He did not, for example, eat humans.
He did have a doorway to their world, as Madrigal had occasion to learn firsthand when, at the age of ten, she was assigned to be his page.
The youth mistress selected her because of her wings; pure chance. She might as easily have chosen Chiro, but she didn’t. She chose Madrigal, three years an orphan, skinny and inquisitive and lonely, and sent her off with an abstracted command to do as she was told, and keep quiet about what she learned.
What was she going to learn? The secrecy of it at once set young Madrigal’s mind on fire, and it was with wide eyes and jitters that she presented herself in the west tower, to be ushered into the shop by a sweet-faced Naja woman—Issa—and offered tea. She accepted it but didn’t drink, so preoccupied was she with staring at everything: Brimstone, for one thing, bigger up close than she had imagined from her few distant glimpses of him. He hulked behind his desk, ignoring her. In the shadows, his tufted tail switched like a cat’s, making her nervous. She looked around at the shelves and dusty books; she looked at the broad door on its scrollwork bronze hinges that maybe, just maybe, opened to another world; and, of course, she looked at the teeth.
That was unexpected. Everywhere, the clitter-clack of teeth strings, the dusty jars of them, sharp teeth and blunt, huge and strange and tiny as hailstones. Her young fingers itched to touch, but no sooner did the thought enter her mind than, as if he heard it flittering there, Brimstone cut her a look with those slit-pupil eyes of his, and the impulse froze dead. Madrigal froze. He looked away, and she sat rigid for at least an entire minute before venturing one finger out to tap a curled boar tusk—
Oh, his voice! What a thing it was, deep as a catacomb. She should have been afraid, and maybe she was, a little, but the fire in her mind was primary. “What are they all for?” she asked, awed. The first question of many. Very, very many. Brimstone didn’t answer. He only finished the message he was writing out on thick cream paper and sent her off with it to the Warlord’s steward. That was all he wanted her for, to carry messages and run errands, to save Twiga and Yasri scurrying up and down the long spiral stairs. He certainly wasn’t looking for an apprentice.
But once Madrigal learned the fullness of his magic—resurrection! It was nothing less than immortality, the preservation of chimaera and all hope for their freedom and autonomy, forever—she was not content to be a page.
“I could dust the jars for you.”
“I could help. I could make some necklaces, too.”
“Are these alligator or crocodile? How can you tell?”
By way of proving her value, she presented him with sheaves of drawings of possible chimaera configurations. “Here’s a tiger with bull’s horns, see? And this one is a mandrill-cheetah. Could you make that? I bet I could make that.”
She was eager, piping. “I could help.”
Wistful, entranced. “I could learn.”
Determined, incorrigible. “I could learn.”
She didn’t understand why he wouldn’t teach her. Later, she would realize it was that he didn’t want to share the burden with anyone—that it was beautiful, what he did, but terrible, too, and the terrible bountifully outweighed the beautiful. But by the time she understood that, she didn’t care. She was in it.
“Here. Sort these,” Brimstone said to her one day, shoving a tray of teeth across his desk to her. She had been with him a few years, as page, and he had been steadfast in keeping her in that role. Until now.
Issa, Yasri, and Twiga all stopped what they were doing and swung their heads around to stare. Was it… a test? Brimstone ignored them, busy with something in his strongbox, and Madrigal, almost afraid to breathe, slid the tray in front of her and quietly got to work.
They were bear teeth. Brimstone probably expected her to sort them by size, but Madrigal had been watching him for years by then. She held each tooth and… listened to it. She listened with her fingertips, and picked out the few that didn’t feel right—decay, Brimstone told her later—discarded them, and shifted the others into piles by feeling, not size. When she slid the tray back to him, she had the tremendous satisfaction of seeing his eyes go wide and lift up to regard her in an entirely new way.
“Well done,” he told her then, for the first time. Her heart gave a strange surging pang while, in the corner, Issa dabbed at her eyes.
After that, and all the while pretending he was doing no such thing, he began to teach her.
She learned that magic was ugly—a hard bargain with the universe, a calculus of pain. A long time ago, medicine men had flagellated themselves, flaying open their own flesh to access the power of their agony, or even maiming themselves, crushing bones and setting them wrong on purpose to create lifelong reservoirs of pain. There had been a balance then, a natural check when it was one’s own harm that was harvested. Along the way, though, some sorcerers had worked ways to cheat the calculus and draw on the pain of others.
“That’s what teeth are for? A way to cheat?” It seemed a little unsporting. “Poor animals,” Madrigal murmured.
Issa gave her an unusually hard look. “Perhaps you would prefer to torture slaves.”
It was so awful, and so uncharacteristic, that Madrigal could only stare at her. It would be years before she learned what Issa meant—it would be the eve of her own death when Brimstone finally talked freely to her—and she would be ashamed that she had never figured it out for herself. His scars. That should have made it obvious—the network of scars, so ancient-seeming on his hide, fine crisscrossed whip splits all over his shoulders and back. But how could she have guessed? Even with all that she had seen—the sack of her mountain village, the dead and the lost, and the sieges she had fought in—she had no foundation for the horror that had been Brimstone’s early life, and he did not enlighten her then.
He taught her teeth and how to draw power from them, how to manipulate the residue of life and pain in them to bring forth bodies as real as natural flesh. It was a magic of his own devising, not something he’d learned, but invented, and the same with the hamsas. They weren’t tattoos at all, but a part of the very conjuring, so that bodies came into existence already marked, infused with magic in a way no natural body could be.
Revenants—as the resurrected were called—didn’t have to tithe pain for power; it was already done. The hamsas were a magical weapon paid for with the pain of their last death.
It was the lot of soldiers to die again and again. “Death, death, and death,” as Chiro put it. There were just never enough of them. New soldiers were always coming up—the children of Loramendi and all of the free holdings, trained from the time they could grip a weapon—but the battle tolls were high. Even with resurrection, chimaera existed at the edge of annihilation.
“The beasts must be destroyed,” thundered Joram after his every address to his war council; the angels were like the long shadow of death, and all chimaera lived in its chill.
When the chimaera won a battle, the gleaning was easy. The survivors went over land and city for all the corpses of the slain and drew out every soul to bring back to Brimstone. When they were defeated, though they risked death to save the souls of their fallen comrades, many were left behind and lost forever.
The incense in the thuribles lured the souls from their bodies. In a thurible, properly sealed, souls could be preserved indefinitely. In the open, prey to the elements, it was only a matter of days before they evanesced, teased apart like breath on wind, and ceased to exist.
Evanescence was not, in itself, a grim fate. It was the way of things, to be unmade; it happened in natural death, every day. And to a revenant who had lived in body after body, died death after death, evanescence could seem like a dream of peace. But the chimaera could ill afford to let soldiers go.
“Would you want to live forever,” Brimstone had asked Madrigal once, “only to die again and again, in agony?”
And over the years, she saw what it did to him, to thrust that fate on so many good creatures who were never let to go to their rest, how it bowed his head and wearied him and left him staring and morose.
Becoming a revenant was what Chiro spoke of, hard-eyed, while Madrigal tried to decide whether to marry Thiago. It was a fate she could choose now to escape. Thiago wanted her “pure”; he would see that she stayed that way—already, he was manipulating his commanders to keep her battalion away from danger. If she chose him, she would never bear the hamsas. She would never go into battle again.
And maybe that would be for the best—for herself, and for her comrades, too. She alone knew how unfit she was for it. She hated to kill—even angels. She had never told anyone what she’d done at Bullfinch two years earlier, sparing that seraph’s life. And not just sparing it, but saving it! What madness had come over her? She had bound his wound. She had caressed his face. A wave of shame always rose in her at the memory—at least she chose to call it shame that quickened her pulse and flushed her face with delicate color.
How hot the angel’s skin had been, like fever, and his eyes, like fire.
She was haunted with wondering if he had lived. She hoped he had not, and that any evidence of her treason had died right there, in the Bullfinch mist. Or so she told herself.
It was only in moments of waking, with the lace edge of a dream still light in her grasp, that the truth came clear. She dreamed the angel alive. She hoped him alive. She denied it, but it persisted, rising in flashes to startle her, always accompanied by a quickening of the blood, a flush, and strange, rushing frissons of sensation all the way to her fingertips.
She sometimes thought that Brimstone knew. Once or twice when the memory had caught her unaware, that rush and shiver, he had looked up from his work as if something had captured his attention. Kishmish, perched on his horn, would look, too, and both of them would stare at her unblinking. But whatever Brimstone knew or didn’t know, he never said a word about it, just as he didn’t say a word about Thiago, though he had to know that Madrigal’s choice was heavy in her mind.
And that evening, at the ball, it would be decided, one way or the other.
Something is going to happen.
She told herself that when she stood before Thiago, she would know what to do. Blush and curtsy, dance with him, play the shy maiden while smiling an unmistakable invitation? Or stand aloof, ignore his advances, and remain a soldier?
“Come on,” said Chiro, shaking her head as if Madrigal were a lost cause. “Nwella will have something you can wear, but you’ll have to take what she gives you, and no complaining.”
“All right,” sighed Madrigal. “To the baths, then. To make ourselves shiningly clean.”
Like vegetables, she thought, before they go in the stew.
“No,” said Madrigal, looking in the mirror. “Oh no. No no. No.”
Nwella did indeed have a gown for her. It was midnight-blue shot silk, a form-skimming sheath so fine it felt like a touch could dissolve it. It was arrayed with tiny crystals that caught the light and beamed it back like stars, and the whole back was open, revealing the long white channel of Madrigal’s spine all the way to her tailbone. It was alarming. Back and shoulders and arms and chest. Far too much chest. “No.” She started to shrug out of it, but Chiro stopped her.
“Remember what I said: no complaining.”
“I take it back. I reserve my right to complain.”
“Too late. It’s your fault, anyway. You had a week to get a gown. You see what happens when you dither? Others make your choices for you.”
Madrigal thought that she wasn’t talking about the gown. “What? Is this a punishment, then?”
At her other side, Nwella chuffed. She was a frail thing of lizard aspect who had been with Madrigal and Chiro at school, but parted from them when they went to battle training and she into royal service. “Punishment? Making you stunning, you mean? Look at yourself.”
Madrigal did look, and what she saw was skin. The most delicate interweaving of individual silk strands climbed around her neck, invisibly holding the gown to her body. “I look na**d.”
“You look astonishing,” said Nwella, who was seamstress to the Warlord’s younger wives, the very youngest of whom were, to put it kindly, unyoung. The Warlord had seen fit to stop imposing himself on new brides some centuries earlier. Like Brimstone, he was of natural flesh, and looked it. Thiago, his firstborn, was some hundreds of years old, though he wore the skin of a young man, and the hamsas to go with it.
As Madrigal had said, the general’s fetish for purity was hypocrisy: He himself had been through many resurrections, and his hypocrisy was twofold—not only was he not “pure,” he had not been born high-human.
The Warlord was Hartkind, with a stag’s head: creature aspect, as were his wives, and so had been Thiago, originally. It wasn’t that it was unusual for a revenant to resurrect in a body unlike his or her natural one; Brimstone couldn’t always match them. It was a matter of time and tooth supply. But Thiago’s bodies were another matter. They were crafted to his precise specifications, and even before they were needed, so that he could examine them for flaws and give his approval. She had seen it once: Thiago checking over a na**d replica of himself—the husk that would receive him the next time he died. It had been macabre.
She tested her gown with little tugs, feeling certain that too heavy a hand in dancing could pull it clean off. “Nwella,” she implored, “don’t you have something more… substantial?”
“Not for you,” Nwella said. “A figure like that, why would you want to cover it?” She whispered something to Chiro.