Excerpt: The Cursebreaker Countess

Kas climbed the stairs slowly, anticipating the feel of crumbling stone under her boots. Outside, thunder boomed, echoing in the drafty spiral staircase as though she were still outside. There were cracks in the outer wall, but while rain seeped through them, none of the water had reached the stairs.

Hopefully the room at the top was intact and dry. Kas would prefer not to deal with another wet, uncomfortable night of sleeping. Hefting her travel lantern a bit higher, Kas continued her climb, counting the steps as she went. There were, apparently, three hundred and forty-two steps from the crumbled outer door to the top of the tower.

The steps all held, but the smell of must and magic only grew stronger the closer Kas drew to the top. That was unsettling. Magic was all but gone in the kingdom, yet the smell was strong, which meant the spell was strong.

Not that it mattered much; Kas hadn’t met a spell yet that she couldn’t destroy on touch, much to everyone’s displeasure.

She stepped into the tower room, her lantern flickering in the breeze. There were four windows in the tower, one each to the north, east, south, and west. If they had ever had glass or spells to block the wind and rain, that was long gone. The stone floor was wet with rain beneath the north and east windows, but for the most part it was dry. There were cracks and crumbles in the stone, but the structure seemed to be holding for the most part.

The magic came from the center of the room, where a small pallet was set up. Kas’s lantern bathed the pallet in weak, flickering light, showing that someone was asleep there. Or at least, holding very still. Kas bet asleep, given the slow rise and fall of the woman’s chest. Plus, Kas wouldn’t pretend to be asleep if someone encroached on her space. That was an invitation for nothing good.

Kas ventured closer, jumping when lightning flashed, bright and vivid, seemingly just outside the tower. Thunder boomed not long after, and Kas stayed where she was, halfway between the entry and the pallet. The rain seemed to fall harder, lashing against the tower’s roof and coming in through the windows.

She would leave the woman to her sleep, but the presence of magic was compelling, drawing Kas forward. This magic smelled of dead, rotted leaves, of the sharp tang of a fire just put out, and Kas rubbed her nose against a sneeze.

The woman didn’t stir as Kas approached. She did nothing except breathe. There was a thin quilt over top of her, but if the cool breeze that blew through the room chilled her, it didn’t show. Her face was calm and serene, soft and slack with sleep, her hair arranged neatly behind her head. She didn’t stir, even when Kas reached the edge of her pallet.

Setting the lantern down next to the woman’s head, Kas knelt, shucking her pack and leaving it on the floor next to her. The woman didn’t so much as twitch. If she was faking it, which Kas doubted, she was good at it.

No, far more likely was that the magic kept her asleep or otherwise interfered with her senses. Kas reached out a hand, feeling for the shape of the magic; it seemed to be around the woman’s torso, though without actually touching it—and thereby killing the spell—Kas wasn’t positive.

Sitting back, Kas considered her options. She could spend the evening relatively dry and leave the woman in peace. The idea of spending the evening with a bespelled woman in arm’s reach was unnerving, though. Should she break the spell? Kas had never seen its like. Most of the spells she ran into—and broke—were remnants of the lost age of magic, placed on inanimate objects.

She couldn’t think of any good reason for a woman to be bespelled to sleep—if that were, in fact, what the spell did. Still, she hesitated. What if she broke it and the woman kicked her out of the tower? She’d get soaked again… But that was better than sleeping in the same room as the woman while she slept, unaware of Kas’s presence.

Decided, Kas leaned forward, peeling back the thin quilt. There, around the woman’s neck, was a necklace. The chain was made of thick, heavy silver, and the pendant seemed to glow against the woman’s dark skin. The magic was almost certainly coming from there, and Kas reached out and laid her fingers against the pendant.

It writhed beneath her touch, and she jerked her hand back, startled. That had never happened before, but in the next second, the pendant disintegrated with a soft poof, scattering dust across the woman and her pallet.

Kas shook her fingers out, grimacing at the way they tingled. Had she set the spell on herself? She didn’t feel tired. That had never happened before, and neither had the strong tingle in her fingers. Usually breaking magic felt like her knuckles had popped.

The thought was lost in the next second as the woman’s eyes opened. They were dark, the color impossible to tell in the poor light, but they focused unerringly on Kas. Before Kas could so much as issue a greeting, the woman scrambled up and back, her hands twitching out toward Kas in a strange movement.

Magic washed over Kas, soft and sweet and warm like a summer breeze. The woman froze, her breathing harsh and loud enough to be heard over the storm outside. She stared at Kas. Kas stared back, thoroughly baffled. She’d never heard of anyone being able to cast magic. No one had had magic since the lost princess had well, been lost, several decades before.

“Who are you?” the woman demanded, her voice as harsh as her breathing. Her gaze flickered around the tower room, but there was no recognition in her face.

“My name is Kas,” Kas said. She stayed still, not wanting to provoke another spell being cast at her. She was fairly certain it would fail as well, but not certain enough to test it.

“I don’t care what your name is. Who are you?” The woman had a strange lilt to her voice; perhaps she was foreign?

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