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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
She still hadn’t seen me. Casper drew her back into his arms, and she broke into racking sobs. I couldn’t fathom her age, but she had never seemed as small and lost and tender as she did now, curled against him, beating his chest weakly with white fists.
She looked up at his face and followed his line of sight straight to me.
“Of course, you’re here,” she said in her usual Sanglish accent. “Can’t even let us have a moment’s peace, can you?”
I went rigid. “I didn’t ask to be here.”
She snorted, and my pity for her disappeared. The crying child was gone, the stone-eyed urchin left to scowl at me. “Neither did we. But it’s not like we’re trying to drag you back to our world, are we?”
“My entire country is at stake.” My fingers curled into claws at my sides as my teeth ground together with each word. “This is not a lark or a pleasure trip. The lives of thousands of people hang in the balance. Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with responsibility. With politics. With family. Perhaps you forget my parents and sister were murdered?”
“You’re going to talk to me about losing family? Really?” She dropped the Sanglish accent entirely, advancing on me as if I wasn’t a Bludman, as if I was just something standing in her way. “You have no idea who I am and what I’ve been through. You’re the most selfish, superior, nasty bitch I’ve ever met, and I spent the last few years living in a place where toddlers will cut your throat for bread. You will not take the only thing I have left.”
The beast in me stilled, considering her. Casper’s eyes didn’t leave me.
“I want—” I started.
“What? What do you want? To take what you need and damn the rest? Did you ever think about what it’s like for us, about how—”
I hissed, long and low.
“That’s enough, Keen.” Casper pulled her back against his chest, where she gave in to another round of shuddering sobs. His accent was subtly changed, too. Rounder, softer. Mellow, like afternoon sunshine. Definitely not from Sangland.
I nodded at Keen’s dress. “You’re not the only one under attack. Cora was blackmailing me. She wants to be bludded.”
“What?” Keen looked from me to Casper in shock.
Casper nodded. “I know.”
“But I didn’t tell you that she offered me a third choice. She could tell Miss May, I could blud her, or . . . I could give her my body.”
They both stared at me. Keen’s mouth hung open. Casper cocked his head, alert and considering.
“And you let her?” Keen finally asked.
I drew myself up, tall and proud. “I’d rather die than give my blud or my body to someone undeserving. So I shook her by the neck and told her I’d kill her if she exposed me.”
Keen sniffled and straightened. “Must be nice to be that dangerous.”
“Not when you can’t show your fangs.” I grinned, showing them just to her. “But I witness and wait. No one needs to know what I can do now. Let them underestimate us both. We’ll show them later what we’re capable of.”
She nodded, giving me a rare, shy smile. “I’m looking forward to later myself. And I’m going to Kitty’s room for new duds.”
“Are you sure that’s safe?” Casper asked.
She rolled her eyes at him. “As long as I’m moving, I’m safe. It’s when I hold still that things go to hell.”
“What do you think, Ahna?” Casper asked once she had darted out the door. “Do we need to get off at Barlin?”
“If I thought Cora was going to tell, I would have gone ahead and killed her.” I looked down at my bare feet, suddenly aware of how very little I was wearing and how very small the cabin was. “She struck me as a coward who valued her life.”
“And what would you call someone who was the opposite of that?”
“Someone with courage and no love of life?” I thought about it for a second, tracing the wood grain with my big toe. “Lucky, I suppose. They’ve got nothing to lose.”
He chuckled and scratched his beard stubble. “Aye, there’s the rub,” he said.
“What was Keen talking about earlier?” I asked. “She mentioned stupid princesses?”
His smile was sad and tired. “She was talking about fairy tales where we come from.”
“The ones that end happily ever after, of course. Isn’t that how they all end?”
“In Freesia, they mostly end with people having their hearts torn out and their blood drained through the hole into goblets.”
That earned a real laugh out of him, the kind of laugh that kept going until tears ran down his cheeks.
“That’s much more accurate,” he said, “if a bit braggy.”
“If you’ve actually done it, it’s not bragging.” I grinned at him, licking my lips.
He looked at me as if he’d seen a ghost—but a welcome one. I shrugged and, realizing I was starving, fetched another vial of blood.
Before I raised it to my lips, he excused himself to go play the harpsichord on the deck, although he didn’t seem particularly happy about it. We were apparently hovering over Barlin.
“Miss May wants me front and center when the Maybuck stops in a new city. As if the new passengers are here for me.” He shrugged into his glittering jacket and ran a hand through his hair with a sigh.
I didn’t know whether his look of frustration was out of concern for my safety or his own longing for a soft bed and sleep, but I noted that he locked the door on his way out. As it was past midnight, I washed quickly with the ewer and cloth provided and crawled into bed, but sleep wouldn’t come. I knew I would be on edge until we landed. Cora would always be waiting, somewhere, for more leverage.
To my vexation, I missed Casper’s presence, if only for the comfort of not being alone. And where, for that matter, was Keen spending all her time? From what I could tell, she had been assaulted by one of the men, yet she had walked back out that door with her original confidence, never looking back. I had once dreaded sharing the tiny room with them both, but now the air grew cold and empty, humming with unanswered questions and my own conflicted emotions.
While I was still tossing and turning, Keen sneaked in, fluttered around in the closet, and eventually settled into childish snores. Still later, I heard Casper’s boots on the boards and the whisper of his jacket hitting the desk. He paused there in the near darkness, and I gave my best imitation of sleep, curious if he could tell the difference—and if he could, anxious to see what we would have to say to each other. He cracked his fingers one at a time, as was his habit. And then I heard him sigh and slip to the floor. Even with the furs and rugs, it couldn’t have been comfortable. But since I wasn’t about to invite him into my large and comfortable bed, there didn’t seem any point in feeling bad about it.
I listened to his breathing, even and deep in the shadows. I found myself unconsciously inhaling and exhaling in time with him, attuning myself to his body. And I was asleep before I could conclude what that might mean.
I woke up on my side in the dark, and the first thing I saw by the light of a glowing clock was Casper asleep on the floor. My arm hung over the edge of the bed, and his outstretched hand was almost close enough to touch. Dear Aztarte, had I sought him while asleep? I snatched my arm back so quickly that he startled awake.
“Ahna? What’s wrong?”
I flopped back against the pillows, fumbling for something to say.
“Where’d the clock come from?” was the first thing that came to mind.
“Since you’re trapped in here, I thought you might like a little light in the darkness and a way to tell if it was day or night. It must be confusing for you.”
He sat up, rubbing his eyes and running a hand through sleep-tangled hair.
“I need fresh air,” I grumbled. “I vastly underestimated how cramped and airless a windowless cabin would be. I can’t breathe in here.”
“Well, technically, you’re not supposed to leave the room.” He seemed bemused by my grouchiness, and it occurred to me that perhaps his hand had been the one to seek mine.
“Daylight should be safe enough for me. Won’t they all be asleep?”
“No time is safe for you on the Maybuck,” he said darkly. “But at least you have time to rest and get strong again before facing off with Ravenna. I’ve never heard of anyone surviving so long after being drained.”
“My mother always said I was hard to kill.” With a sigh, I touched my shorn hair. “You know, it’s funny. I’ve missed four Sugar Snow Balls in Freesia by now. My beaux will have moved on. I’m past my prime, as princesses go.” I sighed. “A spinster.”
He stood, forcing me to look up at him.
I blushed at what I saw on his face. I was thankful that he didn’t have a Bludman’s eyes in the darkness to see my reaction.
“Ahna. You’re not a princess anymore. You’re a queen. You know you’re lovely, don’t you?”
“I don’t feel like myself.” I looked away, fiddling with the ermine tails on a pillow. “This isn’t my hair. These aren’t my clothes. I don’t have a purpose here. I’m drifting.”
“We’re all drifting,” he said. “You just have to get to where you don’t mind so much.”
“But I was raised to be someone special. To do something special. I used to be . . . extraordinary.”
“Me, too. And tonight I’ll be playing an out-of-tune harpsichord while rich men dance badly with prostitutes on a zeppelin. And worrying about two ladies who mostly hate me but are, for better or worse, in my care.” He leaned over to turn on the light and look into my eyes. “Miss May is expecting me to play all night for the new passengers. Promise me you won’t open the door for anyone.”
“As Keen says, you are not my father.” I sat up to glare at him with light-blind eyes.
“I know that. Of course, I know that,” he snapped. “But you can’t protect yourself without revealing what you are. Cora already knows. We don’t need anyone else to. And we don’t want to end up on our own in Barlin, either. Unless you speak Prussian?”
“Exactly. We don’t have any coppers. We’re stuck on the Maybuck, for better or worse. Once we’re on the ground in Freesia, you’re in charge. Until then, you do what I say.”
“Do I?” I stood and took a step toward him, my mouth curling in amusement.
“And what if I don’t behave?”
“You mean, if you go off on your own again? I’ll truss you up and lock you in this room.”
He shrugged off his shirt, and I tried not to stare at his well-muscled torso as he rummaged through the trunk for another.
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“I brought plenty of cravats. Try me.”
He pulled on a new shirt and turned to face me, standing so close that I could see his eyelashes. They were white-blond at the roots and auburn at the tips. Pretty. And there was a gruffness in him, a power I hadn’t seen before. Something he kept in check, lurking behind the sunshine and dimples.
“No one’s ever threatened me before,” I said.
“Right. Except her.”
“And the pirate.”
“Yes, and look what happened to him.”
“It’s a good thing I can’t punch myself in the kidney.”
And then, in perfect unison, we burst out laughing. I felt relief—and a strange giddiness, as though Cora’s wine still rippled through my veins.
“But there has to be some way I can get a little fresh air. I’m practically swooning, Casper.”
He smirked. “No one’s allowed above deck right now. The servants are decorating it for a special dinner. But I can take you to the library, if you’re not too worried about windows. Believe me when I say it’s rarely used, as the gentlemen are far too busy elsewhere and the chairs aren’t roomy enough for two. But it’s got a great view.”
He handed me my gloves and held out his arm. I slipped them on to disguise my hands, and he led me down the hall in the opposite direction from Cora’s room. I added the new hallways to my mental map of the airship’s interior, but I was still surprised when we came to a set of winding wooden stairs. I hadn’t known that the ship had more than one level. When I should have been studying it from the ground, I had been cowering flat on my face.
Instead of rooms named after fine fabrics, we passed kitchens, pounding machinery, and a butcher’s workshop filled with ice and hanging carcasses that smelled heavily of blood. Finally, Casper opened the door at the end of the hall, revealing a room filled with blessed light and fresh air. Two large stained-glass windows shaped like white roses gave everything a warm glow.
No. Strike that.
The windows were shaped like breasts. But one was open, letting in a crisp breeze and more sunshine than I’d seen in days. Cushy seats with plump pillows nestled under the windows, and the walls were solid with books. In the center of the room sat a table with a globe, several strange machines, a humidor, and a bottle of golden liquid that didn’t have a bottom but rolled back and forth as the ship moved.
“You’re not going to find Sang’s greatest literature in here.” Casper held a slim volume upside down, and a fold-out tumbled from between the pages, showing a woman in a mask doing something unexpected with a parasol. I grimaced. “But there’s probably something better than Lady Gabriella’s Clockwork Cobbler.”