The lost heir, p.16
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       The Lost Heir, p.16

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  The canopy was thick and green, with vines twisted together over centuries and leaves the size of dragon talons. Up close, Tsunami could also see small blue flowers shaped like broken eggshells shining in the small sunlit gaps.

  Something stirred the leaves. Something was crawling through the vines not far from the edge of the cliff. Something the size of a dragon.

  “A spy,” Queen Coral hissed under her breath.

  Suddenly Blister darted up into the leaves, quick as a cobra striking. She sank her talons into the hidden dragon and ripped it out of the canopy. In the same movement, she whirled and threw the dragon at Tsunami.

  Startled, Tsunami reached to catch him and found herself face-to-face with Webs.

  Webs, one of the guardians from the Talons of Peace. The traitor who had stolen her egg from the Royal Hatchery, who had never taught her the underwater language.

  She barely had time to register the terror on his face before he slammed into her, and they both crashed into the cliff wall. He flapped his wings, pulling back, and she caught her breath as she righted herself.

  “Oh,” Blister said, sounding disappointed. “It’s just a SeaWing.”

  “Not just a SeaWing.” Queen Coral seized Webs by his neck and shook him. Her green eyes were sparks of rage and triumph. “This is Webs, our tribe’s biggest traitor. I’ve been looking for him for years.”

  “Your Majesty,” Webs croaked. He scrabbled at his throat. “Please. I’ve come to beg for mercy.”

  “Mercy,” Coral hissed. “After what you did.” She shook him again, harder. “Mercy denied.” She flung him into the air and slammed her tail into the side of his head with a horrible-sounding CRACK. Webs went limp, his eyes closed, and he plummeted toward the lake below.

  “Webs!” Tsunami yelled. She knew she should hate him, too, considering the life he’d forced on her. But she found herself diving after him.

  All over the Summer Palace, SeaWings stopped to look up, gaping at the sight of a dragon falling from the sky. None of them moved to help him. Tsunami beat her wings desperately, trying to catch up. Would he die if he hit the water from such a height?

  “Clay!” she shouted. “Clay! Help!”

  Clay immediately burst out of their cave, blinking and befuddled but ready.

  “Catch him!” Tsunami shouted, pointing. Clay shot away from the cliff, banking around to intercept Webs’s body as he fell. The two dragons collided in midair, and Clay tumbled, trying to hang on to the heavier, larger dragon.

  But he slowed him down enough for Tsunami to catch up. She lifted Webs from the other side until his front half rested on Clay’s back and his back half lay across her shoulders. Carefully she and Clay struggled over to the pavilion, collapsing on the first level they could reach — the library, as it turned out.

  Webs sprawled across the black and blue talon prints, his head lolling to the side. Blood trickled out of one ear.

  “Wake up,” Tsunami said, shaking him. “Come on, you can’t die. Not before I get a chance to yell at you.”

  “Where did he come from?” Clay asked.

  Thump, thump, thump. The other three dragonets landed around them. Glory looked down her nose at Webs, dark green zigzagging through her wings. Sunny crouched beside his head. The egg was cradled underneath her, making it hard for her to get too close, but she reached out and touched his snout with one front talon.

  “Webs?” she said softly. “What are you doing here?”

  “Search the area.” Tsunami heard Queen Coral’s voice barking orders. “Make sure there are no more Talons of Peace lurking around.” She spat out the words Talons of Peace as if they tasted like rotten fish.

  Tsunami glanced up uneasily at the canopy overhead, where a dragon-sized gap now yawned in the green leaves. A bolt of sunlight shone through, and she couldn’t help but worry what else might find its way through the protective cover. Had Blister thought about that at all before she struck? Surely she wouldn’t deliberately endanger her allies . . . but maybe she didn’t care about them enough to treat their defenses cautiously.

  Queen Coral swooped into the library, her face majestic with fury. She loomed over Webs as Blister, Anemone, and Moray all arrived behind her.

  “Why would you save his life?” the queen hissed at Tsunami. “After every thing he did to you?”

  I don’t know, Tsunami thought. Why didn’t she want Webs dead? It had been instinct that sent her flying after him. Maybe I want to give Riptide a chance to meet his father, like I never really got to. Or maybe I’m not ready to lose our last guardian yet. For most of her life, she’d only known seven dragons, and two of them had died in the last ten days. That seemed like more than enough to her.

  “I thought he might have information we need,” she lied. “Maybe about the Talons —”

  “Or,” Blister interjected smoothly, “perhaps now we can find out how he snuck into the Royal Hatchery to steal the egg. Clever dragonet. Tsunami must get her brains from you.”

  Queen Coral hissed and glared down at Webs. “I suppose interrogating him would be useful,” she said. “Moray, wake him up.”

  Moray dove over the edge and returned with a large clamshell full of seawater. She threw this in Webs’s face with no particular gentleness. Sunny let out a little yelp and jumped away from the splash.

  Webs coughed and sputtered and snorted water back out his nostrils. He sat up slowly, holding his head and gingerly wiping his snout dry.

  His gaze landed first on the dragonets, and Tsunami was surprised to see his whole face light up with joy. He stared from Clay to Glory to Starflight as if he couldn’t believe they were all alive. He held out his front talons, and Sunny clutched the one closest to her, smiling back at him.

  “But the SkyWings,” he said. “I thought you were dead! How did you — ?”

  “We escaped,” Glory said coldly.

  “No thanks to the Talons of Peace,” Tsunami added. “Or stupid unhelpful Morrowseer.”

  “It was amazing,” Sunny said. “You should have seen us! We —”

  “We’ll tell you about it some other time,” Clay interrupted. Sunny looked up at him, then over at the SeaWings, and snapped her mouth shut.

  Webs saw Queen Coral and the thunderous look on her face, and Blister coiled menacingly behind her. He shuddered, then winced as if that had made his head hurt even more.

  “Welcome back,” Coral snarled at him. “I thought you were too cowardly to ever return here.”

  “I know I am not worthy of your mercy, Your Majesty,” Webs said, staggering to his feet so he could kneel in front of her. “But I heard — I hoped . . .”

  “Why did you steal one of my eggs?” Queen Coral demanded. “You could have stolen from any other dragon in the Kingdom of the Sea.”

  Tsunami’s wings twitched. And that would have been all right? Are you only angry because he stole from you? Not because a dragonet’s life was ruined?

  “It had to be an egg due to hatch on the brightest night,” Webs said in a wavering voice. “And it had to fit the prophecy — the SeaWing egg of deepest blue. I’d seen your eggs when I was guarding them, before I . . . before I left.”

  “You mean ran away,” Coral snarled. “In the middle of a battle.”

  Looking at Webs, Tsunami couldn’t believe he was Riptide’s father. Riptide was so much stronger and braver than this shivering old dragon.

  “I remembered her egg,” Webs pressed on, his wings drooping. “It was so blue — it had to be the right one. I’m so sorry, Your Majesty,” he said in a rush. “But the prophecy is so important. I would never have betrayed you for anything else, but for peace . . . How could I not do as the Talons asked?”

  “So how did you get into the hatchery?” Coral’s tail lashed threateningly. “I had guards posted at that door every moment until the eggs hatched.”

  Tsunami leaned toward him. If he knew of a secret way in, surely that would point them to the dragonet killer.

  Webs hung his he
ad. “I drugged the guards,” he said. “I — I knew someone who helped me slip a sleeping potion into their evening meal. They were asleep when I crawled in and out again with the egg. It wasn’t their fault.”

  “Well,” Coral said dismissively, “I killed them anyway. As for the someone who helped you — your wife, I assume?”

  Webs flinched.

  “I wondered about that,” Coral said. Her expression was mildly pleased, as if she was finally putting the pieces of an old puzzle into place. “Stupid of her not to run away with you. Of course, that’s why she was reassigned from the kitchens to active duty in the war soon after. Too bad that first battle was such a bloodbath.”

  Webs looked as if all the light had been scraped out of his scales. Sunny made a woeful, sympathetic noise and edged closer, twining her tail around his. Even Glory looked a little sorry for him.

  Tsunami had never thought about Webs leaving behind a family until she met Riptide. Even then, she hadn’t pictured him abandoning a wife and baby dragonet. Maybe he really did care about the prophecy more than anything, if he was willing to give up so much for it. She would not have made the same choice, herself.

  “Now I know the dragonets are safe,” Webs said quietly. “So you can do whatever you like to me.”

  “I will,” Coral rumbled. “We can start with you telling me where to find the Talons of Peace.”

  “Why?” Tsunami asked as Webs shook his head. “Why would you want to find them?”

  Coral showed all her sharp white teeth. “Revenge, dear. They stole from me, and no one has ever gotten away with that. Now I must hunt them down and exterminate them.”

  “Don’t you have more important things to do?” Tsunami demanded. “I think they’re awful dragons, yes, with a really misguided sense of how to raise dragonets to fulfill a prophecy. But all they want to do is end the war. Isn’t that what everyone wants?”

  “We’re not trying to end the war,” Blister said in her slithering voice. “We’re trying to win it. I hope you can see the difference.”

  “But kill ing the Talons of Peace won’t help with that. They haven’t hurt anyone but us five,” Tsunami said, waving her talons at the other dragonets.

  “In fact,” Starflight said out of the blue, “they almost certainly saved Tsunami’s life.”

  The NightWing froze as everyone turned to stare at him. Queen Coral hissed menacingly. Even Webs looked confused.

  “What?” Coral growled.

  “Well,” Starflight stammered, “the — the — the other female dragonets in her hatching — all died. The same way every one of your potential heirs has died. Whoever is kill ing them, Webs took her egg away before the assassin could get to it. If her egg had stayed in the hatchery, she’d be dead. By stealing her, he — and the Talons of Peace — actually saved her life. Uh. Right?”

  Tsunami felt like she was shape-shifting, all of her bones being shoved from one skin into another. No. The Talons of Peace ruined my life. I’ve always known that. It’s the truest thing I know. They didn’t save me.

  But she knew in her scales that Starflight was right. They did save her. By accident, but they did. Webs did.

  She remembered all her dreams of how her life should have been if she’d hatched here and been raised by her own mother. None of them would have happened. She’d have been dead within the first week, her neck snapped like the sad little dragonet in the eggshell.

  “Your Majesty!” The small messenger dragon from before — Urchin, Tsunami remembered — tumbled out of the air and skidded to a stop at Queen Coral’s claws. He bowed as low as he could, covering his head. “We found a suspicious dragon lurking outside. He must be working with Webs.”

  “Bring him to me,” Queen Coral growled in a voice that rang off the cavern walls.

  Urchin pointed down at the tunnel, and they all leaned over to see Piranha and a troop of SeaWing soldiers dragging someone into the Summer Palace. They heaved him out of the water to fly him up to the queen. His webbed talons flopped to the side, his eyes were closed, and a claw mark slashed along his sky-blue scales was bleeding heavily.

  Tsunami’s stomach flipped inside out like a jellyfish.

  It was Riptide.

  Webs’s green scales paled nearly to gray as Riptide was tossed onto the floor between him and Queen Coral.

  “No!” he cried. “He had nothing to do with this! He’s never had any contact with me.”

  Moray tossed another clamshell of water over Riptide, and he groaned, shielding his eyes.

  “It’s true,” Tsunami said desperately. “Riptide wasn’t here with Webs. He’s — he’s been helping me. Um, with my Aquatic.” It was true, but it sounded like a lie, even to her own ears.

  “Whirlpool is supposed to teach you that, not this miserable creature,” Queen Coral said with narrowed eyes.

  “Whirlpool is a horrible teacher,” Tsunami flared. “I’d be better off taking lessons from a barnacle.”

  Riptide pushed himself slowly up to sitting. He glanced around at all the faces staring at him. His gaze stopped on Webs, and the two dragons looked at each other for a long moment.

  “Admit your treachery,” said the queen. “Betrayal runs in your family, after all.” She swiped at Riptide’s snout, but he stepped out of reach. Piranha hissed and poked him in the side with a narwhal spear.

  “Don’t hurt him,” Tsunami said. “Please. He’s not working for the Talons of Peace, I promise.” She was surprised to see Riptide wince. He looked down at his claws, avoiding her eyes.

  Was there something he hadn’t told her?

  “Throw them both in the new prison,” Coral said with deep disgust. “We’ll find out what we need to know about the Talons later, when I’m feeling a little more violent.”

  “Don’t you have one more question for them?” Blister interjected. She’d been quiet for so long, it made Tsunami jump to hear her voice.

  Coral swung her head to look at the SandWing.

  “Why they killed all of your heirs,” Blister purred. “I mean, obviously it was them, right?”

  “Obviously!” Coral burst out. She glared at Webs and Riptide.

  “Working together,” Blister murmured. “It’s the perfect climax to the story.”

  “It is,” Coral agreed.

  “No!” Tsunami said. “That makes no sense!”

  “Just like one of your brilliant mysteries,” Blister went on, ignoring Tsunami. “The Claws of Murder, for instance. Or A Tail of Blood. That one was genius.”

  “It was,” Coral agreed even more fervently. “They’re the perfect murderers! It all fits!”

  “No, it doesn’t!” Tsunami shouted. “Why would they do that? There’s no motive!”

  “Of course there is,” Coral snarled. “Blister, explain it to her.”

  “So that Tsunami could return as the only living heir, of course,” Blister said smoothly. “If they killed off all the other possible heirs, she would become more and more valuable. A bargaining chip if they ever needed it. A powerful tool when they wanted to use her.”

  “Nobody uses me,” Tsunami spat.

  “Wait, Webs can’t be the murderer,” Clay said. His large brown head tilted to the side. “He hates kill ing other dragons. That’s why he ran away from you in the first place.”

  “Nonsense,” Queen Coral said, waving a talon. “He ran away to protect his own scales.”

  “Even so, I’m not sure that theory works,” Starflight said, gazing vaguely into the air as if he was trying to solve a math equation. “The princess murders started two years before they stole Tsunami’s egg, so the Talons, and especially Webs, wouldn’t have known they were going to steal a royal egg at that point — Webs didn’t even know he was going to be a Talon at that point. And Webs has been underground with us for the last six years. He couldn’t have flown here and back every time he wanted to murder a dragonet.”

  Starflight shook his head. “No, I’m afraid it doesn’t —” His eyes met Blister’s, and
he abruptly slammed his mouth shut.

  “What he said,” Tsunami said desperately. “Exactly.”

  “So his allies in the Talons of Peace did his dirty work,” Blister said, unperturbed. “You know it makes sense, Coral. The Talons have been your enemies for so long. Of course it would turn out that they’re the ones behind the murders. It’s the ending that wraps every thing together.”

  Coral nodded. Her talons twitched toward the nearest scroll, as if she couldn’t wait to write all this down.

  “Why are you doing this?” Tsunami demanded, stepping closer to Blister. “Why pin the murders on Webs and Riptide, unless you’re covering your own tracks?”

  Blister gave a hoot of laughter. “It doesn’t matter to me what happens to SeaWing princesses,” she said. “Except that I feel my poor ally’s pain, of course. I’m merely pointing out the obvious to her. These two should be executed for their crimes as soon as possible.”

  You want Webs dead, Tsunami thought. And you killed Kestrel, I’m sure of it. But why?

  “Brilliant, just brilliant,” Coral said, clapping her talons together. “Take them away, and we’ll plan their execution later.” Piranha and her guards closed around Webs and Riptide. Tsunami didn’t have a chance to say anything more to them before they were dragged off, and Riptide still wouldn’t meet her eyes. She clenched her talons in frustration.

  “You know what this means?” Coral went on, delighted. “We can return the egg to the Royal Hatchery. It’s safe now.”

  “It isn’t!” Sunny cried. She wrapped her talons around the egg.

  “It certainly is,” said the queen. “With Webs locked up, the egg can hatch in the Royal Hatchery, just like it’s supposed to.”

  “You’re wrong,” Tsunami said. “I’m not risking a dragonet’s life because you’ve fallen for this crazy story Blister has invented.”

  Blister’s obsidian-black eyes glittered malevolently at Tsunami.

  “It will be perfectly safe,” Coral said, waving her claws. “Besides, every queen in SeaWing history has hatched in the Royal Hatchery.”

 
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