Soldier, p.17
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       Soldier, p.17

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  “I think I’m going to faint,” I said weakly. Jade cocked her head at me, as if confused, and I gestured wildly back to the building. “So, that’s it? If Riley is my...my Sallith’tahn or whatever, we’re supposed to be together, end of story? How do these things even happen?”

  “How does the goose find its way home year after year? How does the eagle choose its mate?” Jade’s voice was infuriatingly calm, the complete opposite of what I was feeling at the moment. “There are no whys or hows when it comes to the natural order of things. It just is.”

  “Yep, I’m definitely going to faint. Or puke.” I took several deep breaths to ward off the light-headedness. What did I do now? If Riley and I were dragon life-mates, how could I fight that? Did I even want to try?

  “It is a lot to take in all at once,” Jade offered.

  Massive understatement of the year, I thought.

  “I would suggest meditating on it,” she continued. “Clear your mind, let your thoughts settle and the turmoil die down. When you are at peace, you will have a better understanding of what to do. I can help you, if you like.”

  Meditate? What good would that do? How would it help with something as huge as this? “Here?” I asked, looking up at the Eastern dragon. “Right now?”

  “No.” She rose gracefully, her robes falling around her. “Not right now. At the moment, I believe we should return to the others. The soldier was waiting for you to awaken so he could gather everyone together. There is something important that must be explained.”

  “Go back?” I looked up quickly, shaking my head. “No. I can’t. I can’t face...either of them right now. What am I going to say?”

  “You need not say anything.” Jade’s calm expression didn’t change. “Nothing has changed. You simply have a name for what you are feeling. Whatever you choose to do about it, your decision should not be made lightly, or in haste. Put it aside for now. Return to it when you feel you are ready. But we must return to the group.” For the first time, a shadow darkened her expression. “There are other issues we must address.”

  Still in a daze, I rose and followed her back to the building, feeling my stomach twist and writhe with every step I took. Sallith’tahn. Life-mate. Well, now I knew why my dragon perked to life every time Riley was around, why Cobalt’s presence nearly caused her to erupt out of my skin. She knew we were supposed to be together. She had always known.

  But that didn’t mean I was okay with it. Was I only supposed to be with Riley because of some ancient Draconic instinct? Did that mean I had no choice in the matter? And what about Garret? He was a human, but what I felt toward him wasn’t less. Just different.

  Except dragons weren’t supposed to feel human emotion.

  My thoughts continued to spin as we left the gardens and walked up the path to the main building, Jade pausing a moment to speak to a monk in what I assumed was Chinese. He bobbed his bald head, pointed to a corner of the building and pressed his hands together in a bow as we continued on. Inside, Jade walked quietly across the wooden floors, down the hall and opened the last door on the right.

  Garret, Riley and Wes looked up from where they were huddled around Wes’s computer, squinting as the door swung open. The room was quite small, with only a cot and a tiny writing desk beside it, so Garret and Riley stood side by side as they loomed over Wes, who was hunched over his laptop per usual. Riley nodded as Jade came into the room, but then his gaze fell to me, sending my insides into a sickening swirl. Beside him, Garret also watched me, his expression unreadable.

  “There you are.” Riley straightened. “Good. Close the door, Firebrand. You might want to sit down for this.”

  RILEY

  “I can’t believe the Patriarch would willingly ally himself with Talon,” St. George said firmly.

  We were all still crowded in Wes’s room, myself standing next to the desk and the soldier leaning in the corner with his arms crossed. The Eastern dragon stood at the end of the cot, watching us with that serene, cool expression, her arms hidden in the sleeves of her billowy robe. She rarely glanced my way, but she and Ember had come in together, and I’d seen the look the red hatchling had given me across the room; it was almost terrified. I made a point to find out what had happened between them as soon as we were done here. My gaze went to her again, leaning against the door with her hands behind her back. She seemed a bit dazed, but she might still be processing the information St. George had revealed about the Patriarch and Talon working together. That would shake anyone up.

  “Oh? And why is that, St. George?” Wes asked from the desk, bringing my attention back to the important conversation. “Talon offers the Order an easy way to kill dragons and get paid for it? Seems like a no-brainer to me.”

  “The Order isn’t like that,” the soldier replied. “From the beginning, every member of St. George has been trained to resist corruption and temptation. They don’t take bribes, they can’t be bought, they don’t accept compromise. Talon hasn’t been able to infiltrate the Order because its leaders refuse to negotiate anything, and they never bargain with dragons. They teach their soldiers to adopt that stance, as well.”

  “Really?” Wes drawled. “Well, maybe the Patriarch didn’t get the memo, because he’s so deep in bed with Talon he smells like lizard sweat. And now the organization has its claws in the bloody Order. Fabulous.” He shook his head. “Just goes to show you anyone can be bought, if the price tag is high enough.”

  “No,” St. George insisted, his voice hard. “I saw that meeting. I heard what was said. The Patriarch wanted out. He would have never willingly accepted help from dragons. Which means Talon either tricked him, or blackmailed him, or both.”

  “Yeah,” I broke in, making everyone glance at me. “That sounds like them. If they can’t buy what they want with money or bribes, they’ll get it another way. Threats, blackmail, planting false evidence—whatever they can think of, as long as it gets them what they want. It’s how they got so powerful, so fast. They’ve never been afraid to play dirty.”

  “So, Talon is blackmailing the leader of St. George to hunt down dragons,” Ember repeated, as if making sure she was following along correctly. “That’s absolutely terrifying. How do we make them stop?”

  St. George sighed. “We don’t,” he said quietly. “Or, more specifically, we can’t.”

  “Talon will never stop what they’re doing,” I went on. “How long do you think they’ve tried to gain advantage in this war? And now they finally have the Order right where they want them, with the Patriarch under their claws.” I shook my head. “They’ll never give that up. Not for all the money in the world.”

  “The only way to break this alliance,” the soldier continued, his voice reluctant, “is to expose the Patriarch to the rest of St. George. The rest of the Order doesn’t know about his involvement with Talon. If they did, it would be seen as a massive betrayal. He would be stripped of his rank, imprisoned and probably executed for high treason. Not even the Patriarch is exempt from the Code of St. George.”

  “And the alliance would be done for,” I finished. “Talon would lose whatever leverage they have on the Patriarch, and all these strikes where they’ve been able to sic the Order on us would come to an end.”

  Everyone fell silent, thinking. St. George’s expression was dark. He knew we had to break up this partnership, that having Talon in control of the Order was possibly the worst thing that could happen to them, but exposing the Patriarch wasn’t sitting well, apparently.

  Strangely enough, I could understand that. Even though Talon had been using me for years, it had still been hard to walk away, to start fighting the very organization I’d been a part of for so long. I’d been a lone operative who didn’t rely on anyone but myself to get the job done, but the soldier had been part of a team; these were men he’d once fought beside. It must suck, I thought, realizing that
your leader, the person who was supposed to be the example of everything you stood for, had been so thoroughly corrupted.

  Huh. And when did I start sympathizing with St. George?

  Finally, the Asian dragon looked up, her voice still as cool as ever. “Then we know what must be done,” she stated quietly. “Now, the question is—how are we going to accomplish it?”

  St. George stirred from his corner. “We’re going to need proof that the Patriarch is working with Talon,” he replied, turning businesslike again. “The Order isn’t going to listen to any of us, unless we have hard evidence that shows he’s directly involved with the organization. At the meeting, the agent mentioned certain documents that would be damning if they ever came to light. Riley...” His gaze went to me. “You were once a spy for Talon. Do you know where Talon would be keeping that kind of blackmail, and how we could access it?”

  I sighed. “Oh, yeah,” I said, nodding. “I know where it’ll be kept. There’s only one place Talon will keep something that important. It’ll be in the Vault.”

  “The vault?” Ember echoed. “What, you mean like a giant bank safe?

  “Kinda, Firebrand. Except maybe a thousand times bigger. Remember, Talon has been at this a long time. They have enough dirt, blackmail and dirty laundry to make the NSA green with envy. They were around long before computers and electronic storage became the normal thing, so a lot of their evidence was, and still is, physical. They’re kind of old-fashioned that way. All of their important documents are stored in the Vault. If we want proof that the Patriarch is working with Talon, we’re going to have to break in and steal it. And trust me when I say a bank robbery would be easier.”

  “Have you been to this Vault before?” Jade asked quietly. “Do you know what to expect?”

  I gave a bitter chuckle. “I was a Basilisk. Collecting dirt and blackmail was sort of my job, when I wasn’t blowing up buildings.” The Asian dragon’s brows pulled together in a slight frown; she probably wasn’t familiar with that term and what it entailed. Or, maybe she knew exactly what a Basilisk was and what I used to do. “I saw the Vault a couple times,” I went on, determined not to care what an Eastern dragon thought of me and my role with the organization. “Continuing Talon’s theme of hiding in plain sight, it’s underneath this big old library in the middle of Chicago.”

  “A library?” St. George sounded surprised.

  I nodded. “Yeah. Like I said, hidden in plain sight. On the outside, this place is pretty ancient. The librarians still use a card catalog to find the title you’re looking for.”

  “What’s a—”

  “Never mind, Firebrand. It’s not important.” I shook my head, grinning. “Believe it or not, there was a time when we didn’t have computers or smartphones, and we had to look things up in these primitive things called books.”

  She raised her head, and I thought she was going to snap something in return, maybe a comment along the lines of my age and maturity level. But then her eyes clouded, and she dropped her gaze, a brief tormented look crossing her face.

  My blood boiled. What had the Asian dragon said to her, during that brief period when she had run out? Why was she looking at me like a half guilty, half terrified rabbit?

  Anger warred with frustration. I couldn’t confront either of them now, and we had other things to worry about. Such as how we were going to get top secret evidence away from an organization that’d had a few hundred years to perfect protecting their hoard.

  “Anyway,” I continued, banishing those morbid thoughts. “On the surface, this place is nothing special. Just an old, run-down library that hasn’t been updated in years. In reality, there are a half dozen hidden cameras watching every entrance, an elevator that requires a key card and a special code to even use, and a security checkpoint at the bottom. And that’s before you even get to the Vault.”

  St. George turned his attention from Ember back to me. Apparently, he, too, had caught that brief flash of emotion, which meant he had been watching her, as well. Dragon rage stirred, making my lungs hot, and I took a deep breath to cool it off. Stop it, I thought irritably. Stay on target, Cobalt. Talon is controlling the Order of St. George; that’s world-ending bad. Your entire damned network could be gone in a few months if you don’t put a stop to this now. So focus, dammit.

  “Chicago isn’t too far,” the soldier mused, eyes narrowed slightly, as if calculating the miles in his head. “About ten hours from here, I believe. We should leave tomorrow, early morning at the latest. That should give us enough time to come up with a plan. Riley...” He glanced at me. “You’ve been there before. You know what we’ll be facing. Can you get us in?”

  I smirked. “If I can’t, no one else will be able to.”

  “All right,” St. George said, but at that moment, there was a pounding on the door, making Ember jump. When she opened it, the monk on the other side bowed to us quickly before speaking frantically to Jade in Mandarin. The Asian dragon straightened, her voice suddenly hard as she replied. They held a short, clipped conversation, which sounded tense even in another language, before the monk bowed and hurried off, his footsteps thumping rapidly down the hall.

  “What’s going on?” I asked warily. The Eastern dragon stared out the open door for a moment, her back to us, before taking a deep, steadying breath.

  “The abbot just received word from the town below,” she replied in a tight voice. “Several black armored vehicles just drove through and turned up the road to the monastery.” There was a moment of tense silence as we all realized what that meant, and Jade’s voice became a growl. “St. George is coming.”

  “Goddammit!” I surged upright as everyone else did the same. “How? How the hell do they keep finding us? It’s really starting to piss me off.”

  “Jade,” the soldier said softly, as if he’d just figured something out. “The truck. Where did you ditch the truck?”

  “In the forest,” she answered as she turned around. “Near the bottom of the...road.” Her face grew pale. “But, I made certain to hide it well. No one would be able to see it unless they were right on top of it.”

  “Doesn’t matter,” Wes muttered, rubbing his forehead. “If any of them got the license plate of the truck, they could track it using the GPS. Bloody bastards are getting very tech savvy of late.” He gave the Eastern dragon a half angry, half sympathetic look. “Not that you’d have any idea what GPS is, but once they located the semi, finding this place wouldn’t be difficult.”

  “Then...I brought them here.” Her voice was full of quiet horror, and she put a hand against the wall to steady herself. “I brought the Order to this monastery. If the monks are slaughtered and the temple is burned, it will be on my head this time.”

  “We need to get out of here.” I started for the exit, mentally calculating how much time we had before the Order arrived. “The town is about an hour down the mountain, right? So that gives us a little time, at least. If we go now—”

  “No.”

  I blinked at the Eastern dragon, stunned. She raised her head, eyes flashing green, and I resisted the urge to take a step back. “You can go, if you want to,” she said in a low, intense voice. “But I will not abandon this monastery or its people to St. George. Especially since it is my fault they have come. I will not watch another temple burn.” Her eyes shifted completely, a pale icy green, slitted and reptilian. “The time for running is over. Now they will face the fury of a shen-lung.”

  “Shit.” I raked a hand through my hair, giving her a desperate look. “You do know it’s the Order coming for us, right? Genocidal maniacs who hunt dragons for a living? You stay behind, you’re going to get blown to pieces.”

  “I will not leave this temple defenseless.” The Asian dragon fixed me with a level, piercing stare. “These people trust me. They have guarded the secret of our existence for centuries. It is my duty to
protect them—they will not defend themselves.”

  “You can’t wait here for St. George,” I snarled. “You’re going to be killed, along with everyone else in this place. We are outnumbered and outgunned. We have to run.”

  “No,” Ember broke in, sounding determined. “She’s right. We can’t leave all these people to be slaughtered. And I’m tired of running. Enough is enough.” She raised her chin as I turned on her, her jaw set in that stubborn resolve I knew all too well. “It’s time to start fighting back.”

  “Firebrand.” I shook my head, forcing my voice to be calm and reasonable. Every minute we stood here arguing, St. George was drawing closer and closer. I had to convince her, and quickly, that we couldn’t stay here and wait for the Order to kill us all. The Eastern dragon’s mind was made up, and I didn’t think I could dissuade her, but I’d be damned if I let the Order kill my brave, fiery hatchling. “You’ve seen their numbers,” I said, moving closer to her. “You know what we’re facing. If we wait for St. George, they’ll kill us.”

  “And what about all the monks here? The people who helped us?”

  “They’re going to have to run, too,” I snapped, and plowed on before she could protest. “Yeah, I know that sounds heartless. And yes, it sucks, Firebrand, but that’s war for you. There will be casualties and people caught in the cross fire. I have other responsibilities, and I have to decide what is most important. Right now, that includes my friends, my hatchlings, my underground and you. If we wait for the Order to find us, we’re dead, and so is everyone around us. There’s no way we’ll be able to protect them.”

  In the corner, St. George sighed.

  “Yes, there is,” he said, and pushed himself off the wall. His expression was grim as he straightened, his eyes shadowed and dangerous. “We’re not going to wait for the Order to come to us,” he stated, sealing all our fates. “We’re going to take the battle to them.”

 
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