Chapter 1.2 (Kayden)

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Kayden heard the tournament from the grand room before she could see it. Rounding the corner, she stared up at the massive, intricately carved door depicting the gods and goddesses cloaked in furs and wielding blades. Kayden shook out her hands, trying to ease her nerves.

I can do this.

Cracking open the door, she slipped inside.

This was the largest room in the castle and one of the Frecan people's favorite places. Before the Death Year, Mother had often hosted events and gatherings here, but now the food shortages prevented such festivities.

Noise came from every direction. It was all conversations and shouts of encouragement, sharpening of weapons, booted feet hitting the floor and clinking chains. Around Kayden, heavy, dark red banners draped the walls, the silver lynx of the domain's crest daring her to go on. Silver sconces lined the walls near the dimly lit crowds. Moonlight filtered through the windows on the higher ceilings, showcasing the duo fighting in the center. Servants bustled about, some carrying trays stacked with mugs of ale, others balancing hog roasts and platters of frozen fruit that had been stored for months for this occasion. To an outsider, it looked like there was no shortage, but tonight was a treat from Queen Lior to her people. Tonight, no warrior would go to sleep hungry.

Nearby, an older servant lost his footing as a drunken warrior stumbled into him. The tray of ale he held toppled, the bitter liquid splashing across the stone. The servant whirled toward the man, brandishing a long dagger from beneath his cloak. All residents of Freca were warriors, and the servants were retired warriors who never left their weapons behind.

People in tunics, leather trousers, and fur-lined boots jostled each other to catch a glimpse of the action in the ring. Kayden slipped through the crowd undetected, ducking under the arm of a warrior, but her scarf slipped. She adjusted it over her mouth and nose, checking whether anyone had seen her face. People within Freca knew her by her false backstory. To them, she was Nila Stone, the daughter of a warrior who had fallen ill, which explained why she wasn't around too often.

Nobody would expect her to be royalty; Mother had declared both Alaric and Kayden dead early on once she had discovered their rare magic. Kayden also didn't have the decorative, silver markings that declared her a princess. Instead, she had always worn the simpler designs of a common warrior.

Despite this, Kayden had to keep both of her identities hidden tonight. If the people saw her defeat Queen Lior, they would rally behind poor Nila. And if they discovered that the supposedly dead princess of Freca had defied their queen, loyalties would turn quicker than she could stop them. Kayden didn't want to rule, and she'd never learned how. It was her older half-brother, Malakai, who had been raised to rule.

He was lurking on the outskirts of the ring. The furs he wore were sleek and dark like his hair, his eyes as deadly as the black stones beneath the sea's surface. His hands were tucked behind his back, posture regal, a shadow standing guard. And that was all he'd ever be. She and Alaric had called him the Prince of Shadows; as long as Queen Lior lived, he would remain in the dark until it was his turn to claim the throne.

Ahead, another competitor—the fourth since Kayden had entered the room—surrendered to the queen and stepped out of the ring, the warrior's torn tunic revealing the tattoos covering her body, her hair in wet ringlets around her glistening face. The woman panted, but Mother appeared neither winded nor even a little fatigued. She seemed the way she always did in training: calm, scanning her surroundings, lips slightly pursed.

Before anyone else could volunteer, Kayden stepped into the ring.

Recognition, then fury, filled Mother's deep brown eyes. Out of necessity, Kayden had grown immune to her mother's anger, but she had never seen her look this dangerous, her nostrils flaring, teeth grinding, sword raised.

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