Fortune's Pawn


By Rachel Bach

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A promising young mercenary’s future gets thrown into jeopardy after a fateful encounter with an alien in the start to a propulsive space opera series perfect for fans of Firefly and Killjoys.

“Devi is hands-down one of the best sci-fi heroines I’ve read in a long time.” RT Book Reviews
Devi Morris isn’t your average mercenary. She has plans. Big ones. And a ton of ambition. It’s a combination that’s going to get her killed one day — but not just yet.

That is, until she just gets a job on a tiny trade ship with a nasty reputation for surprises. The Glorious Fool isn’t misnamed: it likes to get into trouble, so much so that one year of security work under its captain is equal to five years everywhere else. With odds like that, Devi knows she’s found the perfect way to get the jump on the next part of her Plan. But the Fool doesn’t give up its secrets without a fight, and one year on this ship might be more than even Devi can handle.


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You're quitting the Blackbirds?" The shock in Anthony's voice was at odds with the finger he was languidly sliding over my naked back. "Why? You just made squad leader last year."

"That's why," I said, swatting his finger away as I pulled on my shirt. "Nowhere left to go. Squad leader's the last promotion before they stick you in a desk job."

I stood up, grabbing my pants from the chair. Still naked, Anthony rolled over to watch me dress with growing displeasure. "I don't get you, Devi," he grumbled. "The Blackbirds are the top private armored company on Paradox. It takes most mercs ten years in a lesser outfit before they can even apply. The fact they let you in straight out of the army should be the miracle of your career. Why the hell are you leaving?"

"Some of us have ambition, Anthony," I said, sitting back down to put on my shoes. "I had five good years with the Blackbirds, made a lot of money, got my name out there. But you don't get noticed if you sit around on your laurels, do you?"

"If you got any more noticed, I think they'd have you arrested," Anthony said. "They were talking about that stunt you pulled on Tizas in the office just yesterday. The duke of Maraday's apparently thinking of offering you a fat contract with his Home Guard."

I rolled my eyes and combed my fingers through my hair, wrestling the dark brown mess into a ponytail as best I could. My hair never could take mornings. "I am not joining the Home Guard. I don't care how good the money is. Can you imagine me sitting around on some noble's pleasure yacht playing bouncer for his cocktail parties? No thanks."

"Home Guard is dull," Anthony agreed, his boyish face suddenly serious. "But it's safe." He reached out, catching my hand as it dropped from my hair. "I worry about you, Devi. You've done eight full fire tours in five years. I know you want to make a name for yourself, but that kind of work will kill you, and I'm not talking about taking a bullet. If you got a job with the Home Guard, you could take it easier. Hell, if the Maraday thing actually came through, the duke never leaves the capital. You could live here, with me. I'd even let you redecorate, and we could be together every night."

I didn't like the way this conversation was going, but I knew better than to let that show on my face. Instead, I smiled and gently pried his fingers off mine. "It's a sweet offer, Anthony, but I'm not looking to settle down. Here or anywhere else."

Anthony heaved a huge sigh and collapsed on the bed. He lay there facedown for a moment, then rolled onto the floor and started pulling on his boxers. "Can't blame me for trying."

When he was dressed, we took the plush elevator down to the building café. I didn't regret turning down his offer, but I had to admit Anthony had a nice setup. His apartment was in one of the new sky towers that dominated Kingston's shoreline. Through the enormous windows, the royal capital lay spread out as far as I could see. Enormous skyscrapers rose like silver and glass trees from the dense underbrush of the older, smaller buildings. The sky was hazy with the usual smog and the clouds of commuter aircraft darting between the official sky lanes. The café was on one of the sky tower's middle floors, but we were still high enough to see the starport and the towering shadow of the Castle behind it from our booth.

I might just be sentimental, but seeing the Castle's shielded battlements and the shadows of the building-sized batteries of plasma guns behind it always filled me with pride. It wasn't the tallest building in the city anymore, but the Castle was still the largest, dwarfing even the deep-space trawlers that were waiting their turn to dock in the starport below. It was a good, strong fortress, feared by all on planet and off, and a worthy guard for the Sainted Kings of Paradox.

As always, I bowed my head before my king's sacred fortress. Anthony followed suit a second later. He'd never been as much of a believer in the power of the king as I was, but then, he hadn't taken as many bullets as I had.

Once we'd paid our respects, Anthony called the waiter over. He ordered large and well, and the spread of food that arrived at our table was a mini-heaven all in itself. Thanking my king again, I fell to with a mercenary's efficiency. Anthony watched me eat with amusement, drinking something red out of a tall, frosted glass that looked like a cocktail. I really hoped it wasn't. Even I didn't drink this early in the morning.

"So," he said, spinning his now nearly empty glass between his fingers. "Why are you really here, Devi?"

"Last night wasn't enough?" I said, popping a tiny coffee cake into my mouth.

"Last night was marvelous," Anthony admitted. "But since we've established you aren't exactly pining for my company, I thought we might as well get to the point before you crush my ego again."

He was still smarting from the rejection, so I let the comment slide. I'd known Anthony a long time; we'd been in the army together before he got his captaincy and his cushy desk job with the Home Guard. We had good chemistry, and he was always the first person I called when I came home. We'd been friends with benefits for nearly seven years now, and I'd thought we had a good understanding. Obviously, things had changed. Still, this was Anthony. An apology would only make him feel worse, so I honored his request and got to the point. "I need you to tell me the qualifiers to become a Devastator."

I had his full attention now.

"Are you out of your goddamn mind?" he cried. "That's why you quit your job?" He flopped back against the booth's deep cushions. "Devi, you can't be serious. The Devastators are the king's own armored unit. They're above the best."

"Why do you think I want to be one?" I said. "I'm sick of wasting my time on the edge of civilized space crashing pirate camps for corporate money. Devastators serve the Sacred King directly. They get the best armor, the best guns, they go on the most dangerous and important missions. They have power you can't buy; even the nobility listens to them. I was the best in the Blackbirds—"

"This isn't like the Blackbirds," Anthony snapped. "I can't even tell you the qualifiers, because there are none. You can't apply to become a Devastator. They ask you, not the other way around, and they don't ask anyone who hasn't spent a minimum of twenty years in active field service."

"Twenty years?" I cried. "That's ridiculous!"

"They want experience—," Anthony started.

"What do you think I spent the last nine years getting?" My shouting was attracting weird looks from the other diners, but I didn't care. "I got twelve commendations in four years when I was in the army. You know, you were there. And I've gotten five promotions in five years in the Blackbirds. I'm not exactly fresh meat."

"Devi, you're not even thirty." Anthony's voice was calm and reasonable, the sort of voice you'd use with a child who was throwing a tantrum. It made me want to punch him. "You've already proven that you're exactly the sort of suicidally brave, workaholic lifetime soldier the Devastators look for. They'll come calling, I'd bet money on it, but not yet. Not until you've got at least ten more years on your record."

"In ten more years, I'll be dead." I said it plainly because it was a goddamn fact. The average life span of an armored mercenary was just shy of twenty-five. I was two years past that. After thirty, survival rates fell to almost nothing. Shooting for cash was a game for the young. You either got a desk job, applied to the Home Guard, or went back to your parents in a body bag. A desk wouldn't impress the Devastators any more than it impressed me, but I couldn't do crash jobs and pirate clearing forever.

"I'm good enough to serve the king right now," I said, lowering my voice. "I've seen Devastators in their thirties, so I know they make exceptions to the experience requirement. I want to know what and how, and I'm not letting you out of here until you tell me." And just in case he didn't believe me, I kicked out my leg and slammed my boot onto the booth beside him, blocking him in.

Anthony glanced at my foot with a deep sigh. "You're impossible. You know that, right?"

I didn't answer, just leaned back, crossed my arms, and waited for him to cave.

It didn't take long. Less than a minute later, Anthony shook his head and pulled out his ledger. "It just so happens you picked a good time to have your crazy idea," he said, tapping the screen with his thumb. "Here."

I took the ledger he offered, squinting to read the glowing screen in the bright sunlight. It took me a few moments to recognize the short paragraph for what it was, a job listing from the general employment boards. A tiny one, too, barely three sentences long, but what I saw was enough to make me think Anthony was seriously trying to jerk me around.

"This is for a security position on a trade freighter."

"Not just any trade freighter," Anthony said, smiling for the first time since we'd gotten out of bed. "That's Brian Caldswell's ship."

"I don't care whose ship it is," I said. "I am not doing guard work." Guard work was just above deep-space mine clearing for crap armor jobs. No Blackbird would be caught dead on a freighter, even an ex-Blackbird like me.

"I wouldn't have shown it to you if it wasn't something you'd be interested in," Anthony said. "Have a little faith, darling."

When I finally relaxed my scowl, Anthony went on. "Caldswell's a bit of a legend in trading circles. They say his ship is cursed. He gets into more trouble on one route than an entire fleet could find in ten years, and he goes through security teams like tissue paper. That's where you come in." He leaned closer. "Don't spread this around, but the Royal Army considers one year with Caldswell to be worth five anywhere else. If you can survive a full tour on that ship, I'm pretty sure even the Devastators would sit up and take notice."

I glanced down at the ad again. It looked perfectly normal, the sort of short-notice grunt job that kept army dropouts in beer money, nothing like the deadly golden ticket Anthony was painting it to be. "You're not putting me on, are you?"

"I wish I was," Anthony said. "Maybe you missed the part about how quickly Caldswell uses up his people? I like you as you are, all in one piece."

It was mean to laugh at his concern, but I couldn't help it. "And maybe you've forgotten who you're talking to."

"I haven't forgotten," Anthony said, his voice deadly serious. "I've seen you fight, remember? That's not something you forget. But this is the fast and dangerous route, Devi. I know you're ambitious enough for any five normal mercs, but there's nothing wrong with a life of being safe, prosperous, and happy."

"I am happy," I said, pulling out a pen and writing the dock number from the ad on the back of my hand. "And the faster I get to be a Devastator, the happier I'll be." I handed his ledger back. "You'll tell them, right?" The Devastators did whatever the king told them to, but they were technically part of the Home Guard. Anthony worked for them sometimes, which was why we were having this conversation.

"If Caldswell takes you, yes," he said. "Don't know if they'll listen, they mostly don't, but I'll be sure to tell everyone what a reckless glory hog you are."

I grinned and dropped the leg that had been fencing him in. "You're a prince as always, Anthony," I said, sliding out of the booth. "Thanks for the breakfast, and the job tip."

"I'll put them on your tab," he said. "You can settle up next time you're in town."

I kissed him on the cheek one last time and walked away. The last thing I heard before I squeezed into the crowded elevator was Anthony calling the waiter for another drink. I worried about that as the elevator whipped me down, but twenty seconds and seventy floors later, I had more immediate concerns.

The crowd on the street level was brutal, and I had to throw my weight around to break through the rush to the cab stand, something I enjoyed more than I should have. I'm five six on a good day, and between that, my bird bones, poofy brown hair, and the fact my face looks closer to thirteen than thirty, normal people tend to underestimate me. It used to piss me off to no end, but that was before I cultivated an appreciation for watching the patronizing look fall off a businessman's face when the little girl he was trying to push aside elbows him in the stomach hard enough to knock his wind out.

After a few minutes of unnecessary roughness, I'd made my way to the front of the taxi line and flagged down a ground cab. Air would have been quicker, but I wasn't in enough of a hurry to justify the cost. Fortunately, my cabbie was a stereotypical Kingston driver, utterly insane. Despite it being rush hour on a workday morning, we made it to the starport in less than twenty minutes.

He offered to take me into the departures plaza, but one look at the traffic and I told him to drop me on the street. I tipped him well for not getting us both killed and ran up the pedestrian ramp, ducking through the enormous mirrored doors with the rest of the morning crowd before taking a sharp left toward the lockers where I'd bunked my gear when Anthony had picked me up late last night.

I found my locker and opened it with a thumbscan, pulling out my duffel. My handset was on top, right where I'd left it. I flipped it open, working fast. I trusted Anthony, but only an idiot applies for a job without doing her research first. A quick search for Brian Caldswell turned up surprisingly little, but Anthony hadn't been kidding about the prestige of serving on his ship. After five minutes of searching, I'd found no fewer than seven of his former security grunts who were now enjoying fantastic positions, including one who'd gone on to be a Devastator.

But my digging also showed that Anthony hadn't been exaggerating how dangerous Caldswell's ship was, either. The number of crew deaths and disappearances he had on file with the Trans-Galactic Trade Union was staggering for any vessel, but it was especially bad when you considered that Caldswell captained a ten-man freighter on a fairly safe route through the major systems. From his numbers, you'd have thought he was helming a battleship on a bloody front. All of this should have made me think twice, but I'd made my career by beating impossible odds. As soon as I'd verified Anthony's tip to my satisfaction, I got to work hauling my armor case out of the locker.

In addition to my fast elbow, I'm a lot stronger than most people think, a product of spending all day in armor with my resistance turned way up. Some mercs let their suit do all the work. Why bother with flesh-and-blood muscles if you're in powered armor all the time? But I don't like being weak in any way if I can help it, and real muscles come in handy when the most precious thing in your life folds up into a hundred sixty–pound case and all you can get is a top locker.

Bracing my knees, I heaved my armor case down and set it on its wheels. When it was balanced, I slung my duffel over my shoulder and started walking toward the dock number I'd written on my hand.

Considering its black reputation, I expected Caldswell's ship to look sinister, but the freighter sitting at dock C23503 was disappointingly shabby. Its belly sat directly on the ground, while its hull rose in an old-fashioned, ungraceful beige block six stories into the air. The whole ship was spotty with patches, but thanks to a fresh paint job I couldn't tell if the repairs were from cannon fire or just the usual wear and tear you saw on older vessels.

Old or not, though, Caldswell's ship was still an impressive hundred and fifty feet long from nose to thrusters, with the vast majority of that in its cargo hold. The ship's nose was boxy as the rest of it, a squat thrust of metal with its windows covered by steel shutters coated in high-burn plastic against the heat of entering the atmosphere. The tail of the ship was all engine, a pair of long-haulers and a hyperdrive coil that looked pretty new.

That gave me hope. Hyperdrive coils weren't cheap. If this Caldswell could afford a new model, he could certainly afford a top line Paradoxian armored mercenary with an exceptional record.

Like all the noncommuter ships, Caldswell's was docked in the overflow landing. But, despite being in a good spot relatively close to the main port, no other ships were docked around him. That didn't surprise me. Spacers were a superstitious bunch. Docks would have to be pretty scarce for a captain to risk leaving his ship where Caldswell's curse could reach it.

I believed the Sacred King could do miracles just like any good Paradoxian, but I didn't believe in curses. Neither did a lot of people, apparently, or maybe most mercs just didn't bother to do their research, because as I rounded the nose of the ship, I saw that the ramp in was packed with people hauling armor cases not so different from my own.

Never one to let a little competition scare me off, I walked right up and got in line. There were fifteen people ahead of me, but the crowd was dwarfed by the enormous and strangely empty cargo bay. Other than a few dusty crates lashed down in the back, the only thing inside was a suit of armor.

Unlike my armor, which could be broken down to fit in a case, this was a serious heavy combat suit, Count class, the kind the army used to rip up Terran tanks. Even powered down, it was seven feet tall and obviously someone's baby, judging from how nicely the bright yellow paint job sparkled. I scowled. Armor like that belonged to a serious professional who'd spent a lot of time in the armored corps. Clearly, someone had already gotten a job today. The ad hadn't said how many openings were available, but the ship wasn't that big. It couldn't take more than two security guards to cover it all, and if one of those spots was already taken, then this wasn't the sure thing I'd been counting on.

I eyed the line with new rancor. None of them looked like serious competition, but then, standing around in the tight pants and flowy shirt I'd worn to meet Anthony with my hair tangled in a postsex ponytail, I probably didn't either. Nothing for it but to wait and see. I used the time to fix my appearance, brushing and braiding my hair as discreetly as I could. The line moved quickly, and by the time I was decent, I was next.

There was a stair leading up from the cargo bay to the rest of the ship where the interviews were being held. People had been going up and coming down again with only a few minutes between the whole time I'd been waiting. Some looked dejected, but most looked relieved, and I bet they were the ones who hadn't actually wanted a job on a ship that had a reputation for being a flying coffin, no matter how scarce armor work had gotten now that the king had wrapped up all our wars.

The man ahead of me was certainly one of these. He was almost grinning as he walked back down the steps and stabbed his thumb over his shoulder, letting me know it was my turn. Grabbing my bag and lifting my armor case so it wouldn't bang, I started up the stairs to tempt my fate.

The interviews were being held in what looked like a combination lounge and ship's mess. There was a tiny galley kitchen with a bar, a table for meals, and a small sitting area, all empty. My interviewer sat at a folding table with a small desk fan pointed at his face. He was older, maybe early fifties, and wearing an old-fashioned white button-up shirt and brown flight vest. His short, red-brown hair was frosted with silver, but his stocky body was still fit and solid when he stood to shake my hand and wave me to the chair.


I flinched. He was speaking Universal. I spoke it, of course. Everyone did. It was the standard language of civilized space. But the Blackbirds were solid Paradoxian, and we spoke our own King's Tongue exclusively in everything we did. I'd been all over the universe, but because I'd always been with my unit, I hadn't spoken Universal other than to ask where the bathroom was for almost three years.

Looking back, I don't know why I was surprised. Traders, even Paradoxians, always spoke Universal. It was, after all, the language of trade. But the man at the desk didn't look Paradoxian, he looked Terran, and that could be a problem. After so long not speaking Universal, my accent was pretty thick, which put most Terrans off. Usually, I wouldn't care. Paradoxians don't like Terrans any more than they like us. We might both be from Old Earth, but a century of border wars carries a lot more weight than a shared ancestry from some dead rock a thousand years ago. Still, if the Terran was the one with the job, then that was all water under the bridge so far as I was concerned. I'd just have to trust that he was willing to overlook a few dropped consonants in return for a stellar record.

The man glared at me, still waiting for his answer, and I snapped into business mode. "Deviana Morris," I said, pronouncing each syllable as crisply as I could. "I go by Devi."

I set my handset on the table and tapped the button for the projected screen. It flickered to life, throwing my record, commendations, and references into the air right in front of his face. The man flicked through my history with a finger, his expression neutral, though I saw his lip quirk when he got to my last tour with the Blackbirds. A glorious time, even for a glory hog like me.

"That's quite an impressive record, Miss Morris," he said at last. He spoke the words grudgingly, like he didn't like being impressed. "It's my understanding that most Paradoxian mercenaries spend their careers trying to get into the Blackbirds. Why did you leave?"

"I'd reached the top of the active duty promotions, sir."

The man smiled. "Your ambitions don't run to desk jobs, I take it?"

I smiled back. "No sir."

"Fair enough," the man said, glancing at my armor case. "What equipment are you bringing?"

My smile turned into a full-on grin. This was my favorite part of any interview. I reached down and turned my case so he could see the insignia on the front. "Custom Verdemont master craft knight's armor."

My opinion of the man rose significantly when his eyes widened in an appropriate expression of shock. "And this is your suit?" he said. "Not leased from the Blackbirds?"

"No sir," I said proudly. "I own all my own gear." It had taken me two years' wages plus some pretty extreme hazard pay to buy my armor, and it was worth every cent. "I also have my own guns and ammunition as well, and an automated repair case for my suit."

"We'll supply your ammo," the man said, leaning back in his rickety folding chair. "This is a security position. Your job will be to work with your fellow security officer to protect this ship, its crew, and its cargo at all times. We usually run a wide circuit spanning Paradoxian space, the Terran Republic, and the Aeon Sevalis, but that can change without notice. The contract is for one galactic standard year with fifteen hundred Republic Script paid monthly. Shifts are twelve hours during flight with overtime for planetary landings and time off when we're in hyperspace, plus one day paid shore leave per month. So long as you are an employee of this ship, we'll provide food, lodging, and ammunition, as I said earlier, plus a stipend for maintenance and repair of your equipment."

I considered this for a moment. It was a pretty standard contract, but the pay, while high for ship guards, was pretty low compared to what I'd earned in the Blackbirds. I might not be doing this for the money, but a merc had to protect her worth. "Is there hazard pay?"

"Thousand RS for every incident," the man said.

I bit back a smug smile. That was where the money was hiding. Considering this ship's reputation for trouble, that hazard bonus might well end up making me more than I'd earned as a squad leader.

"Sounds good to me, sir," I said, reaching for my armor case. This next bit would be pure fun. I loved showing off my armor. "What would you like me to do for my demonstration? I can do any accuracy challenge you can think of, maneuvers, a strength test, whatever you want."

"I don't think we'll need any of that," the man said, turning off my handset and handing it back. "You've got the job."

I blinked. "That's it?" I blurted before I could stop myself.

The man shrugged. "Unless another decorated ex-Blackbird with her own suit of custom, high-end armor is waiting in my cargo bay, then yes. That's it." He held out his hand. "I'm Brian Caldswell, welcome to the Glorious Fool."

I took his hand, head spinning. That was the fastest interview I'd ever had. "Fool?"

"The Glorious Fool," Caldswell repeated, smiling like this was an old joke. "My ship."

Weird name for a ship, but I didn't give it much thought. I was too busy absorbing the fact that the short, stocky man in front of me was the cursed captain, Brian Caldswell. The man who went through security like tissue paper, and I was now in his hands.

"Thank you, sir," I said before I found some way to ruin things.

The captain nodded. "We'll get you a bunk when we're ready to go. In the meanwhile, you can store your stuff behind the bar. No one will touch it."

No one but me could touch my armor without getting ten thousand volts, but I kept my mouth shut about that and stowed my bags as directed. Honestly, I was still reeling. My brain couldn't quite get around the idea that after years of fighting like a dog for every step up the ladder, I'd gotten what could well be the make or break job of my career with an interview that had taken less than five minutes.

While I was putting my things up, the captain walked over to the cargo bay door and shoved his head out. "Position's filled!" he yelled, and then he shut the door.

I thought that was a bit harsh, but the captain seemed to have forgotten the other applicants entirely the moment he turned away. "I have to go take care of some business," he said, walking past me toward the hall on the opposite side of the lounge. "Basil will get you settled. He's my second, and you'll obey him as you would me."

"Yes sir," I said, following him. "Who else do I follow?"

"Mabel, our engineer." The captain wasn't looking at me, but I caught his smile and gave myself a mental pat on the back. I'd impressed him. "But she won't be here until later. For now, just worry about making Basil happy. You'll find him on the bridge, straight ahead."

He nodded down the hall toward a closed door at the opposite end. I noted it and then turned to face my new captain head-on. "Yes sir," I said, bowing formally from the waist as was proper now that he was my superior. "It will be an honor to serve you, sir."

The captain shook his head. "This is a Terran ship, Morris. We don't do any of that bowing and scraping here. Just do your job, obey orders, don't backtalk too much, and we'll all be happy."

"Yes sir," I said, without the bow this time. Not bowing to a superior went against my training, but it was his ship. If he didn't want me bowing, I was happy not to. Bowing to a Terran felt a little blasphemous.


  • "If you liked Star Wars, if you like the Kate Daniels series, and if you are waiting for Guardians of the Galaxy to hit the theaters, this is your book."—Ilona Andrews
  • "This book kicked ass... I JUST LOVED IT!"—Felicia Day
  • "Rachel Bach's Fortune's Pawn is based on a fascinating premise and launches what looks to be a superb military science fiction series."—Eric Flint
  • "Rollicking space opera starring a tough, sexy, armor-clad space chick...Lots of fun."—Kirkus
  • "Bach makes her SF debut with this series launch that introduces a strong female heroine whose mind is mostly on her career -- and her high-tech suit of armor -- yet who finds herself inexplicably drawn into a relationship that could damage her life and her honor. Fans of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series and David Weber's Honor Harrington novels should enjoy starting another potentially long-running SF military saga.—Library Journal
  • "Bach's space opera is a fantastic, action-packed and accessible exploration of deep space. Devi is hands down one of the best sci-fi heroines I've read in a long time...Fans of Douglas Adams, Scalzi and Fforde will absolutely devour Fortune's Pawn."—RT Book Reviews (4 1/2 stars)
  • "Firefly-esque in its concept of a rogue-ish spaceship family... The narrative never quite goes where you expect it to, in a good way... Devi is a badass with a heart."—Locus on The Paradox series

On Sale
Nov 5, 2013
Page Count
352 pages

Rachel Bach

About the Author

Rachel Bach grew up wanting to be an author and a super villain. Unfortunately, super villainy proved surprisingly difficult to break into, so she stuck to writing and everything worked out great. She currently lives in Athens, GA with her perpetually energic toddler, extremely understanding husband, overflowing library, and obese wiener dog. You can find out more about Rachel and all her books at

Rachel also writes fantasy under the name Rachel Aaron. Learn more about her first series, The Legend of Eli Monpress, and read sample chapters for yourself at!

Learn more about this author