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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“There, now, miss. You look lovely, if I do say so myself.”
I considered my reflection in the mirror, and I looked about the same as I had yesterday. Apparently, having thick black rings around your eyes was the height of fashion in Sang. She’d painted a little outside my lips to make a fat cupid’s bow, and she’d stuck the fascinator on the top of my head, and I felt ridiculous.
“Is this how makeup and hair are normally done here?” I asked as gently as possible.
“Oh, cor, yes. I forget Master said you was from far away,” she said. “All the young ladies wear their hairbobs in front now—Mrs. Cleavers is a little behind on Citydom. And the lips have to be painted this way, if you want any lad to look twice.”
Her face was next to mine in the mirror, and she did have her lips done the same way. She had a tiny maroon top hat surrounded by pheasant feathers nestled in her curls, and she smiled at me, showing yellow teeth.
“See now? Master will be pleased,” she said. “And if you can put in a spare word about my wagon, I’d be ever so obliged.”
“What’s wrong with your wagon?” I asked.
“Nothing.” She sniffed. “Except as I don’t like sharing it with that Abyssinian. She’s a loverly girl, but there’re ever so many snakes about, and it always smells of smoke. I had hoped …” She trailed off, staring forlornly around my trailer, then glanced at me and smiled that same bright, utterly fake smile. “But that’s all well and good. Fortunetellers come before tightrope walkers, and that’s ever the way of things. Shall we get on to breakfast, then?”
Walking arm in arm with Emerlie was painful. She never stopped talking, and most of what came out of her mouth was complaining in a cheerful voice. She whispered about everyone we passed, just loudly enough to make it clear that she was gossiping. I was embarrassed and hoped that being seen with her wasn’t turning anyone against me.
Most of the time, I just tuned her out. I had enough to think about on my own.
She threw open the door to the dining car and squealed when she saw two other girls sitting in a corner.
“Later, love!” she called over her shoulder as she trotted to her friends, one of whom had a spectacularly long beard but was still kind of pretty. The other was rail-thin, with buck teeth, and she threw me an evil look as I scanned the room. Criminy raised an eyebrow from his booth, where he was waiting for me. There was no sign of Casper. I was more than a little disappointed.
After I’d collected my breakfast of hot porridge, some little citrus fruits, and a strange amber-colored liquid, he ushered me into the booth and closed the curtains.
“Why the curtains?” I said. “Doesn’t it seem weird—us eating in the same room as everyone else but hiding in a tent?”
“Most of what we say is secret, love,” he said, sipping his blood. “And it’s not healthy for me to get too close to the others. I have to keep control. Once they see me warbling love songs at you, I’m done for.”
He flashed me a bloody grin, the sort that probably made Emerlie want to gag, but it didn’t bother me anymore.
“So about last night?” he said, making it into a question.
“I was back in my real world. My clock was ringing, my cat was purring. It was just like waking up from a normal dream on a regular morning.”
“But you were tired?”
“Yes, exhausted. Still am. No sleep. I’ll probably start going crazy soon.”
He waved that off. I blew on my porridge and nibbled a spoonful.
“We have to figure out a way for you to sleep without going back to your other world,” he said to himself. “Maybe a charmed sleep?”
“Worth a try,” I said. “As long as you know what you’re doing.”
“I know exactly what I’m doing,” he said with a smoldering glance that unsettled me.
I fumbled as I picked up one of the little citrus fruits, which was smooth and golden. I dug in my thumbs, and red juice welled up and stained my gloves, dripping on the table.
“Ugh, what is this?” I cried, looking for a napkin.
“It’s a tangerine, love,” he said. “I thought you knew that.”
“But it’s all red inside,” I said, dabbing at my sleeve. “In my world, they’re not all dark and gooey.” I sighed. “More blood.”
“You’re half right,” he said, removing his gloves and taking the fruit from me.
I saw his hands for the first time, black and scaled like Mrs. Cleavers’s, with clipped white claws halfway between fingernails and talons. I should have been disgusted, but I wasn’t. They were really quite pretty, and effective, too, as he sliced open the peel and removed the sections of rich, red fruit with much less mess than I would have made.
He popped one section into his mouth and sucked it, saying, “Tangerine is the only thing besides blood that I like to eat. Tastes a little like blood but sweeter. Not as nutritive, mind you, but better than nothing.”
“Like candy,” I said with a smile.
He returned the smile, swallowing the fruit and holding out another piece to me. “A little like candy, yes. Try it.”
I could see the dare in his eyes, so I popped it into my mouth. Braced for the worst, I found that it was actually lovely, like a cross between a ripe cherry and a clementine.
“It’s delicious,” I said, “if a bit staining. My gloves are ruined.”
“You’re a bit of a tangerine yourself, Letitia,” he mused, toying with the curled peel. “Sweet, intriguing, ripe, and juicy. But not quite what you seem. Still wrapped up in a bit of a shell.”
“Are you saying I’m a-peeling?” I said, and then I started giggling, and he joined me.
“Yes, my sweet tangerine. Very appealing. But it’s time to drop the shell,” he said. “The show opens tonight, and we’ve got to get you ready to perform. You need to get your patter down, practice glancing on the carnivalleros. And my hope is that you’ll glance on the person who tried to poison Mrs. Cleavers. Be ready for it. Learn to keep your face closed, reveal only what you must. Get comfortable with lying, and do it fast. Do you think you can?”
“That’s a lot to learn in one day,” I said. “I’m not like you. I’m not a born performer.”
“I’m betting you are, pet,” he said. “I can see it in you, waiting to come out.”
“I’ll do my best,” I said. I suddenly felt very small and hopeless. Not that I was so worried about the glancing, because it didn’t seem as if I could stop it if I tried. I just didn’t want to disappoint him.
“You’re going to be great,” he said. “And I’ll be with you to help.”
I sighed. “That’s what scares me.”
My first victim was Torno, the strong man.
“My fortune, never has it been read,” he said with a galloping sort of accent. “I hope my future, you will see, is a good one.” A small clockwork dog sat on its haunches at his feet, still as a statue except for an odd, robotic panting.
I smiled. I had no idea what to say.
I was sitting behind a crystal ball in a colorful little tent outside my wagon. Bold, curling letters in bright gold proclaimed me a fortune-telling gypsy, so it was definitely too late to back out. I was wearing the highly offensive mauve turban, a black net shawl, and a coin-speckled scarf tied around my hips.
I felt like a big old phony.
Criminy stood behind me in the shadows. He was supposed to be feeding me lines. But he was waiting quietly, giving me a chance to try first, I guess. Before we’d sat down, he had told me, “Your accent is very foreign and exciting, so that’ll help. But you must learn to ham it up, make it seem more important than it is. Most folk have never seen a real glancer, and they’re expecting magic.”
That didn’t help me a bit. I was still smiling at Torno, and he was smiling at me. His clockwork dog yipped, and I jumped. My mind was a total blank.
“I see that you are very strong,” Criminy whispered in my ear. “And you are a fighter. You fought in the war?”
Of course, he was strong, and he did have scars on his face, including a big slash under his left eye. But I repeated Criminy’s words, trying to inject authority and spookiness into my voice.
“Yes,” Torno said. “But these things, they are known. They are past. What else can you say to me? What of the future?”
“Touch him,” Criminy whispered.
“If you will be so kind as to remove the glove of your right hand,” I said as I removed mine and held my bare hand out to him.
Torno was surprised and stared at my hand as if it were something fascinating and scary. Then he blushed. But he removed his glove and held out his hand.
I grasped it. The jolt wasn’t so bad when I was expecting it. Torno didn’t appear to feel it, though, and he just sat there, staring at me, his face beet red. I supposed that in Sang, he might not have touched another human’s skin in years.
It came to me then, and the words rose from my mouth unbidden, deep, and husky. “The boys will betray you,” I said. “Not for blood but money. They know the hiding place. If you begin with fists, it will end in teeth. Only the master can bind them.”
His bulging shoulders hunched inside the scarred leather suit. “Master?” he said, his deep voice tremulous with fury.
“It will be done,” Criminy said softly from behind me.
“Thank you, Lady Letitia,” Torno said. He pulled a gold coin from somewhere in his suit and laid it on the table before me, then walked back toward his trailer, clenching and unclenching his gloved fists. The clockwork dog trotted in his wake, doing an occasional backward somersault.
“See?” Criminy said, picking up the coin. “I knew it. You’re a natural.”
“I barely understand what I said. But I guess he knows what it means?” I asked.
“He knows. And I do, too. Catarrh and Quincy have always looked up to him, but apparently, they were going to steal something valuable from him. I’ll give them a firm talking-to. Problem solved.”
“You don’t mind having attempted thieves here?” I asked, then I laughed. “Oh.”
“Yes. Oh,” he said. “I trained them myself. But we don’t steal from our own. They’re young. They’ll learn.”
The next person stepped up. It was the lizard boy, Eblick. I’d never actually seen him vertical thus far—just passed out in the sunshine. He was thin and sickly-looking, with pale green scales and watery black eyes, and he wore only a brown vest and trousers. He was one of the few people I’d met who let any part of their body show, but he certainly didn’t look very tasty.
“Master,” he said, bowing respectfully. “Lady.”
“Hi,” I said, and Criminy shook his head.
“Hi doesn’t really set the stage, love. Try something more ominous, like Greetings from the beyond or Your future awaits or something dramatic. Or just skip it and stare them down.”
I pinned Eblick with my fiercest stare, and he quaked and gulped. “If you’ll be so kind as to give me your right hand,” I said, “I will look into your future.”
He held out a claw-tipped, scaly hand. The palm was grayish-white, with long scales like a snake’s belly. I grasped it with my own hand and waited for the jolt, but nothing happened. I looked at Eblick, and he was braced as if for electrocution, his eyes squeezed shut.
Time to wing it.
“Ah, yes,” I said. “You are fearful, but you must overcome this fear to reach your full potential. Claim your power in the world by gaining strength and … eating healthfully and … using a magical oil. See the master later,” I said, trying to imitate the same husky voice that had come over me with Torno.
“Thank you, lady,” Eblick said, worship in his eyes. He placed a transparent silvery scale on the table before me. “I will do as you say.”
When he had left, staring at his hand as if secrets were written there, Criminy said, “That wasn’t a glance, was it?”
“No, I made that one up,” I said. “Just give him some sort of nicely scented oil so he won’t look so patchy. He needs to bulk up and get some exercise.”
“Well done, love,” Criminy said with a chuckle. “Now you’re getting it.”
“What’s with the scale? People are allowed to pay with body parts now?”
“They can always pay with blood, but nobody wants lizard blood,” he said. “That scale is quite a gift, really. Great healing properties there. Or it can be pulverized and added to draughts and spells. Clever girl, to see that power was what the lad wanted most.”
“You were right,” I said. “It’s pretty obvious when you just look at them.”
My next customer appeared, the thin, buck-toothed girl I had seen with Emerlie in the dining car. She was wearing a ridiculous floppy hat that barely fit in my tent. She flounced into the chair and said, “I wish to know how to solve my … problem.”
“If you’ll remove your right glove,” I said, and held out my own bare hand.
“Nothing doing. I’m a lady,” she said with a sniff.
“Would you like to be a lady with or without a job?” Criminy growled over my shoulder.
“Master, I’m twenty-two, and I’ve never touched anyone outside of my family,” she said, disgusted. “And your pardon, sir, but I don’t know this … person.”
“I do,” Criminy said. “And I’ve let her touch me. That should be good enough for the likes of you.”