The lost heir, p.21
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       The Lost Heir, p.21

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  Glory’s face was expressionless, but small puffs of rose pink were blooming in her scales. Tsunami guessed that meant she was happy, since it wasn’t a color they saw very often on her.

  “Are you — are you sure?” Glory said. “That’s what we should do next?”

  “Absolutely,” Sunny said. “We should definitely go find your home, Glory.”

  “I bet it’s beautiful,” Clay said in his sweet, earnest way. “And your family will be so happy to see you.”

  Webs let out a small groan, but when they turned to look at him, he closed his eyes as if he’d fallen asleep. Tsunami was sure he was pretending, but what they did next wasn’t up to him anyway.

  “It’s also closer to here than most of the other tribes,” Starflight pointed out. “We have to cross the outskirts of MudWing territory, but the rainforest should be basically due southwest of here.”

  “I know that,” Glory said crossly. “You’re not the only one who can memorize maps, Starflight.”

  “Perfect,” Tsunami said. “That’s what we’ll do.”

  “After we rest?” Sunny asked hopefully.

  Tsunami thought she could keep flying, all night if she had to. She wanted to put as much distance between them and Blister as possible. She wanted to shove all the other dragonets ahead of her all the way to the rainforest without stopping.

  But she looked at Sunny’s tired eyes and Starflight’s drooping wings, and she settled herself close to Webs’s tail. “After we rest,” she agreed.

  Sunny lay down again with a relieved sigh. A few moments later, Tsunami saw her back rising and falling in deep sleep.

  Clay flopped down next to Tsunami, his tail draped over hers. “I’m sorry about your mother,” he said. “And the palace. And Blister. And Whirlpool. And Riptide. And —”

  “All right, I get it, thanks,” Tsunami said, cutting him off with a nudge.

  “I hope they all make it through the attack,” he said quietly.

  “Me too,” she said. “But they’ll be safe in the Deep Palace. At least they have somewhere else to go.” She thought for a moment. “And I think Anemone will be a good queen one day. She has Coral’s good qualities, but she thinks for herself, and she’s still young. She’ll get stronger and more in de pen dent as she gets older.”

  “If she’s anything like you, ‘in de pen dent’ will be an understatement,” Glory said. She tucked herself along Clay’s other side and he put one wing over her. Starflight had tentatively nosed in beside Sunny, and now his eyes were closed as well.

  “The Kingdom of the Sea wasn’t the right place for me anyway,” Tsunami said, partly to convince herself.

  “What about your great royal destiny?” Glory teased. “What about how you’d be the greatest queen of all time?”

  “Well,” Tsunami said with a shrug, “I guess I’ll have to settle for being the boss of you guys.”

  “Ha!” Glory said, but not in her usual sarcastic way. Amused yellow bubbles floated through her wings, and she reached over to nose Tsunami’s shoulder. “You can certainly keep trying.”

  I will, Tsunami thought, but not because I think I’m the greatest and everyone should listen to me. I’ll keep trying to lead you because it’s the only way I know to keep you all safe. And maybe sometimes I’ll have to listen, the way Mother listens to her Council, and sometimes I won’t be able to do exactly what I want.

  But even when she was mad at her friends, she knew she could trust them. And she had to be the kind of dragon they could trust as well.

  She glanced up at the moons, two of them glowing pale and ghostly beyond the trees.

  There were more important things than becoming queen.

  Stopping the war was one of them. If the five of them were the only ones who could — then maybe that was what they had to do, whether Tsunami believed in destiny or not.

  She wriggled closer to her friends. All of them were sleeping soundly now.

  So the Kingdom of the Sea wasn’t home after all, she thought. I wonder if anywhere ever will be.

  “Well,” Morrowseer said. “So that didn’t go as planned.”

  “You ne glected to mention a few things,” said Blister calmly. “Such as the fact that your five dragonets are remarkably annoying.” She draped her barbed tail pointedly over her talons and folded her wings back.

  “Yes,” said the NightWing. “True. But you might have tried to be a little less sinister at them.” He stared down at the charred ruins of the Summer Palace. Fires were still smoldering on a few floors of the pavilion. Three days after the battle, nothing remained but smoke and corpses.

  “At least Webs is dead,” he said.

  “Should be by now,” she answered, flipping her tail up and down.

  “Queen Coral survived?” he asked.

  “And both her brats as well,” said Blister. “It wouldn’t be convenient for me if she died.” She bared her teeth and hissed softly. “Of course, now she’s hiding in her Deep Palace where I can’t get to her. And she insists that my secret weapon will be no use to me for years still. She’s gotten all squeamish about animus powers since finding out about her first daughter — like she’d rather waste that little one’s magic just to keep her from turning homicidal.” Blister sighed a small burst of flame. “It’s not been my favorite week of the war.”

  She batted away a piece of smoking foliage. “So, NightWing, I hope for your sake that you bring me news I want to hear.”

  “There is another option,” Morrowseer said, “but I’m not sure you’ll like it much better.” He spread his wings and beckoned to a green shape circling in the sky overhead.

  The SeaWing landed carefully on the cliffside, vines crumbling to ashes below his claws. He glanced down at the palace and shuddered. Morrowseer noticed that he stayed well away from Blister. Perhaps he’d heard — or guessed — what had happened to Kestrel.

  “This is Nautilus,” Morrowseer explained. “One of the leaders of the Talons of Peace. Nautilus, explain your backup plan to the queen.”

  “Possible future queen,” Nautilus corrected, then jumped back ner vously as Blister raised her poisonous tail. “Er,” he said quickly, “we have a . . . a set of alternatives.”

  Blister’s black eyes glittered with interest. “Alternatives?” she said. “Really. My, my. I had no idea the Talons of Peace could be so devious.”

  Nautilus frowned. “We prefer to think of it as planning for every contingency,” he said. “We have to do whatever’s necessary so the prophecy will come true.”

  “Or true-ish,” Morrowseer interjected.

  “Of course,” Blister said. “Dragonets can be so unpredictable. You are very wise.”

  “Well,” Nautilus said, pleased, “it was my idea.”

  “Of course it was,” she said. “Very clever. We are talking about false dragonets, yes?”

  “But,” rumbled Morrowseer.

  “Yes,” Nautilus said. His tail twitched. “But. They’re, ah — not quite perfect.”

  “Hmmm,” said Blister. “Worse than the originals? Is that possible?”

  “Well . . . different. Or else they’d be plan A,” Nautilus said. “Obviously.”

  “All I want to know is whether they’ll do as they’re told,” Blister said.

  “Um.” Nautilus wrinkled his snout and stared at the sky. “Maaaaybe?”

  “This does sound promising,” Blister said drily. “I can’t wait to meet them.”

  “Perhaps we can take the best options from each group,” Morrowseer said. “Kill the RainWing, obviously. We can probably work with the original MudWing.”

  “Your NightWing is useless,” Blister said. “Worst traitor I’ve ever seen.”

  Morrowseer shook his head. “That is very disappointing. We don’t often kill off our dragonets, but . . .” He sighed. “If we must.”

  “Uh,” said Nautilus, “you might want to meet our other option first. I mean, not to interfere. Just a suggestion.”

  “And we’
ll definitely kill the SeaWing,” Blister snarled.

  Nautilus flapped his wings, backing away in a hurry.

  “Not you,” she said impatiently. “Well, not right now.”

  “I thought Tsunami had some potential,” Morrowseer muttered.

  “Potential to annoy my tail off,” Blister growled. “No, she definitely has to go.”

  “We have dragons working on it as we speak,” Morrowseer promised. “Recruiting assassins is surprisingly easy in the middle of a war.”

  “Good.” Blister flicked her tail menacingly. “Those dragonets need to know they’re not as valuable as they think they are. Anyone can be replaced.” She smiled with all her teeth. “After all . . . there’s more than one way to fulfill a prophecy.”

  “Glory,” Tsunami scolded. “Bright-yellow scales are the one thing they might see. Go back to camouflage.”

  Glory glanced down and saw the starbursts of gold that had appeared all across her scales. Those meant happiness or excitement — as far as she knew, since she’d seen them pretty rarely in her life. It drove her crazy when her scales changed color without her telling them to. They did that way too often. She had to squash every big emotion before it splashed all over her.

  She concentrated on the steady drip-drip of the swamp around them, staring down at the thick brown mud oozing through her claws. She imagined the fog winding around her wings, slipping into the cracks in her scales, and spreading like gray clouds rolling across the sky.

  “Aaaand she’s gone,” Tsunami said.

  “She’s still there,” Sunny piped up. She edged closer to Glory and bumped into one of her wings. “See? Right there.” She stretched out a talon to touch Glory, but Glory moved out of reach. Sunny felt around in the air for a moment and then gave up.

  The little SandWing had been unusually quiet for the last few days. Glory guessed Sunny hated the rain, too — the desert dragons were designed for searing heat, blazing sun, and endless clear-sky days. Even an odd-looking SandWing like Sunny still had the instincts of her tribe.

  Really, Clay was the only one happy about the weather. Only a MudWing could appreciate the squishing and squashing under their claws as they traveled through the swamp.

  Starflight swiveled his head suddenly. “I think I smell someone coming,” he whispered. He shuddered from horns to claws.

  “Don’t panic,” Tsunami whispered back. “Clay, you hide me and Sunny. Starflight, find a shadow and do your invisible petrified NightWing thing. Glory, you can shield Webs.”

  “No, thanks,” Glory said immediately. She wasn’t going anywhere near Webs, and certainly not to save his life. “I’ll take Sunny.” She didn’t like touching other dragons, but Sunny was better than Webs.

  “But —” Tsunami started, stamping her foot.

  Glory ignored her. She lifted one wing and tugged the little gold dragon in close to her side. When she lowered her wing again, Sunny was hidden by Glory’s gray-brown camouflage.

  “Yikes,” Clay said. “That was so weird. Like Sunny just got eaten by the fog.” His stomach grumbled woefully at the word “eaten,” and Clay shuffled his big feet in embarrassment.

  Starflight peered at the spot where Sunny had just been, twisting his claws in the mud.

  “She’s fine,” Glory said. “Go follow orders like a good dragonet, or Tsunami might fling you to the eels.”

  Tsunami frowned in her direction, but Starflight slunk away and found a dark tree hollow where his black scales melted into the shadows.

  Now Glory could hear it, too: the tramp-squelch-tramp-squelch of enormous claws marching toward them through the swamp. The heat from Sunny’s scales was uncomfortably warm against her side.

  Webs hadn’t moved while they talked. He lay curled against the tree roots, snout resting on his tail, looking miserable.

  Clay shepherded Tsunami up next to Webs and spread his mud-colored wings to hide them both. It wasn’t a perfect solution — a blue tail stuck out on one side, the edges of blue-green wings on the other. But in this fog, they looked mostly like a blobby mound of mud, which should be good enough.

  Tramp. Squelch. Tramp. Squelch.

  “I don’t like this patrol,” a deep voice grumbled. Glory nearly jumped. It sounded like it was coming from two trees away. “Too close to that creepy rainforest, if you ask me.”

  “It’s not really haunted,” said a second voice. “You know the only things that live there are birds and lazy RainWings.”

  Years of learning self-control kept Glory from flinching. She’d heard “lazy RainWings” thrown around often enough by the guardians under the mountain. But it felt like an extra stab in the eye to hear it from a total stranger.

  “If that were true,” said the first voice, “then Her Majesty would let us hunt in there. But she knows it’s not safe. And you’ve heard the noises at night. Are you telling me it’s the RainWings screaming like that?”

  Screaming? Sunny turned her head a little, as if she were trying to hear better.

  “Not to mention the dead bodies,” the first voice muttered.

  “That’s not some kind of rainforest monster,” said the second guard, but there was a tilt in her tone that sounded unsure. “That’s the war. Some kind of guerrilla attacks to scare us.”

  “All the way down here? Why would the SeaWings or the IceWings come all this way to kill one or two MudWings here and there? There are bigger battles going on everywhere else.”

  “Let’s go a bit faster,” said the second voice uneasily. “They should really let us patrol in threes or fours instead of in pairs.”

  “Tell me about it.” Tramp squelch tramp squelch. “So, what do you think about the SkyWing situation? Are you for Ruby, or do you think . . .”

  Glory strained her ears, but their voices faded into the mist as the two MudWing soldiers sploshed away. If only she could follow them — she badly wanted to know what “the SkyWing situation” was. Maybe her friends wouldn’t notice if she slipped away for a moment.

  “Be right back,” she whispered to Sunny, lifting her wing and stepping away.

  Sunny caught her tail, wide-eyed. “Don’t go!” she whispered. “It’s not safe! You heard what they said.”

  “About rainforest monsters?” Glory rolled her eyes. “Can’t say I’m terribly worried about that. I won’t go far.” She shook Sunny off and slipped after the soldiers, carefully stepping only on the dry patches so her claws wouldn’t splash in the mud.

  It was weirdly quiet in the swamp, especially with the fog muffling most sounds. She tried to follow the distant rumble of voices and what she thought might be the sound of marching MudWing talons. But after a few moments, even those became impossible to hear.

  She stopped, listening. The trees dripped. Rain drizzled moodily through the branches. Small gurgles burbled out of the mud here and there, as if the swamp were hiccupping.

  And then a scream tore through the air.

  Glory’s ruff flared in fear and pale green stripes zigzagged through her scales. She fought back her terror, focusing her colors back to gray and brown.

  “Glory!” Sunny yelled, behind her somewhere.

  Shut up, Glory thought furiously. Don’t draw attention. Don’t let anything know we’re here.

  The other dragonets must have had the same thought and stopped her, because she didn’t call out again.

  Unless it was one of them who screamed. But it couldn’t have been. The scream had come from somewhere up ahead.

  Glory checked her scales again to make sure she was well hidden, and then sped up, hurrying through the trees toward the scream.

  The fog was so dense, she nearly missed the two dark lumps that looked like fallen logs. But her claws came down on something that was decidedly a dragon tail, and she leaped back.

  Two brown dragons were sprawled in the mud, surrounded by pools of blood that were already being washed away by the rain. Their throats had been ripped out so viciously that their heads were nearly severed from their bo
dies.

  Glory stared into the rolling gray fog, but nothing moved out there except the rain.

  The MudWing soldiers were dead, and there was no sign of what had killed them.

  Text copyright © 2012 by Tui T. Sutherland

  Map and Border design © 2012 by Mike Schley

  Dragon illustrations © 2012 by Joy Ang

  All rights reserved. Published by Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., Publishers since 1920. SCHOLASTIC, SCHOLASTIC PRESS, and associated logos are trademarks and/or registered trademarks of Scholastic Inc.

  e-ISBN 978-0-545-47010-0

  First printing, January 2013

  Cover design by Phil Falco

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the publisher. For information regarding permission, write to Scholastic Inc., Attention: Permissions Department, 557 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.

 


 

  Tui T. Sutherland, The Lost Heir

 


 

 
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