|Home > Delilah S. Dawson > Blud > Wicked as She Wants (Page 8)|
|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
Since I had no belongings to pack and no preparations to make, I spent the next bit of time scratching Tommy Pain’s belly and studying my sister’s ring in the bright lights of Reve’s mirror. Any Bludman could tell it wasn’t paste; the dark diamond oozed power and rarity like a fine perfume. And Mr. Sweeting had been right about the topaz stones—they were colder than ice. But they weren’t the seat of the ring’s power and magic, other than the magic of inheriting a matriarchy that was currently in thrall to a monster.
A monster called Ravenna.
She had come to our country as a traveling mystic. With her ink-black curls and dusky skin and huge, almond-shaped eyes, she had seemed a harmless curiosity. From the villages of the Pinkies to the back doors of the Blud Barons to the gates of the Ice Palace she had gone, winning over everyone she met with charm, cleverness, and a low, sweet voice like winter wine.
The first time I saw her, I was but a pup, dancing through the gates of the Sugar Snow Festival. Children were allowed to enjoy the festivities and performers and treats on the palace grounds in the evening, but we were always herded back into the castle to lie in bed long before moonrise, ears straining to hear the first waltz of the Sugar Snow Ball. Later, after all the children were asleep, the adults danced a dance so beautiful and mysterious that no one ever spoke of it. But it was twilight when Ravenna found me there by the palace wall as I galloped around my nursemaid among the wagons of the caravan.
“Tell your fortune, ice princess,” a low voice had murmured from behind the indigo silk of a star-strewn tent.
“Go ahead, little beauty,” my maid had said. “See what the famous Ravenna can tell you of your future greatness.”
Ravenna had been but a lapdog then and harmless. She had smiled at me, teeth bright against her honey-colored skin.
“Give me your hand,” she had said, and I still remembered how my temper had flared, that this common foreigner would dare demand anything of me.
“You can’t make me,” I had answered, my pert little nose in the air.
And she had laughed a laugh like icicles chiming in the wind and said, “Then there is your fortune, princess.”
I had stomped and shrieked and wailed and threatened, but after that, she had utterly refused to take my palm and tell me of my future.
My maid had comforted me and given me a cone of bloody snow to suck on, saying, “The wildest things refuse to be tamed, sweet one.”
Now, years later, after all I’d seen, I wondered which of us she had meant.
“Bonne chance, chérie,” Reve called out the door after us, the black cat twining around her legs. “If you succeed, remember where to find the greatest costumer in the world, eh?”
I waved royally until Keen slapped my hand. “You’re not in a parade. Tone it down.”
When I let out a warning hiss, Casper stepped between us. “She’s right. You’ve got to pretend you’re nobody.” And that’s when I was given the bags to carry and the trunk to pull. I was so furious at being treated like a servant that my palpable rage probably scared off more potential attackers than Casper’s walking cane and Keen’s blade.
The walk to London’s southern gate was dark and dirty. The streets were mostly empty at night, aside from some Pinkies and Bludmen too dull with drink to note the danger all around. Singing and shouting carried on the heavy air, surging out from under the doors of orange-lit bars and inns. Bludrats hissed from every shadow, and sometimes screams would ring out, followed by the sound of rending flesh.
We stuck to larger roads lit by an endless string of gas lamps. Most trouble avoided us, although Casper did have to club a scrawny old Bludman who staggered out from a dark alley, hands outstretched, muttering, “Oh, middlings. Dark and deep, dark and deep.” He fell to the ground, bleeding from the temple and mumbling to himself with a toothless mouth. I had never seen anything more pathetic.
After that, Casper hummed forcefully to himself, the same tune he’d been playing when he’d found me, the one about “Hey, Jude.” The song was becoming familiar to me, and I caught myself humming along once and quickly covered it up with a cough.
As we walked farther and farther downhill, an ominous form loomed over us. Of course, I had heard of the huge walls the Pinkies erected around their cities in Sangland, but it was another thing entirely to find myself dwarfed by the ugly, imposing structure of brick and barbed wire. These fortifications had been designed to keep the monsters out—the bludstags, the bludbunnies, the wolves that were always crying with hunger. And they kept the soft, edible creatures safe inside—the cows and chickens and pigs, not to mention the Pinkies themselves.
But it was hideous and unnatural, blotting out the stars like that, even if the sky was garbled with smoke and pollution from the factories and machinery. The celebrated city of London had shown me nothing but fear, repulsiveness, starvation, and horror, and I would not be sorry to leave it.
As we passed a cattle lot, the fool creatures screamed and bawled and rolled their eyes, skittering away from me and huddling in the shadows, wearing shawls of their own droppings. My prey in Freesia had always been so elegant, so pretty and poised, wild animals and carefully groomed servants. These dumb creatures had nothing to fear from me, no matter how hungry I might have been. I still had standards.
We finally entered the alley by the wall, and Casper led us along under its shadow.
“Here are the rules,” he said. “For the bank and for whatever we find after that. Princess, you pretend to be a common Pinky. Deferential, meek, frightened even. Don’t speak unless you have to. And don’t stare too long at exposed skin, if anyone is stupid enough to have it. Do you have an alias?”
“How about Anne Carol?” I could hear the sneer in Keen’s voice. I kept my face carefully blank and shrugged as if I didn’t care what they called me.
Casper thought a moment. “That’ll do. Anne Carol it is.”
He stopped and spun Keen around, nudging her under a gas lamp and using her skinny back as a writing desk for a piece of worn brown paper. He scribbled something with a brass fountain pen and waved the page in the air to dry the ink.
“So that’s done. I’ll be posing as your uncle, since you look like you’re eighteen and have hair a similar color to mine now. I’m chaperoning you en route to a job as a governess to a baron’s house in Muscovy. I’m a musician. Keen is my servant. Everybody got that?”
“I don’t like it,” I said.
“Neither do I,” Keen said, hard on my heels.
Casper didn’t even turn around. “Tough.”
We had reached the gate by then, a huge and rusty affair with a lamp-lit guard box to the side.
“Papers!” the guard shouted, his voice magnified by a speaker. I couldn’t even see his face, just a tall brown hat and goggles. He might as well have been a brass clockwork, for all I could see. Which was probably the point.
Casper put a packet of brown papers into a metal box, which withdrew into the guard post with a ringing clank. “Casper Sterling. Lorelei Keen. Anne Carol. Will you be returning to London?”
“Lorelei and I will. My niece is traveling to be a governess in Muscovy.”
The box shot back out, and Casper took our papers.
“May Saint Ermenegilda have mercy on your soul, Miss Carol,” the guard said.
Before I could ask what on earth he meant by that, Casper had me by the arm and propelled me and the trunk toward a large gray vehicle that shuddered, chugging in place against a dark and cloudy sky. We stepped up stairs mere inches away from the heavy treads, and Casper handed the driver our tickets.
“About time,” the thick man muttered around a pipe before clomping outside to stow our trunk.
I ducked through the narrow door. The inside of the bus-tank didn’t smell any better than the fuggy cloud around the begoggled driver. It was less than half full, and most of the other passengers looked to be of the low-class, seedy sort I’d only read about in newspapers. Traveling salesmen wore extra-tall top hats buttoned tightly under the chin, with enormous unfolding suitcases beside them on their seats. Young men who had likely sold their souls to the navy or something more piratical quivered fearfully in place, en route to sinking ships and sea monsters. One other woman, who looked more masculine than the driver, held a corncob pipe clenched in yellow-streaked teeth, squatting across two seats like a citadel over a river.
Casper led us to the back, pointing me toward the very last seat. He shoved our bags into the bins overhead. As Keen settled in front of me, Casper slid onto the bench, his leg pressing warm against mine.
“I brought you something to read.”
He shoved a rolled-up tube of greasy newspapers into my hand. I felt something hard in the middle and sighed in relief. A corked vial of blood, wrapped with yet more newspaper and tied with twine. I untied it and held a section of newspaper in front of my face to hide the vial as I gulped, and Casper leaned over to block the view from the aisle. His face was so uncomfortably close that my eyes sought the newspaper, and that’s when I noticed that it was the London Observer, and I was staring at a section labeled “News of Sang,” including updates on “Victory in Freesia.”
“Victory in Freesia? That does sound like a good read, uncle,” I said.
He chuckled darkly and handed me a red handkerchief, which I stared at in confusion.
“I think you’ll be disappointed, niece. Don’t forget who writes the papers in London.”
I expected him to leave me then, but he didn’t budge from my side. As I scanned the story and finally understood the depth of my country’s trouble, I put my head to his shoulder and wept.
When I pulled my face away from Casper’s shoulder, the handkerchief between us was sticky with blud tears. Much to my surprise, his arm was around me, and even more to my surprise, I didn’t care. The fall of my family may have seemed like a victory to the Pinkies of London, but for my people and my country, it was a tragedy.
Casper had told me the truth. Freesia was collapsing. My parents were recently executed, my sister and I had been missing for years, and my younger brother, Alex, was in thrall to Ravenna.
According to reports from Muscovy, the upstart gypsy witch had deposed or murdered several landed barons and hand-picked their replacements on the Blud Council, our token House of Lords. She had been declared prime minister and was absorbing several of the Tsarina’s roles as she stood at Alex’s side. And she was having a statue raised in honor of the lost Princess Olgha, whose ship had supposedly been sunk by her younger sister, the bastard half-Svede Ahnastasia. I was also presumed dead, but the price on my head had gone up even more.
Which I could handle. I no longer resembled the doe-eyed, long-haired ice angel in the newspaper image. What pained me the most were the rumors that my brother Alex was in love with Ravenna and on the verge of marrying her. The papers claimed that she fed him secret medicines and magic potions to combat his chronic ferocity, trying to tame the hot blood that made him little more than an animal and the only Feodor sibling incapable of taking the throne. No wonder he was the only one she had left alive—he was by far the most easily mastered.
I fought the urge to rip the paper to shreds with my teeth and then kill everyone on the bank. I had never felt so helpless, so far from home. I looked out the window, watching the endless green of the moors roll by, willing the bank to speed up. But the gears kept grinding, and the engine kept burning, and we plodded along at the speed of a fast trot. I had to lash out at something, so I kicked the seat in front of me with a growl.
Casper chuckled softly, a look of grim understanding in his eyes. “Makes you want to burn down the world, doesn’t it? Knowing that what you want most is far away. That your old life is gone forever.”
“My entire world.” I stroked a finger down the thick, cloudy glass. “My family. My country. Gone in a heartbeat. Gone, while I slept.” I wiped away another tear. “I’m completely alone.”
The silence fell heavy between us. I could sense that he wanted me to look at him, that there was something he wanted to tell me. But I resisted. What I felt—it was too much. He couldn’t possibly understand.
With a last, sorrowful sigh and a hand on my shoulder, he said, “You’re not the only one who’s ever lost a world, you know. And you’re only as alone as you want to be.”
He slipped back onto the bench in front of me. Keen murmured in sleepy annoyance as he settled down beside her. I should have been exhausted myself, but I was caught between sorrow and uselessness and hunger, trapped on a slow, plodding bank with my listless, clueless prey. Had they known what I was, what I wanted to do to them, they would have hated me. It was an uncomfortable feeling, being hated by creatures who had all but worshipped me in my youth, even as I fed from them. The Pinkies of Sang were so different from the ones in Freesia.
I looked over at the nearest passenger, trying to see past his blood to the person below. It was a young man in a sailor’s uniform sitting diagonally from me. His silly white hat extended down over his neck and buckled to his navy-blue jacket. His eyes glanced nervously around the bank, full of fear, and he panted as if he were losing a fight against his uniform’s chin strap. Closing my eyes, I inhaled. I could smell his terror, as sure as a hawk could sense a baby bird in its nest. This boy had most likely chafed at being cooped up in London, probably bragged to his friends and his girl about joining the navy and seeing the exotic places of Sang. And now he was petrified of the outside world. He smelled of dead plants and cheap soap. Like a peasant.
But most of all, he smelled of blood. Sweet, warm, deep. I could scent it on his breath, see the tiny patch on his cheek that he’d sliced open shaving that morning. In my old life, he would have knelt before me, in his proper place, cleaned and dressed, his hair parted just so, and I would have taken my due with great care and restraint. Instead, I exhaled and pressed the grease-splotched newspaper against my nose, willing myself not to think about food. After four years of starvation and a few tiny vials, he was still more appetizer than equal.