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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
After forcing down lunch and finding the bathroom, I curled up on the floor of the hallway and fell asleep. I was only vaguely aware of Criminy gathering me up, depositing me on a small couch, and sliding another paneled door shut, leaving me in the sitting room of the gently purring sub. The kiss I expected on my forehead never came. I slept uneasily the entire way to Brighton.
I awoke several hours later as the sub ground to a halt. The door to the bedroom was still shut, and I found Criminy alone at the instrument panel. I smiled sleepily and put my head against his shoulder, but he shrugged me off irritably and went to the periscope.
“It’s still smoking,” he said with a frown. “Every ship on the docks is gone, and I can’t see a single living creature.”
I yawned. “I’m glad they finally had the sense to run away,” I said.
“Not necessarily. Someone could have cut the ships loose, set them adrift to deny the people within an egress. Or they might have been sunken. Or burned.”
“I can’t believe anyone would do that,” I said, although I knew very well that even worse things had been done in my world. “And anyway, we’d see chunks of them floating or smoking, and you don’t see any of that, do you?”
He stepped back silently to offer me the goggles.
My vision focused, and my jaw dropped. “It’s awful,” I murmured.
And it was. Heavy smoke billowed up from several large, flaming buildings and a wide swath of devastation on the west side of the city. It was a strategic burning. Black spires of wood stuck up against the gray sky like jagged, broken teeth in sharp contrast to the rest of the city, which appeared unharmed.
“The factories,” Criminy said quietly. “And Darkside.”
“How many people lived here?” I asked.
“Maybe fifteen thousand,” he said. “One-quarter Pinkies to three-quarters Bludmen, almost all working in the factories or indentured. It was a slave city.”
“But I don’t understand,” I said. “I thought that you couldn’t be hurt. As easily as humans, I mean.”
He laughed bitterly. “Oh, no. We can be hurt, and we can die. We burn just as easily as you do. Our blood may be different, but we’re still made of meat. Most of the Bludmen in that city are dead.”
We heard the bedroom door slither open, and Tabitha strode down the hallway and snatched the periscope from my hands.
“You’re not dropping me off there,” she said, glancing up at Criminy with a wicked smile. “It would be tantamount to murder.”
“Then we’re leaving you in Feverish, which is just a few miles up the road,” he said. “I won’t doom you, but I won’t travel far with you, either. And by the way, you’re fired.”
“Ha!” She cackled. “You can’t fire me. I quit.”
Criminy tapped on the instrument panel, turning dials and flicking switches. I felt a soft pull as the sub changed course.
“We’re going around the city. We’ll walk the moors to Feverish and find a way back to Manchester.”
“But what if Goodwill’s still in Brighton?” I asked.
“Then we’ll beat him home and wait it out,” Criminy said firmly. “Something tells me the old codger likes his comfort and his safety. He’ll only stay in Brighton long enough to foist the clean-up on somebody else.”
It was a good decision. I was grateful that we hadn’t tried the docks. Even as our raft neared a lonely beach farther down the coast, I could still smell the smoke of the smoldering city, and it smelled like barbecue and winter fires. I salivated for a second before I remembered the source of the tantalizing smell, then I threw up over the side of the raft before we reached land.
Tabitha snickered. “She’s a tough one, eh?”
“Keep it to yourself, lass, unless you want a tender shove,” he said, but he grinned.
“I don’t think I’d mind a tender shove from you,” she purred.
“It isn’t tender things I’m picturing, Tab.”
She gave him a dazzling smile and licked her fangs. He chuckled.
I was more than a little amazed. Was he actually flirting with the murderous harpy?
I wiped my mouth and huddled in the bottom of the raft, miserable.
Out of irritation, I didn’t offer to tow the raft through the deadly salty sea, but the breaking waves did it for me. We were tossed up onto the beach with a crash, and Criminy hopped out to drag me onto the sand. Tabitha leaped nimbly to the ground and strutted toward the moors. His eyes followed her ass as I heaved and choked at his feet.
I apparently had a rival, and Criminy didn’t seem to mind as much as before.
I was a lot more bothered than I wanted to be.
It was half a day’s walk to Feverish, which was unchanged. No fires, no influx of new citizens or inn visitors, which proved Criminy’s point. The Bludmen of Brighton were gone. We were grim and waterlogged when the same young boy ran to greet us. I had remained sullen and silent the whole way as Criminy and Tabitha chatted and flirted. He held the door open for her, and she let it slam on me. I barely had the energy or the will to catch it. And then we stood before Master Haggard.
“Do you have a vacancy, sir?” asked Criminy as if they had never met.
“We do, lad,” the old man replied. “How many rooms?”
“Three, please,” Criminy said. “If you’ll accept this as payment.”
I was surprised to feel my heart drop like a stone. Three? As Criminy pulled a handful of Goodwill’s engraved silver from his waistcoat and Master Haggard nodded solemnly, my mind was racing. Three rooms? What was he doing?
And why did I care so much? Just because he made my toes curl in bed didn’t mean that I loved him or that we’d made any promises.
If Tabitha was feeling victorious, it didn’t show. In fact, she looked more annoyed than ever. But we both followed resignedly as Master Haggard showed us to three rooms in a row on the long hall. Criminy took the center room. Tabitha and I glared daggers at each other. It felt like a middle-school field trip, and I was the dork in braces.
“Good night,” Criminy called softly as he shut his door.
My door and Tabitha’s door slammed shut at the same moment.
In the pitch-black early morning, my door shivered open. I rose from my dreams smiling.
He had come back to me.
I moved over on the bed to make room for him, hoping that the darkness hid my relief and girlish giddiness. I didn’t want to seem too eager.
The door shut softly. I couldn’t see his shadow or hear his footsteps. Had he just checked on me and gone back into the hall?
“Criminy?” I whispered.
And then a glove clapped over my nose and mouth, driving my head into the pillow.
“Did you actually think it would work?” came the fierce whisper.
I struggled, shaking my head back and forth, but the glove’s pressure didn’t lessen. I whimpered against the soft leather and started to buck and thrash in panic. I couldn’t breathe.
Tabitha’s face appeared inches from mine, her eyes feral with fury.
“I don’t know what spell you used, but I’m going to drain you for taking him away from me,” she growled, a sound so low that I could barely hear it. The scent of copper and death and raw meat rolled off her, and I tried not to gag.
I flung my bare hands up, clawing for her eyes and raking across her cheeks with my pointed nails. When I touched her skin, the jolt came unbidden, and the surprise made me bite down on her hand through the glove.
No wonder she hadn’t wanted to touch me, before or later. He’d have flayed her alive for this.
She hadn’t actually been captured by Jonah Goodwill. She had sought him out as soon as I arrived, a Stranger with an unusual gift. She was helping the Coppers in return for money and leniency when he unleashed his genocide on her people. She was a spy, a decoy, and an assassin.
But she was supposed to kill Criminy, not me.
I sank my teeth in deeper, hoping to hear her bones crack.
“Don’t bite me, you little bitch!” she shrieked, and then she gasped when she realized how loudly her screech had rung out in the sleeping inn.
Doors banged open in the hallway, and footsteps pounded to my door. Tabitha scanned the room in terror, ripped the window open, and leaped out, trailing the long bustle of her dress behind her. All I could do was lie on the bed, gulping for air and trying not to pass out, because I had expressly forbidden myself to do that again.
Seconds later, Criminy cradled me in his arms. Master Haggard leaned out the window in a long gray nightshirt, his basset-hound eyes penetrating the dark.
“She’s gone,” Criminy said with finality, and he held me closer.
“I’m sorry, little love,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
I shivered for an hour in his arms before falling asleep against his chest, and I had restless dreams until dawn broke, red and streaky through the open window.
Criminy was furious with himself, and I couldn’t get him to calm down.
“How did I not know?” he fumed. “Why didn’t I see it?”
“I think you were a little focused on me and the locket,” I said patiently. “And the ghost, and Brighton, and Erris, and the caravan. And the genocide.”
“That’s one thing,” he said. “But the damned witch put a love spell on me, and I didn’t even notice. Slipped it right into my pocket, probably while we were feeding on the island.”
He showed me a little bag of plum taffeta, torn from her skirt, tied with long blond hairs. It was light in my hand, and I felt tiny bones inside and something soft.
“Bird bones, moor grass, rose thorns, and my hair,” he said bitterly. “Probably skinked a look in my own grimoire when I wasn’t looking. A love spell.” He snorted. “Three rooms. I should have known then.”
“If you’d asked for two rooms and taken her into yours, I would have pitched an unholy fit,” I answered. “But I thought … Well, it doesn’t matter what I thought. It’s over now. Let’s just get to Manchester as fast as we can. Before she can get to Goodwill.”
He seemed more than happy to let it go. Travel was problem enough.
Erris was long gone, of course. Luckily, Master Haggard said that the village had an archaic but serviceable conveyance and that we were welcome to rent it for ten vials of my blood. With Brighton in flames, times were going to be lean in Feverish. I kept reminding myself that ten vials was less than it sounded like, that I had drawn just as much from my infirm patients. Still, as soon as Criminy had drawn the blood, I felt light-headed. I hoped the transportation was worth it.
When Master Haggard threw open the creaking doors to an old stable to show us the conveyance, I couldn’t help laughing. I had envisioned tanks, mopeds, miniature trains, even an electric horse. But in a throwback to my own world, there sat an old-fashioned, fairy-tale carriage in silver and rust-dotted light blue. It looked a little like a four-legged octopus. All it needed was a team of white horses and a footman, and I would have felt like Cinderella. But where the horses should have been was air, and on the back was a big brass box with a large key on it.
Criminy and Master Haggard rolled it into the weak sunshine and stood on the box to wind and wind and wind the key, just like a music box. The further it went, the harder it was to wind. Both men were panting and sweating as the tension increased. Finally, they let go, and Criminy helped me through the heart-shaped blue door onto a dusty velvet bench. He hopped in beside me and grasped the brass steering wheel in both hands.
“Thank you, Master Haggard,” he called.
The old man stood back with a slow, doleful wave, calling, “Good luck, lad. Keep her safe. And don’t forget that spells work both ways, the Drawing included. She’ll pay her own price, in time.”
I didn’t understand his final words, but he made it sound like I was under a curse instead of a charm. Then he lifted a vial of my blood to his lips and drank, eyes closed in pleasure. Which was creepy. I was not at all sad to see the last of the little town of Feverish.
Criminy pulled a lever, and the carriage whirred into life and rumbled along the dirt road on rickety wheels. Through the glass windshield, the road ahead seemed to stretch forever, like a brown ribbon among the moors.
For the first few hours, we chugged along in silence. I was weak from losing so much blood, and Criminy, I think, felt helpless and wounded for having used me as a mule yet again. With his bag lost in the ashes of Brighton and no crowds to amaze for a handful of copper coins, I was the only ATM in the area. And we were both concerned about Tabitha Scowl.
“I still don’t understand,” I said at last. “Goodwill hired her to kill you and kidnap me. But she was a heartbeat away from draining me and running away to the caravan with you. Like you wouldn’t have noticed that I was gone. And like Goodwill wouldn’t have hunted her down.”
“Love makes fools of us all, darling, and love spells are sneaky,” he said. “They prey upon your baser instincts and natural inclinations. Eventually, I would have believed it myself. With you gone, with that in my pocket, with her nearby … in time, I would have loved her. Damn her eyes.”
“Then why did you get three rooms instead of two?” I asked. “Why didn’t you take her with you?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe the spell wasn’t done correctly. Maybe she was too weak. Maybe you and I, what we have—maybe that’s too strong. It’s hard to remember now. It was all muddled. Like being drunk, maybe.”
“Well I’m glad,” I said as evenly as possible. “She probably would have betrayed you, in the end.”