She told him what he’d told her a few nights before, when they’d had their first awed inkling of what a kiss could be. “You have ruined my tongue for all other tastes,” she whispered, and felt his mouth smile against hers. There was sound in their breathing, the softest of sighs. Their bodies remembered the heat from before, his lips closing warm on the tip of her breast, and their chests, skin to skin, so brief before the bite.
And the heat leapt alive—a fire licked by winds. Licked and sucked, deep and sweet. They kissed—not lightly, no, not now.
Lazlo winced. There was blood. They’d reopened the bite. He made no move to stop. He held Sarai close, and kissed her. Her feet were off the ground. Her fingers were in his hair. They were tangled in each other on the seraph’s open palm. Under her slip, her elilith pulsed silver. It wanted Lazlo’s lips, his hands, his skin, his fire, as she wanted his weight, rocking with her, his heat, filling her. He wanted to trace her tattoo’s shining lines and taste it, and feel it, and make it glow, and make her purr. Neither of them knew anything at all. But their bodies knew what bodies know, and wanted what bodies want.
They wanted, but they parted, with wildfires in them and blood on their tongues. “I want...” Sarai murmured.
“Me too,” Lazlo breathed.
They gazed at each other, awed that fires could kindle that fast, and frustrated that they couldn’t let them kindle. Sarai had only meant to kiss him, and now she wanted to climb him, consume him. She felt like a creature, fanged and hungry, and...she liked it. She let out a shaky laugh and loosened her hold on him, sliding down so her feet once again met the ground.
The friction made him close his eyes and take a steadying breath.
“Your lip,” said Sarai with a grimace of apology. “It’ll never heal at this rate.”
“I like this rate,” said Lazlo, his voice at its roughest—as it was, Sarai was learning, in moments of grief or desire. “I can always get another lip,” he said, “but I’ll never get this moment back.”
Sarai cocked her head. “There’s nothing at all wrong with that statement.”
“No, nothing. It’s perfectly true.”
“Lips probably grow on vines somewhere.”
“It’s a big world. Chances are good.”
Sarai smiled and felt like a silly girl, in the best possible way. “I like this lip, though. I’m appointing myself its protector. No kissing until further notice.”
Lazlo’s eyes narrowed. “That’s the worst idea you’ve ever had.”
“Think of it as a challenge. You can’t kiss, but you can be kissed. I should make that clear. Just not on the mouth.”
“Where, then?” he asked, intrigued.
She considered the matter. “Your eyebrow, for example. Probably only there. Not your neck,” she said, a glimmer in her eye. “Or that place right behind your ear.” She brushed it with her fingertips, sending a shiver through him. “And absolutely not here.” She traced a slow line down the center of his chest, felt his muscles tense through the linen, and wanted to lift his shirt and kiss his skin right then and there.
Lazlo seized her hand and pressed it to his hearts, which were slamming against the wall of his chest. He gazed at her, all astonishment and simmer. How his dreamer’s eyes shone. Sarai could see herself in them, and the setting sun, too: a bit of blue in each iris, some cinnamon and pink, and twin swaths of glowing orange glazed over gray. “Sarai,” he said, and his voice was even rougher than in grief or desire. It sounded broken and put back together with half its pieces missing. It sounded ravaged and sweet and perfect. “I love you,” he said, and Sarai melted.
It had been wrong, earlier, in the gallery, with Minya and ghosts and promises and threats, but here and now, it was right. It was perfectly right, and proved Sarai a poor protector of Lazlo’s lip after all. She kissed him. She gave the words back to him, murmuring, and kept them, too. You could do that: Give them back and keep them. “I love you” is generous that way.
And when the sun touched the Cusp and sank away behind it, they stood at the railing Lazlo had made and watched light diffuse through the demonglass—the thousands of giant skeletons melted and fused to make a mountain—and a drumbeat of nerves kicked off inside Sarai.
How strange that this was her first ghost nightfall. She hadn’t even been dead a full day. Would her moths burgeon, or had she lost them, too?
It was time to find out.
. . .
From the beginning, Sarai’s gift had manifested as the need to scream. Her throat and soul demanded it every nightfall. If she tried to resist, the pressure would build until she couldn’t abide it. This thing that was in her, it had to come out. It was who she was.
Or it had been.
Darkness settled slowly and Sarai waited for the feeling, the burgeoning of moths within her. But she felt nothing—no fullness, no scream. She put her hand to her throat as though she should feel the thrum of them in her, waiting to take shape where her breath met air.
There was nothing. No thrum, and, of course, no breath. She looked at Lazlo, stricken.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I can’t feel them.” Sparks of panic lit through her. “I think they’re gone.”
He ran his hands down her arms and back up, so he was holding her shoulders. “It might just be different now,” he said. “It might feel different.”
“I don’t feel anything.”
“How does it usually work?” he asked. He wasn’t panicking, but his hearts were in his throat. Sarai’s gift had brought her to him— into his mind and his life—and he loved being in dreams with her. It was better than any story he’d ever read. It was like being inside a story and writing it all around you, and not alone but with someone who just happened to be as magical and beautiful as a fairy tale made real.
“I scream,” said Sarai. “And they fly out.”
“Do you want to try screaming?”
“But I scream because I can feel them, and I need to, to let them out. But there’s nothing.”
“You could still try,” he said with such sweet hopefulness that she almost felt hopeful, too.
So she did. She’d never liked anyone to see her do it. She’d been ashamed. She’d known it must be revolting, to see a hundred moths fly out of someone’s mouth, but she didn’t worry that Lazlo would think so. She didn’t even turn away, but stepped back, in case it worked, so that moths wouldn’t fly right in his face. And then she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, imagined them, summoned them, and...screamed.
Lazlo watched, intent. He saw her lips open, and her fine white teeth part, and he saw her rosy tongue, which just a moment ago he’d savored with his own, and he saw...He took a small, sharp breath.
He saw a moth. It was twilight dark, purple black, and its wings brushed her lips as it emerged. They were plush, like velvet nap. He saw antennae like tiny plumes. He started to smile, relief swelling in his chest, but some cautious part of him paused.
And then the smile faded. The relief died. Because the moth... vanished.
No sooner did it leave her lips than it simply ceased to be.
There was another behind it. It met the same fate. Another, another. The same. They came pouring out, and all of them vanished the instant they left her lips. Lazlo remembered the birds they’d made that morning in her room: his, mesarthium, hers, illusion. When she’d sent them airborne, his had flown, but hers had vanished just like this.
Her ghostself might be infinitely transmutable, but it had this limitation: Her illusion had to be part of her, contiguous.
Sarai’s eyes were closed. She couldn’t see what was happening. Lazlo reached for her. “Sarai,” he said softly. “That’s enough.”
She blinked her eyes open, closed her mouth, and looked around. The air was empty. Where were they? “I...I felt them...” she said.
“They disappeared,” he told her, sorrowful. “As soon as they left your lips.”
“Oh.” A bleakness opened up in Sarai. For a moment, she’d been so glad. She’d known, though, hadn’t she? If her moths had been winging around, she’d have been able to see through their eyes, smell what they smelled, feel the breeze. But she hadn’t seen or felt or smelled anything, and she felt like she’d lost a part of herself. She leaned into Lazlo’s chest. “That’s that, then,” she said. “I’m useless.”
“Of course you’re not.”
“What good am I? I don’t know how to do anything. If I don’t have my gift, I can’t help.”
He smoothed her hair. “You’re valuable no matter what you can do. And you aren’t useless, as it happens.” She couldn’t see it, but his lip tugged into something like a smile—stinging his reopened wound—and he added in a tone of exaggerated consolation, “Who else could protect my lip from kissing?”
She drew back and looked up at him, eyebrows raised. “I think we both know I’m a failure at that job.”
Sympathetically, he agreed. “You are terrible at it. But I don’t care. There’s no one else I want not protecting my lip. The job is yours forever.”
“Forever? I hope it heals, though.” “Look who’s already trying to shirk. Do you want this job or don’t you?” She was laughing now and could hardly believe it. How had he made her laugh, when she’d been flooded with self-pity?
“But listen,” he said, growing serious again, not willing to give up on her gift just yet. “What would happen if you...I don’t know, caught one of your moths on your finger, and kept contact with it, so it wouldn’t vanish.”
“I don’t know.”
“Care to try?”
She was skeptical, but she said, “Why not?” And she did it, eyes open. She willed a moth to burgeon, and as it emerged, she caught it on her fingertip, and held it out before her. They both looked at it. Sarai wondered: Was it even really one of her moths—a magical conduit to the minds and dreams of others—or was it just another shred of illusion, like the songbird from earlier, without any power at all? How could she know, unless she placed it on a sleeper’s brow? “I suppose I’ll have to try it on Minya,” she said, though she was reluctant to go in—not just into Minya’s mind, but even into the citadel. She liked being here alone with Lazlo.