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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“The fun begins once I’m Tsarina.”
I laid a careful hand along Casper’s arm, and Verusha followed us to the front door of the shop. Two white bludmares danced in place outside, red froth dripping from their mouths where the harsh bits cut into their lips, giving them wicked smiles. A footman opened the carriage door for us, and Casper helped me up.
I let down the curtains and removed my mask, grateful finally to feel air on my face. Verusha had done well with the carriage. It wasn’t so large or so small that it would draw attention, nor was it the newest or the oldest. It had been recently painted outside, with bright blue appointments and gilt where gilt should be. And the comfortable and roomy interior could have easily fit four people. I tried to settle my dress under me comfortably, but it seemed an impossible task. No matter where I put my weight, the tiny beads dug into my flesh. I remembered now that I had sat on the fluffiest of down pillows for the painting in the museum. Sugar Snow Ball dresses were for dancing, not sitting.
Across from me on an identical cushion, Casper fidgeted and leaned, likewise uncomfortable. Living at the palace, I had never considered the misfortune of the city barons riding to the ball in what should have been grand comfort. It was but a short walk from the palace, through the field and into the forest and the ancient clearing where snow fell but didn’t stick. I attended my first dance at age sixteen and had never once sat down in one of the specially made gowns, nor had I felt the heels of my dancing slippers catch in the carpet of a carriage.
Remembering my responsibilities and suddenly aware of the press of time, I rapped on the plush ceiling. Outside, leather reins slapped against curried flanks, and the bludmares screamed and leaped into a run. Casper lurched out of his seat and barely missed landing on me.
“I wasn’t expecting that.” He settled back onto the bench, hands clutching the velvet, and I laughed.
I’d heard that long ago, the horses had been as benign and harmless as Pinkies, great prey animals that could be coaxed into various gaits besides balk and gallop. Now every Bludman grew up knowing that carriages started with a jerk, and there were even handles built into the walls for those who needed extra bolstering. Verusha had been right; Casper did indeed have a lot to learn.
“It’ll be twisty in the city, so you might want to hold on.” I pointed to the handle. “But once we’re on the road to the palace, things will be rather boring for a while. It takes several hours, and we may be hampered by other carriages and various mishaps.”
I waved a hand and leaned with the carriage as we went around a corner. “Broken axles, mired wheels, raging horses, random bears. The usual.”
With a huff of annoyance, he took off his fine jacket and folded it, showing the brilliant gold within that very nearly matched his hair. I was just about to point out the hook on the wall when he hung the jacket neatly from it and slumped down into the seat, his waistcoat rumpling.
“I’ll get the hang of it,” he said peevishly, sitting up again to pull back the curtain and look out.
“You’re rather twitchy.”
“Bludmen aren’t, generally.”
He stared at me, and I smiled with great calm, letting the carriage sway me and generally exhibiting the smug grace and tranquility of a sated predator.
I expected his usual saucy, dimpled riposte. Instead, he put his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. “I can’t stop worrying about Keen. Like maybe if I stare out the window at just the right time, I’ll see her dart by. Or maybe she’s riding on the roof of the carriage, playing at being a stowaway.”
“The footmen would truss her up for a snack,” I muttered.
“That’s just it. She’s got this fantastic survival instinct. She managed okay in our world, and she was scraping by in London. But in Muscovy . . .” He heaved a deep breath.
“There’s nowhere to hide,” I finished.
“I never got to explain it to her, how I didn’t know what the bludwine would do until it was too late. I was so afraid to disappoint her. It was bad enough that she thought I was a drunk womanizer, and maybe I was. But I kept her safe, at least. And she deserves an explanation. She deserves to hear me say I’m sorry.”
I crossed my arms and met his eyes. He was looking for forgiveness, but he’d come to the wrong person. “Never be sorry.”
He sat up and stared at me, half angry and half curious. “Aren’t you?” he asked.
I considered him. He was slumped over, dark hands running through his hair with a very un-Bludman sort of melancholy. It was time for his lessons to begin. “Here is the heart of it, Casper. I’m sorry that she chose to run away instead of listening to sense, and I’m sorry that she didn’t come back so that you would rest easier. But that’s all I’m sorry for. You can apologize for how things happened. You can apologize for how she feels. But you should never apologize for being what you are. At the core of you, in your secret heart, you are an animal. Feelings will not change what is. Do not contradict what you are.”
He chuckled ruefully, fell to his side, and rolled over onto his back, lying on the long bench with his hair falling over the edge. But he didn’t see me; he was looking beyond, fighting with himself.
Finally, he exhaled.
“Do I contradict myself? Fine. Then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” And then he burst out laughing, one fist beating the side of the bench as if it were the funniest thing he’d ever heard. “Damn, woman. The things you drag out of me.”
“This is serious. I think perhaps you misunderstand—” I started, but he interrupted.
“I think perhaps I’m finally starting to understand. The thing is, you’ve only ever been one thing. You might have pretended to be human for a while on that airship, but you didn’t really know how, and you didn’t really try to understand. But I’ve been a lot of things, and I’m on my third life now, and I’m starting to realize that the rules are different for me.”
“The rules of Bludmen are unyielding.”
He leaned close, intent and sharp. “You keep saying that, but you keep forgetting you’re about to be the queen of the goddamn Bludmen. Doesn’t the queen make the unyielding rules? Isn’t that the whole point of having a queen?”
My mouth dropped open, and my mind spun. In all my wisdom and ferocity, I’d never stopped to consider that once Ravenna was dead, I would have complete control—in all things. I had been so worried that someone would smell my blud in Casper’s veins or disgrace me for keeping a commoner close at hand that it hadn’t occurred to me that I could elevate him myself. I could give him land, make him a baron, or spin a tale of his mysterious beginnings. Just as I was what I had made of myself on this journey, he could also be whatever I wished him to be.
The people couldn’t stop me if they tried.
My parents and tutors had raised me to believe that our family had been chosen by the gods, by Aztarte herself, to rule. They had raised me to be bloodthirsty, proud, and intractable. They had promised to keep me safe, and they had failed. I was alive only because Casper had saved me, again and again. He had, in effect, become my family.
From that moment on, I refused to worry further about being accepted by my own people. In bludding Casper, I had given myself more than a servant or a companion. I had given myself an equal and a partner. Whatever he had been when he was born and when he had found me, the blud of Freesian royalty now flowed in his veins.
I swallowed, on the verge of a great understanding. “Casper, your book. The poem. What is it called again?”
“ ‘Leaves of Grass’?”
“No, the other thing.”
“ ‘Song of Myself’?”
I laughed. Just a chuckle at first, but it built to a crescendo. He watched me, charmed and amused but confused.
“That’s it. ‘Song of Myself.’ I write my own song. The words, and the music. We all do. Every one of us. Bludmen and Pinkies. And I will write the rules.”
He nodded. “Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.”
I snorted and wiped my eyes. “In philosophy, perhaps. But we have to best Ravenna before I can start writing that song. Until she’s gone, your truth will get you staked and drained amid laughter and the trills of a harpsichord, and then all our dreams are lost. You’ll have to learn the rules and play by them tonight.”
“Tell me your rules, then, darlin’, and I’ll see if I want to play.”
I sat back to consider him, the beads and buttons digging into my shoulders. How to distill thousands of years of heritage into one lecture?
“For one thing, Bludmen of the court are rarely silly. You must give no one any reason to single you out, to bait you, or to fight you. Think of a pack of hunting dogs or a pack of wolves. With posture and words, the men will jockey for position in the pack. They may try to goad you away, but don’t rise to it. I need you at my back. Strong, silent, serious. That’s what you must be until the deed is done. After that, be as loose of limits and artificial lines as you wish.”
“I want to follow you around with a pen and paper and just write down every word you say.”
“Shh. Stop staring at me like I’m edible. This is important.”
I rolled my eyes at him and went on. “Don’t take off your mask, even if someone tells you to. And most important of all, once the Dance of the Sugar Snow has started, don’t stop dancing for any reason.”
“That’s more important than killing Ravenna? A dance?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “This is not just a ball. This is a holy rite of the goddess Aztarte, a ritual that ensures the prosperity of the blud monarchy of Freesia. The playing of the music and the grace of the dancers will determine the course of the next year. Should the musicians’ fingers stutter or the dancers stumble, the snow might not fall. At the very, very least, word would spread that something had gone amiss, and the people of the city would begin to search for faults in their world. Verusha told us that the snow had not fallen heavily last year, and that means that the people are already suspecting that something is wrong in the palace. In the 1700s, two couples collided and knocked over a punch bowl of bludwine. That summer, there was a drought, and the crops wilted, and the Pinkies died, and blood became scarce. The people of Muscovy rioted outside the summer palace, dragged out the Tsarina, and disemboweled her in the square to appease the goddess. This dance is very, very serious.”
Casper sat up, his playfulness fled, and thank heavens. “You didn’t mention that when you offered me the job of court composer,” he said.
“What, that if you didn’t play perfectly once a year, you’d be drained into the fountain? Oops.”
I sighed and shifted uncomfortably in my dress. “To be quite honest, I didn’t think we would make it this far. It was the sort of dream that starts optimistic, far off and beautiful. I also thought that I would eventually lose patience and murder you in your bed.”
He flicked the hair out of his face, and when his eyes met mine, something in my middle flipped sweetly. “It’s endearing how often you threaten to kill me. That’s practically flirting to you, isn’t it, darlin’?”
I leaned closer, wiggling just a little and lowering my lashes.
“I’ll threaten anyone. But I only bite the pretty boys.”
There suddenly wasn’t enough air in the carriage, and I knew before he had even moved that he was going to attack me in the loveliest way. I jerked back out of reach.
“You can’t kiss me. You can’t touch me. I have to look perfect.”
He hissed for the first time, long and low, shifting in his seat. “Only from the neck up,” he said.
“But my dress—”
“Isn’t necessary for what I’m going to do to you.”
Something inside me thrilled to hear him say it, to hear him taking control, using his power. He was giving off heat and heaven only knows what else, and the beast inside me wanted to roll naked at his feet, belly up and arms stretched over head, begging for his mouth. I wanted to make myself open and pliant for him, let him take me over with the fury of a storm.
And I realized that he was right. No one would see the vast territories of flesh that stayed hidden under my heavy dress. We had at least two hours of privacy. Before I knew it, I had my back to him, my fingers digging into the top of the bench as he carefully but quickly undid the row of buttons down my back.
I turned my head and met the hungry fire of his eyes over my shoulder. He looked down at my mouth, his intention clear.
“You can’t muss my lipstick.”
“Open your mouth.”
His eyes held me, stealing my breath. Ever so slowly, I opened my mouth. With one hand on the smooth plane of my back just above my corset, he leaned closer. His tongue darted in to caress mine, sweet and wet and hot, and it was all I could do to stay still. Part of me wanted to attack him, to drive him back into the cushioned bench. But my beast knew who held the power, who was in charge. I squirmed in place, wishing to press against him, begging him to press against me. But instead of answering my unspoken plea, he said, “Take it off.”
I pushed the dress carefully down over my arms and slipped them one by one from under the long, heavy sleeves.
I stood, bent over awkwardly, and he sat back like a king and watched me step out of the dress, the fabric whispering as it slid to the carriage floor. I folded it reverently and draped it across the other bench. Before I could shift to a more attractive and comfortable position, his hands grasped the waist of my corset and dragged me to my knees. I gasped as he buried his mouth in the cleft between my breasts, his teeth scraping lightly as if he still wasn’t accustomed to their sharpness. He settled me between his knees, and I ran my hands up the hard planes of his thighs.