Under the ice blades, p.1

Under the Ice Blades, page 1

 

Under the Ice Blades

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Under the Ice Blades


  Chapter 1

  Captain Kaika kept herself from running down the corridor of the Nightclaw Infantry Brigade’s headquarters, but only because numerous colonels and generals were wandering about, holding stacks of papers and carrying coffee mugs, their eyes still bleary with sleep. She tossed quick salutes as she weaved past them, feeling none of their enervation, even though she had been up most of the night celebrating life—and the impressive strength and flexibility of one of General Zirkander’s handsome flier mechanics.

  Who could be tired when a new mission was on the horizon?

  She came to a halt in front of General Braksonoth’s door, quivering with the anticipation of a hunting dog on point. Where would she be sent this time? Would she be assigned a new partner? The elite forces teams almost always worked in pairs, especially overseas. Who might she be assigned? More importantly, where would she be going? It had been nearly three weeks since she had helped Zirkander, Sardelle, and the others free the king and drive off the Cofah invasion. That was an eternity of time to loiter in the rear without a purpose.

  Her knock had the enthusiasm and force of a small explosion.

  “Come in, Captain,” the general’s voice came through the door, soft and dry.

  Kaika tried to march in with stately decorum, but she couldn’t keep from bouncing on her toes as she came to attention on the rug in front of the desk. Getting a new mission was better than fifteen-year-aged takva, better than sex, and even better than blowing up enemy strongholds. Of course, a new mission often led to blowing up enemy strongholds, so that was part of the appeal. But the constant element of danger kept her more alert and alive than she ever was back at home.

  “Reporting for duty, sir.” Kaika gave the general a much more professional salute than the ones she had tossed in the corridor. Unlike the rest of the officers in the building, Braksonoth, commander of the intelligence battalion, held her fate in his hands. Even though the elite forces teams were technically a part of the infantry brigade and often worked in conjunction with the combat soldiers, they received orders from this man. “Do you have a new mission, sir?” she couldn’t help but add.

  Braksonoth folded his hands on his desk and gazed blandly up at her through his spectacles. The soft-spoken, gray-haired officer weighed less than a hundred and fifty pounds and looked up at six-foot-tall Kaika even when they were both standing, but she knew better than to underestimate him. She’d seen his record, the part that wasn’t classified. He had been on over a hundred spy missions, taken down critical enemy fortifications, and survived countless battles that others on his teams hadn’t walked away from. He knew everything about this job, and he could send her on the most amazing missions... or he could send her to the kitchens to mash turnips. She’d done both for him in her fifteen years in the unit.

  “I have new orders for you.” Braksonoth licked his finger and slid the top sheet of paper off a stack.

  “Orders, sir?”

  Orders weren’t a mission. Orders were a... who knew what? A transfer to a new army fort or to a training school. But she’d been to all of the training schools. And why would her superiors send her to another fort? The elite forces had always been based out of the capital.

  “Orders.” Braksonoth turned the paper and laid it on the desk so she could read the typed page. “You’re to report to General Zirkander. The air division is expanding, and he’s selected a number of new pilots to graduate early from the academy. You’ll be training them in combat and incursion and survival tactics.”

  Kaika stared at the page, though those little black type marks were blurring before her eyes. “Training, sir? You want me to train a bunch of mouthy kids? Mouthy kid pilots at that? What do they know about incursion and combat? They just sit up there in their flying boxes.”

  Complaining about orders wasn’t seemly, especially to one’s C.O., but what was he thinking? Teaching was for old or injured veterans that were close to retirement. You didn’t send a field officer in the prime of her life into a classroom. What a waste! She squinted at the orders, as if she might find another name typed across the top, as if this might all be a mistake. But no, her entire name, including the first name she loathed, was there: Captain Astuawilda Kaika.

  “Apparently, those flying boxes get shot down on occasion,” Braksonoth said, “and they need to know what to do when that happens.”

  “But, sir. Why me? I’m not any good at teaching. I don’t have the patience for it.”

  “Perhaps this will allow you to cultivate a new skill.” His tone had grown a shade cooler. He might not be as hard assed as someone like Colonel Therrik, but he wouldn’t let her argue with him, either. “If not for a few impulsive decisions in your career, you might have achieved a higher rank than captain by now.”

  But she didn’t want a higher rank. Or at least she didn’t care one way or another about it. She just wanted to go on missions.

  Even though arguing wasn’t wise, she couldn’t bring herself to accept the assignment without a fight. “Is it possible there’s been a mistake, sir? Did—did General Zirkander request me?”

  That thought brought a sliver of hope. Even though she couldn’t imagine why he would have done so, if the orders had originated with Zirkander, he might be convinced to reverse them. They had worked together, and he was a reasonable man. She could talk to him, make a request. Zirkander hadn’t wanted to accept his promotion because he had worried it would take him out of the sky and pin him to a desk. Surely, he could understand if she was afflicted by a similar dread. Seven gods, this teaching job might even come with paperwork. That would almost be worse than dealing with mouthy kids straight out of the academy. She might be able to defuse a daisy chain of bombs in less than five minutes, but she couldn’t type without getting her fingers tangled up in the keys.

  “No,” Braksonoth said. “Your orders came directly from King Angulus.”

  Kaika nearly fell over. “The king? Why would he have anything to do with... That’s not normal, is it?”

  “No, it’s not. He generally trusts us to handle our own personnel assignments.”

  “Is it because I winked at him at that dinner celebration at the castle? This isn’t a punishment, is it?” Kaika had doubted the king had even noticed that wink, but as soon as the word punishment came out of her mouth, a wrecking ball of realization crashed into her.

  Not the wink. That was nothing. She winked at every man who was worthy. But how could she have forgotten the role she had played during that fiasco of an infiltration with Sardelle and Lieutenant Ahn? The explosion in the castle. The queen’s death. Even if the king and queen hadn’t been reputed to be close, and even if the queen had been the mastermind responsible for his kidnapping, that didn’t mean that he hadn’t had feelings for her after twenty years of marriage. Angulus might have been polite at the dinner celebration, but he was always polite, in his dry, eyes-piercing-your-soul kind of way. Who knew what had actually been going on in his mind? What if he resented her for blowing up his castle? And his wife. Just because she had been trying to find and rescue him at the time didn’t make anything about that nightmare of a night acceptable.

  “I wasn’t told why he chose to assign you there,” Braksonoth said, “merely given the orders. You report to General Zirkander at 0900 hours this morning. I suggest you don’t wink at him. We’ve spent a lot on your training. It would be unfortunate if his witch vaporized you.”

  Kaika snorted. Sardelle was a healer; she wouldn’t vaporize anyone, even if she could. Kaika was more worried about the king and what he thought of her. He had the power to ensure she never went on another mission again. How in all the hells was she supposed to make sure that didn’t happen?

  * * *

  “G
o, go, go, you vulture kissers,” Kaika shouted to the cadets laboring to pull themselves up the fifteen-foot wooden wall on the obstacle course. “How did you graduate from the flight program without knowing how to climb anything higher than a warthog? Don’t you have to be able to get up and in to your fliers?”

  Nothing but grunts and groans answered her, and those were muffled by the spring rain spattering into mud puddles all over the course.

  “Maxton, you better go back and help your partner over that wall,” Kaika yelled. “You’re not going to stand a chance against the Cofah guardian waiting at the end if you don’t have help.” She prodded her chest with a thumb, to remind them that she was playing the role of guardian for this exercise. After standing around going hoarse and being rained on for the last hour, she welcomed the chance for some action, even if it was pretend action on a pretend battlefield.

  The cadet she had yelled at—Maxton, or was it Madton?—glared bullets at her. He probably wouldn’t mind a chance to come at her with his fists swinging. He would have to wait his turn. Two other cadets were low crawling through the mud, logs, and netting that marked the end of the course. Kaika backed up, giving them room to get up before they tried to get past her. They would have to knock her down or shove her out of the way to pass through the wood tunnel that separated them from their final destination, a stump with a toy dragon on it—it symbolized one of their fliers. If they touched it within the three minutes they had to finish the course, they could pretend they had evaded capture and could escape. So far, nobody had even managed to reach her before the three minutes ran out. These two looked like they would make it.

  The male cadet outpaced his female partner under the netting and clambered to his feet first. Instead of waiting for her, or reaching back to help her, he charged straight at Kaika.

  Maybe he thought he could catch her by surprise. Whatever his plan was, it didn’t work. Compared to some of the soldiers she’d fought, he seemed to be moving at half speed, with his exaggerated movements easier to read than messages coming in on a telegraph machine.

  She dodged to the side to avoid his lunging punch and batted aside his arm with a forearm block at the same time as she stepped in and slammed an upper cut into the soft flesh under his ribcage. She finished with a knee to the groin before he could recover. He crumpled forward, and she dropped her elbow onto his upper back to help him to the ground. He roared with pain and frustration as he splatted into the mud at her feet.

  Kaika kept an eye on him as she regarded his female partner. The slender figure reminded her of Lieutenant Ahn, at least in her diminutive size, but her eyes were round with wariness and apprehension, not cool and calm with calculation. She came forward, more because the exercise demanded it and time was ticking down than because she wanted to; at least, that was what her expression said. Kaika blocked a few tentative punches, letting the cadet gain some experience before turning defense to offense. In the end, the young woman lay in the mud next to her partner.

  “Had you attacked together,” Kaika said, “you might have had a chance. At the least, one could have distracted me or drawn me away from the tunnel, so the other could have gotten away to report back. Someone always has to make it out to report back.”

  A memory flashed through her mind of a time not that long ago when someone had said the same thing to her. Back in the Cofah volcano base, Captain Nowon, her partner of more than five years, had ordered her to leave him behind after he’d been mortally wounded by a trap. He’d gone down fighting, so she had the time to slip away, to finish their mission and rejoin the others. To this day, she wondered why she’d been the one to make it when he hadn’t. He’d always been the smart one, the patient one, the better soldier. Maybe the king wasn’t the only one punishing Kaika with this new assignment. Maybe fate had decided she needed to learn a lesson. Patience? Was that it? Her mother had tried to teach her that as a child, but it had never stuck.

  “We’re pilots, ma’am,” the male cadet said, glowering at her from the mud, not bothering to climb to his feet to address her. An infantry cadet wouldn’t have been so blasé when speaking to a superior officer. “When are we ever going to have to face a Cofah berserker?”

  “Pilots get shot down and get captured,” said a male voice from behind Kaika. “It’s happened to me, and it’s happened very recently to Lieutenant Ahn.”

  The cadet’s eyes widened, and he scrambled to his feet so quickly, he almost fell over again.

  “Sir,” he blurted, looking mortified, as if he’d just been caught napping instead of getting knocked on his ass. He locked himself into a rigid attention stance, as the female cadet and everyone else on the course did the same. “I know, sir. I mean, I didn’t know, sir. I mean—uhm. Sorry, sir.”

  Kaika turned and offered a salute of her own, though she doubted Zirkander would notice or care if she didn’t. He strolled up, mud spattering his boots, the fur collar of his leather flight jacket turned up against the rain. It hid his rank pins, but nobody in this group would fail to recognize him. For that matter, he was such a darling of the newspapers, there weren’t many people in the country who wouldn’t recognize him.

  Zirkander returned the cadet’s salute, then made a shooing motion. “Go clean something, cadet. Yourself perhaps.”

  A chagrined expression flashed across the young man’s face as he glanced down at his mud-drenched uniform, but he answered with a prompt, “Yes, sir,” and darted away. The female cadet hurried away, too, moving quietly, as if she didn’t want to be noticed. Her performance hadn’t been that poor; the young man had more to be chagrined about.

  “Take two minutes,” Kaika called out to the rest of them.

  “You’re only going to allot me two minutes of your time?” Zirkander asked with a smirk.

  “Maybe three,” she said, smirking back before she caught herself.

  The number of enemy aircraft he had shot down wasn’t the only reason the papers loved him. Zirkander was one of the most handsome men in the army, and Kaika knew without a doubt that thousands of photos from his numerous newspaper articles had been clipped out and stuck to the iceboxes of housewives all over Iskandia. The barest hint of a smile could set a girl’s libido to humming, and it was very hard not to return his smirks. Even if he hadn’t been devotedly canoodling with Sardelle, Kaika knew she wouldn’t have had a shot with him. She might have tried anyway if he and Sardelle hadn’t been so obviously smitten with each other. Instead, she kept her demeanor professional—mostly—and managed not to wink at him.

  “How is Lieutenant Ahn doing?” Kaika asked quietly.

  All trace of his humor evaporated. “She finally managed to find someone to accept her resignation papers.”

  “Oh.” Kaika didn’t know what else to say. It hadn’t been being shot down and captured that had squashed Ahn’s spirits; no, she had been a part of that same castle infiltration that had left the queen dead. Under the influence of a semi-sentient magical sword, she’d killed one of her colleagues, and she couldn’t forgive herself for that. Kaika could understand, because she felt guilty over Nowon’s death, even if she hadn’t been responsible. She knew what it was like to survive when an equally capable—or more capable—comrade did not.

  “Yeah.” Zirkander sighed. “But I haven’t given up hope. Earlier this week, I sent her the schematics for the new models of dragon fliers we’ve got in production. I even dragged a photographer out to the hangar to take pictures of the machine guns to include.”

  “You really know how to charm a woman, sir.”

  “Funny, my mother said the same thing. Only with even more sarcasm.”

  “It’s probably a good thing that you’re pretty.”

  He gave her a sidelong look. “I prefer ruggedly handsome.”

  “I’m sure you do.” A wink slipped out. Damn it. She was not flirting with her happily paired C.O.

  He didn’t seem to notice. She told herself that was good, not depressing.

  Zirkander tilted
his chin toward the course. “Any of the youngsters looking promising?”

  “Compared to what?” Kaika asked before a more diplomatic answer could form on her tongue. Diplomacy wasn’t her forte.

  “Well. You’ve seen Colonel Therrik manhandle me. Our ground combat standards aren’t that high.”

  Kaika snorted. “Therrik manhandles everybody.”

  One of his eyebrows twitched, and she caught her cheeks flushing slightly. She’d had a brief—extremely brief—dalliance with the grumpy colonel a few years earlier. He had extremely lickable abs and an ass that—well, that didn’t matter. Those body parts were attached to a man with the personality of a cannonball, and her only defense was that she had been horny, and alcohol had been involved.

  Reminding herself that Zirkander hadn’t actually said anything—maybe his eyebrow was just itchy—she decided to move the conversation on from manhandling. “Have you gone to visit him yet? Now that you’re General Zirkander?”

  “Therrik? No, he’s up commanding the two-mile-high Magroth Crystal Mines post.” Zirkander flashed an edged grin. “I have considered going out for an inspection, just so he’d have to show me around and yes-sir me.”

  “Do the mines fall under your domain now?”

  “Nah. This is my domain.” He waved toward the pilots who were toweling off under a tree, though he cast a longing look toward the cloudy sky over the harbor where a squadron of fliers buzzed about performing aerial maneuvers. “And yours, too, I suppose. Odd as that is.” He gave her a quizzical look. He didn’t think she had requested this assignment, did he?

  “Yes, about that, sir. I was wondering if you knew—uhm, I was told the king was responsible for my orders. Do you know anything about it? I’d rather not be the one to pummel your flying puppies into the ground on a daily basis.”

  “Are you this candid with all of your senior officers?”

  “Aren’t you?”

  “Well, yes, but I’m told my military manner shouldn’t be used as a model.”

  He reputedly got away with a lot because he was the best pilot in the sky. Yet, he’d still made general at forty. Kaika was one of the best soldiers at what she did, but that never seemed to translate into promotions. It was a good thing she didn’t want more responsibility or to end up in charge of teams instead of on teams.

 
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