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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“You’ll never get out,” she sang. “I couldn’t. And you won’t.”
There was a pause, and I could hear myself and Criminy breathing.
And then came the gruesome scratching of fingernails on a chalkboard.
Or bones on metal walls.
“What happened to you?” I asked, my voice flat, guarded.
“He was a Bludman, and I was a maid,” she whispered. “We fell in love. But I was betrothed to my brother’s best friend. My love and I were going to stow away on a ship, go to Almanica and start over fresh, where people wouldn’t hate us for loving each other. But my brother found our letters. He knew where we were meeting. When I came here, he and my betrothed found me, locked me in to die alone. Told me I deserved it for loving a filthy Bludman. Called me an abomination.”
She tittered in my ear. “Just like you.”
“What happened to the Bludman?” I asked softly.
“I never found out,” the voice echoed. “I died here. And I’ve been lonely.”
I felt Criminy’s hand on my arm, and it traveled down to my wrist. I could sense his urgency, so I coughed, trying to cover up the furtive noises as he pressed Uro’s head and the little snake whirred with gears. I waited to see red lights, but Criminy must have planned ahead and shielded the ruby eyes.
“Your Bludman—what was his name?” I asked, my voice loud in the tiny room.
“His name was Scarab Crumbly,” the voice said, dreamy. “We met in the market. His hair was golden and wavy, like a lion. He had eyes as deep as the sea. And he loved me.”
“I knew Rab Crumbly,” Criminy broke in, his voice booming in the tiny room. Under his words, I heard metal on metal, scraping. “He was drained twenty years ago by the Coppers. They put his head on a pike for killing a girl named Evangel. Was that you, by chance?”
A strangled cry reverberated off the walls. “Drained! Oh, Rab, my love! You were always true!”
A nightmare apparition appeared inches from my face, the ghost girl with the bob, her mouth now a gaping hole into hell. Her strangled moan turned into a shriek, and that made me scream, and our voices merged and echoed in the blackness. I imagined the metal warping, pressing out, ready to explode. My eardrums ached with pressure, and pain shot through my head in bursts of red.
But through her, illuminated by her, I saw Criminy’s back, and he was doing something to the door, and so I shrieked louder. Which wasn’t hard, because I was terrified. I hadn’t feared the quiet ghost under the waves, but this thing was nasty.
As the ghost expanded, her hands became claws, and her eyes sank back into empty black pools. I was forced backward until I felt bones scraping against the heels of my boots, clutching at my ankles. I was still screaming, couldn’t have stopped if I’d tried. She loomed over me, mouth open, and something in the back of my brain idly wondered if there was such a thing as a soul, and where hers was, and where mine would go when the ghostly lips sucked it out through my eyeballs.
And then the door flew open, and the ghostly screaming suddenly stopped, leaving only silence and the tang of salty wind behind. I blinked, and there was Criminy, grinning, holding out his glove.
“I think you kept your promise, love,” he said, handing Uro back to me. “Thank goodness for clockworks and their lockpicks, eh? Let’s leave this place.”
“Not yet,” I said. “Hold the door open.”
I looked behind me, where the sunset let in just enough light to see the sad, moldering skeleton of a mad girl with a broken heart. I reached out to smooth the black hair, and the jolt came, soft as leaves dancing on a summer night’s breeze.
“My G-god,” I managed to stutter.
“What do you see, love?”
“Everything she said was true. But her betrothed was Jonah Goodwill himself, and Rab Crumbly was the Bludman who incited Goodwill’s crusade against your kind. And against women like me. Goodwill still wears Evangel’s engagement ring on a chain around his neck. All of this, everything he’s done. All of the horrors he committed. It’s all because of her.” I paused, studying the white dress. A wedding dress. “Because he loved her, and she chose a Bludman instead of him.”
“I didn’t think it was possible to hate him more,” Criminy said, holding out one of his many handkerchiefs, a large square of sea-green silk. “But I do.”
As tenderly as I could, I wrapped the body in the cloth and picked it up. Edging toward the railing, I threw it into the ocean.
“You’re free,” I said in benediction as I watched the bones clatter against the rocks.
The city was in flames, and the docks were silent. I was still in shock. I was also half-naked and soaked through and starting to chafe with salt water. Still, there was a lot I didn’t understand. And I was in a hurry.
“If the city’s on fire, why isn’t everyone running to the docks?” I asked. “Boats are a better bet than the city gates, right?”
“Ah, but you don’t know the politics here. Brighton is a city ruled by a few rich Pinkies. Beneath them are the poor Pinkies, the servants, and the Bludmen who work in the factories. The people have been oppressed for decades. They’re not used to fighting or tactical thinking. They probably didn’t plan very well.”
“Still, even from the lighthouse, we didn’t see a single person,” I said.
“I have a theory,” he said. “But it’s not pretty.”
I stopped walking to look at him. He was troubled, more so than I had ever seen.
“The clockworks are getting quite good, you see. The mechanics are reaching a new level of genius and subtlety. Tell me, if you could use machines instead of dangerous, barely restrained workers, what would you do with the workers? You can’t let them go—bloodthirsty, penniless, and with a grudge.”
I just stared at him, my jaw set.
He looked up at the smoke barreling from deep within the city and said more softly, “Do you smell that? Doesn’t it smell like meat?”
“Are you saying that the people in charge locked up the workers and set them on fire?” I said, incredulous.
“In the end, the winner rewrites history. Call it a bloody revolution, become the heroes who made the city safe for innocent, harmless Pinkies. And such a shame that Dark-side Brighton was lost in the workers’ riotous flames.”
“Can we help them?” I said. “Can we do anything?”
Criminy turned to me, the muscles in his face taut with fury and concern. “We are doing something,” he said. “The man who has your locket is the mastermind behind every atrocity against a Bludman today. He probably planned this riot. He’s the leader, and he’s just a little farther away, trapped on an island. Getting your locket back isn’t my only goal.”
There was a fierce beauty in his determination, a strength of purpose that spoke to my own will. For possibly the first time, I looked at him and didn’t see a hint of monster or charlatan or trickster—just a man, and a powerful one. In that moment, I would have followed him anywhere. But he turned toward the sea.
Our ramble along the dock took us past cutters and rowboats to a smart brass submersible, about forty feet long. It still shone with polish and didn’t have a single barnacle clinging to the hull.
“This is our girl,” Criminy said. “The newer the model, the easier to drive.”
“But what if someone’s inside?” I asked.
“Then they help us or die,” he said cheerfully, and I surprised myself by agreeing with him. Sang wasn’t a world for middle ground.
The sub was mostly underwater, leaving perhaps two feet of curved metal above the dark gray waves. She was shaped like a pill, with a propeller at the back and a shiny periscope at the front. Just visible under the waves was a glass window with banks of instruments, dark and waiting. The ship appeared empty. And the sky was getting darker.
Criminy leaped onto the roof and began to turn a brass wheel. It creaked and creaked, and then, with a pop, the door opened. I could see a strip of crimson velvet around the edge, and it made me think of a cat’s mouth.
I did not want to go down there, get swallowed up by the ship, and ride underwater, where we were vulnerable and trapped. I wanted to take a nice, breezy ship with sails and lifeboats and emergency vests. But for someone who couldn’t swim in the sea, like Criminy, I supposed this vehicle was safer. We both had to take risks.
He disappeared down the ladder, and I scanned the docks until he returned. Nervously, I stepped onto the brass hull and then followed him down into the ship. The crimson velvet continued inside and coated the walls and ceilings. The floor was dark wood, with Turkish carpets running down the middle.
“I can’t smell a living thing on the ship,” Criminy assured me, “but keep your wits about you, just the same. Can’t be too careful about stowaways on a submarine.”
The sub was more like an apartment than a boat. The walls had paintings, odd sepia-toned photographs, and shadow boxes of bizarre insects, all firmly screwed to the velvet walls. We were in the sitting room, and a little damask sofa with tasseled pillows beckoned my aching bottom. The hours riding bareback were taking their toll on a body that had been through more than its share of fear and pain in the last few days.
Just before I collapsed on the sofa, I stopped. The Nana in my head chided me, and I sighed. I was sopping wet. I couldn’t leave a mark on someone else’s good furniture.
“Criminy?” I called. He had disappeared further into the ship. “I need a change of clothes.”
His head popped around the corner. “I’m setting our course, love,” he said. “Poke around and see what you can find. I’m afraid I lost our bag going over the wall when they started shooting at me. My apologies. The bedroom’s down the other way. ”
I squelched down the narrow hallway, passing the tiny kitchen and bathroom. The bedroom was at the back, in the rounded end of the pill. The bed was approximately six feet square, and the room wasn’t much bigger. I slid aside a panel in the dark wood wall to find a gentleman’s wardrobe. It was rich and new and a bit big. But it would do.
I slid the bedroom door shut behind me, curious to know if the smell of my naked skin would draw Criminy out. I wondered if it bothered him at all, whether it was nagging, like smelling a hamburger when you were starving. Or if it was more like showing a teenage boy a half-clothed woman. Was it hunger, lust, curiosity? An animal instinct or a human longing?
It didn’t really matter. He was at the opposite end of the ship, busy, and I had to change. I couldn’t infiltrate Jonah Goodwill’s lair half-naked.
I sat down on the edge of the bed and heard a whirring purr behind me as the engine started. It was surprisingly quiet, not at all the unsophisticated grinding I had expected. The ship shuddered and began to move. I slid a little sideways as it changed course. We were under way.
The wet boots were off first, although it was hard to get the swollen laces undone. Then the sopping stockings, thank goodness. Then the shreds of the dress, peeled off like a second skin. Then the corset, after I had used my knife to slash the laces, which involved more than a little gleeful revenge. Then Uro and the gloves, cold and moist as frog fingers, one whole and one shredded and bloody. Finally, I was completely naked.
I lay back and exhaled, my eyes shut in bliss. When I opened them again, I was gazing straight up into a mirror set in the ceiling over the bed. Seeing myself there, laid out naked on some strange rich man’s red velvet coverlet, I let out a little shriek and scrambled back to the foot of the bed, away from the mirror and toward the dry clothes in the closet. I couldn’t help looking again, and that’s when I noticed the brass rings set into the ceiling around the mirror. And a leather whip on hooks set in the wall.
Whoever owned this bed was a sex fiend. We had stolen a real Love Boat. The red velvet everywhere suddenly made sense.
“Letitia! Love, are you all right?” Criminy called from the other side of the flimsy wooden door. Panicking, I wrapped myself in the scarlet coverlet, the tassels tickling my damp skin.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I just startled myself.”
“What happened?” he said, and the air suddenly seemed very thick and very still. The thin sliding panel between us bent in a little bit, and I could imagine Criminy on the other side, his hand and face pressed against the black wood, his sharp eyebrows drawn down in concern. His nostrils flaring wide, catching my scent.
I heard him inhale and sigh.
I clutched the blanket more tightly around me.
“Nothing happened,” I said nervously. “I just saw something that surprised me. And shouldn’t you be steering the boat?”
“I’ve programmed it already,” he said, his voice low and soft. “It’ll take us to the open water around the islands and stop. If anything shows up on the sonar, we’ll hear an alarm.”
He inhaled again, then exhaled with a soft hum.
“So we’re alone. Love.”
Despite myself, I felt drawn to the door. My determination to resist Criminy and Sang itself was crumbling.
I felt as if he were pulling an invisible string, as if there were a golden hook around my spine leading me forward. I stepped lightly off the bed, trailing the red coverlet behind me. It was over my shoulders and crossed in front of me with both arms, like wings wrapped possessively around my fragile skin.
I pressed myself against the door, feeling the tension of his body pressing back through the flimsy wood. I breathed in. I could smell him, too, his scent rising sharp above the brass and new-cloth odors of the sub. Raspberries and blackberries, sweet and sun-warm, but with a fierce herbal undertone, crushed weeds and thorns. Burgundy and wine and the green of shadows. Eyes shut, velvet coverlet drawn up to my chin, I was taking in the scent with such deep breaths that I was starting to get a little light-headed.