She was revenant.
Within her, something was at work: a swift concrescence of memories, two consciousnesses that were really one, coming together like interlacing fingers.
She saw her hamsas and knew what Brimstone had done. In defiance of Thiago’s sentence of evanescence, he had somehow gleaned her soul. And because she could not have a life in her own world, he had given her one here, in secret. How had he extracted her memory from her soul? The life she had lived as Madrigal—he had taken it all and put it in the wishbone, and saved it for her.
It came to her what Izîl had said the last time she saw him, when he offered her baby teeth and she rejected them. “Once,” he’d said, and she hadn’t believed him. “Once he wanted some.”
She believed it now.
Revenants were made for battle; their bodies were always conjured fully grown, from mature teeth. But Brimstone had made her a baby, a human, named her hope and given her a whole life, far away from war and death. Sweet, deep, fond love filled her. He had given her a childhood, a world. Wishes. Art. And Issa and Yasri and Twiga, they had known and helped; hidden her. Loved her. She would see them soon, and she wouldn’t stand back from Brimstone as she always did, cowed by his gruffness and his monstrous physical presence. She would throw her arms around him and say, finally, thank you.
She looked up from her palms—from one wonder to another—and Akiva was before her. He still stood at the foot of the bed on which, just a moment earlier, they had fallen back together, all of him against all of her, and Karou understood that the aching allness rose from what she had shared with him in another body, another life. She had fallen in love with him twice. She loved him now with both loves, so overpowering it was almost unbearable. She beheld him through a prism of tears.
“You escaped,” she said. “You lived.”
She uncoiled from the bed, flashed toward him, threw herself against the remembered solidity of him, the heat.
A hesitation, then his arms came around her, tight. He didn’t speak, but held her against him and rocked back and forth. She felt him shake, weeping, his lips pressed to the crown of her head.
“You escaped,” she repeated, sobbing, but laughing now, too. “You’re alive.”
“I’m alive,” he whispered, choked. “You’re alive. I never knew. All these years, I never thought—”
“We’re alive,” Karou said, dazed. The wonder of it swelled within her, and she felt like their myth had come to life. They had a world; they were in it. This place that Brimstone had given her, it was half her home, and the other half lay waiting through a portal in the sky. They could have both, couldn’t they?
“I saw you die,” Akiva said, helpless. “Karou… Madrigal… My love.” His eyes, his expression. He looked as he had seventeen years ago, on his knees, forced to watch. He said again, “I saw you die.”
“I know.” She kissed him tenderly, remembering the scouring horror of his scream. “I remember it all.”
As did he.
The hooded executioner: a monster. The Wolf and the Warlord, looking on from their balcony, and the crowd, their stamping riot, their roars and bloodlust: monsters all, making a mockery of the dream of peace Akiva had nurtured since Bullfinch. Because one among them had touched his soul, he had believed them all worthy of that dream.
And there she stood in shackles—the one; his one—her wings in their pinion crimped cruelly out of shape, and the sham dream was gone. This was what they did to their own. His beautiful Madrigal, graceful even now.
He watched in helpless horror as she sank to her knees. Laid her head on the block. Impossible, screamed Akiva’s heart. This couldn’t happen. The will, the mystery that had been on their side… where was it now? Madrigal’s neck, stretched vulnerable, her smooth cheek to the hot black rock, and the blade, raised high and poised to fall.
His scream was a thing. It clawed its way out of him, gutting him from the inside. It ripped and tore; there was pain, pain to summon, and he tried to work it into magic, but he was too weak. The Wolf had seen to that: Even now Akiva was flanked by revenant guards, their hamsas aimed at him and flooding him with their debilitating sickness. Still he tried, and ripples went through the crowd as the very ground beneath their feet shifted. The scaffold rocked, the executioner had to take a step to steady himself, but it wasn’t enough.
The effort burst the blood vessels in his eyes. Still he screamed. Tried.
The blade glinted its descent, and Akiva fell forward on his hands. He was shredded, empty. Love, peace, wonder: gone. Hope, humanity: gone.
All that remained was vengeance.
The blade was a great and shining thing, like a falling moon.
It bit, and Madrigal was unsheathed.
She was aware of the falling away of flesh.
She still was. She was, but she was not corporeal. She didn’t want to see her head’s disgraceful tumble, but couldn’t help it. Her horns hit the platform first with a clatter, and then there was the ungodly thud of meat before it came to rest, the horns preventing it from rolling.
From this strange new vantage point above her body, she saw it all. She couldn’t not. The eyes had been the body’s apparatus, with their selective focus and lids for closing. She had no such ability now. She saw everything, with no fleshly boundary to divide herself from the air all around her. It was a muted kind of seeing, all directions at once as if her entire being were an eye, but a hazy one. The agora, the hateful crowd. And on the platform facing her own, his scream still warping the air around her: Akiva on his knees, pitched forward and wracked with sobs.
Below her she saw her own body, headless. It swayed to one side and collapsed. It was finished. Madrigal felt tethered to it. She had expected that; she knew souls stayed with their bodies for several days before beginning to ebb. Revenants who had been snatched back from the verge of evanescence had said it felt like a tide carrying them out.
Thiago had ordered her body left on the platform to rot, under guard, so that no one might attempt to glean her soul. She was sorry for the treatment of her body. For all that Brimstone might call bodies “envelopes,” she loved the skin that had carried her through her life, and she wished it could have a more respectful end, but it couldn’t be helped, and anyway, she didn’t intend to be here to see it break down. She had other plans.
She wasn’t certain that it could be done, this idea she clung to. She had nothing but a hint to go on, but she wrapped all her will around it, and all her longing and passion. Everything that she and Akiva had dreamed about, now thwarted, she directed into this one last act: She was going to set him free.
To which end, she would need a body. She had one picked out. It was a good one; she’d made it herself.
She had even used diamonds.
VICTORY AND VENGEANCE
“What’s going on with you, Mad?”
A week earlier, Madrigal had been with Chiro in the barracks. It was dawn, and she had crept into her bunk a mere half hour earlier from a night with Akiva. “What do you mean?”
“Do you ever sleep anymore? Where were you last night?”
“Working,” she said.
“Yes, all night. Though I may have fallen asleep in the shop for a couple of hours.” She yawned. She felt safe in her lies because no one outside Brimstone’s inner circle knew what went on in the west tower, or even knew about the secret passageway through which she came and went. And it was true that she had slept for a little while—just not in the shop. She’d dozed curled against Akiva’s chest and woken to him watching her.
“What?” she’d asked, bashful.
“Good dreams? You were smiling in your sleep.”
“Of course I was. I’m happy.”
She thought that was what Chiro really meant when she asked, “What’s going on with you?” Madrigal felt remade. She had never guessed how deep happiness could go. In spite of the tragedy in her childhood and the ever-present press of war, she had mostly considered herself happy. There was almost always something to take delight in, if you were trying. But this was different. It couldn’t be contained. She sometimes imagined it streaming out of her like light.
Happiness. It was the place where passion, with all its dazzle and drumbeat, met something softer: homecoming and safety and pure sunbeam comfort. It was all those things, intertwined with the heat and the thrill, and it was as bright within her as a swallowed star.
Her foster sister was scrutinizing her in silence when a trumpet blast in the city caused her to turn to the window. Madrigal went to her side and looked out. Their barracks were behind the armory, and they could just see the facade of the palace on the far side of the agora, where the Warlord’s gonfalon hung, a vast silk banner that indicated he was in residence. It bore his heraldry—antlers sprouting leaves to signify new growth—and beside it, as Madrigal and Chiro watched, another gonfalon unfurled. This one was blazoned with a white wolf, and though it was too distant to read, they both knew its motto well.
Victory and vengeance.
Thiago had returned to Loramendi.
Chiro’s hands fluttered so that she had to steady them against the window ledge. Madrigal saw her sister’s excitement, even as she fought her own rising bile. She had chosen to take Thiago’s departure and absence as a sign—of fate conspiring in her happiness. But if his absence had been a sign, what did his return signify? The sight of his banner was like a splash of icy water. It couldn’t douse her happiness, but it made her want to curl around it and protect it.
Chiro noticed. “What’s the matter? Are you afraid of him?”
“Not afraid,” Madrigal said. “Only anxious that I gave offense, disappearing like I did.” Her story had been that she’d drunk too much grasswine and, overcome by nerves, had hidden in the cathedral, where she’d fallen asleep. She studied her sister’s expression and asked, “Was he… very angry?”
“No one likes to be rejected, Mad.”
She took that as a yes. “Do you think it’s over now, though? That he’s through with me?”
“One way you could make sure,” said Chiro. She was glib, jesting—surely—but her eyes were bright. “You could die,” she said. “Resurrect ugly. He’d leave you alone then.”
Madrigal should have known then—to take care, at least. But she hadn’t the soul for suspicion. Her trust was her undoing.
THE WORLD REMADE
“I can’t save you.”
Brimstone. Madrigal looked up. She was on the floor in the corner of her barren prison cell, and didn’t expect saving. “I know.”
He approached the bars, and she held herself still, chin raised, face blank. Would he spit at her, as others had? He didn’t have to. The simple fact of Brimstone’s disappointment was worse than anything others could hurl at her.
“Have they hurt you?” he asked.
“Only by hurting him.”
Which was worse a torture than she could have believed. Wherever they were keeping Akiva, it was just near enough that she could hear his screams when they crested into full agony. They rose, wavering audible at irregular intervals, so she never knew when the next one was coming, and had lived the past days in a state of sick expectancy.
Brimstone studied her. “You love him.”
She could only nod. She’d held up so well until now, high dignity and a hard veneer, not letting them see how inside she was dissolving, as if her evanescence had already begun. But under Brimstone’s scrutiny, her lower lip began to tremble. She crushed her knuckles against it to still it. He was silent, and once she thought she could trust her voice, she said, “I’m sorry.”
“For what, child?”
Was he mocking her? His ovine face had always been impossible to read. Kishmish was on his horn, and the creature’s posture mimicked his master’s, the tilt of his head, the hunch of his shoulders. Brimstone asked, “Are you sorry for falling in love?”
“No. Not for that.”
She didn’t know what he wanted her to say. In the past, he had told her that all he ever wanted was the truth, as plain as she could make it. So what was the truth? What was she sorry for?
“For getting caught,” she said. “And… for making you ashamed.”
“Should I be ashamed?”
She blinked at him. She would never have believed that Brimstone would taunt her. She had thought he just wouldn’t come, that her last sight of him would be on the palace balcony as he awaited her execution along with everyone else.
He said, “Tell me what it is you have done.”
“You know what I’ve done.”
It was to be taunting, then. Madrigal bowed to it. She gave him a recitation. “High treason. Consorting with the enemy. Endangering the perpetuity of the chimaera race and everything we’ve fought for for a thousand years—”
He cut her off. “I know your sentence. Tell me in your own words.”
She swallowed, trying to divine what he wanted. Haltingly, she said, “I… I fell in love. I—” She shot him an abashed glance before revealing what she had so far told no one. “It started at the Battle of Bullfinch. The fighting was over. It was after, during the gleaning. I found him dying and I saved him. I didn’t know why; it felt like the only thing. Later… later I thought it was because we were meant for something.” Her voice dropped and her cheeks flamed as she whispered, “To bring peace.”
“Peace,” Brimstone echoed.