Chapter 12

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The next few days passed in a flurry of activity. Mostly, they rode, but as soon as Tristan was no longer concerned about facing the ramifications of the incident in Cordoba, he prescribed daily three hour training sessions. If training at the Center had been hard, training two-on-one with Tristan was brutal. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they were allowed to use weapons, but Tristan made them perform callisthenic exercises that Sam swore he invented just to torture them. She knew that Braeden was half demon, but she was beginning to think that Tristan wasn’t entirely human either. The man was tireless, and – good gods, was he whistling now? 

“You’re off tune,” she accused.

Tristan twisted in his saddle to glare at her. “You don’t even know what song I'm whistling, so how do you know I’m off tune?’

“I don’t need to know what song it is to know that your rendition is gods-awful.”

“What’s got you in such a foul mood?”

“What’s got you in such a good mood that you feel the need to whistle?” Sam retorted.

“I wasn’t aware I needed a reason to be in a good mood,” Tristan said. “But, if you must know, I suppose it’s because we’ll arrive at Haywood in half a day’s ride. I’m looking forward to a bath and a proper bed.”

“That does sound lovely,” Sam said, because it was expected of her. She was saddle sore and her muscles ached and gods, she was tired, but the prospect of a good night’s sleep couldn’t erase her fear of discovery. She couldn’t afford any mistakes, not in Haywood. And even then, she wasn’t sure it would be good enough.

As they closed the distance between Cordoba and Haywood, the landscape gradually began to change.  Rolling dunes flattened and the occasional pockets of thicket spread until the world was green as far as the eye could see. The air thickened and clouds gathered in the sky like herded sheep, blocking the sun’s rays but not its warmth.

Once the all-too-familiar turrets of Castle Haywood came into view – her castle, the only home she’d ever known – Sam retrieved a cloak from her pack and hid her face beneath its overlarge hood.

“Are you mad?” Tristan said incredulously. “It’s boiling hot out.”

“I’m cold,” Sam said stubbornly, hoping he couldn’t see the droplets of perspiration on her upper lip. When he wasn’t looking, she dabbed at her damp face with her sleeve. Braeden shot her a quizzical look. “Later,” she mouthed, though she wasn’t sure yet what tale she’d spin.

It was nearing dusk when they reached the murky waters of the castle moat. The moat was a relatively new addition to Haywood; the duke had grown increasingly paranoid over the years, particularly after his sole legitimate heir was attacked by a demon, and spared no expense when it came to the city’s security. Though there were no outside threats, sentries in the hundreds were stationed around the parapet of the city wall.  But, as Sam knew well, the duke’s security was not infallible: for three years, she had bribed the guards outside her chambers to keep her morning excursions a secret from her father. What they suspected she had been up to, she had no idea, but for enough gold in their pockets, she could have been murdering children in their sleep for all they cared.

Sam braced herself for an interrogation, but to her surprise, the guards lowered the drawbridge without question. The guards must have recognized Tristan, which was odd, considering he hadn’t been inside the castle walls since she was but a girl. She would have remembered if he had.

They rode their horses across the wooden deck and down the main boulevard into the heart of Haywood. The hubbub of the city was at its peak this time of the year, as all of Haywood, from the lowest of apprentices to her own father, prepared for the annual Grand Fair, which was to be held in a week’s time. It was at the Grand Fair five years past that Sir Daniel had famously lost his title as Champion to a young golden-haired swordsman on the cusp of adulthood, a Paladin who’d been fully ordained for less than a month. Tristan.

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