Darkstalker, p.6
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       Darkstalker, p.6

           Tui T. Sutherland

  “What is it?” Whiteout whispered to him.

  “Nothing,” he whispered back.

  “It’s something,” she said. “You got colder and harder all along here.” She pointed to the line from his jaw to his heart.

  “I’ll tell you later,” he said. When I come up with a lie that you’ll believe.

  “Arctic,” Foeslayer said in a tight, shaking voice. “If I thought for one minute that you’d consider this —”

  “You should stop making threats,” he said, “when you know you can’t do anything to me. But don’t worry. I’m not planning to accept. I just want you to know exactly what’s on the table, so you can think about that the next time you tell me to leave.”

  It’s time to stop this, Darkstalker thought. He tightened his wing around his sister for a moment, then stood up and went to the hall that led back into the other rooms.

  “We’re here,” he called. “Both of us.”

  Guilt from his mother, anger from his father — well, that was normal. At least they fell silent. He picked up the hawks and began tearing them into pieces to split among the four places at the table.

  Foeslayer appeared first, taking deep breaths. How much did they hear? flashed through her mind.

  “Everything,” Darkstalker answered her. “Especially Whiteout. She was here when I got here.” He didn’t hide his anger.

  Even … she thought.

  “No,” he said, glancing at his sister. “Only I know that.”

  Foeslayer came to the table and moved a piece of hawk from her plate onto Darkstalker’s, then another piece onto Arctic’s. Darkstalker wordlessly moved the gift from Arctic’s plate to Whiteout’s.

  I’m sorry, she thought at him.

  “Say it to her,” he said.

  Foeslayer went over to Whiteout and hugged her, just as Arctic came stamping out of the back rooms.

  “Oh, hawks again,” he said bitterly. He didn’t look Darkstalker in the eye. He never did.

  “I thought they reminded you of the Ice Kingdom,” Darkstalker said. In fact, he knew they did, because he’d seen that in his father’s mind every time he brought hawks home to eat. That’s why he looked for them particularly — because he knew they brought his father a little bit of happiness and a little bit of despair at the same time.

  Stay out of my mind, moon-eyes, his father thought, glaring at him.

  “Wish I could,” Darkstalker answered briskly. “Whiteout, time to eat.”

  As the family moved to the table, he swept past his father into the back hall, acting as though he was going to wash his talons. But he had another mission in mind. He needed to see the message for himself.

  There it was, tucked under a corner of the blankets on his mother’s side of their sleeping room. A hammered piece of silvery metal with words carved into it.

  He’d read their minds correctly. Here it was, clear as starlight.

  Dearest Arctic,

  We want you to come home.

  You must have realized your mistake by now. You must be growing to hate that insidious NightWing, the source of all your misery. You know she was only sent here to tempt you away. But now you have seen through her, haven’t you? You’re starting to realize that your mother was right all along.

  So I’m giving you one chance to take it all back.

  Come home.

  We’ll call a truce with the NightWings. The war can be over. You can return to my palace, rejoin your tribe, and all will be forgiven.

  And we have only one condition. One small, easy request that can save so many lives — and give you back your destiny.

  It is this: Kill your dragonets.

  Kill them, bring us proof, and you can come home.

  A small price to pay for your life back, isn’t it?

  I love you, Arctic. Despite your poor choices and terrible mistakes.

  I hope to see you soon, back in the tribe where you belong.

  Queen Diamond

  Darkstalker slid the tablet back into its hiding place, thinking.

  He knew from his father’s mind that Arctic wasn’t seriously considering this possibility — yet. True, Arctic was miserable in the Night Kingdom, where he had no friends and no status and the climate was all wrong for him, but he could also remember all the things he hated about the Ice Kingdom: the rules, the expectations, the way his life was completely planned out without any regard for his feelings.

  Moreover, Queen Diamond had clawed too many of Arctic’s nerve endings with her comments about how she was right and he was so foolish. Arctic was too proud to go back with his head hanging, and most important, there was still a kernel of him that didn’t want to leave Foeslayer or Whiteout.

  Darkstalker never worried about how his father hated him. It was mutual and instantaneous upon his hatching, so it didn’t particularly affect his life. Besides, he knew his father couldn’t do anything to him, considering Darkstalker’s powers.

  But visions were flashing in his head where Whiteout was in danger. Unclear, muddled paths; he couldn’t trace them exactly, but he knew that something led from this tablet to a scene of pain and violence and his own helpless fury.

  I need a better future-seer to help me figure it out.

  I need Clearsight.

  Darkstalker smiled, trailing his claws along the wall as he went to wash in the stream at the back of their cave. He hadn’t met her yet, but he knew it would be soon, and once he did his whole life would change for the better. It was almost impossible to wait this long, knowing his soulmate was so close by. But he’d managed it, for her. He saw that their relationship would eventually be stronger if he did. He was a master of patience.

  When it came to his father, though, his patience was starting to wear thin.

  Nobody threatens Whiteout, Darkstalker thought. Not the IceWing queen, not my father. I won’t let anyone hurt her.

  No matter what I have to do to stop them.

  “Maybe I shouldn’t come tonight,” Indigo said, flopping across Fathom’s sleeping couch. Blob expertly held on to her ear with one tentacle to stay in place and looked very pleased with himself.

  “Oh no. No way,” Fathom said. “I don’t want to make boring conversation with all my ancient aunts and uncles either, but we’re in this together. That’s the deal. How am I supposed to survive without you?”

  “They’re your family,” Indigo protested. “Why do I have to be tortured, too? Besides, the queen doesn’t even want me there.”

  Fathom winced. She was probably right about that. Queen Lagoon’s comments had been getting meaner and more pointed lately. Now that she knew Fathom was her second animus, she unfortunately seemed to care a lot more about which dragons he spent time with. Albatross and Pearl: acceptable. Indigo and anyone visiting from other tribes: decidedly not.

  Which reminded him. “Don’t you want to see the SkyWings up close?” he asked. “This could be your last chance, if we end up going to war with them over the new shore villages.” It was unlikely — Queen Lagoon was skilled at negotiating peace, especially with the threat of an animus in her back talons; they hadn’t heard a peep out of the RainWings or MudWings in years. And the three new SeaWing villages didn’t encroach very far into SkyWing territory, after all. No SeaWing would want to live any distance from the ocean.

  “I saw them across the gardens when they arrived two days ago,” Indigo said. “They looked pretty displeased.”

  “I thought SkyWings were supposed to be the friendly tribe,” Fathom mused.

  “You’re distracting me,” Indigo said. “The point is, the queen would be much happier if I stayed here, especially when she has the SkyWings to impress. I’d be the only one at the gathering who wasn’t dripping with jewels.” She arched her eyebrows at the new gold armbands Fathom wore — carved with royal symbols, they matched his grandfather’s — and the emeralds that glittered in his ears.

  “You’re perfectly impressive,” Fathom said, hauling her up onto her feet again. “You don
t need jewelry; you have the best smile in all the kingdoms.”

  Their wings brushed, light as ripples on a pond, and Indigo pulled her talons away quickly.

  “Smile in front of the queen?” she said with a feigned gasp of disapproval. “Surely that’s not allowed!”

  “Here,” Fathom said. He bounded into the next room, where Pearl was pivoting slowly in front of a series of mirrors to examine herself on all sides. “You can wear those pink pearls Mother bought for Pearl.”

  “I do hate those,” Pearl said in the new, exceedingly bored voice she’d been trying out lately. Even now, more than three years since the test, she still acted irrationally jealous whenever Fathom went off to train with Albatross. But most of the time she was back to normal, which involved a lot of sighing at how loud and immature Fathom and Indigo were.

  “And they’ll look really cool on you, Indigo,” Fathom said. He crossed to the far wall, where all of Pearl’s jewels were displayed on a tall tree of dark brown mahogany with many branches, which he had carved for her for their birthday last year. (Without magic, since Indigo insisted.)

  “Are you sure?” Indigo asked Pearl. “Won’t Manta be upset if she sees me wearing them instead of you?”

  “She’ll be thrilled,” Pearl said. “Mother thinks you’re very entertaining.”

  Indigo wilted a little and Fathom flashed Pearl a glare. “Mother loves you,” he said to Indigo. “She wants you at the party, and she won’t mind what you have to wear to fit in.” He unhooked the string of pearls and the bracelet. Each of the pearls was slightly irregular instead of perfectly round, and they were all different shades of pink from almost white to deep rose. He could see why Pearl didn’t like it — she preferred everything perfectly symmetrical — but he thought it was really cool.

  He clasped the bracelet around one of Indigo’s wrists and then helped her drape the long cord of pearls around her neck and wings. They glowed against the deep purplish-blue of her scales. Fathom could feel her heart beating as he leaned over her back to adjust the length. His talon rested on her neck for a moment and she curved her head toward him.

  Why does everything feel different lately?

  It wasn’t weird that he wanted to spend time with her more than anyone else. That had always been true. It wasn’t weird that she was the first dragon he thought of whenever he had something to share. It wasn’t weird that she could make him laugh when no one else could.

  It was a little weird that his own heart sped up when she stood this close to him.

  “You two are HOPELESS,” Pearl barked, bundling Fathom aside, and for a moment he was startled into thinking she’d guessed his thoughts. “Have you never seen a dragon wear pearls before? They can’t hang this way or they’ll make it impossible to swim, and besides, everyone knows a double wind around the neck is most flattering. You have to tighten the slack here and drape it like this …”

  She busied herself adjusting Indigo’s adornments while Indigo stood still, looking uncomfortable.

  “There,” Pearl said at last, standing back with a nod of triumph.

  “That looks exactly the same,” Fathom said.

  “Thank you,” Indigo said to Pearl before she could snap at her brother. “I really appreciate it.”

  Pearl waved her tail dismissively. “You can thank me by distracting Great-Uncle Humpback if he tries to corner me again with stories about the grand old days. ‘You know, when I was a young whippersnapper, we had scavenger sashimi every afternoon. But where have they all gone, can you tell me that, eh? They can’t have gotten smarter! Someone’s been interfering with my scavenger supply! Some toothy little blowfishes, I’ll show them.’” Her imitation of Humpback’s creaky old voice was pitch-perfect.

  Indigo giggled. “Someone should eventually tell him that he probably ate them all.”

  “It’s not going to be me!” Pearl said.

  “Me neither,” Fathom chimed in with a laugh.

  “You know you have to leave your weird little thing behind,” Pearl said, flicking her tail at Blob. Indigo wrinkled her snout with disappointment, but she lifted down the tiny octopus and tucked him onto his perch on her side of the room.

  “Stay,” she told him sternly.

  Blob blinked at her with an innocent face. It was very unclear whether he understood any of her instructions. Sometimes he was dutiful, obedient, and perfect, and sometimes he immediately did exactly the opposite of whatever she’d asked him to do. Fathom occasionally worried this might be because he’d forgotten to give the octopus ears.

  Pearl studied herself in the mirror for another long moment. Fathom realized that Indigo hadn’t even gone over to check what she looked like.

  With a sigh, Pearl said, “Well, this will have to do. Let’s go.”

  As they swept out the door of the bungalow into the garden, Fathom turned to Indigo and whispered, “You look great.”

  “I look like a squid pretending to be a sea horse,” she said with a laugh. She winked at him and hurried after Pearl through a shower of white jasmine petals.

  Fathom smiled as he followed her. Another boring royal gathering, another yawn-inducing feast. Thank goodness he’d convinced Indigo to go with him.

  He couldn’t imagine what he would ever do without her.

  * * *

  Fathom’s parents, Manta and Reef, were already on the terrace when he arrived, hovering by the buffet table and laughing. His cousins Scallop and Current were there, too, with their father, his uncle Eel. The murmur of their voices mingled with the ebb and flow of the waves and the music from a trio of SeaWings playing the queen’s favorite instruments.

  Most of the family dinners were at night, without much lighting because SeaWings could see in the dark. But in honor of the SkyWing guests, this gathering was being held shortly before sunset, with the golden western horizon as their backdrop, and lanterns had been lit around the gardens (by the SkyWings themselves, since SeaWings had no fire and no need for it). Fathom liked the unusual warm glow this gave to the Island Palace, as though little suns had snuck in and hidden in some of the trees.

  Giant aquariums around the terrace were full of luminous blue jellyfish, some of them trailing tangles of slender tentacles longer than a dragon. The scents of vanilla, ginger, and basil came from the long tables of food. Hibiscus flowers as brightly colored as gemstones dotted the bushes and were scattered across the conversation couches, ruby and topaz and pink against the dark green backdrops.

  Manta came over to greet them, smiling and tipping her wings down to avoid the string of hanging lanterns.

  “You look lovely, Indigo,” she said without batting an eyelash at the borrowed pearls. “And you, as always, are the picture of majestic splendor,” she added to Pearl.

  There was always a weird vibe between Pearl and Manta, which Fathom couldn’t entirely figure out. Indigo said it was because the only way Pearl could become queen was if Manta first challenged Lagoon and won, and then Pearl would have to challenge her own mother. Fathom wasn’t quite sure that was right — because Lagoon had a daughter, Splash, who had no dragonets of her own. If she became queen, couldn’t Pearl challenge her? Indigo said no, because Pearl was technically Splash’s first cousin once removed, not her niece, and then Fathom had to yell “LA LA LA” and stick his claws in his ears because complicated family trees and succession laws were not only boring and impossible, but frankly irrelevant to his life anyway.

  “Is there coconut rice tonight?” he asked his mother. “And tuna rolls? And that mango-lime drink from last time?”

  “There’s everything,” she said with a laugh. “We should invite dragons from other tribes to our gatherings all the time — the chefs really went overboard.”

  “I’m going to get one of those macadamia things before Current eats them all,” Pearl declared, gliding away.

  Before Fathom could dare Indigo to race him to the tuna rolls, a conch shell fanfare sounded from the top of the palace wall. Queen Lagoon and her husband
, Humpback, came parading down to the terrace with their daughter, Splash, and the two visiting SkyWings.

  “Whoa,” Indigo whispered, sidling a step closer to Fathom.

  It wasn’t that the SkyWings were bigger, exactly — well, their legs were longer, so they did seem taller than the queen. And their wings were definitely bigger than a SeaWing’s. And their horns were straighter and sharper, and their talons were not webbed … but most of what was startling about them was the color of their scales. They were such a shiny, polished red, like hibiscus petals or drops of blood or giant walking rubies.

  As they all reached the terrace, Fathom saw the queen’s eyes dart around quickly, and a shiver ran down his spine. By now a few other distant cousins (twice removed? eighteenthish removed? Fathom had no idea) and some of the queen’s elderly aunts and uncles had arrived, so the terrace seemed full in an intimate way.

  But Fathom knew who she was looking for, and he was not there.

  “Where is Albatross?” his mother whispered to him, apparently noticing the same look on Lagoon’s face.

  “I don’t know,” he whispered back. “I haven’t seen him since training this morning.”

  I hope he’s not mad at me. Fathom was trying hard to convince Albatross that he was ready for more challenging animus work — like enchanting objects from afar without touching them, or casting spells without speaking, the way Albatross could. But Albatross was convinced that Fathom wasn’t ready for any of that yet.

  “When you’re seven. That’s how old I was when I first cast a spell like that,” he had said. “Until then, don’t we have quite enough to do?”

  Albatross had been letting Fathom design small corners of the Summer Palace, and now that it was essentially complete, the only thing left was the spectacular throne on the top level of the pavilion. Fathom had spent months drawing it, down to the smallest detail, and then his grandfather had changed so much about it that Fathom could barely recognize it as his own.

  But today they had set the enchantment together, and by next week the throne should have grown into its final shape, and then they’d be able to present the whole thing to Queen Lagoon.

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