Chapter 1

The Red Line of the New Stirling subway, which ran from Meridian International Airport to downtown, was jammed and rocking with rush hour commuters. Beatrix Flannery, age thirteen, clamped her arm around a pole to keep her footing in the jostling crowd, while her sister Hortensia, older by eight years, teetered on half a seat nearby.

Bea tightened her grip as the subway car lurched and squealed to a stop in the station below Front and Biscuit Streets. She couldn’t tell who was getting off and who was getting on as people jabbed and elbowed their way around her. Two businessmen squeezed around either side of her pole, and she held her breath while reaching down for her blue backpack, which scads of surging feet were nudging beyond easy grasp. But she’d barely brushed it with her fingertips when the backpack jerked out of reach, then out of view, between two pairs of blue jeans. The doors of the subway car slid to a close.

“Hort!” said Bea. “Some guy just took my backpack!”

“What?” said Hortensia distractedly, looking up from a weatherbeaten notebook. “What guy?”

“At least I think it was a guy!” said Bea, squinting through the hazy subway car window. “The one running up the stairs.”

But Bea could only track her suspect for a flash before the car heaved back into motion and the throng of riders obscured her view. In seconds they were careening through a dark tunnel underground, where the flickering lights and rattling car made it difficult to see anything.

Hortensia blinked dazedly as her attention shifted from the graduate study research notes in her lap to the potential implications of the backpack-snatching.

“Bea!” she gasped, as if all the air had suddenly been sucked out of the car. “They got…”

“Two weeks of algebra homework and a stack of French vocabulary flash cards,” said Bea calmly.

“Bea!” squeaked Hortensia, who almost never panicked, but now seemed on the verge. “The seedlings!”

“Oh yeah,” Bea continued calmly. “He also got my toothbrush.”

Then Beatrix thrust a hand into her pants pocket and plucked out a small silk pouch whose knobby contents rolled about on her palm.

“Voila,” said Bea. “The seedlings. Safe and secure. Don’t worry, I wasn’t taking any chances with these thingies.”

Hortensia flopped forward and finally exhaled. Bea wiggled into a seat that had just been vacated beside her.

“It was a pretty good trip, wasn’t it?” asked Bea.

“I’m glad you were there,” replied Hortensia.

Yep, thought Bea, otherwise you’d have missed every single flight, and probably gotten lost in the Waddongan jungle at least twice.

Bea tucked the silk pouch back in her pocket and leaned her head against the rattling train window. She’d hardly slept since the Waddongan Koohoo ceremony yesterday, and the sweet, smoky scent of pelinga bark still lingered in her nose…


…“Sit sit!” insisted Molo Rebus gesturing at the semi-circle of silky, tufted stools which resembled a patch of overgrown mushrooms.

Bea took the center stool, where she had the clearest view of the firepit, glowing red with the embers of smoldering pelinga-tree bark. Hortensia nodded uncertainly, and sat to Bea’s left.

They were seated in a dimly lit tent. Embroidered tapestries in rich, glowing shades of pumpkin and scarlet draped the walls of the circular enclosure. Wispy puffs of nutty-smelling smoke wafted by Bea’s nose as the pelinga bark popped and crackled in the fire.

Mola Peggi, Prime-Ministress of the North Waddo Island chain, poked the embers in the firepit with her ceremonial bone wand, causing licks of flame to hiss and spit in reply. Then she stood, and the turquoise folds of her dress unfurled like shimmering fish skin.

“Hortensia Flannery,” began Mola Peggi in a voice like tinkling bells, “we are grateful for your dedication to the ecology of the Waddo Islands. We have learned from you, and we hope you have gathered much information from us for your research.”

Bea looked at Molo Rebus, smiling encouragingly beside his wife on the other side of the semi-circle. Next to him was Prince Nerl, the Molo’s cousin and chief Waddongan trade counselor. Nerl, whose stringy red hair was waxed into small twists, winked at Bea, and his pencil-thin red moustache twitched slightly. She acknowledged the wink with a discreet nod. She had a feeling that winking might not be appropriate in a koohoo ceremony, so she quickly turned her attention back to Mola Peggi.

“As you are aware Miss Flannery, koohoo is scarcely known outside the Waddo Islands, and we believe it is better that way. Nevertheless, we offer you these five seedlings.”

The Prime Ministress proudly handed Hortensia a small drawstring bag, made of green silk, whose lumpy contents seemed to shift within it like jumping beans. “With this gift, I charge you to explore the secrets of the Koohoo, for the benefit of all people.”

Hortensia smiled with sincere appreciation, and set the silky bag beside her stool. Bea quietly reached for it. It was heavier than she’d expected, as if it were full of marbles. She tucked it into her own blue backpack for safekeeping.

Molo Rebus grinned with satisfaction. Then, using a long cast iron rod with a hooked end, he probed below the glowing pelinga bark in the firepit until he pulled out a clay urn which was shaped to resemble a chubby octopus. Mola Peggi, with a leather glove on her right hand and a small ceramic cup in her left, twisted one of the octupus’s tentacles, causing a stream of mahogany liquid to flow from the tentacle into the cup. Handing the first cup to Hortensia, she filled four more with the steaming brew–for Nerl, Bea, Molo Rebus, and herself.

Even after three hot koohoos since she and Hortensia had arrived in the Waddo Islands two weeks ago, Bea still couldn’t pinpoint just how a brew could taste so wondrous. There was a hint of fudge, an inkling of darjeeling tea, and maybe the slightest whiff of tangerine–but all that Bea could say for sure was that koohoo tasted the way you’d feel if you were tumbling with a puppy on a brisk October day while leaves fluttered to the ground all around you.

She drained her cup in about three swallows, tipping it extra to urge the last drop out, but she surmised, after sneaking peaks at the others, that maybe savoring the beverage in numerous tiny sips was the most civilized way to drink hot koohoo.

Then Molo Rebus stood, and presented Bea and Hortensia each with a gift. They were tiny octopus amulets on silken cords, and the toasty aroma of the wood as Molo Rebus placed the cord over her head told Bea right away that they were carved of Waddo Island pelinga bark.

“Now!” said Mola Peggi, bringing the dreamy atmosphere of the koohoo ceremony to an abrupt halt. “I bid you safe return to your country, on behalf of the people of the North Waddo Islands. And I commend the koohoo seedlings to your care with this warning…”

Bea looked suddenly from her octopus amulet to Mola Peggi. Warning? About beans? What could beans do? Sprout legs? Run away? This must just be part of the koohoo tradition–showing respect for nature and all that, she told herself.

“We know Koohoo, here on the Waddo Islands,” continued Mola Peggi. “As it grows in the shade of Pelinga trees, and to the trills of Waddo songbirds. As it grows in soil fertilized by the grazing rock-goats. But plants, like people, show different gifts in different climates. Nurture the Koohoo Miss Flannery. But make no hasty assumptions about its nature.”

Sounds safe enough, thought Bea. Hort never makes hasty assumptions. Then she winked right back at Prince Nerl.

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