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Lips touch three times, p.14
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       Lips Touch: Three Times, p.14

           Laini Taylor
 
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  "You would know better than I."

  She felt a flash of frustration. How would she know? She turned from the mirror to retort, but before she could speak, something clambered up from that seething crypt of memory and assaulted her. It was a face. A man. A man with one eye. The socket of the other

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  was hollow and raw and Esme's gorge rose in her throat. She shook her head and the face receded. She whispered, "I don't know."

  He shrugged. "Nor do I. Africa maybe. She had spies everywhere. This is -- was -- the Tabernacle of Spies. The Druj Queen has always collected eyes. From village rats, eagles circling in the skies, crows, even songbirds in the thickets. She would take one eye and bring it here and leave the creature where it was, and she could see what her spies saw as they moved through the world. All of them. And not just animals. Humans too, like this one." He gestured to the staring brown eye. "She liked to watch the world."

  "She ... she plucked out their eyeballs?" Esme asked. "That's ... terrible!' Then she paused, struck suddenly by the memory of her mother and the one-eyed seagull on the beach years ago. Mab's behavior didn't seem so irrational now.

  Mihai was looking at all the silver eyelids and all the trails of old rot that had oozed from them, and he said, "I suppose most of the spies have died. She used to maintain her collection so carefully, replacing old eyes with new. She won't be happy to see it like this. To see all of Tajbel fallen to this," he said, and Esme thought she detected not only sadness in him, but as he watched her face closely, also a hint of fear.

  "Was this your city?" she asked.

  "Not mine. I came from another tribe."

  "You have tribes? What... what are you?"

  He looked at her keenly again, and again she had the sense he was expecting something of her. "We are Druj," he said simply.

  "I know, but what are you?"

  "Ah, Esme. I haven't learned how to tell that story yet." "Is it true you don't have souls?"

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  "We never die. What need have we for souls?"

  "Is that all souls are for? For when we die?" asked Esme.

  Something happened in Mihai's face then. The cool, almost cruel, animal flatness of his expression vanished and in spite of his sharp teeth and his pale, pale eyes, he looked suddenly human. Vulnerable. "No," he said, his voice like a growl in his throat. "They're for living too."

  Esme felt a surge of pity for him and was surprised by a sudden impulse to reach out and touch his hair. Her hand moved toward him before she even realized it and she made a fist and drew it back against her side. She was overcome by a powerful feeling of vertigo, as if she were standing at the edge of that crypt and it was deep, so deep, filled with rising mists of memory, with sulfur and scurrying things, and with terrible, terrible secrets. She had to steady herself against the wall, feeling silver and stone beneath her fingertips, and the old crust of liquified eyes.

  Mihai watched her, and there was a look of longing on his face that sent a chill down her spine. She knew she'd seen it before, that same look, those eyes. And she remembered, again, the shock of his lips on hers.

  But how? No man's lips, mortal or immortal, had come anywhere near her in her young life.

  There came a thud against the door, harsh enough to vibrate through the entire chamber. Esme gasped. Beasts were at the door. Since there was no bridge, they must have scaled the stalk of the spire itself. Their pounding jarred the silver eyelid and it slipped closed on its tiny hinges with a barely audible tink. The vision of the desert faded. A horrible moaning and wailing joined the pounding outside, and Esme's heart began to race. Urgently she

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  said to Mihai, "Why did you bring me here? Take me home. Please!"

  "Soon, Esme," he said.

  "Soon? But they'll get in!"

  "They won't. We're safe here."

  "Safe?" Esme repeated with a hysterical laugh. And though she was afraid to know the answer, she cried, "What do you want from me?"

  "It's not from you, Esme," he said. "Not really."

  "What -- ?" Esme started to ask, but she caught sight of something then that made her freeze. As the last ghostly traces of the desert vision vanished from the mirror, she glimpsed a face in it. It was sunk in shadow, staring out, and it wasn't a vision. It was a reflection. There was someone right behind her. With a gasp, Esme spun around.

  In a darkened niche opposite the mirror sat a woman, still as stone. Dust was thick on her black hair and her shoulders, and it filled the lap of her silken robes. Her face was magnificent, a perfect golden oval, and her eyes were Druj blue. Dust clung to her lashes and one long strand of cobweb anchored there and spun away into the shadows. Her eyes were open but they were dry and dull and no life flickered in them.

  "Who is that?" Esme whispered, unable to look away from the woman's exquisite face.

  "She is the Druj Queen."

  "Is she ... is she dead?" asked Esme, finding herself drawn closer to the shadowed Queen, taking tiny, cautious steps.

  "Not dead. She is only empty. She left her body a long time

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  ago." He paused, then added, with a quick glance at Esme, "Fourteen years ago."

  "Fourteen?" Esme repeated, turning to look at him as the significance of the number penetrated her awe. "Fourteen?" she said again. Then she faced the Queen and admitted to herself what her first thought had been the instant she'd glimpsed that perfect face. The spark of recognition had been so subtle and yet so profound.

  This beautiful creature looked nothing like her, but still, somehow, looking at her was like looking in a mirror.

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  TEN Yazad

  Yazad, Mab," Mihai had said, and so when she was able to pick herself up off the floor, she did.

  She stood beneath the elaborate arched gates of the old man's mansion and remembered the first time she had stood here -- or, more accurately, cowered here in Mihai's arms. He had carried her through a window in the air from Tajbel straight to this spot, and it had seemed to her that the world had cracked open like an egg. The broad black avenue, the streetlamps and distant shimmer of city lights, the passing cars, the fumes -- it had been, all of it, beyond her ken. It had been a terror.

  She thought now that she must have seemed like some kind of creature to Yazad that evening, a quivering animal-girl at his door. She had held her belly in both arms, so full with Esme she might have given birth at any moment, and he had looked at her with such compassion that her terror had eased a fraction. Never, never had she seen such a look. He'd guided her gently inside to a chair by the fire -- another new and terrifying thing, fire! She'd thought it was a thing alive, that leaping flame. Yazad had given her tea, and then spoken long with Mihai in a language she couldn't understand.

  There was so much in those days she couldn't understand, so much she still did not understand. Why had Mihai stolen her from

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  the Queen? He had been devoted to her, and not in the same servile way as all the other Druj. From the moment Mab first glimpsed his face in the crowd, she had known he was different from the others. In the months he had been in Tajbel -- all the months Esme had been growing inside her -- she had seen more baffling things than pain on his face. She had seen ... love.

  Her final night in Tajbel remained as much a mystery to her today as it had been then. It had been a full moon. The Druj were ritualistic in their moon worship and full-moon nights were always a celebration, a madness of fur and feathers and animal voices as they drew down their power from the luminous orb. On that night, as on any full moon, they had stripped off their robes and whispered themselves into animal cithrim one by one. The Naxturu howled. The winged ones whirled in the sky, screeching. The Queen stood atop her tower, changeless as always, watching them.

  Mab remembered hoping her baby would come during the festival of the moon so that the Queen would be distracted, and she might keep the moment for herself. It was a small thing to hope for and the last hope she had,
and she didn't have any notion then of it being a stupid wish. She'd seen cats birth their litters and she thought it would be like that for her too, silent and strained and miraculous, like good hard work. She hadn't understood what the pain would be like, so she had hoped her last hope, stroking her swollen belly and quietly whispering through her skin, "Come out, bakham, my little gift, come out to me now," while out in the night the Druj barked their mad moon songs.

  But Esme had not come. She'd kicked and swum within her and then settled down. Sometime in the night Mihai had appeared in Mab's doorway, making her jump. He only stared at her for a

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  time before disappearing again as silently as he'd come, but Mab was unsettled by the look. She'd wondered why he hadn't shifted cithra like the rest of the Druj. He wasn't like the rest; she knew that, but she didn't know how.

  He'd been in Tajbel for some time by then. It had been almost a year since Mab had focused on his face in that crowd of Druj, wondering at his suppressed grimace of pain while the Queen wore her body against Arkady for the first time. They'd taken Arkady away months ago, as soon as she missed her monthly bleeding. She'd cried for him at first, and for herself, to be alone again among the Druj, but then her belly had begun to grow, to move, and she realized she wasn't alone.

  She had something to protect.

  She thought of the endlessness of the mountains as she had glimpsed them long ago and escape had seemed as impossible as ever. But now she knew something she hadn't then: Out there, somewhere, were others. Like Arkady, like her. And so she had tried to escape through the woods for the first time, throwing cats to the beasts of her own free will, so she could flee across the bridge. Erezav and Isvant had found her so easily they'd barely even been angry with her. As they brought her back, handling her as carefully as if she were an egg -- an egg containing their Queen's next pet -- Mab realized they'd done this before, perhaps many times. They'd hunted down girl-mothers and brought them back. She wondered if her own mother had tried to flee. Yes, she thought. They all had. Of course they had.

  And she tried again. And again. And again. In the end, in a fury, the Queen had stood with her in the vestibule of her spire and whispered in a fierce rasp, "Cinvat ni janat!"

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  and knocked the bridge down, making Mab a prisoner in that lonely tooth of rock. The Druj could glide across the gap to the next spire, but she couldn't. She remembered the way the misery had welled up in her as she stood there, her arm gripped tight in the Queen's long fingers, looking out across the blackness of the chasm with no way to escape. The wind had picked up and the little cage had groaned on its iron rings as if to remind her it remained and would be used again after she was gone.

  Hope had dwindled until all that remained was the wish to hold her child in her arms before they did to her whatever it was they did to spent pets.

  But miraculously, it hadn't come to that.

  Mihai came to her a second time that full-moon night, and this time he brought the Queen with him. There was feverish high color in both their faces and Mab had skittered into a nook in the rock wall of her room. She wept. She pleaded with them to leave her alone. But they had taken hold of her arms and eased her out of the nook in the wall. And as she had done so many times before, the Queen had slid her fingers under Mab's chin and tilted up her face. Mab saw her cast one questioning glance at Mihai, who nodded. "You'll understand everything," he said, and the Queen turned back to Mab. Through tears Mab looked into those hated blue eyes. The cold filled her.

  And this time, oblivion came with it. She didn't remember anything after that until Mihai gathered her into his arms and carried her through a window of air, to London. To Yazad.

  Now, Mab lifted Yazad's heavy door knocker and let it fall. The sound was like the crack of a gunshot. She lifted and dropped it again, and after a moment Yazad himself came to the door, not the

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  butler Mab had been expecting. "My dear," he said, a warm smile lighting up his face. "It's been too long." He took her hand and pressed it between his. He knew it was the only touch she allowed. "Come in," he said, drawing aside to let her pass.

  Mab stepped into the magnificent marble hall with its dripping shimmer of chandeliers and filigree of polished gold, remembering her first sight of it all and caring for none of it now. She looked at Yazad.

  He was an old man, white-haired and brown-skinned, with wrinkles like the creases that deepen in fine leather over ages. His eyes were bright as a bird's, and they were brown, like her own. Yazad was human.

  "Why did he take her?" she demanded.

  "Come to the library, my dear," he said. "We'll talk there."

  She followed him. They walked over lush carpets in all the jewel colors of the Orient, past many-armed statues, bronze helmets, crossed scimitars, and almond-eyed madonnas glimmering with gold leaf. Yazad's home was a treasury of ancient beauties and the library was the most marvelous room of all. Mab stood in the doorway, remembering the way she had learned to read here with tiny Esme cradled in one arm. Standing here in the house where Esme had been born, Mab could almost feel her tiny daughter in her arms. Her arms and breasts would never lose their mute memories of holding that small body; they ached now with miserable yearning, and Mab let out a moan. "Yazad," she pleaded. "What's happening to her? Do you know?"

  "I do know, and I promise you Mihai will take care of her. He'll bring her back. Tea, my dear?"

  "What? No! When will he bring her back? What's he doing?"

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  Yazad poured two cups of tea from a samovar anyway and set them out on a marble-topped table. "He isn't doing anything," he said with a sympathetic smile. "He's only waiting now. What was done was done long ago, and it will be over soon. You can trust me when I tell you I know what Esme is going through, Mab. I went through it myself when I was her age."

  "Went through what!"

  "It was a different time, of course, a different land. A sudden blue eye did not go over well in the Srinagar of my youth!" He chuckled. "The priests guessed I was possessed by a demon, but there were so many demons to choose from! They nearly killed me trying to cast it out. What terrible days those were!"

  Mab stared at him. He was smiling and chuckling as he recounted his memories, and only the slightest flicker of uneasiness in his eyes hinted at their true unpleasantness.

  "It was worse for me than for Esme," he went on. "Much worse. You see, I was the first."

  "First what?"

  "There was no word for it then," he said. "It was an accident, an act of despair that brought... unexpected results. Later, much later, Mihai started calling it hathra. Wholeness. I think it's a fine word."

  "Yazad!" Mab cried in exasperation. "What's he done to her? You said your priests guessed you were possessed by a demon. But you weren't," she said fervently, as if by declaring it she could make it so. "You weren't!"

  "No, my dear. I would say I was not possessed by a demon." He paused, looking at her queerly, and Mab did not like the pause. He continued, "Rather, I was ... incubating one."

  "Incubating?" she. repeated faintly.

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  "There's something unsavory about the word, I know, but I really think that's the best way to describe hathra. I was incubating a demon, but it hatched and no harm came to me, as you see. And no harm will come to Esme, my dear. Mihai knows what he's doing far better now than he did in my time."

  "He ... he ..." Mab stammered, feeling herself once again on the edge of hysteria. "He grew a demon in you?" she asked, her voice thick with outrage and disgust.

  Yazad tilted his head to one side and lifted his heavy white brows. "What? My dear, no. You don't understand. Mihai was the demon. He grew himself me."

  "What?" Mab looked at him, bewildered. She shook her head. "No, Yazad. That's not what this is. I've had Druj in me." She shuddered. "Hundreds of times! My eyes never turned blue. Neither did Arkady's when they went into him. This is something else."

  Yazad nodded
patiently. "Yes, it is. It's something else. Something marvelous. It's hathra."

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  ELEVEN Hathra

  In Tajbel's Tabernacle of Spies, Mihai tenderly brushed the dust I of fourteen years from the Queen's hair and from her smooth -JL cheeks. He blew lightly on her eyelashes to dislodge the cobwebs that clung there. Her dry, vacant eyes didn't even blink.

  He turned back to Esme, who was still staring at the Queen. "I feel like Eve seen her before," she whispered. She shifted her eyes to Mihai and added, "And you too. But I haven't. I remember things, but they're not my own memories. I know they're not."

  "What do you remember, Esme?" asked Mihai.

  "What? I don't know--" She glanced quickly at Mihai's lips and blushed and looked away.

  He saw, and smiled. "You remember kissing me," he said softly.

  "Eve never kissed anyone!" Esme protested.

  "But you remember it, don't you?" He took a step toward her. The years of waiting had coiled him tight as a spring. He wanted badly to whisper himself into a wolf and run fast and far and let all the tension flood out of his underused muscles. He wanted to howl. But more than anything just now he wanted to hear this memory from Esme's lips. "Tell me," he urged her.

  Her eyes went vague as if she were slipping back inside the memory. Mihai leaned forward and listened. "You'd been swimming," she

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  said to him. "You tasted like river. Your hair was wet. It was winter, and blue slabs of ice came downstream like little ships. The melt had begun. You could hear it, the sluice and drip all down the mountain. Everything was still white, but it wouldn't be for much longer. It was cold. But... but your lips were warm." Esme's eyes refocused at once and her brow furrowed with confusion. She shook her head. "It wasn't me," she said warily, taking a step away from him. "No, Esme, it wasn't you."

 
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