“You’re going to need a belt.” The brown fabric sags around her waist.
I turn to look for one, and Leander already has two in his hand, which he offers to me.
“Thanks.” I take them, and Beth and I finish up. “Wait, shoes?”
Once again, Leander already has two pairs ready.
“Can fae read minds?” I kick off my worn and dirty slippers and slide on the leathery ones Leander chose.
“Some can. But it’s super rare. Most fae can’t wield magic at all.”
“Seriously?” I just assumed they all could.
“I mean, most fae have a talent of some sort or other.” She grimaces. “My master had a talent for creatures. Not magic, exactly, but Granthos could communicate on a basic level with most beasts. And he could tell them what to do.” She doesn’t mention the scars that mark her body, but she doesn’t have to. Her master had commanded some sort of vampiric dog to feed on her. I only hope that one day he will receive the punishment he deserves.
She stands and works her dark blonde hair into a big knot. “Anyway, magic isn’t so common—and the magic Leander and Gareth have? It’s unusual.” Swiping a couple of wide-brimmed hats from above the meager rack of clothing, she hands me one. “These will have to do. They don’t have anything else to choose from. Maybe they’ll last us through the plains.” She doesn’t sound too sure.
“We’ll make them work.” I test Leander’s barrier with my finger. It sends a tingle up my arm. “We’re ready.”
The barrier disappears.
“Is there anything else you’d like?” Leander asks, his dark eyes gleaming as he inspects my new outfit.
“Toothbrush.” I don’t think the shop has any. It’s more of a wilderness store, not one too concerned with hygiene. “Oooh, and a hairbrush.” It’s funny, but back home, my fiercest desire was a set of Baron Fig Squire pens. I was certain if I had those fancy pens, I’d actually journal everyday instead of once a week when I thought about it. Pipe dreams. Or, pen dreams, more accurately. But now? A simple toothbrush would make my day, week, year.
“Tired of the twig toothbrushes I make for us?” Beth asks almost petulantly.
“No, of course not.” I think fast. “But in the plains, there won’t be any trees, so you can’t make fresh ones.”
She considers for a moment. “Good point.” Turning to Leander, she says, “We need toothbrushes.”
Gareth is still arguing with the shopkeeper, though he’s amassed a small pile of goods on the counter.
“Not here.” Leander leads us back to the door. “The inn across the street might have a few items like that. I’ll take you.”
“Leander, this son of a yakhound is trying to charge us double simply because he doesn’t like my face.” Gareth towers over the shopkeeper, who snaps his beak.
“I wouldn’t let my ugly sister sit on a face such as yours.” The shopkeeper has a row of green feathers along the top of his head that stand up in challenge.
Leander sighs. “Wait here.”
He strides to the counter. “We need supplies and are happy to pay a fair price for them. If you’d prefer to deal with me—”
“You winter realm fae aren’t welcome here.”
“I have coin. You have goods. Let’s discuss—”
“Come on.” Beth tugs me out of the shop and onto the dusty porch.
“Shouldn’t we wait for Leander?” I glance back into the shop, but it’s too dusky inside to see when the sun is so bright out here.
“It’s just across the street. We’ll be fine. They’re a couple of over-protective ninnies.” She steps to the edge of the porch as another buggy passes along with a few horses. “Come on, here’s our chance.”
I let her pull me off the porch and into the dusty road. We hurry across, avoiding all the creatures on the opposite porch as we step up.
“See?” Beth smiles.
“Okay, but let’s hurry. You know how Leander gets.”
“Insanely possessive?” she says brightly.
“Yeah, that.” I snug my hat down tightly on my head, mainly to ward off the prying eyes of the nearby fae.
“We can handle ourselves.” She leads the way into the inn. “Don’t worry so mu—” Her shriek cuts her words in half as a large fae grabs her and shackles her wrists.
“Let her go!” I rush forward as the creatures in the inn scatter, knocking over tables and chairs. Grabbing Beth’s arm, I try to pull her from the fae. He’s almost as large as Leander, strength rolling off him. He wears a bandanna around the lower half of his face. When I see his dark eyes, I suspect he’s a winter realm fae.
“She’s mine.” He keeps a hard grip on the chain between her shackles as she struggles to free herself, then he pushes up the brim of my hat. “Are you a runaway, too?”
“Run!” Beth kicks him in the shins, but he doesn’t seem bothered. “It’s the Catcher!”
“Leander!” I think my yell is loud enough to be heard all the way back at the summer palace.
The inn darkens, a chill blowing through the building so quickly that my teeth chatter. Leander enters behind me, his presence like a tangible fist of cold.
“Release her.” He holds his sword with lethal ease and softly maneuvers me behind him.
“Get him!” I pat him on the back. It’s pretty much the extent of my usefulness in this situation.
“The Catcher, is it?” Leander’s voice is coated with ice, though he lowers his sword.
The Catcher dips his chin just a bit in Leander’s direction. Was that respect?
Gareth rushes in, blades in each hand. The inn has completely cleared out, as if we’re having a showdown in a ghost town.
“Release the changeling.” Gareth advances, his ire even greater than Leander’s.
I peer around my fae warrior. No, not ‘my.’ I try to shake the possessive thought free, but it seems stuck in the net of my mind.
“She ran from her master,” the Catcher says, as if it explains everything.
“And she is now a citizen of the winter realm. Free.” Gareth stands just out of reach.
The Catcher palms a blade. “I hate to quibble, but you see, she isn’t in the winter realm. Therefore, she’s not free. Here, she’s just a runaway changeling.”
“Quibble all you want, but you will release her.” Gareth raises his daggers.
Leander reaches back and puts one hand on my hip, the other still holding his sword. Is he sitting this one out?
“Release her?” The Catcher lifts her chain, then drops it. His hand flies out, far too quick for me to see anything other than a blur.
I gasp, but Gareth easily deflects the blow, then counterattacks with a hard kick to the Catcher’s stomach. He flies backwards and out a glassless window into the street.
Gareth storms past, and I rush over to Beth.
She rattles her metal cuffs. “Never better.”
“Leander, can you get these off her?”
He reaches for them, but his skin sizzles, and he frowns. “They’re enchanted. Only the Catcher can open them.”
“Great,” Beth deadpans.
A rough yell draws us out to the street, though Leander keeps both of us behind him.
Gareth is spinning and striking like some sort of murder dynamo. The Catcher stumbles back, though he puts up an impressive defense.
“Gareth is mad.” Beth cocks her head to the side. “Like, really mad.”
It’s my turn to smirk at her. “I think he’s got a crush.”
She makes a pffft noise and continues watching the fight. The street is bare, but plenty of creatures are gathered on porches watching the fray.
“You aren’t going to help?” I grab Leander’s forearm.
“He doesn’t need me.” He places one hand over mine. “Have I mentioned how much I enjoy it when you touch me?”
“Only a few … hundred times.”
He grins down at me. “Get used to it, little one.”
“Are you two really going to do this when Gareth is fighting for his life?” Beth goes to step off the porch, but Leander holds her back.
“Gareth is my deadliest warrior. You have no need to fear the outcome of this duel.”
“Oh? No need to fear, eh?” Beth shakes him off. “Tell me, smart king, if Gareth kills the Catcher, then who will get these cuffs off?”
Leander shrugs. “He won’t be killed.”
“How do you know?” Beth groans, then steps into the street. “Hey, assholes!”
My eyebrows pop up. I’ve never heard her curse before. Gareth and the Catcher pause.
“I need him to remove these cuffs, so don’t kill him.”
“He harmed you.” Gareth narrows his eyes.
“No, he just tried to kidnap me. I’m not hurt.” Beth holds up her hands. “But these have to go.”
“All right. That’s enough.” Leander raises his hand and sends a blast of icy cold shooting through the street. The spectators disappear into the buildings or turn tail and run toward the bridge.
Gareth whirls and aims a blow for the Catcher’s throat, but the Catcher manages to stop it with his own blade just before contact. I grip Leander harder. I don’t know if I’m ready to see this. Tyrios still flits around the edges of my mind, not haunting me exactly, but the way he died isn’t something I can simply erase. Am I ready to see another death?
Leander shoots me a concerned glance, then calls, “Phinelas, that’s enough.”
“Phinelas?” Gareth yanks the bandanna away from the male’s face.
A handsome grin fills in the blanks. “Gareth.”
“What in the Spires is going on?” Gareth roars.
“Okay, now I’m beyond confused.” Beth leans against me.