“I wish I could make it sing for you,” said Lazlo, but that was beyond his power.
A new bird appeared beside it, coalescing out of nowhere. For an instant it startled Lazlo, but then he realized Sarai had made it. Like herself, it was illusion, and flawless: a phantom sparrow, brown and faun, with a little black beak the size and shape of a rose thorn. It did sing. The notes were sweet as summer rain, and it was Lazlo’s turn for wonder. These two birds, side by side, represented their new selves, god and ghost, and their new abilities, too. Both had their limitations: Sarai’s sparrow could sing but not fly. Lazlo’s could fly but not sing.
With a flick of her wrist, she sent them airborne. Hers vanished at once, unable to exist apart from the illusion of her self. Lazlo flew his, and the rest of the flock, to find new perches and fall still.
“How does it work?” he asked her, intrigued. “This transformation business. Are there limits?”
“Only of imagination, I think. Tell me.” She waved a hand over herself. “What should I change?”
“Nothing.” He breathed a laugh. The idea was so absurd. “You’re perfect as you are.”
Sarai blushed and looked down. They were drifting across the room, unconsciously—or maybe not—in the direction of the nook behind the dressing room, where Sarai’s little bed was tucked out of sight. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “What about wings? Or even just clothes that never belonged to the goddess of despair.”
“I have to admit,” said Lazlo with a furtive glance down at her pink slip. “I’m rather fond of these clothes.”
His voice was warm. Sarai’s cheeks warmed, too. “These underclothes, you mean?”
“Is that what they are?” He feigned innocence. “I didn’t realize.”
Sarai snorted. She touched his sleeve. “I see you also shunned the outerwear of the gods.”
“I can change if you like. There’s a doublet I’m almost certain is made all of beetle wings.”
“That’s all right,” said Sarai. “Some other time.”
“Some formal occasion.”
They’d passed the door to the dressing room, into the nook. The bed was there, neatly made and narrow, barely more than a cot.
“There is one thing,” Sarai said, her voice going shy.
Lazlo saw her trace a ring around her navel, over the silk of her slip. “Oh?” he asked. The word barely emerged. He swallowed, and drew his eyes back up to hers.
“Do you know about eliliths?” she asked.
“The tattoos?” He knew that girls of Weep received them on their bellies when their bleeding began. He’d never seen one, only the renderings of them engraved on the female Tizerkane’s armor.
“I always wanted one,” confessed Sarai. “I would see girls who’d gotten theirs, through my moths, I mean, down in the city. They’d lie in their beds and trace the patterns with their fingers, and in their dreams, I could tell that they’d changed, like they’d crossed some boundary and would never be the same. Dreams have auras. I could feel what they were feeling, and the eliliths made them feel... powerful.”
She hadn’t understood that power when she was a girl. She was beginning to now. Fertility, sexuality, strength, the ability to create and nurture life: These were the powers of a woman, and the ink honored them, connecting them with all their foremothers going back hundreds of years. But it was about more than fertility. Sarai sensed it. It was a ripening, yes, but not just for the purpose of bearing children, or being a wife. It represented a claiming of one’s self—stepping forth from childhood and all the ways we’re shaped by others, to choose and make a new shape, all on one’s own.
And she’d wondered: What shape would she choose, if she were free to do so?
She’d seen many designs over the years: apple blossoms and daisy chains, seraph wings and runes that spelled out ancient blessings. Since Eril-Fane freed Weep from the gods, the most popular design had been a serpent swallowing its tail: a symbol of destruction and rebirth.
“What would yours be?” Lazlo asked her.
“I don’t know.” Holding his gaze, she put a hand to his chest and lightly pushed. The bed was just behind him. He couldn’t step back and so had no choice but to sit, which was as she’d intended. The mattress was low. He was eye level now with her ribs and had to look up at her face. Like telling a secret, she said, “I had one the night the mahalath changed us.”
The mist that made gods and monsters. It had rendered him blue and her brown—the human become god, and the goddess human, so the interlacing blue and brown of their fingers had reversed. And part of Sarai’s humanity had been an elilith.
“You did?” Lazlo asked. “What of?”
“I don’t know. I knew it was there, but not what it was.” When the mahalath came, she had let a deep part of her mind choose her transformation. It had chosen her tattoo as well. “I couldn’t very well look.” She mimed picking up the hem of her slip as though to lift it and peek under.
“I assure you I wouldn’t have minded.”
They both laughed, but the air was charged with a new intensity. Sarai was still tracing a slow circle round her navel, her gaze never leaving him, and he saw her smile melt into something else. Her teeth caught her lower lip—that delectable lower lip, so plump it was creased down the center, like a ripe apricot—and scraped it in a gentle bite.
“Is it there now?” he asked. Her finger kept tracing its circle, hypnotic. He could hardly hear his own voice.
Sarai nodded, and the moment held them fast. All either of them could think of was Sarai’s skin under her slip. Lazlo’s palms grew hot. His face did, too. A second ago, she’d mimed lifting her slip, but she made no move to do it. She took a half step toward him. She was already so near. Her hips were canted slightly forward, and he knew what she wanted him to do. He asked with his eyes, hardly daring to breathe.
She answered by coming even closer.
So he reached for her. His hands were heavy and light and tingling. He cupped them around the backs of her knees, under the hem of her slip. Her skin was hot velvet and trembling, and it shivered with gooseflesh as he slowly, oh so slowly, trailed his hands up the backs of her thighs.
The slip, pooling over his wrists, rose inch by tremulous inch.
He was hardly breathing. This was all new territory: his hands, her legs. And then...the curves of flesh above them, the lacy edges of her smallclothes, the swell of her hips.
Sarai’s hearts were a pair of butterflies, fluttering in a dance. Lazlo’s palms glided over her hips and still they slid higher, gathering the silk up around her waist to reveal what was secret beneath: the smallclothes, sweet and brief, and, above them, only flesh. The curve of her belly, the dip of her navel...
He had never seen a woman’s navel and was transfixed by the sight: blue deepening to purple in the tiny, perfect whirl, and scribed around it: her elilith.
Real tattoos were done in ink made from pine bark, bronze, and gall. They looked black when they were new but faded to umber as the years went by. Sarai’s were neither black nor umber, but gleaming silver, which suited them just right. Here were no apple blossoms or runes, no snake swallowing its tail.
“It’s perfect,” said Lazlo, rough-voiced and low.
It was the moon: a slender crescent shaped to the soft curve of her, with a scattering of stars to close the arc and form a perfect oval on her belly.
“The moon,” Sarai whispered, loving it. “Like the one you bought for me.”
Once in a dream they’d gone shopping for a moon. “And the stars we gathered,” he said. They’d strung them all on a bracelet, which appeared on her wrist now as though fished from the dream—a charm bracelet of real celestial bodies, tiny and luminous, hooked to a fine silver chain.
Sarai had long been nocturnal. The moon was her sun. Every night it set her free, to send her mind and senses winging down to Weep.
Would it still? Tonight at darkfall, would she feel her moths burgeon? Or had death put an end to her gift? She didn’t know. There was no precedent. But she hoped, oh, she hoped it wasn’t gone. She touched a fingertip to her belly, and when she took it away, a tiny silver moth had joined the stars on her blue skin. It was a wish, that she might still be... who?
Not the Muse of Nightmares. Those days were over. But she prayed that dreams were not lost to her, nor she to them.
“Do you remember,” she asked in a whisper, “the sun in a jar put away with the fireflies?”
They had lived for night and dreaded sunrise, for it would wrench them apart. But it was daylight now, and they were together. “I remember,” Lazlo managed, raw. His hands were heavy on her skin, gliding over the flare of her hips to encircle her waist. His fingertips met in back. In front, his thumbs traced the moon’s silver edges, the sprinkling of stars and the lone moth among them. They filled his sight. The blue of her skin, the silver stars and moon. She was the sky. Heavy, bewitched, he leaned forward and brushed his lips over a star.
Sarai shivered at the touch. The stars were on her skin, but they were inside her, too, filling her up with light. Where Lazlo’s lips brushed her belly, a shimmer lit up there and she trembled.
Through half-closed eyes, Lazlo saw and marveled. He kissed another star. Light pulsed beneath her skin. It looked like glavelight beneath blue silk.
It felt like feathers and shivers and shooting-star trails of pleasure that transcended flesh. Sarai wove her fingers through Lazlo’s hair. He stroked his thumbs down her belly, painting traceries of light. The silver ink shone bright, and wherever he touched, her skin gleamed pearlescent, lit up from within.
To come to Weep, he had crossed a sea, and he had seen, from the deck of a leviathan ship, the water glowing white-blue. It was bioluminescence, and when he’d trailed his hand in the water, it had come alive to his touch, rippling with radiance and even clinging to his fingers like a glaze of poured moonlight. And now Sarai’s body was sea and sky and radiance, and even her veins glimmered in glowing rivers as though her hearts were pumping light.