A Curse So Dark and Lonely (Cursebreakers #1) by Brigid Kemmerer

But when Grey appears, he’s pinning a girl to the floor.

She’s not a motionless beauty. She’s scrawny and shoeless and digging her nails into the side of his neck.

Grey swears and knocks her hand away. Blood appears in lines across his throat.

I rise from the chair, nearly losing a moment to the sheer novelty of it all. “Commander! Release her.”

He flings himself back and finds his feet. The girl scrambles away from him, clutching a rusted weapon of some sort. Her movement is labored and clumsy.

“What is this?” She gets a hand on the wall and staggers to her feet. “What did you do?”

Grey grabs his sword from the chair, pulling it free from the scabbard with a fierceness I haven’t seen in … in ages. “Have no worries, my lord. This may be the shortest season yet.”

The girl raises the rusted bar as if that will provide any kind of defense against a trained swordsman. Dark curls spill out of the hood of her clothing, and her face is tired, drawn, and dusty. I wonder if Grey injured her, the way she keeps her weight off her left leg.

“Try it.” She glances between him and me. “I know a good spot I haven’t hit with this yet.”

“I will.” Grey lifts his weapon and steps forward. “I know a good spot I haven’t hit with this yet.”

“Enough.” I’ve never seen Grey go after one of the girls, but when he shows no intention of stopping, I sharpen my tone. “That is an order, Commander.”

He stops, but his sword remains in his hand and he doesn’t take his eyes off the girl. “Do not think,” he tells her, his voice fierce, “that this means I will allow you to attack me again.”

“Don’t worry,” she snaps. “I’m sure I’ll get another chance.”

“She attacked you?” My eyebrows rise. “Grey. She is half your size.”

“She makes up for it in temperament. She most assuredly was not my first choice.”

“Where am I?” The girl’s eyes keep flicking from me to him to the sword in his hand—and then to the doorway behind us. Her knuckles are white where they grip the bar. “What did you do?”

I glance at Grey and lower my voice. “Put up your sword. You’re frightening her.”

The Royal Guard is trained to obey without hesitation and Grey is no exception. He slides his weapon into its sheath, but strings the sword belt around his waist.

I cannot remember the last time he was fully armed on the first day of the season. Probably not since there were men to command and threats to deflect.

But removing the weapon has drained some of the tension from the room. I put out a hand and keep my voice gentle, the way I speak to skittish horses in the stables. “You are safe here. May I have your weapon?”

Her eyes slide to Grey, to where his hand remains on the hilt of his sword. “No way.”

“You fear Grey? Easily solved.” I look at him. “Commander. You are ordered to not harm this girl.”

He takes a step back and folds his arms.

The girl watches this exchange and then she draws a long breath and takes a tentative step forward, the bar held in front of her.

At least she can be tamed as easily as the others. I extend my hand and give her an encouraging look.

She takes another step—but then her expression shifts, her eyes darken, and she swings.

Hard steel slams into my waist, just below my rib cage. Silver hell, it hurts. I double over and barely have time to react before she’s swinging for my head.

Luckily, my training is nearly as thorough as Grey’s. I duck and catch the bar before she makes contact.

Now I understand why Grey grabbed his sword.

Her eyes flare, burning with defiance. I jerk her forward, ready to wrestle the bar out of her grasp.

Instead, she lets go, forcing me to fall back. She stumbles toward the door, limping into the hallway, her breathing ragged.

I let her go. The iron bar drops to the carpet and I press a hand to my side.

Grey hasn’t moved. He’s standing there, arms folded. “Do you still wish for me to leave her unharmed?”

There was a time when he wouldn’t have dared to question me.

There was a time when I might have cared.

I sigh, then wince as my lungs expand into the already-forming bruise on my side. What began as a novelty now simply hurts. If she fights to run so fiercely now, there is little hope for later.

The shadows have shifted a bit, tracing their familiar path. I’ve watched it hundreds of times.