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Lips touch three times, p.8
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       Lips Touch: Three Times, p.8

           Laini Taylor
 
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  Then she bent over him, pressed her face into the cooling flesh of his neck, and began to sob.

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  ELEVEN The Beautiful Fire

  Sixty-three," Vasudev counted as the last of the partygoers and servants filed into the Fire. "Sixty-three!" He skipped around the tea table, jubilant. It had taken eighteen years, but it had been worth the wait and worth the gamble. Such finery the British had worn to their deaths! Dinner jackets and gowns, and the ladies' lacy trims and feathers had sputtered such pretty sparks as the Fire drew them in.

  The demon was desperate to gloat and he thought he would have to go back up into the world and dart past Pranjivan to dance around Estella's deathbed, but as it turned out, he didn't have to go anywhere. Estella came to him.

  Vasudev saw her coming down the long onyx tunnel and the sight of her momentarily robbed him of words. She could no longer walk. With its kite string trailing behind it, Pranjivan's shadow carried her in its arms as easily and as gently as the old bitch herself had cradled the many infants' souls she had gleaned from the Fire in her long, strange career in Hell. She looked so fragile. The pins had fallen out of her hair and it hung loose and dragged across the floor like a long skein of spun silver. But for all her fragility and dishevelment, her eyes burned with their old fury.

  Vasudev's moment of speechlessness passed and he crowed, "My

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  dear, how kind of you to come! Have you heard? Did you stop to see the bodies? Is it quite the talk of the town? Sixty-three! Sixty-three. I think we can all agree I win this round."

  Estella hissed, "Vasudev, this cannot stand. It is out of all proportion!"

  "Proportion? But what has proportion to do with anything? That's the beauty of spicy little curses such as these, Estella. You never know how they might play out. Don't get high and mighty now. You knew the rules!"

  "Did Yama sanction your rules? Proportion is to be maintained. That is his rule."

  "You never cared about that rule when I let you have a few extra brats now and then, did you?" Vasudev sneered. "You didn't mind a little curse so much then, when the lack of proportion was in your favor. You're just a sore loser."

  Estella started to respond but there was nothing to say. He was right. She had tolerated his perverse game of curses to serve her own ends, and this was the fruit of it: scores dead, and an innocent girl turned murderer of everyone she knew. In the shadow's arms, Estella's frail body sagged with defeat. There was nothing she could do. Saving these souls was beyond her. She had walked out of the Fire for the last time. When next that beautiful inferno enfolded her, it would be to cleanse her own sins and melt away her memories, and she wouldn't be coming back out until Yama set her soul in a new body, human or beast. That was how it worked. The Fire took in souls and made them new, and Yama sleeved them into new bodies as he saw fit. Estella might be reborn as a tigress or a river dolphin or an ibex that could balance on tiptoe on a mountaintop. Or she might

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  be born as a woman again, perhaps one who could have love all her life instead of only the memory of it.

  She found herself now staring at the flames with a look of longing.

  She was ready; she had been ready for a long time. Her soul craved the Fire. Only one thing had kept her in this limbo of lingering death -- a far worse death than she herself had ever inflicted on the wicked -- and that was Vasudev. For sixty years, with the power Yama had given her, she had staved off the worst of the demon's bloodthirst, but she knew it had been building up in him and that it would find its terrible release the moment he was free of her.

  "My dear," he said now with exaggerated courtesy, "you look very tired. Won't you sit?" He pulled a chair out for her at the tea table. "Will you take some refreshment?" His lip pulled into a snarl. Unable to contain himself, he added, "One last cup of tea before you burn, you old bitch?"

  "No, thank you," she replied. "I've done playing at civility with you, demon."

  "Yes. Done. So you are! What are you waiting for? Go on. You can catch up to your countrymen if you hurry. Do you know what I am going to do the moment you're gone? 'Pranjivan' might mean 'life,' but that won't protect him. Nothing will. I'm thinking up something slow for him, for all those years I had to knock on the tradesmen's door like some common peddler. And then? I've been saving this up, Estella. I'm going to go on a pilgrimage and seek out every brat you ever hauled back up to the world and make them wish they'd stayed dead the first time. Oh, I won't remember them all, but I'll do my best."

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  Estella bade Pranjivan's shadow set her down and it did, though it stayed at her side and held her up as she took feeble steps toward Vasudev. Her voice was a rasp as she cried, "Yama won't tolerate that, Vasudev. Do you hear me?"

  "But how long will it take him to notice, do you think? When will he chance to visit our little neighborhood of Hell? When did he last?" He was taunting her. Estella sometimes imagined she felt the presence of the Lord of Hell passing close in the great Fire, but she had not seen or heard him for sixty years, since she first came here fresh with widow's grief and had this awful duty thrust upon her.

  Now, her voice shaking, she whispered, "You can't do this...."

  But Vasudev only laughed. "Can't I? Go on and die, Estella. Our little arrangement couldn't last forever, and -- my teeth! -- it's lasted long enough. You never had any business here. Hell is no place for the living!"

  At that moment they both heard an unmistakable sound in the corridor. Vasudev's eyes widened and Estella found the strength to stand straighter. It was footfall. In unison they turned to peer down the gleaming black tunnel. They both knew that souls drifted these byways as silently as butterflies. The dead made no sound of footfall.

  Only the living did that.

  Breathless, watching, they made out only a blur at first, and soon the shape of a girl, walking with a posture of rigid resolution such as one might bear when going to her doom. It was Anamique, her eyes still wide with shock. She held Pranjivan's kite string loosely in her fingers. She had followed it like a lifeline through the dark, and as she rounded the curve now and faced the Fire, she had to close her eyes against its brilliance.

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  When she opened them and blinked, she saw figures silhouetted against the Fire and went toward them. It had been months since she had glimpsed the old bitch in town and she was shocked by the change in her. Many times she had thought of knocking on the door of her palace or accosting her in the street, of testing the curse on the one who had delivered it. She had dreamed of it, but she never dared it. And now the old bitch stood before her as thin as the shaft of a feather and nearly translucent with frailty, and Anamique held her tongue. She wanted more than revenge. She wanted James back, and all the others, her parents and sisters, her ayah, and the old Rajput warrior who had swallowed his dignity to guide her pony around the yard. But if she spoke her questions aloud, she would only kill again and there would be no one left to tell her what to do.

  "Have you come for him, child?" Estella asked. Anamique nodded.

  Vasudev chuffed. He had a sour, calculating look on his moon-round face. "So sorry," he said. "Nothing to be done about it. The Lord of Hell will remake him, just like all the others. You're too late, you see." He pointed to the Fire.

  Anamique stared at it. Its glow lit her gray eyes orange and a look of despair came over her lovely face.

  "Poor thing," the demon said. "Best just turn yourself around and get on out while you can." He stepped forward and took Anamique's elbow in an almost kindly fashion, acting quite the small gentleman as he began to guide her back the way she'd come.

  Dazed, the girl looked over her shoulder at Estella, who suddenly called out, "Wait a moment, child."

  Vasudev grimaced. "No time for nonsense, now. Come, come."

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  Estella laughed once, sharply. "What's the matter, Vasudev? Afraid of something?"

  Vasudev scowled. "Afraid? Bosh! Just concerned for the girl. This
is no place for the living!"

  "No, it isn't, is it?" Estella gave him a penetrating look. "Anamique, come here," she said.

  Anamique went to her. Vasudev gritted his teeth. His eyes darted anxiously between the Fire and this living girl whose grief reminded him so much of Estella's grief, decades past.

  Estella said, "I regret that you were drawn into this demon's twisted world, dear girl. Your curse has been a lesion on my soul these eighteen years. You should know that because of it, twenty-two children survived an earthquake who would otherwise have died. Your curse saved all those lives. And these years of your silence, your strength has saved many more."

  "She didn't save anyone," argued Vasudev peevishly. "Choosing not to kill someone isn't the same as saving them."

  "A fine distinction, coming from you," the old woman replied.

  Anamique looked confused. Estella reached for her hand and clutched it. Her voice seemed to weaken now with every word she spoke. "There's no cheating death," she whispered. "We will all pass through the purifying Fire and be reborn in the bodies we have earned, man or cricket, jackal or eagle. Those decisions are Yama's alone; my only influence has been when, and who deserved more time before the Fire. I have bought years for children, and there was no currency but trade. A dirty soul for a clean one, one to one, that's the way it works. But the day of your christening, Vasudev offered up twenty-two children for free. Of course they weren't really free.

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  Their price was the curse. It was a risk, and now it has proven a very bad bargain indeed."

  "This is all a fine education for the young lady, I'm sure," Vasudev interrupted. "But it's time she was getting out of here. Missy? Estella needs some peace so she can finally die?

  "Not quite yet," Estella said, producing a flask from within the folds of her shawl and holding it out to Anamique. "Child, quickly, drink this," she said.

  Vasudev gasped. "No! You can't!" he sputtered.

  Anamique looked back and forth between them, uncertain. Then Estella whispered, "It's not too late to save him," and Anamique took the flask and drank. It tasted of spice and herbs and burned going down and she felt it spreading through her in a way that made her aware of her moving blood and all its pathways.

  Vasudev hopped around in an agitated dance, crying out, "You can't! Yama will never sanction this!"

  "A life for a life," Estella said. "That's how it works." Ill as she was, skin taut over her fine bones, she still looked like some kind of goddess, the brilliant filaments of her hair riding the drafts of heat that pulsed through the passage. Her eyes were hard and clear and insistent. She repeated, "A life for a life," then added, "Mine for his."

  Anamique stared at her. Pranjivan's shadow clung to its mistress. The demon growled, "No! It won't do! Stop this nonsense at once!"

  With grave intensity Estella looked into Anamique's eyes and said, "Speak, child, and send my soul to the Fire. Follow, and I'll find your soldier for you. You can lead him out. Speak now," she said urgently, pleading. "Say anything. Say his name. Please?

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  James, Anamique thought, holding his name on the tip of her tongue like the seed of an entire life that might, from that moment forward, grow entwined with her own like a lovely vine. But she couldn't say his name, not now. She wouldn't use it as a murder weapon. Estella's face was hopeful, pleading. Anamique wouldn't say James's name, but she had another idea. She exhaled slowly and then took a deep breath. And for the second time in her life, she let her voice out of its cage.

  She sang.

  When Estella heard her voice, in the moment just before her eyes rolled back in their sockets, she was transfigured by a look of joy. Then she collapsed. Pranjivan's shadow caught her and gathered her up.

  Anamique had to blink. The shadow held the body in its arms, but Estella's soul still stood before her, weightless and joyous. Free. For a long moment she stood and listened as Anamique's voice soared, then she beckoned and turned and started toward the Fire on light, silent feet. She dove into the flames and the long tendrils of her gun-metal gray hair were the last to disappear. Gleaming like lit fuses, they wavered and snapped as the flames enfolded her completely.

  Still singing, heart racing, Anamique followed.

  Into the Fire.

  It drew her in. It raged around her. She felt heat, but it didn't burn her. She felt as hard as a diamond. Distinct. She went on singing.

  Behind her in the black tunnel, Vasudev was again stunned into a stupor by the sound of her voice. His eyes lost focus and his mouth fell slack, slaver stringing between his pointed teeth. Pranjivan's

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  shadow still held Estella's frail old body in its arms. It glided slowly into the Fire behind Anamique, and unlike the stuff of souls, which may subsist within the inferno for ages untold, shadow and skin were of earthly make and were instantly incinerated, leaving nothing behind, not even ash.

  In the Fire, Anamique's eyes were open and she saw countless souls drifting all around her, souls like alchemist's metal being transfigured in this great crucible, souls made molten, made new. She floated, following the tendrils of Estella's hair through the flames. She sang. With each and every note her soul knew a pang of joy, as if her voice escaped again and again from its accursed prison with every word.

  And then, suddenly, she became aware of a presence nearby in the sea of flame, a magnificent and blistering intelligence hidden from view. It was Yama, Lord of Hell, and he was everywhere, invisible all around her, listening, and she went on singing every role she knew. Carmen, Manon, Euridice, Musetta, Isolde. The "Liebestod," that lament for a dead love. She sang it all the way through this time.

  And she was still singing when she found James spinning slowly in the flames. His eyes were open but unseeing. Her voice faltered to a stop.

  "Exquisite," said Yama.

  Anamique looked around but saw no great shape or silhouette in the Fire. Perhaps, she thought, he was the Fire.

  "Take your lover and go," the Lord of Hell continued. "And take the others too. Estella's soul shall suffice in trade for them all. But there is an additional price."

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  "I will pay any price," Anamique said. These were the first words she had ever spoken that came not from an opera libretto but from her own heart, and she meant them. Any price.

  "You will serve in her place as Ambassador to Hell."

  Anamique felt a spasm of fear but she nodded. "Anything," she repeated. The heat was rising. She began to feel the muted movement of the flames against her flesh as the tonic lost its potency. At that moment she was shunted backward very quickly, tumbling head over heels until she was thrown clear of the Fire. She fell and felt the hot onyx floor against her face. She rose to her feet, saw Vasudev standing by the tea table, coming out of his trance. She didn't see James or the others and she didn't turn round to look for them. She began again to sing, and she picked up the scorched end of Pranjivan's kite string and followed it out of Hell. She had learned from Orpheus's mistake, and did not look back.

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  TWELVE The Ambassador

  James's wife never told him that she loved him, not out loud, but he learned to believe it anyway. There are other ways of showing someone you love them, such as fetching them out of Hell. Their wedding was small, just the two of them with Pranjivan -- eternally shadowless now -- and Anamique's parents and sisters, who recalled every moment of their strange resurrections. They all stood with the minister in the garden, and Anamique mouthed the words of her vows in silence while James spoke softly, his voice husky and tremulous with emotion.

  After, there was a wide white bed with a cocoon of mosquito netting stirred by a punkah fan, and cool limbs entwined beneath a white sheet. This time when Anamique and James kissed, there was no dread or haste or clash of teeth, but only lingering and sweetness, and lips straying from lips to taste the curves of each other's throats and shoulders, the palms of hands, the fluttering fragility of eyelids, the smooth, arched v
alleys of backs. The silent bride bit down on her lip so nothing could coax a killing sound from her, not pleasure and not pain, and she discovered both without a murmur.

  As the years went by, a cradle was thrice filled and Anamique bit down on a leather strap for each birth: two boys, then a girl. The boys were born without so much as a moan from their beautiful

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  mother, but the girl, a wily stargazer, drove a single cry from her and she had to stagger down the onyx passage, wild-eyed and wrapped in the blood-stained sheet of her childbed, to win back her baby from the Fire. Vasudev cowered behind the tea table and made no attempt to barter with her, and once her tiny girl's soul was cradled safe in her arms, Anamique sang her a lullaby. It was the only lullaby she would ever sing, and it was sung in Hell.

  Unlike her family, Vasudev heard Anamique's voice often and it had the same hypnotic effect each time. He found, to his everlasting bitterness, that his spicy little curse had had an unintended consequence: It gave this new Ambassador a power her predecessor had never ever dreamed of. All she had to do was sing and Vasudev was lost. The music flowed into him like a river and swept all his malice away, and when he awakened from his trance, he would hear himself muttering preposterous things like, "Whatever you think best," or, "Of course, my dear, all the children shall survive the flood."

  During Anamique's tenure in Hell, he ground his teeth down to stubs in his frustration, but he still appeared each morning like clockwork at the little table, carrying a fresh pot of tea and a flask of tonic. He still dreamed up curses to inflict upon humanity, but they fluttered right out of his mind the moment Anamique released her voice from its cage. Though she herself had always thought of it as a songbird, to Vasudev it was a bird of prey, devouring his will, and the worst of it was the knowledge that he himself had dreamed up its awful power.

  Yama often hovered near to hear Anamique sing, and she brought down new songs for as long as she lived. For decades this particular byway of Hell rang with music, and in that time many children lived, their souls returned gladly in trade for those of

 
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