A Curse of Blood and Stone (Fate & Flame #2) - K.A. Tucker

1

Romeria

My eyes water from the stench of sewage. If not for the endless adrenaline surging through my veins, I might have already spilled the delectable Seacadorian grapes churning in my stomach.

“I will go first—”

“No.” Zander seizes Elisaf by the shoulder, stopping his loyal friend from climbing the ladder. Even in the shadows of the underground tunnel, there’s no missing the stiffness in his jaw, the resolution in his stare. “If this is a trap set by Mordain, I am the better match for what awaits us.”

Because Zander can raze a person to ash where they stand. I’ve seen it firsthand, as has everyone who witnessed the horrifying spectacle in the arena tonight.

I sneak a glance at Gesine. The high priestess may be bothered by Zander’s blatant distrust of her people, but she hides it behind an emotionless mask, offering me a smile when she notices my attention.

I can’t bring myself to return it. There won’t be any comfort found tonight, not as the four of us slink through Cirilea’s culvert system, running from a king’s army.

“Wait for my signal and bring up the rear. Romeria, you will follow directly behind me.” Zander pauses. Under different circumstances, I might have a quip for his demand, an admiring gaze for his handsome face as he awaits my answer. Now, all I have is a solemn nod.

He ascends the wooden ladder with lithe steps and disappears into the night.

And I hold my breath. Our torch flames cast ominous forms over the jagged stone walls; the foul sludge soaks into the hide of our boots. I wish I could say it’s the first time I’ve crept through a gutter, but years of surviving the streets and then Korsakov’s criminal world has exposed me to plenty of predicaments that would draw shudders and nose curls. This smell will trail us long after we’ve fled. But bodies can be washed, clothes can be replaced. Cleanliness is the least of our worries.

Somewhere unseen, water trickles and waves lap faintly. “Where does this end?” I ask.

“At the seawall.” Elisaf’s attention is hyperfocused on the exit above. “A grate fortified with merth closes it off to invaders. Nothing short of direct cannon fire or a powerful caster will break through that.” His fist clutches a gleaming merth-forged dagger at his side, its blade primed for plunging into flesh. I want to think that flesh won’t be mine, but nothing is guaranteed now that my secret is out.

Will there come a point when the nights Zander and I shared, our heads nestled in pillows, our words laced with heady promises, mean nothing? When the fleeing king puts his kingdom and crown before his heart and accepts the ruin a key caster—one with poison flowing through her veins—could bring to Islor is far too great?

Will I see the resolve in those beautiful hazel eyes when he makes that decision?

My chest tightens with the thought of Zander becoming my enemy again. But that needs to be a worry for another day too.

I push out all concerns but the most pressing one—is there any hope in hell of me escaping death tonight?

Each second that passes without any sign of Zander swells my dread.

“This must all have been so confusing for you,” Gesine says. “From the moment you woke.”

“I thought I was losing my mind,” I admit. Just like my father had. Only now I know the truth about that too.

A whistle calls.

“Climb.” Elisaf nudges me forward, urgency in his lyrical Seacadorian accent.

I don’t waste a second, scaling the ladder far less gracefully than Zander, the rungs creaking beneath my weight. I wince against a splinter that slides beneath my skin as I emerge into a pitch-black space.

“Let me help you.” Zander’s voice is a whisper in my ear.

I can’t make out anything, yet I know he can see clearly, and I sense his hand waiting inches from mine, palm up.

This is where we part ways, Romeria Watts of New York City.

His resolute words from earlier are a deafening bell toll. Zander wants to leave me. An army led by his treasonous brother is building a pyre for me, every immortal in Islor will want me dead for the poison in my veins, and the most powerful spellcasters in Mordain will hunt me down should they discover I’m a key caster …

Zander finally knows that I do not belong in this world, and he is searching for an excuse to abandon me to it.

I ignore his offer of help, testing the floor with my toes