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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Do you two have any idea what we’re walking into? Minks and then Muscovy?”
“I’ve seen all of Sangland, a bit of Franchia, and the big cities of the mainland. But never this far east.”
The low chuckle I gave then was meant to warn. “In Sangland, there’s balance between Bludman and human. In Franchia and the mainland, the daimons keep things light and playful. But over here, once things get cold . . . you’ll be nothing more than at best a servant and at worst a midnight snack. Outside the palace, your kind has less footing than pet hounds. Staying on my good side is your only hope for getting out of here alive.”
“But won’t it help that I’m a halfblud?”
“You’re an abomination. They’ll want to murder you in ugly ways before they eat you. Out of spite.”
“She’s an appetizer. Hardly enough for two to share. But that won’t stop them.”
I could feel the anger rising in him, smell the heat of his blood boiling. I smiled. Finally, he was taking me seriously.
“Funny that you failed to mention any of these circumstances when we were planning this trip,” he said. “Never once did you say, ‘Oh, hey, by the way? You’re going into a very dangerous country where unicorns will stab you and barons will suck your blood.’ ”
“You never asked. And you never requested permission to bring Keen along. She wasn’t part of the deal, you know. Besides, I assumed that everyone has had lessons in history and geography.”
“Yeah, but my lessons were on Russia and the USSR,” he growled.
I caught the smell of meat and spun around. Keen ambled behind us on the trail, chewing on a shred of dried animal flesh.
“Put that away. The smell carries.”
She grinned, bits of brown stuff stuck in her teeth. “Can’t you just kill anything that comes after us? Even the unicorn was scared of you.”
I snatched the meat out of her hand and stuffed it into her jacket with a stern look. There was so much that these two soft little Pinkies didn’t know about my world, and I wanted them to come out on the other side mostly alive.
“We need to get out of the forest and into the city in time to catch the train at dusk. Fighting bludbears takes up valuable time. That food of yours reeks.”
“And what if we don’t make it by nightfall?” Casper asked.
“Then you won’t make it,” I answered. “Something worse than unicorns will find us, if we don’t freeze to death first. This is an unforgiving land.”
Casper took the lead of our party, checking the compass every so often. There were no paths, just thick trees that barely let in golden fingers of sunshine. Keen was already shivering, and it wasn’t even noon yet by my counting. I was grateful for my natural resistance to cold, and I supposed Casper felt something similar, as he shrugged out of his big coat and wrapped it around her. She was far too short, and the hem scraped the ground, but at least she stopped trembling and throwing off more scent than was necessary.
We didn’t speak much, and I was grateful for the silence. Noise would draw undue attention, and I was too confused in my own feelings to stay alert to our surroundings. I couldn’t get over Casper’s admission about the fairy-tale land from which they had come. Could it be true that there were other worlds than Sang? That Casper wasn’t just a debauched musician and a halfblud fallen to ruin but also a traveler from another world entirely? I was growing used to the idea. My curiosity was piqued by the thought that he could be something more than he seemed. I had been taught to look for value in others only as related to politics, court intrigue, and the price of a throne or a favor. Liking him was the worst kind of rebellion.
I grinned to myself. I’d always liked rebellion.
We trudged along for hours. For the longest time, nothing changed. The same trees, the same brief snatches of sky or patches of brittle brown grass. Whatever blud creatures might have been hiding scented me and took off, and I grinned whenever I heard branches breaking or hooves pounding through the woods ahead of us. The animals of the forest knew well enough when a bigger predator was about, and I basked in the return of myself. I was born to be dangerous, to rule, and holding myself in check on the airship had cost me deeply.
I smelled the tundra before I saw it, the thick, syrupy sting of the pines interwoven with the faintest breath of frosted, faded grasses and wild winds. I sighed and smiled. That same scent clung to the Ice Palace, where we held the forest at bay with wide fields that would leave our enemies exposed should they ever attempt to come for us. There was very little that could threaten me in a field.
Not so for Casper and Keen. They huddled closer together, looking all around as if unicorns might burst from the knee-high grasses and spear them through. Casper looked back at me once, but seeing the grin of avid triumph and confidence on my face, he seemed reassured that I could take care of myself.
He checked his compass again and again, slightly correcting our path. Not that we needed it, not really. I could already smell Minks, a grand city spread out over an old river heavy with ice and majesty. Unlike the crowded filth and tumbling randomness of London, Minks was a Blud city ruled with careful planning, beauty, and thoughtful regard for the needs of Bludmen. I remembered seeing drawings of the broad parks, the statuary gardens, and the grand church of Aztarte, which rose, airy and beautiful, to settle over the city like the wings of a grand black swan. Provided I could successfully sell some of the stones from my necklace, life would get much easier and more comfortable quite soon.
A low grumble drew our attention to a conveyance rumbling down a wide dirt road, a plume of grayish-green smoke in its wake. Casper threw an arm across Keen in an entirely useless gesture of protection, and I pushed past them both, saying only, “Follow my lead. We’re on dangerous ground here.”
I changed our angle and sped up, aiming for just the right place to meet the slowly trundling wagon, its bed piled high with green things from the Pinky farms. When I planted myself in the road, one black-scaled hand held out, talons splayed, I was gratified to see the machine slow and roll to a stop almost close enough for me to touch.
We were in luck. A wary Pinky sat in the contained driver’s cabin, and I grinned wickedly when I saw him check the lock on his door. Bludmen had no need of vegetables and other Pinky foodstuffs, other than to keep our food source as healthy and robust as possible. It was a common practice, using humans to tend our farms according to carefully drawn plans by their superiors. This wagon would be headed straight to Minks.
“Mistress, I am at your service, but please forgive me. I am on a timetable,” the man said through a speaker, his voice tinny and heavily accented with the broad strokes of the country.
Raising my voice and injecting it with the proper amount of authority, I mimicked his accent. “I and my servants will require conveyance to the city proper.”
“The back is filled with cabbages, but you are more than welcome to ride there,” the man said. I could hear the fear in his voice; the country Pinkies never really felt safe around their masters. Even though it was at my command, he was aghast at offering a highly placed Bludwoman a seat among rotting foodstuffs.
“That will suffice,” I said with a firm nod, and the conveyance chugged in place as we walked around back. The smell nearly gagged me, as my sensitive nose could detect the moment a plant stopped living and began dying, and all of his cabbages were dying. Casper helped me up, gave Keen a boost, and leaped up to sit on the edge, his legs dangling over the metal lip. I knocked a fist on the metal, and with a belch of green smoke, the conveyance scraped and scuttled toward the city on treads much like those of the bank we’d taken to Dover. A short ride later, the wagon stopped at the city gates, where we slid from the truck and waited our turn in the road.
“Get behind me, and look properly awed,” I hissed, and Casper and Keen obeyed.
They had probably never seen a Blud city, and it was made to impress. The shining white wall was well maintained, the guards friendly and obsequious when they saw my hands. They bowed me through the gates and kindly gave directions to the train station without asking a single question about my name or plans. A Bludwoman didn’t need papers to enter, and neither did her chosen servants. It was so very unlike the cities of Sangland, and I was glad to have my feet firmly on carefully bricked roads, surrounded by smiling faces and polite nods.
As we moved into the city, Keen sidled close, skittish and wild, saying, “Want me to sell a stone? I know my way around a city’s back streets, no mistake.”
“This isn’t London, darling,” I said, patting her on the head and making her scowl. “I’m the only one with whom anyone here will do business. You they’d probably kill on principle.”
She was right, though—we did have to sell a few stones if we wanted to get on the train. I could see the station a few streets over, the façade shining like sunlight on snow. I pulled the necklace back out of my corset and used my pinkie talon to pry out a smaller stone, a diamond. It hurt my heart to see the setting empty, the prongs clutching for riches lost, but I could always have it fixed if I succeeded. If I didn’t succeed, a faulty necklace would be the least of my problems, as I would most likely be without a neck to hang it on.
I pried out two more stones for good measure, leaving twelve behind. Jiggling them in my hand like the bone dice the Pinkies used for their betting games, I scanned the street for the right sort of place before remembering that I didn’t have to hide anymore.
“Pardon me,” I said, approaching a dapper old Bludman on the street, “but could you be so kind as to point me toward a jewelry shop?” After a polite but curious look askance, he bowed and sent us to a reputable dealer who offered me a fine price with no questions asked.
When I stopped outside a dressmaker’s shop, Casper sighed and Keen snorted. “Stopping to get gussied up, eh? Figures.”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my people would never be caught dead in such a get-up.” I brushed hands down my skirt, ragged now with pine sap and blood droplets. “The object is to blend in, and as it stands, I’m attracting undue attention. Oh, and put up that clockwork before someone sees it and drains you for theft. I’ll just be a moment.”
With that, I slipped into the store and shut the door in Keen’s surprised face. If she thought I was being cruel and haughty now, it was going to get a lot worse. Let her stew on the sidewalk for a while, awaiting her mistress like a dog tied to a post. Casper was silent and stoic, facing some interior struggle that I couldn’t comprehend.
When I walked back outside a half hour later, I handed Keen a paper-wrapped package and couldn’t help curtsying to Casper. Even with my hair still short and mousy, I knew well enough that I was back in my element. The fashionable gown of subdued rose was as splashy as I could risk, not too bright but just bright enough, and had luckily fit with no alterations. I had also purchased a hat with a discreet veil, but even hidden, I felt more like Princess Ahnastasia than I had since that long-ago ill-fated day by the fountain behind the castle.
Casper had rebuckled his top hat and dusted off his coat, and he almost looked genteel for a Pinky. Still, there was something wild about his eyes that made me peer close. He was right on the edge of something, alert and frantic but trying to hide it. I put the back of my hand to his cheek and found it strikingly hot.
“Are you well?” I murmured.
He leaned closer, much closer than a Pinky servant was allowed. “I’ve gone too long without blud.” He licked his lips nervously, his eyes darting about the everyday bustle of the orderly street. “It’s getting to me. I can smell them.”
“Where’s your bottle?”
Something would have to be done, and soon, if blud madness was anything like blood madness. Misbehavior wasn’t tolerated in Blud cities, and he could get us all in trouble if his beast rose to the surface.
“Can you make it to the train?”
“You’ll have to lock me in when we get there, I think. I’m losing it.”
“Welcome to my world,” I whispered.
After placing my train ticket on the bedside table, I held my arms out wide and flopped backward onto the bed. It billowed underneath me like a cloud, and I rolled around and giggled. The most expensive cars had been booked in advance, but I couldn’t summon a single complaint about this room, purchased with the proceeds of one stone with plenty left over. The bed was my own, soft and luxurious. Two vials were soon to be delivered by the carhop, and all was well with the world for the next sixteen hours. Once we arrived in Muscovy, things were bound to get more complicated, but I would relish comfort for as long as I could.
Keen and Casper had to share a tiny servants’ room with two bunks, unfortunately. We had barely made it to the station in time, and it was either that or the common car, which was impossible. Without my presence, they would have been gobbled up by the general populace in mere moments. Keen had been furious, but it wasn’t as if they would have allowed her to enjoy a Bludman’s room, anyway. She had made me well aware that I still owed her from our earlier bargain.
I had been fascinated by trains as a child and had even seen this very one arrive in Muscovy from the other side of the iron gates. I remembered well the strange color of the locomotive’s clouds as they puffed backward in a greenish-gray haze, melding the power of steam with some strange liquid a scientist had dreamed up. I had been told that trains were for the rabble, for simple folk visiting families or seeking a greater fortune elsewhere, perpetually believing that the blood was redder on the other side of the wall. Royals were meant to travel in state in great conveyances or velvet-appointed carriages pulled by the grandest of snow-white bludmares with long plumes bobbing back from high brows. To sleep in a bed where strangers had slept before, in a bed where one’s ancestors hadn’t died or given birth—that was not the way I had been reared.