Lord of the Hunt(8)
Author:Shona Husk

    “You invited her to get the pardon for you.”

    “You are out of questions, Hunter. Unless you want to press your luck again?” There was a predatory glint that suggested that should Verden try he would lose, and there were questions he didn’t want to answer.

    It was enough that the Prince had confirmed what he’d pieced together and admitted to owing Chalmer a favor.

    The Prince stood. “We’ll play again soon. Perhaps you can tell me why you ask about her?”

    Verden gave him an empty smile. “Anyone coming to Annwyn and catching the King’s eye is my concern.”

    Surprise flickered on Felan’s features but was quickly hidden. “She is only twenty-one mortal years. Don’t let her fall prey to the Court.” Felan placed his hand on Verden’s shoulder and leaned down. “No one wants a cold winter.” Then he moved on as if he hadn’t shared anything of importance.

    Verden eased back in his chair with practiced relaxation, and tried to look as bored as possible. Today it was all fake. Did Taryn have any idea how important the pardon was? There was far more than saving her father’s life at stake, and more reasons to make sure that she did everything to succeed. In this he could serve Felan and Taryn with a clear conscience, although he had yet to decide how best to serve.

    A gaggle of the Queen’s Ladies strolled past him, several glancing his way with careful smiles on their lips. Most were harmless. Rhodia and Sulia were the ones to watch—Sulia especially. If he danced with her, he always checked he had all his fingers afterward. He smiled and inclined his head, hoping none of the women would take it as an invitation to join him.

    Now if Taryn were to sit with him, he would have enjoyed her company some more, but it didn’t pay to be seen with one person too much of the time. That was how rumors started, and rumors had a way of coming true and creating problems.

    Some of his thoughts of Taryn must have shown in his eyes as Rhodia broke away from the group.

    “You sit alone, Hunter.”

    And he had been enjoying those few moments to tumble ideas around. “I do, but I see you are here to save me from myself.”

    She laughed and he gritted his teeth. He knew her end game; Rhodia wanted a husband with power and thought he’d make a good match. Would she still feel the same after the power shift, when he no longer had the rank of Hunter?

    Maybe she thought he’d climb again. Maybe he would. He didn’t know. Until Gwyn gave up the throne or Felan pushed him out of it, Verden was in limbo. The Hunter of a dying Court.

    Chapter 4

    Taryn looked at the dresses she had, trying to work out what to wear for dinner. Dinner with the King. Well, at his table anyway. It would be too public to ask for her father’s pardon. Which was probably a good thing because she might be tempted, even though Verden had advised her to move softly. Softly. As in don’t make waves. She scowled at her dresses, still no closer to picking one. Verden would be at the table too—the half-hidden heat in his eyes and the curve of his lips. She’d never kissed a fairy before. And she wouldn’t be kissing anyone tonight. She had to think of the pardon and ways to get it. Maybe Verden was right. She had to learn the ways of the Court before putting her hand out and asking for something. Plus there would be a price. But she’d give anything to save her parents.

    She tried not to feel the pressure crushing her, or the tightness of her chest. She couldn’t let panic or fear get control; otherwise, she’d fail. She had to learn, adapt, and win. She grabbed the blue dress off the gently sweeping branch that was acting as a clothes rail. Getting used to being surrounded by a living castle was still taking time—as was seeing the shadow servants.

    Was being a shadow better than being exiled or banished?

    She didn’t know, but they gave her the creeps and made her think the castle was haunted. Faceless ghosts at her beck and call. She shuddered.

    Taryn changed her clothes, redid her hair, and hoped she looked okay. No. She had to look better than okay, since everybody would be wondering why she was getting to sit up there with the King…and the Queen—hopefully as far from the Queen as possible—and Verden. She couldn’t stop the smile from forming.

    So far he was being very nice. So what did he want in exchange? She looked at herself in the mirror. The dark blue dress contrasted with her orange eyes, a color she’d always had to glamour to brown in the mortal world to hide what she was, and exposed just a little more skin than she would usually. Too much leg? Or maybe it was the cutaway at the side. With the silvery stars on the bodice, drifting down the front to dance across the hem, there were perhaps too many things going on at once. But then she was used to human fashion, not fairy, and fairies seemed to have an odd mix of ye olde clothes with too much color and flesh on show.

    Maybe she should have worn the yellow dress instead. It was more eye-catching. And more revealing. Just whose eye was she trying to catch?

    Verden appeared in her mind, his gray eyes and almost-hidden smile. If he’d been mortal, things would have been simpler, although it had been nice for a man to look at her and see the real her and not a glamour. She was so used to hiding what she was that being seen was unnerving. What if the real her wasn’t good enough? With a final smoothing of her dress, she stepped away from the mirror. She wasn’t here to fall into bed with a fairy Lord; she was here to secure her parents’ return and then leave after the power shift.

    “Do not get sucked in, by anything or anyone.” Her reflection nodded along with her. For the first time in her life, she was glad she wasn’t human and couldn’t be tricked by fairy magic.

    Here, she was normal.

    With that thought in mind, she slipped past the heavy brocade curtain that passed for a door and made her way to the Hall of Flowers. Even though she’d already seen it, it was hard not to glance up in wonder. Hanging from the branches were vines of flowers in every color. They glittered as if dew were catching in the sunlight, and filled the air with a heady perfume. It was like an eternal summer. Except when she looked closely, she saw the signs of the decaying rule. There were no new buds, flowers were curling up, petals were wilting and dropping, and the leaves that formed the roof were turning red and gold.

    She’d heard from her parents that the King’s rule was ending but seeing it was a different thing. For a moment she doubted her plan; she didn’t have time to play it safe—or move softly. Annwyn was failing around her and no one seemed to be noticing.

    Beside her, a couple Ladies whispered and laughed. Taryn realized she was gawking like the poor country cousin. That was exactly what she was to them. The unfortunate thing who’d been forced to grow up in the mortal world. She gave the women her most deadly glare—which had been well practiced at school—and swept past like she at least belonged here.

    She could act like she belonged here, act like everyone else, blend in. She was used to that game and had been playing it since kindergarten. A shadow met her at the entrance and led her through the maze of tables—some round, some long trestles, and others made for two—toward the center of the hall. Her smile became more forced and her heartbeat less than steady. She wanted to wipe her palms on her dress but couldn’t because people were watching her walk toward the King’s table.

    Her stomach tightened. How was she going to eat dinner with so much scrutiny?

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