The lost heir, p.7
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       The Lost Heir, p.7

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  “Calm down, Glory,” Tsunami said. She hoped her mother and the other dragons would see her as the leader of the dragonets. “You heard the queen. It’s for your own safety. You’ll be fine.”

  Please don’t argue with me in front of my mother, Tsunami prayed.

  Glory glared at the SeaWing guard for a moment longer. “All right,” she snarled. “I’ll go with you. But I still say nobody touches me.”

  “Fair enough,” Queen Coral purred with another gesture and flash of her stripes. “Off you all go, then. Tsunami, darling, come sit with me and let’s talk.” She swept over to her throne, towing Anemone behind her. The tiny dragonet settled onto the small throne, flicking her pearly wings and watching Tsunami’s friends with big eyes.

  “It’ll be all right,” Tsunami said to Clay as the guards hefted him into the air. “I’ll come join you very soon.” He nodded, still looking rather anxious. Another guard tentatively tried to shoo Starflight off the edge. The NightWing backed away from him unhappily, then turned and flew after the guard who had Sunny.

  Tsunami watched her friends spiral down to the cave by the entrance — brown and gold, black and silver, all of them so out of place here. She saw them vanish into the dark hole, and then the guards emerged and planted themselves outside. It didn’t look like the way you’d treat guests.

  At least it’s better than the SkyWing palace, she thought. At least we’re not being forced to fight to the death. My mother is keeping us safe. She’s really being welcoming, in her own way. She glanced up at her mother’s warm eyes. Especially to me.

  Her mother reached out her talons to her, smiling. She was perfect — just what Tsunami had always imagined.

  Her friends would be all right, Tsunami was sure. They were in the SeaWing palace now. She was home with her family. This was her lifelong dream.

  There’s nothing to worry about, she told herself. Nothing at all.

  “Here,” Queen Coral said, taking a strand of pearls off her own horns. “You’re so unadorned, my beautiful dragonet. I have to start making up for all the presents I missed giving you.” She leaned forward and draped the pearls around Tsunami’s neck. They were heavy and smooth, sliding coolly across Tsunami’s scales.

  My first trea sure.

  It was a strange thrill, having something of her very own. All dragons loved trea sure — it was the only thing they had in common with scavengers. But this was more than a shiny, beautiful thing. It belonged to Tsunami and nobody else. And it made her look even more like her mother.

  Tsunami stroked the pearls with her claw and tucked her tail around her back talons. She wished Anemone would stop staring at her. She must hate me, she thought. I would if I were her. She must know I want the throne she thought was hers.

  But not yet. Now was the time for getting to know her mother.

  “Can we talk alone?” Tsunami asked. The ten dragons were still perched like creepy sentinels, with Shark the creepiest of all.

  “Of course,” said the queen. “Council, you are dismissed. Moray, send a message to Queen Blister and see how quickly she can get here. As for you, creature, go back to your guard outpost and stay there until someone actually wants to see you.”

  Riptide crouched, nodding, and dove over the edge. Tsunami leaned out to watch him swimming into the tunnel.

  “What’s wrong with Riptide?” she asked as the other ten dragons also flew away in a thunderclap of wingbeats. “I thought he was nice.”

  “Oh, no,” Queen Coral said with a shudder. “He can’t be trusted. Webs is his father. Their bloodline is tainted with betrayal.”

  Tsunami felt like a giant wave had just knocked her over. “Webs is his father?” But she’d liked Riptide — and all along he was the son of her kidnapper. Which he’d carefully never mentioned. What else hadn’t he told her?

  “Nasty family,” Coral went on. She lashed her tail, nearly hitting Anemone in the head. “Not fitting company for royalty by any means. We keep him as far away from us as possible.”

  Poor Riptide, Tsunami thought. It wasn’t his fault his father had turned traitor, but he suffered for it anyway.

  And yet, he had hidden the truth from her, and she didn’t like that at all.

  Was Queen Coral right about him? Surely she knew her own subjects better than Tsunami did.

  But there was still a part of Tsunami that hoped she’d see him again.

  She glanced at Anemone. “So — we were saying — alone — ?”

  “Oh, no, Anemone never leaves my side,” Queen Coral said. She reached over and lovingly patted the little dragonet’s head. “I finally got a living daughter, and I’m keeping her that way.”

  “By watching me every second,” Anemone said. She widened her eyes at Tsunami, who wondered if she’d imagined a hint of sarcasm in her sister’s words.

  “And now I have two daughters!” Queen Coral said proudly. “Possibly four by the end of next week, if Tortoise does her job right.” She gave Tsunami a worried look. “Maybe we should make a harness for you, too, dear.”

  “Oh, no, that’s all right,” Tsunami said, eyeing the straps that lashed Coral and Anemone together. “I’ve managed to take care of myself up to now. I promise I’ll stay alive.” Much as she already loved her mother, she could not imagine being attached to anyone every moment of every day.

  “Hmmm,” said the queen. “Well, we’ll think about it.” She studied Tsunami’s shoulders as if she was mentally measuring her for a harness anyway.

  “I have to tell you something,” Tsunami said, hoping to change the subject. “I — I don’t know the underwater language. Webs never taught it to me.”

  Queen Coral stared at her. “What is wrong with that dragon?” she growled. “It’s all right, sweetheart. We’ll have Whirlpool teach you — he’s a terrific teacher. Right, Anemone?”

  Anemone shrugged.

  “So what do you know?” Queen Coral asked. “Did they teach you anything?”

  “Of course!” Tsunami said. She didn’t want her mother to think she was unfit to be queen. “We had lots of battle training. And Webs taught us the history of Pyrrhia. We learned all about the Scorching and how the tribes were founded and how we nearly wiped out the scavengers. Um, and he did geography, too. Dune taught us hunting. Kestrel was supposed to teach different tribe strengths and weaknesses, but mostly she just yelled and tried to set us on fire a lot.”

  Anemone’s eyes were bright with interest. “Why don’t I get to learn those things, Mother?” she asked.

  “You will, dear,” said Queen Coral. “When I think you’re ready.”

  “What do you study?” Tsunami asked.

  Anemone glanced up at her mother. “How the Council works,” she said. “Aquatic, of course. How to interpret battle reports and order our defenses. Managing the food supply and the treasury, although the Council commanders really do all that.”

  “It’s still important to stay on top of them,” purred the queen. “Dragons do their best work if you watch them closely the whole time.”

  “But mostly I’m stuck in training sessions with Whirlpool,” Anemone said. Her wings drooped.

  “For what?” Tsunami asked. “Aquatic?”

  “Never mind, dear,” Queen Coral interrupted. “You’ll see eventually. Were the Talons of Peace very cruel to you?”

  “Terribly!” Tsunami said. This was one of her favorite topics. “They never let us out of the caves at all! They acted like we were brainless snails! Nobody ever listened to me. And they wouldn’t tell us anything about our families or where we came from. I only found out about you a few days ago.”

  “My poor, poor baby,” Queen Coral said, stroking Tsunami’s head again.

  Exactly, Tsunami thought. This was the sympathy she’d always wanted. Although she didn’t appreciate the skeptical look on Anemone’s face.

  “What are these?” Tsunami asked. She leaned forward and touched the dark stains on the queen’s talons with one claw. They looked too dark to be
bloodstains, but she couldn’t guess what else they were.

  “The perils of my job!” Queen Coral said with a laugh. “Well, my hobby. My art, you might call it. I should show you.” She sprang to her feet, tugging Anemone up with her. “And then you can meet Whirlpool. You’ll adore him. He’s just the most wonderful, brilliant young dragon.”

  Tsunami was nearly certain she caught Anemone rolling her eyes. She followed the two of them down four levels to a floor with low walls and several shapes like large cauldrons molded into the stone. Black and blue webbed talon prints trailed all around the floor, and a raised podium stood at one end with space for an audience of thirty dragons in front.

  At the other end was a long gray stone table with a scroll spread out on it, held down at either end by a small seahorse carved of dark brown wood. Tsunami peered at the scroll, which looked only half written.

  “That’s my work in progress,” Queen Coral said proudly. “Whirlpool, come here!” She bustled over to one of the cauldrons, and Tsunami realized they were all packed with neatly rolled scrolls.

  “This is beautiful,” she said, lifting one of the carved seahorses. They were heavy and intricately detailed, with curiously dragonlike expressions on their tiny faces.

  “Orca made those,” Queen Coral said sadly. “My first daughter. She was a very talented sculptor.”

  First daughter? What happened to her? Tsunami hadn’t thought any of them lived long enough to become artists. She gave Anemone a quizzical expression, but her sister was watching the queen intently. I’ll ask Starflight later. Orca must be in that lineage scroll he was going on about.

  A dark green dragon with pale green eyes rose up from the Council level. He had a remarkably large gold hoop piercing one ear and dappled, light green scales in wave patterns along his back. He also had the same dark stains on his talons.

  “Your Majesty,” he said with an elaborate bow. “And Your Smaller Majesties.” His voice was oily and slow, like squids creeping into Tsunami’s ears. She guessed this was Whirlpool, although he didn’t look particularly “wonderful” or “brilliant.”

  He bowed to Anemone and Tsunami as he settled onto the floor behind the stone table. His eyes almost immediately went from them to the scroll in front of him, and he tilted his head thoughtfully. After a moment, he reached forward and dipped one claw into a small pool of black ink in the top corner of the table. With the ink, he scratched a few more words at the point where the scroll went blank.

  “Oh,” Tsunami said, glancing from his talons to her mother’s. “Oh, it’s ink.”

  “Yes, dear,” said Queen Coral. She pulled an armful of scrolls out of the cauldron. “It’s a special formula made of squid ink and a touch of whale blood, so it never fades. Immortality is worth a few claw stains, don’t you agree? Whirlpool invented it. He’s terribly clever.” She peered at the words he’d written. “Exactly what I was thinking! This is an exciting one, isn’t it?”

  “Certain to win all the awards in the kingdom, Your Majesty,” Whirlpool oozed.

  Queen Coral piled four scrolls into Tsunami’s talons. “These are my favorites. You can read them all tonight, and tomorrow I’ll give you four of my other favorites.”

  “Read all these tonight?” Tsunami echoed, dismayed. Reading was Starflight’s specialty. She liked it fine, but only if there were exciting stories and female warrior dragons. She didn’t read very fast, and really she’d rather be fighting something.

  “Start with this one,” Queen Coral said, plucking one of the scrolls free.

  It was The Missing Princess! Relief flooded through Tsunami. “I’ve read that one!” she cried. “That was my favorite story ever.”

  “Really?” Queen Coral looked delighted, and Tsunami was pretty sure Anemone had rolled her eyes again. “I wrote it for you!”

  “You —” Tsunami looked from Queen Coral to Whirlpool and the scroll on the table. “You wrote The Missing Princess?”

  “I wrote all of these.” Queen Coral waved her talons at all the scrolls in the cauldrons. “I’m really quite prolific. Whirlpool makes sure hundreds of copies are instantly made and distributed all over SeaWing territory — and wherever else on Pyrrhia we can send them. My communications herald, Moray, is in charge of the printer dragons who make the underwater copies. She also makes sure they go to all the schools. But Whirlpool organizes my readings here. Isn’t he brilliant?” She lowered her voice and winked at Tsunami. “And don’t you think he’s very handsome?”

  Whirlpool looked up and gave Tsunami a toothy smile that didn’t reach his eyes. His teeth were weirdly small, and his eyes were too pale and blobby, like frog eyes. Tsunami couldn’t help thinking of Riptide, who was much more handsome, if you asked her — although she knew better than to tell Coral that.

  “He’ll make a fabulous king one day,” Queen Coral added in a loud whisper.

  Oh dear. Tsunami hid her shudder. Is Queen Coral throwing him at me? She glanced at Anemone and saw the little dragonet quickly erasing a hopeful expression from her face. Hmmm. She bet Anemone could clear up a lot of mysteries, if Tsunami could get her alone for a moment. Too bad that was impossible.

  “Your Majesty.” They all turned and found another Council dragon hovering in the air behind the queen, with a smaller dragon beside her. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but Urchin just arrived with strange news. I knew you’d want to hear it right away.”

  “Of course, Moray,” said Queen Coral. “You always know what’s best.”

  Moray’s scales were the same dull gray green as Shark’s, and her eyes were also small and colorless. Tsunami wondered if they were related. The Council dragon pressed her snout into a brief smug look. “That’s because I have had excellent training at the side of the most wonderful queen in Pyrrhian history,” she said.

  Oh my word, Tsunami thought. This time she was able to catch Anemone’s eye, behind the queen’s back, to make an “Is she serious?” face. Anemone looked startled for a moment, then made a face back that Tsunami was pretty sure meant “Believe me, it gets worse.”

  Moray went on. “Apparently a dead dragon has been found only a few islands from the Summer Palace.”

  “Oh, how sad,” said Queen Coral with a little yawn. She glanced at her scrolls as if she wanted to get back to them. “What happened to him?”

  “Her,” said Moray. “And we don’t know yet. But the strange part is that it’s not a SeaWing. It’s a SkyWing.”

  “WHAT?” Queen Coral leaped to her talons. “That close to the palace?” She snapped at the air and spread her wings. “Get Shark and Piranha and take me to the body. Now.”

  The queen shot into the air with Anemone flapping wildly to keep up. Tsunami dropped the scrolls and jumped after them, flying in a tight spiral down to the water. This was her chance to see the queen in action!

  She thought she heard someone shout her name as she splashed down. Sunny or Clay? The water rushed into her ears, muffling the cry. They didn’t have to worry; she wouldn’t be gone long. They’d be safe here.

  Shark whipped past, churning up the water as he charged into the tunnel ahead of her. He was between her and Coral now, but Tsunami wasn’t going to let that stop her. She swam after them as fast as she could. She felt another dragon close on her tail, but didn’t turn around or slow down.

  It felt like only moments later when Tsunami’s snout emerged into the golden kelp curtain. She followed the eddies left by the dragon tails ahead of her and realized they weren’t going to the surface.

  So they weren’t flying to the body; they were swimming there. Which made sense. They were SeaWings, after all.

  All right. I can do this. Tsunami ignored how tired her wings felt and beat them harder, determined to keep up. Even so, the two dragons behind her quickly passed her — Moray and another from the Council, who she guessed was Piranha.

  She saw both dragons dip down in the water and suddenly speed up. Despairing, she tried to do the same thing — tipping her wings to dip down to
the same level. A fierce current immediately caught her up and shoved her along after them.

  For a moment, Tsunami struggled against it. She didn’t like being caught by anything stronger than her. But then she realized the other dragons were using it to travel faster, and she’d have to do the same thing if she wanted to stay with them.

  Slowly she relaxed and let the current sweep her along. It gave her a chance to look around. A school of black fish with silver speckles shot by overhead, like a flock of crows or NightWings, spinning and whirling in shifting formations. Large translucent mushrooms sprouted from the ocean floor, with tiny orange fish clustered around them.

  A pulsing reddish-pink octopus wobbled by, and Tsunami wondered if they were delicious; they were definitely slow enough to catch.

  Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted movement behind a swarm of iridescent jellyfish. She squinted and realized it was Riptide, following her from a distance. She lifted one of her wings and waved to him, and after a moment, he sheepishly waved back.

  She didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing, but this probably wasn’t it.

  Still, she kind of liked having him there, so she wasn’t going to tell Coral on him. Not until she decided how mad she was about the “Webs being his father” secret anyway.

  They swam for what felt like miles, over wide stretches of algae-covered coral reef that looked like ancient stone ruins: palaces and temples that had collapsed long ago. Occasionally a large greenish-silver fish would dart up, swim alongside Tsunami for a moment, notice her with a start of alarm, and flash away again. She was hungry but too tired to try eating any of them.

  Even with the help of the current, Tsunami felt ready to collapse. Finally, up ahead, she saw Moray and Piranha sweep up to the surface. Relieved, she struggled out of the current and followed them into the air.

  Queen Coral was already standing on a large, craggy boulder that jutted out of the sea at the base of an enormous cliff. Anemone was crowded onto a tiny outcropping beside her. Not far away, a seal edged ner vously into the water, trying not to attract their attention.

 
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