The hidden kingdom, p.7
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       The Hidden Kingdom, p.7

           Tui T. Sutherland
 
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  “Thank you,” Sunny said, backing toward the door.

  “And don’t forget to report back to me on that investigation,” Magnificent said to Glory. “It’ll be nice to have something to make Mangrove go away. What’s your name, anyhow?”

  “Glory,” she answered. “I was stolen from the RainWings by this dragon six years ago, when I was still an egg.” Glory pointed at Webs.

  “Oh, my,” said the queen. “That is rude. Well, I’m glad he finally brought you back, dear.”

  “He did nothing of the sort!” Glory flared. “I brought myself back! He was going to let me die!”

  “Glory,” Tsunami interrupted with a frown. “What are you doing?”

  I don’t know, Glory thought. Maybe I just want someone to be punished for every thing I’ve been through . . . and the fact that nobody here even noticed I was gone.

  She took a deep breath and forced all the dark rolling red and billowing orange out of her scales until she was a calm white, like the blossoms around the queen’s neck.

  “Nothing,” she said to Tsunami. “Whatever. I just figured Magnificent would want to know what happened to me. But she doesn’t, and who really cares, anyway.” Glory bowed to the queen and stepped over to the door. “You all go see the healers. I’m going to start looking for the missing dragons.” She pushed through the yellow flower curtain.

  Because someone should care when a dragon disappears.

  Halfway across the bridge, Glory heard Clay’s voice behind her.

  “Wait,” he called. His heavy talons thumped on the walkway, making it shake and jump underneath her. “What missing dragons?”

  “Some big scary thing is prowling the rainforest,” Glory said. She resettled her wings. “Or, at least, something is making RainWings disappear. Probably the same something that killed those MudWings. I’ll figure out what. No big deal. I’ll catch up with you all afterward.”

  “We don’t all have to escort Webs every where,” Clay said with a smile. “I’ll come with you. And we’ll bring Starflight, too. Maybe we can help. Starflight!” he called. The NightWing poked his nose out through the hanging flowers. “Let Tsunami and Sunny take Webs. You come with us.”

  Glory shrugged, but her wing tips turned rose pink against her will. At least there were a couple of dragons who cared if she existed. After all, the only reason she was still alive was because Clay had been willing to risk his life in the underground river to save her.

  The golden sunlight was slanting sideways through the tall green trees. As Glory, Clay, and Starflight glided between the branches, small whirlwinds of orange and blue butterflies lifted off and landed again behind them. Funny-faced little monkeys with long tails chattered indignantly when the dragons swooped by.

  They found Mangrove on a small platform by himself, sorting fruit. Glory landed lightly in the middle, while Clay perched on the edge and tried to keep his feet and tail from squashing any of the berries. Starflight found a nearby branch and studied the fruit as if he were trying to match it with pictures from the scrolls he’d memorized.

  The red streaks in Mangrove’s ruff had been replaced by whorls of dark purple. He looked up and nodded brusquely at Glory.

  “You got me into this,” Glory said. “So I’m starting with you, since you might be the only dragon who even knows about all the missing RainWings. Who was the first to disappear?”

  Mangrove put down a banana and looked up at the sky, thinking. “It must have been Splendor,” he said. “She’d just finished her turn as queen and passed it to Dazzling.”

  “Whoa,” Clay said. “There’s a queen missing?”

  “Well, she wasn’t queen that month,” Mangrove pointed out. “And when she didn’t come back, they just started skipping her turn. If she wanted it, they figured she’d show up for it.”

  “Was anyone with her when she went missing?” Glory asked. She felt the sloth circle and settle around her neck again. She kept forgetting it was there; it felt like a warm floppy necklace when it wasn’t moving.

  Mangrove shook his head. “Not as far as I know. I noticed she was gone only when her turn came back around and she wasn’t there. But I can guess when she went missing because her sloth found someone else to live with right around then.”

  Glory tapped her claws on the platform and thought about the SeaWing court, where politics and intrigue and betrayal all simmered below the surface. Not to mention the SandWings, where three sisters were tearing apart the entire dragon world in their fight for power.

  “Maybe one of the other queens took her out,” she suggested. “Maybe Dazzling or someone wanted a longer turn or less competition.” Starflight nodded as if he’d had the same thought.

  Mangrove’s ears popped faintly yellow and then back to purple again. “Nothing like that changed,” he said. “The turns are the same length, one month each. And there were only six dragons in the tribe willing to be queen in any case — now five — so none of them have to wait very long in between. Besides, nobody enjoys being queen.”

  “Can I eat this?” Clay asked, poking a rubbery red sphere near his claws.

  “If you must,” said Mangrove. Clay scooped it into his mouth and started chewing with a startled expression.

  “Who disappeared after Splendor?” Glory asked.

  “Two dragons who were out venom training,” said Mangrove. “One of them was having trouble aiming his venom properly, so the other took him away from the village to practice, and neither of them came back.”

  “Kinkajou was working on her venom, too,” Glory said. “Is there a particular spot where RainWings go to do that?”

  Mangrove shook his head. “Wherever the venom trainers choose.”

  “Mshish vemmy shmewy,” Clay mumbled around the fruit in his jaws.

  “Yes, those fruits are,” said Mangrove. “It’ll probably take you an hour to swallow it and then several days to pick the bits out of your teeth.”

  “Ha,” Starflight said. “Let’s take a few back for Tsunami.”

  Glory hid her smile, trying to look responsible and investigative. “What else can you tell me about the missing dragons?” she asked Mangrove. “How many females, how many dragonets, stuff like that?”

  Mangrove counted on his claws. “Seven females, five males. Four dragonets under the age of seven. Kinkajou is three, so she’d be the youngest, and Tapir is the oldest; he’s around a hundred and ten.”

  “Do any of them have any enemies in the tribe?” Glory asked. “Anyone who’d wish them harm?”

  Mangrove drew himself up, and bolts of orange flashed along the underside of his wings. “RainWings don’t ever fight each other,” he said. “There’s no such thing as enemies within the tribe. Haven’t you noticed how peaceful and harmonious everyone is?”

  “Well, sure,” Glory said. “Everyone but you. You seem a little grumpy. So apparently it’s at least possible to be a grumpy RainWing.”

  He stared at her for a moment with his mouth open. Whoops, Glory thought. I hope I didn’t just lose my best source of information.

  “I mean,” she added, “there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m pretty grumpy most of the time.”

  “Most of the time?” said Starflight.

  “Mmmm-hmmph,” Clay mumble-agreed.

  “Some things just deserve being grumpy at,” Glory said, frowning at her friends.

  Mangrove let out a bark of laughter. “All right. You’re right. I guess I’ve been ne glecting my sun time since Orchid went missing,” he said. “I used to be as cheerful as everyone else, but I’m worried about her.” He rubbed one talon over his ruff and ears. “Trust me, Orchid was perfection in every scale. No one could possibly want to hurt her.”

  That’s what I was afraid of, Glory thought. If another RainWing wasn’t behind the abductions, then it had to be something more mysterious — and more danger
ous. She couldn’t help thinking of the dead MudWing soldiers.

  But what was dangerous and strong enough to kill dragons, and why didn’t anyone know it was out there?

  She glanced at Starflight, but he looked as puzzled as she was.

  “I don’t really want to talk about this anymore right now,” said Mangrove, hunching his shoulders.

  “Then do something else for us,” Glory said. “Take me to the last place you saw Orchid.”

  Mangrove bowed his head, shuffled the unsorted fruit into a lopsided pile, and spread his wings. Glory and the others followed him over the edge and rapidly down in giant loops toward the rainforest floor.

  It grew darker the farther down they went, with the sunlight caught in the treetops far above their heads. Glory watched the forest for signs they could use to follow the trail back — a toppled banana tree here, a spiderweb as large as one of her wings there. She caught glimpses of other creatures in the undergrowth. A large furry anteater had its nose buried in a hole, rummaging around. A pair of long-legged lavender-colored birds paused in their stroll through the forest to shoot suspicious looks at the dragons whisking by.

  Glory was surprised at how far they flew from the village.

  “Isn’t there fruit to gather closer to home?” she called.

  Mangrove nodded and twisted his head around to glance back at her. “Orchid and I like to search farther out in case we find something new. The rainforest is full of surprises — we find a new kind of fruit at least once a year.”

  He landed beside a giant fallen tree, overgrown with moss and vines. The undergrowth around his talons erupted as lizards and insects scurried busily away. Several bug-eyed sky-blue frogs peeked out from the branches of the fallen tree, flicking their tongues in and out just like dragons.

  “Don’t eat any of those,” Mangrove warned Clay, seeing the MudWing’s gaze following the frogs.

  “Stmmph chmmphing,” Clay mumbled, pointing to his jaws, where the red fruit appeared to be stuck.

  “Are they poisonous?” Starflight asked. He poked the branches, but the frogs stared at him like “Oh, yeah? Bring it, you big lizard.”

  “No,” Mangrove said, “but they will give you the weirdest hallucinations about insects for about a week. Really not worth it.”

  “So Orchid disappeared around here?” Glory asked. “Do you know if Kinkajou was in this area as well?”

  Mangrove shrugged. “Possibly. Bromeliad likes as much privacy as possible for training her more difficult pupils, so no one else will see her yelling at them.”

  Glory turned slowly, studying the forest around them. She could hear monkeys and birds chittering in the trees overhead. Wings flapped, twigs snapped, and claws rustled in the bushes. The air smelled like mangoes and wet leaves, as if there were a pond or waterfall nearby. And there was another scent, too, a horrible one, underneath the others.

  “Starflight,” she said. “What do you smell?” She’d noticed that his nose seemed stronger than the other dragonets’ — he’d been the first to smell fire when the SkyWings attacked the SeaWing Summer Palace. Maybe it was a NightWing skill.

  The black dragon inhaled slowly, then wrinkled his snout. “Something decaying,” he said. “Like a dying animal.”

  Mangrove blanched from horns to tail, turning a pale sickly green.

  “Don’t panic,” Glory said quickly. “I’m sure it’s not her. It’s not a dragon, right, Starflight?”

  “I’m not sure,” he said, lifting his snout and sniffing again. She stamped on his foot and he jumped with a yowl of pain. “WHAT? I can’t tell!”

  “We’ll go find it,” Glory said to Mangrove. “You stay here.”

  The RainWing leaned against the fallen tree with a stricken expression.

  “Couldn’t you be a little reassuring?” Glory hissed at Starflight once they were out of earshot. “Didn’t you see his scales?”

  “Since when do you care how other dragons feel?” he asked.

  “I care better than you do,” she countered. “Maybe if you had actual NightWing powers and could read minds you’d notice what’s going on around you.”

  “HMMP. QUMP FFMPHING,” Clay ordered from behind them.

  Starflight folded his wings close to his body and glared at her.

  “Well?” Glory demanded. “Can you follow the smell or not?”

  He turned and stamped off through the trees.

  “Nnnmph vmmy nnnmph,” Clay said to Glory sternly.

  “Aw, your lectures are even cuter when I can’t understand a word of them,” she teased.

  He gave her shoulder a playful shove that nearly sent her through the nearest tree.

  When they caught up to Starflight, the NightWing was standing next to a small waterfall, as high as Clay’s shoulder, that splashed into a tiny pond. A stream no wider than a dragon tail burbled at the top of the waterfall and away from the pond at the bottom. Thick brownish weeds choked the slimy surface of the pond, and a dead fish floated in the shallows.

  The top of the waterfall was flanked by a pair of tall dark trees, as fat around as the columns where SkyWing prisoners were kept. Their trunks were so brown that they were nearly black, and their branches began far overhead, so they looked more like black pillars than trees.

  The closest one had a boulder leaning up against it that was twice the size of Morrowseer. On the same side of the waterfall, at the base, halfway into the pond, lay a furry, wheezing sloth, although it took Glory a moment to figure out what it was through the cloud of flies around it. The terrible smell was thick in the air.

  “Rrrrrrp?” said Glory’s sloth, leaning around her neck to peer at the one on the ground. Glory lifted her wing to block the gruesome sight from her new pet.

  “What’s wrong with it?” Glory asked. She inched toward the gasping sloth and realized that it had a serious bite on one leg. The wound was black and crawling with insects; it looked even worse than Webs’s injury.

  “I’m not entirely sure,” said Starflight. “I mean, that bite shouldn’t have been enough to kill it, but it’s clearly dying.”

  “Could it be RainWing venom?” Glory asked. “It looks about the size of a dragon bite.” Her sloth started chirruping in a tragic, distressed way. She slid it off her neck and held it to her chest, facing away from the sloth on the ground. It was comforting to feel its silky fur under her talons.

  “Maybe,” Starflight said doubtfully. “But it looks like something slower-acting to me. I’d guess it’s been dying for several days.”

  “It does smell awful,” Glory said. “Poor thing.”

  Clay crouched beside the sloth and lifted its leg carefully in his talons, inspecting it as if he were hoping to find a way to fix it. The flies zipped angrily around his snout with loud buzzes of outrage. The dying sloth whimpered softly.

  Glory stepped around them and ventured up the slope to the pillar tree. Something about the boulder looked weird to her. It leaned almost too casually against the tree, as if it had been set there on purpose.

  She circled around to the other side and stopped, staring.

  There was a hole in the boulder.

  More than a hole — a doorway.

  “

  Glory wasn’t quite sure how she knew this was not an ordinary hole in a rock. It looked like a hole — dark, with smooth stone edges, and just big enough for a full-grown dragon to pass through. A moss curtain partly covered it in a way that didn’t look quite accidental enough.

  But looking into it made her head spin, as if she were standing on the edge of a cliff in high winds. A faint sound whistled out of the hole, like a storm howling on the far side of the world.

  She could sense that this hole opened into a tunnel, and that tunnel went somewhere. It was impossible; she could walk all the way around the boulder, and there was nowhere for a tunnel to go. But she wa
s sure of it.

  “Starflight,” she said as calmly as she could. “What do you think of this?”

  The NightWing climbed up beside her, peered around the boulder, and jumped back when he saw the hole. A tremor shivered through his wings.

  “I think it’s horrible,” he said. “Can’t you feel it? There’s something horribly wrong with it. Like someone ripped a hole where there shouldn’t be one. Don’t go near it.”

  “I think I have to go into it,” Glory said.

  “You say that like you’re not terrified,” Starflight said, “but I can see your scales turning the same pale green that Mangrove’s just were. That means frightened, doesn’t it?”

  “Don’t try to read my scales,” Glory snapped. She deliberately turned herself as black as he was. “It’s not a coincidence that this hole is here, close to where at least one dragon disappeared. Maybe Orchid went through — or maybe something came out and got her.”

  “Um, exactly,” Starflight said. “And she was never seen again. I’m pretty sure you just made my point for me.”

  “I promised I’d figure this out,” Glory insisted. “Not run and hide the moment we found a clue.”

  Clay joined them, his wings drooping. His jaws were finally free of the rubbery red fruit. “There was nothing I could do for the sloth,” he said. “It was too far gone.”

  “Wrrrrrrrb,” said Glory’s sloth mournfully. Glory looked over Clay’s shoulder at the still, silvery gray figure flopped on the ground.

  “Is it dead?” she whispered.

  He nodded. “I didn’t want to leave it in pain like that.”

  “But you’re not going to eat it?” She tilted her head at him.

  “Seems a little heartless, you know?” he said.

  “And from the smell of it, it would probably make you sick,” Starflight pointed out. “I wonder what bit it, and whether it has any connection to this hole.”

  Clay noticed the hole for the first time and flared his wings in surprise. “Creepy!” he yelped. “Why is it so creepy?”

 
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