Wicked as She Wants
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“I’m just going to pretend that you’re my porter, and I’ve told you to arrange everything on my behalf.” I patted his arm. “Porter, make it so!”
“I’m going to pretend that you’re a child I’m babysitting and ignore most of what you say,” Casper said as he led me along, but I could hear him fighting a chuckle.
“Oh, and if I disobey, what are you going to do?” I grinned. “Smack my hand or chain me up in the dungeon?”
“Is that an invitation?” The words were playful, but the tone was dark, and he squeezed my hand with more strength than I expected.
“You’d have to catch me first.” It came out low and breathy as I squeezed back, feeling the bones in his fingers rub together. He didn’t flinch, but I had made my point. How many times did I have to remind him that I was a woman grown, not the child I so resembled?
Keen sighed dramatically behind us. I glanced back to find the little monster waving a now even grubbier bloody hankie at me. So she’d mastered the art of blackmail; I could only hope that her price wouldn’t be too high. And apparently, she’d mastered the art of pickpocketing, too, as she was eating a shiny yellow apple of such beauty and quality that I knew she could never have afforded it, not even if she had possessed anything worth selling.
“Put that away,” Casper hissed over his shoulder. “The Coppers will beat you bloody, girl.”
“Like it matters.” By the time Casper had turned around, the hankie had disappeared, and now the apple did, too. Instead, she took out the brass sphere I’d seen her juggling earlier. To me, it didn’t look much different from the apple. She saw me watching her and waggled her eyebrows. She must have stolen that, too.
Even amid the crowd, Casper exuded a confidence and quiet strength that I had never seen before in a human. And I still wasn’t sure if he even was a human. Maybe he was part daimon and kept his strangeness under wraps. A hidden tail, perhaps? I leaned back to check his posterior, but all was exactly where it was supposed to be. Or maybe he was something entirely new, something that hadn’t been included in my nursemaid’s lectures on the people of Sang.
I’d learned only the barest history of countries that weren’t under the rule of Freesia or allied against us. Although I knew the ice folk of Sveden well, the other nations and races of the world were mostly bedtime stories for a princess whose sphere would be only the Snow Court or the castles of nearby kings. Sang was such a large place, and everything was so far apart, and travel was so dangerous and sea monsters so prevalent, that most people who crossed great distances either died or just stayed where they landed.
I’d heard of the daimons of Franchia, strange creatures like Reve and Mr. Sweeting who fed on the emotions of humans. I had heard fairy tales of lizard people, bird people, fish people, witches, ghosts, and even people whose blood made Bludmen crazy. And I knew of the beastfolk of Almanica who lived as barbarians and rode in chariots pulled by buffalo and bludstags.
Perhaps that was what Casper was—perhaps he could change into a wolf or a wild cat, if the feeling took him. It would certainly explain his odd accent, strangely animal smell, uncanny strength, and dislike of restrictive clothing. I’d have to provoke him and find out, one day, what he was capable of. I could have simply asked, but I was far too well bred for that sort of thing.
“Here we are,” he whispered, startling me. I’d been unconsciously lingering on the way his silky copper-colored hair curled over his exposed ear, wondering how his skin would taste in comparison with the traveling salesman. With his hand still on my elbow, he led us to a low wall where people had stopped, piling up their trunks and valises as if waiting for something to happen.
I looked ahead, over the top hats and bonnets of the folks in the street. I had expected to see the masts of ships and the periscopes of submarines. Instead, I saw ropes dangling from the sky.
“Dear Aztarte. Surely you don’t mean we’re flying?”
He just chuckled darkly, as if he already knew I was terrified of heights.
My eyes traced the thick ropes up, up, and still farther up, to where a variety of airships hung suspended among the low clouds. I moaned and collapsed onto the wheeled trunk.
“Finally found a chink in your armor, eh?” Keen laughed. “Guess you Bluddies aren’t so perfect, now, are you?”
“Being a Bludman’s got nothing to do with fear of heights,” I said, my voice barely a squeak. “It’s just a deep personal flaw.”
I could barely breathe, and my hands struggled to undo the brass clasps on my corset until gloved hands pulled them away gently and dropped them into my lap. Casper sat down beside me on the trunk, the wood creaking under his added weight.
“Look, it’s not so bad. We’ll find a larger one, something with a windowless cabin. Once you’re on board, you won’t even feel like you’re up high.”
“I still don’t like it.” I slumped over, boneless. “Not a bit. Can’t we take a ship instead?”
“I thought about that.” Casper scratched his chin under the leather strap of his hat. “But ships are dangerous for you. They’re watched more carefully. There are navies and pirates and the possibility of being thrown overboard, which you couldn’t survive. And the airships have a little more leeway for us to work for passage. I can probably find a place as a musician on a large one, and then you can hide in the cabin as my invalid niece.” He looked down into my eyes, over the lenses of my dark glasses. “Besides, I’m terrified of the sea monsters. Aren’t you?”
“The sea’s the scary part.” I shivered and scrunched my nose. “All that salt.”
“See? And there’s another reason to take to the air. Now, I did a bit of research, and here’s what I know. The ones that are lowest to the ground—the gaudy ones? Those are simple hot-air balloons. They can only carry a few people, and they aren’t very good for the crossing, due to wind issues. More for pleasure rides and lovers looking for a tryst.”
And I could see exactly what he meant. A mauve balloon all hung over with ribbons and sashes and bloodred hearts played backdrop for a man in a top hat kissing a woman, her arm draped over the balloon’s woven basket, a brass spyglass dangling forgotten from her hand.
“And there, the next biggest ones. Zeppelins.” He pointed to a ship with a flat deck suspended from an oblong bladder that glowed like amber. “Those are mostly used for the crossing over to Callous. They’re dangerous, since they’re made of skin, but they’re very fast. They use those mostly for shipping things they don’t care much about, including the poorer people.”
“I don’t want to go on one of those.” Blood rose in my throat. I didn’t trust something as flimsy as skin to keep me in the air. And it didn’t have a rail that I could see, either.
“We won’t. We’re going to find a nice metal-cladder, one of the bigger ones. Very expensive to own, so they take over lots of people at a time. Like banks, but for the air, and with actual rooms. Very slow but steady—and safer. Keen’s off negotiating.”
I hadn’t even noticed that the unctuous ragamuffin was gone. But I thought again of that shiny golden apple and her run-in with Mr. Sweeting and had to assume that she was more competent than she appeared.
“What’s her story?” I asked him. He gazed off into the distance with a sort of fond, confused sadness that reminded me of a falconer with no hawk on his arm. He sighed and shook his head.
“It’s hers to tell.”
“What about your story?” I said before I could stop myself.
The brightness of his smile winked out, leaving again the dark mask.
“That’s mine. And I don’t give it away as easily as I used to.”
Keen appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. They conversed in hurried whispers. She was excited about something, but he shook his head in annoyance. I fiddled with my dark glasses in an attempt to cover up my embarrassment. Not only had I asked a personal question and been denied, something I was entirely unaccustomed to, but now he knew that he had something I wanted. I hated being in someone else’s power, and even more, I despised making tactical mistakes.
But what bothered me the most was that I genuinely wanted to know. I, who had never cared about anything but myself, now wanted to know more about this strange man who was neither a Bludman nor royalty. It was a troubling impulse, and I straightened my back with renewed purpose. Use him for my goals and then keep my promise regarding his head on a platter—that was the plan. And if he was lucky, let him play the royal harpsichord, just once, in the most beautiful palace in the world. Just enough to make good on our agreement. Just enough to hear the beauty he could coax from its ancient, magical keys.
He turned to me with a scowl, hands on slim hips. “Most of the ships are full. Keen’s found us a metal-cladder, but I have to make the final arrangements. You two wait here. I’ll only be a moment.” He pinned Keen with a sharp glare. “If anything happens to her, it’s over.”
Keen wrinkled her nose and nodded sullenly as she sat beside me on the trunk with an unladylike slump. I watched Casper disappear into the milling crowd of tourists and sailors and hawk-eyed vendors. With a sudden thump, Keen collapsed, curled up on the trunk like a puppy, and began to snore softly. Confused by the behavior but glad to be free of her company, I closed my eyes and let the scents of hundreds of Pinkies invade me, noting the foreign spices and overlying stink of the ignorant herd and, somewhere nearby, just a whiff of magic.
“Strange, isn’t it?”
The voice was cultured, cool, and amused, and I looked up into the face of the first real Bludman I’d seen in Sangland.
My heart leaped to see sharp features and a cloudy gaze, to know that I wasn’t alone in playacting among the prey. And my heart stayed right where it was, heavy in my throat, when I saw what an attractive Bludman he was. Spare but powerful, with shadowy gray eyes dancing with excitement and smooth black hair pulled back under his hat. He could have been a prince, with a face like that. Oddly, a Pinky clung tightly to his arm, and her smell hung over him like a second skin.