Lord of the Hunt(7)
Author:Shona Husk


    “You say that like you don’t think I’ll be able to avoid her.”

    “You are a new female at Court; she will want to find out more.”

    “Doesn’t everyone?”

    This time he grinned. “So true. People will want to know where you fit, who your allies are.”

    “Are you my ally?”

    He stopped walking. He wanted to be more than her ally, but that was impossible at Court. He should put her out of his mind, let her chase the pardon and obey Felan. And yet the idea of running his own game again, behind the back of Felan, was tempting. It had been a long time since he’d allowed himself to do anything except what was required. He was as loyal to Gwyn as the hounds were to him. What harm could one trip across the veil do? “I could be if you trust me.”

    A shadow approached holding a glass goblet and a plate of fruit.

    “Here you go, enjoy.” He gave her a bow and turned to leave before he offered her more than he could afford.

    “Wait.” She paused for the shadow to drift away. “Are you able to take me out of Annwyn?” Her voice was barely a whisper.

    He should lie and tell her to obey, but across the veil she would be alone with him and no one would be watching. “Yes.”

    She opened her mouth to speak, but he placed a finger on her lips. “Another time…and of course, you’d have to trust that I won’t tell the Prince.”

    Perhaps he was no better than the rest, wanting to test her alliances and seeing where her interest fell. But he hadn’t imagined the warmth in her eyes or the glint of attraction when she thought he wasn’t looking. For the first time in a long time, he was looking forward to dinner.

    ***

    Verden made his way back to the Hall of Mirrors, hoping that the Prince was still there. He was and he was now alone, studying a mirror. Verden took a nearby seat and waited. Eventually the Prince let the mirror go and turned around.

    “Are you seeking a game or me?” There was no warmth in his eyes.

    Verden smiled his best courtier’s smile that meant nothing and yet implied whatever the viewer wanted. “Both.”

    Felan gave a single nod and sat down, sweeping his deep-red, ankle-length waistcoat out of the way as he did. He was dressing more and more like the Prince should. Just how close was he to taking control of Annwyn? Not close enough to have announced an heir and wedding. Perhaps close enough to be choosing a wife and thus the attraction of the Hall of Mirrors. Without a mortal woman willing to give up her soul, Felan couldn’t take the throne.

    “How would you like to lose today?” Felan pulled out the drawer and looked over the games stored there.

    “Dice. I feel like testing my luck and not my strategy.”

    Felan withdrew two thirteen-sided dice and placed them on the table. Verden picked them up and rolled them a few times to see if they were weighted. They rolled true, but it always paid to check the cards and dice before agreeing to play any game. Fortunes and ranks were made and lost by the roll of the dice or a hand of cards. He knew that from experience.

    “My father sent you to inquire about what I am up to?” He made a couple rolls and nodded, satisfied with the dice.

    “Not in as many words.” When dealing with the Prince, Verden had learned that honesty went a long way.

    Felan met Verden’s gaze. “You still his loyal dog?”

    “I swore to serve him. Would you rather a loyal man on the wrong side or a liar on your side?” Anyone who’d sworn to the King and was now swearing to Felan wasn’t worth the weight of his promise.

    “Then what are playing for if you aren’t here to vow support? Or am I to gain your loyalty if I win?” Felan smiled.

    “I would never gamble what I can’t give freely. But know I wouldn’t act against you unless you act directly against the King.” In his heart, he hoped Gwyn would step aside when asked and there would be no battle. No one, fairy or mortal, would win if Annwyn went to war. “How about we play for answers, one question answered truthfully to the winner.”

    “Very well.” Felan rolled the dice onto the table. They fell within the inlaid circle, one in the quarter marked as spring, the other in autumn—cusp seasons and the most dangerous at Court.

    Best of thirteen rolls, the number and the seasons all coming into play.

    Verden scooped up the dice and took his turn. They rolled in winter. Double thirteen, a good score but an ill omen given the recent events at Court. “A good thing we aren’t reading fortunes.”

    “Only a fool uses dice to predict the future. Cards are much more reliable.” The Prince’s lips curved, but both men knew that many fairies tried to predict their fortunes and favors using dice and cards.

    The next roll fell outside the circle, a wasted turn. The Crown Prince of Annwyn was throwing the game. He had to be. A skilled player could almost direct the dice to fall in the required season. Verden glanced up, but Felan’s face was unreadable.

    “Your father wishes to speak with you.” Verden risked speaking his mind.

    “I know what my father wishes to discuss and I have nothing to say.”

    A leaf fell next to the table and a shadow servant picked it up, but both men glanced at it. While some pretended the problem didn’t exist, it wouldn’t be long until Castle Annwyn had no leaves left to form a roof. Verden looked at the Prince.

    Felan pressed his lips together and took his turn with the dice. When he spoke, it was quietly and firmly. “It is not as easy as people seem to think. In the mortal world, a King would age and sicken. My father is the same man he was when I was a child centuries ago. I know what I need to do, but my heart isn’t in it.”

    “The longer you wait, the worse it will be for everyone.”

    “I know. Annwyn’s boundaries are fraying and bleeding into the mortal world. Have you unraveled my mother’s game?” Gwyn might step aside, but Eyra wouldn’t. If Felan moved against the Queen, Verden would back him. However, Annwyn needed a King and Queen.

    “I wish I had. I would give you that freely.” If he were trying to win Felan’s favor, he’d also inform the Prince of Taryn’s desire to leave Annwyn, but that was their secret—one he was enjoying contemplating even if he hadn’t decided if he was going to act on it. The light in her eyes when he’d suggested it was enough to still warm his blood.

    Felan nodded. “I would make the same offer. I am reluctant to bring a woman here knowing that my mother will attempt to kill her. You can tell my father that.”

    And he would, but father and son should speak; it would uncomplicate things. “You could tell him yourself.” Verden threw the dice for his last turn.

    Felan fixed him with a look and then shook his head. “You win. What is your question?”

    “The Lady Taryn, why did you bring her to Court?” Verden asked.

    “Ah, so you know it was me. Are you asking for yourself or my father?”

    “Does it matter when you said you’d answer truthfully?”

    Felan considered him for a moment. The Prince was shrewder than most realized. They believed him nothing but a pleasure-seeking layabout. Some were concerned he could even rule. Verden was sure he could; his games ran so deep most couldn’t see the bottom and the prize. He would be a King worthy of serving. If Verden hadn’t sworn to Gwyn, he’d be swearing to aid Felan to the throne.

    “I owed her father a favor, and since I can’t lift the exile, I invited Taryn instead. I’m sure he still harbors a grudge against Arlea.”

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