Darkstalker, p.24
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       Darkstalker, p.24

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  Actually it seemed as if they were coming out right for once, which was worrying. Darkstalker wished that he could read her mind and see what was going on in there.

  “Maybe you just need some sleep,” he said. A small clatter from one of the back rooms distracted him. “Is Father here?”

  She nodded.

  Darkstalker stepped quietly down the hall until he was standing in the doorway to his father’s room. Foeslayer’s side of it still looked exactly the same, everything untouched except perhaps her blankets, which looked as though someone had been lying on them. But it was freezing cold in the room, with actual icicles hanging around Arctic’s sleeping spot. He must have been using his frostbreath to make the room a bit more to his own liking.

  Arctic had his back to Darkstalker, fiddling with something at his desk. Fragments of ice were scattered around his feet and a piece of parchment that looked like a map stuck out from under his tail.

  Can’t wait much longer, his brain muttered. Not sure this will be enough, though.

  “I’m alive,” Darkstalker announced. “In case you were worried.”

  Arctic stiffened, then cast an evil glance over his shoulder at his son. “Can’t say that I was.”

  “I know you were there,” Darkstalker said. “At the pavilion. Watching.”

  “Indeed,” said Arctic, turning back to his work. “Care to explain how that spear bounced off your scales?” This one gets more dangerous all the time, he thought. Maybe I should do what Mother wants.

  “Did you know the dragon who attacked me?” Darkstalker asked instead of answering.

  His father shrugged. “I’ve seen him around court, but never spoken to him. I’m not interested in knowing every common NightWing in the tribe.”

  Darkstalker paused, waiting for Quickdeath’s name to appear in Arctic’s thoughts. But it didn’t. Arctic had a brief memory of passing Quickdeath in the halls of the palace, and that was it.

  Could Darkstalker be wrong? Or had Arctic finally developed the strength to shield some of his thoughts?

  “Why do you think he tried to kill me?” he tried.

  Arctic snorted. “Because you’re an arrogant fool. Because you flaunt your magic and don’t care who you offend. Because you insulted his mother, or stole his prey, or cheated off his test, or read his mind when he told you not to. I can think of a million possible reasons, but what does it matter? He’s dead now, isn’t he?”

  That idiot, Arctic thought, flicking his tail. He should have known it wouldn’t be that easy to kill an animus dragon. Couldn’t have gotten me that way, either, not if I was wearing my shielding earring.

  Darkstalker tipped his head. He hadn’t known that his father had a “shielding earring.” He wondered which one it was: the light blue diamond in his left ear, or the silver narwhal in his right.

  More important, these didn’t sound like the thoughts of a dragon who’d just tried to have him killed. Arctic seemed more … disinterested than anything else.

  “You’re probably right,” Darkstalker said, backing out of the doorway and heading to his own room.

  Behind him, he heard Arctic swivel around again, thinking, Now that was suspicious. What does he mean, I’m probably right? What’s that dragon hiding? And then, a few moments later, as Darkstalker was unlocking his door, Arctic thought, Better act soon, before anyone can stop me.

  Darkstalker paused, listening, but Arctic’s thoughts didn’t elaborate further. Maybe he wasn’t the one who hired Quickdeath, Darkstalker thought, but it certainly sounds like he’s still planning to kill me eventually.

  Darkstalker locked the door behind him and started pacing up and down in his room. He wished Clearsight were here, to help him figure out what to do next. What would she see Arctic doing, if she looked ahead in his timeline?

  Although he had to admit his faith in her powers was shaken by the attack tonight. Why hadn’t she seen it coming? Who could have known enough to trick her foresight that way — and his, for that matter?

  He’d have to find out later what evil scheme was circling around Arctic’s head. Right now all that interested him was finding his would-be killer.

  Who besides Arctic might want Darkstalker dead?

  He paused next to his desk, thinking of the last dragon who had dared to threaten his life.

  He remembered the cold prick of steel at his throat. The tension that hummed through her wings whenever he walked into the room. Her dark blue eyes, always watching him, as though he was the one who posed a danger to Fathom.

  Dragons who try to kill me don’t fare too well, do they, SeaWing?

  He swept the clutter off his desk. Sorry, Clearsight. He had promised her he’d wait before doing any spell — that she could be there if he decided to do it. But he didn’t want to wait. He hated the idea that someone was out there wishing for his death, planning to kill him … planning to derail all his glorious futures and blink all his dragonets out of existence. How dare they. He needed to find out who they were and punish them.

  Whoever it was had to know immediately that they couldn’t do this to him and get away with it. They had to suffer the consequences as soon as possible. He was the most powerful dragon in Pyrrhia. He should act like it.

  He took his scroll and his secret inkwell out of their hiding place, rolled it to the newest blank spread, and weighted down the corners with little statues. Next he pulled out a scrap of parchment and set it on top of the scroll. He dipped one claw in the red ink and wrote, Enchant this parchment to reveal the name of the dragon who hired Quickdeath to kill me tonight.

  As he carefully wiped the ink off his claw, jagged red letters began to appear on the parchment, slowly scrawling a name across the stark white page.

  Darkstalker froze as he realized what it said.

  Oh, yes. There are definitely going to be consequences.

  Now I know who has to pay.

  Clearsight slept very poorly that morning, troubled by nightmares of horrible futures — betrayals and murders and war without end. It seemed as though all her worst possible visions were crowding through her head at once.

  She woke up with massive pain in her temples and jaw, as though she’d been clenching her teeth all night. The sun stabbed sharply through a gap in the thick curtains, pouncing on her eyeballs and setting them ablaze. She covered her head with a pillow and tried to find a timeline with an instant miracle cure for headaches in it.

  Drinking water would help. So would breakfast. Hiding under the covers for the rest of the day would not.

  She got up, taking deep breaths, and adjusted her moonstone earrings, which had slipped half off in the night. She had to remember: sometimes dreams were just dreams, not visions of the future. Even if it felt like the end of the world, the argument last night didn’t have to be the beginning of a horrible spiral into darkness.

  And if it was, she could stop it. She wouldn’t let the darkness come for her and her friends. As long as Darkstalker listened to her — and he would, in almost every timeline she could see now — everything would be all right.

  Clearsight stumbled to the window that looked over the inner courtyards of the palace. She twitched the curtains aside and peered out at the garden below. It was after midday, and not many dragons were down there, but she spotted a line of royal guards blocking off one section — and beyond them, a pair of NightWings, walking and talking close together.

  One was obviously the queen. The other … Clearsight recognized the long neck and sharp-edged bones from afar.

  That was Allknowing — Queen Vigilance’s fired seer.

  What was she doing here?

  Clearsight rubbed her eyes and splashed water on her face, then hurried down to the garden, taking the stairs instead of flying, so it wouldn’t look as if she was swooping in on the queen’s private conversation.

  The guards saw her coming and one of them called to the queen. “Your other seer is here, Your Majesty.”

  Queen Vigilance poked her head around a
rosebush and eyed Clearsight. “I see,” she said. “Any new visions?”

  “Not about the war, Your Majesty,” Clearsight said with a bow. “Not in the last day. My previous predictions still stand.”

  “Really,” said the queen. She beckoned Clearsight forward until the three of them — Vigilance, Clearsight, and Allknowing — were ensconced inside the rose bower. Allknowing smirked down at Clearsight. Her flicking tail caught a few yellow roses and ripped them loose, scattering petals like drops of gold everywhere.

  “So,” the queen hissed to Clearsight. “A question for you. Have you ever had any visions about your truly beloved?”

  “About — you mean about Darkstalker?” Clearsight blinked with surprise. Of course she’d had hundreds, thousands of visions about Darkstalker … including several the queen would surely quite like to know about. But those were the ones that weren’t going to happen.

  She could still tell part of the truth, though. “Most of my visions about Darkstalker have to do with our future together,” she hedged. “I’ve had visions of our dragonets, of our future home near the palace, of the ways in which we both keep using our powers to serve you.”

  “And have you seen how I die?” the queen demanded.

  Chills slid along Clearsight’s neck and spread through her scales. What had Allknowing told her?

  “I’ve seen a few possibilities,” she said carefully.

  “Oh, yes?” said the queen. “Not worth mentioning, were they?”

  “They’re all so far into the future,” Clearsight protested. “It’ll be another ten years before one of your daughters has the courage to challenge you, and the probability of her winning is very low.”

  “Hmm,” said Queen Vigilance. Her suspicious look encompassed both of her seers now. “And of all my death scenes, which comes the soonest?”

  Clearsight tried. She closed her eyes and concentrated as hard as she could, looking for the darkest paths, which made her realize she hadn’t had any visions of Darkstalker in his twisted crown for at least a month. She’d assumed … she’d hoped that meant it had fallen out of the realm of possibility. That maybe Darkstalker’s recent contentment was real, and everyone was going to be safe.

  Now, searching for it as intently as she could, flashes began appearing behind her eyes: Darkstalker, the crown, the dead queen — but she couldn’t keep them there. They flashed away as soon as she tried to look at them or piece them into the web of the future.

  “Don’t hurt yourself,” Allknowing sneered. Clearsight opened her eyes and looked at her former teacher. How could Allknowing have a vision of Darkstalker doing something terrible when Clearsight couldn’t see it?

  “Share your mumbo jumbo,” Queen Vigilance ordered her former seer, flicking Allknowing in the face with her tail.

  Allknowing cleared her throat and fluffed her wings importantly.

  “Hatched of ice and hatched of night

  Cursed with moons all shining bright

  Longs for power not his own

  Comes to steal your very throne.”

  Queen Vigilance snorted. “Remarkably clear. For the first time ever.” Her pitch-black eyes narrowed at Clearsight. “Any of that ring a bell?”

  “She’s making it up!” Clearsight protested. “Darkstalker wouldn’t do that!”

  “Why should I believe you?” the queen demanded, furious now. “You’re so enchanted by him that you wouldn’t tell me even if he was a threat, would you?”

  “I don’t have to!” Clearsight cried. “He’s really n —” She broke off suddenly.

  Enchanted by him.

  Am I?

  Her talons went slowly to her earrings. But I checked the scroll.

  And yet … I didn’t notice an invulnerability spell in there, either.

  If he can keep one spell a secret from me, he could have done another.

  But how? It would have to be in the scroll. Wouldn’t it?

  The chills had become a cold gusting wind of terror. Had he been lying to her all along? Did he really keep some of his animus power in his own claws? But surely she would have seen it in some future, if that were true.

  She fumbled to unclip the earrings, dropping them with small plinks on the ground.

  And visions rushed in, visions upon visions upon visions, all the darkness she’d ever seen but worse and worse and worse and worse: Darkstalker murdering the queen and stealing the throne; NightWings fleeing by the thousands; the city burning, the ground shaking; Darkstalker in his crown laughing and killing with ease.

  These weren’t visions of the distant future, either. These were about to happen now. The tipping point was trembling on a knife’s edge. If Clearsight could do anything to stop it, she didn’t have a moment to lose.

  “It was you,” she said to the queen, bewildered. “You sent the assassin after Darkstalker.”

  “After I heard her prophecy,” the queen said, tipping her head at Allknowing, “how could I not?”

  “You fool,” Clearsight cried. “You’re the one making it happen! He wouldn’t have — he might not — but now, but now …” She took a step backward. He was coming, it was all coming, all the bad things rushing their way. “I have to go.”

  “No,” said the queen sharply. “I won’t let you conspire with him anymore. Guards! Lock her up!” she shouted.

  Burly NightWing guards pounced from behind the rosebushes, as if they’d been lying in wait for this moment, but Clearsight saw them coming. All at once the future was spread clearly over the present, as it hadn’t been since she put the earrings on, and she saw where the guards would be to grab her and she saw how to twist away and her escape path into the sky, and she took it, winging free in one wild heartbeat.

  “I’m the only one who can stop him,” she shouted to the queen’s furious upturned face. “And I will. I promise I will!”

  She evaded the talons that reached for her and the wings that blocked her way, diving and dodging until she was over the palace wall and soaring down toward the Great Diamond.

  A moment later, new wingbeats came up alongside her and she nearly lashed out, before she realized with a surge of relief that it was Fathom, glowing emerald green in the sunlight.

  “What happened?” he called. “I heard shouting — I saw you and the queen out my window — are you all right?”

  “We have to stop Darkstalker,” she cried. “He’s on his way here to kill the queen.”

  “What?” Fathom’s wings faltered. “Now? Why — oh.” His features shifted as he figured it out. “She’s the one who sent the assassin.”

  “Darkstalker really doesn’t like it when dragons try to kill him,” Clearsight said.

  “Maybe we can reason with him. He forgave Indigo, remember?” Fathom pointed out as they swooped past the library.

  Clearsight’s heart stopped again. Did he?

  What if she didn’t really leave? What if he did something to her with one of his secret spells?

  WHERE IS SHE?

  “I see him!” Fathom cried, adjusting his flight path.

  Darkstalker was beating his way toward the palace, menace radiating from every scale. Not many NightWings were out now, in the middle of the day, but those that were swerved wildly to get out of his way, then gathered to whisper together as he passed.

  I knew the whole tribe would know who we were one day, Clearsight thought, but I wanted us to be their saviors — not for everyone to be scared of him.

  “Darkstalker!” she yelled.

  He paused and hovered in place, looking around as she and Fathom swooped up to him. She saw his gaze move to her ears, and she saw him realize that she’d taken off the earrings. He knew that she knew what he’d done. His face set into lines of defiance.

  She pointed to the roof of the library, and the three of them soared down to land on an open flat spot between the graceful spires.

  “I’m not going to let you kill the queen,” she said as their talons touched down.

  “She star
ted it,” Darkstalker said, his mouth quirking unbelievably into a little smile.

  “She’s an idiot,” Clearsight said, “but we can stop her from trying again. We can go back to the way things were.”

  “Yes, please, Darkstalker,” Fathom said, pressing his front talons together.

  “Can you really see that?” Darkstalker asked Clearsight. “She’ll never trust either of us. You’ll always be in danger, and therefore so will I, because I care about you, and Vigilance will use that against me.” He paused, looking her over. “Unless I enchant your scales, too.” His talons reached for a bag slung around his neck and Clearsight realized with a jolt that he must have his scroll with him. So he can use his magic on the queen.

  “No,” she said, so sharply that Darkstalker and Fathom both winced. “I don’t want any more spells on me, Darkstalker. I can’t believe you betrayed me like that.”

  “Like what?” he said innocently.

  “The earrings!” she cried. “You put a secret spell on me! You messed with my power, Darkstalker. Don’t you see how wrong that is?”

  Fathom took a step back, his face crumpling into shock and sorrow.

  “Oh,” Darkstalker said, flipping his tail dismissively. “That was such a little spell. I just wanted to keep you focused on the happy futures, like we talked about. I knew you couldn’t do it on your own, no matter how much you promised me you would. So the earrings faded back all the dark paths, that’s all. I was only trying to make you happier, Clearsight.” He tipped his head, looking for a moment as though he really meant it, as if he cared about her more than anything and had been trying to help.

  He might actually believe that — but the truth is, he was just making his life easier. He didn’t want me standing in his way as he went down those dark paths.

  “That’s why I didn’t see Quickdeath coming,” Clearsight said. “Between the earrings and Allknowing trying to trick me — that’s how I was taken by surprise. What if all my predictions about the war have been wrong, too, Darkstalker? While I’m handing out all these rose-colored prophecies, dragons could die in the real future.”

  “I was double-checking your work,” he said, smiling. “Don’t worry.”

 
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