Lord of the Hunt(2)
Author:Shona Husk

    Murmurs rippled through the crowd at the name.

    Taryn merch Arlea. Verden scrambled to think of who she was, then stopped as he realized who Arlea was and the power she’d once wielded. Arlea had been on the King’s Council. When her husband had been exiled to the mortal world, she’d chosen to follow. Who would willingly leave Annwyn and give up their status in the process? A shudder traced down his back at the idea of being sent away from Annwyn. The mortal world was for humans and banished or exiled fairies.

    While the King had been furious with Arlea’s choice, he hadn’t included her in her husband’s punishment. She was free to return but hadn’t been seen in Court since leaving with Chalmer. Yet Arlea must have returned to Annwyn at least once to give birth; otherwise, Taryn would’ve been a changeling, and his dogs would’ve sensed her crossing over.

    But why was she here? Was she part of Felan’s plan to claim the throne?

    The King beckoned her forward and held out his hand. A good sign. The Queen watched, her eyes dark and cold.

    Taryn stepped forward with only a slight hesitation, as if she was now aware that she was being watched and judged. She leaned over to kiss the King’s heavy silver ring and a tendril of light brown hair slid over her shoulder. As much as he wanted to watch the movement of that lock of hair over her skin, Verden dragged his gaze to Gwyn. There was glimmer in his eyes that had been absent for too long. One Verden recognized, and when he glanced to the Lords in the chamber, many also watched with the same hungry gaze.

    She was new, a fresh face in a jaded and almost immortal Court. At dinner tonight, plenty would vie for a dance and more. She didn’t even know the hounds were heating up for a hunt. There would be wagers placed on who would score a place in her bed first.

    The Court was going to eat her alive and laugh while they did it. The memories of his first days at Court, fresh from the farms on the outskirts of Annwyn, the beauty, the glamour, the cruelty as many had tried to trick and trap him as part of a game or gamble, resurfaced as he watched her. He’d showed them, beaten them at their games, and now outranked them all, answering only to the King.

    Verden would not let this beautiful creature be used by the Court for their entertainment.

    He watched as she straightened, her smile a little too fixed, a little too bright maybe. He caught the tremble of her fingers as they curled by her side. There was something about her, the look in her eyes, the tilt of her chin. It had been too long since he’d been around fairies who didn’t put on the mask they thought everyone wanted to see. The corners of his lips turned up the slightest bit.

    Taryn took a couple paces back, waiting to be dismissed. The King looked at her for a moment longer, then turned to Verden. He stepped forward and leaned down, already knowing what it was the King would ask.

    “I want to know why she is at Court and what she wants,” the King murmured. Didn’t everyone? Verden was willing to make a few guesses, but he hadn’t gotten to be Hunter by gathering wild theories. He’d get what he needed and protect the King’s interests.

    “Of course, sire.” He didn’t need to be reminded what his job was. He would have tracked her down…and not just for work. He was curious about her and not because of what she might be plotting or whose side she was on. He glanced at her, her fingers flexing against the skirt of her dress, a movement that was almost hidden. Her gaze met his for a moment, then flicked back to the King.

    “See she attends my table tonight.”

    Verden blinked. That was a surprise. “Your table?”

    “I want to see how alike mother and daughter are.”

    “Very well.” Verden nodded and drew back. The King could’ve made the invitation publicly, but that would have shown Taryn too much favor. She was a stranger, an unknown quantity, and for all the King knew, Taryn planned to throw her lot in with the Queen. Verden hoped not, but if nothing else, dinner would be interesting.

    The King lifted his hand, dismissing Taryn. Verden would wait until the session had ended and then he would find Taryn. He glanced down at one of the hounds; it lifted its head and slunk out of the chamber, ready to follow Taryn. Watching her would be no trouble at all.

    Chapter 2

    The look in the King’s eyes sent the chill straight down Taryn’s spine. If a mortal man had looked at her like that, she’d have run. For a moment, every ounce of his restrained power had been directed at her. Then he’d turned his head and spoken to another man.

    She couldn’t hear a word they said above the whispers that were happening behind her back, yet it was obvious they were talking about her. She wasn’t used to so much attention, and she didn’t like it. Her toes wriggled in her shoes; she wanted to go. Why the wait?

    The other man lifted his gaze and looked at her for a moment. His cool gray eyes seemed to assess and sum her up in one glance; then he went back to his discussion with the King.

    Her heart beat a little faster. Who was he? Maybe they already knew why she was here and they were discussing her father’s pardon. Not for the first time today, she wished the Prince had that power.

    The man wasn’t dressed as brightly as the others, and yet nothing about him said he didn’t belong near the King. And anyone standing that close to the King was in favor and probably on the council. She let her gaze slide over the other fairies around the King. The Queen, the Prince—who gave no sign of knowing her—the gray-eyed man, and a couple other men and women. One of them would be the Hunter. Two white dogs were lying on the floor, but she didn’t know who they belonged to.

    The King and the man came to an agreement, and the man straightened and stepped back. His gaze met hers again, a faint smile on his lips that tempted her to smile back. No, she was here to win favor of the King and save her father, nothing more.

    And yet…it was hard to look away. She blinked and refocused on the King. He was watching her. What was he waiting for?

    The question burned the tip of her tongue. She certainly had the King’s attention, and who knew when she’d be able to get it again. For a moment, nothing else and no one else in the room mattered, and it all faded beneath the sound of her heart beating. There was a glimmer in the King’s eyes. Was he daring her to ask?

    She made herself breathe. Her fingers curled, and she made them straighten. She had every right to be here—but not every right to ask. If she asked now, in front of everyone, and failed, she’d never get another chance. Her mother was right. She needed to find a way to get closer to the King, to win his favor before her novelty status wore off and he was no longer interested.

    So she said nothing and pasted a smile on her face, all the while feeling like the village idiot. Her mother’s rushed training had not helped. The Queen’s eyes narrowed. The gray-eyed man watched her without moving, and yet she was sure he hadn’t missed a second of her inner struggle. Then the King raised his fingers and she was dismissed without a word.

    Was that good or bad? How long would she have to play their game for before she could ask the King for her father’s life?

    Exile was supposed to be a lighter sentence, a social death instead of the slow death sentence of banishment and becoming a Grey. But with the power shift coming, there would be many asking for the King’s favor to lift an exile and save a relative.

    She’d make that opportunity. Somehow.

    She took a step back. Don’t turn your back on the King, as that’s rude. Never turn your back to the Queen, as she’ll stab you.

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