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Lips touch three times, p.15
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       Lips Touch: Three Times, p.15

           Laini Taylor
 
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  "Then why -- ? What's happening to me?" Her young face was vivid with fear and she whimpered like a small animal. "I remember other things too," she whispered. "Awful things."

  Mihai spoke very soothingly. "It would be best if you could leave your mind clear now, Esme. Listen to me. Think of a long corridor with doors on both sides. I want you to leave all the doors open. Okay? Just think of that corridor of open doors, and if you can keep your mind like that, it won't hurt very much."

  "It's going to hurt?" Esme asked in a tiny voice.

  "Not very much, my pretty pearl," he murmured. "Only a little bit." He was lying. It would hurt. Like roots being ripped asunder, it would hurt. He was sorry for it, but he didn't know any other way.

  It was the only way. He had discovered it by accident long ago.

  Mihai came from a Druj citadel called Herezayen in the Tien Shan Mountains. It was a world of snowdrifts and ice, spruce forests without end, frigid lakes cupped in ancient rock. A world of wolf-song and wind. The Kyrgyz nomads called the land "the mountains of the spirits," and kept their yurts and goats on the lower slopes, well clear of the Druj who haunted the high places. Not that that kept them safe.

  Life in Herezayen was a brutality of numbness. Time dripped

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  off the tips of icicles and Mihai's tribe did what they could to relieve the bleakness of their endless days. They hunted as they pleased, as wolves or eagles or snow leopards. They spied on humans when they could find them, and slipped inside of them too, though it was seldom rewarding. There was little fun to be had wearing the body of a lonely shepherd or a blunt-bodied woman who spoke a language of grunts and smelled of rancid grease. When they found human children wandering alone, they took them back to their cold caves and kept them. They tried to make them laugh, but the children were dull-witted and weepy, and such amusement as that provided grew wearisome very quickly.

  Rarely, once every few decades, the dullness was relieved by a visit from the Queen. Mazishta, she was called, the greatest of them. She came in her sledge with her coterie of wolves and she expected them to drop to their knees and worship her. They did. Back at the fringes of their pale memories they could recall what had happened when some of their number had refused. Until the tides of oblivion crept up to swallow that gruesome day, they wouldn't fail in their worship, but they wouldn't be pleased about it either.

  There was no love lost between tribes. Undoubtedly the Druj had all begun as one people, but long isolation had made them rivals. None of the far-flung Druj were pleased to greet the Queen and feel the lash of her power as she lorded her supremacy over them. The Herezayen Naxturu -- including Mihai -- and the Tajbel Naxturu had circled one another like warring wolf packs, their bloodlust only held in check by their Queen's indomitable will. If she had not been there, they would have torn one another apart. As it was, the Druj ranks were only waiting for the day her power would weaken and they could humble her -- and her pack -- as she had ever humbled them.

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  Still, as much as they resented her dominance, her visits and the raw pulse of her power did serve to remind them how their own power had fallen into disuse. It revived them for a time, but the revival never lasted long after she left. There seemed no escape from the desolation of life.

  Mihai believed things had been different once. After all, someone had carved the magical symbols on the rock surfaces of Herezayen, and someone had written the books that had moldered in snowdrifts until no more words were legible. His mind ached to know what they had said, but the words were only smears now. And he didn't believe some forgotten ancestors had written them either -- there were no ancestors. There were only themselves, their own interminable lives stretching from the lost beginning to the unknowable end. He himself might have written those books, but he had no memory of it.

  He couldn't remember anything but the rhythm of monotony. When he tried to think of a time before, his mind became lost in a fog.

  The day he left Herezayen, he went without forethought. He just started walking one day and kept walking. Thinking back, he realized there must have been a part of him that planned not to return or he'd have shifted cithra and flown that day as an eagle or leapt through the snow on broad, furred wolf paws, knowing that someone, upon his return, would whisper him back. But he hadn't shifted. He had struggled on in human form and gone further down the mountain, wending wide round wisps of hearth fires from the black, huddled yurts of the nomads. He hadn't turned back. He hadn't ever returned to Herezayen, and he hadn't shifted cithra since.

  That was hundreds of years ago.

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  He drifted into the human world, across farms and into foul-smelling cities where they didn't know to fear him. He moved among them like a phantom, finding those humans who drew him in, some trick of their bright eyes beckoning to him like portals. Human eyes were like windows left open in a storm and it was a small matter to slip inside and mess about. He wore men and women both, and he danced in their feet, tasted with their mouths, and fought with their fists. He rutted in a haystack, one of their bodies pressed against another, and he passed himself back and forth between their moonlit eyes.

  It was, all of it, a curiosity. The thrum of their blood enclosed him like a cocoon and it woke something in him, an almost-memory. But memory danced in the mists, taunting him, and never drew close enough to grasp.

  He kept on because there was nothing else to do. He learned to leave his body and hunt over distances as an invisible animus searching for a host, so that his inert body might wait somewhere safe until he returned to claim it. He tried on warlords and priests and serving girls. He smelled the Black Death and nudged bodies out of his way with his boot. He fired an arquebus in the Battle of Pavia and shot the French king's horse out from under him. He started a mutiny on a slave ship. He mixed pigments for a Florentine master and tasted the carmine of crushed beetles on the tip of a sable brush.

  He learned what quickens human hearts, how the touch of lips could make two lovers slip into a niche between moments so time rushes past them. He learned that a kiss could bring his almost-memories closer than anything else, but still not close enough to catch. It was sweet and bitter and maddening.

  He broke the Druj taboos, all but one. He never destroyed a human soul, even in those days before he understood what they

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  were, and now he was sick with relief for it. He ignored the taboo about entering children, though he used them lightly, and he entered an old woman once too, but only once, and learned there was a good reason for the taboo against the old. Her soul didn't slip aside for him; it filled her firmly and fully and left little room for his animus and for a startled, struggling moment he didn't know if he would escape. The old woman spit on the ground after he tore himself out of her, and he left the old alone after that.

  He even braved fire -- the only thing Druj truly feared -- and was burned as a witch in a young woman's body. He wrapped her mind in a memory of flying as the flames took her and she felt no pain but smiled and spread her arms like wings. He felt it all, every flame, but it only burned her human shell and his animus surged out through her eyes with the departure of her soul. After that, haunted by the smell of her burning flesh, he lived in the Inquisitor for weeks and drove him mad, until finally his own lieutenants turned on him and clamped him in manacles still crusted with the blood of his victims. Mihai didn't undergo that bonfire. He let the Inquisitor suffer the flames all for himself.

  Children, the old, fire -- all the taboos broken but one. It was the final one that taught him what no other Druj knew, what he would later name hathra, and which would change his life forever.

  When he'd seen a pair of bright black eyes peering from the shade of a chinar tree in high Kashmir, he had gone to the woman at once, drawn by something he couldn't divine, some mystery that suffused her like a light. Once he was inside of her, he knew at once what the mystery was. In the throb of her blood there was a second heartbeat, very fas
t -- a life within, like a pearl enclosed. He had felt it before when trespassing into other women and he'd always

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  obeyed the taboo. He had never touched an unborn life. But this time, without thought, he sank down into it with a kind of sigh.

  To his surprise, he felt a calming darkness take him. And then there was nothing.

  For years.

  In the small dim chamber in Tajbel the beasts were still battering at the door, but Esme seemed to have forgotten them. She was staring at her hands, turning them over, waving her fingers slowly like underwater weeds. She looked up anxiously at Mihai. "I don't think these are my hands," she whispered to him with a ragged intake of breath, holding them up to show him.

  And as he looked at her, the brown iris of Esme's right eye shimmered and began to fade, glinting in the gloom as it paled to Druj blue, just like her other eye. Mihai exhaled slowly and realized his own hands were shaking. "My Queen," he said, staring at Esme, his voice heavy with emotion. "I've been waiting for you."

  Esme slowly blinked her twin blue eyes and stared back. "Mihai ..." she purred in a voice that did not belong to her. Then she gasped as she caught sight of the Queen on her throne behind him. She stared at her, then down at her own hands, then at the Queen again. "What have you done to me?" she asked.

  With a quaver in his voice he said, "Fourteen years ago I told you you would understand everything, and you will. There are secrets, Sraeshta, about the Druj, so many things we've forgotten. We were not always thus, my Queen." He paused, reached out, and grasped Esme's fingers in his. "I remember now. Once, a long, long time ago, we were human?

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  TWELVE Hatchling

  Human. But that was long ago, in the years that humans now counted backward from the birth of the Nazarene. Then, Mihai had not been a demon; he had not always been. In that other time, there was a beginning. Mihai had been born human.

  He only knew this because in 1564 he became human again for a short time.

  He was a boy in Srinagar who poled boats in the shallows of Dal Lake and could skip stones better than any of the other boys. He worked in the orchards, tugging ropes tied to the peaks of the trees to dislodge any greedy birds that tried to steal the prince's cherries. If he pulled just right and released quickly, he could launch a thieving crow skyward like a stone from a slingshot. He was master of the wheeling bird shadows, little brown raja of the orchard. His name was Yazad and he prayed to an elephant-headed god and ate bread with poppy seeds and sesame. The sun warmed his skin, the breeze stirred his hair, and the soul within him felt as real as his heartbeat.

  He didn't know anything else but being Yazad. Until the day his eye turned blue he didn't remember what he had been before, but the sight of that pale eye brought it all back, not at once, but in

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  quickening surges. Memories battered him like ugly moths. He was besieged by them, and after a terrible struggle, days of madness and priests, his animus was shunted out into the air and his brief humanity came to an end.

  He remembered the horror of finding himself unskinned, ripped from Yazad's soul and looking down from above at the boy whom he had thought was himself, seeing agony on that familiar face and trying to fathom that he was not Yazad, but only something that had been growing inside the boy like a parasite.

  Bitterly, he knew himself again: Mihai, Druj, Naxturu. Demon.

  He was just an invisible animus, adrift far from its abandoned body, bereft of the soul he had believed was his.

  He had felt souls before within the bodies he had worn, but they were poor quivering things, thrust askew by his animus with as little care as robes hanging from a hook. This had been something else. Yazad's soul had been his, and he had been inside of it and it had been inside of him. Fear and pride and shame and fury and woe and love had moved through it and him like the shivers of harp strings. Every day had been a dazzle of sensation.

  And now that soul was gone. It was like dying, but without the consolation of oblivion.

  He let the distant, insistent tug of his body call his animus back across mountains from the green vale of Kashmir to the wilds of barren Persia. Years earlier he had left his body in an ancient tin mine of the Sassanid kings and it was still there. He flowed back into it and dusted it off, feeling his immortal shell with its pale eyes and wolfish teeth to be a cold home after his brief human life.

  And if that cold life had been desolate before Yazad, it became nearly unendurable after. Mihai tried to return to his old ways. He

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  happened upon a wedding and passed himself into the groom almost without thinking, but the feel of shoving into that young man's soul sickened him, like crushing a creature beneath his boot heel, and he'd withdrawn at once. He'd watched the wedding from a distance and wondered at the feeling of revulsion that had come over him.

  He realized it was remorse.

  Druj don't feel remorse.

  Mihai began to understand that he was changed.

  "Is that all souls are for?" Esme had asked him earlier. "For when we die?" Mihai could have laughed or cried when she'd asked him that. In all its simplicity her question was like cupped hands holding the meaning of his life.

  "No," he'd said. "They're for living too."

  And because of Yazad, he had one. If not an entire soul, a shred of one. And Yazad had gotten something from him too. He had been born in 1564, after all, the year Michelangelo died and Shakespeare and Galileo were born, when people still believed the earth was the center of the universe. More than four hundred years had passed since then, and Yazad was still alive.

  Such longevity was a mixed blessing, they would discover together.

  Wearing his own body again, Mihai had traveled back to Kashmir and found the boy whose soul he had lived inside of. Seeing him again had been like getting back a piece of himself, and for Yazad it was the same. They were kin now, more than kin; they had been one creature, and together they felt something like wholeness.

  Hathra.

  They had traveled together after that, in and out of the centuries. Yazad had prospered. With the help of Mihai's magic he had

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  become not only rich, but learned. He had collected artifacts and lore, learned the herbal cures the Druj used on human pets and beasts, even learned some animal language, and he had amassed a fortune in gold. At one hundred and fifty years old and still a young man, he had married a Mughal princess. Her father had objected and imprisoned her in the palace, but Mihai had sent a pair of giant ghorpad lizards up the sheer wall to carry her down and the three of them had escaped together across the desert. Tranquil Sahar had borne Yazad sons and daughters and they had all of them faded and died before even a hair of Yazad's own mustache went gray. Thus had he tasted the bitter residue of long life -- to outlive all love.

  When Mihai began to think of finding a new unborn soul to twin with, Yazad would only agree to help him on one condition: that any new host would never know his own loss and loneliness. If there was a solution, it was only to be found in magic, and so the two of them had bent themselves to it. They gathered books from forgotten places, but there was nothing written anywhere to help them. They experimented on their own with the language of the Druj. They had time, and in time, they wove the spell they wanted.

  Over the next centuries, Mihai repeated his incubation a dozen times. He slipped into a dozen more human hosts, entering through a mother's eyes and slipping down into the kernel of incipient life within her, only to hatch years later with another shred of humanity to add to the patchwork soul he was making himself. Each time, his humanity deepened and something else happened. The mists began to clear. The almost-memories danced near like butterflies and he learned to cultivate stillness so they would alight upon him. And he began to remember.

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  And what he remembered pulled his world apart and rewove it in a new shape.

  "We were human," he repeated, still holding Esme's hands, looking into he
r eyes and seeing only the Queen's eyes. Esme was there too, a part of this now forever, but it was the Queen to whom he spoke. "We had souls. We gave them up, Sraeshta. We were given a choice and we chose immortality."

  Esme stared at him. She, or the Queen -- for the moment there was no distinction -- said faintly, skeptically, "No."

  "Yes. We didn't know what we would lose. We were so filled with our own power we didn't think that even the archangels could humble us! The things we had discovered had lifted us above the rest of humanity. We could change our shapes, become invisible, become weightless. We had mastered the elements. We rendered iron into gold, and rock into iron, and earth into water. We could send sickness on the air, and we sent the ill wind that slew the accursed Alexander who destroyed Persepolis and burnt Zarathustra's scriptures. We are great, Mazishta, and we are ancient, but back in the mists there is a time that we were children, you and I."

  And, he thought but did not say, a time that we bore children.

  Esme was trembling now, and despite the chill in the dank tabernacle, moisture had sprung up on her brow. Mihai reached out carefully to touch her and felt the heat radiating from her even before his fingers reached her skin. He knew what was happening. He'd been inside of it a dozen times but had never watched it from without. He thought watching would be harder to endure than the pain.

  Esme's soul and the Queen's animus had twinned and intertwined for fourteen years, and now they would be ripped apart. Like

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  birth, this hatching came in its due course and nothing would stop it. He had hoped to tell his Queen more of their story first. Afterward, things would be ... difficult. She would be herself again, more powerful than he by far, and she would see what he had done. How he had tricked her and stolen fourteen years, held her whole tribe prisoner in animal cithra while her spies' eyeballs rotted in their silver lids and her citadel fell to the beasts.

  A beast roared and slammed at the door as if to punctuate Mihai's thought. The whole spire trembled and Mihai trembled too. He was afraid. His patchwork soul made fear a real and vivid thing and he loved even the fear, for he still remembered the numb absence of it. If he had the choice to make again, his soul for immortality, he knew what he would choose. But he wouldn't have that choice to make again. There was only one way that his benighted race might blend itself back into humanity -- this secret way that he had discovered.

 
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