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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
Kneeling across from each other over the deflated body of the pirate, we were both seized by a sudden awkward shyness. McHale flipped the goggles on top of his head to gaze at me with ice-blue eyes and concerned curiosity. I was at a loss for how to behave. He knew who I was and showed proper respect. Did I address him as I would address a Bludman in my country, with total majesty and arrogance? Or did I respect the fact that he had just protected me from a larger predator and shared his meal with me, putting us on more equal footing?
Yet again, he swooped in with perfect courtesy. “My princess, you are weak. Have they been keeping you on this filthy tub for long?” His Freesian accent was more pronounced now that we were alone, and his eyes were anxious. But that didn’t mean he could be trusted. He could easily be a spy or someone under Ravenna’s power.
“I am not here against my will.”
“But you are not . . . one of the . . . Maybuck’s offerings?”
He exhaled and ran a hand down the sparse dark stubble of a beard. “Then I don’t have to kill everyone. That’s a relief.” I chuckled, and he added, “Except these two, I suppose.” He stood and curled his gloves into fists, eyes latching onto Casper.
His eyes darted to me. “My princess?”
“Kill the pirate, if you wish, but leave the other.”
He nudged Casper with a toe, contemplating the fineness of his coat and watch chain, I suppose, and the careful shine on his boots.
“Are you sure? He would be the cleanest thing I’ve eaten in weeks. And you need blood, my liege. As much as possible.” He shook his head sadly. “So thin. So wan.”
“That man is my servant, and I’ll not have him harmed.” The mantle of royalty fell back over me, my spine going sharp and straight at his slight insult. “The other I will allow you.”
He bowed briefly before kneeling over Gandy with a formal sort of precision lacking in his attack on the bigger pirate. Rolling down the man’s collar, he wrinkled his nose. “I won’t be sorry to see this one go.”
He ripped the jugular gently, as if trying to show me his good breeding. With a question in his eyes, he held up Gandy’s arm, and I gladly took it. Together, we held the body down as it fought senselessly against oblivion. This time, I insisted he take the last pull and went to check on Casper.
I crouched beside his unconscious form, picking up the weapon that had knocked him out.
“Boomerang,” McHale said, taking it from my hand. “He should be unharmed.”
I traced the purple bruise on Casper’s temple, where the burnished wood had slammed into him. It was strange, seeing my black-scaled hands and white talons against his golden skin. He was halfway between Bludman and Pinky, predator and prey, and I was curious to know what would happen to his hands were he ever bludded. Was the transition sudden, or would the fine fingers slowly fade to dark? At least he would still have the harpsichord, if it came to that. So long as the talons were kept trimmed, a Bludman could play just as well as any Pinky, if not faster and better.
Without meaning to, I found myself brushing the hair back from his sleeping face, remembering the feeling of copper-colored tendrils curling around my fingers like unanswered question marks. If only he had more bludwine in his bottle. I wanted to taste it again. I had enjoyed that looseness, that release, more than I wanted to admit.
Tall, buckled boots stepped close, and I pulled my hand back guiltily.
“He should be awake soon,” McHale said. He nudged Casper in the side with the toe of his boot, and Casper’s eyes jerked open.
He scrambled upright and shoved me behind him. Still dizzy and wobbling, it struck me to the heart that his instinct, even damaged and uncertain, was to protect me. McHale just laughed, a distinctly Freesian sound, and clapped him on the shoulder as if he was an unruly hound.
“That’s a good servant, your highness. Jumping in front of you like that.”
Casper shrugged off the pirate’s hand and bristled as he took in the room. Two dead bodies, a minimum of blood spilled. And me, standing behind him, one step away from fretting, my cheeks pink with blood and feeling bad for a reason I couldn’t name.
“You okay, Ah—” He swallowed. “Anne. Did he hurt you?”
“He saved me. The big one on the bed knocked you out and came after me, but McHale stopped him.”
Casper looked from my mouth to McHale’s, both stained with red. “I see.”
I pushed past Casper to stand between them. The air was cloudy with the scent of blood, and I could sense each man’s hackles rising as if they both wanted nothing more than a fight. It was an awfully small room for two bristling males, and it was left to me to defuse the tension before I lost one or more of my allies.
“McHale, you’ve been so kind. Can you tell us what’s happening on the ship?”
With a chuckle, the pirate’s stance relaxed. “Please call me Mikhail, princess. And what’s happening is an act of piracy. Captain Corvus of the Bludeagle has invaded the Maybuck.”
“Then all the girls are being . . .” I gulped. What the big pirate had planned for me might have been their usual way of business, but I hated the thought of all the women on board being forced.
But Mikhail shook his head. “The Maybuck is famous, and not for the coin. I suspect my captain and your Miss May had a deal that would benefit both parties. We sent a scout several days ago to make the arrangements. Although he didn’t return, Miss May must have accepted. It was far too easy, the way your ship sat, waiting for us. You were unlucky that Big Gar found you first.”
“And why do you move among these barbarians?” I asked, for he seemed polite, cultured, and clean for a pirate.
Mikhail’s eyes narrowed at Casper. “Can this one be trusted?”
I nodded once. “I trust him with my life.”
“Very well. Ravenna needed room on the Blud Council for her pawns, so many of the ancient barons were deposed or executed. I am a bastard son, and when my father was thrown out, I had nothing left. We formed a group and fought against her, and we lost. With Ravenna’s mark, there’s no way to prosper in what’s become of Freesia.” He pulled back his glove to show a stark red symbol burned into his wrist, an X inside a circle.
“So this mark means . . .”
“No succor. No blood. No trade. In a grand feat of irony, she has turned Freesia’s own royal sons into gypsies. Piracy seemed a safe enough option. There’s plenty of blood, in any case.”
“And your captain doesn’t mind?” Casper asked.
“It’s all the rage among air pirates, keeping pet Bludmen. Like dogs on a chain. I brought a few of my fellows with me, but they’re always careful to break us up on little runs like this. I won’t miss Big Gar.” He spat, and the red glob clung to the big pirate’s sunken cheek.
As I watched it slowly slide to the carpet, Casper exhaled in a burst and grabbed Mikhail by the arm, taking us all by surprise.
“We have to get off this boat before Ahna is discovered. Three of us. In Minks.”
Mikhail jerked his arm out of Casper’s grasp and gave him a look of grudging measure. “We’re a day away, at this pace. But the captain will want to know what happened to Gar and Gandy. He’ll blame me. If he finds you, you won’t live to see Minks at all.”
“Then how can we get to the ground?”
Mikhail’s eyes sharpened as he looked us over. “Parachutes, if you know where they are. The princess must be protected at all costs. Where is the third person?”
I looked to Casper and saw my own desperation mirrored. We two had been lucky, but what had become of Keen? The screaming above deck had stopped, and I could only hope that meant the girls had found a way to calm their new clients.
“I’ll have to go look for her,” Casper said.
“Don’t go unarmed. You look enough like a woman from the back, and the pirates are animals.”
Casper grimaced, and I scoffed. There was nothing remotely feminine about him, except possibly his hair, and even that was wilder than any woman’s hair had a right to be. He stretched his shoulders and stooped to pluck a wicked machete off the big pirate.
“I had hoped I wouldn’t ever have to find out how bad I am with a knife.”
“Then hurry. Your only hope is to find your friend while the men are still busy with swiving.”
“Where could she be? Where would she run?” I would have paced, but the already small room was cluttered with bodies, their stench rising in the tight space. My heart jolted with an uncomfortable tightness as I thought of Big Gar reaching for his pants. What would a man like him do to a tiny thing like Keen?
“Someone’s coming,” Mikhail said, and then I heard the boots pounding down the hall.
“C’mon, girly,” a man shouted just outside, and Keen bolted into the room with a pirate grabbing for her jacket. With a casual flick of his arm, Mikhail drove a knife into the old man’s belly.
Keen hid behind Casper, shivering and panting as another dead pirate fell to the ground.
“That’s one problem solved, then,” Mikhail said, absorbing Keen’s appearance with ease, his head to one side.
“Pirates,” Keen panted, eyes wide with terror.
“We were just leaving,” I added, holding out my hand to her.
Much to my surprise, she actually came to me, nervous as a colt. I held her close as she shivered.
“What about the . . .” I gulped. I couldn’t say it.
“Parachutes,” Casper supplied.
I shot him a dark look.
“I know where they are. I can be there and back in a few minutes.” With Keen returned, his attitude went from worried to confident, as if jumping off an airship was nothing. For once, I envied his recklessness.
He quickly stripped the long duster from Gandy’s body and buckled it across his chest, before tucking his hair up under the dead pirate’s disreputable-looking bowler. The coat was too small and tugged across the shoulders, but Casper looked piratical enough.
“As long as you don’t talk to anyone and they don’t look too closely, that should do,” Mikhail said. “I’ll keep the princess safe.”
“Be sure that you do.”
Casper looked at me, and the strangest feeling took me over. There was possession there, and concern, and warning, and I found myself stepping forward, saying, “It’s fine. We’ll be fine. Go.”
Not until he was out the door did it occur to me to wish him luck.
Not until Mikhail turned to me, his smile wide and sharp and his eyes fever-bright, did it occur to me that we might not, in fact, be fine.
Mikhail turned to Keen where she sat on the bed. I went on alert as he reached into his coat, but he withdrew a fist, not a weapon. His arm snapped out, dusting Keen with powder, and he muttered, “Sleep, child.”
Keen’s eyes drooped closed, her head falling gently to the side and her mouth going slack. I hissed. Magic set my teeth on edge after Ravenna, but now I knew how Criminy Stain had arranged our private meeting in Dover.
Mikhail turned back to me, lit with energy and stepping too close. “You’ve nothing to fear from me, princess. I want the same thing you do.”
“And what’s that?”
“The safety of our people. The return of the land to her ancient rulers. A world free of them, except as cattle.” He glared at Keen’s sleeping form, so childlike and soft. His eyes shone feverishly when he looked at me, and I leaned back against the closet door, trying to get my bearings. In a heartbeat, he was on his knees, my bare hand clutched to his lips.
“My princess. My queen. The throne is yours for the taking. Come back with me to Freesia. Together we can gather the deposed barons, the forgotten sons, the dukes shivering in the forest. They’ll rally to our cause, to your cause. My queen, we can take it back. We can make it better.”
The message was more than welcome, and yet his words, his fervor, his magic repelled me. It was my mission, to be sure. Everything I’d done, from visiting the tasseinist to enlisting Casper and Keen to ignoring my fear of heights and impropriety to board the Maybuck, had been in service to that goal. I had decided from the very first that nothing would stop me, that I would use every advantage to attain my throne.
There was something in his disdain for Keen, something cruel behind his eyes, that twisted my stomach.
He was a zealot, and zealots were dangerous.
As gently as I could, I extricated my hand. Mikhail moved just a fraction of an inch, tilting his head in a way that was cold and calculating, like a snake I’d seen once at the zoo. He was all sharp lines and warning as he stood. With great control, I pulled my lip back to expose a single fang and let out a soft hiss of warning.
“Is this not what you wish?” Hearing the threat in his words, I showed more fang.
“I have my own plans.” I clutched the ring of succession where it rested, hidden in a pocket of my dress.
“Are they . . . soft plans?” He glanced at Keen, one eyebrow cutting upward. “Because Freesia is not a land of softness.”
With a speed even he couldn’t match, I slapped Mikhail hard across the face, my fingers curled just so. He held perfectly still, unflinching at the perfectly parallel cuts I’d left on his cheek. My mother had slapped me like that once, and I had worn the shame of it for a week before I’d been allowed to drink enough blood to heal it smoothly.
“It is not yours to choose what Freesia will be, little half-baron,” I said in Sanguine, the words falling as heavy as icicles from my chilled lips. I could taste the sharp, sweet bite of the winter wind in every word, and he must have felt it, too. Mikhail dropped to his knees before me and kissed the hem of my dress, a display my mother had always enjoyed but that had always made me squirm.