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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
He obliged, producing yet another vial from his shirt pocket. I had enough strength by then to slap his hand away and hold the vial myself, but I let him keep his arm behind my back, supporting me. My talons were atrociously long, the pinkie fingers beginning to twist into unfashionable corkscrews. At least my mother would never see me this way. I grimaced as I set the vial on the floor. The blood loss, the heartbreak—it was too much to bear.
“That’s all the blood I can find.” He pocketed the empty vials and dusted off his hands as if he didn’t like touching them. “The delivery isn’t due until this afternoon, I’m afraid. No one comes to the Seven Scars before lunch except me and Tom Pain. Isn’t that so, Tommy?”
And then I smelled the strangest thing. An animal. A fellow predator but an unfamiliar and somehow non-threatening one. A rumbling noise started up, and an odd creature padded out from the shadows. It was heavy and black and furry, with one great, green eye that regarded me philosophically. The other eye was scarred over, an ugly slash against the creature’s face. I had never seen anything like it.
“What is that monster?”
“It’s not a monster. It’s a cat.”
As he reached to stroke the rumbling creature, I realized that I was sitting up on my own. I finally had enough strength to support myself again. The man focused on the animal, and I scooted unobtrusively toward the broken vial of blood, dragging my fingers through the red puddle and licking them clean with a new desperation.
“What, they don’t have cats in Freesia?” he asked. “I thought cats were everywhere. Old Tommy has lived at the Seven Scars pub for much longer than any cat has a right to live. They say cats have nine lives, and he’s on his tenth.”
The man scratched the cat-thing under the chin, and the cat closed his eye in bliss and rubbed his head all over the man in an entirely unrepentant way that still managed to exude superiority. I began to like the cat. The man, on the other hand . . .
“I’ve answered your question,” I said, my haughtiness returning with my strength. “Now you will answer mine. Who are you? And what are you? You smell wrong.”
“I’m Casper Sterling,” It was unsettling, the way his eyes held mine. I refused to blink as I waited for the answers he owed me. “I’m the greatest musician in London, maybe in the entire world of Sang. And I’m mostly drunk.”
“That’s not what’s wrong about you. I know the smell of drink. It’s something more.”
“I answered your question, princess,” he snarled. “Now we bargain.”
“I will admit I owe you a debt,” I said calmly. “And you owe me one as well. We are even.”
He laughed, a dark, empty, reckless sound.
“I owe you? We’re even? Bullshit. You attacked me, and I saved your life anyway. You owe me. Period.”
“You cut me. Where I come from, those who threaten the lives of nobles are lucky to be drawn, quartered, and left for the bludlemmings and snow wolves. If you were my servant and you purposefully drew my blud, as you have, your entire family would be staked on the frozen hills and nibbled to death at a party. The debt you owe me is far greater than the one I owe you because I am naturally superior to you in species and breeding.”
I glared at him. He glared back. Then he stood and walked over to me, his bare feet brushing the ripped and faded taffeta of my skirt. Leaning down, his face inches from mine, he bared his teeth at me. At me! I could feel the malevolence and alcohol rolling off him in waves.
“Hurt me, then. Go on. Bite me. End me. I’ve lost everything I ever valued. I would welcome it, princess.”
It came out as a growl through shining teeth, and I flinched in spite of myself. I raised one shaking, black-scaled hand. Our eyes were locked, his pupils pinpricks in twilight blue. With every ounce of strength I could muster, filled with anger at his base nature and fury at his pity, I curled my sharp talons around his throat. I could see the pulse hammering there, smell the anger pounding through him. I tightened my grip, seeking the wet burst of his skin and the hard ridges of his spine.
“Do it!” His lips curled back over canine teeth that were sharper than I had expected. “End it! Send me back to the grave where I belong, you goddamn monster!”
I hissed at him and squeezed.
I couldn’t even pierce his skin.
I let go of his neck, my throat convulsing in a sob. I couldn’t even take what was mine. He was right—I was a monster. A broken one.
“That’s what I thought,” he said softly.
I fell back onto the boards and curled on my side, sobbing. A single tear rolled down my cheek and fell to my wrist, leaving a pink trail. The little strength I’d gained was gone. I needed more blood if I was going to kill him. And I was going to kill him, because any human who saw royal tears had seen his own doom.
“I’m going to end you,” I whispered. “I’m going to find blood, and I’m going to get strong, and I’m going to drain you dry. Nothing shall be more beautiful than your death.”
He looked at me strangely. “You do that,” he said in a voice as ragged as torn paper.
I was starting to lose consciousness again, but I felt his arms around me, lifting me from the ground and carrying me. The velvet curtains whispered past, brushing my boots.
The last thing I heard before I passed out was his whispered, “Death has to be better than this.”
My first thought upon waking was that all this passing out was terribly uncouth. My second thought was that I wanted to kiss whoever had taken off my boots. My third thought, as I wiggled my toes, was that I would probably have to kill them after I’d kissed them, because people can’t just go around undressing princesses without permission. My fourth thought was that I wasn’t a princess anymore. If my mother truly was dead, I was the Tsarina.
Then I realized that Casper was watching me.
I took stock of my body with eyes still closed and feigning sleep. Although I remembered everything that had happened since waking in the awful valise, I still had no idea where I was, what day it was, what year it was, or what my captor/savior wanted from me. I needed to strategize, but my thoughts were as muddled as a snowstorm on a moonless night.
“I know you’re awake, princess. I can see you wiggling your toes.”
“You again, servant?” I tried to sit up and smacked my forehead on something hard.
“The eaves are rather low,” he said bitterly as I floundered. “I can’t afford better. This ain’t the Ice Palace.”
My eyes adjusted to the dimness as I managed to roll onto an elbow. He was across the small room—more of a closet, really—sitting on a stool as he pulled on a pair of shiny knee-high boots with silver toe caps. I wanted to say something snide, but he was too interesting. The scruffy, careless, drunken wastrel I’d encountered earlier had metamorphosed into a sleekly handsome creature just this side of a dandy. Tight suede breeches, a flouncy shirt with feathery layers of lace, and a gem-encrusted coat winked in the twilight. His hair shimmered over his shoulders in glossy waves. He reminded me of my mother’s favorite pet Pinky dressed up for a parade, although there was something vaguely threatening about him. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, his posture or his scent or his wolfish grin, but something dangerous lurked under the surface of Casper Sterling.
“It’s time for me to perform.” He stood, checking his image in a hanging mirror. “You need to stay right where you are. I looked up some old broadsheets, and anyone less drunk would recognize you in a heartbeat. So start thinking about what you can do to change that, starting with your hair.”
My bare hand went to the long white-blond curls rippling over the side of the bed. Ye gods, had he taken the pins out while I’d slept? I was scandalized, to think of those long fingers buried in my hair. And he actually expected me to change my favorite feature? I couldn’t alter the ice-blue eyes of my Muscovy heritage, so my hair was the only logical choice. Then I realized the implications of what he had said.
“Why should I disguise myself?” I pulled my shoulders back and stuck out my chin despite an unladylike position. “I am the princess. I will soon be Tsarina. Once the authorities are made aware of my whereabouts, I will be returned to the Ice Palace. You may even be rewarded for your trouble.”
Before we drain you and eat your heart on toast, I added silently.
“This isn’t Freesia. And Freesia isn’t what it was four years ago. There’s civil unrest there, talk of revolt against the landed Bludmen’s harsh rule. The price on your head is high, and if you actually made it back home alive, Ravenna would have you killed. If the people still want you, they don’t know it. They’re completely in her power. Mesmerized or bullied or fed only propaganda. Perhaps all of the above.”
“You’re lying.” Each word dripped icicles.
“Why would I lie? This is London, and I’m a has-been playing tunes for coppers in a third-rate Blud bar. I’m a dancing monkey. If I wanted to hurt you, I would have turned you in to the Coppers while you were asleep and taken the reward.” He tied his cravat and flashed his dimpled grin. “It’s up to a thousand silvers, you know. They think you’re dead. But someone’s not willing to bet on it.”
On the outside, my nostrils flared. On the inside, I was breaking apart, cracks invading me like a glacier about to plummet into the fathomless deep. If he wasn’t lying, my parents were gone, and the beautiful palace where I’d led a charmed life was more than a thousand miles away and no longer safe. The sea, the mountains, the wilds of the tundra standing in my way were rendered insignificant only by the understanding that someone wanted me dead. And they had very nearly gotten their way.
“I’ve got to get back.” I had to discover what Ravenna held over my country and my last remaining sibling. If it was as bad as he had described, it was my duty to them and my birthright.
“I’d worry about standing up first. Looks like you were drained to the cusp of death. What’s the last thing you remember?”
He leaned forward into a golden ray of sunset shining through a window so small it resembled a porthole. The bloodshot whites of his eyes served only to enhance the blue. I inhaled deeply and found that his smell nagged at me. He wasn’t a Bludman, that was for sure. But what was he?
And where had I been for the last four years?
“The last thing I remember clearly was sitting by the fountain in the back courtyard. There was a thin layer of ice on top, like the film on blood brûlée. I was tracing patterns in the ice, watching the koi swim underneath, trying to reach my fingers through the crust.”
“And then I was in the dark, plotting your death.”
“I’m not nice,” I growled. With a bit of a struggle, I pulled myself to sitting on the other end of the bed, where the eaves weren’t so low. “Nice is for nursemaids and stable boys. I’m royalty. And I’m a pragmatist. And I wake up cranky. Why do you smell different?”
“None of your damned business.”
“I don’t like your attitude.”
“I’m not your servant.”
I hissed. “If you were—”
“Look, it’s very sweet, you threatening me all the time. But you’re weak, you’re wanted, and you’re in my power. Deal with it. I’ve got to be onstage in five minutes, or I won’t have the money to buy more blood for you. Can I trust you to stay here?”
Finally, something I could work with.
I smiled my most beguiling smile, showing kitten teeth and batting my eyelashes. “Of course. I’ll just take a nap while I wait, and then we can arrange transportation.”
He chuckled, and my cheeks grew hot.
“You know, two years ago, I would have fallen for that, hook, line, and sinker. But a lot’s happened since then, and now I know a lying woman when I see one.”
My hands made fists in the scratchy blanket on his bed. I was growing accustomed to the feeling of my overgrown nails digging into cloth. It didn’t bother me so much now. But as I settled my feet on the floor and curled into an attack position, he calmly put a gloved hand against my shoulder and shoved me, hard, back onto the bed.
I spluttered in indignation and fought gravity, but I was still very weak. It had cost me everything I had just to sit up. Shame nearly killed me, taking over where the draining left off.
“I don’t trust you, princess. I don’t know what you think you’re going to do, but I don’t trust you.” He mucked around in a crooked drawer and held up a handful of silk cravats.
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“You can’t stop me.” He grinned.
I struggled, but it was no good. He hummed under his breath as he tied my hands together at the wrists. When he reached for my stocking-clad ankles, deeply bred propriety propelled my weakly kicking feet.
“No one,” I gasped, “has ever touched my ankles.”
“No one has ever threatened to kill me ten times in ten different ways in one day.” He neatly snagged my feet and wound my ankles around with a wine-colored length of silk. “But I need this job. I’ve drunk my way through every theater and bar in the city, and it’s Deep Darkside and Beggar’s Row after this. I won’t let myself fall that far.”
He was talking to himself now. I was bound, hand and foot, trussed up like a fly in a spider’s web—or, to be more honest, like a spider temporarily restrained by a very foolish fly. My mind turned from escape to cunning, and I held very still, letting him go on. The more I could learn about my prey-turned-captor, the better my chances of besting him.