Lord Tyrios snorts. “Perhaps that is considered appropriate in the winter realm, but we do not allow high and lesser fae to mingle in such a demeaning fashion.”
Gareth tenses. I remember attending his sister’s wedding to a lesser fae, the groom’s ancestry a mix of fae and water sprite. This conversation is already getting out of hand.
Tyrios continues, “But, then again, Queen Aurentia’s line has long forbidden dirtying the high fae bloodlines with—”
“Dirtying?” Gareth leans forward, his voice a gravelly threat.
“You sit here with your jewels and finery—all of it given to you by your lesser fae slaves in the southern mines or the silk factories of the east—and dare to impugn our king for—”
“Gareth.” I grip his shoulder.
He goes silent and sits back, but I can feel the anger roiling inside him.
Tyrios swallows hard.
“King Gladion is correct.” Queen Aurentia holds my gaze. “Lesser fae are members of our realms and deserve our protection. To that end, I believe winter and summer should work together to find whoever is behind it. I’ve already sent my spies to the affected towns along our western border, but they’ve yet to find any clues. Perhaps if we work together, we’ll have better luck. Lord Tyrios, do you have the letters of cooperation I asked you to draft?”
“Of course, my queen.” He snaps his fingers.
I mask my surprise as I re-take my seat. If she already has letters drawn up, she intended to agree to my request before we even met this evening. Perhaps she is more worried about the disappearances—and the so-called king beyond the mountain—than she’s been letting on?
Tyrios snaps his fingers again, his lips twisting into a glower. “My changeling has been acting odd. She used to belong to my daughter, who went and spoiled her. Now she’s practically useless. So hard to find a decent servant from human stock.”
A lesser fae hurries out of the dining room as the rest offer dessert to the nobles. After a moment, a slight scuffle sounds from an adjacent room before a changeling is pushed through it, a sheaf of papers in her hands.
The world goes silent except for her. All I can hear is her thundering heartbeat. All I can see is the fear in her eyes, the painful marks along her face. Her scent hits me full force, and something inside me unfurls like dark wings. She is mine. I can feel it, an unbreakable tether linking me to her.
I rise to my feet, staring at her as she shuffles forward and hands the papers to Tyrios. Her hair is light brown, and I know it will feel soft under my rough fingers. Though her eyes are downcast, I can tell they are a light blue, like the sky at first light on a snowy morning. Her stained shift covers the rest of her, and the need to rip it away and see her has me practically humming with tension. She doesn’t look up, doesn’t sense her mate—but that doesn’t matter. I’ve sensed her. Her fate is sealed.
“All my papers are wrinkled and covered with your filthy changeling fingerprints.” He snarls and raises his hand to strike her.
I’m across the table with my hand around his throat before he can blink.
The huge man lunges across the table, food and cutlery flying. I stumble backwards as he grabs my master’s throat. His dark eyes pin me to the spot as the soldiers stationed around the room rush forward. I drop the papers and try to back away, only to bump into one of the guards, several of them forming a wall behind me.
The gigantic man with the crown and the black hair snarls at them, and my master lets out a quaking whimper. The guards advance, their swords all around me, as if I’m not even standing here. They’d cut right through me without a thought. The crowned man points at me, the fierceness in his eyes like a knife through my heart.
Oh god, he is going to kill me. I can’t breathe.
My knees weaken, and under the harshness of the ferocious man’s stare, my bladder lets go. I’m going to die here. And I don’t even know where here is.
Another dark-haired man stands and yells something, blades in his hands as he stands in a defensive posture. The guards continue advancing.
The beautiful woman at the head of the table says something in a tone that seems to slice through the air. Everyone stops. Everyone except the man with the death grip on my master’s throat.
She addresses him directly, and he responds, his voice low and gruff in that odd tongue.
Her white eyebrows rise, and she flicks her gaze to me, catching me like a deer in headlights.
Footsteps echo inside my mind, and a voice whispers like a tickle against my skull. “Strange changeling.” It’s the woman’s voice. “I suspect there’s more to you than I can presently see.”
“Let me go.” I think, wondering if she can hear it. “I don’t belong here. I want to go back.”
“I’m afraid there’s no going back.” She flicks her gaze to the deadly warrior who even now stares at me. “Not now. Not ever.” Her presence fades, and I blink, unsure if I’m losing my mind.
She flicks a hand at the black-haired man and speaks in the strange tongue. Finally, he releases my master, who stands and backs away sputtering. I take some joy in seeing him afraid, but it’s short-lived. The black-haired man advances on me with his hand out, as if to grab me.
I scream and try to escape, but the men at my back don’t move. I’m trapped.
The black-haired man speaks to me, his voice still dark and gravelly but somehow coaxing, as if he’s speaking to a skittish kitten. I shake my head as he slowly comes closer, his hand still out.
“Don’t.” My eyes well and I wrap my arms around myself. “Please.”
He keeps talking and advancing.
I want to scream again, to run. But there’s no use. The fae at the table just watch, some of them with their mouths hanging open. The other black-haired man has stowed his blades, but he observes warily.
“Let me go.” I tremble and blink the tears away. Sending an imploring look to the beautiful woman who spoke in my mind, I find her whispering with another fae and paying no attention to me.
The black-haired man reaches me. I fold in on myself, my head down, my heart floundering. I’m going to be punished, killed, or worse. My master is a nightmare, but this man is an enormous brute. I can’t catch my breath, my chest heaving.
I scream when he touches me, his large palm grasping my upper arm.
He pulls me toward him.
I fight his grip, but he’s a wall of steel.
“No!” I can’t breathe.
He pulls me against him, his arms like iron bars across my back. I can’t escape. There’s no air, no light. My vision goes black, and I fall. The last thing I sense is his strong arms scooping me up.
Low voices rouse me. Cecile must have brought home her newest boytoy last night. Odd for him to still be here in the morning, though. They usually get the boot as soon as she’s done riding them. I stretch and bury my face in my pillow. It smells heavenly, like leather and wood smoke and some sort of tall tree with snow on the boughs.
The voices have stopped. I reach up and touch my forehead. A spot there aches. I freeze and remember, the last twenty-four hours crashing down on me like a tidal wave. A strangled sound sticks in my throat as I roll over and sit up. My scratchy shift is gone, and I’m draped in some sort of fur despite the warmth. It slides off to reveal a simple black tunic that swallows me. Somehow, I’m clean, even though I distinctly remember peeing all over myself when I was certain I was about to die. I’m in a huge bed with a canopy of white gauzy material overhead.
My head pounds, and I’m parched as I peer around the room. I yelp when I find the brute from earlier staring at me from only a few paces away. The other dark-haired man says a few words to him before leaving, the heavy wood door clicking shut behind him as I’m left alone with the terrifying brute.
I yank the fur up to my chin and backpedal until I hit the headboard. “Leave me alone.” My voice shakes, and I’m weak, but I’ll fight till my last breath.
He holds his hands out, palms toward me and eases to the edge of the bed. “Taylor.” He says my name almost reverently in his heavy accent.
I clutch the dark fur so hard my fingers ache. “Please, just let me go.”
He presses one hand to his chest. “Leander.”
“Your name’s Leander?”
When I say it, he closes his eyes as if he’s heard something unimaginably beautiful. He nods. In the soft light that filters through the high windows, he looks out of place here. He’s a dark slash on the white stone of the walls and the pastel décor. His black hair falls to his shoulders, and he wears a gray shirt and black leathery pants. His skin is tan, and his eyes aren’t just dark, they’re like onyx. With an angular face, sharp nose, and hulking body, he’s easily the most striking man I’ve ever seen. But, he’s not a man. The ears pointing out of his hair attest to that.
“I want to go home.” My eyes water. “Please.”
He speaks in the foreign language I can’t follow.
I shake my head. “I don’t understand you.”
He stops, his dark brows drawing together. “Changeling language?” he asks, the words so heavily accented I almost can’t catch them.
“Yes. I don’t speak fae.”
“Taylor.” He says my name with a rolling r, something like a purr. It’s almost … soothing. But then he puts a knee on the bed.
I open my mouth to scream, and he backs off, his hands out in front of him again.
“Just let me go home.” I sniffle.
His eyes soften, and he presses his palm to his chest. “Home.”
He must not understand what I’m saying. I glance toward the door. Maybe I could escape? But even if I did, where would I go? I don’t know how to get home.
A low growl sends goosebumps shooting up my arms, and I yank my gaze back to him.
He pats his chest again. “Home.”
“Sure, fine, whatever.” I shrug. He clearly doesn’t know what he’s saying.