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Winter Turning, Page 2

Tui T. Sutherland

  “Are you sure you want to do this, Your Majesty?” she asked.

  “Yes,” Queen Scarlet said with a hiss. “He’s dangerous the way he is — anyone can see that. I can’t use him in my arena if I want to trade him later, and I don’t want to deal with any messy escape or rescue attempts.”

  “You understand I’m not sure what the consequences will be,” said the soldier. “If we stick to your … unusual specifications, I mean.”

  “I told you I’d only use you for special cases.” The queen lashed her tail. “This is one.”

  “Very well. Then he’s gone,” said the other SkyWing. “No one will ever be able to find him. Trust me.”

  Queen Scarlet snorted. “Not one of my favorite activities, trusting other dragons,” she said. “But I’ll give it a whirl just this once. He’s all yours.”

  The dragon smiled sideways at Hailstorm, and for the first time in his life he felt cold — cold all the way through his bones and claws.

  She stepped toward him, reaching for something around her neck, but he was too hypnotized by her eyes to run or fight or even scream.

  Her eyes were not normal SkyWing eyes anymore. They were dark black, black as the darkest abyss in the ocean, and they were coming to swallow him whole.

  The first time Winter disappointed his family, he was two years old.

  Or at least, the first time he knew he’d disappointed them. Perhaps it had been happening all along, and they’d hidden it behind the stern, demanding faces they showed all the royal dragonets.

  He could remember the dawn that day, the morning of his eleventh hunt — the subzero chill in the air, the paling purple of the sky, two moons still high overhead while the third slid its thin crescent sliver down below the horizon. A snowy owl was perched on one of the palace outcroppings, its talons digging into the ice. It glowered beadily at Winter as if it saw his disgrace coming.

  His sister, Icicle, was in the hunting party, and his brother, Hailstorm, too, along with two of Glacier’s dragonets, one of Winter’s royal uncles, three attendants, and Winter’s parents, Tundra and Narwhal. They gathered in the courtyard of the ice palace, stamping their feet and beating their wings as the glorious freezing air filled their lungs. The sharp crunch of snow beneath their claws broke the stillness of the morning.

  Winter remembered looking up at his mother as she hissed for attention.

  “This hunt is for the table of the queen herself,” Tundra growled. “Whoever brings down the first polar bear will be invited to sit at her side this evening.” She shot a glittering look at Icicle, coiled beside Winter.

  Icicle was only two years old as well, but she already knew the future her parents had planned for her. So did Winter, although he suspected he wasn’t supposed to.

  He couldn’t remember how he knew. Had he overheard his parents whispering when they thought he was too young to understand? Or had he figured it out from their behavior over the years?

  But he did know. One day Icicle would challenge their aunt, Queen Glacier, for the throne. That was the reason she was hatched, and the destiny she was trained for: to kill Glacier and become queen herself. The only question was when.

  Glacier grew older and larger and stronger each year. And Icicle had to strike before one of Glacier’s own daughters seized the queenship. Daughters, sisters, or nieces could try for the throne; cousins could not. Neither could sisters-in-law, or Tundra surely would have thrown down the challenge herself.

  So Winter’s parents couldn’t wait forever — but they also needed to be sure Icicle was ready. She’d have only one chance. Kill or die, that was how it worked.

  Icicle lifted her snout and returned her mother’s arch, calculating look. “It’ll be me,” she said, sounding almost bored. “Find a polar bear? Easy. I have a much better nose than these two.” She flicked her tail dismissively at Hailstorm and Winter.

  “We’ll see about that!” Hailstorm said. He grinned and hopped from foot to foot, full of energy the way he always was. Winter often wished some of his brother’s confidence would spill over onto him.

  The five dragonets set out first, flying away from the palace in five different directions. At their age, every hunt was still a test — a chance to prove your worth and climb higher in the rankings. Not that Hailstorm needed to climb any higher; he’d been at the very top since he was not quite two years old himself. He made the top of the list the same day Icicle and Winter hatched, in fact.

  Winter knew it was risky, but he decided to try flying out to sea to hunt. Sometimes polar bears could be found on the islands off the coast, or drifting on the icebergs, or swimming from one to another. He had yet to catch a polar bear after ten hunts, and as a result his place in the rankings was lower than anyone in their family had ever been. (“Hailstorm killed a polar bear the first time we took him out hunting,” his mother would observe coldly during their tense family meals, sliding a bowl of dripping meat down the table. “Icicle has killed three so far. You obviously need to try harder.”)

  He scanned the waves for a long time, hoping to see a bobbing white head. Nothing moved except the sea itself and the shifting reflections of the rising sun.

  Finally he swerved down toward one of the larger islands, not much bigger than the ice palace, but studded with caves where bears might hide.

  And suddenly — there!

  Standing at the edge of the water, staring south. She was huge, with a yellowish tinge to her dingy white fur. The wind was blowing his scent away from her, and he was gliding; she hadn’t heard him or smelled him yet. In a few heartbeats he could be down there, sinking his claws into her shoulders. She’d put up a fight, but he would win.

  He’d bring home a polar bear at last, and if he hurried, it might even be him sitting next to the queen at dinner tonight, while Queen Glacier ate his polar bear.

  He wheeled upward, ready to dive … and then a movement caught at the corner of his eye, and he tilted his head toward the caves.

  A pair of tiny cubs was wobbling out onto the snow. One of them tripped and sprawled out, paws flopping every which way, and the other growled with delight and tackled him. They rolled, wrestling playfully, and their mother swung her head around to grunt at them.

  Winter hesitated. Don’t be a fool, he told himself. Just kill them, too; that’s the way to impress Mother and Father.

  But there was something else watching the bears. It was well hidden, higher up among the rocks above the cave, but Winter’s sharp IceWing eyes spotted it when it moved.

  A scavenger! A scavenger here, this far north?

  The creature was wrapped in so many furs, at first Winter almost thought it was another polar bear cub. But there was no mistaking those clever, thin brown paws for the great clumsy paws of bears. The scavenger was carrying a kind of rough spear and its eyes were fixed on the polar bears, so it hadn’t noticed the dragon overhead yet either.

  Winter scanned the island and spotted a wooden canoe that had been hauled onto the pebbly beach. How far had this scavenger traveled through the rough arctic waters? Was it hunting the bears for prey, just like Winter was?

  If so, why wasn’t it moving? Why had it lowered its spear as if it was already giving up?

  Winter stared intently, tracking the scavenger’s gaze. The way it was watching the cubs … was it hesitating, the way he had? Did it feel sorry for them, too?

  Surely that was ridiculous. Scavengers couldn’t feel pity. A hungry scavenger wouldn’t spare the life of a bear just to protect her cubs. Would it?

  He wished he could scoop up the scavenger and study it more closely.

  “What is wrong with you?” Tundra’s voice suddenly shrieked across the sky. Winter nearly leaped out of his scales. “Are you hunting or sightseeing? Are you an IceWing or a RainWing? Kill that bear!”

  Winter twisted around and saw, to his horror, that his mother, father, and uncle were all winging toward him with disgusted expressions. Right behind them was Icicle, with a polar bear carcass
dangling from her claws.

  He dove frantically toward the bear, but the noise had alerted her to the danger, and she was already charging up the slope and bundling her cubs back into the cave. Winter beat his wings and lunged with his talons outstretched — but they closed on empty air as the three polar bears vanished into a narrow, stony passageway where dragons would never be able to follow.

  Winter scrabbled at the cave entrance for a moment, but there was nothing he could do. The bears were gone.

  He carefully forced himself not to look up at the scavenger. If his parents knew it was there, they’d make him kill it for the dinner feast, and for some reason he didn’t want to. He couldn’t imagine anyone eating those little paws, or the scavenger’s head with its wide dark eyes. A shiver went through his wings.

  “How could you let it get away?” Narwhal roared, landing beside him. Winter’s father slammed one talon into the side of the cliff and a small avalanche of snow crashed over Winter’s head. “It was right there! No kill could be easier!”

  “Maybe he was worried about the little baby bears,” Icicle offered, coming down with a thump and a splattering of bear blood. “Maybe he didn’t want to leave them all alone with no mummy to take care of them, poor wittle furballs.” Her voice was sneering and triumphant.

  “No!” Winter cried. “That wasn’t it! I was — I was just watching for a minute. I would have gotten it if —”

  “If you hadn’t been wasting time mooning around,” Narwhal hissed. “We have to report this, you know. Your uncle saw the whole thing.”

  Winter stared miserably at his talons. He knew his parents would have reported it anyway, even with no other witnesses. They believed in the strict IceWing codes of behavior. They agreed that the only way to make him strong was to expose all his weaknesses. Shame and fear were powerful weapons for teaching young dragonets. If everyone was disappointed in him, surely he would fight harder to prove himself.

  I will, he thought fiercely. I will be better. I will claw my way up the rankings. I won’t make a mistake like this again.

  But he still did not tell his parents about the scavenger hiding nearby. He glanced back only once, as they were all swooping away, to make sure it was all right.

  That incident sent him down into the Fifth Circle, above only one-year-old dragonets in families that barely counted as aristocrats. For months, his mother had made him memorize long sagas about dragons who’d attempted the Diamond Trial to get back into the First Circle, including about a hundred verses speculating how gruesomely they might have died. The Trial was a last resort, rarely used, but she made it clear that no dragonet of hers would reach his seventh hatching day any lower than Second Circle, even if it meant turning to an ancient, mysterious, most likely deadly ritual.

  With that threat hanging over him, he had struggled to claw his way back up through the rankings, bit by bit, and he had tried as hard as he could for so long.

  And then losing Hailstorm — actually, leaving Hailstorm, abandoning him to his fate without a fight — had wiped out all that work, and he’d had to start all over from the Sixth Circle.

  Which I deserved, he thought. It was my fault we were on that mountain; my fault he got caught. My stupid, cowardly decision to leave him there.

  But everything was different now. Now he knew Hailstorm was alive, not dead as they’d all thought. Queen Scarlet still held him prisoner, hidden somewhere secret. And Icicle had been bargaining for Hailstorm’s life, before Winter had ruined her plan. She’d agreed to kill the dragonets of destiny in exchange for Hailstorm … but Winter had stopped her.

  Which meant if Scarlet killed Hailstorm now, it would be even more Winter’s fault.

  He clenched his talons.

  But maybe he could get to her before that happened. If he could find Scarlet, maybe there was still a chance to save his brother.

  He swiped raindrops off his face, inhaling. The downpour was incessant and repulsive; he’d take a howling snowstorm over this dripping soggy horribleness any day. The forest floor squashed between his claws and the wet tree branches lashed his wings as they swayed in the storm.

  Below him, his pet scavenger stood in the open doorway of the cage Winter had built. Bandit squinted up at the dragon and the thunderstorm.

  “I’m letting you go,” Winter said impatiently. “Don’t just stand there. I can’t carry a pet with me while I’m searching for Hailstorm, especially not one that flops around moping all the time.” He rattled the cage and the scavenger flinched.

  Winter had spent days and days on planning and constructing this cage, making it beautiful for his very first pet scavenger. And then Bandit hadn’t appreciated it at all. He’d never used the swing or the running wheel. Mostly he’d cowered under the furs and squeaked, or he’d tried to run away.

  “Isn’t this what you wanted?” Winter demanded.

  Bandit was the most disappointing pet of all time, but Winter couldn’t help it; he still cared about him. Otherwise he could have abandoned Bandit to be someone’s dinner back at Jade Mountain.

  Winter still remembered the expression on that first hunter-scavenger’s face, all these years later. The curiosity and the dragonlike sympathy in its eyes. He’d hoped to see something like that in Bandit one day … but it didn’t matter now. Nothing mattered except finding Hailstorm.

  “Go on, get out of here,” Winter grumbled. He poked at Bandit with one claw, but the scavenger dodged and retreated farther into the cage, covering his head. Winter felt a flash of pity for the creature, and then felt furious with himself for caring, when there were more important things to worry about. “I know it’s raining, but it’s better than the Ice Kingdom, trust me.”

  If I take him with me to the Ice Kingdom, he’ll either freeze to death or be eaten within the first day. Queen Glacier had granted him permission to have an exotic pet while at the academy, but where he saw an exotic pet, his parents were likely to see a delicious snack.

  “Winter!” he heard a voice yell, somewhere off in the trees.

  A plume of fire lit up the faces of four dragons, hurrying toward him through the forest. To his astonishment, it was the rest of his winglet from the Jade Mountain Academy: Qibli, Turtle, Kinkajou … and Moon.

  He pushed back against the little jump that his heart made when he saw her.

  Just what I need right now — a bunch of glaciers slowing me down.

  “By all the snow monsters, what are you doing here?” Winter demanded. How had they even found him? And why?

  “Looking for you,” Moon said simply. Her eyes caught on his, shining in the bits of moonlight that fought through the storm clouds. She always looked at him as if she could see more of him than anyone else. As if she saw dazzling mountain peaks where his parents saw nothing but a lump of gray ice.

  “And we found you!” Kinkajou added. “We’re amazing!” She flapped her wings as Qibli sent out another burst of flame, and Winter could see that she had turned bright yellow with purple spots. Ridiculous, that’s what RainWings were, all of them. Flamboyant and ridiculous, with their feelings splattered all over their scales like that. It was embarrassing to be around.

  Winter glanced down at Bandit. He couldn’t let these dragons distract him. “I’m not going back to Jade Mountain,” he said firmly. No matter what they said, they wouldn’t change his mind. “I’m going to look for my brother.”

  “I thought so,” Moon said, her voice quiet but as determined as his. “We want to help you.”

  “We do?” Turtle said, stamping his feet.

  “Yes!” Kinkajou said. “I didn’t know we did but now I totally do!”

  No way. Absolutely not. I can’t be around them — not even Moon. I mean, especially Moon.

  He saw Qibli staring intently at him, as though the SandWing was figuring out his next move. Qibli had done that all the time in the cave they shared on Jade Mountain, and it had been very unsettling to live with. Winter could just imagine what it would be like to have the SandW
ing’s black eyes inspecting everything he did on the path to finding Hailstorm.

  “You can’t come with me,” he said. “I’m going to Queen Glacier. I need to explain it all to her and get her to help me find Hailstorm.” Perhaps she would give him a wing of soldiers of his own to command. Or perhaps she would send out all her warrior dragons to search for Hailstorm. Regardless, he knew he needed the power of the IceWing queen to save his brother. That was the smart thing to do. Wasn’t it?

  “Wouldn’t it make more sense to go to the Sky Kingdom?” Kinkajou asked. “Your brother must be imprisoned there somewhere, right? We could all look for him in, like, all the mountain caves, or something.”

  “Or you could go after Icicle,” Qibli said. “Try to find out more about what Scarlet told her.”

  This was exactly what he didn’t want: more options. More doubt. Qibli was right; Icicle was the only one who knew anything about Hailstorm and Scarlet. Following Icicle would make sense, except …

  “I don’t know where she’s gone,” Winter said bitterly. Back to the Ice Kingdom, he hoped, although she had to know Queen Glacier would be furious about her breaking the Jade Mountain truce.

  “I have a guess,” Qibli said. Of course he did. “You won’t like it, though,” he added, nodding at Kinkajou. “I think she’s gone to the rainforest. She knows the one Scarlet hates the most is Glory — everyone knows that, if they know the story of what Glory did to her face. So I think Icicle might think that if she kills Glory, Scarlet will forgive her for failing to kill the others.”

  Nobody spoke for a long moment.

  Thrice-cursed moons, Winter thought. He’s right. That’s exactly what she would think. Icicle is brilliant, dangerous, and prefers to hunt alone. She would find a way to solve this problem, instead of running for help.

  Thunder rumbled overhead.

  “Then I’m going to the rainforest,” Kinkajou said fiercely. “I’m not letting her kill my awesome queen.”