Soldier, p.27
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       Soldier, p.27

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  It made my stomach ache with guilt, especially since every time I looked at him, I could see Cobalt’s gold eyes staring back at me, hurt, angry, betrayed. I wanted to talk to him, but what could I say? I’d made my choice. Even though my dragon side still protested. Even though she still insisted that Cobalt was our other half, and I was making a huge mistake pretending to be human.

  And now, it was forty-six hours later. The time had come. Garret was going to walk out of the room alone, meet with a former ally turned enemy and let himself be taken before the Order of St. George. If something went wrong, I couldn’t be there. If Tristan betrayed Garret... I would never see him again.

  I clenched my hands against the wooden frame, terrified, angry and desperate all at once. Garret turned, spotting me in the doorway, and his mouth curved in a gentle smile. “Ember,” he said as I took a calming breath and stepped into the room. I searched his face carefully, but saw no signs of fear or hesitation, just quiet resolve. “Come to convince me not to go, one more time?”

  “You don’t have to do this,” I told him, holding his gaze as I walked up. “We can find another way, Garret. There has to be another way.”

  He smiled and shook his head. “This is the best chance we have,” he said. “I won’t have another shot at getting this close to the Patriarch, with all the leaders of St. George in attendance. Even if they take me prisoner, they can’t ignore the evidence. Someone will listen. We just need to plant the seed.”

  My throat closed up, and the corners of my eyes stung. Closing the gap, I reached out and slipped my arms around his waist, drawing him close. “I can’t lose you now,” I whispered, feeling his heart pick up beneath his shirt. “I can’t bear the thought that you’ll be walking in there, alone, and there’s nothing I can do if things go wrong.”

  His arms wrapped around me, his cheek resting atop my head. “Let me do this,” he whispered into my hair. “For everything I’ve done. For all the lives I’ve taken, all the dragons I’ve destroyed. I have...a lot of blood on my hands, Ember.” He sighed, bowing his head. “A lot to atone for.”

  “You don’t have to die to atone for those years, Garret,” I told him. “It was a war. You’re not responsible for the entire Order of St. George.”

  “I don’t plan to die,” he said, and I heard the faintest of smiles in his voice. “I would like very much to live, actually. Especially now.” One hand traced small circles against my back, and I pressed closer to him, listening to his heartbeat. “I used to think that having nothing to live for made you a better fighter,” he murmured. “Turns out I was wrong on a lot of fronts.”

  Tell him. The words hovered on the tip of my tongue, reluctant to take that final leap. Why was I hesitating? I’d already blurted it out once, in front of Riley, no less. Why was it so hard with Garret? I knew what I was feeling. For the very first time, I was certain.

  “Garret,” I began. “I...uh...”

  He pressed a palm to my cheek, stroking with a thumb, making me look up. “Tell me when I come back,” he said, his eyes very soft. “It will give me something to look forward to. A reason to walk out of there alive.”

  I swallowed hard. “You’d better come back,” I warned him. “If you don’t, I’m going to be very pissed at you, and you don’t want a pissed-off dragon on your tail, even if you are a ghost.”

  Garret smiled and bent forward. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

  Our lips met. I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled him close, and his tightened against my back, pressing us together. There was something desperate in his embrace, something that hinted at resignation and acceptance. He knew he might not be coming back.

  I didn’t want to let him go, but he finally pulled away. I looked into his eyes and saw the words I hadn’t been able to voice burning in his gaze, bright and intense.

  “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he murmured. “Wish me luck.”

  The words sprang to mind again, warring with the dragon, but I just nodded and gave him a brave smile. “I’ll be here,” I replied. Waiting. Hoping this isn’t the last time I see you. The last chance to tell you what I should said have a long time ago. “Be careful, Garret.”

  One last bright, longing glance, and he turned away, walking out of the room and down the hall. I heard Wes mutter something as he passed, heard the front door open and close, and then he was gone.

  GARRET

  “You know they’re going to try to kill you, right?”

  I looked up. Riley was leaning against the wall outside the front door, waiting for me. His expression was cold, and for a second, I tensed, wondering if this was the moment he’d choose to attack. To end what he’d started in the hotel room. Outwardly, he’d been brusque but businesslike, keeping things civil between the three of us, though I could sense the anger roiling beneath the surface.

  I paused, one hand on the railing of the stairs, wondering if the statement was more a desperate hope than a question. “I know,” I said, anyway. “But, it has to be done.”

  “I don’t get you, St. George.” Riley gave me a look that was a cross between contempt and genuine confusion. “You’ve fought us for years. And now you’re suddenly willing to play martyr, to challenge the Patriarch to his face, because of her?”

  “No. Not just because of her. It’s more than that.” I looked away for a second as memories crowded in. The teachings of St. George, the missions of death and slaughter, the rigid Code that could not be broken. “The Order can’t go on like this,” I said, glancing back at the rogue. “Something has to change. For hundreds of years, we’ve waged war and hunted and killed without a thought, when we should have been questioning everything.”

  “Yeah, well...” Riley shook his head, his expression curling with disgust, not directed at me this time. “Talon isn’t exactly the most upstanding and righteous organization, either. And the Order of St. George isn’t the only one mired in tradition. If you’re talking about change, you’ve got a massive battle ahead. I’ve seen Talon, what they’re really like. And you know your own Order, better than anyone. They’re giants, St. George, and we’re insects, just trying to stay alive. What chance do we have of them even seeing us?”

  “It has to start somewhere,” I replied, knowing I was repeating myself and not caring. One step in the right direction. One conversation between a dragon and a soldier, instead of a massacre. “Ember began this the night she chose to spare a soldier of St. George,” I went on. “I have to continue it. Even if I die, it will get the Order thinking. And maybe more will start to question things, see the war in a different light. It won’t be all at once, and it might take a long time. But we have to try. Otherwise, this fighting and killing will never be over.”

  Riley sighed. “You know, it would be so much easier to kill you,” he said, and shoved himself off the wall, making me tense. “But then you go spouting that noble crap and actually making sense, and I find myself hoping you don’t get yourself shot in the head, after all.” He paused, his gaze conflicted as he stared at me. An echo hovered between us, her name on both our minds, but neither of us would mention it. There was nothing to say.

  “I still think you’re crazy,” Riley finally said, stepping back. “But...good luck in there, St. George. You’ll need it. You have far more faith in that human than I ever would.” A smirk curled his mouth as he gave a grudging nod. “You’re not half-bad to have around, for a soldier and a dragonkiller. If you don’t manage to get yourself stabbed in the back, you know where to find us.”

  I nodded, watching Riley turn away and slip through the door. “Thanks,” I murmured as it clicked shut behind him, the echo of the unspoken truce hanging in the air as he left. I wondered why he was extending the olive branch now. Maybe he really thought I wasn’t coming back.

  I walked down the stairs and found the car Wes had called for me waiting at the sidewalk. I
t was late evening, the air was cool, and the sun had long since vanished behind the distant mountains. Slipping inside, I gave the driver the address, then stared out the window while my thoughts looped in endless circles. The Order, Talon, Tristan, the Patriarch, Ember.

  Strangely enough, though the rest of the night loomed before me like a dark cloud, I was calm. Perhaps it was because I knew I was likely walking to my death. Putting myself in the hands of my former partner and appearing at an assembly of those who’d lived through decades of war with Talon... I didn’t see how I would walk away alive, let alone free. Even if Tristan didn’t turn me in, even if they couldn’t ignore the evidence, I was still their most-wanted criminal, a traitor who had sided with the enemy.

  The cab dropped me off on a dark corner, and I followed Tristan’s directions down a narrow alley to the back of an abandoned lot. A single black car, its windows dark and tinted, sat beneath a sputtering streetlamp. Its lights flashed once as I entered the lot, and I headed toward it.

  The front door opened, and Tristan stepped out wearing his dress uniform, the black jacket with brass buttons marching down the front, the symbol of the Order on the right shoulder. His face was set, eyes narrowed in the flickering light of the streetlamp as he stepped away from the car and aimed a 9 mm at my chest.

  I stopped and raised my hands, wondering for a second if he would shoot me right here. Leave my body in a lonely alley and take the evidence himself, never to been seen by anyone in St. George. The shot never came, though Tristan approached cautiously, his gaze flicking to the shadows behind me, searching for dragons.

  “I’m alone, Tristan,” I said as he stopped a few yards away, the gun still trained on my center. I kept my arms raised as he glanced at me warily, gaze searching my waist, my side, anywhere there could be a weapon.

  “Are you armed?”

  “No.”

  He patted me down, anyway, checking for wires or transmitters as well as weapons, making sure no dragons were listening to this conversation, ready to follow or pounce. When he was certain I was clean, he stepped back, motioning me toward the car. I obeyed, though my apprehension was growing.

  “Do you have the evidence?” he asked.

  “Yes,” I answered, feeling the envelope tucked into my jacket. It contained the original documents, bank statements and all of the pictures showing the Patriarch with the Talon agent.

  “Okay.” Tristan paused, as if steeling himself for what he had to do. “From here on out, this has to look completely real. You turned yourself in, and I’m bringing you before the Patriarch to decide what to do with you. That’s how this lie has to work. Otherwise, we’ll both be shot dead before we reach the front doors. Do you understand? Once we get there, we’re enemies, you’re my prisoner and I have to treat you that way.”

  “I understand.”

  “All right.” He motioned at me with the gun. “Turn around.”

  I did as he instructed and felt the bite of plastic restraints around my wrists a moment later. “I’ll do the talking to get us past the guards,” Tristan muttered, cinching the cuffs behind my back. “Once we reach the Patriarch, I’ll cut you loose, and you can shock everyone with your announcement.”

  Or you’ll turn me over to the Patriarch for real, and there’ll be nothing I can do to stop it. Experimentally, I tested my restraints, wondering if I could slip free if I had to. There was not an ounce of give; the bands were tight around my wrists, to the point of digging into my flesh. As Tristan had said, this felt completely real.

  He stepped back and yanked open the passenger door, gesturing me inside. I slid into the seat, leaning forward to keep the weight off my arms as the door slammed, trapping me within. The windows, I noticed, were very dark, almost opaque. No one on the outside would be able to see anything.

  Tristan slipped into the driver’s seat a moment later, and the locks clicked into place as he closed the door. I glanced down, saw a dark cloth bag on the seat between us, and felt my stomach drop. My former partner saw what I was looking at and grimaced.

  “Sorry, partner,” he sighed, picking it up. “Just a precaution, in case any lizards are thinking of showing up in the middle of the assembly. Better that you don’t know where we’re going. It’ll be safer for all of us.”

  I narrowed my eyes. “Are you going to gag me, too? Make sure I can’t accuse anyone while we’re there?”

  “Hmm, intriguing thought. Keep it up and I might.”

  The bag slipped over my head, plunging me into complete darkness. A few seconds later, the engine shuddered to life, and the car began to move. I leaned carefully back against the seat, trying to calm my breathing, to focus myself for what lay ahead. If this was a trap, I was caught. I was alone, in enemy hands, and there was no Ember to save me from St. George this time. There was nothing I could do now but trust my former partner and hope that he would keep his word.

  But if this was a trap, if I was going straight to my death, I knew a certain red dragon would keep fighting, no matter the cost. I was doing this for her, I reminded myself. Yes, it was for Riley, the rogues and all the dragons I had slaughtered in the past, but mostly it was for Ember. To give her the hope of a world without war, without the threat of St. George constantly breathing down her neck. A world where, just maybe, dragons and humans could understand each other a little better. I would try my hardest to give her that, to at least start things down the right path.

  Even if I couldn’t be there.

  RILEY

  I found Ember where I thought I would; in the soldier’s room, sitting on his bed. Waiting for him to come back. She looked up when I walked in, a wary expression crossing her face.

  “What did you say to him, Riley?”

  “Nothing,” I growled, glaring at her. She looked dubious, and I rolled my eyes. “I said that I thought he was crazy, I wished him luck and I told him to come back alive if he could. Satisfied?”

  “That’s it?”

  “Yeah, Firebrand,” I snapped. “That’s it. What did you think I was going to do? Cackle and twirl my mustache? Tell him that I hope he fails and doesn’t break up the alliance between Talon and the Patriarch that’s killing my underground? Do you really think I’m that vindictively shortsighted?”

  “You did slam him against a wall and threaten to tear him in half.”

  “I did not. I threatened to tear him into five pieces, get it right, Firebrand.”

  She snorted. “Yes, well, I’m glad you restrained yourself.” I narrowed my eyes, wondering if she was mocking me, and she held up her hands. “I’m serious, Riley,” she said in a quieter voice. “I know I kind of dropped that on you. I didn’t mean for it to sound like it did, and I know it was unfair.” A pained look crossed her face, and she dropped her gaze to the bed. “I’m sorry it turned out that way.”

  I sighed, raking my hair back. “Yeah, well, since we’re on the subject of apologies,” I muttered, “I kind of pushed you to that confession, Firebrand. I didn’t give you a chance to explain it on your own terms. Maybe if you had, I would’ve reacted better. So it might’ve been my own damn fault things went down the way they did. So, ah...” I glanced at the corner. “I’m sorry for that. I might’ve overreacted. A little bit.”

  Ember’s green eyes looked cautiously hopeful. “So, we’re okay?”

  “No,” I rasped. “Far from it. You’re my Sallith’tahn, and there is a human interloper between us. We are definitely not okay.”

  Her face shut down, becoming anguished again. “Riley...”

  “Just hear me out, Firebrand.” I walked forward until I was standing at the foot of the bed, gazing down at her. “I’ve been thinking a lot. About us. And the soldier. And what I should do about this situation. And you know what I’ve decided?”

  She shook her head, extremely wary now. “What?”

  I smirked
. “Nothing.”

  Confusion flickered over her face.

  “I’m a dragon, Firebrand,” I said. “And—here’s a news flash—so are you. This life-mate thing, this Sallith’tahn, it’s not going away. If you feel even half of what I do, I know you can’t ignore it.” I bent down, gripping the bed frame, leaning forward so that we were eye to eye. I heard her heartbeat pick up, saw her nostrils flare and her eyes dilate, and felt the heat in my veins rise up, reaching out for her.

  “We’re connected, Ember,” I said. “This is meant to be. Fight it all you want—it’s going to happen sooner or later. So, you go ahead and pretend to be human, if you like. I won’t threaten the soldier, and I won’t get in your way.” Her eyes widened incredulously, and I gave a small smile. “I won’t have to. Human emotions are fickle things, Firebrand, you’ll see that soon enough. What we have is stronger than emotion, stronger than the humans’ idea of love. Dragons will always outlast humans—all I have to do is wait. But...” I leaned closer, lowering my voice to a near growl. “I will be at your side, day in and day out, and I will take every opportunity to remind you that you are a dragon. You can count on that.”

  Ember swallowed. Her eyes had gone rather glassy, echoes of her own dragon staring out at me. “You’re my Sallith’tahn,” I said quietly, and rose, holding her gaze. “That will never change. No matter what you feel for the soldier, you will always be mine.

  “Oh, and one more thing,” I added, just as she’d started to relax. “The soldier can only be a human. He can never be a dragon.” Ember started to reply, but I leaned down so that our faces were maybe an inch apart. She froze, and I brushed a palm across her cheek.

  “I can be both,” I whispered, and walked away. She didn’t move, didn’t answer, but I felt the predatory stare on my back, unrelenting, until I left the room and the door clicked shut behind me.

 
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