I blinked at him as he pulled on a short bit of rope that hung off the column. The pull opened a secret compartment inside the column and revealed a hollow space. Inside was a mirror that reflected the sky far above us. I crawled up to the opening and gaped at the miracle of mirrors as clouds drifted past.
Dapper puffed out his chest. “My great-great grandfather carved that out a century ago just to tell the time according to your measurement.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “How do you tell the time?”
He nodded at the door. “By the blooming of the flowers. When they’re closed its time to sleep, and when they’re open its time to work.”
My heart sank as I realized the late hour. “The day’s almost gone. . .”
Dapper’s smile faltered a little, but he clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Chin up. It’s not over yet, and I’m sure His Highness will be up and aboot in no time to get you finding that key.”
I nodded, and my bobbing head happened to look to my right at the dividing wall between the entrance room and bedroom. I hadn’t noticed before, but some pictures had been carved into the stone wall. The stone was divided into three unique rectangular scenes, each one very different from the next. There was a scene of hunting a wild boar, of a dwarf scurrying away from a human with a bolt of lightning in his hand, and another with a dwarf lifting up a mountain.
Dapper grinned as he set his palm against the stone and admired the carvings. “My family’s always been curious about the Upland. My great grandmother was fond of the stories from up there, so she had my stone carver granddad make this up.”
I furrowed my brow as I studied the lightning-bearing dwarf. “Who’s this?”
Dapper tucked his thumbs into his belt and puffed out his chest. “That’s an ancestor of mine, or so the legends say. He had the balls to go stealing the lightning god’s thunder.” He let loose a great, jiggling laugh. “Musta been kind of sore for him to be trudging around with all that thundering and drumming about him!”
My eyes widened and I whipped my head around to face him with my mouth agape. “Drumming?”
He frowned at me as he gave a nod. “Aye, that’s what’s all that noise after the light show. Something wrong with that?”
I clasped one of his hands between mine and looked him square in the eyes. “You have to get me to the museum.”
His cheeks blushed so red they made his brown beard appear white. “W-what’s this about? What are you talking about?”
I stabbed a finger at the stone picture. “The key! I think I know where it is, but you have to get me to the museum!”
Dapper blinked at me. “What’s this now? What are you talking about?”
I squeezed his hand. “You have to take me to the museum! I’m begging you!”
His confusion softened. “No need to be begging me, Yer Queenliness. I’ll get you there right now.”
“And I’m coming with you.” The voice came from the bedroom.
Dapper and I hurried to the room and found Luca half out of bed, though that could have been because he didn’t fit in the first place. His face was pale, but there was a smile on his lips. “
I scrambled over to the bed and pressed my hands against his chest. “The only thing you’re doing is laying here.”
He grasped one of my hands and pressed a kiss on the fingers. A light blush accented my cheeks as he met my eyes. “I’m coming.”
“Well, whoever’s coming where had better get out of my house and follow me,” Dapper spoke up as he hitched up his pants. “This key isn’t going to be found with us standing here jabbering our jaws off.”
He strode from the room, but I cast one last uncertain look at Luca. “You sure you want to come with us?”
He pressed my hand against his chest over his heart. “With you, always.”
I swore he had access to a switch that turned on my blushing cheeks, but I shook off the red and looped my arm under one of his. “Come on then. Time to get out of bed and save your city’s water supply.”
The house was even shorter for Luca, and we both crawled our way outside where Dapper impatiently waited for us. He jerked his head toward the back of the small village. “It’s this way.”
I looked where we’d come from and where he wanted us to go. “But that’s the opposite direction of the museum.”
“It’s a shortcut, now let’s git on wit it.”
He strode forward, and we could do nothing else but follow. Dapper led us down another torch-lit tunnel and we came out on hall without houses, but with corrals. Small horses and cows grazed in their respective pens, and a shepherd watched over each.
Dapper stopped at a ladder attached to the wall to our right, and he nodded at the hatch at the top. “This’ll take us to the highest floor.” He began the long climb.
Luca swept his arm toward the rungs and smiled at me. “Ladies first.”
I snorted and gave him a light push toward the ladder. “You just want to enjoy the view. Besides, you look as weak as a kitten and if you fall I might be able to hold you up.”
It scared me a little when he didn’t argue, but instead climbed up after our friend. We soon ascended through the hatch and into another large, low room, but the ladder continued upward to the next floor. The scent of dirt and voices came to my ears, and the stone floor here was covered in a layer of dust. Carts rolled by overhead as Dapper grabbed the single torch that illuminated the low room. The ceiling was so short that Luca and I were forced to crouch as we followed the dwarf to our right where a culvert-sized tunnel led us backward.
We passed through several rooms and a few pipes that I imagined one of which we’d used to descend into the dwarven domain. After a half hour of walking Dapper stopped us at another short ladder that led upward.
He half-turned to us and handed me the torch. “Lemme see if it’s safe.”
“You mean because of the black clad people?” I guessed as he grasped the rungs.
He shook his head. “No, from people stepping on our heads.”
Dapper climbed the short ladder and opened the hatch only slightly. His eyes darted across the crack of light that appeared before he looked over his shoulder at us. “Alright, it’s clear, but hurry it up.”
Dapper flung open the hatch and a square of light shone down on us. I blinked against the bright illumination as he climbed out of sight. Luca drew me to the ladder first and I climbed up. I peeked over the edge and found myself staring at the bottom of a display case. Dapper helped me out and Luca followed.
The dragon king arched an eyebrow as he looked around. I recognized the location as the west wing. “I didn’t know there was an entrance in the museum.”
Dapper grinned as he shut the hatch. The seam matched that of the rest of the stone marble slabs that made up the floor. “We made it during the construction.”
“Your Highness!” The shout came from our left where Mia came out of a long row of tall display cases showcasing armor. She hurried over to us and gaped at our group. “What’s going on?”
Luca shook his head. “There’s no time to explain. Has the exhibit on myths been searched yet?”
She shook her head. “No. We started the search in the west wing in hoping the thieves had hidden it around its case.”
Luca took my hand and we hurried past her. “Wait for me!” Dapper shouted as he scurried after us with Mia close behind.
We hurried through the dozens of museum staff who lifted their heads at our passing and crossed the lobby to enter the eastern wing. Mia beckoned to her staff and they followed. The statue of the god of thunder occupied a prominent spot in the center of the first room. Our group of followers now totaled over thirty.
Luca turned to them and pointed at the god of storms. “Search every case that pertains to Bronte.” The people nodded and spread throughout the exhibit.
I lifted an eyebrow as I sidled up beside Luca. “Bronte?”
Dapper strolled up to us, though his red cheeks showed he was slightly winded from keeping up with our long legs. “The name of the thunder god.”
Mia joined us. “What’s going on?”
Luca nodded at Bronte’s likeness. “Diana thought of something we missed, that perhaps the ‘drums’ to which Trulio alluded to weren’t literal, but-”
A shout came from one of the people who inspected the statue. “Your Highness!” We hurried over with Luca in the lead. The museum worker pointed at the back of the god’s spear just below the highest zig. A hole had been chipped into the stone. “Something’s there!”
Luca stretched his arm up and slipped his fingers into the small hole. He furrowed his brow as his fingers searched, and a moment later his eyes lit up. Luca drew his fingers out, and clasped between two of them was a strange shell with key teeth. He lay the object in his open palm and smiled down at it. The shell half green and half blue, and had a beautiful shine that glistened in the sunlight. The four ‘teeth’ that stood out of the top, two from each color, were stubby and hinted at being as unusual as the key to the glass cases.
I was hesitant to ask. “Is it-?”
Luca nodded. “Yes. The key to the gate.”
Dapper grinned. “Well I’ll be. Is that what it looks like?”
Mia half-turned toward the doorway and the windows that looked out on the waning day. “And not a moment too soon.”