Chapter 11 Part 2

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A burble of hysteria climbed up Sam's throat. "Sorry," she heard herself squeak. Damn it, she didn't squeak. Composing herself, she tried again. "I'm sorry, but—who are you?"

"I am Azhir Anan," he rumbled, and then to Sam's utter mortification, he knelt in front of her and bowed at the waist until his head touched the floor by her feet.

"Get up," the boy emperor snapped. "The Lord Marshall does not bow to some foreign barbarian."

Azhir Anan stood, but not without sending the emperor a reproving frown. "You heard the Arbiter. This is General Hondo's granddaughter. She deserves your respect."

Sam half-expected the emperor to order his man put in chains for daring to criticize him in front of others, but all the boy did was flush. Azhir Anan must have had the emperor's ear—and more importantly, his respect. She wasn't above taking advantage of that. Attempting deference, she copied the Lord Marshall's bow, prostrating herself before the emperor. "I am humbled by your presence, your imperial highness," she murmured.

"Oh, enough already," the emperor said with a sour twist of his mouth. He waved his hand imperiously. "Rise." By the time she scrambled to her feet, he had already dismissed her, his glare trained on the Arbiter. "Where is my sister?"

The Arbiter's calm façade was beginning to crack. "I already told you, Majesty. Your sister is too ill to see you."

"And I did not spend a fortnight traveling to see no one!" the emperor shouted. Azhir Anan put his hand on the boy's chest to restrain him. The emperor breathed in and out through his nostrils, reminding Sam of an enraged bull. "You will bring me to Zahra. I command you."

The Arbiter threw her shoulders back, her pose as regal as a queen's. "You forget where you are, Majesty. Outside these convent walls, you may command me, but your authority means nothing here. Here, you bow to a higher power."

"Yours?" the emperor scoffed. "You are nothing but a false prophet."

"I am the Mother's chosen vessel," the Arbiter said coolly, "and my sisters are Her army on earth.
Do not forget we have deposed heretic kings and emperors before."

The emperor took a step forward. This time Azhir Anan did not hold him back. "Is that a threat?"

The Arbiter's copper eyes glinted. "It's a promise."

Tension crackled between Arbiter and emperor, filling the air with a suffocating silence. For once, Sam was entirely forgotten. No, not entirely forgotten—Azhir Anan watched her still, drinking her in like she was the panacea to all that ailed him. Who was he? She knew his name, and the emperor called him Lord Marshall, but she knew little else. He'd said he'd loved her mother—who had Tsalene been to him? Who had he been to Tsalene?

Tearing her gaze from the big man, Sam watched the Arbiter and the emperor face off with avid interest. The tension in the air thickened, threatening to snap. Sam seized the moment. She cleared her throat, and the weight of their stares fell on her. "I do not mean to interrupt," she said as demurely as she could. "If I might request a private audience with the Lord Marshall?"

The Arbiter's brows drew together in suspicion, but she couldn't refuse Sam's request without seeming petty or paranoid.

Azhir Anan dipped his head. "I would be delighted, if my liege wills."

"No, I won't allow it," the emperor declared with an arrogant toss of his long braid.

Sam's heart dropped. "But, your imperial highness—"

"I will join you," he continued as though she hadn't spoken. "Whatever you can say to my Lord Marshall, you can say to me."

Sam blinked back her surprise. An audience with the Lord Marshall and the emperor himself was a coup. She spoke quickly before the Arbiter could gainsay her. "The sisters will soon be gathering in the prayer hall for the midafternoon prayer. Shall we speak in the gardens?"

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