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Lips touch three times, p.9
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       Lips Touch: Three Times, p.9

           Laini Taylor
 
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  ruthless men and joyless, grasping women, slave traffickers and opium dealers, sepoy traitors and brutal tribesmen, corrupt nawabs and great white hunters, and every other species of villain that made its way onto Pranjivan's list.

  The wicked in this part of the world endured rueful decades of early death, and the Fire burned hot and bright and remade them all, and they were all in their turn born back into the world as carp and macaques and salamanders and mosquitoes with no recollection of their human lives or the Fire that followed, but only faint memories of music, like wisps of a dream, from their last glimmering moments in Hell.

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  [ILLUSTRATION: A bird flying out of his cage.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: a woman holding a baby.]

  HATCHLING

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  [ILLUSTRATION: A woman standing on a rock.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: A woman in the bird cage.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: A tree trunk.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: A woman and a girl.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: A woman and goats.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: Woman drawing on anther

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  [ILLUSTRATION: A woman with drawings on her.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: The woman with drawings on her and other woman.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: Men and Woman.]

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  HATCHLING

  Six days before Esme's fourteenth birthday, her left eye turned from brown to blue. It happened in the night. She went to sleep with brown eyes, and when she woke at dawn to the howling of wolves, her left eye was blue. She had just slipped out of bed when she noticed it. She was headed to the window to look for the wolves -- wolves in London, of all impossible things! But she didn't make it to the window. Her eye flashed at her in the mirror, pale as the wink of a ghost, and she forgot all about the wolves and just stared at herself.

  It was no trick of the light. Her eye was an eerie white-blue, the color of ancient ice in a place that never thaws, and as startling as it was, there was something profoundly familiar about it too. Esme's blood quickened as a shock of memories pulsed through her: a world of snow and spires; a milky mirror framed in jewels; the touch of warm lips on hers.

  Esme swayed on her feet. These weren't her memories. This wasn't her eye. She clamped a hand over it and ran to wake her mother.

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  One Blue Eye

  Esme climbed up onto her mother's high bed and perched beside her on her knees. Mab's hair was woven into a single long braid and coiled around her neck like a pet serpent, and she was asleep, her white eyelids fluttering in some deep dream. Esme reached for her shoulder but hesitated. She hated to wake her mother if she wasn't having one of her nightmares -- Mab was plagued by nightmares and found little enough rest in sleep. So many nights, so many mornings, she woke screaming and Esme soothed her as if she were the mother and Mab the child.

  Indeed, now that Esme was nearly grown, it was hard to tell them apart at a glance. They were so alike, and Mab was so young. They were both small and beautiful with long, long hair as red as persimmons. They laughed alike and moved alike, and they thought the same thoughts as completely as if a butterfly traveled back and forth between their minds, bearing ideas on its legs like pollen. But they didn't share nightmares. Esme didn't know what her mother dreamed about. Mab would never tell, just as she would never talk about her life before Esme was born.

  She said only that she was an orphan. Esme didn't even know what language her mother had spoken before, just that she had learned English when Esme was a baby. Mab's accent was like spice,

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  and out at the shops and the theaters, whenever she had to speak to men, they seemed to Esme to want to taste the words right off her mother's lips. The way they looked at her! But the way Mab looked back could freeze the saliva in their mouths. There was no room in her life for men, or for anyone but Esme. It was just the two of them. It always had been.

  Softly Esme touched her mother's shoulder and whispered, "Mama ..."

  Mab woke with a gasp and came upright, wild-eyed, in an instant.

  "It's just me," said Esme gently.

  "Esme," said Mab, collapsing back into her pillows. "I ... I was dreaming."

  "I know, Mama."

  "Is it late? Have I slept late?"

  "No, it's only dawn."

  "Oh. What is it, darling?" Mab murmured. "Is something the matter?"

  In a small voice, Esme said, "It's my eye, Mama. Something's the matter with my eye."

  Mab drew herself up on one elbow and turned Esme toward the window to see her better. She was smiling sleepily and her fingers were gentle on Esme's cheek, but when the dull light glittered over the blue of her daughter's eye, she recoiled in horror and let out a strangled cry. "Ayaozhdya!" The word flew from her lips and her lovely face twisted into a snarl.

  Esme reeled back, shocked. She tumbled off the high bed and plunged down to the floor, landing hard on her elbow. Mab leapt down beside her and Esme felt the sting of her mother's braid

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  as it snapped at her cheek like a whip. "Mama!" she cried, flinching away.

  Her mother caught her by the shoulders, her nails cutting into Esme's skin like talons. White-faced and ferocious, she stared into Esme's blue eye and hissed in a jagged language that seemed made for cursing. "Druj dregvantem! Tbaeshavant en uthem nil" She spat the words out like poison and Esme could only wilt in her grasp, stunned to see her mother so transformed.

  "What's wrong?" she gasped.

  "Druj ayaozhdya! ''Mab cried. Esme tried to turn her head aside but her mother grabbed her chin and held her fast. Her face was so close to Esme's face. Her own brown eyes appeared entirely black from her enlarged pupils as she stared into Esme's blue eye and, with a guttural sob, broke into English. "Beast bastards! Get out of her!"

  Esme began to sob too. She pleaded, "Mama! Wake up, please!" thinking her mother must still be mired in her nightmares. "It's me!" She said it again and again. "It's me. It's me!"

  Mab blinked. She stared at Esme. She was still wild-eyed but the savagery slowly left her face and her fingers loosened on Esme's shoulder and chin. Her chest heaving, she whispered thickly, "Esme? Is it really only you? Are you certain?"

  Esme nodded, sobbing raggedly, and for a few moments they stared at each other like strangers. Then Mab wrapped her arms around her daughter and held her close, rocking her and whispering, "I'm so sorry, my darling. I'm so sorry I frightened you," and they both wept until their breathing calmed.

  "What is it, Mama?" Esme whispered. "What did I do?"

  "You didn't do anything, darling. It wasn't you I was talking to."

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  "Then ... who? Esme sat back and looked at her mother.

  Seeing the blue eye again, Mab shuddered and whispered, "Avo afritim. Bless and protect us." Her face and lips were white and bloodless as paper as she told Esme, "Cover your eye, darling. They might be ... using it."

  Esme put her hand up over her eye and said, "Using it?"

  "Has someone spoken to you, Esme? Has someone stared into your eyes and made you stare back?"

  "What?" asked Esme. She was rarely out of her mother's company to meet strangers. "No."

  "Have you seen any one-eyed birds?"

  "One-eyed birds?" Esme repeated. With a sick feeling she remembered a trip to the seaside when she was a little girl, how her mother had kicked and shrieked at a one-eyed seagull like a madwoman and chased it away, then clutched Esme tight like a doll all the way back to London on the train.

  "One-eyed anything. Crows, pigeons, cats," Mab persisted.

  Esme shook her head again.

  "Has anything happened, anything strange?"

 
"Strange?" Esme asked, an unaccustomed edge of bitterness to her voice. "Our whole life is strange!"

  She hadn't even realized it for so long, how small and unreal their life was, just the two of them in a world of their own creation. All around them roared a great city, a tumult of engines and voices, yet they knew no one. They had no friends and no family and never even answered the door when neighbors knocked.

  But if they knew no one, somewhere out there in that seething world of folk, someone knew them, because someone sent them diamonds. They arrived by post, loose in plain airmail envelopes with

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  no return address. Mab kept them in a saltshaker and every few weeks they took the Tube to Hatton Garden, knocked on the back door of a jeweler's shop, and sold one or two to a fat woman with a mouth like a prune. They called these trips their "diamond days," and went afterward to small, neat shops to buy artichokes and cherries and pink boxes of baklava, books and sheet music, pearl buttons and embroidery thread and lengths of antique lace.

  Everything was strange and nothing was! Was it strange that Esme had never been to school, or to a hairdresser, or even to a doctor? It was Mab who had taught her to read and count and play the violin, and Mab who trimmed her hair, and as for the doctor, neither of them had ever fallen ill. They drank a daily dose of tea that Mab mixed from herbs, and that was the extent of their medicine. A few months ago when Esme's bleeding had first come, her mother had turned pale and wept, so Esme thought for a panicked moment that she must be dying, but Mab had explained in a rush that it meant she wasn't a child anymore. That she could breed. She'd made it sound like something animals did -- breed-- and she'd had such terrible nightmares that night she'd awakened the whole building with her screams.

  It was also on that night, when her mother's screams woke her, that Esme thought she glimpsed a man standing on the church steeple across the street, staring in her window. But when she looked again, her heart giving a great lurch, there hadn't been anyone there.

  That day and night, the bleeding and the screaming, had knocked something askew for Esme, like a picture swinging crooked on a wall. She loved the life she lived with her mother. It was beautiful. It was, she sometimes thought, a sweet emulation of the fairy

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  tales they cherished in their lovely, gold-edged books. They sewed their own clothes from bolts of velvet and silk, ate all their meals as picnics, indoors or out, and danced on the rooftop, cutting passageways through the fog with their bodies. They embroidered tapestries of their own design, wove endless melodies on their violins, charted the course of the moon each month, and went to the theater and the ballet as often as they liked -- every night last week to see Swan Lake again and again. Esme herself could dance like a faerie, climb trees like a squirrel, and sit so still in the park that birds would come to perch on her. Her mother had taught her all that, and for years it had been enough. But she wasn't a little girl anymore, and she had begun to catch hints and glints of another world outside her pretty little life, one filled with spice and poetry and strangers.

  Twice now the boy from the flower shop had smiled at her, his whole face flushing pink as he did, and when he was behind her in line at the bakery last week, he'd held her long braid gently in his hand, thinking she wouldn't feel it, but she had. She hadn't turned around, but she'd blushed and stammered ordering her cakes, and she'd left in a rush, imagining she could feel his touch all the way up her braid and tingling at the nape of her neck. She didn't even know his name. She didn't know anyone's name.

  "What's wrong with us?" she demanded now. "Why are we such freaks? Why don't we have any friends? Why don't we have any family?"

  "I know our life is ... different. I just..." Mab faltered. "Darling, I just didn't know how to do it. I did the best I could!"

  "What do you mean?" Esme cried in frustration, as for the first time her confusion broke out of her and overwhelmed her calm, quiet nature. "You didn't know how to do what? Live?"

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  "No! I didn't! I had to learn it all, Esme, after you were born. How to cross a street and turn on a faucet and light a match? How to tie shoes? Use money?" She took a deep, uneven breath, hesitated, and then said quietly, "And I had to learn how to look at someone without being afraid they would come in through my eyes and wear my skin like a costume while I was shoved into the shadows of my own soul!" Her voice quavered and rose with a hint of hysteria. Esme stared at her, baffled by her words, and she knew that whatever had happened, whatever was happening, the pretty little life she had always known was coming to a close. Something new was beginning.

  "What are you talking about, Mama?" she asked, more gently. She was on her knees, with her hair falling loose around her and radiating out across the floor, as red in the dawn light as a spill of blood. In her white nightgown she looked very young and very fragile, and Mab reached out a shaking hand and clasped her daughter's fingers.

  "Esme, you haven't seen any..." she began uneasily but her voice gave out and she swallowed and started again. "You haven't seen or heard any ... wolves, have you?"

  And Esme remembered in a rush -- the wolfsong, the haunting, lyrical spirals of it in the dawn quiet and the feeling of euphoria that had attended it. Even in recollection the howling uplifted her like the crescendo at the end of a symphony and made her heartbeat quicken. Eyes wide, she nodded. "This morning," she said. "That's what woke me."

  Mab's eyelids fluttered like she might faint. She steadied herself with one hand splayed upon the floor and gasped for breath. "No, oh no," she said very faintly. "They've found us." She rose suddenly,

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  went to the window, and scanned the street below before winching the curtains closed.

  "Who's found us, Mama?" asked Esme.

  Mab turned to her. "I didn't want their ugliness in your mind, my darling. That's why I never told you about them, about my life before --"

  "You mean the people who raised you?"

  "They aren't peopled Mab snapped. "They can hear the blood moving in your veins a mile away. They can smell the color of your hair in the dark. They're hunters, Esme, and they never grow old, they never die, and they can't love. They're empty, and they're vicious, and I ... I stole you from them!" Her hands went to her slim stomach, cupping it as if her arms were remembering a time when it had been round and full. Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Fourteen years ago I escaped from them with you like a treasure inside of me. I used to be so afraid they'd find us, but I ... I'd started to believe we were safe."

  "You ... you think they've found us now?"

  "The Druj take many shapes, but the hunters are always wolves. And their eyes ... their eyes are always blue. Pale, pale blue. Like yours."

  Stunned by all she was hearing, Esme let her hand drop from her eye. Mab cringed at the sight of it. "Druj daevas!" she hissed. "Cover that up, Esme! I can't stand the sight of it! It's just like hers."

  "Whose?"

  "Never mind. We have to leave. But first, bring me some scissors."

  "Why?" Esme asked with a quaver in her voice, her hand pressing protectively against her eye.

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  "Just bring them, darling." Trembling, Esme did as she was told.

  Ten minutes later they went down the fire escape and left their small, sweet world behind. Esme wore an eye patch hastily cut from the velvet bedspread, and they both carried violin cases filled with such essentials as nightgowns and passports and their saltshaker full of diamonds. Everything else they left behind, their fairy tale books and their dresses and violins, and, dangling from the chandelier, they left two long, long, red, red braids. Crossing the street, they looked like musicians hurrying to rehearsal, swinging their violin cases.

  Esme kept reaching up to touch her head. She felt so light without her hair, like she might float up into the sky, but Mab grabbed her hand and held it tight, and Esme knew she'd never let her drift away.

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  Two Fangs and Love

  The howls of the hunt
had died away with the dawn, so I Mihai relaxed his surveillance of Esme's window. He was stiff from crouching atop the church steeple all night; such a job as this was better performed as a crow, but he didn't shift shape anymore -- not even to wolf shape, however much his body craved the change. He lived each moment in human cithra, comfortable or not. It was who he was now. It had its limitations, but it had its benefits too. He was certain the Tajbel wolves, snuffling now into whatever dark place they had found to pass the daylight hours, would agree.

  He smiled grimly. They'd caught his scent last night and circled the church baying, but they couldn't scale the walls and get him, not as they were, and anyway, it wasn't him they'd come for, but Esme. Even so, he thought, they'd be happy to tear off his head for what he'd done to them fourteen years ago. The Druj taboo against killing their own did not apply to exiles, and it certainly didn't apply to traitors.

  He saw Esme's small shape hurry past her window and he thought of gliding right across the street to her fire escape, but he hesitated. All these years, and the time had finally come. There were actually butterflies in his stomach! He could have laughed at himself -- a Druj

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  hunter, nervous, and not because the wolves had finally found him, but because of this one small girl!

  He would have to get her away before nightfall, before the wolves came out again. It was just past dawn now. He had time. He decided to go for a cup of tea first and settle his nerves.

  Thinking the church courtyard below was deserted, he climbed down the tower headfirst like a lizard, but some nuns were coming out through an archway and gasped at the sight of him. They crossed themselves and stumbled back in panic -- all but one of them. One steely-eyed crone marched right up to him as he leapt to the ground. "Druj devil!" she spat. "Leave this holy place!" And she took a pinch of ash from a pouch and flung it in his face.

  Mihai coughed, surprised to find a city nun armed against the Druj. City humans almost never recognized his kind or knew how to protect against them. She must be from the mountains, he thought, from far away to the south and east where a human's life could depend upon a firebrand and a pouch of ash. He brushed the grit from his eyelashes, gave her a polite bow, and went on his way. She stood rooted in place and watched him go. She was flummoxed, and he knew why. The ashes had stung, but they should have burned him, sure as acid. Once, they would have, just as they would any Druj. Once, Mihai had been like the others, but not anymore.

 
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