Set in a vivid, Arab-inspired world filled with friendly and fearsome water dragons, K.D. Halbrook’s Silver Batal and the Water Dragon Races is a middle-grade fantasy adventure, with illustrations by Ilse Gort, that's perfect for fans of Tui T. Sutherland, Sayantani DasGupta, and Roshani Chokshi.
Thirteen-year-old Silver Batal calls the desert home, but her heart belongs to the waters. Although she’s expected to become a jeweler like her father, Silver harbors a secret and forbidden wish to race water dragons. Destiny comes calling when her friendship with a mysterious old woman leads her to Hiyyan, a baby dragon that can swim and fly.
Risking everything, Silver, Hiyyan, and her resourceful cousin Brajon set off across the desert to join the legendary races in the royal city. But the road to Calidia is filled with danger, and the trio must band together as they encounter ferocious cave beasts, clever desert foxes, and cutthroat competition.
As Silver and Hiyyan soar through the skies and speed through the seas, both must learn what they're willing to sacrifice for a shot at glory.
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When the dust in the cliff-hewn city of Jaspaton got too thick and the wind too whipping, even the most ancient and stalwart of the yarnsladies would leave their colorful silk tents and go indoors. And when they went indoors, so did everyone else.
Everyone sensible, at least.
On such a day, Silver Batal raced down one flight of stone stairs, and then another and another, refusing to let the trader on the desert floor out of her sight.
"Don't go yet," Silver shouted, spitting strands of hair from her mouth. The winds carried her words in the wrong direction.
The trader rolled the side flaps of his wagon down and struggled against the weather to secure them. He shook his fist angrily at the sky, but Silver laughed. His struggles bought her more time to catch him.
"Silver!" At the communal bread oven, her cousin Brajon called her name.
"Can't stop!" Silver leaped over a chicken flapping its wings furiously to keep from blowing away. The leather bag holding Silver's letter bounced against her hip.
"I have news for you," Brajon said. "About you-know-who!"
At that, Silver hesitated, and her ankles twisted in different directions. She lurched forward, catching herself just before she would have hurtled down another set of stairs headfirst. But her bag continued swinging forward, spilling its contents down one level of Jaspaton.
"I'll get it," Brajon said. He ran, grabbing the chicken and clutching it to his chest along the way, and gracefully dashed down the steps.
"Bawack!" the chicken squawked in protest.
Brajon scooped up the jewelers' tools, the paper-wrapped candies, and the coins Silver kept in her bag. Someone else, though, reached the letter first.
Nebekker, one of the most ancient of the yarnsladies — and certainly the most mysterious — slowly picked up the parchment and scanned it.
Silver tapped down the stairs in her soft boots and held out her hand. "Thank you," she said.
Nebekker kept reading, and Silver ground her toe into the dusty step impatiently. In Jaspaton, everyone treated the elderly with reverence, but Silver hated the way the old woman was casually reading the letter. No respect for privacy!
As she waited for Nebekker to finish snooping, Silver moved to one of the stone overlooks and leaned against the copper railing, peering down. The trader's flaps were secured, and now he was trying to calm his herd animals. And for good reason — no Jaspatonian would ever be caught out in the vast desert in such a storm.
Brajon appeared next to Silver and dumped her belongings back into her bag, plus a good fistful of dust. "I think that's everything."
"Almost everything." Silver motioned to Nebekker.
"Is that a letter to —"
Silver nodded quickly.
To Sagittaria Wonder, the best and most brilliant Desert Nations water dragon racer in the whole world. Silver's hero.
Brajon shrugged and shifted the chicken, who was trying to stick its head down his tunic. "You can tell her everything in person when she comes to Jaspaton in two weeks."
Silver's heart thumped so hard she was sure it could be heard over the whole desert.
"She's coming here? Why?" Silver glanced over her shoulder. The trader was climbing into his wagon and pulling his scarf over his face.
"You know that really thick seam of gold we discovered a week ago?"
Silver rolled her eyes. Brajon said we as though he were already a full-fledged miner, not an ele-miner. "Yes, of course," she said, "but what does that have to do with Sagittaria?"
"Just today, Sormy Mohan said"— Brajon cleared his throat and lowered his voice to mimic the grizzly old head miner —"'the queen's coming from Calidia to look at our gold. She's bringing that dragon racer, too. They need a design for some kind of racing cup.'"
Silver clutched her cousin's shoulders. "You mean Sagittaria Wonder is really coming?"
"That's what I heard." Brajon wriggled out of Silver's grip.
Silver pulled a stick of charcoal from her bag. Her breath came fast. Sagittaria Wonder was the champion, the legend, the best ever. "If I could just get my letter back from Nebekker, I could add one more line ... tell her I'm desperate to meet her."
The water dragon racer coming to her old, dusty city — it seemed impossible. After all, there wasn't a single body of surface water near Jaspaton, not even one measly stream. But she was coming, and it could be Silver's opportunity to seize her dream. What if Silver could somehow convince her parents to let her see Sagittaria? And Silver could convince Sagittaria to take a certain hopeful racer back to the city of Calidia? She would do anything to learn from the greatest water dragon racer in the world. Feed Sagittaria's dragons. Shine their scales. Sweep the floors. Shovel dragon dung, smiling the whole time. She would be the most obedient squire ever.
And then, someday, she would become the new greatest water dragon racer the world had ever known.
Down on the desert floor, a wagon flap had come loose, and the trader was shouting at the winds. Silver's heartbeat quickened. There was still time. "Nebekker, please. My letter."
The old woman startled, as though she'd fallen asleep while reading.
"How often do you write these fan letters?" Nebekker said, sounding disgruntled.
"Whenever there's a trader headed to Calidia," Silver said. Like now, she wanted to say. But she kept her mouth shut. Not even urgency could make her be rude to an elder.
"For the past two years," Brajon piped up.
"Gawp glop," the chicken added.
"And how many times have you told her about" — Nebekker pointed to a line —"'the strange old yarnslady from no one knows where'?"
"Never! I mean, only this once." Silver's face flushed. "I've already told her about everyone else I know, so that's ... you're ... all that was left."
Nebekker looked at Silver for a long time. The old woman's eyes were green. Opaque, like jade. Different from the glittering brown quartz eyes that most people in Jaspaton had. When Nebekker's stare became too uncomfortable to hold, Silver dropped her gaze.
"I'm sorry I called you strange," Silver whispered.
Brajon couldn't keep back a snort. Silver nudged him hard and peeked up through her lashes, but even Nebekker's eyes flashed with amusement before growing solemn again.
"I know a way you could get Sagittaria Wonder's attention," Nebekker said. "And it's not with these silly fan letters." Without waiting for a response, the old woman swept down the road.
A delicious chill raced down Silver's back. A strong wind whipped her clothing and sent spirals of dust into the air. Without thinking, she raced after the old yarnslady. "What do you mean?" she asked breathlessly as she caught up.
"Come see me this evening, after the last lantern is lit. I'll teach you what you need to know. I'll show you how to make a water dragon racing suit to impress even the great Sagittaria Wonder."
Silver's mouth dropped open. "You know how to make riding suits?"
"Soon you will, too." Nebekker disappeared up a shadowy staircase.
There was a victorious cry from the desert floor. The trader was finally on his way, but Silver no longer cared. She dropped her letter in the dirt and spun in a circle, her grin as big as the whole desert. The chicken, finally free from Brajon's clutches, dove past her into an alley.
"Did you hear that, cousin? I might soon be on my way to Calidia!"
"You think? Nebekker's not exactly a cuddly old grandma helping everyone out of the goodness of her heart." Brajon wiggled his fingers at Silver. "Ooo, maybe she's secretly a magical crone who's going to —"
"Imprison me and force me to weave for her forever?" Silver laughed. That was the plot of an ancient desert fable. But Nebekker wasn't an old mystic, and this was real life, not a story.
Silver went to the overlook again and curled her hands around the railing. In the vast desert, the storm began to settle and a new landscape of dunes took shape. Somewhere, far on the other side of those golden hills, the water dragons that swam in the Royal Pools of Calidia waited for Silver Batal.CHAPTER 2
That evening, Silver snuck out while the stars still dotted the desert sky, creeping down roads that were empty save for a desert beetle scuttling across the toes of her boots.
When she reached Nebekker's house, she hesitated, hand raised. Brajon's remark clouded her thoughts. Could the old woman really help Silver impress Sagittaria Wonder?
Nebekker was from far away, but where, exactly, no one seemed to know. She had simply shown up in Jaspaton one day, many years before Silver was born, emerging from the desert with only a walking stick and a small pack on her back. Some said she'd been raised by nomads in the far reaches of the vast desert, while others claimed she was from Calidia. If that were true, Silver couldn't understand why she'd leave the excitement of the royal city to come here. Either way, Silver had never seen evidence that Nebekker knew anything about water dragon racing.
Before Silver could make up her mind to either turn back or knock, the door was flung open.
"I thought I heard someone out there," Nebekker said. "Don't just stand there gaping. You're letting dust in."
Nebekker ushered Silver inside. The house was small and shadowy, for there was only one candle burning on the low table in the center of the main room. Shelves lined the walls. They were covered with oiled wood boxes and milky marble bowls. Sparkling glass canisters and beaded clay urns.
Exotic smells that reminded Silver of the traders from afar hit her nose. Floral scents, like the perfumes the yarnsladies sometimes accepted in exchange for their blankets and rugs. Damp smells, like in the inks they imported to dye the wool yarns.
Silver gasped when she caught sight of a wooden jug inlaid with a mother-of-pearl water dragon. Her fingers itched to pick up the container and explore its contents.
"Sit." Nebekker pointed to the cushions around the table. She pulled a pitcher down from a shelf, and Silver strained her eyes in the dark to see what strange and foreign concoction it contained. But when Nebekker poured a glass and set it in front of her, she discovered it was only plain, cold succulent tea.
Nebekker sat across from her. "So, you love water dragons, hmm? They are very interesting creatures."
"You love them, too?" It felt like dune beetles were scurrying inside Silver's belly.
"Ah. Hmm." Nebekker peered through the dim circle of candlelight at Silver. "You seem surprised. You young ones always forget that we old ones were young once, too. We had parents who disapproved. We had hopes. We were rebellious." She laughed. "Maybe you're right to distrust us. Too many of us old ones forget what it's like to be young. To have dreams!"
Someone who understood! Silver wanted to tell Nebekker everything. How important it was that her hero was coming to town. How her parents — and everyone in Jaspaton, really — couldn't comprehend her. How she would give anything to race a water dragon.
Silver swallowed thickly so all her secrets wouldn't come tumbling out at once.
"You said that you would teach me how to weave a racing suit," she said.
"I did." Nebekker nodded. She pushed her tea away and took up a bit of wool. "But now I'm not so sure. I've seen you around. You're headstrong. You rush things. Your thoughts are too far away to focus. You have no patience and little respect."
"That's not true," Silver cried, then quickly lowered her voice.
"It is, and the whole city knows it, ele-jeweler."
Silver winced at the traditional Jaspatonian diminutive — ele, meaning "one who belongs to a trade."
"I'll do anything. I'll be patient and work hard and —"
"What do you know about water dragons?" Nebekker said.
"Everything! The Shorsa is the breed with the most wins, but Sagittaria Wonder races on a Dwakka and hasn't lost in two years, except for the World Cup, which the Island Nations have held for the past five years and —"
"So you know something about the races, but I asked about water dragons."
Silver lowered her eyes. The walls in her room were covered with charcoal drawings on parchment of water dragons and their riders. The dragons were brought from hundreds and thousands of miles away, by traveling traders and scouts, for the royal families and wealthy merchants across the desert and beyond. Articles about the great water dragon races — who attended, who won, who perished — surrounded the pictures. Silver's own writing was also on the wall. She'd created diagrams and fact sheets about every type of water dragon she'd ever heard about. The fat, bubblelike Floatillion, whose green skin was as smooth as stretched fabric. The two-headed Dwakka, with one always-smiling face and one sinister face. The tiny Shorsa, almost too small and upright to be ridden, but as fast as a desert wind.
"I know so many things," Silver said, her gaze drifting to the water dragon jug. "But I want to learn everything."
"Then Calidia is a good place for you." Nebekker gave her a shrewd look, then sighed deeply. Silver fought a smile. It seemed that she had convinced the grouchy elder.
"Did you know that this wool, when worked tightly with thin strands, is light but also water-repellent?" Nebekker said. "Both admirable qualities for a water dragon racing suit."
Silver touched the wool. "How do you know all this?"
"I, too, once wanted to learn everything. But there isn't time to talk about that. We have to work quickly. We'll use you as the model."
Nebekker told Silver to stand, then took her measurements. She lay parchment on the table, and Silver watched, mesmerized, as Nebekker brainstormed a pattern, made up of hundreds of individual scales pieced together. As night shifted to morning, Nebekker showed Silver a way to work the wool that was different from the traditional Jaspatonian methods. A way that created lighter fabric with tighter, smaller stitches that would lie flat and point downward against the body.
For the next ten days, Silver snuck out every night to work on the suit. Most of the time, they worked quietly. Sometimes, Silver attempted conversation.
"So you were a weaver in your old town? Where did you come from?"
"From far away" was all Nebekker said.
Silver fell silent. She knew it had been rude to ask. Jaspatonians never asked personal questions, because they didn't have to. There were few secrets in a place where everyone had known everyone else their whole lives.
But Silver's curiosity was too fierce, and soon more questions bubbled up.
"How did you get those scars on your hands?"
"From hard work," Nebekker said.
"Everyone says you just appeared outside Herd Valley one day. No one with you, not even a herd animal. Is that true?"
"But you couldn't have traveled here alone. It's too dangerous."
"So I've heard."
"Why won't you answer my questions?"
"I will when you ask the right ones."
One time, Silver said, "Are you going to tell anyone? Please don't. Especially not my father." Her words had spilled out too forcefully to be stopped. She snuck a glance at Nebekker.
"I don't plan on telling anyone." Nebekker sniffed and looked down her long nose at Silver.
And she didn't. Instead, she taught Silver what she needed to know until there was just one lesson left before Sagittaria Wonder's visit: how to join the scales into a racing suit so remarkable it would ensure that Silver's dreams came true.CHAPTER 3
Another autumnal storm built over the vast desert, coloring the midday sky slate gray. Silver sat across from Nebekker, frowning and squinting at her stitches. There were only two more days until Sagittaria Wonder arrived in Jaspaton, and Silver was hurrying to finish in time. Her chest was as heavy as the dark clouds. She hoped the weather wouldn't delay Queen Imea's traveling group.
"I hope anyone out in the dunes stays safe," Nebekker said.
Nebekker didn't look up from her work. Her fingers sped across the stitches perfectly. With a groan, Silver ripped out her last five stitches for being too loose.
"No desert folk would go out in such a storm," Silver said. "Only coastal people get lost."
Silver paused her work and glanced out the window as lightning cut the horizon in half. "Except Sagittaria Wonder. She could find her way with her eyes closed. Like that time she raced her Dwakka through not one but two whirlpools!"
That was during the Desert Nations Autumn Festival races two years ago, the first time the finals course had whirlpools. How Silver wished she could've been there! She bent over her stitches eagerly. If everything went according to plan, she would be cheering on Sagittaria at this year's races.
"You don't even know what a whirlpool looks like," Nebekker grumbled. Silver hid a smile. Nebekker always got a bit grouchy when Silver started rambling about Sagittaria Wonder.
"It's a shame your cousin's birthday will be so stormy," Nebekker said, peering out the window.
"Maybe there won't be so many people at his party, then," Silver muttered.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Silver Batal and the Water Dragon Races"
Copyright © 2019 Kristin Halbrook.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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