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David had to admit, he was a little nervous when he entered the great hall of Deva Castle with his father and Andrew. Like every year, the whole palace was decked out in flowers, white, yellow, and light pink roses, matching the dresses of the debutants. The young ladies strolled around, glancing over the tops of their fans at the bachelors present, with their mothers or other chaperones watching their every move. From up the banister, though, David noticed a difference to the Flower Dances he remembered: This time, there appeared to be a lot more fathers present than in his memory, and other older male nobles, too. And even though this wasn’t a political gathering, they drifted towards either one of two camps. Duke George Louis stood at the end of the room, Duke Desmarais more in the middle.

“There’s deLande,” Bram said, nodding down towards the floor.

Lane wore emerald green. Since she wasn’t actually a debutant, she was allowed to pick her own colour, and David had to admit, she had chosen well.

“Time to get on with the show,” he muttered. “I’ll be back.”

He had hoped that his father and Andrew would stay behind, but the two followed him down the huge stairs that led onto the main floor of the hall.

“Looks like you might be too late,” Andrew muttered.

Just as they approached Lane, Count deVale got down to one knee, causing a series of squeals all around.

David grinned and pushed forward against the people who tried to give deVale space until he and Andrew had a front-row view.

“What’s so funny?” Andrew whispered.

“Listen.”

“My dear Count deVale,” Lane was just saying, loud enough that her words carried. “You flatter me, but I cannot accept this proposal just yet. Many fine lords have tried to woo me since my poor Maxence has died, and I have to apologize to them for not giving them a clear answer sooner. But the truth of the matter is, a husband should be master and protector of his wife. And thus I have decided to accept courtship only from a man who can best me on the hunting grounds.”

Andrew didn’t quite manage to suppress a laugh, which came out as a snort. It was drowned out by the excited exclamations of the ladies surrounding them.

DeVale hurried to get up again. It was clear that he was about to reassure Lane – and the rest of the mostly female onlookers – of his qualities as lord and protector, but then he spotted David. There was a moment, half a second maybe, where David thought the Count would see reason, and try his luck with one of the many hopeful girls around them. But then deVale squared his shoulders and pushed out what little chin he possessed.

“I accept this challenge,” he declared, looking from Lane to the crowd.

Then he turned on his heel, closing in on David. “And I challenge you to fight me like a man afterwards, in a fair duel, Lord Feleke,” he added in a lower voice.

“I’m looking forward to it, my Lord,” David said, and bowed slightly, just to irk him a little more. He stepped forward and bowed much deeper to Lane. He was about to say something but didn’t get the chance. As Lane had predicted, there were more takers.

“My Lady,” said the son of another Count breathlessly. “What are we hunting, my Lady?”

Lane smiled. “I shall talk to the gamekeeper of the estate,” she said, playing with her fan. “Such high-born lords call for a worthy prey. A bear, perhaps, or a white stag...” She trailed off artfully, smiling at the crowd. “Yes, let me talk to the gamekeeper. I will be sure to let you know before the night is out.”

 

“Think you can beat her?” Andrew asked when Lane retired to have the challenge organized.

David smirked. “It’s certainly going to be interesting,” he said. He honestly wasn’t sure who of them was the better hunter. Although, since Lane had been the one who suggested the whole affair, he suspected she would let him win, just this once.

A lot of people were staring at him. Unsurprisingly. Lane was, technically, miles above his rank, young and pretty. If it weren’t for the air of misfortune that surrounded her, there would probably be a lot more men trying to win her favour.

He could hear someone complaining how the contest was obviously already slanted in his favour, and another woman loudly pointed out that they had been out hunting and sleeping in the rough for months together.

“Oh, the scandal of it all,” Andrew said, amused.

“Certainly enlivens the ball,” Bram said, walking up to them.

As the music started to play, a friend of deVale’s approached them, no doubt to hear more about the relationship between them. Other would-be suitors joined them to suss out the competition, or to declare themselves.

David got challenged to two more duels before suddenly, Duke George Louis stood right next to him. “Amazing, that you of all people would drive the werewolves from everybody’s minds,” he said. “She’s quite a catch, though, I have to say.”

“Care to join the challenge?” David asked.

George huffed. “Thanks, but no thanks. You’ve knocked me out of the saddle and into the mud in fair contests plenty of times, I’m not going to try and beat you in your very own game. You are still hunting, are you not?”

“Certainly,” David said, without looking at the duke.

“Or perhaps your skills are not as finely honed as they used to be? I’ve received no werewolves from you yet.”

“That’s hardly my fault,” David said. “It’s a free market now. Don’t blame me if Duke Desmarais makes the better offer.”

“A sell-sword, are you now? How very disappointing.”

“I suppose it takes one to know one,” David said. “If you’ll excuse me now, I’ll go and have a look at the buffet.”

He left the duke standing there and felt dozens of eyes following him. Funny, how fighting for one lady made him a focus of interest of all the others.

 

Lane returned about an hour later and was announced by the heralds, who probably thought that this whole challenge was excellent entertainment.

“We are most lucky,” Lane told the group of contenders, and the rest of the hall, with a wide, innocent smile. “A lynx has been sighted within the royal grounds, worthy prey for such fine hunters. And thus I promise to court the man who brings me the pelt – unless of course, I catch it first. Beware though, if you consider cheating: The gamekeeper tells me there is something special about this lynx, something that will tell him right away if it’s the right pelt. And I’m not going to tell you what it is.”

She clasped her hands. “We shall all start together at sunrise tomorrow. Duke George Louis has kindly offered to give the starting signal, and Viceroy Desmarais, as lord of these forests, will judge the winner.”

“Stop grinning like that,” Andrew muttered next to him, and David made an effort. A lynx, possibly the most secluded and skittish prey she could have chosen. And she hadn’t even said which part of the huge royal forests they should be looking at.

 

The heralds weren’t the only ones who thought the whole challenge entertaining. The next day, there were nearly a hundred spectators, despite the early hour. Some of them looked like they hadn’t been to bed after the ball at all. The seven hopeful lords though, who started in the challenge aside from David and Lane, all appeared to be well-rested.

George Louis fired a single pistol shot, and the seven raced forward. David followed a little more sedately. Lane moved last, giving them all a head start.

David could only shake his head about the way the other men were crashing through the underbrush. He walked after them in an unhurried pace, as he had a fairly exact idea where he needed to go: the gamekeepers kept a pack of common wolves in these forests, to the amusement of the Viceroy and his peers. Since wolves would attack and even eat lynxes, it was unlikely that he would find the prey in this part of the forest. His chances were much better towards higher ground. The lynx had probably roamed into the royal forests from the mountains.

The forests were large enough that soon, he saw and heard no trace of his competitors, and he quickly fell back into the rhythm of the hunt. He did miss his brothers a little, Nathan’s quick wits and even Andrew’s complaints about the weather – it had started raining almost as soon as they started – or his father, always moving in sync with him. Lane, too, and her sharp eyes. It was a little surprising how fast he had gotten used to her company.

He wondered how the other men were doing when he made camp for the night. He and Lane hadn’t talked about what they would do if one of them got lucky and found the prey before either of them did. The thought made him restless, and after a few short hours, he was back on the hunt.

At nightfall, he had a first glimpse of the lynx. He could see right away what made the pelt stand out: it had almost none of the usual black stripes and spots.

Everything after that was routine: aiming, shooting, collecting the pelt, then leaving the spot as fast as possible, before the carcass drew in the Rot.

Duke Desmarais was still up when David returned, even though it was past midnight. He grinned at him and congratulated him, and promised to have word sent to Lane.

 

David had meant to go home and catch a few hours of sleep in a proper bed after presenting the pelt, but before he could leave Deva Castle, a servant stopped him. “Duke George Louis wishes to see you right away, your lordship.”

David considered refusing, but then he just sighed.

“Lead the way,” he said.

As if he didn’t remember where George’s quarters were.

“Ah, the fragrant smell of blood,” the duke greeted him when David entered his private chambers. “Please, sit. Your hunt was successful, I take it?” He was lounging on the sofa, very obviously wearing nothing but a nightgown.

David remained standing. “What do you want?” he asked.

“That is a very long list,” George said, eyeing him pointedly.

David sighed. “In that case, you can put it down in writing, and I shall return tomorrow to pick it up.”

He turned to leave, mostly to see how George would react.

“Stay,” the duke ordered, the playfulness leaving his voice. “And sit down. You lied to me.”

“That does seem to be the basis of most of our conversations,” David said calmly and remained standing.

“I talked to Duke Clement. He pays you no more than I do. Still, he received several werewolves from you.”

David shrugged. “I never said it’s me you need to pay more, George. There’s a demand for werewolves now. They go to the highest bidder, even if the highest bid only includes safety, a hot meal every day, and a dry place to sleep. A dry place that isn’t a prison cell.”

“I’m sure you could convince them.”

“I can’t,” David replied. “And if I could, I wouldn’t do it. They’re no animals. They’ve got a mind of their own and powers we can’t match. I can kill them, yes. But that’s not going to solve anyone’s problems.”

“Is that why your youngest brother ran after the navvies, even though it was agreed that he would carry messages for me?”

“Greg is personally loyal to one of your crews. They’re his friends,” David said, emphasizing the name. “Otherwise he would have stayed at Courtenay.”

“I was talking about Nathan. You still consider Greg your brother?”

“Of course I still consider him my brother. The same way I considered Clarence and Lester my friends.”

There was a long, long silence.

“If that was all you needed to know, I’ll go home now.”

“I already said I was sorry,” George huffed. “But if it helps, I’ll say it again.”

“They’re dead, You Highness,” David hissed. “’Sorry’ doesn’t even begin to help with that. You watched as they were stoned to death, and you expect a ‘sorry’ to make that okay? To make me return to your bed and be a good little plaything? So you can have me stoned, too, once you get bored of me? How stupid do you think I am?”

“Smarter than that,” George Louis drawled. “I could never turn you over to the Inquisition, or you’d ensure with your dying breath that I’d die, too.”

“You kicked Bishop Boyen out of Eoforwic and lived to tell the tale. I doubt that my testimony could harm you now.”

“And yet, here you are. In my bedroom.”

“Not much longer, unless you start telling me what you’re after.”

“But you already said it: I’m after you. I want you back in my bed before marriage makes you old and fat and boring. The question isn’t what I’m after, the question is, what you want enough to forget what happened to Lester and Clarence.”

“Good luck with that,” David said, and turned. He could hear George Louis get up behind himself and lengthened his strides, slipping outside and smashing the door right in the duke’s face.

“David!” he heard George call after him as he marched down the hallway, but even George Louis didn’t try to follow him through the castle in nothing but a nightgown.

 

The problem was, David mused while he did his best to scrub off the blood and mud, that he did want what George Louis was offering: What they used to have. Asides from an hour or two at a bathhouse or a bordello with a young man with more or less convincing acting skills, he had been alone for almost ten years now. He missed how easy things had been with George Louis, how safe he had felt, thinking that George’s rank would protect him, too. How naive he had been.

He seriously doubted that he could trust George Louis now, no matter what the duke did say or offer. And even a few nights of really good sex weren’t worth risking his own life and putting the rest of the family in even more danger.

He glared at his own reflection, as he reminded himself of that last bit.

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About the author

Kerma B

Bio: I'm a mother. I write. I draw. Find my art on https://www.deviantart.com/rafun1312

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