Chapter 9

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The sisters held a formal ceremony to honor the dead. It was, by necessity, a truncated affair; the dark portended thunder and heavy rain. Rainfall was rare in the Rhean desert, but on the few occasions it did rain, it poured.

Before the rain came, the sisters convened at the stone terrace in the center of the convent gardens. Sam did not join them. She was not explicitly uninvited, per say, but she knew her presence would be unwelcome.

So she left them to their grief, watching the proceedings from the window seat in the second floor prayer room. From the little nook in the wall, she had a perfect aerial view of the funeral ceremony in the gardens. The sisters had eschewed their uniform whites for funereal black, and from above, they looked like crows, their robes flying out like wings behind them. Some wept openly in great, heaving sobs, clutching on to their neighbor for support. Some cried quietly, heads bowed in private grief. And some had skipped right past grief and gone straight to anger, evident in their stiff spines and squared shoulders. In the middle of them all stood the Arbiter, impossible to miss with her long snow-white hair against all that black. Her hands were raised to the sky and she seemed to sway with the wind. She was oddly mesmerizing.

Sam made herself look away and remember her surroundings. She wasn't allowed alone, of course; Kameko, assigned her temporary guard, was stationed in the prayer room doorway, studiously ignoring her. The tenuous camaraderie between them had disappeared into the gloom, replaced by a strained awkwardness. Neither had spoken a word to the other since yesterday's disaster of a morning.

Sam stole a quick glance at her cousin. Kameko leaned against the door, tapping out a staccato rhythm on the marble floor with the butt of her spear. Was she bored? Angry? Upset? Her cousin's balaclava hid her expression.

Not that Sam cared. The evening prior, she had overheard her cousin beg Nasrin to let her come with her on her hunt for the aliah. Kameko had thrown a proper temper tantrum when her mother refused, reminding Sam that her cousin was, in fact, only fifteen. It didn't matter; the mother-daughter squabble ended any illusions Sam had about their budding friendship. Kameko's loyalties lay with her mother and sisters-in-arms. And Sam's lay with Braeden, wherever he was.

Nasrin was long gone by now, along with a small party of her sisters. They'd departed at dawn, riding horses as fine as any in the Paladins' stable. The storm promised to slow them some, and if the Gods willed, the rain would wash away whatever trail Braeden and the rogue sisters had left them.

Sam sighed and pressed her face against the window pane. Gods damn him. She hadn't forgiven Braeden yet for leaving her behind with no way to find him. She was trapped in this Gods forsaken place. She doubted she'd come to any real harm; a duke's daughter was too valuable as a political pawn to eliminate. She was a prisoner in chains made of silk. And while she sat here, the ineffectual princess locked in her tower, Nasrin and her sisters hunted for Braeden as Thule inched closer to civil war. Sam hated feeling useless.

A roll of thunder rumbled in the distance. Lightning flashed, and the skies opened, the light drizzle quickly turning into heavy sheets of rain. Sam watched with some amusement as the sisters scrambled out of the gardens, covering their heads with their hands.

The rain didn't let up for three days. Sam stayed in her room until the third morning of the storm, when boredom forced her out. Kameko, who had assiduously stood guard outside her door the entire time, looked visibly relieved when Sam finally wandered out. If there was anything more tedious than doing nothing, it was watching someone else do nothing.

The monotony of the last few days must have loosened Kameko's tongue. "Are you well, cousin?"

Two days of nothing but her own company had loosened Sam's tongue too. A confession burst out of her. "I'm bored senseless."

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