Miss Smith walked around the far side of the desk and we followed. She guided us beneath a large arch and into the western wing of the museum. The wing had a long corridor down the left side with display halls on the right. She led us into the one nearest the main hall where display cases were filled with locks, keys, and lock boxes of all sizes with the treasures discovered inside of them.
There was also a room within the room, and a large wall with a pair of arched wood doors led inside. On either side of the portal were a pair of wood columns carved with symbols I didn’t recognize. The doors were opened and revealed a single large pedestal atop which sat an empty glass case.
Luca paused in front of the doors and set his hand on the wood column. He looked them up and down, and frowned. “Where are the guards?”
Miss Smith stopped and turned to face us. “I doubt you need to guess, but they were ambushed between tours. Fortunately, the pair only came away with some nasty headaches and a great deal of lost pride.”
Luca strode over to the empty case and I followed. The glass had been partially lifted and the key removed from its soft pillow. The shape the key had made in the pillow reminded me of a potato chip gone horrible wrong.
Luca looked up at Smith as she joined us on the other side of the pedestal. “They breached the magic barriers?”
She pursed her lips and nodded. “Yes, and in record time. Whoever had planned this had done their homework.”
Luca set his hands on the pillow and frowned. “Did anyone happen to get a good look at the thieves?”
Miss Smith sighed. “Unfortunately, not a good one. They approached the guards wearing fake faces, as one of the guards did manage to slightly dislodge the mask, though not enough to see their true features.”
Luca scowled at the empty pillow. “Then we have no leads.”
“Not quite, Your Highness,” Miss Smith countered as she reached into her pocket and drew out a slip of folded paper. “One of the thieves dropped this in their attack, and the guard managed to hide it in their hand before they lost consciousness.”
Luca took the paper and unfolded it. I looked over his shoulder and frowned as I read the contents. “‘The east sun rises, the west sun sets. Look to the clearing.’” I wrinkled my nose and looked up at Luca. “Does the sun work that way?”
Luca shook his head. “No.”
Miss Smith sighed. “I wish I could be of help, but the note has all of us stumped. The paper is no help, either, as it’s of a plain stock sold throughout the city.”
“I will keep it just the same,” Luca told her as he tucked the paper into his pocket. “Is there anything else that could help us?”
She shook her head. “Nothing at all except we know the time of the attack to have been an hour ago, and that the men left the museum immediately after the theft.”
I raised an eyebrow. “How do you know that?”
“A tour came through and discovered the guards soon after the attack, and the guide saw two men leave the room, though they didn’t get a good look at them. They rang the alarm and the museum was searched, but they were not to be found.”
Luca sighed. “We’ll search the area, anyway, but thank you for your help.”
Miss Smith smiled at him. “Has Your Highness forgotten that you have advisers and guards for such a job?”
He grinned. “You know me better than that, Eunomia.”
She laughed. “Yes, I do, but I do wish you would be more careful. You are the Light of the City, after all.”
He took my hand and inclined his head to our guide. “The Light never forgets, but now I’ll see if I can’t use that to illuminate this problem. If you’ll excuse us.”
Luca turned and led me out of the room. I lifted an eyebrow at him. “‘Light of the City?’”
He chuckled. “An archaic title for the head of my family. Those of the lesser branches aren’t allowed to hold the title.”
Both of my eyebrows shot up. “You mean it’s not just you?”
He shook his head. “No. That is, I’m the last of my line, but there have been other siblings of my ancestors. They make up the lesser branches.”
“So is this family tree bushy or more like a scraggly stick?”
“That depends on the part of the plant you’re pointing at,” Luca mused as we strolled through the main hall of the museum to the front doors of the museum.
The steps were less crowded, and the artist who had grabbed my attention was gone. The warm sun lightened some of my mood, but my heart was still heavy with the mystery of the missing key.
I looked up at Luca’s grim face. “Maybe the locksmith will be able to work the gate open?”
He shook his head. “That isn’t certain.” He balled his hands into fists at his side and he clenched his teeth. “Damn it. How could I be this careless?”
A tour group passed us, and we moved to one side of the portico to allow them room. I set my hand gently on his arm. “What will happen if he isn’t let out?”
“Then His Bejeweled Radiance gets to kick your butt.”
The voice came from my right and down the steps that led to the cobbled ground. I looked around, but there was no one to be seen.
“Look a little lower.”
I did as the voice bade and noticed a small round sewer drain. The cover was lifted and a small man with a long, bulbous nose stared back at me with a grin of yellowed teeth. He had a dumpy hat atop his head and wore a bright red shirt of equally dumpy stature.
Luca pursed his lips. “Oppasser. It’s been a long time.”
The little man scurried out of the manhole with as much agility as a young goat. He wore a pair of leggy pants, but the tough black boots on his feet showed business. The man stood about three feet tall and sported black hair with graying sideburns.
The grim dwarf nodded. “Not since your father’s funeral, but that’s not why I’m here. His Radiance isn’t happy, and he’ll deal with the problem himself if he has to.”
“He means to be released regardless of the consequences?”
He sauntered up to us and pulled an envelope out of his black belt. “A message, Your Highness, from His Radiance.”
Luca took the envelope and drew out a short letter. The hand was cursive, but otherwise was in my language. I scanned the contents.
To His Highness,
I have been informed via my tunnels that the key to the gate has been stolen. This lapse in security for something so precious is unconscionable, and should the matter not be dealt with by the time the sun sets in the sky than I will insist on creating a new gate, no matter the cost.
Yours sincerely, His Radiance, King Glimlach Plas XXVI
I looked up at Luca. His face had taken on a bit of unhealthy pallor, but he stiffened his jaw and looked down at the little fellow. “Rest assured the key will be found in that time.”
Oppasser lifted an eyebrow. “Then you have a lead?”
“We have a few suspicions.”
Oppasser wrinkled his nose which caused the extra-long schnoz to flap to and fro. “I’ve heard those words from you before, Luca. That means you don’t have a clue where to go.”
Luca offered him a smile, but I didn’t see any warmth in it. “I’ll think of something. I always do.”
Oppasser frowned and partially turned back to the manhole, but kept his sharp eyes on us. “You do, but this has a time limit, and His Radiance won’t forget you losing the key, either.”
Luca bowed his head. “Thank you for the warning.”
Oppasser nodded and scuttled back into his hole. In a moment he was gone, as was Luca’s smile. That had dropped off his face, and in its place was a look of concern.
I grasped his sleeve. “What will happen if the king can’t get out?”
Luca ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “He’ll make a way out.”
“Is that so bad?” I wondered as I looked down at the manhole. It was some two feet round. “I mean, he’s just a small dwarf. How much damage could that cause?”
Luca dropped his hand to his side and smiled at me. “Unfortunately, the ruler of the dwarves is quite a big larger than his subjects.”
I raised an eyebrow. “How much bigger?”
“About ten feet tall.”
My jaw hit the ground and I blinked at him. “How did that happen?”
He folded his arms over his chest and chuckled. “Legends state that one of his ancestors mated with a giantess, and the result was their line.”
I snorted. “You sure to have a strange world here.”
His humor fled again as he looked at me with a soft, sorrowful expression. “I’m sorry your stay here has had such a beginning. I never meant for you to get involved in such trouble.”
I looped one of my arms through his and gave him a wink. “You mean it isn’t always this fun?”
The corners of his lips twitched upward. “Not quite. There are some days when it’s downright-”