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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Wait,” I whispered, and Keen grunted. Before she could stop me, I darted over to the suitcase and scrabbled inside, feeling for some remnant of my old life, some clue to the last four years. The lights were low, since there were no windows, and even with my excellent night vision, I couldn’t see much. I had nearly given up when my talon caught in the fabric lining, tearing it. I felt around between the ragged silk and the leather until something cool scraped my fingertips.
I pulled out my prize and sighed. I wasn’t sure whether it was contentment or sadness. In my hand was the necklace I’d been wearing that day by the fish pond, the day that, to the best of my memory, was the day of my abduction. White diamonds and blue sapphires winked in a collar that made me look like a glacier carved of ice. It had been a gift from my father for my fifteenth birthday in those beautiful, dancing days before Ravenna had begun to insinuate herself into our family and our state.
“You find anything?” Keen called from the doorway.
I slipped the necklace down the front of my corset and called back, “No, nothing here.”
But for some reason, I wasn’t ready to leave the suitcase yet. It had been an unwitting prison, but it was the only clue to my apparent kidnapping. I pushed it over to investigate. Scuffed tan leather, thick and cheaply stitched. On one side, the curved flap I’d carved with my claws. On the other side, a host of odd stickers with strange names I had to squint to read. Stockhelm. Constantinoble. Kyro. Places I’d seen in my books and on the ornate, gemstone-dappled globe in my father’s study. I had apparently been to those faraway places, unconscious and on the verge of death. I had missed the mountains, the sunrises, those abominations called camels that spit blud when angry. So much time and so many opportunities, lost forever.
And on the top, another sticker had been torn just enough to obscure the recipient’s name. Written in dark red ink, the remaining words read, “-seinist, -uby Lane, -ontown, land.”
They had shipped me, whoever they were. Like luggage. Less than chattel. Dumped in a case and passed along, hand to hand, never to reach my final destination. And now I knew, at least partially, to whom. And I wasn’t leaving London until I’d learned why.
I was so busy fighting my way through the streets of London that I barely had time to register the details in the chaos. Head down and shawl-sheltered, I mostly saw Keen’s back, the bag full of my hair bouncing against her grungy jacket. Every time I tried to look up and soak in the shops, the filth in the streets, the mouthwatering children plucking my skirts with innocent grins and handfuls of violets, I would nearly lose my guide. So instead, I focused on the spot between her shoulder blades, thinking about how pleasant it would be to plant a knife there.
She ducked down an alley, and I followed. We tiptoed over piles of rotten Pinky fodder, past drunks and fallen women, and through the lairs of the biggest bludlemmings I’d ever seen, their maroon fur bristling as they hissed at me. At last, Keen held open a nondescript door, and I stepped into darkness.
“Gods of ice, I’m sick of squalor,” I muttered under my breath. We were in an antechamber, a sad little closet barely big enough for the two of us and the giant black cat that had apparently chased us all the way from the Seven Scars, bludlemmings be damned. I began to see why they called him Tommy Pain, because he certainly was a pain.
Keen knocked on the inner door, and locks clicked within.
“It’s about time,” Casper said through the crack before Keen shoved me through.
The room beyond was nothing like what I had expected from the dismal antechamber and Casper’s room under the eaves. Bright red walls, a salmon-pink ceiling, and a wooden floor painted with giant swirls made my eyes hurt after the grim dullness of everything else I’d seen in London so far. Perhaps these people weren’t as depressing and deadened as I had assumed.
“So here’s ze little princess,” mused a cultured lady’s voice with a Franchian accent.
The tall woman at Casper’s side was mostly uncovered, her skin shimmering with color, red and deep orange and violet like a sunset. Her eyes were black all around, and I would have sworn that feathers were somehow glued to her eyelashes, making them seem as long as fingers. A daimon. I’d never seen one outside of books or paintings.
I knew I was staring, and I knew it was rude. I forced myself to look down.
“Forgive me, madam. I’ve been out of the world for a long time and have forgotten myself.”
It was the most polite I’d been in London, mainly because I could sense some common feeling in the proud carriage of this odd lady. If she wasn’t royalty where she came from, she was something close.
“I understand what it is like to be alone among ze barbarians,” she answered with a coy smile. “And I offer my condolences on the loss of your hair. I remember from ze broadsheets that it was quite beautiful.”
My hand went to the heinous hat. I removed it and dropped it right on Tommy Pain’s head. He shook it off and glared at me with his bright green eye. I almost smiled.
“I am Madamoiselle Beaureve, but here they call me Reve. If you will allow, I will help you to bathe and dress in a disguise, so that you may travel unimpeded. The price, as you know, is your hair. Do you accept this arrangement?”
Keen handed her the bag, and Reve opened it with a look of awe. Her skin shivered in feathery patterns of violet and indigo.
“It is very fine. It will be a joy to work with such beautiful hair.”
“What will you do with it?” I asked.
“Truly, you don’t want to know, princess.”
“There’s some sick bastards in this town,” Keen muttered under her breath. Judging by her bitterness, maybe she was older than she looked.
“It seems I have no choice but to accept.”
My eyes met Casper’s. I couldn’t read what I saw there, a stormy mixture of determination and surrender, like a man being sucked into darkness and welcoming the maelstrom. He closed his eyes as if in pain and slipped out the door without a word.
Reve pooled my golden curls reverently on a work-table with a farewell pat. I told myself that my hair would grow back, that it would one day regain and surpass its former beauty, but I wasn’t sure if I believed it.
The daimon walked around me, her long tail waving as she plucked my sleeves and felt the stuff of my skirt and tilted my head up with a hot-skinned magenta finger under my chin.
“This will be fun,” she murmured.
She bowed me through another door. I was soon alone, soaking in a copper tub, the water from the steam pipes nearly boiling my skin. Once I got over my inbred fear of water and accepted that there wasn’t a grain of salt in the sweet-smelling bubbles, I was able to finally relax. I hadn’t realized how dusty and tightly wound I had been. The bathtub, clearly selected for Reve, dwarfed my petite form, and I stretched in ecstasy. In the workshop, the daimon would be plucking out the gold thread and burning my old dress, or maybe cutting it into ragged skirts for the less-picky whores. So it was done, then. I was ready to begin the next chapter of my life.
The water was soon cloudy with the filth of years, and it was delicious to scrub my short hair and feel the water running down my scalp. By the time I exited the steam-filled bathroom wrapped in a skimpy cotton robe, I was almost looking forward to life on the road. I’d never undertaken a journey before, and even if my main companion was an unpleasant ruffian like Casper, at least I wasn’t half-drained in a valise.
Reve was waiting for me in the workroom, surrounded by heaps of fabric and ribbons.
“Oh la, chérie. You are ready? Good. We begin.” She led me to a tall chair, and I sat, mesmerized by my image in the mirror.
She fluffed my damp hair with her fingers, which were now green. It curled loosely around my head in a pretty cloud of lightest blond, and I sighed.
“I know, I know. Sangland is a bland place, and you are accustomed to standing out. Brown dye will seem cruel to you, but it’s the only way to avoid detection.”
“Artifice,” I said. “I don’t like it.”
She laughed, her voice like water over rocks. “You are Freesian royalty. You drank artifice with your mother’s milk and blud. This is just a little paint.”
With quick fingers, she mixed a strange concoction from bottles and powders and coated my hair with dull brown. Without a word and with an ease that suggested prior dealings with Bludmen, she clipped and filed my talons to the exactly proper length. When she finally washed the muck from my hair, I looked like a drowned bludlemming.
I was accustomed to being primped and dressed, and honestly, I wouldn’t have known how to do half of it. I was more than content to let myself be manipulated as I meditated on my various plans. Heads on platters. Or spikes. Travel by coach or elegant airship, velvet couches, a parasol at my side. Sinking my teeth into Ravenna’s throat and being welcomed back into the embrace of my country. Raising monuments to my parents and moving into the royal chamber.
I patted the robe’s pocket, feeling the weight of my jeweled necklace there. I still had riches. It would be a piece of bludcake.
Reve helped me step into the bulky undergarments favored in London, frilly petticoats that would make my skirt stand out round as a bell.
“Now for your dress,” she said, and I inspected the rich fabrics and trims draped everywhere.
My smile crumbled when she held out the dullest thing in the room.
“A sack?” I asked, acid in my voice.
“Oh, la, little princess. What you see here are costumes for performers. The dancers, the acrobats, the whores. They all come to me for the brightest, the lowest-cut, the most daring. But you must do your best not to stand out. You must escape notice. Eyes must travel over you and never remember that you existed. That scarlet satin would drop wagging jaws, and then you would find yourself in another suitcase.”
I poked the dull brown thing draped over her arms. Then I wiped my fingers off on my robe.
“Tell yourself it is a costume. Call the color bronze or palomino. And don’t give up yet—there is more to do.”
With daggers of distaste in my eyes, I let her dump me into the dress. The rough, canvas-like fabric grated against my wrists and neck. I’d never dressed as a Pinky, never had my throat covered up to my chin, and I wanted to gag with the intimacy of the garment.
“This next bit is special,” Reve said, interrupting my sulk. She held something heavy and leathery out to me, and I sneered at it.
“There are no stirrups, chérie.”
She winked and lifted my arms to buckle the thing around me. It was a leather corset. And it had to weigh at least twenty pounds.
“Are you trying to torture me?”
“I’m trying to keep you alive, silly goose. A leather corset reinforced with steel bones and extra-thick panels. It works both ways—not only will it keep you from being accidentally stabbed or arrow-shot, but it will make you look like the most frightened Pinky that ever walked the earth. No Bludwoman in her right mind would wear such a thing, no?”
I could barely move in it, and when she had finished tightening the straps, I could barely breathe. As I panted and glared, Reve glanced at a cuckoo clock and sucked at her lip.
“We are running out of time. Quit pouting and act useful.”
She helped me back into my ragged boots and laced them for me, since I couldn’t bend over. I put on the gloves she gave me and clenched my hands, feeling muffled and dull. I had never put on used clothes before, never had any fabric touch my body that had been touched by uncovered human hands, much less worn by the filthy wretches. It was like wearing trash. Ugly trash. I imagined what my proud mother would think if she saw me like this. Probably retch into a painted ewer at the sight of her favorite daughter drained, dressed in rags, and nearly bald.
But no. The dead don’t retch.
“Come and see, chérie.” Reve tugged me toward a looking glass.
“I don’t think I want to.”
But she didn’t give me a choice, and the Bludwoman in the mirror was a complete stranger. From her huge ice-blue eyes to her hollow cheeks and dirt-colored hair, she was a mystery. The tan dress and dark brown corset went together like a steamer trunk; the little brass hooks up the front heightened the resemblance. Everything was so plain, so worn. There were no frills, no lace, no jewels, no clever wink of golden thread to glitter as I walked. I was no longer a princess. Not even a person. A thing.
“I am a portmanteau.”
“You are beautiful, princess.”
“My eyes are the only thing left of me.”
“Ah, yes.” She tsked. “We can’t have that.”
She tossed a hat at me and perched a pair of dark glasses over my nose. The hat was a smallish topper that buckled under the chin, rough canvas, more tan with gray plumes. I tried to fasten it on correctly, but with my fingers entombed in gloves, it was hopeless. She snatched it from me and arranged everything.
“You’ll learn how to do all of this yourself.” She canted the hat at a slight angle, nearly choking me. “Casper has worked in a caravan. He can help you.”
“I told him that if he touched me again, I would see his head on a platter.”
“I know a man who once devised a platter for just such occasions,” she mused with a little smile. “It had an elegantly barbed spike in the middle and an outside trough to catch the blood. Like a moat.”
“I’d like his address, please,” I said without a trace of humor. And then I remembered my secondary plot. “And I need your help deciphering this note. Have you paper and pen?”
She provided them, and I struggled to write in the damnable gloves. Four years of disuse combined with an annoying amount of kidskin between my fingers meant that my handwriting was barely legible, but she understood almost instantly.