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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Leashes might be preferable, my lady,” he said politely, eyeing Keen’s scruffy outfit.
“I’ll look into that, thank you.”
I probably enjoyed myself too much, hauling her off by her collar and tsking in her ear.
“Behave, or they’ll impound you,” I said, and the look on her face was priceless. It was a very real threat, but only for free Pinkies, of course, and only on the more elegant streets.
I moved faster after that, urging them to hurry as well. It had been too long since I had looked at a Freesian calendar, and I didn’t know how close we might be to the Sugar Snow Ball. We hadn’t missed it yet, as the air didn’t smell properly of snow and the streets were dry and still warm under my boots. But it was close, and one never knew how the weather would go. The sooner I found my old nursemaid, the better. Verusha saw and heard more than anyone alive.
It was difficult following the grand avenues without indulging in the many beauties of the White City. We had spent the summers there most years, and I knew well which shops kept the prettiest hats in stock and the softest dancing shoes and the finest feathered hair combs. Outside one of my favorite boutiques, we passed a grand lady with a precious little Pinky girl on a jeweled leash, pretty as could be, and I took in a deep and appreciative breath. Cleanliness, good breeding, and an understanding of one’s place were hallmarks of a royal servant.
But when I looked closer, I saw the leash’s collar digging into the child’s tender white neck, leaving a red mark behind. It should have inspired hunger, but now I just felt pity. I could see in the child a reflection of Keen, but broken and tamed. The child’s smile faded when her mistress turned her away from the sparkling window of a toy store, where she’d been gazing as if in a dream. Scurrying behind the grand dame’s skirt, I saw the child for what she was: a slave and a prisoner, held against her will.
“Faster,” I muttered, turning down the staircase to the underground trains that connected all of Muscovy with minimal grit and ugliness. I would have once considered the walk to Verusha’s flat a pleasure, but I was too concerned about encountering something that would cause Keen to say the wrong thing to the wrong Bludman or Casper to release his beast in a suicidal fashion. Time was of the essence.
Once we were down the marble staircase and in the station, I turned into a corner to fetch the coins and necklace from my corset. The coins were there. The necklace was gone.
“Looking for this?” Keen held out the glistening trinket with a smug smirk, and I snatched it from her before anyone in the crowd noticed a Pinky carrying something so valuable.
“You could be staked for touching that, little fool.”
As I smoothed out the chain to tuck it back into hiding, I noticed that there were five gems missing instead of the three I’d removed myself.
“You vile little thief!” I hissed.
“I figure you owe me,” she said, putting her gloved hands in her pockets and rocking back on her heels. I began to see why she caused Casper such problems—just when I thought I was getting anywhere with her, she went and did something so ridiculous that I wanted her head right back on that platter. One step forward, two steps back, and now she was in deeper water than she knew.
“Give them back now, and I’ll try not to drain you.” I fought for composure, and Casper’s hand subtly brushed my waist, a reminder of the slender wire I walked.
“Only got one left, but I’ll make it up to you by paying for the tube.” She held out a hand brimming with coins, and I cursed myself for leaving her alone outside the dress shop. She was lucky she hadn’t been arrested. But we’d already attracted enough attention, so I just said, “Fine,” and picked three coins out of her glove, careful not to touch the stained leather.
We were silent through the turnstiles and onto the car, aside from Keen’s whispered “Holy crow!” as we sat on the tufted velvet bench seat. I’d been impressed the first time I’d seen it, too. The tunnels looked like catacombs, old brick and stone with skulls and bones mortared into complex patterns. But the train itself was as elegant as the one that had brought us from Minks, with beautiful details and glittering glass edged in gilt. A violinist in the corner took up her bow, swaying with the music, and Casper went still all over as plaintive music filled the air.
“That’s brilliant,” he said under his breath.
“Welcome to Muscovy,” I murmured back.
We sped through several stops, changed trains at a grand station with soaring skylights, enormous chandeliers, and glittering mosaics, and disembarked at the stop where Verusha had lived ever since retiring as my maid.
“I will die here, darlink,” she had told me once, settling back into her favorite chaise, surrounded by rich silks and soft furs, “but I think there will be many years before that happens.”
She had been well over two hundred then. And yet something told me that she still reclined in the same divan, doing the needlepoint for which she was so famous, ordering around a fleet of daughters-in-law and grandchildren. If not—well, I would cross that bridge when I came to it.
I was blinded for a moment by the noon sun reflected on the marble outside the station. Shielding my eyes with a hand, I soon understood why so few people had gotten off the train with us. The once-grand block of retirement flats had become something I had been taught to dread: a tenement. Lines strung between the buildings carried all manner of unmentionable laundry, and small children and dogs ran about uncontained. Trash blew along the avenues, something I’d never seen before, mainly because my people ate nothing that required wrapping. The graffiti on the grimy walls was the nail in the coffin of my dreams of finding Verusha easily and swiftly.
Get your blud off our streets!
The people will rise!
And so I wasn’t surprised when the first stone stung against my back. I spun, but there was no way to know where it had come from. The children had disappeared, and the dogs were on alert, hackles up and tails stiff. How had my city fallen so far in just four years? And why had Ravenna allowed it?
“Come.” I walked back toward the station as quickly as I could without showing fear. “She’s not here.”
“Hey, friend! You don’t have to bow to her no more!” someone called from behind closed shutters, and Casper subtly moved to cover my retreat.
“Sounds like they got the right idea around here,” Keen muttered.
“If you like them, you’re welcome to stay.” I didn’t look back, but I could hear her boots scraping along the stones behind me. The girl had a fantastic survival instinct, if nothing else. She slipped three more coins into my hand at the train-station gates.
Back on the train, Casper said, “I hate to say it, but humans can ruin anything.”
“I must agree. It used to be so beautiful.”
“Freedom’s prettier than fancy marble,” Keen said.
“Not if you’re starving to death.”
She just shrugged, and I let it go. As we moved away from the newly claimed Pinky district and back into the familiar areas of parks and walks near the central Basilica of Aztarte, the train car began to fill, and my nerves calmed. I understood how my people functioned, according to thoughtful rules, years of superiority, and wealth. I knew what to expect among Bludmen. But humans—they were unpredictable, wild, dangerous. I found myself taking an interest in them for the first time in my life. Perhaps the people throwing garbage at me had once been that little girl in the collar. Perhaps they were her parents.
At the correct station, I watched carefully to be sure that many well-dressed passengers also disembarked. Surely this part of the city still belonged to the upper crust.
“Stay close,” I whispered to Casper and Keen, and we plunged into the colorful and cheerful crowd.
The stop had always been a popular one, as the area around the Tsarina’s Park included public gardens, statuary, fountains, the ballet, and several prominent museums. There was also a fantastic clockwork carousel that I’d loved since I was a child. I had heard that the Magistrate of Sangland had commissioned a similar one in London, but it had malfunctioned on opening day and nearly killed people. I turned to ask Casper about it before remembering that women of my status wouldn’t be seen arm in arm with their servants, discussing carousels.
Much to my satisfaction, the park was just as beautiful as ever, clean and bright and glowing in the sun. A large crowd had collected around a gazebo, and I could see flashes of the famous Bolshoi ballerinas practicing in feathery white swan costumes. I scurried around the edges of the crowd, keeping my face down and hoping no one would recognize me through my new hat’s veil. We skirted the shadows around to the servants’ entrance of the Tsarina’s Palace, where my family stayed during the uncomfortable warmth of summer. A fleet of Pinkies worked outside, trimming bushes into careful spirals and washing already-sparkling windows, and royal peacocks danced on the brick wall and called from the trees. Keen shuddered, but I felt a glad rush of pride and familiarity.
Instead of going through the front door, as would have been my right, I sneaked around the corner and hid behind a topiary in the shape of a bludmare.
“Casper, go knock on that door. Tell them you need to find Lady Verusha. Tell them nothing else, even if they pry. Keep a straight face, and do not back down, but above all, be polite.”
I stood on tiptoe to dust off his shoulders and straighten his hat. He grinned at me, all dimples and dancing eyes, and I tightened the laces that connected his hat to his collar. It was a gamble, sending a halfblud to the door of the royal family, but I trusted him more than I trusted Keen. When I nodded my approval, he walked briskly to the door and knocked.
After a few moments, the door opened just a crack, and I had never been happier to be in hiding. The housekeeper had never liked me to begin with and had probably danced when she heard of my disappearance and supposed demise. Her eyes narrowed at Casper, and she looked him up and down with an air of superiority that had been cultivated at my mother’s right hand. I couldn’t hear what was said between them, and I held my breath. It was the royal housekeeper’s right to absorb local servants at her request, and I could only hope she found him good enough to dispense information to and shabby enough to send away.
He finally bowed, the door slamming inches from the top of his hat.
“Well?” I said, and he grinned.
“She’s living with a daughter-in-law on Belila Avenue, running a groomery. Do I even want to know what that is?”
“You’ll see soon enough. Come along.”
Moments later, we stood before a grand storefront filled with ribbons and giant wheels of soap. I could smell the lavender and clementines and cloves even from the street, the familiar work of the Tsarina’s former maid. A bell tinkled over the door as we entered, and a young girl in a fancy dress minced forward to meet me.
“My lady, welcome. Have you an appointment?” She looked Keen over with professional disdain, probably calculating what it would take to make the child presentable.
“I have a standing appointment with Verusha. Please tell her the pup has returned.”
Her nose wrinkled up in confusion, but she knew better than to contradict a customer, which was a wise practice in a city as big and small as Muscovy. She curtsied and scurried through a filmy curtain and into the back room, and I smiled to see her hair done in the fancy braids that I remembered from my own childhood at Verusha’s patient but implacable claws.
“What is this? Who dares to come into my groomery and claim—!”
She pushed the curtain aside and stopped mid-rant. I put back my veil. She looked me up and down before holding out her arms, dripping with suds, her eyes rimmed with blud tears.
“My little ermine pup, you are returned?”
I threw myself into her embrace. She had always been shorter than me and twice as wide, and it was like hugging a boulder.
She pulled away and caught a twisted claw in my curls. “Oh, tut, darleenk! Your hair. What have you done?”
“I think you know a disguise when you see it. I need your help.”
She drew back to inspect me and murmured, “Oh, I see that you do. Much help. But come back into the parlor for a dram, and we will discuss. Do they need grooming, those two?” She stared skeptically at Casper and Keen and clicked her tongue. Keen put a hand on her hip as if daring the old Bludwoman to say anything else, and Verusha barked out a laugh. “That one needs to be dipped for fleas, I think, maybe left under a bit too long, eh?”
We laughed together, the wild laugh of Bludmen, and the world began to turn as it should. I was home, I was understood, and now I had a friend.
We didn’t talk of important things at first, of course. That would have been terribly impolite. Against her protests, I handed Keen off to Verusha’s daughter-in-law for a good grooming, but Casper I kept with me. My excuse was that he was actually capable of keeping himself clean and relatively dapper, but in reality, I wanted him close. And I hoped Verusha would break the news to him that I myself had been dreading.
Verusha put a chunk of bread in Casper’s hands and patted him on top of his hat. He couldn’t eat it, of course, but he thanked her with tolerant bemusement. I could only imagine how Keen would react to the treatment of Freesia’s Bludmen toward a messy and rebellious servant. If she wasn’t careful, she would find herself trussed up and dangling upside down while they shaved her head for nits.
I sat in one of the indulgently cushioned chairs that Verusha had always favored, glad to sink back into the embroidered pillows. She put a dainty teacup in my hands, the porcelain so thin that it glowed pink with the blood within.