My scream lagged behind us as we fell into the swirling wind and darkness. There was a moment of weightlessness followed by a hard drop through the other side. Fortunately, I fell on something soft. Unfortunately for Luca, it was him.
He let out a soft ‘oomph’ as I toppled onto him. I could see why. The floor was jagged stone smoothed only by some half-hearted chiseling and countless feet. The smell of salty air invaded my nostrils with all the tenderness of a rampaging grizzly bear.
I clambered off Luca and he climbed to his feet, where he gave me a teasing smile. “You’re lighter than you look.”
I snorted. “And you’re a terrible liar, now where are we?”
He looked ahead of us. The tunnel stretched for a hundred feet and stopped at a curtain of seaweed. A light breeze blew against the strands, making them wave at us. “I’d say we’re at Castellia, the port of my kingdom, but let’s find out.”
Luca led the way and we soon arrived at the seaweed. He drew aside half the curtain and revealed a small rocky cove with cliffs some two hundred feet tall. They occupied much of the scenery to our left, but on our right was the expanse of a great ocean, and a few hints of long, wide docks that stretched out into those green-blue waters.
We stepped out and into the full warmth of the sun and salty air. The cove wall to our left was mirrored on the far side of the five-mile wide bay by another cliff side that protected the port from the unforgiving waters of the ocean. Together they created a mile-wide mouth two miles out from land that allowed vessels to dock within the safe confines of the stone walls. I noticed a faint white spot on the left-hand side of the mouth that appeared to be a rock discoloration from weather.
The docks did indeed stretch out from shore for some five hundred feet, and ships of all sizes and styles lined the boards. Sailors loaded and unloaded cargo, and shipments were inspected and stacked, awaiting more travel. The shouts of men and seagulls alike echoed over the rocks as commerce went on its business.
The port city itself stretched out away from the water and in the direction of Amnisis. The city was filled with houses that showed its ancient maritime heritage in their deck-board walls and exterior decorations such as old nets and traps. Yards and streets were shaded by canvas stretched over old ship masts, and the storefronts more resembled entrances to the captain’s quarters than fancy shops. Commerce bustled hither and there in the form of carts loaded with goods moving up and down the cobblestone roads. On the widest central road an air of busy work swam down the stones as sailors mingled with locals to create a cacophony of laughter and hard selling.
I glanced up at Luca who was inspecting the docked boats. “That’s a lot of ships.”
He nodded. “Yes, but we’re only looking for one.” His eyes lit up as they fell on a particularly long away boat anchored on a dock not far from the rocky trail that led to where we stood. He nodded at the boat. “That one.”
I squinted at the away vessel. It was made of a dark oak style wood and its bow was sharply pointed. Two rows of oars lay in their hooks awaiting their oarsmen. There was no name carved anywhere, but a small carving of a bird like a dove had been nailed to the prow.
I lifted an eyebrow. “How can you tell it’s that one?”
His sharp eyes scanned the docks. “The dove is the sign of Trulio, and the ship is of the finest quality wood, a weakness of which he’s known for.”
My other eyebrow rose up. “He’s that bold that he marks all his ships with his favorite bird?”
Luca sighed. “He’s that cunning. Though everyone knows his reputation, proving that he’s a pirate is much more difficult. None of his sailors have ever implicated him in their illegal activities, and he himself stays far away from the dirtier work of piracy.”
I furrowed my brow. “Why would someone like that want to get involved with stealing a key? He hasn’t even asked for a ransom.”
Luca pursed his lips. “No, and that’s what’s so strange about this theft. It isn’t his style, nor does he have anything to gain.”
I looked around the port waters, but dozens of ships were anchored out at sea. “Well, we know where the away boat is at, but where’s its mother? And are we going to guess the key is out there and not hiding in another tunnel?”
Luca folded his arms over his chest and frowned. “I see what you mean. Any of his pirates could be holding the key.”
Something clicked in my mind. “How many women pirates does he have?”
Luca turned to me with a look of surprise. “Very few, why?”
“Because Ethan, the guy you met-”
I paused mid-sentence with my mouth agape before I clapped it shut and blinked at him. “Who?”
The corners of Luca’s lips twitched upward. “Eunomia Smith is her full name, though those close to her call her Mia, but you were saying about her brother?”
“We saw him on the steps this morning, and I figured he’d maybe drawn the suspects going in or coming out, so I had Pennae spring me from the castle.”
Luca chuckled. “I imagine that must have greatly amused Sfetnic and greatly annoyed Tybalt.”
I blinked at him. “You mean the guy with the tall helmet?”
He nodded. “He’s my captain of the guards, and his duty is to watch over you while I’m away.”
I frowned. “How many times are you going to leave me pining for you in your castle?”
Luca’s humor failed him as he turned his face away from me and pursed his lips. “A king has a great many responsibilities, but you were explaining to me about Ethan. He had seen the two thieves?”
I nodded. “Yeah. He’d drawn two people who had gone in separately but came out together. We figured they were it and he knew that Draven had a tattoo of a gull on his arm, so we followed him to The Gull and that’s where we found you.”
He turned back to me and smiled. “I couldn’t have followed the trail better myself, and unfortunately-” He rubbed the lower half of his face with his palm, “-I didn’t.”
I studied his pale features with a heavy heart. “You sure you’re going to be alright?”
Luca turned his attention back to the port and lifted his eyes to the sky where the sun had begun its descent. “King Glimlach has given us little choice.” He shook himself and returned his gaze to me. “But what of the other person?”
“The other person was a woman, and a pretty one with an eye patch over this eye.” I drew a finger over my left eye. Luca’s own eyes widened, and I lifted an eyebrow. “What? Do you know her?”
He looked straight ahead and pursed his lips. “Yes. I gave her the eye patch.”
My face fell. “How? Why?”
He nodded at the ocean. “It was during my training on one of my father’s merchant vessels a long while ago. Pirates attacked our ship and we fended them off, though not without casualties. The captain was struck down and being the first mate, I was the next to fall under the sword of the lead pirate.”
My eyebrows shot up. “The woman.”
“Yes, the woman. She and I fought for a long while until I captured the upper hand by a throwing a ball of yarn, a gift of luck from my mother, under one of her feet. She stumbled and I found my chance.”
I blinked at him. “Your mother gave you a lucky ball of yarn?”
A smile touched his lips. “She was an incredibly complex lady, but the ball had come from her own home and she considered it lucky.” The humor fled as he sighed. “That day it was lucky, and with their captain grievously wounded the pirates retreated. The woman cursed me not to step foot on the ocean again.”
I winced. “Wow. She’s not going to like to see you again.”
He shook his head. “No, but see her we must if we’re to retrieve the key. Now then-” Held out his hand to me, “-shall we?”
I shrugged and set my hand in his. “Why not? I’ve come this far.”
Luca led me along the narrow rocky path that jutted out only two feet from the rough cliff face. The trail opened onto a sandy beach below the docks, and we ducked low to avoid any unwanted attention from the shore. Some of the docks stood taller than me while others were hardly two feet above the water. The away vessel was anchored at one of the shorter docks, and we were forced to scurry onto the wood planks. A few people lounged about on their own boats and or leaned against a few scattered boxes, their bandannas over their eyes as they slept below the bright sun. We tiptoed past them and up to the docked vessel.
Luca stepped into the boat and offered me his hand. I bit my lower lip as my eyes invariably fell on the deep water around the vessel. “I did tell you I can’t swim, right?”
He met my eyes and smiled. “This vessel is well-made, and I can swim for both of us.”
I took a deep breath and set my hand in his. Luca eased me into the boat. The away ship rocked to and fro, and I clung to him as images of my wet and imminent demise flashed through my mind.
Luca brushed a hand over the top of my head and his whispered words floated down to me. “I will never let any harm come to you. This I swear on the graves of my forefathers.”
I snorted. “When we get back to the city I expect proof of these graves.”
He chuckled as he seated me on the middle bench between a set of oars. “That can be arranged.”
I grasped one of the heavy-looking oars and found that I needed two hands to lift it out of its resting place. “How are we going to get this thing going?”
“We aren’t. You will.”
My jaw dropped onto the bottom of the boat. “Me? I can’t move this!”
He smiled at me as he knelt in front of me. “You’re stronger than you know, especially with this-” He reached into his jacket and drew out a vial of some dark red liquid. Luca popped the cork and held it out to me. “Drink all of it.”
I took the vial and gave the contents a whiff before I wrinkled my nose. “It smells like blood.”
“That’s because it’s mine.”