I tense, but I can’t deny it. I will never deny Taylor.
Her shrewd gaze lightens a bit, but her brow remains troubled. “This has created another wrinkle between us. And, though I realize you don’t agree, Tyrios did have a legal claim to the changeling. My nobles call for winter realm blood in retaliation.”
“Then take mine.” Gareth steps forward. “I have plenty to spare.”
“It’s not that simple.” She eyes him. “Though your bravery does you credit.”
“Do you seek blood, as well?” I ask.
She sighs. “I’ve lived for far too long to play the short game. Tyrios’s blood is still warm, but his line will continue without him. The summer realm will quickly bury his memory and focus on new scandals or trivialities. At least, that’s my hope.” She turns and gazes toward the west, as if she can see beyond the garrison wall. “Keeping them steeped in gossip and spats means we don’t have any true enemies knocking at our doors. When they get quiet and pay attention, that’s when I worry. But the disappearances, they trouble me. And solving them is more important than Tyrios at the moment.”
She’s more level-headed than I ever gave her credit for. Beneath the summer realm glitz, she has the mind of a tactician and a cunning sort of foresight.
“What do you suggest?” I eye the soldiers who wait with caged aggression beyond the wall of diamond.
“I will call off my guard so you can escape, but I can’t promise my nobles won’t give chase. Some of them are so old that their insides are twisted with malice and hate.”
“Like Tyrios?” Gareth spits.
“Worse. Far worse. And he had plenty of allies who will feel the sting of his loss. I wouldn’t be surprised if assassins have already been dispatched for you. Make haste from the summer realm.” She holds a hand out toward the diamond encasement but pauses and meets my eye again. “Your mate. She’s different. There’s something about her I can’t place. Be wary.” With a snap of her fingers, the barrier fades, and she orders her soldiers to return to the castle and their posts.
They stare for a moment, disbelief flitting across some of their faces, then disband under the calm stare of their queen.
The pull to Taylor is strong, and she’s been out of my sight for far too long. I motion to Gareth. With a brief nod to the queen, I turn and dash away from the gate. Gareth guards my back as we barrel into the busy city street.
“Where did they go?” I peer past the gawking city fae, searching the sidewalks for her.
A male approaches from the right with another behind him. My hackles rise, my fangs lengthening. They push changelings and lesser fae out of their way as they stalk toward us.
“Leander.” Gareth draws his knives.
“I see them.”
“That changeling from the dungeon. She’s clever. Would have made for the stables when things got hairy.” He sidesteps me and shoots out a hand, swiping a throwing blade from the air just before it makes contact with my skull.
“I would’ve caught that,” I say as the metal clangs to the ground, and the assassin who threw it palms another.
Gareth grins and twirls his knives. “Go, I’ve got these two.”
“You’re the hope for our future—you and your mate.” He darts toward the two fae as the crowd senses the danger and parts for him. “Go. I’ll catch up!”
I hate to leave him, but he can take care of himself. Taylor is the one who needs my protection. Turning, I hurry down the lane, the crowd dwindling as danger coils through the air. I’m almost to the road leading to the stables when a silver blade pierces my shoulder.
“Here!” Lenetia yanks me into a muddy yard in front of a long gray building.
The street is clearing quickly, fae running into nearby businesses and narrow alleyways as the sound of fighting rings out behind us.
A fae stands at the entrance to the building, his arms crossed over his chest and his gaze trained on us. He asks a question.
Lenetia does the subservient thing again, staring at the muddy hay on the ground, and responds.
He spits, his gaze narrowing. Whatever she said, he clearly doesn’t believe her.
“What’s going on?” I edge closer to her.
“He won’t give us the horses.”
“I certainly won’t.” He speaks English. “There’s no way the lord of winter sent you two changeling wastrels for his fine horses.” He steps closer and reaches for us. “In the summer realm, horse thieves like you two get the lash. Or maybe I should call the Catcher, see if he’s on the hunt for escaped slaves.”
We try to back away, but he’s too fast, his meaty hands gripping our arms and dragging us forward.
“Get your hands off!” I try to pry his fingers loose, but it’s like trying to bend iron, and he drags both of us into the stables.
“When the king hears of this, he’ll—”
“Shut up.” He slaps Lenetia, and she drops onto a bale of hay, one hand at her mouth.
My hand goes to the pocket of my dress, and my skin meets cold metal. I grip the dagger’s hilt.
“And you, slave.” He yanks me so close I can smell some sort of alcohol on his breath. “You’ll need a proper lashing. Leather on your bare skin.” He licks his lips, then snatches at the front of my gown.
I scream and fight him, but he’s too strong, and the fabric gives a little at the seam along my side.
Lenetia stands and rushes him. He shoves her back so hard her head cracks on the wall, and she goes limp.
“Lenetia!” I struggle to get to her, but he wraps his arm around my waist and wrenches me away.
A horse whinnies deeper in the stables as someone screams in the street outside.
“Brought some trouble with you, eh? Let’s see what’s up under here, little changeling.”
I swing wildly at him, but he grabs a handful of my hair, pulling so hard my scalp burns.
Terror wells up in me, the fear so tangible that my vision darkens and black spots swim in front of me. I take a deep breath and strike at him with the blade.
He roars and shakes me. “Filthy wench. I’m going to—” His grip on my hair slackens. “What did you …” He lets me go entirely and stumbles back.
My vision clears, and I watch as he presses a hand to his chest, his eyes going wide.
“Taylor.” Lenetia stirs and tries to stand.
I rush to her and examine her head.
“It’s fine,” she slurs.
Blood seeps from a cut along her hairline, but it’s not too deep. At least, I think it’s not.
“What?” She points at the fae who’s still clutching his chest. Spidery black veins shoot from under his shirt and crawl up his neck. “What happened? Why is it black?”
“I don’t know.” I look at the knife in my hand. “There must have been something on the blade. Some sort of poison?”
“These northern realm fae aren’t playing around,” she says appreciatively.
The fae staggers toward us, then drops to his knees, the blackness spreading up to his chin.
“Get away from him.” Lenetia shrinks back against me.
Another whinny brings my attention to the horses in the stalls along the back wall. Two large black stallions watch us, their eyes like liquid midnight. I have no doubt who they belong to.
“Come on.” I help Lenetia up and half carry her down the row, the scents of manure, leather, and hay tickling my nose.
When we reach the large horses, they don’t move, just look at us with what seems like a superior expression.
“Hi?” I’ve never ridden a horse, and these don’t seem particularly friendly.
“Uppity horses. Typical fae rudeness.” Lenetia laughs, but the sound is weak.
“Will they let us ride them?”
“Only one way to find out.” She lifts the latch on the nearest stall and swings the door open.
The great beast doesn’t move, just gives us that same stare. I glance at the fae. He’s fallen onto his back, his eyes closed, but the blackness seems to have stopped spreading. I handle the blade gently as I slide it back into my pocket.
Lenetia speaks to the horse in fae. The horse breathes out hard and lifts its head, ignoring us. She grabs its bridle and pulls. It doesn’t move, and she gives up, sagging against me.
“Stuck up bastard of a horse,” she grouses.
“You need to use a gentle touch.” Gareth strides up.
I jump and turn to find Leander behind me. He reaches for me, and I fall into his arms with an ease that should give me pause. Instead, I take his warmth and let him hold me.
“Is that blood?” I lean back and stare at his shoulder.
He makes an unconcerned face and shrugs, then casts a glance at the stable fae and raises his eyebrows in question. I hold up the blade. He grins, pride in his eyes. Heat bursts along my skin, and I’m certain my cheeks turn rosy under his adoring stare.
Gareth speaks to the two black horses. They huff, but walk out of their stalls. They tower over me, and Leander gives the haughtiest one a familiar pat on the nose. Not wasting a second, Leander lifts me onto the beast and then climbs up behind me.
“She’s hurt.” I reach for Lenetia, but Gareth scoops her up and onto his horse.
“I’m fine.” Her eyelids flutter.
“Don’t let her fall asleep,” I warn, then yelp as the horse takes off toward the stable door.
Leander speaks to it in fae, and the beast jets out onto the cobblestone street and starts a thundering pace, scattering everyone in its path. The warm wind rushes by, creating a humming in my ears as the furious clip-clop of hooves echoes along the buildings ahead of us. The city is beautiful, flowering vines growing along the buildings and towering trees on every street corner. The buildings are made of the same pale stone as the castle. After a long while, we pass over a wide bay, its waters a bright Caribbean blue, and fly across the bridge and up the slight hill on the other side. The city is on an island, the water surrounding it like a vibrant, sparkling moat. But I’m not fooled by the beauty. Not after Tyrios and the fae in the stables.