I didn’t wait for a second command and darted down the street.
The leader pointed his sword at me and glared at his men. “Get her!”
The one who was unharmed by the spear maiden’s attacks ran after me. I had no idea where I was going, but any place was better than in the grimy arms of the sleazy man. People and carts were my defenses, and I used them to dash around and through, slowing down my much larger pursuer. Agility was all I had against him, as his speed was much greater than mine and he slowly gained on me. Ten feet. Five. He reached out a hand to grab me.
I took a hard left into a narrow alley. The man kept going a few more feet and crashed into a water barrel. Now he was soaking wet and angry, and I heard him cry out as he resumed our merry chase. I burst out of the alley and found myself on a small street with single-floor homes. They were made of mud, but white-washed to perfection and the street was clean.
My lungs, however, weren’t in so great a condition. They screamed at me for a break, but the screaming man behind me pumped more adrenaline through my body. I stumbled down the slight decline and dashed into another side street close by before the man reached the end of the alley.
I darted behind a pile of boxes and held my breath as I heard the growling man approach the mouth of my hiding spot. My whole body shook and I clapped a hand over my mouth to stifle the little whimperings that wanted to come out. The man’s shadow stretched into the alley and nearly touched me. He took a step inside and swept the area with his eyes.
The man lifted his foot for another step, but a shout in a distance made him pause. He turned around and stilled for a moment, listening. The voices came closer. He turned tail and hurried away. I collapsed against the mud wall to my right and breathed a sigh of relief.
“What a marvelous outfit!”
My head shot up as a large shadow descended on me. Soft down-covered hands pawed at me. I yelped and pushed them away.
My attacker stumbled back and I finally had my first view. It was a woman, or at least most of a woman. She was about my height with snowy white hair hidden underneath a broad-brimmed hat. The woman wore a puffy dress that more resembled a patched hot-air balloon than clothing. The material was like silk and glistened in the sun, and small jewels speckled the costume here and there so as to create an otherworldly look to the ensemble.
Most amazingly, she had tufts of white feathers growing out of her cheeks. They pointed backwards toward her ears and created a beautiful tattoo-like accentuation of her face. Feathers also extended out of her puff sleeves and covered the tops of her palms to the first knuckle of her fingers. Her face was narrow, pointed, and high-ridged which accentuated her bird-like appearance.
She rubbed her hand and frowned at me. “That was quite rude! And here I was only admiring your wonderful attire!”
“Could’ve fooled me,” I grumbled as I used the wall to climb to my feet.
The bird woman wrinkled her beaked nose. “I meant to fool no one. I was merely curious about your clothes.” She used one hand to gesture at my shirt. “Now may I?”
I blinked at her. “May you what?”
She lifted her eyes to the sky and sighed. “My goodness. You act as though you’ve never met an avius.”
I shrugged. “I haven’t gotten around much.”
She pointed at my shirt. “Well, may I touch your shirt?”
I looked down at myself and shrugged. “Um, go for it.”
The strange woman grasped the front of my shirt and rubbed the cloth between her fingers. “What interesting material. Do you have a copyright on this style?”
“Um-” I looked left where the castle loomed in the distance, and a bright idea popped up in my mind. “Yeah, I have a copyright, and a patent. And I made sure to hide the designs in my extra-secret spot.”
The woman raised an eyebrow. “That’s rather extreme, even for we avius. Is there any chance you’d be willing to sell your design to me?”
I pointed at the far-flung citadel. “I’ll give it to you if you’ll take me to the castle.”
The bird woman lifted her beaked nose and wrinkled it. “There? I never approach that place.”
My heart fell. “Why not?”
“Because, my dear, it’s too gaudy!”
I looked the woman up and down, but shook off any blunt comments I wanted to make. “Then can you take me to the door that leads to the hall of the Pond King?”
She arched an elegant eyebrow. “Why would you want to go there?”
“I. . .I have a friend there who I need to see,” I told her.
She shrugged. “Very well, but I expect that copyright in writing once you’ve found your friend.”
I nodded. “I swear it.”
The bird smiled and swept into a low curtsy. “Then Pennae at your service. And you are?”
“Diana,” I replied as I looked over my shoulder at where my pursuer had gone. “But could we talk on the way?”
“Certainly. It’s this way.”
Pennae led me out the opposite side of the alley and down another residential street, though I noticed a few businesses speckled the area and gave a little more character to the neighborhood.
“It’s funny I should run into you,” Pennae mused as she guided me along. She swept an arm out in front of us. “I was just looking for inspiration for my next clothing line and who should come but you and your fine material.”
I couldn’t help but look over her strange puffy dress. “So is that what you do for a living?”
Pennae threw her head back and laughed. “You really don’t get around a lot, do you? We avius live for nothing but the hunt of a solid cut or the fame of finding the season’s latest style.” She cupped her chin in her feathered hand and I noticed her nails were slightly yellowed and sharpened to talon-like points. Her bright yellow eyes studied me again with hope. “You may yet lead me to something spectacular. Attire suited to both men and women, but with a touch of elegance for both.”
I suppressed a snort as I looked down at my worn jeans and t-shirt. “I’m glad it’s useful, but how far is it to this gate?”
“You’re wanting me to take you to the main gate, right?” I nodded in the hope that Luca would have gone there to find out about the ‘key’ problem. “Then it’s only two miles down these roads and a hard left toward the foot of the mountains.”
I looked her over. “And you can’t fly me there?”
The avius laughed. “Of course not! How undignified would it be to shed my clothes and fly a human over the city?” She closed her eyes and shuddered. “I would never live down the disgrace!”
I blinked at her. “Then you can’t fly?”
She tapped the side of her long nose. “We don’t fly in public, my dear. It’s impossible to fly with clothes on, and to strip naked in front of everyone-” She set the back of her hand against her forehead and swooned a little. “The horror!”
I grimaced and held up my hands. “I get the picture. Maybe a little too well. . .”
Pennae stretched her long neck out so her sharp eyes studied me more closely. “You are a rather strange human. I have never met one so ignorant of the city and its people. Are you perhaps a visitor from a far-off land?”
I snorted. “Very far-off, but I’m sure you guys get tourists all the time.
She nodded. “Oh yes. Amnisis is a jewel among so many plain rocks.” She swept her arm over our surroundings and smiled. “It’s a great center of learning, of culture, and, last but not least, of fashion. I came here as a young chick to study its long history of ‘setting the trend,’ as they say in my business. And its libraries full of all those illustrations!” She nearly swooned again. “Marvelous! Magnificent!”
I raised an eyebrow. “So you’re not from here?”
Pennaie shook her head. “Oh no. A scholarship brought me from the high nests of my people down to the low pecking ground of the dragon city.”
Both of my eyebrows shot up. “Dragon because of its leader?”
“Of course, my dear! Where else can you find a house ruled by those fantastical creatures?”
I shrugged. “Maybe in fairy tales.”
She laughed. “Quite right, my dear, quite right! And speaking of tales-” We rounded a corner and found ourselves at the back of a large crowd. She wrinkled her nose. “It appears our way is blocked to our own ending.”