Soldier, p.25
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       Soldier, p.25

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  I didn’t say any of this. He knew the consequences of defying the Order as well as I did. I just nodded and watched him lean forward in his chair to pick up the papers. Stuffing them into the envelope, he pushed the seat back and rose, towering over me.

  For a heartbeat, he stood there, his expression tortured as we stared at each other. Twice, he seemed on the verge of saying something, only to fall silent. Abruptly, he turned on a heel, tucked the envelope under an arm and walked away. The door swung violently out as he pushed his way through, strode into the parking lot and was gone.

  I took a deep breath and released it slowly, just as Riley’s voice crackled in my ear. “What the hell, St. George! Did you just let that bastard walk out with the evidence? What if he goes right to the Patriarch and blows the whistle on this whole operation?”

  “He won’t,” I said tiredly. “Tristan’s loyal to St. George—he truly believes in the Order’s mission. No one is exempt from the Code, no matter who they are. Even the Patriarch himself.” Or your former partner, who saved your life on multiple occasions.

  Riley let out a sigh. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” he muttered. “’Cause if this doesn’t go the way you think, we are all screwed.”

  Ember’s voice echoed over the line, quiet and thoughtful, making my insides stir. “What do we do now?”

  I rose, tossing my half-empty cup in the garbage bin, hoping I’d done the right thing. That Tristan would come through. That I wasn’t placing my faith in someone who would betray us all. “Now, all we can do is wait.”

  DANTE

  “We’re nearly ready, sir.”

  I stood at the computer terminal, feeling vaguely sick, while the team of humans bustled around me, preparing to carry out my orders. It was just nerves, I told myself. Nerves and anticipation that were making my skin crawl and my stomach churn like a hurricane at sea. Before me, a satellite image was displayed on the screen over the computers, showing a small town at the base of two mountains. Not even a town. A hamlet. A holler, to use the local term. Some forty or so humans lived there, in ramshackle huts and trailers, as far removed from civilization as anyone could be these days. If the whole place was swallowed by a massive sinkhole and disappeared, it would be days before anyone knew about it.

  “Vessels are in position, sir,” muttered a human beside me. I swallowed hard. On the other half of the screen, a cluster of tiny red dots had halted at the edge of the town, waiting.

  “Communications are now blocked,” said another human, huddled over a computer. “Phone lines are down, internet access has been cut off, cellular signals have been jammed. We are ready to begin.”

  I suddenly felt like puking. I stared at the cluster of red on the map screen, at the twenty-two trained killers who possessed no compassion, no empathy or morals or emotion to slow them down. A test, Talon had said. The final test. To gauge skill, efficiency and the vessels’ ability to follow commands. The objective was simple.

  No survivors.

  “We’re just waiting on your order, sir.”

  My hands shook, and I clenched my fists to stop them. How had I arrived at this point? When had my path turned to this? I’d wanted to build a future in Talon, one for myself and for my sibling, a future where we would be safe. The only way to do that was to become more powerful than our enemies. More powerful than St. George, the humans and even other dragons who threatened our survival. Now, I stood on the brink of something huge and dark. An entire town rested on my decision. I knew this choice would decide my future. What I was willing to sacrifice.

  “Sir? We really need that order, now.”

  I closed my eyes. Ember would have found this situation horrifying. More than that. She would think me a monster. If she knew, if she ever discovered I gave that order, she would never forgive me.

  But she didn’t understand. She had never been able to see past her own emotional desires. Ember never thought about us, or our future. I was the one who’d always bailed her out of trouble. I was the one who’d always planned ahead. I understood that everything Talon did, it was for the good of our race. For our continued existence. We were trying to survive a world full of humans who would see us extinct if they knew of us. Sometimes, hard choices were necessary. Even if the ones you were trying to protect hated you in the end. We couldn’t remain ignorant and sheltered any longer. This was a war, and war demanded casualties. It was time to grow up.

  “Sir?”

  I opened my eyes, seeing the cluster of red on the screen, and smiled.

  “Do it.”

  EMBER

  Okay. I have to tell him.

  I stood in the shower, letting the scalding water run down my back, steam curling around me, as I tried gathering the courage for what had to be done.

  He needs to know. This has gone on long enough. I have to tell him. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? Hey, Riley, did you know you’re my Sallith’tahn, which is the Draconic equivalent for life-mate, only I don’t think I’m ready for something like that even though my instincts say the exact opposite and it’s been freaking me out ever since the monastery? Also, two nights ago I kissed Garret, and I want to be with him when I’m in my human form, which is 90 percent of the time, but I still feel this Sallith’tahn connection toward you. So, you see the dilemma, right?

  I groaned. This wasn’t going to end well. At all. No matter what I said, someone was going to be confused, hurt and pissed as hell. And then what? We still had this thing with Talon and St. George to deal with. We had to work together to have any chance of pulling this off, but how was that going to happen with Riley wanting to kill Garret or vice versa?

  No, I couldn’t tell him, not yet. Succeeding here, breaking St. George’s unknown partnership with Talon, was more important than my feelings toward either of them right now. I had become a rogue not only to get away from the organization and its crushing, power-hungry tyranny, but to help all my kind be free. From St. George, Talon, the Elder Wyrm, the Patriarch, whoever wanted us extinct or enslaved. I needed to stop agonizing and start doing. If I was going to make a difference in this war, I had to have my priorities straight. And right now, we needed clear heads and the ability to work together.

  I’ll tell them, I promised all three of us. Soon. When this is over, as soon as we break the Order away from Talon, I’ll tell them everything.

  I toweled, slid into my clothes and opened the door with a billow of steam, ready to tell the boys the bathroom was now free.

  Riley, alone in the hotel room, looked up from the corner chair and gave a smile that had no humor in it whatsoever.

  “Hey, Firebrand,” he said, rising from the seat. “About time you got out. We need to have a talk.”

  RILEY

  Ember blinked, glancing warily around the room. “Where is everyone?”

  “Gone,” I said simply. “I sent them both on an errand while you were in the shower. Figured that was the only way to get you alone. No Wes. No soldier. No distractions. Just you and me.”

  She eyed me with suspicion, filling me with both fury and sorrow. Was she afraid? Did she hate being around me that much, that just standing in a room with me alone caused her shields to go up? I’d been as patient as I could, waiting for her to clue me in on what was bothering her, and it was driving me to distraction. Wes and I had been checking the status of my safe houses this morning, making sure they were all still there, that everyone was alive, and I could barely focus long enough to hear him out. This standoff needed to end. Now.

  “So, what’s going on, Firebrand?” I asked, stepping forward. “And don’t think you’re going to run away from me this time. I’m done waiting. You’ve been hiding something ever since the monastery and I want to know what.”

  Ember swallowed. I could see the wheels turning in her head, trying to think of ways to stall, to dance
around the question, and it only pissed me off more. “This isn’t a good time, Riley—”

  “Bullshit.” She gave me a sharp look, and I met her glare. “When will it be a good time, Ember? When we’re not running, or fighting for our lives? When we’re not dealing with Talon or St. George?” I made a vague gesture, holding her gaze. “You’re a rogue now—there will never be a good time. There will never be a moment when we don’t have to worry about our enemies. There’s always going to be something, be it a hatchling we have to rescue, a traitor we have to hunt down, or a strike force coming for us in the middle of the night. Something will always be there, making things difficult. Trust me on that.”

  She didn’t answer.

  “But you were fine with that,” I said in a low voice, stepping closer. “We were fine. I know things have been rough, especially in the beginning with Griffin, and it’s gotten even crazier since. But I haven’t forgotten about us, Firebrand. I made you a promise, and you seemed to believe me.” I paused. “Did you believe me?”

  “Yes,” Ember replied. “I believed you. I still do. But, that was before...”

  “Before the soldier showed up. With the Eastern dragon.”

  It was barely noticeable, but Ember flinched. The girl who could stare down a dozen St. George soldiers without fear, cringed a little when I mentioned Jade. And that was all the confirmation I needed. If I wasn’t certain before, I sure as hell was now.

  “What did she say to you?” I asked, careful not to growl, though everything inside was painfully tight. “It had to be something epically horrible—you’ve been looking at me like I’m some kind of freak show. Why are you afraid? What could she possibly tell you about me that’s so awful? Did she know about my time in Talon, and what I used to do? Because if she did...” I lifted an arm helplessly, before letting it drop. “I can’t change my past, Ember. I know I used to do awful things for Talon, but I’m trying to fix that. I...” I raked a hand through my hair, feeling suddenly tired. “I’m trying to make up for those years. Hell, I would think that what we’re doing now is proof of that.”

  “Riley.” Ember shook her head, looking anguished. “It’s not that. Jade didn’t know anything about you, or what you did before you left Talon.”

  “What, then?” I asked, narrowing my eyes. “Did she say something about you?” Ember shook her head again, but I plowed on, anyway. “Firebrand, listen, whatever she told you, I don’t care. You hear me? Nothing you can say or do will scare me off, or make me see you any differently.”

  “I know.”

  “But that’s not it, either,” I guessed. No answer from the girl, and I raked both hands through my hair in frustration. “Dammit, just tell me what she said, Ember. I’m not going away until you do.”

  “It’s not... I mean...”

  “Spit it out, Firebrand. It’s not that hard.” Her eyes flashed, and I crossed my arms, knowing I was being a dick, but not backing down. Anger, perhaps, would be the most useful in getting her to talk. I would apologize later. “What did she say?”

  “I was going to explain everything later.”

  “There is no later.”

  “You’re going to flip out.”

  “Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”

  “Riley...”

  “We can stand here all night if you want. I have time.”

  “We’re supposed to be life-mates!”

  “I... What?”

  Okay, that was not what I was expecting. I stared at her, unable to form words or even a cohesive thought for a moment. She glared back, jaw set, eyes bright with anger, fear and a defiant I told you so expression. “It’s called Sallith’tahn,” she went on in a quieter voice. “That’s the Draconic word for what we’re feeling. Jade explained it. In the old days, the only times dragons got together was to mate, but sometimes a bond would form between two dragons, and then that pair stayed together for the rest of their lives. No one knows how it forms or why, but once a dragon finds its Sallith’tahn, its life-mate—” she shivered a little at the word “—that’s it. They’re supposed to be together. Or, that’s what Jade said, anyway.”

  “I’ve... I’ve never heard of it,” I said, my voice coming out somewhat raspy. “In all my years in Talon, this Sallith’tahn thing has never come up.”

  “Because Talon doesn’t want us to know it exists,” Ember replied. “We’re supposed to be loyal to the organization and nothing else. So they’ve made sure to erase the Sallith’tahn from our language and suppress any knowledge that it exists. If dragons knew about the life-mate bond, they might choose the welfare of another dragon over the good of the organization.”

  “And that’s something Talon wants to avoid at all costs,” I finished, feeling a bit dazed. Dammit, here was yet another thing the organization had hidden from us in the name of control. Where did it end? How could they justify suppressing something so inherent, something that made us who we were?

  Forget Talon for a second! Ember is your Sallith’tahn, or whatever that word is. Life-mate, Riley. Ember is your life-mate. Just give that a second to sink in.

  I waited for the shock to hit. For the skepticism and disbelief, even the slight panic and disgust at the notion of a life-mate. Nothing. I felt...relieved. Almost elated. Ember was my Sallith’tahn. I finally had a word for what I felt, and it wasn’t unnatural or strange or perverse in any way. It was something as purely Draconic as flying or breathing fire, something humans, with their twisted, messy emotions, could never understand. Ember was my life-mate. We were supposed to be together, simple as that. Cobalt wasn’t the least bit surprised; even when we hadn’t known the word, he’d recognized his Sallith’tahn from the beginning.

  “Why didn’t you tell me?” I husked at her. “All this time, ever since the monastery you’ve known we were life-mates or Sallith’tahn or whatever, and you didn’t want to mention it? That’s not like forgetting that you left the door unlocked, Ember. This is kind of a big deal, maybe the most important thing to happen between us, and you kept it from me. Hell, you weren’t even going to tell me today until I was a massive dick about it. Why?”

  “I couldn’t tell you,” Ember said. “Not yet.”

  “Did you think I’d be angry? Or that I couldn’t handle it?” I shook my head. “I already told you, Firebrand, I want you with me. This doesn’t change anything. If anything, it just proves what we knew from the start, we just didn’t have a word for it.” She turned away, looking miserable, and I stalked forward with a growl. “Don’t run away. Look at me, Ember.” I reached out and snagged her elbow, but though she didn’t flinch, she didn’t turn to face me, either. “Why are you fighting this?” I whispered. “You know I would do anything for you, even before I knew the word. This...life-mate thing, don’t let it scare you, Firebrand. It just shows we belong together. Simple.”

  “It’s not that simple.”

  “Why?”

  “Because,” Ember snarled, whirling around, “I think I’m in love with Garret!”

  Silence. I stared at her, hearing the words in my head, not fully comprehending them. I knew the soldier was a lost cause; his feelings for my hatchling were as blatant as dragonfire. Odd as it might sound, he really seemed to care for her, love her even, in the way that humans did. I’d tolerated it because we needed him, and because I thought Ember had finally realized what she was. That what she’d “felt” before was a passing curiosity, the desire to experience a human relationship, and when the novelty faded she’d realize a dragon and a human had no business being together. That the very thought was ridiculous.

  It appeared that I was wrong. And Cobalt, rising from the darkness like a vengeful flame, was suddenly hell-bent on finding a certain human and ripping his head off.

  I pushed him, and the rising fury, down. “That’s impossible,” I told Ember in a flat voice. “Dragons don’t lo
ve, Firebrand. We can’t love, it’s not in our makeup.”

  “Humans can.”

  “You’re not human!”

  “Part of me is.” Ember blinked rapidly, like she was holding back tears. Another shock; I’d never known a dragon that could really cry. Several of my former associates could, if pressed, produce some very convincing tears, but they were excellent actors, and few things could lower someone’s guard better than turning on the waterworks. The old adage of “beware a crocodile’s tears” held true for dragons, as well.

  “Part of me...has to be,” Ember went on, sounding like she was groping to understand, herself. “It’s the only thing I can think of. Otherwise, how could I feel like this?” She swiped a hand over her eyes, frowning. “Maybe that’s another thing Talon has hidden from us. Maybe...we’ve been imitating humans for so long, looking and acting and sounding like them, that it’s not imitation anymore. Maybe we’ve become human, after all.”

  I curled a lip at the idea as anger buzzed through my veins, turning them hot, bringing the dragon even closer to the surface. “That’s an excuse, Firebrand, and a pretty flimsy one at that,” I sneered, and she turned on me, eyes narrowed. “I think you’re just scared of this whole life-mate thing, and you’re looking for anything to counter it.”

  “That’s not true! I don’t want to hurt you.”

  “You can’t hurt me,” I said scornfully. Lying through my teeth. “I’m a dragon. Don’t try to spare my feelings. I’m not the soldier.”

 
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