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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
That made me think of Keen, and I almost asked about her. I hadn’t seen her since handing her over to the groomers. Had they discussed his transition, or would he ask her forgiveness later? She was sure to hate me either way, but I hoped there would be some way to find resolution. Even if I didn’t want to talk about her just then, I was forced to admit that I cared for the little urchin. She would have a place in the palace no matter what—that much I promised myself.
He placed his empty cup back on the enameled tray carefully, as if worried that he might smash it. I set mine down, too, unwrapping one of the swan-folded napkins to dab daintily at my lips, even though I knew very well that I hadn’t spilled a drop. The mess from the bludding was still sticky in my hair, but my mouth was spotless.
“I feel so strange,” Casper said, holding out his hands and flexing the long fingers. “Like I’m tight all over, like I’m ready to run.”
“You’re a predator now. You are ready to run. Did you feel how the beast carried you to the door when you sensed a threat? Your entire body is constantly waiting for exactly that. It’s important that you drink two vials of blood a day, or that’ll happen more and more easily. Your body wants to feed, and control takes time to develop.”
He pulled on his breeches and walked over to an ornate mirror that hung on the plaster wall.
“Do I look different? Am I . . . I don’t know. Prettier? Paler?”
I considered him. “Your eyes are different. Your smell is different. You move differently. But it isn’t like going to the groomery a complete mess and coming out fixed up with a new hairstyle.” Watching him stare at his hands by lantern light, I added, “And your hands, I think, will take some time to darken fully. We’ll have to think of a way to hide them at the ball.”
“The ball.” He sighed, staring intently into his own eyes as if looking for something that had fled. “That gives me a day to learn everything I need to know.”
“About being a Bludman?” I snorted. “You already know everything. Drink blood, be proud, fight to the death, and laugh loudly.”
“About Freesia. About your people and family and customs. About why this Sugar Snow Ball is so damned important. About how to speak to people, how to bow. How to fake an accent. How to kill Ravenna if she murders you in front of everyone.”
I stretched luxuriously and flicked my fingers at his reflection.
“Psh. You can learn all that in the carriage. So long as you know how to dance and be quiet, you’ll do fine.”
His posture changed, and in an instant, he was elegantly waltzing around the room with his shadow, shoulders back and feet nimble, elegantly muscled arms locked in a cage that held nothing. “I think you’ll find me a more than adequate dance partner. Being quiet, though—I find myself more outspoken than ever. I don’t know if silence is an option anymore. I feel like nothing and no one can hold me back. It’s freeing, really.” With a final spin, he dipped his invisible partner. His hair fell forward, glimmering in the rainbow light from the stained-glass window, and I couldn’t stop staring. He was the most attractive creature I’d ever encountered, and it was somewhat unsettling to see him so different and yet unchanged.
When he stood up, laughing and pushing his hair back, I realized how very well his dimples went with his pointier smile. I looked down when I felt myself blushing.
“So what do we do now?” he asked.
I shifted uncomfortably, finding that the aftereffects of our lovemaking were a bit disconcerting and messy. “It’s an inn. We’ve paid through the night. So we’ll stay the night, have a vial in the morning, and return to Verusha’s to prepare.”
“A pleasant night of sleep and a makeover,” he said with another chuckle. “Fair enough. I guess that somewhere under the power and hunger and elation, I’m dog-tired.”
“The process is supposed to be very taxing. I think sleep will be good for us both.”
I stood, my feet a little wobbly, keeping the sheet wrapped around my body. In the heat of the moment, clothes had seemed very inconvenient indeed, and I had come close to ripping them off myself at a few points. But now, with him staring at me with a mixture of curiosity, tenderness, and, somehow, still more hunger, the sheet was a blessing. It trailed behind me to the narrow door in the far wall.
“So we still have to . . . use the . . . um . . .”
I burst out laughing. “We’re predators, you fool. Not statues.”
The look on his face as I dropped the sheet and slammed the door was utterly priceless.
When I was done in the bathroom, I found him relaxing in the bed, which had been tidied up, the covers straightened and pillows added to make a cozy nest. He’d pulled the curtain across the stained glass, and the room was mostly shadows. The darkness was warm and velvety, with Casper at its heart. Forgetting my sheet, I padded across the room and climbed onto the bed.
“The swaying reminds me of the Maybuck a little,” Casper said, stretching one arm out invitingly. I slid in beside him, turning to face him. His arm curled around me, his hair brushing my collarbone. I nestled against him, breathing in his scent, which no longer sang to me of food. He reminded me of a summer day in the fields, of golden grass and heavy trees swaying in the breeze and sweet flowers and the manly odor of sweat and strength. Like sleeping in the sunshine, a brief respite.
“What do I smell like to you?” I asked suddenly.
He buried his cheek in my hair. I felt his chest expand beneath me, his breath warm against my ear. “Frozen flowers. Wind and ice. Something purple and beautiful, a bloom unfurling under the moon, in the snow.”
I shivered and sighed and settled myself more firmly against him. It felt . . . right. As if I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I had no map for where I was going with him, no history for understanding how a man and a woman shared themselves. My parents had been the king and queen in a game of chess, always apart and moving in separate, incalculable ways. No wonder I didn’t miss them more. I’d never seen a relationship built on trust and attraction, never seen passing touches and two creatures curled around each other in sleep. But my beast understood that Casper was powerful now and would defend me with his life and that I could do much worse for myself than settle close in his arms and find some peace before everything went to hell.
But something was bothering Casper. He shifted against me as if he couldn’t get comfortable and exhaled into my shoulder, and I turned to put a hand on his cheek.
“What’s wrong? What could possibly be wrong?”
“It’s just . . . it would just be an inconvenient time for you to . . .” He sighed deeply and swallowed. “For you to be with child. I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry.”
When he trailed off, I kissed him lightly and chuckled. “That’s what troubles you? Never fear. Now’s not the time.”
“How do you know?”
“I have a body. I always know when it’s time.”
“Is that a Bludman thing?”
“It’s a Bludwoman thing. Any other concerns?”
He rubbed my back, sleepy and warm, and I relaxed a little. “We were together. I forget the rest,” he said.
Contented, I fell asleep, swaying gently in his arms.
The next morning was filled with tiny awkwardnesses. I woke up with his body tangled sweetly around me, except for the bit that was unintentionally prodding me. When I shot out of the bed in sleepy surprise, Casper tried to roll out while it was swaying, and he landed on the floor in a lump of blankets. It was challenging, finding all of our clothes and catching sneaky glances at each other, little snippets of bodies we’d already seen in all their glory but couldn’t help being curious about. He almost murdered the vial delivery boy again, but at least he was clothed this time.
Once we were dressed and fed, he was as suave and collected as any Bludman I’d ever seen. Confidence was key for a predator—lesser creatures were naturally suspicious. He had been cocky before, but now he was dangerously dauntless. If he wasn’t careful, he was going to come across as a threat. A tricky line to walk, to be sure.
“How do you feel?” I asked, straightening my Moravian shawl in the mirror.
“Like I could take down a moose and drink it dry.” He bounced on the balls of his feet, radiating energy.
“That’s because you’ve never tasted one.” I turned to face him, looking him up and down. He cut a fine figure, to be sure, and for a brief moment, I thought about launching myself at him and kissing him until he threw me back onto the bed. But no. I had a country to save. I picked up his shawl and draped it over him, hiding his long hair, his broad shoulders, everything but the toes of his boots. His old Pinky hat would go into a rubbish bin. “Most blud animals are gamey and thin compared with humans. Unless you take one in a fight to flavor it with victory, you’d find the taste repellent.” I watched him move for a moment and added, “You might want to tone it down a bit, though. You’ll attract unwanted attention from dangerous males, walking like that.”
“It’s not my fault I have vampire swagger,” he said.
I raised one eyebrow at him, and he raised one back at me, and then he broke out in loud laughter. It was a welcome sound. After all our time together, I’d seen him drunk, conflicted, angry, scared, lusty, and nearly suicidal. But I’d never seen him happy. Not before just now.
My boots waited by the door, and I savored how easy it was to lace them when not wearing a corset. At home in the palace, I had never laced my own boots, and therefore the order of corsetry had never mattered. But I had learned on the Maybuck that smart girls put on shoes, then corset, then took off corset, then shoes. The first few times lacing either item by myself had been nearly impossible, but now I’d gotten used to it.
My mother would have fainted, to think of me tying my own boots or fixing my own hair. She had been well over a hundred and had never cut her own hair. The mass of it had fallen nearly to the floor, and the servants had always complained behind her back about the trouble it took to wash it, dry it, and put it up in ever more complicated styles that would set the fashion for all of Freesia. It was painful, thinking of how Ravenna must have defiled the Tsarina’s beloved hair, not to mention her body.
My mother’s idea of good leadership had been just like her hair—ornamental and vexing. I had been raised to rule, but ruling mostly meant dwelling in various palaces, reclining, complaining, and being vicious. It seemed quite petty, from where I stood now. And even if I didn’t agree with her outdated and overly cruel style of monarchy, she had been better than Ravenna. The upstart gypsy snake had begun her reign with murder, deposed the barons, and let the Pinkies run unchecked. Although I didn’t understand her ultimate goal, from what I could see, she wanted to destroy everything that Freesia stood for.
And what had become of poor Alex, my nearly feral younger brother? He had been born growling and nipping and hadn’t really stopped since. While everyone else in the palace drank two or three vials a day or sometimes a few measured gulps from a willing servant, Alex was ravenous and required ten times as much blood to keep from going mad. When he had enough blood and was in a good patch, he was overly polite and given to intelligent pursuits. He wrote rambling letters to pen pals in Constantinoble and Melburn, took great interest in the hounds, and enjoyed falconry. We played chess together and planned imaginary trips. Olgha and I had always been rivals, but Alex and I got on fine, so long as he was fed. Without enough blood, he became dangerously savage and had to be chained up and forced to guzzle animal blood until he quit screaming. Chirurgeons and herbalists and mystics had been called in to cure him, but none had succeeded.
If Ravenna had found an ally in Alex, if she had found a way to calm him, if not cure him, then it was easy enough to see how she had won her way into the palace. A son who couldn’t make an advantageous match for the royal house—a son who, much worse, couldn’t even be taken out in public and might attack newspaper reporters—was a liability and a tragedy. My mother had first coddled him, then sent him away, then kept him close like a muzzled bludmare, hoping every day that a solution would present itself.
If what Casper had told me and what I had read in the newspapers was correct, Ravenna had found a way to subdue Alex. And that was one more problem with killing her. What if she was the only one who knew the secret to a normal life for my brother?
A hand landed on my shoulder. “Ahna? You’re a thousand miles away. What’s wrong?”
My fists were clenched around my bootlaces, which were tied in triple knots. I let go of the laces and stood, flexing my fingers to get the blud flowing through them once more.
“I was thinking about Freesia. About my brother. There are just so many variables.”
He chucked me under the chin, and I wrenched my face away in annoyance. “A glancer once told me that I would have a happily ever after. I think that means we’re going to succeed.”
“I told you—I don’t believe in omens.” I picked up my bag and stood by the door, not yet ready to leave the comfort of our little aerie. “I was taught to believe that fortune-telling was the lowest form of chicanery, people telling you what you want, what you need to hear.”
“I might have thought so once, if the fortune-teller hadn’t broken my heart. Everything she said has come true so far. Why can’t the good part be as true as the bad?”
He stepped close enough that had he been anyone else, it would have raised my hackles. Instead, I felt a strange ripple shimmy down my body. It reminded me of the way my father’s favorite wolfhound had always greeted him, wiggling as if she were so full of joy she could shake it off like water. I cocked my head at him, considering. Was this lust? Or love? Or just fellow feeling tangled up with a hunger for his body? Before I could consider further, his lips brushed over mine, warm and swift as a breeze in summer.