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Night of cake & puppets, p.4
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       Night of Cake & Puppets, p.4

         Part #2.50 of Daughter of Smoke & Bone series by Laini Taylor
 
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  The thought makes me laugh out loud. As if.

  I have an instinct about Zuzana. I think she’s not good or evil, but both – the perfect mixture of the two, a swirled ice-cream cone of good and evil – and she won’t have led me here for no reason. There’s something I’m not seeing.

  But what? I’m just standing here with my hands in my pockets, wondering what I’m missing, when I hear a tap. It’s faint, at the glass shop window behind me – the place on the map – and the hair lifts on the back of my neck as I turn toward it.

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

  And what unfolds after that…well, it makes cat-mind-control seem feasible.

  7

  Carpe Diabolus

  There are marionettes, and there are marionettes. The Czech Republic has a long history of puppetry as art; it’s a part of our national character, and puppets are part of the set-dressing of Prague. They’re everywhere: hanging in shop windows, museums, theaters, street stalls. And most of what you see? By far most of what you see – particularly in shops like this – are not artisanal puppets from masters’ workshops, like the ones at the theater. These are tchotchkes, tourist junk, mass-produced, forgettable. Clowns and princesses and knights, their heads round balls with features painted on. And that’s what these are like.

  Except for one.

  I didn’t see it before because…I wasn’t really looking. A failure of ‘glittering eyes,’ I’m ashamed to say. The first thing is, it’s not inside the window. It’s outside, in front of the glass, behind which hangs a rack of humdrum tchotchke puppets. I guess I just took it for part of the store’s display. Of course they wouldn’t leave a puppet like this outside to be snowed on or stolen; I see that now. Because this puppet isn’t humdrum. It’s a beauty, of a quality one just does not find in a shop like this.

  Oh. And also? It’s kicking at the window with its heel.

  So there’s that.

  Tap tap.

  At first, it gives me a start for the reason one might expect: Because if a puppet is moving, then someone is moving it, and I assume that person must be Zuzana, and so I assume that she is here. I flush and feel my pulse stutter, and I try to gather my stammering wits in expectation of finally meeting her. But that’s just the first instant. Because in the second instant, I find the fault in this assumption.

  No one is moving this marionette. No one could be. Its crossbar is hooked to the upper window frame in full view, and its strings are slack. Even as its foot taps, its strings are slack, so that it appears to be moving its leg under its own power. Which is absurd, of course, so my mind smoothly transitions to a new assumption: that this puppet is mechanical. Remote-controlled, or something. Which is weird, but, you know, less weird than the alternative.

  Well, whatever its method of movement, now that it’s gotten my attention, its leg falls still. I take a step closer, examining it. Examining him. I find myself thinking of the puppet as a ‘him.’ He’s one of the most iconic of Czech characters: none other than the devil himself.

  He’s got a polished mahogany look: smooth, dark wood, cunningly carved and splendid, with a goat’s horns and beard, and goat legs tufted with cottony black fur. He’s a St. Nicholas Day cert (devil), to be specific, identifiable by his sack. You see, in the Czech Republic, on December fifth, St. Nicholas goes around bringing candy and small gifts to children, accompanied by an angel and a devil. In a holiday tradition that is the stuff of nightmares, the devil threatens to scoop bad children into his sack and carry them to hell. (And you thought coal in your stocking was harsh?)

  It’s not uncommon for actors playing the cert to actually scoop small children into their sacks.

  Uh-huh. It happened to me. I couldn’t have been older than four. It may even be my earliest memory. The sack was scratchy and smelled like earth; inside, the darkness was total. I screamed myself hoarse; it probably lasted less than a minute, but I remember the terror as sprawling, unending. The cert was my uncle in coal-face, and my mother was not pleased with him. By way of apology, he gave me my first violin. It was only a toy, but it became my immediate favorite thing in life, and I sawed at it and sawed at it until my father couldn’t take it anymore and bought me a real one, and lessons.

  I have been known to say that the devil gave me my first violin. It’s not even a lie.

  So far, the tap tap is the only hint that this puppet might be my reason for being here, but on closer examination, I see that he has a small note peeking from his jacket pocket like a handkerchief. And on it, more of the tiny writing that is becoming familiar.

  Carpe diabolus.

  First, seize the night. Now, seize the devil. It is for me, then, if the creepy tapping had left any real doubt. For a moment, standing there, I feel the full experience of this night wrap around me. The detail of it, the planning. It’s like something out of a fairy tale, and the city looks strange and new and full of secrets, shadows as sharp as if they’re laid down in paint, and light…light like haloes and phosphorescence, fireflies and animals’ eyes.

  I reach up and ‘seize the devil,’ lifting its crossbar off the window frame, and I wonder: What now? I run my eyes over it, turn it around, looking for more writing. Nothing. I even take out the little handkerchief note, but there are no other words on it. There seems to be something in its sack, though, so I ease open the drawstring and look in. I half expect there to be a tiny child curled inside being abducted to hell, but there’s only paper. Of course, when I draw the paper out, it is not ‘only’ paper. Nothing about this night is ‘only’ or ‘just.’ Everything is gilded and strange and ethereal, and so this is an origami butterfly, folded of floral Japanese paper embossed with gold. I turn it over, looking for writing on it and finding none, and have just concluded that I have to unfold it when…

  …it takes flight.

  It takes flight.

  The origami butterfly lifts into the air, and I could almost tell myself the wind has blown it, except that I’m holding it between my fingers and feel a tug of…will…as it disengages. Its wings beat once, sending it into a graceful upward spiral so that I tip my head back to watch it hover there for an instant, looking astonishingly alive…and then it’s apparently released by whatever power lifted it, and it floats back down to me.

  I’m almost afraid to catch it – how, how did it do that? How did she do that? – but I do catch it. It’s a trick, I tell myself, marveling. It’s ‘magic’ – the kind in quotes. Of course. Because that’s the only kind of magic there is.

  There’s a string tied to it or something.

  Some kind of completely invisible string that puppeteers know about, and which has now vanished, leaving no trace. Vanishing puppet string. Is that a thing? I don’t think that’s a thing. I turn the butterfly over and over in my fingers, searching for an explanation, but there’s none to be had. Well. Except one.

  Magic.

  The kind not in quotes.

  A little war commences in my brain, ‘rational self’ versus ‘hopeful self,’ cage match. I’m not religious; I don’t believe in things – not out of any determination not to. It’s more like a default setting: My brain is an inhospitable environment for belief, but I’ve always said – and really meant – that life would be more interesting if those unseen things were real (and dragons, too, please), and of course death would be less of a bummer if there were a heaven (hell not so much). I’ve just never been able to believe any of it. Right now, though, to some small but detectable degree, it feels like the pH balance in my mind is shifting. Like my skepticism is being neutralized. Hopeful self is sitting on rational self’s chest.

  I unbutton the devil puppet’s coat. If there’s a radio control mechanism or something inside him, the natural balance of my mind will be restored. If not, who knows?

  Under the coat I find a wire armature. No, not an armature. It’s…a birdcage. The puppet’s body is a small birdcage, and where his heart would be there is a tiny yellow ca
nary on a bird swing, rocking gently to and fro. I wouldn’t be surprised if it chirped, or flew. It doesn’t, though, and I feel through the rest of the puppet’s clothes for some hidden mechanism that might account for that tap tap of his leg at the glass, but there’s nothing. He’s wood and wire, just a puppet, and that tapping leg just hangs from the bottom of the birdcage, no internal control device at all. Only the puppet strings could have moved it.

  And the strings were slack.

  Curious. (You know, if curious means ‘impossible’ or ‘freaky’ or…‘indelibly awesome.’)

  And now my head feels all full of moonlight or starlight or something. Or snow. My head feels like a snow globe that’s been shaken, and glitter is swirling around in it like unmoored stars.

  I unfold the butterfly. On the white underside of the origami paper I find a rhyme and a small schematic.

  Near the Devil’s Stream

  and using poison as bait,

  my counterpart impatiently waits.

  Okay. I’m good at riddles. The Devil’s Stream is the canal where the Vltava flows around the Kampa, the island on the Malá Strana side of the river. As for ‘my counterpart,’ it could mean Zuzana’s counterpart, but I don’t know who that would be. If it’s the devil’s counterpart, though, it would be an angel, so I search my mind for some famous angel in that area but come up empty. As for ‘using poison as bait,’ I come up really, really empty.

  So maybe I’m not good at riddles after all. Fortunately, there’s the schematic, which shows a street, a tiny red X inscribed on it. A new destination, right back the way I just came.

  Cradling the devil in the crook of my arm like a baby, I set off.

  Whistling.

  Her

  8

  Thank God for Murdered Monks

  He came.

  He came to find me.

  When Mik rounds the corner out of sight, I sag against the wall of my hiding place – behind a lace curtain in the foyer of the building across the street – feeling as spent as if I’ve actually been conjuring spells and not just holding colored beads between my fingers. I let out a long breath.

  Mik came to find me.

  Did I think he wouldn’t? I don’t know. I don’t know. I get too flustered around him to attempt anything like sustained eye contact, and without that, it’s kind of hard to gauge interest. But watching him from hiding like a creepy serial killer, I could actually focus on his face long enough to believe that…he looked interested. Didn’t he? Well, he always looks interested, he’s that kind of alien, but just now he looked…dazzled.

  ‘Don’t you think he looked dazzled?’ I ask the black cat that’s rubbing against my legs. It slipped in here right when Mik showed up, like it was bloody well trying to lead him to me, and when it started purring as loud as a farm truck, I thought for sure Mik would hear. I may have shushed it. Shushed a cat. And what do you think it did? It purred louder.

  ‘I will do just as you wish,’ said no cat ever.

  In the safety of aftermath, though, my concern seems a little foolish. What did I think, that Mik would thrust open the door and demand, ‘Why purrest thou, feline?’

  The cat continues its purr-fest, which I take to mean: Yes, Mik was definitely dazzled. How could he not be? I ensorcelled him. For which, thank you, scuppies. Two down. One for the tapping, one to lift the butterfly into the air. Poof! Poof! They go fast. I wish I had Karou’s whole necklace. Karou. I text her: Phase One a success. The Puppet That Bites would be proud.

  Because, yeah, using scuppies to animate a puppet, where on earth did I come up with that idea?

  It’s not copying, though. It’s an homage. Of course, that’s what artists always say when they steal from other artists. In this case, though, it really is an homage, to my own magical awakening two years ago. It seems right that Mik should be awakened in the same way. That we should lose our magic virginity the same way. To creepy puppets, during snowstorms.

  (Okay. That sounds so wrong. But you know what I mean.)

  The butterfly was my idea, though, and I think it was really the cherry on the cake, the thing that said, Oh, you think this is a trick? So how am I doing this, smart guy? I try to imagine what I’d think if it happened to me, but I can’t. Once you know magic is real, it’s really hard to remember what it was like not to know. It’s kind of like trying to see how you look with your eyes closed.

  (I did that once. I was a kid. It occurred to me out of nowhere to wonder what I looked like with my eyes closed, so I…um, went to the mirror and…closed my eyes.)

  (Yeah. I looked exactly like the inside of a pair of eyelids.)

  (I’ve never claimed to be a genius.)

  I wait, giving the black cat a good scratch and letting Mik put some distance between us before I emerge from hiding. It’s cold. I’m exhilarated. My heartbeat feels like a jaunty tune and my lips might as well be a parade float, and the rest of me just the little people on the ground holding the tethers.

  Also, I’m starving, and I crazy have to pee.

  I kind of wish I was just meeting Mik at Poison Kitchen. I mean, I could. I could just walk in behind him and say, ‘Well played, handsome man. Now let us eat strudel and then kiss. Just as soon as I get back from the bathroom.’

  But I’m not done dazzling him yet. I have more scuppies to spend before we reach the talking portion of the evening. I’m hoping the talking portion is just a thin layer between the dazzling portion and the kissing portion, like the frosting between layers of a cake.

  (Mmm. Cake.)

  Not that I’m not keen to talk to him. I am – in the fantasy version of tonight, anyway, in which I actually manage to string words into sentences, and not just random magnetic-poetry sentences, but sentences that don’t lead to the logical conclusion that I have brain damage. It’s just…I can’t begin to account for the intensity of my urgency to get kissing. The most likely explanation, after long thought, is that I’m a clone preprogrammed to perform this activity now or self-destruct.

  Or else it’s just Mik’s velvety sweetness. Like a cupcake, in boy form.

  I start walking, pausing to peer around the corner and make sure he’s gone. I proceed toward the Malá Strana, stopping in a cafe on the way to alleviate the more pressing of my physical urges (neither lips nor stomach, no; nothing trumps the bladder), and then continue on, hurrying, but careful to scan the way ahead and make sure I don’t overtake my stalkee. I don’t see any sign of him, though, and amuse myself by wondering which set of footprints through the snow on the Charles Bridge might be his.

  Those? Maybe.

  When I feel a surge of fondness for Mik’s maybe-footprints, I know I’m in serious trouble. The fact that I can’t even muster any true self-disgust tells me how deep this goes. I’m doomed.

  It’s about the time I’m creeping into the courtyard of Poison Kitchen – under the archway draped in black, frozen ivy, into the garden of medieval tombstones where the murdered monks lie buried – that I start to wonder if I’m being creepy. I mean, I am creeping. Does creep-ing automatically make one creep-y? Or are there dispensations for…romance?

  I bet all stalkers believe they’re being romantic. I did it for love, officer.

  Have I crossed the line? I’m about to peer in through a window at Mik. For some reason, this feels worse than peering out a window, as I was just doing with a fairly clear conscience. After all, peeping toms peep in, not out. But this is still a public space, I argue to myself. I’m not peeping in his window. I would never do that. This is a cafe. Moreover, it’s kind of my cafe. Mine and Karou’s. In no legally recognized way, of course. We don’t own it, except spiritually.

  Which is a much higher court than actual real estate ownership. So I creep, totally uncreepily, up to the window.

  And…there are…there are some little downy black feathers on the ledge. I know whose they are. Whose they were. Kishmish used to come here and tap at the glass to summon Karou. I get a lump in my throat remembering hi
s little charred body falling still in Karou’s hands, and these feathers serve as a reminder of how simple my life is, how lightweight this evening is, and how un-life-threatening the consequences of failure. It also reminds me of my duty to provide Karou with a rabid fairy tale, so I look through the window boldly, ready to make some magic.

  And just as I see Mik, right where he’s supposed to be, someone says my name. Well, not my name. A version of my name. ‘Zuzachka?’ From behind me, in the courtyard.

  Only one person calls me that, if he even deserves the designation ‘person,’ which he doesn’t. Only one jackass calls me that, and I feel the cool of venom spreading through me, ready for deployment. Patience. I don’t turn to respond yet, because I’m watching Mik, who is right this very moment sitting on a velvet settee at Pestilence – Karou’s and my spiritual domain, which had been kept waiting for him by way of a RESERVED sign and a lovingly carved angel puppet – and I need to make magic happen right now.

  ‘What are you doing?’ asks jackass-voice.

  My hand is already in my pocket. My fingers find a scuppy. Mik’s facing the new puppet like it’s a friend who saved a seat for him. It’s the counterpart to the devil (which he’s holding in his lap): an angel of the same proportions. I made them last semester, for a St. Nicholas Day performance for my Puppetry grade, which of course was an A.

  I make the wish. I can’t see it come true, but the bead vanishes between my fingertips and I know from the way Mik rocks back in surprise that something has happened.

  Whereas the devil has a little canary on a swing where its heart would be, the angel has a heart-shaped hole carved in its chest, and in it, a sparkler…which has just ignited, turning its heart into a mini-firework. In the show, I had to light it with a match. In this case, I wished it alight. I hope it looks fancy. I can’t really see it from here, though, and anyway, with that done, I have less pleasant business to attend to. I turn around.

 
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