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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
I’d heard of the daimons of Franchia, strange creatures like Reve and Mr. Sweeting who fed on the emotions of humans. I had heard fairy tales of lizard people, bird people, fish people, witches, ghosts, and even people whose blood made Bludmen crazy. And I knew of the beastfolk of Almanica who lived as barbarians and rode in chariots pulled by buffalo and bludstags.
Perhaps that was what Casper was—perhaps he could change into a wolf or a wild cat, if the feeling took him. It would certainly explain his odd accent, strangely animal smell, uncanny strength, and dislike of restrictive clothing. I’d have to provoke him and find out, one day, what he was capable of. I could have simply asked, but I was far too well bred for that sort of thing.
“Here we are,” he whispered, startling me. I’d been unconsciously lingering on the way his silky copper-colored hair curled over his exposed ear, wondering how his skin would taste in comparison with the traveling salesman. With his hand still on my elbow, he led us to a low wall where people had stopped, piling up their trunks and valises as if waiting for something to happen.
I looked ahead, over the top hats and bonnets of the folks in the street. I had expected to see the masts of ships and the periscopes of submarines. Instead, I saw ropes dangling from the sky.
“Dear Aztarte. Surely you don’t mean we’re flying?”
He just chuckled darkly, as if he already knew I was terrified of heights.
My eyes traced the thick ropes up, up, and still farther up, to where a variety of airships hung suspended among the low clouds. I moaned and collapsed onto the wheeled trunk.
“Finally found a chink in your armor, eh?” Keen laughed. “Guess you Bluddies aren’t so perfect, now, are you?”
“Being a Bludman’s got nothing to do with fear of heights,” I said, my voice barely a squeak. “It’s just a deep personal flaw.”
I could barely breathe, and my hands struggled to undo the brass clasps on my corset until gloved hands pulled them away gently and dropped them into my lap. Casper sat down beside me on the trunk, the wood creaking under his added weight.
“Look, it’s not so bad. We’ll find a larger one, something with a windowless cabin. Once you’re on board, you won’t even feel like you’re up high.”
“I still don’t like it.” I slumped over, boneless. “Not a bit. Can’t we take a ship instead?”
“I thought about that.” Casper scratched his chin under the leather strap of his hat. “But ships are dangerous for you. They’re watched more carefully. There are navies and pirates and the possibility of being thrown overboard, which you couldn’t survive. And the airships have a little more leeway for us to work for passage. I can probably find a place as a musician on a large one, and then you can hide in the cabin as my invalid niece.” He looked down into my eyes, over the lenses of my dark glasses. “Besides, I’m terrified of the sea monsters. Aren’t you?”
“The sea’s the scary part.” I shivered and scrunched my nose. “All that salt.”
“See? And there’s another reason to take to the air. Now, I did a bit of research, and here’s what I know. The ones that are lowest to the ground—the gaudy ones? Those are simple hot-air balloons. They can only carry a few people, and they aren’t very good for the crossing, due to wind issues. More for pleasure rides and lovers looking for a tryst.”
And I could see exactly what he meant. A mauve balloon all hung over with ribbons and sashes and bloodred hearts played backdrop for a man in a top hat kissing a woman, her arm draped over the balloon’s woven basket, a brass spyglass dangling forgotten from her hand.
“And there, the next biggest ones. Zeppelins.” He pointed to a ship with a flat deck suspended from an oblong bladder that glowed like amber. “Those are mostly used for the crossing over to Callous. They’re dangerous, since they’re made of skin, but they’re very fast. They use those mostly for shipping things they don’t care much about, including the poorer people.”
“I don’t want to go on one of those.” Blood rose in my throat. I didn’t trust something as flimsy as skin to keep me in the air. And it didn’t have a rail that I could see, either.
“We won’t. We’re going to find a nice metal-cladder, one of the bigger ones. Very expensive to own, so they take over lots of people at a time. Like banks, but for the air, and with actual rooms. Very slow but steady—and safer. Keen’s off negotiating.”
I hadn’t even noticed that the unctuous ragamuffin was gone. But I thought again of that shiny golden apple and her run-in with Mr. Sweeting and had to assume that she was more competent than she appeared.
“What’s her story?” I asked him. He gazed off into the distance with a sort of fond, confused sadness that reminded me of a falconer with no hawk on his arm. He sighed and shook his head.
“It’s hers to tell.”
“What about your story?” I said before I could stop myself.
The brightness of his smile winked out, leaving again the dark mask.
“That’s mine. And I don’t give it away as easily as I used to.”
Keen appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. They conversed in hurried whispers. She was excited about something, but he shook his head in annoyance. I fiddled with my dark glasses in an attempt to cover up my embarrassment. Not only had I asked a personal question and been denied, something I was entirely unaccustomed to, but now he knew that he had something I wanted. I hated being in someone else’s power, and even more, I despised making tactical mistakes.
But what bothered me the most was that I genuinely wanted to know. I, who had never cared about anything but myself, now wanted to know more about this strange man who was neither a Bludman nor royalty. It was a troubling impulse, and I straightened my back with renewed purpose. Use him for my goals and then keep my promise regarding his head on a platter—that was the plan. And if he was lucky, let him play the royal harpsichord, just once, in the most beautiful palace in the world. Just enough to make good on our agreement. Just enough to hear the beauty he could coax from its ancient, magical keys.
He turned to me with a scowl, hands on slim hips. “Most of the ships are full. Keen’s found us a metal-cladder, but I have to make the final arrangements. You two wait here. I’ll only be a moment.” He pinned Keen with a sharp glare. “If anything happens to her, it’s over.”
Keen wrinkled her nose and nodded sullenly as she sat beside me on the trunk with an unladylike slump. I watched Casper disappear into the milling crowd of tourists and sailors and hawk-eyed vendors. With a sudden thump, Keen collapsed, curled up on the trunk like a puppy, and began to snore softly. Confused by the behavior but glad to be free of her company, I closed my eyes and let the scents of hundreds of Pinkies invade me, noting the foreign spices and overlying stink of the ignorant herd and, somewhere nearby, just a whiff of magic.
“Strange, isn’t it?”
The voice was cultured, cool, and amused, and I looked up into the face of the first real Bludman I’d seen in Sangland.
My heart leaped to see sharp features and a cloudy gaze, to know that I wasn’t alone in playacting among the prey. And my heart stayed right where it was, heavy in my throat, when I saw what an attractive Bludman he was. Spare but powerful, with shadowy gray eyes dancing with excitement and smooth black hair pulled back under his hat. He could have been a prince, with a face like that. Oddly, a Pinky clung tightly to his arm, and her smell hung over him like a second skin.
“I imagine you’re unaccustomed to the stink of rabble, my lady. And to think that they aren’t even aware of two foxes in the henhouse. Or two snow foxes among the bludlemmings, perhaps.” His mouth quirked up, and he winked.
I went on alert immediately and barely stopped myself from hissing as I stood to face him. Was I that easy to recognize? Was he an assassin? Would I have to kill him right here?
“You have me at a disadvantage,” I said, my accent making my words all the colder.
“Honestly, Crim. You’re going to give the poor girl a conniption.” The Pinky smiled at me in an oddly kind fashion and stroked one gloved hand down his arm in the same manner I would use to calm an overexcited bludmare.
“Forgive me, then, princess. My name is Criminy Stain, and I’m at your service.” He swept a practiced bow and rose with a bouquet of snow-white flowers in hand. “Your secret is safe with me.”
I glanced around. The crowd was oblivious, as if they couldn’t even see us. My eyes narrowed at him, but his smile was bright, and I couldn’t sense a bit of aggression. Still, I didn’t take the flowers.
“How did you guess?”
“I’m the proprietor of a traveling caravan, and my wife is a fortune-teller. Our train is stopped just outside of Dover, and a glance last night informed her that we would find you here. I couldn’t miss a chance to meet you, my dear. I wish you only the best.”
“What do you want? Money?”
He threw back his head and laughed. “What is money to me? No, pet. I wanted only to see you myself and give you a gift.”
I raised one eyebrow. “Flowers?”
He shook his head and clapped his hands together. The bouquet of white blooms exploded in a shower of glittering snow. With a sudden jolt of homesickness, I reached out to catch the falling flakes, but they were neither cold nor wet and simply disappeared.
Criminy’s hand swiftly clasped mine, and he wrapped my gloved fingers around something hard before I could pull away.
“You’re going to need this, Ahnastasia,” he whispered, leaning close. “More than you know. One day, it will be the only thing between you and a world of pain.”
I looked down and opened my hand. It was a paper packet folded tightly and sealed with a wax stamp bearing a compass and an S. My instinct was to throw it onto the ground, but something stopped me.
“What is it? Why do I need it?”
Criminy looked at the Pinky on his arm, fierce warmth and love radiating from his eyes.
“I can’t tell you, honey,” the woman said. She looked as if she wanted to reach out and pat my arm but knew that I would rip it off if she tried. “Open it when you’re at the final straw. That’s all I can say.”
Turning the packet over in my hands, I shivered. I hadn’t dealt with magic since Ravenna and then Mr. Sweeting, and I didn’t like the thought of more mystery, much less mysterious gifts from someone who knew who I was. How was I supposed to trust this strange pair?
“He’s coming,” the Bludman spat, and his Pinky nodded and said, “Tell Casper that Tish said hi.”
“Good luck, my princess.” Criminy bowed again and gave me a knowing, charming smile. “My lady wife is always right, and I assure you that all will turn out for the best, much as I hate to say it, for that undeserving bugger.” He jerked his head toward the airships, and within seconds, he and his Pinky had disappeared into the crowd.
My head spun in the opposite direction as Casper hurried toward me, worry written all over his face.
“I couldn’t find you. Who were you talking to? Are you okay?”
“I don’t know this ‘okay,’ but I am safe.” I sat back down on the trunk, before my legs could collapse. “Tell me, what do you know of Criminy Stain?”
Casper stilled, eyes going hard as he took a deep breath through his nostrils. “Criminy Stain. Criminy Stain was here?” He searched the crowd, avid as a wolf. “Was he alone? What did he say?”
“He was here. He knew me. He had a pet Pinky with him, a fortune-teller, but she smelled strange. She said to tell you Tish said hi. And Criminy gave me this.”
I held out the packet, but Casper didn’t touch it. “If Tish saw something of the future and Criminy gave you that, it’s important.” He looked both furious and lost, and I slipped the folded paper into the top of my corset, next to the necklace from my valise.
“But who are they? Who is Tish?”
He shook his head as if trying to dislodge something painful. “Maybe I’ll tell you someday. For now, we have to hurry. It’s almost time to take off.”
“Then you’ve secured passage?”
“You don’t look happy about it,” I murmured. And he didn’t. He looked irritated, and worried, and ever so slightly amused.
“The passenger ships are full and only take coin, so this is a trade situation. They need a musician, seeing as how the old one’s too drunk to play. But we have to share a room, and you’ll need to stay in it the entire time. Do you understand?”
“Indubitably. I don’t want to be outside among Pinkies and ruffians.” I salivated a little, thinking about all that blood, but caught myself before I licked my lips. “And it’s only for the crossing. A day at most.”
“Actually, our ride will take several days, all the way to Muscovy, with brief stops at Paris, Barlin, Warsaw, and Minks. Stops for which you and Keen will remain locked in our room at all times.”
“I am not accustomed to following orders.” I stood and crossed my arms. Unfortunately, the top of my head barely came up to his broad chest, and with his top hat, he towered over me.
“If you expect me to get you to Muscovy in one pretty little piece, you’re going to learn,” he snapped. He shrugged his shoulders with a menacing creak of leather, and without thinking, I took a step back.
“Fine. Let’s say I agree to this airship. Why are you so worried about it?”
He threw a look of stern annoyance at Keen, who was rising from her nap on the trunk with a look of groggy confusion.