|Home > Delilah S. Dawson > Blud > Wicked as They Come (Page 11)|
|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Ladies first,” Criminy said with a bow.
I opened the door, careful to touch only the knob.
It was lovely inside, freshly scrubbed and smelling of roses instead of old dog. A new carpet on the floor and some scratchless furnishings had turned the little wagon into a cheerful space. Criminy gestured to an open door at the end, and I found a small bedroom with an ironwork bed covered with a patchwork quilt of shimmering silks.
“It was the best we could do on short notice,” he said with his crooked smile.
I opened the door of an armoire crammed in beside the bed. Two more dresses hung there, and drawers held gloves and stockings. And, to my horror, a turban.
I held the offending item out to him on one finger, a mauve jumble of layers with a big paste jewel on the front. I raised an eyebrow.
“Costumes,” he said with a shrug. “You get used to them.”
I tossed it back into the drawer and slammed it shut.
“So what happens while I’m asleep?” I asked.
“I’ll be in the other room with my books and grimoires, trying to puzzle out your peculiar condition. I don’t need much sleep.”
“Lucky you,” I said, my gloved hand trailing over the bed. I realized how inviting the gesture might appear and jerked my hand back. He snickered, a surprisingly dark and intriguing sound that made me forget all about the handsome shipwrecked harpsichordist from my world.
“Will it suit you?” he asked me. I took a moment to answer, part of me enjoying his anxiety.
“I think so,” I said. “But I don’t have much to compare it to.”
“It’s better than any city, I promise you,” he said with a sneer. “Flats jammed together, everyone cheek to jowl. The air is putrid. The streets are filthy. No matter what you do, the muck gets into your pores, under your skin. Inside, it’s very opulent and colorful and shiny, to make up for the darkness outside.”
“Have you spent much time in a city?”
“I was born in one. Devlin, across the sea from here. I ran away when I was nine and never went back.” He paused for a moment with an odd, faraway look. “It’s funny. I’ve traveled with this caravan for decades, but no one’s ever asked me where I came from.”
“I think they’re scared of you,” I said.
“And well they should be.”
“I don’t think you’re as vicious as you think you are,” I told him.
“I don’t think you’ve seen me on a bad day,” he answered. “I have to keep up the show, terrify them, keep them in line. It’s a razor’s edge, to run a band of misfits, monsters, beggars, and thieves.”
“Why do you do it, then?”
“Because I love it. Because it’s what I am. And they’re not so bad. It’s you who’s different. You were supposed to be my solace, my heart’s ease. Maybe that’s why I’m telling you so much. I probably shouldn’t.”
“I don’t understand why I’m supposed to be anything,” I said, feeling touched but also weary of his assumptions. “You said you brought me here. Tell me why.”
“It’s a long story, pet. Why don’t you get undressed and into bed, and I’ll tell you while you fall asleep? Maybe I can bore you to dreamland.”
Grinning, he slipped out the door and closed it, and I heard his footsteps creaking across the wagon. I hunted through the armoire until I found a long white nightdress. Then I realized that I couldn’t get undressed by myself. But I’d get as far as I could.
I unlaced the neck first, and it felt wonderful. Then the wrists. Then I was able to tug the various laces loose enough to wiggle the dress over my head. Twisting and turning to untie the corset, I caught myself in the mirror in heavy makeup, black corset, black petticoats, and black boots. I looked like the cancan dancer of the damned. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the corset loose enough to wriggle out.
“Criminy, I need help,” I said softly at the door.
His voice came from the other side, saying, “Name it.”
“I can’t get the damned corset undone,” I said. “Can you yank out the laces? Or can you be that close to so much skin? Maybe your monkey could help?”
Whoa. That didn’t sound good at all. I felt my cheeks go scarlet and turned my back to the door.
I heard him slip into the room behind me. “Have you forgotten that I found you completely unclothed this morning and managed to get you here in one piece? I told you, pet. You’re different. For me.”
Without another word, he began pulling at the corset more roughly than I would have preferred. I concentrated on not falling over, and as I felt it loosen, I put up a hand to my chest to hold it there when he was done.
I could hear Criminy breathing, feel his eyes on my bare back. Nana’s bathing suit revealed more skin than what he was seeing. But I couldn’t forget that it had been three years since any man except Jeff had seen me naked. Well, if you forgot about that morning.
In a world where people were forced to cover everything, I’m guessing a bit of back was considered the height of risqué. I was still trying to regrow my self-confidence, after Jeff’s constant complaining that I was ten pounds overweight. But his ragged breath in the small space told me that Criminy Stain had no complaints whatsoever about my body.
“Thank you,” I said. “Um, you can go now.”
“I’ll go when I’m ready,” he breathed, his voice low.
I spun around, clutching the corset over my chest. I took a step toward him, trying to shoo him toward the door. He didn’t budge. He looked hungry. I took a step back. Then another. His hands were in fists. He licked his lips. If there was a gentleman in there, I was losing him.
“Not this way, Criminy,” I whispered. “Please.”
His eyes squeezed shut, and he shook himself, then stepped out the door and shut it. I didn’t realize until that moment that I was scared. And excited. But I wouldn’t admit anything more than that, even to myself.
As quickly as I could, I shrugged into the nightgown, dropping neither corset nor petticoats until I was covered. Still, I felt exposed and vulnerable, and I undid my boots as quickly as possible and sought the protection of the bed’s covers. It was chillier in Sang than I was accustomed to.
Part of me didn’t trust him, didn’t want to let him into the room. The other part knew that there were worse things than Criminy Stain in the world and that he was better protection than two wooden doors and four locks.
“You can come in now,” I called, and the door opened just enough to show me his face, which was carefully blank. Reserved.
“Well, you look cozy,” he said politely. “Are you ready for a bedtime story?”
“I think so,” I said. I felt very much like a child, small and fragile, with the nightgown’s bow tied innocently under my neck. “Am I going to like it?”
“Probably not,” he said with a shrug. “Doesn’t change anything.”
“Where does it start?”
He sat on the edge of the bed. “A long time ago, I had my heart broken by a Bludwoman in the caravan. Her name was Merissa, and she did tricks on the backs of a pair of white bludmares. She was a wicked lass, and she used me and left me for a necromancer. I was just a simple magician then, nothing more, and I was distraught. The caravan was parked near a heavy wood, and I ran away to find solace in the wilderness.”
His eyes were far away, and I reached out a hand to him. He picked it up absentmindedly and held it in his glove, not noticing that the skin was bare.
“One morning, I woke up to the sound of screaming, and I found a man, naked, being attacked by a bludstag. I chased it off, of course, and nearly made a meal out of him myself, but I was too curious. He had the most peculiar haircut. We got to talking, and he told me that he was under the care of a sort of chirurgeon in his world, and they put him to sleep, and then he found himself here, in Sang. I was fascinated. I had heard of Strangers before, but I thought it was just a trick by the Coppers, an excuse to drag in anyone suspicious.”
“When was this?”
“Oh, maybe fifty years ago. Strangers were more rare then. He started to tell me about his world, but then he vanished mid-sentence. I always supposed they woke him back up. Is that normal?”
“Yes, surgeons put people to sleep and wake them back up every day at the hospital. I wonder how many of them end up here for a little while. And do they never remember it or just assume it was a dream?”
And then I had to wonder about all the people who died mysteriously during surgery, their pulses dropping for no good reason. Had they found their own bludstags on the lonely moors of Sang?
“Anyway, I had no idea what had happened. But I was very curious, so I went about making inquiries, doing research. I finally found a witch who wanted to be a Bludwoman, and we made an exchange. I gave her what she wanted, and she gave me a spell called the Drawing. I won’t bore you with all the details, but I enchanted the locket and sent it away to find you in whatever world you waited.”
“Part of the spell involved describing exactly what I wanted, but a measure of mystery is involved, too. The Drawing is supposed to draw the other half of your soul, wherever it is. But it’s tricky. You could have arrived at any time and in any place. I’ve been looking for you for a long time, you see.”
“How do you know it’s me? That there’s not some other Stranger out there, working her way toward you?” I asked. “What if I was meant for … someone else?”
“That’s not possible,” he said darkly, and I knew that he knew what I was thinking. He sneered at the door, showing fangs. We could both hear the delicate strains of a harpsichord coming from outside. Only I knew it was a nocturne by Debussy, the notes filled with longing, a lullaby just for me.
“But what if—”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “Look into my eyes again.”
I didn’t want to, because I knew what would happen. But I did anyway.
His eyes gave me the same feeling I got on roller coasters, going down the first hill. As if my stomach was being turned inside out but in a good way. Even though I knew he was of a different species, unabashedly wicked, and apparently much older than he looked, I couldn’t help but feel the tug.
“Like a magnet,” he said.
“Something like that,” I had to admit. “But are you saying you brought me here with magic because you were scorned?”
“Not exactly. She just made me realize that what I thought I wanted wasn’t necessarily what I needed. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life chasing shadows, waiting for someone to love.”
“Why, Criminy Stain,” I said. “You’re a romantic.”
“Oh, no,” he said with a grin. “I’m fiendish and unscrupulous, a vicious killer and a thief and a bloodthirsty monster. And maybe a little romantic. But don’t tell anyone, or my reputation’s shot.”
“But what about me?” I said. “Does it bother you that you’ve reached through to another dimension and pulled out a broken woman just trying to get her life back? I was weak for so long I barely even know who I am anymore. I feel so dull compared to you. I don’t understand what you see in me.”
“I see you in you,” he said, tracing my face. “And as we’ve already learned, whatever you are in your world, you’re something else entirely here. Now, if I can just get you to give up this other life of yours and love me, I’ll be a very contented creature.”
“You ask a lot,” I said, troubled.
“I’m not used to disappointment.”
He smiled warmly, gently, and leaned over to kiss my forehead.
“But it’s time for you to sleep, love,” he said. “And we’ll see how you feel when you wake up.”
I rolled over and snuggled into the down pillow. Criminy turned off the light and left the room, and I heard him rustling around in the other half of the wagon. The dark pressed down on me, as oppressive as the morning sky of Sang, and before I could even think about his confession or daydream about Casper, I was asleep.
An alarm was going off somewhere far away. The insistent bleating was infuriating, and I had a vision of a bludbunny with large red numbers on its side, hopping around and beeping, trying to lure me closer so it could bite me. I wanted to find it and toss it tail over teakettle into the field until the beeping went away.
“Shut up, you stupid rabbit,” I muttered.
Then something brushed my face, and I was sure the numerical bludbunny was purring. I opened my eyes and saw Mr. Surly’s blue eyes only inches away. The color was eerily similar to that of Casper’s eyes, and I smiled. Dream or not, I had to admit that there were two ridiculously cute guys in Sang.
Back to reality. I got out of bed to turn off the alarm and scratch my ankle, which itched like crazy. Right where the bludbunny had nipped me, there were two puffy pink bug bites. Was it evidence that Sang was real, or did Mr. Surly have fleas?
I guess I would finally know for certain the next time I went to sleep. The alarm clock, which wasn’t actually a bunny, said 7:32, so I had a little more than twelve hours before I would find out the truth. I was definitely going to bed early. I hated to admit it, but it was going to be a really long day, just waiting to go to sleep again.
All I could think about was Sang. And Criminy. And Casper.
I couldn’t wait to visit him on my nursing rounds. Sure, his body in my world was wasted away, the mind empty. But I could look around his house with new eyes, learn more about him. When I thought of his piano and his nimble fingers stroking up and down the keyboard, I had some very unprofessional thoughts.