The hidden kingdom, p.21
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       The Hidden Kingdom, p.21

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “But you’re too old for racing now,” Magnificent said dismissively. Grandeur gave her a wholehearted glare that Magnificent completely missed.

  The sloth on Exquisite’s tail clambered up to her neck as the silver queen stepped forward. She dipped her wings so the other two sloths could slide off onto the vines.

  Strong shoulders, Glory noticed. Big wings. I bet she’s fast. Jambu looked like a bright pink monkey next to the sleek silver dragoness.

  Handsome pointed up at the treetops surrounding the Arboretum. A small platform, about three dragons wide, was set in the high branches. Peach-colored flowers studded the dark wood planks, tied in bunches with strands of silver sloth fur.

  “That is the start and end of the race,” he said. “You will fly three times around the Arboretum, staying outside the ring of trees. If you fly inside the ring, you will be disqualified. If you touch your opponent, you will be disqualified. As long as you stay outside the ring, you may take any path around, but you must touch down on the platform as you complete each circuit. Understood?”

  “Got it,” Jambu said, flexing his wings.

  Exquisite didn’t answer. She had her front talons curled around her two sloths and was cooing at them as they clambered over her claws.

  “Your Majesty?” said Handsome, and then caught himself. “That is — I mean, Exquisite? Do you understand the rules?”

  “Of course,” she said, disentangling her pets. She set the third one down next to them and stroked their heads. “I’ll be back in a moment, darlings. I just have to win this race for Auntie Maggie.”

  “Stop calling me that,” Magnificent said crossly. “I’m nobody’s auntie. Certainly not a bunch of sloths. And this isn’t just for me, you big furhead. It’s your throne, too.”

  “There, there,” Exquisite said to the sloths, who had curled up into a sleepy pile of fur. “Auntie Maggie isn’t mad at you. She’s just in a bad temper because she has to actually do something today.” In a loud whisper that absolutely everyone could hear, she added, “Besides, she’s jealous that you all are so much prettier than her sloth.”

  Magnificent snarled in a very unqueenly way and shot a dark look at the three sloths, as if she might throw them off the Arboretum while Exquisite was racing.

  “Good luck,” Glory said to Jambu. “Please win.”

  “That’s the plan,” he said cheerfully. He followed Handsome and Exquisite up to the platform, then leaned over the edge and waved at the crowd of dragons around the edges of the Arboretum. Sunny and several other dragons waved back. It occurred to Glory to wonder who everyone was rooting for. Did anyone want her to win? Did they know what that would mean, or about all the things she wanted to change about their world?

  Her gaze swept across the RainWings — the tribe that might soon be hers. She tried to read their scales, but as far as she could tell, today most of them had chosen their colors for their looks, as though they were showing off at a party. The only emotions she spotted were bright yellow bursts of excitement in their scales here and there. And she had a feeling they’d be like that about anything new that happened.

  Handsome stepped onto a branch shaped like a coiling dragon tail and spread his wings.

  “Start when you hear the toucan call,” he said to Jambu and Exquisite. “Don’t forget the rules. Ready? And — CAW!”

  Glory was so startled by the sound that came out of his throat that she missed the beginning of the race. Handsome had perfectly imitated the noises she’d been hearing from the big-beaked birds. If that was another RainWing talent, it was one she’d never even thought of trying before.

  Exquisite shot ahead of Jambu, swinging smoothly from branch to vine to branch. Her tail was longer than Jambu’s, giving her a wider swing and farther reach. But his narrower wings helped him dive between some tangles of branches that she had to maneuver around, and by the time they got back to the platform for the first time, his snout was almost brushing her tail.

  “Go Jambu!” Sunny yelled from her spot on the walkway. “You’re going to win! You’re the fastest dragon in the forest! Woo hoo!” Kinkajou nudged Tamarin, and they both started hooting and shouting as well.

  Personally Glory thought that much noise would have been an annoying distraction, but it seemed to add wind to Jambu’s wings. He banked around a trunk, dodged a loop of hibiscus-covered vines, and shot past Exquisite on the outside.

  Well, if it works, Glory thought. “Yay!” she hollered. “Jambu is the best! Uh — you’re an awesome glider! Good, uh . . . flying! Yaayyy!”

  She caught Tsunami giving her an amused look and stuck out her tongue at the SeaWing.

  Jambu brushed the platform a second time with his claws and took off again. A few moments later, Exquisite thudded down in the same spot and gave chase. Her wings pumped and her brow was furrowed angrily.

  Glory’s heart pounded as she watched them swerve through the trees. One more circuit — if Jambu could stay ahead just a bit longer, he’d win. Hang in there. She dug her claws into the vines below her, wishing she could be up there, giving him her speed somehow.

  Jambu ricocheted off a tree and dipped through a hole in the branches. He veered around the last curve and suddenly flung his wings up to stop his momentum. He thrashed in place for a moment, and Glory saw a vine wound around his neck. He twisted backward, gasping for air, and flailed to the side.

  With a horrible lurch in her stomach, Glory watched Jambu tip over, crossing into the ring of trees. At the same time, Exquisite whisked past him and landed neatly on the platform. She lifted her wings and turned in a triumphant circle as deep blue-purple waves whooshed through her scales.

  But Glory had seen something else, too.

  That vine hadn’t appeared out of nowhere. Something was scurrying away from the spot where Jambu had nearly strangled himself.

  Several somethings, in fact, with shaggy silver fur.

  “How dare you accuse us of cheating?” Magnificent demanded.

  “The better question is, how dare you cheat?” Glory demanded right back.

  “My teammate’s sloths were right here in front of us the whole time,” said the queen.

  “These three were,” said Glory, pointing to the furballs that were clambering up to Exquisite’s shoulders. “We know Exquisite has several others who could have been planted out there in the trees, just waiting to get in the way if it looked like she wasn’t going to win.”

  “Hmmm,” said Grandeur, narrowing her eyes. She’d been sitting in the same position, looking bored and regal, throughout the race.

  “Ridiculous,” scoffed Exquisite.

  “Her sloths aren’t nearly smart enough for that,” said Magnificent.

  “They most certainly are!” Exquisite snapped, flaring her ruff. She glanced at Glory and carefully settled it again. “But they would never do such a thing.”

  “They’d do anything you told them to,” Kinkajou cried as a surge of orange outrage rippled down her tail. She snapped her teeth at the nearest sloth and it chirped fiercely at her.

  “Enough,” said Handsome. “Jambu, what did you see?”

  Glory barely recognized her brother with his scales this dismal blue-gray color. He lifted his shoulders despondently. “I don’t know. It all happened so fast. One moment I was flying, and the next I was choking. I saw sloths in the trees, but —”

  “But you can’t be sure they were Exquisite’s, or that they had anything to do with the vine in your way,” Magnificent finished.

  Jambu gave Glory a mournful look.

  “It’s all right, Jambu,” she said. “I know you would have won in a fair race.” She made sure her voice was loud enough to carry to the crowd of watching RainWings. Magnificent hissed softly and snatched up the treetop-race nut from the low table. Lashing her tail, she dropped it in a hollowed-out coconut on her side of the Arboretum.

  “Let’s move on,” Handsome said, clearing his throat. “Perhaps the flower hunt next?”

  Tamarin stepped forward. Her wings trembled, and her scales were rippling with pale green again. Glory wondered whether she could tell that her emotions were on display.

  Another question occurred to her. “Can you use camouflage?” she asked Tamarin. “I mean, since you can’t see what you’re trying to match?”

  “Yes — it works anyway,” Tamarin said. “Don’t ask me exactly how.” She took a few deep breaths, closing her eyes. Dark green, dappled with sunlight and shadows, spread across her whole body until she matched the vines below her.

  “I can’t choose what color I am,” Tamarin explained. “So if you asked me to make my scales red, for instance, I couldn’t do that. But if I relax, they automatically switch to whatever’s around me.”

  “Fascinating,” Glory said. More important, Tamarin didn’t look quite so terrified anymore.

  Fruit Bat shuffled forward, swinging her bulky orchid necklace around so most of it hung down her back. An odd smell wafted forward with her, of decaying leaves underneath something sickly sweet. It wasn’t as bad as the smell in the NightWing kingdom, but it wasn’t pleasant either.

  “So how does this contest work?” Glory asked. “And how can we be sure there’s no cheating this time?”

  She was gratified to see that Magnificent couldn’t keep her scales from turning red. Making other dragons angry was one skill Glory already knew she was good at. She glanced over her shoulder at Tsunami, who had her fierce face on. She looked ready to charge into the Arboretum and take on all five queens herself.

  “Ahem,” Handsome said hastily, clearing his throat a few times. “Yes. The contest. For this member of the team, the queen has requested a flower hunt. Therefore, early this morning I hid a particular flower somewhere in this Arboretum: the rare, majestic cinnamon orchid — not the more common yellow variant, but the elusive red variety.”

  “Ooooo,” went all the watching RainWings.

  “Whoever finds it first, naturally, will win,” said Handsome.

  One flower? Glory thought. In this whole giant place? It could be anywhere. And she can’t see. How can Tamarin even begin to look for it? Even if she could feel the difference between flowers, how will she know whether it’s red or yellow?

  For the first time Glory thought maybe she was going to lose this contest after all. Maybe she wouldn’t be queen. She narrowed her eyes at Magnificent and lashed her tail. Fine. I’ll think of another way to rescue the RainWings from the Night Kingdom if I have to.

  Handsome spread his wings. “You may begin!”

  Fruit Bat leaped into action. Faster than Glory would have expected from looking at her, Fruit Bat started dashing around the circle, poking her nose into every crevice and pocket. She scrabbled up drifted piles of leaves and lifted bundles of vines. She nudged aside dragon tails that were draping over the edge of the platforms. She pounced on every glimmer of orangey-red, startling quite a number of innocent birds and beetles.

  Meanwhile, Tamarin stood very still, right where she was. Her nostrils twitched. Her wings went up and down as she breathed deeply.

  After a few moments of this, Glory said, “Um . . .”

  “Shhh,” Kinkajou said. “She’s busy.”

  “Could she be busy in a more . . . busy-looking way?” Glory asked.

  Tamarin inhaled again and lifted her snout. Small feathers of flame flickered along her ruff, shaped like the flower she was looking for.

  “She can smell it?” Glory whispered to Kinkajou. “Is that what she’s trying to do?”

  “She will do it,” Kinkajou promised fiercely. “Her nose is amazing.”

  “I believe you,” Glory said, “but there have to be a million flowers within smelling distance right now, not to mention all these dragons and monkeys and other things that smell much stronger than any one flower. There’s no way she’ll find it.”

  “You don’t know Tamarin’s nose,” Kinkajou said. “Now shhh.”

  Glory sat back and curled her tail around her talons. There wasn’t anything she could do now anyway. She badly wanted to start tearing up the Arboretum the way Fruit Bat was doing, but she wasn’t allowed to help.

  Is this what being queen would be like? Issuing orders and then sitting around waiting for dragons to carry them out?

  She thought of the other queens she’d met. Queen Scarlet and Queen Coral preferred to have their minions do their dirty work, but Burn and Blister both seemed rather claws-on. Perhaps because they weren’t really queens yet . . . or because they’d learned, after years of war, that the only dragon you could really trust was yourself.

  Glory glanced at Sunny and Tsunami again. She did trust the other dragonets, a little, in different ways. She trusted Sunny to at least try to do whatever was brave and right, even if she was too small to do it effectively. Starflight had neither courage nor fighting skills, but if Glory ever needed to figure out something, she’d trust Starflight’s brain in a second. That’s why she wanted to talk to him about Scarlet before anyone else.

  She could trust Tsunami to fight tooth and claw — really in almost any situation, including several where it would be quite inappropriate — and, of course, there was Clay, who would do anything to save his friends.

  She wished they were her team, instead of these RainWings she barely knew. As much as she liked Kinkajou, it was agonizing to feel this powerless over her own destiny. I’m the one who wants to be queen. I should be the only one who has to fight for it.

  Magnificent’s eyes darted back and forth between Tamarin and Fruit Bat. When Tamarin finally took a step forward, the queen let out a hiss, and Fruit Bat whirled around to see what her competitor was doing.

  “Tamarin,” Glory said quietly. “If you know where it is, move fast, because Fruit Bat is watching and I think she’ll try to beat you to it.”

  The blind RainWing took another deep breath, crouched, and launched herself into the air. She nearly overshot the platform she was aiming for, but her tail brushed it and she swung back to land on it in a graceful motion. It was the start-and-finish racing platform used by Jambu and Exquisite — the one littered with bouquets of peach-colored, star-shaped blossoms.

  Fruit Bat bolted after her. Tamarin quickly bowed her head and sniffed the bouquets. Just as Fruit Bat landed heavily beside her, Tamarin snatched up one of the bundles and pulled off the sloth fur ribbon that bound it together.

  The pale pink flowers fell away, revealing a flower hidden inside. It was shaped like a cluster of dragon claws, each glowing like a tongue of fire.

  Magnificent and Fruit Bat let out matching cries of rage.

  “That sounds promising,” Tamarin said with a smile.

  “You did it!” Kinkajou shouted. “You found it!” She poked Glory with her tail, beaming. “Told you she could do it.”

  If RainWings had fire, Glory was pretty sure Magnificent would have had smoke coming out of her ears and nose.

  “Nicely done,” Glory said as Tamarin landed beside them again, clutching the flower in her claws. “I’m really impressed.”

  Glory sauntered over to the table and took the flower-hunt nut. With an arch look at Magnificent, she dropped it in her own coconut bowl. One to one. Three more contests to go.

  And then she’d be queen.

  “What should we do next?” Glory asked Magnificent. She was feeling a lot more confident now. “How about the camouflage one?”

  Magnificent bared her teeth. “Sounds perfect.”

  “Have you ever been in a camouflage contest before?” Handsome asked Glory.

  “Not precisely,” Glory said. “But I have had to use my camouflage to avoid dragons who want to kill me, so if you’re asking whether I can handle the pressure, I’m going to go with yes.”

  “Actually, I was wonder
ing if you knew the rules,” Handsome said, hiding a smile. “But they’re not complicated. One of you hides first, somewhere within eyesight of this spot. Then the other will search for you, and then you’ll switch roles. I will judge who finds the other fastest. If it is too close to tell, we will try again.”

  “Got it,” Glory said.

  “Do you remember —” Handsome began, turning to Grandeur. Glory wondered which of them was older; they both seemed as ancient as the Claws of the Clouds Mountains.

  “Of course I remember,” Grandeur snapped. She drew herself up and hissed at the gathered crowd until they were all quiet, listening. “I remember every thing. I remember when we actually needed our camouflage, to protect ourselves from invading dragons. It wasn’t a game back then. It was what we had to do to survive.”

  “Enough boring stories,” Magnificent commanded, earning herself another glare. “Grandeur, hush up until it’s your contest. I’ll hide first.”

  Handsome tied a long, fat leaf around Glory’s eyes. As darkness settled around her, she thought that this must be what it was like for Tamarin all the time. She could remember only one story about a blind dragon in the scrolls, and it was from long ago, before the Scorching.

  A moment later, the blindfold was lifted away. The curious faces of hundreds of RainWings filled her vision.

  “You may begin,” said the old dragon with a nod.

  Glory blinked and turned in a circle, searching for clues.

  Magnificent had vanished very thoroughly. Her small crown of white flowers lay abandoned on the vines. There was no sign of her gold-tipped purple scales, and none of the hammocks around the arena had a sudden unusual bulge in them.

  Where could she be?

  Where would I hide if I were a particularly forgetful, spectacularly lazy RainWing?

  She didn’t think Magnificent was the type to climb trees or hang by her tail if there was somewhere she could lie down comfortably instead. And most of the platforms and walkways were too crowded with dragons for her to squeeze in there easily.

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