Home > A Curse So Dark and Lonely (A Curse So Dark and Lonely #1)(4)

A Curse So Dark and Lonely (A Curse So Dark and Lonely #1)(4)
Author: Brigid Kemmerer

The swordsman begins to pull his weapon.

I backpedal farther, trip over my own feet, and sit down hard in the grass.

“Commander. Stop,” the blond man says. He puts his hands up. “Be at ease. I will not harm you.”

“You chased me.”

“It’s what we do to horse thieves,” the swordsman says.

“Grey.” The blond man cuts a sharp look his way, then extends a hand to me. “Please. You have nothing to fear.”

He must be kidding.

I didn’t get a good look at him before, but I do now. His profile is striking, with high cheekbones and an angular jaw. Rich brown eyes. No freckles, but enough time in the sun to stop anyone from describing him as pale. He wears a white shirt under a high-collared blue jacket accented with leather trim and detailed gold stitching. Gold buckles cross his chest and a dagger is belted to his hip.

He’s staring down at me as if he faces half-crazed girls all the time.

I keep my dagger brandished in front of me. “Tell me where I am.”

“You are on the grounds of Ironrose Castle, in the heart of Emberfall.”

I rack my brain, trying to think of any attractions with those names that could be reasonably close to DC. This castle is huge. I would have heard of it. And Jake’s ticking timer is the one puzzle piece that refuses to fit. There is literally nowhere the swordsman could have taken me so quickly. I wet my lips. “What’s the closest city?”

“Silvermoon Harbor.” He hesitates, then steps closer. “You’re confused. Please—allow me to help you.”

“No.” I thrust the dagger up at him and he stops. “I’m getting out of here. I’m going home.”

“You cannot find your way home from here.”

I glare at the armed man behind him. “He got me here. There has to be a way back.”

The swordsman’s expression is inscrutable, lacking any of the charm of the man in front of me. “There is not.”

I glare up at him. “There has to be.”

His face does not change. “There. Is. Not.”

“Enough.” The blond man extends a hand again. “We will not argue this point in the courtyard. Come. I will show you to a room. Are you hungry?”

I can’t decide if they’re crazy—or if I am. I adjust my grip on the dagger. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“I understand your reluctance, but I cannot allow you to leave the castle grounds. It is unsafe. I have no soldiers to patrol the King’s Highway.”

“The King’s Highway,” I repeat numbly. Everything he says sounds so logical. Not like he’s trying to cajole me into following him. More like he’s surprised I would consider anything else.

I can’t make sense of any of this.

“Please,” he says more gently. “Surely you know we could take you by force.”

My heart skips a beat in my chest. I do know that. I don’t know what’s worse—being taken by force, or going willingly. “Don’t you threaten me.”

“Threaten you?” His eyebrows go up. “You think I intend to threaten you by offering safety and comfort and food?”

He sounds offended. I know men who take what they want. They don’t act like this.

I don’t know where I am, but my body already hurts. I’m not entirely sure I can get off the ground unaided. I definitely can’t run again.

He’s right: they could take me by force. I should conserve my energy.

I can rest. I can eat. I’ll find a way out.

I hold my breath and slide the dagger into its sheath. I expect the men to protest my keeping the weapon, but they don’t.

Despite my determination, this feels like giving up. I wonder what Jake would say.

Oh, Jake. I don’t know if he’s okay. I don’t know what to do.

I can survive this. I have to.

So I grit my teeth, lock down my emotions, and reach up to take his hand.



After we return Ironwill to the stables, the girl walks quietly beside me, her gait uneven enough to tell me she’s truly injured. She’s keeping her distance from both me and Grey, her arms wrapped tightly around her abdomen, one hand resting on the hilt of her dagger.

I’m impressed that she found a weapon—and more so that she went for the stables as a means of escape. Most of the girls Grey drags from her world won’t touch a blade or a bridle, and instead gravitate to the finery found within the lushly outfitted wardrobes inside Ironrose Castle. This early in the season, the other girls would sit by the hearth and gaze at me over crystal goblets, while I’d pour wine and tell stories with just enough devilishness to make them blush.

If I put a crystal goblet in this one’s hand, she’d likely smash it and use the shards to cut me.

“I feel you looking at me,” she says. Sunlight gleams in her night-dark curls. “Stop it.”

Half a dozen compliments leap to my tongue, but she’s not the type to swoon for pretty lies. “I was wondering if you would share your name.”

She hesitates, like she’s weighing the ramifications of the question. “Harper.”

Ah. Of course. No Annabeth or Isabella for this one. A name with edges.

“Harper.” I give her a nod. “I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, my lady.”

She looks like she thinks I’m mocking her. “And who are you?”

“My name is Rhen.” To my left, Grey glances at me, but I ignore him. At one time, I would have used titles to my advantage, dazzling girls with the promise of wealth and power. But as time has passed and my kingdom has fallen into poverty and terror, I have little pride left in who I am.

“You live in a castle,” Harper says. “I’m thinking there’s more than just ‘Rhen.’ ”

“Would a list of titles impress you?” I add a shred of practiced intrigue to my voice, but it takes more effort than it once did. “I’m certain there’s more than just ‘Harper.’ ”

She ignores that and glances away, her eyes finding Grey. “And him?”

“Grey of Wildthorne Valley,” I say. “Commander of the Royal Guard.”

Grey gives her a nod. “My lady.”

“Commander. That means there should be people to command.” Her eyes are narrow and calculating. I have no idea where Grey found her, but her distrust runs deeper than in any of the other girls he’s brought here. “Where are they?”

Many fled and many more died, but I do not say that. “Gone. We are alone.”

“There’s no one else here?”

“You sound skeptical. I assure you, you will find no one else on the property.”

I expect more questions, but she seems to withdraw farther. She’s so determined to keep space between us that she’s practically walking on the narrow edge of the path.

“Do not torment yourself to keep your distance,” I say to her. “You have nothing to fear from me.”

Well. She has nothing to fear now.

“Oh yeah?” Her glare is sharp. “Why don’t you tell me what you were going to do with that woman Commander Grey meant to kidnap?”

“I would not have harmed her.” At least not at first, and not intentionally. Grey is well practiced in keeping them safe once the change overtakes me and violence is inevitable.

“She wasn’t conscious. She wasn’t going willingly.” Her words are fierce. “And for the record, I’m not either.”

I have to look away. Once, this coiled tightness in my chest would have been arrogance. Now it is shame.

I remember a time when my people feared the day I would come to lead—because I was seen as spoiled and selfish and not half the man my father was.

Now I am spoiled and selfish in another way, and no better fit to rule.

We’ve reached the castle steps, and I offer a hand, but she ignores me to limp up the steps on her own. Grey strides ahead of her, reaching for the ornate gold handle. As he swings the door wide, lively music pours out from the Great Hall.

Harper stops short.

“It is only music,” I tell her. “I admit, I once found it wondrous as well.”

Now I hate all of it.

Usually the girls are charmed, even delighted, but Harper looks like she wants to turn and walk right back out of here.

She must steel her nerve, because she moves into the room and peers at the instruments. She places her fingers over the vibrating strings of a violin. “This has to be a trick.”

“You can throw them into the hearth. Beat them into splinters. Nothing stops the music. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

Her eyebrows go up. “You’ve thrown musical instruments … into the fireplace?”

“I have.” In truth, I’ve burned the entire castle to the ground. More than once. The music continues to play from the ash and rubble.

It was actually quite fascinating the first time.

I gesture toward the staircase before she can ask more questions. “Your room, my lady?”

Grey waits behind as Harper follows me up the main staircase and down the west hall. I always take them to Arabella’s room because my eldest sister’s tastes were calm and inviting: flowers and butterflies and lace. Arabella would have slept half the day away if her tutors had allowed it, so food always waits on her side table: honeyed biscuits, jam and sliced cheese, a pot of tea, and a pitcher of water. A small crock of butter will be half-melted beside the biscuits.

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