A night Toad had been sure could not become any more unsettling had taken a jarring left turn. So he couldn’t get the ingredients as easily as he’d expected. He was able to shrug that off. So what if it took time to get them. Toad felt that snatching up this odd girl had been the first thing to go right all day.
Dawn was steadily creeping over the rooftops of the houses as they walked. Toad glanced at her. She was scrawny and her yellow-blonde hair was long and braided, wispy, brittle ends poking out at odd places. She was as plain as a broom with her second-hand clothes. He had been surprised to discover her to be so drab, what with her owning a Spit-Fire (they were common, but still costly) and being such a fluent reader. Then again, Wilson could read so that didn’t say much.
“What’s your name?” asked the girl.
She covered up a laugh with a snort.
“What?” Toad demanded, stopping and facing her, early morning risers already moving around them on the street.
“Well — it’s just, you don’t look anything like a toad,” she said, awkwardly.
Toad shrugged and continued walking. “My dad’s got a sense of humor.”
“Oh. I’m Melena Snead and this is Hazel.”
Toad nodded gruffly, shooting a somewhat annoyed look at Hazel, and kept walking.
“So, who’s this man that we’re getting the ingredients for?” asked Melena.
“A gent named Owl — know him?”
Melena shook her head.
“Well, he wants ’em bad —”
“And he’s going to pay us for them?”
“Yep,” Toad nodded.
Beside him Melena fell silent. Toad kept his face impassive with difficulty. She had not only bit but swallowed his hook. Fifty thousand gorents? He had shouted it out of desperation. He hadn’t expected her to believe him. Not really. He didn’t have a clue where to get Mirg water or moonflowers or whatever else was on that blasted list. He needed somebody to take him and she seemed like a good enough candidate. Toad shot another covert glance at her and couldn’t stop himself from saying, a cheeky smile tugging at his lips, “Twenty-five thousand is enough to be getting on with, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” said Melena. Her brow knitted and her gaze became suddenly firm. Focused. “More than enough.”
“You sick of them Whosits?” asked Toad, tucking his thumbs in his coat pockets.
Melena looked at him. “Very much so,” she said fervently. “But that’s not the reason I want the money. I want to hire a private detective to find my brother.”
Toad felt he’d missed a step and eyed her in confusion. “Your … brother?”
Overhead, the little green dragon flapped from lamppost to lamppost.
“Our house burned down ten years ago,” said Melena. “It was part of the Miggens Street Fire, ever hear of it? It burned for days, it was all in the paper. Mom and Dad died in it, but I know Milo didn’t. No matter what anyone says. I know it.”
“So where is he?” asked Toad.
“That’s just it. I haven’t a clue. He vanished during the fire. I ended up in St. Brenda’s Orphanage and Milo’s been missing ever since. That’s why I agreed to help you. With the money, I’ll be able to hire that private detective on Walden Street. I’ll finally find him.”
“Good luck with that,” said Toad awkwardly. Listening to stories about long lost family members made him uncomfortable. It reminded him of his own absent family. He’d never known his mother, who’d died shortly after he was born, nor had he ever met his father, who’d deposited him with Jack Pinch as a babe before returning to the high seas. Lynch and Wilson had always assured Toad that his father would return for him when he was older. Dreaming about such a future with his dad often made Toad’s heart swell, but it was the sort of sensation that also hurt for it was just that, a dream. So Toad kept those fantasies locked away, only viewable in rare, special moments. He wasn’t sure that Melena had the same ability. The fervor in her eyes at the mention of her brother made Toad doubt it. The last thing he needed was for this trip to turn into a manhunt. Baggage slowed down horses, as Jack always said.
Wanting to change the subject, because he had the feeling that Melena wanted to talk more about her brother, Toad stopped suddenly outside the steps of the Hickory Library. “Where do we go first?”
Melena looked at him in confusion.
“You’re my guide, ain’t you? Where do we go first?”
“Oh, right!” Blushing, Melena took the list back from him and read through the items. “First things, first,” she said. “We’ll need a map. There’s a shop around the corner—”
“You get that,” said Toad as his stomach gave a demanding growl. “I’ll get breakfast.”
After a quick slip in and out of Dinglehop’s Doughnuts with bacon and cheddar scones stashed in his pockets, Toad found Melena and the green dragon standing outside a map store.
“So, where to first?” Toad asked again, handing out scones. Hazel sniffed hers suspiciously.
“Thanks,” said Melena, taking a large bite. She dug about in her bag and pulled out a leather pouch. “How much do I owe you?” she asked thickly.
“Owe?” Toad laughed. “I pinched it.”
“You stole it? But … why? There was no need. I have money.”
Toad crossed his arms, grinning in amusement.
“Better get used to it,” he said.
“I don’t have to get used to anything,” was Melena’s furious reply. “You really shouldn’t have stolen these. I’ll go back and pay for them.”
“No you won’t!” Toad was outraged. Stealing food was one of the few things he was good at and he wasn’t going to lose his touch. “I’m a thief. Stealing is what I do. If it gets out that I’m paying for stuff, I’ll lose my creditability.”
Melena stared at him.
“Do you mean credibility?” she asked.
“Whatever. What ingredient are we getting first?”
Melena glared, clearly noticing his change of topic, but she scowled down at the traveler’s map in her hands, inspecting it closely.
“I think unicorn hair is first. The best place to find unicorns is in Holly-Harp Wood. Or at least,” she added, “that’s where people think they’ve seen them.” Melena pointed at a large expanse of green on the map, near the city’s border. “I think we need to go north to reach it.”
“No prob,” said Toad. “Follow me.”
Two hours later, Toad had exited Hickory for the first time in his life. The cobbled road was slowly replaced with a wide dirt one full of pot holes and divots. Chirping birds burst from brambly thickets without warning and Hazel scrambled after a small family of rabbits who hopped across their path, disappearing into a thick patch of gorse.
“Are we gonna walk the entire way?” Toad asked.
Toad turned around and walked backward, already longing for Hickory. The clamor of the buggies was just a faint murmur now. Even the smoke from factory chimney stacks was diluting; the sky turned more blue with each passing second. Soon the last outline of brick buildings would be obscured by overhanging trees. With a heavy sigh, he turned back around, dust from the dirt road puffing up around his shoes.
Hazel gave up her search for the rabbits and sped after them, taking flight, flapping her wings and spiraling through the air. On they walked, Melena periodically glancing down at the map and Toad following Hazel’s dives through tree branches, thinking of how much faster they would reach their destinations if only she were big enough to ride.
“Why ain’t Spit-Fires bigger?” he said aloud.
Melena looked up from her map. “Sorry?”
“Spit-Fires,” he said, pointing at Hazel as she did a figure eight. “Why are they so small? Why can’t they breed bigger ones that can pull carriages? Just think how much faster this would all be. Jump in a buggy and off we fly!”
“Well, dragons are very difficult to manage,” said Melena. “I saw in the paper a few years ago that a man tried to tame a Southern Hematite to burn his fields. Thought it would be quicker than doing it himself.”
“What happened?” asked Toad, excited. A vision of a great leathery creature rose into his mind.
“Oh, it burned his fields all right,” said Melena. “And then enjoyed that so much that it went on to burn the farmer’s house and then his neighbors’ before taking off. Spit-Fires are the only breed that’s been tamed successfully. The others are just too wild, even when you raise them up as hatchlings. In fact, they’re even more dangerous if you raise them up from the egg. I read once…”
The topic of dragons kept them both entertained for a good long while, but eventually the discussion reached its end and they were left in silence. Toad began to grow hungry again as the hot sun moved overhead, the bacon scones nothing but greasy smears on his trousers.
“So,” asked Melena after a lull in conversation, “how long have you been an orphan?”
“I’m not an orphan,” said Toad, a laugh escaping him at such a question.
“But —” Melena looked startled. “How can your family be okay with you leaving home without word?”
Toad’s laughter grew. “My dad’s a pirate. He doesn’t have a clue what I get up to.”
“A pirate?” said Melena, eyes widening. “Really?”
“Yep,” said Toad with pride. “Under the command of Captain Shark-Tooth Kent. Dad’s been everywhere. Seen everything.”
“Then, why are you here?”
Toad understood Melena’s confusion. Hickory was in the middle of Calendula, miles away from any shore.
“He dropped me off with the Ramblers when I was born. Mates with ’em — they go way back. Said that he’d come fetch me when I get older. So I’ve been with the Ramblers ever since.”
“Who are the Ramblers?” asked Melena.
Toad jerked in surprise.
“You don’t know the Ramblers?” he said, goggling at her.
“Should I?” she asked, taken aback.
Toad stared at her in wonder.
“Of all things not to — how —” Toad looked at her for so long in blatant disbelief that Melena’s scowl returned.
“Instead of gawking at me, why don’t you tell me who they are?” Melena snapped.
“They’re thieves,” Toad answered, unable to keep from laughing at the idea that someone would not know them. “The best thief gang there is. Everybody knows that. Haven’t you heard of Jack Pinch?”
Toad was winded.
“But he’s the best! The greatest thief that ever stole! He’s the leader of the Ramblers. His poster’s everywhere! You must have heard of him.”
“You ain’t never noticed the posters?” Toad said incredulously. “The Guard puts ’em up all over. They got ones of Jack and Bone and Lynch and —”
“Well — not yet, they don’t. But they will! Only a matter of time.”
Melena walked beside him in silence before asking seriously, “Is that what you want? To have your own poster?”
“Yeah,” Toad sighed, his eyes glazing over. “The more your head’s worth, the more important you are and the more other thieves respect you.”
“Is that why you’re finding these ingredients for such a wealthy man?” asked Melena with a frown. “But will your status go up if you don’t steal them? Or will your father think you’re ready to sail with him if you go on a big quest?”
For a moment, Toad was too lost in happy visions of thieving glory to hear her. Then his toe caught on a rock and he stumbled.
“Yeah!” he said. “Yeah, that’d be great, wouldn’t it?” He hadn’t thought of it that way. Perhaps he’d be able to barter something from Owl for the ingredients? Hadn’t the man said they’d discuss payment when Toad returned? What would he demand? That emerald dragon? It had to be worth more than every haul the Ramblers had ever brought in. Toad’s heart pumped giddy at the thought. Once he’d done that the Ramblers would practically fall over themselves to win him back, but would he go back? Once his father got word of his daring, Toad would be packing his bags for far greater adventures.
“And you know this Jack?” asked Melena.
“Know him? I’m his favorite!”
“If you’re his favorite, then why are you having to do this to impress him?”
Again, Toad found himself pausing, no longer feeling so elated. Luckily a commotion behind them drove the topic away. Two buggies from Hickory, one behind the other, clattered around a bend. They hurriedly stepped out of the way, allowing the buggies to rush past, wheels kicking up dust from the road.
“Excellent!” said Toad. He was already back on the road, looking eagerly toward Hickory. He’d forgotten all about buggies.
“What’s excellent?” asked Melena, coughing from the dust.
“Buggies,” said Toad. “We’re on one of the main roads in and out of the city; there’s gotta be loads more. The next one, we jump on.”
“J-jump on?” Melena repeated, sounding as if she hadn’t heard correctly.
“Yeah,” said Toad. “What? You’ve never hijacked a buggy before?”
“No,” said Melena.
“It ain’t hard. Just grab onto the rails on the back and stay clear of the wheels.”
“Toad, I’m not jumping onto a buggy.”
Toad wasn’t listening. Another buggy was headed their way.
“Get ready now,” said Toad.
The buggy barreled past them. Toad leapt into the air, grabbing hold of the rear handle bars. At the very last second Melena followed, scrambling frantically to get a firm hold and Toad grabbed her by her hair braid to help pull her up. A flash of green and Toad saw Hazel land on the roof, claws clamped, grinning in the sun like an alligator.
They were off, zooming down the dirt road at an invigorating speed. Toad let out a laugh and a whoop that the wheels covered up. Wind whipped hair into his eyes and, shaking his fringe away, he nearly barked out with fresh laughter at Melena. Teeth clenched, gripping the rails with white-knuckles, her bag sandwiched between her knees, Melena was a sight that filled Toad with hilarity.
Stifling his laughter, Toad settled more comfortably on the luggage harness, one leg lazily hanging over the side.
“No telling how far this cart’s gonna go,” he said to her over the ruckus of the wheels, “but it’ll speed us along.”
Melena, pale as chalk, nodded jerkily, her mouth clamped shut.
It was well past twilight when the buggy began to slow, heading toward a tavern with lights twinkling like fireflies in the night. Toad hopped off and only stumbled a bit, but Melena nearly broke her neck.
Biting back another snicker, Toad helped her up. “You’ll get the hang of it.”
Scowling, Melena brushed herself off as Hazel swooped like an overgrown bat around them.
“Where d’you reckon we are?” asked Toad.
Melena pulled out her map and stepped into the light spilling from the tavern’s windows. She squinted, the paper an inch from her nose.
“We must be in Passadomo. It’s the nearest town.”
The smell of roast meat was making Toad’s stomach grumble.
“I wonder how far Holly-Harp Wood is from here?” Melena muttered, still frowning at her map.
“You can ask somebody while we eat. Come on!”
The tavern was a popular one. They stepped inside to the cheerful sight of gleaming cherry tables and glowing lamps. Nearly every chair was occupied, but they spied a vacant corner booth and slipped onto the benches.
“It can’t be too far,” said Melena, speaking more to herself than to Toad. She suddenly yawned widely. “Sweet Charlotte, I’m exhausted. I wonder how much rooms cost? What are you doing?”
There was a table close to them that had not yet been cleared of dishes. Quick as a lizard, Toad snatched up two half-eaten plates of roasted pheasant and mash.
“Wha — ’ou don’ ’ike” — he swallowed with difficulty — “pheasant? That table over there’s got duck.”
“We are not eating off of other people’s plates,” hissed Melena, repulsed.
Toad shrugged and took another huge bite of pheasant.
“Su-er-self,” he sprayed.
Melena looked like she was teetering on the edge of a vicious reply when a shadow fell upon their table.
“Look at what we’ve got here. Mr. and Mrs. Toad!”
Toad looked up. A man stood at their table. His arms were bare. One of them had a sickly yellow and green tattoo of a lizard, its lolling tongue and bulging eyes on his shoulder and the tip of its tail wrapped around his wrist. Behind him a large, round table of five men guffawed loudly. All were equally tattooed and Toad spied daggers at their hips. The stench of whiskey and sweat was heavy in the air.
Melena blushed and gripped her knapsack closer. Hazel’s sharp face peered up over the edge of the table. Her wings twitched in irritation.
“Jed,” Toad replied coolly. “Long time no see.”
The man with the lizard tattoo let out a bark of a laugh.
“Wish I’d seen it. I woulda payed! Maybe we could reenact it, eh? Whatcha say? I’ll play Jack and kick yer sorry rump right out o’ here!”
Toad flushed crimson. The table of brutes exploded with laughter.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Toad stiffly.
“Hear that, mates?” Jed said to the table behind him. “I don’t know what I’m talkin’ about! I heard it straight from Bone, boy. He said Jack couldn’t be happier with you finally out of his hair. He said Jack had a bit of a party, celebratin’ the Ramblers bein’ clear of unwanted pests.”
“Jack didn’t say that,” said Toad. He spoke so low that he was surprised Jed heard him over the cackling.
“He didn’t, did he?” Jed leered. “I’ve never seen Jack lighter on his feet now that he doesn’t have a child to look after. You were never a Rambler, boy.”
Toad’s mouth twisted into an ugly grimace.
“I don’t even understand why he let you stick around as long as you did. When I heard you’d gotten chunked out —”
“I didn’t get chunked out! Jack wanted me to get outside experience —”
“He wanted you gone,” Jed stated with satisfaction. “You were ruinin’ the Ramblers’ reputation!”
“It wasn’t anything like that!” Toad exploded. The rest of the pub went silent, half-turned in their seats to watch the shouting match. “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Toad,” Melena whispered, “let’s just leave.”
“Look, mates,” Jed jeered while the brutes whistled in merriment. “Toad’s hoppin’ mad!”
More howling laughter met this taunt. Jed leaned down so close to Toad that they were nose to nose.
“You ain’t worth wiping the sludge from my boots, boy,” he sneered, foul breath filling Toad’s nostrils. “You ain’t worth nuthin’.”
Toad swore and lunged at Jed, knocking him to the floor.
“TOAD!” Melena screamed.
As one, the group of thieves leapt to their feet, sending their chairs crashing to the floor.
“What’s going on here? Gentlemen, please!” The landlord had finally realized something was happening and rushed toward them, but Toad and Jed were oblivious to anyone but themselves. They rolled on the floor, kicking and cursing.
It was mayhem.
One of the thieves lifted his whiskey bottle and threw it across the room. The other customers scattered, banging into tables and sending chairs flying as they rushed the door.
From somewhere up above, Toad hear Melena cry, “Oh! Hazel — help him!”
The next second a great blast of hot air erupted over Toad and Jed, but they didn’t stop. Toad was trying to punch every bit of Jed that he could reach. There was a great howl of fright from Jed’s cronies and a heavy-booted foot nearly missed Toad’s fingers.
Jed knocked Toad off him and rose to his feet. He swung his foot back, readying to kick.
Hazel flew at Jed. Her sharp claws latched onto his back, piercing the leather vest. Jed let out a pained roar. His hands scrabbled for Hazel, but she took flight, beating her wings against his face, snapping and snarling. Jed cursed, trying to knock her out of the air, and in reply, Hazel let out a fresh burst of fire, forcing Jed to duck. With a grimace, he turned on his heel and raced out of the pub after his friends. Hazel fluttered back down and landed upon the back of a chair with a smoky snort.
Melena rushed to Toad, but he slapped her hand away.
“I’m fine,” he said, spitting out blood. “I didn’t ask for your help. I was handlin’ him on my own!”
“From where I was standing, it looked like you needed it,” Melena replied rather coolly. She stepped back and didn’t offer her hand again as he got to his feet.
Toad knew that she was stung by his words, but he didn’t care. He was angry and embarrassed. Every inch of him ached. His coat had two new tears in it, he was sure his hair was standing on end — even more so than usual — and his lip was bleeding profusely.
The pub was empty and in complete disarray. They hurriedly shuffled past the wide-eyed landlord, who seemed to be stunned speechless. Toad followed Melena down another dark road without comment, periodically wiping blood from his chin.
Melena managed to find a crumbling, musty inn by the side of the road and as Toad stood on the threshold, glaring at the proprietor while Melena payed for a room, he thought he heard a soft snicker behind him. He turned, frowning but didn’t see anyone in the dark and figured it was the wind whispering through the grass.
It appeared that they were the only ones in the shabby establishment for the small dining room was empty. They ate limp, pickled wolf eel on stale bread in moody silence as Toad dripped blood all over a napkin. Their room wasn’t any better than their disgusting dinner: a tiny space with a moth-eaten chair and a moth-eaten bed. Toad gave the place one look before pronouncing, “I’ll take the chair.”