Wicked as She Wants
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Allowing my body to be used was out of the question, and so was bludding her. I couldn’t stand the thought of this horrid creature touching me, much less walking the earth with my own lifeblud in her veins. All day, I had thought on it. And still I had reached the same conclusion.
A clock chimed daintily, and she said, “It’s midnight, and I can’t wait to hear your choice, little pretty.”
“Fine. Let’s get this over with.”
Her hands stroked the silk on my shoulders, and her breath tickled my ear, and she said, “What’ll it be, doll?”
I took a deep breath and bared my fangs as my hands locked around her throat.
“Neither,” I hissed.
“You . . .” she whispered, choking as she dangled in my grasp, feet kicking weakly. The empty goblet dropped from her hand and bounced on the thick rug.
“I’m not a pet.” I squeezed, both thumbs on her trachea. “I’m not some tame thing.”
Cora tried to swallow, her throat working under my fingers.
“You’ll tell no one. Because if you do, I’ll find you and drain you dry and toss you over the rail.”
I loosened my hold, curious to hear her reaction.
Each word was a gasp. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Try me. I would relish it.”
I dropped her, and she collapsed on the bed, one hand to her bruised neck. I stood with as much grace as I could muster, hoping the long skirt hid my shaking knees and wishing I’d just strangled her earlier in the afternoon. I had stalled and acquiesced, hoping for a better choice. But, as ever, a predator was a predator, and my only choice was the one I was willing to fight for. After straightening my dress, I turned to her. She looked pathetic and broken, lying there, lipstick smeared and creamy skin mottled with maroon splotches.
“You would make a terrible Bludwoman, Cora.”
“This isn’t over.”
“I’ll decide when it’s over.” I smoothed down my hair in the mirror by the door as she coughed. “But understand me when I say that this is my first act of mercy, and I’m liable to change my mind.”
By the time I slammed the door, she was already pouring herself another glass of wine from the green crystal decanter.
I ran down the halls, my bare feet cold on the wood planks. I passed one couple grunting against the walls, and the man called, “Join us, sweeting? There’s a silver in it for you.”
I had to fight the urge to gut him on the spot. I was angry and scared and ashamed and deeply, ferociously hungry. Cora’s wine had left me feeling strange. I didn’t even pause as I turned the corner.
The door was open just the tiniest bit, and inside, Keen was crying. I peeked in through the doorway, unsure of how to approach. Casper glared at me over the girl’s shaking shoulders, her head buried in his shirt and her back to me. Her white gown had an ugly rip at the neck that made my hackles rise.
“You should have been taking care of me. You should have been there!” she cried in a strange accent.
“I didn’t know, honey,” he murmured in the same accent, his eyes never leaving mine. “I had to help Ahna.”
“She doesn’t need you. She’s a freakin’ Dracula. But I’m people, Cas. And that bastard tried to grab me.”
He winced. “I seem to recall you telling me to back off. That I’m not your dad.”
Keen pushed away from him and stumbled. She was gasping, her shoulder blades heaving. She held the torn neck of the thin white chemise together as she said, “You’re as stupid as he was. You think I don’t see what’s been happening? I’m not that naive. You’re not the same as you were when you found me. You saved me. But I can’t save you. Maybe she can. But you’re going to lose me. God, this is so fucked up. Like a Disney movie or something. Stupid princesses.”
She still hadn’t seen me. Casper drew her back into his arms, and she broke into racking sobs. I couldn’t fathom her age, but she had never seemed as small and lost and tender as she did now, curled against him, beating his chest weakly with white fists.
She looked up at his face and followed his line of sight straight to me.
“Of course, you’re here,” she said in her usual Sanglish accent. “Can’t even let us have a moment’s peace, can you?”
I went rigid. “I didn’t ask to be here.”
She snorted, and my pity for her disappeared. The crying child was gone, the stone-eyed urchin left to scowl at me. “Neither did we. But it’s not like we’re trying to drag you back to our world, are we?”
“My entire country is at stake.” My fingers curled into claws at my sides as my teeth ground together with each word. “This is not a lark or a pleasure trip. The lives of thousands of people hang in the balance. Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with responsibility. With politics. With family. Perhaps you forget my parents and sister were murdered?”
“You’re going to talk to me about losing family? Really?” She dropped the Sanglish accent entirely, advancing on me as if I wasn’t a Bludman, as if I was just something standing in her way. “You have no idea who I am and what I’ve been through. You’re the most selfish, superior, nasty bitch I’ve ever met, and I spent the last few years living in a place where toddlers will cut your throat for bread. You will not take the only thing I have left.”
The beast in me stilled, considering her. Casper’s eyes didn’t leave me.
“I want—” I started.
“What? What do you want? To take what you need and damn the rest? Did you ever think about what it’s like for us, about how—”
I hissed, long and low.
“That’s enough, Keen.” Casper pulled her back against his chest, where she gave in to another round of shuddering sobs. His accent was subtly changed, too. Rounder, softer. Mellow, like afternoon sunshine. Definitely not from Sangland.
I nodded at Keen’s dress. “You’re not the only one under attack. Cora was blackmailing me. She wants to be bludded.”
“What?” Keen looked from me to Casper in shock.
Casper nodded. “I know.”
“But I didn’t tell you that she offered me a third choice. She could tell Miss May, I could blud her, or . . . I could give her my body.”
They both stared at me. Keen’s mouth hung open. Casper cocked his head, alert and considering.
“And you let her?” Keen finally asked.
I drew myself up, tall and proud. “I’d rather die than give my blud or my body to someone undeserving. So I shook her by the neck and told her I’d kill her if she exposed me.”
Keen sniffled and straightened. “Must be nice to be that dangerous.”
“Not when you can’t show your fangs.” I grinned, showing them just to her. “But I witness and wait. No one needs to know what I can do now. Let them underestimate us both. We’ll show them later what we’re capable of.”
She nodded, giving me a rare, shy smile. “I’m looking forward to later myself. And I’m going to Kitty’s room for new duds.”
“Are you sure that’s safe?” Casper asked.
She rolled her eyes at him. “As long as I’m moving, I’m safe. It’s when I hold still that things go to hell.”
“What do you think, Ahna?” Casper asked once she had darted out the door. “Do we need to get off at Barlin?”
“If I thought Cora was going to tell, I would have gone ahead and killed her.” I looked down at my bare feet, suddenly aware of how very little I was wearing and how very small the cabin was. “She struck me as a coward who valued her life.”
“And what would you call someone who was the opposite of that?”
“Someone with courage and no love of life?” I thought about it for a second, tracing the wood grain with my big toe. “Lucky, I suppose. They’ve got nothing to lose.”
He chuckled and scratched his beard stubble. “Aye, there’s the rub,” he said.
“What was Keen talking about earlier?” I asked. “She mentioned stupid princesses?”
His smile was sad and tired. “She was talking about fairy tales where we come from.”
“The ones that end happily ever after, of course. Isn’t that how they all end?”
“In Freesia, they mostly end with people having their hearts torn out and their blood drained through the hole into goblets.”
That earned a real laugh out of him, the kind of laugh that kept going until tears ran down his cheeks.
“That’s much more accurate,” he said, “if a bit braggy.”
“If you’ve actually done it, it’s not bragging.” I grinned at him, licking my lips.
He looked at me as if he’d seen a ghost—but a welcome one. I shrugged and, realizing I was starving, fetched another vial of blood.
Before I raised it to my lips, he excused himself to go play the harpsichord on the deck, although he didn’t seem particularly happy about it. We were apparently hovering over Barlin.
“Miss May wants me front and center when the Maybuck stops in a new city. As if the new passengers are here for me.” He shrugged into his glittering jacket and ran a hand through his hair with a sigh.
I didn’t know whether his look of frustration was out of concern for my safety or his own longing for a soft bed and sleep, but I noted that he locked the door on his way out. As it was past midnight, I washed quickly with the ewer and cloth provided and crawled into bed, but sleep wouldn’t come. I knew I would be on edge until we landed. Cora would always be waiting, somewhere, for more leverage.
To my vexation, I missed Casper’s presence, if only for the comfort of not being alone. And where, for that matter, was Keen spending all her time? From what I could tell, she had been assaulted by one of the men, yet she had walked back out that door with her original confidence, never looking back. I had once dreaded sharing the tiny room with them both, but now the air grew cold and empty, humming with unanswered questions and my own conflicted emotions.