“There are other ways to live,” she whispered, and he woke with bile in his throat, because he knew it wasn’t true. There was no hope, only the executioner’s ax, and vengeance. And there was no peace. Never peace. He ground the heels of his hands into his eyes as frustration built in him like a scream.
Why had he come here? And why couldn’t he make himself leave?
A SOFT WRONGNESS
Saturday morning, Karou woke up in her own bed for the first time in weeks. She showered, brewed coffee, scavenged in the pantry for something edible, came up empty, and left her apartment with Zuzana’s presents in a shopping bag. She texted her friend en route—Peekaboo! Big day. I’m bringing breakfast—and bought some croissants at her corner bakery.
A text came back—If it’s not chocolate, it’s not breakfast—and she smiled and doubled back to the bakery for some chocolate kolaches.
It was then, turning around in the street, that she began to feel that something was off. It was a soft sensation of wrongness, but it was enough that her steps stammered to a halt and she looked around. She remembered what Bain had said about living like prey, always wondering who was tracking her, and it raised her hackles. Her knife was in her boot, hard against the knob of her ankle, the discomfort giving her comfort.
She got Zuzana’s kolaches and continued on, wary. She held her shoulders stiff and several times looked back, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Soon enough she came to the Charles Bridge.
Icon of Prague, the medieval bridge crossed the Vltava between Old Town and the Little Quarter. Gothic bridge towers rose on both sides, and the whole span—pedestrian-only—was lined by monumental statues of saints. This early it was almost deserted, and by the slant of the young sun, the statues flung their shadows long and lean. Vendors and performers were arriving with handcarts to stake out the most coveted real estate in the city, and in the very middle, before the photo-perfect backdrop of Prague Castle on the hill, was the giant puppeteer.
“Oh my god, it’s amazing,” said Karou to no one, because the puppeteer sat alone, ten feet tall and sinister, with its cruel carved face and wooden hands the size of snow shovels. Karou peered behind it—it was clad in an immense trench coat—and no one was there, either. “Hello?” she called, surprised that Zuzana would have left her creation unattended.
But then, “Karou!” came from inside the thing, and the back seam of the trench coat parted like the opening of a teepee. Zuzana darted out.
And snatched the bag of pastries out of Karou’s hand. “Thank god,” she said, and fell to.
“Well. Good to see you, too.”
Mik emerged after her and gave Karou a hug. He said, “I’ll be her translator. What she is saying, in the language of Zuzana, is thank you.”
“Really?” asked Karou, skeptical. “It sounds kind of like snarfle snarfle.”
“Mmph,” agreed Zuzana, nodding.
“Nerves,” Mik told Karou.
“Terrible.” Stepping up behind Zuzana, he bent down to enfold her in a spoon-hug. “Ferociously, dreadfully awful. She’s unbearable. You take her. I’ve had enough.”
Zuzana batted at him, then squealed as he buried his face in the curve of her throat and made exaggerated kissing noises.
Mik was sandy-haired and fair-skinned, with sideburns and a goatee and the kind of knife-blade eyes that hinted at ancestors invading across the plains from Central Asia. He was handsome and gifted, he blushed easily and hummed when he concentrated, and he was soft-spoken but interesting—a good combination. He actually listened, rather than pretending to listen while waiting a suitable interval before it was his turn to talk again, the way Kaz had. Best of all, he was entirely dopey for Zuzana, who was dopey right back. They were cartoonish, the way they blushed and smiled—all they needed was hearts for eyes—and watching them made Karou both deeply happy and exquisitely miserable. She imagined she could practically see their butterflies—Papilio stomachus—dancing the sweet tango of new love.
For her own part, it was harder and harder to imagine anything fluttering to life inside herself. More than ever, she was the hollow girl, the emptiness seeming like an entity, malicious, taunting her with all the things she would never know.
No. She banished the thought. She would know. She was on her way to knowing.
Her smile was real when Mik began kissing Zuzana’s neck, but after a moment it began to feel a little like a Mr. Potato Head smile, plastic and stuck on. “Did I mention,” she said, clearing her throat, “that I have presents?”
That worked. “Presents!” squealed Zuzana, disengaging herself. She jumped up and down and clapped. “Presents, presents!”
Karou handed over the shopping bag. In it were three parcels wrapped in heavy brown paper and tied with twine. Atop the largest one, a letterpress card on vellum announced, MME. V. VEZERIZAC, ARTEFACTS. The parcels were elegant, and somehow consequential. As Zuzana took them out of the bag, her eyebrow did its thing. “What are these?” she asked, going serious. “Artefacts? Karou. By present, I meant, like, a stacking doll from the airport or something.”
“Just open them,” said Karou. “The big one first.”
Zuzana opened it. And started to cry. “Oh my god, oh my god,” she whispered, gathering it to her chest in a froth of tulle.
It was a ballet costume, but no ordinary ballet costume. “It was worn by Anna Pavlova in Paris in 1905,” Karou told her, excited. Giving gifts was so much fun. She’d never had Christmases or birthday parties when she was little, but once she was old enough to leave the shop on her own, she’d loved to bring back little things for Issa and Yasri—flowers, weird fruit, blue lizards, Spanish fans.
“Okay, I totally don’t know who that is—”
“What? She’s only the most famous ballerina ever.”
“Never mind,” sighed Karou. “She was famously tiny, so it should fit you.”
Zuzana held it up. “It’s… it’s… it’s… it’s so Degas….” she stammered.
Karou grinned. “I know. Isn’t it awesome? There’s this woman at Les Puces flea market who sells vintage ballet stuff—”
“But how much did it cost? It must have cost a fortune—”
“Shush,” said Karou. “Fortunes have been spent on stupider things. And besides, I’m rich, remember? Obnoxious rich. Magic rich.”
One upshot of Brimstone’s provisions on her behalf was that she could afford to give presents. She had given herself one in Paris, too, also an artefact, though not of the ballet. The knives had gleamed at her from a glass case and the instant she glimpsed them, she knew she had to have them. They were Chinese crescent-moon blades, one of her favorite weapons. Her own set, the ones she’d trained with, were still in Hong Kong with her sensei, where she hadn’t been since the portals burned. In any case, these put that set to shame.
“Fourteenth-century—” Madame Vezerizac had begun her sales pitch, but Karou didn’t need to hear it. It seemed disrespectful to the knives to haggle, so she paid the asking price without batting an eye.
Each knife was made up of two blades, like crescent moons interlocking, hence the name. The grips were in the middle, and when wielded the knives provided a number of piercing and slicing edges and, perhaps most important, blocking points. The crescent moons were an optimal weapon for taking on multiple opponents, especially opponents with long weapons like swords. If she’d had them in Morocco, the angel would not have overpowered her so easily.
She’d also bought Zuzana a pair of vintage toe shoes and a lovely headdress of forlorn silk rosebuds, also from the turn-of-the-century Paris stage. “Want to get ready?” Karou asked her, and Zuzana, verklempt, nodded yes. They squeezed inside the puppeteer and tossed her other, unremarkable costume aside.
An hour later tourists were trooping across the bridge, questing toward the castle with their guidebooks under their arms, and a not-insignificant number of them had formed an anticipatory half circle around the giant puppeteer. Karou and Zuzana huddled inside it.
“Stop squirming,” said Karou, pausing with her makeup brush as Zuzana engaged in an unladylike tug-of-war beneath her tutu.
“My tights are crooked,” Zuzana said.
“Do you want your cheeks to be crooked, too? Hold still.”
“Fine.” Zuzana held still while Karou painted perfect pink rouge circles onto her cheeks. Her face was powder-white, and her lips had been transformed to a doll’s tiny Cupid’s bow, with two fine black lines out from the corners of her mouth, simulating a marionette’s hinged jaw. False eyelashes fringed her dark eyes, and she was dressed in the tutu, which did indeed fit, and the toe shoes, which had seen better days. Her white tights were laddered with runs and patched at the knees; one of the straps of her bodice hung broken; and her hair was a messy chignon crowned with faded rosebuds. She looked like a doll that had lain unloved in a toy chest for years.
A toy chest, in fact, stood open and ready to receive her as soon as her costume was squared away.
“All done,” said Karou, surveying her work. She clapped her hands once in delight and felt like Issa when she fixed Karou with temporary horns fashioned of parsnips, or a tail out of a feather duster. “Perfect. You look adorably pathetic. Some tourist is sure to try to carry you home as a souvenir.”
“Some tourist will rue the day,” Zuzana said, upending her tutu and pursuing the tights tug-of-war with surly determination.
“Would you leave those poor tights alone? They’re fine.”
“I hate tights.”
“Well, let me add them to the list. This morning you hate, let me see, men in hats, wiener dogs—”
“Wiener-dog owners,” Zuzana corrected. “You’d have to have, like, a lentil for a soul to hate wiener dogs.”
“Wiener-dog owners, hairspray, false eyelashes, and now tights. Are you finished?”
“Hating things?” She paused, reading some inner gauge. “Yes, I think I am. For now.”
Mik peered through the opening. “We’ve got a crowd,” he said. It had been his idea to take Zuzana’s semester project to the street. He sometimes played his violin for change, donning a patch over his perfectly good left eye to seem more “romantic,” and he promised Zuzana she could make a few thousand crowns in a morning. He had his eye patch in place now, and looked somehow both roguish and darling.
“God, you’re adorable,” he said, his visible eye on Zuzana.
Usually adorable was not a word Zuzana relished. “Toddlers are adorable,” she’d snap. But where Mik was concerned, all bets were off. She blushed.
“You give me wrong thoughts,” he said, slipping into the crammed space, so Karou was trapped against the puppet’s armature. “Is it weird that I’m turned on by a marionette?”
“Yes,” said Zuzana. “Very weird. But it explains why you work at a marionette theater.”
“Not all marionettes. Just you.” He seized her around the waist. She squeaked.
“Careful!” Karou said. “Her makeup!”
Mik didn’t listen. He kissed Zuzana lingeringly on her painted doll mouth, smearing the red of her lipstick and the white of her face makeup, and coming up at last with his own lips rosebud pink. Laughing, Zuzana wiped it away for him. Karou considered touching her up, but the smear actually suited the whole disheveled look perfectly, so she left it.
The kiss also worked wonders on Zuzana’s nerves. “I think it’s showtime,” she announced brightly.
“Well, all right, then,” said Karou. “Into the toy box with you.”
And so it began.
The story Zuzana told with her body—of a discarded marionette brought out of its trunk for one last dance—was deeply moving. She started out clumsy and disjointed, like a rusty thing awakening, collapsing several times in a heap of tulle. Karou, watching the rapt faces of the audience, saw how they wanted to step forward and help the sad little dancer to her feet.
Over her the puppeteer loomed sinister, and as Zuzana twirled, its arms and fingers jittered and jumped as if it were controlling her, and not the other way around. The engineering was cunning and didn’t draw attention to itself, so that the illusion was flawless. There came a point, as the doll began to rediscover her grace, that Zuzana rose slowly onto pointe as if drawn up by her strings, and she elongated, a glow of joy on her face. A Smetana sonata soared off Mik’s violin strings, achingly sweet, and the moment went beyond street theater to touch something true.
Karou felt tears prick her eyes, watching. Within her, her emptiness pounded.
At the end, as Zuzana was forced back into the box, she cast toward the audience a look of desperate yearning and reached out one pleading arm before succumbing to her master’s will. The lid of the trunk slammed shut, and the music bit off with a twang.
The crowd loved it. Mik’s violin case filled fast with notes and coins, and Zuzana took a half dozen bows and posed for photos before vanishing inside the puppeteer’s trench coat with Mik. Karou had no doubt they were doing grievous damage to her makeup job, and she just sat on the trunk to wait it out.
It was there, in the midst of the school-of-fish density of tourists on the Charles Bridge, that the wrongness crept back over her again, slow and seeping, like a shadow when a cloud coasts before the sun.
NOT PREY, BUT POWER
You’re gonna live like prey, little girl.
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