted. Usually reports would go to him. Before he’d been promoted, they’d gone to General Ort, but Ort was the brigade commander now. Was this important enough to bug him about? “General Ort,” he decided—it was early enough that nobody would be in bed yet. “I’ve spotted an old Cofah ironclad anchored in the mouth of Crazy Canyon. Haven’t seen any sign of crew yet. No running lights. I’m going in to investigate. No request for backup at this time. I’ll report in within two hours.”

“Yes, sir. I’m writing it down.” The kid sounded even more excited.

“Good. Zirkander, out.”

Therrik slapped him on the back of the head.

Ridge scowled over his shoulder. “What was that for?”

“You didn’t mention me. You didn’t think that was important? I’m the one who’s going to investigate while you stay by your flier and pick lint out of your pocket.”

Ridge, somewhat annoyed that he was following—obeying—Therrik’s demands already, said, “Colonels don’t get to tell generals what to do with their pocket lint. I’m going in to take a look at that ship too.”

Therrik’s lip curled in distaste. “Can you even walk down a path without stepping on a twig?”

“In the dark? Probably not.”

The lip curled further. Maybe that was disgust rather than distaste.

Ridge turned forward and decided he no longer cared about flying straight and keeping Therrik from getting airsick. He swooped low and tilted left and right as he soared above and around the rocky terrain, heading toward Crazy Canyon.

Something between a groan and an aborted upchuck noise came from the back. At least being airsick would shut Therrik up, if only until they landed.

 

* * *

 

Bhrava Saruth? Ridge asked silently, though he doubted the dragon was monitoring his thoughts. Too bad. It would have been nice if he could have gotten some intel from a magical creature that could sense life forms for fifty miles in all directions.

But he didn’t receive an answer. Bhrava Saruth was probably still hunting. Or savoring sheep chops.

Ridge wished he had Sardelle along. He would have even settled for Jaxi. In addition to having magic of her own, the soulblade could have glowed softly, enough to illuminate the path he was following down the riverbank. Fortunately, the locals frequented the canyon often, leaving the trails wide and easy to follow. Also, the water flowed past nearby, and Ridge believed its noise would drown out the crunching of twigs, but who knew? Therrik had the ears of a starving hunting dog.

He had disappeared down the trail as soon as Ridge landed the flier on a rock ledge overlooking the water. Though large and hulking, Therrik could indeed sneak effectively. More than effectively. Large cottonwoods rose up from the riverbank, and he slipped through the shadows they provided like a ghost, rarely seen, never heard.

Ridge wondered if there was a point in trailing along. Had Therrik not been such a presumptuous ass, he probably would have decided that staying with the flier was a good idea. Especially since he’d lost fliers he’d parked in this canyon before. The group of witch-hating women who’d been responsible for the deed last time had dissolved, so he shouldn’t have to worry about them, but what of the Cofah? Or whoever had brought that ironclad up the river?

He decided to turn back the next time he saw Therrik and had the chance to let him know. Not that Therrik would waste time worrying about him if he disappeared. They were only about twenty-five miles north of the city, so it wasn’t as if he would be in major trouble if his pilot disappeared. Of course, if he still hoped to reach Dotty’s house tonight, he would need Ridge.

“Zirkander,” came Therrik’s rough whisper from the brush ahead and to the side of the trail. “Get up here.”

“I am working on that.” Ridge kept his voice low, presuming there was a reason for Therrik’s whisper. He thought they still had close to a mile before they reached the ship, but that didn’t mean other threats couldn’t lurk closer. “Though I was going to turn back. Do you need—”

“You to talk less on a stealth incursion? Yes.”

A hand snaked out of the brush, gripped Ridge’s arm, and pulled him off the trail.

Ridge’s irritation with the man threatened to go from a simmer to a boil.

“I heard two men talking up ahead,” Therrik whispered, “and went up to grab them and question them. But they were gone. Might have gone back up the trail to the ship, but it was more like they disappeared. Can you tell if there’s any magic being used?”

“No. If you don’t see a dragon, sorceress, or soulblade at my side, I’ve got no way to sense it any more than you do.”

“Hells, you’d think sleeping with all those things would rub something off on you.”

“I don’t sleep with the dragons.”

“Just the sorceress and the sword?” Therrik sounded amused. “What’s she need with you if there’s already a sword in bed?”

“You’re not this much of an ass to Lilah, are you?” Ridge thought about pointing out that Therrik was chatting a lot for someone worried about silence on a “stealth incursion.”

She doesn’t irritate me.”

“Was that a yes? Or a no?”

“She also finds it annoying that our culture deems the antics of a pilot who twirls and flies upside down more newsworthy than discoveries made by historians and scientists or contributions made by teachers and other kinds of soldiers.”

“Please tell me your mutual dislike of me isn’t what drew you two together.”

Ridge didn’t think his cousin truly disliked him, but they didn’t have any common interests, so they’d never had that much reason to get together as adults, at least until Lilah had moved down to the capital this summer, where she’d realized she did share interests with Sardelle. It hadn’t occurred to Ridge that his cousin might resent his fame. He hadn’t honestly considered that it might also be a reason for some of Therrik’s resentment. He’d believed that all stemmed from Ridge’s association, however inadvertently it had started, with magical beings, including Sardelle. Therrik made his hatred for magic—and those who could wield it—clear at every opportunity.

“It was a starting point,” Therrik said.

“Then it sounds like you two owe your joint happiness to me.”

Therrik glared at him. Ridge could tell, even in the dark. Ridge decided this wasn’t the time to share his revelations, nor did he think Therrik would care about them.

“Also,” Ridge said, “I shoot enemies while I twirl. That’s why it’s newsworthy. You got a write-up after slaying that sorceress, remember?”

“One paragraph buried in the middle of the paper. You were on the front page for twirling at a dragon.”

“Twirling and shooting.”

As he recalled, the soulblades Jaxi and Wreltad had helped a lot in that battle too, with fireballs and lightning strikes. He imagined that had made it memorable to any journalists hunkering in the city below and watching the sky. Not that Therrik would want to hear about that.

“Come on,” Therrik said, stepping out of the brush. “You’d be more likely to recognize magic than I. Damn, I wish I’d brought Kasandral.”

“You probably didn’t think you’d need a dragon-slaying and magic-hating sword to visit your girlfriend’s mother.”

“I should have,” Therrik said darkly. “I have in the past.”

Ridge didn’t know what to make of that statement. Judging by the uncharacteristic hunch to Therrik’s shoulders, he didn’t want to talk about whatever had prompted the comment.

Ridge looked back up the canyon in the direction he’d left his flier. Night had deepened, and he could no longer see it or the area where he’d landed it. He hoped he wasn’t making a mistake in continuing after Therrik.

 

* * *

 

The hulking ironclad floated black and lifeless in the estuary, anchored out where the water was deep enough for its draw. Full darkness had fallen, and clouds had rolled in from the sea to blot out the stars, but Ridge could make out a rowboat that had been dragged onto the bank, as if to invite tourists to come visit the ironclad. Oh, he supposed the crew could have just left on their own mission, but he found it suspicious.

He and Therrik crouched, their backs against the canyon wall, as they studied the situation. Out on the ship, not a single light burned behind any of the portholes or on the deck, nor was there any sign of life.

After Therrik’s warning, Ridge had been keeping an eye out for anything that hinted of magic, but he had never heard the voices. Had he been with some young private, he might have thought his colleague had imagined them, or mistaken the rustling grasses for people talking, but Therrik was far too experienced for that.

“It certainly appears abandoned,” Ridge whispered.

“Someone anchored it there, and it couldn’t have been that long ago.”

“No,” Ridge agreed. “Tiger Squadron ran a patrol up the coast north of the city yesterday. They would have noticed this.”

The wind shifted, blowing in from the sea, and a faint clanking reached Ridge’s ears, like someone rattling a chain. Or perhaps dragging it across a metal deck.

“You hear that?” Therrik asked.

“Yes.”

A scrape punctuated the clanks. Definitely like something being dragged. Ridge imagined someone locked in a cell, walking around, ankles shackled and chained to an iron ball.

Someone is on board,” Therrik said.

“Or something.”

“Let’s take a look. Might be someone we can question.” Therrik cracked his knuckles. His idea of questioning, no doubt, involved brute force.

“I’ll stay here,” Ridge said.

“To catalog your pocket lint?”

“In case you get in trouble and need to be rescued.”

“You? Rescue me? Please.” Therrik headed for the boat. “If you’re afraid, just say so.”

The way those chains kept clinking was eerie, but Ridge wanted to stay behind for the same reason he questioned leaving the flier. This could all be a trap.

“Afraid? I’ve survived half a dozen crashes, flown into hundreds of battles, and stared into the eyes of enemies firing machine guns at me. Some derelict ship that barely floats doesn’t worry me.”

“If you say so, Zirkander.” Therrik picked up a couple of oars in the rowboat, but paused before stepping in, cocking his head to listen to something upriver.

The murmur of voices rose over the breeze, coming from the direction of the trail. It sounded like two men talking in loud whispers.

Therrik dropped the oars and sprinted past Ridge toward the noise. Ridge pulled out his pistol and followed more slowly. And warily. If there were only two men, Therrik could handle them without his help, but once again, his instincts twanged, and he worried they were being set up for something.

In the darkness, Ridge soon lost sight of Therrik. He walked to where he judged the voices had come from and squatted in the tall grass so he would be harder for someone to see. Then he listened, expecting to hear someone else rustling around nearby. At the least, he expected to hear Therrik, but the colonel must have shifted into stealth mode again.

Several minutes passed before a soft grumble came from behind him. “That you, Zirkander?”

Ridge stood, assuming the question meant Therrik hadn’t found the men. “Yes. And stop using my name, will you?”

If there were Cofah infiltrators out here, Ridge didn’t want them knowing who was wandering up and down the riverbank. The entire Cofah empire would celebrate his death, he had no doubt. Alas, there was little point in inviting Therrik to use his first name, as it was almost as well-known as his last. Why couldn’t his father have named him something ordinary?

“What should I call you? General Fool? I seem to remember you suggesting that once.”

Sir would be appropriate.”

“Far less appealing.” Therrik stepped back out on the trail. “I didn’t find anyone.”

“You can’t find any tracks?”

“In the dark? No.”

They should have brought a lantern, but Ridge hadn’t anticipated trouble on such a short flight, certainly not a stroll through a canyon on foot. Even if some mechanical failure had forced them to land, the flier’s power crystal would have provided enough light to see while doing repairs.

“I’m going out to the ship to question whoever is clanking chains out there,” Therrik growled and stomped back down the trail, making no move to be silent now. Maybe he hoped someone would leap out and challenge him.

But they made it back to the rowboat without seeing anyone. Therrik grabbed the oars again and shoved the boat into the water.

Ridge sighed and climbed in after him. Therrik’s inability to find the source of those voices made him suspect that magic might indeed be involved. He was fairly sure Therrik taught wilderness survival and tracking classes to the infantry boys. Nobody should have eluded him, not by mundane means.

Even though Ridge wasn’t an expert on magic, he knew more than Therrik. He might spot some being used on the ironclad.

“Are you feeling braver?” Therrik asked, shoving the boat off the bank and jumping in as it floated away. It rocked mightily before his bulk settled onto a seat. “Or were you afraid your throat would be slit if you stayed behind by yourself?”

“It’s true. My knees started shaking when I contemplated being away from your safe and protective presence.” Ridge grabbed an oar. The faster they checked out the ironclad and got back to the flier, the better.

“Usually, only women say things like that to me.”

“I’ll bet a hundred nucros Lilah has never said anything like that to you.”

“No, she can take care of herself.”

Ridge ignored the implication that he couldn’t and rowed. The clanking of chains drifted over the roar of the ocean again, and Therrik fell silent.

They reached the side of the ironclad and found a rope ladder dangling down to the surface. Therrik improvised a way to tie the rowboat to the end of it, then skimmed up the rungs without waiting to consult Ridge.

Ridge had come out in the hope of keeping Therrik from stepping on magical booby traps. Thus, he decided it would be immature of him to fantasize about that happening. And about Therrik being flung a hundred feet to land in one of those cottonwoods.

When Ridge reached the top of the ladder, he spotted Therrik disappearing into the wheelhouse on the upper deck in the bow of the vessel.

More soft clanks sounded, followed by the dragging noise. Ridge thought it came from below decks somewhere, not from the wheelhouse. Maybe Therrik was checking likely places to find crew members before looking for a way down.

Ridge walked toward midship where the dark opening of the ship’s cargo hold yawned open. There should have been double doors covering it, but they appeared to have been removed. He crouched at the edge and peered inside, but didn’t see or hear anything in the hold. But with the moon and stars behind the clouds, a platoon could have been crouching down there, and he wouldn’t have spotted them.

“Hold empty?” Therrik asked, jogging up to look in.

“I think so.”

“Nobody in navigation, and the clinks weren’t coming from the stairs leading down to crew quarters.” Therrik pointed aft. “The stairs to the boiler room and the brig will be back there.”

Since Therrik had named the specific model of the vessel, Ridge wasn’t surprised he knew the layout. They crossed the deck, and Therrik opened a rusty door that creaked when it moved. The clinking sounds grew louder, drifting up a stairwell from below. And had that been a faint moan? It was hard to tell over the omnipresent roar of the ocean.

Therrik headed straight down the steps. Ridge glanced toward the riverbank, thinking of those other voices and again feeling nervous about having left the flier behind. He wasn’t even sure why he’d come out here. Yes, he knew more about magic, but so what? What did he care if Therrik got himself blown up in some magical booby trap? Other than it might upset Lilah. He didn’t want to have to fly back to the city and explain to her that Therrik had died while with him.

Sighing again, Ridge followed him down the dark stairwell, feeling his way to the lower decks. The clinks grew louder as they descended and walked through a doorway, the heavy metal hatch standing open. Ridge had the sense of a cavernous space ahead of them. The boiler room? There were portholes on the starboard side of the hull, the blackness slightly less absolute beyond their glass.

Exploring down here without a lantern was ridiculous. Ridge wished he had thought to pry the communication crystal from his cockpit. When it was thumbed on, it provided a small amount of light.

Ridge stopped, listening to the clinks and dragging noises. They came from ahead and to the left. From one of the boilers? Or maybe the engine room was in that direction?

A soft thud came from ahead of him, from the same direction as the clinking. Ridge paused, his pistol in hand again.

“Crap,” Therrik said.

“Not literal, I hope.”

“I think I stepped on a—”

A squeal came from behind Ridge. He whirled, but too late to do anything. The heavy metal hatch clanged shut, and a thud followed, like a bar falling into place. It had an ominous finality to it.

“—trip wire,” Therrik growled. “And what the hells is that?”

His voice was muted, as if he had gone behind something. Maybe one of the boilers.

More concerned about the hatch than whatever Therrik saw, Ridge ran back to it. He groped in the darkness, finding the latch and tugging.

“We’re locked in,” Ridge said.

A clang rang out from Therrik’s direction.

“Are you fighting something?” Ridge turned, but he didn’t dare aim his pistol in the dark.

“I kicked a boiler.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m pissed, Zirkander.” Therrik stomped into view, a soft yellow light in his hand illuminating his snarling face. He opened his palm, revealing a familiar glowing gem. “Is this one of your communication crystals?”

“Yes.” Ridge stared at it, puzzled. He’d just been thinking of the one in his flier, but that had to be one from a different flier. What would it be doing here?

“That clanks were coming from it. Whoever is on the other end is making the noise. And probably listening to us, damn it. How do I turn it off?”

Ridge mouthed an, “Oh,” and came forward, realization sinking in. It had been a trap. Someone had been relying on their curiosity to draw them in. And was there also a communication crystal hidden in the grass somewhere on the riverbank? Maybe someone had put it in a pouch and thrown dirt over it so Therrik wouldn’t see the light. He’d only heard voices and not guessed someone a mile away—or potentially dozens of miles away—was transmitting them.

Ridge took the crystal and tapped his thumb on the long, flat side. It went dark, working exactly like the communication crystals in the fliers. Because it was one. He rolled it around in his hand and contemplated how it could have gotten here. It wasn’t as if the military sold them. Sardelle had been the one to make them several months ago, a few master controllers for the desks in the hangar offices around the country and one crystal for each flier in the various squadrons in the battalion. There weren’t many extras floating around.

“The blown-up fliers,” he said.

“What?” Therrik demanded.

“We lost a few fliers last spring when Angulus was kidnapped and you were in charge of the flier battalion. When my team got back from our mission in Cofahre, we landed in Crazy Canyon because we weren’t sure what was going on in the city. And those fanatical women working with the queen blew them up. Later, we came back to salvage the parts, but the power crystals had been stolen. And, now that I think about it, I don’t think the communication crystals were recovered, either.” Ridge was surprised that whoever had set up this ruse had figured out how to switch them to the backup channel so the base and all the other fliers in the area wouldn’t hear their transmissions. It wasn’t as if the crystals had instructions printed on them.

“Nice story, Zirkander. Now move so I can get us out of here. Someone’s probably stealing more of your magical flier crystals right now while we’re trapped.”

Therrik pushed past him and strode to the hatch.

“I knew I should have stayed back there,” Ridge said, closing a fist around the crystal. “Someone could be stealing the entire flier.”

Was that what all this had been? Some ruse to aid with theft?

Grunts and huffs of breath came from the hatch. Therrik using his big muscles to try to force it open.

Ridge doubted that would work. He ran toward one of the three portholes visible high on the hull, cursing when he banged against a crate or bin in the dark. His hand came down on the open top, on rocks inside. No, probably coal for the fire boxes. It felt damp, and he doubted it would burn. It had probably been there for years, if not decades.

As Ridge reached the first porthole, Therrik’s grunts stopped. He must have decided the hatch wouldn’t budge. The thuds of boots on the metal deck sounded as he searched for other exits.

The portholes all faced the side opposite of the rowboat and the bank where Ridge had landed the flier. Oh, well. He’d still go out that way if he could. Better than spending the night in a boiler room with Therrik.

Or more than the night. Who knew how long it would be until someone came looking for them? And how embarrassing would it be to have to be rescued by a couple of lieutenants from his own unit?

Ridge patted around the porthole, found the latch, and twisted it. He didn’t know if Therrik could wedge his body through the opening, but he thought he could. Assuming he could get it open. The handle unfastened, but the porthole cover wouldn’t open. A hardened lumpy substance covered the seam. He scraped at it with a nail, broke a tiny piece off, and brought it to his nose.

The resiny scent reminded him of pine pitch. Maybe it was pine pitch. With something added to harden it.

Ridge ran to the other portholes and found they’d been treated in a similar manner.

“The other two hatches are locked too,” Therrik said. “They’re solid iron, probably with bars across them on the other side.”

“There’s a bin of coal over there if you want to figure out a way to blow open a hatch.”

Therrik grunted. “Coal is flammable, not explosive. Unless you’re talking about coal dust. I could pulverize some coal, but we’d be more likely to blow ourselves up with dust floating in the air.”

“I bet Captain Kaika would be able to find something to blow up in here.”

“How about I blow up your head? Those portholes locked?”

“Yes.” Ridge returned to the coal bin, debating if he could make a portable fire somehow, then take it over to melt the pitch.

The sound of glass shattering made him jump a few feet. He whirled as Therrik smashed a crowbar—or an improvised crowbar—against one of the portholes.

“Huh,” Ridge said. “I always figured it would take a cannonball to break the glass in a porthole.”

“You’ve got me. It’s almost the same thing.” Therrik slammed the end of his bar into the glass, shattering it further. He knocked pieces out of the frame, sending shards tinkling to the deck.

“I suppose those hulking muscles have to be good for something.”

“I can’t decide if your constant contemplation of my muscles means you’re envious of me or attracted to me.” Therrik smashed more glass free and dropped his crowbar.

“Which would you find more alarming?”

“The latter.”

“So alarming that you would avoid me for the rest of your career?” Ridge probably shouldn’t have sounded hopeful as he said that. “Because I might be able to rustle up an attraction if that was the result.”

“I try to avoid you. Trust me.”

Therrik tugged his shirt off, laid it over the frame, and tried to tug himself up and through. His head fit, but his shoulders were too broad, no matter how much he convoluted himself. “Damn it.”

“Let me try. Pilots have to be lean and light, you know.”

“Scrawny is the word the elite troops use for you people.”

Therrik crouched, offering his cupped hands to give Ridge a boost. Only he would think nothing of helping a man and insulting him at the same time.

Ridge holstered his pistol, stepped in his grip, and pulled himself through the porthole. Tiny broken shards of glass still in the frame dug at him through his uniform, but he gritted his teeth. At least Therrik’s shirt kept most of the prongs from stabbing him in the butt when he paused to consider his options. Unfortunately, there was only one option. The railing for the deck was too high to reach, and there was nothing on the hull to climb.

“I hadn’t been planning to take a swim tonight,” Ridge lamented.

Therrik shoved him the rest of the way out.

Ridge tumbled into the icy water with a squawk of alarm.

“Therrik!” he sputtered as soon as his head broke the surface. “You can’t throw generals out the window.”

“Yeah, you can. It’s called defenestration. Now swim around, climb back up here, and let me out.”

Ridge’s next sputter involved a lot more cursing, but he did start swimming, more because he wanted to check on his flier than because he wanted to unlock Therrik. The bowels of an ironclad seemed like an excellent place for him to spend the night.

The current tugged at Ridge, threatening to sweep him out to sea. His uniform and boots weighed him down, making the swim even harder, especially when he paddled around the back end of the ironclad to swim toward the ladder on the far side. He thought he spotted a light upriver, on the side where he’d parked his flier. Was someone snooping around it even now? Whoever had set up this lovely trap?

Ridge was tempted to angle straight toward the bank, thinking he could come back once he had his flier—he could land it right on the deck—but he made himself head for the ladder. He doubted the bullets in his pistol would fire after being doused in the river, so he might need Therrik’s help if he had to beat enemies into submission.

He flew up the rungs, racing across the deck and down to the boiler room. From the outside, the bar blocking the hatch was easy to lift. As soon as he shoved it up, Therrik thrust the door open, almost smashing Ridge against the wall. He wore his shirt again, not noticeably bothered by whatever glass shards stuck out of the fabric. He probably liked a daily dose of discomfort.

“Good work,” Therrik said.

Ridge almost fell over. It wasn’t exactly a thank-you, but it was more than he’d expected to get.

Not sure how to answer it, Ridge only said, “I saw a light up the river.”

“Figures,” Therrik grunted and charged up the stairs.

Instead of angling toward the ladder and the rowboat, he ran straight across the deck, jumped to the railing, and sprang off into the night. He landed halfway to the bank, swimming before he hit the water.

“That man is a loon,” Ridge announced.

Unfortunately, he doubted the rowboat would be any faster, especially not with only him rowing. He ran for the railing and emulated Therrik’s move. He was already wet, so it hardly mattered if he went for another swim.

“Hurry up, Zirkander,” Therrik called back as soon as Ridge splashed down. “I saw the light too.”

Hoping it wasn’t already too late, Ridge swam as fast as he could, driven by the vision of standing in front of General Ort’s desk and scuffing his soggy boots on the carpet as he explained how he’d managed to lose a flier—and one of the valuable power crystals—only twenty-file miles from the city. Ridge was used to being chewed out by superior officers, albeit less so now that he was a general, but not for ineptitude.

Not surprisingly, Therrik reached the bank first, but Ridge was right behind him. When he could touch the bottom, the silt threatened to tug his boots off, but he gritted his teeth and plowed through it.

As Ridge reached solid ground, his breaths coming in exhausted pants, a voice spoke into his mind.

Greetings, mate of my high priestess!

I don’t have time to talk about temples right now, Bhrava Saruth, Ridge thought back.

Therrik had already taken off down the path. Ridge, his sodden uniform and flight jacket seeming to weigh twenty pounds as they clung to him, ran after him.

Did you know that strange men are examining your flying contraption? One is attempting to remove the light fixture.

The power crystal? Damn it. Are you there now? Can you stop them?

Of course I can stop them. I am the god, Bhrava Saruth!

Good. Please do so. Thank you!

Therrik outpaced Ridge, but Ridge knew from the startled exclamation of surprise when Therrik came upon the dragon. He just hoped the flier was still in one piece.

Vibrant yellow light grew visible through the leaves of the cottonwoods. Was all that from the power crystal? Those thieves hadn’t succeeded in yanking it out, had they?

“Zirkander,” came Therrik’s growl. “What is this?”

Panting, Ridge ran out of the trees and onto the bare rocky spot where he’d landed. His flier was still there—thank the seven gods—and Bhrava Saruth’s large scaled form dwarfed it. His wings were outstretched, his sword-like fangs bared, and for a moment, Ridge forgot this was the affable dragon that kept asking him for a temple.

Two men dangled in the air in front of Bhrava Saruth’s reptilian snout, the yellow light showing the terror on their faces. One was blubbering—pleading for his life. The other simply swore and thrashed about in the air, as if he could escape if he could just find the right invisible opponent to punch.

The light was coming from the flier, the power crystal in the cockpit, but it glowed much more strongly than usual.

“Are you doing that, Bhrava Saruth?” Ridge asked as soon as he caught his breath. He waved toward the cockpit. “Or is something wrong?”

He imagined it somehow overloading and exploding.

I have merely amplified its light so these inferior beings can see their folly.

“Were you two dunderheads attempting to steal a military flier?” Therrik demanded, glowering up at the men dangling in midair.

“No,” one blurted. “We were just looking!”

This human lies, Ridgewalker, Bhrava Saruth announced. They are highwaymen who have concocted a most nefarious plan to lure sailing ships and travelers to investigate the derelict vessel they found and tugged into the estuary. When innocent people are examining the ship, these thieves circle back and steal their ships or steam carriages. Or in this case, they planned to take a valuable component in your flying machine.

“Is he reading their minds?” Therrik asked Ridge. “Or was he watching?”

“Reading their minds, I think,” Ridge said, though he could imagine the dragon atop one of the canyon’s arches, snacking on sheep and watching everything play out below.

“I don’t know if I should find that less alarming… or not.”

“I don’t either.” Ridge rubbed his face.

How humbling to think that if not for Bhrava Saruth’s help, he might have lost his flier, or at least the crystal. All because he’d let Therrik get to him. He never should have left the flier. So much for increasing his maturity level.

What shall I do with these humans? Bhrava Saruth asked, causing the men dangling in the air to float out over the river. Since they attempted to steal from my high priestess’s mate, they are not worthy to worship me.

“Few are,” Ridge said.

True, but a god does not demand perfection. I would accept wayward thieves as worshippers if they had brought me the appropriate offerings.

“I can bring offerings,” one man blurted.

And hadn’t plotted against my high priestess’s mate.

The man’s shoulders slumped, inasmuch as they could while he hung ten feet in the air. His buddy looked over at Ridge and Therrik, as if to ask which one of them held the lofty designation of high priestess’s mate. Therrik promptly pointed at Ridge.

“Can you help us get them to Portsnell, Bhrava Saruth?” Ridge asked. “I have a feeling they may be part of a larger operation and also that they’re known criminals that the police would like to get their hands on. Masterminds, no doubt.”

Or so he would like to hope. Because it would be embarrassing if he and Therrik, military officers with more than forty years of experience between them, had been outsmarted by bumbling, neophyte thieves.

Ridge expected Therrik to grunt or snort and point out that the men didn’t look like masterminds. But he only crossed his arms over his chest and glared. Maybe he also hoped they had been outsmarted by criminal geniuses.

I can transport them, Bhrava Saruth said, while we discuss how you will approach the king to ask for money for the construction of my temple.

“I guess I can’t object to that,” Ridge said.

I do look forward to having a meeting place where my worshippers can find me again.

“You ready to go, Therrik?”

“More than ready.”

 

* * *

 

WANTED: HIGHWAY ROBBERS

Ridge considered the sign by the light of a lamppost while adjusting his damp clothes, trying to make them less uncomfortable. The wanted posters were nailed to a bulletin board on the way in to town, alongside a map and interesting historical facts about Portsnell. The faces drawn in black ink on the posters looked very familiar.

“I do believe that’s you,” Ridge said to the man Therrik gripped.

Ridge was leading the other man on a rope that Bhrava Saruth had magically woven from the tall roadside grass. Ridge had landed his flier half a mile outside the town walls, promising the dragon they could manage the prisoners that had been riding on his back, magically forced to stay there without falling—or leaping—the rest of the way without assistance. Ridge hadn’t wanted Bhrava Saruth to fly close enough to be noticed by Portsnell’s inhabitants. People living in the capital had grown somewhat accustomed to seeing a gold dragon soaring overhead, but he had no idea what the locals here would think of it.

“Prove it,” the man said.

“I don’t have to. We’ll drop you off at the police office, which, if memory serves, is located right over there. They can prove it.”

The man’s mouth opened again, but Therrik shoved him, almost hard enough to knock him to his knees, and whatever insolence had been about to come out remained inside.

He and Ridge marched their prisoners to the police office, where a surprised young man on the night shift checked in the highway robbers and locked them in a cell for his superiors to question the next day.

“There’s a five hundred nucro reward for those two, General Zirkander,” the young officer informed them, recognizing Ridge without glancing at his nametag.

“That’s not necessary,” Therrik blurted before Ridge could open his mouth.

Ridge had intended to say something similar, however.

The officer looked at him curiously. “General?”

“There’s a regulation specifically forbidding military officers from being compensated for doing their duty,” Ridge said, patting the man on the shoulder. “If it’ll save you some paperwork, you needn’t even mention that we were the ones to bring in the thieves.”

“Got that right,” Therrik muttered and strode for the door, clearly not interested in receiving credit for their admittedly bumbling detainment of the criminals.

“If you say so, sirs.” The officer scratched his head, but turned the gesture into an upraised hand. “Wait, let me at least reward you with something I can’t enjoy while on duty.”

Ridge arched his eyebrows.

The officer drew a stoneware bottle out from under the counter. “It’s vodka infused with peaches. The captain’s brother runs the local distillery, so we get free spirits for our after-hours office parties. We had a get-together earlier this evening.”

Ridge accepted the bottle, swishing the liquid around. It was only about a fourth full, so he decided he could accept it as a gesture from one king’s officer to another without feeling it was compensation. “Thank you.”

“Least I could do for the man who keeps dragons, airship pirates, and Cofah invaders out of the sky.”

Ridge glanced toward the door, certain Therrik would have a snide comment if he heard him getting praised, but he’d disappeared outside. Good. Ridge offered the officer a lazy salute and strolled out after him.

Therrik waited on the stoop. “You convince him not to record anything?”

“I believe so.”

“Good. I’d rather there not be any record of our misadventure.” Therrik closed the door firmly behind them. “Or the fact that we would have been walking back if your guard dragon hadn’t been keeping an eye on the flier. I suppose you’ll have to file a report, especially since you called back to the fort.” From his tone, it was clear Therrik didn’t want Ridge to file that report.

Ridge snorted, amused by his discomfort. Oh, he thought their detour was embarrassing, too, but he wasn’t an elite troops soldier, so he didn’t have to worry about living up to a reputation as a deadly killer who wasn’t to be crossed. Not unless he was in the air.

“I’ll need to file a report, yes,” Ridge said, “but I don’t think there’s a need to mention anything other than that we found a derelict ship and apprehended a couple of thieves.”

“You don’t need to explain that your dragon helped?”

“There’s not a field on the form for dragons.”

Therrik stared at him. Ridge didn’t truly think he would object—not when he was the one who wanted to save face. But he didn’t expect what came next. Therrik threw back his head and laughed.

Ridge stepped away, more alarmed by the gesture than pleased by it. He’d never heard Therrik laugh, and he feared it was a sign of imminent insanity.

“Not a field for dragons,” Therrik said, when he stopped laughing. “Some clerk was shortsighted  in assembling those papers.”

“I’m fairly certain Form DDIA-1079 came from a different time.” Ridge doubted the report templates had been changed in a hundred years. Maybe longer. “A less dragon-filled time.”

“The good old days.”

“If not for a dragon, my flier would have been stolen, and we’d be walking back to the capital right now.”

“Don’t remind me.” Therrik pointed to the bottle. “What’s that?”

“Peach vodka, I’m told.”

“Peach? Who would put fruit in a vodka? That’s sissy.”

“Someone who owns a distillery and likes to play around.” Ridge unstoppered the bottle and sniffed. The aroma wasn’t strong, but he found it pleasant. Curious, he took a sip. “It’s actually good.”

“Sissy.”

Ridge didn’t ask for clarification about whether that referred to the drink or to him. He didn’t want to know. “Does that mean I can have it all?”

“Seven gods, no. You’re flying me back tonight. It’s bad enough riding with you when you’re sober.” Therrik snatched the bottle from him.

Ridge snorted. He hadn’t planned to pour it all down his gullet before climbing back into his flier.

Therrik sniffed it dubiously, then took a swig.

“Not bad, right?”

“It’s horrible.” Therrik took another swig.

“Obviously.”

“It’s still mostly alcohol. It’ll take the edge off.”

“The edge off spending the evening with me?”

“That too.” Therrik waved toward the street. “Which way to Dotty’s house?”

“Follow me.” As Ridge led the way, he realized Therrik must have been referring to meeting Lilah’s mother. Was he actually nervous about that? Worried he wouldn’t make a good impression?

Therrik grumbled something to himself, squeezed water out of the hem of his uniform jacket, and drank from the bottle again.

Ridge trusted he would only “take the edge off” and not drink enough to arrive on his Aunt Dotty’s doorstep smashed.

He wondered if Dotty would even be awake when they arrived. When they turned down a new street and walked under a clocktower, he was surprised that it hadn’t yet chimed eight. He could hardly believe their misadventure had only put them a little over an hour behind schedule.

“To answer your earlier question,” Therrik said as they walked along, wet and chafing, “I am not an ass to Lilah.”

Ridge glanced at Therrik, startled by the statement. Had he been thinking about that all night? Wanting to make sure to clear up any doubt? If so, Ridge was surprised Therrik cared enough about what he thought to bother. Maybe the alcohol was affecting him.

“Glad to hear it,” Ridge said.

Therrik sipped from the bottle—he’d shifted from swigs to sips, perhaps also wanting to ensure he didn’t arrive smashed.

“She makes me want to be a better man,” he said quietly.

“Is it working?” Ridge asked.

As soon as the words came out, he realized Therrik would consider them flippant. Why couldn’t he ever keep himself from goading the man?

Fortunately, the alcohol seemed to be mellowing Therrik, and he didn’t respond with his typical glare. If Ridge had known vodka had that effect on him, he would have tried to get the colonel drunk every time they’d met.

“I didn’t kill anybody tonight,” Therrik said.

“Clear progress.”

Therrik’s grunt sounded agreeable.

They walked in silence through the residential neighborhood, and Ridge wondered if he should change his mind about Therrik’s relationship with Lilah. At the least, he probably shouldn’t try to stand in the way of it.

As they turned down the tree-lined street that Dotty lived on, Ridge dug into his pocket. Glad taffy was largely waterproof, he held the bag out toward Therrik.

“What’s that?”

“Candy. I doubt offering Aunt Dotty alcohol will do anything to warm her up to you, but she adores taffy.”

“You’re saying I need to ply her with gifts to make her like me?”

“Hells, Therrik, you need to ply everyone with gifts if you want them to like you. You’ve got the charm of a scouring pad.”

Therrik’s eyes narrowed, but he took the bag of taffy and stuck it in his pocket. “You know people only like you because you twirl at dragons, right?”

“Because I twirl and shoot them.”

“Damn coddled pilots,” Therrik grumbled.

~

 

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