It says something I can’t understand. Pointing at me, it presses its face to the bars, its slitted eyes taking me in. It’s almost a man’s face, but it’s grimmer, and when his forked tongue darts out, I make a keening sound that I can’t hold back.
“No. Please leave me alone.” I shake my head.
It grins, showing curved fangs. “Noisy little changeling. And speaking the slave language, too. Naughty little thing.” It says it in English, the words thick and misshapen from its lips.
I shake my head, and put a hand firmly over my mouth.
“Pretty thing. So pretty.” It blinks slowly. “One more sound, and I’ll have to discipline you.” The tongue shoots out. “I’d enjoy it, but you wouldn’t.”
I can’t close my eyes, can’t breathe, can’t think.
The sound of a door hinge squeaking pulls the monster’s attention away, and a voice down the corridor says something in the unintelligible language. The thing in front of me hisses its reply and gives me one more look before sliding back the way it came.
I lie there shivering for a long time, my mind racing, stumbling, careening. I was in Cecile’s car doing my homework. And then I had to have fallen asleep. Because everything that happened after that doesn’t make sense.
Asleep. I’m asleep. There’s no way I saw a woman who looked exactly like me, no way I’m in some sort of prison, and no way that a half-snake, half-man creature just came and threatened me. My breathing quickens and spots float in my vision. Hyperventilating. Can you hyperventilate in a dream? Wake up. I pinch my arm hard. Pain that matches the ache in my head blooms along my skin. I pinch again. But I don’t wake up. This can’t be. None of this makes sense. But the more my body aches and the chill air seeps into my bones, the more panicked I become. This is real.
“Whisper, dumbass. You can only whisper in here. If Zaul hears you again, it won’t be pretty.” The hay shifts, and a woman appears, her face dirty and her hair in bedraggled waves.
I nod, afraid to use my voice. My breathing is still too fast. I curl into the fetal position and press my forehead to my knees but keep the stranger in my peripheral vision.
She eases closer, and I notice she’s wearing the same potato sack I am, though she’s much thinner, her cheeks gaunt. “What did you do to land in here?”
“I didn’t do anything.” My voice is barely a sound. “I don’t know how I got here.”
She smirks, and I can’t tell if she’s twenty or fifty. “I refused to let my master’s vampire hound feed from me.” She rolls up her baggy sleeve and shows me her arm. Even through the filth, I can see dozens—maybe hundreds—of scars, puncture wounds that come in pairs. “I’d rather die than serve as a meal for that dog one more time.”
I push aside the horror that threatens to swallow me whole. “Where are we?”
“Byrn Varyndr’s dungeon, obviously.” She lays on her side and props her head on her hand. “Where they put bad girls.”
“Why what? Why are you here?” She wrinkles her nose. “How would I know?”
I press one hand to my face. “This doesn’t make sense.”
“You speak the old tongue really well.” She sucks on her teeth. “I’m surprised I even remember it, it’s been so long since I’ve heard or spoken it. I was exchanged when I was five, so I remember a little from that. And the older changelings still speak and teach it to each other. There are other tongues, too, but everyone seems to stick to this one.”
“You mean English?”
“Yeah.” She shrugs. “Here, we’re only supposed to speak their language. English is forbidden. Mainly because most of them don’t know it. Only the lesser fae who work alongside us learn it. Some of the older high fae know it, too. But that’s rare. They usually don’t bother with us.”
She lowers her brows. “You must have knocked your head a good one. They—the fae. Our supposedly benevolent masters.” She laughs low. “They say the summer realm is the kindest of all. But the fae here are just like all the others.”
“Fae? What’s a fae?” I glance at the bars. Was that snake monster a fae?
She says something in that strange language, though it’s beautiful as it lilts from her tongue.
I shake my head. “What did you say?”
Her eyes narrow. “I said you need to see a healer since you can’t even remember how to speak fae.”
“I’m not supposed to be here.” My breathing begins speeding up again, dread constricting my throat. “I was at school. That’s where I’m supposed to be—”
“School?” She tsks. “We aren’t allowed to learn. You know that.”
“This isn’t real.” I rock a little, the hard floor grinding into my hip. “None of this is real.”
She taps her fingers on the cold, grubby stone. “What’s your name?”
“Taylor of?” She gestures for me to go on.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m Lenetia of Granthos. You are Taylor of your master. So, who’s your master?”
“I don’t have a master.”
“Of course you do,” she coaxes. “Give me a name. Maybe I can talk to the guard and tell him you need to see a healer. If your master is high up enough, it may even work.”
“I don’t have a master.” My voice begins to rise, panic infecting me. “I’m a college student. I’m majoring in chemical engineering. I don’t know how I got here, or where here even is!” I run my fingers over the lump on my forehead. It feels like a golf ball.
“Shh!” She scurries back toward her hiding place.
“This isn’t real.” I edge out from beneath my shelter and stand. “None of this is real. So that thing can’t hurt me. It’s just a dream.” I grip the frigid metal bars. “Hey, ugly! Let me out!”
“Stop, for your own good.” She buries herself under the moldy hay.
A metallic clang shoots down the dark corridor, and then that rhythmic rustling sounds again.
“Get down,” Lenetia hisses. “By the Spires, stop courting pain and death.”
“Open this cage!” I yank on the bars. They don’t move.
“I’m trying to help you, girl.” She peers out from her hiding place. “Changelings should stick together. Now come hide with me before he—” Her words end in a horrified squeak.
The creature appears. I back up involuntarily. Even if it’s a dream, it’s a terrifying one.
Fangs bared, it pulls a ring of keys from the side of its tunic.
“Oh no, no, no,” Lenetia whispers from her hiding spot.
The monster says something in that foreign language as he swings the bars open, but he doesn’t come in to get me. Maybe it worked. Maybe I’m on my way out of this nightmare. I just need to wake up.
It hisses again and motions for me to come out, then speaks again in an unintelligible rant.
“Go, girl. He says your master Tyrios has come to free you,” Lenetia’s urgent whispers catch the monster’s attention. “Tyrios is a powerful noble.”
The creature glowers and moves to enter the cell. The stranger squeals, the hay rippling as she scurries back.
“I’m coming.” I step out quickly, cutting the monster off and bringing its attention back to me.
“Too bad we didn’t get to play.” He reaches toward my face with a dirty claw.
“I’d like to wake up now.”
He cocks his head to the side and lets out a rusty laugh. “Wake up?” Slamming the cell door shut, he grabs my arm, his grip cold and unforgiving.
“I’m going to wake up!” I cry as he drags me down the dank hallway toward another barred door. “Wake up, wake up, wake up!” I shake my head hard, but nothing happens. Everything feels too real—the hard stone, the chill in the air, the rough hand holding me too tightly. No, no, no.
The beast shoves me through the door and into what must be a guard room. Two other creatures—one feathered like a bird but with the body of a man and what can only be described as a scorpion with a beautiful woman’s face—play cards in the corner near a small fireplace. They don’t even look up as the creature drags me through the room, down another hall, and finally into a room with high windows that show an impossibly starlit sky.
The snake-like monster throws me at the feet of a tall, blond man with silver eyes and speaks to him in the fae language, though its tone is markedly more respectful than it ever was with me. The man’s face turns cross, and he gestures at the lump on my head as he talks.
I climb to my feet and try to find an exit, an escape. But there are only two doors in this stone hall, the one at my back and the one behind the tall blond man.
After a harsh flurry of words, the blond man takes my arm—not gentle, but not as hard as the beast—and pulls me toward the other door. I resist, yanking back against him. With a move so swift I almost miss the movement, he backhands me across the face.
When I taste blood, I know it’s real. All of it. And it’s not a dream. It’s a nightmare.
A scent lingers in the air, something I can’t quite place. I didn’t smell it before. Only now. Only when I’m walking through the summer palace with my ancestral sword at my side and Gareth at my back.
I turn toward him slightly. “What is that?”
“You don’t scent something?”
He lifts his nose. “Nothing except the usual floral nonsense that coats this realm like a plague.”
I turn back, regaining my stride as we approach the main wing of the castle where the meeting is to take place. It’s not cloying floral. It’s something else, something pleasant. Like a warm fire, but it isn’t a smoky smell.