Darkstalker, p.21
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       Darkstalker, p.21

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “Well,” Darkstalker said with a shrug, “if this is too effective for Clearsight’s delicate sensibilities, perhaps we could do something more targeted. I could enchant a pile of rocks — let’s say at least a hundred — which, when dropped on an IceWing encampment, or hidden in the sand where they’ll pass by, would explode and kill every IceWing in sight. Then we’d only hit soldiers … probably. Would that make you feel better, Clearsight?”

  She turned away from him. She couldn’t bear the look on his face, or the queen’s, so pleased with their own wicked ideas.

  “I need to study the consequences,” she said. “Give me some time to trace the futures before you do anything. Please?”

  “You’re a seer, too,” the queen said to Darkstalker. “Can’t you see these ‘consequences’?”

  “Some of them,” he said, studying Clearsight sideways. She lifted her chin. Was he going to take her job? It wouldn’t be hard to manipulate Vigilance if he became top seer, if he decided to do that. He’d be able to make the queen do almost anything he wanted.

  Darkstalker shifted his wings as if he were shrugging off a blanket. “But Clearsight’s visions are clearer than mine,” he said. He spread one wing around her, giving her a reassuring hug. “She spends a lot more time studying them than I do. Thinking about the future is basically what she does all the time. If she wants to check all the timelines first, I suppose that’s probably a good idea.”

  He’s still in there, behind the fake smile and the angry ideas. He’ll calm down and come back to me, she thought … she hoped.

  “What about defense?” the queen asked. “The IceWings have their cliff that kills anyone who’s not an IceWing. Can we have one of those?”

  “We don’t want to keep out all the other tribes,” Clearsight interjected quickly. “The NightWings are famous for our intertribal relations and open trade partnerships. Our scrolls and artwork are sold across the continent. Dragons bring us new ideas and inventions and discoveries from all over. If we close our border, especially with violence, we lose all of that. We lose everything that makes us who we are.”

  “Pffft,” the queen spat.

  “So maybe it just kills IceWings,” Darkstalker said. He took his wing away from around Clearsight and leaned over the table, sketching again. “An invisible shield around the whole kingdom, perhaps. That would free up your air defense teams to join the attack.” His dark eyes met Clearsight’s. “Seems reasonably harmless. Even you can’t object to defending our kingdom from our enemies, right, Clearsight?”

  It was one of the least terrible of all the bad options, and it would appease the queen for a while. Clearsight nodded reluctantly. “As long as there’s a way to disable it in the future, when we’re at peace with the IceWings again.”

  “That’s never going to happen as long as they have my mother,” Darkstalker said coldly.

  “Get started,” Queen Vigilance said, rapping the table once with her claw. She pointed at Darkstalker. “You, the shield.” Her sharp eyes shifted to Clearsight. “You, the futures where we crush our enemies with magic.” She smiled a thin, sinister smile. “We’re going to make an excellent team.”

  The queen turned and swept out of the library, leaving scrolls fluttering in her wake.

  “Better not tell Fathom about the shield,” Darkstalker said to Clearsight. “Or any of these ideas. He’s already driving me crazy with his high-anxiety brain, wondering how soon I’m going to snap.” He rolled his eyes.

  “What is happening to you?” Clearsight demanded. She poked Darkstalker in the chest. “You’re not a mass murderer. You don’t want to spend your magic on making war and killing easier for the queen.”

  “It’s not for the queen,” Darkstalker said, catching her talon before she could poke him again. “I want to teach the IceWings a lesson. I want to scare them into giving Mother back.”

  Clearsight wavered. “Oh, Darkstalker …”

  “You don’t see a future where she comes back,” he said grimly.

  She shook her head. She didn’t know what to say. She’d been searching for days, trying every possible timeline, and she couldn’t find Foeslayer anywhere. It was as though Diamond had erased her from the map — and from the future.

  “Neither do I,” he said. His wings slumped slowly down behind him. “I’ve done three spells that should have brought her home, but none of them worked. And I tried to reach her with the dreamvisitor. I’ve been trying around the clock since she left, but nothing. It would only work if she was asleep … but she must sleep sometime. Unless …”

  Unless she’s already dead.

  “What does your map tell you?” Clearsight asked.

  “The dot has moved to the Ice Kingdom, far on the other side of their wall,” Darkstalker said. “It’s been in the same place for the last two days.”

  “That doesn’t — that doesn’t mean —” Clearsight started.

  “That she’s alive? I know. It could be showing me where they buried her. I suppose I could enchant something to find out for sure.” His voice suddenly cracked, and he dropped to all fours, leaning into Clearsight’s shoulder. “But I don’t want to know that, Clearsight. I don’t want anything to tell me that she’s dead.” He buried his face.

  “I’m sorry, my love,” Clearsight said. “I know it’s the worst thing,” she said through her tears. “I know it hurts and you’re not all right and you’re angry and you want to punish the IceWings, but you have to fight the anger and the darkness. Darkstalker, I’m so, so scared. The things I’ve seen in the future because of this — the things that happen to you, the things that you do and what you become — it’s all so dark, I almost can’t see the light anymore. I’m afraid we’re losing our bright paths …”

  “Stop,” Darkstalker said. He sat back, brushing tears out of his eyes. “Don’t give up on me, Clearsight.”

  “I’m not,” she said faintly.

  He put his talons on either side of her face, looking into her eyes. “Believe in me. Keep looking at our happy futures and I will, too. If we can just stay focused on those, we’ll get there. I promise.”

  She nodded, because she didn’t want to make him feel worse right now.

  But with Darkstalker’s sketch of dead IceWings on the table right beside them … it was hard to believe in any kind of bright future at all.

  It was raining, endless and drizzly and gray from horizon to horizon. Fathom rested his chin on his talons, staring out the window.

  Indigo and Wharf were in his room, too; Wharf was sharpening weapons and Indigo was writing a letter home to her father. Lionfish was supposed to be out hunting, but Fathom guessed he had taken refuge from the rain in one of the busy restaurants or museums somewhere in the city below.

  Fathom glanced across the room at Indigo. He wished they were alone, although it was safer for them not to be. He wished he could go over there and flop into her side and fall asleep with her back rising and falling peacefully below him, the way he used to. He wished he could lean against her shoulder and read a scroll with her and tell her all the things he was worried about.

  Although, really, it was just one thing.

  Darkstalker. Sad, furious Darkstalker, who’d been in mourning for the past three weeks, but a strange kind of angry mourning where he kept insisting his mother would be home soon. Fathom hadn’t even seen his friend at all in the last two days. Clearsight was still around, but she was always in the library or her room with her nose in a scroll, and she looked so anxious all the time that he didn’t want to bother her.

  Last night she’d come to his room for dinner — well, dinner for him, breakfast for her — and she’d been more talkative than usual about her power. He hadn’t realized how complicated it was, or how many different versions of the future she could see. It almost sounded worse than not being able to see the future at all, but of course he hadn’t said that to her.

  Clearsight had finally buried her head in her talons with a sigh.

he hardest thing about being a seer,” she’d said, “is that the future is always a million possibilities — I can see so many ways my life could possibly go. But the past is only one thing. Once something happens, that’s it. I can’t change it anymore. I can’t do anything. All my possibilities narrow into one fixed life, and then we’re trapped in that world. I think I can control the future, but the past — it’s gone. I can’t fix it anymore.”

  Fathom knew a lot about wishing he could change the past. But he’d never felt any kind of control over his future, either. It was sort of mind-boggling to think about.

  As if his thoughts had summoned him, a gleaming wet figure appeared outside, winging his way toward Fathom’s balcony. Darkstalker swooped in and shook himself grandly, scattering water everywhere.

  “Hey!” Indigo objected, covering her letter to keep it dry.

  “Hey,” Darkstalker replied offhandedly without looking at her. “Fathom, there’s an epic lightning storm coming. Want to fly up to the Royal Tower and watch it with me?”

  “Sure!” Fathom said, jumping to his feet.

  “Isn’t the tallest tower in the castle exactly the wrong place to be in a lightning storm?” Indigo objected. “Not to mention flying while there’s lightning doesn’t sound like a great idea.”

  “We’ll be fine,” Darkstalker said dismissively. “You can stay here.”

  She gave him a “when the Kingdom of the Sea freezes over” look.

  “Oh, Darkstalker,” Fathom said, hurrying over to his desk. “I finished the carving for you.” He picked up the SeaWing statue he’d made for Darkstalker, turning it over between his talons so he could check the little webbed claws and the graceful curving neck. He liked the intelligent expression on the wooden dragon’s face, although he had to admit that it made the miniature dragon look unmistakably like Indigo. Would Darkstalker notice? Would he want a statue that looked so much like a dragon he didn’t seem to particularly like?

  There was something odd about Darkstalker’s expression as he took the carving, a funny combination of triumph and regret, perhaps. He did glance at Indigo, maybe noting the similarity, but when he turned back to Fathom, he was smiling.

  “This is so cool,” he said. “Thanks, Fathom. I got you something, too.” He reached into a pouch around his neck and pulled out a goblet made of shimmering sea-green glass, the same color as Fathom’s scales and imprinted with a pattern like ocean waves. “I was in the market and saw this, and it made me think of you.”

  “Wow,” Fathom said, delighted. He took the goblet carefully and cupped it in his talons. It reminded him of home, of swimming through sunbeams after pods of singing whales.

  “I found Clearsight a pair of moonstone earrings to match her bracelet, too.” Darkstalker touched his pouch thoughtfully. He finally seemed to be in a much better mood than he had been in weeks. His eyes were bright and his wings snapped sharply instead of drooping under the weight of his mother’s loss.

  “You seem happier,” Fathom observed cautiously.

  “I am,” Darkstalker said. “I’m finally doing something about all my most annoying problems.” He tossed his head with a grin. “I mean, I’m Pyrrhia’s most powerful dragon, aren’t I? I shouldn’t have any problems.”

  Fathom wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that. Every dragon had problems … and how exactly was Darkstalker dealing with his? But he didn’t want to push Darkstalker away now that he finally seemed to be coming back. He’d bring it up again later.

  He carried the goblet over to the fountain to fill it with water. He wished he were as small as his carved SeaWing so he could dive into the green glass bowl and swim around. He lifted it to his snout to drink.

  The blow was sudden, knocking him sideways as the goblet flew across the room. It smashed into the marble wall and shattered into a million tiny green shards.

  “Why did you DO THAT?” Darkstalker roared at Indigo. For a moment he looked consumed with rage, fire crackling through his veins as he glared at her.

  Fathom stared at Indigo, his ears still ringing. She faced Darkstalker, her chin raised defiantly.

  “I saw the way you were watching him!” she said. “There was a spell on that cup! You couldn’t wait to see what was about to happen. What was it? What were you trying to do to Fathom?”

  Across the room, Wharf looked up, confused.

  Darkstalker spread his wings, looking deeply injured. His rage vanished as quickly as it had appeared. “It was not animus-touched. I didn’t do anything to it at all. I just thought it was beautiful and that Fathom would like it. You have an overly suspicious mind, Violet.”

  “Indigo,” Fathom corrected him automatically, dazed.

  “I’m sorry about your present,” Darkstalker said to Fathom, sweeping small green pieces into a pile with his tail. “I’m pretty sure it was one of a kind.” He narrowed his eyes at Indigo.

  “I swear he did something to it,” Indigo said to Fathom. “I don’t know what — I can only imagine. Something horrible and manipulative, I bet.” She glared back at Darkstalker.

  “Oh, Indigo,” Fathom said. “I’m sure it wasn’t enchanted. Darkstalker wouldn’t do that to me, right?”

  Darkstalker nodded, putting one wing around Fathom’s shoulders. “Of course I wouldn’t,” he said. “I can’t believe anyone could even think that.”

  “She’s being a good bodyguard,” Fathom said, although honestly, he was pretty upset with her. No one had given him something that could be called treasure in a very long time, and the goblet had been so beautiful. And now it was so gone.

  Darkstalker sighed. “Well, let’s go to the Royal Tower before we miss the lightning. I’ll leave this here so it doesn’t get wet.” He set the SeaWing carving down on Fathom’s desk, tapping its nose gently.

  Indigo turned, her shoulders tense, to reach for her wet weather flying gear.

  “Actually,” Fathom said, “I think maybe Wharf should come with me this time.”

  The thick-headed guard fumbled his knife and looked up at Fathom, clearly startled. Indigo stood with one hand on her spear, her face a mess of hurt and disbelief.

  It’s not you, Fathom wanted to say. It’s not because you broke the goblet. It’s because of the way Darkstalker is looking at you right now, and the fact that he’s looking at you so closely at all, and it’s just that I think everything will be easier and safer if you quietly fade into the background for a while. That’s all. It’s not a punishment. I’m upset with you, yes, but I know why you did what you did. And I want you to stay here so you’ll be safe.

  Of course, he couldn’t say any of that in front of Darkstalker. He’d have to explain when they got back.

  Wharf lumbered to his feet and wrinkled his snout at the pouring rain outside.

  “We’re, uh … we’re going out in that?” he asked.

  “Yup,” said Darkstalker. “You have gills, I think you’ll survive. Let’s go!” He dragged Fathom to the balcony, with Wharf following sullenly behind them. Cold drops of rain pelted Fathom’s snout, and lightning crackled in the distance. He glanced back at Indigo, but she’d returned to her letter and didn’t look up.

  As they stepped out onto the balcony, Darkstalker opened his pouch again.

  “Want to see the earrings I got for Clearsight?” he asked Fathom. “I’m so excited about them. Shoot, my pouch is all dirty from that squirrel I caught yesterday.” He shook some dirt and pebbles into his talons, shaking his head, and tossed it all over his shoulder into Fathom’s room. “Here they are.” He held out the earrings, beautiful milky orbs like translucent moons, and Fathom agreed that they were perfect for her.

  They flew off to the Royal Tower, and the whole way there, Fathom kept telling himself he didn’t have to worry. He’d be back soon, and then they would talk, and Indigo would understand. He’d convince her to be less paranoid about Darkstalker’s intentions and more careful about picking fights with him.

  Everything would be fine.

  * * *

  They returned through the winding interior of the palace instead of flying in the storm again. There was enough lightning outside at this point that most sensible dragons were staying safely indoors. Wharf stomped behind Fathom and Darkstalker, dripping on the white carpets, clearly grumpy about being forced to do his actual job.

  Fathom had a feeling something was wrong as he approached his room, although he wasn’t sure why. Everything seemed normal from the outside. It was very quiet, but that wasn’t surprising, with only Indigo inside.

  Still, a strange worried sensation was crawling up the back of his throat as he pushed open the inside door and realized that the room was completely dark.

  “Indigo?” he called.

  “She’s not here,” Wharf said, although that would have been obvious even without their night vision. The room felt abandoned, like a snail shell with the snail sucked out of it. Beside the balcony, the curtains wafted in and out. Darkstalker stepped inside first and glanced around curiously.

  “But … where would she go?” Fathom asked.

  “Hunting?” Wharf guessed. “Swimming? Out for a walk? Gone to give her letter to the messengers?”

  Those were all reasonable guesses, if it hadn’t been pouring outside, but Fathom had a distinctly unreasonable feeling about this.

  “Wharf, go check the kitchen and the messenger center,” he said. “Um. Please.”

  “All right,” Wharf said with a long, drawn-out sigh.

  As the door closed behind the guard, Fathom crossed to the balcony and peered out at the furious downpour. Indigo wouldn’t have gone out for any reason in this weather, surely.

  Behind him, Darkstalker breathed a burst of flame to light the lamps by the door and the two candles over the fireplace. Fathom heard him walk across the room and then pause. A moment later, Darkstalker let out a small murmur of surprise, and Fathom turned around.

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