Toad and Melena jerked around in time to see two large men troop to a corner table leaving a trail of melted snow in their wake.
“How d’you recognize them?” asked Toad, turning back to Joe. “How d’you know they’re with this Horace person?”
“Why do you think they’d help us?” Melena asked, eying the corner where the men had settled with slight apprehension. “I’m not sure we should get help from someone called ‘Horrid’.”
“There is no need to fear, m’lady!” Joe insisted. “The great pirate captain—”
“Wait,” said Toad quickly. “Pirate captain?”
“Master has never heard of the greatest of all Thief Lords?” asked Joe, voice brimming with incredulity.
“Greater than Jack the Barbarian?” said Toad, surprised.
“Well … dear Jack had his impressive qualities,” Joe admitted, “but the swash-buckling, bloodthirsty scalawag of the Northern Seas? Ah, Master Toad, there is no competition!”
“Bloodthirsty?” said Melena, alarmed.
“Is that why you think he’ll be willing to take us to the springs?” asked Toad, growing excited. “He’s taken you there before?”
“Horace the Horrid goes where he pleases,” Joe stated emphatically. “One does so when one is a pirate.”
A pirate! Toad’s stomach swooped. A real, actual pirate. And Toad would get to meet him! Maybe (Toad’s heart quivered at the thought) Captain Horace had heard of his father. Maybe they’d even had swash-buckling, bloodthirsty, pirate skirmishes together!
“What’s he like?” he asked Joe excitedly.
“Finest of the fine! Scurviest of the scurvy! Foulest of the foul! Shall I speak of his women?”
“No!” said Melena, revolted. “How can someone be fine and foul at the same time?”
“By being a Thief Lord!” cried Toad, ecstatic. He was on his feet, had already taken two quick strides toward the corner table, when Melena grabbed him and pulled him back.
“I don’t think we should, Toad,” she said. She was eying the table nervously.
“But Joe says they’ll help us,” Toad argued.
“But they’re pirates!”
“Yeah!” said Toad, the giddiness in his voice a stark contrast to Melena’s trepidation.
“But why would they help us?” said Melena, refusing to let go of his arm. “Think, Toad! We have nothing to offer them. I don’t have enough money left to even begin to tempt them and — ” Melena went suddenly still, her eyes on Joe.
Toad, immediately realizing what Melena was thinking, clutched Joe to his chest. “Oh, no! We ain’t doing that again!”
“Think about it, Toad!” Melena implored. “Pirates don’t just help people, and we’re asking them to put themselves in danger —”
“They’re pirates!” Toad countered, furiously. “They always put themselves in danger!”
“They won’t take us without getting something in return!” Melena snapped, losing patience. “Go ask them — go on! Go and see how they react. If they don’t throttle you, they’ll laugh you out of the tavern.”
“But we’ve got Joe!” said Toad in a heated undertone. “Thieves have to do what the Thief Lord says — it’s the rules!”
“We’re asking them to risk their lives for us, not house us. I think …” Melena bit her lip before plowing on with determination, “I think we should ask Joe how he feels about being traded.”
The mug had gone rigid in Toad’s hands; his bright blue marble eyes were fixed on Melena as if she had sprouted a second head.
“We’re discussing your fate as much as ours,” said Melena. Her apologetic smile was as much for Toad as for Joe. “You have every right to have your say in the matter.”
Joe looked floored. The sight of the stunned mug made Toad wonder if anyone had ever asked Joe, in all his years of being dragged across Calendula, what it was that he wanted. The realization unsettled him. He didn’t want to give up Joe. Joe had been the first thing in his life to go right and there was still the chance when this mess was over and done with that he could return to the Ramblers, a feat that would be far easier with Joe in his pocket…
Bone would never give up Joe. Never. Not in a million years. Toad doubted even Jack would let the mug slip from his fingers willingly.
But did he want to be like Bone?
Toad’s throat felt unnaturally constricted and he sounded like he had a head cold as he said, “Yeah, Joe. If — if you wanna go with Horace, you can.”
Joe was flabbergasted. His eyes darted between their faces, as if expecting them to take it back. Finally, quivering like jelly, too moved for speech, Joe nodded, eyes flooded with tears.
Toad would have laughed at the expression on the pirates’ faces when they sat down without warning at their table, pushing Joe toward them and offering the deal, but he wasn’t feeling very cheerful.
Horace the Horrid must have been pining over his lost mug as much as Joe had been pining over his lost captain; the pirates recognized Joe immediately and didn’t hesitate in agreeing to take them to their ship, assuring them that Captain Morley (Toad had frowned in confusion at this, but then realized that Horrid couldn’t possibly be Horace’s last name) would be more than willing to listen to their terms; whether he chose to agree to them, they could not say. The pirates would have set out right then and there in the dark of night, but the blizzard kept them at bay.
“In the morn,” said one of the pirates, placing Joe back upon the table with care.
Morning seemed to arrive faster than usual, a loud rap on their door rousting them from slumber. They dressed (Hazel once again burrowed inside Melena’s coat) and followed the pirates outside. Though the air was still and no snow was falling, it was bitterly cold. In the pale light, Toad could see the aftereffects of the blizzard. He thought for a moment that he was still asleep after all, for surely this couldn’t be real.
Bluish-white snow covered everything, smooth and unblemished. Now Toad could see the tiny town the train had deposited them at: several severely pitched roofs, the snow piled right up to the eves. As Toad watched, what he’d taken for as an attic window flew open and a bundled-up woman stepped out in snow boots, quickly striding down the slope toward a protected wood pile. The pirates had been driven to the tavern on a toothless man’s sleigh. Toad watched in fascination as the old codger pulled two burly reindeer from the tavern’s barn and fitted them into their harnesses, while the pirates strapped down provisions. With a wave of a hand, Toad and Melena awkwardly settled inside the sleigh, sandwiched between the pirates and the toothless driver. With a crack of reins, they were off.
Toad was thrilled by the speeding sleigh and didn’t even notice the biting chill against his cheeks and nose. They could hardly move, squeezed as they were, but Melena poked him in the shoulder and pointed; Toad looked just in time to see a winter fox, coat so white it was nearly invisible, dash away. The pirates didn’t speak to them, only periodically shouting at the driver, jabbing their thumbs this way and that, giving the impression that they were arguing over which way to go. There weren’t any buildings here, only sweeping, endless snow. Toad twisted around and watched the twin lines the sleigh cut, the only marks on a canvas of white, as if they were the only humans in the world.
“I know that was hard for you,” Melena said softly, leaning into Toad’s side so the pirates wouldn’t hear. “Offering Joe. I’m sorry.”
Toad smiled nonchalantly at her, but his hold tightened over the knapsack in his lap where Joe was tucked inside.
“I always knew I wouldn’t have him forever. It’s good to know he’s happy, you know.”
He’d thought he’d kept his voice light, but the smile Melena gave him was a little too understanding for Toad’s comfort.
“Not many would have done it.”
“No,” Toad admitted, picking at his bag’s strap. “Probably not.”
Joe had been so giddy when they’d turned in the night before that he’d kept them up much longer than usual, sharing all sorts of daring tales of Captain Horace ‘the Horrid’ Morley, and Toad and Melena hadn’t been able to bring themselves to stuff him away, as they would have done before. As the sleigh cut through the snow, Toad replayed those stories, wondering if Morley was really as true to his word as Joe claimed he was.
The reindeer climbed a sharp hill and at the crest Melena gasped and Toad leaned forward. On the other side of the slope was an icy bank, a boat half pulled up onto the snow, and farther out to sea was unmistakably a pirate ship. The pirates transferred their goods to the small boat and paid the driver. As they were rowed toward the ship, Toad took in every inch of its bulk. Jet black — even the sails — it groaned in the current like a slumbering beast. Shouting and a string of raucous song drifted down to them over the frigid water, and Toad spied more pirates clambering about on deck, tugging on the rigging and hailing their approaching boat.
Ropes with hooks were flung over the side and the pirates swiftly attached their bundles. A long rope ladder tossed overboard nearly hit Toad on the head. With a prod from one of the pirates, he shouldered his knapsack and climbed on board, Melena at his ankles.
“Who the devil are you?”
Toad swallowed. They were surrounded by pirates; bearded, scarred, pierced, and tattooed, they were a motley crew that would have put thuggish Bone on edge. Pistols and cutlasses hung at their hips. As Toad watched, a pirate with a long jagged scar running across one blind eye to his upper lip, fingered the sword at his side with a loving caress that reminded him unpleasantly of Cutter.
“I asked you a question, rodent!” said the scarred man. Without warning, he grabbed Toad’s arm, his cutlass glinting in the sunlight. Quick as a flash, Hazel slithered from Melena’s coat, leapt forward and bit the man on the hand. With a shout, the pirate jerked backward, releasing Toad, but not before making another grab for Hazel.
“No!” Melena yelled, but the pirate had Hazel by the neck. She snapped her jaws and twisted in the air like a fish on a hook. The pirate lifted her high and shouted to the men around him, “This one’s a sardine! I say we throw it back!” The pirates laughed and Toad tried to snatch Hazel back, but Hazel’s sharp claws found the man’s hand and with a slash, she sliced his wrist. He dropped her. Hazel puffed up her chest, smoke billowing from her nostrils, wings flexing, spitting like a viper. But the sight of the furious dragon in her checkered sweater sent the pirates into peals of laughter.
The pirate ruefully rubbed his bleeding wrist. “Vicious little sardine. I’ve been needing a new belt,” he added with a dangerous twist of his mouth.
“Stand down, Smedley!” one of the pirates from their boat ordered, swinging his long legs over the railing as Melena snatched up Hazel. “They’ve come to speak with the captain.”
“What’s two tadpoles got to do with Captain?” Smedley asked, his lower jaw jutting out aggressively. More pirates had noticed the commotion and the cluster around them grew dense, pressing Toad and Melena together. It was taking everything Melena had to keep Hazel from squirming out of her arms and flying at Smedley’s face. “We sent you and Booth to get supplies, Mabbott. Not milk maids.”
The pirates laughed again. Mabbott’s pale cheeks tinged pink, but that may have been from the cold.
“These milk maids have Joe, you one-eyed, bow-legged blowfish!”
Mabbott must have been made of fiercer stuff for Toad never would have called the scarred Smedley a bow-legged blowfish, at least not to his face. And perhaps it didn’t happen very often for the insult seemed to have taken Smedley completely by surprise. He gaped stupidly. In fact, Toad realized that not one of the pirates had surged forward to defend Smedley’s honor. They all stood rooted to the deck.
“Joe?” Smedley whispered.
Mabbott nudged Toad in the shoulder with the back of his hand. “Go on, boy,” he said with his permanent scowl in place. “Bring out Ol’ Joe for this daft blighter.”
The pirates were silent, all eyes upon Toad, making him suddenly hot around the collar. He groped inside his bag and pulled Joe out for them to see. They let out a bellowing roar, stomping the deck with their heavy boots, punching the air, swinging their cutlasses, as if Toad held the brightest of diamonds in his hand. Toad and Melena shrank closer together as the pirates swarmed them; Hazel actually breathed fire, nearly catching their coats aflame. It seemed very likely that they would be trampled or impaled —
“What’s this blasted kerfuffle?” a new voice boomed. “Quiet, I say, yeh gormless gargoyles!”
The pirates parted and a broad chested man emerged. His beard was long, wiry and steel gray. Half of his face sported a gruesome burn; his eyes were such a piercing blue, they looked like bits of chiseled ice. Those eyes were wide now, latched onto Joe.
Joe grinned around Toad’s gloved fingers and Horace the Horrid actually swayed on the spot. “By the goddess,” Horace whispered, almost to himself. He seemed to have forgotten that his crew stood around him; he looked dazed, hypnotized. Toad’s unease grew. Mabbott and Booth had told him Horace would listen to their bargain, but Toad now wondered if Horace would snatch Joe from his fingers like Smedley had snatched Hazel and push them both overboard. They were surrounded. Outnumbered. Two children with the smallest of dragons in the midst of a hoard of pirates, greed and hunger in every eye. Melena was as tense as a bowstring beside him; he could practically hear her thoughts mimicking his own.
Trust? Trust a pirate?
“My Captain,” said Joe, his baritone warm as drink. “It has been too long.”
A gash of a mouth spread into a broad grin. “That it has, old friend,” Horace agreed, his eyes crinkling. “That it has! By the goddess! What brings yeh back to the Firefly?”
“Master Toad and Lady Melena are in need of your assistance, my Captain,” Joe explained.
Horace’s eyes roved over Toad and Melena as if noticing them for the first time.
“Aye? And what business has brought these two landlubbers so far from home?”
Toad’s throat unstuck. “How do you know we’ve come a long way? Captain,” he added, quickly.
Horace’s laugh was as gruff as the rest of him. “Did yeh buy the whole shop?”
“It’s cold!” said Melena, bristling.
“You’re right,” said Toad over the renewed waves of laughter. “We’re from Hickory.”
“And so I ask again. What brings lord and lady to me humble ship?”
A few of the pirates snickered and Toad thought he spotted the joke. The ship — Firefly? — looked anything but humble. Gold filigree and intricate carvings on the main mast made it look like a serpent was twisted around it. Every inch of the ship was spotless, its black paint gleaming.
“We need you to take us to the Springs of Mirg,” said Toad.
Horace’s expression changed to mild surprise, but the pirates, save Mabbott, all guffawed as if Toad had uttered a hilarity. Smedley roared the loudest, slapping a thick palm across his thigh.
“And why would I be doing something like that?” Horace asked.
Toad swallowed thickly, prodded into action by the gentle press of Melena’s shoulder against his own. “Because if you take us there, we’ll give you Joe. And I think you’ll do it,” Toad added, voice growing strong, “because Joe trusts you. Joe claims you for one of his own and he wouldn’t do that if you disrespected the Code of the Bewitched Beer Mug of Thieves.”
Horace stared at Toad for a very long time, the entire ship suddenly as silent as the grave. Then, when Toad began to once again doubt the plan, Horace asked, “What might yeh be needing at Mirg, young lord?”
Melena took a half step forward. “Just a flask or two from the water there,” she said quickly. “That’s all.”
“That’s all?” Horace’s beard twitched with a fresh smile. “That’s all, yeh say, little miss?” He limped toward them, the pirates closing in behind him. He looked over Toad’s head out toward the iron sea. He was so tall, Toad barely came up to his chest. “I’ll take yeh to the springs, but I won’t make no promises fer what may happen there.” At Toad’s widened eyes he added, “No, lad. I’ve no interest in killing yeh. I honor the Law of Joe, as only a proper Thief Lord does, and I know I’m looking at one right now.”
Toad felt a warmth spread through his chest, chasing away his fear. Yes, he could trust this pirate. He shifted Joe to one hand and held out the other for Horace. “A deal then? You’ll take us to and from the springs in payment for Joe?”
Horace’s blue eyes blazed. He gripped Toad’s hand.
“Aye, lad. That I will.”
Horace set his crew to work and Toad and Melena were quickly underfoot. Mabbott led them below deck and pointed to two vacated hammocks in the large sleeping quarters for the crew. They tucked their bags away and Mabbott passed them slices of salted bear meat and a flagon of fresh water.
“How far are the springs?” Toad asked.
“With good sail, three, four days.”
The ship suddenly tipped; Melena lost her balance and with a yelp fell into a nearby hammock.
Mabbott eyed them. “Either of you have sea legs?” he asked.
“If that means have we been sailing, no,” said Toad, helping hoist Melena out of the swaying hammock, “we haven’t.”
Mabbott didn’t look surprised. He kicked a bucket; it skidded across the floor to them. “Don’t miss,” he grunted, before mounting the stairs back up deck.
Toad had the feeling that Mabbott had been ordered by Horace to keep an eye on them. After his short trip on deck, he returned and never once left their side. His pale face and long limbs put Toad in mind of a cave-dwelling spider, but that reminded him of the Dunthur monster and he stopped that train of thought right then and there. The last thing he needed while sleeping amongst pirates was to wake them by having a nightmare.
Now that he wasn’t worried about being flung overboard, Toad watched the pirates with open fascination. All his years of imagining what life would be like aboard a pirate ship was finally before him. He hadn’t expected it to be so busy. The pirates were hardly ever idle. The ship seemed even more like a sea creature now that the anchor had been raised, lurching and straining. The pirates were its tamers, drivers, soothers, for how they cooed over the ship.
Embarrassingly, Toad and Melena both discovered what not having sea legs meant and spent many rounds over the bucket before Mabbott took pity on them and gave them a spicy root to chew on. “It helps,” he said and with relief they discovered he was right.
If they were underfoot wherever they went on the Firefly, it was nothing to how underfoot Hazel was with Toad and Melena, which was dangerous. Treading on Hazel’s tail caused more damage than Toad was up for. The dragon was constantly steaming like a kettle and didn’t like it when Melena or Toad tried to pick her up to settle her down, wriggling like an eel in their arms.
“I think she’s realized what kind of ship we’re on,” Toad muttered to Melena.
When Joe had said that Horace the Horrid was a Dragon Hunter, he hadn’t been exaggerating. Lines of harpoons glistened in racks, long and strong, sharper than swords, and when Mabbott led them into the Captain’s Quarters for dinner that evening, it was to see the monstrous head of a Slinkwing mounted on the wall.
Toad had been braced for this, but the sight of the creature still took his breath away. After the confusion over rocs and rauks, Toad had asked Melena to show him a picture of a Slinkwing. But Edgar Bartholomew had not bothered to illustrate the dragon. His description had been vivid enough.
But words, Toad realized, did not do this creature justice.
The head mounted on the wall jutted out into the room five feet. A long mane of seaweed green hair fell from its jawline like a beard. Reptilian and serpentine, with foot-long fangs, its green-blue hide glistened a strange, electric green, even in death. As they settled at the dining table, Toad understood why the sight of Hazel had been so hilarious to the pirates: compared to a Slinkwing, she was a sardine.
Horace sat at the head of the table, Mabbott pulled up the chair on his left and much to Toad’s annoyance Smedley joined them, taking the place at Horace’s right.
Toad had feared they would be eating nothing but salty strips of bear meat, but as the dishes were uncovered, he was delighted to see a succulent meal and was triply grateful for the sea sickness root. Feeling that the entire venture was all thanks to Joe, Toad placed him on the table by his elbow and Horace grinned, pleased.
The clink of cutlery filled the cabin until Horace said, “Don’t worry, we won’t use yer little one as bait.”
Toad looked around and saw that Horace had spoken to Melena, who had not lifted her fork at all, but was staring at the dragon head on the opposite wall.
She glared at Horace and Hazel growled from under the table which only made Horace and Smedley bark out with fresh laughter.
“This isn’t a hunting trip, Captain Morley,” said Melena.
“Yeh’re in the Blackens, little miss. Every day is a hunting day. It’s a shame,” he added, leisurely stretching his stiff leg under the table, “that yeh didn’t come earlier in the season. I had a whole case of Mirg water.”
“What happened to it?” cried Toad in dismay.
“Sold it, boy. Yeh don’t think I hold on to the stuff meself — not with the purses people throw to just have a sip.”
“And it’s worth it?” asked Melena, eying the dragon’s head with apprehension. “To risk the Slinkwings?”
“The Slinkwings are nesting this time of year,” Horace explained, “which makes it the best and worst time to seek out the springs.”
“Why’s that?” asked Toad.
“Best as they’re curled up in their ice caves, tending to their brood. Worst as they’re never more fiercely protective of their territory.” At the paleness of Toad’s and Melena’s faces, Horace casually waved a broad hand. “It’s too early fer the eggs to be hatching. If yeh’d come a month later, I wouldn’t have taken yeh, not even fer Joe.” He tipped his hat in apology and Joe smiled broadly.
“But you … you hunt them,” said Toad, unable to stop his eyes from glancing nervously at the head. “Joe said you’re a Dragon Hunter.”
“Aye, lad, that I am. Of course we use proper protection. Can’t sail these waters without it, ’specially so close to Mirg, but that doesn’t mean I’m a fool. Nothing more dangerous than a Slinkwing mother. But if I have to fight, I fight to the death. Each devil I kill is another mound of gorents fer me and the Firefly. No better armor than Slinkwing hide” — he plucked at his own fancy coat which had the same hints of bright green — “and their blood burns hotter and longer than any oil.” He pointed toward the glowing lamps around the room and Toad now noticed a strange greenish glow emitting from the lamps. “In these parts where the cold can rip the flesh from yer bones, yeh’ll pay a pretty price fer a barrel of Slinkwing blood. There ain’t a more lucrative venture.”
“But like you say,” said Melena, obviously struggling to keep her voice calm, “we’re unlikely to meet any Slinkwings. They’re in their nests, so we’ll be fine.”
Mabbott cut his eyes toward Smedley who leaned back in his chair, leering broader than ever before, picking at his teeth with a steak knife.
Toad couldn’t sleep. He’d sought refuge in all kinds of places as a Rambler — slumber in a hammock should have been easy. But the grunts and snores of the pirates around him and the periodic groan of the ship was proving too difficult to overcome, and he was nervous — more nervous than he wanted to admit about the Slinkwings. He sat up, wanting to chat with Melena and was surprised and slightly annoyed to find her sound asleep in her own hammock.
He swung his legs out of the hanging bed and rose. After putting on his boots and donning a few more sweaters and his rabbit fur hat, he climbed the narrow staircase to the main deck, choosing to leave Joe behind; Hazel was wrapped snuggly around the mug and Toad didn’t want to press his luck by waking her unceremoniously.
Toad spotted a few pirates still on deck. It seemed the Firefly was never left completely unattended. They paid him no mind as he crossed the deck to the rails. He looked down at the dark water and the memory of the Slinkwing’s head loomed before Toad’s eyes. Was there one lurking just beneath the surface, ready to leap up and snatch Toad in its jaws?
“Not wise to waste sleep, boy.”
Toad spun around. Horace stood before him, his long gray hair twisting in a sudden cruel wind. Toad shivered.
“I couldn’t,” he admitted.
Horace’s gash of a mouth smiled. He stood at the railing beside Toad, staring out at the darkness as he’d done earlier that day, as if he could see something that was hidden from everyone else.
“Yeh don’t know, do yeh?” Horace asked.
“Know what?” asked Toad.
“Joe. Yeh don’t know what he is. If yeh did, yeh wouldn’t be givin’ him up so easily.”
Toad disagreed. Nesting habits or not, Toad wouldn’t call sailing into dragon-infested waters ‘easy’.
“I’ve got to get that Mirg water,” he said gruffly, mentally stomping down on the envy that had sprung up in his chest at the thought that Joe preferred Horace. “It’s more important.”
Horace faced him. “Yeh wouldn’t be sayin’ that if yeh knew.”
Toad was growing annoyed. “If I knew what? Captain,” he added, apologetically.
“Yeh see Joe as a funny little enchantment. How could yeh not? But he’s more. Lad, he’s more than that. Ever ask him where he came from?”
“No,” said Toad, honestly. “It’s never come up.”
“Joe keeps it to himself — doesn’t like to talk about it. Scared of that place.”
“What place?” asked Toad at once. The only time he’d seen Joe truly frightened had been in the Dunthur caves. Was this place also underground?
“His home. The land Joe hails from. The wonders it must hold,” Horace breathed.
“Like a treasure trove?” asked Toad, excited.
“Treasure. Glories. All I know is, the place that made Joe must hold incredible things.”
Toad wanted to press for more information, but he had the feeling that Horace had given all he would, or perhaps all he knew. The cold was becoming unbearable, but a new question kept him at the rail.
“Captain Morley, you — er, you know other pirates, don’t you?” he began.
“Then … have you heard of Captain Shark-Tooth Kent?” Toad asked in a rush. “It’s just — my dad’s under his command and —”
“Yer father’s a pirate?” asked Horace, thick eyebrows rising in surprise. “No wonder Joe took a fancy.”
Toad couldn’t stop himself. He grinned stupidly. “The thing is he dropped me off with some mates when I was little and I haven’t seen him since.”
Horace nodded his head as if to agree that babes were not meant for sea-life.
“And I was wondering if you’d met them.”
“Shark-Tooth Kent?” Horace narrowed his eyes. The wind whipped his beard, fresh snow flakes catching in the wiry strands. “Sorry lad, I don’t know of him. Do yeh know what seas he sails? His ship?”
“No,” Toad admitted, frowning slightly. “I don’t know its name. Dad’s never come to shore.”
“At least … not to Hickory,” Toad admitted.
“Yer mother never told yeh?”
“My mother’s dead. She died of a fever when I was born.”
Horace was silent and Toad kept his eyes trained on his boots. Something uncomfortable and unwelcome seemed to hang in the air between them. Pity? Toad felt his cheeks burn not with cold but with shame. He never thought of his mother. What was the point? He would never meet her, would never know her, unlike his father … his father who had not bothered to see him in twelve years …
“Perhaps he sails the Southern Seas,” said Horace. “There were tales of a crew a few years back that even made me shiver.”
Toad looked up at that and Horace winked.
They sailed without incident. The sharp wind, so viciously cold that it sent Toad, Melena, and Hazel hunkering down below deck, kept the sails billowing. Mabbott, after assuring himself apparently that they wouldn’t get lost or trip overboard, returned to his post on the ship, leaving them much to their own devices. Toad re-tied Joe to his belt loop, so the mug could see the ship and crew wherever they went. Numerous times, Toad was hailed by a passing pirate only to realize that it was Joe they were speaking to.
Joe was in his element. His monstrous grin was larger than ever; his eyes spun with a frenzy that made Toad feel seasick all over again if he kept eye contact for too long. Joe couldn’t feel the cold as they did and complained when they were cloistered around a Slinkwing lamp for too long.
On one of their rounds of the ship, more to appease Joe than anything, they witnessed Booth and four others washing the ship. Toad, who was no expert in mopping, wanted to point out that the water in their buckets was so filthy there wasn’t much point, but Joe said, “They’re adding more ghost squid ink, Master Toad.”
“Ghost squid ink?” said Melena, turning to the buckets with interest. “I read an article about it once. Is that really what they’re using to fireproof the ship?”
“Fireproof the ship?” Toad snorted. “How can they do that? It’s made of wood.”
“Precisely, Master Toad. A ship that sails amongst dragons must be made impervious to their flame.”
Toad turned in a circle, his eyes darting up and down. “You’re saying they wash down the entire ship?”
No wonder they were always so busy. The ship was enormous.
“Luckily ghost squid ink seeps into the wood,” Joe explained. “With each coat the protection increases, though it is still not completely flameproof and nor will it ever be. As the Dragon Book of Dragons, third edition states: No dragon produces flame as hot as the Slinkwing. Without ghost squid ink, the Firefly would be a matchstick in an inferno.”
“Joe,” said Toad. “I get that you’re trying to make me feel safer, but you’re not.”
Joe chuckled. “You are on board a vessel in the Blackens, Master Toad. Of course it is not safe. But our Captain has not survived these waters for so long without reason! Go over to the front deck!”
“It’s just a figurehead,” said Melena as they stood at the rail, looking at the prow of the ship where a statue of a woman was attached.
“No, no, no, m’lady!” Joe chuckled. “She is the Firefly. See her lantern?”
They leaned over the rail and there, dangling from her outstretched hand swung a crystal lamp. A soft, eerie green glow emitted from its chamber.
“Unlike the lamps around the ship that are fueled with watered down Slinkwing blood, the Firefly’s lantern contains nothing but.”
“And how is this supposed to make us feel safer?” Toad asked. “It’s just a lady holding a lantern.”
“A lady who knows when Slinkwings are about,” Joe corrected. “The Firefly can see them. Sense them. And warns with her lantern. The brighter the lantern burns, the closer a Slinkwing swims.”