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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
I looked up, startled out of my reverie by the urgency of Casper’s voice.
“You can take the most damage. Can you slow our fall somehow? I have to hold Keen.”
The words ripped past my ears, stolen by the wind. I looked down, flexing my toes. There wasn’t much time before we tumbled into the trees. From high up, they had looked like moss or the cover on a bed, but as we got closer, the danger was thrown in stark relief. Sharp black branches, broken and ragged, reached toward us. It was so surreal, the falling, that I had forgotten to be afraid. But he was right—my body was much harder to injure and easier to heal than theirs were. My fear of heights was considered unusual among Bludmen.
“I don’t know—” I started, and he edged an arm up around Keen’s ears and shouted, “Then figure it out!”
I tugged at the rope lashing us together, but it refused to slip any farther. With a sigh of frustration, I felt around the inside of Casper’s coat. He twitched away at first, but he understood as soon as my fingers wrapped around the hilt of the knife on his belt. I pulled it out, yelled, “Hold her!” and slit the slender cord with one upward thrust.
Keen squealed as her body jerked downward, but Casper caught her up. I quickly handed myself down, crawling along his body until my arms were wrapped around his knees and my skirts were free and billowing upward. The trees were mere seconds away as I aimed for a sturdy-looking branch and braced myself for impact.
My boots struck wood, the shock reverberating throughout my body. I tried to buffer Casper and Keen with my arms and save them the worst of the hit. They knocked me sideways, and my heels skidded off the bark, and we were falling again, Keen’s scream heavy in my ears. I fell into a trunk sideways, smashed in by Casper, and then we all tumbled downward in a confusing, bruising jumble of parachute strings, leather, and limbs.
I hit the ground first. Someone’s foot found my head, and I slumped over gratefully into the dew-wet pine scree. It was an old forest with a thick floor of needles, and I sank in, breathing the sharp sap and rich black dirt. It wasn’t my home, but it was close enough.
Groaning and grunting, Casper and Keen rolled off my aching, battered body. Keen bolted off into the forest, her parachute unopened on her back, calling “Bathroom!” over her shoulder. Casper and I were tangled together, my parachute caught in the trees and his flopped low on the ground. He gently unwound my fingers from the knife I still held, forgotten, in a white-knuckle grip. Thank Aztarte I hadn’t cut anyone on the way down.
But wait. I smelled it. Casper’s blood, on the knife and beading a small slash in the thigh of his pants. I leaned toward him, avid, mouth open, already imagining the hot press of it on my tongue. Fear always made me hungry afterward.
“Ahna.” The words were loaded with exhaustion and warning.
“I only need a little.” I swallowed, feeling desperate. “You’re already losing the blood. You might as well put it to good use.”
He flopped onto his back, slicing the parachute off his chest. “Fine. I don’t care anymore. No teeth.”
Still caught by my chute, I had enough room to kneel and shift his leather coat aside, settling my mouth over the slice in his breeches. It wasn’t bad or deep, just a graze. But blood was blood, and I gently pressed the wound open and ran my tongue along it. He twitched and moaned, and I savored the strange taste of his blood. At first, the smell had repelled me, but now it called to me, an acquired taste.
“Jesus Christ on the cross!” Keen shouted.
She stood, half behind a tree, her face frozen in disgust and hatred and her shirt speckled with vomit.
“Enough of the act, Keen,” Casper said tiredly without sitting up. “You know very well how things are headed for me, even if you try to ignore it. This isn’t the most horrible thing you’ve seen this week, and it’s bound to get a lot worse. She needs to eat if we’re going to get her home.”
“Screw getting her home! Screw things getting worse! I don’t even know why we’re doing this. It’s a suicide mission. You’ve lasted this long. Don’t give in now.”
“You’re out of line.” He rubbed his eyes in that way he had, when he was tired of thinking. “Nobody made you come along. I gave you a choice, and you made it.”
She stomped, but her foot just sank into the needles. “I didn’t think you were serious. I didn’t think you’d actually see it through. I didn’t think you’d let her . . . let her drink from you like a fricking Renfield!”
“This ain’t a movie, kid. This is life or death. She’s not Dracula; she’s just a lost girl. We’ve still got to get through the forest, into Minks, and onto a train. If letting Ahna drink from an already open wound will give us a leg up, I’ll take it.”
She looked at my hands pressing around his thigh, and we all suddenly noticed the effect it was having on his body. I jerked back. He sat up and flipped his coat over his lap, but she was already stomping into the forest, muttering to herself, her breath hitching.
“You like it, you asshole. You’re just like the rest of them. You effing like it!”
I sat back on my heels and wiped my lips on the back of my hand. His blood didn’t drive me to a frenzy, but seeing it and smelling it had temporarily clouded my judgment. I was mortified, not that I had drunk from him but that I had done so from such a tender, personal place on his body.
“I didn’t mean to . . .” I trailed off. There was no good way to end that sentence.
Casper scooted back, settling against a tree trunk. The morning sun backlit him, limning his hair like liquid gold. “Can you keep a secret?”
It was the last thing I had imagined him saying, and I managed to shrug. “Whom would I tell? You know my secret, and you’ve kept it well enough.”
“Keen and I aren’t from Almanica.” He took a deep breath and gazed into the branches overhead. “We’re Strangers, and we’re from America, which is like Almanica in another world.”
I snorted and shook my head. “Did you hit your head on the way down? That’s not a secret; it’s a myth.”
He smiled, all dimples and madness. “Let’s look at the facts. I know things you can’t know. I can play songs you’ve never heard of, things way more complicated than anything I could ever compose.” He held out his arm and rolled up the sleeve to show me the black mark I remembered on his forearm. A raven holding a key.
“I have a tattoo. You ever seen a Pinky who would let a needle pierce his skin again and again and then walk around with an open wound for a week? Did you know what I was talking about with Teddy and Keen? This is not the world I was born in, darlin’, and it ain’t been kind to me.”
I stared at the mark on his arm. It was true—I’d never seen anything like it except in pictures of Bludmen from exotic lands. When he held out his earlobe and wiggled it back and forth, showing a tiny hole, I just shook my head.
“Why are you telling me this?” I finally asked.
“Because I need you to understand Keen. She’s a Stranger, too. I found her in London, living on the streets, eating trash and bludrats and singing for coins. She’s got a decent enough voice, but she didn’t remember all the words to ‘Yellow Submarine,’ so I started singing, too. I took her under my wing. I was already in a downward spiral by then, but I hid my life from her. I had gotten too deep into the bludwine, but no one ever told me that it would take me over, drive me mad. I kept her safe and fed but always held her at arm’s length, because I knew one day I’d either die or get bludded. I’m realizing now that I did her a disservice. I never really saw her as she was; I just saw a helpless kid from my homeland. And now she’s doing what all teenagers do in America—she’s rebelling.”
“That’s what teenagers do in Freesia, too,” I said, cocking my head as I studied him. There were certain things about him that had always seemed foreign and exotic. The shade of his skin, the shape of his face. His strange accent, which he was using now instead of the cultured, clipped tones of Sangland. Could he really be from another world? Of course, I’d heard stories of Strangers, who supposedly showed up out of nowhere, naked and helpless. But they weren’t as common in Freesia as they were in Sangland, and I’d never actually seen one. What Strangers were to us, unicorns were to them—charming tales that were nothing like the reality, apparently.
“So she’s rebelling. So she doesn’t like me. So what?”
“It’s not just you. It’s me. I’ve mostly kept it from her, the fact that I’m a halfblud and starting to suffer from it. I’ve hidden the bludwine, kept her from following me when I went to Darkside to buy vials of blud or have my own drawn in exchange. Whenever I’ve been close to going into a rage, I’ve locked myself in my room and gotten drunk. Only now that we’ve been forced into that tiny cabin on the ship and since she talked to the other girls on the Maybuck has she realized what it means.”
“What does it mean?”
“You know what it means. You heard Cora. It means that soon I’ll either have to be bludded or go mad.”
I snorted and flicked my fingers. “And that’s so bad?”
“Imagine it. You wake up naked in another world where everything is different. You’re just a kid, you’re scared, you’re almost eaten by giant red rats. You manage to cobble together a life on the streets, just this side of starvation, and then a rich and glamorous countryman takes you under his wing, becomes your only attachment to the life you loved. And then that person grows distant, dangerous, unpredictable. Starts making bad decisions, choices that feel like betrayals. What does that kid have in the entire world but me? And again and again, I’ve chosen blud over her, shoved her aside, given her the bare minimum.”
He drove a fist into the soft ground. When he knocked his hat back and ran a hand through his hair, he left clods of dirt and leaf mold among the sweat-streaked copper.
“And now?” My voice trembled.
“In my daydreams, she found a place in your magnificent castle. She had her own room, fine clothes, healthy food. I made her so happy that she didn’t need me anymore. And that’s the worst betrayal of all.”
“Wanting to take care of someone, wanting the best for them, isn’t a betrayal.”
He was across the space in seconds, so close I could see his eyes jumping madly. “Ahna, I don’t want the best for her. I want the best for me.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“I owe her. Don’t you see? She’s my responsibility. I don’t know how to keep her safe without giving up my own needs, and I’m no longer willing to make that trade.” He reached into his coat and pulled out the feather I’d found in the box under his bed. It felt like a lifetime ago, and the princess scrabbling cheerfully and viciously for a stranger’s treasures had been invariably altered.
“This feather. It fell off a turban. A fortune-teller’s turban in a caravan. She was a Stranger, too, and I thought I loved her. I thought she was going to save me.”
“And she betrayed you.”
“She chose a Bludman over me, took the fortune she saw when she held his hand. I know there was something more than what she told me. I saw her face, and I know she held something back.” He stroked the feather back and forth over my hand as if painting a secret message there. “ ‘Your loss will be your salvation,’ she told me. Well, I lost her, and it didn’t save me. I lost my riches and fame, and it didn’t save me. So what’s the next loss? Keen? My humanity? My mind?” He stared straight into my eyes, and I swallowed at his bald desperation. “Is it you?”
I looked down, taking the feather from him and twirling it back and forth between my fingers. “My mother once told me that fortune-tellers see what they want to see and tell what they want to tell.” I watched the feather, considering how very carefully I had to choose my next words. “I was always told that the fortune I chose for myself was the truest one.”
“And what fortune did you choose after that?”
“That I wouldn’t be forced into doing anything ever again.”
“Yet here you are. Are we all just victims, then, Ahna? Just puppets?”
I stood and shook my head defiantly, letting pine bits flutter to the earth. “Only if we allow ourselves to become so. I choose to meet life as a powerful conquerer. Nothing will ever take command of me again.”
“But what if—”
A scream cut through the woods, silencing us both.
Casper was up and running beside me faster than I would have expected him to move. He must have been right about becoming more like a Bludman and less like a Pinky. After a few short steps, the strings of my chute trapped me like a spider in a web, and I howled in animal frustration, ripping through the heavy lines with my teeth and pounding through the trees in Casper’s wake.
The forest was thick and heavy, old and cold. I dashed through the branches, flinging them out of my way in pieces when necessary. I threw out my senses but didn’t hear Keen. The scream—it hadn’t actually sounded like her. The scent of bludbears clung to the earth and trees, but that was expected. This part of the country was known for the shaggy monsters, which grew large and lazy on bludlemmings and the foolish pioneers perpetually tromping into the woods, expecting to make new Pinky cities outside the harsh blud rule of Minks and Muscovy. But bludbears weren’t the problem. Something else was wrong. The forest was too quiet.