The hidden kingdom, p.9
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       The Hidden Kingdom, p.9

           Tui T. Sutherland
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  She squinted, trying to process what she could see. It looked like . . . but it couldn’t be . . .

  She closed her eyes abruptly and clutched her stomach. It was. She remembered the scroll now where she’d read a description of this place.

  The dark shapes were dragon heads. The heads of dragons who had been executed and mounted where everyone could see them, to remind others of the dangers of disobedience. According to the scroll, you could smell them for miles in all directions.

  Glory knew where she was now.

  She was standing in the Kingdom of Sand, within sight of Burn’s stronghold.

  Burn’s stronghold had once been the original SandWing palace. That was where all the trouble had started. Glory flattened herself against the sand and stared at it, remembering the history Webs had taught them.

  Eighteen years ago, Queen Oasis had ruled the SandWings from here. Her three daughters, Burn, Blister, and Blaze, had been minor dragons, footnotes in the scrolls of the time. Oasis was old, fierce, and canny, with a vast and impressive treasury. No one expected her to be challenged for many years yet.

  And certainly no one would ever have expected a puny trea sure-hunting scavenger to kill her, but that was exactly what had happened.

  Now the trea sure was gone, and the three sisters had drawn all the other tribes into their struggle for power. Eighteen years of bloodshed. Glory flicked her tail, concentrating on keeping her scales the color of the sand.

  Burn had driven out the other two and kept the palace for herself — or, depending on which scrolls you read, Blister and Blaze had escaped before she could kill either of them. They’d gone in search of allies, knowing that neither one could beat Burn on her own.

  This wasn’t how the palace had looked during the reign of Queen Oasis. Burn had added the thick walls . . . and, of course, the dragon heads on top of them.

  Glory wondered if Burn was down there in her stronghold right now. Or was she in the Sky Kingdom, trying to hold on to her alliance after what Glory had done to Queen Scarlet?

  The real questions were: Did she know about this passageway? And did she have anything to do with the missing RainWings?

  “Glory,” Clay hissed from the dark hole in the dune. “What’s going on?”

  Glory slid back down the hill to face him. “We’re in the Kingdom of Sand,” she said. “I have no idea how or why.”

  “What’s that over there?” Clay asked, pointing north.

  Glory turned and saw a wing of dragons flying high up in the sky. Their scales sparkled in the sunlight so that even from here she could guess that they were IceWings, white and pale blue as diamonds. From their angle of flight, they seemed to be returning from the Sky Kingdom to their own home on the frozen peninsula to the north.

  “IceWings,” Glory said. “We’re not too far from the Ice Kingdom here.” That was hard to imagine in this blistering heat, but she remembered it from the map on the wall of their underground cave.

  “Oh,” Clay said brightly, “so we could go find Blaze.”

  “Hooray,” said Glory. She knew the others were hoping that Blaze would be a good candidate for queen, so they could choose her instead of Burn or Blister. But Glory’s hopes weren’t very high, based on what she’d read about Blaze.

  Could Blaze or the IceWings have anything to do with this passageway to the rainforest?

  But what had they heard in the middle of the night — and where had it gone?

  “All right. Let’s go tell the others,” she said.

  “But that is completely impossible,” Starflight said for the millionth time. “The Kingdom of Sand is literally half a world away, on the other side of the mountains, for moons’ sake. You couldn’t have walked there down a tunnel in the rainforest.”

  “Go look for yourself,” Glory snapped. “It’s for real. Someone built a secret passage between here and SandWing territory.” She dipped her tail in the stream, glad to be back in the coolness of the rainforest. Her scales felt as if she’d run through a fire. Silver sat on one of Glory’s talons, dipped her paw in the water, and patted it against Glory’s leg.

  “But why?” Tsunami said. “What is the point?”

  That, Glory couldn’t answer. So they could sneak through and eat a sloth here or there? That made no sense. And what made even less sense was kidnapping RainWings.

  “Do you think SandWings are coming through here to attack the MudWings?” Sunny asked hesitantly. “Maybe it was a SandWing who killed those soldiers.”

  “Seems like a roundabout way of doing things,” Tsunami said. “If the SandWings have an animus, they could create a passage straight into MudWing territory or something more useful.”

  “I still think this passage has something to do with the missing RainWings,” Glory said, “but I don’t understand what. If they wandered into it by accident, they’d just come back, the way we did. If they were taken . . . what would SandWings or IceWings want with a few RainWings?”

  “Burn likes collecting things,” Starflight remembered.

  “But you saw her face when Queen Scarlet was showing me off in the Sky Kingdom,” Glory said. “Burn looked like she’d never seen a RainWing before. And she doesn’t like pretty things; she likes horribly weird things. You’re all so lucky you didn’t see the creepy gift Queen Scarlet got for her when she came to visit. It was this dead stuffed crocodile with bat wings sewn on its back so it looked sort of like a dragon.” She shuddered. “Totally hideous. But Burn loved it.”

  “And you don’t know anything about this passage,” Tsunami said to Jambu.

  Glory’s brother lifted his brightly colored wings, looking baffled. “I know the RainWings didn’t put it there,” he said. “Why would we want a way out of the rainforest? Life is perfect here.”

  “Unless you make the mistake of going missing, and then good luck, because no one’s going to look for you,” Glory pointed out.

  “Well, maybe,” Jambu said as if that were a perfectly normal problem for a dragon tribe to have. “But it’s great for the rest of us.”

  Glory wondered what color his scales would turn if she bit him.

  “Do you even have an animus dragon?” Starflight asked.

  “What’s that?” Jambu answered.

  “Never mind,” Glory said. “Do SandWings ever visit you? Or have you ever seen one in the forest?”

  Jambu shook his head. “Don’t think so. I don’t even know what a SandWing looks like,” he said.

  “Me,” Sunny said. “Sort of.”

  “But you’ve seen them in scrolls, right?” Starflight said.

  “Scrolls,” Jambu said. “Um. Those are . . . ?”

  Starflight looked as if someone had just asked him whether breathing was really necessary. “You don’t have any scrolls?” he gasped. “Don’t you read? Do you really not read? Not anything?”

  Jambu shrugged apologetically. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” he said.

  Starflight had to sit down and fold his wings over his head for a minute.

  Glory coiled her tail as Clay described SandWings for Jambu. Every new thing she learned about RainWings made them sound worse. A tribe without scrolls, who didn’t care what was beyond their own borders? Why weren’t they at least curious about the rest of the world? It made her want to shake all of them.

  “Nope, doesn’t sound familiar,” Jambu said. “I’m pretty sure the only other-tribe visitors we’ve ever had looked like him.” He pointed at Clay. “And they’re usually lost and want to get out of the rainforest as fast as possible.”

  “Maybe we should destroy it,” Sunny said unexpectedly.

  They all turned to look at her. She shuffled her talons on the damp forest floor. “The passageway, I mean. It can’t be here for anything good, right? I know I don’t like the idea that Burn could pop out of there any minute. And if it
s making RainWings disappear . . . well, who cares why? Let’s just smash the boulder or stuff the tunnel full of trees and set them on fire or something.”

  Glory blinked.

  It did sort of make sense. There was definitely something not right about this hole someone had ripped through normal space. Maybe destroying it would solve the problem — but Glory wanted to know the answer, too. There had to be a why.

  Tsunami spoke first.

  “I don’t think that’ll work. If there’s someone, or something, behind this, then wrecking their secret passage won’t stop them. At least this way we have an advantage because we know about it.”

  “And what if the missing RainWings are alive on the other side?” Clay said. “What if there’s a chance to save them?”

  “Oh,” Sunny said. “That’s true.”

  “I’m not going into Burn’s palace,” Starflight said immediately. “No way.” A monkey in the trees overhead dropped a nut, and Starflight jumped ner vously aside as it tumbled down beside him.

  “I will if I have to,” Glory said. She should have been the one to think about saving the missing RainWings. If they were still alive, of course she had to help bring them home, even if she did think the whole tribe was empty-headed.

  “But we don’t know for sure that Burn is involved,” Starflight pointed out. “It could certainly be the IceWings instead. We need to spend a lot more time gathering information — maybe spying on the stronghold and on the Ice Kingdom, charting their movements, studying the tunnel —”

  Suddenly something much larger than a nut thudded out of the tree behind Starflight. The NightWing yelped and leaped out of the way as a bright green dragon galloped past him and dashed into the hole in the boulder.

  “Hey!” Glory shouted.

  “That was Mangrove,” Jambu cried. “What is he doing?”

  “He’s going to look for Orchid.” Glory tucked Silver into the nearest tree. “Wait here,” she ordered the sloth. She folded her wings and ran into the tunnel after Mangrove.

  “Mangrove!” she called as his tail whisked around the corner. “Come back! We’re making a plan! Dopey freaking dragon,” she added under her breath. Even the one RainWing she liked was a nimrod.

  She shot around the last corner just in time to see him disappear out into the bright desert sunshine. By the time she burst out behind him and her eyes adjusted to the light, he was a green claw mark in the sky, flying away as fast as he could. A moment later, his scales shifted color, and he vanished against the blue.

  Glory flapped her wings in frustration and sat down with a sigh.

  One by one, her friends emerged from the tunnel.

  “Oh, three moons,” Tsunami said as the heat hit her scales. “It’s horrible here.”

  Sunny stretched her wings wide and tilted her face up to the sun. “Wow,” she whispered.

  Starflight blinked and gazed around. “You’re right,” he said to Glory. “I can’t believe it. This is really the Kingdom of Sand.”

  Jambu tumbled out behind them. “Where’s Mangrove?” he asked.

  “Did he head for Burn’s stronghold?” Starflight guessed, shading his eyes to look in the direction of the faraway palace.

  Glory shook her head and pointed north. “Nope,” she said. “I don’t think he even noticed it. Looks like we’re off to the Ice Kingdom.”

  “This isn’t safe at all!” Starflight called. “This is the opposite of safe. We might as well just hand ourselves over to Queen Glacier.”

  “I’m right next to you,” Glory said, and grinned when Starflight lost a beat and had to flap harder to keep up. Not only was it funny, but it was also nice to know that her camouflage was working so well.

  Her brother certainly seemed to have no problem. She glanced around at the endless empty blue that surrounded them as they flew north.

  “Jambu?” she said.

  “Still here,” answered a patch of sky from off to her left.

  “You really don’t have to come with us,” she said again. The semicircle of cacti was now half a day’s flight behind them, but Jambu could still make it back before dark.

  “Nah,” he said. “This is better than sun time! I feel like I’ve been rolled in sunlight and stuffed with bananas. I bet the rest of the tribe would love to come through that tunnel and have their sun time here on the sand.”

  Glory pictured a hundred RainWings suddenly sprawled in the desert, snoring away, only a few miles from Burn’s stronghold. She shuddered.

  “That would be a really, really terrible plan,” she said. “It’s not safe here for basically any dragon.”

  “That’s what I’m trying to say!” Starflight yelped from her other side.

  “Even RainWings?” said Jambu cheerfully. “Nobody cares what we do.”

  “The world is still at war,” Glory said. “And some of the queens are really not to be trusted. I don’t know what they’d do with you, but it wouldn’t be friendly.”

  “Why not?” asked Jambu.

  Because you’re so dopey you’re just asking for it. “Because most dragons are naturally unfriendly,” she said. “Biting and fighting is what we’re built for.”

  “Really?” said Jambu. “We’re not.” There was a ripple in the air as he flicked his tail.

  “Well, you should be,” said Glory. “One day some other tribe might come to you and you’ll have to be able to defend yourselves. Promise me you’ll be careful when we get to the IceWings. Don’t let them know what you are.”

  “All right, all right,” he said. “I think it’s pretty cute, my little sister getting all worried about me over nothing.”

  Glory rolled her eyes. Why did she care? If her tribe wanted to do idiotic things, did it really affect her?

  Well, it did if she planned to stay in the rainforest.

  But was that her plan? The RainWings were far from the family she’d hoped for.

  But if she didn’t stay with the RainWings, where would she go? With the other dragonets, to fulfill a prophecy she wasn’t supposed to be in? What about after the prophecy was fulfilled? Clay had brothers and sisters in the MudWings. Tsunami had loved the Kingdom of the Sea, apart from her crazy mother — maybe she’d still go back and challenge her for the throne one day. The NightWings, of course, would welcome Starflight with open wings anytime.

  Glory glanced over at Sunny. The little SandWing flew in a tired, flappy way, but her jaw was set and determined. Would she ever fit in somewhere? She was such an odd-looking SandWing, without the poison-tipped tail all the rest of her tribe had. Would anyone want her, if the dragonets did fulfill the prophecy and end the war?

  Well, presumably whichever queen they chose for the SandWings would be pretty grateful. Surely she’d take Sunny in . . . and besides, everyone liked Sunny.

  Glory shook her head and stretched her talons. She was getting way ahead of herself. First we find Mangrove and get him home. Then I find the missing RainWings and whoever or whatever is taking — or kill ing — them. Then the great dragonets of destiny figure out how to stop the war, and maybe I tag along for that. And then we’ll see what happens.

  “I wouldn’t mind stopping for a nap, though,” Jambu’s voice said out of the blue.

  “We won’t have time for that,” Glory said. Then again, Mangrove was a RainWing, so maybe he would stop mid-idiotically-foolish-rescue for a nap — but they couldn’t count on it. “Also, Jambu, it’s not going to be like this the whole way. It’s going to get really cold by tonight, and tomorrow we’ll be in the Ice Kingdom. Where it will be seriously freezing.”

  “I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Jambu said breezily.

  It was already colder than it had been back at the tunnel entrance, and the desert sand below had changed to rocky, treeless hills, gradually sloping up as they flew farther north. Glory saw Sunny casting a wistful glance back
at the desert behind them.

  Starflight was right; this wasn’t particularly safe. Glory and Jambu were camouflaged, but there wasn’t much of a way to explain a MudWing, a SeaWing, a NightWing, and a SandWing all flying together — especially right into IceWing territory. They’d agreed to stop telling everyone they were the dragonets of the prophecy, but arriving like this, they might as well be carrying here we are! please imprison us! banners. Glory wished again that her friends had just let her come on her own. She was sure she could retrieve Mangrove by herself.

  They were lucky to avoid any IceWing patrols — Sunny heard one coming, which gave them time to hide down in the rocky landscape — and they landed some time after dark on ground that crunched ominously under Glory’s claws.

  “Is this snow?” Clay asked, poking the dirt.

  “No,” Starflight said in his know-it-all voice. “It’s just frozen dirt. We’re going to be really cold tonight.” They’d chosen a spot at the base of a short cliff, which would help block the wind, but Glory could already feel the cold seeping up from the ground through her claws and underscales.

  “And we shouldn’t use fire,” Tsunami said bossily. “We can’t risk being seen.”

  “Dibs I get to sleep next to Sunny,” said Clay. He grinned at her, and she beamed back. Her warm scales would be the only source of heat they had. Even Glory would have to put up with close contact if she wanted to get through the night without freezing.

  Glory knew Clay was joking — he was more likely to use his own body as a shield to keep the wind away from the rest of them — but she glanced over at Starflight and caught the crestfallen look on his face.

  Oh, Starflight. Maybe you should actually do something about that crush of yours. He’d never admitted it out loud, but Glory was pretty sure he’d been hopelessly in love with Sunny his whole life. She was also pretty sure Sunny had no idea, and that she might never find out at this rate.

  Not my problem, Glory reminded herself. But as they huddled up to sleep, she edged around so Starflight ended up curled next to Sunny’s wings, with Clay behind both of them. She coiled herself as tightly as she could and found a spot along Clay’s tail. Jambu immediately lay down practically on top of her.

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