She sighs. “Arguing with you about this is pointless, isn’t it?”

“It’s about time!” Beth calls from where she’s kneeling to start the fire. “She finally figures it out.”

“You don’t have to be a dick about it.” Taylor turns and heads toward the other changeling.

A dick? What’s a dick?

“I tried to tell you, an alpha fae who’s found his mate cannot be reasoned with. The sooner you accept that, the better off you’ll be. He’s practically losing his mind because he hasn’t claimed you yet. You are his entire world. Get used to it. It’s never going to change.”

“Leander.” Gareth waves me over to where he and Thorn are talking. “You calm?”

I crack my neck. “As long as Thorn respects—”

He kneels, his head bowed. “Forgive me, my king. I didn’t realize she was your mate.”

My brows shoot up, and Gareth looks like he’s been gut punched. Thorn is a jokester, not the sort who offers to kneel or speaks so seriously.

“Rise, Thorn.”

He does, and we grip forearms. “I want to offer her my oath as soon as possible.”

“You are welcome to, but first, tell me why you’re here.” Crossing the boundary line between winter and summer is forbidden without express leave granted by both rulers.

“We’ve had a breach at High Mountain.” Thorn’s face hardens. “Right under my nose. A shadow crept in, slashed the throats of two guards, and entered the throne room. Ravella sensed the darkness and sounded the alarm. By the time we arrived, the intruder was gone. But there was a … message.”

I don’t like the foreboding in his voice. “What was it?”

Gareth grits his teeth. “Yvarra’s head.”

Thorn nods. “Left on your throne. The tree brand burned into her cheek.”

“The king beyond the mountain.” I flex my fists.

“Yvarra was last seen in Silksglade. She was investigating a family of missing lesser fae. Her last correspondence was that she had a lead on them as well as some changelings who crossed the western border only days before.”

“She was one of our best trackers.” I let my sad sigh escape. “And a true blade of winter. She will be mourned.”

“I came to give you this news. The threat is growing. I can feel it.” Thorn peers westward, though there’s nothing to see but trees. “Eyes are turned toward us, seeking hands weaving invisibly through the land.”

“We’ve gained the alliance we came for. The summer queen will work with us to discover what has become of those who are missing. That trail will lead to the king beyond the mountain. I’m certain of it.”

“And then?” Thorn rests his palm on the haft of his axe.

“And then, war.” Gareth sounds tired. He’s been a soldier for most of his life, just like me. When I became king, I’d hoped that the fighting days were over, that winter and summer could live in peace with each other as well as the other realms. But that dream is dying, and Yvarra’s end is just the beginning.

“But now there is hope.” Thorn glances at Taylor. “A royal mate.”

My chest swells with pride. “She is a gift from the Ancestors, to be sure.”

Thorn rubs his clean-shaven jaw. “Perhaps she is already with child. Can you imagine the joy in the winter realm for a new babe?” His smile is genuine, all pretense gone.

Gareth quickly claps a hand on Thorn’s shoulder and leads him away. “Let’s get some lunch.”

Gareth is a good friend, but Thorn will know soon enough that I haven’t claimed my mate. I send a request to the Ancestors for patience, then kneel as I say a prayer of peace for the soul of Yvarra.

When I get to the fire, Beth is roasting some root vegetables and Thorn is kneeling before Taylor, the Winter’s Oath on his lips.

“This isn’t necessary.” She wrings her hands.

“You could always decree his death.” Gareth shrugs. “I’d be more than happy to shut up this claptrap for eternity.”

Thorn shoots him a grim look but keeps his head down. “It is your decision, my queen.”

“He’s a bear, Taylor. Don’t you want a pet?” Beth snickers.

Gareth’s lips quirk in a subdued smile.

“Fine. I’ll say the words, but you must call me Taylor. Got it?”

Thorn nods.

“Blade thrower.” She squints. “Is that it? It goes something like that. It’s not in the fae words that I know.”

“This oath and your response are in the tongue of the ancient fae, not the same that we speak now.” I stand behind her and watch the sunlight play along her chestnut strands of hair. “Bladanon thronin.”

“Bladanon thronin,” she repeats. “That’s what I meant.”

Thorn rises and bows low again. “Thank you.”

“How do you change into a bear?” Curiosity coats her tone.

“My magic is transformative. It runs in my line. My sire could turn himself into anything you could imagine, even other fae.”

“Wow.” She presses a palm to her cheek. “That’s unbelievable.”

Thorn would usually parlay a comment like that into a joke about his sexual prowess, but he abstains, which is good, because it would end in a brawl. One that I’d win.

We all sit around the fire as Beth hands out the small bowls of food. I scoop some of my carrots into Taylor’s bowl. She gives me a long-suffering look but eats without complaint. My feral side is appeased that I’ve provided for my mate, even in this small way.

I chew my food, my mind working over the news of Yvarra’s death. She was a strong tracker, skilled with the bow and blades. For someone to get the drop on her, there had to have been seriously dark magic at play. This will require more than a simple spy.

“Send Brannon to Silksglade.” I stare into the fire.

Thorn whistles. “You sure we shouldn’t start smaller?”

“No.” I set down my bowl. “Yvarra’s death can’t go unanswered. Brannon will be able to track the dark magic if there are still traces of it in Silksglade. He can then report back. Maybe this is our chance to finally find the trail that leads to the king beyond the mountain.”

Gareth sucks on his teeth. “Last time we set Brannon loose, we almost lost an entire village.”

“I’m aware of the risks. But we need a wielder of the dark. It’s the only way. Brannon is loyal to me and to the Phalanx.”

“He’s dangerous, Leander.” Thorn shakes his head. “What if he takes innocent lives this time around? He’s changed, sure, but how far can anyone stray from their roots?”

“Far.” Taylor’s soft voice resonates. “People can change.” She lowers her gaze. “But not always for the better.”

Where did that come from?

“So Brannon was bad before?” she hurries to ask.

“Bad is a massive understatement.” Thorn passes his bowl to Beth. “He was born from the Spires, and he has a particular talent for the dark magics. His powers are without equal, save for perhaps a necromancer or an Obsidian witch—” he shudders “—but what are the chances of a run-in with one of those?”

Taylor laughs, the sound a little too gleeful, and gives me a knowing glance.

Thorn, though perplexed, continues, “Brannon is a member of the king’s guard, the Phalanx, but he’s had to prove himself, to show us he’s truly turned from his old ways.”

“What made him turn?” Beth scoops the dredges from the cooking pot.

“Leander.” Thorn inclines his head toward me.

Taylor turns and peruses me with her impossibly blue eyes. “What happened?”

“It’s not important. We should be on our way—”

“Don’t be so modest.” Thorn waves me off. “Brannon was in league with Shathinor, the previous king of the winter realm. He was the bane of realms, burning villages, terrorizing and pillaging wherever he went. A vicious creation of the Spires. When Leander began the winter realm uprising, Shathinor sent Brannon to kill him.”

Taylor clutches her hands in front of her. “Go on.”

“Brannon shows up at our war camp with over a hundred shadow warriors at his back. We had thousands, of course, but shadow warriors cannot be killed by simple combat. They can strip a soldier’s flesh in seconds and move on to the next. We were on the verge of a battle that could very well have ended our rebellion. Brannon strolled into Leander’s tent, and Leander ordered all of us out. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done—walking out of that tent and leaving my king with such a vicious creature. Our soldiers were surrounded by the shadow demons, all of them screeching for blood but waiting on word from their leader.”

“I think I lost a century off my life that day,” Gareth grumbles.

“What went on in the tent?” Taylor’s wide eyes hold so much wonder.

“That’s the thing.” Thorn punches me in the arm lightly. “He never told us why Brannon sent his shadow warriors back to the Wasted Lands and joined our cause.”

“That is for Brannon to divulge, not me.” I’ve gotten used to deflecting their inquiries on this point.

“And Brannon won’t say?” Taylor asks.

“Brannon isn’t particularly talkative.” Thorn smirks. “Besides, most fae take one look at him and run in the other direction.”

“Something wrong with him?” Beth grabs the stew pot.

“He looks … interesting.” Gareth has grown more diplomatic in his age.

“Why won’t you let me help you with that?” Taylor reaches to collect the bowls.

“No way.” Beth grabs them before Taylor can. “You’re the queenie of the winter realm.”

“I’m your friend.” Taylor darts forward and lifts the pot. “Let me help.”