His dark brows pull together again, but he seems to accept my response. Turning, he strides to a table near one of the high windows and returns to the bed with a tray of food. I don’t recognize the fruit—the strange purple and red berries glisten faintly. But I know bread when I see it. And butter.
My stomach rumbles. I haven’t eaten since … I can’t remember. Not since I’ve been in this place, at least.
A smile quirks up one side of his lips, and the goosebumps spread down my back. He’s handsome in a brutish, alien sort of way. But definitely more scary than anything else. Those dark eyes hide traps and barbs, I’m certain of it.
He edges closer and rests the tray next to me.
My stomach growls again, and I can’t take my eyes off the food. But should I eat it?
With a nudge, he pushes the tray even closer. I can smell the sweetness of the fruit and the doughy bread. Food is food, right? But what if it’s poisoned?
He says something, one word. Maybe it’s ‘eat’, since he gestures toward the tray with one of his bear paws.
My stomach makes the decision for me as it complains loudly and a hunger pang shoots through me. I reach for the bread and take a small piece, then put it in my mouth, testing it. Sweeter than the breads I’m used to, it melts on my tongue.
He nods, his dark eyes glinting, and he says the word again. It sounds like “brantath” to me. I form the word as best I can and repeat it back to him. His face lightens, and he tears another piece of bread from the round loaf and gives it to me.
I take it, swallowing it just as fast as the first. “So brantath means eat.” My stomach seems to rumble even more. “Or maybe it means bread?”
When he sits on the bed, I yank the fur up and pull my knees to my chest. The entire mattress shifts under his weight as he leans over and butters a bigger piece of bread and offers it to me.
“Brantath.” He leans closer. The scent from the fur and the shirt I’m wearing is the same one that wafts from him. It’s the promise of a cold winter’s night spent next to a roaring fire.
I take the bread, my fingers gently brushing against his. A low growl in his throat has me pulling back. It stops, but he gives me a predatory look, one that frightens me and sends heat blasting through me at the same time. Something’s wrong with me, but I’m too happy about the food to care.
I devour the bread, the butter creamy and delicious. He rises, the bed groaning with relief as he grabs a pitcher and pours water into a crystal cup, then hands it to me. I sniff it. No smell. But it’s not like I’m an expert poison sniffer or anything. I drink, mainly because I’m parched and don’t know when I’ll get my next chance at food or water.
He watches me swallow it down, then holds his hand out for the empty glass. When I reach out to give it to him, he stills, his eyes narrowing. Ferocious. That’s the only word for the look on his face. I clutch the fur and scoot away from him.
With fluid fury he reaches to the table behind him and draws an enormous silver sword.
A choked sound catches in my throat as he raises it. I’m going to die.
“Please, don’t.” It’s the only words I can get out as he lunges toward me.
Dashing across the bed, I put myself between my mate and the threat. The faint shadow darts to the left as I swing hard enough to cut down any foe, but it’s too fast.
My mate whimpers, and her fear makes rage bubble through my veins. I will slay anything that dares to hurt her.
The shadow oozes along the wall toward the window. Not a chance. I rear back and thrust the blade into the seemingly empty space near the windowsill. A low grunt sounds, and the intruder’s glamour fades as he slumps to the floor, his blade clattering on the stones.
Taylor gasps as the male comes into view, one hand gripping the wound in his stomach as he stares up at me with reptilian eyes.
“Let me guess, the king beyond the mountain sent you?” I note the twisted tree brand on the lesser fae’s throat.
“He will rule.” His eyes flicker to Taylor, and he tastes the air with his tongue. “The prophecy is already coming true.”
“What prophecy?” I press the tip of my sword to the mark on his throat.
Blood oozes between his scaled fingers. “You will burn, false king.”
“Not today.” I raise my sword.
His eyes return to my mate. “He is waiting.” The words are a threat.
Fury pulses through me, and a phantom wind rustles the curtains. “Don’t look at her.”
“Waiting.” He gurgles blood, his slitted eyes never blinking.
I should keep him for questioning, turn him over to Gareth so we can both go to work on him. But the way he’s looking at Taylor … I can’t let him live another second. With a hard swing, I separate his head from his neck.
Her scream cuts through the heart of me, ripping and tearing like a flaming blade. I rush to her and pull her into my arms. She struggles against me, her hands in fists as she tries to beat my chest with ineffectual blows. It would be adorable if I didn’t know she was terrified.
“Calm down, little one.” I keep my back to the blood spreading across the white stone floor. She doesn’t need to see it.
She eventually stops struggling. But she starts crying, her tears like iron nails in my head.
I sit on the edge of the bed and rock her in my arms. Her sobs wrack her body, and she says something in the changeling language I can’t understand.
“I will protect you with my life.” I kiss the crown of her head, her light brown hair beautiful in the too-bright sun. “Nothing will harm you as long as I walk this world, and I will take my love for you to the glowing lands of the ancestors if my time is cut short. I will wait for you there. Just as I have waited for you here.”
She sniffles, her tears wetting my tunic and says something. I can only figure out a few words: “language” and “beautiful.”
I have so many questions for her. Chief among them is why she doesn’t speak the fae language. As a changeling slave—my ire rises at the thought of my mate being enslaved, but I push it down—she should speak perfect fae. It’s required in the summer realm.
These summer realm fae with all their finery and manners can’t hide the brutality with which they treat their servants. The bruises on Taylor’s forehead and the cut on her lip are my next questions. I want to flay the one who harmed her, no matter if it means war with the summer court.
She pulls back and looks me in the eye—her strange blue ones just as fascinating as when I first saw her. Changelings are rare in the winter realm. They often can’t survive the brutal landscape. But even though I’ve seen plenty of changelings over my centuries, I’ve never seen one with such sparkling blue eyes.
When she wriggles in my lap a bit more, her ass grazes my erection, and she makes a small squeak noise and tries to scramble off me.
“No, my mate.” I hold her in place. “I will not take you until you are ready, but you must know what you do to me.” I graze her little rounded ear. “And I can scent that it isn’t entirely unwelcome.” I’ve wanted to bury my face between her thighs for every second I’ve had her alone—and some when I haven’t. Her scent heightens like the color in her cheeks, and I know if I reached between her creamy thighs, I’d find her wet for me. My cock pulses at the thought.
She wriggles again. If I don’t let her go, she’ll push me over the edge. The need to claim her as mine builds with each moment I spend in her presence. She is a gift. The first mate the ancestors have granted since the defeat of the old king. And she’s mine.
I nuzzle against her ear a bit more and enjoy the slight shiver that runs through her body. Not fear. Her scent tells me that little tremor came from desire. But she’s also unsure about me. She doesn’t feel the bond. Not yet. Perhaps because she is a changeling.
She leans away and shakes her head. “Leander.”
My name on her lips is an answered prayer. “Say it again.”
She cocks her head to the side, one eyebrow slightly arched.
“Leander. Say it again.” I gesture toward her.
“Yes.” I stroke her hair.
She swats my hand away, and I let her stand. I’ve placed a cloaking spell over the assassin’s body, but she seems to have forgotten about him. Instead, she keeps glancing at me and twisting her tiny hands together. My mate is small, fragile. I will feed her the richest meats and fruits until she is hardy enough for the winter realm. Not that I will ever let her feel the bite of the snow on her fair skin or the cut of the mountain wind against her. She is far too precious.
Noise in the hallway has me standing and pulling her behind my back.
“You will let me pass!” The haughty voice belongs to Lord Tyrios.
“Not happening.” Gareth’s tone is lethal. He’s had enough of the summer realm. I don’t blame him. In all of Arin, it’s my least favorite.
Small hands grip the back of my shirt. I turn to look at Taylor, and she’s pale, her body quaking. I hate the scent of her fear. Her gaze is fixed on the door as Lord Tyrios demands entry and is again denied.
She starts shaking her head, hurried words falling from her lips. Her eyes are turned up to mine, beseeching me as her tears well.
“Taylor is my servant. You can’t keep her from me!” Tyrios complains.
I stroke my thumb across her soft cheek, wiping away a tear. “He will never touch you again, little one. You are mine. You are safe.” I wrack my brain until I find the changeling word. “Safe,” I take her hand and press it to my chest. “Safe.”
Tears still sparkle in her beautiful eyes, but she gives me the slightest nod. It’s all I need.
I pull her behind me and open the door. “She is mine.”
Tyrios holds up an aged piece of parchment. “This document shows my ownership. She is mine. I inherited her from my former wife.” He shakes the paper, as if it will matter. “Use her for your needs. But return her to me when you’re finished with her.”