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Night of cake & puppets, p.7
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       Night of Cake & Puppets, p.7

         Part #2.50 of Daughter of Smoke & Bone series by Laini Taylor
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  ‘Here. Vinohrady. My family still lives there, but I’m in Nove Mesto now.’

  We’re both acting like we’re at a table in a cafe, as normal as can be. ‘I live in Hradčany,’ I tell him, ‘with a vampiric great-aunt.’

  And this totally normal conversation unspools from there, covering the basics: family, siblings, school, favorite composers, favorite movies, favorite wood (for carving puppets), the prehistory of the sandwich, and whether the ancient Romans got their togas caught in the spokes of their unicycles.

  Okay, so it starts out totally normal and takes a turn. On account of the ice orb.

  Ah, yes, the ice orb.

  See, while I’m not paying attention to it – because, hello, I’m paying attention to the beautiful boy who serenaded me and brought me cake – I guess it rolls up to rest against the hot teapot and…melts, and…yields up its message.

  Ready or not.



  Seize the Something

  So, I’m really cold. The tea’s helping a little, but it’s getting silly, staying out here. At some point it’ll go from silly in a good way to silly in a we’re-going-to-be-found-like-this-in-the-morning-with-our-smiles-frozen-on-our-blue-faces way. The tea can be our hourglass. When we run out, or it gets cold, whichever happens first, it’s time to go. But for the moment, the tea’s still hot, and it’s still good silly. A story we’ll tell.

  The night we finally met.

  It’s a really good story so far. I wonder how the rest of it will go. How it will end. The night, I mean, not the story. I know how I hope the night will end. Well. There are two versions, actually, but my better nature has locked my guy nature in a box on this one. My better nature hopes it will end with me walking Zuzana home and kissing her good night at her door.

  I keep wanting to reach over and touch her face.

  Hell. Seeing her shiver, I want to take her into my coat and button it around her. I want to warm my face against her neck and steam her up like a mirror and write my name on her with my fingertip. I want to warm my hands up, too. I think of her skin so deeply buried in there under coats and layers, and she’s like the secret center of a Tootsie Pop. Something about winter layers: They challenge you to imagine the hidden shape within. I mean, it’s not all imagination. I’ve seen Zuzana out of her outermost layers at least, at the theater, but I’ve only known her in winter, so: sweaters, scarves, jeans, boots. Nary a glimpse of ankle or clavicle, those miracles of girl geometry. It’s very Victorian, but in the depths of a girlfriendless winter, a glimpse of ankle would probably excite me.

  In the abstract, walking around the city with Zuzana’s notes and maps in my pockets and her puppets in my arms, it was easy to not be such a guy. There was something so innocent about it, like a fairy tale. But sitting right in front of her, looking at her beautiful face, there are…impulses. If this night is a fairy tale, then this is the happily ever after, right, or at least the beginning of it? And the thing about happily ever afters? Those princesses and woodcutter’s sons have bodies under their coats, too. I mean, what do you think happily ever after means?

  (I can’t be the only one who thinks this.)

  And it’s not like I’ve never imagined happily-ever-aftering with Zuzana. I’m a guy. But even before tonight, there was something about her that took my imagination to a higher level. A girlfriend level – like a movie montage of hand-holding and cooking dinners and reading books in the park.

  And then happily-ever-aftering. Eventually. Someday. Maybe.


  Untying the sash of Zuzana’s coat would be like taking the ribbon off a present.

  Cut it out.

  Okay. Better nature reasserted. I’m good. All this time we’re talking, and it’s easy. Zuzana’s funny and quick – witty – and she rolls with random things like peacock footprints so that every thread gets woven in and every topic gets bigger, weirder, more fun. It’s the best kind of conversation. We’re laughing a lot. I tell her how I got kidnapped to hell when I was four. She tells me about the biting puppet. I want to meet this crazy grandfather of hers, and now I really want a golem toe, too.

  And then I reach for the teapot to refill our cups one last time – the hourglass is up, the tea dregs are cold – and that’s when I notice: The mysterious ball of ice Zuzana hung up in the Lyceum courtyard has melted into a puddle. Well, half melted. The side resting against the teapot has gone flat, and the capsule inside is sticking out.

  ‘Oh.’ When I pick it up I see Zuzana go still, and I wonder: What’s in it? When I look inquiringly at her, she’s biting her lip. Nervous. ‘Should I open it?’ I ask, and she doesn’t answer right away.

  Now I’m really curious. Her eyes consider me in silence – and more silence, and more – and I have this uncomfortable feeling that she’s seeing right into my locked-away guy nature, and somehow knows I thought of her as a Tootsie Pop center, and then – silence, silence, silence – finally, cautiously, she says…‘Okay.’

  ‘Okay?’ I hold it up, the partial ice ball with this little tube sticking out of it.

  ‘Okay,’ she repeats, and her eyes are very still and clear, very dark and watchful. This is something important.

  I already can’t feel my fingers, and freeing the tube the rest of the way from the ice deadens them to the point that they feel like wooden finger prosthetics, and if you’ve ever tried to open a plastic tube and unroll a very small scroll using wooden finger prosthetics (and really, who hasn’t?), you know it’s not easy. And the whole time I’m fumbling around with it, the silence between us gets thicker and deeper, like the snow.

  At last, I manage it. I unroll the message, and read it.

  Carpe puella.

  Seize. Seize the something. Damn. I don’t know what puella means. I know what I hope it means, but it’s not like I speak Latin. Noctem and diabolus were easy, but now I’m the one biting my lip. ‘Um,’ I say.

  And Zuzana is still watching me with the intensity of a mind reader. Her jaw is clenched. I am messing this up.

  ‘I don’t…I don’t speak Latin?’ I hear myself ask it like a question, and as soon as the words are out, as if by magic, the tension leaves Zuzana’s face.

  ‘Oh. Me, either. I had to Google that. I was afraid it might be too obscure. Here.’ She reaches for the scroll and I hand it over, and then she gets a pen out of her bag and hunches over the note, screening it from my sight as she writes something more on it. Then she rolls it back up and solemnly hands it over.

  Now it reads:

  Carpe puella Zuzana.

  I swallow, and it’s cartoonishly audible. ‘That was what I hoped it meant,’ I say. ‘But if puella meant, like, sandwich, or bicycle, it could have been pretty embarrassing.’

  There’s a heavy pause from Zuzana, just long enough for me to realize how wrong of a response this is to a girl’s request – or, rather, command – to seize her, and then she asks, calmly, ‘Are there even Latin words for sandwich and bicycle? I mean, did the Romans even have sandwiches and bicycles?’

  ‘Well, sandwiches. There have always been sandwiches. The same aliens who brought dinosaurs to Earth brought sandwiches, too.’ What am I saying? Am I supposed to just lean across right now and reach for her? ‘I don’t know about bicycles, though.’

  ‘I don’t think they had bicycles,’ Zuzana says. ‘Just unicycles.’

  ‘Unicycles.’ I want to reach for her, but it seems so abrupt, I don’t know, like there’s a lunar logic to things like this, a pull of the moon, and the timing isn’t right. ‘I did not know that. Did their togas get caught in the spokes?’

  ‘All the time. There’s even a mosaic of it in Pompeii.’

  ‘It happened to my sister,’ I say. ‘Not a unicycle, though. She was on the back of some guy’s moped in Milan and her skirt got caught in the spokes, and it was this flimsy gypsy skirt and the whole thing just tore away from the waistband, so there she was, in just her underwear and waistband, on this chic
, busy street in Milan while like a dozen bystanders tried to free her skirt from the moped tire.’


  ‘She also got hit in the head by a pigeon. Same day.’

  ‘A pigeon…pooped on her head?’

  ‘No. No, it collided with her head. Actually knocked her off her feet and drew blood. She had to get shots, because of the risk of infection.’

  ‘Sounds like Italy was trying to get rid of her.’

  ‘Well, it worked. She left the next day and vows never to return.’

  So here we are, talking about Roman unicycles and alien sandwiches and my sister’s Italian misfortunes, while hanging in between us is:


  What’s wrong with me? Maybe I locked guy nature away too tightly. No, it’s not that. Guy nature is not what’s called for here. Zuzana deserves better than guy nature.

  ‘Can I borrow your pen?’ I ask her.

  She hands it to me, and I bend over the little scrap of paper and write: I want very much to carpe you, it says. I may try to surprise you, though, if that’s okay. Also, I can’t feel my face and hands.

  The writing is really messy, on account of not being able to feel my hands. I give the paper to Zuzana, and when she reads it, she laughs. ‘Maybe it’s time to go.’

  It is definitely time to go. So we get out of the boat, wrangling the tea tray. I help Zuzana up the ladder first and then follow, and it’s when I’m stooping on the dock for my violin case that I see…something completely crazy.

  All evening, ever since Carpe diabolus, my rational self has been lying on its back making lazy snow angels while hopeful self sits on its chest humming and I let myself play this game of magic. But it was still a game. I mean, I didn’t really believe it, I guess, because all of a sudden…I do. This is no longer suspension of disbelief. It’s belief, and the two things are water and wine.

  In front of me, forming one by one on the smooth pelt of the snow and leading fleetly away even as I watch, are footprints. For all my poetry quoting, I couldn’t actually tell you what a peacock’s tracks look like, but they probably look like this: like large-ish bird tracks. Like hieroglyphs.

  Like magic.

  I’m speechless. I turn to Zuzana, but she hasn’t noticed. She’s looking up at the sky, the snow swirling around her like feathers in a movie pillow fight, and I look back at the dock and already the tracks are vanishing beneath the new flurries – a secret sight no one will ever believe, maybe not even me tomorrow – and when I turn back to her, Zuzana is looking at me. Lacquer-dark eyes, choppy hair licked into spikes by the weather. Black coat, black boots, hands shoved in pockets. And that doll quality to her face that comes of being fine – fine as in museum-quality – every plane and curve like an artist’s harmonious choice – this fullness offsetting that austerity, this angle enhancing that arch – and the heart shape, and the wide-set eyes, and the elegant dark brows with their extraordinary mobility, and the smoothness.

  And the lips.

  The lips. Who can ever say how these things happen? I think the moon is in charge of more than just tides. Either I’ve moved or Zuzana has moved, I’m not sure which. I only know that she’s much closer all of a sudden, and whatever was hindering me from seizing her before has let me go. The space between us has vanished and I’m looking from her lips to her eyes and back again and she’s doing the same with mine, and there’s this instant as I’m leaning toward her that we both look from lips to eyes at the same moment and lock and it’s so far beyond zing and tingle, this eye contact. It’s like losing gravity and falling into space – the moment of pitching headlong when the endlessness of space asserts itself and there is no more down, only an eternity of up, and you realize you can fall forever and never run out of stars.

  Her face, my hands. Zuzana’s face is in my hands. My numb fingertips trace down her jawline and back into her hair – just far enough to curve around the column of her neck and – lightly, gently…

  …seize her.

  And kiss her.




  And there’s no better way to thaw a face, as it turns out, than with another face.



  Like Chocolate

  Two AM text to Karou: *yawn stretch* Long day. Think I’ll turn in now.

  Four seconds later: THAT’S NOT EVEN FUNNY

  —Not even a little?


  —Let’s see. Something good. *taps pencil against lip* Okay: ghost peacock


  —Used my 2nd-to-last scuppy to make peacock tracks appear in the snow.

  —…of course. Um. Who wouldn’t…?

  —And when Mik saw them, fireworks exploded in his brain. And then he kissed me.


  I start to type a response, but I haven’t gotten more than a couple of words in before the phone rings – as well it should, because this totally merits a phone call. I answer before the first ring is even finished. ‘So I’m totally going to make heart-shaped rock collections cool,’ I say. ‘Don’t doubt that I can do it.’

  There’s a pause, and then this voice that is not Karou’s says, ‘That’s uncanny, because I was just thinking of starting a blog that’s all photos of my hands making heart shapes around different stuff. Like dog noses and funny graffiti.’ And the voice that is not Karou’s is Mik’s, and for a second I’m paralyzed, my brain kicking into damage-assessment mode, but I pretty much immediately realize that I’m lucky. Very lucky. There were a million more embarrassing things I might have said, and anyway: Mik called me. ‘And balloons stuck in trees,’ he says. ‘And ducklings in bathtubs.’

  ‘And clouds shaped like handguns,’ I contribute.

  ‘Yes. And lewd root vegetables.’

  ‘And kids on leashes. And really bad clown makeup.’

  And it’s like we talk on the phone in the middle of every night, it’s that easy, and by the end of the call we’re half-serious about the heart-hands blog, and, in spite of my efforts to hijack it in a misanthropic direction, it’s a sweet idea, and Mik presses on undaunted with things like ‘baby feet’ and ‘surprised ostriches,’ and I’m so glad.

  ‘I should let you sleep,’ he says. ‘I just wanted to say good night.’

  ‘Good night,’ I say, sleepy, and happy with this layer-cake happiness that goes from bone-deep contentment – luxurious and almost lazy, like a hot bath – to fizzing, sparkler-in-the-heart-hole happiness that’s waking up new parts of my brain and teaching them dance steps.

  Mik says, ‘And I wanted to make sure you didn’t think, um, that I…hesitated…before because I didn’t want to kiss you.’

  ‘No,’ I say, though I did think that – or fear it – for a few minutes in the rowboat. I get it now, though, and there’s not a molecule in me that thinks that kiss was forced or reluctant or lukewarm. The kiss. The kiss spoke for itself. It erased all doubt. ‘It’s okay. It couldn’t be orchestrated. It had to just happen.’

  ‘I’m glad it did,’ he says.

  ‘Me, too.’

  ‘Do you think…maybe it can happen again tomorrow? With dinner? No, I can’t wait that long. Lunch? No. Breakfast?’

  Oh, I guess so. I’m radiating lighthouse beams in my bedroom. ‘Yes please.’

  And we make plans and say good-bye, and I hang up. A few call-interrupts came while we were talking, and I didn’t check them then but I see now that they were Karou, a voice mail and a string of texts, the last of which reads:

  —Whyyyyyyyy are you torturing meeeeeeeee?

  —Sorry! Sorry! Mik called.

  And it hits me again. Mik called me. This is now a thing that happens. And kissing. Kissing is going to be a regular part of my life now. I just see it, with this rare kind of clarity. It’s an open horizon before us, as far as the e
ye can see: no angst and no games, just mutual delight. So simple, but so rich. Like chocolate. Not a gold-dusted truffle or a foofy pastry tower teetering on a crystal platter, but a plain, honest bar of the best chocolate in the world.

  And I type a little more to Karou, and her happiness on my behalf practically wells out of the phone, but it’s so late, and I really just want to lie on my bed and replay the night in my head, so I sign off with a promise to call her in the morning, and then I lie there remembering.

  The sensation of falling, as Mik leaned down. His eyes were so near, and his lips, and I didn’t know which to look at, his lips or his eyes, and then…I just. Eyes, up close. I’ve never. His eyes are blue, and blue eyes up close are a celestial phenomenon: nebulas as seen through telescopes, the light of unnamed stars diffused through dusts and elements and endlessness. Layers of light. Blue eyes are starlight. I never knew. His lashes fluttered shut before mine; I know because I have a strobe-quick memory of his eyelashes dusted with perfect lace-pattern snowflakes – and then darkness as my eyes closed, too, and all my awareness poured out into my other senses.

  Touch. The softness of lips.

  At first, okay, there wasn’t so much softness as frozen-faced numbness, but really it just made me that much more aware of our breath, because our breath was warm and every second that our lips moved near and against each other in this feather-light way, I could feel more. It was like something coming into focus. I couldn’t say at what point I could feel fully, just that we got there. We got there slowly and exquisitely, our breath touching more than our actual lips, so that each small brush of contact was wrapped in longing for the next, and I learned this: The eye’s perception of texture is pale compared to the lips’, and I didn’t know what velvety was until I knew it with my lips.

  Oh, kissing. Oh, violin boy.

  I’m not sure how long it was. I couldn’t begin to guess. Somewhere between two minutes and twenty, and while it never stopped being sweet, it did, toward the end, start hinting at the mysterious connectivity of nerves, little rivers of fire that zither through your entire body awakening sleeper cells of feeling, each one adding another dimension to this mysterious inner landscape that is so much bigger than it seems, possibly infinitely, unknowably bigger. And reflexology no longer seems like hokum to me, because if a light touch at the nape of my neck can do that to my knees, then, where the human body is concerned…anything might be possible.

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