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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
At least Casper and Keen didn’t smell so good to me. She was too filthy and covered up, and he had that strange stink. It reminded me of something I had read once about how wild animals would urinate around their dens, marking their territory as a warning. But who had marked him? And what in Sang had driven Casper to kiss me? And why was I more curious than angry about it?
Feelings warred inside me, sadness and loss and fury and hunger and the deep, pounding need for revenge. And something else, a softening warmth that seemed to radiate from the shoulder Casper had just squeezed. For a moment, I caught the soft glow of his hair over the edge of his seat, but he gave a dreamy sigh and shifted away. I turned my face to the window, trying to ignore the odd longing tugging at my heart where no longing had any right to be.
I watched the grasses roll by, the smooth darkness of the moor outside broken up only by the stars shining on an occasional copse or abandoned town or warren of bludbunnies. My eyes dipped closed. And eventually, I slept.
Movement woke me, and with it, the smell of food dangerously near. But I denied the beast inside and raised one eyelid, peeking underneath my arm, fully aware of where I was and what was at stake.
A man sat in the seat across from mine, which had previously been empty. He stank of wine. Leaning toward me, elbows on his knees, he hissed, “Oi, pretty little thing.”
I quickly took stock of my environment. By the low lights of the bank, I could see Keen’s head leaning on Casper’s shoulder through the space between their seats, and if I focused, I could hear their slow, steady breathing. The world outside was as dark as a closet, not even a glint of light. The only sound I could hear on the entire bank was soft snoring, and the air was filled with the warm, cozy smell of pulsing blood.
“You awake, love?” The man hissed and made kissing noises through his teeth, a little louder this time. The cloth of his jacket whispered as his hand reached for my leg.
“Can I help you?” I sat up cautiously, crossing my arms and glaring at him.
He lurched back and fiddled with his watch chain as if trying to hide that he’d been on the verge of touching a strange woman’s knee. He was young but wiry, cocky, and almost good-looking for a Pinky. But there was something wanting, a certain looseness of morals to be read in his narrow shoulders, too-short trousers, and cruel, yellowing grin. Had I been anyone else, this fellow would have been trouble.
As it was, I was the trouble.
“Just wanted to talk, love.” He winked. “Everybody else is asleep, and I thought you might like some company, as they say.”
“Really? I was fairly certain you were about to make free with my sleeping person, actually.” I smiled, keeping my lips carefully pulled down over too-sharp teeth.
He had the absolute gall to look injured. “I would never make advances at an innocent young miss as such. Unless . . . hmm?” He waggled his eyebrows as high as his bowler would allow and held out a tarnished flask.
I glanced around, throwing out all of my senses. Everyone else was unconscious, which was probably why he’d sought me out in the first place.
“Come close, and I’ll tell you a secret.” I pursed my lips and batted my eyelashes.
His grin widened, and his eyes took on a predatory gleam that I unconsciously mirrored. It was a different kind of hunger that moved me to my next action, inappropriate and dangerous as it was.
I scooted into the corner and patted the space I’d just vacated, which was still warm from my sleeping body. He took a sip from his flask and sidled across the aisle to slide in beside me, leaving his salesman’s valise in the other seat, where it advertised Stephanie’s Superior Seamstress Salve to no one. His hand was working its way up my skirt before his weight had settled on the plush bench. I let his fingers wander, curious at the feelings it aroused.
As a young princess, I had been kept far away from most males, especially those my own age. Even at the Sugar Snow Ball, no one had dared to touch me improperly, much less tempt me into the shadows with my parents and all of the Freesian royalty watching. I had heard rumors and whispers of love play in the castle, and Olgha had told me some desperately ridiculous things about mating. Other than Casper’s kiss, which I still didn’t really understand, I knew very little of what passed between men and women. With the boy’s forceful hand stroking up my calf, I was disgusted but curious.
With a knowing smile, I began pulling the laces under his chin to loosen his hat. So inconvenient, the way these Sanglish Pinkies kept themselves all laced up, their pulse points covered in smelly old leather.
“You’re a dirty girl, you are,” he said approvingly as his hand caressed my knee, only a thin stretch of stocking between his glove and my flesh.
Finally, I pulled out the last of the filthy laces and pushed back his hat. The smell of his hair underneath was nauseating—had he even heard of bathing? The stench probably did more to scare off local Bludmen than the leather shielding. But underneath the stink was the true smell. The blood, warm and inviting.
I ran a hand through his hair and nibbled his ear, and he sucked air in through his teeth. His hand jerked up to my thigh, digging into the flesh. For a few brief seconds, I let his hand angle farther upward. My legs were crossed tightly, but it was fun, defying his urgency to pry them open. I licked a line from his ear to the place where his jugular vein nearly touched the surface. My lips lingered there, prolonging the moment. He hummed, caught in my power.
And then I bit down.
Before he could make even the slightest groan, my glove was over his mouth, my other arm holding him tightly to my chest. If anyone had been awake to see it, they would have seen two young people fumbling with underclothes in the back of the bank, an occurrence that surely had some precedent in impolite society. Still, I slid down a little in my seat, in case the driver chose that exact moment to look up from his sleepy parade across the lonely moors.
The man struggled against me, but he was no match for a Bludman’s strength, even a young and weakened little thing like me. I drank, deep and deeper, eyes rolled back in bliss. The liquor in his blood made me feel warm and dreamy. When I was so full that my belly swelled uncomfortably against the leather corset, I licked my lips and tugged the grubby handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe at the little tear my teeth had made in his neck.
“What a lovely conversation,” I whispered into his grime-stained ear.
I stood, letting him slump to the seat. Everyone on the bank still slept. I had killed one of their fellows mere feet away, and their breathing hadn’t even stuttered. I turned my back to the far-off and mostly hidden driver’s box and opened the back door. It was a common occurrence for a lady to empty a chamberpot hidden under her voluminous skirts; I’d seen it happen several times myself, the scent of blood in their cheeks singing to me of their embarrassment and edibility. The banks stopped for nothing, especially not bladders, and I’d been careful to look away each time someone tossed something unmentionable out into the sea of grass. No wonder the back seats had been empty.
Using my wide skirts to block the aisle, I tossed the man’s body outside and kicked his valise after him. The roaring of the motor and the grinding of the treads engulfed any sound he made when he hit the ground. I shut the door, wiped my hands off on my skirt, and sat back down in my seat.
Perhaps public transportation wasn’t so horrid after all.
Oddly enough, I couldn’t get back to sleep. As warm and dreamy and satisfied as I felt, there was something else plucking at my metaphorical sleeve. With so many worries, it was no surprise. As the other passengers woke up, I watched carefully to see if anyone would notice the missing salesman, but no one did. Not that he mattered to me—he was prey, and dangerous prey at that. Perhaps I’d even saved the virtue of some other, slightly more innocent traveler. As the sun rose bloodred on a gray sky the color of bruises, I tried to put the entire incident out of mind.
When a slight change in his breathing signaled Casper’s return to consciousness, I pretended to be asleep.
“Anne?” he whispered around the edge of the seat.
“Did you sleep well?”
“Goodness, I suppose I did. The sound of the engines and the rumble of the treads are quite soporific, don’t you think?”
“You look like the sleep did you good.” He scanned my face but seemed hesitant to move closer. “I was worried that the night would be . . . difficult for you. Considering.”
I gave him a winning smile and flicked my fingers. “Difficult? Gracious, no. I’ve had to practice self-control my entire life. This is nothing.” I hoped he wouldn’t notice the little droplets of blood on my sleeve.
“If you say so.” He narrowed his eyes at me, and I shrugged innocently. “Still, take this. We can’t have any accidents.”
He handed me another vial swaddled in greasy newspaper. I wasn’t hungry, but I managed to gulp it down anyway. With every drop of blood, my strength increased, and I was going to need all the power I could muster to face Ravenna.
Shortly after that, the bank rumbled to a halt, and we disembarked. I was the last one off. The driver hunched over the steering wheel, holding a clipboard and glaring at me. He was more heavily dressed than anyone I’d seen yet, as if wild Bludmen roamed the moors, waiting to attack. I imagined that he would have smelled like a shoe if he ever took off all that leather.
“You the last one off, miss?”
“Yes, sir,” I said sweetly. “What a charming journey.”
He blinked at me through his goggles, his mud-brown eyes utterly surprised.
“Oh, well, yes, thank you, miss,” he mumbled. “You have a nice time in Dover.” He trudged back onto the bank, muttering, “Bloody traveling salesmen. Lad’s probably drunk under the seats.”
“Let’s get out of here.” I tugged Casper’s arm to follow the crowd toward the tall city gates of Dover. Keen gave me her sneaky, slit-eyed look, and I smiled, showing her my teeth.
The guard checked our papers at the wall, and we followed our fellow passengers into the port city as dawn lit the tired white buildings within. I stayed close to Casper, grateful for his hand on my elbow in the sea of strangers milling anxiously toward the docks. I grew accustomed to being jostled and having my feet trod upon, all while holding my nose, both for the stench and the blood. And then I felt a tug at my sleeve.
“You dropped this on the bank,” Keen whispered, shoving something into my hand.
It was the salesman’s grubby handkerchief, still wet with blood.
“This isn’t mine, Keen.”
“Never said it was . . . Anne.”
I let the hankie fall, pausing to grind it into the filthy cobbles with my heel. Casper’s fingers tugged against my elbow, urging me to keep up with the crowd. Sighing heavily, he pulled me closer, tucking my arm tightly to his chest. I was too surprised to fight him.
“Look, it’s simple. Don’t look at anyone. Don’t speak to anyone. Don’t stand out. Your job is to remain unnoticed. That’s what shy Pinky girls do.”
“I’m just going to pretend that you’re my porter, and I’ve told you to arrange everything on my behalf.” I patted his arm. “Porter, make it so!”
“I’m going to pretend that you’re a child I’m babysitting and ignore most of what you say,” Casper said as he led me along, but I could hear him fighting a chuckle.
“Oh, and if I disobey, what are you going to do?” I grinned. “Smack my hand or chain me up in the dungeon?”
“Is that an invitation?” The words were playful, but the tone was dark, and he squeezed my hand with more strength than I expected.
“You’d have to catch me first.” It came out low and breathy as I squeezed back, feeling the bones in his fingers rub together. He didn’t flinch, but I had made my point. How many times did I have to remind him that I was a woman grown, not the child I so resembled?
Keen sighed dramatically behind us. I glanced back to find the little monster waving a now even grubbier bloody hankie at me. So she’d mastered the art of blackmail; I could only hope that her price wouldn’t be too high. And apparently, she’d mastered the art of pickpocketing, too, as she was eating a shiny yellow apple of such beauty and quality that I knew she could never have afforded it, not even if she had possessed anything worth selling.
“Put that away,” Casper hissed over his shoulder. “The Coppers will beat you bloody, girl.”
“Like it matters.” By the time Casper had turned around, the hankie had disappeared, and now the apple did, too. Instead, she took out the brass sphere I’d seen her juggling earlier. To me, it didn’t look much different from the apple. She saw me watching her and waggled her eyebrows. She must have stolen that, too.
Even amid the crowd, Casper exuded a confidence and quiet strength that I had never seen before in a human. And I still wasn’t sure if he even was a human. Maybe he was part daimon and kept his strangeness under wraps. A hidden tail, perhaps? I leaned back to check his posterior, but all was exactly where it was supposed to be. Or maybe he was something entirely new, something that hadn’t been included in my nursemaid’s lectures on the people of Sang.
I’d learned only the barest history of countries that weren’t under the rule of Freesia or allied against us. Although I knew the ice folk of Sveden well, the other nations and races of the world were mostly bedtime stories for a princess whose sphere would be only the Snow Court or the castles of nearby kings. Sang was such a large place, and everything was so far apart, and travel was so dangerous and sea monsters so prevalent, that most people who crossed great distances either died or just stayed where they landed.