The brightest night, p.7
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       The Brightest Night, p.7

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  The back wall turned out to divide the tent in two, and when they ducked through a flap, Sunny found herself in a smaller area with fewer rugs, where there were a couple of low black tables, a trunk packed with scrolls, and two startling pictures pinned to the walls.

  Sunny gasped when she saw them.

  One was Morrowseer, drawn in dark ink, glowering the way he always did. The paper was large and pockmarked with tiny holes. Like someone’s been throwing rather sharp things at it, Sunny thought.

  The other picture was slightly smaller but had received the same treatment.

  Staring out at her, looking much younger than she remembered him, was Dune.

  Sunny touched the paper lightly with one claw. “Wow,” she said. He still has the scars, but he looks much healthier. This must be back when he was still getting the sun and heat a SandWing needs, before he went into hiding under the mountain to take care of us.

  “You know him?” Thorn asked from behind one of the low tables. She sounded casual, but there was something ferociously intense in her eyes.

  Sunny wondered how much to admit, but before she had to answer, the flaps rustled and the same dragonet from before shoved his way in. He was bigger than Sunny, but now that she could see him more clearly, she guessed he was perhaps a year younger. A dark amber earring glowed in one ear and a small, rakish scar zigzagged across his nose.

  “Qibli,” Thorn warned. “This is a private discussion.”

  “I’m not leaving you alone with no stranger,” Qibli said, shooting a look full of daggers at Sunny. “All prophecy-like or not.”

  Thorn looked amused. “Your loyalty is charming, but I think I can handle this dragonet as well as you can.”

  “It’s better to have backup,” he insisted. He twitched his tail forward to rest on the sand in front of him. “I promise I’ll be quiet.”

  “Well, that I do have to see,” she said, rolling her eyes. “All right. You — what was your name?”

  “Sunny.”

  Thorn crossed to the trunk of scrolls, which sat on another sky-blue rug. Wiping her front talons on the fabric to shake off the sand, Thorn leaned in and picked up a sheaf of loose pages.

  “Sunny,” she echoed. “Before you say anything else — you’re really not here for the reward?”

  “I don’t know anything about a reward,” Sunny promised.

  Qibli made a scornful noise. Without commenting, Thorn handed her one of the pages. The thick, yellowish paper crinkled stiffly between her claws.

  REWARD REWARD REWARD

  For any information leading to the whereabouts of two NightWings once seen around the Scorpion Den, known as Morrowseer and Stonemover.

  For any information regarding the present location of a scarred SandWing named Dune, last seen frequenting the night market seven years ago.

  For any dragonet hatched in the last six years with unusual features.

  Come before Thorn at the Outclaw Pool with anything. Your safety guaranteed.

  REWARD REWARD REWARD

  Smaller drawings of Morrowseer and Dune accompanied the words, along with another drawing of a subdued-looking NightWing she guessed was Stonemover. She glanced at the other papers that Thorn was holding and saw similar pronouncements with slightly different words —”five years ago” or “in the last three years,” for instance. This wasn’t a new search, or a new reward. This was the latest update of an ongoing hunt.

  Sunny put the paper down slowly. Pieces were starting to come together in her mind, bubbling in a funny, hopeful, confused way.

  “You didn’t know about this?” Thorn asked.

  Sunny shook her head. “I haven’t been in the Kingdom of Sand in the last six years.” She took a deep breath, then let it all spill out of her. “My egg was found out in the desert, alone, by a dragon named Dune. That dragon.” She pointed to the picture on the wall as Thorn inhaled sharply. “He took me to be raised by the Talons of Peace, along with the other dragonets of destiny. After all, I fit the prophecy….” She hesitated, then added, “And my parents clearly didn’t want me.”

  She raised her head and met Thorn’s eyes. The leader of the Outclaws dropped the rest of the papers, stepped forward, and seized Sunny’s front talons in hers.

  “He didn’t find you,” she growled. “He stole you. He knew where I’d hidden you for your own safety, and he betrayed me.”

  Sunny felt as though she couldn’t breathe. The claws wrapped around hers, the dark eyes fixed on her. These were the only real things in the tent; everything else was blurring and sliding away.

  This is it, she thought wonderingly. This is the moment we all dreamed about, all those years under the mountain.

  “I wanted you,” Thorn said fiercely. “You were the only thing I wanted. I’ve done everything I could to find you.”

  Not fulfilling the prophecy … but finding our parents.

  Thorn gripped her claws tighter. “Sunny. You’re my daughter.”

  Sunny’s scales felt as if they were fizzing and humming and trying to leap right off her. She flung herself into Thorn’s wings, which folded around her like sunbeams.

  “Hey!” Qibli barked, jumping up.

  “It’s all right, sit down,” Thorn said. She rested her head on top of Sunny’s and pulled her in more tightly.

  “I knew you didn’t really abandon me,” Sunny said, although she wasn’t sure how much she’d ever really known that.

  “I knew I’d find you one day,” said Thorn. “I didn’t take over this city for nothing. Never thought you’d just come strolling into my tent, though. Chasing a trio of NightWings, no less.” She leaned back and smiled. “Funny brave little dragon.”

  It was warm, warm, warm, here in her mother’s wings, as warm as Sunny had always wanted to be.

  “Hang on,” Qibli interjected. “Thorn, begging your pardon, but how do you know? She could be anybody. She could be playing you. She could be a con artist!”

  “I’ve met enough con artists in the last six years,” Thorn said calmly, “swaggering in here, hoping to cheat me out of the reward. This is my daughter.”

  “Where’s my father?” Sunny asked. “It’s — it’s not Dune, is it?”

  “Bright smashing suns, no,” Thorn said. “What a horrifying thought. No.” She shot a glance at Qibli. “He’s … not around anymore. We can talk about that later. But speaking of Dune, if you can point me at him, he’s on this Needs To Be Violently Dismembered list I have.”

  “He’s already dead,” Sunny said. “But he wasn’t so bad, really. He died trying to protect us.”

  “Successfully?” Thorn asked.

  “Well … not very successfully,” Sunny admitted. “We kind of all got captured by the SkyWing queen. But we’re all right now.”

  Thorn growled. “Teeth of the viper, I cannot believe my enemies have all died before I could rip their heads off myself. Qibli, give me those drawings.”

  The dragonet unpinned the drawings of Morrowseer and Dune from the wall, and Thorn kept one wing around Sunny as she tore them into tiny shreds.

  “Feel better?” Sunny asked.

  “Yes,” Thorn said, hugging her close again. “Would you like me to have those NightWings killed for you?”

  “No, no,” Sunny said quickly. “One of them is the sister of a friend of mine.” She hesitated. “I kind of wish you hadn’t killed the other one.”

  “I know,” Thorn said. She lifted her talons, checking them for blood. “It’s not my favorite part of the role, but if you want to lead dragons, you have to show them your claws sometimes, beetle.”

  “Beetle?” Sunny echoed.

  Thorn gave her an affectionate grin. “That was my pet name for you when you were still in your egg,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been calling you in my head all these years. But I like Sunny. Dune must have been paying attention when I talked about possible names for you.” Her face darkened.

  “So you were friends,” Sunny prompted.

  “I thou
ght so.” Her mother looked up at the tent ceiling for a moment, her eyes glittering.

  “I have so many questions,” Sunny said softly. How did you know I would look weird? Why did you have to hide my egg for safety? What do the NightWings have to do with anything?

  “So do I!” said Thorn. “I want to know everything about everything you’ve done for the last six years. And we should celebrate! Let me send all my brigands about their duties, and I’ll tell Armadillo to plan a party. Free roasted lizards and camel milk for the whole Scorpion Den tonight!” She grinned.

  “Wait,” Sunny said. “I don’t need a party —”

  “Perhaps not, but it’ll accomplish three things,” Thorn said briskly. “First, it’ll relieve the tension out there — all those dragons wondering what’ll happen with a prophecy dragonet in our midst. Second, it’ll let everyone know you’re my daughter, so they’ll treat you with respect and not just curiosity. And third, it’ll make it very clear that you’re under Outclaw protection, which you’re going to need in this city.”

  “Oh,” Sunny said. For a moment she’d worried that her mother was like Blaze, just looking for any excuse for a party. It was reassuring to realize she had smart reasons for what she was doing.

  A commotion erupted in the main tent: dragons yelling, something being knocked over. Thorn whirled around with her tail high, alert for any danger.

  But when a SandWing burst through the flaps and threw himself at her feet, she relaxed and waved Qibli back.

  “What is it?” Thorn asked.

  “Reports of a dragonbite viper,” he gasped, “seen near the orphanage.”

  “Are we sure?” Thorn demanded, grabbing a long spear made of three strands of metal twisted together and split into several sharp points at the end. “Have any Outclaws confirmed that it’s really there?”

  “No,” he said, panting, “but someone panicked and set the nearest stalls on fire. The orphanage will go up in flames if we don’t put it out fast.”

  “And so will the rest of the city,” Thorn said. “Sunny, I’m sorry, I have to take care of this.”

  “Of course,” Sunny said, jumping up. “Can I help? What can I do?”

  “You can stay here safely so I don’t have to worry about you,” Thorn said. “Please. Dragonbite vipers are not to be trifled with. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” She snatched up a bag by the outer flap and ducked out of the tent, gone before the messenger could scramble to his feet and follow her.

  Sunny and Qibli stared at each other for a few long moments. Sunny wondered if she should be upset that her mother had brushed aside her offer of help, but honestly, she wasn’t sure she’d have been much use. As the excitement of meeting her mother wore off, her wings began to feel like heavy boulders leaning against her sides. Her head was woozy from the strange smells and noises of the Scorpion Den.

  “What’s a dragonbite viper?” Sunny finally asked.

  “Really?” Qibli said. “It’s the most dangerous thing in the desert. Probably in all of Pyrrhia, but we get them more than most tribes. It’s the only snake in the world that can kill a dragon.”

  “There’s a snake that can do that?” Sunny said. She shuddered from her horns to her wingtips. “Creepy.”

  He nodded, and she tilted her head at him.

  “Is Thorn your mother, too?” she asked.

  “Ha!” he said, startled. He touched his snout self-consciously, where a few brown speckles stood out against his light yellow scales, much like the ones all over Thorn. “Moons, no. She saved me from my mother. Besides, the way I understand it, there’s only ever been one egg for Thorn, and that’s you — if you are who you say you are.”

  “Nobody else?” Sunny asked. “I don’t have any brothers or sisters?”

  He shook his head. “You’re better off. Mine are a pair of dung-snorting hippo-heads who’d rather stab me with their tails than share so much as a fig with me. Joke’s on them, now that I’m an Outclaw.” Qibli puffed his spines up and made a ferocious face. “And you better not be messing with Thorn either. There’s plenty of Outclaws lined up behind me who’ll make you sorry if you are.”

  “I wouldn’t know how to mess with her,” Sunny said. “I promise, I’m really very nice.”

  “Hmm,” Qibli said skeptically.

  There was a tan camel-hair pillow next to one of the black tables that looked softer than anything Sunny had slept on in the last several days — and she hadn’t slept much, waking up frequently to make sure the NightWings hadn’t flown onward without her. She curled up on the cool sand and rested her head and front talons on the pillow. Qibli kept his dark eyes on her, his brow furrowed as if he hadn’t quite decided whether to trust her yet.

  “So, what do the Outclaws do?” Sunny asked.

  He fluffed his wings, scattering sand in all directions. “Everything. We keep the Scorpion Den from becoming a mess of blood and teeth, which it used to be, with everyone fighting all the time, till we sorted ’em all out. And we make sure those what has too much are convinced to pass some along to them with nothing.”

  “And what do you do with the pool?” Sunny was genuinely curious, but for some reason, Qibli’s answers seemed to be fading in and out.

  “We’re the boss of it,” he explained proudly. “That way we can get water to all the little dragons and the sick dragons and the wounded from the war. When they’re not too scared to come around and ask for it anyways. We can be very intimidating,” he added with a satisfied nod.

  “Mm-hmm,” Sunny said, her eyelids drooping.

  “Are you falling asleep in the middle of my fascinating explanation?” Qibli demanded, sounding outraged.

  “No,” Sunny mumbled, inaccurately, and if he said anything else, she didn’t hear it.

  * * *

  She woke up in darkness to the sounds of dragons roaring and carousing outside the tent. A small oil lamp, gleaming bronze, was set beside her, and Six-Claws sat beside it, chewing on something that had been skewered on a stick and burned to a crisp.

  He dipped his head to her as she sat up and yawned. “Your mother said not to wake you.”

  The shiver that sent down Sunny’s spine was both lovely and unsettling. My mother.

  “You could have. I always feel like I’m missing something when I’m sleeping,” Sunny said, stretching. “Where is she?”

  “Still trying to put out all the fires and restore order.” He flipped one wing at the noises beyond the white, billowing walls. There was something solid about his presence, as though of course he would be there, waiting patiently, whenever she woke up and needed him. Sunny could imagine that her mother would be able to rely on him.

  She wondered again if there was any chance he might be her father. Thorn had said “not around,” but maybe that just meant “not attached” anymore. Or maybe there was a reason she was keeping it a secret from the other Outclaws.

  Most significantly, knowing he had hatched with his unusual sixth claws might be enough to make Thorn think Sunny would have something odd about her, too.

  “What happened with the viper?” Sunny asked. “Is everyone all right?”

  Six-Claws stopped chewing and looked at her. “We didn’t find the viper yet, but we’ve contained the fire, for the most part. And nobody was bitten, so far. So we’re either very lucky or quite unlucky, if there’s really a viper out there.” He considered her for a moment, then added, “Thanks for asking.”

  “Oh,” Sunny said, flustered. She’d been worried; of course she’d asked. “Of course.”

  Six-Claws tossed away his stick and rubbed sand over his talons. “Ready to be presented to the Outclaws?” he asked her.

  “Not even remotely,” Sunny confessed. He chuckled in a rumbling way and lifted the flap so she could step through the tent and out onto the shifting sands, pale in the light of the three moons overhead.

  The bright orange-and-yellow flames of torches flickered all around the oasis, reflecting in a dance across the pool. There wer
e too many dragons for Sunny to count, especially in the wavering shadows, and most of them were moving — chasing one another across the sand, calling out insults or threats or jokes, laughing and tossing drinks at each other. As she blinked around, looking for Thorn, one of the SandWings toppled into the pool with a splash and three others jumped to haul her out.

  “Idiots,” Six-Claws said with affection, and started forward.

  “That’s far enough,” said a voice in the darkness behind the tent. “Six-Claws. Stop where you are.”

  Six-Claws swung around with a hiss. “I take orders from Thorn and no one else.”

  “Oh, it’s not an order,” said the other dragon. He stepped forward so the torchlight could catch on his yellow scales, and Sunny recognized the SandWing they’d run into on the streets earlier — Addax, the one with the scratch who’d looked familiar. “It’s a suggestion I think you’ll really want to listen to.”

  Six-Claws took a menacing step toward him and Addax flicked his tail. Two more beefy dragons appeared behind him. They had a small dragonet pinned between them, perhaps two years old, with nearly white scales and a tail barb that still wasn’t fully developed. She squeaked nervously as they dragged her forward.

  “The question really,” said Addax, “is which daughter do you care about more — the alleged long-lost egg that Thorn has been searching for … or yours?”

  Sunny glanced up at Six-Claws and saw the fury and fear contorting his face. He sank his talons into the sand, raising his tail. Beyond him, in the shadows, she saw four more SandWings slide out from behind the tent to stand menacingly between them and the pool.

  “Ostrich,” Six-Claws growled, his eyes fixed on his daughter. “Don’t be scared. I won’t let them hurt you.”

  “Don’t make a mistake here,” Addax warned him. “My friends’ tails are much closer to your dragonet than you are to me. If you attack, or even shout for help, she’ll be dead in an instant. But this doesn’t have to get all violent, Six-Claws. We want the dragonet of destiny. It’s a simple, fair trade.”

 
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