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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“What happened to you?” I asked softly.
“I died. You don’t know what that’s like. Or maybe you do, now. But music is the only thing I have left. I was famous. Celebrated, in two different worlds. And both times, I lost it. A girl I thought I loved told me that loss was supposed to be my salvation. But you know what? I don’t feel saved.”
“No one is ever safe,” I added, my voice soothing.
He pulled a coin from his pocket and began flipping it back and forth over his knuckles. His eyes closed, and a look of pain flickered over his features. Faster and faster the coin spun in the last rays of evening, glinting in the light and showing me the copper-cast face of a kindly old man with a mustache. I didn’t move a muscle. I simply studied my prey, as I had been taught. He swallowed hard, and I focused on his lips, on the sensual curve of the lower one, waiting to see what he would reveal next.
“Oi, Maestro,” someone called, the voice tinny and echoing somewhere beyond the closed door. “It’s your last chance, mate. You’d better get down here and start playing, unless you want to end up in the gutter.”
“More threats,” he said under his breath. “It must be Monday.”
He checked the knots again, and seeing that I’d managed to wiggle just the tiniest bit loose, he yanked them hard enough to make me yelp in a decidedly unladylike manner.
“You know very well how I dare.” His gaze traveled over me, and he took a deep breath as if scenting the air. “Just remember when you’ve regained your strength that I could have done a lot worse to you.” He licked his lips as his eyes lingered on the low cut of my gown, giving me a dark look that heated me straight through. I showed him my teeth.
He patted my hair, and I shook him off with a hiss. The movement pushed me past the point of exhaustion, but I hated the thought of his filthy peasant hands touching me. In my head, I killed him for the thousandth time, laughing as his blood painted my teeth.
“I won’t remember what you didn’t do,” I said under my breath as I curled onto my side and prepared to sleep or pass out or whatever kept taking me over. “I’ll only remember this.”
I drifted in and out of sleep, too empty to dream. When I woke, I could hear the strains of his harpsichord somewhere below me, sometimes dulcet and slow and seductive, sometimes loud and brash and accompanied by the stomping of boots and ribald shouts and singing. Still, there was a melancholy undertone to the music, a sadness rippling under the surface of even the happiest tunes. I felt like that inside—a yawning chasm of sorrow that couldn’t be filled. But I was going to do something about it.
When the door finally opened, I was mostly awake, lying on my side and diligently sawing through the silk cravat around my wrists with my fangs. I didn’t try to hide it from him. I just smiled around what was left of his tie and continued gnawing. With the black cat trotting at his heels, he ducked through the door and went about his business as if I wasn’t there. He tossed his gloves onto the dresser and cracked his knuckles one at a time, watching me in bemusement.
“You’re a feisty little monster, aren’t you?” he finally asked, slurring a little.
“I’m not a monster.” I spat out bits of cravat and rubbed my sore wrists. The silk tasted too closely of human and soap and something else, a musky stink that I didn’t like. I tossed it onto the ground, and Tommy Pain batted it around as if it was a toy. It was charming, this cat creature. But Casper wasn’t. “But I wouldn’t expect you to understand who I am or what I mean. You’re uncivilized.”
“I’m quite civil.”
“Civility depends upon not tying people up.”
“If our roles were reversed, you wouldn’t hesitate,” he muttered. “You’d take your time killing me. I can see it in your eyes. It’s a shame, too. They’d be pretty, if they weren’t so set on murder.”
I chuckled, low and sweet. He didn’t know the half of it. But I’d been thinking. I had figured out a way to get what I wanted all around. My strength back, my life back, my revenge, and, in time, his head on a silver platter.
“I don’t want to murder you anymore.” I smiled sweetly. “I think we can help each other.”
“Do you, now?” He turned his back to me. My anger flared, that he thought me so inconsequential and harmless.
He was undressing. I had to turn my eyes—or at least appear to. Not only because I was scandalized but because despite the strange stink, he was still full of blood barely contained by warm skin. As my beloved old nursemaid used to say, even a cracked teacup made a fine vessel for the right drink. And this teacup was far from cracked.
He tossed his glittering jacket over the dresser and wrenched off his cravat. Next came the frilly shirt, shrugged overhead and flung into the corner. His skin was golden, almost unheard of in my country, where ice-white was in fashion. He was more broadly built than the royals I had grown up with, and his muscular shoulders didn’t need any padding. Fine curly hair on his chest caught in the lamplight, trailing down and down.
I heard the button on his breeches and may have peeked out of idle curiosity, but he seemed to recall where he was at that moment and stopped, eyes meeting mine with a sneer. Instead, he kicked his boots across the room and slammed a fist into the faded white paint on the wall. Tommy Pain shot under the low bed with a hiss. The cracked mirror hanging from a wire fell to the ground and shattered to pieces, each shard reflecting the pathetic little room and us, its pathetic inhabitants.
Me, a lost princess and future queen, far from home and so weak I couldn’t untie the cravat around my ankles. Him, an uncivilized and fallen . . . whatever he was. I could read rage in the tension of his back, in the white of his fists against the crumbling wall where the mirror had been. Even in stillness, he was a tempest.
“That’s seven years of bad luck.”
“I’ve already put in three.” He lightly banged his forehead against the plaster. “What will be left of me in four more?”
“If you accept my bargain, a wealthy man.” I sat up. “Now, have you any more vials?”
He pulled away from the wall and pinned me with a steely blue glare. I didn’t blink.
“Please?” I added, as much as it pained me.
With a chuckle, he fished three glass tubes out of his jacket and uncorked the first one Pinky-style, with two hands. By the time I’d downed all of the vials, I had enough strength to untie my feet and stand, although the ceiling didn’t allow even my child-sized frame a decent stretch. I hadn’t stood since I’d attacked him downstairs, and my corset hung loosely around my waist and itched. I was well trained enough not to scratch.
He watched me the entire time, cautious but curious and unsmiling. Casper made me feel self-conscious, which I deeply resented, since a princess existed only to be admired and feared. Another mark against him. I looked down at the rumpled sack of a dress hanging from my wasted frame. It had once been my third-best gown, the height of fashion, hand-sewn with golden thread. What must he think of me, weak and girlish and left to rot in a suitcase? And yet there was something hungry lurking in his gaze.
I would teach him what to think of me. I reached down to hand him his cravat.
“Here is the bargain I offer you.” I folded my hands together and mimicked my mother’s precise intonation. “I must return to my people. I understand that I am being hunted and that I am recognizable, and I admit that I know little of the squalid life outside of the Ice Palace. You will disguise me and escort me to Muscovy, acting as guide and guard. You will help me discover what power Ravenna holds over my kingdom, and you will help me depose her. If we are successful, you will be court musician to the Tsarina of Freesia, composer to the Snow Court of Muscovy. You will never want again. Whatever you are, you will have whatever you need. Whatever you wish.”
“Whatever I wish?” One eyebrow went up, and a strange recognition shuddered through me. I ignored it.
The cold silence hung between us, the shards of the mirror on the floor brighter than snow.
“You’re not used to bargaining, are you?” he finally said.
“You’ve basically told me that if I can do the impossible, keep you alive for more than a thousand miles, and depose one of the most powerful despots in the entire world, then I can sit around and play the harpsichord in the snow whenever you crook your little claw. But I’ll still be an inferior, won’t I? Your pet slave.” He chuckled and leaned back against the wall, crossing his bare feet. “It’s what they call a fool’s bargain.”
“You strike me as a fool.”
“What, because I’m here, crouched in the attic and playing piano for blue-collar bloodsuckers who can’t tell Beethoven from Brahms? Because I spend most of my time drunk and wishing for something stronger than drink? Or because I took pity on what I thought was a starving child but was actually a murderous little ice bitch with plans of world domination?”
As he panted with anger and hunched over, stalking toward me in the scant space between us, I saw in him the echoes of a Bludman’s inner beast and wondered, in truth, what he was. But I smiled at his little tirade.
“You’re a fool because you underestimate me.” I ran a thumb over the edge of the mirror shard hidden behind my skirt, swiped from the ground when his back was turned.
Then I pounced for his neck.
It didn’t take much strength or weight to knock him over—he must have been drunker than he seemed. His arm jerked up just in time to stop my slash for his jugular, and I hissed and aimed for his bare shoulder. The mirror shard plunged into his skin, and as he shrieked and struggled, I yanked out the tip and pressed my mouth to the wound.
Finally. Real blood. Straight from the animal, as it should be. Vials could never equal this rush, this eye-rolling pleasure.
I pulled back and stared at the blood dribbling from the wound. It wasn’t right.
In that second of curiosity, as Casper clutched at his shoulder and swore in words I’d never heard before, something heavy landed on my back with a screech. Claws dug into the tender flesh above my corset, and teeth nipped against my neck. I growled in response and scrabbled at the heavy, furry shape with my talons. With one last, insulted hiss, Tommy Pain leaped off me and shot back under the bed, where he growled menacingly from the shadows.
I decided that I had mixed feelings about cats.
Casper erupted under me, dumping me onto the dusty floorboards in a heap. He lurched away to where the mirror used to be, then swore some more as he tried to find another way to assess the damage I’d done. I licked my lips meditatively, still wondering what the bitter taste might be. My already ruined dress now resembled a garbage sack, and creamy straggles of dusty hair tangled over my shoulders, sticky with blood and old wine. And I was still raging with hunger. His blood wasn’t perfect, but it would have served its purpose if I hadn’t stopped to deliberate.
Had I been a lesser being, I would have felt very sorry for myself. I might have endeavored to cry again. As it was, I held out a hand toward Casper and said, “You may consider us equal. Your blood in exchange for having restrained me. Shall we be friends?”
I didn’t mean it. Not the equal part, not the friends part. I’d seen a human singing to some pigeons once, luring one close enough to twist its neck. I could sing like that, too.
He looked at my hand as if it still held the scrap of mirror. Luckily, his blood had already clotted, so it wasn’t hard to control myself. I’d gotten a couple of good mouth-fuls, and it was enough. But I wanted him to help me up. I wanted him to start thinking of himself as my servant. So I smiled. And I waited.
Casper stood over me so long that my arm started to shake. I had thus far managed to ignore my body’s constant groans and aches since my emergence from the valise. But even fresh blood couldn’t fix four years of starvation, stillness, and atrophy, not even on a Bludwoman’s body.
“Hmm?” I added hopefully.
He dug into his pocket and dropped another vial into my hand instead. My black-scaled fingers curled around the cool glass on instinct, and I was already thinking of how good it would taste going down. I’d never drunk more than two vials in a day, but I felt that I would never be full again.
“Drink it,” he said, his voice dull and deadly. “I have errands to run. If you still want to strike this ridiculous bargain, you’ll stay here, in this room, and sleep. You’re going to need strength and stamina for this to work. I’ll be here when you wake up, and I’ll be ready to leave.”
“So you’ll help me, then? You’ll take me back to Freesia?”
The naive hope rose in my voice. Maybe that was what finally tipped his scales.
“Anything is better than this.” He nodded once and stormed out of the room.
I was swallowing the blood before his bare feet slapped down the stairs.
I had guessed right—he was a fool. And I knew exactly what to do with fools.
I couldn’t sleep. There was too much to contemplate—and I didn’t want to give Casper the satisfaction of my obedience. The longer I lay there, staring at the low ceiling, the more I thought of what I had lost. My parents had not been warm and loving—how could they, predators and royal to boot? And my sister, Olgha, had been even worse. But they had been my family, my anchor, the structure around which my life had been planned. And now that plan was gone, and I was alone and distraught.
All that, and the stupid cat kept making an entirely inappropriate rumbling noise from underneath the bed. So I gave up on sleep and did something I had never done before.