Warlord's Wager

By: Gwynn White

A Steampunk Fantasy in The Crown of Blood Series



Chapter 1





The softness of Lynx’s lips on his ear cut through Axel’s haze of pain and poison.

“Even if he had more stocks of poison, I would have found a way to save you. You know that, don’t you?” She kissed the side of his face, a tender contrast to the burning everywhere in his body.

He didn’t doubt her claim for a second. He’d jumped in front of that poisoned quarrel for her knowing she’d find a way to save him.

But now his father haggled.

Axel tried to make out what Felix was saying, but his voice faded in and out of Axel’s consciousness.

And his flesh burned like fire. The pain overpowered all else.

Hands picked up his bed. Roughly. Not by intention, he was sure, but the shaking rocked his body like small earthquakes, sending wave upon wave of pain through him. Then it stopped, and Malika’s voice penetrated the fog.

“Wait, Father. You can’t let him go alone. He needs someone to watch over him.”

“One of the priestesses, surely.”

A man’s even tone—who . . . Stefan. His best friend.

Relief flooded through him. Everything would work out if Stefan were involved.

“As emperor, I make that call, and I think it fitting that Colonel Zarot go.” Lukan’s cold voice jarred Axel to the core.

Axel wanted to sit straight up in that bed and shout, “No!” Stefan needed to stay in Cian to protect Lynx. Nothing was more important than that. But his tongue might as well have been cut out at the root.

The bed rocked. Hoisted up. More excruciating pain. Fighting to stay conscious, Axel drifted in and out of blackness.

He next awoke to the thrum of an airship’s propellers.

“Malek, set a course for Tanamre in Norin. Thorn and his people are camped fifty miles east of the town.” Stefan.

Flesh and bones melting like butter, Axel slumped back against his bed. At least he was in good hands.

If only he could say the same for Lynx.





Chapter 2





Stefan Zarot grimaced at the twenty crossbows aimed at him through the windows of the dragon-shaped cabin of his airship, The Dragon’s Claw. A dirigible armed with light cannons landing unannounced outside the Norin encampment would come as a shock to the nomadic ostrich herders. Lost in a sea of rolling grassland, the Norin could never have conceived of such a threat.

Still, Stefan hadn’t anticipated quite so many poison-tipped quarrels aimed at his heart.

Poison-tipped.

Axel’s olive skin was blue tinged and beaded with sweat, a harsh reminder of the deadliness of murghi, the Norin poison. Stefan scratched his three days’ growth of stubble as he looked through the bulkhead doorway dividing the cramped sleeping compartment from the control room. Axel lay strapped to his bunk bed, not to stop him from thrashing around, but to prevent air turbulence from rolling him off the bed. Only his ragged breathing broke through the paralysis gripping the rest of his body.

But even now, his rattling lungs were faltering. Axel did not have long to live.

It steeled Stefan’s resolve. Crossbows or not, he had to open the hatch and face this hostile horde of raiders.

“You sure about hiding our weapons, sir?” Lieutenant Malek, the grizzled pilot, gestured with a grubby finger to the closest of four cannons hidden under a tarp. His dark eyes were not the only ones that flickered to their hidden hardware.

The two other crewmen also edged closer to the arsenal.

“Not that I’m questioning a superior officer—” Malek’s unspoken “but” hung heavy in the air.

Even though Stefan was a colonel, a rank earned through merit, at a mere twenty-four years of age, Malek probably considered him too wet behind the ears for such a contingency.

“Very sure, Lieutenant.” Stefan glared first at him and then at the rest of the crew.

They stepped away from the cannons.

“We’re here on a mercy mission. The Dragon’s Claw is intimidating enough. Flaunting weapons the Norin don’t even know exist is not going to help our cause.”

Stefan scanned the hard-eyed threat hanging from the guy ropes that anchored the dirigible to the ground. Groups of Norin already clung to the guys, burning torches gripped in their fists just inches from the dirigible’s black, red, and gold fabric covering.

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