it's finally here! after starting this project in 2019, the first three chapters of Of Smoke & Bone are going to be posted next thursday. to celebrate, i've written a bonus scene (under the cut) to give y'all a taste of what i've been working on for the last couple years...
In general, Neil Josten managed to keep his two lives in balance. On the one hand, he was a nineteen year old art student in Prague with a part-time job in a mostly-normal coffee shop. On the other, he, Allison, and Renee worked for an inhuman creature, running errands in exchange for wishes. For the most part, these two lives rarely intersect. But it's fair to say that the Foxes bring their own brand of trouble, and Neil's two lives soon start to collide.
By nine o’clock that evening, Neil had written several more paragraphs of his dreaded critical theory essay—who was he kidding? Neil hadn’t a clue what he was talking about and his tutor would easily pick up on Neil’s complete misunderstanding of Dada. But he was reaching the word count and hopefully he could just push it up to a passing grade. He was just about to save the word document and make a cup of ramen noodles when his phone buzzed on the table beside him.
Andrew: Sculpture studio 3
Neil’s heart-rate quickened. The sculpture studios? Did Andrew already have something in mind? Neil didn’t have much experience in three-dimensional work but he was keen to branch out his skill-set. A multi-disciplinary project would be a good addition to his portfolio for both grading at the end of the year and for future commissions. He didn’t bother replying to Andrew’s message and instead gathered his bag. It wasn’t until after he filled his bag with his sketchbook and laptop that he remembered he still needed to save his essay progress, so he then pulled his laptop out again to do so. Grabbing his coat and slinging it over his bag to keep his hands free, Neil headed over to the Sculpture department in the Myslbek building.
Neil managed to find the third Sculpture studio by following a bunch of vague signposts dotted around the department, and swung open the door to an empty and dusty room with desks and chairs pushed to the walls, a grimy sink in the corner, and a series of wheeled-trolleys that students could use for their own materials when jumping from one desk to another.
It didn’t take him long to realise that he wasn’t alone. Even if he wasn’t expecting Andrew, Neil thought that he would have guessed who it was; the intensity of Andrew’s stare on his back set Neil’s nerves on edge.
“Did no one tell you I hate surprises?” Andrew asked from somewhere behind him.
Neil turned slowly to find Andrew sitting on one of the desks, legs crossed in a lotus-style similar to Renee’s yoga position but without the straight-backed posture, and he was staring Neil down.
“What makes you think I care?” Neil asked.
“This is not about whether you care or not,” Andrew said.
“So what is this about?” Neil took off his bag and pulled out his sketchbook, letting his bag and coat fall to the floor. He would have to brush off the dust before Allison let Neil bring either back into their apartment, but he didn’t think there would be a single room in the Sculpture department that wasn’t covered in clay dust or plaster. Neil set his sketchbook on the nearest table, pulled up a chair, and started flicking through it until he found the original sketch of Ztuart. He didn’t want to push too much. If Andrew picked up on Neil’s eagerness, he would likely feign disinterest out of spite. Neil heard Andrew uncrossing his legs and sliding off the desk, and then heard his footsteps as he walked toward Neil. Andrew kept just out of arm’s reach from where Neil was sitting, but not by much. The change from Andrew’s usual way of taking up space made Neil wonder what it was Andrew was suddenly wary of.
“Couldn’t wait until March?” Neil asked. “Did you realise I wasn’t a maths problem to solve or a new toy to break?”
“I’m rather curious, Neil,” Andrew started, putting emphasis on his name and cocking his head at the slight twitch on Neil’s face. “Nicky won’t shut up about your little adventures: skipping classes and turning up several days later with some very far-fetched excuses. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without that coat, as if it’s the only thing you really own. Some things don’t always add up, but I think you do. What are you running from, rabbit?”
“Is it that curious? People have jobs, and my shifts don’t always line up with class schedules.”
“And what exactly is it that you do, Neil?” Andrew hummed. “Customer service?” He shook his head. “Terrible manners. Stocking shelves? Too short. The thing is, I’m starting to believe you work for the Wishmonger.”
If Neil had seen this coming, he would have had time to think of the perfect retort to throw Andrew off his trail, but he hadn’t considered that he was in any immediate danger. All it took was a year and a half of living with Allison and Neil had lost all his survival instincts and his ability to think on his feet. Coaxing air back into his lungs was the hardest thing Neil had ever done. It was a miracle his breath sounded so steady when his throat was closing up.
“Mind your own business,” Neil said, which wasn’t even remotely clever but it was the best he had. He lurched to his feet, but Andrew darted forward to grab him by his hair and slam him back into his seat. A cruel twist pulled his head back at a dangerous angle, and Andrew slammed Neil’s hand flat against the table top before he could reach for the knife in his boot. Neil lifted his other hand to pry Andrew’s fingers off, but Andrew let go of Neil’s hair and caught his wrist with his other hand.
“Tonight is Mind Neil’s Business Night,” Andrew said. “Didn’t you notice? Give me something real or I won’t let you stay here.”
Neil managed to slip one hand free and he reached for the knife at his waistband but Andrew was too close to his body to not see it coming. He easily grabbed the knife off Neil and sent it skidding across the floor.
“Another knife, hm? I figured you’d just try to rip my teeth out with pliers,” Andrew mused.
“Maybe I will and wish for you to leave me alone,” Neil seethed.
“Renee said you wouldn’t like this,” Andrew taunted. Neil froze and Andrew’s smile was a cold and dangerous thing. “She didn’t tell you? She said I should trust you, and yet you just tried to stab me. I think she’s a little delusional about who she should trust.”
Neil raked his memory trying to find any signs of what Andrew was and how he knew Renee; if she had betrayed him after all. And Allison? Had his entire life here been a trap, lulling Neil into a false sense of security only to be finally handed over to his father by an unhinged… whatever Andrew was.
Andrew realised that Neil wasn’t going to respond, so he tried encouraging him to talk by pulling out his own knife from an armband and pressing it to Neil’s throat. “Now, you’re going to explain why you’re here and what you want, and I won’t put this through your throat.”
Neil felt his father’s smile curve his lips. “Do it. I dare you.” After all, if he was to be sent to his father, a slit throat would be a much more pleasant way to die. If he wasn’t, and Renee and Allison were his allies, then Renee would glean his soul and bring him back. Hopefully. She would have to find his body first.
“If I can’t get an answer from you, I’ll get it wherever I can. How about I start with Goldilocks?”
“Good luck with that, she’d set one of her snakes on you before you could get one word out.”
“Sounds messy. How many wishes does it take to clean up after?”
Neil ignored that. “What do you want? I’m not a threat to you.”
“Then correct me. You think it over. Think how badly you want to try my patience right now.”
“You’ve waited this far,” Neil said. “What would you have done if I hadn’t come down here to meet you?”
“There wasn’t a chance you wouldn’t meet me down here. You have a one track mind.” Andrew tapped the tip of his knife against Neil’s pulse-point. “Besides, down here I get to do this.”
Neil paused for a moment, thinking out possible scenarios and how he thought Andrew might react to them. If Andrew really thought Neil was a threat, how far would he go to prove it? Neil didn't want to see what came next, but avoiding that meant compromising. He had to tell Andrew something. The truth was out of the question, but Andrew would smell a lie a mile away. What Neil needed was something in-between, enough for Andrew to back off but not too much that he realised exactly what kind of threat followed Neil’s every breath.
His eventual decision made his blood run cold, but it was the safest option, and the smartest. Neil twisted his hands under Andrew’s grasp until they lay palms up, the black ink of his kezir stark against the paler skin there. To anyone else, they looked like tattoos. To Neil, they were something else entirely. Neil could only hope that Andrew fell into the former category. Tattoos were much easier to explain.
“Truth for truth?”
more about Of Smoke & Bone can be found on my writing page
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