The throngs of people gathered close about a pair of metal doors that were each twenty feet high and ten feed wide. Intricate carvings of columns and flowing water were so real that the sun reflected off the shimmering liquid and reflected the curious faces of the front row. They were blocked from reaching the doors by a contingency of armored guards with a few smatterings of the agile ones that had guarded the Cloister.
A short man was hunched over the foot-tall lock that kept the pair of doors closed. He wore a brown leather apron over his front, a bland green shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and the bottoms of his pants disappeared in black boots. An equally black bag sat beside him on the ground.
Pennae wrinkled her nose. “The officials must be desperate.”
I looked around. “Why do you say that?”
She pointed a feathered hand at the short man. “They’ve brought the best locksmith in the city to try to open the-” The earth shook and nearly knocked everyone off their feet.
We swayed for a moment before we caught ourselves. I whipped my head up to my companion. “What was that?”
She pursed her lips. “That was the Pond King. It seems he’s impatient to meet the new lady of the city.”
A slight blush accented my cheeks. “N-new lady?”
Pennae nodded. “Yes. The king has brought a bride through the mirror, and everyone in the city is eager to meet her, the Pond King most of all.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Why him?”
“He has the duty of presenting her with-”
I didn’t hear the rest as movement in the crowd caught my attention. A man was moving against the flow of traffic and toward us. His unshaven face had an annoyed sneer on it as he reached into his coat. The hilt of a handle peeked out.
I grabbed the shoulders of my friend, spun her around, and pushed her away from the crowd. “I think we need to go.”
She looked over her shoulder and frowned at me. “But you haven’t found your friend yet!”
“No, but somebody found us,” I returned as I glanced back at the crowd.
The man reached the edges of the throngs and broke into a sprint. I grabbed my friend’s hand and yanked her down the nearest street.
“Not there!” Pennae yelled.
I learned too late why she protested. It was a dead end. The street ended only forty feet further down. I spun around to make a hasty retreat, but our way was already blocked. The man loomed in the entrance, and slowly he unsheathed a long dagger from inside his coat. The blade glistened in the shadowed light as he took a step toward us.
He leered at me with bloodshot eyes. “You’ve been a lot of trouble getting, but get you we will.”
Pennae shrank back from the weapon. I opened my arms and stepped forward. “Alright, take me.”
He nodded at Pennae. “She comes, too.” The bird woman made a tiny squawk and hid behind me.
I frowned. “She doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
He grinned and sliced the blade across the air in front of his throat. “Nobody tells any tales. Not until we want ‘em told.”
I shook my head. “Then just take me. She won’t say a word.”
A barking laugh escaped his lips as he marched toward us. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t.”
My mind frantically searched for a way out of this. I would never have expected the answer would come from the skies.
A shadow dropped down behind the man. He felt the wind on his back and spun around, swinging his dagger in the spin. A clawed hand caught his wrist and jerked it. The horrible crack of broken bones echoed up up and down the alley, followed by the man’s warbling cry. He dropped to his knees, or tried to, but the figure’s other hand shot out and wrapped around our attacker’s throat. He was lifted a foot off the ground and tossed into the wall to my left. The man crumpled to the ground and twitched a few times before he lay still.
With the knife wielder out of the way I could see our rescuer. Relief washed over me as I recognized Luca, or most of him. His wings were spread out behind himself, but scales covered his cheeks back to his pointed ears. His hands ended in talons and more scales peeked out from the top of his shirt.
Luca’s bright green eyes glowed in the soft light, but they softened when they fell on me. I rushed forward and leapt into his chest, scales and all. He wrapped his arms around me and a few whispered words passed to me. “Are you alright?”
A blubbering snort escaped my lips as I buried my face into his shirt. “What do you think?”
He drew me closer. “I’m sorry. I should never have left you.”
I drew far enough away to look up at him and smile. “Why? Does this damsel kidnapping happen a lot?”
“Apparently more than I knew,” he mused before his attention fell on my feathered friend. “Who do we have here?”
Pennae’s eyes bulged out of her head and she dropped to one knee before bowing her head. “Your Highness!”
I smiled at my quivering companion. “Pennae helped me to the gate.”
Luca led me over to Pennae and stretched out his hand to her. She lifted her head and gaped at the offer. “Any friend of Diana’s deserves to stand in my presence.”
Pennae whipped her head from me to Luca and back. “Then the new queen. . .the lady. . .is-?”
I shrugged. “I guess that’s me.”
Pennae winced. “Then you have my sincerest apologies for my demand, my queen. I never meant to cause offense-”
I held up a hand. “It was an honest deal, and you helped me find my friend, so you can have the copyright.”
Tears welled up in Pennae’s eyes as she set her shivering hand in his and he helped her to her feet. She still couldn’t meet his green gaze, and her hands fidgeted in front of her. “I-it was my pleasure, Your Highness.”
Luca looked down at me. “I was informed by my guards that you had been attacked and escaped into the city.”
I nodded. “Yeah. I managed to hide, and that’s where Pennae found me. She got me here and that’s when one of the creeps found me again. Why are they?”
Luca pursed his lips. “A highly trained gang of kidnappers and assassins. They’re found more often on the seas, but the competition has forced some of them to find land legs.”
Pennae whipped her head up and her eyes widened. “You don’t mean the Trulio gang, do you?”
He nodded. “No doubt, and somebody with a large purse seems to have employed them. Many of his men have been spotted around the city, though this fellow-” He scowled at the unconscious man, “-is our first captive.”
I looped an arm around one of his. “In that case, I hope you don’t mind if I stick close to you.”
Luca grinned. “It would be my pleasure.”
Pennae returned to fidgeting with her feathered fingers. “If you’re done with me, Your Highness, I think I’ll be going.” She cast a quick look at our incapacitated foe. “I don’t really want to know more about them than I already do. . .”
Luca inclined his head. “Of course. Do as you wish.”
Pennae scooted around us, but I caught her arm and smiled at her. “Visit me some time at the castle.” I gave her a wink. “I’ll make sure to change the decor up a little.”
Her face brightened and she nodded. “Definitely!” She gave my hand a squeeze before she turned away.
I stretched out my hand. “Wait a sec!” She paused and half-turned to me. “You know where to get a hold of me, but where do I get a hold of you?”
“How silly of me!” Pennae scolded herself as she drew one sleeve back to reveal the feathers that covered the top of her hand. The shaft disappeared into her skin just above her wrist. She grasped one of the feathers and, with a bit of teeth clenching, wrenched one out which she held out to me. “You can find me with this.”
I took the feather, but blinked at her. “What do I do with this?”
Pennae smiled. “You tap the point of the shaft on your wrist here-” She used a finger to tap where she’d removed the feather from her own arm. “Two taps will tell me you need me.”
Pennae wrinkled her nose. “That will tell me you need me urgently, but I’m sure that won’t happen.”
I clutched the feather against my chest and grinned at her. “Thanks.” Pennae nodded and disappeared into the crowds that still congregated outside the gates.
As I studied the beautiful plume Luca spoke up. “That is no small honor to be given a feather.”
I looked up at him and blinked. “Really?”
He nodded at my treasure. “Those feathers don’t grow back, so avius are very careful to whom they give them.”
I gently tucked it into my pocket and slyly smiled at him. “I’ll make sure not to ruffle her feathers. Now then-” I looked askance at my hero and raised an eyebrow. “A dwarf who’s climbing out of his columned home, bird people, and now land pirates?”
He chuckled. “My city boasts quite an eclectic mix, does it not?”
I kicked the bottom of the pirate’s shoe. “Some I could do without.”
Luca pursed his lips as he studied the man. “Yes. We’ll take him with us and return to the castle.”
Luca bent down to heft the man over his shoulder when a strange spark erupted from underneath the pirate’s clothes.
“Wait!” I shouted as I grabbed one of Luca’s arms and yanked him back.
I was too eager and the force of my yanking made us fall backward onto the ground. We watched in horror as the spark turned into an immense blaze that lit up the man’s body. Luca threw himself over my body and pinned me beneath him as the heat blasted outward. Even with his protection I could feel the stinging fever of the extreme temperature.
The explosion lasted only a few moments, and soon Luca lifted himself off me. I got a full view of the pirate, or what was left of him. All that was left was a scorch mark.