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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Why does half of what you say start with ‘blood’?” I asked him.
He didn’t answer for a moment, just smiled at the nearing caravan. “I keep forgetting,” he said, almost an apology. “You don’t know.”
“I don’t know what?”
“Anything, really,” he said with another deep chuckle.
OK, that was just annoying.
“Are you just trying to make me feel like an idiot?” I asked.
“I’m not trying anything,” was his response, but it was clear that his mind was elsewhere.
We were close enough now to pick out the individual features of a strange parade of wagons, all attached in a line. The first one looked like a cross between an old-fashioned locomotive, a brass pipe organ, and a chemistry set full of bubbling green liquid and black smoke, and the last one was a little red caboose. The ruts that we were following terminated in the wheels of the caboose, where a capuchin monkey in a red fez sat, looking bored.
I sniffed the air, but all I smelled was smoke. That was when I realized that I didn’t see a single creature, except for the monkey on the caboose. No horses or cows or pigs, as I would expect outside a circus, and no accompanying stink. Not even an elephant or a giraffe. Peculiar.
“I suppose I should tell you everything,” he said. “So you’ll know what to expect when you meet everyone. We should be safe, this close to the wagons.”
He led me back down the path to a little copse we had just passed. A wide, gnarled tree stump surrounded by leggy little saplings rose from the long grass, and he bowed to me and gestured to the stump.
“Milady,” he said.
I looked at the stump and tucked the coat behind me, quite sure that I didn’t want to sit my lily-white fundament on a pile of splinters and bloodthirsty ant larvae, even in a dream. Seeing my reticence, he reached into an outside pocket of the coat and pulled out a brilliant crimson handkerchief. And then a yellow. And then an emerald. And then a vivid violet. And then a live dove, which flapped toward the caravan in a flurry of feathers.
I laughed, and he grinned. “Abracadabra,” he said quietly. Then he spread the big fabric squares out until they covered the stump.
I sat with a mumbled “Thanks.”
As I settled myself, he started pacing, his high boots swishing through the grass.
“Where to begin?” he asked himself.
“The beginning?” I said sweetly.
“Yes, but which one?”
As I waited, a rabbit shyly lolloped out from the grass. I pulled my legs up onto the stump.
“Shoo! Bad rabbit!”
Looking up in irritation from the apparent war in his head, the man picked up the rabbit by the scruff of its neck and twisted its head until it popped. He threw the limp body back into the grass and continued pacing, deep in thought.
I was speechless. I didn’t relish another fang bite, but I recoiled from the thoughtless, swift brutality of the action.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said to me. “It would have eaten the meat off your bones, given the chance. Appearances can be deceiving, you know. Nature is cruel.”
Then he stopped and loosened his already-loose collar and looked into my eyes.
“All right. What’s your name?” he asked.
“Why does it matter?” I shot back. “I thought we were here so you could give me answers.”
“I’m sorry,” he said softly. “You still think this is some dream, that the spirits are trying to give you clever little answers to your problems. Don’t you?”
“That’s usually how it works,” I admitted.
“It’s not. And I need to know your name. So we can speak as civilized people.”
“What’s your name, then?”
“My name is Criminy Stain,” he said with a bow.
He said his first name so that it rhymed with Jiminy Cricket. It was outlandish, and I almost giggled, but the look in his eyes made it clear that giggling would be a very bad idea.
“Now you know who I am. What’s your name, then, love?”
“Tish Everett,” I said.
He almost giggled, but the answering glare in my eyes stopped him.
“Tishefferett?” he said. “That’s quite strange.”
“No,” I said. “Tish. Short for Letitia. Letitia Paisley Everett.” I enunciated clearly and paused between the words.
“That’s a lot of names,” he said. “You must be quite important.”
“Not really,” I said. “First name, middle name, last name.”
“I don’t see a ring.” He tried to say it lightly, but I could tell that he was more than curious.
“No rings,” I answered, holding up a hand and remembering the fascinating noise my diamonds had made in the disposal. “Just a locket.”
My hand went to the place where the locket rested, heavy, beneath the coat. A slow smile spread across the man’s—Criminy’s—face.
“Yes. My locket. Let’s see it, then.”
His gloved fingers shot down the back of the coat’s neck and pulled up the heavy chain, bringing the locket out and laying it on top of the fabric.
“It’s just as I remember it,” he said. “Where did you find it?”
“In an old book at an estate sale,” I said.
“How much did it cost you?” he asked.
“Um.” I fidgeted. But it was my dream; no point in lying to myself. “I didn’t actually pay for it.”
“Ha!” he crowed. “I knew it would work. I knew it would find the right one.” He was almost giddy.
“I didn’t mean to steal it. It was an accident,” I said, annoyed. “Back to you, though. What is it that I need to know? What’s the deal with the caravan?”
“We’re getting there,” he said. “It’s all part of the story. It started with the locket, you see. I bewitched it and sent it out to find you and mark you as mine. To bring you to me.”
He caught my hand in his glove and traced the random gathering of red dots on my skin. Except that they were no longer random, as they had been when I was awake. Now they were aligned into a sort of compass on the palm of my left hand, a central dot with elegant arrows snaking off in four directions, with half marks between them.
“OK, that’s really strange,” I said. “It looks like a compass now.”
“Of course it’s a compass,” he said. “How else would you find me, with all of Sang to navigate?”
“But I didn’t find you, and I don’t know where Sang is. You found me, remember?”
There was a cocky gleam in his eyes. I wanted to hate it, but, well, it looked great on him. “If I found you, then why were you sleeping on a blood altar in the nude a mile from my caravan? Exactly when I was out for a walk? Out of the entire world and every moment in time, why were you there at that exact moment?”
“Touché,” I said. “But I don’t know how I got there. That’s where the dream started.”
“Wrong,” he said. “That’s where the dream ended.”
But before I could ask what that meant, I heard hoof-beats, and he shoved me to the ground.
“What?” I spluttered from an undignified heap by the stump.
He ignored me and sprinkled something over my head while muttering under his breath. I was overtaken with a chill and sat up to draw my legs under the coat, and that’s when I noticed that I was mostly see-through.
The hoofbeats were louder now, and two terrifying horses skidded to a stop almost on top of me, their black coats frothy and their eyes wild. I scooted closer to the stump. One giant, metal-covered muzzle plunged into my shoulder with a painful thud, and a plate-sized hoof pawed where I’d just been sitting, barely missing me. The horse couldn’t see me, but it could definitely stomp me to death.
“Good day to you, sirs,” Criminy said in a respectful but playful voice.
“Stand back, Bludman!” came a muffled shout, and I looked up at a man dressed all in coppery brown leather from the top of his Sherlock Holmes hat to the toes of his high boots. The only exposed skin on his entire body was his face, which was dominated by a waxed black mustache.
Criminy took a step back, hands held up innocently. “Of course, sir,” he said. “Can I be of any help to you?”
“You know what we seek.”
“My caravan is just over the hill, and our papers are all in order, sir,” Criminy answered. Sweeping up the handkerchiefs from the stump, he said, “I was just practicing my legerdemain. But I’d be glad to escort you to the head accountant, if you please. We haven’t had a biter in over ten years, I’m proud to say, although we had to let the wolfboy go for excessive licking.”
“We don’t care about your little freak show, Bluddy,” the man spat. “We’re looking for a Stranger.”
“A Stranger? Out here on the moors?” Criminy said in disbelief. “Oh, he wouldn’t last long out here, sirs. Blud-bunnies everywhere this morning.”
“You know it’s a high crime to aid and abet a Stranger, do you not?” said the other man, who was identical to the first save for a pair of wire-rimmed glasses and a spade-shaped goatee.
“Yes, sir, we’ve got the notices posted, same as everywhere,” Criminy answered. “Although I’ve never understood why strangers are so threatening.” His eyes flicked to me so quickly that I barely saw it, but I could tell that he wanted me to mark what I heard.
“Dangerous,” growled the first man. “Enemies of the Kingdom. By order of the Magistrate.”
“Yes, but why?” He paused dramatically. “Sir.”
The man with the mustache was furious, and his face turned red. His horse jigged in place, digging up divots with its hooves. I crowded back against Criminy’s legs. The horse’s great black head came down, the bloodred, white-rimmed eye inches from my face. The creature whuffed against the silver cap over its nose and mouth. These men and their mounts had to be more dangerous than anything they sought.
“How dare you question the Magistrate?” the first man said, his voice low and deadly. “By order of the Copper Equilibrium Consortium, I could have you drained.”
“But then you’d miss the show, my lord!” Criminy said, and he pulled a bright red playbill from his vest. “Please, won’t you accept these deluxe tickets from a humble Bludman who meant no offense?”
“We shouldn’t,” said the first man gruffly, but the second man reached down to accept the flier.
“I haven’t seen a caravan in ten years,” he said, longing clear in his voice. “They never come to town anymore. Surely it can’t hurt? His question was innocent, I’ll wager. And if there are Strangers about, we’d have found them by now. The bludmares are never wrong.”
Did he say bloodmares? Did that mean that these nightmare horses were like the bloodthirsty bunnies? Were there actually fangs under their metal muzzles? And, more important, could they smell me? I scooted behind Criminy’s legs, as far away from the bludmares as possible. His hand briefly caressed my invisible head.
“Something’s strange, Ferling,” said the first man. “I can feel it.”
He pulled a brass tube from his pocket and pushed a button, and it extended into a spyglass. A softly whirring spyglass with a blinking green light. He scanned the horizon and frowned.
There was a charged silence broken only by the pawing and snorting of the horses. Criminy’s grin grew strained as the men had an argument with their eyes.
Finally, the second man said, “I think we can let the question go, Rodvey. He didn’t mean any disrespect, I’m sure. And he’s right—I’ve never seen so many bludbunnies about. A Stranger wouldn’t last till breakfast.”
The first man, Rodvey, wasn’t happy as he glared at Ferling. His waxed mustache trembled with anger as he yanked back on his reins and barked, “Fine! But we keep searching until we find a Stranger or bones. You’re lucky, Bluddy. You’re awfully lucky.”
He turned his horse and galloped away, and the second man gave a little salute and followed him. Criminy watched them go, his face frozen with rage.
“Blasted Coppers,” he said. “All the skin in the world doesn’t make me half as bloodthirsty as those bastards.”
“Can you hear me?” I said from the ground. “Am I still invisible?”
“Sorry, love,” he said, waving a hand over me and muttering something.
A warm, melty sensation trickled over me, and then I was visible again.
He reached down a hand to help me up, saying, “Sorry, where were we?”
“But you have to explain that. Those were Coppers? And the Stranger—that’s me, right? They’re looking for me? How do they know I’m here? And they said their horses were bloodmares? So horses can drink blood, and those guys are looking for me, and you invited them to the carnival? Because that sounds a little insane.”
“You’re a quick study,” he said with approval. He spun me around in an odd little dance step and helped me back onto the stump. “That’s all quite true. But we were talking about us. About how you think this is all a dream. That’s the important bit.”
“The weirder it gets, the more it seems like a dream,” I admitted.
“How do you know that it’s not the other way around, pet?”
“What—that my other life is the dream, and this is my real life?” I asked.
“Makes as much sense as the contrary,” he said, gracefully slipping to the ground and reclining to look up at me.