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Night of cake & puppets, p.2
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       Night of Cake & Puppets, p.2

         Part #2.50 of Daughter of Smoke & Bone series by Laini Taylor
 
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  Yeah, well, Mik doesn’t sigh or lean, and his eyes are fully open like something awesome might happen at any time and he doesn’t want to miss it. If he’s an alien, he’s an alien from a gray planet without pizza or music, and he freaking loves it here.

  So there’s a non-fact about Mik. He’s that kind of alien. You know, um, as gleaned from casual observation. From a distance. Over several months of stalking watching. (It’s not stalking if you don’t follow them home, right?)

  He blushes when he plays the violin. That’s kind of a fact, I guess. He’s fair-skinned, with those pink cheeks that make him look like he’s just come in from the cold, and he’s really soft-looking. Nuzzle-able. He’s not hairless or anything; he’s got sideburns and a goatee. He’s a man, but he’s got, like, cartoon princess skin. Don’t ever tell him I said that, even though I mean it in the best possible way. He’s got the manliest cartoon princess skin.

  He’s probably twenty-one or twenty-two, and though he’s not miniature like me, he’s not too tall, either. Maybe five eight? To the naked eye, he’s decent kissing height if I wear platforms, though of course a live test will be required before official certification of Kissing Compatibility can be issued.

  It will be issued.

  Soon.

  Or I might implode.

  Because let’s just say that the kind of alien I am is the kind from a planet of lipless dinkmonkeys and drooling slugboys, where affection of the facial variety carries a deep risk of grossness. By which I mean…I have not yet elected to bestow the grace of my saliva upon another human being. I have never…kissed anyone. No one knows this, not even Karou. It’s a secret. My previous best friend suspected, and now she’s at the bottom of a well. (Not really. She’s in Poland. I had nothing to do with it.) Until now, kiss candidates have been, at best, untempting. There are boys you look at and want to touch with your mouth, and there are boys you look at and want to wear one of those surgical masks everyone in China had during bird flu. There are a lot more bird-flu boys at large.

  But Mik I want to touch with my mouth. His mouth, with my mouth. Maybe his neck, too.

  But first things first: Make him aware I exist.

  It’s possible that he is already aware, if only in a ‘don’t step on the small girl’ kind of way. We work in the same theater on the weekends. We occasionally pass within reach of each other. Without reaching. His proximity does something weird and unprecedented to me. My heartbeat speeds up, I become unusually aware of my lips, like they’ve been activated for duty, and I flush.

  A while back, for fun and evil, Karou and I used to practice our you are my slave come-hither eyes on backpacker boys in Old Town Square, and I have to say I got pretty good at it. You need to imagine you are sending little tractor beams with your eyes, drawing the boy irresistibly toward you. Or fishhooks: grosser, equally effective. It works; try it. You have to really visualize it, the beam going out from your eyes and locking onto theirs, seizing them, compelling them. Next thing you know they’re coming over and the new challenge is getting rid of them. (We found that acting jumpy, with lots of furtive glances over our shoulders and saying in a super-heavy Czech accent, all mysterious and imploring, ‘I beg you, go now, for your own safety, please,’ generally does the trick.)

  Once Karou met that toolbag Kaz, our backpacker-boy games came to an end, but that’s okay. I had perfected my you are my slave eyes. I should be set. But around Mik, my powers desert me. Forget come-hither eyes; I lose basic motor function, like my brain focuses all neural activity on my lips and shifts into kiss preparedness mode way too early, to the detriment of things like speech, and walking.

  So while I could do the normal thing and try talking to him – ‘Nice fiddling, handsome man’ has been proposed – I don’t trust my mouthparts not to betray me by either stuttering into silence or puckering up. Also, there are always people around in the theater, potential witnesses to humiliation, and that is unacceptable. No, I have to lure him out, like a will-o’-the-wisp, tease him deeper and deeper into the forest until he is lost and doomed. Without the forest or the doom – just the luring. Like a Venus flytrap that says I am a delicious flower come taste me and then snap! Devour. Without the devouring.

  Well, maybe a little devouring.

  Here we go. I have scuppies in my pocket and lust in my heart.

  Tonight’s the night.

  3

  Treatments for Female Baldness

  I text Karou: Tonight’s the night.

  Her reply comes at once, which makes me feel like she’s in town, just at her flat or at Poison or something, which she so isn’t. She writes: You will conquer. You are Napoleon. (Pre-Waterloo of course. And cuter.)

  Hmm. I text back: So you’re saying I should…attack him?

  Karou: Yes. Stun him with your amazingness. He will look back at his life up till now as the pale dream before the goddess. His real life starts TONIGHT.

  A little over the top, maybe, but I appreciate the vote of confidence. Where are you, madwoman?

  —South Africa. Trying to track down this poacher. Don’t think he wants to be found.

  —That sounds…safe?

  —And fun! Someone stole my hairbrush out of my hotel room, and left a dead snake hanging from the doorknob. By its mouth.

  —WHAT?

  —Just another day in Africa. Better see a witch doctor for some all-purpose curse removal. Hope I don’t have to drink blood this time.

  —Blood? What kind of…Never mind. Don’t tell me. DON’T.

  —Human. Duh.

  —I SAID.

  —Just kidding. No blood-drinking. I better go. YOU. Have a spectacular time falling in love tonight. Want to switch lives?

  This gives me pause for a second, because it’s the closest Karou has come to complaining since the night we stood in front of that doorway in Josefov and watched blue fire burn it to nothing. She was in shock, and in grief, and in fury, but never a hint of self-pity. After she spent just one day of reeling, hugging herself, and staring, we buried Kishmish in Letná Park, and then she kind of slapped the slackness out of her face and forced her eyes into focus and came up with a plan. Which in turn inspired me to come up with one, too, but yeah, mine’s more kissing and less blood-drinking. So there’s that.

  I text back: If I say ‘no’ am I a bad friend?

  —Never. Just remember every detail. I need fairy tales right now. Rabid ones.

  I love her. I write back: I promise. Please be safe. And that’s the end of it, because she doesn’t reply. I picture her disengaging a stretched snake mouth from a doorknob in order to get into a lonely hotel room somewhere in Africa and I feel this mix of disbelief and belief, protectiveness and vicarious sadness, lostness. Guilt. Part of me thinks I should be with her on this crazy chase she’s on, but I know I’m not fit for it. I can’t fight, or speak Zulu or Urdu or whatever, and she’d have to worry about protecting me, and anyway, I did offer. She said no. She said I’m her anchor: I have to connect her to ‘real life,’ stay in school, keep her updated on Wiktor the living mummy, and Professor Anton’s nose hair, and whether Kaz dares show his face at Poison Kitchen.

  And Mik. I have to talk to Mik. She was pretty insistent about that.

  If all goes well tonight, there will be talking. At some point. One assumes. I’m just not starting with it. I’m starting with a drawing. I’ve been working on it for a couple of weeks, redoing it over and over, and it’s finally good enough: a drawing worthy of launching a love affair.

  Love affair. Doesn’t that sound so middle-aged? And also ill-fated. Like ill-fated is an understood prefix to love affair. Well, ill-fated is fine, as long as it’s a meaty and fraught ill-fated love affair, not a pale and insipid one. I’m not looking for fate. I’m seventeen. I’m looking for kissing, and to move forward a few paces on the game board. You know, do some Living.

  (With my lips.)

  The drawing’s in my bag with my other…props. A few things have already been set up aroun
d town. It all had to be ready before I go to work, and I go to work…now.

  Hello, Marionette Theater of Prague. Just another Saturday. Just walking up the steps with my bag of tricks, no scheming here…

  Oh my god, there he is.

  Knit cap, brown leather jacket, violin backpack. Sweet, cold-pinked cheeks. What a lovely display of personhood. He’s like a good book cover that grabs your gaze. Read me. I’m fun but smart. You won’t be able to put me down. There’s a little bounce in his walk. It’s music. He’s got headphones on – the fat, serious kind, not the weenie earbud kind. I wonder what he’s listening to. Probably Dvořák or something. He’s wearing a pink tie. Why don’t I hate it? I hate pink. Except on Mik’s cheeks.

  Hello, Mik’s cheeks. Soon we shall know each other better.

  Aah! Eye contact. Look away!

  (Did he just…blush?)

  Feet, help me out here. We’re on a collision course. Unless we take immediate evasive action, we’re going to meet him right at the door.

  Panic!

  Hey, look at this fascinating notice on the wall! I must pause here and tear off one of these little phone-number tabs so that I can call and inquire about the life-changing effects of…

  Treatments for female baldness?

  Awesome.

  ‘It’s not for me,’ I blurt, but the danger is past. While I was staring in rapt fascination at the female-baldness flyer, Mik slipped into the building.

  Close call. We almost – in Karou parlance – ‘entered each other’s magnetic fields for the first time.’ He would have had to hold the door for me. I would have had to acknowledge it with a nod, a smile, a thank you, and then walk in front of him down the entire length of the hallway, wondering whether he was looking at me. I know how that would go. I’d suddenly become conscious of the many muscle groups involved in the art of walking, and try to consciously control each of them like a puppeteer, and end up looking like I’m in a loaner body I haven’t mastered yet.

  This way, I can walk down the hallway looking at him.

  Hello, back of Mik.

  On his violin backpack is a bumper sticker that reads:

  EVERYTHING IS A MIRACLE. IT IS A MIRACLE THAT ONE DOES NOT MELT IN ONE’S BATH.

  —PICASSO

  Which totally does not make me imagine Mik in the bath. Because that would be wrong.

  Good-bye, back of Mik.

  He goes through his doorway, and I go through mine, and thus is perpetuated for another night one of the world’s great injustices: the segregation of musicians and puppeteers.

  They have their backstage lounge, we have ours. You’d think someone’s afraid we might rumble. There’s a cellist on our turf – get him! Or, more likely but less interesting, it’s a simple matter of space. Neither lounge is very big; they’re just windowless rooms with lockers and a couple of sad couches. The musician couches are slightly sadder than ours, one clue to the hierarchy here. Puppeteers rule the roost, but it’s not a very posh roost. In general, musicians respect their status (i.e., easily replaceable), but the singers, not so much.

  The reason I hate it when we perform operas – like now, we’re doing Gounod’s Faust – isn’t because I don’t like opera. I am not a philistine. I just don’t like opera singers. Especially sultry Italian sopranos in heavy eyeliner who go out for drinks with the strings section after the show. Ahem, Cinzia ‘fake beauty mark’ Polombo.

  Anyway. It’s the puppeteers who matter around here. There are ten, six of whom are in the lounge ahead of me, pretty well filling it.

  ‘Zuzana,’ Prochazka says the second he sees me. ‘Mephistopheles is drunk again. Would you mind?’

  Drunken devil. All in a day’s work. To be clear, I am not a puppeteer. I am a puppet-maker, a different animal altogether. Some puppeteers do both: build and perform. But my family has always stuck to fabrication, with the idea that you can be decent at two high art forms, or you can excel at one. We excel. Excellently. Still, it behooves a puppet-maker to understand puppeteering. My professor at the Lyceum – Prochazka, who also happens to be lead puppeteer here – requires practical theatrical experience, so here I am. I scurry and fetch for the puppeteers, restring marionettes, retouch paint, mend costumes, and lend a spare pair of hands for easy things like fluttering birds or clip-clopping the horse hooves.

  In this case, Mephistopheles has a loose string, making him list drunkenly to one side. It’s an easy fix. ‘Sure,’ I say, and put my stuff in my locker, more mindful than usual of the contents of my bag. Once the lounges clear out – puppeteers to the stage and musicians to the orchestra pit – I have some sneaking to do. The thought of it kicks my heartbeat sideways.

  I have to break into Mik’s violin case.

  I grab my tool kit. First I have a devil to sober up.

  4

  Drastic

  It’s Act II. I can hear Mephistopheles singing. I text Karou: Kindly confirm: If someone’s evil, then killing them isn’t murder. It’s SLAYING, and not only legal but encouraged. Correct?

  No reply.

  After a minute, I text again: Taking your silence as a YES. Sharpening knife. Text now to stop me. 3–2–1…Okay then. Here I go.

  Still no reply.

  One last text: It’s done. Am currently dragging an opera singer to the taxidermist by her hair. Plan to have her stuffed and mounted above Aunt Nedda’s TV.

  For a moment, my frustration over the soprano is undercut by anxiety as I ponder what Karou might be doing in South Africa that she can’t answer her phone. Poacher, or witch doctor? I have no success imagining either, and resume frustration.

  ARGH! Prochazka kept me scurrying during Act I, then there were sets to change, and just when I was going to slip away, Hugo had to pee and handed off Siebel to me, even though I am not cleared to operate a marionette in a show! I didn’t have to do anything but make it stand around, at least, and when Hugo came back, I made my escape – back to the puppeteers’ lounge to grab my drawing, and then…just as I was about to creep into the musicians’ lounge…

  ‘Excuse me. Girl!’

  Cinzia Polombo appeared in the doorway. Girl? She actually snapped her fingers to get my attention. Oh yes. But it gets better. She handed me her empty coffee cup and, because she doesn’t speak Czech, said in English, with a luxuriant and imperious R roll, ‘Hurrry.’

  Oh. I hurried.

  If anyone has ever filled a coffee cup with cigarette butts faster than I did tonight, I would be very much surprised.

  ‘Is that not what you wanted?’ I asked her in purest innocence when she gasped and looked aghast.

  ‘Coffee! I want coffee!’

  ‘Ohhh. Of course,’ I said. ‘That makes so much more sense. I’ll be right back.’ And I was right back. I handed her the cup, now full of cigarette butts and coffee, and kept walking.

  ‘Disgraziata!’ she shrieked at me, dashing the contents to the floor, but I just kept going, back into the puppeteers’ lounge, where I sit now on the sadder of two sad sofas, thwarted. Cinzia is still in the musicians’ lounge, where she should not be. Her cue is any minute. What’s she doing in there, aside from cursing in Italian? I’m going to lose my chance!

  My phone vibrates. It’s Karou. Finally. She texts: Go to the taxidermist on Ječná. They’re the best with humans.

  —Perfect. Thanks for the tip. Find that poacher?

  —Much to his dismay.

  —Wishes?

  —A slot-machine jackpot of shings. Nothing stronger, though.

  That sucks. She’s looking for more powerful wishes, and shings, I know, are only a little better than scuppies. I text: Well, better than nothing?

  —Yeah. So tired. Going to sleep now. GO FORTH AND CONQUER!

  Again, whatever went down in South Africa, I can’t begin to imagine it. As for the taxidermist, for a second I consider checking to see if there really is one on Ječná, but I dismiss the thought. If Karou was in the habit of having humans stuffed, that jackass Kaz would not still be
walking around.

  At the thought of Kaz, and to the continued sound track of a high-strung soprano cursing in Italian, I can’t help but imagine what I might do in this moment with a limitless supply of scuppies. Really, Karou was incredibly restrained. I could not be trusted. I would be afflicting people with itches every second, at the slightest provocation. Think about it. With the power of itch – even better, the power of cranny itch – you’d be master of any situation.

  Maybe not any situation. It wouldn’t really help me with Mik.

  Anyway. I’m not going to waste a single scuppy on Cinzia Polombo. I will preserve them for Mik-enchantment.

  IF I EVER GET MY CHANCE TO INVADE HIS VIOLIN CASE, DAMN IT.

  Finally: a door slam, and stomping, and Cinzia is out of the way. I take my drawing – it’s rolled up like a scroll, edges burned, and tied with a black satin ribbon – and creep to the door of the musicians’ lounge. It’s ajar, and I can see that there’s no one inside. No sense waiting. A flash and I am in, opening locker doors, mindful that if anyone were to walk in, I would absolutely look like a thief. I don’t know which locker is Mik’s, and it’s impossible to open and close metal doors quietly, and some of them have locks on them, so I can only hope for the best.…

  And then I find it. Everything is a miracle. It is a miracle that one does not melt in one’s bath.

  Everything is a miracle, is it? Ask me again at the end of the night.

  I open the violin case and put the scroll inside. I close it, shut the locker, and back away. Time to escape. I flash back out the door, skirt Cinzia’s coffee-and-cigarette splash, and slide back into the puppeteers’ lounge, where I take a deep breath. Another. Another. Then I put on my coat, gather my things.

  This is the moment when I walk away from the Marionette Theater, possibly forever. I feel like a brave Resistance worker who has just planted a bomb, and will now walk away, cinematically, without a backward glance. Because here’s what I’ve decided: If things do not go well tonight, I am never coming back here. It’s the only way I can do this, by removing the inevitability of embarrassment. I never have to see Mik again. There will be no awkwardness, no blushing.

 
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