SEVEN-YEAR-OLD KOLDO sat as quietly as possible in the corner of the bedroom. His mother was brushing her hair, lovely dark ringlets spun with threads of the purest gold. She perched in front of the vanity, humming softly but excitedly, her smiling, freckled image reflected in an oval mirror. He couldn’t help but watch her, fascinated.
Cornelia was one of the most beautiful creatures ever created. Everyone always said so. Her eyes were the palest violet, edged by lashes the same brown-and-gold mix as her hair. Her lips were heart-shaped, and her pale skin glowed as brightly as the sun.
With Koldo’s inky hair, dark eyes and deeply bronzed skin, he looked nothing like her. The only thing they had in common was their wings, and perhaps that was why he was so proud of the glittering white feathers cushioned by plush, amber down. They were his one redeeming feature.
Her humming suddenly ceased.
“You’re staring at me,” she snapped, all hint of her smile gone.
He cast his gaze to the floor, as she preferred. “Sorry, Momma.”
“I told you not to call me that.” She slammed the brush onto the marble counter. “Are you so foolish that you’ve already forgotten?”
“No,” he replied softly. Everyone lauded her sweetness and gentleness as much as her beauty, and they were right to do so. She was generous with her praise and kind to everyone who approached her—everyone but Koldo. He’d always experienced a very different side of her. No matter what he did or said, she found fault. And yet, still he loved her with all of his heart. He’d only ever wanted to please her.
“Hideous little creature,” she mumbled as she stood, the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle drifting from her. The purple fabric of her robe danced at her ankles, the jewels sewn into the hem sparkling in the light. “Just like your father.”
Koldo had never met his father, had only ever heard about the man.
“I’m having friends over,” she said, flicking her hair over one shoulder. “You’re to stay up here. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” Oh, yes. He understood. If anyone caught sight of him, she would be embarrassed by his ugliness. She would rage. He would suffer.
She peered at him for a long while. Finally she growled, “I should have drowned you in the bathtub when you were too young to fight back,” and stomped from the room, the door slamming shut behind her.
The rejection cut bone deep, and he wasn’t sure why. She’d said far worse countless times before.
Just love me, Momma. Please.
Maybe...maybe she couldn’t. Not yet. Hope unfurled in his chest, and he raised his chin. Maybe he hadn’t done enough to prove himself. Maybe if he did something special for her, she would finally realize he was nothing like his father. Maybe if he cleaned her room...and had a bouquet of fresh flowers waiting for her...and sang a song as she drifted to sleep... Yes! She would hug and kiss him in thanks, the way she often hugged and kissed the servants’ children.
Excited, Koldo folded the blankets he used for his pallet on the floor and jumped to his feet. He darted through the room, picking up the discarded robes and sandals, then fluffed the pillows strewn around the center rug, where Cornelia liked to relax and read.
He ignored the wall of weapons—the whip, the daggers and the swords—and straightened the items on the vanity: the brush, the bottles of perfume, the creams for his mother’s skin and the pungent-smelling liquid she liked to drink. He polished every necklace, bracelet and ring in her jewelry box.
By the time he finished, the room and everything in it glistened as though brand-new. He grinned, pleased with his efforts. She would appreciate all that he’d done—he just knew it.
Now for the flowers.
Cornelia wanted him to stay here, and had he promised to obey her, he would have. But he hadn’t promised. He’d told her only that he understood her desires. Besides, this was for her, all for her, and no one would see him. He would make sure of it.
He strode to the balcony, pushed open the double doors. Cool night air wafted over him. The palace was situated in a far realm of the lower heavens, neighbored by thousands of stars twinkling from an infinite expanse of black velvet. The moon was bright and high, a mere sliver curved into two upward points.
The moon was smiling at him.
Encouraged, Koldo stepped to the balcony’s ledge. There was no railing, allowing his toes to curl over the side. He flared his wings to their full length, the action bringing a cascade of joy. He loved flying through the sky, soaring up and zipping down, rolling through the clouds, chasing birds.
His mother knew nothing of this. “You are never to use your wings,” she’d announced the day they’d begun to sprout from his back. He’d planned to heed the command, he had, but then, one day, she’d been screaming about how much she despised him, and he’d climbed to the roof so that she wouldn’t have to gaze upon his ugly face. His misery had distracted him and he’d fallen down, down, dooown.Just before landing, he’d flared the previously unused appendages and managed to slow his momentum. He’d crawled away with a shattered arm and leg, broken ribs, a punctured lung and a fractured ankle. Eventually, he’d healed—and he’d next jumped on purpose. He’d been addicted to the feel of the breeze on his skin, in his hair, and had craved more.Now, in the present, he dived headfirst. The air slapped at him, and he had to swallow his whoop of satisfaction. The freedom...the slight edge of danger...the rush of warmth and strength... He would never get enough. Just before impact, he straightened and leveled out, his wings catching the current. He landed softly, his feet already in motion.One step, two, three, annnd he was a mile into the forest. Not because he was fast—though he was—but because he could do something his mother and the other Sent Ones he’d seen could not. He could move from one place to another with only a thought.He’d discovered the ability a few months ago. At first, he’d only been able to whisk a yard, then two, but every day he managed to go a little farther than before. All he had to do was calm his emotions and concentrate.At last he reached the stretch of wildflowers he’d found the last time he’d broken the rules and left the palace. He plucked the prettiest from the ground, the petals the perfect shade of lavender, reminding him of his mother’s eyes. He brought them to his nose, sniffed. The mouthwatering aroma of coconut clung to him, and his grin returned.If Cornelia asked where he’d gotten the bouquet, well, he would tell her the truth. He refused to lie, even to save himself from a punishment. Not only because other Sent Ones could taste when another being lied—unlike him—but also because lies were the language of the demons, and demons were almost as evil as his father.His mother would appreciate Koldo’s honesty. Surely.Hands full of moist green stalks, he sprinted out of the forest and leaped into the atmosphere, going higher and higher, his feathers ruffling in the wind, the muscles in his back straining in the most delightful way. Up and down his wings glided. His heart thundered in his chest as he landed on the balcony and peeked through the doorway. There was no sign of his mother.Breathing a sigh of relief, he entered the room. He emptied Cornelia’s favorite vase of old, dried flowers, then added the new and watered the stems. He returned to his place in the corner, folded his legs and waited.Hours passed.More hours passed.By the time the hinges squeaked to signal the door was being opened, his eyelids were heavy, his eyes as dry and scratchy as sandpaper, but he’d managed to stay awake and now jolted to eager attention.A soft fall of footsteps. A pause.“What did you do?” his mother gasped. She spun, taking in every inch of the bedroom.“I made it better for you.” Love me. Please.A sharp inhalation of breath before she stomped over, stopping just in front of him and glaring down with fiery hatred. “How dare you! I liked my things the way they were.”Disappointment nearly crushed him, so heavily did it settle in his chest. Once again he’d failed her. “I’m sorry.”“Where did you get the ambrosia?” Even as she spoke, her gaze jerked to the double doors leading to the balcony. “You flew, didn’t you?”Only a beat of hesitation before he admitted, “Yes.”At first, she gave no reaction. Then she squared her shoulders, an action of determination. “You think you can disobey me and never suffer any consequences. Is that it?”“No. I just—”“Liar!” she shouted. Her palm smacked against his cheek, the force of the impact propelling him into the wall. “You’re just like your father, doing what you want, when you want, no matter how anyone else feels about the matter, and I’m not going to tolerate this behavior anymore.”“I’m sorry,” he repeated, trembling.“Believe me, you will be.” She grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet. He didn’t struggle, allowing her to toss him onto the bed, on his stomach, and tie his wrists and ankles to the posts.Another whipping, he thought, not allowing himself to beg for mercy she wouldn’t show. He would hurt, but he would heal. He knew that for a fact. He’d earned a thousand other punishments just like this one, but he’d always recovered. Physically, at least. Inside, his heart would bleed for years to come.His mother selected a blade from the wall, ignoring the whip she normally wielded.She was going to...kill him?Finally Koldo tugged and twisted, but he wasn’t strong enough to fight his way free. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I’ll never again clean your room, I promise. I’ll never again leave it.”“You think that’s the problem? Oh, you foolish boy. The truth is, I can’t let you loose. You’re tainted by your father’s vile blood.” The fire in her eyes had spread to the rest of her features, creating a wild, crazed expression. “I’ll be doing the world a favor by limiting your ability to travel.”