“I cannot rise unless you say the words or strike the head from my body.” Gareth lowers his dark eyes to the floor.
“What?” My voice takes on an edge of panic. What is he talking about? If things didn’t make sense before, now they were utterly bananas. Me? A queen? I’m a college student with Bs in literature and history and straight As in my science classes, a love of Friends reruns, and a penchant for eating an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s in one go. I’m not a queen. I don’t even feel like an adult half the time. Hell, I can’t even drink legally for another month!
“I’m sorry, my lady, but we are in grave danger here. We must leave for the winter realm. I have sworn to protect you with my life. If you deem me unworthy, and my pledge dishonorable, it is tradition for you to end me. And I would prefer death to living a life of shame.”
“I’m not going to kill you. I just met you, for crying out loud!” I press my palm to my forehead. It’s covered with a fine sheen of cold sweat.
Leander doesn’t intervene, just stares at me with an intensity that seems to grow by the second.
“But I need to go home.” I hate how helpless I sound.
“This is a step toward home.” Gareth still doesn’t rise.
I pinch the bridge of my nose. “So, if I say the words, we can get as far away from Tyrios as possible and find a way for me to go home?”
“Yes, we will be leaving Tyrios behind, and yes, you will be going home.”
I narrow my eyes. “I’m pretty sure your definition of ‘home’ isn’t quite the same as mine.”
“Even so.” He shrugs but doesn’t move from the floor.
“What if the only way back is here somewhere? I mean, I woke up in the dungeon. Maybe that’s the way to get back?” I chew my lip.
“Did you see any way out when you were there?” He still doesn’t look up.
“Well, no.” I search my memory. “There was just stone and bars and some hay. No other way in or out.”
“Then you were likely brought here through magic. It’s not specific to this place. Magic runs through all of Arin.”
“This world. There are many, but this is Arin.”
“Arin. And magic.” I swallow the disbelief that tries to overwhelm me. “So, I can go back with magic?”
He’s silent for a beat too long, then says, “Perhaps. We have certain magic wielders in the winter realm who will know better than I can tell you. My magic is more of a … destructive variety.”
At least it sounds better than going back to the dungeon. “What are the words again?”
“Bladanon thronin.” I repeat the words and even wave my hand a little like the queen of England might.
Gareth’s grin lights up his entire face, his black eyes glinting like jewels. He speaks to Leander, who rises and clasps forearms with him, both of them painted with happiness.
I run my fingers along the stone at my neck. At least I have this tiny piece of familiarity. Something to lead me back home.
Leander eyes the movement, his brows drawing together for a second before he turns back to Gareth. He doesn’t like my opal?
“Yes, my queen?”
I shake my head. “I’m not a queen.”
“Not yet. But soon.”
I grind my teeth together. “Call me Taylor. That’s my name.”
“It’s not customary. But I will do as you wish.”
“Taylor it is.” At least I can control that one little thing. It’s the base. I can build on it until I either wake up from this bizarre dream or fight my way back to reality. “Can I ask you for one thing?”
“Anything, my que—Taylor.”
Leander barks out a question, and Gareth responds. Maybe explaining our conversation in fae. Leander relaxes a hair and re-focuses on me.
“What is it you wish?” Gareth asks.
“There’s a woman in the dungeon. She tried to help me. I can’t just leave her there.”
“Yes. Her name was Lenetia of something-or-other. I can’t remember her master’s name. Is there any way you can free her before we go? She said her master was particularly cruel and she had these—” I gesture toward my arm. “Fang marks all over her. Anyway, she needs help. And she’s a changeling like me.” Changelings stick together, she had said.
He relays my words to Leander, who seems to weigh my request before giving Gareth a curt nod.
Gareth bows his head toward me for a moment. “I will free her.”
“Be careful. There’s a snake monster thing guarding her,” I offer.
Leander stands and motions Gareth toward the door where they converse in low tones for a moment.
After that Gareth leaves in a rush.
“My queen.” Leander takes my hands in his and kisses each of my palms.
“Did Gareth teach you that word?”
He smirks but doesn’t answer.
“Okay, but I’m not really a queen.” It finally occurs to me that when I first saw him, he was wearing a crown. Am I supposed to be his queen? “Whoa.” I pull my hands back. “You and I aren’t a thing. I don’t know you. I don’t even speak your language.” I stand, almost walk toward where the dead fae’s body was, then change course toward the back of the room.
Strong hands on my shoulders stop me, and Leander turns me to face him. I have to crane my neck back just to meet his midnight eyes. He pats his chest again. “Home.” Then he takes my hand and rests it over his heart. “Home, Taylor.”
He’s so gentle with me. But I need him to understand that I don’t belong.
“My home is far away from here. I have to get back. I have finals coming up soon. And my roommate will miss me and …” My words fade as I remember Cecile and the woman who looked just like me. Cecile—she did this, she’s the reason I’m here. “My roommate. She sent me to this world somehow. Her magic. And there’s another me. How is there another me?”
Leander smooths his rough fingers along my wrinkled brow and speaks to me low and soft, his voice like a warm blanket. I have no idea what he’s saying, but it’s clear he wants to comfort me.
“I think my brain is broken.” I sigh.
He wraps his arm around me and pulls me tight.
This is the most contact I’ve had with another person in my life. My mother certainly isn’t a hugger, and I never let anyone else get close to me. I’m too damaged for it. But this man with the pointy ears and muscles of steel doesn’t know that. Doesn’t know me.
“Hey.” I grip his sides. “I don’t know what you think this is, but I’m not your queen. I’m not even sure if this is real.”
He tips my chin up. “Mine.”
“Gareth teach you that one, too?”
The smirk reappears and sends warmth shooting to my every extremity.
“I’m not whatever you think I am, okay?”
“Mine.” He repeats, his low voice vibrating through me.
The door opens, and Leander has me pushed behind him and his sword brandished before I can even look to see who it is.
Gareth hurries in, a large bag slung over his shoulder and another in one hand. He tosses the one from his shoulder onto the bed. It squeaks and moves until Lenetia’s thin face appears.
“This female is descended from the spirits that shriek in the burning woods of Galendoon!”
“If that were true, I’d have burned you to ash already.” She struggles out of the sack.
“She tried to take one of my eyes with her filthy fingernails.” Gareth grumbles and pulls a dress and some other clothing from his bag.
Leander positions himself between Lenetia and me.
“It’s okay.” I pat his back, my hand comically small against his broad expanse. “She’s a friend.”
“Am I?” She looks around. “This oaf pulled me from the dungeon, but they’ll send the Catcher for me, I’ll be recaptured, then fed to my master’s vampire hounds. Thanks for nothing.”
I try to sidestep Leander, but he isn’t having it. I have to talk around him. “We’re leaving this place. You can come with us.”
“No.” Gareth frowns and shakes his head. “No way this guttersnipe is coming with us. She’d knife us in the back as soon as she could.”
“Just you,” she simpers sweetly.
Gareth growls and points to a dress he’s laid on the bed. “For you, Taylor.” He says my name as if it tangles on his tongue.
I try to peek around Leander to catch Lenetia’s eye. “You can come with us.”
Gareth sours. “We shouldn’t—”
“Didn’t you just swear an oath to me?” I don’t recognize the sharpness in my voice, but it pulls Gareth up short, so I go with it. “Well?”
“Yes.” His long sigh is paired with a cutting look at Lenetia, then he has a quick discussion with Leander. When Leander laughs, the low notes rumbling through the room, I lean a little closer.
Gareth says something I can only imagine is a curse in fae and turns to Lenetia. “Behave, female. One wrong step, and it will be your last.”
She sticks her tongue out at him.
“You should change. This will help you fit in enough for us to get off the palace grounds once night falls.” Gareth points at the dress he’s laid out. It’s a pale gray, simple yet nice.
“Thank you.” I grab the dress and peer around the room. “Where can I change?”
“There’s a bathing chamber at the back.” Gareth jerks his head in the direction of a doorway.
I head towards it, then stop. Turning around, I address the hulking man at my heels. “I have to change.”
He gestures to the bathing room and grabs my hand, leading me to it and stepping across the threshold.