Around them in the air: light flashed on metal. The mesarthium songbirds had come alive again, and were flying, soaring, glorious. He hadn’t meant to do it, as he hadn’t meant for Rasalas, out in the garden, to toss its head and paw at the ground, restlessly alive. And the wasps in the heart of the citadel: their wings, so long frozen, flicked and folded. And the seraph itself—the whole massive, floating angel—shivered along with him, so that all through the passages, in the garden, the kitchens, the heart of the citadel, all felt it, and stopped what they were doing.
Not Lazlo, though, or Sarai. They felt only themselves, each other. He tilted his head to gaze up at her, and she felt a surge of overwhelming love for his face with its rough edges, his nose shaped by falling stories, and his gray eyes ablaze with witchlight. She wanted more of everything, more of life and freedom and years and him. She wanted all of him. An almost unbearable tenderness threatened to crush her under its weight, and...she wanted it to. She wanted to laugh and sob and be crushed by tenderness. She wanted to move, delirious, forgetting what was real and what was looming, and find some way to hook herself to this world, this moment, and never leave. She wanted to taste and feel and ache, and she wanted to weep, too, for all she’d lost and would yet lose.
She reached for Lazlo’s hand and lifted it to her hearts. They were brilliant now beneath her skin, so that his fingers, resting there, were limned in their throbbing glow.
The strap of her slip had fallen aside, the same one as last night. She held his hand in both of hers, and, pressing it full against her, drew it down over her breast, pushing the slip out of its way.
Lazlo’s vision narrowed as though the sight of her like this was too much to take in all at once. Her hearts pulsed like twin suns and her mouth was decadent with want. Her breast was in his palm, heavy with its velvet heat, and its tip was the same rosy hue as her tongue.
As he had never seen a woman’s navel, he had never seen this, either.
He lifted his face like a man spellbound and took it between his lips. The softness he found there obliterated him. He didn’t close his eyes. She was sky and night and everything, suns and novas and the surface of the sea. Dimly he noted the absence of the bunched-up silk from around her waist. The slip was gone. She’d vanished it, and was standing against him unveiled. His body shook, and hers did, too, as he traced around her nipple with his softly parted lips.
She made a kitten sound that undid him, then her knees gave way and she was poured against him, all softness and honey and heat. He gathered her into his lap, there on the edge of her bed. She tried to will his shirt away, too, to have nothing more between them. But it stayed right where it was and she laughed at herself, because this wasn’t a dream. She had to pull it off over his head. He raised his arms to let her, and then it was gone and she took his face in her hands, his perfect, imperfect face.
The birds were alive all around them. Lazlo’s hands were alive on her body. Her soul felt alive more than ever before. Sarai could almost forget that she wasn’t.
And when she leaned in to kiss him, she gave no thought to caution. How could she? The world was forgotten. His lips were warm and ardent. They parted against hers and moved with them like language, sweet and soft and slow. She loved his lips. She loved his tongue. She loved his chest against her own. His ribs rose and fell with unsteady breath. Their gazes fused, heavy-lidded, his eyes fringed in rivercat lashes. When she took his lip between her teeth, she only meant to tease it. She bit down lightly. It was tender as a plum. She stroked it with the tip of her tongue. And then:
An intrusion in her mind, quick and cold as a stab. Her will was snatched. It happened so fast. Her teeth sank deep into Lazlo’s lip.
It didn’t taste like plum.
Minya surfaced from the shallow place. Her eyes, which had gone blank, sharpened into focus and immediately cut narrow. She had several hundred souls in her power. She held their tethers with her mind, which she’d always pictured as a fist clenching a tangle of gossamer threads. Each gossamer sang with its own vibration, like the string of a musical instrument. It wasn’t music, but that came closest to describing it. The tethers resonated feeling.
Those were the feelings Minya’s ghosts gave off. She could tamp them down but they were always there—a beehive thrum of hate-fear-despair to match the way they looked at her when she fished their souls from the air.
The note that dragged her from the shallow place was none of these, and she knew it at once for Sarai’s. There was no tamping this one down. It overwhelmed her with a symphony of feelings quite different from what she knew. There were pleasure and desire, hot and sweet, and tenderness, ineffable and aching. And through it all, threading them together like jewels on a golden string: love. It rattled her.
Minya looked like a child but she wasn’t a child, and she understood very well what was happening—or at least what would happen if she let it. Spite hissed through her. Prudishness didn’t enter into it. Feral and Ruby had been in heat for days, and she hadn’t cared except to mock them. This was different. Sarai and Lazlo were pieces on the game board, and there was everything at stake. If they wanted their pleasure, their honey heat and little sounds, they could earn it with obedience.
So Minya sent her will racing down Sarai’s tether like a fuse, to seize control of her languid, licking mouth, latch her teeth onto Lazlo’s lip, and bite.
. . .
His cry was muffled against Sarai’s mouth. In the burst of pain, he jerked, and his forehead cracked against hers. Her teeth clung a second longer, nearly meeting in the middle, while his blood filled her mouth and she screamed inside her head, unable to let go.
There was a moment when she thought that Minya would make her clench and tear, like a dog ripping meat off a bone.
Then Minya released her, and she released Lazlo and leapt out of his lap. Blood bubbled from the wound, running down his chin— and it was also running down hers, his blood running down her chin. Her mouth was filled with the taste of it, and her mind with the feeling: the powerlessness, and the crunch and burst of her teeth cutting into the dense tissue of his lip. She couldn’t form words, but only heard herself uttering a horrified, “Oh, oh,” over and over as her hands reached toward him and fluttered, afraid to touch him lest she hurt him again, and sure also that he wouldn’t want to be touched, not by her, not anymore.
He was holding his hand to his mouth. Blood drizzled all down his wrist. When he looked up, his eyes were wide with shock and glazed with pain. But he blinked and cleared them, and saw Sarai’s distress.
“It’s all right. I’m all right,” he assured her.
“You’re not all right. I bit you!”
“It’s not your fault—”
“How does that matter? It was my teeth.” She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. It came away red and she shuddered.
“It’s nothing,” he said, touching his lip, though he flinched and rendered the claim unconvincing. “Even if you’d bitten it off, I’d still want to kiss you.”
“Don’t joke,” she said, shaken. “What if I had?”
“You didn’t.” He reached for her, but she stepped back, appalled now to realize that she’d been insufficiently afraid, and put him in danger just by being near him. She was a tool now, a weapon, and, with the taste of blood in her mouth, she had an awful new apprehension of how Minya could wield her. Was there anything she wouldn’t make her do? Any line she wouldn’t cross? The thought made Sarai sick and light-headed—and ashamed, too, that she wasn’t strong enough to resist her.
“Come here,” coaxed Lazlo. “If she wants to use you to hurt me, she will, whether you happen to be kissing me or not. And I’d rather you’re kissing me, if I have any say in the matter.”
“You’re in no state for kissing now.”
It was true. His lip throbbed and stung. He could feel it swelling.
But he didn’t want it to be over. She was too far away, standing out of reach, naked and blue and so beautiful it hurt. His hands were still full of the feel of her. He wanted her back in his arms. “I’m not afraid of you,” he said.
“I’m afraid of me.”
She knew their reprieve was ended, that Minya had restarted the “game,” so she whispered, urgent, “Lazlo, remember your promise, no matter what.” And just in time, because no sooner were those words out of her mouth than others followed in a wholly different tone. They were dulcet and insincere, and she could do nothing to stop them. “If you’re done rubbing your passion all over each other, come out to the gallery for a chat.”
. . .
Minya picked herself up off the ledge where her little legs had been dangling. Sarai’s tether felt like all the rest now, heavy with helpless despair. The tenderness was gone, and good riddance. It had felt like being cracked open, hearts served up on a platter. Why anyone would want that, seek that, she would never know.
She stretched and rolled her head side to side, savoring her small win. She’d thought to wait till their defenses were down. This was perfect. Leave them sloppy with want, unfulfilled, aching with desire and devotion. What wouldn’t they do for each other now? It was time to play this game to its end, and have her way at last.
Pieces on a Game Board
“She wouldn’t really let Sarai’s soul go, would she?” Ruby wondered, fretful and distracted. She was with Sparrow in the garden. Sparrow was working, or trying to. Ruby was just fidgeting. They could feel time ticking by. The seconds seemed to pile up and teeter. Sooner or later they would spill, and this fraught waiting would come to an end—with havoc, and screaming, and loss.
It was a little like being on tea break from the end of the world. What was Minya doing? How much longer did they have?
They spoke in hushed voices so the ghosts couldn’t hear them. “I would never have thought so before,” said Sparrow. “But now I’m not so sure.”
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