Wicked as She Wants
- Text Font:
- Text Size:
- Line Height:
- Line Break Height:
At the end of my emotional rope and badly in need of blood and non-Keen company, I shoved the hat onto my head. It was large and floppy and made of the itchiest substance I’d ever touched, the sort of thing an old servant man would wear to keep the rain off.
“Couldn’t you find anything smaller than this monstrosity?” I tried to arrange it so it wouldn’t itch. “I could fit Tommy Pain in here and still have room for—”
I looked at her, eyes wide. She grinned her evil grin again, the one that transformed her face into something beatific. And something that I wanted to destroy. I threw the hat at her instead. She caught it neatly and twirled it around a finger. Anger bubbled up in my chest.
“I could have stuffed all my hair in here, you brat. We didn’t have to cut it off yet, or so badly. It didn’t have to hurt.”
“Nope. We didn’t. But I think it was more fun this way. Don’t you?”
“I’m going to see your head—”
“On a platter. Yeah, the Maestro told me about that. Why would you even want someone’s head on a platter? It would just wobble around and leak and make a mess, and they’d be all staring at you with their dead eyes. A pike would be so much more dramatic. Or a fishbowl full of whiskey.”
“Seems like you’ve been giving it some thought,” I snapped.
“You’re not the only one with enemies.”
While we bantered, my traitorous hands crept up to what was left of my curls. My talons caught on the tangled ends, and my breath hitched. People could see my ears. It was the worst disaster since the last blood famine.
She snickered and patted the bag. “Going to get a good price for it, you know. Bloody idiots will think it’s a unicorn tail with magical properties, make it into good-luck watch fobs. You should be proud.”
“Magical properties? You’ve obviously never met a unicorn.”
“Haven’t met a sea monster or hellbear, either.”
Now it was my turn to grin and flash my pointed teeth. “Then you haven’t been to Freesia.”
“Save the fairy tales for the kiddies, princess.” But I had seen her tough façade falter, just for a moment. I was guessing she’d never been out of London and was scared of travel. She had reason to be, if she thought she was coming with us to Freesia. And now I had a little something to hold over her. Excellent.
“They’re not fairy tales, ragamuffin.”
“Well, we’re still in London, and we’re running late. So let’s go.”
I took my time tightening my corset and lacing my old boots back on. Four years ago, they had been as soft as a baby’s cheek, perfectly tanned bludelk leather dyed to a deep gold. Now they were cracked with age and disuse, the laces hard and bent. As for my dress, there was nothing I could do about it, and I didn’t want her filthy little paws on my person anyway. I snatched the hat back and draped it over my head, hiding my face under the sagging brim.
“You look like a drunk grandmother,” Keen said with a laugh. “Just stagger about a bit and burp every now and then. They’ll just assume you’re blitzed on bludwine.”
“Nothing. Let’s go. Don’t speak to anyone. Try to hunch over a bit like there ain’t a red-hot poker up your bum. Don’t say anything about heads on platters.” She yanked a faded plaid blanket from Casper’s bed and tossed it over my shoulders. It smelled like him, good and bad at the same time. “And keep this around your shoulders and neck. Hide your hands. They ain’t so nice to Bluddies where we’re going.”
I arranged the pathetic little scrap of fabric the way I’d seen our old Pinky cook wear her shawl while making bloodcakes or mixing the potion for my baths. I hunched over, letting my head slump forward and bending my knees. It went against everything in my blud, pretending to be something less than I was. But I’d heard wild rumors of the Pinkies of Sangland, who held sway over the Bludmen in a blasphemous sort of power struggle that went against nature itself. I wasn’t ready to be drained again or hit in the face with a moldy bit of vegetable.
Without a word, she led me out the door and down the rickety stairs. I was pleased to discover that I could walk, but I was still exhausted. It was like the dreamy ache of falling asleep beside the fire after a daylong hunt, but without the pleasant floaty feeling of a belly full of fresh blood.
We passed several open doors, one showing the empty music hall where I’d first found Casper and woken in the darkness. A jumble of crates, valises, and flotsam sat in the corner, and I thought I spotted the flap of leather from my own suitcase.
“Wait,” I whispered, and Keen grunted. Before she could stop me, I darted over to the suitcase and scrabbled inside, feeling for some remnant of my old life, some clue to the last four years. The lights were low, since there were no windows, and even with my excellent night vision, I couldn’t see much. I had nearly given up when my talon caught in the fabric lining, tearing it. I felt around between the ragged silk and the leather until something cool scraped my fingertips.
I pulled out my prize and sighed. I wasn’t sure whether it was contentment or sadness. In my hand was the necklace I’d been wearing that day by the fish pond, the day that, to the best of my memory, was the day of my abduction. White diamonds and blue sapphires winked in a collar that made me look like a glacier carved of ice. It had been a gift from my father for my fifteenth birthday in those beautiful, dancing days before Ravenna had begun to insinuate herself into our family and our state.
“You find anything?” Keen called from the doorway.
I slipped the necklace down the front of my corset and called back, “No, nothing here.”
But for some reason, I wasn’t ready to leave the suitcase yet. It had been an unwitting prison, but it was the only clue to my apparent kidnapping. I pushed it over to investigate. Scuffed tan leather, thick and cheaply stitched. On one side, the curved flap I’d carved with my claws. On the other side, a host of odd stickers with strange names I had to squint to read. Stockhelm. Constantinoble. Kyro. Places I’d seen in my books and on the ornate, gemstone-dappled globe in my father’s study. I had apparently been to those faraway places, unconscious and on the verge of death. I had missed the mountains, the sunrises, those abominations called camels that spit blud when angry. So much time and so many opportunities, lost forever.
And on the top, another sticker had been torn just enough to obscure the recipient’s name. Written in dark red ink, the remaining words read, “-seinist, -uby Lane, -ontown, land.”
They had shipped me, whoever they were. Like luggage. Less than chattel. Dumped in a case and passed along, hand to hand, never to reach my final destination. And now I knew, at least partially, to whom. And I wasn’t leaving London until I’d learned why.
I was so busy fighting my way through the streets of London that I barely had time to register the details in the chaos. Head down and shawl-sheltered, I mostly saw Keen’s back, the bag full of my hair bouncing against her grungy jacket. Every time I tried to look up and soak in the shops, the filth in the streets, the mouthwatering children plucking my skirts with innocent grins and handfuls of violets, I would nearly lose my guide. So instead, I focused on the spot between her shoulder blades, thinking about how pleasant it would be to plant a knife there.
She ducked down an alley, and I followed. We tiptoed over piles of rotten Pinky fodder, past drunks and fallen women, and through the lairs of the biggest bludlemmings I’d ever seen, their maroon fur bristling as they hissed at me. At last, Keen held open a nondescript door, and I stepped into darkness.
“Gods of ice, I’m sick of squalor,” I muttered under my breath. We were in an antechamber, a sad little closet barely big enough for the two of us and the giant black cat that had apparently chased us all the way from the Seven Scars, bludlemmings be damned. I began to see why they called him Tommy Pain, because he certainly was a pain.
Keen knocked on the inner door, and locks clicked within.
“It’s about time,” Casper said through the crack before Keen shoved me through.
The room beyond was nothing like what I had expected from the dismal antechamber and Casper’s room under the eaves. Bright red walls, a salmon-pink ceiling, and a wooden floor painted with giant swirls made my eyes hurt after the grim dullness of everything else I’d seen in London so far. Perhaps these people weren’t as depressing and deadened as I had assumed.
“So here’s ze little princess,” mused a cultured lady’s voice with a Franchian accent.
The tall woman at Casper’s side was mostly uncovered, her skin shimmering with color, red and deep orange and violet like a sunset. Her eyes were black all around, and I would have sworn that feathers were somehow glued to her eyelashes, making them seem as long as fingers. A daimon. I’d never seen one outside of books or paintings.
I knew I was staring, and I knew it was rude. I forced myself to look down.
“Forgive me, madam. I’ve been out of the world for a long time and have forgotten myself.”
It was the most polite I’d been in London, mainly because I could sense some common feeling in the proud carriage of this odd lady. If she wasn’t royalty where she came from, she was something close.
“I understand what it is like to be alone among ze barbarians,” she answered with a coy smile. “And I offer my condolences on the loss of your hair. I remember from ze broadsheets that it was quite beautiful.”
My hand went to the heinous hat. I removed it and dropped it right on Tommy Pain’s head. He shook it off and glared at me with his bright green eye. I almost smiled.
“I am Madamoiselle Beaureve, but here they call me Reve. If you will allow, I will help you to bathe and dress in a disguise, so that you may travel unimpeded. The price, as you know, is your hair. Do you accept this arrangement?”
Keen handed her the bag, and Reve opened it with a look of awe. Her skin shivered in feathery patterns of violet and indigo.