“Even naughtier.” I smile.
“When she came back heavy with child, my grandsire relented and allowed the match. Fae children are so rare that even my father’s low birth could be overlooked. But it was quite the scandal in those times. I’d like to think things are different now, but I can imagine a few of my nobles might react just as badly, even though it’s been twelve hundred years since—”
I turn my head so fast my neck pops. “Twelve hundred years?”
“Since my parents mated? Yes.” He cocks his head to the side. “Why?”
“You’re twelve hundred years old?”
I sputter, no words coming to mind.
“Is that a problem, little one?” He sits a little straighter. “I assure you my bloodline is strong. My father and mother lived well beyond five thousand years and chose to join the Ancestors together after I won the throne. Our children will—”
“Whoa.” I scramble to dismount. “Whoa, whoa, whoa.”
Leander grabs me and sets me on the ground, then follows. “What is it?”
“You’re talking about centuries and children.” I stalk back and forth in the high grass, hands on my hips as my mind races. “Centuries and children!”
He runs a hand through his midnight hair. “Yes.”
“I’m twenty!” I yell so loudly that a flock of strange blue birds take off from a nearby bush. “You think I’m your mate, your queen. I’m twenty. I’m not supposed to be here in the first place. And you’re like, I don’t know, old enough to be my-my-my, what even would that be? My greatest-great grandfather?”
“Taylor.” He looks down at me with so much warmth. “I’ve lived a long time, that’s true. And I realize you are quite young, even for a changeling, but none of that matters to me.”
“It matters to me.” I cover my face with my hands. “This wasn’t going to work anyway, but a twelve-hundred-year age difference is kind of an issue.”
“Why?” He pulls my hands from my face. “Would you have known the difference if I hadn’t told you my age? How old did you think I was?”
I huff. “I don’t know. Like maybe thirty or something? You look so young. Everyone here looks young.” I haven’t been paying attention, because when I think about it, I’ve not seen the first old person since I’ve been here. No wrinkles, no nothing. “So everyone here is really old?”
“Fae freeze into their immortality when they reach their peak. After that, we age extremely slowly.” He takes my hand and runs it along the faint laugh lines next to his eyes. “These have formed over centuries.”
“So you can’t die? But I saw you kill Tyrios.”
“We can die. Either by injury or choosing to go to the Ancestors.”
“But if you’re never injured or suicidal, you just keep on ticking like a clock?” My fingers stray to the pendant at my throat, the feel of the cool stone calming me.
He follows the movement. “Why do you do that?”
“Do what? Freak out about insane age differences?”
“No. Stroke your throat when you get agitated.”
“Oh.” I drop my hand. “It’s just a habit.”
He stares for a moment, as if searching my neck.
“Look, your age just took me by surprise is all.” I shake my hands out, as if that will somehow rectify the utter weirdness of all this. “I’ve never imagined someone could live that long.” I don’t say the rest—that I will age and die, that Leander’s claim on me isn’t real, that we can’t be mates because how could fate be so cruel to put such different people together?
But it doesn’t matter that I don’t say any of it, because he strokes my cheek gently. “Don’t worry, little one. I will find a way for us. I’ve waited for you for centuries. This is just our beginning. You will not perish, not in a mortal’s death.”
“How?” What he’s saying is impossible, utter fantasy. “Do you happen to have the Sorcerer’s Stone or maybe a pitcher of unicorn blood?”
His brow wrinkles. “The winter realm is home to many magical stones, but unicorn blood? They are far too proud to ever offer such a gift.”
I hold up a hand. “Wait. Are you saying there are unicorns here?”
“They roam freely in the spring realm,” he says matter-of-factly. “We have a few in the stables at the High Mountain, mainly because they were exiled from the spring realm for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. I’d let them run free, but they wouldn’t survive the cold.”
“Unicorns.” I jump up and down a little. “I have to see them!”
“You will.” His bemused expression is ridiculously cute. “Just be warned that the ones at the High Mountain have mouths on them that could shock even the hardest soldier.”
“They. Talk?” My eyes feel too big for my face.
“Of course.” He lifts me back onto Kyrin and climbs up behind me.
I chew my lower lip as we catch up to Gareth. “And another thing, Leander. You know … you know I’m not staying, right?”
“That’s what you’ve told me, little one.” He kisses the crown of my head. “But we’ll see if I can’t make you change your mind.”
I’d get mad at his smugness, but I’ve already learned there’s no point.
“Is it lunchtime yet?” Beth swipes a long hanging branch aside. “Because I could eat an entire sunstag at this point.”
I glance at her gaunt cheeks. “I’m beginning to suspect you have a tapeworm.”
“What’s a—” She gasps.
Both horses rear as a giant gray bear emerges from the trees ahead of us, its teeth bared and its roar rattling the forest.
I scowl at Thorn as he laughs, his bear form shaking with mirth as he gets down on all fours.
Taylor intakes a huge breath, preparing to scream.
“Don’t worry, little one. We know this beast.”
“What?” She leans back against me, as far away from Thorn as she can get.
“You can go straight to the Spires!” Gareth spits out a few choice curses before stroking Sabre who is still backing up.
Kyrin snorts, then saunters past the bear, all of us pretending Kyrin wasn’t just scared witless by Thorn’s foolishness.
“Don’t be mad.” A flash of light and then Thorn is walking along beside us, his dark silver hair in a ridiculous bun, and his mismatched eyes glinting.
“You’re a bear.” Taylor shakes her head. “You’re. A. Bear!”
“A tired bear. I’ve been running for days. Sorry I jumped out like that, but I needed a little fun.” He turns his full gaze to her, his lips ticking up in the same flirtatious smirk I’d seen on his face a thousand times over. “And it looks like I just found some.”
A low growl rips from me, and I tighten my grip on Taylor. Kill him, the feral fae demands.
“Thorn, back away from there before Leander rips you apart.” Gareth jumps off Sabre and rushes over.
Thorn’s dark eyes widen. “Is it—”
“His mate. Yes. Back up before things get serious. He barely has the feral side of himself under control.”
A chilly wind whistles down through the trees and swirls around Thorn. My magic reserves are back to normal and hovering on the edge of a knife.
“A mate? After all this time?” Thorn lets Gareth pull him away, but he still looks at us with open wonder.
“Stop gawking at her,” I snap.
Gareth spins Thorn around, and they disappear behind a large tree.
“Does this mean we get to eat now?” Beth yawns and slides off Sabre. “I’ll get the fire going.”
“You have to stop doing this.” Taylor smacks my hand.
“You know what.” She shoots me a sassy glare, and Ancestors help me, I become instantly hard.
She continues, oblivious to the need shooting through my veins, “You have to relax. I’m not going to, you know, just ‘mate’ with you right now, so you need to get used to that. We barely know each other. I don’t just jump into the sack with people I don’t know. And I’ve never even—” She stops herself and clears her throat. “For another thing, you’re scary when you’re all feral and crazy. And, and, I’m freezing!”
Guilt hits me deep in my gut. I’ve frightened my mate and punished her with the bite of winter.
I jump down and help her off Kyrin, then wrap my arms around her for warmth. “I’m so sorry. I’m failing as your mate.”
“Dooooon funf nandin.” Her voice is muffled against my chest.
I loosen my grip. “What was that?”
She turns her head and presses her cheek against me. “I said that you’re doing fine. And I’m okay. The air is warm enough. You don’t have to hardcore snuggle me right now.”
“But what if I want to … ‘hardcore snuggle’ you?”
She laughs a little, putting my heart at ease. “Well, I’ve become used to the overbearing PDA.”
“Public display of affection.”
“Is this not what is done in the human world?” I stroke her hair. Though I’m loathe to disappoint her, there is no way I will stop the “PDA.” She is my mate, and I am proud of it. Everyone should know her as my queen, my bonded lover. But you aren’t bonded, not yet, the feral whispers.
“People do, but they’ve usually known each other longer than a week.”
“I don’t need a week to know you.” I gently set her back a little so I can meet her eyes. “I knew you the moment I saw you. The moment I felt you in that palace. You’ve been in here ever since.” I tap my chest. “And I will do everything in my power to show you how much you mean to me.”