The hidden kingdom, p.19
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       The Hidden Kingdom, p.19

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “Not for the RainWings,” Sunny said, “and they’re dragons, too.”

  “But —” But there’s something wrong with them, Glory thought. She didn’t want to say that out loud with the healers listening — and however many dragons were just outside the window — but she knew Starflight must be thinking it, too.

  “Maybe RainWings are more evolved than the rest of us,” Sunny said. “Maybe all dragons should try to be more like them. They’re happy, aren’t they?”

  True, Glory thought. But maybe I could have been happy as Queen Scarlet’s prisoner, as long as I got to lie in the sun and eat pineapple all day. And then where would my friends be?

  “I don’t think it’s enough to just be happy,” Glory said slowly. “I think you have to care about something, too. Like other dragons who need you, for instance. And you still have to be ready to fight, just in case some creepy ‘less evolved’ dragons decide to invade your territory and kidnap a bunch of you.”

  “I don’t believe anyone can be truly happy without scrolls,” Starflight said wistfully. “I haven’t seen a scroll in weeks and I’m perfectly miserable.”

  “Poor Starflight,” Sunny said with genuine sympathy, brushing his wings with hers. “Well, when Glory is queen she can fix all that. Starflight can teach everyone to read, and Tsunami can teach them to defend themselves.”

  “And we’ll make a list of all the eggs and all the dragons in the tribe so no one will ever get lost again, plus save the missing RainWings and choose a SandWing queen and stop the war,” Glory said. “No problem. Give me a week.”

  Sunny beamed as if this sounded like a perfectly reasonable plan to her.

  When I’m queen, Glory thought. I like the sound of that.

  Through one of the windows, Glory saw Kinkajou and Mangrove approaching. A few more curious dragons were tailing them through the trees, and Glory spotted more eyes watching from the leaves.

  Mangrove was an unexpected dappled mixture of bright yellow and lime green. Excited and terrified, she thought, but more complicated. With the return of Kinkajou, now he knew that Orchid was alive — but he also knew what an awful place she was in and how hard it would be to get her back. Glory hoped Clay and Tsunami were ready to stop him if he tried to dash through the tunnel and do any rescuing by himself.

  “Well, before we change the fundamental essence of dragons and revamp the RainWing tribe, first I have to win,” she said. “So right now I have to go train for this contest thing tomorrow. If anyone wants to come watch while the others guard the tunnel, it’s in the Arboretum at sunrise.”

  “I’ll be there,” Sunny said. “It’ll be nice to know a queen we actually like.”

  “If you win,” Starflight added gloomily.

  “I will win,” Glory said, glancing again at Mangrove’s scales. She thought of Orchid and the other rainforest dragons, chained and muzzled and fed rotting prey, imprisoned away from the sun and their own tribe. “I have to.”

  “Papaya,” Glory said. “Star fruit, tangelo, clawmentine, kumbu, dragonberry, mango, fire pear, and that one’s a trick that only looks like a fruit, but is actually a poorly designed snail.” She poked the purple snail shell with one claw and its ner vous antennae vanished again.

  The sun was high above them, and the morning rain had stopped, although the leaves kept showering the dragons every time someone bounced through and shook the trees. All the toucans and parrots and lorikeets that had disappeared during the rainfall were back, perched on the highest branches and hollering joyfully at the sun as if they’d never expected to see it again.

  And now Glory could identify all the birds in sight, after studying with Mangrove and Kinkajou all morning. Birds, insects, flowers, fruit — anything Magnificent might test her on, she would memorize. Whenever she felt her brain getting tired, she’d think of the smoky air choking the caves of the RainWings, and that would snap her back into focus.

  “Wow,” said Kinkajou. She blinked large dark eyes at Glory. “How did you learn all of that so fast?”

  “You’ve really never had any of these before?” Mangrove asked, surveying the forty or so fruits arranged around the platform.

  “One or two, maybe,” said Glory. “I should taste them all, too, right? Just in case she chooses a blind taste test?”

  “I don’t think anyone’s ever thought of that before,” said Mangrove. “But you never know.” He peeled the banana with a few swipes of his claws and tossed it to her.

  “Clay would dominate a blind taste test,” Sunny offered from her perch in the trees above them. Sunlight danced on her golden scales. A small orange monkey with a black face was playing with her tail, but Sunny either didn’t notice or didn’t mind.

  “I would,” Clay said wistfully. “Are you going to eat that whole thing?”

  Glory took another bite and then lobbed the rest of it at him. Clay fumbled to catch it and ended up with banana smeared all over his talons. He licked it off with a contented expression.

  “You can practice your camouflage at the same time,” Mangrove said. “See if you can match this mango.” He rolled it to her with his nose.

  Glory studied the outside of the mango and let her scales slowly turn a dull green with black speckles, shading to warm red around her wings and tail.

  “So cool,” said Sunny.

  “Are you going to eat that whole thing?” Clay asked.

  Glory laughed. “Clay, let me at least try it.” She tried slicing it open as neatly as Mangrove had opened the banana and made a terrific mess. Cheerful orange-yellow pulp squirted all over her scales, and Silver scrambled down Glory’s arm to lick it up.

  Stop wasting time, she scolded herself as she helped the sloth balance. The day’s half gone and you still need to practice venom targeting and tree gliding and camouflage.

  “I’m not sure this is the right time to tell you this,” Sunny said, “but you’re being watched.”

  Glory and Mangrove looked up sharply. She’d asked him to choose a spot where they could practice without attracting too much attention. It was unsettling to keep finding RainWing eyes on her every time she turned around. The whole tribe must know she wasn’t a normal RainWing, but they didn’t need to see all of her mistakes the day before she tried to become their queen.

  But Sunny was right. Even though they were in a secluded corner of the village, Glory could see dragon heads peering around tree trunks and poking out of hammocks, staring her way. As she whipped her head around to look at them, most of them quickly changed color and disappeared. But if she’d spotted those few, she could imagine how many more might be out there, camouflaged and curious about the challenger for the throne.

  Well, take me or leave me, Glory thought. I’m not a typical RainWing, but maybe that’s what you need for a queen.

  “All right, what can we do next?” she asked, popping berries in her mouth. Raspberries are sharper than cloud berries. Figs taste like desert winds. Guavas are the ones I could eat every day for the rest of time. “Venom practice?”

  “Next is sun time,” Kinkajou said, and Mangrove nodded with a glance at the sky.

  “Are you crazy?” Glory said. She seized a papaya and accidently crushed it between her front talons. “I have one day to prepare for this. I’m not going to spend it snoozing like a slug.”

  “Sun time isn’t about snoozing,” Mangrove said sternly. “It’s about recharging.”

  “Hrrrble frrrble,” agreed Glory’s sloth, climbing up to tug on Glory’s ears.

  “I’d rather study,” Glory said. She saw Kinkajou’s crestfallen face and added, “You two can go ahead. I’ll practice on my own.”

  “You will not,” said Mangrove. “You need this energy to win. You will sleep if we all have to sit on you to make it happen.”

  “I volunteer,” Clay said. “I’m a world champion at sitting on my friends.”

  “Clay!” Glory said over Sunny’s giggling. “This isn’t a joke! I don’t have time to be lazy!”

  “Glory has some issues with the word ‘lazy,’ ” Sunny announced. “Our guardians used to call her that all the time, so she feels like she needs to prove something by showing she doesn’t need to sleep.”

  Glory flared her ruff and glared at Sunny. “Excuse me. Are you explaining me?”

  Sunny shifted her wings in a friendly shrug. “Well, that’s what Starflight said,” she offered. “But it makes sense to me.”

  “Sleeping when you need to is not lazy,” said Mangrove. “That is a crazy dragon’s way of thinking. Sleeping is as important as breathing. You wouldn’t skip that because there’s no time for it.”

  “Or food,” Clay agreed. “You can’t skip sleeping or food.” The MudWing dragonet hopped off his branch and thudded down next to her, squashing a mango under his big claws. He crouched so his brown eyes were directly even with Glory’s. Silver leaned over Glory’s head and tried to poke at his horns.

  “Glory,” he said. “Stop panicking for one moment and think about how you feel right now. And I don’t mean mad; I mean, physically.”

  “I’m not panicking,” Glory said, ruffled. “I am pretty close to mad, though.”

  “And?” he prompted.

  “And getting closer,” she shot back. He gave her a patient look.

  And . . . exhausted, Glory realized, as she took a deep breath. She hadn’t really slept in a . . . well, in a really long time, not properly. She thought about the brush of sunlight on her scales.

  “Fine,” she snapped. “But wake me up in one hour, understand?”

  “We’ll see,” Clay said.

  “Rrrrrrrlleee!” cheered the sloth.

  “Come on,” Kinkajou said excitedly. “I know the best spot!”

  As Glory, Kinkajou, and Mangrove took off, there was a flurry of wingbeats throughout the trees around them as camouflaged RainWings none-too-subtly followed them. Kinkajou led the way to a platform that was built right above the treetops, with no leaves between it and the blue arc of the sky. The surface dipped in the center and was lined with cloud-soft pink blossoms, growing along the vines that were woven around the wood.

  “You take this spot,” Kinkajou said, pointing to the hollow in the middle. Glory reluctantly curled up in the vines and immediately felt warmth soaking into her bones. Silver flopped happily into her spot on Glory’s shoulder and snuggled in. Glory jumped as Kinkajou nestled on one side of her and Mangrove settled on the other. That answered that question — other RainWings didn’t mind touching one another, so it was just her who had a problem with it.

  “Um —” she started to say, but the two RainWings were already breathing deeply.

  Glory closed her eyes, certain she’d never fall asleep like this.

  A moment later she opened them and found herself looking into the amber eyes of Queen Scarlet.

  Glory leaped back with a hiss and opened her mouth.

  “Don’t you dare,” snarled the queen. “Haven’t you done enough already?”

  Glory paused, studying the SkyWing’s face.

  It was perfect — as perfect as it had ever been, a shimmering orange like the orchids growing from the moss behind her, with the small rubies above her eyes glittering in the bright sunlight.

  And then Scarlet’s whole body . . . flickered somehow, and under the perfect scales Glory saw something dark and melted, a horrible smeared mess where a face used to be. Behind Scarlet she caught a glimpse of a dim room with glass jars hanging from the ceiling, some of them glowing strangely.

  “Oh. You’re not really here,” Glory said as the rainforest reappeared and Scarlet’s scales smoothed back to perfect. The queen was perched on the edge of Glory’s sleeping platform, but now that Glory looked closely, she could see that the SkyWing’s claws didn’t sink into the leaves below her.

  Glory sat down and curled her tail around her talons. Kinkajou and Mangrove were fast asleep on either side of her, the sloth was snoring on her shoulder, and the sun had climbed higher in the sky.

  “Am I even awake?” Glory asked.

  “No,” said Scarlet. “I’ve been trying to catch you asleep for days.” She held up a small star-shaped sapphire that glowed an eerie blue light through her claws. “Once I realized what this was.”

  “A dreamvisitor,” Glory said, recognizing the shape from her scrolls. “I read about those. An animus dragon made three of them hundreds of years ago, right? I thought the last one in exis tence was lost with the SandWing trea sure, when the scavenger killed Queen Oasis and stole it all.”

  “Apparently not,” Scarlet said, opening her claws to glance down at it.

  “So you’re really alive,” Glory said.

  “You don’t sound as disappointed as I thought you would be,” Scarlet said.

  Glory flicked her tail. “It’s not that I want you dead. I just want you not trying to kill us.”

  “I never tried to kill you,” Scarlet pointed out. “I quite liked you. We could have had a thrilling time together.” She stood up and paced toward Glory until their snouts were almost nose-to-nose. “Which reminds me. I wanted to try something.”

  Abruptly she lashed out with her free talon, slashing at Glory’s face. Her claws sliced right through Glory’s scales like raindrops splashing icy water over her. It was cold, but it didn’t hurt. Scarlet’s claws weren’t really there. Glory fixed that thought in her head as Scarlet lunged again. She closed her eyes and sat perfectly still. There was nothing the SkyWing queen could do to her right now. She was no more dangerous than any dream.

  After a few moments, Glory opened her eyes again, and Scarlet stepped back, hissing. Smoke rose up from her nose, winding around her horns, and the dark misshapen snout underneath flickered through again for a moment, along with the room beyond.

  “Where are you?” Glory asked.

  “If I tell you, will you find me and free me?” Scarlet asked.

  “Not likely,” Glory said. “Wait, let me think. Absolutely, definitely not.”

  “But you owe me,” Scarlet said, stamping one foot.

  Glory tilted her head sideways. “How, exactly, do you figure that?”

  “For what you did to me,” Scarlet seethed. “I was beautiful before. I had every thing.”

  “Including a pretty rainbow dragon on a tree,” Glory said. “I remember.”

  “If you don’t free me,” Scarlet said, “I will find a way out of here myself, and then when I find you, I will kill you.”

  “You know, something tells me that’s on your agenda either way,” Glory said.

  Scarlet hissed deep in her throat and then shot a blast of flame at Glory’s face. Calm and blue, Glory thought. Stay calm and blue.

  “Is someone keeping you prisoner?” Glory asked. A thought occurred to her. “Is it the NightWings?”

  “If you’re not going to help me,” Scarlet growled, “I’ll find someone else who will.”

  And suddenly she was gone, leaving only a curl of smoke in the air.

  So there’s my answer. Scarlet is alive. Glory noticed that the leaves below her were shaking. Oh, wait. That’s me.

  Kinkajou stirred as if she felt Glory shaking, too. She nestled closer and Glory felt sun-drenched warmth along her scales.

  Slowly she closed her eyes, breathing deeply, and drifted out of the dream.

  When she woke up, she knew right away it had been longer than an hour. Silver was crouched in front of her, stroking Glory’s nose with a worried expression. The other two were awake and stretching contentedly.

  “Don’t you feel better?” Kinkajou asked.

  “Yes,” Glory admitted. And no.

  “Then let’s do tree gliding next!” Kinkajou said cheerfully.

  “Fine by me,” said Mangrove, and
Glory nodded. She was too shaken to argue.

  She wondered what Scarlet would think of Glory becoming queen of the RainWings. She wondered if being a queen would make her any safer.

  Sunny and Clay waved from their branch down below. Should I tell them? I should tell them. I will tell them, but not yet. Glory wanted to talk to Starflight first, to see what he could remember about dreamvisitors and if he could guess anything about the room she’d seen behind Scarlet. His giant brain was what she needed for a puzzle like this.

  As Glory lifted into the sky, setting off a commotion of hidden wings, she wondered where the SkyWing queen was . . . and when she would see her again.

  The Arboretum, it turned out, was the heart of the RainWing village. Vines and branches were woven tightly together to form a wide field high above the ground, open to the sky and surrounded by treehouses, walkways, and hammocks. Several of the treehouses around the edge appeared to be set up for trading fruits and flower garlands. Brilliant blue and coppery orange birds darted through the leaves, chattering and calling to one another like an audience gathering for a performance.

  There seemed to be room for the entire village to gather around the edges of the circle — and it looked like the entire village had shown up. The rumble of dragon voices mixed with the chirruping of sloths and sent shivers through the wooden walkway where Glory stood, studying the green stadium in front of her.

  Glory was reminded, uncomfortably, of the SkyWing arena where her friends had battled for Queen Scarlet’s amusement. From the way Tsunami’s tail was twitching, Glory guessed she felt the same way.

  “This is unfair,” Tsunami grumbled. “If you win —”

  “You’ll have to call me ‘Your Majesty,’ ” Glory said, grinning. “I know. Won’t that be hilarious?”

  “Arrrgh, and your face will look like that all the time,” Tsunami said. “It’s going to be so hard not to bite you.”

  “But if you do, my guards will throw you in my dungeons,” Glory said with an imperious wave of her talons.

  “RainWings don’t have dungeons,” Kinkajou pointed out.

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