The brightest night, p.12
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       The Brightest Night, p.12

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  Peril pressed her talons into the stone and sat up. She took a deep breath, exhaling smoke in a cloud around her wings. Finally she looked down at Sunny, with an expression as though she was trying to find any small part of herself in Sunny’s eyes.

  “Tell me more,” she said. Her legs trembled as if they might not keep holding her up, but she listened intently as Sunny explained about Thorn and the Outclaws.

  “All right,” she said at last, when Sunny paused for breath. “I’ll stop the battle. But then I’m setting Scarlet free, so don’t try to get in my way.”

  “But —”

  “That’s the deal,” Peril said stubbornly. “I’ve already lost one mother. Scarlet is what’s left, so she’s the best I can do.”

  Sunny curled her tail around her talons. She was very worried about this plan, but there wasn’t time to keep arguing. And what could she say? Having no mother would be better than having that mother? What did she know about it, really?

  “Thank you,” she said instead. “I trust you,” she added. She wasn’t sure she really did, but she wanted to. “I know you can do it without hurting anyone.”

  “Um,” Camel said unhappily from above them. “I really think I shouldn’t let this happen.”

  “You can’t stop her,” Sunny said to him as Peril shot into the sky. “And your job is to watch me; that’s all Smolder said. I’m not going anywhere, see? Well, except back up to the pavilion to watch. Come on.” She followed Peril up and watched the shimmering copper scales flash toward the battle outside the walls.

  From the high pavilion, Sunny could see two more corpses lying below the battle, but after a heart-stopping moment, she realized that neither one was Thorn or Six-Claws. She stared at the battle intently until she finally spotted her mother, grappling claw to claw with a soldier.

  Smolder was there, too, not far from Qibli, shouting orders and darting around the formations. He was one of the first to spot Peril as she approached. Sunny could tell because he froze very suddenly, staring in the direction of the SkyWing.

  The soldiers around him turned to see what he was looking at. Three of them took one look at Peril, shrieked, and fled into the desert, their shadows flickering rapidly across the dunes until they vanished in the direction of the Scorpion Den. Sunny guessed they had been to Burn’s palace and seen what Peril could do.

  She’d never seen what Peril could do, not to another dragon. She’d been trapped in her cage while all her friends were in the arena at the Sky Palace, so she’d missed all the fighting. But Clay had told her about it — the melting scales, the black talonprints burning into her victims, the scorched smell — and it sounded terrifying. She hoped she wasn’t about to see it now.

  Gradually the Outclaws stopped fighting, too, and fell back, until there was a wide circle of dragons around the clear space of sky where Peril hovered.

  Sunny’s sharp ears caught some of what Peril was saying to them, but not all of it. Something about taking over the fortress, something else about surrendering.

  She saw Smolder start forward as if he were going to argue with Peril. Oh, please don’t, she thought anxiously. It was strange to admit it, but she actually liked him. She definitely didn’t want him to die or get his scales melted.

  But several SandWing soldiers grabbed him and pulled him back, shaking their heads and pointing to the smoke that rose clearly from Peril’s wings.

  Thorn said something, and Peril gestured toward the stronghold. With a sort of grateful bow, Thorn flew past her, followed by all her Outclaws.

  “Hooray!” Sunny cried, flapping her wings with excitement. “Race you to the courtyard, Camel!” She leaped off the tower and soared down toward the stones where she’d first landed in the stronghold.

  Thorn had just set down and was turning to issue orders to her dragons when Sunny catapulted to a stop in front of her and threw her wings around her mother.

  “By all the snakes!” her mother yelped. “Sunny!” She lifted Sunny off her talons and spun her around. “Never mind!” she shouted at the Outclaws over Sunny’s shoulder. “Found her!”

  Sunny felt giddy and weightless, like a tent with its pegs pulled up, flying loose in a sandstorm. “You came to get me,” she said breathlessly.

  “Of course I did, beetle,” her mother said, stepping back and looking around. “Six-Claws told me everything. I spent seven years looking for you; I wasn’t about to lose you after only ten minutes of conversation.” She grinned with all her teeth. “Besides, I’ve always wanted to invade Burn’s stronghold. I take it she’s not here.”

  “Luckily,” Sunny said. “I doubt she’d have surrendered as graciously as Smolder did.”

  “We should do the tour quick before she comes back, then,” Thorn said cheerfully, as if she hadn’t been scales away from death a few moments earlier. “What do you think that is?” She put one wing over Sunny’s shoulders and steered her toward the black obelisk Sunny had noticed before.

  Their claws sank into the sand around the monument, which was white and clean as if it were swept every day. As they got closer, Sunny could read the words carved and painted in gold on the side of the pillar.

  HERE LIES

  QUEEN OASIS

  MOTHER OF QUEEN BURN

  HER BONES NOW BELONG TO THE SANDS OF TIME

  “Yikes,” Sunny said, suddenly realizing what it meant. She scrambled sideways, off the sand, pulling Thorn along with her. “Queen Oasis is buried under there! Right below us!”

  “Probably where she died,” Thorn guessed, looking up at the walls Burn had added after she took over. “This would have been right outside the original palace, where the scavengers attacked her.” She peered at the inscription again. “That’s more poetic than I would have expected from Burn. Very impressive.”

  The sound of wingbeats overhead made them both look up as the SandWing soldiers came flapping back into the courtyard. With them were Peril and Smolder, who spiraled down to land beside Thorn.

  “I’m going to be in so much trouble,” Smolder said to Sunny with a sigh. “Burn might actually kill me this time. Losing you and Scarlet in one fell swoop? That’s probably worse than anything my brothers ever did.”

  “I’m sorry,” Sunny said.

  “Sorry enough to stay our prisoner?” Smolder asked hopefully.

  “Who is this hilarious dragon?” Thorn asked her.

  “This is Smolder, Burn’s brother,” Sunny said. “Smolder, this is Thorn, my mother. She’s the leader of the Outclaws. And this is Peril.”

  Thorn half bowed again to Peril. “Our lucky angel,” she said.

  Peril nodded, looking a bit uncomfortable. Sunny guessed she wasn’t used to gratitude, and that she’d certainly never been called an angel before.

  “Perhaps I should move to the Scorpion Den,” Smolder said gloomily. “Thorn, was it? Hmmm.” He gave her a thoughtful look, as if he’d heard of her somewhere before.

  “I need to kill the dragon who betrayed me,” Thorn announced. “His name is Addax. Please produce him.”

  “Oh, no, don’t,” Sunny blurted. “I mean, don’t kill him, please. He only — he just — he had his reasons, and look, I’m all right, aren’t I?”

  Her mother tilted her head at Sunny, looking surprised and concerned. “Don’t you want to punish him? Aren’t you angry?”

  Am I? Sunny glanced at the barracks of soldiers beyond Smolder. Somewhere in there, Addax had been reunited with his family. And somewhere in there, he was probably hiding right now, knowing what might happen to him next.

  “Punishing him won’t make anything better,” Sunny said. “It’ll probably just make someone else angry and vengeful and lead to more awful things. I’m really all right. Let’s leave him and get out of here.”

  Thorn brushed Sunny’s wing with hers and nodded. “All right, if that’s what you want. Mercy is yours to grant. I have one more question for this dragon, though.” She turned to Smolder. “You’ve lived here a long time. Can you tell me i
f you have any NightWing prisoners?”

  Smolder shook his head. “No. I’m afraid my sister doesn’t keep most of her prisoners. Alive, I mean.”

  “You had one NightWing, though,” Sunny offered. “In Burn’s collection, didn’t you? The stuffed one that Scarlet destroyed?”

  “What?” Thorn said. Her wings went very still. “What do you mean, stuffed?”

  “It’s sort of a hobby for Burn,” Smolder said with an embarrassed expression. “If she finds a dragon she wants for her collection, she’ll usually kill him and stuff him herself…. I know, it sounds pretty horrible.”

  “It is horrible,” Sunny told him bluntly. “It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever heard, ever.”

  “Where?” Thorn said to Smolder in a cold voice. “Show me this murdered NightWing. Right now.”

  As Smolder led them through the labyrinth of the palace again, Sunny noticed that Peril kept her wings pressed as close to her body as she could. Afraid of setting something on fire, she guessed, feeling sorry for the SkyWing.

  “Mother,” she whispered, “why do we care about this NightWing?”

  “Hopefully we don’t,” her mother answered cryptically.

  They crossed the sandpit to the tower. The six SandWing guards jumped aside with a relieved expression when they saw Smolder.

  Sunny heard Peril take a deep breath. Time for her to face Scarlet, she realized. And us, too, since we’ll have to get past her to see the NightWing.

  They could hear Scarlet roaring as soon as they opened the door. “Who’s down there? Smolder, I hear your stupid keys clanking. If you —” She cut off abruptly and Sunny looked up. She could see yellow eyes glinting through the smoke as Scarlet peered down at them.

  The silence that followed as they wound their way up the ramp was more unsettling than the shouting. What was Scarlet thinking? What would she do when they reached her?

  The former queen of the SkyWings sat with her tail curled around her talons, glaring fiercely at them. Smolder stopped in front of her, but she ignored him, fixing her malevolent gaze on Peril instead.

  “What are you doing?” she growled.

  “Rescuing you,” Peril muttered, staying behind Sunny.

  “This is an odd way to go about it.” Scarlet swept her tail in an arc, knocking glass shards over the edge to shatter on the floor far below. “Such an interesting group of friends you’ve brought with you.”

  “Where is the NightWing?” Thorn demanded.

  Smolder pointed wordlessly at the shadowy lumps behind Scarlet.

  “Don’t go near her,” Sunny warned her mother as Thorn started forward. “She’s really dangerous.”

  “That’s true,” Scarlet hissed.

  Thorn paused, then faced the prisoner. “Show me the NightWing’s face.”

  “Looking for someone?” Scarlet said, sounding amused. “Now why would I help you?”

  “Because I’m telling you to,” Peril interjected abruptly. “Do it if you want me to get you out of here.”

  Queen Scarlet rose up on her back legs, spreading her wings so she looked majestically powerful despite her disfigurement. “It sounds to me like you’ve forgotten who your queen is,” she snarled at Peril.

  “It sounds to me like you’ve forgotten who has the scale-melting talons here,” Peril snapped back.

  Scarlet hissed and more smoke poured from her snout to envelop her horns. “Don’t you threaten me. I don’t take orders from anyone.”

  “Then you can rot here,” Peril said hotly, turning around so fast that Sunny had to jump out of the way of her tail.

  She’d only taken three steps when Scarlet cried, “Wait! Wait.”

  Peril stopped, breathing deeply, but didn’t turn around.

  “The NightWing,” Thorn said with quiet authority, pointing.

  Scarlet growled deep in her throat, then picked up something from behind her and threw it as hard as she could at Smolder.

  He caught it and then tossed it to Thorn with a yelp.

  It was the NightWing’s head.

  Thorn looked down at the dragon head in her talons with an expression of pure horror, but it quickly melted into relief. She gently set the head down on the stone and stepped back.

  “Is — is everything —?” Sunny asked.

  “A stranger,” Thorn said. “Nothing to worry about.” She rubbed her forearms. “Let’s go back to the sunshine.”

  “Peril,” Scarlet said, a low rumble in her throat. “Where are you going?”

  “I’ll be back to let you out once Sunny is far away from here,” Peril said, looking over her shoulder at the imprisoned queen. “Don’t try to argue with me. I know what you want to do to her and I won’t let you.” She set off down the ramp as fast as she could, and Sunny followed, feeling grateful and anxious in equal parts.

  “I know what you want, and it’s not going to work!” Scarlet shouted after her. “He’s never going to love you! You can keep trying to save his friends, but no one will ever love you except me! I’m the only one who accepts you the way you are! You’ll always be a monster to everyone else!”

  Peril threw the door open, leaving scorch marks on the wood, and dashed out of the tower.

  Sunny caught up to her outside, where the SkyWing was curled up small in the middle of the sand, rubbing her claws together.

  “She’s wrong,” Sunny said to Peril’s back. She hesitated, glancing back at Smolder and Thorn as Smolder relocked the tower. “Don’t let her make you hate yourself. I can’t promise you anything about Clay, but I think — I mean, if I know him at all, I can tell you the way to his heart is by helping his friends.” Although I cannot picture him with you. The kindest dragon in Pyrrhia … and someone who’s killed who knows how many dragons? How could you ever deserve him? She didn’t say any of that out loud, though. If she was being perfectly honest, she’d have to admit to herself that she’d never think anyone was worthy of Clay.

  Peril sniffed and then nodded.

  “And I don’t think you’re a monster,” Sunny added, thinking, You’ve been monstrous, but maybe you can change. I have to believe you can change. “You’re a dragon like anyone else. You can remake yourself however you want to.”

  Peril snorted. “Easy for you to say.”

  Not really, Sunny thought. My friends think they know who I am, too, no matter how much I try to show them I’m more than that.

  “You don’t have to set Scarlet free,” Sunny reminded her. “You could come with me instead.”

  Peril tossed her head, folding her wings back. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”

  Which means “I don’t want any more sympathy right now,” Sunny thought.

  She turned back toward the tower as her mother and Smolder approached.

  “I think we have something that belongs to you,” Smolder was saying to Thorn. “If you don’t mind waiting, I’ll go check Burn’s library.”

  Thorn gave him a suspicious look and he chuckled. “Or you can come along, but it’s rather a mess, is all.” He glanced at Peril. “Lots of papers everywhere.”

  “I’ll wait here,” Peril said sadly. She drew her tail in close to herself, leaving a moon-shaped swathe in the sand.

  “Lead on,” Thorn said to Smolder. Sunny joined them, and they headed into yet another twisting set of corridors, these ones lined with flickering diamond-shaped mirrors that caught the sunlight from small holes in the roof and walls.

  “Mother,” Sunny said as they walked. “What’s going on? I thought you hated NightWings. Why did you think you might care about that one?”

  Thorn stopped and waited until Smolder was far ahead, picking through his keys with a bright, brassy jingling sound.

  “I don’t hate all NightWings,” Thorn said quietly. “I mean, I’m not fond of them, and I don’t trust them, as a rule. But I’m looking for one in particular, an animus dragon named Stonemover.”

  “Because he did something to my egg?” Sunny guessed. “Is that why?”
<
br />   “Not exactly. Well, ha — I guess in a manner of speaking,” Thorn said, glancing up at the skylights with an odd half smile.

  Sunny stared at her. She had a pretty good idea what that look meant. “He isn’t,” she whispered.

  “You wondered why you don’t look like a regular SandWing,” Thorn said.

  “So it’s because —” Sunny’s claws trembled with shock. Of all the theories she’d ever imagined … yes, this one had crossed her mind, but of all the tribes she’d wondered about, never this one, never, never this one.

  “Yes, Sunny,” said Thorn, her voice falling like drops of water into the stillness between them. “It’s because you’re half NightWing.”

  “But the NightWings are awful!” Sunny cried. “I don’t want to be anything like them!”

  “So don’t be,” her mother said. She started walking again, and Sunny hurried to keep up. “No one’s making you be awful. And didn’t you say you’re friends with one?”

  “Starflight is different,” Sunny said.

  “So was Stonemover,” said Thorn. “At least, I thought so. It’s been a long time.”

  Sunny’s scales seemed suddenly too large, or maybe too small. Everything felt wrong, as if she was wearing someone else’s wings. Half NightWing, by all the moons. “Please tell me about him. I want to know everything. I mean, I think I do. Do I? How did you fall in love with a NightWing, of all the tribes?”

 
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