I quickly told her my plan, and when I had finished Pennae was still frowning. “You could ask one of His Highness’ advisers for help.”
I eased myself onto my feet and winced when half a dozen bruises complained. “I could, but I’m not. I know what the guy looks like and they don’t. That’ll make finding him a lot faster, especially if he isn’t there anymore.”
Pennae shook her head. “This doesn’t sound safe at all.”
I set a hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes. “I know, but I just need you to get me out of here and to the museum. That’s all I’m asking.” She pursed her lips and my heart fell a little. “Please.”
Pennae stared at me for a moment longer before she sighed. “Very well.”
I let out a squeal and grasped her hands in mine. “Thank you so much!”
She shook her head. “But no farther than the museum. My wings are out of shape, and carrying someone for great distances tires me very quickly.”
I nodded. “Of course!” I paused and looked her over. “How are you going to carry me, anyway?”
She lifted an eyebrow. “Don’t you know? Isn’t that why you summoned me?”
I gave her another sheepish smile. “To tell you the truth I didn’t think I’d get past rubbing the feather. All this magic is a little-well, new to me.”
She nodded. “Of course. As the Mother it’s expected that you’re unfamiliar with our traditions.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Where do you guys think I’m from?”
Pennae shrugged. “The Mothers have been from many places-” A noise came from the hall. Footsteps.
A gruff voice was the first one to speak. “The magicks sensed an intruder through the window.”
The reply came from Sfetnic. “I am sure there is nothing to worry about. The Mother is no doubt unharmed.”
There was a gruff harumph. “As captain, I am duty-bound to investigate, though I suspect you know something of the matter, Sfetnic.”
A slight chuckle echoed down the passage. “I know nothing other than our Queen is high-spirited.”
“She’s no queen yet.”
I grabbed Pennae’s shoulders and spun her around to face the window. “Whatever needs to happen to get me out of here, do it quick!”
Pennae turned the tables and pulled me in front of her. “Climb onto the windowsill.”
I gingerly did as instructed as the footsteps came closer to the door. Pennae crawled up behind me and looped her arms under mine. My heart thumped in my chest as I looked down at the death that eagerly awaited me. If Luca hadn’t healed my heart than I bet it would have exploded.
Pennae pushed her body against mine and sent us reeling over the edge. Instinct told me to scream, and boy did I scream. The shrill, high-pitched noise echoed up and down the castle walls as we plummeted toward the ground.
Pennae wrapped her legs around my waist and opened her winged arms. A great updraft caught us and jerked us upward so that we were very nearly even with the window from which we’d dropped. I took a long enough break from my heart attack to look over my shoulder. Sfetnic stood at the window with a man in armor at his side. The familiar pale figure had a slim smile on his lips while the other man sported sharp, angry eyes. He wore heavier armor than I’d seen before, and atop his head was a helmet with a crest like a mohawk.
I waved at them, and the next moment Pennae swooped down, taking us over the roofs of the homes and shops. The wind kissed my cheeks and a laugh burst from my lips as we glided over the rooftops. People looked up and children waved to us.
I heard a groan from my flight commander. “I’ll never live this down. . .”
I grinned up at her. “And I’ll be forever grateful to you.”
Some of her worry slipped away, but she still wrinkled her beaked nose as she gazed ahead of us. “I wouldn’t mind a gold coin or a shop space of my own.”
I laughed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
We swooped across the city and soon arrived at our majestic destination. Pennae set us down in a corner of the far western wing of the building. My legs shook a little as she set me on them, but she landed gracefully at my side. She stretched out her arms and her feathers slipped back into her skin.
I couldn’t help but gawk at the beauty of it. “That is so amazing.”
Pennae turned her face to the side and shrugged, but I could see a glimmer of glee in her eyes. “It’s nothing. Just a little practice with the ancient art of flying.”
I grabbed her hand and tugged her toward the monumental steps. “And art is exactly what we need to see about.”
“But I was just supposed to fly you here!” she protested.
I stopped and turned to face her as some of my humor faded. A sigh escaped my lips as I released her. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” I stepped backward away from her and smiled. “Thanks for the ride, and I’ll look into what I can do about that shop.”
Pennae pursed her lips. “I. . .I may be of some help to you still.”
I closed my eyes and shook my head. “No, it’s fine, really. Besides, I can’t guarantee this won’t be dangerous.”
Pennae stretched to her full height, which coincidentally was a few inches taller than me, and stiffened her jaw. “Then all the more reason to go with you. I did hand you my feather, after all, and it would be a humiliation if I were to let something happen to you so soon after giving you that.”
I jumped forward and enveloped her a big hug. She let out a small yelp of surprise before I pulled back and grinned her hand. “Then let’s go, partner.”
We raced along the front of the western wing and soon arrived at the front of the museum. I scanned the wide steps, but just as I feared the tell-tale spot was empty. The artist was gone. Still, there was hope.
Pennae looked around at all the lounging people. “Do you see what you’re looking for?”
I shook my head. “No, but I have a Plan B.”
She furrowed her brow. “A Plan. . .B?”
“I’ll show you,” I promised as I hurried up the stairs, and she scurried after me.
We slipped inside and I noticed Miss Smith behind the front desk. Her stoic face showed a hint of surprise at our coming, and she met us at the counter. “Miss Bray, this is an unexpected surprise.”
“For both of us,” I assured her as I nodded at an empty table across the room. “Mind if we talk alone?”
She smiled and gestured to a door behind the desk. “My office would be more private.”
Pennae and I scooted around the desk and Miss Smith led us into her office. It was a cramped room, but not because of the size so much as the quantity of stuff contained in its four walls. Bookshelves stretched from floor to ceiling along two of the walls, while the other two sported maps and pinned paperwork. The floor was covered in books and scattered bits of paper and folders bursting with documents young and old.
I sidestepped past a stack of books as tall as me as Miss Smith meandered her way along a narrow path to her impressive oak desk. She took a seat on the corner while Pennae and I stopped in front of her. “Where is His Highness?”
I shrugged. “He’s out on his own trail, but I thought I’d give him a hand with my own leads for finding the key, and I think there’s a guy who can help me do that.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “Oh? And who might that be?”
“This morning there was a guy on the steps. He’s a few years younger than me and is an artist. He might be able to help.” A strange expression crossed her face. I leaned back and blinked at her. “What? Is he a regular around here?”
She slowly nodded her head. “He is often on the stairs, but why do you want to see that artist in particular?”
I pointed in the direction of the stairs. “Because he had a whole pile of sketches of the people who were passing by. If he remembers who went in and out around that time, he might have a picture that could help us identify the two men. Heck, he might even be able to give us a direction of where they went.”
That same unusual look on her face had diminished, but just a little as she slid off the corner of her desk. “I see. Then I will take you to him personally.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “You know where he is?”
A touch of a smile curled the corners of her lips. “I know where he might be, but come. Let’s see if he can help us.”