Dragon Blood Contest [Winners Announced!] — Describe a couch, win signed paperbacks!

| Posted in News |


If you’ve been following along with my Dragon Blood series (excerpt of Book 1 here if you haven’t tried the books yet!), then this contest is for you.

One of our heroes (who may or may not be alive) lost his infamously hideous couch when his house was blown up in Book 3. In Book 6, a new couch was incinerated by a dragon before it crossed the threshold of his home. In Book 7 (assuming he’s alive), he’ll be receiving a new couch, a gift from his squadron of pilots. It’s very possible these pilots don’t have the best taste in furnishings, but I shall leave that up to you. The winning couch will find its way into the end of Book 7.

If you wish to enter this contest, please describe the new/old/refurbished couch that you think our stalwart hero should receive. Pictures are acceptable. Please post your entry in the comments and make sure to use an email address you check, so I can contact you if you’re the winner.

The winner will receive signed paperbacks of the first five Dragon Blood books. 

Thanks for playing along!

Update 11/16/15: Thanks for the entries, everyone. I’ll be picking a winner in the next couple of days!

Winners Announced!

Thanks, everyone. We had some truly hideous recommendations (perfect!). I decided to go with a blend of Justin Sheard’s suggestion of a frame made from flier parts, and then I just had to use Derin Attwood’s line about, “the green you get when you squish caterpillars.” Sounds so perfectly awful!

Look for this couch in Soulblade, which is available for pre-order now and will be out on December 22nd.


Raptor, Dragon Blood 6, Preview and Release

| Posted in My Ebooks |


In a few hours, Raptor, the sixth book in my Dragon Blood series, will be out everywhere. If you haven’t given these stories a try, and you like your fantasy with humor, adventure, magic, and a little romance, you can give Balanced on the Blade’s Edge a try, or pick up the first three books in the discounted boxed set. There’s also an audiobook of the first three novels that you can get for one credit through Audible.

For those who are all caught with the series and are ready for Book 6, here’s a peek at the prologue. This is only the second prologue I’ve written in twenty-odd books. (Bonus points if you remember which other book of mine has a prologue!) I thought it would be fun to introduce our dragon through eyes of… well, you’ll see.

If you want to skip reading it here and grab the book, here are the links:

Amazon | iBooks | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords | Google Play

Raptor — Prologue

 “Hope we get her delivered before the rain starts.” Jort clucked at the horse team, encouraging greater alacrity on the muddy street.

“That’s why she’s under a tarp.” Jort’s comrade, Ox, yawned and scratched himself, the wooden bench shivering as the big man adjusted his weight. “A few raindrops won’t hurt her.”

“I was thinking of us.” Jort eyed the late spring clouds scowling down from the heavens. “Figured we’d be delivering this to base housing, not some dead-end out in the middle of nowhere.”

“We’re less than twenty minutes from the city walls.”

“It feels like the middle of nowhere.” Jort waved at the towering firs and hemlocks closing in on either side of the puddle-strewn road, the branches leaving only a strip of cloudy sky visible overhead. “Besides, twenty minutes is a powerful long time if you’re getting poured on.” He spotted an algae-covered pond up ahead, marking the end of the road. They had only passed three houses since the turnoff, and he had checked the addresses on all of them. No sign of 374 yet. “You wouldn’t expect a general to live out so far.”

“Bet his witch picked the place.”

“Don’t say things like that.” To ward off evil magic, Jort circled his heart with two fingers, his movements so hasty that he dropped the reins. “There’s no such thing as witches. Not real ones.” He circled his heart again before picking up the reins, just in case. A man couldn’t be too safe.

“If you believe that, you can knock on the door and be the one to talk to her.”

“You don’t think she’ll be there, do you?” Jort licked lips that suddenly seemed drier than the white-sand deserts. He didn’t believe in magic, but he’d heard plenty of stories about General Zirkander’s lady friend, stories that would make any man twitchy. She supposedly had all sorts of potions and kept the famous pilot under her spells. And she had a sword that could melt a man’s balls off. No wonder the general had bought her such an expensive piece of furniture.

“Better be there,” Ox said, not sounding concerned. “Someone’s got to sign for the couch.”

Jort’s heart rate was up about five hundred percent by the time the horse team stopped in front of the last house on the road, a cozy two-story cottage with a tidy, green lawn out front and picnic tables and a horseshoe pit in the back. It looked innocent enough, but the tall trees along the borders hid it from its neighbors, and nothing but an overgrown blackberry patch occupied the lot across the street.

“It looks… private.” Jort eyed the windows, wondering which room the witch used to brew her potions. A curtain upstairs stirred, and he froze. He couldn’t see anyone, but he felt certain someone was watching them.

“Yup.” Ox hopped out of the wagon and strode around back to untie the canvas tarp.

A raindrop spattered Jort’s nose, and he tore his gaze from the cottage. He needed to help his partner so they could deliver the couch and escape back to the safety of the city.

“They probably like it private so they can get wild without anyone hearing,” Ox added, dropping the gate on the back of the wagon. “Maybe on this very couch.”


“Pilots got needs, same as anyone else. Now, go knock and ask the witch where she wants it.”

“Don’t call her that.” Jort glanced at the curtain that had shivered. “Not when she might hear.”

Ox gave him a dramatic sigh. Jort wiped his hands on his trousers and walked up the flagstone path to the door. He took a bracing breath and lifted his hand to knock.

The door opened before he touched it, and he jumped back. He almost found himself reaching for his hip, where he had carried a sword during his infantry days, but the barefoot, brown-haired girl standing there in a paint-stained sundress was not an imposing figure. She certainly didn’t look old enough to be the witch Jort had expected. She didn’t even seem old enough to be the girlfriend of anyone without pimples and a squeaky voice.

“It’s here,” she blurted and clapped her hands. “Sardelle will be so happy.”

Sardelle. Yes, that was the name on the clipboard.

“I think she was secretly pleased that Ridge’s last couch was blown up along with his house,” the girl went on. “Did you ever see it? I never did, but I heard about it.” She shuddered.

“Uhm, no, miss.” As if the legendary General Zirkander would invite Jort to his house for dice and cocktails.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” The girl pointed to the wagon, where Ox had removed the tarp and levered the couch partway out. “It’s so sleek. Is that suede?”

“Yes, miss. Where do we put it?” Jort allowed himself to relax slightly. Maybe the witch wasn’t here, and this girl could sign for the couch. He and Ox could be back in the city before the rain grew serious.

“In the front room, here.”

“Good, we’ll bring it right in as soon as you sign this.” Jort held out a clipboard.

The girl gave him a blank look. She pulled a wet paintbrush out of her pocket and raised her eyebrows.

Before Jort could explain that a pen would be better, a man walked into view and stopped behind her. He had silver hair that fell to his shoulders, a strange color for someone who appeared no older than twenty. His eyes were an eerie yellowish brown, reminiscent of a wolf, and he had a presence that made Jort want to take a step back. Several steps back. Fortunately, the intense gaze did not land on him. The man stepped past the girl and looked toward the sky. He rested a hand on the girl’s shoulder, and they stared at each other. They didn’t talk. They just stared, as if some kind of communication was happening that didn’t require words.

“We’ll, ah, get that couch now,” Jort said, stumbling as he backed away. He turned and strode toward his partner. Maybe there were multiple witches staying here. A coven. Wasn’t that what a bevy of witches was called?

“You get the signature?” Ox asked.

“Not yet. Let’s just hurry and get it in there. This place is creepy.” Jort glanced back toward the house. The young man was standing in the yard now and waving for the girl to go back inside, while his gaze remained locked on the cloudy sky.

“Boss will throw our balls in an apple press if we don’t get it signed for.” Despite his protest, Ox shrugged and pulled the couch out further. Jort jumped into the bed to push from inside. He and Ox had never gotten such a heavy piece of furniture off the wagon so quickly. Ox did not appear worried—he had not seen the man’s eerie eyes—but with his brawny arms, he had no trouble carrying his half of the couch and matching Jort’s pace.

They were halfway up the walk when the girl shouted. “Look out!”

“Get in the house,” the man ordered, raising a hand toward her. The girl staggered backward, and the door seemed to shut of its own accord.

Jort was so busy finding that unnerving that he was completely surprised when Ox dropped his end of the couch.

“What are you doing?” Jort blurted. “If it’s damaged—”

“Run,” the young man ordered. His voice was calm, but it cut through Jort’s words like a sword through butter.

A huge gust of wind struck Jort in the back, and the horses screeched. Jort tumbled over the couch, and then was hurled through the air in the direction of the wagon—or where the wagon had been. It and the horses were taking off up the road.

As Jort scrambled to his feet, a hand gripped him from behind. He yelled in surprise. It might have been a shriek. What in all the hells was going on?

“Get down, you idiot.” Ox pulled him through a mud puddle, water spattering in all directions.

An utterly alien cry thundered from the sky. Jort looked up and promptly wished he hadn’t. He had only seen pictures of dragons in history books, but he recognized the massive flying creature for what it was. There was no doubt. The cry came again, the ear-splitting noise a cross between a roar and a scream as the golden-scaled creature descended, its wings pulled close to its huge muscular body as it plummeted toward the yard.

Jort and Ox backed across the road as quickly as they could. Jort expected the young man to get out of the way, too, but he stood, staring defiantly at the sky.

At first, it looked like the dragon would crash into the earth, but like an eagle diving for a fish, its wings unfurled from its body to slow it at the last moment. Those wings easily spanned forty feet, stretching from the house to the road. The dragon’s giant fang-filled mouth opened, and a gout of fire streamed forth. Flame poured onto the grass, the couch, and the man standing in the yard.

Even from across the street, with the blackberry bushes clawing at the back of his shirt, Jort could feel the heat. He lifted his arm to protect his face, but he couldn’t tear his gaze from the yard. Impossibly, the man wasn’t burned from the fire, even though the grass had yellowed, then disintegrated, as flagstones cracked and smoke poured from the tormented earth.

The dragon’s talons grasped at the air where his prey stood. At the last instant, the man rolled to the side, moving for the first time under the assault. Those talons bit into the ground where he had stood, tearing a gaping hole before the dragon’s powerful wings flapped, taking it into the air again.

The draft batted at Jort, almost pushing him farther back into the brambles. The young man jumped to his feet. The door opened slightly, but he flung a hand, and it closed again. Then, as if Jort hadn’t been shocked enough, the man leaped into the air. Before his feet came back down again, his clothes disappeared and his body transformed, silver scales replacing skin, and wings replacing arms. He also expanded in size, and while Jort stared, his mouth hanging down to the ground, the figure became a dragon.

Without hesitating, the former man flew over the house and into the trees behind it. Branches shivered as he passed, alternating between flapping his wings and tucking them in close to streak between the evergreens. Jort’s first thought was that he meant to fly into the sky to confront the other dragon, but he stayed in the trees. The gold dragon didn’t seem surprised at having its prey transform. It gave pursuit immediately, soaring above the treetops and breathing flame into the branches. The damp wood smoldered and did not catch fire, but it charred and fell limp under the fiery assault.

“Phelistoth,” came the girl’s voice from the house. She opened the door and ran outside.

Without glancing at Jort and Ox, she raced around the corner of the house and into the woods. She would never catch the dragons. Even with the impediment of the trees, they were too fast. Before long, they disappeared from view.

Jort’s gaze lowered to the destroyed patch of yard where the young man had stood. And where the couch had stood. It had burned to the ground, only four charred stumps remaining where its legs had been. The cushions, the frame, the suede… gone. Completely gone.

“You should have got that signature,” Ox said.


Continue on by grabbing the ebook from:

Amazon | iBooks | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Smashwords | Google Play

5 Ways to Promote Your Free Book 1 Series Starter

| Posted in Book Marketing |


You’ve probably heard that a lot of indie authors made their careers by giving away tens of thousands of copies of their series starters. (For me, The Emperor’s Edge, has been free since late 2011). You may also have heard that free doesn’t pack as much punch as it used to (i.e. it’s harder to get people to notice your free ebook and give it a try). I won’t deny the truth of that. There are a couple of things that have changed:

Amazon “hid” the free lists 

A couple of years ago, when you browsed through a Top 100 category at Amazon, you would see the top selling paid books side by side with the top downloaded free books. People didn’t have to click a special tab to see the free lists.

Amazon also doesn’t show free books in your also-boughts. If you look at the fourth book in my Dragon Blood series, Patterns in the Dark, you’ll see Books 2, 3, 5, 6, and the 3-book omnibus in the first page of the also-boughts. You won’t find Book 1 in there because it’s currently free.

This lessened visibility means it’s harder for people to stumble across your free book on Amazon. Readers have to consciously click over to the free ebook lists and browse for new stories to download. Some people still do that, but many don’t, especially if they’re Kindle Unlimited subscribers, which brings us to the next change.

Kindle Unlimited has reduced the need for readers to hunt for free books

In 2014, Amazon rolled out its Kindle Unlimited subscription service. Now, for $10 a month, readers can borrow and consume all of the ebooks in the lending library, which is a lot of books! You can see in my post from last week that Amazon offers a lot of incentives to get indie authors to enroll in KDP Select and KU.

A lot of price conscious and voracious readers — exactly the kind of person who might have surfed those free lists before — are now grabbing KU books instead of hunting for freebies. In essence, everything in KU is a “freebie” for them, so long as they keep paying their $10 a month.

There are more free books out there as competition

As I said, many authors have built fan bases and sold a lot of books by having their series starters out there for free, both in Amazon and on the other stores. Everybody now knows that you can get a book made permanently free or “permafree” on Amazon (a store that doesn’t allow you to price a book at less than 99 cents via the dashboard) by making it free elsewhere and waiting for Amazon to price match. You can also get a free ebook in Barnes & Noble (another store that doesn’t let you choose free as an option via the dashboard) by going through a distributor, such as Smashwords or Draft 2 Digital.

In addition to the widely known price-matching trick, KDP Select also allows its authors to make enrolled titles free for a few days each quarter. The result is that at any given time, there are a lot more free titles available these days than there used to be. And, as we’ve said, there may be fewer people looking for free books.

With all that being said, is having a free series starter out there still a viable option? Can it still “make” a new indie author’s career?

Yes, I believe so. In fact, I know so, since that’s how I kicked things off with my pen name last year. The pen name was anonymous at the time, so I was starting from scratch. You can read more about how that went in my 4-weeks-in and 10-weeks-in posts from last year. The short answer is that launching with three titles in a series the first month and making the first one permafree, at least for a while (it’s now 99 cents and in KDP Select), helped a lot.

But, as I said in the beginning, it’s not enough anymore to just make your book free. You have to promote it! (Most of us have always had to do some promotion, but there was a time when you could get thousands of downloads or even tens of thousands of downloads fairly easily.)

Here’s my list of five ways to get more people checking out your free series starter:

1. Buy Advertising

This is the obvious one. If you’ve got some reviews already and the average is decent, it shouldn’t be difficult to get some ads. There are a handful of lists out there with links to the major sponsorship sites (and many of the minor ones) that will promote your freebie for anything from a couple of bucks to hundreds of dollars. (Don’t pay hundreds unless it’s for a Bookbub ad!)

Ads do two things. First, you get immediate downloads from the people getting the sponsor site’s newsletter or following them on Facebook. Second, the downloads from those people help push your ebook up to a better slot in your category on Amazon, thus meaning that more of the people who surf the free lists will find and try your book.

Some authors like to buy an ad or two every month to keep the sales of subsequent books trickling in, and others like to “ad stack,” where they’ll buy several ads on consecutive days to try and stay at the top of their category for longer. Either plan can work.

2. Put an excerpt (or serialize the entire novel) up on your site and use social media to plug it.

Authors often struggle to figure out how to use social media effectively. It’s tough to get people to buy things on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc., and if you write a lot of sales-pitchy tweets or posts, you might find yourself blackballed by your target audience.

It is, however, easier to promote when you’re giving something away for free. People are less likely to roll their eyes at the sales pitch and more likely to click and take a peek. They have nothing to lose but a few minutes of their time.

Andy Weir of The Martian fame started out serializing his novel on his website. Something that doesn’t always get mentioned was that Andy had a blog readership before he got started serializing the novel, so this isn’t necessarily a path to ultra success for everyone, but the combination of free + serialized installments + social media can definitely work to build an audience.

(You don’t have to serialize, but that gives you something to promote every week when you post a new installment, instead of always promoting the same free ebook.)

I’ve posted excerpts of my books and promoted those, usually with new releases, and I’ve definitely had people tell me they first bought one of my books because they got caught up in the excerpt.

Aside from my experience with Wattpad (more on that below), where I was serializing books that were already published, I haven’t tried serializing an entire novel yet. It is, however, on my to-do list for 2016 — serializing the first book in a new trilogy I have planned (before I publish anything).

3. Using Facebook advertising to drive readers to your mailing list (where they receive your free ebook for signing up)

Facebook is different from the sponsorship sites. Instead of paying a flat fee to have your book appear in a newsletter or on a site for a day, you pay per click (that click can go to a landing page on your website or directly to your book’s page on Amazon). You can target readers far more specifically than you can on other advertising platforms (i.e. you can have your ads display only to women over 30 who are fans of X popular author who writes in a style similar to yours).

The downside of Facebook advertising is that you might be paying 50 cents or more per click. That’s a lot if your only goal is to give away a free ebook.

Thriller author Mark Dawson has pioneered a system of using Facebook to get people to sign up for his mailing list. He sends them a couple of free ebooks from his starter library and then, after they’ve had a chance to read those books, tries to get them to buy a boxed set of later books in his series. By using affiliate links and tracking clicks, he can see which sales come from his list and how much each newsletter signup is worth in the end. I.E. maybe he pays a dollar or two to get people to sign up, but if the average person ends up earning him $5 or $10 in book sales, then it’s worth it.

This is something I’m planning to try soon, but I can’t speak from personal experience yet, so I’ll direct you to Mark. He has three free videos up that explain things (his goal is to get you to buy a course on the subject, but there is a lot of good information in the free videos).

4. Wattpad

I have the first three books in my Emperor’s Edge series up for free on Wattpad. It’s a big site where authors will post everything from completed novels to installments of new projects that they’re working on. There are a lot of people that read books on the site, especially teens, who may not yet have a lot of money to spend on paid ebooks at Amazon.

Like many authors, I’ve had trouble converting those Wattpad readers to paid sales, but I have definitely had people write to me and say that they first discovered my ebooks there and went on to buy the rest of the series. I also figure that young readers who may not yet be book buyers will become adult readers with income to spend sooner or later. Maybe they’ll remember my series fondly and come back to it (or other titles I’ve written) one day.

Note: since there are so many writers on Wattpad, it’s like anything else in that it’s a struggle to be noticed. I never had much luck networking with others (I didn’t put much effort into it either), which is usually recommended there. Posting your complete novel in installments seems to help, and as time passes, more and more people stumble across the book and give it a read. If you have an awesome cover (I still need to redo my EE ones, so I can’t say that I do), that can go a long way toward attracting attention.

Note 2: I’ve never seen anyone have a great deal of luck by only posting the first few chapters of a book here, though lots of authors try it. A lot of readers, if not the majority of readers, wait until a book is marked complete before jumping into it.

5. Podiobooks 

Podiobooks is a site that will host your completed audiobook (so you have to turn your Book 1 into an audiobook before you can do this) for free and then send it out to iTunes, where people can chance across it, much as they would a podcast. I have the first three books in my Emperor’s Edge series out there where people can listen to them for free.

I won’t lie: audiobooks are expensive to create unless you do it yourself (and then it’s time consuming, which is expensive in another way). Because of that, this method won’t be for everyone.

That said, because there is that higher barrier to entry, there are a lot fewer free podiobooks out there with which to compete. There are thousands of free ebooks in each genre on Amazon, whereas you might only find hundreds of free podiobooks in iTunes in your genre (if that).

I published my podiobooks in 2011 and 2012. I do absolutely nothing to promote them, but I still get people emailing me to let me know that they found my series this way (and often asking if I’ll ever put the rest of the books into an audio format!). Some of those listeners go on to buy the ebooks in the series. (If I had audiobooks for the rest of the series, they would probably buy that way instead, which can be more lucrative than ebooks.)

If you’re going to be putting your books out in audio format anyway (I’m doing my Rust & Relics series through ACX right now), then you could also consider putting a free version of Book 1 out there. Then people who enjoy that can go on to buy the rest of the series through iTunes/Amazon/Audible.

There’s my list of five ways to promote your free Book 1. Do you have any to add? Or any experience with these that you would like to share?

Should You Go Wide or Join KDP Select/Kindle Unlimited?

| Posted in Amazon Kindle Sales, New Author Series |


When I uploaded my first book, The Emperor’s Edge, in December of 2010, it was a foregone conclusion that I would put it out there everywhere I could, in the hope that new readers would stumble across it and give it a try. Then, a couple of years later, Amazon introduced KDP Select, a program for self-publishers that requires exclusivity.

Right off the bat, Amazon introduced a couple of promotional tactics that are still available to those who are enrolled. Eventually, Kindle Unlimited and the ability to be paid for borrows also came along.

Here’s what the perks of KDP Select look like as I write this in October of 2015 (let me know if I’ve missed any!):

  • The ability to run a Countdown Deal once per quarter, a feature that, among other things, let’s you run sales on books (i.e. dropping them to 99 cents) while still receiving the 70% split that’s usually only available with ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99.
  • The ability to run a Free Book Promotion up to five days per quarter (The only other way to have a book listed as free in the Kindle store is to make it free elsewhere and hope Amazon price matches. This is unreliable and may involve being free longer than you wish.).
  • Enrollment in Kindle Unlimited, the Amazon lending library, where you’ll be paid for pages read and where ebook borrows can improve your visibility and sales ranking in the Kindle store (I did a big write up about this last year: KDP Select & Kindle Unlimited: Why Ebooks Not Enrolled Are at a Disadvantage).
  • Earning 70% on appropriately priced books sold in some of Amazon’s newer territories such as Japan, India, Brazil and Mexico (for some reason, perhaps to make KDP Select more appealing, Amazon decided not to offer everyone that 70%, as is the norm in other countries).

So, what do you lose? Obviously, if you’re exclusive with Amazon, you can’t receive ebook income from the other stores. Let me emphasize that we’re only talking about ebook income, as you can still have audiobooks in iTunes and paperbacks in Barnes & Noble and elsewhere. But, as you probably already know, ebook income is huge for self-published authors. Even though I’m working on getting more audiobooks out there, and I’ve done paperbacks for most of my novels, ebooks easily account for 95% of my income.

Are you wide or in Select?

Before I go further, I should disclose that I am not in KDP Select with any of the books under my name, but that my pen name is currently “all in” with KDP Select. I started the pen name books there, to take advantage of the sales ranking/visibility boost from Kindle Unlimited, and I returned them to KDP Select this August, after not gaining much headway in the other stores and after Amazon switched to Kindle Unlimited 2.0, a system that rewards novelists by paying based on total pages read.

For my LB books, I’ve been around longer, and my books do sell on the other platforms, especially on Barnes & Noble (Kobo has been coming on strong these last few months too). I also make some sales on iTunes and Smashwords, and through Smashwords, I make a nominal amount at Overdrive, Oyster, and Scribd. The Emperor’s Edge (Book 1 in a series that has grown to 9 books) and Flash Gold (the first in a steampunk series of novellas) have been permanently free out there for years, something that I’m sure has helped with finding readers in other places.

Still, even with all that, Amazon always seems to make up about 85-90% of my ebook income. In my case, if things are going well elsewhere, they’re going even better at Amazon.

There have been times that I’ve considered trying KDP Select with a couple of my series, to see how much it would affect sales and if I would make more overall with the borrows added in. But after almost five years of publishing widely, I’ve gained some loyal readers from those other platforms. It’s uncomfortable enough when I have to explain that my pen name books are only available on Amazon!

I also, from a moral and business standpoint, don’t like the idea of being exclusive with Amazon and relying wholly on one vendor for my income. I’m quite tickled to have reached the point, in the last year or two, where my non-Amazon income has grown to enough that I could still make a living at this if Amazon disappeared. (Of course, I hope it won’t!)

But I understand why some authors choose exclusivity and KDP Select. With 3-4 books out wide in all of the stores, my pen name made a little shy of $1,000 on platforms other than Amazon between January 2015 and July 2015 (that’s total, not per month). I had the first book in the series free, and I even managed to snag a Bookbub ad during that time. That helped a bit with sales on those other platforms, but not as much as I would have expected (I should note that my pen name writes science fiction romance, and Bookbub doesn’t have such a category–they put the book in paranormal romance, which I don’t believe was a good fit). The pen name gained some readers at Barnes & Noble, but barely sold any books at iBooks or Kobo.

Now, might things change if I had kept the pen name books in all of the stores for years and continued to have a permafree and continued to run promotions? Sure, it’s very likely that the income would have grown with time, but I do feel a little hampered with running ads for SFR, since it’s not a specific category for advertisements anywhere. Not all (or many) romance readers will pick up SF, and not all (or many) sci-fi readers will pick up romance. The niche does sell on Amazon, but it and romance > fantasy are definitely the smallest of the romance subcategories.

Since it’s tough to gain traction in that little category, I’ve found it easier to make headway by being in Kindle Unlimited, where those borrows help boost the book high enough in the rankings (at least when they’re new releases) that they can appear in the Top 20 of the SFR category for several weeks. I found it tough to stick in that Top 20 on sales alone (for a small subcategory, there’s still a lot of churn, and it takes around a 1000 overall ranking to hit that first page).

When KU changed to KU2.0 this summer, I decided to put all of the pen name books back into KDP Select. I’d probably recommend almost anyone doing a pen name start out this way, not only because it takes more effort to gain traction on the other stores but also because, if you’re publishing frequently, it’s more work to upload everywhere and keep the back matter updated. (I just did a serial with the pen name and was so pleased that I wasn’t putting up all six weekly installments everywhere.) As they say, time is money, and you want to make sure you’re not spending a lot of time on activities that don’t reward you with much of a payoff.

So, what was the result?

As I write this, we don’t know the September pages-read-payment-rate for Kindle Unlimited yet, but if it’s close to the .0051 rate of August, the pen name will have made over $10,000 just in borrows. A lot of that is thanks to a serial I published in August/September, but the books that struggled to make $1,000 all year in the other stores still accounted for about $3,000 in September. Sales took a slight dip from July, when the books weren’t in KU, but that only accounted for a $200 loss against that $10,000 gain.

In a situation like that, it’s hard not to sing the praises of Amazon and Kindle Unlimited, so I get it when people tell me they’ve tried both ways, and they’re sticking with KDP Select for now. Exclusivity sucks, but if you’re able to make orders of magnitude more within the program than you do outside of it, then it has to be considered. Against all logic, you could even be reaching more readers being exclusive with Amazon than you are being on all of the platforms.

Of course, this is not the case for everybody. That’s important to point out. I don’t want this to be like the “should I trad publish or self publish?” argument that goes around, as if it’s so easy to get those trad deals and it’s a simple either/or consideration.

If you can’t parlay those KU borrows into a Top 100 placement in your subcategories, then it’s becomes more of a toss-up as to whether being in KDP Select will help. The promotional perks (Countdown Deals and Free Promotions) aren’t without value, but KU earnings and the ranking boosts you currently get from those borrows are the reasons I’m there with the pen name (note: a borrow is always going to be easier to get than a sale, because it’s absolutely free to someone who’s paid their monthly subscription fee).

Now that I’ve shared my experiences, as someone who’s wide and who is also in KDP Select, I’m going to try and break things down a bit for those of you who might be trying to decide.

When does it make more sense to go wide?

Obviously, if you’re doing well on the other vendors, then you don’t want to give that up. It’s rare, but every now and then, I run into someone who’s selling like hotcakes at Apple (so far these have always been romance people — I’d love to hear from anyone who is killing it there in other genres!).

If you’re reading this post, I’ll assume it’s not so black and white for you.

In my opinion, if you’ve come to rely on your self-publishing income, and especially if this is your only source of income, being exclusive with Amazon should make you twitchy. You should be doing your darndest to diversify your income sources.

When KU 1.0 was introduced, it rewarded those who published short fiction and serials, because every single borrow was paid out at the same rate. Page length didn’t matter. All that mattered was if the reader made it past 10% (something that comes quickly in a short ebook). Some people started catering their work to KU, writing lots of short fiction and serialized fiction. When KU2.0 rolled around, and we started getting paid based on pages reads, people who’d been making thousands of dollars a month on short fiction were suddenly making hundreds, if that.

Obviously, one of the lessons is not change your writing style or quit your day job prematurely based on success in one program at one outlet, but I think the lesson is also not to rely only on one vendor, not when your income pays the rent and feeds the cats. What if Amazon decided to drop the split from 70% to 35% on all ebooks one day? Would you still be okay? Or would you be wishing you had income from other sources? (And if you think that can’t happen, Amazon started paying out only 35% in the old days.)

If you’re in KDP Select now because you’re rocking it, you might take a look at your books. Are they all rocking it or are some titles performing less well? It might be worth it to have some stuff in KDP Select and other books out there where you might gradually pick up fans on other platforms.

Also, like I said in the beginning, that exclusivity doesn’t apply to paperbacks and audiobooks. If you haven’t jumped into those arenas yet, this might be the time. Paperbacks do especially well in the months leading up to Christmas!

When does it make more sense to try KDP Select and exclusivity?

If self-publishing is hobby income right now, and it’s not a big deal if you lose it, it probably means you’re not selling that much yet. I think that’s the perfect time to experiment with KDP Select.

If you’re not selling much anywhere, you may find it easier to get those KU borrows when you’re out there promoting. As I said above, it’s easier to snag a borrow than a sale — it’s almost akin to having a free ebook up on Amazon, but you’re still making money from it. There’s no risk to the borrower to give it a try.

In the last year, since KU came into place, I’ve seen more no-name/no-backlist/no-mailing-list authors make it to the tops of the charts in the subcategories that I follow than ever before. Almost without fail, they’re in KU and they have an awesome cover that fits in with genre expectations. They don’t always have great reviews! Sometimes the blurbs are “just okay” too.

I believe this is a result of people being willing to borrow something they wouldn’t buy and those borrows counting for as much as a sale (it’s very possible borrows won’t always count for as much as a sale, as Amazon is always tinkering, but it still seems to be the case now). And once a book sticks in the sales rankings for a while, it gets rewarded by Amazon’s algorithms, and it gets plugged in Amazon’s newsletters. That stickiness is what we all crave!

(A side note: one of the reasons it’s almost always harder to gain traction on the other stores is that they seem to do more merchandising and hand selecting of items that will be promoted, as opposed to letting the “bots” make the decisions. I’ve had strong advertising runs result in stickiness at Barnes & Noble, but I’ve noticed it much less at Kobo and iBooks.)

Again, I don’t want to make it sound like everyone is going to have this kind of luck, but it does seem to be easier to manufacture some luck with the help of KU borrows.

Pen names

As I already explained with my own stuff, it’s easier to only have to worry about Amazon with the pen name. I’m still busy publishing as much as ever under my regular name, so it’s nice not to have upload new pen name ebooks at all of the vendors and change prices and blurbs across the board for sales.

If your pen name starts rocking it, you can always go wide later. But if you’re doing the pen name anonymously and don’t have your regular list to rely upon for sales, then that my be another reason to try KDP Select with it. (Here’s my pen name write-up from when I first launched it last year — I started out anonymously and, with the help of KDP Select, made some pretty good money out of the gate.)

For translations in countries where you don’t have a way to market

I know nothing about this personally, but Joanna Penn mentioned this last year when she was debating the pros and cons of KDP Select.

When you’re in a niche/category that’s hard to crack with advertising alone

As I explained up above, it’s hard to find ads that work for my pen name, since “she” writes cross-genre fiction. Many of the sponsorship sites now divide readers based on genre preferences, but broadly. They don’t target those small overlaps on the Venn diagrams. If ads aren’t working for you (or you don’t have enough reviews to get them), KU and the promotional perks from KDP Select could also be helpful.

All right, there’s my take on this all. I would love to hear from you. Are you in KDP Select? Are you wide? Have you tried both ways? What was your experience?

Under the Ice Blades (Dragon Blood 5.5) — Excerpt and Links

| Posted in My Ebooks |


October is going to be a busy reading month for Dragon Blood fans. The sixth novel in the series, Raptor, will be out on the 27th, and I’ve just released a novella set between Books Five and Six, Under the Ice Blades. This one gives us new point-of-view characters in Captain Kaika and King Angulus, but Ridge and General Ort will be along for the action (some of the action) too. Jaxi and Sardelle also pop in at the end.

You can pick up Under the Ice Blades at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, and Smashwords.

Here’s the first chapter, if you want to check it out here first:

Chapter 1

eBook Under the Ice Blades-DB Novella B01Captain 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?

  • • • • •

“Go, 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.

“Do you think you could talk to him, sir?” Maybe if she pummeled enough of his cadets into the ground, they would complain, and Zirkander would see the merits of requesting someone more serene for the teaching position.

“The king? We’re not really best buddies.”

“I thought you were best buddies with everyone, sir.”

“Only those who appreciate my irrepressible charm.”

Oh? From what Kaika had noticed, King Angulus had a dry manner that might turn to laughs if one could ever catch him relaxed and off duty. But did kings ever get to be off duty? She wasn’t sure she could imagine him sitting at a bar and swilling beers with Zirkander, but he seemed like he’d be more likely to appreciate Zirkander’s bluntness, however irrepressible, than the attitudes of men who chose diplomacy—and prevarication—with him. Still, what did she know? When Kaika had been recounting—confessing—the events of the queen’s death after Zirkander had recovered him from the kidnappers, she hadn’t received the impression that Angulus blamed her, hated her, or otherwise wanted to punish her. Yet here she was.

Zirkander’s gaze shifted past her shoulder, toward an elevated walkway and bleachers that overlooked the muddy training field. “You may get a chance to talk to the king yourself.”

Kaika followed his gaze and spotted King Angulus and four bodyguards standing on the walkway. He leaned against the railing, looking out over the obstacle course and the harbor beyond it. Perhaps due to the drizzle, he wore none of the trappings of office, being dressed only in practical boots, trousers, and an oilskin jacket and cap to repel water. Even without kingly accoutrements, there was no mistaking his tall and broad build or his face, which included a square jaw, deep brown eyes that noticed everything, and short, curly hair that was more gray than brown these days. He was in his mid-forties, and any woman would find him handsome, though perhaps not in the take-a-second-look-to-adequately-fuel-later-fantasies way that Zirkander was. Had he been a mechanic or soldier she’d met in a bar, she might have had a chance at luring him off for an evening of carnal pleasures, but whoever kings had carnal pleasures with, it wasn’t mud-spattered field officers.

After giving them a nod, Angulus headed for stairs that led down to the field.

“I’m sure he’s here to talk to you, sir,” Kaika said.

“Probably here to see if any of the cadets look promising. Most of them should still be in the academy, but with the elevated Cofah threat, we need to get more qualified pilots in the air.” Zirkander waved at her before heading toward the bottom of the stairs. “You better get them back to work. And try to make them look good for the king, will you?”

“Good? It’s my first day here, sir. Eventually, I might be able to convert them from so-embarrassing-they-trip-over-their-own-boots to awkward-but-with-potential. That day isn’t here yet, and good is an extremely distant goal.”

“Do your best.”

While Zirkander spoke with the king, Kaika rounded up the troops and started more teams through the obstacle course. She kept an eye on Angulus, planning to run up and ask for an audience before he left. It was presumptuous, but it wouldn’t be the first time she had been presumptuous with him. Early in her military career, she had earned her spot in the elite forces program, a program that had never been open to women, after blowing up an urn in the castle to demonstrate to the king that she would make a fine addition to the demolitions unit. She had never known if Angulus, fresh to the throne after his father’s death back then, had found her antics bold and admirable or appalling and inappropriate. Either way, he’d seen fit to give her special permission to apply for the program, and when she had passed all of the tests, both physical and in demolitions school, nobody had stopped her from joining the unit.

Out on the training field, she was distracted from her plans of addressing the king when a male cadet challenged her, wanting to know if she could make it through the course in the allotted time. Though she thought the brat lippy for questioning her abilities, she had seen enough of the youths to know she could beat them. With the male infantry officers, it might have been different, especially for those on track for the elite forces, but these people had been chosen based on their ability to calculate math equations in the air, not because they excelled in athletics. Kaika ran side by side with her challenger for the first half of the course, her long legs taking her over the log hurdles with ease, and thanks to regular training, she had enough upper body strength to sweep her through the ropes and over the wall more quickly than he. She was waiting for him at the end when he finished, and she wriggled her fingers in invitation, to make it clear that her running the course didn’t mean he got to avoid dealing with the “Cofah berserker.” Aware that Zirkander and the king might be watching, she taught him a few things as they sparred instead of pummeling him straight into the ground, then sent him to the end of the line.

“Captain Kaika,” Zirkander called and waved her over. He still stood at the base of the stairs alongside Angulus, looking out over the field, with two bodyguards framing them and another two on the walkway above.

Kaika jogged over, nerves plucking at her stomach. They were calling her over. Had Zirkander said something to the king? Either way, this was her chance to ask for a reassignment. She wouldn’t even have to be presumptuous, not overly so, anyway.

Since she was in uniform, she saluted the king. That was a perk of military service. Civilian women traditionally genuflected, and she’d never had a stomach for bending a knee to anyone.

“Captain Kaika,” Angulus said, regarding her with his dark eyes. His face did not give any of his thoughts away. “I understand you wish to speak with me.”

“Yes, Sire.” She opened her mouth to ask her question, but he kept speaking.

“I have several inspections and must continue on to them now.” He nodded toward the walkway. “But if you report to the castle after your shift, I will see you then.”

“I. Oh. Thank you, Sire.”

She hadn’t intended to ask him anything that would take long, and she wouldn’t have minded having Zirkander nearby, if only because he might back her up, but he was already uttering a “Carry on” and heading up the stairs. He almost bumped into one of his bodyguards who didn’t scurry out of the way fast enough. He growled something at the man before striding out of view.

He seemed more tense than usual, at least from the times Kaika had seen him before, and she hoped that didn’t bode poorly for her meeting.

“After shift,” Zirkander said. “That sounds like a dinner date. Make sure you wipe the mud off your womanly bits before you go. Angulus would be a better prize than Therrik.”

Kaika almost choked on the idea of the king as a prize. She didn’t consider herself shy or easily intimidated, but she would definitely feel discombobulated if she tried to woo royalty, especially royalty whose wife had been dead for less than a month.

“I’m sure neither dinner, dates, nor womanly bits are on his mind, sir.”

“No? Hm.” Zirkander’s face had a speculative look that Kaika did not know how to interpret. “Well, I’ll wish you luck with your request, and I shall leave you to your fulfilling work.” He waved in parting, then headed back toward headquarters, but not before giving another long look toward the airborne fliers.

“Thank you, sir.”

Kaika walked back toward the cadets, telling the nerves in her stomach that they could calm down because she wasn’t going to see the king for hours. Her nerves failed to listen. They knew she would have all day to worry about what she would say to Angulus in a private audience, one that would take place in the very castle she had blown her way into three weeks earlier.


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