Luca smiled. “Always so forthright, Maira.”
She laughed. “I outta be, now stop stalling and start showing.”
Luca looked over the heads of the shorter women and his eyes settled on me. He stretched out his hand to me. “Diana.”
I held back, unsure whether the ring of women would let me in to the inner circle. Maira clapped her hands over her head. “Come on now, ladies, we all want to get a good look at her, so let her through.”
They parted and I was able to accept Luca’s hand. He drew me against his side as the dozen curious eyes of the washer women looked me over. I felt like a fish at the market, and some of the younger women looked like they wanted to chop me up.
Maira looked me over with a smile and a nod. “Yes, you’ll do just right for him. Now what about your bite?”
I blinked at her. “My bite?”
She folded her arms over her chest and cast a sly smile up at Luca. “It takes more than just a winning smile to corral this hatchling. He needs a stiff hand and a good swat on the ass every few days.”
Luca winced and rubbed his butt. “I distinctly remember you giving me them more often than that.”
Maira narrowed her eyes. “And you deserved every one of them, I’m sure. Now then-” She grasped my hands and her eyes twinkled, “-you be sure not to let this rapscallion get too carried away with his work. He tends to swing from one devilment to another, and sometimes needs a vacation every now and again.”
I grinned. “I’ll do my best.”
Luca looped one arm around my waist and drew me closer to his side. “If you’re done advising her about all my flaws, I have some kingly duties to perform.”
Maira nodded. “Aye, the key, isn’t it? You’d best get on your way, and don’t spare the wings.” She swept her eyes over the crowd. “Alright, ladies, let them go and back to work with ye! Those clothes aren’t going to wash themselves!”
The women reluctantly returned to work and we moved on down the street. I looked up at Luca who still had a bemused expression on his lips. “I’m guessing Maira’s known you for a long time.”
He chuckled. “She was my nurse.”
I snorted. “That explains the spankings.”
Luca winced and rubbed his butt again. “She was certainly most familiar with my extremities than any other part of me.”
I grinned up at him. “Because you were such an angel?”
He sheepishly smiled at me. “I had my moments of relapses into a rather devilish spirit.”
“I’m not being led astray by a demon with wings, am I?” I teased as I swept my eyes over the stone houses.
Some of his humor slipped from his face as he looked ahead of us. “That depends on what we find at the museum. We’re nearly there.”
We rounded a sharp corner and found ourselves facing a long, wide thoroughfare with shops on either side. Awnings stuck out in the street so far that only a single wagon could travel between them, and the crowds sauntered here and there inspecting the wares stacked on the tables and shelves of the open-front shops. I glimpsed everything from little figurines of animals to life-size statues of people, with trinkets of pitchers, cups, and steles with tiny inscriptions and carved pictures.
The end of the route was a dead-end at a large square, and on the far side of the plaza stood the museum. It was fashioned like the ancient temples of yore. The bulk of the building was as massive as a warehouse, and tall columns at the front towered over the square and held up a stone portico. Embossed, reclining figures projected from the marble, and around them were much of the variety of knickknacks which surrounded us. A pair of large wooden doors were thrown open and a steady stream of visitors moved in and out. The long, short steps that led up to the museum were covered with artists and loungers, all of whom enjoyed the sights set before them.
The museum had several long, deep wings on either side that stretched out past the boundaries of the square. Their fresher stones and slightly different column styles showed they’d been added at later dates, but the white marble matched the original in all but age. Long, narrow flower beds decorated the covered path that followed the length of the buildings, and people strolled down the way admiring the countless colors and varieties of flowers.
“This is quite the setup,” I mused as we dove into the crowd.
Luca stayed close to me and slipped his hand into mine. “The shopkeepers copy the items in the museum and sell their miniature versions to eager tourists.”
We passed a table with an arrangement of keys. “Any chance we can find a duplicate for the gate key?”
He smiled. “Only if they’re imbued with an ancient magic uniquely synced to the door’s lock.”
“So that’s a no?”
“We’ll be better off finding the original,” he warned me as we wound our way through the shoppers.
“Well, well!” a man shouted above the steady hum of voices. One of the shopkeepers to our left strolled out of his small square space and tucked his thumbs into the band about his ample waist. His eyes were hidden by dark, round glasses, and he had a wide grin on his face. “Look what the cat dragged down our alley.”
Luca smiled and inclined his head, but didn’t slow down. “It would be a pleasure to stop and chat, but we have somewhere to be.”
The man chuckled as we passed by. “Nothing focuses the mind like losing something as important as the gate key, eh?”
Luca pursed his lips as we moved along and the strange shopkeeper was lost in the crowds. “I must commend the ladies on spreading the word so quickly.”
I pursed my lips as we approached the towering museum. “Nothing travels as fast as bad news.”
He lifted his eyes to the steps of the portico. “Let’s see if we can’t find any good news.”
We meandered our way through the artists, but one of them shot out his hand and grabbed my ankle. The man was about twenty with a day’s stubble on his chin, and his short dark hair was speckled with paint. He wore a splattered shirt and plain pants with worn shoes. “A moment, my muse!”
“Maybe another time, my artist,” I replied as I tried to wiggle out of his grasp, but he held tight.
He looked up at me with a pleading look on his face. “But you are the one I’ve been looking for all this time! In fact, all day!”
I shook my head. “I’m flattered, but I only do musings on odd days.”
He still held tight to me. “Please! Only a few minutes of your time!”
Luca leaned down and grabbed the man’s wrist. The artist’s face twisted in pain as Luca’s fingers bit down into his flesh. “Release the lady.”
The artist was forced to open his hand and I was freed. Luca did the same to the man who sat sullen in his spot with his empty canvas in his lap. A sketchbook sat by his side, and the askew front cover allowed me to see several dozen fresh sketches. Many had been crossed out in a frenzy.
I felt a tinge of pity for the frustrated man, but there was little time to comfort him as Luca led me up the stairs and through the doors. The interior of the museum was much like a library, with three floors in total and a reception desk to our left. Glass display cases dotted the floors and pristine metal banisters wrapped around the winding stairs that took visitors to the highest reaches of the peaked building. There were several rooms off to either side, and I glimpsed a myriad of oddities, from strange costumes to every weapon imaginable.
One of the women behind the reception desk looked up at our coming and her eyes widened. She was about forty with spectacles atop her pert nose and a tension at the corners of her lips. Her brown hair was tied back in a bun so tight I winced at the sight of it, and she wore a dress that matched the air-breathing rigidity of her hair.
She stood and bowed her head to Luca. “Your-”
He held up his hand and shook his head. “No time for formalities, Miss Smith.”
She pursed her lips, but nodded. “Of course, sir. This way.”