Authors: Lindsay Buroker
Ridge blew out a slow breath, lowering his hands. He hadn’t dared assume that his reputation would help him here, especially with so many people certain Sardelle was controlling him now, and he considered himself lucky. This never would have happened while sneaking into a
outpost. “I would be happy to do that.”
“Good. Can I come to the hangar later to set something up?”
“Come on, Fang,” she murmured, pulling the dog to turn him back in the other direction. She walked away without looking back.
“Does being a national hero and getting preferential treatment ever get tedious?” Tolemek asked.
Ridge bit back a caustic retort—he kept hoping Tolemek would get tired of taking shots at him if he didn’t respond in kind. All he said was, “Nah, and you should be tickled about it. You can now have your date with Ort’s lavatory.”
He pulled up his rope and unwound the hook while he talked, then affixed it and lowered it on the other side of the wall. They couldn’t count on the
soldier having a flier-loving son.
They descended without further trouble, landing behind a row of barracks. Ridge had chosen this spot for a reason. The general’s house was only two blocks away. Sticking to the back routes, he led Tolemek down a well-lit, tree-lined street. Not many people were out, especially in the officer housing area, but Ridge kept his cap pulled low and the collar of his jacket turned up, doing his best to hide his face.
They cut across a lawn, the grass damp with water droplets, and walked to the back of the general’s two-story white house. Ridge did not spot the light of any lanterns, but Ort ought to be in bed at this hour. He was not known for late nights out at the pub, nor did he have any family living with him. His three daughters were grown, and his wife had passed away. The lack of lighting was not ominous, or so Ridge told himself.
He knocked softly on the back door while hoping that it didn’t mean anything that the dragon luck mat on the stoop had slid off into the flowerbed. When nobody responded, he knocked again, more loudly. Tolemek shifted from foot to foot, watching a pair of soldiers walking up the street behind the house. Alas, there weren’t any nice alleys to skulk in inside of the fort. Ridge and Tolemek leaned into the shadows and stood quietly, waiting for the men to pass.
“Let’s go around to the front,” Ridge whispered when they were gone, though he was not sure if there was a point. He was starting to accept that the general wasn’t home.
Further clues suggested he hadn’t been home for a while. Letters stuffed the iron mailbox hanging next to the front door, and Ridge’s shoulders slumped even before he tried knocking again. Had General Ort left town after being relieved of duty? Maybe he had been furious and gone off to visit his daughters or other friends. But no, that wasn’t like him. He was so dedicated to his duty, especially since his wife had passed on, that he was usually in his office sixteen hours a day. This was not a man who would take a vacation because he had been asked to step down. He would have formulated an appeal, fought against whoever had been behind the decision. Ridge couldn’t believe he would quietly let someone like Therrik be placed in charge of his battalion.
He leaned to the side of the porch, trying to see through a window.
“Whether he’s here or not,” Tolemek said, “I need to make some defensive measures before confronting your brutish officer friend.”
“Therrik is no friend of mine.” Ridge waved and led the way around the house again. He had been by enough times to know the layout and judged the root cellar door on the side would be the easiest entrance to force their way through. “I do recall him chasing you around your lab with a knife, so I can see why you wouldn’t want to face him without potions. I hope we can get you into Ort’s lavatory.”
“Potions. Really, Zirkander. When you don’t think I’m a pharmacist, you think I’m a witch brewing elixirs over a cauldron.”
With great effort, Ridge kept himself from making a comment about how Tolemek’s hair did bring such images to mind. Instead, he pulled out a dagger and slid it between the double doors of the root cellar, trying to unhook the latch. He assumed Tolemek did not have any more of his corrosive metal-eating goo left after their eventful earlier missions.
“I do appreciate you helping me out with Therrik,” Ridge said, trying to keep his voice casual and sincere. He
sincere; he just had a hard time admitting that he respected Tolemek’s abilities and needed his help. It was hard to forget what he had been before Ahn had talked him over to their side, and also about all the people who had died as a result of his “potions.” Of course, it might be easier if the surly bastard ever had a kind word for him. Or even a polite word. Ridge would even settle for a non-judgmental word.
Didn’t you shoot down some ship of his and ruin his military career?
Jaxi asked, her abrupt presence startling him into dropping his dagger.
“Move over, Zirkander. You’re horrible at picking locks.”
Ridge picked up his dagger and let Tolemek have his spot, more because he worried he would have to concentrate on whatever Jaxi had to tell him than because he was accepting that he was horrible at anything.
What’s your point, Jaxi? I’m sure I was defending Iskandia from a Cofah threat, as usual. If his ship was lurking off our coast, it deserved to be shot down.
Just pointing out that you are, or were, his mortal enemy too.
That’s very political of you. Is Sardelle all right? What’s going on?
She’s fine. We’re sitting on some rocks, eyeing the back of the castle and waiting for the night to get later before attempting entry. She wanted you to know.
, Ridge thought.
She also wants to know if
all right. I told her you were trading insults with Tolemek, so she knows all is well.
For now, yes.
Ridge eyed the dark windows of the house, wondering how he was going to get any decent intel when his C.O. was missing and Tolemek did not have the means to make his truth serums.
Tolemek lifted one of the cellar doors. Jaxi did not offer further comments—hopefully, she was not busy burning a hole into the side of the castle—so Ridge followed, groping his way down the earthen steps. He had only been down there a couple of times, but he found his way to the wooden staircase leading up into the house. When he walked into the dark kitchen, his boot collided with something on the floor. It clattered across the tiles. Wincing at the noise, he scrambled after it only to bump into something else on the floor. It rolled to the side and banged into a cabinet.
Tolemek sighed from the top of the stairwell. “So this is the national hero that kids clamor to get into their classrooms.”
“I’m better in the sky.”
Ridge finally got the pots or kettles or whatever he had run into stilled. He set them on the counter and poked through drawers until he found matches for the gas lamps. He lit one, keeping the flame to its lowest setting. It was enough to illuminate the floor and the pots scattered all over it. That in itself would have been alarming—General Ort didn’t let dirt smudge his boots, and his house was always tidy—but Ridge soon spotted something even more upsetting. A throwing knife protruded from an upper cabinet with a cap dangling from it, a cap with a general’s rank pinned on the front.
“Blood over here.” Tolemek pointed to a stain that had dried on the floor.
Ridge grasped his chin and stared at the mess, fighting off the dread that threatened to smother him. He and Ort sparred with each other more often than they raised their mugs to share drinks, but Ridge had known the man for more than ten years, answering directly to him for almost five.
“Not a lot,” Tolemek said, watching Ridge. “They might have kidnapped him, the same as your king.”
?” Ridge grumbled, but he nodded, appreciating Tolemek’s words. Being kidnapped and missing was better than being dead.
Ridge rubbed the back of his neck, wishing he had been around when all of this had been happening. Maybe he would have a clue as to who was behind it all. A story in the newspaper had suggested everyone from the Cofah to pirates to theoretical rebel factions being responsible for the king’s kidnapping, but it hadn’t mentioned any evidence to support any of the hypotheses. If there were rebel factions around, Ridge didn’t know about them. The king was well-liked by soldiers and the common man, and besides, Iskandia had been so busy fighting off the Cofah for decades—for
—that they hadn’t been able to risk internal strife. They were already so outmatched by the empire that their only hope of staying independent had been to create a solidified front.
“I’m going to see what I can make,” Tolemek said, heading for a door that led to the rest of the house. He paused with his hand on the jamb. “I assume you still want to visit Therrik?”
“Oh, more than ever.” Ridge might have sought out officers he considered friends, and who wouldn’t turn him in, but it was doubtful whether those of his rank and below would know what was happening at the highest levels of command—or who was sending down orders from the castle. But Therrik, the wrongfully promoted Therrik,
to know something. “And Tee?” he added before Tolemek disappeared into the house. “I
a truth serum.”
“Anyone ever tell you that you’re demanding, Zirkander?”
“All of my young pilots. Most of the older ones too.”
“Are you sure the word they used wasn’t
Tolemek walked out of view, but the words, “All I ever wanted to do was research,” floated back to the kitchen.
Ridge hoped he could make something. Even if they were able to surprise Therrik, which Ridge was
counting on, he had no idea if they would be able to bring him down or get him to talk. He also wasn’t certain they would survive the encounter.
Harborgard Castle perched on the rock-filled promontory on the north side of the harbor, at the opposite end of the city from the bluff that held the dragon-flier base. The rest of the capital had been modernized, with gas lamps lining streets filled with steam wagons, bicycles, and armored military vehicles, but the ancient black rock fortress had not changed much in the three hundred years that Sardelle had been asleep. It was better lit at night, gas lighting having replaced whale oil lamps, and it would be harder to sneak in, so she was searching for weaknesses as she crouched in the rocks with Kaika and Cas. Specifically, she was trying to find secret tunnel entrances that they might exploit. She recalled hearing about them from a fellow mage adviser, one who had worked directly with Queen Ralthori. Supposedly, there were escape passages for emergencies, at least there had been three centuries ago. So far, Sardelle was struggling to sense any such tunnels beneath the rocks. Of course, the conversation going on behind her was a touch distracting.
“You need plenty of saliva in your mouth for lubrication. And don’t use your teeth. They don’t want teeth down there, trust me. You know about the secret spot?”
Sardelle was glad the question was directed at Cas and not her. She was also glad that night had fallen a couple of hours ago, so the embarrassed flush to her cheeks would not be visible. The technology was the biggest change from the era that she had been born into, but the culture had changed somewhat too. Women hadn’t spoken so openly of sex in her time, even the soldiers Sardelle had worked with on occasion.
They didn’t speak openly of it with
Are you suggesting I was unapproachable?
I’m suggesting that common people don’t feel comfortable talking about secret spots with sorcerers. As to your tunnels, they appear to have collapsed long ago. There’s a dragon flier in the courtyard at the back of the castle. That’s probably how royalty escapes attacks these days.
Are the tunnels completely collapsed? Even if part of one remains, a part next to the castle, perhaps we can cut into the rock above it and slip inside without having to bore a hole into a millennium-old wall.
“Not… really,” Cas said after a thoughtful pause—or maybe an uncomfortable one—and a poke from Kaika. She didn’t sound like she was certain about the conversation, either, but she
been responding to Kaika’s questions.
“Girl, you need to know these things. Look, men will give you a spin, because you’re a warrior woman, and they find that intriguing, but if you’re not as pretty as Freckles over there, you’re going to need some bedroom skills to keep them interested. Assuming you’re still interested in them, that is. If the sex doesn’t have the neighbors complaining because of all the screaming, it might be time to move on.”
“I don’t think I’m tall enough for anyone to consider me a warrior woman,” Cas said dubiously.
“Any man who doesn’t want his balls shot off better consider you one.”
“Freckles?” Sardelle asked mildly, though perhaps it would have been better to stay silent. By objecting to the name, she was probably setting herself up for teasing, but she felt a little left out. It was natural for the two soldiers to bond, even if they were from different units. They both utterly destroy things—and people—for their jobs.
“You didn’t invite me to use your first name, and I don’t know your last name,” Kaika said.
Since they had originally met when Ridge had left his squadron long enough to boot Therrik from his flier and pick up Sardelle—without warning his people first—that was probably true. There had not been time for formal introductions as they flew across the ocean in separate craft.
“I suppose there are worse nicknames,” Sardelle murmured, adjusting her weight against the hard rock at her back.
“That’s the truth,” Cas said. “Just ask Pimples.”
“You’re welcome to call me Sardelle, Captain.”
“Did you want to comment on the conversation, Sardelle?” Kaika asked. “Care to give us some insights into the colonel’s preferences?”