Wicked as She Wants

Page 3

“The eaves are rather low,” he said bitterly as I floundered. “I can’t afford better. This ain’t the Ice Palace.”

My eyes adjusted to the dimness as I managed to roll onto an elbow. He was across the small room—more of a closet, really—sitting on a stool as he pulled on a pair of shiny knee-high boots with silver toe caps. I wanted to say something snide, but he was too interesting. The scruffy, careless, drunken wastrel I’d encountered earlier had metamorphosed into a sleekly handsome creature just this side of a dandy. Tight suede breeches, a flouncy shirt with feathery layers of lace, and a gem-encrusted coat winked in the twilight. His hair shimmered over his shoulders in glossy waves. He reminded me of my mother’s favorite pet Pinky dressed up for a parade, although there was something vaguely threatening about him. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, his posture or his scent or his wolfish grin, but something dangerous lurked under the surface of Casper Sterling.

“It’s time for me to perform.” He stood, checking his image in a hanging mirror. “You need to stay right where you are. I looked up some old broadsheets, and anyone less drunk would recognize you in a heartbeat. So start thinking about what you can do to change that, starting with your hair.”

My bare hand went to the long white-blond curls rippling over the side of the bed. Ye gods, had he taken the pins out while I’d slept? I was scandalized, to think of those long fingers buried in my hair. And he actually expected me to change my favorite feature? I couldn’t alter the ice-blue eyes of my Muscovy heritage, so my hair was the only logical choice. Then I realized the implications of what he had said.

“Why should I disguise myself?” I pulled my shoulders back and stuck out my chin despite an unladylike position. “I am the princess. I will soon be Tsarina. Once the authorities are made aware of my whereabouts, I will be returned to the Ice Palace. You may even be rewarded for your trouble.”

Before we drain you and eat your heart on toast, I added silently.

“This isn’t Freesia. And Freesia isn’t what it was four years ago. There’s civil unrest there, talk of revolt against the landed Bludmen’s harsh rule. The price on your head is high, and if you actually made it back home alive, Ravenna would have you killed. If the people still want you, they don’t know it. They’re completely in her power. Mesmerized or bullied or fed only propaganda. Perhaps all of the above.”

“You’re lying.” Each word dripped icicles.

“Why would I lie? This is London, and I’m a has-been playing tunes for coppers in a third-rate Blud bar. I’m a dancing monkey. If I wanted to hurt you, I would have turned you in to the Coppers while you were asleep and taken the reward.” He tied his cravat and flashed his dimpled grin. “It’s up to a thousand silvers, you know. They think you’re dead. But someone’s not willing to bet on it.”

On the outside, my nostrils flared. On the inside, I was breaking apart, cracks invading me like a glacier about to plummet into the fathomless deep. If he wasn’t lying, my parents were gone, and the beautiful palace where I’d led a charmed life was more than a thousand miles away and no longer safe. The sea, the mountains, the wilds of the tundra standing in my way were rendered insignificant only by the understanding that someone wanted me dead. And they had very nearly gotten their way.

“I’ve got to get back.” I had to discover what Ravenna held over my country and my last remaining sibling. If it was as bad as he had described, it was my duty to them and my birthright.

“I’d worry about standing up first. Looks like you were drained to the cusp of death. What’s the last thing you remember?”

He leaned forward into a golden ray of sunset shining through a window so small it resembled a porthole. The bloodshot whites of his eyes served only to enhance the blue. I inhaled deeply and found that his smell nagged at me. He wasn’t a Bludman, that was for sure. But what was he?

And where had I been for the last four years?

“The last thing I remember clearly was sitting by the fountain in the back courtyard. There was a thin layer of ice on top, like the film on blood brûlée. I was tracing patterns in the ice, watching the koi swim underneath, trying to reach my fingers through the crust.”

“And then?”

“And then I was in the dark, plotting your death.”


“I’m not nice,” I growled. With a bit of a struggle, I pulled myself to sitting on the other end of the bed, where the eaves weren’t so low. “Nice is for nursemaids and stable boys. I’m royalty. And I’m a pragmatist. And I wake up cranky. Why do you smell different?”

“None of your damned business.”

“I don’t like your attitude.”

“I’m not your servant.”

I hissed. “If you were—”

“Look, it’s very sweet, you threatening me all the time. But you’re weak, you’re wanted, and you’re in my power. Deal with it. I’ve got to be onstage in five minutes, or I won’t have the money to buy more blood for you. Can I trust you to stay here?”

Finally, something I could work with.

I smiled my most beguiling smile, showing kitten teeth and batting my eyelashes. “Of course. I’ll just take a nap while I wait, and then we can arrange transportation.”

He chuckled, and my cheeks grew hot.

“You know, two years ago, I would have fallen for that, hook, line, and sinker. But a lot’s happened since then, and now I know a lying woman when I see one.”

My hands made fists in the scratchy blanket on his bed. I was growing accustomed to the feeling of my overgrown nails digging into cloth. It didn’t bother me so much now. But as I settled my feet on the floor and curled into an attack position, he calmly put a gloved hand against my shoulder and shoved me, hard, back onto the bed.

I spluttered in indignation and fought gravity, but I was still very weak. It had cost me everything I had just to sit up. Shame nearly killed me, taking over where the draining left off.

“I don’t trust you, princess. I don’t know what you think you’re going to do, but I don’t trust you.” He mucked around in a crooked drawer and held up a handful of silk cravats.

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“You can’t stop me.” He grinned.

I struggled, but it was no good. He hummed under his breath as he tied my hands together at the wrists. When he reached for my stocking-clad ankles, deeply bred propriety propelled my weakly kicking feet.

“No one,” I gasped, “has ever touched my ankles.”

“No one has ever threatened to kill me ten times in ten different ways in one day.” He neatly snagged my feet and wound my ankles around with a wine-colored length of silk. “But I need this job. I’ve drunk my way through every theater and bar in the city, and it’s Deep Darkside and Beggar’s Row after this. I won’t let myself fall that far.”

He was talking to himself now. I was bound, hand and foot, trussed up like a fly in a spider’s web—or, to be more honest, like a spider temporarily restrained by a very foolish fly. My mind turned from escape to cunning, and I held very still, letting him go on. The more I could learn about my prey-turned-captor, the better my chances of besting him.

“What happened to you?” I asked softly.

“I died. You don’t know what that’s like. Or maybe you do, now. But music is the only thing I have left. I was famous. Celebrated, in two different worlds. And both times, I lost it. A girl I thought I loved told me that loss was supposed to be my salvation. But you know what? I don’t feel saved.”

“No one is ever safe,” I added, my voice soothing.

He pulled a coin from his pocket and began flipping it back and forth over his knuckles. His eyes closed, and a look of pain flickered over his features. Faster and faster the coin spun in the last rays of evening, glinting in the light and showing me the copper-cast face of a kindly old man with a mustache. I didn’t move a muscle. I simply studied my prey, as I had been taught. He swallowed hard, and I focused on his lips, on the sensual curve of the lower one, waiting to see what he would reveal next.

“Oi, Maestro,” someone called, the voice tinny and echoing somewhere beyond the closed door. “It’s your last chance, mate. You’d better get down here and start playing, unless you want to end up in the gutter.”

“More threats,” he said under his breath. “It must be Monday.”

He checked the knots again, and seeing that I’d managed to wiggle just the tiniest bit loose, he yanked them hard enough to make me yelp in a decidedly unladylike manner.

“How dare—”

“You know very well how I dare.” His gaze traveled over me, and he took a deep breath as if scenting the air. “Just remember when you’ve regained your strength that I could have done a lot worse to you.” He licked his lips as his eyes lingered on the low cut of my gown, giving me a dark look that heated me straight through. I showed him my teeth.

He patted my hair, and I shook him off with a hiss. The movement pushed me past the point of exhaustion, but I hated the thought of his filthy peasant hands touching me. In my head, I killed him for the thousandth time, laughing as his blood painted my teeth.

“I won’t remember what you didn’t do,” I said under my breath as I curled onto my side and prepared to sleep or pass out or whatever kept taking me over. “I’ll only remember this.”


I drifted in and out of sleep, too empty to dream. When I woke, I could hear the strains of his harpsichord somewhere below me, sometimes dulcet and slow and seductive, sometimes loud and brash and accompanied by the stomping of boots and ribald shouts and singing. Still, there was a melancholy undertone to the music, a sadness rippling under the surface of even the happiest tunes. I felt like that inside—a yawning chasm of sorrow that couldn’t be filled. But I was going to do something about it.

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