No Ketan today, we’re back to Meese, and she’s surrounded by guns. The good news is they’re not all aimed at her.
Other good news—I’ve got an estimated timeline for Firebird’s release, based on a few short e-mails I exchanged with my editor. I’m thinking that the end of January will give me some nice cushion time, and I’ve also been thinking that it would be a good idea to plan a pre-order. Mark Coker of Smashwords just released a report that indicates that pre-orders are a pretty cool thing to do on Smashwords (among other things), along with a blog post on how people have been playing with pre-order marketing.
It’s definitely been giving me something to think about. It would probably work quite well with the serialized chapters on the blog.
It would also be advantageous for getting advance reviews.
Anyway. I’ve talked shop for too long. I know what you’re here for. Go on. Read.
Mieshka did not go on a run this morning. Her legs hurt too much. In fact, all of her hurt too much.
She also did not take the train anymore. Instead, Buck waited for her in front of her apartment building’s lobby, the SUV purring at the curb. As Mieshka propped open the door and maneuvered her crutch into the seat, the sober voice of the radio announcer slipped into the cold air.
“—several thousand refugees have flooded the city’s checkpoint, and the military has closed one lane of the highway for official vehicles. Reports of looting—”
Pain twinged in her leg and arm. She hauled herself into the vehicle, knocking the crutch into the center console. Its foot angled down under her leg as she sat. Cold crept through her skin until she used the three good fingers of her right hand to pull the door closed, teeth gritting against the pain.
It had been ten hours since Terremain’s fall, and twenty since her fight with Michael. The bruises had crept in during the night, and no amount of witch hazel was going to keep them down. Painkillers helped, but the deeper injuries pulled at her whenever she moved.
And then, of course, there was the situation in Terremain.
Mieshka let her head fall back against the seat. Snow dusted the SUV’s hood and the windshield wipers. Frost lined the glass, its edges crenelated where Buck had scraped it clear. Beyond, Lyarne’s winter cloud cover was thick, dark, and low.
The shield was inside that, somewhere. Invisible. Hidden.
Buck turned off the radio. Silence filled the car.
“Have you eaten?”
“Bacon and eggs.” She glanced over at him. “Why?”
Buck shrugged, pulled out from the curb. A pile of snow fell off the side mirror as the SUV jerked over a rough patch. White dusted the street.
“You want donuts?”
Mieshka perked up. “Yes.”
The donut shop was not on the way. Buck detoured a few blocks away from the office, and left her in the car while he shopped. Mieshka slumped back on the seat, enjoying the heat. She didn’t fancy walking much, right now. Not until she could take the next round of painkillers. Another two hours, by the dashboard clock.
Buck deposited the box in her lap as he came back. She dug in.
He was a gentle driver. When he revved the vehicle into traffic, the movement hardly pulled at her stitches. A thin scar ran across the back of his right hand. He wore his shoulder holster on his left side, though he’d left the gun in the center console when he’d retrieved the donuts. His navy blue ball-cap shielded his eyes from the glare, cast a shadow on the top part of his face.
The SUV slipped between lanes, glided through a light. Tires rumbled over the snow-pack, thumped into potholes. Mieshka watched as he drove, savoring the donut version of a cinnamon whorl.
“Is it true you’re a stunt driver?”
He changed lanes again, the turn signal clicking in the quiet. Then, he reached over and picked a donut from the box on her lap.
“I know a few tricks.”
Icing sugar fell onto his chest. He rested one arm on the wheel, steering easily through the morning traffic.
“What kind of tricks?”
They rested at a light. The butt of his gun gleamed in the light of the window.
“The kind you should only do to win races and impress girls.”
“I’m a girl,” she said.
“You are. Another morning, perhaps? Wouldn’t want to rip out your stitches.”
Mieshka grimaced. “Eww. No. Let’s not. Say…” She poked through the donut box. “Do you think Aiden would mind if I ate his?”
“Just sway a bit and look pathetic. He won’t say a thing.”
When they got to the office, Mieshka didn’t need to pretend to hurt. Whatever dredges of painkiller had been left this morning had worn off, and the walk into the lobby was an exercise in crutchwork. She shot a dirty look at the broken elevator as they hobbled past.
“Why hasn’t Aiden fixed that thing, yet?”
“Aiden’s cheap.” Buck held the donut box. When they reached the first stair, he took her crutch, too.
She limped up, wincing with every step.
“Take your time. No rush.”
It was slow going. She had to rest every few steps. Pain pulled tight from the wound in her thigh, drove nails from her calf. By the time they reached the first landing, sweat trickled down her skin.
“You wanna rest?”
Mieshka leaned on the railing, hands shaking, breaths sharp and shallow. The stairwell smelled warm, close. Fluorescent lights hummed.
“Sit down. It’ll feel better,” he said.
She nodded. Buck caught her shoulder as she sank to the floor, helping her down. The box of donuts sat on the step below. Mieshka hunched over, wincing as the movement tugged at her thigh.
Buck sat next to her.
“This is only temporary. You’ll feel better soon. You’ll heal. Would you like me to carry you?”
Mieshka shook her head. “I can do it.” She pulled her hair behind her ear, took a breath. “Besides, you can’t carry me and the crutch and the donuts.”
Buck looked offended. “I’d give you the donuts. I’m not selfish. I—”
Voices sounded from below. The lobby’s door banged open, and uniformed men flooded the stairway.
Buck was up in an instant. She didn’t see him unholster his gun, but by the time he stood between her and the men, it was in his hand. He hid it behind him, its tip turned to the floor.
Mieshka made herself smaller, got her legs under her. Boots stamped on the concrete below. She saw them stop on the first step.
“You must be one of the bodyguards. Buck Anderson, I presume? Sergeant, First class, First Division Artillery?”
Buck nodded. “Who are you?”
“Alan Mansley, Airbourne. We are here for Aiden Tergunan.”
“Mansley. I know that name. You got a brother in Artillery?” Behind his back, Buck flipped the gun so that the handle faced the ground, and held it out to her. She took the cue, grabbed it, and hid it by her side.
“Not your concern.” Alan’s voice was terse. He took a step up the stairs. “Where is he?”
“I’m not sure. Usually in his office.” Buck angled himself towards the wall, putting Mieshka in view. “Can you ease off? She’s scared of guns.”
Mieshka wasn’t scared, and she was nearly sitting on a gun. But maybe her injuries produced the desired effect. Her hands still shook, and she knew that her pale skin had even less color in it now than normal. Mansley’s eyes gave her a once-over, then shifted to the crutch that leaned against the stairwell.
Without another word, he started up the stairs.
Mieshka reeled in her legs as he passed—not because she was afraid, but so he wouldn’t see the gun. The other men filed past, each stepping over the donut box.
Buck watched them go, a keen look in his eyes.
The door at the top slammed after them.
“You played my sympathy card,” she said.
Teeth edged Buck’s smile. “It worked, didn’t it?”
She handed him back the gun. He didn’t reholster it, instead sticking it into the back of his pants. Its grip blended with the black fabric.
“Will Aiden and Jo be okay? Should we have warned them?”
Buck snorted. “If Mansley thinks he can out-gun a fire mage, he’s got another thing coming.”
With so many people inside, the office seemed much smaller than normal. As usual, the place was dark—only the office light spilled into the hallway. Two soldiers guarded the entrance as Mieshka hobbled her way down the hallway. Shadow cut across each of their faces, and, as their eyes tracked her progress down the hall, she got the feeling that they hadn’t been long from combat.
Inside, she heard Aiden’s voice.
“—I have a phone. If the President wants to see me, she can ring. This is uncalled for. If your stupidity has upset my apprentice…”
Huh. It seemed everyone was using her sympathy card.
Buck pulled her along the wall as they slipped into the office.
Mansley stood near the center of the room, and his force spread in the half of the room behind him. Aiden, wearing much the same as he had yesterday, faced him on the other half.
He didn’t look like he’d gotten much sleep last night. Whether that was because of Terremain or the earth mage’s attack, she didn’t know. Dark bags drooped under his eyelids, and redness tinted his stare. His collar had popped out on one side, and he hadn’t bothered to tuck his shirt in. Probably hadn’t expected anyone but Buck and Mieshka to come through his door.
Despite the exhaustion, fury sparked in his eyes. He looked at Mansley like a bug he itched to squash.
Jo sat on the couch, holding the stock of an assault rifle. The rest of the gun lay on the coffee table, in pieces. She didn’t seem concerned about the soldiers. Instead, she looked around the room with a mild interest.
“She deploys us in emergencies,” Mansley said.
“Are we in emergency now? I haven’t heard anything. Have you, Jo?”
“No, sir. Not a word.” Jo’s dark eyes danced.
“No sirens, no broadcasts. Just choked up reports of the clogged highway between here and Terremain.”
Mansley stepped forward. “You are to come with us.”
The room grew quiet. Jo leaned forward, her dark eyes flitting to the soldiers closest to her. Buck put a hand on Mieshka’s arm, fingers light on her bandages.
Aiden’s expression darkened. He sized up Mansley, lip curling. “Or what? Will you shoot me?”
Suddenly, Mieshka was very aware of the guns all around her. She pressed closer to Buck, who gave her bandaged wrist a light squeeze.
“I was told to bring you in.”
“I would have preferred a phone call. It is civil, quick, and much less disruptive.”
“Perhaps you should bring that up with her.”
“Perhaps I will. Buck? Let’s go.”
Buck gave her wrist another light squeeze, handed her the box of donuts, and let go. Mansley fell in step behind Aiden, and the other soldiers funneled through the door after them. A minute later, the office had emptied.
Jo stirred. The rifle on her lap was no longer in pieces, Mieshka noticed. Its black and silver edges gleamed dully under the office’s fluorescents. Mieshka hobbled over, her crutch making quiet pock sounds with every other step.
“Well, that was exciting.”
Jo eyed the donut box, held out an arm. “Gimme. I’m eating Aiden’s.”
Mieshka smiled as she opened the lid. “You’re too late. I ate it in the car.”
“I’ve taught you too well. Now, sit down before you fall down.”
Mieshka propped her crutch against the armrest and lowered herself into the couch. The leather felt nice. Soft. Tension slipped away as she leaned her head back, resting it against the back.
“How you feeling?”
“Awful. It took me ten minutes to get up the stairs.”
“It’ll get better. I hear elementals heal faster.”
“Sure.” The leather creaked as Jo leaned forward, shoving the empty donut box onto the table. Outside the office, the rumble of engines rose in the quiet. Mieshka glanced toward the windows. Had they brought an entire caravan to pick up Aiden? It seemed a bit extreme.
Then again, a fire mage could tear through that army like paper. Aiden wouldn’t even break a sweat.
The rumble faded into the distance. Jo, too, watched the window. A gust of wind dusted snow across the pane. Beyond, the clouds pressed close to the skyscrapers, their gray slowly lightening as the sun crept higher in the sky.
“Well,” said Jo. “Now what?”
Mieshka pulled at a new package of candles. “Help me set these up?”
Mieshka jerked, her focus slipping. Sophia stood at the end of the couch, her black hair in a sleek ponytail and a serious expression on her face. Much like everyone else today, she wore the same black top as yesterday. Red tinged the edges of her eyes.
Roger milled beside her, possibly also in yesterday’s clothes. It was hard to tell with him. He never deviated from his trademark black.
Jo, facing her on the couch, glanced up from her phone. “Taken.”
“Army. President needed to see him.”
Sophia raised an eyebrow. “What, the entire army?”
“Half a squad. Home team. I doubt they’ve seen combat.” Jo returned to her phone, tapped the screen. “They’re at City Hall now. Buck says they’ll be a while.”
Ah. So that’s what Jo’d been doing for the last half hour.
Mieshka leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. The candles had melted to the table, and the air smelled heavily of raspberry. Heat rippled in front of her. The element was becoming easier to call, though harder to control. Once or twice, she’d lit her fingers on fire, and the flames had tickled up her skin. Friendly. Playful.
Jo had removed her gun oil to a safe distance.
“That seems… overkill. Has Aiden not been getting along with them?”
“Aiden has been more than generous.”
“Hmm. Perhaps they’re not happy with what Derrick did. Roger?”
The elemental pulled out his phone. “I’ll put Eve on it.”
“Good.” The water mage tapped a finger against her thigh, head tilted as if remembering something. Then, she turned to Mieshka.
“Tell me about this glowing eye thing. Has Aiden said anything?”
Oh yeah. That. She’d had almost forgotten.
Jo grunted. “I don’t think Aiden’s checked his phone since yesterday. The network sent all his texts to him at once. That’s why he was late.”
“Had it happened before?”
Mieshka shook her head, winced at a wave of pain. “No. First time.”
“Actually,” Jo said. “It has. Right before you lit up the shield. I saw it.”
Mieshka met her eyes over the table. They hadn’t really talked about what had happened at Cyprios. It never came up during their training sessions, nor the times they’d spent playing hooky from work.
Sophia turned to Jo. “Same thing? Gold color? Not orange?”
“Yeah. Definitely lighter than the orange Aiden uses.”
“Hmm. And that was just before the Phoenix…?”
“Yep. She dropped a second later.”
The water mage paused. The tapping finger stilled. Smoke wisped between them as the last candle came to the end of its wick.
“Probably has something to do with the Phoenix, then.” Sophia cocked her hip, the skinny jeans pulling tight against her thighs.Her finger joint cracked as she pulled her phone out and swiped the screen. “He’s about ready to jump. We should get going.”
Mieshka frowned. Jump? Was someone skydiving? Suiciding?
“What’s up?” Jo asked.
“The electric mage is arriving from Terremain. Would you like to come?”
Jo flashed a grin, switched off her phone, and stood up. Keys jingled in her hand. “I’ll get my car.”
Aaand that’s all, folks. Tune in this time, next week. Same bat channel, same bat place.
Well, actually, I tend to update on Tuesday, so there’s that. Same bat channel, but on bat Tuesday, Taiwan time.