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Emperor’s Edge V — Blood and Betrayal

The fifth installment in the Emperor’s Edge series is now out:

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Blurb:

The last thing Maldynado Montichelu—former aristocrat and current ladies’ man—ever wanted was to be left in charge. After all, the team just blew up a train, crashed a dirigible, and kidnapped the emperor. It’s kind of an important time.

But, with Amaranthe captured by the nefarious Forge coalition, and Sicarius off to find her, the team is lacking in leaders. Also, Sicarius has made it clear that Maldynado’s life may be forfeit should anything happen to the emperor while he’s gone.

To make matters worse, Forge’s cutthroats are after Sespian, and the young emperor believes Maldynado’s loyalties are suspect. As if it’s his fault that his older brother is working with the coalition to usurp the throne. If Maldynado can’t figure out how to earn the emperor’s trust quickly, Sespian will go off to confront their powerful enemies on his own.

Meanwhile, Amaranthe must find a way to escape from the coalition’s newest ally, Master Interrogator Pike, a man who plans to pull all of the secrets from her head, one way or another…

Blood and Betrayal is the fifth novel in The Emperor’s Edge series. If you haven’t read the first one yet, you can pick it up for free.

Chapter 1 Preview

Smoke smothered the dirigible’s navigation cabin like a dense fog. Murky water seeped through the spider web of cracks in the viewing window, dripped off the smashed control panel, and pooled on the floor in front of Maldynado Montichelu’s nose. Awareness of the puddle—and the fact that his left nostril was swimming in it—came abruptly. When Maldynado jerked his head out of the water, pain sharper than any woman’s tongue stabbed his skull from the inside out. He winced and grabbed his temples. His fingers brushed a bump larger than any of the mountains they’d just flown over. He didn’t know if it’d been thirty seconds since the crash or thirty minutes, but he’d liked things better when he’d been unconscious.

Maldynado sat up and examined himself to see if any important body parts were missing. Everything seemed to be intact, though more than one crimson stain marred his ivory shirt. The fringes dangling from the hem hung in a dirty, snarled mess. He sighed when he spotted his latest fur cap wedged beneath a warped metal panel, blood and grease stains competing for prominence. When Maldynado had agreed to join Amaranthe’s team, he had assumed that the mercenary life would include perils to his body, but he hadn’t known how devastating it would be to his wardrobe. Ah, well, Sergeant Yara had thought the raccoon-tail cap silly anyway.

Yara! She’d also been in the navigation cabin, alternately yelling advice and cursing at him, when the dirigible crashed. Maldynado spun about, looking for her.

She lay crumpled in the corner. With her broad shoulders and strong jaw, nobody would call the six-foot-tall woman fragile, but at the moment…

Maldynado crept toward her, a hand outstretched. Eyes closed, neck bent awkwardly, Yara wasn’t moving. He wasn’t even sure if she was breathing. For that matter, he wasn’t sure if anyone was breathing. The only sound coming from the rest of the dirigible was the trickling of water.

Maldynado touched Yara’s shoulder. “Lady Gruff and Surly, are you awake?”

Her eyes didn’t open.

“Are you… alive?” Maldynado asked more quietly. The woman was terse, rude, and utterly lacking in femininity, so he had no idea why he cared; nonetheless, a feeling of concern wormed its way into his belly. He shook her shoulder. “You better not be dead. This team is already overflowing with ankle spankers. I was looking forward to having more women around.”

Yara’s eyelids fluttered open. She blinked a few times, focused on him, and frowned. “Ankle spanker? The only thing you’ve got that’ll reach that far is your ego.”

“Now that we’ve reunited with the others, there’s no need for you to continue as Chief Maldynado Insulter.” He offered her a hand. “Books has been fulfilling that role for the last nine months.”

Thinking of Books reminded Maldynado that the rest of the team was back there somewhere and might need help. He huffed in exasperation when Yara refused his hand. She rolled over, braced herself on the wall, and found her way to her feet on her own. As soon as she tried to take a step, she tottered and almost pitched over, so Maldynado ended up grabbing her arm to support her anyway.

“What a crash,” Yara muttered without thanking him. “Is it common for people to try and blow up your team this many times?”

“Not in the same week, no.”

They were angling for the corridor leading to the cargo bay and the dirigible’s exit when a dark figure stepped into the hatchway. Sicarius.

On any given day, Sicarius, with his death-black attire, humorless face, and dozen-odd daggers and throwing knives, cut a grim figure, the sort of figure that people crossed the street to avoid—at a dead sprint. Today, dirt and blood smeared his face and body, more of the latter being revealed due to numerous tears in his shirt and trousers. Anyone else would have looked weak and haggard; he looked like an angry ancestor spirit from one of the old stories, the kind of spirit who slew the populaces of entire towns to avenge the deaths of family members. When those dark flinty eyes focused on Maldynado, his gut clenched and he took a step back. He might be six inches taller and possess a broader build, but it didn’t matter. He wouldn’t provoke Sicarius under any circumstances, and circumstances were worse than usual.

“Amaranthe is missing.” Sicarius’s hard gaze never left Maldynado’s face.

Missing?” Maldynado squeaked, then cleared his throat in an attempt to reclaim a normal register.

“She was thrown out when the craft lurched.” As always, Sicarius spoke in an emotionless monotone, but Maldynado was fairly certain there was an accusation in those words.

“It’s not my fault,” he blurted. “I did my best not to crash. Or to lurch. They hit us with something. Anyway, I was only piloting because Books was helping with the surgery. How’d that go anyway? Is the emperor…”

Sicarius had turned his back while Maldynado was speaking, and he stalked down the corridor without a word.

“Do you always tinkle down your leg like that when he looks at you?” Yara asked when he was out of sight.

Maldynado squelched a flicker of irritation and the urge to respond defensively. Growing up with a pile of older brothers had long ago taught him that confrontations ended before they began when one let insults ricochet off one’s skin like slingshot pebbles clinking off an armadillo’s shell. “Nah,” he said, “only once or twice a week, when I can tell he’s in a real ornery mood and might thump me.”

“Has he ever actually touched you?”

“Oh, yes.” Maldynado left the navigation cabin, heading into the dented and warped corridor where even more smoke thickened the air. “He calls it training. It’s painful.”

Thanks to a tilted floor, Maldynado had to climb up a slope to reach the cargo bay. Voices came from beyond the open rear hatch, so he hurried. If the boss truly had fallen out, they needed to hustle to find her before those Forge minions, or whoever had been flying that bizarre black aircraft, found her first.

As it turned out, the hatch wasn’t simply open; it had been torn off. He was about to step outside, but the back end of their craft hung several feet above water clogged with cattails. The vegetation-filled wetlands stretched several hundred meters until the foliage ended at the edge of Lake Fenroot’s blue depths. Above Maldynado, the huge, decimated dirigible balloon blotted out the sun as it dangled amongst moss-draped trees edging the shallows. Many trunks had snapped under its pull, or perhaps from the metal cabin ramming into them during the crash. Despite the water everywhere, copses of trees were burning at various points around the lake. A smoky pall smeared the horizon, a reminder that the enemy craft had torched large swaths of earth before finally striking the dirigible.

A cough and a nearby splash drew Maldynado’s attention. Books, Basilard, and Akstyr, weighed down by their weapons and rucksacks, were wading toward a muddy beach hemmed in by trees with large, gnarled roots. Maldynado felt a twinge of irritation that nobody had come to check on him and Yara, but he supposed one could say Sicarius had been doing that, albeit without any expressions of concern or inquiries to their health.

The emperor, his neck bandaged and blood staining his pale brown hair, had already reached the beach. He stood next to a couple of rucksacks as he gazed toward the lake. He might have been trying to spot Amaranthe, or he might have been watching for their attackers to return. Nobody was talking, and any birds or critters that might call the wetlands home were staying quiet in the aftermath of the crash. Only the splashes of the wading men disturbed the silence. The smell of skunk cabbage and decaying vegetation mingled with the smoke, adding to the place’s utter lack of charm.

Sicarius strode through the thigh-deep water with more alacrity than Books and Akstyr and climbed onto the beach ahead of them. He set a footlocker down next to the emperor. Maldynado was about to hop into the water when Sicarius’s voice froze him.

“Did you get your weapons and gear?”

“I’m not even sure where my gear is,” Maldynado said. “It’s probably one of the myriad things that belted me in the head during that landing.”

Yara came up beside him and peered through the hatchway. She was blinking and seemed to have trouble focusing her eyes. The whole team needed a doctor. And an alcohol-drenched vacation.

“Get your belongings,” Sicarius told Maldynado. “We can’t remain at the crash site.” His gaze tilted skyward.

“Is he second in command?” Yara asked quietly.

Maldynado rubbed his aching temples. “Dear ancestors, I hope not.”

Back in the cabin that he’d never had a chance to sleep in, Maldynado found his rucksack jammed under a bunk, the flap still tied shut. His rapier and utility knife were another matter. In the chaos, they’d separated themselves from their sheaths, and he had to crawl all over the cabin to retrieve them from amongst pillows, bed sheets, and blankets that had flown everywhere during the haphazard final flight.

Yara beat him out of the dirigible and already waited on the beach when Maldynado hopped into the water. He gave a sad salute to the craft as he slogged away. He noted its location, so he could tell Lady Buckingcrest where they had crashed her property. It would take a lot of hard work to win her favor again after destroying her prize dirigible, but maybe the craft—and their relationship—could be salvaged.

“Are you going somewhere?” Books was asking someone when Maldynado reached the beach.

Sicarius had shouldered his rucksack. “To find Lokdon. Where did she fall out?” This time, Books was the recipient of the icy gaze, as if Sicarius blamed him for letting her go.

“I’m not positive.” Books gnashed his lower lip between his teeth as he scanned the wetlands. Blood streamed from a cut beneath one of his graying temples, and the wrinkles creasing his brow seemed more pronounced than usual. He eventually pointed toward Lake Fenroot. “I think we were over the lake.”

“You think,” Sicarius said.

“Yes, think. At the time, our dubious pilots—” Books waved toward Maldynado and Yara, “—were hurling the craft to and fro. When Amaranthe slid through the door, I was struggling to keep from being flung out myself. I didn’t have time to peek out a porthole to triangulate our location.”

Maldynado propped his fists on his hips and was about to argue that there’d been nothing dubious about the piloting—there was only so much one could do when being shot at by a craft with superior firepower—but he noticed Yara standing a few feet away in a similar hands-on-hips pose, her lips curled as if also poised to retort. Something about the similarity disoriented him. He dropped his hands and said nothing. She looked at him at the same time as he was eyeing her, frowned, and seemed to forget her retort too.

The west side of the lake, Basilard signed, his pale-skinned fingers flying. We tried our best to help her, but it happened too quickly. It’s possible… When Sicarius focused on him, Basilard’s fingers faltered. He glanced at Books and ran a hand over his bald, scarred head before squaring his shoulders and continuing. We were high and near the shoreline. Shallow water. It’s possible she is… injured.

Maldynado swallowed. He’d been trying to stay above the treetops, so they’d been at least fifty feet up when the other craft struck.

Without a thank you or even a nod, Sicarius said, “I will recover Lokdon.” Then, as he started walking toward the lake, he added, “Sire, come with me. I can best protect you.”

The emperor, who had heretofore been quiet, blinked and stared at his back. “Uh, thanks, but I’ll take my chances here.”

Sicarius halted and turned slowly, pinning the emperor with his stare. Emperor or not, Maldynado expected the young man to squirm under those dark eyes—everyone else did. Sespian lifted his chin, though, and returned the stare. There was even the faintest hint of an eyebrow raise, as if to say, “That’s right. I’m refusing to obey you. What’re you going to do about it?”

Though Maldynado wanted to hunt for Amaranthe, too, he felt compelled to wink at the emperor and say, “Don’t worry, Sicarius, we can take good care of him. We’re fine pugilists.” If Sespian had been anyone else, Maldynado would have thrown an arm around his shoulders as he spoke, but there were protocols against touching the emperor. In battle, congratulatory shoulder thumps from trusted warrior-caste brethren might be appropriate, but, alas, Maldynado was neither trusted nor warrior-caste any more.

Sicarius’s face never changed—someday Maldynado wanted to see the man lose his temper, or at least sneer in frustration—but he did take a step toward the emperor, as if he might force the issue. He froze before he’d taken more than that one step though. His hand dropped to that nasty black dagger of his, and he swiveled, his eyes shifting toward the sky—or at least what they could see of it. The balloon and lingering smoke obscured the view.

“What is it?” Books asked.

“Trouble,” Akstyr muttered, pushing a snarl of hair out of his eyes. Dampness had flattened his usual spikes and made his mismatched clothing appear even baggier than usual. If he had to flee, he’d be lucky if his trousers didn’t drop to his ankles.

A likely guess, Basilard signed, and glanced toward the trees, as if seeking a hiding spot.

Though numerous minutes had passed since the crash, the birds hadn’t started chirping again. Maybe it was the smoke and the flames still dancing in some of the trees. Or maybe it was something more inimical. Maldynado found himself scouring the sky as well. Their attackers had prematurely left them for dead once before—in the tunnel cave-in. They might not be so quick to leave the area this time.

“Get off the beach,” Sicarius said. “Into the trees. Hide.”

Nobody decided to use that moment to question whether Sicarius was second-in-command or not.

Maldynado grabbed the end of the footlocker and waved for Basilard to help him with it, but Sicarius barked, “Leave the gear.”

Yara, Books, and Basilard sprinted for cover in the forest. The emperor hesitated, as if he meant to wait to make sure the others were safe before running.

Sicarius strode toward him, spun him toward the woods, and pushed. “Go, Sire.”

Maldynado caught up and ran at Sespian’s side. Emperor or not, the young man could use an ally, especially since Sicarius seemed to have—ancestral spirits save the boy—made “protecting” him his project. Even if it was well meaning, Sicarius’s attention wasn’t something a person should have to face alone.

“Here, Sire.” Maldynado hopped a stump and slid into a nook formed by a tightly packed copse of trees.

With his broad shoulders, Maldynado had to turn sideways to squeeze into the spot, but he wagered nobody in the air over the wetlands would be able to see him. He waved, inviting Sespian in beside him. Being of slighter build, the emperor slipped in without trouble. Sicarius paused behind him.

“Sorry,” Maldynado said brightly. “No room for three.”

Sicarius opened his mouth, but, before he could speak, a great cacophony shattered the stillness of the wetlands. It pounded at Maldynado’s eardrums, and a stunned moment passed before he could identify the noise as wood snapping, a lot of wood snapping. A tremor ran through the earth, and ripples shot across the nearby water. The smell of something burning singed the air.

Sicarius disappeared from view. Maldynado wanted to sink low in his nook and bury his head, but he peeked around the closest tree instead.

All around the beach, trees had been felled or were falling. So many branches and bushes burned that it seemed like one huge inferno spouting flames into the sky. Even in his protected copse, the heat battered Maldynado’s face.

Every trace of the dirigible, including the metal hull, had disappeared. Incinerated.

Maldynado groaned. “So much for salvaging the craft.” Not only would Lady Buckingcrest never forgive him, but she might even send men out to hunt him down.

Nothing but smoldering black smudges remained of the footlocker and abandoned gear on the beach. Beyond the crash site, a massive dark shape cast its shadow over the water. The solid dome hovered a few meters above the wetlands, its smooth, unadorned hull so inky black it appeared as if a semi-circular hole had opened up in the sky, revealing empty nothingness within. The craft seemed to be waiting.

“That cannot be good,” the emperor murmured.

Maldynado pulled back and leaned his forehead against fuzzy, damp moss growing up the side of his tree. “I hope Amaranthe was able to get out of the water and find a place to hide before they saw her.”

“They’re probably not looking for her,” Sespian said. “They’ll want me back.”

Back or dead? Maldynado kept the thought to himself. Sespian had enough on his mind. “If they stumbled across Amaranthe while looking for you, I’m sure they’d be happy to pick her up—or shoot her outright. We’ve caused a lot of trouble for them, and she’s our fountainhead.”

Sespian winced. “I would… deeply regret it if harm came to her because of me.”

The words weren’t hollow ones. Maldynado could tell from the new layer of concern that weighed down Sespian’s face. So much for not putting more on his mind.

Maldynado fidgeted, eager to hunt for Amaranthe. If Forge hadn’t found her, and she was holed up somewhere, incapacitated from her injuries, she’d be waiting for her team’s help. Actually, incapacitated or not, she’d be scheming up some way to help herself, but she wouldn’t be too proud to accept assistance.

“Is it gone yet?” Maldynado whispered.

From his spot, Sespian had a better view of the water. “It’s moved closer.”

“Wonderful. They must be hoping we’ll stroll out and volunteer to be flambéed.”

“Or maybe it’s going to torch the entire wetlands to ensure we’re all dead.”

“Cheery thought.” Maldynado said. Maybe Sespian knew Forge didn’t want him “back” after all.

A tree snapped. Branches broke, and leaves rattled as it fell, landing with a noisy splash. Maldynado gripped the mossy bark of his own tree and leaned out, trying to keep his body hidden as he observed the craft.

Still hovering, the floating dome crowded the shoreline. Trees standing next to it appeared as thin and frail as toothpicks. Its convex top rose higher than their canopies. Nothing on the flat black bottom of the craft caused ripples in the water below, nor did the leaves in the trees near it stir, so Maldynado couldn’t imagine how it flew or stayed in the air. It did drift from side to side as it hovered, occasionally bumping those “toothpicks,” causing them to crash to the ground as if they were rootless dowels capable of being knocked over in the faintest breeze.

Maldynado expected the craft to tire of waiting and to send some of those deadly beams out to raze the entire forest, leaving nothing but a smoking crater. But, after hovering for several more moments, it floated upward. Once above the canopy, it headed south.

Long before Maldynado thought crawling out of hiding would be wise, Sicarius darted past him. He leaped ten feet into the air, caught the side of a stout pine, and scrambled up the trunk. He skimmed upward, zipping around branches like a squirrel before disappearing from view.

“That man is exceedingly odd,” Sespian observed.

“Oh, you have no idea,” Maldynado said.

“Why does Corporal Lokdon employ him?” Sespian asked lightly, as if he were simply making conversation and the answer didn’t matter, but intensity sharpened his brown eyes.

“He can thump everyone else into pawpaw pulp, and he does what the boss asks.” As soon as Maldynado said that, he thought of Sicarius’s recent string of assassinations and grimaced. “Most of the time anyway.” That might not be all that accurate either. “Often enough that she finds him useful,” he amended.

“Hm. And I suppose she must find you useful too.” Sespian raised his eyebrows.

Maldynado vowed to be careful what he said. If his brother, Ravido, truly planned to usurp the throne, Maldynado might be presumed guilty by lieu of having the same parents. “Oh, I’m all sorts of useful.” He touched his chest and offered his most disarming smile—it worked wonders on women, though a nineteen-year-old emperor might be less enamored. “I’m tolerable good at thumping folks, too, and I can get great deals from the many female clerks and businesswomen in Stumps.”

Sespian mulled that over for a moment before saying, “You’re the group shopper?”

“Technically, yes, but don’t forget the thumping part.” Maldynado lifted an arm and flexed his biceps.

Sespian’s measuring gaze remained on him long enough that Maldynado started to feel silly holding his arm aloft. He lowered it, but kept the affable smile. He didn’t have anything to hide, but he’d prefer it if the emperor saw him as a simple man, the sort who couldn’t string together a coup if he wanted to. Or maybe the sort who, even if he could string together a coup, couldn’t be bothered to make the effort. Nobody worried about men like that.

Sicarius dropped out of the tree, bending his knees to soften the landing. “Books.”

Foliage stirred somewhere behind Maldynado, and boots crunched through the twigs and dead leaves. Grumbling accompanied the footsteps, something about, “being summoned like a hound.”

When Books stopped in front of him, Sicarius dropped a compass into one pocket and pulled a folded piece of paper out of another. Curious, Maldynado wriggled out of his nook. With the dirigible nothing more than a memory, it seemed unlikely the enemy craft would return.

“I need a pen,” Sicarius told Books.

Annoyance flickered across Books’s weathered face. “You think gathering writing utensils was my first priority after that brawny toad—” Books pointed at Maldynado, “—crashed us? I was hurrying to get out before the engine exploded, something I assumed would happen given that Maldynado had been flying. I didn’t even have a chance to grab my sword.”

“Come now, Booksie,” Maldynado said, “we all know you could be set upon by a platoon of Nurian soldiers and you’d always grab writing utensils first. You can only fight one man at a time with a sword, but, with a pen, you can compose a lecture to bore legions of enemy troops to death.”

Books glared at him. Sicarius held out his hand.

Sighing, Books pulled out his journal and unclipped a pen. The journal was the compact, leather-bound one that had disappeared the day before the team left the capital. Maldynado hadn’t realized he’d gotten it back.

Sicarius took the pen, unfolded his paper, and laid it on the ground. It was a map of the satrapy. Sicarius marked a couple of topographical features, scribbled coordinates under them, then started drawing lines. Maldynado scratched his head.

By now, the others had gathered around. Books and Basilard were nodding as they watched, and, after a moment, Sespian seemed to get it too. Akstyr and Yara didn’t show any signs of enlightenment, but they didn’t seem to care either.

“What are you working on?” Maldynado asked. “I ask because the boss could be out there, bleeding to death somewhere, and unless this is going to help us find her, I think it should wait.” He gazed out toward the lake. At least a half hour must have passed since Amaranthe fell out and the dirigible crashed. If she were able, she should have joined them by now, or at least signaled.

Sicarius was using the back of a knife to draw a straight line down the center of the map, and he didn’t respond. Maldynado huffed in exasperation. He was tempted to take charge and divide up the group for a search, but he didn’t know if anyone would listen to him.

Sicarius circled two towns alongside the line he’d drawn.

He saw which way the craft flew away, Basilard signed. I think he’s trying to figure out where it might be going from the bearing.

“Yes,” Books said, “though we have no guarantee that it’s flying in a straight line in the direction it departed. Or that it’s heading to a destination within the satrapy.”

Maldynado stamped his feet. “Does nobody else care that the boss might be dead or dying somewhere and need our help?”

Basilard frowned at him.

“We all care,” Books said.

“Then why aren’t we—”

Sicarius stood, the movement abrupt enough that Maldynado stepped back and shut his mouth.

“Fifteen minutes,” Sicarius said.

Maldynado frowned. “You want to wait fifteen minutes to search?” He shook his head and started to say more, but Sicarius spoke again.

“Fifteen minutes passed between when the craft shot us down and when it came to check on us.” Sicarius pocketed the map. “We’ll split up and circle the lake to check for her anyway.”

Realization dawned on Maldynado. “You think they got her during that time?”

“Books, Basilard, Akstyr, and Yara, go east around the lake,” Sicarius said. “The emperor, Maldynado, and I will go west until we meet.”

Maldynado bristled at having Sicarius give orders—this wasn’t an exercise session, after all—but they could vote on who the ersatz leader would be later. Besides, he was sending Yara and Books, the two people most likely to heckle Maldynado, off in the other group.

Everyone else must have also decided this wasn’t the time for arguing with Sicarius, for they trooped off in the indicated directions without a word, though Sespian did pause to gaze to the east. He had an urgent reason to reach Sunders City, Maldynado recalled. But, when Maldynado jogged after Sicarius, Sespian fell in behind them, apparently willing to help look for Amaranthe first.

Good kid, Maldynado decided. At least that’s what he thought until Sespian started peppering him with questions about his family.

They had scarcely started down a muddy trail weaving through ferns and trees on its way to the lake when Sespian asked, “How do you get along with your brother, Maldynado?”

“I assume you mean Ravido, though I don’t get along with any of my siblings, Sire.”

“Yes. Have you communicated with him lately?”

“I haven’t communicated with anyone in the family since the old man disowned me over a year ago.”

Sespian ducked a branch stretching over the path. “Would you admit it to me if you were in regular contact with your family or… with anyone else?”

Anyone else? What “anyone else” was out there that the emperor thought Maldynado might contact? “I imagine not, Sire. But, given that some of my family members are apparently up to seditious activities, it wouldn’t behoove me to be in contact with them.” Behoove? Had he actually said behoove? Wandering around with Books was having a tedious affect on his vocabulary. The rest of the words sounded stilted too. He hated having to be careful about what he said. If Ravido got anywhere near the throne in the Imperial Barracks, Maldynado hoped he tripped over it.

“You’re honest about that much at least.”

Maldynado was honest about everything. Occasionally he might exaggerate when it came to exploits involving women, but that was natural. “Uh, yes. Does colluding against the throne still carry a death penalty?”

“I believe so. Though… if you had been colluding and were to decide that helping me is a better option, we could waive any head-removal penalties.”

“I’m not colluding, Sire.” They’d reached the lake, and Maldynado shielded his eyes with his hand to exaggerate the fact that he was searching for Amaranthe. Maybe Sespian would notice and decide question-asking time could wait until later.

“I wonder if Ravido always had an interest in ruling,” Sespian said.

Maldynado managed to keep his sigh soft.

“Back when you did have regular contact with him, did he talk of the family’s glory days? Of when the Marblecrests used to rule?”

“Sire, he’s more than twenty years older than me. I never knew him well.” Maldynado wished Sicarius had split him off into the other group, heckling notwithstanding. Or that the emperor would ask him some questions. Not that Sicarius would answer. Maldynado didn’t think he could get away with that. Silence could condemn him.

Sespian climbed on top of a log on the path and paused before stepping down. “Am I premature in asking questions?”

“What?”

“Corporal Lokdon suggested I have a few drinks with you before discussing family matters. Unfortunately, this swamp is lacking in purveyors of alcoholic beverages.”

Maldynado, climbing over the log himself, almost fell into the ferns on the side. “Amaranthe suggested you question me?”

“She assured me you weren’t conspiring with your brother and said you might be a source of information on him and any other friends or family members who are assisting him with his dubious goals.”

“Oh.” It stung that Amaranthe had suggested Maldynado might betray family members, but he supposed she’d been watching out for his backside. The next time the group wandered past enforcers or soldiers, the emperor could order him killed with a wave of the hand. “I don’t know what Ravido is up to, Sire. Has he already passed the point of no return?” Maldynado thought of the weapons delivery outside of Fort Urgot. His brother might be in the incipient stage of an uprising, but if blood had not yet been shed… “Or is it possible he might be talked into giving up his wayward plans?”

“I’m behind on events, thanks to being ushered all over the empire to inspect military installations, but the last I heard, he hadn’t killed anyone. It’s possible banishment would be punishment enough. But… if he’s put things into play while I’ve been gone, then the law and hundreds of years of imperial precedent would demand his death, yes.” Sespian frowned, perhaps not liking the idea of killing Ravido, or killing people in general.

Ahead of them, Sicarius had disappeared around a bend, and Maldynado nodded that they had better hurry up. He could use the short jog to give himself a moment to respond as well.

Distracted, he misjudged a step and his boot caught on a root. He recovered his balance, but not without cracking his elbow against a sapling. Another bruise for the collection. What a day. “Yes, Sire, drinks would have been appropriate before asking me to share information that could result in my brother’s death.”

Sicarius looked back at Maldynado with an extra dose of coldness in his hard eyes. That surprised Maldynado. Why would Sicarius care one way or another about Ravido’s doings?

“So,” Sespian said, “though you don’t particularly like your family, you’re not willing to betray them.” He seemed to be mulling the fact over, rather than judging Maldynado for the choice.

Maldynado pushed a hand through his hair, tucking a few loose curls behind his ears. “I don’t want to be flushed down the wash-out with them, but I’m not ready to volunteer to be the trap that ensnares the bear for the hunter either. I’m already… I already betrayed the family once. If I did that to my mother again, she’d wring my neck herself.”

“I see,” Sespian said as they continued along the path. Softly, perhaps more to himself, he added, “Loyalty may be an admirable trait in men, but I do wish more of them would direct it in my direction.”

With Forge scampering around the capital, infiltrating the Imperial Barracks, Sespian must have trouble knowing whom he could trust. Maldynado felt for the kid and wanted to help, but—

He stopped a hair shy of crashing into Sicarius.

Sicarius had stopped to face the emperor. Though it was always hard to tell with him, he looked like he had something to say. He glanced at Maldynado, didn’t utter a word, then strode ahead several paces where he knelt to examine the ground.

Sespian’s forehead crinkled. Maldynado gave him a shrug. He couldn’t explain Sicarius either.

“Fresh tracks.” Sicarius stepped off the trail they’d been following around the lake, touched the broken tip of a thin branch, and veered into the foliage on a short peninsula.

Maldynado pushed past ferns to follow him, wondering how Sicarius managed to move through the same vegetation as he did, but without making a sound. After he ducked a branch growing a mossy beard so long it’d make the hairiest old men in the Veterans’ Quarter jealous, the water came into sight again. Sicarius had stopped on a muddy bank at the end of the peninsula. Maldynado didn’t need to be a tracker to spot all the prints. Many different sizes and styles of boots were represented. If Amaranthe had come ashore here…

Sicarius knelt and touched the ground. He brought a finger to his nose.

“Blood?” Maldynado asked.

“Yes.”

“Amaranthe’s?” It was a dumb question—people’s blood didn’t have an identifying smell, did it?—but Maldynado somehow hoped that asking would lead Sicarius to say, “No, she’s fine. This belonged to the bloke she punched in the nose.” It was an unwarranted hope though. Maldynado would bet on Amaranthe in a one-on-one match-up against almost anybody—even if she wasn’t stronger or faster than her foe, she’d scheme up some plan to defeat him—but against the ten or twelve people responsible for these footprints?

“Likely,” was all Sicarius said.

He touched one of the footprints. From where he stood, Maldynado didn’t see anything special about it, but Sicarius grew still. “Major Pike was here.”

Maldynado put a hand on the nearest tree for support. “The Major Pike you described as Emperor Raumesys’s master interrogator?”

“Yes.”

A twig snapped as Sespian pushed his way out of the foliage behind Maldynado. He took in the scene with a grim set to his mouth.

“They must have seen her fall.” Sicarius pointed to a mark near the water. “When she came ashore there, Pike was waiting.”

“She came ashore, as in her broken, battered body floated up to the bank, or she walked ashore?” Maldynado asked.

Sicarius strode back into the underbrush, quickly disappearing from view.

“Oh, no,” Maldynado said, “no need to answer our questions. We’re just speaking to give the wildlife something to listen to.”

A crow squawked on the other side of the trail.

“Yes, like that.”

Sespian hadn’t said a word, and he didn’t react to Maldynado’s sarcasm. His eyes were cast downward, toward the trampled mud where Sicarius had found the blood. Maybe he felt partially responsible for Amaranthe’s predicament. Did emperors have the capacity to worry about commoners? Not a lot of Maldynado’s own warrior-caste brethren did, but Sespian seemed a sensitive sort. Too sensitive maybe. If he had the brawny assertive mien of his predecessor, Emperor Raumesys, he might not have so many people picking on him as someone easy to remove or shunt aside.

“We’d better go after him.” Maldynado pushed into the foliage, figuring he’d lose track of Sicarius if he didn’t follow immediately. As it was, he reached the trail and didn’t see anyone. He searched for fresh boot prints, but the ground was harder packed there, and he couldn’t decide which way the kidnappers had gone. He listened for a rustle of leaves or snapping of twigs that would announce Sicarius’s passage, but of course that never came. Near the water’s edge, a frog started croaking, but nothing stirred in the underbrush.

Sespian, making less noise than Maldynado would have expected, stepped back onto the trail. “Which way?” he asked.

Uhm. Maldynado pointed into the woods opposite of the peninsula and headed in that direction. If Sicarius had stuck to the path, Maldynado should have seen him. Besides, he didn’t want to appear clueless in front of the emperor.

Maldynado pushed through dense, tangled undergrowth for several minutes and was about to confess that he’d been guessing when the crow cawed again. Complaining about assassins passing nearby? He angled toward the call.

Up ahead, the trees thinned. Afraid he’d simply walked in a circle and returned to the lake, Maldynado almost turned around, but curiosity or perhaps intuition prompted him to continue.

Between one step and the next, the trees ended. Maldynado found himself squinting into autumn sunlight slanting down from a swath of open blue sky. A huge circular expanse stretched before him with all the trees, bushes, grass, and moss cleared. No, not cleared, he realized as he walked off an edge, almost tripping because of a height difference from one step to the next. The entire circle, easily hundreds of meters in diameter, was a foot lower than the surrounding earth. The foliage hadn’t been cleared; it’d been smashed. Compacted beneath a weight so great, even stout trees had crumpled beneath it, their trunks flattened into the ground.

“Bloody bears,” Sespian breathed. “They landed here? I didn’t realize how big that craft was. Or how heavy. How could something with such mass fly?”

“I don’t know.” Maldynado tilted his head. “Bloody bears?”

Sespian flushed. “When I was growing up, one of my bodyguards always said, ‘bloody balls.’ I adopted it until my mother heard and said it wasn’t appropriate for young princes to say balls. ‘Bears’ was my work-around. The word still slips out at times.”

That story did little to change Maldynado’s mind that Sespian might be a tad soft for the position of emperor. “Do yourself a favor and don’t say things like that around military men, Sire.”

The flush deepened.

“The tracks end over there,” Sicarius said from behind and to the side of them.

Surprised by his soundless return, Maldynado nearly spat a, “Bloody bears,” himself.

“Lokdon was walking, hemmed in by soldiers,” Sicarius said. “The tracks disappear fifteen feet from the shelf.” He pointed at the foot-deep depression ringing the circle. “The boundary marks the hull of the craft, presumably.”

“How’d they get inside?” Sespian asked. “A ramp?”

“Unknown.”

“So, they have her.” Maldynado sank into a crouch, his elbows on his knees. Curse his dumb ancestors, why hadn’t he done better at piloting that dirigible? If he’d gone straight ahead toward Sunders City at top speed instead of trying to lose their pursuers in the wetlands, they might have made it. The enemy might have broken away to keep from being seen by outlying residents. “We have to go after her.”

Sicarius had moved away from Maldynado and Sespian and stood on the compacted earth, his gaze toward the south. The direction the craft had gone.

“How will your team find her?” Sespian asked.

Your team, he said, not we. Of course. What did some outlaw mercenary leader matter to him?

Maldynado caught himself before he said something snide. The emperor’s own mission called to him, that was all. And that mission might save the entire empire. Sespian couldn’t cast it aside to help rescue one person.

“I don’t know, but we will. Somehow—” Maldynado snapped his fingers and spun toward Sicarius. “That map. Is that what you were doing? Figuring out where they’re taking Amaranthe and where they might land?”

“Books was right,” Sicarius said without looking at him. “There’s no way to tell if they’ll continue in a straight line or if their destination is within the satrapy.”

“Of course they’re going somewhere in the satrapy,” Maldynado said. “We think Forge people are flying that thing, right? Well, if we’re figuring right, Forge’s priority is the capital. They’re trying to back the next heir to the empire—no offense, Sire—right? If they’re acting soon, they’re not going to suddenly decide to take a vacation on some tropical beach down south. Maybe they’re not going far at all.”

For the first time, Sicarius met Maldynado’s eyes and seemed to be interested in what he had to say.

“We can catch them,” Maldynado insisted. He had to believe that. “What cities were near the line you drew?”

“Markworth and Deerlick Wood lie along the bearing I calculated.”

Erg, Markworth was over three hundred miles away, and Deerlick Wood, at the edge of the satrapy, even farther. Deerlick Wood was a derelict mining town and Markworth a resort town on Lake Seventy-three, a spot where wealthy warrior-caste families vacationed, extending their summers when the weather grew cooler up north. Maldynado’s family had property in the area. He’d even visited as a kid, but that didn’t help him come up with a reason for Forge to go there. As far as he knew, there weren’t any natural resources, manufacturing facilities, or business opportunities. It was a destination for fun. Nothing more. Forge didn’t seem to be all that interested in fun.

“Even if they’re not going to those towns,” Maldynado said, “they were heading south along the river, right? The river is populated all up and down in that area, so people would be likely to see that monstrosity flying overhead. People like to talk. They’d mention something like that, and we could tell if we were on the right track.”

Sicarius had stopped listening, or at least he wasn’t looking at Maldynado. His eyes had turned toward Sespian, who, to his credit, wasn’t squirming under the attention. Maldynado always felt like a schoolchild being taken to task when Sicarius gave him a look that lasted more than two seconds.

“You will go to Sunders City next?” Sicarius asked.

“I must, yes,” Sespian said.

“Your absence in the capital will allow schemers to strike.”

“I must know what exactly Forge plans. There is someone traveling through Sunders City that I… must find.”

“You could send someone else,” Sicarius said.

“There’s no one else I trust.”

“You sought out our team.”

“Because of her.” Sespian waved toward the sky in the direction the aircraft had flown. “If she’s gone now…” His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. That surprised Maldynado. Did the emperor care about Amaranthe? Why would that be? “Your team has done all that I requested. I thank you, but I’ll go my own way now. You need to find your missing comrade.”

“Your mission,” Sicarius said, as if Sespian hadn’t spoken at all. “It will be dangerous? A risk to your life?”

Sespian lifted his hands, palms up. “Probably. That doesn’t change anything. I’m prepared to go on my own.”

Insects droned in the wetlands. A second frog joined the first, starting up a croaking chorus. Sicarius looked to the south again. He had the appearance of a man facing a hard choice, though Maldynado couldn’t understand why. They had to go after the boss.

Finally, Sicarius said, “I will get her. Sire, Maldynado and the others will accompany you to Sunders City and act as your bodyguards, or lackeys if that is what you need. They will protect you.”

“I don’t need lackeys or bodyguards,” Sespian said at the same time as Maldynado lifted his hands and said, “Wait, I’m going after the boss too.”

“You will accompany the emperor.” As he spoke, Sicarius issued his favorite dark glare, the one that could make a man’s love apples shrivel up faster than a nude streak into the snow on Solstice Day.

Maldynado usually avoided that stare, but this time he crossed his arms over his chest and stared back. “I’m going too.”

Maldynado knew that Sespian’s safety should be his first priority—disowned or not, he was a son of the warrior-caste, and thus sworn to defend and protect the emperor and empire—but he wouldn’t turn his back on Amaranthe. Besides, Sespian was standing in front of them, safe for the moment. Amaranthe was the one who’d been captured by some torture-loving goon with a passion for molesting people. Maldynado didn’t trust Sicarius to go after her alone. He might do some obligatory hunting, but he didn’t care about Amaranthe the way the rest of the team did. He didn’t care about anyone.

In the face of Maldynado’s stubborn response, Sicarius strode across the field toward him, each step firm and deliberate. Maldynado prepared to defend himself, even if it meant ending up compacted into the earth alongside the smashed trees, but Sicarius stopped a pace away.

“Amaranthe would wish the majority of the team to help the emperor,” he said. “That is what we came down here to do.”

The argument surprised Maldynado—Sicarius didn’t have a history of using words to sway people—and he almost caught himself nodding. He turned the head movement into a shake and a scowl. “That was before she got captured. She’d—”

“Want the team to help the emperor,” Sicarius repeated. “I will go after her. I can travel faster on my own.”

Maldynado wanted to deny the statement, but he knew Sicarius spoke the truth. If he gave it his full effort, Sicarius could go farther and faster than anyone.

“I’ll get her,” Sicarius repeated softly. There was a determined intensity to his eyes that Maldynado hadn’t noticed before. He was always so pragmatic and seemed indifferent to feelings and emotions, but that look in his eyes…

“Fine,” Maldynado sighed. “If you promise to do everything possible to find her and not give up.”

Sespian cleared his throat. “While it’s nice that you two are in agreement, I never said I’d take any of your people with me. The security and continuation of the empire as we know it is at stake. I’m not willing to bring untested mercenaries along.”

“Untested?” Maldynado touched his chest. “Untested? I’ve been tested by swords, rifles, bows, giant krakens, man-eating makarovi, and don’t forget all the man-slaying machines powered by wizard magic. That’s just in the last six months.”

Sicarius and Sespian were eying each other and ignoring Maldynado. Nothing new there.

“You promised payment,” Sicarius said.

“What?” Sespian asked.

“In your note. You promised payment for your kidnapping. You said the money is in Sunders City.”

“Corporal Lokdon said she’s not interested in payment.”

“She’s not here,” Sicarius said, his tone hard.

If Maldynado hadn’t known him—and known money was even less likely to sway him than an eyelash-batting from a girl—he would have believed Sicarius wanted the coin.

“I see,” Sespian said, his jaw tight. “Very well.”

Maldynado wondered if Sicarius had chosen the best method for ensuring the team got to accompany Sespian. Wouldn’t they be better served by Sespian believing they were in this for altruistic reasons? Or at least reasons that weren’t as shallow as craving coin?

Sicarius pulled out his black knife and strode toward Sespian. The young man tensed but stood his ground.

Seeing them face-to-face gave Maldynado a start. For one thing, he hadn’t realized they were the same height. Sicarius always seemed taller than his six feet while Sespian, lacking the ever-present glare and body full of lean ropy muscle, seemed smaller. What really struck him though was the similarity of the determined, mulish expressions they each sported. Huh.

Sicarius flipped the knife and extended it, hilt first, to Sespian.

“What do I do with that?” Sespian looked at it, as if he thought he was supposed to examine it for some secret about the otherworldly technology.

“Take it,” Sicarius said.

Sespian grasped the hilt, though he simply held it out, brow furrowed in askance.

“I have often found its properties useful,” Sicarius said. “You may find the same.”

Standing a few feet away, Maldynado could only gape. Sicarius was giving up his knife? His favorite knife? He didn’t even let Amaranthe use that.

If Sespian knew the magnitude of the gift he’d been given, he didn’t show it. In fact, he continued to hold it out, as if he were thinking of rejecting the gift.

Sicarius spoke again without giving him a chance. “Maldynado and the others will accompany you to pick up the money. I’ve delayed long enough.” He glanced toward the southern sky again, then started past Maldynado, apparently intending to head off in that direction immediately. He didn’t even have any supplies beyond the knives he wore and whatever was in his rucksack.

Sicarius halted beside Maldynado long enough to say, for his ears alone, “Make yourself indispensable, so he chooses to keep the team around. If I return with Lokdon and find you’ve lost the emperor…” Sicarius’s eyes had never been fuller of threat when he said, “Don’t lose him.”

* * *

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