|Home > Delilah S. Dawson > Blud > Wicked as She Wants (Page 45)|
|Wicked as She Wants(Blud #2) by Delilah S. Dawson|
Nearer me, Vale struck the bushes with a stick. I could smell him, a strange mélange of good and bad and spices. He reminded me a little of Veruca the Abyssinian, the caravan’s sword swallower, and I guessed he was a half-breed of some sort. The overall effect was like a succulent piece of meat under a dusting of herbs that wasn’t exactly to your taste.
“I found a bush!” The shout was falsely bright, and I struggled not to grin. My teeth clacked together seconds later as his stick poked my thigh through several layers of skirt.
“What the devil?”
I could hear twigs breaking under his hands, and in a moment of panic, I sat straight up and grabbed him by the collar, yanking him dangerously close without time to look at his face. To his credit, he didn’t topple over or shout. Into a golden tan ear with three gleaming rings in the lobe, I whispered, “Silence. I am not in the mood to be identified. Or raped.”
With a soft laugh, he whispered, “Excellent. I’m not in the mood to rape.”
When he didn’t shout or otherwise broadcast my existence, I let go of his shirt, noting that up close, he smelled like a chai latte mixed with hearth smoke and starlight, a gypsy in ways that Criminy Stain was not. He pulled away gently, no sudden moves, and studied me. I scooted back and wrapped my arms around my trembling knees, realizing how close my lips had been to a seriously hot guy.
Chardonnay-colored eyes lined in black and set in molten tan skin regarded me with a cat’s mixed disdain and curiosity. He had a two-day beard that framed full lips and matched his recently shorn hair, which wasn’t normally my style but totally worked in his favor. He was dressed all in black, like the Dread Pirate Roberts, sitting back on his haunches with a loose-limbed confidence that made my limbs a little looser, too. His eyes blended in with the moors perfectly, an endless, shifting amber green like a glass of chilled wine that made me feel thirsty all over.
“Anything behind that bush, Vale?”
I jerked and flailed at his father’s shouted words, and Vale’s lips curled up, revealing white teeth.
His eyes raked from my mussed hat down to the tall leather boots peeking out from beneath foamy black layers of petticoats, as if he were pondering which end of a Chinese buffet to start at. I’d felt like a stone-cold predator since waking in Sang under Criminy’s bloody wrist, but now my middle went hot and soft.
“Just the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.” My mouth dropped open.
“Lazy, lying bugger!”
Something plinked against Vale’s back, and he laughed and held up a river-smooth stone for me to see.
“Get to work, you worthless ass!”
He shrugged, unaffected. Barely loud enough to be heard, he said, “Sometimes I tell the truth. It keeps them guessing.” Another stone thwacked him in the head, and he rubbed it with a black-gloved hand. “Stay here. I’ll be back.” Before I could respond, he had disappeared, leaving shivering leaves and skin in his wake.
I flopped onto my back, just in case one of the other men should doubt his lie this time. Eyes open, staring at the lavender-gray clouds, I listened for more footsteps. Partly because I wanted to avoid notice and partly because I wanted Vale to come back and look at me as if I were a candy apple waiting to be licked all over. But most of all, I wanted them all to leave so I could find Cherie.
I didn’t smell her anywhere near, couldn’t smell anything over the smoke and, now, the gypsies. But from the men’s shouts, at least I knew they hadn’t found a body. She was small and agile and clever, and I could only hope she was hiding in another copse or backed into an empty bludbadger den, waiting for the pesky band of gypsies to finish its plundering and go the hell home. Maybe Cherie was a predator, but she was also a beautiful young woman, and all we knew of Franchia was ancient history from our daimon dancing mistress. Who knew what dangers actually lurked here?
The hooves of a single horse pounded close, the bludmare’s scream protesting her rider’s harsh treatment.
“You were right, boss. The same slavers riding hell-bent for Paris in that damnable fast conveyance. Farther along than we thought. But the others might still catch ’em before they’re into the underground.”
“Great humping Hades!” I could hear echoes of the old man’s greatness in the bellow of his baritone. Bludmare squeals and the squeaks of butts in saddles meant I would soon be alone again. “Lorn, you’re with me. Vale, you keep poking around your precious bushes. Dig through the rubble. Bring in at least a silver’s worth of plunder, or don’t bother to come home.” He spit in the dirt, and despite my ambivalence, I flinched. That was some cold shit.
I barely heard Vale’s muttered “Have fun in the catacombs, arsehole.”
The horn sounded, and the horses took off amid the men’s whoops and hollers. I sat up before Vale could pry his way through the bushes, smoothing my bangs and licking my lips and hoping I looked less like a twitterpated girl and more like a sophisticated, exotic, and possibly dangerous lady on a mission gone awry.
“We keep meeting like this.” He grinned and held out a hand, and I took it, well aware that the two gloves between us lessened the heat no more than grabbing a hot cast-iron skillet with a paper towel. I stood, but he didn’t let me loose. “I’m Vale Hildebrand, first son of Curse Hildebrand.” He paused as if waiting for a response. “Lord of the Infamous Brigands of Ruin . . . ? Nothing? Really?” Dark eyebrows swept up, and he rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Damn, you’re hard to impress.”
“I’m not from around here. Name’s Demi Ward.” Then, before he could derail me, “Have you seen another girl, about my age and size but blond?”
“Unfortunately, you’re the only one today. Maybe I should start setting snares.”
He released my hand, and I stood tall, but not quite tall enough to look him in the eye. “My best friend is gone. We were on the coach together—it was just us and another girl and her chaperone and a gentleman. Headed to Paris.”
He put a hand on the small crossbow on his belt but refused to look away. “Who wore the pumpkin-colored dress?”
“The chaperone. An old nursemaid.”
Vale exhaled and jerked his head toward the smoking coach. “There’s a bloodstained scrap of orange ribbon. Old bat must’ve fought hard. No sign of your friend or the other girl.” His hand landed on the puffed shoulder of my gown, and I took a deep breath to meet it. “I’m sorry. We try to catch the slavers before they swoop in, but they’re fast.”
“We call them slavers, although we honestly don’t know what happens to them once they get into the catacombs under Paris. They mostly take young girls, although they’ll sometimes take an older woman or a young man. Probably sell ’em as servants or concubines, once they’re into the city.”
I couldn’t breathe, and my back felt more boneless than usual. “Do you never find them?”
“Not once they’re underground.” His eyes went skittery, and I knew he was lying. “Sometimes we can catch the slavers at the scene, scare them off before they take down the coach. They wear dark cloaks and masks, favor flaming arrows over a personal attack. They shoot the bludmares, set the carriage aflame, then everyone runs out flapping like chickens. Easy pickings.”
“I know. I saw. What about my friend?”
He squeezed my shoulder and gave me the warm but useless smile someone might give a child at a funeral. “I know I’m a complete failure, but the rest of ’em are sharp as hell and twice as fast. There’s still time.”
I nodded once and walked to his giant black-and-white-spotted bludmare where she stomped around a picket driven deep into the earth. She tossed her muzzle at me, and I shoved the metal cap away, sending bloody froth flying.
Vale blanched. “You’re going to want to—”
“Hang on to your waist really tightly? Yeah, I know. Let’s go.”
He allowed himself a smirk. “Look, bébé. Just wait until the rest of the band gets back. We’ll take you to our camp, and the women will feed you and help you wash up. We’re brigands, but we’re honorable, and we can get you home safely in a wagon with a lot less bouncing and biting.” He winked. “Not that I would mind you bumping against me for an hour.”
“You’re wasting time.”
“And you’re wasting your breath. Nice girls don’t ride into Paris bareback on a brigand’s hellbitch.”
With a snort, I stepped out of the mare’s reach, took a deep breath, and bent over backward into a C. From the backbend, I walked my hands between my feet, curling under until my forearms were on the ground beneath my skirt. Putting my boots on my own shoulders, I felt the frothy layers of the dress fall down around me, giving him a fine look at the slim-fitting trousers I favored for just such an occasion.
“I’m not that nice. And I’m not a girl.” I grinned, showing fangs.
To his credit, he didn’t freak out. Just put his head to the side like a crow watching a jewel glint in the sun. For the first time, his tone went serious, quiet. “Now, that I did not expect. Tell me, Demi. What is it that you want?”
“Right now?” I did a front walkover and turned to face him with a swirl of skirts. “I want you to take me to Paris and help me find my best friend.”
“Say we find her. Say we don’t. What’s your endgame, bébé? Why Paris?”
I windmilled my arms, loosening up. I was a little sore after the crash, not to mention the previous hours I’d spent crammed between Cherie’s shoulder and the wooden wall of the carriage. Just to see what he would do and to stretch out further, I slowly lifted one leg until it was right beside my ear, perfectly pointed straight up.
“I want to go to Mortmartre and be the star of the cabaret, of course.”
“There are no Bludmen in the cabarets—”
“Not yet. There will be. After I find Cherie, there will be two. We’re an act.” I dropped my leg—and my smile. “So are we going or what?”
He crossed his arms over his chest and looked off into the hazy distance where a single dark spear pierced the clouds. The Tower, they called it—some daimon scientist’s clever way to attract and channel lightning into electricity for the City of Light. Paris wasn’t tall and humpbacked like Sanglish cities but sprawled, orderly and leisurely, in neat squares. The daimons weren’t known for leading lives of fear, nor were the humans who had taken up residence alongside them. There was a wall, of course, but they’d given the artists free rein to make it beautiful, from what I’d heard. Daimons made things much nicer than Pinkies, as I was learning since touching down in Franchia.
“It’ll be a hard ride. If you fall off, I’m going to laugh at you. Odalisque is a bitch of a mare, and there’s no room for you on the saddle. And when we get to Paris, sneaking in is going to be messy. But if you’re determined, I’ll do it.”
“If you don’t take me now, I’ll start walking.” I realized what I’d said a heartbeat after he did and almost dived back into the bush to die of embarrassment in peace.
“How can a gentleman turn down a threat like that?”
With practiced movements, he snatched out the mare’s tether and slid the picket spike through a slot in the metal muzzle cap to make reins. He threw them over Odalisque’s head as she danced, then leaped onto the saddle and held down an arm for me. I took it, surprised at his strength as he swung me up behind him, his wide, crystal-green eyes showing in turn his own surprise at my strength. The mare screamed and crow-hopped, trying to shake me loose, and he jerked the reins and kicked her.
I held on for dear life as Odalisque reared and bucked before collecting herself for a pounding gallop. I fastened my arms around Vale’s lean waist and settled my cheek against his muscled back, inhaling deeply and willing the horse beast to run faster toward Cherie, toward a city where I could at least focus on something besides the strange man under the worn black shirt. Back in the caravan, I had ached for a goal, a quest, something to care about. My wish had definitely been answered, but not in the way I had hoped. The adventure wasn’t important, not until I got my best friend back.
“Aren’t you afraid I’m going to rip you to shreds?” I asked, trying to cover the fact that I’d all but nuzzled the hard muscles of his back.
“I’m half Abyssinian. My blood would drive you mad!” he shouted into the wind. “But please, bébé. Keep trying.”