“Where are we going?” I whisper.
She just waves me onward. The sun slants through the trees, the warm air caressing us as we cross the flower-strewn forest floor.
The sound of water draws my attention, and Beth stops and points.
Through the trees, I see a shimmering pool that reflects the bright day. I’m suddenly parched. Taking a sniff of my underarm, I wrinkle my nose.
Beth takes off at a faster clip, shedding clothes as she goes. After a quick glance around to make sure we’re alone, I follow. The fragrant flowers grow denser, deep purple blooms dusted with morning dew. I kick off my shoes, then pull my dress over my head. It comes away easily, partly because one seam is loose from the stable fae’s attack and partly because I’ve lost a little weight since I’ve been here.
Beth sheds her last garment, some sort of an undershirt, and I gasp. Fang marks cover her entire body, not just her arms.
She looks over her thin shoulder and shrugs. “I told you I’d rather die than go back to being a chew toy for my master’s vampire hounds. Now you see why.”
“I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
She shrugs. “What’s done is done.” With a leap, she splashes into the clear water, cool droplets spraying my bare skin.
I shed my panties and follow her, though not quite so jubilantly. I’ve always been modest, verging on painfully shy, so skinny dipping in the woods with a new friend—I pause at the thought. Beth is my friend. I’ve managed to do something in this new world that always evaded me back in my old one. I had study partners, sure. But an actual friend? No. Not like this.
“Don’t just stand there, jump in!” She swipes her arm across the surface and splashes me.
I squeak and ease into the pool, my feet tentative as I step along the sandy bottom. She submerges completely as I get to the center, the water up to my neck. It’s chilly, but I know once I get used to it, I’ll never want to leave. I’d kill for a bar of soap, but the water is enough.
Kicking my feet up, I float a little and paddle around. Birds sing throughout the green woods, and the skitter of animals in the underbrush reassures me that nothing dangerous is nearby. Everything became so still when the witch was on our trail. Now, the forest is alive. I let out a deep, soul-cleansing sigh and dunk my hair, letting the strands twine away from me in the cool water.
Beth finally reappears and swipes her wet hair from her face. “I’ve needed this.”
“You can say that again.” I laugh.
She grins and splashes me. “You don’t smell so great, yourself,” she says in fae.
“I understood that,” I reply in the same tongue.
Her eyebrows shoot to her hairline. “How?”
“The witch wanted a chat.” I waggle my fingers along the surface of the water. “So she zapped the language into my brain somehow.”
“Powerful magic.” She cocks her head at me. “And you need to give me details of what happened. But first, I would like to reiterate that we do, in fact, stink.”
“I know.” I grimace. “I’ve been wishing for soap.”
“Can do.” She dog paddles to the edge of the pond and swipes some of the purple flowers from their stalks.
“These are blumerin. They crush these up and mix them with some other ingredients to make the palace soap.”
I take a handful from her and squeeze them. A slight bluish tint leaks from the leaves, but the scent is amazing. I’ll accept looking like a smurf if I get to smell like a blueberry tart.
“Like this.” She rubs them between her palms. “They don’t get super sudsy, but they bubble a little.”
The soft petals are almost spongelike as I roll them around in my palms and start lathering up my neck and shoulders.
“This is heavenly.” I scrub behind my ears and take more of the flowers Beth offers. By the time we’re done, we’ve washed our bodies and our hair.
She douses herself with palmfuls of water one more time, then tips her head back and lets a ray of sun play across her features.
“You’re young,” I blurt. “I mean, you’re younger than I thought you were. All that dirt made you seem older.”
She laughs. “Thanks, I think. I’m probably about twenty-five or so?”
“You don’t know?”
“No. Our ages aren’t important. We’re either young enough to work or old enough to discard.”
“Discard?” I pluck a piece of flower from her hair.
“When changelings grow old, their masters throw them out.” She paddles to the edge of the pool and reaches over to grab our dirty clothes. “Send them to live on the streets until they die.”
I hug myself. “That’s horrible.”
“Just the way it is.” She begins scrubbing my dress in the water.
“Changelings never try to escape?”
“They do.” She nods. “I did but didn’t get far. But even if I had managed to get out of the palace, the Catcher would have come for me.”
“A vicious fae who returns runaway changelings to their masters.” She rubs her palms on her biceps. “He’s relentless once he’s put on our trail. All changelings learn about him from the time they arrive here, and the ones he catches … they never come back the same, not after he’s had a turn with them.”
I can’t fathom the horribleness of Beth’s history, but I know she’s strong to have survived it. “I’m sorry.”
“I am, too, for all those he’s caught.” She clears her throat and continues washing our clothes.
“I’ll help.” I reach for her underthings.
“No.” She splashes me away. “I like laundry. Hate all the other chores, but laundry is my thing.”
“Really? I hate having to load the washer in my dorm, mainly because it means I have to scrounge around for quarters to feed the machine. Oh, and half the time, someone will come along and dump my clothes out and put theirs in.”
She peers at me. “I have no idea what you just said, but—”
“First world problems.” I shrug. “I’ve never washed clothes the way you’re doing it.”
She rubs the cloth against itself and adds some of the blue flowers. “This is the only way I know.”
“At home, we have machines that do all the washing.”
“Home.” Her chin drops a little.
“Right.” I float over to her and rest a palm on her shoulder. “I know you don’t remember it. I’m sorry.”
She clears her throat and shrugs off my touch. “A home doesn’t exist for me. Clean clothes, though, that’s something I can control.”
I go through several ideas of responses, but nothing seems right, so I let it drop. But I know there’s a home for her somewhere. And I’m beginning to suspect that home might be with me.
After a while, she asks what happened with the witch. Grateful for the reprieve from the awkward silence, I tell her the details as she washes then drapes our clothes over a low-hanging branch.
“I’m getting pruny.” I show her my fingers.
“We can get out.” She spins in the water, sending little ripples across the surface.
“It’s sunny over there.” I point to a spot beyond the flowers. “Maybe we can lie there and dry off for a minute?”
“I like it.” She climbs out of the water, the bite marks once again coming into sharp relief. Her ribs show through her skin, and I make a mental note to ensure she eats enough at every meal.
I follow her across the flowers and to the grassy, sunny spot. We lie down, the warm sun drying the droplets along my skin. I’m exposed, but the woods are quiet, and Beth hasn’t given me a second look. We are doing this whole “we’re naked in the middle of nowhere” thing like a couple of pros.
“Has anything ever felt this good?” I sigh and close my eyes.
“Not that I remember, no.”
A whisper reminding me I’m far from home tries to sneak in, but I block it out. I’m here now, safe and warm with a friend. It’s a pleasure I never had in the human world.
The sun heats us, cutting through the chill of the lingering water and tickling along all my exposed nooks and crannies. I’ve never laid out completely nude before. It makes me feel like a bad girl, and I rather like it. “This reminds me of this stupid TV show back home. It comes on one of the reality TV channels and is called ‘Naked and Afraid’ or something like that.”
“A show? Like a play?”
“Sort of. But it’s on this little rectangular device and you can watch all sorts of things, look at other people’s lives, be entertained with fictional movies. They use a camera, which records everything.”
She shoots me a perplexed glance.
“It’s hard to explain.” It really is. There’s simply no way to put it into words, so I plow onward. “Like a painting that moves. But anyway, there’s this show where they drop two strangers off in the middle of like, a desert, or on an island, or in the deep woods, and they’re naked. The camera follows them around—it’s kind of like you’re watching through a window, and they don’t realize you’re there—and show what they do once they’re stranded. See what decisions they make, stuff like that.”
“Why do they do this?” Her voice is low, drowsy.
“To see if they can survive. They have to live in this isolated place with the stranger for a month or so, I think. Fighting off the elements and bugs and animals and scrounging for food. But if they realize they can’t hack it, they can call for rescue.”
She snorts. “It sounds like my life—danger, fear, scrounging—until you got to the rescue part. No one ever came to save me from Granthos.”
“You saved yourself, I’d say.”
She smacks my arm. “Winding up in the dungeon wasn’t saving myself.”