Darkstalker, p.12
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       Darkstalker, p.12

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  Losing his magic and his chance to have dragonets … and worst of all, Indigo, the love of his life … that was exactly what he deserved.

  “Here comes your stalker,” said Listener with a sniff.

  “Don’t be mean,” Clearsight said. She could see Darkstalker, too, winding his way across the atrium toward them, and her heart gave a little happy jump. It was the end of the school night, the sun was coming up, and the grounds were busy with dragons coming and going. A few of them stopped Darkstalker, joking and exchanging stories, but his eyes kept stealing back to hers, and in his smile she saw that he was as thrilled to see her as she was to see him.

  “I’m just saying.” Listener tossed her head. “You could do better. There are at least two dragons in our classroom who think about you all the time.”

  “Stop,” Clearsight said, bumping her side. “If you won’t let me use my power to help you find someone, then you can’t use yours for me, either.”

  “That’s different,” Listener argued. “And I think it’s weird that I can’t read Darkstalker’s mind. How is he blocking me? I thought that was a skill nobody learned until they were at least seven.”

  “If he doesn’t want you to read his mind, you should probably respect that,” Clearsight observed. “He stays out of my head.”

  “No, he tells you he’s staying out of your head,” Listener said. “You have no way to know whether he really is.”

  That was true. Clearsight had to admit — to herself, not to her friend — that she’d worried about this. Sometimes he really seemed to know what she was thinking … but wasn’t that because he understood her so well? If he were reading her thoughts, he’d know how afraid she was all the time … and then how could he still love her?

  She knew what her line here should be; Listener was waiting for Clearsight to say, “I trust him,” like any dragon would. But Clearsight couldn’t quite say that yet, not even to reassure her friend.

  “What about you?” she asked instead. “Where’s the new dragon you’re stalking?”

  “Shh!” Listener cried, whacking Clearsight with her tail. “He’s over there,” she added in a stage whisper.

  The dragon she flicked her tail at was half a courtyard away, joking with a pair of friends. He was tall and elegantly handsome, with the aloof expression that Listener always seemed to fall for.

  “Don’t tell me anything!” Listener said quickly. “Don’t even look ahead! We’re totally destined for each other, so don’t you dare tell me we’re not!”

  “Really?” Clearsight said, trying not to see the futures where this dragon cheated on Listener and then dumped her. Oooh, she hated him already. “But — what if —”

  “No!” Listener covered her ears and closed her eyes. “I want to live my life like a normal dragon! LA LA LA LA LA.”

  “Oh, Listener,” Clearsight said with a sigh. “All right.”

  “I’m leaving now,” Listener said without opening her eyes. “Before you make a face I don’t want to see and I have to get super mad at you. Don’t talk to me until you get your face under control!” She leaped into the sky, bumped into a tree, got tangled in the branches for a minute, and finally flew away, trying to look dignified.

  “What was that about?” Darkstalker asked, materializing at her side. He often managed to time his arrival to Listener’s departure, but Clearsight tried not to worry about why they didn’t like each other. He tucked one wing around her and she leaned into him with a sigh. A green vine with heart-shaped leaves trailed over their shoulders.

  “She’s falling for the wrong guy again,” she said. “But she won’t let me stop her.”

  “Ah,” he said. “Listener’s weird insistence on a prophecy-free life.”

  “Right,” she said. He smelled like cinnamon and roasted sugar cane, remnants of his after-school cooking class.

  He made a “hmmm” noise, and she glanced up at his face. Darkstalker was trying to look serious, but his eyes were sparkling.

  “What?” she said. “Wow, you are dying to tell me something.”

  “I am,” he burst out. “I have something to show you. Can you come over? Right now?”

  “But — your parents …” she said. Everything she knew about Foeslayer and Arctic made her fairly completely terrified of them. Both from her visions and from the rumors that blew around the tribe.

  “Mother is on guard duty at the border, and Father is at the palace,” he said. “Helping interrogate the SeaWing we found yesterday, probably. They won’t be home for ages. Please? It’s pretty genius. You’ll love it. Don’t look ahead!” He poked her snout. “Let it be a surprise.”

  She already had half a guess what the surprise might be. Still, she could avoid peering at the nearest branching paths for now, for him.

  “Sure,” she said. “As long as there are also snacks.”

  Clearsight wondered if she was just imagining the murmurs behind them as she left with Darkstalker. Nobody at school knew quite yet how important the two of them were — how could they, unless they could see all the futures like she did? But it still felt as if they got more looks than other couples, and more whispers followed them when they walked the halls together.

  Maybe the extra attention was because of Darkstalker’s notorious parents. Most dragons wouldn’t say out loud that the war with the IceWings was Foeslayer and Arctic’s fault, but everyone pretty much believed that it was.

  Beside her in the sky, Darkstalker made an odd dismissive gesture with one of his wings.

  “What was that?” she asked.

  “Oh, nothing,” he said. “Just a thought.”

  My thought? she wondered. Was he listening to me?

  “Look,” he said, pointing at the palace. “Queen Vigilance has a new prisoner on display.”

  Is he trying to distract me?

  She twisted to look at the top spire of the palace, where the queen had set up a cage for special prisoners. Someone with glittering white scales hunched behind the bars, curled away from the heat of the sun.

  “That must be awful,” said Darkstalker. “Being that miserable with all your enemies staring at you.”

  “Maybe they’ll do another exchange,” Clearsight said. She was so glad her mild-mannered parents weren’t part of the queen’s army. They were safe in their quiet, low-level jobs.

  Darkstalker’s home was closer to the school than hers was, and much higher up the side of the canyon. He looked a little embarrassed as they swooped down toward it.

  “We moved up here when my father accepted his position at the palace,” he explained. “On the plus side, it’s bigger with nicer views; on the minus side, we’re closer to my grandmother, who hates all of us. But at least we have a brand-new set of nosy neighbors.”

  He waved pointedly at the snout poking out of a window below his and whoever it was withdrew in a hurry.

  “Our last neighbors had terrible luck with their window boxes,” he said with a little too much glee. “Turnips kept growing in them instead of chrysanthemums or tomatoes or pear trees. It was SO mysterious.”

  “You didn’t!” she said.

  “They deserved it,” he said as they landed outside his front door. “I haven’t decided what I’m going to do to these ones yet.”

  She shot a worried look at his back, but his excitement had taken over again and he didn’t notice. His claws unlocked the pale blue door and they slipped inside, into a sunlit room decorated with white rugs and glittering crystals. Clearsight wondered if Arctic had chosen the décor, or if Foeslayer had been trying to evoke the Ice Kingdom for him.

  It was a lot bigger than her home; she’d never been in a place this big before apart from school and the library. One entire wall was lined with scrolls tucked into little niches, and the impossibly clean kitchen had contraptions in it that she’d never seen and couldn’t imagine how to use. Her father’s idea of cooking was to set a fish on fire and then swallow a whole lemon with it.

  There was a painting over
the fireplace of the family together: Darkstalker on one side, Arctic on the other, with Foeslayer and Whiteout between them. The whole painting was done in shades of blue, from a dark midnight blue for Darkstalker’s scales to an iridescently pale blue for Arctic’s. It was an interesting effect that made them all look more related than they did in real life. They also all looked peculiarly kind around the eyes and mouth, more than most dragons ever did — and, Clearsight was fairly certain, more than Arctic could possibly really look.

  “Whiteout painted that,” Darkstalker said, noticing the direction of her gaze. “It’s from what I call her Wishful Thinking series.” He pointed to a room down a short hallway, and when Clearsight peeked into it she saw that it contained several paintings of IceWings and NightWings flying together, all in the same shades of blue as the portrait. Whiteout’s bedroom was like a miniature alternate universe of peaceful interaction between two tribes who in reality hated each other.

  There were also a few paintings of the three moons and different starscapes behind them, different constellations scattered across the skies. Clearsight wanted to go in and study them more closely, but Darkstalker was dancing around behind her, grinning his head off and nearly stepping on her tail.

  “Great kingdoms, calm down,” Clearsight said, nudging him sideways. “Did you eat a kangaroo for breakfast or what?”

  “Come see, come see.” Darkstalker darted down the hall to the room at the end and unlocked it. Clearsight glanced at the lock as she followed him in. She had never once thought of trying to put a lock on her bedroom door. She could just imagine how startled her parents would be at the idea. They never snooped in her scrolls, and she wouldn’t expect them to understand her notes about the future even if they did see them.

  On the surface, Darkstalker’s room didn’t look like a place full of secrets. His sleeping corner was marked by a pile of neatly folded blankets, purple and white. The desk held nothing but three little inkwells (black, royal blue, emerald green) and a cloth for wiping the ink off his claws. A rack of scrolls beside it was neatly labeled, and each scroll was either a school-approved text or the kind of scroll every young NightWing owned — Geography of Pyrrhia; Myths of the Lost Continent; Ten Little Scavengers (Recipes Included!); Goodnight, Moons.

  There was a locked trunk at the foot of the blankets, but instead of opening it, Darkstalker went straight to his scroll rack and slid it to the side. He stuck his claws into the gap around one of the wall stones and slowly worked it out, revealing a hidden hole containing a square of paper and a black leather case.

  “This,” he said, taking a scroll out of the black case. He turned to her, his face aglow with hope, and one of her visions clicked gently into place.

  “What’s the other piece of paper?” she asked.

  “Oh — that’s a drawing of you,” he said shyly. “I drew it before we met, from my visions, so it’s not very good. I didn’t want my father to see it or know about you … but I needed to have it, to look at. You know, to remind myself that things were going to get better.”

  She felt a twist of guilt in her chest. She’d put off their meeting for years, afraid of what it would mean, while he had waited patiently for her. He’d always had faith that one day they would be happy together.

  Why can’t I just be happy like he is? Why can’t I trust this?

  “So,” she said lightly, taking the scroll from him and unrolling it. She could see right away that it was blank. “Hmmm. You’ve decided to become a writer?”

  “Can you sense it?” he asked. He touched the edge of the scroll. “Can you guess what it is?”

  It was so light in her talons. It didn’t feel like anything much. Not like something that could change the whole future.

  She could guess, but she knew he didn’t really want her to. “Tell me,” she said.

  “I took all my animus power,” he said, “and I put it in here.”

  She blinked at him. “All — all of it?”

  “It’s not in me anymore,” he said. “Now it’s like I’m not an animus at all, so my soul is safe. Everyone’s safe. Watch.” He picked up one of his inkwells. “Inkwell, I command you to fly up and touch the ceiling.”

  A little shiver of fear ran through Clearsight’s wings — but the inkwell didn’t move. It sat innocently on Darkstalker’s palm, thoroughly uninterested in flying anywhere.

  “You gave away your power?” she said, genuinely astonished.

  “But we can still use it — it’s just somewhere else, instead of in me.” He took the scroll from her talons and unrolled the beginning of it, setting the inkwell down gently to hold it in place. He dipped the tip of his claw into the green ink and wrote on the scroll, Enchant this inkwell to fly up, touch the ceiling once, and fly back into my talons without spilling a drop, then return to normal.

  As he reached the end of the sentence, the inkwell floated up into the air, rising all the way to the stones overhead. It tapped against them once, lightly, and then drifted back down to land between Darkstalker’s claws.

  “By all the stars,” Clearsight whispered.

  “Do you see what this means?” he asked, a little anxiously. “I’ve found a way to use my animus power without losing my soul or turning evil or anything terrible happening. We can cast as many spells as we want with this scroll. But because it’s all separate from me now, it won’t affect my soul. I’ll always be me.” He touched the scroll with one claw and studied her face. “Do you like it?”

  “Can I look?” Clearsight asked him.

  He nodded, understanding what she meant. She closed her eyes and saw the spiraling paths. Yes, she’d seen visions of this scroll before. In some futures, he’d come up with it himself. Sometimes she’d suggested it and he’d agreed, with varying degrees of defensiveness. But in more than half those paths, the scroll had been made to imitate his power, not contain it.

  Although she knew it was possible, that it happened in some timelines, she had never expected Darkstalker to completely remove his animus power from his own talons.

  And it did change the future — so many futures. The paths to happiness and peace were suddenly brighter, shining with possibility. The darkest paths faded back. The timelines where his power consumed him were almost gone.

  He might still launch a coup to steal the throne; he might still be a danger to dragons she cared about.

  But right now, the Darkstalker in front of her had made an enormous sacrifice to make everyone safer. And to make her feel safer.

  He must have looked at the futures, too. He must have seen that the other versions of the scroll wouldn’t be enough — that this was the right thing to do.

  That this was the only thing he could have done to make her fully trust him.

  She opened her eyes and looked at him. His hopeful face, his emerald-ink-stained claws, his midnight-black wings that were shaking just a little bit.

  This is Darkstalker before he’s done anything terrible. This is the best version of him. The one who is safe to love.

  He gave up all his power for me.

  She threw her wings around him and hugged him so fiercely they both fell back onto his blankets.

  “I guess that means it works,” he said with a laugh, hugging her back.

  “I can’t believe you really did this,” she said, sitting up and picking up the scroll again. “What happens if the scroll gets destroyed? Is your magic gone forever?”

  “No, then it comes back to me,” he said. “But then I’d make another scroll, don’t worry.”

  “What if someone steals it?” she asked.

  He frowned. “Then they can use it the same way I could.” He sat up, too, wrinkling his snout at the scroll. “I should have enchanted it so only I can use it. That was stupid of me. If anyone else gets their claws on it — that would be pretty terrible. Maybe I should destroy it and start again.”

  “No,” she said, intercepting his reaching talon. “Then you’d have to use your magic again, and that’s more d
amage to your soul. We’ll just be really, really careful with it. Don’t let anyone else know you have it, and I promise I’ll keep it a secret, too.”

  “That was my plan anyway,” he said. He still looked worried.

  “This is a good thing,” she said. “The best thing. Believe me.”

  He thought for a moment, then smiled again. “Let’s enchant something! What should we make? Anything at all, whatever you want.”

  “Really?” she said. “Even …” She hesitated. It was kind of awful to admit that she already had something in mind; that she’d considered what she would ask for, if she ever had a chance.

  “Anything,” he said again, more firmly.

  “Could you make me something that hides my thoughts from any mind readers?” she asked.

  That was a mistake. His expression — he was so hurt, it nearly convinced her that he’d been keeping his promise all along.

  “It’s not about you,” she said quickly, and not entirely truthfully. “You know my best friend — Listener — she’s a mind reader, and so is the principal of the school. I can’t shield my mind the way you can. I’m always worried about what they might hear about the future. And now they might see something about your scroll, too. Wouldn’t it be safer if no one could listen to me?” She hesitated again. “If you want to make it about any mind readers except you, you can do that. I trust you, Darkstalker.”

  She did now, she thought so … but it was still kind of a test.

  “No, no,” he said. “I understand. You’re right, it will keep the scroll safe — and us. I can see that, too.” He took the inkwell and weighted down the scroll on his desk. “Here, I’ve been meaning to give this to you anyway.” Darkstalker pulled open one of his drawers and withdrew a bracelet made of woven copper wires, with three milky white moonstones caught in the middle.

  She shivered. I’ve seen that bracelet somewhere up ahead.

  Darkstalker rested the bracelet on the scroll, thought for a moment, and then wrote, Enchant this bracelet to shield the wearer’s thoughts from any mind readers.

 
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