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Lips touch three times, p.4
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       Lips Touch: Three Times, p.4

           Laini Taylor
 
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  And she wanted more.

  "They have teeth," whispered a ghost. Kizzy ignored it.

  "They have nectar," said another, very faint and filled with longing. Kizzy felt a small chill, but ignored that too.

  "Hungry?" Jack Husk asked, as they pivoted to walk another cemetery row.

  Kizzy shrugged. She had little interest in eating just now. But spreading out the checked blanket someplace quiet and sitting down, leaning back on her elbows beside Jack Husk, that did interest her. She couldn't stop glancing at his lips, and she kept pressing her own

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  together, hyperaware of them. She remembered babysitting an infant cousin on the day he'd discovered his tongue; he'd kept wagging it and touching it, making a whole repertoire of new sounds and trying to stick it out far enough to see it, obsessed by the discovery of this new appendage. Kizzy felt like that about her lips today, like she was just now finding out what they were for, but she hoped she was more discreet than her baby cousin had been.

  "Let's go over there," Jack Husk said, nodding his head toward a distant corner of the cemetery where there looked to be a sort of overgrown garden. They made their way slowly, Kizzy scarcely noticing the graves they passed, so wrapped up was she in this newness of strolling like lovers, slow and fused. But at the end of the row of graves, she did notice something.

  She walked on past it; it took a moment to register, but a few steps later her head swung around and she looked again, recognition tingling in her.

  The frowsy green of the unkempt cemetery lawn was disturbed by a patch of brown, stark as a wound. It seemed to describe a radius around one particular grave, and Kizzy squinted to see what the tombstone said. She couldn't read it, and Jack Husk was tugging her gently in the other direction. She surprised herself by reaching for his velvet lapel and tugging him back. "Over here," she said. "I want to see something."

  "What?" he asked, coming easily along with her.

  "This." She stopped before it. A grave where nothing grew, not even grass. She read the name on the headstone. Amy Ingersoll. "I knew her," Kizzy said, surprised.

  "You did?" asked Jack Husk.

  Kizzy nodded. "I was a freshman. I think she was a junior, but

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  I barely saw her because she got taken out of school. She was sick. She ..." Kizzy's voice trailed off. She had almost said, She starved herself to death. But seeing this dead brown grave, other words came to her mind. She wasted away.

  "Sad," said Jack Husk. "She was your age when she died."

  "Yeah," said Kizzy, thinking of the picture of gaunt Amy Ingersoll she'd seen in the paper, her eyes seeming huge and haunted in her pinched face. There had been a special assembly in school about eating disorders. A doctor had talked about anorexia and bulimia. After, Kizzy and Evie had pinched the generous skin of their hips and joked crassly that they could use a little anorexia themselves, and Cactus had said they could start by switching to Diet Coke.

  "I wonder why the grass is all dead here," Kizzy said, wanting there to be some other explanation than the one buzzing in her thoughts. Surely in this dull town the wild things her family believed in were just stories. Such things happened far from here, on cobblestones, and in the haunted dooryards of ancient churches.

  "Damned" said a ghost right in Kizzy's ear. She shivered.

  Jack Husk felt it and let go of her shoulder to shrug off his velvet jacket. "You're cold," he said. "Here." He draped it over her shoulders and drew her back against him. Her brow rested against his jaw briefly, skin against skin. "Come on," he urged.

  She went with him to the little garden in the corner, and Jack Husk laid out his checked blanket behind some stone urns overflowing with ivy and scant alyssum blossoms left over from summer. They settled down and he opened his picnic basket and produced from it a loaf of golden bread and a round cheese with an artisan's stamp in its thick rind. Things like that, cheeses signed like

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  artworks, were unknown in Kizzy's house, where they had either salty lumpish cheese her mother made or an army-feeding slab of impossibly orange stuff from the superstore.

  Tucking her dress around her knees, Kizzy watched Jack Husk lay out purple linen napkins and a real silver knife with just a hint of tarnish on it, and then a footed silver bowl of chocolates wrapped in foil, and she was wide-eyed with the elegance of it. If she had ever thought to dream up a cemetery picnic, the cemetery would have been a different, better one -- in Paris or New Orleans, somewhere " with moss and broken statues -- but the picnic would have been just like this.

  "Nice," she murmured inadequately. Jack Husk smiled at her, and he was so beautiful it almost hurt. A wave of skepticism swept over her, not for the first time. Why, she wondered. Why me?

  "Silly girl --" she heard or imagined her grandmother hissing in her ear.

  "Chocolate first," said Jack Husk, the raspy edge of his voice erasing the faint, ghostly one. "That's my only picnic rule."

  "Well, okay," Kizzy said, feigning reluctance and unwrapping one of the chocolates. It was so dark it was almost black and it melted on her tongue into an ancient flavor of seed pod, earth, shade, and sunlight, its bitterness casting just a shadow of sweet. It tasted ... fine, so subtle and strange it made her feel like a novitiate into some arcanum of spice.

  The cheese was the same, so different from anything she'd tasted she could scarcely tell if it was wonderful or terrible. They nibbled it with the bread, and Jack Husk asked Kizzy if she thought it was too early in the day for wine, which he produced from his basket and poured into dainty etched glasses no bigger than Dixie cups.

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  It was as earthy and dark as the chocolate and Kizzy sipped it slowly, softening and softening, stretched out on one elbow, her hip full as an odalisque's hip, a lush hummock of apple green for Jack Husk to lay his head on, and he did, and closed his eyes while Kizzy lightly teased the ends of his unruly hair.

  After a little while he sat up and reached one more time into his basket. He took out an apricot, which he cupped in his hand, and a peach, which he handed to Kizzy. She took it and held it. Its skin was as soft as the velvet of Jack Husk's jacket and the scent... she could smell the honey sweetness of it even through the skin, and she lifted it and took a deeper breath. Nectar, she thought dreamily. But she didn't take a bite. She didn't want the juices dribbling down her chin. She just smelled it again and watched Jack Husk eat his apricot and toss the pit. Then he leaned back against one of the stone urns, arranging the billow of ivy and blossoms around his head to look like a wig.

  Kizzy laughed. "It's a good look for you," she said.

  "Like it? Here." He lifted a heavy cluster of ivy beside his head to make a wig for her too, and he motioned her to sit close. She scooted into the space at his side and held still as he arranged the flowers over her forehead, pausing to gently tuck one stray curl of her real hair back under her scarf.

  His face was so near hers. She couldn't keep her eyes from straying to his lips; she could smell the sweetness of apricot on his breath, see a trace of moisture on his red lips. He was looking at her lips too. She was suddenly very nervous. He leaned closer. Kizzy froze, not knowing whether to close her eyes or leave them open. She had a horror of being one of those girls in movies who closes her eyes and puckers up while the boy sits back and smirks.

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  And seconds later she was glad she hadn't closed her eyes, because Jack Husk didn't kiss her. He took the peach from her hand, lifted it to his lips, and took a bite. So close, the perfume it released was like a drug, and Kizzy had a powerful urge to lean in and taste it too, to taste the nectar on his lips. She couldn't take her eyes off his lips. She moved forward ever so slightly. Jack Husk saw, and leaned closer.

  This time it was real; it was really going to happen. Kizzy was going to kiss a beautiful boy. Why then was she thinking about the peach, of how his lips would taste of it?

  Why was she imagining how delicious Jack Husk's kiss would be?


  She stared at him, and at the periphery of her vision something glinted. It was the little silver knife, still impaled in the rind of the cheese. Knife, she thought. Her fingers twitched, wanting to reach for it, as some kind of knowing skimmed the glassy surface of her mind. All the omens of the day, the swirl of swan feathers, the grave of dead grass, her grandmother's blade still rimed with the frost of the underworld, all her memories of warnings, they coalesced into a simple understanding: Deep in her veins ran the admonition never to eat fruit out of season. It was late autumn; all orchards were bare, and no peach trafficked in from a far hemisphere could smell so sweet. Surely only one orchard could have ripened it.

  With that, Kizzy knew. A goblin had her soul on the end of his fishing line, ready to reel it in. She knew. But now, in the fugue of wanting, of almost having, filled with the musk and the spice of that wine and that chocolate, her hip still warm from Jack Husk's head, the knowing was as insubstantial as words written on water. Every trace of it vanished as soon as it was written, leaving only the

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  reflection of Jack Husk's too-perfect beauty. It was an imaginary beauty dreamed up just to please her, and it did. It did. It pleased and drugged her. Her eyelids were heavy but her soul was light as gossamer, a spiders web in a wind, anchored only by a single thread.

  Kizzy knew, but she willfully unknew it, and the plangent voices of the dead were lost to the drum of her hot blood and the tingle of her ready lips. She wanted to taste and be tasted.

  She didn't reach for the knife. Heavily and hypnotically, with her soul flattening itself back like the ears of a hissing cat, Kizzy leaned in and drank of Jack Husk's full, moist mouth, and his red, red lips were hungry against hers, drinking her in return. Their eyes closed. Fingers clutched at collars and hair, at the picnic blanket, at the grass. And as they sank down, pinning their shadows beneath them, the horizon tipped on its side, and slowly, thickly, hour by hour, the day spilled out and ebbed away.

  It was Kizzy's first kiss, and maybe it was her last, and it was delicious.

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  [ILLUSTRATION: The knife in the woman's hands.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: A woman and a man.]

  SPICY LITTLE CURSES SUCH AS THESE

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  [ILLUSTRATION: Three men walking.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: A woman and a man walking.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: Birds flying.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: A woman in a cemetery.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: A tree and a woman going down stairs.

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  [ILLUSTRATION: The woman holding a bottle.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: The woman holding a baby and other kids walking.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: A old woman holding a baby.]

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  [ILLUSTRATION: A teapot and cups.]

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  SPICY LITTLE CURSES SUCH AS THESE

  Kissing can ruin lives. Lips touch, sometimes teeth clash.

  New hunger is born with a throb and caution falls away. A cursed girl with lips still moist from her first kiss might feel suddenly wild, like a little monsoon. She might forget her curse just long enough to get careless and let it come true. She might kill everyone she loves.

  She might, and she might not.

  A particular demon in India rather hoped that she would.

  This is the story of the curse and the kiss, the demon and the girl. It's a love story with dancing and death in it, and singing and souls and shadows reeled out on kite strings. It begins underneath India, on the cusp of the last century when the British were still riding elephants with maharajas and skirmishing on the arid frontiers of the empire.

  The story begins in Hell.

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  ONE The Demon & the Old Bitch

  Down in Hell, the Englishwoman known around Jaipur as "the old bitch" was taking tea with a demon. She was silver-haired, straight-backed, and thin-lipped, with a stare that could shoot laughter from the air like game birds. She was not at all liked by her countrymen, but even they would have been shocked to see her here.

  "Come to the point," she told the demon impatiently.

  If he looked faintly human, it was because once upon a time he had been. He was little and ancient, with a moon-round face as withered as old apple peel, half of it colored red like a wine stain. "Remember, my dear," he replied with a genial smile, "a handful may survive naturally. Earthquakes are full of surprises. Children still alive, like buried treasure? It makes the spirit soar to see them pulled out into the sunlight."

  "Indeed," she said.

  There had been an earthquake in Kashmir. She had sent her shadow out to see it, and it had slipped among the ruins of villages, relaying the devastation back to her through its dulled senses. Shadows have no ears, so she couldn't hear the lamentations of the survivors, which was as she preferred. She said, "You will give me

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  the children, Vasudev. You know there's no arguing with me on this matter."

  "Estella, you wouldn't deprive me of the pleasure of our negotiations, would you? They're what I live for."

  "You haven't been alive for a thousand years. If you were, you might take less pleasure in bartering for children's souls."

  "Do you think so? I scarcely remember what it was like, being alive. I recall certain ... appetites. The sight of a woman's navel could drive me mad. Children, though? I have absolutely no memory of caring anything about them." He poured tea out into chipped cups and added sugar and cream to his own.

  Estella took hers and sipped it black, replying bitterly, "I well believe that." It was Vasudev's particular way with children that accounted for her being here at all, a lone living human descending each day into Hell.

  There was a tonic the demons brewed to keep their ancient flesh whole when they passed through the flames. More than fifty herbs and barks went into it, along with the mixed waters of sacred rivers. Once, many years ago, Vasudev had forgotten to drink his daily dose and he'd been burned passing through the Fire. Half his face had remained this vivid crimson ever since, and when he went up into the living world, children stared at him. And while he had never been overly disposed to spare their souls before, he began to become downright perverse about it, culling the young at every opportunity. Even when some more likely candidate might be lying by -- an ailing grandparent flush with memories of a long life, for example -- he would take the child instead, every time.

  Yama, the Lord of Hell, had seen that some balance was called

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  for, and he had appointed Estella to parley on behalf of the children. For more than forty years now she had served as Ambassador to Hell.

  She calmly sipped her tea and said, "Ten." "Ten?" Vasudev chuckled. "How sentimental of you. What would people say? They'd call it a miracle." "A miracle never hurt anyone."

  He thought it over. "Ten children clambering out of the rubble, white with the dust of their ruined village. Those great dark eyes of theirs ... No. It's too many. It's too rosy. The little beasts will come to expect to survive. I'll give you five. Or, if you're game," he said, his small eyes glinting, "we can spice things up with a little curse."

  "I despise your curses," Estella said with a shudder, then added, after a pause, "Eight."

  "Eight?" Vasudev scoffed. "No, I don't think so. Not today. You can have five, or you can let me have some fun."

  Estella felt a weight settle on her heart. Vasudev got in these peevish moods sometimes, and she knew he would dig in his heels now, and tomorrow, and the next day, until he had his fun, and she never knew what form his "fun" might take. He might give her a few extra children in the bargain, but only on the condition they grow forked tails, or never fall in love, or wake screaming every night for the rest of their lives. He had endless imagination for curses.

  Wearily, wearily, Estella asked, "Wh
at do you have in mind?"

  Vasudev laughed and swung his little legs in his chair. His feet didn't quite reach the ground. "I'll tell you what I have in mind. You can have your ten Kashmiri brats ...for free ..."

  "Free?" Estella repeated. No soul was ever free. Every child she saved she purchased in trade. It was her own dark work to select

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  those who would die in their place, and she had an ever-changing list of the wicked from whom to choose. High up on it now were a slave trader in the Aravalli Hills and a captain in Calcutta who had kicked his groom to death because his horse threw a shoe. Heart attack, drowning, a fall from a horse, they would meet such ends as that. Estella always dealt sudden deaths, even to those who most deserved lingering ones.

  This was the office she had performed since she was a young widow and had found her way down to Hell on her own, like Orpheus of myth. Unlike Orpheus, though, who had charmed his way past the three-headed dog and enchanted Persephone with his lyre, Estella had had no music at her fingertips with which to win Yama's sympathy. He had not given her her young husband to guide back up to the world. Instead, he had given her this job to do. It was an ugly job -- earthquakes, floods, pestilence, murder, souls slipping always through her fingers -- and her resentful demon counterpart took every opportunity to make it uglier.

  "No, really," he insisted. "Free! Ten children shall survive and no one shall die in trade for it! All you have to do is deliver a curse I've been dreaming up. The Political Agent's wife, the songbird, you know the one? She's had another brat and the christening is tonight. Were you invited? No? Well, that oughtn't stop you. Here is what I want you to do ..."

  He told her his idea.

  Estella blanched. "No!" she said at once, appalled. "No? No7. All right then, how about this? I'll give you all of them. Every child in that village!" "Every ... ?"

  "Every last brat will live! How can you say no to that?"

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  She couldn't say no, as well he knew. She would have nightmares over this curse for the rest of her life, and Vasudev knew that too, and that was his favorite thing about it. After a long, miserable silence, Estella nodded.

 
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