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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
As I watched Ravenna lead Casper to the grand white harpsichord under the stairs, a cold hand grasped my wrist.
“I’ll sit this one out,” I hissed, trying to snatch my wrist back and failing.
It was the dandy. Or dandies. One on either side of me. Their twin smiles, smug and sure, told me they knew more than I wanted them to. They each grasped one of my arms, and when I struggled, the one in violet produced a metal instrument like the one filled with seawater that had been carried by the assassin on the train.
“It’s considered a patriotic duty to dance the Snowsong,” one said, and the other nodded and added, “Not dancing is often repaid with a good beheading.”
I bared my teeth and felt the rush of the hunt flood my veins. I’d rip out their hearts and stomp on their fancy jackets if they didn’t loose my wrists.
“Oh, I don’t think we want to behead this one, boys.”
They spun me around, and I was face-to-face with my enemy at last. Ravenna grinned, a mad look in her dark eyes. My brother, Alex, was nowhere to be seen.
I took a deep breath and held her stare, my wrists caught by the dandies.
“Nothing to say to your queen? Bow to me, then, little peacock.”
The anger built inside me, but I was as still as a statue, as still as the blud altar, as still as the high white moon.
Her smile curled up, the bloodred lips mocking me. “Remove her mask.”
One of the dandies untied the strings, and the proud peacock’s face shattered on the stone. The night air was cool and welcome on my heated skin, but Ravenna’s furious cackle of triumph stole the moment of relief. Her jugular pulsed as she threw back her head, and a rush of hunger and anger made me shiver. Nothing smelled so sweet as the enemy’s blud. With my wrists pinned, I was helpless to exact my revenge. But I was so close.
I sought Casper across the clearing and found him sitting at the harpsichord. For a fraction of a heartbeat, I smiled to know he was in the place he best belonged, but then reality crushed me again. One of the musicians was scribbling on a piece of paper, and Casper was miming notes on the harpsichord. Should he miss a note or time it wrong, it would mess up the dance, and the company would tear him limb from limb as a sacrifice to Aztarte. It was a clever gamble on Ravenna’s part, as if she had known that worry for Casper was the only thing that could leave me unbalanced.
“Ahnastasia,” Ravenna said, one claw tracing my cheek and leaving a hot line behind. “You’ve run me a pretty chase, princess.”
I shrugged. She silently snarled and stepped closer, close enough for me to smell an unnatural scent rising from her skin, something I couldn’t quite place.
Across the clearing, a trill rang out from the harpsichord. Four notes. The calling of the dancers.
“May I have this dance?” Ravenna asked with a mocking bow.
And I had to accept, because as much as I needed to kill her, my country needed a well-danced ritual and a perfectly fallen Sugar Snow. And she knew it, damn her. I inclined my head just the tiniest bit, and she held out her arm, as a man would. The dandies loosed me, and I let her lead me to my place at the head of the line. She stood across from me as we waited among hundreds of others, tense and excited, for the first notes to ring out.
It was always beautiful, that song. I could so easily picture Casper’s nimble fingers on the keyboard, stroking the ivory keys with an intimacy and strength I knew all too well. As the first notes leaped into the air, I turned to bow to the gentleman on my other side, finding the dandy in the purple coat waiting with a mocking smile. I was trapped among the three of them, but I held my head high and danced with the grace and beauty expected of the crown princess. Whenever it came time to promenade with Ravenna, I had to stop myself from hissing at her damning and flippant power, her grasp stronger than that of any man who had ever led me while dancing. She was all but daring me to ruin my country, her feet stretching to trip me at every opportunity. Keeping up gracefully was a pretty little revenge. Casper played the song perfectly, as if he had written it himself. I was half shocked, half gratified at his success.
“Where have you been, princess?” Ravenna asked, gazing over my shoulder.
“Almanica. Hunting buffalo.”
“Does Olgha live?”
“She’ll be here soon with an army of daimons to overthrow you.”
“I tire of your lies, little tsarling.”
“I tire of your meddling, witch.”
“I didn’t want to do this.” She sighed and took my arm. When we began the next figure, she blew some sort of powder into my face, making me blink and nearly trip. I was still shaking my head when she whispered some strange musical words. I went dizzy but didn’t misstep.
“Tell me, Ahnastasia. Does Olgha live?”
“No.” The word was out of my mouth before I could think it.
“Where have you been?”
I clenched my teeth, but the words leaked out the side of my mouth. “Drained in a valise.”
She smiled, almost friendly. “There. That’s better. Why are you here?”
“To kill you and take back Freesia.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s going to happen. You’re not doing well so far.”
I tried to stick my tongue to the roof of my mouth as I looked over her shoulder. Casper was curled over the harpsichord, his face suffused with rapture. It was truly the most beautiful song I had ever known, and hearing him play it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially since Ravenna seemed to have the upper hand. When I looked up at the moon, I could see the clouds starting to swirl in a circle and sparkle as if tiny fairies flew within. The smell was sweet and heavy, like a bush about to blossom at midnight, except that the blooms were snowflakes. If he was playing well enough and we were dancing well enough, the next chorus would bring the first snow.
“What have you done to Alex?” I asked.
“He’s ensorcelled, of course. That began long before I had your parents executed. Alex is on a steady diet of my blud, which calms him and binds him further to me. I’ll announce our engagement at the end of the dance. The wedding will happen in summer, I think, at the Basilica of Aztarte.”
It had been said to enrage me, and it worked. My talons bit into her shoulder, drawing blood, and the hand I held made a slight crunching noise. She didn’t flinch, and neither of us missed a step. If she managed to marry Alex and kill me, she would be Tsarina of Freesia until she died, ending my family’s matriarchal reign forever.
“What of the Svedish king?”
A wicked smile. “That’s the second act.”
“The people will never stand for it,” I hissed.
“The people are cattle. But tell me, did you turn Casper?”
“Then I have grounds to drain you, should you live through the dance. Excellent. Ah, the chorus.”
Casper shifted into the trickiest part of the song. The dancers had formed two circles, the men a smaller ring inside the larger one formed by the women and their grand dresses. I couldn’t see where Ravenna’s claws ended and mine began as we spun, around and around, faster and faster. Her black skirt swung out like a huge bell, a monstrous flower, and mine flared just a little, the iridescent feathers shimmering in the air. The woman on my other side was nothing, just a shadow holding me in place. Across from us, the men’s circle whirled in the opposite direction, a blur of dark coats and bright cravats. Casper’s song built in speed and strength, and the world seemed to hold its breath, and finally, with a heavy sigh, the first fat flakes of snow began to fall in the center of the circles, right above the blud altar.
The first ones never made it to the ground; you could only see them if you looked up, just right. But then they began to pour, heavy and white and pure, with the scent of hidden flowers and raw wind and wildness. I breathed in deep as we spun, focusing ever upward and sending silent prayers to Aztarte.
Let me kill Ravenna.
Let me save my brother, my country.
Let Casper survive.
I bit my lip hard enough to draw blud and spat into the wind, hoping to hit some snow and help my prayers find the goddess whom I suddenly, desperately needed to be real and listening.
As the song built to the last verse, the circles stopped spinning exactly where they’d started, and the dancers moved to the last set. Ravenna pulled me close, jerking my body into position, as the leading dancer was supposed to do. We were both panting and exhilarated with the touch of the first snow, and a heavy one at that.
“You see? Aztarte smiles on my future rule,” she all but purred, and I smiled through closed teeth before spitting a big glob of blud in her face. It spattered over her dainty mask, turning the unicorn hair a strange pink.
Slow and low, she hissed at me. “We finish this dance, and then you and your pet abomination die.”
“We shall see.”
The dance ended, and we performed the traditional bow, our eyes never unlocking. The entire company clapped and whistled with an unusual enthusiasm. The snow still fell, already gathering in our hair and on the boughs around us, although it never marred the stone of the dancing floor. As I straightened and moved to pounce on Ravenna, the dandies caught my wrists and jerked me painfully back from my leap.
“An auspicious omen!” Ravenna shouted, and the people cheered again with real enthusiasm. She raised her arms and led us to the blud altar, and the dancers formed a ring around us. “Bring the Maestro and the sacrifice,” she called, disappearing among the guests and leaving me with the dandies.
As the crowd gathered, the whispering began. They could see my face. Did they recognize me, or were they simply curious about my lack of a mask and the fact that I was being restrained like a criminal?
“Ahna?” My brother appeared, his voice deeper than I remembered but his face still youthful and anxious.
“Greetings, Alex.” I kept my tone even, proud, my chin held high.
“Did you know I’m better? Where have you been? We’ve been looking forever.”
I chuckled. “That’s my baby brother, always worrying about himself first.”
“Do you know where Mother and Father have been?”
“Yes.” I cocked my head, confused at his lack of sorrow. “Do you?”
“A diplomatic mission. Ravenna says they’ll be back soon.”
“I’m sure they will,” I said gently.
The crowd parted, and Ravenna marched through with Casper on her arm. His lips were curled back, his teeth bared. But I smelled fear on him, too, which was a surprise. In that moment, anger should have consumed him, as it consumed me.
A murmur rippled through the party, and I smelled something strange, my hackles rising. An interloper, a non-Blud, at the Sugar Snow Ball? When I breathed in deeper, fear clutched my heart, too, and I understood Casper’s strange reaction. It was no surprise when the crowd parted to reveal a servant carrying a bound Pinky.
The servant set her on the ground, and she growled around a gag and thrashed in the ropes. Ravenna put one hand on her head. “You’ll never guess what we found in the city, trying to pawn a royal diamond the size of her thumbnail.”
I groaned and glared at Keen, but her eyes were too wide and terrified for it to have any sort of effect, not even the flippant and dangerous eye rolling I had hoped to see. She knew, with the prey animal’s deep-down fear, that she was doomed.
“We have Aztarte’s blessing, my people! And now we will honor her with the blood of retribution!”
The crowd seemed unsure how to respond, outside of scattered applause and whispering. The clearing went dark for a moment, a cloud passing over the moon. I shivered, and not because of the snow falling like kisses on my hair and shoulders. The very worst had come to pass: she had all three of us in her power and Aztarte’s blessing to rule. I had wished to see Keen again, but never like this.
Ravenna picked up Keen as if the girl weighed nothing and tossed her roughly onto the blood altar. Keen’s face was as white as the stone, and she fought against the bonds, her eyes pinned on Casper and pleading.
“This insignificant creature has told me all your secrets.” Ravenna spoke to me, but her voice was purposefully loud. “First, you will give me the ring of succession, and I will wear it as I drain her in the name of Aztarte. When the sacrifice has been made, I will destroy this abomination and punish you for putting the royal blud of Freesia into a commoner. Three is a sacred number, and your blud will seal our victory. Aztarte will bless us above all others as we join with Sveden and march on Sangland to topple the Coppers and rule forever.”
The crowd was silent. I was silent. Ravenna held out her hand. I reached into my corset and withdrew the ring of succession, the sapphire glinting, cold and blue in the moonlight. With a heavy sigh, I placed it in her outstretched palm, her black fingers curling around it and a smile of pure joy spreading over her face. She slipped it over the proper finger and held her hand aloft, and the crowd clapped sadly, as if they had no choice. The empire’s death hung heavy over the clearing, which should have sparkled with music and dancers. And yet no one could protest. I watched my ring twinkle on my enemy’s finger as the dandies yet again captured my wrists.
“Are you not patriots?” I whispered, and one of them whispered back, “The winner writes the history, sweetness.”
Ravenna approached Keen and stroked her tear-stained face, turning her cheek away. In a savage strike, she swiped the girl’s throat open with one talon. Blood poured down Keen’s tender neck and into the trough, funneling it straight down into the soil, to Aztarte herself. Casper roared and jumped for Ravenna’s throat, but the strangest thing I could possibly imagine happened. An arrow from nowhere landed to quiver in his shoulder, and he fell to the ground.