You all have heard by now that I'm working on a new series - the Empire of War & Wings series - featuring bird magic. Below is deleted scene that still gives you a great look at the world we'll be entering together. I hope that you enjoy it! Small note: Aella is a child in this scene, but she's all grown up into a vibrant sixteen-year-old in the books. <3
Sweat rolled down the girl’s face and her eyes were screwed up in concentration. I wiggled on my father’s shoulder, craning my neck to get a better look at her.
“Hush, Aella,” he said, patting my leg with his callused palm. His bracer with the black shrike stitched into it brushed my leg.
“Forcing it won’t help,” the Wing’s icy voice rang out across the village green. She seemed to enjoy the spectacle. “Hoping won’t help either. Return to your parents.”
The girl ran from the circle into the waiting arms of her mother, her cloak flapped in the wind, the oriole stitched on the back of it rippling orange against the dark fabric. They both looked relieved.
The Wing paced down the line of young people, assessing them one by one and then moving on in clear disgust. I shivered deliciously. This was the most excitement we ever had in Far Reach.
From her fancy imperial clothing to her glittering jewelry and the silver-stitched owl on her breast, the Wing was Imperial from head to toe. She had actual brass buttons on her coat rather than the wood we used in the Far Stones and actual gemstones shone in studs in her ears.
She shook her head as she stopped before Branso, the best looking boy in our village. The crowd hushed in anticipation. Only yesterday, Branso had brashly declared that if anyone would hatch, it would be him. Now, his face was pale and drawn as the Wing shook her dark head and narrowed her black eyes, peering down at him. He stroked the stylized flycatcher sewn into the leg of his breeches as if his family’s bird talisman could help him now.
“There’s nothing in you to Hatch, boy,” the Wing said sharply. “Begone.”
The owl on her shoulder – an owl made of perfect white light – shrieked, spreading its wings for just a moment to emphasize what she said. It disappeared and then reappeared just as suddenly.
Branso stepped back, a look of relief flooding his face.
I didn’t care about Branso. He was always striding around like a rooster but even the youngest of my brothers could work harder and shoot straighter than he could. Flycatchers were all show. They always had been. Ability is much more valuable in Far Reach than looks. Good looks are for Imperials in their cities with their politics. They’re for deceiving – or at least, that’s what my father always said. We don’t have time for semblance in the Far Stones and we never would.
All I cared about in that moment was that owl. Silvery, bright, and radiating power, I hadn’t been able to stop snatching glimpses at him since we first arrived at the green. It was why I’d begged to be put up on my father’s shoulders, even though I was getting too old for that at eight. I touched my own shrike patch, stitched to the breast of my cloak, and wished it was a silver owl like the one the Wing wore. Imagine the power of that sign!
The Wing’s intense gaze turned to the next in the line and I felt my breath catch. She flicked her long sheath of narrow braids over her shoulder and squinted down at my brothers – three of them were the right age. I felt my father tense under me. My sister Raquella reached for his hand, worried.
No one in Far Reach had ever Hatched. It was silly to worry about what wasn’t going o happen … right?
The phantom but all-to-real owl spun its head around to peer in every direction as the Wing flicked a gloved hand dismissively. My father’s shoulders sagged in relief. My brothers wouldn’t be chosen to serve the Wings. They were safe – from that, at least.
The owl coughed. It felt like such a human gesture and I couldn’t help but giggle. His head turned all the way around to look at me as my hand reached up to cover my mouth. Had he heard that? His there-but-not-there eyes narrowed and I held my breath until he looked away.
Whew. What would have happened if he’d kept staring at me? Would the Wing have noticed?
I regarded her fearfully. She certainly had the imagination of every person in the village fixed on her. She seemed not to notice or care.
She wore typical Imperial Wing accouterments – leather gloves to the elbow. A short jacket. Tight trousers and boots. Her clothes were all black except for a vibrant red shirt under the jacket, cut in the sharp style of the Empire with satin edges that shone in the noon sun. The ensemble made her look vaguely military. So did the emblem patches on her shoulders and collar. Everything about her was foreign to us, even though it was supposed to be our Empire, too.
She waved my brothers away with a single motion of her hand, as if they weren’t even worth wasting words on. They scampered into the crowd and I knew they’d be up on the thatched roofs with their friends before I could even call out. Usually, I’d try to chase them up there until they evaded me, but today I wanted to keep an eye on that owl. He was looking at me again.
The Wing stopped in front of Amalia, the innkeeper’s daughter. I liked Amalia. Sometimes she came over to visit my older sisters and demonstrated the new hairstyles on me. She always saw all the latest fashions first when visitors stopped at the inn. Today she wore a leather strap around her forehead, her house bird stitched into it – a rose-breasted grosbeak. She’d already touched a finger to it twice as the Wing settled in front of her. Could her talisman protect her from unnatural power? I doubted it. But then, I knew nothing about power.
The owl cocked his head to the side. He hissed – not at me, at Amalia.
The Wing leaned in, putting a single ebony-gloved finger to her dusky lips as she watched the innkeeper’s daughter. Amalia was six years older than I was. Almost ready to court and marry. But no one was wondering about what farmer or woodsman she might marry right now. All our eyes were on her cupped hands. Inside them, a very faint pink glow dawned.
Amalia trembled, her hands shaking against each other and her lips parted with both anticipation and terror.
I swallowed and bit my own lip.
I didn’t know if I should hope she would Hatch – just so I could see it happen! – or hope that she wouldn’t. If she did, there would be no more visits, no more hairstyles, no more friendship. Amalia would be plucked from our town like a ripe raspberry and we’d never see her again.
The Wing almost smiled at her. Almost. “Blow on it.”
Amalia blew. The glow brightened.
“Speak to it, child.” The Wing sounded excited now, too.
“Hatch,” Amalia said in a trembling voice. Her honey hair rippled in the wind around her and her small voice carried across the village green. No one else made a sound. Not even the boys fidgeting on the thatch roofs.
Come on, Hatch! I could barely keep myself from calling out to her.
“No, not that,” the Wing’s voice was like a whipcrack. “Tell it your hopes. Tell it your dreams.”
“I dream …” Amalia’s voice cracked. And no wonder. She’d had precious little to dream about this year with her mother being carried away by the red fever. Especially now, with this glow in her hands. “I dream of family.”
A ghost of an outline of an egg appeared in her hands.
“More.” The Wing’s words were a caress now, but it was hard not to see the predatory glint in her eye that matched the magic bird perched on her shoulder. He was looking at me again. I stared back, defiantly.
Come and get me, owl. Stop staring and come over here!
Amalia cleared her throat nervously. “I dream of a happy home with children.”
Her father, standing behind her bit his lip at those words, pain searing across his expression for just a moment, as if he knew something that I didn’t.
An egg appeared in her hands – as translucent as the owl on the Wing’s shoulder but slightly pink and glowing brighter and brighter.
“Now, say the word,” the Wing breathed. This time there really was a slight curve to the corners of her mouth – almost a smile. Her lips parted and stayed that way as if she was anticipating a particular pleasure. Everyone else in town shifted uncomfortably, their expressions identical – worried, nervous, expectant.
“Hatch,” Amalia whispered.
Her whisper echoed out over mothers clutching children close. Men holding their pipes in mid-raise. Most touched a talisman, or stroked some of the feathers sewn into their belts. Her friends gripped their skirts or jackets with worry. Most of us had never seen anything happen when a Wing came to town. Certainly not this.
The second drew out, long and tense.
The crowd gasped all at once. I leaned forward, nearly toppling from my father’s shoulders as he fought to keep me upright.
The faint sound shattered the air around me.
A bit of egg shell fell from the glowing egg, disappearing as a little beak popped out. I felt like I could hardly breathe. There was a sudden struggle in Amalia’s hands and a whooshing sound as everyone leaned forward, breathing again.
The little chick emerged from the egg and shook itself.
And now Amalia gasped, her face so full of delight that I wished I could watch it for hours. Warmth flooded me just watching that much joy on another face. She looked up at us all, beaming.
Behind her, her father’s face twisted with grief.
Ragged cheers erupted from behind me as all of Far Reach burst with hesitant joy. Our first Wing had hatched. Amalia Novak was the first of Far Reach to be born with magic in her blood.
I saw adults exchanging glances I couldn’t read. Their cheers were not as loud as the cheers of the children and youth. And while I couldn’t understand what they said with only their eyes, I knew their joy was not as pure as ours. That under it, something else lurked.
Amalia didn’t take her eyes off that little glowing spirit-chick all night. Not when we danced and lit a bonfire for her. Not when the whole town feasted and laughed through the night, watching the sparks fly up into the night sky. Not when my older sisters and the other village girls came to kiss her cheeks and give her small gifts to take with her. Not even when she hugged her father goodbye and left her life behind to follow the Wing and be trained in the ways of magic.
But as obsessed as Amalia was with the chick, I was more obsessed with thinking about her future. What would her life be like now? We never heard stories about what happened after a Hatching. We just saw Wings with their severe looks and powerful authority. Would Amalia return someday to the Far Reach? And when she did, would she look like the Wing who had scooped her up and taken her far from home?
I thought those things privately, too afraid to even speak them out loud as my father and the other men of the village gathered around the innkeeper and whispered in his ears as he watched his daughter ride away. It wasn’t until she was gone that I realized they’d been gripping his arms in their hands, holding him in place.
That strange owl didn’t go with the Wing. It sat up on the roof of the inn until the Wing was out of sight and then it circled around the village once before it screeched and flew away. I could have sworn that it saw me staring at it. I could have sworn it winked at me as if it, too, knew something I didn’t.
It wasn’t until the owl was gone that my father and the other men stepped back from the innkeeper. One of them shoved a bottle into his hand while another gripped his shoulder tightly, still whispering things as the innkeeper slumped against him.
My father’s eyes caught on me and he leaned in to whisper something to the other men. They looked around them with tight eyes and then they ushered the innkeeper back into his inn as my father strode toward me with a tremulous smile on his face.
“Come Aella,” he said. “There’s work to be done. We must be relentless.”