He reared back in feigned surprise, though his hand didn’t leave her arm. “Not a bird? I am deceived.”
“So you see, whatever lady you’re looking for, she is all alone somewhere, waiting for you.” She was almost sorry to send him away, but the agora wasn’t far off now. She didn’t want him to catch Thiago’s disfavor, not after he’d rescued her from dancing the whole length of the Serpentine alone. “Go on,” she urged. “Go and find her.”
“I’ve found who I’m looking for,” he said. “I may not know your name, but I know you. And I have a secret, too.”
“Don’t tell me. You’re not really a horse?” She was looking up at him; his voice had struck her as familiar, but the familiarity was distant and vague, like something she’d dreamt. She tried to see through his mask but he was too tall; at the angle of her sight, all she could make out through the eye apertures was shadow.
“It’s true,” he confessed. “I am not really a horse.”
“And what are you?” She was really wondering now—who was he? Someone she knew? Masks made for mischief, and many a sly game was played on the Warlord’s birthday, but she didn’t think anyone would be playing games with her tonight.
His answer was swallowed by an upsurge of piping as they drew near the last musicians along the route. Trills like bird calls, a twanging lute, the throat-deep ululation of singers, and beneath it all, like a heartbeat under skin, the cadence of drums carrying the urgency to dance. Bodies were close on all sides, the stranger’s closest of all. A swell in the crowd pressed him against Madrigal and she felt the mass and breadth of his shoulders through his cloak.
She was conscious of her bareness and sugar glitter, and, plainly, her own rushing heartbeat, her own rising heat.
She flushed and stepped away, or tried to, but was shoved back into him. His scent was warm and full: spice and salt, the pungent leather of his mask, and something rich and deep that she couldn’t identify but that made her want to lean into him, close her eyes, and breathe. He kept an arm around her, pushed back against the crush and kept her from being jostled, and there was nowhere to go but onward with the crowd as it funneled into the agora. They were in the funnel, and there was no turning back.
The stranger was behind her, his voice low. “I came here to find you,” he said. “I came to thank you.”
“Thank me? For what?” She couldn’t turn. A centaur flank hemmed her in on one side, a Naja coil on the other. She thought she caught a glimpse of Chiro in the whirl. She could see the agora now—straight ahead, framed by the armory and the war college. The lanterns overhead were like constellations, their flicker blotting out the real stars, and the moons, too. It crossed Madrigal’s mind to wonder if Nitid—curious, peering Nitid—could see in.
Something is going to happen.
“I came to thank you,” said the stranger, close to her ear, “for saving my life.”
Madrigal had saved lives. She had crept in darkness over fields of the fallen, slipped through seraphim patrols to glean souls that would otherwise be lost to evanescence. She had led a strike on an angel position that had her comrades trapped in a gully, and bought them time to retreat. She had shot an angel’s arrow out of the sky as it made its deadly glide toward a comrade. She had saved lives. But all those memories passed through her consciousness in the space of a finger snap, leaving only one.
Bullfinch. Mist. Enemy.
“I took your recommendation,” he said. “I lived.”
Instantly, it was as if her veins were conducting fire. She whipped around. His face was only inches from her own, his head tilted down so that now she could see into his mask.
His eyes blazed like flames.
She whispered, “You.”
The living tide sucked them into the agora, a backwash of elbows and wings, horns and hide, fur and flesh, and she was carried along, stricken dumb with disbelief, her hooves scarcely skimming the cobbles.
A seraph, inside Loramendi.
Not a seraph. This seraph. Whom she had touched. Saved. Here, in the Cage, his hands on her arms, hot even through the leather of his gloves, this angel who was alive because of her.
He was here.
It was such madness, it made a churning of her thoughts, more chaotic than the churning all around her. She couldn’t think. What could she say? What should she do?
Later it would strike her that not for an instant had she considered doing what anyone else in the entire city would have done without a thought: unmasking him and screaming, “Seraph!”
She drew a long, uneven breath and said, “You’re mad to be here. Why did you come?”
“I told you, I came to thank you.”
She had a terrible thought. “Assassination? You’ll never get close to the Warlord.”
Earnestly, he said, “No. I wouldn’t tarnish the gift you gave me with the blood of your folk.”
The agora was a massive oval; it was big enough for an army to mass, many phalanxes abreast, but tonight there were no troops at its center, only dancers moving in the intricate patterns of a lowland reel. Those spilling from the Serpentine eddied out around the edges of the square where the density of bodies was greatest. Casks of grasswine stood amid tables laden with food, and folk gathered in clusters, children on their shoulders, everyone laughing and singing.
Madrigal and the angel were still caught in the churning delta of the Serpentine. He was anchoring her, as steady as a breakwall. In the blank, gasping aftermath of shock, Madrigal didn’t try to move away.
“Gift?” she said, incredulous. “You hold that gift lightly, coming here, into certain death.”
“I’m not going to die,” he said. “Not tonight. A thousand things might have stopped me from being here right now, but instead, a thousand things brought me here. Everything lined up. It has been easy, as if it were meant—”
“Meant!” she said, amazed. She spun to face him, which, in the crush, brought her against his chest as if they were still dancing. She fought backward for space. “As if what were meant?”
“You,” he said. “And me.”
His words sucked the breath from her lungs. Him and her? Seraph and chimaera? It was preposterous. All she could think to say was, again, “You’re mad.”
“It’s your madness, too. You saved my life. Why did you do it?”
Madrigal had no answer. For two years she had been haunted by it, by the feeling, when she had found him dying, that somehow he was hers to protect. Hers. And now here he was, alive and, impossibly, here. She was still grappling with disbelief, that it was him, his face—of which she remembered every plane and angle—hidden behind that mask.
“And tonight,” he said, “a million souls in the city, I might not have found you at all. I might have searched all night and never so much as glimpsed you, but instead, there you were, like you were set down in front of me, and you were alone, moving through the crowd and apart in it, like you were waiting for me….”
He went on speaking, but Madrigal stopped hearing. At his mention of her apartness, the reason for it came thundering back to her, having been momentarily forgotten in her shock. Thiago. She looked to the palace, up at the Warlord’s balcony. At this distance, the figures on it were only silhouettes, but they were silhouettes she knew: the Warlord, the hulking shape of Brimstone, and a gaggle of the ruler’s antlered wives. Thiago was not there.
Which could only mean he was down here. A thrill of fear shot through her from hooves to horns. “You don’t understand,” she said, pirouetting to scan the crowd. “There was a reason no one was dancing with me. I thought you were brave. I didn’t know you were mad—”
“What reason?” the angel asked, still near. Still too near.
“Trust me,” she said, urgent. “It isn’t safe for you. If you want to live, leave me.”
“I’ve come a long way to find you—”
“I’m spoken for,” she blurted, hating the words even before they were out.
This brought him up short. “Spoken for? Betrothed?”
Claimed, she thought, but she said, “As good as. Now go. If Thiago sees you—”
“Thiago?” The angel recoiled at the name. “You’re betrothed to the Wolf?”
And at the moment he pronounced those words—the Wolf—arms came around Madrigal’s waist from behind and she gasped.
In an instant, she saw what would happen. Thiago would discover the angel, and he wouldn’t just kill him, he would make a spectacle of it. A seraph spy at the Warlord’s ball—such a thing had never happened! He would be tortured. He would be made to wish that he had never lived. It all flashed through her, and horror rose like bile in her throat. When she heard, close to her ear, a giggle, the relief almost left her limp.
It wasn’t Thiago, but Chiro. “There you are,” said her sister. “We lost you in the crush!”
Madrigal’s blood made a roaring in her ears, and Chiro glanced from her to the stranger, whose heat suddenly felt to Madrigal like a beacon. “Hello,” Chiro said, peering with curiosity at the horse mask, through which Madrigal could still make out the orange burn of his tiger’s eyes.
It hit her anew that he had come in such thin disguise into the den of the enemy for her, and she felt a queer constriction in her chest. For two years she had reflected on Bullfinch as a momentary madness, though it hadn’t felt like madness then, and it didn’t now, to wish this seraph to live—and she did wish it. She pulled herself together and turned to Chiro. Nwella was right behind her.
“Some friends you are,” she chided them. “To dress me like this and then abandon me to the Serpentine. I might have been mauled.”
“We thought you were behind us,” said Nwella, breathless from dancing.
“I was,” said Madrigal. “Far behind you.” She had turned her back on the angel without a second glance. She began to casually herd her friends away from him, using the motion of the crowd to put space between them.
“Who was that?” Chiro asked.
“Who?” asked Madrigal.
“In the horse mask, dancing with you.”
“I wasn’t dancing with anyone. Or perhaps you didn’t notice: No one would dance with me. I am a pariah.”
Scoffing, “A pariah! Hardly. More like a princess.” Chiro threw a skeptical look back, and Madrigal was wild to know what she saw. Was the angel looking after them, or had some sense of self-preservation kicked in and made him disappear?
“Have you seen Thiago yet?” Nwella asked. “Or rather, has he seen you?”
“No—” Madrigal started to say, but then Chiro burst out with, “There he is!” and she went cold.
There he was.
He was unmistakable, with the hewn-off wolf head atop his own, his grotesque version of a mask. Its fangs curved over his brow, its muzzle drawn back in a snarl. His snow-white hair was brushed and arranged over his shoulders, his vest ivory satin—so much white, white upon white, framing his strong, handsome face, which was bronzed by the sun, making his pale eyes seem ghostly.
He hadn’t seen her yet. The crowd parted around him, not even the drunkest of the revelers failing to recognize him and make way. The mob seemed to shrivel as he passed with his retinue, who were of true wolf aspect, and moved like a pack.
The meaning of this night caught up to Madrigal: her choice, her future.
“He’s magnificent,” breathed Nwella, clinging to Madrigal on one side. Madrigal had to agree, but she placed the credit for it with Brimstone, who had crafted that beautiful body, not with Thiago, who wore it with the arrogance of entitlement.
“He’s looking for you,” said Chiro, and Madrigal knew she was right. The general was unhurried, his pale eyes sweeping the crowd with the confidence of one who gets what he wants. Then his gaze came to rest on her. She felt impaled by it. Spooked, she took a step back.
“Let’s go dance,” she blurted, to the surprise of her friends.
“But—” Chiro said.
“Listen.” A new reel was starting up. “It’s the Furiant. My favorite.”
It was not her favorite, but it would do. Two lines of dancers were forming, men on one side, women on the other, and before Chiro and Nwella could say another word, Madrigal had spun to flee toward the women’s file, feeling Thiago’s gaze on the back of her neck like the touch of claws.
She wondered: What of other eyes?
The Furiant began with a light-footed promenade, Chiro and Nwella rushing to join in, and Madrigal went through the steps with grace and a smile, not missing a beat, but she was barely there. Her thoughts had flown outward, darting and dipping with the hummingbird-moths that flocked by the thousands to the lanterns hanging overhead, as she wondered, with a wild, timpani heart, where her angel had gone.
LOVE IS AN ELEMENT
In the patterns of the Furiant, no one bypassed Madrigal’s hand as they had in the Serpentine—it would have been too obvious a slight—but there was a formal stiffness in her partners as she passed from one to the next, some barely skimming her fingertips with their own when they were meant to be clasping hands.
Thiago had come up and stood watching. Everyone felt it, and the gaiety of the dance was tamped down. It was his effect, but it was her fault, Madrigal knew, for running from him and trying to hide here, as if it were possible to hide.
She was just buying time, and the Furiant was good for that at least, as it went on a full quarter of an hour, with constant shifts in partner. Madrigal went from a courteous elder soldier with a rhinoceros horn to a centaur to a high-human in a dragon mask who scarcely touched her, and with each revolution she was brought past Thiago, whose eyes never left her. Her next partner’s mask was tiger, and when he took her hand… he actually took her hand. He clasped it firmly in his own gloved hand. A thrill went up Madrigal’s arm from the warming touch, and she didn’t have to look at his eyes to know who it was.