Luca scowled at the black mark on the ground. The heat had been so intense that the grains of dirt had turned to glass. “Magic protection.”
A snort escaped my lips and I stabbed a finger at the blackened earth. “You call that protection?”
Luca stood and helped me to my feet. “It wasn’t meant to protect the bearer, but the one who placed the spell.”
My legs proved to be a little shaky and I found myself leaning against him. He wasn’t complaining, and neither was I. “And they placed the spell to keep his mouth shut?”
His face was grim as he nodded. “Undoubtedly.”
I took one last look at the blackened earth before I turned my face away. “I think I’ve had enough fun in your world for one day-” A slight tremor ran through the earth beneath us. I whipped my head up to him and stared with wide eyes. “What was that?”
His attention lay on the mouth of the alley. “The King of the Ponds wants released. He’s threatened to tear down the doors if he’s not let out within the day, and that was a reminder that he could do it.”
I wrinkled my nose. “What’s so bad about that? Can’t you just get a new pair of doors?”
Luca shook his head. “No. Those were imbued with magic that keeps all mold and trespassers from entering the Ponds and wreaking havoc on the entire water supply of the city.”
I winced. “Then you can’t just walk into the nearest home store and buy a pair, but have you figured out where the key is?”
Luca dropped his attention back to the black spot on the ground. “No, but I wouldn’t doubt it was a distraction to lure me away from you. Fortunately, that may be to our advantage.”
I blinked at him. “How?”
“If true, it means the pirates merely wanted to separate us. They would not have hidden the key so cause lasting harm.”
“‘If true,’” I repeated.
He sighed and nodded. “Quite right, but we’ll work from there and see if we can’t find the key. It was taken only an hour ago from its spot in the Museum of Antiquity.”
I tilted my head to one side as he led me out of the alley. “I get that the key is important enough it needs to be kept under lock and key, but why is it kept in a museum and not some private vault?”
He grinned. “It’s of a rather. . .unusual shape, and many people desire to see it, so there it sits until the Pond King wishes to emerge from his domain.”
We side-stepped the crowd and Luca guided me down the street away from the doors. “And that happens how often?”
“Once a year, normally after the season of rains to give his assessment of the water levels.”
I snorted. “Naturally. Speaking of him visiting-” I cast a side-glance at the strange dragon king, “-was he really wanting to see me or some other damsel?”
Luca smiled down at me. “You. He knew I had ventured through the mirror looking for a bride, and when word reached him that I had brought one back he was naturally curious.”
I blushed and dropped my eyes to the ground. “It’s all so silly. I’m not that important.”
Luca stopped and set his hands on my shoulders. He turned me so we faced each other, and he cupped my chin in his fingers to lift my eyes to meet his. “As my queen, you are the most important person in my life. Never doubt that to me you are special beyond compare.”
My face must have resembled a lit Christmas tree. “I bet you say that to all the girls you kidnap.”
A sly grin slipped onto his lips. “You’re my first effort, and I don’t see myself needing to try again.”
I set my hand atop his and freed my chin before I cleared my throat. “Yes, well, being your special someone doesn’t mean I’m not going to stop interrogating you about this place you’ve dropped me into.”
He offered me his arm and a chuckle. “I wouldn’t have it any other way, but we should talk and walk to the museum.”
I accepted his arm and we continued on our way through the myriad of alleys. “Speaking of talking, how does word reach a dwarf who lives down in the sewers?”
Luca tapped his lips with the back of one finger and winked at me. “Not that word, at least not in their presence. The dwarves are very proud of the care they take with the cistern, and any mention of the unmentionables is liable to start a war, or at least a small riot.”
I raised one hand and took on a solemn look. “I solemnly swear to avoid using the ‘s’ word, but you still haven’t answered my question.”
The road on which we walked and talked had an air of old Greece about it. There were stone houses on either side of us, and many of them had small porches built from sticks lashed together with thick, rough rope. The roads had transformed from cobblestone to wide, flat white stones, though all the streets sported the same narrow, parallel grooves, courtesy of countless wagon wheels.
The street on which we walked widened into a circular square. A fountain stood in the center with a pile of stones as the centerpiece of the design. The majestic form of a mermaid sat atop those stones with her head held high and her arms outstretched. Her hands were cupped together, and a small fountain of water poured from them and into the bowl beneath her.
A gaggle of women young and old hunched over the bowl. Baskets of dirty laundry were their constant companions and gossip their trade as they chatted away with each other.
One of the older women leaned closer to her fellow cloth cleaner and lowered her voice to a whisper a deaf man could hear. “And have you heard about Marcia?” The group about her quieted, eager to hear news about their acquaintance.
Her friend shook her head. “No, what?”
“The other day she was caught in her back garden wearing only her bloomers.”
A few chuckles rustled through the crowd, and a few sighed and shook their heads. One outright laughed. “She probably just locked herself out again.”
The informant shook her head. “But that isn’t the strangest part. She was caught by the milkman who was stealing out of her neighbor’s house with a pocketful of their best silver.”
“You mean their only silver,” one of their companions spoke up, and laughter burst out of the listeners.
Luca stopped us a few feet away from the women, and used one hand to gesture at them and the statue. “The washing fountains are the veins of city news streams. The water not only comes up, but the news travels down the many delivery pipes. The Pond King’s domain is at the epicenter of the gossip of my entire realm.”
I snorted. “So he’s the best source for who’s cheating on who?”
Luca smiled. “That isn’t quite his area of expertise, but he does know quite a bit about the rumors that spread by mouth, and more than once he’s helped me stop some unsavory characters from committing evils within my kingdom-”
The shout came from one of the gossiping gals, and at mention of the handsome leader most of them squealed and dropped their laundry into the fountain. They scurried up to him and crowded me out as they smiled and batted their eyelashes for their wealthy leader.
“You’re looking healthy, Your Highness!”
“It’s always a pleasure to see you, Your Highness!”
One of the more beautiful women slid up to his side and brushed her finger down the front of his shirt. “You haven’t visited us in so long, Your Highness. Don’t you like us anymore?”
Luca smiled. “I have a city to maintain.”
She set her cheek against his shoulder and looked up at him with her doe eyes. “But we’re your citizens, too.”
He held up his hands. “Ladies, I regret to inform you that I am no longer eligible.”
Another beauty cozied up closer to him and grinned. “No ring, no problem, Your Highness.”
A large older woman with ample hips used them to bump the beautiful vixens back into the crowd, and gave her sensual cohorts a scowl. “That’s enough of that now. We all know he’s got someone now, so no more gallivanting about with him, you hear?” The two women wasn’t the only one with a disappointed looked, but the older woman merely turned her attention to Luca and smiled up at him. “Well? Where’s the blushing bride?”