Chapter 1.1 (Kayden)

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Kayden Branimir held the last remaining proof of her twin brother's existence, then she shoved it into the lantern's flame. The parchment curled like fingertips trying to protect the cryptic message, but it quickly turned to ash.

The letter had appeared on Kayden's lap while she was painting a couple weeks ago. Letters didn't just manifest from thin air; only Alaric possessed the magic to pull off such tricks. That was what Kayden had thought it was: a trick. He couldn't be alive.

He would've been eighteen now, but Alaric had died two years ago.

At least that was what Kayden and her mother, queen of Freca, had thought when he disappeared on an intelligence mission in their rival domain. After a year without word from Alaric, he was declared gone. Because when you worked for Queen Lior, you didn't just vanish.

Unless she wanted you to.

But the letter whose ashes now ventured into the breeze indicated otherwise, written in a secret code only he and Kayden knew, one they had created on long days with no missions. She had memorized every word of it.

I never wanted to abandon you, but I had no choice. I've done terrible things in Leodia, and I don't have much time left. Please, help me.

She and Alaric had both done unspeakable things under their mother's command, but Alaric had never admitted to the cruelty of their actions. To him, it was duty. For him to admit he had committed terrible acts meant that whatever had happened in Leodia was far worse than the ghosts that used to haunt Kayden's dreams each night.

Indecision is death, she reminded herself. It was the motto at the core of Mother's lessons, which had stolen each of her childhood friends one by one. Kayden couldn't back down now; she had been preparing for the tournament every day since Alaric's letter. It was her only way out of Freca.

Kayden's daggers and sword gleamed in the faint lantern light as she shed her heavy fur cloak. She had made up her mind. Kayden would find Alaric, no matter the cost. Even if it meant entering the tournament—the one she was forbidden from attending—to face her queen.

This evening, every elite warrior in Freca was in the castle, but out on the balcony it was quiet. Around her, high in the snow-capped mountains, lay part of Freca. At dawn or late in the evening, the mountains often glowed along Clifftop Road in a flickering ring of fire.

But tonight the road was dark.

Kayden ran her fingers over the railing, testing the stone for ice. Then she climbed over it and turned, surrendering herself to the frigid air. She grasped the ledge of a window below. Even though she told herself not to look down now that she dangled from the castle's wall, she did and regretted it. The dark void below hid the jagged rocks, and it seemed to invite her to come closer.

Usually this didn't scare her. She'd had no reason to fear falling, but this evening the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. One mistake was all it took. If she failed to make it to Leodia, would Alaric still live?

As she found a foothold, her hand lost its grip on a patch of icy stone where the sun must not have been able to chase away the chill.

Kayden bit back a curse.

Focus.

Over the years, she'd had plenty of practice climbing the castle walls and scaling the surrounding mountains. This should have been a simple task, but for the first time in years, her nerves got the better of her.

Kayden swung to the side, regaining her hold on the windowsill before descending the stone wall. When her foot brushed against the top of another window, she let go and landed on the balcony in a crouch.

Then she ran. With every step leading her deeper into the heart of the castle, she finally allowed herself to think the word.

Freedom.

It had become a foreign word, one she had prayed for every night since Alaric had vanished. Kayden had tried to paint freedom with every brushstroke, but no matter how open and bright her paintings appeared, the canvas edges always reminded her that boundaries were everywhere. There was no freedom for her here in Freca.

Sure, she could roam outside the castle walls whenever she pleased, scale the highest peaks to get away for a little while, but her idea of true freedom meant being allowed to care for someone.

After today, Kayden might finally find it again. All she had to do was defeat her mother in the tournament. The best warriors of Freca would be here to challenge their queen, the greatest fighter to have ever lived. The one who came closest to winning would receive a mission: kill the rival's war generals.

Although warrior status didn't qualify a person as a trained assassin, Mother was desperate. The domain was dying, the people were starving, and many of her spies had been killed. They were running out of time; the generals had to be eliminated to delay the inevitable attack.

This was the perfect cover to find Alaric.

As long as Kayden defeated her mother, she would have the chance to save the only person left worth fighting for. But that didn't change her biggest problem: Mother despised losing, and she would do anything to prevent that from happening.

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