The brightest night, p.6
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       The Brightest Night, p.6

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  “Just a visitor for Thorn,” he said. “Carry on.”

  Addax bobbed his head and shuffled off into the crowd.

  “Some of these former soldiers have a hard time breaking their military habits,” the big SandWing said to her. “But Addax is harmless, don’t worry.”

  Sunny twisted to look back and saw that the limping SandWing had stopped in the shade of a stall that seemed to be selling poisons. His black eyes stared through her, and even when she ducked behind her guard’s wings again and after they’d crossed several more alleys, she still felt a prickling, creeping feeling along her spine, as if his gaze were following her.

  They wound their way toward the center of the city, stooping under torn canopies and tripping over uneven cobblestones. Sunny could smell something new up ahead, like exploded fruit, and she caught a glimpse of dark green through the gaps ahead of her, incongruous against the sand-colored buildings, faded orange tents, and red or black brick walls.

  A dragonet suddenly stumbled in front of Sunny, holding out its front claws.

  “Hungry!” he bleated.

  His pale yellow scales were slathered with dirt, and he was tiny, with bony ribs sticking out along his chest. His black eyes caught Sunny, and she stared down at him helplessly.

  “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t have anything.”

  The dragon beside her leaned forward and caught the dragonet before he could run off again, casually pinning the little one’s tail to the ground with one talon.

  “Don’t hurt him!” Sunny cried, but the guard didn’t even look at her.

  “Where’s your guardian, squirt?” he asked the dragonet.

  “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” cried a female SandWing, hurrying out of a nearby alley. “I would never have let him bother you, sir. Please forgive us.” She grabbed the dragonet and clutched him to her. He drooped, no energy left to wriggle away.

  “You must be new here,” said the six-clawed dragon, squinting at her. “He shouldn’t be starving like that. Dragonets up to eight years old get a free meal every morning after sunrise at the pool. Start sending him, and he’ll be the size of a real dragon soon.”

  The SandWing shivered and ducked her head. “But, sir,” she whispered. “I heard that was a trick.”

  He sighed impatiently. “Let me guess — we feed them and then grab them to turn them into Outclaws, am I right?” She flinched, and her wings folded closer around the dragonet. “Listen, we’re not out to abduct a bunch of scrawny youngsters who’d be more trouble than they’re worth. Thorn just wants to make sure no more dragonets die of hunger in the Scorpion Den. It’s not complicated.”

  “Yes, sir,” the SandWing whispered.

  “Look, send him tomorrow morning, or I’ll come after you myself,” he said.

  She nodded and scuttled away, keeping the dragonet under her wing.

  “Some dragons,” muttered Sunny’s guard.

  “Is that true?” Sunny asked. “The … um, Outclaws feed all the dragonets in the Scorpion Den?”

  He shifted his wings up and down and scowled. “We try to. Dragons don’t change easily, though, especially in a place like this. And especially when someone’s trying to help them. Brainless worms,” he muttered, turning to stalk away again.

  Sunny wasn’t sure that she would trust a gift from this dragon either.

  “What’s your name?” she asked as she caught up to walk beside him.

  He looked down at her, his black tongue flicking in and out. “Six-Claws.”

  “Oh,” Sunny said, glancing at his odd talons, and then, before she could stop herself, “Your parents were feeling pretty creative.”

  He barked a laugh that made several dragons around them leap into the nearest hiding place in terror. Sunlight glinted off his light yellowish-brown scales as he held up one of his front legs and examined the six wickedly sharp claws there. “I guess so. Yours?”

  “I’m Sunny,” she said. “I never met my parents.” She chanced a sideways look at his face, but there was no reaction there. He was old enough to be her father, and from the way he walked and talked, she guessed he’d been in the Scorpion Den for a while. Plus he had those six claws — maybe peculiar defects ran in the family. Maybe he hadn’t commented on her tail yet because he’d seen other dragons with the same flaw … dragons related to him.

  Or maybe I’m totally desperate.

  They stepped down a set of five stone stairs and their talons sank into sand. Sunny tore her gaze away from Six-Claws and saw that the shadows of tents and canopies had been replaced by the sweeping shade of large palm fronds.

  There was an oasis in the middle of the Scorpion Den.

  Well, that makes sense, Sunny realized. Why else would dragons build a city here?

  She could see a rippling pool of greenish-blue water in the middle of the sand and the palms. She could also see multiple well-armed, dangerous-looking dragons patrolling around the outskirts of it.

  “Are those all Outclaws?” she asked. “You guard the water in the Scorpion Den?”

  “In the desert, she who controls the water, controls everything,” Six-Claws said.

  “And here that ‘she’ is Thorn,” Sunny guessed.

  Six-Claws nodded toward a large white tent set up beside the water. The walls billowed like swans’ wings, and venomous tail points stuck out under the edges here and there. Two particularly mean-looking SandWings guarded the entrance, where a flap had been rolled up to allow dragons to pass through.

  As they approached, Sunny spotted a flash of black scales through the doorway and ducked behind Six-Claws.

  He peered over his shoulder at her. “Yes?”

  “I don’t want them to see me,” she whispered.

  “The NightWings?” he asked. “The ones you were … not following?”

  She nodded.

  “Why?”

  Sunny had a pretty strong feeling that it wouldn’t be wise to reveal her connection to the prophecy. Even if the Outclaws didn’t immediately sell her to Burn, someone else in the Scorpion Den was sure to pounce on that opportunity.

  “They tried to kill me,” she said. That was basically true.

  Six-Claws looked amused. “Here’s some free advice. When a dragon tries to kill you, fly the opposite way.”

  “I’m keeping an eye on them,” she said, bristling. “I need to know what they’re planning.”

  “That’s up to Thorn now,” he said. “Come along, and stay behind me.”

  Sunny’s heart thumped as they approached the tent. Should she try to run? Wasn’t it possible — even likely — that Thorn and the NightWings would team up to sell her to Burn? Thorn was the leader of a gang of criminals, after all.

  Sunny wouldn’t get far in this city, though, not with the Outclaws after her. Even in a place full of SandWings, she’d stick out like a fire on a dark night. She tried to keep the memory of the hungry dragonet in her head as she ducked under the soft white flap of the tent. A leader of criminals who fed small dragons didn’t sound so bad. Maybe Thorn could be reasoned with.

  The three NightWings were seated in a row on a bright orange carpet woven with alternating purple and white claw shapes. A skylight in the tent ceiling was positioned to shine a ray of sunlight down on them, beaming bright and hot straight into their faces. Sunny had a feeling that was deliberate. They were surrounded on all sides by SandWings, many of them rippling with scars or missing teeth, as if they’d fought hard for a place in this tent and weren’t planning to move anytime soon.

  The only clear spot was at the far end of the tent, where a pile of woven sky-blue rugs was arranged on a dais. After a few moments, the sound of laughter came from outside, and five more SandWings pushed their way into the tent.

  Sunny could tell which one was Thorn immediately, although she was smaller than the others, and she wasn’t wearing more treasure than anybody else. A solitary gold bracelet circled one of her upper forearms: a chain of flying dragons made from twisted wires. Around her ne
ck hung a simple copper chain with a moonstone pendant — an odd jewel to find in the desert, Sunny thought.

  Her scales were sandy yellow and dappled with a pattern of small brown speckles down her back and along her wings. She looked young — probably barely twenty years old, if Sunny had to guess. Most dragons grew quickly for the first seven years of their lives, and then a little bit each year after that, so the oldest dragons were usually the largest, like Morrowseer and Burn and Grandeur. But Thorn was wiry and compact and looked as if she might stay that way no matter how long she lived.

  What was it that made her seem so clearly the leader of this group? She was laughing with the others as they came in, but she walked a step ahead of them, her wings half open and tilted forward as if she had somewhere to be, and her eyes scanning the room as if she were searching for something. She radiated an intense energy; even Sunny caught herself wanting to follow her wherever she went next.

  The laughter dropped from Thorn’s eyes when she spotted the three NightWings. She curled her tail up threateningly before stalking around them and climbing onto the dais. Sunny was glad not to be the one under that glare.

  “NightWings,” Thorn said darkly. “Well, well, well. We haven’t had any of you visit our fine city in about seven years.”

  “Why would we?” Fierceteeth challenged. “We’re only here now because we want to make a deal with Burn.”

  “We need someone to take her a message,” Strongwings added.

  Thorn leaned forward. “That’s irrelevant to me. Where is Morrowseer?”

  All three NightWings looked startled.

  “You know Morrowseer?” Preyhunter stammered.

  “Unfortunately,” Thorn growled. “Tell me where he is, and I’ll seriously consider not killing you.”

  Preyhunter flared his wings and several Outclaws took a menacing step toward him. “You can’t kill us!” he protested. “We’re NightWings!”

  “I assure you NightWings die just as easily as any other dragon,” Thorn said. “Would you like a demonstration?”

  “No, no, no,” Strongwings said hurriedly. “We’ll tell you what we know.”

  “In exchange for a messenger to Burn,” Fierceteeth interjected.

  “In exchange for your lives,” Thorn countered calmly. “I’m not sending any of my Outclaws into that deathpit. Most of them are here expressly because they’re trying to avoid her.”

  “But —” Fierceteeth started.

  “Morrowseer’s dead,” Preyhunter blurted out. “He died just a few days ago.”

  There was a terrible silence. One of the dragons who’d come in last took a step toward Thorn, reaching out tentatively, her expression a surprising mix of horror and sympathy.

  Thorn’s face contorted into a fury like nothing Sunny had ever seen before. With a cry of rage, she leaped off the dais, seized Preyhunter by the throat, and flung him to the ground, where she pinned him with her claws and swung her tail over his heart.

  Fierceteeth and Strongwings didn’t have time to react before Outclaws were there, holding them back. It wasn’t necessary, though; Sunny could see that they were too terrified to do anything to help Preyhunter.

  “Ssssay that again,” Thorn hissed in Preyhunter’s face.

  “H-he’s dead!” Preyhunter stammered. “Isn’t that good news? It sounded like you hated him — aren’t you glad he’s dead?”

  “He can’t be dead,” Thorn said. “Tell me the truth, you lying bag of bones. Tell me how to get to your secret home and where Morrowseer is and what he did to —” She cut herself off abruptly.

  “I can’t tell you any of that,” Preyhunter whined. “We’re not allowed to! But I promise you Morrowseer is dead — really, really, really dead.”

  “No!” Thorn shouted. A burst of flame shot out of her mouth, scorching a spot beside Preyhunter’s neck. He screamed with fear, and two Outclaws jumped forward to beat out the flames on the carpet before the fire reached the tent. At the same moment, Preyhunter convulsed and lashed out, slicing at Thorn’s underbelly with his sharp talons.

  “Moons-blasted crocodile spawn!” Six-Claws roared, knocking dragons aside as he leaped at Preyhunter. Another SandWing, a male dragonet around Sunny’s age, also darted forward from the other side.

  But they weren’t fast enough.

  Thorn’s tail stabbed down into the NightWing’s heart, and with a shriek of pain, Preyhunter collapsed underneath her, dead.

  Sunny stared at the NightWing’s body, his wings lying crookedly on either side of him, his snout contorted into a final twist of despair.

  He was a bad dragon, she told herself. The world is better off this way. My friends are safer now that he’s dead.

  But he had a horrible life, the other half of her argued. Maybe he could have changed. Maybe there was a better dragon inside him somewhere, if someone had bothered to try and bring it out.

  Thorn stepped away from the body, taking a deep breath. Six-Claws put one talon on her shoulder, and she gave him a rueful look, as if she hadn’t wanted to kill Preyhunter after all.

  She might not have, if he hadn’t lashed out at her. Or maybe she had to, either way, to make sure the other NightWings know how serious — and dangerous — she is.

  “It’s all right, Qibli, thank you,” Thorn said to the dragonet who’d run forward to help her. He stood on the other side of the body, looking as though he’d very much like to stab it again, just to be sure.

  “Let’s try this again,” Thorn said, turning to Fierceteeth and Strongwings. The two black dragons had their heads down and their wings pressed in close to their bodies. Thorn stopped, eye to eye with Fierceteeth. “Tell me how to find Morrowseer.”

  Fierceteeth hesitated, only for a moment, then said, “It’s an island.”

  “Fierceteeth!” Strongwings hissed.

  “What?” she snapped at him. “What does it matter anymore? It’s all destroyed anyway.” She returned her scowling gaze to Thorn. “We lived on an island, north of the continent, but the whole place was just wiped out by a volcano. Morrowseer was killed by it. That’s the truth, so, sorry if you don’t like it.” She lifted her chin defiantly.

  Thorn’s claws twitched and her eyes narrowed.

  I can’t let Starflight’s sister die, Sunny thought. No matter how terrible she is. Not if I can stop it. She knew it was foolish to expose herself here, but it felt like clearly the right thing to do. That was what being in the prophecy was all about — and if she wanted to keep believing in it, she had to keep acting worthy of it.

  “It’s true!” she called. She pushed her way through the SandWings, who blinked at her in confusion. “It’s true, don’t hurt her.” She stumbled onto the sand in front of Thorn, half a wingspan from the NightWings who’d tried to kill her.

  “You!” Fierceteeth cried.

  “I was there, on the NightWing island,” Sunny said, ignoring her. Thorn’s black eyes were pinning her to the sand like an exotic insect, studying every bizarrely golden scale. “There was a volcano, and it wiped out the NightWings’ home and killed Morrowseer. I’m sorry,” she added, and she was, although she wasn’t quite sure why.

  “Who in the blazes are you?” Thorn asked.

  “This is the one who was following them,” Six-Claws said, nodding at the black dragons. Fierceteeth scowled; Strongwings just looked shocked.

  “Ah,” said Thorn, tilting her head. “Really. So … you’re not here to see me about the reward?”

  What reward? Sunny shook her head. “I’m just trying to stop them before they hurt my friends,” she said, and then added, with a rush of hope, “Please don’t let them send a messenger to Burn. It’ll put a lot of dragons in danger.”

  “Really,” Thorn said. She twisted to look at the NightWings. “What do you have to say about that?”

  “We have information we know Burn will pay handsomely for,” Strongwings said, glaring at Sunny. “Not only us — I’m sure she’ll reward anyone who helps us get to her. And she’ll pay
even more if you throw in this puny dragonet.”

  Thorn regarded Sunny skeptically. “Why?”

  Sunny shook her head, but of course that wasn’t going to stop him.

  “She’s one of the dragonets in the prophecy,” he said triumphantly.

  Every dragon in the tent seemed to sit up at once. A few leaped to their feet and slipped out the front entrance, Sunny noticed uneasily. Most of the others started whispering to each other. She caught snippets like, “why so small?” and “that’s why that soldier —” and “but her tail” and “no wonder Burn —” One dragon with a missing eye shifted closer to peer at her and Sunny tucked her tail closer around her talons, shivering.

  “And we know where the others are,” Strongwings went on.

  Fierceteeth smacked him in the snout with her tail. “Shut up!” she snarled.

  All of Thorn’s burning energy was now fixed on Sunny. She took a step closer, then circled Sunny, inspecting her. Sunny tried to look brave and calm, even as Thorn picked up her harmless tail and flipped it curiously between her claws.

  “Hmm,” said the leader of the Outclaws. “You’re a little unusual.”

  “I know,” Sunny said. “It’s all right, though; I don’t mind. It’s just the way I hatched.”

  “On the brightest night,” Thorn said. “Six years ago.” It was not exactly a question, but Sunny answered it anyway.

  “Yes.”

  Thorn walked around Sunny one more time, her talons sending up small clouds of sand between the gaps in the carpets, and then stopped beside her, frowning at the NightWings. “One more question for you cowardly lizards. Can you tell me anything about a NightWing named Stonemover?”

  Strongwings snorted. “He took off six or seven years ago and no one’s heard from him since. The queen was furious.”

  This answer didn’t seem to make Thorn any happier than anything else they’d said. She hissed quietly, then turned to Six-Claws.

  “Put them somewhere unpleasant,” she ordered. “I’ll decide what to do with them later. You,” she said to Sunny, “come with me.”

  They left on a tide of murmuring dragons. Sunny felt the same way she had when she was in that cage in the Sky Palace, hung up for everyone to stare at. She stayed close to Thorn’s tail.

 
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