He was still here—and with Thiago so near. Reckless, she thought, electrified by his nearness. After a moment, steadying her breathing and her heart, she said, “Tiger suits you better than horse, I think.”
“I don’t know what you mean, lady,” he replied. “This is my true face.”
“Because it would be foolish to still be here, if I were who you thought.”
“It would. One might suppose you had a death wish.”
“No.” He was solemn. “Never that. A life wish, if anything. For a different sort of life.”
A different sort of life. If only, Madrigal thought, her own life and choices—or lack of them—hemming her in. She kept her voice light. “You wish to be one of us? I’m sorry, we don’t accept converts.”
He laughed. “Even if you did, it wouldn’t help. We are all locked in the same life, aren’t we? The same war.”
In a lifetime of hating seraphim, Madrigal had never thought of them as living the same life as she, but what the angel said was true. They were all locked in the same war. They had locked the entire world in it. “There is no other life,” she said, and then she tensed, because they had come around to the place where Thiago stood.
The pressure of the angel’s grip on her hand increased ever so slightly, gently, and it helped her bear up under the general’s gaze until she turned away from it again, and could breathe.
“You need to go,” she said quietly. “If you’re discovered…”
The angel let a beat pass in silence before asking, just as quietly, “You’re not really going to marry him, are you?”
“I… I don’t know.”
He lifted her hand so that she could circle beneath the bridge of their arms; it was a part of the pattern, but her height and horns interfered, and they had to release fingers and join them again after the spin.
“What is there to know?” he asked. “Do you love him?”
“Love?” The question was a surprise, and a laugh escaped Madrigal’s lips. She quickly composed herself, not wanting to draw Thiago’s scrutiny.
“It’s a funny question?”
“No,” she said. “Yes.” Love Thiago? Could she? Maybe. How could you know a thing like that? “What’s funny is that you’re the first one to ask me that.”
“Forgive me,” said the seraph. “I didn’t realize that chimaera don’t marry for love.”
Madrigal thought of her parents. Her memory of them was hazed with a patina of years, their faces blurred to generalities—would she even know them, if she found them?—but she did remember their simple fondness for each other, and how they had seemed always to be touching. “We do.” She wasn’t laughing now. “My parents did.”
“So you are a child of love. It seems right, that you were made by love.”
She had never thought of herself in that way, but after he said it, it struck her as a fine thing, to have been made by love, and she ached for what she had lost, in losing her family. “And you? Did your parents love each other?”
She heard herself ask it, and was overcome by the dizzying surreality of the circumstance. She had just asked a seraph if his parents loved each other.
“No,” he said, and offered no explanation. “But I hope that my children’s parents will.”
Again he lifted her hand so that she could circle under the bridge made by their arms, and again her horns got in the way, so they were briefly parted. Turning, Madrigal felt a sting in his words, and when they were facing each other once more, she said, in her defense, “Love is a luxury.”
“No. Love is an element.”
An element. Like air to breathe, earth to stand on. The steady certainty of his voice sent a shiver through her, but she didn’t get a chance to respond. They had concluded their pattern, and she still had gooseflesh from the effect of his extraordinary statement as he handed her on to her next partner, who was drunk and uttered not a syllable for the entirety of their contact.
She tried to keep track of the seraph. He should have partnered Nwella after herself, but by then he was gone, and she saw no tiger mask in the whole of the array. He had melted away, and she felt his absence like a space cut from the air.
The Furiant wound down to its final promenade, and when it ended in a brazen gypsy tinkling of tambourines, Madrigal was delivered, as if it had been orchestrated that way, virtually into the White Wolf’s arms.
“My lord,” Madrigal’s throat went dry so her words were a rasp, near enough a throaty whisper to be mistaken for one.
Nwella and Chiro crowded behind her, and Thiago smiled, lupine, the tips of fangs appearing between his full red lips. His eyes were bold. They didn’t meet hers, but roved lower, with no effort at subtlety. Madrigal’s skin went hot as her heart grew cold, and she dropped into a curtsy from which she wished that she never had to rise and meet his eyes, but rise she must, and did.
“You’re beautiful tonight,” said Thiago. Madrigal needn’t have worried about meeting his eyes. If she had been headless, he would not yet have noticed. The way he was looking at her body in the midnight sheath made her want to cross her arms over her chest.
“Thank you,” she said, fighting the impulse. A return of compliment was called for, so she said simply, “As are you.”
He looked up then, amused. “I am beautiful?”
She inclined her head. “As a winter wolf, my lord,” she said, which pleased him. He seemed relaxed, almost lazy, his eyes heavy-lidded. He was entirely sure of her, Madrigal saw. He wasn’t looking for a gesture; there was not the smallest kernel of uncertainty in him. Thiago got what he wanted. Always.
And would he tonight?
A new tune struck up, and he tilted his head to acknowledge it. “The Emberlin,” he said. “My lady?” He held out his arm to her, and Madrigal went still as prey.
If she took his arm, did that mean it was done, that she accepted him?
But to refuse it would be the grossest of slights; it would shame him, and one simply did not shame the White Wolf.
It was an invitation to dance, and it felt like a trap, and Madrigal stood paralyzed a beat too long. In that beat she saw Thiago’s gaze sharpen. His easy lethargy fell away to be replaced by… she wasn’t sure. It didn’t have time to take form. Disbelief, perhaps, which would have given way in its turn to ice-cold fury had not Nwella, with a panicked squeak, placed her palm in the small of Madrigal’s back and shoved.
Thus propelled, Madrigal took a step, and there was nothing for it. She didn’t take Thiago’s arm so much as she collided with it. He tucked hers beneath his own, proprietary, and escorted her into the dance.
And certainly, as everyone thought, into the future.
He grasped her by the waist, which was the proper form of the Emberlin, in which the men lifted the ladies like offerings to the sky. Thiago’s hands almost completely encircled her slim midriff, his claws on her bare back. She felt the point of each one on her skin.
There was some talk between them—Madrigal must have asked after the Warlord’s health, and Thiago must have answered, but she could scarcely have related what was said. She might have been a sugared shell, for all that she was present in her skin.
What had she done? What had she just done?
She couldn’t even fool herself that it was the product of an instant and Nwella’s tiny shove. She had let herself be dressed like this; she had come here; she had known. She might not have admitted to herself that she knew what she was doing, but of course she had. She had let herself be carried along on the certainty of others. There had been a piquant satisfaction in being chosen… envied. She was ashamed of it now, and of the way she had come here tonight, ready to play the trembling bride, and accept a man she did not love.
But… she had not accepted him, and she thought now that she wouldn’t have. Something had changed.
Nothing had changed, she argued with herself. Love is an element, indeed. The angel coming here, the risk of it! It stunned her, but it changed nothing.
And where was he now? Each time Thiago lifted her she glanced around, but she saw no horse or tiger mask. She hoped he had gone, and was safe.
Thiago, who up until now had seemed satisfied with what his hands could hold, must have sensed that he was not commanding her attention. Bringing her down from a lift, he intentionally let her slip so he had to catch her against him. At the surprise, her wings spontaneously sprang open, like twin spinnakers filling with wind.
“My apologies, my lady,” Thiago said, and he eased her down so her hooves found the ground again, but he didn’t loosen his hold on her. She felt the rigid surface of his muscled chest against her own chest. The wrongness of it stirred a panic that she had to fight down to keep from wrenching herself from his arms. It was hard to fold her wings again, when what she really wanted to do was take flight.
“This gown, is it cut from shadow?” the general asked. “I can barely feel it between my fingers.”
Not for want of trying, thought Madrigal.
“Perhaps it is a reflection of the night sky,” he suggested, “skimmed from a pond?”
She supposed that he was being poetic. Erotic, even. In return, as unerotically as possible—more like complaining of a stain that wouldn’t come out—she said, “Yes, my lord. I went for a dip, and the reflection clung.”
“Well. Then it might slip away like water at any moment. One wonders what, if anything, is beneath it.”
And this is courtship, thought Madrigal. She blushed, and was glad of her mask, which covered all but her lips and chin. Choosing not to address the matter of her undergarments, she said, “It is sturdier than it looks, I assure you.”
She did not intend a challenge, but he took it as one. He reached up to the delicate threads that, like gossamers of a spider’s web, secured the gown around her neck, and gave a short, sharp tug. They gave way easily to his claws, and Madrigal gasped. The dress stayed in place, but a cluster of its fragile fastenings were severed.
“Or perhaps not so sturdy,” said Thiago. “Don’t worry, my lady, I’ll help you hold it up.”
His hand was over her heart, just above her breast, and Madrigal trembled. She was furious at herself for trembling. She was Madrigal of the Kirin, not some blossom caught in a breeze. “That’s kind of you, my lord,” she replied, shrugging off his hand as she stepped away. “But it is time to change partners. I’ll have to manage my gown on my own.”
She had never been so glad to be handed on to a new partner. In this case it was a bull-moose of a man, graceless, who came near to treading on her hooves any number of times. She barely noticed.
A different sort of life, she thought, and the words became a mantra to the melody of the Emberlin. A different sort of life, a different sort of life.
Where was the angel now, she wondered. Yearning suffused her, full as flavor, like chocolate melting on her tongue.
Before she knew it, the bull-moose was returning her to Thiago, who claimed her with his clutching hands and pulled her into him.
“I missed you,” he said. “Every other lady is coarse next to you.”
He talked to her in that bedroom purr of his, but all she could think was how clumsy, how effortful his words seemed after the angel’s.
Twice more Thiago passed her to new partners, and twice she was returned to him in due course. Each time was more unbearable than the last, so that she felt like a runaway returned home against her will.
When, turned over to her next partner, she felt the firm pressure of leather gloves enfold her fingers, it was with a lightness like floating that she let herself be swept away. Misery lifted; wrongness lifted. The seraph’s hands came around her waist and her feet left the ground and she closed her eyes, giving herself over to feeling.
He set her back down, but didn’t let her go. “Hello,” she whispered, happy.
“Hello,” he returned, like a shared secret.
She smiled to see his new mask. It was human and comical, with jug ears and a red drunkard’s nose. “Yet another face,” she said. “Are you a magus, conjuring masks?”
“No conjuring needed. There are as many masks to choose from as there are revelers passed out drunk.”
“Well, this one suits you least of all.”
“That’s what you think. A lot can happen in two years.”
She laughed, remembering his beauty, and was seized by a desire to see his face again.
“Will you tell me your name, my lady?” he asked.
She did, and he repeated it—“Madrigal, Madrigal, Madrigal”—like an incantation.
How odd, Madrigal thought, that she should be overcome by such a feeling of… fulfillment… from the simple presence of a man whose name she didn’t know and whose face she couldn’t see. “And yours?” she asked.
“Akiva.” It pleased her to say it. She may have been the one whose name meant music, but his sounded like it. Saying it made her want to sing it, to lean out a window and call him home. To whisper it in the dark.
“You’ve done it, then,” he said. “Accepted him.”
Defiantly, she replied, “No. I have not.”
“No? He’s watching you like he owns you.”
“Then you should certainly be elsewhere—”
“Your dress,” he said, noticing it. “It’s torn. Did he—?” Madrigal felt heat, a ripple of anger flashing off him like a draft off a bonfire.