Wicked as She Wants
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“It is very fine. It will be a joy to work with such beautiful hair.”
“What will you do with it?” I asked.
“Truly, you don’t want to know, princess.”
“There’s some sick bastards in this town,” Keen muttered under her breath. Judging by her bitterness, maybe she was older than she looked.
“It seems I have no choice but to accept.”
My eyes met Casper’s. I couldn’t read what I saw there, a stormy mixture of determination and surrender, like a man being sucked into darkness and welcoming the maelstrom. He closed his eyes as if in pain and slipped out the door without a word.
Reve pooled my golden curls reverently on a work-table with a farewell pat. I told myself that my hair would grow back, that it would one day regain and surpass its former beauty, but I wasn’t sure if I believed it.
The daimon walked around me, her long tail waving as she plucked my sleeves and felt the stuff of my skirt and tilted my head up with a hot-skinned magenta finger under my chin.
“This will be fun,” she murmured.
She bowed me through another door. I was soon alone, soaking in a copper tub, the water from the steam pipes nearly boiling my skin. Once I got over my inbred fear of water and accepted that there wasn’t a grain of salt in the sweet-smelling bubbles, I was able to finally relax. I hadn’t realized how dusty and tightly wound I had been. The bathtub, clearly selected for Reve, dwarfed my petite form, and I stretched in ecstasy. In the workshop, the daimon would be plucking out the gold thread and burning my old dress, or maybe cutting it into ragged skirts for the less-picky whores. So it was done, then. I was ready to begin the next chapter of my life.
The water was soon cloudy with the filth of years, and it was delicious to scrub my short hair and feel the water running down my scalp. By the time I exited the steam-filled bathroom wrapped in a skimpy cotton robe, I was almost looking forward to life on the road. I’d never undertaken a journey before, and even if my main companion was an unpleasant ruffian like Casper, at least I wasn’t half-drained in a valise.
Reve was waiting for me in the workroom, surrounded by heaps of fabric and ribbons.
“Oh la, chérie. You are ready? Good. We begin.” She led me to a tall chair, and I sat, mesmerized by my image in the mirror.
She fluffed my damp hair with her fingers, which were now green. It curled loosely around my head in a pretty cloud of lightest blond, and I sighed.
“I know, I know. Sangland is a bland place, and you are accustomed to standing out. Brown dye will seem cruel to you, but it’s the only way to avoid detection.”
“Artifice,” I said. “I don’t like it.”
She laughed, her voice like water over rocks. “You are Freesian royalty. You drank artifice with your mother’s milk and blud. This is just a little paint.”
With quick fingers, she mixed a strange concoction from bottles and powders and coated my hair with dull brown. Without a word and with an ease that suggested prior dealings with Bludmen, she clipped and filed my talons to the exactly proper length. When she finally washed the muck from my hair, I looked like a drowned bludlemming.
I was accustomed to being primped and dressed, and honestly, I wouldn’t have known how to do half of it. I was more than content to let myself be manipulated as I meditated on my various plans. Heads on platters. Or spikes. Travel by coach or elegant airship, velvet couches, a parasol at my side. Sinking my teeth into Ravenna’s throat and being welcomed back into the embrace of my country. Raising monuments to my parents and moving into the royal chamber.
I patted the robe’s pocket, feeling the weight of my jeweled necklace there. I still had riches. It would be a piece of bludcake.
Reve helped me step into the bulky undergarments favored in London, frilly petticoats that would make my skirt stand out round as a bell.
“Now for your dress,” she said, and I inspected the rich fabrics and trims draped everywhere.
My smile crumbled when she held out the dullest thing in the room.
“A sack?” I asked, acid in my voice.
“Oh, la, little princess. What you see here are costumes for performers. The dancers, the acrobats, the whores. They all come to me for the brightest, the lowest-cut, the most daring. But you must do your best not to stand out. You must escape notice. Eyes must travel over you and never remember that you existed. That scarlet satin would drop wagging jaws, and then you would find yourself in another suitcase.”
I poked the dull brown thing draped over her arms. Then I wiped my fingers off on my robe.
“Tell yourself it is a costume. Call the color bronze or palomino. And don’t give up yet—there is more to do.”
With daggers of distaste in my eyes, I let her dump me into the dress. The rough, canvas-like fabric grated against my wrists and neck. I’d never dressed as a Pinky, never had my throat covered up to my chin, and I wanted to gag with the intimacy of the garment.
“This next bit is special,” Reve said, interrupting my sulk. She held something heavy and leathery out to me, and I sneered at it.
“There are no stirrups, chérie.”
She winked and lifted my arms to buckle the thing around me. It was a leather corset. And it had to weigh at least twenty pounds.
“Are you trying to torture me?”
“I’m trying to keep you alive, silly goose. A leather corset reinforced with steel bones and extra-thick panels. It works both ways—not only will it keep you from being accidentally stabbed or arrow-shot, but it will make you look like the most frightened Pinky that ever walked the earth. No Bludwoman in her right mind would wear such a thing, no?”
I could barely move in it, and when she had finished tightening the straps, I could barely breathe. As I panted and glared, Reve glanced at a cuckoo clock and sucked at her lip.
“We are running out of time. Quit pouting and act useful.”
She helped me back into my ragged boots and laced them for me, since I couldn’t bend over. I put on the gloves she gave me and clenched my hands, feeling muffled and dull. I had never put on used clothes before, never had any fabric touch my body that had been touched by uncovered human hands, much less worn by the filthy wretches. It was like wearing trash. Ugly trash. I imagined what my proud mother would think if she saw me like this. Probably retch into a painted ewer at the sight of her favorite daughter drained, dressed in rags, and nearly bald.
But no. The dead don’t retch.
“Come and see, chérie.” Reve tugged me toward a looking glass.
“I don’t think I want to.”
But she didn’t give me a choice, and the Bludwoman in the mirror was a complete stranger. From her huge ice-blue eyes to her hollow cheeks and dirt-colored hair, she was a mystery. The tan dress and dark brown corset went together like a steamer trunk; the little brass hooks up the front heightened the resemblance. Everything was so plain, so worn. There were no frills, no lace, no jewels, no clever wink of golden thread to glitter as I walked. I was no longer a princess. Not even a person. A thing.
“I am a portmanteau.”
“You are beautiful, princess.”
“My eyes are the only thing left of me.”
“Ah, yes.” She tsked. “We can’t have that.”
She tossed a hat at me and perched a pair of dark glasses over my nose. The hat was a smallish topper that buckled under the chin, rough canvas, more tan with gray plumes. I tried to fasten it on correctly, but with my fingers entombed in gloves, it was hopeless. She snatched it from me and arranged everything.
“You’ll learn how to do all of this yourself.” She canted the hat at a slight angle, nearly choking me. “Casper has worked in a caravan. He can help you.”
“I told him that if he touched me again, I would see his head on a platter.”
“I know a man who once devised a platter for just such occasions,” she mused with a little smile. “It had an elegantly barbed spike in the middle and an outside trough to catch the blood. Like a moat.”
“I’d like his address, please,” I said without a trace of humor. And then I remembered my secondary plot. “And I need your help deciphering this note. Have you paper and pen?”
She provided them, and I struggled to write in the damnable gloves. Four years of disuse combined with an annoying amount of kidskin between my fingers meant that my handwriting was barely legible, but she understood almost instantly.
“The tasseinist on Ruby Lane. Mr. Sweeting. You cannot go there. He is a fiend.”
“But what is a tasseinist?”
Her skin rippled into mottled shades of lavender and sea green and brown. I’d seen a similar configuration when I’d found a long-dead Pinky on a hunt once. Bruise and rot. Whatever a tasseinist was, it scared her.
“It is horrid, what a tasseinist does. How do you say it? Like a taxidermist but for people.”
“Who would want such things?”
“Scientists. Loved ones who can’t let go. Sadists. Those who would preserve the flesh with hopes of reanimating it. It is a dark place, indeed. He is a daimon like me, but a very bad one who feeds on the basest of emotions. Do not go there. And where did you find this address?”
“I saw it somewhere,” I said lightly.
If I told her that it was my body’s original destination, I’d never find a way to get there. As it was, I barely had the stomach for it. But I knew that I needed whatever answers Mr. Sweeting might hold before I went up against the formidable Ravenna. And I had a disguise now, so my only concern was getting to Ruby Lane before Casper returned.
“I have work to do,” Reve said. “Please make yourself at home. Keen has some blood for you in the sitting room, I believe.”
She waved me toward another door, and I realized just how hungry I was. Growing up in the palace, I had never known hunger. It was difficult for a Bludman to grow fat, and my mother had always insisted that I be dainty and refined in my drinking and my killing. But the draining had left me utterly insatiable. I smacked my lips when I saw Keen standing by a bookshelf in the sitting room, her short hair showing a strip of her tender neck to delicious advantage.