The lost heir, p.18
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       The Lost Heir, p.18

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “Doubtful,” said Starflight glumly.

  “So we can go?” Glory asked Tsunami. “And look for Blaze? You mean we’re done here?”

  Even the baby dragon stopped digging for a moment to look at Tsunami. She felt a stab of guilt at the hopeful expressions on her friends’ faces. She hadn’t realized they wanted to leave the Kingdom of the Sea so badly.

  Wingbeats sounded in the air above them, and they all looked up to see Coral, Anemone, Blister, and Moray circling down from the Summer Palace pavilion.

  The green dragonet scampered up to Anemone as soon as she landed and tackled one of her talons. Anemone laughed and flipped her over. Their little sister yelped, struggled upright again, and started clawing her way up Anemone’s leg.

  “Have you picked a name?” Anemone asked Tsunami.

  “What do you think of Auklet?” Tsunami said.

  “That’s a kind of seabird,” Starflight said in his know-it-all voice to Clay.

  “Oh,” Clay said. “Cool. I mean, I knew that.”

  Tsunami liked the look on her mother’s face, watching the two sisters. She looked proud, protective, happy for them. Tsunami was right about her: Queen Coral wouldn’t kill her own daughters, even though one of them would one day grow up to take her place. She cared about them, perhaps a little too much, but Tsunami thought that was better than not caring at all.

  She wondered if Blister or Burn had any dragonets. Starflight would know; it must be in the scrolls somewhere. Tsunami had a feeling Blister would happily kill off her own dragonets if she thought it was necessary. Those glittering black eyes hid more secrets and plans than Tsunami wanted to know about.

  “Orca’s statue has been destroyed,” Queen Coral said with a sigh. “It was so beautiful, too. She was so talented. I can’t believe she hid her animus powers from me. She could have trained with Whirlpool, too.”

  “Wow. She really missed out,” Tsunami said, winking at Anemone.

  “We’ll have to examine all the things she carved,” Coral mused. “Just to make sure there aren’t any other enchantments lurking around.”

  “We’re sure it was Orca, right?” Tsunami asked. “No one else in the palace could be an animus?” She wasn’t able to stop herself from glancing at Moray, who glared back.

  Coral shook her head. “Before we destroyed it, Anemone reanimated the statue and made it reveal who had enchanted it. It said Orca, plain as day.” She sighed again. “Orca carved that statue and dedicated it to the hatchery shortly before she challenged me. I gather she expected to win, so she was setting up a way to get rid of her possible heirs and challengers.”

  “That explains her last words to you,” Moray hissed.

  “Yes,” said Coral sadly. “She said, ‘I did this all wrong. You’re going to rule forever, aren’t you, Mother? You should thank me. No one can stop you now.’ ” The queen looked down at Anemone and Auklet, playing in the sand. She stroked Anemone’s head with a wistful expression.

  “But . . .” Clay said hesitantly. “But if Orca was the assassin, then who attacked Tsunami in the tunnel?”

  Queen Coral shrugged. “We’ll catch them eventually,” she said. “That’s how stories work.”

  Anemone gave Tsunami a frustrated look.

  Tsunami still thought that her attacker might have been Shark. He was already out of prison, patrolling the Summer Palace with a bad-tempered expression on his snout. And he certainly hadn’t been pleased or supportive when she staggered out of the hatchery with the dragonet, blood pouring from her gills. She reached up and touched the seaweed bandage on her neck. Her ribs ached whenever she moved, too, but the healers said she just had to rest and let the fractures fix themselves.

  Rest! The dragonets of destiny have no time for rest! she thought ruefully.

  “Now that we know the real assassin,” Tsunami reminded Coral, “you promised to set Riptide free.”

  “I know I did,” said the queen. “But I’m not sure quite what to do with him. Clearly he can’t stay in my kingdom. He’ll have to crawl back to those Talons of Peace and see if they’ll take him.”

  “Maybe he can come with us,” Tsunami said, then snapped her mouth shut. But it was too late. Coral and Blister were both staring at her in a very uncomfortable way.

  “With you?” Coral said slowly. “Are you going somewhere?”

  “We — I — yes — I think we should,” Tsunami said. She felt her friends shifting closer together behind her. “I don’t belong here, Mother. I wanted to, but — I’m only causing trouble, and I’m not doing what I was hatched to do. I don’t speak the underwater language. I don’t understand the Council. You have two daughters now who could be great queens one day.” She nodded at Anemone. “But my destiny is somewhere else. I have to go stop the war. With my friends.”

  “And how do you plan to do that?” Blister said softly.

  “I don’t know,” Tsunami said. “We’ll figure it out.”

  “We were thinking we should go meet Blaze,” Clay suggested. “Just to be fair.”

  Ack, Clay, shut up, Tsunami thought with a wince.

  “But it won’t change how we — I mean that we think you’re —” Starflight said hurriedly to Blister, then trailed off under Tsunami’s baleful look.

  “No,” said Blister. The diamond patterns on her back writhed as she stepped closer. “No one is leaving.”

  “You can’t tell us what to do,” Tsunami said.

  “I am your choice,” Blister hissed. “The Ni — the Talons of Peace want me.”

  “Oh?” Glory said. “Do they know that?”

  “It’s not their decision anyway!” Tsunami said.

  “Your lives could be very easy from here on,” said Blister. “All you have to do is tell everyone the dragonets of destiny have chosen me as the next SandWing queen. And you can do that from here, where I can keep an eye on you.”

  “Where you can keep us prisoner, you mean,” Tsunami said angrily. “We’ve had quite enough of that, thank you. Mother, tell her you wouldn’t do that to me.”

  Queen Coral gave Blister an anxious look. “My dear, I’m sure they will still choose you after meeting Blaze. No one would choose her in a million years.”

  “Perhaps, but first they have to survive that long,” Blister said smoothly. “You know better than anyone how dangerous it is out there, Coral. Remember what happened to Gill. We’ll really be protecting the dragonets by keeping them here.”

  “Oh, that makes sense,” Coral said, sounding relieved. “She’s right, Tsunami. Just stay here and we’ll take good care of all of you.”

  Tsunami looked back at her friends. Starflight looked miserable, but the others — they looked hopeful, as if they trusted Tsunami to get them out.

  “This isn’t the right place for my friends either,” Tsunami said. “Glory wants to go home — right, Glory? And Sunny should find her parents. It’s not fair that I get to do those things and they don’t. We just —” She squared her wings. “We have to go, and if you try to keep us, you’ll be no better than the Talons or Queen Scarlet.”

  Blister glared at Starflight. “Don’t you have something to say about this, NightWing?”

  He stared miserably at his talons and didn’t respond.

  She hissed. “Useless. There is something wrong with all of you, isn’t there? But you’re the dragonets I have, and I’m not letting you go.” Blister turned to Coral. “Throw them in your prison.”

  “She wouldn’t do that,” Tsunami said. “Mother? Right? You wouldn’t do that?”

  “It might help your decision,” Blister hissed, “if you knew exactly who killed your husband in the SkyWing arena.”

  Tsunami felt her scales turn to ice. This was it. The moment her secrets came out and she got what she deserved.

  Coral’s gills flared and her eyes widened. “What are you saying?”

  “You know he died in the arena,” Blister said. “But do you know who his opponent was? The dragon who ripped the life out o
f him?”

  “Maybe you should also know,” Starflight said suddenly, “that Blister killed Kestrel and is lying to you about it. And that she wants Webs dead for her own reasons and doesn’t care about your daughters at all.”

  Blister arched her neck like a cobra and hissed at him. Starflight threw his wings over his head as if he expected her tail to come stabbing down. But all she said was, “You’ll be sorry for that, useless NightWing.”

  Coral wrapped her wings around Anemone and Auklet and took a step back toward the water. She looked from Blister to Tsunami like she wasn’t sure who to trust anymore.

  “Don’t listen to them, Coral,” Blister said. “They’re only dragonets. And dragonets never know what’s best for them.”

  “I think we can be pretty sure prison isn’t at the top of the list, though,” Tsunami snapped. “And from now on, Blister, you show some respect and address my mother as Queen Coral.”

  Smoke curled from Blister’s snout. Tsunami wondered what Coral would do if the SandWing attacked the dragonets of destiny right in front of her.

  “I don’t know what’s going on,” Coral said, signaling with her tail. A platoon of SeaWing guards appeared from one of the caves. “But for your own safety, Tsunami, you’re staying here for now.”

  “Mother!” Tsunami yelled. She smacked a guard in the snout with her tail and bared her teeth at another. “Think for yourself for once! Let us go!”

  But Queen Coral turned away, avoiding Blister’s gaze as well. She curled Auklet into one of her talons and flew back to the pavilion with her daughters.

  Tsunami fought the guards, but there were too many of them, and her ribs were still screaming with pain from the night before. One by one, each of the dragonets was overpowered and dragged off to the same prison cave where Riptide and Webs had disappeared the day before.

  SeaWings watched from all over the pavilion. Tsunami had never been so humiliated. Some dragonets of destiny they were, tossed around like lumps of trea sure to be hoarded.

  They’d come to the Kingdom of the Sea looking for safety, and instead they were prisoners once again.

  The prison cave was high on the cliff wall, not far from the canopy, overlooking the pavilion below. Tsunami hadn’t paid much attention to it before, except to notice that Riptide and Webs had been taken there. But as the guards flew them up to the cave, she realized that it glowed with a weird blue light, and she could hear strange crackling sounds coming from inside.

  Sharp spears prodded her into the cave entrance, and she felt damp stone under her claws. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she saw a path winding into the huge cavern ahead of them.

  This wasn’t the underwater prison Lagoon and Shark had been sent to. This was where Queen Coral kept the real threats. Including, Tsunami realized as she was shoved along the stone floor, several prisoners of war. She saw at least three SkyWings, hissing short blasts of flame at their captors. An IceWing lay with his wings spread out, gasping faintly from the heat he wasn’t used to. Two SandWings were caged together, one of them curled in a ball with his eyes pressed shut, the other pacing and snarling.

  There was even a giant MudWing with chains around her ankles like the ones that had been on Clay. She tilted her head curiously at Clay as he went by.

  But the strangest thing about the prison wasn’t the dragon prisoners, or even the staggeringly large size of the cavern.

  It was the cages.

  There were no bars, no doors. Instead, a channel of water as wide as two dragons encircled each prisoner, trapping them on islands of stone — some large enough for multiple dragons, some with barely room for one. More water poured from grooves in the ceiling down to the channels, creating cascading walls around the islands.

  And all the water walls and all the moats glowed the same bright blue and gave off the same fizzing, crackling sound. The imprisoned dragons flinched away from any stray droplets that splashed toward them, and they kept their tails carefully tucked up on dry land.

  The path wound around and between the islands like a long bridge. The ceiling above was covered in glowworms, casting an eerie light over all the strange prison cells.

  Tsunami twisted to peer into the moats. What were the prisoners so afraid of?

  Iridescent purple jellyfish pulsed here and there, adding their light to the glowworms up above. Tsunami knew that their tentacles could sting, but surely not badly enough to keep the prisoners in. If it were her (and soon it will be, she thought), she’d leap right through the water wall, splash through the moat, and fight her way out, no matter how many jellyfish were in her way.

  Suddenly she caught sight of a dark green shape swimming in one of the channels. It was as long as a scavenger and as thick around as a dragon tail, with no legs or arms or wings. As she squinted at it, another one surfaced not far away, and she caught a glimpse of a flat head with sunken, dead eyes. Nostrils flared at the end of its snout, and then it sank into the water again. Bubbles fizzed and snapped for a long moment where it had been.

  Sunny pressed close against Clay, her gray-green eyes enormous and terrified. Tsunami glanced around at Starflight and saw him studying the cages as well. Maybe he would understand what was going on.

  She didn’t spot Webs or Riptide, but the dragonets were pushed along so fast, and the water blurred the features of the prisoners so it was hard to distinguish between the few imprisoned SeaWings she could see.

  The guards finally stopped at one of the largest prison islands. There was the same moat around it, but no water came from the ceiling here. Tsunami couldn’t see anything swimming in the moat either.

  “Hop over,” growled one of the guards. “All of you.”

  “What if we don’t?” Tsunami asked.

  “Then you’ll be dragged off to separate cages, instead of getting to share one,” he answered.

  Clay jumped over the moat immediately. His talons scraped against the hard rock floor as he landed with a heavy thud. He turned and reached out to catch Sunny as she leaped after him. Starflight followed, and then Glory, and finally, reluctantly, Tsunami flapped her wings to lift herself over the chasm and land beside her friends.

  Another guard pulled on a chain that hung along the wall. Something clanked and groaned from within the stone as she drew the links through her claws. Tsunami leaned forward and saw a small door opening in the underwater wall of the moat. Three of the thick green creatures wriggled through it, their dead eyes staring creepily up at her.

  A whoosh sounded from above, and talons yanked her back from the edge just as water came sluicing down. Tsunami looked up at the cave roof, then around to see that it was Starflight who had pulled her back. He let her go and twisted to watch the waterfall that now surrounded them. His claws tapped ner vously against one another.

  “What are those creepy things in the water?” Tsunami asked him.

  “I think — I think they’re electric eels,” he said.

  “Oh, brrrr,” Glory said, shaking out her wings as if they were covered in bugs. “The scrolls about them gave me nightmares for months.”

  Sunny twined her tail around one of Clay’s forelegs as if she was trying to get even closer to him. “What’s an electric eel?” she asked.

  “They give off a kind of shock,” Starflight explained. Behind him, a blue fizzing light sparked up the waterfall and vanished again, making them all jump.

  “It would feel like getting hit by lightning,” Glory added.

  “And it can be strong enough to kill a dragon,” said Starflight. “Especially in salt water, and when the eels are as big as the ones down there.”

  “So all this water around us —” Tsunami started.

  “Could be charged with deadly force at any time,” Starflight said. “Not all the time — it’s not a constant current. But if they’re mad or hungry, they’re probably giving off shocks pretty frequently, and then just touching the water could transfer that to you. Even if it only stunned you, it would hurt a lot.”
r />   Tsunami frowned at the cascade. Through it she could see the blurry outline of the guards slithering away. Evidently they trusted their nasty prison setup to keep the dragonets in.

  “I can’t believe we’re prisoners again,” Clay said with a sigh. “Why does this keep happening to us?”

  “I know!” Sunny agreed. “Doesn’t anyone trust the prophecy? If they believe in it, can’t they have faith that we’ll do the right thing?”

  “Everyone is trying to make sure the prophecy turns out the way they want it to,” Tsunami said. She turned in a circle, but there wasn’t enough room to pace without brushing her wings or tail into the water. She sat back down with a growl. “It would be helpful if the stupid prophecy had been a little more clear about what was supposed to happen.”

  “Why didn’t you use your venom when they grabbed us?” Starflight asked Glory.

  “Believe me, I will,” the RainWing said fiercely. “I’m waiting for the right moment.”

  “I think that’s smart,” Tsunami said. “Even with Glory’s magical death spit, we probably couldn’t have fought off the whole palace, and it would have given away our best secret weapon.”

  Glory looked surprised. “Well, thank you,” she said. “Although I’m going to vote against calling it ‘magical death spit,’ please.”

  “Maybe tonight,” Tsunami said, lowering her voice. “When most of the palace is sleeping. Maybe we can fight our way out then.”

  “Past the water with the shocks that might kill us?” Sunny asked. “What good is magical death spit against lightning eels?”

  “Electric eels,” Starflight corrected her.


  “Or —” Tsunami remembered the guards who had given her the key. “Maybe we can convince someone to let us go.”

  “I like that plan,” Clay said, bobbing his head.

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