Whatever it is, I have to get it out of my mind. This conclave could very well determine the future of the realms. My peace with the summer fae is contingent on mutual respect of borders and customs. If I were to discover that they were responsible for the rash of disappearances or in league with those who were, it would be war all over again. A return to the days of the necromancer Shathinor, the brutal former ruler of the winter realm who killed every summer fae he could get his hands on.
So, in the name of peace, I continue down the corridors with walls of ivy and night-blooming jasmine, fairy lights twinkling overhead. The guards we pass tilt their heads in recognition, but their eyes remain wary. After all, summer and winter were enemies not that long ago.
“My lord.” The courtier from earlier greets us as we enter the main hall. It’s already filled with the clatter of summer realm nobles, many of them turning to stare as I march in. I smirk. The winter realm fae don’t douse themselves in jewels and overdone finery like these peacocks. I wear the customary black tunic and pants, my silver crown atop my head and my sword at my side. An array of knives are concealed all over my person, and Gareth is practically a walking armory. At home, we would have fewer weapons but more clothes—furs from our kills or soft leather draped over us as we talk around a roaring fire. But here, where the weather is oppressively pleasant at all times, we have to adjust. Even so, we stick out. Our dark eyes, black hair, and large size all reveal us as males from the winter realm. More than that, our weapons and battle-hardened features mark us as warriors, not the pampered courtiers that surround us as we pass.
“The queen will be with us shortly. Dinner will be served during the conclave.” The courtier, Pilantin is his name, practically prances ahead of us as the socializing nobles give me deferential nods. It isn’t lost on me that many of them whisper amongst themselves or cut their eyes at me. In the summer realm, the rulers are all chosen via a bloodline that goes back for millennia. They believe that makes them above reproach—and also immune to rebellion. The winter realm is ruled by might alone. Any high fae with the strength to take the throne can have it. One-on-one combat is the only way, and it’s how I became king. I haven’t been challenged yet, but I look forward to a day when a fae seeks to prove their mettle against me.
We pass out of view of the gawking nobles and into an ornate dining room. The table is decorated with bejeweled centerpieces and golden plates. The chandeliers overhead sparkle from a million facets, and I have no doubt they are made from precious diamonds.
“I see they’ve set out the good dishes for us.” Gareth snorts and swaggers along behind me.
“Only the best for our guests.” Pilantin misses the sarcasm and beams at me. “I hope it’s to your liking.”
“It’s fine.” That scent wafts past my nose again, and I take a sampling breath. Perhaps it is one of the foods to be served? Whatever it is makes my blood pump faster and the tips of my pointed ears tingle. It also makes something stir below my belt, an odd reaction to nothing more than a scent. I pause and try to place that sweet aroma.
“What?” Gareth tenses, his voice lowering. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” I can’t discern where it’s coming from.
“My lord.” A servant pulls a golden chair out for me near the head of the table.
I try not to glare at him. Do the summer realm prisses really need a servant just to help them take a seat? I sit, the chair groaning beneath my weight. Everything here is delicate and fine, crafted for the high fae that have never known the bite of winter or the ache of hunger. They pretend they are more civilized because of it, but their darkness is simply hidden beneath a thin layer of gold. Gilded, not pure.
A handful of nobles have followed us into the dining room and take seats farther down the table.
Gareth sits to my left, his gaze always scanning the room, looking for trouble. “I thought this was just supposed to be between us, the queen, and a few of her trusted advisors,” he grumbles.
“I suppose this is what ‘a few’ means in the summer realm.” I have a small inner circle of trusted warriors—the Phalanx as they are known in my realm. But it seems Queen Aurentia has about two-dozen nobles she trusts to overhear this high-level discussion.
Once the table is full except for the sparkling seat at the head, Pilantin claps his hands. “The queen would like us to start without her, but she will be here shortly.”
The side doors open, and Gareth’s hand goes to the blade in his belt.
“Easy.” I force my face into what I hope is a neutral expression.
Servers enter the room, each of them carrying wide platters full of meat and vegetables. The summer realm wants for nothing, their existence easy.
Gareth drops his hand but keeps an eye on each servant that comes near me. Most are lesser fae though a smattering of changelings hurry around, struggling to keep up.
The mysterious scent is stronger now. I peer around the table, catching the gazes of the few nobles who have the fortitude to meet my eye. Nothing strikes me, and I can’t exactly walk around the table and sniff out each of them.
“What?” Gareth is drawn tight amongst all these former enemies.
“Why do you keep going still?” He stabs a piece of meat and stuffs it in his mouth unceremoniously. “It’s making me jumpy.”
I grunt in response and try the root vegetables.
The rest of the table begins to eat once I’ve taken my first bite. They were waiting on me. Summer realm manners are stiffer than my cock, which is saying something, because it is acting up at the moment. Glad I’m sitting down. I don’t know how I know, but that strange scent is causing it. Has to be. Is this some sort of sorcery?
I continue eating, mainly to keep Gareth from accidentally stabbing one of the summer realm nobles. They whisper amongst themselves, shooting me glances in between their gossip.
“My lord, how do you find the summer castle?” one noble, his nose almost as pointy as his ears and his hair long and white, asks.
Stuffy, hot, and overdone. I don’t offer my most honest assessment. Instead, I say, “Adequate for my purposes.”
His silver eyes narrow. “Your purposes?”
“I’m here to meet with the queen and discuss the troubles along our borders.” I wave my steak knife at the golden walls and diamond chandeliers. “This room will do just fine.”
Conversation stops for an awkward moment—awkward for them, anyway. I have no inclination to flatter them or crow about their lavish tastes. I’m here to stop the abductions of my people and strengthen the tie between myself and Queen Aurentia.
The meal continues, the sweet scent bothering me the entire time, until Queen Aurentia finally deigns to make her appearance. We all stand as she enters, her gown of sky blue cinched tight around her small waist, and her silver eyes wide and seemingly guileless. But her beauty hides a cunning that cannot be underestimated.
Guards trail behind her and take up positions around the room, some of them watching me with open menace.
She stops at my chair and offers her hand. I take it and kiss the back, her skin cold and pale. Gareth doesn’t make a sound, but I can sense his laughter as if he were guffawing loudly at the summer realm’s etiquette.
“Thank you for coming this evening.” She pulls her long fingers back.
“Of course.” I’ve been pressing for this meeting for years, ever since the first sign of trouble. She’s put me off, though. Probably unworried about winter realm disappearances. But now some of her people are missing as well.
She glides to her seat and settles, the rest of the table following suit. “Where is Lord Tyrios?” She asks no one in particular and glances to the empty seat at her right hand.
“He had some business in the dungeon. Runaway changeling, apparently. Nasty business. But he will be—”
The doors at the end of the room open and a high fae strides in, his gait unhurried despite his lateness.
“Speak and he appears.” The queen smiles.
“My deepest apologies.” He bows to her before taking his seat. “Changeling trouble.”
“They can be so difficult.” She tsks and motions for everyone to continue their meal.
She says a few more things to Tyrios, but I’m not listening. The scent. He’s covered in it. I stare at him, trying to place it, trying to figure out what it is and why it’s sending my mind into a tumult of confusion.
He catches my gaze, and a hint of fear passes across his face. I suppose it’s not every day that a winter realm warlord examines you with such focus.
“Shall we get down to business?” The queen waves away her plate. “I have no appetite for anything other than a solution to this pressing problem of disappearing summer fae.” She nods toward me. “And winter fae, as well, of course.”
“The disappearances began in the winter realm, did they not?” A noble toward the end of the table pipes up.
“They did.” I push back from the table and stand. “We have been working to solve the situation for nearly a decade.”
“And you have no leads?” Tyrios arches a white brow.
“No. I’ve sent my most trusted soldiers to the border areas where the lesser fae are going missing. No one knows anything. The only thread we’ve found that runs through each disappearance is a certain melancholy feeling settling on the missing fae within the months prior.”
“But this only affects lesser fae.” A female in a ruby gown tips her nose into the air.
One of the servants—a lesser fae—pauses, his eyes widening, then continues with his duties. Surely he’s accustomed to these preening dandies not giving a damn about him?
“If it only affects others, what cause do we have to worry?” she asks.
I force myself to keep my composure, even though her words rake across my skull like icy fingers. “Lesser fae are members of our realms. They have families, businesses, entire communities. More than that, they are a part of our world. We can’t turn our backs on them. High and lesser fae live and work together. Before the curse, some high and lesser fae were mated in the winter realm—”