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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Have it say, ‘Lady Letitia, Fortune-Teller,’” Criminy said grandly. “If that suits you, of course.”
I snorted. “I’m not much of a lady, and I don’t know if I can actually tell fortunes.”
“I say you are and you can,” he said to me. “And paint it burgundy to match mine, Vil,” he added. “With gold lettering.”
“Yes, sir, of c-course,” the man stuttered before disappearing.
“It seems like an awful lot of trouble,” I said softly. “Especially if I can’t be what you want me to be. If I leave.”
“You’re not leaving,” he said firmly. “Unless you have an enormous natural talent for magic or you know how to open a door to your world, which is one of many. I don’t think that’s going to happen. Not for a few hundred years, at least. Best get comfortable, love. You’re a gypsy now.”
“But … Me? A fortune-telling gypsy? It’s laughable,” I said, staring at my feet and blushing.
He spun me around by my shoulders and whipped a dusty sheet from a full-length mirror. Claws had raked across the surface, leaving four slashes that gouged across the silver and into the ornate frame. The wolfboy must have been furious.
And there we were.
It was a vision, like those phony portraits tourists have made of themselves dressed as knights or Old West whores, except it was real. He stood behind me, his gloves framing my shoulders, and together we were resplendent. Where I was lush and curved, flush with blood and paint and glitter, he was spare and elegant and hard as glass. The fascinator’s skull winked from my piled hair, and my face rose from the high, tight neck of the gown like a full moon over a dark landscape.
“ ‘Laughable’ isn’t the word I’d use,” he said.
“Wow,” I said, turning my head back and forth, trying to convince myself that it was real.
“Whatever you are where you came from,” he said, “whatever you think you are, here, you’re a lady and a glancer and a gypsy. And true glancers are rare.”
“What if I see something when I touch them—something I don’t want to see?” I asked. “Something horrible.”
“If you can help them avert trouble, like you did with Mrs. Cleavers, then you’re performing a vital service,” he said. “And they’ll pay for it. Not everyone in this world is happy and safe. Most aren’t, actually. If you can’t see anything or if you see something unavoidably wretched, learn to lie well. You’ll pick it up quick, and you can practice on the carnivalleros tonight.”
“I’ve never performed,” I said. “I get stage fright.”
He pulled a pocket watch from his vest and, after checking and winding it, said, “We don’t open for another day. With a little practice, you’ll do fine.”
“What’s my alternative?”
“Your alternative?” He said it slowly, letting the word roll out in a deadly warning.
“Yes. If I don’t want to live here and put on a goofy turban and read palms?”
“Having second thoughts, love?”
Hands on hips, he considered his boots. I chose the strongest-looking chair and sat, a puff of dust rising around me.
“If you don’t want what I offer—what you’ve already agreed to—you’ve got two choices. Strike out on your own and be eaten by the woodland creatures, leaving behind an awfully pretty skeleton. Or I can take you to the next city and turn you over to the Coppers while you’re alive.”
“And that’s a bad thing, right?”
“How to explain it?” He sat down on the ruined chaise and leaned over a low, oval table. With one gloved fingertip, he drew a rabbit in the dust. “This world of ours, it runs on blood. There used to be balance, but now there are too many of us. Something changed, and all of the animals turned on one another until every creature running wild had fangs.” He drew fangs on the rabbit and then snapped, and there were suddenly dozens of tiny, fanged rabbits in the dust.
He had made dust bunnies. I grinned. But he was serious.
“So the Pinkies took every normal animal they could catch and put them behind high fences, where nothing could turn them. Cities were fortified, with mazes of walls around their precious cattle and hogs and sheep. Now the city folk spend every second with clothing tightly laced around throats and wrists to keep from rousing the Bludmen they can’t avoid and high boots to crush the bludrats that they can never quite eradicate.”
“That sounds horrible,” I said.
“I happen to agree,” he said with a wry smile. “But a few hundred years ago, one of the strongest cities elected a group to maintain the balance between blood drinkers and supposed innocents. The Copper Equilibrium Consortium, they called it. Because, of course, blood tastes of copper and is worth money, which is made of copper. So clever. And it spread from city to city until the Coppers took complete power. They make rules. They punish rule breakers. And they make sure that the blood drinkers, whether animals or Bludmen, never gain control. Of anything.”
“So the Bludmen in the city—are they like normal people?”
He snorted. “What’s normal, love? They run businesses and accept vials of blood as payment, as we do. But they’re tamed, cowed, perverted, as I see it. The Pinkies love it, because blood is, after all, a renewable resource. But any Bludman found drinking directly from a Pinky is immediately destroyed.”
I could hear the disgust in his tone. He leaned over and wrote some strange figures in the dust between the bunnies, and when he snapped, a moth popped into existence and fluttered around my head.
“Domesticated, as colorful and benign as parrots,” he muttered.
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
“You’re not tame?”
“Never,” he said fiercely. “I’m a gypsy. A rogue. Wicked as they come. The caravan has a special certificate that allows us to travel as we wish and stop outside of cities and villages. I make my own rules, save one: None of my people can feed on Pinkies. Customers use money or vials of blood to buy their tickets, and in return, they get to rub elbows with monsters and freaks, walk the fine line of danger absent in their gilded cage. We give them excitement; they give us the food we crave.”
He chuckled, low and bitter. “Sometimes I think we’re just mutual parasites, feeding on each other in an endless, vicious, flawed cycle. There’s a little too much magic in this world, maybe. But shows like ours are one of the last reminders of a life free from control.”
Funny. The life he was offering me, the one I resisted so strongly, was based on freedom. We both wanted the same thing, yet he didn’t seem to understand that love was itself a cage, and I wasn’t ready to hear that gilded door snap shut. I reached out a hand, tentative, and barely brushed his arm. He smiled at me and leaned to kiss my glove.
“Don’t mind me, love. Getting all philosophical. I’ve never had someone to talk to before. I’m glad you’re here.”
I smiled, too. It was a tender moment, a peek behind his mask. And a glimpse at what my life would be like outside of his caravan. Unlike in my world and my time, I had to admit to myself that in Sang, a woman couldn’t be both independent and safe, whether she was full of blood or hungry for it. And then my confined stomach grumbled, making him laugh.
“But enough of philosophy,” he said. “Let’s feed you.”
It was noon, and the dining car was crowded with hungry carnivalleros. Little booths lined both sides of the long wagon. At one end, a short buffet served stew, bread, and little crabapples. At the other end sat a small table, covered with a cloth of mauve paisley. A mysteriously smoking black cauldron squatted on the cloth, and I watched as Criminy reached in for a small glass tube of red liquid.
“Is that all you eat?” I asked.
“Mostly,” he said mysteriously. “Two vials a day, when possible, but I can subsist comfortably on one, as long as it’s human. With animals, it takes much more to satisfy. Without any blood, I could last a few weeks if I had to, although I’d be weak and peevish and eventually wither to nothing.”
“How do you know it’s not diseased?”
“What’s diseased?” he asked.
“Surely you have diseases here?” I asked, dumbfounded. “Colds, flu, rickets, measles. Plain old infections. Any sort of sickness?”
“If a person doesn’t eat or drink, he gets sick. Is it different, in your world?”
I, a nurse, had landed in a world without viruses or bacteria. Was that even possible?
Carrying my tray, he guided me to a larger, curtained booth in a corner. We slid in, one on either side of the table, and he fiddled with the curtains until we were in a cozy little nook lit by a buzzing orange lamp, the thick velvet muffling the sounds outside. The king’s table.
I had forgotten to get a drink and started looking around for something, but Criminy smiled and said, “You’ll be wanting wine, won’t you? Just a moment, love.”
As he left me alone in the private nook, I pondered a world without illness. How was I going to describe modern medicine to a blood drinker living in a world of clockwork machines and magic?
Goblet in hand, he slid back into our booth.
I took a sip of sweet red wine and said, “Where I come from, people get sick with diseases caused by tiny, invisible monsters called viruses and bacteria. But there are no blood drinkers and no magic.”
“Invisible monsters but no magic,” he said, thoughtful.
He removed the cork from his vial and poured it into his own goblet, swirling it around. The thick red liquid clung to the glass, and he sipped it politely. My gorge rose, and I dropped my eyes to my stew, which smelled divine.
“No magic,” I agreed. “But lots of science. We have huge buildings called hospitals where doctors work, and they can do all sorts of surgery and fix people on the brink of death. When a person loses a lot of blood, they can replace it with someone else’s donated blood. And you can get sick by sharing diseased blood.”
He seemed charmed. “That’s fascinating,” he said. “A world where people go around giving each other blood, but no one wants to drink it.” Then he gazed at me, a soft light in his eyes. “Were you happy, where you came from?”
“I was starting to be,” I said, “although there were always challenges. What about you?”
“I was maybe a little sad, before,” he said quietly. He reached out to stroke my hand, a gesture so fast and light that I wondered if I had imagined it. “I’m one who always yearns, in any case.”
We ate for a while in companionable silence. Or I ate, and he occasionally sipped at his glass, his lips stained bright red.
“You know, in my world, blood drinkers are storybook monsters,” I said.
“Really?” he asked, delighted. “That’s marvelous!”
“There are stories about blood drinkers called vampires, who are supposedly dead. Some people think they can turn into bats or fly and that they’re afraid of crosses and mirrors and garlic.”
“So that’s what you called me earlier. But that sounds nothing like a Bludman, apart from the drinking blood bit,” he said, then grinned slyly. “Of all the things you could accuse me of, being dead is definitely not one of them.”
I sputtered a little and changed the subject. “This stew is delicious,” I said. “Do you know what’s in it?”
“Vegetables, of course,” he said. “Potatoes. And bludbunny. They’re the easiest things to catch. Cook just takes off a glove and stands around, and they come running. Bop ’em on the head, and dinner’s on the table.”
My spoon clattered to the table.
“So I’m eating something that might have eaten a person?”
“Well, yes. Not that it matters. Everything eats living things. Bludbunnies mostly eat each other, when they aren’t mating to make more bludbunnies, which is what they do most of the time. Blood is good for the constitution, pet,” he said.
I should have been more grossed out, but I wasn’t. Maybe it was the hunger talking, but the stew was wonderful, fragrant and thick. If I hadn’t been wearing a very restrictive corset, I would have gone back for seconds. As it was, I finished chewing a hard, tart apple as he drank the last drops of blood from his glass, and we smiled.
“The wine is lovely, too,” I said. “Sweet, like berries.”
“It’s a special vintage,” he said. “A gypsy secret.”
I noticed that before he flipped the curtains back, he did that same move where he shook like a wet dog throwing water, and his entire persona changed from the open, curious, tender but dark man I saw in private to the sly, hard-edged, imperial gypsy he appeared to be in public.
“Right,” he said wolfishly. “Time to shine.”
As he stood in front of the assembled carnivalleros in the grass outside, I was amazed at the change in his figure. He wasn’t actually a large man, but he now seemed larger than life, a born showman. He paced for a moment, lithe as a jungle cat, inspecting the crowd, then stopped, facing us, and threw something invisible onto the ground.
Purple smoke enveloped him, and the audience rustled around me where I stood, front and center. But no one gasped. They were carnies. They weren’t easy to impress.
When the smoke cleared, he stood on a colorful pedestal in a sequin-spangled coat, high collar, and tight black breeches, the perfect ringmaster. He removed his top hat, revealing Pemberly the clockwork monkey sitting on his head. She doffed her fez, and fireworks erupted from underneath, showering us with streamers and glitter.