I hold out my hand for Taylor. She takes it with no hesitation, and the mating bond inside me snaps even tighter. I keep my other hand on the haft of my sword.
Gareth waits at the door, his stance like a drawn bow string, and glances at my stance. “You expecting trouble?”
I grin and squeeze Taylor’s small hand. “Always.”
We leave the large bedroom and enter a bright hall alight with blazing rays of sun. The heat verges on oppressive, and it doesn’t help that I’m anxious and still disoriented. Leander doesn’t seem to mind my sweaty palm as he leads me along with Gareth and Lenetia at our backs.
A pair of guards, their armor gleaming, peer at us as we pass, but say nothing.
Leander somehow manages a casual swagger, his head high. We get more than a few stares from passersby, but no one speaks to us.
“Keep cool,” Lenetia whispers. “We’re supposedly going to walk right out the front door.” The skepticism in her tone isn’t lost on me.
We make it to a cavernous hall with light pouring in from all angles. Fae in decorative dress stand around talking or walk with haughty importance. One in particular makes a beeline for us.
I tense, but Leander squeezes my hand. His touch manages to calm me a little—perhaps because I know he’s armed to the teeth and has already demonstrated he has no qualms killing to protect me. My stomach churns at the memory of Tyrios’s hands on me, the surprise in his eyes, and the blood at his throat.
The fae stops in front of us and wrings his hands, his voice tipped with anxiety as he speaks to Leander.
I can’t follow what’s being said, but it definitely seems like this fae doesn’t want us to leave. Eventually, Leander brushes past him and continues toward a huge set of wooden double doors that lead into a wide courtyard.
The nervous fae hurries away.
“He’s going to rat us out.” Lenetia quickens her pace along with the rest of us.
“Easy now. Just keep calm, and everything will be fine.” Gareth’s low voice doesn’t hold any hints of worry, but I’d be willing to bet his hand is resting on some sort of weapon.
The whispers of the glittering fae around us intensify as we stride past. But we enter the courtyard without incident. Bushes and flowers bloom all around, and tiny white puffs swirl through the warm air. It’s a fairyland all the way down to the moss between the walkway stones. Even so, I’m happy to leave it behind.
Worry eats away at me, and I hope I’m making the right choice. Leaving here could be a mistake—one I won’t recover from. If this place is the only spot that will allow me to return home, then I’m foolish to go with the warrior king at my side. But if Gareth is telling the truth, then the only way for me to get back is to go with them to the winter realm. Like Dorothy, I can’t go back the way I came, I can only follow the yellow brick road until I get to Oz. I touch the pendant at my throat, the stone cool against my warm fingers.
We continue our trek, Leander casual but alert, his gaze missing nothing as we exit the courtyard and enter a narrow lane with ivy climbing its sides. I glance up and find more guards, a few of them watching us, crossbows strapped across their chests.
“This is the portico to the palace. Once we’re out of here, we’ll reach the stables and ride north,” Gareth says.
“Can’t wait to be on the road with you lot,” Lenetia grumbles.
Gareth bites off a few foreign words, the very sound of them unpleasant to my ears.
“Kiss your sister with that mouth?” Lenetia shoots back.
“Silence,” Leander hisses as we approach a high gate, the bars separating us from what looks like a bustling village beyond. At least a dozen guards stand along the high stone walls, and several more are atop it, some of them holding their crossbows.
One of the soldiers steps forward, a question on his lips.
Leander responds, his tone conversational, as if we’re all just out for a stroll, not escaping a murder scene.
The soldier’s brow wrinkles, and he gives me a long look.
Leander bristles and steps in front of me, his voice turning cold. The two of them engage in an escalating flurry of words.
“Shit.” Lenetia takes my arm. “We should go.”
“Can we?” I can’t see the guard past Leander’s wide back, but I can hear him.
“Never hurts to try. He’s more interested in why the king and Gareth are leaving than us.” She pulls me gently toward her and we move to walk toward the open gate.
Two guards step from the shadows beneath the stone overhang, swords in their hands.
“Keep walking. Eyes down. Like changeling slaves.” Lenetia links her arm through mine.
I follow her instructions and stare at the cobblestones beneath my feet. My chin tries to shake, but I clamp my teeth together. Leander’s voice rises even louder behind me, the rumble of it like deep thunder.
We’re almost through the gate when one of the guards steps in our path and says something sharply. Lenetia responds but keeps her gaze down. My stomach twists in a knot when he reaches out and tips her chin up so she has to look him in the eye.
I look, too, and find a handsome soldier with those odd silver eyes. He sneers as he speaks to Lenetia, and for once I’m glad I can’t understand their language.
He lifts his gaze over her head and stares back toward the palace. And then I hear it—yells and a multitude of heavy footsteps, as if the entire castle guard is running out.
The guard pushes past us, and Leander’s voice bristles. My stomach sinks as I realize he’s in trouble.
“Run!” Lenetia pulls me with her.
“What’s happening?” I follow her through the gate and out onto a busy street full of carts, horses, and fae. An entire city with stone buildings and wide roads fans out from the foot of the palace.
“They’ve found Tyrios!” She darts to the left. “They’ll kill us if they catch us!”
“What about Leander and Gareth?” I glance behind me and almost freeze at the sight.
The soldier falls before me, my punch taking him by surprise. The rest of the guards rush toward us, and Gareth and I draw our swords. My mate runs with the other changeling, safely away from the fray, though her gaze rests on me, her eyes full of worry. I want to take that fear away, to pull her in my arms and whisper the secrets of my heart. But it’s too late.
An alarm sounds from deep within the castle. We aren’t getting away. Not now. But I won’t go down without a fight. My mate deserves nothing less. I will fight till my last breath to give her a chance at escape.
“Well, this is a right mess.” Gareth backs to my elbow as the guards encircle us.
“Reminds me of that time in the Freckarian Mines.”
He laughs. “The goblins were a good bit shorter than these guards.”
“They’ll bleed the same.” I raise my sword as one of the soldiers brandishes his blade.
“It’s been an honor, Leander.” Gareth takes his battle stance as the ranks increase.
The soldiers advance en masse, their weapons drawn, their intent clear. We won’t survive. Not against these numbers. I send a prayer to the ancestors that my mate gets away and that the other changeling will serve her as promised.
The first attack comes in a whirl of speed. I parry and thrust, using every bit of warrior ability I possess. The soldiers come all at once, their silver gleaming in the too-bright sun as they attack. The ring of metal on metal sings through the warm air, and Gareth and I—no strangers to long odds and mortal danger—fight for our lives.
I parry and counter-strike, my instincts telling me where the next blow intends to land. The nearest soldier slashes at me, leaving his flank open. I swing to end him, but a flash blinds me and my sword hits stone.
“The queen!” A soldier yells. “Protect the queen!”
“Stand down!” She appears before me, her hand holding my blade. She’s covered in a diamond sheen, her powerful magic on display.
“But, your majesty, these two have—”
“I said stand down.” Her silver eyes glint deadly, and the soldiers obey, sheathing their weapons and backing away.
I lower my sword to my side but keep it ready.
“You slew Lord Tyrios.” It’s an emphatic statement, not a question.
“I did.” I meet her silver eyes as her diamond spell shimmers and dissipates.
“Was there a reason?” She seems almost bored as she releases my sword.
“He threatened my—”
Gareth coughs into his hand.
I take the easy hint not to mention that Taylor is my mate. “He threatened to kill a changeling female.”
“Oh?” A sly smile plays at the corners of her red lips. “Is it a special one perhaps?” Her gaze slides past me, as if she knows exactly where Taylor went. “Where is she, by the way?”
“She is mine.” I bite the words out. “And no one will harm her. If they do, they will suffer the wrath of the winter wind.” An icy breeze wraps around us, pushing at the summer heat. My magic is barely contained and wants to lash out as badly as I do. But with my emotions churning with the discovery of my mate, it would be like setting off a powerful bomb of snow and ice, destruction and death.
“Lord Tyrios was one of my top advisors and one of the oldest fae in my service.” She levels me with a hard stare. “You’ve taken him from me at a time when we need all the counsel we can get to solve the growing threat along our borders. And you’ve turned the rest of my court against you with this rash act.” She shakes her head gracefully. “Where we had grown a bond between our realms, now the fabric is torn.”
“I drew blood in the summer realm, which is a stain upon our truce.” I sheath my sword. “But I would do it again to one such as Lord Tyrios.”
“That’s not helping.” She waves a hand, and the diamond barrier from before forms around the three of us, effectively cutting off her soldiers from hearing our conversation. “I understand why you did it. She is your mate.”