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Shattered Past, a New Fantasy Adventure Novel (links and excerpt)

| Posted in My Ebooks |

12

While I was debating whether to write any more novels with Ridge, Sardelle, Cas, Tolemek, etc., I decided (a beta reader may have convinced me) to write another side story, this time with Therrik getting a chance to be the hero (or maybe anti-hero?). And he’s not alone. I’ve brought in a new heroine to add to the cast.

If you’re looking for a new action-adventure fantasy novel to read, one with a little romance, then here’s the blurb and the first chapter of Shattered Past:

ShatteredPastWebAn elite forces officer with a dreadful reputation.
A bookish paleontologist with a love for mysteries.
An ancient stronghold full of secrets that will take both of them to unearth.

Professor Lilah Zirkander (yes, she’s related to the famous pilot, and no, she can’t get him to autograph your undergarments) is looking forward to a summer in the paleontology lab, researching and cataloging new fossils. But that summer takes an unexpected turn when the king sends her into the Ice Blades to a secret mine where ancient dragon bones have been discovered. Rumor has it that they’re cursed and dangerous, but Lilah is more concerned about dealing with the outpost commander, a fierce officer with the temperament of a crabby badger.

As punishment for irking the king, Colonel Vann Therrik is overseeing the hardened criminals working in the remote Magroth Crystal Mines. He would like a chance to redeem himself—and escape the loathsome duty station—but nothing is going his way. Cursed fossils have delayed production, miners are trying to escape, and now a scientist has shown up, making demands on his time. Worse, she’s the cousin of his nemesis General Zirkander. As if one Zirkander in his world wasn’t bad enough.

Investigating the fossils leads Lilah and Vann into the depths of Magroth Mountain where centuries-old secrets lurk, and a long-forgotten threat stalks the passages. To have any chance at survival, they’ll have to work together and perhaps learn that neither is what the other expected.

Available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play, and Smashwords.

Chapter 1

Professor Lilah Zirkander walked down the aisles between the desks, setting exams facedown in front of students who alternated between looking warily at her and gazing longingly at the clock. She stood between them and their summer vacation. Well, they stood between her and an exciting summer project too.

“For those of you who need to pad your academic résumés—or need extra coursework to complete your degree—Professor Haytar has informed me that we’ll need a couple of assistants for our summer project,” Lilah said.

“Are you going out to the field again, Professor?” Natashi, a third-year student, asked. She was one of the few students who had seemed to enjoy the class, taking it because of an interest in the subject matter, rather than because it satisfied a math requirement, without actually requiring much math. As if math was something to shy away from. Hmmph.

“No, the project will take place in the science lab.”

Lilah handed out the last exam to the sandal-wearing boy in swimming trunks who had drawn his answer to the last essay question. Had it been an anatomically correct drawing, she might have awarded a small amount of credit, but his dragon skeleton looked more like a lizard skeleton, and it included genitalia completely inappropriate to either.

“Most of our government funding was siphoned off for military use this year,” Lilah added when Natashi’s face fell with disappointment, “so we can’t afford any projects that involve travel.”

Lilah also found the news disappointing, since she enjoyed her annual escapes from the campus, but a quiet summer without any students to teach would be appealing too. She secretly hoped that nobody took her up on the offer for extra credit. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the kids, but teaching left her feeling fraught. Research was so much more appealing than dealing with people, especially young people. They were so… recent. And mouthy. Who could fathom them and enjoy their company? She much preferred fossils.

“We will be undertaking an intensive cataloging project in the lab. All those fossils that were unearthed in the Sundaran Ice Field last summer are waiting to be studied and labeled for a museum exhibit this fall.”

“Dragon fossils?” the student with the propensity for drawing asked, his gaze jerking from the window to Lilah’s face for a rare moment of eye contact.

“It’s an amazingly complete collection of Glophopteris rugoniana specimens.”

“Gloph-what?”

The student behind him slapped him on the back. “Plants, you idiot. It was on the test.”

“Ferns, to be exact,” Lilah said. “Giant ferns from more than three million years ago. Iskandoth used to be quite the tropical haven.”

Several sets of shoulders slumped. Lilah admitted that fern fossils didn’t pack the museum the way that dragon bones did, but there was so much to learn from studying them. And dragons were frustrating. She had given ten years of her life to trying to identify their ancestors so someone could complete their phylogenetic tree in a manner that made sense. Alas, she had never found the missing link. Plants had proven less of a mystery, thanks to the fact that their fossils were so much more easily found.

Shouts and cheers and the stamping of feet came from the hallway, some lenient professor letting his or her class out early. Typically, Lilah would not be disposed to do the same thing, but when two-dozen hopeful sets of eyes turned in her direction, she sighed and relented—it wasn’t as if those distracted brains would process anything else she said today.

“You can come see me after class if you’re interested in the summer work or in my paleobotany class in the fall,” Lilah said and waved toward the door. “Go. Enjoy your—”

The rest of her words were buried in the slamming of books, rustling of clothing, and overall noise of a mass exodus. Lilah dropped her arm and headed to her desk. Let them enjoy their youth. She planned to enjoy the solitude of a campus largely free of noisy students.

“Professor Zirkander?” Natashi asked. She was the lone student left in the room, and she looked oddly nervous as she clutched her books to her chest and smiled tentatively.

“Yes? Are you interested in the cataloging project?” Lilah liked Natashi more than her other students. She studied hard, earned good marks on her papers, and showed a genuine interest in the field. She also dressed appropriately for a place of learning, eschewing the swimming trunks and sandals fashion that had cropped up of late.

“Maybe, ma’am, but I was also wondering… uhm, you’re related to General Zirkander, the pilot, aren’t you?”

“He’s my cousin,” Lilah said warily, having a hunch as to where the conversation was going. She endured such inquiries at least once a month. Multiple times a week after a newspaper article highlighted the actions of Wolf Squadron in driving off some Cofah attack farther up the coast. “I don’t know him well,” she added, waving vaguely toward the north. The capital where the flier pilots were based was more than two hundred miles up the coast.

“You don’t visit him?”

“Why would I do that? I don’t need anything from the capital. I don’t even have a horse for traveling that far.”

“But he’s General Zirkander!” Natashi said with the dreamy look that suggested she probably kept a few newspaper clippings of him in her notebook, ones that highlighted his face with hearts drawn around it.

“I can’t imagine what we would talk about.”

Lilah distinctly remembered Ridge—Ridgewalker, thanks to his parents’ fondness for quirky names—teasing her for reading books instead of playing with the other kids at one of those dreaded family get-togethers they had endured as children. He was an only child and had been delighted to run around with age mates, hurling balls like a fool. Lilah, with three older brothers, hadn’t been nearly as enamored with the idea of siblings and playmates.

“Oh.” Natashi bit her lip. “Well, uhm, just in case, would you be able to get his autograph for me if you happen to see him?”

Lilah forced herself not to roll her eyes. She was thirty-seven now. Entirely too mature for eye rolling. “If you haven’t graduated by the time I see him next, I’ll keep it in mind.” Along with the fifty-odd similar requests she’d had in the last year. At least Natashi didn’t pull out a bra and brazenly suggest that Ridge might like to sign it.

A throat cleared in the doorway. A short-haired, clean-shaven man in an army uniform leaned in, looking at the student and then at Lilah.

“Professor Zirkander?” he asked.

“Yes?” Lilah waved the man in, though she couldn’t imagine what would have brought him to the science and history college. Classes? There was a small navy outpost a couple of miles outside of town, where soldiers visited to practice sea-based exercises, but they did not usually have the time or interest to enroll. “You’re not looking for General Zirkander’s signature, too, are you?”

“Uh, no, ma’am. I already have that.” He lifted a beige folder as he walked down an aisle toward her desk. He stopped a few paces away, clasped his hands and his folder behind his back, and looked at Natashi. “I can wait, but I need to speak with you in private when you’re done, ma’am.”

He nodded at Natashi, giving her a slight smile. He wasn’t much older than she was, and he was handsome in his tidy, pressed uniform and his polished boots. Natashi would do much better to stare dreamily at him, rather than at pictures of someone who had crossed forty already.

“I’ll send you a message about the summer project, Natashi.”

Lilah dismissed her student with a nod, curious as to what was in this soldier’s folder. She was inclined to think uncharitably of the military, especially since they had been getting so much of what should have been the college’s funding of late, but she was sure this youngster hadn’t had anything to do with it. Besides, he had a sweet face and reminded her of Lieutenant Bakstonis from the Time Trek series. She wondered if her visitor had read the popular books and would understand the reference.

As soon as Natashi disappeared, shutting the door on her way out, the soldier opened the folder. “My name is Lieutenant Sleepy, ma’am. I’m from Tiger Squadron, and I’m here to fly you to the capital.”

“Pardon?”

“Sorry, it’s a nickname. You can call me Lieutenant Derkonith, if you like. Or Jhav.” He smiled and glanced at her neck, where she still wore the promise necklace her late husband had given her. At least, she thought that was where he was looking. Breasts weren’t far from necks, after all, and a lot of male gazes got hung up on her chest, no matter how demurely she dressed. At least the young men—students, as well as soldiers—weren’t usually impertinent enough to grab, bump, or make assumptions that her chest was available for handling. She’d had to snap at a couple of the distinguished professors over the years and had earned a reputation for being… difficult. As long as they let her keep researching and publishing papers, they could call her whatever they wished.

“My confusion wasn’t derived from your name, Lieutenant, but rather from your belief that you’re flying me somewhere.”

“Oh. Well, that’s in the orders, ma’am. I’m to allow you time to pack clothing and to collect whatever tools and equipment you need.”

“How generous of you. What happens if I refuse to go with you?” Lilah accepted the paper, so she could see for herself what this was about.

“He said you wouldn’t, ma’am, especially on account of your classes being finished today.”

“He? General Zirkander?” She bristled at the idea of a cousin she hadn’t spoken to in nearly five years making assumptions about her.

“Uhm, King Angulus, ma’am.”

She blinked and stared down at the paper, glancing at the signature on the bottom. General Zirkander’s messy scrawl was on there, yes, but King Angulus Masonwood III had also signed the page. Nerves twisted in her belly. What could the king want with her? She’d never met the man or even been in the capital for one of his public speeches.

Reading the entire document might help. She started at the top, mumbling to herself as she skimmed it. “…your presence humbly requested… possible dragon fossils unearthed… top-secret facility… determine if the bones are legitimate, and if so, if they should be removed for study or if demolitions can continue.” She gaped up at the pilot. “Demolitions?

“I don’t know anything about the facility or the demolitions, ma’am. I’m just here to give you a ride to the capital.”

“Is that where the bones were discovered?”

“No, ma’am. But we’ll pick up General Zirkander there. Oh, I was told to tell you to pack warmly.”

Lilah looked toward the courtyard, which was lined by lavender bushes that had been blooming for weeks already. “Somewhere in the mountains?” she guessed.

The pilot shrugged. “I’m just a lieutenant, ma’am. They don’t tell us much. I assume the general will give you more details. But I do know enough to recommend that if you have any weapons, you may want to pack them too.”

Weapons?” That was almost as alarming as the idea of demolitions in an area of scientific importance. Were they going somewhere that wild animals would be a problem? She did have a collection of hunting rifles, though she hadn’t been out on safari since Taryn had passed away, so she hadn’t practiced with them in years. It was rare for rhinos and wildebeests to rampage through the streets of Port Yenrem.

“Do you have any, ma’am? The general said he’d send a bodyguard along, but it might not be a bad idea if you take a pistol or at least a dagger. In case, uhm. Well, I’m not supposed to know this, but I heard the general growl something about Colonel Therrik being in charge of where you’re going.”

The way the pilot said the name made Lilah think she should be familiar with it. She knew of a few historically significant Therriks, but hadn’t run into a modern person with the name. Was it some other soldier who was mentioned often in the newspapers? If so, she wouldn’t know about it, since she much preferred historical texts to current events.

“I’m sure you’ll be fine, ma’am. I shouldn’t have said anything to alarm you. Besides, the king said he’ll give you some orders to take with you, orders that will ensure Therrik is polite to you.”

The man had to be forced to be polite to a woman? That didn’t sound promising.

“Is this Colonel Therrik not someone known to cooperate with visitors from academia?”

The lieutenant rubbed his jaw, as if in memory of a painful punch. “I think he’s more likely to eat visitors from academia.”

~

If you want to keep reading, please grab Shattered Past from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play, or Smashwords.

Raptor, Dragon Blood 6, Preview and Release

| Posted in My Ebooks |

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In a few hours, Raptor, the sixth book in my Dragon Blood series, will be out everywhere. If you haven’t given these stories a try, and you like your fantasy with humor, adventure, magic, and a little romance, you can give Balanced on the Blade’s Edge a try, or pick up the first three books in the discounted boxed set. There’s also an audiobook of the first three novels that you can get for one credit through Audible.

For those who are all caught with the series and are ready for Book 6, here’s a peek at the prologue. This is only the second prologue I’ve written in twenty-odd books. (Bonus points if you remember which other book of mine has a prologue!) I thought it would be fun to introduce our dragon through eyes of… well, you’ll see.

If you want to skip reading it here and grab the book, here are the links:

Amazon | iBooks | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords | Google Play

Raptor — Prologue

 “Hope we get her delivered before the rain starts.” Jort clucked at the horse team, encouraging greater alacrity on the muddy street.

“That’s why she’s under a tarp.” Jort’s comrade, Ox, yawned and scratched himself, the wooden bench shivering as the big man adjusted his weight. “A few raindrops won’t hurt her.”

“I was thinking of us.” Jort eyed the late spring clouds scowling down from the heavens. “Figured we’d be delivering this to base housing, not some dead-end out in the middle of nowhere.”

“We’re less than twenty minutes from the city walls.”

“It feels like the middle of nowhere.” Jort waved at the towering firs and hemlocks closing in on either side of the puddle-strewn road, the branches leaving only a strip of cloudy sky visible overhead. “Besides, twenty minutes is a powerful long time if you’re getting poured on.” He spotted an algae-covered pond up ahead, marking the end of the road. They had only passed three houses since the turnoff, and he had checked the addresses on all of them. No sign of 374 yet. “You wouldn’t expect a general to live out so far.”

“Bet his witch picked the place.”

“Don’t say things like that.” To ward off evil magic, Jort circled his heart with two fingers, his movements so hasty that he dropped the reins. “There’s no such thing as witches. Not real ones.” He circled his heart again before picking up the reins, just in case. A man couldn’t be too safe.

“If you believe that, you can knock on the door and be the one to talk to her.”

“You don’t think she’ll be there, do you?” Jort licked lips that suddenly seemed drier than the white-sand deserts. He didn’t believe in magic, but he’d heard plenty of stories about General Zirkander’s lady friend, stories that would make any man twitchy. She supposedly had all sorts of potions and kept the famous pilot under her spells. And she had a sword that could melt a man’s balls off. No wonder the general had bought her such an expensive piece of furniture.

“Better be there,” Ox said, not sounding concerned. “Someone’s got to sign for the couch.”

Jort’s heart rate was up about five hundred percent by the time the horse team stopped in front of the last house on the road, a cozy two-story cottage with a tidy, green lawn out front and picnic tables and a horseshoe pit in the back. It looked innocent enough, but the tall trees along the borders hid it from its neighbors, and nothing but an overgrown blackberry patch occupied the lot across the street.

“It looks… private.” Jort eyed the windows, wondering which room the witch used to brew her potions. A curtain upstairs stirred, and he froze. He couldn’t see anyone, but he felt certain someone was watching them.

“Yup.” Ox hopped out of the wagon and strode around back to untie the canvas tarp.

A raindrop spattered Jort’s nose, and he tore his gaze from the cottage. He needed to help his partner so they could deliver the couch and escape back to the safety of the city.

“They probably like it private so they can get wild without anyone hearing,” Ox added, dropping the gate on the back of the wagon. “Maybe on this very couch.”

“Gross.”

“Pilots got needs, same as anyone else. Now, go knock and ask the witch where she wants it.”

“Don’t call her that.” Jort glanced at the curtain that had shivered. “Not when she might hear.”

Ox gave him a dramatic sigh. Jort wiped his hands on his trousers and walked up the flagstone path to the door. He took a bracing breath and lifted his hand to knock.

The door opened before he touched it, and he jumped back. He almost found himself reaching for his hip, where he had carried a sword during his infantry days, but the barefoot, brown-haired girl standing there in a paint-stained sundress was not an imposing figure. She certainly didn’t look old enough to be the witch Jort had expected. She didn’t even seem old enough to be the girlfriend of anyone without pimples and a squeaky voice.

“It’s here,” she blurted and clapped her hands. “Sardelle will be so happy.”

Sardelle. Yes, that was the name on the clipboard.

“I think she was secretly pleased that Ridge’s last couch was blown up along with his house,” the girl went on. “Did you ever see it? I never did, but I heard about it.” She shuddered.

“Uhm, no, miss.” As if the legendary General Zirkander would invite Jort to his house for dice and cocktails.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” The girl pointed to the wagon, where Ox had removed the tarp and levered the couch partway out. “It’s so sleek. Is that suede?”

“Yes, miss. Where do we put it?” Jort allowed himself to relax slightly. Maybe the witch wasn’t here, and this girl could sign for the couch. He and Ox could be back in the city before the rain grew serious.

“In the front room, here.”

“Good, we’ll bring it right in as soon as you sign this.” Jort held out a clipboard.

The girl gave him a blank look. She pulled a wet paintbrush out of her pocket and raised her eyebrows.

Before Jort could explain that a pen would be better, a man walked into view and stopped behind her. He had silver hair that fell to his shoulders, a strange color for someone who appeared no older than twenty. His eyes were an eerie yellowish brown, reminiscent of a wolf, and he had a presence that made Jort want to take a step back. Several steps back. Fortunately, the intense gaze did not land on him. The man stepped past the girl and looked toward the sky. He rested a hand on the girl’s shoulder, and they stared at each other. They didn’t talk. They just stared, as if some kind of communication was happening that didn’t require words.

“We’ll, ah, get that couch now,” Jort said, stumbling as he backed away. He turned and strode toward his partner. Maybe there were multiple witches staying here. A coven. Wasn’t that what a bevy of witches was called?

“You get the signature?” Ox asked.

“Not yet. Let’s just hurry and get it in there. This place is creepy.” Jort glanced back toward the house. The young man was standing in the yard now and waving for the girl to go back inside, while his gaze remained locked on the cloudy sky.

“Boss will throw our balls in an apple press if we don’t get it signed for.” Despite his protest, Ox shrugged and pulled the couch out further. Jort jumped into the bed to push from inside. He and Ox had never gotten such a heavy piece of furniture off the wagon so quickly. Ox did not appear worried—he had not seen the man’s eerie eyes—but with his brawny arms, he had no trouble carrying his half of the couch and matching Jort’s pace.

They were halfway up the walk when the girl shouted. “Look out!”

“Get in the house,” the man ordered, raising a hand toward her. The girl staggered backward, and the door seemed to shut of its own accord.

Jort was so busy finding that unnerving that he was completely surprised when Ox dropped his end of the couch.

“What are you doing?” Jort blurted. “If it’s damaged—”

“Run,” the young man ordered. His voice was calm, but it cut through Jort’s words like a sword through butter.

A huge gust of wind struck Jort in the back, and the horses screeched. Jort tumbled over the couch, and then was hurled through the air in the direction of the wagon—or where the wagon had been. It and the horses were taking off up the road.

As Jort scrambled to his feet, a hand gripped him from behind. He yelled in surprise. It might have been a shriek. What in all the hells was going on?

“Get down, you idiot.” Ox pulled him through a mud puddle, water spattering in all directions.

An utterly alien cry thundered from the sky. Jort looked up and promptly wished he hadn’t. He had only seen pictures of dragons in history books, but he recognized the massive flying creature for what it was. There was no doubt. The cry came again, the ear-splitting noise a cross between a roar and a scream as the golden-scaled creature descended, its wings pulled close to its huge muscular body as it plummeted toward the yard.

Jort and Ox backed across the road as quickly as they could. Jort expected the young man to get out of the way, too, but he stood, staring defiantly at the sky.

At first, it looked like the dragon would crash into the earth, but like an eagle diving for a fish, its wings unfurled from its body to slow it at the last moment. Those wings easily spanned forty feet, stretching from the house to the road. The dragon’s giant fang-filled mouth opened, and a gout of fire streamed forth. Flame poured onto the grass, the couch, and the man standing in the yard.

Even from across the street, with the blackberry bushes clawing at the back of his shirt, Jort could feel the heat. He lifted his arm to protect his face, but he couldn’t tear his gaze from the yard. Impossibly, the man wasn’t burned from the fire, even though the grass had yellowed, then disintegrated, as flagstones cracked and smoke poured from the tormented earth.

The dragon’s talons grasped at the air where his prey stood. At the last instant, the man rolled to the side, moving for the first time under the assault. Those talons bit into the ground where he had stood, tearing a gaping hole before the dragon’s powerful wings flapped, taking it into the air again.

The draft batted at Jort, almost pushing him farther back into the brambles. The young man jumped to his feet. The door opened slightly, but he flung a hand, and it closed again. Then, as if Jort hadn’t been shocked enough, the man leaped into the air. Before his feet came back down again, his clothes disappeared and his body transformed, silver scales replacing skin, and wings replacing arms. He also expanded in size, and while Jort stared, his mouth hanging down to the ground, the figure became a dragon.

Without hesitating, the former man flew over the house and into the trees behind it. Branches shivered as he passed, alternating between flapping his wings and tucking them in close to streak between the evergreens. Jort’s first thought was that he meant to fly into the sky to confront the other dragon, but he stayed in the trees. The gold dragon didn’t seem surprised at having its prey transform. It gave pursuit immediately, soaring above the treetops and breathing flame into the branches. The damp wood smoldered and did not catch fire, but it charred and fell limp under the fiery assault.

“Phelistoth,” came the girl’s voice from the house. She opened the door and ran outside.

Without glancing at Jort and Ox, she raced around the corner of the house and into the woods. She would never catch the dragons. Even with the impediment of the trees, they were too fast. Before long, they disappeared from view.

Jort’s gaze lowered to the destroyed patch of yard where the young man had stood. And where the couch had stood. It had burned to the ground, only four charred stumps remaining where its legs had been. The cushions, the frame, the suede… gone. Completely gone.

“You should have got that signature,” Ox said.

~

Continue on by grabbing the ebook from:

Amazon | iBooks | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords | Google Play

Under the Ice Blades (Dragon Blood 5.5) — Excerpt and Links

| Posted in My Ebooks |

8

October is going to be a busy reading month for Dragon Blood fans. The sixth novel in the series, Raptor, will be out on the 27th, and I’ve just released a novella set between Books Five and Six, Under the Ice Blades. This one gives us new point-of-view characters in Captain Kaika and King Angulus, but Ridge and General Ort will be along for the action (some of the action) too. Jaxi and Sardelle also pop in at the end.

You can pick up Under the Ice Blades at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, and Smashwords.

Here’s the first chapter, if you want to check it out here first:

Chapter 1

eBook Under the Ice Blades-DB Novella B01Captain Kaika kept herself from running down the corridor of the Nightclaw Infantry Brigade’s headquarters, but only because numerous colonels and generals were wandering about, holding stacks of papers and carrying coffee mugs, their eyes still bleary with sleep. She tossed quick salutes as she weaved past them, feeling none of their enervation, even though she had been up most of the night celebrating life—and the impressive strength and flexibility of one of General Zirkander’s handsome flier mechanics.

Who could be tired when a new mission was on the horizon?

She came to a halt in front of General Braksonoth’s door, quivering with the anticipation of a hunting dog on point. Where would she be sent this time? Would she be assigned a new partner? The elite forces teams almost always worked in pairs, especially overseas. Who might she be assigned? More importantly, where would she be going? It had been nearly three weeks since she had helped Zirkander, Sardelle, and the others free the king and drive off the Cofah invasion. That was an eternity of time to loiter in the rear without a purpose.

Her knock had the enthusiasm and force of a small explosion.

“Come in, Captain,” the general’s voice came through the door, soft and dry.

Kaika tried to march in with stately decorum, but she couldn’t keep from bouncing on her toes as she came to attention on the rug in front of the desk. Getting a new mission was better than fifteen-year-aged takva, better than sex, and even better than blowing up enemy strongholds. Of course, a new mission often led to blowing up enemy strongholds, so that was part of the appeal. But the constant element of danger kept her more alert and alive than she ever was back at home.

“Reporting for duty, sir.” Kaika gave the general a much more professional salute than the ones she had tossed in the corridor. Unlike the rest of the officers in the building, Braksonoth, commander of the intelligence battalion, held her fate in his hands. Even though the elite forces teams were technically a part of the infantry brigade and often worked in conjunction with the combat soldiers, they received orders from this man. “Do you have a new mission, sir?” she couldn’t help but add.

Braksonoth folded his hands on his desk and gazed blandly up at her through his spectacles. The soft-spoken, gray-haired officer weighed less than a hundred and fifty pounds and looked up at six-foot-tall Kaika even when they were both standing, but she knew better than to underestimate him. She’d seen his record, the part that wasn’t classified. He had been on over a hundred spy missions, taken down critical enemy fortifications, and survived countless battles that others on his teams hadn’t walked away from. He knew everything about this job, and he could send her on the most amazing missions… or he could send her to the kitchens to mash turnips. She’d done both for him in her fifteen years in the unit.

“I have new orders for you.” Braksonoth licked his finger and slid the top sheet of paper off a stack.

“Orders, sir?”

Orders weren’t a mission. Orders were a… who knew what? A transfer to a new army fort or to a training school. But she’d been to all of the training schools. And why would her superiors send her to another fort? The elite forces had always been based out of the capital.

“Orders.” Braksonoth turned the paper and laid it on the desk so she could read the typed page. “You’re to report to General Zirkander. The air division is expanding, and he’s selected a number of new pilots to graduate early from the academy. You’ll be training them in combat and incursion and survival tactics.”

Kaika stared at the page, though those little black type marks were blurring before her eyes. “Training, sir? You want me to train a bunch of mouthy kids? Mouthy kid pilots at that? What do they know about incursion and combat? They just sit up there in their flying boxes.”

Complaining about orders wasn’t seemly, especially to one’s C.O., but what was he thinking? Teaching was for old or injured veterans that were close to retirement. You didn’t send a field officer in the prime of her life into a classroom. What a waste! She squinted at the orders, as if she might find another name typed across the top, as if this might all be a mistake. But no, her entire name, including the first name she loathed, was there: Captain Astuawilda Kaika.

“Apparently, those flying boxes get shot down on occasion,” Braksonoth said, “and they need to know what to do when that happens.”

“But, sir. Why me? I’m not any good at teaching. I don’t have the patience for it.”

“Perhaps this will allow you to cultivate a new skill.” His tone had grown a shade cooler. He might not be as hard assed as someone like Colonel Therrik, but he wouldn’t let her argue with him, either. “If not for a few impulsive decisions in your career, you might have achieved a higher rank than captain by now.”

But she didn’t want a higher rank. Or at least she didn’t care one way or another about it. She just wanted to go on missions.

Even though arguing wasn’t wise, she couldn’t bring herself to accept the assignment without a fight. “Is it possible there’s been a mistake, sir? Did—did General Zirkander request me?”

That thought brought a sliver of hope. Even though she couldn’t imagine why he would have done so, if the orders had originated with Zirkander, he might be convinced to reverse them. They had worked together, and he was a reasonable man. She could talk to him, make a request. Zirkander hadn’t wanted to accept his promotion because he had worried it would take him out of the sky and pin him to a desk. Surely, he could understand if she was afflicted by a similar dread. Seven gods, this teaching job might even come with paperwork. That would almost be worse than dealing with mouthy kids straight out of the academy. She might be able to defuse a daisy chain of bombs in less than five minutes, but she couldn’t type without getting her fingers tangled up in the keys.

“No,” Braksonoth said. “Your orders came directly from King Angulus.”

Kaika nearly fell over. “The king? Why would he have anything to do with… That’s not normal, is it?”

“No, it’s not. He generally trusts us to handle our own personnel assignments.”

“Is it because I winked at him at that dinner celebration at the castle? This isn’t a punishment, is it?” Kaika had doubted the king had even noticed that wink, but as soon as the word punishment came out of her mouth, a wrecking ball of realization crashed into her.

Not the wink. That was nothing. She winked at every man who was worthy. But how could she have forgotten the role she had played during that fiasco of an infiltration with Sardelle and Lieutenant Ahn? The explosion in the castle. The queen’s death. Even if the king and queen hadn’t been reputed to be close, and even if the queen had been the mastermind responsible for his kidnapping, that didn’t mean that he hadn’t had feelings for her after twenty years of marriage. Angulus might have been polite at the dinner celebration, but he was always polite, in his dry, eyes-piercing-your-soul kind of way. Who knew what had actually been going on in his mind? What if he resented her for blowing up his castle? And his wife. Just because she had been trying to find and rescue him at the time didn’t make anything about that nightmare of a night acceptable.

“I wasn’t told why he chose to assign you there,” Braksonoth said, “merely given the orders. You report to General Zirkander at 0900 hours this morning. I suggest you don’t wink at him. We’ve spent a lot on your training. It would be unfortunate if his witch vaporized you.”

Kaika snorted. Sardelle was a healer; she wouldn’t vaporize anyone, even if she could. Kaika was more worried about the king and what he thought of her. He had the power to ensure she never went on another mission again. How in all the hells was she supposed to make sure that didn’t happen?

  • • • • •

“Go, go, go, you vulture kissers,” Kaika shouted to the cadets laboring to pull themselves up the fifteen-foot wooden wall on the obstacle course. “How did you graduate from the flight program without knowing how to climb anything higher than a warthog? Don’t you have to be able to get up and in to your fliers?”

Nothing but grunts and groans answered her, and those were muffled by the spring rain spattering into mud puddles all over the course.

“Maxton, you better go back and help your partner over that wall,” Kaika yelled. “You’re not going to stand a chance against the Cofah guardian waiting at the end if you don’t have help.” She prodded her chest with a thumb, to remind them that she was playing the role of guardian for this exercise. After standing around going hoarse and being rained on for the last hour, she welcomed the chance for some action, even if it was pretend action on a pretend battlefield.

The cadet she had yelled at—Maxton, or was it Madton?—glared bullets at her. He probably wouldn’t mind a chance to come at her with his fists swinging. He would have to wait his turn. Two other cadets were low crawling through the mud, logs, and netting that marked the end of the course. Kaika backed up, giving them room to get up before they tried to get past her. They would have to knock her down or shove her out of the way to pass through the wood tunnel that separated them from their final destination, a stump with a toy dragon on it—it symbolized one of their fliers. If they touched it within the three minutes they had to finish the course, they could pretend they had evaded capture and could escape. So far, nobody had even managed to reach her before the three minutes ran out. These two looked like they would make it.

The male cadet outpaced his female partner under the netting and clambered to his feet first. Instead of waiting for her, or reaching back to help her, he charged straight at Kaika.

Maybe he thought he could catch her by surprise. Whatever his plan was, it didn’t work. Compared to some of the soldiers she’d fought, he seemed to be moving at half speed, with his exaggerated movements easier to read than messages coming in on a telegraph machine.

She dodged to the side to avoid his lunging punch and batted aside his arm with a forearm block at the same time as she stepped in and slammed an upper cut into the soft flesh under his ribcage. She finished with a knee to the groin before he could recover. He crumpled forward, and she dropped her elbow onto his upper back to help him to the ground. He roared with pain and frustration as he splatted into the mud at her feet.

Kaika kept an eye on him as she regarded his female partner. The slender figure reminded her of Lieutenant Ahn, at least in her diminutive size, but her eyes were round with wariness and apprehension, not cool and calm with calculation. She came forward, more because the exercise demanded it and time was ticking down than because she wanted to; at least, that was what her expression said. Kaika blocked a few tentative punches, letting the cadet gain some experience before turning defense to offense. In the end, the young woman lay in the mud next to her partner.

“Had you attacked together,” Kaika said, “you might have had a chance. At the least, one could have distracted me or drawn me away from the tunnel, so the other could have gotten away to report back. Someone always has to make it out to report back.”

A memory flashed through her mind of a time not that long ago when someone had said the same thing to her. Back in the Cofah volcano base, Captain Nowon, her partner of more than five years, had ordered her to leave him behind after he’d been mortally wounded by a trap. He’d gone down fighting, so she had the time to slip away, to finish their mission and rejoin the others. To this day, she wondered why she’d been the one to make it when he hadn’t. He’d always been the smart one, the patient one, the better soldier. Maybe the king wasn’t the only one punishing Kaika with this new assignment. Maybe fate had decided she needed to learn a lesson. Patience? Was that it? Her mother had tried to teach her that as a child, but it had never stuck.

“We’re pilots, ma’am,” the male cadet said, glowering at her from the mud, not bothering to climb to his feet to address her. An infantry cadet wouldn’t have been so blasé when speaking to a superior officer. “When are we ever going to have to face a Cofah berserker?”

“Pilots get shot down and get captured,” said a male voice from behind Kaika. “It’s happened to me, and it’s happened very recently to Lieutenant Ahn.”

The cadet’s eyes widened, and he scrambled to his feet so quickly, he almost fell over again.

“Sir,” he blurted, looking mortified, as if he’d just been caught napping instead of getting knocked on his ass. He locked himself into a rigid attention stance, as the female cadet and everyone else on the course did the same. “I know, sir. I mean, I didn’t know, sir. I mean—uhm. Sorry, sir.”

Kaika turned and offered a salute of her own, though she doubted Zirkander would notice or care if she didn’t. He strolled up, mud spattering his boots, the fur collar of his leather flight jacket turned up against the rain. It hid his rank pins, but nobody in this group would fail to recognize him. For that matter, he was such a darling of the newspapers, there weren’t many people in the country who wouldn’t recognize him.

Zirkander returned the cadet’s salute, then made a shooing motion. “Go clean something, cadet. Yourself perhaps.”

A chagrined expression flashed across the young man’s face as he glanced down at his mud-drenched uniform, but he answered with a prompt, “Yes, sir,” and darted away. The female cadet hurried away, too, moving quietly, as if she didn’t want to be noticed. Her performance hadn’t been that poor; the young man had more to be chagrined about.

“Take two minutes,” Kaika called out to the rest of them.

“You’re only going to allot me two minutes of your time?” Zirkander asked with a smirk.

“Maybe three,” she said, smirking back before she caught herself.

The number of enemy aircraft he had shot down wasn’t the only reason the papers loved him. Zirkander was one of the most handsome men in the army, and Kaika knew without a doubt that thousands of photos from his numerous newspaper articles had been clipped out and stuck to the iceboxes of housewives all over Iskandia. The barest hint of a smile could set a girl’s libido to humming, and it was very hard not to return his smirks. Even if he hadn’t been devotedly canoodling with Sardelle, Kaika knew she wouldn’t have had a shot with him. She might have tried anyway if he and Sardelle hadn’t been so obviously smitten with each other. Instead, she kept her demeanor professional—mostly—and managed not to wink at him.

“How is Lieutenant Ahn doing?” Kaika asked quietly.

All trace of his humor evaporated. “She finally managed to find someone to accept her resignation papers.”

“Oh.” Kaika didn’t know what else to say. It hadn’t been being shot down and captured that had squashed Ahn’s spirits; no, she had been a part of that same castle infiltration that had left the queen dead. Under the influence of a semi-sentient magical sword, she’d killed one of her colleagues, and she couldn’t forgive herself for that. Kaika could understand, because she felt guilty over Nowon’s death, even if she hadn’t been responsible. She knew what it was like to survive when an equally capable—or more capable—comrade did not.

“Yeah.” Zirkander sighed. “But I haven’t given up hope. Earlier this week, I sent her the schematics for the new models of dragon fliers we’ve got in production. I even dragged a photographer out to the hangar to take pictures of the machine guns to include.”

“You really know how to charm a woman, sir.”

“Funny, my mother said the same thing. Only with even more sarcasm.”

“It’s probably a good thing that you’re pretty.”

He gave her a sidelong look. “I prefer ruggedly handsome.”

“I’m sure you do.” A wink slipped out. Damn it. She was not flirting with her happily paired C.O.

He didn’t seem to notice. She told herself that was good, not depressing.

Zirkander tilted his chin toward the course. “Any of the youngsters looking promising?”

“Compared to what?” Kaika asked before a more diplomatic answer could form on her tongue. Diplomacy wasn’t her forte.

“Well. You’ve seen Colonel Therrik manhandle me. Our ground combat standards aren’t that high.”

Kaika snorted. “Therrik manhandles everybody.”

One of his eyebrows twitched, and she caught her cheeks flushing slightly. She’d had a brief—extremely brief—dalliance with the grumpy colonel a few years earlier. He had extremely lickable abs and an ass that—well, that didn’t matter. Those body parts were attached to a man with the personality of a cannonball, and her only defense was that she had been horny, and alcohol had been involved.

Reminding herself that Zirkander hadn’t actually said anything—maybe his eyebrow was just itchy—she decided to move the conversation on from manhandling. “Have you gone to visit him yet? Now that you’re General Zirkander?”

“Therrik? No, he’s up commanding the two-mile-high Magroth Crystal Mines post.” Zirkander flashed an edged grin. “I have considered going out for an inspection, just so he’d have to show me around and yes-sir me.”

“Do the mines fall under your domain now?”

“Nah. This is my domain.” He waved toward the pilots who were toweling off under a tree, though he cast a longing look toward the cloudy sky over the harbor where a squadron of fliers buzzed about performing aerial maneuvers. “And yours, too, I suppose. Odd as that is.” He gave her a quizzical look. He didn’t think she had requested this assignment, did he?

“Yes, about that, sir. I was wondering if you knew—uhm, I was told the king was responsible for my orders. Do you know anything about it? I’d rather not be the one to pummel your flying puppies into the ground on a daily basis.”

“Are you this candid with all of your senior officers?”

“Aren’t you?”

“Well, yes, but I’m told my military manner shouldn’t be used as a model.”

He reputedly got away with a lot because he was the best pilot in the sky. Yet, he’d still made general at forty. Kaika was one of the best soldiers at what she did, but that never seemed to translate into promotions. It was a good thing she didn’t want more responsibility or to end up in charge of teams instead of on teams.

“Do you think you could talk to him, sir?” Maybe if she pummeled enough of his cadets into the ground, they would complain, and Zirkander would see the merits of requesting someone more serene for the teaching position.

“The king? We’re not really best buddies.”

“I thought you were best buddies with everyone, sir.”

“Only those who appreciate my irrepressible charm.”

Oh? From what Kaika had noticed, King Angulus had a dry manner that might turn to laughs if one could ever catch him relaxed and off duty. But did kings ever get to be off duty? She wasn’t sure she could imagine him sitting at a bar and swilling beers with Zirkander, but he seemed like he’d be more likely to appreciate Zirkander’s bluntness, however irrepressible, than the attitudes of men who chose diplomacy—and prevarication—with him. Still, what did she know? When Kaika had been recounting—confessing—the events of the queen’s death after Zirkander had recovered him from the kidnappers, she hadn’t received the impression that Angulus blamed her, hated her, or otherwise wanted to punish her. Yet here she was.

Zirkander’s gaze shifted past her shoulder, toward an elevated walkway and bleachers that overlooked the muddy training field. “You may get a chance to talk to the king yourself.”

Kaika followed his gaze and spotted King Angulus and four bodyguards standing on the walkway. He leaned against the railing, looking out over the obstacle course and the harbor beyond it. Perhaps due to the drizzle, he wore none of the trappings of office, being dressed only in practical boots, trousers, and an oilskin jacket and cap to repel water. Even without kingly accoutrements, there was no mistaking his tall and broad build or his face, which included a square jaw, deep brown eyes that noticed everything, and short, curly hair that was more gray than brown these days. He was in his mid-forties, and any woman would find him handsome, though perhaps not in the take-a-second-look-to-adequately-fuel-later-fantasies way that Zirkander was. Had he been a mechanic or soldier she’d met in a bar, she might have had a chance at luring him off for an evening of carnal pleasures, but whoever kings had carnal pleasures with, it wasn’t mud-spattered field officers.

After giving them a nod, Angulus headed for stairs that led down to the field.

“I’m sure he’s here to talk to you, sir,” Kaika said.

“Probably here to see if any of the cadets look promising. Most of them should still be in the academy, but with the elevated Cofah threat, we need to get more qualified pilots in the air.” Zirkander waved at her before heading toward the bottom of the stairs. “You better get them back to work. And try to make them look good for the king, will you?”

“Good? It’s my first day here, sir. Eventually, I might be able to convert them from so-embarrassing-they-trip-over-their-own-boots to awkward-but-with-potential. That day isn’t here yet, and good is an extremely distant goal.”

“Do your best.”

While Zirkander spoke with the king, Kaika rounded up the troops and started more teams through the obstacle course. She kept an eye on Angulus, planning to run up and ask for an audience before he left. It was presumptuous, but it wouldn’t be the first time she had been presumptuous with him. Early in her military career, she had earned her spot in the elite forces program, a program that had never been open to women, after blowing up an urn in the castle to demonstrate to the king that she would make a fine addition to the demolitions unit. She had never known if Angulus, fresh to the throne after his father’s death back then, had found her antics bold and admirable or appalling and inappropriate. Either way, he’d seen fit to give her special permission to apply for the program, and when she had passed all of the tests, both physical and in demolitions school, nobody had stopped her from joining the unit.

Out on the training field, she was distracted from her plans of addressing the king when a male cadet challenged her, wanting to know if she could make it through the course in the allotted time. Though she thought the brat lippy for questioning her abilities, she had seen enough of the youths to know she could beat them. With the male infantry officers, it might have been different, especially for those on track for the elite forces, but these people had been chosen based on their ability to calculate math equations in the air, not because they excelled in athletics. Kaika ran side by side with her challenger for the first half of the course, her long legs taking her over the log hurdles with ease, and thanks to regular training, she had enough upper body strength to sweep her through the ropes and over the wall more quickly than he. She was waiting for him at the end when he finished, and she wriggled her fingers in invitation, to make it clear that her running the course didn’t mean he got to avoid dealing with the “Cofah berserker.” Aware that Zirkander and the king might be watching, she taught him a few things as they sparred instead of pummeling him straight into the ground, then sent him to the end of the line.

“Captain Kaika,” Zirkander called and waved her over. He still stood at the base of the stairs alongside Angulus, looking out over the field, with two bodyguards framing them and another two on the walkway above.

Kaika jogged over, nerves plucking at her stomach. They were calling her over. Had Zirkander said something to the king? Either way, this was her chance to ask for a reassignment. She wouldn’t even have to be presumptuous, not overly so, anyway.

Since she was in uniform, she saluted the king. That was a perk of military service. Civilian women traditionally genuflected, and she’d never had a stomach for bending a knee to anyone.

“Captain Kaika,” Angulus said, regarding her with his dark eyes. His face did not give any of his thoughts away. “I understand you wish to speak with me.”

“Yes, Sire.” She opened her mouth to ask her question, but he kept speaking.

“I have several inspections and must continue on to them now.” He nodded toward the walkway. “But if you report to the castle after your shift, I will see you then.”

“I. Oh. Thank you, Sire.”

She hadn’t intended to ask him anything that would take long, and she wouldn’t have minded having Zirkander nearby, if only because he might back her up, but he was already uttering a “Carry on” and heading up the stairs. He almost bumped into one of his bodyguards who didn’t scurry out of the way fast enough. He growled something at the man before striding out of view.

He seemed more tense than usual, at least from the times Kaika had seen him before, and she hoped that didn’t bode poorly for her meeting.

“After shift,” Zirkander said. “That sounds like a dinner date. Make sure you wipe the mud off your womanly bits before you go. Angulus would be a better prize than Therrik.”

Kaika almost choked on the idea of the king as a prize. She didn’t consider herself shy or easily intimidated, but she would definitely feel discombobulated if she tried to woo royalty, especially royalty whose wife had been dead for less than a month.

“I’m sure neither dinner, dates, nor womanly bits are on his mind, sir.”

“No? Hm.” Zirkander’s face had a speculative look that Kaika did not know how to interpret. “Well, I’ll wish you luck with your request, and I shall leave you to your fulfilling work.” He waved in parting, then headed back toward headquarters, but not before giving another long look toward the airborne fliers.

“Thank you, sir.”

Kaika walked back toward the cadets, telling the nerves in her stomach that they could calm down because she wasn’t going to see the king for hours. Her nerves failed to listen. They knew she would have all day to worry about what she would say to Angulus in a private audience, one that would take place in the very castle she had blown her way into three weeks earlier.

~

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The Blade’s Memory (Dragon Blood 5) Preview

| Posted in My Ebooks |

13

Hello, everyone!

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.

Chapter 1

 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 do.”

“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.”

“The king?”

“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.”

“My 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.”

“Spare bedroom?”

“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.”

Hush, Jaxi.

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.

Jaxi!

“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.

Please don’t.

I won’t if he doesn’t.

He?

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.

Terribly.

“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.

Why?

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?

Rescuing him.

“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?”

“Well, no.”

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.

~

If it’s after June 13th, you can order the rest of the book now. If you’re reading this before then, the pre-order is also available. Thanks for checking it out!

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Kobo | Smashwords

Warrior Mage Ready to Go and an Update on Dragon Blood 5

| Posted in My Ebooks |

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Warrior Mage CoverFor those who have been wondering when some new books are coming, I have good news!

Warrior Mage, book 1 in the in Chains of Honor series, is available now. It’s set in the same world as The Emperor’s Edge books and stars Yanko from the Swords & Salt novellas while bringing back Dak (from the first Swords & Salt novella and also from Republic). Akstyr, Tikaya’s mother, and the Starcrest twins all get cameos toward the end of the book too. That said, you don’t have to have read any of my other stories to jump into this one. I posted the first couple of chapters, so you can check Warrior Mage out before buying.

If you want to skip the preview and jump in, here are the links to AmazonBarnes & NobleAppleKobo, and Smashwords.

For those who have been waiting for the next installment in the Dragon Blood series, I only have about twenty thousand words left to write in the rough draft. It’s come out pretty smoothly, so I don’t think it will take too much editing. I already have the cover art and plan to put it up for pre-order sometime this week. I’m going to shoot for a May 30th release date.

Lastly, if you’re an audiobook fan, you might be excited to hear that the Dragon Blood books have been picked up by the audiobook producer Podium Publishing. I’ll be sure to mention this again when we get closer to the release date (June 30th), but the three-book omnibus is already available for pre-order at Audible. If you’re a member there and have credits to spend, I hope you’ll check it out!