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Prologue (Three Years Earlier)

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It was evening. Pale clouds encroached upon the salmon-pink sky, threatening a blizzard. The forested landscape was beautiful -- serene, even -- but inside a magnificent tent Marithyda Skyelorn stalked into the middle of an arena, wooden floorboards protesting under her boots. She was met with a mixture of cheers and protests. Both faded into nothingness when the King stood from the front row and raised his hand for silence.

"Please welcome Marithyda Skyelorn, our final performer, to the stage." The King's gruff voice was soon drowned out by cheers and more conflicting shouts. Her stomach buckled, and she could feel her magic already swarming at her fingertips. She was ready. "You may have been expecting her to perform mind-bending feats of illusion and mystery, but I have devised a far more impressive task for our champion."

Marithyda finally looked up at the King, surprised. His short graying hair and beard lent him a soft appearance. However, his hulking size and beady black eyes told an entirely different story. Rage boiled in her stomach just at the sight of him. She glanced to the King's side, searching for him. The seat was empty. The moisture was sucked from her mouth. Where was he?

"What sort of a task?" Marithyda called up, distracted. The King's dark eyes glittered by the light of the torches on the walls, and he snapped his beefy fingers. Immediately, one of the gates surrounding the perimeter of the lowered arena squealed open and out stumbled ...

No. No!

"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my son, Prince Markus Winship, to the stage!" The audience gasped aloud, and Marithyda prayed that this was some sort of illusion, some form of magic far more powerful than any she'd ever known. But that was not the case.

Markus gazed at her calmly with startling blue eyes, his shoulder-length brown hair sticking to the sweat on his face. Two of the King's guards led him away until he was standing pressed against one of the banners suspended from the rafters above. She struggled to keep her expression neutral.

"The final performance is comprised of this: Skyelorn will throw three flaming swords at Prince Markus, Karvoth's Crown Prince and the next heir for the throne. Failure is not an option, and would of course result in immediate execution." He turned and gazed down at the young witch, smug. "I'm sure your magic is powerful enough to prevent this fate, yes?"

Marithyda was still gazing at Markus, at the purple-and-blue royal crest printed over his sternum, at the place on his side where he usually hid a small dagger. The King was trying to break her, to make her admit to everyone in the arena that she cared more for the Prince than was appropriate for a lowly circus performer.

But she wasn't some lovesick teenager.

"My powers have no boundaries," she called back, sweeping her midnight black cloak behind her. "I readily accept the final act."

Before she could organize her muddled thoughts, the King smirked and a guard set three razor-sharp swords at her feet. The blades gleamed; curving smiles, mocking her predicament. The audience hushed, and Marithyda shuffled her boots. Adrenaline rushed through her entire body, tingling with the uncontrollable taint of her magic. She'd done incredible things before, and she'd have to do them again. She had no choice. Sucking in a large breath, she raised her fiery orange gaze to the Prince and picked up the first sword. His gaze was calm, but she knew him enough to detect his well-disguised distress. I won't hurt you, she tried to tell him. I promise.

"Whenever you're ready," the King leered from behind. Marithyda had held her breath for hours under water, had crossed a blazing inferno unscathed, had escaped the clutches of a starving lion. Why was she so afraid to throw these blades? Of course, she knew the answer.

Drawing in another quick breath, she raised her arm, set the metal ablaze with magical fire, and flung the sword towards Markus. It tossed handle over blade until it impaled itself just above his left shoulder. Its aim was true, lodging safely into the banner behind the Prince. The audience gasped in unison then began to clap hesitantly. But she wasn't relieved. There were still two more swords -- two more risks to take.

Marithyda's heart thumped so wildly that she could feel it in her fingertips. She forced herself to stare straight at the Prince, straight into his familiar blue eyes. For a split second, he flashed a sad smile. A smile only for her. Before she could lose her nerve, she picked up the second sword and set fire to it. The heat singed her fingertips, but she healed her skin as soon as it began to smart. The spectators were silent. Only the sound of the singing sword could be heard as it sailed through the air and landed just centimeters above the Prince's head.

He closed his eyes tight and shifted uncomfortably. The flames were beginning to spread across the banner's fabric. She had to hurry.

Finish the task, and it will all be over, Marithyda told herself.

"Not bad," the King drawled. "But there's yet one more sword."

"Easy," she whispered, levitating the dagger in front of her torso. She flicked her wrists and the flames burst into a brilliant blue. Some of the audience members gasped in wonder, while others muttered disapprovingly. Across the arena, Markus gave a nearly imperceptible nod. It's okay, it seemed to say. It's okay.

But it wasn't.

With a gut-wrenching scream of frustration, Marithyda released the burning sword and sent it flying towards the Crown Prince. She knew something was wrong far before her magic rebounded and blasted her backwards into the gated entryway. Her head slammed into the metal and her rib cracked on a jutting bolt. Marithyda groaned, her vision clouding with pain. She managed to raise herself just enough to watch as the final sword flipped in midair -- hilt, blade, hilt, blade, hilt -- and sank blade-first into her Prince's heart.

The audience screamed, and the King ranted, and Marithyda sprinted across the stage and cradled the still-warm corpse of the only person she'd ever loved.

It started to snow.

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