“And now, on to our business,” Clerici said. “I offered each of the Elite Seven a reward for their dedicated service to Germanus. I expected requests for riches, clouds and other tangible items. But every warrior astonished me, I must say. And your Zacharel most of all.”
There was no time to reply.
“I have a gift for you,” Clerici added. He lightly placed his hands on Koldo’s shoulders, but then, strength wasn’t needed. At the moment of contact, a warm cascade of honey began to wash over Koldo, bathing him, empowering him. “Not because you deserve it. You don’t. Unlike the Merciful One, the Anointed One and the Mighty One, I cannot see into your heart and know the good you are capable of. Unless the Most High informs me otherwise, I can see only your actions. But Zacharel named you as the recipient of his reward, and I promised to deliver it.”
But...why would Zacharel do such a thing?
Dark eyes pierced deep. “Right now, Koldo, you are filled with so much hate there’s no room for love. I can feel it. And without love...well, you’ll fall, and Zacharel has no desire to see you fall.”
A simple command from the king, but one Koldo could not refute. His lips felt glued together as he nodded.
“The mouth can be a snare,” Clerici added more gently. “Sometimes it’s better not to say anything at all.”
He knew that very well. He gave another nod.
“Do you know what Zacharel asked me to give you?” Clerici asked.
Before Koldo could guess at the answer, pain shot through his entire body. Pain like he had not endured even in his father’s camp, when he was hung from the ceiling by hooks embedded in the muscles in his chest, each of the Nefas warriors allowed to strike him once, with the weapon of their choice.
His knees buckled, and he hit the ground with a hard thump. The shirt was ripped from his body, though no one touched him, the material floating to the floor. A sharp, agonizing lance bowed his back, and he fell the rest of the way forward. His chin slammed against the marble, the taste of copper coating his tongue.
A shout pounded against his teeth, split his lips apart. What had Clerici done to him? There was no way he could survive this. It was too much...it was...fading? Yes. Yes, it was, the pain ending as abruptly as it had begun. Panting and sweating, Koldo lumbered to his feet. Clerici was nowhere to be seen, and there was a heavy weight at his back, as if two warriors had jumped on him and refused to let go.
He reached back—and encountered the soft graze of feathers.
Heart slamming against his ribs, he jerked whatever he held forward. White feathers veined in gold greeted his eyes, the tendons thick, strong and unscarred. He lost his breath, again fell to his knees. He gave another tug, but the appendage remained attached to him, pulling tight, creating the most wondrous pain.
His mind reeled as he pushed to his feet. “Thank you. Thank you!”
He walked toward the door, dazed, but the moment he cleared the entrance he picked up speed. Soon he was running, bypassing the second set of doors, outside, racing along the cobbled pathway, hitting the edge of the cloud—
Koldo spread the wings and they caught in a current, evening out his glide. He threw back his head and laughed with undiluted joy. He was flying! Up, down, up, down, flapped the wings. No, not “the” wings. His wings. His. They belonged to him. And no one would be able to take them away from him.
The wind whipped against his skin, his feathers. He shot as high as he could go, the air growing colder. He dived low to the ground, the air heating, before twisting his body and shooting back up. Clouds dusted over him, cool and moist, and birds flew beside him. He performed flips, laughing all the while.
Never had he been so carefree.
What would Nicola think when she saw him? He imagined her at home, in their room, on the bed, waiting for him. She would smile, and she would gasp. She would exalt over the beauty of his wings. And why not? His feathers were the purest shade of white and threaded by the most beautiful rivers of molten gold.
She would be the first person to touch them.
He flew until the forgotten muscles in his back burned from the strain, unable to take much more. Until his wings seized, refusing to move another inch, and he began to plummet. Just before landing, he flashed to the front yard of his ranch. He hit with more force than he was used to, and had to roll with the impact. Dirt and grass tangled in his beard, clothing and feathers.
The moment he stilled, he popped up and ran inside. There was no sign of Zacharel, no sign of Axel. Laila was asleep in her room. He burst through the door of Nicola’s bedroom. She sat at the edge of the bed, and jumped up when she spotted him. She was...upset.
He lost his grin, his excitement. “What’s wrong? Did something happen?”
She blinked, her gaze zeroing in on his wings. “We’ll get to that. First, how...?”
The excitement returned and he spun. “The wings were a gift.” Pleasure filled him as he clasped the ends of the wings and stretched them to their full length. “Touch them. They’re real.”
She reached out, her fingertips brushing the arch, flowing down the center. He closed his eyes and savored. Even as a child, no one other than his mother had ever touched his wings, and never this way. Never so gently, so tenderly.
“They’re wonderful,” she said. “But it’s kind of hard to enjoy them when I know you have a woman locked in the shack out back, and I don’t know why she’s there.”
He whipped around, his elation draining. She knew. He’d wanted this, he reminded himself. He’d wanted her to learn about this side of him. To know him, all of him. To want to be with him anyway.
“But you didn’t,” he confirmed. She couldn’t. There was no door.
“I didn’t.” Her hand fluttered to her neck, rubbing. “Who is she?”
He watched a feather float through the air and land on the ground, and fought a wave of fear. What if Nicola considered him a monster? What if she decided she was better off without him?
Find out now, before you come to depend on her any more than you already have.
Nicola’s jaw dropped. “What? Why?” she demanded, closing the distance and flattening her palms over his bare chest. “Because she removed your first pair of wings?”
His mouth went dry. “Among other things, yes.” Understand. Please. “Afterward, she threw me into a nest of vipers. I was so weakened, I couldn’t escape, and for years I was forced to do terrible things to survive.”
Sympathy cloaked her features. “I’m sorry about that. I really am, but this isn’t the way to make her pay. You need to take her to the judge of your people. There is a judge, isn’t there?”
He nodded stiffly. “I don’t know what her sentence will be, if it will be harsh enough.”
Her brows knitted together. “That’s not your call.”
“She hates me. For no reason, she hates me. She isn’t sorry for what she did. She’s proud.”
“And you, what? Want to inflict upon her every pain that was inflicted upon you?” she asked, clearly dazed. “Yes. You do. It was her hair that you cut that day, wasn’t it?”
“And you were so angry with yourself, so torn up. Koldo, don’t you see? The longer you keep her, the more likely you are to harm her irrevocably. And if you do, you’ll never be able to forgive yourself.”
“Maybe so, but hatred makes you just as much a prisoner as she is. You can’t even see past it.”
“Well, I do. Take her to your judge.”
Stubborn female, just as he’d known she was.
Anger beaded in his chest. “You’ve been hurt by someone, too. Hurt horribly, and yet you had no means of fighting back. Well, what would you do if the opportunity to gain revenge finally presented itself?”
Before she could respond, he flashed to the apartment of the man who had killed her parents and brother. Oh, yes. He’d memorized the address. The male sat on his couch, watching TV and drinking beer. Scowling, Koldo materialized. The man spotted him, cursed and scrambled backward. Koldo grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and flashed back to the bedroom in Panama.
Nicola was pacing in front of the bed, and now stilled.
Koldo shoved the male to the floor face-first. “What do you have to say to the one who murdered your family?”
“Wh-what’s going on?” the man in question cried. His eyes were wide, glassy, as they darted between Koldo and Nicola.
Finally, his attention remained on Nicola and he gasped. “You.”
So. He recognized her, despite the years that had passed.
“Do you truly have the strength to pardon him?” Koldo demanded.
She said not a word. Her gaze remained locked on the one responsible for her loss.
Tears rolled down the human’s reddened cheeks. “I’m sorry,” he cried. “I’m sorry. But please, let me go.”
“You’re sorry because you were caught,” Koldo yelled down at him.
The male squeezed his eyelids together, his tears falling with more force.
Koldo looked to Nicola. “Remember your brother in his casket and then tell me what you want me to do to this man.”
As the man tried to crawl away, Koldo pressed a foot into his lower back and held him down. “I’m sorry. So sorry,” he repeated.
“Well?” Koldo insisted. Stop. You have to stop this. But he didn’t. He’d started it. He would see it through to the end.
Nicola raised her chin and finally met Koldo’s stare. Her eyes were cold, hard. “After the accident, Laila and I went to his house, intending to kill him while he was out on bail. Yes. That’s right. We actually plotted a cold-blooded murder. We were so angry, so hurt. We figured we were dying anyway, and at that point, we wanted to die. So why not, you know?”