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Night of cake & puppets, p.5
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       Night of Cake & Puppets, p.5

         Part #2.50 of Daughter of Smoke & Bone series by Laini Taylor
 
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  ‘What do you want.’ No question inflection. Nothing but sticky, poisonous disdain.

  For Kaz. Kazimir Andrasko, Karou’s disaster of a first boyfriend. First and last. Her despoiler. She thinks I don’t know, but I know. And let me tell you something about me. I love vengeance like normal people love sunsets and long walks on the beach. I eat vengeance with a spoon like it’s honey. In fact, I may not even be a real person, but just a vow of vengeance made flesh. My parents swear I was a real baby and not a demonic bargain, but of course they would say that. Bottom line: There is enough spare vengeance in me to act on behalf of mistreated, undervalued, toyed-with girls everywhere, and this is Karou we’re talking about.

  On behalf of Karou, Kaz has achieved the rarified status of Nemesis First Class, but has not yet been subjected to his personalized, Zuzana-tailored Scheme of Total Annihilation.

  Yet.

  ‘Just saying hi,’ he says, looking taken aback, like he actually thought I’d be happy to see him. ‘What’s your problem?’ he asks.

  ‘What’s my problem? I have so many, but violent tendencies and probable demonic origins are the ones that should concern you.’

  ‘Huh?’ He gives me dumb-face, which is such a disappointing response to a good nemesis zinger. Kaz might deserve First Class status for Crimes of High Douchebaggery, but he’s just not quality enemy material.

  I sigh, and tell him so. ‘You are not a worthy opponent.’

  ‘What are you talking about? Opponent at what?’

  ‘Opponent at opponenting. Duh. What are you doing here, Jackass?’

  ‘What do you think? Is Karou here? Are you meeting her?’

  I laugh. ‘You’re not seriously looking for Karou,’ I say, but I see by the persistence of dumb-face that he is. ‘She put you through a window the last time she saw you. Does that somehow leave room for hope?’

  ‘She didn’t know it was me when she did that,’ he argues. ‘What was up with her that night, anyway? Is she okay?’

  Is Karou okay? No. No, she’s really not, but in the scheme of her problems now, Kaz has become about as significant as a gnat inhaled by god. Snuff. I just shake my head. ‘Oh, Jackass,’ I say with what I hope comes across as gentle pity. ‘Poor Jackass. Let me explain something. You know in fairy tales, when a bunch of princes all try to win the princess’s hand, but they’re all vain and entitled and self-involved and they fail at the task and get put to death? And then there’s one who comes along who’s clever and good and he wins and gets to live happily ever after with her? Yeah, well, you’re the first kind.’ I pat him on the shoulder. ‘It’s all over for you.’

  Still dumb-face. And then he says, ‘You mean she’s seeing someone else?’

  ‘Oh my god!’ I can only laugh. ‘Talking to you is like playing catch with a toddler. Get out of here, Kaz. Did you think I was kidding before? You’re not welcome here. Imrich will put you in a coffin, and I will nail it shut.’

  The tables in Poison Kitchen are actual coffins, and the one-eyed owner, Imrich, is fond of me and Karou. We’ve been coming here at least three times a week for two and a half years. We painted murals in the bathrooms in exchange for goulash. Imrich is on our side.

  ‘Right,’ says Kaz, rolling his eyes, not believing – or fearing – it for a second. ‘Let’s go in, then. I hope you have your coffin nails ready.’ And he takes a step toward the door, calling my bluff.

  Damn. It.

  It’s not a bluff! Imrich will do it. He’s not entirely sane. I mean, look at his cafe! It’s full of gas masks and skulls, for god’s sake. Real ones. He will totally put Kaz in a coffin, and yes, he does have coffin nails. Like everything else in Poison Kitchen, they’re antique, and authentic. He says they’re from the coffins exhumed in Kutná Hora after some monk sprinkled Golgotha dirt there in the Middle Ages, making it the most popular graveyard in Central Europe. Most popular graveyard, what a thing! You’d only get to stay in the ground for so long before they’d dig you up to make room for the next guy. And – oh! Then in the late nineteenth century they hired some wood carver to make art out of all the dug-up bones. It’s awesome. Imagine afterlife as part of a skeleton chandelier. For real.

  The point is: coffin nails, check. Coffin, check. Crazy one-eyed Imrich and his bar cronies ready to take hold of pretty boy here and introduce him to the satiny interior of a hexagonal box?

  Check.

  Me, able to participate? Not check.

  Any other night. Any. Other. Night. But tonight is not for vengeance. I take a deep breath. It’s for a dazzling.

  I do not look to the window. I so strenuously don’t look to the window that my neck feels turned to concrete. I’m dying to know what’s going on with Mik, but I don’t want Kaz to catch me looking. He could mess everything up. I’m on a carefully calibrated schedule here.

  Has Imrich brought Mik’s tea yet? That’s the plan. Pestilence – Karou’s and my table, tucked under the giant equestrian Marcus Aurelius statue – was to be kept clear by a RESERVED sign, the angel puppet sitting there with its legs crossed on the velvet settee, and when – if – Imrich saw a guy come in and sit there, he was supposed to bring him a tea tray. Mik’s last clue will be tucked in the arsenic bowl. (The sugar bowl, that is. Tea at Poison is served in antique silver services, the cream and sugar dishes engraved arsenic and strychnine, hemlock, cyanide. Cute, right?)

  So basically, if Imrich has brought the tray, and Mik has found the clue, he could come through this door at any moment and I’ll just be standing here, and Kazimir Andrasko will witness our very first words.

  Nope. I’ve got to wrap up this snark-fight. ‘Actually,’ I tell Kaz, ‘I have other plans. But by all means, you go right ahead. And when you’re trapped in there, in the dark coffin, hungry, thirsty, hallucinating, and desperate to pee, when the cafe’s closed and there’s no one left to hear your screams, just know…that I’m not thinking of you at all.’ I gesture to the door, and as the coup de grâce, I give him…Excited Maniac eyes. These are the eyes that say, I have something fascinating to show you in the cellar. Come with me. It’s one of my favorite looks, and, incidentally, my brother’s least favorite, because it’s the one that invariably signals an escalation of hostilities to a level of dedicated vengeance that he could never match. He simply doesn’t have it in him. Tomas knows:

  You cannot defeat the Excited Maniac. You can only provoke her.

  Kaz might not know this experientially, but he intuits it. The eyes freak him out. I see it. He quails. Glances at the door. Gives me that curled-lip look that bullies get when they’re afraid of someone and trying to cover it up. He’s going to call me a freak next. Wait for it.

  ‘You’re a freak, Zuzana.’

  ‘Yeah,’ I confirm with relish, amping up the eyes. ‘I know.’

  And that’s it. He makes the decision. He turns and leaves. It’s disappointing and satisfying at the same time. Disappointing because Kaz just came this close to getting coffined and I talked him out of it, and satisfying because I scared the big tool, and that’s pretty much my mission statement.

  With Kaz finally gone, I swivel toward the window—

  —and see Mik headed my way! He’s got the angel cradled in one arm, the devil in the other, and I have approximately three seconds to vanish into thin air before he opens that door.

  That, or dive behind a tombstone.

  Thank god for murdered monks.

  9

  Heart Hole

  The door swings open, loosing the cafe din of voices and music into the courtyard, and then it shuts again, sucking back the noise like a cuckoo into a clock. Footsteps crunch across the snow. I can’t see, and I’m fairly sure I can’t be seen. I’m crouched behind a tombstone, just beyond the splash of light from the window, and as the sound of footsteps fades, I think two things:

  Hiding behind tombstones definitely constitutes stalker behavior.

  and

  Mik is en route to Location Three, and Location Three is the fin
al location, the place where I am supposed to manifest my actual self and commence human interaction.

  Do I have to? a voice in me whimpers. Can’t the puppets act on my behalf? Puppet ambassadors? Yeah, because what’s creepier than a stalker? A stalker ventriloquist who speaks through angel and devil puppets. I imagine Mik introducing me to his family: ‘I’d like you to meet my girlfriend Zuzana and…her representatives.’

  No no no. You can do this.

  I can do this. I unfurl myself from behind the tombstone. I am the same person who just put fear in the heart of that best-friend-despoiler, Kaz. Rabid fairy, rabid fairy. Why should speaking to a boy I like be so much harder than speaking to one I despise? I know it’s all brain chemicals – everything is brain chemicals – but my excitement and dread feel like tiny wrestlers in my heart right now. I picture Excitement choking out Dread and gently, almost lovingly, lowering his inert body to the ground.

  Go. Now. Leave Dread lying there. Go fast, before he gets up and sees which way you went. Breathe. Walk. Breathe. Walk. Look, Mik’s footsteps. Follow them.

  Breathe.

  Walk.

  Okay. I’m good. I’m going. I set my feet in Mik’s footprints and feel a connection to him, like a total lunatic. Location Three isn’t far, and it’s a route I’ve walked hundreds of times, usually with Karou. Breathe. Walk. Mik’s probably there already.

  Do I know what I’m going to say to him?

  Oh hell.

  Dread rallies, chases us up the block. High-kicks Excitement in the neck just before I round the corner to Location Three. It stops me in my tracks, and I find myself stuck to the side of the building by the centrifugal force of my anxiety.

  What am I going to say?

  I fumble out my phone and text Karou: URGENT ASSISTANCE REQUIRED. WORDS. FIRST LINE. JUST SOMETHING SIMPLE THAT WILL MAKE HIM FALL INSTANTLY IN LOVE WITH ME. GO.

  And then I wait, phone in my hand. And wait. The snow’s coming down faster now, and my breath is a dragon’s plume. The cold stone of the building seeps through my coat to turn my back to ice, and no message comes back from Africa.

  Fine. I shove my phone back into my pocket. I know what I have to do. The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, ‘First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.’ Good old Epictetus. I would be Confident Girl, and that means unplastering myself from the side of this building, for starters. It’s my personal theory that only 27 percent of perceived confidence is actual confidence, and the rest is sham. The key is: If you can’t tell the difference, there is no difference. Oh, the person shamming can feel the difference, in their clammy palms and pounding heart, but the outward effect – hopefully – is the same.

  Words will come out of my mouth when the time comes and I’ll just have to hear what they are at the same time Mik does. There’s no way to script this. (Or is there? Maybe I could write a script, and be in total control of our first conversation – No. No you cannot. Walk.) I set my body in motion. I feel Excitement and Dread hanging on to my ankles, but after a few steps I stop noticing, because I pass the point of no return. I round the corner into Maltese Square. There’s the pink Baroque facade of the Lyceum. The courtyard gate, and beyond it only shadows. I can’t see Mik, but…Mik can see me. I walk.

  Location Three is the courtyard of my school. It’s a pretty place, with a frozen fountain in the center and a marble bench carved to look like mermaids are holding it on their shoulders. The gate’s left unlocked at night so students can use the studios as late as they need, but on a Saturday night this early in the term desperation levels are low, and there won’t be anyone around. The courtyard’s private but only semi-enclosed, which seems right. Intimate but not too intimate.

  I stroll right up to the gate. That’s not my heartbeat pounding in my throat. That’s confidence.

  The gate’s standing open. I see Mik’s footsteps.

  I falter.

  Because Mik’s footsteps, they go in, and…

  …they come back out.

  They lead away.

  And when I look into the courtyard, this is what I see: On the mermaid bench, my angel and my devil are locked in an embrace.

  And Mik is not here.

  I look around, over both shoulders, across Maltese Square. I stop just short of looking up, as if he might have flown away. He’s nowhere.

  He left.

  Inside me: a desert of disappointment.

  Mortification.

  Paralysis.

  Bewilderment.

  And humiliation.

  I hate humiliation. I want to kick humiliation in its measly toothpick shins.

  I stand here for a minute before I realize that Mik could be watching from somewhere close by, and that thought propels me into the courtyard. I don’t step in his footprints now, but skirt them like I’m scorning them. Jerk footprints, take that. My heart feels zested. Finely shredded and ready to add to cake batter. It doesn’t hurt, because it’s not there anymore. Like the angel’s chest, with her empty heart hole – but without the sparkler.

  So very without the sparkler.

  I stop in front of the puppets, and there’s a blankness in my mind as I stare at them. He posed them like lovers. How mean. I would never have guessed that Mik was mean.

  And then I see that the ice orb is gone. I’d hung it from the arbor that arches over the bench. The final artifact on this treasure hunt: a smooth chunk of clear ice about the size of a baseball, and frozen inside it, rolled up and tucked into a little plastic tube, is one last message. The idea was that by the time the ice melted, I’d be ready for Mik to read it, ready for the talking portion of the evening to transition to the next portion. You know which portion I mean. Oh god. My lips are bereft, like they’ve been left at the altar. They were so sure how this night was going to end.

  Did Mik take the ice orb with him? Why would he do that? I look around to see if it might have fallen, but it’s not here, and…I start to get mad. He shouldn’t have taken it. If he was going to leave, he should have left the message, too. I don’t want it at large in the world for him to read and laugh over and show to his friends.

  (He wouldn’t do that, a voice in me insists, like I know him at all.)

  (You do know him.)

  I don’t. Of course I don’t. We’ve never even spoken. But I was pretty confident that he wasn’t a jerk. That he wasn’t a jackass. Not that this is on par with what Kaz did to Karou, of course, but it’s not great, either. I was fully prepared for him to not show up at Location One. I’d have been really disappointed, yeah, but I couldn’t have held anything against him. If he’s not interested, he’s not interested. But why follow the treasure hunt to the end, looking all dazzled and velvety the whole time, and then…run away?

  My phone buzzes. It’s from Karou: a list of conversation openers that I won’t be needing.

  —a) Hi. I’m Zuzana. I’m actually a marionette brought to life by the Blue Fairy, and the only way I can gain a soul is if a human falls in love with me. Help a puppet out?

  —b) Hi. I’m Zuzana. The touch of my lips imparts immortality. Just sayin’.

  —c) Hi. I’m Zuzana. I think I might like you.

  I read them with bitterness, then drop down onto the bench and nudge the puppets apart, breaking their embrace. The angel falls back, her arms askew, head lolling off the edge of the bench in a swoon. Dead of a broken heart. I think I might like you indeed. No dancing around it, just honesty. That’s what Confident Girl would say. If she had someone to freaking say it to.

  I write back: Thanks, but I won’t be needing these after all.

  —What? Why?

  —…he ran away.…

  —???

  —Left the puppets. Left them MAKING OUT and didn’t wait around for me. At least the puppets got some action tonight.

  There’s a pause during which I imagine Karou getting outraged. But when she writes back, it isn’t outrage that comes through.

  —This makes no sense, Zuze.
Did he leave a note or anything?

  A note? I didn’t think of that. A spark flickers in my heart hole. Is it possible?

  Heart hole.

  Heart hole! The angel’s heart hole. Something’s poking out of the angel’s heart hole! I look up, around, as if Mik might be spying on me the way I’ve been spying on him. But I don’t think so; there’s nowhere to hide. I reach out…it’s a rolled-up paper. I unroll it and, in a second, all of my disappointment, mortification, paralysis, bewilderment, and humiliation evaporate and are replaced by…giddiness, relief, thrill, swoon, and delight.

  It’s Mik’s own version of my first treasure map, hastily done. At its center: a ballpoint-rendered self-portrait that is pretty much a child’s smiley face doodle with sideburns and a goatee. As bad as it is – and it is – there’s something so sweet about it, something so totally affectless and jerk-free that I can’t believe I ever thought Mik would do something mean. Oh ye of little faith. I remember the conversation I had at Poison with Karou a while back, before I even knew Mik’s name, where I wondered what chance there was of him being a non-orifice. As if there could be any doubt! He radiates non-orificeness. I was just afraid to believe it – or else afraid that some other girl was already the lucky beneficiary of his non-orificeness.

  Which doesn’t appear to be the case – because he played my game tonight, and now…he’s inviting me to play his.

  The puppets’ embrace takes on new meaning, and my cheeks go hot. Was it a message? How could it not be? The scroll is a message, too: A speech bubble balloons from smiley-Mik’s lips. It reads:

  Devil’s Stream, 20 minutes.

  PS walk slowly

  And there’s a crudely drawn map of the Kampa, but no X-marks-the-spot that I can see. The Devil’s Stream isn’t very long, but it’s certainly long enough that a precise location would be helpful. And what’s with the twenty minutes? What’s he up to?

  Intriguing…

  My phone is vying for my attention. It’s a string of texts from Karou, all along the lines of: Hello? Z???

 
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