Soldier, p.1
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       Soldier, p.1
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         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
Soldier


  THE PRICE OF FREEDOM IS EVERYTHING

  When forced to choose between safety with the dragon organization Talon and being hunted forever as an outcast, Ember Hill chose to stand with Riley and his band of rogue dragons rather than become an assassin for Talon. She’s lost any contact with her twin brother, Dante, a Talon devotee, as well as Garret, the former-enemy soldier who challenged her beliefs about her human side.

  As Ember and Riley hide and regroup to fight another day, Garret journeys alone to the United Kingdom, birthplace of the ancient and secret Order of St. George, to spy on his former brothers and uncover deadly and shocking secrets that will shake the foundations of dragons and dragon-slayers alike and place them all in imminent danger as Talon’s new order rises.

  Books by Julie Kagawa

  available from Harlequin TEEN

  (Titles in each series listed in reading order)

  The Talon Saga

  Talon

  Rogue

  Soldier

  Blood of Eden series

  The Immortal Rules

  The Eternity Cure

  The Forever Song

  The Iron Fey series

  The Iron King*

  “Winter’s Passage” (ebook novella)**

  The Iron Daughter*

  The Iron Queen

  “Summer’s Crossing” (ebook novella)**

  The Iron Knight

  “Iron’s Prophecy” (ebook novella)**

  The Lost Prince

  The Iron Traitor

  The Iron Warrior

  *Also available in The Iron Fey Volume One anthology

  **Also available in print in The Iron Legends anthology

  along with the exclusive Guide to the Iron Fey

  To Nick

  Contents

  Part I

  Garret

  Ember

  Riley

  Dante

  Garret

  Sebastian

  Ember

  Garret

  Ember

  Dante

  Garret

  Riley

  Ember

  Dante

  Riley

  Ember

  Part II

  Sebastian

  Garret

  Dante

  Garret

  Ember

  Riley

  Garret

  Dante

  Ember

  Riley

  Ember

  Riley

  Garret

  Ember

  Part III

  Riley

  Ember

  Garret

  Sebastian

  Ember

  Riley

  Garret

  Dante

  Ember

  Riley

  Garret

  Ember

  Garret

  Riley

  Garret

  Ember

  Garret

  Ember

  Epilogue

  Dante

  PART I

  RECONNAISSANCE

  GARRET

  The world was on fire.

  Flames surrounded him, crackling in his ears, filling the air with heat and smoke. Coughing, the boy huddled in a corner the fire hadn’t reached yet, tears streaming painfully down his cheeks, burning his eyes. He couldn’t breathe. Everything was so hot; sweat poured off his small body and drenched his clothes. Gasping, he crawled toward an open closet on the far wall, wanting only to escape, to hide in the beckoning darkness and hope it all went away.

  “Garret!”

  A blurry form moved across his field of vision, and someone swept him off the floor. Instantly, he relaxed, burying his face in her neck as she clutched him tight. He was safe now. As long as she was here, he was safe.

  “Hold on, baby,” she whispered above him, and he squeezed his eyes shut as she began to run. Heat pressed against his back and arms and scalded his bare legs, but he wasn’t afraid anymore. Somewhere close, he heard shouting and gunfire, but he didn’t care about that. Now that she had found him, everything would be okay.

  A cool breeze hit his skin, and he peeked up from her shoulder. They had left the building; he could see it burning behind him, orange-and-red tongues of fire snapping overhead. The shooting and screaming got closer, and a couple people went rushing past them, toward the noise and the chaos. A deafening boom rocked the earth behind them, and he flinched.

  “It’s okay,” she murmured, stroking his hair. He could feel her heartbeat, thudding rapidly against his chest as she staggered down the road. “It’s okay, Garret, we’re okay. We just have to find Daddy and—”

  There was a roar above them. He looked up just as something huge and terrifying swooped down on black leathery wings, and the world cut out like a light.

  * * *

  “Ladies and gentlemen, at this time we’re beginning our descent into Heathrow Airport. Please return to your seats and make sure your seat belts are securely fastened.”

  As the captain’s voice drifted over the intercom, I opened my eyes and blinked as the plane came into focus. The aisle was dim, with only a few reading lights shining here and there. Outside the window, a faint pink glow had crept over the distant horizon, staining the clouds below it red. Most everyone was asleep, including the elderly woman in the seat beside mine. The engines droned in my ears as I yawned and shook my head. Had I dozed off? That wasn’t like me, even on a ten-hour flight over the Atlantic Ocean.

  The remnants of a dream lingered in my mind, familiar and disturbing at the same time. Heat and smoke, fire and gunshots, a woman carrying me to safety, the roar of a dragon in my ears. I’d had this nightmare before; for years my sleep had been plagued with death and flames and, above all, dragons. The frequency of the nightmares had faded with time, but every so often, I’d be right back in that burning room as a four-year-old, a woman I no longer remembered carrying me to safety, the screams of dying men echoing all around us.

  And my first glimpse of the monster I’d soon dedicate my whole life to fighting, descending on us with a roar. That was where the dream, and the memory, ended. How I’d escaped certain fiery death, no one really knew. The Order had told me I’d repressed that memory; that it wasn’t uncommon in children who’d experienced something traumatic. They’d said I didn’t speak for three days after they’d rescued me.

  I supposed there were few things more traumatic than watching your mother die in the jaws of a dragon.

  I leaned back in my seat and gazed out the window. Far, far below, I could see glimmers of light where a few hours ago there had been nothing but darkness. I’d be happy to get on the ground again, to be able to move around instead of sitting in a tiny cramped space surrounded by strangers. The woman beside me had talked nonstop at the beginning of the flight, saying I reminded her of her grandson, showing me pictures of her various family members, lamenting that they never visited anymore. When the pictures had run out, she’d started asking questions about me, how old was I, where were my parents, was I traveling overseas all by myself, until I put in earbuds and feigned sleep in self-defense. I’d heard her mutter “poor dear” before she’d dug a crossword book out of her purse and scribbled in silence until she dozed off. I’d been careful not to wake her while she slept and to appear engaged in other things when she was awake, on the long, long flight across the Atlantic.

  The plane shuddered as it hit a patch of rough air, and the wo
man beside me muttered but didn’t open her eyes. Leaning my head against the window, I watched the lights scroll past hundreds of feet below. Do dragons ever fly this high? my tired mind wondered.

  My thoughts drifted. Another dragon appeared in my head, crimson red instead of black, bright and cheerful instead of murderous. Pain flickered, and I shoved it away, willing myself to forget, to feel nothing. She was no longer part of my life; the girl with the quick smile and brilliant green eyes, who had made me feel things I’d never thought possible... I would never see her again. I didn’t hate her; I wasn’t even that angry. How could I be, when she had saved my life, when she had showed me so much, including how wrong the Order was? I’d spent my life slaughtering her kind, and she had responded by befriending me, saving me from execution and fighting at my side against Talon and St. George.

  But she was a dragon, and when I’d finally confessed my feelings and confronted her about her own, she’d balked. Admitted she wasn’t sure if dragons could feel that way, that they weren’t supposed to feel human emotion. And that her pull toward Riley, a fellow dragon who’d set his sights on her, couldn’t be ignored any longer.

  I’d realized then, how futile it was. Loving a dragon. It had been easy to overlook her true nature, to just see the girl. I’d never forgotten what she was, especially when she Shifted into her true form and I was reminded of how powerful, savage and dangerous dragons could be. But it was more complicated than that. Hovering in the back of my mind, constantly plaguing me, was the knowledge that, even if Ember could return my feelings, she would outlive me by hundreds of years. We had no future together; we were two different species, and there was a war raging on both sides that would stop at nothing to destroy us. Even if I could love both the girl and the dragon, what kind of life would I—a former soldier of St. George—be able to give her? I didn’t even have a future for myself.

  Resolve settled over me. It was better that I’d left; now she could be with her own kind, as it should be. She was with Riley and his rogue dragons. Their lives would be dangerous, constantly running from Talon and St. George, but Ember was stubborn and resourceful, and Riley had been outsmarting both Talon and St. George for a long time. They didn’t need me. Ember Hill, the dragon I’d fallen in love with, would do just fine.

  “Ladies and gentlemen, we are making our final descent into Heathrow Airport,” the intercom droned again. “Please put away all laptops and large electronic devices and make sure your seat trays are in the upright and locked position. We’ll be landing in about fifteen minutes.”

  The lady beside me woke with a snort and gazed blearily around. Taking her neck pillow off her shoulders, she turned to me with a smile.

  “We made it,” she announced, as I smiled stiffly back. “It’ll be so nice to get up and walk around, won’t it? I swear, these flights get longer and longer. Where in London are you headed after this, dear?”

  “Knightsbridge,” I lied. “I have friends there. I’ll be staying with them for a couple weeks.”

  She bobbed her gray head. “Well, make sure they take you to see the sights. London is a wonderful city. Are you planning to visit Buckingham Palace or Westminster Abbey?”

  “I’m not sure, ma’am.”

  “Oh, well, you have to go to Buckingham! Can’t visit London without seeing the palace.” And she launched into a lecture on all the popular tourist places I should go to, the ones I should avoid, the hidden “treasures” around the city, and she didn’t stop talking until the plane had landed and we had filed out into the bustle of Heathrow Airport.

  * * *

  I watched the city of London roll by under the streetlamps as the cab took me to a small hotel in South Kensington, about a mile from Hyde Park. As we passed an old church, a flutter of white overhead caught my eye. The flag of St. George, a red cross on a background of white, flew prominently in the wind, and the uneasiness that had somewhat faded on the plane returned with a vengeance.

  I had arrived. In London. The Order’s largest and most influential territory. Though I’d been to the city only once, I could be sure of one thing: I would find no dragons here, or in any of the surrounding towns. St. George’s presence in the city was huge and obvious. The Order’s symbol, the red cross on a white shield, was everywhere throughout London, on signs and churches and building walls. Though St. George was the patron saint of England itself, and we shared his flag with the rest of the country, the message to Talon was very clear: no dragons allowed.

  It was dangerous for me to be here. I knew that. The Order was looking for me, and if I was recognized, I’d never make it out of the city. Thankfully, most of St. George’s soldiers and armed forces were housed elsewhere, as England’s laws on weapons and firearms were very strict. But the Patriarch, the head of the Order itself, ruled from London with the rest of the council and oversaw all of St. George’s activities. If he discovered I was here, I’d have the whole of the Order on my back in a heartbeat.

  But he was also the reason I’d come, the reason I was looking for answers. How much did he and the council really know about Talon? Did they truly not know about the rogues, the dragons who wanted nothing to do with the organization and the war? I couldn’t believe they were that ignorant, that they had been ignorant for so long. St. George knew something, and if the Order was keeping secrets, I needed to find them. I had killed dozens—dragons and humans alike—because the Order told me I was protecting the world. I owed it to those lives, to all the innocents I might’ve killed, to discover the truth.

  At the hotel, I checked in, tossed my single bag on the bed and, even though I’d been traveling for more than ten hours straight, pulled out my burner phone and called the number I had memorized before I left the States.

  As the phone rang, I checked my watch. It was 6:32 a.m. London time; early, but he knew I would be calling once I’d landed. Still, I counted seven rings before there was a click, and a gruff voice sounded on the other end.

  “Yeah?”

  “I’m here,” I said quietly.

  He grunted. “No trouble with the Order?”

  “None.”

  “Good. I’d lie low if I were you. Though you really shouldn’t be here at all.” There was a snort, and I imagined him shaking his head. “Stubborn bastard. I still think you’re insane, Sebastian, coming here while the Order has a price on your head.”

  I gave a faint smile. “This is the last place they’ll think to look for me.”

  “Doesn’t mean you should push your luck, mate.”

  “I need your help, Andrew,” I went on. “I wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t important. But if you can’t see me, if you think it’s too dangerous, you can walk away.”

  “Oh, piss off,” Andrew growled. “Like I’m going to turn in the guy who saved my life.” He sighed. “But we do need to be cautious. The Order literally has eyes everywhere. If they see us together, we’re both dead.”

  “When is a good time to meet?”

  “Today,” was the reply. “This afternoon, twelve o’ clock. I’ll text you the address now.”

  “Roger that.”

  I hung up, double-checked my door to make sure it was locked and finally stretched out on my bed and stared at the ceiling. My eyes felt heavy, but I needed to stay awake, both for the impending meeting and because the jet lag would kill my internal clock. I wished I had a pistol or even a knife, but smuggling either onto a commercial airline wasn’t possible. I’d have to get by without a weapon, for now, anyway. There was a bolt and a chain on the door; if anyone was going to break into my room to kill me, at least I’d have a little warning.

  All right, St. George. I’m here. What haven’t you been telling us? And is it going to destroy the last bit of faith I have in the Order’s ideals? Will I discover that you are just as soulless and corrupt as Talon?

  I almost didn’t want to know the answe
r.

  EMBER

  On three, Riley mouthed, gazing at me from the other side of the door frame. I nodded, feeling my muscles tense as we stared at the peeling white door with the gold 14 near the top, hearing sounds of a television through the wood. My dragon growled and stirred, sensing violence, and I narrowed my eyes. Riley took a deep breath and raised the pistol he’d kept hidden under his leather jacket. One...two...three!

  He drove his boot into the wood, kicking it right beside the brass knob, and the door flew open with a crash. I lunged inside, Riley right behind me, sweeping the pistol around the hotel room. It was small and dirty, an unmade bed in the corner, the television blaring away...but the room itself was empty.

  “Dammit!” Riley lowered the gun, glaring around the abandoned space. “Gone again. We probably just missed the slimy bastard.” Scowling, he yanked his phone out of his pocket, pressed a button and put it to his ear. “Wes, he’s already gone.” Pause. “I don’t know how he knew—it’s Griffin! When was he not a paranoid cockroach?” He sighed. “Right. Heading back now. Call me if there’s an emergency.”

  I exhaled slowly, letting the dragon and her hope for retribution settle back reluctantly. “Now what?” I asked Riley, who snorted.

  “Back to square one, unfortunately. Wes will track him down again, see where the bastard has gone to hide next. But it could take time, and we’re running out of it. Dammit.” He punched the wall, causing a hollow boom to echo through the hallway. “So close. Well, come on, Firebrand. Before the cops show up, let’s see if he left anything behind. Any hints as to where he’s gone now.”

  We quickly searched the room, but despite it being a dump, Griffin hadn’t left anything that could be traced back to him, not even a crumpled receipt.

  “He probably paid with cash,” Riley growled, after emptying the trash bins, looking under the bed and rummaging through the bathroom yielded nothing. “And covered his tracks really well. Damn him. Looks like he cleared out in a hurry—he knows we’re onto him.” He scrubbed a hand down his face. “I don’t know what’s more irritating—that he’s being a giant pain in the ass, or that he’s so good at it because I’m the one who taught him.”