The lost heir, p.3
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       The Lost Heir, p.3

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  The soldier’s eyes were blinking awake as they reached him. He coughed and coughed again, lifting his head to peer groggily at the dragonets.

  “So how does the tree help?” Tsunami asked.

  “We put it on top of him,” Starflight said. “So he’ll be trapped in place, at least long enough for us to get away.”

  Tsunami hated to admit it, but it was a good idea. She helped Clay wrestle the tree over until it lay heavily across the orange dragon’s back and wings. The SkyWing tried to push himself up, but the tree kept him pinned to the sand.

  “What if he’s stuck here forever?” Sunny worried. She reached over and brushed some sand off the SkyWing’s snout. He snorted a puff of smoke, and Clay pulled her back. “Maybe we should just let him go.”

  “We can’t do that,” Tsunami said.

  “I wish you hadn’t attacked him,” Sunny said, ducking her head.

  “Me too,” said Glory.

  “It wasn’t the smartest move,” Starflight agreed.

  Tsunami’s gills flared, and she spread her wings. “You don’t know that!” she said. “Maybe I saved us! Again!” She looked at Clay, but he only shrugged as if he wasn’t sure. Thanks for the support, guys, Tsunami thought angrily. When all I’m trying to do is keep everyone safe.

  “Don’t worry, Sunny,” Clay said, patting the little SandWing’s head. “His friends will come looking for him eventually.”

  “Eventually or soon,” Glory said. “So like I said, let’s seriously get out of here.”

  “Wait,” the SkyWing rasped. His voice was hoarse and deep. He wriggled, lashing his tail across the sand. “Don’t leave me like this.”

  Starflight stepped into his line of sight and gazed down at him. “Remember we could have killed you,” he said. “Remember that the dragonets of destiny were merciful. We want peace, not more death. We have come to save Pyrrhia.”

  “Oh, good grief,” Tsunami said as Glory rolled her eyes. “No more hanging out with NightWings for you.”

  “I thought it sounded nice,” Sunny said. Starflight shot her a grateful look.

  “Sunny, don’t encourage him,” said Glory.

  Carefully Starflight draped a few large leaves over the dragon’s head, so he couldn’t see where they went. He pointed toward the forest and mouthed, “Just to be safe.”

  Tsunami sighed. More flying in the wrong direction. She wanted to go home already. Home to the ocean and the SeaWings and her royal parents.

  But she couldn’t argue about it with the SkyWing listening, and the others were already nodding. All of them were ready to follow anxious, overly cautious Starflight yet again. And none of them thought she’d done the right thing by attacking this SkyWing, even though it was to save their stupid scales.

  As they lifted into the sky, she cast a longing look over her shoulder at the ocean.

  Soon, she thought. Soon I’ll be with my own dragons.

  The Bay of a Thousand Scales was farther away than Tsunami had realized. She’d been studying the map of Pyrrhia since she was tiny, but it was hard to fit that picture over the enormous world below her. She kept expecting to find neat little spirals of islands that would fit in the palm of her talons. Instead, she found herself flying over vast expanses of empty ocean, dotted here and there with a solitary outcropping of rock.

  After they took a long detour inland to convince the SkyWing they’d gone in the opposite direction, they circled around south and flew out to sea. They managed to make it to a small rocky island shortly after night fell, but according to Starflight they were still a long way from the Bay of a Thousand Scales. He’d calculated the distance and their speed and had a long boring lecture ready to explain it all. The rest of them fell asleep halfway into it, and he spent the next day sulking about that.

  Still, Tsunami had to admit — if only to herself — that it was useful having someone with all the geography and flight plans in his head. For a few days they stopped whenever they saw an island, ate a seagull or fish if they could catch any, and then flew on. Tsunami tried diving into the ocean several times and was disappointed to discover she couldn’t swim as fast as she flew. The only good news was that the ocean water helped to heal the burn on her neck.

  It was four mornings later when Tsunami finally woke up on an island that was officially part of the Thousand Scales.

  She started awake from a dream in which their cave had collapsed and was slowly crushing her to death, and discovered that Clay had rolled over on top of her in the middle of the night. Grumbling, she wriggled out from under him and let his tail flop over onto Starflight’s head.

  The five dragonets were packed into a cavern halfway up a tall sea cliff. It was cramped and uncomfortable and smelled of seagull droppings. Clay had barely been able to scrunch his wings low enough to crawl inside.

  And why were they sleeping in this horrible spot instead of on the nice white sandy beach below?

  Tsunami sat down in the cave entrance and glared at Starflight, which wasn’t very satisfying since everyone was still snoring away. Clay was stuffed against the back wall with Sunny between his front talons and Starflight curled up alongside. Even Glory had her tail draped over Clay’s. Her scales glinted orange and gold in the light of the rising sun, with bursts of red when she shifted sleepily.

  Starflight had been acting so weird since the NightWings gave him back. Suddenly it seemed like he wanted to argue with Tsunami about every thing. If she said, “Let’s sleep on the beach! It’ll be fun!” he’d say, “No, no, we have to sleep in a hidden cave; that’ll be much safer.” Safer! As if there was anything to worry about all the way out here, in the middle of the night.

  But everyone was still mad at her about attacking that soldier, so they all voted with Starflight.

  She didn’t like that development at all.

  Tsunami watched them sleep for a moment. It was so hard to lead effectively when everyone kept questioning you and complaining about every thing. She only wanted what was best for them. Didn’t they know that? She’d always figured she would fight a hundred SkyWings to protect them.

  But maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe my friends don’t want my protection after all.

  Maybe they wanted Starflight to be their leader instead. Even though he’d never risked one scale on his body for them.

  Tsunami glanced down at the sea, sparkling aquamarine below her. Somewhere in those blue-green depths was her family — her parents, her kingdom, every thing that should have been hers, if the Talons of Peace hadn’t stolen her away and ruined her life.

  Perhaps the problem with her friends was that they were from different tribes, all stubborn and muddled up instead of sensible like SeaWings. Maybe her own kind would understand her better. They’d appreciate her instead of yelling at her.

  Well, she didn’t have to sit here waiting for everyone else to wake up. It wasn’t like they’d be much help when it came to searching anyway.

  Tsunami stretched her wings and then tipped forward out of the cave opening. Wind whistled past her snout, tugging at her tail as she plummeted down the cliff. At the last moment, she snapped her wings open and sailed across the top of the water, skimming it with her claws. Joy tingled through her scales. She spun and dove into the water.

  The sea was warmer here and busy with underwater life. Her splash sent what seemed like thousands of fish scattering away, several of them disappearing into a pinkish-orange coral reef that curled out of the sand like a petrified forest. A blobby dark blue octopus goggled at her from the branches. Tsunami kept seeing flickers of bright yellow and silver at the edge of her vision as fish fled from her webbed claws.

  No welcoming committee of delighted SeaWings, though.

  No glowing jellyfish marking a path to Queen Coral’s castle. No cavalcade of bowing seahorses and bejeweled lobsters to lead the way.

  Not that she’d been picturing the homecoming scene from The Missing Princess or anything.

  Tsunami swam along the coral reef, peering
at the creatures hiding in the nooks and holes. A hideous thing she thought might be an eel stared back at her. Little orange-and-white fish nestled in the waving lavender anemones.

  She still wasn’t used to swimming in the sea, and that frustrated her. Unexpected currents kept knocking her off balance. The salt water felt like it was scraping roughly against her gills. Where were her natural SeaWing instincts? Her world was supposed to make her stronger, faster, tougher — not pathetic.

  She swam all the way to the next island, fighting the currents. More of the pinkish coral reef stretched across the sand here as well, dotted with waving green fans and lacy dark purple ferns. Her wings felt sore and tired, so she spread them wide and floated near the surface, not far from the land.

  Something flashed below her in the shadows of the coral reef.

  Something very large.

  Tsunami had a brief vision of all the large, toothy things that might live in the ocean, then dismissed it. If it was a shark, she would kill it and bring it back to the others to eat — mainly so she could see the look on Starflight’s face.

  She flicked her tail to swim closer.

  It was another SeaWing.

  A shiver rippled across her scales when she saw him, and part of her wanted to bolt right back to her friends.

  Don’t be a smoke-breather, she scolded herself. This is what you were hoping for: a dragon from your own tribe.

  She took a deep breath. The strange SeaWing had dark blue horns and sky-blue scales several shades paler than hers. He was paddling by the reef, shifting his talons and wings slightly to change course. His head turned alertly from side to side.

  Well, it wouldn’t hurt to follow him for a while first, Tsunami told herself. She crept along the top of the reef, peering over the edge at him. Her claws caught on small gaps in the coral. She accidentally poked an indignant black lobster, which came bustling out with its long whiskers bristling and pincers snapping. It took one look at her and hustled right back into hiding.

  Up here, the reef was covered in a layer of green mosslike algae. Tsunami passed a couple of large sea turtles slowly swimming nearby. An enormous, tentacled thing like a sea spider sat nibbling bits of algae. The tips of its eight dark purple legs glowed orange-yellow and so did its eyes.

  The SeaWing down below stopped suddenly and glanced around. Tsunami flattened herself against the reef. Knobbly bits of limestone poked into her underbelly. She peered through one of the holes at the other dragon.

  He spun slowly, staring into the ocean depths. Had he heard her?

  But he didn’t look up. The dragon checked around him one more time, then lit up the stripes along his wings.

  Almost immediately another dragon swam out of a cave in the coral reef.

  Hmmm, Tsunami thought, much less handsome. His green scales were perfectly nice, but she didn’t care for the black spiral patterns on them. She’d never seen a pattern like that on a dragon before. And his face wasn’t nearly as handsome or friendly-looking as the first dragon, although perhaps that had something to do with the giant bruise swollen over his left eye.

  She wondered if they were guards switching patrol duty. If so, they were being quite strange about it.

  The two dragons floated in place, staring at each other, for what seemed like an eternity. Occasionally the stripes on one SeaWing would light up, then on the other. They moved their talons about as if waving away fish, even though no fish went anywhere near them.

  And then the spiral-marked dragon ducked back into the cave, and the blue dragon swam on.

  Some kind of SeaWing patrol ritual? Tsunami wondered. I guess I’ll have to learn all that stuff in order to become queen. She lifted her wings to swim after the first dragon, and a pair of yellow-striped fish wriggled out from under her and shot away.

  The sky-blue dragon swam back the way he’d come, toward the stretch of open sea between this island and the one where Tsunami’s friends were sleeping.

  Now or never, Tsunami thought. She’d rather meet this dragon than the other one, and she’d rather do it while he was alone, if she could. That seemed easier than trying to explain herself to a whole bunch of dragons at once.

  She beat her wings to catch up, dove over the edge of the reef, and swam around in front of him.

  The SeaWing started back in an eddy of ripples. His eyes were a blue so dark they were almost black.

  Tsunami pointed up at the surface. Come on out of the water so we can talk, she tried to signal. Hopefully he’d figure out what she meant.

  To her surprise, he whipped around and fled. His tail smacked a wave of water in her face.

  Well, that’s unfriendly, she thought. She swam after him, swinging her tail to propel herself even faster. He glanced back over his shoulder, saw her chasing him, and put on a burst of speed.

  Why was he running away? And how was he so fast?

  “Stop!” she tried to yell through the water. “I just want to talk!”

  Of course that didn’t work. He didn’t even slow down.

  But then he twisted to look back at Tsunami, and so he didn’t see the whale that suddenly loomed out of the deep in front of him.

  Tsunami waved her talons and pointed. “Watch out!” she shouted in a cascade of bubbles.

  The SeaWing smacked into the whale’s side and careened backward. The whale was only slightly bigger than the dragon, with ridges all along its back and a flat, mild-mannered face. It made a weird squeaking groan and blinked at the SeaWing in confusion.

  The dragon was still shaking his head, trying to reorient himself, when Tsunami caught up, grabbed his tail, and pinned him to the sand.

  The whale blinked again and swam on. Eddies rippled around the two dragons as it powered away through the water.

  Now what do I do? Tsunami thought. I have to get him to the surface to talk to him, but if I let him go, he might try to escape again.

  She frowned down at the dragon and pointed at the surface again. Flashes of sunlight shimmered up above them, like pieces of broken gold-white glass floating on the water.

  The other dragon tipped his head to one side. Luminescent stripes lit up along his wings, flashing fast, then slow.

  All right, Tsunami thought. I can do that, too. Maybe he’s testing me.

  She lit up her own stripes, illuminating the ones on her snout, then the ones along her tail, and finally her wings. See? My stripes flash, too. I’m a SeaWing. Now let’s go up and talk.

  Slowly she spread her wings and lifted up, prepared to grab him if he tried to bolt again. He scrambled upright but stayed with her. Encouraged, Tsunami swam a bit closer to the surface. He followed, but only for a bit before he stopped and looked around.

  His stripes flashed again, this time along his neck and tail.

  Impatiently Tsunami lit up her stripes one more time, mirroring what he’d done.

  The SeaWing’s wings flared open with a whoosh that scared fish into the reef. He lunged toward Tsunami, fast as a minnow. His front talons reached for her.

  Tsunami roared, blasting him in the eyes with bubbles, and sliced her claws across his snout. She didn’t know why he was attacking. Maybe he was a traitor SeaWing. Or maybe he was guarding his territory or trea sure. Perhaps he thought she was an intruder, although he wasn’t much of a guard if his first instinct was to run away, and his second was to attack with no reason.

  He’ll be sorry when he finds out who I am! she thought fiercely.

  She kicked his underbelly hard with her back legs. He coughed up a stream of bubbles and fell back. Tsunami spread her wings, snarled at him one more time, and shot to the surface.

  She burst into the air and kept beating her wings to rise into the sky. In the distance, she could see the cliff-side cave and the worried faces of her friends poking out.

  An enormous splash sounded behind her. The other SeaWing surged out of the ocean. His massive tail whacked the water twice as he lifted into the air, sending giant waves rushing in all directions.

  He looked even bigger out here in the air. His hooked claws gleamed sharply in the sunlight. His dark blue eyes were fixed on her wings.

  The first true citizen of her kingdom she’d ever met, and he was coming to kill her.

  Tsunami shot toward the island where her friends were. The SeaWing was close on her tail. He roared something, but the wind whipped it away so she couldn’t hear it.

  She saw Clay wriggle out of the cliff and take to the air. That’s what she needed — backup. With a quick twist of her wings, she aimed for the strip of white sandy beach where she’d wanted to sleep the night before. The other three could stay safely in the cave. She and Clay together could handle this SeaWing.

  She hoped.

  “Wait!” her pursuer yelled. “Where are you going? What’s wrong?”

  Tsunami’s wings missed a beat, and she nearly dropped into the ocean. She swung around, hovering over the sea between the cliff and the beach. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Clay veer into a circle in the air, waiting to see what she would do.

  The other SeaWing paused as well. He kept the length of two dragons between him and her. The scratches on his snout were bleeding.

  “What’s wrong?” Tsunami cried indignantly. “Didn’t you just attack me?”

  “I certainly did not!” he protested. Glowing lines flickered along his snout. “I thought you — that’s the normal —” He seemed to be getting more and more embarrassed. “You said you liked me!” he finally burst out.

  “I didn’t say anything of the sort,” Tsunami said, astonished.

  The SeaWing’s brow furrowed. “You very clearly said you liked me, and you’d followed me all the way out here to tell me that.”

  Tsunami just about fell out of the sky. “You are a delusional squid-brain,” she cried.

  “Well, maybe not in those exact words!” he said. “All right, it was a little confusing. Maybe a lot confusing. But the message was in there. And why else would you be chasing me?”

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