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I was ten when the Winged guards came for me. My mother fought, but what could she do against their swords? Nothing.
I remember tearing my gaze from straight ahead, my arms suspended high between two soldiers, to look back at her sobbing in the doorway of our domed house. Her tawny wings were unfurled behind her. A beacon. For me to know she would do everything she could.
But as I looked away, tears stinging my eyes and my back remaining wingless forever, I knew she would never be able to help me.
So I did what every Wingless is told to do when taken to the palace; I submitted. I let the guard shove me into a room, let a few other wingless dress me in a loose blue tunic and matching pants. And then I worked.
Because if I refused, they would take me to one of the labor camps set up for Wingless who did not listen.
Five years later, because I was such a hard worker, a beautiful Wingless took me into her division; henna painting. My hands, calloused from so much cleaning, were clumsy at first, but gradually I got better. As soon as I was declared advanced by Nicoletta, the beautiful Wingless, I was given harder jobs.
One of these hard jobs was painting the Empress’ hands.
I remember the first time I applied the paste, forming it into a rose with vines wrapped loosely around her wrists, she had smiled approvingly, forgetting entirely that I was Wingless for a moment.
“It’s beautiful! Look, Latanis, Mono!” She shoved her hands in front of her daughter’s faces and they oohed and ahhed over my work.
From then on, I was shown off at her parties and declared her personal henna artist.
I was glad to be relatively safe in the palace, but sometimes I hated the parties I was told to go to.
Today was no exception.
“How much longer do we have to stand here?” Anita, my apprentice, shifted in her delicate pink slipper, a permanent smile glued to her face.
Like all Winged, we Wingless were Ethereal, or very beautiful. Anita, however, was practically the definition of the word. I could never really get over her blue eyes, golden hair, and snowy skin. Beside her, I was like the moon to her sun with dark hair, cocoa skin, and brown eyes. I imagined, if I had wings, they would be midnight black like my father’s and brother’s.
“Until the Empress dismisses us,” I answered, shifting my golden sari higher over my chest. “Be patient, Anita.”
“Easy for you to say, Aadhya. You’ve been doing this for years. And stop fussing with your dress, the neckline isn’t that low,” she batted my hands away from attempting to adjust the sari once again. “Be still.”
I scoffed, “You’re telling me to be still?”
She laughed prettily, truly amused at my words, “Of course I am, Aadhya. You know me.”
After a few seconds of silence and nodded greetings at passers-by, I nudged her with my elbow, “Perhaps we’ll see the Emperor today?”
Anita fanned herself and tilted her head back, “Oh! Don’t speak such things or they will never happen! You unlucky jynx!”
I giggled into my hand; it was an ongoing joke that she used whenever I said the Emperor might finally come to one of his own parties. Usually, when I said it, he would send word that he was ill and unable to make it. I was almost glad.
The Emperor was said to be beautiful but very prejudiced against Wingless, and I already knew I despised him.
“But maybe he will,” she decided.
I wanted to ask why she thought today would be the lucky day when a Winged woman stopped at our little booth and thrust her hands at us. I gave my apprentice a grin and we began our work.
The day passed by with us chatting or applying henna to Winged’s delicate hands. When I figured it was time for us to go since the Empress had subtly raised her hand and rolled the wrist, I began to pack up.
“But the party isn’t over!” Anita whined, helping me screw the henna paste’s lids back on and then empty the piping bags. “Let’s stay a moment more!”
“He's not coming,” I said brusquely, “and it’s time to pack up.”
She raised her pointed chin, “Says who?”
I took up a basket and started filling it, “Says the Empress.”
She scowled, “That old hag isn’t even the Empress anymore; her gorgeous son is.”
“Yes but her son lets her retain the title. And she practically runs Mallison for him. If you ask me, he’s not a very good Emperor at all.”
“Maybe so,” she relented and started to help more fully, “but he’s still the Emperor and I’m Ethereal. If he would just look at me…”
I rolled my eyes and turned my back on her to begin closing up the booth. I folded the extended sides in and then took down the canvas pulled taut over the top.
Then, behind me, I heard a muffled gasp and something shattered on the floor. I swung around and growled low at the paste smearing the ornate tiles, “Anita!”
Usually, she would apologize profusely, but today she simply stared at something behind me.
“What?” I turned and lost my own breath at the sight of a pair of golden wings unfurled at the top of the stairs.
The Emperor had come.
Instant panic seized up my limbs as the Empress rolled her wrist at me again as if to say; my son is here, get back to work.
But I couldn’t. Not today. Never today.
I looked over at my stunned apprentice, “Quickly, Anita!” I hissed, rolling up the canvas and shoving it into her arms, “take the cart and go. I’m right behind you.”
Her eyes flashed to mine curiously, “The Empress said to stay.”
I felt my heart plummet further when the Emperor descended the stairs, greeting guests and smiling falsely. “Just, please, listen!” I pressed a kiss against her cheek and she startled back into her body.
She nodded and moments later she was gone.
Three baskets, full to the brim, and a mess awaited me when I knelt and started scrubbing at it with my sari. Glass sliced my palms as I stopped, realizing how futile it would be, and started scooping up the broken remnants of the jar.
My stomach rolled.
“What are you doing? You must stay!” I slowly craned my neck to see the Empress glaring at me, “Go! Get that girl and your cart! The party will last much longer now.”
I swallowed and slowly stood, dragging the baskets with me, “I cannot, Empress.”
Rage lined her face, “You can and you will.”
My eyes tracked the progress of the Emperor and his splendid golden wings.
“Aadhya!” A sharp crack of her hand over my cheek sent black spots over my vision, “Do you hear me!?”
No. No. NO! I have to go!
With audible pain, I turned my face to her, cheek stinging in protest, “I cannot, Empress.”
She clenched her fists in the folds of her red sari, “Do not be so insolent!”
Her voice was cracking through the room. The Emperor paused and was turning his head.
“Aadhya!” The Empress screamed.
But I wasn’t listening.
I slid down the hall Anita had taken, my heart pounding to the rhythm of the thought in my head; not today! Not today!
The stone columns on either side of me cast odd shapes on the floor as I emerged into a wide room shaped like an oval. Shouts from behind me told me I was not alone.
I was being chased.
I dropped the baskets and hitched the hem of my sari higher, passing baffled Wingless who half-heartedly tried to grab me at the guards' behest. I would thank them with what I was about to do.
The henna division stretched before me, a beautiful rectangle opening its arms.
Anita, still pulling our cart along, watched as I rushed past, “Aadhya?”
The guards on my tail told her enough. Like the crask of our cart against bodies told me enough.
Tears unbidden curved down my jaw as I reached the doors that led into the courtyard.
“NO!” Someone roared as I tugged the key around my neck free of my sari and shoved it into the slot.
Four heartbeats passed in which I unlocked and opened the door. As I yelled out into the night a battle cry. As a guard grabbed me from behind.
As an arrow met his chest.
I fell to the stone immediately as more arrows were rained upon the henna division. Those who had helped me orchestrate the plan fell with me.
And some did not.
“For the Wingless!”
A surge of soldiers in beige streamed through the door; neighboring soldiers from Pana.
The tears now steadily streaming ceased some when these beige soldiers began hauling henna artists to their feet, those who included Anita and Nicoletta.
“To the docks!” Someone shouted in my ear as I was pulled upwards and pushed out the door.
I started running with my fellow Wingless, my heart pumping adrenaline throughout my body. To the docks. To my freedom.
I grinned at the taste of it on my tongue. At the tantalizing freedom sending us all the way onto a ship that set sail almost immediately after the last Wingless boarded it.
They said they would do it, so I waited at the stern, watching the palace burn. Watching Winged lose against Wingless.
And then a beige flag with a red star in the middle was put up in place of a dark one void of anything but black. I felt my heart sing to the sound of victorious cheers marching about me.