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Lips touch three times, p.13
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       Lips Touch: Three Times, p.13

           Laini Taylor
 
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  Of course, it couldn't last. As she did every year, the Queen returned. But Mab soon learned this year was not like every year. Not anything like. She woke one dawn to find the Queen bending over her just as on the morning she'd left. She blinked awake. Was the winter already over? The Queen's eyes were bright.

  "Izha, a surprise," she said, her voice husky. "Come."

  She led her from her bed and scrubbed her with handfuls of snow, too impatient even to let it melt into water first. The handmaidens fluttered around her but didn't touch her. This morning, more than ever, Mab belonged to the Queen. She rubbed Mab's skin with oils, and then she did something new. She painted her flesh. A handmaiden named Keshva brought a squirrel-hair brush and a pot of indigo paint and the Queen took them and drew blue coils around Mab's arms and legs, and spirals around her navel and breasts. At the base of her throat she painted three small symbols: the moon waxing, full, and waning. As she drew them, Mab saw the handmaidens' eyes over the top of the Queen's bent head. Her heartbeat quickened. Their eyes, they were like the eyes of cats watching the futile scuttling of injured prey as they toyed with it, minute by minute, prolonging for pleasure the inevitable fatal strike.

  And she knew this was the moment her dread had reached for, all those months ago.

  The Queen rose and led Mab to the window, where they watched several low-caste Druj toss cats to the beasts until they were sated. Then, from across the bridge came a short procession. Isvant was at the head of it, and beside him, stumbling, was a boy. Mab stared. In all her life she had never seen another human being, but still, a thrill of instant recognition sparked through her. The boy was naked as she was, and his arms and legs were ringed in blue paint

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  too. She couldn't take her eyes off him. Looking at him was like seeing evidence that she herself truly existed, that she wasn't only a cithra for the Queen to wear, but something alive and distinct.

  And she understood why the Queen had taken her braid on the Winter Hunt. The boy's hair was the exact same shade as her own, red as persimmons, and like hers his skin was the color of cream, unsprinkled by the spice of freckles. To look at them, they might have been brother and sister.

  Isvant pushed the boy up the rock steps and into the chamber to where Mab stood beside the Queen. All the Druj followed. They crowded in and nudged him toward her, that queer, predatory glitter in their eyes. The boy was shaking and Mab began to shake too. She didn't understand what they wanted her to do. For a terrible moment she was afraid they'd make her kill him like a cat and shove his body to the beasts. Panic rose in her. Her eyes darted between the Queen's icy gaze and Isvant's leer and found no answer and no comfort. All the others stood watching, and for an instant Mab's eyes fell on a stranger's face among all the familiar ones. As alike as Druj were, she knew them all, and this one was not from Tajbel.

  It wasn't just that he was a stranger that made her gaze falter on his face; it was the look that flickered through his eyes, a kind of look Mab had never seen on a Druj before. She only knew it from seeing it in her own reflection. It was pain.

  Then the Queen set her finger beneath Mab's chin and raised up her face. That blaze of blue, the feeling of falling into a freezing river, and everything became muted and distant. The Queen was inside of her and Mab was as powerless over her own body as if she were merely its shadow. Dimly she saw her own painted arms reaching for the boy, but she could barely feel his skin beneath her

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  fingertips. It was the Queen who felt what her fingers felt as she traced them over his sharp young clavicles, his heartbeat in his thin chest as clear and fast as a bird's.

  Then his trembling ceased at once and his face went blank, and Mab knew that brutal Isvant had gone inside of him. The boy's hand reached out to grip Mab's wrist in just the way that Isvant did when he pulled her across a bridge, as if she were only a corpse he had to haul from one place to another.

  He -- the boy, but not the boy -- pulled her down on the furs. Captured inside herself as she had been so many times, Mab turned aside and waited. She was only an unformed thing within a chrysalis, and she no more felt the flesh on her flesh than a butterfly pupa feels rain on its cocoon. She waited for it to be over, and in time it was. But before it was, she noticed the new Druj again in the throng of watchers and she fixed on his face. It shone out from the others, rigid as it was, as if this stranger held a struggling thing between his teeth and had to champ down until it died. The struggling thing, Mab was certain, was indeed pain, though she knew Druj felt it not. It was a mystery. He was a mystery, and he gave her something to wonder about until the Queen and Isvant finished their charade and returned to their own bodies.

  The Queen's body stirred. She lifted her chin and turned coolly away from Mab, leaving her lying on the furs, her blue paint smeared and mixed with the boy's blue paint. He was weeping quietly beside her and Mab slowly came back to herself to turn to him and stroke his hair and murmur to him, and the Queen stopped and looked back over her shoulder to watch. A flicker of annoyance passed over her face.

  Mab met her eyes boldly and went on stroking the boy's hair,

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  amazed by the heat of his brow. She understood several new things at once. One was that she wasn't alone in the world, but one of a mysterious species that existed elsewhere. The other was that whatever she was, in some way, the Queen coveted it. Druj could wear borrowed bodies against each other, but they would feel only the friction of it. They would never feel what it was that made two strangers cling to each other, more intimate in fear and sorrow than a Druj could ever be, even aping the act of love.

  Mab understood then that the Druj were missing something. It was Yazad, later, who would explain about souls. She couldn't have put any of it into words then, lying on those furs with the boy, but even without the words, she began to understand.

  Many months later, when she felt the first flutter of life within her and her hands flew to her belly, that understanding focused into a hard, bright point within her, like a pearl. Here was something else the Druj couldn't do, she thought fiercely. And though the Queen could flow inside of her and steal the feeling of that flutter for herself, Mab knew that the pearl inside her was her own, and nothing the Queen ever did could change that.

  And she knew that she could never walk out across the black meadows with empty arms, buying her freedom with the tiny life inside her. She thought of the lineage of girl-mothers who had come before her and she tried to imagine them leaving Tajbel and going away, emptied of their babies, empty as eggshells, and she just couldn't believe it.

  What had happened to her own mother, and all those before her?

  Because of Mihai, Mab never knew, and because of him, her daughter never had to endure starvation, or the cage, or the sinister

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  thrust of a Druj animus. For some reason, he had saved them. So when he stole Esme away and Mab glimpsed the rough spires of Tajbel through his window of air, all the old agonies overwhelmed her and she screamed until she could scream no more, and then she collapsed onto the rug, rigid. She was seeing young limbs encircled by blue paint and hearing in her mind a song about ripening fruit. She clutched at her flat stomach, long empty of its precious pearl, and she imagined gentle Esme being led to a stolen boy of her own, to breed the Queen a red-haired pet that human arms would never hold.

  "It isn't what you think," Mihai had said, but Mab was trapped in nightmares and could dream no other fate.

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  NINE City of Beasts

  M ihai's whispered window spilled Esme onto a narrow stone bridge. She landed on her knees and spun swiftly around. Mihai was right behind her, and she glimpsed her mother's desperate hands and heard her screams until the air sealed itself shut once more and choked off her voice. The profound silence that followed was akin to deafness.

  Esme crawled backward. She pressed herself against the carved balusters of the bridge and watched Mihai. He was standing
with his hands on his hips, slowly looking around. A cold wind whipped his hair into his eyes and impatiently he pushed it back. There was a look of ill-concealed horror on his face and Esme looked to see what he was seeing. The bridge they had landed on spanned the space between two tall crags of rock. Worn stone steps spiraled up and around the towers and disappeared into passages, and glassless windows revealed barren rooms inside. There were many such crags rising like stalagmites from the shadow-shrouded depths of a long ravine. They tapered up to conical spires, ridged like animal horns, and they tapered downward too as if they had grown up from the blackness below on long stone stalks, dangerously delicate.

  This landscape looked as if it had been disgorged by the mountains themselves, as if it were the earth's own elemental imitation of

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  the castles built by men. It was an otherworldly place and Esme felt a tingling of recognition at odds with her awe for its alien strangeness. "Where are we?" she asked Mihai.

  He turned sharply and gave her a penetrating look. "I think you know," he said.

  And she realized she did. "Tajbel," she whispered. The word formed on her lips like something she had always known.

  "What's left of it," Mihai said, and Esme read shock in his eyes. He turned in a slow circle and murmured words that Esme had heard Mab speak. "Avo afritim. Bless and protect us."

  Even she could sense that something was wrong here. The citadel seemed deserted. Cold wind coursed among the spires but made almost no sound. A drapery of vines claimed the bridges and chasm walls, and in many places the finely carved stone was crumbling away. One whole bridge had collapsed into the black, leaving only a few feet of stonework on either side, like walkways to nothingness. "Who lives here?" Esme asked. "Where are they all?"

  Mihai didn't answer. He suddenly tensed and tilted back his head like a predator scenting the air. Then his eyes widened and he spun toward Esme, dropping to a crouch and shooting out one hand to grab her ankle and drag her to him. It was all one fluid motion, and Esme cried out, startled, and tried to twist away. But before she even knew what was happening, Mihai had hooked one arm around her waist, too tight, and hoisted her off her feet. She saw a blade glint as he drew a knife from some hidden sheath, but she hadn't even time to gasp before he leapt with animal grace up onto the narrow balustrade of the bridge, upon which he balanced with Esme still in his grasp.

  She started to struggle but then a smell of rot hit her, and an

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  arm, thick, white as fish, scab-pocked and horrifically long, swung up from beneath the bridge to pummel the stretch of railing against which, a second earlier, she had been leaning. The whole bridge trembled and the balusters shattered like icicles. Blunt, clawed fingers scrabbled through the shards, searching, searching for flesh. For Esme.

  Finding nothing, the beast swung its other arm onto the bridge and hauled itself up into the light of day. Esme gasped. Its eyes bulged and glowed yellow over a flat nose, little more than slits on a nub of dead-looking flesh. Its whole squat head appeared to be no more than an anchor for the massive bones and muscles required to work its jaw. Esme watched in horrified fascination as its mouth opened huge to reveal rows of flat, worn teeth and a gullet wide enough to swallow animals whole. It bellowed and Esme heard herself shriek. Holding her, Mihai backed up along the railing, graceful as a cat, and the beast shambled after them.

  "What is that?" she asked urgently.

  The bridge shuddered again and Mihai swung to look behind him, spinning Esme in an arc that revealed to her a panorama of Tajbel's bridges one after the next all through the long ravine. She gasped. From beneath each bridge she saw them coming, scrambling. Up from the blackness, arm over long arm, quick and desperate, coming. They were sickly white, their skin stretched taut, cheeks and guts sunken to hollows. They were starving, Esme realized, their huge jaws gaping as if hoping someone might toss something in. Behind Mihai another had pulled itself onto the bridge and more were coming after it, crushing the fine stone balusters in their haste.

  Again, frantic, she asked, "What are they?"

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  Mihai glanced at her, taking his attention from the beasts for just an instant to study her. His eyes were narrowed, one eyebrow raised in a question. Only after he turned away again did he say, under his breath, "I don't know. She would never tell."

  "She -- ?" Esme started to say, but she lost her breath when a beast lunged at them. Mihai swung his blade and severed the monster's hand from its wrist. Black blood pulsed from the stump but the beast hardly seemed to notice and kept coming.

  For fourteen years the beasts had had to fend for themselves, and they had not fared well. When the cats were all gone, they'd breached the forest to hunt, but their putrid scent had chased away all prey but the sick and weak. They'd grabbed at fish in the stream; they'd resorted to cannibalism.

  The scent of blood temporarily diverted the other oncoming beasts from Mihai and Esme, and they went for their wounded fellow. Beast against beast they clashed, crazed. One knocked another off the bridge and it wailed as it fell, a long, fading ululation unpunctuated by any thud or rock slide from below. The cry just faded as if the chasm had no bottom. Jaws gaped and fingers reached as the beasts came at Mihai and Esme from both sides.

  More came. Too many more.

  There sounded a great crack and the bridge lurched. It dropped a foot and Mihai kept his balance, but then it started to break apart beneath its load and crumble away into the abyss. Esme squeezed her eyes shut and screamed, but her voice was lost in the roar of the collapsing bridge. Behind her shut eyelids she imagined the blackness of the chasm rushing up to swallow her and she thought of Mab back in London, alone, and she knew her mother wouldn't survive losing her. She felt a terrible surge of anguish and then, at once,

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  she realized she wasn't falling. Mihai's arm still held her so tight she could barely breathe, and she wasn't falling. She fluttered open her eyes. The bridge and the beasts were gone -- there were plenty more, to be sure, and they were still coming, but that danger seemed distant now. The bridge she had stood on had fallen away, and those beasts with it.

  In Mihai's grasp, she was floating. Stunned, she looked up at him.

  He was whispering fiercely and without pause. His Druj eyes looked almost white in the gloom as he stared straight ahead, whispering his magic. He and Esme drifted through the air and Esme's heart thudded in her chest, her mouth hanging slack in amazement. Beasts grunted and swung along the walls of the ravine, trying to reach them. Mihai carried Esme across the chasm on gliding steps. It was like flying.

  He brought her to the very last spire. It was taller than the others and had once been joined to them by a bridge, but it was clear the bridge had fallen long ago; its abutments had been swallowed by creeping vines and all that was visible was one rusted truss jutting from the vegetation. From it hung a small iron cage.

  The sight of the cage thrust a spear of memory into Esme's consciousness. It was only a glimpse, but for a split second she seemed to see long red hair spilling out through the bars, and small hands clutching at them from within. Then Mihai set her down in a portico before the lone spire's battered door. Deep claw marks scored the wood. The beasts had tried to get in here, but the door appeared intact. Mihai took a key from his pocket and fitted it into the lock. As the door swung inward, a choking odor rushed out, a fume of rot many years entombed. Esme stumbled back and swayed at the edge

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  of the step, overcome with nausea. It was a sheer drop to the chasm below, and Mihai reached out and gripped her arm, hard.

  "Ow," she said, as he pulled her forward into the dark reek of the spire. "Wait," she cried, resisting. "I don't want to go in there --"

  "The beasts will come," Mihai said, pulling her inside and closing and locking the door behind them. Esme thought she would suffocate in the dense, putrid air, and she dropped to her knees to retch. When she was through and looked round, Mihai had gone deepe
r into the rough rock chamber. It was dark, but not fully dark. A few small apertures in the rock admitted shafts of light, enough to illuminate a milky mirror framed in jewels. Esme's memory sang to her at the sight of it. She knew the mirror. She knew this place.

  It was like a chapel, the rock ceiling high and vaulted. The walls recessed into niches and were carved with the clustered shapes of winged men and stags and wolves and moons, crows and serpents and crocodile beasts with the heads of hawks. And amid the carvings Esme saw eyelids, dozens and dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of tarnished silver eyelids, just as she had dreamed about on her fitful night in France before the wolves found her. In her dream they had opened to reveal real eyes, but these were all closed. Viscous yellow streaks had dribbled from some of the hinged corners and Esme realized this was the source of the smell: dead eyes, hundreds of them.

  Mihai watched her. Esme thought he seemed to expect something of her.

  "What is this place ... ?" she murmured. "Don't you remember?" he asked softly.

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  Remember? She wanted to shake her head, to deny any such memories. How could she remember a chapel of silver eyelids? How could she recognize that iron cage hanging outside? And how could she know that Mihai's lips had tasted like river? What was happening to her? In her memory things were moving. Deep, as if her mind had a crypt that had been unsealed and in it things were uncoiling -- stealthy things, clammy as reptile flesh, things she didn't want to see by the light of day.

  She caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye and turned, freezing in place when she saw what it was. One of the eyelids had opened. They weren't all dead. The sickly orb of an eye stared out at her; its iris was brown, like her own eyes. Her real eyes. It seemed human. She felt pinned in place by its scrutiny and held very still, not even daring to breathe.

  "It doesn't see you. That's not the way it works," Mihai said, noticing her rigid posture. He gestured to the mirror and said, "Watch."

  Esme looked at the glass. Something stirred in its cloudy surface and an image began to take shape. When it cleared, she saw a line of camels swaying their way over a dune with a red sky behind them, a sinking sun, and long shadows splayed out ahead of them. For an instant she felt as if she were there, trudging with them in the sand. "Where ... where is that?" she asked Mihai.

 
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