If Sam were the sort of girl prone to fainting, she would have collapsed like a puppet cut loose from its strings. But as it stood, she wasn’t supposed to be a girl, so fainting wasn’t an option.
“You’re affianced? To her?” she managed, her mind whirling. Why had the duke told Tristan she’d died? True, she’d left home without a warning or a note, but that didn’t make her dead. And since when was she engaged?
“Was affianced,” Tristan corrected. “She was the reason I first came to Haywood. The duke wanted to see if we would suit.”
“And did you?” she croaked out. Her father had told her nothing of his plans to marry her off like chattel. How could he? How could Tristan agree to it?
“Lord Haywood approved of the match,” said Tristan, oblivious to Sam’s inner turmoil. He sighed and massaged his temples. “We would have been good together, she and I.”
“Did you l-l-love her?” she stammered. Gods, she was going to be sick.
Tristan shot her an incredulous look. “I barely knew her. She was but a girl when I saw her last.”
“Why do you care then?”
Tristan glared at her. “Have you no heart, man?”
Sam crossed her arms over her chest, and arched a brow. “Have you?” She wasn’t sure she could wrap her mind around the idea of Tristan with, well, feelings.
Tristan looked down, dragging the toe of his boot across the ground. “I've been with the Paladins for six years now, mostly on the road, and more often alone than not. My parents are dead, and my brother, too. Maybe I just want someone to come home to. Someone to mourn for me if I don't come home." He blew out a breath. "It's stupid, but Lady Samantha was that person for me. Or at least I wanted her to be."
For a moment, Tristan looked so forlorn, the expression alien on the hard planes of his face. Sam felt an odd sensation gnaw away at her insides. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.” The words sounded hollow, even to her own ears.
“No need to apologize. You couldn’t have done anything.”
“Right,” she said weakly. Except it was her fault, not that she could ever tell him that. “Did the duke say what happened to her?”
“No, he refused to talk about it.”
“But I’m not—” She bit down on her tongue. “The duke—is he grieving?”
Tristan glowered at her. “She was his only daughter, what do you think?”
“I don’t know,” she said truthfully. She hadn’t exactly been the apple of her father’s eye. She’d been a handful growing up, but she was someone else’s handful—her lady-in-waiting’s, mostly, and sometimes the soldiers who’d been assigned to guard her—rarely her father’s. He had always been distant, even when he’d been physically close—too busy keeping the castle and duchy in order, she supposed. His daughter was a convenience; her existence ensured the continuity of his line at the helm of Haywood. But she’d embarrassed him, his daughter who refused to follow the dictates of society, always with an errant smudge of dirt across her cheek and a sharp tongue that was more inappropriate than not. And he’d given her hand away without the courtesy of telling her. She wondered how long it took him to notice she was gone and then remembered the watercolor lilac.
Braeden put a hand on her shoulder, and she blinked up at him in surprise. She’d almost forgotten he was there. “You lost someone, too,” he said. Oh gods, that stupid lie she'd told him. Braeden probably thought she’d lost a sister.
“What do you mean, Sam lost someone, too?” Tristan asked, furrowing his brow.
“Sam’s from Haywood, Paladin. Lady Samantha would have been his liege lady one day, had she lived.”
She smiled quickly at Braeden, grateful that he didn’t reveal her supposed bastardy to Tristan. “It’s not the same as losing a betrothed.” Though, in retrospect, she’d both gained and lost a betrothed today. For an instant, she was overtaken by a vision of what could have been: she sat at the dais in the Great Hall of Castle Haywood, her hand clasped around Tristan’s steely bicep. Two children flanked their sides, golden-locked like their father. Sam shook her head like a wet dog, banishing the vision to the furthest recesses of her mind where it belonged. She’d chosen another future.
“It’s strange, thinking your life is going to turn out one way, then finding yourself headed in an entirely different direction,” Tristan said. He rubbed his eyes and straightened his posture, shrugging off his melancholy like an over-warm coat. “Alright, lads. There’s only one immediate solution for all this gloom and doom.”
“What’s that?” Sam asked.
Tristan swung an arm around her shoulder. “Let’s get rip-roaringly drunk.”
The first time Sam and Tristan broke out into song, Braeden had been amused. By their third go-round of “Dancing with Demons in the Night,” he was grinding his teeth. By their seventh rendition, Braeden began contemplating death, and he couldn’t be sure if their demise or his own was preferable.
After finishing the last verse—for the final time, he hoped—Sam stumbled over to the stool where Braeden sat perched by the bar. “Why aren’t you drinking?” he slurred.
He lifted the tankard of ale in front of him. “I am drinking.”
“Clearly not enough,” said Tristan from behind him. “Barmaid!” he shouted, snapping his fingers. “Another pint of ale for my friend here, and two whiskey tumblers for me and this lad.” He jerked his thumb at Sam.
The barmaid scrunched her nose disapprovingly. “ ‘Aven’t you boys ‘ad enough to drink? I’m thinkin’ I ought to cut you off.”
Tristan slid a copper coin across the bar and offered the barmaid a lopsided smile. The barmaid put her hands on her hips. “Two hours back, your smile might o’ seduced me. Now you just look like a sloppy fool, same as the rest o’ these drunkards.” She slid the coin back towards Tristan. “You keep your copper.”
Tristan pouted. “Fine, we’ll take our business elsewhere. Sam, Braeden, let’s go.” He staggered towards the exit, dragging Sam behind him.
“Thank you,” Braeden murmured to the barmaid, who gave him a pitying look.
“Good luck to you, mister!” she called after him, as he weaved through the crowded bar in pursuit of his wayward companions.
“Where are we going?” Sam panted, trotting to keep up with Tristan.
Tristan didn’t respond, ducking into an alleyway. He lurched down the narrow side street until they reached an unassuming building at the end of a cul-de-sac. The half-timbered house was indistinguishable from any other apart from the painted emblem of a fig tree above the door
“You have got to be joking,” Braeden muttered, recognizing the emblem.
“Behold, our final stop of the evening,” said Tristan, with an exaggerated flourish of his arms.
Sam scratched at his topknot, pulling down half his hair in the process. “I don’t know this place.”
“That’s because you have morals,” said Braeden.
Sam looked at him blankly. “What do you mean?” Braeden just shook his head, and Sam turned to Tristan. “What does he mean?”
“You’re too good for a demon,” Tristan said, jabbing a finger into Braeden’s sternum.
He barked a laugh. “Half-demon, if we’re splitting hairs. And it’s not that I’m not good—I’m just not interested.”
Tristan clicked his tongue. “You need to learn to live a little. Embrace your wild side. Tonight we’re celebrating. Or mourning. I forget. That’s an order from your Paladin.”
Sam stamped his foot impatiently. “What in the name of the seven gods are you two talking about?”
Tristan clapped him on the back. “Tonight, my boy, we’re going to make you a man.”
YOU ARE READING
Sam is the most promising swordsman among this year’s crop of Paladin trainees...and knows it. Brash, cocky, and unbeatable with a sword (well, almost), Sam is the kingdom of Thule’s best hope against the violence wrought by demons. The only problem...