daria khoroshavina
Credit: Daria Khoroshavina

“There’s gotta be a way to get on those towers.”

They were heading back to Izzie’s, as the clouds were heavy with rain and Melena was in no mood to get caught in a downpour.

“How d’you reckon we do it?” Toad continued.

Melena had seen enough of the towers, surrounded by deep, churning ocean, to know for a fact that they were not going to do it. They looked impossible to climb, their sides smoothed from centuries of rain and wind.

“I think we may need help,” Melena sighed.

“Help? Who are we gonna get to help us?”

“I don’t know, Toad,” said Melena wearily. “First off, we’d have to actually get to those towers, so we’d need a boat.”

Toad snapped his fingers. “Izzie! I bet she’s got one!”

Melena wasn’t so sure; she decided to address the next problem. “Once we made it to one of those rock towers, we’d have to actually climb it. I bet they nest at the very top, where we saw that one land.”

“They didn’t seem all that tall,” said Toad gruffly. “We could do it. What?”

Melena just shook her head and kept walking. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to climb those towers,” she stated, feeling her discouragement like a physical weight.

It could have been the long walk back to Izzie’s in the rain, or the fact that Hazel was still in her bed of coals, looking as if she hadn’t moved an inch, or the realization of how great a feat attaining a roc talon would truly be, but Melena’s urge to continue the hunt for the ingredients had been snuffed out. She refused to join Toad as he brainstormed ways of climbing the unclimbable. Instead, she sat before the fire, her arms wrapped around her knees, her brain a merry-go-round of misery.

The moment they entered Izzie’s warm house, Toad asked her if she had a boat they could borrow.

“No, sorry,” Izzie replied, handing him a towel to dry off with. “The only boats that come near the Shards are the half-dozen fishermen brave enough, but they never come to shore.”

“Then how did you get here?” said Toad. “How do you get supplies?”

“Agatha brought me. Periodically I slip into Ramsey Port to get a few items, but I’ve learned to be self-sufficient. Why ever do you want a boat?”

“We need to get a roc talon,” said Toad.

Izzie blinked, looking as if she thought she hadn’t heard him right.

“A … talon?” she repeated, slowly. “From a roc?”

“Yeah. That’s why we need a boat. So we can get to those towers they nest on.”

Again, Izzie looked as if she wasn’t sure what to say. Finally, she took the towel from Toad, saying, “That is a problem.” And moved to hang the towel to dry.

Izzie’s lack of confidence did not discourage Toad. Instead it made him even more relentless. He sat next to Melena by the hearth and kept up a constant flow of encouragement. “We’ve come this far! We can’t give up now. Remember that unicorn? We waited for days! Remember the caves, eh? Remember how we almost died?”

“Hazel saved us,” said Melena tonelessly, hardly noticing Izzie getting up from her chair and stepping outside.

“And Hazel’s gonna get better,” said Toad with dark fervor, punching his fist into his hand. “But we’ve gotta think about those birds! There’s gotta be a way of gettin’ up to their nests. We just gotta think of it. There’s gotta be a … we just need a … THAT’S IT!”

Toad was on his feet, spinning in circles, his eyes swiveling from floor to ceiling to windows.

“Toad, what are you—”

Toad ignored her. He dived for his coat, left by the door, and pulled out Joe. “Joe! Have you seen Ags? D’you know where she is?”

Joe yawned widely and looked up at Toad through sleep-caked eyes. “Master wishes for Miss Agatha’s company?”

“Yes! It’s urgent!”

“Well…” Joe lazily peered about the small cottage. “She doesn’t seem to be here.”

“I know that,” Toad growled. “Where is she?”

“How would I know, Master Toad?”

Toad looked dumbfounded. “But you knew she was on my shirt!”

“Yes, Master Toad, because I saw her climb up your sleeve,” said Joe with strained patience.

“But you can talk to her!”

“That doesn’t mean that Ol’ Joe can converse across oceans and mountains. Miss Agatha could be anywhere.”

Toad swore and stuffed Joe back into his coat, fuming. Melena, whose heart had lifted at the idea of Agatha transporting them into a nest, once more felt the gloom settle over her. Izzie stepped back inside, shaking raindrops from a tattered umbrella.

“Forgot to put my shovel away,” she said, catching Melena’s eye. “Last thing I need are rusty garden tools.”

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The next day Toad rose early and marched out to the cliff again. Melena didn’t join him. Instead she stayed by Hazel’s side. It was obvious that Izzie had noticed that something was troubling them, but she didn’t question them. She went about her day as usual, checking on Hazel every hour before returning to tending her garden.

Some time after lunch, Toad returned, looking windblown, with three fresh ideas, each wilder than the last.

“Face it, Toad,” Melena said in a sharp whisper, cutting down yet another outrageous plot to scale the towers, “there is no way we’re getting a talon. It would take all day just to swim out to one of those towers — maybe more. Do you know how to swim? Because I don’t. We’re finished, Toad. We’re done.”

Melena turned away from him to glare at the fire. The house was suddenly overwhelmingly quiet, the silence punctuated only by a fresh pattering of rain on the roof. Izzie shifted slightly in her old armchair, turning a page in the book she was reading. Toad sat beside Melena. She felt his eyes upon her but she refused to look at him.

“We’ve gotta get it, Melena,” he said quietly. “There’s gotta be a way.”

There isn’t, Melena thought harshly.

Izzie turned another page in her book.

A log in the fire popped.

The rain fell heavier.

The cuckoo clock on the wall steadily ticked away the time. The silence seemed to stretch on for hours, for days; it was almost too much to bear. Melena bit her lip. There was nothing to say. Their quest was over. Her chance to secure enough money to hire Mr. York and start a new life was gone. It made her physically nauseous to think of returning to the Bells.

Maybe she could live somewhere else, in a different city, in a different town? Find a new apothecary? She supposed Toad would return to the Ramblers — but he’d been booted from their ranks, hadn’t he? Would he choose to track down his father, instead? Melena pictured Toad, sea-sprayed and sun burnt, grinning like a shark on a pirate ship, and a half-sad, half-happy smile tugged at her lips.

Maybe it was time to stop the hunt for Milo and move on.

Because maybe — maybe — she’d found him already.

There weren’t many things she recalled about her time in the wagon, but she clearly remembered shouting at Toad that Milo the Snatcher was not her brother. Now, sitting for hours with nothing but worry and regret eating her insides, a horrible voice had begun to whisper that maybe, yes, Milo Snead was Milo the Snatcher.

He had looked so much like her. Nearly identical. Perhaps he had told the truth … that he had run off and left her in the orphanage. Perhaps he had gotten a bit ‘messed up’, as he’d said, consorted with the wrong crowd … realized how an easy coin was made in the smuggling of children.

He left you behind without a thought, the wicked voice whispered. He was going to sell you off. His own sister.

Melena dug her nails into her palms.

He wasn’t my brother, she thought fiercely. My brother would never do that.

How do you know? the sly voice asked. How can you say for sure what he wouldn’t do? You don’t know him.

Melena could not argue with these words. She didn’t know her brother. She didn’t know anything save his name, etched on the old locket beneath her shirt. He was a stranger. He could be anyone. Milo the Snatcher had proved how naive Melena had been. A lifetime spent dreaming of a mystery brother full of laughter and quick wit had hoodwinked her. If she succeeded in meeting Milo Snead, would she like who she met?

Would he like her?

Beside her, Toad morosely played with a hot coal, pushing it back and forth with the poker. Hazel, in her cocoon, didn’t even twitch. Melena was suddenly overcome with the urge to apologize even though the impossible task of the talon was not anyone’s fault. Perhaps Agatha would still be able to take them to a roc’s nest when she returned to the cottage? Though how they would then manage to convince the bird to part with a talon and not be either devoured on the spot or knocked off the narrow crag by the sweep of its wings…

Melena opened her mouth, unsure what she was going to say, when the door opened without warning. Melena looked around, wondering if the wind had done it, only to stare in surprise. She had thought that Izzie, herself and Toad were the only people on the island, but a petite woman stood in the doorway, shaking her umbrella clear as violently as if she were shaking a snake off a stick.

“Confound this weather,” the woman muttered.

She was very odd-looking, with a prominent square jaw and hair that resembled a thatched roof. She wore a strange assortment of garments: thick woolen pants, a thin white blouse with ruffles and pearl buttons, a tweed vest and jacket, bright purple, rubber boots, and a small lavender hat that looked truly ridiculous since a feather far too large for it was stuck into the band.

She slid her umbrella in the stand by the door as if barging into cottages on remote islands was nothing at all. “Sorry I’m late, Izzie; nearly broke my neck sliding—” The woman stopped abruptly, her eyes landing on Melena and Toad. “Skin me a lizard, I’m intruding!”

“Becky,” said Izzie, moving forward, “this is Melena, and this is Toad.”

Grumbling something inaudible, Becky searched her vest pockets and pulled out a pair of pince-nez . She put them on her rather beaky nose and peered at Melena and Toad like a grouchy librarian.

After a moment of silent scrutiny, Becky gave a short snort and took off her glasses.

“Yours?” she asked Izzie.

“Oh, no. Agatha brought them from Licklade.”

“I was about to say, don’t often see children round these parts.”

“Children,” said Izzie turning back to Melena and Toad. “This is Becky. She’s a scholar studying the habitat of the Shards.”

“That amongst other things,” said Becky. She then turned to Izzie. “Shall we get to it?”

“Becky and I meet for a game every week,” Izzie explained. “I completely forgot.”

“Go ahead,” said Melena, trying to smile. The muscles in her face didn’t seem to want to cooperate.

“I say!” said Becky, striding to the fire. “Is that a Spit-Fire? What’s it doing in the hearth?”

“She’s recuperating,” said Izzie, handing Becky a cup of tea.

“A Spit-Fire,” Becky said with enthusiasm. “They’re valuable. Quite expensive. Highly loyal. Invaluable, some would say.”

“She’s mine,” said Melena, standing and taking a step to block Hazel from view.

“Oh. Pinched her, did you?”

“Becky!” Izzie scolded.

“No, I didn’t!” said Melena hotly. “I found her abandoned in an alley.”

“Puh. Who abandons a Spit-Fire? Doesn’t look very sprightly though, does it?”

Melena’s fists clenched and Izzie, perhaps sensing danger, managed to steer Becky back to the table.

Melena scowled. The woman looked utterly ridiculous in her ruffled shirt and silly hat. Melena watched the enormous feather attached to the little lavender hat nearly knock over a vase of flowers in a window sill. Who would wear something so stu—

Melena inhaled sharply.

Toad turned to her in concern. He got to his feet. “What?”

“Look — at — her — hat,” Melena said out of the corner of her mouth.

“Yeah, it’s the stupidest—”

The feather!” Melena hissed in a strangled whisper. “The feather, Toad!

Toad looked confused, then dawning comprehension slowly came over him. He took a step closer to Melena.

“D’you think she’s got a talon?” he asked, barely moving his lips.

Melena didn’t respond. Her eyes raked over the woman. How had Becky acquired a roc feather? Had she stolen it? At the thought, Melena shot a terrified glance at the windows, half expecting to see the monstrous bird about to crash into the kitchen.

“Is that a roc feather in your hat?”

Becky stopped adding sugar to her tea, looking around at Melena. “It is.”

“That must have been terribly hard to get.”

“It was,” said Becky with a little puff of her chest.

“However did you manage it? Toad and I were just looking at those towers that they nest on.”

“Oh, you’ve been to the Needles?” asked Becky, sounding pleased.

“Not exactly. We saw them from the cliff. They look impossible to climb.”

“Not impossible!”

Melena and Toad stared.

“You mean you climbed those towers?” Toad spluttered.

“No need to sound so amazed,” Becky drawled. “They are fascinating creatures, the rocs. That’s why I came to the Shards thirty years ago — to study them. They’re mating rituals last twenty-nine days. The eggs take three years to hatch and—”

“But how did you get it?” Toad demanded, taking a seat at the table.

Becky’s thin lips tightened at being interrupted.

“Years of patience and observation.”

“Years?” Toad cried. “We ain’t got years!”

Toad, be quiet!” Melena hissed, taking the chair beside him.

Toad looked insulted. Becky, on the other hand, was smiling at Melena with greater approval.

“My aunt had a feather, too,” said Melena.

“She did?” said Becky, surprised. “I was under the impression that I was the only person in Calendula who had ever been accepted by the rocs.”

Melena felt herself blush. “She was very good with birds,” she lied quickly. “Dad always teased her; said she was one.”

Becky’s brow remained knitted and Melena was worrying she had gone too far when Becky pulled something up from the confines of her vest. It was a thin string, tied like a necklace around her neck. On one end was what looked like a large bronze tooth.

At the sight of it, Izzie gasped and leaned forward.

How did you—

“Patience and observation,” Becky repeated primly. She shot a look at Melena and said rather smugly, “Has your aunt got one of these, girlie?”

“A talon?” Melena whispered. “No, she hasn’t.”

“What?” Toad yelped, staring from Melena to the bit of talon dangling before them. “That’s a roc’s talon?”

“None other,” said Becky crisply.

“Why’s it so small?”

Angry red spots flared high on Becky’s cheeks. “A roc talon is a roc talon, whether whole or chipped. It took me ten years to be gifted with this!”

Incensed, she turned away from them and took out a stack of colored cards from her pocket, which she began to shuffle in an agitated fashion. At the sight of them Melena’s brain erupted into a plan.

“The game you two play? It’s Bloodroot and Toadstools?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Becky. “Why don’t you two scamper along while Izzie and I —”

“What do you say we play for your talon?” asked Melena.

Becky blinked at her owlishly, momentarily thrown, but she regained her icy composure in a snap.

“And why would I do that?” she demanded.

“Because I can offer something rarer than a roc talon.”

Becky’s laugh came out as a condescending snort. “I doubt it. What would a little street dweller like you have that could possibly compete with the rarity of a roc’s talon?”

“Joe.”

Toad looked around at her so fast that his neck cricked.

“Who’s Joe?” Becky asked, her eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“A beer mug.” Melena went to Toad’s coat, hanging by the door, but Toad got there in a flash and yanked it back.

“Bet somethin’ else!”

“We need that talon!” said Melena, pulling on the coat.

“I don’t care. Bet somethin’ else!” Toad snarled.

But Becky was now intrigued.

“Come now, boy! Let her pull it out!”

“I swear, I won’t lose,” Melena said quietly.

Toad’s furious eyes did not soften as he allowed Melena to pull Joe from the coat and place him upon the table.

Becky and Izzie sat frozen, staring as Joe lazily blinked his eyes as if waking from a slumber. He looked around at the platter of cookies and cups of tea. “I say, are we having a party?” He grinned widely and looked up at the silent women. “Elizabeth!” he cried in shock and jubilation. “Elizabeth Groot! Oh!

For a moment, Melena was so confused by Joe’s exclamation that she could only stare at Izzie. Toad, however, spoke clearly.

“What the blazes is goin’ on?”

“I say, do you know this creation, Izzie?” Becky demanded, turning to her friend.

Izzie looked like a woman cornered. “I might have … run into him once … when I was younger…”

“She used me as a paperweight,” said Joe, happily. “Oh, Elizabeth, how you have grown!” He looked her up and down smartly, like a proud grandfather. “We had such a very short time together before my dear Jack lifted me from your ironing board.”

“Jack?” said Melena, turning to Toad.

“Jack the Barbarian,” said Toad shortly.

“Is that what happened?” asked Izzie. “I really should have gotten better locks…”

“So you see,” Melena said, trying to steer the conversation back to the task at hand, “he’s one of a kind.”

“Oh, yes,” Izzie agreed, apparently happy to move the attention elsewhere. “Joe’s in a class all to himself.”

“If I win, I get your talon,” said Melena. “If I lose, you get Joe. What do you say?”

Becky tore her eyes from Joe. “This talon took a lot to get, girlie.” But Becky chewed her lip, conflicted. Then: “If I may?”

“By all means,” said Melena. “He’s real. He isn’t a trick.”

Becky situated her pince-nez more securely on her nose, picked Joe up and peered at him from all angles. “Fascinating. He’s doesn’t appear to have a brain, yet talks and remembers. How did you come by him?”

“A fortuneteller had him,” said Melena as Toad sat in cold silence beside her.

“And you Izzie? You and this Joe character know each other?”

In reply, Izzie took a large swallow of tea. Becky didn’t seem to mind not getting an answer from her. She was too absorbed in scrutinizing every inch of the mug. She turned him around so they were nearly nose to nose. Joe puckered his fat lips and made a loud smooching noise that made Izzie snort into her teacup.

“I accept your challenge,” said Becky, putting Joe back onto the table. She turned her attention to laying out the cards. Joe grinned rather shiftily at Izzie who quickly rose to check on Hazel.

Toad scooted his chair closer to Melena. “You know how to play this?” he asked in an undertone.

“Yes. I told you. I used to play it all the time back at the orphanage.”

Used to?”

“Working in Mr. Bell’s shop cut down on time for competition. But I was a champion at St. Brenda’s. I’m very good, Toad,” Melena added, with what she hoped was a confident smile. “I know what I’m doing.”

“If you say so,” Toad muttered tersely.

Melena didn’t want to think about how Toad would behave toward her if she lost Joe.

“Ready, girlie?” asked Becky, looking up from the cards.

Melena nodded; Toad sat stiff as a board; Izzie refreshed their cups. Out of thin air, Agatha reappeared, settling down on the tip of Joe’s nose, making him go cross-eyed.

On the table between Melena and Becky were five stacks of different colored cards (smokey gray, poisonous green, shimmering blue, blood red, and inky black), arranged in a circle with the black stack in the center. Becky passed Melena a blank white card from a much shorter stack pushed to the side before taking one herself.

“Youngest draws first,” said Becky.

Melena took the top card from the black stack and Toad leaned in close. There were silver words written on it: Widow’s Broth. Underneath the words were tiny colored dots: five green, two red, and a single blue.

“What’s—” But Melena shushed Toad and put the card face down beside the blank white one, so Becky couldn’t see the potion’s name.

Becky reached out a hand and slid a black card off the stack. The corner of her mouth twitched and she too, placed it face down before her.

“Well, girlie?”

Melena considered the four remaining stacks. Widow’s Broth was a poison and one she would have much preferred not to have drawn. She didn’t usually peruse the poison section in Bartholomew’s Guide to All Things Potion, save for the times she felt particularly volatile toward the Bells. From the colored dots on the potion’s card, she knew she had plenty of ingredients to find, but what were they?

A stained and oil spattered page from All Things Potion swam into her mind. Ground human bones — she remembered that, but what else … clover roots? That didn’t sound right. It definitely called for a liver from the ruby toad … or had it been a heart?

“Take your time,” said Becky, daintily sipping her tea.

Melena ground her jaw. She was only allowed one guess, and she didn’t want to use it first thing, especially with the smug smile Becky was giving her. She picked up a green card. Unlike the potion card, a drawing of a shriveled black seed pod took up most of its face, but underneath were words written in the same silver ink: Blister Pods.

They were never called for in poisons, making her decision easy. She put the card face up beside the center black stack.

“Don’t need blister pods, eh?” Becky asked, scrutinizing Melena.

“No,” said Melena.

Becky eyed her shrewdly, then, instead of choosing a colored card, picked up the blank, white one by her elbow — the Guess Card.

“Moonrocks,” she said almost lazily.

At once, the card turned gray to match the gray stack. With an arrogant smile, Becky placed it on the table, face up for everyone to see, and Melena felt her confidence wither somewhat.

“What was that about?” Toad demanded. “You can just ask for cards?”

“You get a guess — a single guess,” Melena explained. “But it comes with a price. Whether you guess right or wrong, your opponent gets two turns back to back.

“That’s great!” said Toad.

Melena grimaced. She appreciated the extra go at the stacks, but she had not missed the silent message from Becky. Becky knew all the ingredients to her potion; she had simply used up her Guess Card to get ahead. Melena was not playing a novice.

Melena lifted a green card (Holly Berries) and then a blue (Yunglung Oil), both useless and Becky’s smug grin made her want to vomit.

“Too bad,” Becky simpered, drawing a blue card only for her face to fall into a scowl.

“Zifferous juice,” she snorted, flinging it back to the center of the table.

Melena mentally went through the ingredients to Widow’s Broth again and again, and with each run-through, she grew more confident, save for one … was it clover roots or yew leaves? Should she, like Becky, go ahead and use her guess now?

Melena took another green card. Her heart leapt. Loon-Bell Beans was written in silver below a drawing of bluish-purple, kidney-shaped beans. She tried to keep from grinning and placed it beside her potion card, but this time face up, so everyone could see.

“Eh? Loon-bell beans?” Becky squinted over the table at the card.

“Quite,” nodded Joe knowingly. “Make horrible stains. I remember some of your shirts, Elizabeth …”

Becky let out an annoyed snort that her head start was gone, and snatched up a card from the red stack.

“AhHA!” she cackled, placing her own card face up. “The tail of the black salamander!

In reply, Melena took another green card. On the game went, Melena slowly working through the green stack while Becky jumped from color to color like an over-energized butterfly. After ten minutes, Becky had added another card to her collection — pimpinella roots — while Melena still only had one ingredient. Toad was leaning so close to Melena that their shoulders were fused together.

It was Melena’s turn again; Becky was flushed with excitement, hovering over the stacks, ready to snatch up another when Melena was done. Melena glanced over the cards Becky had collected wondering what potion she could have…

“I don’t have many more to go,” Becky grinned. “How many do you need?”

Melena ignored her. Tired of the green cards, she picked up a blue one. There was no drawing there, only a single, bold word: PROVIDER.

“What’s that one?” Toad asked, sharply. “Why’s there no drawing?”

Becky’s smile vanished.

Melena cleared her throat and said clearly to the table at large, “Essence of Ergot.”

Immediately the word PROVIDER vanished, replaced by a fancy greenish bottle with the caption Essence of Ergot written beneath it. Relieved to have gotten her only liquid ingredient, Melena placed it beside her loon-bell beans.

“Ergot?” Becky muttered, glaring at the stacks. “Loons and ergots? That’s a rather tricky combination. I wonder … is your potion Liquid Confusion?”

Melena kept her face impassive. “Maybe,” she replied.

“Hmm…”

Becky’s eyes darted behind her glasses, the lenses digging into her eyebrows. Perhaps feeling that the blue stack was lucky, she picked up one only to fling it down in aggravation. Melena returned to the green cards. Again (Melena had never been this lucky), the card had only a single word: PINCHER. She put the card face up beside her others and saw Becky’s eyes widen. Izzie chuckled. Glaring, Becky snatched up a green card.

“Ah, yes! Milkwort!” Becky put it beside her other ingredients, but Melena held out the PINCHER card, her eyes dancing.

“I’ll take that, please.”

“You can do that?” Toad said, amazed, as Becky ground her jaw and flung the milkwort card at Melena.

“You can only take someone else’s card with the Pincher card,” Melena explained, placing the PINCHER card on the discard stack and the milkwort with her potion collection. “Provider cards allow you to take directly from the stack, but only from the stack which they come from.”

The game turned fierce as more cards joined their potions. Melena collected two more while Becky grabbed her fourth, all the while grumbling loudly over the loss of her milkwort.

“What happens now that you’ve got one of her ingredients?” Toad asked.

“She can’t finish her potion,” Melena replied in an undertone as Becky shot her a furious glare. “But she could get it back if she finds a Provider or a Pin—”

HAHA!” Becky had lifted a green card and waved it about like a battle flag. “You’re not the only one who’s got luck up her sleeve.” She slammed it down on the table. The gleaming words PROVIDER seemed grotesquely cheerful to Melena. “Milkwort, please,” said Becky evilly. The card transformed, a spindly plant now on its face, identical to the one Melena had. “I only need one more, girlie, and that mug’s mine!”

Muskrat hair, pimpinella roots, moonrocks, black-tailed salamander, milkwort … the ingredients raced their tails in Melena’s brain. Becky only needed one more ingredient? What was it? She should know this. What was missing? Melena still needed three cards of her own and she still didn’t know if she should keep clover roots or yew leaves. If she spent her guess, she would allow Becky two turns. Melena squeezed her eyes shut, trying to visualize the page in All Things Potion.

Becky drummed her fingers on the table.

Melena fingered the white card and Becky, noticing her indecision, leapt like a cat on a mouse.

“Best to be sure,” Becky insisted with fake concern. “Would be terrible if you thought you had the right combination.”

“Why?” asked Toad at once. “Why would it be terrible?”

“If I end the game with the wrong cards, I’d have to put all the cards I’ve collected so far back into their stacks,” said Melena grimly. “I’d have to get them all back again.”

Toad looked horrified. “And — and Becky doesn’t have to do anything?”

“She’ll keep her cards and have a heavy head’s start which is why it’s practically impossible to win if you’ve lost all your cards. This game doesn’t forgive guessing,” said Melena.

“But you can guess!” Toad argued, pointing at the blank card.

“And give Becky two turns?”

“It’ll be worth it if your guess is right,” Toad insisted.

“And if I’m wrong?” said Melena.

Toad glared at her. His face paled with tension, but he said with fierce conviction, “You won’t be.”

Toad’s confidence fortified Melena’s decision. She picked up the blank card and asked (with the fingers of her left hand crossed under the table), “Yew leaves?”

If her guess was wrong, the card would turn bright orange, signaling the loss of her guess, but instead, green bled across its face. No longer blank, it now showed thin, needle-like leaves on a slender branch.

Melena expelled a long breath and put the card with the rest. Toad let out a loud whoop; Izzie clapped, beaming. Becky, whose lips had turned downward in an ugly grimace, now grinned wickedly.

“Two turns to me then,” she said.

She reached for the blue stack and Melena thought her heart might explode as realization struck: Dragon’s Flame. Dragon’s Flame was Becky’s potion and the only ingredient missing was jasmine water. Melena crossed her fingers beneath the table, praying Becky wouldn’t draw it…

The first was tossed aside.

The second —

“Confound it all!” Becky roared, throwing down castor seed oil onto the messy discard stack.

Izzie laughed out loud, but Melena let out a shaky breath of relief. She may have dodged a bullet, but the fact remained that she needed two to Becky’s one.

Starting to feel herself sweat, Melena picked up a red card and was immediately rewarded.

“The liver of the ruby toad,” she cheered happily, putting it down with her others. She beamed across the table. “I only have one left now, too.”

Becky snorted with such violence that Melena was sure a few boogers landed on the playing cards. She again reached for a blue —

And discarded it.

The same happened for Melena’s red turn. Beside her, Toad’s leg was jerking up and down with nervous adrenaline.

Onward it went. By the fourth round of discarded blues and reds, both Melena and Becky were sweating, hovering over their colored stacks.

Joe had long since lost interest in the furious game and was absentmindedly humming ‘Sweet, Sweet Joanna’ under his breath. Agatha was still curled up on his nose, looking like a frightful pimple.

The blue stack was shockingly low and Melena knew that the chances of Becky finding her jasmine water were uncomfortably high. Toad was hunched over the table, his twitching leg causing the teacups to rattle in their saucers. Her fingertips tingling, Melena pulled yet another red card from the stack.

“YES!” She yelled so loudly, that Toad jumped and fell out of his seat. “BLOODROOT! BLOODROOT!” Melena shouted, waving her red card in the air.

“What’s this?! What’s this?!” Becky demanded. She had jerked so badly at Melena’s shout that her glasses had tumbled off her nose.

Melena slammed the last card (a nasty drawing of human bones) onto the table. At the shout of the winner’s word, her line of cards lit up and glowed faintly gold. Of their own accord, they stacked themselves under the black potion card, signally the end of the game. Melena had gathered the correct ingredients. She had won.

“You won?” Toad gasped, climbing back into his seat.

Melena held out her hand, her face split into a triumphant smile.

Purple in the face, Becky yanked off her necklace and thrust it across the table.

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