Home > A Curse So Dark and Lonely (A Curse So Dark and Lonely #1)(15)

A Curse So Dark and Lonely (A Curse So Dark and Lonely #1)(15)
Author: Brigid Kemmerer

“He’s on his own playing cards,” I mutter. No wonder people recognize him on sight. “Wild.”

“Your own leaders are on your currency.” Grey gestures for the card I hold, then deftly shuffles it into the deck. “Is this so different?”

I blink at him. “How do you know that?”

“I am not completely ignorant of your world. How could I be?”

“I have no idea. I still don’t understand what you were doing there. Why you were kidnapping that girl. Rhen says he has to complete a task.”

He begins to deal the cards between us. “There are many things I am forbidden to say.”

I sigh. “Of course.”

“Yet many I am not.” He finishes dealing, leaving seven cards in front of me, and seven in front of himself. The rest of the deck he places between us, with one card faceup: the five of swords. “Ask your questions.”

“My first question is, what are we playing?”

“King’s Ransom. Match the suit or the face. Queens and princes are wild. First person to finish with only kings in their hand is the winner—but if you play a prince card, you can steal one of your opponent’s kings.”

I repeat that back to myself. Matching suits or numbers. My tired brain can manage that. I have a five of crowns in my hand, so I lay it down. “You know about our money. So that woman wasn’t the first you’ve tried to kidnap.”

“No.” He places a seven of crowns on the pile.

I put down a seven of stones. “How many have there been?”

A three of stones. “Hundreds. I admit, I have lost track.”

My hand freezes on a three of swords. I have no idea what number I was expecting, but that wasn’t it. “Hundreds? You’ve kidnapped hundreds of women?” I narrow my eyes at him as I work through that in my head. “Exactly how old are you?”

“Exactly? That, I cannot say. The curse began on the first day of autumn in my twentieth year, and lasts one season. When it is not broken, the season begins anew.”

“So you’ve been twenty for like … ever?”

“Longer than most, it would seem.” He gives a brief shake of his head. “When the season begins again, it does not feel as though time has passed. I do not feel as though I have aged. It is more like a dream than a memory.”

Interesting. “How old is Rhen?”

“You arrived on the eighteenth anniversary of his birth.”

“The eighteenth—his birthday? Today was his birthday?” My voice rises as I remember the instruments, the tables loaded with cakes and pastries and delicacies. The party without people. “You kidnap him a girl for his birthday?”

The look Grey gives me is unyielding. “I choose a girl to break the curse. No more, no less.”

I study him. “Okay, so what do I need to do?”

“Once I would have had an answer for you. But I have seen the curse go unbroken for so long that I’m not sure there is anything you can consciously do.”

“Rhen said he must complete a task.”

“In a way.” His voice is careful, and I sense we’re treading near questions he cannot answer.

“So I’m stuck here.”

He nods.


“If the curse goes unbroken, you will return home when the season ends. Not before.”

Three months. I slide my cards between my hands and try not to let panic overtake me. Nothing has changed. Nothing is different. I can deal with this. “What happened to all those other women?”

“That depends on the season and the girl.”

“Did they die?”

“Not all. But some did. Yes.” He gestures to the pile between us. “Play your card, if you please.”

I drop it on the pile. My breathing feels very shallow suddenly.

He drops a card on top of mine, and we play in silence for the longest time, the fire snapping behind him.

Eventually, he has to draw. “So few questions, my lady?”

“Why do you do it?”

He lays down a queen of stones. “I swore an oath to protect the royal family, for the good of Emberfall. Only I have been granted the ability to cross over to your side.” He pulls at a strip of leather where armor encircles his forearm, and a silver band gleams beneath. “At the start of each season, this band allows me one hour to cross over to your world. If I fail to retrieve a girl, there is no chance to break the curse. We must wait out the season and begin again.”

I roll that around in my head for a minute. “Does the season restart for everyone?”

“No. Only on the grounds of Ironrose Castle. Outside of Ironrose, time marches on.”

So that’s why the seasons changed when we passed through the forest. “What about the monster people keep talking about?”

“What do you want to know?”

“Coale says it lives in the castle.”

He hesitates. “That is a rumor to protect the people from the curse. Nothing more.”

“What kind of monster is it?”

His hands go still on his cards. “It is always different. But always horrible.”

“Different how?”

“Sometimes the creature is a giant beast with horns and fangs. Sometimes it is reptilian, with claws like knives. Sometimes—the worst times—the monster is winged, and can take to the air.”

I frown. “But it’s all one creature? How do you know it’s not a bunch of them?”

His eyes glance up to find mine, but he says nothing.

I chew at my lip and lay down another card. Everyone is asleep, but I lower my voice anyway. “Rhen said his family was killed by the monster. The king and queen?”

A slow nod. “And his sisters, my lady.”

This knowledge shouldn’t tug at something inside of me, but it does. I don’t want to feel sympathy for Rhen—but thoughts of Jake and my mother are so consuming that I can’t help it. “Coale and Evalyn think the king and queen have locked themselves away. They don’t know they’re dead?”

Grey hesitates. “If the people were to discover their rulers are dead, the problems could be far-reaching. Revolt. Civil war. The kingdom could be attacked, and we have no army with which to fight.”

I study him. “So the king closed the borders. Sealed up the castle. That’s why Evalyn said there’s no trade. That’s why they’re worried about invaders.”

“Prince Rhen closed the borders. Using his father’s seal. He started the rumors of possible invasions, inspiring the people to turn away others. He denied trade attempts and claimed it was his father’s order. At first it was wise, a protective maneuver. But as time has gone on, you can see that the people have suffered.”

Yes. I can see. I saw it in Freya and her children. And now, though less so, I see it in Coale and Evalyn.

We play for a while in silence, until my cards run down to three, and I have to start drawing. I end up with a prince of swords.

I smile and turn it around. “Ha! Didn’t you say I could kidnap your kings with this?”

“Just one.” He tosses it down.

I slip the king between my other cards. “Now it’s just a matter of time until I win.”

“We shall see.”

“Did you play cards with the other hundreds of girls?”


That surprises me. “Why not?”

He rubs at his jaw. “That is a complicated question, my lady. Likely for the same reason I never found need to face them with a weapon.”

I study him. “Are you insulting me?”

“No.” He sets down a four of hearts. “Quite the opposite, in fact.”

I’m not sure what to do with that. Words spoken in the dark in the middle of the night always feel so much heavier than they would at any other time. “Do you play cards with Rhen?”

He nods. “Often.”

“Can I ask you another question about the curse?”

“You may certainly try.”

I put down a two of hearts, leaving only two cards in my hand. The king I kidnapped, and the nine of swords. Grey has four cards left in his hands. “Who was cursed? Is it just him? Or you too?”

He takes a long breath, and I don’t think he’s going to answer. But then he says, “My answer to that question has changed over time, my lady. Once I would have told you that His Highness alone suffered.” He places a nine of hearts on the pile.

A nine! I begin to slide my last card free.

But then Grey turns around his other three cards. All kings.

I’m stunned. I’ve been watching him pick up and lay down cards since we started and I never would have guessed he had any, much less three. “You win.”

He doesn’t revel in the victory, but instead begins gathering the cards. “Another game?”

“Sure.” Now I want to watch him do it again.

While he deals, I say, “You never finished saying who’s cursed. If it’s not Rhen, is it you?”

“No. Nothing so simple.” He picks up his cards and meets my eyes. “Have you not figured it out yet? The curse torments us all.”



Like so many other things, sleep eludes me.

I listen to the wind as it whistles through the shutters. The fire has fallen to almost nothing, but I don’t care to feed it. The cold suits my mood.

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