The hidden kingdom, p.6
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       The Hidden Kingdom, p.6

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  “Pretty much any female in the tribe can be queen if she wants to,” said Liana.

  “Really?” Tsunami said curiously. “How about me? Can I be queen? I’m originally a princess, you know. And I’m really good at telling dragons what to do.”

  Liana and Jambu looked at her dubiously. Tsunami shifted her sea-blue wings, raised her snout in a queenly way, and flashed the royal glowing patterns in her scales.

  “Well,” Jambu said, “I guess you could ask.”

  “Absolutely not,” Glory said. “Have a little tribe dignity, for moons’ sake. You cannot have a SeaWing as queen of the RainWings. Tsunami, quit that.”

  “When you say it like that, it does sound weird,” Liana agreed, scratching her ruff with one talon.

  Glory didn’t want to know what Tsunami was thinking right then. Something about what a useless, ridiculous tribe this was, probably. “So, fine, take us to Queen Magnificent,” she said. “How far is the palace?”

  Most of the RainWings politely tried to muffle their laughter.

  “We don’t really do palaces,” Liana said. “Come on, follow me.”

  Jambu and the other RainWings stayed behind, waving, like a bowlful of butterflies, as Glory settled the sloth on her shoulder again and she and her friends followed Liana up into the treetops.

  The treehouse she led them to was not much different from all the others, although it was a bit higher and closer to the sun, with an open roof and five giant open windows in the curved outside walls. A short hanging walkway, glowing with fuchsia flowers shaped like dragon tongues, led from the doorway to another large platform. Seven dragons were standing in a line on the platform. Most of them looked bored or sleepy, although one or two had angry red flickers sparking through their scales.

  “Here you are,” Liana said, landing and nodding at the end of the line. “Magnificent will get to you eventually.” She squinted up at the sky. “Probably before dark. Depending on what these others are here to complain about.”

  “We have to WAIT?” Tsunami barked. “In a LINE? Shouldn’t visitors to the rainforest automatically go to the front?”

  The waiting RainWings all shimmered green with displea sure and shot Tsunami unfriendly looks.

  “We can wait,” Glory said. “No big deal.” The sloth flopped out on her back and made a snoozy sound.

  “It’s a big deal to Webs,” Sunny pointed out. “Look how much pain he’s in.”

  Webs contrived to look even more pathetic than he had a moment earlier. He flopped down on the platform and groaned softly.

  “Sorry,” Liana said. “This is how we do it, to be fair. Nobody gets to go ahead of anyone else.”

  Tsunami drew herself up as tall as she could and glared at her. “Didn’t I mention that I’m the royal daughter of the queen of the SeaWings?”

  “That sounds lovely for you,” Liana said. “I’m on a gathering patrol now, but I’ll come back to check on you all afterward.” She took a step back, made a cheeky little bow to Tsunami, and flew away.

  “Well, I never,” Tsunami sputtered. “Maybe we should tell them who we really are.”

  “Shhh,” Glory hissed at her. “We agreed to stop doing that.”

  “You don’t think Queen Magnificent would lock us up, do you?” said Sunny.

  “Doubtful,” Starflight agreed. “I bet these dragons haven’t even heard of our prophecy. I’m not sure they’d particularly care.”

  “True,” said Glory. “They don’t care about much.”

  “Better safe than sorry, don’t you think?” Clay said. “I vote we keep it quiet. I mean, you never know how dragons will react, right? Sorry, Tsunami.”

  “No, you’re right,” she grumbled. She stretched her wings and neck. “I just can’t believe they knocked us out and now they’re making us wait around to see the queen.”

  “Yeah,” Glory said. “It would make so much more sense if they’d chain you all up in a cave and starve you and ignore you for a day or two and then throw you in prison after you save one of their princesses. Oh, no, wait, that’s what your mom did.”

  “At least there’s food here,” Clay said over Tsunami’s sputtering. He had scooped up a pile of the fruit from the first platform and brought it with him. Looking pleased with himself, he started arranging the choices in front of him. “What do you think these are?” He poked a branch covered in what looked like bright yellow sundrops.

  The dragonets shared the fruit; even Webs perked up enough to eat. But Glory wasn’t hungry. She passed a small orange fruit up to the sloth, but didn’t eat anything herself. Like Jambu had said, the sun had filled her up more than any food ever had. Which was weird, and she didn’t want to think about it or about what it meant that she’d been kept away from something so important for practically all her dragonet years.

  Instead, she wandered toward the walkway and back, trying to peek across to the queen’s treehouse. Through the windows she could see rainbow scales, bright blue and shimmering yellow and emerald green. She also spotted garlands of white flowers with petals like dragonfly wings. The RainWings seemed to use flowers for decoration the way the other tribes used jewels and precious stones.

  Glory glanced at Tsunami. The SeaWing was still wearing the strands of pearls her mother had given her in the Kingdom of the Sea. She acted like she’d forgotten they were there, but occasionally Glory saw her running them through her claws.

  But her mother was a little bit crazy and a smidgen evil, Glory thought to herself. Wouldn’t I rather have no mother than one like Queen Coral? Even if she did come with pearls?

  “What are you seeing the queen about?” she asked the first dragon in line. He jumped, startled to be spoken to.

  “Oh, uh,” he said slowly. “I’m just wondering if I can get my assignment changed. Like, right now I teach dragonets about fruit gathering, but I really think I’d be better at, like, advanced napping techniques.”

  Glory only barely managed not to laugh out loud. He was clearly not joking. Was “advanced napping techniques” an actual subject? She decided it would be rude to ask.

  “What about you?” she asked, turning to the next dragon in line. This one was tall and pale orange, and a small gray-blue dragonet sat in the curl of her tail, frowning grumpily.

  “I’m bringing this dragonet in for punishment,” said the tall dragon. “He seems to think it’s funny to stuff berries up the noses of sleeping dragons during sun time.”

  The little gray-blue dragon huffed a noise that was somewhere between amused and outraged and made a gruesome face at Glory. She made one right back, and he gaped in surprise.

  “I’ll tell you why I’m here,” snarled the third dragon in line. He was one of the two with the furious red flickers along his ruff; the other was at the back of the line. Glory thought they might be the only angry RainWings she’d seen so far.

  “Uh-oh,” said the “napping techniques” dragon with a sleepy smile. “Mangrove is complaining about something again.” The tall orange dragon chuckled appreciatively.

  “Complaining about something!” Mangrove yelped. “I’ll say! Something we should all be complaining about! My Orchid isn’t the only one who’s missing, you know!”

  Glory tilted her head. “Your orchid?” she asked. Was this another weird RainWing thing, where it would turn out they were bizarrely attached to their flowers?

  “My partner,” Mangrove growled. “Orchid. She’s been missing for three weeks. I’ve asked the queen every day since then to send out a search party.”

  “Sometimes dragons need a break,” said the first dragon with a shrug.

  “Maybe she’s taking a really long nap somewhere,” agreed the tall orange dragon.

  “Three. Weeks,” Mangrove hissed.

  “And other dragons are missing, too?” Glory asked Mangrove.

  “At least twelve in th
e last year, including Orchid,” he said grimly.

  A chill crawled down Glory’s spine. So the MudWing soldiers weren’t the only ones encountering something malevolent in the rainforest.

  There was something out there, lurking behind the colorful birds and exuberant flowers and tall whispering trees. Something that could take out two MudWings at once . . . and also make twelve RainWings disappear without a trace.

  “NEXT!” boomed a voice from the queen’s treehouse.

  The first dragon ambled across the bridge, yawning, and slid through the curtain of silvery yellow flowers that hung in the doorway.

  “Can I come in for your audience?” Glory asked Mangrove. She wanted to know how Queen Magnificent would handle the problem of missing RainWings.

  “Why?” Mangrove asked suspiciously. “I’m not letting you have my turn.”

  “I’ll just listen,” Glory promised.

  “Hmmm,” he said. “All right, I suppose.”

  She turned to the last RainWing in the line and took a guess. “Are you here about a missing dragon, too?”

  “A dragonet,” the RainWing answered. The scarlet flickers in her ruff were reflected in the dark burgundy of her scales. “Everyone thinks I lost her while we were venom training, but I know it wasn’t my fault.” She stamped her talons on the wood platform and hissed at the skeptical look on the nearest dragon’s face.

  “So what happened to her?” Glory asked.

  The burgundy dragon flung her wings up. “I don’t know. Maybe she ran off. She’s a terrible student and a pain in the tail. I just want to be cleared so I can have my assignment back.”

  “Poor Bromeliad. If you have no assignment, that means last choice of sun-time spots and only leftovers at feeding time,” the pale orange dragon explained to Glory. “It’s not a lot of fun.”

  “You must also want to find her,” Glory said to Bromeliad. “Aren’t you worried?”

  “She’ll show up eventually,” said Bromeliad, flipping her burgundy tail back and forth.

  Assuming she’s still alive, Glory thought. “If you’re both here about missing dragons,” she said, “ wouldn’t it make sense to see the queen together?”

  Bromeliad and Mangrove blinked at each other, considering.

  “NEXT!” called the voice again. The first dragon emerged and flew away, and the orange dragon hauled her dragonet across the bridge into the treehouse.

  “There could be totally different explanations,” Mangrove said. “I’m sure something terrible happened to Orchid.”

  “And I’m pretty sure Kinkajou ran off to spite me,” said Bromeliad.

  “Still,” Glory said. “I mean, it makes no difference to me. But maybe she’d listen to two dragons more than she’d listen to one.”

  Bromeliad glanced at the three dragons in the line between her and Mangrove. One was fast asleep, and the other two seemed to be half listening, half watching butterflies.

  “NEXT!”

  “Come on,” Mangrove said, reaching back and hauling Bromeliad up with him. “And you, too,” he said to Glory.

  “Wait here,” Glory called to her friends. Clay looked up with melons stuffed in each cheek. As she hurried over the walkway after the RainWings, Glory heard Tsunami starting to protest and then the voices of Starflight and Sunny hushing her.

  The hanging vines of yellow flowers smelled like honey and vanilla. They swished against Glory’s snout as she pushed through into the sunlit room beyond.

  To her surprise, there were no guards — no soldiers protecting the queen, no heralds announcing each arrival. The only dragon in the room was Queen Magnificent herself, curled on a sort of nest made from lacy scarlet flowers and scraps of russet monkey fur. The queen was as large as Coral, but personally Glory thought she was a lot more impressive. Instead of gaudy ropes of pearls, Magnificent wore only a few garlands of the white dragonfly-wing flowers, which set off the iridescent brightness of her shifting scales.

  Settled under one of her wings was a silvery gray sloth much like the one on Glory’s back. It made a welcoming “yerp!” noise, and Glory’s sloth burbled in response.

  The queen flicked the point of her tail and leaned forward to sniff at Glory. Her green eyes were friendly and a little sleepy-looking.

  “You’re new,” she said cheerfully. “Aren’t you? How exciting. I like new things.”

  “It’s my turn,” Mangrove insisted. “This dragonet just wanted to watch.”

  “All right,” said Queen Magnificent, as if she wasn’t that curious anyway. She turned to Mangrove and Bromeliad and wrinkled her snout to look like she was listening. “Go ahead.”

  “You know why I’m here,” said Mangrove. “Orchid is still missing! It’s been three weeks! We have to go looking for her!”

  “Orchid,” said the queen, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “Of course. Still missing. Orchid.”

  “I come to you about this every day,” Mangrove said. “Remember? We were fruit gathering and she disappeared?”

  “Mmmm-hmmm,” said the queen. “What about you?”

  Bromeliad shook out her wings. “My student Kinkajou ran off during a venom training session and hasn’t come back. I want the blame lifted from me so I can go back to my regular life.”

  “How long ago was this?” the queen asked.

  “About eigh teen days,” said Bromeliad. “She’s no one’s favorite dragonet, I might add.”

  “All right, then,” said the queen. “You may start training again.”

  “Thank you,” said Bromeliad with a bow, backing toward the door.

  “Hang on,” Glory said. “Not that it means anything to me, but isn’t anyone worried that two dragons disappeared within a few days of each other?”

  “Did they?” said the queen. She curled her front talons around her sloth and stroked its head. “They’ll probably turn up. Dragons usually do.”

  “Not lately,” Mangrove said. “We have twelve dragons missing from our village right now, including Orchid and Kinkajou.”

  “Twelve,” murmured the queen. “Someone’s been counting? Who has that kind of energy?” She yawned and looked at her claws.

  There was an awkward pause. Bromeliad shuffled a few steps closer to the door. Mangrove coiled his tail tightly around his talons and glared at the queen.

  “Um,” Glory said. “Look. Again, this is none of my business, but maybe someone should investigate. Like, find out if they all disappeared from the same general area. Or if they have anything in common. Or if they left any clues behind.”

  “All right,” the queen said genially. “Sounds tiring. Who wants to do that?”

  Glory looked at Mangrove, but he was already pointing at her. “She should do it,” he said. “She seems like she has useful questions.”

  “Splendid,” said the queen. “Let’s do that. Problem solved. NEXT!”

  “Wait,” Glory said. “I don’t do stuff like this. And I’m kind of busy with other things.” Well, I guess that depends. Saving the world and stopping the war is what the dragonets in the prophecy are supposed to do, and I’m not actually in the prophecy. But I guess if I accept my regular RainWing destiny, then there’s absolutely nothing I have to do.

  Tag along on someone else’s destiny, or settle for a future as a snoozing dingbat. Fantastic choices you’ve left me with, Talons of Peace.

  Mangrove and Bromeliad had already swept out the door. Glory started to follow them and then jumped back as Tsunami burst in, followed by the other dragonets. Clay and Starflight had their shoulders under Webs’s wings and their guardian was staggering like his tail was about to fall off.

  “Ooooo!” said the queen, perking up. “You’re all new!”

  “What about —” Glory glanced out at the waiting platform and saw that the other three dragons were gone.

  “We convince
d them that our situation was an emergency,” Starflight said. “Well, Sunny did.”

  Sunny beamed.

  “Greetings, Queen of the RainWings!” Starflight said grandly. He swept his wings out and bowed low.

  “Ooooo,” the queen said again.

  “We have come to you despite great peril, in a time of crisis, to throw ourselves upon your merciful —”

  “We need your help,” Tsunami said.

  Magnificent’s wings drooped a little. “Oh dear,” she said. “Do I have to do something?”

  “This is Webs,” Sunny said, tugging on his talon to lead him forward. She pointed to the venomous gash near his tail, and Queen Magnificent made a disapproving “tsk” noise.

  “That is very ugly,” the queen observed.

  “It sure is,” said Glory. “Also, it’s kill ing him. Minor detail.”

  “Your dragons know about poison,” Tsunami said. “We need someone who can help us cure him.”

  “That doesn’t look like something one of us did,” said the queen. “We never use our venom on other dragons!”

  All of the dragonets shot sideways looks at Glory. She narrowed her eyes back at them. I dare you to tell her what I’ve done to save your stupid scales.

  “It’s not RainWing venom,” Starflight said hastily. “He was scratched by a SandWing’s tail barb.”

  “Oh,” said the queen. “I don’t know anything about those.” She took a deep breath to yell “NEXT!,” but Sunny interrupted before she could.

  “Oh, please, you must have healers,” she pleaded. “Someone who could look at it? Please? We don’t want him to die.”

  “Well, some of us don’t,” Glory muttered.

  Queen Magnificent tapped her claws on the treehouse floor. Her sloth seized one of her talons and tried to gnaw on it.

  “We do have healers,” said the queen, rolling her sloth playfully onto its back. “I guess you could talk to them. They’re about twelve tree lodges down from here, in the one with the red berries growing on the balcony.” She pointed out one of the windows. “They might not be able to do anything, but you may ask.”

 
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