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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
I did back away, and I continued walking backward until the doe closed her mouth and nuzzled the fawn sweetly. Criminy laughed at me, but my eyes were a little sharper from then on, contemplating the dark possibilities of a forest where Snow White had more to fear from her animal friends than from any wicked queen.
Criminy carried most of our things in an old leather satchel, and he looked dashing with his top hat and traveling cloak. I wore a wool shawl and a heavy black bonnet that buttoned under my chin. With my gloved hand in the crook of Criminy’s arm, walking across the moors made me feel as if I’d stepped primly out of a Jane Austen book or an Impressionist painting. But I bet even Elizabeth Bennet had never punted a rabbit before, and my current count was 137.
“How far is it?” I finally asked, chewing on an apple from the bag.
He had several chains looping across his waistcoat, and he stopped to pull one out. It was a large brass compass, but it ticked like a wind-up watch. “Walking, I’d say we’re half a day away.”
“There’s a Manchester in my world, too, you know,” I said thoughtfully. “I wonder why some of the places here are a couple of letters off from what I know? Bruzzles sounds like Brussels. Franchia sounds like France. And Manchester is the same.”
“Different worlds run that way, I suppose,” he answered. “I’ve read enough about them, and there are always similarities. I suppose it’s like a slight warp in a mirror. You’re still you, just a little fatter or thinner or more wobbly. Just a tiny change with grand repercussions.”
And then it clicked.
“Stein. I found the locket in Mrs. Stein’s house. And that’s just one letter away from Stain. Maybe you guys are related?”
“Not unless she drinks blood, darling,” he said with a chuckle.
I couldn’t help wondering what tiny catalyst had caused our worlds to split, if that supposition was correct. If it went back to the Big Bang or if something had gone wrong with an overly aggressive paramecium in the primordial soup. “Funny thing is,” he continued, “Manchester used to be called Bludchester. It was an old city built by Bludmen, and they took it from us in a grand slaughter centuries ago. The cathedral was originally dedicated to Aztarte, the goddess of Bludmen. But now they say it belongs to the Pinky saint Ermenegilda.”
“Are you worried?” I asked. “About going there?”
“Maybe,” he said with a grim grin. “But I’m going anyway. It’ll take a good bit of acting, but I like acting.”
“Why can’t you just make me invisible again?” I asked.
“There you go, thinking things should be easy,” he said with a fond chuckle. “It’s easy to be invisible out on the moors with plenty of space and quiet. But in the city, people will bump into you, carriages could strike you, and bludrats will smell you there, anyway. And if something happened to you, if we were separated or you were hurt, I wouldn’t be able to find you again. You would be stuck that way forever, dead or alive.”
“Oh,” I said with a shudder. “But why can’t you just pretend to be human, then?”
He looked at me, his eyes hard and flinty. “I don’t mind pretending to be inferior to you personally, and I very much don’t mind feigning marriage,” he said, “but I’ll never betray what I am. The fine people of Manchester may think me a fiend, but prejudice runs both ways. I’ve a bit of pride about me, if you haven’t noticed.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what you are,” I said shyly. “I just don’t want to mess up, and you’re much better at this sort of thing than I am.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll enjoy playing along. You’ll have to be haughty, and I’ll have to act beaten down, when we’re in public.”
“That sounds kind of fun,” I said.
“Just don’t forget that it’s a ruse, love,” he said. “Because once we’re outside the walls again, you’ll be entirely in my power. And I’d hate to have to spank you.”
I choked on the apple I was chewing and couldn’t quite figure out how serious he was. Or how serious I wanted him to be.
A few hours later, a giant form began to shimmer in the distance. As we walked closer, I could see it, but it didn’t make sense. Gravity shouldn’t have allowed such a place to exist.
“There it is,” Criminy said, handing me a brass spyglass. “Manchester.”
I had to blink. The spyglass was incredible. I could see everything in amazing detail. Not that I really wanted to.
The city rose like a tumor on the landscape, like the shell of a hermit crab with extremely bad taste and a powerful glue gun. It was so much larger than I would have thought possible, an enormous mountain covered in stone and brick and wood. Around the base, in a valley, I could see fields and mines and quarries and refineries and factories belching smoke. A high, hideous wall of dirty gray stone surrounded everything. Razor wire curled around the top edge like deadly cake icing.
The empty moors seemed harmless and peaceful by comparison.
Within the wall, the buildings tottered from the mountain and from one another at odd angles, shored up by cables and poles and metal beams. An oily gray fug hung over everything. It was possibly the most depressing place I’d ever seen.
On the very top of the mountain perched a gigantic white church of a Gothic flavor, with flying buttresses and broken stained glass. At the very pinnacle was the large X from my glance, like a cross fallen on hard times.
“That’s where our boy will be,” Criminy said, reading my mind. “Right in the ‘holier than thou’ seat, at the very tip top of the broken city, standing on the backs of the suffering.”
I had a strong feeling that he was right. And I really didn’t want to be inside those walls.
“We’ll have to go in through the front gate,” Criminy said, taking the spyglass back. “And there are only two gates, so we’ll have to leave through the other one right fast, because they’ll be looking for us after the deed is done. So try to hide your face and act as normal as possible.” He reached up to my bonnet and pulled down a delicate black veil that made me feel like a goth beekeeper. He smiled at the effect and asked, “Can you put on an accent? Try to sound more like me?”
“How will this do, then?” I said, rather proud of myself.
He chuckled. “Nice try, love, but that’s a bit much. Tone it down a bit.”
“The rain in Spain lands mainly on the plain,” I said carefully.
“The rain in Vane never touches the plain,” he said with a laugh. “Vane is mostly jungles. Do you have any other accents?”
“Is annoyed an accent?” I said.
“Let’s just pretend you’re a mute.”
I stuck my tongue out at him, and he laughed that wild laugh of his. For just a second, I forgot the insurmountable odds we were up against and my worry for Nana. I laughed that way, too, and it felt good.
By that time, the wide treads of the bus tanks had turned into a dirt road. The ground was starting to get muddy as the grasses dwindled, the few straggling tufts by the road stunted and brown. Bludbunnies were fewer and fewer.
And then I learned why.
I saw the thing in the road before I smelled it, but the smell was a close second. I couldn’t tell what it was. Just enough meat had been nibbled off the bones to remove hair and obscure the details. But it was definitely a carcass. And right on top of it was the biggest rat I’d ever seen, about the size of a house cat and covered with bristly, rust-colored hair.
Criminy didn’t even slow down, but I crowded closer to his side as we approached. The rat didn’t seem concerned by us, either, not until we were about twenty feet away. Then it looked up, tubes and sinews dripping from its mouth, and hissed. The effect of its bloodred eyes in the maroon fur was disturbing.
Criminy kept walking, dragging me along toward the nasty rat monster. The thing swallowed whatever it had been chewing and jumped off the carcass, hopping toward us with hackles raised. The fur stuck up in spines behind its neck, and it screamed at us. The scream sounded just like that of a human child.
Without breaking his stride or letting go of my arm, Criminy pulled something out of his boot and threw it. I barely saw the dark blur shoot out of his left hand, and then the rat was twitching on its side, with a black knife sticking out of its forehead.
We kept walking, and just as we reached the dead rat, Criminy withdrew his knife with a jerk. As he cleaned it on a handkerchief, I pondered the pile of meat.
“It was a sheep, if you’re wondering,” he muttered.
And I could see it now over my shoulder, the fuzzy white wool dangling from the general shape of a very chewed-up sheep.
“How could it possibly get out of the wall?” I asked.
“They have to bring the grazers out for the fresh grass. They can’t grow enough inside the wall to feed the animals. So they bring a team of shepherds bristling with weapons. But if the blud creatures swarm, they just leave one animal behind, a sacrifice for the rest of the herd. Fits in with their general philosophy.”
The knife disappeared into his boot. We didn’t break our stride. I looked back at the giant rat and said, “So that’s a bludrat. And the city is full of those things?”
“Oh, they try to kill them all. But they’re wily buggers. Bold and clever. No matter what the Coppers do, they always find a way back in. If I didn’t hate the things so much, I’d be impressed.”
The city loomed bigger and bigger as we approached. The wall had seemed tall from far away, but standing in front of the gargantuan door made me feel helpless and tiny. I couldn’t begin to imagine how the two guards could open the two-story metal monstrosity. They each stood in a small building about the size of a closet, one on either side of the door. And they barely looked human, leather top hats laced down the neck, high collars digging into their chins, and bug-eyed goggles obscuring their eyes.
“Papers,” barked the guard on the right through some sort of speaker, and Criminy led me to the glass wall of the booth. He slid our folded, faded traveling papers into a metal box and withdrew his hand before the guard jerked the box into his booth with a clang.
Criminy smiled and did his best to look harmless and weak. I stuck my nose in the air and rolled my eyes.
“State your business.”
“We’re visiting relatives, sir,” Criminy said, his voice humble and obsequious. I knew he was an actor, but I was still floored that he sounded nothing like himself. “The wife and I. My cousin Anders and his family want to meet the new bride. He’s a clockmaker, sir, and—”
“Toll!” the guard shouted. “Five coppers or one vial each.”
The metal box popped violently back out of the booth, and Criminy snatched out our papers and dropped in a handful of coins. The box shot back into the booth.
“Stand back,” the man said, and Criminy dragged me backward.
The guard pulled a lever, and with a loud whirring and several clanks, one of the giant doors began to swing outward. I looked at the guard and quickly glanced away. Nothing but his nose and lips was visible under his uniform, but I could read his disgust for me in his sneer. I straightened my shoulders and snuggled my head into Criminy’s shoulder, giving the guard a look of disdainful rebellion. Criminy kissed me on the forehead and chuckled, and the guard spit on the floor and shook his head.
“It’s only going to get worse,” Criminy muttered into my ear as we walked through the doorway. “Don’t worry, darling. Everyone’s going to hate us.”
As the door clanged shut behind us, my throat constricted. I wasn’t sure what I had expected to find within the tall wall, but it was worse than I could have imagined. The cobblestone streets were narrow and dirty, rife with puddles. The buildings towered above, blocking the sky. The windows all had a dirty film on them, and the people rushed from place to place as if they were being chased. They all looked at me with disgust, just as the guard had done.
Head down, Criminy quickly led me through the streets. We were on the main thoroughfare, a winding road lined with restaurants, inns, haberdashers, and milliners, all with painted signs swinging above their doors. Criminy didn’t know where he was, but he knew what he was looking for.
We ducked down an alley. Red lights glittered from the shadows, and I heard a familiar hiss. All of the hairs on the back of my neck rose. It was darker there and more narrow, and I had to jog to keep up with him, my boots’ staccato tapping echoing in a way that made me think of bones in oubliettes. Finally, we stopped before a sign showing a vial of blood and a pair of scissors, with the words Arven Ariel, Barber and Letter calligraphed underneath.
We stepped through the door and brushed past heavy, moldering curtains. I was expecting a cross between a morgue and a medieval barber, darkness and cobwebs and the smell of meat. But it looked more like a Mexican restaurant. Bright colors, fake palm trees, patterned fans and curtains. The walls were a vivid orange, and the floor was a sparkling, patterned mosaic of blue and lime green. Three plush chairs of maroon velvet waited in a row, each with a tasseled ottoman. A purple parrot on a stand squawked, “Master Arven, ye’ve custom!”
Criminy was smirking at me. “Not what it seemed, eh?” he said. “It’s always like that in the city.”
A very normal-looking man in a bowler hat brushed through a beaded curtain and approached us with a blank, professional smile.
“Can I help you, sir? Letting, shave, or haircut?” he asked, rubbing his hands together in burgundy gloves.
“A letting,” Criminy said cheerfully. “And information, if you please.”