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Lips touch three times, p.7
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       Lips Touch: Three Times, p.7

           Laini Taylor
 
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  He had her tonic in his pocket now, and went whistling up to her ornate, filigreed palace to deliver it. "Good day to you!" he cried

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  when Pranjivan opened the door to him. With feigned solicitude Vasudev asked, "Is Memsahib feeling unwell today?"

  Pranjivan gave him his customary stony stare and said, "Memsahib is very busy and sends word she will come tomorrow at the usual time."

  Vasudev laughed out loud. "She hasn't missed a day's descent to Hell since Yama foisted her on me. Not for any illness, not for anything! Busy? My teeth, Pranjivan, lying beggar that you are. If she isn't dying, she'd better come tell me so herself."

  Pranjivan didn't even blink. "Have you brought Memsahib's tonic?" he asked.

  What Vasudev resented most about the factotum was his stolidness. Even Estella could be made to wince and scowl, but Pranjivan, never. His face may as well have been cast in an expressionless mold. The demon found it extremely unrewarding. Reluctantly he produced the flask and handed it over. "Not that she'll need it," he said. "I imagine the next time I see dear Estella in Hell it will be her soul alone, drawn like a moth to the flames, just like any other pathetic human."

  Pranjivan started to shut the door in Vasudev's face and the demon blurted, "And I wager she'll have a whole lot of British company on her way, do you hear me? I'll see that curse through yet!"

  The door snicked shut. Vasudev stamped his foot and hollered, "That girl's going to speak! Do you hear me? Any time now her voice is going to burst out of her like a tornado and I'm going to win! She's in love, Pranjivan old devil! Do you hear? A girl will do crazy things for love. Just ask Estella -- she went to Hell for it!"

  There was no answer from within and Vasudev was left standing at the servants' entrance, breathing fast through gritted teeth. "Damn

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  Pranjivan," he muttered, giving up and going away, trying to console himself by dreaming up grim deaths for the beggar once Estella was finally dead and not there to protect him. Something painful, he thought.

  Something excruciating.

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  EIGHT The Stolen Shadow

  A namique's eighteenth birthday party was the following evening. In his rooms, James slid a small velvet ring box into his pocket, put on his dinner jacket, and took a deep breath. He couldn't afford much in the way of a diamond, much as he couldn't really afford to support a wife, especially a privileged heaven-born daughter like Anamique. It was madness, surely, but of all the madness he had known, it was the sweetest. He patted his pocket and set out.

  He had just bought flowers and was walking past the Palace of the Winds when a man loomed up before him, tall, Indian, severe. For a moment James thought he must be a cutthroat, he had such a look of intensity -- almost savagery -- in his eyes, but then he recognized him by his fine English suit. Here was the factotum of the widow called "the old bitch," the one who had filled Anamique's head with fear and nonsense and blighted her young life with silence.

  "What do you want, man?" James asked him, drawing himself up to his full height, which, he was pleased to see, was a bit taller than the Indian's.

  "Do you love the girl?" Pranjivan asked.

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  "It's no business of yours," said James, his voice dropping to a growl.

  "If you love her, you can love her silence too."

  "Love her silence? What is this? Some kind of a game?"

  "It is a game, but not a funny one. It's a demon's game, and if you encourage the girl to speak, you encourage her to kill you, and the demon wins. I especially wish the demon not to win."

  "Demon?" James said. "Are you mad? There are no demons. There are no curses. There are only vicious jokes and vile people, tormenting an innocent girl!"

  Pranjivan shook his head and said, "Are you really so certain? Would you look at a rock in a field and claim no cobra lies beneath it because you can't see it?"

  "And what is it I can't see? Demons?"

  "You can see demons."

  James looked around him at the throng of camels and rickshaws and stern turbaned men with twirled mustaches. He cocked an eyebrow at Pranjivan, who smiled a thin smile and said, "There are none nearby just now."

  "Of course not. Look, I'll just be on my way. I don't have time for your mythology today." James stepped around Pranjivan and continued down the avenue.

  Pranjivan fell into step beside him. "Oh? Why is that? What happens today?"

  James gave him a dark glance but didn't answer. In his pocket, his hand curled around the little velvet box.

  "From what I hear," said Pranjivan, "she would be devastated if she killed you. For her sake, I wish that not to happen."

  "How good of you."

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  "If you wish to protect her --"

  "I wish to marry her," said James, turning to face him.

  "So marry her," said Pranjivan in a low, urgent voice. "But believe. The world goes down deeper than you know, Englishman. There are cobras under the rocks, and there are curses."

  The urgency in the Indian's voice perplexed James. He might be mad, but he was certainly sincere. What was this all about? The strength of James's certainty weakened just a little.

  Pranjivan went on. "She mustn't speak. Believe it. Believe there is more to the world than what your own eyes have seen." Then he nodded his head in a sharp farewell and crossed the avenue to a waiting rickshaw. James watched him go. He saw him climb in, and he saw the rickshaw men gather up their poles, but before they could start off, a spidery hand reached out from within the shadows of the contraption and the men halted.

  The street was banded with shadows slung low and long by the setting sun, and James couldn't make out the second figure in the rickshaw until she sat forward. It seemed to cost her a great effort to move that little bit, and when her face came into the light, James saw Estella. She looked very ill. Her face was pinched and sallow, but her eyes burned with a fearsome intensity. James felt a shiver pass through him as she looked straight at him.

  "What does she want?" he wondered. Uneasy, he started walking toward her but he hadn't gone more than a few steps when the old bitch reached her hand out of the rickshaw and, in a sudden startling motion, snatched James's shadow away.

  He faltered and stared at his feet, then up at the rickshaw, then back at his feet. What had he just seen? The old bitch had reached out one frail hand, clutched it suddenly into a fist, and pulled -

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  and James's long thin shadow had gone taut before him, then disengaged from his feet and scudded over the cobbles to disappear into the shadowy rickshaw. He almost thought he had felt it pull free. A smile quavered at the corners of his lips and he wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it.

  But when a box-wallah paused beside him to reshoulder his burden before crossing the street, James couldn't help but see the man's shadow splayed out thick and dark over the cobbles and beside it... nothing. James cast no shadow at all.

  The old bitch slumped wearily back in her seat and Pranjivan gave James a long look before ordering the rickshaw runners to move off. An incredulous laugh burst from James's lips as he thought of calling out, "Stop! Thief!" He turned in a circle to see if anyone had been watching, but the street sweepers and lamplighters were all going about their own business, and the rickshaw soon faded into the gloom.

  James resumed his walk toward the Agent's Residence with a fervor of thoughts clashing in his mind. He didn't believe in magic and demons. He believed in day and night, endurance and fury, cold mud and loneliness and the speed with which blood leaves the body. He also believed in miserable, defiant hope and the way the shape of the girl you love can fill your arms like an eidolon when you dream about dancing with her.

  But whether he believed it or not, his shadow was ... missing. With each person he passed he was forced to acknowledge its absence in stark contrast to the many quick shadows slipping by on the street. By the time he reached the gates of the Residence, he had begun to feel as if a neat
slit had been opened in the lining of reason, letting madness sidle in.

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  "Sahib!" a little street boy cried, running up to him. "Yes, little man? What is it?"

  "The old memsahib, she say give you this, Sahib," the child told him breathlessly, tossing something at James's chest so he had to catch it. It was a little parcel of brown paper, and as the boy ran off, James unfolded it. It was weightless; it seemed empty, but as it fell open, a mass of darkness hit the ground at James's feet, dark and quick as paint splashed from a bucket. It was his shadow, and it was crisp beneath the lamps of the Agent's gates now, as if it had never been gone. Inside the little parcel, on the brown paper, was scrawled one word. Believe.

  James's soul trembled, just a little.

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  NINE The Kiss

  Inside, Anamique was watching for James. A pianist had been hired for the evening so that she might not have to entertain at her own party, and the fellow was playing a rowdy ragtime tune. Others were dancing and laughing, but for Anamique the party wouldn't begin until James arrived. She looked in a mirror and saw a strange girl looking out. She smiled. She'd had her hair bobbed. Her sisters had sculpted it into finger waves and it looked glossy and sleek against her cheeks. She wasn't a girl anymore, and she wasn't wearing a girl's gown either. She wore a jazzy shimmering shift that fell to mid-calf, and in her stockings and strappy shoes her ankles felt naked. Her shoulders were bare too and she felt daring and sultry and alive.

  She saw James reflected in the mirror and she turned. He'd just come in and was looking for her. She watched mischievously as his eyes swept the room, passing over her twice before finally fixing on her face with a flash of surprise. His startled brown eyes dropped to her shoulders, then down to her ankles and darted quickly back up to her face as a blush overspread his cheeks. He stood immobile for a moment, clutching a bouquet of flowers, before crossing the room to her in a rush.

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  "Ana ..." he breathed. "You look ... ravishing ..." He was flustered, and couldn't keep his eyes from straying down to her white shoulders. Anamique wanted to dance with him so he would touch her. She wanted him to cup her shoulders with both hands and whisper in her ear, close, his lips touching her so her whole body would shiver like flower petals in a breeze. She wanted him to kiss her. Looking up into his eyes and seeing the radiance in them, seeing the future in them, she was so full of happiness she thought she might burst. She had to bite her lip to keep from singing.

  A flicker of anxiety passed through James's eyes when she bit her lip. She laid her hand on his arm and looked up at him, silently asking with her eyes, "What is it?"

  Whatever it was, he shook it off. "Look at me, stammering like a fool! You've taken my breath away, Ana, my beautiful girl. I haven't even told you happy birthday yet! Well, happy birthday. Now dance with me!"

  He took her hand and led her to the dance floor, and all evening long they danced and danced. Around them the party happened. There were streamers stretched over their heads, and people drank and gossiped, and khitmutgars moved among them with trays of cakes, but Anamique didn't pay attention to any of it. She closed her eyes and felt James's breath stir the fine hairs at her temple and, when he bent to whisper to her, she felt the softness of his lips for an instant on her earlobe. But he said very little, and late in the evening she realized that he hadn't once implored her to speak.

  He also hadn't told her that he loved her. She saw the flicker of worry in his eyes now and again, but more often she saw a distance growing in them, like he was far away and getting farther, following

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  some dark trail of thoughts away from the circle of their tangent bodies.

  A sick dread began to fill her. Perhaps, she worried, she'd waited too long. Perhaps her eccentricity had lost its charm and become merely inconvenient. Could it be that he was bored? Happiness can turn like a tide for a young girl in love, and Anamique's did. It turned and ebbed and left her leaden and miserable as she danced, and her misery only deepened when James didn't notice right away what she was sure was written on her face plain as words. Indeed, whole moments passed when he seemed entirely to forget her.

  What, she wondered, could he be thinking about?

  She lifted her hand from his arm and laid her fingertips gently against his cheek, startling him from his reverie. He looked down at her and saw at once the misery in her eyes. His face fell. "Ana, please, don't look so sad," he said. "I'm a fool! I've the world's most beautiful girl in my arms and I let my thoughts get swept away with nonsense! You're all I want to think about."

  They were dancing past the verandah door and he swept her toward it and through it, out into the moonlight where they were alone. Truly alone, for the very first time.

  James pushed the door closed, muffling the music and laughter within. And though they'd ceased dancing, he didn't drop his arm from her waist, but drew her nearer, her body full against his. He touched her lips with his fingertips, his brow furrowed and his eyes searching her face as if he were looking for the answer to some solemn mystery.

  Anamique wanted to cry out, "What's wrong?" but speech wouldn't come so easily. She asked him with her eyes.

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  In answer, James took something from his pocket. It was a little velvet box, and when he opened it, Anamique saw a small diamond on a thin gold band. She drew in her breath.

  "Ana," James whispered, "will you marry me?"

  She felt heat moving from her heart out through her limbs, and a flush spread up from the neckline of her gown, all the way over her shoulders and down to her fingertips. Her eyes filled with tears. All traces of misery were chased away by a flood of joy. She had dreamed of this moment so many times, and she had resolved what to do if it came. Reflexively, she bit her lip, but she released it again from between her teeth and hesitantly, wide-eyed and anxious, she opened her mouth to answer.

  A look of panic flitted over James's face, and before Anamique could really register it, he leaned down fast and kissed her. He kissed her to stop her lips and in his urgency he wasn't tender about it. His teeth clashed against hers and her head knocked back against the wall. Her answer was lost in the jarring, and though her lips may have shaped the word "yes," she doubted James felt it, so hard was his mouth upon hers.

  He drew slowly away and ventured a shame-faced look at her.

  She was bewildered and breathless. That kiss, harsh with haste and teeth, it wasn't the kiss she had imagined in her daydreams. She'd never have dreamed James's lips could feel so hard. They may as well have been a hand clamped over her mouth.

  She knew why. She looked up at him and spots of color flamed in her cheeks. He was afraid of her. After all of his cajoling and his scoffing at Providence, making her believe she could have a normal life, making her dream and hope, after all that, he was afraid of the curse!

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  She looked down at his hands. He had not yet slid the ring onto her finger but clutched at it. She took a step back.

  "Ana--" James started to say, reaching for her, feebly holding out the ring. "I'm sorry! I don't know what came over me. Please --"

  She turned away, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Something was happening to her. Something was building in her, rising. Her breath came faster. Her skin felt feverish. Eighteen years of calm were swept away in a sudden wild rush, like the monsoon floods that ravage mangrove islands and whisk tigers out to sea. She wrenched open the door and ran inside, across the ballroom to the piano where she closed the keyboard so quickly the pianist had to snatch his fingers out. The dancers faltered in their fox-trot and turned to her, bright-eyed, breathless, and smiling. She saw her mother, her sisters. In the doorway, with anguish on his face, was James.

  Anamique took a deep breath, parted her lips, and began to sing. It was Isolde that welled forth as her voice at last burst from its cage. It was the "Liebestod," and James's eyes filled with tears. Anamique's voice was wizardry. Honey. The others had just time to reg
ister the perfection of it with a kind of stunned euphoria before, as Anamique had really always believed it would, the curse came true.

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  TEN A Masterpiece

  Anamique's powerful voice filled the house and even reached across the garden to the servants' quarters. Not a soul survived her soaring "Liebestod." Crouched in the garden, Vasudev heard the singing and as it entered his ears, he lapsed into a befuddled fugue. But he couldn't die of it -- he hadn't been alive for centuries -- and after the singing ceased, he blinked and shook off his confusion. An incredulous smile unfurled across his face and he gave a great whoop and a caper and he skittered back down to Hell to be there to count the souls as they drifted in.

  There could be no doubt about it: This curse was his masterpiece!

  On the rooftop where it had been spying, Pranjivan's shadow swayed mournfully on its kite string. It drifted down to the ground to peer in the window. It hadn't heard the singing, of course, as shadows have no ears, but it had seen a white-clad khitmutgar with a full tray of sherbet dishes suddenly freeze mid-stride and crumple to the ground, dead. And the khitmutgar wasn't the only one.

  Inside the ballroom the British were very still. They had sunk to the floor, some still joined in the embrace of the dance, leaning together on their knees like marionettes at rest. Others had fallen over, and the ladies' ankles, protruding from their skirts, were very

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  pale. A fly sauntered down the bridge of a nose. All their eyes were open.

  There was a small movement in the doorway -- Anamique's hand in James's hair as she cradled his head in her lap. She traced her fingertips over the planes of his face, across his jaw, feeling the roughness as she went against the grain. She touched the place where his dimples would be if he were to smile at her, which he wouldn't, she realized, ever again.

  The whites of her eyes were wide rings around her irises, giving her the look of one startled from a nightmare. As Pranjivan's shadow watched, Anamique took a small ring from James's dead hands and slid it onto her finger, holding it up to the light so the tiny diamond sparkled.

 
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