Wicked as She Wants
Page 23

 Delilah S. Dawson

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He spun and stormed out the door, slamming it behind him. A key turned in the lock, and I knew that trying to force the doors would be useless. My anger only lasted until a fresh breeze blew in through the giant glass breast and some geese honked just outside. But my curiosity grew deeper still. I had to figure out where Casper had come from, and more important, why he couldn’t return.
My nose was so deep in a book on Almanica that I was startled by the sound of the key scraping in the lock. Panicking, I threw the thick volume out the window and put my eye to the telescope, lest Casper think I was trying to study up on his home. Unfortunately, I hadn’t learned anything that would help me understand him better.
“May I escort you to your prison, my lady?”
When I looked up at him, he smirked. He was wearing the same fancy outfit he had worn at the Seven Scars, the glittering tailcoat and tight breeches and high, polished boots. But the stubble had grown out on his cheeks, giving him a rakish air, and the cravat he was wearing was one of the ones I recalled from being tied up in his room.
I returned the smirk. “I suppose I’m bound to accept.”
He chuckled darkly. “Touché.”
Down the hall and up the stairs, my hand felt oddly formal on his arm. The sequins on his jacket were cold and hard, and I was well aware that I was still in Cora’s flimsy blue dress. When he deposited me in our empty room, I felt the way I had as a little princess, sent to bed as all the adults arrived in their fine carriages for a ball. It was clear that he was in a hurry to leave, but I wasn’t ready to be alone.
“Is it pleasant?” I asked him. “Playing for them?”
Casper cocked his head at me. “I think you know well enough that nothing’s fun when you’re forced. No one wants to work at a party while other people dance. But at least I still have my music, even if the company’s horrible. If it gets too bad, I can always jump ship.”
He sounded all too much as if he meant it. As he took a sip from his flask, I flopped backward on the bed in a huff and stared at the constellations painted on the ceiling.
“How much longer until we’re off this monstrosity?”
“We’ll be over Warsaw tomorrow. Just a few more days. Can you handle it?”
“I can handle anything that will get me back to Freesia.”
He leaned over me, upside down. “I bet you can. Just a little longer, darlin’.”
I smiled. And then he was gone.
“Blast.” I drummed my heels against the side of the bed, feeling cooped up and irritated and anxious to get off the airship and down to the business of killing Ravenna.
“Blast yourself.”
I yanked up my bare feet in surprise. The words had come from under the bed, and fabric rustled against the wood as Keen crawled out into the lamplight.
“I thought you slept in the closet.”
“I needed some elbow room.”
She stood and stretched, and I noticed that she had traded the flimsy white dress for her old layers of ragamuffin gear.
“Back to your hoodlum ways?”
Her eyes narrowed at me, half angry and half desperate, like a starving dog.
“You saw my dress last night. One of those bastards ripped it when I said no. This seemed safer.”
“Does Casper know?”
“About yesterday, but it happened again. That other girl, Milly—the one they call Colette. She likes it. They give her candy and coppers if she lets them touch her. She sent me over with the wine and watched him grope me and laughed when she caught me crying after I ran away.”
“So what’d you do?”
“I punched her smug face.”
She grinned, and I grinned back, glad to know she still had her pluck. Despite my general disdain for anything unbludded, I felt a rush of protectiveness for her. If there was one thing I’d learned in the last week, it was that life outside the palace wasn’t easy for anyone. And I admired her for standing up for herself, refusing to be compromised for a few coins.
“Once I’m in my rightful place, you won’t be at the mercy of such villains,” I said.
“Oh, no. I’ll just be a servant and a bludmule. Kept in a posh cage to fatten up.”
I stared at her, aghast. “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but royal servants are treasured and pampered. I give you my personal guarantee that no one will drink from you unless you wish it.”
“Why the hell would I want to be food?”
“It’s not being food. It’s providing a service, and it’s richly rewarded. Our servants are carefully bred and tended—”
She stabbed a finger in my face, and I very nearly bit it. “There! Hear that? Bred? Tended? That’s not a person. That’s cattle.”
“But what else would humans do in Freesia? It’s cold, it’s dangerous, and with a population dominated by Bludmen, there’s no other need for food crops. We treasure our humans.”
“Not enough to give them rights, apparently.”
“I would think you’d be grateful.” I gestured to her outfit. “You have nothing. You come from nothing. But I have much power, and when I’m reinstated, you’ll have everything you’ve ever wished for.”
“That’s a goddamn lie, and you know it! I have a life, and I don’t want the fake one you think I need. We had it good, me and the Maestro. Everything was fine before you showed up.”
“Sorry to wake up mostly murdered and muck up your happy family,” I shot back without thinking. I instantly regretted it.
“We weren’t happy. I don’t even remember what happy feels like. But we had a home, and we had each other. It was safe. And now you’ve got us running across the globe, surrounded by handsy jerks, and they keep trying to yank me into their laps, and I hate it.” The last part came out as a desperate growl, and I could see that under her tough mask, she was pushed to her limit, just as I was, by being cooped up.
“I never meant for any of this to happen, you know. I’m as much a victim as you. On the other side of this journey is a fight I might not win. And I’m not even allowed to leave this wretched little cube of a room.”
She sat down on the stool, legs wide apart like a man in her grubby pants. “Says who?”
“Excuse me?”
“Who says you can’t leave? You can walk out the door right now.”
“Miss May made it quite clear. And Casper—”
“Casper ain’t here. And he’s not our boss.”
Keen grinned an evil grin, and so did I. She was right. I would soon be the Tsarina of Freesia. The threats of a madam and a musician couldn’t hold me.
“What do you propose?”
“I propose we crash dinner.”
“I can’t do it in this . . . scrap.” I held out the whispery silk skirt of my dress.
Keen’s grin widened. “You’ve never been to the costumer, have you? Come on.”
She actually grabbed my gloved hand and dragged me out the door and down the hall. I was terrified that we’d see someone, but the halls were empty. Moments later, she shoved me through a nondescript door.
“Back so soon?” a woman said. She sat on a tuffet, dressed in high fashion and magnifying goggles as she sewed a button onto a ruffled skirt. A clockwork insect buzzed around her head, tied to a brooch on her shoulder. I realized it was the kindly ex-milliner with the beautiful hat whom I had met at dinner my first night on the ship.
“Can she borrow something, Kitty?” Keen asked. “Anne needs something more . . .”
“Substantial?” the woman said with a wink, and I nodded. “Help yourself, dear.”
It was a pleasure to choose my own attire again. The room was lined in racks of clothing, and although most of the offerings were the sort of revealing costumes favored by the Maybuck girls, I found a collection of more modest gowns in the corner. I couldn’t help wondering if these were the dresses women wore when they first set foot on the Maybuck, before they learned to show their skin.
Behind a folding screen, I squeezed into a new corset and slipped on a simple dress of dark blue velvet. Kitty didn’t budge from her work and kept her eyes down, to her credit. As I laced up the waist and tied a bow by the modest neckline, I was all the more aware of the low cut of the older woman’s gown. Inhaling deeply, I caught the delicious, spicy scent of blood rising from her skin. As if sensing my attention, she looked up.
“That blue does lovely things for you. What creamy skin you have! Almost translucent. But you look so familiar. Have we met before?”
“At dinner the other night,” I said firmly.
“No, before then. Perhaps in London? Or Manchester? I traveled as an actress for several years there and enjoyed a good bit of notoriety. Although that was probably before you were born, young as you are. Seventeen, by my guess?”
“Eighteen,” I said quickly, grateful for the ageless face of a Bludman. I wouldn’t have Kitty’s wrinkles and soft chin until I was at least a hundred and fifty, if then.
She set down her sewing and stepped closer to arrange my dress just right. I tugged down my gloves and held my breath, and Keen skulked in a corner, fidgeting with that gold sphere of hers. Up close, I could see that Kitty’s clockwork insect was a bumblebee, and it buzzed in lazy circles around her head, occasionally landing on her hat or shoulder. She reached down once to stroke it briefly, making its metal wings shiver.
“I remember being eighteen. Miss May and I came up together, you know,” she said, retying my sash. “We met in Manchester. It was innocent back then. We just wanted to be onstage. But we learned that we could earn four times as much if we wore less clothing. We made enough money to keep a town house and a salon, and other girls joined us one by one. I was so young and naive. I didn’t know what I was until the first one left a purse of silvers by my bedside, after. I thought he loved me, but he just wanted my maidenhead.”
“That’s horrid,” I said without thinking.