Darkstalker, p.15
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       Darkstalker, p.15

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “Nosy mind-snooper,” Arctic growled at him.

  “You’ll see,” Foeslayer said patiently, brushing her wing against Darkstalker’s. “Whiteout, be good while we’re gone.”

  “No wild parties,” Darkstalker joked.

  “You’re the one going into the wild,” Whiteout answered from her spot by the fireplace without looking up from her scroll.

  “Oh,” said Foeslayer. “All right, then.”

  Whiteout generally was not included in the invitations. Various excuses had been given, but the truth was, the queen still wasn’t entirely comfortable with such an obvious hybrid roaming around her court. She never said so out loud, but Darkstalker could see it in the thoughts Queen Vigilance tried to shield from him. He’d be more offended on his sister’s behalf, but he knew she would hate the stilted formality of palace functions anyway.

  “Let’s go,” snapped Arctic impatiently. “Come on, come on.”

  It was a short flight to the palace, which was lit up from end to end, firelight blazing in nearly every window. There was no prisoner in the display cage, perhaps so it wouldn’t scare their visitors. A light drizzle had started to fall, misting them each with wet sparkles and steam as they proceeded from the landing ledge into the grand ballroom.

  “Prince Arctic, Foeslayer, and their son, Darkstalker,” announced the dragon at the head of the staircase. Darkstalker always enjoyed hearing his father’s inner turmoil that he was no longer proclaimed as “Prince Arctic of the IceWings” — although really, he should be grateful to still have any royal title at all.

  Heads turned in their direction all across the room, which was decorated for the evening in swathes of blue and green fabric. Small rock pools had been set into the floor and tiny waterfalls cascaded in the corners. The banquet table smelled more like fish and shrimp and seaweed than normal.

  There were special lessons at school for mind readers, teaching them how to survive in crowds without getting overwhelmed. Darkstalker, fortunately, had learned quickly how to melt everyone’s voices into the background. He knew most of these dragons were too boring to listen to anyway.

  “Hello, dear,” said Queen Vigilance, sweeping up to capture Darkstalker’s attention as soon as he reached the bottom of the stairs. She wore an ostentatious crown and her wings were loaded with an unnecessary amount of diamonds. She was considered to be one of the shrewdest queens in recent NightWing history, and she certainly did a superb job of intimidating her daughters, such that none of them had mustered the courage to challenge her yet.

  But Darkstalker had been inside her mind. He knew that a lot of her apparent menace came from one trick: the fact that she spoke very little, allowing the dragons around her to fill in all the gaps with their own nervous chatter. She was also deeply paranoid, often killing off perceived threats long before they were actually dangerous. That might seem shrewd to outside observers, but Darkstalker thought it was a sign of her own anxiety and shortsightedness.

  “Your Majesty,” Arctic interjected before Darkstalker could speak. “You look radiant and regal, as always.”

  “Hmm,” said the queen, touching her crown. Darkstalker wondered how his father had never noticed that she wasn’t susceptible to flattery. Vigilance found compliments highly suspicious. Arctic’s remark just made her think: What does this slippery IceWing want now?

  “Is this the new Tunesmith composition?” Darkstalker asked, deflecting her attention. He tipped his head toward the musicians playing on a stage at the end of the room.

  “It is,” said Vigilance, pleased.

  “She’s so talented,” Foeslayer said.

  Our composer laureate could sneeze out a better song than this, Arctic thought bitterly. “Any news of the war?” he said to the queen.

  She narrowed her eyes at him, just a tiny bit. In her mind: It could be over by now if you would be the slightest bit helpful. Her gaze stopped briefly on Darkstalker and he heard her wonder if he’d be of more use than his father.

  “Nothing new,” she said aloud.

  Queen Vigilance left one of her usual momentary silences after this remark, and Foeslayer was the first to rush in and fill it. Poor Mother, thought Darkstalker, exactly the kind of nervous dragon the queen loves to trifle with. He’d have to find a subtle way to make Vigilance pay for making his mother so uncomfortable.

  “A very successful battle last week, though,” Foeslayer said. “We drove the IceWings back and took a lot of desert territory, with very few casualties. And our air defense team is unbeatable. It’s such an honor to be working with them. No IceWings will ever get into the Night Kingdom with them on watch.”

  Well, thought several minds at once, except for the one who’s already here.

  Arctic allowed himself a small, grim smile as Foeslayer fidgeted with her claws.

  “Hmm,” said the queen again. She turned to Darkstalker. “Come meet someone.” His parents started to follow them and she gestured to stop them in their tracks. “Not you.”

  Foeslayer was all relief and eagerness to get to the food, but small geysers of resentment were going off inside Arctic as Darkstalker walked away with the queen.

  You won’t look so smug when the IceWings do get into your kingdom.

  Darkstalker turned to look back, wondering if he’d heard his father’s last thought correctly. But Arctic had vanished into the crowd, his mind just another part of the commotion coming from all the other dragons in the room.

  It didn’t matter. Arctic had bitter thoughts about the downfall of the NightWing tribe all the time, but none of those thoughts had ever led to action. Darkstalker was confident he didn’t need to worry about his father’s treacherous fantasies — not for a while, at least, according to Clearsight.

  The queen led him to a roped-off area with low purple couches and tables of sparkling drinks. Four SeaWings stood awkwardly inside, looking more trapped than honored. Two of the queen’s sons were making small talk with them, and one of her councilors had taken over a couch as though she’d given up.

  “Prince Fathom of the SeaWings,” said the queen, indicating a green dragon only about a year older than Darkstalker. He had an oddly anxious aura, as if he were gripping the floor with his claws in order to avoid being blown away. “This is Darkstalker.”

  The other animus, Fathom thought with a jolt of fear. He took an unconscious step closer to the dragon beside him, whose scales were a deep blue that was almost purple. She looked outwardly calmer than he did, but her heart was racing as fast as his and terrifying images were flashing through her head. Neither of them even seemed affected by the spell his earring cast; they were too busy being scared to find him handsome.

  Darkstalker realized several things at once.

  Fathom was an animus as well.

  Fathom had been in many of Darkstalker’s visions of the future.

  Fathom was here for him.

  And: both of these dragons had witnessed the massacre when the SeaWing animus turned violent … at a party very much like this one.

  No wonder they were terrified — a party plus an unfamiliar animus, where they were the guests, much like those SkyWings who’d been attacked.

  Darkstalker checked Queen Vigilance’s brain, but he didn’t find any intentional malice there. She wasn’t trying to traumatize the SeaWings. She just hadn’t thought about the effect this particular welcome might have.

  “Hello,” Fathom said, trying to summon years of etiquette lessons. “V-very pleased to meet you. This is — these are my guards, Wharf and Lionfish … and Indigo.”

  She’s not just a guard, Darkstalker guessed, but she held herself like one, strong and serious-looking. The other two were background noise, irrelevant to Darkstalker’s future.

  “I’m honored to meet you, too,” he said. I have to get this poor SeaWing out of here. “Has anyone shown you the view from the Royal Tower yet? May I?” He turned to the queen. “I know you have many duties with your guests, Your Majesty.” He would have preferred
to separate Fathom from the others, but he could sense that Indigo would never let that happen. “I’ll take Fathom and Indigo for a short flight and we’ll be back soon.”

  The queen, unsurprisingly, found this highly suspicious, but she couldn’t think of any way to stop it without offending the SeaWings. “Of course,” she said. She pointed one claw at Darkstalker. “Soon, though.”

  “Yes, Your Majesty.” He bowed and spread one wing to point the way out of the ballroom, ignoring the tumult of worries inside both SeaWings. Should we insist on bringing the other two guards? Indigo wondered, while Fathom thought, Is he taking us away to kill us?

  Calm DOWN, jittery SeaWings, Darkstalker thought with an internal eye roll. I’m trying to help you.

  The closest exit led from the ballroom down to one of the hanging gardens. The noise of the party faded behind them as the three dragons flew through the ancient trees, where moss and vines hung down from the branches like shrouded wings. Mirrors set up throughout the gardens captured and reflected the silvery light of the three moons. The rain had stopped, but everything still glistened and wet leaves fluttered damply at their scales.

  Darkstalker landed on a small island in one of the dragon-made lakes. The moonlight was bright here, pouring down over the columns of a temple that had been built to honor the first librarians of the Night Kingdom. We give thanks to those who gathered the scrolls, who preserved the knowledge of previous generations, and so on and so on.

  “This doesn’t look like a tower,” Fathom said, landing but keeping his wings spread. Indigo swooped around the island once and then started pacing out every inch of it, checking all the dark corners. Keeping up her conscientious bodyguard act, when Darkstalker could see that what she really wanted to do was put her wings around Fathom and take him far, far away from here.

  “I’m giving you the grand tour,” Darkstalker said to Fathom. “Well, actually, I’m just trying to save you from that awful party.”

  “Oh,” Fathom said, flustered. “It’s not — I mean, it’s very nice of the queen to — I just —”

  “It’s torture,” said Darkstalker wryly. “I mean, it’s torture for me, and I’ve never had my whole family killed in front of me at a party like that.”

  Indigo stopped and stared at him. Fathom’s gaze dropped to his talons.

  “Oh, nobody talks about it in the Kingdom of the Sea?” Darkstalker guessed. “All right, I won’t if you don’t want to. But if you were sent here to be my friend, then you don’t have to suffer through all that diplomatic tedium — especially with the bonus post-traumatic stress.”

  “You know why I’m here?” Fathom said.

  “Because we’re both animuses,” Darkstalker answered. “Animi? Huh, I’m not sure. That one doesn’t come up very often.”

  There was a soft click, and Darkstalker realized that Indigo suddenly held two dangerously sharp throwing stars in her talons.

  “Indigo —” Fathom said anxiously.

  “He’s here,” Indigo said to Darkstalker, “to make sure you don’t turn out like his grandfather.”

  “That’ll be an easy mission,” Darkstalker said charmingly. “I’m not murderous at all. I’m entirely delightful.”

  So was Albatross, they both thought.

  Indigo and her throwing stars were not the real threat here. The danger was that these dragons might never see him for himself. If they only ever saw Albatross when they looked at him, they’d always fear him, and that might make one of them do something stupid.

  Darkstalker decided to turn the full blaze of his attention on Fathom. “Listen, if you’re worried,” he said, “why don’t you make something? A — a soul reader, you could call it. It could reassure you about who’s harmless and full of soul, like me, or who’s teetering on the edge of soulless killing rage. Liiiiiiike not me.” That was a pretty good idea, if Darkstalker said so himself. He could use one of those to keep track of Arctic’s soul, perhaps.

  But Fathom was shaking his head furiously. I can’t I can’t I can’t, his mind cried.

  “All right, settle down,” Darkstalker said, surprised. “I can make it for you.”

  “No!” Fathom yelped. “You mustn’t. You have to stop using your magic. That’s why I’m here, to help you stop.”

  Darkstalker eyed him for a moment, listening to the tornado of grief and guilt and worry that had apparently taken the place of logical thought in this dragon’s head. Should he tell Fathom about his scroll? Surely he would find it reassuring. Maybe Fathom could even make one for himself and stop worrying so much.

  On the other hand, he didn’t know Fathom at all yet. Could he be trusted with a secret that big?

  Completely, and not at all, whispered a half-formed vision of the future, which was rather unhelpful.

  Not yet, Darkstalker decided. Get to know him first.

  How am I going to do this? Fathom was thinking. I failed so badly before. How can I possibly save him, and everyone?

  “You don’t have to be this miserable,” Darkstalker said softly.

  Fathom lifted his chin, and Indigo thought sadly, I wish I could help him.

  “You went through something awful.” Darkstalker held out one talon as though he could crush the memories in his claws. “All you need to do is enchant something to make the pain bearable. Just — an earring that helps you stop thinking about it so much. An armband that lifts all the grief or stops the flashbacks.”

  Indigo’s eyes flicked to Darkstalker’s jewelry, and he heard her wonder what magic he might already be using on them. Clever dragon, he thought. I should be careful of her.

  “I have to remember,” Fathom said, looking straight into Darkstalker’s eyes. His were gray green, like miniature oceans after a storm. “I can never stop thinking about it.” Or else it could happen to me. The memories make sure I keep my vow to Pearl.

  His vow formed, word for word, in his mind, and Darkstalker repressed a sigh. What kind of animus gave up all his power forever? What kind of life could he have, always haunted by the past and ruled by fear?

  “Don’t you want to be happy?” Darkstalker asked. “I can help you with that.”

  All at once he felt cold steel pressed against his neck. Indigo was suddenly behind him, her wings pinning his, his throat on the knife’s edge. She’d moved with astonishing quickness, and Darkstalker caught a glimpse in her mind of the hours she’d spent training in the year since the massacre, making herself stronger and faster so no dragon could ever hurt her or Fathom ever again.

  “Indigo, don’t!” Fathom froze, his eyes fixed on the blade at Darkstalker’s neck.

  “He’s too dangerous,” Indigo cried. “He’s already trying to mess with your head, can’t you tell? This isn’t safe, Fathom. I should kill him right now, to protect everyone.” To protect you, her mind confessed.

  Darkstalker raised his tail quietly. One touch from his silver tail band, and she would be dead. It wasn’t quite as secure as having all his animus power in his talons, at his disposal whenever he needed it. But he was sure he could kill her before she killed him.

  First, though, he wanted to see Fathom’s reaction.

  “No, Indigo, we can’t,” Fathom said. “He’s not Albatross — he hasn’t hurt anyone.” Yet, chimed in their minds. “And killing him could start a war with the NightWings.”

  “Or maybe save them,” she pointed out. “Maybe save all of Pyrrhia.”

  “But I want to know him,” Fathom said. “He doesn’t seem dangerous.” He seems like … he seems like he could be a friend, the SeaWing thought wistfully. The earring must be working on him — along with Darkstalker’s natural charm, of course.

  “That could be a trick — he could be using a spell on us right now,” said Indigo. “Maybe he’s planning to kill us later.”

  No, just you, Darkstalker thought pleasantly.

  “And I bet he’s a mind reader,” she added, pressing the blade a little harder against his throat. “Are you a mind reader? Don’t lie to u

  Darkstalker flicked his tail a hair closer to her. “I am,” he said. “That’s not a secret. Any NightWing with silver teardrop scales by their eyes is a mind reader — I’m certainly not the only one in the tribe.”

  “An animus who can read our minds!” Indigo said to Fathom, her thoughts flaring with alarm. If Albatross had been able to do that, we’d both be dead. “Fathom, this could be our only chance to take out the most dangerous dragon in Pyrrhia.”

  “Indigo,” Fathom said sadly. “Think for a moment. Isn’t this what our tribe wants to do to me?”

  Hmmm. Interesting. Fathom was smarter than he looked — or he knew exactly what to say to this dragon, at least. Indigo’s thoughts hit a wall of sympathy and she hesitated, struggling against it.

  Darkstalker took the moment to check the immediate possible futures. Indigo killing him — pretty unlikely. Him killing her — easy enough. But, wow, it would destroy Fathom. Oooh, all kinds of terrible things might come from that decision. A heartbroken animus with nothing left to lose would be pretty hazardous company.

  I have to let her live — for now — and let her think she could have killed me, he realized. That will make Fathom trust me even more.

  But if I want him to really trust me, for the sake of our future friendship, I’ll have to get rid of her somehow. Some clever way that he won’t suspect.

  Otherwise he’ll always be worrying about what she thinks of him. It’s her eyes on him that make him so afraid of his magic. He’d be much happier and less worried without her around.

  As would I, frankly. I don’t particularly like dragons who point sharp things at me.

  “All right,” Indigo said finally. She stepped back, still holding the stars poised in her talons. “I hope you’re right about this, Fathom.”

  “Please don’t be mad,” Fathom said to Darkstalker. “She’s trying to protect me. It’s her job.”

  A small flicker of pain from Indigo. It was so much, much more than her job.

  “I completely understand,” Darkstalker said, rubbing his neck. “I’m not mad at all.”

  If he was, Fathom thought, he could use his power on us right now. He could have used it to escape from her. Maybe he really can be trusted, after all.

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