The Cup and the Prince (Kingdom of Curses and Shadows #1) by Day Leitao


Creatures from the Shadows

Zora had always wanted to be a hero. Honorable, selfless, brave. She used to think that with enough hope and belief, everything was possible.

Tonight, she’d had enough of it.

Contrary to what stories told, being petty, revengeful, and deceitful felt amazing. If she were to risk a bet, she’d say it felt even better than what she’d been about to do. Not her. Some silly past self. Goody-goody-hopeful-nice-girl Zora. Let them think so. Some might say she’d snapped. Nope. She had awoken. And seen the light.

Not literal light. It had always surrounded her. Names are deceiving. The Dark Valley was likely the most well-lit place in the kingdom. Perhaps even in the world. Torches, bonfires, and lamps everywhere, all the time, just in case there was a pesky cloud from who knows where. Of course, sometimes the wind broke a lamp’s encasing. Sometimes someone forgot to add oil to a lamp. Other times, a bucket was left upside down, or a piece of clothing was carelessly thrown somewhere. It happened. Perhaps it was unavoidable. And that brought pain, fear, and death to her valley.

Despite everything, there was also hope. She saw it in the eyes of every laughing child. It was hope that kept her going, hope that prevented her heart from growing cold. Except tonight. Tonight, she was fueled by anger. And it was so much more powerful than hope.

But this story is getting messy, so we’ll get back to the beginning.

Four hundred years before…

Too early?

Let’s go back four hours then, when Zora was still bright-eyed and oblivious.

* * *

This was not like in stories or in the way Zora had expected. It should be natural, romantic. It should evolve effortlessly, the natural expression of a couple’s love. Instead, she sat on the edge of the bed, stiff as a tree. Seth had no shirt on, the light from the setting sun coming through the transparent curtain and giving his well-defined abs a golden hue. He looked good, as always, staring at her from his dark brown eyes, through his golden, sunburned hair. Zora herself had hair just below her shoulders, dark brown in the roots, with golden tips. Her eyes were hazel. Everyone said they were a beautiful couple. A couple. And the idea tonight was to couple. She thought so but didn’t feel it.

They would be kissing had the situation been different. She wouldn’t be looking at him as if he were a human shadow ready to pounce on her. Well, he wanted to pounce on her. And the idea had sounded wonderful. She’d been thinking about it the entire day. But now that they were there, alone, somehow it was all different.

Seth sat by her and ran his hand through her hair. “Hey, relax.”

His smile put her at ease. A little. She had a nervous laugh. “I’m trying.”

“I’ll help you.”

He brushed his lips on her, and then they were kissing. It was Seth. Seth, the guy she loved. The guy she’d kissed—and often more than kissed—for the last five months. More than that, he was the valley’s hero, their hope. This was his goodbye gift.

For the first time, someone from the Dark Valley would be allowed to compete in the Royal Games. Seth, having grown up fighting dark creatures from an early age, would obviously squash his competition. He would be their voice to the king and return in glory. He would show them what the Dark Valley people were made of. For now, all he was asking was for Zora to inspire him and make sure he wouldn’t forget her.

These were all very nice and valid reasons for them to be there. Nice and logical. And now that he was kissing her shoulder and lowering her straps, for some reason the logical outcome seemed horrific for her. Seventeen. Zora was seventeen and shouldn’t be acting like that.

She put a hand on his chest to get some distance. “Can’t we wait?”

He puffed and rolled his eyes. “Zora. We’ve had this conversation.”

She got up. “You’re leaving tomorrow. I’m not saying no. But when you come back. We’ll have more time. We could just… do the usual.”

Seth took her hand and kissed it. “Am I not your hero?”

Zora sighed. “Yes.”

He got up, towering over her, his hand now on her shoulder, playing with her strap. “Don’t you want me to think about you every time I win a challenge? Don’t you want to share a piece of my victory?”

Yes. And no. Zora’s mind was whirling. Would he forget her if she said no today?

He didn’t wait for her to answer. “And you promised.”