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Lips touch three times, p.10
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       Lips Touch: Three Times, p.10

           Laini Taylor
 
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  The girl in the tea shop flushed when she saw him, and he knew she'd been watching for him. "Good morning, blossom," he said in his soft voice, smiling just enough to show his sharp canines. In the cheerful light of the shop he looked feral and deadly. The fangs, his stature, his long black hair, and his eyes, pale as a Siberian husky's against his black lashes and brows, made Mihai hard not to notice, and hard not to think about after.

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  "Good morning, you," the girl said, blushing from her bright blue hair to her throat and down into the shadow of her blouse. Following the blush down, Mihai could see the small ink spike of a tattoo emerging from the cleft between her breasts. It looked like it might be the point of a star. "Did you hear the wolves?" she asked him.

  He lifted his gaze and raised his eyebrows, feigning surprise. "Wolves?"

  "Just before dawn," she said. She was pretty. Her eyes were large and bright, just the kind that had always called to him, and Mihai found himself thinking from old habit that she'd be so easy to slip into. He shook off the idea. "We all heard them howling," she told him. "It was mad."

  "Wolves in the city?" He gave her a skeptical look. "That is mad. Maybe it was all a dream."

  "No. I even heard about it on the radio," she insisted. "They're saying they must have escaped from some wildlife smugglers or something."

  "I'll have to keep an ear out," he said.

  "Some of us are going up to the roof tonight to watch for them," she said, adding shyly, "You could come."

  Mihai only smiled at her, and he saw how her gaze lingered on his fangs.

  She gave him his tea for free, slipping chocolates onto the dish and brushing her knuckles across his as she handed it to him. Her face was luminous and hopeful; she'd go into the dark with him in a heartbeat, sharp teeth and all. Human girls were stupid that way. No, not stupid. Primal in their skin, without even knowing it. The things that made their pulse quicken were all the wrong things, but

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  Mihai didn't take advantage of it, except for the free tea. He'd been waiting fourteen years for someone else, all fever and slick teeth and longing, and judging by the furor of the wolves last night, he didn't have much longer to wait. For Druj to hunt openly in a human city, so far from their dominion in remote mountains, they had to be crazed with a long-sought scent.

  It was almost time. Esme was nearly ripe.

  While Mihai sipped his tea, he found himself so anxious he could hardly sit still. He thumbed idly through a free newspaper, the kind with music reviews and advice for lovers. He enjoyed human music as he enjoyed their tea: casually. It was their plain discussions of love that enthralled him. As if it were no more a mystery than bread or arithmetic! As if it were not utterly unique to them in the catalog of all things that had ever lived, on all planes, in all of time. Love was theirs alone, and it was why Mihai had helped a red-haired girl escape from Tajbel fourteen years ago with her belly full of child, and why he waited alone in this gray city, year after year, his mind on fire with hope.

  Fourteen years, and his waiting was over.

  Mihai winked at the blue-haired girl and left the tea shop, seeing wistfulness in her eyes as he turned away. He cut across the street with his head tilted back, his predator's senses filtering through the hundreds of fresh human trails until he picked out Mab's and Esme's. In his mind their scent was the color of their hair, and it grew brighter as he drew nearer to their flat. He followed it up the fire escape to their ash-dusted window ledge and peered in. Their fragrance was bright and coppery -- he could almost taste them -- but the flat was quiet, no stir of breath or murmur of moving blood.

  Then he saw the braids hanging from the chandelier, and he

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  knew that they'd fled. He felt an instant flood of fury at Mab's trickery, and a twinge of panic to think of them getting away, but those feelings were quickly drowned out by the visceral thrill that came over him -- despite everything he wanted to be, and all he tried to un-be -- at the thought of a hunt.

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  THREE Blank Meadows

  Some say the Druj are demons, children of chaos brought forth long ago to plague the archangels and seed wickedness into human hearts. Others call them fey, forest spirits who hunt hunters, born of the bones of the earth before mountains were mountains or God was God. Most people have never heard of them at all, and of those who have, many are inclined to believe they're just folk tales and fancy. But there are yet good people in this world who know too well that they're real. Who have been pierced by them, like an icicle through the soul, haunted by them, and hunted by them, and whose nightmares won't let them forget it.

  There are places in the furls and fissures of mountains, from the Zagros to the Tien Shan and even as far west as the Carpathians, where humans never stray into the forests, not to hunt or gather firewood, not to meet secret lovers, and not to hide. They go no farther than the edges of the black meadows, those ashen strips they burn to divide their land from the forests.

  Twice yearly, on the equinoxes, village elders tend to the meadows. It is only the hunched and white-haired who will go so near the forests, and for good reason: Druj aren't tempted by the old. So while the young wait in the safety of the villages, the old go forth and scorch the boundary meadows with firebrands. After the black grass

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  cools, they walk across it, feeling it crunch and crackle under their soles, and they leave their tithes just under the forest's first shadows for the Druj to come and carry away. Brandy, bread, dried fruit and meat, sugar, knives, baskets of new kittens with their eyes still tight. Tales tell that the Druj don't eat, so the humans don't know who the food is for and they don't ask. They simply do as their own grandparents taught them, leave the baskets and keep their eyes down, no matter how great the temptation to peer into the forest. They don't want to see what might peer back.

  The forests belong to the Druj. Everything in them belongs to the Druj and the Druj are supposed to stay there -- agreements had been made -- but sometimes boredom gets the better of them.

  Boredom is a terrible affliction of the soulless.

  Every village in the foothills of those varied mountains has its tales of Druj stalking among them. They come as crows and owls, foxes and magpies, stags whose antlers carry the moss of centuries, and wolves, huge and hunched, padding silently through the center of town. Whatever cithra they keep, their eyes are always the same, that desolate blue, and that's how humans know them. When they come as animals, they perch on rooftops or at the market's edge and watch in their terrible unblinking way, and the villagers go inside and bar their doors to wait until they leave. They might fright a young girl or boy by following them home, but usually in animal cithra they don't do much more than that.

  When they come for mischief, they come as humans.

  The story is nearly always the same, and it might go something like this:

  "The youngest Margitay girl, the pretty one, she heard her cat mewling piteous by the sheds so she took her lantern out after him,

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  and that cat's cries got farther off whilst she followed, till she found she was under the big black poplar in the bottom of the field. There in the darkness like a shadow's own shadow stood a stranger. He was mewling to sound just like her cat, but he stopped when she came near and he smiled to bare his fangs. He was beautiful as the devil's reflection and she couldn't help but stare at him, black-haired and sharp-toothed, with those eyes that shone like coins in a frozen wishing well. She knew what he was and she knew she should run, but like she'd grown roots she stood there whilst he came to her, and she never even moved when he slid his long, cold fingers under her chin and tipped her face up to his, like he might give her a kiss.

  "But it wasn't a kiss he gave her. He fixed her brown eyes with his blue ones, and she knew she should squeeze hers shut. She'd been taught since she was a suckling that there are a hundred things the Druj can do with eyes! They can fish out your soul and keep it for a trophy, o
r they can pass visions in and plant dreams that will grow in the dark like toadstools. They can pluck out your eyeballs and put them in their pockets, or they can whisper spells that will turn your glance into a curse to wither crops and cripple horses!

  "Or they can use your eyes as windows and climb inside you, shoving their dark animus into your soul and filling it, like brutal fingers thrust into a child's glove.

  "That's what the stranger did to the pretty Margitay daughter. When he looked into her eyes, she felt a rush of cold fill her, like frigid water from a pump, and then everything fell into shadow. It was morning before she knew herself again. Birds were twittering and she was sagging on her feet, still standing under that black poplar. But there was no stranger before her, only her cat up in the branches. She wanted to think it had all been a dream, but there

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  were leaves in her hair and a hollow ache through and through her, and she knew the demon had not left her pristine as he'd found her. Memories of the dark hours rose in waves to engulf her and she just dropped to her knees there and moaned."

  There are other, more savage versions of the same simple story, and they are never told full-voice like a fireside tale, but only in rough whispers beside children's beds to scare the fear of the night into them, and rightly so.

  Druj wear humans. They aren't supposed to do it but they do, and they wear them harshly, for fighting and rutting and dancing and other such things as make mortal blood flow fast. And when they're through with them, they leave them where they found them, flow back into their own cold bodies, and return to the forest. The humans live. Over time their torn and bruised souls regain some semblance of their former shape. They live, but they are ever afterward tormented by nightmares.

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  Four Wolves

  Esme fiddled with her eye patch, wondering if the world would look different through her blue eye than it did through her brown one. When she thought her mother wasn't looking, she lifted the velvet a little and peered around the train car. Everything looked the same.

  "Esme!" Mab scolded. "Leave that alone." Esme quickly set the patch back in place. "But people will think something's wrong with my eye," she said. Already the handsome waiter in the dining car had given her a curious look.

  "Something is wrong with your eye," Mab reminded her. "I mean, they'll think it's gross. Or missing. But it's kind of pretty, like one of those dogs, you know, the ones that catch Frisbees?" Mab only looked at her, nonplussed, and after a moment Esme added, "Isn't it bad enough I look like a boy with my hair cut off? I have to look like a pirate boy?"

  "You do not look like a boy," said Mab distractedly. "So I do look like a pirate?"

  Mab sighed. "Leave the eye patch on, darling. Please."

  Shorn hair or not, Esme did not look like a boy, and Mab certainly didn't either. When they had hurried to the train station with their violin cases, they had drawn almost as many stares as they

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  would on any normal day when their hair was to their knees and sheeting behind them like red silk. A poetic fruit-seller had told them once that they looked like dryads, and they did still, only now they looked like dryads who had tired of snagging their hair on brambles and sliced it all off on the edge of a knife.

  "What have they done to me, Mama?" Esme asked now. "Is it what they did to you?"

  "No," Mab said, and the word came out hard as fingers snapping. Esme blinked at her mother, surprised. She was usually so patient, her voice so soft. "This is not what they did to me," Mab said. "I haven't seen it before. When the Queen would ... go inside of me ... she liked to look in her mirror through my eyes as if... as if she was me, so I know my eyes didn't change color, and neither did his...." she trailed off, looking down.

  "What?" Esme asked. "Who?"

  But Mab didn't say. She pressed her lips together for a moment and then went on. "Their spies don't have eyes like that either. They have only one eye and the Queen keeps the other in her tabernacle. Only Druj have those eyes."

  "But I'm not one of them!" Esme said. She was suddenly electrified by a horrifying thought. She had never asked about her father. She had never really asked about any of it. She realized now that she'd been afraid to learn what lay coiled at the roots of her mother's nightmares. She hadn't wanted any part of a history that could make someone scream like that. But she was part of it. She had come out of it, somehow. She asked, "My ... my father wasn't one of them, was he?"

  Mab shuddered. "No, darling, no. The Druj don't breed."

  "Oh," said Esme, relieved. "Then, who was my father?"

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  Her mother hesitated before saying slowly, "He was a boy, as I was a girl, not much older than you are now. The Queen chose him for me for the color of his hair."

  "What color was it?"

  "The same as mine, exactly, and the same as yours. It took her months to find him and bring him back on her sledge. I didn't know anything about the world then, what lay beyond the forest, but now I know he was Russian. His name was Arkady." She had a faraway look in her eyes, remembering.

  Esme asked, "Was he nice?"

  "Nice?" Mab gave a soft laugh. "Not at first. He hated me like he hated them. He didn't understand what I was; I didn't either. He was the first human I'd ever seen. The first time I touched him and felt that his flesh was warm like mine, not cold like theirs, I can't explain it, my darling, that was the first time I understood I was real. He wasn't nice at first, but why should he have been? They had stolen him! But in time, between us, there was tenderness."

  Esme was silent for a moment, staring at her mother. There was so much she didn't understand that she didn't even know where to begin asking. "Mama, what do you mean, what you were? What were you?"

  But Mab shook her head and looked out the window. "Enough talking about them, darling. Please."

  "But what about my father? Arkady. What happened to him?"

  Still looking out the window, Mab whispered, "I don't know. I don't know what they did with him, after."

  The word "after" hung heavy between them and Esme wished she hadn't asked. That simple word managed to conjure a whole

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  universe of unspeakable possibilities. "Maybe he got away," she said. "You got away."

  "Yes, but I couldn't have done it alone. I had help."

  "From who?"

  "One of them. He was a Naxturu -- that's what the wolves are called. Nocturnal, it means. They're the highest caste of Druj." "Why did he help you?"

  "Us, darling. He helped us, and I never knew why. Now eat your soup. We've a long way to go. You'll need your strength."

  Esme frowned. "What about you? You haven't eaten any."

  Mab had just been stirring her soup in circles. Now she lifted her spoon and took a tiny sip from it. "There," she said. And slowly, in silence, they ate their soup without tasting a thing.

  "Mama," said Esme after the handsome waiter had cleared away their bowls. "Don't you think the wolves can follow us through the train tunnel?"

  "We should have some time," answered Mab. "They only hunt at night. They draw power from the moon and they're strongest when it's nearest."

  "But it's not near now," said Esme. "It's almost in apogee." She'd been charting the monthly moons with her mother her whole life, and she finally knew why.

  "That's good for us," said Mab. "They won't be at full strength."

  Esme knew somehow that it wouldn't matter, that they would be strong enough. She could almost see them lunging out of the darkness, slaver clinging to their yellow fangs. She also knew, somehow, that they wouldn't stop until they found her, and she wondered

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  why she wasn't more afraid. "What do they want?" she asked in a hushed voice.

  Mab only smiled at her and reached for her hand. If she knew what they wanted -- and by the fear in her eyes Esme could tell that she did -- she wasn't going to tell.

  The train sped on, out of its undersea tunnel and onto the plains of France. B
y and by they arrived in Paris and transferred to a train bound for Marseilles, where Mab planned to get them on a ship for Africa or the Canary Islands, or perhaps a boat that would never again come to a shore but just sail and sail where the wolves would never find them. But when they reached the port in Marseilles, they learned the next passenger ship wouldn't depart until morning. It was bound for Tunis and would leave at dawn.

  Night was falling.

  Mab knew that back in London the hunters would be waking up in whatever dark place they had used for a lair. They had probably slept in their human cithrim as they usually had back in Tajbel. Erezav and Isvant would be among them, the Queen's favorites who looked like beasts no matter what cithra they kept, wolf or man or even crow. They made vicious crows, and picked out humans' eyes just for looking at them. And the Queen herself, she would be there too, not as a wolf but as a woman. She might be riding one of her wolves, her long fingers clutching the fur of its nape. Mab shuddered at the vision of the Queen astride one of her massive black beasts. She knew the hunters couldn't reach Marseilles for hours, but the sight of the rising moon still sent a thrill of panic through her. "Come on," she said, grabbing Esme by the hand.

  They found a hotel and took a room high in the attic. It had a round window that looked out over the harbor, and it had one big

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  bed. Mab and Esme huddled in it. They burned the pages of a romance novel someone had left behind and spread the ashes around the bed, keeping some in their fists and the laps of their nightgowns, ready to throw. "Ashes burn them," Mab told Esme.

  "Why?" asked Esme, looking at her dirty fingers. She found the sensation of the ashes unpleasant.

 
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