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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
Sitting across from me and settled likewise with her matching cup, she took a sip and said, “Now, darleenk, my pup, tell old Verusha what you have done.”
“What I’ve done?” I resisted the urge to throw the cup at her head like the spoiled child I’d been when last under her care. “I’m the victim here, old woman! I was kidnapped, nearly drained, and shipped all over Sang in a used valise.”
She nodded slowly and said, “There were suspicions, of course. Your sister, too?”
My head dropped. “I found her in London. Her head, at least. We were both shipped to the same destination, but she actually arrived there.”
“And you?” She sipped her tea as if I hadn’t just announced Olgha’s murder.
“I woke up in a blud bar because of him.” I nodded at Casper.
Verusha’s sharp eyes narrowed at Casper, who was busily turning the bread over and over in his hands as if trying to remember its purpose.
“You were the one who found the lost . . .” She cleared her throat. “Young lady?”
“He knows who I am, Verusha.”
“Tut, darleenk! Will you tell all the world your secrets?”
“Not all the world. Just him. And the other one, the girl. They brought me here, all the way from London.”
Her eyes narrowed to slits. “And what are they wanting as a reward, eh?”
“When I am queen, Casper will be court composer.” I took a slow sip, feeling the strength of the blood seep in, daring Verusha to contradict me.
She cackled, just as she had when I had been small and made wild assertions about riding a bludbear or running away to join the caravan.
“And what a miracle that will take, my pup! That Ravenna, she is a demon.” She turned her head, gathering her cheeks to spit blood. When she couldn’t find a square inch of her own floor not dominated by expensive carpets, she cleared her throat and swallowed it back down. “Your poor mother and father, executed. My little Alex, ensorcelled. The barons thrown out and hungry as the humans riot in my old home.” She rose and came to me, taking my empty cup and setting it on a table. Holding both of my hands in her twisted talons, she looked square into my eyes and said, “Darleenk, you are our only hope.”
“I was hoping you would say that. But I need your help.”
She smiled, showing sharp teeth. “I was hoping you would say that. What can Verusha do for you, princess?”
“I must kill Ravenna. At the Sugar Snow Ball. It’s our only chance. Casper will go with me. We must blend in completely with the nobles. And when she begins the dance, I’ll take her.”
“A bold plan, my pup, a bold plan.” She sat back down, leaning deep into the pillows, with a crafty look on her face. “My invitation to the ball is yours, of course. But there is one other problem, and well you know it.” She pointed one claw at Casper.
“I’m the problem?” Casper asked, setting the bread down to lean forward in warning.
“In many ways, I think.” She jabbed a claw at him knowingly. “Pinkies are not allowed at the Sugar Snow Ball, not unless they are on the table. And I suspect that she is not so ready to give you up.”
I swallowed and took back my cup, gazing into the streaks of blood swirling around the porcelain. She was all too sharp, my old nursemaid.
Verusha stood, not that she was much taller standing. Walking close to Casper, she put her cheek almost against his forehead and inhaled deeply. When she exhaled again, it came out as a growl.
“You would take an abomination to the most holy and secret rite of your people? I raised you better than that, Ahnastasia!” She sat, trembling with fury. “How dare you put royal blud in the veins of a . . . a . . . whatever he is!” This time, she did spit, and it left a splatter of red on the cream-colored carpet, almost blending in with the woven roses.
“Don’t blame her. She didn’t do this. I did this to myself in ignorance, and believe me when I say I regret it more every day,” he said quietly.
“At least you have the good sense to be ashamed,” she snapped. “But do not lie to me. I know the smell of her lineage, and it sings to me from your skin.”
“What would happen if I went to the ball?” he asked. “Would they notice?”
“Without the fetters of Pinky clothes, younger noses and sharper teeth would notice, my boy, and you would quickly become the scapegrace for everyone’s fury. Staked out at four points and eaten whole by the company of dancers. It would be a long, slow death and not one that would help my poor pup regain her throne.”
The silence was ungainly, and they both looked to me. For once, I didn’t feel bold. I sipped at the distasteful dregs of my cup, keeping my face carefully blank.
“Then what do we do?” Casper finally asked.
“She can’t go alone. We must find another patriot to accompany her. One of my sons might have a friend who can be trusted.” Casper bristled, his posture changing subtly to indicate a threat.
“Or?” he asked.
“Or you ascend to a grander life, my boy. You’re halfway there already. One might think it would be a relief, after the blud madness.”
Casper went still with rage. “So I either send her into danger with another man, or I give up my humanity completely?”
“Exactly that, yes,” Verusha said, settling back into the cushions to sip her blood thoughtfully. “Is not so bad, eh?”
“I can’t imagine how it could be worse,” he growled.
“Easy, little snack. The Sugar Snow Ball is in two days. So there is enough time to decide.”
“Two days,” he said to himself.
I shifted against the cushion, dress suddenly feeling too tight, and his head snapped to me.
“Did you know?” he asked simply. “Ahna, did you know all along?”
“I . . .”
“I had suspicions.”
“And yet you never mentioned it?”
“I didn’t see the point in worrying you unduly. It would end the same either way. The future is no more uncertain than the present.”
Head in his hands, he chuckled, on the verge of tears. “My God, woman. How do you keep doing that?”
“Taking everything from me and giving it back in one breath?”
“I don’t know how to be sorry, Casper. For a princess, I’m not a bit tamed.” Nothing I said or did could change that.
He was on the verge of laughing, on the verge of crying, as if he were standing at the edge of a great precipice and deciding whether to jump or not. Which, I had to suppose, was exactly what was happening in his heart.
“You’re untranslatable, you mean.”
“That she is, lad, that she is,” Verusha said, pulling out the little Turkish cigarettes she favored and lighting one with a clockwork lighter. The silence spread out, broken only by Casper’s mad giggles and the puffing of Verusha’s smoke rings.
“What will you do, then?” I asked.
“Sound my barbaric yawp, I suppose,” he answered. With sudden violence, he stood and yelled, “Goddammit!” before lunging out the door and slamming it in his wake.
“Is he always this mad?” Verusha asked.
I shrugged. “Aren’t we all?”
When I couldn’t hide among the cushions anymore, I followed Casper’s scent into the alley outside. Verusha didn’t have to say a word. Her heavy silence, her disappointed glare, was sufficient. She hadn’t raised me to cower from anyone, especially not halfblud abominations. I thought I heard her chuckle behind the closed door, but I was too embarrassed to check.
I was half terrified that Casper had run out into the streets alone, where he would surely have caused trouble of one kind or another. According to the laws of Muscovy, a lone servant could suffer anything from the merciless teasing of children to impounding or corporal punishment. Fortunately, he was simply sitting against the brick wall of the lane behind the shop, his hat still firmly laced under his chin.
“Do you hate me?” I asked. If the words were to be said, I wanted them to be mine and not his.
He snorted. “I want to. But I can’t. I did this to myself. The universe is pointing me to the answer, and I don’t like it. I can’t blame you for that. It’s a journey, I suppose. I can’t stay in the same place forever.”
I couldn’t sit beside him on the ground, where someone might see. So I slumped against the wall, my gown’s shoulder catching on the bricks.
“What’s so bad about this life?” I gestured to the grand city around us and, more subtly, to myself.
“Would you want to become a Pinky, Ahna?”
I couldn’t help but shudder. “Ugh. No.”
“Okay, so that’s how I feel about becoming a Bludman.”
“But don’t you see? Your position is untenable. You can’t be human anymore. You can’t be a halfblud for much longer. Why not accept what’s inevitable? Why not choose it before something else chooses for you? It’s better to be curious than judgmental. Compare this place with London. The dark streets, the fear riding the wind, the bludrats and Coppers. There’s an elegance, a simplicity, to life as a predator. It’s well ordered, calm. We celebrate the arts as the humans cannot and care for the individual as they won’t. The only strife you’ve seen in this city was caused by the Pinkies.”
“It’s not a case of who is better or who is right. It’s a case of giving up who I am, what I am. I exist as I am; that is enough.”
“It very well is not. You’re in the midst of a metamorphosis, and hiding from it is flat-out cowardly. Butterflies don’t hide in cocoons; they bite their way out.”
“Butterflies are extinct.”
He stood in one fluid motion that was more predatorial than he would have cared to know. Towering a foot over me, he forced me to look up at him, and warmth rushed over my cheeks as I realized how very close we were standing and how very incorrect it was for us to be looking at each other that way in the alley behind a prominent groomery.
“You think I’m a coward, Ahna?”
I poked him in the chest with a talon. “Only on this topic. The one that matters most.”
“Say I went through with it, then. How would it work?”
“I have no idea. But I’ll find out. And I’ll do it myself.” I didn’t realize the truth of it until I said it, but I couldn’t imagine allowing anyone else to share so intimate an experience with him.
“You know it’s painful. I don’t want to cause you pain.”
I shook my head at him. “Silly boy. It doesn’t matter if it hurts. Agonies are one of my changes of garment.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Do you believe in destiny and reincarnation and . . . No, don’t answer. It doesn’t matter.” His smile was gentle, tentative. He traced a line along my jaw with one finger and murmured, “You’re a mystic, baffling wonder, woman.”
I beamed. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
He kissed me, gentle and swift.
“If I’m going to be a great poet, at least I have a great audience.”
Back inside, Verusha shooed him into the groomery proper to wash off the grime of our long journey. I bristled momentarily, watching two pretty girls lead him off, petting him and offering him cookies, but I quickly remember that to them, he wasn’t a man, much less an equal. He was a lapdog, a mindless creature to be cosseted and primped and displayed. After the bludding, I suspected I would be much more possessive of him.
“Show me what you have, darleenk,” Verusha said, motioning me over to an open window where the sun puddled through filmy curtains.
I had already plucked out a stone, the tear-shaped aquamarine heavy in my hand and as warm as a beating heart. When I held it in the sunlight, it winked as if snowflakes danced within. I tipped it into Verusha’s claws, and it rattled around as she inspected it.
“Will it buy everything we need?” I asked.
“Maybe yes. Maybe no.” She prodded it with a clipped white talon. “Hard to say, these days.”
“I want the best. I want to be beautiful when I kill Ravenna. And he needs to match.”
“I know these things.” She raised one eyebrow at me, but I didn’t blink or apologize. The trick with Verusha was showing respect but not obedience or doubt. “There is also a charm you might want. It makes the bludding easier. For you both. But very, very expensive and hard to find.”
Without a second thought, I pried another stone from the necklace, a diamond. It was cold in my hand, as sharp and hard as the ice it resembled.
“That, too, then.”
She curled her hand around the stones, and they disappeared. The old woman nodded once, sharply, and withdrew a folded note from her shawl. The paper was thick and creamy, sealed with Verusha’s crest, the bastard signet of the House of Muscovy.
“Go read it. Prepare yourself as much as you can. It’s an ugly business, to be sure, but he’s worth more bludded than dead or mad, yes?”
My face carefully blank, I said, “Yes. But where should it happen?”
Her lips pursed, wrinkling under the bright red paint. “Somewhere noisy,” she finally said. “Not here.”
After a pointed look at the ravaged necklace in my hand, she turned and hobbled back toward the parlor and the sunny prospect of business as usual. For just a moment, I thought about Keen, wondering if she had survived her grooming without embarrassing restraints and, if so, how she was enjoying the waiting room, where the polite servants of local Blud families would spend their afternoons sitting contentedly on benches, eating sweets and waiting to be retrieved. The little creature was probably inciting a rebellion.