The brightest night, p.20
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       The Brightest Night, p.20

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “You can do it, Sunny,” Clay said. “I’m completely sure.” He twined his tail around hers and she felt a tiny bit less terrified.

  Sunny cupped her talons around the dreamvisitor and held it to her head, closing her eyes. She’d only ever used it on her friends.

  Please let this work, she prayed.

  She thought of the huge brown dragon she’d just seen. Queen Moorhen. Let me in.

  After a long moment she opened her eyes and found herself standing ankle-deep in mud. Mud stretched around her, an endless warm swamp dotted with mangroves and dozing crocodiles. The sun was high above them in a hazy sky and insects buzzed through the long cattails.

  Sunny turned in a circle and spotted Queen Moorhen pacing across a dry island that stuck out of the mud. Several scrolls were scattered around her talons, many of them covered in brown spatters, and a large map of Pyrrhia was scratched into the dirt. The queen lashed her tail and drew long lines with her claws across the mountains, furrowing them through the sketched-out Kingdom of Sand, and then slashing furiously at the corner of the map that represented the Ice Kingdom. She stopped, shook her head, and glanced down at the mud.

  With a jolt of horror, Sunny realized that there were dead bodies lying half submerged around the queen’s island. She recognized at least one of them as one of the queen’s brothers, who’d been sleeping nearby in the royal camp.

  This is a real nightmare. She might not be able to hear me.

  But Sunny had to try. She waded through the mud, which felt gloppily real against her scales, and clambered up onto the island behind the MudWing queen.

  Moorhen whirled around and stared at her.

  Sunny spread her talons. “I’m harmless,” she said. “I’m here to talk.”

  “Here? Now?” the queen demanded. “Can’t you see I’m in the middle of a campaign? And everyone is dying and it’s all my fault and I can’t save them?” She slashed her claws across the Kingdom of Sand and turned to look down into the mud again. Her wings trembled and she lowered her snout to the closest corpse. “No. No, I command you not to die.”

  “This is a dream,” Sunny said firmly and loudly. “You’re only dreaming. I promise you.”

  The queen drew back from the corpse. “Hmm,” she said.

  “It’s a nightmare,” Sunny said. “But they’re not dead. Your brothers and sisters are asleep right beside you in the camp. They’re safe, at least for now.”

  “What does that mean?” Queen Moorhen asked. Her voice sounded less strained and her wings were relaxing. “Is that a threat?”

  “Not at all,” Sunny said hastily. “I want them to be safe, too. I want all your subjects to be safe. That’s why I’m here.”

  The queen looked up at the sky, then around at the swamp, down at the map, and back at Sunny. “This is really a dream? Then how are you here?”

  “Old magic,” Sunny said. “But that’s not important. Do you know who I am?”

  “I have a guess,” said the queen. “Shouldn’t there be five of you?”

  “There are five of us,” Sunny said. “But I’m the one here talking to you. I’m here to tell you not to attack the Ice Kingdom. Not tomorrow, not ever. Too many dragons will die if you do, on both sides.”

  “Is that an omen?” Queen Moorhen asked. “Did your NightWing tell you that?”

  “You know it doesn’t take a NightWing prophecy to see that future,” Sunny said, touching one claw lightly to the scratched-up map beside her. “You know how many of your dragons you’ll lose.”

  The queen drew a line in the dirt in front of her. “But then the war will be over, and perhaps that’ll be worth it. Burn has promised us immunity from attack for the next hundred years if we help her win. If we don’t — she’ll destroy us. She is a powerful enemy, little SandWing. A lot more powerful than you, and she’s an enemy I don’t intend to make.”

  “You don’t have to,” Sunny said, thinking, That’s how Burn got her MudWing alliance? With intimidation and threats? So Queen Moorhen joined the war to protect her dragons…. It sounds backward, but I can see it. “We’re going to end the war. We have a message for Burn — meet us at midnight in seven days’ time, in the main courtyard of her stronghold. If you can tell her to do that instead of attacking the IceWings, we’ll find a way to stop the war. And you can come, too. We want everyone to see that this is the end of the fighting. No more dragons have to die.”

  Queen Moorhen tilted her head with a skeptical expression. “It sounds like a tale from one of the SeaWing queen’s silly romantic scrolls. What are you planning to do?”

  “You’ll see,” Sunny said. “Just be there. Be there instead of watching your dragons die in the Ice Kingdom. Bring the SkyWings, too. Everyone who wants this war to be over.”

  The queen nodded slowly. “I’ll think about it. Are you choosing Burn, then?”

  “We’re choosing peace,” Sunny said. “That’s the important thing.”

  “That sounds like you’re avoiding the question,” Moorhen pointed out.

  “Does it matter?” Sunny asked. “As long as the war is over?”

  The queen thought for a long time, and then sighed. “Perhaps not.”

  “Make sure Burn is there,” Sunny said. “It’s important.”

  “It sounds like it,” said the MudWing queen. She brushed her tail over the map of Pyrrhia, erasing it and all the agonized clawmarks she’d drawn on it. “I’ll see what I can do.”

  That sounded a little ridiculous to Sunny — if the queen of the MudWings couldn’t do as she’d asked, then what chance did anyone have? But she didn’t say that. She bowed and stepped back.

  “Thank you, Your Majesty,” she said instead.

  “Good luck,” said the queen. “You’re very small to be in charge of saving the world.”

  “And weird-looking,” Sunny agreed. “But we can do it if everyone helps.”

  “Hmmm.” Queen Moorhen pulled her wings in close and stared down at the mud-covered bodies of her brothers and sisters all around her. “Maybe.”

  As Sunny lifted the dreamvisitor away from her head, stepping out of the dream, she thought she heard the queen whisper one last thing.

  “I hope so.”

  Sunny was tired after visiting the queen’s dream, but she made herself step into the dreams of the royal siblings next. Three brothers and one sister, all of them having similar anxiety dreams, most of them about Queen Moorhen dying in some awful way. One of the brothers was having such a terrible nightmare that Sunny wasn’t able to get through to him at all, but the others saw her, and they seemed to listen to what she said. They each answered that it was up to Moorhen to make the decision, but Sunny had a feeling the queen would listen to her siblings more than any other advisors she might have, and if they could persuade her … well, it was worth the chance.

  After that, as she and Clay were walking back through the camp, past so many sleeping dragons, she stopped, brushing his wing with hers.

  “We can do more,” she said. “Not all of them, but … if even a few dragons talk about having dream messages from us, maybe that’ll make a difference.”

  “Aren’t you tired?” Clay asked. “You look like you haven’t slept in a week.”

  There had been a lot of exhausting flying lately, more than she was used to, and all she wanted was to curl up under Clay’s wing and sleep for the next month. But that was not an option.

  “I can do it,” she assured him.

  “Let me do some, too,” he said, holding out his talons. “You can rest while I do that.”

  They chose sleeping dragons at random, standing in the shadows nearby and dropping lightly into their dreams. Most of them were nightmares; there were nightmares all through the camp. Sometimes Sunny could break through and show them they were dreaming, and then they would listen. She kept her messages brief: The war is almost over. No more killing. Don’t go to the Ice Kingdom. The war will be over soon. You can help. Stop fighting. Spread the word.

They found Reed and the others again as early morning light was beginning to creep across the camp. Umber, Marsh, and Sora were fast asleep in a pile of tails and wings, but Pheasant and Reed were awake, watching for them with matching anxious expressions.

  “We did our best,” Clay whispered, pressing their talons in his. “Hopefully you’ll get new orders soon.”

  “But we should go before we’re seen,” Sunny said.

  “Do you want to come with us?” Clay asked.

  Reed sighed and looked at his sleeping brothers and sister. “No. I mean, I do, but we are loyal to the queen, and we don’t want to be fugitives. I wish I could at least give you Umber or Marsh, but they won’t leave the rest of us. We stick together. That’s our way.”

  “I’m sorry,” Clay said reluctantly. “I wish I could stay. If you do have to fight … I wish I could be there with you.”

  “Me too,” Reed admitted in a low voice.

  Pheasant shook her head but didn’t say anything. She nudged the others awake, and they each hugged Clay good-bye.

  “See you soon,” Sunny said, trying to sound more hopeful than she felt.

  “Be safe,” Clay said. “I’m glad you have Reed.” He wrapped his wings around his brother again, and then he and Sunny hurried off through the camp, toward the safety of the mountains. They stayed on the ground, afraid that the guards would spot them if they flew this close to the camp.

  Most of the campfires were now just dying embers, but a few had been rebuilt and the smell of roasting meat and smoke floated through the pre-dawn air. Birds fluttered and chirped in the trees at halfhearted intervals, as if they weren’t sure they should be awake yet. Sunny’s eyes ached and her wings had never felt heavier.

  They had reached the scrub brush on the hills overlooking the camp when Sunny heard a different sound coming from behind them. Not the rustling and stamping of dragons or the clanking of weapons.

  She heard singing.

  Oh, the dragonets are coming …

  “Clay,” she whispered. “Do you hear that? Am I imagining it?”

  He stopped and lifted his head to listen.

  They’re coming to save the day …

  Voices in the camp below — more than one, in different parts of the camp. The MudWings were singing.

  They’re coming to fight, for they know what’s right …

  It was the eerie version they’d last heard in the Sky Palace, not the usual rousing bar song that Tsunami used to sing around the cave whenever she wanted to annoy the guardians. Sunny had been trapped in her birdcage, alone, on display above the banquet Scarlet was holding for Burn. But everyone there had heard it — the sound of the prisoners singing, echoing over the cliffs in the night. Sunny could remember the shivery, hopeful feeling it had given her, and she also remembered the expressions on some of the soldiers’ faces. Hope, dread, longing … most of them much more complicated than the pure fury visible on Scarlet and Burn.

  She felt it again now, like sand trickling across her scales all the way down her spine. Those dragons singing — those were the dragons who believed in them. They were the reason she and her friends had to do this.

  I hope we can do this. I really, really hope we can do this.

  She glanced up at Clay, who smiled at her. Just being near him made her feel like anything was possible. Clay was so real and solid and dependable and kind. He would always be there.

  Clay had kept all of them from killing each other as they grew up under the mountain, trapped with only one another and their guardians. If he hadn’t been there, would they have been more like the “alternates” — the fake dragonets of destiny — who’d hated one another? Could Tsunami, Glory, and Starflight have turned out that way, hostile and aggressive and angry all the time, if they hadn’t had Clay to keep them together? Would Sunny have ended up like Fatespeaker, clinging to a belief in a friendship and loyalty that didn’t exist?

  But that hadn’t happened. They’d had Clay, and he stopped them from fighting too much, and he made jokes when anyone was sad, and he made them care about one another, and he believed in all of them. He’d made them a family, even though they were from different tribes.

  He really is our bigwings.

  “Let’s get back to the others,” she said, and he nodded, and soon they were winging their way back to the rainforest.

  Six more days.

  We can do this.

  * * *

  “She’s not coming?” Sunny cried. “What do you mean she’s not coming?” A shower of raindrops pattered over her wings, sending pink-and-red hibiscus flowers whirling down past her toward the ground far below.

  Jambu shook his head, looking very literally blue from horns to tail. “We tried, but every IceWing we talked to basically laughed at us. They said Blaze never leaves her fortress, and she won’t until Glacier lets her go, which will be when Burn and Blister are dead.”

  “They know if she gets near one of her sisters, she’s dead,” Mangrove said. “She doesn’t stand a chance in a challenge duel.”

  “Then why do the IceWings support her?” Glory said crossly. “Don’t they want the SandWings to have a strong queen? No, of course they don’t,” she answered herself, figuring it out as she spoke. “The one kingdom they share a border with — wouldn’t it be great if it happened to be ruled by a vain, silly dragon who was totally in debt to them and did everything their queen ordered. Maddening for us, but sensible for them. Queen Glacier knows what she’s doing. Unless she loses — like if Blaze happened to die somehow — in which case she’d have to deal with Burn right on her border, all enraged and looking for vengeance. All right, yes, I can see why she’d keep her safely locked up. Three moons.”

  “That was like watching her brain work on the outside of her head,” Fatespeaker said to Starflight.

  “Well, we can’t let her stay all locked up,” Sunny said. “It’s not going to work unless all three sisters are there. Right? Don’t you agree?”

  “Yes,” Glory said, and Tsunami and Starflight nodded as well. “If what you want is to forge a peace treaty, all the combatants need to be present to agree to it.” Glory scratched her snout, thinking. “Perhaps it would be enough to have Queen Glacier there … but I don’t think so. Glacier would know that it would look like weakness to come in her place and let Blaze stay in hiding. Safer for neither of them to show up.”

  “But doesn’t Queen Glacier want to end the war, too?” Sunny said. “I’m sure she does. I’m especially sure she would if she knew what Burn and the MudWings were planning a few days ago, even if they’ve put off their invasion plans for now.”

  “Are we sure about that?” Starflight asked. “They’re really not invading?”

  “It doesn’t look like it,” Glory said. On her shoulder, her sloth woke up, chirruped sleepily, and tucked itself closer to her wing before closing its eyes again. “We’ve dreamvisited with Clay’s brother and also sent out scouts to check. It seems like that MudWing camp is in a holding pattern — no one flying off to kill IceWings, at least for now.”

  “Queen Moorhen is waiting to see what happens at the stronghold,” Sunny said, shaking loose flowers off her wings. “Which means our plan really has to work, or else the invasion might still happen. Maybe if we could tell Queen Glacier that, she’d let Blaze come.”

  “Maybe,” Tsunami said, “but we can’t get to the queen if she’s in her ice palace, not that it would be safe to go talk to her no matter where she is.”

  “And none of us have seen her, so we can’t even dreamvisit her,” Clay pointed out.

  “But we can dreamvisit Blaze,” Sunny said. “I think that’s what we have to do. Glory, you should do it. You’re really convincing.”

  Glory looked down at the sapphire as Sunny passed it to her. She thought for a moment, then shook her head. “No, she won’t listen to me. She kept saying I shouldn’t be part of the prophecy, remember? She wouldn’t take me seriously.”

  “And she’s jealous of Glory,”
Deathbringer interjected. “Blaze doesn’t like any dragons prettier than she is. Which Glory is. Not that I’ve noticed, myself, personally. It’s just a fact.”

  “Enough out of you,” Glory said, folding her wings in, but not before Sunny spotted the hints of pink blooming along the edges. “I’ve already said you can be the NightWing liaison, so flattery won’t get you anything else, Mr. Clever Scales.”

  “It’s not flattery to state the obvious,” he said.

  “It should be Sunny or Tsunami,” Glory said, ignoring him and passing the sapphire back into Sunny’s talons. “Tsunami actually got wounded trying to help her, so she might be impressed by that. But then, Tsunami is about as diplomatic as a starving rhinoceros, so I’d probably vote for Sunny.”

  “I BEG YOUR PARDON,” Tsunami objected. “I can be VERY DIPLOMATIC when I WANT to be.”

  “I’m sure,” Glory said. “Any other votes?”

  As each of them voted for her, Sunny felt as though her own scales might turn pink.

  “You are all — you’re — you’re such a bunch of —” Tsunami sputtered.

  “Frog-faced blobs of camel spit?” Sunny suggested.

  Tsunami started laughing so hard she nearly fell off the branch. “All right, fine,” she said, recovering at last. “I don’t see how I can compete with that kind of mastery of language.”

  “But then you should use the dreamvisitor to talk to your mother,” Sunny said. “Or to someone in your kingdom. Some SeaWings should come to the stronghold, if any of them are willing, to see what happens.”

  Tsunami nodded, bumping Sunny’s shoulder affectionately. “I can do that. I’d like to check on Anemone anyway.”

  That night, Sunny took the dreamvisitor and flew to the pool by the tunnels. She chose the tunnel that led from the Kingdom of Sand to the rainforest. The one that led to the Night Kingdom smelled of burnt scales and fire, and still radiated heat.

  She crouched in the darkest part of the tunnel, where it was pitch-black. There was nothing around her to offer a clue about where she was. Even if the dreamvisitor gave the dreamer a glimpse of her, all she would see was blackness. Hopefully Blaze would think it was a cave in the mountains, if anything.

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