The moon wasn’t helping. Though the sun was out—it was full, effulgent afternoon—Nitid had already appeared in the sky, as if Madrigal actually needed a sign. Nitid was the bright moon, the elder sister, and there had been a belief among the Kirin that when Nitid rose early it meant she was eager, and that something was going to happen. Well, this evening something was certainly going to happen, but Madrigal did not yet know what.
It was up to her. Taut within her, her unmade decision felt like a bow strung too tight.
A shadow, a wing-stirred wind, and her sister Chiro was sweeping down to land beside her. “Here you are,” she said. “Hiding.”
“I’m not—” Madrigal started to protest, but Chiro wasn’t hearing it.
“Get up.” She kicked Madrigal’s hooves. “Up up up. I’ve come to take you to the baths.”
“Baths? Are you trying to tell me something?” Madrigal sniffed herself. “I’m almost sure I don’t smell.”
“Maybe not, but between shining cleanliness and not smelling, there is a vast gray area.”
Like Madrigal, Chiro had bat wings; unlike her, she was of creature aspect, with the head of a jackal. They were not blood sisters. When Madrigal was orphaned by the slave raid that claimed her tribe, the survivors had come to Loramendi—a handful of elders with the few babes they’d managed to hide in the caves, and Madrigal. She was seven, and had not been taken only because she wasn’t there. She’d been up the peak gathering the shed skins of air elementals from their abandoned nests, and had returned to ruin, corpses, loss. Her parents were among the taken, not the dead, and for a long time she had dreamed she would find them and set them free, but the Empire was vast, and swallowed its slaves whole, and it got harder to hold on to that dream as she grew up.
In Loramendi, Chiro’s family, of the desert Sab race, had been chosen to foster her chiefly because, being winged, they could keep up with her. She and Chiro had grown up side by side, as good as sisters in all but blood.
Chiro’s haunches were cat, caracal to be precise, and when she melted to a crouch beside Madrigal, her pose was sphinxlike. “For the ball,” she said, “I would hope that you would aspire to shining cleanliness.”
Madrigal sighed. “The ball.”
“You did not forget,” said Chiro. “Don’t pretend you did.”
She was right, of course. Madrigal had not forgotten. How could she?
“Up.” Chiro kicked her feet again. “Up up up.”
“Stop it,” muttered Madrigal, staying where she was and halfheartedly kicking back.
Chiro said, “Tell me you’ve at least got a dress and a mask.”
“When would I have gotten a dress and a mask? I’ve only been back from Ezeret for—”
“For a week, which is plenty of time. Honestly, Mad, it’s not like this is just another ball.”
Exactly, Madrigal thought. If it were, she wouldn’t be hiding on the roof, trying to block out the thing that loomed over her, that sent her heartbeat skittering like scorpion-mice whenever she thought of it. She would be getting ready, excited for the biggest festival of the year: the Warlord’s birthday.
“Thiago will be looking at you,” Chiro said, as if it could possibly have slipped her mind.
“Leering, you mean.” Leering, peering, licking his teeth, and waiting for a gesture.
“As you deserve to be leered at. Come on, it’s Thiago. Don’t tell me it doesn’t excite you.”
Did it? The general Thiago—“the White Wolf”—was a force of nature, brilliant and deadly, bane of angels and architect of impossible victories. He was also beautiful, and Madrigal’s flesh was ever unquiet around him, though she couldn’t exactly tell if it was arousal or fear. He had let it be known he was ready to marry again, and who it was he favored: her. His attention made her feel warm and skittish, pliant and inconsequential and at the same time rebellious, as if his overwhelming presence was something that needed to be worked against, lest she lose herself in the grand, consuming shadow of him.
It was left to her to encourage his suit or not. It wasn’t romantic, but she couldn’t say that it wasn’t exhilarating.
Thiago was powerful and as perfectly muscled as a statue, of high-human aspect, with legs that changed at the knees not to antelope legs as her own did, but to the huge padded paws of a wolf, covered in silken white fur. His hair was silken white too, though his face was young, and Madrigal had once glimpsed his chest, through a gap in the curtain of his campaign tent, and knew it, also, was furred white.
She’d been striding past as a steward rushed out, and she’d seen the general being suited in his armor. Flanked by attendants, his arms outstretched in the moment before his leather chestplate was fitted into place, his torso was a stunning V of masculine power, narrowing to slim hips, breeches clinging low beneath the ridges of perfect abdominal muscles. It was only a glimpse, but the image of him half-clad had stayed in Madrigal’s mind ever since. A whisper of a thrill came over her at the thought of him.
“Well, maybe a little excited,” she admitted, and Chiro giggled. The girlish sound struck a false note, and Madrigal thought with a pang that her sister was jealous. It made her more sensible of the honor of being Thiago’s choice. He could have anyone he wanted, and he wanted her.
But did she want him? If she did, truly, wouldn’t it be easy? Wouldn’t she be at the baths already, getting perfumed and oiled and daydreaming of his touch? A small shudder went through her. She told herself it was nerves.
“What do you think he would do if… if I rejected him?” she ventured.
Chiro was scandalized. “Reject him? You must be feverish.” She touched Madrigal’s brow. “Have you eaten today? Are you drunk?”
“Oh, stop,” said Madrigal, pushing Chiro’s hand away. “It’s just… I mean, can you picture, you know… being with him?” When Madrigal pictured it, she imagined Thiago heavy and breathing and… biting; it made her want to back into a corner. But then, she didn’t have much to go on by way of experience; maybe she was simply nervous, and altogether wrong about him.
“Why would I imagine it?” asked Chiro. “It’s not like he’d have me.” There was no detectable bitterness in her voice. If anything, it was a touch too bright.
She meant, of course, her aspect—chimaera races did intermarry, though such unions were restricted by aspect—but there was more to it than that. Even if she were high-human, Chiro would not satisfy Thiago’s other criterion. That one was not a matter of caste. It was his own fetish, and it was Madrigal’s luck—good luck or bad, she hadn’t yet decided—to qualify. Unlike Chiro’s, her own hands were not marked by the hamsas, with all that they signified. She had never awakened on a stone table to the lingering scent of revenant smoke. Her palms were blank.
She was still “pure.”
“It’s such hypocrisy,” she said. “His fetish for purity. He isn’t pure himself! He isn’t even—”
Chiro cut her off. “Yes, well, he’s Thiago, isn’t he? He can be whoever he wants. Unlike some of us.” There was a barb in that, directed at Madrigal, which accomplished what all her kicking had not. Madrigal sat up abruptly.
“Some of us,” she replied, “should learn to appreciate what they have. Brimstone said—”
“Oh, Brimstone said, Brimstone said. Has the almighty Brimstone deigned to give you any advice about Thiago?”
“No,” said Madrigal. “He has not.”
She supposed Brimstone must know that Thiago was courting her, if you could call it that, but he hadn’t brought it up, and she was glad. There was a sanctity in Brimstone’s presence, a purity of purpose possessed by no one else. His every breath was devoted to his work, his brilliant, beautiful, and terrible work. The underground cathedral, the shop with its dust-laden air pervaded by the whispering vibrations of thousands of teeth; not least its tantalizing doorway, and the world to which it led. It was, all of it, a fascination to Madrigal.
She spent as much of her free time with Brimstone as she could get away with. It had taken her years of badgering, but she had actually succeeded in getting him to teach her—a first for him—and she felt far more pride in his trust than she did in Thiago’s lust.
Chiro said, “Well, maybe you should ask him, if you really can’t decide what to do.”
“I’m not going to ask him,” said Madrigal, irritated. “I’ll deal with this myself.”
“Deal with it? Poor you with your problems. Not everyone gets such a chance, Madrigal. To be Thiago’s wife? To trade in leathers for silks, and barracks for a palace, to be safe, to be loved, to have status, to bear children and grow old…” Chiro’s voice was shaking, and Madrigal knew what she was going to say next. She wished she wouldn’t; she was already ashamed. Her problem was no problem at all, not to Chiro, who wore the hamsas.
Chiro, who knew what if felt like to die.
Chiro’s hand went with a flutter to her heart, where a seraph arrow had pierced her in the siege of Kalamet last year, and killed her. She said, “Mad, you have a chance to grow old in the skin you were born in. Some of us have only more death to look forward to. Death, death, and death.”
Madrigal looked at her own bare palms and said, “I know.”
It was the secret at the core of the chimaera resistance, the thing that plagued angels, kept them awake at night, strummed at their minds and clawed at their souls. It was the answer to the mystery of beast armies that, like nightmares, kept coming and coming, never diminishing, no matter how many of them the seraphim slaughtered.
When Chiro took the arrow at Kalamet a year ago, Madrigal was at her side. She held her while she died, blood frothing at her sharp dog teeth as she kicked and jerked and finally fell still. Madrigal did what she had trained to do, and what she had done many times before, though never for so close a friend.
With steady hands, she lit the incense in the thurible that hung, lantern-like, from the end of her gleaning staff—the long, curved crook that chimaera soldiers carried strapped to their backs—and she waited as the smoke wreathed around Chiro. Arrows rained down, profuse and dangerously near, but she didn’t leave until it was done. Two minutes to be certain; that was the standard. Two minutes felt like two hours in the thickness of arrows, but Madrigal didn’t retreat. There might not be another chance. A furious seraph sally was driving them back from the Kalamet wall. She could drag Chiro’s body with her, or she could complete the gleaning and leave it behind.
What was not an option was to leave it with Chiro’s soul trapped in it.
When Madrigal did finally fall back, she took her foster sister’s soul with her, safe within her thurible, just one of many souls she would glean that day. The bodies were left to rot. Bodies were just bodies, just things.
Back in Loramendi, Brimstone would already be making new ones.
Brimstone was a resurrectionist.
He didn’t breathe life back into the torn bodies of the battle-slain; he made bodies. This was the magic wrought in the cathedral under the earth. Out of the merest relics—teeth—Brimstone conjured new bodies in which to sleeve the souls of slain warriors. In this way, the chimaera army held up, year after year, against the superior might of the angels.
Without him, and without teeth, the chimaera would fold. It wasn’t even a question. They would fall.
“This is for Chiro,” Madrigal had said, handing Brimstone a necklace of teeth. Human, bat, caracal, and jackal. She had labored over it for hours, neither sleeping nor eating since her return from Kalamet. Her eyelids were lead weights. She had handled every jackal tooth in the jar and listened to each until she was certain she had the most favorable—the cleanest, smoothest, sharpest, strongest. The same with the other teeth, and the gems strung with them: jade for grace, diamonds for strength and beauty. Diamonds were a luxury not usually accorded a common soldier, but Madrigal had used them defiantly, and Brimstone let her.
He needed only hold the necklace for a moment to see that it was correct. As he had taught her, she had strung teeth and gems in careful configuration for the conjuring of a body. If they were strung in a different order, the body would manifest accordingly: bat head, perhaps, instead of jackal, human legs instead of caracal. It was part recipe and part intuition, and Madrigal was certain this necklace was perfect.
Resurrected, Chiro would look almost exactly as she had in her original flesh.
“Well done,” Brimstone said, and then he did something rare: He touched her. One big hand came to rest briefly on the back of her neck before he turned away.
She blushed, proud; Issa saw and smiled. A “well done” from Brimstone was uncommon enough; the touch was something special. Everything between the two of them was uncommon, really, and hard-won on Madrigal’s part.
Brimstone was a hermit, rarely seen outside his domain in Loramendi’s west tower. When he did make an appearance, it was at the left hand of the Warlord, and he inspired equal reverence, though of a different sort. The two of them were living myths, almost gods. It was they, after all, who had orchestrated the uprising in Astrae that left their angel masters dead in lakes of blood, and the survivors foundering for years to come as the chimaera found their footing as a people and gouged huge swaths of land back from the Empire to establish the free holdings.
The Warlord’s role was clear—he had been the general, the face and voice of the rebellion, and he was beloved as the father of the allied races. But Brimstone’s part in things was shadowier, and his fearsome persona rendered him a figure of mystery and speculation, rather than adulation. He was the subject of many imaginative rumors—some of which hit on the truth, others nowhere near.