White Stag (Permafrost #1)(6)

Suddenly I didn’t feel like laughing anymore. “You didn’t say I couldn’t.”

His gaze didn’t soften. “I said you could bring a keepsake.”

“You didn’t specify which keepsake. That’s your slip, not mine.”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “True. It was more mature than I expected of you.” Was it the blood loss or did he actually sound pleased?


Now a smile definitely played on his lips. A smile. “Mature. Crafty. Not many humans would have thought of it, but after your exposure…” He ran his fingers through his hair.

My legs shook. I wasn’t sure how much blood I had lost, but the black spots appearing in the corners of my vision told me it was a lot. Soren’s voice and the room around me went in and out of focus, and when I tried to keep my eyes on him, I found it was a bad idea. The way he looked at me chilled me even more; his normal apathetic, bored expression looked genuinely excited for once. What were you thinking? Really? His voice echoed inside my head. “Tell me, Janneke. If you’d been caught toting iron in the Erlking’s palace, you’d be executed. And perhaps so would I. That’s quite the uncalculated risk.”

Frowning, I said, “I’m sure you can figure it out. Your kind is better than mine at twisted logic.”

Soren bared his teeth in a wide smile at that. “Humor me.”

I swallowed. “Well, as a thrall, normally I wouldn’t be engaged with the others swearing fealty unless I entered into a fight. Honestly, I probably wasn’t expected to be here at all. If I entered into a fight in the Permafrost—and the Erlking’s palace—it would invoke the law of winter. The fight would be between me and whoever I fought to the end. The winner would remain, and the debt be settled. So, carrying iron would give me an advantage over anyone attempting to fight me, and if I lost, well, no harm would come to your estate as winter’s law would be satisfied in my death.”

Soren’s pale eyebrows rose. “You’re shaking.” He said the words as if he only then realized the problem. “We’ll continue this discussion later.”

Finally, I thought with a relief so strong my knees shook. I tried to step forward, only to find my strength disappearing and the ground rushing up to meet me.

Pale, cold hands wrapped around my blood-soaked body, picking me up. He said his next words quietly, but with my head resting under his chin, I heard them all. “This changes everything.”

Then blackness.

* * *

WHEN MY EYES opened, I was no longer in the courtroom. Instead, the room around me was plain with sparse decoration. A chair sat across from me, but it was currently unoccupied. I lay on a fur-covered platform, the multiple pelts—wolf, tiger, snowcat, bear—strewn around my bare form doing nothing to keep me warm. It took a second to register how freezing the air was, but when I moved to cover myself with one of the wolfskins, hands pushed me down.

Tanya, Soren’s healer, stared at me from the head of the platform. Her strawberry-colored hair was tied back, but a few strands were stuck to her face with blood. Both hands were also covered with blood. It always struck me how different she looked from her nephew. Her bright red hair clashed with her darker skin in a way that shouldn’t have been pleasant to look at but was. With her nephew’s blue-gray, nearly translucent skin, lilac eyes, and long white hair, the idea that they were related by blood would never cross anyone’s mind.

She leaned back, observing me. I didn’t think she was very pleased with what she saw.

I tried to will away the heat that spread through my body. I didn’t make it a habit for any goblin to see me naked—healer or not. But the hurt and wooziness from blood loss had vanished, and the gashes on my skin were shiny new scars. More to add to my ever-growing collection. The thought moved through me like a bitter rain.

“You got yourself into quite the fight,” she said. Her tone was brisk and businesslike, naturally cold. The brief displeasure that had flickered through her eyes when I first woke up was gone, and she now had a stony look to her that swallowed any type of emotion her kind could express. It was nothing like Soren’s had been right before I passed out. Thinking of it made my stomach clench. It couldn’t be emotion, not truly. Goblins might be able to feel rage and pain, shame and pleasure, but they held none of the deeper meaning that they held for humans. If anything, their emotions could be ignored as easily as one ignored a fly buzzing.

But the way he had looked and sounded, almost excited, almost as if there were something about me that had turned our relationship into more than what we currently had. I wasn’t an idiot. I might’ve enjoyed the higher end of social fluidity that came with being a thrall, but Soren was no friend of mine. Or at least, not on my part. Sarcasm lessons aside.

“I think I got off lightly compared to my opponent,” I said.

“Yes,” Tanya mused, sitting on the empty chair. “Fighting Lydian with iron in the middle of the Erlking’s court, you definitely got off lightly.”

I held back a groan at the she-goblin’s words. Why did I even try to be sarcastic? None of them would ever get it.

When I sat up, she rewarded me with a shove. I tried another approach.

“Where am I?”

“The Hunt has begun,” she said. “We are required to stay in the palace until Soren gives the command to begin.”

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