talon

Rogue%20Julie%20Kagawa

We’re beyond excited to share this sneak peek excerpt of ROGUE, the sequel to TALON by Julie Kagawa.  Watch for it in bookstores April 28.

 

Prepare for awesomeness.

Garret

I stood before a silent, watchful table, six pairs of eyes on me, keen gazes ranging from suspicious to appraising as we waited for the charges to be declared. Men in uniforms of black and gray, with the emblem of the Order—a red cross on a white shield—displayed proudly on their jackets. Their harsh, lined faces reflected a lifetime of war and struggle. Some I knew only by reputation. Others I had trained under, fought for, followed commands from without a second thought. Lieutenant Gabriel Martin sat at one end of the table, his black eyes and blank expression giving nothing away. I’d known him nearly my whole life; he had molded me into what I was today. The Perfect Soldier, as my squad mates had taken to calling me. A nickname I’d picked up during the relatively short time I’d been fighting. Prodigy was another word that had been tossed around over the years, and lucky son of a bitch, if they were feeling less generous. I owed most of my success to Lieutenant Martin, for recognizing something in a quiet, somber orphan and pushing him to try harder, to do more. To rise above everyone else. So I had. I’d killed more enemies of the Order than anyone else my age, and the number would’ve been much higher had the unexpected not occurred this summer. Regardless of my situation, I had been one of the best, and I had Martin to thank for that.

But the man sitting across the table was a stranger, an impassive judge. He, along with the rest of the men seated there in a row, would decide my fate tonight.

The room in which I stood was small but Spartan, with tile floors, harsh overhead lights, low ceilings and walls with no windows. Normally it was used for debriefings or the occasional meeting, and the long table usually sat in the center surrounded by chairs. Except for the main headquarters in London, Order chapterhouses did not have designated courtrooms. While disorderly conduct among soldiers was expected from time to time, and desertion sometimes reared its ugly head, full-blown treason was unheard of. Loyalty to the cause was something every soldier of St. George understood. To betray the Order was to betray everything.

The man in the very center of the row straightened, eyeing me over the polished wood. His name was John Fischer, and he was a respected captain of the Order and a hero in the field. The left side of his face was a mass of burn scars and puckered flesh, and he wore them like a medal of honor. His steely expression didn’t change as he folded his equally scarred hands in front of him and raised his voice.

“Garret Xavier Sebastian.” He barked my full name, and the room instantly fell silent. The trial was officially under way. “For disobeying a direct order,” Fischer continued, “attacking a squad mate, fraternizing with the enemy and allowing three known hostiles to escape, you are accused of high treason against the Order of St. George.” His sharp blue eyes fixed on me, hard and unyielding. “Do you understand the charges brought against you?”

“I do.”

“Very well.” He looked at the men sitting in chairs along the far wall behind me, and nodded. “Then we will commence. Tristan St. Anthony, step forward.”

There was a squeak as a body rose from a chair, then quiet footsteps clicked across the floor as my former partner came to stand a few feet from my side.

I didn’t look at him. I stared straight ahead, hands behind my back, as he did the same. But I could see him in my peripheral vision, a tall, lean soldier several years older than me, his dark hair cropped close. His perpetual smirk had been replaced with a grim line, and his blue eyes were solemn as he faced the table.

“Please inform the court, to the best of your ability, of the events that led up to the night of the raid, and what conspired after.”

Tristan hesitated. I wondered what was going through his head in the split second before he would give his testimony. If he had any regrets that it had come to this.

“This summer,” Tristan began, his voice matter-of-fact, “Sebastian and I were sent undercover to Crescent Beach, a small town on the California coast. Our orders were specific—we were to infiltrate the town, find a sleeper planted among the population and terminate it.”

The man in the center raised a hand. “So, to be clear, Talon had planted one of their operatives in Crescent Beach, and you were sent to find it.”

“Yes, sir.” Tristan gave a short nod. “We were there to kill a dragon.”

A murmur went through the room. From the very first day the Order had been founded, soldiers of St. George had known what we fought for, what we protected, what was at stake. Our war, our holy mission, hadn’t changed in hundreds of years. The Order had evolved with the times—firearms and technology had replaced swords and lances—but our purpose was still the same. We had one goal, and every soldier dedicated his entire life to that cause.

The complete annihilation of our eternal enemies, the dragons.

The general public knew nothing of our ancient war. The existence of dragons was a jealously guarded secret, on both sides. There were no real dragons in the world today, unless you counted a couple mundane lizard species that were pale shadows of their infamous namesakes. True dragons—the massive, winged, fire-breathing creatures that haunted the mythology of every culture around the world, from the treasure-loving monsters of Europe to the benevolent rain-bringers of the Orient—those dragons existed only in legend and story.

And that was exactly what they wanted you to believe.

Just as the Order of St. George had evolved through the years, so had our enemies. According to St. George doctrine, when dragons were on the verge of extinction, they’d made a pact with the devil to preserve their race, gaining the ability to shift into human form. Whether or not the story is true, the part where they could change their form to appear human was no myth. Dragons were flawless mimics; they looked human, acted human, sounded human, to the point where it was nearly impossible to tell a dragon from a regular, everyday mortal, even if you knew what to search for. How many dragons existed in the world today was anyone’s guess; they had woven seamlessly into human society, masquerading as us, hiding in plain sight. Hidden and cloaked, they strove to enslave humanity, to make humans the lesser species. It was our job to find and kill as many of the monsters as we could, in the hopes that one day, we could push their numbers over the brink and firmly into extinction where they belonged.

That was what I’d once believed. Until I met her.

“I’ve read your report, St. Anthony,” Fischer continued. “It says you and Sebastian made contact with the suspect and began your investigation.”

“Yes, sir,” Tristan agreed. “We made contact with Ember Hill, and Garret began establishing a relationship, per orders, to determine if she was the sleeper.”

Ember. Her name sent a little pulse through my stomach. Before the events of Crescent Beach, I’d known who I was—a soldier of St. George. My mission was to make contact with the target, determine if it was a dragon and kill it. Clear-cut. Black-and-white. Simple.

Only…it wasn’t so simple. The target we’d been sent to destroy turned out to be a girl. A cheerful, daring, funny, beautiful girl. A girl who loved to surf, who taught me how to surf, who challenged me, made me laugh, and surprised me every time I was with her. I’d been expecting a ruthless, duplicitous creature that could only imitate human emotion. But Ember was none of those things.

Fischer continued to address Tristan. “And what did you determine?” he asked, speaking more for the benefit of the court, I suspected. “Was this girl the sleeper?”

Tristan stared straight ahead, his expression grave. “Yes, sir,” he replied, making my stomach knot. “Ember Hill was the dragon we were sent to eliminate.”

“I see.” Fischer nodded. The entire room was silent; you could hear a fly buzzing around the window. “Please inform the court,” Fischer said quietly, “what happened the night of the raid. When you and Sebastian tracked the sleeper to the beach after the failed strike on the hideout.”

I swallowed, bracing to hear my betrayal lined out for everyone, play by play. The night that had brought me here, the decision that had changed everything.

“We’d found the target’s hideout,” Tristan began, his voice coolly professional. “A nest of at least two dragons, possibly more. It was a standard raid—go in, kill the targets, get out. But they must’ve had surveillance set up around the house. They were in the process of fleeing when we went in. We wounded one, but they still managed to escape.”

My stomach churned. I had led that strike. The targets had “escaped” because I’d seen Ember in that house, and I’d hesitated. My orders had been to shoot on sight—anything that moved, human or dragon, I was supposed to gun down, no questions asked.

But I hadn’t. I’d stared at the girl, unable to make myself pull the trigger. And that moment of indecision had cost us the raid, as Ember had shifted to her true form and turned the room into a blazing inferno. During the fiery confusion, she and the other dragons had fled out the back and off a cliff, and the mansion had burned to the ground.

No one suspected what had happened in the room, that I’d seen Ember over the muzzle of my gun and had frozen. No one knew that the Perfect Soldier had faltered for the very first time. That in that moment, my world and everything I’d ever known had cracked.

But that was nothing compared to what had happened next.

“So the strike was a failure,” Fischer said, and I winced inside at the word. “What happened after that?”

For the briefest of moments, Tristan’s gaze flicked to me. Almost too fast to be seen, but it still made my heart pound. He knew. Maybe not the whole affair, but he knew something had happened to me after the failed strike. For a short time after the raid, while headquarters was deciding what to do about the escaped dragons, I’d disappeared. Tristan had found me a while later, and we’d gone after the targets together, but by that time, the damage was done.

What had happened after the raid, I’d never told anyone. Later that night, I’d called Ember, asked her to meet me on an isolated bluff, alone. I’d been wearing my helmet and mask during the raid; she hadn’t known I was part of St. George. From the hurried tone of her voice, I had guessed she was planning to leave town, possibly with her brother, now that she knew St. George was in the area. But she’d agreed to meet with me one last time. Probably to say goodbye.

I’d been planning to kill her. It was my fault the mission had failed; it was my responsibility to fix it. She was a dragon, and I was St. George. Nothing else mattered. But, once again, staring at the green-eyed girl down the barrel of my gun, the girl who’d taught me to surf and dance and sometimes smiled just for me…I couldn’t do it. It was more than a moment’s hesitation. More than a heartbeat of surprise. I’d stood face-to-face with the target I had been sent to Crescent Beach to destroy—the girl I knew was my enemy—and I could not make myself pull the trigger.

And that’s when she’d attacked. One moment I was drawing down a wide-eyed human girl, the next I was on my back, pinned by a snarling red dragon, its fangs inches from my throat. In that moment, I’d known I was going to die, torn apart by claws or incinerated with dragonfire. I had dropped my guard, left myself open, and the dragon had responded as any of its kind would when faced with St. George. Strangely enough, I’d felt no regret.

And then, as I’d lain helpless beneath a dragon and braced myself for death, the unthinkable had happened.

She’d let me go.

Nothing had driven her off. No one from St. George had arrived in the nick of time to save me. We’d been alone, miles from anything. The bluff had been dark, deserted and isolated; even if I’d screamed, there’d been nothing, no one, to hear it.

Except the dragon. The ruthless, calculating monster that was supposed to despise mankind and possess no empathy, no humanity, whatsoever. The creature that hated St. George above all else and showed us no pity, gave no quarter or forgiveness. The target I’d lied to, the girl I’d pursued with the sole intent of destroying her, who could have ended my life right then with one quick slash or breath. The dragon who had a soldier of St. George beneath its claws, completely at its mercy…had deliberately backed off and let me go.

And I had realized…the Order was wrong. St. George taught us that dragons were monsters. We killed them without question, because there was nothing to question. They were alien, Other. Not like us.

Only…they were. Ember had already shaken every belief the Order had instilled in me about dragons; that she’d spared my life was the final blow, the proof I couldn’t ignore. Which meant that some of the dragons I’d killed in the past, gunned down without thought because the Order had told me to, might’ve been like her.

And if that was the case, I had a lot of innocent blood on my hands.

“After the raid,” Tristan said, continuing to address the table, “Garret and I were ordered to follow Ember Hill in the hopes that she would lead us to the other targets. We tracked her to a beach on the edge of town, where she did indeed meet with two other dragons. A juvenile, and an adult.”

Another murmur ran through the courtroom. “An adult,” Fischer confirmed, while the rest of the table looked grim. Full-grown adult dragons were rarely seen; the oldest dragons were also the most secretive, keeping to the shadows, hiding deep within their organization. The Order knew Talon’s leader was an extremely old, extremely powerful dragon called the Elder Wyrm, but no one had ever laid eyes on it.

“Yes, sir,” Tristan went on. “We were to observe and report if the target revealed itself as a dragon, and all three were in their true forms when we got there. I informed Commander St. Francis at once and received the order to shoot on sight.” He paused, and Fischer’s eyes narrowed.

“What happened then, soldier?”

“Garret stopped me, sir. He prevented me from taking the shot.”

“Did he give any reason for his actions?”

“Yes, sir.” Tristan took a deep breath, as if the next words were difficult to say. “He told me…that the Order was wrong.”

Silence fell. A stunned, brittle silence that raised the hair on the back of my neck. To imply that the Order was mistaken was to spit on the code that the first knights had implemented centuries ago. The code that denounced dragons as soulless wyrms of the devil and their human sympathizers as corrupted, beyond hope.

“Is there anything else?” Fischer’s expression was cold, mirroring the looks of everyone at the table. Tristan paused again, then nodded.

“Yes, sir. He said that he wouldn’t let me kill the targets, that some dragons weren’t evil, and that we didn’t have to slaughter them. When I tried to reason with him, he attacked me. We fought, briefly, and he knocked me out.”

I winced. I hadn’t meant to injure my partner. But I couldn’t let him fire. Tristan’s sniping skills were unmatched. He would’ve killed at least one dragon before they realized what was happening. I couldn’t stand there and watch Ember be murdered in front of me.

“By the time I woke up,” Tristan finished, “the targets had escaped. Garret surrendered to our squad leader and was taken into custody, but we were unable to find the dragons again.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes, sir.”

Fischer nodded. “Thank you, St. Anthony. Garret Xavier Sebastian,” he went on, turning to me as Tristan stepped away. His eyes and voice remained hard. “You’ve heard the charges brought against you. Do you have anything to say in your defense?”

I took a quiet breath.

“I do.” I raised my head, facing the men at the table. I’d been debating whether I wanted to say anything, to tell the Order to its face that they had been mistaken all this time. This would damn me even further, but I had to try. I owed it to Ember, and all the dragons I had killed.

“This summer,” I began, as the flat stares of the table shifted to me, “I went to Crescent Beach expecting to find a dragon. I didn’t.” One of the men blinked; the rest simply continued to stare as I went on. “What I found was a girl, someone just like me in a lot of ways. But she was also her own person. There was no imitation of humanity, no artificial emotions or gestures. Everything she did was genuine. Our mission took so long because I couldn’t see any differences between Ember Hill and a civilian.”

The silence in the courtroom now took on a lethal stillness. Gabriel Martin’s face was like stone, his stare icy. I didn’t dare turn to look at Tristan, but I could feel his incredulous gaze on my back.

I swallowed the dryness in my throat. “I’m not asking for clemency,” I went on. “My actions that night were inexcusable. But I beg the court to consider my suggestion that not all dragons are the same. Ember Hill could be an anomaly among her kind, but from what I saw she wanted nothing to do with the war. If there are others like her—”

“Thank you, Sebastian.” Fischer’s voice was clipped. His chair scraped the floor as he pushed it back and stood, gazing over the room. “Court is adjourned,” he announced. “We will reconvene in an hour. Dismissed.”

*

Back in my cell, I sat on the hard queen mattress with my back against the wall and one knee drawn to my chest, waiting for the court to decide my fate. I wondered if they would consider my words. If the impassioned testimony of the former Perfect Soldier would be enough to give them pause.

“Garret.”

I looked up. Tristan’s lean, wiry form stood in front of the cell bars. His face was stony, but I looked closer and saw that his expression was conflicted, almost tormented. He glared at me, midnight-blue eyes searing a hole through my skull, before he sighed and made an angry, hopeless gesture, shaking his head.

“What the hell were you thinking?”

I looked away. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Bullshit.” Tristan stepped forward, looking like he might punch me in the head if there weren’t iron bars between us. “Three years we’ve been partners. Three years we’ve fought together, killed together, nearly gotten ourselves eaten a couple times. I’ve saved your hide countless times, and yes, I know you’ve done the same for me. You owe me a damn explanation, partner. And don’t you dare say something stupid, like I wouldn’t understand. I know you better than that.”

When I didn’t answer, he clenched a fist around a bar, brow furrowed in confusion and anger. “What happened in Crescent Beach, Garret?” he demanded, though his voice was almost pleading. “You’re the freaking Perfect Soldier. You know the code by heart. You can recite the tenants in your sleep, backwards if you need to. Why would you betray everything?”

“I don’t know—”

“It was the girl, wasn’t it?” Tristan’s voice made my stomach turn. “The dragon. She did something to you. Damn, I should’ve seen it, you hung out with her a lot. She could’ve been manipulating you that whole time.”

“It wasn’t like that.” In the old days, it was suspected that dragons could cast spells on weak-minded humans, enslaving them through mind control and magic. Though that rumor had officially been discounted, there were still those in St. George who believed the old superstitions. Not that Tristan had been one of them; he was just as coolly pragmatic as me, one of the reasons we got along so well. But I suspected it was easier for him to accept that an evil dragon had turned his friend against his will, rather than that friend knowingly and deliberately betraying him and the Order. You can’t blame Garret; the dragon made him do it.

But it wasn’t anything Ember had done. It was just…everything about her. Her passion, her fearlessness, her love for life. Even in the middle of the mission, I’d forgotten that she was a potential target, that she could be a dragon, the very creature I was there to destroy. When I was around Ember, I didn’t see her as an objective, or a target, or the enemy. I just saw her.

“What, then?” Tristan demanded, sounding angry again. “What, exactly, was it like, Garret? Please explain it to me. Explain to me how my partner, the soldier who has killed more dragons then anyone his age in the history of St. George, suddenly decided that he couldn’t kill this dragon. Explain how he could turn his back on his family, on the Order that raised him, taught him everything he knows and gave him a purpose, to side with the enemy. Explain how he could stab his own partner in the back, to save one dragon bitch who…”

Tristan stopped. Stared at me. I watched the realization creep over him, watched the color drain from his face as the pieces came together.

“Oh, my God,” he whispered and took one staggering step away from the bars. His jaw hung slack, and he slowly shook his head, his voice full of horrified disbelief. “You’re in love with it.”

I looked away and stared at the far wall. Tristan blew out a long breath.

“Garret.” His voice was a rasp, choked with disgust and loathing. And maybe something else. Pity. “I don’t… How could—”

“Don’t say anything, Tristan.” I didn’t look at my ex-partner; I didn’t have to see him to know exactly what he felt. “You don’t have to tell me. I know.”

“They’re going to kill you, Garret,” he went on, his voice low and strained. “After what you said today in the courtroom? Martin might’ve argued clemency if you’d admitted you were wrong, that you had a brief moment of insanity, that the dragons had tricked you, anything! You could have lied. You’re one of our best—they might’ve let you live, even after everything. But now?” He made a hopeless sound. “You’ll be executed for treason against the Order. You know that, right?”

I nodded. I’d known the outcome of the trial before I ever set foot in that courtroom. I knew I could have denounced my actions, pleaded for mercy, told them what they wanted to hear. I had been deceived, lied to, manipulated. Because that’s what dragons did, and even the soldiers of St. George were not immune. It would paint me the fool, and my Perfect Soldier record would be tarnished for all time, but being duped by the enemy was not the same as knowingly betraying the Order. Tristan was right; I could have lied, and they would’ve believed me.

I hadn’t. Because I couldn’t do this anymore.

Tristan waited a moment longer, then strode away without another word. I listened to his receding footsteps and knew this was the last time I would ever talk to him. I looked up.

“Tristan.”

For a second, I didn’t think he would stop. But he paused in the doorway of the cell block and looked back at me.

“For what it’s worth,” I said, holding his gaze, “I’m sorry.” He blinked, and I forced a faint smile. “Thanks…for having my back all this time.”

One corner of his mouth twitched. “I always knew you’d get yourself killed by a dragon,” he muttered. “I just didn’t think it would be like this.” He gave a tiny snort and rolled his eyes. “You realize my next partner is going to feel completely inadequate taking the Perfect Soldier’s place, and will probably have a nervous breakdown that I’m going to have to deal with. So, thanks for that.”

“At least you’ll have something to remember me by.”

“Yeah.” The small grin faded. We watched each other for a tense, awkward moment, before Tristan St. Anthony stepped away.

“Take care, partner,” he said. No other words were needed. No goodbye, or see you later. We both knew there wouldn’t a later.

“You too.”

He turned and walked out the door.

*

“The court has reached a decision.”

I stood in the courtroom again as Fischer rose to his feet, addressing us all. I spared a quick glance at Martin and found that he was gazing at a spot over my head, his eyes blank.

“Garret Xavier Sebastian,” Fischer began, his voice brisk, “by unanimous decision, you have been found guilty of high treason against the Order of St. George. For your crimes, you will be executed by firing squad tomorrow at dawn. May God have mercy on your soul.”