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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“What happened?” she asked, her voice slurry with sleep.
“I’m filling Anne in on the fine accommodations you’ve secured.”
Keen chuckled, stuck her hands in her pants pockets, and beamed that one, extraordinary smile. She looked far too proud of herself for any good to come of the situation.
Casper sighed and pointed into the clouds. I followed his finger to an enormous metal-clad behemoth of an airship—one of the biggest. The body was brass, shining dully with the lemon-yellow rays of the morning sun. Beneath it hung a large sort of box, which was painted with the gargantuan image of a mostly naked woman draped over a swoopy couch. Large, curlicued letters spelled “A.S. Maybuck.”
“Is that woman . . . ?” I couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Yes, she is. As are many of the passengers. The Maybuck is Sang’s largest—and only—floating brothel. And we’re expected on the deck in half an hour for launch.”
They didn’t have to carry me kicking and screaming—not until we were right under the Maybuck. I balked then, and Casper had to drag me firmly by the arm while Keen stayed close enough behind me that I couldn’t run back down the long, narrow ramp that led to the docking platform. When it was our turn to embark, I stepped onto the lift and collapsed to the muddy planks with my eyes squeezed shut.
“Sit on me,” I whispered.
Casper snorted. “Won’t you have me beheaded for that?”
“Not this time.” It came out as a whimper.
Keen had no such trepidations and planted her skinny rump right in the middle of my back. I exhaled gratefully, hugging the boards and moaning. Casper got down on his haunches and peered into my face.
“Care to explain your sudden collapse, niece?” He was trying not to laugh—but not trying too hard, I noticed.
“I don’t want to fly away and fall down,” I explained. “If the wind caught in my skirts, a fierce gale could send me over the edge to my death.”
“There’s a railing.”
“I’m very small. I weigh practically nothing.”
“Me, neither!” Keen shouted, bouncing up and down and leaving what I was sure were permanent corset-shaped indentations in my back.
“I won’t be so helpless one day,” I growled.
“Me, neither!” She stopped bouncing and all but ground me into the boards.
With a sudden lurch and a metallic squeal, our platform began to rise. I closed my eyes again.
“Hold my hand.”
My voice came out tiny and plaintive, and Casper leaned closer. “Was that an order?”
“Hold my hand, please?”
He chuckled and sat on the boards near my head, curling both of his hands around one of mine. Even through the gloves, he was warm, and it was his calming touch more than Keen’s insignificant weight that kept me in place.
In all my planning of revenge and ultimate victory, it somehow hadn’t been clear to me that getting from Sangland to Muscovy was going to involve either sea or air. It would have been easier if I had still been unconscious and securely buckled inside a valise. At least I wouldn’t have been this terrified and had my weaknesses broadcast to the world. I turned my head to the side and dashed away a red-tinged tear before anyone could see it. At least Reve had provided gloves of a deep, rusty brown, handy for concealing both today’s tears and the stains from last night’s snack.
Ascending to the airship proper took eons. Ages. Epochs. Dragons roamed Sangland again by the time the platform finally shuddered to a halt and I heard the sound of metal clipping into place as it was fastened to the airship deck.
Keen leaped up, and Casper helped me stand. The platform swayed slightly, and I clung to him, legs wobbling.
“My niece gets vertigo,” he said to someone I couldn’t see, since my eyes were still squeezed shut.
“Around here, we call that a case of the shits.”
The new voice was loud and filled with lusty good humor. I looked up and nearly heaved all over her platform boots, narrowly avoiding unmasking myself in a splatter of blood and getting us all thrown overboard. It wasn’t that she was ugly—far from it. The woman was past her bloom but holding steady in her prime, lush and flush and clearly the queen of the ship. She was a Pinky, but dressed with a Bludwoman’s love of flesh—and she was smoking a pipe. She was just fine—more than fine, if I had been in any way hungry.
The problem was that we were surrounded by clouds.
“Welcome to the Maybuck, Maestro.” She held out a lace-gloved hand to Casper. “Still can’t believe it’s you, although I’ve read about your exploits in the papers. You’ll be fitting in right well, I think. And welcome to you, too, Miss . . . ?”
“My niece, Miss Anne Carol,” Casper said. “My brother’s daughter. From London.”
“Miss Carol.” She nodded in my direction. I smiled as best I could, mouth closed over teeth stained with blood from my near-retching. “Don’t worry, my girl; you’ll get your air legs about you soon enough. Looks like your little maid is already enjoying herself. She got a trade yet, that one?”
She narrowed her eyes at Keen’s blindingly pretty smile. The girl had climbed partway up a rope and was dangling from the metal balloon, her hair whipping in the wind and her cheeks pink with excitement. The woman looked Keen’s body up and down as if measuring future growth and meditatively chewed her pipe.
“I’m training her in harpsichord,” Casper snapped.
“Pity.” The woman shrugged sinuously, her flesh rippling. “She’s going to bloom like a rose one day, and there’s copper to be made among the clouds. I’m Madam Laurabelle May, by the way. But everyone calls me Miss May.” She nudged Casper in the side and winked, adding, “Although certain lads with enough copper can call me Mother-May-I, then, can’t they?”
“Pleasure to meet you, Miss May.” He flashed a wolfish grin I hadn’t seen before.
“Pleasure’s all mine, I’m quite sure,” she purred back.
“Stateroom?” I managed to groan, my head down and my mouth hidden behind my hand.
“Did she ask for a stateroom?” Miss May cackled. “Oh, yes, your highness. I’ll have the palanquin fetch you to your gilded throne!” Once she’d gotten all the laughter out, she pointed at me with her pipe and said, “Small, windowless, as requested, and all three of you will share it. But I’ll have someone take you there before you yark on my deck and put the boys off their feed.”
I heard giggling and the slap of a bare hand on skin. I was grateful for the nausea, because I began to suspect that there was an overabundance of naked flesh on the Maybuck. Better to be ill than bloodhungry.
“Colette! Victoire! Please show the Maestro and his niece to the Velvet Room.”
Two girls even younger than Keen ran up and curtsied. When I saw that they wore nothing but diaphanous white gowns, I covered my nose and mouth with my glove and tried to think about a much-decomposed and thoroughly unappetizing bear corpse I’d once come across on a hunt. Casper’s hands on my shoulders steered me across the ship, and with my eyes still closed, I could almost imagine that we were on land. Almost.
“It’s a very nice room,” said one of the girls in a distinctly Sanglish accent. The Franchian names must have been part of the game, like the see-through gowns. I heard a door open, and Casper ushered me inside, thanked the girls, and slammed it behind us. I collapsed across the bed on my belly, burying my face in a pillow and tossing aside the smoky glasses.
“Ahnastasia, how are you holding up?”
He sat down beside me, not close enough to touch, but I felt the soft mattress indent beneath his weight. Another first: I was alone in a small room, arranged on a bed with a strange man of questionable background and species.
“I’m on a floating brothel surrounded by naked degenerates,” I muttered into the soft pink velvet coverlet. It was so luxuriously deep that it reminded me of the lion’s tongue I had once seen at the royal zoo. “I’m not well.”
“Are you going to be sick?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of his gloved hands move toward my back and hover there, as if his impulse was to touch me but something held him back. The princess and the beast weren’t the only instincts within me anymore, but I didn’t know how to describe the new urge, the one that had awakened with his kiss, the one that wanted to be touched. Instead, I slunk from under his hand and sat against the headboard, pulling a tasseled pillow to my chest.
“I think I can manage it now.” I breathed in stale air thick with Casper’s scent and fanned myself with a hand. “Although there doesn’t seem to be enough air in here.”
“You wanted a cabin with no windows, and that’s what you got.”
We both looked around the small room. The walls were papered in red velvet damask, and the floor had fuzzy rugs that looked like entire scalped sheep. Tommy Pain would have loved lounging among them like an overfed sultan, and I realized that I missed the strange cat, who had been left behind with Reve. The bed took up most of the space and was quite large, but there was a small writing desk with a stool on one side and room for our trunk. Two smaller doors must have led to the bathroom and closet. I secretly smirked about Keen—wherever she slept, it was going to be uncomfortable. It was a hell she richly deserved for tricking me into traveling aboard a brothel.
It would be hell for me, too, if I didn’t get enough blood. Who knew how long I would be trapped in this tiny, airless room with two people and nothing but a cask of vials? Casper’s blood wasn’t entirely perfect, but it was still nutritional enough to keep me sated, and killing Keen would be hard to resist, if only for the peace and quiet. I wondered exactly how many passengers were on the Maybuck and how well they were accounted for. If the promise of a hand under my skirt was all it took to lure some idiotic Pinky into serving himself up to me on a platter, I was definitely on the right boat—provided I could pitch his body overboard before anyone noticed.
And that reminded me of something.
“Do you think it’s clean?” I asked. I sniffed the pillow in front of me but didn’t pick up any odors that smelled . . . lascivious.
“You honestly haven’t heard of the Maybuck?” Casper grinned at me with those damned dimples again.
“The care and feeding of princesses doesn’t normally include discussions of prostitutes.”
“Yes, but surely you’ve read about it? The Maybuck is Sang’s only floating brothel. It’s known for high-class courtesans who choose their own patrons and can only be bought by the wealthy and royal, many of whom are currently on board. If one of their customers ever found so much as a flea on this boat, Miss May’s reputation would be shot.”
I fingered the coverlet and had to admit to myself that it was fine stuff. The ermine tails on the fur-covered pillows were definitely real. And the Titian hanging over the bed had every appearance of being by the master himself. Even I had to admit that it was a terribly royal-looking brothel.
“And they let us on here for free?” I asked. It simply didn’t add up.
He unlaced his hat and ran a hand through his sweaty hair. “You’re the only person in Sang who hasn’t heard of Casper Sterling, world-famous musician. I used to be in the papers even more than you. I was the biggest celebrity in London and toured all the major cities—Paris, Bruzzles, Stockhelm. That’s why everyone calls me Maestro.”
“What happened?” I had to know.
His expression darkened. He made dark look delicious. “I told you: my business is my business.” He looked away, and I stared at his back. Sweat had streaked his hair the color of old copper, and the tiny cabin was filled with the scent of male. I inhaled despite myself. But his anger wasn’t about to stop me. I was curious.
“We’re stuck here in very close quarters, Maestro. We’re going to have to trust each other, at least a little bit.”
That didn’t mean I was going to go spilling my heart out to him, but I wanted to know his mysterious past, and I was sick of having to ask. And sick of being denied.
“Don’t call me that. Please.”
“Casper, then,” I said softly.
He pulled off his gloves and stuffed them into his top hat. His fingers flexed and popped, and he stared at them with the oddest mixture of love and hate. Then he pulled a copper coin out of his waistcoat and began flipping it over his knuckles, back and forth. It was hypnotic, and in the still, airless silence, I held my breath, waiting for what came next.
“Let’s just say I had my heart broken one too many times and went looking for the pieces in the wrong bottle,” he finally said, his voice raw. “And then, one day, I woke up in a third-rate Blud bar with a two-year hangover, playing tunes no one else had ever heard, unsure if they’d ever existed or I was losing my mind. No one recognized me anymore. And I didn’t really recognize myself.”
The coin rippled across his fingers, and I wondered what he would have played had there been a harpsichord at hand. Something loud and crashing and furious or something slow and painful, each note a blade’s kiss, bleeding out the past?
“And then?” I said softly.
“And then a skinny little blond ice monster jumped out of a suitcase and tried to murder me.”
He was smiling again, although something still roved, restless and dangerous, behind his eyes. The coin disappeared back to wherever he kept it. I knew it had to be the one from the box under his bed, and I wondered where its companion feather was hiding.