Please note, this is an adult book. Content warnings can be found here.
The moon was a sliver in the sky, a few days from disappearing altogether—a few nights from the Wild Hunt riding.
It gave me enough light to see by as my sabrecat, Vespera, picked through the undergrowth in silence. I rolled my hips with her gait, keeping my thighs loose: I didn’t need speed from her, yet. Her ears flicked and her black coat gleamed, a stark contrast to how dull my red hair had grown this past year.
Beyond the trees and their shadows, the road was grey in the moonlight. And empty. I scowled and touched the butt of my pistol, like that would bring the prey I hunted.
If we wanted something more than cabbage and courgette on our plates next week, it needed to. We were down to the last of the flour, and I hadn’t tasted meat in weeks. If I were a decent hunter, I’d come out in the day with bow and arrow.
But that was a big if.
I was a great shot, but an abysmal hunter. The butler, Horwich, had been passable, bringing rabbits to the table on the regular, but a slip on the ice last winter had ended his hunting career.
So instead, I rode at night seeking a different kind of quarry, one that frequented balls… Like the one this evening.
Once upon a time, the Viscountess Lady Katherine Ferrers had been invited to everything, but not anymore. She’d stopped accepting invitations so many years ago, drawing rooms were no longer abuzz with speculation. It had been a long while since anyone had called me lady anything. It was just Kat now.
Still, I got to hear about these things. And although I couldn’t attend parties—wearing the same tatty gown every time would win me nothing but sneers—I could make use of them. And this way was much more practical.
I cocked my head. Was that a sound? With a gloved hand to her shoulder, I stilled Vespera and held my breath, listening.
At first, I was sure I must’ve imagined it. Wishful thinking.
But a distant pounding thrummed through the air, felt more than heard, and beneath me Vespera coiled like a spring.
After all these years, the adrenaline still kicked through me, making my skin tingle and my heart hammer. This was the only time I broke the rules, even my own.
They were simple. Some places and actions were safe. Home. Tending our vegetables. Grooming Vespera. And other places and actions weren’t safe: almost everywhere and everything else. I didn’t go there or do those. Except for when I rode at night.
Because it was less dangerous than the alternative, which was losing my home.
Besides, I was clever about it. I crept through the night, and I knew all the best routes for escape. I hid behind a hood and mask. And I’d have wagered my sabrecat was faster than any other in Albion.
There were a lot of reasons I’d never been caught.
Thank the gods. After all, the sentence for highway robbery was death, especially for the infamous Wicked Lady, as the papers called her—called me.
Thirty seconds after the initial thrum of paws on the road, came the squeak and rumble of a carriage in movement.
Partygoers heading home. Drunk and tired. And with any luck, their coachman had entertained himself with a hip flask—that would make my job easier.
Squeezing my thighs, I eased Vespera to the very edge of the forest. We’d wait here until the last possible moment when I’d block their way, pistols drawn—
A shriek pierced the night. The air in my lungs stilled. Even Vespera, so well-trained for any situation or surprise, lifted her head.
It almost sounded like a person. Almost.
But I knew that sound. A fox.
I peered out along the road. My quarry was a coach pulled by four sabrecats—that meant money. Lots of money. They could afford to pay my toll.
Again, the screech raked through the forest’s darkness.
If the coachman thought it was a woman screaming, he’d turn back. And then there would be no toll.
This would all have been for nothing.
Yes, there would be other nights, but tonight? It was my best bet—the lords and ladies travelling from the ball would be dripping in jewels. Although I wouldn’t get their full value from my fence, I’d get enough.
With a near empty larder, I’d settle for enough.
The carriage slowed.
“Shit,” I muttered, making Vespera shift her weight.
I needed to chase off that fox.
* * *
We charged through the forest, far enough from the carriage that they wouldn’t hear the slight rustle Vespera couldn’t help making at this speed. Even if they did, they’d put it down to the damn fox screaming like a woman being disembowelled.
Leaves and branches whipped past, forcing me to duck close to Vespera’s back as I peered ahead. She wound between thick oaks and leapt over fallen trunks, breaths steaming in the chill of night.
Then we were in a moonlit clearing, a gap in the canopy big enough to see that sliver of ghostly white slashing through the night sky. And ahead, a flash of red, as bright as autumn.
The fox that was trying to fuck up my entire evening.
Except it looked like the poor thing was having a worse night than me, because glinting in the dim light was the thin line of a snare’s wire. One end fastened to a tree, the other was buried in the thick fur of the creature’s neck.
It didn’t snarl or shrink away from me.
Brown eyes wide but calm, it watched as though wondering what I’d do. Which was a stupid thing to imagine, because animals didn’t think like that, but…
It watched. And it waited.
Even in this silvery light, its thick fur was the richest red I’ve ever seen, deeper than my auburn hair. Its tail was a magnificent sweep of the same red tipped with white, and my fingers clenched around the reins, aching to test how soft it felt, how thick.
When they weren’t taking chickens from our now empty coops, I’d always liked foxes. Clever and quiet, not obviously dangerous like a wolf or sabrecat. They snuck in, took what they needed, and vanished into the night.
This one was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen.
And beautiful wasn’t useful, but…
Blood specked the white of its throat. It was in pain.
Despite myself, despite my quarry back on the road, it tugged on my heart.
Besides, if I left it here in the snare, it would only scare away the coach. This was a matter of practicality.
“This is just so I can do my job,” I told it with a nod before dismounting.
My leather gloves should give me some protection if it tried to bite, but I’d do my best to grab it by the scruff of its neck like a sabrecat cub.
Hands held wide, head bowed, I approached. “It’s all right.” I kept my voice soft and low. “I’m going to help you.” Quickly, so I can get back to that carriage and its fat purses.
Even as I closed in, an arm’s length away now, the fox didn’t strain away at the end of the snare. It didn’t react at all, just sat and waited.
Everyone knew a wild animal, even a semi-tamed one, would lash out when cornered and injured. Not this fox. In fact, its calm had grown eerie now, making the back of my neck prickle.
My feet stilled, telling me to turn and run.
Just some irrational fear. Listening to it would cost me the night’s hunt.
I forced myself to take another step. “That’s it.” I wasn’t sure if that was for the fox or my own skittish self. I’d been doing this—haunting the roads at night—for more years than I cared to remember. I couldn’t afford fear. I certainly couldn’t afford to give in to it.
“That’s it. Nice and quiet.” My heart pounded, louder than the sabrecats on the road, as I lunged in, grabbing it by the scruff.
But it didn’t dart away or snap at my hands.
And my bones ached with the wrongness.
“Unsafe. Unsafe,” they whispered.
It was too late, because I had a handful of its fur. It looked up at me with eyes full of pain and far too much understanding for a fox.
My throat closed as I slipped a finger under the wire looped around its neck and drew my dagger.
You could kill it. That would keep it quiet.
It would. And it would quiet the feeling of wrongness slithering under my skin.
Other than making me uncomfortable, this fox had done nothing wrong. Chances were that feeling was my mind playing tricks on me—the pressure of tonight’s hunt making me foolish enough to entertain the idea a fox trapped in a snare was something more than just that.
“Pull yourself together, Kat.” I yanked my blade through the wire.
Despite everything I told myself, I took a long step back.
As the snare dropped to the ground, the creature turned its neck side-to-side, something eerily human about the gesture. Then it stood. It was much larger than any fox I’d heard of.
I swallowed and didn’t sheath my dagger. “There,” I said, voice firmer than I felt, “you’re free.”
It regarded me with those large brown eyes for a long while before bowing its head. Its tail was the last thing I saw as it disappeared into the forest in silence.
Goosebumps picking their way across my skin, I hurried back to Vespera and mounted.
When we returned to the road, the carriage was gone. Only its tracks remained, leading away into the distance.
I slumped in the saddle. “Shit.”