The dragonet prophecy, p.12
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       The Dragonet Prophecy, p.12

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  The next morning, three blood-red SkyWing guards arrived to unchain Clay.

  “What’s happening?” Clay asked nervously as they unclipped the wires around his legs. He’d gotten used to the feeling that something would catch him if he fell, even if it would probably hurt.

  “Private audience with the queen,” sniffed one.

  “Is that a good thing?” Clay asked. “Or a bad thing? I’ve never been a prisoner before. Unless, technically, maybe I sort of was, but not like this. This is a lot … windier. Plus there’s the queen, that’s new. Does she normally meet with prisoners? Maybe right before letting them go?”

  “Shut up,” snapped the guard who had answered him before.

  “Right, yes,” Clay said. “Only I was wondering about the other dragonets who were with me and if I could maybe see them —”

  One of the guards tightened the wire around his neck and hissed, “Another word and there’s going to be an unfortunate accident on the way down to the throne room.”

  Clay glanced over the edge and shut his mouth firmly. So far, it seemed to him that most SkyWings were just as grumpy as Kestrel.

  With a start, he realized he’d forgotten to worry about Kestrel. The queen had talked to her as if they once knew each other. He craned his neck, looking for her among the prisoners, as the guards flew him down to the arena. But none of the red or orange SkyWings on the spires were quite the right color or size.

  He noticed with a shiver of fear that Starflight’s perch was empty. He must have been taken away while Clay was sleeping — but why?

  As they reached the sandy ground, Clay twisted to look up at Tsunami and saw three more SkyWings surrounding her. They were having a hard time getting close; she lashed and fought and swung her powerful tail at them in a fury.

  Oops, Clay thought. Should I have done that? He hadn’t struggled with the guards at all. He glanced around the arena, wondering if he should try to run now. But his wings were still clamped, and there was only one doorway out of the arena. Since the guards were already dragging him toward it, it seemed a little pointless to break free and then run exactly where they were going anyway.

  So he let them lead him into the smoky tunnel, lit with flaming torches and an occasional skylight cut through the rock overhead. The tunnel was wide enough for three dragons to walk side by side, wings spread. It sloped upward through the mountain, into the palace Clay had seen from his prison perch.

  At one point they passed a large cave with tall narrow windows cut into the walls, casting bars of sunlight on the stone floor. A pool of water separated the cave from the tunnel. On one wall hung a full-length portrait of Queen Scarlet, staring majestically down her nose. Clay spotted the glint of a few copper scales on the floor and wondered if it was Peril’s room. There was nothing else in the cave. It occurred to him that she probably couldn’t sleep on animal skins or read scrolls because her touch would burn right through them.

  But if fighting was all she was good for, why hadn’t the queen sent Peril out into the war? Why was she kept here for gladiator fights instead?

  Perhaps Queen Scarlet didn’t completely trust the hold she had on Peril. If she were let loose into the world, Peril might realize she didn’t have to be a killer … or she might decide to kill anyone she liked, without waiting for the queen’s permission.

  Soon Clay heard clattering and clanking and chattering up ahead, as if a crowd of dragons were busily hurrying about. Then the passageway opened out into a vast hall and he saw that was exactly what he was hearing.

  He was standing on a wide balcony with no railing, two levels up from the ground floor. The balcony ran all the way around the hall in a large square, and above it Clay could see five more levels of balconies, and above that, the open sky. Dragons were hurrying everywhere, glowing in the light. Large windows were cut into the walls all the way up, so the hall was flooded with sunshine. The floors blazed as if little rivers of fire ran through them.

  When Clay looked more closely, he saw a design of talon prints, inlaid with gold, running through the stone under his talons. Gold veins were carved into the walls as well, some of them branching into flames or tracing shapes like clouds in the rock.

  Clay remembered that the queen must be very wealthy. This showed how powerful she was as well. Even with all this gold at their claw tips, no dragon dared to dig it out and steal it.

  The guards shoved him in the direction where the gold talon prints led. Clay followed the trail, gazing at the dragons bustling around the hall. SkyWings flew from level to level, hopping across the great space and dodging wings and tails as they went. Some of them exchanged small message scrolls in midair; others were carrying buckets of water or clean animal skins or platters of food. Everyone seemed either very busy or as if they were trying to look very busy.

  Clay saw one young orange dragonet winging up to the highest level with a bucket of soapy water clutched in her talons. As she reached the top balcony, her tail tangled with another dragon’s and she overbalanced. She lunged for the ledge and dropped the bucket, which plummeted all the way down, whooshing past Clay and the guards.

  A moment later, there was a clang and then a furious roar briefly silenced the hubbub. All the dragons in the hall glanced down.

  A furious and familiar roar.

  Clay darted to the edge of the balcony and looked down. At the bottom of the hall, under a metal grid, a dragon was trapped like a pinned squirrel. The bucket was rolling across the iron bars. All the suds and water had spilled out over the prisoner.

  It was Kestrel. She seized the bars and rattled them angrily as a murmur of laughter rippled around the hall.

  Clay didn’t get a chance to see anything more. The guards yanked him back and shoved him along the talon-print trail again.

  He wondered if that was a special cell for particularly bad prisoners and, if so, what Kestrel had done to deserve it. She’d never talked about her life before the Talons of Peace or why she’d left the SkyWing kingdom. He’d always kind of imagined that she’d been kicked out for being too grouchy. Although now he guessed that would have made her fit right in.

  He stopped thinking about Kestrel as the guards pushed him into Queen Scarlet’s throne room.

  The queen was seated on top of a rock column carved in the shape of clouds, staring down at the dragons on the floor below her. The wall opposite her was entirely open to the sky, revealing a steep drop and jagged rocks below. The gold tracery in the rocks and floor went over the top in here, as if a giant dragon had stumbled around the room vomiting gold all over the place. Clay could barely see at first through the blaze of reflected sunshine.

  Then his eyes adjusted and he spotted Glory, laid out along her tree in the sunlight. She had her eyes closed and looked more relaxed than he’d ever seen her. A slow pulse of crimson teardrops wandered through her dark gold and navy-blue scales. Two SkyWing soldiers stood threateningly in front of her, barring Clay’s way.

  Starflight was kneeling before the queen in a submissive bow. Clay broke away from his guards to crouch beside his friend.

  “Are you all right?” he whispered. Starflight glanced up at the queen and gave a tiny shake of his head.

  “The NightWing is trying to tell you that it’s rude to talk to anyone else before the queen in her own throne room,” said Queen Scarlet. “First you bow to me, and then you stay put until I’m ready to address you all. Really, what are they teaching dragonets these days? It’s so very disrespectful.”

  “Sorry,” Clay mumbled, trying to match the bowing position Starflight was in. Somehow his talons didn’t fold in quite the same elegant way. His wings felt like they were sticking out at weird angles. He peeked under one arm at Glory and nearly fell on his head.

  Queen Scarlet arched her ruby-encrusted eyebrows at him and sniffed disapprovingly.

  Clay tried to sta
y as still as he could.

  An eternity passed. There were no other dragons in the throne room besides the guards around Glory and the three at the door who had brought Clay. There was no sign of Sunny anywhere.

  Queen Scarlet studied each of her claws, one by one. Now and then she sharpened them on the rocks beside her.

  Finally they heard a commotion in the tunnel outside. Clay couldn’t help looking over his shoulder when he recognized Tsunami’s voice shouting curses. A whole pack of SkyWings came in dragging the SeaWing dragonet. She had several of the strange wires wrapped around her, binding her talons to her side and trapping her powerful tail. Her head whipped around, snapping at each of them, so they were having trouble moving her more than a few steps at a time.

  At last they rolled her alongside Clay, and all the guards jumped back. Clay saw with satisfaction that more than one guard had long scratches and bite marks that looked like Tsunami’s work.

  “Well, hello,” the queen said, looking amused. “We’ve been waiting for you. I gather you’re enjoying your stay?”

  “This is an outrage,” Tsunami hissed. “How can you treat dragons this way? Especially us! We’re the —”

  “— dragonets of destiny, yes, very thrilling,” said Queen Scarlet. “I understand you’ve been underground for the last six years, so perhaps you haven’t heard: not everyone wants this war to end.”

  Starflight shifted a little on Clay’s left side, and Clay could tell he wanted to argue. But the NightWing kept silent.

  “Personally, I think the war is quite entertaining,” the queen went on. “I pick up lots of contenders for the arena from the battlefield. And it’s a terrific distraction for those dragons who might otherwise have challenged me for the throne. No one’s even tried in about eight or nine years. Saves me a lot of trouble.”

  “So it’s all right with you that hundreds of dragons have died all across the world,” Tsunami spat.

  The queen gave her a pitying look. “As if you know anything about that. Have you ever been in a real battle? Have you ever seen hundreds of dragons die? Do you know anything, really, about this war?”

  Tsunami’s mouth opened and closed a few times. “We’ve studied it,” she said fiercely. “We know it’s awful. We know innocent dragons are getting hurt.”

  “Well, it’s easy to say war is awful,” Queen Scarlet said, waving one talon. “But it’s a lot harder to solve these problems without having a war. Especially when you’re talking about dragons. Fighting comes naturally to us. You should know — you attacked me when you barely even knew me.”

  She flicked her tail forward, and Clay saw the ugly red gash in her scales. He felt queasy and guilty. Could they have done something else instead of attacking her? Would everything be different now if they’d found a peaceful way out?

  Tsunami looked flustered.

  “And who should be the next SandWing queen?” Scarlet asked. “Burn, Blister, or Blaze? I’d love to know if you’ve already decided that, from the wisdom and wide experience of your safe little underground cave.”

  “That’s not our fault,” Tsunami said. “We wanted to be out in the world.”

  Queen Scarlet looked amused again. “That’s what you think,” she said. “Hilarious. As if you’d have survived this long out here. Your minders did tell you what happened to all the other dragonets born on the brightest night, didn’t they?”

  Starflight inhaled sharply. He and Tsunami exchanged glances, but Clay didn’t understand. The guardians had never mentioned any other dragonets born on the brightest night, like they were.

  “Tsk, tsk,” Queen Scarlet said, seeing the surprise on their faces. “Well, I won’t go into details, but it was very sad.”

  “Excuse me,” Clay said. Starflight trod on his foot, trying to shut him up, but Clay jostled him away. “Ow, stop! I have a question! Excuse me, Your Majesty,” he said. “Where’s Sunny? Is she all right?”

  “Oh, the funny-looking SandWing,” Queen Scarlet said. “I think Burn will like her very much. She collects curiosities. You should see her palace. It’s quite horrifying — full of two-headed lizards and seven-toed dragon talons and stuffed scavengers with the palest skin you ever saw.” She shuddered. “That misshapen dragonet will be the perfect present for her.”

  “You can’t give Sunny to Burn!” Tsunami flared. “We have to stay together!”

  “I can do whatever I like,” Queen Scarlet said. “This is my kingdom.”

  “What about Glory?” Clay asked. “What’s wrong with her?”

  “Nothing’s wrong with her,” said the queen. “She’s quite perfect, if you ask me. A lovely accessory for my throne room.”

  “But why is she all — sleepy?” Clay asked.

  “RainWings are naturally lazy creatures,” Queen Scarlet said. “Hadn’t you noticed? But then, MudWings aren’t known for their brains.”

  Clay stared at Glory. Had her eye twitched? Was he just imagining the slight movement of her wings? Was she asleep, or was she listening? Didn’t she care what the queen said about her?

  “You have to let us go,” Tsunami said. “You can’t stop the prophecy and we’ll —”

  “Shush,” said the queen, and one of the soldiers prodded Tsunami with a long stick. “Your spunkiness is starting to bore me. Now listen. In two days, we are having a big celebration for my hatching day. I want all three of you to be thrilling and fierce in the arena for me. But I also promised my subjects that today’s fight would be exciting, so if I put one of you into it, it would be very thoughtful if you could win. So. Is the NightWing up to it? Which of you is most likely to win a battle to the death against, say, an IceWing?”

  “Me,” Clay and Tsunami both said at the same time. Starflight stared down at his talons, looking miserable.

  “Adorable,” the queen said, narrowing her eyes at them. “But seriously.”

  “Me!” Clay said. “I’m a great fighter. Put me in.” No way was he going to watch while Tsunami got slaughtered. Especially since the others would need her much more than him to have any chance of escaping this place.

  “You’re delusional,” Tsunami snapped at him. “I beat you all the time. I’m the strongest of all of us.”

  “Not all the time!” Clay said. “And a MudWing would be more exciting than just another SeaWing, wouldn’t it?” he said to the queen.

  “True,” she mused.

  “Just another SeaWing!” Tsunami raged. “How dare you? You know I’m the best fighter!”

  “I love your enthusiasm, dragonets,” the queen said, clapping her wings together. “Guards, take these two away.” She flicked her tail at Tsunami and Starflight. The SkyWings came toward them, eyeing Tsunami’s teeth unhappily.

  “As for this one . . .” Queen Scarlet pointed at Clay. Her eyes were malicious yellow slits. “Prepare him for the arena.”

  It wasn’t until Clay felt the sand under his talons and heard the roaring of the dragons in the stands that he realized he hadn’t quite thought this plan through.

  He had no idea what his fighting skills would be like against an unknown dragon. His mind went blank as the SkyWing guards dropped a hissing IceWing onto the ground opposite him. Did he know anything about IceWings?

  The sun was high in the sky, and it was much warmer in the arena than up on their prison spires. Clay could see beads of silvery liquid dripping through the IceWing’s glacier-blue scales. Above them, Queen Scarlet smirked from her balcony, with Glory sleeping serenely beside her.

  The same SkyWing announcer from the day before strutted to the center of the arena and bellowed at the crowd. “After last month’s battle with Blaze’s army, our queen’s dungeons were stuffed with IceWing prisoners of war. Only nine have survived. After two wins, I give you — Fjord of the IceWings!”

  Fjord lashed his tail and snarled at Clay.<
br />
  “And in this corner, an unusual case — a MudWing, but not one of our allies. No, this dragonet was found hiding under our mountains, protected by the Talons of Peace. Is he one of the dragonets of destiny? Not if he loses this battle!”

  A murmur of laughter rippled around the seats, but in the closest faces Clay could see expressions of uneasiness and, he thought, concern. He spotted a large MudWing in one of the balconies, frowning down at him. Try to stop this, Clay thought at him, praying hard. Do something! I’m one of you!

  But the MudWing shifted his gaze away, as if he didn’t want to watch but couldn’t afford to leave.

  The SkyWing announcer went on. “If these prophesied dragonets are as wonderful and legendary as they’re supposed to be, this should be a showdown to remember. I hope you’re prepared to impress us, dragon of the mud. I present to you … Clay of the MudWings! Claws up, teeth ready! Fight!”

  Clay blinked as the SkyWing flew out of the arena. He’d never been called “of the MudWings” before. It might have been a warmer feeling if he hadn’t been surrounded by more than two hundred dragons, including MudWings, ready to applaud his imminent death.

  He felt quite far from wonderful and legendary as the IceWing slithered toward him. This was it: kill or be killed. Time to find out if he did have a monster inside, and if it was the useful kind or the kind that would make him hate himself afterward … or both.

  Fjord’s pale blue scales were the color of sky reflected in the snow on the distant mountain peaks. His eyes were slightly darker blue and full of malice. Extra horns like a ruff of icicles stood out around his head. A long claw scratch down his neck had barely begun to heal, with dried blood still sticking to the scales around it. He hissed, darting a deep blue, forked tongue between his icicle-sharp teeth.

  “Uh, hello,” Clay said as the IceWing drew closer. “Fjord, right?”

  Fjord stopped and stared at him, still flicking his tongue in and out. He was only a head taller than Clay, but he looked a lot older and scarier.

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