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Dragon Storm Preview Chapters (my new series is out!)

| Posted in My Ebooks |

4

I released Dragon Storm, the first book in my new Heritage of Power series, right after Christmas, so you might already have it, but if not, I’m posting the first couple of chapters here.

These books take place in the same world as my Dragon Blood series, introduce some new characters, and bring a couple of old friends along for the ride. The first two novels are out now with the third coming on January 7th (or tomorrow, if you’re one of my Patreon subscribers).

For now, the books are exclusive with Amazon, but they will eventually be out everywhere (and when I do the advanced copies on Patreon, those are for all e-readers).

Dragon Storm

Telryn “Trip” Yert has always been a little odd, with hunches that are too accurate to explain. Magic is feared and forbidden in Iskandia, so he’s struggled his whole life to hide his eccentricities. As a boy, he was forced to watch his mother’s execution. Her crime? Witchcraft. 

Understandably, Trip wants nothing to do with the power that lurks within him, always threatening to reveal itself. Instead, he dedicates himself to serving as an officer in the king’s army, to battling pirates and imperial conquerors. He longs to become a soldier as respected and renowned as the legendary General Zirkander. 

But his country is in need of more than a soldier. 

After disappearing for over a thousand years, dragons have returned to the world. A few of them are willing to be allies to mankind, as they were millennia before, but far more want to destroy or enslave humans and claim the world for themselves. 

There are few people left with the power to fight dragons. For reasons he doesn’t understand, Trip may be one of those people. But if he chooses to learn more about his heritage and the power he can wield, he risks losing everyone he loves and everything he longs to be.

Pick it up: Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon AUS | Amazon CA

Preview Chapters 

Chapter 1

Trip reveled in the cool wind rushing past his face. He was tempted to tear off his cap and goggles, and let the salty air wash over all of his senses. Probably not wise, since the one time he’d flown without them, he’d streamed tears enough to thoroughly wash his scarf, and a small bug had spent two days lodged in the corner of his eye.

He settled for tilting the flight stick and sending his dragon flier into a spin and grinning like a boy. Even after two years as a pilot, the sensation of corkscrewing through the air, clouds and sea alternating positions above his head, never got old.

“Is there a problem with your flier, Lieutenant?” the dour, humorless, and dyspeptic Colonel Anchor asked.

In truth, Trip couldn’t be sure about that last adjective, but it seemed as likely an explanation for the first two as any.

“No, sir.” He straightened his craft to fly sedately next to the other seven fliers in the squadron. “I had an urge.”

“Repress the next one.” Amazing how Anchor’s dourness came through so clearly over the small communication crystal embedded in the console.

Someone snickered. Leftie, most likely.

“This is a serious mission,” the colonel added. “It’s bad enough the pirate king was so brazen as to send his mindless thugs to attack our base at night and steal three of our new fliers…” Anchor issued a series of noises that either signified his extreme disgruntlement or lent evidence to support Trip’s theory of dyspepsia. Perhaps both. “It’s completely unacceptable.”

“Yes, sir,” Trip said.

“Fliers spotted ahead, sir,” Hawkeye blurted. “I think they’re ours!”

“Max speed,” the colonel said. “We’ll teach those thieving pirates.”

“Are we shooting at our own craft?” someone asked.

“We’ll surround them and force them to land,” Anchor said. “If it becomes absolutely necessary to shoot, aim for the pilots instead of the fliers.” He growled and added, “If Neaminor is one of the pilots, make it necessary to shoot.”

Trip did not know if he would recognize Neaminor, the infamous pirate king, if he saw him, but he trusted the colonel would point him out. They’d been enemies for ten years or more.

“Won’t shooting the pilots cause the fliers to crash, sir?” Leftie asked.

A valid point. And if the fliers went down out here, over the water, the squadron would be lucky if they were able to retrieve the power crystals before the craft sank.

“As I said, we’ll attempt to force them to land,” Anchor said.

Trip had his doubts, but as a lieutenant, he didn’t have the right to question the colonel. Especially as a lieutenant who’d just been reprimanded for urges.

He looked to his right, to where Leftie flew, the morning sun gleaming off the bronze hull of his craft and his goggles. It was hard to read expressions when they were bundled up against the cold and wind, but he tried to catch Leftie’s eye, to imply he should question the colonel further. He was a lieutenant, too, but his charisma seemed to work almost as well on superior officers as it did on women.

Leftie merely made the thumb-to-fingers circle indicating readiness or that all was well. “Glad we caught up to them so quickly. We’ll take ’em out and be home by lunch. I’ve got a hookball game tonight and a victory date with a pretty lady.”

Though Trip had greater concerns, he asked, “How do you know it’ll be a victory date when the game hasn’t even started yet?”

“Because I’m playing.”

“Was this pretty lady attracted by your extreme modesty?”

“By my sparkling blue eyes and infectious laugh, I believe,” Leftie said, and Trip couldn’t help but briefly lament that his black hair and bronze skin made him look more like a Cofah than an Iskandian. Perhaps because the Cofah Empire had been trying to conquer Iskandia for centuries, the resemblance didn’t help him attract women. He’d been told his dark green eyes were striking—by his grandmother, if no one else—but they weren’t common in Iskandia, and didn’t help him fit in. “Also by my glamorous job,” Leftie added, wobbling the double wings on his flier.

“Glamorous?” someone chimed in. “Yesterday, I had to clean that diplomat’s vomit out of the back of my flier.”

“That’ll teach you to say you’re good at piloting a two-seater. And to make sure luck is on your side before missions.” Over in his flier, Leftie brought his miniature gold hookball to his lips. He insisted on calling it a lucky charm rather than acknowledging it was a keychain.

“Not everybody gets excited about kissing balls.”

“Enough chatter,” Colonel Anchor said, his voice icy as it cut through the banter. “We’re almost within firing range.”

Reluctantly, Trip kept his concerns about crashed fliers to himself. Maybe the colonel was right, and they could force the pirates to turn toward the coast to land. With luck, those pirates wouldn’t have much experience, at least not the intense training everyone in Cougar Squadron had endured.

They were close enough now to see the pirates glancing nervously behind them. Trip was surprised by how quickly his squadron had caught up. But as he had the thought, the pirates sped up.

As the fliers tore up the coastline, the squadron not quite able to close to firing range, Trip started to suspect a setup. Those three craft had been stolen in the middle of the night. Nobody had expected to catch up with them so quickly, or even to find them. And yet, here they were, barely fifty miles north of Charkolt.

Trip looked at the coastline, toward the houses perched in the high grasses above the water. The pirate king’s lackeys had been bold of late, taking advantage of the frequent dragon attacks in western Iskandia, attacks that had prompted the air battalion commander, General Zirkander, to call fliers and pilots over from other posts to help. Right now, Cougar Squadron was the only one left stationed on the East Coast. And the pirates knew it.

Smoke drifted upward from Oredale, a little town a mile inland and up a gorge. More smoke than usual? The terrain hid the buildings from view, but Trip had flown up and down this coast a hundred times and knew the town held a refinery, one with a big chimney that always spat smoke. His intuition, however, tingled. Even though his eyes detected nothing, his sixth sense told him something was wrong.

“I’m going to check on Oredale real quick,” he said, hoping that if he stated it instead of asking for permission, permission he knew wouldn’t be granted, he would be in less trouble later.

“You’re what?” Anchor blurted before Trip had done more than turn the nose of his flier.

“I have a hunch those three are intended to be a distraction. If I’m wrong, it won’t take me long to check. I’ll be back to help with the action.” Trip sped inland, the wind battering at his wings.

“You’ll be back?” Anchor roared. “You don’t have permission to go. This isn’t the time for you to live up to your name, Lieutenant Sidetrip. Get your ass back into formation now.”

The anger in the colonel’s voice chilled Trip and almost made him falter. He’d been reprimanded before for taking off on hunches, but he was usually right, damn it. He’d saved people’s lives by disobeying orders, and the sixth sense niggling at the back of his mind assured him that it was worth a reprimand this time too.

But what if it turned into more than a reprimand? What if he was court-martialed? Or kicked out of the flier battalion? He couldn’t imagine not having access to a flier, to the sky. This was all he’d wanted to do since he’d been a little boy. The sky had called to him like nothing else ever had. If he couldn’t fly, he had no idea what he would do with his life.

Hoping he wouldn’t regret it, Trip took a deep breath and said, “I’ll call if I need backup.”

“Lieutenant Sidetrip,” Anchor growled. “If you—”

Leftie interrupted before the colonel could deliver whatever threat was on his lips. “Sir, Trip’s hunches are always right. We’ve got enough men left to handle those thieves.”

Trip appreciated his friend watching out for him, as he’d done since they’d been at the university together, but he winced at the vocal reminder to everyone that his “hunches” were always right. In a land where magic was feared, and displaying any extraordinary skill could cause one to be accused of it, it wasn’t wise to remind people of one’s eccentricities. Trip had only to remember being eight years old and watching his mother being hanged for “witchery” to understand that fully.

He’d heard that things had changed somewhat over in the capital, and the rumors said that General Zirkander had married a witch, but Cougar Squadron was a long ways from the capital. Who knew if there was even anything to those rumors?

Colonel Anchor cursed and growled under his breath. He didn’t sound like he agreed with Leftie’s words.

Trip looked over his shoulder toward the squadron, the bronze dragon-inspired fliers already growing small as they continued up the coast, and he focused on the back of the colonel’s head. He silently willed the man to agree, or at least to drop the subject and concentrate on capturing those pirates.

To his surprise, Anchor said, “Fine. You go with him, Leftie. Keep an eye on him and drag him back as soon as you verify that there’s nothing over there.”

“Yes, sir,” Leftie said, sounding as surprised as Trip.

“Don’t take forever or go far,” Anchor added. “We’ve only got a fifty-mile range on the comm crystals, and I don’t want you twits too far away to report in.”

“Yes, sir,” Trip and Leftie said together.

It always boggled Trip’s mind that nobody seemed to realize that the communication crystals and also the energy crystals that powered the fliers had been made with magic. Somebody, of course, realized it, but he had no idea where the flier factory was or who had been in charge of inventing them in the first place. He did know that fliers were rare in the rest of the world—until recently, the Cofah Empire had only had dirigibles for air travel—which meant the witches that made the crystals were likely here in Iskandia. Not being hanged.

If only the rest of the country would realize that magic could be useful and not all magic-users were evil.

Trip headed up the gorge and tried to push the problem to the back of his mind. As always, it resisted. He lived with the fear of being discovered as someone… not quite normal. His grandparents, who’d raised him after his mother had been executed—murdered—had moved often when he’d been a boy, whenever people noticed that weird things sometimes happened when he was around. As he’d grown older, he’d mostly learned to control whatever peculiarities in his blood caused that, and he hadn’t drawn too much attention to himself at Charkolt University or the flier academy. But there had been a couple of times recently…

“If this side trip makes me late for my game,” Leftie said, arrowing down the gorge to fly right behind him, “I’m not going to introduce you to the pretty lady’s twin sister.”

“Was there a point at which you were ever intending to do that?” Trip asked, glad for the distraction.

He eyed the smoke up ahead. Was it thicker than it had been earlier?

“Of course. The seven gods know you can’t get a woman on your own. Though I’m not sure why. You’re not that homely.”

“Thanks for the ego-stroking.”

Trip didn’t explain that his fear of getting close to anyone tied in with his other fears. During his first time having sex with a woman, he’d somehow caused a vase on the bedside table to shatter. After they’d both recovered from the shock, she’d laughed and said he must have been enjoying himself if he’d knocked it off with an arm. But he’d known he hadn’t touched it. Maybe she had too. She had avoided him after that.

As his flier rounded a bend in the gorge, he sucked in a startled breath, his fingers tightening around the flight stick. Even though he’d expected trouble, he hadn’t expected what lay ahead.

A black dirigible flew low over Oredale, dropping explosives onto buildings. It was an older Cofah model that had been painted black with a white sword-and-skull emblem on the hull marking it as property of the pirate king.

Similar to a wooden sailing ship in the air, the dirigible had an open deck and a long oval, gas-filled envelope above. Helium, most likely. The Cofah had stopped using hydrogen after losing numerous vessels to Iskandian fliers armed with incendiary bullets and explosives, and he doubted the pirates would have changed that. Bringing the vessel down wouldn’t be easy.

But that needed to be done. Several structures had been destroyed, streets turned into giant potholes, and dozens of roofs burned. Though he didn’t try to, Trip sensed the emotions of the hundreds of residents, their fear and anger and helplessness, and he couldn’t help but think that Oredale was similar to the small coastal town that his grandparents lived in.

A boom echoed up and down the gorge. Trip couldn’t believe the squadron hadn’t heard the explosives out over the coast, but the wind, the pounding of their propellers, and the roar of the ocean drowned out much.

“Shit,” Leftie said. “Colonel, we’ve got a serious attack happening here in Oredale. Need backup. I repeat, need backup.”

Trip clenched his teeth and arrowed toward the dirigible, a finger resting on the trigger for the twin machine guns mounted to the front of his flier. He didn’t see any other enemy aircraft in the sky, but dozens of men stood on the deck of the craft, all with rifles in hand and cutlasses at their waists. Some of those would be sniper rifles, capable of hitting him at a long distance. He kept that in mind, but didn’t let it deter him. That dirigible was going down.

“Let’s go in from above,” Leftie said. “Keep that big, fluffy balloon between them and us while shooting some holes in it.”

“Do it,” Trip told him, as he dove down toward the river.

Leftie’s suggestion was safest for them, but Trip knew from experience that they could put a hundred bullet holes in the huge envelope of a dirigible without causing it to crash. They either had to find a way to blow up the boiler within its engine room or shoot enough important people on the deck and in the wheelhouse that the pirates would flee.

“I was imagining it as a group thing,” Leftie said dryly as he went high and Trip went low. “Us flying around like mosquitoes, distracting them and keeping them from lobbing more explosives, until the cavalry arrives.”

Trip didn’t answer. He focused on the men on the deck, the men aiming rifles at him. He tried to pick out a couple of officers before they started firing, something that was challenging since pirates didn’t wear uniforms.

Once they opened fire, evasive maneuvers took most of his concentration. He swooped left and right and up and down, occasionally corkscrewing to make himself a difficult target. All the while, he advanced on the ship, on the deck. He knew he would have enough clearance to fly between it and the balloon, if he could weave around the support struts attaching the two. He would barely have enough clearance, but he could do it.

He was upside down as he made his final approach, rifles cracking from ahead of him, but that didn’t matter. He sprayed machine gun fire, his aim barely affected by his flier’s gyrations. He wasn’t great at a lot of things, but this… this was what he’d been born to do, and exhilaration thrummed through his veins as he flew.

Numerous bullets slammed into the deck, but many hit their marks. Pirates fell under his relentless fire.

A part of him worried that he could delight in slaying human beings, even if they were proven enemies of Iskandia, but a deeper, more primitive part of him claimed that this was how it was meant to be. He was like some great predator chasing down his prey, reveling in the hunt.

He willed the pirates’ bullets to zip past his flier instead of striking it—or him—though he knew that didn’t truly have an effect. His mad gyrations were what made it difficult for them. Even so, a few of their bullets gouged the lightweight material of his wings. Fortunately, the flier’s body was made of wood with a bronze veneer, and could take a few hits.

At least a dozen pirates lay on the deck, clutching their wounds, by the time Trip flew out on the far side. Rifle fire chased him, and he stayed low in the cockpit. He flew in a loop so he could come back around for another attack.

He longed to target the boiler he knew to be protected within the ship itself, but he would need explosives for that. His bullets wouldn’t tear through the wood hull. Instead, he dove in for another strafing run.

The deck was significantly clearer this time, many of the pirates having taken refuge below. He caught a few stubborn ones crouching behind the railing and shooting at him, and he targeted those. A bullet struck the corner of his windshield, and a spider web of cracks sprang across it. He fired relentlessly, knowing they would get him if he didn’t get them first.

He flew so close that he scared the two men into leaping over the railing and into the river below. Good. Two fewer pirates to deal with.

As he flew over the deck, his wings almost hitting the bottom of the envelope, he angled left to send as many bullets into the wheelhouse as possible. He might not be able to destroy the engine or the boiler from up here, but if he could damage the steering mechanism, that would be good enough.

More booms sounded, and Trip cursed. What pirates were able to throw explosives with him causing so much trouble for them?

He realized the noise had come from the town. Someone had gotten a cannon out and was lobbing balls at the dirigible.

Someone down there either had good aim or got lucky. One of those balls crashed through the rear hull of the ship and struck something important. Important and flammable.

As Trip ended his run and flew away from the ship, looping to engage in another one, an explosion erupted from within the craft. It blew a giant hole in the hull, and flames shot out of the side. He grinned viciously, wanting to hug whoever was manning that cannon down there.

In addition to damaging the hull, the flames from the explosion blew high enough to catch the envelope on fire. Trip spotted Leftie flying up there, cheerfully riddling it full of holes. He suspected it was the flames rather than the bullets that did the serious damage, but either way, the dirigible listed sideways and drooped toward the river.

“The reinforcements are here,” Leftie said.

Anchor and the rest of the squadron were flying up the gorge toward them, their paths surprisingly full of weaving and erratic flying. Trip spotted the reason why. The three pirates in the stolen fliers were behind them. Coming to help their comrades?

“Let’s get those three,” Trip said, arrowing toward the pursuers.

Perhaps seeing that the dirigible was out of commission and the town was safe for the moment, Anchor ordered everyone to join in. The entire squadron turned, catching the pirates by surprise—the pirates hadn’t yet been close enough to see their downed allies.

As far as Trip knew, neither the Cofah nor the pirates that plagued the coast had an equivalent to Iskandian communication crystals, so they couldn’t easily relay messages among their forces.

His squadron mates brought down two of the enemy fliers before Trip was close enough to help. Illogically, he felt a twinge of disappointment. He and Leftie had just taken down a dirigible, after all.

But the colonel hadn’t seen that. It was silly, but Trip wanted to be seen defeating the enemy. Flying was wonderful, and he felt at home in the sky, but he also longed to have people treat him like a hero rather than an oddity. One day, he hoped to have the kind of reputation that General Zirkander had, one of being a famous protector of the country, loved wherever he went.

As Trip darted toward the third pirate flier, he glimpsed Colonel Anchor angling in from the opposite direction. Their eyes met briefly, Anchor as dyspeptic as ever behind his goggles. Reluctantly, Trip admitted that hero status would have to wait. For now, he would be happy to avoid serious reprimand—or worse—for flying off on his own.

He and Anchor fired together at the pirate who was trying to wheel away, to head back out to sea. Trip’s bullet caught him in the shoulder. Anchor’s took him in the head.

As the pirate slumped forward in death and the flier dipped toward the river, Trip hoped that wasn’t some kind of metaphor for what the colonel would do to him later.

“Hawkeye,” Anchor said. “Get back to headquarters and report this. Oredale is going to need medical help. Everyone else, find a landing spot. We’ve got to capture those pirates and fish our fliers out of the river.” Another stream of half-indecipherable curses followed the orders.

At least they were aimed toward “balls-licking, thieving pirates” this time. Maybe Trip would get lucky, and in the chaos of everything else, the colonel would forget that he’d disobeyed orders.

But Anchor flew beside him and glared over at him. “Lieutenant Sidetrip, you’ll report to me in my office at the end of shift.”

Trip sighed. “Yes, sir.”

 

  • • • • •

 

Trip took a deep breath and knocked on the pinewood door, the boards slightly warped after years of exposure to Charkolt’s sea air. It was a light knock, a maybe-if-I-knock-quietly-he-won’t-hear-it knock. But it received an answer, nonetheless.

“Get in here, Lieutenant,” Anchor growled through the door.

Trip kept his chin up as he walked into the colonel’s office, determined to simply say yes, sir and accept his punishment calmly, without reacting at all. He wouldn’t rail that he’d been right and that the town might have been lost if not for his hunch and his willingness to follow it. “I was right,” was not an answer that superior officers ever wanted to hear.

His resolution to be calm and unflappable wavered as soon as he spotted a gray-haired officer standing to the right of the colonel’s desk, flipping a gold pocket watch in one hand. General Nydran, the base commander.

Trip kept the panic off his face—he hoped—but his mind whirred as he reflexively saluted the two officers. What was Nydran doing here? The general had never been present for any of his previous reprimands. Trip had never even had a conversation with the man. He’d only saluted and said, “Good morning, sir,” or “Good afternoon, sir” when he’d occasionally passed him on base.

Would the general be present if an officer was about to be discharged for disobeying orders? Did he have to personally sign the papers while Trip watched?

He closed his eyes and took another deep breath, fighting for control, fighting not to let the tears pricking at the corners of his eyes fully form. Officers didn’t cry. Not even officers who’d dreamed of nothing else except flying for their entire lives.

“I object strongly to this, sir,” Anchor said, looking at the general after a brief frown at Trip.

“Understandable,” the general said, flipping his watch a few times as he spoke. “I’m not sure we should reward recklessness and a clear willingness to disobey orders.”

They scoured him with their gazes, and Trip wanted to crawl under the desk. Or perhaps he could slip under the rug he was standing on and pull it over himself so they couldn’t see him. Only the word reward gave him some hope.

“He’s not ready for the responsibility,” Anchor added. “He’s just a kid.”

“A kid who’s brought down more pirates than anyone else on the east coast this year,” Nydran said with a sigh. “You know talent and fearlessness can get you a long way in the flier unit.” His lips curved into a wry smirk.

“I got my promotions by being dependable and responsible, sir,” Anchor said, a touch stiffly.

“I do not question that, but surely, you’ve noticed that others who are slightly less responsible have been promoted over you.”

Anchor turned his scowl on his desk.

Trip had no idea why he was being allowed to listen to this conversation, but he found it fascinating to see Anchor being spoken to so frankly.

“I’ll speak no ill words of General Zirkander,” Anchor said.

Nydran chuckled. “It amuses me that you knew exactly whom I was speaking about.”

“I live to tickle your funny bone, sir.”

“No doubt. Do you want to tell the boy, or shall I?”

Anchor shifted his scowl back to Trip. “I object. If his orders didn’t have him leaving in the morning, I would order him to be grounded for the next month. He could help the mechanics repair our reclaimed fliers. After washing the silt and dead fish out of their engines.”

“Leaving?” Trip whispered, the words sinking in. He had orders to a new duty station? Where? And why?

Oh, he’d known when he’d joined the military that he might be assigned to any of the bases in Iskandia that had flier squadrons, but he’d grown up here on the mostly rural east side of the country, gone to school in Charkolt, and attended the Eastern Flight Academy. His grandparents, his only close family, lived in the suburbs of the city now, and he visited them every weekend he was home, for Grandma’s pie and salmon corn cakes.

He knew he should be excited, as there would be many more opportunities for him to gain national acclaim as a hero if he was based out of the capital, but already, homesickness threatened. His family was so small, and it wasn’t as if he was good at making friends.

“You’re being promoted to captain and transferred to Wolf Squadron in the capital,” the general said.

Trip gaped at him.

Wolf Squadron was legendary. Not only were the pilots based in the capital, flying up and down the populous West Coast to protect the country, but they often did missions directly for the king. They had been one of the first two flier squadrons created more than fifty years earlier, and they’d collectively won more awards and been mentioned in more newspaper articles than any other. Zirkander himself had flown in that squadron, commanding it for years before his promotion to battalion commander and overseer of the flight academies.

Aware of the men staring at him, clearly expecting a reaction, Trip managed, “I don’t know what to say, sir. Sirs.”

The transfer by itself would have been a huge event in his life, but a promotion? Captain after only two years? That was startling. Very few pilots were promoted that young.

“Is this because of, uhm—” He waved toward the north, in the direction of Oredale. It had only been a few hours. Could the reports have gotten back to Headquarters that quickly?

“That in part, I’m sure,” Anchor said, “but your record as a whole would have prompted the choice. I got the impression that Zirkander wants you for a mission. One where recklessness and wanton initiative may come in handy, I suppose.” He lowered his voice to mutter to the general, “Though I can’t imagine what kind of mission that might be.”

Nydran chuckled. “Will you be bitter if he’s one day promoted over you?”

Extremely bitter. The kid’s only twenty-four.”

“You better retire soon then, so you’re not here to see the day that he makes colonel. Or general.”

Anchor’s eyes narrowed. “Has anyone ever told you that you have a nasty streak, sir?”

“Yes, and one of the delights of being the highest-ranking man on the base is that I can indulge in it.” He inclined his head toward Anchor and headed for the door.

He paused at Trip’s shoulder, and his expression grew somber. “Be careful over there, Captain. After a thousand years without dragons in the world, several were unlocked from an ancient magical prison three years ago. The king and his allies befriended two of them, which was enough to keep the others from bothering Iskandia. But a few months ago, something changed. The two they befriended have disappeared, and more than thirty new ones have been identified harrying our country. Eating livestock, destroying villages, and slaying people. Thus far, they haven’t attacked the metropolises, but it may only be a matter of time. Some have been spotted flying over the capital.”

Trip didn’t know what else to do but nod. He’d heard rumors of all this, and read reports in the newspapers, but somehow, it all seemed more real now that the general had confirmed it. And now that he was being sent to the capital.

“I’ll do my best to fight them and protect Iskandia, sir,” Trip said.

“I’m sure you will.” Nydran patted his shoulder. “Good luck.”

“He’ll need it,” Anchor grumbled, looking toward the sky beyond his window.

Thick, dark clouds were gathering over the ocean. Trip hoped that wasn’t a sign of ill portent.

 

Chapter 2

“Is she still here?” one of the privates muttered.

“Thought she’d wash out after the first week.”

“The first day.”

All six of the men in the group sniggered as Lieutenant Rysha Ravenwood approached. It didn’t matter that they were all enlisted men and she was an officer. Here, training for acceptance into the elite troops, ranks were set aside, and everyone was simply referred to as recruit. Or rookie if the instructors were being condescending. Which was most of the time.

“She must be sleeping with one of the instructors,” the private whispered.

“Who? Captain Kaika?”

More snickers.

“Nah, Kaika only sleeps with the king these days, I hear.”

None of the mutters or whispers were soft or subtle, and they floated across the muddy obstacle course to Rysha’s ears. She pushed her spectacles higher on her nose—a nervous and unnecessary habit, since she had them secured with a strap—and debated whether to pretend not to hear the words or to say something clever in response. The trouble was that she was much more likely to be clever in a five-paragraph essay than on the spur of the moment.

“I told you mule humpers to run the obstacle course, not have tea beside it,” came a call from across the muddy field.

Captain Kaika, the first and thus far only woman to be accepted into the army’s elite troops, strode toward them, scowling impressively. Unlike with the other instructors, the scowl never reached her eyes. She always seemed more amused by the recruits than irritated by them, though she could get denigrating and snippy with the best of them.

Rysha stood to her full six feet as the captain approached, the auburn-haired woman having a rangy, athletic form similar in build to her own. Unfortunately, that was where the similarities ended. Kaika was ten years her senior and had even more years than that of military experience. Most of them in the elite troops.

It was all Rysha could do not to burble and gaze in starry-eyed wonder whenever the captain approached, for here was someone who’d done everything Rysha wished to do, making a name for herself while going on dangerous missions to distant lands and earning the respect of her male comrades. She also had the respect of her superiors, as well as the king himself. Other things from the king, too, if the rumors were to be believed. Rysha didn’t hope to emulate that part of Kaika’s career.

“Let’s go,” Kaika shouted, pointing at two of the privates. “The timekeeper is ready. Get over that wall, under those logs, and through the rest of the course as quickly as possible. Sergeant Branigan is waiting for you at the end, ready and eager to play the role of Cofah infiltrator.”

She pointed at the man at the far end of the field, a beefy veteran as broad as he was tall. He waved a cheerful fist.

Eager, indeed.

Nobody objected to his role as “Cofah infiltrator,” even though Iskandia had officially had a ceasefire with the empire for the last three years, ever since a team of soldiers had captured their emperor, and King Angulus had squirreled him away into exile somewhere.

“Ravenwood,” Kaika said, waving to her before Rysha could shuffle to the end of the line.

Rysha jogged toward her, tamping down a surge of delight that the captain knew her name. Kaika wasn’t a full-time instructor at the training camp. She came in and worked with the recruits for a week here and there between her regular assignments, spy missions that took her all over the world. Rysha nearly swooned at the idea of going on such adventures.

“Yes, ma’am?” she asked, clicking her heels together and delivering a salute.

“You need those spectacles all the time?” Kaika asked without preamble.

Rysha covered a wince. Nobody had commented on them when she’d simply been enrolling in the army as an artillery soldier, but this was the third time one of the elite troops instructors had asked about them. It wasn’t as if they kept her from doing the same training everyone else was doing, and she had extra sets in case she broke a pair. She thought she would make a wonderful spy if she passed the course. What enemy soldier would expect a bespectacled woman playing the role of traveling professor to, in reality, be a spy from the Iskandian army? And the gods knew, she could play the role of professor easily enough.

“Only if it’s important that the world not be fuzzy, ma’am,” Rysha said.

“So, that’s a yes?”

“Yes, ma’am. I can read without them.” Which Rysha had always thought seemed backward. She was fairly certain all those years of reading growing up were the reason her vision had gotten bad. Shouldn’t close-up words be fuzzy instead of objects in the distance? Her father’s vision worked like that.

“Reading. You planning to do a lot of reading in the elite troops?” Kaika snapped her fingers and pointed, and another pair of men raced over the wall and onto the course.

Most of the men were helping each other over. Would Rysha’s partner help her? Was it possible she could jump to the top of the ten-foot wall and pull herself over without help? Despite coming from a bookish family, she’d loved sports all her life and done well at them, and she had height on her side. She might be able to make it.

“Is there not scintillating reading material to enjoy on missions, ma’am?” Rysha asked, sensing Kaika might be one of the few instructors to appreciate a recruit with a sense of humor rather than one that spat monotone yes, sirs and yes, ma’ams. Or maybe she just wanted that. She wanted to be the captain’s colleague and friend, not simply one of the dozens of recruits in the spring class, someone easily forgotten.

“Scintillating? I don’t know. How do you feel about porn and comic books?”

“Uhm, I guess it depends on plots and character development.”

The look Kaika gave her was more puzzled than amused.

“Those being more common in the latter than the former, I understand,” Rysha offered.

“Uh huh. Your turn.” Kaika pointed at the wall. “Let’s see if you can keep those beer bottle bottoms on your face.”

Rysha’s cheeks warmed as the remaining recruit snickered, a corporal who’d been snickering earlier too. And also, she realized, her partner for the obstacle course. She supposed it wouldn’t be professional to ask for someone else.

Kaika had turned away, anyway, exchanging waves with a man in black fatigues and a brown leather jacket. He walked onto the field from the opposite end, and she strode in that direction.

“Our times are getting recorded this run,” the corporal said as Rysha stepped up to the starting line next to him. “If you slow me down, I’ll have my father do everything in his power to get you kicked out of the program.”

Rysha launched a bewildered look at him, wondering what she’d done to earn his rancor. They’d only spoken a few times during their first week. She knew some of the men strongly felt that women didn’t belong here, but they didn’t make threats about it. From what she’d heard, it was hardly necessary. The handful of women who tried out for the program each spring never made it out of the training. The elite troops had their own physical performance requirements, ones much higher than the army as a whole, and there were no concessions made for women. They had to pass all the same tests that the men did.

“Who’s your father?” Rysha asked, forgetting that nobody wore uniforms with nametags during the training and glancing at his chest. The mud-spattered fatigue jacket offered no hints to his identity.

“Lord Oakridge,” he said, lifting his chin.

A noble? So, what? Rysha was one too. In the not-so-distant past, all military officers had come out of the nobility. The army supposedly turned a blind eye to bloodlines now, promoting people based on merit and whether they’d passed various educational courses, but there were still plenty of nobles in the service. Why did this fool think he was special?

And why had he come in as an enlisted soldier, for that matter? Had he gotten kicked out of the officer academy? Or chosen this path because he thought it was harder and he would come out tougher?

“Oakridge?” Rysha offered her best haughty sniff. Actually, it was Aunt Tadelay’s best haughty sniff. For her, it wasn’t a joke or an affect. “From that tiny district in the south? Isn’t half of your land a desert?”

His smug expression turned to a glower. “More land than your family has, I bet.”

“You’d be wise not to take that bet.” Rysha faced the wall, indicating she was ready to focus on the course and stop talking to him, even though she knew he now had to be wondering who in the hells she was.

Not that throwing her parents’ titles around here would do any good. They certainly wouldn’t use their influence to help her get into the elite troops. Her mother and father would be absolutely delighted if she bombed out of this and was so dejected that she turned in her commission and left the army, returning to the worthwhile and respectable field of academia. Only Grandmother Adee approved of her temerity and sent weekly letters, encouraging her to stick with it.

“Ready?” the bored sergeant responsible for timing the run asked.

“Yes,” the corporal said, pulling his suspicious glower from her.

Rysha crouched, ready to spring into action. “Ready.”

“Go!”

She sprinted for the wall, matching the corporal’s pace. Their boots sank deep into the mud and churned it out behind them, but they both made the obstacle in good time. He leaped, caught the lip, flung a leg up, and disappeared over the top.

Bastard. He hadn’t even paused to see if she needed help. Since, as he’d just acknowledged, they had to finish the course together, demonstrating their ability to work as a team, it was illogical for him to leave her behind.

She growled and sprang into the air, determined that she wouldn’t need him. Her fingers just caught the top as her chest smashed against the wall and her breath whooshed out.

She’d hoped to bring a bunch of momentum into the jump to help her over, but she hadn’t gotten as good of a grip as she needed. All her body weight dangled from the tips of her fingers. As much as she wanted to duplicate the corporal’s feat, she wasn’t strong enough to hold herself up like that for long. She wiggled and tried to hitch her way higher on the wall, despite its lack of handholds. That did no good. She tried swinging from side to side like a pendulum, creating momentum so she might hook one leg over the top.

That was more effective. Her forearms trembled, and her fingers threatened to give way, but she managed to heave herself sideways, half-twisting in the air to fling a leg over the wall. Her right hand slipped, and her heart lurched into her throat as she envisioned dangling there from one calf. But she kept her other hand affixed, growled, and pulled herself to the top.

Straddling the wall, she allowed herself one breath and a quick look down to gauge her so-called partner’s progress before swinging herself down the other side. He was mired in the mud under the log course, struggling to get his big form through it. Good.

As Rysha hopped down, she noticed Kaika, who was now talking to the man in uniform on the far side of the field, looking in her direction.

Rysha grimaced, proud that she had gotten over by herself, but also aware that hadn’t been her most graceful moment. Hopefully, the wall had hidden her struggles from view.

She sprinted for the logs, diving under them to low-crawl through the mud. Spring in the capital was typically wet and rainy, much like fall, winter, and half of summer, and this year was no exception. The mud sucked and pulled at her, spattering her glasses and filling her nostrils with its earthy scent. Her visions of catching the corporal were dashed, though she did gain ground on him.

By the time she got out, he was only a third of the way through the jumps-and-ropes section of the course. This part, she did easily, balance and agility more important than raw strength.

He fell off one of the three-inch-wide platforms and had to start over. She didn’t bother hiding a triumphant grin as she passed him. After her struggle with the wall, she doubted they would make the cut-off time, but at least she would reach the end before he did.

She jumped down on the far side and jogged toward the “Cofah infiltrator.” She would have sprinted, but there was no point in getting there without her partner. They were both supposed to fight him. Against many opponents, having two men to one would be an advantage, but the sergeant grinned and raised his fists, not appearing disadvantaged in the least.

The two previous recruits were crawling away from him, their heads low. Blood streamed from one’s nose and spattered into the mud.

“Let me lead,” the corporal growled, panting as he drew even with her. He shot her a dirty look as he passed.

“I’ll gladly let you take the first punch.”

He ran toward the sergeant without looking back. Rysha rolled her eyes. Technically, she only had to find a way past the man. They didn’t have to engage with him.

Rysha jogged after the corporal, hoping to find a way to take advantage while he distracted the sergeant. That was how a lot of teams did it, one member trying to take down the Cofah infiltrator while the other made it through. It wasn’t ideal, but it was considered a better outcome than both being pummeled into the ground.

She would be content with that outcome. Rysha had boxed with her brothers growing up, and done all the hand-to-hand combat courses for her basic army training, but she had no doubt the scarred elite troops sergeant could fight at a higher level.

The corporal launched himself at the man, clearly hoping to take him by surprise. As if that was possible in this scenario. Still, he made a valiant effort, throwing a series of jabs and straight punches.

The corporal wasn’t slow, but the sergeant’s arms moved fluidly, blocking the attacks with whip-like speed. And he looked bored while he did it.

Rysha started to circle around them to get past while they fought, but the sergeant stopped playing and launched a single punch, a single punch with the power of a steam hammer. The corporal flew backward, his feet leaving the earth. He landed on his back in the mud and didn’t move.

The sergeant turned toward her, his eyebrows raised.

“Do you like women in spectacles?” she asked, throwing in a Cofah accent for good measure and giving her best flirty smile.

She couldn’t imagine it being effective when she was wearing shapeless black military fatigues covered with half the mud on the course. When surprise blossomed on the sergeant’s face, she suspected it had more to do with her audacity than anything else.

But he recovered and raised his fists. “No.”

“What about wagers?” she offered, searching her mind for inspiration. With her partner out of the fight—and out cold, it appeared—she highly doubted she could best the sergeant in a fight. “Or, better yet, trivia. Did you know that it takes 1700 pounds per square inch to break a human femur bone? Far less for the nose. I’ve read it only takes about ten pounds of pressure. The nose is mostly cartilage. Did you hit the corporal there in the nose? There are a couple of bones there, at the top. The nasal bones form the bridge of the nose. Did you know that punches to the nose and other parts of the skull can cause brain damage or even kill a person? You’ve heard of concussions, right? If you gave me a concussion, it could have a permanent and negative effect on my brain and hinder my ability to perform everything from simple daily tasks to complex equations. I would be a much poorer officer. I might not be able to perform my duties at all, and all the time and money the army has invested in my training would be lost.” She looked at his fist. He was looking at his fist. “Do you want to be responsible for that?”

She’d edged closer as she spoke, having a notion that she might break into a sprint and make it past him while he was pondering the devastation his fists could do.

“I’ve had a lot of concussions,” he said instead, looking at her with a concerned expression.

How surprising.

“Sometimes, I don’t remember things so good anymore,” he added.

Rysha nodded sagely. “The effects of brain trauma aren’t always noticed at first, but injuries can have a cumulative effect and grow worse over time. Symptoms include difficulty concentrating, difficulty making decisions, and forgetfulness.”

He looked away from the field, toward the distant Ice Blades Mountains. Rysha opted for easing past him, rather than sprinting. Seemingly lost in thought, he didn’t lunge for her. He could have likely caught her without punching her, but she didn’t point that out.

As soon as she was a few meters past him, she sprinted toward the end of the course. The time was probably irrelevant at this point, but she might as well finish as strongly as she could. If nothing else, this had been practice for the next time she ran the course. They had three chances to qualify during their weeks of training.

“Sergeant Branigan!” Kaika yelled, her arms outspread in exasperation.

Rysha winced, knowing the captain had seen their exchange, but she didn’t look back. She picked up her pace and lunged across the finish line.

“What the hells was that?” Kaika added as Rysha dropped her hands to her knees for support while she caught her breath.

“Sorry, ma’am,” the sergeant yelled back. “She started talking about brains and concussions and symptoms. I couldn’t hit her after all that.”

“You don’t have to hit people. Just stop them.”

“But I like hitting.” Branigan looked at the unconscious corporal. “I mean, I did.”

Kaika dropped her face into her hand.

Rysha hoped she hadn’t ruined one of the elite troops’ best fighters. With luck, he wouldn’t care if he was giving enemies concussions.

A snort came from the side, the timekeeper. “Four minutes and twenty-nine seconds,” he said.

The time required to pass was four minutes and thirty seconds. Rysha offered him a lopsided smile. She felt proud that she’d made it, but she had a feeling her method of bypassing the final challenge would disqualify her. If she’d wanted a unit that would reward creativity, it would have been the aviation or intelligence divisions. Intelligence officers went on spy missions too. But there were already plenty of women serving in those units. She’d wanted a challenge.

“Lieutenant Ravenwood,” Kaika called. “Report.”

Rysha straightened. “You think I’m in trouble?” she asked the timekeeper.

“Recruits usually are.”

“Comforting.”

“You signed up for this. Nobody said it would be comfortable.”

“Guess I’m all right with being uncomfortable.”

The timekeeper’s lip quirked up. “That’s not typical for a noble.”

He was the same man who’d started the clock, having trotted around the outside of the course to reach the end to catch people’s finish times, so he’d heard her conversation with the corporal. The corporal that the sergeant was now picking up and carrying off the field. For medical treatment, presumably.

“Or a woman,” the timekeeper added.

“Captain Kaika doesn’t seem to mind discomfort.”

“She’s like one of us.” The man shrugged. “And she’s definitely not noble. Too bad. The king could marry her if she was.”

“Does he want to?” Unlike her older sister, Rysha had zero interest in court intrigues, scandals, or romances, so she hadn’t followed the king’s personal life. She only knew him politically speaking, and then only from newspaper reports.

“Some people think so.”

“Does she want to?” Rysha couldn’t imagine the freewheeling Captain Kaika settling down to marry someone and produce babies. Especially heirs to the kingdom.

The timekeeper’s lip quirked again. “Some people think so.”

“Any time it’s convenient for you, Lieutenant!” Kaika stood with her hands on her hips, staring across the field at Rysha.

Rysha chopped a wave to the timekeeper and ran to join the captain and the man at her side. He wore a scarf in addition to the brown jacket, the latter sporting two pins, a bronze flier pin and a silver wolf head. The tabs at his collar marked him a captain, and his nametag read ANTILON.

He grinned as she jogged up and saluted. “That was cleverer than a fox coming up into the henhouse through a loose floorboard, Lieutenant. Loved it.”

Kaika clubbed him on the arm. “Don’t encourage her, Duck.”

Duck? Was that his first name? Or maybe his pilot name, Rysha supposed, remembering reading unorthodox sobriquets in the newspapers whenever Wolf Squadron had been paramount in repelling the Cofah or pirates, something that had happened frequently three years earlier. Those events had been among the reasons that Rysha switched from an academic path to a military one. Here, she believed, she could make a difference.

“Why not?” Antilon—Duck—asked. He had a backwoods drawl, and was probably from the eastern half of the country. “General Zirkander would have loved that move.”

Rysha spent a few wistful seconds considering that maybe she should have applied to the flier unit, after all. Women weren’t that common there. She still could have led a remarkable career. Of course, she threw up if Draven, their steam carriage driver, took the turns out to the estate too roughly. That didn’t bode well for enjoying flying.

“Zirkander, as Colonel Therrik would be quick to point out, doesn’t have anything to do with the elite troops,” Kaika said.

“So, we shouldn’t rub our pilot attitudes all over her when she’s with us on this mission?”

“I don’t think Lieutenant Ravenwood wants you rubbing anything on her.”

Duck looked her up and down. “Not even a sponge?”

At first, Rysha thought that was some sexual innuendo, which would have flummoxed her since the baggy fatigues and the mud combined to do an excellent job of hiding her feminine attributes. Then she realized he was referring to the mud. After crawling under the logs, her entire front half was slathered with the stuff. Maybe her back half too.

“She might be too heavy for a flier with all that extra weight.” He pointed to a sizable clump balanced on her shoulder.

Rysha cleared her throat. “Did you say something about a mission, sir?”

“Ah, yes. It’ll be cracking. You two are to report to General Zirkander’s office right away.” Duck tugged out a pocket watch. “Actually, five minutes ago. But I didn’t want to drag you off your course.”

“That’s good. I made a passing time.” Rysha looked at Kaika, not expecting praise but hoping she might at least allow the time to go down on her record. Technically, the instructions had only been to “get past” the Cofah infiltrator. Nothing about how it had to be done.

Kaika snorted. “It figures. Come on, Lieutenant. The citadel is on the other side of the fort.”

“I’ll see you two later,” Duck said, waving rather than saluting. “I’ve got to oversee getting the fliers ready. We leave tomorrow!”

Rysha gave him a puzzled look over her shoulder as she and Kaika walked away and his words started to sink in. What kind of mission could she be asked to go on? And by General Zirkander?

Not only did Rysha have nothing to do with the flier battalion, but she’d only been out of the academy for three months. She was at the beginning of her elite troops training. By military standards, she was a raw rookie with little to offer. More than that, her first three months had been spent with the ground troops, an artillery unit. Why would she be sent off with pilots?

“Do you know what this is about, ma’am?” Rysha asked, matching her strides to Kaika’s long steps.

“No idea, but the order was for both of us. Usually, if the flier people want me along on a mission, it’s to blow stuff up. I have no idea how they even know you exist.” Kaika looked at her, eyebrows raised, as if she might have the answer.

Rysha could only shrug. “I don’t know how they know I exist, either. I have had some history papers and results from science experiments published. Just this winter, one was reprinted in the Iskandian Journal of Modern Physics.”

“I’m sure Zirkander reads that to pass the time when he’s in the outhouse.”

Rysha’s cheeks warmed. She hadn’t meant to imply that most soldiers read academic journals, but surely, it was possible that some did. The officers all had university experience, including the pilots. Most of them had mathematics or engineering degrees. And wouldn’t someone who wheeled around in the sky be interested in physics?

As they climbed the stone steps off the field, some of the drying mud flaked off Rysha’s trousers. She halted mid-step.

“Wait, ma’am. I can’t go see a general like this. I have to change first.”

“Duck said we’re already late.” Kaika kept walking up the steps and didn’t look back.

“But—”

“Don’t worry. Zirkander isn’t like other generals.”

Rysha didn’t find that comforting. Very little today was comforting. Had she truly told the timekeeper that she liked to be uncomfortable?

 

Chapter 3

For the second time in as many days, Trip stopped in front of the door to a superior officer’s office. But this one was extremely superior. GENERAL ZIRKANDER, the plaque on the wall said.

From all the articles he’d read, the stories he’d heard, and the mission reports he’d devoured like pulp novels, Trip felt as if he’d met the man a hundred times over, and yet, he’d never even seen the general. As a boy, he’d emulated Zirkander’s exploits in Wolf Squadron, jumping off sheds and pretending he could fly himself, that he could battle pirates and the Cofah. Even though he was actually doing those things now, he couldn’t help but be intimidated by the legendary Zirkander. Intimidated and nervous.

It didn’t help that he’d not only idolized the famous pilot as a boy but had even dreamed he would one day find out Zirkander was his father. Trip had never met his father, so it had always seemed possible. His grandparents claimed the man had been a lover his mother had known briefly during her travels to collect exotic herbs for her tinctures and potions. But who knew if that was the truth?

And Zirkander had once had a reputation for attracting ladies in droves. He’d only been married for three years. Before that, he’d been known to have dalliances near and far. Couldn’t he have met Trip’s mother early in his career and… dallied?

Trip snorted at the wishful thinking and knocked on the door. Logically, he’d known for a long time that his skin was too dark for his father to have been an Iskandian. Still, he’d been almost an adult before he’d given up that particular fantasy. Even at the university, when other boys had been visited by their fathers during semester breaks, Trip had imagined Zirkander showing up and them going for a beer together. Maybe even a little fishing trip. He’d fished with his grandfather when he’d been a boy, but that had usually involved him being sent scrounging for suitable worms. He felt certain Zirkander wouldn’t make a fishing partner collect the bait.

“Yeah?” came the response through the door.

Trip hesitated. Was that an invitation to enter?

He cleared his throat. “Uhm, it’s Lieutenant—Captain—Trip. I mean, Telryn Yert. Sir.”

He rolled his eyes at himself. Way to mangle not only his rank but his name. Everyone in his unit had called him Trip, and he supposed that would be true in his new unit, too, but his real name was on his orders. Zirkander might only know him that way. And as a lieutenant. Should he have introduced himself that way? He’d received his orders, stating his new rank was effective today, but he hadn’t met his unit yet or been through a promotion ceremony in front of a formation. He assumed that was standard operating procedure here in the capital, as well as back home.

“Are you sure?” came the amused response.

“About most of it, yes, sir.” Trip bit his lip. Should he joke with the general? Zirkander didn’t have a reputation as a tightass, but it did seem presumptuous to make… presumptions.

The door opened, and the person standing there smirked at him. “Which parts?”

The man—since he’d come to open the door himself, Trip glanced at his nametag to assure himself that this was General Zirkander—was a little over six feet tall and rangy in build with a lean, handsome face. Trip didn’t usually notice men’s looks, but even he could see why Zirkander had attracted all those women—being a famous pilot had surely only been part of it. He was younger than Trip had expected from a general and from someone he’d grown up admiring. Early forties? Some gray at the temples lightened his short brown hair, but he had to be the fittest general Trip had come across.

And the most rumpled. Dried mud spattered his boots, and it looked like he’d slept in his uniform. His hair was tousled, and even though he gave off a friendly air with the smirk, there was a tiredness lurking under it. Trip noticed a well-used leather couch near the window overlooking the harbor. Maybe he had slept in his uniform.

“Pretty sure on the name, sir,” Trip said. “The, uh, real one.”

“Trip’s what your squadron gave you?”

“Sidetrip, sir. Yes.”

“I’ve heard worse ones. Much worse ones.” Zirkander waved him into the office. It was tidier than he was, though the stack of papers and folders on the desk had a precarious tilt to it, suggesting it might topple into the garbage can at any time. Maybe that was his hope.

“Did you ever have one?” Trip had wondered that a number of times. He knew the general’s first name was a peculiar one—Ridgewalker—but was fairly certain that was on his birth certificate and hadn’t been a nickname.

Half hazing, half induction into the squadron, the nicknames were typical among flier pilots, and almost everyone got one. Most weren’t overly flattering, though some people got lucky, or were just too talented and deadly from the get-go for anyone to mock. Captain “Raptor” Ahn in Wolf Squadron had reputedly been like that, with an assassin for a father and marksmanship skill that any professional sniper would envy.

Trip wondered what it would be like to meet some of the more famous members of Wolf Squadron. And work with them. He felt as nervous as he had two years earlier, on his first day of duty with Cougar Squadron.

“I did have one,” Zirkander said, reaching the desk, turning, and hitching his thigh onto it. “Fortunately, with the retirement of General Ort, there’s nobody left in the battalion who remembers it.” He grinned.

The grin made Trip relax a little and feel that working here might be more enjoyable than serving in Cougar Squadron had been. Of course, Zirkander wasn’t the commander of Wolf Squadron anymore. Trip wouldn’t likely interact with him much. Though he had heard that the general still went out on missions. That was probably why the paperwork piled up.

“Where’s your buddy?” Zirkander asked.

“Who?”

Zirkander looked at a couple of papers on the desk that were not a part of the stack. “Lieutenant Lu Lymander.”

“Oh, Leftie.” Trip had been delighted to learn that Leftie was also being transferred. The two of them had flown over with their fliers early that morning, landing at the hangars on the southern bluff that overlooked the harbor and the city. “He didn’t come up with me. I’m not sure he knew he was supposed to report. I think he’s—”

“Right here, sir.” Leftie walked in, panting slightly, and saluted. His boots were polished and his uniform ironed. He could be professional when he needed to be. Usually only when reporting to superior officers.

Zirkander returned the salute with a droopy half-heartedness that only generals could get away with. “Take a seat while we wait for the rest of the team. I don’t want to explain the mission more than once.”

Trip wanted to dance, not sit, at this confirmation of a mission. He and Leftie exchanged excited looks as they hustled to the couch. Zirkander picked up a folder with a paper stapled to it and marked things off with a pencil.

Boots clomped in the hallway before Trip could spend much time debating whether it would be permissible to whisper speculative thoughts to Leftie.

Two tall women in fatigues walked in, one in her late thirties with tousled auburn hair and a captain’s rank, and one too spattered in mud to discern much about her, including her rank. Trip thought she had blondish-red hair under the mud, but he wasn’t positive. It was back in a bun and tucked under her cap. She wore spectacles as mud-spattered as the rest of her, and he wondered if she could see anything through them.

“Hm,” Zirkander said, looking up from his folder, then down to the mud they’d slogged into the office. “You’re looking as alluring as always, Captain Kaika.”

Thank you, sir,” the older woman said. The muddier woman looked to be closer to Trip’s age. “It’s good to know that the years haven’t stolen my ability to attract handsome generals.” She looked over at Trip and Leftie. “We’ll see if that holds true when it comes to young officers.”

Leftie threw an arm across the back of the couch and smiled agreeably. Trip slipped off the cushion and almost pitched to the floor. He hadn’t realized he’d been that close to the edge.

“Already making plans for them?” Zirkander asked.

“Nah, probably not. I have loyalties now. Fidelities.”

“Yes, I understand the single men in the barracks are terribly disappointed.”

Trip looked back and forth between them. So far, this was very different from Cougar Squadron. He met the muddy woman’s eyes and thought her expression displayed similar bemusement.

“I believe you called for me and my young protégé, General?” Kaika said, stepping aside to extend a hand toward the younger woman.

“Protégé, ma’am?” The woman’s eyes grew round behind her spectacles. She reached up to push them higher on her nose. “Do you mean—I mean… are you just bantering or does that mean… something?”

Zirkander scratched his jaw. “This is Lieutenant Ravenwood?”

“Yes, sir,” the woman—Ravenwood—said more firmly. A surname like that ought to mean she was of the nobility and that her family owned land and businesses, but she didn’t appear overly noble currently.

“After looking over your record, I was expecting you to be more articulate.” Though it was an insult, Zirkander smiled at her as he offered it, so it didn’t have much sting.

Indeed, Ravenwood seemed to blush under the mud, and she looked down shyly. Trip had a hunch she wasn’t usually that shy.

Leftie nudged him and whispered, “This is strange.”

“What?” Trip murmured.

“Me not being the prettiest boy in the room.” Leftie waved toward the women. “They’re barely aware I exist.”

“Is your ego crushed?”

“Moderately so.”

“I’m better at writing, sir,” Ravenwood said.

“There won’t be much time for that on the mission.” Zirkander pointed toward the couch. “That’s Captain Sidetrip and Lieutenant Leftie. They’re two Cougar Squadron pilots I’ve selected for this.”

“Sidetrip and Leftie?” Kaika wrinkled her nose. “Sounds like a comedy act at the officers’ club.”

“Easy, Astuawilda.”

Kaika pointed a finger at Zirkander’s nose. “If you weren’t tantalizing me with a new mission, I’d come over there and pummel you for using that name.”

“Fortunately, generals are wise and know you never tease a pit dog unless you’ve got a steak in your pocket.” Zirkander smirked at her, not appearing overly concerned about the pummeling possibility, though the tall, tough Captain Kaika did look like she could damage men effectively.

“What’s this about, sir?” Kaika asked, lowering her hand and glancing at Ravenwood.

“As you probably already know, Angulus and I have been talking,” he told her with a nod. “Ahn, Tolemek, Colonel Therrik, and a lot of our best people are out hunting dragons. Well, trying to keep them from razing the countryside, more like. Despite Therrik boasting about his sword-fighting ability, I don’t believe any dragons have fallen to his hungry green blade.”

“Are you talking about Kasandral, the dragon-slaying sword from the 600s BD, sir?” Ravenwood blurted, her shyness evaporating. “I’ve studied that sword and many others of the chapaharii from the dragon-rider days. Not in person, of course, but in the history books. At the time, I didn’t realize how important it might become to find some of those anti-magic tools, but I researched the locations of some of the ones named in the old texts and believe I even located some of their present-day resting places. Is that why I was called here?”

“That among other reasons, and I’m encouraged that you know all about that sword,” Zirkander told her. “I understand you have a degree in, uh, dragonology.”

“It’s a degree in history with an emphasis on dragon society, language, and culture, yes, sir.”

“And that’s only one of the degrees, right?”

Ravenwood blushed and glanced at Trip and Leftie, as if she were embarrassed to be called out for her academic knowledge. Trip didn’t know why. It sounded like it would be useful.

“I also studied archaeology and physics,” Ravenwood said.

Zirkander arched his eyebrows. “Just studied?”

Technically, I have degrees in them, but only undergraduate degrees. I would have to take more courses if I wanted to work in either of those fields. But that wasn’t where my interests lay.”

Kaika, who seemed to be receiving this information for the first time, looked at her muddy protégé and uttered a, “Huh.”

“That’s why you’re both invited to come on this mission,” Zirkander said. “Ravenwood to find something, and Kaika to blow it up.”

“That’s vague, sir,” Kaika said. “Though I do enjoy blowing things up.”

“I was going to wait until everyone was here for the explanations, but Major Blazer and Duck were at the king’s meeting with me, so they already know about the portal. I guess we have everybody we need.” Zirkander looked toward the open doorway. “A grand entrance would be appropriate now.”

“Grand?” a striking woman asked as she walked into the room, gliding past Kaika and Rysha.

“You can be sedate if you prefer, but I’ve noticed Jaxi seems inclined toward grandness.”

Trip glanced at Zirkander. Who?

“This is true,” the woman agreed with a smile.

“I think that’s his wife,” Leftie whispered.

“The woman in the dress?” Trip asked, still confused about the name that had been mentioned.

“No, the planter in the corner. Of course the woman in the dress.” Leftie thumped him on the arm.

The woman raised her eyebrows in their direction, and Leftie fell silent. She had long black hair pulled back in a clip, fair skin, and clear blue eyes. She wore an emerald green dress with artful folds that fell to the floor, almost concealing the fact that she was quite pregnant. At odds with the dress, she carried a sword in a well-worn scabbard, the sides covered in silver runes.

Ravenwood’s eyes widened as she noticed the weapon. Perhaps it was the dragon-slaying sword that had been mentioned.

Guess again, genius, a voice spoke into Trip’s mind.

He fell on the floor.

Everyone in the room looked at him. Trip scrambled to his feet.

“Sorry, I, uh—” He had no idea what to say. Confessing to hearing voices in his head would get him condemned as either insane or a witch. “The couch is slippery.”

Leftie snorted, but he also gave Trip a what-is-wrong-with-your-brain look.

Zirkander sighed, not at Trip but at the woman. “I thought Jaxi didn’t speak to people she didn’t know and who weren’t prepared for her personal touch.”

The woman pursed her lips and looked down at the sword. “Usually, she doesn’t. He may be…” She gave Trip a sidelong look, then considered Leftie and Ravenwood. “Perhaps this isn’t the place to discuss it.”

“Mm,” was all Zirkander said.

~

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Comments (4)

When is book #4 due? How could you not tell us book #3 was a “cliffhanger?” 🙂

Just a tiny cliffhanger! Unraveled (Book 4) is on pre-order at Amazon now, and it’ll be out on the 31st. It does not end on a cliffhanger. 🙂

It seems that this new series is being published although the previous one (Dragon Blood) has never been finished. I am very disappointed. Why would I read the new series which may also be left unfinished some time in the future? No way.

I considered Dragon Blood finished when I wrote Book 7, Soulblade, two years ago. I am writing a new installment now, because I’ve been inspired to do so since returning to this world to write Heritage of Power, but it’s not like Soulblade was a cliffhanger or even vaguely left the story hanging. Of course, it’s your choice not to read, but lots of authors go back to their older series and add new installments.

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