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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“The tasseinist on Ruby Lane. Mr. Sweeting. You cannot go there. He is a fiend.”
“But what is a tasseinist?”
Her skin rippled into mottled shades of lavender and sea green and brown. I’d seen a similar configuration when I’d found a long-dead Pinky on a hunt once. Bruise and rot. Whatever a tasseinist was, it scared her.
“It is horrid, what a tasseinist does. How do you say it? Like a taxidermist but for people.”
“Who would want such things?”
“Scientists. Loved ones who can’t let go. Sadists. Those who would preserve the flesh with hopes of reanimating it. It is a dark place, indeed. He is a daimon like me, but a very bad one who feeds on the basest of emotions. Do not go there. And where did you find this address?”
“I saw it somewhere,” I said lightly.
If I told her that it was my body’s original destination, I’d never find a way to get there. As it was, I barely had the stomach for it. But I knew that I needed whatever answers Mr. Sweeting might hold before I went up against the formidable Ravenna. And I had a disguise now, so my only concern was getting to Ruby Lane before Casper returned.
“I have work to do,” Reve said. “Please make yourself at home. Keen has some blood for you in the sitting room, I believe.”
She waved me toward another door, and I realized just how hungry I was. Growing up in the palace, I had never known hunger. It was difficult for a Bludman to grow fat, and my mother had always insisted that I be dainty and refined in my drinking and my killing. But the draining had left me utterly insatiable. I smacked my lips when I saw Keen standing by a bookshelf in the sitting room, her short hair showing a strip of her tender neck to delicious advantage.
“I’ve got only two vials for you.” She laid them on a table. “And there’s no cup, so you won’t be able to stick your scaly pinkie in the air.”
I watched her as I uncorked a vial and downed it in three gulps. It was clear that she hated me, whether because I was a Bludman, a rich Bludman, or just someone she was forced to talk to. But I wasn’t about to broach that topic.
“Can you read?” I asked instead, seeing her glove brush the line of book spines.
She jerked her hand away guiltily. “ ’Course I can. But nobody gives books to foundlings. It would just give us uppity ideas, wouldn’t it?”
“So you’re an orphan, then?”
“None of your bloody business.”
“That again. Your rudeness is intolerable.”
She snorted. “Just because you’re the bitchiest bloodsucker in London doesn’t mean you’re my boss.”
I sighed as I uncorked the next vial. Hidden hostility I was used to, but this sort of outspoken hatred was entirely new to me, as anyone in Freesia who spoke to me that way would have been on the dinner table within moments. Was this how all the Pinkies of Sangland felt about Bludmen, or did she have a problem with me in particular? I had to find a way to win her over if I wanted her help.
“Would you like some books of your own? When we’ve succeeded, I’ll give you free run of the library of the Ice Palace, maybe even give you a few volumes for your own collection. I’ve always enjoyed a good novel. Robertson Crusoe, for example.”
I plucked the novel off the shelf and admired the green leather cover and gold-leafed pages. Longing rippled briefly over her face, and she gulped. Then her eyes went shifty.
“What do you want in exchange?”
“You’re a very wise child.” I held out the book to her. “I just want to make a little detour before we leave. There’s a shop I’ve been meaning to visit. Would you take me there?”
“Where is it?”
“I’m not sure. But I know it’s on Ruby Lane.”
“Ruby Lane? You want me to take you to Ruby Lane?” She threw back her head and laughed, hands on her skinny hips. “That’s a good joke, lady. Casper would skin me whole if I took you there.”
“What’s so bad about it?”
“It’s in the heart of Deep Darkside. Chock full of diabolists, bludwhores, opium dens, and the sort of daimon that does more than change color. We’d be lucky to get out alive.”
I smiled, showing her my fangs, which I knew were stained with blood. “Keen, darling, I may be small and well mannered, but I assure you that I am a killing machine. There is nothing on Ruby Lane that you should fear more than my displeasure.”
She leaned back against the bookshelf, biting her lip and staring at me. I met her eyes. Neither of us blinked. Normally, I was quite good at reading people. But I had no idea what was going on in that shaggy, ill-bred head of hers.
“Okay,” she finally said. “But we leave now, without a word to Reve. Deal?”
“Deal.” I grinned, feeling immensely pleased with myself.
After all, if things went as I hoped they would, she’d soon be too dead to read any books.
Escape was easier than anticipated, thanks to the overpowering cabaret tunes belting out of Reve’s gramophone—and mouth—as she worked. The daimon had a lovely, husky voice that quavered with unexpected bitterness. We climbed out a back window and dropped into a filthy alley. The conveniently placed rubbish bin and Keen’s mischievous smile told me that she had done this before.
Following her through the shadows of London was easier this time around, mostly because we stayed in the less-traveled areas. Every turn seemed to take us into a darker, more miserable alley. I got a closer look at the giant maroon rodents that had hissed at me on my way to Reve’s workshop and realized that they weren’t simply bludlemmings of a different color. These things were the size of Tommy Pain, who had decided to sit out this journey on a tufted footstool. Later I’d have to wonder how the cat knew exactly where things would be safer.
“What is that thing?” I whispered, tugging on Keen’s jacket.
“Bludrat,” she whispered back over her shoulder. “Just leave it alone.”
I was happy to comply. Ugly was bad enough, but it was slick with grime, too. I preferred my predators to have some elegance about them. Although I was sure that the bludrats wouldn’t be able to digest me, I didn’t want proof.
When Keen finally stopped, I almost ran into her. She stood stock-still in front of the darkest alley I’d seen yet. A heavy archway of weeping stones framed the dismal shadows beyond. “Ruby Lane” was slashed over the arch in paint too red to be blood. An evil chuckle echoed from the unaccountably thick fog and rolled down the glistening cobblestones.
“They do it this way on purpose.” Keen shrugged as if she was shaking a spider off her shoulder. “To keep the wrong sort of people out.”
“And whom do they consider ‘the wrong sort of people’?”
“The right sort of people.”
“Then let’s get this over with quickly.” I pressed bravely into the gloom.
We walked side-by-side, and I could barely see her. The mist smelled of magic, and I wondered what sort of hag spent her days conjuring a cloud to hide the dark goings-on of Ruby Lane.
“Do you know where you’re going, then?” Keen asked me.
“I’ll know it when I see it.”
We passed shivering bundles of clothing that must have been people. We passed small fires that stunk of magic and bones. We passed an old woman selling roasted bludrats on sticks, a sickening steam rising from their charred fur and twitching legs. We held our breath by the Dragon’s Lair, where heady lavender smoke swirled along the ground, beckoning with the mystery of the East. We heard the mournful strains of an out-of-tune harpsichord drunkenly plunking from the Green Fairy’s Sister, the sort of place where the absinthe most likely harbored something worse than wormwood. A two-headed dog followed us briefly, sniffing at my hand and growling before I kicked at it and hissed. It was altogether the most unpleasant place I’d ever seen, outside of my own palace’s dungeon.
The next shop window stopped me in my tracks, though. Behind the clouded glass, hanging on a stark white wall and arrayed on a shelf, were a variety of monstrosities. Body parts, shiny skulls, deformed fetuses floating in large jars, a stuffed child covered in lizard scales, and a woman’s head mounted on a plaque. Keen kept walking, but I stopped to stare. That woman—I knew her. Correction: had known.
She wasn’t labeled. And I could tell that the eyes were made of glass, because the color was a little off. But the hair was real and arranged with care, and the earbobs dangling from her ears had surely been borrowed from my mother’s boudoir without permission.
“See something you need?” Keen shivered and turned to the next shop.
I put a glove to the ice-cold glass. “Olgha,” I said stiffly. “My sister.”
“Sweet Jesus,” she murmured. I didn’t know who that was, and I had expected something snottier from her, but it didn’t come.
I was mesmerized by the horror, unable to stop staring at features I’d known all my life. From Olgha’s much-bemoaned, overly large nose, inherited straight from our father, to the scar under her right eye that I’d made with my own talons during a squabble over a bit of ribbon, she was trapped forever, mounted like the bludstags and wolf heads on the walls of the palace library. The only thing missing was the other sister. Me.
“You still want to do this?” Keen’s voice was pitched low, one foot poised to run.
“I must. Now more than ever.”
I steeled myself. Keen handed me a crusty handkerchief, and I wiped the place where tears would have been and settled the dark glasses more firmly on my button nose, which I had fortunately inherited from my mother or possibly, as many said, handsome King Charles of Sveden. Thanks to my unusually light hair, there had been much talk regarding my birth exactly nine months after my parents’ diplomatic mission to Stockhelm. But of course, anyone caught calling me anything other than the true daughter of Tsar Nikolas would have been tortured to death. For the moment, staring through the window, it was a blessing to look nothing like my sister.
I stepped through the door with a meekness I didn’t feel and pretended to fidget as I’d seen frightened humans do. I didn’t want to appear a threat to this Mr. Sweeting. Not at first.
The room wasn’t as dusty as it looked from outside. But it was crowded. An army of jars squatted on a bookshelf, each of their freakish inhabitants more grotesque than the last. An entire wall held nothing but heads on plaques, from the usual hunting trophies to more humans and Bludmen, their glass eyes too focused for comfort. A large black bear loomed in the corner, mouth open to show ivory teeth tipped in red. And the glass counter facing the door held anything that could be stuffed and even some things that didn’t seem possible, such as a tiny Kraken that should have collapsed out of water, frozen in time and shiny with varnish. A clockwork fox trotted out from behind the counter and barked, copper wings folded at its sides.
Something stroked my shoulder with a serpent’s impersonal coldness, and I bit back a hiss. It was a bookish-looking man in a stylish suit, with red skin, a black spade beard, and horns. He was the Pinky devil incarnate, despite his natty cravat, and I disliked him immediately.
“Can I help you, miss?” he said with a crocodile’s smile.
“I was interested in the earbobs on that . . . er . . . lady’s head in the window. Are they for sale?”
“You don’t look like my usual customers.” He hadn’t blinked yet. Neither had I.
“You don’t look like my usual tasseinist, and you didn’t answer my question. The earbobs. Are they for sale or not?”
“I’m afraid not, miss. That piece is on reserve for a very important foreign client, half of a matched set, and I can’t dismantle the merchandise. But I’ve got an entire case of trinkets over here, if you’d care to look.”
I didn’t care to do any such thing, but I couldn’t think of a reasonable response to the contrary. He led me to a different case, shining under a single light. I was treated to the strange theatrics of his tail, which was red and long, with a forked end. It waved around behind him in a distracting sort of way, as if it had a mind of its own.
“If it’s earbobs you’re looking for, there are several sets in this case. But I must warn you, miss.” He leaned over the glass, his eyes boring into mine. “These aren’t ordinary goods. I’m not a milliner or a jeweler or even an antiques dealer. Everything in my shop has a price. Some pieces are cursed, some are lucky, most were taken off of dead bodies or stolen from the claws of skeletons. Touch not, lest ye be touched.”
“I understand.” My nod of dismissal didn’t budge him. “Thank you for the warning.”
As I considered the case of sparkling jewelry, he loomed over me. Did I imagine that leather wings curled around me, luring me closer to the magical objects within? Surely he had some sort of magic about him, for every object seemed brighter and more beautiful than the last. Gems, necklaces, bracelets, earbobs with silver clips, rings, a diadem, and a set of talons made of rubies all beckoned, whispering on the edge of hearing.
And then I saw it.
“That piddly little ring there, with the blue paste jewel. How much?”
His gloved hand snaked in and pulled it out.
“You have quite the eye, miss.” He rolled the ring back and forth between satin gloves.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I noticed that he had six fingers on each hand. But that wasn’t important. What really mattered was that he was holding the Ring of Freesian Succession, the jewel that announced Olgha’s claim to our matriarchal throne. Its very existence was a deeply kept family secret, or else it would have already been in Ravenna’s lacquered claws, and he surely wouldn’t have had it on display with the other baubles.