The brightest night, p.8
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       The Brightest Night, p.8

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  “There was no dragonbite viper, was there?” Six-Claws said. “You set that fire to draw Thorn away. Do you know how many dragonets you could have killed?”

  “Yes,” said Addax. “Don’t make it one more.”

  Six-Claws growled again, and Sunny saw his eyes dart from her to his daughter. He loves her so much, she thought. That’s what I always wanted. That’s what I might have, now, with Thorn. Family, and answers, and a place to belong.

  But only if I deserve it. I can’t take it at the expense of another family.

  “It’s all right,” she said to Six-Claws. “Make the trade. You have to. I’ll be fine.” She glanced up at the palm leaves that blocked the view of the stars. Addax had smartly cornered them in a pocket of shadow where they couldn’t be spotted from across the pool.

  “What do you want her for?” Six-Claws asked.

  “Burn wants the dragonets pretty badly,” Addax said. “She’ll take me back if I show up with one of them.”

  “Back into her army?” Six-Claws demanded. “Why would you want that? You could be safe here. The war never comes to the Scorpion Den.”

  Addax shifted, firelight gleaming in his dark eyes. “I was thrown out of her army, but my family wasn’t. There are dragons there I need to get back to.”

  Aw, sad, Sunny thought, and then her brain added, in a voice much like Tsunami’s: Sunny, by all the moons, quit feeling sorry for dragons who want to abduct you and sell you off.

  She glanced down at the six wickedly curved claws that were carving gouges in the sand beside her. She had a bad feeling that Six-Claws was planning to fight, which couldn’t possibly go well for either him or Ostrich.

  “Six-Claws,” she said firmly. “I said make the trade. My mother will understand.” She wanted to jump forward herself and wrench the little dragonet out of their claws. Ostrich was trembling so badly that Sunny could hear her teeth clicking together.

  “But Thorn —” Six-Claws said, twisting around to glance back at the flickering lights by the pool.

  “Doesn’t have to know,” Addax said. “Tell her this one ran off. Woke up, decided she didn’t want a criminal thug for a mother, and flew for the hills.”

  “Don’t tell her that!” Sunny protested indignantly. She smacked her tail against the sand. “That’s so mean! I wouldn’t do that!”

  “If he tells her the truth, Thorn is likely to get herself killed trying to rescue you,” Addax said. “Would you prefer that?”

  “No, but at least come up with something believable,” Sunny said spiritedly. She looked up at Six-Claws. “You can tell her I had to go back to my friends, to let them know they’re safe from the NightWings. Tell her I’ll be back.” Six-Claws stared at her, his face unreadable.

  Addax flicked his tongue. “You won’t be.”

  “You don’t know that,” Sunny said. “Now release Ostrich and I’ll go with you.” She was starting to worry that the little dragonet would have a heart attack and collapse right there.

  “No,” Addax said. “She flies with us until we have an hour’s head start, and then I’ll send her back.”

  That made practical sense, although Sunny didn’t want to drag Ostrich any further into danger. But if they left Ostrich behind, Six-Claws and the others would chase them down before they could reach Burn’s stronghold.

  “All right, then let’s go,” she said. Even more than Ostrich, she was worried about what Six-Claws might do. She didn’t think he’d stand a chance against seven big dragons.

  And what if he is my father? And Ostrich is my half sister?

  I don’t want them to die before I get to know them.

  It wasn’t until they were aloft, winging north through the cold desert night toward the stronghold of one of the most dangerous dragons in Pyrrhia, that the thought occurred to Sunny that she might be the one who was about to die.

  The outer walls of the palace were dripping with blood.

  Sunny had read the scrolls about the SandWing stronghold, and she’d seen it from afar, but nothing could have prepared her for the smell of the decapitated dragon heads that studded the top of the walls, or the gruesome stains on the stone below them.

  They were still more than a mile away when the horrible rotting smell first reached her, making her choke and nearly driving her out of the sky. Addax caught her as she faltered toward the sand.

  “Shallow breaths,” he advised. “You get used to it.”

  “Do you? Really?” Sunny asked.

  He shrugged, which as far as she could tell meant “no.”

  Ostrich had been released during the night, shooting one last terrified look at Sunny before bolting back toward the distant fires of the Scorpion Den. Sunny thought that Addax had deliberately freed the dragonet while the Den was still visible behind them. Optimistically she thought perhaps he was concerned for Ostrich’s safety; it seemed kind not to make her find her way in total darkness.

  She could almost hear her friends laughing at her in her head. “That’s right, Sunny, your kidnapper is a real sweetheart. He’s handing you over to Burn out of the goodness of his heart, too.”

  But if he was doing this for his family … for someone he cared about … Sunny glanced over at the scarred dragon and thought, There’s more to his story. There’s always more to everyone’s story, if you bother to find out what it is.

  The sun had cleared the mountains when they came to the sentries: a pair of SandWings carrying long spears. Relentless heat beat down from the cloudless sky, making the smell much worse. Sunny’s wings ached from flying so long without stopping. She could see the brownish-yellow walls of the stronghold up ahead, stained and crusted with the dark red and black gore that dripped from the grisly decorations.

  It was a vast palace, far larger than she had realized when she’d seen it from a distance. The ramparts seemed to stretch across the horizon, and Sunny guessed that two or three Scorpion Dens could fit inside, or about a thousand of the caves she’d grown up in.

  “Hold it,” said one of the sentries, swinging the spear toward them. He squinted. “Addax?”

  “Ho there,” said Addax. He waved a claw, and the dragons behind him all paused, beating the air and craning to see past his wings.

  “Picked up some friends somewhere, I see,” said the sentry, half jokingly. “Are you invading, or what’s all this?”

  “Brought a present for the queen,” said Addax. He flicked his tail at Sunny, and she hissed at him. “Recognize this one?”

  Both sentries drew in a quick breath. “From the party in the Sky Kingdom,” said one of them. “Scarlet was going to give her to Queen Burn.”

  That’s where I’ve seen Addax before, Sunny realized. Bowing and scraping behind Burn as she examined me like a deformed gemstone. Before he got his scar.

  “And now I’ve found her and I’m giving her to the queen,” said Addax smugly.

  The sentry looked skeptically at their entourage. “And you need seven dragons to transport this midget creature safely?”

  “I’m terrifying when you get to know me,” Sunny volunteered. She heard a couple of the dragons behind her chuckle, but Addax shot them a stern look and they subsided.

  “Wait,” said the other sentry. “Doesn’t that mean she’s — I mean, she’s one of —”

  “Yes,” Addax said. “So stop delaying and let us through, all right?”

  The sentries flapped aside, both of them examining Sunny intently as she and her escort flew past them. In all of Sunny’s fantasies about fulfilling the prophecy and saving Pyrrhia, she’d never imagined there’d be quite so much staring.

  And she certainly hadn’t counted on getting locked up as often as she already had been.

  As they swooped down toward the thick, forbidding walls of Burn’s stronghold, Sunny thought with a shudder that this might be the worst prison so far. Scarlet’s palace had had gladiator fights, but at least she hadn’t kept the dismembered parts of her enemies on display.

  “And it isn
t exactly easy to cut off a dragon’s head,” Sunny remembered Starflight saying, “even if it’s already dead.” They’d been reading in the study cave. He’d rolled out the scroll and tapped the drawing of the stronghold. “You have to be pretty brutal to get through the scales and everything else.”

  Sunny also remembered that the outer walls had been added by Burn after Queen Oasis died. They look solid and thick and imposing … but useless for keeping out dragons who can fly. The only creatures they’d really keep out for certain are scavengers. A scavenger had killed Burn’s mother, after all. Is Burn afraid of them? From what Sunny had seen of her, it was hard to imagine that Burn was afraid of anything.

  Addax led the way as they spiraled down onto the hot white stones of an enormous courtyard that encircled the old palace. Long, squat buildings had been constructed along the inner side of the walls; they appeared to be extra barracks for soldiers. Small gatherings of armed SandWings were visible in each direction, either cleaning weapons, sparring, or sleeping.

  In the center of the courtyard, opposite the palace entrance, stood an odd kind of monument: a tall black obelisk surrounded by a circle of sand wider than a large dragon’s wingspan. Words were carved into the sides, with the letters all painted in gold, but Sunny couldn’t read them from where she was.

  The old palace within the walls was a lot more elegant than the parts Burn had added. There were slender towers and windows as tall as dragons and high pavilion landing platforms topped with domes and spires. Shapes were carved all over the stone — lizards and desert birds and suns, mostly, as far as Sunny could see at first glance. It made the palace look for a moment as though it was crawling with life or shimmering with heat — an unsettling illusion of motion, probably intended to make visitors uncomfortable.

  The doors were open to the huge front entrance of the palace, and Sunny realized with a start that a dragon was standing just on the edge of the sunlight, staring out at her from the shadow.

  Her heart plunged as she thought, Burn, and then the dragon moved and she glimpsed black diamond shapes on the scales. With an even stronger burst of fear, she thought, Blister? How could Blister be here?

  And then the dragon stepped into the light and she realized he was male, and not one of the three SandWing sisters after all.

  He still looked horribly like Blister, though. He had the same narrow face and lidded dark eyes, the same black patterns on his pale yellow scales. His poisonous tail barb slithered along the stones behind him and his sharp claws made a tapping sound as he advanced toward them. He wore a cluster of keys and pouches and bells on chains around his neck that clinked and jingled slightly as he walked. Some of them were plain iron, while others flashed with jewels or gold plating.

  Addax bowed his head respectfully.

  “Smolder,” he said, “I’ve brought a gift for Queen Burn.”

  “I see,” Smolder said. Sunny felt a little better; his voice didn’t have the oozing, creeping, sinister quality of Blister’s voice. He sounded just … normal, like one of her friends. “Who are you?” he asked her, and she liked that, too, that he spoke directly to her instead of over her head as though she was nothing but a piece of treasure.

  “My name’s Sunny,” she answered. “Who are you?”

  “I’m … the brother,” Smolder said, and something in his expression said he had many thoughts about that, but wouldn’t risk going into detail.

  “Burn’s brother? The only one?” Sunny asked, trying to remember what she’d read about the SandWing royal family.

  “There used to be three of us, but the other two made the wrong dragons mad.” He grimaced.

  “The wrong dragons meaning your sisters,” Sunny guessed. “So you’re on Burn’s side?”

  “I’m here, aren’t I?” he said, and it occurred to her that that wasn’t much of an enthusiastic yes.

  “Where is Queen Burn?” Addax cut in abruptly.

  “She is not at home at the moment,” Smolder said. He spread one wing and beckoned Sunny toward the main entrance. “She’s out looking for a certain quintet of young dragons.”

  Sunny stopped, looking up at him with a shiver. If Burn was searching for her friends instead of fighting battles, she must really want to destroy them.

  “Wait,” Addax said. “I want to see her — I mean, this is my prisoner — she’s one of the ones in the prophecy —”

  “I know. I’ll take it from here,” Smolder said firmly. “You can wait in the barracks until she returns.” He nodded at the courtyard. “Don’t worry, you’ll get all your pardons and your reinstatement.” He flared his wing across Sunny’s back and ushered her forward again.

  “But … my reward …” Addax’s voice trailed off as Sunny and Smolder stepped out of the bright sunlight into the cool shadows of a vast hall, big enough for a hundred dragons. Far overhead, large fans shaped like dragon wings beat the air, and Sunny spotted a few small dragons pulling on ropes to keep them moving. Tapestries woven in blues and golds and white covered the walls, echoing some of the same patterns in the stonework outside, and airy white curtains billowed at the long windows. A heavy table ran down the middle of the hall, loaded with food, and Sunny heard her stomach grumble.

  “Take anything you like,” Smolder said.

  “No, thank you,” Sunny answered politely. It seemed unlikely that the entire table of food was poisoned, but she didn’t intend to make killing her any easier than it already would be. She tilted her head to study the tapestry closest to her and realized that the odd pattern of rust-colored spots on it was actually dried spatters of blood.

  “The food is for the soldiers,” Smolder said, sounding amused. “I promise it’s safe to eat.”

  “I’m not hungry,” Sunny said. “Um … when do you think Burn will be back?”

  Smolder shifted his wings in a shrug. “I never know. She prefers not to discuss her plans.” He lifted his claws and studied them thoughtfully, shaking out sand that was caught between his scales. “The real question is what to do with you. On the one talon, I assume she’d rather find you alive when she gets back, so she can kill you — or interrogate you and then kill you — herself. On the other talon, if I lock you up and you somehow escape, which I’m sure you’ll try to do, I’ll be in far worse trouble than if I just kill you right now. But on the third talon, if I successfully keep you captive, she should be quite pleased. It’s a risk, though. You’re guaranteed not to escape if I kill you.”

  “But on the fourth talon,” Sunny said hurriedly, “how will Burn find my friends if she can’t ask me questions? Or use me as a hostage? Think about how valuable I am alive.”

  “Hmm,” Smolder said with a little smile. A tiny brown mouse crept out from under the table and made a dash for the nearest wall. Smolder flicked his tail toward it, but stopped at the last minute and let the mouse vanish into one of the cracks. He looked back at Sunny. “All right, you talked me into it. You can live for now, but I’d appreciate it if you’d keep your escape attempts as feeble and ineffective as possible.”

  He started toward a doorway at the far end of the hall and Sunny followed, wondering if that was supposed to be funny. Smolder had this odd way of talking that kind of made everything he said sound like a joke. But then, Sunny’s life and death didn’t seem particularly hilarious, at least if you asked her.

  There were five doors leading off the main hall, plus a staircase that led up to a balcony with two more doorways. Sunny considered trying to memorize the layout of the palace, but as soon as they stepped through into the dark, winding passage beyond, she knew it would be hopeless.

  The corridors of the old palace crisscrossed and twisted almost as often and confusingly as the streets of the Scorpion Den, and they were sometimes barely wide enough for two dragons to squeeze past each other. Short flights of steps kept taking them up to new levels and then down again, and every other turn brought them to a spot that looked exactly like something they’d just passed. Sunny almost wondered if Smolde
r was messing with her head, except that he seemed to be calculating something under his breath and barely paid attention to her as they walked.

  The stone floors were worn smooth with the passage of many dragons, and the walls and ceiling were flat and usually bare as well, so Sunny felt as if she was walking through long, narrow boxes. It was eerie and claustrophobic, with no space to fly, except for the occasional glimpses of sunlight from the upper levels. And three times they passed open, sunlit courtyards, where dragons were lying with their wings spread wide, soaking in the heat.

  I haven’t seen any treasure, Sunny realized. No gold talonprints, no pearl-studded pools — not even anything like the beautiful flowers that decorate the RainWing village, unless you count the tapestries. I wonder if that’s because the SandWing treasure is really all gone. Or perhaps sparkly things aren’t Burn’s style.

  She spotted a few carved statues of SandWings here and there, most of them with their wings tilted back as if they were about to take flight. After their experience in the Kingdom of the Sea, Sunny had to admit that all statues made her a bit nervous. Any of them could be animus-touched, enchanted to do something sinister.

  “I think I should put you in the weirdling collection,” Smolder said after a while, as if they’d been discussing her placement the entire walk. “It’s as safe as the dungeon, but more comfortable. Also more psychologically destabilizing.”

  “What?” Sunny said.

  “The idea that you might actually belong somewhere like that,” Smolder said. “It’s driven a few dragons insane.”

  “Oh,” Sunny said. “Sounds charming.”

  Smolder rumble-chuckled and turned a corner, finally leading her out of the labyrinth into one of the inner courtyards. This one was surrounded on three sides by colonnades and balconies, with a pit of sand in the middle. Sunny slid her claws through the sand as she followed him, thinking, What if this is the last time I ever feel sand under my talons?

  The far wall of the courtyard was curved, and when Sunny looked up, she realized that it was actually a windowless tower of red sandstone soaring up toward the sky. It had grooves stretching the whole length of it, like claw marks, and bands of carvings, all of hideous dragon faces. There were no holes in the tower apart from one door at the bottom, and Sunny was seized with a fierce, desperate longing to stay as far away from it as possible.

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