Erasmo passed her a glass of two-fingers full of tequila. Before she could even touch her drink, Erasmo downed his glass in two gulps and poured himself another two fingers. He leaned forward on the bar, pushing his hands through his black hair. As he smoothed it back, she noticed the silver streak in his hair before it was hidden amongst the rest of his dark locks.
Kiki grabbed her drink and tossed it back, the burn of the liquor racing down her throat and straight into her belly. “What happened to your hair?”
Erasmo lifted his head, and she could see the anguish in his eyes. Something ripped through her chest at how sad he seemed.
“It’s a side effect of the curse,” he said, his voice gravelly and raw. “The more the beast takes over, the more our hair turns silver. A symbol of our losing battle.” His voice cracked, and her heart broke for him. she didn’t know him well or for very long, but it was clear that the curse weighed heavily on him.
“How long do you have left?” Kiki asked softly, knowing that her line of questioning could come off as rude, but she had to know.
She had to know what Turi’s fate would be. It was her fault he’d come into the Cicatrix in the first place. Her fault the curse had taken hold of him.
Erasmo shrugged. “Some of us will have many years left. Might even get to see their middle age. Others aren’t as lucky.” He sighed, but she heard the anger bubbling inside and saw the rage twisting his face. “The curse affects those with the most darkness in their hearts the most. The silver is an outward sign of our inward depravity. Or so my twin used to tell me.”
“Where’s your twin now?”
“He controls his own territory in the north. We had a falling out several years ago and don’t speak anymore.”
“Don’t be. Arlando is a weasel. For years he was all I had. Until I realized he was purposely keeping me away from the rest of our family. He wanted me all to himself. He’s selfish. Thinks only of himself and his needs.”
“I can’t say that I judge him too harshly. I’m much the same way. Or I’ve been told.”
Erasmo cut his gaze to her, and she felt the heat of his stare. “Would you sacrifice anything—anyone—just to get what you want?”
Kiki reared back at the harshness of his tone. “No,” she spat. “Not for my own gain, I wouldn’t. But if someone was preventing me from protecting Luna and Yari, then yes. I’d do anything.”
He huffed. “Then that’s where you and Arlando differ. He protects no one but himself.”
“What did you fight about?”
He hung his head. “The curse.” When she didn’t respond, he continued. “How to break it.”
She stood up from her stool in a rush. “You mean you know how to end the curse?”
He shook his head. “No. But Arlando is convinced that he does.” He downed another gulp of liquor. “You see these totems,” he said, holding up the wooden pendant he wore around his neck. “We got them from a spirit woman. She told us of a prophecy that foretold the end of the curse. But it didn’t make any sense. Not to me or to any of my cousins. Only Arlando seemed to think he understood.”
“I don’t understand. Don’t you want to end the curse?”
“There are some prices that are too high.”
She scoffed. “That’s ridiculous. If you’ve known this whole time, why haven’t you done anything? Why hasn’t your brother? I’d give anything to find Yari. To know she’s safe.”
“What if lifting the curse meant losing everything that you love? Everything you’ve ever cared about. Would it be worth it then?” Silence filled the space between them as she worked through his words. But she still didn’t understand. “My brother believes the prophecy demands a sacrifice. One from each of the cursed princes. To end the curse, we much each kill the one person in this world that we love most.”
She sat back onto the stool, feeling as if I’d been punched in the gut and the wind had been knocked out of me. she shook her head slowly. “Turi would never agree to that,” she whispered.
“Now, do you understand?” Erasmo asked, his hands curling into fists on top of the bar.
“No,” she said, slamming her glass against the bar, shattering it into tiny pieces. She yelped as a shard pierced her already open cut. she plucked the shard out and grabbed a nearby towel, wrapping her hand. “There has to be another way. You said you didn’t believe your brother’s interpretation. There must be another way to look at it.”
Erasmo closed his eyes, and she could see how tired he was. The burden of leadership fell on his shoulders, and it was a heavy weight to carry. She understood that all too well. “If there is, we haven’t figured it out yet.”
“What about this spirit woman? Maybe we can ask her—”
Arlando shook his head. “Absolutely not.”
“Why?” she asked, desperation leaking into her voice. “I can’t just let Turi become some mindless beast. We have to cure him!”
Erasmo gripped the neck of the bottle so tight that his knuckles turned white. “You must really love him.”
She pushed away from the bar and began to pace. “Why does everyone think that?” Realizing how harsh she must sound, she added. “I didn’t mean it like that. Your brother, he’s a good guy. Sweet. Considerate. Kind. Caring. But, no, I don’t love him like that. I care for him. Even though I try not to. I do care for him. I want the best for him. But we never should have dated. I realized that too late, and I regret it every day.”
Erasmo seemed to calm at her response as he tipped back the liquor straight from the bottle. she grabbed it from him and took five big gulps herself. Everything was going to hell. And she hated feeling helpless about it. She wanted to act. To find a solution. But it was like every way she turned, there was a thirty-foot wall waiting to stop her.
“Have you told him that? That you regret being with him?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t want to break his heart more than I already had.”
“And if you were with someone else?”
“There is no one else,” she snapped. “Nor do I want there to be.”
Erasmo walked from behind the bar and ran a hand over his weary face. “What do you want?” He was so close his body heat wrapped around her. Without thinking, she took a deep breath of his scent. He stepped closer. “Tell me, what does the fearless demon slayer want?”
“A distraction,” she blurted out. She wanted to escape her reality for just a moment. She didn’t want to think about curses or ex-boyfriends, or best friends. She just wanted a moment of peace.
He took another step closer and lifted his hand to her face. He trailed the line of her cheek until his thumb ran across her bottom lip. “What kind of distraction?” he whispered, his voice low and husky.
The tequila made her feel bold, so she said, “The kind that no one ever has to know about.”
Erasmo’s eyes flared, and he crashed his lips to hers, his hands threading into her hair as he pried her mouth open with his tongue. A moan slipped past her lips, and he yanked her from the stool, wrapped his hands around her waist, and hoisted her to sit on top of the bar. He pressed himself between her thighs, and she felt the hard length of him press at her apex.
He broke away, his chest laboring for breath and his eyes hooded as our gazes locked. “Is this what you had in mind?” he asked, breathless.
“Definitely.” She pulled his mouth back to hers and ran her hands down his perfectly sculpted chest. His muscles twitched under her touch as she continued to explore his body, her hands inching further and further south. She looped her fingers into his pants and began to tug at the buttons when he pulled away again.
“Not here,” he growled, his gaze flicking to the broken glass on the bartop and the sticky black demon ichor that splattered over every inch of the place. Without warning, he gripped the back of her knees and lifted her off the bar. He slammed his lips into hers, and she could feel him moving them to another part of the inn.