THE BEGINNING OF DRAGON GAMES (THE BOOKS OF UMBER 2)
The boy gripped the railing tight. He watched the leviathan’s enormous tail rise from the brine until it almost broke the surface and then sweep down again in a powerful and dreamlike rhythm that propelled the barge through a rolling black sea. The port city of Kurahaven, storm-battered but still glorious, was far behind and the sun’s fire had been doused hours before on the horizon ahead.
Happenstance eyed the dark waves uneasily. He’d hoped his dread of water might fade as he spent more hours plying its surface. But it’s as bad as ever, Hap thought, with a little twist at the corner of his mouth. His shoulders rose toward his ears.
There was an open hatch on the deck of the barge, with stairs leading down to the spacious central cabin. A giddy sound drifted up the stairs and into the night. Hap recognized the particular laugh of his guardian. Lord Umber was in his usual high spirits, which were always at their loftiest after a satisfying meal and a hot mug of his beloved coffee, and with the prospect of some thrilling discovery ahead.
Hap walked to the railing at the square prow to see what might lie ahead. His extraordinary eyes pierced the darkness and found Nima, the barge’s captain, sitting cross-legged on the back of the leviathan, Boroon. Perhaps sensing that someone was watching, she turned to look back at the barge that was strapped to Boroon’s immense back.
“Hello, Nima,” Hap called. He wasn’t sure that Nima could see him in the gloom of night, with tatters of cloud shrouding the moon, but she waved. She stood, walked across the bony plates of the leviathan’s back, and climbed the stairs to stand beside Hap.
Nima was clad in black sealskin. As she ran her hands through her long hair, Hap stole a glance at the translucent skin that bridged the space between her knuckles. He pulled his gaze away in an instant; he knew better than most how it felt to have someone stare at a physical oddity.
“Why aren’t you below with the others, Happenstance?” she asked.
Hap shrugged. “I felt like coming up here.” That was hardly true. What he’d really felt like was not setting out on this adventure at all early that morning. He wished Umber could be content to stay home in the Aerie. It was a fine place to dwell, with wonders and mysteries galore inside its crammed archives. Those were the kind he preferred: adventures in ink, that couldn’t crush you in their jaws or under their feet. But sadly, Umber liked the real thing. And to make matters worse, running off to a new land always exposed Hap to more strangers who would point and gawk at his strange green eyes.
“I’m glad to find you here alone,” Nima said. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to give you.” There was a silver chain around her neck. She lifted it over her head, and Hap saw a fat locket dangling, shaped like halves of a seashell. She held it out, and Hap opened a hand to accept it.
“It’s beautiful,” Hap said. “But…”
“Why am I giving it to you? Because I heard how you risked your life to save Umber. And Umber is my friend. You have spared me an ocean of grief.”
Hap clamped his jaw as he thought back to that terrifying night, when he’d climbed a crumbling tower to confront the awful, eye-stealing creature that had taken Umber hostage. “It wasn’t just me who saved Umber,” he said.
“I know that. But Hap, you haven’t seen the true gift yet. Open it.”
Hap brought the locket closer to his eyes and saw a tiny clasp at the seam of the two shells. He pried it open with a fingernail, and the shells parted. Inside was an enormous pearl. It was as round and lustrous as the moon, which chose that moment to emerge from hiding and shine down on its little cousin. Hap goggled at the orb. He’d seen pearls in the jewelers’ tents in the marketplace at Kurahaven, but none so large or stunning. “How can I accept this? It’s too much!”
“You land folk value pearls more than I do. And do you really think it is so hard for me to find such a thing?” Nima asked. Hap supposed it wasn’t. Nima was amphibious, and could breathe under the waves as easily as above them. Of course, she could dive down and bring up all manner of wonders. Balfour had told him once that the leviathan barge was built and paid for by the fortunes she’d found in sunken ships.
“It may be useful in a difficult spot someday,” Nima said. “Or it might help a friend in need. Your heart will tell you when to use it.”
Hap snapped the locket shut and put the chain around his neck. “It’s wonderful. Thank you.”
“It was Boroon’s idea, in fact,” Nima said.
Hap stared at the leviathan’s broad head, cutting the waves before them. “Really? Boroon?” He knew that Nima communicated with the leviathan, but he had no idea that they discussed matters so…specific. “Would you thank him for me, please?”
A minute passed, silent except for the hiss of water along the leviathan’s side. “Where are we going?” Hap asked.
Nima smiled. “Umber wanted it to be a secret. You know how he is about these things.”
Hap sighed. If he could change one thing about Umber – besides his constant need for the thrill of exploration – it would be his obsession with secrets and surprises.
Before long everyone else was asleep, even the great leviathan, who bobbed in the water like a breathing island. Hap kept watch for the others, because he needed no sleep. That was another one of the great mysteries about him, the boy with no memory of who he was or where he’d come from.
* * *
Boroon’s fins swirled in the water, holding the barge in place an arrow’s flight from the coast. Hap, like the others, shielded his eyes from the rising sun, staring at the spot where Nima pointed. He looked at Oates, who frowned and shrugged.
Umber thumped the railing with both hands and laughed. “I can see why nobody’s discovered this before! Why would any ship come close? It’s just a craggy sea cliff, unremarkable and uninviting. Still, Nima, I don’t see the opening you mentioned.”
“Watch when the wave hits the shore,” Nima said. “There.”
A crest of water rolled toward the cliff. Hap watched, expecting it to slam against the rock and throw up an explosion of foam. But something else happened: The wave collapsed, as if its foundation had vanished.
“I see it now!” Umber cried. “A cave, under the surface! But how can we get inside?”
“Boroon can take us,” Nima said.
Umber’s eyes gleamed. “It’s that big in there? And we won’t…you know…disturb them?”
Nima nodded. “It’s large enough. And I have done it once before.”
“I’m so glad you discovered this!” Umber cried, with his knees wiggling.
“It was Boroon who saw the cave from underwater. He is a curious soul,” Nima replied quietly. “But sometimes I feel I never should have told you about it.”
“Hold on, Umber,” said Oates, raising a thick hand. “What did you mean, ‘disturb them’?”
“Let’s not wait another second!” cried Umber, ignoring the big man. “Do we need to douse the fires?”
Nima shook her head. “We’ll only be under for a moment,” she said.
Under, Hap thought. Not again. He crossed his arms to suppress the shivers that ran through his body.
Umber rubbed his hands together and laughed. “Everybody, down the hatch. Boroon is going to dive!”
Hap followed the others down the stairs into the central cabin. Only Nima, who was in no danger of drowning, stayed above. Oates pulled the hatch shut behind him and sealed it, and came muttering down the stairs. He held onto one of the beams in the middle of the room and stared at the ceiling as the barge lurched forward.
This was the second time Hap had been aboard when Boroon took the craft underwater, and it terrified him as much as the first. He sat beside Balfour, Umber’s elderly friend and trusted servant, at the dining table that was anchored to the floor, his bloodless fingers clamped on the table’s edge. Sophie – the girl who was just a few years older than Hap and was valued for her skill as both artist and archer – was across from him, and gave him a reassuring smile despite her own obvious nerves. There were round windows of thick glass in the walls, and the water rose past them as Hap watched. The light changed from pale daylight to the dim, shimmering green of the sea, and then vanished as they passed into a space where little sun could reach. He felt the squeeze of pressure deep inside his ears, and when he worked his jaw, his eardrums popped.
Umber stood at the bottom of the stairs, bouncing in place and humming. “Listen, everyone – it should be safe to go up in a moment, but I think we should keep as quiet as we can.”
“You make more noise than anyone,” Oates pointed out.
“Do I?” Umber asked, narrowing one eye.
“With all your squealing and clapping.”
Umber glared. “Nothing wrong with a little enthusiasm.”
Balfour cleared his throat. “Umber, would you mind telling us why we need to be quiet?”
Umber raised a hand, palm out. “Patience, my friends! We’re almost there!” The barge’s bow tilted upward again. Boroon brought them to the surface, but the ascent was slow, as if the leviathan was trying to be as stealthy as such an enormous creature could be.
“It’s so much better if you see for yourselves,” Umber said. Hap could measure his guardian’s excitement by the diameter of his eyes, and they looked now like a pair of dinner plates. Umber dashed up the stairs and threw the hatch open. “Bring the lamps,” he called in a half-whisper. “And walk softly!”
Hap waited for Oates, Balfour, and Sophie to ascend before him. When he followed, he heard Umber telling them: “Give your eyes time to adjust to the dark.” But Hap, of course, needed no time.
Boroon had swum into a great cave that must have been bored out over eons by the endless undermining of ocean waves. The entrance was behind them and underwater. Hap could see a glimmer of dim sunlight filtering through, as if passing under the threshold of a door.
The sea-cave was immense. The ceiling of stone was a hundred feet above the top of the barge, and Boroon fit easily in the pool of water that washed up against a broad stone ledge in the interior. When Hap saw the monstrous things that occupied the ledge, his breath was snared inside his throat. For a moment he thought they were toppled statues or mummified creatures – anything but living beings. But then he heard the air rushing in and out of enormous mouths and nostrils, and saw the subtle rise and fall of the vast chests...
That's all for now -- get Dragon Games soon, and see why Umber's friends begin to wonder just how far he'll go to satisfy his thirst for adventure .