Chapter 3

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"Are you certain it's her?" asked the guard Nasrin had called Kameko, switching back to her native tongue.

Nasrin spared the guard another glance. "I'm certain. I see my sister in her face." Returning her attention to Sam, she asked in Thulian, "Is Tsalene well?"

Sam's stomach dropped to her toes. Nasrin didn't know. How could she? The sisters had lived an ocean apart for more than half their lives. So Sam had to be the one to tell her: "She died."

The color drained from Nasrin's sun-bronzed skin, shock written on her face. "It can't be," she said hoarsely. She sank to the ground and clutched her head in her hands. Kameko knelt beside her, murmuring indistinguishable words in her ear. Nasrin nodded, and, leaning on the guard, she slowly returned to her feet. Her deep blue eyes were bright with unshed tears. "How did she die?"

Sam gripped the iron bars of the gate with both hands, needing to hold onto something sturdy. Grief tore through her, suddenly raw again, as though her mother had died just yesterday. Behind her, Braeden laid his hand on her shoulder, lending her his strength. She took a deep breath. "She was killed by a demon, three years back." Swallowing, she added, "She gave her life to save mine."

Nasrin bowed her head for a long, uncomfortable moment. When she raised it again, her eyes were dry, wetness replaced by anger. "How is that possible?" she asked, her voice a hiss. "She married a duke. He should have protected her. "

"It wasn't his fault," Sam said, surprised to find herself leaping to her father's defense. "It was mine. I was angry at them--my father and my mother. I ran off and hid in the woods. My mother went after me." She paused, squeezing her eyes shut. "We were unarmed when the demon attacked. We had no chance."

"How did you survive?" The blunt question was Kameko's.

Sam barked out a humorless laugh. "I was lucky. He came too late to save my mother."

"He?" asked Nasrin. "Your father?"

"A Paladin." Sam shook her head, correcting herself. So much had changed since that terrible day in the woods. "A former Paladin."

At that, Nasrin and Kameko exchanged a look. Sam wondered if the news of Thule's looming civil war had somehow reached the Sun Sisters--and if so, what exactly they'd been told.

"I am glad to know you," Nasrin said finally. She made an impatient gesture toward Kameko. "For the Mother, open the gates already and let in my niece."

"What about her companion?" asked the guard, reverting once more to Rheic.

Nasrin's gaze swiveled to Braeden for the first time since she'd arrived. She sucked in a sharp breath, her fingers dipping beneath her wide waistband. Kameko sent Nasrin a puzzled look, and then tensed, reaching for her sword.

"Why are you here?" Nasrin asked, her voice trembling with restrained violence. Sam darted a backwards look at Braeden, startled by her aunt's sudden animosity. Braeden's appearance elicited all sorts of reactions, but most held some element of fear or fascination. Nasrin's whole body shook―not with fear but fury, as though he had affronted her on a deeply personal level.

Sam fought back a flare of temper. She knew how the world viewed Braeden, yet she'd expected more of her own blood. "He came with me," she told her aunt. "I trust him more than anyone else on this earth."

Nasrin's attention didn't waiver. "Answer me, aliah."

Braeden flinched, dropping his gaze to the ground. "I am not who I once was, sister."

What in the Mother's name did that mean? Sam shot him an aggravated look. Now was not the time to be cryptic. "Braeden is my--" she stopped, uncertain of how to describe their relationship. "He's my friend," she finished lamely.

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