Chapter 3.2 (Kayden)

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Kayden braced herself for Mother's rage, but Mother had withdrawn into herself, shoulders hunched, eyes closed. Her knuckles paled as she gripped Malakai's hand, but he didn't protest. When Mother lifted her head, there was a vulnerable glint in her gaze.

Kayden frowned—Mother rarely showed her emotions, usually only anger. Kayden had always thought she hid her emotions behind a stone wall, like everything that wasn't a ruthless queen had been locked inside. Seeing what looked so much like fear made Kayden feel as if she was glimpsing beyond that wall now, and it made her uneasy.

Fear was something a queen never dared show, at least not Lior Branimir.

"Our only chance to successfully eliminate the war generals is Kayden," Malakai pressed. "As your second in command, I believe it is in our best interests to send her to Leodia."

"That is the last place she should go," Mother said. "The Leodian queen knows of the prophecy. She's the only endelea who has lived as long as I have." Mother's fingers darted to the necklace she always wore. She twisted the chain.

It was gold with a deep green pendant.

Leodia's colors.

Whenever Kayden had asked about that pendant, Mother's eyes became distant and she wouldn't answer.

"Queen Chhaya won't know who she is," Malakai said.

Kayden was startled he was defending her. Still, she kept her expression neutral and prayed silently to Tariro, the goddess of hope. Whatever it was Malakai planned to say, she wished he wouldn't screw it up for her.

"The entire world believes the princess of Freca is dead," Malakai continued. "You made sure of it. She can hide that she's the vastera and use her alias."

Kayden nodded. "I can get the job done."

Mother appeared deep in thought as she unsheathed a dagger, turning it over and over between her fingers, her movements quick, precise. She stared at the blade, brows furrowed slightly. "The people of Freca have very little respect for me. I saw it at the tournament. Even a fool couldn't miss it. Regardless of whether they remember what went down this evening, it doesn't matter." Mother paused, watching her reflection in the dagger. "The risk of Kayden leaving my side--"

Malakai cut in. "Freca will be safer if--"

Before Kayden could blink, Mother's dagger was at his throat.

"How dare you interrupt your queen?" Mother hissed, drawing blood.

Kayden stiffened.

Malakai didn't flinch, but he looked down, bowing his head slightly. It was the thing you did if you didn't want your throat slit.

"My apologies, my queen," Malakai said.

Mother kept the knife to his throat, and although Kayden didn't care much for Malakai, she prayed he'd stay silent.

Her prayers went unanswered.

"I meant no offense," Malakai continued. "You may be safer when Kayden is around, but what happens when Leodia decides to strike? Your people are feeble, both in strength and their allegiances. Some of them will turn on you. There are only so many Kayden can quell before they overpower her.

"But, there is a solution." Malakai cautiously met his queen's gaze. Mother glared back, but curiosity lingered beneath the surface. "Sending Kayden to assassinate the targets will delay the inevitable attack. It will grant you time to strengthen your people's allegiance to you. Your reign will be stronger than it has in years, and you will rise above Leodia's forces to win the war."

"Freca is strong," Mother said, a bit too harshly. "We have the wearian tree. It gives us leverage over the other domains."

Bryne was the main distributor of wearia to the domain of Englia, but now Leodia is the main supplier. Ever since Leodia had won the last war and burned Bryne's tree, the other wearian trees had begun to die.

"My queen," Kayden said, keeping her voice calm because the knife was still pressed to Malakai's throat. Her heartbeat thudded rapidly in her chest at what she was about to say. These words weren't so unlike Father's, the very ones that landed him in the dungeons for treason. "We don't have leverage. Trade with Freca is heavily restricted by Leodia, regardless of whether we have the only other wearian tree in the world. We must weaken our enemy."

Slowly, Mother sheathed her knife.

Kayden caught the briefest look of relief flash over Malakai's features. He moved to sit beside Kayden on the bed, and Kayden didn't miss how he put her between him and Mother. Kayden wished she could use Malakai as a shield instead.

"Are you implying that Frecan will fall?" Mother asked.

Kayden's heartbeat quickened and she cursed under her breath. She glanced away.

"What was that?" Mother gripped Kayden's chin, forcing her to look up. "I couldn't hear you."

"Kayden is right. Freca will fall if we do nothing to weaken our enemy," Malakai said, fingers knotting into the furs of his cloak. "We need time to strengthen allegiances, and Kayden can provide us with that. She's a weapon."

Kayden hated being called this, but it was true. It was all she had been trained to be. Nothing more, nothing less.

"But what about the bigger picture, the one after Kayden has successfully weakened our enemy?" Malakai mused. "What happens when, years from now, the wearian trees are all on the brink of death?" Mother sat up a little straighter, but she winced at the slight shift, pressing a hand to her wounded torso. "Chaos will reign across the domains. The people will become desperate for a savior."

Kayden's stomach twisted. She saw where this was headed, and she didn't like it. On sleepless nights she'd lay awake, thinking of all the ways she could be weaponized. It would only be a matter of time before Mother realized she could be used to take control of all the domains, but Kayden never dared to plant that seed in Mother's head. As long as Mother remained obsessed over regaining control of the Frecan people, she wouldn't be looking at the bigger picture.

Unless Malakai painted it in Mother's mind.

Kayden gritted her teeth, but she didn't stop him. If this was the only way to go to Leodia, then so be it.

"Kayden's identity will no longer need to be kept secret," Malakai said. "Use her as leverage. The one who controls Kayden controls all the domains. Let chaos reign. Let the trees die until everyone is so desperate they bend the knee to you and only you, begging Queen Lior to restore the trees. And if they don't kneel..."

"Indecision is death," Kayden whispered, finishing his sentence.

Mother stood, steadier than before, and slid a gorgeous dagger from her wrist sheath, one she had made herself. At the sight of it, Kayden tensed, wondering if she had said the wrong thing.

Mother spent a few moments examining the dagger in her hand, tilting it so the blade caught the firelight. Then, she handed it to Kayden, handle first.

"When you kill the generals, be sure it's by my blade."

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