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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
The crowd went mad, as weapons were strictly forbidden at the Sugar Snow Ball. Some people hissed and got into fighting stances, others ran for cover, and several just stared up at the sky, amazed. I looked up to see the dark hull of an airship hovering just beyond the trees. Ropes unfurled, and bodies slid down, shadows against the moon and light flickering off crossbows.
I was torn. Go to Casper and remove the arrow, try to help Keen, or kill Ravenna? Instinct took over, and I howled and slammed into the gypsy witch. We rolled over and over on the dancing floor, teeth and claws slashing for exposed skin. All around us, heavy boots struck the hard stone. The scent of unwashed flesh merged with the magic of the Sugar Snow and the hot reek of spilled blud. I glanced away from Ravenna for just a second and saw a familiar smile behind a curving sword.
It was Mikhail, the pirate.
All around me, Bludmen in ball gowns and tailcoats grappled and fought with the pirates. Underneath me, Ravenna growled and scratched and bit, slippery in her silk dress, the wide hoops of her skirt making it impossible to hold her down. She tossed me onto my back, and over her shoulder, I saw Keen’s shape on the altar, no longer thrashing. Casper was gone.
“Give up, little brat,” Ravenna said.
“Never!” My shout rang out as sharp as metal on ice.
“Do you want to know what I saw as your fortune, all those years ago?”
“You told me. Rebellion.”
“I lied. I saw your blud dripping off the altar. I saw this.”
She caught my wrist in her hand, clenching hard enough to make the bones rub together. With a heavy grunt, I reared back and drove my forehead into her nose with a wet crunch that reminded me all too well of the pirate we’d sent overboard. She shrieked and pulled back, burbling blud, and I saw my moment. I reached for the ring on her hand and twisted the center stone.
She shuddered, her grip loosening. I flung myself back, dragging my body out from under her skirt and away from her. Touching her skin just then would have been suicide.
It was almost beautiful, the way her body danced amid all that fighting. She was on her back, the great bell of her skirt billowing as she writhed. Blud pooled in her eyes and dribbled out her nose and mouth and ears to stain the cracks between the white stones. The fighting slowed, and the people of Freesia moved near, making a wide circle around Ravenna, watching her die in silence.
A hand found my shoulder, and I stiffened and growled before I realized it was Mikhail.
“Cyanote?” he asked.
I nodded. “A hidden compartment. As if the ring had been made for this day.”
“I told you we would be here, my queen. Your word, my life.”
Alex floundered out of the crowd and across the stone to kneel by Ravenna’s side.
As he reached for her hand, I barked, “No! Don’t touch her unless you wish to die.”
His hand stopped in midair, considering. It fell to his side, and the blud tears began to roll down his pale cheeks. When she gave a final twitch and went still, Alex threw his head back and screamed, a sound that was all too familiar from him.
“Your kill, my queen,” Mikhail murmured, pushing me forward just a little.
One foot in front of the other, I walked to the corpse of my greatest enemy. I knelt on her other side and used the sleeve of my dress to pull the ring from her stiff, already curling finger.
“A glass of blood,” I called, and with a welcome quickness, one appeared. I set the glass on the stone and dropped in the ring, pulling my skirts back. The blood bubbled and fumed, a little green cloud roiling down the glass and drifting along the stone. When it stilled, the blood had gone thick and chunky. I dumped out the ring and slipped it onto my finger.
I stood and held up my bloody hand.
“My people, Aztarte has spoken. I, Tsarina Ahnastasia Feodor, assume the throne of Freesia, as is my right by blud and by birthright. I shout my challenge over the blud of the enemy and the rime of the Sugar Snow. If you wish to face me, do it now, and I will destroy you!”
I stood defiant, my eyes meeting face after face. Every single person there cast his or her eyes to the ground, even Alex. No one was willing to challenge me. And that was right, too.
Mikhail stepped forward. “Three cheers for Tsarina Ahnastasia!”
After a deafening moment of silence, the crowd erupted, their call loud enough to shake the snow from the boughs of the trees.
“Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!”
One fist to the sky, I answered in a primal scream that sealed my monarchy.
As my howl reverberated through the forest, I heard a quiet cough and a gasp.
I found him clinging to the altar, a trail of blud marking his path.
“You have to help her,” he said.
I snorted and muttered, “I have to help you first, fool.”
“Mikhail! Get the arrow out of him!” I shouted.
“Not him.” Casper drew back and coughed a spray of blud. “Don’t pull out the arrow. I need a doctor.”
Mikhail appeared beside us, a bemused smile on his face. “Don’t know what a doctor is, comrade, but a little arrow is hardly an impediment. Once the point is out, you’ll heal quickly enough. Lucky you joined the right side, eh?”
With a grim nod, I turned back to Keen. Her eyelids fluttered, her pulse weak. She was so broken that she barely registered as food. A great chill crept over me, seeing her nearly dead, and I looked up to the cold moon. Would Aztarte forgive me for what I was about to do? And did I really need anyone’s forgiveness anymore?
“My people, I hereby adopt this child as a Feodor. The traitor Ravenna made an unpure sacrifice to Aztarte, and I will redeem this creature with the blud of our people. She will replace my sister, Princess Olgha Feodor, murdered by Ravenna’s hand. Blood for blud.”
A murmur went through the crowd, but no one objected or moved forward. With a silent plea to the moon and her mistress, I pulled back the gem-crusted sleeve of my gown to bite my wrist and let the blud pour into Keen’s open mouth. At first, nothing happened, and the blud slipped from her lips to dribble down the white face of the altar. For just a second, as I watched the bright spatter fall, I was a child in a gypsy tent, staring at a woman with a crocodile’s smile, and then I was back with Keen, willing her to live. My heart stuttered to watch the bright red paint her dry tongue. Then, miracle of miracles, her broken throat moved. After a few moments, she licked her lips, and her eyes popped open.
“More,” she said with a gurgle, and I laughed.
“So you’re back to yourself, then, urchin?”
She grabbed my wrist and pulled it close, sucking hard. It wasn’t like it had been with Casper—not at all. It hurt, as if she were trying to draw the very soul out of my body with her teeth. But I was determined to show my people that I was untouchable, and I was desperate to keep Keen alive. For me and for Casper. So I held my head high, letting her drink and daring anyone to challenge me. Inside, I was screaming.
“She’s going to live?” Casper said quietly.
I turned to give him a wobbling smile. “I know nothing else but miracles,” I said with a half-sobbing chuckle at how everything had turned out.
“I’m getting there myself.”
“Welcome to the Blud Court, Maestro.”
It wasn’t easy after that. Bludding Keen took time and caused us both excruciating pain. By the end, we were curled together on the hard ground under a mound of capes and jackets, shivering with the cold and the ache of draining and covered in frozen blud. Casper had stayed with us the entire time, guarding us as if I was a bitch with a new pup.
Keen finally dragged herself out from beneath my arm and stood, as wobbly as a new fawn.
“I think we’re finally even,” she muttered. She shook herself and grinned with new energy before following her nose to the banquet table.
Casper pulled me onto his lap, and I tucked my head into his neck and watched Mikhail and his crew clean up the chaos they’d wrought. They had seemed like a multitude, sliding down from the sky in a rain of arrows, but in truth, it was a skeleton crew of fewer than a dozen Bludmen, sons of Freesia who had mutinied under Mikhail’s lead and stolen the pirate airship while Captain Corvus drank himself insensible between Miss May’s thighs.
My first act as Tsarina was to pardon Mikhail and the rest of the Blud Barons driven out by Ravenna. My second act was to send everyone home to spread the word that the traitor was dead and the true queen returned, along with the heaviest Sugar Snow that had been seen in a century. Alex was still distraught at Ravenna’s death, and I ordered the servants to take him back to his room at the palace and lock him up, if need be, until his ensorcelled attachment could be broken.
There was so much more work to be done fixing Ravenna’s mess. The weeks to come would take hard days and longs nights of restoring the diplomacy, the pacts, the affairs of state. The rioting Pinkies needed to be dealt with, but not in the cruel way that my people expected. Ravenna had let them run wild to distract the Bludmen from her other sins, but I wanted them to have rights of their own now, which was going to take some tricky footwork in the Blud Council. I would simply have to persuade my people that happy food tasted better. The vials the servants brought me to replenish myself after the bludding hardly seemed to make a dent in my own hunger, but with Casper by my side, I doubted I’d be drinking from live Pinkies again, no matter how much I craved it. The Tsarina would live by example.
When the last of the crowd had dispersed, I turned to wrap my arms around Casper’s neck. My limbs were heavy with exhaustion, my dress splattered with blud and torn by Keen’s frantic fingernails, but he didn’t flinch from the gore. The airship bobbed high above us, brushing the highest boughs of the trees and dusting our heads with snow. I could hear the pirates celebrating up there, drinking their grog mixed with blood and singing “Aztarte Smiles on Bloodshed.” We were as alone as we had been since the carriage.
“How did you do it?” I asked him as his fingers stroked my fallen hair.
“Play a song you’d never heard before, a secret song, as if you had written it? How did you play it so well that the snow is still falling?”
He chuckled into my neck, his entire body shaking with laughter. “I was scared at first. But when I saw the first notes, I knew. It’s the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. It’s one of the most well-known songs ever written in my world. I learned it before I was ten.” He couldn’t stop giggling, but I didn’t have enough breath to join in. “Of all the music Sang has never seen, I can’t believe that song’s the Bludmen’s great secret.”
I smiled weakly and sighed, glad that Aztarte, or fortune, was on our side. Casper pulled me closer, and over his shoulder, I watched Keen pillaging the dessert table, delighting in her first taste of bloodsweets as she tried to fill the emptiness from repeated draining, a feeling I knew all too well.
“She’s a tenacious creature, that one,” I said.
“You’re one to talk.”
“Bah. All in a day’s work for the Tsarina. I’m nearly invulnerable.”
“I never felt that way until you came along. Walt Whitman once said that those who love each other shall become invincible. I understand it now.”
“Did he say anything about sleep?”
He thought for a moment, one arm idly stroking my back. “He said that making the best person involves open air and good food and sleeping with the earth.”
I grinned and stood on shaky feet, holding out a hand to pull him up beside me. “Forget the earth. I’ve got an enormous bed, over there in that palace. Let me introduce you.”
Some days later, I woke to the sound of the harpsichord. With my ermine robe dragging on the carpet behind me, I padded down the stairs to the parlor. The scene before me was like a dream. All of the people I had fought for at the Sugar Snow Ball were there, together, breakfasting in the golden-warm morning of the Ice Palace.
Casper sat curled over the keyboard in breeches and open shirt, playing some strange song from his world, a mirror of the first time I met him. Keen lounged on the floor before the fire, taunting a brood of wolfhound puppies with her clockwork tortoise as my brother excitedly tried to explain the dogs’ lineage. Ravenna’s magic was hard to break, which meant that Alex’s ailment was all but cured, yet he still mourned the woman he had believed to be his fiancée. Casper had already written to Criminy Stain, requesting his aid in separating the spells so that Alex could live a normal life but give up Ravenna’s ghost.
As for Keen, she had taken to the bludding better than expected. I had called her tenacious, but it was more than that. She had a fierce will to live and survive against all odds, and even she seemed to recognize that she had little right to complain. Her life in the other world had been a hard one, and her life in London had been harder, and now she was nearly invulnerable and living in the biggest castle on the continent, with all the food, free time, and bludponies she’d ever wanted. She hadn’t shown me any gratitude for saving her life, but I didn’t expect her to. I’d said often enough myself that princesses didn’t say thank you, and she was officially Olgha II of Freesia, as much as she hated the name. She would have several years of freedom before her responsibilities actually became an impediment, but I dreaded the day of her majority, when I would have to force her into a dress and a crown to sit for her portrait. For now, it was enough that she was alive and smiling.
I curled up in my favorite chaise by the window, and a servant placed a steaming cup of blud tea in my hand, the porcelain painted with tiny violets.