Darkstalker, p.22
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       Darkstalker, p.22

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  Darkstalker had picked up the lamp on the desk and now stood there, looking down at something.

  “What is it?” Fathom asked, hurrying over.

  His friend pointed at a damp, torn scrap of scroll lying on the desk. On top of it, holding it down, was the wooden SeaWing Fathom had carved, and the handwriting on the paper was clearly Indigo’s.

  Fathom,

  I’m sorry. You were right. I don’t feel safe here. It’s not worth the risk. I don’t

  I’m going home.

  Please don’t use your magic to find me.

  Good luck.

  Indigo

  The earth dropped out from below Fathom’s talons. He was floating over an abyss, all the light suddenly hollowed out of the world.

  His eyes were stuck on the crossed-out words. “I don’t …” what? Love you? Want to be with you? Trust you anymore?

  How could she leave like that?

  Without saying good-bye?

  It didn’t feel like something she would do at all.

  But maybe it was the smart choice. This was what he’d wanted her to do, wasn’t it? Get far away from him, so she could live a normal life?

  Still.

  He couldn’t believe she was gone.

  “Sorry, Fathom,” Darkstalker said sympathetically. “She was a really great bodyguard.”

  Fathom nodded, too shocked to respond. He picked up the SeaWing carving and traced the curve of her neck. She really looked so much like Indigo.

  “Hey, Darkstalker,” he said, “would you — would you mind if I keep this, actually?”

  It seemed like Darkstalker hesitated for the briefest moment, but Fathom must have imagined it, because almost immediately the NightWing nodded and pulled Fathom into a hug.

  “Of course,” Darkstalker said. “Of course you can keep it, if that’s what you want. Although — things that remind you of her probably aren’t going to make you feel better.”

  “I know,” Fathom said, but he set it back on his desk anyway. He needed it there. Maybe it would hurt to look at it, but it would also remind him that Indigo was out in the world, having adventures and a great life, somewhere where she didn’t have to worry about animus magic or what Fathom might do.

  I’m on my own now, he realized. Well, sort of — at least he still had Darkstalker and Clearsight. They still believed in him.

  If Indigo didn’t anymore, that was only logical.

  He sighed. This was probably for the best.

  At least she was safe now, wherever she was. Safe from him … and safe from animus magic forever.

  “You can see the whole Great Diamond from up here,” Listener said, stretching her long neck to peer out Clearsight’s window. “By the Scorching, is the entire tribe coming to this festival?”

  “No.” Clearsight peeked over her shoulder. The enormous piazza below them looked like it was swarming with fireflies. In the lights from the hundreds of lanterns, she could see dragons everywhere. “Don’t forget all the soldiers out defending the kingdom.” Testing out Darkstalker’s new fire-shooting weapons, she thought with a wince.

  “All right, gloomy snout,” Listener said. “I can’t believe I’m getting ready for the jubilee in the queen’s own palace! I knew it would be a good idea to make you my best friend. This is going to be the greatest night of all time.”

  “It’s just another party,” Clearsight said, laughing. “The queen seems to have one every other night. There’s a full moon, let’s celebrate! A second full moon, celebrate again! Her oldest son’s hatching day, time for a party! One of her daughters sneezed, someone alert the chefs we need a cake! It’s kind of exhausting.”

  “Oh, you poor thing,” Listener said. “Living in the palace, eating truffles with the queen, burdened with all these beautiful necklaces.” She cast a sidelong glance at the tangle of jewelry in the wooden box beside Clearsight’s mirror.

  “You goose. You can borrow anything you want,” Clearsight said.

  “Really?” Listener bounded over and started fishing out long sparkling chains. “Oooo, I wonder what Thoughtful would like. Sapphires, do you think? Or moonstones. No, you’re wearing moonstones — again, I might add. Oh wow, opals!”

  Clearsight touched the moonstone earrings Darkstalker had given her about a month ago.

  “I thought they’d match your bracelet,” he’d said. “Aren’t they cool?”

  “I love them,” she’d answered, cupping them in her talons. “They don’t have any spells on them, right?”

  “That is SUCH A RUDE QUESTION.” He’d given her his most injured expression. “Thank you SO MUCH for your faith in me. You are WELCOME to check the scroll and see, if you really think I would do that.”

  “No, no,” she’d said, clipping them on. “I was just asking, don’t get all huffy.” They were beautiful earrings. And they made her feel all sparkly and hopeful, but not in a fake magical enchanted way. (Still, she did check the scroll later, when he was out picking up dinner, just to be sure, although she felt extremely guilty about it. And there were no moonstone earring spells, so basically she was a terrible dragon for even suspecting him for a moment. Poor Darkstalker.)

  “Wait,” she said to Listener. “Who’s Thoughtful?”

  Listener hesitated, holding a web of opals up to her neck. “I guess you’re going to meet him tonight anyway.” She scrunched her eyes shut. “He’s the dragon I’m going to marry. Fix your face, fix your face!”

  “I’m not making a face!” Clearsight objected. “I’m having zero visions at all right now, I promise. But aren’t we a bit young for marriage plans?”

  “I mean one day, after we graduate and I propose. There are a few steps we haven’t gotten to yet, but we will!”

  “Steps like …” Clearsight prompted her.

  “Like … doing things together,” Listener confessed. “And him realizing he loves me.”

  “Listener, have you actually ever spoken to this dragon?” Clearsight asked.

  “Yes!” Listener drew herself up, looking offended, although the effect was muddled by the sixteen necklaces she was trying to fit over her head at the same time. “He said, ‘Excuse me, is this the way to the strawberry garden?’ and I said, ‘It certainly is!’ and he said, ‘Thank you’ and I said, ‘Are you going to the jubilee festival tonight?’ and he said, ‘Urgh, I suppose I have to,’ and I said, ‘Cool, see you there!’ so, obviously, we are destined to be together forever. Don’t you dare tell me otherwise!”

  “I wouldn’t dream of it,” Clearsight said. “I didn’t say one word about the last disaster, did I?”

  “I didn’t even let you meet the last one,” Listener said. “You’re thinking of the one before that, and no, you never said anything, you just looked like you’d eaten a bucket full of limes every time you saw him.”

  Clearsight sighed. “I don’t see what would be wrong with letting me nudge you toward a decent dragon once in a while.”

  “I can find my soulmate on my own, thank you very much,” said Listener. “In fact, I have, and his name is Thoughtful, and he’s absolutely dashing.”

  “Wonderful,” Clearsight said, resolutely not looking at Listener’s timelines. She was getting better at that — at avoiding the things she didn’t want to see.

  That was easier to do when she spent most of her time studying the war with the IceWings for Queen Vigilance. There were so many small things that could change the course of a battle, or wreck a carefully crafted plan, or spin a formation into panicked chaos. She thought the information she fed the queen was helping, but it was hard to tell, as the queen was not exactly prone to effusive gratitude. But at least she’d managed to do enough so far to delay the most horrible new animus plans.

  “All right, I’m ready,” Listener said. She grinned at Clearsight, twinkling with gemstones and excitement.

  I hope this dragon is worth it this time, Clearsight thought.

  Together they hurried to one of the grand balconies and launched themselves
into the sky, swooping down toward the plaza below them. Listener found a clear spot to land near the food tents, where the cold air crackled with the smell of roasting meat, sizzling onions, and fried bananas. The queen’s favorite musicians were playing somewhere, but the music was drowned out by all the laughing, chattering dragons. An intricate lacework of wires traced over the whole diamond, hung with paper lanterns that had been painted bright gold and purple and green by the kingdom’s dragonets.

  But the highlight of the festival was the glasswork competition, in honor of what Queen Vigilance was calling her Glass Jubilee to celebrate forty years of her being on the throne. The entire plaza was dotted with elaborate glass sculptures that glowed in the lamplight. Twisting spirals, weaving tendrils, and delicate beads mingled with glorious bells and vast shipwrecks, towering trees and clusters of captured fireworks. Clearsight wished she could run her talons over every smooth or bubbly surface. She wished she could change her scales to the same shimmering colors as the glass, like a RainWing might.

  “Let’s go find Fathom,” she said. She knew he was here somewhere with Darkstalker. They were supposed to meet near the musicians before midnight, but she wanted to find them sooner.

  “Your pet SeaWing?” Listener said. “Do we have to?”

  “He’s the sweetest dragon, if you’d just give him a chance,” Clearsight said. “And he’s lonely here.” Especially since Indigo left. He tries to hide it, but he’s so, so sad without her. How could she do that to him? I thought she cared about him as more than a bodyguard, but I guess I was wrong.

  “I highly doubt that,” said Listener, “considering that you spend practically every waking moment with him.” She tossed her head indignantly, but followed Clearsight through the crowd without further complaint.

  They navigated around a group of dancing NightWings and through a forest of tall, copper-colored glass spikes. Clearsight guessed that Fathom would want to be in the quietest corner of the festival — he was better at handling parties now that he’d been to so many of the queen’s gatherings, but they still made him a little jittery.

  She was right. Fathom, Darkstalker, and Whiteout were inside one of the game pavilions, playing scales-and-squares on a small board near the central fire. Lionfish stood guard beside them, watching the NightWings around him with a wary expression. Long white curtains hung around the outside of the pavilion, muffling the noise from the rest of the festival and sheltering the fire and the games from the wind.

  Listener wrinkled her snout when she saw them. “Playing board games at a festival?” she snorted. “How lame can you THERE HE IS!” She clutched Clearsight’s arm frantically.

  “What?” Clearsight said, startled.

  “That’s Thoughtful,” Listener whispered, hiding behind Clearsight’s wing. “The one with the scroll tower.”

  Clearsight glanced around the pavilion and finally spotted the dragon Listener was talking about. He was playing a game by himself that involved stacking small marble scrolls into increasingly complex towers according to a set of patterns. As far as lame solitary party games went, it was kind of at the top, frankly.

  He was handsome — of course, since he had caught Listener’s eye — but he had a sort of kindness and worry in his expression that made him different from her usual choices. Silver wires wound around his horns and down his forehead, suspending a circle of glass in front of each of his eyes. He looked tired and very focused on what he was doing.

  “Isn’t he wonderful?” Listener said dreamily.

  Oh dear, Clearsight thought, looking at the dragon and feeling the undertow of visions pulling her away. Oh no …

  Two clear futures lay before this NightWing.

  One was easy and unremarkable — a pleasant-enough life with someone who loved him more than he loved her, where both of them felt vaguely unsatisfied all the time, but at least nobody died.

  The second was harder and darker, but in it waited great love, and on it depended futures too far distant for even Clearsight to understand.

  Listener was not that great love.

  Unlike her previous crushes, this dragon could actually be hers, if nobody intervened. But he shouldn’t be. He was meant for someone else.

  Clearsight slammed a blank expression on her face. Don’t react. Don’t let her see what you’re thinking.

  What am I going to do?

  Do I let Listener have this kind, worried dragon, or do I interfere and disrupt both of their timelines … in ways probably neither of them would thank me for?

  “Are you going to say hello?” she asked her friend, in what she thought was a commendably calm voice.

  Listener shot her a suspicious glance anyway. “Not yet,” she said. “I’ll give him a chance to notice me and come over first. Let’s go say hi to your weirdo friends.”

  Darkstalker looked up as they approached, his whole face alight with joy.

  “You look like you’re winning,” Clearsight said, sprawling on the cushion beside him.

  “I’m winning at life,” he said exuberantly, twining his tail around hers. He hadn’t looked this happy since Foeslayer was captured, although he’d been gradually coming back to normal every day. She touched his face and wondered if something had happened. Had he enchanted something to make himself feel happier — to help him move on from mourning Foeslayer? If he did, would that be wrong?

  “In this turn of the hourglass, yes,” said Whiteout, moving one of her green scale tokens to capture a black square of Fathom’s. “But when I crush you with my heart piece, then everything flips.”

  “Don’t you even know what you’re playing?” Listener asked her. “This game doesn’t have a heart piece.”

  “Did you see the Sunrise Ferns?” Fathom asked Clearsight. “Those were my favorite.”

  “I haven’t really looked around yet,” she said. “Maybe when you guys are done with this game we can all go check out the sculptures.”

  “And get something to eat,” Darkstalker suggested. “I wouldn’t mind, like, six goats on sticks right now.”

  “We don’t have to go anywhere YET, though,” Listener said, poking Clearsight meaningfully.

  “Just go talk to him,” Clearsight whispered.

  “He’s already looked at us twice,” Listener hissed back. “He’ll come over any moment now.”

  “Aha!” Fathom chortled, seizing one of Darkstalker’s white squares. “I have totally figured out your mystifying game. I am the new scales-and-squares champion!”

  “Ooooh, sorry, friend,” Darkstalker said. He hopped a blue scale over three of Fathom’s squares and swept them off the board. “Too slow, so sad.”

  Listener suddenly dug her claws into Clearsight’s shoulder.

  “OW,” Clearsight protested.

  “Act normal!” Listener barked. “Not weird! Totally completely normal!”

  “You mean like you are?” Clearsight observed, rubbing her shoulder.

  “Hey,” said a deep voice behind her.

  Clearsight and Darkstalker both turned around, and Fathom looked up. Listener’s wings fluttered unconsciously and she whacked Clearsight’s tail with her own about eighty times in rapid succession.

  “Hey,” Darkstalker said, sounding guarded. “I know you from … music class? You’re Thoughtful, right?”

  “Yeah.” Thoughtful’s gaze bounced off Listener and skidded around the others. “I just, uh — I just wondered if anyone wanted to try a scroll tower challenge with me.”

  Listener looked as though she had lightning darting along her wings. “Maybe,” she said coyly, starting to stand up.

  Argh, Clearsight thought. I have to do it. I have to. Listener’s going to kill me, but it’s too important. And it’ll only get harder if I don’t do it right now.

  “I’m Clearsight,” she said, smiling at Thoughtful. “Our SeaWing friend is Fathom, and” — she took a deep breath — “and have you, um … have you met Whiteout?”

  “WINNER!” Whiteout shouted, nearly ove
rturning the board as she hopped one of her scales around it. “Empress of all scales and queen of all squares! Weep for your tokens, adversaries!” She sat up, clapping her talons gleefully, and finally spotted Thoughtful, who was looking at her in a vaguely rapt way.

  “Oh,” she said with wonder. “Look how shiny you are.”

  “Shiny?” Listener said, snorting a fake laugh. “Whiteout, what are you ever talking about?”

  “You made the Cascade of Dreams,” Whiteout said, ignoring Listener. She reached out, took one of Thoughtful’s talons, and squinted at his palm. “Words and glass, spun flutes and verse. Waterfalls of language in fire-blown claws.”

  “What?” Listener said uneasily.

  “You noticed?” Thoughtful said, tilting his head at Whiteout. “No one — you really saw the pieces of scroll inside the waves?”

  “Tangerine,” Whiteout said. “Probability. Spelunking.”

  “OK, now you’re literally just saying random words,” Listener said.

  “I can’t believe you saw them!” Thoughtful said. “Nobody’s ever understood one of my pieces before.”

  “I think you should teach me glassblowing,” Whiteout said, “and I should teach you clarity.”

  “WHAT. Is she being ironic?” Listener asked Clearsight.

  Thoughtful ducked his head, glanced down at the board, and shot a shy smile at Whiteout. “How is the empress of scales at scroll tower?”

  “Amazing,” said Whiteout. “You’re going to die of awe.” She rose, shook out her strange white wings, and led the way back to the other side of the tent with Thoughtful close beside her, beaming.

  Clearsight couldn’t believe how well that had worked, with such a small nudge from her. They really were destined for each other. Hiding a smile, she turned away from her friends and noticed movement behind one of the curtains. It was Darkstalker’s father, Arctic, watching them all with a grim look on his face.

  “Um, what just happened?” Listener demanded. “Can anyone explain that to me?”

  Don’t figure it out, Clearsight prayed. Don’t blame me.

 
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