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Lips touch three times, p.17
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       Lips Touch: Three Times, p.17

           Laini Taylor
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  She didn't mention the kiss again or the memories it had unlocked -- if, indeed, it had unlocked any. For Mihai it had. Watching her across the snow, he could picture her so clearly from many centuries past, balancing a black-haired baby girl on each hip. Arzu and Lilya, their twin daughters had been called. Wish and Lily. Mihai wanted to tell her that her body remembered the weight of


  her own flesh-and-blood children, but he wouldn't. She wasn't Mahzarin now. She was Queen of the Druj, only a soulless echo of the woman she had once been. In any case, he had no chance to tell her. She didn't come near him again.

  They continued on to Tajbel and her sledge traveled fast through the snow, the wolves flanking her. Isvant doubled back and watched Mihai constantly, and Mihai watched him back. He knew the body could remember hate as it could remember the weight of a child or the pressure of a kiss, and Isvant had always hated him, even if the hunter didn't remember why. Mihai remembered why -- Isvant had loved Mahzarin too, in the time before -- and he didn't grudge him the hate.

  But he did grudge him his brutal charade of intimacy with the Queen once they arrived in Tajbel.

  He had to stand in the throng of Druj and watch as the red-haired boy and the Queen's izha were thrust toward each other, painted in their bizarre spirals of blue. Their terror was thick as musk, and Mihai thought that was part of what excited the Druj. But only part of it. Druj sense-memories were a kind of ineluctable torment, like an itch they could never scratch. It was an awful irony that the last vestiges of their humanity, the phantom memories contained in their skin, were what drove them to this grim violation.

  But he understood. Wasn't that same torment what had driven him to wear human after human himself and, ultimately, to break the taboos?

  At first, no coherent thought could break through his anguish and he spent all his energy concealing it as the humans were mated with each other like animals. He did a poor job, he thought,


  but fortunately no one was watching him, held in thrall as they were by their sick excitement. Only the girl herself seemed to fix on his face in the instant before the Queen tilted up her chin and took her over.

  And Isvant took over the boy and grabbed the girl by the wrist.

  Through all that followed, the Queen's body -- Mahzarin's body -- stood by empty as a statue, a vivid reminder to Mihai that although he had struggled his way back from his own execration, pieced together a makeshift soul from shreds, and found with a weary kind of amazement that he could love, it little mattered. The woman he loved was a monster. And she could never love him back.

  "Naecish," she said to him later. "You'll stay in the Naxturu spire with the hunters where you belong."

  She meant it as an honor, he thought. He wouldn't be held prisoner here but would keep his caste status. It was unexpected, and the Naxturu wouldn't like it, and he didn't either. Mihai knew where he belonged, and it was not with the Naxturu. It was not with the Druj at all. "Queen," he said softly. "I told you, I am a different kind of hunter now."

  "Ah, yes," she said with a hint of disdain. "A hunter of mists. Well, we have no caste of mist-hunters, have we? Perhaps the astronomers' tower would be more suitable."

  He was supposed to decline. The castes were fixed: Naxturu were Naxturu as wolves were wolves. Would a wolf suddenly take up residence with a nest of serpents or hawks? No; it was against nature. Nevertheless, Mihai said, "It would be, Mazishta, I thank you."


  She showed no surprise, only stared at him a beat too long. "Very well," she said. "Vanghav," she called, summoning a Druj to her side. "The naecish is to be your guest."

  Vanghav didn't question the decision, but Isvant did. "Sraeshta," he growled, coming up behind her. "The exile should be in a cage."

  "Tajbel is a cage," she said lightly, and Mihai had to agree. Though not as desolate as Herezayen, there was something awful about the Queen's citadel with its tusks of rock, its black chasm, and the beasts that lurked there. He'd glimpsed only their arms flashing up from beneath the bridges, but their stench was everywhere, and it was alien. He didn't know what the creatures were, but he was certain they existed nowhere else. Knowing the Queen's awful power, he thought she must have made them. But out of what? What had she transformed into these foul guardians of Tajbel? Some unfortunate humans, long ago? Druj who had displeased her? He shuddered at the thought.

  "He could escape --" said Isvant, but the Queen cut him off.

  "Don't worry. He'll be watched. Come with me," she commanded, and they followed her down a curving stair to a doorway low on her spire. They stood at the threshold as she unlocked the door, and waited there when she entered. The room within was dark, but Mihai could make out the glint of silver and hear the quiet swivel of small hinges. Peering in, he saw eyes, dozens and hundreds, watching him from the shadows. At a glance they seemed to be a horde of creatures hunched in darkness, still as cats on the prowl. But he quickly saw there were no creatures -- only disembodied eyes. It was his first sight of the Tabernacle of Spies.

  The Queen brought a lizard out of the darkness. It was collared and chained to a manacle, and this manacle she put around Mihai's


  upper arm. It clicked shut and she set the lizard on his shoulder, from which perch it peered at him with a single golden eye. Its other was somewhere in the tabernacle behind one of the silver eyelids. "For you," said the Queen. "A pet." "A spy," he said.

  "Yes, of course. But treat him as a pet. Feed him, name him if you like, and take care nothing happens to him. I'll be watching, naecish."

  He didn't name the lizard, not at first, but through the months of tolerating its golden-eyed scrutiny he grew rather fond of it and dubbed it Zaranya. Golden. Its weight on his shoulder, even its flicking tongue, made him feel less alone in the bleak austerity of Tajbel.

  And he was alone. Even with a crush of Druj around him he felt that he and Zaranya were the sole living creatures in a city of the undead. Well, not the sole living creatures. There were the beasts, in their awful hunger more alive than the Druj, and there were the cats, and of course, there were the two young humans. Seeing them together only deepened Mihai's despair.

  In the weeks that followed their first mating he watched them from the corner of his eye and, attuned to their humanity as the rest of the Druj were not, he saw what began to grow between them. Though the blue spirals were painted again and again and the Queen and Isvant repeated their charade almost daily, there were many more hours in which the young girl and boy were left alone. And how, in this place, could they fail to turn to each other for comfort?

  One day several months in, Mihai saw them sitting side by side in the sun in the highest window of the Queen's spire, their thin legs


  hanging over the edge. He watched the way their shoulders touched, the shy way their eyes met, peering up through their lashes. How they hooked pinkies when they rose to their feet to go back inside, as if they were just children walking to a bus bench and not captives in a wilderness of demons.

  Those hooked pinkies almost made him weep. He thought of Mahzarin as she once had been and, with a violence that made his soul shudder, he wished for an innocent touch like that. He even wished for a glance. Since their arrival in Tajbel she had scarcely looked at him. She had the business of ruling her citadel to see to, and she was much occupied with her two young humans, but whenever Mihai was near her, she seemed always to be looking elsewhere. He thought there was something a little too careful in her coldness, as if by avoiding him she was trying not to betray something inside herself, and he knew well what that was.

  It was hunger. Once it had driven him too. The Queen tried to hide it, but she had a hunger for humanity, for warm flesh and quick blood and memories. She played it out in her izha's body, and she locked herself for hours in her tabernacle, watching lives unfold in distant lands through the eyes of her hundreds of spies. And through Zaranya's eyes, she watched Mihai. He might nev
er have known how often she watched him, or how false her feigned indifference was, if not for Isvant.

  "I'm going to kill him," he heard the hunter say to Erezav. The two were three spires away in the Naxturu tower and Mihai shouldn't have been able to hear them so clearly, but he whispered to the breeze and it carried their words to his ears.

  "She watches him," Erezav replied. "She'll know."

  "She can't watch him forever," spat Isvant. Then in a sudden


  fury he snarled, "What does she see, anyway? She watches the naecish as much as she watches the humans. Locked away with her mirror! What is there to see but an exile who should be fed to the beasts?"

  "Or become a beast," said Erezav.

  Isvant gave a terrible kind of laugh. Druj did not often laugh; they did not know humor. This wasn't humor, but a curdled snarl of vengeance that came out as an awful chuckle. "Yes," he said. "But only Mazishta has that power, and while he's her fascination she won't do it."

  "Her fascinations don't last," said Erezav.

  "No, they don't. But I don't want to wait until she's through with him. I'll kill him when she's not watching him --" "She's always watching him." "Not always. Not on the full moon."

  The Queen presided over full moons on the platform atop her spire. She stood with her head thrown back and let the white light flood into her and charge her with its power. Mihai could remember now the first time she had drunk the moonlight, long, long ago. He'd been at her side and had seen her lit from within. It had been the beginning of everything. If only they had known then the price of their power.

  Erezav said to Isvant, "She'll notice if you don't shift."

  "She won't," he said bitterly. "She doesn't notice me at all."

  And so Mihai took care to guard his life, making certain Isvant could never surprise him, and a new layer of desperation was added to his existence in Tajbel. "Her fascinations don't last," Erezav had said. Mihai could well imagine they did not. He knew he couldn't stay here; if he did, things would not end well for him. Nor could he


  escape; there was nowhere in the world he could hide if the Queen chose to pursue him, and ... he didn't wish to escape. Even in her soullessness, the sight of her face was like a conduit to his oldest memories: her skin, warm beneath his own. Her belly, magnificent with child. Their daughters, soft as velvet and dark-eyed as they too once had been.

  Memories held him in limbo.

  It wasn't until the Queen's izha became pregnant that Mihai acknowledged to himself the plan that had been growing in the shadows of his mind -- the life within the red-haired girl, like a pearl enclosed. Thirteen times had he slid his own animus into the darkness of an unformed soul and concresced with it. But it was not his own animus he thought of when he looked at the smooth curve of the girl's swelling belly. It was the Queen's.

  He was careful. He waited, and on a full moon late in the girl's pregnancy, when all the other Druj -- including Isvant -- had shifted into wolves and owls and stags, he went to the Queen.

  "Mazishta," he said. "What if I told you I knew how you could go into the mists and capture the memories that dance away from you as you reach for them?"

  Her eyes grew bright.

  "The old god breathed the mist into our minds. It's meant to keep us blind, to keep us from learning what we were and finding our way back to it. There is a way, but it is barred by taboo."

  "Which taboo?" she demanded.

  "The unborn," Mihai said, and she understood at once, as he knew she would. It was so simple. Her hunger was so great it took no urging from him at all. Together they descended to the girl's chamber and went in to her. The boy had been taken away months


  ago and she was alone. She saw the excitement in their faces, and terror bloomed in hers. She clasped her hands over her belly and ducked her head, trying to hide her eyes from them, to close herself up tight like a flower bud.

  But there was nothing she could do. The Queen tilted back her head by force and Mihai's heart ached to see the girl's terror.

  "You'll understand everything," he assured the Queen, and then, suddenly, it was done. Her perfect body stood vacant. Mihai waited for an agonized moment to see if she had done as he instructed. He watched the girl. Her eyelids fluttered and she looked up at him, bewildered. She had felt the Queen pass into her but instead of possessing her entirely, the cold had seemed to pour right through her. Before she could wonder where it had gone, Mihai whispered her to sleep, catching her body and cradling her for a moment in his arms, his hand splayed tenderly over her belly, before laying her down on her bed of furs.

  He did not want her to suspect what she carried within her.

  He took the Queen's body down to her Tabernacle of Spies, kissed her on the brow, his lips lingering against her icy flesh, and he left her there. He locked her in and tucked the key into his pocket. He broke the manacle that chained Zaranya to him and set the lizard free, almost sad to part company with it, and then he returned to the girl. It was still night when he took her away through the glimmering window to London and closed the air behind them, sealing Tajbel from their sight. The wolves still howled at the brilliant moon and the owls and ravens and hawks still spun in the sky, and their sounds choked off when the window closed.

  When the dawn came in Tajbel, those Druj would go in search of the Queen to receive her whisper and be restored to their human


  cithrim, but they wouldn't find her. In the tabernacle her body was vacant, no animus for them to scent or trace. They would remain as beasts, their sharp teeth and beaks unable to speak the magic that was locked within them. Nor could they ever prostrate themselves before other tribes to beg their whispers; rivalries ran too deep. Their brother and sister Druj would be all too happy to see the Tajbel tribe powerless and without the protection of their Queen.

  In London, Mihai felt no remorse. Better they be animals in the skins of animals, he thought, than in the guise of humans. He watched from the corner as Yazad comforted the pregnant girl with his soothing voice, saw how she cowered like a hunted creature, spooked by the firelight, overawed by everything. He remembered the twist of her hair on the chain of the Queen's amulet, and remembered the boy's hair, how he had been hunted down and captured because of it, and he felt nothing at all for the Druj in Tajbel.

  He took one long look at the izha's full, ripe belly and imagined what silent weaving was at work within her, what fibers of soul and animus were even now growing together like roots interlocking in soil. He left through the window, leaving the girl in Yazad's care.

  He had only to wait.

  Those fourteen years were the longest of his very long life.


  SIXTEEN Ashes and Dust

  Once, many centuries ago," Mihai said in a low, strained voice, holding Esme to his chest as she writhed and screamed, "a sect of worshippers went in secret to the dakhma outside their city. It was not a place for the living. It was the high, lonely tower of silence where the dead were left so their putrefaction would corrupt neither sacred earth nor holy fire. It was a place of vultures and mysteries.

  "The moon shone down on the raw bones of the dead and the worshippers decided they would never die. They were not simply worshippers, these black-haired men and women. They were sorcerers, theosophists, and scholars. Among them was a woman with a mind as sharp as a blade of obsidian, brilliant as the moon. Mysteries unfurled themselves for her like flowers and revealed to her their quiet centers. Secrets gathered for her out of the stars and she drew them down from the sky and shaped them into a new faith, gifting herself and her followers with power, and with immortality.

  "But the old god would not have it. He snatched out their souls and laid them flat on a rock and he made them choose between what he had given them and what they had taken for themselves. The woman made the choice.


  "She chose immortality and the others followed her. And so the god scorched their s
ouls to ash and scattered them in the wind. He dubbed them Druj. Demons. He breathed a mist into their memories and he plucked their children from their arms to grow old and die as humans, and he flung the Druj to the mountains where they could begin their immortality in landscapes of desolation that reflected the emptiness within them. He told them they would be purged by fire at the end of time, when the whole world would be transfigured by light. If they could gather their scattered souls by then, he said, they would be transfigured too. If not, they would plunge forever into the abyss. And until they found their souls, fire, he said, which was sacred to him, would be anathema to them. Even ash would burn them.

  "He told them all of this, but the mists ran rampant in their minds and they forgot everything, remembering only their fear of the holy fire and ash, but not the reason for it.

  "They forgot their humanity and they forgot the children who had been wrested from their arms. They forgot the drifting ash of their souls that was as dust upon the skin of the world.

  "The centuries passed. They lived and lived. They grew weary of immortality but remembered nothing else. And then one day, something happened that led one among them to discover all that had been forgotten."

  It had taken Mihai thirteen cycles of hathra, thirteen souls interknit with his animus, for the ashes of his soul to gather again inside of him, bringing his memories with them, piece by piece. His human hosts were more than family to him. They were a new tribe spread through the world, in London and Astrakhan and Jaffna and New York and elsewhere. And as was he, they were a new creation.


  They would live for centuries and die as humans, souls intact, and so would Esme.

  As Mihai watched, her eyes began to change again. The pale blue turned cloudy and then darkened. She gave a convulsive shudder and a wrenching scream that wore on and on until her throat was raw, and then she lay still, her eyes open and glazed -- and brown. Mihai stroked her cheek and whispered into her ear. Not magic whispers, not Druj words, but only an English lullaby.

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