Chapter 3.1 (Kayden)

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Kayden led her queen down the main corridor. The stone beneath their boots was worn, the dip in the corridor's center barely perceptible in the faintest bend of the firelight. Their footsteps turned to a strange, echoing whisper in the empty hall as they passed dozens of portraits of the previous queens and kings who had ruled beside Lior over the centuries. Each was held in an elegant, pinewood frame. Mother didn't even spare a glance toward them as she limped on, but Kayden paused at the very last portrait—the one of her father.

Over the years, she had found it more and more difficult to remember what he looked like. Even in the painting, he appeared to be a stranger. His tanned white skin, dark eyebrows, neatly combed hair, and stern expression were so different than the memory she had of him. After the Death Year, Lior had locked him in the dungeons for treason while everyone else had believed he'd died from injuries sustained in battle.

Kayden remembered very little of him, but she could recall how frail he looked, his collarbone protruding from his thin tunic, his hair long and straggly, his unkempt beard speckled with gray, and his skin pale as the stark sun. What haunted her most were his eyes, so much like hers, but his held the vacant look of a broken warrior.

Kayden had been raised believing he was a traitor, but as she got older she had learned from whisperings around Clifftop Road that Roland had been the opposite. His only "crime" had been trying to convince their queen to surrender before Stelan became a bloodbath. She had never forgiven him for betraying her interests, even when he had been right and the queen had led her people into a slaughter.

Three years ago, when Kayden had nothing to lose and all her friends were dead, she dared to defy her queen by freeing Roland from his chains. She still didn't know if she had done it in retaliation to Mother's brutal lessons or if she had done it because Roland deserved a chance at vengeance. But all Kayden knew was she had overestimated him; he hadn't stayed to challenge Queen Lior's rule. Instead, he fled Freca and was never heard from again.

Studying Mother out of the corner of her eye, Kayden wondered if Mother had ever loved any of the queens and kings she had wed, but she didn't dare ask. She knew better than to bring up the past, especially since Mother's mask had slipped, revealing the full extent of her anger.

Kayden hoped the threat of murder in Mother's eyes would fade by the time they'd made it down the dungeon steps to Kayden's living quarters beneath the stairs—the last place people would expect their queen to go—but she should have known better.

The moment they entered Kayden's quarters, Mother slammed Kayden against the wall, hands clasped around her throat. Kayden's head hit the stone, her vision wavering, but she did not flinch. Her hands remained limp at her sides, her weapons sheathed.

"Mother," she choked out, finding it harder to breathe with each passing second. Still, she kept her expression unreadable. "You need me."

The briefest flicker interrupted the rage in her eyes, and just like that, she released Kayden. Kayden knew if it wasn't for her magic, her ashes would have been frozen in the ground by now.

This shouldn't have bothered her; it was no secret that Queen Lior held no love for her children. And if she did, it was something sinister and twisted, an obsession for control. Still, Kayden's heart felt hollow. She'd seen families along Clifftop Road and in the lower sectors of Freca, watching parents laugh and smile as they played with their kids. There was one day in particular that stood out to her. A little boy who couldn't have been older than ten was sparring with his father. They used wooden swords instead of steel, something Kayden had never had the luxury of. When the boy misstepped and left his side unguarded, his father simply chuckled and ruffled the boy's hair. It wasn't the reaction Kayden had expected. She kept thinking: where was the anger, the disappointment, and all the death?

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