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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
Another scream echoed through the air, and I put on a burst of speed as I recognized its source. I had to hurry, before they lured her closer.
Scrabbling under branches and past fans of sharp green needles, I let the beast go free, abandoning all pretense of royalty. In a fierce gallop, I caught up with Casper and pulled ahead, my nose aimed straight for Keen.
We burst into a small clearing, the sort of green-lit hollow my mother had called a fairy dun. Keen stood there, a look of wonder and joy on her face. Her hand stretched out toward a magnificent peacock, a male in full splendor. His tail was set wide, shivering back and forth and throwing sunlight off the vibrant feathers. His head cocked to the side as he danced closer to her, and she laughed.
Looking beyond her into the forest, I saw what I feared: the red spark of an eye.
“Drag her into the underbrush,” I whispered to Casper. “Have your knife ready.”
But I had already launched myself across the clearing, darting past Keen and diving into the shadows of the forest. The creature had already seen me and wheeled to escape, but I dug my talons into its flanks and ripped a gash in the dingy white fur of its rump.
Fear for Keen melted into fierce joy. I had always loved unicorn blood.
The beast bucked, trying to throw me off and keep me from tearing the wound bigger. Without weapons or hunting partners, I couldn’t take it down, but I held on as long as I could. I would teach this creature to tangle with virgins.
As I lapped up as much blood as I could, feeling it shift into my throat like sunshine, the unicorn snorted and squealed, its hooves knocking against the ground and trees as it tried to fight me off. Somewhere far away, the peacock screamed again and again, warning the unicorn that danger was near. Its pure call finally ended in a gurgle and silence, the scavenger dying before its master.
Spinning on two hooves, the unicorn tried to skewer me, but I dodged its gnarled horn easily and leaped away, sliding behind a thick tree. I licked my lips, sated, as the unicorn blew air through its lips and galloped off into the forest. Its blood spread through me, leaving me warm and satisfied like nothing else.
“Ahna!” Casper called, his voice high and frantic.
“I’m here!” I struggled to compose myself and tried not to skip on my way back to the clearing.
I saw Keen first; she was trembling, eyes huge, with rips down her sleeves. Her arms were wrapped around her skinny middle as she breathed through her nose like a spooked bludmare. The peacock lay battered and bloody on the ground, and Casper soon appeared from between the trees with a dead pirate’s machete in his hand. He dropped it when he saw me.
“Ahna. Thank God. Are you hurt?” He rushed to take my shoulders in firm hands as he checked me up and down. With unicorn blood in my belly, it was hard not to giggle at his unnecessary concern.
“I saw it,” Keen said, barely an awed whisper. “The unicorn.”
Casper gazed down at me in confusion. “A unicorn?”
I shrugged. “He won’t be back. Let’s go.”
“So they’re real?” Keen breathed.
I snorted. “They’re just animals. Big, bloodthirsty monsters. But animals. Welcome to my world.” Seeing their dropped jaws and the mist of magic still swirling in Keen’s eyes, I sighed. “Unicorns aren’t magical and beautiful. They’re just predatory horses that have horns and love to eat virgins.” Casper pointed at the peacock carcass and raised his eyebrows, and I nodded. “Unicorns and peacocks work together. The peacocks are bludded scavengers that scout for prey. While the peacock dances, the unicorn is sneaking up behind you to run you through with his horn. And then they gorge and drag your carcass home to their harems.”
“This place,” Keen said slowly, shaking her head, “is wack.”
Casper knelt to run a finger along the peacock’s sharp beak.
“Jesus. It’s like one big tooth.”
I grinned. “They’re the only bludded birds in all of Sang, and they originate in Freesia. The Mad Tsar bludded them centuries ago, and they escaped the Ice Palace and managed to breed in the wild. No one knows the source of their partnership with the unicorns. An elegant friendship, don’t you think?”
I reached down to pluck a plume from the dead peacock’s tail and stuck it through the band of Casper’s hat. It didn’t escape me that we’d dropped his old feather in the forest when we heard the peacock’s scream. A jay called, and another bird answered, and then the forest finally came back to life, with the unicorn out of range.
“I can’t believe I was almost eaten by a unicorn,” Keen muttered. She shook her head as if the magic had finally fled, and her hands went to her pockets. “Donatello! He’s gone.”
She fell to her knees and rustled through the leaf litter, and Casper gave me a pained look.
“That gold ball she’s always playing with. It’s . . . the only thing she really cares about, but she won’t tell me why.”
“I’m right here, asshole, and I’m not deaf. I’m not leaving until we find him.”
I spun slowly in a circle, breathing deep until I caught a scent that stood out from the ancient greenery and earth. I followed the metallic tang and dug around in the forest floor near the peacock until I found it—the brass sphere I’d seen Keen playing with again and again. I turned, holding it out to her, and her face lit up with that brilliant smile.
“Donatello!” She snatched it from me and nuzzled it.
“What is that thing?” I asked, trying to rub the oily scent of clockwork off on my skirt.
Keen held the sphere up to the light with a radiant grin. “I guess we’re far enough away now that I can show y’all. Not like anyone in London is ever going to find me, right?”
Casper shrugged, and I watched her little fingers reach in to turn a nearly invisible brass switch. The sphere opened up smoothly, the parts unfolding and twisting until a brass tortoise sat on her hand with the subtle whisper of ticking gears.
“I get it,” Casper said, stepping closer with a smile. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
“It’s actually a tortoise,” I started, and she cut me off.
“Shut up. There’s no cool names for tortoises.”
“So when did you pickpocket that little gem?” Casper asked.
“Nicked him from Sweeting,” she said with a shrug. “He owed me.”
Casper groaned and rubbed his eyes. “You’re suicidal, girl.”
“Whatever. You’re the one who just yanked me out of a window with a broken parachute.”
With things somewhat back to normal, I scanned our surroundings, but the forest all looked the same to me. Although I had been taught to hunt, no one had ever bothered to teach me how to survive outside of the Ice Palace and its grounds. I knew geography but not how to navigate. My entire life had been meant to unfold in the halls of grand castles.
“We need to get to Minks,” I said. “Then we can take the train directly into Muscovy.”
“And then?” Keen’s attitude and accent were back, and I tried to hide my smile.
“And then we find an old acquaintance of mine and decide the best way to approach the palace.”
“But if you’re in disguise and we have no money, how do you think we’re going to get on the train? They don’t need famous pianists to drive a steam engine,” Casper said with a bitter shake of his leaf-strewn hair.
The cold, manipulative smile curled across my features, familiar and welcome. It felt good, having some power again. Surprising someone. Showing my cunning.
“I’ve been keeping a little secret of my own,” I said.
With a wink, I plunged a hand down the front of my corset to draw out the necklace I’d been carrying, warm and heavy, since London. The silver links were tarnished, but the stones danced in the dappled light of morning. The birds went still in the trees, and I imagined their wise and hungry eyes captured by the glittering diamonds and topazes that so resembled the heart of the glacier that was rumored to have spat it forth like the will of the ice gods.
“Where the hell did you get that?”
“Shut your mouth before a crow flies in, darling. It’s a necklace.” I smiled, showing Keen the sharpness of my fangs. It was gratifying, giving her yet another reminder that while I’d been tame enough on the ship, we were in my world now.
“How long have you had that?” Casper asked quietly.
“I pulled it out of the suitcase on the way to Reve’s.”
“And when were you going to tell us?”
“When I had to.”
In a flash, he was across the clearing and in my face, lips pulled back and exposed teeth mirroring mine. “All this time. All these stupid risks. We could have bought our berth on a safer ship. We could have kept Keen away from those lechers and you away from danger and me . . .” He ran a hand through his hair, and I noticed that his nails were sharp and going narrow. “Dammit, Ahna! I sold my harpsichord for you. I played an out-of-tune box on a ship while old men nailed whores beside me on the bench. You could have fixed it with one damn stone off your fancy-ass necklace.”
“It was a last resort,” I said through gritted teeth.
“Maybe for you.” One finger poked me in the chest, right over my heart. “Maybe the rest of us already gave everything we had. You wouldn’t be here without us. And you’ve never apologized for any of it. Not once.”
“I . . .”
I faltered. What could I say to that? He was right, of course. Part of me wanted to screech at him, the spoiled princess so sure of herself and her place. The necklace was mine, my birthright. What was the point of risking it before absolutely necessary? And wasn’t it the saving grace now, the one sure thing we had left? And who was he to judge me? Every step toward Minks, whichever direction it was, was a step further into my world and closer to the country I planned to rule.
I shifted uncomfortably. In my hand, the necklace was too heavy, and I let my arm drop to my side. Without really meaning to, I let the chain slip from my fingers to dangle in the air above the ground.
Dear Aztarte. This feeling. This awful, heavy, suffocating feeling. This sensation that made me want to run, to hide, to crawl away. Could it be . . . guilt?
“I’m sorry.” The unfamiliar words tasted heavy in my mouth.
“Sorry doesn’t begin to cover it,” Casper said.
I held up my hands with a bitter laugh, one harsh note. “I’ll only say it once. Look around you, Casper. We’re in a forest, surrounded by hidden enemies, creatures of blud and monsters on two feet. We can’t tarry here. We must march, my darling. To Muscovy and to Ravenna’s blud. The faster the better.”
He stilled, as he sometimes did, as if gears were turning in his head. “How do you do that?” he muttered. “Just when I think I’m going to tell you off, you go and say something extraordinary.”
I could read him now. The way he was rubbing his eyes, his sigh. I was winning him over, so I pressed harder. “What’s done is done. We have what we need now. Can we just put all that behind us and start from here?” I pulled the necklace back up and let it run through my fingers, the big stones catching the sun and sending sparkles over the tree trunks. “I bet one of the little stones could get us separate sleeping cars on the train to Muscovy.”
Keen watched, her eyes gone sharp. I could almost see her tallying figures as she thought of what even the daintiest gems could buy for us now. Here in the forest, surrounded by giant trees and bloodthirsty unicorns, we were still closer than we’d ever been to our main goal.
“I get my own room, a new shirt, and all the hot food I can eat,” she finally said. “And when you’re the queen, I get a pony.”
“Deal.” I held out my hand and was glad when she shook it without wincing.
Before I knew what had happened, Casper had swept us both into a tight, messy hug. The swoop in my heart wasn’t all that different from the one I’d felt the last time we’d been this close—when we’d jumped out of a moving airship. I realized he had let go of Keen and was hugging me even closer. I surged toward the crush of skin, the press of cloth, and a mouthful of his unruly hair.
“Are you guys done?” Keen asked, voice flat.
I pulled away, breathless. My eyes met Casper’s, and I could sense his response, so similar to mine, in the dancing fire of his blue eyes. We were on the ground, we were alive, and we were on the road to victory.
“Let’s go, then,” I said, turning to hide the blush in my cheeks. I supposed that meant I was forgiven, and my heart felt oddly lighter for it.
Casper took the lead, and we hurried to match his stride.
“I saw Minks when we were in the air, and I’m pretty sure we can make it there in a couple of hours.”
I looked from tree to identical tree. “How can you possibly know where it is? Where we are?”
“I’m not completely incompetent, you know.” He held up a compass with a grin.
“There go my dreams of wandering the woods until you and Keen collapse from exhaustion so I could drain you without complaint.” I tried to put some of my old viciousness into the words, but even I could hear that I’d failed. It was strange, liking Pinkies for reasons other than the availability of their blood. I hoped the train and our arrival in Muscovy would reignite the predator within. This soft, this easily affected, I’d never be able to face off with Ravenna and survive.
“Cheer up, princess. There are worse things than not eating your friends.”
He nudged my shoulder with a dimpled grin, keeping pace with me as we wove among the old trees. Keen had disappeared from sight, but I could still smell her, lingering behind us. The unicorn fight and its heady blood had worn off, and I was on edge. It made me excited but nervous, being near the blud world and my people. I couldn’t help getting in at least a little bit of teeth.