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Lips touch three times, p.11
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       Lips Touch: Three Times, p.11

           Laini Taylor
 
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  "I don't know. They abhor fire. I never knew of fire until I left them."

  They fell silent for a long time, listening.

  Esme slept and she dreamed of a moon framed by a rough rock window, and of a bed of furs, and of silver eyelids winking open on hinges to disclose real eyes, bloodshot and sticky. She dreamed of the pressure of warm lips against hers and she tasted river water on them and saw snowflakes caught in long, dark hair. She woke and listened in the dark for the howl of wolves but she heard only city sounds.

  Mab had stayed awake all night and her eyes were glassy with exhaustion. "It's time to go," she said.

  It was dawn. The tattered lace of darkness still hung over the city, as if night were a grim bride trudging to the horizon, trailing her shadowy train. They hurried the short blocks to the waterfront and merged there into a sleepy knot of passengers waiting to board a ship. The minutes dragged past and with each the glow of morning crept a little farther up the sky, until Mab and Esme began to believe they would escape.

  The first howl, when it came, was very far away, an eerie wisp of sound that might have been something else: a siren, or a grief-stricken woman. But Mab and Esme both knew it wasn't something else. They felt it in their spines and in their souls. They spun, listening,

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  staring, searching. The next howl was closer, and the next closer still. "Mama, they're coming!" Esme cried, and Mab heard excitement in her voice and saw that her face was vivid with it.

  "Esme!" she said sharply, and grabbed her hand. The passengers were lumbering across a narrow gangway onto the ship, and she shoved past them, dragging Esme behind her. Lazy curses followed them as Mab thrust their tickets into the porter's hand and hurried aboard and down the wide aisle of the deck. She made for the portal that led inside but Esme broke away and darted to the railing. She clung to it and stared out over the dawn-washed waterfront.

  For a moment Mab stared at her daughter, so slight and slim, head back, hair chopped, long white neck so newly exposed. The fixed fascination on her face made her almost seem to glow. She reached up and slid her eye patch back. Her blue eye glittered like glass. She gasped and pointed. "Mama! There!"

  Frantically Mab followed her pointing finger, and at the same instant that she heard the first bewildered screams coming from the docks, she saw them. Black, rushing, huge. With a cry, she clawed Esme's hands off the rail and dragged her through the doorway. She drew her step by struggling step down the corridor. Esme lagged and looked back over her shoulder, transfixed.

  They went down steps, down corridors. The ship was a labyrinth. The howls that had gone mute when they first plunged inside now filled the passages with unearthly echoes. The wolves were inside. Wild, Mab found a small empty room, pulled Esme into it, and pushed the heavy door closed.

  It didn't latch. It had no lock. Desperate, Mab drew a ragged breath and threw her back against it, just as a great weight hammered it from the outside, slamming it into the back of her head. It

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  lurched open a crack. A black snout appeared and wolf breath steamed into the small room. With a scream Mab threw herself back against the door, fighting it, her feet scrabbling and sliding as the wolves snarled and lunged at it.

  Esme stood before her in a kind of trance.

  And behind her, in the tiny dim chamber that had, an instant earlier, been empty, there appeared a figure. A voice, soft and accusing, asked, "Where did you think you were going, Mab?"

  Mab gasped, "You!" as the figure stepped from the shadows.

  He was beautiful and bestial, tall, with dark hair gleaming in riverine channels over his thick shoulders, and he gazed at Mab through the pale, terrible eyes of a Druj. He looked exactly the same as he had fourteen years ago. The same as he would look forever. He reached for Esme and gently cupped the nape of her bare neck.

  "Don't touch her!" Mab screamed at him. An impact at the door thrust her forward and she had to throw herself back, watching helplessly as the hunter turned Esme to face him.

  Esme scarcely knew where she was. Coming out of the fugue of the wolfsong, she would not have been surprised to find herself in the snow, standing beside a quick, dark river. Indeed, she half expected it. A flood of memories had transported her to just such a place and, looking up into the eyes of the Druj hunter before her, she half believed she really was in the mountains a continent away, in memories a lifetime past. She knew this face. She had tasted these lips. She heard herself purr, "Mihai," in a stranger's voice, and, hearing herself, her eyes flew open wide. So did his. They stared at each other, startled.

  Mab let out a sound that was like a gasp and a wail as the door battered her again and wolf snouts shoved into the crack of the

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  door. Her feet slipped. Seeing her desperate white face, Mihai quickly whispered a word in his harsh language. A glimmering window peeled open in the air and he said, "Come," drawing Esme against him with one arm and holding out his other hand to Mab. She hesitated for just a second, but then the door thrust her forward. The wolves broke through. Teeth grazed Mab's elbow. And there was Mihai clutching Esme against his side, disappearing with her backward through the opening in the air. Mab grabbed frantically at his outstretched hand and disappeared too.

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  FIVE Whispering

  Druj magic must be spoken aloud. Most commonly it's

  whispered. The magic is in the breath, and the shape of the breath as pressed by lips, tongue, and teeth into words determines the shape of the magic. It is an important peculiarity that only the mouth of a Druj in human cithra is physiologically fit to shape language. Thus, a Druj can shift shape, but once shifted must trust to another to whisper him back again or risk eternity as a crow, owl, stag, fox, magpie, viper, or in the case of the Naxturu, a wolf.

  Being alone and in exile, Mihai no longer shifted shape. There were other Druj in the cities, but they were rootless and wayward and didn't trust one another as whisperers. That was what tribes were for, and Mihai had broken from his tribe long ago. So he kept to his human cithra and used his magic for other things.

  The window he whispered open in the air led straight back to Mab and Esme's living room in London, so they tumbled from a ship in harbor in the south of France onto their own rug with as little fanfare as if they were crossing a threshold. Mab and Esme gasped and spun around. A wolf was lunging after them and Mihai had to grab its huge jaws with both hands and wrestle it back as the

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  glimmering window slammed shut. His hands were bleeding when he pulled them out but he took no notice.

  He whirled toward the chandelier and yanked down the two long red braids, one in each bloody hand, and threw them onto the carpet. He looked at Mab, his eyes narrow. "You should have gone to Yazad if you were afraid, Mab. Didn't I say he would always help you?" he demanded. "Didn't I say I would?"

  Mab didn't answer. She was gasping for breath, on the edge of hysteria.

  Mihai turned to Esme and knelt in front of her. "Do you know who I am?" he asked softly.

  She stared at him, at his fangs, at the lips that she knew from some alien tangle of memories. But it wasn't her memory! She had never kissed this creature. She had never kissed anyone! "No," she lied, shrinking away from him. "I don't know you!"

  He stared at her blue eye and Esme was sure he knew she was lying. He turned again to Mab and asked her, almost gently, "Are you hurt?"

  She shook her head and tried to edge nearer to Esme. "I thought we were safe," she whispered.

  Mihai reached out and took her hands in his, keeping himself between mother and daughter. He kissed Mab's knuckles and she tensed as if she were afraid he might suddenly savage her. "You are safe," he told her.

  "But the wolves --"

  "It isn't what you think."

  "How do you know what I think?"

  "I know, Mab. I was there when it happened to you, remember? This ... isn't that."

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  Mab
blinked. "Then what is it?"

  "Nothing so terrible. It will be all right soon," Mihai replied.

  "But how did they find us, and why wasn't the Queen with them? What's wrong with Esme's eye? And how did she know your name?" Mab asked in a rush.

  "Everything will be all right. Soon."

  "You keep saying 'soon.' Isn't it all right now?"

  "I'm sorry, Mab," he told her, meaning it with a regret unknown to other Druj. "I'll bring her back to you. I promise."

  "Bring her --" Mab stared at him, stricken. "No!" She lunged toward Esme.

  But Mihai caught both her fine wrists in one hand and held her off as easily as if she were a gossamer. "It isn't what you think," he said again. Then he whispered open a window in the floor. Silent and surprised, Esme dropped through it. For a frozen moment Mab saw into the impossible aperture. She saw the top of Esme's shorn head, and she saw spires and bridges, cliff walls, drifting mist. She started to scream.

  "Go to Yazad, Mab," Mihai said, and he dove after Esme. "He'll explain." The air closed around his feet, and Mab went on screaming, caught in a nightmare from which there was no waking. She only left off screaming when her voice was ravaged to a rasp, then she slumped over, panting, staring in a daze at the carpet. Only one red braid lay coiled there. Mihai had taken the other.

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  SIX The Queen

  Druj live forever and have forever lived. There are no new Druj, no young Druj, no ripe bellies, no babes. If their race began as infants, that history was lost in ancient books, swallowed by fire or mold. As for their memories, they have proven unfit for immortality. They recede into a lake of mist, revealing nothing. They have no legends, not even of a time before the forests grew. Nothing has ever been new, least of all themselves. To an ancient folk dulled by eternity, children are a revelation. That's why they keep them as pets.

  Mab was born in the citadel of Tajbel to a girl-mother like she herself would later become. She never knew her. The Queen's human pets were released once they gave birth to their successor, or so Mab was told. Whether all those girl-mothers were really turned loose with their pockets full of jewels, she couldn't guess. Perhaps they did walk out across the black meadows and into a new life. Or perhaps they were fed to the beasts. You never knew what the Druj might do.

  They might sing to you one moment and stick you in the cage the next.

  "Little sparrow, my little kit, my downy little owlet," the Druj Queen sang to baby Mab. And though Mab didn't remember it

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  herself, later the handmaidens would tell her that for the first few years of her life the Queen had scarcely ever set her down but carried her everywhere like a treasure, rocking her and dancing with her, and whispering made-up songs into her tiny ears, never the same lyrics twice.

  She wasn't Mab then. She was called Izha and she grew up thinking that was her name. It wasn't until later, after Mihai had helped her to escape, that she found out what it meant. Mihai brought her to an old man in London -- Yazad -- to await Esme's birth and learn how to be human, and Yazad had refused to call her Izha. He told her gently that it wasn't a name, but a title. It meant "milk sacrifice" and it was what the Queen called all her girl pets, one after the next. Yazad called her simply "dear girl" and waited for her to name herself, and once she learned to read, she did. She found a line in a poem in Yazad's marvelous library. It went, "I am the Fairy Mab: to me 'tis given the wonders of the human world to keep," and at that moment she became Mab.

  But first she was Izha, and she belonged to the Queen.

  Since leaving Tajbel, Mab had never seen a mortal woman whose beauty could touch that of the Druj Queen. She was goddesslike in her perfection, the golden glow of her skin, the facets of her sculpted lips, her face the flawless oval of a cabochon, its delicate bones a perfect counterpoint to the vivid ferocity of her gaze. Her black hair was as soft as the furs she slept on, and her flesh was as cold as river stones. Even when she held Mab in her arms, the child's human heat didn't transfer to the ice of her own skin.

  She seemed to have no name. The other Druj called her Sraeshta, "most beautiful," and Rathaeshtar, "warrior," and Mazishta, "greatest." Mab was taught to call her Ba'thrishva.

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  Mother.

  It was hard later to admit it, but she had adored her then, the tall, beautiful creature who held her on her hip, so easy in the crook of one long arm. She had even loved her eyes and thought they were like the blue jewels in the frame of the great milky mirror in her Tabernacle of Spies. Mab's own eyes reflected in that same mirror could only seem wrong, since no one else had brown eyes, not even the lowest Druj handmaidens. Brown eyes seemed animal, as un-precious as bone buttons or an owl's talon on a leather cord.

  From her earliest awareness, Mab understood that she was not Druj. She didn't have blue eyes and cold skin. She couldn't shift shape, or fly, or slip suddenly invisible. She didn't know what she was, but she guessed she must be animal, like one of the cats that were everywhere in Tajbel, or like the forest creatures -- though perhaps a rare and special one, as there were no others like her, and the Queen seemed to treasure her above all else. For a time, anyway.

  She sang, "Hair like fire and skin like snow and eyes as brown as a forest doe," and she kissed Mab's small nose and breathed the scent of her hair. She taught her to dance, embroider, play the kamanchay, and mix herbs into a tea that would keep her always healthy. She dressed her in strange and beautiful clothes, and she wove intricate crowns of flowers for her hair. One summer she showed her how to fish for butterflies off the cliff's edge. Together they would bait their lines with blossoms and wait quietly for butterflies to alight on them and then slowly, slowly, they would reel them in, and the Queen would reach out, take them onto her finger, and transfer them to Mab's hair, where they would perch, fanning their wings in the sun like a crown of living flowers. Once, she

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  fashioned a harness out of deer hide and commanded her handmaidens to shift to owl cithrim and carry Mab up into the sky, a little girl borne aloft by a dozen soundless wings.

  It was from there, on high, that Mab had her only glimpse of the greater world. Tajbel was a place lost in mountains, as hidden as a vein of gold. It was a citadel of spires, each carved from immense, tapering tusks of rock that rose from a chasm so deep that echoes lost their way in it and drowned in its silence. The tusks were connected by dozens of bridges, and more bridges arced gracefully toward the canyon walls, where cliff-cut stairs rose to the forest above. There -- the dappled edge of the trees -- was the boundary of Mab's known world.

  When the handmaidens flew her into the sky, she witnessed the immeasurable sweep of the forest-flocked mountains rising and falling as far as she could see, and the immensity was beyond anything she could have dreamed. That, then, was the world: mountain and forest, forever. She never imagined another landscape. She never fathomed a beyond. Even later, when life devolved into misery, she didn't dream of escape -- she knew there was nowhere to go. It would take more than misery before she would finally attempt it.

  But that was later. When she was small, Mab was happy, much of the time.

  She slept in the Queen's chamber with her, on her own little bed of furs at the foot of the Queen's own. In the summer she was given nectar in a little dish to lap at with her tongue, in winter icicles rolled in sugar to suck. The Queen stroked her hair when it was warmed by the sun, and swaddled her in wool and furs against the cold.

  If she sometimes grew bored, if that flat, reptilian look of utter

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  disinterest came into her eyes and she shooed Mab away, surely it was Mab's own fault for being dull, lesser, animal. And the cage, surely that was her own fault too.

  It was an iron cage and it hung off the side of the Queen's bridge in view of her windows, and sometimes she would put Mab in it and leave her there. Its iron suspension rings ground together and shrieked if she moved, which is how Mab learned to hold so very, very st
ill. She also learned to hate the breeze that set the cage swaying in spite of her stillness, because the screech of the iron drew the notice of the beasts, and she could see their phosphorescent eyes watching her from beneath the bridges, coolly considering her in her swinging cage.

  She would never forget those eyes, or the rank smell the wind teased up from under the bridges, and she would never forget the silhouettes of the beasts' long, white arms reaching up to grope for any live thing they might pull down into their gaping mouths -- cats, a fawn ... her. The Queen had forbidden them to touch her, but they were beasts after all, and they had disobeyed her before.

  The Queen liked to watch the beasts watch Mab. It amused her, the risk of it.

  Mab never knew just what the beasts were, or how many there were -- one to each bridge, or a mere handful creeping in the darkness from one bridge to the next, or perhaps an ever-shifting multitude of them that scaled up from the depths of the chasm below when they were hungry. And they were always hungry.

  That's what the cats were for.

  "Look, Izha has a kitty," observed a handmaiden one day on the steps of the Queen's spire. Her name was Snaya and she was often in charge of Mab, leading her hither and thither by a little leather thong

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  tied around her wrist. She gave the thong a yank and Mab tried to pull away. She clutched the kitten in her arms and instinctively curled around it to protect it. She must have been about three years old then, but she knew the fate of cats in Tajbel. "No," she whispered.

  The kitten was a tabby, long-haired and soft. It had been purring but stopped at the sound of Snaya's voice. Its tiny claws stabbed Mab's arms as it tried, suddenly, to scramble away. She held on, wincing at the scratches. She should have let it go.

  "Come here, Izha, pretty pet," Snaya coaxed. Her voice was sweet, but her grip on the leather thong was not. She gave it a hard tug that burned the skin of Mab's wrist and Mab tumbled toward her, slipping over the steep, rock-cut steps and into the handmaiden's arms.

  Snaya scooped her up, kitten and all, and carried her to the foot of the bridge. "Go on, Izha, toss it," she ordered.

 
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