The brightest night, p.19
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       The Brightest Night, p.19

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “It will,” Tsunami said confidently. “We’ll get all three sisters to the stronghold. I’m not worried about that. What happens once we’re all there, though…. That part worries me quite a lot.”

  In some ways, Burn and Blaze should have been easier to send a message to. They both had a fixed home base — Burn at the stronghold, Blaze in her fortress in the Ice Kingdom. But Sunny was not about to waltz into either place, and she didn’t want to send anyone she knew to face them. She didn’t trust Burn or Queen Glacier not to just kill the messenger.

  After a lot of arguing, though, Glory had offered a solution for Blaze: send a RainWing disguised as an IceWing to pass the message along.

  “Send me,” was her actual suggestion. “I could be there and back in a couple of days.”

  “Absolutely not,” Deathbringer had said. “You are the dragon holding this rainforest together. Two tribes depend on you; if anything happens, you’re leaving chaos behind. And Blaze will probably recognize you.”

  “True,” Clay had agreed. “But you could send someone else. Maybe Jambu?”

  “He’s been there before,” Sunny pointed out. “He knows where Blaze’s fortress is. He’s already changed his scales to look like an IceWing, so he should be able to do it again.”

  Glory snorted. “As long as he doesn’t fall asleep or get distracted by something shiny.”

  “Or I could go,” Deathbringer offered. “I know where it is, too.”

  “Absolutely not,” Glory had echoed back at him, only half teasing. “Remember the part where you tried to kill Blaze? You’re the last dragon she’d trust. Glacier probably has soldiers prepared to kill you on sight. She’s probably told them to kill any NightWing who comes along, just in case it’s you.”

  “Aww,” Deathbringer said. “You totally care if I live or die, too.”

  Sunny could practically see the struggle in Glory’s scales as she tried to stamp out any bits of pink that were trying to sneak through. “Well, sure,” she said. “A dead messenger wouldn’t do us much good at all.”

  Deathbringer laughed, and Sunny realized that he was deliberately provoking Glory because he liked the way she shot him down. If that’s what he’s looking for in a dragon, she thought, he’s certainly picked the right one.

  “Send Jambu and Mangrove,” Sunny suggested. “They both know the way, and they can keep an eye on each other.”

  Everyone had agreed to this plan, including Jambu and Mangrove, but Sunny still felt anxious as she watched the two RainWings slip into the tunnel that led to the Kingdom of Sand. It was the day she and Tsunami got back from the Talons of Peace; the flight had taken them three days with almost no stops. Seven to go, she thought.

  “Be safe,” Glory said to them. “That’s an order from your queen.”

  “Yes, Your Majesty,” Jambu answered, grinning in a way that suggested he just liked saying those words, not that he was actually listening.

  “Stay camouflaged as much as you can, the whole way there. And you don’t have to go into the fortress, or even all the way to the fortress. If you find an IceWing patrol before you get there, tell them to tell Blaze and then you come home. Right away. Understand?”

  “Yup,” said Mangrove. “We still understand. Like we did five minutes ago when you last explained it. And five minutes before that. And —”

  “All right, go away,” Glory said, flicking her tongue out at them.

  “Remember to tell them she has to show up!” Sunny called. “Or else she doesn’t get to be queen! Make sure that part of the message gets to Glacier!” She was the least sure about Blaze, who seemed perfectly happy to hide in her fortress and let other dragons do all the fighting for her. If she was going to show up, Sunny had a feeling it would be only because Queen Glacier dragged her there.

  As soon as their tails had disappeared, Sunny turned to Clay. “Ready?”

  “Sure,” Clay said. “I mean, I’ve eaten breakfast. What else do I need to do? Oooh, maybe some more breakfast. That’s a good idea.”

  Sunny laughed, and soon the two of them were aloft, soaring north through the rainforest toward the Mud Kingdom.

  “Do you think anyone will listen to us?” Clay asked her after they’d flown for a while. The landscape below was shifting from jungle to swamp, with shorter trees and brownish-green ponds visible here and there. In the distance to their right, they could see a shimmer of water that had to be the big lake. That’s where Queen Moorhen’s palace was.

  They were definitely not going there.

  Sunny tilted her wings to the west, heading for the mountains. “I think someone will listen,” she said. “We just have to find the right someone. A MudWing patrol, I think, not SkyWings or SandWings. I bet they’ll listen to you anyway.” As far as she was concerned, Clay could talk anyone into anything, because anyone could see that he was sincere and wanted the best for everybody.

  Clay rumbled nervously deep in his throat. “Maybe we don’t have to do this. Maybe Burn will stay in her stronghold and just be there when we get there.”

  “She’s more likely to go out again, looking for another battle,” Sunny said. She thought for a moment, then added, “Or looking for us. No, we have to make sure she’ll be there in seven days, or this won’t work.”

  They found a sheltered grove of pines at the foot of the mountains where they could sleep that night. There had been surprisingly few dragons out that day — a few solitary scouts and some two-dragon patrols — but Sunny had decided to avoid them all. She wanted to get farther away from Moorhen’s palace, just in case anyone tried to drag her and Clay back there.

  She’d expected to see more soldiers out and about, though. It was a little unsettling how quiet the skies were.

  Clay was thoughtfully watching the stars as she curled up against him in the dark.

  “Sunny,” he whispered, “I know I’m bad at remembering stuff, but … Pyrrhia only has three moons, right?”

  “Of course,” she whispered back. “Why?”

  “That thing over there,” he said, pointing with one of his wings. “It looks kind of like a moon coming this way.”

  Sunny followed his gaze to a glowing shape in the sky. It was bigger than the other stars, although not quite as big or round as a moon. She couldn’t remember ever noticing it before.

  “Freaky,” she said. “I wonder what it is. Not one of the regular moons — look, you can see all the others, there and there, and over there right on the edge of the mountains.” None of them were full, but two of them were more than halfway there and filled the sky with light.

  “I might fly up the mountain a ways and take a closer look,” Clay said. “Is that all right?”

  “Sure,” Sunny said, sitting up. “I’ll come with you.”

  They climbed higher and higher, looking for a clear view of the sky, and finally stopped on a ledge not far from the peak. Clay seemed almost entranced by the strange new thing in the sky, and so it was Sunny who looked down, and gasped, and grabbed his arm, and pointed.

  “Clay, look!” she whispered.

  The valley below them was dotted with fires, almost like a lake reflecting the stars above. But they could clearly see the shapes of dragons gathered around those fires … and the glint of weapons being polished and sharpened and readied for battle.

  “That’s where they all are,” Sunny whispered. “The MudWings are gathering for something. This must be almost their whole army.”

  Clay stared down at them, his tail twitching.

  That could have been him down there, she realized. If there had been no prophecy, he’d have grown up like any ordinary MudWing. He’d have led his brothers and sisters into battle. He’d have fought and died for Queen Moorhen, and by extension, her ally, Burn.

  “They’re planning something big,” Clay said. “I wonder how soon.”

  “Let’s go find out,” Sunny suggested, spreading her wings.

  “But you —” he started.

  “I’m just a SandWin
g,” she said. “I could be your ally. In the dark, maybe no one will look twice at my tail.” She curled it up in an imitation of the scorpion-like way the SandWings often held their tails.

  After some arguing, she won the debate, and they flew down to the MudWing camp as cautiously and quietly as they could move. There didn’t seem to be any guards on the outskirts, and they slipped in among the campfires on silent feet.

  Many of the dragons around them were sleeping, although Sunny saw at least one member awake in each small group. She remembered what they’d learned about MudWings in Clay’s home village. Each troop was made up of brothers and sisters, who fought alongside one another through thick and thin, led by whichever one was the biggest — their bigwings.

  “Someone here could pass a message to Burn,” she whispered to Clay. “But how do we decide who? And what if they’re all going off to a battle tomorrow? Do you think we can stop them?”

  She had to hurry to keep up with Clay’s longer strides. He was pacing purposefully through the camp, studying each group of dragons, and she wasn’t sure he was even really listening to her.

  Oh! she thought. I’m an idiot. Of course. Of course he was looking for his brothers and sisters. He’d only met them once, but they were often on his mind; he’d wondered aloud about them several times in the last few weeks.

  Sunny hadn’t met them, so she couldn’t help him search, but she stayed close on his heels as they walked and walked through the camp, which was even bigger than it had looked from up on the mountain. Here and there she spotted SandWings and SkyWings as well, which made her feel less conspicuous, at least.

  Suddenly Clay stopped and blocked her path with his tail. He nodded at a group of five dragons clustered around a fire, drawing formation plans in the dirt.

  “Is that them?” Sunny asked softly.

  He nodded, then started forward again.

  “Reed,” he whispered from the shadows. “Shhh. Don’t call out. It’s Clay.”

  All five dragons whirled toward him as he stepped into the circle of light.

  “Clay!” yelped the smallest one, quietly. He jumped over the fire and bounced around Clay, stepping on his talons a few times by accident.

  “Hey, Umber,” Clay said affectionately, punching the little dragon gently on the shoulder. “Everyone, this is Sunny. Reed is the bigwings; my sisters are Sora and Pheasant, and my third brother is Marsh.”

  “Hi,” Sunny whispered to all of them, nodding at each of the trusting brown-eyed faces. “It’s great to finally meet you.” The way they looked at Clay — there was a bit of terrifying hope there, as if they were expecting him to come with extra fireproof scales to protect them all.

  “Are you all right?” Reed asked. He was almost, but not quite, as big as Clay, and he held his head up and shoulders back as if he was very aware that he shouldn’t have been the bigwings. But he, too, looked at Clay with hope rather than envy or worry. “We’ve been wondering … we’ve heard rumors….”

  “Oh, we’re fine,” Clay said. “Indestructible. Don’t you worry.” He grinned at Reed, nudging his side. “What is all this? Why are you here?”

  The five MudWings exchanged looks, as if they weren’t sure whether to answer that question. Would it be treason to their queen? Or loyalty to their brother?

  Reed was the one who nodded: Yes. Tell them.

  “A huge offensive,” Pheasant said, her voice shaded with anxiety and fear and resignation. “Wipe out as many IceWings as we can in one huge sweep, and hope we kill Blaze while we’re at it.”

  “Queen Moorhen is leading us herself,” said Reed. “And Queen Ruby is supposed to bring her troops over to attack from the north. The order that came down was we keep fighting as long as any enemies are left alive.”

  “Take no prisoners,” Sora whispered, shuddering. “Kill everyone.”

  “Burn wants to end the war fast, before you guys mess everything up,” Umber added. “That’s the word going around the camp anyway.”

  “And as long as the SeaWings are still in hiding, she can focus all her energy on the Ice Kingdom,” Reed explained. “On destroying them.”

  “Every last IceWing,” Marsh finished. “Unless we all die first.” He stared into the flames of their campfire.

  The three moons were not enough to combat the dark that was pressing in around them, like shadow wings folding over their heads. The fire flickered and spat, illuminating amber underscales and dark brown tails in waves of orange light.

  “You can’t do that,” Sunny said. She could hear her voice shaking. “All of you against the IceWings — you really might wipe them out. The entire tribe.”

  “And so many of you will die trying,” Clay said, reaching one wing around Umber. “It’s so cold in the Ice Kingdom — we were there, just on the outskirts — and it was freezing. Imagine how much worse it’ll be right in the heart of it, or up by Glacier’s palace. Hundreds of dragons will freeze to death. You might — you mustn’t —” He broke off, clearing his throat.

  Marsh and Sora shuffled closer to him and he spread his other wing to go awkwardly around them as well.

  “He’s right,” Sunny said. “This is a suicide mission. Suicide or genocide, those are your only two outcomes. Clay, we can’t let this happen.”

  “What else can we do?” Reed demanded. “We’re part of an army. These are our orders — orders from our queen.”

  “You could run away,” Clay said. “Come with us. We’ll hide you.”

  “We can, but you know that’s not good enough,” Sunny said to him. “We have to stop this from happening at all.”

  “There’s five of us against Queen Moorhen, Queen Ruby, and all of Burn’s army,” Reed pointed out. “Who’s going to listen to us?”

  “I’m sure you’re not the only ones who are worried,” Sunny said. She twisted to look at the fires all around them and wondered how many of the sleeping dragons were caught in nightmares about the battles to come.

  Nightmares. She touched the pouch around her throat. A possible idea was starting to come to her.

  “When are you supposed to attack?” Clay asked.

  “We move out tomorrow morning,” Pheasant answered. “A few days to cross the mountains and the desert — those who make it — and then we’ll be at the Ice Kingdom.”

  “So we have to do something about it now,” Sunny said, standing up and pacing around the fire. “Where is Queen Moorhen? Is she here? Do you know?”

  Reed and the others looked alarmed, apart from Umber, who looked excited. “You can’t just go talk to the queen,” Reed said. “She’ll never let you get away. There are orders to capture you all if anyone sees you, although everyone’s looking for five dragonets together, and most dragons don’t know what you look like. But if you walk right into her camp — you might as well put on your own chains.”

  “We’re not going to do that,” Sunny promised. “I have a plan. A sort of a plan. A something worth trying anyway. So which way is she?”

  Umber flicked his tail toward the center of camp. “Right in the middle of everything,” he said. “Like a real bigwings.”

  “Please don’t kill her,” Sora said softly. “She’s not a bad queen.”

  “We’re not going to,” Clay assured her. “We would never. We don’t do that.”

  “We’ll be back,” Sunny promised them. She plunged into the darkness with Clay close behind her, weaving between the fires again.

  “Do you really have a sort of plan?” Clay asked. “Because I have no plan. Except maybe a throwing-up-I’m-so-nervous plan.”

  “I do,” Sunny said, curling her claws around the dreamvisitor. “I just have to see the queen and make sure she’s sleeping.”

  “Oh,” Clay said. “Aha.” He took the lead, adjusting their direction, and soon they saw a brightly burning circle of fires ahead of them. Wide-awake guards were posted between the fires, staring alertly out at the camp and up at the sky.

  But beyond the guards they could see a
huge dragon, as big as Morrowseer, curled in a slumbering ball. Firelight reflected off her russet scales and caught the glitter of gemstones on her ankles and head. The spines on her back moved slowly up and down as she breathed.

  Clustered around her were four other dragons, all smaller than her, all glittering with gems and sleeping as well.

  “Her brothers and sisters?” Sunny guessed. They stopped well out of sight of the guards, studying the royal camp.

  Clay nodded. “I think so.” He grinned. “If Starflight were here, he could tell us all their names and personal histories and what they each eat for breakfast every day.”

  Sunny grinned back, although inside, her stomach felt as though it was trying to eat itself. “I remember one thing I read,” she said. “It said that no MudWing queen has ever been challenged by a sister — only daughters. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. In your tribe, brothers and sisters are always loyal to one another. A sister would never try to take the throne from her bigwings.”

  Clay nodded. “That feels right to me,” he said.

  Sunny stared at the queen, trying to memorize her features, or what she could see of them. Would this work? Was she really going to risk it?

  The image of hundreds of IceWing corpses flashed through her head. Of course I am.

  Struck by another idea, she studied all the queen’s brothers and sisters, too. She wondered how many times the dreamvisitor could be used in one night.

  “All right,” she said, pulling Clay away.

  They chose the darkest patch of shadow they could find, outside the camp, with the mountains looming over them.

  “Maybe you should be the one to do this,” she whispered to Clay, trying to pass him the dreamvisitor.

  He shook his head and pushed it back to her. “You’ve used it before. And you’ll know what to say. And if it’s me — well, she might think it’s a normal dream, just another MudWing voicing her inner anxieties or something. But if it’s you, she’ll know it’s real. A real message from the dragonets, because nobody else looks like you.”

  That’s true, Sunny thought. And then, wryly, So maybe there is a good reason to look this weird after all.

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