Steampunk Romance: Balanced on the Blade’s Edge
I’ve been accused (fondly, I think!) of writing character-driven fantasy adventures with “romantic elements” rather than anything that would truly fall into the romance genre. This is possibly true, since I’m not big on too much ooey gooey stuff or on graphic details when it comes to sex, but, when last I checked, The Princess Bride comes up under Romance > Fantasy over on Amazon, so I think an adventure with a sweet love story in it can still qualify as romance.
On that note, I’m going to call Balanced at the Blade’s Edge a steampunk romance (there is more focus on the love story than in most of my other novels, and it’s not entirely “sweet” as the characters do more than smooch in this one *conspiratorial wink*).
If you think you might like to try this novel (it’s not related to any of my other worlds), then I invite you to check out the blurb and first couple of chapters below. Thanks for taking a look!
Balanced on the Blade’s Edge Blurb:
Colonel Ridge Zirkander isn’t the model of military professionalism—he has a tendency to say exactly what’s on his mind, and his record has enough demerits to wallpaper the hull of an airship—but as the best fighter pilot in the Iskandian army, he’s used to a little leniency from his superiors. Until he punches the wrong diplomat in the nose and finds himself issued new orders: take command of a remote prison mine in the inhospitable Ice Blades Mountains. Ridge has never been in charge of anything larger than a flier squadron—what’s he supposed to do with a frozen fortress full of murderers and rapists? Not to mention the strange woman who shows up right before he arrives…
Sardelle Terushan wakes from three hundred years in a mage stasis shelter, only to realize that she is the last of the Referatu, the sorcerers who once helped protect Iskandia from conquerors. Their subterranean mountain community was blown up in a treacherous sneak attack by soldiers who feared their power. Everyone Sardelle ever knew is dead, and the sentient soulblade she has been bonded to since her youth is buried in the core of the mountain. Further, what remains of her home has been infested by bloodthirsty miners commanded by the descendants of the very soldiers who destroyed her people.
Sardelle needs help to reach her soulblade—her only link to her past and her last friend in the world. Her only hope is to pretend she’s one of the prisoners while trying to gain the commander’s trust. But lying isn’t her specialty, especially when the world has changed so much in the intervening centuries, and if Colonel Zirkander figures out who she truly is, he’ll be duty-bound to sentence her to the only acceptable punishment for sorcerers: death.
Colonel Ridge Zirkander had walked the hall to General Ort’s office so many times he suspected his boots were responsible for the threadbare state of the drab gray carpet runner. The two privates standing guard on either side of the door were too well trained to exchange knowing smirks, but that didn’t mean gossip of this meeting wouldn’t be all over the citadel by noon. It wouldn’t be the first time. Fortunately, uniforms only held awards and not demerits.
“Morning, gents.” Ridge stopped before the door. He eyed the privates’ rifles—they had the new lever-action repeating models—but neither man looked like he had been given orders to keep visitors out. Too bad. “How’s the general’s mood today?”
“That applies to most days, doesn’t it?” He didn’t expect an answer—privates weren’t encouraged to chat about officers after all, at least not where said officers might overhear—but the younger one grinned and responded.
“A week ago last Thursday, it elevated to agitated, sir.”
“Glad I was in the air that day then.” Ridge thumped the fellow on the shoulder and reached for the doorknob.
The private’s grin widened. “We heard about the battle cruiser, sir. That was marvelous. I wish I could have seen it.”
“Taking down the supply ship was more of a victory for us, but I suppose that didn’t come with the added excitement of being shot at by cannons.”
“I’d love to hear about it, sir.” The private’s eyes gleamed with hope.
“Might be at Rutty’s later,” Ridge said, “if the general doesn’t send me down to the kitchen to chop vegetables with the recruits.”
He walked in without knocking. Mounds of paperwork were heaped on General Ort’s desk, but the man was gazing out the window overlooking the harbor, his weathered hands clasped behind his back. Merchant, fishing, and military vessels sailed to and from the docks, but, as always, Ridge’s eye was drawn to the dragon fliers lined up on the butte on the southern end. Their sleek bronze hulls, propellers, and guns gleamed under the morning sun, beckoning him to return. His squadron was out there, overseeing maintenance and repairs, and waiting for him to bring them news. He hoped this ego-trouncing session would also include the delivery of new orders.
When the general didn’t turn around right away, Ridge flopped into a plush leather chair in front of the desk, flinging his leg over the armrest.
“Morning, General. I got your message. What can I do for you this fine day?” Ridge nodded toward the blue sky above the harbor, a sky clear of enemy airships as well as clouds.
Ort turned, his customary scowl deepening as he waved at Ridge’s dangling boot. “No, no, have a seat. I insist.”
“Thank you, General. These chairs do lend themselves to lounging in comfort.” Ridge patted the soft leather. “If anyone ever succeeds in foisting an office on me, I hope it’ll be furnished just as finely.”
“Seven gods, Ridge. Every time you see me, I wonder anew how you got so many bars on your collar.”
“It’s a mystery to me as well, sir.”
Ort pushed a hand through his short gray hair, sat down, and pulled out a folder. Ridge’s folder, though he had to have it memorized by now, all of its three inches of thickness. “You’re forty years old, Colonel. Are you ever going to grow up?”
“I’ve been told it’s more likely I’ll be shot down first.”
Ort folded his dropped hands across the folder without opening it. “Tell me what happened.”
“In regard to what, sir?” Ridge asked. He knew perfectly well, but he had long ago learned not to volunteer information that might incriminate him.
“You don’t know?” Ort’s ever-present scowl deepened until the corners of his mouth were in danger of falling off his chin.
“Well, my squad’s been on the ground four days. Could be a lot of things.”
“According to my report, you broke Diplomat Serenson’s nose, bruised his ribs, and threatened to rip off his penis. Any of that sound familiar?”
“Oh,” Ridge said, nodding. “Yes, it does. Although, I believe it was his flesh pole I threatened to rip off. There were ladies present, and some find anatomically correct terms too blunt for polite company.”
The general’s jaw ground back and forth several times before he managed a response. “Explain.”
“That slimy turf kisser had cornered Lieutenant Ahn and was groping her and trying to usher her outside. She was about to slam a fist into his face herself, but I stepped in, figuring she might not appreciate your plush leather chairs the way I do.” Actually, his ace lieutenant, who had nearly as many kills on the side of her flier as he did this year, had been wearing the most conflicted expression, like she might have actually let Serenson drag her outside and paw her up, since he was such an important delegate. To the hells with that—nobody’s uniform required that kind of sacrifice.
“Breyatah’s Breath, Ridge, couldn’t you have defended your officer without starting an international incident?”
Possibly, but he wouldn’t have found it nearly as satisfying. Besides… “International incident? We’re already at war with the Cofah, and this was just a reminder of why we broke away from their rule in the first place. They think they can have anything they want. Well, they can’t. Not my country, and not one of my people.”
Ort sighed and leaned back in his chair. “It’s… good to know you care beneath all your irrepressible impudence, but the king was at my throat like an attack dog this morning. This is serious, Ridge. Serenson wants you sent to Magroth.”
Ridge snorted. His crime hadn’t been that severe. Only convicts went to the Magroth Crystal Mines, convicts who would have otherwise been marched out to the firing squad. Very few thought the sentence of life in the mines with no chance of parole was an improvement.
The general pulled a sheet of paper out of the top of Ridge’s file and laid it on the desk. “You leave in the morning.”
“I—what?” For the first time, real unease settled into the pit of his stomach. He had left his blessed dragon figurine dangling in the cockpit of his flier, but maybe he should have brought it along, or at least rubbed its belly for luck that morning… “That’s not very damned funny, sir.”
The general’s humorless gray eyes bored into Ridge like overzealous drills. “The king agrees.”
The king? The king wouldn’t send him to his death. He was too valuable to the war effort. Ridge started to shake his head, but halted, realization coming as his gaze dropped to the typed sheet of paper. Orders. They weren’t sending him as a criminal, but as an officer. A contingent of men guarded the secret mines, the location known only to those high up in command—and those who had been stationed there.
“You want me to guard miners, sir? That’s… the infantry’s job and one for a bunch of enlisted men.” Sure, there had to be a few officers there to run administration, but there couldn’t possibly be a posting for a colonel. “Or are you demoting me along with this… reassignment?” Ridge almost gagged on the last word. Reassigned! Him? All he knew how to do was fly and shoot; that’s all he had done since graduating from flight school. He was only vaguely aware of the location of the mines, but knew they were in the mountains, hundreds of miles from the coast, from the front lines.
“Demotion? No, not a demotion. Read the orders, Ridge.” Ort smiled for the first time in the meeting, the kind of smile a bully wears after pummeling some scrawny kid on the brisk-ball court. “The king and I talked about this at great length this morning.”
Ridge picked up the sheet and skimmed. Yes, a reassignment. To the position… He lowered the sheet. “Fortress commander?”
“I believe that’s what it says, yes.” Ort was still smiling. Ridge preferred his scowl.
“That’s… that’s a position for a general.” Or at least someone with experience leading battalions of troops, not to mention the administration background a man should have. All Ridge had commanded were squadrons of smart, cocky officers not unlike him. What was he supposed to do with a bunch of infantry soldiers? Not to mention the gods knew how many murdering prisoners that roamed the tunnels?
“In times of war, it’s not uncommon for less experienced officers to be forced to work in positions above their pay grade.”
“What happened to the current commander?” Ridge muttered, imagining some poor general with a miner’s pickaxe driven into his forehead.
“General Bockenhaimer is due to retire this winter. He’ll be extremely grateful to be relieved early.”
Ridge stared down at the orders, his eyes blurring. He barely managed to check the date. A one-year assignment. Who would command his team while he was gone? Who would pilot his flier? He had always thought… he had been led to assume—no, people had told him, damn it—he was indispensable out there. The war wasn’t over—if anything, this year had seen more fighting than any of the previous four. How could they send him off to some remote gods-forgotten outpost in the mountains?
“I know this is hard for you to stomach, Ridge, but I actually believe it’s for the best.”
Ridge shook his head. It was all he could do. For once, he had no words, no quip with which to respond.
“You’re an amazing pilot, Ridge. You know that. Everyone knows that. But there’s more to being an officer than shooting things. This will force you to mature as a soldier and as a man.” Ort hitched a shoulder. “Or it’ll kill you.”
Ort waved a hand. “You have your orders. Dismissed.”
Ridge left the chair, giving it and the harbor out the window a long look before he headed for the door. Grounded. For a year. How was he going to survive?
“Oh, and Colonel?” the general said as Ridge walked for the door.
Ridge paused, hoping this had all been a joke designed to teach him a lesson. “Yes?”
“Pack warm clothes. Autumn is just about over in the mountains.” The general’s smile returned. “And Magroth is at twelve thousand feet.”
A lesson, indeed.
* * *
Sardelle woke with a start, her heart pounding out of her chest. Nothing except blackness surrounded her. Scrapes and scuffs reached her ears, and memories rushed over her: the sounds of the explosion, being ordered to the safety chamber, climbing into one of the mage shelters and activating it, then gasping in terror as the rock crashed down all around her, obliterating her world.
She patted around, feeling for the smooth walls of the sphere, but they had disappeared. Only rough, cold rock met her probing fingers. The scrapes were getting louder. Her colleagues coming to help? But they would burn away the rock or move it by magical means, not scrape through it with pickaxes, wouldn’t they? Maybe the sorcerers of the Circle were too busy fighting back their attackers and had sent mundane workers.
The telepathic query filled her mind with relief. Jaxi. Had her soulblade been buried in the rock somewhere as well? There hadn’t been time to run and grab the sword when the mountain had started quaking.
Thank the gods. You’ve been hibernating for so long. You can’t believe how lonely it’s been. There’s a limit to how many conversations you can start with rocks.
I assume that means you’re buried too. The soft scrapes were getting closer, and a pinprick of light pierced the darkness a few feet away.
Deeper than you. You left me in the basement training rooms, remember?
Of course I remember. That was just this morning. As I recall, you were enjoying having that handsome young apprentice oil your blade.
Sardelle waited, expecting a retort, but a long silence filled her mind—and the pinprick of light grew larger. When Jaxi finally responded, it was a soft, Sardelle?
It wasn’t this morning.
Three hundred years ago.
She snorted. That’s funny, Jaxi. Very funny. How long has it really been?
Those army sappers were utterly effective in collapsing the mountain. They were shielded somehow, and our people didn’t sense them. For that… we died. En masse. The mage shelter saved your life, but it was programmed not to take you out of stasis until favorable conditions returned to the outside. In this case, oxygen and a way for a human being to escape without being crushed.
That part, Sardelle believed. She remembered Jetia sending out the telepathic announcement—more of a mental shriek of fear—about the sappers seconds before the explosions had gone off, before the rocks had started crumbling. But… three hundred years?
If it makes you feel better, I’ve been conscious for all of those years, watching this mountain and hoping someone with mage powers would wander by, so I could call out for the person to retrieve me. I did manage to mind link with a couple of shepherds and prospectors, but they found my presence in their heads alarming, if you can imagine that. They ran off the mountain shrieking. Little matter. I estimate I’m under a thousand meters of solid rock. There would be no way for a mundane to reach me. Even you… I would appreciate it if you would find a way to get me out, but moving that much rock would be too much for you without me.
Is that so? Sardelle managed to lace the thought with indignation, though it was more a habitual reaction to Jaxi’s teasing than a true objection. And this had to be teasing. Unlike with most sorcerers, who preserved their souls after they had lived many decades, Jaxi had died young of a rare disease, choosing to infuse her essence in the soulblade before passing. Despite having had several wielders and existing in the sword for hundreds of years, Jaxi retained her teenage sense of humor, often playing pranks on Sardelle.
Not this time, my friend.
You’ll see in a moment. You better pay attention to your surroundings. The world has changed. Our people were destroyed, and those who remain fear anything that smells of magic. A while back, at the base of the mountain, I saw a girl who had been accused of being a witch weighted down with stones and drowned in a lake. Do not use your powers where they can be observed.
Sardelle wanted to argue, wanted to catch Jaxi in a lie. Mostly she wanted for everything to be all right, for all of her kith and kin to have survived and for this all to be a joke. The scrapes had continued, and more light—the flickering of candle or perhaps lantern flames—seeped into her niche. Her eyes couldn’t yet tell her who was out there, so she stretched out with her senses… and knew right away the two men clawing at the rock with picks and shovels were strangers. Though she was often off on missions, she knew all the sorcerers and mundanes who worked in Galmok Mountain, the seat of culture, government, and teaching for those with the gift.
Voices reached Sardelle’s ears, rough and slightly accented.
“… see something, Tace?”
“Not sure. Maybe a room? There’s a gap in the rocks up here.”
“Maybe there’s a crystal.” Rock shifted, pebbles raining down a slope. “That would be cracking—they haven’t found one all year. We’ll get a pint if we bring one up. The general might even invite us for dinner.”
They shared chortles at that notion.
Some of the words and pronunciation have changed over the generations, but you’re fortunate the language is the same. You’ll be able to communicate with them without entering their minds. Jaxi was silent for a moment, but Sardelle sensed the unease through their link. Actually… I’d stay out of their minds altogether if I were you.
Telepathic intrusion without invitation is forbidden except in emergencies, Sardelle thought. The mantra was one of the early ones in the Texts of the Referatu, something Jaxi surely knew as well as she.
If being buried alive in rubble for centuries doesn’t count as an emergency, I’ll cede myself to a doddering geriatric to be used as a cane for the rest of my existence.
Sardelle sighed. I’ll… consider your point.
Finally enough rock fell away that Sardelle could make out the men. Her saviors, whether they knew it or not.
They don’t. This is your opportunity for escape, but you’ll have to be very careful.
I’m not leaving without you.
A lantern lifted to the hole, one that was now more than a foot wide. A moment later, a man’s face came into view, his skin caked with grime, a matted mustache and beard hanging to his chest, his greasy dark hair held back from his eyes by a dusty bandana.
“There’s something in here,” he said to his comrade. “I see cloth, and, er…”
“Greetings,” Sardelle said. “Tace, was it?”
Surprise widened the man’s eyes, and he stumbled out of view. An auspicious beginning.
“What was that?” his comrade asked.
“There’s a girl in there,” Tace blurted.
“You tugging on my shovel? There’s no girls down here.”
“I’m a woman,” Sardelle said, “and I’d be obliged if you dug me the rest of the way out of here.” She glimpsed a tunnel behind the men. She could handle the rock barricade in her own way, but Jaxi’s warning trumpeted in her mind. They fear anything that smells of magic.
“A woman,” Tace whispered. “A woman down here.”
“How’d she get in there?”
“I don’t care.” More rocks fell away as the men worked at them with renewed vigor. “There ain’t no soldiers ’cept back at the cages. They ain’t gonna hear nothing. She can be ours.”
And with those words—and the burst of lust that emanated from Tace like heat from an inferno—Sardelle came to understand Jaxi’s warning.
“What if she’s uglier than your grandma?”
“Don’t care. Last time I tried to get with a girl, that nasty Big Bretta drove me out of the barracks like I was diseased. This is a prayer answered.”
A prayer? What kind of man prayed to what kind of god for a woman to rape? Or maybe the deluded miner thought she would willingly jump into his arms because he had dug her out? No, he wasn’t even thinking that—he was simply consumed with lust like a man digging toward a golden vein. She hadn’t delved into his thoughts—and wasn’t a gifted enough telepath to do so without alerting him anyway—but his emotions were on the surface, so strong she would have had to erect a barrier around herself to keep from sensing them.
More rock fell away. If she stepped to the front of the niche the mage shelter had left when it dissipated, she could have reached the men, had them pull her out, but she hung back, considering her options. Handling a would-be rapist wasn’t a difficult matter if she could use her powers, but dare she? There were only the two men in the tunnel, but she sensed others in a maze of mines that snaked around inside the mountain. She wouldn’t kill these two to keep them from divulging her presence. That was the sort of usage of power that had scared the mundanes into the sneak attack that had brought this mountain down.
Sardelle swam around Tace’s overpowering emotions, trying to get a sense of the second man’s state of mind. Might he be more reasonable? Someone to whom she could appeal? Her hope was squashed by her first brush with him. A darkness hovered about him, and she had the impression of a different sort of lust, of someone who liked to hurt, to cut with knives, to see pain on another’s face. He would kill his comrade Tace as happily as work with him, if he could get away with it, and he would kill her too.
Sardelle drew back, her heart racing from the chilling contact. She snapped up her barriers to repel further brushes with their emotions.
I told you. Jaxi sounded sad rather than triumphant.
Enough rocks had been pulled away that the men could reach her now. They raised their lanterns for a good look. Sardelle stepped into the light, more because she wanted to scout the tunnel—and an escape route—than get closer to either of them. They smelled of sweat and grime, and even someone without the gift could have read the lechery on their faces. They were both large men, men who had been toiling here a long time and who had grown strong because of it. Through accident or design, they were blocking the narrow tunnel.
“It is a girl,” Tace whispered, eyeing her from head to foot.
Sardelle had been dressed for the president’s birthday celebration that morning—not that morning, but a morning hundreds of years in the past, she corrected, for she was gradually coming to believe Jaxi. She wore sandals and a dress fitting for a gala, not for tramping through tunnels. Her black hair hung about her shoulders, instead of being back in the braid she usually wore for work. Her pale green silk dress didn’t show a lot of skin, but it did hug the contours of her body, and she realized the delicate collar had been ripped at some point in her mad race for safety. Both men’s eyes locked onto that pale exposed flesh.
Tace grinned and stepped forward, reaching for her arm. Sardelle sensed Jaxi in the back of her mind, like a panther coiled to spring. The soulblade would attack their minds if she didn’t find a way to defend herself.
Though rushed, Sardelle called upon a simple trick she had learned from a field healer, one she had used before when caught in difficult situations. She gave them rashes.
Their discomfort took a moment to register, and Sardelle feared she would have to use a more direct attack. Tace hauled her out of the rocks, and he pushed her against the cold stone wall, pressing his body against hers. He reached for his belt, but then he paused, a confused expression twisting his face. Behind him, his comrade was leaning on his pick with one hand and scratching his balls with the other.
Sardelle wanted to shrink away from Tace’s hot breath washing her face, but she held her composure and merely raised an eyebrow. His hips shifted and the hand that had been about to unfasten his belt drifted lower, as he too suffered an overpowering itch.
The pickaxe the other man had been holding clanked to the ground, and he twisted and bucked, both of his hands now occupied. Tace’s hands went back to his belt, but not with any intention of dropping his trousers to molest her. He stepped back, alternately scratching and investigating what was happening down there. Both men hobbled to the closest lantern for a better look, their trousers around their ankles.
At first, Sardelle only took a couple of steps, easing away slowly and silently, not wanting them to notice. When they didn’t, she turned her walk into a jog, taking care not to let the sandals slap on the stone floor. She was already wishing she had worn her work leathers to the president’s birthday, huge gala or not. The tunnel was dark and uneven, but her senses guided her, and she didn’t conjure a light. She guessed that any other miners she met down there might be of similar mindsets to those two.
What is this place, Jaxi? Sardelle could handle a couple of dark-souled brutes, but what if… what if this was a representation of what the world had become? Her people’s beautiful community destroyed, to be replaced with this? Her people… Her friends. Had they all died in that demolition? Tedzu, Malik, Yewlith? Her brother? Her parents? Even if they hadn’t, they would have died in the years since. Was she all alone in the world now?
I’m here. For once, there was nothing flippant in Jaxi’s response. She sent a feeling of compassion and support through their link. Sardelle appreciated it and wished it were enough. It wasn’t. She was glad for the empty darkness of the tunnel, for tears were streaking down her cheeks and dripping from her chin.
It’s been a mine for the last fifty years or so, and it’s also a prison, Jaxi explained. As to the world beyond this mountain? I don’t know. I can’t sense that far.
If it was a prison, maybe that meant some sort of sane person was in charge, someone she could talk to about… about what, she wasn’t sure. How would she explain that she had come to be in the prison in the first place? And how could she escape and leave Jaxi buried under tons of rock? For that matter, how could she escape without investigating further and seeing if something remained of her people? Of her friends? Wasn’t it possible that if she had made it to protection, others had too? Jaxi might simply not sense them because they were in the hibernation induced by the shelters.
I’ve checked. Hundreds of times. Trust me, I’ve checked. It’s been a long, boring three centuries. I’ve also read all the books in the very dusty, very seldom-used prison library. If you ever need a summary of the titles, let me know.
Sardelle didn’t appreciate the humor, not then. When I was in the mage shelter, could you tell I was alive?
Sardelle struggled to find logic to refute Jaxi’s certainty as to the others’ passings. She didn’t want to give up her hope. We’re linked. Maybe that was why you could sense me and—
Light appeared ahead, lanterns hanging from nails in wooden supports. The dirt and rock that had been heaped against the walls in the area where the two men had accosted her was cleared here, and iron tracks ran along the ground, with ore carts here and there. More sections of track were stacked along one wall, the route waiting to be extended.
Sardelle slowed down, sensing more people ahead. Soon, the banging of carts and scraping of dirt reached her ears. With lanterns lighting this section, sneaking past miners would be difficult. That Tace had mentioned cages. Some sort of lift or tram system? He had also mentioned a guard. A guard could take her to whoever was in charge.
Someone jogged past an intersection ahead. Sardelle leaned against the wall between two lanterns, hoping the shadows hid her. Maybe she ought to wait in the darkness somewhere until the shift ended. But no, that wasn’t an option. Sooner or later, her two rash victims were going to stop scratching themselves and seek medical attention, and she hadn’t passed any branches in the tunnels.
She crept forward again. The bangs stopped, and it grew silent ahead. Had a lunch break been called? Maybe she would luck out.
Sardelle reached the corner and peeked around it. It wasn’t an intersection, but an open chamber with lanterns hanging from a high ceiling as well as from the walls. Two men stood guard on either side of a metal cage on rails, a mesh door on the front side. The rails, as well as a cable attached to the top disappeared into a shaft angling upward at a diagonal. To the right of Sardelle’s tunnel, at the back of the chamber, a big metal contraption with wheels and pulleys was bolted into the stone floor. A tram system. She had found her way out if she could get past those guards, or should she try talking to them?
Based on their tidy hair cuts, shaven faces, and clean uniforms—gray trousers with silver piping and navy blue jackets—they looked more likely to be reasonable than the thugs, but evil could walk in many guises. And it made her nervous that she didn’t recognize those uniforms. They weren’t the dark greens of the Iskandian Guard, the soldiers she had once worked with to defend the continent. More than that, she didn’t recognize their weapons. Oh, she had seen things like the daggers they had sheathed at their waists and the studded maces on short chains hanging from their utility belts, but they bore firearms as well. Not the clumsy matchlock muskets she was familiar with—weapons many soldiers eschewed in favor of longbows or crossbows—but sleek black weapons the likes of which she had never seen. There was no ramrod attached to the top, nor were the men wearing powder containers, as far as she could see.
They’ve replaced powder and musket balls with bullets that contain the charges within, Jaxi informed her. Each rifle can hold six rounds, and that lever on the bottom is for loading them into the chamber. They can fire rapidly, one shot every half second or so.
Sardelle was fortunate the guards were talking to each other in low voices, and not paying much attention to the tunnels that emptied into the chamber, for she had been staring at them for a long moment. Even without Jaxi’s explanation, the firearms—the rifles—would have told her what she hadn’t wanted to believe. This wasn’t her century anymore.
I know. Sardelle blinked, fighting back tears again. This wasn’t the time. She would find a place to cry for her lost friends—her lost everything—later.
She was on the verge of stepping out of the tunnel, when the guards stopped talking, one halting in the middle of the sentence. They stared down one of the passages, not Sardelle’s. There were men gathering behind a bend down there, but she didn’t think the guards could see them from their position. Were the miners up to something? She thought about warning the guards—maybe that would buy her some appreciation from them—but she was too late.
A boom came, not from the tunnel with the men, but from one to the left of the cage. The ground shivered beneath Sardelle’s feet. Black smoke poured from the passage, while the men who had been gathering down the other tunnel charged from around the bend.
Sardelle opened her mouth to shout a warning, but the guards were already reacting. They stepped back into the mouth of the tram shaft for cover, then, each man facing toward one threat, dropped to one knee, their rifles coming up to aim. Nothing came out of the smoky passage, but the guard facing the advancing men started firing. Sardelle, sensing the bursts of pain as the bullets found targets, had a chilling demonstration of the rapid-fire capabilities of the weapons. Even so, three of the charging men reached the guards, and the skirmish switched to hand-to-hand combat. The brawny miners wielded their pickaxes and shovels with fury and power, but it soon became clear that the soldiers were well trained. They kept the tram cage at their backs, so their attackers couldn’t maneuver behind them, and they swung the maces with precise, compact strokes, deflecting the picks and shovels, then smashing the studded metal heads into ribcages and jaws. The three miners soon lay unmoving on the ground.
Other people had crept toward the chamber from the other tunnels, though nobody had come as close to it as Sardelle had. They seemed curious and hopeful rather than antagonistic. Harmlessly watching the show in case something happened in the miners’ favor? A warning twanged her senses. They weren’t all harmless.
“Look out,” Sardelle called to alert them to a new assailant back in the direction of the smoke, the one who had originally lit the explosive.
A long cylinder with flame dancing at the end of a fuse sailed out of the tunnel, landing in front of the tram. One soldier fired at the man who had thrown it while the other stamped out the spitting fuse, as calmly as if he were grinding out a cigar stub.
All right, so they probably hadn’t needed her warning…
One of the soldiers knelt to check the throats of the unconscious men. The other stared at her—she didn’t try to hide, there being no point since she had given away her position, but she didn’t step fully around the corner yet either. She wanted to see what their reaction to her was first.
“What are you doing down here, woman?”
Not exactly a thank you.
Sardelle was about to respond, but the second guard had taken out a knife and, without so much as a hesitation for a prayer or apology to whatever gods the miners worshipped, slit one of the unconscious man’s throats.
“What are you doing?” Sardelle blurted, even as the soldier shifted to dispatch a second miner. “They’re no threat now. Why kill them?”
The guard wielding the bloody dagger barely glanced at her. The other soldier strode toward her. “You people made your choice when you picked lives of crime, and these idiots made their final choice just now. There’s no leniency here. We’d have to deal with that kind of thing every day if we were lenient.” He jerked a thumb toward the men—toward the bodies, their life’s blood flowing out onto the dark stone. Unlike Tace and his buddy, these miners were thin—too thin—with gaunt faces and hollowed cheekbones. They wouldn’t have been a match for the soldiers under any circumstances.
Belatedly, his words sank in. You people. He thought she was one of them, one of the miners. Sardelle braced herself against the corner, ready to defend herself again if she had to. Would he try to slit her throat, as he had the others?
The soldier hung his mace on his belt and carried the rifle at his side rather than aiming at her, so she let him approach without reacting. She didn’t sense kindly thoughts from him, but she didn’t get the feeling that he meant to hurt her either.
“Come on, woman. You’re not supposed to be down here. You know that.” He gripped her arm and pulled her into the chamber, then frowned at her dress and sandals. “Or don’t you? Did you come in with the prisoners yesterday? Didn’t you get the orientation?”
Orientation, as if this were some educational campus where people were directed how to find their classes and the dormitories… But if it could explain her presence down here, she would go with it. “No. No orientation.”
The second soldier stalked down one of the tunnels, his dagger still in his grip as he went to check on the people they had already shot.
The man gripping her arm shook his head. “This way. Randask, I’m taking this one up to the women’s area. I’ll report this mess to the captain, who can report it to the general, who can sit in his office and drink his vodka and not care a yak’s butt, like usual. You going to be all right down here?”
“Yeah.” The man walked back into the chamber, his dagger awash in blood. Sardelle had a hard time tearing her eyes from it. He walked into the opposite tunnel, though she could sense that the man who had thrown the explosive was dead. “The peepers have gone back to work.”
Yes, the watchers Sardelle had noticed earlier had drifted back down their tunnels. Clangs started up again in the distance. There wouldn’t be another attack for a while. She wondered what had prompted this one.
Desperation, Jaxi suggested. Misery. They have nothing to lose.
I can’t speak for you, but I live in hope that my situation will improve. At the very least, perhaps some new books will be dropped off in the prison library.
“This way.” The guard ushered Sardelle into the cage, then shut and latched the door. He hadn’t let go of her arm yet, as if she would run off and return to those awful tunnels. She suffered the grip, though couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that yesterday—no, three hundred years ago—few men or women would have presumed to touch her without invitation, even some of the military commanders she had worked with for years. It wasn’t so much that she was aloof or in the habit of reprimanding people who did so, but the ungifted had always regarded the gifted with respect—or, in some cases, perhaps more than she had realized, fear and wariness.
The second soldier walked over to the machine and pulled a lever. Clanks sounded, and the cage started moving, being pulled up the rails into darkness. Sardelle twisted her head to squint up the track. A distant light waited, little more than a pinprick. As the cage rose, she could feel herself being pulled farther and farther from Jaxi. Their link was strong enough that they could communicate across a lot of miles—since being joined with the soulblade, she had never been far enough away to truly test their range—but the symbolism made the problem feel more dramatic than it was. Nothing was truly changing, and yet… she felt like she was abandoning her only friend left in the world.
Don’t worry, came the dry response. You wouldn’t be going far.
Right, Jaxi had said this was a prison. Walking out the front door or gate or whatever they had up there wouldn’t be an option. She trusted that she could evade whatever security they had and escape though.
Not unless you’ve learned to fly. The Ice Blades are as high as they ever were, and the road over the pass was destroyed when these people’s ancestors took down half the mountain. Also… the first snows of winter have come.
Oh. But the guard had mentioned new prisoners arriving. How do these people get in and out?
Weather permitting, they fly.
They fly? Sardelle was glad for the darkness, so the soldier wouldn’t see the way her mouth had dropped open.
They have ships that sail the airways, held up by giant balloons, and they also have small, maneuverable mechanical craft designed after the dragons of eld. As I’ve been telling you, the world has changed.
“How’d you get down here, anyway?” the soldier asked, disturbing the images she had been trying to form.
Sardelle shrugged. “Just came down.”
She caught a hint of irritation in that single syllable. A point of pride? Since she had implied she had somehow gotten past him, or perhaps one of his fellow guards? They did seem a competent bunch; she could see where a suggestion of laxness would rankle. So long as he didn’t start thinking of magical reasons she might have slipped past.
The tram seemed to be making decent speed, with a hint of cold fresh air whispering into the cage, but they had only made it halfway up. Sardelle wondered how deep into the mountain their tunnels reached. Maybe there was some way she could convince them to angle toward Jaxi’s resting place. With pickaxes and shovels, it would probably take ages, but… she had to try.
“You mentioned taking me to a women’s area,” Sardelle said, “but I actually need to see the person in charge.” She hoped that wasn’t the vodka-swilling general he had mentioned. “Can you take me to him or her?”
The soldier snorted. “The general doesn’t see prisoners.”
Sardelle stepped out of the cage and stopped so quickly the soldier nearly tripped over her. Icy wind buffeted her, whipping at her dress and raising gooseflesh on her arms. She gaped at the black stone fortress around her, around the tiny valley where merchants had once sold cheese and crops in the summer and where a wide road and bridge had led over the river and to the back gate leading into Galmok Mountain. The Goat Peak River was still there, half iced over as it meandered through the large courtyard within the fortress walls, but there was nothing inviting about it or the valley anymore. The crenellations and cannon-like weapons on the walls were as forbidding as the Ice Blades themselves, the snow covered peaks rising in all four directions around the valley, scraping the sky as they towered another five thousand feet above the already lofty valley. Most of the peaks hadn’t changed, but Galmok… She stared in horror. It looked like a volcano rather than the majestic mountain it had once been, its upper walls slumped inward with a misshapen bowl where the peak had once been.
The soldier shoved her. “Get going, girl.”
Sardelle wrenched her gaze from the view and stumbled down a path that hadn’t been there the last time she had been outside. Just yesterday, her mind wanted to add, though she had accepted by now that it had not been yesterday. Aside from the three centuries that had passed, it had been summer when she had entered Galmok and warm enough for her dress. Now… she wrapped her arms around herself as she picked her route, the trail following the tramline down toward the center of the fortress. There were other holes in the mountain, other tram tracks plunging into the darkness. What were they mining for? Crystal? Hadn’t one of her attackers said that? She couldn’t imagine what sort of crystal they had found in there, though she did recall gold and silver veins in the area. A smelter set up on the far side of the fortress seemed to suggest the likelihood of precious metal mining.
Another push nearly made her stumble. “You act like you haven’t seen this all before. I’ve got a report to put together. Walk faster.” He pointed at a large stone building with laundry hanging on a line, whipping in the breeze as it dried in the meager sun.
“That’s where we’re going?” Even as Sardelle asked, a pair of women strode out of another building and headed for the one with the laundry lines. They wore heavy wool dresses and socks, scarves, hats, and fur jackets as they carried baskets of linens.
“Yes,” the soldier said, drawing out the syllable as if he were talking to an imbecile.
Sardelle sighed and headed in the indicated direction. At least there were women here. She ought to be able to get information from them, one way or another. Maybe, given time, she could figure out a way to arrange a meeting with that general.
She walked over a bridge, but paused at the top, realizing her unfriendly guide had fallen behind. He had stopped to stare into the western sky. A strange flying craft was banking around Bandit Mountain and angling toward the fortress. Flying. She hadn’t quite believed it when Jaxi had mentioned it, but the bronze metallic craft clearly wasn’t a bird. With wings outstretched and something on the tips that resembled talons, it did vaguely resemble a dragon, at least the ones Sardelle had seen illustrated in books, the creatures having been extinct for a thousand years or more now. Some sort of rotating fan buzzed, keeping the contraption aloft.
A propeller, Jaxi said dryly.
Hush, just because you’ve been reading books these past centuries, doesn’t mean I have. What’s powering it?
The soldier muttering to himself distracted Sardelle, and she didn’t hear the answer.
“What’s this about?” the man asked. “Supplies and prisoners came in yesterday… shouldn’t be anything due for two weeks.”
Whatever it is, it could be an escape chance for you.
I’m not leaving without you, Jaxi.
I’m not going to suffocate or die here. You can come back when you can.
The fortress didn’t look like it would be any easier to sneak into than it would be to sneak out of. Besides… where would she go? This was—had been—home.
There is that. A mental sigh accompanied Jaxi’s comment.
The flying contraption banked again. It was circling the valley like an osprey searching for a fish to snatch out of a lake. None of the soldiers on the ramparts were racing for the cannons, so Sardelle assumed it was a friendly aircraft, though everyone was watching it draw closer with curiosity. It angled for the wide, flat roof of the biggest building in the fortress, a two-story structure backing up to one of the walls. A flat roof was a strange choice for mountains that received many feet of snow every year—the other buildings had steeply pitched tops, as one would expect—but as the craft lowered, she realized that particular spot must have been designed for landing, though she couldn’t imagine how it might be done. An osprey might be able to fold its wings in and alight on a perch, but a manmade craft wouldn’t have that ability, surely. It seemed to be designed for going straight ahead, needing those wide banking turns to switch direction. But some sort of thrusters rotated down from the wings, allowing the bronze contraption to slow down without falling out of the sky. Soon it was hovering over the building, and then it lowered, the bottom half disappearing from her sight.
And I thought the rifles were impressive.
Jaxi didn’t respond. Maybe she was investigating the craft.
A few soldiers jogged out of the second story of that big building and headed up the stairs to the roof. Their presence seemed to remind her guard of his duty, for he joined her on the bridge, pointing to the laundry building again.
“Let’s go. We’ll find out soon enough who’s visiting.”
Though curious about the flying machine, Sardelle couldn’t imagine that a visitor would change anything for her, so she walked off without arguing. Maybe the pilot would stay overnight and she might have a chance to examine the craft. It wasn’t her priority though.
A woman walked out of the laundry building as Sardelle and the soldier were walking up. The scent of soap and starch drifted through the doorway. The woman’s figure was almost stout and brawny enough to be a man. She had a basket balanced on a broad hip and started to walk off the path around the pair, but the soldier stopped her with a hand.
“One-forty-three, isn’t it?” he asked.
Sardelle blinked. What?
The number meant something to the woman, for she nodded. “Yeah.”
“Looks like you lost someone.” The soldier pushed Sardelle toward the woman.
“Never seen her before.”
“I think she came in yesterday.”
“Then why wasn’t she here an hour before dawn to report for work, like everyone else?”
“No idea,” the soldier said. “Found her down on the bottom level of the mine.”
The woman gave an exasperated huff and looked Sardelle up and down like she might be a lost toddler. A particularly dumb lost toddler. “Seven gods, girl, you trying to get yourself killed? Or worse?”
What was worse than being killed? Sardelle thought of Tace and his crony and answered her own question.
“What is this?” The woman plucked at Sardelle’s sleeve. “Where are your work clothes? You’ve got to be freezing. What’s your number?”
Feeling lost and bewildered, Sardelle broke her oath as a sorceress and skimmed the surface of the woman’s thoughts. Numbers. People were called by numbers rather than names. She didn’t have to dig deep to find a memory of this woman—Dhasi before she had become One-forty-three—stepping off a supply ship with two other women and two-dozen men and being assigned her number.
“They told me, but I forgot,” Sardelle said. She could have made one up, but what happened if someone already had it? She hugged herself, thinking of sticking her hands under her armpits. What were the odds this conversation could be moved indoors? Her toes were freezing, and the rest of her wasn’t much warmer.
“You forgot.” One-forty-three—Sardelle hated to think of her as a number, but didn’t want to get in trouble for one day calling her by a name that had never been shared—threw up her hands, dropped the basket, and turned for the door. “Wait here. I’ll get the roster and try to figure out where she’s supposed to be.” She stomped back inside. Heat as well as soap odors drifted out, and Sardelle wouldn’t have minded following her.
She glanced at the soldier, wondering if he had been irked by the woman, who was presumably a prisoner, the same as the miners below, giving him an order. The soldier was busy though, eyeing… Sardelle’s chest. She grimaced. Unfortunately, the sunlight showed off the sleek if dusty dress and the curves beneath it all too well, far more effectively than the lanterns in the mines. She had never thought herself a great beauty, but if the beefy laundry lady was representative of the women here, and if the men had as little contact with the outside world as she suspected, she supposed she could see the interest. See it, but not condone it. She watched the soldier through slitted eyes, wondering if another rash breakout would be in order.
Be careful, Jaxi warned. These people might be brutes, but they’re not dumb. And it doesn’t take much for them to start talking of witches.
That girl you mentioned who was thrown in the lake… was she gifted?
If she had been, do you think she would have let herself drown? My understanding from their books is that there are occasionally people born with talent, but that they either get hunted down or learn quickly to hide their… quirks. They don’t receive any training, not like they did in our day, so they rarely develop much more than a sixth sense.
The soldier touched Sardelle’s sleeve, lifting his eyes to meet hers. “You with someone yet, woman?”
“With someone?” They all agreed she had just been pushed off the supply ship the day before. She didn’t have a name-number—or a clue—so how could she be with someone already?
“I’m in room seventy-two in the barracks, second floor.” He nodded toward a building across the square. “Think on it. You’re going to have trouble around here if you’re not someone’s girl.”
To punctuate this point, a woman carrying a basket on her hip walked toward the laundry building, a woman who was quite obviously pregnant, very pregnant. Sardelle stared. She couldn’t imagine having a child in this environment. She hadn’t even seen any children. Was it allowed? Or did they…? She gulped. They wouldn’t kill the babies, would they? They couldn’t be held accountable for the crimes of their parents.
“She wasn’t with someone,” the soldier said after the pregnant woman had passed them and gone inside. “Heard it was rough on her.”
“You people didn’t think to stop it?”
The soldier shrugged. “Lot more of you all than there are of us. We can’t be everywhere.” That shrug said he didn’t care very much about the fact either. “Better to be with a soldier. The prisoners usually don’t bother you much if you are.”
“I’ll think about it,” Sardelle managed to say rather than punching him. Although, at least with a punch, she wouldn’t have to worry about anyone accusing her of witchcraft.
“Good.” He smiled and repeated, “Room seventy-two. Tell the night guard you’re here to see me, Rolff, and they’ll let you in.”
“This sort of thing is common, is it?”
For soldiers in the Iskandian Guard, there had been a regulation against molesting prisoners, but she had no idea what was permitted here, or even whose army she was dealing with. Most of those she had seen so far had the pale skin and brown to black hair of the natives of the Iskandian continent, but that didn’t mean governments hadn’t come and gone over the centuries.
The soldier looked away, shrugged, then looked back. “Nobody cares here.”
Ah, so there was a regulation. It just wasn’t being enforced. Well, that knowledge didn’t help her much.
“I’d be doing you a favor,” he said. “Trust me.”
Sure, he just wanted to help her. How considerate.
He stepped closer, laying his hand on her arm. “I’m not so bad, promise. You’ll think about it? You said that, right?”
Might want to take him up on the offer.
What? He’s not so bad looking, and he was a good fighter. Bet he’s all muscle under that uniform.
This is what I get for agreeing to link with a teenaged soul, one who never got past her horny period before channeling herself into our sword. “Yes,” she told the soldier, who was now stroking her arm. “I said that.”
Where was that laundry lady anyway? She spotted a pair of uniformed men descending the stairs from the building and walking in their direction. Good, a distraction.
“There’s your guest,” Sardelle said, nodding toward the men, hoping Rolff would stop fondling her arm if an officer was walking past. Of course, she could only hope the newcomers were officers. With the soldiers wearing fur parkas in addition to their uniform jackets, she couldn’t see insignia, not that she could have deciphered it anyway.
Her soldier stepped back from her at the men’s approach though, dropping his arm, no, jerking it behind his back. “I can’t believe it,” he whispered. “Do you know who that is?”
Please, she didn’t know who anyone was. “No.”
He gaped at her, but only for a second before focusing on the two men again. “That’s Colonel Ridgewalker Zirkander.”
Ridgewalker? How cocky. Maybe he had given the name to himself.
“What’s he doing here?” the soldier breathed, his voice scarcely more than a whisper as the two visitors drew nearer. The younger of the pair, one who kept trying to get the other to let him carry the duffle bag slung over his shoulder, was talking and pointing toward a building past the laundry facility, but the path would take them by Sardelle and Rolff—with six inches of snow in the courtyard, the cleared sidewalks were the only logical options. Good. She hoped one of them would ask what Rolff was doing away from his post, which might result in him leaving her alone. Didn’t he have some dead miners to report, anyway?
As they walked, the colonel had his head bent toward the younger man, listening to whatever information he was being given. He commented on something and grinned. The young soldier or maybe officer—he had a more academic look about him than the sturdy Rolff—blinked in surprise, then rushed to nod and smile back, though he didn’t seem to know if that was quite the right response. Smiles and humor probably weren’t commonplace around here. The young officer looked to be in his twenties and had the earnest eager-to-please face of a dog hoping for a treat. The colonel was closer to Sardelle’s age, probably older, though there wasn’t any gray in what she could see of his short brown hair—a fur cap canted at a roguish angle that she doubted was regulation hid most of it. He was on the tall side with a lean athletic build the parka didn’t quite hide. He had a handsome face, a scar on his chin notwithstanding, and dark brown eyes that glinted with humor to match the grin that hadn’t entirely faded.
Maybe you can get his room number.
What? He’s closer to your age than this puppy. Or are you holding out for the general? He doesn’t sound promising.
Before Sardelle could give Jaxi a mental slap on the cheek, the colonel glanced in her direction. The glance became a second look, a startled one. For a moment, she thought he might recognize her somehow—her name and face were—had been—well known, at least among the soldiers she had assisted. For all she knew, she was in a book somewhere. But no, that didn’t seem to be recognition on his face, just surprise.
He frowned at Rolff who came into an attention stance so alert and erect that he was quivering. He snapped his fist up for a salute.
“Corporal, why is this woman standing outside in so little clothing?” the colonel asked. “It’s twenty degrees out.”
Sardelle almost felt sorry for Rolff, no doubt groping for a way to explain her unexpected presence. Almost.
After a few more stutters, he settled on, “She’s a prisoner, sir!”
The humor that had warmed the colonel’s brown eyes earlier had evaporated. “How does that answer my question?” His frown shifted to the young officer at his side, who lifted his hands defensively.
“I’ve never seen her before, sir.”
“We found her in the mines,” Rolff said. “She wasn’t even supposed to be there. The women work up here.” Rolff flung a hand toward the laundry room—the door had opened, and the laundry lady stood there. She couldn’t have heard more than the last couple of sentences, but she caught the gist and waved her clipboard.
“I got two new girls yesterday and no word about a third.”
Sardelle thought about saying something, but she didn’t have a cover story worked out that could explain the confusion around her appearance. She was starting to worry that between everyone’s babbling, someone would figure out she hadn’t come off that supply ship yesterday, but the colonel had a distasteful look on his face at what, coming in new, he must judge as incompetence. Sardelle raised a single eyebrow—the winter she had come home to teach, that expression had made her students stammer with the certainty that they had done something wrong.
The colonel didn’t stammer, but he did look exasperated. He dropped his duffle bag, unbuttoned his parka, and handed it to her.
“Corporal, get this woman some appropriate clothing. Captain, I want her report on my desk within the hour.” He grabbed his duffle bag and hefted it over his shoulder again. “I’ll find my office on my own.”
“But, but, sir!” The captain took a step after him, then paused, turned toward Sardelle, and held out a beseeching hand. “I don’t know her number, sir!”
“Not my problem,” the colonel called back. He muttered something else that sounded like, “What’s a damned number?” but Sardelle couldn’t be sure of the words.
Grateful for the parka, she tugged it on. Her teeth were starting to chatter. It was still warm inside, with a clean, masculine scent permeating the lining. After standing out in the cold, it was all she could do not to start snuggling with the fur.
Corporal Rolff scratched his head. “Colonel Zirkander has a desk here?”
“He does now,” the captain said.
“He’s relieving General Bockenhaimer as fort commander.”
Rolff mouthed another why but didn’t voice it. Whatever Zirkander was known for, it apparently wasn’t commanding forts. At first, Sardelle found this new situation promising—unlike everyone else she had met here, the man seemed to have a conscience—but when the captain jogged off to look for a report that didn’t exist, reality batted her relief away. This new colonel already sounded like he was going to be more efficient than the old general. Before, she might have wriggled through a crack, but now? How was she going to explain her presence? And if she couldn’t, what then? Would they assume her some kind of spy? Even in her day, spies had been shot. She had better start talking to people and come up with a plausible story, because she had a feeling she would be called into that office before the day was out.
* * *
A dusty directory that hadn’t been updated since the last general was commander led Ridge to an administration building, where he headed to the second floor, searching for Bockenhaimer’s office. The roar of engines started up on the other side of the fort. The pilot must expect it wouldn’t take the general long to pack and catch his ride out of this place. Ridge paused at a window to gaze out, the lump that had been in his throat the whole ride out returning as he watched the man go through his safety check.
“It’s just a year,” he told himself. “A year in the deepest level of hell,” he added, his eyes drawn to the forbidding mountains fencing in the fortress on all sides.
He had only spoken to five people thus far, and he could already tell the place was a mess. Did he have it in him to fix that mess? Just because he had returned from enough successful missions to get promoted regularly didn’t mean he had the experience for this kind of job. He had already made an idiot of himself, gawking at that woman in the courtyard. He supposed women could be murderers the same as men, but he hadn’t expected to find any here, and certainly not one he would have ambled up to in a bar and bought a drink. Admittedly, she didn’t seem the bar type. Too calm. Too serene. Those pale blue eyes… they had been attractive, yes, especially in contrast to that raven hair, but they had seemed far too elegant for the dives he frequented. Not that that would have kept him from buying her that drink if she had shown up in one.
“Yeah, Ridge. Drool over the prisoners here. That’ll look good on your report.” He shook his head and resumed his climb.
A lieutenant carrying a stack of papers was coming out of a doorway, and judging by the quizzical expression on his face, he had heard Ridge talking to himself. Wonderful.
“The general’s office?” he asked.
“End of the hall, sir.” The lieutenant pointed, then glanced at a clock on the wall. “Though… I don’t know if he’ll be, uhm.”
“Oh, he’s in.” The lieutenant looked like he wanted to say more, but shut his mouth and repeated, “End of the hall, sir.”
Ridge dropped his duffle bag by the door, knocked, and smoothed his uniform. He told himself he didn’t particularly care what some retiring general thought of him, but foresaw being reprimanded for the missing parka. At this time of year, it had to be part of the official uniform up here. The cold seemed to bite right through the wooden walls of the building and creep up from the floor. For the second time, he wondered what judge had convicted that woman and sent her up here in a summer dress.
A long moment had passed, so he knocked again. He shrugged and opened the door. The snores met his ears at the same time as the scent of alcohol and stale vomit met his nose. Well, that explained some things.
The white-haired man leaning back in his chair, his head on the rest, his boots up on his desk, didn’t look like he would have been awake—or sober—even if Ridge had arrived at dawn. A tipped over metal flask rested beside the boots, and several glass vodka bottles occupied the waste bin. A couple of suspicious stains in the corner implied the floor had been vomited on a few times—and poorly cleaned after the fact. In fact, a clean circle next to a potted tree made him think someone had simply pushed the stand over to cover up one such recent mess.
Ridge cleared his throat. “General?”
Only snores answered him.
Ridge walked around the desk, said, “General?” again, and gently shook the man’s shoulder.
Bockenhaimer lurched upright, eyes leaping open as he tore a pistol from his belt. Ridge caught his wrist before he could aim it anywhere vital.
“General Bockenhaimer? I’m your replacement.”
The general was scowling down at Ridge’s grip, looking like he was still contemplating shooting this intruder, if he could only figure out how, but his bloodshot eyes lurched toward Ridge when the words sank in. “Replacement?” he whispered.
“Colonel Zirkander, sir.” Ridge pulled out his orders and the general’s discharge papers, unfolded them with one hand—that pistol was loaded and cocked, so he wasn’t quite ready to release his grip on the general’s wrist—and laid them on the desk. “Your retirement went through a couple of months early. I’m your replacement.”
“Zirkander, the pilot?” The general’s grip finally relaxed. He moved to return the pistol to his holster, and Ridge let him.
“Yes, sir.” He waited for Bockenhaimer to point out that neither pilots nor colonels had the experience necessary to command army installations, but the general merely leaned forward to squint at the papers. “Retirement?” He leaned closer, a delighted smile stretching his lips. “Retirement!”
Ridge resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He wondered if the general had been a drunk before they shipped him out here—could this place have been a punishment for him as well?—or if commanding a remote prison full of felons had driven him to drink.
“Yes, sir,” Ridge said. “If you could tell me about the S.O.P. here and give me a few—”
Bockenhaimer jumped to his feet, wobbled—Ridge caught him and held him upright despite being surprised—and lunged for the window. “Is that my flier? I can leave today?”
“Yes, sir. But I’d appreciate it if you—”
The general threw open the window and waved to the pilot. “Wait for me, son. I’m already packed!”
Oddly, the wobbling didn’t slow Bockenhaimer down much when he ran around the desk and out the door. Ridge’s mouth was still hanging open when the general appeared in the courtyard below, a bag tucked under his arm as he raced along the cleared sidewalks.
“That’s… not exactly how the change-of-command ceremonies I’ve seen usually go.” Ridge hadn’t been expecting a parade and a marching band, not in this remote hole, but a briefing would have been nice.
He removed his fur cap and pushed a hand through his hair, surveying his new office. He wondered how long it would take to get rid of the alcohol odor. He also wondered how long that poor potted plant in the corner had been dead. Hadn’t that young captain been the general’s aide? He couldn’t have had some private come in to make sure the place was cleaned? Maybe the staff was too busy guarding the prisoners, and the officers had to wield their own brooms here.
Ridge was looking for the fort’s operations manuals when a knock came at the door.
“Sir?” Captain Heriton, the officer who had met him at the flier, leaned in, an apprehensive look on his face. His pale hair and pimples made him look about fifteen instead of the twenty-five or more he must be.
“It’s about that woman… she said she was dropped off yesterday—we got a big load of new convicts—and that she doesn’t remember the number she was issued.”
“Yes, sir. The prisoners are issued numbers instead of being called by name. Keeps down the in-fighting. Some of them are prisoners of war and pirates, and there are a few former soldiers, and some of those clansmen from up in the north hills. It’s easier if they start out with new identities here. The general didn’t brief you?” The captain glanced toward the window—the flier had already taken off. “I guess he did leave abruptly.”
“Abruptly, yes, that’s a word.” Not the word Ridge would have used, but he couldn’t bring himself to badmouth the general yet, not until he had spent a couple of weeks here and gotten a true feel for where he had landed. “You don’t happen to know where the operations manuals are, do you?”
“They should be in here somewhere, sir.” The captain started to lean back into the hall.
“The woman’s report, Captain,” Ridge said dryly. He knew the man hadn’t found it, but wasn’t ready to let some prisoner wander around without being sorted or collated or whatever it was that was supposed to happen here.
“Er, yes, sir. I’m not sure where to look.”
“How about under her name? I imagine she could supply you with that.”
“She did, sir. And I tried looking, but her folder wasn’t with the batch of files that came in yesterday.”
“Perhaps already placed alphabetically?” Ridge suggested. This kid never would have made it onto his squad. Even when he wasn’t speaking, his eyes darted around nervously. Waffly. Was that a word? He wasn’t sure. Maybe he would have the kid look it up after he found the missing report.
“Uhm, the archive rooms are not exactly alphabetically categorized. They’re more… well, the system was already in place when I arrived.”
Ridge stood up. “Show me.”
The captain’s eyebrows rose. Ridge had a feeling the general had never asked to see the archives. He also had a feeling prisoners with missing files weren’t all that common.
“Yes, sir. This way.”
Ridge followed the slender officer down two flights of stairs to an icy basement that had him wishing someone would have brought his parka back. Cobwebs draped old wooden filing cabinets along with newer metal ones. Dust-caked folders sat atop a lot of the cabinets, either left for later storage or taken out and not returned. A few tables in the middle held boxes with more files. If Ridge hadn’t known better, based on the dust collection and the number of cabinets, he would have guessed the prison camp to be hundreds of years old. If all of those storage units were full of records, this place had to be going through people at an alarming rate. There weren’t that many barracks buildings up there, and while rummaging for the manuals, Ridge had uncovered the most recent supply receipts. Food and gear was being brought in for seven hundred and ten prisoners and one hundred soldiers. There had to be thousands of files smothered in the dust before him.
“Yes, sir?” The wariness in the young man’s voice wasn’t heartening, but Ridge pressed on anyway.
“My job is to get this fort running smoothly this winter and increase output.” Actually his orders said very little about his “job,” but as a pilot, he knew how crucial the crystals buried in this mountain were. He wouldn’t sit on his butt here for the next year and drink himself into a stupor while lackadaisical work went on—or didn’t—in the tunnels below. “Can you guess what your job is going to be this winter?”
“Sir?” More wariness.
Ridge smiled and thumped the man on the back to try and take some of the sting out of his next words. “Organizing this room. Alphabetically. With the people who are still here in those cabinets and the deceased or departed there.” Did any of them ever “depart,” he wondered? From what he had heard, this was an assignment of life without possibility of parole.
The captain’s narrow shoulders slumped. “Yes, sir.”
“You can recruit helpers.”
Those shoulders slumped further. “No, I can’t, sir. All the men are needed to guard the prisoners. That’s why this building is so lightly staffed. Most of those offices upstairs are empty. There are only a few of us running operations, and that’s why there’s never time for… projects.” He glanced at Ridge, then straightened. “But I’ll find time, sir.”
“Good. I’ll be looking into the mines and figuring out if something can be done to ease the burden there as well. Am I right in that most of the problem is the miners trying to kill our people and escape?”
“Yes, sir. Mostly in the spring and summer, since there’s no place to go in the winter, but some of them just lose their brains and go crazy and attack.”
“I’ll see what can be done,” Ridge repeated.
The captain gave him a curious, almost hopeful look, and saluted.
Maybe Ridge shouldn’t have promised anything. Who did he think he was that he could change such a system for the better? Well, surely he couldn’t do any worse than Bockenhaimer had done.
“Yes, sir,” the captain said. “I’ll get started on this today.”
“Send that woman to my office first. I’ll fill out a temporary report for her until you find the one that came in.”
“Oh, I can do that, sir. There’s no need for you to waste your time on a prisoner.”
“You are going to be busy in here.” Ridge smiled and spread a hand toward the basement.
“Er, yes, sir.” To his credit, the captain’s shoulders didn’t slump this time.
Ridge headed up the stairs, glad the captain hadn’t protested further, telling him that interviewing prisoners was too menial a task for the fort commander. It was, he admitted, the sort of thing some young lieutenant could and should do. So why was he volunteering for it?
“Just want to make sure I get my parka back,” he muttered.
Sardelle walked up the stairs in the administration building, Corporal Rolff clomping behind her, his boots ringing on the wooden floors. She felt less uncomfortable walking in front of him now that she was wearing a heavy ankle-length wool dress, boots, cap, and scruffier version of the colonel’s parka—it seemed to be the official women’s uniform here. Even without the shield of less revealing clothing, Rolff hadn’t made any more mentions of his room number, not since the colonel’s appearance.
“That’s the general’s, er, colonel’s door.” Rolff pointed past her to the end of the hall.
Sardelle had already rehearsed her story, so all she could do was keep walking and take a deep breath, trying to calm her nerves. Strange that reporting to some military commander could make her nervous after so many years of being outside of and, in a way, above such organizations.
I know, Jaxi. I understand the situation thoroughly.
I’m just reminding you so you remember to act properly contrite and subdued in your meeting. Also, don’t give him a rash.
Sardelle kept her snort inward, not wanting Rolff to think her odd—or wonder if she was having conversations with herself in her head. That was probably considered an indicator of witchy ways here.
The Itchy Brothers are seeing the medic right now in another building, Jaxi informed her. I hope your name doesn’t come up.
It shouldn’t since they don’t know my name.
You’ve made enough of an impression that Woman in the Green Dress is all they’ll have to say.
It’ll be fine. Someone will diagnose it as a sexually transmitted disease. I’m surprised they even went to the medic. You’d think that would be embarrassing for them.
Sardelle supposed it would be immature of her to wish she were standing outside the door of that medic’s office, so she could listen to the two explaining how they had both come to have the same rash on their genitals.
Oh, I’m already listening in. Want the details?
That’s all right. I better focus on this meeting. Sardelle stopped before the door, actually a couple of paces before the door. A waste bin and crate full of empty alcohol bottles made it difficult to draw closer. She shifted the colonel’s parka, draping it over her left arm, so she could knock with her right, but she paused when a long scrape, followed by a thud and a thump came from inside.
Sardelle blinked at Jaxi’s comment, at first believing it had something to do with the noises in the office. What?
They’re being prescribed a cream. And a suggestion that they stay out of each other’s pants.
Sardelle laughed before she could catch herself, though she turned it into a cough.
“He won’t want to wait all day,” Rolff said.
“I just wasn’t sure about those noises.” Two more heavy thumps sounded, and Sardelle pointed at the door. “Are you sure he’s not… doing battle with someone in there?” Or beating the tar out of some wayward private?
“Nobody here would pick a fight with him.” Rolff leaned past her and knocked three times.
The noises inside stopped, and a “Yeah?” floated out the door.
Sardelle didn’t know whether to take that as an invitation or not, but she had been instructed to report promptly. She turned the knob, stepped past the bottles, and poked her head around the door.
Colonel Zirkander was balanced in the air, one boot on the desk and one boot halfway up floor-to-ceiling bookcases built into a sidewall. He held a feather duster in one hand while he prodded at fat tomes that looked like they had been resting undisturbed on that top shelf for decades. He had shed some of his winter clothing, and the sleeves of his gray shirt were rolled up, revealing the ropy muscles of his forearms and… a lot of fresh dirt smudges. Dust—and was that a cobweb?—smeared his short brown hair, as if he had been sticking his head under beds that hadn’t seen a maid in years. Or maybe a big faded brown couch, Sardelle amended, considering the office’s furnishings. Whatever state they had been in before, they weren’t dusty now. The floor gleamed, courtesy of a damp mop, bucket, and broom and dustpan leaning against the wall next to the door. A stack of folded rags and a jug of floor polish suggested the next task on the list.
“Uhm, sir?” Rolff asked, though he seemed stunned at finding his commanding officer cleaning, and the words came out quietly.
“Hah.” The colonel, who hadn’t stopped dusting and organizing books at their arrival, pulled a thick tome off the shelf. “Found you.”
Rolff stepped inside, came to attention, and saluted. “Sir, I’ve brought the prisoner as requested, sir.”
The colonel waved at him with the feather duster instead of returning the salute, which would have been hard given the fullness of his hands. “Good, thanks.”
Sardelle bit back a smile at the corporal’s puzzled face. He clearly didn’t know how to react to a commanding officer that didn’t seem to care about military decorum and pomp.
“Shall I… stand guard outside, sir?” Rolff asked.
“Do you have a job you’re supposed to be doing right now?” The colonel hopped down, grabbed a dust cloth, and wiped off the book.
“I was on guard shift in Level Thirteen when this all started, sir.”
“Better get back to that then. I’ll hope my roguish smile and charismatic ways are enough to keep—” he glanced at a folder on the desk, “—Sardelle from pummeling me into submission.”
Colonel Zirkander smiled—roguishly—at both of them, but Sardelle imagined herself the lone recipient and found herself gazing back, admiring his lively face, dust smudges and all. His dark brown eyes had been so serious in the courtyard, but she sensed that this warm twinkle was more typical of him.
“Er, yes, sir,” Rolff said, clearly more flustered than beguiled by the colonel’s roguish smile.
Sardelle tore her gaze away from Zirkander’s face, lest he notice her long stare. She eyed the folder instead. It had her name—first name real and last name made up—on the front above several blank lines. The information to be filled in during this interview? Was he going to trust her to tell him the truth? And had the missing folder simply been dismissed as some clerk’s error? She hoped so.
The door shut, though the clank of glass floated through along with an oof.
The colonel shrugged, his expression a little sheepish. “I was going to toss those bottles out the window, but couldn’t be sure anyone would clean up the mess before someone cut their foot. Not on this installation anyway.”
With the corporal gone, Sardelle could only assume the words were for her, though he was blowing dust off the cover of the book instead of looking at her.
“Is that why you’re cleaning your own office?” she asked, figuring she should chat with him if he was interested in it. Anything she could do to establish a rapport. “All the officers I’ve ever met had minions to handle such things.”
“Apparently all the minions here are busy guarding prisoners. I realized the only way I was going to find what I was looking for was going to be to clean up around here. Also… the green-fuzz-covered vomit stains on the floor were disturbing me. I’m sure it was my imagination, but I thought I could see them moving out of the corner of my eye every time I looked away.” Seemingly satisfied with his handiwork, he laid the book on the desk next to her folder. Magroth Crystal Mines: Regulations and Standard Operation Procedures.
You read that one, Jaxi?
Oddly, the title didn’t entice me to delve in.
“Have you met many officers?” The colonel cocked his head, giving her a curious look.
Er, right. Her cover story didn’t mention any time spent with the military and certainly not how she had, as sherastu—mage advisor—sat at tables with clan leaders and generals. She was going to have to be careful with what she said. “I’ve been… questioned by a few.” Speaking of roguish smiles… she tried to give him one.
He stared at her. So much for roguish. She had been told more often that her smiles were enigmatic or distracted rather than playful or mischievous.
Don’t try to change your personality, or you’re sure to get caught in the lies. Pirates come with all manner of… mannerisms.
Sardelle acknowledged this advice with a mental wave.
“Right.” Colonel Zirkander recovered and tapped the folder. “I just need you for a few minutes, if you don’t mind. I want to get a temporary file made for you until my captain finds your real one.”
Sardelle had been thinking that he was oddly polite for a commander talking to a prisoner, but her mind lurched at his last words. “Did he already look?”
“Yes, but… let’s just say I’ve seen the archives room, and I’m not surprised files are missing. I’ve tasked him with cleaning and organizing it though, so we’ll find your record. We’ll find everyone’s record and make sure all the names—numbers—match up with faces. The way things are now, I don’t know how they even order supplies with any accuracy here.”
Sardelle caught herself breathing more rapidly and forced the airflow to slow down. It was too early to panic. Even if they never found her record, that wouldn’t necessarily condemn her. It could have been left behind a seat on the airship that had supposedly brought her in, right? Surely these things happened.
Why don’t you just make a fake record?
Jaxi’s thought surprised her, but then she wondered why she hadn’t thought of it herself already.
Because you’re an honest and forthright person who doesn’t think in deceitful scheming ways. Better get over that.
Thanks for the tip.
Creating a false record wouldn’t be a stretch of her powers, so long as she knew where the blank records were stored and where to float it off to when she was done. Maybe…
Sardelle realized the colonel was watching her. Waiting for a response? He hadn’t asked a question, had he? She reviewed what he had said. “I haven’t been here long, but it does seem a touch… chaotic. And in regard to the supplies, I did notice that some of the miners are well-fed and others look malnourished and scrawny.” Like those disillusioned sods who had attacked the guards.
Zirkander’s eyes sharpened. “Do they?” He took out a pen and a tiny spiral notebook and scribbled something on a page already filled with a list. “It’s probably survival of the strongest and meanest down there, right now. All right. Have a seat, will you?” He tossed the notebook aside and, mid-gesture, noticed there wasn’t a chair in front of the desk. In fact, aside from the couch and the colonel’s chair, there weren’t any other seats in the room. “Er, guess the general didn’t invite people in for meetings often.”
He considered the couch for a moment—there was room for three or four to sit on it—but shook his head, then gestured her to his chair. “Ms. Sordenta.”
It took Sardelle a second to remember that was the last name she had given. She stepped around the desk and sat in the wooden chair, the armrests and back spindles more comfortable than she would have guessed from looking at it. Zirkander grabbed the folder and a pen, then perched on the armrest of the couch. Ah, too intimate a piece of furniture to share with a prisoner? Logically, Sardelle agreed with the… professionalism of the choice, though the part of her that didn’t want to play prisoner to his fort commander would have preferred to sit with him on it.
Looks like you’re not going to get his room number after all.
Zirkander scribbled something on the corner of the paper stapled to the front of the file. “All right, full name is Sardelle Sordenta, yes? We have the spelling right?” He held up the paper so she could see.
Strange that something so minor as a fictitious last name bothered her, but it did. Still, she nodded and said, “Yes.” She would have to lie about a lot more than her name to survive here.
“Date of birth?” he asked.
She froze. It was such an obvious question, but, in making up her elaborate pirate past, she hadn’t thought of it. Quick, Jaxi, what year is it now?
“Balsoth fourteenth… ” 873, came Jaxi’s answer. “839,” she finished, hastily doing the math.
Hastily or not, Zirkander noticed the pause. He gazed at her for a long moment, before copying down her answer. Sardelle had been keeping her senses ratcheted down since dealing with those thugs in the mine, but she eased up a touch now, needing to know if he thought she was lying. And right away she sensed that he did… and that he was disappointed. For some reason, that stung. What had he expected? Honesty from someone who, by default, had to be a criminal?
“Birthplace?” he prompted.
“Cairn Springs.” That at least was true. She had been born at the base of these very mountains, about a hundred miles to the south.
“The Cairn Springs that was buried beneath a lava flow forty years ago?”
Er. “Yes. Near there, obviously not at the site of the old village. I was born in a rural area.” Jaxi! You didn’t mention that my birthplace was gone?
I didn’t know. That’s too far away for me to sense.
Something that big wasn’t covered in a book?
Most of the books here are at least fifty years old. I don’t think reading is a big pastime among the prisoners. Or the soldiers.
“We were shepherds,” Sardelle went on—the colonel was writing down her lies, so she might as well go on with her story, “—a very boring lifestyle for a young person. That’s why I left—to find a little excitement. That and the arranged marriage. I wasn’t ready to settle down. I went off to the coast and got a job on a merchant ship.” She actually could answer questions about sea life, if he asked. She had traveled with the fleet often to defend the country from enemy warships. “After a year, we were caught by pirates. I was given the option of walking the plank or joining the crew. I’m not very brave. I joined. They treated me… decently, I suppose. The first year was tough, but eventually I became one of them.”
Zirkander had stopped writing. He had one boot up on the couch, his elbow on his knee, and his chin resting on his fist. Waiting for her to finish this fabricated story and see if she gave away anything useful in the telling? Yes. She didn’t need her empathetic senses to tell that.
“Are you done?” he asked.
“I have another five years I can go over. But, ah, you don’t seem to be recording the details.”
“No. I was busy debating whether I should ask you to tie a clove hitch or if that would simply be embarrassing.”
Sardelle could tie a clove hitch. Bastard.
I sense something.
No. Outside. In the sky.
Sardelle looked toward the window, the sky visible beyond the freshly cleaned panes. From their vantage point, all she could see were clouds rolling in off Goat Peak. But a shout arose in the courtyard. No, not the courtyard—it was coming from one of the watchtowers on the ramparts.
Zirkander jumped to his feet, tossing the folder on the desk, and strode to the window. Footsteps thundered in the hallway.
“Gen— Colonel Zirkander!” someone shouted two seconds before the door burst open. Two privates Sardelle hadn’t seen before charged into the room. “Sir, there’s an airship in the northern sky. It’s not one of ours!”
“All right. Report to Sergeant Homish and get whatever security measures are around for the fortress in place. I’ll come up to take a look.”
Sardelle had been reaching out with her senses, trying to get a feel for the airship, so she wasn’t shielding herself from the emotions in the room, the excitement and anticipation from the privates and the disgust from Zirkander, who felt he should have been reading the operations manual rather than dithering around with a prisoner. And then he was gone, jogging through the doorway and down the hall, and his emotions faded from her consciousness. Once again, she felt chagrinned that she had… disappointed him. Why she cared, she didn’t know, but she had the urge to show him that she wasn’t some useless prisoner, that spending time with her hadn’t been a waste.
How are you going to do that? Jaxi’s question held wariness.
Maybe everyone on the enemy ship will develop rashes, causing them to crash it into the side of the mountain.
I don’t think your range is that good, Jaxi thought dryly.
Since the colonel hadn’t left a guard or ordered her to remain in the office, Sardelle jogged down the hallway after him. In the courtyard, people were standing and gazing toward the sky, toward an airship that was little more than a speck lurking in the clouds near Goat Peak. Whoever had spotted it must have had a spyglass to identify whatever markings it had, to be certain it didn’t belong to this army.
Up on the ramparts, soldiers were jogging into towers and to cannons. Cannons! They weren’t thinking of firing those, were they? The calendar might not say winter yet, but piles of snow blanketed the steep mountain walls in all directions.
Sardelle spotted Zirkander and ran across the courtyard to the steps leading up to the wall. At first, no one stopped her—or even noticed her, their eyes toward the distant airship—but a soldier on the walkway grabbed her arm before she could race past him. The halt to her momentum spun her around, startling her, and she almost launched a mental attack. She caught herself a split second before she would have hurled him away from her.
“Where do you think you’re going, woman?” the soldier demanded.
“I’m in the middle of a meeting with the colonel.” Sardelle tugged at her arm, but the man had a grip like a vise.
“A meeting. Sure you are.”
She glanced over her shoulder. Zirkander was standing on the northern wall next to a cannon, pointing and talking to a young soldier who stood on the other side. There wasn’t time to convince this buffoon to let her go. With a subtle tug from her mind, she unfastened his belt. The weight of the dagger and other pouches on it pulled it down with impressive speed, along with his trousers. It was enough to startle him into loosening his grip. Sardelle wrenched her arm free and sprinted toward the colonel.
“Stop that woman,” the soldier called after her, amidst an impressive stream of curses.
At the corner, someone turned and grabbed for her. On the narrow walkway, she couldn’t dodge far enough to the side, and he would have caught her, except she loosened the mortar in the stone beneath his feet. It wobbled, drawing his eye for a split second. She ducked his grasp and ran around the corner, coming to an abrupt halt before the colonel.
“The cannons,” she panted, out of breath from the sprint. “You can’t fire them, not this time of year.” She pointed at a cornice on the nearest mountain. “Could start an avalanche.”
Zirkander looked at her for several breaths before responding—why did she get the feeling he was trying to scrutinize her?
Probably wondering if you’re a spy.
After my horrible lying? A real spy would be much smoother.
“In my experience,” the colonel said, “an explosion has to be set off on or in close proximity to the snowpack to cause an avalanche, but if we need to fire, we will be careful.” Something squeaked behind him on the walkway, and he pointed over his shoulder without looking. A pair of soldiers was wheeling out something that reminded Sardelle of the harpoon launchers on whaling ships.
As the soldier she had unbuckled charged up behind her—his trousers securely fastened again—she felt… sheepish. Of course a professional soldier would have experience blowing things up—explosives seemed to be far more common in this century than in hers.
A big hand clamped onto her shoulder. “I’m sorry, sir. I had… an equipment malfunction and didn’t catch her before she wiggled by.”
The soldier started to drag Sardelle backward, but Zirkander lifted a hand. “It’s fine, Sergeant. She can stay. She was informing me about the conditions in the mines.”
The soldier’s face scrunched up. “Like… a spy?”
“Something like that.”
Sardelle read the double meaning in the colonel’s slitted eyes. She did her best to look calm and serene… and definitely not guilty. But he had to be wondering who she was after that botched background sharing. The way he kept gazing at her—appraising her—made her want to squirm. Fortunately, the soldier next to him spoke, and Zirkander looked away.
“In your experience, sir?” The young man couldn’t have been more than twenty, and he wore a hopeful expression as he prompted the colonel. Though the men were preparing to defend the fortress, nobody appeared that worried by the airship’s appearance. Maybe this happened frequently.
“I might have started a few avalanches,” Zirkander said.
“In your flier? With explosives?”
“Bring me a beer later, and I’ll tell you some stories.”
“Deal, sir!” The young soldier hustled over to help the men with the harpoon launcher.
“Perk of having your name in the papers next to all sorts of war-related exploits… ” Zirkander said. “You never have to buy your own alcohol.”
Sardelle was the only one close enough to hear him, so the comment must have been for her, but the casualness surprised her. One minute he seemed to have her pegged for some kind of spy, and the next he was chatting with her?
Maybe he wants to keep you confused.
I get the feeling he confuses a lot of people.
“I much prefer being the one attacking to the one defending though.” Zirkander lifted a spyglass. “He’s just hovering out there. Scouting mission?”
He seemed to be talking to himself, but Sardelle decided to respond. “Do they come around often?”
The more he talked to her, the more trouble he should have ordering her execution later.
I wouldn’t bet on it. Judging by the so-called witch drownings I witnessed, when it comes to magic, these people will kill their own kin without a second thought.
Sardelle focused on Zirkander’s response instead of Jaxi’s commentary.
“They shouldn’t,” he said. “This place is supposed to be a top military secret.” Zirkander lowered the spyglass and gave her an appraising look again, though his gaze soon shifted over her shoulder. “Captain,” he called to the man jogging up behind her. It was the aide who had been introducing him to the fort earlier. And wasn’t he the one who had been tasked with organizing the archives?
If they were on his mind, Sardelle might be able to poke into his thoughts and find out where the room was located and where the empty forms were kept so she could fill one out for herself. She grimaced at the idea of, for the second time today, slipping into someone’s mind. There was the risk he would feel it too. She decided to simply open herself up for the moment. Maybe they would discuss the archives and the thoughts would float to the tops of their minds where they might be easily accessed.
“Yes, sir?” the captain asked.
“This happen before?” Zirkander pointed at the airship.
“No, sir. As long as I’ve been here, no enemy ships have appeared in our airspace. Audacious of them—they’re hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean. I wonder where they slipped in past our patrols.”
“I wonder that too.” Zirkander’s jaw tightened.
He wanted to be out there. By now Sardelle had gathered that he was a pilot, and she could have guessed at his thoughts without trying to sense them. She did, however, catch a strong vision from him, an image of a dragon-shaped flying machine, not unlike the one that had dropped him off. But this one was his, and it wasn’t alone as it cruised through the air. He led a squadron of other fliers along the shores of Northern Iskandoth—Sardelle had been along those fjords and gray sandy beaches enough times to recognize them, though she had never seen them from above. Zirkander remembered attacking an airship like this one off the coast, blowing up its engine, and bringing it down.
It should have reassured her that she and the colonel were essentially on the same side, having both fought to defend the continent of Iskandia—even if the people called it something different now—but it sank in for the first time that he must also be the descendant of those who had blown up her mountain… annihilated her people.
Zirkander frowned over at her. He couldn’t have guessed her thoughts, but maybe he had sensed her skimming the surface of his mind?
She pointed at the airship. “Are your weapons able to reach them from here?”
“No chance,” the captain said. “Neither the cannons nor the rocket launchers has that kind of range.”
Rocket launchers? Sardelle had never heard of such a thing, but, now that she looked, could see that something more sophisticated than a harpoon lay nestled in the artillery weapon’s cradle. She caught Zirkander and the captain looking at her and then at each other.
“Ms. Sordenta,” Zirkander said, “I think it’s time for you to return to… whatever work you’ve been assigned to do here. We’ll take care of the intruders.”
“I understand,” Sardelle said. It would be suspicious if she tried to find an excuse to stay up there.
She walked slowly back to the courtyard though and with hearing that might have been slightly augmented with magic, she caught a few more sentences on her way back to the stairs.
“Find her record, Captain. And find some of the people who arrived on the supply ship yesterday. If nobody remembers her… ”
“Think she’s a spy, sir?”
I may have to escape and come back for you, Jaxi. Sardelle paused at the bottom of the stairs, not sure where to go. She hadn’t been assigned to any work yet, so how was she supposed to go do it?
I understand. And Jaxi did, but she couldn’t hide the sadness at the thought of being left behind, and it tore into Sardelle’s heart.
There was more at stake too. If the enemy—were these still the Cofah who had troubled the continent in her day?—destroyed this fortress or collapsed the mountains around it, would she ever be able to return? If the mines were shut down, who could possibly help her reach Jaxi? For that matter, who would help her find the belongings—relics—of her people? If she was truly the last of her kind, wasn’t it her responsibility to save and preserve some sign of her heritage?
Sardelle dropped her forehead into her hand. So much lost, and she was worried about being thought a spy? What did it even matter?
The captain jogged down the stairs, thoughts of the archive building floating at the top of his mind. Without looking up, Sardelle plucked the location from his mind as well as the layout. He frowned at her when he reached the bottom of the stairs, but all he did was point toward the laundry building.
“One-forty-three will assign you tasks. She’s in charge of the women’s area.”
“I understand,” Sardelle said.
Sewing or doing laundry, that would be the perfect time to let her mind wander. She refused to tinker with the memories of those who had arrived yesterday, assuming she could even locate them before the captain questioned them. Creating a record for herself would have to be enough. She gazed up to the rampart where Zirkander had the spyglass out again. With luck, this unprecedented enemy appearance would keep him busy, and he would forget about her.