The voice was deep and male, and seemed to bounce off stone walls located on the other side of the gate. Seilu stabbed a bony finger at the strangely-shaped lock that was situated in the center of the two halves. “Hurry and shut him up! He’s been nagging at me all day like that!”
Luca stepped up to the lock and set the shell key into the shallow hollow. The four key teeth at the top stretched upward and inserted themselves into corresponding tiny holes in the gate halves. I could heard clanking as they worked their magic through a dozen locks before a loud one donged like a church bell.
Luca grabbed my hand and drew me back as Seilu scuttled with us. “Some space would be advisable.”
I couldn’t understand why as the groaning gates opened inward until I saw the behemoth of a man on the other side. The shadow stood ten feet tall and their cloak billowed out on both sides, encompassing most of the entrance. They stepped out into the dwindling light and revealed a round face with a stubby beard and sharp eyes. Their hair was the color of a raging wildfire and their skin the pigment of sandy dirt. They wore tight pants and a shirt, and a necklace of gold and precious jewels hung around their neck. A crown of the same variety topped their head like a boulder of gold amid a wildfire.
King Glimlach Plas XXVI opened his wide arms and gave us a broad smile that could have swallowed me whole. “I have arrived!”
Luca stepped forward while I hung back. He smiled as he crossed his arm over his chest and bowed to the great man. “And my city welcomes you, King Glimlach Plas XXVI. May your jewels never fade nor your moss never cease to grow!”
A cheer rang up from the crowd, and people clapped and whistled. The King of the Ponds sauntered over to me and crouched low so we were face to face. His grin widened the more he studied me, and his eyes twinkled as he turned them to Luca. “A fine queen you have here, King Silvanus. She has the light of the sun in her eyes and the touch of mischievous humor you changelings and humans so admire.”
Luca’s admiring eyes settled on me, and I blushed under his attention. “I couldn’t agree with you more, Your Highness.”
“Now then-” King Plas stretched to his full height and his humor fled as he frowned. “How did the key come to be stolen and who stole it?”
Luca’s eyes flickered over the crowd. “That would be better spoken about in more private quarters.”
King Plas stepped to one side and swept his arm toward the gate. A line of torches hung from either side of smoothly carved stone walls and led down a flight of wide steps and into the earth. “Then let me invite you into my domain.”
A noise behind us made Luca and I look in that direction. I noticed the crowd at the back part, and a line of soldiers marched through. The guard I’d seen earlier in the castle led them, and I vaguely recalled that Luca had called him Tybalt.
The soldiers reached us and Tybalt bowed his head. “We have come to return you to the castle, Your Highness.”
Luca arched an eyebrow. “Word travels fast.”
Tybalt raised his head and drew a folded paper from his cloak which he handed to Luca. “No, Your Highness. We received a note from Miss Smith at the museum that you would be here.” Luca unfolded the note and I leaned against him to read it.
You will find His Highness at the Gate. Please fetch him and remind him that he cannot always protect his lady and himself on his own. – Eunomia Smith
I finished my silent reading with a snort and smiled up at Luca’s touch of annoyance. “She knows you.”
“So it would seem,” he mused as he tucked the paper into his pocket. “And the advice is not without merit.” He turned to King Plas and bowed his head. “I’m afraid we cannot yet except your kind offer, Your Highness, but as for your questions, they will be duly answered at the castle at your convenience.”
King Plas wrinkled his nose. “Very well. After the procession I will ask my questions.” He turned his attention to the onlookers and raised his hands above his head. “Tomorrow we feast and celebrate this new queen, and I will bring the ale!”
A greater cheer than before rose up from the crowd. The king of the dwarves turned and took a step toward the gate, but paused and turned his head just enough so one of his eyes settled on us.
He spoke in a whisper so low I barely caught the words. “Watch yourself, Silvanus. If half the rumblings in my domain are true, than your troubles are more than they appear.”
Luca pursed his lips, but bowed his head. “I thank you for the warning.”
Plas nodded his head and sauntered into his domain. The gate shut loudly behind him, and the door was resealed by the strange key.
Luca took the key and handed it to Tybalt. “Keep this and see that it is placed in the vault.”
Tybalt clasped the key tightly in his gauntlet-covered hand and nodded. “Yes, Your Highness. Will you be returning with us?”
Luca offered me his hand and a smile. “I believe we will.”
My aching body was overjoyed when I grasped his hand and nodded. “Definitely.”
Luca led our procession through the curious onlookers and down the winding streets to his majestic castle. The gates opened and Sfetnic met us in the courtyard.
He bowed his pale, wizened head to us. “I am glad to see you both returned, Your Highnesses.”
“As are we,” Luca returned as he tilted his head back to look up at the grand keep. “Is everything prepared for tomorrow?”
Sfetnic nodded. “It is, but the security needs your attention.”
Luca pursed his lips. “Later.”
Sfetnic lifted an eyebrow, but backed up and bowed his head. “Yes, Your Highness.”
Luca led me past the adviser, who cast a strange look at me. I was a little unsettled as Luca guided me up the maze of stairs, though there was no small relief when we soon arrived at the top floor. Too soon.
I paused at the top of the final stairs and looked over my shoulder. Luca smiled at me. “Has Sfetnic explained the stairs to you?”
I nodded. “Yeah, but he had to touch the wall.”
Luca pointed at his feet. “As a member of the royal family I have the privilege of merely needing to touch the floor for the castle to accept my route through its halls.”
“Your family tree is really. . .unique,” I mused as we continued on our way.
His good humor faltered a little as he stared straight ahead, and I noticed he tightened his grip slightly on my hand. “Yes.”
I frowned at him. “There’s something wrong.”
He lifted an eyebrow at me. “Is there?”
I rolled my eyes. “Listen, I can tell when something’s wrong with you. The wrinkles around your eyes get tight.”
Luca was so surprised he jerked to a stop and set a hand on one side of his face. A chuckle escaped his lips before we moved forward. “I’ll have to remember that, and apply some cream.”
“And tell me what’s worrying you,” I added as we reached the doors.
Luca opened both of them and gestured with his hand into the interior. “I will answer any and all of your questions inside.”
I pursed my lips, but strode past him and plopped myself on the foot of the bed. Luca closed the doors behind us and turned to face me. I noticed a flash of feral light in his eyes before it was tamped down. Now I had my answer to one of my questions.
The Dragon’s Bane was wearing off.