The beginning of the world was a story Sam had heard a hundred times or more. How strange, she thought, that though they were separated by a thousand miles, the people of Thule and of Rhea never diverged in their faith—not at its core. In Thule, the priests of Cathair told much the same story as the Sun Sisters, though Emese's role in mankind's creation was greatly diminished. They worshipped the Creator, not the Mother. As a Thulian child born of a Rhean mother, Sam had learned to worship both, never understanding why the rest of humanity felt they had to choose between them. Religion divided them when it should have united them against their true enemy—Teivel's children, or, as they were known in Thule, demons.
But religion didn't solve for Braeden. He was neither wholly human or demon, a child of all Three. Which Gods did he worship? Sam had never bothered to ask, so caught up in the unraveling of her own secrets. Her stomach churning with a mix of anguish and regret, Sam realized she loved a man she hardly knew.
"You look ill," Kameko commented quietly beside her. One of the sisters in the pew in front of them whirled around and glared at them both. "Sorry," Kameko mouthed, rolling her eyes as soon as the sister turned back around.
Sam nearly smiled at that.
After the morning prayer wrapped up, Kameko escorted Sam back to her room on the second floor. Pausing at the door, Sam's cousin let out a long suffering sigh, her boredom written plainly across her face.
"I want to go out," Sam said suddenly. The hour-long prayer session wasn't enough reprieve from the tiny, windowless room that was both a safe haven and her prison. Besides, she needed to do something useful. She needed to figure out a way to escape from this place and then find Braeden, in that order. Focus on one thing at a time, she scolded herself. "You said I could go anywhere in the convent. I want to see the rest of it."
Kameko gave her a dubious look. "There's not much else to see beyond the temple. Just a small village and Snakeweed Creek."
"I want to see it," Sam said stubbornly. She needed to scout out and memorize every possible hideaway and escape route. If she tried to flee back through the desert, she wouldn't survive more than a day, not unless she managed to steal a horse and several canteens worth of water. And if heat and thirst didn't kill her, demons would. The Rhean Desert was crawling with them. She and Braeden had been able to fight them off together. Alone—even assuming she managed to steal back her weapons—Sam was a dead woman walking.
Kameko shrugged, seemingly unaware of Sam's duplicitous thoughts. Or perhaps she was so bored of the monotony of the last few days she simply didn't care. "I'll take you to the stables."
Sam fought to hide her surprise. "I'm allowed to ride a horse?"
"Not a fast one," Kameko deadpanned, and despite herself, Sam guffawed. Her cousin's stoic expression didn't change, but her eyes held a twinkle. "The Arbiter said nothing about whether you could or couldn't ride. Assuming you know how to ride, that is. I noticed you and your...companion arrived without mounts."
Sam sobered at the mention of Braeden. "We had horses. They ran off."
"Frightened by demons?"
"No," Sam said grimly. "Something worse."
Kameko threw her a quizzical glance, but didn't ask any more questions, quiet the entire walk to the convent stables.
The stables weren't far—they were, in fact, located in one of the domed buildings linked by the arcade to the main temple, encompassing the entire ground floor. A novice guarded the entry, affording Kameko a stiff nod and ignoring Sam completely. The stable hands, however, were all young men and boys, presumably from the nearby village. They eyed Sam with curiosity but without malice. Tales of the aliah and his Thulian friend must not have reached them yet.
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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...