Prologue

The winter wind howled through the mountain peaks, making the noose swing from its support. I swallowed as I stared up that noose, feeling it tighten around my own neck, even though I wasn't to be the one to die.

Beside me, Alex reached out and fingered the lace cuff on the sleeve of my dress. "Your slippers don't match," he said. "And neither does your cloak."

I looked down. He was right; the blue slippers and deep red cloak didn't compliment the emerald of the gown I'd pulled on that morning. But then, I hadn't been paying much attention to what I was doing, and I was almost grateful for my state of disarray. If I had matched, well, Alex wouldn't have had a comment to offer me: he would have had a question.

How did you choose what to wear to your best friend's execution?

I belatedly remembered his hand was still at my wrist. "Don't touch me." I removed my my sleeve from his grasp and took a step away, my gaze fixed on the ground.

Wind whipped through the courtyard again, and I snatched at my cloak, trying to hold it tighter around myself. As soon as I did so, I regretted the motion. My hand shot up and undid the brooch holding the garment closed, and I let it fall to the flagstones. I gulped against the sudden cold, a shiver wracking my body, but I refused to pick the cloak up again. If Cassara was going to come out into this, wearing nothing more than a sackcloth prison gown, then the least I could do was suffer with her.

"Arita, what are you doing?" Alex stooped to pick up the cloak, but I kicked it out his reach. He frowned, and then reached to unfasten his own. "Here, you can have mine if you're so concerned about matching."

I wasn't concerned about matching, and it wouldn't have mattered if I was, because his cloak was black, not green. It was the principle of the matter, and as he tried to wrap his cloak around me, I stepped away, out of his reach again.

"Arita, stop being ridiculous. You're freezing. You'll catch your death out here." He was probably right. Though it was early March and spring was in full bloom in most of the Empire, winter still held the western mountains, and the Citadel, close. Even now snow was drifting down—I could feel it sting my bare face and hands, leave dots of icy damp on my collarbone. But I wasn't going to give in to Alexandre Levanue. Not today.

"Catch my death? Then at least Cassara won't be the only one."

He winced. Good. That comment had been meant to hurt.

I suddenly realized that this was my chance. If I were going to petition him to help Cassara, I had to do it now, while he was still vulnerable. "You can stop this, Alex," I whispered, edging closer to him. "You can save her. Help her. Please!"

"You've never pleaded on behalf of a prisoner before."

"She's not just a prisoner! She's Cassara!" I automatically reached out to touch his arm, but stopped myself short before my fingers could brush his sleeve. I couldn't give in. Wouldn't. "She's Cassara, Alex," I begged. "Don't let her die like this."

We had been the only two speaking, though the entire staff of the Citadel was gathered in the courtyard, bundled up against the weather. Now, the silence left after my plea was broken by the clattering of chains. Alex and I turned as one, a motion born of years spent in each others' company. And there she was: blond hair wild and matted, eyes lowered, hands and feet restrained by shackles. She'd lost so much weight; how could that have happened? We had made sure she'd been fed.

It's my fault, I thought, the words barbs under my heart. I'm her best friend. Her only friend here. I shouldn't have let this happen.

But what could I have done to stop it? I was just the warden here. The one who had condemned her to die was Alex. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye. He was the cause of those purple bags under her eyes, he was the reason her cheeks were so sunken and gaunt. Knowing that he had signed her execution papers had killed her long before the hangman would have the opportunity to do so.

Davien had his hand on her shoulder. When they reached the front of the crowd and drew even with us, he paused. "Are you sure?" he asked, his eyes on Alex. His voice was pitched low, but it carried in the near-silence.

"I have to be."

Why wasn't she fighting? It wasn't like Cassara to go to her doom without a fight. Maybe she would have when she had first arrived, but after months here, after everything that had happened, I didn't think she would give up so easily.

Davien moved her forward again, but there was something, a glimmer—but maybe not. No matter how hard I looked, I couldn't see it again. But for just an instant, I'd thought she was enchanted.

Davien led her to the scaffold, where he handed her off to the executioner. The hooded man had come from Arylia specially for this job.

My eyes strayed to the scaffold itself, where her execution papers had been nailed. The papers which bore Alex's signature.

"Oh, Alex," I whispered. My eyes stung and my vision blurred, and I blinked until the tears rolled free down my cheeks. "What have you done?"

I didn't believe she'd killed anyone. I knew she hadn't killed anyone, and I knew Alex knew that, as well. The crime she was to die for had been committed long before any of us had been born. And she was to be punished for it.

"Ladies, Alex, what have you done?"

He had destroyed her, that was what he had done. He had taken in an innocent girl, led her on an adventure, lied to her, betrayed her, and condemned her to die. And he called himself a man of honor.

The hangman stepped forward and looped the noose around her neck. The wind rose once more, whistling through the peaks and the courtyard, moaning a funeral dirge for the girl who would die this day. And as much as I wanted to look away, I refused to do so. I wouldn't let her die knowing that her only friend in the world hadn't been able to face her. And anyway, I wouldn't have to look much longer.

Soon, it would all be over.