Braeden wasn't sure who was more relieved when a knock came at his door, he or the whore. He hadn't touched her, the terror in her eyes as repulsive to him as his keyhole-shaped pupils were to her. When she'd reached for the tie at his waist with unsteady fingers, he'd enveloped her hands with his own, stopping her. He'd meant to reassure her, to tell her she needn't bother undressing him, but even this small amount of physical contact frightened her. He'd known men who got off on fear, but he wasn't one of them.
He and the prostitute both rose for the door, nearly colliding, but she recoiled immediately. Braeden ground his teeth. He wasn't a fragile fifteen-year old boy anymore, and he had no patience for the prostitute's antics.
“What?” he snarled, swinging the door open.
Sam blinked up at him. “Am I interrupting?”
Braeden glanced back at the cowering girl. “Trust me, you weren't interrupting anything.” He took in Sam's appearance. His hair was lopsided in its topknot and his right cheek sported a raw scratch. He had thrown his cloak over his clothes, which made no sense since they were indoors and the brothel wasn't particularly cold. The ripped collar of his tunic poked out of the top of the cloak. “What happened to you?”
Sam hugged his cloak tighter. “I'm in trouble.”
“Of what nature?”
Sam’s gaze darted to the trembling prostitute behind Braeden. “I promise I’ll explain, but not here. Will you help me?”
“Do you even need to ask?”
Sam nodded. “I do. And let me say in advance, I'm sorry for getting you involved. I didn't know what else to do.”
Braeden shuffled his feet. “You're my friend, Sam. I haven't had many.”
Sam's eyes shone with unshed tears. "I hope you still will be, after." He brushed his cheekbones with the back of his hands and gestured for Braeden to follow him. Braeden followed Sam to a room right around the corner. “I'm sorry,” Sam said again, and pushed the door open.
The blonde prostitute sat on her knees in the middle of the bed, her hands and ankles bound and her mouth gagged. She wore only her chemise; the shredded remnants of her gown were scattered around the room haphazardly. Her bindings appeared to be fashioned from the white fabric of her dress.
“It's not what you think!” Sam said quickly.
“What is it you believe I think?”
Sam’s cheeks burned red. “That I'm some sort of pervert.”
Braeden felt a smile tug at his lips, in spite of the oddness of the situation. “That actually hadn't crossed my mind, but there's a thought. Is that what this is?”
Sam started. “No! Gods, no.” He covered his face with his hands. “She found out something. A-a secret. A really big secret.”
Braeden folded his arms over his chest. “You're going to have to give me more than that.”
Sam walked over to the bed and loosened the prostitute's gag. “You tell him. I can't bear to.”
The prostitute spat the cloth out of her mouth. “Bitch,” she sneered. She turned cold, hate-filled eyes to his. “You're traveling with a bitch.”
“Watch your mouth, whore,” Braeden said icily.
The prostitute laughed, the sound high and brittle. “I may be a whore but at least I'm honest about what I am. I don't think you understand me.” She leaned forward, her hands straining against her bindings. “Your travel companion is a woman.”
Now it was Braeden's turn to laugh. “Don't be ridiculous.”
“Braeden.” Sam’s voice was pleading. He unbuttoned the fastenings at his neck, his heavy cloak sliding to the floor. Now, Braeden could see the extent of damage to Sam's tunic, which was torn to his navel. Pale skin peeked through the gaping fabric, along with…bandages?
“I don't understand. Are you hurt?”
The prostitute looked skyward. “She bound her chest, you idiot.”
“It's true,” Sam said sadly. “Lucy found out and was going to tell Tristan, and…and you, and I don't know who else. I panicked.” His voice—no, her voice—cracked. “I just wanted to be a Paladin. Braeden, I'm—”
Braeden held up a hand, silencing her. He turned to the prostitute. “Lucy, is it?”
“Aye. You believe me now, I take it,” the prostitute said.
“So I do. Are you planning to talk?”
Lucy lowered her lids to half-mast. “What's it to you if I do?”
“Answer the question.”
Lucy ran her tongue over her lips. “Interesting.” She smiled toothily. “I'll repeat myself then. What's it worth to you—to both of you—to hold my tongue?”
“Wrong answer,” said Braeden. He dug a dagger from the folds of his robes, brandishing it.
Lucy sneered. “You think I’m frightened by a knife and those funny eyes of yours? You’re little more than a boy. You don’t have the guts to kill me.”
Braeden dragged his dagger along the length of his forearm, drawing a thin line of blood. He didn’t need much to make his point, and the pain was inconsequential. Dipping his finger in the pooling liquid, he traced the outline of a crescent in the air in a spray of red. Before the droplets of blood could fall, they congealed into a moon-shaped scythe under his will. A crimson sheen rolled over the lenses of his eyes, and his pupils contracted and twisted horizontally.
“Demon!” Lucy shrieked. Her muddy eyes were round and frightened.
For once, Braeden was grateful for the fear his abilities incited. He caressed the scythe, the curved blade cutting through thick calluses on his palm and drawing more blood. When he removed his hand from the scythe, he held three daggers between his knuckles. “Demon,” he confirmed in a deep growl. He threw a dagger at the prostitute's wrists, tearing through the fabric that bound her hands.
He pointed at Lucy's freed hands with his scythe. “Untie your feet.”
“W-why?” the prostitute stuttered. “Why are you letting me go?”
He fixed her with his most terrifying glare. “Because you won't tell anyone what you saw this evening.”
Lucy jerked her head up and down.
“Good,” he said. “Because if you do, I'll kill you and everyone you care about.” The threat tasted vile on his tongue, but he’d done worse in his time and for less reason.
“I won't say anything. I swear it,” she babbled.
He nodded once. “I want you to go to the room four doors down from here. It's unlocked. There's a girl in the room called Minnie. You're to spend the night in the room, and you can tell her I told you to do so. Go.”
Lucy hastily untied her feet and fled from the room.
Braeden inhaled, his boiling blood cooling to a simmer. He felt his eyes return to their normal state. He turned to face Sam. “So you're a woman.”
“Sam—is that even your real name?”
“It's Sam. Samantha, really.”
“You told me you were the bastard son of the Duke of Haywood.” His voice sharpened. “You lied to me.”
Sam sunk down onto the edge of the bed. “I'm sorry, Braeden. You don't know how sorry I am. But what should I have said?’
“The truth, damn it!” he shouted. He massaged his temples. Gods, he never lost his temper. “Who are you, Sam of Haywood?”
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...