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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Your mask,” Casper said, and I growled to myself for being so foolish. I hoped the girl was too young to be as obsessed with my family as the old Muscovy barons had been. I slipped the cool porcelain back over my face and adjusted the feathers above. My best strategy was not to take it off again until I needed my teeth for murder.
Before I could likewise remind Casper, he hissed. He reached beyond me, his arm brushing the heavy beading of my dress with the sound of rustling leaves as he held out his own peacock mask, broken into three pieces.
“You can’t yell at me,” he said with a rueful chuckle. “After all, you were on this bench, so it’s your fault, not mine.”
With a finger under his chin, I turned his head this way and that. “Do you look different now to yourself?” I asked. “Would someone remember your face?”
“I can’t tell. I stopped looking about a year ago. Every time I did, I saw a new person there whom I hated with various levels of regret.”
“And now? Do you hate yourself now?”
He shook my finger off, pretending to snap at it. “Nope. Feels good. Do I look different to you?”
“Always and never the same. I would know better if I’d been awake for the last four years.”
The pieces of ceramic dropped from his gloved hands, and my fingers roved to my own mask, feeling the impersonal smoothness. I had never been one to hide, and I almost envied him his sudden but unwelcome freedom. It was unheard of to arrive at the Sugar Snow Ball without a mask, even if some of the revelers favored dainty lace strips or modified eye patches. We would have to find something before he made a fool of himself or was refused entry.
“My lord, my lady! Will you descend?”
The voice from outside startled us, and in a fit of inspiration, I said, “Quick. Rub the ink over your eyes where a mask would go. It will have to do. You can’t be seen with your face fully bare. It’s tradition.”
He took off his gloves, licked his fingers, and grimaced at the taste. Rubbing across his temples, over his eyes, and over the top of his nose produced a raw, primitive mask shape in dark hunter green. It made his blue eyes pop, brighter, wilder, and more shadowy than ever.
“Well?” he asked.
I fought the urge to kiss him again and unlocked the carriage door. “It’ll have to do,” I said.
It was easy enough to blend in with the crowd that strolled leisurely down the paved path and into the shadow of the Ice Forest. The women rustled like birds, their dresses reflecting the shining lanterns and moonlight in startling shimmers that left spots dancing in my eyes. The men were likewise resplendent, if more tame, their waistcoats and cravats shouting with color from staid jackets and breeches of chocolate, navy, and olive. Casper was one of a few dandies, outshone in brightness and glitter only by a tall, thin pair of gentlemen with dashing tailcoats and carefully tended facial hair under their half-masks. I recognized them from past balls, as they were much-celebrated dancers and fashion trend-setters in the city. Feeling their black-painted eyes on me, I turned my mask to Casper, clutching his arm harder than I meant to. It was a credit to him that he didn’t complain.
I had never walked this walk, had never heard the women chatting and gossiping about last year’s ball and how Ravenna’s gown had taken half a year to embroider. If the whispers were correct, Ravenna’s mask had been tatted from a unicorn’s tail hairs, and my brother, Alex, was well enough to attend, which had never happened during my time in the palace. Casper tried to speak to me, but I shushed him and tried not to breathe. Every word I heard was another weapon in my arsenal, another tiny talon to take down my prey. These bright creatures would know things the papers did not.
The forest closed overhead, the ancient trees climbing as tall as the basilica in the city where we’d kissed yesterday, back when things had been easy and before we had lost Keen. The way Casper was scanning the crowd, I could tell he was thinking about her, too. As if maybe she was still trailing us, as she always had, skulking in the shadows and waiting to accost us with her strange accent and odder words. But had she been there, we would have smelled her, as every other Bludman would have. The girl would have been a moment’s work to drain as fortification before the party, much as the gentlemen on the Maybuck had taken a shot of whiskey before claiming their women.
The night was even darker under the canopy of boughs. Lanterns hung from the trees, providing an ethereal, bobbing light that reminded me of childhood fairy tales. Some of them were pierced tin, some paper globes, some little braziers on chains. There were even a few Moravian stars that made me smile to myself, thinking of my time with Casper in the inn. I would never look at a glowing star the same way again. He squeezed my arm, and I realized that we shared that memory, that it might possibly mean as much to him as it did to me. It had been his rebirth, sure. But it had changed me, too, which I came to realize more and more. As if in taking in so much of his blood, I had taken in part of his humanity. My lack of fury at being an object of change was itself telling. His smile told me that perhaps he didn’t regret it so much as he had before.
Ahead, the trail forked, the ladies taking the lefthand route and the gentlemen carrying on to the right. I had only a moment to glance desperately at Casper before we were forced apart around a stone fountain bubbling with blood-tinged champagne. I was caught in a group of about twenty other ladies, but it felt twice as crowded because of the giant bell-like skirts that were fashionable just then. I didn’t see another dress in the clingy fishtail style I wore. Even if they didn’t recognize me immediately, they would one day remember my dress, were I successful.
“Do you think the snow will even fall this year?” a tall lady clad in wine red asked a matron in indigo.
The grand dame bit her lip and sighed, eyes rolled heavenward. “We can only hope Aztarte hears our prayers,” she answered ambiguously, leaving the woman in red sorely vexed.
“If you ask me, there’s something underhanded going on,” a dark-skinned girl in canary yellow said, nudging her skirts aside to walk side-by-side with the tall girl in red. “Nothing adds up. Someone should speak up and ask.”
“Why don’t you, then?”
The girl in yellow let loose a bright, high laugh as fake as the diamonds in her earbobs. “I’m suspicious, not suicidal.” She patted her companion’s hand and moved away, deeper into the crowd.
I looked from face to face, searching for someone familiar. The masks could only hide so much, and I had danced among the Freesian court for years. But I saw very few faces I knew, and I lost track of the mental list of acquaintances who should have been there but weren’t. Mikhail had been telling the truth on the Maybuck; Ravenna had chased the old blood out and brought new faces to the Sugar Snow Ball. That meant that I was less likely to be recognized but also that I would have fewer allies. My only sworn follower was Mikhail, and there was no way to know when I would see him again. He had pledged himself and promised to help me, but with a parachute on my back and pirates on my tail, I hadn’t bothered to ask how.
The walkway under my slippers was formed of the same smooth, carefully cut and fitted stone as the clearing where the Sugar Snow Ball took place. It had been crafted thousands of years ago—no one knew by whom or how they had made the stone both exquisitely danceable and yet never slippery. For my first ball, I had worn satin slippers, and at the end of the night, they had been entirely worn through, my blisters poking out through holes, but still I had not stopped dancing.
We entered another clearing ringed by ancient trees. Several elegant privies waited in a line, and farther on, a vast tent hung from the branches above. Inside, couches and vanities and lanterns were placed for maximum beauty and comfort. I went straight for an empty vanity to check my appearance by the light of a white paper lantern. Of course, I couldn’t remove my mask, so I was limited to patting down stray hairs and adjusting the shoulder of my dress over one of Casper’s inky smears.
A subtle glance confirmed that even if I was wearing an unusual dress and an overly mysterious mask, no one was paying me any mind. The women chattered and primped and reapplied their bloodred paint as silent servants circulated with trays of bloodwine and pink champagne. I explored the rest of the tent, which floated a few feet off the ground over the stone. In one corner, a small shrine was set up. Red candles and cut roses surrounded a painting of Ravenna with my brother, Alex, sitting at her feet like a dog. But in front of the painting, someone had placed a newspaper clipping with a sketch of Olgha and me. The headline read, “Will the Missing Blud Princesses Ever Be Found?” There was no date, but the newsprint was yellowed with age and curling around the edges.
“Bless them,” a woman murmured, and a hand deposited a vial of tears and disappeared before I could determine its owner.
I turned to watch the room. Hundreds of Bludwomen of all ages and types chattered together. All were rich, of course. A few had the traditional Freesian look, with milk-white skin and dark hair and light eyes. Even more had Ravenna’s gypsy type, and some had my icy hair and blue eyes. There were even a few dark-skinned girls and one redhead, the very image of Aztarte and full of herself over it. Among these women, there were people who believed in me. Who hoped and prayed for me every day. People who would risk their necks by honoring me with roses and candles and scraps of paper they’d carried for years.
I was close enough to feel the brush of their skirts and smell the oil in their hair, and they didn’t even recognize me. But they loved me, and for now, that was enough.
A chime sounded, and the group moved out the other side of the tent and continued along the walkway. The talk was still bright but more quiet now, excited but respectful. When our path angled in again, I all but ran to Casper’s side and took his arm.
“All well?” I murmured.
He nodded, but his eyes were guarded, his expression anxious. Being around me held its own dangers, but we had found our equilibrium. Being in a large crowd of his sudden peers for the first time, crowded with puffed-up males trying to find their place in Ravenna’s court, would have been uncomfortable even for a born Bludman. But his unsullied costume and face paint told me he at least hadn’t found himself in any fights, and that was a fine start.
We were in pairs now, a long line traversing the white stone through the high, silent forest. It felt like a cathedral, like something bigger than hands and hearts, something old and ancient that watched from afar. That was the way of the Sugar Snow Ball: you came only in pairs, although you were free to dance with anyone you chose. I had been accompanied by a string of boring, stuffy, inbred lords strategically selected by my parents, but I had infuriated each of them by night’s end and had therefore never had a repeat date, much less a steady beau. I could dance gracefully enough to bring the snow, but I couldn’t keep my mouth shut or allow some young upstart to think himself superior for even a moment. Casper was my first agreeable partner, and I could only hope we would live to have an encore.
The forest was so thick around us that it was like walking down a dark hallway. Past the lanterns, the shadows between the trees became an impenetrable wall of sinister green gloom, with subtle rustlings and the eerie growl of wood rubbing on wood. The small creatures would all be in hiding, cowering from such a display of predatory power. But larger blud creatures had occasionally been seen lurking beyond the dance floor, their eyes flashing yellow or green from the darkness as they paid homage to our ancient ritual.
The path ended at a simple staircase climbing upward in the same white stone, and the whispering quieted. I loosed Casper’s arm to hold up my dress and kept my eyes on the steps and the grand skirt of the lady before me. When I ran out of stairs at the top of the hill, I looked down on a scene both familiar and yet utterly new.
The Sugar Snow Ball was held in an ancient clearing in the bottom of a bowl-shaped impression, almost as if a mountain had been hollowed out just for that purpose. The forest rose infinitely tall around the wide circle of flat white stone, a ballroom nearly as large as the palace itself. The staircase up the hill had been simple, but the one that led to the dancing floor was grand and twisting. I had watched, bored but too well bred to fidget, as the couples paraded down that staircase every year. The ladies put on the brightest smiles. The gentlemen kept their backs straight, their chins high. Casper’s gloved hand gave mine a squeeze, and then we were separated again, step after step in time down the curling, twining staircase, twisting in and out like another dance. At the bottom, the staircases came together by an old carved statue of Aztarte that rose from the earth, glistening as if made of moonstone. Casper and I met, taking the last steps in tandem, and I let go of my skirts and took his arm again, anxious for the connection and glad to feel his strength at my side.
He didn’t know the way of things, so I guided him subtly to the back of the crowd, ensuring that there was no way Alex could see me. The wealthiest and highest-ranking couples would be at the front, with the next ring of hopefuls jockeying for position behind them. Most of the people in back would be elders, troublemakers, or foreign semiroyals who knew they would have more fun if they avoided local politics. Here, there was no jostling, just bemused smiles and patience and an occasional nip of something strongly alcoholic.
The orchestra hidden under the twining staircases began with the same sudden frenzy as the bludmares pulling our carriage, with the galloping crescendo of “Aztarte Smiles on Bloodshed,” our national song. Hands went to hearts, and all eyes focused on a long, straight staircase on the other side of the clearing. A halo of bright lights glittered, and a couple appeared at the top of the staircase, outlined by the jagged silhouette of the Ice Palace. They paused momentarily for effect. My mother had always been the one to set our pace, always knowing exactly how long to stand, head held high, at the top of that staircase.