Page 48

    We were silent as we walked slowly down the hall. Casper glanced briefly through the other doors, taking in the paintings of Olgha, Alex, and my parents, captured i...are and planned moment together, stiff and wooden even considering the kindness of the artist's brush. Mounds of tiny crystal vials rested on every flat surface of the room-one blud tear in each, the formal show of mourning. My eyes squeezed shut in pain...hould have brough...ial and lef...ear of my own, one drop of royal blud among thousands.

    As if reading my mind, he squeezed my arm. "We're going to kick that bitch's ass," he said.

    "That we are,&rdquo...nswered, squeezing back.


    Our afternoon passed in the sweet haze of stolen indulgence. Browsing in shops, strolling down streets lined with tinkling snowdrops, visiting the world's largest collection of blud creatures in the Muscovy Zoo and laughing at the camels. We kissed in the highest belfry of the Basilica of Aztarte i...indow, my hair rustled b...reeze that smelled of the coming snow...ound no longer frightened of heights. Afterward, Casper stood in the window himself, leaning outward over the whole city, and yelled something barbaric that sounded very much like "Yawp." It brought him such strange joy tha...ound it bizarrely endearing.

    Remembering Verusha's favorite treat...topped a...endor in the Franchian district and bough...ainted box of sugared liver. What wer...ew more coppers when soo...ould be either dead or the reigning monarch? And it was worth it, seeing her face light up when we walked through the door of the groomery.

    "Ah, darleenk, you remembered!" She snatched the box and poppe...liver into her mouth, sucking blissfully as she ushered us into her sitting room. Casper moved toward the divan, but she plucked at his jacket and tugged him into the last rays of afternoon sun by the window. She walked around him, old eyes narrow and calculating. "Tell me, now. Was it as horrible as they say?"

    Casper managed to kee...traight face, an...erely inclined my head and said, "We managed to survive."

    Verusha slapped Casper in the ribs, and he stood up straighter. She ran his hair through her talons and sli...and down his arm, squeezing his muscles. She held his fingers up to the light, saying, "Interesting. It's coming on quite fast. smell it on you, the vestiges of your humanity. You'll nee...ood bathing."

    "Another grooming?" He grimaced and glanced at the door to the groomery.

    Verusha drew back, one hand to her chest in affront. "A Bludman? In my groomery? How obscene."

    "We might as well drag you out to the trough with the bludmares,&rdquo...dded of liver from the open box and savored the tartness of the sour sugar against the rich tang of blood.

    "So I'm just suddenl... . different to you?" Casper asked. His face was guarded...trange mixture of anger and bemusement.

    "My boy, you have gone from stew to stud," Verusha said, popping another bit of candy into her mouth. "It is not often one changes species overnight. We should celebrate. You are hungry?"

    He nodded silently, as if it pained him to admit it. Verusha opened the warming cube that hummed gently o...helf and withdrew two vials of blood. She took down two teacups, poured for us, and served, bowing her head slightly to him and greatly to me in the proper show of deference.

    Casper sat, rigid, on the edge of the sofa. He too...ip of blood, tentative and with great concentration, as if every time he tasted it, he was afraid to find it repellent. Afte...ew more sips, he relaxed all over and settled back against the cushions.

    "I told you hunger would make you peevish,&rdquo...aid, and he chuckled.

    "Funny how it loosens you u...ittle. Almost like alcohol but without the fuzziness...eel just as sharp, just not like everything you say i...hallenge. Much better."

    He leaned back, one boot on his knee, savoring his blood as if trying to puzzle ou...are vintage.

    "I would swear it tastes like butter," he said between sips. "How is that possible?"

    "Verusha prefers good country stock,&rdquo...upplied. "These Pinkies would have access to fresh dairy and butter, and perhaps that's what you're tasting...ense cream and sunshine and freshness. Quite round and full-bodied."

    Verusha settled back into her pillows wit...andful of liver candy perched on her prodigious bosom. An easy life indoors, extra vials of country blood, and plenty of sweetmeats had made her cushy, and she was enjoying it.

    "Good for the constitution," she said.

    "And what's that, in the box?" Casper asked, setting down his empty teacup and leaning forward to of liver from the box on the table.

    She hissed and made as if to swat him. "Stay out of an old woman's sweets," she muttered. "It's too expensive to waste on someone with no taste for riches."

    He dodged her hand and sniffed the bit of deep red liver, coated with crystallized sugar and resemblin...right jewel. He had just opened his mouth when the door swung in to revea...leaner-than-usual Keen, her hair pulled back under the traditional kerchief of low-ranking Pinky servants.

    "Is that candy?" She grinned as if she'd never been gone, skittering to his side and plunking herself down on the divan. "All the food here is dull. No salt. What's the point?" Before she could dig her gloved fingers into the box, he snapped it shut.

    "It belongs to Verusha," he said. "Please try to have some manners."

    "What the hell, Maestro? Who died and made you God?" She slung her booted feet up onto the small table and took out her clockwork tortoise, still in sphere form, tossing it from hand to hand. Casper quivered beside her and began breathing through his mouth, an...ealized that it was the first time he'd been trapped i...mall, airless room wit...inky since being bludded.

    "We should go.&rdquo...tood and held ou...and to Casper, unsure of wha...ould do if he rejected the offer. But he took my hand and hurried around the table, away from Keen, who smelled less repulsive afte...ood grooming.

    "Where are we going?" she said, clearly puzzled. "And where were you guys last night? And where have you been all day?" Her eyes narrowed as she looked at the open neck of Casper's shirt, and then she looked him up and down. "Smile," she commanded, glaring.

    "I don't"

    She threw her tortoise down and rounded on me, hands balled into fists, as vicious and small as the bludweasel we'd seen at the zoo. "What did you do?" She stepped close enough for me to smell the scent of violets from Verusha's shampoo. "What did you do to him?"

    "What had to be done," Casper said tiredly, pulling her back by the shoulders while keeping his face firmly turned away. "We didn't hav...hoice. I'm sorry."

    "You're sorry? You're frigging sorry?" Keen backed away from us, one step after another toward the door. She was fighting tears, shoulders heaving. "You were fine, Casper. Why'd you have to ruin everything?"

    "I didn't tell you...ouldn't. But it was getting bad in London. Worse on the starting to lose it. You don't understand-"

    "I don't understand? Why you'd let her turn you into one of them? Jesus, Casper. You're not eve...erson anymore. You'r...onster." She whipped the kerchief off her head and wiped her eyes angrily. "I read your frigging journal, you whiny't believe that after that chick at the caravan chos...lud over you, you kept drinking. You're suc...oddamn addict. You're so sad. And weak. You're just lik... ."

    "Like what, Keen?&rdquo...eadly calm had come over him. "Like whom?"

    "It doesn't matter...ust expected better from you."

    "I was lost long before you showed up. There was no escaping my past. You can't undo that much bludwine. It was this or madness."

    She snorted and leaned back against the wall beside the door. "Don't you get it? This is madness. You're totally bug**. You're always supposed to fight it, Casper. Dracula, the bad guys in Blade, the Lost Boys. Even Colin Farrell. They're bad guys. They kill people. You're always supposed to fight the vampires!"

    "But vampires are cool...hought it was zombies that you were always supposed to fight?" The corner of his mouth quirked up hopefully, his dimples flashing wit...ludman's killer charm, and she shut her eyes and beat her fist against Verusha's damask wallpaper.

    "You think this i...oke? Awesome...uess I'm the punch line." She pointed at me, right at my heart. "An...ope that gypsy bitch rips you in half. You'd mak...uckass queen, anyway, considering you don't care about anyone but yourself."

    One hand on the doorknob, she glared at him. He looked away, and she was gone. When the door slammed behind her, Casper finally inhaled. Verusha was already fetching another vial for him. He took the teacup and drank it down in several gulps, desperately and without testing or savoring it this time.

    "She'll be back," he said quietly. "She always is."

    Verusha an...odded, bu...asn't so sure. That last look she'd given us had burned lik...lap across the face. Somewhere deep inside me, the old version of Ahnastasia snarled and envisione...lender head o...ike in the snow, the short brown hair dark against the hills and dripping blood. But the new version of me ached painfully and wished there had been some way to make her see the truth of it.

    I picked the brass sphere off the couch and turned it over in my hands.

    "She," Casper said. "I always sai...ould buy he...lockwork, bu...ust never got around to it. She'd be hanged for stealing that...ues...idn't realize how much she neede... ."

    "A friend,&rdquo...hispered.

    Whe...ooked down...ound Casper's hand in mine, bu...ouldn't recall when it had happened or who had reached for whom...queezed back anyway...ouldn't explain it, lost something, too, an...lready missed the little urchin...ould only hope that we all survived long enough for me to find her and fix the mess I'd made o...ellow victim's life.

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