After Sander’s pronouncement, the duke was the first to speak. “I like you, Sander, and I think you’d make a formidable enemy. But to go up against the Paladins, I’d have to be insane. Why should I risk my neck?”
“Because,” said Sander, “the High Commander did not name Sam of Haywood a traitor; he named Lady Samantha, daughter of the seventeenth duke of Haywood.”
A wave of shame and self-loathing swept over Sam. The High Commander had made it so that she didn’t belong anywhere—she couldn’t be a Paladin trainee or her father’s heir. And Sander had gravely miscalculated. “I told you not to use me as leverage. His Grace will not go to war on my behalf.” For once, she wouldn’t even blame him.
Sander’s eyes glinted, his gaze latching onto the Duke of Haywood. “His Grace just learned that the daughter he thought was dead is alive. If he sides with the High Commander, he is condemning his daughter to die another death.”
The duke leapt up from the table, spilling his wine in the process. “Are you threatening Samantha?”
“No,” said Sander calmly. “I’m stating the reality. If the Uriel have any hope of winning this war, we will need Haywood’s support. And if we lose, your daughter will die. The High Commander will see to that.”
“For what it’s worth,” said Braeden. Her heart jumped at the sound of his voice. “The High Commander is not a good man. If morality factors at all into your decision, Your Grace, then you would be wise to throw in your lot with the Uriel.”
The duke glared down at him. “Explain yourself, boy.”
“I speak of the demons, Your Grace. They do the High Commander’s bidding.”
“What madness is this?” asked Sander, his calm façade gone. Apparently this was as much news to him as it was to Sam. “How do you know he can do such a thing?”
Braeden raised his head. For a fraction of a second, his eyes lingered on Sam, and then he looked away. “Because he can make me do his bidding, too.”
The duke dropped back down in his chair with a dazed expression, and even Sander seemed rattled. Sam wondered what else she’d missed while she’d languished in the infirmary. What secrets was Braeden hiding? Had he kept them from Tristan, too, or was she in the dark alone?
Tristan rubbed at the back of his neck. “What is it you want with me, Sander? I am no duke, and I have no army I can offer you.”
“I do not need you to bring an army,” said Sander. “I want you to join mine.” He nodded at Braeden and Sam. “All of you.”
“Yes,” said Sam. Oh gods, yes. She would have a place in the world again. She would be a Uriel.
The duke scowled menacingly at her and at Sander. “You invite my daughter into your army? I forbid it.”
Sam lifted her chin. “Too little, too late, Your Grace, for you to pretend to be my father.” While she still faced her father, her eyes shifted to Braeden. “Forbid whatever you want, but I will follow my heart.” Braeden didn’t look at her but his cheeks colored under her gaze. She sighed and then stood up from the table, bowing, as a man would. “Sander, I am yours, if you will have me.”
“I won’t stand by and watch you get yourself killed!” the duke yelled, his face mottled and red.
“So don’t,” said Sander. “Lend your army’s strength to ours.”
Tristan added, more softly, “Sam is a fine swordsman, Your Grace. I’ve seen no better. And if it gives you any comfort, I will join the Uriel, too.” He twisted in his seat, facing Sander. “Thank you, sir, for this second chance. But my conscience tells me that I cannot accept your offer without saying this first: the Paladins do not all share the High Commander’s vision—whatever it is—and I count many of them as my friends. I became a Paladin because I wanted to fight demons; I have no wish to fight good men.”
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Sam is the most promising swordsman among this year’s crop of Paladin trainees...and knows it. Brash, cocky, and unbeatable with a sword (well, almost), Sam is the kingdom of Thule’s best hope against the violence wrought by demons. The only problem...