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Lips touch three times, p.12
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       Lips Touch: Three Times, p.12

           Laini Taylor
 
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  "No!" said Mab, holding the kitten close. It hissed and struggled against her chest.

  "Now," said Snaya through clenched teeth.

  But Mab would not throw the kitten and so Snaya, gripping fistfuls of Mab's shift, slowly swung her out over the bridge. She heard a gurgle of phlegmy breathing coming from the shadows. Great flat teeth ground together.

  And Snaya dropped her.

  Or, for a hovering instant, it seemed that she had. Mab seemed to hang there in the air, and she knew that in another second she would land on the bridge and the beast would get her. In a panic she loosed her grip on the kitten and it dropped -- but Mab did not. Snaya caught her by the hair and clothes and dragged her back to safety.

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  The kitten landed on its feet, took a tottering step, then another. Bewildered, it looked back at Mab with its big golden eyes, and then there was a flash of long white arm through the balusters and it was gone.

  A pitiable mewl, a crunch, a waft of stench. The beast ate, and while it was thus distracted, Snaya carried Mab across the bridge with light, dancing steps.

  The cats were toll for bridge crossings.

  "Like you, pretty, the beasts must eat," said Snaya, and even as a tiny thing, Mab had heard the disdain in her voice and understood its meaning. Druj did not eat. They occasionally sipped wine from carved goblets, but eating was for animals.

  That night, Mab woke screaming for the first time in her life and the Queen came and picked her up and rocked her. Mab wept, and her Ba'thrishva took the opportunity to taste the tears on her cheeks. Her tongue was as cold as the rest of her flesh, but her rocking was calming, and she hummed in Mab's ear to quiet her. "Izha, sweetest," she said. "Tell me what happened."

  Mab told. She showed the Queen the kitten scratches and the welt around her wrist from the leather thong, and Snaya was punished. The Queen made her shift to cat cithra and she left her like that. She refused to whisper her back and Snaya had to live as a cat for weeks, dodging the groping arms of the beasts. Sometimes the Queen would pick her up and stand stroking her black fur at the threshold of the bridge as if considering tossing her onto it.

  No one tormented Mab after that, except for the Queen herself.

  At first it was only neglect, and like everything else, it was Mab's own fault. She grew. She outgrew the little iron cage and

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  wasn't sorry for that, but she also outgrew her place on her Ba'thrishva's hip, and day by day the Queen seemed to have less use for her. Mab's little bed of furs was moved out of the Queen's chamber and into a desolate stairwell in the back of the spire. No one fed her -- as the Druj didn't eat, such things were easily forgotten. Mab had to sift for herself through the tithes that were gathered twice yearly from the black meadows. She was five years old when she learned about rationing. That first winter of her self-sufficiency, she ran out of food. She grew thin on a diet of moss; she ate fish raw. She ate bark.

  The tithe stores were replenished in spring, and after that she was careful. She kept herself alive. Seasons passed. She spent her days in embroidery and practice at her kamanchay. She brushed her own hair now, and she made her own clothes and tried to make gifts for her Ba'thrishva too. One winter when the Queen and the Naxturu were away on their yearly hunt, she spent the months embroidering a robe with intricate birds and butterflies in a hundred colors, but the Queen never wore it, not once.

  For some years during that bend in her life Mab thought she had discovered misery, but when she was older, she would look back wistfully on that time, because what came after made it seem almost sweet by comparison.

  One night when she was ten, her life cleaved neatly into a time before and a time after, and that subtle starvation, that neglect and loneliness, belonged to before, when she had still been happy.

  The night was Vishaptatha. There was always a surge of energy in Tajbel on full-moon nights, and Vishaptatha wasn't just any full moon. It was also perigee, when the moon comes closest to the earth in its celestial sweep and waxes huge in the heavens. Vishaptatha

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  occurs rarely; many years may pass without a full moon coinciding with perigee. This was the first of Mab's life and she felt the thrill of it, the thrum. The Druj seemed to be waiting for something to happen, so she waited too.

  And something did happen.

  The handmaidens came to her as they used to when she was still the Queen's treasure. They brushed out her long red hair, dressed her in a wondrous sheath of spider silk and seed pearls, and brought her to the small plateau atop the Queen's tusk. The Queen was there, wearing a shimmering silken sheath of her own, and no sooner had the handmaidens delivered Mab than they shed their own robes and became owls, scattering to the night on silent wings. All throughout Tajbel the Druj were shifting. The Naxturu were howling and foxes were barking; there was a chitter and chirrup of birds, the stamp of deer hooves, and the low, dangerous throat-yowls of snow leopards. Only the Queen did not shift. She never did.

  Standing in the streaming light of the huge moon, she beckoned Mab toward her and Mab went, willing. With a pounding heart she yearned toward her Ba'thrishva, hoping for a caress. It had been so long since she'd been touched. The Queen slid one finger under Mab's chin and tilted her head up. Mab smiled, uncertain.

  It was the last time she would look at those pale eyes without the ice of dread crystallizing within her.

  "Izha," whispered the Queen, her fangs glittering.

  Then the cold rushed in and filled Mab's being. It was like drowning in snowmelt, blind, dizzy, and breathless. She was shoved deep inside herself, muffled, stifled, and the shock was so great she was scarcely aware her body went on moving through the long moonstruck night. Her arms and legs were no longer her own. Her

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  eyes were not hers either, but she caught glimpses out of them and it was like peering through a kaleidoscope of shadows. She saw the Queen's body standing vacant, her eyes as dead as glass. She saw wheeling owls, and the silhouettes of wolves howling on the peaks of the far spires. She saw herself in the Queen's mirror. It was her own small face in the reflection -- those were her own brown eyes, but she wasn't alone in peering out of them.

  She had a trespasser. She was crushed down inside herself, tamped down, creased, torn, bruised. That first time the Queen entered her, Mab knew little else but her shock, little but the cold and the ache, but she would soon grow accustomed to it. It was the new shape of her life.

  In the weeks, months, and years that followed, Mab learned that she was even less than she had always thought. She wasn't animal. She was cithra. She was just something for the Queen to wear, like a robe, like a fur. She would watch the Queen's empty body from within her own violated one, would see the stillness of that empty vessel and wish her own self might be a sacred place, a clean and empty cloister unscuffed by trespassers.

  The next years went slowly by, and then Mab's bleeding came, and again everything changed.

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  SEVEN Stained

  One dawn in her fourteenth year, Mab woke stained on her bed of white fox pelts, and she didn't understand. She knew blood -- she had seen the Naxturu slit deer bellies and spill them out, and she'd seen cats' whiskers tinged red after a meal of voles or songbirds. Blood meant death, and somehow it had gotten into bed with her. She touched between her legs and her fingers came away red. It was her own blood!

  In her terror she searched for a wound and found none, only the folds of herself as they had always been, and then she thought she must have done some new nasty thing that the Druj didn't do, something animal and foul. She shuddered. Never did she feel lower than when she had to creep out to the trees and squat like an animal to make waste.

  She rose, furtive, hoping to slip out of the tower and across the bridge, to make her way unseen into the forest to cleanse herself of the bewildering shame of her blood. It had flowed onto the fox pelts too, and she gathered up the top few and took them with her down the long, curved stairs to the
Queen's bridge.

  She hesitated there and looked from side to side along the chasm of Tajbel. Mist hung heavy in the air and the spires were dusky purple through the haze. Some curved like the horns of sheep, others

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  stood straight as knives. There were windows in them, glassless, and Mab knew the Druj slept dreamlessly just out of view. She was desperate not to wake them. She regarded the bridge before her.

  She knew better than to traipse across without an offering for the beasts. She could smell them, the thick rot of them, and in the fogged silence of the dawn she could even hear the wheezing breath of one as it waited in the shadows. She looked around. There were no cats near, and she was glad of it. In her urgency she might have scooped one up and tossed it out onto the bridge. Disgusted by the thought, she clutched the fox pelts and tried not to cry.

  The fox pelts. She looked down at them, considering. Surely the beast would smell her blood on them; it would smell blood and feel fur and for a moment it might be fooled. Not once the dead fur was in its mouth, crunchless and spurtless, but for a moment -- enough time for Mab to race across the bridge. So she hurled the two pelts, and as soon as the beast's long arm groped through the balusters of the bridge to seize them and drag them down, she took to her toes and ran.

  Her feet scarcely touched stone as she raced across, fearing at any second to feel a big rotten hand wrap round her leg. But she made it and shot up the steps on the far side, up the last lip of cliff and into the forest, and when she felt pine needles under her feet, she slowed. Behind her the beast bellowed, displeased with its dead mouthful, and she trembled and went to the stream. Deer were there drinking; they didn't mind her soft steps, but just looked at her and kept on as she knelt on the bank and plunged her stained fingers into the cold water.

  The cold felt pure. Mab stripped off her thin shift and slipped into the stream, wading out to the middle where the water came to

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  her waist. She scrubbed herself and dunked her head under too, so her hair was a red cloud around her, then she climbed out and sat shivering on a flat rock as the sun finished rising. The deer moved off. Mab slipped her shift back on and returned to Tajbel, waiting at the foot of the bridge until Snaya found her and paid the toll with a ginger cat.

  The rest of the morning went like any other. She ate some wild apples and worked the knots out of her hair with her ivory comb. She tried to do some embroidery, but the piece she was working on was red thread on white muslin and reminded her of her blood. She put it away, shoving the mystery of her bleeding to the back of her mind and hoping to leave it there. It was over, she thought. Over.

  But it came again, and this time there was no hiding it. She was playing her kamanchay when the Queen, passing her doorway, suddenly stopped and spun toward her. The sudden movement made Mab flinch and she sawed her bow across the strings, producing a sound like a moan. The Queen was staring at her, her icy eyes aglitter and unnaturally bright. She said, "Izha, you're bleeding?

  "No --" protested Mab.

  "I can smell it."

  Mab's breath caught in her throat. She dropped the kamanchay with a clatter and tried backing away on her knees, but the Queen said, "Stop," and she did.

  "I'm sorry ..." she whispered. "I didn't mean to --" The Queen came to her and Mab flinched again and squeezed her eyes shut. But the touch that she felt on her hair was very, very soft, just fingertips trailing over the curve of her skull, and when the

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  Queen spoke again, her voice was like a purr. "Child, child, stand up. It's all right. I've been waiting a long time for this. Look at me."

  Look at me. It was a command that sent a chill down Mab's spine; whenever she heard it, she knew what would come next -- the Queen's animus flooding into her like black water. Trembling, she looked up into those pale eyes. She waited for the cold but it didn't come. The Queen didn't slide inside her, but only stared at her, that queer glitter still bright in her eyes, her lips curved into a kind of amazed smile. Again she stroked Mab's hair, and it felt nice, like it had in that before time when Mab had been a little creature in her lap, pretty and petted.

  "It's the vohunish, child, the life-making blood," she said. "Don't be afraid. Smile for me. There."

  Mab's smile was a grimace, but the Queen cared little for the distinction between real emotions and feigned ones. She clapped for her handmaidens and when they came, she announced, "Our Izha has grown up!"

  Grown up. How little those words had meant to Mab then! Surrounded by changeless Druj, what did she have to go on? Kittens growing long and lean? Deer sprouting antlers to clash in the rut? Later, she would look back and wonder how she hadn't guessed what was coming. It would seem to her that the gathering doom should have blotted out all else, like thunderheads roiling before the sun, but there had been nothing like that, only a small, pathetic hope that the Queen might love her again. Love! As if the Druj were capable of it! She herself didn't even know the word then, scarcely knew the feeling. But she would learn it.

  At the Queen's announcement, the handmaidens seemed to

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  thrum with that same cold species of excitement that had overtaken them on Vishaptatha, and a throbbing dread filled Mab. Something was going to happen. She knew it. But whatever it was, it didn't happen, and it didn't happen, and her dread stretched itself out fine and taut across the weeks of autumn. Her bleeding came and went twice more, and she waited and waited for the new bad thing, but still it didn't come.

  In fact, those months were sweet. The Queen cherished her again and kept her close, and the handmaidens fluttered around her like birds, petting her with their hands as soft as owl feathers. The tithes had just been gathered, so there was fresh food in plenty, cheeses and dried cherries and strips of meat, more than usual and all for her. She was never hungry that autumn and she began to put on flesh, a little, so she was no longer sharp in the ribs and knees like a fawn. Her breasts grew. Her hips fluted out. Every day the handmaidens rubbed scented oils into her skin until she was pink and fragrant, and they sang her a song about ripening fruit that she had never heard.

  "Grapes on the vine, lips as sweet as cherries, nectar dark as wine, ripen, sweet fruit, ripen. Plums that I can gather, swelling on the branches, ripen, orchard, ripen. Ripen, berry, ripen."

  The Queen sang too, and her voice was sweeter than anyone's, but through all the petting and the singing, Mab never lost her dread. Perhaps it was the way Isvant the hunter looked at her now, with something in his eyes that made her want to cover herself. Her own nakedness had never meant anything to her before; she was as a bird before the Druj, or a fish. Her skin was her self, only to be hidden against the cold. But one day Isvant came as a crow to perch in her rock window and watched the handmaidens anoint her with

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  their oils, and even in crow cithra his look was like a leer. She shivered and crossed her arms over her small breasts and he cawed an ugly laugh and kept on watching. Snaya laughed too and sang, "Fruit sweet for the plucking, ripen, berry, ripen."

  Mab was grateful when the season's first snow fell that night, because it meant the Queen and the Naxturu would be going away.

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  EIGHT The Boy

  Izha, wake up," said the Queen. She was kneeling at Mab's bedside, and even before Mab opened her eyes, she smelled the snow JL. in the air and knew what was coming. Peace was coming. Months of it.

  "Snow," she murmured, sitting up in her furs. "Snow," said the Queen.

  The first snow always heralded the Winter Hunt. The Queen would take her Naxturu and go away. They would stalk the forest, cleansing it of poachers, and they would range far, visiting distant Druj tribes to reassert the Queen's rule over them all. She always brought back silky pelts and strange seed pods, jewels and silver-work and wine, and in her pockets, wrapped in leaves, she carried home a tender cargo of freshly plucked eyeballs to add to the collection in her Tabernacle of Spies.

  They were away for mon
ths each year, and when Mab was small, those months had been lonely, but after that fateful Vishaptatha she had learned to welcome them. She spent her winters cold to the bone and huddled in furs, but at peace in her body and blessedly alone.

  "Let me braid your hair, my pretty child," said the Queen, and Mab turned and sat still while the Queen brushed out her hair and plaited and twisted it into long graceful spirals all down her

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  bare back. It took several hours. She hummed the whole time, that same strange ripening song, and when she was done, she drew a curved knife from a sheath at her hip and sliced off one braid, which she tied to the chain of the moonstone amulet she wore always around her neck. Then she kissed Mab on the brow with her icy lips and left.

  From the window Mab watched the Naxturu assume wolf cithrim. There were six of them, three male, three female, and they dropped their cloaks in the snow and stood for an instant naked before their bodies hunched over and attenuated, sprouted black fur, ears, tails. Each wolf howled once and turned to face the Queen. As ever, the Queen did not change.

  "Can't she?" Mab had asked Snaya once, long ago.

  Snaya had made a scornful sound in her throat and replied, "Of course she can! Mazishta could change into the moon itself if she wished."

  Then why didn't she? Mab had wondered. It was such a marvelous thing that the Druj could do. If the Queen was most powerful of all of them, why did she not do it too? That last winter in Tajbel, she still didn't know. She watched a low-caste Druj ready the Queen's sledge, test the edges of its long, curved runners, and harness the bezoar goats that would pull it. They were fantastical creatures and huge, with scimitar horns sharp enough to slit throats, and when the Queen gave a whistle, they were off and stamping. Snow flew. The wolves howled. The Queen looked back over her shoulder once and Mab saw her eyes flash like sunstruck ice and she glimpsed her own red braid fastened at the Queen's perfect throat.

  And then she was gone, and the winter stretched ahead like a field of untrammeled snow. Peace.

 
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