His implication sends shards of ice floating through my veins. Is this how they “use” their changelings in the summer realm?
Gareth’s hand rests on the hilt of his sword. He’d like nothing better than to hew this fool in half. I’m inclined to agree with him, but killing this idiot would destroy any chance we have at enlisting the queen’s help to solve the disappearances. Sometimes, like now, I wish I could go back to the simplicity of open warfare with the summer realm. No diplomatic niceties, just simple bloodshed. But those are the thoughts of a soldier, not a king.
“She is no longer yours.” I cross my arms over my chest and glare down at him. “She belongs to me. Leave here now or your blood will paint these stones.” I gesture to the pale floor.
He sputters and backs up a step. “You can’t threaten me! I’m a noble of the summer realm. Your kind doesn’t belong here. The queen should have never granted you entry into these lands. Unseelie fae are cursed—”
Gareth’s movement is faster than a Red Plains adder. He has the screeching Tyrios by the throat. “You dare speak that word? And in the presence of my king?”
“I speak only the truth.” He pushes the words past Gareth’s palm. “Filthy dark fae. Unseelie.” He spits the forbidden word, the one that used to brand winter realm fae with a black mark that went soul-deep. The distinction of Seelie and Unseelie has long since been abandoned. Good and bad reside in both the fairer fae of the summer rains and the darker fae of the winter winds. Even so, Unseelie eventually became an insult that still stings those from the winter realm.
“Know this, Tyrios.” I step toward him until I can see the beads of sweat on his pale brow. “Taylor is under my protection. You will never lay claim to her again.”
Taylor’s small hands clutch the back of my shirt again, her tremble telegraphing through me. She has nothing to fear, and certainly not from the imbecile before me.
“The queen will hear about this. You have no right to that changeling. I will take this to the high court and have her returned to me before the day is out. And when the queen hears you’ve threatened me, she’ll—”
“Please escort Lord Tyrios to the main hall.” I give him a smile that’s colder than the tip of Sun’s Bane Peak. “If I find you in this wing of the castle again, you will regret it.”
Gareth drags the squawking noble away as I turn to Taylor and hoist her into my arms. Her gaze sticks to the retreating back of Tyrios, worry in her eyes.
“You have nothing to fear from him.” I sit on the bed and keep her in my lap. “He’s nothing. Just the ash from a long-dead fire, gray and cold.”
Her chin trembles as she looks at me, and she says something I can’t understand. But she seems relieved.
She calms slowly, the pinched look on her face almost gone until Gareth storms back through the door.
When she tenses, I press her close to me. I can’t seem to stop touching her.
“Tyrios intends to get her back.” Gareth walks to the dead assassin, though I’d forgotten all about him. “Another?”
“He will be sorely disappointed.” I growl and stroke my hand down Taylor’s back. “And yes, another.”
“Get any information from him?” Gareth hunches to his knees and inspects the brand on the fae’s neck.
“He threatened to harm my mate.” I shrug.
“So that’s a no.” Gareth nods and rises again. “It’s not safe here. The summer realm allows all manner of interlopers to infiltrate their stronghold.” He scratches his chin. “I’m beginning to suspect they want the assassins to get to you.”
“Why would the queen want me dead? I’m the only thing preventing another war between the realms.”
“Who knows.” He shakes his head. “But one thing is certain, we have to leave. Now. Lord Tyrios isn’t letting her go. I have enough understanding of their laws to know that his claim on her—if confirmed by that document he held—is absolute. He can—”
“I will never give her up.” The mating bond wraps around my heart like an iron thread, each heartbeat drawing it tighter.
“Of course not.” Gareth glances at her.
Even though I trust him with my life, I have the impulse to hide her, to keep her all to myself and away from any other males.
“I would sooner swear fealty to the summer realm than let the first winter realm mate in a century slip through our fingers. And your mate, at that.” His lips quirk into a smile. “You’ve always been a lucky bastard.”
Taylor points at the door and says something, the last word turning up in question.
Gareth responds in the changeling language. He speaks it far better than I do. I try to tamp down my jealousy that he’s able to converse with her while I can’t. It isn’t easy. I’m desperate for any word from her lips.
When they finish talking, I raise my eyebrows at him.
“She wants to know where she is.” His forehead wrinkles as he looks at her with open curiosity. “She says she’s not from here. She’s from the changeling world and just got here today.”
“That’s not possible.” I shake my head. “Exchanges aren’t allowed when changelings are this old.” The fae have few universal tenets, but that is one of them. No fae can be exchanged for a human once the human reaches maturity. Too many questions would arise, and it would violate the ages-old treaty with the humans.
“I know. She said she woke up in the prison—”
“My mate in a prison?” My fangs lengthen, but I’m careful to close my mouth. If she truly is new to the fae world, she must be terrified. Fangs won’t help. They retract slowly.
“She met another changeling there who helped her get her bearings. But otherwise, she has no idea what’s going on.”
I swallow hard, my mouth suddenly dry. “Does she know I’m her mate?”
Gareth darts his gaze away from mine. “She didn’t say.”
I force myself to stay calm, to ignore the sting. She may not know it yet, but she will when I claim her. “Who hit her?” I smooth my palm along her hairline where a dark bruise has risen.
Gareth asks her in her language.
She presses her fingers to her forehead and speaks to him, then touches her lip.
Gareth’s face turns into a glower. “She hit her head by accident. But Tyrios split her lip.”
Tyrios. And I’d just let him get away. I’ll have his head for daring to harm my mate.
She whimpers. I realize my grip has tightened too much.
“I’m sorry little one.” I press my lips to her forehead. Just that bit of contact sends a buzz through me that ends in my cock. The need to take her makes me dizzy.
“Two choices. Stay here and fight Tyrios, which would endanger the agreement with the queen. Or take your mate and flee. That option may leave a sour taste in the queen’s mouth, but at least you won’t have spilled one of her noble’s blood.”
“Tyrios will die by my hand.” My words are a promise, one that will never be broken.
“I have no problem with that. But now is not the time.” Gareth jerks his chin toward Taylor. “Getting her safely to the winter realm is the most important thing.” His eyes light, as if hope set off a spark inside them. “A royal mate. Do you know what this could mean for the winter realm? For our future? Maybe this is the end of the curse for all of us.”
I wasn’t the only one who had wished for his mate during the dark years of the war and the ones that came after. Gareth is right. Tyrios can wait. I will strike, but it doesn’t have to be now. My need to protect Taylor overwhelms even my desire for vengeance.
I peer at her—at my future—and almost burst with pride. She is mine, and I would lay down my life to keep her safe. Once we are surrounded by snow and ice, wind and cold—the chilled heart of the winter realm—I will breathe easier. “We leave at nightfall.”
Being cradled in the arms of the huge warrior should be terrifying. Instead, I’m oddly comforted. His scent of crisp winter wind and warm fires calms the worry that eats away at me. But I’m still on edge and trying to figure out how to get back to where I belong.
This strange place doesn’t make sense to me—not the people, the weather, or the language. At least the other massive brute speaks English, though he hasn’t given me much comfort.
“We’re leaving tonight,” the other one—Gareth is his name—says.
“Leaving? But how can I get back if we leave?” I shake my head. “I can’t go. What if the only way back is here somewhere?”
Gareth ignores my questions and kneels in front of me.
Leander’s grip tightens for a second, then relaxes.
Gareth holds my gaze and speaks in the fae tongue, his tone lilting, the words almost a song as he stares up at me. When the near-song comes to a close, he lays his sword on the floor in front of Leander and me.
“What’s going on?” I’m almost at eye level with the scarred fae, though he doesn’t scare me. His eyes are warm, far warmer than Tyrios’s or even the royal-looking woman’s who could speak to me without saying a word.
“I have sworn my allegiance to you as my future queen.”
“As your what?” I shake my head and push away from Leander’s arms. He doesn’t let me go far.
“More will become clear in time.” Gareth bows his head. “It’s customary for the queen of the winter realm to respond to the Winter’s Oath with the phrase ‘bladanon thronin.’ It means ‘your pledge is honored’ roughly.”
“I’m not your queen. I don’t belong to Tyrios or anyone else. I don’t belong here. I just want to go home.” I finally manage to scoot away from Leander’s grip, though I realize it’s only because he allows it. He’s twice my size and made of pure muscle.