Chapter 12

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The sisters trotted out Zahra just in time to bid the emperor farewell, presumably to prove she was alive, if not exactly well. Perhaps the Arbiter's story about her poor health wasn't a story at all; Zahra's skin had a faintly green cast to it and she was unsteady on her feet.

Standing together underneath an open archway, Zahra and the boy emperor hardly looked like siblings. Zahra seemed to have aged since Sam last saw her, the fine lines around her mouth deepened into wrinkles, though she couldn't have been much more than 40. She was more likely to be mistaken as the emperor's mother, except she'd lost her air of royalty. At long last, the convent had succeeded in breaking her spirit, what was left of her princess-ly arrogance drained away.

Sam watched the awkward exchange between brother and sister from her palanquin, a loan from the emperor, who'd said it was unseemly for his future bride to travel in anything less. Covered by a richly embroidered canvas and outfitted with velvet seating, the closed interior was large enough to seat two. Growing up in Haywood, Sam was not unused to luxury, but to be carted around on human shoulders was a novel experience. The four brawny men appointed as her palanquin-bearers didn't outwardly struggle with the weight, and another four men were on standby to replace them when they tired. Still, the very concept of a human-powered vehicle made Sam uncomfortable. These were men, not mules, and she was more than capable of walking on her own two feet. But for appearance's sake, she conceded to the emperor's wishes. For now. If he thought he could treat her like another one of his harem girls, he was sorely mistaken.

Though everything Sam knew of the emperor told her he was supercilious and immature, she felt a twinge of pity for him. His body strained toward his sister, his hands clenched into fists by his side. No matter what her crimes against him, Zahra was still blood. Yet he couldn't show her any affection or spare her a few warm words without coming off as weak. Not in front of half his court and the two stern-faced sun sisters that stood practically on top of her. So brother and sister simply looked at each other in somber silence.

Feeling intrusive, Sam closed the window shutters and returned her attention to her fellow passenger. Sitting to her opposite was Kameko, a seething cauldron of resentment. Her cousin hadn't spoken a word since she entered the palanquin, but her body language made it perfectly clear she did not want to be here. Sam didn't want Kameko here either. As soon as she left this place, she wanted nothing more to do with the convent or the sun sisters. They could all go hang, Nasrin included.

Impatient, Sam opened the shutters again, watching for any sign the emperor was ready to leave. The longer they dawdled, the more anxious she became that the Arbiter would find some way to stop her from leaving. Yet she couldn't begrudge the emperor for wanting to see to the welfare of his sister. Poor Zahra. How much longer did she have before the convent irreparably broke her?

Finally, the emperor dropped his gaze from Zahra's, muttered something that must have been farewell, and returned to his imperial guards, who waited a respectful distance away. As they escorted him to the front of the long train of palanquins, borrowed horses and servants on foot, Emperor Kazan did not glance back behind him once. Moments later, a gong rang out, and then they were off.

While it might have conveyed status and wealth, a palanquin was a painfully slow mode of transport. A journey that would have been half an hour on horseback took three. And with Kameko sullenly glowering at her the entire way, it felt more like five.

"This wasn't my idea, you know," Sam said irritably after what must have been their fourteenth stop. "If you want to return to the sisters, by all means, go."

Kameko's eyes flashed. "I don't want to go back. I want to join my mother. Instead I'm stuck chaperoning you."

"If you weren't stuck as my 'chaperone,' you would be back in the temple, no closer to Nasrin than you are now," Sam pointed out. "If you're going to blame anyone, blame your precious Arbiter."

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