Soldier Page 106

“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.

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