Lindsay Buroker's Blog: Lindsay Buroker
March 22, 2016
Anthologies have been around for a long time, and it’s no surprise that indie authors are editing and publishing them, along with all other types of fiction.
We’ve talked before about how it’s tough to do well with short stories, in part because readers often prefer longer fiction, and in part because the minimum price you can list your ebooks for on Amazon and the other stores (without doing free) is 99 cents. When you sell entire novels for 3.99 or thereabouts, it can be tough to ask a dollar for a story that might only be 5,000 words and take 20 minutes for someone to read.
I thought I’d present another option, something that I’ve done in the past with my pen name and that I’ll be participating in again this summer (this time with my usual name).
Right now, I’m working on a new science fiction series (for regular readers, think The Emperor’s Edge in space). Since it’s a new genre for me, and I’m not sure how many of my fantasy-loving fans will jump over to it with me, I’m looking for promo ideas. I was pleased when fellow SF&F author C Gockel approached me about putting a short story into an anthology with about ten other authors. Right away, I got excited about writing a short story that could work to lead people into my new series, much as Ice Cracker II did several years ago for my Emperor’s Edge series (long before I made EE1 free, I made that short story free).
With the Ice Cracker II ebook, I made a single short story free. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are a few reasons why I’m more excited about multi-author anthologies now (and why you may want to consider organizing one for short fiction too).
1. Multiple authors involved means multiple people promoting it
If you publish a short story on your own, chances are you’re going to be the only one promoting it.
Much as with boxed sets, if you do an anthology with 8 or 10 authors, you have 8 or 10 people promoting it. You’ll send word of it out to your mailing list, and they’ll send the word out to theirs. If you get a couple of established authors in the mix, with thousands of people on their mailing lists, that can be quite a bit of exposure that you wouldn’t usually have.
Instead of a few hundred people checking out your short story, you may get thousands, or even tens of thousands, especially if the book ends up sticking on Amazon, something that’s more likely to happen with all of those people helping promote.
2. You’ll probably make more money overall
In the case of our scifi anthology, I believe we’re going to make it permafree, since our goal is to get as much exposure as we can (I want to get people to try my series more than I want to make money from the short story). But you don’t have to do that.
With an anthology, you’ll likely end up with an ebook that has as many words in it as a novel, so there’s no reason you can’t charge 2.99 and get the 70% royalty.
You can also charge 99 cents if you want more sales overall. Believe it or not, with lots of people promoting these multi-author collections, you can make some money even at 99 cents and even divided eight ways.
3. It’s possible to get ads for an anthology
There are precious few promo sites out there that will let you plug a short story, even if you try to throw money at them. Their readers want full-length novels, and for the most part, that’s what they take. This can make it super tough to sell many copies of your short stories unless you already have a big mailing list of fans and unless you’re writing something that ties into one of your regular series.
But an anthology is a different beast, and numerous sponsorship sites will accept them. Even Bookbub will run anthologies now and then. If you want a BB ad, you’ll probably have to start at a higher price and be prepared to discount to a lower price if you’re accepted (i.e. going from 2.99 to 0.99 or from 0.99 to free). Some people will launch their collection at a low price, such as 99 cents, and promo it to their lists, and then raise the price to 2.99 for a few months before applying — Bookbub likes to give their readers discounted books.
If you’re able to snag a Bookbub and can combine that with all the promo that everyone is doing to their lists, then you can definitely get a lot of eyes on your short story. Compare this to just launching a short story on your own, and I think you’ll see a big difference in the results.
I’ll let you know how my own results are this summer when I have the new series out and when we publish the anthology (as I mentioned, I’ve already had good luck doing this with the pen name — I joined several other authors last summer in writing original novellas for a boxed set, and we hit the USA Today list on our release week.)
February 26, 2016
For those of you following along with my Chains of Honor series (a spin-off set in the same world as my Emperor’s Edge series), the second book, Snake Heart, is now available. If you haven’t checked out the first book, you can read the first few chapters on my site: Warrior Mage preview.
Here’s the blurb and the store links for Snake Heart:
Tasked with an impossible mission, hunted by the very people he wants to protect, Yanko White Fox is the only one who can save his nation from famine and anarchy. Armed only with his fledgling skills as a wizard and accompanied by allies he’s not sure he can trust, he must track down an ancient relic before his enemies find it first. But countless obstacles stand in the way, including his mother. The deadly and infamous pirate Snake Heart cares nothing for the family—or the son—she abandoned, and wants the artifact for herself.
February 23, 2016
Last year, I did a blog post on Amazon’s then-new advertising program and whether it’s working for me. It wasn’t, and it still isn’t (I tried again recently with a couple of my pen name books, since they’re in KDP Select), but I had a recent comment from another author who is using Amazon ads to good advantage.
Since it was a useful comment, I decided to post it here where more people would see it, and I also asked the author, Yancy Caruthers, some follow-up questions (if you’re not already familiar with Amazon’s advertising opportunities for authors, check out my earlier post for more on the basics of what the program is and how it works).
As I read through the comments, the consensus seems to be that this is a waste of time, but I have had a very different experience.
First, connecting your book to specific titles doesn’t work. People go to that title because they care about that book, not yours. You can be creative with your genres – my book is a military memoir, and I advertise in action/adventure as well as military and medical biographies. Cast the net wide! If I was writing Sci-fi romance, I’d advertise in both sci-fi AND romance, and make sure my cover and title reflected my genre accurately. People who weren’t interested simply wouldn’t click. But some would be, and would want to read more.
I started out bidding at 5c, but wasn’t getting more than a few thousand impressions (in a month) and a handful of clicks. After a couple of months, I increased my bid to 8c and started getting more. Impressions don’t sell books, but they do give you data. Out of several thousand impressions, I was getting 0.8%CTR, and my conversion rate was about 5%. I calculated that at that rate, I could pay up to 12c for clicks and still break even, so I increased my bid to 10c. Realize that you won’t get any impressions at all until the Amazon computer connects your ad to a page or keyword.
I went from selling a handful of books per MONTH to selling a handful every day. I’m averaging between 100-200/month. I’m not getting rich, but for every dollar I spend on the ad, I’m making back about $1.50 (about 30c of that is from KU pages read). Those numbers bring reviews now and then for an added bonus.
The ads are flaky, and I think that’s Amazon’s formula – I’ll get sales every day for a week, then I’ll go a few days without any. It averages out – I even had two days when sales were so good, I hit #848 in the entire catalog. Then I didn’t sell any for almost two weeks and was back down into the high five digits with the one-book-a-day-ers.
A couple of things people should understand – The number of impressions you get is a result of your bid and in what market you are bidding into. Your CTR depends on having a great cover, title, and a catch phrase for the ad – and 1% is considered very good. Your conversion rate depends on having a good landing page with a catchy blurb that makes people who land there want to buy. They are already interested or they wouldn’t have clicked. Just reel them in.
So before you pass judgment on Amazon’s PPC, realize that it’s a lot more complicated than “Does it work or not?” The PPC thing now drives 75% of my online sales. Everything else I do drives the other 25% as well as my physical copy sales (about 10% of the total) but that means I’m spending 98% of my time on 28% of my revenue. I’m currently looking at eliminating my time-wasters (like Twitter – ugh – I’m obviously not doing that right) and focusing on things that I have figured out how to make work for me.
After commenting here, Yancy agreed to answer a few more questions:
You mentioned going really wide with your targeting (i.e. all of science fiction and all of romance if you’re writing science fiction romance, even though that’s a pretty small niche). When I used to do Google ads, I’d find that you would be punished (your ad would be shown less) if you had a low click-through-ratio. It seems that when you go really wide like that, there would be a very small percentage of people who would click and that your CTR would suffer. Thoughts?
Amazon doesn’t want ads that don’t sell anything, but those tend to weed themselves out. It’s possible that somewhere buried in their magic formula is a mention of CTR and Conversions, but that hasn’t slowed me down as far as I know.
Targeting a wider audience makes sense, within reason. I made the assumption that readers of fiction action/adventure would be potential readers, even though I wrote a piece of narrative military non-fiction. Even people who read a narrow genre like sci-fi romance also read other genres. Which other genres are the most common?
Since CTR is simply a function of the quality of an ad and where it is placed, one could certainly run identical ads in two different genres and measure the CTR. If one is getting impressions but no clicks, you’re in the wrong market. If neither is getting clicks, maybe the problem is the ad itself. If it’s getting clicks but no sales, take a look at your landing page, cover, and blurb.
Do you have any advice for authors on how to measure what their earnings per click end up being? Since you can’t use your affiliates links, the way some do with Facebook ads, there’s no way to tell which sales came from the Amazon advertising campaign. If you weren’t selling any books, and suddenly you’re selling some at the same time as you’re getting clicks, I guess it’s pretty doable, but what if you already sell books, and the amount varies quite a bit per day?
Amazon tracks this data for you, independently of your other sales! They list impressions, clicks, total spent, total sales, and cost per sale. You can calculate your CTR by dividing the clicks by the impressions. The number of sales can be calculated by dividing the total sales by the cost of the title ($2.99 in my case). Cost of sale is also an important number, even though it’s misleading. Since Amazon already takes 30% of my $2.99 sale, then 70% is the break-even point.
[Lindsay: Hah, I didn’t remember this feature from when I was tinkering last year, but maybe it’s just because I never got clicks! That’s excellent then.]
I assume you’ve played with ad copy quite a bit. Are there any tips or tricks specific to Amazon that you could share?
I have, but I know very little about it. I think of it like a Tweet – there are a limited number of characters to tell the viewer why the book is interesting. Play with it, but be patient and give it time. No ad generates meaningful data until it’s been seen a few thousand times. The quality of the ad is important, so check out what others have done. Equally if not more important is the landing page. Back in September when I started my first campaign, I looked at the landing page and thought, “This is boring. I wouldn’t buy this.”
It sounds like you also haven’t had much luck targeting specific books. Have you tried doing bestsellers or something that’s just gotten a Bookbub ad in your genre? (With sci-fi romance, I think there just wasn’t that much inventory to pick from.)
After I read your blog, I gave the title-linked ads a try. I chose the top 20 sellers in my specific category and added several more. In the past 3 weeks I have gotten less than 100 impressions. My theory is that the more popular titles require a higher bid-per-click. If I could get impressions on those pages, I would probably sell books, but if I bid that high, then I lose money and I won’t pay people to read my title.
I have scaled it for demonstration purposes, but the CTR and Conversion Rates are actual:
Impressions x CTR = Clicks. Clicks x Conversion Rate = Sales.
100,000 x 0.8% = 800. 800 x 6.2% = 49 sales…
Assuming a $2.99 title on which I make $2.05 in royalty, those 49 sales made me $100.45. As long as I didn’t pay more than that for those 800 clicks, then I’m making a profit. I currently bid a maximum of 10c/click, so my 800 clicks would cost $80 at the maximum and I still make $20.45. Since my title is also enrolled in KU, then I also get paid for KU pages read. This has varied, but covers the cost of almost 40% of my clicks.
You may also observe that a very slight variation in CTR or Conversion Rate will make a huge difference in sales. If I could get my CTR to 1%, for instance, I would average 13 more sales per 100k impressions.
Yancy’s plan going forward:
I am going to stop my title-linked campaign at the end of this month. It doesn’t seem to get me impressions since I am only bidding 10c/click.
I am going to split my current campaign into two parts. I want to separate the fiction action/adventure from the non-fiction genres, to see what actually produces the most impressions. I’ll use exactly the same ad, but I want to see if there is any significant difference in CTR and conversions. It is possible that I am losing money on half of my campaign and making it back on the other half.
I’m also going up to 12c/click for a month. If nothing else changes, I’ll be giving away a good chuck of my remaining royalty, but I want to see if I can get a substantial increase in impressions by bidding just slightly higher.
Start out at 5c/click in your own and substantially similar genres. Be patient, give it a month. See if you get exposures (some genres are more expensive than others). Once you have some data (and hopefully some sales) then you’ll know more and can make adjustments. Understand that none of this happens quickly and real data comes with time. Steering an ad campaign is a lot like piloting a battleship in a crowded harbor. I’ve been doing this for almost 6 months and am still making adjustments, trying to find that sweet spot for sales.
February 8, 2016
My January release, Shattered Past, has been getting a little extra advertising on Amazon. By that, I mean it appeared in the first slot of the also-bought section for several other fantasy books that were selling well because they were new releases or because the author was running a Bookbub promo. I’ll pretend it was planned and that I’m smart, but in truth, I noticed the effect later and realized what had happened. (Though I have theorized that this could work before on my podcast!)
I’ll tell you what I did, but before I jump in, let me fully admit that I can’t prove that being in the also-boughts actually led to more book sales. I figure it can’t hurt if people are seeing your book all over Amazon, but I have no way to track sales that might have come that way. Also, in order for you to do this yourself, you’ll need to have at least a small mailing list and/or social media following already built up, so it will probably be tough to do if you’re launching your first novel.
Okay, enough of that. The nitty gritty:
The TL;DR version:
If you plug other books in your genre at the same time as you plug your new release, and if people buy both, it’s likely that you’ll appear on the first page of those other books’ also-boughts.
The longer version with more explaining:
I’m in a new permafree boxed set with 14 other authors (if you like swords & sorcery, make sure to grab it!), and it happened to launch about the same time as my novel Shattered Past. We all plugged the set, Legends, to our lists, but I also plugged Shattered Past in the same newsletter announcement.
Even though we all presumably had readers who picked up the boxed set, my book is the one that’s been in that first also-bought spot since release (I’m sure that will change eventually, as my book isn’t a sequel to the one I have in the boxed set; it’s likely that those also-boughts will eventually populate with direct sequels to the various books in the collection). I suspect this is not only because a lot of people picked up both but because they were picked up at the same time, thus making a very close link in the eyes of whatever algorithm-bot figures these things out for Amazon.
The result is that Shattered Past was in that first slot during the main push of the boxed set. The collection reached as high as 16 in the free store, so a lot of people saw my book, if only out of the corner of their eye as they were clicking the download button for the freebie.
I don’t know how many people looking to download a freebie would randomly go on to buy a $2.99 book they’d never seen before, but that’s not the only book I plugged that week. One of my writer buddies, C. Gockel, dropped her urban fantasy boxed set to 99 cents because she had a Bookbub ad coming. She mentioned on Kboards that she was hoping to hit the USA Today bestseller list (and she did!), so I shared her Facebook post on my author page. Judging by the comments, several of my readers picked up her boxed set.
Don’t bother looking for me in the also-boughts on her book page now, because I just checked, and SP has been bumped all the way to the 22nd page, but that’s because her Bookbub ad ran last week, and thousands of people bought her book after that. You’ve probably noticed that anyone who runs a Bookbub ad will share the also-boughts with a lot of other Bookbub books from the previous days’ mailings — in essence, Bookbub does exactly what we’re talking about here.
But on the day of Gockel’s Bookbub ad, and I believe even the day after, those also-boughts hadn’t been reset with Bookbub books yet. Shattered Past, even though I’d only plugged it on Facebook and not to my mailing list, occupied the #1 slot for her boxed set, so I got some more free advertising. I’m not sure how high her book made it in the Amazon store, but I know that I was #1 in her also-boughts on that day that she got thousands of extra eyes on her book page. Essentially, I’ve gotten a lot of extra views of my book cover this last couple of weeks, even though I haven’t spent a dime advertising that book yet.
Here’s another book that I finished reading last week and plugged to my people yesterday, when I was again mentioning SP (just in case my readers had missed the last newsletter!):
As you can see, SP is already in the first also-bought spot again.
So, what’s the message here?
Like I said, it’s unlikely that appearing on the first page of also-boughts for a book results in piles of piles of sales, even if it’s a popular book, but I do believe it’s likely that it will result in at least some sales over time. I know that I’ve grabbed samples of a lot of books I’ve seen in the also-boughts of other books I’ve purchased, especially if they have cool covers that really draw my eye.
So, not only does it pay to plug other authors in your genre, but it might pay to scheme a bit in the way you go about it. In the very newsletter where you’re mentioning your latest release, you might mention another new release by an author, one that you maybe read and enjoyed yourself. (I think you’ll get more mileage from plugging a newer release, because the also-boughts won’t have filled in with all of the author’s other titles yet, something that usually happens with a series writer.)
I haven’t tried this method yet with a real big name in fantasy (for good or ill, I tend to prefer the quiet little books that aren’t best sellers to the heavy hitters, and I’ll usually only recommend what I’ve liked, especially to my newsletter subscribers), but if I see the opportunity someday, I certainly will.
Can you do this with a small list?
If, as I mentioned above, you’re thinking that this won’t work for you because you don’t have many mailing list subscribers yet, I wouldn’t necessarily assume that. All I did with the Gockel book was share her post on my Facebook page, so I’d guess that a maximum of 10 people (10 people who also had purchased SP) bought her boxed set. That was all it took to get me into the first slot on a book that had been out for a while — who knows how long I might have hung out there if she hadn’t wiped the slate clean with a Bookbub ad?
I think you’ll find that unless people are actually doing what I described here, most of the typical also-boughts may only be linked by a couple of shared buyers. It shouldn’t be that hard to appear on the page of the book of your choosing, assuming some of your readers pay attention to and buy your recommendations!
February 1, 2016
As you may already know, Podium Publishing is producing my Dragon Blood series. If you haven’t grabbed it yet, the first three books are available in one collection (a crazy good deal if you buy with Audible credits or if you already own the ebook, since you can add the audio for only $2.99 through Amazon).
Now, the fourth book in the series, Patterns in the Dark, is also available.
Thanks for listening!
January 26, 2016
I mentioned on Twitter last night that I’d snagged another Bookbub ad for one of my boxed sets, and someone asked what the trick was, since they had been trying for years to get accepted. I thought I’d do a write-up with some tips, since I’ve had 20-odd ads with them over the years, between my pen name and my regular name (there’s one tip: you can technically have two Bookbubs in a month if you have two names). I don’t apply every month, but I do it as often as it makes sense. Maybe one day I’ll have enough series out there that I can keep cycling through my Book 1s and have a different one to promo each month of the year.
For those who haven’t heard of Bookbub, it’s the one sponsorship site out there that pays off for most authors who use it, meaning you’ll often make your money back and more on Day 1 or 2 of the ad if you’re doing a 99-cent title. If you’re advertising a free book that’s the first in the series, you’ll often make the money back and more in the sales of the subsequent books, though that usually takes a little longer, as people have to work through the series. Bookbub is also the most expensive site out there, with ads in some categories costing over a thousand dollars. But right now, the size of their subscriber base is far, far larger than that of any of the other sponsorship sites.
As you can imagine, they’re popular with authors wanting to purchase ads, too, and they hand at more rejections than acceptances. So, what’s the trick to getting an ad? I’m sure most, if not all, of this is already out there, so I’ll attempt to keep my list short. I’ve also included a video of an interview with a Bookbub employee at the end, and she answers a lot of questions about what they’re looking for and why some books are chosen over others.
1. Have a professional cover
They get tons and tons of submissions and can afford to be picky. I’m a subscriber to the sci-fi and fantasy lists, and it’s super rare to see a cover that looks homemade (usually when it happens, it’s an old trad published book!). Plenty of indie books get accepted, but they all have covers that look like a pro made them.
If you have a truly awesome cover (and sometimes it’s hard to self-judge on this), your odds can only get better.
2. Make sure you’re offering a big discount
I’ve had $2.99 books that I wanted to drop to 99 cents get accepted, but they’ve stated straight out in interviews that they want to give their subscribers the best deal possible. I believe this is why the boxed sets get accepted so often–a lot of these are 6.99 and more, and the authors are discounting them to 99 cents. If you’re selling your ebook at 99 cents or 2.99 right now and planning to apply eventually, you may want to bump the price up to 3.99 or 4.99 for the three months prior.
3. Make sure you’re promoting Book 1
Unless you have the kind of open-ended series where someone can jump in at any point, make sure you’re applying with the first book in your series. (If it is an open-ended series, I would mention that in the comments box.) Bookbub has specifically stated that they prefer Book 1s.
4. Have a LOT of reviews
I’ve had books accepted where there are less than 100 reviews on Amazon, but it just seems to be much more likely that you’ll get a spot if it’s clear that your book is already popular and that lots of readers have liked it. The more competitive the category, the more true this appears to be.
Yes, it’s a chicken and an egg thing — how do you get that many reviews before you’ve used something like Bookbub and gotten massive exposure? If you’re struggling to get reviews, consider doing a free run and using some of the smaller and less picky sponsorship sites to get some exposure to your book at the same time. Also, in the back of the book, politely ask your readers to leave a review. Believe it or not, that does make people more inclined to do so.
I’ve heard that Bookbub looks at reviews on Goodreads as well as Amazon and some other sites in determining whether to accept a title, so if you don’t have much going on over at GR, you might consider doing some giveaways there of physical books or just asking your regular readers to leave reviews there.
5. Make sure you’re a good match for one of their categories
With the stuff I write under my regular name, it’s easy. It’s all fantasy. I request the fantasy category.
With my pen name, things get trickier. It’s science fiction (space opera) romance, and they often balk at the idea of putting those kinds of books into their sci-fi category (I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s dominated by male subscribers).
The first two times the pen name got Bookbub ads, they insisted on putting the books into paranormal romance. That’s usually vampires and werewolves and the like, and the stories are set on Earth and have magic in them (in short, they’re fantasy). I didn’t think my space adventures would be a good fit. I paid for the ads anyway, because even a bad Bookbub experience tends to pay for itself or at least get you a lot of exposure, but they definitely underperformed compared to what I was used to. I knew that even with the romance element, the pen name stuff would do better in straight up SF.
So… when it came time to submit a boxed set, I redid the cover and gave it a pure space opera look (stars, a planet, a space ship!) with no sexy shirtless guys or couples in the clinch. I also composed a blurb that mentioned that romance was included (along with adults scenes), but which played up the adventure sci-fi aspect. The boxed set got in, and it did extremely well.
Tip: it’s tougher to get a Bookbub ad with a KU title, but if you can, you’ll probably do really well running it as a Countdown Deal, since you earn 70% on that 99-cent book instead of 35%, and you’ll also get a lot of extra borrows.
Note: you may be asking if it’s worth redoing your blurb and maybe even your cover just to have a better shot at fitting into a Bookbub category. It probably is, not just because of Bookbub, but because the book might very well perform better in general if it seems more inline with a specific category’s tropes. Sadly, originality isn’t usually what sells books. An original story on the inside is fine, but in general, people seem to be more likely to buy more of what they already know they love!
If you have any other Bookbub acceptance tips, please leave them in the comments. Now, here’s that interview and a couple of links to helpful articles on the Bookbub blog too:
How Bookbub’s Selection Process Works
Tips on Optimizing Your Submission for a BookBub Featured Deal
Free vs. Discounted: How BookBub’s Selection Rates Vary
January 22, 2016
While I was debating whether to write any more novels with Ridge, Sardelle, Cas, Tolemek, etc., I decided (a beta reader may have convinced me) to write another side story, this time with Therrik getting a chance to be the hero (or maybe anti-hero?). And he’s not alone. I’ve brought in a new heroine to add to the cast.
If you’re looking for a new action-adventure fantasy novel to read, one with a little romance, then here’s the blurb and the first chapter of Shattered Past:
Professor Lilah Zirkander (yes, she’s related to the famous pilot, and no, she can’t get him to autograph your undergarments) is looking forward to a summer in the paleontology lab, researching and cataloging new fossils. But that summer takes an unexpected turn when the king sends her into the Ice Blades to a secret mine where ancient dragon bones have been discovered. Rumor has it that they’re cursed and dangerous, but Lilah is more concerned about dealing with the outpost commander, a fierce officer with the temperament of a crabby badger.
As punishment for irking the king, Colonel Vann Therrik is overseeing the hardened criminals working in the remote Magroth Crystal Mines. He would like a chance to redeem himself—and escape the loathsome duty station—but nothing is going his way. Cursed fossils have delayed production, miners are trying to escape, and now a scientist has shown up, making demands on his time. Worse, she’s the cousin of his nemesis General Zirkander. As if one Zirkander in his world wasn’t bad enough.
Investigating the fossils leads Lilah and Vann into the depths of Magroth Mountain where centuries-old secrets lurk, and a long-forgotten threat stalks the passages. To have any chance at survival, they’ll have to work together and perhaps learn that neither is what the other expected.
Professor Lilah Zirkander walked down the aisles between the desks, setting exams facedown in front of students who alternated between looking warily at her and gazing longingly at the clock. She stood between them and their summer vacation. Well, they stood between her and an exciting summer project too.
“For those of you who need to pad your academic résumés—or need extra coursework to complete your degree—Professor Haytar has informed me that we’ll need a couple of assistants for our summer project,” Lilah said.
“Are you going out to the field again, Professor?” Natashi, a third-year student, asked. She was one of the few students who had seemed to enjoy the class, taking it because of an interest in the subject matter, rather than because it satisfied a math requirement, without actually requiring much math. As if math was something to shy away from. Hmmph.
“No, the project will take place in the science lab.”
Lilah handed out the last exam to the sandal-wearing boy in swimming trunks who had drawn his answer to the last essay question. Had it been an anatomically correct drawing, she might have awarded a small amount of credit, but his dragon skeleton looked more like a lizard skeleton, and it included genitalia completely inappropriate to either.
“Most of our government funding was siphoned off for military use this year,” Lilah added when Natashi’s face fell with disappointment, “so we can’t afford any projects that involve travel.”
Lilah also found the news disappointing, since she enjoyed her annual escapes from the campus, but a quiet summer without any students to teach would be appealing too. She secretly hoped that nobody took her up on the offer for extra credit. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the kids, but teaching left her feeling fraught. Research was so much more appealing than dealing with people, especially young people. They were so… recent. And mouthy. Who could fathom them and enjoy their company? She much preferred fossils.
“We will be undertaking an intensive cataloging project in the lab. All those fossils that were unearthed in the Sundaran Ice Field last summer are waiting to be studied and labeled for a museum exhibit this fall.”
“Dragon fossils?” the student with the propensity for drawing asked, his gaze jerking from the window to Lilah’s face for a rare moment of eye contact.
“It’s an amazingly complete collection of Glophopteris rugoniana specimens.”
The student behind him slapped him on the back. “Plants, you idiot. It was on the test.”
“Ferns, to be exact,” Lilah said. “Giant ferns from more than three million years ago. Iskandoth used to be quite the tropical haven.”
Several sets of shoulders slumped. Lilah admitted that fern fossils didn’t pack the museum the way that dragon bones did, but there was so much to learn from studying them. And dragons were frustrating. She had given ten years of her life to trying to identify their ancestors so someone could complete their phylogenetic tree in a manner that made sense. Alas, she had never found the missing link. Plants had proven less of a mystery, thanks to the fact that their fossils were so much more easily found.
Shouts and cheers and the stamping of feet came from the hallway, some lenient professor letting his or her class out early. Typically, Lilah would not be disposed to do the same thing, but when two-dozen hopeful sets of eyes turned in her direction, she sighed and relented—it wasn’t as if those distracted brains would process anything else she said today.
“You can come see me after class if you’re interested in the summer work or in my paleobotany class in the fall,” Lilah said and waved toward the door. “Go. Enjoy your—”
The rest of her words were buried in the slamming of books, rustling of clothing, and overall noise of a mass exodus. Lilah dropped her arm and headed to her desk. Let them enjoy their youth. She planned to enjoy the solitude of a campus largely free of noisy students.
“Professor Zirkander?” Natashi asked. She was the lone student left in the room, and she looked oddly nervous as she clutched her books to her chest and smiled tentatively.
“Yes? Are you interested in the cataloging project?” Lilah liked Natashi more than her other students. She studied hard, earned good marks on her papers, and showed a genuine interest in the field. She also dressed appropriately for a place of learning, eschewing the swimming trunks and sandals fashion that had cropped up of late.
“Maybe, ma’am, but I was also wondering… uhm, you’re related to General Zirkander, the pilot, aren’t you?”
“He’s my cousin,” Lilah said warily, having a hunch as to where the conversation was going. She endured such inquiries at least once a month. Multiple times a week after a newspaper article highlighted the actions of Wolf Squadron in driving off some Cofah attack farther up the coast. “I don’t know him well,” she added, waving vaguely toward the north. The capital where the flier pilots were based was more than two hundred miles up the coast.
“You don’t visit him?”
“Why would I do that? I don’t need anything from the capital. I don’t even have a horse for traveling that far.”
“But he’s General Zirkander!” Natashi said with the dreamy look that suggested she probably kept a few newspaper clippings of him in her notebook, ones that highlighted his face with hearts drawn around it.
“I can’t imagine what we would talk about.”
Lilah distinctly remembered Ridge—Ridgewalker, thanks to his parents’ fondness for quirky names—teasing her for reading books instead of playing with the other kids at one of those dreaded family get-togethers they had endured as children. He was an only child and had been delighted to run around with age mates, hurling balls like a fool. Lilah, with three older brothers, hadn’t been nearly as enamored with the idea of siblings and playmates.
“Oh.” Natashi bit her lip. “Well, uhm, just in case, would you be able to get his autograph for me if you happen to see him?”
Lilah forced herself not to roll her eyes. She was thirty-seven now. Entirely too mature for eye rolling. “If you haven’t graduated by the time I see him next, I’ll keep it in mind.” Along with the fifty-odd similar requests she’d had in the last year. At least Natashi didn’t pull out a bra and brazenly suggest that Ridge might like to sign it.
A throat cleared in the doorway. A short-haired, clean-shaven man in an army uniform leaned in, looking at the student and then at Lilah.
“Professor Zirkander?” he asked.
“Yes?” Lilah waved the man in, though she couldn’t imagine what would have brought him to the science and history college. Classes? There was a small navy outpost a couple of miles outside of town, where soldiers visited to practice sea-based exercises, but they did not usually have the time or interest to enroll. “You’re not looking for General Zirkander’s signature, too, are you?”
“Uh, no, ma’am. I already have that.” He lifted a beige folder as he walked down an aisle toward her desk. He stopped a few paces away, clasped his hands and his folder behind his back, and looked at Natashi. “I can wait, but I need to speak with you in private when you’re done, ma’am.”
He nodded at Natashi, giving her a slight smile. He wasn’t much older than she was, and he was handsome in his tidy, pressed uniform and his polished boots. Natashi would do much better to stare dreamily at him, rather than at pictures of someone who had crossed forty already.
“I’ll send you a message about the summer project, Natashi.”
Lilah dismissed her student with a nod, curious as to what was in this soldier’s folder. She was inclined to think uncharitably of the military, especially since they had been getting so much of what should have been the college’s funding of late, but she was sure this youngster hadn’t had anything to do with it. Besides, he had a sweet face and reminded her of Lieutenant Bakstonis from the Time Trek series. She wondered if her visitor had read the popular books and would understand the reference.
As soon as Natashi disappeared, shutting the door on her way out, the soldier opened the folder. “My name is Lieutenant Sleepy, ma’am. I’m from Tiger Squadron, and I’m here to fly you to the capital.”
“Sorry, it’s a nickname. You can call me Lieutenant Derkonith, if you like. Or Jhav.” He smiled and glanced at her neck, where she still wore the promise necklace her late husband had given her. At least, she thought that was where he was looking. Breasts weren’t far from necks, after all, and a lot of male gazes got hung up on her chest, no matter how demurely she dressed. At least the young men—students, as well as soldiers—weren’t usually impertinent enough to grab, bump, or make assumptions that her chest was available for handling. She’d had to snap at a couple of the distinguished professors over the years and had earned a reputation for being… difficult. As long as they let her keep researching and publishing papers, they could call her whatever they wished.
“My confusion wasn’t derived from your name, Lieutenant, but rather from your belief that you’re flying me somewhere.”
“Oh. Well, that’s in the orders, ma’am. I’m to allow you time to pack clothing and to collect whatever tools and equipment you need.”
“How generous of you. What happens if I refuse to go with you?” Lilah accepted the paper, so she could see for herself what this was about.
“He said you wouldn’t, ma’am, especially on account of your classes being finished today.”
“He? General Zirkander?” She bristled at the idea of a cousin she hadn’t spoken to in nearly five years making assumptions about her.
“Uhm, King Angulus, ma’am.”
She blinked and stared down at the paper, glancing at the signature on the bottom. General Zirkander’s messy scrawl was on there, yes, but King Angulus Masonwood III had also signed the page. Nerves twisted in her belly. What could the king want with her? She’d never met the man or even been in the capital for one of his public speeches.
Reading the entire document might help. She started at the top, mumbling to herself as she skimmed it. “…your presence humbly requested… possible dragon fossils unearthed… top-secret facility… determine if the bones are legitimate, and if so, if they should be removed for study or if demolitions can continue.” She gaped up at the pilot. “Demolitions?”
“I don’t know anything about the facility or the demolitions, ma’am. I’m just here to give you a ride to the capital.”
“Is that where the bones were discovered?”
“No, ma’am. But we’ll pick up General Zirkander there. Oh, I was told to tell you to pack warmly.”
Lilah looked toward the courtyard, which was lined by lavender bushes that had been blooming for weeks already. “Somewhere in the mountains?” she guessed.
The pilot shrugged. “I’m just a lieutenant, ma’am. They don’t tell us much. I assume the general will give you more details. But I do know enough to recommend that if you have any weapons, you may want to pack them too.”
“Weapons?” That was almost as alarming as the idea of demolitions in an area of scientific importance. Were they going somewhere that wild animals would be a problem? She did have a collection of hunting rifles, though she hadn’t been out on safari since Taryn had passed away, so she hadn’t practiced with them in years. It was rare for rhinos and wildebeests to rampage through the streets of Port Yenrem.
“Do you have any, ma’am? The general said he’d send a bodyguard along, but it might not be a bad idea if you take a pistol or at least a dagger. In case, uhm. Well, I’m not supposed to know this, but I heard the general growl something about Colonel Therrik being in charge of where you’re going.”
The way the pilot said the name made Lilah think she should be familiar with it. She knew of a few historically significant Therriks, but hadn’t run into a modern person with the name. Was it some other soldier who was mentioned often in the newspapers? If so, she wouldn’t know about it, since she much preferred historical texts to current events.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine, ma’am. I shouldn’t have said anything to alarm you. Besides, the king said he’ll give you some orders to take with you, orders that will ensure Therrik is polite to you.”
The man had to be forced to be polite to a woman? That didn’t sound promising.
“Is this Colonel Therrik not someone known to cooperate with visitors from academia?”
The lieutenant rubbed his jaw, as if in memory of a painful punch. “I think he’s more likely to eat visitors from academia.”
January 19, 2016
The final bonus scene in the series is here! Also, for those who were wondering if Soulblade would be the last Dragon Blood, I’m almost positive that I’m going to write one more with all of the main characters before letting them retire. Also, look for Shattered Past, a side novel with Therrik and a new heroine, which will be out after January 22nd.
Bonus Scene #1: Fowl Advice
Bonus Scene #2: Fowl Friends
Bonus Scene #3: Fowl Revelations
Dragon Blood Bonus Scene #4: A Fowl Proposal
General Ridgewalker Zirkander did not usually pilot his flier over the capital and land in the street in front of his house, but this was a special occasion. He made sure his picnic basket was still secure, then hopped out of the craft, pleased that a couple hours of daylight remained. Once on the ground, he touched his breast pocket–again. The bulge nestled inside reassured him. He had left work early to visit Azerta’s Fine Jewelry and pick up the custom-made promise necklace for Sardelle.
A tiny diamond and sapphire sword meant to represent her soulblade, Jaxi, dangled from the gold chain. The jeweler had suggested all manner of decorative pendants from flowers to newly trendy dragons to ancient runes that translated to “love” or “forever,” but since Jaxi was closer to Sardelle than any sister ever could be, Ridge had thought the sword appropriate. Besides, it wasn’t as if he could have a relationship–a marriage–with Sardelle without including Jaxi.
Ridge wiped his damp palms on his uniform trousers as he approached the walkway. He had the jewelry. Now, all he had to do was ask her to marry him.
Should he change into something less formal before asking her to join him? Or would his uniform make him seem more dashing and appealing? He wasn’t sure he wanted to deal with all of the buttons if things progressed in the direction he hoped. Nor did he want to lose his jacket over the side of an arch, since it would tumble hundreds of feet into the river that flowed through Crazy Canyon. Despite all the advice he had received on the topic of sedate proposals, he couldn’t bring himself to take Sardelle out to dinner and bend a knee next to a candlelit table. His proposal should be epic. Exciting. Breathtaking.
I believe you’re too late, Jaxi spoke into his mind as he reached for the doorknob.
Ridge froze. His heart might have frozen too.
Too late? he responded, trying to keep the panic out of his mental voice. He had been trying not to think about his proposal plans around Sardelle, since Jaxi was usually at her side and poked into his thoughts more frequently than she did, but that didn’t mean he had succeeded in keeping it secret.
You won’t need your flier tonight, Jaxi said. You might as well have come on a horse.
Ridge tightened his grip on the doorknob. Are you saying that… Sardelle wouldn’t like to go for a ride tonight?
Not in your flier. She has other plans.
Other plans? She said she would be home this afternoon. Ridge had specifically asked her if she could take a break from teaching Tylie and the two new students she had taken on so that they might have time together. Of course, he hadn’t told her why he wanted that time together, just that he planned to come home early to be with her. She had agreed. She’d seemed excited at the idea. Why would she have other plans now?
She got tired of waiting for you, genius.
Tired of waiting? Ridge knew he should turn the doorknob and stop standing there in stupefied silence, but he couldn’t quite parse what Jaxi was saying. She couldn’t mean that Sardelle had gone looking for… someone else. Could she? Yes, they had both been busy lately, but they had been doing the work they loved, each of them, and when they had found time to come together, it had been passionate and exciting. He’d done his best to make it so. The absences had only made them value their time together more, or so he had believed.
Yes, yes, she’s still enjoying your randy bits and your passion, Jaxi said. That’s why she’s waiting for you in the duck blind.
Oh? Ridge let go of the doorknob and looked toward the pond next to the house. He imagined the comfortable plush chairs inside his duck blind, then pictured Sardelle lounging naked in one, her bare leg draped over one side as she perused one of his model flier magazines…
The model flier magazines are what get you in the mood, not her. And yes, that is odd.
Sardelle called it charming.
She’s more tactful than I am.
Well, she can peruse anything she likes to get in the mood. Is she, ah, in the mood now? Ridge left the walkway and headed for the path leading to the duck blind, notions of proposals being stampeded out of his mind by more libidinous thoughts.
Not exactly. Better go see her.
Worried about those dubious words, Ridge hurried down the path. Squawks came from the reeds, and he glimpsed ducks paddling toward the muddy bank. Maybe if he tossed the entire tin of crackers out the window, they would be quiet, so he could sweep Sardelle off her feet and into the duck blind, where they could… discuss their magazine preferences.
You’re not editing your thoughts for my sake, are you? Jaxi asked.
I thought I would keep them tame since you’re swimming through my mind faster than those ducks can paddle around the pond.
I’m fully aware that men have lurid fantasies about Sardelle. I’ve even encountered men who have lurid fantasies about me.
Er, you as a sword? Or you before you became a sword?
Trust me, you don’t want to know.
You’re right. He was far more interested in being lurid with Sardelle. With that image planted firmly in mind, he rounded the bend and strode toward the duck blind door. At least, that was his intention. He froze when he spotted the very large golden-scaled dragon perched atop the stone structure. No wonder the ducks were squawking.
“Are there enemies about?” Ridge asked, slowing to a stop. Bhrava Saruth was always in his human form, or sometimes his ferret incarnation, when around the house. Ridge glanced around, hoping none of the neighbors across the pond could see this.
The dragon lowered his massive golden head, his familiar green eyes gazing intently into Ridge’s soul. Neither Cofah invaders nor pirates are nearby, Bhrava Saruth informed him. The ducks, however, are having unpleasant thoughts about me.
“Perhaps if you threw them some crackers.” Ridge glanced at the dragon’s wingtips and also at his short arms and long claws. Could dragons throw?
Do you think they will worship me if I feed them?
Perhaps in their own fowl way. Ridge smirked at his pun.
Bhrava Saruth merely scratched the back of his neck with a wingtip and looked thoughtfully toward the ducks.
The door opened, and Sardelle walked out, an inviting smile on her face. That looked promising, dragons looming on the rooftop of the duck blind or not. Ridge smiled back.
“I wasn’t expecting to find you here,” he said, spreading his arms for a hug.
Sardelle wasn’t naked, as in the image his mind had conjured, but she wore a lovely white dress with a broad belt that accented her waist and snugged the fabric up nicely to her bosom. Instead of the sandals she had been wearing around the house since summer had fully blossomed, leather riding boots adorned her feet. Probably wise for the muddy path leading to the duck blind.
And for riding dragons, Jaxi said.
Riding dragons? Ridge’s gaze lifted toward Bhrava Saruth. One of the large golden eyelids shivered in an approximation of a wink.
Before Ridge could contemplate that further, Sardelle slid into his arms, accepting his hug and returning it with pleasing enthusiasm. The ducks that had been maneuvering through the reeds floated closer, but they did not waddle out of the water, as they sometimes did in their eagerness to receive crackers. Perhaps the presence of the dragon kept them at bay.
Sardelle leaned back enough to look at his face, her blue eyes as warm and appealing as ever. They crinkled around the corners, and she said, “Your bulge is poking me.”
“Sorry, I got excited imagining you in there, reading my magazines.”
Her brows rose, and she tapped the square lump in his breast pocket, the jewelry box.
“Oh. That bulge.” Ridge bit his lip. He couldn’t give it to her now. He had to propose first, and he didn’t want to do that on a muddy path with ducks quacking from the reeds. “That one is for later.”
She leaned against his chest. “Should I look forward to seeing it?”
“I certainly hope so.” Ridge looked up at Bhrava Saruth. “Are you… uhm, I was going to ask you to fly somewhere with me.”
“Odd. I planned to ask you to fly somewhere with me.”
Jaxi’s comments about riding dragons returned to his mind. He waffled, disappointed that she’d made other plans for their evening when he had hoped to finally enact his grand plan. He thought of the picnic basket in his flier and dinner packed inside, delicious fried chicken, bacon-wrapped and honey-glazed corn on the cob, and chocolate-dipped dragon horn cookies, all specialties of the pretentious but fabulous Brownstone Plaza Delicatessen. Well, perhaps they could share the contents for breakfast.
“I’ll go anywhere with you,” Ridge said.
I can arrange for that dinner to float along after you, Jaxi said.
Ridge imagined riding a dragon across the countryside with a picnic basket flying after them. He wasn’t sure which would alarm the local farmers more.
“Excellent.” Sardelle stepped back, sliding her hands down his arms, then holding up a finger as she leaned into the duck blind to grab her sword belt off the closest chair. Jaxi lay nestled inside of the scabbard. Ridge wondered where Sardelle meant to take him that they might need a soulblade.
I am always needed, Jaxi informed him. I am a necessity. Surely, you must know this by now.
Of course. Foolish me.
Sardelle looked toward the dragon. “Bhrava Saruth, are you ready?”
One moment, high priestess.
Something was floating out the door. The cracker tin that Ridge kept in the duck blind. The lid popped open, seemingly of its own accord, and several crackers drifted out. They floated over to the water, snapped into small pieces in the air, then descended to the surface. The ducks forgot their alarm over the dragon and zipped out of the reeds to snap at the crackers, devouring the pieces whole.
“We could take my flier instead of your dragon,” Ridge murmured, “and not have to worry about him getting distracted.”
Then he could pilot. He always preferred piloting to being a passenger.
I am not distracted, Bhrava Saruth announced. As the now-empty cracker tin floated back into the duck blind, he lowered his long neck and head. Climb on.
The ducks hurried away, wings flapping with alarm, as that head came close to the ground–and the water. Squawks sounded as they disappeared into the reeds.
Foolish creatures. Did they not realize that I, their god Bhrava Saruth, was responsible for their meal?
“Do you truly want ducks as worshippers?” Sardelle asked as she pulled herself onto the back of the dragon’s neck, then scooted down it until she reached his shoulders and could sit astride him. “They wouldn’t be able to rub your belly.”
That is true. Also, their brains are tiny and incapable of acknowledging my godliness.
Ridge kept a snarky response to himself. After all, he was climbing onto the dragon and putting his fate in Bhrava Saruth’s hands–claws.
One wonders what he thinks of our brains, Sardelle said telepathically, giving Ridge a wink.
Since he made you his high priestess, he must think yours is special, Ridge replied, settling in behind her. He slipped his arms around Sardelle’s waist. Even though he had ridden the dragon a couple of times before, and knew that Bhrava Saruth’s magic would keep them from falling off, a man should never neglect an opportunity to wrap his arms around his lady.
I’m not going to bring your picnic basket if you make me gag, Jaxi said.
We need to find you your own romance so you’ll be too busy to comment on ours. I believe Wreltad is the right… species.
Taddy is pompous, smug, and he used to work for the enemy. Also, he hasn’t asked me on a date.
Ridge couldn’t imagine how two swords could go on a date, but all he said was, I can speak to him about that, if you wish.
You can make him less pompous and less Cofah?
I could suggest that he be charming enough that you forget about his flaws.
Has that been your strategy with Sardelle?
That and keeping her delighted in the bedroom.
Can you hear that? The sound of a sword gagging?
Then again, Ridge said, I may look for a nicer soulblade lady for Wreltad. He’s from another time. Probably not used to ladies with such noisy throats.
The next thing he experienced in his mind was the vision of a sword scowling. Fiercely.
Ridge rested his chin on Sardelle’s shoulder. “Where are we going?”
“It’s a surprise. Hang on tight.”
Bhrava Saruth sprang into the air, the reeds and nearby leaves swaying as his powerful wingbeats created wind. Ridge was tempted to wheedle their destination out of Jaxi, but he kept his mind silent as they soared above the trees at the end of the pond and banked to fly over the city. A few startled shouts sounded from the streets below, but Bhrava Saruth soon took them high enough that they would appear to be nothing more than a bird far overhead.
The air grew chillier as they gained altitude, flying north along the coast, and Sardelle leaned back in Ridge’s arms. He thought about looking over his shoulder to see if a picnic basket was soaring along behind them, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to see his corn and chicken being treated to such an experience.
As they flew, the sun lowered toward the horizon, turning the waves a burnished orange. Miles passed below, and the beach disappeared, replaced by rocks until the shoreline grew steeper, and cliffs rose above the churning water. Up ahead, the mouth of Crazy Canyon came into view, the river pouring out into the sea.
Sardelle looked over her shoulder, a sly smile curving her lips upward.
Ridge narrowed his eyes. “Did someone blab about my plans?”
Plans for what? she asked innocently into his mind. Also, hang on tight again.
Bhrava Saruth swooped down like an osprey angling for a fish, and Ridge’s breath caught as the vast blue ocean spread below them and the wind riffled his hair. He did, indeed, hold Sardelle tightly, whether to keep her safe or to keep from falling off himself, he didn’t know.
The dragon pulled up at the last moment, his talons clipping the waves, and then they were off in a new direction, arrowing into the mouth of the canyon. As Ridge had done many times with his flier, they swept along the river, up between trees growing alongside it, past looming boulders, and around ancient rock formations. The first arch came into view, the pillars thrusting out of the tops of the cliff walls and rising up until they joined together, forming a curving bridge over the canyon. Bhrava Saruth flew loops around one of the pillars, turning them upside down as he streaked around and around. Gravity should have hurled Ridge and Sardelle into the water below, but magic kept them astride the dragon.
Even though he preferred piloting to riding, Ridge found himself grinning as Bhrava Saruth flew on to the next arch up the canyon, whipping through a maze of rock pillars along the way. Not being the one in control added an unpredictable element, and not being entirely positive that magic would keep him from falling kept his heart pounding in his chest. He wasn’t sure if Sardelle was enjoying the experience quite as much, judging by the tense set of her shoulders and the way her nails occasionally dug into his jacket sleeve, but she must not have said anything to Bhrava Saruth, because the dragon raced through the entire canyon twice before flying toward the top of one of the wider arches.
He alighted on it, talons wrapping over the edge. Interestingly, a blanket weighted down by rocks and two picnic baskets stretched across the mostly flat top of the six-foot-wide arch. Two more blankets were folded neatly at one corner. Was that his picnic basket next to the red and yellow one he hadn’t seen before?
Naturally, Jaxi spoke into his mind. Even though you teased me, I’m mature and magnanimous enough not to want to ruin your moment with Sardelle.
I teased you? Didn’t you gag at me?
Yes, but you deserved it.
“This is our stop.” Sardelle’s braid had come apart, and she tucked strands of hair behind her ears as she peeked back at him. Her face was a tad pale, but she smiled for him.
“That was amazing.” Ridge grinned–he had never stopped grinning. “Almost as exhilarating as when I fly.”
Bhrava Saruth, who had been perched patiently, waiting for them to get off, swiveled his head around to regard Ridge with his luminous green eyes.
“All right,” Ridge amended, “it was as exhilarating as when I fly.”
Sardelle squeezed his thigh, and they slid off the dragon’s back. He landed first, catching her about the waist and eyeing the drop. The arch rose a good two hundred feet above the canyon floor. If that blanket was up here for the reasons he hoped, they could have an exhilarating time, much as he had imagined.
Jaxi, have you been poking through my thoughts and telling Sardelle about what I planned?
Not me. You probably shouldn’t let that dragon spend so much time lounging in your duck blind.
“Ridge?” Sardelle had stepped onto the blanket, and she looked back at him, holding out a hand. “Join me?”
Bhrava Saruth leaped into the air, flew down into the canyon, coasted along the river, then disappeared into trees to one side.
“It appears I have no choice.” Ridge wiggled his eyebrows at her. “You seem to have kidnapped me.”
“Only because I was afraid you’d never get around to kidnapping me.”
He stepped onto the blanket and took her hand, nerves starting to cavort in his stomach. Whether Jaxi or Bhrava Saruth had told her of his thoughts regarding proposals, she clearly knew what he had been planning.
“I just wanted to make everything perfect.”
“Perfect or memorable?” Sardelle glanced in either direction, the miles of the canyon cutting below them to either side, the setting sun painting the cliff walls red.
He nibbled on his lip, trying to remember the words he had rehearsed that morning, while he had supposedly been paying attention to a report from the Tiger and Wolf Squadron commanders.
Sardelle unbuckled her sword belt, laying Jaxi’s scabbard next to one of the picnic baskets.
“Oh,” he said, eyeing her waist and wondering if she meant to remove other things as well. “Are we going to forget words and skip right to, uhm.”
“I have a few words first.” She bent and lifted the lid of the red and yellow basket.
Because he was a gentleman, he didn’t use the moment to ogle her backside. Much. “Will Jaxi be watching? Er, listening?”
“She’s only here in case we fall asleep, forget where we are, and roll off the rock.” Sardelle waved to the drop-off.
“I wasn’t imagining that sleeping would be the reason might lose track of our surroundings and tumble over the edge.” Ridge wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or disturbed that Jaxi would be watching over them.
I promise to close my eyes, Jaxi said.
And withhold comments?
Don’t I always when you’re having tender moments?
During them, I do. Commentary afterward is fair game. Sardelle and I have agreed upon this in the past.
“You’re going to be that engrossing tonight?” Sardelle turned toward him, something clasped in her hands.
“I’ll strive to be. It’s also possible that our lovemaking will be so vigorous that the rock will crack and break.” He tapped the blanket with the toe of his boot.
I can make commentary beforehand, too, Jaxi said.
Such as gagging?
When it’s appropriate.
“Then it’s a good thing Jaxi is here.” Sardelle stepped forward, but she looked down at her hands instead of up at him. “I know it’s not traditional in today’s Iskandia for men to wear signs that they’re married, but among the Referatu, there is–was–a tradition.”
“A tradition?” he asked, watching her hands.
“Yes. This is nothing fancy, or pretty, really,” Sardelle said. “I made it myself, and I lack your mother’s talent, but it does have a little magic to it, a protection. I’m a healer, and I have the assistance of a dragon, for good or ill–” She smiled briefly, even if she still wasn’t meeting his eyes. Was she nervous? She never seemed nervous. “It will basically help protect you from viruses and it will promote good health. And this is my ziasta–I’m not sure if there’s a word for it in Iskandian, but it’s like a mix between an old clan mark and a sigil.” She finally revealed what she had been fiddling with, a leather cuff with a cluster of runes etched on the top. She lifted her gaze and met his eyes. “I would be honored if you wore it.”
Ridge stood still, staring at Sardelle as the realization slowly came over him that she was proposing to him.
He had once told her that it could go either way these days, with the man or woman taking charge, but for some reason, he had assumed she would wait for him to do it. All this–the ride out here, the arch, and the picnic–had been the very plan he had envisioned, albeit with him piloting his flier instead of Bhrava Saruth flying them. But he’d hesitated to enact it, since everyone had told him that women preferred sedate dinners for proposals. Someone had shared his fantasies with her, and she had done all this to give him the proposal he’d dreamed about.
“I…” Touched by her thoughtfulness–and her willingness to endure that crazy ride to get here–he groped for something articulate to say.
“I should warn you that it’s more than just a gift. It’s kind of like… I’m claiming you. Marking you with my sigil. It lets others know that we’re bonded and that they’ll have to deal with me if they try to hurt you or harass you in any way.” She shrugged. “At least that’s what it once meant. There aren’t many people left alive who would recognize the significance.” That familiar wistful sadness flashed through her eyes, as it often did when she spoke of the people she had lost. “It’s the tradition, that’s all. A way to protect the one you love.”
Love. Ridge swallowed. They had both shared the word with each other before, but neither of them flung it around frequently, and he still felt a charge of warmth when she confessed that she loved him.
As Sardelle gazed up at him, her freckled face as serene as always–though the way she fiddled with the cuff hinted at that nervousness–he realized she must be waiting for an answer. And that he might be making her uncomfortable by not giving her a prompt one.
“I’m dumbfounded, not hesitant,” he rushed to say.
“Before we left, Jaxi told me to use my mental powers to invade your privacy and investigate your bulge.”
“The one in my shirt, right?”
The corners of her mouth quirked upward. “Yes.”
“So you know that I’d very much like to marry you, even if it means letting you mark me like the alpha wolf in the pack.”
“Wolves scent mark, don’t they? I assure you, I only used leather-working tools on that.”
“That’s a relief.” He grinned and reached for it. “May I see it?”
“You may wear it, if you wish. Though you’re mine after that.”
“Then put it on me promptly, please.” Ridge offered his wrist.
She pushed up his sleeve and slid the cuff over his hand. He tried to decide if he could feel a tingle of magic, then teased her by giving it a sniff. She shoved him.
“Careful,” he said, “you might knock me over the side, and Jaxi would have to get to work early.”
“We wouldn’t want that.” She stepped closer, leaning her chest against his, her curves delightfully appealing, even through their clothes. “Do you have something for me now?” She looked down at his shirt pocket. Bless her, she seemed eager to see what it was–even if she had already seen it, in a manner of speaking.
Realizing she hadn’t precisely said the words he meant to say yet, he delved into the pocket, a flutter of nerves teasing his stomach anew. It was silly. She had already marked him. What did he have to be nervous about now?
“Sardelle?” His voice came out a touch squeaky, and he cleared his throat while he opened the box. He pulled back the lid and tilted the gold chain and the diamond and sapphire sword pendant toward her so she could see it. “Will you marry me?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” she said, sliding her hands up to his shoulders. “Truly. I thought you’d never ask.”
“Oh, sorry. I wanted it to be…” Ridge looked toward the fiery red sun, only the top quarter of it remaining above the horizon, painting the entire sea crimson. A hawk cried in the distance, probably wondering what humans were doing on its perch. He grinned, both at the amazing view of the canyon and the ocean and at the woman standing in his arms. “Perfect,” he finished softly.
“I appreciate that, but I just want to be with you.”
He tried to swallow a lump that refused to be swallowed. Since he couldn’t find his voice right away, he used the moment to remove the necklace, return the box to his pocket, and secure it around her neck. “You’re a rare and amazing woman, Sardelle,” he said softly.
I’m gagging again, Jaxi announced.
“Does she say those things to you too?” Ridge asked.
“About the gagging? Many times a day. If she were human, she would have developed a throat condition by now.”
Fortunately, I am a sublime and magical being. And I have no throat. You’re supposed to kiss her now, genius.
“I guess that last comment was for me,” Ridge said, lifting a hand to Sardelle’s cheek.
“Unless you’ve changed sexes recently, that seems likely.”
“My, ah, bulge should affirm that’s not the case.”
“We’re talking about the necklace box, right?”
“Anything else would be crude.” He waggled his eyebrows at her.
She snorted and leaned in, lips parting in invitation. Ridge bent his head, and, as they melted together, remembered the first time they had kissed. The warm sea breeze and the last rays of the summer sun were so different from the frigid conditions in that cave high in the Ice Blades. How long ago had that been? Eight months? Nine? Not so long in the grand scheme of things, but they had been through so much that it seemed that he had known Sardelle forever. He couldn’t imagine not spending the rest of his life with her now.
“Ridge?” Sardelle murmured, pulling back.
“Hm?” He blinked, disappointed that the kissing had stopped.
“I didn’t bring this blanket out here so we could stand on it.”
“Oh, I see. Yes, I’m sure we can find a better use for it.”
He grinned, and they soon returned to kissing, and other things. Jaxi, fortunately, did not comment until much later.
January 15, 2016
Dragon Blood Bonus Scene #3: Fowl Revelations
General Ridgewalker Zirkander flopped down in his comfortable-if-hideous chair in the duck blind, groaning as he draped a leg over the armrest and settled in. He had been working non-stop for the last two weeks, and it hadn’t been the enjoyable kind of work, such as patrolling the shoreline, hunting down and shooting enemy aircraft. No, he had been lecturing at the academy, choosing graduating officers for the squadrons, training everyone on the new models of fliers that were rolling out, and traveling all over Iskandia for inspections. He’d hated inspections when he had been the one being inspected, and he found the rigmarole even more tedious as a general. Instead of enduring one inspection, he had to endure one at every base he visited.
He let his head loll back, too tired to grab a book or the latest issue of Essential Model Builder Magazine. Sardelle had left a note in the house, saying she would be home later. He had been dreaming of shared massages all day and hoped she wasn’t as weary as he was, or they would be giving each other rather limp rubs. Maybe a nice nap would reenergize him.
As he closed his eyes, a chorus of demanding squawks started up outside of the duck blind. The fowl that lived in this pond were not blind at all to the existence of the stone structure, and they were probably letting him know that he hadn’t been by to feed them for a long time. Tylie should have tossed some crackers out now and then, but perhaps she was busy learning magical things. She hadn’t been at the house either, so she might be out with Sardelle.
“I’ll feed you after my nap,” Ridge called out to the ducks.
Plaintive quacks floated through the window. He swore the little creatures could understand him.
“They’ve been lonely without their human cracker-delivery service,” came a familiar voice from the doorway.
Ridge wanted to sink lower in his chair and hide long enough for his visitor to wander off. But how did one hide from a dragon?
Bhrava Saruth poked his head through the doorway. As was usually the case in the neighborhood, he was in his blond-haired human form rather than in his golden-scaled dragon form.
After many long days of dealing with soldiers and military politics, Ridge doubted he had the energy to listen to a dragon who thought himself a god. Still, it was worth putting out some effort to keep Bhrava Saruth happy and content. He had been instrumental in chasing the enemy dragons away from the castle that spring, and if any more trouble came to Iskandian shores, he would be a powerful ally.
“Hello, Bhrava Saruth. Acquire any new followers?”
“I have indeed. I am very pleased with my progress. I came to share the good news.”
Bhrava Saruth ambled inside and flopped down in the other chair, the one with staples in the seat holding the striped fabric together. He did not seem to notice any discomfort. Emulating Ridge, he slung one of his legs over the armrest. He wore grass sandals and cutoff trousers, a hemp shirt with tiny purple flowers sewn onto it, and several beaded necklaces that dangled almost to his waist. Ridge did not comment on the interesting style. He was relieved whenever the dragon remembered to including clothing when he shape-shifted.
“I have acquired three new followers,” Bhrava Saruth said. “Two are only children, but they brought me a stuffed dragon toy and sweets. The third one is a voluptuous young woman with very curvy and bouncy–”
“Yes, I remember her,” Ridge said, hoping to interrupt before excessive details came out. “You tried to bring her to the house to enjoy those curves.”
“Yes, that is she,” Bhrava Saruth said with all the shame of a dog thrusting a leg into the air and licking his nether regions. “This is what I came to speak with you about.”
“I don’t want to hear about your conquests.”
“My conquests? In the Cofahre Empire? In my day, I had many when I battled against the imperial dragons and dragon riders who came here to attack Iskandoth. When the humans saw my gloriousness, they flocked to my temple to become my worshippers.” He slumped back in the chair and sighed. “I miss those days.”
“Because you had other dragons to keep you company?”
“Talon and fang, no. Dragons are incredibly uptight and so unappreciative. My human followers were much more enjoyable to be around. I received many toys from children. And many sexual favors from women.”
“Not at the same time, one hopes,” Ridge murmured.
“No, but all in my temple. Ridgewalker, mate of my high priestess, I’ve come to implore you.” Bhrava Saruth shifted in the chair, turning his striking green eyes toward Ridge, eyes that held such power and magical energy that they made a man shift uncomfortably, no matter what silly things their owner was talking about. They did, indeed, manage to look imploring.
“About what?” Ridge asked warily.
“I wish your help in finding a place in your city where I might build my temple.”
“I…” Ridge had no idea what to say. It wasn’t as if he was some noble who owned countless properties in the capital.
“Yes, my high priestess said you would be the person to ask.”
“Uh, Sardelle said that?” Ridge and Sardelle might have to talk about more than massages when she returned.
“Her precise words were that you would be more the person to ask than she.”
“An enthusiastic endorsement then.”
Bhrava Saruth leaned on the armrest, his expression very earnest. “Would your military not have land that might be used for such an important structure?”
“Not in the city, unless you want to put it in the army fort.” When those green eyes brightened, Ridge rushed to add, “There wouldn’t be much room in there. Lots of buildings already taking up space. Buildings full of offices and ordnance and training facilities.”
“That is unfortunate. Soldiers lead dangerous lives. It would be most convenient if they could come to me for blessings before leaving on their missions.”
Ridge rubbed the back of his neck. “I suppose I could stop by the tax office and see if anyone is delinquent and if the land might be acquired cheaply. I know there was some damage to structures in the Cofah attack this spring. Some of the owners couldn’t afford to–”
“Someone comes,” Bhrava Saruth announced, looking toward the doorway.
“Sardelle?” Ridge asked hopefully. He could either foist Bhrava Saruth off on her, or he could clasp her hand and lure her off to the house, telling her to shoo the dragon away so they could spend some time enjoying each other’s company.
“It is that strange woman who doesn’t believe in dragons. How can you not believe in dragons? Dragons are magnificent. I do not think she will ever worship me.”
“Are you talking about my mother?” Ridge sat up in his chair. What had brought Mom out to visit this late in the evening? Seven gods, she wouldn’t want to spend the night, would she? That would make it awkward if he pulled Sardelle off into the bedroom and shut the door. It was bad enough Tylie lived in the house most of the time, though at least her room was downstairs. “Is she coming out to the duck blind? You should go. Even when you’re human, you’re too… too… I don’t know. She’ll think you odd.”
“Me?” Bhrava Saruth’s green eyes blinked. “Odd?”
Ridge made a shooing motion, but it was too late.
“Ridge?” his mother called from the trail around the pond.
Ducks squawked outside of the blind, and wings flapped. The hungry creatures were probably going to descend upon her. Ridge hopped to his feet and charged through the doorway, not sure if he meant to defend his mother from an alarming flock of ducks or if he meant to keep her from running into Bhrava Saruth. Maybe both. He kept thinking that he should sit her down someday and attempt to explain that Sardelle was a sorceress and that Bhrava Saruth was a dragon, but he didn’t know how she would handle that when she didn’t believe in the existence of either.
“Mom,” he said, nearly crashing into her a step outside of the duck blind.
“Oh, good,” she said, gripping his arms and smiling. “You’re home. Vilhem said you should be, but you never are. Really, Ridge. I don’t know how you plan to father babies when you’re so rarely with the lovely Sardelle.”
She wore a sleeveless summer dress dotted with tiny yellow buttercups, and turquoise bracelets dangled from her wrists. Bright yellow enamel hair clips with suns painted on them matched the dress and kept back her long gray locks. Ridge briefly wondered if Bhrava Saruth had inspected her wardrobe for fashion ideas.
Ridge shifted strategically to block the doorway–and the view inside. “I don’t think the creation of babies will be all that hard when we’re ready to, uhm.” Hells, he hadn’t even planned how he meant to ask Sardelle to marry him yet. Shouldn’t that come before babies?
“That’s what I came to talk to you about,” his mother said.
“About babies?” Why had everyone come to talk to him on his rare evening off? The long days of summer meant that it was still light out, that he could relax in his humble duck blind and enjoy the quiet. He loved his mother, but he loved her more when she was in her house fifteen miles north of the city, and visits were on his terms.
“Oh. I’ve been thinking about that–”
“You are going to propose, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I just haven’t decided how to do it yet. I… Mom, there are six ducks staring at you.” He nodded toward the trail behind her.
“Don’t you keep bread crumbs for them? They seem expectant.”
“I have some crackers inside, but–”
“I’ll get them.” His mother patted him on the arm and moved to slip past him. He shifted his weight to block her.
“I’ll get the cracker tin and meet you over by that cove with the reeds in it,” Ridge said. “The ducks feel safe there, and we can talk while we feed them.”
“Don’t be silly, Ridge. They’re blocking the trail. We’ll never get by without a bribe.” She tried to slip past him on the other side.
“I’ll get the bribe,” he said, blocking her again. “Just wait outside, please. I have company.”
“Company.” Her lips pursed with disapproval. “It’s not a woman, is it? Ridgewalker Meadowlark Zirkander, if you’re cheating on my future daughter-in-law with another woman, I’ll club you in the side of the head with a rolling pin.”
“No, Mom. Nothing like that.” He grimaced. He was going to have to let her in. She’d crossed paths briefly with the human Bhrava Saruth before, so maybe he could just pass the dragon off as one of Sardelle’s colleagues. A quirky and eccentric colleague with eyes that bored into a man’s soul while reading his every thought…
“Step aside, Ridge,” she said with the same firm tone that she had used to order him to drop his drawers for a spanking.
Ridge sighed and did as ordered. “As you can see, it’s not a woman. It’s just–”
“Uh?” Ridge peered into the duck blind.
Bhrava Saruth, now transformed into a golden-furred ferret, chittered at them from the chair. He flopped onto his back, legs in the air, and stretched out, displaying his belly.
“Yes, my–ah, Sardelle’s–ferret. He scares the ducks away. I wouldn’t want him to run out.”
Bhrava Saruth made some more noises and gave his belly a pointed look with his green eyes. Those eyes were always the same, no matter what incarnation he was in.
“Do you want to rub his belly, Mom? I’ll grab the crackers.”
“Hm.” His mother bent to stroke the ferret. “He doesn’t look like he would scare the ducks, but I suppose he is a predator.”
Ridge bit his lip to refrain from saying that she should see what Bhrava Saruth did to sheep.
Sheep are delicious, Bhrava Saruth announced into his mind, drawing out the last word with his enthusiasm. His head lolled back in delight as Mom stroked his fur.
“About that proposal, Ridge,” his mother said. “You should do it sooner rather than later. You don’t want to risk losing Sardelle with your reckless career and your cavalier bachelor ways. Does she mind the women who fling themselves at you when you ride past in the city?”
“Nobody’s flinging themselves at me these days,” Ridge said. “I’m a general now, stately and unapproachable.”
“There are duck droppings on your boots, General.”
Ridge sighed and shook the cracker tin. “Do you want to help me feed them?”
Bhrava Saruth chittered a protest when his mother straightened, leaving his belly bereft of pats. You can throw the crackers out the window, and she can stay and attend to my needs.
She’s not going to become one of your followers.
That is unfortunate. She has most excellent hands.
“Do you have plans yet?” his mother asked tenaciously. “Dinner reservations someplace nice?”
“No, not yet.” More ducks had gathered in the pond outside of the window and also on the path, so Ridge crumbled crackers to toss into the water. “General Ort suggested a dinner date, but I thought that sounded overly sedate.”
He didn’t mention that Lieutenant Ahn had also suggested something sedate. Didn’t his comrades know that Ridge couldn’t do sedate? He wanted Sardelle to remember his proposal and to be knocked over by the delightfulness of it. He wasn’t convinced that flying upside down through Crazy Canyon and then landing atop one of the slender rock arches spanning the waterway wouldn’t be a good way to propose. He could pack a picnic and a blanket, securing them so they wouldn’t fall out when his flier was upside down, and they could dine at the peak of the arch. Then he could surprise her with the promise necklace, and they could make love high above the canyon, with the stars and moon shining down upon them. So long as they didn’t forget where they were while in the throes of passion, and roll over and fall off the arch, it would be perfect. And memorable.
Perhaps you should have a dragon ally nearby, Bhrava Saruth said, interrupting his daydream. Thus to swoop in and keep you from falling to your deaths if your mating is too vigorous.
I’ll keep your offer in mind, thank you. Ridge shuddered at the idea of Bhrava Saruth or Phelistoth watching from an adjacent arch as he and Sardelle… consummated the proposal. Did one consummate a proposal? Or just a marriage? He wasn’t sure.
“Vilhem is a smart man,” his mother said, and it took Ridge a moment to remember what she was responding to. “A woman doesn’t want to fear for her life during a marriage proposal. You weren’t thinking of flying her somewhere… untoward, were you?”
“Ah.” Ridge thought of his arch, an arch that he could not now imagine without envisioning a dragon looking on from somewhere nearby. “It crossed my mind to take her someplace adventurous.”
“Well, uncross it. Goodness. Dinner, Ridge. In a nice restaurant. And don’t choose cheap jewelry.” She frowned at him, as if he intended to buy some flimsy bauble from the man who sold dragon luck figurines near the army fort. “This is important.”
“I wasn’t planning to, Mom. I already ordered a necklace. With sapphires, to match her eyes.” He didn’t mention that General Ort had given him that idea; he would hate to feel unoriginal.
“You don’t approve?”
“Sapphires will be lovely, but see if you can sneak some diamonds in there too. Girls love diamonds.”
Ridge imagined ending up with some giant, gaudy pendant if he added everyone’s favorite gem to the mix. That could end up being expensive too. He was already dipping into his combat pay to make sure he got something of high quality.
“I’ll think about it,” he said neutrally.
“And a gold chain. You’re far too old and established in your career to get away braiding grass or giving a woman a leather thong. Do you want me to sketch some ideas for you?”
He glanced at the dubious bracelets encircling her wrists. “Thanks for the offer, Mom, but I’ve already got a professional jeweler working on it.”
That earned him another, “Hm.”
Ridge was half-tempted to shoo her away so the advice-giving would end, but she had come all this way. He supposed he ought to invite her to dinner–he had noticed some sausage links in the kitchen that Sardelle must have purchased.
Actually, the sausage was a gift, Bhrava Saruth said as he lay contentedly, Mom rubbing his belly. From my new worshipper.
The woman or the children?
The woman. She is excellent with sausages.
I bet, Ridge responded, having second thoughts about offering those sausages to guests.
“I could make the reservations for you,” Mom offered. “Soon. You are thinking about soon, aren’t you?”
Ridge sighed. “Yes, Mom. Soon. Did Dad take you to a fancy restaurant?”
“No, and I’ve long lamented that. I’m so glad you’re a better man than he is, Ridge.”
Bhrava Saruth protested when she left him to come over and clasp Ridge’s hands.
“Dad didn’t propose nicely to you?” Ridge frowned, feeling affronted on her behalf.
“I actually proposed to him. In the kitchen.”
“That doesn’t sound romantic.”
“No, but I didn’t want him to get away on another of his trips before… oh, let’s not worry about it. It was a long time ago. I’m far more interested in what you plan with Sardelle.”
Ridge had never asked his mother about her proposal, or marriage, or much of anything about how she and Dad had met. Oh, he remembered her sharing a few stories when he’d been a boy, but what boy cared about the romance between his parents? He had never even been comfortable thinking of his parents having romance.
“I hope Dad at least accepted in a timely manner.” Ridge scooted to the side. “Here, why don’t you sit down, Mom? Do you want a blueberry tart? My new aide foisted these off on me, yesterday.” He reached for a bakery box on the shelf next to the cracker tin, only to find it empty despite the promising grease spots on the bottom. “Er, never mind. I guess someone ate them.” He shot the ferret a dirty look.
Bhrava Saruth hopped onto the table and jumped into Mom’s lap as soon as she sat down. He cooed at Ridge, pointedly not looking at the box.
Why can’t you be like Phelistoth and just like cheese? Ridge wondered, certain the dragon was still poking around in his thoughts.
You wish me to be like a self-important silver dragon with no sense of humor whatsoever? That sounds dreadful. Bhrava Saruth stretched out across Mom’s lap, his furry tail twitching in contentment as she stroked his back. She may yet wish to worship me.
Yes… as soon as she decides you exist.
I could prove my existence to her most easily.
“It took some convincing,” Mom said. “He had plans to explore the world and didn’t want to be tied down.”
“How did you convince him?” Ridge leaned against the wall and tossed a few crackers out to the ducks.
“Honestly, I didn’t. You did.”
Ridge almost dropped the cracker tin. “Pardon?”
“I suppose we should have told you long ago, but you never seemed that interested in hearing about our relationship, and he’s gone so often that it never really came up. You were at the wedding, dear. In a manner of speaking.”
“I… Isn’t your anniversary ten… no, eleven months before my birthday?”
“We adjusted the date, dear. Back then, the world was less forgiving of such things.”
Ducks squawked, requesting more crackers, but Ridge barely noticed as he digested this information. He supposed it didn’t matter that his parents had never told him they had tinkered with their anniversary date, but it seemed strange to imagine them doing so. He was relieved they hadn’t changed his birthdate and that he wasn’t older than he thought–that would have been alarming. He did find it distressing that his parents might not have married for love.
“Does this mean that you and Dad wouldn’t have gotten married?” he asked slowly. “If not for me?”
His mother spread her arms. “Who knows, dear? I was rather enamored with him. I’m not certain he felt as strongly about me, or that he’s ever felt that strongly about anyone. He’s easily distractible, you may have noticed.”
“Everyone’s noticed, Mom.”
“But he was handsome and not unkind. Also, despite his distractible nature, he was quite amorous and energetic in the bedroom, so–”
“Mom.” Ridge resisted the urge to stick his fingers in his ears. Barely.
She shrugged at him. “I was young, and all of my female friends were quite jealous that I’d caught his eye. I felt honored to have been picked.”
“To have been picked? Mom, you’re not a pumpkin in some farmer’s garden.”
“Thank you for that, dear.”
Human mating rituals sound complicated, Bhrava Saruth announced into Ridge’s head. He was sitting up on the table now, probably upset that Mom had stopped petting him. Not upset… just forlorn.
“Did you at least… I mean, do you wish things had gone differently?” Ridge wondered how close he had come to not even existing. Handsomeness and energy didn’t seem like enough reasons to spend a life together.
“I prefer not to dwell on the past.”
He slumped. That sounded like a yes.
“What’s important is that you and Sardelle seem to truly love each other. Don’t take that for granted and assume she’ll wait forever.”
“I’m not. I won’t.”
With dragons, mating is much simpler, Bhrava Saruth told him. A female goes into her breeding cycle, seeks out a male, informs him that she’s chosen him, and then rutting commences.
Romantic, Ridge thought. What happens after the rutting? Do you raise the babies together?
Dragons have eggs, and they hatch. Hence, hatchlings. The female is in charge of raising them. If the male comes near them, she’ll typically drive him away. She might even bite him. Or bite something off him.
Even more romantic.
“I’m glad to hear it.” Mom squeezed his hands before letting them go. “I’ve enjoyed watching you two together. You have something most people can only dream about.”
Ridge realized that she must count herself among most people. He supposed he had always known his father hadn’t been the ideal husband, if only because he had been gone so much, and Ridge had been disappointed in him more than once, but he’d always thought the relationship worked for his mother, that she had different expectations or maybe that he was less distant with her. It saddened him to learn that might not be the case.
“Are you hungry, Mom? Why don’t we make some dinner?” He wrapped his arm around her and guided her to the duck blind exit. “I think we’ve got some nice–”
Bhrava Saruth hopped onto Ridge’s shoulder. I would be willing to share my sausage with your mother.
Ridge nearly choked.
His mother looked curiously at him.
“Ham,” he managed to say. “I think there’s some ham left in the icebox.”
January 10, 2016
When I wrote the first Dragon Blood bonus scene, I wasn’t thinking about making a series of them, but when I was working on my Colonel Therrik side project (yes, he and a new heroine are getting their own book), I mentioned that a certain thing had already happened, and one of my beta readers pointed out that some readers might not appreciate it if they didn’t get to see that certain thing on the page (don’t you love it when authors are mysterious and vague?). So… I’m planning a couple more of these bonus scenes. At the end, the certain thing will happen.
Thanks to Rue Silver for the inspiration for this one (she wanted to see some more of Cas and Tolemek).
Dragon Blood Bonus Scene #2: Fowl Friends
Cas clasped Tolemek’s hand as they turned off the main street and onto the dead-end road where Ridge and Sardelle lived with a passel of houseguests who ranged from occasional to constant. Tylie, whose birthday it was today, should be excited to see her brother. Even though Cas and Tolemek had leased a cozy house between his lab and the army fort, Tylie still spent most of her time here, wandering around the woods and the pond to collect animal friends when she wasn’t busy studying magic. Tolemek kept hinting to her that she could move in with him now that he had a suitable house, but she seemed to prefer this quasi-rural living to the city life. Cas could understand that. She had grown up with room to roam and explore, at least when her father hadn’t been stifling her with mandatory athletic endeavors and shooting practices.
“I hope Zirkander doesn’t ask me to make him anything,” Tolemek grumbled. “The pharmacy isn’t open today.”
“I’m sure he won’t,” Cas said.
“I don’t know how he ever accomplished missions before he had me to rely on.”
“It is a mystery.”
Tolemek gave her the squinty eye.
Cas squeezed his hand and grinned back. She had no trouble seeing through the grumpy grumble. Whether he admitted it or not, Tolemek had been excited at the chance to escape his lab and visit everyone. Even Zirkander. They hadn’t had a mission since their kidnapping adventure in Cofahre, so Tolemek hadn’t chatted with many of Cas’s pilot acquaintances in several weeks. Even though he pretended to be engrossed in his work, she could tell from how chatty he was when she came home at night that he found the life isolating and a little lonely. Today, he had been the first one out the door, eager to see his sister and Sardelle.
Tolemek’s squint relented, and he returned her smile and hand squeeze. “I hope Tylie likes the charcoal set we got her.”
“I’m sure she will. Didn’t you say that she has paints and pencils, but not charcoal?”
“Yes, Zirkander got her all the paints she could need.” His mouth twisted in something between wryness and displeasure.
“Are you irked because she prefers to stay here?”
“No. Yes.” He stopped when they reached the house, pausing before turning down the walkway. “When I’m honest with myself, I admit that this is a better place for her, that she needs a mother and a teacher more than a big brother, and Sardelle’s a good influence. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel some…”
“Brotherly interest in her well-being.”
“You know she’s fine.”
Tolemek sighed and led her down the path. “I’m not sure it’s right that you’re the more mature person in this relationship.”
“I agree. You should work on that.”
“By gaining in maturity myself or by bringing you down to my level?”
Cas swatted him. “I hope you don’t have a potion for that.”
“Not yet, but if I can fix Pimples’s love life, I can do anything with my powers.”
“Megalomania isn’t as attractive a quality in a man as you might think.”
“No? It gets Bhrava Saruth a lot of belly rubs.”
“It helps that he can turn into a cute furry ferret. Maybe you should work on a potion for that.”
The door opened before Cas could knock on it. There was nobody there, though clanks and voices came from the kitchen in the back.
“Uhm,” Cas said. “Do we go in or…”
“It worked.” Tylie leaped through the kitchen doorway, barefoot as usual. She skirted the huge couch, its frame made from bullet-ridden crashed flier parts, and flung herself into Tolemek’s arms. “Tolie!”
“Someone’s working on telekinetics again, I believe,” Tolemek said, enfolding Tylie. She was a couple of inches taller than Cas, but still short enough that he could look over her head and smile a greeting to Cas.
“I didn’t even bang the door against the wall this time,” Tylie told them.
She stepped back, spun a pirouette, then raced back into the kitchen. She linked arms with another girl on the way, someone who appeared to be around fourteen, and who was covered in flour. Some neighbor friend?
“Cas and Tolie are here,” Tylie announced, dragging her comrade into the kitchen.
Cas looked down at a couple of cedar siding shingles lying in the flower bed under the wall and had no trouble imagining doors being flung open. Hard.
She nudged Tolemek before he could walk in and showed him the shingles. “Perhaps it’s good that she only visits us. You did pay the majority of the damage deposit.”
“Hm. This house is still standing. She can’t be doing too badly with her studies.” He walked into the living room. “Even that couch is still standing. Alas.”
“If machine guns couldn’t take it down, nothing can.” Cas poked a finger into one of the holes in the frame.
Sardelle walked out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. The air smelled wonderful, of cinnamon and cloves, and Cas thought she detected a berry pie of some sort too. Her stomach rumbled in happy anticipation.
“Hello, you two,” Sardelle said with a smile.
“You’re baking?” Cas asked. “I didn’t know, uhm.” She paused, not wanting to offend. She hadn’t been aware that Sardelle had culinary skills.
“Fern is baking. I’m assisting.” Sardelle smirked, implying that this might not be as calm an activity as the words suggested. “There is instruction involved. Fern is concerned that Ridge is working too much and that I’m not fattening him up properly.”
Cas blinked, trying to imagine a portly General Zirkander wedging himself into his flier. He was already on the tall side for a pilot, so he had better keep his frame lean.
“His head is already plenty fat,” Tolemek said.
Other than the slightest eyebrow raise, Sardelle ignored the dig–she had a way of making an insult, and the person delivering the insult, seem juvenile without saying a word.
Tolemek lowered his head and scuffed his feet on a rug. Juvenilely.
Sardelle pointed toward the pond. “The boys are in the duck blind if you want to relax until the meal is ready.”
“Duck blind?” Tolemek asked at the same time as Cas mouthed, “Boys?” Was she supposed to go with the boys?
“Why is there a turtle on my cookie sheet?” came a voice from the kitchen. General Zirkander’s mother.
Sardelle patted Cas on the shoulder and waved her toward the pond. “Trust me. You’ll want to join them rather than–” The squawks of a bird, perhaps multiple birds, interrupted her. She shrugged and stepped outside to finish speaking. “Follow the path there, and you’ll see it. You’ll probably hear it. The boys are drinking, playing cards, and listening to records. Cas, you’re welcome to join us in the kitchen, but the duck blind is a turtle-, kitten-, and raven-free zone. Some visitors find that appealing.”
Raven? Had another pet been added to the household since Cas and Tolemek had come out for the barbecue the month before?
“Is it a dragon-free zone?” Tolemek asked.
“Ah, not currently. But I understand Bhrava Saruth doesn’t cheat at cards if you distract him with tarts.”
“That’s… reassuring,” Cas murmured. “Sardelle? Was your former life this, uhm, interesting?”
Sardelle’s eyes crinkled. “It was more filled with magic, including magical creatures, gadgets, and experiments, than animals or dragons, but it wasn’t without its interesting moments.”
“Where’s my assistant?” Fern called from the kitchen. “Tylie, come carry your turtle out of here. It’s licking the sugar off the sugar cookies.”
“Give Ridge a kiss for me,” Sardelle said and waved them toward the pond before disappearing back inside.
“You better not,” Tolemek said as he and Cas stepped off the walkway.
“What? Kiss General Zirkander?” Cas asked.
“I assumed that directive was for you.”
Tolemek curled a lip. “I’m not going to kiss him.”
“Good.” Cas linked her arm in his. “I’d hate to spend the day consumed by jealousy.”
He snorted, his sneer shifting to a smirk. He kissed the top of her head before they had to separate to weave along a muddy path meandering between reeds and trees. The sound of lively music reached their ears before the duck blind came into view, a stone structure set into the ground between the path and the pond, with a long rectangular window overlooking the water. A sturdy oak door stood open, revealing familiar people gathered around a table that had been pulled into the center. General Zirkander and Bhrava Saruth in his human form sat in hideous chairs, one upholstered in faded stripes and the other in an equally faded floral pattern. Lieutenant Duck, Pimples, and Captain Kaika sat on stumps that had been dragged inside, their shoulder blades pressed against the wall in the tight space. Phelistoth, also in human form, leaned against the wall behind Zirkander and Duck, frowning across the card table at Bhrava Saruth.
Greetings, humans, Bhrava Saruth spoke into Cas’s head, and perhaps Tolemek’s, as well. Have you come to renounce your old and useless gods and be embraced to my loving bosom?
“We came for Tylie’s birthday party,” Tolemek said, his gaze flicking toward Bhrava Saruth’s chest. The dragon, his mussy blond hair hanging into his eyes, looked back at them and wriggled his brows.
“Tee, Ahn.” Ridge waved for them to enter. “Pull up a stump.”
Cas did not see room for any more stumps. She was small enough to squeeze into a corner, but Tolemek was already hunched low to stand in the doorway, and he did not appear enthused about crawling over Bhrava Saruth’s lap to reach what might optimistically be called an opening around the table.
“Here, take my spot.” General Zirkander stood up, his own head in danger of bonking the low ceiling, and waved to his chair. “I need to check on Mom and Sardelle, make sure the kitchen isn’t on fire yet.”
“You know you just want to check on the status of those sugar cookies, sir,” Duck said.
Zirkander grinned at him. “Do you object?”
“Absolutely not. I’ve been waiting for warm cookies. Why else would I come to a teenage girl’s birthday party?”
“Because she calls you Wasley and doesn’t tease you about your name?”
“Oh, right. That too.”
Pimples rearranged his cards and nodded in agreement.
Zirkander started to step around Bhrava Saruth, but the dragon-in-human-form held up a hand. “I believe you lost the last of your fliers and the rules of the game state that you must forfeit a tart.”
“We’re playing the baked goods version of Sky Riders,” Captain Kaika told Cas. “For some reason, the boys didn’t want to play the version where you strip items of clothing with each loss.”
“How odd,” Cas murmured.
“I wouldn’t have minded playing that,” Duck said, giving Kaika a brief leer, “but I was afraid we’d end up looking at a room full of naked dragon flesh cannons. Nobody wants to see that.”
“Not… nobody.” Kaika smirked into her hand of cards. “Also, wouldn’t they be scale cannons?”
“Depends on what form they’re in.”
“The dragons never lose,” Pimples said. “You’d probably just end up looking at the general’s cannon.”
An alarmed expression flashed across Zirkander’s face, but he covered it by delving into a grease-spotted sack on the shelf next to the phonograph. He pulled out a miniature tart with orange mango pulp on the top and set it on the table in front of Bhrava Saruth. “You’d think a god could make his own tarts.”
“I don’t have the recipe.”
“Well, there’s a divine tragedy.” Zirkander grabbed a tin of crackers off the shelf and stepped around the dragon.
Cas and Tolemek made room for him to slip out. He only took a few steps up the path before pausing to crumble some crackers and toss them to a flock of ducks that beelined toward him.
Tolemek looked into the duck blind, wearing a dubious expression. Captain Kaika winked at him and patted the vacated seat.
“Maybe I should–” he started.
Cas gave him a shove. “Go play a round.”
“You’re not staying?” Tolemek frowned.
“I got concerned at the talk of dragon cannons.” Cas’s stomach was rumbling, too, and she wouldn’t mind an opportunity to sneak some warm cookies from the pan. “Here, I’ll take Tylie’s present into the house and then join you.”
“I got concerned at the talk of dragon cannons also.”
“Tolemek?” Pimples asked. “I have a buddy in the barracks who wanted to know if you make any other types of creams, besides the pimple one.”
“Aside from my healing compound and formulas that have military applications?”
“What kind of cream does he want?”
“Something to remove warts. In a… sensitive area.”
Cas made a face. This sounded even more alarming than a discussion of dragon cannons.
“Ah. Perhaps he should see a dragon god about that,” Tolemek said, though he handed Cas Tylie’s birthday present and stepped into the duck blind, apparently drawn in by a chance to talk about the various goos he made.
“I would require a great deal of worshipping to be tempted into healing warts in sensitive areas,” Bhrava Saruth announced.
“I don’t believe any amount of worshipping would be worth that,” Phelistoth said, his always-haughty expression growing haughtier.
“That’s because you’re crusty and aren’t moved by the affections of your followers.”
“I don’t have followers, nor do I want them.”
“Silver dragons are strange beasts,” Bhrava Saruth said, then, while Tolemek was picking his way to the vacated chair, transformed into a ferret. He hopped onto the table, then into Captain Kaika’s lap, where he flopped down on his back, stretching out and inviting a belly rub.
“Well,” Kaika said, giving him a scratch, “I suppose that’s better than seeing a naked dragon cannon.”
Cas shook her head and backed away from the duck blind. Tolemek no longer batted an eye at magic and dragons, but she found such displays a little alarming. This gave her another reason to go seek out cookies. There wouldn’t likely be shape-shifting taking place in front of Zirkander’s mother, since the woman did not believe in magic or dragons, and nobody had taken it upon themselves to disabuse her of her beliefs.
Cas headed back toward the house, but paused when she reached Zirkander. He wore a pensive expression as he tossed crackers to the twenty or thirty ducks that had gathered to squabble for his offerings.
“Sir, are you all right?” Cas asked.
“Oh yes. Just making sure they’re sated, so the duck blind doesn’t get invaded again.”
“They’ve been known to come through the window. And around the door.” He shook the cracker tin and peered in. “I’ll have to resupply soon.”
“Does the, ah, ferret not keep them out?”
“The ferret is more interested in being petted than in hunting ducks. Besides, it’s not fair to hunt something you’ve been feeding.” Zirkander tossed a few more crackers, then frowned thoughtfully at Cas. “Ahn. You’re a woman.”
“Yes, sir. I understand Tolemek is pleased about that.”
“Let me ask you a question. I’d like the answer from a woman’s perspective.” He lowered the cracker tin and peered up and down the path to make sure they were alone.
“Go ahead, sir, though I’m not sure I’m a typical representative of my gender.” Cas flicked a finger toward her shoulder, where the barrel of her sniper rifle poked up when she was carrying it on a mission.
“You can’t be any more atypical than Kaika. She already gave me her answer.” His mouth twisted–had he not liked it? “Listen, if Tolemek were to propose to you–”
Alarm flooded through Cas. Tolemek wasn’t planning that, was he? They’d only barely moved in together. It was too early to commit to marriage. He hadn’t even committed to living in Iskandia for longer than the duration of their lease yet.
“He’s not, is he?” she blurted.
“No. I mean, I don’t know. If he was planning to, I doubt I’d be his confidant.”
“Oh, you might be.” Cas let her shoulders relax, though she glanced back to make sure Tolemek hadn’t wandered up the path. He might not find her alarm at the subject charming. “He won’t admit it, but when you were presumed dead, I think he missed your company.”
“He didn’t have anyone else to trade barbs with, eh?”
“That might have been it. Others find him too fearsome to barb.”
“Since I’m not in the market for zit or wart cream, I’m not too worried about irking his fearsomeness.”
“Is that a word, sir?”
“I think so.” Zirkander held the tin out toward her. “Want to feed them? They’ll befriend you instantly.”
Cas considered their beady-eyed observers. “Should that be a goal of mine?”
“Everyone needs more friends.” He dumped some crackers into her hand. “About my question…”
“Go ahead, sir. I didn’t mean to interrupt.” Cas tossed the crackers into the water, avoiding the carpet of algae floating near the edge. Wings flapped and squawks sounded as the ducks fought to get to the crackers first.
“If Tolemek or some other desirable man were to propose to you, would you prefer it to be done sedately? A promise necklace delivered over dinner? Or would you find it more interesting and memorable if it were done while flying upside down through Crazy Canyon?”
“Uh, I think a proposal would be memorable, either way. Would you want to risk dropping the necklace into the canyon while you’re inflicting these aerial acrobatics on Sardelle?”
He frowned at her. “Inflicting?”
“Yes, sir. It’s a word.”
“With negative connotations.”
“That’s why I used it. Maybe it would be nice if you flew up to a spot with an amazing view and had a picnic while proposing. But I think it should be a stationary spot. Women don’t like to feel nauseated while making life-changing decisions.”
A chirping noise came from behind them, and a golden-furred ferret scampered past on its way to the house.
“A stationary spot without ferrets, kittens, or dragons,” Cas added. “Something private and peaceful.”
“Peaceful?” Zirkander rubbed his head, as he couldn’t imagine a woman desiring such a thing.
A shout came from the house, something about ferrets and turtles and sugar cookies being licked.
“Yes, peaceful,” Cas added firmly.
“Huh. I’ll consider your advice. Thanks, Ahn.” He thumped her on the shoulder and headed for the house.
Cas changed her mind about going in that direction and turned back toward the duck blind instead. If those cookies had been licked by a ferret and a turtle, she was less enthused about them. Besides, she now had a tin of crackers to snack on. At least for the moment. Several ducks waddled out of the water and followed her up the path.