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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“What do you think them Coppers taste like?” asked a third urchin wistfully.
“I bet they taste like shite,” said the tiniest one of all.
“Cheese it—here comes Rudy!” the lookout hissed. They all ran away, melting into the shadows.
Even frozen beside me, trapped by his own magic, I could feel Criminy’s fury. The plight of the starving, filthy Bludchildren had touched a nerve. If he could have shot lightning out of his eyes, the people coming around the corner would have been cinders.
Two young Coppers appeared, their shiny uniforms creaking as they walked behind a giant dog on a chain lead. The dog was copper-colored, too, like a cross between a German shepherd and a mastiff, its boxy head as high as my waist. It was slavering and whining, drool dripping down its chops. The Coppers ignored it.
“Someone oughtta drain those brats,” said the skinny one. “Cor, I hate church duty.”
“Me, too,” said the short, fat Copper holding the dog’s lead. “Downright spooky, even in the daytime. Nobody believes in ol’ Ermenegilda anymore, anyway, do they?”
“Damned if I know,” said the skinny one. “My mum always told me she was just a nice story about helping other humans. About making a sackerfice. Back when people cared.”
The dog sniffed Criminy and me energetically. I held my breath. The fat one yanked the dog back, hissing, “It’s only a statue, Rudy. Some other dog prolly pissed on it. Cut it out.” Then he looked up at the naked saint in the window and grinned, showing teeth like crooked tombstones. “I’d let that ripe little plum make me a nice sacrifice, eh, Gerren?”
“That’s blasphemy, that is,” said Gerren. “But yeah.”
He glanced down from Saint Ermenegilda, looked me straight in the eye, and began to untie the leather laces on his pants, if my hearing was correct. Then I heard his stream, and he sighed as he urinated on us.
Talk about blasphemy.
At least I didn’t feel any wetness. Thank heavens for magic.
“Dunno why we didn’t get to go to the island with everyone else,” the fat one whined. “Nothing here to guard, anyway. What, are the poor folk and the Bludmen gonna overrun us for a barrel of apples and one old, runty cow that don’t even give milk no more?”
“You’re new, so you don’t know yet. Got to keep up the image,” said Gerren, puffing out his bird chest as he redid his fly. “Make it seem like there’s something worth guarding, even if there ain’t. It’s funny, all the secrets you learn once you’re a Copper.”
He sighed and stretched, the leather of his new uniform squeaking. The dog danced around us, straining toward me and Criminy. Gerren smacked it on the nose, and it sat, dejected.
“Do you think what they say about Goodwill is true?” the fat one asked.
“What, that he’s really a Stranger?” Gerren said mockingly. “The secret society and the underground lair and all that?”
“That’s ridiculous, that is,” Gerren said as they ambled off, dragging the huge dog behind them. “He’s just an old hypocrite gone to see a doxy on his magic island or handle the trouble at Brighton. Manchester’s so dull and horrid that everybody thinks everybody else is up to no good and that there’s some better place. There ain’t. All the cities is like this, Joff, me boy, and they ain’t never gonna change. Not with them Bludmen about. You’ve got a lot to learn, lad.”
“Bluddy Bludmen,” agreed the fat one as they turned the corner and moved out of sight.
I was magically petrified, but I was so tense with shock that it would have been hard to move, anyway. Jonah Goodwill wasn’t here—he was on an island somewhere far away. We had no idea where the locket had gone, and the low sky was swelling with the purple streaks of evening. I felt a tear trickle inside the weird crust over my skin, and then I fell to my knees, the spell broken.
“Are you all right, love?” Criminy asked, squatting beside me and searching my face.
I wasn’t all right, not by a long shot. I put a hand to my cheek, but it was clean and normal. I had expected to feel the slurry mud of dust and tears or some residue from the magic. But there was nothing.
“I want to go home,” I said, my voice cracking. “I want my locket.”
“And we’ll find it, no matter the cost. Both for you and for those children, to stop whatever Goodwill’s planned. But for now, we’ve got to get off the street. We’ll talk to Antonin again in the morning,” he said. He dusted off his waistcoat and grinned at me. “We’re lucky those bastards stopped to take a piss on a holy relic. At least now we know where to look.”
“According to gossip, there’s a secret island where innocent animals still roam, a paradise free of the creatures of blud. If they say he’s on an island, that’s got to be the one.”
“But how are we going to find it? One island, in all the world, with nothing to go on but rumors? It’s hopeless.” I threw my arms around his neck and buried my head in his shoulder.
He wrapped his arms around me. “Sweet little kitten,” he said as I rubbed my tears away against his jacket. “Don’t you know that rumors are almost always true? And I have other ways of knowing.”
I sniffled, gazing at the mazelike town unfolding below us. All the way down at the base of the high wall, a flock of ash-gray, sickly sheep was huddled, as tiny as ants. They should have been grazing, but the ground was just a foul mass of mud. Their bleating sounded like crying.
“Everything is so wrong,” I said.
“Not everything,” Criminy said, stroking my hair. “But it appears that Mr. Goodwill isn’t all that he seems. I can’t wait to ask him myself.”
Thanks to the prejudice of the city, we were confined to Darkside for the night. No Pinky inn would dream of opening its doors to a Bludman. We stopped at the Inn of the Magi on the opposite side of the mountain from Antonin’s shop. Entering the bloodred door under the wooden sign showing three men in turbans, I felt Criminy relax a little. The front room was very elegant, and a dainty teenage Bludwoman stood behind the counter, wearing a very tall hat.
“Good evening,” she said with the same bouncy cockney accent I’d heard all over town. “Can I help you?”
“We’d like a room, please, miss. My wife and I,” Criminy said with a low bow. “Daggern and Fevrier Blur.”
“There’s a two-bedder available on the second floor, sir, or the penthouse,” she said, bobbing a curtsy. “Five coppers for the two-bedder, ten for the penthouse.”
“We’ll take the two-bedder, thank you,” he said, producing several coins from his waistcoat and sliding them across the counter. He smiled kindly and leaned forward to pluck another coin from her ear. “And look at this! Miss, you must wash more carefully.”
She giggled, and I could see that she was younger than she looked despite her low-cut gown. As we bowed and left with our key, she scribbled in a giant black ledger, her tongue sticking out in concentration.
The room was small but bright and neat. Dainty plates in colorful patterns hung from ribbons and clashed cheerfully with the wallpaper, which was white with green vines. Criminy shrugged off his new coat and put out his hand to me. I didn’t know what he wanted, but I held my hand out anyway, with a little flutter in my stomach. He surprised me by reaching for the snake around my wrist.
“Time to see what your little Uro can do,” he said.
He pushed the button, and Uro came alive, flattening out on the table. His head swiveled until it found me, and then the lights blinked, and the black tongue shot out once in what seemed like satisfaction.
“Tell him to guard,” Criminy said.
“Uro, guard,” I said.
The red eyes flashed once, and the snake’s head rose as his body went rigid and his tail split into three separate sections. He was now a sort of tripod, and his head slowly spun around, taking in everything. What a handy device.
“I think we’re safe here,” Criminy said. “New clothes, different names. And I’ll wager that little lass at the front counter wouldn’t give us away for all the world. Let’s sleep, and we’ll start over in the morning. I get the bed closer to the door.”
I disappeared into the bathroom to change. Fortunately, the new dress unlaced in such a way that I could get out on my own, and I now had enough experience with a corset to handle that myself, too. I splashed water on my face and used a towel to scrub off the makeup, then shyly emerged in my white nightdress.
To my profound surprise, Criminy was already in bed, breathing deeply under the covers. I had forgotten that he had spent the previous nights watching over my body as I slept—he had to be exhausted.
His back was to me, and I was undeniably drawn to him. It was rare to see him when he was still, when he wasn’t already observing me or taking firm control of the situation at hand. His bare shoulder peeked from under the blanket, smooth and white, his dark hair falling to either side. There was a small scar there, pink like a burn, and I unconsciously reached out to trace it with a finger, wondering what sort of creature or weapon could actually wound him.
Just as I touched his skin, surprised as ever to find him so warm, his hand closed around my wrist. I gasped as he rolled to his back, pulling me down on top of him on the narrow bed.
His eyes burned into mine, dark and dancing.
“Surely this is a dream. My fair Letitia, coming to me in the night.”
“I thought you were asleep,” I said. I tried to draw away, but his bare hands settled on my hips. Even through the blankets and my nightgown, I could feel the hard planes of his body and the hint of claws prickling my skin.
“Asleep? With you that close and watchful? A predator like me? Never,” he said, voice husky.
“You must be tired. I’m sorry I bothered you.”
I was flustered, and I tried to press up with my arms. That just settled my hips more firmly against his. A slow smile spread over his face.
“Keep trying to escape, love. It’s heavenly. No bother at all.”
He shifted sinuously beneath me as if asking a question I wasn’t ready to answer. I let myself collapse forward, tucking my flushed face into his neck before he could see my embarrassment. I couldn’t ignore his body and my response to it, but I could avoid his eyes. I sighed into his hair, awash in his scent. With an answering sigh, he shifted me to the bed so that I was nestled against his side, his arm around me. We barely fit on the mattress, but it didn’t occur to me to leave.
“You’re still skittish, little love. Now, why is that?” he whispered in my ear. Goose bumps rippled down my back, and he groaned as I shifted against him.
“I’m scared,” I whispered back into the darkness of his hair.
He firmly lifted my face, his eyes catching mine.
His lips settled over mine, cutting off the list of everything I feared. The city, the Magistrate, the bludrats, the Coppers, people like Elvis, my world, my grandmother, my own sanity, my freedom. It all fell away as his hand gently cupped my face, his thumb stroking my cheek like a whisper. There was nothing in all the world but him and me and the point where we met, mouth to mouth and heart to heart. The kiss was soft and warm, restrained and gentle. An answer and a mercy. A comfort. I relaxed against him, my fingers tangling in his hair.
He pulled away first and looked into my eyes. The fire in his gaze had fled, leaving an endless, cloudy blue.
“So long as you’re not afraid of me, I think we’ll be all right,” he whispered. “Now, go get some sleep.”
I took my cue and crawled into my own bed, which was crisp and cool and smelled deliciously of sage. Oddly, the kiss had calmed me. I knew he could have kept me there, whether by force or just with the simple magnetic tug that pulled me to him again and again. But he hadn’t. Instead, he had given me exactly what I needed. Not fire. Not flames. Just warmth.
“Thank you,” I murmured, just loudly enough for him to hear it a few feet away.
“Anytime,” he whispered back.
In moments, I was asleep.
I awoke the next morning feeling a little dreamy. Part of me had still expected to wake up in my own world. Part of me had also expected a certain darkly handsome magician to slip into bed beside me and reignite the passion held tightly controlled in the kiss. I couldn’t decide if I was grateful or disappointed that he had kept his distance. The kiss had felt like a promise of things to come, and now that I was awake and rested, I wasn’t sure if I wanted them. I sat up and looked around as the weak sun filtered in through the curtains.
Criminy sat on his bed, legs crossed, fully clothed but bootless. He was wearing mismatched argyle stockings. In front of him was an old-fashioned map. I leaned over to examine the painted images so similar to Europe, part of Asia, and the upper bit of Africa. But the borders were all wrong, and the names were peculiar, and I had a feeling that the little creatures by ‘Here there be dragons’ were an actual threat.
I sat down on the edge of the bed, unobtrusive but close enough to see the map. There were also some strange little gewgaws strewn across the paper—jewels and bones and rocks. Criminy swept these into a velvet bag, which he stowed in his waistcoat.
“So here we are,” he said, pointing to what would have been Britain.
Manchester was in the center, right where Manchester would be on my own maps. But lots of the other place names were off. France was Franchia, right next to Vane. There was Bruzzles—in Belgum. London was still London, though, I noted with a smile.