Night of Cake & Puppets
Page 8

 Laini Taylor

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‘What, run you all over town in the snow?’ It’s my turn to act humble. It was really cool. I am well aware.
‘Yeah, like that’s all it was. I don’t even know how you did some of that stuff.’ There’s a brief pause before he adds, ‘But don’t tell me. I want to just think it was magic.’
‘It was magic,’ I say simply. I’ve learned this from Karou, as regards magic: You can tell the most outlandish truths with virtually no risk of being believed.
Except, apparently, in the case of Mik. ‘I believe it,’ he says. ‘This is pretty much what I imagined your Saturday nights are like.’
Pause. Consider. Unpause. ‘You imagined my Saturday nights?’
‘Yeah,’ he says, with a gentle inflection of of course. ‘Every week when I’m doing something boring and typical after the show. It’s how I punish myself for laming out and not talking to you – by imagining you doing, like, secret errands over the rooftops, or vanishing through trapdoors that leave no seam when they close, just traces of silver dust.’
It’s like he’s describing Karou. Secret errands and vanishing and trapdoors? And it hits me that Mik thinks I’m mysterious.
It is, hands down, the best compliment I’ve ever been given. I could tell him what my Saturday nights are really like – that they’re spent lolling at Poison Kitchen with Karou over sketchbooks and tea, moping about him – but I don’t. I like this being-mysterious business. ‘Silver dust?’ I inquire.
He shrugs, bashful. ‘I don’t know. Or maybe peacock footprints.’
This is interesting. ‘Peacock footprints,’ I repeat.
‘This poem I read,’ he says. ‘It had this line about “anyone who’s woken up to find the wet footprints of a peacock across their kitchen floor,” and ever since, I’ve kind of wanted to. Um. Wake up and find peacock footprints.’
‘Okay,’ I say, going with it. Peacock footprints. That could be arranged, I think, because I bet a scuppy could handle that, but then this sense of intimacy strikes me. It’s the part about Mik waking up. The idea of…being there for that, and vice versa. It’s like a glimpse of the future – a possible future, so far beyond my ken that I get a shiver up my spine. It’s this feeling of being a kid in a roomful of grown-ups: All around you are just knees, and the grown-ups are up there in their own world, a bunch of distant heads talking about things you can’t begin to understand.
Waking up with someone is the natural aftermath of sleeping with them, and that’s something that happens up there, with the grown-up heads. Me, I’m still down here on the floor with the dropped Cheerios, getting thwacked in the face when the dog wags its tail.
Metaphorically speaking.
It’s not a revelation, or any kind of decision to make. It’s more a glimmer of decisions to come, soon or not soon. In adolescent fantasyland, the kiss is the happy ending. On the planet of grown-ups, I am fully aware, it’s only a beginning.
I look at Mik intently, wondering where he falls in the spectrum of adolescent versus grown-up expectations.
(And PS, if you use the word grown-up, you probably aren’t one.)
‘You’re like that,’ he’s saying. ‘Like peacock footprints. Unexpected. And this night was like that. Amazing. And…I didn’t want to be the guy who just wakes up and finds the footprints.’
‘Wait. What? I thought you did want to find the footprints.’
‘I do, but not just. I wanted to do something, too. Contribute something. To this.’ He makes a gesture that encompasses us. An ‘us’ gesture that, given the recent detour of my thoughts, seems rich with meaning. And then the gesture opens up to include the dock, the violin lying there, the stream going past. ‘Not that it’s much. It was the best I could do on the spur of the moment.’
‘It’s great,’ I say, meaning it completely. ‘It’s totally peacock footprints. I didn’t expect it at all.’ I don’t mention the brief despair breakdown it caused back in the Lyceum courtyard, or my zested heart, or my argument with myself over whether or not he was a jerk.
‘Good.’ With a little worry frown, he says, ‘I hope it didn’t hijack your plans.’
I shake my head. ‘No. This is great.’ What were my plans, anyway? I was going to play it by ear after the courtyard, with the thought of going somewhere indoors where the ice orb would begin to melt. Where is the ice orb, anyway? He hasn’t already melted it, has he, and read the message? My heartbeat skitters at the thought. ‘Do you, um, have that…ice orb?’
‘Oh. Yes. I do.’ He snaps upright, and I realize belatedly that he’s been leaning down to bring his face nearer to mine. Now he offers me his arm like some kind of old-fashioned gentleman. ‘This way, please, my lady.’
Hmm. What’s this? I loop my arm through his, and he escorts me to the end of the dock, past his violin case, and reveals…more peacock footprints.
Not literally.
There’s a rowboat tied up at the end of the dock, swaying gently below us in the dark water. In the most delightful and unexpected tableau, it’s set up for tea. I recognize the tea tray at once as belonging to Poison. A silver teapot, ‘arsenic’ dish and ‘strychnine’ pitcher, two white china cups on saucers, and there’s the ice orb glinting like crystal, and also…a bakery box. Bakery box. Oh my god I’m starving. And freezing. And tea…and a bakery box…in a rowboat…I look up at Mik, in awe. ‘How did you—?’
‘The twenty minutes,’ he says. ‘I walked really fast. But even so, I couldn’t have done it if that crazy guy with the eye patch wasn’t such a fan of you. I got the definite feeling that he wouldn’t have let the silver out the door for anyone but you.’
‘Well, there is one other person. My best friend. We go there a lot. Imrich’s kind of protective of us.’
‘You think? He gave me this ten-second silent stare, and I’m pretty sure that if my intentions weren’t honorable, my face would have melted.’
Hmm. I hope his intentions aren’t too honorable. Wait. Or do I? I hope his intentions are mildly dishonorable, and extend to kissing, and that’s all. For now. ‘I’m glad your face didn’t melt.’ Because you’ll need it for kissing.
‘Me, too. Would you like some tea?’
‘More than words can say.’
There’s a little ladder at the end of the pier and I climb down first and scramble into the boat, trying not to set it rocking and spill the tea. I’m light, anyway, so it doesn’t move too much until Mik climbs down after me.
‘So the tea’s from Poison,’ I say, which makes sense. It is right around the corner. ‘What about the boat?’
‘Well.’ Mik pours tea into my cup. It’s still steaming, thank god. ‘Let’s just say, we should probably keep it tied up where it is.’
My first mouthful of tea is heaven, and the warmth of the cup in my numb hands is, too. ‘I see. So we don’t have permission to be here.’
‘Not exactly. I only had twenty minutes. I was kind of scrambling. Cake?’
Cake. As subject changes go, it’s a good one. I hesitate for the tiniest instant, though, because my brain gets on this hamster wheel of concern over the likelihood of imminent kissing. To eat or not to eat, that is the question: whether ’tis Nobler in the stomach to suffer the Slings and Arrows of outrageous Hunger (while keeping mouthparts in pristine kissing condition) or to take Spoon against a Slice of cake, and—
‘Yes, please,’ my stomach pipes up. And Mik opens the bakery box to reveal a small, whole Sacher torte, its chocolate so dark it looks black. Chocolate. Thank god. If he’d brought a non-chocolate cake, I would have had to give him a demerit. We have no forks or plates, only our teaspoons, so we eat with those, me making the first divot in the cake’s smooth surface – a dainty fairylike bite that is really not my usual MO – and holy hell the chocolate is so intense and pure it should be named an element and given a spot on the periodic table. It would be Ch, which isn’t even taken.
The boat sways softly, and my feet are freezing, but the tea warms me from the inside, and each little jolt of Mik eye contact triggers a minor blush that warms my face, so I’m doing okay (so much more than okay), even though it’s February in Prague and only crazy people would sit in a rowboat eating cake in a snowstorm.
Because: oh. The snow’s coming down thicker now. We both look up and around, like: huh. It’s falling in great downy billows, and when it hits the water it melts like sugar in coffee. It would be very sweet coffee, because it’s a lot of sugar. On the rooftops and dock – and even on the cake – it’s piling up.
It’s Mik who makes the decision to ignore it. ‘So, are you from Prague?’ he asks me, looking at me with this determination to not notice the blizzard. He takes another bite of cake.
I take another bite, too. And another gulp of hot tea. ‘eský Krumlov. You?’
‘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 Hradany,’ 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.
Him
11
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.
Hopefully.
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.