Soldier, p.28
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       Soldier, p.28

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 
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  GARRET

  “We’ve arrived a little late,” Tristan muttered as the engine died. He tugged the bag off my head. “The assembly has already begun. Everyone but the guards should be in there.” He glanced at me, his mouth pulled into a faint smirk, the hint of the Tristan I knew, once. Who could look a hopeless situation in the eye and make a smart-ass comment about it. “You ready for this?”

  I took a short breath. “Yes.”

  He walked around to my side, opened the door and pointed a gun at my face, his eyes hard and cold again. “Get out.”

  I obeyed, and he shoved me against the side of the car, the pistol at my back, taking a moment to check the cuffs and pat me down once more. I endured, hoping this was part of the deception, that his fellow soldiers could be watching, that Tristan was just playing his part. Dragging me off the car, he gave me a little shove toward the large cathedral looming above the trees. “Move. Try to run, and I’ll shoot you before you take three steps. Let’s go.”

  I marched in front of Tristan, a gun held to my ribs, as the stone wall of the cathedral rose above us, blazing with light against the darkness. The cathedral was old and towering, a giant that was meant to impress as well as intimidate. A pair of guards flanked the front door, brows lowered in wary confusion as Tristan walked up with me.

  “The hell is this?” one asked, hand straying toward his sidearm. “Stop right there. Identify yourself, soldier.”

  “Tristan St. Anthony, of the Western Chapterhouse.” Tristan’s voice was steady as he faced the guards down. “This prisoner and I are here to see the Patriarch.”

  “Is that so?” the other broke in, raising a brow my direction. “And what makes you think you can march into the assembly, while the Patriarch is addressing the most important people in St. George, to throw this poor bastard at his feet?” Though the guard’s tone was mocking, his expression was hard. “Unless this is the dragonloving traitor himself, I don’t think you...”

  He stopped. Really looked at me. Tristan waited quietly for the realization to sink in, the smugness practically radiating off him in waves. “Holy shit,” the guard said at last. “This is...”

  “Gentlemen...” Tristan gave a cold smile and dragged me forward a step. “May I present Garret Xavier Sebastian, former soldier of St. George, ally to dragons and the most-wanted criminal the Order has seen in decades.” I kept my gaze on the ground, as Tristan continued in a voice of quiet triumph. “My former associate decided he was tired of running and turned himself over to me, hoping that St. George might be merciful. I thought the Patriarch would want to know that Sebastian has finally been caught. But...” Tristan pulled me back a pace. “If you think he’s too busy...”

  “No.” The guards raised their weapons, as if afraid we would both try to bolt. “The Patriarch will want to see the traitor,” the first said, giving me a look of black hatred. “He’ll want to look him in the eye and pass judgment himself. He’ll want to know what kind of man betrays his brothers to side with the soulless lizards.” Stepping back, he motioned us through the doors. “Go. Sebastian will stand before the Patriarch, and all of St. George. We’ll escort you there ourselves.”

  I exhaled. Well, we were past the doors. Past the guards, in a sense. I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad development, but in a few minutes, it wouldn’t matter. I could hear the Patriarch’s strong baritone as we entered the cathedral—its vast ceilings soared fifty feet overhead. Stained-glass windows and images of the saints stared down at us as we marched through the center aisle, Tristan keeping a tight grip on my arm. To either side, the pews were filled with officers and soldiers in uniform, their attention riveted to the man at the front of the room. But as we passed, whispers began following us down the aisle, growing louder and stronger, until it was a low, constant murmur at my back. I heard my name, and the words the traitor fall from several lips, felt the anger, shock and outrage building like a storm, and kept my gaze fixed straight ahead. At the man standing behind the pulpit.

  He had stopped talking and was watching us approach, brow furrowed, obviously wondering what this was about. Who would dare to interrupt him in the middle of his speech?

  Then, our eyes met, and I saw the moment he realized exactly who I was.

  Tristan, I thought bleakly, as he pulled me to a halt at the base of the dais. If I said anything now, my voice would carry no weight. I was a prisoner, hurling wild accusations to save his life, and would be silenced or dragged away without a thought. If you’re going to release me, now would be the time.

  “Garret Xavier Sebastian.” When the Patriarch spoke, the assembly fell silent. He stepped away from the pulpit, “From among the devils, he returns to us. Our prodigal son has come home.”

  No one spoke. The Patriarch’s voice had a mesmerizing quality, like a snake staring down its prey. Pausing at the top of the steps, the Patriarch watched me a moment, then offered a gentle, forgiving smile. He thought he had won.

  He probably had.

  The Patriarch took one step forward, pausing at the top of the stage, and then his gaze shifted from me to my former partner, assessing. “Your name, soldier?” he asked quietly.

  “Tristan St. Anthony, sir.”

  “And do we have you to thank for the traitor’s capture?”

  “My former partner surrendered himself to me, sir.” Tristan’s voice didn’t waver, though the grip on my arm tightened. “It was my duty to bring him here, to await your judgment.”

  “And you have done your duty admirably. I will remember your service, soldier.” The Patriarch nodded at Tristan, then turned his attention to me again. “Tell me, Sebastian,” he went on, looming over me with that serene smile in place. “Have you realized your mistake? Have you looked into the heart of the enemy and seen the evil staring back at you? Do you come to confess, to beg forgiveness, because you have betrayed not only your brothers, but every brother that came before and died for our cause?” He leaned forward, his voice soft but commanding. “Confess, Sebastian. Confess your crimes, and I will be merciful. Before this brotherhood, before the men you betrayed, renounce the demon lizards, and let your conscience be clear before we send you to your final judgment.”

  I met his gaze. “My conscience is clear,” I murmured, in a voice meant for only the two of us. “I know which side I’m on, and I’ve never lied about it. Of the two of us, whose crimes are greater?”

  The Patriarch’s face went deathly pale. His jaw tightened, eyes going blank, and for a moment, I thought he might kill me then. Snatch the pistol from his guard and shoot me through the heart. But then he blinked, and his face smoothed out again, his expression calm as the mask slid into place.

  “No,” he said, drawing back. “No, you have not come to plead for mercy. There is no shame in your eyes, no remorse, only defiance. So be it.” He straightened, ignoring me and raising his voice for the crowd. “The traitor’s soul has been corrupted by the devils,” he announced. “He refuses to atone for his crimes against the brotherhood and stands defiant before God and man. He is a blasphemer, a worshipper of the Wyrm, and will not repent of his evil.”

  Something cold slipped between my wrists; the thin edge of a knife, and my legs nearly buckled with relief.

  “Garret Xavier Sebastian,” the Patriarch went on, speaking to all of us now. “It pains me to do this. To know that you have willingly turned your back on St. George and everything we have taught you. To know you have sold yourself to evil, and we cannot save you from the damnation that awaits. You will be executed before all of St. George for your crimes against the Order. I pray that when you stand before God tonight, he will have mercy upon your soul.” He turned, his steps heavy, to walk back to the pulpit. “Take him away.”

  The ties binding my hands parted with a jerk. I breathed a silent note of thanks to my former partner and stepped forward, raising my voice to echo through
the room.

  “Before you do that,” I announced, and the Patriarch whirled around, eyes widening when he saw that I was free, “and while we’re on the subject of confessions, perhaps there is something you should explain to the rest of the assembly, sir.” I reached into my jacket and pulled out the envelope, holding it aloft like a torch. “Perhaps you should explain your partnership with Talon, and the dragons, for the past year and a half.”

  Instant pandemonium. Behind me, the room exploded in a cacophony of noise and outrage. Men were on their feet, shouting, calling for my head, demanding answers. One of the guards who’d escorted us in went for me, raising his gun. But Tristan silently stepped between us, a warning look in his eyes, and the guard stumbled to a halt, unsure what to do.

  Through all of this, the Patriarch didn’t move. He stared at me, his expression calm. Finally, he raised a hand, and the noise gradually died down.

  “They are quite desperate now, aren’t they?” he stated, shaking his head, as if this whole thing was ridiculous beyond measure. “Did the dragons put you up to this, soldier? Send one of our own to infiltrate the Order and break it from within? They should know by now, we are far too strong for such deception. St. George will never fall to the machinations of dragons.”

  “That might be true, sir,” I replied, “if not for the fact that I have evidence of your treachery right here.” Turning my back on him, I faced the angry room, holding up the envelope. “Proof of the Patriarch’s involvement!” I called, as the room began to erupt again. “Bank statements, photos of secret meetings, recordings of conversations between Richard Amitage and an agent of Talon. The Patriarch has been accepting money from the organization for over a year!”

  “Shoot the traitor!” came a voice from the back, impossible to see who it was in the chaos. I held my breath, half expecting a gunshot to ring out to end the tirade and my life. But Tristan, shockingly, stepped forward, putting himself between me and the throng starting to push forward.

  “He’s telling the truth!” Tristan shouted, making the first row pause a moment. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes! This isn’t a lie! The evidence is real.” He faltered, taking a breath, as if he couldn’t believe what he was saying himself. “Sebastian speaks the truth,” he said at last, his voice slightly choked. “The Patriarch...is working with Talon.”

  “Hold.”

  The ranks parted, and Lieutenant Gabriel Martin stepped to the edge of the circle, his face grim as he faced us. “I know both these boys,” he told the crowd, his steely expression freezing them in place. “St. Anthony is one of mine, as was Sebastian. He is...or rather, was...one of the best soldiers I’ve ever seen. Neither is prone to exaggeration or flights of fancy. Sebastian is a traitor to the Order, and I despise what he has become.” I felt an almost physical blow as he said this, my stomach clenching in pain as Martin looked at me, black eyes glinting with contempt.

  “But,” Martin went on, holding my gaze, “if there’s one thing Sebastian is not, it’s a liar. Even in matters as troubling as this.”

  “Lieutenant,” said the Patriarch, his voice full of quiet menace. “Are you saying you would believe a traitor and a dragon convert over your own Patriarch? This boy who has betrayed us all, who has been helping our enemies slaughter and destroy more of our own?”

  “No, Patriarch,” Martin replied, bowing his head. “But I am concerned with the truth. In whatever form it comes to me. Given the nature of these claims, we must consider all sides. If the boy is lying, I will put the bullet in him myself. And I will accept whatever discipline you choose to bestow upon me for my doubt.” His jaw tightened as he turned, staring me down. “These are serious accusations, soldier,” he said, a warning and a threat. “Are you prepared to back them up, knowing the repercussions if you cannot?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  He held out a calloused, burn-scarred hand, and I gave him the envelope without hesitation. The sharp sound of the flap being torn open echoed like a gunshot in the deathly quiet of the room. I backed up with Tristan as several other officers crowded in, gazing over Martin’s shoulder as he pulled out the contents of the envelope. It was out of my hands now. I had done everything I could. Now, it was up to St. George itself to decide the fate of its Patriarch.

  I glanced at the man before the pulpit. He stood quietly, arms folded before him, watching his men sift through the documents and mutter among themselves. His expression remained calm, even a little amused. He didn’t look disturbed in the slightest, and my insides shifted anxiously. What if I was wrong? What if I’d overlooked something, misheard the conversation between the Patriarch and the agent of Talon? What if the Patriarch was the one setting up the organization, and I had just made a huge blunder in exposing it?

  No, I told myself. You know what you saw. The Patriarch is a master of swaying men to his side. If he acts guilty now, there’ll be no question. Everyone will know what he’s done.

  For a split second, the Patriarch’s gaze flicked to me, hard and full of hate. Around Martin, the murmurs were growing louder, more outraged with every page turned, every photo changing hands. Finally, the murmurs died down, to be replaced with a shocked, furious anticipation.

  “Patriarch.” A man stepped forward, one I didn’t recognize. But he was older than Martin, older than the Patriarch, with cropped silver hair and a patch over one eye. His raspy voice rang with authority, and the other men fell silent as he spoke. “You have been accused of conspiring with Talon against the Order of St. George, and the evidence brought against you is substantial. Have you anything to say in your defense?”

  “I am the Patriarch,” was the proud reply. “The chosen shepherd of the Order of St. George and the right hand of God. I do not need a defense. Only He may judge me.” He shot a cold look over the crowd and turned to me again, eyes flashing with hate. “I invoke the ancient rite of Trial by Combat,” he announced, and murmurs spread rapidly through the chamber. The Patriarch raised his voice to be heard over the tide. “Before God and man, I call Garret Xavier Sebastian a liar and a traitor. His evidence is false, lies fabricated by the Wyrm to blind our eyes. As such, and in accordance with our sacred traditions, I challenge Garret Xavier Sebastian to Trial by Combat. Let the Lord’s blessing uphold the righteous, and let His judgment fall upon the damned. I call upon the Divine to hear my plea and to punish the one whose soul is corrupt. Let God choose His champion. Let Him decide who is guilty!”

  A shiver raced up my spine. Trial by Combat. I had first heard the term at the academy when Peter Matthews, enraged by some imagined slight, had thrown down the challenge. Trial by Combat, he’d snarled at me, to the gasps of everyone watching. A duel to prove, once and for all, who was the best. The outcome had not been pleasant for either of us, resulting in a severe lecture from the Headmaster himself, who berated us on the seriousness of the challenge, that it was not to be used for foolish pride. Trial by Combat called for the judgment of God Himself to descend upon the guilty, to bless the righteous and smite the wicked. Such a request was never to be taken lightly.

  The Patriarch gave a triumphant smile as he held my gaze, dropping his voice so that only I could hear it. “The Code of St. George demands such a challenge be honored by all,” he stated, secure in his knowledge of ancient laws and customs. “No one will defend you now, soldier. No one will step forward. This is between the three of us. You, your Patriarch and God.” I caught the grim looks of Martin and the rest of the officers, and knew he was right. Once the challenge had been invoked, they could not interfere without breaking tradition. And that was something the Order clung to at all costs.

  “Garret Xavier Sebastian,” Martin said, stepping forward. His jaw was tight, his eyes angry, but he spoke in a steady voice, and the murmurs surrounding us died away. “You have been challenged by the accused, in a duel to the death, to discern the guilt or innocence of the parties involved. You may choose to either a
ccept the challenge or decline. But know that if you decline, you mark yourself as guilty in the eyes of everyone here. What is your answer?”

  I clenched my jaw. I was trapped, and the Patriarch knew it. If I refused, he would win. All the evidence we’d gathered, all our plans to get me here, they would be for nothing. In the eyes of the Order, refusing to fight would acknowledge my guilt and confirm the Patriarch’s innocence. It was illogical, it was absurd, but St. George would follow tradition even if it meant a corrupt man would go free.

  If I accepted, I would have to fight him. To the death. I didn’t know how skilled a fighter the Patriarch was, but I did know he was a trained warrior. Before he became the Patriarch, he was a soldier of the Order, utterly dedicated to the cause. Of course, St. George would not let him anywhere near the real war now; he was far too important to risk, but he trained for the possibility every day, ready and willing, should he ever be called upon to serve the Order in battle once more. Or so the stories went.

  I didn’t want to fight him. Not that I was afraid; despite his exalted position and claims of holiness, he was only a man. And it didn’t matter who or what you were, be it human, dragon or saint; everything could bleed, and everything could die. But I already had the blood of my former brothers on my hands, staining my conscience. If I killed the Patriarch, the divine, God-chosen leader of St. George, I would be forever marked.

  But we had come too far, and it was far too late to turn back now. I thought of Ember and Riley, and the underground of rogue dragons, dragons who just wanted to be free. I thought of Jade, risking her life to protect the monastery, refusing to leave her monks to the mercy of the Order. And of Tristan, who had brought me here despite all his misgivings, who’d upheld his end of the bargain even though it could cost him dearly. Maybe even his life. The Order had to change, that much was certain, but change required more than one voice. It would require action, sacrifice, the stubbornness to see it through to the end. I’d been willing to die tonight, to be the voice that started the questions and the doubts, however small they were. Was I willing to kill for it, as well?

 
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