The captain finally looks away. “You’ve got a changeling, as well? Are they giving them out in Byrn Varyndr and no one told me?”
“Oh, you’re funny,” Beth says, though her tone makes clear she finds nothing about him amusing.
“And two Vundi?” He eyes Cenet and Para.
“We’re popular.” Beth shrugs.
“Mouthy for a changeling.” Tavaran’s disposition sours.
“We’re for the crossing as soon as possible.” Leander guides Kyrin forward.
“Always a pleasure.” Tavaran doesn’t stop us, but he watches us until we’re swallowed up by the bustle of Timeroon.
This city is the busiest I’ve seen, though to be fair, Byrn Varyndr may have been busier if it weren’t for a couple of dark fae warriors fighting in the streets. The red road widens and cuts through the center of the town. Stone buildings rise on either side, thatch roofs holding off the unforgiving sun.
Changelings, fae, lesser fae, and creatures I’ve never seen before travel along the roads or lounge on the narrow front stoops. Horses pull wagons and carry travelers as we make our way down the main street. Smells of food, exotic spices, and the ever-present scent of horse manure coat the air. Turbaned vendors shout their wares, and people walk by chowing down on street grub. My stomach rumbles.
Leander whistles to Gareth who guides Sabre closer. “My mate is hungry.”
“I can arrange something with a street cook.” Gareth peers at a booth set up on a small side street with some sort of roasted fowl hanging along the front. “That way we don’t have to stop and can cross as soon as possible.”
My mouth waters. The Vundi root vegetables and dried jerky sustained us in the caves, but the scent of cooked, delicious food is a lure I can’t resist.
I’m about to ask Gareth for one of the tasty-looking birds when my breath catches in my throat, and then I scream so loud that Leander has to rein in Kyrin before he bolts.
“What?” Leander already has a throwing dagger in his hand. The street pauses for only a moment, then the creatures go about their business as if nothing happened. Are they nuts? Or blind? I squeal again and throw one leg over Kyrin’s side but can’t go anywhere when Leander grabs my dress with his bear paw. “Let me down!”
“Little one.” He lifts me with one hand until we’re at eye level. “What are you doing?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” I turn and see it again.
“What?” Beth follows my line of sight. “What is it?”
It’s the necklace all over again. “Is it invisible to everyone but me? Don’t you see it?” I point.
Leander arches a brow. “Ah.”
“Right. Ah. Now let me down! I have to pet it!”
He pulls me to his chest and dismounts, keeping me under his arm as we walk along the dusty street.
“Leander?” Gareth calls.
He points to what looks like an inn to our left. “Set up a room with food and toiletries. We’ll be along shortly.”
I prance forward and press my hands to my cheeks. “I can’t believe it. A real. Live. Unicorn!”
The white beast is loosely tied to a hitching post, its bright blue eyes surveying the road, its horn iridescent and catching the light. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in all my life.
“This is just like ‘Legend.’”
Leander gives me a blank look.
“It’s this amazing eighties movie. It has Tom Cruise. And that girl from ‘Ferris Bueller.’”
The blank look doesn’t abate.
“In the movie, there are two unicorns; the last ones. And the lord of darkness wants them killed so the sun will never rise again. The princess screws up and gets one de-horned and one captured, and—”
Leander’s nose wrinkles. “The princess doesn’t sound very bright.”
“Oh, but she is!” I step closer, and the unicorn focuses on me with his big blue eyes. “In the end, she defeats darkness by sacrificing herself. The unicorns are saved, and the sun rises.”
I reach out toward the unicorn’s mane. “May I—” I take a deep breath. “Pet you?” I expect it to simply eye me haughtily or bow its head in gracious assent.
Instead, it speaks! “Sure.” It’s a deep, beautiful tone that reminds me of a clarinet, and I almost fall over dead from excitement.
“Thank you.” I run my shaking hand along his mane. It’s soft like rabbit fur instead of coarse like Kyrin’s.
“You didn’t ask me where.” He blinks.
“Oh.” I pull my hand back. “I’m sorry. Where may I pet you?”
Leander puts a hand to his mouth.
“What?” I ask him.
“Nothing.” He gestures to the unicorn. “Go ahead.”
I swear he’s hiding a smile or perhaps a laugh, but I don’t have time for him. Not when I’m standing next to a real, live unicorn. Best. Day. Ever.
“Put your hand gently on my back,” the unicorn instructs.
I run my hand along him, and he gives a low nicker. “Like this?”
“Perfect. Now run up to my mane slowly.”
“All right.” I slide my fingers along his rabbit-soft hair and up to the crown of his head.
“Now down my muzzle.” His voice drops even lower.
A snort escapes Leander.
I ignore him. He’s clearly jealous that I’ve charmed the unicorn. “Like this?”
“That’s it.” The unicorn nuzzles against me, his soft hair like a perfect pillow along my face.
“You’re so soft.”
“Thank you.” He stamps one hoof. “Now up to my horn.”
A thrill runs through me. “I can touch it?”
I gently run my fingers along it, the iridescence sparkling along my fingertips. “It’s beautiful.”
“Wrap your hand around it.”
“Really?” I peer into his eyes, and he blinks slowly.
Leander clears his throat, but when I look at him, he’s sharing a look with Kyrin.
“It’s magical,” the unicorn coaxes.
I grip the base and slide my hand along it.
He nickers. “Again.”
Leander grabs my wrist and pulls my hand away. “All right. That’s quite enough.”
“Hey, man.” The unicorn turns and stares at Leander. “You don’t see me slapping pussy out of your mouth, do you?”
“What?” I stumble back, and when I glance down, I gasp and clutch Leander. The unicorn is excited. Really excited.
“Where are you going?” He lowers his head, his horn in front of my face. “Keep it up. I was getting there.”
Leander shoves his face away. “I think she’s learned her lesson on unicorns.”
“You got a problem with unicorns? Over here interrupting my handy like a swat twat.” He stamps his hooves, his nostrils flaring. “Bend over and I’ll shove this horn where—”
“Oh my god.” I stare in horror at my hand, the palm still iridescent. “You are disgusting!”
“You think I’m going to turn down some loving from a pretty little changeling like you?” He snorts again. “Next time lick your palm first. I like that better.”
Before I can even think, I slap him.
Leander bursts out laughing.
“I just slapped a unicorn.” I let Leander pull me behind him.
“You’ve had your fun. That’s the end of it, beast.” Leander backs me away from the pervy unicorn.
He tugs at his reins. “You’re lucky I’m hitched up. I’d take your girl right out from under you, winter realm trash. She’d be neighing all night long.”
“Unicorns are bad. So, so bad.” I’m dying. I just slapped a unicorn.
“Your loss, baby. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m hung like a horse.”
Kyrin snorts disgustedly.
I clap my hands over my ears. But it’s too late. Unicorns are ruined for me. My childhood dream just got crushed by a unicorn’s boner.
“Scarred. For. Life.” Taylor plops down at the table Gareth arranged for us at the back of the inn.
“I’m sorry, Taylor.” I wrap my arm around her shoulders. “But that’s the way unicorns are.”
“You could have warned me!” Her blue eyes flash.
“I did. Remember? I told you unicorns were foul-mouthed creatures, no good beasts. As you say, ‘just the worst.’”
She grumbles. “Maybe.”
I reach over and load her plate with bread, butter, fruit, and slices of rich meat. “I shouldn’t have let it go on as long as I did.” The feral wanted to gouge my eyes out, but I have to let Taylor learn this world on her own terms. Did I want to strangle the unicorn with my bare hands? Yes. Would Taylor have forgiven me for it? Maybe.
“Shouldn’t have let it go on, huh?” She smacks my arm. “You think?”
The feral roars to life, and I sit still for a moment.
“Sorry.” She grimaces. “Didn’t mean to do that.” She blows a stray strand of hair from her face. “And I probably wouldn’t have believed you about the unicorns if I hadn’t seen it for myself.” Her grimace deepens. “And boy did I see it.”
Beth snickers. “All the new changelings are like that. Think the unicorns are noble and magical and amazing.” She devours a piece of bread, then cants her head to the side. “Then again, the new changelings are always children. You don’t have that excuse.”
“Whatever.” Taylor grabs another piece of bread. Then she drops it with a gasp, horror in her eyes. “Oh, god, Leander. What if your feral fae is a unicorn?”
The tickle starts in my throat and explodes through me. I laugh. No, I howl. Beth joins in, her laughter verging on a cackle.