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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Nice monkey,” Antonin said. “But don’t worry. Owlice is always watching in the rafters of the front room.”
“You can never be too careful,” Criminy murmured. “Not these days.”
Antonin pressed a button on a small, white-enameled cube that looked like a safe. The door popped open, and a breath of warm air wafted out. Inside sat rows of blood vials in cartons, much like the containers that held eggs in my world. He picked up a vial, checked the date scrawled on the glass, and split the contents between two demitasse cups. He handed one to Criminy, who took a dainty sip and sighed.
“Refreshing,” he said. “Thanks.”
The two men sipped their blood, ignoring me. They started talking about eighteen-something-or-other and people with odd names who did odder things. I yawned. I read the spines of books on the yellow bookshelf and gazed at the paintings in yellow frames. Here I was, trapped in a fantasy world, worrying about my grandmother and my real world, tapping my toes as vicious blood drinkers enjoyed teatime.
“Criminy?” I asked.
“What are we doing?”
“I’m having a meal with a friend while you squirm like a child,” he said serenely.
Antonin laughed and said something in a slurry foreign tongue full of s’s and z’s.
Criminy laughed, too. In the yellow room, their red-stained teeth gave me the creeps.
“You’re laughing at me?” I said. “You bleed me and then laugh at me?”
“I’m sorry, love,” Criminy said, trying not to snicker. “It’s just an old saying. Humans are like kittens, their teeth tickle when angry. You do look so very much like an angry kitten.”
It was a horrible position to be in. I couldn’t storm out; I had nowhere else to go. In Sang, it was too dangerous to risk even a moment out of their sight. But alone with two predators, I felt less like a kitten and more like an object lesson waiting to happen.
I hadn’t felt that way with Criminy before. Inferior, and silly. I hated it, having someone outside our little circle laughing at me. I fought tears. Fighting tears made me think about my other world, my fallen body, and my suffering grandmother. Would I ever see her again? And then I was snuffling into my sleeve.
Antonin looked embarrassed and studied the wall. Criminy set down his cup and moved close to put his arm around me.
“There, there, now,” he murmured. “Even angry kittens have their claws. We don’t mean to be unkind. Old friends sharing a joke, that’s all. We’ll get your locket back.”
“I’m not a joke.” I sniffled. “I miss my home. My grandmother.”
Antonin cleared his throat and was about to say something when a bell rang, followed by the unmistakable call of an owl. Antonin’s eyes went round, and he whispered, “Coppers,” and kicked back the yellow rag rug at our feet, revealing a trapdoor. Criminy grabbed the iron ring and pulled it open as Antonin rattled teacups and slammed cupboards, calling, “I’ll be there shortly.”
I held up my dress as I stumbled down the stone steps into an unlit cellar that smelled of earth and age. Criminy was at my heels. He closed the trapdoor, dousing us in darkness. I heard the shuffling sound of the rug overhead and sighed, pressing back against Criminy.
That’s when I felt something heavy and warm on my boot.
Whatever it was, I jumped up and down until it fell off. I wanted to punt it, but I had no idea what sort of rakes or glass jars or pipe organs were around us, waiting to make the noise that would betray our hiding place to the Coppers above.
I put my mouth to where I hoped Criminy’s ear might be and whispered, “There’s something in here with us. It was on my foot. Kill it!”
His lips moved against my cheek, his breath warm against my skin as he said, “You just kicked a very nice house cat, darling. And a forgiving one. Can’t you hear her purring?”
When I slowed my own breathing and stopped listening to my heart thump, I heard it. A soft, low rumble from the ground.
“Why does Antonin have an underground cat?” I whispered.
“To keep her safe, I’d guess,” he said. “There’s nothing the bludrats would love so much as a nice, juicy cat. Probably lets her up at night, when the front door is bolted.”
I felt him fold gracefully to the ground at my feet, and the purring intensified. The blood-drinker was petting a cat. And humming.
“What is this place?” I whispered.
“A cellar,” he said. “Surely you know what a cellar is?”
“Of course I know what a cellar is,” I hissed. “What else is down here?”
He stood and whispered a word, and a tiny blue flame sparked in the darkness. The first thing I saw was his face. The next thing I saw was a skull hovering slightly behind him. As I opened my mouth to scream, his gloved hand sealed my lips.
“Shh,” he said.
His eyes flicked back. “Yes, it’s a skeleton. It’s chained to the wall. It was probably a very bad man. Antonin is part of an underground resistance movement against the Coppers. Did you know that they sometimes steal our children off the street and drain them before crowds as abominations? They do. And this fellow has been dead for quite some time, and he deserved it, so I wouldn’t worry too much.”
I tried to take my mind off the skeleton by looking around the rest of the cellar. It was about ten feet square, with walls of mortared stone like a crypt. Cobwebs and dust were everywhere. If I hadn’t known better by then, I would have looked for a coffin.
On the ground by the skeleton, I saw some instruments that made me look away. Clippy things and poky things and something that looked like a golf-cart battery.
And then the door opened above us, and light flooded in. Antonin’s face appeared.
“Come on up. They’re gone.”
I nearly leaped out of the cellar. Criminy followed at a more stately pace.
“I take it you met Anabella and Mr. Rapture,” said Antonin.
“A little warning would have been nice,” I answered.
“Thought you’d prefer the dead Copper to the live ones upstairs,” he said with a shrug. “They’re looking for you. Now, why is that?”
“You first,” Criminy said, sinking into a chair.
“There’s a price on her head,” Antonin said. “A female Stranger of bad intentions in a burgundy dress of last year’s fashion accompanied by a Bludman in a black cloak and tall hat with a copper monkey. Last seen at the Fleet Street letter.”
“Do you mean the recently deceased Fleet Street letter?” Criminy asked.
“I do believe that something unfortunate is in the cards for Mr. Ariel, actually,” Antonin said with a wicked smile. His innate potential for violence flashed out for just a moment, like a shark’s fin breaking water, but then he was just a tailor again, ruffling his curly hair in a lemon-yellow room.
Pemberly appeared, and Criminy swung her back onto his shoulder. “We should be going before we get you into any further trouble.”
“You needed information?” Antonin pressed.
“Ah, yes. So much for small talk over a companionable vial. What can you tell us about the Magistrate?”
“Jonah Goodwill. Old bastard with a big mustache and a bigger hatred of anything inhuman. Lives in the priory beside the cathedral at the top of the mountain, has his own little paradise full of gardens and fruit trees. Eden House. All of the things his grateful citizens can never have. We’ve tried to gain access for years, but no one can get close. They all disappear.”
“That’s who we’re after,” Criminy said. “He’s a Stranger himself. And he apparently knows we’re coming.”
“I met him at the caravan, but I still don’t understand how he knew I was a Stranger, too,” I said glumly.
Antonin’s hand shot toward me, but Criminy intercepted it. Antonin shook him off with a snort and gently stroked my earlobe.
“Do you think anyone in this godforsaken world would purposefully punch holes in their skin?” he said softly.
I reached to my earlobe, feeling the hole that had been there since my eighth birthday.
Luckily, when you’re in need of a disguise, the tailor’s shop is one of the best places to be. Gone was my beautiful burgundy dress. Now I was in navy-blue taffeta, the shiny ruffles rustling whenever I moved. My black bonnet was gone, too, replaced by a wide straw hat with a spray of feathers. The hat had come from a very nervous old lady, so my betraying ears were snugly covered by a black lace panel that made my neck itch horribly.
Criminy was resplendent in emerald green, his favorite top hat somehow hidden up the sleeve of his new tailcoat. Instead, he wore a wool bowler, which made him look more dangerous and disreputable than usual. His favorite coat, the one with the hidden magic pockets, was hanging in the cellar by the skeleton. Most of the gadgets and doodads had been stuffed into his waistcoat, and I couldn’t understand why it didn’t bulge more. Pemberly had been sent back to the caravan with carefully coded messages for Mrs. Cleavers, and Criminy’s shoulder looked a little empty without her. We were ready.
“Can’t you give her some blud?” Antonin asked, leaning close to look into my face. “Just to color her eyes, give her some stamina?”
“Now’s not the time,” Criminy said gruffly. “And she’s not ready yet.”
“She’s a Bludman’s wife, ain’t she? Or is she scared?”
“I’m not drinking any blud,” I said. “But the fact that I’m here should tell you enough about how I feel.”
“The fact that you’re after Goodwill is good enough for me,” Antonin answered. “If you’re against him, you’re on my side.”
We left with more male back pounding, a chaste kiss on my glove, and a hand-drawn map showing a shadowy route to Goodwill’s home in the old monastery. Now that the Coppers were looking for us, we needed to move fast.
“He won’t be looking for us to come after him,” Criminy reasoned. “Powerful man like that. Won’t expect us to bring the fight to his door. Probably too busy looking for us to watch his own back.”
“But what if he isn’t?” I pressed.
“What choice do we have, love?” he snapped. “You want the locket. I’m trying to get the locket. We’ll follow this plan until things change, then we’ll follow a new plan. If you need more of an answer than that, I can’t give it to you. You’re the one who sees the future, not me.”
We followed the alleys of Darkside as far as we could up the mountain. When we reentered the brighter streets of the Pinkies, we clung to the shadows and tried not to draw attention to ourselves. At one point, a Copper turned to stare at us, and Criminy spun around, putting his back against the slimy brick wall of the alley and using my huge hat to shield us both in a wild pantomime of passion that managed to leave me a little breathless. I couldn’t help it—lips were still lips, and hips were still hips, even if we were pretending. Behind me, I heard the Copper spit in disgust. By the time he turned again, we were gone.
Near the cathedral, the neighborhoods grew grimier and duller, and the people seemed more downtrodden and pitiful. Their clothes were ragged and patched, their faces hollow and hopeless.
We huddled in the shadow of the church’s high roof. Above our niche was a broken stained-glass window of a figure on a cross bleeding into a cup. Oddly, it wasn’t Jesus. It was a woman with red hair. And she looked pissed.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Depends on whom you ask. To me, that’s the goddess Aztarte, the first Bludwoman,” Criminy said. “To the Pinkies who now run Sangland, it’s Saint Ermenegilda. She died to drive the bloodthirsty demons from the land, to make it safe for the second kingdom of mankind.” He examined his map for a moment and muttered, “She was a witch and a virago, but the church tries to play that bit down and just remind everyone of her sacrifice. For humanity.”
He pulled out Antonin’s map. “Goodwill’s place is on the other side of the monastery, behind high walls. The inside of the cathedral is guarded, and the walls are patrolled by Coppers with dogs that can sniff through my illusions. I have no idea how we’re going to get in without him knowing about it yesterday.”
We heard voices coming around the corner, and I froze. Criminy pulled me to his side.
“Hold still,” he said, and he tossed some powder from one of his pockets over us both. I suddenly felt very dusty and dry, similar to the feeling of a mud mask right before it begins to flake off.
“Don’t move,” Criminy said out of the corner of his mouth. And it would have been very hard to move, even if I had wanted to. My face and body were completely stuck, and the lone corner of my gloved hand that I could still see was the aged gray of old stone. He’d turned us into a statue.
Moving only my eyeballs, I watched a pack of small, filthy children scamper around the corner, giggling. Their exposed necks told me they were Bludmen—or Bludchildren. They all huddled around a brown object except for one who squatted by the corner, pretending to defecate.
“Did he see you, Les?” said one. I couldn’t tell by look or voice what gender or age the child might be. They all looked the same, really—huge eyes in gaunt faces wrapped in grime-covered rags.
“Naw, the skinny one was too busy calling Bertie a stinkin’ bat-faced bludbag to notice me lifting the fat one’s wallet. Stupid Coppers.” The child emptied the bag and divvied up the coins within, then wedged the wallet under my stone skirt.