Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Darkness of Dragons, Page 2

Tui T. Sutherland

  “Oh, yes.” The other guard exhaled with relief. “I heard that, too. Asking for trouble, flaunting a gift like that. You’re right, that must be her.”

  “NO!” Prickle shrieked, trying to throw Agave off her. “They’re not mine! She gave them to me! I’m not Palm!” The male soldier leaped forward and locked a heavy collar around Prickle’s neck, attached to a chain, which he held while Agave shackled Prickle’s back legs as well.

  “Palm,” Prickle screamed. “Don’t let them do this to me!”

  I should stop them, Palm thought in a panic. She’s my sister. I have to save her.

  But … I also have to save my dragonet.

  If she admitted the truth and they took her back to the palace, the queen would find out quickly that she was with egg — and she would never let Smolder’s dragonet live.

  What can I do? How can I choose between my sister and my egg?

  Palm stumbled to her feet as the soldiers began to drag Prickle to the door.

  “Wh-what’s going to happen to her?” Palm asked.

  “Queen Oasis wants her locked in the deepest dungeon,” said the male soldier. “Where no one will ever find her.”

  “As for you,” Agave said, meeting her eyes at last, “you might be accused of helping her. I’d suggest you run.”

  Her gaze flickered slightly, down to the small scar on Palm’s left wing — the one she got falling off the wingery roof.

  She does know I’m me. She’s trying to save me.

  “Palm,” Prickle growled. “Tell them the truth, or so help me I’ll set the moons on fire and drop them on your head.”

  It’s not just my life that needs saving, though.

  I have to save my egg … I’m the only one who can.

  “I’m sorry, Palm.” She lifted her head and tilted it in exactly her sister’s usual condescending way. “You brought this upon yourself.”

  “WHAT?” Prickle roared a blast of fire that Palm barely managed to duck. Flames caught and flared all around the hut: the small bed, the box beside it, the shelf, the bowls. The curtain blazed into a curling flag of red-white-gold.

  The soldiers yanked Prickle out the door and Palm rushed out after them, coughing and blinking the smoke away. As her sight cleared, she saw them clamping iron around Prickle’s snout. She wouldn’t be breathing any more fire today — or shouting about her innocence. She’d have to fly back to the palace in livid silence.

  And then someone there will recognize her, Palm thought. They’ll set her free. They’ll think it was all a mistake.

  I hope. I hope Agave doesn’t get in trouble.

  She stood beside the oasis pool, watching the three dragons fly away, feeling the heat of the burning hut as it collapsed inward.

  Prickle will never forgive me for this. But once the queen sees her, she’ll know she’s not me and let her go. And by then I’ll be long gone.

  Me and my dragonet.

  This is the head start I needed.

  She whirled to plunge herself into the pool, washing off the sand and taking huge gulps. She found two camelskin pouches hanging from one of the trees, filled them with water, and slung them across her chest.

  Barely a minute later, she was flying. Up in the sky this time, south and east, toward the mountains. She’d hide in the forests and hills, maybe in the rainforest for a while — somewhere sheltered where she could have her egg in safety.

  Then she’d keep moving. She’d keep her dragonet alive, and one day she’d tell her the truth about her heritage, and — if it was a girl — it felt like a girl — she’d teach her that the throne wasn’t worth it. That it was better to hide and live. That she didn’t need power or treasure. How to survive, that was all she needed to know.

  Far below, sand whirled around something small, moving fast. Palm’s heart gave a little nervous jump and she squinted down at it.

  Scavengers — three of them, on horseback. Riding into the desert, toward the queen’s palace.

  That’s odd, she thought. Don’t they know there are dragons out here?

  A moment later, she’d forgotten them again. Her mind was full of dreams of her dragonet.

  I’m sorry you never got to meet her, Smolder, she thought sorrowfully. But I remember the names we talked about, don’t worry.

  If it is a girl — it feels like a girl — then I shall give her the name you chose and hide her away somewhere secret and safe.

  She’ll get the chance to be ordinary that you never had.

  By the moons of Pyrrhia, I swear she will never have anything to do with thrones or queens or battles or crowns, for as long as we both shall live.

  Qibli stood on one of the peaks of Jade Mountain, watching the group of seven dragons fly away to the west.

  Although there were four small black NightWings flying in the group, he knew exactly which one was Moon. He’d flown with her all the way through the Sky Kingdom, to Possibility and back. He knew the way she held her wings to catch the changing winds. He recognized the way she tipped her head up to breathe in the sunlight.

  If it were up to him, he’d spend every day of the rest of his life flying with her.

  He certainly wouldn’t watch her soar away with a dragon who might have evil plans and definitely had superpowers.

  They all fall in behind Darkstalker, letting him take the lead, he noticed, even though Darkstalker doesn’t actually know the way to the NightWing village in the rainforest. They act like he’s their leader because he acts like he’s their leader.

  Maybe I should go after them. His wings twitched.

  He knew he shouldn’t — it would make Darkstalker suspicious of him, and Turtle would have a better chance of spying safely without Qibli there. But he couldn’t bear this feeling, watching Moon fly away from him. Knowing that soon they’d be kingdoms apart.

  He looked down at the small slate in his talons. He wished he could will a message into existence, although he knew Turtle was still flying and there was nothing to report yet. He wished the slates worked both ways, so he could send questions to Turtle; he’d already thought of five more things he wanted to ask.

  The two SeaWings stood out among the black NightWings: near the back, the green, struggling form of Prince Turtle, and farther up, close behind Darkstalker, Princess Anemone, small and whitish-pinkish-blue-gray, doing flips in the sky.

  Trying to show off for Darkstalker. She wants him to see that nothing frightens her. But I think she’s really a bit nervous about leaving school against her mother’s wishes. Nervous and thrilled. She’s the sort who enjoys disobeying orders, because she’s never had much chance to.

  Which made it ironic and rather sad that she was so eager to follow Darkstalker. I wonder what sort of spell he has on her — is it the same as the one he has on everyone else, or is it special to her?

  The sun flashed off Turtle’s green scales as the dragons banked south. Qibli was worried for him, too. The SeaWing prince had cast a spell to make himself invisible to Darkstalker, but Qibli could think of a million ways for that to go wrong.

  But I should stay out of the way. Turtle’s the one with magic powers. He’s the one who can save the day, if it needs saving. That’s what special powers are for: making heroes.

  If only they had let me have Darkstalker’s scroll … if only Peril hadn’t burned it. Then I’d have magic, too.

  Then I could change the world. I could fix so many things, if only I had anything special or magic about me.

  But he wasn’t special and he certainly didn’t have magic. In fact, he was a useless, spotted waste of scales, as his mother, brother, and sister had spent the first three years of his life reminding him.

  He still heard them all the time, their voices in his head telling him how wretched he was. He tried to drown them out by concentrating on his life as an Outclaw, but the smallest thing could bring them crashing back in. Just the thought of how he’d lost the scroll — how he’d held infinite power for a moment, and then lost it forever — brought
on a wave of memories of desert heat and scornful laughter.

  The Scorpion Den, where Qibli grew up, was a cutthroat world of thieves, con artists, mercenaries, fences, thugs for hire, and assassins. But for really top-notch underhanded work of any kind, everyone knew there was one dragon in the city who outshone them all: Qibli’s mother.

  Her name was Cobra, daughter of a powerful crime lord. Her skills were legendary among certain circles. The three guests who’d died at Queen Scarlet’s wedding years ago — everyone suspected one of Cobra’s nefarious poisons, but no one could ever prove it. The two sisters of Queen Oasis who had vanished into the night — sure, it might have been the queen herself, but why get her talons dirty when she could afford someone like Cobra?

  Rumor even had it that all three SandWing princesses had tried to commission her to kill the others during the War of SandWing Succession. According to the rumor, she’d refused them all on the grounds that an ongoing war was much more profitable for her.

  Qibli had heard all the rumors about his mother. He knew that the biggest mystery in the Scorpion Den was why Cobra had bothered to have her three dragonets, and why she allowed them to live.

  He’d heard the whispers as he stole pouches of gold coins from under the tables in the tavern down the street.

  “She hates dragonets! How does she put up with three of them making noise and taking up space in her house all day?”

  “Bah, she’ll get sick of ’em sooner or later. They’ll be lucky if they get a chance to make a run for it.”

  “Especially that scrawny one,” the gossipers would say with incredulous chuckles. The one with the freckled scales on his nose. The one who talks too much and notices too much and sneaks around behind her like a little trail of footprints. The one with the odd name.

  That was Qibli.

  Everyone said Cobra hated her dragonets, and him most of all, but he didn’t believe it.

  Even when she said it, he didn’t really believe it.

  Not until the day she sold him.

  Qibli remembered those first three years of his life with much more clarity than most young dragons.

  He remembered the hot, musty smell of the carpets that hung from their walls and covered the floors, mingling with the scent of roasting coriander in the kitchen.

  He remembered the time he found a bowl with a few drops of goat’s milk left in it and licked it clean. He remembered the first time he stole something to feed himself — a runty, spotted persimmon that had fallen under a food cart — and how he hid in a fortune-teller’s tent to eat it, knowing Rattlesnake or Sirocco would snatch it away if they saw it.

  He remembered the roars of dragons coming to blows on the street outside, and how everyone would fly up to the courtyard walls to watch, and the buckets of sand that hung from every wall so that they could be poured over any fires the fighting dragons might set.

  Most of all he remembered lying awake night after night, beside his snoring siblings, watching his mother on the other side of the room. Lit by a single lamp, she would sharpen her blades, mix poisons, study maps and blueprints, or dismember scorpions to study and extract their venom. Qibli would feel the tension shivering through his wings as he waited, night after night, for her to look his way.

  One glance in his direction — one moment where her face would soften, where her love would slip through when she thought no one was looking. That was all he wanted. Just a tiny hint of that secret inner love that he was sure she felt.

  But Cobra never looked up at her dragonets, not once in all the nights he watched her.

  She never looked over during the day either, while Sirocco and Rattlesnake threw him into walls, trapped his tail in doors, or buried him in sand. His brother and sister realized a lot sooner than Qibli that Cobra didn’t care at all what they did.

  But Qibli kept trying. He got smarter and faster, hoping she would notice. He turned their traps back on them, learned to dodge and feint and trick them almost every time. Brute strength wouldn’t work against two dragonets that were much bigger than him, so his cleverness was the only weapon he had to ensure that he got his fair share to eat.

  He was convinced that eventually his mother would have to notice that he was good enough to be worth loving.

  Qibli was three and a half years old when his salvation finally walked in.

  It was an otherwise ordinary day, hot as blazes, and Cobra had ordered them out into the streets because she was expecting a client. (Her exact words were: “get your ugly snouts out of here and don’t come back until dark, if you must come back at all.” Qibli was choosing to find it hopeful that she’d been looking at Sirocco when she said “ugly snouts” and at him when she said “come back,” like maybe she was subliminally revealing her true feelings. He came up with a lot of stories like this in his head.)

  Other dragonets were always racing around the narrow alleyways that surrounded their house, scrapping and shouting and tussling over trinkets or prey. On that day, however, they weren’t fighting. Instead, a crowd of grubby dragonets were gathered in a circle down one of the dead ends, jostling and shouting wagers at one another.

  As Rattlesnake muscled her way to the front, Qibli caught a glimpse of fur and a small, quivering, whiskered nose between the talons and tails that blocked his view.

  Qibli took a few steps back, then launched himself up to the window ledge on the second floor of a nearby lamp store. From there he could see down into the cleared patch of space where all the dragonets were focusing their attention. A large scrap of orangeish fur was circling a much smaller, gray bit of fur with a long tail.

  “What’s going on?” Rattlesnake demanded.

  “Taking bets on how long the scritter lasts,” one of the wiry orphans answered her, flicking a wing at the gray furball. “Care to wager?” He was so covered in dirt and ashes that he looked half MudWing — which he easily might be. There were several hybrids in the Scorpion Den, since Blister wouldn’t tolerate “cross-contamination” in her army and Burn hated them as well.

  Qibli squinted and realized the little creature was a spiny mouse, slightly bigger than average. Its ears trembled with terror as it darted around, blocked in on all sides by enormous talons and sunbaked scales and fiery breath. The larger animal stalking it was a cat, which meant it must be the pet of someone important, or else it would have been eaten by now.

  “Stupid game,” Rattlesnake pronounced, tossing a scornful look at the two mammals. “I’d rather eat them than bet on them.”

  “Yeah, but those scritters are prickly on yer tongue,” the other dragon observed. “ ’Sides, check out what the winner snags.” He jerked his head at five coconuts arranged in a small pyramid next to the wall.

  Five coconuts! Qibli would have been tempted to place a bet himself, if he’d had anything to wager.

  He looked back along the alley toward his house. His mother loved coconut. It was one of the things she never shared with the dragonets, on the rare occasions when she managed to get one.

  I may have nothing to wager, Qibli thought, but maybe I can get one a different way.

  A few moments later, the cat had the spiny mouse cornered. It prowled a step closer … another step … the mouse was petrified with fear … the cat reached out one paw …

  And a bucketful of sand cascaded over the cat’s head, instantly burying it with a yowl of fury.

  “Slasher!” roared one of the watching dragons. She surged forward and began digging frantically in the sand for her cat. “Who did that?”

  Everyone was looking up now, but Qibli was already standing innocently in the crowd, casting bewildered looks at the sky. He took a sideways step, “accidentally” treading on the toes of a dragon he knew was prone to hysterics, and as he’d hoped, his mark started screaming melodramatically. Enough dragons jumped and surged around in the confusion that a gap opened up and the mouse darted out of the circle.

  At the same time, Slasher the cat burst out of the sand, hissing and spitting furio

  “Where’d it go?” shouted one of the dragons.

  “Who won?” shouted another.

  “Don’t let the scritter escape!” bellowed a third.

  “It went that way!” Qibli yelled, pointing out of the alley.

  Dragons stampeded past him, and in the swift, roaring chaos, he managed to snatch one of the coconuts, tuck it under his wing, and hustle out along with the thundering crowd.

  At the corner, everyone scattered, searching for the little creature. Qibli made his way casually toward his own house.

  An adult SandWing was lingering outside, watching the gang of dragonets descend into finger-pointing and fighting. She gave him a speculative look as he approached.

  “Morning,” Qibli said, tipping his head toward her. He darted inside and scampered through into the back room where his mother always met with clients. He was in luck; whoever she was waiting for hadn’t arrived yet. She crouched, alone, behind her table, studying a document with a scrawled sketch of a dragon’s face on it.

  He was also not in luck, because she was evidently in a terrible mood. Her head snapped up and she gave him an evil glare.

  “Get out,” she snarled.

  “I brought you something,” Qibli said quickly. He produced the coconut and held it out in his trembling talons. “I stole it for you.”

  Cobra rose to her feet, spreading her wings until she seemed to fill the entire room.

  “You stole a coconut,” she hissed. “And you brought it to me.” She took a step toward him.

  “Yes,” he said proudly. “I know you like them, so —”

  “Have I taught you nothing about survival?” she snarled. She smashed the coconut out of his talons and threw him into the wall. Qibli’s head collided painfully with a torch sconce.

  “You survive!” Cobra bellowed. “That’s all you have to do! Nobody is ever going to take care of you! A dragon looks out for herself and no one else. You weak little worm, if you steal a coconut, you keep it for yourself.”