I wavered between shrinking away from those eyes and standing proud. I opted for a slump against the gilded mirror and turned my face away from those beautiful eyes. “What does that even mean?”
His footsteps echoed across the floor as he moved to stand behind me. He lifted his hands up on either side of me, hesitated, and dropped them back down to his sides. “It means I love you.”
My eyes widened and I spun around to face him. He swooped down and captured my lips in a passionate kiss that sealed his sincerity. His arms wrapped around me, drawing me closer into our embrace. A deliciously warm heat ran up and down my body, and I couldn’t help the tiny moan that escaped me.
Luca drew back and the desire I’d seen in his eyes earlier was now lust. My cheeks blushed bright red and I trembled beneath such hunger. His cleared his throat, but it was still a little husky. “The mirror has granted my family the ability to cross over into your realm for millennia in order to find the one we’re destined to wed. I knew you were the one the first I saw you, and my suspicions were confirmed when you and you alone reached the statue.”
I blinked at him and some of his feral magic slipped off me. “The Dragon Hill run? That was some sort of a test for your queen?”
He smiled. “Yes, and you passed with flying colors.”
I pushed away from him and took a step back. “Wait a sec. How exactly was a leisurely stroll up a hill going to help you decide that I was your queen?”
Luca set a hand on the mirror and studied his reflection. “The hill was enchanted that one night when I was able to pass through the portal. Only those worthy could reach the summit. The others would be weighed down by their own faulty qualities.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Like what?”
He shrugged. “Greed, reluctance, fear. In the case of the last two you met, they had already found their one true mate, but their happiness brought them farther than anyone.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and frowned. “So you’re saying that I wanted this to happen?”
He turned his face to me and tilted his head to one side. “Did your step falter at any point in the climb?”
I furrowed my brow as I went over the previous night’s events. Finally I shook my head. “No, I guess I didn’t.” I set a hand over my heart and stared at the floor as I bit my lower lip. “I. . .I actually felt pretty good. The best I’d felt in a long time.”
Luca set his hand over mine and I looked up into his smiling face. “You never had a weak heart.”
I blinked at him. “What are you talking about? I’ve had a weak heart since I was born.”
His face was so gentle as he shook his head. “With each step you took up that mountain, what happened to your heart?”
I furrowed my brow. “It. . .it stopped hurting.”
Luca leaned down and brushed his lips across mine. “Your heart was merely missing a piece of itself. Every step up the mountain filled in the hole, and at the top you found yourself, your whole self, waiting for you.”
I wrinkled my nose and drew away from him. “That sounds insane, like some sort of fairy tale with knights and dragons.”
He still smiled as he folded his arms over his chest. “Dragons, you say?”
His wings burst out of his back and curved around the room. They slipped behind me and drew me toward him. I raised my hands and caught myself against his chest. His leather wings wrapped closer about me, and their warmth reinvigorated the sensual heat inside of me.
Luca grinned down at me. “I can be both your knight and your dragon, if you’ll let me.”
I snorted. “So you’ll woo me and eat me, is that it?”
“If you want that.”
I pushed myself away, or tried to. His wings kept me close against his warm, hard chest. “What I want is to take a deep breath, pinch myself again, and figure out what I’m going to do if I’m really stuck here.”
“Your Highness!” The shout came from outside the building. One of the spear guards raced through the open doors and skidded to a stop a few feet away from us. Their helmet almost flew off, but they adjusted the hat and pointed at the doors. “The King of the Ponds is coming!”
Luca’s eyebrows crashed down. “Have the gates been opened?”
She shook her head. “No, Your Highness! The key is missing!”
His wings drew back into his body and he dropped his arms from around me. A few whispered words floated under his breath. “Damn it.” He turned to me and forced a smile that was as genuine as a ten-dollar Rolex. “You’ll have to excuse me. Duty calls.” He strode from the building, though he paused long enough to cast a look at the guard. “Take her back to the castle.” The guard stood at attention and bowed her head.
“Wait a second!” I yelled as he hurried down the steps of the portico.
I was forced to stop in the doorway as he spread his wings out far behind him. Luca leapt into the sky and flapped hard. Wing blasted downward and whipped a bit of dust up, forcing both the guard and me to cover our eyes with our hands and arms. He sailed up into the sky and soon disappeared over the horizon of rooftops.
The woman soldier bowed her head to me. “Please follow me to the castle.”
I couldn’t help but stare at where Luca had disappeared. “What’s this about a king of the pond?”
“He is the lord of the dwarves who dwell in the Lower Halls.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What Lower Halls?”
“They are large passages under the city created by the columns that keep Amnisis from sinking under the weight of its many streets and buildings. In later times the area was converted into a cistern to supply water to the city during droughts and sieges.”
My eyes widened. “Sinking? Why would that happen?”
She used the tip of her spear to point at the ground. “The city is built upon an ancient marshland that was drained long ago, and the drainage left hundreds of hollow caverns beneath the ground. The peoples of long ago erected huge columns to hold the city up, and the dwarves protect them in return for their semi-independence. Now-” She stretched her weapon arm out in the direction of the castle that stood proud of the metropolis, “-if you will follow me.”
I reluctantly allowed her to lead me down the streets. The calm business atmosphere had changed to a slight touch of panic. The women and children had disappeared, and more then one man looked over their shoulder in the direction Luca had gone as they scurried along the street. Most of the carts, too, had vanished, and only a few sat alongside the street.
We passed by a cart with a large tarp-covered bed. The driver, attired in filthy pants with a dirty blanket over his shoulders, sat hunched over atop the box with a sorry nag ahead of him. At our passing he turned slightly in our direction, enough that I could see a bright yellow eye. He held a small pipe, and as we passed he tapped the stick against the side of the box.
The tarp was flung aside and three men jumped out. The driver, too, leapt to the ground and flung off his shawl. He revealed a buttoned black shirt and a dazzling smile full of gold teeth. His three accomplices were likewise attired, though lacking in the gold teeth department. They held short daggers, but long swords hung at their hips.
The leader himself drew out his longsword and grinned at us. “We’re here to relieve you of your cute little package, spear maiden.”
My protector pushed me behind her and backed us up toward the front of the nearest building. She gripped the spear tightly in both hands and glared at the four men. “You will not have her.”
The leader held his sword out in front of him and clicked his tongue. “Pity. I was hoping for an easy, and bloodless, handover, but if you insist.”
He lunged forward, as did the other three. The spear maiden’s backing up, however, meant the men couldn’t surround us and were forced to go at her swinging two at a time. She used her long spear to block their blows and shove them back. They were replaced by the other two attackers, but a few quick thrusts in the gut dropped one of them to his knees. My protector slammed her stick into the face of another before blocking a blow from the leader.
She whipped her head around and caught my eye. “Run!”