Wicked as She Wants
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“Wait,” I gasped, my black hands scrabbling against the floorboards. I winced at the sound of my long white talons scritching uselessly over the wood. He had to be right; only draining could reduce me to mewling like a kitten. To begging and desperation.
“Hmm?” He turned around to grin at me again with those hateful dimples.
“Let’s make a bargain.”
“I knew you’d see it my way.” He walked back to me, pulling another vial from his shirt pocket. He sat down cross-legged, just out of reach, and began flipping it over his knuckles again. The way I felt reminded me of a wolfhound my father used to have, the way she would gulp under her jeweled collar when he forced her to balance a bone on her nose until he gave her the signal to eat it. I gulped, too.
“First of all, who are you really?”
I closed my eyes, fighting for control of my emotions. I had never begged before, never been in any position that didn’t involve absolute power. I had definitely never been helpless at the bare feet of a Pinky, a servant, a paltry human. My hands made fists in the ice-blue taffeta of my gown, the talons piercing the ruffles and digging painfully into my palms.
“I am Princess Ahnastasia Feodor. My mother is the Blud Tsarina of Freesia, and we reside in the Ice Palace of Muscovy.”
At the mention of my name, his face underwent a strange ripple of emotions, from recognition to understanding to what appeared to be pity.
“Bad news, princess. I follow the papers. You were declared dead four years ago. They said you were kidnapped and that your ashes were returned to the palace in your engraved vial case.”
I would not have guessed it possible that I could feel weaker and dizzier than I already felt, but fear and anger roiled through my barely breathing body. Me, kidnapped and drained? I imagined my parents holding the gold case they had given me on my sixteenth birthday to carry the vials of blood collected from only the most highly valued, most pedigreed servants. I tried to imagine what my mother’s regal face would look like at my funeral ceremony, whether her carefully studied mask would break as my supposed ashes blew away in the wind of a snowstorm. Would she cry? Did she even know how?
I swallowed hard, my throat gritty. “This is not possible.”
He cocked his head at me, squinting as he looked me up and down. I was accustomed to seeing awe, fear, and polite admiration in a Bludman’s eyes. I had never had a human look so brazenly into my face, seeming to reach down into my soul and question what was found there. But this man did just that. And the answering expression on his face showed an unwelcome sympathy. I flinched under his scrutiny.
“You do look like the broadsheets, although the drawings showed you a little younger. If you’ve been drained and hidden in that suitcase for years, I guess it could be you. If you really are the Princess Ahnastasia, your sister is also missing, and your brother is sickly.” He looked down to fiddle with the vial of blood, and my eyes followed. “I don’t know how to tell you this, but your parents are dead. They were executed a few months ago in a coup by a gypsy sorceress named Ravenna, and she’s a heartbeat away from complete control of Freesia. Tell me, princess, what do you remember?”
“I don’t . . . I can’t . . .” I faltered and closed my eyes. They were too dry to produce tears. “I need more blood,” I whispered. “Please.”
With another look of pity, he uncorked the vial he held. I allowed him to lift me into a sitting position and gulped the blood as politely as possible, so stricken with grief that it was like swallowing past a stone. After I’d emptied the vial and licked the lip of the glass clean, I muttered, “More.”
He obliged, producing yet another vial from his shirt pocket. I had enough strength by then to slap his hand away and hold the vial myself, but I let him keep his arm behind my back, supporting me. My talons were atrociously long, the pinkie fingers beginning to twist into unfashionable corkscrews. At least my mother would never see me this way. I grimaced as I set the vial on the floor. The blood loss, the heartbreak—it was too much to bear.
“That’s all the blood I can find.” He pocketed the empty vials and dusted off his hands as if he didn’t like touching them. “The delivery isn’t due until this afternoon, I’m afraid. No one comes to the Seven Scars before lunch except me and Tom Pain. Isn’t that so, Tommy?”
And then I smelled the strangest thing. An animal. A fellow predator but an unfamiliar and somehow non-threatening one. A rumbling noise started up, and an odd creature padded out from the shadows. It was heavy and black and furry, with one great, green eye that regarded me philosophically. The other eye was scarred over, an ugly slash against the creature’s face. I had never seen anything like it.
“What is that monster?”
“It’s not a monster. It’s a cat.”
As he reached to stroke the rumbling creature, I realized that I was sitting up on my own. I finally had enough strength to support myself again. The man focused on the animal, and I scooted unobtrusively toward the broken vial of blood, dragging my fingers through the red puddle and licking them clean with a new desperation.
“What, they don’t have cats in Freesia?” he asked. “I thought cats were everywhere. Old Tommy has lived at the Seven Scars pub for much longer than any cat has a right to live. They say cats have nine lives, and he’s on his tenth.”
The man scratched the cat-thing under the chin, and the cat closed his eye in bliss and rubbed his head all over the man in an entirely unrepentant way that still managed to exude superiority. I began to like the cat. The man, on the other hand . . .
“I’ve answered your question,” I said, my haughtiness returning with my strength. “Now you will answer mine. Who are you? And what are you? You smell wrong.”
“I’m Casper Sterling,” It was unsettling, the way his eyes held mine. I refused to blink as I waited for the answers he owed me. “I’m the greatest musician in London, maybe in the entire world of Sang. And I’m mostly drunk.”
“That’s not what’s wrong about you. I know the smell of drink. It’s something more.”
“I answered your question, princess,” he snarled. “Now we bargain.”
“I will admit I owe you a debt,” I said calmly. “And you owe me one as well. We are even.”
He laughed, a dark, empty, reckless sound.
“I owe you? We’re even? Bullshit. You attacked me, and I saved your life anyway. You owe me. Period.”
“You cut me. Where I come from, those who threaten the lives of nobles are lucky to be drawn, quartered, and left for the bludlemmings and snow wolves. If you were my servant and you purposefully drew my blud, as you have, your entire family would be staked on the frozen hills and nibbled to death at a party. The debt you owe me is far greater than the one I owe you because I am naturally superior to you in species and breeding.”
I glared at him. He glared back. Then he stood and walked over to me, his bare feet brushing the ripped and faded taffeta of my skirt. Leaning down, his face inches from mine, he bared his teeth at me. At me! I could feel the malevolence and alcohol rolling off him in waves.
“Hurt me, then. Go on. Bite me. End me. I’ve lost everything I ever valued. I would welcome it, princess.”
It came out as a growl through shining teeth, and I flinched in spite of myself. I raised one shaking, black-scaled hand. Our eyes were locked, his pupils pinpricks in twilight blue. With every ounce of strength I could muster, filled with anger at his base nature and fury at his pity, I curled my sharp talons around his throat. I could see the pulse hammering there, smell the anger pounding through him. I tightened my grip, seeking the wet burst of his skin and the hard ridges of his spine.
“Do it!” His lips curled back over canine teeth that were sharper than I had expected. “End it! Send me back to the grave where I belong, you goddamn monster!”
I hissed at him and squeezed.
I couldn’t even pierce his skin.
I let go of his neck, my throat convulsing in a sob. I couldn’t even take what was mine. He was right—I was a monster. A broken one.
“That’s what I thought,” he said softly.
I fell back onto the boards and curled on my side, sobbing. A single tear rolled down my cheek and fell to my wrist, leaving a pink trail. The little strength I’d gained was gone. I needed more blood if I was going to kill him. And I was going to kill him, because any human who saw royal tears had seen his own doom.
“I’m going to end you,” I whispered. “I’m going to find blood, and I’m going to get strong, and I’m going to drain you dry. Nothing shall be more beautiful than your death.”
He looked at me strangely. “You do that,” he said in a voice as ragged as torn paper.
I was starting to lose consciousness again, but I felt his arms around me, lifting me from the ground and carrying me. The velvet curtains whispered past, brushing my boots.
The last thing I heard before I passed out was his whispered, “Death has to be better than this.”
My first thought upon waking was that all this passing out was terribly uncouth. My second thought was that I wanted to kiss whoever had taken off my boots. My third thought, as I wiggled my toes, was that I would probably have to kill them after I’d kissed them, because people can’t just go around undressing princesses without permission. My fourth thought was that I wasn’t a princess anymore. If my mother truly was dead, I was the Tsarina.
Then I realized that Casper was watching me.
I took stock of my body with eyes still closed and feigning sleep. Although I remembered everything that had happened since waking in the awful valise, I still had no idea where I was, what day it was, what year it was, or what my captor/savior wanted from me. I needed to strategize, but my thoughts were as muddled as a snowstorm on a moonless night.
“I know you’re awake, princess. I can see you wiggling your toes.”
“You again, servant?” I tried to sit up and smacked my forehead on something hard.