The Blood Curse: exclusive excerpt
1 month ago
It took a week to walk out of the steaming jungle. There was no path that Jaumé could see, but Bennick rarely hesitated. Sometimes he used the compass, but mostly he used his eyes. “See here? A boot print.” Or, “Look at the way those leaves are bent.” Those were the only times Bennick talked. He was sour that the witches had saved Prince Harkeld’s life. There had been honor in killing the prince, but none now that the prince was alive again.
Jaumé was glad the prince wasn’t dead, but he didn’t let Bennick see it. His relief was a soundless hum inside his chest. With the prince alive, the Ivek Curse could be broken. Bennick said that dead was dead, and it didn’t matter when or how people died, but Jaumé knew he was wrong.
On the first day, Bennick found the pony Jaumé had ridden. Even Jaumé could see her hoof prints in the boggy ground. The pony came to their calls, pushing her way through the twisted trees and fleshy-leaved vines. She butted her nose against Jaumé’s shoulder and snorted in his ear. When Bennick wasn’t looking, Jaumé hugged her.
After that, he rode and Bennick walked.
“Sleep,” Bennick told him. “You’ll need to watch for breathstealers tonight. Bastards will want to suck me dry.”
Jaumé slept in the saddle, and stayed awake all night, guarding Bennick, but no breathstealers came floating in the mist.
Two days later, they came to the clearing where Odil and Steadfast lay dead. Jaumé woke in the saddle, and wished he hadn’t. The pool bubbled and steamed, and the stink was more than just sulfur. He averted his eyes and hurried past on the pony. That night, he watched tensely for breathstealers, but still none came.
They passed Maati’s body the next day. Kimbel’s was gone. “Something’s dragged him away to eat,” Bennick said. It didn’t appear to bother him, even though Kimbel had been his Brother.
Dead is dead. Doesn’t matter when or how.
They found four of the horses they’d left behind, and the saddles and bridles and half-full saddlebags. Bennick rode, too, after that. The ground no longer steamed. The stink of sulfur faded behind them. “You can sleep tonight,” Bennick told Jaumé. “Breathstealers can’t reach me here.”
The further they travelled, the less sour Bennick became. By the time they reached the river, he was whistling again. “I’ll get him yet, young Jaumé,” he said, slinging his pack down at the water’s edge. “You’ll see.”
Jaumé said nothing. He didn’t want Bennick to kill Prince Harkeld. But that was what Bennick did: kill people. He was a special type of soldier. An assassin. He did the All-Mother’s work for her.
The river was wide and brown, turning slowly over on itself like a giant serpent. “What now?” Jaumé asked.
“Now we wait for the next boat. Upstream or downstream, it doesn’t matter. Either way, we’ll end up in the same place.” Insects swarmed in a cloud around Bennick’s face, but he didn’t seem to mind; he whistled a few bars of a tune.
“Wherever the prince is.” Bennick hunkered down and opened his pack. He rooted in it, pulled out a flask, slapped oil on his skin. The smell of cat’s piss was strong. The cloud of insects thinned. “Let’s hope this lasts us.” He tossed the flask to Jaumé.
They spent three days at the river’s edge, surrounded by the buzz of biting insects. Bennick seemed as strong as he’d ever been. When he practiced with his bow, his hands moved almost too fast for Jaumé to see. It was as if the breathstealers had never sucked the life from him.
Jaumé practiced, too. He could throw his bone-handled knife twenty paces, the blade flipping twice before it sank deep into its target, and he could hit a tree trunk at fifty paces with his bow and arrows.
“I’ll start you with a sword next,” Bennick said, clapping him on the shoulder.
Later that day, a boat came into view, laboring up the river, sail full-bellied, oars working like centipede’s legs. Bennick grinned. He stood and stretched. “Time to go, lad.”
Princess Brigitta came slowly back to consciousness. Her limbs were numb. Her eyes wouldn’t open. Thoughts lurched in slow, confused circles inside her head. It took long minutes to realize what had happened: she’d been drugged again. All-Mother’s Breath.
Time crawled past. It became easier to think. Sensation returned to her fingers and toes, to her face.
Britta kept her eyes closed, pretending to be asleep. Where was she? The surface she lay on seemed to dip and sway, but she was sure she was no longer aboard the assassin’s ship. The sound the ship had made—a creaking, thrumming sound, as if the vessel lived and breathed—was gone.
She strained to hear.
Silence. She was surrounded by silence.
Her hands and feet tingled, came alive. Her hearing sharpened. She heard the coo of a pigeon, faint. A distant voice. The clatter of wagon wheels, barely audible. I’m ashore. Where?
Roubos. It had to be the kingdom of Roubos.
The iron weight of manacles was absent from ankle and wrist. Britta had a brief flash of memory: the frantic scramble out the cabin window, the echo of her scream as the assassins hauled her back inside, the manacle being fastened around her ankle—cold, hard—the short chain bolted into the floor.
She’d pulled the bolt out, tugging day after day as the ship sailed across the vast Gulf of Hallas, had almost managed a second escape—or attempted suicide, or whatever one wished to call it. The second manacle had gone on, then, fastened tightly around her wrist. Punishment, not precaution. No precaution had been necessary; a Fithian had sat in her cabin every minute of the voyage after that, even when she used the chamberpot. Escape had become impossible, as had death. All she’d been able to do was wait. Wait until the ship berthed, wait until the men took her ashore—and then scream for help with all the air in her lungs. But they’d drugged her with All-Mother’s Breath and taken that away from her, too.
What would passersby have done? Come to her aid? Turned away in fear?
The lingering effects of the All-Mother’s Breath dissipated. Britta was aware of the rise and fall of her chest, the beating of her heart, the warm weight of a blanket over her. It was time to act. If I’m alone, I try to escape. If escape is impossible, I kill myself.
She held that thought firmly in her mind, let it become a solid intention, hard-edged and definite, and opened her eyes.
A Fithian assassin sat less than an arm’s length away.
Britta felt rage and relief in equal measure. Rage because escape was impossible; relief because death was, too. No matter how many times she examined her choices and came to the same conclusion—that she must die rather than be used against Harkeld—she shrank from killing herself.
She stared at the assassin. He was maybe ten years older than her, in his late twenties, with curling brown hair and blue eyes. Curly, she called him in her head. He looked like a father, an uncle, a man who should have young children riding on his shoulders—until one saw the hard watchfulness of his eyes, the lack of expression on his face, the stillness in the way he sat.
A killer, this man.
He’d probably known the instant she woke. The Fithians were as observant as her armsman Karel had been, and even more dangerous.
Britta gazed at Curly as if he was a piece of furniture, trying not to let him see her emotions—rage, fear—and took in the room. Small, with a bare wooden floor. The door was closed, the window open a crack. Daylight.
She deliberately closed her eyes again. Eventually she would have to rise and use the chamberpot, while the assassin sat expressionlessly, but she would put that moment off as long as she could.
She went through her list. It was either that or allow despair to overwhelm her. She’d done this so often on board the ship that it came in a familiar sequence.
One. We saved the boys. Her little half-brothers were in Lundegaard, beyond Jaegar’s reach. They would grow up loved and protected by their grandfather, King Magnas.
Two. Yasma is free. She will never be a bondservant again. That was her final memory from Lundegaard: Yasma slamming shut the bedroom door, bolting it, keeping the boys safe from the assassins.
Three. Karel is free. Karel, without whom she and Yasma and the boys would never have escaped Jaegar’s palace. Karel, who was as impassive and watchful as the assassins, and almost as deadly.
Karel, who hadn’t returned in time to save her from the Fithians.
Which is a blessing, because they would have killed him. And how could I have borne that?
She saw Karel’s face for a moment behind her closed eyelids. The stern, hawk-like features, the eyes so dark they were almost black, the brown skin. Memory dressed him in a scarlet tunic and golden breastplate, but Karel was free now, as free as Yasma, and no longer wore an armsman’s uniform.
Four. Harkeld is alive and guarded by witches. That was the item that gave her the most hope. Her half-brother Harkeld was still alive, he was destroying Ivek’s curse, and he had witches to help him. Witches who could throw bolts of fire and change into lions and kill Fithian assassins.
Britta hugged that thought to herself. The assassin sitting soundlessly alongside her bed wasn’t invincible. Witches could kill him. Would kill him. Had to kill him. Because Harkeld had to survive. He had to destroy the curse—or everyone in the Seven Kingdoms would die.
And she could not allow herself to be used as bait to catch him.
Escape or die. Those were her two choices. And now that she was on land again, a thousand leagues closer to Harkeld than she’d been before, it was imperative that she do one or the other.
They came for her at dawn. Britta was led down a long, dark corridor and out into a courtyard of hard-packed dirt. Gray light lit the sky. The air was mild and damp.
A high wooden fence enclosed the yard. Britta saw a pigeon house in one corner and stables at the back. Horses waited in the middle of the courtyard, some saddled for riders, two harnessed to a covered cart. Men stood silently—five of the assassins who’d abducted her—six, counting the man who held her wrists behind her back and pushed her into the courtyard—and a stranger, an old man with skin like leather and gray hair and a scarred mouth.
The old man was an assassin. One glance at him told her that. He watched her approach. There was no compassion in him, no empathy or kindness or humanity. His gaze was cold, hard, flat. He would kill her as casually as he’d swat a fly.
The hands gripping her wrists tightened. Britta halted obediently. Her gaze flicked to the horses, to the high fence. The sky was lightening. She heard birdsong. A wagon clattered past. If I scream now, will anyone come to my rescue? Best to wait until they were out on the street. Somewhere busy, where passersby might come to her aid, or even better, city guardsmen.
The old assassin spoke to the man who led her abductors. Short sentences, no wasted words. His voice was too low to overhear. He gestured with one hand, and she saw that it was wooden, fingers permanently curved, thumb sticking out stiffly. The rest of the assassins stood silent, waiting. They didn’t speak much, Fithians. Their quietness made them even more frightening. The only human thing about them was the temperature of their skin. Britta was aware of the warmth of the hands gripping her wrists. It seemed wrong, a violation of nature. Fithian blood should be cold.
The old man stopped speaking. The leader of the assassins gave a curt nod. Leader, she called him in her head. He had a broad, flat-cheeked face and pale gray eyes.
Leader reached beneath his cloak and took something from a pouch. He stood half-turned from her. Britta saw his hands were busy, but not what he did. He turned and came towards her. Alarm spiked in her chest. It was suddenly difficult to breathe.
She’d made Leader bleed aboard ship, kicked his nose so hard that blood ran from it. Memory of that moment brought a little flash of triumph. Britta clung to it tightly, trying to smother her fear.
Leader halted so close that she could almost smell him. Pride kept her from cringing. She lifted her chin and met his eyes. I made you bleed.
The grip on her wrists tightened.
Britta couldn’t control a flinch as Leader reached for her. She jerked her head away, but hard fingers grasped her jaw and hauled her head around. She saw what Leader held in his other hand: a cloth.
Britta opened her mouth to scream.
The cloth pressed against her nose and mouth. She inhaled the smell of vanilla. All-Mother’s Breath.
Britta had time for a second’s rage before plummeting into blackness.
The Blood Curse is out June 30th