“Stop conspiring,” Madrigal said. “Can’t I have a shawl at least?”

“No,” they said together.

“I feel almost as na**d as at the baths.”

She had never in her life felt so exposed as when she’d walked through the steam and thigh-deep water with Chiro that afternoon. Everyone knew now that she was Thiago’s choice, and every pair of eyes in the women’s bath had inspected her, so that she wanted to sink down out of sight, leaving just her horns spiking through the surface of the water.

“Let Thiago see what he’s getting,” Nwella said, devilish.

Madrigal stiffened. “Who said he’s getting it?” It, she heard herself say. The word felt appropriate, as if she were some inanimate thing, a gown on a hanger. “Me,” she corrected. “Who said he’s getting me?”

Nwella laughed off the idea that Madrigal might refuse him. “Here.” She came forward with a mask. “We will permit you to cover your face.” It was a bird with its wings spread, carved of lightweight kaza wood, black and embellished with dark feathers that fanned out from the sides of her face. In shifts of light, rainbows of iridescence rippled over the feathers.

“Ah. Good. No one will know who I am now,” Madrigal remarked, wry. Her wings and horns eluded disguise.

The Warlord’s ball was a masquerade, a “come-as-you-aren’t.” Chimaera of human aspect wore the faces of creatures, while those of beast aspect wore carven human likenesses, exaggerated to ridiculous proportion. It was the one night of the year for folly and pretend, the one night that fell outside normal life, but for Madrigal, this year, it was anything but. It was, rather, a night to decide her life.

With a sigh, she gave in to her friends’ ministrations. She sat on a stool and let them define her eyes with kohl, rouge her lips with rose-petal paste, and string lengths of ultrafine gold chain between her horns in tiers, suspended with tiny crystal drops that winked in the light. Chiro and Nwella giggled as if they were preparing a bride for her wedding night, and it struck Madrigal that it well could be, if not in ceremony, at least in one way.

If she accepted Thiago, it was unlikely she would be returning to the barracks tonight.

She shivered, imagining his clawed hands on her flesh. What would it be like? She had never made love—in that way, too, she was “pure,” as she imagined Thiago must know. She thought about it, of course she thought about it. She was of age; her body coursed with urges, just like anyone’s, and chimaera weren’t puritanical about sex. Madrigal had just never come to a moment when it had felt right.

“There. You’re finished,” said Chiro. She and Nwella pulled Madrigal to her feet and stood back from her to survey their work. “Oh,” breathed Nwella. There was a pause, and when Chiro spoke again, her voice was flat. She said, “You’re beautiful.”

It didn’t sound like a compliment.

After Kalamet, when Chiro had awakened in the cathedral, Madrigal was there beside her. “You’re all right,” she assured her, as Chiro’s eyes fluttered open. It was Chiro’s first resurrection, and revenants said it could be disorienting. Madrigal hoped that in matching the new body so closely to her sister’s original flesh, she could ease her transition. “You’re all right,” she said again, clasping Chiro’s hand with its hamsa, symbol of her new status. She told her, “Brimstone let me make your body. I used diamonds.” Conspiratorial. “Don’t tell anyone.”

She helped Chiro sit up. The fur of her cat haunches was soft, and the flesh of her human arms was, too. Jerkily, Chiro touched her new skin—hips, ribs, human breasts. Her hand climbed eagerly up her neck to her head, felt the fur there, and the jackal muzzle, and froze.

The sound she made was like choking, and at first Madrigal thought it was only the problem of a newly made throat and a mouth that had never yet formed speech. But it wasn’t.

Chiro threw off Madrigal’s hand. “You did this?”

Madrigal backed up a step. “It’s… it’s perfect,” she said, faltering. “It’s almost exactly like your real—”

“And that’s all I merit? Beast aspect? Thank you, my sister. Thank you.”

“Chiro—”

“You couldn’t have made me high-human? What are a few teeth to you? To Brimstone?”

The idea had never even entered Madrigal’s mind. “But… Chiro. This is you.”

“Me.” Her voice was changed; it had a deeper tone than her original voice, and Madrigal couldn’t tell how much of this was its newness, but whatever else it was, it was acid, and ugly. “Would you want to be me?”

Hurt and confused, Madrigal said, “I don’t understand.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” said Chiro. “You’re beautiful.”

Later, she had apologized. It was the shock, she said. The new body had felt tight, unyielding; she could barely breathe. Once she grew accustomed to it, she praised its strength, its lithe movement. She could fly faster than before; her movements were whip-quick, her teeth and eyesight sharper. She said she was like a violin that had been tuned—the same, but better.

“Thank you, my sister,” she said, and seemed to mean it.

But Madrigal remembered the spiteful way she had said, “You’re beautiful.” She sounded like that now.

Nwella was more exuberant. “So beautiful!” she sang. A frown creased her scaled brow, and she plucked at the charm that hung around Madrigal’s neck. “This, of course, will have to go,” she said, but Madrigal pulled away.

“No,” she said, closing her hand around it.

“Just for tonight, Mad,” coaxed Nwella. “It just isn’t fit for the occasion.”

“Leave it,” said Madrigal, and that was that. The tone of her voice dissuaded Nwella from pressing the issue.

“Okay,” she said with a sigh, and Madrigal spilled her wishbone from her cupped palm so that it settled back in its place, where her clavicles met. It wasn’t beautiful or fine, just a bone, and she saw plainly that it did not do justice to her decolletage, but she didn’t care. It was what she wore.

Nwella regarded it, pained, and then turned to rummage in her drawer of cosmetic tubes and ointments. “Here, then. At the very least.” She came up with a silver bowl and a big soft brush, and before Madrigal knew what was happening Nwella had dusted her chest, neck, and shoulders with something that glittered.

“What—?”

“Sugar,” she said, giggling.

“Nwella!” Madrigal tried to brush it off, but it was dust-fine and it clung: sugar powder, which girls wore when they planned to be tasted. If her rose-petal lips and na**d back were not enough invitation to Thiago, Madrigal thought, this certainly was. Its telltale shimmer might as well have been a sign that said LICK ME.

“You don’t look like a soldier now,” said Nwella.

It was true. She looked like a girl who had made her choice. Had she? Everyone thought she had, which almost felt like the same thing. But it wasn’t too late. She could decide not to go to the ball at all—that would send quite the opposite message of showing up sugared. She had only to decide what she wanted.

She held herself framed in the mirror for a long beat. She felt dizzy, as if the future were rushing at her.

It was, though at that moment, she could have no notion that it was coming for her with invisible wings and eyes that no mask could disguise, and that her choices, such as they were, would soon be swept away like dust on a wingbeat, leaving in their place the unthinkable.

Love.

“Let’s go,” she said, and she linked arms with Chiro and Nwella, and went out to meet it.

51

THE SERPENTINE

Loramendi’s main thoroughfare, the Serpentine, became a processional route on the Warlord’s birthday. The custom was to dance its length, moving from partner to masked partner all the way to the agora, the city’s gathering place. The ball was there, under thousands of lanterns strung like stars from the bars of the Cage, making it, for a night, a miniature world with its own firmament.

Madrigal plunged into the crowd with her friends, as she had in years past, but this year, she realized at once, things were different.

She might have been masked, but she was not disguised—her appearance was far too distinctive—and she might have been sugared, but no one took the sparkle of her shoulders as an invitation. They knew she was not for them. In the wild merriment of the street, she was as apart as if she were drifting along in a crystal sphere.

Again and again, Chiro and Nwella were swept into strangers’ embraces and kissed, mask to mask. That was tradition: a spinning, stamping dance punctuated liberally with kisses, to celebrate unity among the races. Musicians were grouped at intervals so that merrymakers were passed from melody to melody as from hand to hand, with never a lull. Wild music spun them along, but no one swept Madrigal up. Several times some soldier started toward her—one even grabbed her hand—but always there was a friend there to pull him back and whisper a warning. Madrigal couldn’t hear what was said, but she could imagine it.

She is Thiago’s.

No one touched her. She drifted through the revelry alone.

Where was Thiago, she wondered, her eyes darting from mask to mask. She would get a glimpse of long white hair or wolf aspect and her heart would jump at the thought that it was him, but each time it was someone else. The long white hair belonged to an old woman, and Madrigal had to laugh at her own skittishness.

Every citizen of Loramendi was in the streets, but somehow space opened around her and she moved alone, following in her friends’ wake toward the agora. Thiago would be there, she guessed, probably standing with his father on the palace balcony, watching the crowd surge as the procession spilled wave after wave of chimaera into the square.

He would be watching for her.

Unconsciously, she slowed her steps. Nwella and Chiro went whirling on ahead in their masks, kissing. For the most part they just touched the lips of their masks to the lips—beaks, muzzles, maws—of other masks, but there were real kisses, too, with no regard to aspect. Madrigal knew what it was like from previous festivals, the grasswine breath of strangers, the nuzzle of a tiger’s whiskered jaw, or a dragon’s, or a man’s. But not tonight.

Tonight, she was in isolation—eyes were on her but not hands, and certainly not lips. The Serpentine seemed a very long stretch to go alone.

Then someone took her elbow. The touch jarred her, coming as it did to end her apartness. Thinking it must be Thiago, she stiffened.

But no. The one at her side wore a horse mask of molded leather that covered his true head completely. Thiago would never wear a horse head, or any other mask to conceal his face. He wore the same thing to the ball every year: a real wolf’s head atop his own, its lower jaw removed so that it made a sort of headdress, its eyes replaced with blue glass, dead and staring.

So who was this? Someone foolish enough to touch her? Well then. He was tall, a head above even her own height, so that Madrigal had to tilt her face up, laying her hand on his shoulder, to nudge his horse muzzle with the beak of her bird mask. A “kiss,” to prove that she still belonged to herself.

And as if some spell had been broken, she was part of the crowd again, spinning in the graceless stamping of the revel, with the stranger for a partner. He moved her along, guarding her from the shoving of larger creatures. She could feel his strength; he might easily have buoyed her without her feet even touching the ground. He ought to have turned her loose after a twirl or two, but he didn’t. His hands—gloved—kept hold of her. And since she didn’t think anyone else would dance with her if he let her go, she didn’t move away. It felt good to be dancing, and she gave herself over to it, and even forgot her anxieties about her dress. Fragile as it seemed, it was holding up fine, and when she whirled it rose in waves around her gazelle hooves, weightless and lovely.

Part of a seething, living tide, they streamed along. Madrigal lost track of her friends, but the horse-masked stranger didn’t abandon her, and when the procession neared the end of the Serpentine, it began to bottleneck. The dancing slowed to a sway and she found herself standing with him, their breathing quick. She looked up, flushed and smiling behind her bird mask, and said, “Thank you.”

“My lady, thank you. The honor is mine.” His voice was rich, his accent strange. Madrigal couldn’t place it. The eastern territories, perhaps.

She said, “You’re braver than the rest, to dance with me.”

“Brave?” His mask was expressionless, of course, but his head quirked to one side, and from his tone, Madrigal realized he didn’t know what she meant. Was it possible he didn’t know who she was—whose she was? He asked, “Are you so ferocious?” and she laughed.

“Terrifying. Apparently.”

Again, that tilt of the head.

“You don’t know who I am.” She was strangely disappointed. She had thought he might be a bold soul, flouting the general fear of Thiago, but it seemed he was only ignorant of the risk.

His head bent toward her, his mask muzzle brushing her ear. In his nearness, there was an aura of warmth. He said, “I know who you are. I came here for you.”

“Did you?” She felt slightly giddy, as if she had been drinking grasswine, though she hadn’t had so much as a sip. “Tell me then, Sir Horse. Who am I?”

“Ah, well, that’s not entirely fair, Lady Bird. You never told me your name.”

“You see? You don’t know. But I have a secret.” She tapped her beak and whispered, smiling, “This is a mask. I am not really a bird.”

Source: www_Novel12_Com