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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
I snooped. I tossed drawers, rifled through pockets, hunted for loose floorboards, and even turned over the mattress, much to Tommy Pain’s chagrin. And I wasn’t sneaky about it, either. If Casper wasn’t going to play nice, neither was I.
The infuriating man appeared to own very little. His clothes, a hidden bottle of wine sealed with wax, and a small notebook with bizarre poetry in nearly illegible handwriting. Angry slashes marred almost every page. The first page said “Leaves of Grass,” which seemed beyond ridiculous. Blades of grass, maybe. But leaves? I flipped through the book, trying to understand what appeared to be a very angry and scattered mind.
One phrase stood stark on a page, each word written in block letters with a heavy pen.
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Fuck you, Walt Whitman.
What a singularly bizarre man. With his things arrayed before me, I was no closer to mastering the servant I would pretend to befriend for the sake of my country. And I was running out of time. Improper and awkward as it was, I flopped onto the dusty floor and stuck my arm as far under the unkempt bed as I could. My hand grazed something small tucked against the wall, and I withdrew from the shadows with the object in my hand and a scratch from Tommy Pain for my trouble.
It was a little box of polished wood with a simple hinge and clasp. I flicked it open. Inside I found a single copper coin and a deep red feather.
“Trying to kill the Maestro wasn’t good enough. Now you’re stealing from him, too?” someone said from the door.
I slammed the box shut and threw it back under the bed, where it hit the mad cat with a hearty thwack. He shot out of the darkness and curled up in the corner to lick his nethers in an extremely improper fashion. I coughed politely.
Even if my height was never going to make me imposing, I still stood before I faced my accuser. And for once, I was taller than someone. Through the successive layers of grimy and stained clothing and the leather aviator’s hat and goggles, I couldn’t tell what it was. A girl, a boy, a child, a youth. Only one thing I could tell from across the small room: it was human.
And I was going to drain it.
“I lost a hairpin under the bed,” I said crisply. “It’s not my fault if he chooses to keep his sundries among the dustlemmings.”
I glided toward my prey, my fingers curling into claws. The figure smirked and showed me a knife.
“Lesson one. Don’t kid a kidder, kid. You suck on me, and Casper will turn you in for a thousand well-earned silvers unless I can gut you first. I’m Keen, by the way.”
I nodded to the mongrel child. “Greetings, Keen. I am Ahnastasia, princess of the Great Snow Court of Muscovy, crown capitol of the Tsarina of Freesia.”
“Yeah, and I’m the bloody king of Franchia.” Keen grinned with surprisingly white teeth for what I had to assume was a diseased foundling. Tommy Pain had completed his vile self-grooming and twined around Keen’s feet. When the stained brown gloves began to scratch under his chin, he rumbled like a steam engine.
“What do you care about that maddening man?” I said.
“None of your goddamn business.”
“I seem to get that a lot here.”
“That’s because poor people like us hate rich people who try to make us feel like crap,” Keen answered with slitted eyes.
“Do I look rich to you?” I held my hands out to show my ruined, blood-spattered dress.
“Maestro told me you’ve been stored in a suitcase for four years, so of course your frock looks like a handkerchief somebody sneezed in. But I bet that thread’s still made of enough gold to feed me for a year. I see you staring at me like I’m nothing, like I should be bowing and kissing your feet. That’s never going to happen.”
I sat down on the bed, glaring. Taking a sphere of tarnished brass from a jacket pocket, the little urchin tossed and rolled it from one gloved hand to another with a private smile. I watched for a few moments, noting the markings and indentations in the metal, wondering what the thing was. Raised eyebrows told me I was being purposefully tortured. I sighed in resignation, exhausted from the small act of standing.
“Enough of this ridiculous standoff. Where is your Maestro?”
“Getting ready for the trip. He asked me to fetch you to the costumer’s for your disguise.”
“Why didn’t he come himself?”
“I told you. He’s busy.”
I patted my dress and hair, as if anything I could do with my own two hands would prepare me for being seen on the street. What if there were people out there—and not people like Casper and Keen but People. Real people, people who mattered, people who might know me. I cringed inwardly and tilted my head benevolently.
“I suppose I am ready, then. Lead on.”
“I got to do something first.” Keen burst into a wide, toothy grin. I finally understood, seeing that brilliant smile, that she was a girl, a young and pretty one, hiding for some reason under short hair and shapeless clothes and a silly hat. Something evil glinted in her eyes.
“Very well.” I crossed my arms and nodded. “Get on with it.”
She reached into her jacket, tucked the sphere away, and pulled out a pair of jagged, rusty scissors, the sort of thing our gardeners would have saved for lopping off weeds and the heads of pesky bludlemmings.
“First, we got to cut your hair off.”
I drew back and hissed, clutching long white-blond locks to my chest.
“No,” I whispered.
“Deal or no deal, princess?” She snicked the scissors open and closed. “They always got room for bludwhores in the next bar over, if you ain’t willing.”
My hair had never been cut. Not once in my entire twenty-seven years of life. No, make that thirty-one. I had lost four years, and I was well on my way to being whispered about at court as a spinster, if I lived long enough for some snide baroness to call me such. But Keen left me with little choice, and I knew well enough that my hair was my most recognizable feature.
The little monster didn’t even let me brush it first. As soon as I’d pulled out the few silver pins that remained, she darted behind me and wrapped a grimy glove around the knee-length mass. I yelped and fought her, but that only pulled the hair taut and straight, and I was still weak. She took advantage of my mistake to hack into the mess with her clippers, and tears stung my eyes in pain and sadness. The tugging hurt, but the injured vanity hurt more.
“Ha!” She held up more than three feet of my pride and joy, a hunting trophy. It was shiny, beautiful, and the color of buttermilk, if slightly dusty and blood-streaked buttermilk. The color was unusual in Freesia and had been my trademark. I grabbed for it, but she danced back, winding it around her hand and stuffing it neatly into a bag. She pocketed the pins, too.
“It’s mine,” I said menacingly.
“It’s going to buy your disguise. Which we can’t get until we cut off even more.”
“No.” I felt for the cruelly snagged ends of my remaining locks. They fell just below my shoulders. It was a tragedy. My fingers played with the rough curls, and I glared at Keen, imagining her head next to Casper’s on a platter.
“Look, lady. It’s simple. Do you want to live, or do you want to die? Somebody wants you to lie down and stuff it, and you don’t strike me as the sort of bitch that’s going to oblige. So let’s get on with it before the shops close and your type fills the streets, eh? Short hair ain’t so bad. And you’re less likely to get the nits.”
I shuddered. Common folk and their filth had never been a consideration before. Did I see things moving in her dull, mud-brown hair, or was that just my imagination?
She took a step toward me, scissors held out. I slapped her arm away, and quick as a snake, she slapped my arm with her free hand. It fell to my side, limp. I had never been struck before. The little beast took advantage of my shock to shove me onto Casper’s stool. I tried to stand, but her foot pinned my skirts.
“I don’t mind stabbing you,” she said in a businesslike manner, “but you’ll look nicer if you just let me take care of it.”
In the end, I sat there, stunned and already grieving my youth and beauty. Each snippet of ice-white hair that fluttered to the ground felt like a year of my life. Instead of feeling lighter, my head felt weighed down by all the sorrow in the world. I was weak. I was lost. And now I was ugly.
“There we go,” Keen said at last. “And a lovely job it is, if I do say so myself.”
I thought about scooping up another shard of mirror to see the damage she’d done, but I knew that I was too distraught to stop myself from stabbing her, and then Casper would never help me. What was done was done.
“Put this on.”
Keen shoved something green and smelly into my hands. I dumped it onto the floor, where Tommy Pain batted it about.
“You’re going to want that hat, you know,” Keen said. “Your hair stands out. You’ve got to cover it, at least until we can get some dye.”
At the end of my emotional rope and badly in need of blood and non-Keen company, I shoved the hat onto my head. It was large and floppy and made of the itchiest substance I’d ever touched, the sort of thing an old servant man would wear to keep the rain off.
“Couldn’t you find anything smaller than this monstrosity?” I tried to arrange it so it wouldn’t itch. “I could fit Tommy Pain in here and still have room for—”
I looked at her, eyes wide. She grinned her evil grin again, the one that transformed her face into something beatific. And something that I wanted to destroy. I threw the hat at her instead. She caught it neatly and twirled it around a finger. Anger bubbled up in my chest.
“I could have stuffed all my hair in here, you brat. We didn’t have to cut it off yet, or so badly. It didn’t have to hurt.”
“Nope. We didn’t. But I think it was more fun this way. Don’t you?”
“I’m going to see your head—”
“On a platter. Yeah, the Maestro told me about that. Why would you even want someone’s head on a platter? It would just wobble around and leak and make a mess, and they’d be all staring at you with their dead eyes. A pike would be so much more dramatic. Or a fishbowl full of whiskey.”
“Seems like you’ve been giving it some thought,” I snapped.
“You’re not the only one with enemies.”
While we bantered, my traitorous hands crept up to what was left of my curls. My talons caught on the tangled ends, and my breath hitched. People could see my ears. It was the worst disaster since the last blood famine.
She snickered and patted the bag. “Going to get a good price for it, you know. Bloody idiots will think it’s a unicorn tail with magical properties, make it into good-luck watch fobs. You should be proud.”
“Magical properties? You’ve obviously never met a unicorn.”
“Haven’t met a sea monster or hellbear, either.”
Now it was my turn to grin and flash my pointed teeth. “Then you haven’t been to Freesia.”
“Save the fairy tales for the kiddies, princess.” But I had seen her tough façade falter, just for a moment. I was guessing she’d never been out of London and was scared of travel. She had reason to be, if she thought she was coming with us to Freesia. And now I had a little something to hold over her. Excellent.
“They’re not fairy tales, ragamuffin.”
“Well, we’re still in London, and we’re running late. So let’s go.”
I took my time tightening my corset and lacing my old boots back on. Four years ago, they had been as soft as a baby’s cheek, perfectly tanned bludelk leather dyed to a deep gold. Now they were cracked with age and disuse, the laces hard and bent. As for my dress, there was nothing I could do about it, and I didn’t want her filthy little paws on my person anyway. I snatched the hat back and draped it over my head, hiding my face under the sagging brim.
“You look like a drunk grandmother,” Keen said with a laugh. “Just stagger about a bit and burp every now and then. They’ll just assume you’re blitzed on bludwine.”
“Nothing. Let’s go. Don’t speak to anyone. Try to hunch over a bit like there ain’t a red-hot poker up your bum. Don’t say anything about heads on platters.” She yanked a faded plaid blanket from Casper’s bed and tossed it over my shoulders. It smelled like him, good and bad at the same time. “And keep this around your shoulders and neck. Hide your hands. They ain’t so nice to Bluddies where we’re going.”
I arranged the pathetic little scrap of fabric the way I’d seen our old Pinky cook wear her shawl while making bloodcakes or mixing the potion for my baths. I hunched over, letting my head slump forward and bending my knees. It went against everything in my blud, pretending to be something less than I was. But I’d heard wild rumors of the Pinkies of Sangland, who held sway over the Bludmen in a blasphemous sort of power struggle that went against nature itself. I wasn’t ready to be drained again or hit in the face with a moldy bit of vegetable.
Without a word, she led me out the door and down the rickety stairs. I was pleased to discover that I could walk, but I was still exhausted. It was like the dreamy ache of falling asleep beside the fire after a daylong hunt, but without the pleasant floaty feeling of a belly full of fresh blood.
We passed several open doors, one showing the empty music hall where I’d first found Casper and woken in the darkness. A jumble of crates, valises, and flotsam sat in the corner, and I thought I spotted the flap of leather from my own suitcase.