Chapter 23 Part I

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Sam wasn’t much for conversation on the long walk back to The Brass Monkey. She knew her uncustomary quiet bothered Tristan — he kept twisting his neck to stare at her — but she was too troubled in thought to pay him any mind.

There were but a few basic truths in this world Sam held dear, and the righteousness of the Paladins was one of them. Even before her own life had been saved and irrevocably changed by the Paladins—gods, that seemed a lifetime ago now—Sam had well known the great deeds they performed. When she was a young girl, not yet a thorn in her father’s side, he’d sat her on his lap and told her the story of the Battle of Scarskeep. In what was the largest attack in recorded history, five thousand demons descended on the central city of Bainsreagh in deep winter, and five hundred Paladins rose to meet them. After three days of near-constant fighting, the Paladins triumphed, but at the cost of almost half their numbers. The people wept for the Paladins and buried the deceased with heroes’ honors, and then they went home and tucked their children into bed and kissed them goodnight. As for the Paladins, bruised and battered as they were, they built a great fortress atop the white of snow and the red of spilt blood, and the city of Bainsreagh became the Center.

Sam had made her father tell her the story a dozen times, until she could recite it by rote. But after she herself owed her life to the Paladins, the story of the Battle of Scarskeep ceased to be a story and became truth, one she desperately wanted to be a part of. For five years now, maybe longer, her goal to become a Paladin was her reason for breathing.

And so the very existence of the Uriel was an affront to her belief system. There were the Paladins, the knights who served them and the king, and the aristocracy and their subjects—where did the Uriel fit into this structure? There was no need or room for them. Adelard had said the Uriel weren’t at counter-purposes, but Sam failed to see a purpose to them at all. If they truly wanted to protect the people from demons, as they claimed, why hadn’t they simply joined the Paladins, like she had? If the rest of the Uriel were anything like Adelard and Donnelly, their mastery of their weapons would have more than qualified them.

Sam was so lost in thought that she hadn’t noticed they had arrived back at the inn. Tristan tugged on a loose lock of her hair. “Are you planning to come in sometime this century?” he asked.

Sam slapped his hand away. “Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.”

“That seems to be a running theme with you these days,” Tristan commented.

Sam opened her mouth to reply with a nasty retort, but Braeden spoke first. “Leave it alone already. You’ve been harping on Sam all day.”

Sam and Tristan both turned to gawp at him. That was twice, now, he’d spoken out unsolicited. “Are you alright?” Tristan asked. He must have been as taken aback by Braeden’s loose-lipped candor as she was; Tristan didn’t even sound angry.

“I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?” Braeden rubbed at his shoulder unconsciously and then caught Sam staring at it. “I’m fine,” he reiterated. He narrowed his eyes at her and jerked his head slightly. She knew what that meant – don’t say anything about his shoulder. Why was Braeden allowed to worry about her, and not vice-versa? She turned her nose up at him.

“I don’t know about you two, but I’m famished,” Tristan said.

Sam was surprised to find she was hungry, too – after watching the surgeon amputate poor Master Evans’ leg, she’d been convinced she’d never want to eat again. But her rumbling stomach had other ideas, apparently. “I could eat,” she said. “But shouldn’t we freshen up first?” They had yet to change out of their torn, bloodstained clothing, and judging by Tristan and Braeden’s disheveled appearance, Sam was sure she looked a frightful mess. The three of them would scare away the rest of The Brass Monkey’s customers.

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