Soldier Page 108

But Garret’s eyes clouded, and he shook his head. “Not yet,” he murmured. “It’s not over yet. There is one more thing that I have to do.”

* * *

Dawn. On the salt flats just outside the city. Stepping out of the car, I gazed around in amazement. The ground beyond the railing was white, like snow, and stretched away before us, so flat and empty it seemed you were looking at the edge of the world. The splash of red against the horizon seemed a million miles away. Lifting a hand to shield my eyes, I stared over the landscape. There was absolutely nothing out there; no grass, no trees, nothing but a cracked, brittle layer of salt, glittering coldly in the predawn light.

“Well,” Riley said, exiting the driver’s seat and coming to stand beside me, “this is it. Hell of a place for a duel to the death, St. George. I’d make a comment about rubbing salt in the wound if it wasn’t so obvious.” He turned as Garret’s footsteps crunched over the ground, a moment before he appeared on my other side. “You’re absolutely sure this isn’t an ambush? I don’t like the idea of being out here with the Order, in the literal middle of nowhere.”

“I’m sure.” Garret didn’t look at Riley as he said this, his gaze on the barren flats before us. “The Order is bound by honor and tradition. That’s why they let me go when the challenge was issued. If I ran, or refused to show up, the Patriarch would automatically be the victor. There would be no question of my guilt. The same is true for St. George. Two parties agree to meet on neutral ground, and no one except the combatants are allowed to attack or harm the other. If the Patriarch breaks the rules, he declares himself guilty in the eyes of the Order. His seconds are there to ensure the fight is fair, and that everyone heeds the rules.”

Riley scoffed. “So, you’re saying that the Order of St. George is just going to stand there, in sight of two dragons, and once this duel starts, they’re not going to doing anything?”

“Yes.” He finally glanced at us, his gaze solemn. “And I need you to do the same,” he said. “We’re allowed up to three witnesses each, and there’s no one else I trust. But...” His gaze went to mine. “Just remember, if I fall, you can’t help me or attack the Order. No matter what happens, even if the Patriarch kills me, you can’t interfere. Doing so will forfeit the battle and mark us all as the guilty party. And the Patriarch will win. So, promise me, Ember. No matter what happens to me, promise you won’t interfere. Even if the worst happens.” He reached out and squeezed my arm, his eyes soft. “No turning into a dragon and setting the Patriarch on fire,” he said with a faint smile. “That would defeat what we’re trying to do here.”

I glared at him. “All right, but you’d better win,” I whispered, wondering how he could be so calm about this. When he first told me what he had to do, I’d been shocked. A duel to the death with the leader of St. George? I knew Garret was a skilled soldier and that he could handle himself better than any human I’d seen, but was a duel to the death! If he screwed up, or if something unexpected happened, I would lose him. “You can’t let him beat you,” I said, gazing into his eyes. “You have to win.”

He nodded once. “I intend to.” And in an even softer voice, added, “I finally have something worth living for.”

We started across the flats, the brittle, crusty salt crunching beneath our footsteps. The alien landscape stretched on, white and barren, so empty you could see all the way to the distant, hazy mountains. Nothing moved on the flats, no grass, trees, animals or anything. The only sounds were our footsteps in the salt and the occasional mutter from Riley.

After a couple minutes, a group of small black dots appeared in the distance, growing larger and larger, until I could recognize them as people. A man stood in front, tall and striking, waiting for us with his arms loose at his sides. He was dressed in a uniform of brilliant white accented by red, the symbol of the scarlet cross and shield on his shoulder. A sword, straight edged and lethal with a cross-shaped hilt, hung from his waist.

I felt Garret tense, just as I glanced from what had to be the Patriarch to the three men standing behind him. Two I didn’t recognize. One was an older man with dark hair and stern eyes, and the other, with his snow-white beard and black eye patch, was older still. But the last, standing a little ways away and not quite meeting my gaze, was Tristan. All three were armed, but then again, so were we.

We came to a stop about twenty feet from each other, Garret slightly out in front, Riley and me to either side. I looked at the Patriarch, saw the instant, venomous hatred the second our eyes met, and swallowed the growl rising to my throat.

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