Terl was born with a deadly curse in his blood. Not wanting to be used as a weapon in a war he doesn't care about, he runs away. When he meets Jessam, a warrior with a dark past, Terl finds himself drawn into a grand adventure where to survive, he'll have to face his curse head-on - and decide if there are some things worth fighting for.
Warnings: Slash, femslash, het, D/s-verse, soulbonding, love triangle, slow burn, age differences & power differentials, violence, graphic sex, sexual abuse, the slimiest villain I've ever written.
I know it's taken forever and a half, but finally I'm writing the sequel to Alone, Together. While I've tried to make Curseborn as accessible to a new reader as possible, the very beginning of this story spoils the ending of Alone, Together. So I'd recommend you'd read that story first, even if it is on the longer side. To readers of Alone, Together, the sequel has a different setting and follows a different set of characters, but don't worry, it still has a lot of ties to the old story and the characters you love.
Same disclaimer applies to Curseborn as Alone, Together: it's set in a world with strict D/s roles, but the main couple doesn't necessarily follow typical dom and sub conventions.
I: The Boy in the Courtyard
Terl, I'll come home next week. Looking forward to seeing you. - Musa
Terl turned the letter over, flipped it upside down, squinted at the text, held it up the sun, but its contents didn't change. That single line in stark black ink remained stubbornly in place.
Maybe he should light a candle and hold the letter above the flame. There might be more written in an invisible ink that reacted to heat; Terl had read about such a thing in a few mystery novels.
Don't be absurd, Terl thought, gritting his teeth. Why would Musa go through that effort?
No, the real answer was much simpler. Musa simply didn't care to say any more to him.
Terl's brother had always been that way. When he'd left the Ayoki palace to join the Coastlands navy, he hadn't even bothered to visit Terl to say goodbye. Instead, he'd delivered a letter by mail-kite a day after the fact. Likewise, if Terl hadn't overheard some maids gossiping through the courtyard wall, he'd have never known why Musa was coming home now.
Musa had lost a battle. More than just losing, he'd lost the Ayoki family's star warship, the Dawn Conch.
As Terl folded up the letter, he tried to imagine what it must have been like on the battlefield. The churning sea, the smell of gunpowder, the shouts of sailors. He pictured Musa standing on the deck, arrayed with the other water magi in rigid formation, bellowing chants that sent the sea lashing at the enemy ship in great whips.
It would be an amazing sight. Terl's blood pounded at even the thought of it. Musa must be ashamed about losing, but Terl wouldn't mind if it was him. He'd be happy that he'd even gotten to experience such a thrilling battle in real life. The books could hardly compare.
Well, unlike Terl, Musa had always taken freedom for granted.
Terl sighed and stood up, adjusting the heavy mantle on his head. It had started sliding down, dragging to the left. He tugged the string of blue pearls and shark teeth charms holding it in place, taking care not to loosen the knot. As he worked, the stiff silk brushed his fingers, and the shimmering silvery threads woven in the weft raised goosebumps on his skin.
Terl didn't like the sensation, so he tried his best to keep as little of his skin from touching the mantle as possible. Not hard. He'd had years of practice.
Beneath the mantle, Terl was dressed far more plainly. No silk to be seen, just a loose cotton robe dyed subdued indigo. He could have been a common student at one of the Coastlands' many free schools. That thought cheered him. A little.
The mantle fixed, Terl hopped off the bench running alongside the wall of the building and headed into the door inside.
Though the shutters were thrown open, the deep, narrow room was still dim inside, thanks to the thick coral walls that blocked light but also kept the interior cool. Bookshelves crowded the room, stuffed with codices and volumes and scrolls from all over Senero; there were even a few gilded Marren manuscripts.
Most libraries of the nobility were illuminated by glass spheres filled with light aura, but Terl preferred the natural light outdoors. Besides, aura spheres had a tendency to break around him.
Annoyed, Terl adjusted his mantle some more, then checked the large bangles around his wrists. More like cuffs, really, wrought from steel so dark it was almost black and engraved with a riot of strange symbols. There was coiling, sinuous writing, but also images of fat-bellied men with leopard heads, sharks with human arms and twin tails, screaming women with bird beaks and clawed hands.
Like the mantle, the cuffs came from the distant southern continent. His sister had acquired them at great expense, for these Ahui-craft creations were the strongest aura suppressors in the known world.
Sometimes Terl felt a stab of jealousy for the explorers his sister had sent to the Ahui lands. He wondered if any of them had encountered the fantastical creatures engraved onto his cuffs.
Perhaps instead of resenting Musa's letter-writing abilities, or lack thereof, Terl could lose himself in reading. He moved toward a tall shelf divided into hexagonal compartments that were crammed with scrolls. He teased loose a scroll, unrolled a section to reveal colorful hieroglyphs arranged around an anatomical diagram. A medical text from the werewhale islands.
The werewhale islands. Another place he'd never been, and never could be. Savagely, Terl jammed the scroll back in place. The other scrolls rustled as if in protest, sending a sharp stab of guilt through Terl's gut.
Today was just one of those days, he thought as he rearranged the scrolls. When the sky was achingly blue, the heat and humidity settled low to the ground, the palms swayed lazily in the sea breeze and the bustle of town penetrated even the thick walls of the Ayoki palace. For the most part, Terl had made peace with his imprisonment. He'd had seventeen years to do so.
But sometimes...sometimes it wasn't enough to live vicariously through stories. No matter how far his mind carried him, his body remained locked within these four walls.
His thoughts turned back to Musa. It was selfish, but Terl felt a little twinge of excitement that his brother was coming home. Musa was flighty and inconstant at best, but he made for a fun companion.
Even before he was Terl's brother, though, Musa was an energos - a magus whose dominant nature yearned for a submissive half to complete him. When he'd found the ministra who could do so, he had promptly left with her to command a warship.
Less than two years separated them, but Musa had grown up while Terl had not. He manifested the ability to control water. Began to detect the musk of an energos, the sweet scent of a ministra. Changed his child's robe for an energos' tunic and wrap. Shaved his head. It was a minor miracle he'd bothered to humor his trapped little brother for all these years.
His world was much bigger than Terl's. Always had been.
Angry now, Terl stalked to the door and glared into the courtyard. Nothing to see except the same old garden, the leaves of its papaya tree wilting in the heat. Even when the family cat, Seashell, hopped over the courtyard walls and settled beside him, Terl's mood didn't improve. He scratched behind Seashell's ears, listened to her purr, but sooner or later she'd get bored and leave.
How long Terl sat there feeling sorry for himself, he didn't know. When one lived such as he did, time didn't mean anything. It wasn't like he had a schedule to follow or places to be.
Suddenly Seashell slipped out from under his hand. Before Terl could shout her name, she hopped atop the courtyard wall and slinked away, wagging her bushy tail like a final insult.
As soon as she vanished, the courtyard gate swung open. Terl whirled around to see the house steward enter.
Beramb Afane was Terl's most constant visitor. Though stooped with age, he was still a hefty man. His tunic strained to cover his broad chest, and his neck was so thick it made his head look peculiarily tiny.
"Good afternoon, Master Terl," Beramb said, his deep voice rumbling off the courtyard walls. "How are you doing?"
"I'm fine," Terl said, unable to help a smile. He'd always enjoyed Beramb's company. Maybe because Beramb was his blood-father. Or because Beramb didn't fear or resent or begrudge or ignore Terl.
"You aren't reading?" Beramb asked. "That's a surprise."
Terl swallowed. He didn't much want to tell Beramb what he'd really been doing - if he even knew. "I just finished my book."
"That's good. I would have hated to interrupt you, Master Terl." As Beramb approached, Terl noticed the sweat slicking his skin, making his bald pate shine in the sunlight. "Come, we haven't got much time. Lady Sellady wishes to see you."
Oh. Sellady. Terl's eldest sister and head of the Ayoki household. She dropped by every now and then, always acting as if she was doing him a great favor by taking the time out of her busy schedule.
Terl fought down a scowl. "Is that so? Guess I'll get changed. When's she coming?"
"Lady Sellady," Beramb said, enunciating slowly and carefully, "is not coming to see you. She requests your presence in the Grand Room."
The Grand Room. The words spun through Terl's mind. They made perfect sense, but Terl couldn't comprehend them. Or rather, he couldn't bring himself to comprehend them.
It had been over a decade since Terl had set one foot out of his compound. Sellady had made it very clear that he was never to leave. That nobody outside the family was to even know of his existence.
"Sellady," Terl said at last. His voice came out thin, weak. "She wants me...in the Grand Room."
"Yes." Beramb nodded grimly. To Terl's alarm, his eyes were sad. "Immediately."
Terl was never to leave this compound. That was one truth of his sad, circumscribed little life. But another truth weighed far heavier.
What Sellady wanted, Sellady got.
"All right," Terl said.
So it was that Terl found himself standing in the Grand Room of the Ayoki palace, where his sister held court. Terl stared and stared, feeling like he was in a dream. The polished teak floor reflected him in blurry smudges. The windows stretched almost from floor to ceiling; designs made of small pieces of stained glass filled in their arching tops, but their rectangular bodies were made of long, clear panes.
Through them, Terl could see the harbor of Ayoki Town, the glittering blue seas and the fisher boats lazily floating past. The ocean. Terl had lived all his life on the shore, but hadn't seen the ocean in years.
What startled Terl most of all, however, was one small yet significant detail. Each and every window was latched shut. In the Ayoki palace, windows were only closed during storms.
Or to keep curious ears from overhearing.
Terl's sister Sellady stood before the central window. If one looked at the two of them, it would be hard to say they were related. Aside from their dark brown skin and green-blue eyes, they shared few similarities. Sellady was in her forties, tall and majestic, and proudly wore the ceremonial drape of the Ayoki family over her shoulder, the green and purple silk woven with traditional seashell patterns.
But Sellady wasn't the only one in the Grand Room. No, behind her stood another woman. Someone who Terl had never seen before.
This stranger was much shorter than Sellady, her face cut with lines and her close-trimmed hair white with age. It strongly contrasted her skin, so dark it was almost black. But what caught Terl's attention were the aquamarine and green hues of her clothing, the stylized dolphins woven in her drape.
If he wasn't mistaken, those were the colors and sigil of Aluana House. The rulers of the Coastlands.
What is an Aluana doing here? No, that wasn't the right question. The Ayokis had power and influence; Aluanas visited frequently. The question was why an Aluana wanted to see him.
It must, he thought with a prickle of dread, have something to do with the battle Musa had lost.
"Hello, Terl," Sellady said, at last breaking the silence. "How are you?"
"I'm fine, thank you," Terl said. Stiff and polite, as he always was with her.
"That's good to hear." Sellady exhaled. "I would like to introduce you to someone. This is Lady Myrine Aluana, Head of Aluana House and Ruler of the Coastlands."
Electrical sparks raced down Terl's spine. Not just any Aluana. Myrine Aluana herself. The most powerful person in all the Coastlands.
He stepped back. Sellady noticed. "Terl!" she barked. "Pay Lady Aluana the proper respect."
Though thoroughly befuddled, Terl hurried to sink to his knees. Sellady had trained him too well. "Lady Aluana," he murmured to the teak floorboards."How may I be of service?"
"You may rise, my boy." The kindness in Lady Aluana's voice gave Terl pause. Powerful people were never kind without an ulterior motive. Nonetheless, he was glad to stand again. At least this way he could get a good look at her.
"Young Master Terl, I've heard a lot about you from your sister," Lady Aluana continued, still in that kind voice. "I'm happy to finally meet you."
Sweat gathered beneath Terl's mantle, matting his curls. With the windows closed, the heat settled thick and heavy in the room. Terl could barely breathe.
"You might want to know why I've come for you today," Lady Aluana said. "In truth, I want to ask for your help."
"My help," Terl echoed. The Grand Room had seemed so spacious before. Now the walls were closing in on him, trapping him in place.
"First, my boy, what do you know of the Basquialists?"
"The Basquialists?" Terl stammered. His mind flashed to the battle scene. "Wait, is Musa all right? Did something happen to him?"
He'd gotten Musa's letter, yes, but that meant nothing. Maybe Musa had gotten hurt after he'd sent the letter. Or he'd already been hurt, and didn't want to tell Terl.
"Musa is fine," Sellady said. "The Dawn Conch, on the other hand..."
Leave it to Sellady to worry more about her ships than her siblings.
"So you have heard of them?" Lady Aluana asked Terl. She seemed awfully intent on this subject. Perhaps she thought that Terl had no knowledge of the outside world.
Annoyance lashed through Terl. Even though she was the Coastlands ruler, that didn't mean she had to treat him like an imbecile. "Yes, I know of the Basquialists. They're the rebel army that supports the Ministra King."
"Ministra King?" Lady Aluana shook her head and snorted. "Even you call the pretender by that title?"
"I - I'm sorry, my lady."
He figured it would be a waste to mention that all of the books called Aramy Basquiale by that title. Five years ago, Lord Aramy Basquiale had been the Royal Consort. Until he'd used forbidden sorcery to steal the king's aura and usurped the throne of Senero. He'd styled himself the First Ministra King, and Terl had to admit the title had a certain romantic resonance to it.
Though the Ministra King had quickly been deposed, he'd evaded capture and now resided somewhere in the pirate-infested waters of the west. His navy continued to grow in numbers and strength, and made great sport of harassing Seneran ships.
Musa had always been excited about fighting Basquialists. The Coastlands might officially claim that they were pledging ships toward anti-piracy efforts, refusing to dignify the Ministra King by treating him as a hostile enemy ruler, but everybody knew that fighting his forces was the same as fighting in a war. Both Musa and Terl had loved stories about the great sea battles of yore. Now Musa had gotten to realize his dream.
Terl doubted Musa was even that bothered over his defeat. He'd be eager to return to the sea and get his revenge, like all his favorite naval heroes did.
Lady Aluana and Sellady, however, did not think the same way. "Last week, we suffered a great loss at the hands of the Basqualists," Sellady said. "Our family's treasure sank. As did two Aluana ships. It will take almost an entire year to regain our fighting force. Every second we waste, the usurper grows stronger."
"I have heard," Lady Aluana said, turning toward Terl. "that you possess amazing powers. Powers beyond magic or sorcery."
Terl's blood turned to ice.
Now he understood. This, this was why Sellady had summoned him from his prison. Had revealed his existence to the ruler of the Coastlands.
"I, I don't," Terl burst out. "I don't have anything like that..."
"Terl!" Sellady's sharp bark lashed like a whip. "How dare you lie to Lady Aluana!"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." The pleas burst from his throat without thinking. If there was one thing he was good at, it was apologizing to Sellady.
Worse, Lady Aluana would not stop talking. "You were born with a powerful curse in your blood. A curse so dangerous your sister had no choice but to imprison you. But now your curse can be of service to our nation. Perhaps it is what we need to defeat the pretender's stolen aura."
"No," Terl whispered, dry-mouthed. "No, wait - Sellady, stop - "
For Sellady began marching toward him. Terl couldn't move. Her hand closed around his wrist. Fingers sank into skin, bruisingly hard. Terl cried out. Her other hand reached for his mantle, tugged on the string of pearls...
Why? Why was this happening? His earliest memory, in his earliest memory Sellady glared at him with cold eyes and said, "You know why you cannot leave. It's because you killed our parents."
Little Terl had not fully understood what she meant. Until the day when his curse activated for the first time. When he stood above the limp body of his youngest sister...
All she'd done was take off his mantle. That was it. She'd thought it was sad that such a small child had to hide under such a heavy cloth all day, every day. Surely one second wouldn't hurt.
Ever since that day, Terl had understood. He resented his imprisonment, but never once had he tried to escape.
Sellady yanked the string loose. Terl cried out as his mantle slipped forward, the cloth spilling over his eyes. Fruitlessly, he seized it with both hands -
But Sellady was stronger. Always had been. With a mighty yank, the mantle flapped loose.
Terl's mop of springy curls burst loose. His blood reared. Like a cobra preparing to strike. He could hear it roar and hiss in his ears, wild with anticipation. A horrible pressure throbbed in his eardrums, sending him to his knees.
"No, no, no," he cried, trying to block his exposed skin with his hands, anything to keep it inside. But his blood would not listen to him.
It surged. The pressure in Terl's head exploded, sending scarlet fireworks across his vision. An invisible force seized him by the neck and hurled him flat to the floor. He heard Sellady and Lady Aluana cry out.
Fighting the thrashing, searing blood inside him, Terl hauled himself to his knees. Forced his eyes open.
His sister and the ruler of the Coastlands writhed upon the floor. Water leaked from their skin, twisting and twining like hundreds of glimmering worms. As the water rose, it hardened, crackling into pale white ice.
The ice sharpened into hundreds of needle-like points. Then it rained upon the two women, slashing through the water-worms, slicing at their skin.
"Stop it! Stop!" Terl screamed until his throat burned. "Stop, please, please, I'm begging you, stop - "
But, some tiny part of him still capable of logical thought realized, Sellady would never put herself into a position where she could suffer genuine harm.
The instant the thought crossed his mind, a familiar weight descended upon his head.
It was like a blanket thrown over a fire. The instant the mantle touched his skin, his blood fell silent. No more roaring, no more rushing. The ice melted, the water-worms splashed back down. Water drained away into the grooves between the floorboards.
Terl clutched the mantle with both hands, gasping for breath, blinking away tears.
Beramb knelt by his side. "Master Terl," he murmured. "Are you all right?"
Terl couldn't answer. And he didn't need to. For Sellady, panting but looking none the worse for wear, rose to her feet. Her face was wild with triumph.
"Do you see, Lady Aluana? The power of his curse?"
"I see." Lady Aluana rose as well, though more slowly than Sellady. Her voice was low, thoughtful, but her eyes had the same gleam as Sellady's.
"My dear boy." Lady Aluana directed this at Terl. "I've been convinced. This is indeed a power that can defeat the pretender. Tomorrow at dawn, we leave for the capital."
Sellady turned away, but as she did, Terl caught the small smirk lifting her lips.
Everything, he thought bitterly, had turned out just as she'd planned.
Late at night. Terl sat on his bed, arms wrapped tight around himself. He hadn't gone to sleep. Hadn't picked up a book. Instead, he endlessly replayed what had happened in the main courtyard.
If Beramb hadn't intervened, Sellady and Lady Aluana would have been reduced to husks. Their own aura would continue to attack them until they had no more aura left to give. And they would never wake again.
Yet neither had cared. Instead, they'd been overjoyed. Lady Aluana had almost been salivating in eagerness.
Of course. Neither had been in significant danger. Beramb would have made sure of it. They'd just wanted to test him.
He'd performed to their satisfaction. Now they would make him do it again and again. And again. Until they won the war.
Terl thought of Sellady's satisfied smirk. Then, her own words marched through his head. Years' and years' worth of words, accumulating like raindrops.
"This power of yours is evil. This power killed your parents. You will wear these shackles for eternity. This is your penance."
Terl hadn't liked it, but he had understood it. Accepted it, even. It was only logical, after all.
So now, why was Sellady turning her back on everything she believed? She hated his curse more than anybody. Yet she had no problem using it as a weapon?
No, Terl thought, bile crawling up his throat. No, it's wrong. I can't let them do this to me.
He gripped his mantle, twisting the cloth between his fingers. His heart pounded so hard he thought it would burst out of his throat. The enormity of what he was about to do choked him.
Seventeen years, these four walls had been his world. Soon, Lady Aluana would take him away. She would take him to the capital, a place as far and fantastical to him as the Ahui lands, and make him take off his mantle and cuffs over and over, whenever she needed him.
If Terl didn't want that to happen...he had to leave first. Before Lady Aluana could get him.
He took a deep breath and stood up.
Methodically, he went around his room. First he picked up the small clay pot where he kept his meager supply of coins, then unshelved a travel guide to Marautia, the nearest big city. He gazed longingly at his collection of shells and coral pieces, all of which Beramb had bought from the town market over the years. Maybe he could bring some to sell...? But no, they'd add too much useless weight.
Lastly, he pulled down one of the wall hangings. A simple indigo cloth decorated by stamped geometric patterns, it wouldn't be out of place for a commoner to wear.
Terl draped the cloth over his mantle.
He didn't have a mirror, so he couldn't check that it was covering the entire mantle. Hopefully in the darkness, nobody would notice. Tucking the pot of coins beneath an arm, Terl made his way toward the courtyard gate.
He felt only the slightest pang of regret. If he left now, he wouldn't get to see Musa next week. And maybe if he went with Lady Aluana and used his power to fight the war, he could keep Musa safe. But Terl was sure Musa wouldn't want him to. Heroes didn't use curses to fight.
Terl climbed atop the bench along the wall, struggling with the weight of his two mantles, then stood on his tiptoes and reached as high as he could. To his relief, his fingertips reached the tip of the wall. Terl clamped down, the hauled himself up. Once atop the wall, Terl slid down over to the other side.
Leaving was so easy. Why had he never tried before?
Because if he left, he might hurt someone. That was what Sellady always said. Except now she wanted him to hurt people.
Terl ran across the next courtyard and ducked through a gate, emerging onto a covered walk. In the darkness, he could hear the distant sigh of the ocean. Terl headed away from it. He had to go north, escape into the town, and from there he'd find his way to Marautia.
Step by step, take it step by step...
Suddenly he noticed a figure at the end of the walk. Heart slamming, he skidded to a halt. Wrong - he should have lowered his head and scurried silently past, like a servant with nothing to hide. But as the figure approached, Terl realized that plan would have never worked.
"Master Terl, you're out quite late," Beramb said.
"I, I can explain," Terl croaked, even though he couldn't. He gripped the coin jar tighter.
Beramb smiled. His dark eyes were unfathomable. Then, with two great strides he closed the distance between them and pressed something into Terl's hand. A paper?
"A list of safe establishments I know in Marautia. The people at these houses will help you. Now, listen carefully, I'll provide you directions out of the palace but I will only say them once. Once you are in town, your best bet for escaping is to hide in one of the dockside carts. Most are bound for Marautia. But do not take a spice cart, those are subjected to more stringent searches."
"Wait, wait." Terl could barely force words out of his throat. "Slow down. What are you saying?"
"Master Terl," Beramb said, "I am a loyal servant of Ayoki House. But I have another, stronger loyalty. You do not carry my blood, but in a way, I am still your father. What kind of father would willingly allow his son to suffer?"
You're my blood-father, you were just a conduit for my mothers during the Blood Ceremony - but Terl couldn't force out the words. It was true, wasn't it? Terl's mothers were long dead. But Beramb had watched over Terl his entire life.
The corners of Terl's eyes pricked. Impatient, ashamed, he wiped them. Then pulled Beramb into a hug.
"Thank you, Beramb," he whispered. "I can't ever repay you."
"Yes, you can," Beramb said, quiet but fierce. "Live, Master Terl. Live and be well in the outside world."
The outside world. Terl's skin prickled. Who knew what dangers, what wonders, awaited for a boy who'd spent his entire life in one courtyard. He couldn't begin to imagine them.
But he knew one thing for certain. He wouldn't have to take his first steps alone.
Review/fave/follow. I love feedback and hearing your thoughts! It always encourages me to write faster. :)