The dragonet prophecy, p.14
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.14

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  “Why not?” he asked. “You must be one of the most powerful dragons here. Why don’t you just come and go as you please?”

  Peril looked a little shocked. “I would never disobey Her Majesty! That’s how my mother got killed.” A theory suddenly popped into Clay’s head, but before he could explore it, Peril kept talking. “Besides, I have to eat the black rocks every day, or I’ll die. The queen makes sure there are always enough for me.”

  “Black rocks?” Clay asked, puzzled.

  “It’s part of the curse of having too much fire,” Peril said with a shrug. “I’m lucky the queen takes so much care to keep me alive.”

  “Have you ever tried not eating them?” Clay asked.

  “Once, when I was a lot younger,” Peril said, shifting her talons awkwardly. “I got mad at Her Majesty because she wouldn’t tell me anything about my mother. I wanted to run away. So I stopped eating the rocks to see what would happen, and I got really sick. Like, almost dying sick.”

  “Oh,” Clay said. Her story had a feel of wrongness to it, like scales that didn’t overlap properly. It seemed pretty convenient that the queen just happened to have a way to control the most dangerous dragon in her kingdom. But he was hardly an expert on SkyWings with weird, deadly conditions.

  “Is that also why you don’t challenge her for the throne?” Clay asked. “Because I’m betting you could beat her in a fight.”

  Peril gave an outraged squawk and nearly hit him with her tail. “I don’t want to be queen! What an awful thought! Stop saying treasonous things and turn around.”

  Clay presented his back to her, opening his wings as wide as he could. Some part of him expected her to plaster the hot mud on with her talons. But he realized she couldn’t do that without burning him just before Peril flung the entire contents of the cauldron over his scales.

  “Yaa —” Clay clamped his teeth down hard, forcing himself not to yell. The mud was as hot as Kestrel’s fire-breath, and at first he felt like all his scales were being burned off.

  Then the shock passed, and a moment later the heat became bearable. Clay felt the mud soaking into his injuries, instantly soothing the pain. If only he’d had something like this after all his training sessions with Kestrel!

  “Much better,” Peril said with satisfaction.

  Clay rolled his shoulders. His muscles already felt looser and stronger. “Wow. Does that work for all MudWings?”

  “Of course,” she said. “How could you not know that?”

  “What about other dragons?” Clay asked, turning around to face her. He wondered if this was a trick he could use to heal his friends, if they were ever together and free again.

  “I don’t think so,” she said. “I’m not sure anyone’s tried. Because that would be weird. Like, what kind of SkyWing would let you put mud on her scales? Yuck.”

  “It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” Clay said. “Well, maybe after flying. And eating. Gosh, I’m hungry.”

  “I’ll just fetch and carry for you all night, shall I?” Peril said.

  “Oh, no, you don’t have to —” But she was already gone.

  Clay sat down and tucked his tail around his talons, thinking.

  He had a pretty good idea why Peril wasn’t supposed to watch the trial tomorrow. Queen Scarlet had said something about Kestrel disobeying her. Plus there were those burn scars on Kestrel’s talons.

  And it wasn’t too hard to imagine Kestrel trying to kill her own dragonet. Especially once she figured out there was something wrong with her.

  Peril thought her mother was dead. How would she react when she found out it was Kestrel — and she was still alive?

  Peril brought him three rabbits and two more cauldrons of mud during the night. She stayed at the edge of the rock platform, but the heat from her scales helped keep the mud warm on Clay’s back.

  It also kept the nightmares away. While he was talking to her, the weight of Clay’s guilt felt lighter. Which was strange, he knew: Peril was responsible for a lot more death than he was. But it didn’t bother her. He wished he could be so untroubled. If he had to fight in the arena again, perhaps he could take monster lessons from her.

  “Won’t someone be looking for you?” he asked as the sun started rising over the distant sea.

  She shook her head. “I’m supposed to be down in the caves looking for black rocks all day,” she said. “As long as I stay up here, behind you, hopefully no one will notice me.”

  “Not even the guards?”

  “They won’t feed the prisoners until midday,” she said. “The trial is set for dawn. Look, see?” She edged a bit closer to him, peeking around his wing.

  Clay looked down and saw dragons filing into the arena seats. They seemed quieter, more subdued than they were for the fights. SkyWing soldiers dragged two large boulders out onto the sand. One of them twisted three large iron rings into the ground in a triangle, then attached thick chains to them.

  “Quick, spread your wings,” Peril hissed. “Here she comes.”

  Clay flapped his wings open as Queen Scarlet slithered onto her balcony. He noticed she had traded her gold chain mail for a vest with small black chain links instead, studded with diamonds. She didn’t even glance up at the prisoners, although Peril stayed carefully huddled behind Clay’s back. Glory was not brought in — no art required at a trial, Clay guessed.

  Finally Kestrel was hauled into the ring, hissing and spitting at the guards around her. A chain looped around her snout kept her from breathing fire at them. More heavy chains weighed down her talons and tail so she couldn’t lash out.

  “It’s weird,” Clay whispered to Peril. “I’ve always hated Kestrel, but it still makes me mad to see her like that.”

  “How do you know her?” Peril asked.

  “She’s one of the three dragons who raised us, under the mountain,” Clay explained. “They didn’t like us much, but they were supposed to keep us alive until the Talons of Peace came back to get us for the prophecy.” He stopped, swallowing, as he thought of Dune. And Webs — had he survived the underground river?

  “At least you had someone. I guess even terrible parents are better than no parents,” Peril said. Clay glanced down at Queen Scarlet and wondered if that was true. She’d been the closest thing to a mother that Peril ever had. But what kind of mother made her daughter kill dragons in horrible ways every day?

  Maybe Peril would have been better off with no one. Dune and Webs weren’t all bad, but Clay wasn’t sure he’d have chosen a life with Kestrel over growing up alone.

  Then again, if he was right, Kestrel was Peril’s real mother. Would Kestrel have been better for her than Queen Scarlet? Not if she was prepared to throw her off the mountain. At least the queen had kept Peril alive.

  He hoped that watching this trial wouldn’t upset Peril. He wondered if he should warn her about Kestrel being her mother. But what if he was wrong?

  “I have real parents, though,” he said instead. “Somewhere in the Mud Kingdom, there’s a pair of dragons who can’t wait to get me back. I’m going to find them one day.”

  He couldn’t see Peril’s face, but her silence said a lot. She didn’t think he was going to survive this place. Or maybe she thought that if he did, it would be at the expense of her own life.

  Something he didn’t want to think about.

  The SkyWing who did all the arena introductions climbed onto one of the two boulders and spread his blood-red wings.

  “That’s Vermilion,” Peril whispered. “Her Majesty’s oldest son. He always argues for the prosecution.”

  “Why does Scarlet bother with a trial at all?” Clay asked.

  “Only SkyWings get trials,” Peril said. “Her Majesty likes watching the performance of it — and she thinks it makes her seem like a just and fair ruler.”


  Clay withheld his snort of disbelief.

  The crowd’s murmuring died down as another SkyWing climbed onto the other boulder. His scales were a more washed-out red, as if they’d been scrubbed with sandstone for a long time. He moved slowly, dragging his tail behind him like a carcass.

  “And that’s Osprey,” Peril pointed out. “He argues for the defense. Not very well, or he’d lose his head. He’s really old and almost blind. He’s nice to me, though, because I’ll listen to his stories of the old days. He told me he used to have tons of treasure, but a scavenger came to steal it and managed to paralyze his tail before Osprey ate him. So now he can’t fly, and he gave all his treasure to Her Majesty so she’d let him live here.”

  “Tough bargain,” Clay said. He felt a wave of heat as Peril rustled indignantly.

  “Back in the way-old days before the Scorching,” she lectured, “before we had queens and armies, he would have just died. Scavengers killed a lot more dragons back then. But now, because of our queens, we rule the whole world, and dragons have help when they need it.”

  “You sound like Starflight,” Clay said. “Will there be a test at the end of this lecture?”

  “He wouldn’t talk to me, by the way,” she said. “Not even when I asked him to tell me the history of the Scorching, like you suggested. He just buried his nose under his wings and ignored me.”

  “Wow,” Clay said, looking across at the slumped black dragon. “He must be really depressed.”

  Peril was quiet again. Clay wished he could call across to Starflight and tell him they’d find a way out of this. If he really yelled, Tsunami might be close enough to hear him, but he didn’t think Starflight would. And besides, hollering escape plans across the arena probably wasn’t the best idea.

  In any case, the trial was about to begin. Queen Scarlet beat her wings, and all the dragons turned their attention to her.

  “Loyal subjects,” she said. “This dragon, Kestrel, once of the SkyWings, stands accused of the highest treason — disobeying me. Vermilion speaks for the prosecution.”

  “Your Majesty,” Vermilion said, bowing and crossing his talons. “The facts are clear. You gave an order. Kestrel disobeyed you and fled the kingdom. She has been living under your mountains for the last seven years, aiding and abetting the Talons of Peace, who also refuse to follow Your Majesty’s orders. She deserves a long, painful execution. There is no need to drag this trial out.”

  The dragons in the seats made their hissing fire-breath sounds and flapped their wings. Kestrel glared at the queen. Smoke seeped from her bound mouth and nostrils.

  “Well said.” The queen nodded to Vermilion. “Now Osprey may speak for the defense. Or not, if he’d prefer to sleep through this trial, too.”

  The crowd laughed appreciatively.

  Osprey stretched his neck toward the queen, then toward Kestrel, as if he were trying to get close enough to see their faces from his boulder.

  “Your Majesty,” he said in a voice creaky with age but still loud enough to carry to the prisoners up above. “I do have one or two words to say in this prisoner’s defense.”

  Queen Scarlet’s tail lashed slowly behind her as she stared down at him. “Certainly,” she said. “That’s what you’re here to do. Go ahead.”

  Osprey cleared his throat, coughing out a black puff of smoke. All the dragons were leaning forward to listen. Clay could feel Peril’s heat dangerously close to his scales as she tried to peek under his wings.

  “Consider first the charge of disobedience. Kestrel did not do as you ordered — but then, didn’t you reverse the order after she was gone?”

  What? Clay could barely follow the old dragon. Was this not about Peril?

  “Osprey,” Queen Scarlet hissed. “Speak plainly, or do not speak at all. And let me point out that one of those options would be much smarter than the other.”

  “Forgive me, Your Majesty,” the old dragon said, straightening his wings. “I must speak. Kestrel was one of your most loyal soldiers. She was sent through the breeding program, on your orders, and brought forth one egg. Upon hatching, it turned out to hold twin dragonets.”

  Behind Clay, Peril gasped, nearly loud enough for the dragons below to hear her. Clay flapped his wings, trying to cover the noise, but no one looked up. All eyes were on the trial.

  “We know all this,” said Queen Scarlet, yawning. “Skip ahead to the part where we execute her.”

  “The dragonets were defective,” Osprey went on stubbornly. “One had too much fire. The other did not have enough. As per SkyWing custom, you ordered Kestrel to kill them both and stay out of the breeding program for the rest of her life.”

  “That doesn’t make sense,” Peril whispered behind Clay. He ducked his neck to look at her. She met his eyes, shaking with confusion. “I’m the only twin SkyWing hatched in the past ten years, but he can’t be talking about me. My brother was dead when we hatched. I killed him. Then my mother tried to kill me, and Queen Scarlet stopped her.”

  “Or maybe that’s just what she told you,” Clay whispered back.

  The queen rose to her full height and spread her wings so the sunlight caught on the rubies embedded around the edges. “Quite reasonable,” she said.

  “But Kestrel tried to escape,” Osprey pressed on. “She took her two dragonets from the hatching cave and tried to flee with them down the mountain.”

  “So you agree she disobeyed me,” said Queen Scarlet. “Then I think we’re done here.”

  “You caught her at the Diamond Spray River,” Osprey said. “And there you issued a new order. You told her you would forgive her disobedience on one condition. She must choose one of the dragonets to die, and then you would spare the other’s life, and Kestrel’s own.”

  “No,” Peril whispered.

  “Then she did obey you, didn’t she?” Osprey said. “She killed the dragonet with too little fire, right there at the river. With her own claws.”

  “And then I changed my mind again,” Queen Scarlet said. “I am the queen. I can do that.”

  “You told your guards — I know, for I was one of them — to kill the other dragonet and take Kestrel back for trial. She tried to grab her daughter and fly away, but the heat of the dragonet’s scales burned her talons before she was a wingbeat into the sky, and she had to drop her. She fled, leaving her only living dragonet at your mercy.”

  There was a heartbeat of silence.

  “Sounds guilty to me,” Queen Scarlet said cheerfully. “We’ll execute her tomorrow. And while we’re at it, let’s execute him, too, for boring me.” She pointed at Osprey.

  “No!”

  Clay nearly fell off his tower as Peril exploded past him. He flapped his wings for balance as she shot toward the sands. His front right leg flailed free, and when he glanced down, he saw that Peril had accidentally burned through the wire as she flew away.

  “It can’t be true!” Peril cried, landing on the sand beside Osprey. “Tell me it’s not true!”

  Kestrel reared up with a muffled roar. From the look on her face, Clay could tell she’d thought Peril was dead this entire time.

  “Oh, yes,” Queen Scarlet said maliciously to Kestrel. “Didn’t I mention she’s still alive? And working for me?” She turned her fierce yellow eyes on Peril. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

  “You lied to me!” Peril shrieked. “You said she was dead!”

  Queen Scarlet sighed. “Look at the trouble you’ve caused,” she said to Osprey. “Peril, dear. Would you have wanted to know your mother was alive somewhere, raising other dragonets and wishing she’d killed you instead of your brother?”

  Peril hesitated.

  “She could have escaped with your brother,” Scarlet pointed out. “You’re the one who burned her when she tried to save you. She thought she chose wrong. That’
s why she didn’t come back for you.”

  Kestrel roared unintelligibly through the chains.

  “Haven’t I kept you alive all these years?” Scarlet went on. “Finding you the black rocks, feeding you, making you my champion? Don’t you appreciate all the things I’ve done for you? Aren’t I a better mother than her anyway?”

  “I want to stand for her,” Peril said, almost too softly for Clay to hear.

  Smoke hissed from Scarlet’s nose, billowing up around her horns. “What?” she said slowly.

  “I call upon the tradition of the Champion’s Shield,” Peril said. “It says the queen’s champion may stand forth for any dragon sentenced to execution. If I can defeat the next dragon you set me to fight, you must let her go free.” She looked into Kestrel’s eyes for the first time. “I want to stand for my mother.”

  Queen Scarlet’s yellow eyes were small slits between orange scales. “Now where,” she hissed, “did you hear about that particular law?”

  Peril shifted on her talons. “I read about it.”

  “I bet you did,” Scarlet said. “With claws that burn right through paper when you touch it. Someone’s been telling you things too big for little dragon ears.”

  “No!” Peril said too quickly. “Nobody —”

  The queen was airborne before Peril could choke out another word. Queen Scarlet snatched Osprey up in her talons and shot into the sky.

  “Stop!” Peril yelled. “It’s not his fault!” She leaped into the air and beat her wings, chasing them.

  Clay watched the queen rise higher and higher above the arena. Osprey writhed in her claws, his tail hanging heavily below him. Scarlet had nearly reached the height of the wire net when suddenly she opened her talons and dropped the old dragon.

  He plummeted like a stone. Clay had never thought about how a dragon needs his tail for balance while flying. Osprey’s wings were slow to extend, and when they did he lurched horribly, dragged down by the useless weight of his tail.

 
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