A Curse So Dark and Lonely – Brigid Kemmerer

There is blood under my fingernails. I wonder how many of my people I’ve killed this time. I thrust my hands into the barrel beside the stables. The ice-cold water bites at my skin, but the blood clings. I shouldn’t bother, because it will all be gone in an hour anyway, but I hate this. The blood. The not knowing. Hooves ring against the cobblestones somewhere behind me, followed by the jingle of a horse’s bridle. I don’t need to look. My guard commander always follows at a safe distance until the transition is complete. Guard commander. As if Grey has men left to command. As if he didn’t earn the title by default. I swipe the water from my hands and turn. Grey stands a few yards back, holding the reins of Ironheart, the fastest horse in the stables.

The animal is blowing hard, its chest and flanks damp with sweat despite the early-morning chill. For as long as we’ve been trapped here, Grey’s appearance is somehow a continual surprise. He looks as young as the day he earned a position in the elite Royal Guard, his dark hair slightly unkempt, his face unlined. His uniform still fits him well, every buckle and strap perfectly arranged, every weapon shining in the near darkness. He once carried a gleam of eagerness in his eye, a spark for adventure. For challenge. That gleam has long since gone dark, the only aspect of his appearance that is never remade by the curse. I wonder if my unchanged appearance startles him, too. “How many?” I say. “None.

All of your people are safe this time.” This time. I should be relieved. I am not. My people will be at risk again soon enough. “And the girl?” “Gone. As always.” I look back at the blood staining my hands, and a familiar tightness wraps around my rib cage. I turn back to the barrel and bury my hands in the water. It’s so cold it nearly steals my breath.

“I’m covered in blood, Commander.” A lick of anger curls through my chest. “I killed something.” As if sensing danger, his horse stomps and dances at the end of the reins. Grey puts out a hand to calm the animal. Once there would have been a stablehand rushing to take his horse, especially upon hearing my tone. Once there was a castle full of courtiers and historians and advisers who would have turned over a coin for a bit of gossip about Prince Rhen, heir to the throne of Emberfall. Once there was a royal family that would have frowned on my antics. Now there is me, and there is Grey. “I left a trail of human blood on the path out of the forest,” he says, unaffected by my anger.

He’s used to this. “The horse led a good chase, until you fell on a herd of deer in the southernmost part of your lands. We stayed well away from the villages.” That explains the condition of the animal. We traveled far tonight. “I’ll take the horse,” I say. “The sun will be up soon.” Grey hands over the reins. This final hour is always the hardest. Full of regret for my failure once again.

As always, I just want to get this over with. “Any special requests, my lord?” In the beginning, I was frivolous enough to say yes. I’d specify blondes or brunettes. Big breasts, or long legs, or tiny waists. I’d wine them and woo them and when they did not love me, another was easily found. The first time, the curse had seemed like a game. Find me one you like, Grey, I’d said, laughing, as if finding women for his prince was a privilege. Then I changed, and the monster tore through the castle, leaving a bloodbath. When the season began again, I had no family left. No servants.

Only six guardsmen, two of whom were badly injured. By the third season, I had one. Grey is still waiting for a response. I meet his eyes. “No, Commander. Anyone is fine.” I sigh and begin leading the horse toward the stables, but then stop and turn. “Whose blood made the trail?” Grey raises an arm and draws his sleeve back. A long knife wound still bleeds down into his hand, a slow trickle of crimson. I’d order him to bind it, but the wound will be gone in an hour, when the sun is fully up.

So will the blood on my hands and the sweat on the horse’s flanks. The cobblestones will be warm with early-fall sunlight, and my breath will no longer fog in the morning air. The girl will be gone, and the season will begin again. I’ll be newly eighteen. For the three hundred twenty-seventh time. CHAPTER TWO HARPER Washington, DC, is so cold it should be illegal. I pull up the hood of my sweatshirt, but the material is practically threadbare, and it doesn’t do much good. I hate being out here playing lookout, but my brother has the worse end of this job, so I try not to complain. Somewhere down the street, a man shouts and a car horn blares. I bite back a shiver and suck more tightly into the shadows.

I found an old tire iron near the curb earlier, and I twist my fingers against the rusted metal, but whoever it was seems far away. A glance at the timer on Jake’s phone tells me he has another thirteen minutes. Thirteen minutes, and he’ll be done, and we can go buy a cup of coffee. We don’t really have money to spend, but Jake always needs time to unwind, and he says coffee helps. It ratchets me up so I can’t sleep, which means I don’t crash until four in the morning and then I miss school. I’ve missed enough days of my senior year that it probably doesn’t matter anymore. I sure don’t have any friends who’ll miss me. So Jake and I will sit in a corner booth of the all-night diner, and his hands will tremble on the mug for a few minutes. Then he’ll tell me what he had to do. It’s never good.

I had to threaten to break his arm. I twisted it up behind his back. I think I almost dislocated it. His kids were there. It was awful. I had to punch him. Told him I was going to hit him until a tooth came loose. He found the money real quick. This guy was a musician. I threatened to smash a finger.

I don’t want to hear the ways he shakes them down for cash. My brother is tall and built like a linebacker, but he’s always been gentle and soft-spoken and kind. When Mom first got sick, when Dad got involved with Lawrence and his men, Jake would look out for me. He’d let me sleep in his room or sneak me out of the house for ice cream. That was when Dad was around, when Dad was the one getting threatened by Lawrence’s “bill collectors,” the men who’d come to our door to reclaim the money Dad had borrowed. Now Dad’s gone. And Jake’s playing “bill collector” just to keep them off our backs. Guilt twists my insides. If it were just me, I wouldn’t let him do it. But it’s not just me.

It’s Mom, too. Jake thinks he could do more for Lawrence. Buy us more time. But that would mean actually doing the things he’s only threatening to do. It would mean truly hurting people. It would break him. I can already see how even this is changing him. Sometimes I wish he’d drink his coffee in silence. I told him that once, and he got mad. “You think it’s hard to listen? I have to do it.

” His voice was tight and hard and almost broke. “You’re lucky, Harper. You’re lucky you just have to hear about it.” Yeah. I feel super lucky. But then I felt selfish, because he’s right. I’m not quick, and I’m not strong. Playing lookout is the only way he’ll let me help. So now, when he needs to talk about these near-atrocities, I keep my mouth shut. I can’t fight, but I can listen.

I glance at the phone. Twelve minutes. If his time runs out, it means the job went bad, and I’m supposed to run. To get Mom out. To hide. We’ve gotten down to three minutes before. Two minutes. But he always appears, breathing hard and sometimes speckled with blood. I’m not worried yet. Rust flakes under my fingertips as I twist the ice-cold tire iron in my hand.

Sunrise isn’t far off, but I’ll probably be too frozen by then to even notice. A light feminine laugh carries in the air nearby, and I peek from the doorway. Two people stand alone by the corner, just at the edge of the circle of light cast by the streetlamp. The girl’s hair shines like a shampoo commercial, swinging as she staggers a little. The bars all closed at three a.m., but she clearly didn’t stop. Her micro-mini and open denim jacket make my sweatshirt feel like a parka. The man is more suitably dressed, in dark clothes, with a long coat. I’m trying to decide if this is a cop busting a hooker or a john picking up a date, when the guy turns his head.

I duck back into the doorway. Her laughter rings through the street again. Either he’s hilarious or this girl is hammered. The laugh cuts short with a gasp. Like someone yanked a plug. I hold my breath. The silence is sudden and absolute. I can’t risk looking. I can’t risk not looking. Jake would be so pissed.

I have one job here. I imagine him yelling. Don’t get involved, Harper! You’re already vulnerable! He’s right, but cerebral palsy doesn’t mean my curiosity is broken. I peek out around the edge of the doorway. The blonde has collapsed in the man’s arms like a marionette, her head flopped to the side. His arm is hooked under her knees, and he keeps glancing up and down the street. Jake will lose his mind if I call the cops. It’s not like what he’s doing is legal. If the police come around, Jake is at risk. I’m at risk.

Mom’s at risk. I keep staring at that waving blond hair, at the limp arm dragging the ground. He could be a trafficker. She could be dead—or close. I can’t do nothing. I slip out of my sneakers so my stupid left foot won’t make a dragging noise against the pavement. I can move quickly when I want to, but quiet is tough to master. I rush forward and raise the bar. He turns at the last second, which probably saves his life. The bar comes down across his shoulders instead of his head.

He grunts and stumbles forward. The girl goes sprawling onto the pavement. I raise the bar to hit him again, but the man retaliates faster than I’m ready for. He blocks my swing and drives an elbow into my chest, hooking my ankle with his own. I’m falling before I realize it. My body slams into the concrete. He’s suddenly right there, almost on top of me. I start swinging. I can’t reach his head, but I catch him across the hip. Then his ribs.

He seizes my wrist, then smacks my arm down to the pavement. I squeal and twist away from him, but it feels like he’s kneeling on my right thigh. His free arm pins my chest. It hurts. A lot. “Release the weapon.” He’s got an accent, but I can’t place it. And now that his face is on top of mine, I realize he’s young, not much older than Jake. I clench my fingers even tighter around the bar. My breath makes huge panicked clouds between us.

I beat at him with my free hand, but I might as well be striking a statue. He tightens his hold on my wrist, until I genuinely think the bones are rubbing together. A whimper escapes my throat, but I grit my teeth and hold on. “Release it,” he says again, his tone thickening with anger.

.

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