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|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Not playing about Jude today?” I called to Casper, and he grinned and ended the song with a little trill. I watched him walk to my chaise, the very picture of a Bludman, confident and beautiful and sure. He moved my feet aside and sat.
“That one’s called ‘And I Love Her,’ ” he said. “By the same band but a little less mournful.”
“You’ve come to terms with your miserable little life, then?”
He glanced around the grandest parlor in the northern hemisphere. “The world is before me. Although I’ll always regret not taking one more swim in the sea.”
“The sea. How revolting.” I sipped my blood-tinged tea.
He took my bare feet into his lap, tracing my ankles in a way that made shivers run up my legs. “Is there anything you regret, Ahna?”
“Mmm,” I murmured. “I regret not getting to rip out Ravenna’s throat. She died horribly, but I had so looked forward to that part.”
“You used to want my head on a pike,” he offered.
“Mine, too!” Keen called.
I chuckled. “That was before you proved yourselves useful.”
“I’m still not useful,” Keen hollered, and I smiled indulgently. I wasn’t about to tell her how useful a princess could be.
“So what now?” Casper asked.
I raised my hands. “For you? This. Just this.”
“Sitting around, sipping blood? Doing nothing? That doesn’t sound like the Ahna I know.”
I sighed. “Let’s see. We need to hammer out a new peace accord with the king of Sveden, and we’ll start by sending him some decapitated dandy heads. We need to send thanks to Reve and an assassin to Mr. Sweeting. My sister’s head needs a proper burial on Freesian soil. We must find a way to shift the balance between Bludmen and Pinkies so that Pinkies are servants instead of slaves. I need to call Verusha back to the palace, since no one can do my hair quite like she can. I need to send a bag of silvers to Miss May to pay for the parachutes and the glass tank I broke on the Maybuck. I need to rewrite the laws regarding tsarinas marrying musicians.” I looked to the wolfhounds by the fire. “And I think we need to start importing cats.”
“And what shall I do?” He held out his hand, which had darkened properly, and I took it in mine.
“Your first act as court composer is to write a song for me. About our adventures. A ballad.”
He chuckled and looked down. “A song of ourselves?”
“And then I’m going to write a book. It’s going to be called Blades of Grass.”
I leaned over to kiss him. “What will it be about?”
“Loss. Redemption. Rebirth. Living many lives. Love. Death. Art. Beasts. About how fortunes come true in the strangest ways and not knowing what you need until it finds you. I finally realized why it doesn’t exist here.”
“Because you haven’t written it yet?”
“That’s exactly what I was thinking, my Tsarina. Do you approve?”
I gave him a benign, queenly smile. “Do anything you wish, Maestro, but let it produce joy.”
With a hasty glance at Keen and Alex, he yanked me onto his lap and stood, carrying me like a child. Pulling me close and ignoring their mortified stares, his breath hot on my ear, he whispered, “I’ll tell you what I wish to do, and I assure you it will produce more than joy.” I struggled to squirm out of his grasp, but he held me tight and set his teeth gently in the curve of my ear.
I shrieked as he carried me upstairs, glad to know I couldn’t escape him, gladder still to know I didn’t wish to do so. It was good being the one who made the rules.
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“Criminy’s going to kill us.”
I rolled my eyes at Cherie and leaned my head against the worn cushion of the jouncing carriage, which was moving across Franchia at a fast clip, spiriting us from Ruin to Paris. My best friend sounded way too much like my conscience. I was fairly certain she would nag me to death long before our ex-boss discovered that we had escaped from our chaperone and taken off on our own. My idea, of course.
“He’s got to find us before he can kill us. Paris is a big city, mon petit chouchou.” I elbowed her in the ribs.
“What’s that supposed to mean, Demi?” She elbowed me right back.
“It means I called you a cabbage. It’s a French—I mean, Franchian—term of endearment. And did you know you have seriously pointy elbows?”
“I just don’t think it’s right, running out on Mademoiselle Caprice and taking all her coppers. Criminy’s going to kill her, too, for being a bad chaperone. What was so horrible about going to the University of Ruin, anyway?”
We hit a pothole, and my head was knocked against the wood, loosening a long dark brown curl to dangle in my eyes. I sat up straighter and sighed. “I wanted an adventure. I didn’t want to be a boring contortionist in the boring caravan anymore, and I didn’t want to go back to college, either.”
“Back to college?”
I put my head on her shoulder, my mouth to her ear behind a curled glove. The other passengers didn’t know we were Bludmen or that I was a Stranger from another world called Earth. We would be in serious trouble if they found out we were bloodsuckers—not the nice, normal, Pinky girls we appeared to be. “I guess I never told you. I was at university when I . . . when I ended up in Sang. When Criminy found me and saved me. Bludded me. I was a student, in my world. I hated it.”
I scowled behind my hand, but her confusion was genuine.
It was easy to forget that Cherie had grown up poor and freezing in the forests of Freesia. To her, the caravan was a life of warmth and wealth and security. And I had taken that from her when I decided to leave. Breathing in the scent of pine and vanilla, her favorite shampoo, I felt a rush of love for the first person who’d reached out to me when I arrived in Criminy’s caravan, naked and confused and newly blood-hungry. She’d hugged me and taken me in like a lost duckling, teaching me how to drink blood from vials without staining my clothes and showing me how to line my eyes with kohl like the other girls.
When I looked at her, I saw only my dear friend, the closest thing I’d ever had to a sister. Golden curls, eyes too innocent for a Bludwoman, pink cheeks, and an upturned nose. She looked like a little shepherdess doll. But to her, the University of Ruin represented untold wealth and opportunity. Most likely, no one in her entire family had ever been to university, much less a woman. I would have to remember, before we hit the city, that women in Sang didn’t have the sort of freedom I had known back home in Greenville, South Carolina.
“I guess I thought that once I left home and got to a new city, everything would be different. That I would make friends and get a boyfriend and do well in my classes without really trying. I thought life would be as pretty as it looked in the brochures. I thought that just getting away from my parents would suddenly make everything better.”
“Nope. Kind of the opposite.”
The Pinky gentleman across the carriage watched our whispered closeness with an unhealthy fascination, a creepy gleam growing behind his monocle. My instinct was to flash my fangs at him and hiss, but that would get us thrown off the carriage, if not killed. Instead, I pulled my head away from Cherie and locked eyes with the older man. After a few moments of my intense glaring, he cleared his throat juicily and looked away. The prim nursemaid beside him sniffed in disdain and sidled closer to her charge, a girl of about seventeen. The girl gave us an innocent, hopeful smile, which I was sure Cherie would return. We might have looked her age, but I was twenty-six, and Cherie was twenty-seven. There were benefits to being bludded, after all.
“Well, I think it’s important that we—”
I never found out what was important. Two sharp thuds set the bludmares screaming as the scent of fire reached my sensitive nose. Cherie’s head whipped around, her eyes wide and alert. The coach shuddered with sudden violence, throwing us against each other and the walls. Flames caught at the curtains, black smoke rolling into the stuffy, airless space. The gentleman who’d ogled us earlier threw open the door and froze, before tumbling out onto the ground, a flaming arrow lodged in his jabot. I leaped out, tugging Cherie behind me, trying to make sense of the chaos, while the young girl behind us clutched at her nurse with one hand and the carriage seat with the other and screamed bloody murder. I forgot myself and turned to hiss at her, which really only made her more annoyingly hysterical.
A loud screech outside caught my attention. It was a metal conveyance, shaking and belching smoke. Dark, eyeless figures appeared in the haze, and I tried to run in the opposite direction. Cherie was motionless, stiff with fear.
“Run, you idiot!” I hissed.
The figures hovered closer, dark arms up as if to calm us, as if creepy ghost figures with torches could ever calm anyone. Gritting my teeth, I slapped Cherie’s white face.
“You’re a goddamn predator, Cherie. Act like it. Run.”
“You start. I’ll follow.”
I took a deep breath and coughed out black smoke. Springing into action, I vaulted over the thrashing, burning, screaming bodies of the once-white bludmares and charged into the waist-high grass of the moors. Arrows thwacked over my head, and I dived and rolled, clawing through the grass and into a thick pricker bush that would have torn apart anyone not wearing so many layers of city clothes.
“Come on. Come on come on come on,” I chanted, waiting for Cherie to follow me.
With the screaming of the girl in the coach and the bludmares dying on the ground, the conveyance’s rattling, the sound of fire, and the thrashing of the grass as the cloaked figures hunted me, I couldn’t hear anything. I didn’t dare peek up or call out for Cherie. I would have to hope that her inner strength had overcome her fear, that she was waiting somewhere, crouched, as I was, hiding under the heavy gray sky. I was one of the few people who understood Cherie’s quiet tenacity and power, and I prayed it wouldn’t fail her now.
The screaming stopped all at once, leaving only the rumbling of the conveyance and the eerie whispering of the wind in the grass. I took a deep breath, trying to scent Cherie, but only smoke and charred meat reached me. When the conveyance’s rattling quieted, I rubbed my ears. It took me an extra moment to realize the sound was fading as the vehicle moved rapidly away. I stood in a crouch and found only a trail of exhaust lingering over the road. The machine was far off now, low-slung, dark, and mean, like a charred raven’s skull. And faster than anything I’d seen since coming to Sang.
The only sound that reached me was the crackling of the burning coach. And the burning bodies around it. I was about to rush over and hunt for Cherie when I heard the loud, nasal sound of a horn.
I dropped to the ground, the adrenaline finally running out and leaving me cold and wobbly. A bludbunny darted past me with a bleeding human finger in its mouth. The next one stopped by my boot to hiss, nearly dropping an ear.
“Keep it,” I muttered. “I’m not that desperate.” I started to sit up and fell back, dizzy.
What the hell had just happened? We had been attacked. But why? And where was Cherie?
The horn sounded again, and I put my hands over my ears. My head was pounding—at least, I thought it was. Then the pounding turned into the slamming of hoof-beats against the packed road. A large group of horsemen was coming, and there was no way to know whether they were friends or foes. All I cared about was finding Cherie, and whoever they were, I didn’t want their help. Or their hindrance. I burrowed deeper into the bushes and flopped onto my back, pretending to be unconscious.
“Damn. Just missed them!” an older man’s gruff voice shouted.
“Nicely done, Vale.” That voice was younger, smug and nasty.
“Oh, sure. Blame the guy who had to take a piss.” A third voice, sarcastic and dry.
The horses skidded to a stop somewhere to my left. The way they screamed and pawed at the earth told me that they were bludmares, and lots of them, far more than necessary for the three voices I’d heard. I struggled to hold very, very still. Bludman or not, with a crowd of any males, the likelihood of a lone young woman being raped on the roads of Sang was just as high as at a frat party back home.
“Ten of you—swords out and after the slavers. Three more in each direction, hunting for survivors. Don’t return until you hear the horn. Lorn and Vale, with me.” The old man sighed, and I could imagine him. Paunchy, starting to stoop, a barbarian in decline, wiping his balding head under the Franchian gloom. “I’m getting too old for this merde.”
Even with my eyes closed and my body hidden, I could sense a strange tension in the drawn-out pause.
“I’m going to look over there, Father.”
“There’s nothing over there, Vale.”
Soft footsteps spelled anger in the dirt. The sarcastic one was moving toward me, and if he got too close, the pricker bush and grasses wouldn’t conceal my overly bright teal dress. Damn it. Why couldn’t I have just stayed unconscious for this part or dressed in the boring green of the moors? And where was Cherie? I couldn’t smell her. Couldn’t smell any of the bodies I knew so well from our time jostling together in the carriage.
“Only the coachman and a gentleman, Father. No women.” The smug voice was far away and muffled, and I could easily picture a swarthy pirate with the arm of his floofy blouse over his mouth and nose to keep out the scent of burning flesh.