Chapter 1.3 (Kayden)

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Mother's brow furrowed as she tried to wound her again, but Kayden matched her attacks and grazed Mother's side.

The younger crowd stopped cheering. Murmurs broke out.

Nobody had ever been able to leave a scratch on Mother.

Until now.

Mother took a few steps to steady herself, then she lashed out again, her feet moving with practiced precision, a lethal dance. The next time their blades met in a cross, Kayden disarmed Mother of her sword. With two weapons now, Kayden continued her attack.

Every warrior around them fell silent.

Mother crouched low, avoiding a fatal blow and unsheathing two long daggers from her boots.

Sweat trailed down Kayden's back and made her tunic stick to her skin. As the fight continued, Mother managed to knock one of Kayden's swords to the edge of the ring.

Kayden dove away from Mother's airborne dagger, but not quickly enough. She hissed in anger as she yanked the knife from her thigh.

Drawing back her arm, dagger in hand, Kayden was ready to return the knife the same manner in which Mother had so kindly given it to her. The blade found home in Mother's torso.

Like paint splattered on canvas, blood seeped into the queen's tunic. Mother's face was even paler than usual and contorted in agony, but she refused to cry out. She pulled the dagger free and returned to a fighting stance.

Kayden's injured leg felt stronger with each passing moment. Most warriors would've viewed a healing power as a gift--if they had known that type of magic even existed. They would have imagined fighting battles not having to worry about injuries slowing them down.

But to Kayden it was a curse.

It was the reason she was forced to keep her identity a secret, because in the queen's eyes she wasn't a princess or a warrior. She was a weapon, a pawn to ensure Queen Lior stayed in power. But now her weapon had turned on her; Kayden could see the damage she had caused. The eyes of the older generations held a spark, and she knew they saw her as someone equally as powerful as their queen. This was exactly what Mother feared most.

Kayden knew she had to end the battle soon if she wanted to quell what she had started. Their weapons gleamed with each quick strike. Mother disarmed her of the other sword, but Kayden smashed her elbow into her face before she could try another attack.

The crowd gasped as their queen fell. She tried to stand, but Kayden kicked at her wounded midsection.

Mother collapsed.

Kayden stood over her, thinking she had finally ended it. In fact, she had already began scanning the crowd for anyone who dared to creep into the ring and harm their queen. If anyone made a move, Kayden wouldn't hesitate.

But she had misjudged. It was not over.

Mother plunged her dagger into Kayden's foot.

Kayden cried out, following her instinct to pull away, but doing so only created a bigger gash as Mother deepened the dagger's hold. Mother attempted to rise again as she removed the blade.

Kayden lunged, pinning Mother's armed hand to the floor and pressing a dagger to her throat. It nicked her skin, drawing blood.

"Are you done?" Kayden said in a low voice, trying to catch her breath.

Mother had murder in her eyes. She didn't respond.

"I'm the only one qualified enough to carry out the mission," Kayden said. "You know that. Now get up."

Mother nodded, anger still present in the way she pursed her lips.

As Kayden helped her to her feet, she added, "This was my mess, but it'll be cleaned up properly."

Kayden gestured for Malakai. He stepped into the moonlight beside their mother, and Kayden whispered in his ear, "Fetch the slip-of-mind seeds. We'll wipe everyone's memories of this event."

He gave her a hard stare. Then he nodded before disappearing through the crowd.

Kayden had hoped it wouldn't come to this, but she knew this would be the outcome. During the Death Year, when Freca broke alliances and Queen Lior had refused to surrender, many Frecans were slaughtered, leaving droves of children without parents.

It was no secret the Frecan people who were there for the Death Year battle despised their queen for the slaughter of their people. Her once loyal followers whispered behind her back, spreading dissent. It had been Kayden's job to stop these whisperings, but she had also learned the truths Lior hadn't dared tell her. There were always two sides, and Kayden knew better than to believe everything Mother said.

Kayden let her knife clatter to the ground. Her foot no longer bled, but with her will to fight draining away and her healing magic closing her newest wounds, she felt exhausted. Thankfully, she didn't have to worry about hiding her magic; her clothes were stained in so much red, nobody would be able to tell her injuries had miraculously healed themselves.

The crowd stared warily at their queen. Mother stood beside Kayden, fresh blood dripping from her wounds. Mother wore an expressionless mask now, the same one Kayden had learned to wear. But Kayden felt her fury in the way she grabbed her hand hard enough to nearly break bones.

The queen raised their entwined hands above their heads.

"May I present to you," Mother said to the crowd, her tone colder than stone, "the winner of the tournament."

After a long, stunned silence, the crowd started to cheer. Ale sloshed in their mugs and fists punched at the air. Kayden did not smile; she recognized that spark strengthening in their eyes, and she knew she had to act fast. Without waiting for the guards, Kayden ushered Mother out of the room, locking the doors behind them.

Nobody would get out until they all took the slip-of-mind seeds.

By morning, nobody would remember who had won the tournament, but Kayden knew one thing:

She was going to Leodia.

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