Wicked as She Wants
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“So you’ll help me, then? You’ll take me back to Freesia?”
The naive hope rose in my voice. Maybe that was what finally tipped his scales.
“Anything is better than this.” He nodded once and stormed out of the room.
I was swallowing the blood before his bare feet slapped down the stairs.
I had guessed right—he was a fool. And I knew exactly what to do with fools.
I couldn’t sleep. There was too much to contemplate—and I didn’t want to give Casper the satisfaction of my obedience. The longer I lay there, staring at the low ceiling, the more I thought of what I had lost. My parents had not been warm and loving—how could they, predators and royal to boot? And my sister, Olgha, had been even worse. But they had been my family, my anchor, the structure around which my life had been planned. And now that plan was gone, and I was alone and distraught.
All that, and the stupid cat kept making an entirely inappropriate rumbling noise from underneath the bed. So I gave up on sleep and did something I had never done before.
I snooped. I tossed drawers, rifled through pockets, hunted for loose floorboards, and even turned over the mattress, much to Tommy Pain’s chagrin. And I wasn’t sneaky about it, either. If Casper wasn’t going to play nice, neither was I.
The infuriating man appeared to own very little. His clothes, a hidden bottle of wine sealed with wax, and a small notebook with bizarre poetry in nearly illegible handwriting. Angry slashes marred almost every page. The first page said “Leaves of Grass,” which seemed beyond ridiculous. Blades of grass, maybe. But leaves? I flipped through the book, trying to understand what appeared to be a very angry and scattered mind.
One phrase stood stark on a page, each word written in block letters with a heavy pen.
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Fuck you, Walt Whitman.
What a singularly bizarre man. With his things arrayed before me, I was no closer to mastering the servant I would pretend to befriend for the sake of my country. And I was running out of time. Improper and awkward as it was, I flopped onto the dusty floor and stuck my arm as far under the unkempt bed as I could. My hand grazed something small tucked against the wall, and I withdrew from the shadows with the object in my hand and a scratch from Tommy Pain for my trouble.
It was a little box of polished wood with a simple hinge and clasp. I flicked it open. Inside I found a single copper coin and a deep red feather.
“Trying to kill the Maestro wasn’t good enough. Now you’re stealing from him, too?” someone said from the door.
I slammed the box shut and threw it back under the bed, where it hit the mad cat with a hearty thwack. He shot out of the darkness and curled up in the corner to lick his nethers in an extremely improper fashion. I coughed politely.
Even if my height was never going to make me imposing, I still stood before I faced my accuser. And for once, I was taller than someone. Through the successive layers of grimy and stained clothing and the leather aviator’s hat and goggles, I couldn’t tell what it was. A girl, a boy, a child, a youth. Only one thing I could tell from across the small room: it was human.
And I was going to drain it.
“I lost a hairpin under the bed,” I said crisply. “It’s not my fault if he chooses to keep his sundries among the dustlemmings.”
I glided toward my prey, my fingers curling into claws. The figure smirked and showed me a knife.
“Lesson one. Don’t kid a kidder, kid. You suck on me, and Casper will turn you in for a thousand well-earned silvers unless I can gut you first. I’m Keen, by the way.”
I nodded to the mongrel child. “Greetings, Keen. I am Ahnastasia, princess of the Great Snow Court of Muscovy, crown capitol of the Tsarina of Freesia.”
“Yeah, and I’m the bloody king of Franchia.” Keen grinned with surprisingly white teeth for what I had to assume was a diseased foundling. Tommy Pain had completed his vile self-grooming and twined around Keen’s feet. When the stained brown gloves began to scratch under his chin, he rumbled like a steam engine.
“What do you care about that maddening man?” I said.
“None of your goddamn business.”
“I seem to get that a lot here.”
“That’s because poor people like us hate rich people who try to make us feel like crap,” Keen answered with slitted eyes.
“Do I look rich to you?” I held my hands out to show my ruined, blood-spattered dress.
“Maestro told me you’ve been stored in a suitcase for four years, so of course your frock looks like a handkerchief somebody sneezed in. But I bet that thread’s still made of enough gold to feed me for a year. I see you staring at me like I’m nothing, like I should be bowing and kissing your feet. That’s never going to happen.”
I sat down on the bed, glaring. Taking a sphere of tarnished brass from a jacket pocket, the little urchin tossed and rolled it from one gloved hand to another with a private smile. I watched for a few moments, noting the markings and indentations in the metal, wondering what the thing was. Raised eyebrows told me I was being purposefully tortured. I sighed in resignation, exhausted from the small act of standing.
“Enough of this ridiculous standoff. Where is your Maestro?”
“Getting ready for the trip. He asked me to fetch you to the costumer’s for your disguise.”
“Why didn’t he come himself?”
“I told you. He’s busy.”
I patted my dress and hair, as if anything I could do with my own two hands would prepare me for being seen on the street. What if there were people out there—and not people like Casper and Keen but People. Real people, people who mattered, people who might know me. I cringed inwardly and tilted my head benevolently.
“I suppose I am ready, then. Lead on.”
“I got to do something first.” Keen burst into a wide, toothy grin. I finally understood, seeing that brilliant smile, that she was a girl, a young and pretty one, hiding for some reason under short hair and shapeless clothes and a silly hat. Something evil glinted in her eyes.
“Very well.” I crossed my arms and nodded. “Get on with it.”
She reached into her jacket, tucked the sphere away, and pulled out a pair of jagged, rusty scissors, the sort of thing our gardeners would have saved for lopping off weeds and the heads of pesky bludlemmings.
“First, we got to cut your hair off.”
I drew back and hissed, clutching long white-blond locks to my chest.
“No,” I whispered.
“Deal or no deal, princess?” She snicked the scissors open and closed. “They always got room for bludwhores in the next bar over, if you ain’t willing.”
My hair had never been cut. Not once in my entire twenty-seven years of life. No, make that thirty-one. I had lost four years, and I was well on my way to being whispered about at court as a spinster, if I lived long enough for some snide baroness to call me such. But Keen left me with little choice, and I knew well enough that my hair was my most recognizable feature.
The little monster didn’t even let me brush it first. As soon as I’d pulled out the few silver pins that remained, she darted behind me and wrapped a grimy glove around the knee-length mass. I yelped and fought her, but that only pulled the hair taut and straight, and I was still weak. She took advantage of my mistake to hack into the mess with her clippers, and tears stung my eyes in pain and sadness. The tugging hurt, but the injured vanity hurt more.
“Ha!” She held up more than three feet of my pride and joy, a hunting trophy. It was shiny, beautiful, and the color of buttermilk, if slightly dusty and blood-streaked buttermilk. The color was unusual in Freesia and had been my trademark. I grabbed for it, but she danced back, winding it around her hand and stuffing it neatly into a bag. She pocketed the pins, too.
“It’s mine,” I said menacingly.
“It’s going to buy your disguise. Which we can’t get until we cut off even more.”
“No.” I felt for the cruelly snagged ends of my remaining locks. They fell just below my shoulders. It was a tragedy. My fingers played with the rough curls, and I glared at Keen, imagining her head next to Casper’s on a platter.
“Look, lady. It’s simple. Do you want to live, or do you want to die? Somebody wants you to lie down and stuff it, and you don’t strike me as the sort of bitch that’s going to oblige. So let’s get on with it before the shops close and your type fills the streets, eh? Short hair ain’t so bad. And you’re less likely to get the nits.”
I shuddered. Common folk and their filth had never been a consideration before. Did I see things moving in her dull, mud-brown hair, or was that just my imagination?
She took a step toward me, scissors held out. I slapped her arm away, and quick as a snake, she slapped my arm with her free hand. It fell to my side, limp. I had never been struck before. The little beast took advantage of my shock to shove me onto Casper’s stool. I tried to stand, but her foot pinned my skirts.
“I don’t mind stabbing you,” she said in a businesslike manner, “but you’ll look nicer if you just let me take care of it.”
In the end, I sat there, stunned and already grieving my youth and beauty. Each snippet of ice-white hair that fluttered to the ground felt like a year of my life. Instead of feeling lighter, my head felt weighed down by all the sorrow in the world. I was weak. I was lost. And now I was ugly.
“There we go,” Keen said at last. “And a lovely job it is, if I do say so myself.”
I thought about scooping up another shard of mirror to see the damage she’d done, but I knew that I was too distraught to stop myself from stabbing her, and then Casper would never help me. What was done was done.
“Put this on.”
Keen shoved something green and smelly into my hands. I dumped it onto the floor, where Tommy Pain batted it about.
“You’re going to want that hat, you know,” Keen said. “Your hair stands out. You’ve got to cover it, at least until we can get some dye.”