Cursed Teaser

I raised my face to the storm-clad sky and let the rain wash the sweat and blood from my skin.

Some of that blood was mine.

Most of it was not.

I drew in a deep breath and savored the scent of pain, anger, and confusion that rode the air. This day—this moment—had been a long time coming, and I intended to enjoy every second of it.

If only because seconds were probably all I had left.

My gaze returned to my opponent. He was broad and thickset, a man-mountain whose long black hair was tied back in an ornate ponytail—a practice common amongst those of the high court. His almond-shaped eyes were dark gold and his skin brown.

He was my brother. My twin.

And heir to the ancient kingdom of Cannamore.

He knelt on the wet concrete, his expression a satisfying mix of horror and surprise, nursing an arm that ended in a bloody stump halfway between his elbow and his wrist. Even though the blood had already begun to coagulate, the concrete around his knees remained slick and red.

I lowered my bloodied sword. Like the leather practice armor we both wore, it was an archaic choice in an age of guns and other technologies. But tradition stated all males of royal blood must be able to wield such a weapon, and it had become somewhat prestigious amongst the men of the court to be able to do so with precision and grace.

I wasn’t male. And I could certainly never claim my sword use to be either graceful or precise. But then, I’d never been properly trained. I’d just learned to survive.

I took a step back, even though I wanted nothing more than to strike while he was down, to separate his head from his body and then claim what was rightfully mine. But I had no desire to court the agony that would hit if I in any way attempted to finish what I’d started. That I was standing here relatively unhurt and pain free was in itself a miracle.

“What have you done?”

His words were little more than a harsh whisper; I doubted anyone else in the yard heard them. As the king’s official heir, Vin was always accompanied whenever he left the sanctity of his own quarters, but his entourage stood far enough away that they wouldn’t hear our soft exchange. And they wouldn’t move—either against me or to help my brother—until he so ordered it.

“I’ve done what I should have done twelve years ago.” My voice was flat but filled with old rage and bitterness. Of course, what I should have done twelve years ago was kill the bastard, because I certainly wasn’t capable of doing so now. In truth, it was surprising I’d even been able to maim him.

I motioned to the hand that lay between us—a hand that still gripped the rather plain-looking weapon known as the King’s Sword. With a blue-white glass blade, it was unlike any other sword in Cannamore and nigh on indestructible. In fact, there was only one other weapon like it, and neither my brother nor the king knew about it. I very much intended to keep it that way.

“I warned you both that your deception would bring nothing but sorrow and pain.”

Even as I said that, jagged blue light flickered across the surface of the embellished silver bracelets adorning my wrists. It was a warning of the pain that would follow if I said anything more about either the sword or the lies that were now bound to it.

But I’d learned long ago just how far I could push the magic of the restraint bracelets. Until the king appeared and ordered me silent, I very much intended to grab this rare chance of unrestricted speech and give free rein to the anger and hatred that had burned in my gut and my heart ever since my brother had been given what was rightfully mine.

“Do you think you’re above the will of this land?” I continued. “Do you think the king is?”

Footsteps echoed faintly, a harsh rhythm that spoke of anger and death. I glanced past Vin, but as yet there was no sign of the king or his guards. But he was coming. I could feel the ever-increasing vibration of his fury through the stones under my feet. I needed to hurry.

“The king’s mind rots and his strength wanes. The Skaran have become emboldened and harry our forces at both the Karva Pass and Black Water Gateway,” I continued. “This wrong must be righted if Cannamore is to maintain its freedom, and you both know it.”

The light in Vin’s eyes was murderous. “You’re a woman.”

And no woman had ever sat on the glass throne or ruled these lands.

But that was not what was written in the ancient text etched into the wall above the throne in the Hall of Kings. Whomsoever draws the sword from the ancient seat of this land shall rule it, and they shall bring peace and prosperity to its people.

For nearly a thousand years, it had been the firstborn son of every Cannamore king who’d drawn the sword, and the land and her people had indeed prospered.

Vin was firstborn, but it had not been his hand that had freed the blade from the glass throne.

It had been mine.

As a reward, I got not a kingdom, but rather a prison in the form of two beautiful but very magical bracelets.

“You will pay for this,” Vin said. “Pay with your life.”

I raised my eyebrows. “And how do you plan to do that, brother, given you fear the curse even more than you fear me taking back what you have stolen?”

His gaze narrowed, but whatever piece of poison he was about to spit died as the gates to the practice yards were flung open, and the king and his entourage stormed in.

For the briefest of moments, the spark of my defiance trembled and died. Like Vin, he was a big man with an even bigger temper. Years of anger and deceit might now be taking a toll on the inner workings of his body and mind, but outwardly, he hadn’t changed. And while his physical strength might not be what it once was, none but those closest to him were aware of that.

I could certainly testify to the fact that his fists were still very dangerous.

Of course, there’d always been an edge of restraint in even the worst of his actions. But not, as Vin had so scathingly noted, because I was a woman. Rather, it was due to nothing more than the lightning bolt port-wine stain that decorated the lower half of my spine. It was the mark of a god and had been borne in the past by both our greatest warriors and by those who’d come close to utterly destroying this land.

It was both my curse and my savior.

The only reason I still lived.

Why he hadn’t exercised his kingly right to offer me in treaty to the rulers of one of Cannamore’s territories—or even one of her trading partners—I couldn’t really say. But I rather suspected my brother had some hand in me remaining in this wretched place—though not because we were twins or in any way close.

I think he feared that if I were to become the queen or consort to the ruler of another territory or land, I might very well use my influence to start a war and reclaim what had been taken from me.

And I certainly couldn’t deny it would be a rather sweet temptation.

The black cloud of fury that was the king—a man I’d stopped calling my father the day he’d not only denied me what was rightfully mine but also locked me into the hell of utter obedience via the bracelets—halted to one side of my brother. I stiffened my spine but knew such courage wouldn’t last long. It never did.

His gaze swept Vin and then moved to the severed hand. After a moment, he dismissed my brother’s entourage, ordered Vin—and his hand—to be taken to the court healers and medics, and then finally turned his attention to me.

“This time you have gone too far.”

His voice, like his golden eyes, held none of the fury I could taste in the air or feel through the stones. The more sensible part of me quailed; fists I could handle, but this stillness was something I’d not seen before and, I suspected, was infinitely more dangerous than his blows ever could be.

“It was not my idea to practice with full blades,” I said. “He’s lucky all I removed was his hand.”

Heat flared in the bracelets, a warning pulse of impending doom if I didn’t watch my words. But I had no doubt that even if I did, doom would still arrive.

“I have been patient with you,” he continued, as if I hadn’t spoken. “I have given you the upbringing that befitted your station—”

“Befitted my station?” I broke in furiously. “I’m your heir—”

“Quiet,” he said calmly. “You will say no more. And release that sword.”

I did. I had no other choice. The minute I disobeyed, the minute I tried to say anything else after such an order, the bracelets would flare to life and burn the words from my mouth and my brain. And the near-vegetative state I’d lapsed into for several hours after my first—and only—attempt to do so was not an experience I ever wanted to repeat.

“You are a curse on our bloodline, Nyx. You bear the brand of Lokain, the god of war and the destroyer of houses, and you are a threat to both this house and to Cannamore itself. I should have banished you at birth as the priests begged me to.”

Then why didn’t you? I wanted to ask, even though I knew the answer. Mom had been one of the few able to manipulate my father’s wishes to her own advantage, and I had no doubt it was through her strength and determination that I not only survived but had been educated in a manner befitting a princess of the royal line.

All that had ended on the day she died—which had been precisely one hour after I’d drawn the sword from the throne. According to the king, she’d taken her life to avoid the shame of a daughter who’d so flouted tradition and expectation. Whether that was true or not, I’d never really know, but her death was a weight I would bear through eternity.

And yet, at the same time, my actions had come not from rebelliousness, but rather the belief she’d instilled in me that—marked by the god or not—I was every bit as worthy and capable as my brother.

A point I’d proven by claiming the King’s Sword.

I continued to meet his gaze, defiant to the last even if my insides quaked. The figurative axe didn’t fall. Not immediately. Tension wound through me, though I knew it would only make the pain that was still to come far worse.

“You will scream, my child,” he continued remotely. “As you have never screamed before. And if you beg your god hard enough, for long enough, then perhaps he will grant you death. And if he does not… I will find a way to be rid of you. Permanently. That I promise. Now burn, child. Burn.”

With that simple command, he set the bracelets alight. But this was no ordinary fire—it was one born of magic and was as incandescent and powerful as the earth itself. It tore through every muscle, every cell, until it felt as if all the fibers of my being were becoming nothing more than molten ash.

I did scream.

Screamed until my throat was raw, until my vocal cords ruptured and my voice gave out.

And then I screamed on in silence.

But never once did I beg.

 

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