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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
Criminy steered our mount between two sturdy poles that were driven into the ground on the edge of town. She switched her tail and danced, looking hopefully from me to Criminy, probably hoping that her unwanted master would give her one of my pinky toes as a reward for good behavior. He slid off and helped me down. A young boy darted out from the closest building and clipped Erris’s muzzle cap to the poles with a chain. The big horse threw her head, snorted, and tried to rear, but she was surely stuck.
Patting her neck, Criminy said, “Sorry, lass. It’s only for a short while. You’ll be free again soon,” and then he tossed the boy a coin.
When he looked up eagerly to catch the copper, the boy’s open collar and overly pointy grin told me that he, like the urchins at the cathedral, was a Bludman. With a lifetime of movies and books firmly pounded into my head, I still couldn’t believe that Bludmen could bear children in this world. That this little lad would grow up knowing nothing but blood—no cookies, no ice cream, no cupcakes. Still, his smile was bright and innocent, even if he wasn’t dreaming of penny candy.
“Thankee kindly, sir,” he said. “Will you want the inn, then?”
Criminy looked at the sun. It was late afternoon, and the sky was the dull, bruised lavender of the milk in the bottom of the cereal bowl after all of the marshmallows were gone.
“Is there only one?” Criminy asked the boy. “And where are the Coppers?”
“Feverish is a small village, sir. The Coppers come only for the monthly tithe to Brighton. We’ve just the one inn. And this is our only tie-up.”
With an understanding smile, Criminy gave the boy another coin.
“I’ll take you there, sir.”
The boy trotted ahead of us into town, and I noticed that his clothes had been many times mended, the breeches patched in similar dark colors and the shoes worn in the heel. The buildings were in need of paint—that was why they were such strange colors. They were faded. It was a poor town, a lonely outpost before the big city on the sea.
Stopping in front of the only three-story building, the boy said, “There you are, sir. And please, don’t mention the Coppers to Master Haggard. They drained his wife last year, and it puts him in a right mood.” And then he ran off.
We looked up at the sea-green storefront. The sign showed a black diamond, outlined in white, with the words Haggard Inn below in heavy, serious script. Not the most promising name for a hotel.
Criminy held open the door for me, and a bell rang as we entered. A fluffy white cat sat on the counter, eyeing us disdainfully. Lucky creature—without Pinkies about, the bludrats must have left Feverish alone. The room was sparse but well kept, the floors spotless and the wavy, green glass sparkling in the windows. An old gramophone resembling a giant brass lily was playing a dirge. It felt like a funeral parlor.
A man in a dusty gray suit appeared from the back room, his sad, ancient eyes full of pride and dignity above a frilly tea-stained jabot from another time.
“Have you a vacancy, Master Haggard?” Criminy asked with a stately bow. I’d never seen him so deferential.
“We do, lad,” the man said, his voice sonorous and grave. “One room or two?”
It was like listening to a statue, witnessing something so old that it had started to erode, watching bits of itself wash away in the rain. Just being near him made me feel hopeless.
“One, please, sir. For my wife and me,” Criminy said.
“Hmph,” Master Haggard said, pinning his soulful eyes on me. “That creature is not thy wife. But one room ye shall have, nonetheless, for I do not judge those who succumb to heathen trends.”
Criminy bowed again, murmuring, “Forgive me, sir.”
The old Bludman nodded. “Life today must be full of lies, youngster. But I see you remember a time when it wasn’t so. Born or made?”
“Born, sir, in 1793.”
“You’re younger than you look,” Master Haggard said. “I was born as well, 1438. Right here, when the county seat was Bludshire. Do you remember what it was like, lad, before Brighton belonged to the prey?”
“I do, sir. A lovely place, all parks and springs and gardens. And the opera and dancing every night.”
“And what have they done?” the old man moaned. “It’s a dark place now. Filthy, dangerous, polluted. Ruled by the Pinky monsters. Our people are starving. The factory workers are on the verge of rioting. The foremen threaten to toss them into the sea. And what does anyone expect, when the Coppers hold sway? No Bludman can live on two drops a day. It’s madness.”
“We were headed to Brighton, sir,” Criminy said carefully. “We have business in the isles.”
“Then you’d best hurry, lad,” Master Haggard said. “But what of your lady? How came you to love one of them?”
“I called her, sir,” Criminy said. “She’s a Stranger.”
Master Haggard gazed at me and snorted. Then chuckled. Then let out a big guffaw.
“Oh, that’s grand. That’s just lovely. She’s special, isn’t she?”
“She’s a glancer,” Criminy said. “But she’s mine.”
“Take my hand, woman,” Master Haggard said to me, and he removed his glove. His scaly black hand was old and shriveled, the nails twisted white talons. I knew better than to show any distaste as I removed my glove and reached for it. He may have looked as slow and melancholy as an antediluvian basset hound, but I could feel his power lurking underneath. Waiting.
His hand was cool in mine. The jolt was gentle, and I was surprised.
“But why do you want to die?” I said. “Things can change. They can get better.”
He released my hand and wagged his head. “The things I love are gone. But you saw the flames?”
“Yes, sir,” I said solemnly. Then I turned to Criminy and said, “We have to go. Now.”
Grasping the old Bludman’s hand, I had seen Brighton in flames under dark, threatening clouds low enough to scrape the tops of the burning buildings. Screams filled the air, and the lightning was purple and wicked. I wanted no part of the once-lovely seaside resort.
“If we go there, we die,” I said again to Criminy as Erris walked down the dirt road toward Brighton, warming up her muscles. “I know we have to hurry, but there’s got to be another way to the islands. We can’t just run through a riot. Or a fire.”
“There is no other way,” he said. “We need a boat. You heard Master Haggard say they were threatening to throw the Bludmen into the sea? It’s because the sea is deadly to us. The salt makes us sick, and we’re too heavy. We sink and drown. I’ve seen it. And Brighton is the only place with boats for hundreds of miles.”
I sighed deeply, leaning back against him.
“I don’t like it, either,” he muttered.
“But if you’d seen it,” I said. “It’s going to be horrible. Fire and lightning but no rain.”
“We’ll skirt the city, head straight for the docks. In all the brouhaha, no one will notice us, especially not the Coppers. It’ll be all the easier to steal a boat and be away.”
I felt his legs behind me, urging our mare into a gallop. We topped the hill, and the city appeared below us, a gray blot on the landscape. It splayed out like Manchester squashed flat but just as ugly. Smog hovered miserably overhead. Thunder roiled in the heavy sky, and violet lightning sparked between angry black clouds.
“Actually,” he mused, “it’s a very well-timed riot, for our purposes. It should be easy to get to the harbor.”
Standing sentinel on a rocky outcrop was a black-and-white-striped lighthouse, its lamp spinning slowly and flashing across the city and the sea. Underneath it, ships bobbed in a dark gray harbor. Amazing, the weird mix of technology and anachronism in this world. Giant, threemasted wooden pirate ships nudged the docks alongside shiny brass footballs from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.
“What sort of ship do you plan on stealing?” I asked.
“Something larger than a dinghy but small enough to pilot with just the two of us,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll be climbing the rigging in that dress. A sub would be ideal.”
“You can drive a submarine?” By that time, I didn’t know why I was surprised.
“How hard can it be?” he said. “I can drive the caravan’s engine. It can’t be much different. It’s not like it’s a bloody zeppelin.”
We were getting close enough to see the giant doors set in Brighton’s wall. They had a spiked, medieval-looking portcullis, and I was more than happy to go around.
“Hold on, sweetheart,” Criminy said, and he jerked Erris’s nose to the right. She tossed her head but obeyed, lurching off the packed dirt and finding new speed in the soft grasses of the moor. A picture-perfect gathering of bludbunnies hissed and screamed in terror, diving for cover as the huge hooves tore up swaths of grass in their bucolic meadow. I laughed.
We were headed toward the harbor. But there was a problem. The high wall, topped with barbed wire just like the one at Manchester, extended out into the sea at least a hundred feet. All of the boats were on the other side of the wall.
“Um, Criminy? How do we get around the wall?” I asked.
“I’m going to scale it,” he said. “And you’re going to swim. You can swim, can’t you, pet? I’ve been told it’s as easy as floating, for your kind.”
“I don’t think I have a choice,” I said.
I wanted that locket, more than I’d ever wanted anything. Without it, my old life was gone. I would never see my grandmother again. And according to my own promise, I’d have to leave Criminy behind, too, maybe end up living in one of these wretched cities, ruled by the Coppers and their leader, a man who had taken away everything I loved. What’s more, that same man wanted to use my locket to kill thousands of people he wrongly considered monsters, people who had been kind to me. People like Criminy. I watched the dark waves crashing against the wall and breathed in the salt wind.
“I can do this,” I said.
“You can do this,” he agreed.
A small ball of solid dread began to form in my corset-constricted belly. I could barely walk in this outfit, and now I had to swim. What about the waves, the current, the flotsam, the jetsam, the rocks, the lightning, the wall? What sorts of animals lurked under the foamy brine? Were killer whales actually killers here?
It didn’t matter. I was doing it anyway.
Criminy kicked Erris. As we galloped toward the wall, his arm around my waist seemed to anchor me to the world. Surely he could feel my panic. How did he seem so cool and collected? My swimming wasn’t going to be easy, but he had to scale a smooth wall expressly designed to prevent said scaling. I knew he wanted the locket to prevent a genocide, but the fire in his eyes told me that part of his fight was for me alone, and I liked him more for it.
The smooth gallop jerked into a trot and then a bouncy walk, and then Erris was blowing against her muzzle before the wall. I looked up. Way up. It was two stories tall and smooth, without a single handhold that I could see.
Criminy slid off the bludmare and helped me down. My legs nearly collapsed, but he caught me and drew me close. Then I felt a rude shove in the behind from Erris’s muzzle.
“Fine, lass,” Criminy said, pulling me behind him and patting the horse’s neck. “You’ve earned your freedom.”
In one motion, he pulled the cap and halter off the wild mare’s head and used the leather reins to slap her hindquarters. She tossed her nose and took off running for the hills, apparently deciding that freedom was better than a solid bite of measly old me.
Criminy watched her go with a crooked smile. My heart was beating in my ears, and my mouth had gone completely dry with fear. He reached out and stroked my face, tucking an errant curl behind my ear. I looked into his eyes and saw the sea behind me reflected there, the unceasing waves topped with foam. Calm descended over me. The pounding of the waves became soporific. I knew that he was using some sort of magic on me, but I didn’t care. I needed whatever he could give me.
“Look, love,” he said. “You can do this. You’ll have to fight your way out, use all your energy to get around the wall. Once you’re on the other side, simply float in to shore. I’ll be there, waiting for you.”
“You make it sound so easy,” I said.
“It is easy,” he said. “A simple act. And then we’re almost done.”
“I can do this,” I breathed.
“Yes, you can,” he said.
And then he kissed me, gently, and his lips were wet against mine. I should have resisted, but I couldn’t. I wanted it too badly, wanted to make sure that if I died in the sea, I’d have this last memory burning in my blood. No matter what I told myself, I was attracted to him more than I wanted to believe possible. And he was a really good kisser.
My mouth tingled, my entire body suffused with heat and hunger. For him. I kissed him back, my tongue breaking past his lips, surprising us both. He changed his angle, moved with me, sure and powerful but gentle. The kiss deepened. I realized that I was straining against him, hungry, panting. Lightning arced to the moors, the light flashing violet against his dark hair. As the thunder boomed, I pulled away, my sight sharp again. I felt unconsciously strong and confident, like an animal.
And, finally, I knew I could do it.
He put his forehead against mine for just a second and murmured something that sounded like “Remember that I did this for you,” and then he was moving up the wall like a spider, his black hands stark against the stone.