A Heart So Fierce and Broken (Cursebreakers #2) by Brigid Kemmerer




CHAPTER ONE


HARPER

I miss knowing exactly what time it is.

It’s one of the few things I regret leaving behind in Washington, DC, but when darkness has fallen, dinner feels like a distant memory, and Rhen has still not returned to his chambers, I want to know what time it is. I’m no stranger to waiting in the darkness, but when I was on the streets I had my brother’s cell phone, and I’d count every minute.

Now I’m Princess Harper of Disi, and Emberfall hasn’t advanced to the point of having electricity.

Rhen and I have separate chambers, befitting the crown prince and the lady he’s to ally his kingdom with, but he always visits before retiring to his own room.

He’s never been this late. Or—I don’t think he has.

The heat of the day has bled off, leaving cool air to stream through my open windows, and my fire has fallen to glowing embers. Outside, torches flicker on the guard posts that surround Ironrose, evenly spaced flares of light that keep the grounds from ever going truly dark. Such a difference from when Ironrose was cursed, when the guard posts stood cold and dark and empty, when the only people to inhabit the castle were Rhen, Grey, and me.

Now the castle is crowded with nobles and servants and guards, and we are never truly alone.

And Grey is gone. He’s been gone for months.

I take the candle from my bedside, lighting it from the glowing embers on the hearth. It’s a movement I make without thought anymore, the way I would have flipped a light switch back home. Zo, my personal guard and closest friend here, isn’t on duty tonight, and she deserves time to sleep. Same with Freya, my lady-in-waiting. The lights in her room went dark hours ago, and I selfishly wish they hadn’t. I could use a friend.

A soft knock raps at my door, and I hurry across the floor to open it.

It’s not Rhen, though I wouldn’t have expected him to knock. It’s Jake.

When I was young, Jake was gentle and kind, the perfect older brother. Then we hit our teens, and while our mother was on her deathbed, our father drove our lives into the gutter. Jake is built like a linebacker, and to help make ends meet, he took jobs from the loan sharks who haunted our doorstep. To those outside our family, Jake quickly grew from someone lovable into someone to fear.

Being trapped in Emberfall, a country as beautiful as it is wild and dangerous, hasn’t changed my brother’s temperament. The day we arrived, he was out of place and unsure of himself, but he’s grown into his fictional role as Prince Jacob of Disi. His dark hair has grown out a bit, and he wears a sword on his hip as if he were born carrying it. No one messed with him in DC, and few people mess with him here either.

Tonight his expression is somber.

“Hey,” I say softly. “Come in.”

He does, and I ease the door closed behind him.

“I’m surprised you’re still up,” he says.

“I’m waiting for Rhen.” I pause. “I’m surprised you’re still up.”

He hesitates. “Noah and I are packing.”

Noah is his boyfriend, formerly a medical resident in a busy DC emergency room, and now the castle “healer.”

I raise my eyebrows. “Packing?”

My brother’s expression doesn’t change. “We’re leaving in the morning.”

This is so unexpected that I stumble back a step.

Jake’s lip quirks up. “Not forever, Harp. It’s not that bad.”

“But—what do you mean, you’re leaving?”

He shrugs and fidgets and moves to the window. “We’ve been here for months now. I know you like playing the courtly princess, but I feel like I’m living in a cage.” He pauses and glances back at me. “It’s only for a few weeks. A month, tops.”

I blow out a breath. “A month.”

A lot can happen in a month. I know that better than anyone.

“I’d have no way to check on you,” I say. “What if something happens? It takes days—weeks—to send word sometimes. We still don’t know what’s happening with Syhl Shallow or Rhen’s coronation or—”

He gives me a look. “You don’t need to check on me, Harper.”

“I can still worry about you.” We were once separated after Grey snatched me off the streets of DC, and it was horrible not knowing what might have become of Jake. I don’t want to feel that way again. “Have you asked Rhen? He might not think it’s a good idea.”