Page 28

    "I ain'...oof!" Gandy shouted, unbuckling his belt and trying to shove himself closer to me. "Let me in, and I'll prove it! I'm smaller than you, anyway. I'll get her started for you."

    Wit...eisurely swing of his fist, the big pirate sent Gandy into the wall and to the ground beside Casper.

    "This one"-he pulled lips back over teeth of glinting gold-"is mine."

    With animal quickness, McHale launched himself at the big pirate, driving him into the bed across my legs...melled the blood befor...aw it, and the beast took me over...ad slipped my legs out from under the big pirate's body and pressed my face to his wrist befor...oticed McHale poised over the pirate's red-splattered neck. The body danced beneath us as the big man screamed and fought for his life. Together, we held him easily.

    "You,&rdquo...rowled.

    "Eat first," he said with jus...int o...reesian accent. "Then we'll talk."

    My eyes held him for one moment, not trusting my good luck. My savior wa...ludman, and one more than willing to share, which wa...rize rarer than rubies.

    "You're generous."

    "I am honored to share the kill." He took one long pull and bowed his head to me, blood dripping from the corner of his mouth. "My princess."

    20

    It was oddly intimate, sharing someone's kill for the first time. The room wa...arm cocoon of comforting sounds. The polite slurping of blood rose gently over the rhythmic breaths of the still-living men, an...ighed in contentment to feel my hunger sated for the first time in days. The big pirate was fantastically full of blood.

    I left the last pull for my host, as it seemed the polite thing to do. But he sat back, too.

    "Please, my lady. It's yours."

    I paused, considering. But the princess in me won out, an...rew the last of the hot blood down my throat and wiped my mouth off on the dead pirate's sleeve.

    Wit...od, McHale tidily looted the big pirate's body. When he held ou...andful of coins, trinkets, gems, and pearls to me...hook my head. Not becaus...idn't need money but because now that he was dead and bloodless, everything about him struck me as disgusting.

    Kneeling across from each other over the deflated body of the pirate, we were both seized b...udden awkward shyness. McHale flipped the goggles on top of his head to gaze at me with ice-blue eyes and concerned curiosity...as a...oss for how to behave. He knew wh...as and showed proper respect. Di...ddress him a...ould addres...ludman in my country, with total majesty and arrogance? Or di...espect the fact that he had just protected me fro...arger predator and shared his meal with me, putting us on more equal footing?

    Yet again, he swooped in with perfect courtesy. "My princess, you are weak. Have they been keeping you on this filthy tub for long?" His Freesian accent was more pronounced now that we were alone, and his eyes were anxious. But that didn't mean he could be trusted. He could easily b...py or someone under Ravenna's power.

    "I am not here against my will."

    "But you are no... . one of th... . Maybuck's offerings?"

    "No."

    He exhaled and ra...and down the sparse dark stubble o...eard. "The...on't have to kill everyone. That'...elief.&rdquo...huckled, and he added, "Except these two...uppose." He stood and curled his gloves into fists, eyes latching onto Casper.

    "No!"

    His eyes darted to me. "My princess?"

    "Kill the pirate, if you wish, but leave the other."

    He nudged Casper wit...oe, contemplating the fineness of his coat and watch chain...uppose, and the careful shine on his boots.

    "Are you sure? He would be the cleanest thing I've eaten in weeks. And you need blood, my liege. As much as possible." He shook his head sadly. "So thin. So wan."

    "That man is my servant, and I'll not have him harmed." The mantle of royalty fell back over me, my spine going sharp and straight at his slight insult. "The othe...ill allow you."

    He bowed briefly before kneeling over Gandy wit...ormal sort of precision lacking in his attack on the bigger pirate. Rolling down the man's collar, he wrinkled his nose. "I won't be sorry to see this one go."

    He ripped the jugular gently, as if trying to show me his good breeding. Wit...uestion in his eyes, he held up Gandy's arm, an...ladly took it. Together, we held the body down as it fought senselessly against oblivion. This time...nsisted he take the last pull and went to check on Casper.

    
I crouched beside his unconscious form, picking up the weapon that had knocked him out.

    "Boomerang," McHale said, taking it from my hand. "He should be unharmed."

    I traced the purple bruise on Casper's temple, where the burnished wood had slammed into him. It was strange, seeing my black-scaled hands and white talons against his golden skin. He was halfway between Bludman and Pinky, predator and prey, an...as curious to know what would happen to his hands were he ever bludded. Was the transition sudden, or would the fine fingers slowly fade to dark? At least he would still have the harpsichord, if it came to that. So long as the talons were kept trimmed...ludman could play just as well as any Pinky, if not faster and better.

    Without meaning to...ound myself brushing the hair back from his sleeping face, remembering the feeling of copper-colored tendrils curling around my fingers like unanswered question marks. If only he had more bludwine in his bottle...anted to taste it again...ad enjoyed that looseness, that release, more tha...anted to admit.

    Tall, buckled boots stepped close, an...ulled my hand back guiltily.

    "He should be awake soon," McHale said. He nudged Casper in the side with the toe of his boot, and Casper's eyes jerked open.

    "Ahna!"

    He scrambled upright and shoved me behind him. Still dizzy and wobbling, it struck me to the heart that his instinct, even damaged and uncertain, was to protect me. McHale just laughed...istinctly Freesian sound, and clapped him on the shoulder as if he was an unruly hound.

    "That'...ood servant, your highness. Jumping in front of you like that."

    Casper shrugged off the pirate's hand and bristled as he took in the room. Two dead bodies...inimum of blood spilled. And me, standing behind him, one step away from fretting, my cheeks pink with blood and feeling bad fo...easo...ouldn't name.

    "You okay, Ah-" He swallowed. "Anne. Did he hurt you?"

    "He saved me. The big one on the bed knocked you out and came after me, but McHale stopped him."

    Casper looked from my mouth to McHale's, both stained with red. "I see."

    I pushed past Casper to stand between them. The air was cloudy with the scent of blood, an...ould sense each man's hackles rising as if they both wanted nothing more tha...ight. It was an awfully small room for two bristling males, and it was left to me to defuse the tension befor...ost one or more of my allies.

    "McHale, you've been so kind. Can you tell us what's happening on the ship?"

    Wit...huckle, the pirate's stance relaxed. "Please call me Mikhail, princess. And what's happening is an act of piracy. Captain Corvus of the Bludeagle has invaded the Maybuck."

    "Then all the girls are bein... .&rdquo...ulped. What the big pirate had planned for me might have been their usual way of business, bu...ated the thought of all the women on board being forced.

    But Mikhail shook his head. "The Maybuck is famous, and not for the coin...uspect my captain and your Miss May ha...eal that would benefit both parties. We sen...cout several days ago to make the arrangements. Although he didn't return, Miss May must have accepted. It was far too easy, the way your ship sat, waiting for us. You were unlucky that Big Gar found you first."

    "And why do you move among these barbarians?&rdquo...sked, for he seemed polite, cultured, and clean fo...irate.

    Mikhail's eyes narrowed at Casper. "Can this one be trusted?"

    I nodded once. "I trust him with my life."

    "Very well. Ravenna needed room on the Blud Council for her pawns, so many of the ancient barons were deposed or executed......astard son, and when my father was thrown out...ad nothing left. We forme...roup and fought against her, and we lost. With Ravenna's mark, there's no way to prosper in what's become of Freesia." He pulled back his glove to sho...tark red symbol burned into his wrist, a...nsid...ircle.

    "So this mark mean... ."

    "No succor. No blood. No trade. I...rand feat of irony, she has turned Freesia's own royal sons into gypsies. Piracy seeme...afe enough option. There's plenty of blood, in any case."

    "And your captain doesn't mind?" Casper asked.

    "It's all the rage among air pirates, keeping pet Bludmen. Like dogs o...hain...rough...ew of my fellows with me, but they're always careful to break us up on little runs like this...on't miss Big Gar." He spat, and the red glob clung to the big pirate's sunken cheek.

    A...atched it slowly slide to the carpet, Casper exhaled i...urst and grabbed Mikhail by the arm, taking us all by surprise.

    "We have to get off this boat before Ahna is discovered. Three of us. In Minks."

    Mikhail jerked his arm out of Casper's grasp and gave hi...ook of grudging measure. "We'r...ay away, at this pace. But the captain will want to know what happened to Gar and Gandy. He'll blame me. If he finds you, you won't live to see Minks at all."

    "Then how can we get to the ground?"

    Mikhail's eyes sharpened as he looked us over. "Parachutes, if you know where they are. The princess must be protected at all costs. Where is the third person?"

    I looked to Casper and saw my own desperation mirrored. We two had been lucky, but what had become of Keen? The screaming above deck had stopped, an...ould only hope that meant the girls had foun...ay to calm their new clients.

    ......
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