Soldier, p.26
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       Soldier, p.26

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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And of course at that moment, the bolt clicked, and the door swung back as the soldier stepped into the room.

  I didn’t stop to think. I didn’t even remember moving. Cobalt surged up with a roar, and the next thing I knew, I had lunged across the room, grabbed the solder by the collar and slammed him into the wall.

  He grunted as I shoved him into the plaster, and then those hard gray eyes met mine. He didn’t struggle or throw any punches, though I could feel the tension in his arms and back, ready to explode into violence if needed. I dug my fingers into his shirt, feeling talons aching to come out, to rip through cloth and flesh and muscle until this human was nothing but a bloody smear on the floor.

  “Riley!” Ember snarled, and I heard the echo of the dragon in her voice, too. I ignored it, glaring at the soldier pinned against the wall, the human who had turned my hatchling away from me. Ember was mine. My life-mate. My Sallith’tahn. St. George was a threat, and I’d be perfectly within my rights to drive him off; out of my territory, and away from my mate.

  If he was a dragon. And we lived in the Dark Ages.

  St. George still hadn’t moved. His eyes were still locked with mine as he said in a low, reasonable voice, “I’m not your enemy, Riley. Whatever you think of me, this won’t help what we’re trying to do.”

  “Shut up, St. George!” I snarled at him. “Don’t pull that ‘reasonable’ crap with me. I was a Basilisk long before you could wrap your fingers around a gun. I know exactly what you’re trying to do, and I am in an extremely unreasonable mood right now. So, go on,” I hissed, seeing my reflection in his eyes, my pupils narrowed to vertical, reptilian slits. “Give me one reason I shouldn’t rip you into five different pieces right here. Or at least kick your ass back to the Order where you belong.”

  “I can give you several,” the soldier replied carefully, and his gaze flicked to something over my shoulder. “But, the most obvious one is standing right behind you.”

  Still keeping one fist in the human’s collar, I turned...

  ...to face a furious, growling red dragon.

  Ember stared at me, her head and neck low to the ground, wings partially spread, muzzle pulled back from her teeth. Her back spines were fully erect, and her tail stretched out behind her, only the spade tip flicking back and forth. A primal, unconscious and very obvious threat display. If I didn’t back off right now, she would attack.

  Instinctively, I dropped my fist from the human’s collar, but didn’t move from there, turning to face Ember directly. “So, you’ve really decided, Firebrand?” I asked the dragon, who then blinked and raised her head, looking almost dazed at her own reaction. “This is what you want. A human, who will never understand you. Who will never be your equal. Who will be gone in the blink of an eye, no matter how hard you try to hold on.”

  The red hatchling twitched her tail, her eyes shadowed. “I’m sorry, Riley.”

  “Don’t apologize.” I twisted my lips into a bitter smile. “Of the three of us, I’m not the one who needs pity.”

  The door clicked, a sharp sound in the tense quiet, and Wes stepped into the room, his eyes going wide as he saw us. “Shit!” he exclaimed, and quickly shut the door behind him. “Bloody hell, what is wrong with you people?” he went on, throwing the locks and whirling on all of us. “At least close the curtains if you’re going to be flapping your wings where everyone can see them!” Before I could answer, he turned to the soldier, not picking up on—or choosing to ignore—the obvious tension in the room. “What is taking so bloody long, St. George? I thought you were going to tell them.”

  The soldier’s voice was dry. “I was somewhat distracted.”

  “Tell us what?” I asked.

  “Tristan contacted me,” St. George replied. “In the parking lot, just as we were pulling in. He sent me a time and a meeting place not far from here.” His tone was carefully neutral as he looked from me to Ember. “I thought you might want to know his answer.”

  I ground my teeth. There were so many things I wanted to do, violent, unspeakable things, mostly involving the soldier. I wanted to char the human into a little pile of dust and bones, then scatter it to the winds with one sweep of my tail. I wanted to shake some sense into Ember, to demand why she would choose a short-lived human over her Sallith’tahn. I wanted to fly up beyond the clouds, where nothing would hear me but the stars, and roar out my frustration until I was cold and empty and there was nothing left.

  I couldn’t do any of those things. St. George and Talon were still out there, coming dangerously close to eliminating my underground. My network, my hatchlings and all the dragons I’d freed from the organization were counting on our success. I was Cobalt, leader of the rogue underground, and I could not let personal problems get in the way of the mission.

  Afterward, though, there would be hell to pay.

  I looked at the soldier, then at Ember, still watching me in dragon form, and smiled coldly.

  “All right, then. Guess we should go see what the bastard has decided.”

  GARRET

  Tristan looked awful.

  The last time I’d seen my former partner, walking out of the coffee shop with the evidence tucked under one arm, he’d seemed fine. Dazed and a bit shaken, but otherwise normal. Now, striding across a soccer field toward the section of bleachers I’d staked out, the soldier looked haggard. His clothes, normally spotlessly clean and pressed, were wrinkled. His eyes were bloodshot and dark stubble shadowed his jaw.

  Truthfully, I wasn’t feeling much better. My shoulders ached from where Riley had slammed me into the wall, and from the force the rogue dragon had generated, even in human form, I suspected there were a couple bruises hidden beneath my shirt. At least I’d been able to brace myself for the impact. The second I’d walked into the hotel room and seen their faces, I’d realized what was going on, and I knew what was coming. I was just thankful Riley hadn’t Shifted before he attacked; I could tell he’d wanted to and was barely holding himself back. I could take the abuse of a furious human; a furious dragon was a different story. Even with Ember’s intervention, I might not have survived.

  Uneasiness stirred. And, surprisingly, guilt. Would I have to watch my back around him from now on? Would there always be a dragon lurking in dark corners and lonely places, waiting for the perfect moment to get rid of me? I knew Riley hated the Order, and we hadn’t seen eye to eye on a lot of things, but to my surprise, I found that I respected him. He was a good leader—brave, cunning and resourceful. And he cared for those under his watch. Except for his obvious disdain for authority, he would have made an exceptional soldier.

  I shook myself. There was no time to worry about Riley now. When the mission was done, if we managed to expose the Patriarch, I was certain I would face the full wrath of a jilted male dragon, but at this moment, the approaching soldier of St. George was the bigger concern.

  When Tristan spotted me, sitting near the bottom row, he froze, eyes going wide. I held my breath, waiting for his decision. Ember sat beside me, close enough to touch, and Riley leaned against the side with his arms crossed. Tristan knew Ember, of course, and was smart enough to guess the identity of the other. I hoped, when he realized exactly who was waiting for him, he would not turn around and walk away. But after that first hesitation, he took a breath and came forward again, though his eyes were narrowed and his jaw was clenched as he strode up.

  “You look like crap,” I offered as he reached us.

  “Fuck you, Sebastian,” Tristan returned, glancing at Ember. “And your scaly friends.”

  I ignored that and, thankfully, so did the two dragons, though I felt the girl tense beside me. “I take it you reviewed the evidence thoroughly?”

  For a second, I thought he was going to snap at me again. His face darkened, and he looked like he wanted to punch something, before he let out a shuddering sigh and bowed his head.
/>
  “Yeah,” he rasped, and dropped to the end of the bench, running both hands through his hair. “Yeah, I did. Damn you to hell, Garret, why did you have to drop that in my lap? Do you know what this will mean for the Order? What will happen if this comes out?”

  I nodded. “I know.”

  “It’ll ruin St. George,” Tristan went on angrily. “The Order will be thrown into chaos. The council will be scrambling to find a new Patriarch, there will be discontents who break away, inquisitions, protests. We might never recover. But why am I even telling you this—that’s what you fucking dragons want, isn’t it?” He shot a glare at Ember over my shoulder. “This is a dream come true for you. You’re probably going to throw a party when I leave.”

  I felt Ember bristle, but her voice stayed surprisingly calm as she answered. “Would you rather Talon be in control of the Order?”

  A shudder went through him. “No,” he muttered. “No, this can’t be allowed to continue. St. George needs to know that the Patriarch is corrupt and is working for the dragons. Though I’m damning myself to hell and back for helping you expose him.” He gave me a look that was both resigned and disgusted. “I assume that’s the reason you called me, Garret? You needed someone on the inside.”

  “Yes,” I answered truthfully. “You’re the only one I could think of who maybe wouldn’t shoot me on sight.”

  “Really wish you wouldn’t have bothered, partner,” Tristan said in a weary voice. “But there’s nothing for it now. I can’t unlearn what I know.” He paused once more, taking a breath, as if resigning himself to the inevitable. “Fortunately for you, I already have a plan.”

  “That was quick,” Riley muttered behind us.

  Tristan ignored him. “In two days time, the Patriarch will be traveling to the States to meet with the various chapterhouses and leaders of St. George,” he said, making me straighten. “He’ll be here in a week, but he’s holding an assembly with all the officers, council members and chapter heads as soon as he lands in Salt Lake City. Every high-ranking official in St. George will be at that meeting. If you want to reveal evidence that the Patriarch is allying with Talon, you’d certainly have everyone’s attention.”

  “Oh, that’s a great idea,” Riley said, shoving himself off the bleachers. “An entire room filled with the high muckety-mucks of St. George, not to mention the Grand Poobah himself. I’m sure they’re going to let two dragons and a known traitor waltz right in and accuse the Patriarch of treason. And I’m sure I’m going to be strolling merrily into a building full of St. George soldiers with itchy trigger fingers.” He stopped at the bottom seat to glare at Tristan, arms crossed and a smirk twisting his mouth. “I’d accuse you of leading us into a trap if it wasn’t so blatantly obvious. How the hell do you expect to get us in there, anyway?”

  “I don’t,” Tristan said flatly. “I’m not taking two lizards anywhere near that building—that would be suicide, for me as well as you.” He glanced at me, brows drawn together. “I’m taking Garret, but he has to come alone.”

  “Garret’s a traitor to the Order,” Ember broke in, sounding worried. “They know who he is. He won’t get any farther than us if someone recognizes him.”

  “I’m counting on it,” Tristan muttered, still looking at me. I suddenly realized what he was getting at, and my insides went cold. He smiled grimly. “The only way for you to get close to the Patriarch,” Tristan went on, “is as a prisoner. You won’t get anywhere near him otherwise—he’s too well guarded. But, like your lizard said, they know who you are. We can use that to our advantage. You turned yourself in to me, and I’m presenting you to the Patriarch and the rest of the council for judgment. Once we get inside, I’ll release you, and you can show the evidence to everyone.”

  “What?” Ember exclaimed, as Riley barked a mocking laugh. “Are you crazy?”

  “Possibly,” Tristan said with a humorless smile. “But I can’t think of another way to do this. If you want that evidence to reach the Order, Garret, you’re going to have to trust me.”

  “Trust you,” Riley sneered. “Trust you to take your most-wanted criminal and the proof of the Patriarch’s involvement with Talon into the heart of enemy territory as your hostage with no way for us to reach him if things go south? While we’re at it, why don’t we tie a pretty bow around his neck and send him in with a card, as well?”

  “Look, dragon,” Tristan spat, curling a lip in Riley’s direction. “I don’t like you any more than you like me. I’d rather stand back and put a sniper round between your eyes than sit here talking with you.” He paled a bit, and ran a hand over his scalp. “Shit, if anyone knew what I was doing right now,” he breathed, shaking his head, “I’d be executed faster than you could say ‘treason.’”

  I felt a stab of guilt for dragging Tristan into this. Just by coming here, talking to us, he was risking everything. Even if we reached the Patriarch and convinced St. George of the man’s betrayal, Tristan wouldn’t be off the hook. He’d still met with me, a traitor of the Order. He’d still conspired against St. George. His future, his very life, would be on the line.

  Unless he turned me in.

  “But if you want to expose the Patriarch,” Tristan went on, unaware of my thoughts, “and break St. George away from Talon, this is the only way. The Patriarch only comes to the States once a year at most. There won’t be another meeting like this for a long time. If you want to walk into St. George, accuse the Patriarch of conspiracy with Talon and have the barest hope of being heard without getting shot the instant you open your mouth, this is your best chance.”

  “And then what?” Ember demanded. “Even if you do convince everyone that the Patriarch is working with Talon, what happens after that? They’re not just going to let Garret walk away.”

  “I’ll take care of that,” Tristan said. “I’ll get him out again, I promise.”

  “Not that I don’t trust you, St. George,” Riley said, the hint of a growl underlying his words, “but if we let you walk into that room with him and the evidence, I’m pretty damn sure we’ll never see either of them again.”

  “I’ll do it,” I said softly.

  All three stared at me. “Garret, no,” Ember said, putting a hand on my knee. “It’s too dangerous. We won’t be there to help you and...” She glanced warily at Tristan. “What’s to stop him from turning you over to the Order once you’re there?”

  “Nothing,” I told her. “I’ll be putting myself in his custody. If he wants to turn me in, there’ll be nothing I can do to stop it.” I caught Tristan’s gaze as I said this; he glared back at me, though he didn’t look away. “But, he’s right,” I went on. “We have to do this now. We won’t get a better shot at exposing the Patriarch to the rest of St. George.”

  “We don’t even know if the Patriarch is really coming here,” Riley said. “What if this is an elaborate setup and you’re walking oh so casually into a trap?” When I hesitated, he raised his hands. “Look, I know you two had a great time slaughtering dragons together once, but times have changed. You really trust this dragonkiller not to stab you in the back?”

  “It has to start somewhere,” I said quietly. Someone had to take that first step, or we’d never accomplish anything. “Tristan has saved my life dozens of times before.” I looked him right in the eye as I said this. “If he wants it now, he’s welcome to it.”

  My former partner rose, giving us all a hard look. “I’ll meet you in Salt Lake City in forty-eight hours,” he told me. “Remember, Garret, come alone if you want this to work. No guns, no wires, no transmitters, nothing. Your dragons stay as far away from this as possible, got it?”

  “Understood.”

  He spun on a heel and strode away without looking back.

  “Dammit,” Riley sighed, giving the retreating Tristan a disgusted look. “I hate Salt Lake.”

  EMBER

/>   I watched Garret pull his pistol from his back holster, check the chamber for a round, then carefully place it on the dresser. For a moment he hesitated, fingers curled lightly around the weapon, before he released it and pulled his hand away, empty.

  Dread blossomed within, adding to the suffocating feeling that had clung to me ever since the meeting with Tristan. We’d driven straight to Salt Lake City and taken refuge in one of Riley’s safe houses, a foreclosed home on the outskirts of the city. Despite his aforementioned hatred of Salt Lake, it being one of St. George’s primary cities, Riley kept a safe house within enemy territory, “just in case.” Talon wouldn’t bother us here. If Riley was on the run from the organization and needed to get them off his back, this was a good spot to lie low and wait for things to blow over. If he didn’t attract the Order’s attention, too.

  It was not the best of neighborhoods, and you could barely get through an hour without hearing a siren wail in the distance, but the house itself was actually fairly roomy, and everyone was relieved not to spend another night in a cramped hotel room. The extra space was definitely a good thing. I’d been afraid, from the confrontation earlier, that Garret and Riley would try to kill each other on the way up. But after the meeting with Tristan, it appeared to be business as usual once more. Garret, Riley and Wes talked—or argued, mostly—about the plan, with Riley and Wes insisting that this was probably a trap and Garret would be delivering himself right to the Order’s doorstep. The three of us—Riley, Wes and myself—tried to come up with a plan that would let us keep tabs on the soldier, or at least know what was going on within Order territory. But Garret was adamant he would go alone, and in the end, nothing we said would deter him.

  Not one word had been said about what had happened in the hotel room right before Tristan contacted us. The boys seemed content to pretend it never happened. Though Riley spoke to us all a lot less now. There was a coldness to him that hadn’t been there before; he was still perfectly civil and businesslike, but he kept all of us, even Wes, at arm’s length. As if this was a job he had to complete, and when it was over, so were we.

 
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