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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
Criminy held out the jar again and said, “Go on. Paint your face, clown. Unless you’d like to tell your friends and coworkers anything special?”
Elvis looked at the powder, then at the crowd. He hung his head, apparently realizing that the Bludmen would end him, one way or another, now that they knew what he had done.
He dipped a gloved finger into the powder and looked at it sadly. He drew a stripe from his forehead down to his chin, then reached for another finger full and drew a line from cheek to cheek. With a cross drawn on his pallid face, he looked up at the crowd.
“I regret nothing,” he said, and blood spilled from his mouth. He fell to the ground, eyes open. Dead.
Emerlie screamed, but one of her friends clapped a hand over her mouth. The bearded lady fainted into Torno’s arms. One small man just as leathery as Elvis crept forward to close the dead man’s eyes with an apologetic nod to Criminy. Shocked whispers and fierce glares darted across the crowd, yet no one seemed all that surprised. I couldn’t tell if that was because they knew Elvis was a bad seed or because Criminy’s word was accepted as law.
Criminy pulled a long black silk sheet from inside his coat as easily as if it were a handkerchief. He stepped forward to drape it over the still form in the dust, and the whispering reached a frenzy.
“Everybody stop!” Criminy shouted.
The carnivalleros immediately quieted and stilled.
“This is a family, and we take care of our own. Crimes will be punished accordingly. Belleen has been avenged. Now, get on with it.” His voice rang with confidence and finality.
The carnivalleros drifted off. The show was over.
The pale, lemony sun lingered at the horizon as I watched the caravan come alive for the first time. Barely refreshed by a few quiet hours alone in my wagon, I was now back in my fake tent in front of my fake crystal ball wearing my fake turban while providing one-hundred-percent real fortune-telling.
Strange double-decker vehicles appeared, first as three distant spots spewing smoke. Then their heavy chugging carried over the hills, and finally they arrived, parking a respectful distance away. They were like a cross between English sightseeing buses and tanks, and their treads left ugly scars across the serene green of the moors. City people apparently took safety very seriously on their country jaunts.
Each bus was accompanied by two Coppers, who galloped ahead on feisty bludmares to check our paperwork with Mrs. Cleavers. In addition to the caravan’s license and certificates, every carnivallero was required to have papers, and mine had been freshly forged and magically aged earlier in the morning. I was officially Lady Letitia Paisley. I had argued in favor of my last name, but Criminy had explained that Everett was neither a surname nor a word in Sang and might draw questions, so we had gone with the much more common Paisley. I couldn’t think of a single argument that wouldn’t expose what I’d seen when glancing on his book, so Paisley it was.
I tried to focus on my breathing and ambience. My biggest criticism from the day’s customers had been that I seemed perky but shy until I touched them, when I instantly became somber and mysterious. I needed to maintain that same exotic aura consistently instead of depending on the glancing.
My car was between Emerlie and Veruca’s and Torno’s, and the wagons had been circled to separate the public and private spaces of the caravan. Clockworks inhabited the spaces between the wagons, doing their tricks and ensuring that no outsiders ventured into the circle within. The juggling polanda bear and dancing leoparth on either side of my wagon were more than a little daunting.
To my left, Emerlie rode her unicycle and juggled plates, looking more bored than ever. Her really dangerous stunts wouldn’t begin until the crowd was excited and gathered like a flock of leather sheep by Criminy’s hawking. Just beyond her, Veruca stood in a booth painted to look like a lush jungle and practiced swallowing a sword. On my right, Torno lifted big blocks of stone and giant barbells, also warming up for his more impressive show later on.
I had asked Criminy why there wasn’t a big top, a giant tent with bleachers for the main show.
“They used to have those,” he said, thoughtful. “A couple of hundred years ago, before so many were bludded. But in today’s world, herding a bunch of Pinkies into a place with only one exit would be like inviting a flock of geese into a cage with a leoparth. Even if you could keep them safe, they’d never relax. The people of Sang need to see what’s coming, make sure nothing is sneaking up behind them.”
It was also the reasoning behind our circled wagons. It was like fighting back to back, making sure that we were all on the lookout for whatever might be coming. We needed a space of our own. They were a little scared of us, but we were also a little scared of them. I had to admit that the bulk of my own wagon behind me was reassuring. I closed my eyes and leaned back against it, wishing the glancing was already over and I could try the charmed sleep Criminy had promised me.
“Ready for your first show, my lady?”
I startled. As I pushed up my slipping turban, I found Casper standing before me in a spectacular costume, smiling. He wore a billowing white shirt that laced up to his chin, and over that a sequined waistcoat of sky blue dancing with black music notes. His breeches were black, his boots were polished, and his hair was plaited and tied with a bow.
“You look like Mr. Knightley,” I said. “With maybe a little bit of Elton John thrown in.”
“That might be the nicest compliment I’ve ever received, and that includes the time the queen of England told me I played like an angel,” he replied, flashing even more dimple.
As hard as it was to look elsewhere, I peeked over his shoulder, to where the tanks were parking. I fidgeted with my turban some more.
“You’re scared, aren’t you?” he said. “Not used to performing?”
“Not at all,” I admitted. “And I’m scared of what I’m going to see, too.”
“Ah, yes. The glancing.” He sat on the stool across from me, the one reserved for customers, and looked around to check that we were alone. “Speaking of which, you know my secret now, don’t you?”
“It’s really clever,” I had to admit. “Drinking a drop from every Bludman you meet so they don’t want to feed on you. Criminy never mentioned that their blud could do that. But why’d you start?”
“I couldn’t stand the gloves,” he said, flexing his bare hands. “Playing the harpsichord in gloves … it’s like making love with your clothes on. You can’t feel the skin under your hands, the electricity. There’s no magic there. What’s the point?”
Visions of pianos and hands and bodies in candlelight tumbled through my mind, and I had to bite my lip. He definitely had a way with words. It was strange, being a little infatuated with him. Already knowing that he wanted me, having seen it in the glance. Wanting him, too.
“You should take some blud,” he said. “It’s important to keep yourself safe here.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. I’d already been thinking about it, of course. “I’d rather be free than safe, and drinking someone’s blood and becoming something I’m not …” I shook my head. “It’s not a compromise I’m willing to make.”
“No, no—it’s all about being free,” he argued. Seeing him animated and passionate made me a little breathless, even if I disagreed with him. “That’s the point. Do you know any other humans walking around barefoot and gloveless around here?” He looked down at his boots and tugged at his collar with a shrug. “I’m dressed up now for the show, but most of the time, I’m the only person who isn’t wrapped up in fear and cloth.”
His lip curled up, and his hands were in fists. The old Tish would have apologized and moved on, changed the subject. But Letitia was more willing to argue for what she believed.
“But how long are you a human, when you’re drinking from Bludmen? I don’t have anything against them, obviously, but when do you start to crave blood? When does it take you over completely? You might be free to dress differently, but you become a slave to your choices all the same.”
“I choose to disagree,” he said quietly. “But then again, you’ve never died. I have. And I don’t want to do it again. And I don’t want you to, either.”
We were silent for a moment, watching the Pinkies disembark and mill about in a tight cluster. I subtly studied him. He was just as pretty when he was angry. Criminy was right to call him sulky, but it suited him. It was odd to yearn toward two such different men at once when I wasn’t even sure how I fit into their world. Loving either one of them would be easy, if I let myself. Choosing between them would be the hard part. I would have to ignore the glancing and listen to my gut. I trusted Nana’s wisdom more than magic.
He caught my eye, and I was lost for a moment in the startling blue. Despite his bravado, there was fear there, and I wished that I had some solace to offer him. But I didn’t.
“Is that what you saw for me, then? Becoming a Bludman?” he asked, almost pleading. “Is that the great loss—my humanity?”
“I can’t say.”
Or I wouldn’t.
He put his head down and chuckled sadly. “You can see it, but you won’t tell me.”
“I do not talk of the beginning or the end,” I quoted with a sad smile.
“You can quit quoting ‘Song of Myself,’ ” he said bitterly. “This is Sang. The words were never written here.”
He stood up and walked away.
When he was out of range, I muttered to myself, “That doesn’t mean they never will be.”
The Pinkies cut a path through the grass, moving toward us in a giddy but skittish herd. My skin tingled as a ripple of magic rolled over me. I looked up and smiled. Everything seemed brighter, sharper, more fascinating. Glitter danced in the air, and a calliope began to play. I wondered if that was Criminy’s doing, too, or if Casper’s fingers were the magic behind the cheery pipes. Emerlie’s smile became genuine, Torno’s muscles seemed to bulge a little more through his leather suit, the jigging leoparth let out a very genuine-sounding roar. I sought Criminy in the crowd and saw him in front of his wagon, his hands playing in the air as he grinned. Just another one of his talents, this glamour.
The crowd flowed in little groups, and I could feel their fear and excitement. A gaggle of Pinkies approached me in a rustle of skirts and whispers, my first customers for the night.
Oh, great. Teenagers.
They looked like teens from my own time, except for their heavy, suffocating clothes. Frilly, silly, catty, whispery, scared but hiding it with bravado. The boldest of them broke off from the group and stepped up to me with a flounce and a sneer as her friends giggled behind her.
“Can you really tell fortunes?” she said. “My pa says it’s a trick.”
I lowered my head and looked up at her through my painted eyelashes, trying to appear mysterious. “It’s not a trick, miss,” I said, my voice husky. “Touch my hand and see.”
“How much is it, then?” she said as if bored, but I could tell that she was caught.
“Whatever you think it is worth,” I said. “To know your future.”
I held out my hand, with the glove already removed. Mrs. Cleavers had filed my nails to talons and shellacked them, bright red as cherries. When the girl saw it, she gasped.
“Remove your glove,” I said with a knowing smile.
She looked back to her friends. They urged her on, and she knew she couldn’t back down. She removed her glove with a dainty, unwilling tenderness. She likely hadn’t shown her hand to anyone but her parents in her entire life.
When I touched her skin, the jolt was quick.
“The lad you love doesn’t return the sentiment,” I said, my voice low. “But another does. Beware the one with golden eyes, for she will betray you. Tell your father not to bet on the black mare. Listen to your mother, and don’t marry the first one who asks, and you will find happiness.”
I dropped her hand. Her eyes bugged out unbecomingly, showing me how young she truly was. “Thank you, lady,” she said.
She slipped her glove on and dropped some coins onto the table. I whisked them into a little bag at my feet, as Criminy had told me never to let them see the money. Her circle of friends enveloped her, but she shook her head at their questions.
“She sees true,” she said. “That’s all I can say.”
Of course, her six friends fell into line before me, and my bag of coins grew heavier. Every time I grasped a hand, I was terrified that I would see something horrible, some hideous end that I couldn’t prevent with a few well-chosen words. Or even worse, that I wouldn’t see anything and would have to make something up on the fly. But life in the city, from what I glanced, was dull and mostly safe. Only one girl’s palm held a tragedy, and I was able to help on that one.
“No matter what your boyfriend says, never sneak out at night,” I said, my tone dark and foreboding. “Or else your death will come from the shadows of the alleys, and your mother will find your bones nibbled by bludrats.”
It sounded bad because, well, it was bad. But it could easily be averted. Stay inside, stupid. I hoped I had scared her sufficiently.
Fortunately for business, nothing spread the word like a group of impressed and terrified teenage girls. Soon I had a line, and Criminy’s clockwork monkey came by to do tricks for pennies, which she gathered in her little fez. After turning several back flips, she brought me a note in elegant handwriting signed with a C.
Well done, love, you’re a star was all it said, but my mysterious mask cracked into the goofy smile of a kid receiving a love note in high school.