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Night of cake & puppets, p.3
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       Night of Cake & Puppets, p.3

         Part #2.50 of Daughter of Smoke & Bone series by Laini Taylor
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  No blushing.

  I’m struck suddenly by the very real possibility of never seeing Mik blush again, and…my heart hurts. My heart has never hurt before. It’s real pain, like a bad bruise, and catches me off guard. I always thought people were making that up. It makes me wonder about kissing and fireworks and all the other stuff I always assumed was made up. And the pain comes again, because this is it, things are set in motion, and soon I’ll know, one way or the other. He’ll come or he won’t.

  What if he doesn’t come?

  Oh god. Is this too drastic? Maybe I should have just had faith in the normal way: ferocious blushing, time passing, hoping and pining, always alert for some sign of interest until an exchange of small talk can occur. (‘Have you tried this treatment for female baldness? I hear it’s life-changing.’) And maybe over more time small talk turns into shuffling toward shared coffee…or maybe the blushing just goes on and on and nothing ever happens, drastic or otherwise, and then it’s like in a TV show when they string the sexual tension between two characters out for too long and you stop caring and it all just turns to dust?

  No. I can’t take dust, or small talk, or shuffling. It’s got to be drastic. One way or another, tonight I’ll know.

  I want to go backstage and peer into the orchestra pit one last time, but if I do, one of the puppeteers is sure to snag me for some job, and I won’t be able to escape. Still, I pause at the stage door and listen. I hear Cinzia singing Marguerite, this tragic character debauched in a devil’s bargain. She seems to have mastered her diva rage and actually sounds pretty good…for a third-rate soprano singing in a marionette theater, anyway…but that’s not what I want to hear. I listen for the violin.

  There it is, this sound that rises out of the music like a beam of light cutting through darkness. It’s as sweet as love, so goddamn beautiful I could cry, and it’s like my whole being forms the word please.

  I don’t believe in prayer, but I do believe in magic, and I want to believe in miracles.

  Please come, I think through the wall, sending the words toward the sweet, pure sound, and the sweet, pure boy who’s making it.

  And then I leave.

  It’s snowing. I wrap my scarf around my face and feel a kind of peace. I’ve played my gambit.

  It’s up to him now.



  Voodoo Eyes

  The curtain drops. The music dies away and applause overcomes it, and when I lower my violin, another Saturday night sits like a cat on a fence.

  I’m not a fan of cats. With one shining exception. Wolfgang established an impossible standard, then died when I was ten, and every cat since has been a source of disappointment. You hold out your hand to them, and they just look at it, and since they’re not stupid, this act can only be interpreted as mockery.

  Yeah, buddy, that’s a hand. You’ve got two of those bad boys. Good for you.

  Not: Oh, you’d like to pet me? Let me come closer, because I like you, too.

  That’s me and Saturday night lately. It just looks at my hand until, ashamed, I lower it and try to pretend I didn’t really want to pet it anyway. The thing that I want to happen consistently does not happen. Mocked by fate? Maybe.

  Maybe tonight will be different. It didn’t begin well, but there’s always hope.

  ‘Party at Stooge’s,’ says Radan as we file out of the orchestra pit, and that’s the opposite of hope. It’s the cat glaring at me, because it’s where I’ll probably end up tonight, and if I do, it will mean that for yet another Saturday, she will have slipped through my fingers. She will not be at Stooge’s, would never be at Stooge’s. I don’t know where she goes after work, but I imagine stars and mist and halls of mirrors, and I want to be there, too.

  I want to do mysterious and improbable things alongside a fierce and beautiful girl who looks like a doll brought to life by a sorcerer.

  Is that really so much to ask?

  I look for her in the hallway, but don’t see her. And the door to the puppeteers’ lounge is open, so I see as I pass that she’s not in there, either. Did I already miss her? Probably.

  Can’t blame fate, I know that. It’s my own suffocating idiocy. Why can’t I just speak to her? I was going to earlier, when we were walking into the theater. It’s embarrassing, but I’d waited under the awning across the street until I saw her coming. Only for a couple of minutes. Nothing weird. I don’t know what I would have said, anyway. Probably something inane, like, ‘Looks like snow.’ Or possibly ‘I like cake.’ (She likes cake. This is one of four things I know about her. The others are: 2. Her name is Zuzana, 3. she’s in her last year at the Lyceum, so is probably eighteen, which is young but not heinously young, and 4. she can freeze a person’s blood with a look. I’ve seen it happen, though I have not been on the receiving end. She has voodoo eyes, and is more than slightly terrifying. Hence the not-yet-talking-to-her.) But I said nothing, inane or otherwise, because she halted abruptly to consider a flyer on the wall, and I didn’t know what to do but keep walking.

  Damn it.

  I wonder what the flyer was. I’ll have to check on my way out. Not sure I want to, though. I’m afraid it will confirm my suspicion that she was just trying to avoid me.

  The moment I walk into the musicians’ lounge, a voice cries my name, and I cringe. ‘Mik!’

  Cinzia. ‘Meeek,’ she pronounces it, and it sounds like a condemnation: meek! And then she’s right in front of me and I shrink a little. I can’t help it. Being looked at by Cinzia is what I imagine having a red dot painted on your forehead by a sniper rifle feels like. Tuck, duck, and roll.

  ‘Did I sound not good tonight?’ she asks in English, with an exaggerated expression of woe. Everything about Cinzia is exaggerated, from her eyeliner to the way she walks, every step hip-slamming an invisible bystander out of her way.

  ‘What? Uh. You were fine.’ Just what every soprano longs to hear at the end of a show. You were fine.

  ‘I was give a shock, is difficult to be calm, for singing.’

  I have no plans to ask the source of this shock, but she’s already telling me. I’m at my locker, opening it, not really paying attention, when I hear the words puppet girl and tune abruptly in. ‘She did what?’ I ask.

  ‘I send her for coffee, she bring me cup full of cigarette butts. Can you believe?’

  Actually, I can’t. ‘You sent her for coffee?’ This is the part I can’t believe. Had Cinzia failed to notice the voodoo eyes? ‘She’s not a coffee-girl. She’s a puppet-maker.’

  Cinzia blinks. ‘No. The girl, the small one.’

  I nod. ‘Right. The small girl.’ Absurdly, I feel possessive talking about her. I think that this is the first time I ever have talked about her, and I have no wish to do so with Cinzia. ‘Anyway,’ I tell her, ‘we get our own coffee here.’

  She frowns at me. ‘She put cigarettes in my coffee,’ she says, like I’ve missed the point, and all I can do is try not to smile, because yeah, that’s what you’d do to Cinzia if you were the kind of person who just did what you wanted. So I guess Zuzana is the kind of person who does what she wants? That doesn’t exactly bode well for me, because wouldn’t she have talked to me by now if she had any interest in me?

  How pathetically passive, waiting for her to do the talking. That’s not who I want to be. I want to be the guy in a movie who’s, I don’t know, out walking his rabbit on a leash (I don’t have a rabbit) and knows exactly how to strike up a quirky, compelling conversation. Though maybe if you’re walking a rabbit on a leash, you don’t even have to speak; the rabbit does the work for you. Not that Zuzana seems like the rabbity type. Maybe if I were walking a fox on a leash. Or a hyena. Yeah, if I had a hyena, I’d probably never have to start a conversation again.

  Except for, ‘Sorry my hyena ate your leg.’

  I take my violin case out of my locker and open it, and…there’s something in it. A scroll of some sort, with burned edges like a pirate’s treasure map. Some gimmicky
party invitation? I don’t know. I guess I stare at it a second too long, because Cinzia follows my gaze, and what she says next changes the weight of the air.

  ‘She had this!’ she declares, in a tone of triumphant denouncement. ‘The small girl. She had this when I give her coffee cup.’

  What? Zuzana? My brain turns slowly. How could…something that Zuzana was holding…end up in my violin case?

  Hope is tentative. The cat does not approach, but it’s possible that it’s regarding my outstretched hand with something like interest.

  It’s also possible it’s all just a mistake.

  Cinzia reaches for the scroll and, without thinking, I knock her hand away – lightly – and when I look at her face, her nostrils are flared. She’s giving me how dare you eyes, cradling her hand like I just took a hammer to it. I don’t apologize, but lift the scroll out myself, lightly, like a relic. The blackened edges flake under my fingertips.

  It doesn’t feel like a mistake. It feels like a door opening, and lungfuls of fresh air rushing in.

  ‘What is it?’ Cinzia asks.

  I don’t know what it is. I very much want to know, but I do not want Cinzia to know, or Radan or George or Ludmilla or anyone else milling around looking mildly interested. ‘Nothing,’ I say, putting my violin and bow away. I don’t set the scroll down while I put on my coat and backpack, but switch it from hand to hand, having no doubt that Cinzia would snatch it and feel entitled to open it. In which case maybe I would take a hammer to her hand. I tuck the scroll into my inside jacket pocket, ignoring Cinzia’s hooded glare.

  ‘See you tomorrow,’ I say as a general announcement.

  Radan is surprised. ‘Not coming to the party?’

  ‘No,’ I say, because whatever is or isn’t in the scroll, I am done with default Saturday nights, and Stooge’s, and trying to block Cinzia from sitting on my lap, and spending the whole time imagining this alternate reality where a porcelain doll with voodoo eyes might be drinking tea in an oarless boat coursing down the Vltava with a parasol open to keep off the snow.

  Or, you know, something slightly more likely than that.


  Carpe Noctem

  I consider the bathroom for privacy to look at the scroll, but the door’s in view of the lounge and Cinzia is still watching me with narrowed eyes, so I leave the theater. It’s snowing. I pause on the steps to glance at the flyer that caught Zuzana’s eye earlier.

  It’s gone.

  It was a red page with a phone-number fringe at the bottom. Hanging in its place now is a sheet of white paper with one ragged margin. Torn from a notebook? It’s unlined, so: a sketchbook. Something is written in tiny letters right in the center. I have to lean in close and squint to read it. It says:

  Watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you

  because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.

  Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.

  —Roald Dahl

  And I know, I know it’s for me. A message. But what am I meant to see? I look out over the street, taking in bent-headed figures hurrying through the snow. No one catches my eye. A slice of river is visible as blackness in a gap between two buildings, and the lights of the castle cast a glow on the underbelly of the crouching sky. The falling snow is light powder spun by gusts, like a dance out of The Nutcracker. If there’s anything specific I’m supposed to see, I don’t know what it is, but I know that my eyes are open, and I’m not sure they’re glittering, but the world is.

  I take the page down, careful not to rip it as I unstick the tape and roll it up to join the scroll in my jacket, then rush across the street to a pub, where I don’t even order a drink or sit down at a table. I hope I won’t be lingering. I grab the scroll out of my jacket and slip the black satin ribbon off, and…I unroll it.

  And there she is.

  A beautiful drawing of a beautiful face. Her big, dark eyes look wide and expectant. She’s not smiling, but she’s not not smiling, either. No voodoo blood-freeze. There’s warmth there, and she’s looking right at me. I mean, it’s a drawing, of course (if she did it, and I assume she did, then she’s really talented), but it’s a drawing for me, and it seems to shoot a spark at me like real eye contact. With eye contact, the intensity of spark is due to…I don’t know, chemistry, whatever that really means. There are degrees of zing and tingle, depending on the eyes in question, and though these are just graphite renderings of eyes, there is zing. There is tingle.

  At first the face is all I see, but then I realize what it is I’m looking at. What it is that she’s given me. Her face is in the center, but the whole page is covered in a diagram: streets and landmarks, carefully drawn and labeled. My first thought, seeing the scroll tied with ribbon, had been that it looked like a treasure map, and…it is.

  It’s a treasure map. And the treasure? There she is, in the center of the page, the X-marks-the-spot.

  Zuzana is the treasure.

  I have a dark thought that it’s a joke, that one of my friends has done this, but I dismiss it. None of my friends can draw. Besides, none of them even know I want to know her. I haven’t mentioned her, for fear of pubescent-caliber backstage hijinx, and I don’t think I stare at her. (When anyone’s looking.)

  No. It’s got to be real.

  So I do that awkward thing you do when you get good news in the company of strangers and you look around at them, grinning like an idiot, and they look back, not grinning like idiots, and you almost have to tell them, to tell someone. You almost hold up your piece of paper and say, ‘The girl I like just gave me a treasure map to herself.’

  But you don’t. You just don’t.

  So I don’t.

  (Okay, so I do, but I immediately want to take it back. The knot of strangers is unmoved by my joy. In fact, I think that guy with the hat is the Enemy of All Happiness and might follow me and try to kill me.)

  Pull yourself together, Mik. You have a map to follow.

  I turn my back on the Enemy of All Happiness (on the principle that most people who look like they want to kill you probably won’t) and study the map. My map. Because it’s for me. From Zuzana. Nope, not gloating. Just stating the facts in case you tuned out for a minute and missed it. Zuzana made me a map to herself.

  And in a little speech balloon emanating from between her lips is written, in tiny letters:

  Carpe noctem.

  Seize the night.

  And I blink and feel a surge of certainty and excitement, because of course that’s what one does when one wants something. One seizes it.

  Well, maybe not all things. Cats, for example, do not respond well to seizure. Probably girls don’t, either. So this might not be a good credo in life, but for Saturday nights in general and this one in particular, it works.

  My eyes keep returning to Zuzana’s face. There’s a smile pending, I think: the faintest tug at the left corner of her mouth, captured like a smile on pause. I want to unpause it and watch it unfurl. So how do I do that? Where do I go? Words. Places. Focus, Mik. Stop grinning.

  Find her.

  I’m in Malá Strana now. The marionette theater is in Little Quarter Square, in the shadow of the Church of St. Nicholas, and the map is of Old Town, so I head across the river.

  The Charles Bridge is one of those places that never gets old. Day or night, sun or snow, it’s always different, the view on both banks of the Vltava like something out of a medieval engraving. On second thought, it actually does get old when it’s crammed with tourists, which is pretty much all sunlit hours for most of the year, but it’s quiet now, just a few scattered folk hurrying both ways between the rows of statues, like running a gauntlet of saints. I have this notion that any minute the saints could reach out their great stone arms to swat passing butts, and I realize that I’m giddy.

  And nervous.

  The map indicates a site in the mazelike heart of Old Town, which I know well but not well enough to remember what this pa
rticular place might be. I walk, and the closer I get, the more my nerves tighten like violin strings. Will it be a cafe, maybe, or a pub? Will she be waiting at a table? Somehow I can’t picture her just sitting there. It’s too mundane. The treasure map, the quote, the night of soft snow…it all portends something odder than that. So I’m not really surprised when I get there – pausing before rounding the corner to draw a deep breath – and find…no Zuzana.

  The site is not a cafe or a pub. It’s a tourist trinket shop of the sort that is ubiquitous in this quarter, all of them full of the same Mucha prints and cheap marionettes and gaudy Bohemian crystal. It’s closed and dark, as one would expect at this time of evening, and I turn in a circle, looking around.

  Watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you.…

  I watch. I see a black cat slip through an open door across the street and have a brief impulse to follow it, as if it might be a feline escort doing Zuzana’s bidding. I smile, glad no one can read my thoughts. Zuzana probably can’t command cats with her mind. Probably.

  I keep looking.

  There are a couple of posters taped to a door, but they’re for an absinthe tasting already past and a tour of Bohemian castles yet to come. Graffiti on the sidewalk, but it’s just soccer propaganda. Nothing else catches my ‘glittering eyes.’

  I examine the map, but I’m pretty sure I’ve read it right.

  Is this a joke? Could she be messing with me?

  Of course she’s messing with me. The real question is: Is she messing with me for good or evil, and am I a fool for playing along? I could just shrug right now and go meet my friends at Stooge’s.

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