Gareth opens the door and quickly turns his back with a cough. “The council is ready for us.”

Leander groans. “Fine. The quicker we get this done, the quicker we can cross the border.” He crawls off me but makes sure to drag his fingers down my thigh before standing.

Goosebumps erupt all over me, and I clutch the sheet.

He pauses at the foot of the bed, the predatory look in his eyes still there. “I know I almost had you, little one.”

I blush all the way to my toes. “No, you didn’t.”

His sexy smirk reappears. “I did.”

I yank the crimson blanket over my head.

“Come, Taylor.” He pulls the blanket down until our eyes meet. “It is time to show the Vundi the queen of winter, the bite of the icy wind, and the cold fury of the storm if they dare to defy us.”



I stride into the Vundi council room, a grand hall with every inch of dark stone carved with whorls and ancient fae symbols. Seven fae sit along the back wall, their gazes fixed on Taylor at my side. She wears a dress of crimson, a black sash at her waist in Vundi fashion. No queen has ever been more beautiful.

Para and Cenet stand to the side, their expressions giving nothing away, and the high priestess sits at the very center of the room, her white glow a testament to her age. A fae this old doesn’t exist in the winter realm. What would cause her to stay on Arin instead of fading to be with the Ancestors?

“Welcome, honored king. I am Keret, head council for the Vundi people.” A lesser fae that appears to be mostly lizard-like stands and bows, the other councilors following suit.

“Thank you for your hospitality.” I don’t bow but give a slight dip of my chin.

The rude one from yesterday, Vanara, sits at the end of the row and is careful not to look at my mate. Good.

“Please, make yourselves comfortable.” He gestures to the table where the high priestess sits.

I don’t move. “I’m afraid I cannot be comfortable until you tell me that my mate is safe here. Para made clear that her forces attacked us on the road at the direction of this council. Your intention was to steal my mate—”

Vanara shakes her head. “We did not know that she was—”

“You will let me finish.” I don’t raise my voice. I don’t have to. Vanara snaps her mouth closed. “As I was saying, you sent Para and her forces to take Taylor, the future queen of the winter realm. In the fairest light, this was a mistake. In the darkest, an act of war against my realm.”

Keret shifts in his seat, his long tongue darting to his lips, but he doesn’t interrupt. Perhaps he’s noticed the temperature of the room has dropped so low that ice creeps along the carved walls of stone.

“I agreed to a short truce while we discuss these matters, but I must warn you that any further acts of aggression against my mate will have dire consequences.”

“Our circumstances are already dire.” Para steps forward, her voice strong. “We cannot continue like this. No food, no way out for our people. Our crops have failed again, the roots decaying and the fruits withering. We will not survive it. The children already suffer from maladies we’ve never seen before, and I can’t bear to watch them go another day without food in their stomachs. This is our one chance.”

My ire swells like a river during a thaw. The room grows even more frigid, and Taylor squeezes my hand.

“Your crops failed?” Taylor addresses Para. “The ones you mentioned that are near the river?”

“No.” Para glances to the council, as if unsure she should continue. Keret waves her onward.

“We created a system of underground farms by bringing dirt from the river bed during dry spells when the water receded. Light comes in through funnels carved in the plains above, and we have plentiful water in the caverns—water that used to run through the plains before the great war.”

“Can I see them? The farms, I mean?”

I turn to Taylor. Her eyes are bright, intelligence sparkling in their blue depths. I want to pull her close to keep her tucked under my arm, but she is strong enough to stand on her own. And as queen, she must.

“You want to see the crops?” Keret looks left and right at the other council members.

Taylor’s cheeks pinken. “Yes. I mean, I’m not super into agriculture, but I’ve taken a few classes in organic chemistry, a botany elective, and worked in the university greenhouse over the summers. Maybe I can help.”

Vanara grips the arms of her chair. “The way you can help is to allow us to turn you over to the king beyond the mountain.”

“If you want to keep your life, you will never speak in my presence again.” I maintain my hold on the heart of winter while the feral seeks to unleash its fury.

Vanara, eyes wide, turns to Keret, but she doesn’t open her mouth. It’s the only smart choice she’s made. With a disgusted huff, she rises and storms from the room.

Keret blinks slowly, his reptilian shoulders rising in a shrug.

Delantis chuckles. “I knew I wasn’t the only one who’s grown tired of her voice. Thank you, King Gladion.” She rises, her posture bent and her eyes watery. “I’ll show Taylor to the crops, if that’s okay with you. We have some things to discuss.” Without waiting for approval from the council, she hobbles to Taylor, who offers her arm.

“Thank you, child.” The elderly fae takes Taylor’s elbow, and they turn to leave.

I can’t let her out of my sight. Can I?

“You have things to discuss here, my lord.” Delantis pauses. “So I will make this easy for you. I give my oath to the Ancestors that I will not harm your mate or allow anyone else to harm her while she’s with me.” Her fingers glow bright white, the magic so strong within her that it has to escape. When she gives her word, magic ripples through the air between us, sealing the deal.

“Taylor?” I loathe letting go of her hand.

She steps up on her tiptoes and kisses my cheek. “I’ll be fine. Maybe Delantis can give me some information on the stone, or what I am, or what’s going on, or the two million other questions I have.”

I kiss her forehead, my need to keep her near almost overcoming even Delantis’s oath. But I have to let her go. She must be seen as capable of handling herself … No matter how much I want to hide her away and keep her to myself.

“She’s safe.” Delantis pulls her gently. “I know well what it means to have a mate and feel the bond. But you must trust in her. And I can assure you, if anyone threatens her …” She lets the magic seep from her fingertips until a gryphon forms next to them, its body of white smoke, but its talons of silver. Delantis’s feral fae in corporeal form. How old is she? She pats the gryphon on its eagle head. “We will handle it.” The gryphon blinks, and its lion’s claws click on the stone floor.

“A gryphon?” Taylor’s fingers twitch to pet it, but she keeps her hand at her side.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” Delantis smiles.

“As soon as you’re done, meet me back in our rooms.” I let go of Taylor’s hand, even though it feels wrong.

“I will.” She gives me a confident look and leaves the room with Delantis on her arm. The gryphon follows, its tail whipping out the door.

I turn back to the Vundi council, the mix of high and lesser fae eyeing Gareth and me with an apprehension that borders on fear. While I admit I will destroy anyone who threatens my people, I’m not a despot. I see the plight of the Vundi. Though the heart of winter beats in my chest, I am not cold, not ice, not unmoving.

Striding to the table, I sit down, though my attempts to put the council at ease don’t seem to have any effect. Half of them still look ready to bolt.

I lean back and graze the hilt of my sword with one hand. “Before we engage in any hostilities—which is exactly what will happen if you continue with your foolhardy plan of kidnapping my mate—let’s discuss possibilities for peace and cooperation between our peoples. Gareth, you have the floor.”

He clears his throat. “As you know, the winter realm does not have the bounty of the farmlands to the west that supply a great deal of the summer realm. However, we are not without means to assist a neighbor in need, especially one that is … let’s say, underappreciated by Byrn Varyndr, as are the Vundi. Now …”

As Gareth launches into our plan for diplomacy, I monitor my subconscious link to Taylor. For the councilors’ sakes, I hope they don’t intend to double-cross me. Because if I get so much as a hint of fear from Taylor, I will turn this room as red as the plains above.



“That mate of yours is a real bruiser, isn’t he?” Delantis and I walk slowly down a stone passageway.

“He can be sort of aggressive, I guess you’d say.” I glance at the gryphon. “But I guess most fae have some fight in them.”

She laughs, the sound brittle like fall leaves. “You are correct about that, young one.”

I want to rattle off so many questions, because if anyone here has answers, it’s Delantis. Even Leander seemed taken aback by her age and power.

I clear my throat as we turn a corner. “Can you tell me more about the soulstone I wear?”

“It was mined right here under the Red Plains.” She pauses and turns, eyeing the necklace with affection. “I remember when I birthed it from the same gift of stone that my own jewel was created from.”

“Wow, so you recognize it. How long ago was that?”

She cuts her eyes to the side, the silver flashing in the dim hallway. “Is that a classy way of asking my age?”

“No.” Yes.

“Let’s just say it was quite an age ago.” She smiles and pats my hand. “But I can’t forget the stones. And yours has a peculiar history.”

Answers. She is offering answers, and I’m surprised my mouth isn’t watering at the prospect. I try to play it cool. “Oh, it does?” The words come out in a whoosh, not cool at all.