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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
I could tell he didn’t want to leave me, but I understood now that Keen was his family, his tie to the part of himself that was slipping away. If I wanted him, I would have to share him with her. And so I would let him go. For now.
“It’s safe. If there were two assassins on this train, we would probably be dead.”
“That’s . . . not very comforting.”
I gave him a gentle smile. “Sleep well, Casper.”
“You, too, darlin’.”
I was more than sorry to see him go. Not only because I had grown used to his company but also because I wanted to see what would happen if we continued our little game. Truth or Dare. What charming inventions they had in his world! The things that could be accomplished with such a game were limitless.
I leaned against the shut door, imagining the way he had kissed me, the touch of his hands. They were just as clever as I’d imagined but warmer. What a vast difference between the boy on the bank, the pirate, and the Maestro, yet they’d all approached me with the same goal in mind. If only the assassin hadn’t intervened. I stepped in the puddle of seawater as I crossed to the bed and pinched my nose at the smell. I would have killed anyone who had interrupted us just then. Finally, a head that deserved a platter, and I’d just tossed him off the train.
I unlaced my boots and curled up in bed. What had happened with Casper had left me cross and anxious. Unfinished. But I was too proud to call him back, and I didn’t have the words to say what I wanted anyway.
I thought of the dozens of knives that had fallen into the darkness with the assassin, wishing I had thought to keep at least one. After his intrusion, I didn’t feel safe anymore. With a huff of annoyance, I rolled out of bed and went to the bathroom to see if I’d missed anything, but the only thing left was his goggles, which made everything glow a spooky green. Between this “night vision,” as Casper had called it, and the goggles that Van Helsing said revealed Bludmen, I would never trust eyewear again. The artificers were getting too good. And I needed one in the palace, on my side and working for the Bludmen.
I tossed and turned, growling at the uncomfortable buttons up the back of my dress and wishing for something, anything, to soothe me. Not until I smelled Casper on the other side of my door and heard him singing that song about Jude did I relax enough to let sleep finally take me, knowing that he would keep me safe.
If only I had been brave enough to invite him back in.
The train’s brakes squealed, and I jerked awake. We were slowing down. That meant we were finally back in my homeland. I was at the window in seconds, gazing out at the ice-glazed city of Muscovy, the gem-shaped turrets rising into the deep blue sky to pierce the clouds. A rush of joy washed over me, little ripples swirling over my skin and making the tiny hairs rise on my arms. I was home. I was still far from the Ice Palace, but I was at least in a city that I knew and loved. One step closer to my goal.
I went into the water closet to freshen up and couldn’t help noticing a few drops of blud on the tub. I washed them away with the strangest feeling, the copper cold under my fingers. So Charles of Sveden was my father, and I was worth more to him dead. The man who had raised me was gone, killed at my mother’s side by Ravenna herself. He had loved me as much as a king was allowed, although he had probably known the truth. Palace politics were strange, and I would be sure to bear no bastards when I was queen. Of course, that meant I would need to distance myself from Casper, even if it pained me. Duty to country came first, and dealing with Ravenna came before that. No matter how I longed for him in the night, no matter how I loved the heat of his lips, my feet would soon be in Muscovy, and playtime would be over.
But not quite yet.
I fluffed my hair and smoothed down my dress before slipping outside and counting the cars and doors to the one I’d reserved for Casper and Keen. Before I could talk myself out of it, I knocked. The door opened just wide enough to show me Casper’s bare chest.
“Just a minute,” he said, slamming the door in my face.
He was back shortly in proper attire, with a blush riding his cheeks. I smiled at the warm, lazy hunger I felt, which I blamed on his embarrassment.
“Did you need something?”
“I . . . need to talk to someone. About something.”
“Is that someone me, by any chance?” His teasing smile made me blush in return.
He held the door open for me, and I slipped in with a frisson of mischief. Whatever noble Bludwomen did on trains, entering the quarters of their Pinky servants probably wasn’t considered conventional.
Their room was a little shabby, compared with mine, but not shameful. Two bunks nestled one over the other by a low table and a lamp. Casper’s wine bottle sat on the table, and the journal I’d seen in his room at the Seven Scars lay open on the lower bed beside a pencil. The pages were covered in feverish scrawling, much as I remembered seeing before, but fewer lines were angrily crossed out.
“What are you working on?” I asked, realizing as I said it how very rude it was.
And yet a grin lit up his face, and he flopped onto the bed and started reading. “What is it that you express in your eyes? It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.”
Something fluttered in my stomach. “Oh. That’s . . . quite pretty.”
“I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake.”
“That’s . . . insulting?”
“I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
“That’s flat-out bizarre. Is it supposed to be poetry?”
“I had a favorite book in my old world. I was obsessed with it, really. Owned several copies of it, one of them very special and expensive, a gift to myself. It was called Leaves of Grass, and it was written by a man named Walt Whitman. It didn’t always make sense, but most of the time it did, especially one poem called Song of Myself. And while lots of books from my old world are in your world, if slightly different, I’ve never found evidence that there’s anything like Leaves of Grass or Song of Myself.”
“So you have Bolstoy, and Dostoevskin and the other major writers?”
“Close enough. But it doesn’t appear that there was ever a version of Walt Whitman writing in Sang.”
“And so you’re . . . trying to write the book yourself?”
He rolled over onto his back and laughed, a wild sound that marked how close he was to my world. “Exactly that. Something about you helps me remember. It’s all coming back to me. I’ll never have all of it, but I’m starting to think I might have enough.” His smile was warm and dimpled. “You’re becoming my muse. Or Walt’s.”
“Oh.” I feigned interest in a painting on the wall to cover how very much it sounded as if we were flirting, despite the fact that I knew I needed to distance myself from him. It was odd that the dance of bodies should feel primal and natural but compliments from him were hard for me to swallow. And yet I liked all the things his mouth did, and so I had to learn this dance, too. “I’m glad that you’re . . .”
“Finding the unfound?”
He scribbled something in his book, his face alight. I looked more closely at his wine bottle and found that its level was lower than I would have expected. He must have been busy last night.
“So was there something you wanted to talk about?” he asked.
“Maybe. Where’s Keen?” I leaned against the wall, opposite him but close enough to touch, for it was a very narrow room.
“She’s annoyed with me. Well, she’s always annoyed with me. But more than usual just now. Said she would hang about the dining car and see if she could pick up any gossip from the local Pinkies. What did you need?”
My mouth fell open as I searched for an answer. “I . . .”
I had never felt so helpless and caught out. Why had I come to him? It was an impulse, one that I hadn’t given much consideration. All my thoughts on assassins, Muscovy, Sveden, and Ravenna, all my determination to distance myself—and yet here I was. He stood and took a single step to my side. His arm went around me, and I was helpless to keep myself from leaning into him, savoring the warm bulk of his body.
“How can I help?”
I fidgeted with the laces on my dress. “It’s just that . . . once my feet touch down in Muscovy, everything changes. I must be hard and cruel and merciless. I must focus on my goal.”
“I know. And I want to help you.”
“But how . . .”
“Ahna, honey, are you scared?” he asked softly.
“I just wish I was stronger.”
He squeezed my hand. “You’re strong enough,” he said. “You got us this far.”
“I had a lot of help.”
His dimples came out in full force, and he brushed my hair back behind my ears, sending shivers all over me. “I thought you wanted my head on a platter?”
“I think it’s more useful to me where it is.”
“Do you, now?”
It was a short distance from his lips to mine, and I relished the soft tug of his hand behind my neck as he pulled me close. This time, I met him with open lips and a feverish wanting. He fell back onto the bed, taking me with him and holding me tighter as I squirmed sinuously against him. I couldn’t tell him how I felt, that I was scared for me, for him and Keen. That I felt guilty for putting them in danger and even guiltier for knowing that I would have to put him aside later. That I was selfish and had wanted, all along, for him to touch me again like this and make me forget everything else.
One of his hands went back to my buttons as if it had never left, and I pulled away just far enough to murmur into his mouth, “You can’t undress me now. The train is stopped. We must go.”
“This is nowhere close to finished,” he murmured back into my mouth.
“I hope not,” I whispered. “Although I can be hard to catch. Keep trying.”
He pulled back with a grin. “Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged. Missing me one place, search another. I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
With a wild laugh, he tumbled me onto my back, kissed my nose, and leaped up to scribble in his book. I sighed and hitched myself up on an elbow.
“Your priorities,” I said slowly, “could use some work.”
“I’m an artist, darlin’, and the muse is a fickle bitch. I’ll make it up to you later.”
“I’ll consider that a promise,” I whispered in his ear as he scribbled.
I could hear the crowd outside, the doors opening and closing, and voices raised in laughter, annoyance, and greeting. As I stood to smooth my dress again, Keen burst in through the door and gave me a dirty look that I more or less deserved.
“I stopped by your room, but you were gone,” she said. “Been busy again?”
“I’ve had enough,” Casper started, standing to glower at her. “Keen, you need to remember that we’re consenting adults, and what we do is our own business. I’m not your dad, as you keep reminding me. But I’m your friend, and any feelings I might have for Ahna don’t change that.” He looked from her to me, his eyes pleading.
Deadly assassins I could handle with aplomb, but the drama of teenage girls was beyond me. And Casper had just admitted to having feelings for me. I was a mess of emotions, all of them distracting me from our goal.
“I want us to be friends, Keen,” I finally said, realizing that, oddly enough, I meant it.
“Well, friend, would you like to explain why I found night-vision goggles on your bed?”
Casper rubbed his eyes, smearing ink across his forehead. “We were attacked by an assassin last night. We took care of it.”
“I bet you took care of it,” Keen said, and it was easy to see that the “it” in question wasn’t the assassin.
I held up a hand, done with her games. “I extend my friendship to you, but I also give a warning. We’re in Muscovy now. Do you know what they say in my country about nosy bludlemmings?”
“Do I care?”
“They lose their noses. Followed by their lives. Be careful in Freesia, little lemming, or you’ll never get that pony.”
She actually had the gall to stick her tongue out at me, and I nearly smiled. She had heart and guts, as my father would say of his best hounds. I was actually starting to admire the creature. To imagine a child waking up naked and alone in Sang and managing to live long enough to find food and clothes—it was impressive. And I suspected she would soon have much more vitriol to lay at my feet, and for genuine reasons.
Over her head, Casper mouthed the words Thank you, and I smiled and nodded.
He would have little reason to thank me once we were in the city.
As soon as my feet hit the streets, I was filled with purpose. Finally, things were familiar. The grand façade of the train station sparkled in a thousand shades of white and blue, the edges of every window picked out in solid gold. The city of Muscovy was the jewel of the Freesian empire, a hub of history and energy and art. From the beautifully laid-out parks with their ice sculptures and topiaries to the grand library to the museums and theaters, everything had been planned to impress and delight. I still remembered my first trip there as a child, how I had kept my hands hidden in a white fur muff for fear that I would get in trouble for touching something and smudging its magnificence.
I had to stop and wait for Keen and Casper. They were so fascinated by their surroundings that they were acting more like country-bred food slaves and less like respectable servants.
“My little snacks, do keep up,” I said in my most cultured voice. One of the militsiya was approaching, tapping his billy club against the many medals on his elegant uniform jacket. “It’s their first time in our grand city,” I said to him coquettishly, as if we shared a great joke. “Can you imagine?”