A few seconds later, she took another bead between her fingers and wished another itch, this time to Kaz’s nose. Another bead disappeared, the necklace shortened imperceptibly, and his face twitched. For a few seconds he resisted moving, but then gave in and rubbed his nose quickly with the back of his hand before resuming his position. His bedroom expression was gone, Karou couldn’t help noticing. She had to bite her lip to keep her smile from broadening.
Oh, Kazimir, she thought, you shouldn’t have come here today. You really should have slept in.
The next itch she wished to the hidden place of her evil plan, and she met Kaz’s eyes at the moment it hit. His brow creased with sudden strain. She cocked her head slightly, as if to inquire, Something wrong, dear?
Here was an itch that could not be scratched in public. Kaz went pale. His h*ps shifted; he couldn’t quite manage to hold still. Karou gave him a short respite and kept drawing. As soon as he started to relax and… unclench… she struck again and had to stifle a laugh when his face went rigid.
Another bead vanished between her fingers.
This, she thought, isn’t just for today. It’s for everything. For the heartache that still felt like a punch in the gut each time it struck, fresh as new, at unpredictable moments; for the smiling lies and the mental images she couldn’t shake; for the shame of having been so naive.
For the way loneliness is worse when you return to it after a reprieve—like the soul’s version of putting on a wet bathing suit, clammy and miserable.
And this, Karou thought, no longer smiling, is for the irretrievable.
For her virginity.
That first time, the black cape and nothing under it, she’d felt so grown up—like the Czech girls Kaz and Josef hung out with, cool Slavic beauties with names like Svetla and Frantiska, who looked like nothing could ever shock them or make them laugh. Had she really wanted to be like them? She’d pretended to be, played the part of a girl—a woman—who didn’t care. She’d treated her virginity like a trapping of childhood, and then it was gone.
She hadn’t expected to be sorry, and at first she wasn’t. The act itself was neither disappointing nor magical; it was what it was: a new closeness. A shared secret.
Or so she’d thought.
“You look different, Karou,” Kaz’s friend Josef had said the next time she saw him. “Are you… glowing?”
Kaz had punched him on the shoulder to silence him, looking at once sheepish and smug, and Karou knew he’d told. The girls, even. Their ruby lips had curled knowingly. Svetla—the one she later caught him with—even made a straight-faced comment about capes coming back in fashion, and Kaz had colored slightly and looked away, the only indication that he knew he’d done wrong.
Karou had never even told Zuzana about it, at first because it belonged to her and Kaz alone, and later because she was ashamed. She hadn’t told anyone, but Brimstone, in the inscrutable way he had of knowing things, had guessed, and had taken the opportunity to give her a rare lecture.
That had been interesting.
The Wishmonger’s voice was so deep it seemed almost the shadow of sound: a dark sonance that lurked in the lowest register of hearing. “I don’t know many rules to live by,” he’d said. “But here’s one. It’s simple. Don’t put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles—drug or tattoo—and… no inessential penises, either.”
“Inessential penises?” Karou had repeated, delighted with the phrase in spite of her grief. “Is there any such thing as an essential one?”
“When an essential one comes along, you’ll know,” he’d replied. “Stop squandering yourself, child. Wait for love.”
“Love.” Her delight evaporated. She’d thought that was love.
“It will come, and you will know it,” Brimstone had promised, and she so wanted to believe him. He’d been alive for hundreds of years, hadn’t he? Karou had never before thought about Brimstone and love—to look at him, he didn’t seem such a candidate for it—but she hoped that in his centuries of life he’d accrued some wisdom, and that he was right about her.
Because, of all things in the world, that was her orphan’s craving: love. And she certainly hadn’t gotten it from Kaz.
Her pencil point snapped, so hard was she bearing down on her drawing, and at the same moment a burst of anger converted itself to a rapid-fire volley of itches that shortened her necklace to a choker and sent Kaz scrambling off the model stand. Karou released her necklace and watched him. He was already to the door, robe in hand, and he opened it and darted out, still na**d in his haste to get away and find a place where he could attend to his humiliating misery.
The door swung shut and the class was left blinking at the empty daybed. Profesorka Fiala was peering over the rim of her glasses at the door, and Karou was ashamed of herself.
Maybe that was too much.
“What’s with Jackass?” Zuzana asked.
“No idea,” said Karou, looking down at her drawing. There on the paper was Kaz in all his carnality and elegance, looking like he was waiting for a lover to come to him. It could have been a good drawing, but she’d ruined it. Her line work had darkened and lost all subtlety, finally ending in a chaotic scribble that blotted out his… inessential penis. She wondered what Brimstone would think of her now. He was always reprimanding her for injudicious use of wishes—most recently the one that had made Svetla’s eyebrows thicken overnight until they looked like caterpillars and grew right back the moment they were tweezed.
“Women have been burned at the stake for less, Karou,” he’d said.
Lucky for me, she thought, this isn’t the Middle Ages.
The rest of the school day was uneventful. A double period of chemistry and color lab, followed by master drawing and lunch, after which Zuzana went to puppetry and Karou to painting, both three-hour studio classes that released them into the same full winter dark by which they’d arrived that morning.
“Poison?” inquired Zuzana as they stepped out the door.
“You have to ask?” said Karou. “I’m starved.”
They bent their heads against the icy wind and headed toward the river.
The streets of Prague were a fantasia scarcely touched by the twenty-first century—or the twentieth or nineteenth, for that matter. It was a city of alchemists and dreamers, its medieval cobbles once trod by golems, mystics, invading armies. Tall houses glowed goldenrod and carmine and eggshell blue, embellished with Rococo plasterwork and capped in roofs of uniform red. Baroque cupolas were the soft green of antique copper, and Gothic steeples stood ready to impale fallen angels. The wind carried the memory of magic, revolution, violins, and the cobbled lanes meandered like creeks. Thugs wore Mozart wigs and pushed chamber music on street corners, and marionettes hung in windows, making the whole city seem like a theater with unseen puppeteers crouched behind velvet.
Above it all loomed the castle on the hill, its silhouette as sharp as thorns. By night it was floodlit, bathed in eerie light, and this evening the sky hung low, full-bellied with snow, making gauzy halos around the street lamps.
Down by the Devil’s Stream, Poison Kitchen was a place rarely stumbled upon by chance; you had to know it was there, and duck under an unmarked stone arch into a walled graveyard, beyond which glowed the lamp-lit windowpanes of the cafe.
Unfortunately, tourists no longer had to rely on chance to discover the place; the latest edition of the Lonely Planet guide had outed it to the world—
The church once attached to this medieval priory burned down some three hundred years ago, but the monks’ quarters remain, and have been converted to the strangest cafe you’ll find anywhere, crowded with classical statues all sporting the owner’s collection of WWI gas masks. Legend has it that back in the Middle Ages, the cook lost his mind and murdered the whole priory with a poisoned vat of goulash, hence the cafe’s ghoulish name and signature dish: goulash, of course. Sit on a velvet sofa and prop your feet up on a coffin. The skulls behind the bar may or may not belong to the murdered monks….
—and for the past half year backpackers had been poking their heads through the arch, looking for some morbid Prague to write postcards about.
This evening, though, the girls found it quiet. In the corner a foreign couple was taking pictures of their children wearing gas masks, and a few men hunched at the bar, but most of the tables—coffins, flanked by low velvet settees—were unoccupied. Roman statues were everywhere, life-size gods and nymphs with missing arms and wings, and in the middle of the room stood a copy of the huge equestrian Marcus Aurelius from Capitoline Hill.
“Oh, good, Pestilence is free,” said Karou, heading toward the sculpture. Massive emperor and horse both wore gas masks, like every other statue in the place, and it had always put Karou in mind of the first horseman of the Apocalypse, Pestilence, sowing plague with one outstretched arm. The girls’ preferred table was in its shadow, having the benefit of both privacy and a view of the bar—through the horse’s legs—so they could see if anyone interesting came in.
They dropped their portfolios and hung their coats from Marcus Aurelius’s stone fingertips. The one-eyed owner raised his hand from behind the bar, and they waved back.
They’d been coming here for two and a half years, since they were fifteen and in their first year at the Lyceum. Karou had been new to Prague and had known no one. Her Czech was freshly acquired (by wish, not study; Karou collected languages, and that’s what Brimstone always gave her for her birthday) and it had still tasted strange on her tongue, like a new spice.
She’d been at a boarding school in England before that, and though she was capable of a flawless British accent, she had stuck with the American one she’d developed as a child, so that was what her classmates had thought she was. In truth, she had claim to no nationality. Her papers were all forgeries, and her accents—all except one, in her first language, which was not of human origin—were all fakes.
Zuzana was Czech, from a long line of marionette artisans in Cˇ eský 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.