|Home > Delilah S. Dawson > Blud > Wicked as She Wants (Page 36)|
|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“We should go.” I stood and held out a hand to Casper, unsure of what I would do if he rejected the offer. But he took my hand and hurried around the table, away from Keen, who smelled less repulsive after a good grooming.
“Where are we going?” she said, clearly puzzled. “And where were you guys last night? And where have you been all day?” Her eyes narrowed as she looked at the open neck of Casper’s shirt, and then she looked him up and down. “Smile,” she commanded, glaring.
“I don’t think I can.”
She threw her tortoise down and rounded on me, hands balled into fists, as vicious and small as the bludweasel we’d seen at the zoo. “What did you do?” She stepped close enough for me to smell the scent of violets from Verusha’s shampoo. “What did you do to him?”
“What had to be done,” Casper said tiredly, pulling her back by the shoulders while keeping his face firmly turned away. “We didn’t have a choice. I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry? You’re frigging sorry?” Keen backed away from us, one step after another toward the door. She was fighting tears, shoulders heaving. “You were fine, Casper. Why’d you have to ruin everything?”
“I didn’t tell you. I couldn’t. But it was getting bad in London. Worse on the Maybuck. I was starting to lose it. You don’t understand—”
“I don’t understand? Why you’d let her turn you into one of them? Jesus, Casper. You’re not even a person anymore. You’re a monster.” She whipped the kerchief off her head and wiped her eyes angrily. “I read your frigging journal, you whiny sack. I can’t believe that after that chick at the caravan chose a Blud over you, you kept drinking. You’re such a goddamn addict. You’re so sad. And weak. You’re just like . . .”
“Like what, Keen?” A deadly calm had come over him. “Like whom?”
“It doesn’t matter. I just expected better from you.”
“I was lost long before you showed up. There was no escaping my past. You can’t undo that much bludwine. It was this or madness.”
She snorted and leaned back against the wall beside the door. “Don’t you get it? This is madness. You’re totally bugshit. You’re always supposed to fight it, Casper. Dracula, the bad guys in Blade, the Lost Boys. Even Colin Farrell. They’re bad guys. They kill people. You’re always supposed to fight the vampires!”
“But vampires are cool. I thought it was zombies that you were always supposed to fight?” The corner of his mouth quirked up hopefully, his dimples flashing with a Bludman’s killer charm, and she shut her eyes and beat her fist against Verusha’s damask wallpaper.
“You think this is a joke? Awesome. I guess I’m the punch line.” She pointed at me, right at my heart. “And I hope that gypsy bitch rips you in half. You’d make a suckass queen, anyway, considering you don’t care about anyone but yourself.”
One hand on the doorknob, she glared at him. He looked away, and she was gone. When the door slammed behind her, Casper finally inhaled. Verusha was already fetching another vial for him. He took the teacup and drank it down in several gulps, desperately and without testing or savoring it this time.
“She’ll be back,” he said quietly. “She always is.”
Verusha and I nodded, but I wasn’t so sure. That last look she’d given us had burned like a slap across the face. Somewhere deep inside me, the old version of Ahnastasia snarled and envisioned a slender head on a pike in the snow, the short brown hair dark against the hills and dripping blood. But the new version of me ached painfully and wished there had been some way to make her see the truth of it.
I picked the brass sphere off the couch and turned it over in my hands.
“She wanted a pet,” Casper said. “I always said I would buy her a clockwork, but I just never got around to it. She’d be hanged for stealing that. I guess I didn’t realize how much she needed . . .”
“A friend,” I whispered.
When I looked down, I found Casper’s hand in mine, but I couldn’t recall when it had happened or who had reached for whom. I squeezed back anyway. I couldn’t explain it, but I had lost something, too, and I already missed the little urchin. I could only hope that we all survived long enough for me to find her and fix the mess I’d made of a fellow victim’s life.
I’d never had friends before, either.
We sat in silence for some time. Verusha finally broke the dark pall of the room by standing up and exclaiming, “This. This is why we don’t allow Pinkies to think for themselves. Poor little fool!” She hurried out the door as if anxious to be away from us, calling, “There are beds made upstairs, the open doors. My darleenk, it is not silk and gold, but it is better than a valise. Sleep well. Tomorrow morning, we begin.”
“What does that mean?” Casper’s hand left mine, and he settled back to watch me. He looked haggard but handsome, the lines of his face sharper than they had been, as if an artist had gone over a sketch with a firmer hand, perfecting it.
“The Sugar Snow Ball is tomorrow night. Tomorrow morning, we’ll prepare and dress. We’ll board the carriage at dusk and ride through the forest to the Ice Palace. We’ll dance to bring down the snow, and then I’ll kill Ravenna.”
“And after that?”
I chuckled, sinister and sweet. “After that, I make the rules.”
“And what will you do?”
“So many things, darling. So many things.”
I breathed in deeply, dreamily. I would fix things. I would clean up Ravenna’s mess. I would send some very precious valises to the Svedish king with the heads of his ambassadors and spies tied up like holiday gifts inside. I would send dangerous men to visit Mr. Sweeting on Ruby Lane and fetch my sister’s remains home. I would even put Keen’s picture in the papers and see if we could find her with a reward large enough that she would come claim it herself.
“I’m talking about me, Ahna. What will you do about me?’
“You’ll be the court composer for all of Muscovy. I keep my promises.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
The turn of his head, the way his throat moved—he was all Bludman now. And I might have been able to wiggle out of his clutches before, but I could already feel the sharpened force of him. Before, I could have run. Now he could catch me. He was stronger, and it didn’t matter that I was royal, a princess. I couldn’t escape the reality of his physical presence, and especially not its pull on me. Especially not when he demanded it.
He waited, quiet but alert, as the emotions roiled in me. He was bigger, stronger, and the beast in me wanted to submit, to roll belly up and lick his throat as wolves did in the wild. I liked him. I cared about him. But I didn’t know if we would survive tomorrow night and, if we did, if he would survive a single day in the Snow Court. He wasn’t the only one who would wish to stand by my side, although the others would do it for political power. Was it kinder to tell him now or later that the only way we could ever be together during my reign was with me as the stoic, married royal and him as the court composer who warmed my bed in secret?
He tried to touch my face, but I pulled back with a hiss and a blush. He smiled, lazy and slow. Leaning back with his arm across the sofa behind my head, he said, “I’ve never seen you running scared before, darlin’.”
He could sense it, the bastard! I had been so eager to turn him into an ally I could use, someone like me, that I had forgotten the powers of an alpha-male Bludman in his prime.
“I’m not scared.” I stood, smoothing down my dress and hunting for something more useful to do. I couldn’t sit on the sofa beside him just then, with him so attuned to my feelings. I couldn’t find the words for how I felt, and the longer and closer I lingered, the faster he would decide for himself. What I wanted to say to him would be my choice, and I wouldn’t let his blud take that away from me. “But Verusha is right. We need sleep. Tomorrow will be long. Sleep well.”
I didn’t look back as I slipped into the hall and scurried up the stairs. The first open room was done up in burgundy, but the second room was appointed in sky blue and antiqued gold, as if Verusha had kept it waiting for me all these years. Once inside behind the locked door, I undressed quickly to slip into a bed firmly rooted to the floor, neither rolling nor floating over the ground.
His eyes in that last moment had been warm and sure and filled with dancing shadows. He had seen me, seen right through me. And he had let me go, although we both knew he could have kept me there. Whether with his body or his words, I would have been helpless if he had truly wanted me to stay. I had taken him, bribed him, turned him, kept him for my own uses. It had all been for one purpose: to save Freesia and be queen, powerful over all.
I couldn’t admit to myself that one man now had power over me.
Tomorrow would be bad enough without admitting how much I had to lose.
I woke up to the sound of Verusha humming. Always the same song, since I had first left my mother’s bed to sleep, cold and alone, in the nursery. I smiled and muttered, “You’re off key, old woman.”
“And you’re an ungrateful little creature who deserves to be drowned in the river,” she said in turn. “Sleeping past noon. Lazy beast!”
The warm familiarity of the ritual was soothing, but only until I realized that today was the day that would determine everything. Life or death, queen or pawn. Casper or . . . the emptiness where he should have been by my side.
I sat up as Verusha plumped the pillows behind my back and put a teacup of warm blood and bludmare’s milk in my hands. As I sipped it, I was flooded with memories. The first time I’d been beaten for showing weakness. All the times Olgha had locked me in a trunk or smeared my face in the snow, telling me I would never be anything but a pretty brood mare. The time I had stolen into the Pinky kitchens and played with the children there, trying their food and spitting it out to our mutual amusement, and later, when I’d been punished. My mother had forced me to drink from one of the children, a little boy. She had held him rigid, his black hair in one hand and his shoulder pinched in the other.
“Never forget what they are to us,” she had said as I paused, conflicted, clumsy teeth scraping his neck. “They are food. Servants. Chattel. To be used and bred and thrown away as we will it. Once they have laughed at you, they will always wait for their next chance.”
The tears had slid down my cheeks and blurred with the boy’s blood to smear across my lips. I had never returned to the kitchens, and that boy had avoided me for the rest of my time at the palace.
I hadn’t thought about him for years, but now I wondered where he was and how my future would run. Would I change everything or nothing? Would I drive the Pinkies from their stolen district in the city proper or allow them to flourish? Did I really want to continue treating people the way Keen and Casper had been treated, as less than bludmares and hunting dogs? And if I chose not to do that, how would my people react? I’d seen evidence in print and in real life that Ravenna was letting the humans run wild. Before, I had hated her for it. But now, with my feelings changing, I couldn’t help wondering how it would look when I deposed her and showed further sympathy to the Pinkies.
“I see you fussing, my darleenk,” Verusha said. “Perhaps this will soothe you.” She opened the closet and brought out a magnificent dress that was more than familiar to me, although its color was changed from the original cream to a cool aquamarine. I could imagine Verusha stealing it from the summer palace and dyeing it in secret, looking at it wistfully from time to time, as if she had known that I would one day return to claim it.
“Do you think that will still fit? I’m taller.”
“But thinner. We’ll make it work.”
The beaded peacock feathers cascaded to the floor, shimmering iridescent against the heavy silk like the diamonds they were. Aquamarines and sapphires winked in the eyes of the feathers, and I was already anxious to feel the rich fabric slide over my skin. Wearing that dress to sit for the painting had made me feel queenly at seventeen; what would it do for me now?
“The bath is ready.” She tipped her head to the door in the corner. “Soak a while, and Verusha will make you as beautiful as ever.”
I’d always loved relaxing in big copper tubs full of perfumed water and rose-tinged mare’s milk. But I’d never had cares before, never had problems weighing me down. I wanted to leap out onto the tile floor, dripping pinkish liquid, and rush out into the streets to fight or conquer something or at least get into an argument with someone of lesser wit. But I could hear Verusha in the outer room, humming lullabies to herself as she prepared to dress me as she had always wished, as the crowning beauty of the Feodor family, the future Tsarina. Even had I wanted to run away, she could have stopped me with one harsh word and a reminder of my destiny.
I slid down into the dark, warm silence of the tub, and brown swirled into the milky water. I closed my eyes and scrubbed soap into my scalp, wishing to wash out the dye along with the dirt of the last week’s journey. I wasn’t the same girl who had burst from the suitcase—that much was true. In some ways, I’d become harder. But in others, I was already too soft. First Casper and Keen and now even Verusha—they had all gotten to me. I would have to find my backbone as the carriage bumped through the forest toward the palace, or I’d end up pledging my allegiance to Ravenna and being married off or murdered within a fortnight.
“Dry off now, leetle fish,” Verusha called, and I obeyed, my mind too busy planning rebellion to actually rebel.