It was long past midnight and Melena Snead was bent over a heavy, simmering cauldron. She was adding the final ingredients to a love potion for one of her secret customers, secret because Mr. Bell would throw her into the Banks River if he found out she was selling potions to his customers. Mr. Bell and his wife, Mrs. Bell, owned the worst apothecary in East Hickory. They had ‘adopted’ Melena from St. Brenda’s Orphanage three years ago, putting Melena to work immediately: cooking, cleaning, and carrying Mrs. Bell’s purchases on her daily shopping trips.
The thirteen year old rubbed her tired eyes and prodded Hazel, her bright green Spit-Fire dragon, to shift off Edgar Bartholomew’s Guide to All Things Potion so that she could check the ingredient list for Miss Tubber’s Siren Song. Melena wished she’d refused to make the potion. It was tedious and fussy and would keep her up all night, but Melena needed the money from these under-the-counter transactions. Money would free her of the Bells. Money would hire the private detective on Waldon Street. Money would find Milo. Melena brushed away her longing for sleep at the thought of the money pouch hidden under her lumpy mattress. She knew the amount by heart, but that didn’t stop her from counting the gorents, silvertons, and druets in the pouch every night before tucking in. Impressive for a year of secret brewing, but not enough.
The liquid in the cauldron was the palest of pinks. A slightly sinister bitter smell wafted under her nose. Satisfied that the potion was at the correct stage, Melena pulled a large mortar toward her and began to crush rose hips. She added them along with a crumbling of fairy wings to the brew. One, two, three stirs and the pink softened to a mother-of-pearl. She picked up a drawstring bag of pricklebirch seeds —
Melena jumped, dropping the bag onto the floor, the seeds scattering to all corners of the room. The crash had sounded from somewhere inside the shop. She stood paralyzed, staring at the closed door of the workroom. Hazel clambered up onto Melena’s shoulder and peered at the door as well.
Melena held her breath, waiting for a noise from upstairs, but the Bells slumbered on. And then she heard another sound within the shop, a sound of rustling, like someone was moving among the shelves.
Melena inched to the door and gently eased it open as Hazel gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze with her claws. The inside of the shop was dark, but moonlight poured through the front window, casting a blue pool of light upon the shelves.
Her breath caught in her throat. Someone was moving among the shelves. Melena could see his dark form, she could hear the tinkling of glass as he moved bottles aside.
The thief froze.
“If you leave this instant, I won’t alert anyone,” Melena said in a whisper that she hoped sounded far fiercer than she felt.
The thief groaned, dropping his arms in frustration.
“Look, could you just give me a minute?” he snapped. “It’s been a long day.” He resumed searching the shelf.
Melena blinked in surprise. The voice didn’t sound like it belonged to a grown man, and now that she came to think of it, stepping nearer, the thief was short — maybe just a hair taller than herself.
“Well, you really shouldn’t be stealing,” she pointed out, stung.
The boy snorted in derision. Another bottle fell off the shelf.
“What are you looking for?” Melena asked quickly, shooting a nervous glance at the dark stairwell. If the Bells discovered her midnight brewing habit they would flay her alive … or worse, set her to making all their potions for them. She would never receive another druet. “Maybe I could help you find it before the Bells wake up.”
“The Bells,” Melena hissed. “They own this shop and they’re terrible. They’ll make a lot of trouble if they find you here.”
“Really?” The boy let out a scathing snort. “I can beat their trouble with the trouble I’ve got any day.”
The boy shifted into the pool of moonlight and Melena suddenly recognized him.
“You ran into me on the street,” she said, startled, remembering the bruise on her shoulder from where he’d knocked into her, running past, a pastry clamped in his mouth.
“You were in my way,” said the boy, peering closely at a bottle.
“I was not in your way!”
“Yeah, you were.”
“Well,” she huffed, crossing her arms, feeling oddly wrong footed, “I don’t approve of thieving, so you can leave now.”
“But what if I make a racket and wake up them whosits that you’re so scared of? What’ll you do then?”
“I’m not scared of the Bells,” said Melena stiffly.
“Oh? You ain’t?” said the boy. “’Cuz you sounded scared to me.” He suddenly raised the bottle he’d been inspecting high over his head, ready to throw it down.
“Wait! What is it that you needed?” Melena whispered, shooting another quick look at the stairs.
She could tell that the boy had the most disgustingly satisfied smirk on his face, even in the dark.
“Mirg water. Here” — he dug into his pocket — “see, all here.”
He flourished a short bit of paper and, against her better judgment, Melena took it. Not even bothering to see if he followed, she returned to the brightly lit workroom, pricklebirch seeds popping under her feet, and read the list of items, Hazel swaying on her shoulder like a featherless parrot.
Melena frowned and read them again.
The boy let out another snort, making her look around. He had followed her and in the gas lamps he looked even more suspect than she’d first thought. His clothing was patched and ripped in several places and the hem of his overlarge coat was fraying and looked partially burned. A smudge of dirt was on his cheek and nose. His eyes were on Hazel as he said nastily, “You’ve got one too. Great.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Melena flared, bristling instantly.
“Nuthin’.” The boy shrugged, turning away from her. She caught the red smear on his neck … the deep stains on his collar.
“You’re hurt,” she said, without thinking.
The boy stiffened, before gruffly wiping the blood away with the cuff of his coat. “It’s nuthin’. What about my list?”
Melena scowled and pursed her lips. “Why do you need these?”
“What does it matter?” the boy shot back. “I just need ’em. You got ’em?”
“No,” Melena said, holding the list out for him. “And they aren’t in any other apothecary for that matter.”
The boy looked flabbergasted. It took a moment before he found his voice.
“What d’you mean?” he demanded. “Ain’t those potion ingredients?”
“Ain’t this the place where you sell potion ingredients?”
“Yes. It is.”
“Then why ain’t they here!” the boy exploded.
“Shhh!” Melena’s eyes shot upward, but there was still no movement from upstairs. Smoke began to unfurl from Hazel’s nostrils and she flexed her translucent wings, bright eyes fixed upon the boy.
“If you’re playin’ me —” the boy threatened.
“You’ll what?” Melena snapped crossly. “Call the Guards? What do you need these for?”
The boy shot her a filthy glare.
“Well if you’re not going to tell me than I see no point in continuing this conversation,” Melena said loftily. She thrust the paper back into his hand and opened the workroom door. “After you.”
The boy didn’t move.
“Look, I gotta get these ingredients. You gotta know somebody whose got ’em.”
“Well, I don’t,” said Melena. “Those are five of the Forgotten.”
“The what?” said the boy, exasperated.
Melena tried very hard not to roll her eyes. “The Forgotten. Ingredients that are no longer used for potion brewing because they are either extinct or too difficult or dangerous to acquire. Apothecaries don’t carry them. They haven’t in ages.”
“So how do I get them?” asked the boy, all harshness gone from his voice, replaced with a desperation that made Melena feel both pity and curiosity.
“You’ll have to track them down in their natural habitats. Though, as I said, that will be extremely difficult — probably impossible.”
“Like in habitats that have ogres?” asked the boy, suddenly grim.
The boy was silent for a long time, a scowl fixed on his face.
“Okay,” he finally said, as if he was trying to convince himself that everything was going to be fine. “Okay. That ain’t too bad. I can do that. So, where’s Mirg water?”
Melena expelled a loud breath. She pinched the bridge of her nose.
“I suggest you find yourself a guide,” she said, tiredly.
“A guide? Where am I gonna find a guide?”
“I don’t kno — oh no!” For the cauldron on the table had begun to spit and froth, lacy pink bubbles gurgling over the rim. Melena had completely forgotten about the Siren Song. She pushed the boy aside and quickly lifted the cauldron off the burner, giving it a furious stir. Large, lumpy clumps of congealed potion were forming regardless of her vicious attempts to smooth them. Perhaps if she added pine extract …
“Where am I gonna find a guide?” the boy repeated, ignoring the fact that she obviously had more pressing things to worry about.
“How would I know?” Melena snarled back.
The boy grabbed her arm and Hazel snapped her fangs. He withdrew his fingers quickly.
“You know about the stuff on my list, don’t you?” the boy demanded.
Melena couldn’t bring herself to lie.
“Yes,” she said, grudgingly.
“Then why don’t you be my guide?” he asked.
“Because I’m not going to troop around Calendula, risking my life, for half a dozen potion ingredients, that’s why.”
“What d’you mean, risking your life?” said the boy. He actually laughed. “This won’t be any trouble, as long as we steer clear of ogres.”
“Won’t be any —” Melena’s voice died in her throat at the ridiculousness of his statement. Abandoning the ruined potion, she snatched the list back from his hand and thrust it under his nose.
“Springs of Mirg. Located in the very northern tip of Calendula, practically crawling with Slinkwing dragons. Elfin Gold — only found in the Caves of Dunthur, caves so complex that only an expert can safely travel them. Unicorns are impossible to find and try yanking some hair from their tails and see what they do with that horn. Not to mention how foolish and dangerous it is to mix ingredients at random. Need I continue?”
The boy’s dark eyes were as round as gorents.
“So it’ll be difficult — what else is new? And anyway, I’m not gonna make anything with ’em.”
“This isn’t a joke!” Melena actually stomped her foot. “We’d need supplies. Maps. Money. Food. Those ingredients won’t be found in a day. Why should I help you? Why am I even talking to you?” She lifted the ruined potion and marched past him to the water basin in the corner. It was going to take weeks to make another batch.
“Look — the gent — the gent who wants ’em is gonna pay me,” said the boy in a rush. “He’s gonna pay me fifty thousand gorents!”
“If you help me,” the boy continued, “we can share it. I’m an honest bloke. You can tru—”
“Half,” said Melena.
Melena faced him.
“I want half. Twenty-five thousand. Not a gorent less.”
“And you’ll — you’ll help me?” The boy’s eyebrows vanished into his fringe. “You’ll come with me and take me to all these ingredients?”
“Deal!” the boy cheered, his face splitting into a huge grin. “Let’s get goin’.”
“I need to get some things first. Stay here.”
Not waiting for the boy’s response, Melena left the cauldron in the basin, feeling slightly guilty about Miss Tubber. She snatched up her potion book and hurried from the workroom. She sped up the stairs, careful to skip over the two that squeaked, and slipped into her tiny bedroom, sparing a nervous glance at the Bell’s darkened door. She seized an old knapsack she’d dug from a bin years ago and stuffed a fistful of old socks, a moth-chewed sweater, the small leather money bag from under the mattress, and the potion book inside, before swinging it over her free shoulder, Hazel still perched on the other.
She quickly cast her eyes around the tiny bedroom, but there was nothing else in it for her to take. A few colorful pictures she’d clipped from magazines and discarded books were tacked to the walls in a miserable effort to brighten the drab room. Melena groped inside her shirt for the locket she always wore and felt the fine etching of the names inscribed on its shell.
To her surprise and relief, the thief was still there, picking over a barrel of porcupine quills. At the sight of him, Melena realized that she had been expecting him to vanish just as suddenly as he had arrived. It was far too much to think that she was actually leaving the Bells. That she was actually going to get not just enough money to hire Mr. York, but enough to start a brand new life.
“About time,” the boy grumbled impatiently, looking up. “Let’s go!”