How childish it seemed, considering where she was now, to have believed there was some divine intention in their love. And yet, how beautiful it had been. What she had shared with Akiva could not be touched by shame. Madrigal lifted her voice to say, “We dreamed together of the world remade.”
There followed a long silence, Brimstone just looking at her, and if she hadn’t made a game of trying to outstare him as a child she would have been ill-equipped to endure it. Even so, she was burning to blink by the time he finally spoke. “And for that,” he said, “I should be ashamed of you?”
All the cogs of misery within Madrigal froze. It felt as if her blood stopped moving. She didn’t hope… she didn’t dare. What did he mean? Would he say more?
No. He breathed a heavy sigh, and said again, “I can’t save you.”
“I… I know.”
“Yasri sent you these.” He thrust a cloth bundle through the bars, and Madrigal took it. It was warm, fragrant. She unwrapped it and saw the horn-shaped pastries Yasri had been stuffing her with for years in a vain effort to fatten her up. Tears sprang to her eyes.
She laid them gently aside. “I can’t eat,” she said. “But… tell her I did?”
“And… Issa and Twiga.” An ache swelled in her throat. “Tell them…” She had to press her knuckles to her lips again. She was barely holding it together. Why was it so much more difficult in Brimstone’s presence? Before he came in, anger had kept her hard.
Though she had yet to give him a message to relay, he said, “They know, child. They already know. And they aren’t ashamed of you, either.”
It was as close as he would come, and it was good enough. Madrigal burst into tears. She leaned into the bars, head down, and wept, and she felt his hand settle on her neck, and wept harder.
He stayed with her, and she knew that no one but Brimstone—save the Warlord himself—could have overridden Thiago’s direct order that she have no visitors. He had power, but even he couldn’t overrule her sentence. Her crime was just too grave, her guilt too plain.
After she had cried, she felt at once hollow and… better, as if the salt of all her unshed tears had been poisoning her, and now she was cleansed. She leaned against the bars; Brimstone was hunkered down on the other side. Kishmish started chirping regular little snips that Madrigal knew were a combination boss/beg, so she broke off bits of Yasri’s pastry and fed them to him.
“Prison picnic,” she said, with a weak effort at a smile, which then bit off abruptly.
They both heard it at the same time—a scream of such pure wretchedness that Madrigal had to fold over herself, press her face to her knees and her hands to her ears, pitching herself in darkness, silence, denial. It didn’t work. This fresh scream was already in her skull, and even after it stopped, its echo stayed inside her.
“Who will be first?” she asked Brimstone.
He knew what she meant. “You. With the seraph watching.”
In a moment of strange detachment, she said, “I thought he would decide the opposite, and make me watch.”
“I believe,” said Brimstone with some hesitation, “that he isn’t… finished with him yet.”
A small sound escaped Madrigal’s throat. How long? How long would Thiago make him suffer?
She asked Brimstone, “Do you remember the wishbone, when I was younger?”
“I finally made a wish on it. Or… a hope, I suppose, as there was no real magic in it.”
“Hope is the real magic, child.”
Images flashed through her mind. Akiva smiling his smile of light. Akiva beaten to the ground, his blood running into the sacred spring. The temple in flames as the soldiers dragged them away, the requiem trees starting to catch fire, too, and all the evangelines that lived in them. She reached into her pocket and produced the wishbone she had brought to the grove that last time. It was intact. They had never gotten the chance to break it.
She thrust it at Brimstone. “Here. Take it, trample it, throw it away. There is no hope.”
“If I believed that,” Brimstone said, “I wouldn’t be here now.”
What did that mean?
“What do I do, child, day after day, but fight against a tide? Wave after wave upon the shore, each wave licking farther up the sand. We won’t win, Madrigal. We can’t beat the seraphim.”
“We can’t win this war. I’ve always known it. They are too strong. The only reason we’ve held them off this long is because we burned the library.”
“Of Astrae. It was the archive of the seraph magi. The fools kept all their texts in one place. They were so jealous of their power, they didn’t allow copies. They didn’t want any upstarts to challenge them, so they hoarded their knowledge, and they took only apprentices they could control, and kept them close. That was their first mistake, keeping all their power in one place.”
Madrigal listened, rapt. Brimstone, telling her things. History. Secrets. Almost afraid to break the spell, she asked, “What was their next mistake?”
“Forgetting to fear us.” He was silent a moment. Kishmish hopped back and forth from one of his horns to the other. “They needed to believe we were animals, to justify the way they used us.”
“Slaves,” she whispered, hearing Issa’s voice in her head.
“We were pain thralls. We were the source of their power.”
“They told themselves we were dumb beasts, as if that made it all right. They had five thousand beasts in their pits who weren’t dumb at all, but they believed their own fiction. They didn’t fear us, and that made it easy.”
“Made what easy?”
“Destroying them. Half the guards didn’t even understand our language, were happy to believe it was just grunts and roars we screamed in our agony. They were fools, and we killed them, and we burned everything. Without magic the seraphim lost their supremacy, and all these years, they have not recovered it. But they will, even without the library. Your seraph is proof that they are rediscovering what they lost.”
“But… No. Akiva’s magic, it isn’t like that—” She thought of the living shawl he’d made her. “He would never use it as a weapon. He only wanted peace.”
“Magic isn’t a tool of peace. The price is too high. The only way I can keep using it, cycling souls through death after death, is by believing that we are keeping alive until… until the world can be remade.”
He cleared his throat. It sounded like gravel churning. Was it possible, was he telling her that he…?
He said, “I dream it, too, child.”
“Magic won’t save us. The power it would take to conjure on such a scale, the tithe would destroy us. The only hope… is hope.” He still held the wishbone. “You don’t need tokens for it—it’s in your heart or nowhere. And in your heart, child, it has been stronger than I have ever seen.” He slipped the bone into his breast pocket, then rose from his lion-haunched crouch and turned. Madrigal’s heart cried out at the thought that he was leaving her alone.
But he only paced to the small window on the far wall and looked out. “It was Chiro, you know,” he said, an abrupt change of subject.
Chiro, who had the wings to follow her, and who hid in the grove, and saw.
Chiro, who, like Thiago’s lapdog, betrayed her for a pat on the head.
“Thiago promised her human aspect,” Brimstone said. “As if it were a promise he could keep.”
Stupid Chiro, thought Madrigal. If that was her hope, she had chosen her alliance poorly. “You won’t honor his promise?”
With a dark look, Brimstone replied, “She should make best efforts to never need another body. I have a string of moray eel teeth I never thought I would be tempted to use.”
Moray eel? Madrigal couldn’t tell if he was serious. Probably. She felt almost sorry for her sister. Almost. “To think I wasted diamonds on her.”
“You were true to her, even if she was not to you. Never repent of your own goodness, child. To stay true in the face of evil is a feat of strength.”
“Strength,” she said with a little laugh. “I gave her strength, and look what she did with it.”
He scoffed. “Chiro is not strong. Her body may have been wrought with diamonds, but her soul within will be a soft mollusk thing, wet and shrinking.”
It was an unlovely image, but it felt just about right.
Brimstone added, “And easily pushed aside.”
Madrigal cocked her head. “What?”
Out in the corridor: sounds. Was someone coming? Was it time? Brimstone spun toward her. “The revenant smoke,” he said, quick and clipped. “You know what is in it.”
She blinked. Why was he talking about the smoke? There would be none of it for her. But he was looking at her so intently. She nodded. Of course she knew. The incense was arum and feverfew, rosemary, and asafetida resin for the sulfur smell.
“You know why it works,” he said.
“It makes a path for the soul to follow, to the vessel. The thurible, or the body.”
“Is it magic?”
Madrigal hesitated. She’d helped Twiga make it often enough. “No,” she said, distracted, as the sounds in the corridor grew louder. “It’s just smoke. Just a path for the soul.”
Brimstone nodded. “Not unlike your wishbone. It isn’t magic, just a focus for the will.” He paused. “A powerful will might not even need it.”
His look burned at her, steady. He was trying to tell her something. What?
Madrigal’s hands started to shake. She didn’t understand, quite, but something was starting to take shape, out of magic and will. Smoke and bone.
At the door, the bolts drew back. Madrigal’s heart pounded. Her wings made the ineffectual fluttering of a caged bird. The door opened and Thiago framed himself in it like a picture. As ever, he was clad all in white, and Madrigal realized for the first time why he wore white: It was a canvas for the blood of his victims, and now his surcoat was livid with it.
With Akiva’s blood.
Thiago’s face flashed anger when he saw Brimstone in the room. But he didn’t risk a battle of wills he couldn’t win. He inclined his head to the sorcerer and faced Madrigal. “It’s time,” he said. His voice, perversely, was soft, as if he were coaxing a child to sleep.
She said nothing, fought for calm. Thiago wasn’t fooled. His wolf senses could smell the tang of her fear. He smiled, turning to the guards who awaited his command. “Bind her hands. Pinion her wings.”
“That is unnecessary.” Brimstone.
The guards hesitated.
Thiago faced the resurrectionist and the two stared at each other, their enmity confined to the flaring of nostrils, clenching of jaws. The Wolf repeated his order in precise syllables, and the guards scurried to carry it out: into the cell, wrestling Madrigal’s wings together and piercing them through with iron clips to secure them. Her hands were easier; she didn’t struggle. Once she was fully trussed, they shoved her toward the door.
Brimstone had one last surprise. He told Thiago, “I have designated someone to bless Madrigal’s evanescence.”
The blessing was a sacred ritual that she had assumed she would be denied. Thiago, apparently, had assumed the same. He narrowed his eyes and said, “You think you’re getting anyone close enough to glean her—”
Brimstone cut him short. “Chiro,” he said. Madrigal flinched. To Thiago, he said, “I can’t imagine you would object to her.”
Thiago did not. “Fine.” To the guards, he said, “Go.”
Chiro. It was so deeply wrong, so profane, that Madrigal’s betrayer should be the one to grant her soul peace, that for an instant she thought she had misconstrued everything that Brimstone had just said to her, that this was one final punishment heaped upon the others. Then he smiled. A wily uplift of the line of his stern ram’s mouth, and it struck her. It exploded behind her eyes.
Soft mollusk thing. Easily pushed aside.
The guard gave Madrigal another shove and she was out the door, her mind racing to encompass this wild new notion in the short time that was left to her.
IF FOUND, PLEASE RETURN
It had never been done, not that she had heard of. Never even speculated on, and it surely would not have been possible with a natural body. A body accretes to its soul like nacre to a grain of sand, forming a perfect, unified entity that only death can unwork. There is no gap within a natural body for guests, or for hijackers. But Chiro’s body was a vessel, as Madrigal well knew, having made it herself.
She might not need smoke to guide her, but she did need proximity. She couldn’t move through space; she had no control or propulsion. Chiro would have to come to her, and, because Brimstone had selected her to perform the blessing, she did. With heavy steps up the scaffold to kneel beside the pieces that had been her sister. Shaking, she raised her eyes to the air above the body.
She whispered, “I’m sorry, Mad. I didn’t know it would be evanescence. I’m so sorry.”
Madrigal, who could not block out the sight of her own severed head or the memory of Akiva’s screams, was unmoved. What had Chiro hoped for? A lesser sentence? Resurrection of low aspect, perhaps? Maybe she hadn’t been thinking of Madrigal at all, except as a means of drawing Thiago’s attention. Love made a person do strange things, as Madrigal well knew. There was nothing stranger than what she was about to do.