Chapter 4

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Much later that evening, after Sam and Braeden had been given a tour of The Center’s extensive grounds, Tristan led them into the castle keep, where they were to dine and sleep.

Sam trailed behind Tristan, awestruck by the grandeur before her. Castle Haywood was by no means decrepit, but it seemed downright shabby compared to The Center keep. The front lobby alone was far grander than any room she'd ever seen. High, arched ceilings tapered to a point, an echo of the ogival windows they framed. Lush, plum-colored carpeting covered travertine tiles and at the rear, a curving staircase with triangular steps led to the living quarters above. Taxidermied demons were mounted on the wall alongside artfully arranged weaponry. Sam struggled to keep her eyes in her head. Braeden, on the other hand, seemed indifferent to their new lodgings; he kept his gaze pinned to the floor.

The first floor of the keep was near to full of people. It was easy to identify who among them was a full Paladin and who was not; most of the trainees looked as petrified as Sam felt. But they forgot their nerves as their hot stares landed on Braeden. Sam felt obliged to him; nobody would wonder about the small, too-pretty boy when there was a half-demon in their midst.

Tristan led Sam and Braeden up the stairs and through a maze of twisting hallways. “You two will be sharing this room,” he said, pushing open a door near the end of the corridor. Sam glanced uneasily at Braeden. She had been hoping for her own private sleeping chambers; sharing a room would certainly complicate matters.

To Sam’s relief, the room was outfitted with its own bathroom and one of those newfangled flush privies. Using a chamber pot while Braeden was in the room would jeopardize her identity, for all-too-obvious reasons. Even so, Sam was not accustomed to sleeping beside another, though there was enough distance between their two beds to at least give them the semblance of privacy.

“I’ll be sleeping in the adjoining room,” Tristan said, letting himself out through a door in the right wall. “I’ll see you at training after breakfast. Don’t be late.”

Sam and Braeden sat on the edge of their respective beds, an awkward silence stretching between them. Beyond her secret training sessions in Haywood, Sam had had little interaction with boys her own age. What did they even talk about? “Errrrr…” said Sam, racking her brain for a possible point of common interest. Braeden just looked at her with those eerie, inhuman eyes. She fought back a shudder.

“They bother you, do they?” asked Braeden, half smiling.

“N-no,” Sam stuttered, startled by the question. “Was I staring?”

“You were.”

Sam winced at his bluntness. “Sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Braeden lay back on the bed, closing his eyes. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m used to it.”

Sam wasn’t sure what to say next, but decided on the truth. “I didn’t grow up around a lot of boys. You’ll have to forgive any--” she paused, trying to find the right words--“social inadequacies.”

He laughed outright at that. “Said the human to the demon.”

Sam’s chin jutted out. “I don’t care that your father was a demon. I mean it,” she insisted when he looked at her crossways. “You can’t help how you’re born.”

Braeden arched an eyebrow skeptically but said nothing. Sam, who didn’t do well with silence, rushed to fill the lull in conversation. “Truly, I thought it was incredible, what you did before. How did you learn you were capable of such a thing?”

Still, he said nothing. She turned to face him, opening her mouth to say something peevish--she hated being ignored. But his eyes were closed and his breaths were evenly spaced. He was asleep, or pretending to be.

“Fine, don’t tell me,” she muttered. She would have liked to talk a little longer. Braeden was…interesting. A kindred spirit of a sort. “Good night, Braeden,” she whispered, before falling into a dreamless sleep.

Sam was awoken by the grumble of her stomach. “Is it breakfast yet?” she mumbled, but Braeden was already gone. She didn’t mind that he had left without her; this way she could redo her binding and throw on fresh clothes without hiding in the privy.

Breakfast was served in the Great Hall, by far the most lavish room in the whole of The Center. Curved braces and beams of gilded oak formed a hammer-beam ceiling, the engraved vines and fleur-de-lis visible even two stories below. Rich tapestries of woven silk depicted violent battle scenes featuring Paladins in triumph.

Braeden sat at the end of one of three long tables, alone despite the crowding at the other tables.

Sam plopped down beside him. “Morning.”

Braeden raised his eyebrows in a faint expression of surprise. “Thought you weren’t going to make it in time.” Sam ignored him as she tucked in to a healthy serving of ale-soaked bread and cheese.

A gray-clad figure climbed to the top of a podium in the center of the room. “Ahem,” said Lord Astley, “Paladin trainees, I would like your undivided attention.” The room fell silent and a hundred pairs of eyes focused on the secretary.

“Ah, if only such obedience would last,” the secretary said wryly. “Your presence is requested in the practice yards. You are to be separated by your specialties, though you will cross train later in the week. Archers, please follow Paladin Michaels.” He gestured towards a slender, dark-skinned man. “Axes, picks and poles, you’re with Paladin Sveinsson in the west bailey. Knives, daggers and hand-to-hand, you’re with Paladin Shen in the east. And swords, please follow Paladin Lyons to the main courtyard.”

Sam swallowed the last of her food, shoved her plate aside and hurried after the swordsmen as they made their way to the courtyard. She couldn’t help but notice she was the smallest among them; the next-shortest trainee stood half a head taller.

“All right, lads, line up,” Tristan ordered. The trainees shuffled until they stood in a single, straight row, shoulder-to-shoulder. “Good, good,” he said, his eyes roaming over the group. “You look like a sturdy lot--for the most part.” He glanced meaningfully at Sam, and the trainees broke into loud guffaws. Sam’s hands curled into fists. So much for the benevolent champion of her youth.

Tristan continued, “Now, today’s just a warm up, boys, I want to see what you’ve got. Grab a practice blade from the pile over there--” Tristan pointed at a heap of wooden swords--“and go find a partner.”

There was an odd number of trainees, and to no one’s surprise, including her own, it was Sam who was left without a partner. She was not unused to being underestimated; by a woman’s standards, Sam’s arms were full and muscular, but next to Tristan and the other trainees, she looked pathetic and scrawny. There was no honor in fighting a weakling like her.

So what if they thought her weak? She’d proven herself in the Trials and she’d prove herself again in the training yard…provided Tristan found her a partner.

Tristan looked heavenwards and sighed. “I suppose there’s no hope for it then.” He tapped her on the shoulder with the flat of his sword. “Hello, partner.”

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