KISHMISH took to the sky and was gone in a flutter. Karou watched, wishing she could follow. What magnitude of wish, she wondered, would it take to endow her with flight?
One far more powerful than she'd ever have access to.
Brimstone wasn't stingy with scuppies. He let her refresh her necklace as often as she liked from his chipped teacups full of beads, and he paid her in bronze shings for the errands she ran for him.
A shing was the next denomination of wish, and it could do more than a scuppy - Svetla's caterpillar eyebrows were a case in point, as were Karou's tattoo removal and her blue hair - but she had never gotten her hands on a wish that could work any real magic. She never would, either, unless she earned it, and she knew too well how humans earned wishes.
Chiefly: hunting, grave-robbing, and murder.
Oh, and there was one other way: a particular form of self-mutilation involving pliers and a deep commitment.
It wasn't like in the storybooks. No witches lurked at crossroads disguised as crones, waiting to reward travellers who shared their bread. Genies didn't burst from lamps, and talking fish didn't bargain for their lives. In all the world, there was only one place humans could get wishes: Brimstone's shop.
And there was only one currency he accepted. It wasn't gold, or riddles, or kindness, or any other fairy-tale nonsense, and no, it wasn't souls, either. It was weirder than any of that.
It was teeth.
Karou crossed the Charles Bridge and took the tram north to the Jewish Quarter, a medieval ghetto that had given way to a dense concentration of Art Nouveau apartment buildings as pretty as cakes. Her destination was the service entrance in the rear of one of them.
The plain metal door didn't look like anything special, and in and of itself, it wasn't. If you opened it from without, it revealed only a mildewed laundry room. But Karou didn't open it. She knocked and waited, because when the door was opened from within, it had the potential to lead some place quite different.
It swung open and there was Issa, looking just as she did in Karou's sketchbooks, like a snake goddess in some ancient temple.
Her serpent coils were withdrawn into the shadows of a small vestibule. 'Blessings, darling.'
'Blessings,' Karou returned fondly, kissing her cheek. 'Did Kishmish make it back?'
'He did,' said Issa, 'and he felt like an icicle on my shoulder.
Come in now. It's freezing in your city.' She was guardian of the threshold, and she ushered Karou inside, closing the door behind her so the two of them were alone in a space no bigger than a closet. The outer door of the vestibule had to seal completely before the inner one could be opened, in the manner of safety doors at aviaries that prevent birds from escaping.
Only, in this case, it wasn't for birds.
'How was your day, sweet girl?' Issa had some half dozen snakes on her person - wound around her arms, roaming through her hair, and one encircling her slim waist like a belly dancer's chain. Anyone seeking entry would have to submit to wearing one around the neck before the inner door would unseal - anyone but Karou, that is. She was the only human who entered the shop uncollared. She was trusted. After all, she'd grown up in this place.
'It's been a day,' Karou sighed. 'You won't believe what Kaz did. He showed up to be the model in my drawing class.'
Issa had not met Kaz, of course, but she knew him the same way Kaz knew her: from Karou's sketchbooks. The difference was that while Kaz thought Issa and her perfect breasts were an erotic figment of Karou's imagination, Issa knew Kaz was real.
She and Twiga and Yasri were as hooked on Karou's sketchbooks as her human friends were, but for the opposite reason.
They liked to see the normal things: tourists huddled under umbrellas, chickens on balconies, children playing in the park.
And Issa especially was fascinated by the nudes. To her, the human form - plain as it was, and not spliced together with other species - was a missed opportunity. She was always scrutinizing Karou and making such pronouncements as, 'I think antlers would suit you, sweet girl,' or 'You'd make a lovely serpent,' in just the way a human might suggest a new hairstyle or shade of lipstick.
Now, Issa's eyes lit up with ferocity. 'You mean he came to your school? The scandalous rodent-loaf! Did you draw him? Show me.'
Outraged or not, she wouldn't miss an opportunity to see Kaz naked.
Karou pulled out her pad and flipped it open.
'You scribbled out the best part,' Issa accused.
'Trust me, it's not that great.'
Issa giggled into her hand as the shop door creaked open to admit them, and Karou stepped across the threshold. As always, she felt the slightest wave of nausea at the transition.
She was no longer in Prague.
Even though she had lived in Brimstone's shop, she still didn't understand where it was, only that you could enter through doorways all over the world and end up right here.
Edited extract of Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, published by Hachette Australia. This is one of 10 books shortlisted for the 2012 Inky Awards, run by the Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library. The winning titles are voted for by young readers.