The lost heir, p.11
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       The Lost Heir, p.11

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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Enough to try to kill me?

  “I sent Shark on ahead this morning after breakfast, but he never worries enough,” Queen Coral said, clicking her claws together. “He doesn’t even believe there’s an assassin. He thinks it’s all bad luck.” She shook herself with a hiss. “He even told me once that perhaps I wasn’t meant to have daughters. He’s lucky he’s my brother — and your father, Moray — so I let him live. WHIRLPOOL! WHERE ARE YOU?”

  Anemone winced and put her talons over her ears.

  “Stay very close to me in the Deep Palace,” the queen ordered Tsunami. “We really have to put a rush order on a harness for you. They’ve been working on two for the new dragonets, but clearly yours is an emergency.”

  “I can take care of myself,” Tsunami said, ruffled. “Obviously. I’m still alive, so whoever attacked me failed.” She gave Moray a hard look, but the Council dragon only shifted her wings as if she didn’t care.

  Pitter-patter, pitter-patter.

  All the dragons glanced up at the canopy far overhead. Raindrops were spattering across the green leaves.

  “Ah, the precipitation I predicted,” said Whirlpool, landing beside Coral. “My apologies for not appearing instantly, Your Majesty; I was distributing scrolls to the kitchen staff.” He didn’t look as if he’d been in a fight — and Tsunami didn’t really think the ridiculous dragon could have overpowered her for a moment.

  “We’re going to the Deep Palace — now, as fast as we can.” Queen Coral dove over the edge so suddenly that Anemone was yanked off her talons after her. Tsunami followed and found herself in a swarm of dragons midair as all the Council members hurried after Queen Coral as well.

  They crowded into the tunnel, tails smacking into snouts and wings tangling. Tsunami got pushed into the middle and found herself swimming beside Whirlpool.

  Too late, she remembered she had meant to check on her friends. Why can’t I be a better dragon? she berated herself.

  She tried to turn and go back, but Council dragons were there shoving her forward. After nearly getting clawed in the face a few times, she gave up.

  Surely they’re all right. Especially if Shark is in the Deep Palace already. I’ll come right back and see them after we check on the eggs.

  Out in the sea, Queen Coral immediately found a current and swept off. One by one, each of the dragons followed her.

  Tsunami glanced around, scanning the coral reefs and underwater boulders. Her heart jumped a little as she caught a glimpse of sky-blue scales. Riptide was still out there, watching for her. She waited a moment until she saw him dart from one rock to another. He was following them — following her — to the Deep Palace.

  Pleased, although she felt a bit silly about it, she swam into the current and let it carry her after the others. She was starting to get the trick of how to angle her wings so it could sweep her along as fast as possible. It was a bit like flying, but with a lot more to dodge. Then again, fish managed to get out of the way pretty fast when they saw the dragons coming.

  Above them, rain pattered down harder and harder on the water’s surface. The light faded, and Tsunami imagined the dark clouds rolling in. She hoped her friends would be all right in the Summer Palace. Surely there were storms there all the time. At least they were in a cave, so they wouldn’t get wet.

  Two giant sea turtles swam by, going in the other direction. They eyed the dragons warily, but nobody stopped to eat them. Explosions of tiny pink fish popped in and out of the waving anemones along the coral reefs. Something large and yellow was lying flat against the sand; it opened its eyes, stared at Tsunami, and closed them again.

  After a while, an island loomed in front of them, with immense coral reefs clustered all around it. Orange branches twined around purple star-shaped clusters. Lacy fans the color of rust sprouted from pale pink umbrella shapes. Blue-and-silver fish darted in and out of the holes.

  The SeaWings swam out of the current and around the bend of the reef, and then the lead dragons ducked into a canyon in the ocean floor.

  Tsunami followed them down. As her eyes adjusted to the growing darkness, she saw a vast expanse of white-and-green coral reef spreading along the sides and floor of the canyon. It curled into caves and towers and underwater gardens full of glowing colors. In the center of the canyon, the coral spiraled up into an enormous palace, swarming with SeaWings.

  SeaWings were every where — swimming in and out of the windows and doors of the palace, shooting up to the surface and diving to the bottom of the canyon, tending the gardens, gently cleaning the coral, lugging large fish in from the hunt, or sitting in small circles with groups of dragonets, reading from thin stone tablets.

  The only signs of the war were a few troops drilling in formation around the palace, and a group of soldiers gathered in one of the gardens, each with terrible bandaged wounds. Tsunami saw two with missing feet, one with scorched holes where his eyes should have been, and several with black scars twisting their wings or tail. Several couldn’t swim anymore, but had to be helped through the water by nurse dragons.

  As Queen Coral swam past, dragons snapped to attention, saluting or waving. She waved to each of them with a wide smile. Tsunami noticed that most of them waved to Anemone, too, and the little dragonet smiled and waved back.

  Surrounded by Council members, for once Tsunami was able to sweep by without a whole lot of staring and pointing. For a little while, at least, nobody knew who she was.

  They swam through the wide front entrance into a coral cavern sparkling with emeralds and sapphires. A statue of Queen Coral loomed in the center, her talons outstretched benevolently.

  SeaWing servants hurried in from all directions, their luminescent stripes flashing at the queen. Coral swept past them all and charged down a tunnel at the back of the hall. Some of the Council broke away to swim to other parts of the palace, but Moray and Whirlpool stayed with the queen, and so did Tsunami.

  The tunnel curved down and around in a spiral, getting warmer and warmer as they descended. Tsunami felt warm jets of water bubbling up through the coral under her talons. At the bottom was a stone door, and in front of the door a skinny seaweed-green dragon crouched, gobbling something hungrily in her claws.

  Her eyes went wide when she saw the queen, and she dropped her octopus with a shriek. The remains floated up to the ceiling as she flapped her talons in a panic, flashing her stripes so fast she looked like a lightning storm gone mad.

  Queen Coral roared and threw the door open, smacking the green dragon back against the wall. The queen shot inside, towing Anemone behind her.

  This is where I should have hatched, Tsunami thought with a rush of confused excitement. She swam through the doorway and gazed around. The Royal Hatchery.

  The warm jets bubbled along every wall, heating the room, which was shaped like the inside of a large, pale egg. A SeaWing dragon carved from dark green marble stood in the center of the room; garlands of blue and purple underwater plants were woven through her horns and along her wings. The base of the statue said ORCA. She looked tough and beautiful at the same time. Tsunami wondered if Queen Coral’s first daughter had carved her own self-portrait, and if she’d known it would be a memorial one day.

  She glanced around and caught the hateful look Moray shot at the statue. Maybe all her fawning over the queen is for real, Tsunami realized. Maybe she actually means it when she goes on and on about how wonderful Queen Coral is.

  Maybe she would even do anything to protect Coral from her daughters.

  Nests made of seaweed were tucked into niches in the floor, with wide pathways stretching between them. Dragon eggs took a year to hatch, so there should have been clutches at different stages, from newly laid to nearly hatched. But there were no new eggs to be seen. Because Gill has been gone, Tsunami thought with a stab of guilt. And he’s not coming back.

  One clutch of three eggs was tucked against a wall, and in the nest farthest from the door, there were two eggs . . .

  Queen Coral hurried to the f
ar nest and roared again, a howl of fury and despair that reverberated through the water. She sank down beside the nest and picked up a piece of broken eggshell.

  Oh, no. Tsunami started forward, but Moray pushed past her and knelt beside the queen, leaning against her side. Anemone glanced back at Tsunami, looking sick.

  One of the eggs was still intact, but the other was smashed. The little blue dragonet inside had been strangled to death. Her neck was twisted in a horrible way, and her head flopped sadly as Queen Coral gently picked her up.

  Tsunami stared at the body in shock. It — she — was so tiny. Who would do this to a baby dragonet? How could anyone?

  TO MY SISTER.

  She felt Anemone’s cold talons slip into hers, and she squeezed them tightly. Whoever it was wanted to do this to Anemone as well. This was why the queen insisted on the harness and protected her daughter in such an extreme way. Seeing the broken body of the hatchling, Tsunami felt nearly crazy enough to do the same.

  No one would ever, ever hurt Anemone, not while Tsunami was around. And whatever she had to do to protect that other egg, she would.

  Queen Coral rose to her feet, knocking Moray aside. She shot back across the cave to the door, but the skinny green dragon was gone. Anemone yelped a stream of bubbles as the queen blasted up the tunnel with her in tow.

  Tsunami started after them, then turned and looked down at the last egg. Moray had already followed Coral. Whirlpool was hovering uselessly in the doorway. If Tsunami went after Coral as well, who would be left to guard the egg?

  But no one can get in except through that door, she thought, staring around. That door from that tunnel. So how did someone get past Tortoise?

  She turned in a circle, staring at the smooth walls. Come to think of it . . . how did Webs get in here to steal my egg? Surely there had been guards back then, too. Surely the queen had tried to protect her eggs, even six years ago. Webs couldn’t have fought past them alone. So how did he get in?

  Tsunami narrowed her eyes at the nests and the stone dragon. A secret entrance. There must be.

  Well, one thing was for sure. She wasn’t leaving this egg alone in here.

  She crouched beside the nest and gently lifted up the last intact egg. It was surprisingly heavy — or perhaps not that surprising, considering a baby dragonet was supposed to pop out of it in a day or two. Cradling the egg to her chest, Tsunami swam out the door of the cave.

  Whirlpool flashed a whole lot of stripes at her, waving his talons indignantly and pointing at the egg.

  Tsunami gave him a wide-eyed, puzzled expression. Maybe you should have taught me some real Aquatic, sea slug. Then you could yell at me all you want, she thought.

  He lit up his scales again. With a friendly smile, Tsunami lit up the same patterns back at him, then added squid-brain with her tail stripes, like Riptide had taught her. She swam away up the tunnel, leaving him gaping in surprise behind her.

  As she swam up and around, she started to hear shrieks of pain echoing through the water. She hesitated, then beat her wings faster.

  In the main entrance hall, Queen Coral had Tortoise pinned under her talons. A crowd of SeaWings had gathered, watching in silence.

  The skinny green dragon was shrieking in one long, high-pitched scream. Tsunami stopped and pressed herself back against the wall, horrified. Queen Coral had already yanked out each of Tortoise’s teeth one by one. They rose through the water, tiny and white, toward the roof. Now Coral had her claws stabbed into Tortoise’s exposed underbelly. Clouds of blood filled the water, nearly hiding the queen and Tortoise in a red haze.

  Would I have to do that, if I were queen?

  Could I ever, ever do that?

  Anemone had rolled herself into a ball, floating in the water above her mother with her eyes tightly shut and her talons over her ears.

  Queen Coral’s scales lit up in a slow, menacing way. Tsunami didn’t understand most of it, but she guessed Tortoise was hearing about how she’d failed the queen.

  Tortoise’s stripes flashed weakly.

  The queen snarled and twisted her claws harder into Tortoise’s underbelly. Tortoise gurgled up a bubble of blood. Her stripes flashed again, and then, as her head began to loll sideways, she spotted someone in the crowd around them. She clutched at the queen’s talons and pointed, her stripes flashing frantically.

  She was pointing straight at Shark.

  He stared back, unblinking as always.

  Queen Coral leaned down, pressing Tortoise into the floor. One more message flared through her scales, and then she seized Tortoise’s head in her talons and smashed it against the rough coral floor.

  Tsunami turned away just in time, huddling around the egg with her eyes closed. She didn’t care if she looked like a one-year-old dragonet, hiding her face. She did not want that image in her head for the rest of her life.

  What was Tortoise saying about Shark?

  Whatever it was hadn’t convinced Queen Coral, anyhow.

  Tsunami kept her eyes closed until she felt the eddies from other dragons swimming away. She peeked around and saw Moray busily cleaning up the blood and bone fragments that were floating around the main hall.

  GROOOOOOOSS, Tsunami thought. Moray must really adore Coral to be willing to do that.

  Tortoise’s body was hooked on an outcropping of coral by the front door, like a used-up deer carcass waiting to be taken to the trash heap after dinner. Queen Coral loomed over Shark, clutching Anemone to her chest and exchanging a heated luminescent conversation with her brother. All the other SeaWings had scattered to faraway parts of the palace.

  Tsunami started toward her mother, but stopped as a strange shape flashed by one of the windows. What the — that wasn’t a dragon. She swam a bit closer and peered out.

  Sharks — actual, dead-eyed sharks with enormous jagged teeth — were swarming around the front entrance, sniffing at the blood that still leaked from Tortoise’s body. They were bigger than Tsunami had expected — big enough to eat a dragonet the size of Anemone, she guessed — but even as she watched, two SeaWing guards darted down and killed five of them with a few blows of their tails.

  She turned back and saw Whirlpool swimming up to Queen Coral. He interrupted her conversation, waving his talons furiously and pointing at Tsunami.

  Uh-oh. Tsunami took a deep breath and held the eggshell closer. Well, I’m not giving this up.

  Queen Coral swam over with a half frown on her face. She pointed to the egg and gestured commandingly for Tsunami to give it to her.

  Tsunami flashed her stripes in one of the few patterns she knew. I will protect. She wasn’t sure how to say it. She pointed at the egg. I will protect.

  The queen blinked. She lit up a few of her stripes, including one pattern on her snout that Tsunami recognized as how.

  Tsunami shook her head. She didn’t have enough Aquatic to answer that. I will protect, she said again.

  She spotted the eyes of several SeaWings peering around doorways at her. Most of them looked shocked and disbelieving. She saw her sister glance from Tsunami to the crumpled remains of Tortoise, then back again. Anemone’s face was pale and anxious.

  Oh.

  Tsunami realized what they were seeing. She was putting herself in Tortoise’s place. She was taking the job nobody wanted. She hadn’t even thought of it that way.

  Which meant, if she failed . . . she might be punished the same way, too.

  Queen Coral tried flashing some more questions at Tsunami, but finally she flapped her wings and pointed to the surface. Tsunami pressed the egg to her chest and followed her mother, up and up and up through winding tunnels and cavernous palace rooms, through emerald-studded coral and pearl-laced curtains of golden sea grass. They swam to the top of the palace, where a guard stood watch over a view for miles underwater.

  He saluted to the queen, and she swam up past him toward the gray light overhead, where raindrops pelted the surface of the water. Anemone paddled in her wake, glowing like a pale b
lue pearl in the dark sea.

  They emerged into a storm so fierce, it almost felt like they hadn’t left the water at all. Tsunami faltered in the air as wind and rain tried to sweep her back into the ocean. The egg was slippery in her talons. Don’t you dare drop it, she hissed to herself.

  “This way,” shouted the queen, banking toward the nearest island. A large cave yawned open onto the beach. Rough, dirty, and muddy, it was still the driest spot they could see. The three of them huddled into its shelter.

  “What do you think you’re doing?” the queen demanded as soon as Tsunami’s claws touched the ground.

  “Someone has to protect this egg,” Tsunami said. “It’s not safe in the hatchery.”

  “It’ll be safe in the hatchery if I put all my guards on it,” Queen Coral fumed.

  Tsunami shook her head. “Haven’t you tried that before? Has it ever worked?” She paused and glanced at her sister. “What did you do for Anemone?”

  The queen shook out her wings. “I slept by the egg myself, for the entire year,” she said.

  “You did?” Anemone said. Rain dripped off her tiny pale wings into puddles around her feet.

  “I barely left the hatchery. I let Gill run the war for me, but — that’s how I lost him.” Coral’s voice caught and she frowned. “I can’t ne glect my duties as queen, now that he’s gone.”

  “So let me do this,” Tsunami said. “Let me protect this egg.”

  “But you have to stay in the hatchery,” the queen insisted. “It must be kept warm, especially right before hatching.”

  Tsunami glanced down at the egg. She didn’t trust the hatchery. Anyone could sneak in to attack both Tsunami and the egg, especially if there was a secret entrance. Besides, she couldn’t stay in the Deep Palace; she had to go back and check on her friends. “I have a better idea,” she said. “Trust me. I’ll take it back to the Summer Palace.”

  “The Summer Palace!” The queen flared her wings. “No, you don’t want to do that in this weather. It gets terribly flooded there during a storm. Better to wait out the rain here at the Deep Palace, where you’ll hardly notice it’s happening.”

 
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