Sam paced back and forth in the small room that had become her own personal prison. She'd torn the room apart searching for anything that might help her break out, but beyond burning the whole place down—which she strongly considered--she came up short.
Which meant she failed. Braeden would be executed at dawn. And he would die believing he deserved it. Sam would return to Thule a wanted woman, knowing no more about the High Commander and how to defeat him than when she left.
She stopped pacing, the last of her hope draining out of her. Her prayers to the Gods had gone unanswered. Defeated, she lay down on the bed, too emotionally exhausted to bother undressing. Her heart hurt. She closed her eyes and waited for sleep to claim her.
Minutes or hours passed. Sam didn't know, caught in the warped twilight between wakefulness and slumber. Her consciousness fragmented, a tumble of disconnected thoughts and images flashing across her mindscape. The sound of the door bursting open was just another abstraction.
Hands grasped her shoulders and shook. "Sam!" came an urgent voice. The hands grasped tighter, fingers digging into her skin. "Wake up, Sam!"
Her eyes fluttered open. Kameko loomed over her, a panicked expression on her face. Sam pushed up onto her elbows, now fully awake. Her cousin hadn't come alone; Nasrin stood in the doorway, vibrating with barely restrained violence.
Sam glanced between mother and daughter. "What's happened?" she asked.
"It's your Braeden," Kameko said, biting her lower lip. "He's gone."
"Gone? What do you mean, gone?"
Kameko shot a nervous look at Nasrin. "He escaped his cell an hour before dawn."
Sam sat all the way up, too stunned for coherence. Dawn had come and gone without her knowing. And Braeden had apparently made his escape on his own. "What? But that's...How?"
Nasrin leaned against the doorpost in a falsely casual pose. She was furious. "He had help," she spat.
"Not from me," Sam said defensively. "I haven't left my room since Sister Parvana locked me in here."
"We know," Nasrin said in a tight, clipped voice. "We had you watched."
Sam stared at her aunt, confusion warring with elation. Who in the convent would help Braeden, and why? She didn't think they had any allies here—at least none with the power to help. And if Braeden escaped, where did he go? Why didn't he come for her? "I don't understand. How did he escape? Who helped?"
Nasrin slammed her fist into the wall. Her knuckles came away bloody. She shook her hand with a slight wince. "There are ten sun sisters missing," she growled. "Their rooms were found emptied out. Several priceless relics disappeared with them, along with the aliah."
"You think the missing sisters freed Braeden," Sam said slowly. It made no sense. That would mean defying the Arbiter's wishes at great personal risk. Moreover, the case for Braeden's innocence hadn't been made very effectively. Faith in blood, the idiot man practically incriminated himself. None of the sisters could have been convinced otherwise. Clearly, there were other motivations in play beyond Braeden's guilt or innocence. "You're certain?"
"As certain as I can be without a written note of admission," Nasrin said with a caustic twist of her mouth. She lifted a hand and ticked off her fingers. "He escaped the dungeons without getting snared in a single trap. Someone who knows our secrets must have guided him out. And the aliah could not take down twenty fully trained sisters by himself."
Sam's blood chilled in her veins. "Twenty sisters?" she asked hoarsely. A wave of nausea roiled in her gut. What had Braeden done?
Nasrin's eyes shone with angry tears. "Twenty sisters dead," she confirmed. "He butchered them. Not alone, but that makes it worse."
"I don't believe you," Sam said shakily. Braeden wouldn't kill anyone unless he had no other choice. He wouldn't. There was some other explanation. There had to be. She looked at Kameko, hoping to find some solace in a friendlier face. But her cousin just shook her head, her features grim. "You're missing something," Sam insisted. "Are there no witnesses?"
Nasrin and Kameko exchanged glances. "There is one witness," said Kameko. "She's with the Arbiter now for questioning."
"Who is it?"
Kameko sighed. "It's Zahra. And wouldn't you know, she's not saying anything."
"And whose fault is that?" Sam snapped. She pinched the bridge of her nose and breathed slowly. "Where are they? I want to talk to Zahra."
"Good," said Nasrin, "because the Arbiter wants to talk to you."
"We're here to bring you to her," Kameko said, a note of apology in her voice.
Sam sensed this talk with the Arbiter would be far from pleasant. But for once, their interests were aligned: They both wanted to find Braeden, and unless the Arbiter knew more than she did, neither of them knew how.
Sam swung her legs to the edge of the bed and stood. "I won't put up a fight," she said, straightening her rumpled clothes. She hadn't even bothered to take off her shoes when she collapsed on the bed the evening prior. "I'm ready. Lead the way."
A/N: Yayyyy I got permission to update this here again! Long story short, I suck at writing without your guys' feedback. Super hard to stay motivated. My 2017 plan is to update my stories once a week (alternating this one and Genius, my steampunk fantasy, which you should check out ;) ).
Know this half-chapter is way short, but just so excited to be writing in this world again and sharing it with you all! <3
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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...