Home > A Curse So Dark and Lonely (A Curse So Dark and Lonely #1)(14)

A Curse So Dark and Lonely (A Curse So Dark and Lonely #1)(14)
Author: Brigid Kemmerer

“What have you heard?”

“My da says—” He stops and licks his lips, as if realizing that’s not the best way to start.

Coale comes across the room to stand behind his son. He puts his hands on the boy’s shoulders and for the first time, his voice isn’t deferential, but resigned. “His da says a lot of things. Many of which are spoken in jest.”

“I do not want pretty words, innkeeper. I want truth.”

“Then ask your questions of me, not my son.”

Rhen’s eyebrows go up. I’m frozen in the chair, trapped by this confrontation. This tension reminds me of how it felt when the loan sharks would come to hassle my father. I want to run so badly that I try to will myself invisible.

Coale falters as if realizing that he’s made a demand. “If you please. Your Highness.”

“Then speak your mind,” said Rhen.

Silence hangs in the room for a moment, as both men struggle with truth and protocol.

“You’re all hiding,” says the boy, his voice hushed. “From the monster.”

The monster? There’s a monster?

Then I remember what Freya said. I hope the monster comes to hunt your family.

I clear my throat. “The monster?”

Rhen sits back and picks up his mug. “You see why I seek answers from children.”

“Yes,” says Coale, his voice sharp. “There are some who believe our rulers have abandoned Emberfall, living in safety elsewhere, leaving the people to suffer at the hands of that creature that inhabits the castle, whatever it is. It is no wonder we are vulnerable to attack from outsiders. For five years, we have begged for help, but our cries go unanswered, our people starve, and our kinsmen die. So you will forgive me for careless words, but it seems that the king has no sympathy for the people who make up this kingdom, and cares only for those in his own circle.”

Silence falls over the room, the tension so thick it’s like a blanket smothering us all.

Rhen sets down his mug and stands. Emotion clouds his eyes, but he gives Coale a nod. “I thank you for your honesty.” He chucks the boy under the chin. “I meant it about the coin in the morning. We’ll leave at daybreak.”

He moves away, toward the stairs.

I shove myself out of the chair and go after him. “Rhen. Stop. Wait.”

He stops, but he does not look at me. “Please do not run again, my lady. At the very least, allow me some sleep first.”

“What just happened?”

“You wanted answers. You got them.”

I feel like I know less than I did before. I drop my voice. “Is that true? Does your father really keep his family safe somewhere else, while some kind of wild monster is killing people?”

“Do not be ridiculous.” He finally meets my eyes. “Of course not.”

I hold my breath and study him, feeling like there’s more he isn’t saying.

Rhen puts his hands on my arms and leans in. When he speaks, his voice is very low, very quiet, just for me. “My father is dead, my lady. My whole family is dead.” He pulls back, meeting my gaze, but his voice doesn’t change. “That monster killed them all.”



The tension in the house eventually gives way to exhaustion, leading to a dense silence broken only by the wind outside and the crackling fire in the living room. The back half of the inn is divided into three upstairs bedrooms, with the kitchen, dining area, and the innkeeper’s family quarters on the main level. Freya and her children took two of the upstairs bedrooms.

Rhen offered me the third, but I have no desire to be locked in again, so I told him he and Grey could have it.

Coale and Evalyn tried to get me to accept their room for the night, but I’m not going to force them out of their bed—especially if it means they’d have to sleep in the stables, like Coale said when we first got here. Instead, I’m curled up in the cushioned armchair of the main room, with a heavy knit blanket I got from Evalyn.

When Evalyn and Coale retire to their room behind the kitchen, I catch the words negotiation and royal wedding, which makes me sigh. The day must have caught up with me, because I fall asleep and stay that way until a loud sizzle and pop jerk me awake.

Grey stands in front of the hearth, feeding wood to the fire.

My eyes feel like sandpaper. All the candles were extinguished when everyone went to bed, so the only light in the room comes from the fireplace. Grey’s expression is in shadow, but I can tell that he’s fully dressed. Fully armed.

“What’s wrong?” I whisper.

His voice is equally low. “The fire had gone to embers, my lady.”

“No—I mean, why aren’t you sleeping?”

He glances at me. “Perhaps you are unfamiliar with what a guard does?”

I’m finding that Grey has a dark sense of humor hidden under the formality. It’s subversive. I like it. “You think Coale and Evalyn are going to murder Rhen in his sleep?”

He shakes his head. “My worry lies more with the men who burned the farmhouse.” He looks toward the door, where the wind whistles through the lock and around the frame. “The snow should cover our tracks, but we would have been easy to follow.”

I sit up straighter. I hadn’t even considered that. “And you think they’d attack the inn?”

“Men died.” His voice is dispassionate, practical. “It is certainly possible.”

“Okay. I’m done sleeping.”

“Suit yourself.” He retreats to the corner by the stairwell, his black clothing blending seamlessly into the darkness. If the firelight didn’t glint on the edges of his weapons, I wouldn’t know he was there.

“Have you been there all night?” I whisper.


I don’t want to be reassured by this, but I am.

I dig the phone out of my pocket to check the time: 4:02 a.m.

I’ve been gone for almost twenty-four hours. Somehow it feels like a tremendous amount of time, yet also not like any time at all.

Jake must be flipping out.

Without warning, my face begins to crumple. I hope he’s flipping out. I hope he’s not dead, or in a jail cell, or watching a coroner zip a body bag around Mom.

I sniff hard and push the button to bring up his pictures. I want to see my mother, but the phone is still on the last image I looked at: Jake and Noah.

They look so happy. It’s odd to think of this guy being somewhere in the world, possibly worrying about my brother every bit as much as I am.

“What are you doing?” Grey’s voice speaks almost right on top of me.

I yip and scramble to push the button to turn off the screen. I clutch the phone to my chest. “Nothing.”

He stands behind the chair, looking down at me. His eyes narrow.

I tighten my grip on the phone. “You can’t have it.”

“I did not try to take it.” He pauses and a new note enters his voice. Not quite concern, but more surprise. “You’re crying.”

Great. I swipe at my cheeks quickly, then bury the phone under my blanket. “Don’t worry about it.” My voice comes out low and husky.

He moves away from the chair and at first I think he’s going back to his corner. His footsteps are light and he moves like a shadow.

Instead, he comes around to sit on the hearth. A low table sits between the chairs, and he drags it between us. Then he unbuckles a small pouch on his belt and withdraws something wrapped in a fold of red fabric.

In spite of myself, I’m curious. “What are you doing?”

He unwraps the fabric, spreading it across the small table. His eyes flick up to meet mine. “You said you will not sleep. Do you care to play?”

In his hands sits a deck of cards.

I wet my lips. “You carry playing cards with you?”

A ghost of a smile. “A guardsman always has cards.”

The deck is larger than what I’m used to, and the paper looks thicker. “Can I see?”

He nods and places them in my hands.

They’re heavier than I expected, the paper thick with gilded edges. When I look closely, each card appears to be hand-painted, with no numbers, but obvious quantities of different images. No clubs and spades here, though.

“What are these suits?” I ask, holding up a card with six black circular shapes.

He nods at the card. “Stones.” When I hold up the next, he says, “Crowns.”

I find another. “Don’t tell me. Swords?”

He nods again, then gestures to the next in the deck. “Hearts, my lady.”

I spread them out on the table, studying the designs. The number cards are similar to a regular deck from home, though they only go to nine. The face cards are stunningly detailed, from a frowning king with a crown that seems inlaid with real, sparkling jewels to a queen whose dress feels like satin is affixed to the cards. The suits on these are identified by a marking on the king’s breastplate and on the queen’s skirts. No K or Q, but the faces are obvious.

Then my hand stops on what should be the jack. A blond man holding a shield, with a large red heart in the center.

“Rhen,” I whisper.

Grey taps the edge of the card in my hands. “The prince of hearts.” He reaches out to scoop up the other cards, loosely shuffling them between his hands.

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