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Lips touch three times, p.16
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       Lips Touch: Three Times, p.16

           Laini Taylor
 
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  There was more he had hoped to tell the Queen before her animus hatched from Esme's soul -- so much more -- but now was not the time. Esme's blue eyes were glazing over. The pain was already taking her away. Yet there was one thing Mihai thought he could tell her now that might help. Taking Esme's chin in his hand, he said, "Mazishta, listen to me. Your true name, when you were human, it was Mahzarin. Golden moon. My beautiful Mahzarin."

  Esme's eyes flared open and fluttered as memories unfurled within her. A sob broke from her lips. The beasts wailed outside the door. And pain descended like nightfall.

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  THIRTEEN Almost Memory

  She had forgotten her name a long time ago. The mists had taken it.

  (But her name was Esme. She was a girl with long, long, red, red hair. Her mother braided it. The flower shop boy stood behind her and held it in his hand. Her mother cut it off and hung it from a chandelier.

  She was Queen. Mazishta. Her hair was black and her handmaidens dressed it with pearls and silver pins. Her flesh was golden like the desert. Her flesh was pale like cream. Her eyes were blue. Brown.

  She knew what it was like to hold eyeballs between her fingertips. To toss cats to the beasts. To wrest babies from their mothers' arms. To kiss a fanged hunter in the snow. There was a crypt of memories at her feet, going deep into the earth. Things were starting to rise from it, on wings and tatters of mist. Things that horrified her.

  Mahzarin.

  She had forgotten her name.

  She tried to hold her mind like a corridor of open doors, clear

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  and ready for footfall, for whatever might dance past. Wolves, beasts, girl-mothers, stolen boys.

  Rooftop dancing, a string purse filled with cherries and lace, fairy tale books embossed with gold.

  And her body remembered things her mind did not. Whenever she had held the babies in the crook of her arm, she had been besieged with almost-memories, like fireflies never close enough to catch.

  Mahzarin. She snatched the name from the air and held on to it as pain came down like drums and thunder and she felt herself begin to pull apart. She was a girl and she was a queen and back in the mists she was a woman who had seized the moon from the sky and drunk its light so that she would never die. And she never had.

  The pain blinded her. It shattered the world into a maelstrom of jagged wings, beating and tearing at her. Falling to her knees, she imagined she was in a long corridor, and though she couldn't see or feel the doors, she tried to keep them open so the pain would find some egress after it had torn her in two.

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  FOURTEEN The Kiss

  Mihai held Esme's head in his hands as she writhed on I the floor of the tabernacle. Her screams had even shocked the beasts into silence, but after a moment they resumed their piteous moaning outside the door. Esme's eyes were open, but Mihai knew she couldn't see anything but darkness and tangled memories. He cradled her head in his hands and her body between his knees to keep her from harming herself as she thrashed.

  Seated in its niche, the Queen's body still did not stir, but soon it would. Mihai wished he could believe that his waiting was drawing to an end, but he was no fool. She might kill him for what he'd done, and he wouldn't even blame her for it. It would be a poetic end to his long, mad life, and sometimes death didn't sound bad at all, but simple and even a little sweet. Of course, he hoped for something else.

  He had hoped for it since the day fifteen years ago when he had kissed his queen and everything had at last come clear.

  It was luck or destiny that their paths had converged at all. Of all the places two bodies can be on a world, all the avenues and mine shafts and battlefields, they had found each other on the same desolate sweep of snow in mountains at the ragged fringe of Russia.

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  Mihai sometimes went away to bleak places when he needed an escape from the life he had chosen, with its welter of feelings and its dance of almost-memories opening themselves to him one by one. He had lived in thirteen human hosts and he knew hathra with them all, each one a part of him like blood in his veins. He laughed and wept with them and helped name their children, knew what they dreamed and helped them get it. And because of the magic he and Yazad had wrought, their long lives weren't spent alone. Their longevity, rather, proportioned itself amongst the ones they truly loved -- soul mate, children -- a measure of their years gifted to each, so that a beloved spouse might live long beside them, the span of years perhaps not as long as Yazad's, but richer.

  Mihai had pieced together a soul of sorts, but he still didn't know what he was. The mists of memory were thin now, barely a veil, and there was something behind them always shifting, beckoning, receding. It exhausted him, straining to see through it.

  He had been drawn to the Caucasus Mountains by some glimmer of instinct or impulse, and it had seemed an unreal coincidence when, after several days of quiet, he had heard wolfsong and known it was Druj. They were coming his way. He could have hidden himself, but he didn't. He waited, and soon the lunging black shapes shimmered out of the forest, and behind them glided the Queen's sledge, drawn by her enormous goats with their horns like swords.

  In a matter of moments they were upon him, the wolves snarling, snapping. The Queen looked at him and his soul quailed. He had not seen her in hundreds of years, not since before he left Herezayen. Her beauty was seared into his memory; it was an unforgettable thing. But as he looked at her now, deeper, older visions

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  stirred, remembrances that had been well lost in the mists when they had met in Herezayen.

  She met his gaze, her pale eyes half-lidded with disinterest. To the wolves she said, "Hunters, do you not know kin?" and they drew back, their snouts still furled with silent snarls. Her eyes did not flicker from Mihai's face. "Is this not our naecish cousin from high Herezayen? The one who vanished?"

  Mihai stiffened. Naecish. It meant no one. Nothing. It was what Druj called exiles. They had been known to kill exiles. The two largest wolves -- Erezav and Isvant -- were growling low in their throats and slavering, and Mihai thought they would be glad for the feel of his throat between their teeth. He looked back to the Queen and there was no sanctuary in her cold eyes. He could whisper himself into a falcon and try to escape, but if it came to that, he would likely wear those feathers forever; he had no one to whisper him back again. He could open a window in the air and flee through it, but they would follow. The Queen's power dwarfed his own; she could even whisper him dead if she chose.

  He dropped to one knee and bowed his head. "Mazishta," he said. "I didn't vanish. I went hunting a new quarry. I am no exile, but a wanderer in the mists."

  "The mists?" she said, not understanding.

  "Those that veil our memories, Queen. It turns out that they are not... impenetrable."

  There was a flicker of interest and her eyes bored into him for a long moment. Mihai thought that she was mastering her desire to ask him what he meant, as if to show her curiosity would be to show weakness. She said only, "Indeed," in her purr of a voice.

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  He inclined his head slightly, never taking his eyes off hers.

  There was movement from her sledge, and a whimper. The Queen's cold gaze flicked impatiently toward it and Mihai looked too. He saw a red-haired boy wrapped in furs, wrists and ankles bound, eyes immense with terror. The Queen's expression remained hard and cold and it sickened Mihai, all of it -- the boy's terror and the Queen's calm -- but he was careful not to show it.

  "A boy, Mazishta?" he asked her, keeping his voice carefully careless.

  "Yes." She turned her attention back to Mihai and laid her fingers on a twist of red hair tied to the moonstone amulet around her neck. "He wasn't easy to find. This red is a rare shade. Does it not look like blood in the moonlight?"

  Mihai looked at the hair, not understanding. In the moonlight it did have the sheen and shade of blood. He nodded.

  "My izha has grown up," said the Queen with a
hint of regret. "They grow up so fast, humans."

  Izha. Milk sacrifice. Across the centuries Mihai recalled that the Queen had bred human pets in Tajbel. He kept his face still as stone and swallowed his disgust. "More slowly than most creatures," he said.

  "I suppose that's true. What other creature is helpless for so many years?" she replied.

  Mihai was watching her minutely or he might not have noticed the way her fingers fluttered slightly as her hands half lifted themselves to her belly. They dropped away again, but Mihai had seen. He knew the way his own body had held on to memories that the mists had conspired to erase, and the gesture she had

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  unconsciously made -- he had seen it before. For centuries, after all, he had hunted pregnant women and watched them, making his choice for his next host. Hers was a gesture of one who knew what it was to carry life inside.

  It was impossible. Druj didn't quicken. The Queen could have no such memories.

  Mihai struggled to keep his voice flat as he said, "So the boy is for breeding."

  "Yes."

  Mihai looked at the miserable, terrified boy and forced himself to smile. "Compliments. No doubt they will breed you a lovely pet."

  The wolf Isvant growled and Mihai could tell he wanted the Queen to whisper him back to his human cithra so that he could face Mihai eye to eye, but she didn't oblige him. She said to Mihai, "Mist-wanderer, you have been too long absent from your own kind. You will return with us to Tajbel, and I will decide what is to be done with you."

  The thought of living again among Druj was abhorrent, but Mihai was in no position to refuse. He inclined his head.

  She said, "Come. We travel until sunrise. And when we stop, you can tell me something of the mists."

  "As you wish, Rathaeshtar," he replied. She urged her goats on and the sledge gathered speed. The wolves bounded through the snow, and Mihai followed. The Queen looked back over her shoulder. "Are you not Naxturu? Won't you shift cithra?" she asked.

  "I keep this shape now."

  She didn't ask him why, but he saw that her eyes, which had been dull and hard when she had first come upon him, were aglitter

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  now with savage curiosity. He knew she didn't shift either. There had long been murmurs in his own tribe that they didn't need a Queen, and Mihai guessed she didn't trust even her own Naxturu to whisper for her out of suspicion they might choose to leave her trapped in wolf form. She kept her flesh under her own command, as did he.

  He ran behind the sledge, his gait long and easy, and they made their way higher into the mountains. They stopped at sunrise beside a river and the Queen gave the red-haired boy frigid water to drink and whispered her wolves back to human cithra. There were six of them, three males with the heavy hunched shoulders of Naxturu who spent as much time as wolves as they did as humans, and three females, slimmer but just as bestial as their male counterparts. They stretched their naked bodies in the falling snow and all but one chose to whisper themselves back to wolves and curl up to sleep through the day, dug into snow burrows. Only Isvant kept his human cithra. He sat naked with his back against a tree and glared at Mihai.

  Mihai returned the look, but he kept his face impassive. It wasn't easy. It had been a very long time since he had been in the company of his own kind. He wondered if they would see the change in him somehow, or maybe smell it. He was sitting on a rock beside the river and suddenly he couldn't stand Isvant's scrutiny. He stood and stripped off his clothes and dove into the water. It was snow-melt cold and it served to shock him out of his uneasiness. He surfaced. The current was carrying him away; he swam against it with powerful, easy strokes. Isvant stood and watched to make sure he didn't try to escape. Mihai swam back to the bank, shook himself, and sat naked beside his clothes.

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  His hair was still streaming when the Queen joined him. She sat beside him on the rock. "Tell me about the mists," she said, her voice half-whisper, half-purr.

  So, Mihai thought, her curiosity had gotten the better of her. Still staring ahead at the black water with its traffic of swift ice, he said, "I used to think they were a boundary, an ending beyond which there was nothing. But what if they're not? What if the mists are like the edge of the map when the cartographer has drawn all he knows, when the explorers' ships have not yet delved the unknown? What if there's more?"

  "More?"

  "Surely you've felt it. When you go into a human, your almost-memories sharpen. Each time, you believe you will remember."

  She didn't respond at once and he didn't look at her. After a long pause she said, very quietly, "Yes."

  "And it becomes a madness and a need, but you never remember."

  Again, "Yes."

  "And you're certain that once there was something else. Your body remembers it."

  "Yes." Her voice sounded raw now.

  "The thing your body remembers most..." Mihai began, turning to glance at her. For the second time he glimpsed the subtle movement of her arms and hands. It was, unmistakably, the gesture of a woman who knows what it is to be full with child. His words faltered. Deep within himself, a memory shifted. Mists parted. Something drew into the light. His eyes flared wide when he saw what they were and the Queen saw his shock before he could hide it.

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  Her own eyes narrowed in suspicion, but there was something else in them too. A gleam of hunger.

  "What?" she demanded. "What does it remember most?"

  Mihai's thoughts moiled and spun and he fought to hide his confusion, sure that any moment it would reveal his otherness and give her a reason to end his life. "For me," he said, with an effort at calmness, "the thing that brings the memories closest is ... a kiss."

  "A kiss!" she repeated, surprised.

  It wasn't a lie. Something about a kiss, back when he had worn humans, had always fanned at the mists like a gusting wind, chasing them back, thinning them, to show him the shadows of what waited within. He chanced a look at the Queen. There was a small, quizzical smile on her perfect lips and he tried smiling too, though his heart was beating fast as a human's and memories were rising up around him like ghosts. With absolute clarity, he knew something he had never guessed. He had not felt such a deep shuddering shock since his animus was dragged out of Yazad's soul. That time, he had discovered he was not human. This time, he remembered that he had been.

  "Mazishta," he whispered. "There was something else once, something more. I've seen it."

  Her smile faded and he could see her longing to believe him. "What have you seen?" she asked in a husky whisper.

  You, he wanted to say. I have seen you. But he said, "I have seen a woman with a mind as sharp as a shard of obsidian, and as brilliant as the moon. Mysteries opened themselves up to her and revealed their quiet centers. She wanted to know everything. She wanted to live forever."

  "And?"

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  "And she did," whispered Mihai. For a moment his careful mask slipped and he knew by her widening eyes that she had seen his real face, haunted and hungry and stricken by the sudden memory of something she couldn't fathom. Love. He expected her to draw away from him in disdain, but she didn't.

  She kissed him.

  She leaned into him, sinuous as a predator, and touched her lips to his and held them there in mimicry of kisses she had witnessed. There was nothing sensual in it, not at first, just the chaste press of skin. But then her lips parted ever so slightly and Mihai felt her tremble as, just for an instant, there passed a ghost of the way they had kissed in a long-ago life when they had loved each other, soul and skin, and slept entwined, sharing dreams through their flesh and waking in the dark to the slow pull of pleasure.

  Before she had been the Queen of the Druj, she had been Mahzarin, and she had been his. Once upon a time, she had hooked her small foot around his leg and drawn him up against her. He had taken her earlobe between his teeth, tasted the hollow at the base of her throat, and sung through the skin of her taut belly while she grew hi
s daughters within her. Her black hair had fallen across his pillow like a shadow every night and he had slept and woken upon it. He remembered how her flesh had felt when it was human and warm, and not immortal and icy.

  But she would not remember it. And she would not believe it.

  Her breath quavered, then her eyes flew open wide and she reeled away from the kiss. There was fascination and a hint of disbelief in her look. She stared at Mihai's lips. She lifted her fingers to them and hesitated, then touched them quickly as if they might burn her. "Your ... your lips are warm? she stammered. "How?"

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  But Mihai didn't have a chance to answer her. He caught a flash of movement from the corner of his eye and looked just in time to see Isvant's body come hurtling at him, human as he left the ground, his flesh morphing to fur as he flew through the air. When he hit Mihai, he was wolf, claws slashing and fangs bared. The two toppled backward into the river and were lost under the black water.

  Mihai's blood surfaced before he did.

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  FIFTEEN Full Moon

  He lived. Druj are not so easy to kill. Only fire can accomplish it, or the severing of the head from the neck. Isvant did neither of these things; he only raked Mihai's chest from collarbone to navel and sank his fangs into the muscle of his shoulder. It was not pleasant, but it was no risk to Mihai's life. After he dragged himself out of the river, he whispered the wounds closed, left his blood on the snow, and got up to struggle back into his clothes.

  The Queen came and stood before him for a brief moment and looked into his eyes. She was tall; they met eye to eye, and Mihai saw her hesitate before reaching out quickly to touch his lips once more. When she did, the troubled look went out of her eyes. His lips were as cold as the river, just as Druj flesh should be, and she turned on her heel and went to her sledge, pausing briefly to run her fingers through her human boy's red hair.

 
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