Daughter of Smoke and Bone(8)

Zuzana was Czech, from a long line of marionette artisans in Cˇ esky Krumlov, the little jewel box of a city in southern Bohemia. Her older brother had shocked the family by going into the army, but Zuzana had puppets in the blood and was carrying on the family tradition. Like Karou, she’d known no one else at school and, as fortune would have it, early in the first term they’d been paired up to paint a mural for a local primary school. That had entailed a week of evenings spent up ladders, and they’d taken to going to Poison Kitchen afterward. This was where their friendship had taken root, and when the mural was finished, the owner had hired them to paint a scene of skeletons on toilets in the cafe’s bathroom. He’d paid them a month of suppers for their labor, ensuring they would keep coming back, and a couple of years later, they still were.

They ordered bowls of goulash, which they ate while discussing Kaz’s stunt, their chemistry teacher’s nose hair—which Zuzana asserted was braidable—and ideas for their semester projects. Soon, talk shifted to the handsome new violinist in the orchestra of the Marionette Theatre of Prague.

“He has a girlfriend,” lamented Zuzana.

“What? How do you know?”

“He’s always texting on his breaks.”

“That’s your evidence? Flimsy. Maybe he secretly fights crime, and he’s texting infuriating riddles to his nemesis,” suggested Karou.

“Yes, I’m sure that’s it. Thank you.”

“I’m just saying, there could be other explanations than a girlfriend. Anyway, since when are you shy? Just talk to him already!”

“And say what? Nice fiddling, handsome man?”


Zuzana snorted. She worked as an assistant to the theater’s puppeteers on the weekends and had developed a crush on the violinist some weeks before Christmas. Though not usually bashful, she had yet to even speak to him. “He probably thinks I’m a kid,” she said. “You don’t know what it’s like, being child-size.”

“Marionette-size,” said Karou, who felt no pity whatsoever. She thought Zuzana’s tininess was perfect, like a fairy you found in the woods and wanted to put in your pocket. Though in Zuzana’s case the fairy was likely to be rabid, and bite.

“Yeah, Zuzana the marvelous human marionette. Watch her dance.” Zuzana did a jerky, puppetlike version of ballet arms.

Inspired, Karou said, “Hey! That’s what you should do for your project. Make a giant puppeteer, and you be the marionette. You know? You could make it so that when you move, it’s like, I don’t know, reverse puppetry. Has anyone done that before? You’re the puppet, dancing from strings, but really it’s your movements that are making the puppeteer’s hands move?”

Zuzana had been lifting a piece of bread to her mouth, and she paused. Karou knew by the way her friend’s eyes went dreamy that she was envisioning it. She said, “That would be a really big puppet.”

“I could do your makeup, like a little marionette ballerina.”

“Are you sure you want to give it to me? It’s your idea.”

“What, like I’m going to make a giant marionette? It’s all yours.”

“Well, thanks. Do you have any ideas for yours yet?”

Karou didn’t. Last semester when she’d taken costuming she had constructed angel wings that she could wear on a harness, rigged to operate by a pulley system so she could lift and lower them. Fully unfolded, they gave her a wingspan of twelve magnificent feet. She’d worn them to show Brimstone, but had never even made it in to see him. Issa had stopped her in the vestibule and—gentle Issa!—had actually hissed at her, cobra hood flaring open in a way Karou had seen only a couple of times in her whole life. “An angel, of all abominations! Get them off! Oh, sweet girl, I can’t stand the sight of you like that.” It was all very odd. The wings hung above the bed now in Karou’s tiny flat, taking up one entire wall.

This semester she needed to come up with a theme for a series of paintings, but so far nothing had set her mind on fire. As she was pondering ideas, she heard the tinkle of bells on the door. A few men came in, and a darting shadow behind them caught Karou’s eye. It was the size and shape of a crow, but it was nothing so mundane.

It was Kishmish.

She straightened up and cast a quick glance at her friend. Zuzana was sketching puppet ideas in her notebook and barely responded when Karou excused herself. She went into the bathroom and the shadow followed, low and unseen.

Brimstone’s messenger had the body and beak of a crow but the membranous wings of a bat, and his tongue, when it flicked out, was forked. He looked like an escapee from a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and he was clutching a note with his feet. When Karou took it, she saw that his little knifelike talons had pierced the paper through.

She unfolded it and read the message, which took all of two seconds, as it said only, Errand requiring immediate attention. Come.

“He never says please,” she remarked to Kishmish.

The creature cocked his head to one side, crow-style, as if to inquire, Are you coming?

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” said Karou. “Don’t I always?”

To Zuzana, a moment later, she said, “I have to go.”

“What?” Zuzana looked up from her sketchbook. “But, dessert.” It was there on the coffin: two plates of apple strudel, along with tea.

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