Hunter's Season: Elder Races
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by Thea Harrison
Description: Duty. Devotion. Desire. When fate brings two isolated people together, love is in the cards. A Novella of the Elder Races. As a palace guard and assassin for the Dark Fae, Xanthe always wore a mask, hiding her emotions to do her duty. But when her identity is compromised, she trades undercover work for guarding Queen Niniane--a position that often brings her in contact with Chancellor Aubrey Riordan. Aubrey's trust is shattered. A year ago his wife tried to assassinate their new queen in his name, a betrayal of everything he believes in. And now an attack on his life is proof the dark conspiracy is not yet over. Although injured and weak, Aubrey can't help but be drawn to this shy assassin and loyal protector. Xanthe is everything Naida wasn't, and the passion she stirs in him is something he thought had long passed him by. Warning: Take a man recovering from an assassination attempt, the assassin sworn to protect him, add in a magical Tarot card deck and an isolated cabin, and watch the sparks fly!
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., 2012 2012
eBookwise Release Date: October 2012
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [172 KB]
Reading time: 109-153 min.
As soon as Xanthe reached Adriyel, she left her mount at the palace stable and sent a message to Her Majesty's Chief of Security that said: "It is done."
Xanthe did not sign the note. He would know who had sent it. She did not expect a quick response either. With the completion of her assignment, any urgency or need for action had ceased.
Because she had been gone to America for some time, she stopped at the marketplace to buy food: fresh bread, meat, eggs, vegetables and fruit. The familiarity of the task soothed nerves that were tired and stressed from living with too much strangeness and danger for so long.
At midafternoon, the best of the goods had already been picked over, but there was still enough variety to meet her immediate needs. The market stalls were stocked with meat and fish, vegetables, fruit and grains from nearby farms, a variety of cooked foods, beautiful cloths of rich colors and intricate needlework, pottery, spices, soaps and metal work, and the recent, jarring addition of American goods. Hawkers called their wares, and the smells of cooking food wafted along the narrow cobblestone streets.
Xanthe paused as the small creature she carried in her pack stirred. A small creature might be too hungry to wait until she had cooked supper. After a moment's thought, she backtracked to the baker's stall to buy a meat pie. Her last purchase was an earthenware jug of fresh milk and a small tub of soft cheese. When she had finished the milk and the cheese, she would return the jug and the tub to the dairyman.
The wriggling in her pack became more urgent.
"Patience," she said to it.
Then she walked out of the city, down the narrow road that hugged the river for a couple of miles to the overgrown path that led to the small two-room cottage that had been her home for her entire life. Ignoring the increasingly strong wriggles in the pack on her back, she studied the cottage as she approached. It had a neglected air about it, as well it should, since she had been gone for over four seasons, but the roof looked solid enough. It led her to hope that the inside was dry.
She opened the door and looked into the shadowed, dusty interior. For a moment, it all looked too rustic, small and strange. Then the strangeness of the last several moons--months, they were called in America--fell from her eyes, and the cottage became once again as familiar to her as the back of her own hand, and she was home.
She remembered something a human had once said to her while she had been in the strange tent city at Devil's Gate in the American state named Nevada. The human had been sunburned and had worn a cynical expression when he said, "You know how that old saying goes--you can't go home again."
Xanthe had never been to America before, and she didn't know how the saying went. She wasn't sure what the human had meant.
She eased her packages onto the dusty table, shrugged out of her pack and set it carefully on the floor, and took off the shoulder harness that carried her sword, straightening tired shoulders. The day had already been full of travel, and there was still much to do before she could rest that night.
She propped the door open to the fresh, cooling air of the evening. Now the small creature in her pack was voicing shrill unhappiness. It sounded like a crying baby. She opened the pack and pulled out a thin, wriggling orange striped kitten that leaped out of her hands onto the table and circled the wrapped meat pie and dairy, meowing piteously.
"Yes, I know," Xanthe told it. "But you must wait a moment or two longer."
She had fallen into the habit of talking to the kitten on the trip from the crossover passage to Adriyel. They had developed a habit of sorts in the evenings on the short three day journey-- the kitten would fall asleep, purring, either on her lap or beside the campfire while Xanthe studied the lovely hand painted cards of the Tarot deck she had been given by a Vampyre and two medusae on her trip to Chicago, to the crossover passageway that led back home.
People in America had such an odd term for places like Adriyel. They called them Other lands, but to Xanthe, America was the Other land.
Most of the time the kitten seemed to enjoy the sound of her voice, but it wasn't interested in conversation at the moment. It swatted at the pie and meowed again, showing slender sharp white teeth and a tiny pink tongue.
Xanthe checked the cupboard that held the crockery. Along with all the other furniture in the cottage, her father had built the cupboard well out of hard seasoned wood. No small creatures had taken up residence in it, so she wiped out a bowl with the bottom of her sleeve, poured some milk into it and set it on the floor.
As the purring kitten leaped down and began to lap at the creamy liquid, she unwrapped and broke open the meat pie. It was still hot. Fragrant steam rose from the middle. She scraped meat and gravy onto a dish, blew on it until it had cooled slightly and set it on the floor by the bowl of milk.
While the kitten gorged itself on supper, Xanthe set to work. She dusted and swept out spiders and a few mice nests. With the kitten as a mouser, they wouldn't be back. Then she brought in half rotted wood from the small pile left under the lean-to, started a fire, uncovered the well and drew water, diced the raw meat and vegetables into a pot and set it over the fire to cook, washed the table and chairs, dragged the mattress out of the simple bedroom and beat it until the clouds of dust stopped rising, dragged it back inside and unpacked the linens and blankets that had been stored with fragrant cedar chips in a chest.
Her earlier tiredness was rapidly turning to exhaustion. She could have stayed in the city overnight and faced the long neglected cottage in the morning, but she had been too anxious to return to wait. After making the bed, she checked the bubbling pot that hung over the fire. Her mind was filled with visions of how pleasurable it would be to eat a hot bowl of stew and fall into the bed, when a gigantic shadow darkened her doorway.
The kitten shot past her feet, looking panicked, all its fur standing straight up. Xanthe raised her eyebrows as she turned to watch it race into the bedroom. It disappeared under the bed.
Then she turned to the doorway where a massive dark man stood, dressed in severe black. It was the Dark Fae Queen's chief of security, Lord Tiago Black Eagle, thunderbird Wyr and forever alien in the heartland of the Dark Fae.
Surprised, she bowed to her employer. "Welcome, my lord. Please do come in."
His features were as severe as his clothing. He looked foreign to eyes that were used to the slim build, large gray eyes and pale skin of the Dark Fae, but Xanthe had since gotten used to his harsh face and imposing demeanor.
Obsidian eyes narrowed as he stared in the direction of the kitten also. "Tenanye," he said, greeting her in that abrupt way of his that no longer seemed quite so odd after her sojourn in America. "I believe I told you to stop calling me that. Tiago will do just fine. What the hell is that doing here?"
She raised her eyebrows again as he gestured to the bedroom. "The kitten?" she asked. "I found it wandering the grounds on the other side of the crossover passageway in Chicago, so I brought it with me."
The crossover passageway from Adriyel to Chicago was located on an eighty-acre tract of land just northwest of the Chicago's downtown Loop area. The grounds held a large Georgian style mansion and were bordered by a tall stone wall that was topped with rolls of barbed wire, but the front gates were made of wrought iron and since Adriyel had opened its borders, more often than not, now those gates stood open.
None of the Dark Fae staff at the mansion would adopt a companion animal, but along with giving open access to other creatures, there was more than enough opportunity for urban wildlife to take advantage of the open gates and slip into the large, wooded area.
Tiago gave her a strange look then brushed past her to stride into the bedroom. "Come out from under there," he said firmly.
Xanthe stared at him, her tired mind blank with astonishment.
The kitten slunk out from underneath the bed. It seemed even tinier and more delicate as it hunched at the Wyr lord's feet.
A wave of heat prickled Xanthe's skin as horrified comprehension began to dawn.
Tiago looked down at the small creature, hands on his hips. It stared up at him, still looking panicked, eyes completely round and fur bristling.
He ordered, "Change."
The kitten shapeshifted and became a dirty, unkempt girl who stared, seemingly mesmerized at the immense male in front of her. Tiago angled his jaw out and tilted his head at Xanthe.
Xanthe rubbed her forehead, her shoulders slumped. "Oh, gods," she said. "I kidnapped a little Wyr girl."
"She never once changed in front of you?" Tiago asked.
"No, sir. I had no idea. You know my magic sense is minimal." Xanthe had telepathy and the ability to traverse crossover passageways. She could also sense some Power in strong items and individuals, but without a Wyr's sense of smell, she hadn't any way to tell that the kitten was anything but what it seemed. She lifted her shoulders. "I thought I was rescuing a feral cat."
"Well," Tiago said after a moment. "I'll take her back to the palace with me. Niniane will know how to take care of this." He shot a look at Xanthe. "As for you, I will be in touch. I want to hear details about what happened."
"Understood, my l--sir," Xanthe said.
The little girl tore her gaze away from the towering figure in front of her to look at Xanthe. She whispered, "I want to stay here."
Immediately and in unison, Xanthe and Tiago said, "That can't happen."
"You named me Mouse," the girl said, her gaze pleading with Xanthe. "I was going to live in the cottage with you and be your mouser. You said so."
The plea tugged at Xanthe's heart. She thought of the kitten, curled on her lap and purring as she talked idly to it. She honestly could not remember all the things she had said. She walked over to squat in front of the child.
"That was when I thought you were just a cat," Xanthe told her softly. "While I would love for you to stay, I have no way to take care of a Wyr child." She had no way to take care of any child. Her life was too dangerous.
"But I like it here," the girl said plaintively. "I wouldn't be any trouble. I can be a cat all the time."
"I'm sorry, no," Xanthe said as gently as she could. She touched the girl's matted hair. "This place would not be good for you, darling. You deserve a much better place, where you can be both a cat and a little girl and go to school."
Tiago didn't wait for any more protestations. He scooped the girl up and turned toward the doorway. He said over one broad shoulder, "Relax and take some time for yourself. You've earned it. I'll send for you in the next day or two. Be ready."
"Yes, sir," Xanthe said.
Then he strode out the door. The last thing Xanthe saw of the girl were large sad eyes peering around the Wyr lord's shoulder.
Xanthe walked over to the sit at the table and rub her face. She would not reconsider as those large sad eyes had asked her to do. She could not.
Silence settled in the cottage. It seemed so much emptier than it had before Tiago had come. She stared at the items on the table that she had unloaded from her pack. There were various toiletries, weapons--her shoulder harness and sword, along with throwing knives--and the old, hand painted wooden box that held the Tarot deck.
The last of her energy had slipped away. She would put the things away tomorrow. For now, she pulled the box to her, opened it and pulled out the Tarot deck. Warm, mellow Power filled her hands as she reverently fingered the hand-painted cards.
She shuffled the deck and turned over the top card. It was one of the Major Arcana, Inanna, goddess of love, her chariot drawn by seven lions.
Inanna's card had been showing up every time she shuffled the cards.
"I thought you meant the cat," she said to the card.
The face of a golden woman smiled out at her, fierce and mysterious.
She sighed. Love came in many forms--the love of a friend or lover, a parent or child. The devotion of a pet, or the love of one's country. Xanthe was really suited for only one of those, although for a while she thought the kitten might work.
She put the deck in the box and set it gently on the fireplace mantle. Then she ate some stew and fell into bed.
The summons from the palace came early the next morning.
Everything was blanketed in light dew, and the tip of the sun barely showed through the trees. Xanthe had made a cup of tea and had taken it out to sit on an overturned log, enjoying the silence and the solitude.
It was peaceful at the cottage, with bright trills from birds and the rustle of wind blowing through the long grasses. She had never grown accustomed to the sounds and smells of American traffic, and for so long she had been unable to take much time to herself. She had always been surrounded by others she couldn't trust. It was exotic and liberating to feel the inner coil of tension that had been wound so tightly relax at last.
She heard the horseman on the path before she saw him, and the coil came back, tightening her stomach muscles. She stood and waited, and a few moments later, a palace guard trotted into view, leading another saddled, riderless horse. The guard didn't bother to dismount as he came up to her. Instead, he handed her a sealed note and the reins for the second horse, turned and left.
The note was a single word written in strong black slashes: "Come."
She blew out a breath. So much for relaxing and taking time for herself. After tethering the horse, she washed, dressed in her own palace black uniform, braided her silky hair and checked her appearance in the oval silver mirror in the bedroom.
Somewhere in the distant past, she had an ancestor who had not been Dark Fae and it showed in small ways. She was slim with an upright carriage, but her eyes were a darker gray than most Dark Fae's were. There was a sprinkle of light freckles across the bridge of her nose and along her cheeks, and her features were not quite as angular, her lips plump and curving. For those of the nobility who were concerned with the purity of breeding lines, those small differences were as good as a shout.
Not that she was likely to try to pass herself off as noble any time in the foreseeable future. She tilted her head to check that her braid was neat, then she slipped on her shoulder harness that settled her sword onto her back, spread soft cheese over a slice of bread to eat on the journey and she shut the door gently as she left the cottage.
Adriyel was not a large city by American standards, but it was beautiful and busy. Her uniform and the horse created an open path for her on the cobblestone streets as people moved to make way for her. The buildings nestled harmoniously among the trees, and there was a long waterfront park by the river near the falls. As she approached the palace, she studied it with a critical eye.
Age and simple elegance defined the palace's architecture. The building was superbly designed and proportioned, the lines deceptively simple, yet phantoms lingered in Xanthe's mind whenever she looked at it, phantoms of blood and battle and screams in the night. Brushing them aside had long ago become habit. She took the horse to the stables and entered the palace through the servant's quarters.
The Wyr lord was in the Queen's private apartment. The two guards at the doors nodded respectfully to her and stood aside. "You're to go right in, ma'am," said the one on the right. If she remembered correctly, Rickart was his name.
"Thank you," she said. She shrugged out of her shoulder harness and handed her sword to him. One did not go armed into the Queen's presence unless expressly invited to do so.
Xanthe had only been in the Queen's apartment once before, and that had been seasons ago when the Queen and her Wyr lord had made the final decision on Xanthe's mission, so she looked around curiously as she entered. The rest of the interior of the palace was like the exterior, spacious and deceptively simple, sparely decorated with pieces of furniture, tapestries and sculptures that were national treasures.
The Queen's private apartment was another matter. In the large sitting room color was splashed everywhere. Traditional embroidered tapestries covered the walls, and bowls and vases of flowers brightened dark polished wood surfaces. Red velvet couches were arranged in front of a fireplace and piled with pillows that were also embroidered with rich gold accents. An intricately carved bowl made of some lovely, translucent green stone Xanthe wasn't familiar with held miniature Reese's peanut butter cups. A scatter of books had been left carelessly on one table. Xanthe glanced at the haphazard pile. Dark Fae books on history and politics were intermingled with American mass market paperbacks, most of them romances.
Across the room, doors had been propped open to the sunny morning. They led to the terrace that looked out over the Queen's private walled garden. Hearing male voices outside, she walked over to the doors and looked out.
The Wyr lord sat at table, chatting easily with another tall figure of a man who was, by weight of his office alone, imposing in his own right. Chancellor Aubrey Riordan was one of the triad that formed the Dark Fae government, along with the Queen and the Commander of the Dark Fae army, Fafnir Orin. The Chancellor lounged in his chair facing the morning sun as he cradled a steaming cup of tea.
There was absolutely no question of Riordan's pure Dark Fae blood. He had strong, intelligent patrician features and light gray eyes that shone like clear water in sunlight. His long raven hair was bound back in a simple queue and gleamed blue-black in the bright light, his pointed ears elegantly shaped.
In contrast to his hair, his skin was ivory pale. While he did not have the Wyr lord's outsized physique, his long lean frame was muscled with graceful power. His eyes were narrowed in the sunlight, which revealed crow's feet at their corners, and a few strands of white hair gleamed at his temples. Riordan was not a young Fae, but a male in his full maturity of Power.
As she saw him, a sweet pain like a stiletto coated in honey slipped between Xanthe's ribs and pierced her heart. It was the same pain she always felt whenever she saw him. Like a silly child with her toys, for years she had gathered the snippets she heard about his life and hoarded them close.
Servants always knew the truth about their masters' true nature. What all the servants said about Riordan was that he was kind and even tempered. He never expressed frustration with a blow or a harsh word. One of the most powerful men in Adriyel, he held onto that power lightly and used it with care. For someone like Xanthe, who had rarely known kindness, he sounded as foreign and exotic as the Wyr lord who now kept him company.
The events of the last year had been cataclysmic for the Dark Fae, and also for Riordan himself. The despot Dark Fae King Urien had been killed by Dragos Cuelebre, the Lord of the Wyr, and with his death, at first it seemed there was no clear heir to the throne. For a short time, it had been whispered that Riordan, who was a distant relative in the Lorelle line, might be crowned king.
Then Niniane Lorelle, the true heir and Urien's niece, came out of hiding. She had been living in America ever since Urien and a handful of nobles had killed her father, King Rhian, and the rest of her family in a bloody palace coup.
Riordan had been married then, to a noble woman named Naida who had not accepted Niniane's claim to the throne, and who had tried a couple of times to have her assassinated. Instead Naida herself had been killed and her coconspirators incarcerated when the plot had been uncovered.
When that had happened something light inside of Riordan had darkened. Xanthe had seen it whenever she caught a glimpse of him on the palace grounds. He looked set, withdrawn, the expression in his gaze bleak and bitter. Whenever she thought of what his wife had done, she felt a useless fury at the woman who had been a traitor and a killer, and who with her actions had wounded such a decent man.
The moment Xanthe appeared in the doorway, Tiago turned his head and so did Riordan. She dropped her gaze. "My lords."
"There you are," said Tiago. "You must have gotten my message just after dawn." He put a booted foot on one chair and pushed it outward in her direction. "Sit and eat. Niniane will join us shortly."
Disconcerted, she lowered her head. "Thank you, my l--sir. That's very good of you, but I couldn't do that."
"Oh, you Fae and your social rules," said Tiago. He sounded exasperated. "Get over yourself, soldier. Plant your ass down here and eat some breakfast. That's an order."
Startled, her head came up. Before she could help herself, she looked at Riordan.
He smiled at her, his expression warm, and gestured to the chair Tiago had pushed out from the table. "You heard your employer," said the Chancellor. "Sit and help yourself to some food."
She couldn't help but stare. He looked different somehow than he had before she had left, less bitter in repose. Perhaps time was healing the wound that his wife had dealt him.
She took a deep breath and walked over to sit gingerly. She kept her gaze on her task as she did as she was ordered and helped herself to some of the breakfast on the table. There were boiled eggs, honey and berry pastries, fresh fruit and grilled venison. The bread and cheese she had eaten earlier seemed to have vanished completely, and her stomach rumbled. She tightened the muscles in her abdomen, hoping nobody had noticed.
She started to eat, and the two men resumed talking as if she wasn't there.
"You should have mentioned something about the lawsuit sooner," Tiago said.
After a slight hesitation, Riordan said, "I disagree. It's my issue to resolve. At any rate, nothing will happen in a hurry. The suit will likely drag on for years."
Everything in Xanthe went quiet. Riordan was involved in some kind of legal dispute? It was news to her, so it must have happened while she had been away. Unwilling to show any reaction to what was obviously none of her business, she had to make a conscious decision to keep eating as she listened.
"There's no merit in the accusations," said Tiago. "You had no knowledge of what Naida was doing, and you weren't involved."
Riordan said cynically, "It doesn't matter whether or not we know that the case has any merit. The pursuant always has plenty of time to present their case and whatever they claim as true findings. That's simply how the Dark Fae justice system works. What you and Niniane achieved when you tried and executed the conspirators involved in the coup that killed her family was highly unusual, and that was because it involved the Queen herself, imprisonment of powerful nobility and high treason."
"Naida's family is claiming you were treasonous," Tiago said.
"Not quite treason, in the legal sense," said Riordan. "Niniane had not yet been crowned. The best they can hope for is a charge of conspiracy. Since I was so much older than Naida and she was so young when we married, and all of Naida's crimes were supposedly on my behalf, they're claiming that I exerted 'undue influence' over her. Anyway, as you know only the government can instigate criminal cases. Since this is a personal suit and not an affair of the crown, the only thing they can hope to gain is monetary compensation."
"So they're being greedy," said Tiago after a moment.
"Yes," said Riordan flatly. "And to be brutally fair, they're also angry and they've suffered a loss, not only in terms of family but also their reputation."
"Well, the person they should be angry with is dead, and there isn't any evidence you had anything to do with it. I had you investigated myself."
"Of course you did," said Riordan. "I would have had me investigated as well."
Xanthe swallowed carefully, the food threatening to lodge in her throat. As she hadn't been involved in any investigating, that was more news to her. But as she considered it, she couldn't say she was surprised.
The Queen meant the world to the Wyr lord, and he was one of the most dangerous men she had ever met. He would have left no stone unturned in his investigation of Riordan. Even if he had not found any evidence, if he had the slightest suspicion that Riordan might have been involved in something that could potentially harm the Queen, Riordan was a dead man.
Having just killed a man herself on the Wyr lord's orders, she should know.