Wicked as She Wants

Page 47

If Ravenna had found an ally in Alex, if she had found a way to calm him, if not cure him, then it was easy enough to see how she had won her way into the palace. A son who couldn’t make an advantageous match for the royal house—a son who, much worse, couldn’t even be taken out in public and might attack newspaper reporters—was a liability and a tragedy. My mother had first coddled him, then sent him away, then kept him close like a muzzled bludmare, hoping every day that a solution would present itself.

If what Casper had told me and what I had read in the newspapers was correct, Ravenna had found a way to subdue Alex. And that was one more problem with killing her. What if she was the only one who knew the secret to a normal life for my brother?

A hand landed on my shoulder. “Ahna? You’re a thousand miles away. What’s wrong?”

My fists were clenched around my bootlaces, which were tied in triple knots. I let go of the laces and stood, flexing my fingers to get the blud flowing through them once more.

“I was thinking about Freesia. About my brother. There are just so many variables.”

He chucked me under the chin, and I wrenched my face away in annoyance. “A glancer once told me that I would have a happily ever after. I think that means we’re going to succeed.”

“I told you—I don’t believe in omens.” I picked up my bag and stood by the door, not yet ready to leave the comfort of our little aerie. “I was taught to believe that fortune-telling was the lowest form of chicanery, people telling you what you want, what you need to hear.”

“I might have thought so once, if the fortune-teller hadn’t broken my heart. Everything she said has come true so far. Why can’t the good part be as true as the bad?”

He stepped close enough that had he been anyone else, it would have raised my hackles. Instead, I felt a strange ripple shimmy down my body. It reminded me of the way my father’s favorite wolfhound had always greeted him, wiggling as if she were so full of joy she could shake it off like water. I cocked my head at him, considering. Was this lust? Or love? Or just fellow feeling tangled up with a hunger for his body? Before I could consider further, his lips brushed over mine, warm and swift as a breeze in summer.

Would there be time to understand these feelings fully by the time I stood before Ravenna, my entire country’s future riding on my shoulders? There was no way to know. Maybe she would kill one or both of us, and I would never have to consider it further. With a sudden urgency, I leaned forward to kiss him back, my lips firm against his.

“Let’s go take over this cold-ass country,” he said with a dimpled grin. We pulled up the hoods of our Moravian disguises and disappeared among the morning crowd, two Bludmen in something a little like love.


When we arrived at the groomery, Verusha looked Casper up and down through her monocle and nodded, as close as she would come to congratulations. As for Keen, she had escaped after her grooming and hadn’t been seen since. Casper was worried, especially since he hadn’t had a chance to warn her of our grim outing, but he knew her well enough to know that looking for her would be futile. I was worried, too, and I realized that we needed a diversion to keep us from going crazy as we waited for tomorrow and the Sugar Snow Ball. All of my plans were about to come to fruition, but for the next few hours, there was nothing to do but fret, which Verusha wouldn’t tolerate. I borrowed a clean dress from Verusha’s daughter-in-law and returned to the parlor to find an entirely new version of Casper.

As a Pinky, Casper had been a major liability to me, and the slightest wrong word or gesture from him toward me—or anyone on the street—might have ended in him being impounded or beaten. Dressed in appropriate clothing, with his hair brushed and his cravat hanging loose, he was a fitting companion. I wanted him to see my homeland with a Bludman’s eyes, and we left the groomery arm-in-arm as if we hadn’t a care.

I took him first to the park where the ballerinas practiced, and we caught them at their midmorning encore, stretching toward the sun like bright flowers. Casper strolled over to the quartet playing in full parade dress on the bandstand, inspecting the instruments with a polite smile. I could see the calculations in his eyes as he realized that Blud musicians could play faster than Pinkies, their movements sharper and more complex. His gloved fingers flexed against his breeches, and I grinned to myself. I couldn’t wait to see him at a harpsichord, discovering the true breadth of his skills.

Next we walked the topiary gardens, remarking on the impossible shapes carved into the bushes. He recognized several of the more famous statues, murmuring the names of the artists in his world who had created them and telling me their subtle differences, such as the fact that a reclining nude wasn’t crushing a tiger’s throat where he came from but was just, in fact, lying there.

At the Natural History Museum, he marveled at the stuffed exhibits of animals he’d never seen alive. The dodo, the roc, the sea goats, and the unicorn especially drew him close, and I found that I savored his amazement. I had not spent much time around children, and surely this was how a parent felt, watching a young creature reel at the possibilities of the wide world. When he stood under the dragon’s yellowed skeleton, gawking, I outright laughed at him.

“But it’s huge!” He held his arms out wide but was still dwarfed by its wingspan.

“I’ve seen bigger,” I said with a smirk.

He grew quiet in the art museum, tears springing to his eyes as he stood before a strange little painting that I’d never really given any thought. The poor woman had no eyebrows, but her smile was rather enigmatic.

“I always wanted to see it, in my world. But I never got around to it. I had a tour planned for Paris for the next summer, and the Mona Lisa was at the top of my list.”

He leaned close, and the docent in the corner cleared her throat and wagged a finger. I grabbed his arm and pulled him away before they investigated us too closely. As different as I looked, this was my home country. Being recognized was all too real a possibility, and I had been careless to let him call attention to us.

“When I’m Tsarina,” I whispered, leaning close, “I’ll shut down the museum and send the guards home. You can lick it to taste the paint, if you wish.”

He shook his head at me as if I were silly and adorable, a child playing make-believe. Anger rippled over me. Did he think I was telling idle lies? I latched my arm more firmly around his and dragged him down the long hallway under the glittering curves of giant crystal chandeliers shaped like Krakens. Up a spiraling staircase we went, our boots hushed by thick carpets woven with designs of snowflakes and icicles. He went along with me as he had all morning, bemused and indulgent, and I growled under my breath. What I was about to show him—he needed to see it, and now.

We passed door after door down the long hallway, not stopping to admire the world-renowned collection of decorative enameled emu and ostrich eggs. When I darted through the last door on the right, he followed. I moved to the side, and he stopped and muttered, “Jesus Christ,” under his breath.

“There,” I said. “Do you see now?”

The room was decorated in white and blue and dominated by a giant painting, twice as large as life. The artist had captured me perfectly, seventeen forever. I gazed out of the gilt frame, somehow both haughty and innocent. My face still held the vaguest curve of childhood, but my neck was already graceful and long. My hair was piled high in the fashion of the time, except for one long elegant braid that trailed over my shoulder and down to my waist, tied with a velvet ribbon and sprinkled with dark gray pearls. My dress was in a style already abandoned, heavy with beading in the shape of iridescent peacock feathers. I still remembered the thrill of trying it on, how heavy and adult it felt, the train sweeping the floor. I had spun in place and then hugged Verusha for giving the dressmaker instructions to let the neckline dip perfectly, just like my mother’s.

It was clearly me, and I clearly sat in a throne, wearing a heavy crown set with a sapphire the size of my fist. The necklace draped around my neck was currently in Verusha’s care, missing half of the stones that glittered larger than life in the painting. The engraved plaque screwed into the painting read, “Princess Ahnastasia Feodor.”

The way he looked at me then—it was as if he finally realized that I wasn’t just some foundling from a suitcase. He might have believed it, in theory, before then. We might have been working toward the same goal, moving together among my people. He called me Ahna, and princess, though only to tease. And my story may have added up. But in that moment, I saw it strike him in the heart, the enormity of who I was and what we were up against.

It may have also been a little unsettling to realize he had recently made love to a national treasure.

“It’s a beautiful painting,” he said carefully.

“I was considered a great beauty back then. Very promising. I was receiving marriage proposals by age twelve, but none was good enough.”

“You were breathtaking then, it’s true.” He squeezed my arm. “But I like you even better now.”

I felt the warmth rush into my cheeks, a little thrill rippling over me. He pulled me close, a firm hand on my back, and kissed me gently. I stood on my tiptoes to kiss him back, my fingers light on his shoulders and my hips pressed against him in a way that would have been innocent just yesterday. He deepened the kiss, and things were just starting to get good when a docent I hadn’t noticed cleared his throat. We broke apart, and I hid my face in Casper’s shoulder.

“Show some respect to the Blud Princess,” the old Bludman said gruffly, his hat in his hand.

I risked a glance at the old man, peeking through Casper’s hair. I couldn’t ignore the bald sadness in his eyes.

“Do you think they’ll ever find her?” Casper asked.

“I pray every day that it will happen,” the docent said. “Poor girl.”

Casper nodded, his face grave. “May your hope be answered,” he said formally, with the respect one would expect of a born Bludman. We left the room quietly, his arm shielding my face. I heard the old man’s sigh, long and sad. When I turned back briefly at the door, the docent stood before the painting of me, wiping away a blud tear.

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