Soldier, p.24
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       Soldier, p.24

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  It seemed like a long time before we drew back. Both our hearts were thudding wildly, our breaths ragged and erratic. Garret gazed down at me, those metallic-gray eyes so open and trusting it made my chest hurt. “What now, dragon girl?” he whispered.

  I swallowed hard. Now came the challenge of telling a possessive, hot-tempered rogue dragon that I had chosen to be with a human. “I’ll have to talk to Riley,” I muttered. About a lot of things. “Probably better that he doesn’t...see us together. At least not yet.”

  Garret’s thumb brushed my cheek, making me shiver. “Is he going to try to kill me?” he asked with a faint smile. “Am I going to wind up in the emergency room with third-degree burns and a group of very confused doctors?”

  Unbidden, a tiny laugh forced its way past my lips, though I wasn’t sure if he was half-joking or being completely serious. “I don’t know,” I said, while inside, the dragon raged at me, furious and appalled. What are you doing? she snarled. You belong with Cobalt! He’s your Sallith’tahn! He just doesn’t know it yet because you haven’t told him.

  I pushed her down. Stop it, I told her. This is my choice. I don’t want to be with someone just because it’s instinct. Maybe it was the wrong choice, but my human side couldn’t ignore this any longer. Dragons being incapable of love was probably another lie Talon had propagated. And even if it wasn’t, whatever I was feeling now, emotion, instinct or otherwise, it sure felt awfully close.

  Garret’s phone buzzed on the countertop.

  Reluctantly, he pulled back. Walking to the desk, the soldier plucked the phone from the counter and looked at the screen. I watched tension creep into his shoulders once more, and held my breath.

  “It’s Tristan.” He turned back, and his gaze was solemn once more. “He’s agreed to meet with me, alone.”

  RILEY

  I didn’t like this.

  Generally speaking, I didn’t like anything that had to do with the Order of St. George, but this had taken it a step further. Parked outside a coffee shop on a busy downtown street, I scanned the cars and sidewalks around me, looking for anything, anyone, that seemed out of place. As a whole, St. George did not have the same blending-in skills that Talon agents possessed, and I could usually pick the soldiers out of a crowd even when they were bothering to be inconspicuous, rather than charging in guns blazing like they usually did. That I didn’t see anything suspicious did not lower my apprehension. I didn’t like the fact that we were meeting with St. George. I didn’t like that I was out here, scanning for hidden threats or ambushes, in case said representative decided to double-cross us. Garret Sebastian was a special case and had proved himself multiple times over, but I trusted the Order about as far as I could throw them. St. George didn’t bargain with dragons; there was no compromise. I gave it a fifty-fifty shot that this soldier would come alone, or show up with a group of friends to snipe us all in the head. And he probably felt the same way about us.

  “All clear on this side so far,” I growled into the mic. “Ember, Wes? What about you?”

  “Nothing here, mate,” Wes answered from inside the coffee shop, probably huddled over his computer. Of the three of us, he was the only one this St. Anthony person wouldn’t recognize on sight. So despite Ember’s stubborn insistence that she wanted to be there when the other soldier showed up, in case it turned into an ambush, Garret told her that meeting him alone was the only way St. Anthony would agree. If he saw them together, he might think he was being set up and back out, and we couldn’t afford that. So instead, the three of us did the normal paranoid thing and set up watch all around the meeting spot, so that if the Order did decide to crash the party, we would at least see them coming.

  “Clear on this side, too,” came Ember’s voice over the receivers. “Although, this might be...yeah. Garret, Tristan just pulled into the parking lot. He’s on his way in now.”

  “Understood,” replied St. George. “Keep an eye out for anyone else.”

  “Yep,” I said. “Good luck in there. Yell if you need us.”

  “I will.”

  The four of us fell silent, and I settled back into the seat, still watching the sidewalk while waiting impatiently for the meeting to start. I wanted this whole thing with Talon and St. George over and done with. The sooner we broke this alliance, the sooner things could go back to normal. Where my daily concerns were keeping my underground safe from the Order. Where St. George could go back to fighting Talon, and the rogues could go back to hiding from them both.

  Where things could finally calm down enough for me to focus on a certain red hatchling. The past couple days had been bad for that, with the four of us squeezed into a single hotel room, unwilling to separate for fear Talon or the Order could kick in the door at any moment. It was safer, but it did make for some...trying interactions, with a surly hacker, a restless female dragon and an ex-soldier of St. George in such close proximity to each other, all the time. All of us were exhausted and on edge, and there had been a few outbursts and snarky comebacks, but that was to be expected. We were tired. We all wanted this done. We wanted a point where we could breathe again and not feel St. George always at our backs, while looming over them, smiling at us all, was Talon. Of course, if we did succeed and break up Talon and the Order, none of us had really considered or thought about what was going to happen next.

  And lately...Ember had been acting strange. I couldn’t really say how; outwardly, she seemed the same—withdrawn and tired, but still always ready to go out and do something. Even though I knew she was just as drained and on edge as the rest of us. She was changing, losing the innocence of that sheltered girl in Crescent Beach. This life forced everyone to grow up fast, hatchling and human alike, and Ember was no exception. But there was something else. Something in the way she tensed whenever I got close, in the way she rarely looked me in the eye anymore.

  It didn’t matter, I told myself. I was a dragon, I could be patient. But when this was over, St. George or no, nothing would keep me from Ember’s side. That was a promise to us both. To get to the bottom of whatever had come between us, and show her, once and for all, that she belonged with me.

  GARRET

  The glass door to the coffee shop opened, and Tristan St. Anthony walked inside.

  He saw me immediately, his gaze going directly to the far corner where I had staked out a table. That wasn’t surprising. This location was tucked against the wall with no windows, out of sight of any snipers who might try to take a bead on me from across the street. It afforded a clear view of the entire coffee shop and more than one way to get out. It was where he would choose to sit.

  I waited calmly, both hands on the table in plain sight, my fingers curled lightly around a paper cup. Tristan didn’t immediately stride to my table, taking a moment to scan the coffee shop for enemies. He then turned and walked to the front counter, smiling at the girl behind the bar as he placed his order. I scanned him for indications of weapons beneath his clothes, a telltale bump or sharp line at the small of his back. It was strange, seeing him like this. The enemy. A threat. I saw him watching me from the corner of his eye, probably doing the same thing, and wondered if this odd sense of guilt and resignation was plaguing him, too.

  Finally, he turned, coffee in hand, and sauntered over to my table, sliding into the chair like this was a perfectly normal meeting. For half a heartbeat, we faced each other down, a storm of memories, words and emotion hovering silently between us.

  “Hey, partner.” Tristan was the first to break the silence, and his voice was heavy with sarcasm. “Good to see you again, when you’re not hitting me in the back of the skull. I hope you’re enjoying that shiny rifle you stole. Where are your friends?”

  “Around,” I replied. No use in lying to him; he knew I would be stupid not to post surveillance where I could. “And the Order?”

  “Won’t be joining us.” L
eaning back, he crossed his long legs and stared at me over the table. “Though I did spend the last day and a half debating whether or not to turn you in. But you knew that.” His dark eyes narrowed. “You knew the risks when you contacted me, using our old emergency code, I noticed. Which is why I’m here, giving you the last benefit of the doubt and not watching the front door through the crosshairs of my scope.” He took a sip of coffee and said, in a perfectly conversational voice, “I assume this is fucking important, Garret. I could be court-martialed if they realize where I’ve gone.”

  “I know.” This meeting was chancy on many levels. Tristan had taken a massive risk just by coming here. The Order would see talking to me as an act of betrayal and would punish him severely if we were discovered. “This is important,” I confirmed. “But...you’re not going to like it.” His brow furrowed, and I hurried on before he could change his mind and leave. “I need you to hear me out, Tristan. Before you make any conclusions, listen to what I’m going to tell you. That’s all I’m asking.”

  “If this is about your scaly friends, let me save you the breath right now—”

  “It’s not about the dragons,” I said. “It’s about the Patriarch.”

  That prompted a wary frown, and he tensed, probably remembering our “conversation” at the facility. Where I had told him that the Patriarch was working for Talon, right before I knocked him out. “This better not be what I think it is, Garret.”

  “The Order has been on a lot of strikes recently, haven’t they?” I asked instead, and the frown deepened, bordering on impatience. “Far more than normal. Three or four successful raids a year was considered average for us. Now the number of strikes has more than doubled, but nothing has changed within the Order.”

  “Yeah?” Tristan’s expression was cautious. “And? What does this have to do with the Patriarch?”

  “Because he is the one receiving the information of possible dragon locations,” I said, lowering my voice. “He’s the one responsible for the increasing number of raids. The info is coming directly from him.”

  “Again, and I might be repeating myself...so what?” Tristan shrugged. “The Patriarch is sending us after dragons. I don’t really see the problem here. What does it matter where we get the information? As long as more enemies are killed, the Patriarch could be getting hints from fat cherubs in diapers and I wouldn’t give a crap.”

  “Tristan...” I paused, knowing my next words were going to decide the fate of this meeting. “The Patriarch’s information isn’t coming from St. George. He’s getting the locations from within Talon itself.” My former partner gave me a blank stare, and I repeated it again, as clearly as I could, just so there was no doubt. “The Patriarch is working with the dragons.”

  The empty look instantly transformed into one of outrage. “Okay.” Tristan pushed his chair back with an angry scraping sound. “I knew I shouldn’t have come here. This was obviously a giant waste of time.” He picked up his cup and tensed to shove himself out of the seat. “Goodbye, Garret. And don’t worry. Next time I see you, I’ll put you out of your misery.”

  “I have proof,” I said quietly, making him pause. “I’m not just throwing around wild accusations. I went to England. I saw the Patriarch meet with Talon. But that’s not all.” My hand dropped to the chair beside me, brushing the manila envelope resting on the seat. “I have the evidence that shows, beyond any doubt, that he’s in the organization’s pocket.”

  Tristan still hovered on the edge of his chair, clearly unsure which direction he would go. If he would settle back or stand and walk out the door. “You know me,” I said, meeting his gaze. “I have never lied to you. And you’ve known, deep down, that something isn’t right. That the Order has been hiding things from us.” I took the envelope off the chair and placed it on the table between us, keeping my hand on it. “This is proof. The Order has been corrupted, Tristan. Talon has been pulling the strings for a while now, and no one in St. George realizes it. If you can’t accept that, walk away now—we won’t stop you. And I’m sure down the road I’ll meet you again on the field.” His jaw tightened, making me hope he found that idea as sickening as I did. That the thought of killing his former partner weighed as heavily on him as it did me.

  “But, I know you,” I went on. “And this is going to drive you crazy if you walk away now. If you’re willing to see the truth, it’s right here.” And I took my hand off the table.

  Tristan hesitated a moment more, staring at the envelope like it was a venomous snake curled up on the counter. Then, with a curse, he leaned forward, snagged the corner of the envelope and slid it toward him.

  I watched him as he pulled out the contents and flipped through the stack of documents and photographs, his face growing darker with every page. Even if the name of the Patriarch’s “partner” was deliberately missing from every document, the evidence was still pretty damning. This was meant to be used as blackmail, and Talon had left nothing to circumstance. Even someone like Tristan, who was searching for a loophole, a way out, would be hard-pressed to disagree that this was anything less than treason.

  “Why?” he finally rasped, putting the stack down with a vaguely ill look on his face. I didn’t answer, not knowing if the question was directed at me or the universe in general. Tristan stared at the papers a few seconds more before glancing up at me, his expression tormented.

  “I don’t get it,” he said, making a hopeless gesture. “So... Talon is using the Patriarch to kill dragons? Why would they slaughter their own kind? That doesn’t make any sense.”

  Inside, something that I didn’t know had been tense relaxed, and I let out a quiet breath. I knew Tristan was pragmatic and logical, and that he looked at the evidence before making any decision, but even with proof, I wasn’t certain if he would believe his Patriarch was corrupt. Not only corrupt, but working with the enemy. Committing treason of the highest order. That would be hard for any soldier to swallow.

  “It’s complicated.” He glared at me, and I sighed. “Not all dragons are associated with Talon,” I explained, keeping my voice low in case a civilian was watching us. “There are deserters, rogues, who have broken away. Who have gone underground in order to escape. And since Talon doesn’t want any dragons to exist outside their organization, they send assassins to kill any rogues that they find. Usually, they dispatch one of their own—that’s what the Vipers do when they’re not sent against the Order.” Tristan gave a short nod; that, at least, made sense to him. The Vipers were Talon’s killers, we knew that much.

  “But now...” I motioned to the envelope. “They have an even better method. St. George doesn’t suspect the Patriarch’s hand in this, because the Order is doing what we have always done, and that is to take out every dragon we come across. Without question. Without wondering how we got there. You said it yourself. What does it matter where the information is coming from, as long as it keeps leading us to the enemy? Only, you’re just taking out Talon’s enemies, and making them more powerful than ever.”

  “Son of a bitch,” Tristan breathed. He’d gone very pale, his blue eyes dark pools against his skin. “And the Order doesn’t know,” he muttered. “The Patriarch is selling us out to Talon, to the lizards, and St. George doesn’t suspect a thing.”

  I waited, watching him. The first two hurdles had been cleared; Tristan believed us, and he hadn’t arrived with the rest of St. George to blast us to bits. But the last obstacle loomed, and it was the largest one. Would he help us? Would he choose to side with the enemy, to expose the man the Order revered above all else?

  “What are you going to do, Tristan?” I finally asked. He jerked up.

  “I... I don’t know.” Leaning back, he raked a hand over his scalp. “I have to think about this. Gimme a day or two.” He eyed the documents once more, as if wishing they would spontaneously burst into flame. “Any way I could take those with me?”

&n
bsp; “They’re just copies,” I told him. “We still have all the original documents. Destroying them won’t do anything.”

  “I wasn’t going to destroy them, dammit.” Tristan glared at me. “And I’m not so stupid as to show them to anyone in the Order. I just...need to make sure.” He made a hopeless gesture that hovered very close to despair. “It’s the Patriarch, Garret. If I’m going to do anything, I have to be certain.”

  I hesitated. Letting him walk out with the envelope wasn’t a good idea. Even if we did have the originals, St. George discovering that evidence could be disastrous if it reached the wrong people. If it got back to the Patriarch, he could find ways to cover it up, to twist it to his advantage and to put the blame on us rather than on himself. Right now, we had the advantage because the Patriarch didn’t know that we knew. If Tristan showed those documents to the Order, there would be an uproar, and a lot of questions the Patriarch would have to deal with, but we could lose all chance of credibility, depending on how well the Patriarch had prepared in case he was exposed.

  But we couldn’t do this from the outside. We were enemies of St. George, monsters, traitors and dragonlovers. Whatever proof or evidence we claimed we had, they would never hear us. If we were going to break up the alliance between the Patriarch and Talon, we had to do it from inside the Order. And Tristan was our best hope of getting into St. George.

  Besides, I knew my ex-partner. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I trusted him—whatever the circumstances, he was still a loyal soldier of St. George, and I was still on the wrong side. But he wasn’t, as he’d snapped at me earlier, stupid. Showing those documents to anyone in the Order would bring him under fire, too. There would be questions as to where he’d gotten such evidence, who he had been meeting with, and eventually it would point back to either us or Talon. And then Tristan might find himself in a cell, before he made the short walk to the execution wall.

 
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