Soldier, p.16
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       Soldier, p.16

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
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  He silently lifted his arm, pointing behind me. Bemused, I turned around...

  ...and there was Garret, at the end of the hallway.

  My stomach lurched. Garret straightened, as if he hadn’t expected to find me there. For a moment, we stared at each other, the silence settling around us like brittle glass. He had changed out of the soldier’s uniform; jeans and a white T-shirt had replaced the boots and combat vest, though he still wore a pistol strapped to his waist. I could see a bandage poking out from the sleeve of his left arm, and felt a flicker of guilt. I hadn’t handled last night well. I should’ve explained what was going on, talked to him more. He had seen Cobalt and me, lying together on the floor of the truck, and would have assumed...

  I faltered. He would have assumed Riley and I were together now. Of course he would, there was no reason to think otherwise. And...wasn’t that the truth? Hadn’t Riley said he wanted to be with me? And I... I wanted him, too. Or at least, my dragon side was very certain.

  But if I was so sure, why did the mere presence of the soldier cause my heart to pound wildly? Why had he been on my mind, hovering in my subconscious, since the night he’d walked away? With Cobalt, my dragon felt complete, like he was my other half. As if, through fate or instinct or destiny, we were supposed to be together. But my emotions wouldn’t let Garret go.

  “Ember.” His voice was soft, making my skin flush. Something raw glimmered in his eyes, before he blinked and they turned cold. The mask of the Perfect Soldier.

  “Are you all right?” he asked, but it was a polite question. Routine. A soldier wondering whether or not a teammate was battle ready. “How are your injuries?”

  I shrugged. “I’ll live. I’ve survived worse.” He didn’t answer, didn’t even smile, and I rubbed my arm self-consciously. “What about you?

  “Surface injuries. Just a graze, as I said before.” The words were flat. Not harsh or rude, just impassive. It made my insides hurt, hearing him talk like that. Like we were strangers again. “I should go,” he went on, before I could ask the million questions floating around my brain. “If you’re looking for Riley,” he added, pointing behind me, “he and Wes are in the room down the hall. I’ll talk to you later this evening.”

  “Why did you come back?” He stiffened, and I changed tactics before he could shut down completely. “You mentioned something happened. That you found something in England, something big. What’s going on?”

  “I’ll explain everything tonight, when everyone has had a chance to rest. It’s something everyone should hear together.” He stepped back, eyes shadowed, and gave me a polite nod. “I have things I need to check on,” he stated, though he wasn’t looking at me anymore. “I’ll see you tonight.”


  He stopped with his back to me, and didn’t turn around. Biting my lip, I took a few steps toward him, gazing at the line of his broad shoulders. “Is this how it’s going to be with us?” I asked. “Like we never knew each other at all?”

  “I don’t know.” Now his voice sounded flat. He turned, metallic-gray eyes accusing and sorrowful, making my insides curl. “I didn’t think I’d see you again. For a while, I wondered if I’d made the right choice, but it looks like I have my answer. It didn’t take long for you to make your decision.”

  “You’re the one who left,” I reminded him hotly. “You didn’t have to go.”

  “You didn’t ask me to stay.”

  We stared at each other, a thousand emotions simmering below the surface. My thoughts and feelings were a tangled mess, woven around each other until it was impossible to separate them. Garret stood there, wounded and beautiful, the shadow of the boy staring out through the soldier’s mask, and guilt settled in my stomach like a lead ball.

  The squeak of a door opening interrupted us. My heart sank, even as a rush of heat across my skin told me who had stepped into the corridor. For a second, Riley paused, observing Garret and me in the hall, before striding forward.

  “Hey.” His voice was perfectly civil; there was no echo of a growl in his tone or evil glint in his eye as he stepped up. But I could feel the tension lining his shoulders, the subtle heat radiating from his skin. As if Cobalt lurked just below the surface and was a breath away from coming out and snarling in Garret’s face. He flicked a glance at the soldier, his gaze cool and unruffled and somehow still a threat, before turning to me. “I didn’t know you were awake, Firebrand,” he said, and one hand rose to brush my cheek, light and caressing. Warmth flooded my skin, as Riley gave me a tentative, crooked smile. “Everything okay?”

  No. Everything was not okay. I could feel them both gazing at me. I could feel Riley’s protectiveness and Garret’s torment pulling at me, tearing me in half. It was too much. I had to get away from them both.

  “I need some air,” I said, and lurched away from them, backing down the corridor. Both started after me, concerned, and I pointed at them in warning. “Don’t!” I said, almost a snarl. “I’m fine. I just...have to think. Alone. Both of you stay right there.”

  And before they could say anything else, I turned and fled down the hall through the first exit I could find, and out into the sun.


  I watched Ember leave, nearly tripping over herself to get away from me, and was torn between going after her and risking the hellfire sure to be spat in my direction, or turning around, grabbing the soldier and smashing his head through the wall.

  “Okay.” I breathed deep, opting for the less violent approach, and shoved Cobalt down. Enough was enough. I could either be a bastard to the human and drive him off for good, or I could accept that something was happening that was bigger than all of us, and having a former soldier of St. George backing us up wasn’t a bad idea. “I think we’re gonna have to have a talk, St. George.”

  “It’s not necessary.” The soldier’s voice was flat. “If this is about Ember—”

  “No.” I narrowed my gaze. “It’s not about Ember. I don’t have a problem with you being here—let’s get that out of the way right now.” He blinked in surprise, probably wondering why I wasn’t in dragon form already, snarling at him to back off. I twisted my lips in a smirk. “I’m actually a pretty reasonable guy, most of the time.”

  He raised his brows in a very dubious manner, and I rolled my eyes. “When I’m not dealing with genocidal maniacs trying to murder all my friends, anyway. Then I get a little bad tempered.”

  “Fair enough.” St. George seemed to relax a bit. “What do you want to know, Riley?”

  “You knew about that trap with the Order,” I continued. “That’s why you came back. But there’s more to it, isn’t there? Last I heard, you were in England snooping around St. George central. And then you suddenly turn up, with an Eastern dragon, of all things, to save our hides. So I’m guessing you found something, am I right?”

  The soldier didn’t answer, and I crossed my arms. “Come on, St. George,” I cajoled. “Spill it. Something is going on, and I hate being kept in the dark. Wanna fill in the missing pieces for me?”

  The soldier sighed. “I was hoping to tell everyone together, but that might not be an option now,” he said, glancing in the direction Ember had fled. I suppressed a wince, planning to talk to her when this was resolved and we had an actual plan. Human stuff, I reminded myself. You’re trying to be more human for her. Find her and talk to her, make sure she knows she’s yours. That she doesn’t ever need the soldier.

  I would do that, as soon as I knew what the hell was going on.

  “You’re right,” St. George went on, leaning against the wall. “The Order is after you specifically. Ever since you and Ember broke me out of the Western Chapterhouse, they’ve been looking for you. For all of us.” His expression darkened. “But Griffin wasn’t sending St. George after you,” he went on. “Talon was.”

  I blinked. “I’m sor
ry, what?” I stared at him, thinking that either he had lost his mind, or I had. “I think I just heard you say that Talon was responsible for sending the Order after us. But, that can’t be what I heard, right, St. George?”

  “I met Jade in England,” the soldier went on, as if he hadn’t just dropped the biggest bombshell ever on my head like it was nothing at all. “Her temple had been destroyed by the Order, right after she got a visit from Talon. We were both following the Patriarch when she found me.”

  I resisted the urge to curl a lip. The Patriarch. The so-called spiritual leader of St. George. Talon had always kept a close watch on the different Patriarchs over the years, but even with all their power, the leader of St. George was nearly untouchable. It was too costly to go after the Patriarch directly, since he rarely left London and was surrounded by so many of the Order. In my time as a Basilisk I’d learned that, long ago, there had been exactly one attempt on a Patriarch’s life, and the resulting backlash from St. George had been immediate and terrible enough for the organization to decide that maybe that course of action was a bad idea. As a result, as long as the Patriarch remained in St. George central, the organization was content to leave him alone. After all, if they got rid of one, another would just take his place. And the human life span was so short, even if one Patriarch was giving the organization grief, he wouldn’t live long enough to make a real difference.

  “I trailed the Patriarch to a secret meeting in a park,” St. George continued, unaware of my thoughts. “And I watched him meet with an agent of Talon. The agent knew us—all of us—by name. He knew where you were going to be, and he gave that information to the Patriarch so that St. George could be there when you showed up.”

  I felt slightly ill. “So, you’re telling me...”

  “Talon and the Order of St. George are working together,” the soldier said. “Not only that, they have been for a while. I heard the agent mention other dragons, other places the Order had taken out. I also learned that the number of strikes against dragons has increased, but no one in Talon seemed affected.” He gave me a very serious look. “I think Talon has been sending St. George after your safe houses, Riley. They’re using the Order to systematically take out rogues and dragons who refuse to align themselves with Talon. And the rest of St. George has no idea.”

  “Son of a bitch.” I raked a hand through my hair, dazed. This was huge, worse than anything I could have imagined. Talon and the Order working together? To eliminate rogues? Yeah, this was bad. Very, very, very bad. “Why?” I rasped. “The organization has never gone after rogues full-scale, not like this. Why now? What has changed?”

  “I don’t know,” the soldier replied, his expression grave. “But I am certain of one thing. We can’t outrun both Talon and St. George, not if they’re working as one. Especially since both factions want us dead. Sooner or later, they’re going to find us.”

  I had to agree with him there. “So, what now?” I said. “What are we going to do? If Talon and the Order are after us, it’s only a matter of time before they wipe out my entire network, and any dragon that gets in their way. How can we stop both organizations?”

  “By turning them against each other.” The soldier’s face grew hard. “This alliance cannot be allowed to continue. We’re going to have to break it.”


  Neither of the boys was coming after me.

  Good. My bare feet crushed grass as I headed away from the building toward a cluster of trees at the edge of the lawn. I couldn’t face either of them right now. Too many thoughts and emotions were swirling around my head. I didn’t know what I felt, and Riley’s appearance had only made it worse. I didn’t want to snap something I would regret later.

  Dammit, how had this gotten so complicated? How did I not know what—or who—I wanted? You’d think it’d be simple. Human or dragon? The steady, unshakable soldier or the brash, defiant rogue? It shouldn’t be this hard, but...when I imagined being with one, my other half shriveled into a ball of misery, longing for the other. I didn’t want to lose either of them.

  Aargh, what is wrong with me? I am so screwed in the head.

  The sound of water trickled across my senses, making me look up. I stood a few feet from the edge of a small pond, where a stone fish spewed a continuous stream of water from the center of a fountain. A half dozen real fish swam lazily below the surface, flashing orange, white and red in the sun. A small pagoda sat to one side, red tiled roof curved elegantly at the corners. I stopped at the edge of the water, watching the fish swarm beneath my feet, and sighed.

  “Have you come to clear your thoughts, as well?”

  I started. The Eastern dragon—Jade, I thought her name was?—sat in the center of the pagoda, facing the water. Her back was straight, and her ankles rested against her knees in the lotus position, hands cupped in her lap. She was dressed in a loose red robe with a golden sash across her shoulder, and her long black hair shimmered down her back like a spill of ink. She had been so very still, I hadn’t even noticed her until she said something. How had I missed a beautiful Asian woman in bright red sitting in the middle of the pagoda?

  “Your mind is in turmoil,” the Eastern dragon intoned, as if reading my thoughts. “I can feel the chaos from here.” She regarded me with piercing black eyes. “You are very young, to be tormented so. It is not healthy.”

  “Sorry,” I told her, taking a step back. “I didn’t mean to bother you. I’ll leave you alone.”

  “No.” Jade held up a hand, stopping me. “You did not come here by chance,” she went on as I paused. “Whether you meant to or not, your mind is seeking solace. Or perhaps answers. There is no shame in admitting weakness, in acknowledging that you need help.”

  Wow. That’s something Talon would never say. Maybe she’s right.

  She gestured, very subtly, to the mat beside her. And, even though I didn’t know this woman, this dragon who was here for reasons of her own, I found myself edging forward and lowering myself to the mat. “Why would you help me?” I asked, settling beside her. “I mean, not to sound rude, but you don’t even know me.”

  “Is that a reason not to offer assistance, especially to one of my own kind?” she asked, tilting her head. “Have you been so influenced by Talon that all help must come with a price?”

  “I thought you didn’t like Western dragons. Riley said—”

  “Riley,” Jade interrupted in that same serene voice, “has his own philosophies and prejudices to overcome. He was also, from what I understand, part of Talon far longer than you, and the organization’s influence still lingers, regardless of what he believes. But we are not talking about Riley, are we?” She gave me a pointed look. “Or, am I wrong?”

  “No. Yes. I don’t know.” Resting my chin on my knee, I brooded over the water. “I guess you don’t see many other dragons out where you live, right?” I murmured. “I mean, not like we did in Talon.”

  “No,” Jade agreed. “But I have traveled the world. I have seen much. And my perceptions have not been corrupted by the organization. I am old. Older than you. Older than Riley. If you have questions concerning our nature, know that I will neither judge nor condemn. I will simply answer, to the best of my ability. What passes between us is for our ears alone. Only the fish and the wind will ever know what two dragonells spoke about today.”

  I chewed my bottom lip, watching the fish swirl below me, mouths gaping. Should I tell her? I certainly couldn’t talk to the boys about this. At least the Eastern dragon seemed sincere in her desire to help.

  “It’s complicated,” I murmured. “I’m not really sure how to start.” Jade didn’t say anything to that, just continued to wait in accepting silence. I took a deep breath and sighed. Well, what did I have to lose? “Okay,” I began. “Have you ever in your travels met another dragon, knew?” She gave me a puzzled look, and I swallowed my em
barrassment to stammer on. “I mean, you’ve never seen him before in your life, but you just have this feeling that...well, I can’t really explain it. Like, you’ve always known him, even though you’ve just met.”

  “Ah.” Jade sat back, nodding sagely, though now her expression was sympathetic. “The Sallith’tahn. Interesting that you would experience it so young, but I have heard of cases where it has happened before.” She paused a moment, then smiled. “That would explain a few things.”

  “The...what?” I furrowed my brow. “Salla-who? What language is that?”

  Jade blinked. “It’s Draconic,” she said, startling me. “That you do not know the word is deeply troubling, but not unexpected. It is one of the many ‘inconvenient’ things Talon would rather not exist. So they have attempted to suppress, restrain or erase it from the minds of their dragons altogether.”

  “But, what is it?”

  The Asian dragon frowned. “It is...difficult to explain in human terms,” she said. “I don’t believe the mortal language has a word that encompasses the Sallith’tahn completely. The closest term I can think of would be life-bond, or life-mate, but that is like calling snow ‘frozen water.’ It is true, but it is also so much more than that.”

  My heart seemed to seize up. I stared at the other dragon, as the world around us turned hazy and surreal. “Wait. Life...mate? Then, are you saying Riley and I...”

  “When a dragon finds their Sallith’tahn, they remain together for life,” Jade said simply. “It was not a common occurrence, even before Talon, but one that was accepted and known to all. There is a reason the dragons of the East rarely venture into this country anymore. I assume the organization has done its best to strike that term, and all that it implies, from your language and memories. This is the control they wield, making it so that dragons are loyal to Talon and nothing else. And in doing so, they have suppressed a part of who you are.”

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