44. Sometimes You Don't Gotta Kiss de Frog

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In accordance with Evil Magician Law and the tradition of Venetian glassblowers, Portlanidian dragontamers, and Swedish chefs, all highly flammable operations must be located at a safe distance from other human activity. Preferably with a body of water surrounding the premises.

Which meant another trek through the mud in the dark with the chatter and music of the Games melting into the nightly song of the forest—a symphony of rustling leaves, hooting owls, and amorous crickets.

The trip was made interminable by two problems: 1. The slimy, sulky amphibian formerly known as Prince Derek wriggling around between her breasts and 2. Druscilla's fashion choices. The voluminous pink skirts—which were roughly the circumference of Mount Dolorem and the weight of a house—encumbered every step. Imagine trying to hike in a medieval forest in such a contraption. Also, Ashley's neck ached from holding up the fifty-pound beehive wig. And though Ashley had slept for years beside a fireplace, waking each morning covered in ash, pigeon poop was an entirely grosser substance and made her gag every time the realization that she had it caked onto her face burbled to the surface. Okay, some of her best friends were pigeons, but it didn't mean she wanted their excrement on her face.

"You're lucky Druscilla's face was so badly burned she needed to wear that ... uh ... foundation," Layyin said as if reading Ashley's mind.

Ashley frowned. "It's poop, Layyin. And I don't want to feel lucky about it right now. Maybe later."

"Don't you think it's ironic that you're impersonating a shapeshifter?" Layyin said, pushing a low-lying branch out of the path so that Mount Ashley could pass.

"Thanks. And yeah, I suppose it's ironic. Just wish my stepsister liked lighter-weight, more breathable fabrics and less of them," Ashley said. "Stop that!"

"I'm just trying to make conversation," Layyin said defensively, continuing to spin her spear.

"Not you. Him," Ashley said, reaching into the bodice and relocating Derek firmly in the center. "Stay still."

"Easy for you to say," Derek ribbited. "You try hanging out in a crevasse between two fleshy globes!"

"I'm a lot bigger than you at the moment, tiny frog prince."

"Tell me something I don't know," Derek complained.

"What'd he say?" Layyin asked.

"He doesn't like his seat on the Ashley chariot."

"Maybe there's a pocket in the skirts. You could relocate Derek there," Layyin suggested.

"Skirts don't have pockets," Ashley said.

"Did you look?"

"No, because everyone knows that."*

"Think about it. Druscilla is a magician. She would probably want a place to hide her scrolls and amulets and vials of insta-death."

Ashley wrinkled her brow, and a flake of makeup drifted down her eye line. "What's insta-death?"

"Just made it up. If I were an evil magician, it would be a potion I'd have on hand."

"Layyin, can I just say the world is a safer place without you being a magician?"

"You can, and you can also check for pockets. Humor me."

Ashley rolled her eyes and began searching the endless yards of fabric. She felt something hard and stiff bump against her thigh and sucked in a breath.

"You found something?" Layyin said, with an I-told-you-so grin.

Ashley extracted a heavy, bejeweled dagger—rose gold with pink diamonds on the hilt and a creamy square of parchment with Druscilla written across the front. "Wow."

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