Chapter 5 (Kayden)

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A couple days later, Mother visited Kayden in her living quarters to let her know the ships were to set sail at dawn in four days' time. Kayden nodded once, and Mother walked away. That was the last she saw of her. Her queen didn't come to visit as Kayden packed her few belongings, sheathing her weapons and tucking her journal into her left boot. She didn't stop by as Kayden gathered what little rations and coin she was allowed to take on the voyage to Leodia, and when it was time to leave, Kayden walked out of the castle alone.

She didn't look back.

The icy wind lashed against her as she trudged down the slick path toward the lower sectors. It would take three days to reach Bay's Bridge if the weather didn't get too bad, and from there she'd set sail from Seaview Port.

Kayden pulled her cloak tighter around her. It would take half a day to reach the first trade market nestled in the valley, and she'd rest there for a little while, maybe trade a few coins for hot stew if she could find it, and then she'd be off again.

The day passed slowly, and when Kayden reached the trade market, she was out of luck. It'd been a few years since she had last been in the valley. Whereas before there were travelers trading fine cloaks and hot meals to those who had a fair amount of coin, now there were only scraps of frozen meat and tattered blankets. There were a few people telling stories in exchange for what little food they could get, and Kayden recognized one of them as Niko, her favorite storyteller. She and Alaric used to listen to him for hours, leaning in close to catch his every word.

Kayden couldn't help but step closer at the sound of his familiar tone, the rhythm of it as it rose and fell at all the right moments. His voice sounded weaker as if he were ill, but it held just as much enthusiasm as she remembered. She stood near the back of the crowd, listening to a story she had heard from him long ago.

He told the story of the current Leodian queen's rise to power, how Chhaya Sarvesh had disguised herself as a servant to sneak into the castle. She had been friends with the queen, but jealousy overcame her, and she sought the throne. Chhaya snuck into the queen's quarters, and she stayed there long after she had killed the queen. When the guards finally came, they found Chhaya perched on the edge of the bed, and they found their queen dead with her own sword stabbed through her back.

The guards intended to kill Chhaya for what she had done, and they thought it'd be an easy task--she was unarmed, or so it seemed. When the first guard tried to kill her, the air around Chhaya turned to black, and she grabbed his throat. At her touch, he dropped dead.

Some of the guards gave their allegiance to Chhaya Sarvesh right then and there, fearful of her strange magic. The others tried to stop her, until she summoned her army of spirits. The dead had sided with her--an impossible feat, yet there she stood, surrounded by a chill deeper than death as invisible hands clawed at the soldiers, forcing them to kneel.

From then on, Chhaya Sarvesh held control of the throne. But with her new title came others: Queen Killer, Soulless Queen, Commander of Death. People feared what they did not understand, and nobody understood Chhaya or her magic. Everybody tried to explain her magic through stories, one way or another.

The last time Kayden had heard Niko tell the story of the Queen Killer, he claimed her awful magic was the result of Chhaya selling her soul to the gods for power. This evening, though, he told of Chhaya defying the goddesses and gods and finding a realm where evil forces lurked. There, she summoned her army of the damned.

Kayden grinned sadly. She was going to miss this. The best thing about Niko were that his stories were never the exact same. The endings changed, feeding conspiracies, urging listeners to come back for more. As the crowd applauded, Kayden turned to leave, but Niko's voice cut through the crowd.

"Nila!"

Kayden paused and turned back, answering to her false name. She smiled at him as Nila always had.

"It's been too long," Niko said, drawing her into a hug. He smelled of bonfire smoke. "How have you been? How is your father doing?"

Last he knew, her father's illness had been getting worse. It was time for Kayden to finish the story--to end the act--so she dropped her smile and squeezed her eyes shut. A few tears slipped past, freezing on her cheeks. Niko bought the act, drawing her into another hug.

"My dear girl, I am so sorry." He hesitated. "When did this...?"

"A couple of weeks ago," Kayden choked out.

"Do you need a place to stay?" he said, stepping back and assessing what little possessions Kayden had on her. "My partner and I--"

"Oh, no," Kayden said. "I appreciate your kindness, but I'm afraid I won't be staying in Freca much longer."

Niko furrowed his brows. "Why not?"

Kayden looked at the ground, toeing at the hard-packed snow. "I'm to board the next ship to Leodia. Queen Lior's orders."

"No." Niko's hand flew to his mouth. Tears welled in his eyes. "My dear, don't tell me you were..."

Kayden bit her cheek. She pretended to cry harder and said she had to go, and she took off, leaving Niko behind just like all the others. She hated that she had made him cry, letting him think Queen Lior had sold her unwillingly to Chhaya like she had been doing with other warriors in exchange for food and supplies. In a way it was true--it was the only way for Kayden to enter their enemy's domain without raising suspicion.

As evening melted into night, she reached the second trade market and paid to spend the night in a shabby tent. It wasn't much, but it blocked out the howling winds. Still, she found it hard to sleep, and she tossed and turned. When she did drift off, it never lasted long, tainted by memories of the last time she'd seen Alaric.

They'd had a nasty fight. It was Kayden's fault Alaric's very last friend was dead. When she had freed Father from the dungeons, she was naive to think there'd be no consequences. She had nobody left she cared for--except for Alaric. Mother wouldn't dare harm Alaric directly, but Kayden was foolish to not realize her actions could affect the people he cared for...

Alaric had tried to kill Kayden, but her swordsmanship was stronger. And he hated her for it. And he hated her magic and how it couldn't bring back their friends, and hated that she would always be Mother's favorite. He hated how she never cried, how heartless she had become after Eka's death, but he didn't know she cried when nobody was around. He didn't know that her heart shattered every night when she was alone, over and over. Alaric didn't know these things because Kayden had shut him out.

She dozed off again, and when she woke in the morning to the sun peeking over the mountains, she discovered fresh tears on her face. Regret numbed her more than the cold as she set out again, and the next couple days dragged by until finally, she saw the Roccian Sea stretched out before her.

Ice clung to the shoreline and bobbed under the docks. Off the shore, massive ships were anchored. Without the sails down, their masts looked like swords protruding from the decks.

There were others gathered at the docks, families sobbing and bidding goodbye as their loved ones stepped into the long row boats. Kayden watched them for a little while. The guilt didn't hit till after she joined them on the small boats, heading for the ships. The warriors still had tear-stained cheeks, their eyes swollen as they rowed further from shore. Everyone on board would lose their freedom when they arrived in Leodia. But for Kayden, it was the opposite. She'd be playing along with everyone's games, pretending she was just another warrior the Leodian queen had hired, that she would be the perfect little weapon for Lior and the Shadow Prince.

But when she found Alaric, she would be done playing.

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