Soldier, p.4
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       Soldier, p.4

         Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
 

  Andrew nodded. “Same place it’s been for the past hundred years,” he answered. “Why?” His eyes widened. “You’re not thinking of going in! Sebastian, they’ll put a hole in your head before you get past the front desk.”

  “Relax, I’m not going inside.” There wouldn’t be any point. Headquarters would not leave suspicious files or dealings out in plain sight, and I wasn’t a computer genius like Wes, able to hack my way through almost anything. I’d never been to Order HQ, didn’t know the layout of the building, its cameras or security systems; if I sneaked in, I’d be going in blind, something I didn’t care for. Besides, I was a wanted man within the Order; venturing into the heart of St. George’s operations seemed like a bad idea.

  Andrew watched me, a suspicious look crossing his face. “Don’t suppose you’re going to let me know what you’re planning, are you?”

  “Sorry, Andrew.” I offered a half smile. “No offense, but if anyone does find out we spoke, I can’t risk the Order discovering anything about me. Better for us both if you know nothing.”

  “Fair enough.” The other gave a brisk nod. “I don’t like it, but fair enough. Just answer me this, Sebastian.” He pushed himself off the wall and stood straight, his gaze intense. “Is what they say about you true?” he asked in a grim voice. “Did you really throw in with the lizards? To destabilize the Order and everything it stands for?”

  I hesitated. The question wasn’t angry, or accusing. It was just a question, from someone who wanted a serious answer. For a moment, I didn’t know what to say. Andrew might be helping me, but he was still part of the Order, someone who hated dragons and accepted that they were soulless monsters. I could’ve brushed it off, told him what he wanted to hear, but deep down, he would know I was lying, and that would be a disservice to someone I respected.

  “I’m trying to uncover the truth,” I said at last. “Too many things happened that don’t make sense with what the Order taught us. I can’t ignore it anymore. I want to know whether the Order is hiding things from us. If they are who they say they are.”

  “Damn.” Andrew regarded me solemnly. “Dangerous ground, Sebastian. I might have my own questions about the Order, but you’re talking treason. No wonder St. George wants your head on a pike.” He gave me a look that was both suspicious and resigned. “What is it you’re hoping to uncover, exactly?”

  “I don’t know,” I said. “Truthfully, I hope I’m wrong. But with what I’ve been through... I have to be sure.”

  “Well, you’re right about one thing,” Andrew said. “I don’t want anything to do with whatever you’re planning. If you’re determined to go poking around the affairs of the Patriarch himself...” He raised both hands in a distancing gesture. “I won’t warn him you’re coming, but if you don’t watch where you’re stepping, you’re going get yourself killed. But you know that better than I do.” He sighed. “After this, you’re going to vanish and I won’t ever see you again, I suppose.”

  “Probably not.”

  Andrew nodded slowly. “Well, good luck to you, Sebastian,” he muttered, with the expression of someone who thought the other was going to die. “You’re going to need it.”

  * * *

  After the meeting with Andrew, I tackled my next obstacle: renting a car at seventeen, on a fake ID, in a foreign country. The clerk at the rental place gave me dubious looks all through the transaction but finally handed over the keys. Another barrier cleared. The bigger concern was the dwindling amount of cash in my wallet. I was loath to draw anything from the small stipend I’d acquired from my years in the Order, as my funds were limited and I had no way to get more. But certain things were necessary, and being able to move about the country without depending on taxis or trains was one of them. After that was done, I waited a few hours until early evening, when the sun was just beginning to sink into the west. Time to seek some answers.

  Sliding behind the wheel on the right side of the car, I headed north across the river, following the map in my head. I’d never seen nor been inside St. George headquarters, but Tristan had told me where it was located, so I knew where I was going. Past St. George’s Bloomsbury, St. George’s Court and St. George’s Gardens, my heart beating faster with every mile deeper that I went into Order territory.

  Not far from King’s Cross station, I pulled to the curb behind a double-decker bus, across the street from a row of unmarked office buildings, and let the engine run. Around me, it seemed like a perfectly normal afternoon; vehicles cruised down the road and civilians walked down the sidewalks, going about their business. Everything looked commonplace; there was nothing to indicate that an ancient order of knights waged war from this very spot, invisible to the public.

  I leaned back in my seat, pulled my cap low over my eyes and waited.

  Thirty seconds after seventeen hundred, a vehicle emerged from the private underground garage across the street. A black sedan with tinted windows rolled smoothly out of the darkness, turned left and cruised away.

  Putting the car into Drive, I followed.

  SEBASTIAN

  Thirteen years ago

  “Hello, Garret,” a man said in a deep, quiet voice. “My name is Lucas Benedict, and you’re going to be living with me for a little while. How does that sound?”

  I didn’t answer. He was a stranger. Everyone I’d seen so far had been a stranger. Where were my parents? I wanted my mommy. I shrugged and turned away a little when the man crouched down in front of me.

  “Your name,” the man before me said, “is Garret Xavier Sebastian. Can you repeat that, Garret?”

  I frowned. That was wrong. The first part was right; my name was Garret. But the next two I hadn’t heard before. “That’s not my name,” I told the man, who smiled. It was the first thing I’d said since my mommy...went away. But it seemed important, suddenly, to tell him. To let him know I hadn’t forgotten who I was. Even if I couldn’t remember what happened to Mommy and Daddy. Were they coming to get me? But no...this man said I was going to live with him.

  “It is now,” the man said. “And you should be proud of it. Many in the Order are named after saints, and yours is a very special one. Saint Sebastian was a great man who helped many people.” He put a hand on my head, leaning close. “Did you know that Saint Sebastian was tied to a tree and shot full of arrows, but he didn’t die?”

  I blinked and peeked up. “Really?”

  “Yes,” Benedict said. “He was also a centurion, a warrior for God. Which is what you are going to be one day—a warrior. A soldier who protects people from evil and monsters, just like he did.” He ruffled my hair and stood, gazing down at me. “So, Garret Xavier Sebastian, do you think you can do that?”

  I nodded solemnly.

  “Good,” said Benedict. “Because you’re going to have to work hard to become that soldier. But don’t worry.” He put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. His fingers were thick and strong, but not painful. “I’ll help you get there. From here on out, you’re not just a little boy. You’re a warrior in training. And someday, if you work hard, you’ll become a soldier who protects people and fights real monsters. Remember that, Garret.”

  * * *

  I did.

  If I’d had an ordinary life before I came to live with Lucas Benedict, it was long gone. I lived in his small apartment in the middle of an Order chapterhouse and watched the daily lives, practices and routines of St. George soldiers until that was all that I knew. I ate, slept and breathed the Order, adopting its beliefs, viewing the soldiers as family, not knowing any life beyond the Order walls. When I was six, I started private classes at the chapel. It would be a few years until I was old enough to join the Academy of St. George, where all hopeful dragonslayers were trained. My education was overseen by Brother Gregory, who drilled perfectionism into my head even more than science or math or history. But my real lessons didn
t begin in the classroom.

  “Garret.”

  “Yes, sir.” Never Father, or Dad, or even Uncle. From the very beginning, the only title Lucas Benedict ever accepted from me was sir.

  “Come here. I have something for you.”

  Obediently, I slid from my desk, where I’d been doing that night’s homework—an essay about the Order’s involvement in the Salem witch trials—and padded across the room to stand before my mentor. He regarded me seriously, as he always did, before he knelt and put something hard and cold into my hands.

  I looked down and blinked. A black pistol lay in my six-year-old palms, cradled between my small fingers. A chill raced up my back. I remembered gunshots, fire, men screaming, bits and pieces of that night, and I shivered.

  “Don’t be afraid of it,” Lucas Benedict told me. “It’s not loaded, so it can’t hurt you. A gun is only a tool—it can kill, but the person wielding it has to make that decision.” He put his large hand over both of mine and the weapon. “This is yours now, Garret. I’ll teach you how to hold it, clean it and handle it safely so that when it is loaded, you’ll know what to do. But I want you to start learning now. This is what you’ll be using to fight monsters someday, so it’s important, understand?”

  I looked at the gun again. I could kill monsters with this. Like the horrible black-winged creature that murdered my family. On my own, I was no match for the demons. I was just a scared little kid who still had nightmares sometimes. But with a weapon like this, I could do my own killing. I wouldn’t have to be afraid anymore.

  “Yes,” I replied, looking back at my mentor. “I understand. When will I get to shoot things?”

  He chuckled and ruffled my hair in a rare moment of affection. “When you’ve proved to me that you know how to clean, handle and take care of it properly when it’s unloaded, I’ll teach you how to shoot it. But not before. Not until I’m certain you know what you’re doing. So...want me to show you how to clean your weapon, soldier?”

  “Yes, sir!”

  That was the beginning.

  EMBER

  “Too bad it’s not Mardi Gras.”

  Riley shot me a look from the driver’s seat, the hint of a smile playing at his lips as we cruised down the narrow road. “Hoping to catch some beads, Firebrand?”

  “No.” I wrinkled my nose at him. “But we’re here, in New Orleans. On Bourbon Street.” I looked out the window, at the buildings with their elegant verandas draped with flags and hanging plants. I imagined them filled with people in costume, crazy masks and colorful beads, with streamers of purple and gold flying all around. One huge party, like I’d seen on TV. “I was just wondering what it would be like,” I mused.

  Riley snorted. “Crowded.”

  “Noisy,” added Wes.

  I rolled my eyes at them both.

  “Where does Griffin want to meet us, again?” Wes asked, sounding annoyed as he gazed out the window, as if the crowds and pedestrians strolling past the car personally offended him. “And why here, in New Orleans, of all places? Right out in the open.”

  “Exactly,” Riley said, and turned down another road, leaving Bourbon Street behind. I sighed and watched it vanish in the rearview mirror. “Out in the open, where everyone can see you. Where a Talon operative can’t walk up and shoot you in the face without causing a panic.”

  I blinked. “Or where a pissed-off rogue dragon can’t kick his ass for selling us out?” I guessed.

  “That, too.” Riley clenched the steering wheel, his expression promising retribution, even if it wasn’t at the moment. “Griffin is a sleazebag, but he knows what it takes to survive. And if you have a Viper breathing down your neck, the last place you want to meet someone is in a dark warehouse in the middle of the night.”

  “Still.” Wes sniffed, gazing out the window in disdain. “He could’ve picked a less touristy place to meet. At least it’s not on Bourbon Street itself. I wouldn’t...oh, look there’s the blighter now.”

  I followed Wes’s gaze. A figure in a familiar red suit sat at an outdoor table next to one of New Orleans’s many bars. His legs were crossed, and a half-full glass of something sat on the table in front of him. Riley’s lip curled, his hands clenching on the steering wheel. There were no parking spots anywhere on the street, so we drove past and found a place around the block.

  “Wait here,” Riley told Wes, as I opened the door and slid out. The day was humid and warm, and the air felt heavy. “Keep the engine running. If Talon or St. George shows up, we’ll need to clear out fast. Firebrand...” Riley glanced at me. “Keep your eyes open. If you see anything suspicious, tell me right away. Ready?”

  “Yeah.” I nodded. “Let’s go.”

  We walked back to the outdoor patio where the human in the red suit waited for us. I scanned the crowds, the corners, the overhead verandas and the tops of buildings, searching for anyone suspicious. For anyone who might be hiding a gun, or whose gaze lingered too long on us. For just a moment, I remembered the words of a certain human soldier long ago, when I first accused him of paranoia.

  It’s not being paranoid, if they’re really out to get you.

  A lump rose to my throat, and angrily I shoved it down. Not now. Focus, Ember.

  As we approached, the human raised his glass to us in a mocking salute. “Riley!” he said cheerfully, showing a flash of brilliant white teeth. “And his little sidekick herself. Have a seat, won’t you? Let me buy you a drink.”

  “Thanks, but I’ll pass.” Riley hooked a plastic chair with his boot and pulled it toward him before sliding into it. I took the seat beside him, glaring at the human across from us, as Riley gave a dangerous smile. “I’m still trying to figure out how you think you’re going to get out of this without me bashing your head in.”

  “Now, now. Temper, Riley.” Griffin waggled a finger at him. “No eruptions—that will get you into trouble here. There’s no need to be unpleasant, is there?”

  I growled softly, my dragon seething under my skin. “There are plenty of reasons to be unpleasant,” I said, baring my teeth just slightly in the human’s direction. “Considering you sold us out to the highest bidder.”

  Griffin seemed unconcerned. “Oh, come now. That was business. Nothing personal. Thousands like me would do the same. Besides...” He swirled the ice in his drink. “I think you’re going to want what I know. It’s worth more to you than bashing my head in right now. You wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

  Riley sneered. “Don’t try to sell me a line now that the organization is gunning for you,” he said in a low voice. “This is what happens when you play both sides. Eventually, they both discover you can’t be trusted...except now you know too much.”

  “No such thing.” Griffin sniffed and stared us down over the bridge of his nose. “It’s what I know that keeps me alive and makes everyone want what I have. Case in point, you’re here because I have information, and you’re willing to bargain for it.”

  “Yeah? Don’t be so sure,” Riley said. He leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms. “Seems to me you’re getting exactly what you deserve. Give me one good reason not to walk away and let a Viper do me the favor of slitting your throat.”

  “Two words.” Griffin put down his drink and laced ringed fingers under his chin. His eyes were hard as he said in a slow, clear voice, “Breeding facilities.”

  “What?” Riley dropped his arms and leaned forward, his eyes intense. My stomach dropped. The “facilities” were the places where Talon sent female dragons who had either failed assimilation or were deemed unfit in other ways. They became breeder females whose only purpose was to produce fertile eggs for the organization. The breeders and their locations were some of Talon’s most jealously guarded secrets. Riley had been looking for the facilities for years, but had never been able to find them.

  “You k
now where a facility is?” Riley asked, not quite able to hide the faint thread of hope in his tone.

  A slow smile crept across Griffin’s face. “Not just one facility,” he said. “All three of them.”

  “Where?”

  Griffin shrugged, and Riley clenched a fist on the table. “Dammit, Griffin,” he said. “You have my attention, so stop being an asshole. What do you want already?”

  “I’ll tell you what I want.” The human leaned forward, his jaw set. “I want your promise that you’ll protect me from Talon,” he said. “I want a new face, a new identity, a new career, the works. I want Wes to help me disappear, and when all of that is taken care of, I want you to forget you ever knew me. I walk away from this whole mess, and you don’t darken my doorstep, now or anytime in the future.” Griffin leaned back again and picked up his glass. “That’s my offer,” he said, watching us over the rim. “And you know you’re going to take it, Riley. You’ve been looking for those facilities for how long? Longer than I’ve known you, right?”

  I heard the faint rumble of a growl in the back of Riley’s throat. “How do I know you’re not lying to me again?” he asked. “Or that you’re not still working for them, and I’m walking into a trap?”

  “You don’t,” Griffin said easily. He smirked, and I wanted to fly across the table, grab his smug neck and shake him until he either gave us the info, or it snapped. “But you’re going to trust me, anyway, because this is too good to pass up. You can’t risk me being right and letting the facilities slip through your claws, can you? All those poor breeder females, slaves to Talon forever.” He spread his hands, palms up, on the table. “But, the choice is yours, of course. You know what I want. We have a deal or not?”

  Riley’s jaw tightened, and I could sense the dragon surging in him, too, wanting to spring up and burn the self-satisfied triumph right off the human’s face. But his voice was carefully controlled as he answered. “Fine. Tell me where the facilities are, and you have a deal.”