“He’ll be fine,” Cassius assured me as he stepped up to my side with a smile on his lips. “He’s been trying all his life to get himself killed, and it hasn’t worked out yet.”
I blinked at him as the old man joined us. “What the young master wishes to tell you is that His Highness has been less than careful in his personal safety, and yet he still lives.”
Cassius laughed. “I’m as bad at my words as I am at my magic, aren’t I? Anyway, as Sfetnic says, Luca will be just fine. What you need to do is focus on your own safety.”
I tilted my head to one side. “Sefnet?”
He grinned as he jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the taller man. “He’s Sfetnic. It’s not easy to pronounce, but I think he likes it that way.”
A ghost of a smile appeared on Sfetnic pale lips as he slightly inclined his head. “If I may be of service in any way I can.”
Cassius’ eyes danced with mischief. “Always the flatterer. Now about protecting you.” He returned his attention to me. “The guards were a little vague on what happened to you after you ran. Mind giving us the details?”
I told them my story, and by the time I was finished Cassius had a frown on his face. He folded his arms and cupped his chin in one hand. “Luca wasn’t joking. These pirates mean business, and not the good kind.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll be safe in the castle, won’t I?”
He dropped his arms and laughed. “Of course. I’ll show you to your room right now. It’s a bit of a maze in there-” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder and in the direction of the doors, “-so you’ll need a guide at all times until you learn the ropes, or corridors, in this case.”
Sfetnic stepped forward and bowed his head to me. “I would like to offer my services to our beautiful guest.”
Cassius’ smile faltered a little and he raised an eyebrow. “Why hoard all the beauty to yourself? We can share.”
Sfetnic cast a side look at the other man, and the look in the older guy’s eyes gave me the impression that they weren’t exactly friends. “I have duties to fulfill regarding the joining.”
Cassius shrugged. “Alright, but I expect a tete-a-tete later, after you’ve finished boring her to death.” He returned his attention to me and grasped my hand where he planted a gentle kiss on the top. “Until that wonderful time comes, I’ll see that the magic in the castle is at full strength. If you’ll excuse me.” He inclined his head to both of us and hurried away.
Sfetnic watched him with that strange way of looking out of the corners of his eyes before he looked back to me. He stepped to one side and swept a long, thin arm toward the doors. “If you will follow me.”
We walked together through the doors and I had my first view of the corridors. The stone work on the outside was the same inside, but with more posh and polish. Tapestries and marble heads on pedestals decorated the walls of the hall, and wood doors interrupted the adornments at odd intervals. The corridor ran straight, and to either side of us, and a set of large stone steps cut the central hall in half.
I looked left and right. There weren’t even stairs, just more doors. “This doesn’t look too complicated.”
Sfetnic showed off that peculiar pale smile of his. “The castle of the dragon kings is very old, and much magic has been imbued into its walls. Not all of it has been beneficial.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Meaning what?”
He beckoned me with a long, bony finger before striding forward. I followed, reluctant to be left behind and hesitant to follow this strange man. “There have been several times where the castle was breached by invading forces. The reigning kinds sought to protect themselves and their love ones via befuddlement spells. Unfortunately-”
“They wrote on the walls in permanent marker,” I quipped.
He inclined his head. “Precisely. The magics left their mark forevermore, and to this day strangers have lost their way among the incantations of old.”
I smiled. “So they were found a couple of days later with a hell of a thirst and a story to tell the grandkids?” Sfetnic showed off that peculiar smile of his. My eyes widened and my mouth dropped slightly open. “They were found, weren’t they?”
He looked ahead, and that peculiar smile didn’t fade. “Eventually.”
I slipped closer to him as he led me up the stairs. The next floor had the exact same layout, and a creeping sensation ate at the edges of my mind as we passed continued up the next flight. We arrived at a new floor, or was it?
I paused in the corridor as Sfetnic continued the climb and looked won the hallway. There were tapestries and statues, just like the other two floors. “Why do I get the feeling we’ve been here before?”
Sfetnic paused on the landing and looked down at me. “Because we have.”
I scurried up to him and tried to tamp down the panic in my voice. “You don’t happen to know a quick way of memorizing this place before I find myself experiencing my very own Groundhog Day, do you?” He gave me a quizzical expression. My shoulders drooped at the loss in translation. “I don’t want to get lost. How do I avoid that?”
He looked up at the flight of steps above us. “‘Thrice high to get where you are going, twice down to get where you were, once below to get to the bottom.”
I blinked at him. “Come again?”
Sfetnic used an upturned hand to gesture at the higher stairs. “Three times we go up to reach the suites of His Highness.” He dropped his hand down to the floor. “Twice down the stairs to get to the balcony.” My strange guide pointed at the stones with one finger. “Once down to get to the ground floor.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “So if I go down one flight I’ll be at the bottom?”
He held up three bony fingers. “Three times. Twice to reach where you were and once more to trigger the magic to get to the foyer.”
I wrinkled my nose. “So you have to do this every time you go up and down the stairs.”
He turned his face slightly toward me and there was that strange smile of his again. “Only when I grow weary of the trick.” He lifted his hand and placed the palm against the stones to his left.
My jaw dropped as the cracks came alive with every color of the rainbow. The vibrant, luminous light swept through the mortar lines and illuminated all the walls around us. I spun in a circle and gaped at the wondrous sight. The light lasted for a few long moments before it faded into the walls.
Sfetnic removed his hand and those pale eyes showed a glimmer of bemusement at me. “There. That will work.”
I turned to him with my shocked face. “What did you do?”
“I merely ‘paused’ the magic in the walls,” he told me as he turned to face the upper flight. “Now we will have little problem reaching the top.”
He strode up the stairs, and I scurried to catch up to his side. “If you can do that then why all the trouble with the rhyme?”
“The magic is too old and too deeply embedded into the castle for my skills to overcome,” he admitted as we proceeded up the next flight. “Thus the pause lasts for only a few minutes. Nothing more.”
I looked him up and down. “Then you’re a magician?” He certainly had the right attire.
Sfetnic chuckled, but I detected a hint of bittersweetness in his voice. “I am. . .a student of matters best left to the dustbin of history. My studies have granted me a certain bit of control over magic, and so I use it sparingly.”
I furrowed my brow as I thought back to the conversation on the balcony. “Can Luca use magic?”
One of his eyes darted to me. “You mean as opposed to Lord Cassius?”
I shrugged. “I suppose. I don’t really know much about any of this stuff.”
Sfetnic stared ahead of us as we reached a new level and a new staircase. I was glad to see that the decor changed, though it was more of the same with tapestries and statues. “Luca is capable of a limited amount of magic, though now that you are here there is no telling of what he’s capable.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What’s mean?”
His eyes twinkled, and though he didn’t look at me I still had the feeling his eyes were on me. “It means, Miss Bray, that you are a link to his full potential. A catalyst, as it were, to unlocking his true dragon self.”
I blinked at him. “I still don’t follow.”
Sfetnic paused before the landing to the next staircase and turned to face me with that peculiar smile of his. “You are his mate, Miss Bray. Through you he will create not only his future, but your mere presence will manifest within him his dragon magic, allowing him to control the throne on which he precariously sits.”