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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Your word, my life,” he muttered, the traditional pledge of fealty, but it didn’t feel as if his heart was in it.
He stood and inspected Keen with impersonal curiosity.
“How do you stand it, my queen? Trapped in these tight quarters with such tender prey. She smells as pure as the first snow. A delicacy. Have you tasted her?”
My stomach, so heavy with blood, rebelled at the thought of hurting Keen after what we’d been through together on the Maybuck.
“She’s my servant. I forbid you to touch her.”
“So exotic,” he murmured, sniffing the air. “I wouldn’t hurt her. I’ll just have a taste. I would say you owe me, wouldn’t you?” He gave a significant glance to the hulking corpse of Big Gar.
“Owe you?” I felt the anger rising, the beast and princess in me demanding his blud. But I heard my mother’s voice in memory, reminding me that the best punishment was turning an enemy into a tool. “Very well. Allow me to repay you.” I reached for the ring of succession, sliding it onto the correct finger. The fervor lit his eyes again when he looked on it, for the thing had a certain magic even for those who didn’t know of its legend. “You want a true ruler? Give me your wrist.”
He held out the same arm he’d shown me earlier, the one Ravenna had branded. Grasping his wrist in one hand, I pressed the ring firmly into Ravenna’s mark, and Mikhail hissed as a cloud of cold steam rose from his skin.
“That is the Tsarina’s Crest. You are sworn.”
I pulled the ring away, and my first subject inspected his new sigil. Dark red patches marked the large center stone and the crown of topaz around it. Ravenna’s brand had disappeared.
Mikhail’s eyes shone with respect and awe, a correct and natural result of the ceremony.
“It’s true, then,” he breathed, and I nodded solemnly.
“You’re a knight of the crown now. Betray me, and you buy your own death. But know that I’m taking Freesia back at the first snow.”
“Your word, my life—my queen,” he said again, more sure this time. “I am yours to command.”
I smiled, cold and certain. “You always were.”
“Get me off this ship. I can’t be discovered. Where is Casper?”
Mikhail shrugged with a wry smile. “He is late.”
I stared at him, silent and unblinking, until he bowed his head and said, “So it begins. I will find him for you or die trying.”
He slipped out the door before I could respond. His quick acceptance of my rule was gratifying but strange. The enormity of taking control of my country from Ravenna started to sink in. Whether or not I wanted the heavy mantle of responsibility, seeking it was the only acceptable choice. And Mikhail had taught me that even those who professed to be on my side would need to be gathered, rallied, dominated, and commanded.
On the bed, Keen mumbled and yawned, sitting up and looking around in confusion. “What the hell?”
“We’re about to go. If you have valuables, stow them.”
Keen had to nudge Gandy aside to open the closet, but she must have seen enough of the pirates by then not to resent his fate. I knew where she hid her golden ball, but I didn’t know what else she might have that she cared about.
Taking my own advice, I made sure that the ring, the necklace, and the mysterious paper packet from Criminy were all firmly lodged in my corset. I tightened the laces even further and checked the mirror and smoothed down my hair. By the time male laughter sounded in the hall, I had decided that there was nothing more I needed from the Maybuck.
Keen sidled into the blind corner behind the door, Kitty’s knife in hand. Mikhail entered first, looking vexed. Behind him, Casper appeared with his arm around another man, a pirate and a stranger.
“What about pizza? And chicken wings?” the man said.
Casper laughed, an easy and mellow sound. “Oh, law. You could just pick up the phone, and they would deliver it to your door. With Coke and those little cheesy things and cinnamon bread. And what about TV game shows?”
“Jesus, man. I don’t miss that a bit. My girlfriend loved that shi—” His eyes met my disapproving glare, and the man dropped his arm off Casper and nodded warily. “Ma’am.”
His accent was even more golden and mellow than Casper’s. He was smaller and older, with shaggy blond hair graying at the temples, his face leathery with sun except for white rings around his eyes that matched the shape of the goggles perched on his hat.
I nodded primly, and Casper said, “This is my niece, Anne. And that’s Keen. Y’all—I mean, ladies—this is Teddy. He’s from Almanica, too.”
“Land of the free and home of the brave,” Teddy said genially, pantomiming the tip of a hat without actually moving his hat.
“How long?” Keen asked anxiously, and Teddy answered, “Twenty years, little lady.”
“Then you don’t even know about Google, do you?”
“Goggles, yes. Googles, no. But I miss Def Leppard most of all.”
Keen wrinkled her nose and said, “Lame.”
The three of them all laughed together, and Mikhail and I shared a skeptical look. I had always heard that things were strange in the wild country across the ocean, but there was something definitely off about these Almanicans.
“Where?” Keen asked.
“San Antonio. You?”
“Then we’re all from the right side of the Mason-Dixon, at least.” Teddy held out his hand, and Keen shook it. Then they just all stood there like idiots, grinning.
“The parachutes?” I barked, and Keen rolled her eyes.
“My bad,” Teddy said. He clapped Casper on the shoulder and went for the door. “Back in two shakes, friends.”
“I don’t approve.” Mikhail sneered at the door. “That man is wrong.”
“Lot of that going around,” Keen said, returning Mikhail’s sneer.
Casper chuckled to himself. “Oh, man. I thought I was a goner. I was grabbing the parachutes, and the door opened. I knew I was caught.”
“Then what happened?” I asked.
He smiled, dimples and all. “Then he said ‘y’all.’ ”
“I take it that’s Almanican?”
Teddy barged in through the door with three large packs. Dumping them onto the floor at my feet, he said, “Good luck, y’all. I’ve got to skedaddle before the captain wonders where I got off to, but good luck with whatever you’re up to.” He looked pointedly at the parachutes. “I’d count to ten and start praying, folks.”
Casper jerked him into a hug, and they beat each other on the back like brothers.
“Good to see you, man,” Casper said. “It’s been too long since I’ve seen a face from home.”
Keen cleared her throat loudly, and Casper rumpled her hair affectionately.
“Not many make it,” Teddy agreed, pumping Casper’s hand again. “At least you got her. I had a kid about that age. Samantha. She’s grown by now, I guess. You’re a lucky man.” He dashed tears out of his eyes, rubbing the network of wrinkles at their corners tiredly. “Take care of that girl, you hear me?”
Casper put an arm around the shorter man’s shoulders. “Be careful out there, Ted.”
It was one of the longest good-byes I’d ever seen, and they had just met.
“Baseball. Harleys. Convertibles,” Teddy said wistfully at the door.
“Movie theaters. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups,” Casper answered.
“Cell phones and french fries and prom,” Keen muttered, and Casper pulled her into a hug and said, “You would have hated it, kid,” into the top of her head. She sniffled and hugged him back for just a second before pushing away from him and picking up one of the parachutes.
“Are you sure these things are functional?” I asked.
Casper wiped at his eyes. Without a word, he went to the closet and put on his leather traveling coat and his sturdiest top hat. He handed me one parachute and pulled the other one over his shoulders, tightening and buckling the straps across his chest.
“Too late to worry about that, darlin’. If it comes down to getting thrown off or jumping, I’ll jump every time.”
The last thing Mikhail said to me was, “We’ll be ready.”
All I could answer was, “Pray that you are,” in Sanguine and hope that he wouldn’t do anything rash in his fervor to serve me. And then he was gone, whispering with Teddy in unexpected camaraderie as they planned the disruption that would cover our escape.
We waited a few moments, nervous and alert in the doorway. A loud boom rocked the ship with a sickening lurch, followed by shouting. Casper held up a finger to his lips and ran. Keen followed, and I took the rear.
The straps of the parachute dug into my corset, the string that would open it bouncing against my stomach. I could taste the blood seeping up my throat, Big Gar and Gandy going sour in my belly. Getting onto the airship had taken every ounce of courage I possessed, but getting off of it was going to be exponentially worse.
The route Casper took was a familiar one, and I wasn’t surprised when he led us into the library and locked the door from the inside.
As he unlatched the breast-shaped window, I groaned. “Please, not that.”
“It’s a big window off the back of the ship. It’s the best shot we have of getting out of here alive and not in chains. How much do you want to win?”
“Enough to jump through a nipple.”
He opened the window all the way, and a chill breeze rustled the pages of a book left open on the seat. I breathed in deeply, grateful to find no taste of salt on the air. With a sudden bout of inspiration, Casper took down a coiled rope, a long satin thing with tassels. I didn’t really want to think about why it was resting on a shelf in the library, but he didn’t offer me the chance to reject it. After stepping up onto the window seat, he helped me and Keen up and threaded the rope through the harness of first his parachute and then each of ours. He knotted the ends together and pulled it tight, forcing us into closer quarters than was comfortable or safe.
My nose was buried in his chest, and Keen’s cheek was turned to my shoulder. Hunger trilled in the back of my throat, but I was still full enough of pirate blood that being so near didn’t send me into a frenzy.
“Is this really necessary?” With every word, I took in a lungful of Keen’s young, innocent edibility and Casper’s scent, masculine and spiced with sweat.
“Seriously,” Keen said, her voice muffled by my shoulder. “She smells like hot pennies.”
“If we get separated in the forest, you’ll think it’s pretty necessary,” he said.
For a moment, we simply stood there, breathing fresh air and feeling the slight, sucking breeze. It was early morning, the clouds a sickly purple rimmed with red. At least it wasn’t raining.
“On three?” Casper asked.
But he’d already leaned backward out the round window, curling his arms around us like a shield and carrying us with him into the emptiness of the sky. My mouth opened in a scream as we tumbled, weightless, but Casper’s hand sealed my lips, and the sound died. Everything was happening both too quickly and with infinite slowness as the wind rushed around us. Up and down had no meaning, and my heart thumped against my corset. I fought to keep the blood down and the scream in and the tears at bay. We spun, and I caught a brief glimpse of the airship, her bronze balloon reflecting the morning sun with a fierce vengeance. The reclining woman on the gondola, which I now recognized as an optimistic portrayal of Miss May, seemed to be winking at me upside down.
And then Casper was laughing, and despite my terror and fear and utter confusion, I managed to glare at him. His face gave me something to focus on, as opposed to the nothingness of the sky, and the manic joy and wonder I saw there was startling.
“Woooooooohooooo!” he yelled, throwing his arms into the air. After a moment, Keen followed suit.
“Aren’t we supposed to pull the string and not die?” I shouted.
“Hold on, baby! It’s gonna be a bumpy ride!”
I clutched the front of his jacket with one hand, curling my head against his chest and trying to prepare myself for something for which one couldn’t really prepare.
“One . . . two . . . three!”
I pulled my string and nearly bit my tongue off as our bodies jolted against the tight straps of the parachutes. When I dared to pull my face away and look up, I saw two white pillows poofed out against the violet clouds.
“Casper! It didn’t go! Mine didn’t go!”
Keen pulled frantically at the string, but her pack was still contained. Although we’d slowed down a great deal, it felt as if we were moving too fast. With an ominous creak, the silky rope lashing us together slipped a few inches, and Keen grabbed Casper’s coat and my sleeve in a death grip.
Casper looked down, his face going ashen. “Just hold on, girl,” he said. “Keen, look at me. Hold on. You can do this. You’ve done worse. We’re going to get through it.”
The rope creaked again, a few more inches sneaking out past Casper’s careful knot. Keen screamed and clawed at us as if she could climb our bodies and get to a safer place. Casper wrapped both arms around her waist and held her close with visible effort, the sweat starting to bead up on his forehead.
I looked down. A sea of dark green trees rose to meet us, fast and furious. Crows exploded from the pines just below us, their feathers left to drift in the air. One floated past my face, and I reached up in wonder to grab it, but we were falling too swiftly, and I knew it.