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Lips touch three times, p.18
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       Lips Touch: Three Times, p.18

           Laini Taylor
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  And behind him, the Queen of the Druj slowly turned her head.

  Mihai looked up at her. Their eyes met. "Mihai," she whispered.

  "Mahzarin," he said. "My love." His voice trembled.

  A look of confusion swept over her face. Her gaze dropped to Esme, still cradled in Mihai's arms. When she looked back up at Mihai, there was only bewilderment in her eyes.

  Mihai rose to his knees and laid Esme carefully on the floor. "My Queen, I have much to tell you," he said. He could hear the fear in his own voice.

  She had always been a wild font of power, even back when she had been his wife and had borne Arzu and Lilya. There had never been a more powerful sorceress; without her, indeed, their immortality would never have been possible. There would never have been Druj. Mahzarin was the heresiarch who had unraveled the mysteries. She had created the new magic that had angered the old god. And, Mihai thought, she would eventually remember it. He feared she would have just enough humanity now to grieve for what she'd done -- but not enough to love him.


  The beasts had been silenced by Esme's last terrible scream. Now, as Mahzarin stared at Mihai in confusion, one let out a long moan outside the door. Mahzarin rose to her feet in a fluid motion, as if she had not sat still for fourteen years. A great cloud of dust fanned from her silken robes and her black hair.

  On the floor, Esme tried to sit up.

  Mihai looked from girl to woman. Two lovely, frightened faces, as different as night and day, gold and ivory, joined forever now, even if they didn't realize it yet. Esme made a small sound like a kitten might make. Mihai was between them. His soul strained toward Mahzarin. He wanted only to drink in the sight of her, but he knelt and grasped Esme in his arms and helped her to sit up.

  Mahzarin saw the silver eyelids on the wall and she took in the rot. Beasts bellowed at the door and she swung toward it. Mihai saw that fury was building in her as her memories sifted themselves into a kind of order. Her lips went white. She swept past Mihai to the door. He held the key in his pocket but she didn't need it. With one whispered word she blew it off its hinges and it clattered down over the end of the broken bridge and into the chasm, taking beasts down with it. Their long, falling cries grew distant. Others still clung to the spire. Their arms flailed into the open doorway.

  Mihai watched, awed. Esme clenched her eyes shut and cowered against him. Mahzarin stood like a wrathful goddess and whispered another word, snarled it, and the beasts seemed to be torn off the spire by some huge invisible hand, plucked like spiders and dropped. They fell away into the blackness, wailing. Mahzarin went out onto the step and saw her devastated citadel spread before her. Beasts clung everywhere, starved and moaning, stone crumbling


  beneath their long white arms. Mahzarin's breath came fast. Her eyes took on the glassy sheen of fever. "Mihai," she growled, baring her fangs, and swung around to face him.

  But he was gone and so was Esme. In the shafts of light the dust of fourteen years was spinning from their departure. The tabernacle was empty.

  The Queen of the Druj let out a terrible howl that echoed through Tajbel. Far off in the forest, some of her scattered animal subjects heard and rejoiced. On the cliff walls and the stone stalks of the spires, the beasts cowered. They remembered her, but dimly. Their hunger was stronger than their fear. They kept on coming. In a rage she faced them, and in her pain and confusion her power burst forth like a hurricane, sweeping away everything in its path.



  A few weeks later, Mihai and Mab crossed paths in Yazad's L library. She was coming out, he was going in, and he drew aside to let her pass, noticing with an ache of remorse how she didn't even seem to see him. She was like a sleepwalker these days, and the haunted look in her eyes reminded him of the child she had been in Tajbel when she was a pet without a name. "I'm sorry," he whispered to her back, but she didn't seem to hear.

  He continued into the library, pulling Esme's severed red braid out of his pocket. The girl was sitting in a deep chair by a window, staring out. Mihai uncoiled the braid and dangled it in her line of sight until she came back from whatever daydream or memory she had been wandering in and blinked. "My hair," she said sadly.

  "It took you fourteen years to grow this," he said. "And you just left it hanging from a chandelier? Careless."

  "I'm not," she protested. "My mother --"

  "I know. And if you turn around, I'll put it back."

  "Really?" she asked, looking up at him.

  Mihai smiled and nodded. Esme sat forward and turned her back to him. She heard him whisper, felt the gentlest stirring at the nape of her neck, and then, all at once, the weight of her hair was restored so her head tilted back with the suddenness of it, like a scale


  at the market when apples are dropped in. She reached back and there was her braid as if it had never been cut. "I already forgot how heavy it is," she said, unamazed by this small gift of magic.

  She had recently been told she would live for hundreds of years. She would be difficult to amaze from now on.

  She asked, "Are you going to put my mother's back too?"

  Mihai shook his head, letting his gaze drift out the window. "She doesn't want me to touch her," he said.

  Esme was quiet, watching him. She realized she still saw him through the Druj Queen's memories. She remembered the wintery kiss as if her own lips had touched his, and she remembered other things too, much less pleasant things, like the feeling of trespassing in her mother's soul. Yazad was going to help her misplace those memories. Hypnotism, he had said, holding up a crystal on a silver chain and smiling in the twinkling way he had that made everything seem like a grand adventure.

  "Well, thanks," she said, running her fingers down the braid that was now draped over her shoulder.

  "You're welcome," Mihai replied. He turned to go.

  "Mihai?" Esme asked.


  "All the other Druj with their souls scattered," she said slowly. "Will you ... help them ... too?"

  "Help them? I don't know," he said. The thought overwhelmed him. Among all the citadels there were hundreds of Druj. As for "helping them," he didn't see how he could. Mahzarin could, certainly, if she ever came to him and learned the ways of hathra. He couldn't think beyond that hope. Weeks had passed and now the


  fear of what she might do to him had subsided entirely and been replaced by the fear that she would do nothing, that she would rebuild Tajbel and remain there, ignoring the humanity that he had given her. That Esme had given her. Esme was waiting for her too. Hathra was a strange thing; she might hate the Druj Queen who had done such terrible things to her mother, but she still felt her absence like a rift in her soul.

  Mihai touched Esme lightly on the top of her head and walked out. He left Yazad's and wandered through the city, smelling the density of humans all around him, feeling their jostling shoulders in the crowds. When he felt saturated with humanity, he scaled lizardlike the side of a church and perched on the spire so the sky lay open all around him.

  And he went on with his waiting.

  Mab and Esme returned to their flat and to their pretty little lives, though of course, things would never be the same for them. Mab watched her beloved daughter warily now, as if she didn't really know her. The thought that all along, while she had believed them safe, Esme had carried Mab's tormentor within herself... it was a shock that would not easily fade. It was all the horrors of her youth unveiled anew, compounded by betrayal. That betrayal and shock became the backdrop and stage dressing of her mind; any other thought she might have was as a transient actor treading past. Always, the betrayal was there behind it. Always, after any other thought, her mind reverted to it, and it had the power to leave her breathless and gasping in an instant, like a punch to the gut.

  Yazad had explained that Esme and the Druj Queen were connected now by a bond Mab would never understand, a bond that<
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  would live on long after she herself was dead. Her daughter and her enemy shared a soul, and some day, Yazad warned her, Mahzarin would come. Mab leapt at every sound, scarcely slept for the crowd of nightmares, and watched the street through a slit in the curtains, dreading that day, but it didn't come, and gradually they returned to some semblance of a normal life -- more normal, indeed, than their life had been before.

  Their saltshaker of diamonds had been lost on the ship in Marseilles, but Yazad gave them more. It had always been he who sent them. He also persuaded Esme to enroll in a small private school not far from her neighborhood, and she began spending her days with other girls. She was shy among them at first, but they were mostly shy and bookish girls themselves, and for the first time in her life, she made friends. She was discovered to be a gifted violinist, surpassing the music teacher's skill, and so a private instructor was engaged for her. She went to tea with the other girls, and to a birthday party. She brought a wrapped gift, ate a slice of cake, and even danced with a boy -- but only once. She didn't enjoy the feeling of his hands heavy at her waist. She thought of another touch, a light, furtive one: the way the flower shop boy had held her braid in his hand when he stood behind her in line at the bakery. It seemed like such a long time ago. The memory of it curved Esme's lips into a secret smile as she stepped abruptly away from her dance partner and retreated.

  A few days later she stopped to buy her mother some flowers on the way home from school. The boy was behind the counter and when he saw her come in, he blushed. He was blond and his eyes were blue, but dark like the deep sea, not icy like Druj blue, and he


  was fair, with long pale lashes and rosy color in his cheeks as if they'd been pinched pink by aunts and grannies until they stayed that way. He stammered when he helped Esme gather together a bouquet from the buckets of flowers around the shop. "Cosmos?" he asked her.

  She nodded, adding softly, "And maybe some lilies."

  "A bit of lupine?" he said, holding up a blue spike of blossoms.

  They could think of nothing to say but the names of flowers, and it seemed a sort of language of its own. Mums, zinnias, delphinium, a lacy frond of baby's breath.

  As she handed him her money, Esme blurted her name and then bit her lip.

  "Em Tom," said the boy, blushing anew.

  And that was all. Esme left with her flowers clutched to her chest and her braid swinging in her haste, but by the time she got to the corner, she was smiling. Perhaps, she thought, she would buy her mother flowers again next week.

  And she did.

  Time passed. Esme thought often of the ash of ancient souls blowing ever around the world, sifting and mixing with the ash of forest fires and wars and the dust of deserts and pollen and bones. The ache of absence within her eased some with time; she filled it with music and schoolwork and friends, trips to the ballet with her mother, and walks in St. James's Park with Tom.

  The first time, he stammered an invitation over a bouquet of orange roses and Esme's voice was almost a whisper when she said, "All right," her eyes fixed on the flower petals. She met him the next morning with her coat buttoned to her chin and they made their


  way up Birdcage Walk with their hands shoved deep in their pockets, noses red from the cold. They paused a moment to watch the red-coated soldiers strut at Horse Guards Parade.

  "I used to want to be one," admitted Tom. "I even practiced marching like them. I didn't know they were real soldiers who go to war. I just liked the caps."

  "They kill bears to make those," said Esme.

  "I know," he replied, adding quickly, "I don't want to be one anymore."

  Turning from the soldiers, they made their way into the park. Tom produced some bread from his pocket and they fed the ducks and watched the famous pelicans cruise through the green waters of the lake like a fleet of small ships. They walked side by side and faced ahead, from time to time daring to dart quick glances at each other. Esme noticed the good line of Tom's jaw, and Tom marveled at the sweet small perfection of Esme's face, and their furtive glances kept meeting in the middle. They blushed over and over and shoved their fists deeper into their pockets.

  "Thank you for coming," said Tom when they arrived back at Esme's door, and Esme tilted her head back to look up at him -- she was only as tall as his shoulder -- and she gave him a smile, a tiny flash of joy, that promised more such walks were to come.

  The ducks at St. James's Park were no starvelings to start, but over the next weeks and months they grew a little fatter and learned to recognize the red-haired girl and the fair-haired boy who came walking shoulder to shoulder on Sundays with their pockets full of bread. The ducks probably didn't notice, but after a few weeks Esme and Tom were able to meet glances without looking away (though they did not cease to blush), and gradually, to sit facing each other


  on a favorite bench and talk, even when a pelican named Vaclav decided to nestle between them and sleep.

  Tom always brought Esme a flower. They were hothouse roses at first, and when spring came around, daffodils, and in summer, dahlia blossoms so big she had to hold them with both hands. She was gazing down at one such on a Sunday in July, sitting on their usual bench. The blossom was white with a delicate blush of pink in its center, and she asked, "What's it called?"

  Tom's cheeks went red. The dahlia's name was "Crazy Love," and when he'd picked it out that morning in the shop, he'd known Esme would ask its name -- she loved flower names -- and he'd imagined himself telling it to her. It would be, he had thought, a way to say the word "love" to her. But now that the moment had come, his mouth went dry. He mumbled something.

  Not understanding, Esme looked at him and saw his red cheeks, his anxious eyes. "What?" she asked softly.

  He swallowed, and his voice cracked as he repeated, "It's called Crazy Love," but he did manage to meet Esme's eyes for just an instant on the word "love."

  She looked quickly back down at the blossom's blushing center, and she felt as if that small word was opening her like a bud, like the sun had touched her and she was unfurling her petals to better draw its warmth. She smiled, flushed. Tom saw and, seized by a sudden surge of perfect boldness, he leaned in.

  In a dark layer of Esme's memory there was a kiss. Vividly she recalled Mihai in the snow, naked and fanged. That kiss had conjured ancient passions a god had tried to erase, and Esme remembered the pressure of it and even knew the flavor of that black river. But it belonged to someone else. Tom's kiss, by contrast, wasn't passionate.


  Esme didn't even have time to close her eyes and tilt her face up to meet it, and it landed crooked and only half on her lips. It was clumsy and it ended quickly. And it was hers.

  Tom sat back and stared down at his hands, mortified by his own daring.

  Esme's heart thudded a few fast beats and then she reached out tentatively and slipped her fingers into his. They held hands all the way back up Birdcage Walk and without discussing it, they took a circuitous path home so they might keep their fingers entwined as long as possible, and then they lingered at Esme's door, reluctant to let go.

  Over time Tom's kisses learned their way to Esme's lips, but they stayed gentle and he still blushed every time he saw her. Whether he might be the soul mate with whom she would share her centuries remained to be seen. They were only children, as Mab had never been allowed to be, and it was sweet. Esme was happy, but there was always a sense, like a phantom pain, that she had lost some piece of herself. During quiet moments, sometimes, the loss overwhelmed her as surely as a mother's empty, aching arms.

  She turned fifteen, and still Mahzarin did not come.

  Mihai became like a ghost. He sat for hours on rooftops and church spires, traveling through visions of an ancient time. Fog swam round his still shape and sometimes rain sluiced down his hair. Birds ignored him and went about their own rooftop lives, sometimes even perching on him for minutes before
he realized it and shook them off.

  And then came an evening in winter when the sky was starless black and as cold as Druj flesh. He was resting against a stone


  steeple with his chin on his chest when he felt the riffling draft of wings and then a weight settled on his knee. He jerked his leg to dislodge it, but it only hovered and beat its wings and settled on him again. Mihai lifted his head to look. His eyes widened. It was no pigeon or crow perched on him. It was an eagle, its vast wings half spread, its talons thick as fingers, and its eyes blue and pale as ice. Around its feathered neck hung a moonstone amulet and, tied to that, the last remnant of the persimmon-red braid the Druj Queen had cut from Mab years ago.

  Everything in Mihai tensed and clenched and froze, his heartbeat, his breath, his sore and dwindling hope. He just stared at the eagle, and it stared back. A moment passed like that before Mihai's mind unfroze and began to spin. The eagle fanned its wings once more and then folded them.

  It was waiting.

  It had been more than five hundred years since Mihai had whispered another Druj back to human cithra, but he remembered the words. They caught in his throat as the enormity of the moment choked him. The Queen of the Druj did not shift cithra. Ever. She did not leave her fate and flesh to the whims and whispers of others. This cithra was an offering.

  Mihai took a ragged breath and readied himself to voice the ancient words. He lifted his arms. They trembled. Even after all these centuries, his arms remembered the curve of Mahzarin's body, the weight and the warmth of her, and when she shimmered forth from the feathers of her eagle cithra, he would be there to catch her.






  My long fascination with the remarkable poem by Christina Rossetti, "Goblin Market," has previously resulted in paintings, goblin masks, and -- in a roundabout way --a stage adaptation at Stanford University! Now it has flowered into a story that gave me great joy to write. Likewise, my fascination with the British Raj, other cultures' concepts of Hell, and the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism were seeds of inspiration, but only seeds --- I am no scholar, and have plundered tidbits of history and lore to build something new, using only the parts that light my mind on fire.

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