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Lips touch three times, p.6
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       Lips Touch: Three Times, p.6

           Laini Taylor
 
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  "What? Ever? Not even as a baby?"

  "Not after the christening. Not a peep. Damnedest thing."

  An ominous silence was left to hang there. The heat felt carnivorous. The lecher drained his drink and looked for more. The ice was running low. There was never enough ice. British hands looked swollen clutching their cocktails. There was in the air always the subtle stench of overripe fruit. For years after these British had returned to their dainty island, when they smelled this soft decay, they would think of fevers and legless beggars, and sad elephants wandering down lanes.

  "And has she really never made a sound?" the horsey woman murmured.

  "Nary a sigh nor a snort of indignation," said the girl's own mother, joining them and watching her daughter as if she were a monkey brought to entertain them. "She believes the curse. I think

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  the servants convinced her of it. Always whispering. Indians and their nonsense!"

  "A bit eerie though, isn't it?" the woman said uneasily. She was new to India, and she was finding that here in this wild land, strange twinges of belief had a way of intruding into one's cultured disbelief like trick cards in a deck to be drawn at random. In India, sometimes, one could accidentally believe the oddest things. "Perhaps she's just mute," she suggested hopefully.

  "Perhaps," allowed the mother, her eyes twinkling with merry mischief as she said in a baleful voice, "Who knows, though. Perhaps it's all true. If you'd like to find out, I'll encourage her to sing us an aria. Her sisters have been practicing 'Una voce poca fa' and she must surely have the words by heart."

  "Damn me," said her husband, the one-armed Agent of Jaipur himself. "I'm sure even the servants and the mynah birds have the words by heart. The girls never stop wailing that bloody thing."

  "Wailing! Gerald, hush!" She batted at him with her hand and the others laughed. "The girls must have their culture!"

  "Culture!" the Agent hooted. Catching sight of James, he said with a conspiratorial wink, "Girl's got the right idea in my book. Nothing wrong with a silent woman, eh?"

  James forced himself to smile. He doubted his smile could conceal his loathing of these people, but they didn't seem to notice it. After a moment he drifted away from them and wandered at the edge of the garden. He knew by the music -- Liszt now -- that the girl was still at the piano, and he wanted to cleanse the gossip from his mind before he finally let himself see her. He breathed the scent of a strange lily and fingered some broad waxen leaves. He watched a beetle's progress across a flagstone, and when

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  he could stand it no longer, he turned on his heel and looked to the piano.

  And there she was.

  Her composure marked her out at once from the women around her, who laughed too loudly with their heads thrown back. Her back was straight, her neck white. Her hair, upswept, was the color of dark chocolate. She was turned away from him so James began to move through the crowd, ignoring the coy murmurs of other girls as he went.

  He wended his way round to the foot of the grand piano and the girl was revealed to him. Her face, as he had known it would be, was perfect. It was heart-shaped and delicate and flushed with the exertions of her passionate playing. Her eyes were downcast, their color still a mystery. James was strangely moved to see that she did indeed have freckles, as he had imagined. They were as fine as a sift of cinnamon, and he found himself wanting to count them, to lie with her in a sunny patch of garden and touch them one by one, tracing the contours of her cheek, letting his finger drift down to her lips.... He saw she was biting her lip.

  Drinking in his first close sight of her, James already knew her better than any of these others did. He knew from her diary that if she was biting her lip, it meant she was having one of her bad days.

  He had imagined himself, fancifully, to be half in love with the writer of the mysterious diary, but now, seeing her, that vague fancy was swept away by the exhilaration of actually falling in love with her, not by halves, but fully and profoundly. His heartbeat pulsed in his hands with the desire to reach out and touch her.

  She looked up suddenly and saw him. She saw the naked look in his eyes and her fingers faltered on the keys. The jarring of the

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  music turned all heads and everyone at the party witnessed that first fused stare. James couldn't look away from her. Her eyes were pale gray and they were lonely, and haunted, and hungry. She slowly released her lower lip from between her teeth as she stared back at him.

  She was feeling, under the vivid gaze of this soldier, that she had stepped out of a fog and been seen clearly for the first time.

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  FIVE The Caged Bird

  In her diary she had written:

  Most days I believe in the curse with all my heart. I believe that 1 might kill with no more effort than it takes others to sing or pray. Those days are easy. My voice sleeps and I have no terrible impulses to speak. But some days I wake with doubts and worse, spite, and every moment speech trembles on my lips so that I have to bite them. I look at the faces all around me, my parents, that horrid old chaplain, all the others with that tippling flush in their cheeks too early in the day, and I think I will burst into song just to see the flash of terror in their eyes before we know, all of us and at last, if it is true or not. If I can kill them all with a word. Those are the bad days.

  So far, I have managed to forbear and doubtless I will go on forbearing. But sometimes when they treat me like an idiot child, talking loud and in short sentences, with that smug sense of their own charity -- how good they are, to speak to the idiot girl!-- I can't help but amuse myself deliberating, if I were to kill them with a word, what should that word be? Hello? Listen? Oops? But I rather think it wouldn't be a

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  word at all, but a song, that they might hear the voice I sacrifice for their sake every single day.

  I am always sick with guilt after such wicked thoughts, and the guilt drives the wickedness out.

  Her name was Anamique, after a Flemish soprano her mother had heard sing the role of Isolde once at Bayreuth. Anamique had been singing Isolde in her head since she was twelve and her mother had ordered the libretto for her older daughters' singing lessons. Inside herself, where she sang, Anamique's voice was far more beautiful than her sisters' voices, but she was the only one who knew it. She was the only one who would ever know it.

  Years of warnings had built up in her. Her ayah believed the curse and so did the rest of the servants, even the stern old Rajput whose job it had been to guide her around the garden on her pony, Mackerel, when she was small. The servants had always implored her to keep silent, and they prevailed. Even while her mother commanded her to speak, her ayah was there whispering in Rajasthani in her other ear, "Hush, my pearl, keep quiet. You must keep your voice in its cage, like a beautiful bird. If you let it out, it will kill us all."

  Anamique believed her. One couldn't help believing things whispered in Rajasthani.

  To her family, she wrote notes on a small tablet she carried always with her, though her mother often disdained to read them, as it would have required putting on her spectacles, which she took great pains never to do.

  For the servants, who were illiterate, Anamique developed an elaborate language of gestures that almost looked like dance when shaped by her graceful hands. And when they spoke to her - bless

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  them -- they didn't raise their voices as if she were deaf, or speak slowly as if she were dim-witted.

  Because of her silence, Anamique had not been sent to school in England like her sisters and all the other British children, but had spent her whole life in India, and most of that with the servants. There was more of India in her than of that far green isle she had rarely seen. She played the vina as well as she played the piano, and she knew all the Hindu gods by name. She had ridden a camel in the Thar Desert, scooped rice into a saddhu's bowl, and been lifted by an elephant's trunk to gather figs from the high branches. She had even gone back to he
r ayah's dusty village for festivals and slept on a string charpoy with the native children, nestled together like spoons. The voice that was full within her not only sang full lyric soprano but could chant the Vedas, and yet she bit her lip and played accompaniment to her sisters' unremarkable singing.

  As her ayah instructed, she kept her own voice like a bird in a cage. She imagined it as a willful songbird with a puffed breast, its feathers gray like her eyes, with a flash of peacock blue at the neck, and the cage as an ornate prison of rusted scrollwork with a little latched door that she never dared open. Sometimes the urge to do so was nearly overpowering.

  She was playing piano for her sisters one afternoon a few days after the garden party when a parcel was delivered for her. The chap-rassi brought it to her and Anamique ceased playing at once so that her eldest sister's voice was left stranded in the air. "Ana!" Rosie scolded, but Anamique paid her no heed. Nothing had ever been delivered just for her before. She scraped back the piano bench and took the twine-tied parcel out into the garden where she opened it and slid her diary out. Stunned, she clasped it to her chest. She had

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  thought it lost forever! Her relief bled into agitation, though, as she began to think of someone finding it, reading it, as they must have done to know to deliver it here. Her heartbeat quickened as she opened the little book and saw a letter tucked inside it. With trembling fingers she unfolded it and read:

  When I was a boy, it was my job to slice the heels off the new loaves and throw them in the woodstove to feed the imp my mum said lived in the fire, to forestall him burning down our cottage out of spite. He was a hungry imp, she said, but I was a hungry boy and I ate those heels myself when she looked away, and that poor imp might've starved but our cottage never burned, and maybe I grew taller for the extra bread.

  And I was tasked more than once to go and drown the May kittens in the pond, as my gran said cats born in that unlucky month suffocated babes in their cradles and invited snakes into the house. But I never killed a kitten in my life and only hid them and brought them cream when I could. And never did a baby die from my failure to murder kittens, nor a snake cross our threshold but that I brought it there myself in the pocket of my own short pants.

  And I have fought on the plains of France where evil fifinelle spirits, they say, tickle gunners and make their shells go astray. And though I manned a howitzer myself and sent many shells arcing into the night, I never felt their tickle on my neck. Maybe the fifinelles fought for our side and only beleaguered the Germans, and maybe a shell went astray by their ministrations that would have been meant for me.

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  Or maybe all that's done in the world is done by men and chance, and omens are only fears, and curses are only fancies. I never saw God save a kitten or fill a boys belly with bread, and I never met him on the battlefield passing out gas masks to the men. And if he cant be troubled to catch some bullets in his fists, and if he wont reach down to grab a mountain and keep it from crumbling away, and if he forgets to send the rains one year and millions die of hunger, is it likely he's bothering himself cursing one beautiful girl in Jaipur?

  Maybe he's sitting somewhere right now knitting up Providence like homespun, but I've seen too much blood to ever trust his cloth. I would sooner trust to a song from your lips than to Providence, though I've seen no proof of either one. When the day comes that you finally sing I hope I shall be in the audience. In truth, I hope I might be the only member of your audience, that I might hoard all your words for myself. I believe I had forgotten about beauty until I saw you, and now I'm greedy for it, like the boy I was once, recklessly eating all the imp's portion of bread.

  Yours, enchanted, James Dorsey

  Anamique remembered the way the handsome soldier had stared at her in the garden, the way he had seen her, and she flushed and had to bite her lip. She tucked the letter back into her diary but a moment later took it out and read it again. And again.

  She passed the night restlessly, waking from vivid dreams of singing to lie wide-eyed in the dark with a pounding heart, listening for any trace of her voice lingering in the air. Once she even went to

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  her sister's door and strained to hear her breathing and be sure her voice hadn't escaped in her sleep and slain the whole household. Finally, afraid to close her eyes, she composed a reply to the letter. It was simply a quotation from Kipling and it read:

  East of Suez, some hold, the direct control of Providence ceases; man being there handed over to the power of the Gods and Devils of Asia, and the Church of England Providence only exercising an occasional and modified supervision in the case of Englishmen.

  After breakfast she gave it to the chaprassi to deliver.

  James laughed when he read it, a bright, surprised burst of a laugh. He wrote to her again, fabulating a means by which, he outrageously claimed, the devils of India might easily be outwitted by leaving out saucers of sherry overnight for their spies, the wall lizards, who would grow tipsy and forget to carry their mission reports back to Hell.

  This too the chaprassi duly delivered, and Anamique wrote back again the same day to tell him how her ayah practiced gowli shastra, the art of reading the stripes and scamperings of wall lizards for omens. She added, shyly, that she had been to an astrologer once in the bazaar. She had never told anyone that, and James wondered in his reply what fortune had been foretold for her, and had it mentioned a soldier, by chance?

  For days in a row they continued in this way, and slowly they discovered each other. The letters grew longer and Anamique's gray eyes lost a bit of the haunted shadow James had seen in them, and James's heart began to lift itself, step by step, out of the swamp of mud and ghosts in which it had been steeping since France.

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  SIX The First Touch

  The second time they saw each other was at a musical evening arranged by Anamique's mother. She routinely invited the unmarried young men over for a spot of light opera to amuse her daughters, and James was handsome, and he was a war hero, and to top it all off he turned out to have a glorious tenor voice. The one thing that kept him from becoming a new favorite among the memsahibs was his irredeemable habit of looking only at Anamique while he sang.

  The others all remembered that stare in the garden, and they could see now in the look that passed between the two that something was already under way. A bridge begun at both ends, reaching toward the place in the middle where they could rest against each other and find completion.

  James cajoled an old missionary's wife to take a turn at the piano at the end of the evening, so he might have the chance to dance with Anamique. They touched for the first time, first delicately and decorously, fingertips to waist and hand to shoulder in the pose of the dance. But by and by James's lips brushed softly against Anamique's earlobe as he whispered something to her. She blushed furiously at the intimate touch, and a look of wistfulness and hope came into her eyes.

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  "I love you," he had whispered, and it seemed to him as she pressed her lips together, that she was imagining whispering it back.

  She was imagining it. She thought she could taste the words, all ginger and chili and sugar, fiery and sweet, and she held them in her mouth like candies. It would take more time than this to coax them from her, but something began to happen at that moment. An idea fell like a seed, and over the next weeks it went on growing like a fig vine, lush and conquering, twining round her old beliefs and covering them in new growth until they were as invisible as a tiger in a thicket -- and just as deadly.

  There were more musical evenings and more letters, furtive hand-holding at dinner, duets at the piano, more dancing, more whispers in her ear that raised goose bumps on Anamique's neck and sent shivers down her spine. They were never alone, but may as well have been, the way they looked only at each other. Sitting apart from the crowd at whatever party or gathering they were at, James spoke, and Anamique wrote on her tablet small notes that James saved a
nd kept with her letters. She even began to teach him some of the simpler signs of her gesture language, such as those for "thirsty" and "dance." He asked her, eyes merry, how to sign "I love you," just so he would recognize it if she ever gestured it to him, and, blushing, she showed him.

  Anamique grew radiant. Other men began to wonder why it had taken that damned James Dorsey to make them see that, silent or not, Anamique was quite the loveliest creature in Jaipur, if not all of India. None of them bothered to court her, though; they couldn't even catch her eye, and she demurred from dancing with anyone but James.

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  And while they danced, James whispered to her. He urged her to sing for him, to tell him that she loved him. "How can I ever believe it," he asked, his brown eyes pleading, "unless you tell me so yourself?" He knew about the bird in the cage, and he imagined it languishing there like a sad animal in a roadside menagerie. "Birds shouldn't be kept in cages," he told her, his lips warm against her ear. "They should fly."

  By and by Anamique formed a resolution: If James asked her to marry him, she would answer him. The first word she would ever speak aloud would be yes.

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  SEVEN The Gloating Demon

  Crouched in the garden muttering, Vasudev saw the light in Anamique's eyes and gave a loathsome gloating chuckle.

  The girl was in love! Nothing could scatter caution like love. Nothing could turn a girl silly half so fast as a handsome soldier whispering in her ear! And a soldier begging her to talk, no less! It was so perfect it almost made Vasudev believe in Providence, but he knew the way the cogs worked and whirred in the winding up and down of human lives. Gods though there might be, they cared little for the minutiae. If an English soldier had lived through the bloodiest war the world had ever known and made his way half around the planet to fall in love with this particular girl and goad her into fulfilling her curse, well, Vasudev had only that mad bastard Chance to thank for it, and he did.

  It came in the nick of time too. The old bitch wouldn't last much longer. Vasudev gave her a week at the most. He chuckled again. Estella had missed their tea that morning for the first time ever. He had waited for her in Hell, his smile widening with each passing moment that didn't bring her tall, spare silhouette down the black tunnel.

 
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