|Home > Delilah S. Dawson > Blud > Wicked as They Come (Page 18)|
|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“You said so yourself,” I admitted.
“We’ll find it, then,” he said. “I promise.”
Once Pemberly showed us the perfectly round, rat-sized hole along the baseboard, the story was easy enough to piece together. The culprit had been a clockwork, and it had known exactly what it was looking for.
“Nibbled through the chain’s links with titanium teeth, most likely,” said Criminy. “Whoever took it must be powerful and rich. And determined.”
“Determined?” I said. “Is it worth much?”
“Depends how much your other world is worth to you, pet,” he said, thoughtful as he sipped his breakfast from a cup delicately painted with pansies. “The ruby is big enough but not worth such trouble. He must have known it was enchanted. Tell me—has anyone spoken to you about the locket?”
Suddenly, it all made sense. The old man, a Stranger himself, interested in my pretty locket. A Stranger who wanted to destroy all of the Bludmen. A Stranger who might want a way back to my world. In between meeting him and passing out, I hadn’t had time to piece it together. I told Criminy everything, from Ferling’s glance to the old man’s curiosity about the necklace.
He went very still as he listened, his lips compressing into a thin white line and his eyes growing hard. “I never got that note,” he said. “Someone’s been tampering with my clockworks. And planning a secret genocide. Did you get a name?
“No,” I said. “But he’s the boss of the two we saw on the moor, Rodvey and Ferling. He’s an old man with a big, white mustache. And he’s a sort of leader—of a city and of all of the Coppers. Like a mayor. And he works way up high, near a big, ruined, white church with an X on top.”
“That’s Manchester,” Criminy said. “Cathedral of Saint Ermenegilda. He must be the Magistrate.”
“Why did no one recognize him, though?” I asked. “Isn’t he important?”
“Not to me, not until now. I live outside his laws. It’s not an elected position, see? He’s in power, he makes the rules, and everyone in the city has to live by them. But he’s not going to advertise. Still, he shouldn’t be hard to find, and I have friends there. Wisest course of action would be to beat him at his own game. Steal the locket back.”
We planned to set out after breakfast, traveling the road on foot. There was much to do before leaving, from briefing Mrs. Cleavers on caravan business to gathering up food and blood. We took a little money but not much. It wouldn’t pay to appear suspicious or remotely like a target. Besides, we could always earn our supper on the streets with Criminy’s magic or my glancing.
While Criminy was talking to Mrs. Cleavers, I sat on the steps of her wagon, gazing at the morning haze hanging over the moors and thinking about my grandmother. I had never felt so far away from comfort and safety.
“Ready to go fetch your wonderful cities?” someone asked, and I looked up to find Casper leaning against the wagon, his smile playful. As if he had forgotten our earlier disagreement. So I played along.
“Maybe, Mr. Whitman,” I said coyly. “But I’m a little scared of the contemptible dreams part.”
“I know how that feels,” he said. “I’m worried about your dreams, too. And I don’t like to think of you alone on the moors with him.” He looked thoughtful and inviting, hair down and smile warm. Being around him made me feel young and special and full of hope, and I liked it. With a quick, guilty thought of Criminy, I patted the wood board beside me.
He sat down next to me on the step, and I was hyper-aware of his hip and shoulder touching mine. The wind blew his hair in my face, and it smelled of soap. Not berries and vines and darkness but good, clean soap. And his skin smelled so human, so manly, of a life lived in the sun.
“Criminy says that glancers can see everyone’s future but their own,” I said, feeling a blush creep up my cheeks. “But I truly believe that in the end, you’ll have what you want.”
“All I’ve ever wanted before now was music,” he said. His shoulder pressed against me, and I unconsciously leaned into him. “I was so busy practicing and traveling and writing. I never had time for people. And now I have so much time and no one to share it with.”
A breeze came up, and a lock of my hair whipped across my face. He gently tucked it behind my ear, and his fingers left velvet trails of fire on my skin. I closed my eyes, lost in the moment, and his lips pressed against mine, warm and soft and tender. I felt like a teenager having her first kiss on the doorstep, a stolen moment where everything is golden and shimmering and achingly beautiful. And so, so fleeting.
Just when I hoped the kiss would get deeper, he pulled away and stroked my face. “You’re so lovely,” he said. “Gentle and curving and beautiful, as a woman should be.”
My eyebrows rose at the word should, and I had to ask, “What else do you think I am?”
“Let’s see,” he said with a smile. “You’re a nurse, so you must be kind and good-hearted. You know Leaves of Grass, so you must be educated and poetic. You’re beautiful, but anyone can see that. And you’ve got that monster Stain wrapped around your little finger, which is pretty clever. The girls fawn at him all day, and he ignores them, and here he’s already given you your own wagon. But being my girl won’t keep you on his good side, I’m sorry to say.”
“I’m not anyone’s girl,” I said, pulling away and peeling my shoulder off his.
“Then why did you kiss me?” he asked, beautiful blue eyes pleading in a way that somehow made me like him less. “You just feel right to me. I feel so close to you, like you’re home. And I think you feel that way about me, too.”
I couldn’t answer. I did feel that way about him, and I longed for closeness and peace. He was my only link to my world, to the future I’d always wanted. But I wasn’t sure if this was the right way to get it. There was something in his desperation that reminded me of Jeff. And it wasn’t his business how I felt about Criminy. I turned my face away and sighed. The breeze became a chill wind, and a cloud passed in front of the sun. He reached for my hand, but I shrugged away, tucking my hands into the billowing fabric of my skirt. The moment was gone.
“You’ve seen your own future, haven’t you? And you think you can’t change it. You’re not willing to take a chance on me.” He put his head down and chuckled. “It’s a little scary, what you do.”
His words wounded me deeper than I would have guessed. As I tried to figure out how to respond, Mrs. Cleavers’s door gently shut, and with words as sharp and cold as the blade of a knife, Criminy said, “If you’re scared of her talent, then you don’t truly know what fear is.”
“I just wanted to wish you luck,” Casper said stiffly. He stood and lifted my limp hand from my lap, kissing my glove with that same pleading look in his eyes. “Let’s continue this discussion sometime, Letitia. Under more pleasant circumstances.” He nodded curtly and added, “Take care of her, Stain.” He walked away into the grasses, glowing in a sunbeam, and I wondered if we would ever find our golden place again.
“That’s Master Stain to you, maestro,” Criminy growled at his back. “And never fear; I’ll keep her close enough.”
He pulled me to my unsteady feet and gently slipped off my gloves, tossing them into the grass. The wind felt strange and wild on my fingers. With a meaningful look in his stormy eyes, Criminy brought my hand to his face and kissed the palm.
“I’ll never fear you,” he said softly. “The maestro’s a fool.” Then he rapped on Mrs. Cleavers’s door and shouted, “Cleavers! Bring my lady a clean pair of gloves.”
I slipped on the new gloves, which were black like Criminy’s. His kiss, so light and soft, still burned against my palm. It was nice to know that at least one man wasn’t intimidated by my gifts, but I had to admit that I was maybe a little worried about his own talents. And teeth.
“Are we going alone?” I asked.
“I had assumed so,” Criminy said. “Unless you have a special friend besides the maestro? He wouldn’t be much good for drawing the bludbunnies off you, but he’d be fine for target practice.”
He winked, and I blew a raspberry. “Don’t be silly,” I said. “For safety, I was thinking. Or help when we get where we’re going.”
Criminy’s mouth quirked up, and he said, “Love, you’re traveling with a very dangerous person. I have razor-sharp teeth, I’m difficult to kill, and then there’s the whole ‘magic’ thing. Do you think Licky the Lazy Lizard Boy would be much help?”
“No,” I said, feeling stubborn. “But isn’t it odd—a Bludman and a woman traveling alone?”
“According to our traveling papers, which Mrs. Cleavers is fashioning now, we’re husband and wife. I’m Ecrivan Paisley, and you’re my wife, Petula. I took your name,” he said with a grin. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“What if I do?”
“Honestly, my prickly little hedgehog, it’s the safest thing for us both,” he said. “Traveling together without a proper relationship makes me a predator and you a trollop. It’ll be bad enough when they think we’re married. And there’s still the caravan tonight, so everyone else is needed. It was lucky, you passing out in front of last night’s crowd. We’ll say you’re in communion with the spirits, and no one will dare knock on your door.”
Just as we were setting off, Vil galloped into view. “Murdoch says it’s ready, sir,” he said, and he held out a small wooden box, about five inches square.
“About time,” Criminy said, snatching the box and opening it. He held it out to me and said, “Wedding present, Petula. Try it on.”
Nestled within on a bed of soft cloth was a brass bracelet shaped like a snake. Copper diamonds shone among the scales, and dull ruby eyes were set in the head.
“Do I just pick it up and slide it on?” I asked.
Vil blinked at me, his twitchy eyes huge behind the goggles. “Never had a clockwork before?” he asked. “Where’d you say you were from?”
“She’s from Bruzzles,” Criminy snapped. “From good country folk. Don’t make her feel self-conscious, you dolt.” He picked up the bracelet and handed it to me. I didn’t know what to expect as I slipped it over my glove and onto my wrist.
Nothing happened. I looked at it as if it might bite me.
“He’s got to imprint on you, love,” Criminy said, reaching over to press a raised jewel between the eyes, which lit up. I must have looked distrustful, because he grinned slyly and added, “It won’t hurt.”
He moved my wrist in front of my face. With an odd whir, the little snake’s head turned toward me, blinding me with red light.
“He’s scanning you,” Criminy said softly. “Don’t blink.”
I kept my eyes open wide while the light went back and forth, flickering on and off. The snake made a grinding noise, and then the mouth opened and released the tail. I held my other hand underneath, afraid to drop it, and it slithered onto my glove. It was amazing how lithe the little robot was, how the scales flexed like those of a real snake.
“He’s a little Uroboros,” I said.
“So tell him,” Vil said, losing patience.
“Tell who what?”
“Tell him his name, lass, so he’ll know.”
“Uroboros,” I said, putting my mouth near his head. “Uro is what I’ll call you.”
Another grinding noise, then a click, and the eyes flashed once with red. Then a black tongue made of thick wire flickered out and back in.
“He’s all set, then,” Vil said. He pulled out a little slip of paper and read, “Press the head scale to move from rest mode to active and back. All the common commands. Guard, hide, find, and such. He’s not nearly as complex and useful as a monkey, but honestly, I only had two days. Oh, and for defensive purposes, he’s programmed to bite, and he’s loaded with two doses. Signed, the elusive Mr. Murdoch.”
“Two doses of what?” I asked.
Vil grinned. “Something I cooked up myself. Instant and profuse vomiting, followed by unconsciousness.”
“Sounds effective,” I said. “Thanks.”
I watched the small snake spread out on my palm, red eyes flickering occasionally and small tongue poking out and in. I pressed the head scale, and he curled into a hoop, bit his own tail, and turned back into a very peculiar piece of jewelry. I slid him over my wrist and took Criminy’s arm.
We were off.
We followed the deep tread marks of the bus tanks that had carried the city folk to the caravan. The brown scars snaked through the hills and disappeared in the distant fog. As we walked in silence, I watched the countryside, comparing it with my world. It was a strange place, and I’d never seen so much wide-open space in my life. No houses or barns or even ruins. Just miles of grass, small copses, and the occasional bludbunny.
When we saw a fawn peeking out from behind a bush, I stopped to stare at the wide, liquid brown eyes. Then a shower of leaves erupted behind it, and a red-eyed doe towered over the little brown form, dropping a mauled rabbit corpse to hiss at me with bloodstained fangs. The placid fawn copied its mother, the vicious hiss ridiculous coming from the tiny, toothless mouth.
“Back away, love,” Criminy said. “If you think the bunnies are bad, you haven’t met a bluddoe. They’re rather protective.”