Chapter 5

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Braeden pinned the Chaser to the ground, and watched with mild interest as the dragonfly struggled against the thin blade. He felt little sympathy for the three-winged anomaly; its four-winged brethren would never have found themselves in such a predicament.  He removed the stylet from its wing, but before it could launch itself into the air, he slit the dragonfly from abdomen to thorax.

Braeden scowled at the insect carcass. With his one pathetic enemy now dead, he was insufferably bored.

He propped up his elbows on his knees and rested his chin on his hands, watching the other trainees trade blows. Paladin Shen, a thin, wiry man with sallow skin, wove between the fighting pairs, murmuring encouragements and chastisements in tandem. From afar, the Paladin’s catlike grace reminded Braeden of his former master. But the similarities ended there.

Braeden didn’t know why he’d expected the Paladins to be different from anyone else. The Paladins listed neither virtue nor tolerance among their prerequisites; all a man needed was a weapon and the ability to use it. 

“Demon!” Paladin Shen had hissed the moment his eyes landed on him. The Paladin had gone so far as to draw his knives.

Braeden showed empty palms and backed away slowly, as if from a rabid dog. “You mistake me, Paladin. I’m naught but a trainee.” Paladin Shen paused, but did not lower his weapons.

“Perhaps you know of my Paladin? Tristan Lyons?” Braeden asked. He looked around at the other trainees, half-hoping one of them would verify his story, but they either avoided his gaze or stared at him with revulsion. It wasn’t surprising, but it annoyed him just the same.

He tried again. “I was originally assigned to Paladin Moreau. I’m sure you’ve heard by now that he…left.”

Finally, comprehension dawned. The Paladin slid his daggers back into his sleeves. “So you’re the reason Moreau quit,” he snarled, his hatred unabated. “They should’ve tossed you out instead.”

Braeden inclined his head. “It would appear the High Commander does not agree.”

“That may be, demon,” said Paladin Shen, “but in the practice yard, I am the law. And I will not teach you.”

Braeden gritted his teeth. “Fine. I’ll see that the High Commander is informed.”

Paladin Shen didn’t much like that. “I will permit you to observe the training as a spectator.” His mouth twisted around the concessionary words.

And so here he was, two hours into training, alone and a good ten yards away from the training yard. The black cloth of his robes soaked in the heat of the sun like a sponge, and the warmth made him drowsy. His eyelids drooped, and he began lightly pricking the tips of his fingers with his stylet, watching the small dots of red form at the surface. Wasteful, his old master would scold. Braeden ignored the imaginary rebuke, wiping his fingers clean on the grass.

His grasp on consciousness continued to slip. He hadn’t slept well; he’d spent the better part of last night trying to figure out what it was that bothered him about his new roommate. Something was off about Sam. His behavior was…odd, that was for certain. Odd, but friendly. A combination that made Braeden wary, as he generally categorized people into one of two buckets: those who feared him, and those who wanted him dead. But that Sam didn’t fit neatly into either bucket wasn’t what set off Braeden’s internal alarms. Something about the boy made his skin itch. It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant sensation. And, inexplicably, Braeden felt drawn to him.

“Hullo,” said a voice, in an almost girlish tenor.

Braeden opened lids he didn’t remember closing and found himself staring into a pair of vivid green eyes. His skin itched again. “Why aren’t you with Paladin Lyons?” he asked, rubbing at his arm.

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