The hidden kingdom, p.13
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       The Hidden Kingdom, p.13

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  “I did mention the part about how I don’t actually want to kill you, right?” Deathbringer said, eyeing Glory and the discs she held with a faintly amused expression. “I’m pretty sure I snuck that in there.”

  “Oh, all right,” Glory said. “I’ll just trust you then, shall I?”

  “If you let me kill her, I can let you all go,” he said. “That should give you a fair head start before they send someone else after you, especially since no one knows where you’ll go next.”

  “All of us?” Glory said. “You’re here to kill all of us?”

  “No,” he said, still smiling. “Just a couple of you.”

  “Well, that makes me feel better,” she said. “Stop looking so pleased with yourself.” She poked his neck and he tried — and failed — to look serious.

  “Which couple of us?” Sunny asked.

  “Who’s they?” Tsunami demanded at the same time. “Who sent you?”

  “The NightWings,” Starflight said bleakly. “That’s it, isn’t it? Because of what happened in the Kingdom of the Sea. Because we didn’t choose Blister.”

  “The NightWings wanted us to choose Blister?” Glory said as Tsunami whirled to stare at Starflight. “Why would they care?”

  “I don’t know,” Starflight said. “That’s all Morrowseer told me. That we had to pick Blister, and I should convince you all to agree to it.”

  “That’s so mean!” Blaze interjected, opening her eyes and looking a bit more alive. “Why should the NightWings get to decide? They’ve never even met me! I’m awesome!”

  “Oh, that’s why you were acting so weird around Blister,” Clay said to Starflight.

  Deathbringer suddenly lunged forward, faster than a striking snake, and seized Glory’s front talons. She thwacked his head as hard as she could with her wings and kicked at his underscales with her back claws.

  “Ow! Stop!” he cried. “It’s like you want me to kill you!”

  Just then the sound of wingbeats reached their ears. Glory and Deathbringer both froze and looked up at the sky.

  “Queen Glacier,” Blaze breathed with a relieved sigh. “I knew she would save me.”

  The glitter of diamond wings approaching from the north was unmistakable. The IceWings were on their way.

  Given a choice between the IceWing queen and a NightWing assassin, Glory wasn’t sure she’d actually prefer the IceWing queen. Imprisonment in the Sky Kingdom and in Queen Coral’s Summer Palace had been bad enough — if they wound up in Glacier’s dungeon, they’d probably all freeze to death by the end of the day.

  “Let me go right now,” she said to Deathbringer.

  To her immense surprise, he did. He stepped back, his talons raised to look harmless, and actually dared to smile at her.

  “Time to go,” Tsunami ordered. “They’ll be here in about two minutes.”

  “Oh, no, wait,” Blaze said. She spread her wings and waved at the incoming ice dragons. “You should meet Glacier. You’ll like her.”

  “We can’t leave Blaze here with him,” Clay said, pointing to Deathbringer.

  “That’s true,” Glory said. She narrowed her eyes at the assassin. “You have ten seconds to take off, or we’ll knock you out and leave you for the IceWings to deal with.”

  “Shouldn’t we do that anyway?” Blaze asked. “I mean, he did try to kill me. Queen Glacier will be so mad. This one time, a SkyWing flew all the way here and nearly got me while I was getting some sun and Glacier literally ripped off his wings before she killed him. It was really gross but also kind of sweet, you know, like she really cares about me.”

  Or she really cares about all the land she’ll get if you become queen, Glory thought.

  Sunny looked faintly sick. “Guess what I don’t want to see,” she said. “One dragon ripping the wings off another dragon. Not ever, thanks.”

  “All right, I’m convinced,” Deathbringer said, backing away. “But you really should have let me kill her.” He paused with his wings spread and gave Glory a cheeky grin. “So when can I see you again?”

  “Get out of here,” Glory said, glad that Jambu wasn’t there to loudly interpret the colors that were trying to shift through her scales.

  Deathbringer bolted into the sky. Blaze followed him with her eyes for a moment, then seemed to lose interest. She turned to Clay and Tsunami with a winning smile.

  “Please don’t go,” Blaze said. “Queen Glacier will be so grateful to you for saving my life. Now we can have that party I mentioned!”

  “Sorry,” Tsunami said. “We are not sticking around to become captives again.”

  “We’ll, uh — we’ll be in touch,” Clay said. “Keep applying pressure to this until a healer can look at it.”

  Blaze rallied herself to stand upright and give them all a little nod. “It was delightful to meet you,” she said. “Even if you are missing a SkyWing. And some of you are a little funny-looking. I promise you’ll be pleased if you choose me.” She waved a wing weakly in the direction of the desert. “I can offer you whatever land you want. You could each have land enough for a palace of your own!”

  “Quit giving away your territory,” Glory snapped. “I know the Kingdom of Sand is big, but life in the desert is tough, and your subjects need every oasis. And if you do become queen, you’ll need to rebuild your treasury somehow, so remember that, too.”

  “Queenly advice from a RainWing.” Blaze giggled as if the pain in her neck was making her loopy. “Now I have heard every thing.”

  Glory frowned at her, but the SandWing didn’t seem to notice.

  “Come on,” Clay said gently to Sunny, urging her up.

  Sunny held her bloodstained talons out, and Starflight jumped forward to take them between his. “You’ll feel better once we’re in the desert,” he said.

  “Don’t let them follow us,” Tsunami said to Blaze as the others took off.

  “They’ll be too busy rescuing me,” Blaze said, lying down in a graceful, melodramatic pose.

  Glory and Tsunami exchanged eye rolls and lifted into the air. The IceWings were almost upon them; they had to fly as fast as they could.

  Tsunami faltered for a moment as she went aloft.

  “Does it hurt?” Glory asked, flying close to her. “Will you make it to the passage?”

  “I’ll be fine,” Tsunami said through gritted teeth. “It’s just a cut.” After a moment, she added, “But yes, it hurts.”

  Glory stayed alongside her as they flew through the cold, pale blue sky. She glanced back several times, but saw no sign of IceWings in pursuit. No sign of a NightWing trailing them either.

  “Glory,” Tsunami said after a bit. “Can I ask you something? Why didn’t you use your venom on that assassin?”

  Glory felt a tinge of embarrassed pink creeping along her scales and fought it back until she matched the sky.

  “That wasn’t an invitation to disappear,” Tsunami said.

  “I just didn’t feel like kill ing him,” Glory answered. “I don’t want to kill any more than I have to.”

  “But he is literally on a mission to kill you,” Tsunami said. “Killing him first is kind of the definition of self-defense.”

  “Maybe,” Glory said. “I just — it didn’t feel like he was trying to kill me.”

  Tsunami shook her head. “All right, but so you know, from where I was standing, it certainly looked like it.”

  “Whatever,” Glory said. “We’ll probably never see him again. The real question is why the NightWings are getting so involved. First they try to get us to choose Blister — and then they send an assassin to kill us? Don’t they want their prophecy to come true?”

  “Maybe, like everyone else, they only want it to come true their way,” Tsunami grumbled.

  “What’s their way?” Glory wondered. “What difference does it make to them who th
e queen of the SandWings is?”

  “I have no idea,” Tsunami admitted.

  “Well, if they have something to say about this war,” Glory said, “they can come on out and fight it instead of hiding and making vague predictions every few years.”

  “And sending assassins,” Tsunami added. “Cowards.”

  It wasn’t often that Tsunami and Glory agreed about something. Glory couldn’t remember the last time they’d had a conversation this long without arguing. It wasn’t that she disliked Tsunami — she didn’t even really mind her bossiness. But she did feel like someone needed to talk back whenever Tsunami started acting like the boss of everyone, just to make sure Tsunami’s head didn’t get too big for the rest of her.

  On the other talon, Tsunami had been much better since their escape from the Kingdom of the Sea. Glory could see that she was trying to include the others more, instead of just telling them all what to do. And Tsunami never talked about her future as a queen anymore, when it used to be her favorite topic of conversation. Maybe she’d meant it when she said she didn’t belong in the Kingdom of the Sea. Maybe she’d really given up on ruling her tribe one day.

  It was dark by the time they spotted Burn’s stronghold in the distance and the semicircle of cacti they were looking for. Glory and Tsunami spiraled down to the ground and found Starflight frantically digging in the sand.

  “The hole is gone!” he cried. “It’s disappeared!”

  A bolt of green panic shot through Glory’s scales. Trapped between the IceWings and Burn, with an assassin out hunting them, was not how she wanted to spend the night.

  “It’s not gone,” Clay said firmly. “Let me dig.” He muscled Starflight aside, looked up at the cacti, and started to dig in a slightly different spot.

  “What are you doing?” Tsunami called to Sunny, who looked like she was trying to tango with a cactus up the hill.

  “You heard what Blaze said,” Sunny panted. “If we take this back, maybe we can heal Webs. Ouch!” She flinched back from the thorns, shaking her front talons.

  “We don’t need the whole cactus,” Tsunami said, amused. “Break off one of those arm things and bring that instead.”

  “That is what I’m trying to do,” Sunny said irately. Tsunami floundered up the sandy rise to help her. Glory noticed that Sunny had used sand to rub off some of the bloodstains, but there was still dark dried blood caught between her scales and talons.

  “There,” Clay said. “Found it.” He swiped some more sand away from the entrance to the tunnel.

  Starflight let out his breath. “Oh,” he said. “That must be why no one’s spotted it before. The wind covers it with new sand every day.” He edged toward the tunnel. “So . . . we can go?”

  Glory checked the sky again as Sunny and Tsunami slid back toward them with a chunk of cactus. No dragons anywhere that she could see. She nodded at the tunnel and Starflight darted gratefully inside. The others followed, one by one. Glory went last, piling up as much sand behind her as she could.

  As she came out of the tunnel into the dark forest, a ball of fur exploded from the tree above her and landed on her neck. The sloth wrapped her arms and legs around Glory’s neck and began warbling and chirruping furiously.

  “I think I’m being scolded,” Glory said to Clay. She reached up and smoothed Silver’s fur.

  “WRRRRB,” the sloth said sternly, snuggling in closer.

  Sunny dove into the stream above the waterfall, washing Blaze’s blood off her scales. Glory realized that Jambu was gone, but Mangrove was sitting beside the stream. His wings drooped as he stared into the water.

  “I assume you didn’t see any sign of the missing RainWings there,” Glory said to him.

  He shook his head. “Nothing anywhere in that fort. I slipped in when a patrol of SandWings came out. I searched the whole place.” He kicked a clump of reeds. “Useless waste of time.”

  “Probably,” Glory said, “but at least now we know.”

  “How are we going to find Orchid?” he asked.

  Glory stared at the hole in the boulder. In the dark, with only a sliver of moonlight slipping through the trees, it looked like a mouth, jaws wide open to swallow dragons whole.

  “We heard something here a couple of nights ago,” she said. “Maybe if we lie in wait we’ll catch it again.” She turned and looked at Tsunami. “All we need is someone who can see in the dark.”

  Glory shifted on her branch and sighed. The night clung to her wings like hot, sticky cobwebs. A vine of moon-colored flowers nearby filled the air with a smell like muskrats rolled in lemons. It was not pleasant.

  “You didn’t have to stay,” Tsunami whispered.

  “Yes, I did,” Glory said. “I know you. No matter what you see, you’ll leap out of this tree and attack it if you’re here by yourself.”

  “I —” Tsunami paused. “Well. I still might do that.”

  “Then at least I’ll be here to help,” Glory said, grinning in the dark.

  They crouched like that for a while, listening to the creaking, chirping sounds of the rainforest at night. Some kind of insect was desperately announcing the end of the world in a shrill whine from the top of their tree. If Glory had been able to see it, she would have eaten it in a heartbeat, just to shut it up.

  They’d spent the rest of last night and today in the RainWing village, recovering from their long flight. Sunny had squeezed the cactus juice into Webs’s wound and reported jubilantly that she thought it was working.

  The others had stayed there for tonight; Glory thought it was unlikely that they’d catch the mystery monster on their first night watching, and they looked pretty exhausted. She’d also made Mangrove promise not to follow them again, and she’d left Silver with Sunny, because the only thing they knew for sure was that the monster ate sloths.

  “What did you think of Blaze?” Tsunami asked in a whisper. “Should we choose her?”

  “I don’t know,” Glory whispered back. “I didn’t really like her. Did you?”

  “She really needed to shut up about SkyWings,” Tsunami said. Glory couldn’t agree more, but she was glad Tsunami had said it instead of her.

  “She seemed much less sinister than Burn or Blister,” Glory said. “But also completely incompetent. Is it fair to give the SandWings a totally useless queen like that? And she’s certainly not going to win the war just by us saying she should.”

  “That’s true,” Tsunami said. “She’d never survive in actual combat, especially against one of her sisters.”

  “Anyway,” Glory said. “It’s not up to me. You guys decide whatever you want. I mean, since I’m not in the prophecy anyhow, so I shouldn’t get a say.”

  “Stop talking like that or I will thump you,” Tsunami said in a loud hiss. Glory could feel her glaring even in the dark, and she felt obscurely pleased.

  “Shhh,” Glory said, flicking her tail at Tsunami’s wings. “What was that?”

  Snap.

  Both dragons froze with their heads lifted. Glory’s ears twitched.

  Snap. Sliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiither.

  “That’s it,” Glory whispered. Her heart was pounding again. She tried to squint through the darkness at the boulder, but she couldn’t see anything moving. The sounds of something large rustled through the undergrowth. It was breathing heavily, snuffling in and out like a congested rhinoceros.

  “It didn’t come out of the hole,” Tsunami whispered. “It’s on the other side of the creek, near the other tree. But I can’t — I’m not sure —” She leaned forward, trying to see under the branches.

  Suddenly another noise reached them, as if from a long way away.

  It sounded like . . . whistling.

  Glory leaned forward, listening intently. It was the dragonets song — the one she’d last heard when the prisoners were singing it in the SkyWing arena.

&
nbsp; “The dragonets are coming . . .

  They’re coming to save the day . . .

  They’re coming to fight . . . for they know what’s right . . .

  The dragonets . . .”

  Someone was whistling their song.

  “That is coming from the hole,” Tsunami whispered. She crouched to peer through the leaves.

  A dark shape appeared at the opening of the boulder. At the same time, the dragons heard thumping and crackling as the mystery creature fled back into the forest.

  Glory cursed under her breath and leaped to her feet. “Should we go after it?”

  But Tsunami had already launched herself out of the tree and flung herself at the boulder. She collided with the shape there and they both yelped with pain, rolling and grappling on the ground.

  Glory sprang after her and seized the new dragon’s tail. The three of them wrestled until Glory and Tsunami had him pinned down and Glory could sit on his chest.

  She was not particularly surprised to discover it was Deathbringer. The NightWing had sand between his claws and an unrepentant expression on his face, from what she could see in the ripples of moonlight that made it through the leaves overhead.

  “What kind of assassin stalks his prey and whistles at the same time?” Glory asked him.

  “We should kill him right now,” Tsunami hissed.

  “You scared our monster away,” Glory said, poking his snout. “So now we’re extra-mad at you.”

  “Yes, that, plus the trying to kill us,” Tsunami said.

  “What monster?” Deathbringer said, a little too innocently. Glory peered at him with growing suspicion. Did he know something?

  “Did you follow us through the tunnel?” she asked. “Or did you already know it was there?”

  “How would I know it was there?” he asked.

  “That’s what I’d like to know,” she said.

  “Let’s take him back to the village and interrogate him,” Tsunami said.

  “I don’t think that’s safe,” Glory said. “I mean, for the RainWings. Or for the others. We should keep him as far away from everyone as possible.”

 
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