Toad, a boy of twelve with wild, messy hair and a coat far too large for him, walked down the streets of Hickory in a daze. He passed his favorite sweet shop without a glance; his eyes didn’t even stray after a chattering woman, dressed in vibrant silks, her glittering, ring-covered fingers lazily holding a leather handbag, practically screaming to be pinched. He stumbled like a drunk, bumping into people and not bothering to reply to their curses.
Toad looked up in time to see a horse and buggy skid to a halt, inches from trampling him. He hadn’t even noticed it.
“Look where you’re going, louse!” the buggy driver yelled.
Toad merely looked away and shuffled on, his mind too preoccupied with looping the horrible conversation he had just sat through.
I had hopes for you. But I was wrong.
You ain’t cut out to be a Rambler, boy. I don’t want to see you back here, understood?
How could this have happened? How could Jack have kicked him out? So what if Toad wasn’t the best thief in the city. He’d been getting better. Loads better. He just got overexcited, that was all.
How could Jack have kicked him out?
Toad stopped beside a large pet menagerie, his chest tight and painful. The shower that morning was gone and the hot summer sunlight bounced off the store’s glass window, momentarily blinding him. He stepped under the striped awning. His reflection looked back at him in the giant front window: slump-shouldered and hollow-eyed. He looked far removed from the confident Rambler he’d been a mere day ago.
Behind the store’s window were straw-covered cages, each with a Spit-Fire. Toad watched the miniature dragons smolder and chirp. They were the size of large cats and ranged from fiery red to cool blue. With a sickening twist of his stomach, Toad was flung back to Marsh Manor, where everything had crumbled around his ears: Lynch arrested, Madam Marsh’s fine porcelain left behind as Toad bolted, an angry Spit-Fire at his heels.
It’s time you faced facts, Toad, Jack had said. I can’t keep paying for your mistakes.
Toad leaned close, resting his forehead against the warm glass, staring at a lavender Spit-Fire curled up into a tight ball, fast asleep; small corkscrew swirls of smoke escaped its nostrils. If only he had a Spit-Fire, then he’d train it to steal for him. It’d scale the sides of houses and slip through open windows, stashing whatever it could grab in its jaws, while he stayed on the street, safely out of view. No one — not even brutish Bone — would bully him if he had a Spit-Fire.
“Hey! You! Get away from there!” The owner bustled out of the shop, flapping a broom.
Scowling, Toad stuffed his fists into his pockets and slouched away, settling down onto a bit of curb once the menagerie was out of sight.
What was he going to do?
The panic in Toad’s chest began to froth in earnest. He didn’t know how to live without the Ramblers. They were all he knew — all he had ever known. He couldn’t remember a day not spent as a member of the thief gang. Where was Toad supposed to go now? If only he could get in touch with his father! But Toad had never bothered to learn to read or write and he didn’t have a clue where his father even was. Halfway across Calendula? In the middle of the Olgen Sea? How was a letter supposed to reach the pirate all the way out there … and (Toad’s chest constricted still further) would his father even want him once he’d learned his son had been kicked out of the Ramblers? Would a pirate embrace a son who couldn’t even steal?
A thief wasn’t anybody without his mates. Toad wasn’t anybody without the Ramblers. The hot, bubbling panic boiled upward so that, much to Toad’s horror, pricks of tears stung his eyes.
He was alone. He was completely alone.
Bone put Jack up to this, Toad though savagely, his insides twisting. Bone, Jack’s right hand man, had always hated Toad. Always bullied him. He must have convinced Jack to toss him out — terrified that Toad would someday replace him as Jack’s second in command. At the thought Toad felt a surge of bitter pride. That was it. Bone was threatened by him. It was common knowledge that Jack had been fond of Toad, had even, at times, doted on him. This assault on his thieving skills was all due to Bone, not Jack. Jack had even admitted that he didn’t want to get rid of him.
Eardrums ringing, Toad leapt to his feet. He just had to talk to Jack alone. Convince him that he was a Rambler, through and through.
He spun around and sprinted back up the street, speeding past the Spit-Fire dragon display, dashing in front of two more buggies, even knocking into a dithering old lady. Her shopping bag dropped to the ground, spewing copious amounts of cat food and honey nuggets onto the cobbled street. Her furious shrieks followed him as he dived into a side alley, framed by graffitied, worn-down buildings. Breathing hard, he hammered on a splintered door, half-hidden behind piles of moldy trash. Without waiting for a reply, he spoke: “A thief a knockin’.”
A narrow bit of wood slid away and a pair of bloodshot, droopy eyes peered down at him through a peephole.
A voice that matched the pained eyes moaned, “Whatcha doin’ round here, Toad?”
“Wilson, I need to talk to Jack—”
“No can do,” Wilson said with a shake of his head. “Jack’s orders.”
“Come on!” Toad stormed, stomping his foot. “I just gotta talk to him!”
“I’m sorry.” Wilson’s doleful eyes looked down at him in sympathy. “We ain’t all made to be pinchers, lad.” Wilson began to slide the wood back over the peephole.
Panicking, Toad shouted, “Wilson! Come on — Wilson! Just let me talk to Jack.” Wilson had never turned him away before. Never. Wilson was always the one to patch him up when Bone’s flying punches hit their mark. Wilson didn’t tease. Wilson listened. “I can make all this right again! Just let me in!”
Toad mouthed silently, speechless.
“Okay, then,” he said, trying to stay calm. “Okay. Bring Jack out here, then. I’ll convince him out here. I’ll — stop shaking your head!”
Wilson did, but the chains didn’t slither from their notches; the doorknob did not turn.
“Don’t come back, Toad.” And Wilson slid the wood over the peephole.
Toad walked for a long time, his shoulders hunched, his jaw clamped, his hands stuffed into his pockets, clenched so tight the nails bit into skin. He felt like he was about to fly apart. To think that just that morning he’d been playing darts — and winning.
Where would he sleep?
The tears, the tremors, that Toad had been keeping at bay for so long burst their barriers without warning. He dived into a side alley, making passerby stare. It wasn’t until the sky overhead was stained scarlet that he regained his composure.
He couldn’t — he wouldn’t — let it end this way. If Jack didn’t think he was a proper enough thief then the solution was clear: prove otherwise. Steal something that would turn the Ramblers’ heads. Something impressive. Something …
Toad stared at the opposite grime-smeared brick wall without seeing it, not even noticing a scrawny cat sniffing curiously at his shoe, as an insane idea flitted between his ears.
What was more impressive than stealing from the most powerful man in Hickory? Toad didn’t know what he’d steal, but he was sure he’d find something once he got into the house. Energized by this daring thought, and blinded by his fury, he stood. The cat hissed and darted away, but Toad didn’t even notice. He was already down a side street and hurrying toward a high-gated neighborhood.
Everybody in Hickory knew that Mr. Owl had the most gold for miles.
Everybody in Hickory knew that crossing Mr. Owl brought more than just trouble.
But Toad wasn’t everybody.
It wasn’t hard to climb the wrought iron fence that surrounded Mr. Owl’s lush property. Toad scampered up and over it in no time, quickly seeking cover under a cluster of flowering bushes. The house was enormous, the biggest in the city: three stories of heavy brick. The grounds were manicured and crisp, sporting gushing fountains and thick hedges. The property was so large that the bustling of buggies and shouting of shop owners was muffled to a murmur.
Toad crouched low under the bushes, wondering what it would be like to have such gold. He’d never have to worry about where he’d sleep, that was for sure. Not a single Rambler had ever stolen from Mr. Owl. Jack was firm about that. “Cross Owl and start digging your own grave,” he often said. Toad brushed away Jack’s warning and shifted his knee from a sharp root. There was no reason for Owl or his mates to know who the sneak-thief was. Toad would be in and out in seconds, disappearing down the dark streets like a shadow. Suddenly his mind was filled with glorious images of returning to the Rambler hideout, throwing a sackful of priceless gems at Jack’s feet, Bone’s shocked, dumbfounded face, Wilson’s beaming, toothy smile. Toad started to laugh and quickly covered his mouth.
He had to be careful. Everything depended on this one.
The sky was draining quickly of fiery scarlet and the expansive grounds grew dark. Toad waited tensely in the bushes, watching the windows and doors, but if anyone entered or left the house, he couldn’t tell from his vantage point. He did notice, curiously, that he wasn’t the only person watching Owl’s house. A man dressed in slick trousers and a low bowler hat leaned against a lamppost across the street and he hadn’t moved once from his spot. Toad could just see him through the hedges and ironwork of the fence. He stood casually, today’s copy of the paper in one hand, periodically nodding to passing pedestrians, but Toad was not fooled. He was a Hickory Guard. Being a Rambler since birth did that to you: Toad could spot a Guard (in uniform or not) faster than a lizard snatching up a fly.
When night fell in earnest, when only a handful of windows remained illuminated in the grand house, Toad silently slipped to the nearest tree. He climbed it just as easily as the fence and was soon inching along a long, thick branch toward one of the numerous balconies. With the softest of thumps, he jumped down and tried the glass door. Locked. Toad quickly fished out his own crude set of lock-picks and set to work, nerves making him clumsy. Finally, with a soft click, the door swung open. Toad hesitated for half a breath before darting inside.
The room was as dark as the grounds below, but Toad’s eyes had grown used to the gloom. He slipped about the room, skirting leather arm chairs, hunched over, wary as a cat. His eyes searched for a shimmer, a glimmer, something — anything — he could take back. He scanned the walls where heavy portraits hung, but passed them by. He needed something small to carry back through the window, and also something incredibly rare … something that would change Jack’s mind completely.
Toad spied a large, ornate desk. He hurried to it, opening drawers, pushing a small box out of the way as he groped inside, but all he found were stacks of stiff parchment and inky pens. Where did Owl keep his treasures? Toad paused in his search of the desk and thought, steadying his breathing. He didn’t want to explore the entire house — he was more likely to get caught that way — but there didn’t seem to be anything good enough in here.
Swallowing thickly, Toad crossed the room and inched open the door. The hallway was brightly lit with gas lamps. He peered left and right before slipping from the room and tip toeing down the hall, grateful that his steps were muffled by a thick, plush carpet.
He was as taunt as a bowstring, eyes wide, ears pricked for sound, disliking the exposure of the bright lamps. Toad feared every corner, expecting someone to march around it, but the house seemed to be blessedly (and unnervingly) vacant. He pressed an ear to each door he passed to make sure it was empty before giving it a quick look through, but still nothing. Toad’s barely contained tension was nearing the breaking point and he prayed please, let there be something in here as he entered what appeared to be a library. At once Toad froze, heart hammering, for voices were coming from a door at the other end of the room. The door was cracked open, a thin, yellow beam of light slicing into the darkness, and it sounded as if a great number of people were inside the adjacent chamber.
Sweat slick on his brow, Toad carefully edged away. Whether they were servants or mobsters, Toad would find his goods in another part of the house, preferably in the opposite direction.
Then he saw it. In the moonlight streaming through a stained glass window, a miniature statue shimmered on a pedestal: a dragon, carved from an enormous emerald. Toad nearly tripped over his own feet in his haste to reach it; he stretched out his hands; his mouth went dry —
An arm slipped around his front, pushing him back roughly against a hard chest. The edge of a cold knife was pressed against his throat.
“Hello, idiot,” breathed a voice in his ear.