Trailing behind Zahra, Sam trudged up the final flight of stairs to the solarium. They emerged into a glass-enclosed room with high, vaulted ceilings, supported by exposed beams of wood that spun out from the center like the spokes of a wheel. The floor was tiled in a pattern of three interlocked spirals. At the point where the spirals met stood a triple-layered circular stone altar, set aglow by a strong beam of sunlight from the oculus above. The rows of pews were nearly full, though all the Sun Sisters remained standing.
In front of her, Zahra stiffened, her spine going rigid. Sam followed her gaze to a tiny woman by the altar, one of the few who remained standing. Swallowed in billowing fabric, she was small enough to be mistaken for a child. Unlike Nasrin and the other Sun Sisters, her hair was not cut practically short, the snow-white tresses twisted into two tightly coiled piles on either side of her head--rather like horns, Sam thought. The features of her face were obscured by the distance.
Sam touched Zahra's elbow, and the other woman nearly leapt out of her own skin. "Sorry," Sam apologized as Zahra shot her an irritated look. The former princess gave her a regal nod, her expression haughty. But beneath her haughty expression, the woman was scared. "Is she the Arbiter?" Sam asked quietly.
Zahra's head jerked up and down, the arrogance wiped from her face. Hands clenching into white-knuckled fists, her gaze swung back to the tiny woman. She took a small step backward before shooting a sideways glance at Sam.
It took a moment for Sam to realize the servant wasn't free to leave without her say-so. "You may go."
Zahra dipped into a shallow curtsy and then all but ran out of the solarium.
The depth of her fear did not bode well for Braeden.
Venturing further into the room, Sam's attention returned to the Arbiter. Despite her white hair, she was far from an old crone, as Sam had expected. Her smooth, golden-brown skin was covered with freckles, making it hard to guess her age. She was not a child; pursed into a small smile, her rosebud lips were too sensuous, her copper-tinted eyes too knowing.
The Arbiter turned her gaze toward Sam, a single eyebrow rising. Sam looked away, embarrassed to have been caught staring.
"Samantha of Haywood," the Arbiter called out, her high-pitched voice surprisingly sweet and gentle.
Sam blinked, taken aback. Everything about the Arbiter was the opposite of threatening. But she knew better than anyone that appearances could be deceiving.
Sam didn't know whether to bow or curtsy, and ended up hinging at the waist and knees into an awkward squat. She straightened hurriedly, her cheeks aflame. "Aye," she managed.
The Arbiter floated toward her; there was no other way to describe the fluid motion. She stopped a mere foot away from Sam, who was startled to find the Arbiter barely came up to her chin. Up close, her face was almost doll-like, complete with upturned button nose and rounded cheeks. Her coal-lined eyes bore into Sam, betraying none of what she was thinking. The silence between them drew out an uncomfortable length."Vos-lu oro si malaat?" the Arbiter asked finally. Will you speak for the accused?
"I-I...yes," Sam stumbled, unsure of what she was agreeing to and what would be expected of her in return.
Still looking at Sam, the Arbiter raised her voice to fill the entire solarium, "Vosh-ayar oro si malaat?" Are there others who would speak for the accused?
Quiet murmurs filled the room, but no one else spoke up.
The Arbiter clapped her hands together, the sound ringing through the room. "Who will speak against him?"
"I will." Nasrin stepped out from the pews and knelt on both knees, touching her forehead to the tiled floor.
"Rise, sister," said the Arbiter with a wide sweep of her hand. Nasrin stood, her jaw clenched, eyes roaming everywhere but Sam.
Her aunt's repudiation hit Sam like a blow, knocking the air from her lungs. She did not want to make an enemy of her mother's only sibling, but Nasrin left her no choice. Sam forced herself to breathe, sealing close the fissures in her heart with each indrawn breath.
"As the living vessel for Her will, I will speak for Emese, may Her light bring justice and truth," said the Arbiter.
"May Her light bring justice and truth," the Sun Sisters recited in pious chorus.
"Then we may begin," said the Arbiter. Turning from Sam, she ascended the stairs to the altar, sitting on a thronelike chair carved from frosted quartz. Bathed in sunlight, she was almost too bright to look at.
A gong sounded, the force of it rattling the glass enclosure. "Enter," the Arbiter commanded in her high, pure voice.
Sam heard a door creak open and shut, then the scrape of chains dragging along the floor. She whirled around, her emotions chaotic. "Braeden!" she choked out in a near sob before she could curb her tongue.
It was hard to believe they'd been apart for only a few days. His clothes were ripped beyond repair, revealing slivers of purpled skin and dried blood. His hands and ankles were chained, with just enough slack for him to shuffle his feet forward. They'd hacked off his hair, making the weight he'd lost all the more obvious. His crimson eyes stood out from sunken cheeks, the sharp bones of his face prominent underneath the discoloration of bruising. He was still beautiful in his own way, but he'd never looked less human. His jailors had known what they were doing.
Three masked novitiates walked behind him, prodding him with their spears whenever they deemed his slow progress across the room wasn't fast enough. His gaze slid over Sam's as he shuffled past her, and then he was shoved to his knees before the altar.
The Arbiter laced her hands together in her lap and leaned forward. "Do you believe in the Three?"
Braeden nodded slowly, as though every movement pained him.
"Good," said the Arbiter, drawing a sickle blade from her robes--a ritual knife, by the strange markings on its ivory handle. "Then you will make your blood oath to them. Will you give it freely?"
Again, Braeden nodded.
The Arbiter rose from her chair and descended from the altar, lifting Braeden's hands by the chain that bound them. The ritual knife flashed, drawing a thin line of blood across his left palm. "The All-Mother accepts your sacrifice. Will you accept her judgment in return?"
"Aye," said Braeden, his voice little more than a whisper.
The Arbiter closed his fingers over his palm. "It is done. May your blood give light to truth." She shifted the full force of her attention to Sam, her eyes aglow with religious fervor. "You speak for the accused. Will you trust his fair judgment to the Great Mother, whose blood runs through your veins?"
Sam agreed hesitantly, the sting of the ritual blade a mere nuisance. Refusal would get her nowhere. To her, there was only one acceptable outcome, and the Gods could go to rot for all she cared.
I don't really mean that, she backpedaled, shooting a quick prayer to Emese. Please, Great Lady, forgive Braeden his sins and let him go free.
Finally, the Arbiter made her way to Nasrin. "Sister, how will you serve Our Mother?"
"As I have since I took my whites, with honor and with loyalty. No word I speak today will be a lie."
The ritual knife flashed once more, and then the Arbiter returned to her seat on the altar. She gave a flick of her hand. "Sit, my sisters, sit. The trial has only just begun."
A/N: You guys, I am SORRY this took so long, I have zero life because of my job at the moment. Hoping things will improve in the summer, but in the meantime, thank you for your patience and understanding. Adulting is hard. Look forward to any thoughts you have, and please vote if you enjoyed!
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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...