Home > A Curse So Dark and Lonely (A Curse So Dark and Lonely #1)(12)

A Curse So Dark and Lonely (A Curse So Dark and Lonely #1)(12)
Author: Brigid Kemmerer

It’s not until later, when we reach the inn, that I realize she never let go of me, despite her sharp words.



For some reason I thought an “inn” would be comprised of more than a two-story house with tightly shuttered windows and a thin plume of smoke rising from the chimney. If there’s a sign, the dark and snow keep it hidden.

When Rhen pulls the horse to a stop, I straighten and let go of his waist. We’ve formed this little cocoon of warmth, and his jacket—fur-lined leather—smells like oranges and cloves. My body wants me to stay right here.

Which is exactly why I need to let go. He might be handsome and chivalrous and well-mannered, but underneath all that, he’s a kidnapper. He turned the key in that lock this morning.

The air between us is suddenly awkward. “Are you sure this is the right place?”

It’s the first thing I’ve said since we snapped at each other, and he looks over his shoulder at me. I can’t read his expression, so I have no idea whether he’s mad or we’ve formed a truce or I’m going to have to find a way to run again. “Yes, my lady.”

“Would you stop calling me that?”

“It is meant as a mark of respect. When you travel with me, people will assume you are a lady, a servant, or a whore.” His eyebrows go up. “Would you prefer one of the latter?”

Now I want to punch him. “Get off the horse, Rhen.”

He swings a leg over Will’s neck and drops to the ground, then turns to offer me his hand.

I don’t take it. “Would you offer your hand to a servant or a whore?”

He doesn’t move. “You asked a question. I answered it. I meant no insult.”

“What about prisoner? What if I tell them you kidnapped me?”

His hand remains extended. “I am their prince. They will likely offer to bind you and lock you in the stables.”

He’s so arrogant. I ignore his hand and slide my leg over the buckskin’s rump. I do it too fast, just to spite him.

I spite myself. My left knee buckles when I hit the ground.

He steps forward to catch me.

It puts us close, his hands light on my waist. In the dark, he looks younger than he seems, like life has injected age into his eyes, but the rest of his body hasn’t kept up. His tan skin is pale in the moonlit shadows, the first hint of beard growth showing on his cheeks.

“Can you stand?” he says softly.

I nod. For a heartbeat of time, the world seems to shift, like I’m a breath away from figuring all this out. I want him to wait, to hold right there, to just give me one more second.

But he draws away, moving toward the door of the inn, giving it a forceful knock.

Nothing happens. I shiver. My body is missing his warmth, and I need to keep convincing myself that this forced companionship is false, that he’s the enemy here.

He raises a fist to pound on the door, and it swings open this time. A heavyset middle-aged man stands there with a lantern in one hand—and a short knife in the other. A thick mustache and beard frame his mouth, and a stained leather apron is tied around his waist.

“You move on!” he shouts, gesturing with the lantern with enough force that Rhen falls back a step. “This is a peaceful household!”

“I am glad to hear it,” Rhen says. “We are seeking peaceful shelter.”

The man raises the knife. “No one with good intentions seeks shelter after dark. You move on.”

Movement flashes behind him. A woman peeks from around a corner, her white fingers gripping the molding.

Rhen takes a step forward, his voice sliding dangerously close to anger. “Are you running an inn or are you not?”

I move to his side. “Rhen,” I say quietly. “They’re afraid. Let’s leave them alone.”

“Rhen?” The man’s face turns white. He draws the lantern forward to look Rhen up and down, then drops the knife. “Your Highness,” he cries. “Forgive me. We have not seen—we have not—” His knee hits the floor so hard that I wince. “I did not recognize you. Forgive me.”

“You’re forgiven. Doubly so if you have rooms available.”

“I do,” the man sputters. “We do. My family can sleep in the stable, Your Highness.” He scrambles to get out of the way, half bowing as he does. “Take our home. Take our—”

“I do not need your home,” says Rhen. “A woman and her children have been the victims of a fire. My guard commander should arrive with them shortly.”

“Of course. Of course. Please come in.” The man gestures, then looks over his shoulder to yell toward the staircase at the back of the room. “Bastian! Come, see to their horses!”

We step through the doorway, and the warmth is so inviting that I want to lie down right here on the rug. “Horse,” I say to the man. “Just one.”

He nods rapidly, as if this is the most common thing ever. “Yes. Yes, of course.”

Rhen takes hold of my jacket gently and turns me to face him. “I will see to the arrangements. Warm yourself by the fire, my lady,” he says, with just the slightest emphasis on the words.

I open my mouth to protest, but Rhen leans in close. He whispers low along my neck. “I would never travel alone with a female servant. The choice is yours.”

Goose bumps spring up where his breath brushes my skin. “My lady” it is.

“Bastian!” the man hollers again. “Horses!” A quick abashed glance at me. “A horse!”

A boy who can’t be more than nine comes stumbling down the staircase, rubbing his eyes, reddish-brown hair sticking up in all directions. “I was sleeping, Da. What horse? What?”

“Bastian.” The man’s voice is short, and he speaks through his teeth. “We have royal guests. You will see to their horse.”

The boy is still rubbing his eyes. He glances at me and Rhen, his face barely alert. “But the royal family ran off years ago.”

Beside me, Rhen stiffens.

“Bastian,” the man hisses.

“What? You always say they’re too good or too dead to bother with the likes of—”

“Enough!” The man puts up placating hands in front of Rhen. “Forgive him, please, Your Highness. He is young, he is not yet awake—”

“We are neither too good nor too dead.” Rhen looks across at the boy, who blanches a little at the sternness in his tone. “But we are here now.”

“Go!” the man snaps at his son.

Bastian scurries down the rest of the steps to fling his feet into boots. He scoots past us, grabbing a cloak from a hook by the door.

“I will put soup on the fire, Your Highness,” says the woman hurriedly, as if to make up for her son’s rudeness. “I have some fresh bread, too, if it suits your fancy.” She doesn’t even wait for an answer, just disappears around the corner.

I stay close to Rhen and keep my voice low. “Do people always do everything you want?

“Not always.” He turns to look at me, his expression inscrutable. “Clearly.”

My cheeks warm before I’m ready for it. I have to look away.

“Go,” he says, and his tone is a fraction more gentle. “Sit.”

Sitting sounds better than standing here blushing at him. I move across the room to perch on the edge of a chair near the hearth. The fire is so warm and the seat cushioned so plushly that I find myself sinking back almost against my will.

The woman reappears with two large, steaming mugs. She offers one to Rhen first, then brings the other to me. “Apple mead, my lady,” she says with pride in her voice. “We had a good batch this season.”

“Thank you.” The warmth of the mug feels so good against my battered fingers. I take a deep swallow. For some reason, I was expecting something like hot cider, but mead tastes like a bushel of apples drowned in a vat of beer and honey. “This is amazing.”

The woman curtsies. “My boy took care of your horse,” she says. “He is lighting the fires in the upstairs rooms. His Highness said you have had a long day of travel.”

I run a hand down my face. “You could say that.” I blink up at her. “I’m sorry—can I ask your name?”

“My name is Evalyn, my lady.” She offers another curtsy. “My husband is Coale. And you have met our son, Bastian.”

“My name is Harper.”

“Ah, the Lady Harper. We are so honored.” She pauses. “If I am being too forward, please tell me so. But we hear so little of royalty nowadays. I am not familiar with your name or your accent. Are you from a land outside Emberfall?”

I blink. “You could say that.”

“Oh, how wonderful!” The woman claps her hands. “For years, the king has kept our borders closed and many believe our cities have suffered without the opportunity for trade. Travelers have been few these last couple years.” Her face pales. “Not that I would ever question the king, my lady.”

“Of course not,” I agree. Her expression evens out in relief.

“But you are here with the prince, so this must mean changes are afoot. Tell me, what is the name of your land?”

I glance at Rhen and wish he would stop talking to Coale and come help me figure a way out of this conversation. “DC,” I say weakly.

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