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.