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Diplomats & Fugitives Available Everywhere and Dragon Blood 6 on Pre-Order

| Posted in Ebook News |

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For fans of my Emperor’s Edge series, a new installment, Diplomats & Fugitives, is out now. It takes place a few months after the events in Republic and brings Basilard in as a main character, though of course Maldynado and his hats are there. Amaranthe and Sicarius come in for the second half, too, and we get some updates on most of the rest of the crew.

You can check out the blurb and grab a sample at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, and Smashwords.

Raptor-Cover-WebIn other news, the break I was planning to take after the last Dragon Blood book did not happen. I had more ideas bouncing around in my head, and I’ve already written a novella with Captain Kaika as the star (along with someone else… care to guess?) and sent it off to my beta readers. Look for that at the end of September.

I’m also about halfway through the rough draft of a sixth novel in the series, this one picking up with Cas as the lead, but also bringing in all of the other characters again. We’ll have Cas, Tolemek, Ridge, and Sardelle all as point-of-view characters. And for those who have been wanting to see more of Tylie and her dragon, they’ll both be along for the adventure.

I have the cover art for Book 6 already, so I’ve put it up as a pre-order. If you want to get the book the minute it’s released, you can order your copy at Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble.

Lastly, the pen name has a new space adventure romance serial going right now on Amazon (free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers). Check it out if you’re looking for a story with some extra naught bits. 😉

KDP Select Titles Being Pirated and Distributed to Other Stores

| Posted in News |

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Do you have any titles in KDP Select? Titles that are supposed to be exclusive to Amazon? If so, you may want to check periodically to make sure they’re not on sale anywhere else.

I only have a couple of titles in KDP Select, or rather my pen name does, and one of them has had a rough year. Earlier this spring, I got an email from Amazon informing me that Stars Across Time (yes, the pen name writes science fiction romance), which was enrolled in KDP Select, was available at Kobo (it turns out it was up at Apple, Barnes & Noble, etc. too). Amazon said I had five business days to remove the title from the other stores, or I’d be kicked out of their program. Imagine my surprise, since this was a relatively new book, and I had never published it anywhere except for Amazon. Imagine my alarm, too, since I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get it removed in five days.

I emailed Kobo, since, at the time, I didn’t know it was in other stores, as well. They said it had arrived via a distributor, so they couldn’t take it down. <insert panicking and flailing of arms>.

I was lucky enough to have Mark Lefebvre‘s email address (he’s the director of self-publishing and author relations at Kobo), so I sent him a note and got some more information. He told me it had come to them via Draft 2 Digital and that he would check into it.

I was still panicking a little, since I didn’t have a D2D account or any way to contact them other than the form on their site. I was also worried because this was a book published under a pen name. I was afraid it might be harder than usual to prove that I was the rightful author, if it came to that (the pirate was publishing it under my pen name, letter for letter). I figured this would get resolved eventually, but worried that it wouldn’t be in time to save me from getting booted out of KDP Select. At the time, the book was selling well and getting a lot of borrows, so that would have sucked.

I emailed D2D’s customer support. Fortunately, they got back to me later that same day, said the person publishing the title was a known pirate who’d made accounts and caused trouble there before. I didn’t have to prove anything (phew). They took the book down, and it disappeared from the other stores within 24 hours.

Ultimately, that was a speedbump in my week, but not a big deal. I was relieved and pleased that the D2D folks handled it so quickly. (Though it is pretty lame that people bought the book — yes, I checked, and it had sales rankings everywhere and even a couple of reviews — and I didn’t see any of the money from those sales.)

You would think this would be the end of the story…

Part 2

Last Friday, I was poking around in the Apple store, making affiliate links for the audiobook version of the same title, which recently came out and is available everywhere (did you know that being exclusive with Amazon for an ebook doesn’t preclude publishing an audiobook everywhere?)

And guess what I found? It’s happened again. Stars Across Time was up on all of those same stores again. I emailed D2D to ask them about it, but it was Friday night, so didn’t expect to hear back from them over the weekend. It’s late Monday as I write this, and I’m hoping to hear back from them soon.

Mark at Kobo answered my email right away this afternoon and quarantined the book in their store, so I’m hoping that means it can’t happen again until I’m ready to take the title out of Select and publish it there myself. I don’t know people at Apple and Barnes & Noble, so I’ll have to wait for D2D to handle the rest.

Update: about 20 minutes after I published this post, I got a note from D2D that they’re disabling the account and taking it down again. Thanks, guys!

Asking for a change

This blog post is in part cautionary — my KDP Select friends, you may want to regularly check your titles to make sure someone else isn’t publishing them behind your back — but I also feel that something needs to be done to make it so this doesn’t happen in the future. A quick check on Twitter revealed some other authors who have dealt with similar experiences.

Right now, it seems to be way too easy to make an account at a store or a distributor and publish ebooks without anyone checking if you have the rights to do so. It’s not just D2D. Amazon didn’t bat an eye when I started publishing Ruby Lionsdrake books from my Lindsay Buroker KDP account. Smashwords didn’t care, either, that the author name didn’t match the name on the tax forms.

I don’t know what the solution would be, because it would a pain to make everyone with a pen name jump through 99 hoops just because a few people are uploading pirated ebooks. At the least, I think distributors and stores need to ask some questions when the author listed on the book doesn’t match the name on the account. This would mean publishers having to provide documentation (but they should have contracts with authors on file, anyway), and might mean that those of us who write under pen names would have to get a DBA or some other kind of documentation. It would be an inconvenience, yes, but should it really be this easy to publish someone else’s books?

I would love to hear from you guys. Any thoughts on solutions to make it harder for pirates to do this? Should stores and distributors ask more questions?

 

Pre-Orders, Sticking on Amazon, and Hitting Best Seller Lists

| Posted in Amazon Kindle Sales, Tips and Tricks |

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For a while now, you’ve been able to upload your ebook early on Amazon, Kobo, Apple, and some of the other sites, listing it for pre-order 90 days (Amazon) to a year (iBooks) ahead of time, as many of the traditional publishers do with their titles.

In most cases, you need to have a dummy file as part of the process, but some of the distributors are able to get you into stores now with “asset-less” pre-orders, meaning all you need is the title and book description. You don’t even need a cover.

As I write this, you still need a complete .mobi file for Amazon. Lots of people use temporary files (I put a rough draft up there when I did the pre-order for my last Dragon Blood book). You just need to make sure you upload the final draft at least ten days before the publication date on Amazon, because everything gets locked up in that last ten days.

But the real question is…

Should you list your ebooks for pre-order?

I’m going to make part of this equation easy: for all other sites besides Amazon, the answer seems to be yes, if you can swing it and deliver it on time (even if you don’t deliver it on time, there’s not a huge punishment for a delay at those stores).

It probably won’t make a difference if you don’t have a following yet, but if you have a series that’s selling well (or selling at all) on Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and/or Kobo, then having a pre-order can help you get sales while you’re fresh in the readers’ minds (i.e. If they finish Book 3, and see Book 4 available as a pre-order, even though the publication date is two months away, they can commit to it right then, instead of possibly forgetting about it by the time it’s released.)

On Amazon, there’s a little more to consider.

Pre-Orders on Amazon, Extra Considerations

On some of the other sites, your sales supposedly don’t count until release day, meaning you can get a big rankings boost on release day, perhaps enough to propel you to the top of the charts in your category, thus resulting in more visibility.

I say “supposedly,” because when I had Blade’s Memory up for pre-order on Kobo and Barnes & Noble, I peeked into those stores, and the book did have a sales ranking and was already showing up in the steampunk categories. I didn’t notice a huge surge on release day in either of those stores. (I never bothered looking in the iBooks store, because the Dragon Blood books have never sold as well there as they did on Barnes & Noble and Amazon.)

So I can’t say from personal experience that you’ll get a big boost if you sell hundreds or thousands of early copies in these stories (but I’ve never sold thousands anywhere except for Amazon, so maybe that’s part of the deal). I would love to hear from others on this matter, so please leave a comment with your results, if you’re doing well with pre-orders in the non-Amazon stores.

But to get back to Amazon…

When you list your ebook for pre-order there, it gets a sales ranking, as soon as you start selling copies. Even though you don’t get paid for those sales until the book goes live, it’s moving up and down in the charts, based on how it’s doing from day to day. You will not get a big surge in ranking when all of your pre-orders turn into sales on release day. You’ll just get credit for whatever sales you make that day.

This means that if you have a following and usually sell a lot of books on release day, it might be better not to do a pre-order on Amazon.

This is because if you can sell a lot of books over 2+ days there, you have a better chance of sticking, thanks to higher visibility in the charts, a surge of also-boughts (possibly with other new books launching at the same time), and the way their algorithms work in general. Nobody knows everything about those algorithms, but we have a lot of data to suggest that they’re designed to help books that already sell well. In addition to appearing in also-boughts and in charts, those high sellers can expect emails to go out recommending them to readers who have bought similar books.

However, if you’ve been running a pre-order, and all of those guaranteed sales from loyal readers have been spread out over a month or more, you may be less likely to stick in the rankings. You can sell a lot of books on release day (more later about when this can be super useful) and get a really nice paycheck, but you may lose out on visibility in the long run.

This is a big part of why I didn’t, until Book 5 in the Dragon Blood series, give pre-orders a try, except in the other stores and only to make sure the book released everywhere on the same day.

Why I Chose to Do a Pre-Order on Amazon for Book 5 in My Series

There are a couple of reasons why I decided to try it with Blade’s Memory (released on June 12th of this year).

First of, thanks to a BookBub ad back in January, the Book 1-3 bundle was still selling well this spring. I had a fourth book out in the series, and that was selling well too. I took some screenshots of my books hogging up the top slots in the steampunk category on Amazon there for a while. (Granted, steampunk isn’t a very competitive category, but slot hogging makes you feel good no matter what genre it’s in.)

In other words, I had a lot of people reading 1-4, but I didn’t have 5 ready yet. Since I figured it was only a matter of time before the earlier books dropped and stopped selling as well, I decided to get the cover done for Book 5, so I could take advantage of the other books’ popularity. Let people grab Book 5 while they’re still thinking of Books 1-4. So I put it up in early May and had it on pre-order for about 5 weeks. I ended up selling over 4000 early copies on Amazon (more than a thousand of those being in international stores — it was fun watching the sales drop onto my dashboard first when New Zealand hit midnight and then so on around the world).

In addition to striking while the iron was hot, I realized I didn’t really give a #*(@ about the sales ranking of a Book 5 in a series. I’ve heard other authors talk about how releasing new books in their series gives them a big boost in sales series-wide, but I’ve never noticed much of an increase in sales from that alone. I get boosts when I run advertising campaigns on the first books. Maybe a few people here and there notice a Book 5 and go back and check out Book 1, but I doubt anybody is going to jump into a new fantasy series there.

So basically, I had nothing to lose by doing the pre-order on Amazon and possibly had some sales to gain.

Here are some of the things that came out of the pre-order (in addition to sales) that I hadn’t considered ahead of time:

The book spent much longer than 30 days in the “Hot New Releases” window

Usually, a book gets 30 days to appear in the “hot new releases” window over in the sidebar of its category lists (assuming it’s first, second, or third in sales among the other new releases in that category). But my 30 days didn’t start ticking down until the official release day. My ebook was selling well enough (remember, this isn’t that competitive of a category) to hang out there from the time that I put up the pre-order in early May until mid-July when it hit 30 days after the release.

I have no way of knowing how many bonus sales you can get for appearing in that slot (and I’m sure it varies by category and book), but I always figure that any extra visibility, especially on Amazon, is a good thing and will probably result in some sales.

The also-boughts populated earlier than they would for an out-of-nowhere new release

If you publish a book through the KDP dashboard, even if you announce it to your mailing list and sell piles right off the bat, it usually takes 1-2 days for the also-boughts to populate, meaning that books appear in your book’s “also bought” window and (more importantly) your book appears in other books’ also-bought window.

In addition to wanting to appear in the Top 100 lists for your categories, you want to be in as many other authors’ also-boughts as possible, since it helps readers find you, even if they don’t browse those lists.

Lots of purchases before any reviews showed up

I’m fortunate that the reviews for the DB series have been fairly solid so far, but you never know when a reader who doesn’t like the direction you’re taking a series is going to jump in and leave a one-star review (and be the first one to do so) on a new release. That could make potential buyers hesitate. With a pre-order, you get people buying the book without being able to pre-judge it based on existing reviews. If you’re doing something drastic with the new title (cliffhanger! major character death!) and anticipate some grumpy readers, it might not be a bad idea to collect those sales before the reviews start showing up.

Now, you may be asking, were there any cons for me with the pre-order? Not really, but as expected, the fifth book never did get a big jump into the top slots on Amazon. I don’t think it did better than 600 or so in the overall sales rankings (I’ve had other things debut at sub-200), and it soon fell to 1200-2500, about the level that the fourth book had been selling at.

As I said, that was fine for me in this case, because I wasn’t expecting much of a benefit from appearing up high with a Book 5.

Would I do an Amazon pre-order for a brand new Book 1 that I was hoping would stick and sell well with the help of the algorithms? No, I would not.

Pre-Orders and Hitting Best Seller Lists

My nice little steampunk books aren’t in much danger of hitting the New York Times Bestseller list, but I can talk a bit about USA Today. Thanks to that Bookbub ad, my 99-cent boxed set hit the USA Today Top 150 list back in January. Also, I recently participated in a multi-author boxed set that allowed my lowly pen name to hit the USA Today list (the pen name only has about 500 people on her newsletter, and has been largely ignored of late, so hasn’t been selling in spades).

Pre-orders were key in making that list with the pen name boxed set.

Since all of the pre-order sales are reported on release day, this is your best bet to make a list outside of a BookBub run. Sales for consideration for a list have to be made during their less-than-one-week reporting period. It’s a very small window for USA Today and NYT, so you’ll also want to release on a Tuesday and try to get all of the sales in those first few days.

How many sales it takes to make a certain list varies depending on the competition, but to be safe, from what I’ve read, you probably need to plan for ~7K for the USA Today list and 15K+ for the NYT bestseller list. IIRC, I had about 6k in the week that the DB set made the USA Today list, but that was in the middle of January, so a time when book sales weren’t super high in general.

For the romance boxed set, even though we were doing all-new novellas, we didn’t have a lot of huge sellers in the set, so getting 7K sales during launch week seemed pretty daunting. But we put the set out at 99 cents more than two months before the release date (using a dummy file), and it gradually accumulated sales in the various stores.

I should point out that the sales ranking during the pre-order time wasn’t anything amazing (2-3K overall in the store), considering it was a 99-cent title with 12 authors. My fifth Dragon Blood was in pre-order status for part of the same time, and I remember that it was doing better in the rankings. But my book had a shorter pre-order period. A longer pre-order period can only help if you’re trying to accumulate sales before release.

The romance set ended up selling around 5200 copies before going live (about 4000 of those being in the U.S. and numbers that would count for a U.S. list).

For the release day (and a couple of days after), we had a lot of ads booked, and all of the authors plugged the set to their mailing lists. We ended up selling around 10,000 copies by the end of the week and hit the USA Today list at 88.

Is it possible we would have made it without pre-orders? It’s possible, but when you send out newsletters to your list, you never know if people will buy right away. They might wait for paydays or set the letter aside for later. With the pre-orders, you know those sales are going to drop right on release day. You also miss out on people who might have randomly come across the book during the pre-order period.

Note: You have to go wide if you want to make a list in the U.S. as Amazon sales alone aren’t enough to get you accepted. Your book sales also have to be reported by at least one other store (basically Apple or Barnes & Noble). I don’t know for sure, but I’ve heard you need to sell at least 500 copies in a week for the stores to bother to report.

Making Lists vs Sticking on Amazon

Before I sign off, I should point out that our boxed set hit as high as 94 in the overall store, but started to drop fairly quickly. I think this is in part because it was a pretty eclectic boxed set (we gave it an action-adventure-romance theme and had everything from modern day treasure hunters to my far-future space opera romance) and didn’t really hit on the popular tropes in the genre, but I’m sure part of it was also that thousands of those sales were spread out. Had we gotten all 10,000 sales in a couple of days, we might very well have stuck up higher for longer.

Let me wrap up this long post by summarizing:

  • Pre-orders are probably a good idea, no questions asked, on the non-Amazon stores.
  • Pre-orders can be a good idea on Amazon if you’re trying to get people to buy while earlier books in a series are hot or if you think you have a chance of making a list (for most of us mere mortals, they’re probably close to required to make a list).
  • As of the time of this writing, pre-orders can hurt you on Amazon if your goal is to stick and get algorithm loving — that’s where you want to sell piles of copies over just a few days.

If you have thoughts on pre-orders or any experience with hitting the lists, please leave a comment with your thoughts!

The Blade’s Memory (Dragon Blood 5) Preview

| Posted in My Ebooks |

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Hello, everyone!

In case you missed it, the fifth adventure in the Dragon Blood series has been available for pre-order for a few weeks (from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, and Smashwords), and it will finally be out this Sunday, June the 14th.

July Update: The book is now available everywhere and will be out in paperback soon!

Here’s a preview of the first chapter.

Chapter 1

 As Colonel Ridgewalker Zirkander crouched behind a bush, watching a steam wagon full of soldiers trundle up the road, he felt more like a felon avoiding the law than a military pilot who could claim a distinguished, twenty-year career. All right, distinguished might not be quite the word, considering he had almost as many demerits on his record as he had medals and awards hanging on the wall in his office, but he was a respected officer. He certainly was not someone who skulked in the shrubs of his own homeland, especially when it was raining, and water barely above freezing kept dribbling past the collar of his flight jacket and down his spine.

“I don’t recognize anyone, sir,” Captain Kaika whispered, a spyglass to her eye as she watched the wagon approach. She was skulking with him, while the rest of his squadron, including Tolemek and Sardelle, hunkered in a cherry orchard farther back from the road. “They’re infantry, Lionstrike Brigade.”

Ridge nodded. He’d spotted the pins on their collars when he had taken a look through the spyglass. Unfortunately, he hadn’t recognized the driver or any of the twenty men sitting in the open wagon, either. It wasn’t surprising. The army’s flier battalion did not often work with ground troops.

“Nobody you’ve interacted with on your previous missions, eh?” Ridge had hoped Kaika might know someone in the group. She was a part of the elite forces, a unit attached to the infantry brigade that worked out of the same base near the capital.

“I think I’ve seen that sergeant at the Sensual Sage,” Kaika said, “but he doesn’t meet my standards, so I’ve never approached him.”

“I was talking about combat missions, not… extracurricular ones.”

As was the case for most of his travel-weary team, Kaika’s rawboned features were smeared with dirt and decorated with scratches and yellow-blue bruises, but she still managed a sultry smile that hinted of a love for those extracurricular activities. “Oh? I thought you just wanted someone we could trust for information, no questions asked.”

“I do.”

“I’m sure they would recognize you if you stepped out there.”

“Yes, but based on the intel that you and Apex gave me, I’m not sure I want to be recognized, not until we figure out more of what’s going on. If our enemies don’t know we’re around, we can move about more easily. Maybe we can find the king before anyone ever spots us. Assuming he’s still missing.”

It had been nearly a week since Apex and Kaika left Iskandia to come find Ridge and the others, and he had no idea if the situation they had reported had escalated while they had been gone or been resolved. He hoped the king was back in the castle and that General Ort had been discovered, as well. Ridge had been gnashing his teeth while awake and asleep, worrying about that idiot Colonel Therrik being in charge of the flier squadrons. Including his flier squadron.

Ridge sank lower as the wagon drew abreast of the bushes, its smokestack spitting black smoke into the dreary late-winter sky. One of the men in the back stood up, using a spyglass to scan the bare, muddy farms lining the road. Ridge looked over his shoulder, worried the bare-branched trees would not hide his people sufficiently.

They won’t see us, Sardelle said, speaking into his mind.

Because you’re using powerful magics to obscure what they see?

Because we moved behind the cider mill building.

Ah. Even better.

Jaxi says she’s willing to use some powerful magics if it gets us out of the rain, Sardelle added. She’s concerned about rust.

I don’t think I need anything melted, lit on fire, or blown up right now, but I’ll keep her offer in mind, he responded.

That’s disappointing, a second voice said. Jaxi. The flight back across the ocean was boring. Some excitement would not be unappreciated.

Ridge was getting used to the idea that his ladylove walked around with a sentient sword, one that sometimes shared thoughts directly with him, but he still found Jaxi’s presence in his head disconcerting. A few months ago, he hadn’t believed magic existed, and now a sorceress—and her sword—telepathically communicated with him on a daily basis. He could accept it; he just wished the rest of the country could. He hadn’t forgotten that when they left, some secret organization had been trying to blow up Sardelle.

“He better be looking for the king,” Kaika growled, staring through the leaves at the man with the spyglass. The wagon had chugged past them without slowing down. “Nobody seemed to be looking very hard for him when we left. I should have been sent out. I even volunteered.” She drummed agitated fingers on the pistol that hung from her utility belt, along with a dagger, ammo pouches, and a bag of fuses for however many explosives she had in her pack. “Listen, Colonel. I owe him a favor from way back.”

“The king?”

“Yes. You know the elite forces don’t take women. That’s a rule. I was determined to get in anyway, because my brother… well, I had something to prove, that’s all. After being rejected several times, I went to the king for an audience. The line was long, and he wasn’t spending much time with anyone. I was afraid he wouldn’t even see me. I used the cleaning supplies in the closet outside of his audience hall to blow up an ancient urn—this is what passes as a logical move to a nineteen-year-old woman, yes. That made an impression on him. Fortunately, he was more intrigued than horrified, and he’s the one who arranged for me to get orders into the program. I’ve gotten to see the world, make a difference for our country, and sleep with all manner of exotic foreigners under the guise of obtaining mission-critical information.”

“Exotic foreigners, you say? No wonder you feel indebted to him.”

Kaika’s hand twitched, like she might whack him in the chest, but she seemed to remember that he outranked her. She lowered her hand instead. “Not everybody gets to be a national hero who can crook a finger and get a fantasy bed companion any night of the week. Some of us have to work harder for that. Anyway, that’s not my point. I mean I’ve had the career of my dreams so far and more adventure than any girl could ever crave, and I owe him for that.”

Ridge gripped her shoulder. “We’ll find him.”

“I’m thinking about infiltrating the castle.”

Ridge dropped his hand. “What?”

“We need intel. The queen’s in there somewhere. If she’s not a complete shrub, she might know something. If someone’s controlling her with drugs or blackmail, it would take someone observing from the inside to find out. I can do that.”

“That’s… a more direct approach than I was planning to take.” At least to start with, Ridge had simply planned to question some people at HQ and find General Ort so he could get some accurate information on what had been going on higher up in his chain of command—as in, what in all the cursed realms had someone been thinking in handing the flier squadrons over to that hairy-knuckled ape, Therrik? If anyone knew anything about the king, it ought to be Ort or one of the other generals that was regularly in and out of the castle.

“I’m already AWOL, sir,” Kaika said. “Let me do this. I’ll report back to you, I promise. I heard a rumor that the king was taken somewhere in a flier, so…”

“Ah, so that’s why you came with Apex to get us.”

Kaika shrugged. “Normally, I handle my own problems, but if I can’t get to my problems…”

“Everybody thinks of me as a flying rickshaw service.” Ridge peered through the leaves of the bush. The wagon had gone over a hill and disappeared from sight, only the black cloud in the air marking its passage. It should be safe to rejoin the others. “I want to gather some intel locally before sending people off in different directions. Give me a couple of hours to mull over your request.”

“My request?”

“Yes, isn’t that what you were making? As an officer to a more senior officer? A request to infiltrate the castle? Because I’m sure you wouldn’t be thinking of going anyway, against said senior officer’s wishes, right?”

“Do you really want me to answer that?” Kaika asked.

“Perhaps not.” Ridge felt like a hypocrite just bringing it up. Hadn’t their mission to Cofahre started with him throwing his mission commander over the side of his flier?

“What local intel?” Kaika asked. “We’re still fifteen miles out from the city.”

Ridge smiled. “My mom.”

• • • • •

Sardelle kept her hood up and her cloak pulled tightly about her, in part to keep the rain off, but also because she worried about being recognized. She had no idea as to the size of the organization that had been hunting her before they left a few weeks earlier, but she did not feel safe back on Iskandian land, even out in this rural area.

But you felt safe in Cofahre? Jaxi asked. Those people would happily kill an Iskandian sorceress too.

Yes, but we can happily kill them right back. It’s different when it’s your own people hunting you.

These aren’t our people. The Referatu are long gone.

I know that, but we were born here. Actually, Sardelle had been born in the mountains, several hundred miles inland, but she had often passed through the capital when she had worked with the army as a mage adviser three centuries earlier, and she knew these lands well. The city had changed a great deal, with its steam-powered machinery and vehicles, but these farms appeared no different than they had in her time, and a twinge of nostalgia came over her. She almost felt that if she went to her parents’ house right now, she would find them there, and her brother and cousins and friends, as well. But logically, she knew that she had spent three hundred years in a stasis chamber and that the only relatives she might find would be generations and generations removed.

Ridge jogged up to her side and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Are you doing all right? We’re almost there. See that windmill up on the hill? The little village where my mom lives is right behind that. We can wash and—” he plucked at his rain-sodden shirt, “—dry there. She’ll feed us. Might even have pie.”

Ridge was scruffier than she had ever seen him, with the rain plastering his short brown hair to his forehead, mud smearing one cheek, and several days’ worth of beard growth darkening his face, but when he smiled at her, it still made her weak in the knees. With his clean-cut features and strong jaw, he managed to look handsome even when he was scruffy. And that smile—some might call it a boyish grin, even if he was well out of his boyhood years—always had an appealing and kissable quality to it. She made herself smile back, even if the rain and the rest of the situation had her heart heavy. She missed her family and friends, but she had never had anyone like Ridge in her century, and she was starting to think of his pilots, at least the ones they had been working with closely, as new friends.

Even though there wasn’t much comfort to be had from two sodden bodies pressing together, Sardelle slipped her arm around his waist. “Pie, you say? Your mother already sounds more hospitable than your father.”

She hoped that hospitality would extend to her. She was tempted to ask how Ridge would introduce Sardelle, since he had fumbled over the introduction when they had met his father, who had not been overly friendly toward her after learning about her aptitude for the arcane.

“She is. She should be happy to see us. Been a while since I had a chance to stop by.”

Sardelle wouldn’t get her hopes up as far as his mother being happy to see her. If she hated magic as much as the rest of the continent these days, she may not be tickled by the idea of a “witch” for her only son. Apparently, wanted posters with Sardelle’s face on them now adorned every other streetlamp in the city, so she couldn’t hope to keep her abilities from anyone for long. Though maybe Ridge’s mother wouldn’t have seen the posters way out here.

“You look glum,” Ridge said, watching her face. “Do I need to promise you more than pie? Perhaps a foot rub? Or another type of rubbing?” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Sardelle tried to arrange her features into a less worried visage. She ought to be appreciative that he was going to take her to see his mother, even if it was part of their mission and the rest of the squadron was going too. At least he hadn’t spoken of hiding her and her witchy ways when they met. This talk of rubbing sounded promising, too, though perhaps not if his mother would be in the next room.

“It has been a while since we had any privacy.” Sardelle extended a hand toward the troops ahead of and behind them, Duck, Apex, Cas, Kaika, and Tolemek, though Tolemek might object to being called a troop. “I don’t suppose your mother has a guest house?”

“Guest house? Uhm, there’s a pottery shed.”

“Spare bedroom?”

“There’s a bedroom. I sleep on the couch when I visit.”

“Hm, then we may have to wait for intimate moments. I don’t think I want you rubbing anything of mine with all of your pilots spread out on the floor around us.”

Ridge scratched his jaw. “Nothing at all?”

“You know I’m not an exhibitionist.”

Hush, Jaxi.

You’ve disappointed your soul snozzle terribly.

Didn’t we agree that you would stay out of his head, except for emergencies? Sardelle had to keep reminding herself to do the same. On occasion, she spoke to him telepathically, but since he had been born into this same culture that feared all things magical, she tried not to intrude often. To her relief, he accepted that the mind-to-mind communication was useful at times, but he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of not being able to have private thoughts.

After the restraint you two showed during the course of the mission through that jungle island, he views a continued absence of rubbing as an emergency, Jaxi informed her. He’s now trying to remember if the pottery shed has a door.

Jaxi!

“We’ll see if we can find a few private moments,” Ridge said, squeezing her shoulder.

Sardelle resisted the urge to ask after the pottery shed. Then she would have to admit that her nosy sword had been sauntering through his thoughts.

“Tonight may be the only quiet night we have,” he added, his expression turning more somber.

Sardelle knew he was worried about the rest of his squadron—she also couldn’t imagine that unstable Colonel Therrik being in charge of a battalion of pilots—and about the king, and about his own fate too. He had broken more than a few rules when he left, and even though they had succeeded in denying the Cofah the source of their dragon blood, they didn’t have much proof of the deed, other than the vials they had returned with. The dragon itself, along with Tolemek’s sister, had not been seen since flying away from the island. There was also no way to know how much dragon blood the Cofah had stockpiled that Sardelle, Ridge, and the others had never seen. They could still be making more of those troublesome fliers and magic-guided rockets.

“We’re getting close,” Ridge said.

Sardelle decided to try to enjoy this one quiet night that they might have before heading into the city and trying to locate General Ort and the king—or whatever the plan was. Ridge hadn’t shared his plans yet, and she knew Kaika, in particular, was waiting for that. She had gone AWOL to join them and also had to be worried about the fate of her career.

“You didn’t grow up around here, right?” Sardelle asked, watching a couple of youths chopping wood behind a house in the distance. “You once said you were born in the city.”

Ridge nodded. “A poor part of the city. I always worried about my mom after I wasn’t around to protect her. Or at least stand in front of her and attempt to look tall and fierce enough to deter bullies.”

“Did that work?”

Ridge touched an old scar on his chin. “Sometimes. More often, she bribed the toughs with her pies in exchange for leaving her alone. Anyway, as soon as I had enough money, I helped her get a place out here. She draws and paints and makes pots and tiles and other artsy things. Seemed like a good area for her. She sells things at the market on the weekends.” He raised his voice to call to the front of their group. “Ahn? Take the next right.”

Lieutenant Caslin Ahn was leading the soggy group, with her sniper rifle resting in her arms and her eyes alert as she scanned the countryside. That behemoth of a sword that she had retrieved from the ziggurat on Owanu Owanus hung across her back, making her appear even smaller than her five feet in height. She lifted a hand in acknowledgment but did not say anything. Tolemek walked behind her, rain dripping from his long ropes of dark hair. Sardelle sometimes wondered if Cas spoke more to him than she did to others. Either way, their relationship seemed to suit them.

“Did you say pie, sir?” came a plaintive question from behind them. Lieutenant Duck was as soggy and unkempt as Ridge, but he didn’t have the facial structure to manage to appear handsome through the damp and grime. His big ears stuck out, flushed red from the bite of the wind. “If that’s the case, I’m happier than bees on a flower that you didn’t find anyone to talk to on the road and that we’ve got to get intel at your mom’s house.”

Lieutenant Apex, a quieter and more introspective man, walked at Duck’s side. He didn’t say anything about pie, but his expression had grown a touch wistful. Captain Kaika, the last member of their group, walked behind the two of them, the alert set of her face more akin to Cas’s than the men’s. She looked like someone focused more on her mission than on acquiring baked goods. Sardelle wondered what it said about their group that the toughest soldiers seemed to be the women.

“I can’t make any promises,” Ridge said, as they turned again, heading up a dirt road lined with cozy cottages. “I didn’t write to let her know we were coming, but I wager she’ll put something together.”

“We spending the night here, sir?” Kaika asked.

Ridge glanced at the sky—the sun hadn’t been out since they returned to the mainland, but noon had passed, and the gray clouds were darker than they had been when the squadron first landed. “Most likely.”

“You think it’s safe to leave your fliers back in Crazy Canyon?”

“I wouldn’t ordinarily, but we camouflaged them well, and the weather is dreary. Shouldn’t be pirates about. They’re too lazy to go out and thieve in the rain.”

Tolemek, former pirate and current expatriate scientist, must have heard the comment, because he glanced back. He gave Ridge the squinty eye but did not otherwise comment, perhaps because Ridge was waving them up one of the walkways to a quaint one-story cottage. Thanks to the waterlogged countryside, most of the houses seemed on the drab side, but this stucco structure had perky blue window shutters and trim, a front door painted with a mural of a farmer feeding chickens, and numerous bright, floral tiles embedded in the walls. All around the grounds, barrels and tubs had been turned into pots, some with hardy green plants sticking out and others waiting on spring flowers. A couple of benches sat on a puddle-filled flagstone patio, and Sardelle glimpsed a small pottery shed squatting against the side of the house, numerous ceramic wares stacked around it. From the walkway, she couldn’t tell if it had a door or not, but it didn’t look large enough for extensive… rubbing.

As she and the others strode toward the front door, several cats ran out of the pottery shed. They darted to the walkway, meowing as they came. Ridge stopped and stared down at them, so Sardelle did too. A white fluffy feline immediately leaned against her leg, leaving hairs on her travel leathers. Oh, well. They had been in need of washing, anyway.

“Problem, sir?” Cas asked, stepping aside so Ridge could approach the door first. She hadn’t attracted any cats, but two were zeroing in on Tolemek’s legs.

“Nothing unexpected,” Ridge said, though he wore a bemused expression. He leaned toward Sardelle to whisper, “There are more every time I come.”

Though they appeared well fed, the cats meowed plaintively, and Sardelle wished she had some scraps for them. She crouched down to stroke one of them—the cat had planted itself in the walkway, so it would have been hard to pass without doing so.

“I’m going to be terribly jealous if I don’t get rubbed tonight, when the cat did,” Ridge murmured.

She swatted his leg. “I thought you were offering to do the rubbing.”

“I imagined you being so enthused that you would return the favor.”

“Zirkander, you’re too old to be so horny,” Tolemek grumbled, stepping off the walkway and pointing to the door, clearly hoping someone would knock so they could get an invitation out of the rain. “Can’t you save that until nighttime?”

“I’m as fit and virile as you are.” Ridge strode past him with a glare.

“But old. Cas agrees.” Tolemek nodded to Cas, who merely raised an eyebrow slightly.

“Lieutenant Ahn knows better than to make aspersions about her C.O.’s age.” Ridge walked onto the stoop and raised a hand to knock, but the door opened before he touched it.

Sardelle glimpsed a tall, lean woman with a woven band of dried grass and flowers holding back her long gray hair before she flung herself at Ridge. Several more cats flowed out of the house past her legs.

“Ridgewalker Meadowlark, you’ve been gone for—” The rest was inaudible, because her face was buried in his shoulder.

“Meadowlark,” Duck said, then sniggered. “Hearing your C.O. called that is…

“Inexplicably delightful?” Apex suggested. “Risible? Satisfying?”

“Fun,” Duck said.

“Ah, yes. Fun.”

“Good to see you, Mom,” Ridge said to the top of her head, giving her a return hug. “I saw Dad recently. He’s pining for you terribly.”

His mother didn’t let him go, but she leaned back enough to snort and meet his eyes. “I’ll bet. What’s going on here? With all the trouble in the city, I didn’t expect to see you. The rumors said you were missing.” She searched his face as if the answers might be inked on his cheeks.

“I wasn’t missing so much as on a mission with select members of my squadron. We got the news that there was some chaos in the capital, so we decided to check in here before heading to town.”

While he had been speaking, Mrs. Zirkander had leaned to the side and started taking in his entourage. “Your… squadron, dear?” Her eyebrows rose as she considered Tolemek.

Kaika, Cas, Duck, and Apex looked like soldiers, albeit scruffy ones at the moment, but Tolemek still had the air of a pirate about him, especially when he wasn’t wearing his white lab coat. Sardelle had no idea what she looked like currently. There had been few opportunities for bathing or washing clothes, so all she knew was that her travel leathers were dirty and fragrant after their adventures. She wished she could have met Ridge’s mother wearing an attractive dress and with her hair done up instead of simply tugged back in a ponytail in need of shampoo and a brush.

“And a few civilian experts,” Ridge said. “Everyone, this is my mom, Fern. Mom, that’s Tolemek, Lieutenants Ahn, Duck, and Apex, and Captain Kaika.”

Fern’s eyes shifted from person to person, following the introduction. Sardelle’s stomach fluttered with nerves when the woman looked at her. Fern wore a clay-stained apron over a floral dress and boots practical for the wet weather. Numerous beaded bracelets dangled from her wrists, all made in a cheerful style reminiscent of the decorative tiles embedded in the walls.

Sardelle clasped her hands in front of her, waiting to see how Ridge would introduce her. Civilian expert? Or something less distant? Also, would his mother have seen those posters and recognize her?

You’re a powerful sorceress. There’s no need to be so nervous.

How would you know, Jaxi? You’ve never been introduced to a lover’s mother.

If I had been, I would have been fabulous.

“Mom?” Ridge extended his arm toward Sardelle and smiled. “This is Sardelle Terushan from a small town over in the Ice Blade Mountains. She’s smart, beautiful, adventurous, and she’ll have your back in a fight, whether it’s on the ground or five thousand feet in the air. She’s absolutely wonderful, and I love her.”

The blatant, heartfelt words stunned Sardelle, especially after the way Ridge had stumbled over introducing her to his father. His mother seemed stunned too. She stared back and forth from Ridge to Sardelle as her mouth dangled open.

Ridge, his eyes twinkling, lifted a hand to cover his mouth and whisper to Sardelle. “Did I do better this time? I’ve been rehearsing.”

Sardelle tried to swallow, but more emotion than she would have expected swelled in her throat. She nodded.

“How come we don’t get introductions like that?” Duck muttered. “We’ve got his back too.”

“You want him to profess his love for you?” Apex murmured back.

“No, that would be weird.”

“Then be quiet.”

“Ridge,” Fern breathed, taking a step toward Sardelle and lifting her arms, “that’s so—” She halted mid-step and squinted at him. “This isn’t a joke, is it? You know I’m too old for your pranks.”

Sardelle wasn’t sure what to make of the question, but Ridge only grinned.

“No joke, Mom. I love her. And I think she loves me too. We’ll know for sure later when I try to talk her into the pottery shed.”

Sardelle flushed and thought about slapping him in the chest, but he had stepped aside so his mother could walk closer.

“Hello, ma’am.” Sardelle wasn’t sure what else to call her. Fern seemed so informal. Would she prefer to be Ms. Zirkander?

“It’s so wonderful to meet you, Sardelle.” Fern clasped Sardelle’s hands in her own clay-stained ones, her palms lightly callused, the hands of someone who worked for a living, or at least worked hard at her art. “Ridge doesn’t usually bring women home, so I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you.”

“I’m pleased to be here.” Sardelle meant it, and her smile was genuine, but she couldn’t help but worry what would happen when the truth came out. Ridge hadn’t mentioned sorcery in that introduction. Maybe he planned on keeping it a secret, or waiting to share the information.

So, should I not start glowing and throbbing obnoxiously? Jaxi asked.

Please don’t.

I won’t if he doesn’t.

He?

Kasandral. The dragon-slaying sword. He’s been glowing vigorously at night when nobody is looking. I think he likes Lieutenant Ahn.

Should I find that alarming? Sardelle asked, aware of Fern looking her up and down. Once again, she wished she were more presentable.

“Come inside, dear,” Fern said. “Let’s get you out of the rain.” She let go of one but not both of Sardelle’s hands, using the one she held to guide Sardelle to the door.

Ridge smirked as they went by, as if he had expected nothing less than this welcome.

“Uh,” Kaika said. “Are we invited in too?”

Fern didn’t seem to hear her. “How long have you and Ridge been seeing each other?” she asked Sardelle as they stepped into the house, where the chatter of birds greeted them. Several large bamboo cages hung from the rafters, with colorful canaries, budgies, and cockatiels singing from perches within them.

“Since the beginning of winter,” Sardelle said, glancing back to make sure everyone else was following. Ridge was waving them to the doorway.

“And you don’t mind that he flies?” Fern raised her eyebrows, leading her around an easel with a half-finished landscape on it, and toward a seating area.

Not so long as he doesn’t mind that I manipulate matter with my mind… “Not at all,” Sardelle said.

Or have a talking sword?

That too. Though you’re more of a telepathic sword than a talking one.

I could vocalize if I wanted to, Jaxi said. Not that anyone could hear me over the noise of all those birds. And cats. This woman is odd.

I’d guess she’s lonely. Not everybody has a sword to keep them company.

This is true. I’m certain you would be terribly forlorn if I wasn’t here for you.

Terribly.

“I know in the past, he’s struggled to find someone who can accept that he’s always putting himself in danger,” Fern said, sitting on a couch and patting the cushion next to her.

“I trust that he’s capable up there.” Sardelle sat next to her. “I’ve seen it for myself, in fact. And I put myself in danger, too, so I’m used to that.”

“You do? What kind of work do you do?”

Er, yes, what kind of work did she do that she could share? She almost delivered the line Ridge had been giving to the men on base, that she was an archaeologist, but his mother might be knowledgeable on that, given that her husband was a professional treasure hunter. If she started asking about universities and professors, Sardelle would have no idea what to say. “I’m a doctor.”

“And you find that dangerous?”

“Well. I have to heal soldiers sometimes.”

“Ah, I understand. They can be ungrateful.”

“Does she know we’re all in here?” Duck whispered to Apex. The rest of the group had moseyed into the living room, and Ridge was shutting the door.

“Unless you give them sweets,” Fern added with a wink.

“Or any kind of food,” Ridge said. “Mom, can we sleep here tonight? Cadge some of your food? We have to make some plans before heading into the city. Did you know that the king is missing? Or he was? Is that still true?”

“I believe so, Ridge. There’s a newspaper on that table over there if you need to update yourself.” Fern patted Sardelle’s knee and leaned forward. “I apologize for being forward, dear, but is it too soon to ask if you’re thinking of marrying my son?”

“Mom,” Ridge groaned, drawing out the single syllable into at least three. There might have been more syllables, but he broke it off when he almost tripped over a cat on his way to the table.

“I’m embarrassing him.” Fern smiled, not looking the least chagrined about it.

“I wouldn’t object to the possibility,” Sardelle said, all the while wondering if Fern’s birdsong would change when she learned about her talents. “And he’s teased me with the idea.”

Teased you? Ridge? You’re not doing it right.”

Ridge had reached the newspaper and was frowning down at the front page. He did not respond. The rest of the squadron was standing or shuffling their feet, and Sardelle felt guilty for getting all the attention while they dripped onto the floor and didn’t know where to go.

“What about children?” Fern asked, patting Sardelle’s thigh again. “Has he told you how much I would love to have grandchildren? Have you considered having babies? Will it be soon?”

The bluntness of the questions took Sardelle aback, and she had no idea how to answer. It wasn’t as if she had never thought of having children, but she had never had anyone she had contemplated having them with. And she and Ridge had been so busy—and she had so many people who wanted her dead—that she hadn’t sat down to contemplate it lately.

“If it’s all right with you, Mom, we thought we’d rescue the king and save the nation first.” Ridge was frowning down at the newspaper as he spoke, but he did glance toward Sardelle and mouth, “Ignore her.”

“I didn’t realize the entire nation was in danger, sir,” Apex said.

“It is if the queen is in charge,” Duck said. “What does she know about defending a continent?”

“I don’t know much about what she knows. In the portraits, she’s usually shown reading a book or doing needlepoint. She seems to keep to herself.”

“If this article is right, she’s in charge now,” Ridge said. “I wonder if she’s the one who forced General Ort to step down and appointed that muscles-for-brains Therrik to lead the flier squadrons.”

“I doubt she has anything to do with military matters, sir,” Apex said.

“Well, I want to find out who is making those decisions. And who’s feeding these stories to the newspaper, as well—stories about me being AWOL and being controlled by a witch who blew up my house to warn me of the consequences of disobeying. A decapitated luck dragon was found among the ashes. Decapitated. Did you see this, Mom?” He shook the paper in her direction.

Sardelle fought to keep the panic off her expression. Maybe it had been inevitable if the papers had written about it, but she hadn’t expected him to bring up witches to his mother.

Relax, she doesn’t believe in magic. You’re probably fine. But… about your occupation? You probably should have gone with archaeologist.

Why?

She’s got some bunions she’s thinking of asking you to look at. Since you’re a doctor.

Oh. Sardelle had not imagined medical care being a part of her meeting with Ridge’s family. They wouldn’t be the first bunions I’ve seen.

Unfortunately, I know that.

“Yes, I was very worried about you,” Fern said. “The article neglected to clarify that you weren’t in the house when it blew up.”

“Why would they blow it up?” Ridge gave Sardelle a plaintive look. “Nothing they wanted was in it by then.”

“You should have gotten a bigger luck dragon, sir,” Apex said, his eyes gleaming with humor.

“Maybe he should have rubbed the real dragon’s belly,” Duck muttered.

Fern blinked. “Real dragon? Dragons don’t exist.”

She also doesn’t believe in dragons, Jaxi mentioned.

Yes, I see.

“Right,” Ridge said, walking to the couch. “Mom, would you mind making something for my men to eat? We’ve had a rough few days, and we’re starving. Also, we have some classified information to discuss.” He tilted his head toward the kitchen door.

Fern looked at Sardelle as she stood up. “Does he show up on your doorstep unannounced and ask you to cook for his people?”

Before Sardelle could decide if she wanted to admit to not having notable cooking skills, Ridge said, “We’re sharing the same doorstep, Mom. Or we were before it was blown up.” Her face twisted in rueful disbelief as he patted her on the shoulder, gently but firmly steering her toward the kitchen.

“Are you?” Fern smiled at Sardelle. “That’s wonderful. Ridge, when you’re done rescuing people and using my cottage for a safe house, make sure to discuss babies with her.”

Ridge grimaced. “Mom, you should have had more kids if you wanted to guarantee grandchildren.”

“I tried, but your father was so seldom here. I would have had to tie him to the bed while wearing lingerie made of ancient maps to convince him to engage in local mountain climbing expeditions.”

“Mountain climbing…” Ridge’s grimace deepened and he glanced at his troops. “Mom, we don’t want to hear about that.”

He shooed her into the kitchen before plopping down beside Sardelle. A gray cat hopped into his lap. Someone must not have closed the door quickly enough, because a number that had previously been outdoors had made their way indoors. Judging by the tilt to this one’s head, it was contemplating using Ridge’s shoulder for a launching pad to reach one of the birdcages. Sardelle trusted the bamboo was sturdy enough to thwart invasion attempts.

“Sit down, everyone,” Ridge said, waving to the other chairs and couches. “Let’s try to keep our planning session brief.” He nodded toward the kitchen door. Fern hadn’t closed it entirely, so Sardelle nudged it gently with her mind so that it snicked shut. “As you heard, my mom doesn’t believe in dragons or magic.”

“Wish I still didn’t,” Kaika muttered, choosing a plush chair. She flopped back in it, dangling a long leg over the armrest. She had been the last of the group to learn of Sardelle’s abilities, but despite her comment, she hadn’t seemed fazed by it. Sardelle wished she could hope for such acceptance—or indifference—from all of Iskandia. Duck and especially Apex had been less comfortable with the notion, but after the deadly situations the group had escaped from, they seemed less disturbed by her. Apex still gave Tolemek a lot of guarded glances—one of his concoctions had been responsible for the death of everyone in the village where he had grown up—but he hadn’t said a rude word to Sardelle.

While the others settled in, Cas remained by the wall between the front door and a window and peeked outside. Duck and Apex took another small couch, which left a spot for Tolemek on the other side of Ridge. He looked distastefully at his only option for a moment before perching on the edge of the cushion.

“What’s the plan, sir?” Kaika asked. She may have appeared relaxed, but her eyes were sharp as they regarded Ridge. “I have some explosives in my pack, and I can get more.”

“How will blowing things up help us find the king?” Ridge asked.

“I don’t know, but it would make me feel better.”

Ridge leaned forward. “Here are our problems, in no particular order.” He lifted his fingers to count them off. “First, missing king. Second, that monkey’s ass Colonel Therrik in charge of the flier battalion.” He clenched his jaw. “Third, General Ort forced to step down by an unknown person. Lastly and worst, the country being vulnerable to attack if the Cofah or anyone else hears about the turmoil here, and I can only assume they’ll know soon if they don’t already. I want to find General Ort and get his report on what’s been happening.”

Sardelle didn’t mention that the wanted posters and people hunting for her were also a problem, since she knew he had to deal with military matters first, but she certainly intended to do something about that organization hunting her.

“Aren’t colonels supposed to report to generals and not the other way around, sir?” Duck asked.

“Probably, but I have an unorthodox method of dealing with the command structure.”

Every single one of his troops snorted.

“Finding Ort needs to be our first priority, and—” a slight pleased smirk crept onto Ridge’s face, “—there’s someone else I’ve been thinking about visiting, someone who very likely has some intelligence, given his recent and unlikely promotion. An interrogation could be most rewarding.”

“You want to interrogate Colonel Therrik, sir?” Ahn asked, her voice laced with skepticism. “He almost broke your neck before we took off for Cofahre. And that was how he felt about you before you got him airsick in Crazy Canyon, knocked him unconscious, and abandoned him by the side of the road.”

“Yes, Ahn, thank you for the recap. Clearly, I wouldn’t be looking to apprehend him physically. At least not in a fair fight. I was thinking of an ambush, followed by him being tied to a chair and convinced to speak to us.”

“Convinced with fists?”

Ridge’s expression grew wishful.

“Perhaps Tolemek could make a truth serum so it’s not necessary to resort to fists,” Sardelle said. “I’ve heard that’s in his repertoire.”

“It is,” Cas said, her tone flat rather than encouraging. Tolemek shrugged apologetically at her.

“No fists?” Ridge laid a hand on Sardelle’s arm. “You’re ruining my daydream for me.”

“Sorry. You can still tie him to a chair, if you wish.”

“You don’t want to physically confront the colonel, anyway,” Kaika said. “I wouldn’t even try an ambush. He’s deadly in unarmed combat. Nowon was the only one I ever knew who could…” She scowled at the floor for a moment, then took a deep breath for her lost comrade before adding, “He could come out on top at least half of the time, but he was deadly too. Quick, agile, and crafty.”

“I’m going to try not to take that as a slight against my own combat skills,” Ridge said. “But I do concede your point. Tee, put a truth serum and a knockout potion on my shopping list, will you?”

“I’m not a pharmacy, Zirkander,” Tolemek growled. “There’s nothing in the contract I signed about rescuing rulers or picking fights with surly colonels.”

If Tolemek’s scowl bothered Ridge, he didn’t show it. He smiled and said, “Can you have something ready by morning?”

Tolemek’s eyes narrowed.

“Tomorrow night? And just to be clear, I’m not the surly colonel, right?”

“Fine,” Tolemek said, “but I’ll need access to my lab. I depleted my reserves in that jungle.”

Ridge looked down, seemed to realize he had been petting the cat, which had settled into his lap, and set his hands by his sides. “It might be dangerous for you to be seen in town.” He glanced at Sardelle, doubtlessly thinking it would be dangerous for her too. “Colonel Surly was picking the fight with you, not the other way around, as I recall. Maybe I can go with you before checking in on Ort.”

“I don’t need any help getting into my own lab.”

“Or maybe Ahn can go with you.”

Tolemek settled against the backrest. “Hm.”

Ridge turned toward Sardelle and murmured, “I didn’t want any competition for the pottery shed.”

Sardelle glanced toward the door to see what Cas thought of the assignment, but she had slipped outside. Sardelle hoped that didn’t mean trouble was coming to find them.

“Duck,” Ridge said, “I hate to give you the boring and uneventful duty, but someone needs to guard the fliers until we know if it’s safe to bring them to the hangar.”

It was probably safe now, Sardelle guessed, for someone who wouldn’t mind reporting in and being added back to the roster under Therrik’s command. She could see why skulking around without anybody knowing he was in town would appeal more to Ridge, but hoped he wasn’t sinking himself deeper into a tar pit.

“Oh?” Duck asked. “There’s decent hunting in Crazy Canyon. I won’t mind.”

“Good. Apex, I want you to find someone from Wolf Squadron. Don’t go onto the fort, since we don’t want to reveal ourselves yet, but maybe you can catch someone at Wings and Swords. Find out if Therrik is treating them decently and if they know anything about the king or anything else that’s going on around here.”

“Yes, sir,” Apex said.

“Am I coming along to help with your nemesis?” Sardelle worried that he would get himself pummeled—or worse—if he tried to accost Therrik.

“Actually,” Ridge said, “with your unique skills, I thought you would be the perfect person to—”

The kitchen door swung open, and Fern walked out with a pitcher and a stack of cups. She set them down on a low table, said, “Please enjoy some mulled wine, my friends,” then returned to the kitchen. She managed to leave the door ajar again.

Sardelle waited until she had returned to the cutting block by the sink before easing it shut.

Ridge leaned close to Sardelle, his shoulder touching hers. “I know you have your own concerns and want to research that organization that was after you, but it might be a good idea to sneak someone into the castle to check on the queen.”

Kaika dropped her foot to the floor with a clomp and straightened up. “That’s my mission.”

“I thought it could be both of your missions.” Ridge smiled at Kaika and Sardelle, then walked to the table to pour drinks.

Kaika’s eyes closed partway as she scrutinized Sardelle. Since Kaika and Apex had returned to Iskandia instead of going to the jungle with the rest of the group, Sardelle hadn’t yet had a chance to work with her. Apex may have explained some of her talents, but Kaika hadn’t seen many of them for herself. She probably wasn’t sure what to think of Sardelle. For that matter, Sardelle did not know what to think of her. She had heard that Kaika, after Nowon had been killed, had single-handedly taken out numerous Cofah soldiers in that volcano outpost and then planted the explosives that had blown it up. She was clearly an asset to a military team, but if she didn’t like Sardelle—or magic—then working with her would be difficult.

Kaika was still staring in Sardelle’s direction when Ridge returned to hand each of them cups. As he headed back to pour more wine, Sardelle thought about brushing across Kaika’s mind and trying to read a few surface thoughts, but she always questioned herself when she did that, especially with people who weren’t enemies. In her time, there had been laws against such intrusions. Just because there was nobody around to enforce those laws now did not make it right to poke around.

Sardelle sipped from the ceramic mug.

She doesn’t hate you, Jaxi said, but she’s under the impression that you’re a healer and wouldn’t be useful in a fight. She also wouldn’t mind if a rogue dragon ate you and she had to console your lover with vigorous sex.

Sardelle choked on her wine.

Perhaps I should have kept that information to myself. Jaxi’s contrite tone was not convincing.

Perhaps you should stay out of other people’s heads, especially the heads of allies. At least Sardelle thought she could consider Kaika an ally. Ridge could consider her one. That was a certainty.

I’d say so.

I thought she was attracted to Apex.

Oh, she wants to have vigorous sex with him too. She’s irritated that he’s either not attracted to her or is obtuse about reading her not-so-subtle signals.

Sardelle rubbed the back of her neck. Is there anyone she doesn’t want to have vigorous sex with?

She thinks Duck is homely and would only consider Tolemek if he got a haircut.

That didn’t entirely answer my question.

Jaxi grinned into her mind. No, I suppose it didn’t.

A warm hand touched the back of hers. Ridge had finished handing out drinks and stood behind her. He took over rubbing the back of her neck and bent low to whisper, “Are the spices in the wine too strong, or is Jaxi making inappropriate comments?”

Sardelle leaned back into his hand. “You’ve come to know me—us—well in such a short time.”

“It’s been an eventful couple of months.”

Kaika sank back into her chair, looked away from Sardelle—or perhaps the fact that Ridge was massaging her—and stared thoughtfully into her wine.

Even though she knew she should ignore the results of Jaxi’s spying, Sardelle couldn’t help but ask, She’s not thinking of blowing me up to get to him, is she?

I don’t believe so. She was somewhat mortified by the mother and the idea of making babies with him. I think she’s just curious as to how effectively he could make her bed bounce. Now she’s thinking about the king.

And making his bed bounce?

Rescuing him.

“You didn’t mention what you think of the idea of infiltrating the castle.” Ridge glanced at Kaika, then gazed down at Sardelle, a question in his eyes.

“If you think that’s a wise course of action, I can probably be of assistance there.” Hoping she wasn’t being presumptuous, Sardelle touched his mind lightly. Is there more?

He pulled a few loose strands of hair behind her ear. I’m not sure any of these actions are wise. Kaika is the one who wants to infiltrate the castle. She believes the queen will know something, or that she’ll be able to figure out who’s controlling her. She’s set on going, and no matter what I say, I can guarantee that she will be gone in the morning. She’s extremely capable—along with the words, Ridge thought of the Cofah volcano base that had blown up as they were drifting away from it in that hot air balloon—and I could let her go alone, but I’m worried explosives won’t be the answer to bringing the king back. With your talents—and Jaxi’s talents, of course—you might be able to see more in the castle than she could.

I don’t mind going. There are things to be said for the direct approach.

Good things or impulsive and dangerous things? Ridge asked.

I’ll have to let you know after we’ve stormed the castle.

“That’s creepy,” Duck announced.

Sardelle dropped her gaze and folded her hands in her lap, certain he had noticed that she and Ridge had been gazing oddly at each other and not speaking.

“When did Raptor add swordsmanship to her list of skills?” Duck added. He had drifted over to the front window with his mug in hand.

“She’s passable with a knife, but usually favors her rifle,” Apex said. “Or her fliers’ guns.”

Ridge drew back from Sardelle. “I thought she was watching for trouble.” He walked toward the window. “She’s not cutting up any visitors, is she?”

“No, she’s doing practice forms,” Duck said. “With that glowy sword. I hope the neighbors aren’t looking.”

“It’s not the first time,” Tolemek said. “She said she doesn’t trust that dragon not to go back to my peo—the Cofah in some capacity, and that she intends to be ready if it ever shows up here.”

An irritated yowl sounded, and Ridge jerked his foot up.

The kitchen door opened, and Fern hustled out with a tray of food. “Did someone step on a cat? What happened?”

“Sorry, I didn’t see that one there,” Ridge said, frowning out the window.

Sardelle wondered if she should join him, but she only had power over one glowing sword, and the dragon slayer wasn’t it.

“That’s Mimi.” Fern pointed at the spotted cat skulking away.

“Of course it is. Mom, when I moved you out to the country, it wasn’t so you could collect more stray cats.”

“Oh? Was it so my humble cottage could be turned into your secret safe house in the event of an emergency?”

“Well, no.”

She shrugged. “Cats happen, dear. That’s just how it is.”

Cas opened the front door and stepped inside, sweat gleaming on her forehead. “Soldiers are coming.”

So much for a secret safe house, Jaxi said.

~

If it’s after June 13th, you can order the rest of the book now. If you’re reading this before then, the pre-order is also available. Thanks for checking it out!

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Increasing Sales on an Old or Flagging Series

| Posted in Advertising, Amazon Kindle Sales |

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Do you have a series that isn’t selling as well as you wish it would? Do you have a series that once sold well but has dropped into obscurity? Do you have a series that’s never made it out of obscurity? (Is this blog post sounding like a late night infomercial pitch? Hmm.)

Even though people like to say that ebooks are forever and that you can continue to earn money from them indefinitely, the natural order of things is for new releases to sell better than older books, especially in the case of a series that’s been finished for a couple of years.

Yes, I have my Emperor’s Edge series in mind here. I published the first book in December 2010 and wrapped things up in June of 2013 with the final book, Forged in Blood II. There’s been one more novel with the same characters, but the main series and story arc ended two years ago. It’s continued to sell month in and month out (thanks mainly, I believe, to the permafree Book 1 and the occasional ads I take out on it), but it doesn’t sell like it did when I was still publishing books in the series.

This isn’t surprising, of course, and since I’ve been working on other series, I haven’t put as much effort into promoting EE as I once did. But a few months ago, I started thinking about ways to get the numbers up again. Even if I’m publishing new stuff, it doesn’t make sense to ignore the old books. After all, it takes less work to market something you already have than to write, publish, and market something entirely new.

So, today I’m going to talk about three things I did in the last month to give the old series a little boost (I roughly tripled sales on it from March to April and added a few thousand dollars to my income reports). Maybe this will be helpful if you’re in the same boat and trying to sell more in an old (or not-so-old) series.

Before I jump in with what I did, I’ll say that there’s one big thing that I haven’t done yet and that’s to get new covers for the entire series. I’d love to get some cool illustrated ones in the vein of Republic, but those covers aren’t cheap, and it’s hard to justify that expense (we’re talking custom illustrations for seven novels plus one novella) for an older series. It’s something I would like to do eventually, but I decided to go for the low-hanging fruit first.

1. Putting together a permafree epic fantasy bundle with other authors

Since the first EE book has been free for a long time, it naturally languishes in the free lists, and as I’ve admitted, doesn’t have the most epic cover. I figured that a way to get more people to try that book would be to try and get it to stick at the top of the free lists for a while. Even if I could get a Bookbub ad, that would have been tough to do with an old title (it’s been advertised on BookBub a couple of times in the past already), so I decided to try doing a multi-author permafree bundle.

I contacted seven other authors with permafree Book 1s that had been out for a while, and we paid $200 for a new cover and around $200 for ads when we released the set. One of the authors, Jo Lallo, did the formatting in house, so the cover and some ads are the only things we had to pay for.

The bundle didn’t do as well as I was hoping (we were eyeing a couple of urban fantasy bundles as examples, ones that had stuck in the Top 200 overall free at Amazon for months), but we’ve still given away over 30,000 copies, and I’m starting to get emails from readers who said they found me through the bundle and checked out my other books. I also started seeing an uptick in sales for the second book in the series after a couple of weeks.

Overall, it didn’t take a lot of work or money to put the bundle together, and I’ve more than seen a return on my investment. The new cover brought new eyes to all of our older permafrees, and it’s still getting about 300 downloads a day at Amazon.

2. Getting a new cover for my existing Book 1-3 bundle and reworking the blurb

It’s been a couple of years since I boxed up the first three books in the series, and I’ve run sales with ads a couple of times since then. If that’s something you haven’t already done, then go for it (I’m still riding the wave from an awesome Bookbub ad for my Dragon Blood bundle back in January). Your first time is always the best. With bundles anyway. 😉

Since I had already advertised the EE1-3 bundle twice with Bookbub, once in 2013 and once in 2014, I wasn’t sure if I’d get much of a boost if I just ran the same copy again. Also, the blurb wasn’t very good. It was basically a quick summation of the three books in the series. After the success of my DB1-3 set, I realized that a more generic fantasy blurb was probably best, something on the simpler side. I know that sounds contrary to common sense, but people really seem to want to buy what they’re familiar with rather than something wonderfully original. (The original stuff can always be on the inside.)

After I rewrote the blurb, I also decided to redo the cover, making something new that screamed epic fantasy and wasn’t just a mashup of the existing covers. Even if I’m still planning to get those custom illustrations someday, this was an inexpensive way to give a new look to the boxed set. We just used a stock photo dagger for the front.

And guess what? It worked. Before I did any price changes, sales of the bundle doubled. (Right now, it’s still 99 cents, probably until the end of the month, but it usually sells for $7.69.) That was without mentioning it anywhere (I was waiting to see if I could get some ads before doing a price drop and making announcements).

In short, a new cover and a new blurb can be surprisingly effective at increasing sales, especially if you’ve got a permafree or something out there that’s already helping draw attention to your bundle and other books.

3. Putting together an advertising campaign

From the beginning, my strategy was to lower the price on the boxed set to 99 cents and try to get a pile of new readers into the series. Unlike with my Dragon Blood books (which only had one more novel out in the series when I made the bundle), I had four more $4.95 EE books that new people could go on to grab if they liked the first ones, as well as follow-ups and tie-in novels.

As I mentioned, I got lucky with the 99-cent Dragon Blood set, since all it took was a BookBub ad to get thousands of sales and stick on Amazon (and also on Barnes & Noble). I’d never been that lucky or really had anything stick before (at least not that high in the rankings), so I fully acknowledged that this was atypical. I didn’t expect to be that lucky with a bundle that had already been out and advertised everywhere before, but I was going to try my best to get some new readers.

First I applied to Bookbub. If I didn’t get accepted there, I was just going to wait until I could get in. Fortunately, I’ve had good luck getting bundles accepted (probably because a $6+ savings is more appealing than a $2 or $3 one), and they signed it up.

Next, I went to the various other sites and tried to get ads that would appear in the days leading up to the Bookbub ad, so that the bundle would have some momentum and have a better chance of sticking. I risked booking ads even with sites where I haven’t previously earned as much in sales as the ads cost, in the hope that the combined result would be greater than the sum of the individual sales from the ads. (As we’ve talked about before, Amazon usually ignores sales anomalies, such as 2000 sales in one day from a BB ad, and the book drops back down to its former spot within a week or two. A sustained burn is more likely to result in a sticky book.)

Some of the sites I hit up were: Ereader News Today, Kindle Nation Daily, Fussy Librarian, Free Kindle Books and Tips, and Bargain Booksy. There were a few other smaller ones that didn’t cost much and deliver much, but I was just trying to get about five days worth of ads leading up to the BB one. I spent around $400.

In the end, I more than made my money back, and sold about 2500 copies of the bundle that week. Honestly, the numbers were a lot smaller than with the DB set, but like I said, this was a bundle that had existed for years and had been advertised everywhere before. It didn’t stick at a high level, but it’s still sub 1500 in the Amazon store about six weeks later. It’s not earning a ton on its own, not at 99 cents, but sales of Books 4, 5, 6, and 7 have been much higher than usual. I said three times as much, but I just checked the sales stats, and I’ve already sold 515 copies of Book 4 this month in the Amazon US store (it’s May 15th, so halfway through the month). Before all of this started, the individual EE titles were averaging 150-180 sales a month there.

Even if this round of advertising didn’t turn all the books in the series into best sellers, it was definitely successful. Eventually, when EE1-3 drops further in the rankings at Amazon, I’ll put the bundle back up to full price and focus on the next series I want to promote, but you can bet I’ll plan to do something like this every year, even for my older series.

Thanks for reading through this, and hey, if you’ve had any success with reviving older titles, let us know about it in the comments.