A spear of loud, shrill noise pierced Lydia’s mind, and she started awake. Blinking, her senses returned as she recognized her small but comfortable bedroom, the walls still a deep purple as the curtains blocked out lavender daylight that was just beginning to melt into velvet. But the noise was harsh, creeping quietly only to dramatically rise in pitch, and then drop back again for its next tide. Lydia grit her teeth, but then her spine shot straight and her wings flared.
That was the alarm.
Lydia was out of bed and into a long-sleeved, pale green robe over her sleeping gown before her mind had registered the motions. She yanked her door open and slipped through it, sprinting down the suddenly long stone hallway to get to the corner, where the tower of stairs would lead her up to the main parts of the palace. Shoulders and partially drawn wings dragged at her and skewed her course as people ran about preparing, either to fight or hide she wasn’t sure. She swam through them until her fingers latched onto the corner of the stairway and she flung herself in.
One spiraling staircase, a wooden door. The floor of the guards’ quarters, higher than that of the servants so that they could reach the royal family and the city faster. Another spiral, and another wooden door. The kitchens and cleaning rooms. Third staircase, a gold-gilded door. Lydia hesitated. The first floor of the palace, rooms like the entry hall, ballrooms, dining rooms. The throne room. But the guards would go there first, and so Lydia wasn’t needed there. Thew few people she’d run into on the stairs brushed past her as they exited. She kept going up, faster, her wings spreading a few inches so that her toes skimmed the stone steps.
She didn’t let her breath catch as she pushed open the fifth door, the dark, rough stone of the stairs smoothing into the cool, pale floor tinged with color from the daylight trickling in. Lydia did stop then. The hall was silent, eerily serene. Down one end was the princess’ rooms, and the other, the princes’. She exhaled slowly and began to move, keeping her arm against the wall and her steps light, knowing exactly how to sneak about after years of practice.
She reached a strong metal door, looking deceivingly delicate with sapphire set into the designs. Celme’s room, the youngest princess. Lydia rested her fingers against the door but bit her lip and looked farther down, at Hanna’s and then Ketura’s doors. But then she heard it.
Nearly silent, muffled both by the door and the need to remain quiet, small whimpers drifted to Lydia’s ears, and that made her decision. The small entryway greeted her, but it looked untouched. She headed straight for the door directly across the room, decorated with wrought metal pink roses and periwinkle wildflowers.
Pushing the door open, Lydia gasped as she looked around the room. The thick, navy curtain had been drawn across the windows, but clumsily as light still trickled through and the rings holding them up were unevenly spaced on their bar. The bed sheets were tangled and messy, and each door leading to the princess’ other chambers was slightly open. The whimpers had stopped, but Lydia still heard muffled breathing.
“Celme,” she called quietly. She knew she was most likely under the bed, and Lydia was impatient to find the others and find out why the Kelaan no guards were here, but scaring the poor barely-century-old even more by reaching out and grabbing her would do no good.
“Selly,” she tried again, using the child’s pet name in the hopes it would comfort and reassure her enough to come out. “It’s Lydia. Please come out, little light, I need you.”
A mess of brunette curls appeared from under the sheets pooled over the edge of the bed, tilting up to reveal watery chocolate eyes set in a paler-than-usual face. Lydia sighed softly and knelt, scooping Celme into her arms as she whimpered quietly.
“Lydia, I’m scared,” she whined. “Why’s the alarm going? It’s so loud. I was sleeping,” she pulled back to look up, pouting as if it was Lydia’s fault. The servant tried not to laugh, the expression–complete with the eyes and hair–was so like the princess’s other family members.
“I don’t know, but we’ve got to find out,” Lydia answered honestly. “We’ve got to find Avi first, and then your older siblings, alright?”
“He’s here,” Celme said quietly, pulling out of Lydia’s hold to run to the closet, small, pale grey wings only half-tucked into her sparkly pink nightdress. Lydia never did understand how she could sleep comfortably in all the taffeta. She opened the door to her bathing room, and a mop of hair almost identical to his sister appeared. They were only a decade apart, after all. Avi’s mouth was set in a line, though his shaking bottom lip betrayed how hard he was trying to be tough. He nearly sprinted to Lydia and threw his arms and wings out around her neck, and Lydia tried not to get a mouthful of downy toddler wings.
“Avi,” she breathed in relief. That was the youngest down, and now she could work her way up. She stood and they each latched onto a side of her robe, and all three walked as quickly as the young royals’ legs could carry them out of the room.
Hanna watched the distance between her golden home and herself grow quickly, the palace becoming a more faded beacon each time she blinked the wind and her hair out of her eyes. She grit her teeth and urged herself to stop each time the sight grew blurry because of water. A thin, delicate-looking rope bound her wrists, but despite her best efforts it did not so much as strain when she tried to pull herself free. By it she was dragged through the darkening sky, but the glowing stranger in front of her. Each small movement of her wings, forced to open so that she didn’t plummet to her death, was torture, a literal puppet on a string.
“Where are we going?” she screamed, not caring that after the fourteenth time her voice was becoming painfully screechy. She glared at the man who held the enchanted–it had to be–string and flew in front of her, as if he would combust if she kept it up long enough.
“I am taking you to our home,” he answered, the first time she’d heard his voice. Hanna felt her body begin to loosen its tension and her mind grow calm as his voice drifted to her ears. It was the music of string instruments, somehow solidified and dipped in honey and silk, and it spread warmth from her fingers to the tips of each feather.
She shook her head violently. “And where is that?” she forced her jaw to bite around the words.
From the moment she’d opened her eyes to find a man standing above her bed, his hands over her mouth and around her wrists, the flame of her resolve and fortitude had drifted between raging and dwindling. He was more than a strange man, he was…foreign. And unsettlingly familiar. He was pale, but his face was all elegant angles and jewel eyes, his hair like caramel as the light brown and gold swirled together in curls. But she’d regained her sense, not caring that her kidnapper was gorgeous. She’d struggled and managed to make enough noise to alert the guards in the hall, and as he’d dragged her bound wrists to one of the large windows she’d heard the sirens begin. She’d heard her door open and her brother —
But then they were outside, and he had begun to fly. And his wings had undone her mind again. They were white, a pure, glowing white unlike any color Hanna had ever seen. And yet, it did not hurt to look at, instead it filled her rebelling spirit with awe and…gratitude. He was not an angel, not like the citizens of Atayhara. He was strange, foreign. Otherworldly.
“Lydia!” a female voice half-called, half-screamed over the ever-present alarms. Lydia managed to look just as Keura reached them, and Celme and Avi immediately released Lydia to grasp their eldest sister. Ketura reached down and held each of their heads, but fixed her piercing gaze on Lydia.
“Do you know what’s going on?” she demanded, and Lydia shook her head before hurrying down the hall. She heard the siblings behind her, but didn’t slow or look back. They had to find Hanna and Tehra, and then…well, they’d decide that in a few moments.
Hanna’s kidnapper flew faster than anyone she’d ever seen, covering the 300 miles in what couldn’t have been more than a few hours. It took even her father half a day. Looking down, she could see the details of the ridges and streams of water decorating the Gold Mountains.
“No,” she breathed. This was the end of Atayhara, the edge of her home, of her safety, of her life and her world. Beyond were the demons and the darkness, the dirt-eaters and all beings with teeth who cared only for blood and pain. Hanna screamed, and felt the tears begin to finally break free and coat her cheeks but she did not care.
“Hush, child,” the man spoke, and Hanna screams ceased in her throat, but her tears remained flowing. “You have no use for fear, I am taking you home.”
“Where is that? Who are you?” she sobbed as the mountaintops were directly below her. The light itself was ending, a red darkness not even penetrated by the golden stars she’d watched live and die forever from her balcony. “Please,” she begged.
She thought she heard a sigh, but the rope remained tight and pulled taut between her and him. “My name is Gabriel. Stop crying, child, stop fearing.”
Lydia reached Tehra’s door and glanced back to see Ketura pushing open Hanna’s. Lydia applied her own force and the door swung open, as wide as the others inside the prince’s chambers. She felt the air leave her in a gasp, at the same moment Ketura screamed. Lydia immediately began to double back, but a strong grip on her wrist recaptured her attention.
“Hanna’s gone,” Tehra said, face like stone though his eyes were molten bronze with anger. “That’s what Ketura’s found, that’s what I found moments ago. Now, are you coming?”
“What?” Lydia responded sharply, trying to buy her mind a moment to process. She looked behind Tehra into the room, his belongings thrown around haphazardly except for the leather bag underneath the window.
“I’m going to get her back, it wasn’t long ago we can catch up to them,” he explained hurriedly, his voice rougher by the word.
“Them?” Lydia caught, but he just nodded, releasing her arm and striding to the wide open window. He bent and fastened the bag on his back, the wide strap fitting across his chest and down the middle of his back.
He turned to face her fully, his face shadow and stone, eyes glowing, despite the slowly ebbing daylight. Silver gleamed, catching Lydia’s sight, and she looked at the thin, slightly curved blade held against his forearm. His bronze wings spread to their full length, and Lydia felt her body turn still as he truly looked like the beautiful but powerful archangel that he was. He was taller than her by quite a few inches, but the span of his fully spread wings could easily fit her entire body twice over.
“I’m going to get my sister,” he said, his tone quiet but absolute. “You can come with me, or not. I don’t know where she’s being taken, or by who, but I have to go.”
With that, he leapt out of his window, immediately rising above the edge of the frame and out of sight. Lydia swallowed, felt her own feathers brush against the thin cloth of her robe, and ran out the window after him.