In case you missed it, the fifth adventure in the Dragon Blood series has been available for pre-order for a few weeks (from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, and Smashwords), and it will finally be out this Sunday, June the 14th.
July Update: The book is now available everywhere and will be out in paperback soon!
Here’s a preview of the first chapter.
As Colonel Ridgewalker Zirkander crouched behind a bush, watching a steam wagon full of soldiers trundle up the road, he felt more like a felon avoiding the law than a military pilot who could claim a distinguished, twenty-year career. All right, distinguished might not be quite the word, considering he had almost as many demerits on his record as he had medals and awards hanging on the wall in his office, but he was a respected officer. He certainly was not someone who skulked in the shrubs of his own homeland, especially when it was raining, and water barely above freezing kept dribbling past the collar of his flight jacket and down his spine.
“I don’t recognize anyone, sir,” Captain Kaika whispered, a spyglass to her eye as she watched the wagon approach. She was skulking with him, while the rest of his squadron, including Tolemek and Sardelle, hunkered in a cherry orchard farther back from the road. “They’re infantry, Lionstrike Brigade.”
Ridge nodded. He’d spotted the pins on their collars when he had taken a look through the spyglass. Unfortunately, he hadn’t recognized the driver or any of the twenty men sitting in the open wagon, either. It wasn’t surprising. The army’s flier battalion did not often work with ground troops.
“Nobody you’ve interacted with on your previous missions, eh?” Ridge had hoped Kaika might know someone in the group. She was a part of the elite forces, a unit attached to the infantry brigade that worked out of the same base near the capital.
“I think I’ve seen that sergeant at the Sensual Sage,” Kaika said, “but he doesn’t meet my standards, so I’ve never approached him.”
“I was talking about combat missions, not… extracurricular ones.”
As was the case for most of his travel-weary team, Kaika’s rawboned features were smeared with dirt and decorated with scratches and yellow-blue bruises, but she still managed a sultry smile that hinted of a love for those extracurricular activities. “Oh? I thought you just wanted someone we could trust for information, no questions asked.”
“I’m sure they would recognize you if you stepped out there.”
“Yes, but based on the intel that you and Apex gave me, I’m not sure I want to be recognized, not until we figure out more of what’s going on. If our enemies don’t know we’re around, we can move about more easily. Maybe we can find the king before anyone ever spots us. Assuming he’s still missing.”
It had been nearly a week since Apex and Kaika left Iskandia to come find Ridge and the others, and he had no idea if the situation they had reported had escalated while they had been gone or been resolved. He hoped the king was back in the castle and that General Ort had been discovered, as well. Ridge had been gnashing his teeth while awake and asleep, worrying about that idiot Colonel Therrik being in charge of the flier squadrons. Including his flier squadron.
Ridge sank lower as the wagon drew abreast of the bushes, its smokestack spitting black smoke into the dreary late-winter sky. One of the men in the back stood up, using a spyglass to scan the bare, muddy farms lining the road. Ridge looked over his shoulder, worried the bare-branched trees would not hide his people sufficiently.
They won’t see us, Sardelle said, speaking into his mind.
Because you’re using powerful magics to obscure what they see?
Because we moved behind the cider mill building.
Ah. Even better.
Jaxi says she’s willing to use some powerful magics if it gets us out of the rain, Sardelle added. She’s concerned about rust.
I don’t think I need anything melted, lit on fire, or blown up right now, but I’ll keep her offer in mind, he responded.
That’s disappointing, a second voice said. Jaxi. The flight back across the ocean was boring. Some excitement would not be unappreciated.
Ridge was getting used to the idea that his ladylove walked around with a sentient sword, one that sometimes shared thoughts directly with him, but he still found Jaxi’s presence in his head disconcerting. A few months ago, he hadn’t believed magic existed, and now a sorceress—and her sword—telepathically communicated with him on a daily basis. He could accept it; he just wished the rest of the country could. He hadn’t forgotten that when they left, some secret organization had been trying to blow up Sardelle.
“He better be looking for the king,” Kaika growled, staring through the leaves at the man with the spyglass. The wagon had chugged past them without slowing down. “Nobody seemed to be looking very hard for him when we left. I should have been sent out. I even volunteered.” She drummed agitated fingers on the pistol that hung from her utility belt, along with a dagger, ammo pouches, and a bag of fuses for however many explosives she had in her pack. “Listen, Colonel. I owe him a favor from way back.”
“Yes. You know the elite forces don’t take women. That’s a rule. I was determined to get in anyway, because my brother… well, I had something to prove, that’s all. After being rejected several times, I went to the king for an audience. The line was long, and he wasn’t spending much time with anyone. I was afraid he wouldn’t even see me. I used the cleaning supplies in the closet outside of his audience hall to blow up an ancient urn—this is what passes as a logical move to a nineteen-year-old woman, yes. That made an impression on him. Fortunately, he was more intrigued than horrified, and he’s the one who arranged for me to get orders into the program. I’ve gotten to see the world, make a difference for our country, and sleep with all manner of exotic foreigners under the guise of obtaining mission-critical information.”
“Exotic foreigners, you say? No wonder you feel indebted to him.”
Kaika’s hand twitched, like she might whack him in the chest, but she seemed to remember that he outranked her. She lowered her hand instead. “Not everybody gets to be a national hero who can crook a finger and get a fantasy bed companion any night of the week. Some of us have to work harder for that. Anyway, that’s not my point. I mean I’ve had the career of my dreams so far and more adventure than any girl could ever crave, and I owe him for that.”
Ridge gripped her shoulder. “We’ll find him.”
“I’m thinking about infiltrating the castle.”
Ridge dropped his hand. “What?”
“We need intel. The queen’s in there somewhere. If she’s not a complete shrub, she might know something. If someone’s controlling her with drugs or blackmail, it would take someone observing from the inside to find out. I can do that.”
“That’s… a more direct approach than I was planning to take.” At least to start with, Ridge had simply planned to question some people at HQ and find General Ort so he could get some accurate information on what had been going on higher up in his chain of command—as in, what in all the cursed realms had someone been thinking in handing the flier squadrons over to that hairy-knuckled ape, Therrik? If anyone knew anything about the king, it ought to be Ort or one of the other generals that was regularly in and out of the castle.
“I’m already AWOL, sir,” Kaika said. “Let me do this. I’ll report back to you, I promise. I heard a rumor that the king was taken somewhere in a flier, so…”
“Ah, so that’s why you came with Apex to get us.”
Kaika shrugged. “Normally, I handle my own problems, but if I can’t get to my problems…”
“Everybody thinks of me as a flying rickshaw service.” Ridge peered through the leaves of the bush. The wagon had gone over a hill and disappeared from sight, only the black cloud in the air marking its passage. It should be safe to rejoin the others. “I want to gather some intel locally before sending people off in different directions. Give me a couple of hours to mull over your request.”
“Yes, isn’t that what you were making? As an officer to a more senior officer? A request to infiltrate the castle? Because I’m sure you wouldn’t be thinking of going anyway, against said senior officer’s wishes, right?”
“Do you really want me to answer that?” Kaika asked.
“Perhaps not.” Ridge felt like a hypocrite just bringing it up. Hadn’t their mission to Cofahre started with him throwing his mission commander over the side of his flier?
“What local intel?” Kaika asked. “We’re still fifteen miles out from the city.”
Ridge smiled. “My mom.”
• • • • •
Sardelle kept her hood up and her cloak pulled tightly about her, in part to keep the rain off, but also because she worried about being recognized. She had no idea as to the size of the organization that had been hunting her before they left a few weeks earlier, but she did not feel safe back on Iskandian land, even out in this rural area.
But you felt safe in Cofahre? Jaxi asked. Those people would happily kill an Iskandian sorceress too.
Yes, but we can happily kill them right back. It’s different when it’s your own people hunting you.
These aren’t our people. The Referatu are long gone.
I know that, but we were born here. Actually, Sardelle had been born in the mountains, several hundred miles inland, but she had often passed through the capital when she had worked with the army as a mage adviser three centuries earlier, and she knew these lands well. The city had changed a great deal, with its steam-powered machinery and vehicles, but these farms appeared no different than they had in her time, and a twinge of nostalgia came over her. She almost felt that if she went to her parents’ house right now, she would find them there, and her brother and cousins and friends, as well. But logically, she knew that she had spent three hundred years in a stasis chamber and that the only relatives she might find would be generations and generations removed.
Ridge jogged up to her side and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Are you doing all right? We’re almost there. See that windmill up on the hill? The little village where my mom lives is right behind that. We can wash and—” he plucked at his rain-sodden shirt, “—dry there. She’ll feed us. Might even have pie.”
Ridge was scruffier than she had ever seen him, with the rain plastering his short brown hair to his forehead, mud smearing one cheek, and several days’ worth of beard growth darkening his face, but when he smiled at her, it still made her weak in the knees. With his clean-cut features and strong jaw, he managed to look handsome even when he was scruffy. And that smile—some might call it a boyish grin, even if he was well out of his boyhood years—always had an appealing and kissable quality to it. She made herself smile back, even if the rain and the rest of the situation had her heart heavy. She missed her family and friends, but she had never had anyone like Ridge in her century, and she was starting to think of his pilots, at least the ones they had been working with closely, as new friends.
Even though there wasn’t much comfort to be had from two sodden bodies pressing together, Sardelle slipped her arm around his waist. “Pie, you say? Your mother already sounds more hospitable than your father.”
She hoped that hospitality would extend to her. She was tempted to ask how Ridge would introduce Sardelle, since he had fumbled over the introduction when they had met his father, who had not been overly friendly toward her after learning about her aptitude for the arcane.
“She is. She should be happy to see us. Been a while since I had a chance to stop by.”
Sardelle wouldn’t get her hopes up as far as his mother being happy to see her. If she hated magic as much as the rest of the continent these days, she may not be tickled by the idea of a “witch” for her only son. Apparently, wanted posters with Sardelle’s face on them now adorned every other streetlamp in the city, so she couldn’t hope to keep her abilities from anyone for long. Though maybe Ridge’s mother wouldn’t have seen the posters way out here.
“You look glum,” Ridge said, watching her face. “Do I need to promise you more than pie? Perhaps a foot rub? Or another type of rubbing?” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
Sardelle tried to arrange her features into a less worried visage. She ought to be appreciative that he was going to take her to see his mother, even if it was part of their mission and the rest of the squadron was going too. At least he hadn’t spoken of hiding her and her witchy ways when they met. This talk of rubbing sounded promising, too, though perhaps not if his mother would be in the next room.
“It has been a while since we had any privacy.” Sardelle extended a hand toward the troops ahead of and behind them, Duck, Apex, Cas, Kaika, and Tolemek, though Tolemek might object to being called a troop. “I don’t suppose your mother has a guest house?”
“Guest house? Uhm, there’s a pottery shed.”
“There’s a bedroom. I sleep on the couch when I visit.”
“Hm, then we may have to wait for intimate moments. I don’t think I want you rubbing anything of mine with all of your pilots spread out on the floor around us.”
Ridge scratched his jaw. “Nothing at all?”
“You know I’m not an exhibitionist.”
You’ve disappointed your soul snozzle terribly.
Didn’t we agree that you would stay out of his head, except for emergencies? Sardelle had to keep reminding herself to do the same. On occasion, she spoke to him telepathically, but since he had been born into this same culture that feared all things magical, she tried not to intrude often. To her relief, he accepted that the mind-to-mind communication was useful at times, but he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of not being able to have private thoughts.
After the restraint you two showed during the course of the mission through that jungle island, he views a continued absence of rubbing as an emergency, Jaxi informed her. He’s now trying to remember if the pottery shed has a door.
“We’ll see if we can find a few private moments,” Ridge said, squeezing her shoulder.
Sardelle resisted the urge to ask after the pottery shed. Then she would have to admit that her nosy sword had been sauntering through his thoughts.
“Tonight may be the only quiet night we have,” he added, his expression turning more somber.
Sardelle knew he was worried about the rest of his squadron—she also couldn’t imagine that unstable Colonel Therrik being in charge of a battalion of pilots—and about the king, and about his own fate too. He had broken more than a few rules when he left, and even though they had succeeded in denying the Cofah the source of their dragon blood, they didn’t have much proof of the deed, other than the vials they had returned with. The dragon itself, along with Tolemek’s sister, had not been seen since flying away from the island. There was also no way to know how much dragon blood the Cofah had stockpiled that Sardelle, Ridge, and the others had never seen. They could still be making more of those troublesome fliers and magic-guided rockets.
“We’re getting close,” Ridge said.
Sardelle decided to try to enjoy this one quiet night that they might have before heading into the city and trying to locate General Ort and the king—or whatever the plan was. Ridge hadn’t shared his plans yet, and she knew Kaika, in particular, was waiting for that. She had gone AWOL to join them and also had to be worried about the fate of her career.
“You didn’t grow up around here, right?” Sardelle asked, watching a couple of youths chopping wood behind a house in the distance. “You once said you were born in the city.”
Ridge nodded. “A poor part of the city. I always worried about my mom after I wasn’t around to protect her. Or at least stand in front of her and attempt to look tall and fierce enough to deter bullies.”
“Did that work?”
Ridge touched an old scar on his chin. “Sometimes. More often, she bribed the toughs with her pies in exchange for leaving her alone. Anyway, as soon as I had enough money, I helped her get a place out here. She draws and paints and makes pots and tiles and other artsy things. Seemed like a good area for her. She sells things at the market on the weekends.” He raised his voice to call to the front of their group. “Ahn? Take the next right.”
Lieutenant Caslin Ahn was leading the soggy group, with her sniper rifle resting in her arms and her eyes alert as she scanned the countryside. That behemoth of a sword that she had retrieved from the ziggurat on Owanu Owanus hung across her back, making her appear even smaller than her five feet in height. She lifted a hand in acknowledgment but did not say anything. Tolemek walked behind her, rain dripping from his long ropes of dark hair. Sardelle sometimes wondered if Cas spoke more to him than she did to others. Either way, their relationship seemed to suit them.
“Did you say pie, sir?” came a plaintive question from behind them. Lieutenant Duck was as soggy and unkempt as Ridge, but he didn’t have the facial structure to manage to appear handsome through the damp and grime. His big ears stuck out, flushed red from the bite of the wind. “If that’s the case, I’m happier than bees on a flower that you didn’t find anyone to talk to on the road and that we’ve got to get intel at your mom’s house.”
Lieutenant Apex, a quieter and more introspective man, walked at Duck’s side. He didn’t say anything about pie, but his expression had grown a touch wistful. Captain Kaika, the last member of their group, walked behind the two of them, the alert set of her face more akin to Cas’s than the men’s. She looked like someone focused more on her mission than on acquiring baked goods. Sardelle wondered what it said about their group that the toughest soldiers seemed to be the women.
“I can’t make any promises,” Ridge said, as they turned again, heading up a dirt road lined with cozy cottages. “I didn’t write to let her know we were coming, but I wager she’ll put something together.”
“We spending the night here, sir?” Kaika asked.
Ridge glanced at the sky—the sun hadn’t been out since they returned to the mainland, but noon had passed, and the gray clouds were darker than they had been when the squadron first landed. “Most likely.”
“You think it’s safe to leave your fliers back in Crazy Canyon?”
“I wouldn’t ordinarily, but we camouflaged them well, and the weather is dreary. Shouldn’t be pirates about. They’re too lazy to go out and thieve in the rain.”
Tolemek, former pirate and current expatriate scientist, must have heard the comment, because he glanced back. He gave Ridge the squinty eye but did not otherwise comment, perhaps because Ridge was waving them up one of the walkways to a quaint one-story cottage. Thanks to the waterlogged countryside, most of the houses seemed on the drab side, but this stucco structure had perky blue window shutters and trim, a front door painted with a mural of a farmer feeding chickens, and numerous bright, floral tiles embedded in the walls. All around the grounds, barrels and tubs had been turned into pots, some with hardy green plants sticking out and others waiting on spring flowers. A couple of benches sat on a puddle-filled flagstone patio, and Sardelle glimpsed a small pottery shed squatting against the side of the house, numerous ceramic wares stacked around it. From the walkway, she couldn’t tell if it had a door or not, but it didn’t look large enough for extensive… rubbing.
As she and the others strode toward the front door, several cats ran out of the pottery shed. They darted to the walkway, meowing as they came. Ridge stopped and stared down at them, so Sardelle did too. A white fluffy feline immediately leaned against her leg, leaving hairs on her travel leathers. Oh, well. They had been in need of washing, anyway.
“Problem, sir?” Cas asked, stepping aside so Ridge could approach the door first. She hadn’t attracted any cats, but two were zeroing in on Tolemek’s legs.
“Nothing unexpected,” Ridge said, though he wore a bemused expression. He leaned toward Sardelle to whisper, “There are more every time I come.”
Though they appeared well fed, the cats meowed plaintively, and Sardelle wished she had some scraps for them. She crouched down to stroke one of them—the cat had planted itself in the walkway, so it would have been hard to pass without doing so.
“I’m going to be terribly jealous if I don’t get rubbed tonight, when the cat did,” Ridge murmured.
She swatted his leg. “I thought you were offering to do the rubbing.”
“I imagined you being so enthused that you would return the favor.”
“Zirkander, you’re too old to be so horny,” Tolemek grumbled, stepping off the walkway and pointing to the door, clearly hoping someone would knock so they could get an invitation out of the rain. “Can’t you save that until nighttime?”
“I’m as fit and virile as you are.” Ridge strode past him with a glare.
“But old. Cas agrees.” Tolemek nodded to Cas, who merely raised an eyebrow slightly.
“Lieutenant Ahn knows better than to make aspersions about her C.O.’s age.” Ridge walked onto the stoop and raised a hand to knock, but the door opened before he touched it.
Sardelle glimpsed a tall, lean woman with a woven band of dried grass and flowers holding back her long gray hair before she flung herself at Ridge. Several more cats flowed out of the house past her legs.
“Ridgewalker Meadowlark, you’ve been gone for—” The rest was inaudible, because her face was buried in his shoulder.
“Meadowlark,” Duck said, then sniggered. “Hearing your C.O. called that is…
“Inexplicably delightful?” Apex suggested. “Risible? Satisfying?”
“Fun,” Duck said.
“Ah, yes. Fun.”
“Good to see you, Mom,” Ridge said to the top of her head, giving her a return hug. “I saw Dad recently. He’s pining for you terribly.”
His mother didn’t let him go, but she leaned back enough to snort and meet his eyes. “I’ll bet. What’s going on here? With all the trouble in the city, I didn’t expect to see you. The rumors said you were missing.” She searched his face as if the answers might be inked on his cheeks.
“I wasn’t missing so much as on a mission with select members of my squadron. We got the news that there was some chaos in the capital, so we decided to check in here before heading to town.”
While he had been speaking, Mrs. Zirkander had leaned to the side and started taking in his entourage. “Your… squadron, dear?” Her eyebrows rose as she considered Tolemek.
Kaika, Cas, Duck, and Apex looked like soldiers, albeit scruffy ones at the moment, but Tolemek still had the air of a pirate about him, especially when he wasn’t wearing his white lab coat. Sardelle had no idea what she looked like currently. There had been few opportunities for bathing or washing clothes, so all she knew was that her travel leathers were dirty and fragrant after their adventures. She wished she could have met Ridge’s mother wearing an attractive dress and with her hair done up instead of simply tugged back in a ponytail in need of shampoo and a brush.
“And a few civilian experts,” Ridge said. “Everyone, this is my mom, Fern. Mom, that’s Tolemek, Lieutenants Ahn, Duck, and Apex, and Captain Kaika.”
Fern’s eyes shifted from person to person, following the introduction. Sardelle’s stomach fluttered with nerves when the woman looked at her. Fern wore a clay-stained apron over a floral dress and boots practical for the wet weather. Numerous beaded bracelets dangled from her wrists, all made in a cheerful style reminiscent of the decorative tiles embedded in the walls.
Sardelle clasped her hands in front of her, waiting to see how Ridge would introduce her. Civilian expert? Or something less distant? Also, would his mother have seen those posters and recognize her?
You’re a powerful sorceress. There’s no need to be so nervous.
How would you know, Jaxi? You’ve never been introduced to a lover’s mother.
If I had been, I would have been fabulous.
“Mom?” Ridge extended his arm toward Sardelle and smiled. “This is Sardelle Terushan from a small town over in the Ice Blade Mountains. She’s smart, beautiful, adventurous, and she’ll have your back in a fight, whether it’s on the ground or five thousand feet in the air. She’s absolutely wonderful, and I love her.”
The blatant, heartfelt words stunned Sardelle, especially after the way Ridge had stumbled over introducing her to his father. His mother seemed stunned too. She stared back and forth from Ridge to Sardelle as her mouth dangled open.
Ridge, his eyes twinkling, lifted a hand to cover his mouth and whisper to Sardelle. “Did I do better this time? I’ve been rehearsing.”
Sardelle tried to swallow, but more emotion than she would have expected swelled in her throat. She nodded.
“How come we don’t get introductions like that?” Duck muttered. “We’ve got his back too.”
“You want him to profess his love for you?” Apex murmured back.
“No, that would be weird.”
“Then be quiet.”
“Ridge,” Fern breathed, taking a step toward Sardelle and lifting her arms, “that’s so—” She halted mid-step and squinted at him. “This isn’t a joke, is it? You know I’m too old for your pranks.”
Sardelle wasn’t sure what to make of the question, but Ridge only grinned.
“No joke, Mom. I love her. And I think she loves me too. We’ll know for sure later when I try to talk her into the pottery shed.”
Sardelle flushed and thought about slapping him in the chest, but he had stepped aside so his mother could walk closer.
“Hello, ma’am.” Sardelle wasn’t sure what else to call her. Fern seemed so informal. Would she prefer to be Ms. Zirkander?
“It’s so wonderful to meet you, Sardelle.” Fern clasped Sardelle’s hands in her own clay-stained ones, her palms lightly callused, the hands of someone who worked for a living, or at least worked hard at her art. “Ridge doesn’t usually bring women home, so I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you.”
“I’m pleased to be here.” Sardelle meant it, and her smile was genuine, but she couldn’t help but worry what would happen when the truth came out. Ridge hadn’t mentioned sorcery in that introduction. Maybe he planned on keeping it a secret, or waiting to share the information.
So, should I not start glowing and throbbing obnoxiously? Jaxi asked.
I won’t if he doesn’t.
Kasandral. The dragon-slaying sword. He’s been glowing vigorously at night when nobody is looking. I think he likes Lieutenant Ahn.
Should I find that alarming? Sardelle asked, aware of Fern looking her up and down. Once again, she wished she were more presentable.
“Come inside, dear,” Fern said. “Let’s get you out of the rain.” She let go of one but not both of Sardelle’s hands, using the one she held to guide Sardelle to the door.
Ridge smirked as they went by, as if he had expected nothing less than this welcome.
“Uh,” Kaika said. “Are we invited in too?”
Fern didn’t seem to hear her. “How long have you and Ridge been seeing each other?” she asked Sardelle as they stepped into the house, where the chatter of birds greeted them. Several large bamboo cages hung from the rafters, with colorful canaries, budgies, and cockatiels singing from perches within them.
“Since the beginning of winter,” Sardelle said, glancing back to make sure everyone else was following. Ridge was waving them to the doorway.
“And you don’t mind that he flies?” Fern raised her eyebrows, leading her around an easel with a half-finished landscape on it, and toward a seating area.
Not so long as he doesn’t mind that I manipulate matter with my mind… “Not at all,” Sardelle said.
Or have a talking sword?
That too. Though you’re more of a telepathic sword than a talking one.
I could vocalize if I wanted to, Jaxi said. Not that anyone could hear me over the noise of all those birds. And cats. This woman is odd.
I’d guess she’s lonely. Not everybody has a sword to keep them company.
This is true. I’m certain you would be terribly forlorn if I wasn’t here for you.
“I know in the past, he’s struggled to find someone who can accept that he’s always putting himself in danger,” Fern said, sitting on a couch and patting the cushion next to her.
“I trust that he’s capable up there.” Sardelle sat next to her. “I’ve seen it for myself, in fact. And I put myself in danger, too, so I’m used to that.”
“You do? What kind of work do you do?”
Er, yes, what kind of work did she do that she could share? She almost delivered the line Ridge had been giving to the men on base, that she was an archaeologist, but his mother might be knowledgeable on that, given that her husband was a professional treasure hunter. If she started asking about universities and professors, Sardelle would have no idea what to say. “I’m a doctor.”
“And you find that dangerous?”
“Well. I have to heal soldiers sometimes.”
“Ah, I understand. They can be ungrateful.”
“Does she know we’re all in here?” Duck whispered to Apex. The rest of the group had moseyed into the living room, and Ridge was shutting the door.
“Unless you give them sweets,” Fern added with a wink.
“Or any kind of food,” Ridge said. “Mom, can we sleep here tonight? Cadge some of your food? We have to make some plans before heading into the city. Did you know that the king is missing? Or he was? Is that still true?”
“I believe so, Ridge. There’s a newspaper on that table over there if you need to update yourself.” Fern patted Sardelle’s knee and leaned forward. “I apologize for being forward, dear, but is it too soon to ask if you’re thinking of marrying my son?”
“Mom,” Ridge groaned, drawing out the single syllable into at least three. There might have been more syllables, but he broke it off when he almost tripped over a cat on his way to the table.
“I’m embarrassing him.” Fern smiled, not looking the least chagrined about it.
“I wouldn’t object to the possibility,” Sardelle said, all the while wondering if Fern’s birdsong would change when she learned about her talents. “And he’s teased me with the idea.”
“Teased you? Ridge? You’re not doing it right.”
Ridge had reached the newspaper and was frowning down at the front page. He did not respond. The rest of the squadron was standing or shuffling their feet, and Sardelle felt guilty for getting all the attention while they dripped onto the floor and didn’t know where to go.
“What about children?” Fern asked, patting Sardelle’s thigh again. “Has he told you how much I would love to have grandchildren? Have you considered having babies? Will it be soon?”
The bluntness of the questions took Sardelle aback, and she had no idea how to answer. It wasn’t as if she had never thought of having children, but she had never had anyone she had contemplated having them with. And she and Ridge had been so busy—and she had so many people who wanted her dead—that she hadn’t sat down to contemplate it lately.
“If it’s all right with you, Mom, we thought we’d rescue the king and save the nation first.” Ridge was frowning down at the newspaper as he spoke, but he did glance toward Sardelle and mouth, “Ignore her.”
“I didn’t realize the entire nation was in danger, sir,” Apex said.
“It is if the queen is in charge,” Duck said. “What does she know about defending a continent?”
“I don’t know much about what she knows. In the portraits, she’s usually shown reading a book or doing needlepoint. She seems to keep to herself.”
“If this article is right, she’s in charge now,” Ridge said. “I wonder if she’s the one who forced General Ort to step down and appointed that muscles-for-brains Therrik to lead the flier squadrons.”
“I doubt she has anything to do with military matters, sir,” Apex said.
“Well, I want to find out who is making those decisions. And who’s feeding these stories to the newspaper, as well—stories about me being AWOL and being controlled by a witch who blew up my house to warn me of the consequences of disobeying. A decapitated luck dragon was found among the ashes. Decapitated. Did you see this, Mom?” He shook the paper in her direction.
Sardelle fought to keep the panic off her expression. Maybe it had been inevitable if the papers had written about it, but she hadn’t expected him to bring up witches to his mother.
Relax, she doesn’t believe in magic. You’re probably fine. But… about your occupation? You probably should have gone with archaeologist.
She’s got some bunions she’s thinking of asking you to look at. Since you’re a doctor.
Oh. Sardelle had not imagined medical care being a part of her meeting with Ridge’s family. They wouldn’t be the first bunions I’ve seen.
Unfortunately, I know that.
“Yes, I was very worried about you,” Fern said. “The article neglected to clarify that you weren’t in the house when it blew up.”
“Why would they blow it up?” Ridge gave Sardelle a plaintive look. “Nothing they wanted was in it by then.”
“You should have gotten a bigger luck dragon, sir,” Apex said, his eyes gleaming with humor.
“Maybe he should have rubbed the real dragon’s belly,” Duck muttered.
Fern blinked. “Real dragon? Dragons don’t exist.”
She also doesn’t believe in dragons, Jaxi mentioned.
Yes, I see.
“Right,” Ridge said, walking to the couch. “Mom, would you mind making something for my men to eat? We’ve had a rough few days, and we’re starving. Also, we have some classified information to discuss.” He tilted his head toward the kitchen door.
Fern looked at Sardelle as she stood up. “Does he show up on your doorstep unannounced and ask you to cook for his people?”
Before Sardelle could decide if she wanted to admit to not having notable cooking skills, Ridge said, “We’re sharing the same doorstep, Mom. Or we were before it was blown up.” Her face twisted in rueful disbelief as he patted her on the shoulder, gently but firmly steering her toward the kitchen.
“Are you?” Fern smiled at Sardelle. “That’s wonderful. Ridge, when you’re done rescuing people and using my cottage for a safe house, make sure to discuss babies with her.”
Ridge grimaced. “Mom, you should have had more kids if you wanted to guarantee grandchildren.”
“I tried, but your father was so seldom here. I would have had to tie him to the bed while wearing lingerie made of ancient maps to convince him to engage in local mountain climbing expeditions.”
“Mountain climbing…” Ridge’s grimace deepened and he glanced at his troops. “Mom, we don’t want to hear about that.”
He shooed her into the kitchen before plopping down beside Sardelle. A gray cat hopped into his lap. Someone must not have closed the door quickly enough, because a number that had previously been outdoors had made their way indoors. Judging by the tilt to this one’s head, it was contemplating using Ridge’s shoulder for a launching pad to reach one of the birdcages. Sardelle trusted the bamboo was sturdy enough to thwart invasion attempts.
“Sit down, everyone,” Ridge said, waving to the other chairs and couches. “Let’s try to keep our planning session brief.” He nodded toward the kitchen door. Fern hadn’t closed it entirely, so Sardelle nudged it gently with her mind so that it snicked shut. “As you heard, my mom doesn’t believe in dragons or magic.”
“Wish I still didn’t,” Kaika muttered, choosing a plush chair. She flopped back in it, dangling a long leg over the armrest. She had been the last of the group to learn of Sardelle’s abilities, but despite her comment, she hadn’t seemed fazed by it. Sardelle wished she could hope for such acceptance—or indifference—from all of Iskandia. Duck and especially Apex had been less comfortable with the notion, but after the deadly situations the group had escaped from, they seemed less disturbed by her. Apex still gave Tolemek a lot of guarded glances—one of his concoctions had been responsible for the death of everyone in the village where he had grown up—but he hadn’t said a rude word to Sardelle.
While the others settled in, Cas remained by the wall between the front door and a window and peeked outside. Duck and Apex took another small couch, which left a spot for Tolemek on the other side of Ridge. He looked distastefully at his only option for a moment before perching on the edge of the cushion.
“What’s the plan, sir?” Kaika asked. She may have appeared relaxed, but her eyes were sharp as they regarded Ridge. “I have some explosives in my pack, and I can get more.”
“How will blowing things up help us find the king?” Ridge asked.
“I don’t know, but it would make me feel better.”
Ridge leaned forward. “Here are our problems, in no particular order.” He lifted his fingers to count them off. “First, missing king. Second, that monkey’s ass Colonel Therrik in charge of the flier battalion.” He clenched his jaw. “Third, General Ort forced to step down by an unknown person. Lastly and worst, the country being vulnerable to attack if the Cofah or anyone else hears about the turmoil here, and I can only assume they’ll know soon if they don’t already. I want to find General Ort and get his report on what’s been happening.”
Sardelle didn’t mention that the wanted posters and people hunting for her were also a problem, since she knew he had to deal with military matters first, but she certainly intended to do something about that organization hunting her.
“Aren’t colonels supposed to report to generals and not the other way around, sir?” Duck asked.
“Probably, but I have an unorthodox method of dealing with the command structure.”
Every single one of his troops snorted.
“Finding Ort needs to be our first priority, and—” a slight pleased smirk crept onto Ridge’s face, “—there’s someone else I’ve been thinking about visiting, someone who very likely has some intelligence, given his recent and unlikely promotion. An interrogation could be most rewarding.”
“You want to interrogate Colonel Therrik, sir?” Ahn asked, her voice laced with skepticism. “He almost broke your neck before we took off for Cofahre. And that was how he felt about you before you got him airsick in Crazy Canyon, knocked him unconscious, and abandoned him by the side of the road.”
“Yes, Ahn, thank you for the recap. Clearly, I wouldn’t be looking to apprehend him physically. At least not in a fair fight. I was thinking of an ambush, followed by him being tied to a chair and convinced to speak to us.”
“Convinced with fists?”
Ridge’s expression grew wishful.
“Perhaps Tolemek could make a truth serum so it’s not necessary to resort to fists,” Sardelle said. “I’ve heard that’s in his repertoire.”
“It is,” Cas said, her tone flat rather than encouraging. Tolemek shrugged apologetically at her.
“No fists?” Ridge laid a hand on Sardelle’s arm. “You’re ruining my daydream for me.”
“Sorry. You can still tie him to a chair, if you wish.”
“You don’t want to physically confront the colonel, anyway,” Kaika said. “I wouldn’t even try an ambush. He’s deadly in unarmed combat. Nowon was the only one I ever knew who could…” She scowled at the floor for a moment, then took a deep breath for her lost comrade before adding, “He could come out on top at least half of the time, but he was deadly too. Quick, agile, and crafty.”
“I’m going to try not to take that as a slight against my own combat skills,” Ridge said. “But I do concede your point. Tee, put a truth serum and a knockout potion on my shopping list, will you?”
“I’m not a pharmacy, Zirkander,” Tolemek growled. “There’s nothing in the contract I signed about rescuing rulers or picking fights with surly colonels.”
If Tolemek’s scowl bothered Ridge, he didn’t show it. He smiled and said, “Can you have something ready by morning?”
Tolemek’s eyes narrowed.
“Tomorrow night? And just to be clear, I’m not the surly colonel, right?”
“Fine,” Tolemek said, “but I’ll need access to my lab. I depleted my reserves in that jungle.”
Ridge looked down, seemed to realize he had been petting the cat, which had settled into his lap, and set his hands by his sides. “It might be dangerous for you to be seen in town.” He glanced at Sardelle, doubtlessly thinking it would be dangerous for her too. “Colonel Surly was picking the fight with you, not the other way around, as I recall. Maybe I can go with you before checking in on Ort.”
“I don’t need any help getting into my own lab.”
“Or maybe Ahn can go with you.”
Tolemek settled against the backrest. “Hm.”
Ridge turned toward Sardelle and murmured, “I didn’t want any competition for the pottery shed.”
Sardelle glanced toward the door to see what Cas thought of the assignment, but she had slipped outside. Sardelle hoped that didn’t mean trouble was coming to find them.
“Duck,” Ridge said, “I hate to give you the boring and uneventful duty, but someone needs to guard the fliers until we know if it’s safe to bring them to the hangar.”
It was probably safe now, Sardelle guessed, for someone who wouldn’t mind reporting in and being added back to the roster under Therrik’s command. She could see why skulking around without anybody knowing he was in town would appeal more to Ridge, but hoped he wasn’t sinking himself deeper into a tar pit.
“Oh?” Duck asked. “There’s decent hunting in Crazy Canyon. I won’t mind.”
“Good. Apex, I want you to find someone from Wolf Squadron. Don’t go onto the fort, since we don’t want to reveal ourselves yet, but maybe you can catch someone at Wings and Swords. Find out if Therrik is treating them decently and if they know anything about the king or anything else that’s going on around here.”
“Yes, sir,” Apex said.
“Am I coming along to help with your nemesis?” Sardelle worried that he would get himself pummeled—or worse—if he tried to accost Therrik.
“Actually,” Ridge said, “with your unique skills, I thought you would be the perfect person to—”
The kitchen door swung open, and Fern walked out with a pitcher and a stack of cups. She set them down on a low table, said, “Please enjoy some mulled wine, my friends,” then returned to the kitchen. She managed to leave the door ajar again.
Sardelle waited until she had returned to the cutting block by the sink before easing it shut.
Ridge leaned close to Sardelle, his shoulder touching hers. “I know you have your own concerns and want to research that organization that was after you, but it might be a good idea to sneak someone into the castle to check on the queen.”
Kaika dropped her foot to the floor with a clomp and straightened up. “That’s my mission.”
“I thought it could be both of your missions.” Ridge smiled at Kaika and Sardelle, then walked to the table to pour drinks.
Kaika’s eyes closed partway as she scrutinized Sardelle. Since Kaika and Apex had returned to Iskandia instead of going to the jungle with the rest of the group, Sardelle hadn’t yet had a chance to work with her. Apex may have explained some of her talents, but Kaika hadn’t seen many of them for herself. She probably wasn’t sure what to think of Sardelle. For that matter, Sardelle did not know what to think of her. She had heard that Kaika, after Nowon had been killed, had single-handedly taken out numerous Cofah soldiers in that volcano outpost and then planted the explosives that had blown it up. She was clearly an asset to a military team, but if she didn’t like Sardelle—or magic—then working with her would be difficult.
Kaika was still staring in Sardelle’s direction when Ridge returned to hand each of them cups. As he headed back to pour more wine, Sardelle thought about brushing across Kaika’s mind and trying to read a few surface thoughts, but she always questioned herself when she did that, especially with people who weren’t enemies. In her time, there had been laws against such intrusions. Just because there was nobody around to enforce those laws now did not make it right to poke around.
Sardelle sipped from the ceramic mug.
She doesn’t hate you, Jaxi said, but she’s under the impression that you’re a healer and wouldn’t be useful in a fight. She also wouldn’t mind if a rogue dragon ate you and she had to console your lover with vigorous sex.
Sardelle choked on her wine.
Perhaps I should have kept that information to myself. Jaxi’s contrite tone was not convincing.
Perhaps you should stay out of other people’s heads, especially the heads of allies. At least Sardelle thought she could consider Kaika an ally. Ridge could consider her one. That was a certainty.
I’d say so.
I thought she was attracted to Apex.
Oh, she wants to have vigorous sex with him too. She’s irritated that he’s either not attracted to her or is obtuse about reading her not-so-subtle signals.
Sardelle rubbed the back of her neck. Is there anyone she doesn’t want to have vigorous sex with?
She thinks Duck is homely and would only consider Tolemek if he got a haircut.
That didn’t entirely answer my question.
Jaxi grinned into her mind. No, I suppose it didn’t.
A warm hand touched the back of hers. Ridge had finished handing out drinks and stood behind her. He took over rubbing the back of her neck and bent low to whisper, “Are the spices in the wine too strong, or is Jaxi making inappropriate comments?”
Sardelle leaned back into his hand. “You’ve come to know me—us—well in such a short time.”
“It’s been an eventful couple of months.”
Kaika sank back into her chair, looked away from Sardelle—or perhaps the fact that Ridge was massaging her—and stared thoughtfully into her wine.
Even though she knew she should ignore the results of Jaxi’s spying, Sardelle couldn’t help but ask, She’s not thinking of blowing me up to get to him, is she?
I don’t believe so. She was somewhat mortified by the mother and the idea of making babies with him. I think she’s just curious as to how effectively he could make her bed bounce. Now she’s thinking about the king.
And making his bed bounce?
“You didn’t mention what you think of the idea of infiltrating the castle.” Ridge glanced at Kaika, then gazed down at Sardelle, a question in his eyes.
“If you think that’s a wise course of action, I can probably be of assistance there.” Hoping she wasn’t being presumptuous, Sardelle touched his mind lightly. Is there more?
He pulled a few loose strands of hair behind her ear. I’m not sure any of these actions are wise. Kaika is the one who wants to infiltrate the castle. She believes the queen will know something, or that she’ll be able to figure out who’s controlling her. She’s set on going, and no matter what I say, I can guarantee that she will be gone in the morning. She’s extremely capable—along with the words, Ridge thought of the Cofah volcano base that had blown up as they were drifting away from it in that hot air balloon—and I could let her go alone, but I’m worried explosives won’t be the answer to bringing the king back. With your talents—and Jaxi’s talents, of course—you might be able to see more in the castle than she could.
I don’t mind going. There are things to be said for the direct approach.
Good things or impulsive and dangerous things? Ridge asked.
I’ll have to let you know after we’ve stormed the castle.
“That’s creepy,” Duck announced.
Sardelle dropped her gaze and folded her hands in her lap, certain he had noticed that she and Ridge had been gazing oddly at each other and not speaking.
“When did Raptor add swordsmanship to her list of skills?” Duck added. He had drifted over to the front window with his mug in hand.
“She’s passable with a knife, but usually favors her rifle,” Apex said. “Or her fliers’ guns.”
Ridge drew back from Sardelle. “I thought she was watching for trouble.” He walked toward the window. “She’s not cutting up any visitors, is she?”
“No, she’s doing practice forms,” Duck said. “With that glowy sword. I hope the neighbors aren’t looking.”
“It’s not the first time,” Tolemek said. “She said she doesn’t trust that dragon not to go back to my peo—the Cofah in some capacity, and that she intends to be ready if it ever shows up here.”
An irritated yowl sounded, and Ridge jerked his foot up.
The kitchen door opened, and Fern hustled out with a tray of food. “Did someone step on a cat? What happened?”
“Sorry, I didn’t see that one there,” Ridge said, frowning out the window.
Sardelle wondered if she should join him, but she only had power over one glowing sword, and the dragon slayer wasn’t it.
“That’s Mimi.” Fern pointed at the spotted cat skulking away.
“Of course it is. Mom, when I moved you out to the country, it wasn’t so you could collect more stray cats.”
“Oh? Was it so my humble cottage could be turned into your secret safe house in the event of an emergency?”
She shrugged. “Cats happen, dear. That’s just how it is.”
Cas opened the front door and stepped inside, sweat gleaming on her forehead. “Soldiers are coming.”
So much for a secret safe house, Jaxi said.
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