|Home > Delilah S. Dawson > Blud > Wicked as She Wants (Page 37)|
|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
She was fussing with me before I was out of my towel, rubbing rich creams into my skin. I let her bend me and move me as necessary, just as she always had. I was nearly hairless, and much of my youth had been spent holding back screams as she spread me with wax and ripped the bits of paper off in cruel jerks. She must have been thinking about the same thing, as she nodded with great authority and said, “You see? I told you it would be worth it. Smooth as glass, you are.”
I just sighed. The fire that had kept me running for so long was burning low, buffeted by too many other emotions to flare brightly. Casper had been right last night; I was scared. Scared to tell him how I felt and scared to feel that way at all. And yet I couldn’t wait to see him, kept looking at the closed door as if he might swagger in and grin at me with his new fangs.
Verusha helped me into an embroidered chemise and sat me gently on a stool before the vanity mirror, picking up a brush and running it through my wet curls. My hair was drying lighter than it had been, much of the dye having swirled out of the tub along with the bludmilk and water. It wasn’t back to ice-white yet, more of a warm gold. But it was enough. I smiled as she arranged my curls, stabbing silver pins in to hold it tightly in place.
“You are bothered, little lemming. Verusha can tell. Do you worry that you will not best Ravenna?”
“Of course not.” I looked up into the mirror, pulling back my lips to show sharp teeth.
“What is it, then? Your parents? Or Alex?”
I snorted. “My parents are gone. I can handle Alex. And I have plans for the king of Sveden as well.”
She threw her head back and laughed, bosom heaving. “You are my same little princess, all teeth and pride. And yet something is changed. Have you recovered fully from your draining? Do you feel weak or muddled?”
“Muddled perhaps.” I paused meaningfully, meeting her dark eyes in the mirror. She had always known whatever troubled me, even the things I didn’t know myself. I had to hope that she could offer guidance now, when I needed it most and could speak it least.
“Did you know they had planned to marry you off to a Svedish prince?” she said blandly, and I flinched. “It’s true, darleenk. The papers were almost drawn up when you disappeared. At first, they thought you had run away, but a Pinky in the stables swore a blood oath that he saw you snatched by terrifying figures in bear cloaks, stolen away into the woods behind the castle. That little one from the kitchen, with the black hair, you recall.” I shuddered. In the back of my throat, I could still taste his blood and my own childish terror and shame. “In any case, when they realized Olgha had also been taken, the betrothal papers were lost. Your parents were executed. And then the rumors began that you had killed your own sister. But I knew they were false.”
“Why Sveden?” I asked, once I had found my voice. “They’ve always been peaceful.”
“King Charles wanted to cement an alliance, and he has so many bastards littering the palace that it made sense. That man—he is insatiable, they say. After you disappeared, once he couldn’t use you for his own ends, he swore you an enemy. Assassins waiting everywhere.”
I grinned. “There’s one fewer now.”
She patted my head. “And your mother was hot for the union, of course. It has been many years since the Feodors had outside blud. Some have said your father . . . is not the hot-bludded sort. He always preferred the hunt to the throne.”
“So they say.”
“You have more of your mother in you, of course. You may not take after her in looks, but your heart, many have said, beats with the glacier’s heart of Freesia. An ice princess, a throwback to better times. The winters have been uneasy these past few years. Many of the people say the dance and the music have not been up to expectation, a proper offering to Aztarte and Hades. There are shrines to you in secret places, snowdrops and white roses and little cups of blud mixed with milk and pomegranate seeds and, of course, the tears. Some are calling you Proserpina, saying you’re waiting in the darkness to lead us back into a proper winter.”
“The rabble are fools.”
“The rabble are your reason for existing, darleenk. They are the earth that supports your feet.”
My hair was twisted back in braids and pin curls in a way that led the eye down my cheekbones to my lips, which she’d painted the traditional bright red. With dark kohl and glittering silver around my eyes, my face was foreign to me. In bright light, clean and fresh and no longer framed by dirt-colored waves, I saw a living doll, a creature of lines and curves fashioned of frozen milk, with eyes the color of aquamarines. I blinked, and the face blinked back.
“It’s a shame you must hide.”
Before I could ask her what she meant, what she knew, she held a porcelain mask over my face, hiding everything but eyes and lips. It was white and silver, a stylized peacock’s face, the nose a dainty beak. White plumes erupted from the top. I couldn’t help thinking of the peacocks at the Ice Palace, calling to one another with the sound of dying children. Although the wild peacocks were rarely seen without unicorns, the birds of the palace were proud things fed blood from dishes of hammered silver. The ruling family of birds were all white, and their more colorful brethren bowed to them or hung limply from sharp beaks. It was fitting, this mask, and I wondered how she would dress Casper to walk beside me.
Verusha held out a hand, and I stood, waiting. First, she brought layers of petticoats, filmy with lace. Then dancing slippers. Then the corset from Kitty’s shop, and I took a few last deep breaths before my old maid worked her magic with the laces. The dress wasn’t as heavy as I remembered, or maybe I was stronger. I stepped into it, and Verusha helped lift it onto my shoulders. The thick silk skimmed my curves and clung in all the right places, the deeply cut neck perfectly accenting flesh that had bloomed in four years of maturity and a week of good feeding.
Standing before the full-length mirror beside a very smug groomer, I did indeed look like some magical, mythical bird goddess. When I cocked my head to the side, the illusion was complete. My only sadness was that the matching necklace was destroyed, a plain twist of metal with a few lone stones still winking from tarnished silver.
My painted nails brushed my collarbone, and Verusha nodded sadly in understanding. “You couldn’t take it, anyway, my sweet. Too recognizable.”
“And the dress isn’t?”
She smiled. “The peacock has changed its spots, darleenk. They will think it a clever forgery. They will laugh before you destroy them.”
I dropped my hand and wished for some occupation, something to do besides be beautiful and wait and worry. The carriage ride was starting to feel more terrifying than the ascent to the Maybuck had been, but there was no hope of throwing myself onto the ground and begging someone to sit on me. From here on out, my chin was up, my eyes were open, and my claws were clenched to fight.
“I’m ready,” I said, more to myself than anyone else.
Verusha nodded, her eyes narrowing to slits. “Good girl. If anyone can triumph, my darleenk, my princess, it is you. And if you go to Hades, take that gypsy cur with you, yes? For me.”
“I’m going to rip her throat out.”
“Good. Blud in the first snow is a happy omen. Aztarte will be pleased.”
I turned back, stalling. “Do you actually believe in her, Verusha?”
Her wizened hand went to a pendant that disappeared into her cleavage. I knew well enough that it held a tiny splinter of bone, supposedly from Aztarte, the Bludman’s goddess. I had never really believed in her, at least as a divine ruler. Not any more than I believed in Proserpina and Hades and all the old pagan relics that predated the monarchy at the heart of Freesia. We were supposedly descended from Aztarte herself, although there hadn’t been red hair in the royal family in ten generations. The ferocity was telling enough, they said.
“If I didn’t believe, my girl, I would never be foolish enough to admit it out loud.”
Weighed down as I was by the mask, I couldn’t throw back my head. But I did laugh, my lips pressing against the cold porcelain.
“You have always been wise,” I said.
“That is why I am still alive—diplomacy and the ability to keep secrets.” She sniffed. “Also, I am good with hair.”
My hand was glued to the doorknob, the scales dark against the bright brass. And yet I couldn’t turn it.
“Verusha. Can I do this?” I asked quietly.
“If you can’t, no one else can. No one else will. And Freesia will fade into legend, as forgotten as melted snow.”
I wanted to believe her. I wanted to believe I could do it. But in that moment, in all my finery, I couldn’t even open the door.
“The first step is always the hardest,” Verusha said with a slightly impish grin. “But I don’t think it’s Ravenna who worries you now. Go to him, darleenk.”
She reached past me to turn the knob, and the door swung open.
Casper was waiting for me in the parlor, just as I knew he would be. But the former man looked like a god, and I was thrown off kilter by the look in his eyes as he regarded me in turn.
Verusha had done her work well, kitting him out as the peacock to my hen. His tailcoat was a brilliant teal, shimmering with embroidered feathers. A hint of gold brocade waistcoat and snowy jabot peeked out, making me wish to flick the heavy buttons and see what else lay beneath. His breeches were molded to his body in a most beguiling way, his boots high and shiny.
But his face, to me, was even more beautiful than his costume. He looked the part of a royal Bludman, his face shaved smooth and his eyes outlined in kohl as was the Freesian tradition, dating back to a time when hunters cut down on the snow glare by rubbing ashes under their eyes. It made the blue pop, bright as sapphires and snapping like flame on a windy day. His hair was down, framing sharper features with a golden glow. There was something exotic and rare about him, something different. Perhaps it was his hands, which were finally dark, as a Bludman’s should be. Or perhaps it was the way he was looking at me, like I was the most edible thing in the city.
He knew how good he looked; I could read it in his proud posture and cocky grin. I subtly shifted, angling out a hip, unable to resist responding to the signals he sent. When I had first met him, he’d given off an air of suicidal amusement, a drunkard’s bravado mixed with a thinking man’s awareness of inescapable doom. There had always been a bit of intriguing madness about him, an insidious consequence of his blud habit.
But now I realized that all the versions of Casper I’d seen before had been incomplete, shades of who he truly was. This creature before me, this fine predator of such proud bearing—this was who he was meant to be. And I wondered what he saw in me now. Was I a Bludwoman in her prime, a queen ready to fight cunningly and viciously for her bludright? Or was I still the lost princess, a little girl with kitten teeth playing dress-up and hiding behind the safety of a mask? It was damned uncomfortable, not knowing.
So instead of asking him, I made the decision myself. I drew up taller, raised my chin, took a slinky step closer to him, and said, “Maestro, where is your mask?”
“That’s all you have to say?” He smirked, beautifully.
Verusha rushed forward to hand him a half-mask with a pointed beak over the nose, muttering, “Do you know how hard it is to find such things the day before the ball? Ah, but you two make a troublesome pair. Old Verusha will be glad to see the backs of you, that is certain.”
He tied the mask on and turned back to me, and I was startled anew by his eyes. Their blue was lighter than the shimmering indigo of the mask, and with the black kohl, he was otherworldly. We regarded each other, bird to bird, solemn and silent. I ached to kiss him, but it was impossible. Both in front of Verusha and with two beaks in the way. The only problem with looking so mutually ravishing was that we couldn’t do a damned thing about it.
“Ungrateful creatures,” Verusha muttered, dusting his coat off in a way that was transparently all about getting her hands on his rump. “Not a single thank you. Not a word about how lovely anyone looks. What is the world coming to?”
“Thank you, madam,” Casper said, tossing out the tails of his coat and cutting a grand bow. His hair slid down around his mask, and Verusha simpered like a girl when he kissed her hand.
“And what of you, my little ermine pup?”
“Queens don’t thank their servants,” I said, my voice frosty.
She dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “I have never been prouder, my Ahnastasia. You are everything I ever hoped you would be. The day you thank me is the day I will stop serving you.”
“She’s the strangest old woman I’ve ever met,” Casper said, and she swatted him in faux annoyance.
“A queen does not thank servants, boy. You have much to learn about a world that runs on blood. You must teach him, darleenk. In the carriage. He cannot go thanking the servants at the ball, or they’ll know him for what he is.”
“And what, exactly, am I? An abomination?”
Her eyes narrowed at him impishly. “A secret weapon. Your senses will be just a little sharper, your vision just a little clearer. As if nature knows you need advantages as you adjust. You will help my Ahnastasia take what is hers.”
“For a bumbling old fool, you haven’t utterly failed,” I said, and Verusha beamed with pride.
“The carriage is waiting, and time is short. You know the rest. Now go, my dear. Save us all.”
“And have fun?” Casper added.
“Harrumph. Fun is for later, once the snow falls on Ravenna’s corpse,” Verusha said.