The hidden kingdom, p.10
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       The Hidden Kingdom, p.10

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  “Ooof,” Glory whispered. “A little more personal space, please.”

  “I don’t know what that is,” Jambu whispered back. “But I’m really freaking cold, aren’t you?”

  Glory sighed. She was. And Jambu was warm. And he was her brother.

  She curled up for a second night in a row of uncomfortable sleep.

  Glory woke up shortly before dawn. The sun was a thin pale line of light on the horizon, and the dark purple sky still glittered with stars. She could see her breath in the air, trails of smoke as if she could breathe fire like the others.

  She wriggled out from under Jambu, who slept with his mouth open and his wings flopped wide. At least he wasn’t pink today. She found it a little easier to take him seriously when he was the gray and brown colors of the rocks below them.

  She glanced down at her scales to make sure they matched the landscape as well. She liked how there was even a subtle sparkle to them, just like the frost that covered the ground.

  Tsunami shifted in her sleep, growling softly. Glory realized that Starflight was already awake; he blinked at her over Sunny’s back, looking exhausted. She flicked her tail and signaled that he should go back to sleep; then she spread her wings and hopped up to the top of the small cliff to see what the land ahead looked like.

  A lot like the land they’d left behind and the land they were on, apparently. Except — was that snow in the distance? Glory gave her scales a moment to shift, and then she lifted into the sky.

  They hadn’t been able to see it in the dark the night before, but there was definitely snow on the taller hills ahead of them, and more snow beyond that. Glory shivered. It would get colder from here, and it was already close to unbearable. This had to be tough on Sunny and Clay as well. Maybe the others could stay here while she went on ahead. In fact, maybe she should go ahead right now, without them, so no one else would be at risk.

  Except she knew perfectly well that her idiot friends would follow her and just get in worse trouble without her there to help. If she wanted to go on without them, she’d have to convince them to be smart, listen to her, and stay behind.

  There was something large up ahead in the snow-covered hills — some kind of building. It couldn’t be Glacier’s palace, though; Glory knew that was far to the north, on the coldest tip of the peninsula, where no other dragons would ever want to go. This building was almost too far south for IceWings.

  Glory flew a bit closer and saw smoke rising from a few of its chimneys.

  Smoke means fire, she thought, which means not IceWings. She circled in the air and studied it a bit more.

  It had to be Blaze and her SandWings. Glory had been wondering how they survived in the Ice Kingdom. Apparently the answer was “by not going very far into it.”

  Suddenly a movement below caught her eye. She froze, hovering in the air and hoping her camouflage was perfect.

  There was a dragon among the rocks, not far from where her friends were sleeping, but not close enough to see them either. He was stamping his feet and slapping his wings together as if he was trying to warm up.

  Mangrove? Glory thought hopefully, gliding a bit closer. He wasn’t camouflaged, exactly, but he was black like a NightWing . . . maybe he thought that would hide him well enough. . . .

  And then the dragon below let out a small plume of fire, heating the ground below him before curling up on it.

  So it wasn’t a RainWing. It was an actual NightWing, on his own in IceWing territory.

  Well, that can’t be good news.

  Why was there a NightWing here, of all places? Glory glided quietly away and landed softly out of his sight. Her curiosity was too strong to resist, so she needed a disguise. The only logical dragons that should be wandering around here were IceWings and maybe some of their SandWing allies.

  She closed her eyes and remembered the IceWing who had fought Clay in the arena. Fjord. The first dragon she’d killed with her venom. She’d had no choice; he’d been moments away from kill ing Clay. Plus she’d had no idea what her venom would do. She’d just known instinctively that she could do something, that she had to do something — that she had a weapon she’d never known about.

  Starflight thought that perhaps she couldn’t have used her venom under the mountain anyway. He said it might have been activated by finally exposing her scales to full sunlight, the way Clay’s fireproof abilities had come to full strength once he’d encountered mud for the first time.

  Glory couldn’t help but wonder how different life might have been if she could have threatened the guardians the way they threatened her.

  Focus. Fjord.

  His pale blue scales, the color of sky-filled snow. His darker blue eyes. She felt the changes shimmer across her scales. The hardest part was the extra horns IceWings had around their heads. She concentrated on making her ruff look like it was made of icicles and hoped that would do. She also couldn’t make her claws ridged like IceWing claws, and her tail wasn’t as whip-thin at the end as an IceWing’s would be.

  Maybe this is a bad idea. Maybe there’s no way I’ll get away with it.

  But it was still pretty dark out . . . and she really, really wanted to know what a NightWing was doing out here.

  Well, she thought ruefully, if he figures me out, I guess I’ll just kill him.

  Somehow it didn’t sound as funny as she’d hoped.

  She leaped into the air and flew back to the spot where she’d seen the strange dragon. For a moment she was afraid she’d lost him, before she realized that he was lying down, his black scales half-hidden in the long shadows.

  Confidence, she told herself. It’s all about attitude.

  “Hey!” she barked, landing with a thump beside him. “Who are you, and what are you doing in our territory?”

  The NightWing leaped up in surprise and stared at her. He was a lot younger and smaller than Morrowseer, wiry and graceful in his movements even when he was startled. The silver scales sparkling under his wings caught the morning light like trapped stars.

  “Great moons. Where did you come from?” he asked. He looked up at the sky with a puzzled expression.

  “Where do you think?” she said. “And I’m asking the questions here. What are you doing in the Ice Kingdom?”

  “Technically this isn’t the Ice Kingdom yet,” he said. “Or didn’t you know that?”

  It isn’t? she thought. The map she’d memorized didn’t exactly have borders drawn on it, not that those would have helped her out here anyway.

  “You’re close enough,” she growled. “Explain yourself.” She wished she had a spear or something she could poke at him.

  “It will be Ice Kingdom territory one day,” said the NightWing. “If Blaze wins the war, that is. She’s promised Queen Glacier all the land you can see from here to the southern horizon — basically where the desert starts.” He pointed, but Glory stopped herself from looking and kept her eyes on him.

  The NightWing smiled. “I suppose you know all that,” he said. “But it’s interesting, isn’t it? That’s a lot of land Blaze is willing to hand over. But not exactly useful land to either tribe, so what would Queen Glacier want with it? Do you think there’s trea sure under these rocks? That would be my guess. A diamond mine, perhaps. Maybe you know. Maybe all the IceWings know and are wisely keeping it a secret from Blaze and her SandWings.” He gave her a wry, clever look as if he’d just opened up her mind and spread it out on the rocks for them to admire together.

  A horrible sinking feeling shot through Glory. She’d forgotten that NightWings could read minds. Some NightWings, she reminded herself. Certainly not Starflight. And she thought not Morrowseer, judging from his lack of reaction to all the thoughts she’d had about him. Maybe this dragon was one who could see the future instead.

  Still, she forced every thought out of her mind except What are you doing here?


  “Answer my questions, NightWing,” she said. “Or I’ll take you to Queen Glacier and you can explain yourself to her.”

  “That wouldn’t be a good idea,” he said. “You really don’t want the rest of my tribe to come looking for me.”

  “And you really don’t want to sit in a dungeon made of ice until they show up, which would most likely be sometime after you froze to death,” she pointed out. “So tell me what you’re doing here, and perhaps I’ll let you go. Win-win.”

  He tilted his head, looking amused.

  “All right,” he said after a moment. “I’m waiting for someone. Well, a few someones.”

  “Who?” she asked.

  “I can’t tell you that,” he said. “NightWing business, I’m afraid. I’m on an assignment.”

  “I didn’t know NightWings had ‘business,’ ” Glory said. “I thought you just skulked around in your secret location congratulating one another on knowing every thing and doing nothing.”

  The NightWing started laughing. “Nobody talks to us like that!” he said. “Where’s your sense of awe? Your terror of our powers?” He spread his wings majestically, but his eyes were teasing.

  “If your powers were that impressive, you’d do something to stop this war,” she said. “Also, I’m the one with the — uh, the freezing death breath here.” She’d nearly slipped and said venom . . . but either way, it was true; NightWing powers weren’t that spectacular when it came to an actual battle. Starflight’s were downright pathetic.

  “Maybe we’ll help stop the war someday,” he said. “Maybe we haven’t picked a side yet — like the dragonets of the prophecy.”

  Glory kept her face calm and bored. “That old thing,” she said. “I don’t believe in prophecies. Sorry, I know they’re a NightWing specialty, but seriously? If you can actually see the future, why be all cryptic and vague about it? Why not give us a prophecy that’s like, ‘Oh, by the way, Blaze is going to win the war, so give her the crown now and don’t even bother fighting about it.’ Skip all the death and bloodshed. And leave a bunch of poor dragonets out of it.”

  The NightWing laughed again. “You feel sorry for the dragonets,” he said. “That’s interesting. I’ve seen a lot of that around Pyrrhia, actually. Everyone expects so much of them, but they also think it’s a heavy burden for five young dragons. I wonder if the dragonets would be surprised by all the sympathy for them.” He looked thoughtful for a moment, then yawned. “You haven’t seen any sign of them here, have you? Rumor has it they were headed for the Ice Kingdom next.”

  “Really?” Glory said impassively. “Why?”

  “To meet Blaze, I suppose,” he said. “So . . . are they here? In Queen Glacier’s dungeon already, perhaps?”

  “Nope,” Glory said. “No sign of them. None at all.” She thought of snowstorms and sheets of ice, blocking the way to all her other thoughts.

  He studied her for a moment. “Right,” he said. “Well. They couldn’t have gotten here that fast anyway. It’s a long way from the Kingdom of the Sea.”

  “How do you know they were there?” Glory asked. “Oh, wait, I forgot. NightWings are all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-brilliant, right?”

  “Don’t forget all-wonderful and all-handsome,” he said.

  She snorted to cover her laugh. “How would anyone know that, when you all stay hidden away like turtles?” she said. “Seriously, come hang out with dragons in the real world sometime.”

  “Is that an invitation?” he asked. “I probably have a day or two before the — before my work can begin. I wouldn’t mind seeing the inside of an IceWing tavern, if you’ll be there.”

  Glory felt a shiver of danger slip along her spine.

  “So let me get this straight,” she said. “You’re telling me nothing about why you’re here, but you expect me to bring you into our kingdom and buy you a drink. NightWings really do think highly of themselves, don’t they?”

  “What if I bought you that drink?” he offered.

  “Oh, then I’m sure Queen Glacier would understand, no problem,” Glory said. “She loves strange dragons in her territory. It’s her very favorite thing.”

  The NightWing smiled a little wistfully. “All right,” he said. “Never mind. But maybe you could come back and see me sometime. I’ll be here for a few more days at least, probably, and it’s pretty boring just sitting here.”

  “Waiting for your mysterious someones,” Glory said. “Which you’re not going to tell me anything more about.”

  He spread his wings. “Sorry. I wish I could. I bet my job would impress you.”

  “I’m not easily impressed,” Glory said, and was surprised when he laughed again. “Well . . . good luck with your assignment, I suppose.”

  “What’s your name?” he asked as she took a step back.

  “Sorry, I can’t tell you that,” she said mockingly. “IceWing business.”

  “Who knew sarcasm could grow in a place this cold?” he said with a smile. “Will you tell me your name if I tell you mine?”

  “Nope,” she said. “Frankly, I’m not that interested.” She turned her back and spread her wings.

  “I’ll tell you anyway,” he said as she lifted into the sky. “If you’ll come see me again! Will you?”

  “Maybe,” she called back. “I’m pretty busy.”

  “My name,” he called. She slowed down to listen, but didn’t look back.

  “My name is Deathbringer.”

  Deathbringer.

  Waiting for someone. A few someones.

  You haven’t seen any sign of the dragonets, have you?

  Glory’s head was spinning as she flew away. Was the NightWing here waiting for them?

  Deathbringer. Seriously?

  The only dragon she knew of who the NightWings wanted dead was her. As soon as Morrowseer had laid eyes on her, back under the mountain, he’d decided she was going to mess up the prophecy. So he’d ordered the guardians to kill her, which was why she and the others had escaped. Had he sent Deathbringer to finish the job? Why waste all that energy hunting her down?

  But Deathbringer had sounded as if he was waiting for more than just her. She wondered if that meant the other dragonets were in danger, too. Surely the NightWings wouldn’t kill off any of them. That had to mess up the prophecy much more dramatically than Glory could.

  She landed next to her friends and nearly gave Starflight a heart attack.

  “IceWing!” he yelped, flailing over backward. Tsunami leaped to her feet, teeth bared. “Look out! It’s — oh.” Starflight took a deep breath as Glory’s scales shifted back to brown and gray. “Glory! Why would you do that to me?”

  “Because it’s hilarious,” she said. “And shhh.” She thought they were far enough away from Deathbringer, but she wasn’t completely sure how far sound would carry in the cold, crisp air.

  “You looked very sparkly,” Sunny said sleepily.

  “I nearly clobbered you with my tail,” Tsunami said in a severe voice.

  “And I nearly bit your snout when you were snoring last night,” Glory said. “So I guess we’re both models of self-restraint. Jambu, wake up.” She poked her brother, who was the only one who’d slept through Starflight’s alarm.

  “Too cold,” he mumbled, flopping one wing over his head.

  “Too bad,” she said and poked him again. “Besides, if you get up and move you’ll feel warmer.”

  “More sleeping,” he insisted, folding the other wing over his head as well.

  Glory sighed and left him alone. “Starflight,” she asked, “do you have any idea how literal a NightWing’s name is? Like, does it always signal something about what they do?”

  The other dragonets started getting up and stretching. Starflight scratched his head. “Well, there’s Morrowseer,” he said. “He can see the future and deliver prophecies, so tha
t’s what ‘seeing’ the ‘morrow’ is about.”

  “Yes, thank you,” Glory said. “I figured that one out.”

  “But did they know he’d be a prophet when they named him?” Sunny asked curiously. “Not all NightWings are. So how would they know that?”

  “Maybe another prophet foresaw it,” Tsunami joked.

  Starflight poked at the frozen ground with one claw. “I don’t know any more than that,” he said. “Morrowseer hasn’t told me any NightWing tribe secrets. And you’ve read all the same scrolls I have.”

  “True,” Glory said. “Lots of epic nonsense about wonderful NightWings. They all have these awkward mouthful names. I think in the stories their names do usually match their skills, if I remember right.”

  “Why are you asking?” Starflight tilted his head at her.

  “Because I just met one,” Glory said, “and I thiiiiiiink he’s here to kill us. Well, me, at least.”

  That got their attention in a hurry. She told them about Deathbringer and every thing he’d said. Almost every thing, anyhow. She didn’t want them to figure out that she’d thought he was kind of cute. That is, before she realized he was there to kill her.

  “Let’s get out of here,” Starflight said when she finished. “Let’s fly south right now and get back to the rainforest as fast as possible.”

  Jambu poked his nose out hopefully. “I like that plan,” he offered.

  “It does sound like the warmest plan. But what about Mangrove?” Clay asked with a shiver.

  “I saw something else,” Glory said. “I think it’s where Blaze and her army must be camping out.” She described the building she’d seen. Starflight and Tsunami both nodded.

  “Makes sense to me,” said Tsunami. “Blaze would need a place of her own. She couldn’t survive a day in Glacier’s palace.”

 
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