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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Letitia, my dear, this is Pemberly. Pemberly, this is your new mistress,” Criminy said. The monkey extended a dainty black paw, and Criminy nodded to me, saying, “Mustn’t be rude.”
I shook the little hand, which was cold and smooth. The monkey’s mouth turned up at the corners in a comical grin, revealing silver teeth.
“She likes you,” Criminy said.
“How do you know it’s a she?” I said.
“Because when Murdoch built her, I specifically requested a female,” he said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Is she a pet or part of the caravan?” I asked.
“Both, of course,” he said. “She’s whatever I need her to be.”
“Where I come from, we don’t have anything like that.”
“Well, we’re quite lucky to have an excellent builder and mechanic on staff. A Pinky and a hermit but quite talented. He keeps the clockworks running, although we’re having a spot of trouble lately with the Bolted Burlesque. The redhead keeps shorting out in the middle of a striptease, and then everyone wants their blood back.”
“But … why?”
“I expect a patron got too touchy,” he said with a shrug. “Happens.”
“No, I mean … why don’t you have real animals? A real burlesque? This is a circus, right?”
He sighed and chucked me under the chin, saying, “I already told you, pet. Almost all of the wild animals are blood drinkers, and no Pinky in her right mind would stand around in her skivvies. Can you imagine what a blood-hungry pachyderm could do to a fragile little body like yours? No one’s seen a living monkey in decades. And most of the city dogs and cats have been drained by blud-rats. The clockworks make good enough pets and guards.”
“So that’s why she was holding so still,” I said.
“Guard mode. Can’t be too safe, these days. I’ll have Murdoch build something lovely for you, don’t worry.”
I looked up and down the caravan, hunting for the Bolted Burlesque, but no sexbots were cavorting in plain sight. We stood for a few heartbeats in front of the wagons, and I felt as if he was waiting for some sort of reaction from me. I honestly didn’t have one. He sighed and held out his hand to sling the monkey to the ground, saying, “Pemberly, guard.”
She skittered back onto the caboose and sank down on her haunches as I had originally seen her, seemingly bored, her wide eyes gazing into the distance. A red light flashed intermittently in the irises.
Beyond the metal monkey, the vast, hazy moors stretched, haunted and sad, to the horizon. I still hadn’t seen another person, except for the Coppers. Dream or not, it was unsettling.
“Where is everyone?”
“Oh, they’re having breakfast,” he said, checking a pocket watch. “Practice won’t begin until ten.”
“What do they practice?” I asked. “I guess I don’t really understand what a caravan is. Or what this caravan is.”
He let go of my hand and blocked my path.
His lovely, lilting voice rose and took on the tones of an old-fashioned barker, and a cane somehow appeared in one hand, a top hat in the other. He grinned, and his pointed teeth glittered madly.
“This, my lady, is a traveling circus. Death-defying acts, sideshow freaks, games of chance, and mystifying clockwork exhibitions to fool even the most steadfast Copper. Step right up! Test your mettle! See Veruca the amazing Abyssinian, Torno the strong man, and Herr Sigebert the juggling polanda bear!”
The top hat flew up into the air, followed by the cane. In a motion so quick I barely saw it, he snatched a sneaky little rabbit from my feet and threw that into the air, too, juggling the three objects effortlessly, his manic eyes never leaving mine.
Around and around, the hat chased the cane chased the hissing rabbit, in circles, then figure eights. Then the rabbit and the cane disappeared into the hat, which landed delicately on Criminy’s head. He wasn’t even winded, and his eyes were sparkling. I could tell that he loved performing, loved his art. I clapped in admiration.
He cut a deep bow, and the rabbit fell out of the hat and squatted by his boots, stunned. He stomped on it with a sickening crunch, picked it up by the ears, and lobbed it under the caboose.
“We make magic, you see. We’re the last of the gypsies, and we keep the world’s treasures safe in jars, masquerading as chicanery.”
“You’re talking in puzzles,” I said.
His energy faded to a thoughtful silence, and he bowed to me. “I do that, when I’m maudlin.”
He led me to a shining wagon of deep burgundy. It reminded me of an old-fashioned Pullman car with brass fittings and hand-painted curlicues, but there were no windows.
Criminy Stain, Gypsy King was painted along the side in ornate gold script.
Underneath that, much smaller, it said, Specializing in all sorts of magic and legerdemain.
“Impressive,” I said.
“Ah, but we’re not going in there,” he said. “Not until you’ve got some clothes on. Like I said, respectable.”
I rolled my eyes and tucked my arms into the armpits of the coat. It barely covered my important bits in front but overshot my back end by quite a bit. If I didn’t raise my arms, I could probably pass for respectable.
We passed several other wagons.
Torno the Strong Man.
Abilene The Bearded Lady.
Eblick the Lizard Boy.
Catarrh and Quincy the Siamese Twins.
I must remember not to make anyone angry, I thought. These people sound terrifying.
The next wagon read, Costuming & Accounts, Carnivalleros Only.
Underneath that, in tiny letters, it said, Or else.
Or else? I took a step back.
“Here we go, love,” Criminy said, and I stopped him with a hand on his arm before he could open the door.
“I understand that there might be something here,” I said, knowing that he knew what I meant. “And I get that you don’t like taking orders. But maybe you should stop calling me ‘love’ all the time?”
“It’s a colloquialism,” he said. “Love, bird, pet, poppet, sweeting, although that one really only works for pirates. Terms of endearment, but nothing sneaky-like.”
“If you say so,” I said, and he raised his eyebrows in feigned innocence as he reached for the handle of the lime-green door. Before he could touch it, it crashed open, banging against the wood.
“Whozat?” screeched a grating female voice from within. “I can hear you out there!”
“It’s me, Mrs. Cleavers,” he called. “And I’ve brought a guest.”
“Oh, sir, I’m so sorry. I thought it was maybe C and Q trying to sneak a peek again. The twins are randier than a pack of bludbunnies on a full moon. I found them last week up to their chins in petticoats, doing something I won’t mention in front of this … er … lady.”
As I entered the dimness within, she came into focus. A small woman wrapped in a violet shawl, with a beaky nose and a ridiculous hat. She reminded me of a baby vulture. She sniffed the air as she blinked at me.
“Ooh, smell her! She smells like—”
“I know what she smells like,” he snapped.
“And she needs clothes, sir.”
“I know that, too.”
“So the spell worked, then?”
“If you value your job and your neck, shut your trap,” he growled, and she snorted.
“Hello,” I said, timid, and stuck out my hand.
She shrank back, fidgeting with her black, scale-covered hands like bird’s claws, muttering, “My gloves, my gloves. Where’d I lay them down?”
I politely averted my eyes. The wagon was crowded with cloth and spangles and lace and ribbons, racks upon racks of clothes and dress dummies in all sizes stuck full of pins and thread. The costumes were stunning and detailed in a way that had fallen out of style in my world. Everything looked deeply uncomfortable.
When Criminy touched my back, I startled and felt blood rush to my cheeks at the light pressure of his hand. I turned to find Mrs. Cleavers staring at me again, a gloved hand held out hopefully. I shook it, and we smiled. Then she erupted into a flurry of activity, buzzing around in trunks and closets.
“Let’s see, let’s see. What do we need? Petticoats, that’s for sure. Corset. Dress and shawl, oh, yes. Look here, dear. What color are your eyes?”
She pulled a chain out from under her jacket and used the attached brass opera glasses to look at my eyes from several feet away.
“Hmm,” she muttered. “Murky blue. That won’t do at all.”
I felt the sudden need to apologize for my eyes, but she was upside down in another chest, her tiny feet fluttering off the ground in knee-high lace-up boots.
She hooted in what I had to assume was triumph and emerged holding a puddle of deep burgundy fabric.
“That’s perfect,” Criminy said.
“Step outside, sir, if you please,” she chirped. “A lady’s got to be respectable.”
He obediently went out the door, whistling as it shut behind him.
She focused on me. Her eyes narrowed, and the jovial subservience flashed into all business. “Off with the coat, then,” she snapped. “I haven’t got all day.”
Shyly, I started unbuttoning the coat at the neck, and when my throat was exposed, she gasped. I turned away from her as I undid the buttons and shrugged off the coat, holding it back for her. She draped something over my arm.
“That’s your drawers,” she said, her voice croaky. “Go fast, now. That’s simply too much skin. Saint Crispin, girl! They’ll smell you for miles.”
Looking down at the frothy black skirts, I was puzzled. If they could make robots, what was so hard about making underwear? I stepped into the petticoats and pulled them up to my waist, tying the drawstring at what seemed like a comfortable tightness.
I held out my hand, and a black satin corset appeared.
“Um,” I said. “I’ve never worn one of these before. Sorry.”
I had never told anyone, but I had actually bought one once, on a whim at the mall. It was purple satin with black lace, and it had just caught my eye. When I shyly showed it to Jeff, he demanded that I take it back because it looked, and I quote, “Outlandish.”
Well, guess, what, Jeff? I’m in Vampireland, putting on a corset, so screw you.
She slapped it around me and laced it with lightning-fast fingers, very careful not to touch my skin, even with her gloves.
“Hold on to that post,” she said.
There was a conveniently placed post nearby, so I wrapped my arms around it, thinking about Scarlett O’Hara. The first yank on the lacing was still shocking, and the tugging didn’t stop until I felt as if my lungs were going to explode. Little bars dug into my stomach and pressed against my chest.
“Is this really necessary?” I asked breathlessly.
She blew air out of her nose like a bored horse and lifted her shawl to show a tiny hourglass waist.
“I don’t know where you’re from,” she said, “But in this world, sweetheart, a lady’s worth nothing but the size of her waist.”
“I hope the food isn’t very good, then,” I said, and she cackled.
Next came the dress, which had ties and embroidery over every inch. I fumbled around with it but couldn’t figure out where my head went. It seemed to have three sleeves. Mrs. Cleavers sighed heavily before snatching it back and holding it out to me with the smallest sleeve—which was actually the neck—open. I ducked through it and pulled it down. It was heavy and thick, and I felt as if I were putting on a twenty-pound wetsuit. The sleeves went all the way to my knuckles and hooked over my thumbs. Along the wrists, another set of laces waited for my costumer’s merciless tugging.
She laced and pulled all of the ties. The dress was snug against every inch of my skin until it met my hips, where it flared out and in like a mermaid’s tail. A waterfall of ruffles cascaded off my bum. She dragged me to a full-length mirror and tilted it to show my full figure.
I had been transformed into a curvy Victorian bombshell. Or Gothic bombshell, maybe, because even for a garment that covered every inch of skin, there was something decidedly dark and sexy about the thing.
I smiled and ran my hands down my perfectly curved waist.
“Don’t get on your high horse yet, child,” she chided me, reading my mind. “You’ve still got hair and makeup to do. And boots. Boots first.”
She threw back the top of another chest, and the smell of leather drifted out. I slipped on the pair of gray stockings she handed me, and she started flinging boots to the floor at my feet, urging me to try on pair after pair until I found the ones that fit like a glove. They were calf-high and black with a kicky little heel. Once the boots were laced all the way up and cruelly tightened by my personal costume buzzard, I checked the mirror again and smiled.
Firm hands forced me into a chair. My dark, wavy hair was loose and rumpled, and she began dragging a silver brush through the tangles without mercy. I grunted in pain. She laughed.
A tiny dish of metal pins appeared and were twisted open in her mouth and jabbed into my skull. Against its natural inclination, my wild hair was molded into a proper sort of updo. She nearly singed my nose with a pair of brass tongs as she created little curls with the leftover feathery bits of hair around my face and ears that normally made my life hell.
As the pièce de résistance, she produced a long, metal fork with a bunch of black feathers and doodads attached and stabbed it into the glossy pile of hair. I turned my head to admire the effect and saw a polished rabbit skull nestled among peacock feathers and ribbons.