The plan for Sam's escape was masterfully strategized. Not by Sam, who couldn't strategize her way out of a paper bag; by Azi, who took to the task like he was marshaling his troops for battle. How he had managed to convince His Imperial Brattiness to go along with it, Sam hadn't a clue. Perhaps the emperor saw the advantage of having one of the most powerful men in Thule in his debt. Or perhaps he owed a favor to his Lord Marshal. More likely, he was bored, and tweaking the Arbiter's nose seemed amusing.
Whatever his reasons, Sam was grateful. But all the gratitude in the world couldn't allay the sick feeling in her gut. Walking arm in arm with the emperor down the candle-lit aisle of the solarium felt like a betrayal to Braeden. That it was all a ruse didn't seem to make her feel any better.
The emperor brought his mouth close to her ear. To the people watching them from the pews, it would read as an affectionate nuzzle. "You're cutting off my circulation," he hissed.
Sam released her white-knuckled death grip on his arm. "Sorry," she said behind a smile she hoped looked besotted. The emperor winced, so she must have missed the mark.
The evening prayer was supposed to be one of silent reflection, but not even the sisters bothered to pretend they were paying their prayer books any attention. All eyes were on Sam and the emperor. Hushed whispers followed their slow procession to the altar.
The Arbiter waited for them there, her cold glare promising retribution for the interruption. "Your Imperial Highness," she greeted the emperor. Her voice dropped another ten degrees. "Lady Samantha. How...unexpected to see you here together. I see you have furthered your acquaintance."
"And to think, we have you to thank for that," the emperor said archly. He removed Sam's hand from the crook of his elbow and raised his own hand to Sam's lips. She stared down her nose at his hand, cross-eyed. An awkward silence passed before Sam realized she was meant to kiss it. Heat rushing to her cheeks, she pressed a kiss to his knuckles.
"I intend to take Lady Samantha of Thule as my bride," the emperor announced to a chorus of gasps. "In her father's absence, I have come to ask for the Mother's blessing."
Sam almost laughed at the shocked expression on the Arbiter's face, even as her heart threatened to explode out of her chest. Then the abbess gave Sam a flinty stare. "Strange," she drawled, her silvery voice gone flat. "I thought you were pledged to another man."
Sam cast a quick glance at the emperor. He returned her glance from underneath his long lashes, a glint of suspicion in his golden gaze. Perhaps Sam had made a mistake in not telling Azi or the emperor about Braeden. Afraid they'd jump to the same conclusions as the sun sisters, she'd danced around the details of why she so badly needed to get away from the convent, feeding them some vague—but mostly true—story about a secret mission to save Thule. She told herself her lies of omission didn't matter; she could explain Braeden to them later, when she was far, far away from the convent. She was banking on the Arbiter's reluctance to admit her failure to keep her mouth shut. Sam hoped she hadn't miscalculated. Even without saying his name, the Arbiter managed to sow the seeds of distrust.
Sam gave the emperor a tiny shake of her head. He crooked an eyebrow at her that promised questions later but he stayed quiet. "I am betrothed to no one," she said truthfully. She'd pledged her heart to Braeden, not her hand. He hadn't asked for it. Maybe he never would. She swallowed down a lump in her throat. "I have agreed to consider His Highness' suit."
More gasps then, and a loud thump. "She's fainted," a voice called out. "Fetch her water!"
A few rows in, one of the emperor's harem girls lay splayed out on the floor, a hand to her forehead. Sam had never seen anyone faint so gracefully. Now it was her turn to arch an eyebrow at the emperor.
He gave a small shrug and rolled his eyes. Turning towards the pews, he snapped, "Get up, Raisa."
Sam was taken aback by his indifference, until the harem girl—Raisa—got to her feet without issue and made a show of smoothing her silk skirts. Pouting, Raisa returned to her seat in the pews and sat back down with a flounce.
A thin man with a neat beard trimmed to a point stood up in the front pew. "Majesty, this is highly irregular," he said in a refined Rheic accent that marked him as gentry. "The emperor has always chosen his bride from his harem. My daughter--"
"Was never in the running," the emperor finished for him. "Sweet girl, your Shaila. She'd make an excellent wife. Now, you, on the other hand, would be unbearable as a father-in-law."
"But you'll marry the daughter of some foreign barbarian?" he sputtered.
His Highness raised a haughty eyebrow. "That's the future empress you're talking about. And General Hondo's granddaughter. I suggest you watch your tongue."
It was more a command than a suggestion, and the man knew it. In the space of a few seconds, his face went from red to white and back to red again. With a grimace, he knelt on the floor and prostrated himself in apology.
"You're forgiven," the emperor said airily, before Sam could say the same. And here she'd thought the apology was directed at her. It was a good thing they didn't really plan on getting married, or she'd be tempted to hit him. More tempted to hit him, anyway.
"If there are no more interruptions?" he asked, his tone implying there would be hell to pay for anyone who dared.
The Arbiter did dare. "Your Highness, are you sure this is wise? Your father, may the light take his soul, waited until he was well into his fifties before marrying your mother."
The emperor bristled at that. "Do not mistake me for my father. May the light take his soul," he added as an afterthought.
"Of course not, your majesty. I wish only to remind you that the union of marriage is permanent in the eyes of the Gods. The decision to marry should not be made in haste."
The emperor's mouth curved in an insincere smile. "I couldn't agree more." His smile widened, a little evil. "Which is why I have invited Lady Samantha to return with me to the palace. So we can get to know each other."
"I've already accepted the invitation," Sam said quickly, before the Arbiter could think up an excuse to keep her at the convent.
After a beat, the Arbiter said, "Surely it would be best if you both stayed here. Lady Samantha is a stranger to Rhea. She should be with family."
Azi had prepared the emperor for that argument. "Then it's a good thing General Hondo lives so close to the palace, isn't it? I'm sure he'll be delighted to make his granddaughter's acquaintance."
"You still need the Mother's blessing," the Arbiter said, a little desperately.
The emperor's jaw tightened. "And you would deny it to us?"
"You have Her blessing," the Arbiter said between gritted teeth, "on one condition."
Sam held her breath, expecting the worst. The Arbiter's copper eyes found hers. "Take Novice Kameko with you."
A/N: It's short, I know, I know, but I think it's the right place to end this collective "chapter 11." Next chapter is where things are going to start to get exciting for real!
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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...