Authors: Lindsay Buroker
Tags: #wizards, #steampunk, #epic fantasy, #fantasy romance, #sorcerers, #sword sorcery, #steampunk romance
Balanced on the Blade’s Edge
by Lindsay Buroker
Copyright Lindsay Buroker 2014
As a writer, sometimes you have a thousand
things (or at least five) that you should be working on, but you
get an idea for something new and just have to run with it. I wrote
this story quickly, because I knew I had other series to get back
to, but it also came out quickly of its own volition. I enjoyed
these characters and this new world, and I hope you will too.
Before you jump in, I would like to thank Cindy Wilkinson, Pam
Tkachuk, and Sarah Engelke for reading an early version and for
offering feedback. I would also like to thank my editor, Shelley
Holloway, for working this one in on short notice. Thank you, too,
good reader, for picking up a new novel and giving it a try. I hope
you enjoy the adventure.
Colonel Ridge Zirkander had walked the hall
to General Ort’s office so many times he suspected his boots were
responsible for the threadbare state of the drab gray carpet
runner. The two privates standing guard on either side of the door
were too well trained to exchange knowing smirks, but that didn’t
mean gossip of this meeting wouldn’t be all over the citadel by
noon. It wouldn’t be the first time. Fortunately, uniforms only
held awards and not demerits.
“Morning, gents.” Ridge stopped before the
door. He eyed the privates’ rifles—they had the new lever-action
repeating models—but neither man looked like he had been given
orders to keep visitors out. Too bad. “How’s the general’s mood
“That applies to most days, doesn’t it?” He
didn’t expect an answer—privates weren’t encouraged to chat about
officers after all, at least not where said officers might
overhear—but the younger one grinned and responded.
“A week ago last Thursday, it elevated to
“Glad I was in the air that day then.” Ridge
thumped the fellow on the shoulder and reached for the
The private’s grin widened. “We heard about
the battle cruiser, sir. That was marvelous. I wish I could have
“Taking down the supply ship was more of a
victory for us, but I suppose that didn’t come with the added
excitement of being shot at by cannons.”
“I’d love to hear about it, sir.” The
private’s eyes gleamed with hope.
“Might be at Rutty’s later,” Ridge said, “if
the general doesn’t send me down to the kitchen to chop vegetables
with the recruits.”
He walked in without knocking. Mounds of
paperwork were heaped on General Ort’s desk, but the man was gazing
out the window overlooking the harbor, his weathered hands clasped
behind his back. Merchant, fishing, and military vessels sailed to
and from the docks, but, as always, Ridge’s eye was drawn to the
dragon fliers lined up on the butte on the southern end. Their
sleek bronze hulls, propellers, and guns gleamed under the morning
sun, beckoning him to return. His squadron was out there,
overseeing maintenance and repairs, and waiting for him to bring
them news. He hoped this ego-trouncing session would also include
the delivery of new orders.
When the general didn’t turn around right
away, Ridge flopped into a plush leather chair in front of the
desk, flinging his leg over the armrest.
“Morning, General. I got your message. What
can I do for you this fine day?” Ridge nodded toward the blue sky
above the harbor, a sky clear of enemy airships as well as
Ort turned, his customary scowl deepening as
he waved at Ridge’s dangling boot. “No, no, have a seat. I
“Thank you, General. These chairs do lend
themselves to lounging in comfort.” Ridge patted the soft leather.
“If anyone ever succeeds in foisting an office on me, I hope it’ll
be furnished just as finely.”
“Seven gods, Ridge. Every time you see me, I
wonder anew how you got so many bars on your collar.”
“It’s a mystery to me as well, sir.”
Ort pushed a hand through his short gray
hair, sat down, and pulled out a folder. Ridge’s folder, though he
had to have it memorized by now, all of its three inches of
thickness. “You’re forty years old, Colonel. Are you ever going to
“I’ve been told it’s more likely I’ll be shot
Ort folded his hands across the folder
without opening it. “Tell me what happened.”
“In regard to what, sir?” Ridge asked. He
knew perfectly well, but he had long ago learned not to volunteer
information that might incriminate him.
Ort’s ever-present scowl deepened until the corners of his mouth
were in danger of falling off his chin.
“Well, my squad’s been on the ground four
days. Could be a lot of things.”
“According to my report, you broke Diplomat
Serenson’s nose, bruised his ribs, and threatened to rip off his
penis. Any of that sound familiar?”
“Oh,” Ridge said, nodding. “Yes, it does.
Although, I believe it was his flesh pole I threatened to rip off.
There were ladies present, and some find anatomically correct terms
too blunt for polite company.”
The general’s jaw ground back and forth
several times before he managed a response. “Explain.”
“That slimy turf kisser had cornered
Lieutenant Ahn and was groping her and trying to usher her outside.
She was about to slam a fist into his face herself, but I stepped
in, figuring she might not appreciate your plush leather chairs the
way I do.” Actually, his ace lieutenant, who had nearly as many
kills on the side of her flier as he did this year, had been
wearing the most conflicted expression, like she might have
actually let Serenson drag her outside and paw her up, since he was
such an important delegate. To the hells with that—nobody’s uniform
kind of sacrifice.
“Breyatah’s Breath, Ridge, couldn’t you have
defended your officer without starting an international
Possibly, but he wouldn’t have found it
nearly as satisfying. Besides… “International incident? We’re
already at war with the Cofah, and this was just a reminder of why
we broke away from their rule in the first place. They think they
can have anything they want. Well, they can’t. Not my country, and
one of my people.”
Ort sighed and leaned back in his chair.
“It’s… good to know you care beneath all your irrepressible
impudence, but the king was at my throat like an attack dog this
morning. This is serious, Ridge. Serenson wants you sent to
Ridge snorted. His crime hadn’t been
severe. Only convicts went to the
Magroth Crystal Mines, convicts who would have otherwise been
marched out to the firing squad. Very few thought the sentence of
life in the mines with no chance of parole was an improvement.
The general pulled a sheet of paper out of
the top of Ridge’s file and laid it on the desk. “You leave in the
“I—what?” For the first time, real unease
settled into the pit of his stomach. He had left his blessed dragon
figurine dangling in the cockpit of his flier, but maybe he should
have brought it along, or at least rubbed its belly for luck that
morning… “That’s not very damned funny, sir.”
The general’s humorless gray eyes bored into
Ridge like overzealous drills. “The king agrees.”
The king? The king wouldn’t send him to his
death. He was too valuable to the war effort. Ridge started to
shake his head, but halted, realization coming as his gaze dropped
to the typed sheet of paper. Orders. They weren’t sending him as a
criminal, but as an officer. A contingent of men guarded the secret
mines, the location known only to those high up in command—and
those who had been stationed there.
“You want me to guard miners, sir? That’s…
the infantry’s job and one for a bunch of enlisted men.” Sure,
there had to be a few officers there to run administration, but
there couldn’t possibly be a posting for a colonel. “Or are you
demoting me along with this… reassignment?” Ridge almost gagged on
the last word. Reassigned! Him? All he knew how to do was fly and
shoot; that’s all he had done since graduating from flight school.
He was only vaguely aware of the location of the mines, but knew
they were in the mountains, hundreds of miles from the coast, from
the front lines.
“Demotion? No, not a demotion. Read the
orders, Ridge.” Ort smiled for the first time in the meeting, the
kind of smile a bully wears after pummeling some scrawny kid on the
brisk-ball court. “The king and I talked about this at great length
Ridge picked up the sheet and skimmed. Yes, a
reassignment. To the position… He lowered the sheet. “Fortress
“I believe that’s what it says, yes.” Ort was
still smiling. Ridge preferred his scowl.
“That’s… that’s a position for a general.” Or
at least someone with experience leading battalions of troops, not
to mention the administration background a man should have. All
Ridge had commanded were squadrons of smart, cocky officers not
unlike him. What was he supposed to do with a bunch of infantry
soldiers? Not to mention the gods knew how many murdering prisoners
that roamed the tunnels?
“In times of war, it’s not uncommon for less
experienced officers to be forced to work in positions above their
“What happened to the current commander?”
Ridge muttered, imagining some poor general with a miner’s pickaxe
driven into his forehead.
“General Bockenhaimer is due to retire this
winter. He’ll be extremely grateful to be relieved early.”
Ridge stared down at the orders, his eyes
blurring. He barely managed to check the date. A one-year
assignment. Who would command his team while he was gone? Who would
pilot his flier? He had always thought… he had been led to
assume—no, people had told him, damn it—he was indispensable out
there. The war wasn’t over—if anything, this year had seen more
fighting than any of the previous four. How could they send him off
to some remote gods-forgotten outpost in the mountains?
“I know this is hard for you to stomach,
Ridge, but I actually believe it’s for the best.”
Ridge shook his head. It was all he could do.
For once, he had no words, no quip with which to respond.
“You’re an amazing pilot, Ridge. You know
that. Everyone knows that. But there’s more to being an officer
than shooting things. This will force you to mature as a soldier
and as a man.” Ort hitched a shoulder. “Or it’ll kill you.”
Ort waved a hand. “You have your orders.
Ridge left the chair, giving it and the
harbor out the window a long look before he headed for the door.
Grounded. For a year. How was he going to survive?
“Oh, and Colonel?” the general said as Ridge
walked for the door.
Ridge paused, hoping this had all been a joke
designed to teach him a lesson. “Yes?”
“Pack warm clothes. Autumn is just about over
in the mountains.” The general’s smile returned. “And Magroth is at
twelve thousand feet.”
A lesson, indeed.
* * *
Sardelle woke with a start, her heart
pounding out of her chest. Nothing except blackness surrounded her.
Scrapes and scuffs reached her ears, and memories rushed over her:
the sounds of the explosion, being ordered to the safety chamber,
climbing into one of the mage shelters and activating it, then
gasping in terror as the rock crashed down all around her,
obliterating her world.
She patted around, feeling for the smooth
walls of the sphere, but they had disappeared. Only rough, cold
rock met her probing fingers. The scrapes were getting louder. Her
colleagues coming to help? But they would burn away the rock or
move it by magical means, not scrape through it with pickaxes,
wouldn’t they? Maybe the sorcerers of the Circle were too busy
fighting back their attackers and had sent mundane workers.
The telepathic query filled her mind with
relief. Jaxi. Had her soulblade been buried in the rock somewhere
as well? There hadn’t been time to run and grab the sword when the
mountain had started quaking.
Thank the gods. You’ve
been hibernating for so long. You can’t believe how lonely it’s
been. There’s a limit to how many conversations you can start with
I assume that means
you’re buried too.
The soft scrapes were getting closer, and a
pinprick of light pierced the darkness a few feet away.
Deeper than you. You left
me in the basement training rooms, remember?
Of course I remember.
That was just this morning. As I recall, you were enjoying having
that handsome young apprentice oil your blade.