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Taryn gripped the shoulder strap of her bag tighter and inhaled her first breath of Annwyn air-well, the first she remembered.
The sky was crystalline blue and achingly perfect, the grass so green it almost hurt her eyes. Even the air was sweet and thrumming with a magic that swept over her skin and made her fingers tingle. It was every fairy tale made real. When humans longed for perfection, this is what they dreamed of.
The heart of Annwyn lay across the lush lawn ahead of her-a castle made from trees, turrets woven from branches, leaves like pennants dancing in a breeze that she could barely feel. This was her birthright. Her fairy heritage. Her true home. She was not going to cry from the beauty of it. Taryn sniffed and blinked.
But being born in Annwyn didn't mean she belonged here. She knew next to nothing about the Court. Her mother's crash course in etiquette and names and politics had made her dizzy.
She took a step away from the two giant trees that formed the doorway, then hesitated. She could turn around, cross the veil, and run back to the mortal world where everything was familiar. The urge to run made her heart beat faster.
Would her mother still be waiting on the other side?
Her stomach tightened and the air became cloying, sticking in the back of her throat. She couldn't turn back now. The mortal world was changing because the power in Annwyn wasn't secure. If she was on the wrong side of the veil when the Prince took the throne, she would die. And if she didn't secure a pardon for her father, he would die too.
The game the Ladies had been playing on the lawn had slowed, and while none looked directly at her, they were talking about her. She was sure of it. They would be wondering who she was and why she was here.
Taryn lifted her chin and swept past them as if she had every right to be there. She did-maybe more than them. The Prince had invited her to come to Court, and that was the kind of invitation one didn't ignore.
Get close to the King.
Watch your back.
Be careful making deals.
Trust no one. Not even the Prince.
She repeated the words like a mantra. Her mother had kissed her good-bye and sent her through the doorway. Alone. Her mother could have come with her, not to Court, as she wasn't welcome, but to Annwyn. However, she refused to leave Chalmer in exile alone. If Taryn couldn't secure a pardon, her parents would die together, but at least they would know their daughter was safe.
It wasn't much of a comfort to Taryn.
Pressure squeezed her heart.
The castle loomed in front of her. Closer, she could see the leaves were edged in gold and some branches were bare. She might have only just arrived, but she knew that wasn't right; the magic was starting to weaken. She suppressed a shiver and tried not to think about what would happen if she failed.
She had to succeed. Her parents' lives depended on her. How cruel was that? She'd lived all her twenty-one years in the mortal world, pretending to be human. Now she had to pretend to be fairy.
A couple of pretty men dressed in shades of blue and red looked over as she passed. A mortal would have gawked at such unrestrained beauty-the sharp cheekbones and pale eyes-but she saw the calculations and curiosity. The blond one took a step toward her.
Her heart stopped as fear took hold. No. She wouldn't talk to anyone, not yet. Let them wonder a little longer.
She flicked the man a cool glare and looked away without breaking stride. She could do this. How long would it take to get the pardon? A day, two at most? Her mother's words echoed:
You will have novelty value.
Be careful who you are seen with.
Play the game, but don't get caught.
Perhaps when she was introduced to the King she could ask. Then it would be done. Her parents could come to Annwyn. They could wait out the power shift and then she could return to her fake mortal life. She missed home already. It was so close, just through the doorway and across the veil, and yet it was a world away. Time moved differently there too. Perhaps it was night already and she'd wasted a day walking from the doorway to the castle.
Her toes scrunched in her shoes and her stomach spun like a bad carnival ride-she wanted to get off but couldn't. She had to play to the end and hope she won. For everyone's sake.
The Court was unusually tense and crowded. Verden didn't think he'd ever seen an official session quite so full. There were Lords and Ladies from wall to wall, trampling the delicate grass floor and jostling for a position closer to the King. They weren't here to see the woman fall from grace for being unable to pay a debt-she'd agreed to be a shadow servant for a year and day-and they weren't here to see the divorce granted or the intent to wed approved.
Verden came only because he was required. If someone's honor abandoned them, he'd have to bring them to heel. Enforcing order at Court was just one part of his job. Plenty of times he'd also had to cross the veil to catch a fairy who'd thought to escape the King's justice in the mortal world, although that was happening less and less. Everyone could sense the change in the air. Summer was fading from the Court.
Verden's two white hunting dogs yawned and snapped their teeth. He knew exactly how they felt. Above his head, leaves rustled and a few white flower petals drifted past. Everyone was acting as if it was just another day at Court, even though it wasn't.
The King had lines of tension at the corners of his eyes that had not been there before his Queen's betrayal. That was why the magic was failing. When the King and Queen were in disharmony, so was the realm. And danger in Annwyn meant danger for mortals as well-plague and death would cross the veil. Without the proper balance, millions could die.
The King was keeping Annwyn together as best he could, but the lines were drawn: King Gwyn and his heir, Felan, versus the Queen Eyra and the person she wanted to put on the throne. No one knew who that was yet, and so far, most seemed to support the King and his son, but that didn't mean things wouldn't change in the space of a mortal heartbeat.
In public, the King acted as if there was no ill feeling. The Queen, on the other hand, could barely wipe the contempt off her face. She'd once been the life of every party and the object of desire for many Lords. Now she was colder than a snowstorm in the darkest depth of winter and twice as bitter.
Of course, Verden couldn't remember the last time the Court had been thrust into winter. The King's battle for the throne had happened long before Verden was born. Few here were old enough to remember, yet all knew what was coming. He glanced around the Court. Many people were returning from the mortal world in preparation for the power shifting. Everyone hoped for a smooth transition with little disturbance to the magic. It was a false hope.
The Prince wasn't ready to rule, and the Queen was doing her damnedest to make her husband suffer for the death of her lover, Shea, and, by default, the whole of the Court. Icy bitch.
A hush rippled through the crowd. There was a swish of silks and lace and the tinkle of jewels as the Lords and Ladies moved aside. The young son of a Lord dressed in the uniform of a page stepped forward.
The lad bobbed his head at the King and Queen. "Court, Prince, Lords and Ladies. May I present the Lady Taryn merch Arlea." He stepped out of the way and a woman in a pale green dress stepped forward.
Her clothing was plain by Court standards. The cut was too calm and lacking in decoration, and the sheer wrap that draped her shoulders was far too modest. However, her face captivated him. Delicate. With the sharp cheekbones that spoke of fairy heritage. She curtsied, and there was a lack of ease, as if she'd never been before a King. As she lifted her chin, Verden saw the orange of her eyes, the palest drop of color filled with doubts and fear she didn't mask.
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.