Soldier, p.3
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       Soldier, p.3

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 

  But Griffin’s talent for acquiring information eventually got him into trouble. As his web of contacts grew and the secrets he uncovered got bigger and bigger, Talon had decided that he knew a little too much. Through his contacts, Griffin had learned of his impending “retirement,” and that was when he’d reached out to me. The deal was simple: if I helped him get out of Talon and taught him to stay off their radar, he would give me what he knew about the organization. The trade had sounded fair, and the info he’d offered had seemed too good to pass up, so I’d accepted.

  “Too bad you didn’t know what a two-faced bastard he was before you let him into our operations,” Wes muttered. “I never liked him, Riley, have I mentioned that? I thought he was shady from the start.”

  “You have mentioned that one or sixty times, yes.” I glanced back at the door, wondering what Ember was doing now. “After Griffin contacts us,” I told Wes, “turn off the damn laptop and get some sleep. You’re running on Red Bull and Mountain Dew fumes right now, and we could all use a couple hours rest.”

  Wes leaned away from the laptop with a slight frown. “That’s not like you, Riley. I was expecting to be halfway out the door as soon as we heard from him.”

  “I would be, but Ember needs the break. She’s tired, and this constant running around isn’t helping. I thought I’d give her at least a few hours’ sleep before we start again.”

  “She’s not sleeping, mate,” Wes said quietly, still staring at me. I frowned at him.

  “What are you talking about?”

  Wes’s gaze darkened. “You haven’t noticed? Bloody hell, Riley. Have you really looked at the girl lately? She’s more than tired—she’s bloody exhausted. She sleepwalks through half our conversations. I go into the hall at three in the morning, and her light is still on and the television is blaring away.” Wes shook his head at me. “I doubt she’s getting more than a couple hours of sleep a night, and a tired dragon is a ticking time bomb. She’s going to explode, unless you can get to the bottom of what’s eating her.”

  Slightly dazed, I leaned against the bed frame, thinking back over the past couple weeks. I’d noticed Ember had gotten quieter, but hadn’t confronted her about it until tonight. She’d been withdrawn for several days, and that worried me, but I’d assumed it was the frantic pace we were setting—the strain of the hunt—that was getting to her. Recently, she’d grown snappish and irritable, snarling at Wes whenever he made one of his “Wes comments.” I knew she was tired. I hadn’t known she wasn’t getting any sleep at all.

  This was bad. Exhausted dragons were more than irritable and cranky, we could be downright dangerous as our control slipped and our baser instincts rose to the surface. Poking a tired dragon was an excellent way to get yourself burned.

  “What do you think is bothering her?” I asked Wes. “I talked to her tonight, but I didn’t get a clear answer. Just that she doesn’t want to slow us down, but I know that can’t be the whole story.”

  Wes rolled his eyes. “Oh, I don’t know, mate. We haven’t been doing anything stressful lately, have we?” Shaking his head, he leaned back and began ticking things off on his fingers. “Let’s see. In the past few weeks, she was shot, we were ambushed by St. George, you got kidnapped by Talon, your bloody hatchling had to fight Lilith’s murderous Viper student...” Wes grimaced. “Take your pick, mate. She’s not a soldier. She didn’t have years of training like you. Bloody hell, Riley, a couple weeks ago she killed a human for the first time and watched another dragon get murdered in front of her. What do you think that’s doing to her head right now?”

  “Shit.” I stabbed a hand through my hair. What was wrong with me? We had been running and fighting nonstop ever since we left Crescent Beach. Ember had seen nothing but constant battles, blood and death. I was desensitized to it, but she had killed for the very first time in her life. Of course it would be getting to her.

  I was about to turn around and stalk back to her room when the laptop chimed. Wes looked down, tapped a few keys and scowled.

  “It’s Griffin. He’s got a meeting place for us.”

  Rage flickered again, and I swallowed the growl crawling up my throat. For the sake of my underground, I would play nice with the backstabbing traitor and not rip his throat out through his teeth, but I wasn’t going to be happy about it. “Where?”

  “Tomorrow evening. Louisiana?” Wes squinted at the screen and groaned. “Oh, bloody hell. He’s in New Orleans.”

  DANTE

  I finished cleaning out my desk and closed the box, then left it on the corner for a worker to take down to the car. Not even a month in, and I’m already packing up my office, I thought, walking to the window for a final view of the Los Angeles cityscape below. At least I’m moving in the right direction: up. Or, I hope I am, anyway. Per normal, Mr. Roth hadn’t given me any real details. Only that I was being moved to another “project” that would make better use of my talents. I could only imagine what Talon wanted me to do now. Especially after the fiasco with Mist and Faith, and the unsuccessful attempt to return Ember to the organization.

  Ember, I thought, staring through the glass. The open sky beckoned enticingly beyond the pane, but it never called to me the way that it did her. Where are you? Why couldn’t you just do what Talon asked? Now you’ve forced their hand. You’ve chosen to stay with that rogue, which the organization can’t ignore, and I might not be there to protect you this time.

  “Ah, Mr. Hill. Are you ready?”

  I turned. Mr. Roth had entered the room, trailed by a skinny, younger human who immediately walked to my desk, picked up the box and left without making eye contact with either of us. The senior dragon didn’t spare the human a single glance but smiled brightly at me, though as always, the smile never quite reached his eyes.

  “Exciting, isn’t it?” Mr. Roth said, clasping his hands in front of him. “New location, new assignment, another opportunity to advance. You must be pleased that the organization is taking such an interest in you, Mr. Hill. Not many are afforded such a privilege.”

  “Yes, sir,” I said, because I was pleased. I was happy that Talon had noticed me, that despite the mission to retrieve Ember not having the desired results, the part I had played had proved my worth to the organization. But something still nagged at me, despite my best attempts to quell it. “I did have a question, sir,” I ventured, and Mr. Roth arched one slender eyebrow. “What of my sister? She’s still out there, with Cobalt. What does Talon intend to do about her?”

  Mr. Roth’s eyes glittered coldly, though his smile remained in place. “You needn’t worry about your sister, Mr. Hill,” he said. “Plans are in place to find and return her to Talon, though you must understand, she is a rogue and criminal in the eyes of the organization. We will take every opportunity to detain her without harm, but you saw the lengths to which she was willing to go to evade us. The last time we attempted contact with Ember Hill, an agent died. We cannot afford to have that happen again.”

  His tone hadn’t changed; it was still calm and informative, but an edge had crept into his voice, and I felt a chill slide up my back at the reminder. One of Talon’s agents, a young Viper named Faith, had been dispatched to bring Ember back to the organization. Faith’s job was to get close to Ember, earn her trust and, when the time was right, persuade her to return to Talon. It had been a good plan; Faith and a second agent named Mist had been able to infiltrate Cobalt’s hideout, and neither Ember nor the rogue had suspected anything. But something had gone terribly wrong, for when it was over, Faith was dead, the mission was in shambles and Ember had disappeared again.

  Mist, I’d later discovered, was alive, though she had also failed in her mission to extract certain information from Cobalt. She’d returned to Talon quietly and was immediately reassigned, though I had no idea where. I hadn’t seen her since the day she’d left for the mission.

 
“Your sister is no longer your responsibility, Mr. Hill,” Mr. Roth continued. “Rest assured, we will find her. Trust that Talon has her best interests at heart, and will take every precaution to return Ms. Hill alive and unharmed. But you have another role now. Another project that requires your skill and talents. We hope you will make it your top priority.”

  “Yes, sir,” I said, hearing the subtle threat beneath the words. “Of course. I was simply confirming that I can put my sister from my mind and focus on what I need to do.”

  I kept the confident smile on my face in front of Mr. Roth, but guilt gnawed at me. Ember had always been my responsibility. I’d looked after us both for so long, cleaning up Ember’s messes, covering for her, getting her out of trouble time and time again. I would never admit it to Talon, but it was partially my fault that she had gone rogue back in Crescent Beach. Maybe if I’d kept a better eye on her, paid more attention, I could have stopped my sister from falling in with Cobalt and throwing away her future.

  I’d tried to help her. I’d done all I could to return her to the organization, knowing that if she just came back, she would realize her mistake. But Ember had stubbornly refused, and now her fate was out of my hands. I could only trust that the organization would find my twin and bring her back to Talon, where she belonged.

  “Excellent, Mr. Hill.” Mr. Roth nodded, the cold smile never fading. “Exactly what we need to hear. Put your sister from your mind—her fate is in good hands, I assure you.” He raised a hand to the door. “Shall we go, then? The car is waiting, and I am sure you are eager to see what we have planned.”

  I nodded. I was moving up in the organization, as I’d intended. Designs were falling into place, and I couldn’t dwell on the past, even if it meant letting Ember go for now. Without a backward glance, I joined Mr. Roth in the hall, shutting the door to the office, and that part of my life, behind me.

  GARRET

  Tourist attractions always made me jumpy.

  I didn’t like crowds. It was the soldier in me, obviously, responding to potential threats, to having too many people in my personal space. Crowds were a good place to hide, but that meant the enemy could do the same—melt into the throng and remain unseen until it was too late. I didn’t like being surrounded, and I really didn’t like strangers touching me, something that happened often in these places, as tourists seemed to share a general obliviousness to their surroundings and bumped into each other a lot.

  I wove through the crowds along the river Thames, keeping my head down and my cap pulled low. It was a bright fall afternoon, and the river walk teemed with people milling down the sidewalk with no sense of urgency. But I could easily see my destination over the tops of their heads; it soared four hundred feet into the air, the massive white Ferris wheel known as the London Eye, silhouetted against the blue. An even larger crowd had massed at the base of the huge wheel, and an impressive line led up the steps to the clear plastic pods at the bottom. I set my jaw and marched resolutely forward.

  “Sebastian.”

  A man rose from a bench and came toward me, hand outstretched. He wore plain civilian clothes like me, but I could see the soldier in him, the way his dark eyes scanned the crowds, never still. He walked with a faint limp, favoring his right knee, a memento from a raid that went south and nearly killed us all. I shook his hand, and he jerked his head toward the end of the line waiting to get onto the Ferris wheel.

  “I paid off the attendants,” he said in a low voice as we started toward the Eye. “We have a capsule all to ourselves for the entire thirty-minute ride. If you can stand me for that long, anyway.” He grinned wolfishly, showing a set of crooked white teeth.

  “Why here?” I asked. “Seems exposed.”

  He chuckled. “Think about it, Sebastian. The Order hates crowds and frivolity and...well, fun, and they avoid the touristy parts of town like the plague. They wouldn’t be caught dead here.” He waved a hand at the massive wheel. “Plus, we’ll have an enclosed glass room all to ourselves, with absolutely no chance of anyone eavesdropping on the conversation. Unless someone snipes us out, there’s no way to get to us.”

  It was vastly improbable, but I scanned the area for snipers, anyway, especially the many buildings across the river. My skin prickled. So many dark windows and ledges and perches. If Tristan was here, that’s where he would be now, patient and motionless behind the barrel of his rifle.

  “So how did that partner of yours take it, anyway?” Andrew asked, seeming to read my mind. “Have you talked to him since the...um...”

  “No,” I said softly. “I haven’t seen him since my trial.” I hoped I would never see my ex-partner again, because if I did, he’d probably be trying to kill me. And truthfully, if Tristan St. Anthony was given that order, I’d be dead before I knew he was within a thousand meters. Ironic, if I was shot down by the person I once considered my brother in everything but blood.

  Suddenly wary, I glanced at Andrew, wondering how much he really knew. Had the Order shared the details with other chapters? I knew my name was out there: a rogue soldier who’d gone over to the enemy. As far as St. George was concerned, I was to be shot on sight, no questions asked. The Perfect Soldier, now Order Enemy Number One.

  If Andrew’s plan was to kill me, I couldn’t do anything about it now, unless I wanted to take off or overpower him on a crowded riverfront. Since neither choice would help me get what I came for, I waited quietly in line until we reached the front, where the ride attendant nodded to Andrew and pulled open the door to the glass pod, then motioned us both inside. The door shut, and the capsule began to move.

  Stepping farther into the pod, I gazed around warily. The oval room was quite spacious, clearly meant for large groups. You could fit a full-size car in the middle and still have room to walk around it. A wooden bench sat in the center, and the walls were clear, showing all of London far below.

  Andrew stalked to one side of the room, turned and leaned against a wall, fixing me with a solemn glare. “Relax, Sebastian,” he said. “I told you before. I heard what happened back in the States, most of it, anyway. I know what you’re accused of. Bullshit or not, you saved my life once. That’s something you don’t forget. And I don’t care what the Order says—anyone who has ever fought with you would know that you wouldn’t just betray your brothers like that. Not without reason.”

  He looked away as the pod climbed slowly higher, sunlight streaming through the glass. I gazed down at Big Ben on the other side of the river, its giant face announcing that it was almost noon.

  “Thanks,” I said. “I wouldn’t blame you for turning me in, Andrew. I’m just glad you’re willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.”

  “I’m not the only one,” Andrew replied. “A lot of us weren’t happy with the way your trial was handled.” He lowered his voice, as if there could be people eavesdropping, even here. “When you ‘escaped,’ we knew there had to be more to the story than what the Order was telling us. And I suspected I might see you again, sooner or later—I did say you could call on me for anything.” He gave a wry grin. “So if you need a favor, Sebastian, as long as it doesn’t involve going directly against St. George, you just have to ask. I’m guessing that’s why you’re here.”

  I nodded, smiling faintly in return. “There is something I wanted to ask you,” I said. “You’re a scout now, right?”

  His brow furrowed, as if that fact was painful. “Yeah,” he answered shortly. “After that close encounter with a bullet, I couldn’t go on any more raids. They stuck me with intel gathering, rooting out Talon activity in assigned areas.”

  “And the number of strikes has increased recently, correct?”

  Again, he nodded, though there was a wariness to him now, as if he knew where I was going with this.

  “How are you getting the information?” I asked.

  “Good question. Wish I could ans
wer it.” His brow furrowed as he gazed back down at the city. “The Order hasn’t contacted me in several months,” he admitted. “I haven’t found or given them any information, and I know several others in the same boat as me. St. George isn’t using its scouts to find the nests. And yet...the number of strikes is at an all-time high.” He made a vague gesture with his hand. “How are they finding these dragons? They’re certainly not coming to us.”

  I frowned. That wasn’t what I was expecting. I’d contacted Andrew because I had hoped to learn why Order attacks on dragons had taken such a jump. But if St. George wasn’t using its scouts at all...

  “That is strange,” I muttered.

  “I think so, too,” Andrew agreed. “And it gets even stranger. I asked around, trying to find where the Order has been getting their information, and you know what I heard?” A dubious look crossed his face. “Rumors are that the Patriarch himself is receiving visions from God, telling him where to find the devils.”

  My brows rose. The Patriarch was more than the leader of St. George; he was almost a holy figure in the eyes of the Order. Only the most revered, staunchest devotee of St. George could become Patriarch, and once the position was filled, it was his for life. The council chose a new Patriarch only when the old one died, as they had done since the Order was founded. The Patriarch was a symbol of purity, incorruptible and utterly dedicated to the cause. But visions from God? I wasn’t sure what to think about that.

  “Has he been right?” I wondered.

  Andrew barked a laugh.

  “Well, I don’t know where the man is getting his intel, but whether it’s from God or not, he’s been spot-on every time. Wherever he sends the teams, they find dragons. I guess the Order doesn’t need us anymore.”

  I fell silent, thinking. The capsule spun lazily, stopping every so often as the Eye picked up new passengers or let others off. A gull flapped by, soaring past us toward the river. “Is Order headquarters in the same spot?” I asked finally.