The hidden kingdom, p.5
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       The Hidden Kingdom, p.5

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  Glory blinked at the array of smooth white shapes in front of her. “So these are a third of the eggs in the village right now. All . . . stuffed in together.”

  “Exactly,” said Jambu. “They keep each other warm and hatch whenever they need to. We stop by every couple of days to check for newly hatched dragonets. Otherwise, we don’t have to worry about our eggs. They’re all safe in here.”

  “Except for mine,” Glory pointed out. “Which was stolen.” She paused, realization dawning. It felt as though the wind had just been sucked out from under her and she was falling with useless wings.

  “And nobody noticed,” she said slowly. “That’s what you’re telling me. You had no idea my egg was missing at all.”

  Jambu shrugged. He didn’t even look embarrassed. “Why would we?” he said. “As you can see, we have plenty of eggs. New ones roll in every week, so why go to the trouble of counting them?”

  “Because I wasn’t just an egg ‘rolling in’ and out of your hatchery,” Glory said, flaring her ruff. “There was a real live dragon in there. A dragonet who had to grow up for six years with no family, no rainforest, and no sun.”

  “Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrp,” the sloth said sympathetically, hugging her neck. Glory had forgotten it was there.

  A cloudy blue-gray began to march up Jambu’s scales from his talons. He made an almost comically sad face at her. “No sun?” he said.

  “Hey, I survived just fine,” Glory said. She stepped away from Jambu’s wing as he reached for her. “This isn’t a tragic pity-me situation. I’m just saying maybe you should care a little more about your eggs and the dragons inside them.”

  “We do care,” he said, dark green distress flickering in his ruff. “We take very good care of our dragonets! We just don’t worry about the eggs because we’ve never lost any before.”

  “How do you know?” she cried. “If I was stolen so easily, you might have lost others, too.”

  He opened and closed his mouth a few times, looking so stupid that she wanted to punch him in his snout. This went beyond parents who didn’t love their eggs. Nobody had missed her. She had no family wondering what had happened to her. Nobody had cared that she was gone.

  Webs must have known the RainWings were like this. That’s why he came to the rainforest to steal an egg. That was what he hadn’t wanted to admit to her on the way here.

  The RainWings weren’t a secretly wonderful, perfect tribe. It was worse than she’d feared. Her tribe was too lazy to even count their own eggs.

  “Oh, now you’re mad,” Jambu said woefully. Glory couldn’t stop the dark red streaks appearing along her wings. She scowled at him.

  “So how do you know which dragonets belong to which parents?” she asked.

  “We don’t,” he said. “We raise them all together, the whole village. Everybody helps. I teach tree gliding,” he said proudly. The blue-gray of his scales was already fading back into pink again.

  “But then,” Glory said slowly, “ doesn’t that mean you don’t even know who you’re related to?”

  “Oh, I know what you’re thinking,” Jambu said. “Don’t worry, we have a way to tell. Before two dragons decide to have eggs together, they do the venom test.” He pivoted in a circle and plucked a floppy oval leaf from one of the trees, then laid it on the branch between them. “Watch.”

  He opened his mouth wide, nearly unhinging his lower jaw, and spat a small amount of black venom on the leaf. Glory had imagined herself looking cool and menacing when she shot her venom, but the other RainWing mostly looked creepy, like a mentally unbalanced snake.

  The leaf immediately began to sizzle and melt.

  “Now you shoot your venom at it,” he said. “Just a little. Try to hit the same spot.”

  Glory hadn’t exactly ever practiced aiming her venom, or controlling how much she shot out. She bared her fangs at the leaf and ended up nearly drenching it in black poison. The branch below and around the leaf started smoking and fizzing as well.

  But, strangely, where Glory’s venom hit Jambu’s, those spots stopped melting instantly.

  “Whoa!” Jambu said. He sprayed a little more of his venom, carefully, on the rest of the leaf and the branch where Glory’s had splashed. All of the smoking and sizzling stopped. The leaf sat peacefully in a puddle of what appeared to be harmless black goop.

  Glory blinked at it. “Hmmm,” she said. “Unexpected.”

  Jambu thwacked one of her wings with his, radiating delight in every pink scale. “Don’t you see what just happened? Your venom counteracted mine. Isn’t that awesome? That’s so awesome!”

  “Is it?” Glory asked.

  “That means we’re related!” Jambu cried. “You’re my little sister!”

  Glory flexed her claws and thought about that. She’d come to the rainforest looking for some family, after all. But it figured that she’d find out Jambu was her brother right after deciding he was the dizziest, most useless dragon she’d ever met. And what good was a family who’d never been there for you — who’d never known or cared you were alive, and lost, and in danger?

  “Oh,” she said. “Wow. Related.” She reached up and scratched the sloth’s chin. It snuggled in closer to her with another burbling sound.

  “That’s how we know,” Jambu said, waving a talon at the half-melted leaf. “If your venom made it melt faster, then we’d know we’re not related, so we could have eggs together. But when your venom cancels out the other dragon’s, you come from the same family. Can you believe we’re brother and sister? Well, OK, we’re probably only half brother and sister. But still, it’s pretty cool.”

  “You’re definitely not my dad, though,” Glory said. “Right?”

  Jambu let out a shout of laughter. “I’m only nine years old,” he said. “I promise I haven’t fathered any eggs yet, and I especially didn’t have any when I was three.”

  Well, that’s a relief, Glory thought. “That must be how the tribe cures dragons who’ve been hit by venom, too, right?” she said. “Find a family member to stop the spread of the poison?”

  Her newfound brother looked horrified. “We don’t use our venom on other dragons,” he said, bright green flaring across his ruff. “Who would do that?”

  “Um. No one,” Glory said. Maybe not in your perfect world. But talk to me again when you’re held prisoner by a queen who’s forcing your friends to fight to the death. “I meant if someone hit someone else by accident. That’s not impossible. Right?”

  “Our venom trainers would never let that happen,” Jambu protested. He glanced down at the mess she’d made on the branch. “I bet you could get a few sessions with one of them if you want. We only ever use it for this kind of test and, very rarely, for prey if we need it, or, you know, things that attack us, hypothetically.”

  “Things that attack you?” Glory asked, perking up her ears. Liiiiike . . . mysterious rainforest monsters? she wondered.

  “We should get back to your friends,” he said. “They’ll be waking up any minute. And we can tell them our good news about being related! So awesome!”

  “All right,” she said. “I’ve seen enough here.” And I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten all the answers about my family that I’m ever going to get.

  “A long-lost sister!” Jambu yammered, curling his tail around the branch. “So cool! I can teach you tree gliding and show you all the different fruits in the rainforest and how to take care of your sloth and —”

  He swung around the branch and glided off, still talking. Glory took one more look at the village hatchery and followed him. She couldn’t help but notice that he had no questions for her. He didn’t care where she’d been or who’d stolen her or why. He didn’t ask about the world beyond the rainforest. He had lots of ideas for what he could show her, but didn’t seem interested in what she might be able to teach him.

  She shook her head a
nd navigated around a mossy tree trunk.

  Who cares, anyway? Even if it’s all true, everything the guardians said about RainWings . . . even if they are all useless and don’t care about the right things . . . I’m still me. And I am not going to be like them. Not ever. No way.

  Glory was not surprised to find Tsunami twitching violently in her sleep when she and Jambu landed. The SeaWing would probably be ready to fight someone the moment her eyes opened.

  What was surprising, though, was discovering what Starflight got up to when he was bored.

  “Hey, Glory,” he called the moment he spotted her. “Watch this!”

  The NightWing rolled one of the larger pieces of fruit — a round, light pinkish melon-looking thing — in front of Clay’s nose and jumped back.

  Although he was still knocked out, Clay’s nose started twitching. His snout trembled and sniffed and inched closer and closer to the melon. His stomach growled loudly. His tongue flicked in and out.

  Starflight took the melon away again, and Clay stopped moving with a long, tragic sigh.

  “Isn’t that hilarious?” Starflight asked Glory.

  She gave him an amused look. “I’ve always figured torturing our sleeping friends would be funny.”

  He sat back and flung his tail over his talons, frowning. “I didn’t have anything else to do. It’s been unbearably quiet with everyone sleeping.” His eyes flicked to Jambu. “Have you asked him about your —”

  “Yup,” Glory interjected. “Dead end.”

  “We’re brother and sister!” Jambu announced gleefully.

  Starflight tilted his head slowly to one side and gave Glory an “is he joking?” look. “You don’t seem . . . much alike,” he politely understated.

  She shrugged, and the sloth on her back said, “Squerble!”

  Starflight’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Glory!” he said. “There’s a sloth on you! You’ve got sloth — a sloth — it’s sitting right on your neck!”

  “I know,” Glory said. “Apparently they’re like pets to the RainWings. This one likes me. Even though I’ve explained to it that I’m pretty disagreeable.”

  “Oh, fascinating,” Starflight said. His talons twitched as if he were dying for a scroll to check or somewhere to write notes. “If I remember right, pets don’t tend to do well in dragon communities. They usually get eaten by forgetful relatives or sometimes by the owner herself. Scavengers, on the other talon, apparently keep all kinds of odd prey animals as pets, like cows and goats and fish. That’s according to A Longitudinal Study of Peculiar Scavenger Behavior, anyway.”

  Glory remembered that scroll, but she hadn’t taken it very seriously. Some of the things scavengers supposedly did were too absurd to be real.

  “We would never eat our pets,” Jambu interjected. “Why bother? There’s enough fruit in the rainforest to be sure no RainWing will ever go hungry, and the sun gives us more than half the energy we need to survive anyway.”

  “So you really don’t eat meat?” Starflight asked, giving Glory a sideways glance. “You’re all vegetarians? Vegetarian dragons?”

  Jambu waved his front talons airily. “We’re not strict about it. We eat what we feel like eating. Bananas are easier to catch and peel than monkeys are, that’s all.”

  Lazy fruit-eaters, Glory thought. Just like everyone says they are.

  But they also have tranquilizer blowguns and a cleverly designed hidden village, she reminded herself.

  It didn’t help. They didn’t even notice my egg was gone.

  “Ouch!” said a small voice behind them. “I think something . . . bit me . . . what — where are we?”

  Starflight bounded over to Sunny’s side. “Are you all right?” he asked, helping her stand up.

  The little SandWing blinked several times and stared around at the RainWing village. “How did we get here?” She shook out her wings and peeked over the edge. “Oh my gosh, that’s a long way down. Glory, you have a cute furry thing! Can I hold it, please please?”

  “Why not,” Glory said, disentangling the sloth from around her neck. “Just don’t eat it.” She passed it over to Sunny, who cradled it gently between her front talons. The sloth poked Sunny’s snout in a curious, exploratory way, then climbed up it onto her head and sat down with a yawn.

  “It’s not afraid of dragons at all,” Starflight mused. “Fascinating.”

  “Oooooooorgh,” Webs moaned. He clutched his head with his eyes still closed. “Everything hurts.”

  Sunny crawled over to him and checked his wound. Even from where she was, Glory could tell that it looked worse. The blackness was spreading and the scratch looked angrily twisted and raw.

  “Nothing’s going to get me!” Tsunami yelled, leaping to her feet. “I’ll fight off any poisonous bugs! ACK WHERE ARE WE?” She wobbled on her talons and tipped over with a thud.

  “Don’t move too fast,” Jambu suggested helpfully. “The tranquilizer takes a little while to completely wear off.”

  “TRANQUILIZER?” Tsunami shouted. “How dare you —”

  “Tsunami, stop yelling,” Glory said. “Or I’ll ask him to knock you out again.”

  “I’d like to see him try!” Tsunami cried.

  “Please do,” Glory said to Jambu. “Do you have any darts that last for, say, days?”

  “We don’t do multiple darts in one day,” Jambu explained, taking Glory seriously. “Just to be safe.”

  Tsunami flared her wings and glowered fiercely at Jambu and the other RainWings who were beginning to gather on the platform around them. Suddenly Glory thought the bright purples, deep oranges, turquoise blues, and lemon yellows looked somehow too shiny and too vivid now. She’d guess that they were showing off for her friends, except she got the feeling all RainWings woke up every day and spent hours trying to look more colorful than everyone else.

  “Clay?” Sunny said. She nudged the slumbering MudWing. “Clay, wake up. Are you all right? Is he all right?”

  “He should be fine,” said Liana, swooping up behind Jambu. “His dose wasn’t any different than the rest of yours.”

  “I’m awake,” Clay muttered. He buried his head under his talons. “I’m just waiting until Glory and Tsunami stop fighting. I was dreaming about sheep and buffalo and bears. They were all on the table in front of me and I had to decide which to eat first. Oh, and they all smelled like melons. That part was kind of weird.”

  “Sunny!” Tsunami cried, making the SandWing jump. “Stay very still. There’s a sloth on your head. If I hit it just right, we can share it for dinner.” She stepped forward, flexing her talons. There was a murmur of disapproval from the watching RainWings.

  “Oh, no you don’t,” Glory said. She brushed past Tsunami and snatched the sloth away from Sunny. It cheerfully wrapped its arms around her neck and reburied its nose in her ruff. “It’s mine,” Glory said to Tsunami.

  “Yours?” Tsunami echoed. “Yours as in you’re saving it for a midnight snack?”

  “Mine as in don’t touch,” Glory answered. “And don’t make snide comments either.”

  “Me?” Tsunami said. “You’re telling me not to make snide comments?”

  “Clay, come on,” Sunny said, tugging on his ears. “Make them stop so somebody will help Webs.”

  Glory had more or less forgotten they’d come to find a cure for the poisoned SandWing scratch near Webs’s tail. She glanced around at the watching RainWings. Their eyes were wide as full moons and their scales glowed with pink and blue bubbles of curiosity and enthrallment. They looked as entertained by Glory’s spat with Tsunami as the SkyWings were by actual gladiator arena battles.

  Maybe they resolve all their arguments by taking naps, she thought grouchily.

  Clay heaved himself upright and stretched, his muscles rippling. A few of the younger RainWings went “ooooo” and tried to change
their scales to match his — muddy brown with undertones of glowing amber in the sunlight.

  “That’s right,” Starflight said to Sunny. “We should focus on Webs. Of course you’re right. I’ll take care of this.” He turned to Jambu and Liana. “We ur gently request an audience with Queen Dazzling.”

  The two RainWings wrinkled their snouts thoughtfully. “Queen Dazzling?” Liana said. “You don’t mean that.”

  “I do,” Starflight insisted. “It’s of the utmost importance. We must see her at once.”

  “Dazzling,” Jambu said to Liana. “It’s not her month, is it?”

  “I don’t think so,” Liana agreed. “I guess they could see her anyway.”

  “We must!” Starflight said firmly. “Take us to her at once!”

  “Wait,” Glory jumped in. “What do you mean, ‘not her month’?”

  “Well,” Jambu said, “ wouldn’t you rather see the current queen? If it’s so important?”

  Starflight’s pompous attitude fizzled out like someone had dumped a pile of snow on it. “But,” he said, “but the NightWing Guide to the Tribes said — I’m sure it said Queen Dazzling —”

  “It also said we have no natural weapons,” Glory pointed out. “So perhaps it’s not the most reliable source, at least about RainWings. Who’s the current queen?” she asked Liana.

  “I’m pretty sure it’s Magnificent right now,” Liana said. “Unless she handed it over to Grandeur a bit early.”

  Oh, no, Glory thought. Don’t say it. Don’t say it.

  “You take turns being queen?” Tsunami burst out. “Are you serious?”

  “Only the ones who want to,” Liana said. “Most of us find it way too much work, you know?”

  “Yeah, SO boring. Dragons bother you all day long,” Jambu agreed. “Makes me glad I can’t be queen.”

  “So who can?” Glory asked. “Anyone? Or only the royal family?”

  “Royal family!” Jambu echoed with great amusement.

  “Oh, right,” Glory said. “RainWings don’t do families,” she informed her friends. Sunny tilted her head, but luckily the RainWings kept talking before she could say anything sympathetic.

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