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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
This time, the lights shone full on Ravenna.
She was ageless, the same as that first time I’d encountered her at the Sugar Snow festival. The same bronze skin, eagle’s nose, and sweeping black hair. The same savage grace, as if her spine curved back just a little, like a cobra waiting to strike. Even from the farthest point of the clearing, I could see the magnificence of her costume and the gossamer diamond twinkling of her mask.
But what struck me most was that she had worn black. Black was considered a color of the oppressed. In the big cities of Sangland, many Bludmen were forced to wear black so that all would know what they were. As if my people wished to hide! But I had never heard of anyone wearing black to the Sugar Snow Ball. After all, it was the opposite color of snow.
Just behind her, my brother, Alex, stepped forward to take her arm. He was stiff, proud, alert, his costume done in black and white to coordinate perfectly with hers. He was just the slightest bit taller than she, his eyes shining the bold red that was usual for him and highly strange elsewhere. They descended the staircase, slowly to accommodate Ravenna’s proud skirts, and goose bumps rippled over my arms. There was something deeply disturbing about the ritual, and if the whispers around us were any indication, the people felt it, too.
It felt like forever until they reached the floor. As Alex’s boots clacked on the stone, a fierce wind began to batter the trees. I looked up to find the green boughs swaying mournfully, straining toward the cold white moon in the center, full and round and perfect and still, untouchable and nearly as bright as the daytime sun. The breeze brought a chill and the welcome and exhilarating scent of snow. I breathed in deeply and looked into Casper’s eyes. I wanted to know if he could smell it, too. His face shone with amazement, and his arm snaked possessively around my waist, pulling me close.
Across the clearing, Alex trailed Ravenna as she walked along a line of crystalline red stone inlaid in the white. Her hips swayed, the over-wide skirts of her dress seeming to float along gently. The crowd waited, breathless and anxious for a show. The ball always began with a proclamation, and what was said and by whom was always rather telling.
The orchestra ended the song exactly as they stopped before the circular blud altar in the very center of the clearing. It was smooth and beautifully carved of pure white stone, with a trough down the center that funneled into a hole that supposedly led deep into the earth and to Aztarte herself. Ravenna moved to the fore, her dress blocking the altar entirely. Alex stood to one side, making it clear who ruled here.
My enemy smiled, bloodred lips parting over sharp teeth. Her mask hugged her face like lace spun of moonlight, highlighting her dark brows, black kohl, blacker eyes, and eerie smile.
The wind whipped past her, the feathers of her cape stirring with the iridescent inky shimmer of a raven’s wing.
“People of Freesia,” she called, her dusky-sweet voice carrying and echoing within the curve of the clearing.
A murmur went through the crowd. Historically, the crowd was to bow, yet . . . no one did. She ignored them.
“I welcome you to the Sugar Snow Ball. May your feet be light, your hearts be open, and the blood of your enemies be ever warm.”
The words were mostly correct, but a tremor of unease ran through the crowd. The speech should have come from a Feodor, from someone carrying the blud of Freesia. Ravenna wasn’t one of our people, much less a creature bonded by blud and birth to the land. She couldn’t even make the traditional offering, just after the Sugar Snow, letting her blud flow into the altar and down into the ground to Aztarte’s bones. She must have had plans to use Alex in her place.
When Ravenna bowed to the assembly, Alex bowed, too, which gave me an excuse to return the gesture without betraying my country. The crowd waited, holding our collective breath, as Ravenna raised her arms high and then brought them down dramatically. The orchestra began, and with a grand sweep, Ravenna was waltzing with my brother in the traditional first dance. I struggled to see past a sea of people taller than I. Was Alex hungry and feral, or was he drugged, or had the mad gypsy actually succeeded in calming him to something near normal? The air fairly stank of magic, but I had never had the knack and couldn’t tell what exactly Ravenna was using it to accomplish.
The first dance lasted forever, but it always did. At least this time, I was anonymous, squashed between dresses in a crowd. It was harder when you were the one standing before the blood altar, being ogled and judged and measured by the assembled crowd. A heavy skirt nudged me, and I stepped sideways, annoyed to be in what was clearly the smallest dress. As if he could feel my annoyance, Casper squeezed my hand. Bolstered, I squeezed back.
Finally, the first dance was over, and the assembled couples quickly spread out to enjoy the next song. I pulled Casper away from the blud altar, where Ravenna and Alex danced, a dark smudge among the bright jewels of the moonlit crowd.
With a firm and steady hand, Casper twirled me out and drew me near, a cocky smile on his face. His other hand caught my waist in a move both formal and tender, and I let him lead me through the dance, guiding me through the steps with a Bludman’s born grace. With such a large floor, it was easy to stay far from the altar and never brush by another couple. In my mother’s time, everyone had always gravitated toward the Tsarina, hoping for a benevolent word when skirts accidentally brushed or an especially fine gown caught her eye. This time, they hovered around Ravenna, uncertain and fearful but drawn, deep down, to the most dangerous predator in the area. I didn’t want to see it, so I concentrated on Casper.
He was nothing short of magnificent. Had I seen this man from across this very clearing, I would have sought him like a magnet to true north, like lightning to the tallest tree. The intensity of his gaze coupled with the humor in his mouth. The firm cut of his jaw and the soft waves of his hair. The wide shoulders that made the ridiculous jacket into artwork, and the fine figure that made the tight breeches a study of planes and curves. All I missed was the feel of his hands, his dark gloves the only thing between us and possible discovery. I hoped no one else had looked closely enough to notice they weren’t a Bludman’s claws.
“You’re more beautiful than your portrait,” he murmured in my ear.
“You can’t even see my face.”
“I don’t have to.”
He spun me out and back, the heavy skirt swirling around my ankles. When he caught me close, I smelled his scent rising with the promise of snow, a strange mix of sun and darkness, sandalwood and fir trees, old wood and new blud. The dancers around us became as inconsequential as ashes in a storm, fluttery bits of nothing. Our eyes were caught and burning, our feet moving like leaves on the wind. I didn’t realize the song was over until he had spun me out and bowed.
Taking my hand, he led me toward a table of treats tended by low-ranking blud servants. I looked down, hoping they wouldn’t recognize me but knowing that it was expected for us to partake and that every drop of blood made me stronger.
Casper had no way of knowing all of the clever and indulgent ways to enjoy a Bludman’s feast, so I took up a curl of candied tangerine dipped in blood sugar and held it to his lips. His mouth twitched, and his eyes narrowed, but he knew better than to reject it.
“That is so very weird,” he said, chewing. “I like it, and I hate it. But it’s familiar.”
I popped a piece into my mouth and tried to imagine what it would be like, tasting it for the first time. The tart, bright twist of the orange coupled with the waxy blood and the crystalline coating. But I couldn’t tease it apart. I had always loved this taste, just as I had always lived this life in my body.
“Are you happy?” I asked him before my brain caught up with my mouth.
“I exist as I am, and that is enough. If no other in the world be aware I sit content.”
“Bah. A ball is no place for your philosophies, Master . . .” I trailed off. Sterling was a Pinky name, the sort of overtly pleasant thing they had adopted when they had begun to take over the parts of the world where Bludmen were considered monsters. His name had to be powerful, careless, cruel. “Master Scathing,” I said, liking the flavor of it in my mouth.
“That won’t . . . I’m not . . .”
“Sniveling? Strafing? Starving? Savage?”
For just a moment there, he was human again, and struggling. Then, as if shaking off water, he suddenly seemed a foot taller and a foot wider, his eyes filled with thunder and staring over my shoulder at some new threat.
“Would the lady care to dance?”
I turned, mouth open in surprise, to find one of the two dandies I had recognized earlier. Dancing with him was the last thing on Sang that I wanted to do, and yet to deny him would have caused even more aggravation. I forced a smile and nodded, and he took my hand carefully, as if it might suddenly turn in his grasp like a snake. I tried to recall his name and failed.
The next dance was, damnably, a slow one. I placed my hand on his shoulder in the correct place, and he looked at it as if I planned on ripping a hole in his perfectly tailored violet jacket. His other hand landed lightly on my hip, as if I were a piece of furniture instead of a person, and he began to move me mechanically around the floor, whisking me ever farther away from my only ally. The last thing I saw as we passed behind the blood altar was the second dandy sidling up to Casper in a coat the same orange as the sick sunset after a storm.
“You seem rather familiar, my dear. Have we chanced to meet?”
His voice was cultured, affected, and soft. I peered into his face as if trying to place him, and the waxed and curled tips of his mustache twitched. “I don’t believe so,” I said in the clipped accent of Sangland.
“You’ve been to the Sugar Snow Ball, surely.”
“This is my first time.”
“But that dress! Your seamstress is a treat. You must give me her address. In Muscovy, I suppose?” His eyes were quite large behind the slip of the mask, the black around them exaggerated. He was staring at me strangely, not as if I were a woman he found attractive, because that was impossible. And yet there was an odd, anxious hunger that I couldn’t place.
“You have been fooled, sir. It is secondhand, I am ashamed to say.”
“Is there a tag? A tailor’s mark? I simply must know. The beading is exquisite. It’s the very image of the debutante gown worn by dear, sweet Princess Ahnastasia, may Aztarte have mercy on her soul. Although the color is just a bit different.”
“Mmm,” I murmured, nearly tripping over his exaggeratedly long shoes.
“Where do you hail from, darling? Your accent is rather exotic.”
“Divine town. I dote upon it severely. Tell me, have you ever been to the opera there?”
His hand clenched ever so slightly on my waist, and he looked over my shoulder too quickly. I tried to follow his gaze, but he spun me into a crowd, and I couldn’t see back to where Casper had been, beside the table.
“And is your mask from there as well?”
“A gift from my aunt, for the ball.”
“Hiding so much.” The hand on my waist rose between us, the talon on his thumb raking my chin right under the mask. “Tell me, snowbird. Is your face as beautiful as your dress?”
Thank heavens the Sugar Snow hadn’t started yet. My reaction would have plunged the country into anarchy. I jerked back from his claws and stumbled out of his arms, one hand holding the mask to my face before he could pry it off. His mouth curled up slowly, mimicking his mustache, and I spun away to shoulder through the other dancers and return to Casper. The space around the table was empty, with no sign of Casper or the other dandy. The Sugar Snow was close, and the air was tense and expectant, humming with magic. It was almost time.
With a silent hiss, I accepted a flute of champagne-infused blood from a waiting servant and held it up to my mask. I couldn’t get it down without making a mess of one sort or another, so I set it on the table and selected a chilled vial of blood slush from a waiting cauldron. Shaking with silent fury and fear, I tossed it back through the mouth hole of my mask as I sought Casper in the crowd.
When I finally found him, the iced blood went heavy in my stomach.
He was dancing with Ravenna.
Perhaps Casper led the dance, but it was clear who was in power. They danced slowly, Ravenna’s mouth close enough to rip out his jugular as she whispered into his ear. They spun enough for me to see his face, and he was ashen, pale with barely restrained fury. The song ended, but she didn’t let go of the hand she had held while dancing. Instead, she dragged him toward the blud altar, and they stood before it together.
“People of Freesia!” she shouted, and everyone crowded around. The scent of the coming Sugar Snow was heavy in the air, the moon obscured by misty clouds that swirled against the indigo like milk in blood.
“My friends, I have great news. Our Sugar Snow is doubly blessed this year. We have with us the greatest musician in all of Sang. The Maestro himself, Casper Sterling!” Polite applause and whispering broke out, and Casper let out a great, shuddering breath. “He has been recently bludded, although he won’t reveal the circumstances. For once, an abomination is a welcome member of our ranks. My people, do we wish to hear the Snowsong played by the world’s most talented harpsichordist?”
The applause after that was deafening. It had been a lean few years, and any advantage was welcome. One famous and talented man commanding the instrument he knew best was a better gamble than an entire orchestra when it came to flawless playing and timing.
Then again, no one had ever heard the Snowsong, aside from the Bludmen who came to this ball every year. It wasn’t written, it wasn’t public, and it was considered a great secret. How he was going to oblige Ravenna and her court without inciting tragedy was beyond me. At least, he had managed to avoid telling her about me; if she had known, I would have been in a fight for my life already. I focused on uncurling my claws and trying to appear as normal and innocent as possible.