The hidden kingdom, p.4
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       The Hidden Kingdom, p.4

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “I know, isn’t it pretty? We quite like our village, too,” Liana said, practically in Glory’s ear. Glory jumped back, flicking her tail. All right, there was one thing that made her uncomfortable: the way the other RainWings looked at her as if they expected to understand every thought she had, just by reading her scales. She clamped down on her emotions, turning her scales back to a treetop green that matched the background.

  Liana didn’t seem ruffled by Glory’s reaction. The RainWing scanned the leaves overhead, then smiled as five small dragons in shades of sky blue and copper dropped through the canopy toward them.

  “Hope you’re hungry,” Liana said as the dragons opened their talons. Strange shapes bounced and rolled across the platform, bumping against Glory’s sleeping friends. Glory picked up the one closest to her: lime-green and star-shaped, it smelled like pineapple and basil. She poked it with one claw, wondering if she had to peel it.

  Under the mountain, the dragonets had almost never eaten fruit. She knew more from reading about it in scrolls than from the few berries Webs had sometimes brought back. Queen Scarlet was the one who’d given her pineapple.

  Don’t think about Queen Scarlet.

  Starflight scanned the platform with a disappointed expression. “Is all of this fruit?” he asked. “Isn’t there any meat?”

  Liana wrinkled her nose. “You can hunt if you want,” she said, “but really, it’s a waste of energy.” She glanced up at the sky again. “And it’s almost our sun time, so if you must, then do it quietly.”

  “Sun time?” Glory asked.

  “Oh, sweetheart.” Liana shook her head. “Is that what’s wrong with you?”

  “I was not aware that anything was wrong with me,” Glory said, firmly keeping her scales from changing color. “Not from a RainWing point of view, anyway.”

  “It’s just your scales,” Liana said. “They’re so . . . mousy.”

  Glory stared at her. Mousy?

  “You know,” Liana said apologetically. “A little dull. Not like ours.” She stretched out one wing and let a waterfall of rainbows ripple through it.

  Is she saying I’m not as beautiful as other RainWings? Certainly they were all very bright and shiny. Maybe her own scales weren’t quite as vibrant.

  Glory wasn’t sure what to think of that. In fact, she was pretty sure she didn’t care. She’d always been “the pretty one” and it had never gotten her anywhere, other than chained to a decorative tree in the SkyWing Palace.

  “So tell me about sun time,” she said with a shrug.

  A few streaks of orange and emerald flashed through Liana’s scales and then vanished into dark blue again. Orange and emerald . . . if their scales worked the same way, then that meant Liana was feeling a little surprised and a little irritated. As if she’d hoped to prod more of a reaction out of Glory.

  This scale-reading business can go both ways, my new friends.

  “Sun time,” Liana said smoothly, as if her scales hadn’t changed at all. “It’s the hours when the sun is highest, so we climb up as close to it as we can and sleep.”

  “Oh,” Starflight interjected in his figuring-things-out voice. “Glory! It’s like those naps you always take after lunch. I knew that must be a RainWing thing. But I could never figure out the point. Why sleep in the middle of the day? Don’t you all have anything more important to do?”

  Glory flicked her tail and narrowed her eyes at him, but Liana didn’t seem offended.

  “The sun recharges our scales while we sleep,” she explained. “It makes us prettier, better at camouflage, smarter, and happier. What could be more important than that?”

  “Oh,” Starflight said again. He studied Glory like a scroll that finally made sense. “Oh. Happier? Like . . . less grouchy?”

  “Shut up,” Glory said, giving him a shove. She’d already put some of these pieces together in her own mind. She knew that what the guardians had done — keeping her trapped underground, away from the sun her whole life — had probably made her into a grumpier, less powerful dragon than she could have been. But she didn’t need the others figuring that out because she didn’t need their pity.

  And who knew what she would have been like otherwise? Being prickly was kind of an essential part of being Glory, if you asked her.

  The truth was, in the Sky Kingdom, where Queen Scarlet left her in the sun all day, Glory had never felt happier or more at peace . . . or less like herself. She knew it was the effect of the sun and nothing else. She knew that what she’d experienced was like finally getting to eat as much as she needed after a lifetime of starvation. She knew that Queen Scarlet was evil and that Glory was only another sparkly piece of trea sure to her.

  Part of her had hated it — hated the weird sleepiness and the unmotivated contentment that made her feel like a puddle of slugs.

  And yet there was a part of her that could have stayed that way forever.

  She shook herself fiercely. “So go sleep,” she said to Liana. “We’re not going anywhere.” The other RainWings who’d carried the nets had already flown off to higher platforms in the treetops. Some were sprawled out in open patches of sun, while others were stretched inside the clever hammocks, snoring.

  “True,” said Liana. “We’ll wake up before your friends do.”

  “Don’t you want to ask all your questions first?” Starflight said to Glory. “Don’t you want to find your family and —”

  “There’s no rush,” Glory said, cutting him off. “They’re asleep now anyway. The answers will be the same in a few hours.” She knew she was good at looking like she didn’t care. She particularly wanted Liana to think she didn’t care.

  It was lucky that questions couldn’t parade across her scales like her emotions, or she’d have been covered in them. But she wasn’t about to look desperate in her first moments with her new tribe. They certainly didn’t seem to have a million questions for her. So fine, she could act like this reunion was no big deal to her either.

  Maybe acting cool and unconcerned was a natural RainWing thing.

  Starflight scratched his head. “Can we at least ask about the monster?”

  “Monster?” Liana laughed. “There’s no such thing as monsters.”

  “Really?” Starflight asked. “Then what’s kill ing MudWing soldiers on your borders?”

  “Oh,” Liana said. “That monster.”

  Starflight’s wings flared, and his eyes went wide as the moons. Liana burst out laughing. “Your face!” she cried. “That was so worth it. I’m just kidding, little black dragon. I don’t know anything about any dead MudWings, but I do know we don’t have any monsters here.”

  “Just relax, Starflight,” Glory said. “Think about libraries or something.”

  “Little dragon,” Jambu called from a perch high above Glory’s head. She squinted up at him, dazzled by the bright light reflecting off his magenta scales. “Are you joining us for sun time? Want a hammock?” he offered. “Or a platform?”

  Glory blinked at her friends. Clay was snoring louder than all the RainWings combined. Tsunami frowned even in her sleep, her claws twitching as if she dreamed about fighting. Sunny was curled up in a peaceful ball like a snoozing chinchilla, and Webs, with his shallow breathing, looked and sounded halfway dead.

  If they weren’t going to wake up soon anyway . . .

  “Go ahead,” Starflight said. “It’s OK. I’ll watch them.” He shook his wings and puffed out his chest imposingly, which came across a bit like a tree frog trying to look menacing.

  “Wake me if you need to,” Glory said. “If I hear someone shrieking like a tiny scavenger, I’ll assume it’s you.”

  Starflight huffed in outrage as Glory scooped up a couple of mysterious fruits and flew to Jambu’s branch.

  “I’ll take a platform,” she said, landing beside the pink RainWing.

ou sure?” he asked. “Usually dragonets stick to the hammocks, in case they roll off in their sleep. You’d wake up before hitting the ground, but you’d probably hit a few other things first. So, you know, we’re not talking death or anything, but some serious ouch.”

  “I’ll be fine,” Glory said. She’d never fallen off the ghastly rock ledge where she’d been forced to sleep for six years. And even in her Sky Kingdom sun-overdose almost-coma, she’d always stayed perfectly balanced on the marble tree.

  “A calm sleeper, huh?” said Jambu. “Clear conscience, peaceful dreams?”

  “Sure,” Glory said. As if I would tell my dreams to a dragon I just met. Or my crimes, for that matter.

  “Then you can join ours,” he said, hopping from the branch to a platform covered in overlapping leaves, laid out to look like one gigantic leaf. The other two dragons on it nodded sleepily at her. Glory turned in a circle and lay down with her wings spread wide to catch as much sunshine as possible.

  Warmth flooded through her, as if she were rolling in molten gold. This, she thought as her eyes closed and all her muscles relaxed. I could have slept in the sun like this every day of my life.

  Forget the stupid prophecy. This is the destiny I was supposed to have.

  Glory woke up refreshed and relaxed, but as she lay there with her eyes closed, she felt a wave of strange anger at herself.

  All right, sure, I’m not in the Great Magnificent Wondrous Dragonet Prophecy. Maybe no one would ever write a prophecy about a RainWing. Maybe no dragon in Pyrrhia expects any of us to have an important destiny or do anything worthwhile.

  But this? Sleeping all day in a patch of sun? Is that all I’m good for — all any RainWing is good for?

  There must be more to us than this.

  There must be more to me.

  She wanted to kick herself. Falling asleep almost the moment she found her home . . . this was exactly what she didn’t want her friends to think about her or her tribe. She’d have to show them that there was a good reason for RainWings to have sun time. It must make them smarter and fiercer, or something.

  She shifted her wings and froze.

  Something was curled in the gap between her shoulder and her wing. Some part of it was also draped across her neck. It was warm, warmer than the sunbeams, and it was breathing deeply and evenly.

  She inched her head around and peered sideways at it.

  There was a sloth sleeping on her.

  It had crept into the curve of her shoulder and fitted itself there perfectly, slipping one arm over her neck to pillow its head. Long silvery gray fur draped over her green scales. Its eyes were shut, and it had a peaceful smile on its sleeping face.

  What ridiculous creatures. Fearless? Or stupid?

  Or maybe this is a diabolically clever plan. After all, she couldn’t eat it now. She couldn’t possibly eat something that smiled like that. It reminded her a bit of Sunny, who probably would also have no trouble falling asleep on something big enough to eat her.

  She twisted her head up, moving as little as possible so she wouldn’t disturb the sloth. The other RainWings on her platform were still asleep. The sun had drifted down the sky, but she guessed there were several hours yet until nightfall. A soft breeze tossed homeless leaves across the canopy, and two fat blue frogs on a nearby branch were having a drowsy, ribbety conversation.

  “Brrrp?” the sloth chirruped. It opened its enormous dark eyes, looked into hers, and yawned a wide, oddly elegant yawn. “Brrrrrrrple.”

  “I’m awake,” Glory said. “So you should probably flee in terror now.”

  “Rrrrrmble rrrrrmp rrrrrllp,” the sloth said agreeably. It snuggled closer to her scales and yawned again.

  “I’m not like these other dragons. I have things to do,” Glory told it. “You can’t keep sleeping there.”

  “Mmmm-hrrmble,” the sloth concurred, closing its eyes.

  The platform vibrated underneath her as Jambu chuckled. He rolled over and nodded at the sloth. “You’ve been chosen,” he said. “That happened fast.”

  “No, thank you,” Glory said. “I don’t want to be chosen. Especially by a sloth.” She pushed herself up to sitting, but the sloth somehow got both arms around her neck and hung on, nestling against her wing.

  “She likes you,” Jambu said. “Now you have to pick a name for her. The queen calls hers Shaggy.”

  “First of all, what, and no; it is seriously undignified for a dragon queen to have a sloth. Also, this sloth is much too pretty for a dopey name like Shaggy,” Glory said, then caught herself. “And I’m not naming her, because I’m not keeping her. She’ll wander away if I ignore her long enough.”

  Jambu snorted with amusement.

  “Or maybe I’ll eat her,” Glory said. “Why don’t you eat them?” She shot a glance at the sloth, who looked serenely unconcerned.

  He shrugged. “Because they’re cute. And too hairy; they’re all fur. You’d have indigestion for days.”

  Glory reached up and poked the sloth with her claw. It did seem to be mostly fur.

  “Rrrrrrble.” The sloth wriggled as if it was being tickled.

  “I’m not playing with you,” Glory said. “You have to go away. I have important things to do, like finding my parents.”

  Jambu tilted his head at her. His raspberry-pink scales had drifts of light pink whorls in them. Glory was pretty sure she’d never been that color, and she had no idea if it meant anything. Sometimes pink popped into her scales when she was happy, but Jambu was pink from head to toe. Nobody could be that happy.

  “Finding your parents?” he echoed. “How?”

  “You tell me,” Glory said. “I can tell you when I was stolen, and one of those SeaWings down there can tell you from where. Isn’t that enough?”

  “Ha!” Jambu laughed as if he genuinely thought she was joking, then smothered his giggles when he realized she wasn’t. “What are you talking about? RainWings don’t do ‘parents.’ ”

  Glory tried to ignore the twist of disappointment in her stomach. You knew that might happen. Remember the MudWings. Maybe the RainWings are the same, raised by their siblings instead.

  “So —” she started.

  “Why would you want to find them anyway?” Jambu asked.

  Glory stamped down her temper so it wouldn’t show up in her scales. “Two reasons,” she said. “One, I want to know where I came from and what I’ve missed. And two, I want my family to know I’m all right. They must have worried a lot when my egg went missing.” She studied him for a reaction.

  Jambu pulled on his snout and looked confused. “But they wouldn’t know,” he said. “I guess you don’t — I mean —” He stopped and glanced around at the sleeping dragons every where. A few were up and moving through the village already, but most were still snoozing.

  “I’ll just show you,” he said, spreading his wings.

  Glory spread hers as well. “Time to get off, sloth,” she said. “Unless you’re prepared for some flying.”

  “Brrrrrp.” The sloth wrapped its arms more firmly around her neck.

  “Do they understand us?” Glory asked.

  “Doubtful,” Jambu said. “They’re just reading our body language and responding.” He shook off a winding vine and dove off the platform.

  Glory checked the sloth again. She was pretty sure it was smiling at her. Maybe her sloth could understand her; maybe it was smarter than all the other sloths in the rainforest.

  She followed Jambu, gliding carefully between the trees and hanging vines. She tried not to care about the furry creature clinging to her, but she found herself flying more slowly than usual and avoiding things that might knock it off.

  You ridiculous dragon. It’s only prey, no matter how cute.

  Wherever Jambu was leading her, it was some distance from the center of the village. They passed more pl
atforms, covered with sleeping dragons, and something like a trampoline of enormous interwoven leaves stretched between four trees, where a few little dragonets were bouncing and flapping their wings furiously as they learned to fly.

  Everyone looked happy. There were none of the horrible war wounds and scars Glory had seen in the other kingdoms. Nobody seemed tense or terrified. Nobody was being forced to fight to the death or punished for failing at guard duty.

  No fighting, no worrying about the war, no starving or bowing to an insane queen — well, as far as I know, anyway.

  Who needs a prophecy when they could have a home like this?

  Jambu angled down toward a structure shaped like a gigantic green egg. Holes all over the roof allowed sunlight through the overlapping leaves, but the bottom was reinforced with tightly woven vines and branches, so it looked sturdier than anything else Glory had seen so far. She wondered for a moment if this was the palace, but surely it wasn’t big enough for that. She hadn’t seen anything large or regal enough to be the RainWing queen’s palace yet.

  They landed on a branch next to one of the window holes, and Jambu gestured for her to look inside.

  Pale eggs lined the entire floor, packed closely together. In the sunlight from above, shimmering colors glowed under the thin shells as the unhatched dragonets wriggled and squirmed. Glory guessed that the eggs around the outer edges were the closest to hatching, since she could see more movement inside them. A few even had tiny cracks along the top already.

  “So?” she said. “So you have a hatchery. All the queens do. I mean, sure, this is a lot of eggs for one queen, but . . . wait, are you saying this is the hatchery I was stolen from?” Am I the daughter of a queen, too? Not that it made much difference to her, but it would be pretty funny to see the look on Tsunami’s face if that was true.

  “I have no idea,” Jambu said. “There are three hatcheries, so it could have been any of them. But you’re missing the point. These eggs aren’t all from one queen, or any one dragon. We keep all our eggs together like this.”

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