Time seemed to stand still for a moment and then speed up as the imperial guard let out a battle cry and charged, brandishing their swords. "Wait!" Sam cried, willing her legs to go faster. Didn't they see Braeden? Or had they already judged him the enemy and condemned him to die alongside the winged beast he rode in on? She had to reach Braeden before they did.
And what if Braeden attacks them? asked an insidious voice inside her head. Will you stand by and let him slaughter innocent men?
Sam snarled at the voice and it retreated, temporarily cowed but not gone for good. She hated herself for doubting him, but would hate herself more if the voice proved right.
No time for doubts. She skidded to a stop in front of the enormous demon—Gods, its breath stunk—and flung out her arms, using her body as a shield. It was a desperate, vulnerable pose that left her defenseless; the guards could run her right through. Azi was screaming at his men, but his words were lost in all the noise and commotion, and she couldn't tell if he ordered them to stand down or keep going. Neither could his men, who still held up their weapons but had drawn to a halt, glancing at each other with confused expressions.
Sam felt a hand on her shoulder. "It's alright, Sam," Braeden said against her ear. He wrapped his hand around her wrist. "Give me your sword."
Again, that insidious voice reared its ugly head. He disappeared for weeks and the first thing he wanted was to take away her only weapon? After riding in on that...thing? She bristled underneath his touch. "Why?" she asked, not bothering to hide the suspicious edge. "What are you going to do with it?"
"Look at me, Sam." Gently, he cupped her chin and tilted her face up, meeting her green eyes with brilliant crimson. His gaze searched hers. "Trust me."
"I want to," she said in a low voice, "but Gods, you don't make it easy." Before she could change her mind, she unsheathed the sword from the scabbard at her waist and handed it over to him. His fingers brushed hers as he took it from her.
"Trust me," he said again, and then he turned his back to her, facing the demon. Nervously, Sam stole a glimpse at the imperial guard. They'd backed off a few feet to give her space, but they hadn't yet lowered their weapons, watching the scene unfold in front of them with a mix of awe and trepidation. She sought out Azi among his men. His skin had gone white under his beard, whether from anger or fear or both Sam wasn't certain. Catching her gaze, he gave her a look promising retribution later. Banishing a twinge of guilt, she searched for her cousin. Kameko had stopped climbing down the shrouds at the halfway point, waiting for what, Sam didn't know. She was too high up for Sam to read her expression, and the wind carried no whispers of the dreaded aliah. How long would her cousin stay silent? Sam released a shuddering sigh and returned her attention to Braeden.
Braeden approached the beast slowly, sword in one hand and the other hand outstretched, placating. "Down," he said aloud, and to Sam's incredulity, the beast obeyed, lowering its head to the ship's deck, leaving its neck completely exposed. It didn't move, its unblinking eyes locked on Braeden. Was this a new skill he'd learned in the weeks they were apart, or had he always been able to control demons to this extent? Sam had known for a long time now he was connected to the creatures, but to be able to command them? It was too much like his former master. She shivered involuntarily.
"Stay," he ordered in the same tones she'd heard her father's sworn huntsmen use on their wolfhounds. Sam half-expected him to scratch behind its ears and call it a good boy.
Braeden did neither. Instead, he leapt into the air with inhuman grace and drove the dull sword through its neck. And the demon just let him, obedient to the bitter end. It made no noise as it died; the only sounds were that of the scrape of steel against scale and metal sinking into flesh.
"By the Mother's tits," one of the guards swore behind Sam. "Is it—is it dead?"
"He cut its bloody head off," another guard snapped. "You don't get any deader than that."
"Yeuch, that thing reeks like its dead, I'll give you that."
Ignoring their commentary, Braeden knelt down to wipe the blade clean on the bottom of his robes. He'd have to burn them now to get rid of the stench, but it would be no great loss. In the intervening weeks, his robes had become little more than threadbare rags. There were more holes than fabric, revealing swaths of skin turned yellow-green with fading bruises. Where in the Light had he been all this time? What had they—whoever they was—done to him? And how on earth had he found her in the middle of the Nahari?
But those questions would have to wait until they no longer had an audience. She, too, owed Azi an explanation—and needed to talk to him before Kameko spread her own version of the truth. And though she desperately wanted to touch Braeden, to prove to herself he wasn't a hallucination or a dream, she was supposed to be the emperor's betrothed. Only Azi and the emperor himself knew the whole business of their engagement was a farce. Whether they'd still go along with it after today was another question.
Finished cleaning the sword, Braeden rose unsteadily to his feet. He managed a tentative smile. "You can have it back now," he told her. But before he could return it to her, the sword fell from his hands and clattered to the deck. Braeden sank to his knees, still wearing a slight smile. And then his eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed beside the sword, unconscious.
A/N: Short little update. I have lots of writing time right now so another one coming this weekend!
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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...