“Inside and out,” Gareth agrees.
“Are we stopping there?” I stretch, and Leander grips my waist.
“For supplies, but not for the night. It’s not safe. We’re better protected on the road where we can see what’s coming.” He slides his palms upward, as if committing my shape to memory.
“I was really hoping for a bed.” Beth frowns. “I haven’t slept in a bed since …” She pauses and stares into the middle distance. “I guess it depends on if a pile of empty grain sacks counts as a mattress.”
She’s had such a hard life. The bite marks on her body only tell one part of her harrowing story. I want to know more, but she deflects every time I ask about her life as a changeling slave. I do the same when she asks about my past, so I can’t blame her for it. Some parts of a person’s history are better left alone, though they’re never forgotten.
“Your master was Granthos?” Gareth asks.
“Yes,” she says tightly.
He grunts in response but doesn’t say anything else about it.
Beth shoots me a questioning glance, then shrugs and turns back toward the town. “I hope they have bread.”
“Me too.” That is a train I’m happy to ride. “Carbs are life.”
“Carbs?” Leander blows against my nape again, and I want to moan.
“Carbohydrates. What bread is mostly made of.”
“Spoken like a true alchemist.” He says it with pride.
“I’m not an alchemist. Just an almost-chemist. Not the same. And besides, it’s pretty common knowledge that bread has carbs. It’s why I love it so much. Carbs are my jam.”
“I know jam. We have an entire store room at High Mountain full of it.” I can hear the smile in his voice. “Any flavor you’d like.”
I laugh and lean against him. His chest has become my back pillow and his arms my seatbelt. “In that case, I’ll be sure to raid the jam room when we arrive.” But then I’ll go home. A pang of hurt slashes through me at the thought. The idea of leaving is still my goal, but somehow, each day I spend with Leander, it gets harder to think about. Not to mention the bonds I’ve built with Beth and Gareth. I don’t have anything like it back home—my only pseudo-friend, Cecile, is the one who sent me here, so she’s more of a backstabbing enemy. I still ponder why she did it but haven’t been able to piece it together. Then a thought stings me like wasp, and I almost jump off the horse.
“Hang on. HANG ON!” I yell so loud that Kyrin startles.
“What?” Leander tenses and draws his sword.
“Byrn Varyndr.” I clap a hand over my face.
“The capital of the summer realm?” Leander’s voice is tight and wary. “What about it?”
“It translates to Long Island.” I grit my teeth as some pieces of the puzzle click together. “I didn’t realize it until I learned fae, and I didn’t think about it until right this second. But in English, it means Long Island.”
“You lost me.” Beth’s eyebrows crinkle.
“Cecile always said she came from Long Island!” I take a breath and try to keep my voice calm; I’ve scared Kyrin enough. “And see, I thought she meant Long Island, New York, but all along I think what she really meant was Byrn Varyndr.”
Beth’s eyebrows unknot. “So your roommate is a summer realm fae?”
“Yes!” Kyrin jumps a little, and I pet his mane. “Sorry, buddy. I’m going to be quieter. But yeah, I think that must be it. She’s a summer realm fae, maybe some sort of exchange? I don’t know.”
“Exchanges don’t realize they’re fae.” Leander stows his sword. “She’s something else. Fae, but not a traditional exchange.”
“Then what is she doing over there?” Beth gnaws on her thumbnail. “I’ve never heard of anything like it.”
“Neither have I.” Gareth frowns. “We’ll need to speak with Ravella about it when we get to High Mountain. She’s the only one who may know how Cecile is in the human world, and why she sent you here, for that matter.”
I sigh and settle down. One thing has become clear, but the rest of it is still hidden from me. All these questions bumping around in my skull are beginning to tangle with each other, the wires crossing. Leander seems to hear the noise in my head and rubs my upper arms slowly, pulling my thoughts away from the mystery until I focus on his gentle touches instead.
Gareth leads us to the river, the surface covered in a low fog dotted with whorls, as if something spins below the surface. A wide bridge made of splintering timbers and mossy stone is the only way across from what I can see. A buggy approaches, and a man with a pair of skeletal wings jutting from his back gives us a simple nod as he passes.
“What was that?” I try not to stare.
“Lesser fae. They can be a mix of different races but have a line of high fae blood in them.”
“Why do you call them lesser? Seems sort of … snobby.”
Leander sighs. “It’s simply the way it’s always been. An easy way to delineate between full-blooded high fae and those with mixed heritage.”
I wrinkle my nose. “Even if you don’t mean it as an insult, it doesn’t mean it’s right. ‘Lesser’ has a negative connotation, no matter how you say it.”
“I agree.” Leander steers us to the side of the road as another, larger buggy passes.
“Leander tried to change the classifications of beings in the winter realm long ago, but the distinctions still persist.” Gareth leads, his broad back hiding Beth from view. “He wanted to do away with the separate classes and simply have ‘fae’.” Gareth grumbles under his breath. “The nobles, though, would not have it, threatened outright rebellion. We didn’t need more bloodshed, not after the centuries we’d already spent at war. At least, that was my counsel. Leander wanted to decree it, the nobles be damned.”
“They’re fools,” Leander says matter-of-factly.
“They are. But we need stability,” Gareth’s words seem like pieces of an argument the two fae have had quite a few times. He waves a hand. “That discussion is for another day. For now, Taylor and Beth, be on your guard at all times. Don’t speak to anyone.”
“We’ll come back to the discussion, and my queen will have a voice in it.” Leander squeezes my hand. “But Gareth is right. Blood Run is a pit, one we can’t afford to fall into. Gareth and I will conduct our business, gather supplies, and then we’ll be off.”
“Sounds like a real good time,” Beth snipes.
The road gets busier as we ride into town. Creatures that defy imagination mill about on either side of the lane, entering shops or arguing with each other. Some of them are high fae, their stature and ears giving them away. Others are more of a mystery, though I can see what I think are a few changelings scattered around on wooden porches stained red from the dirt. We cross an alleyway, and I see two bare-chested males fighting, both of them swinging huge axes, their battle yells ignored by everyone. The view is gone as we continue down the road. Maybe Gareth wasn’t exaggerating about how dangerous this town is.
Pulling up in front of a storefront, Gareth jumps down and peers around the street. Plenty of fae watch us, some of them whispering to each other. I suppose seeing two winter realm fae with a couple of bedraggled changelings isn’t a common occurrence.
“I need a hat.” I glance up at the too-bright sky. “The trees shielded me in the forest, but out here I’ll burn to a crisp.”
“Clothes, too.” Beth throws a leg over her mount and jumps down. “You need to cover up. So do I.”
“We told you to stay put and—” Gareth groans when I start to dismount. Leander grabs my waist and lowers me down slowly.
“Beth is right. We need clothes. Is there a store like that here?”
“This is the goods merchant, and you two aren’t going in.” Gareth looks at Leander with a stern expression.
Leander shrugs. “If my ma—” He glances around at the busy street. “My friend needs clothing, then she shall have it.”
“Fine. Let’s get inside before we draw even more attention to ourselves.” Gareth leads the way onto the porch and into the store, grumbling under his breath about females the entire time. Leander smirks and offers his arm. I get a little thrill as I take it and we enter the shop.
I wrinkle my nose as we step inside. “Why does it smell?”
“Meat.” Gareth points to a row of carcasses hanging behind a rough-hewn wooden counter.
“What sort of animals are those?” I peer at one ribcage that looks a little too human.
“You don’t want to know.” Leander sweeps me to the back of the shop as Gareth goes to speak to the fae with the beak at the counter.
“Not much to choose from.” Beth runs her hand along a rack of clothing, all of it dusky brown with black stitching. “But it’ll do.” She snags a couple of long-sleeved tunics.
“Oh my god, pants!” I pull a pair off a spindly wooden hanger.
Beth grabs another set and holds them up to her narrow hips. “These will do just fine. And look, new undergarments, thank the Ancestors!”
“Is there a dressing room?” I look to the back of the shop, but the dark door leading farther inside isn’t particularly welcoming given that it has odd pelts nailed all around it.
Leander steps away, and a filmy barrier appears around Beth and me. “I’ve cloaked you. No one can see.”
Beth and I strip down.
“No one but me.” He meets my eyes but doesn’t let his gaze drop to my naked body.
A shiver tickles up my spine, sending jolts of heat shooting through me. How does he constantly manage to turn me into a horndog? When his lips tug into a smirk, I know he knows what I’m thinking. Mortifying.
“Looking good.” Beth smooths my tunic down.