Spit Fyre sat unusually still in the soft drizzle, hoping that soon his Imprinter would appear and put an end to the unnerving two-legged wolverine who would not stop staring at him.
At last Jenna was sure that she could remember the Locum Tenens. She picked up Septimus's boots and laid them at Spit Fyre's feet. Still quiet, Spit Fyre sniffed the boots. Then he reared up his head and blew out a long, hot breath. Wolf Boy felt sick. He was not used to the smell of dragon breath, which is best described as a combination of the stench of burning rubber and the stink of old socks, with overtones of a hamster cage in dire need of a cleaning.
Jenna stood on tiptoe and rested her hand on Spit Fyre's nose. “Look at me, Spit Fyre,” she said. Spit Fyre looked at his feet, he looked at the sky, he looked at his claws and then, twisting his head back, he suddenly found the tip of his tail extremely interesting. “Spit Fyre,” said Jenna, insistent, “look at me— please.”
Something in Jenna's voice caught Spit Fyre's attention. He put his head to one side and looked at her. Jenna kept her hand firmly on the dragon's wet and sticky nose.
Her hand was trembling. This was her only chance of finding Septimus and it all depended on Spit Fyre, who was not the most dependable of creatures. Spit Fyre regarded Jenna warily. Did she have his breakfast with her? he wondered.
Jenna held Spit Fyre's gaze. Then she took a deep breath and slowly began. “Spit Fyre, look at me and I will tell you the five things you must understand. First: Spit Fyre, in good faith I tell you that your Imprinter is lost.” Spit Fyre cocked his head and hoped it wasn't porridge for breakfast again.
“Second: Spit Fyre, in good faith I bring you that which belongs to your Imprinter.”
Spit Fyre closed his eyes and decided a couple of chickens would be very tasty.
“Open your eyes, Spit Fyre,” said Jenna sternly. Spit Fyre opened his eyes. What was all the fuss about?
“Third: Spit Fyre, in good faith I tell you that I am your Navigator.” Spit Fyre thought that he wouldn't mind chickens and porridge that morning. Preferably all mixed together in a big bucket.
“Fourth: Spit Fyre, in good faith I ask you to accept me as your Locum Imprinter.”
Spit Fyre wondered if they might give him three chickens with his porridge, since breakfast was late.
“Fifth: Spit Fyre, in good faith I beseech you to find your true Imprinter, through fire and water, earth and air, wherever he may be.” Jenna held Spit Fyre's gaze for the required thirteen seconds and then looked away. Spit Fyre wondered if he had to find Septimus before or after breakfast. He hoped it was after. Then he picked up Septimus's boots—and ate them.
“Spit Fyre!” yelled Jenna. “Give them back!” She grabbed at a fast'disappearing bootlace and pulled. Spit Fyre pulled his head back. He liked tug-of-war games and this seemed like a good one. He had always thought that Septimus's boots looked tasty. Jenna tugged hard, there was a snap and she was left holding nothing more than the damp, frayed end of a boot-lace. Spit Fyre swallowed, gave a satisfied burp and then jumped in surprise.
A deafening clanging and banging had just started up outside the Great Arch, along with some loud and threatening whoops and screams. Wolf Boy leaped to his feet in consternation. He did not like sudden loud noises—they reminded him too much of the Young Army's midnight wake-up call.
“It's the RatStranglers,” said Jenna. "They must have found a rat. Poor creature.
Doesn't stand a chance now. You'd think people would have something better to do than run around the Castle all day banging trash can lids and killing rats."
The noise became louder as the RatStranglers started up their chant. “Rats, rats, get the rats. Rats, rats, kill the rats! Rat trap, rat trap, splat, splat, splat!” It echoed around the Wizard Tower courtyard, and numerous Wizards threw open their windows to see what the noise was. Then, with a roar, the assorted mob of RatStranglers surged through the Great Arch in pursuit of their quarry: two desperate rats in full flight, one dragging the other behind it.
Why the rats headed for the dragon kennel, Jenna did not know, but they scooted across the courtyard, ignoring the relative safety of the well and two convenient drains. They dived between Spit Fyre's feet, shot up the ramp of the kennel and hurled themselves deep into the pungent straw covering the kennel floor.
In a moment the RatStranglers had surrounded the kennel, banging their lids and chanting. Spit Fyre snorted in dismay. No dragon likes to be surrounded, especially by a raucous mob banging lids and screaming. Dragons generally have a surprisingly subtle ear for music and enjoy the finer kinds of classical music and plainsong; indeed, many an isolated monastery has been surprised to find a dragon regularly turning up to listen to the evening's Gregorian chant. Spit Fyre was no exception.
The banging made his delicate dragon ears hurt and the chanting was not even in tune. With a roar he rounded on the RatStranglers, breathing hot dragon breath over them.
Most people would have given up at this point, and some of the hangers-on who had just come along for a laugh and a bit of fun took off, but the bulk of the RatStranglers stayed. They had never yet lost a rat and they did not intend to start now.
Jenna was furious. “How dare you?” she yelled. “How dare you come in here chasing two poor rats and frightening a young dragon. How dare you?” The noise subsided as the RatStranglers, who in their excitement had not noticed the Princess, put down their lids. The chant petered out into an embarrassed silence.
The leader of the RatStranglers, an earnest-looking young man sporting a badge showing a fearsome rat with huge yellow fangs dripping with blood, stepped forward. “We are doing our civic duty, Your Princessness. Rats are filthy vermin, they spread disease—”
At this Jenna laughed. “That's ridiculous. They're as clean as you or I. And it's humans that spread disease, not rats.”
“We beg to differ, Princess,” said the young man. “The Sickenesse that has come to the Castle has been brought by the rats. They must be destroyed.”
“That's crazy,” said Jenna, shaking her head in disbelief. “You're just chasing rats because you like killing defenseless animals. It's horrible.”
“You should be grateful to us,” a thin, reedy voice piped up from the back of the crowd.
“Why?” asked Jenna, catching the threat in the voice.
“Because some people say that you have brought the Sickenesse, Princess.”
“Me?” Jenna was incredulous.
“They say it came on your Dragon Boat. They say it's a pity that that mutant ship wasn't left on the bottom of the Moat where it belongs.” This was accompanied by a general muttering of agreement from the back of the throng, but no one near Jenna dared say anything.
Jenna was shocked into silence and the RatStranglers took her silence for permission to invade Spit Fyre's kennel. They swarmed up the ramp, and in no time at all they were raking through the straw, searching for the rats. Jenna and Wolf Boy were overwhelmed by sheer numbers and there was nothing they could do—but Spit Fyre decided otherwise. As the RatStranglers crowded past him, he swung his tail angrily and sent the owner of the reedy voice flying into a pile of dragon droppings at the back of the kennel. Then with a loud creaking as the tough dragon skin stretched out from its creases—accompanied by the smell of stale dragon sweat—Spit Fyre unfurled his wings and raised them high into the air, casting a shadow across the dragon kennel. The RatStranglers stopped their hunt and watched in amazement as Spit Fyre bowed his head toward Jenna, as if inviting her to sit where Septimus always sat—just behind his neck between his shoulders.
Afraid that Spit Fyre might change his mind any minute, Jenna scrambled up into Septimus's place and hauled Wolf Boy up behind her, into the Navigator's position where she usually sat. Then, remembering the instructions that Alther had given Septimus on Spit Fyre's FirstFlyte, she gave the dragon two kicks on the right side.
They worked; Spit Fyre beat his wings slowly, once, twice, and on the third stroke.
Jenna felt the dragon's muscles tense as he rose just a few inches off the ground, keeping himself steady and controlled in the close confines of the Wizard Tower courtyard. Then, as Spit Fyre hovered for a brief moment and prepared to accelerate, a yell came from one of the RatStranglers: “There they are! Catch 'em!”
As Spit Fyre left the ground, he was carrying more passengers than he had bargained for. Hanging from the barb on the tip of his tail were two terrified rats.