She saw that Thiago was dancing with Chiro, and was staring right between Chiro’s sharp jackal ears at her. She waited until the revolutions of the dance brought Akiva’s broad back between them, shielding her face, before answering. “It’s nothing. I’m not used to wearing such fragile fabric. This was chosen for me. I crave a shawl.”
He was tense with anger but his hands remained gentle at her waist. He said, “I can make you a shawl.”
She cocked her head. “You knit? Well. That’s an unusual accomplishment in a soldier.”
“I don’t knit,” he said, and that’s when Madrigal felt the first feather-soft touch on her shoulder. She didn’t mistake it for Akiva’s touch, because his hands were at her waist. She looked down and saw that a gray-green hummingbird-moth had settled on her, one of the many fluttering overhead, drawn to the expansiveness of lantern light that must seem like a universe to them. The feathers of its tiny bird body gleamed, jewel-like, as its furred moth wings fanned against her skin. It was followed shortly by another, this one pale pink, and another, also pink, with orange eyespots on its lacework wings. More floated out of the air, and in a moment, a fine company of them covered Madrigal’s chest and shoulders.
“There you are, my lady,” said Akiva. “A living shawl.”
She was amazed. “How—? You are a magus.”
“No. It’s a trick, only.”
“Not the most useful magic, herding moths.”
“Not useful? You made me a shawl.” She was awed by it. The magic she knew through Brimstone had little whimsy in it. This was beautiful, both in form—the wings were a dozen twilight colors, and as soft as lamb’s ears—and in purpose. He had covered her. Thiago had torn her dress, and Akiva had covered her.
“They tickle.” She laughed. “Oh no. Oh.”
“What is it?”
“Oh, make them go.” She laughed harder, feeling tiny tongues dart from tiny beaks. “They’re eating my sugar.”
The tickling made her wriggle her shoulders. “Make them go. Please.”
He tried to. A few lifted away and made a circle around her horns, but most stayed where they were. “I’m afraid they’re in love,” he said, concerned. “They don’t want to leave you.” He lifted one hand from her waist to gently brush a pair from her neck, where their wings fanned against her jaw. Melancholy, he said, “I know just how they feel.”
Her heart, like a fist clenching. The time had come for Akiva to lift her again, and he did, though her shoulders were still cloaked in moths. From above the heads of the crowd, she was grateful to see that Thiago was turned away. Chiro, though, whom he was lifting, saw her and did a double take.
Akiva brought Madrigal back down, and just before her feet touched ground they looked at each other, mask to mask, brown eyes to orange, and a surge went between them. Madrigal didn’t know if it was magic, but most of the hummingbird-moths took flight and swirled away as if carried by a wind. She was down again, her feet moving, her heart racing. She had lost track of the pattern, but she sensed that it was drawing to its conclusion and that, any second, she would come around again to Thiago.
Akiva would have to hand her back into the general’s keeping.
Her heart and body were in revolt. She couldn’t do it. Her limbs were light, ready to flee. Her heartbeat sped to a fast staccato, and the remnants of her living shawl burst from her as if spooked. Madrigal recognized the signs in herself, the readying, the outward calm and inner turmoil, the rushing that filled her mind before a charge in battle.
Something is going to happen.
Nitid, she thought, did you know all along?
“Madrigal?” asked Akiva. Like the hummingbird-moths, he sensed the change in her, her quickened breath, the muscles gone taut where his warm hands encircled her waist. “What is it?”
“I want…” she said, knowing what she wanted, feeling pulled toward it, arching toward it, but hardly knowing how to say it.
“What? What do you want?” Akiva asked, gentle but urgent. He wanted it, too. He inclined his head so that his mask came briefly against her horn, sparking a flare of sensation through her.
The White Wolf was only wingspans away. He would see. If she tried to flee, he would follow. Akiva would be caught.
Madrigal wanted to scream.
And then, the fireworks.
Later, she would recall what Akiva had said about everything lining up, as if it were meant. In all that was to happen, there would be that feeling of inevitability and rightness, and the sense that the universe was conspiring in it. It would be easy. Starting with the fireworks.
Light blossomed overhead, a great and brilliant dahlia, a pinwheel, a star in nova. The sound was a cannonade. Drummers on the battlements. Black powder bursting in the air. The Emberlin broke apart as dancers shucked masks and threw back their heads to look up.
Madrigal moved. She took Akiva’s hand and ducked into the moil of the crowd. She kept low and moved fast. A channel seemed to open for them in the surge of bodies, and they followed it, and it carried them away.
CHILDREN OF REGRET
Once upon a time, before chimaera and seraphim, there was the sun and the moons. The sun was betrothed to Nitid, the bright sister, but it was demure Ellai, always hiding behind her bold sister, who stirred his lust. He contrived to come upon her bathing in the sea, and he took her. She struggled, but he was the sun, and he thought he should have what he wanted. Ellai stabbed him and escaped, and the blood of the sun flew like sparks to earth, where it became seraphim—misbegotten children of fire. And like their father, they believed it their due to want, and take, and have.
As for Ellai, she told her sister what had passed, and Nitid wept, and her tears fell to earth and became chimaera, children of regret.
When the sun came again to the sisters, neither would have him. Nitid put Ellai behind her and protected her, though the sun, still bleeding sparks, knew Ellai was not as defenseless as she seemed. He pled with Nitid to forgive him but she refused, and to this day he follows the sisters across the sky, wanting and wanting and never having, and that will be his punishment, forever.
Nitid is the goddess of tears and life, hunts and war, and her temples are too many to count. It is she who fills wombs, slows the hearts of the dying, and leads her children against the seraphim. Her light is like a small sun; she chases away shadows.
Ellai is more subtle. She is a trace, a phantom moon, and there are only a handful of nights each year when she alone takes the sky. These are called Ellai nights, and they are dark and star-scattered and good for furtive things. Ellai is the goddess of assassins and secret lovers. Temples to her are few, and hidden, like the one in the requiem grove in the hills above Loramendi.
That was where Madrigal took Akiva when they fled the Warlord’s ball.
They flew. He kept his wings veiled, but it didn’t prevent his flying. By land, the requiem grove was unreachable. There were chasms in the hills, and sometimes rope bridges were strung across them—on Ellai nights, when devotees went cloaked to worship at the temple—but tonight there were none, and Madrigal knew they would have the temple to themselves.
They had the night. Nitid was still high. They had hours.
“That is your legend?” Akiva asked, incredulous. Madrigal had told him the story of the sun and Ellai while they flew. “That seraphim are the blood of a ra**st sun?”
Madrigal said blithely, “If you don’t like it, take it up with the sun.”
“It’s a terrible story. What a brutal imagination chimaera have.”
“Well. We have had brutal inspiration.”
They reached the grove, and the dome of the temple was just visible through the treetops, silver mosaics glinting patterns through the boughs.
“Here,” said Madrigal, slowing with a backbeat to descend through a gap in the canopy. Her whole body thrilled with night wind and freedom, and with anticipation. In the back of her mind was fear of what would come later—the repercussions of her rash departure. But as she moved through the trees, it was drowned out by leaf rustle and wind music, and by the hish-hish all around. Hish-hish went the evangelines, serpent-birds who drank the night nectar of the requiem trees. In the dark of the grove, their eyes shone silver like the mosaics of the temple roof.
Madrigal reached the ground, and Akiva landed beside her in a gust of warmth. She faced him. They were still wearing their masks. They could have stripped them off while flying, but they hadn’t. Madrigal had been thinking of this moment, when they would stand face-to-face, and she had left her mask on because in her imagining, it was Akiva who took hers off, as she did his.
He must have imagined the same thing. He stepped toward her.
The real world, already a distant thing—just a crackle of fireworks at horizon’s edge—faded away entirely. A high, sweet thrill sang through Madrigal as if she were a lute string. Akiva took off his gloves and dropped them, and when he touched her, fingertips trailing up her arms and neck, it was with his bare hands. He reached behind her head, untied her mask, and lifted it away. Her vision, which had been narrowed all night to what she could see through its small apertures, opened, and Akiva filled her sight, still wearing his comical mask. She heard his soft exhalation and murmur of “so beautiful,” and she reached up and took off his disguise.
“Hello,” she whispered, as she had when they had come together in the Emberlin and happiness had bloomed in her. That happiness was like a spark to a firework, compared with what filled her now.
He was more perfect even than she remembered. At Bullfinch he had lain dying, ashen, slack, and still beautiful for all that. Now, in the full flush of health and the blood-thrum of love, he was golden. He was ardent, gazing at her, hopeful and expectant, inspired, beguiled, glad. He was so alive.
Because of her, he was alive.
He whispered back, “Hello.”
They stared, amazed to be facing each other after two years, as if they were figments conjured out of wishing.
Only touching could make the moment real.
Madrigal’s hands shook as she raised them, and steadied when she laid them against the solidity of Akiva’s chest. Heat pulsed through the fabric of his shirt. The air in the grove was rich enough to sip, full enough to dance with. It was like a presence between them—and then not, as she stepped close.
His arms encircled her and she tilted up her face to whisper, once more, “Hello.”
This time when he said it back, he breathed it against her lips. Their eyes were still open, still wide with wonder, and they only let them flutter shut when their lips finally met and another sense—touch—could take over in convincing them that this was real.
THE INVENTION OF LIVING
Once upon a time, there was only darkness, and there were monsters vast as worlds who swam in it. They were the Gibborim, and they loved the darkness because it concealed their hideousness. Whenever some other creature contrived to make light, they would extinguish it. When stars were born, they swallowed them, and it seemed that darkness would be eternal.
But a race of bright warriors heard of the Gibborim and traveled from their far world to do battle with them. The war was long, light against dark, and many of the warriors were slain. In the end, when they vanquished the monsters, there were a hundred left alive, and these hundred were the godstars, who brought light to the universe.
They made the rest of the stars, including our sun, and there was no more darkness, only endless light. They made children in their image—seraphim—and sent them down to bear light to the worlds that spun in space, and all was good. But one day, the last of the Gibborim, who was called Zamzumin, persuaded them that shadows were needed, that they would make the light seem brighter by contrast, and so the godstars brought shadows into being.
But Zamzumin was a trickster. He needed only a shred of darkness to work with. He breathed life into the shadows, and as the godstars had made the seraphim in their own image, so did Zamzumin make the chimaera in his, and so they were hideous, and forever after the seraphim would fight on the side of light, and chimaera for dark, and they would be enemies until the end of the world.
Madrigal laughed sleepily. “Zamzumin? That’s a name?”
“Don’t ask me. He’s your forefather.”
“Ah, yes. Ugly Uncle Zamzumin, who made me out of a shadow.”
“A hideous shadow,” said Akiva. “Which explains your hideousness.”
She laughed again, heavy and lazy with pleasure. “I always wondered where I got it. Now I know. My horns are from my father’s side, and my hideousness is from my huge, evil monster uncle.” After a pause, Akiva nuzzling her neck, she added, “I like my story better. I’d rather be made from tears than darkness.”
“Neither is very cheerful,” said Akiva.
“I know. We need a happier myth. Let’s make one up.”
They lay entwined atop their clothes, which they had draped over a bank of shrive moss behind Ellai’s temple, where a delicate rill burbled past. Both moons had slipped beyond the canopy of the trees, and the evangelines were falling silent as the requiem blooms closed their white buds for the night. Soon Madrigal would have to leave, but they were both pushing the thought away, as if they could deny the dawn.
“Once upon a time…” said Akiva, but his voice trailed off as his lips found Madrigal’s throat. “Mmm, sugar. I thought I got it all. Now I’ll have to double-check everywhere.”
Madrigal squirmed, laughing helplessly. “No, no, it tickles!”
But Akiva would retaste her neck, and it didn’t really tickle so much as it tingled, and she stopped protesting soon enough.