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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“But I assure you that this stone is not paste. This, my lady, is a midnight diamond, perfectly formed and flawless. The fifteen blue topazes circling it are cold as ice and said to have mesmerizing powers when wielded by a true witch. It is the finest piece in my collection.”
I turned in surprise to find Keen standing there, her hands in fists at her sides.
“Excuse me, Miss Lorelei. I didn’t see you there, especially as you’ve been forbidden to enter my shop. Perhaps you’d like to leave before I disembowel you?”
Mr. Sweeting’s voice stayed calm and polite, but his tail twitched back and forth, stabbing the air. Something brushed my skirts, and I looked down to see the clockwork fox, wings raised and sharp as hatchets, mouth open and razor-sharp teeth vibrating. I took a step back.
“First of all, don’t call me Lorelei, you devil bastard. Second, we both know there’s nothing magical about that manky old trinket. Third of all, you owe me.”
“I believe our bargain has been satisfied.” He took a menacing step closer.
“Then I’ll just go find a Copper, and we’ll have a chat, yeah?” she said, her little chin jutting out.
“Just because you found me standing in an open grave doesn’t mean I’ve done anything illegal, child.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what it means, daimon.”
The tension grew as thick as London fog. I cleared my throat. “This is all very exciting, but I’d really just like to hear the price of that ring, assuming that it is indeed paste, as it appears.” I held up my hands in what I hoped was a harmless fashion. I even remembered not to curl my fingers into talons.
The tasseinist turned to me with a double row of teeth drawn back in something like a smile. “Fine. Let us bargain.”
“Not again,” I said to myself, but he ignored it.
“You give me your true name, and I’ll give you the ring.”
“My true name? That’s all you want?” I laughed. “But sir, surely it can’t be worth that much to you.”
“You look familiar to me.” I could feel his eyes traveling over my face with the skittering invasiveness of insect feet. “And certainty is sometimes worth more than silver.”
“Then we have a deal. That ring for my true name.”
We shook. But when I tried to pull my hand back, he held it firmly between his own. His prehensile tail waved, the barbed point coming to rest over my heart, in a place where the leather corset couldn’t protect me.
“Look into my eyes. I’ll know if you’re lying. And if you lie, I strike.”
“I assure you I have no intention of lying.” I shifted, his tail following me like a cobra. “But what would happen if you did strike me?”
“The poison is insidious. You would be numb but alive, watching and feeling and thinking but trapped within a useless body, mine, to do with whatever I chose. You might end up hacked into pieces, or floating in a jar, or nailed on the wall. Whatever I, and my customers, could imagine. But since you didn’t ask about that bit before we struck our bargain, it’s too late to back out.”
“You are very cunning, Mr. Sweeting.”
“I am among the darkest of daimons, miss, and I do what I must to feed. Now, look into my eyes, and tell me your true name.”
Keen took a ragged breath, and I gave her a brief smile of reassurance. Then I looked into Mr. Sweeting’s acid-yellow eyes and said, “My name is Anne Carol.”
His tail quivered, the sharp barb wavering over my stuttering heart. I was almost sure it would work. His eyes narrowed, and his hands dropped mine and crushed my shoulders.
“You’re not lying,” he said, his voice deadly. “You’re hiding something from me, but by the gods of hell, you’re not lying.”
He shook with rage, and I could hear his teeth grinding. His fingers pressed into my flesh, and I fought the urge to hiss and tear him to ribbons, monster to monster.
“Whoever you are, rest assured I won’t forget this. You’d better pray that I never find you alone after dark. As for you, Lorelei, if I see you again, I’ll hammer your ear to my door and let your head drip on the welcome mat.”
“Thanks, but I’ve actually reserved her head for a pike.” I snatched the ring off his palm and slipped it over my glove’s thumb, for I knew from years of forbidden and secret practice that it was much too big for its rightful place on my fourth finger. “Come along, Keen.” And with that, I walked out the door.
His roar rattled the wood at my back, and I finally took a breath. I paused in front of the window, and no matter how hard Keen tugged at my hand, I wouldn’t budge. Not until I was ready.
“Do svidaniya,” I said to the perpetually smiling head surrounded by her court of horror. “I promise I will avenge you, my sister. And thank you, Olgha, for the ring.”
I had once asked to wear it, when I was very young. “You’re a bastard and a cuckoo, and you’ll wear it over my dead body!” she had shouted before shoving me into the pond. I had wanted revenge. I guess I finally had it.
It didn’t feel as good as I thought it would.
By the time we slipped in through the back window, it was nearly dark. Reve was in an uproar, screeching so loud in a foreign language that Tommy Pain had scuttled under an ottoman. And then she saw us.
“Idiot children! Fools! Of all the ridiculous, dangerous, foolhardy adventures, did it have to be to Sweeting? I can smell him on you! You reek of death and broken promises and lies as sweet as poisoned caramel. And you have something. Of his.”
“It was a fair bargain.” I hid my hands behind my back. “And it’s mine by rights.”
“You I would believe it of,” she spat at me. “But Keen, chérie. You know better. You know so much better.”
Keen’s only answer was a sulky glare.
“Why would you do it, child?”
“I didn’t know where she wanted to go. She just said Ruby Lane. Seemed harmless enough.”
“Everything poor Casper has done for you both, and you repay him with this, a trip into hell and an angry dark daimon who will track you back to my doorstep.” She shook her head, her skin rippling through furious shades of burgundy and black.
At the mention of Casper, I watched her more carefully. What exactly had he done for us? He had a bargain with me, one that should provide a payout better than his wildest dreams. But what had he done for Keen? She was the filthiest, scrawniest, most pathetic creature I’d ever seen. What could she possibly have to repay anyone? For the first time in my life, I was curious about other people and their own machinations outside of what I could take from them.
“My ears were burning.” Casper stepped from the antechamber with a grin. He had a satchel over one shoulder and pulled a wheeled trunk behind him.
“Your little bêtes noires have been out to play,” Reve said sharply. She disappeared behind a screen to rustle around, leaving us to face Casper alone.
“Casper, we—” Keen started. But I held my tongue. I didn’t have to explain myself to him, no matter what some feisty daimon might think.
“I don’t want to hear it.” He held up a gloved hand, and she sighed. “You don’t belong to me. We have an arrangement, and what you do on your own time is your own business, just as what I do on my own time is my own business. You’re alive and seemingly unharmed, and that’s all I care about.”
His face was like steel, as if the man inside was miles within and untouchable. Keen’s breath hitched, and she stormed upstairs. His words had wounded her somehow. But he hadn’t wounded me. I was untouchable, too.
“Now that that’s behind us, what’s the next step?” I asked.
“I’ve secured transport out of the city. We’ll take a bus tank to Dover, then scout around. We’ll find a steamboat or airship or coach, whatever will get us to the Continent and Muscovy.”
“That’s your plan?” I snorted most unroyally. “I could have planned a better strategy when I was seven. And a bank? A princess, a royal Bludwoman, on a filthy, smoke-belching monstrosity of public conveyance, surrounded by commoners who can’t afford a coach? Are you mad?”
“I’m not mad, princess. I’m poor, and so, might I add, are you. I’ve never been to Dover before, and I don’t know what sort of transport is available or what it costs. But I’m willing to bet my life that I can figure it out to our eventual satisfaction.”
My hands made fists in the thick stuff of my skirt, and I could feel my ribs pressing against the leather corset with every breath. Being so near him made me angry and hungry and unsettled in a way I couldn’t place.
“Besides,” he added, grinning in the face of my fury, “it’s not like you have any options.”
“You tread on my patience.”
He stepped dangerously close. “You’re cute when you’re angry. I like a girl with spirit.”
I took a deep breath, hampered by the corset. I couldn’t let him know how much he affected me. I had to look down. “I’m not a girl, Casper.” My voice was softer than I meant it to be, softer than he’d heard it before. Whether I was reminding him that I was fully mature or that I was of a different species, I didn’t know. Being near him made me muddled, as if I was always half-drained.
“So that’s how it is,” he said softly to himself. One hand crept up to touch my face, and I slapped it away, but gently.
“I will do whatever it takes to get back to my people, including putting up with you.”
I stepped away, breathing out through my nose so I wouldn’t take in any more of his scent, so slightly wrong and yet so right. I needed to get out of the cluttered shop, where every move one of us made brought the other closer in proximity. London was definitely not a safe town for me, even if my suitcase coffin had never reached the tasseinist’s clever hands.
“Good. Then get ready. Our bank leaves from the southern gate in two hours.”
He opened the box he’d dragged in, a lady’s traveling trunk. I expected to see gowns and boots and jewels, but instead, it was divided into two sections. One held clothes, papers, and books. The other side held a crate of blood vials, each snuggled in its own little niche.
“I traded my harpsichord for this,” he said. But I couldn’t take my eyes off all the blood. I was still hollow with hunger, the need for blood as annoying and constant as a hair caught in my corset. I licked my lips and reached out for a vial.
He grabbed my shoulders, and I hissed and tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t let go. His eyes clouded over, his teeth bared in fury, and his fingers dug into flesh that was still tender from my visit with Mr. Sweeting’s claws. There was a ferocity in the lines of his body, in the growl of his musical voice, that made me see him as more than a meal, as more than just a human. His eyes reminded me of a frozen lake, of the deep darkness trapped in ice, and being so near him made my breath catch in my throat. But I had seen what happened to noble Bludwomen who used their humans for the needs of the flesh and grew too attached. Humiliation and heavy fines and, if they weren’t careful and contrite, public disfigurement. I looked down. Would they accept me as queen, if I fell into such an entanglement?
“Look at me, Ahnastasia. You’re not a princess now. And I’m not some lowly trash. I’m your only way out of here. The least you can do is acknowledge me when I’m telling you that I sold the last piece of my soul for a box of blood. For you.”
“I didn’t ask for your soul,” I snapped. “I’m nearly drained. I need more—”
But his lips sealed over mine.
I gasped into his mouth and pushed against his chest with my hands, but I was still weak, and he was much stronger than I had imagined. His mouth was hot and spiced with wine, his lips soft but aggressive against mine. For a moment, the world stopped spinning, and I couldn’t breathe. I realized my hands weren’t resisting him anymore; they were curled into his shirt.
And then he shoved me roughly away.
“You’re not the only one with needs,” he said raggedly. “You might not be a girl, but don’t forget that I’m a man.”
I put a gloved hand to my mouth, to the place where his cheek had rasped against mine. He had stolen my first kiss, the bastard. Just another reason to make him pay. His hands hung at his sides as his eyes searched mine for something he didn’t seem to find. I felt dizzy and weak, hungrier than ever.
“The only thing I need is blood.” I was surprised at how tiny my voice could be.
“Keep telling yourself that. You kissed me back.”
Finally, his eyes released me, and the moment snapped like a snagged thread. I stepped back, my hands flying instinctively to smooth hair that was no longer there. He stepped away from me, too, his boot nudging his leather satchel. It clanked lightly, and my eyes were drawn to it.
“I can smell when you’re lying.” He gave me a crooked smile. “And I saw what you did to my room. Don’t ever touch my things again, or I’ll put you right back in that suitcase where I found you.”
“The feather and the coin—” I started, but he cut me off with a finger in my face.
“Never speak of it again.”
The words fell, heavy as boulders, to the ground. For all his threats and promises, they were the darkest words he’d spoken yet. And I found myself determined to discover what such an odd creature could hold so dear.