“Alone,” I say pointedly.
He cocks his head to the side as if he doesn’t understand, but this time I’m almost certain he knows what I’m saying.
“Alone.” I point to myself and then the bathing room, then hold one finger up. “Just me. Not you.”
He crosses his arms over his chest, his thick biceps straining against his shirt, and says something in fae.
“I’m not changing in front of you.” I mimic his stance, arms crossed. “I can wait all day. But I was under the impression we were in a hurry.”
Lenetia snorts and speaks to him in fae.
He responds with a glower and a few words.
She shrugs and gives me a half smile. “He won’t leave you alone.”
“I’ve noticed. Tell him I’m just going to change and then I’ll be right back out. Between you and me, I need to pee, too.” I glance at him, the glower still pulling at his lips. “Tell him I need privacy.”
“Alpha fae like him don’t understand privacy. Especially not when it comes to their mate.”
“How do you know they’re mates?” Gareth rests his hand on the sword at his waist.
“Calm down.” She leans over on her elbow, the picture of relaxation. “Anyone can see it. Just look at him. He’s like a vampire hound on a scent. Can’t take his eyes from her.”
“That information is not to be tossed about, especially not while we’re in enemy territory. If anyone learns that the king of the winter realm has found his mate—”
“Mate?” I nibble my lip. “Why do you keep calling me that?”
“You two are bonded.” She puts a grubby fingernail between her teeth. “Or, you will be. You obviously don’t feel the bond yet.”
“What?” I can’t even begin to put all my questions into words.
Gareth gives an exasperated huff and speaks to Leander.
“Grumpy Fae here is explaining that you want privacy.” She cocks her shoulder toward Gareth.
After a litany of words, Leander steps away from the door, but not far. He leaves just enough room for me to shimmy past and gives me a look that seems both angry and concerned at the same time.
“This may be the last time you get to do anything without King Muscles over here,” Lenetia calls. “So enjoy it.”
I press the door closed and lean against it. Mate? As in the way animals pick a mate? Does that mean he expects to … have sex with me? I bounce my head against the door. Surely not. We aren’t even the same species. We don’t know each other. That’s ridiculous. But when I remember the way he holds me, the heat in some of his looks—I press my thighs together and try to banish those thoughts.
A low growl pulses through the door.
“Whatever you’re thinking about in there, stop.” Lenetia’s laugh floats through the wood. “He can smell your—” She clears her throat. “He can smell if you’re thinking about him, let’s put it that way.”
He can smell my—I glance down and then turn every shade of red.
“Quickly, Taylor. Night will be here soon,” Gareth calls.
“Okay.” I push away any thoughts of mates or what Leander can smell. “Jeez,” I whisper to myself. With a tug, I pull the shirt off and lay it on the edge of a deep copper tub. The dress slides down my arms and into place. It falls to my ankles and hugs my breasts and hips. But it’s made of a thicker material, so I don’t feel too exposed. Bright daylight pours through an open window over the tub. The scent of flowers, so thick it’s almost cloying, floats on a warm breeze.
I glance at myself in a floor-length mirror. Everything looks fine, I suppose, though my forehead still has an ugly bruise and my lip is puffy. I’m about to step back toward the door when a movement in the mirror catches my eye.
Before I can scream, Tyrios’s hand claps over my mouth.
I can feel her distress before I hear the sounds of a scuffle. With a roar, I burst through the bathing room door.
Tyrios has my mate by the throat, a dagger in his other hand. The terrified look in her eyes will haunt me until I take my last breath.
“She belongs to my family, to me!”
Gareth is at my back, sword drawn. But I don’t need him. I already know how this is going to go.
“I won’t tell you again.” I step closer, but when Tyrios raises his dagger to her side, I stop.
“I can kill her here and now. It is my right,” he snarls. “This changeling is garbage, but she is my garbage.”
“She is my mate. The queen of the winter realm.”
He sputters, his silver eyes widening. “A changeling mate?” His surprise changes to amusement. “Typical that winter realm filth like you would find his mate in a human, baser even than the lowest fae.”
“Release her now, and I will make your death quick.” I palm my silver blade, the metal smooth against my skin.
“Your mate is my slave.” He grins. “You can’t have her. I won’t allow her to be taken by some Unseelie pretender who plays at being king when—” The surprised look in his eyes is almost as sudden as the gargling noise in his throat.
I pull Taylor from him and push her behind me. Gareth whisks her away as I approach Tyrios and slide my throwing blade from his neck.
“I was going to leave you here, unmolested.” I knock the knife from his palm as he sinks to the floor. I follow him down, not letting him escape my gaze. “You would’ve had more time, months, maybe even years, before I traveled back to Byrn Varyndr to end you for touching her.”
He presses a hand to the wound, but the blood is pouring too swiftly.
I pry his fingers away, crimson coating my skin, and lean even closer as the silver begins to darken in his eyes. “I’m glad you came.” I laugh, the sound echoing through the bathing chamber and carrying with it the bite of the winter wind. “Your corpse will be a warning to any who seek to harm my mate.”
His mouth moves, trying to form words, but only a wet whisper escapes.
“This will not bode well for our alliance.” Gareth lurks in the doorway.
“No, it won’t.”
“Shall I finish him, my lord?” Gareth asks.
“No.” I sit back on my haunches. “I offered him a quick death. He refused.” I want to sit here and watch his eyes turn a dead gray, but my need to comfort Taylor transcends my ire.
“Watch him. When he’s dead, we leave.” I stand and brush past Gareth.
Taylor is huddled on the bed, the other female petting her hair and speaking to her in the changeling language. When I see tears in her eyes, it spurs me onward. I rush to her and elbow the tiny changeling away.
“I am sorry.” I pull her to my chest, and she lets out a sob. “I swore to keep you safe. I will forever live with the stain of failing you like this.” I kiss her forehead and rock her. “Tell her,” I urge the other changeling.
She wrinkles her nose but translates my words.
Taylor mumbles something back to her.
“She says it’s not your fault.”
She’s wrong, but I don’t argue, just hold her tight as she shivers. When I think of Tyrios putting his hands on her, I want to kill him all over again.
Gareth strides from the bathing room. “He’s gone to the ancestors, or more likely, straight to the Spires.”
“Good.” I rub Taylor’s back as her crying lessens.
“Killing Tyrios.” The changeling woman winces. “That’s not going to go over well with the queen.”
“We don’t intend to address it.” Gareth grabs the few things in the room that belong to us and stuffs them in his pack.
Taylor wipes her eyes and leans back. “Thank you.”
I know what those words mean, at least. “Welcome,” I say as best I can.
She nods and takes a deep breath.
“Are you ready to go, my little one?” I tip her chin up and meet those startling blue eyes.
The changeling translates.
Taylor nods again. “Ready.”
My need to claim her thrums in my veins. When I caught her scent earlier, I was only a hairsbreadth away from breaking down the bathing room door and answering the mating call. Perhaps her mind hasn’t awoken to the fact of our bond yet, but her body has. Even now, I can scent what remains of her arousal, and it makes my mouth water. One little taste couldn’t hurt. Take her. She belongs to you. She will thank you after you sink inside her and seal the bond. Take her now. I shake my head. Those are the thoughts of a feral fae, of the beast that hides deep inside the heart of every timeless creature. But I would not listen to it. Not give in. No matter how I ache to feel every inch of her.
I set her on her feet. “Changeling—” I point at the waifish one. “Lenetia, is it? You will serve my lady. See to her needs, and teach her our language. Do this, and you will be welcomed in the winter realm.”
“As a free changeling?” she counters.
“All are free in the winter realm.” Gareth shoulders his pack. “Even changelings.”
“We’ll see what being free is worth when the summer realm finds out about Tyrios.” She casts a glance to Taylor. “But lucky for you all, I rather like your naïve mate.”
“So you accept?” I don’t mention that if she doesn’t, we’ll have to take her with us anyway. She already knows too much about Taylor.
“I do. As long as you speak true about my freedom in the frozen wastes of the winter realm.”
Gareth snorts. “’Frozen wastes,’ eh? Good to see the summer realm propaganda machine is still going strong.”
I strap my sword around my waist and pull one dagger from its hiding place along my side. Pressing it into Taylor’s hand, I say, “Keep this hidden, but don’t be afraid to use it.”
Her eyes widen, but she tucks it into the pocket of her dress.