Daughter of Smoke & Bone (Daughter of Smoke & Bone #2.5) – Laini Taylor

On top of the cabinet in the back of my father’s workshop – which was my grandfather’s workshop and will one day be mine, if I want it – there is a puppet. This is unsurprising, since it’s a puppet workshop. But this puppet, alone of them all, is imprisoned in a glass case, and the thing that’s driven me crazy my whole life is this: The case doesn’t open. It was my job to dust it when I was little, and I can tell you for a certainty: It has no door, no keyhole, no hinges. It’s a solid cube, and was constructed around the puppet. To get the puppet out – or ‘let it out,’ in my grandfather’s words – you’d have to break the glass. This has been discouraged. It’s a nasty-looking little bastard, some kind of undead fox thing in Cossack garb – fur hat, leather boots. Its head is a real fox skull, plain yellowed bone, unadorned except for the eyes in its sockets, which are black glass set in leather eyelids, too realistic for comfort. Its teeth are sharpened to little knifepoints, because whoever made it apparently didn’t think fox teeth were…sharp enough. ‘Sharp enough for what?’ my best friend, Karou, wanted to know, the first time I brought her home to Český Krumlov with me. ‘What do you think?’ I replied with a creepy smile. It was Christmas Eve. We were fifteen, the power was out due to a storm, and my brother, Tomas, and I had led her out to the workshop with only a candle for light. I admit it freely: We were trying to freak her out.

The joke was so going to be on us. ‘Your grandfather didn’t make it?’ she asked, fascinated, putting her face right up to the glass to see the puppet better. It looked even more maniacal than usual by candlelight, with the flickering reflections in its black eyes making it seem to contemplate us. ‘He swears not,’ said Tomas. ‘He says he caught it.’ ‘Caught it,’ Karou repeated. ‘And where do grandfathers catch…undead fox Cossacks?’ ‘In Russia, of course.’ ‘Of course.’ It’s Deda’s best, most terrifying, and all-time most-requested bedtime story, and that’s saying something, because Deda has a lot of stories, each one absolutely true. ‘If I’m lying, may a lightning bolt slice me in two!’ he always declares, and no lightning bolt has yet obliged him, on top of which, for every story, he furnishes ‘proof.

’ Newspaper clippings, artifacts, trinkets. When we were little, Tomas and I believed devoutly that Deda himself ran from the rampaging golem in 1586 (he has a lump of petrified clay in the rough shape of a toe), hunted the witch Baba Yaga across the taiga at the behest of Catherine the Great (who presented him an Order of St. George medal for his troubles), and, yes, cornered a marauding undead fox Cossack in a Sevastopol cellar in the final days of the Crimean War. Proof of that escapade? Well, aside from the puppet itself, there’s the scar tissue furling the knuckles of his left hand. Because, yeah, that’s the story. The puppet…bites. ‘What do you mean, it bites?’ asked Karou. ‘When you put your hand in its mouth,’ I said, cool, ‘it bites.’ ‘And why would you put your hand in its mouth?’ ‘Because it doesn’t just bite.’ I dropped my voice to a whisper.

‘It also talks, but only if you let it taste your blood. You can ask it a question, and it will answer.’ ‘Any question,’ said Tomas, also whispering. He’s two years older than me, and hadn’t shown this much interest in hanging around with me in more than a decade. It’s possible it had something to do with my stunning new best friend, who he’d been following around like an assigned manservant. He said, ‘But only one question per person per lifetime, so it better be good.’ ‘What did your grandfather ask it?’ Karou wanted to know, which is exactly what we wanted her to ask. ‘Let me just put it this way: It’s in the case for a reason.’ The story is elaborate and gruesome. Truly, if I ever turn out to be a murderer or something, the newspapers can pretty much say, She didn’t have a chance to be normal.

Her family twisted her from the day she was born. Because what bedtime stories to tell little kids! They’re full of corpses and devils and infestations, unnatural things hatching from your breakfast eggs, and the sounds of bones splintering. I thought everyone was like this, that every family had their secret haruspex uncles, their ventriloquist Resistance fighters, their biting puppets. A normal bedtime, Deda would conclude with something like, ‘And Baba Yaga has been hunting me ever since,’ and then cock his head to listen at the window. ‘That doesn’t sound like claws on the roof, does it, Podivná? Well, it’s probably just crows. Good night.’ And then he’d kiss me and click out the light, leaving me to fall asleep to the imagined scrape of a child-eating witch scaling the roof. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I mean, who would I be if I’d been raised on milquetoast bedtime stories and not forced to dust the glass prison of a psychotic undead fox Cossack? I shudder to think. I might wear lace collars and laugh flower petals and pearls.

People might try to pat me. I see them think it. My height triggers the puppy-kitten reflex – Must touch – and I’ve found that since you can’t electrify yourself like a fence, the next best thing is to have murderer’s eyes. The point is, I wouldn’t be ‘rabid fairy,’ which is Karou’s nickname for me, or ‘Podivná,’ either, which is Deda’s. It’s for mucholapka podivná, or Venus flytrap, in honor of my ‘quiet bloodthirst’ and ‘patient cunning’ in my lifelong war with Tomas. Anyone with an older brother can tell you: Cunning is required. Even if you’re not miniature like me – four foot eleven in a good mood, as little as four foot eight when in despair, which is way too often lately – morphology is on the side of brothers. They’re bigger. Their fists are heavier. Physically, we don’t stand a chance.

Hence the evolution of ‘little-sister brain.’ Artful, conniving, pitiless. No doubt about it, being a little sister – emphasis on little – has been formative, though I take pride in knowing that Tomas is more scarred by years of tangling with me than vice versa. But more than anyone or anything else, it’s Deda who is responsible for the landscape of my mind, the mood and scenery, the spires and shadows. When I think about kids (which isn’t often, except to wish them elsewhere and stop just short of deploying them hence with my foot), the main reason I would consider…begetting any (in a theoretical sense, in the far-distant future) is so that I can practice upon small, developing brains the same degree of mind-molding my grandfather has practiced on us. I want to terrify little kids, too! I want to build spires in their minds and dance shadows through like marionettes, chased by whispers and hints of the unspeakable. I want to torture future generations with the Puppet That Bites. ‘He asked it how and when he was going to die,’ I told Karou. ‘And what did it say?’ She seemed freaked out, which maybe I should have questioned, because though we’d only been friends for a few months and I knew next to nothing about her, it was clear she was a cool cucumber. The puppet’s a pretty horrible specimen, though, and the storm was loud, the candlelight pale.

The stage was set. ‘It opened its bare-bone jaws,’ I said, mustering my full theatricality, ‘and in a voice like dead leaves blowing down an empty street, it told him, though it had no way of knowing his name, You will die, Karel Novak…WHEN I KILL YOU!’ At that moment, Tomas bumped the glass case so that the puppet seemed to jump, and Karou gasped, and then laughed and punched him in the arm. ‘You two are terrible,’ she said, and that should have been the end of it. That was the extent of our prank – amateur hour, I see that now – but…Karou gasped again. She grabbed my arm. ‘Did you see that?’ ‘See what?’ ‘I swear it just moved.’ And she looked scared. Her breathing went shallow, and she was holding my arm really tight, just staring at the puppet. Tomas and I shared an amused look. ‘Karou,’ I said, ‘it didn’t move—’ ‘It did.

I saw it. Maybe it’s trying to tell us something. Jesus, it’s probably starving. How long has it been in there, anyway? Don’t you guys ever feed it?’ And the look Tomas and I shared then was more of the um, what? variety, because until that moment, Karou had seemed normal enough. Okay, fine. Karou never seemed normal, with her blue hair and tattoos and drawing monsters all the time, but she did seem mentally sound. But when she started worrying about the skull puppet being hungry, you had to wonder. ‘Karou—’ I started to say. She cut me off. ‘Wait.

It wants to tell us something. I can feel it.’ She was staring at it, and she hesitantly leaned toward it so her face was a foot or so from the glass, and then asked it, in this tentative, gentle voice – like you would a body you found lying in the street and didn’t know if it was drunk or dead – ‘Are you…okay?’ For a second, nothing happened. Of course nothing happened. It was a puppet in a glass case. No one was touching it. Without a doubt, no one was touching it. Karou was clinging to me, Tomas had stepped back from the cabinet, and I know I didn’t do it. So when all of a sudden it turned its head and snapped its jaws at us, I screamed. Tomas did, too, and so did Karou.

Knowing what I know now, I laud her evil chops for that scream. Not for a second did it occur to me that she might be responsible. I mean, why would it? She clearly hadn’t touched it. All my childhood terror over the Puppet That Bites came flooding instantly back. It was true, it was all freaking true, and if that story was true, maybe all of Deda’s stories were, and oh my god, how many times had I considered breaking the glass, and if I had, would we all be dead? I don’t even remember running. Just, the next thing I knew, the three of us had crossed the courtyard from the workshop and were slamming through the back door into the kitchen, shrieking. The house was full of a Christmas crowd of aunts and uncles and cousins and neighbors, all well-acquainted with Deda’s stories, and there were gales of laughter to see us – teenagers! – beside ourselves with terror, babbling that the puppet was alive. ‘No, really, it turned its head. It snapped its jaws!’ No one believed us, and Tomas sealed our fate when, within minutes, he backpedaled and claimed credit for the whole thing. ‘You should have seen your faces,’ he said to Karou and me, as if he could erase his own high, thin shriek from our minds.

He put on that smug oh you kids face that is so deeply infuriating in older siblings, made all the worse because he was so absolutely lying. For this treachery he would pay dearly a couple of days later, but that’s another story. The point of this story is that I will never forget the sound of those sharpened fox teeth snapping together, three times in rapid succession, and I will never forget the perfect clarity of terror that thrilled through me as, in an instant, my long-dead belief in magic flared back to life. It wouldn’t last. It would die back down again to a low flicker of uncertainty, but it turns out I was right to believe. It was magic. Just not the kind I thought. The Puppet That Bites is just a puppet, but…Karou is not just a girl. That Christmas Eve was my first exposure to scuppies, though I wouldn’t know it for more than two years – two years she let me believe the puppet was hungry, that minx – until a couple of weeks ago, when Kishmish flew on fire into her window and died in her hands. That was…a shock.

Seeing Kishmish die was a shock. Seeing him at all was a shock, and finding out that he’s real – or he was real – and not just some flight of fancy from Karou’s imagination. At a glance he just looked like a crow, but once you focused on him, your brain started to issue error messages: Something wasn’t right, wasn’t normal. And then: Oh, it was his wings. They were bat wings. And his tongue. It was a serpent’s tongue. Interesting, that, and it was just the point of entry. It wasn’t only Kishmish. Everything in Karou’s sketchbooks was real, and the African trade beads she always wears are actually wishes.

‘Nearly useless wishes,’ that is, since scuppies are the weakest kind. She’s traveling right now, trying to get her hands on more powerful ones, but before she left Prague she gave me a present. I’m looking at them right now. In the palm of my hand, the size of pearls, no two alike in color or pattern and indistinguishable from African trade beads, are five scuppies. Nearly useless they may be, but even one scuppy would be more magic than I’ve ever held in my hand before, and I have five. Five tiny secret weapons to add a spice of magic to a certain plan I’m cooking up. What plan, you ask? The plan to finally – finally, finally – meet violin boy, and sweep him off his feet. Me, sweep him off his feet? I know. The laws of the jungle and romance novels would have it the other way around, but I’m not going to wait one more second for that. Milquetoast girls raised on princess stories might sit tight and bat their eyelashes in desperate Morse code – notice me, like me, please – but I am not that girl.

Well, to be honest, I’ve been that girl for three months now, and I’ve had enough. What’s happened to me? When Karou talks about butterflies in the belly and invisible lines of energy and all that, I make fun of her for being a hopeless romantic, but DEAR GOD. Butterflies! Invisible lines of energy! I get it. I feel liquefied, like a cucumber forgotten in the crisper drawer, and I want to hold myself at arm’s length and carry me to the trash. Who is this sack of slush masquerading as me? It’s intolerable. If Karou can sally forth to track down the most awful people in the world and steal wishes from them, then I can meet a damned boy. I am a rabid fairy. I am a carnivorous plant. I am Zuzana. And violin boy’s not going to know what hit him.

2 That Kind of Alien Here’s what I know: 1. His name is Mik. 2. He plays violin in the orchestra of the Marionette Theater of Prague. If we’re talking facts, that’s it. That’s all I’ve got. But we’re not talking facts. We’re talking whatever I feel like talking, so I will tell you that Mik is one of those people you can look at and totally imagine as a kid. You know how some people were absolutely never children, but just came from a catalog fully grown, while other people you don’t even have to squint to imagine them charging down the stairs on Christmas morning in superhero pajamas? Mik’s the latter. It’s not that he’s ‘boyish,’ though I guess he is a little – but only a little – it’s just that there’s something direct and real and electric and pure that hasn’t been lost, the intense, undiluted emotion of childhood.

Most people lose it. They get all tame and cool. You know how some people think cool equals bored, and they act like they’re alien scientists who drew the short straw and ended up assigned to observe this lowly species, humans, and they just lean against walls all the time, sighing and waiting to be called home to Zigborp-12, where all the fascinating geniuses are? Yeah, well, Mik doesn’t sigh or lean, and his eyes are fully open like something awesome might happen at any time and he doesn’t want to miss it. If he’s an alien, he’s an alien from a gray planet without pizza or music, and he freaking loves it here. So there’s a non-fact about Mik. He’s that kind of alien. You know, um, as gleaned from casual observation. From a distance. Over several months of stalking watching. (It’s not stalking if you don’t follow them home, right?) He blushes when he plays the violin.

That’s kind of a fact, I guess. He’s fair-skinned, with those pink cheeks that make him look like he’s just come in from the cold, and he’s really soft-looking. Nuzzle-able. He’s not hairless or anything; he’s got sideburns and a goatee. He’s a man, but he’s got, like, cartoon princess skin. Don’t ever tell him I said that, even though I mean it in the best possible way. He’s got the manliest cartoon princess skin. He’s probably twenty-one or twenty-two, and though he’s not miniature like me, he’s not too tall, either. Maybe five eight? To the naked eye, he’s decent kissing height if I wear platforms, though of course a live test will be required before official certification of Kissing Compatibility can be issued. It will be issued.

Soon. Or I might implode. Because let’s just say that the kind of alien I am is the kind from a planet of lipless dinkmonkeys and drooling slugboys, where affection of the facial variety carries a deep risk of grossness. By which I mean…I have not yet elected to bestow the grace of my saliva upon another human being. I have never…kissed anyone. No one knows this, not even Karou. It’s a secret. My previous best friend suspected, and now she’s at the bottom of a well. (Not really. She’s in Poland.

I had nothing to do with it.) Until now, kiss candidates have been, at best, untempting. There are boys you look at and want to touch with your mouth, and there are boys you look at and want to wear one of those surgical masks everyone in China had during bird flu. There are a lot more bird-flu boys at large. But Mik I want to touch with my mouth. His mouth, with my mouth. Maybe his neck, too. But first things first: Make him aware I exist. It’s possible that he is already aware, if only in a ‘don’t step on the small girl’ kind of way. We work in the same theater on the weekends.

We occasionally pass within reach of each other. Without reaching. His proximity does something weird and unprecedented to me. My heartbeat speeds up, I become unusually aware of my lips, like they’ve been activated for duty, and I flush. A while back, for fun and evil, Karou and I used to practice our you are my slave come-hither eyes on backpacker boys in Old Town Square, and I have to say I got pretty good at it. You need to imagine you are sending little tractor beams with your eyes, drawing the boy irresistibly toward you. Or fishhooks: grosser, equally effective. It works; try it. You have to really visualize it, the beam going out from your eyes and locking onto theirs, seizing them, compelling them. Next thing you know they’re coming over and the new challenge is getting rid of them.

(We found that acting jumpy, with lots of furtive glances over our shoulders and saying in a super-heavy Czech accent, all mysterious and imploring, ‘I beg you, go now, for your own safety, please,’ generally does the trick.) Once Karou met that toolbag Kaz, our backpacker-boy games came to an end, but that’s okay. I had perfected my you are my slave eyes. I should be set. But around Mik, my powers desert me. Forget come-hither eyes; I lose basic motor function, like my brain focuses all neural activity on my lips and shifts into kiss preparedness mode way too early, to the detriment of things like speech, and walking. So while I could do the normal thing and try talking to him – ‘Nice fiddling, handsome man’ has been proposed – I don’t trust my mouthparts not to betray me by either stuttering into silence or puckering up. Also, there are always people around in the theater, potential witnesses to humiliation, and that is unacceptable. No, I have to lure him out, like a will-o’-the-wisp, tease him deeper and deeper into the forest until he is lost and doomed. Without the forest or the doom – just the luring.

Like a Venus flytrap that says I am a delicious flower come taste me and then snap! Devour. Without the devouring. Well, maybe a little devouring. Here we go. I have scuppies in my pocket and lust in my heart. Tonight’s the night.

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