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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
Would there be time to understand these feelings fully by the time I stood before Ravenna, my entire country’s future riding on my shoulders? There was no way to know. Maybe she would kill one or both of us, and I would never have to consider it further. With a sudden urgency, I leaned forward to kiss him back, my lips firm against his.
“Let’s go take over this cold-ass country,” he said with a dimpled grin. We pulled up the hoods of our Moravian disguises and disappeared among the morning crowd, two Bludmen in something a little like love.
When we arrived at the groomery, Verusha looked Casper up and down through her monocle and nodded, as close as she would come to congratulations. As for Keen, she had escaped after her grooming and hadn’t been seen since. Casper was worried, especially since he hadn’t had a chance to warn her of our grim outing, but he knew her well enough to know that looking for her would be futile. I was worried, too, and I realized that we needed a diversion to keep us from going crazy as we waited for tomorrow and the Sugar Snow Ball. All of my plans were about to come to fruition, but for the next few hours, there was nothing to do but fret, which Verusha wouldn’t tolerate. I borrowed a clean dress from Verusha’s daughter-in-law and returned to the parlor to find an entirely new version of Casper.
As a Pinky, Casper had been a major liability to me, and the slightest wrong word or gesture from him toward me—or anyone on the street—might have ended in him being impounded or beaten. Dressed in appropriate clothing, with his hair brushed and his cravat hanging loose, he was a fitting companion. I wanted him to see my homeland with a Bludman’s eyes, and we left the groomery arm-in-arm as if we hadn’t a care.
I took him first to the park where the ballerinas practiced, and we caught them at their midmorning encore, stretching toward the sun like bright flowers. Casper strolled over to the quartet playing in full parade dress on the bandstand, inspecting the instruments with a polite smile. I could see the calculations in his eyes as he realized that Blud musicians could play faster than Pinkies, their movements sharper and more complex. His gloved fingers flexed against his breeches, and I grinned to myself. I couldn’t wait to see him at a harpsichord, discovering the true breadth of his skills.
Next we walked the topiary gardens, remarking on the impossible shapes carved into the bushes. He recognized several of the more famous statues, murmuring the names of the artists in his world who had created them and telling me their subtle differences, such as the fact that a reclining nude wasn’t crushing a tiger’s throat where he came from but was just, in fact, lying there.
At the Natural History Museum, he marveled at the stuffed exhibits of animals he’d never seen alive. The dodo, the roc, the sea goats, and the unicorn especially drew him close, and I found that I savored his amazement. I had not spent much time around children, and surely this was how a parent felt, watching a young creature reel at the possibilities of the wide world. When he stood under the dragon’s yellowed skeleton, gawking, I outright laughed at him.
“But it’s huge!” He held his arms out wide but was still dwarfed by its wingspan.
“I’ve seen bigger,” I said with a smirk.
He grew quiet in the art museum, tears springing to his eyes as he stood before a strange little painting that I’d never really given any thought. The poor woman had no eyebrows, but her smile was rather enigmatic.
“I always wanted to see it, in my world. But I never got around to it. I had a tour planned for Paris for the next summer, and the Mona Lisa was at the top of my list.”
He leaned close, and the docent in the corner cleared her throat and wagged a finger. I grabbed his arm and pulled him away before they investigated us too closely. As different as I looked, this was my home country. Being recognized was all too real a possibility, and I had been careless to let him call attention to us.
“When I’m Tsarina,” I whispered, leaning close, “I’ll shut down the museum and send the guards home. You can lick it to taste the paint, if you wish.”
He shook his head at me as if I were silly and adorable, a child playing make-believe. Anger rippled over me. Did he think I was telling idle lies? I latched my arm more firmly around his and dragged him down the long hallway under the glittering curves of giant crystal chandeliers shaped like Krakens. Up a spiraling staircase we went, our boots hushed by thick carpets woven with designs of snowflakes and icicles. He went along with me as he had all morning, bemused and indulgent, and I growled under my breath. What I was about to show him—he needed to see it, and now.
We passed door after door down the long hallway, not stopping to admire the world-renowned collection of decorative enameled emu and ostrich eggs. When I darted through the last door on the right, he followed. I moved to the side, and he stopped and muttered, “Jesus Christ,” under his breath.
“There,” I said. “Do you see now?”
The room was decorated in white and blue and dominated by a giant painting, twice as large as life. The artist had captured me perfectly, seventeen forever. I gazed out of the gilt frame, somehow both haughty and innocent. My face still held the vaguest curve of childhood, but my neck was already graceful and long. My hair was piled high in the fashion of the time, except for one long elegant braid that trailed over my shoulder and down to my waist, tied with a velvet ribbon and sprinkled with dark gray pearls. My dress was in a style already abandoned, heavy with beading in the shape of iridescent peacock feathers. I still remembered the thrill of trying it on, how heavy and adult it felt, the train sweeping the floor. I had spun in place and then hugged Verusha for giving the dressmaker instructions to let the neckline dip perfectly, just like my mother’s.
It was clearly me, and I clearly sat in a throne, wearing a heavy crown set with a sapphire the size of my fist. The necklace draped around my neck was currently in Verusha’s care, missing half of the stones that glittered larger than life in the painting. The engraved plaque screwed into the painting read, “Princess Ahnastasia Feodor.”
The way he looked at me then—it was as if he finally realized that I wasn’t just some foundling from a suitcase. He might have believed it, in theory, before then. We might have been working toward the same goal, moving together among my people. He called me Ahna, and princess, though only to tease. And my story may have added up. But in that moment, I saw it strike him in the heart, the enormity of who I was and what we were up against.
It may have also been a little unsettling to realize he had recently made love to a national treasure.
“It’s a beautiful painting,” he said carefully.
“I was considered a great beauty back then. Very promising. I was receiving marriage proposals by age twelve, but none was good enough.”
“You were breathtaking then, it’s true.” He squeezed my arm. “But I like you even better now.”
I felt the warmth rush into my cheeks, a little thrill rippling over me. He pulled me close, a firm hand on my back, and kissed me gently. I stood on my tiptoes to kiss him back, my fingers light on his shoulders and my hips pressed against him in a way that would have been innocent just yesterday. He deepened the kiss, and things were just starting to get good when a docent I hadn’t noticed cleared his throat. We broke apart, and I hid my face in Casper’s shoulder.
“Show some respect to the Blud Princess,” the old Bludman said gruffly, his hat in his hand.
I risked a glance at the old man, peeking through Casper’s hair. I couldn’t ignore the bald sadness in his eyes.
“Do you think they’ll ever find her?” Casper asked.
“I pray every day that it will happen,” the docent said. “Poor girl.”
Casper nodded, his face grave. “May your hope be answered,” he said formally, with the respect one would expect of a born Bludman. We left the room quietly, his arm shielding my face. I heard the old man’s sigh, long and sad. When I turned back briefly at the door, the docent stood before the painting of me, wiping away a blud tear.
We were silent as we walked slowly down the hall. Casper glanced briefly through the other doors, taking in the paintings of Olgha, Alex, and my parents, captured in a rare and planned moment together, stiff and wooden even considering the kindness of the artist’s brush. Mounds of tiny crystal vials rested on every flat surface of the room—one blud tear in each, the formal show of mourning. My eyes squeezed shut in pain. I should have brought a vial and left a tear of my own, one drop of royal blud among thousands.
As if reading my mind, he squeezed my arm. “We’re going to kick that bitch’s ass,” he said.
“That we are,” I answered, squeezing back.
Our afternoon passed in the sweet haze of stolen indulgence. Browsing in shops, strolling down streets lined with tinkling snowdrops, visiting the world’s largest collection of blud creatures in the Muscovy Zoo and laughing at the camels. We kissed in the highest belfry of the Basilica of Aztarte as I sat in a window, my hair rustled by a breeze that smelled of the coming snow. I found that I was no longer frightened of heights. Afterward, Casper stood in the window himself, leaning outward over the whole city, and yelled something barbaric that sounded very much like “Yawp.” It brought him such strange joy that I found it bizarrely endearing.
Remembering Verusha’s favorite treat, I stopped at a vendor in the Franchian district and bought a painted box of sugared liver. What were a few more coppers when soon I would be either dead or the reigning monarch? And it was worth it, seeing her face light up when we walked through the door of the groomery.
“Ah, darleenk, you remembered!” She snatched the box and popped a sliver into her mouth, sucking blissfully as she ushered us into her sitting room. Casper moved toward the divan, but she plucked at his jacket and tugged him into the last rays of afternoon sun by the window. She walked around him, old eyes narrow and calculating. “Tell me, now. Was it as horrible as they say?”
Casper managed to keep a straight face, and I merely inclined my head and said, “We managed to survive.”
Verusha slapped Casper in the ribs, and he stood up straighter. She ran his hair through her talons and slid a hand down his arm, squeezing his muscles. She held his fingers up to the light, saying, “Interesting. It’s coming on quite fast. But I can smell it on you, the vestiges of your humanity. You’ll need a good bathing.”
“Another grooming?” He grimaced and glanced at the door to the groomery.
Verusha drew back, one hand to her chest in affront. “A Bludman? In my groomery? How obscene.”
“We might as well drag you out to the trough with the bludmares,” I added with a grin. I swiped a bit of liver from the open box and savored the tartness of the sour sugar against the rich tang of blood.
“So I’m just suddenly . . . different to you?” Casper asked. His face was guarded, a strange mixture of anger and bemusement.
“My boy, you have gone from stew to stud,” Verusha said, popping another bit of candy into her mouth. “It is not often one changes species overnight. We should celebrate. You are hungry?”
He nodded silently, as if it pained him to admit it. Verusha opened the warming cube that hummed gently on a shelf and withdrew two vials of blood. She took down two teacups, poured for us, and served, bowing her head slightly to him and greatly to me in the proper show of deference.
Casper sat, rigid, on the edge of the sofa. He took a sip of blood, tentative and with great concentration, as if every time he tasted it, he was afraid to find it repellent. After a few more sips, he relaxed all over and settled back against the cushions.
“I told you hunger would make you peevish,” I said, and he chuckled.
“Funny how it loosens you up a little. Almost like alcohol but without the fuzziness. I feel just as sharp, just not like everything you say is a challenge. Much better.”
He leaned back, one boot on his knee, savoring his blood as if trying to puzzle out a rare vintage.
“I would swear it tastes like butter,” he said between sips. “How is that possible?”
“Verusha prefers good country stock,” I supplied. “These Pinkies would have access to fresh dairy and butter, and perhaps that’s what you’re tasting. I sense cream and sunshine and freshness. Quite round and full-bodied.”
Verusha settled back into her pillows with a handful of liver candy perched on her prodigious bosom. An easy life indoors, extra vials of country blood, and plenty of sweetmeats had made her cushy, and she was enjoying it.
“Good for the constitution,” she said.
“And what’s that, in the box?” Casper asked, setting down his empty teacup and leaning forward to pluck a bit of liver from the box on the table.
She hissed and made as if to swat him. “Stay out of an old woman’s sweets,” she muttered. “It’s too expensive to waste on someone with no taste for riches.”
He dodged her hand and sniffed the bit of deep red liver, coated with crystallized sugar and resembling a bright jewel. He had just opened his mouth when the door swung in to reveal a cleaner-than-usual Keen, her hair pulled back under the traditional kerchief of low-ranking Pinky servants.
“Is that candy?” She grinned as if she’d never been gone, skittering to his side and plunking herself down on the divan. “All the food here is dull. No salt. What’s the point?” Before she could dig her gloved fingers into the box, he snapped it shut.
“It belongs to Verusha,” he said. “Please try to have some manners.”
“What the hell, Maestro? Who died and made you God?” She slung her booted feet up onto the small table and took out her clockwork tortoise, still in sphere form, tossing it from hand to hand. Casper quivered beside her and began breathing through his mouth, and I realized that it was the first time he’d been trapped in a small, airless room with a Pinky since being bludded.