Chapter 4 (Kayden)

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Another warrior fell against the icy stone, two daggers lodged deep into his back. The queen stood over his body and scanned the crowd with her piercing gaze, searching for the next warrior who dared to challenge her in the tournament.

Kayden kept her head down, pulling her scarf over her nose. She couldn't risk Mother recognizing her. Not yet.

"Oh goddesses," Eka said. The girl tore her gaze from the bystanders dragging the warrior's body from the ring and looked at Kayden. "You're going to die today. You're going to get yourself—"

"Eka," she interrupted, the faintest smile on her lips as she clasped the girl's hands in hers. "I'm going to be okay."

"No, you're not. You're going to get yourself killed." Eka squeezed Kayden's hands hard enough to bruise them.

"Ouch! Knock it off."

"I won't let you go." Eka kept her grip firm. "Of all days, why did you finally decide tonight is the best time to develop a death wish?"

"I do not have a death wish."

"Look around you."

Kayden had to admit that the longer she watched the tournament, the more she believed Eka's words, but she couldn't afford to doubt herself. She'd spent years stuck in the same place, her fear like snow too deep to travel through, and now she'd finally found the courage to unbury herself. She refused to waste it.

"Unlike you, I have a few tricks up my sleeve," Kayden said.

"Lior Branimir is the queen."

"Is that so?"

Eka shot her a glare. "Nobody has ever defeated her in battle, and you expect to just waltz in there and win? Queen Lior will gut you in seconds."

Kayden glanced at Eka, who wasn't wrong. Mother would likely love to gut Kayden the moment she recognized her, but she'd take her chances.

"Have you ever held a sword before?" Eka asked.

"Do wooden ones count?"

Eka looked like she wanted to gut her now.

"When you die, I'm leaving you for the wolves."

Kayden grinned. "I hope you find joy in that."

"Look, if you're doing this for the silver, we can figure something out. Anything other than this." Eka gestured toward the ring, where another warrior surrendered to the queen. The warrior's face glistened with sweat despite the frigid cold, her breath coming out in quick bursts, and her torn tunic revealed the silver tattoos covering her body—the same tattoos every Frecan citizen wore. These markings were simpler than the intricate designs of Malakai's and Mother's that defined them as royalty.

In the center of the ring, the queen stood strong and proud. Her clothing remained unscathed except for the blood that wasn't hers. Kayden's eyes narrowed as her mother wiped her blade clean. It was always someone else's blood that stained the frost-covered ground, but tonight, the queen's daughter planned to return the favor. Mother had trained Kayden herself for years and without mercy.

Kayden hoped Mother would regret it.

"You wouldn't understand." She averted her gaze from Mother and dug the tip of her boot into the ground, unable to look at Eka. "It's not silver I need."

"Then help me understand, Nila. I'd rather poison myself in the sea than lose my best friend tonight."

There was no way Kayden could explain to Eka the letter that had appeared before her on the mountainside. It was too risky, and if Mother or Malakai discovered Eka knew more than she should, the girl would be the next body burned, her ashes scattered to the wind. Kayden saw the concern in Eka's green eyes and another emotion that lingered like a fleck of gold beneath a stream. She caught glimpses of it, and all she had to do was reach out...

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