The brightest night, p.23
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       The Brightest Night, p.23

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  “Can’t you fight for me?” Blaze pleaded, turning to Queen Glacier. “I don’t want to die like this.”

  Queen Glacier looked torn. She had to know there was no chance Blaze would survive this duel, which meant she’d get none of the promised territory for the IceWings — and she’d be left with a bordering kingdom ruled by a queen who’d been her enemy for eighteen years.

  But Sunny could see that Glacier wanted to be just and fair. She couldn’t fight a SandWing’s battle for her, not one-on-one for the throne like this.

  The IceWing shook her head. “I’m sorry, Blaze. This is your fight.” She touched Blaze’s wing with her own, briefly, then turned and flew up to join her fellow ice dragons on the wall.

  Blaze faced her sister, wide-eyed with fear.

  “You can forfeit,” Sunny cried. “You don’t have to fight! Let her be queen and live.”

  “It’s too late for that,” Blister snarled. “She wanted to be queen badly enough to fight for it all these years. She can’t back down now that it’s just the two of us.” With a swift, sudden movement, Blister darted at Blaze, bit down viciously on the edge of one of her wings, and darted away again.

  “Ow!” Blaze shrieked. She staggered back, staring at her wing. “Three moons, it’s bleeding! I’m bleeding!”

  “Oh, brother,” Glory said, but there was pity in her expression.

  “Shouldn’t we stop them?” Sunny asked her friends.

  “It’s royal SandWing business now,” Starflight said, touching the bandage around his eyes and ducking his head. “They’ll fight, and Blister will win, but the important thing is that it means the war is over. There will be a queen on the SandWing throne, and no one else has to die.”

  “Except Blaze,” Glory observed.

  The two SandWings circled each other, hissing and jabbing with their tails like two scorpions.

  “Poor Blaze,” Sunny said. “It doesn’t seem fair.” She curled into Clay’s side, leaning against his scales.

  “I wish someone else could be queen,” Fatespeaker said. “Blister is so creepy.”

  “And smart,” Starflight agreed. “Who knows what she’ll do once the throne is really hers.” He scratched his claws across the stone. “With a united SandWing army at her clawtips and the treasure, if she’s the one who stole it … she could easily be the most dangerous dragon in Pyrrhia.”

  “Isn’t there anyone else?” Sunny asked. She turned and saw Smolder still standing in the shadows of the doorway. He met her eyes and started toward her, carefully avoiding his sisters.

  “I don’t think so,” Starflight said. “None of the three sisters have exactly taken the time to have dragonets.”

  “Hello,” Smolder said, sliding up to them. Flower was perched on his shoulder, staring around at all the dragons with her big, brown, dragonlike eyes. “Aren’t you all dramatic troublemakers. Do you think Blister is going to let me live? I’m guessing no. This would probably be a good time for me to run away.” He cast a speculative glance at the sky. “But to where? Could you use another Outclaw, perhaps?” he asked Thorn.

  “You have some nerve,” Thorn snapped. “I should kill you myself for that trick you played, locking us in the library.”

  “As if I had a choice,” Smolder said reproachfully. “And it didn’t even work. Burn was this close to killing me until she got your message about meeting her here tonight.”

  I should be mad at him, too, Sunny thought, but she couldn’t be. He wasn’t evil — he wasn’t even mean. He was a dragon in a terrible family, in a hard situation, in danger of being put to death like his brothers at any moment. He could have killed her the moment he got his talons on her. He could have left her in the tower. Maybe she shouldn’t like him, but she did anyway.

  Smolder pointed to his sister’s dead body with a rueful expression. “I must admit, I never expected to outlive her.”

  “It probably won’t be by much, if that’s any consolation,” Thorn said bluntly.

  “Smolder,” Sunny broke in, “are there any other dragons in line for the SandWing throne? Did Queen Oasis have any sisters or other daughters? Or did any of these three have dragonets?”

  Smolder shook his head. “Mother was very strict and very careful. She had just the three daughters, so someone could inherit one day, but she didn’t want a lot of challengers. So she had no more eggs, and the rest of us were not allowed to have dragonets either.” He fell silent for a moment. “I was in love once. She was so angry when she found out…. I don’t even know what she did, but I never saw Palm again.”

  “You should have better choices,” Sunny said, stamping her foot. “All three of your sisters are terrible.” Blaze let out another yowl of pain as Blister slashed her claws across her nose. Sunny had a feeling this fight could have been over already, but Blister was playing with Blaze, showing off for the audience.

  “Why can’t someone else be queen?” Fatespeaker asked. “If Glory can be queen of the NightWings … who says it has to be a member of the royal family?”

  “Good question,” said Glory.

  “Who else would have the authority?” Starflight asked. “Why would the other SandWings listen to anyone else? If any dragon could take the throne, it’d be anarchy. There’d be challengers trying to grab it every other day.”

  “I know,” Sunny said, “but still … if all the royal options are awful … it seems like there should be a way to give the SandWings someone else, a better queen.” Her wings drooped. After everything they’d been through, all the worry about the prophecy and all the danger they’d been in and all the dragons who’d tried to kill them … was this how it ended? They stopped the war, but gave the SandWings an evil queen? Was she supposed to say, “Oh, well, good enough?”

  Flower wriggled off Smolder’s back and came over to pat Sunny’s talons in her odd comforting way. The little scavenger looked up at Sunny and squeaked, waving her paws.

  “Scavengers are so crazy,” Tsunami said. She ducked her head to sniff at Flower. “Look at her, just standing here in the middle of all these dragons. Where’s her survival instinct? This is the one who stole the treasure, right? Hey, squish-face, this is all your fault, you know.”

  Flower wrapped her arms around one of Sunny’s ankles and tugged as if she was trying to drag Sunny somewhere, squeaking loudly.

  “What?” Sunny asked. She looked at Smolder. “What’s she trying to say?”

  He shrugged. “I never know.”

  Flower jumped up and down, flapping her paws. Sunny tilted her head, confused. The scavenger ran over to the pit of sand, flapped again, ran back to Sunny, tugged on her ankle, and ran back to the sand. To Sunny’s astonishment, Flower threw herself down and started to dig with her paws.

  “What in the three moons …” Smolder said. “I’ll never understand scavengers.”

  “She’s trying to tell us something,” Sunny said. She followed Flower to the sandpit, glancing up at the obelisk. Did Flower know that the dragon she’d killed — or helped to kill — was buried here? “This is a little morbid, Flower.”

  Flower whacked Sunny’s front talons, pointed at the sand, shouted something like “YIBBLE FROBBLE!” and went back to digging.

  “All right,” Sunny said, and she started to dig, too. What could she be trying to tell us?

  “What are you doing?” Glory demanded.

  “Digging,” Sunny said. She glanced up at Blaze and Blister. Blaze had three more bleeding wounds, and Blister was pacing smugly around her. Surely the fight couldn’t last much longer.

  “Why?” Tsunami asked, coming to stand next to her.

  “Because Flower wants me to,” Sunny said. “I don’t know, but it feels like maybe it’s important.”

  Tsunami and Glory exchanged glances. Sunny could guess what those looks meant: “Another crazy Sunny idea. Look at her, following a scavenger’s instructions, as if that makes any sense.”

  “Scoot over,” Tsunami said. She flexed her claws and drove them
into the sand.

  “You too,” Glory said to the scavenger, joining them.

  Tsunami and Glory began to dig, wing to wing with Sunny. A moment later, she looked up and found Thorn digging busily beside her as well.

  She tried to hide her smile, but she couldn’t.

  Their talons swept the sand away quickly, and soon Sunny could see the gleam of white bones below them.

  That’s Queen Oasis. Why does Flower want us to dig her up?

  Before long, they had the front half of the dragon’s body uncovered. She was huge, too, even bigger than Burn. She must have been terrifying when she was alive.

  Flower scrambled into the hole they’d dug and carefully climbed around the bones until she was standing beside the dragon’s skull. She tapped on the skull’s jaws and looked up at Sunny.

  A sudden shiver went down Sunny’s spine, as if she knew what was about to happen, although she couldn’t have put it into words.

  She reached down and pried open the queen’s mouth.

  Inside were two sacks, falling apart and full of holes, but otherwise just like the one the scavengers had given her in the forest.

  Behind her, she heard Glory gasp. She understood what this meant.

  Twenty years ago, the night Oasis died — Flower must have hidden some of the treasure in the dead dragon’s mouth, before she ran off to hide in the dunes. Maybe she thought she’d have a chance to go back and get it, or maybe she didn’t want to be caught with it.

  Sunny carefully lifted the sacks onto the sand. Emeralds and gold coins and tiger’s-eye bracelets spilled out through the holes. She sliced open the sacks with one of her claws.

  And there it was at last: the Eye of Onyx.

  “By all the moons,” Thorn whispered.

  Sunny slid her talons around the black sphere and lifted it up. As she did, she realized that it was set on a chain of hammered gold links so it could be worn as a necklace.

  And then she took a closer look at the setting.

  In molded, beaten gold, on either side of the onyx stone, were two dragon wings. They caught the firelight of the torches and glowed red-gold-orange as she held the necklace up.

  Wings of fire.

  Had somebody known, somewhere along the line, and told the NightWings? Was it just a coincidence?

  In a way the prophecy turned out to be real after all.

  Even if somebody thought they made it up, it’s real to me and to all the dragons who need the war to be over.

  But the prophecy didn’t make this happen; no all-powerful fate or guiding force in the universe made this happen.

  We made this happen. Me and my friends and all these dragons here and even Flower.

  She could feel power thrumming through the sphere, like the Obsidian Mirror or the dreamvisitor, but stronger and lighter, somehow. She wondered if animus-touched objects had different auras based on which dragon had enchanted them.

  “No wonder no one has been able to take the SandWing throne all these years,” Tsunami said.

  “It’s like Queen Oasis was still hanging on to it,” Glory agreed, nudging the bones with her tail. Flower was watching them nervously from on top of the skull. Sunny held up the Eye of Onyx and made a little bow toward the scavenger.

  “Thank you,” she said. “This is what we needed.”

  “Sunny,” Tsunami said, “with this, you could be queen. You’d be a great queen.”

  “It’s true,” Glory said. “Nobody wants Blister. They’d follow you, if you want the throne.”

  They were right. Sunny could sense that the magic in the sphere was not confined to royalty. Any SandWing who held the Eye of Onyx could command the kingdom. Even Sunny, with her harmless tail, could be queen.

  Another earthquake shook the ground under her talons.

  “And I promise not to be jealous,” Tsunami said, “even though this is all highly unfair because why aren’t thrones just falling into my lap, is what I’d like to know.”

  Sunny imagined it: a palace, an army, treasure, and power. She’d command the largest kingdom in Pyrrhia. She could make the Kingdom of Sand a safe, peaceful place to live. She could change the laws and stop dragons from fighting each other all the time.

  She looked up at the wings and claws and teeth lining the walls. Or could she? Would she be strong enough to punish anyone who opposed her? Would she know how to defend her subjects if another tribe attacked them? Would she have to become a different kind of dragon?

  I don’t want to be queen, Sunny realized. I don’t want to fight for my throne or worry about the size of my territory and how much is in my treasury.

  I want to be with my friends. I want to teach dragonets how to make peace and how to find other solutions instead of war.

  I just want to be me, Sunny.

  But it still didn’t have to be Blister. There was another choice.

  She could feel the eyes of every dragon on her; even Blister and Blaze had stopped fighting, alerted by the silence that something significant was happening. Blister stepped toward them with a hiss.

  Sunny looked right at her, then turned and gave the Eye of Onyx to Thorn.

  Something crackled between them as their claws touched — a tiny jolt of purple lightning sparking along the curve of the black stone.

  “This is the new SandWing queen,” Sunny said, hearing her voice echo across the courtyard. “She is our choice. She is the right choice.”

  Murmurs and gasps rippled through the watching dragons.

  “Fourth moons and fireballs,” Thorn said, awestruck. “Me? Are you sure?”

  “I’m extremely definitely sure,” Sunny said.

  “Awesome,” Glory whispered, and when Sunny looked over at her, the RainWing queen winked. Beside her, Tsunami was nodding, too.

  “Absolutely not,” said Blister, advancing on them. “That is mine. I deserve it. I took the rest of the SandWing treasure. I tricked Mother into flying to her death alone.” She gave the old queen’s bones a scornful look. “I used my brain to get out of facing Burn in a challenge duel, by turning our fight into a war.” She hissed at the dragonets, her usual stillness broken into trembling anger. “I am the smartest dragon in Pyrrhia. I am the rightful SandWing queen.”

  She flicked her tail at Burn’s body, then at Blaze, who was crouched on the stones, bleeding from several small wounds. “Besides, it’s in the prophecy,” she growled. “Of three queens who blister and blaze and burn, two shall die …”

  “And one shall learn,” Sunny quoted back at her, “if she bows to a fate that is stronger and higher, she’ll have the power of wings of fire.” Morrowseer was talking about the NightWings, hinting that the winning queen would have to submit to the NightWing tribe. But this is much better. “This is your fate — to accept your new queen.” She nodded at Thorn.

  Blister coiled her venomous tail up, giving Sunny and Thorn a cold glare that was unsettlingly like the dragonbite viper’s. “You don’t seriously think that’s going to happen, do you?”

  “So fight me,” Thorn said. “I’m not afraid of you. I can win this throne in battle, if that’s how you want to do it.” She tossed her head toward Blaze. “Or are you only willing to fight weak and cowering dragons?”

  Blister’s expression was hard to read. Is she afraid to fight Thorn? Sunny wondered. Or is she calculating her next move — coming up with another evil trick?

  “I don’t have to fight you,” Blister said, pacing closer and closer. Her obsidian eyes glittered in the moonlight. “You have no right to this throne. The Eye of Onyx is mine.” Suddenly she lunged forward and snatched the smooth black sphere out of Thorn’s talons.

  Orange sparks flew off the Eye where Blister’s claws touched it. There was a hissing, crackling, spitting sound that seemed to fill the whole courtyard and expand outward, shock waves spilling over the walls and the desert beyond.

  Blister’s talons started shaking. It looked as if she was trying to drop the Eye but she couldn’t. Lightning flickered
across the black stone and then out, darting along Blister’s arms and up into her wings. She jerked back, nearly lifting into the air, and fell, still clutching the sphere.

  But she didn’t scream. She never made a sound, even as her tail smashed into the ground and her head thrashed from side to side.

  The lightning cracked again, faster, ripping through the SandWing’s body.

  And then Blister, the dragon of their nightmares, the sister whose evil schemes had started the whole war, exploded into a pile of black dust.

  Nobody moved.

  Nobody spoke for a long, long moment.

  And then Blaze said wonderingly, “It’s me? I’m the sister who survives?”

  Thorn stepped forward and gingerly picked up the Eye of Onyx again. It made a little humming sound and flickered with dark purple lines, just once, then went quiet.

  “What happened?” Starflight asked. Beside him, Fatespeaker shook her head, for once too shocked to speak.

  “I think we’d better do some research about the exact enchantment on that thing,” Glory said, giving the Eye of Onyx a wary look.

  “I can see why Oasis kept it in her treasury instead of wearing it,” Thorn said. “I’m a little traumatized right now.” But she lifted the necklace over her head and let the chain settle around her neck, with the onyx stone and the dragon wings resting in the center of her chest. They bumped against the moonstone that was already there, and Sunny thought of her father.

  We proved him wrong. We really did it. We ended the war.

  She looked up at all the dragons who were watching — from the walls, from the sky, and now spilling into the courtyard — SandWings coming forward to greet their new queen. Blaze was the first one to reach her, crouching and bowing low to Queen Thorn. Behind her, others followed suit.

  “This is really strange,” Thorn whispered to Sunny. “I hope you’re planning to help me figure this all out.”

  “I will,” Sunny said. “But you’ll be brilliant.” She caught a glimpse of Smolder, Six-Claws, and Qibli among the bowing dragons, and she saw Queen Glacier, Queen Coral, and Queen Moorhen watching from the walls, looking relieved. “And I think there will be lots of other dragons willing to help you figure it out, too.”

 
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