Braeden, the Arbiter explained, had not been interned in the hold with the other prisoners. Instead, he'd been tossed into the Pit--a black hole in the ground reserved for the convent's worst criminals. The vertical shaft was barely wide enough for a man to stand; he couldn't sit, kneel or so much as turn around. The only way in or out was through the small hatch in the ceiling--the prisoner had to be lowered into the tiny chamber by a retractable rope. Escape should have been impossible.
Now the Pit spat out plumes of smoke, stinking of fire and death. Sam's gorge rose in her throat. Beside the Pit was a veritable mound of colorless corpses, stripped of their clothes. A novitiate knelt by one of the bodies, chanting a low Rhean prayer. Holding a heap of white winding-sheets, Zahra stood behind her, her mouth bracketed with lines of strain. Sam badly wanted to go over to her and pry what information she could out of the speechless woman, anything that might lead to Braeden. But she couldn't, not with the Arbiter and Nasrin beside her. And she sensed Zahra had been asked too many questions already. The former princess swayed unsteadily on her feet, kept aloft by sheer willpower. The Arbiter was punishing her for her silence, forcing her to look upon the dead faces of the women she'd seen killed.
The novitiate seemed to be faring better than Zahra, her mask offering some protection from the fetid air. She bathed the dead woman's face with an embroidered cloth, wiping away dirt and blood. She retrieved a winding-sheet from Zahra and draped the shroud over the body. With a grunt, the novitiate hefted the corpse into her arms and carried it to the edge of the Pit. Next, she lifted a large, white-glazed jug, dousing the shrouded body with gold-flecked oil. Then, with far less grace and ceremony, she shoved the corpse into the open hatchway, turned around and ran. A burst of flame and smoke erupted out of the Pit behind her. The smoke settled, but the smell of scorched flesh lingered.
The Arbiter stared into the dissipating smoke, her expression somber. "They are with the Mother now," she said softly. Her gaze shifted to Sam. Her eyes were wet.
Sam felt lost. The Arbiter's grief appeared genuine. The tears she shed did not fit with the heartless autocrat who had so cruelly manipulated Braeden's trial. It was Braeden who once told her that the world wasn't painted in strokes of black and white. But Sam didn't do well with ambiguity. She didn't want to feel sorry for a woman she'd already decided to hate.
Still, she said, "May their souls find peace in the Afterlight."
"My sisters deserve a proper funeral on a pyre beneath the sun," Nasrin said bitterly. "Instead, we burn them here amongst the filth and vermin."
"There are too many dead, Sister Nasrin," the Arbiter said with gentle reproval. "We cannot afford to look weak. Rhea is already losing its faith."
Nasrin nodded stiffly. "You are right, of course. And I am grateful for the honor you have done me."
"What honor?" Sam asked suspiciously, glancing between the two of them.
This time when the Arbiter looked at Sam, her eyes were dry. Coolly, she said, "I have asked Sister Nasrin to lead the search for the aliah."
Sam turned to her aunt. "And what will you do if you find him?"
"I will find him," Nasrin said with a fervor that didn't sound entirely sane. "And I will bring his body back, so the world knows the aliah is dead. Forever, this time. There will be no more mistakes."
Her heart hammered in her chest. Nasrin would kill Braeden, or die trying. Neither was an outcome she desired. "What about the sisters you say helped him?" she asked desperately. "They betrayed you. Why don't you hunt them?"
"If they still live, we will find them," said the Arbiter. "And we will see they face their sins. But for all their training, they are only human. The aliah poses the bigger threat, and so he must come first."
"You won't find him," Sam said with a petulant jut of her chin. "You don't know where to look." Thinking quickly, she added, "I can help you. I know how his mind works." If she could convince Nasrin to take her with her, she could make her own escape and find Braeden first.
The Arbiter afforded her a patronizing smile. "Don't be silly, child. We need you here in case the aliah returns for you."
Blood roared in her ears, the room spinning around her. By the grace of the Gods, she managed to retain some measure of composure. Braeden would come back for her. No matter what had happened in the dungeons, she believed that. She knew he couldn't always control his body, but he still commanded his heart. And his heart would guide him back to her--and straight into a well-laid trap.
She forced her emotions into submission, schooling her face into an expression of mild surprise. "You're wrong," she lied. "The aliah will never return. He's too clever for that."
The Arbiter clearly didn't believe her, but must have decided to humor her. "Nevertheless, you'll stay at the convent until the aliah is apprehended. You'll be treated as our most honored guest, of course."
"Guests are allowed to leave whenever they wish," Sam pointed out.
"It's for your own safety."
She didn't bother to suppress her snort.
A/N: For whatever reason, the end of this chapter was hard to write. Anyway, super excited for what's coming next (and yes I do actually know what's going to happen :P). As always, look forward to your thoughts and comments, 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...