Toad’s hair tickled Melena’s nose. She kept her eyes shut; opening them was pointless. They were adrift, floating on an icy sea. There was no land in sight, not even a passing iceberg. There hadn’t been for what had felt like hours. Like days. Like years.
It had seemed miraculous — a good omen even — that Toad managed to hold onto her knapsack with everything still safely (though thoroughly drenched) tucked inside. They’d pulled out the two flasks of Mirg water, nearly dropping them in the ocean from the violent tremors racking their bodies. The only reason they were alive, Melena was sure, was because of those two small heated bottles and Hazel, sandwiched between them.
Melena listened to the gentle splash of ocean against their raft. So peaceful. So tranquil. So unlike what it had been as it shook the Firefly like a giant with a toy sailboat. The tears that had fallen at the sight of the sinking ship were still there, frozen to her cheeks. She couldn’t say that she had been fond of the pirates, but they had given up their lives for them. They had been decent, when they hadn’t needed to be. They had, without question, embraced them as their own. A pirate had knocked her clear from a blast of fire. She didn’t known his name, but his face was etched upon her memory like a chiseled stone. Melena’s empty stomach clenched as if a hand twisted her insides. It was all their fault — no, it was all Melena’s fault that Horace and Mabbott and Smedley and Booth and all the rest were dead. If she hadn’t pressed Toad into trading Joe … but would there have been another way to reach Mirg if they hadn’t gone to the pirates? Would they have been able to reach the place on foot?
Melena didn’t want to think about this. She didn’t want her final seconds to be reliving the guilt and horror of the Firefly like a stuck gramophone. So she listened to the ocean. The rocking of the raft reminded her of a cradle. Her mother must have done this for her, before the fire. Soothed her to sleep while she was tucked inside warm blankets, humming a lullaby. Melena could see her mother’s face smiling down at her. Milo was leaning over the crib’s edge, tickling her to make her giggle. And now her father was there, his hair flaxen, his short beard and mustache trimmed neat. Melena could see them so clearly, though she’d never owned a picture of any of her family; even inside her mother’s iron cold locket frozen to her chest, there wasn’t a picture, just two snips of worthless hair. Everything had burned, burned with the fury of a Slinkwing. It would be so easy to believe the dream was true — that she really was the giggling baby in the crib, wrapping a tiny hand around Milo’s teasing finger … it would be so easy — so easy — if she wasn’t so cold.
Melena and Toad were as close together as physically possible, their stiff, gloved hands wrapped around the two bottles of Mirg water. Hazel was squeezed between them, giving off the little amount of warmth she still possessed, but the warmth was becoming not enough. The cold slipped into Melena’s lungs, inching steadily closer to her heart. She had lost feeling in her legs and feet. It was as if she were a sketch on a pad of paper and the artist, finding fault, had erased them.
How much longer until the cold reached her heart? That question, she realized numbly, should trouble her, but she felt nothing. Even the unbearable cold was growing not so unbearable, slipping away from her consciousness like water through hands.
Why would anyone ever live here? The memory of Toad’s incredulous voice made the muscles around her cracked lips twitch.
She forced her eyes open. The sky was the pale, dusted gray of predawn, but her eyes burned from the light. Her breath came out in a shaking, frigid steam. Death couldn’t be far away for surely hallucinations were the next step toward endless slumber … or perhaps she had already half-stepped into that abyss, for of course her mind in its last throes of life would be cruel enough to materialize a ship.
Melena blinked her stinging eyes. She glared at the dim horizon, waiting for the ship to disappear, but the ship remained.
She wasn’t hallucinating. There was a ship.
“’oad,” she croaked.
Toad didn’t move. His lips were blue. His dark hair was frozen into chunks.
“Hazel.” Melena prodded the dragon. Hazel turned her bleary gaze to Melena. It was so difficult to speak, each word a terrible effort, taking all her concentration, all her willpower. “Can … you … flame? I n-need you … to flame for me. Please … try.”
For a long time, Hazel stared at her. Then very slowly, she rose and climbed on top of Melena’s side, facing the ship. Melena felt Hazel shivering violently as a new gust of wind passed over them.
Hazel took a deep breath and breathed fire. It shot high in the air like a firecracker. A shuddering pause. And another blast of fire flew upward. Melena lay still, watching the ship. It wasn’t just her legs she could no longer feel. The wind on her face was nothing now, even the sound of the water sloshing around them had gone mute. She knew Hazel stood on top of her, but she couldn’t feel the dragon’s weight. The ship slipped out of focus. It was impossible to tell if it had moved closer or farther away. But what did it matter, really?
What did it matter?
“You’ve warmed up another of those blankets? Good, bring it over. And better keep a few more by the radiator, just in case.”
Melena felt her body rocking again, but not as severely as the raft. She paid no mind to the voices, low and murmuring around her. Someone was gently prodding her jawline, pressing a hand to her forehead, but she kept her eyes closed and slipped back to unconsciousness.
When next she woke, she opened her eyes to a startling sight. She was lying on a small cot in what appeared to be a tiny cabin. The floor gently tipped, like the deck of a ship. For one wild moment, she thought she was back on board the Firefly.
But it had sunk, a heap of broken wood on the bottom of the ocean. So where was she?
She moved to sit up, and let out a groan.
“You best lay back down, miss.”
Melena looked around and saw a tall, gangly man enter the cabin. He had to stoop to keep his head from bumping the ceiling. His face and hands were clean, and a ginger, toothbrush mustache clashed with the plum in his fancy uniform, a uniform that looked stiff with starch. He removed his black, fur cap as he entered. This man was no pirate.
“You’re on board the Juniper,” the man explained, fluffing up her pillows and helping her sit back against them. “I’m Officer Hendry. Nasty sight, two half-dead children. Do you think you can eat something?”
Melena wasn’t sure, but she nodded.
“Have some broth.” He helped her hold a small mug while she drank. “Your friend’s over there.” Officer Hendry jerked his head. Melena looked over his shoulder and saw Toad’s brown mess of hair sticking out of a thick cocoon of blankets on the opposite side of the cabin. “He was in a bit worse shape than you, but he’s coming round.”
“Where’s—” Melena coughed and Officer Hendry quickly withdrew the cup. “Where’s Hazel?” she asked, voice hoarse.
“Is that her name?” Officer Hendry actually laughed. “I’ve been calling her Seaweed — hope you’re not offended. She’s under these blankets somewhere. We patched her up. That leg had a nasty burn, but Spit-Fires heal quickly from that sort of thing.”
And much to Melena’s relief, she noticed the warm lump against her thigh.
“Just needed some soup and she was fussing over the two of you nearly as much as the crew. She almost took off Nurse Spinner’s arm when she was stitching up the boy, but my aunt’s got a Spit-Fire, so I know a few tricks of the trade. Told her to keep a few dried dates in her pocket,” he said with a wink.
A giggle escaped Melena’s sore throat and she immediately regretted it with a fresh round of coughing. It was starting to dawn on her. Though she felt as if she’d been run over by a buggy, they were safe — they were alive.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for helping us.”
Officer Hendry’s pleasant expression turned suddenly apologetically grave as he pulled a chair close and settled down beside her.
“I know this will be difficult, and I’m sorry, truly I am, but I need to know what happened. We’ve been circling the area, but we haven’t come across any more survivors.”
Melena couldn’t stop the tremors that crawled up her spine. “We were attacked by Slinkwings.”
“Slinkwings?” Officer Hendry repeated, startled, his ginger eyebrows rising and then lowering into a frown. “Why was your ship close to Mirg? That territory is off-limits. All sailors know that.”
“We — the ship — it got lost I think,” Melena invented, keeping her eyes downcast. “I don’t know what happened. The Slinkwings came out of nowhere.”
She didn’t know what sort of vessel she and Toad had landed on, but she knew it would be unwise to mention that they had been on board a pirate ship.
Officer Hendry looked slightly mollified, though still concerned. “Sometimes a change of wind can make the steam from Mirg spread farther than usual. Ships have gone wayward before. Yours wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last.” His gaze was impossibly soft as he added, “Your parents? Were they on board?”
For a moment, Melena remained silent. Her head was beginning to throb, it was growing difficult to remain sitting upright, even with the pillows to her back. She felt feverish. What was the easiest thing to tell him? That yes, their families had been on board, but would that lead to more pressing questions? Was it better to say they were stowaways, but what would the officer do with them then?
“We … we have an aunt,” said Melena, thinking quickly. “At Piddleton.”
“Oh, siblings, are you?”
“Piddleton was where the Juniper was headed before we spied you, so that works out well. What’s your aunt’s name? I’ll send a telegram on ahead so she’ll be waiting for you. And what was the name of your ship? The coast guard must be alerted.”
After Officer Hendry had departed from the cabin with information on Melena and Toad’s fictional Aunt Ruth and an even more fictional (and very tiny) passenger ship, she slipped from her cot. The moment her bandaged feet touched the rugged floor, she let out an involuntary gasp of pain: her feet seared. Hazel wriggled up from the blankets and watched Melena crawl on hands and knees toward the corner where their clothes and belongings rested. She fumbled with the latch on her knapsack, her heart in her throat, but there was no need to fear. The two bottles of Mirg water were there, along with the unicorn hair, the elfin gold moss, and the roc talon. Even her potions book was still there. She pulled it out and carefully opened the covers, letting the pages dry. Then, though every muscle longed for her to lay still, she found her coat. A strong stench of smoke wafted beneath her nostrils, turning her stomach, but she dug inside one of the pockets and extracted Joe.
In the confusion of the attack, Melena had seen the mug bouncing across the deck; she had darted after him. She knelt on the floor now, cradling the beer mug in her bandaged hands. Joe no longer wore his gruesome smile. He didn’t bestow his customary greeting of ‘m’lady!’. He was still and cold against her palms. His marble eyes looked dead. They weren’t even spinning.
“I’m sorry, Joe,” Melena whispered. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Joe didn’t reply. He didn’t look at her.
She slowly crawled back into bed, Hazel shimmying to the side to make room. Melena curled up and held Joe close to her chest.
Toad woke the following afternoon. Like Melena, he was battered and bruised. She was able to give him a quick run down of their current situation, updating him on the lies she’d told Officer Hendry before Nurse Spinner entered their cabin with spoonfuls of medicine.
“But won’t he find out that we don’t have an Aunt Ruth Campton or that the Blue Heron isn’t a ship?” Toad asked.
“There are all sorts of ships that people haven’t heard of,” said Melena, twisting her fingers and shooting a nervous glance at the cabin door. “And I don’t think he’ll think it odd to not get word back from Aunt Ruth.” But even as she spoke, the little confidence she had withered away. Their lies were shaky at best. If Officer Hendry pressed them at all, everything would come tumbling out. “I had to tell him something.”
“You did right,” Toad assured her quickly. “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.”
Nurse Spinner was a short, dark haired woman with dimples that showed even when she frowned. She visited their cabin three times a day, bringing food and fresh water and a bright, cheerful energy that swept away the gloom of their cabin. With each visit, Hazel scurried over to take the dried date Nurse Spinner pulled from her pocket. She chatted as she looked them over, assuring them that soon they’d be able to walk about the decks. She brought them books and even a few board games she’d smuggled on the voyage to help pass the time. Melena came to look forward to the soft knock on the wooden door and the ‘hello dears’ with a burning desperation, for the silence that settled in the cabin when Nurse Spinner wasn’t there was as thick as old custard.
Joe never spoke. Melena half thought that whatever charm that made him whistle and chortle had finally worn off, for he sat so motionless that he could have fooled anyone into believing he was just a bit of silly pottery. The only sign of life was the periodic blink of his eyes. Melena and Toad didn’t know what to do. Toad tried to get the mug to play a round of Jumping Stones, but Joe shut his eyes as if in physical pain and did not open them again for hours.
Their attempts to cheer Joe up continued to fall so flat that by the time they were both strong enough to meander slowly around the ship, they had stopped trying. But Toad refused to let Joe stay in the cabin on his own. He carried the mug with him, not tied to his belt loop, or stuffed in his pocket, but cradled in his gloved hand. They’d settle down on a bench or lean over the rail and watch the ocean slip by, turning back in when they grew too chilled. They spotted seals, a few ivory gulls, and even a pod of narwhals, their long tusks reminding Melena of the unicorn in Holly-Harp Wood.
“Captain had a pet narwhal, once.”
Melena and Toad froze. They looked at Joe, who sat upon the railing, watching the long-tusked whales cut through the icy water like minnows. It was the first time he’d spoken in weeks.
“He did?” said Toad.
Joe nodded, still watching the whales.
“Took to following the ship like a lamb. Captain called Cutthroat good luck, for the day when I was accidentally flung overboard, my handle slipped onto Cutthroat’s tusk.” Joe was blinking his marble eyes quicker now, the glistening wetness very apparent. “Captain was so distraught, he dove into the sea after Ol’ Joe and Cutthroat kept swimming in circles, thinking Captain had joined in to play. The crew shouted at Captain to grab the rope they’d tossed down, Captain shouted at Cutthroat to give him Joe, and Cutthroat danced around like a pup.”
Melena had a split second to picture such a scene before Toad started to laugh. His laughter was like an infection, spreading, and in no time Melena had caught it and was laughing just as hard, because how ridiculous was that? Captain Horace ‘the Horrid’ Morley, the Dragon Hunter, splashing after a gleeful narwhal? But they shouldn’t be laughing, not when Horace was gone —
A new laugh joined theirs. Tears poured from Joe’s eyes, but still he laughed, laughed as if he couldn’t stop and Hazel stared in confusion as Toad, gripping his sides, doubled over, wheezing. When they’d finally calmed down, wiping tears from their cheeks, watching the sun slip into the ocean, Toad said, “I’m gonna miss Captain Horace.”
“Aye, Master Toad,” Joe whispered, his tear-streaked face bathed in rosy pink. “That we will.”
The voyage took longer than Officer Hendry anticipated due to a temperamental boiler, and by the time the steam-powered ship docked in Piddleton’s port, Melena, Toad and Hazel were fully recovered. Joe still had long stretches of silence, but they were growing less frequent. He even joined in on a round of Jumping Stones the day before they made port, delighting in ordering Toad to move which piece and when he decimated Melena, he was beaming just as broadly as the first time she had seen him.
They thanked Officer Hendry and had a tearful farewell with Nurse Spinner who hugged them both twice, Hazel sniffing her pockets for more dates, before pointing to a random older woman in the mealing crowd and assuring them that no, they didn’t want to trouble them any longer; Aunt Ruth was right over there …
“Nice pair, those two,” said Toad, smiling over his shoulder as they slipped into the crowd surging the dock. “So, where are these flowers?” he asked, looking around as if expecting to see one in a shop’s window.
“Not here. Bartholomew says that the plains to the south of Piddleton are where we should look.”
“But it’s a flower,” said Toad. “Won’t it be dead this time of year?”
It wasn’t nearly as frigid here in Piddleton, though patches of snow were mounded around door frames.
“Moonflowers are very cold tolerant. They bloom year-round at the full moon, no matter what.”
“What’s it look like?”
“A bit like a cactus. The plants have long, hairy stems, covered in thin spines.”
“Pleasant,” Toad grunted.
“The spines won’t be a problem; our gloves will take care of that just fine. It won’t be blooming now. We’re cutting it close, but we should be able to find the plant before the next full moon. That way we’ll be ready for it when it opens.” Melena felt slightly reckless, as if she were knocking on wood as she added, “This won’t be a problem, Toad. Out of all the ingredients, finding the moonflower will be the easiest.”
Toad’s smile had a wry edge to it, but he didn’t attempt to contradict her.
An energetic shoe shiner pointed them in the right direction to the Piddle Plains, as he called them, and they left the tight, clustered streets of Piddleton for the open, sprawling outskirts. By the time they reached the sweeping meadows, dusk was falling in earnest, allowing them only a short spell to poke around the tall, dead grass.
The land here was so flat that Melena could see for miles, which was why it was quite easy to spot an inn with glowing lamps in the distance. “Black Swan” was painted in thick cursive on the oak, front door and when they entered it was like stepping into a warm bath that smelled of toffee. All was burnished copper and cozy comfort. Toad rubbed his gloved hands together, his nose a bright pink from the cold. The Black Swan housed half a dozen other lodgers, all dressed in woolly sweaters and cradling tankards of cider. There was a cluster of cushy armchairs by a roaring fire and by each window was a wooden dining table. Melena immediately felt at ease. That contentedness was only slightly dampened when she saw how few coins remained in her money pouch as she paid for lodging. But there would be more — loads more, she reassured herself — when they returned to Hickory and Mr. Owl.
The proprietor was just as warm as his inn, with rosy, round cheeks, and a big belly that quivered whenever he laughed, which was often. Melena and Toad rose casually after a restful night’s sleep and a lazy breakfast, before heading out into the fields, still mist-shrouded and cold.
“It won’t be flowering now,” said Melena, “so look around for a short plant, long stems—”
“Spines, yeah. Got it.”
They separated, inspecting the ground, wading their way through brittle, hip-high grass, and digging through bushes, but neither Melena nor Toad found anything cactus-like. They moved farther away from the inn, deeper into the fields. They kept looking until they grew hungry, and assured themselves that they would find a moonflower after lunch.
“Could you tell us,” Melena asked the proprietor as he handed them their food, “where we could find the moonflowers?”
The man’s eyes widened.
“I haven’t clapped eyes on those flowers in years!” he said jovially. “Not since I was your age.”
Toad’s sandwich fell from his fingers.
“Years?” Melena gasped. “Why not?”
“The elk eat ’em.” A friend from the bar hailed the proprietor and he stepped away.
Melena was stunned. She turned to Toad, who looked just as horror struck.
“There must be one,” said Melena. “The elk couldn’t have possibly eaten all of them.”
“Let’s head out,” said Toad, rising, his sandwich forgotten. “Come on.”
What would they do if they couldn’t find a moonflower before the full moon?
This question plagued Melena as the days slipped by, February looming on the horizon. The moon grew thicker with indecent speed. The light streaming through their window kept Melena up at night. A comfortable cushion was now a nerve-wracking six days, four days, two. They asked all the lodgers whether they’d ever seen a moonflower, but their answers were all the same: “Elk.”
Each day they spent out in the fields, bent double, backs aching, creeping through the under story, scaring up pheasants, barely taking time for lunch. Each evening they trudged back to the inn, slump shouldered, their bellies gnawing with hunger and tension.
As had happened on the Shards when they faced the impossible task of acquiring the roc talon, Toad became the rallying force, relentlessly hoisting up their spirits, leading them farther, pointing toward areas they had not yet explored. “Over there,” he’d say. “In that copse.” Or, “There’s a creek! — I’m sure we’ll find one there.” With each failing, Toad grew more determined, though his expression turned manic, and in turn, Melena became more discouraged, her chest so tight it hurt to take a deep breath.
The proprietor seemed to harbor a fondness for them, perhaps because they were proving such welcome entertainment for the inn. No one, apparently, had ever tried so hard to find a moonflower. Melena overheard a handful of lodgers taking bets on whether they would find one by the full moon and it did not lift her spirits in the slightest.
“Tomorrow’s our last shot,” said Toad.
Melena looked up from the dregs of her cocoa. Neither the heat from the hearth nor the drink was succeeding in easing the tension in her shoulders.
“We won’t have time to wait for another moon cycle before the deadline’s up,” Toad continued, his jaw clenching in a manner Melena had grown accustomed to over the last few days. “It’s all or nuthin’ tomorrow.”
Melena nodded, the lump in her throat making speech impossible. If there was a single moonflower that had escaped the notice of an elk, it would appear tomorrow night when the rays of the moon bathed it in silver.
Tomorrow would decide everything.