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I was rehearsing my thank-you speech again when I felt the heat on my wings. It was too hot for the sun. No, it was magic-red-hot magic and strong too. So I forced myself to forget about the welcome banquet that the High King would give in our honor; and instead I concentrated on finding out what was wrong.
Of course, humans like Thorn don't feel such things so he just started to prompt me again. "Then you're supposed to say, 'As princess of the Inland Sea, I thank you for helping us regain our heritage.'"
"Hush. There's something wrong." I slowed the beating of my wings and looked below me toward Ramsgate, the capital of the humans. From far below, the watch began to sound the alarm on a gong; but I couldn't see anything wrong.
In fact, it would have been hard to find a more peaceful scene. The soft, hazy light of sunset made the buildings look like some dreamy picture drawn in chalk and ready to be washed away by the first rain. The towers and spires of Ramsgate rose like so many long, thin petals of a chrysanthemum; and the sandstone walls took on an almost rose, fleshy color.
"I don't see any bandits. It must be a fire in someone's kitchen." In his excitement, Thorn leaned over, shifting his position on my back.
I adjusted for the change in balance and then raised a paw, making sure that our sleeping prisoner was still tied securely to my back. The Witch, Civet, was our guarantee into the dragon kingdoms. "There aren't any bucket brigades, though."
Thorn's voice cracked with excitement. "No, there's the fire. It's I rising almost like a fountain."
"Fountain?" I twisted my head around. Behind us, thesun was setting over the mountains.
"Over there on the hill." Thorn pointed toward our left. "Only it's gone now."
There was only one hill in Ramsgate and that was off to my left where the palace of the King sat. Its great golden dome caught the evening sun so that it seemed to pulse like a red eye. Lights were being lit in its many rooms and the windows and doors glittered like the many eyes of some sea creature.
"Maybe it was just the reflection of the sun on the palace." But I began to beat my wings harder, eager to reach the safety of the dragon kingdoms that lay in the sea just ahead.
"There it is again," Thorn called.
I twisted my head around once more. The walls and towers of the palace seemed to shimmer as if some enormous fire were heating up the air. Suddenly a long, thin pillar of fire shot upward and then dissolved, sending tongues of magical fire flickering into the night like the seeds of a dandelion.
"What's that?" Thorn asked breathlessly.
I began to beat my wings even faster though I was a bit tired from our long journey. "I don't know and I'm not waiting to find out. Someone's working magic. Lie low on my neck so you don't provide any wind drag." I'd been so busy dreaming about all the banquets in my honor that I'd forgotten the first rule of survival: Always assume the worst.
"There's even more fire than before," Thom cried.
The fire shot upward like the stalk of some giant seedling, rising, rising until it seemed to hit an invisible ceiling where it began to flatten. The flames licked outward and died, to reveal a gigantic bird with feathers that flickered now red, now yellow, like tongues of fire. Slowly, defiantly, it spread its wings over the palace; and the light went rolling over the golden dome.
"It's a flame bird." Someone was working magic for no apparent reason. I dove because I didn't feel like waiting around to see any more tricks. Tied about my neck was the mist stone that we'd taken from Civet. It would have let me change my body into a cloud of mist-if I had known the proper spell. But even if I could have used it, I wouldn't, because that would have left Thorn exposed.
The flat roofs of the houses seemed to leap up at me. A family having dinner on a rooftop flung themselves underneath the table and benches. Too late I saw the gleam of soldiers' armor on one rooftop. A flight of arrows was already hissing loudly up toward us. Though the Witch was tied to my back, the boy wasn't, so I couldn't bank sharply. All I could do was dive even lower into the narrow street itself. "Doesn't anything ever come easy for us?"
"Somehow we always manage to --" Thorn started to shout, and his words were lost in a gasp as we dropped within the street itself.
In the upper story windows human faces gaped at us like so many pink melons; and I winced as my left wingtip scraped against a stucco wall. But I didn't let myself panic. As my flying instructor said, there's only one name for fliers who make mistakes: corpses. Instead, I strained every muscle to pull up.
I managed to level off at two meters above the cobblestone street, and then I drew a shaky breath. "I don't understand it. Dragons have always been free to fly over Ramsgate before."
"Maybe they don't like tourists anymore." Thorn's arms and legs tightened around my neck. "Look out!"
I'd already seen the wagon filled with squashes and drawn in my paws. We just barely skimmed over its top; but my tail brushed the terrified driver backward. "Sorry," I called over my shoulder as squashes began cascading down onto the street. Then I swung my eyes forward again. "It's got to be team flying from now on," I told Thorn anxiously. "Keep your eyes on our rear."Dragon Steel. Copyright � by Laurence Yep. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.