Harper A. Brooks
Publication Date: October 24, 2016
Genres: Adult, Entangled: Select Otherworld, Paranormal Romance
Cara looked at the man sitting hunched behind the table and hesitated. Even in his human form, she could see the lynx within him. Gray and white whiskers hung long from the sides of his compressed mouth, twisting into two braided spindles. His large, pointed ears twitched at the tips in annoyance.
“What could you possibly have to trade?” His voice was low and scratchy.
She clutched the sage-green and gold silk in her hands. All she had to offer was a headscarf, and with it, the last remaining essence of her mother. The lynx was one of the last people in all of Sajra she wanted to give up her mother’s scarf to, but she didn’t have a choice. He was the only vendor in the marketplace who traded with panthers, and she had two other mouths to feed at home. She needed the meat.
“Well?” he pressed.
Cara brought the shimmering material to her nose and inhaled. Hilisha flowers and honey. The scent of her mother. Before her face could appear in Cara’s thoughts and bring the familiar heartache with it, she thrust the scarf at him.
“It is made with gold thread. The beads are real crystal, too,” she muttered. “It was my mother’s Hunt headdress…a gift from my father the night of their bonding.”
The man snatched it from her grasp and examined the fabric between his curved fingers. He murmured to himself, the corner of his lips curling in a satisfied smirk.
For the first time since Cara had arrived in his tent, the tension in her muscles eased. Since food was hard to come by these days, the forest almost picked clean of any prey by hunting groups, meat was precious and rare. Especially for her kind. If she got some bison meat, or even a small buck for the scarf, she could make it last a month.
“The scarf is made very well,” the old lynx began. His mouth split into a full grin. “However, I’m afraid I can only give you this for it.” He reached under the table and pulled out a small mound wrapped in brown paper and string. It was slightly bigger than Cara’s closed fist.
Cara picked it up and peeked through the opened corner. Her heart dropped. “Rabbit.”
“No one will want to buy anything that has been owned by a panther,” the lynx explained with a shrug of his hunched shoulders. “I will be lucky if I can sell this at all.”
Cara’s hands shook as her anger built. A small piece of lean meat for her mother’s handmade scarf? It was completely unfair—crooked, even. “That is real gold thread! It is worth much more than a slab of rabbit and you know it!”
He tilted his chin and waved to shoo her out. “That is all I can offer you. Take it or leave with the worthless cloth. I don’t care either way.”
A growl rumbled in her throat, and her nails sharpened into claws. He was just like everyone else who lived at the head of Sajra’s river—an ignorant, heartless brute that judged her kind based solely on rumors and lies.
As much as she wanted to throw the packaged rabbit in his face, she couldn’t. Meat was meat, as lean and puny as it was. Her family still needed to eat.
Cara took a deep breath to settle her fury and the tingling power of the change. She pulled the rabbit closer to her chest and nodded. “Deal,” she said, her throat tight.
“Good.” The lynx sneered. “Now, get out of my tent before someone sees you and I lose business.”
She whirled and pushed through the tent’s opening. “Dirty rat,” she spat over her shoulder loud enough for him to hear.
Out of the protection and the darkness of the vendor’s tent, Cara pulled the hood of her cloak up to mask her face. Her gaze swept over the marketplace. The whistling of pipes and the roll of drums sent an energetic pulse through the cluttered circular space. At the far side, a group of musicians played their instruments with mischievous grins as they watched girls dressed in long, swaying dresses dance to the music they created.
Crouching low, Cara slipped into the shadow of two merchant tents, her steps silenced by the roar of excited voices. People in both human and animal form passed by in front of her like a river current, telling jokes, drinking, and bartering their goods away. Tents and tables surrounded a tall stone statue of Sajra, their mother and the creator of their kind. Beside the flowing train of her robes, a sculpted lion and tiger rested. Sajra’s hands lay upon the animals’ heads. Colorful fabrics and glittering treasures decorated the place at her naked feet.
Cara’s eyes rested on Sajra’s marble face. Her hollowed-out stare traveled the length of the city’s winding river. She couldn’t help but feel a great sadness when she looked upon the statue. Surely Sajra hadn’t planned for one of her children to be treated with such hatred and cruelty. She was supposed to love them all the same. Or at least, Cara liked to think that way.
Her grandmother, Ryna, spoke often of a time of peace between the species, a golden era where love was plentiful and hierarchy did not exist. The tale always started with the same phrase: “It was long ago when the lions ruled.” The lions had been so wise and kind to all of Sajra that the people titled them the Nobles. Cara, though, knew nothing about nobility or the lion shifters. They had died out almost half a century ago.
The tigers’ reign was all Cara knew—their push into royalty and their blind eye to the ones below them. The rei and regis’s selfish ways were the reason Cara and her sister had been orphaned so young.
Cara swallowed down her anger and sorrow, but it stayed in a thick knot in the center of her chest. She would never forget the look in their cold, golden eyes as she begged for the medicine to save her parents, and their response was to have their guards pluck her from the throne room. The gaurds carried her out kicking and clawing. “Panther filth,” they had called her. “Thief!” The tigers cared nothing for her dying mother and father, for Cara, or any of their kind.
Cheers and applause erupted from the center of the marketplace, jerking her from the memory. In front of the monument of Sajra, a wooden dais sat draped in billowing burgundy curtains. A crowd had gathered at its base.
Curious, Cara stepped out of the shadow and stood on her toes for a better look.
Rei Salus was the first to appear above the group. Two tall leopard guards took his side. Even in his old age, his cheekbones were high and sharp. His nose was long, and curved down over his gray-tinted mustache and invisible top lip. Thinning black hair was the only unruly thing about the man. It stuck up in all directions like high river grass. Despite the late spring’s heat, the rei wore red and gold robes that hung in thick folds across his spare body. If she moved closer, she knew she would see that his hands were spotless and that every fingernail gleamed. She scoffed. This man had never worked a day in his life.
“People of our beloved city of Sajra!” Rei Salus held up his hands to settle the noise. The crowd quieted. “Centuries ago, Sajra, our mother, was murdered by Maurus, the gray wolf spirit. Through her death, we were granted life. Her great love for us allowed her spirit to multiply into the many powerful species that make up our city today. We celebrate this union, and our history, annually with the Hunt.”
There was a burst of excited cries.
Cara rolled her eyes. Like the rei knew anything about love.
“By the end of the week, mates will be chosen to run in the ceremonial race. These couples will be blessed by Sajra with happiness, fertility, and eternal love.”
A young man, one Cara had never seen before, stepped onto the dais. He matched the guards in height but doubled their size in bulk. He wore a tunic of brown leather that was cut off at his shoulders and ended at his hips. His trousers matched the tan color of his skin and were tucked into his high boots. Thick, rippling muscle sculpted his exposed arms, and a belt wrapped around his lean middle. A tense hand rested on a sheathed dagger that hung from it.
When his broad shoulders turned, and he faced the audience below, Cara’s breath caught. He was beyond handsome. Sweeping dark hair framed his face. It curled around his ears and at the start of his strong jaw.
But the more Cara searched his features, the more similarities she found between this tense stranger and the rei standing beside him—the two brooding amber eyes under black brows, the narrow nose, the distinct curve of the cheeks. Her heart dropped.
“This year, my son, Kael, will be participating in the Hunt and will choose his regis,” Rei Salus continued, gesturing to the powerful young man.
Cara’s stomach twisted. Had she really been ogling the tiger prince?
Kael’s stern expression still didn’t waver as the attention shifted to him. As the rei continued to speak about the upcoming Hunt, Cara stepped closer to the tent, covered again by shadow. She should get back to the village, to Ryna and Alina, but something inside her wanted to stay. With her gaze locked on the stage, she forced her feet to take a step back. Then another.
Up and down her back, her skin prickled. Her muscles tensed. Someone was behind her, and not too far away. The rising volume of voices from the crowd made it difficult for Cara to listen for any hints of who it may be. Friend or foe? She lifted her nose and sniffed. Hidden underneath the distinct, heavy smells of the marketplace—burning incense, sweat, and smoky fires—was the faint, crisp scent of mint leaves.
Then, she heard several light cracking sounds, like twigs breaking underfoot. Before she could turn her head, something too small to see in its speed blew past her face, whistling through the air. She tried yelling a warning to the dais, but the words weren’t even on her tongue before Rei Salus was gripping his chest. His face twisted in terror, and his knees collapsed under him. The leopard guards reached out, grasping his arms as he fell to the floor.
Many people in the crowd dropped to the ground, covering their heads. Others screamed and ran into the safety of the canvas tents. With the space cleared, Cara could see more of the stage. The rei’s body twitched and jumped like a fish taken from water. White, foamy bubbles leaked from his nostrils and the corners of his mouth. Kael, the tiger prince, fell to his father’s side and ripped something out of his chest. As he held it up to examine it, Cara saw a slender wooden tube with a needle-like nose. It was a dart of some kind.
“He’s been poisoned!” Kael shouted to the guards. His voice was as menacing and powerful as his appearance. Rei Salus’s thrashing continued. Every second seemed to drag on as the crowd watched in silent horror. Cara couldn’t look away, either.
Then, a terrible gurgling sound spewed from his mouth, and he stilled, lying like a puddle on the dais. One of the leopards reached down and pressed his fingers against his neck.
“The rei…He is dead,” he said.
The prince looked at the dart again, his rage making his eyes glow. Then, his focus moved to something else, something beyond the weapon. A fierce growl tore from his throat as his and Cara’s eyes locked.
Her gut lurched as realization hit her.
“You!” he roared, throwing the dart down and pulling the dagger from his belt. “Panther!”
Cara was running before the word left his mouth.