So cold and rational. Sam didn't have a single maternal bone in her body, but even she couldn't imagine giving up a child so easily. "And if the father refuses?"
Kameko snorted, settling her back against the door. "A Sun Sister chooses her lover carefully. Most Rhean men are honored to be chosen. If a male child results, he will raise the boy with pride, and the Convent of the Sun sees to it that neither father or son wants for anything."
"And female children? Like you?"
"We live in the Convent until our sixteenth year. Sister Yasmine and Sister Usha start our training as soon as we can walk.
"And when you reach your sixteenth year?" Sam prompted.
Kameko grinned, and for the first time Sam was struck by the resemblance between mother and daughter. The guard's skin was several shades darker than Nasrin's, but they had the same high cheekbones and the smile Sam would always think of as Tsalene's. "We choose," said the guard. "We complete our training as Sun Sisters, or we leave here and don't return."
"That seems harsh."
Kameko nodded. "It is. But it has to be. The Sun Sisters can't afford outside attachments. A clean break is easier for both."
"Have you chosen yet?" Sam asked.
Kameko shook her head, swinging her black braid behind her. "I'm in my fifteenth year. I have nearly a year until I must decide." She gave Sam a sheepish smile. "But I can't imagine being anything else."
They were much alike, she and Kameko. Were their positions reversed, Sam would have chosen the route of the Sun Sister in a heartbeat. But then she would never have met Braeden, never would have been allowed to love him--or anyone else more than her sisters in devotion. The thought made her ache for Kameko, for what she'd never know. Plastering a smile on her face that no doubt looked as artificial as it felt, she said, "We're cousins." And despite everything, her heart lifted, delighted to have found more of her mother's blood. More family. Her smile slowly became genuine.
Kameko beamed, and then her expressive face fell. "I'm sorry I didn't believe you at first. I knew Nasrin's sister was in Thule, but I didn't know she had a daughter. Or why the daughter of a Thulian duke would wander the Rhean Desert alone. I thought it was a trick."
"I wasn't alone," Sam snapped.
Her cousin's brown eyes widened. "Yes, you were with him."
Sam tried to leash her temper and failed. "His name is Braeden. He's done more good than you or your precious Sun Sisters could ever know."
Kameko tilted her head to one side, staring at Sam. "You love him." It was a statement, not a question.
She wouldn't deny it. Instead, she returned her cousin's curious stare mutely.
Kameko pushed away from the door and padded across the room toward Sam. Gracelessly, she plopped onto the bed. "Did Tsalene tell you stories as a child? Stories to scare you into being good?"
Sam couldn't follow her train of thought, but she nodded anyway.
"So did Nasrin." She lay back on her elbows and looked up at the ceiling. "I never lived with my mother. It's not allowed. But when she could, she'd visit me in the nursery and talk to me. She made sure I knew who she was, that though she couldn't express it fully, I had a mother's love. Since she wasn't in charge of my training, she told me stories with lessons. Some of them were based on truth."
Sam folded her arms over chest, unmoved. "Why are you telling me this?"
Kameko kept talking as though Sam had never spoken. "She told me one story that gave me nightmares. It was about a beautiful boy with silver hair and crimson eyes." Kameko glanced sideways. "Like your Braeden, but younger. A child. When the Emperor's army found him, he was just another body, another victim of the senseless massacre that had destroyed the entire village. The carnage was so gruesome these men--the emperor's best warriors, none of them new to battle--couldn't stomach it, retching all the contents of their belly onto the ground. There were too many dead to bury, so the troops built a massive bonfire and burnt them to ashes. And as they cremated the bodies of the dead, they searched for the living, their hearts growing heavier with each corpse they found."
Kameko's voice had taken on a lyrical quality; Sam hardly noticed that she'd switched from Thulian to Rheic. "Then they found the boy with the silver hair. He was unconscious but alive. The village's sole survivor. The boy was a miracle. When his eyes fluttered open, a day's ride away from where they had found him, grown men--grown warriors--cried.
"Then they noticed his eyes, the color of freshly spilt blood. And they knew that the village had been the work of demons, the magnitude of the attack unseen since the Age of Shadows. The boy had survived, but he was infected somehow. His skin was unnaturally hot, and he hadn't spoken once since they revived him. The Emperor's men feared their miracle boy wouldn't last the night.
"They brought him to the nearest healer, tossing more gold at her than the woman had seen in a lifetime. 'Save him,' the Emperor's first general begged. The healer tried every potion and poultice in her repertoire, but the boy's condition didn't change.
"The troops left the boy behind at first light. They could do no more good for him, and they had an empire to protect. 'Send a bird to the capitol,' the general pleaded of the healer. 'My men will want to know how he fares."
"The general and his men did not return to the capitol for a month. No message awaited them. Perhaps she had wanted to spare them the bad news, or perhaps she had forgotten. Neither possibility sat well with them. When another month passed with no word, with the emperor's permission, the general rode to the village where he'd left the boy to see for himself what had become of him.
"He found the village torn apart, much like the village where they had discovered the boy. Human carcasses littered the streets, mauled and mangled beyond recognition. Whoever did this was a monster.
"The home where the healer had lived was in a sorry state. The furniture was smashed to pieces, the walls damaged beyond repair. The healer lay dead in a pool of her own blood. Even in death, she held something tightly in the palm of her hand--she'd managed to write a message, in the end. The boy has killed us all, her message said, and nothing more."
After a beat of silence, Sam asked, "That's it?" It was only a story, and an incomplete one at that. A story proved nothing, even if it did offer some kernel of truth.
"Of this particular story, yes. There are others about the aliah, but I always thought them too fantastical."
"Aliah," Sam repeated the foreign word. "What does it mean?"
"The exact translation in Thulian is 'evil spawn, ' " said Kameko. "Your priests call demons 'children of Teivel,' do they not? It is the same, but the name is reserved for him alone. He has become our bogeyman. Stories of the aliah are used to frighten young children into good behavior."
Sam sat down heavily on the bed. "Nasrin believes Braeden is the aliah." She looked over at her cousin. "And what do you believe?"
Kameko lifted her shoulders. "I don't know. Nasrin is one of only a few Sun Sisters who have seen the aliah with their own eyes. She seldom jumps to conclusions."
"When was this?"
"Thirteen years ago. The Emperor's army and the Sun Sisters hunted for him together. Such an allegiance is rare."
"I take it their effort failed," Sam said dryly.
Kameko bit her lip, for the first time looking truly uncertain. "No, they succeeded. He's supposed to be dead."
A/N: Two in two days! It may never happen again...heh. Not sure if I'm going to keep the whole story Kameko tells, or just include a piece of it. As always, please vote if you enjoyed the chapter, and let me know what you think in the comments!
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*Sequel to Paladin* The kingdom of Thule stands on the brink of civil war between two armies -- the Paladins and the Uriel -- each claiming the right to serve as Thule's protector. Once a Paladin trainee, Lady Samantha of Haywood -- Sam -- has be...