The brightest night, p.17
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       The Brightest Night, p.17

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “Sunny?” Starflight said in a hoarse voice. “Really?”

  Sunny realized with a stab of guilt and horror that Starflight’s eyes were covered with a mask of leaves, carefully plastered in place. “It’s me,” she said, hurrying over to his side. She nudged his shoulder gently with her snout, trying to share her warmth with him. “I’m here.”

  Starflight let out his breath. “Are you all right?” he said anxiously.

  “Better than you are,” she tried to joke.

  “I told him you were fine,” Fatespeaker interjected in a helpful voice. She patted the edge of the leaves where Starflight lay. “I had a vision! I mean, it was fuzzy, but I was pretty sure you were fine.”

  Starflight coughed awkwardly, as if he’d been trying to avoid talking about Fatespeaker’s visions for days. Sunny remembered what Stonemover had told her — that no NightWing had had prophetic powers or mind reading for generations. So was Fatespeaker lying? Or did she believe her own wild stories? She didn’t seem cruel enough to deceive Starflight about whether Sunny was all right — but then, Sunny didn’t really know her at all.

  “I’m sorry I wasn’t here to take care of you,” Sunny said, touching one of Starflight’s wings gently.

  “I took care of him,” Fatespeaker said.

  Sunny felt a flash of something odd. Like she wanted Fatespeaker to shush and go away. Jealousy? But wouldn’t that mean … that I like Starflight the way he likes me?

  Did she? It would be nice if she could love him back. It would make him happy — and she did care about him. Plus he was a real hero — he’d just saved the entire NightWing tribe from extinction.

  We don’t have time for mushy romance right now anyway, she told herself sternly. Whatever’s going to happen with me and Starflight, whatever we are — we’ll figure it out after we stop the war.

  She glanced around the room and noticed that Webs was still there, asleep in a corner, although the venomous scratch on his tail looked almost completely healed. There were a few RainWings as well, four with injuries that might have happened during the attack on the NightWing island, and two others whose breaths rattled in their skinny chests as they slept. Sunny guessed they had been prisoners and were still recovering from their treatment at the talons of the NightWings. She could see spots on their snouts and ankles where iron bands had rubbed the scales raw.

  The only other dragon occupying a bed was the SkyWing, Flame. He’d grown up with Fatespeaker among the Talons of Peace, as another possible alternate for the dragonets. She could tell that the healers had applied the cactus-milk antidote to the wound that slashed across his face, but it would still leave a nasty scar. She wondered if his face had looked that furious before he was injured; she suspected yes. He was awake, glaring around the treehouse with trails of smoke coming out of his nose and ears.

  “So where were you?” Clay asked, bumping Sunny’s wing with his own. “Tsunami thought maybe you’d been kidnapped, isn’t that crazy?”

  “Well, I kind of was kidnapped,” Sunny admitted. Starflight and Fatespeaker both gasped. “But I got away. Except then I got caught again, and then I was a prisoner in Burn’s stronghold for a while.”

  “What?” Starflight tried to sit up and nearly fell off his bed. Clay’s eyes were wide and shocked.

  “I’m here now, though, aren’t I?” Sunny said. “It all turned out fine. I’ve taken care of myself. Mostly,” she added honestly. “It was a little crazy. But I should tell you all at the same time. Where are Tsunami and Glory?”

  * * *

  Tsunami was drilling RainWings in evasive maneuvers, although apparently what that actually meant was a lot of yelling things like “Pay attention!” and “Leave that toucan alone!” and “Why are you pink? Stop being pink!” and “THREE MOONS, ARE YOU EATING AGAIN?”

  Sunny half hoped that meant she’d be all yelled out, but of course it didn’t. Tsunami had plenty of yelling energy left for Sunny.

  “Where have you BEEN?” she roared. “Do you know how WORRIED we’ve been? How could you DO that to us? I was so sure the NightWings did something to you that I nearly threw them all back to the volcano! We’ve had search parties out every day, but not ONE SIGN of you ANYWHERE! Not even Deathbringer, well, he said he smelled you over to the west, but who trusts him, NOT ME IS WHO. I haven’t slept in days, Sunny! DAYS!”

  She grabbed Sunny and wrapped her wings around her in a fierce hug. Sunny felt her own anger melting and realized she’d been furious with Tsunami ever since overhearing the conversation in the Obsidian Mirror. She may not take me seriously, Sunny thought, but she really does love me.

  “I’m sorry,” Sunny said, muffled, into Tsunami’s shoulder. “But I swear I was doing important things. I’ll tell you all about it. Where’s Glory?”

  “Checking on the NightWing camp,” Tsunami said, relaxing her grip on Sunny but keeping one wing around her. “She is kind of awesome with them. All scary and tough and royal, like a real queen. Do not tell her I said that.”

  Sunny grinned up at her. “Are they behaving?”

  “For the most part,” Tsunami said. “They were all absolutely starving, so just giving them enough food is making them a whole lot happier and easier to deal with. Glory’s letting them hunt and eat as much as they want, except for the sloths. Those are off-limits, apparently. I guess being a giant sucker for cute furry things is a RainWing genetic defect.”

  “I wouldn’t eat them either,” Sunny pointed out.

  “Well, but that makes sense,” Tsunami said. “You practically are a cute furry thing.”

  Sunny debated getting riled up about this, but Tsunami was already turning to one of the RainWings — all of whom were staring nosily at Sunny — and ordering him to fetch Glory.

  “Tell her to meet us in the healers’ hut,” she said. “And NO DAWDLING. If you stop to admire so much as one beetle I will seriously bite you.”

  “All right,” the RainWing said affably and flew off in a way that probably counted as a hurry for a RainWing, but was only marginally faster than your average snail.

  “I swear,” Tsunami muttered through her teeth. “Sunny. You’ll probably be shocked to hear this, but I don’t think I’d make a very good RainWing.”

  Sunny laughed. “I missed you,” she said, and meant it.

  It wasn’t long before they were all gathered around Starflight’s bed. Sunny felt a rush of joy as Glory swept into the room. Here were all her friends, all together in one place like they were supposed to be.

  “Sunny,” Glory said, and the relief in her voice was matched by the bright yellow of her scales. She even reached out and squeezed Sunny’s front talons, which was more affection than Sunny would have expected from her. “Thank goodness you’re alive. Because now I can totally behead you. Starflight, what’s our official policy on beheading right now?”

  “Our constitution says no beheading Sunny,” he said loyally.

  “Let’s amend that,” Glory said, flicking her tail. “To I can behead anyone who worries me half to death like this.”

  “I know you’re probably mad,” Sunny said. Glory’s ears and wings were starting to shade more red than yellow. “OK, definitely mad. But there were — lots of — stuff happened, and —”

  “It had better be wildly important ‘stuff,’ ” Glory growled. “You know what I don’t need in my first week as queen, in addition to a whole new tribe of pretty much the worst, most unhealthy, most annoying dragons ever? I don’t need to also be freaking out because one of my best friends has disappeared. I don’t need to be using my best dragons on patrols searching for you when they should be helping me run a brand-new experimental two-tribe kingdom.”

  “That’s me,” Deathbringer said, poking his head in from outside. Sunny jumped. She still wasn’t used to seeing any NightWings in the RainWing village, apart from Starflight. “When she says her ‘best dragons,’ she’s talking about me.”

  “I am not,” Glory said, a little too indignantly, Sunny tho
ught. “Quit stalking me.”

  “This is not stalking,” he objected, sliding into the room as if he were perfectly welcome. “This is protecting you.”

  “Nobody invited you to this private conversation,” Tsunami said bossily.

  “Hey, I’m just making sure the queen is safe,” he said, spreading his wings.

  “The queen can take care of herself,” Glory pointed out. “Out of the two dragons in question, the queen happens to be the one with camouflage scales who can shoot venom. What can you do again? Sit in the dark, is that it? Guess what, I can do that, too.” Inky black spilled across her scales and she looked down her snout at him.

  “I can stop dragons from killing you,” he said. “Three assassination plots so far, Your Majesty. No one’s better at stopping assassins than the world’s best assassin.”

  “You poor dragon,” Glory said. “If only you had a shred of self-esteem.”

  “What?” Sunny cried, dismayed. “NightWings have tried to kill you? Three times already?”

  “So he says,” Glory observed. She didn’t look remotely scared or even ruffled. “Apparently he’s my bodyguard now. Not that anyone asked him to be, ahem.”

  “It’s true, I did have to fight my way past a whole pack of volunteers,” he mused mockingly. “Oh, no, wait. It’s just me. The only dragon who cares if you live or die.”

  “He’s just trying to make his list look longer than mine,” Glory said to Sunny. “We’re keeping track of who has saved who more often. I say it doesn’t count if you have to save me from your own dragon-murdering self, and he says I shouldn’t get credit for sending him away before the IceWings got him.”

  Sunny couldn’t help but notice that Deathbringer was apparently allowed to know where the RainWing village was, and to roam around it freely. So whatever she said about him, Glory really must trust him, certainly more than any other NightWing.

  “If you two are quite finished jabbing at each other,” Tsunami said, rolling her eyes, “I’d like to hear what Sunny’s been doing for the last week.”

  “Me too,” Clay said fervently, sidling up beside her. Sunny twined her tail around his, relieved that at least one of her friends wouldn’t be mad at her, no matter what she’d done or how worried he’d been.

  “Well,” she said, “I found my parents. And I met Burn’s brother. And I saw Peril again, and Queen Scarlet is alive, oh, and she’s maybe coming here to kill us, although I hope she doesn’t really know where we are, although she said she did.”

  Glory cleared her throat quietly, but everyone turned to look at her anyway.

  “Um,” she said. “So. Yes. Actually, she does know where we are.” She squinted at the skylight, rubbing the back of her head. “She maybe visited me in a dream. With a dreamvisitor. And saw where I was. So. Yes.”

  “That seems like something worth mentioning!” Tsunami yelled.

  “I was going to tell you all,” Glory said huffily, “but then Starflight disappeared and I became queen and I got a little … busy.”

  “Anyway,” Sunny interrupted before the two of them could start one of their interminable arguments. “So she was in Burn’s stronghold, but she’s not anymore.”

  “Could you start at the beginning?” Starflight asked. “I’m a little confused.”

  “Me too,” Fatespeaker chimed in. As if anyone asked you, Sunny thought, then felt incredibly guilty for thinking it.

  “All right,” Sunny said. “It started with these three NightWings grabbing me….”

  “And so,” Sunny finished, “I decided we shouldn’t wait any longer. Maybe we’ll never find the Eye of Onyx, but we can still choose a queen and end the war. Someone has to, and I think it should be us.”

  She paused and looked around at her friends, whose faces ranged from disbelieving to astonished to terribly worried.

  “I can’t believe all of that happened to you,” Starflight said in a low, shaken voice.

  “And we weren’t there to protect you,” Tsunami said, exchanging a glance with Clay.

  “She did all right,” Glory said unexpectedly. “Stealing the Obsidian Mirror, that was crazy-brave. Crazy and brave, I mean. And talking Peril into saving Thorn — well, that would have made me nervous.”

  “Also, confronting scavengers,” Deathbringer chimed in. He gave a little shudder out to his wingtips. “No, no, no, thanks. Not for me.”

  “You’re scared of scavengers?” Glory asked, amused.

  “NO,” he said. “They just … give me the heebie-jeebies, that’s all. With their … eyes and paws and … faces.”

  “That’s pretty cute,” Glory said. “The big bad assassin terrified of itty-bitty scavengers.”

  “One day I’ll throw a sword-waving scavenger at you and see how tough you are,” he bridled.

  “But, Sunny,” Clay interjected, “we can’t stop the war. The prophecy isn’t true, remember?”

  “So?” she said. “If there had never been a prophecy, would the war have to go on forever? No. It has to end sometime. I vote right now.”

  “But it doesn’t have to be us,” Starflight said, then immediately added in almost a mumble, “Maybe it has to be us.” He reached up to the leaves on his eyes, remembered they were there, and lowered his claws again.

  “No!” Fatespeaker said, grabbing Starflight’s talons. “It doesn’t have to be you! It especially doesn’t have to be you! You’ve done enough.”

  “Sunny’s right, though,” he said. “Why shouldn’t it be us? Maybe everyone else is waiting for the prophecy and so they don’t realize they could end the war themselves. And think about all the dragons who need this war to be over.”

  “My brothers and sisters,” said Clay. “If they’re still alive.”

  “Anemone,” Tsunami said. “So she doesn’t have to use her animus powers and lose her soul.”

  “All the SandWings,” Glory added. “They need a queen and a unified kingdom.”

  “So will you help me?” Sunny said, picking nervously at a vine of small, star-shaped red flowers that snaked through the window.

  “Well, even if we did, what’s the plan?” Tsunami said practically. “Pick a queen and then send Deathbringer to kill the other two?”

  “Yikes,” Deathbringer said, flaring his wings. “Give me the easy job, why don’t you.”

  “Oh, if only we knew Pyrrhia’s best assassin,” Glory mused teasingly.

  “No, no,” Sunny said, flapping between them before they could go too far down that road. “No killing.”

  “It would be almost impossible,” Tsunami mused. “I assume dragons have tried before.”

  “What if we got an animus to enchant something?” Starflight suggested. “That was Blister’s plan to use Anemone, and it was a smart one. Enchant a spear to go kill Burn, or perhaps we could put her life essence in a tree and set it on fire, or something like that?”

  “We’re not making Anemone do that!” Tsunami snarled.

  “Are you serious? Can an animus dragon really do those things?” Fatespeaker asked. “That’s absolutely terrifying.”

  “It’s a little more complicated than that, but basically,” Deathbringer answered her. “And yes, it’s terrifying.”

  “No,” Sunny said again. “We’re not going to kill them!”

  “I agree with Tsunami,” Clay said. “We can’t ask Anemone to use her powers. That would be awful for her.”

  “I wasn’t thinking of Anemone,” Starflight protested. “I was thinking of Sunny’s father, Stonemover. He’s sort of beyond hope anyway, isn’t he?”

  Is he? Sunny closed her mouth to think about that. She had a feeling that if he used his magic again, that would be it for Stonemover. Especially if he used it for something as massive as killing two dragons. But would it be worth it? To save the rest of Pyrrhia? Would he do it?

  Could she bring herself to ask him to do it? He was disappointing, but he was still her father. Didn’t she want to get to know him better?

  “With eit
her of those options, we’d have to pick which sister we want to be queen,” Glory said. “And they’re all terrible.”

  “Blaze seems nice,” Clay said optimistically.

  “Blaze is a dizzy idiot who’d be dead by day two,” Glory said. “I say Blister. She’s evil, but she’s smart, so she’d probably rule the kingdom fine, and if we’re her allies she’ll leave us alone. I think. Well, maybe not. OK, probably not. But at least we’d know where she was.”

  “Wait,” Sunny said. “I don’t want to kill any of them.”

  “Burn is the least awful,” Tsunami argued. “She’s mean, but she’s not scheming. We’d see her coming if she tried anything on us.”

  “Mean and brutal,” Starflight reminded her. “Remember the murdered dragons in her collection. And the SkyWing egg she smashed — just an egg, not even a dragonet yet. As long as she’s alive, I don’t think we’re safe.” He paused, then added, “I don’t think Sunny will be safe.”

  Sunny leaned over to brush his wing with hers.

  “So how do we decide?” Clay said. “Who do we choose and who — and how — I mean, are we really going to —”

  “No!” Sunny said. “Listen, for once, please —” But Tsunami, Glory, Fatespeaker, and Deathbringer all started talking over her at once, arguing about the sisters and how to get rid of them.

  Sunny clapped her talons over her ears and shouted:

  “Stop! I SAID STOP!”

  Everyone blinked at her in the sudden silence.

  “No,” she said again, more firmly. “We are not killing any of them. We’re not using magic to do something underhanded. We are going to get all three of them in one place, and then we will either have a competition, like the RainWings have, or we’ll let all the SandWings decide.”

  “Let the SandWings decide?” Tsunami said skeptically. “What?”

  “Like when we decide things together,” Starflight said, understanding immediately. “By voting. Or talking it out. Like the NightWings, or Queen Coral’s council.”

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