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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“That’s true,” he said with a sideways smile. “She probably would have. Not that you’re jealous or anything.”
“Just thinking about the facts,” I said. “And she would have smelled like fish.”
He burst out with that overly loud laugh, and I had to join in. It was pretty funny, from a certain perspective. A love triangle with a magician, a fortune-teller, and a professional mermaid, two of whom drank blood and one of whom was an alien from another world.
Laughing like that lightened the mood considerably. I think we both felt a little like idiots. One of his hands crept over to hold mine, but then the carriage lurched over a rock, and he needed both hands to keep us on track.
“I don’t mean to keep doing this,” I said, “but can I take a little nap?”
“Let’s see.” He chuckled. “You went four days without sleep, then you swam a mile and got gnawed on by beasties, then you were nearly scared to death by a ghost, then you were ravaged by a suitor in a submarine, and then you were nearly murdered twice by a vicious, lying spy. Oh, and then you lost a couple of cups of blood on your way to go face an evil Copper.”
I giggled. He had a point.
“Yes, sweet tangerine. I’d say you deserve a nap.”
We had to stop several times to rewind the key. The first winding lasted the longest. Criminy alone wasn’t strong enough to wind it all the way again, and I was too weak to be helpful. I slept through most of the journey, waking only when the grating noise of the winding key dragged me up from dreams. Each time, I collapsed back onto the seat after swigging some tepid water from my canteen or munching on stale shortbread cookies that Master Haggard had found in some old luggage. I did wake up once with the frantic need to pee, only to run screaming out of the copse with my shirt untucked, trailed by a madly chittering family of ravenous bludsquirrels.
When night fell, we stopped to build a fire. Criminy caught and roasted a bludbunny for me, and I tried not to swallow it whole. We sat on old logs, warming our hands at the merry flames, and Criminy told me Sangish fairy tales and little stories from his childhood in Devlin. He was such a natural entertainer that I nearly forgot my problems. It was easy to lose myself in his words, following along with laughter and tears and imagining him as a child, handsome and mischievous on the streets of a far-off city.
“More,” I said. “Please. Don’t stop.”
With a grin, he danced and did magic tricks and sang a plaintive lullaby in the low, slurry tongue of the Bludmen. He made shadow puppets against the smoke and threw glitter that made the fire glow blue, and when I looked at his eager smile, I was overcome with adoration and gratitude. I was beginning to think that there was nothing he couldn’t do. Here we were, on the road, on the run, and he could make me feel as if we were kids on a camping trip. It was a valuable gift, and not his only one.
“Enough, love. Plenty of time for making merry. But tonight you need more sleep,” he finally said.
“But I’m having fun,” I said. “I don’t want tomorrow to come.”
“It’s easy to pretend, isn’t it?” he said, reading my mind. “That this is all there is? To be in the moment, without a care?”
“I know what you’re going to say. Easy things aren’t worth much,” I said with a rueful smile, holding out my hand.
“Your hand in mine is worth a great deal, Letitia,” he said, helping me to my feet. “That’s what I’ll be fighting for tomorrow.”
For my own safety, we slept just off the road in our carriage, crushed together at odd angles. I was afraid it would be awkward, but we were so dusty and exhausted that we crumpled into a companionable heap and went insensible after a kiss as brief and bright as a snuffed match.
The next morning, I woke with my head on his shoulder, smiling. My dreams had been peaceful, all twilight and twining vineyards and far-off music like his Bludman’s lullaby. In my dream, he taught me how to conjure a butterfly. I didn’t want to wake up. But I did anyway, because I felt as if our time was somehow running out.
As I yawned, Criminy’s eyes popped open, and he reached out to stroke my cheek. I smiled back at him as he sat up to stretch.
“Time to beat back the bunny hordes,” he said gallantly, knowing that any blood-hungry animals in the area would be waiting outside for a taste of me.
He threw open the door, shouting, “Bunnies, prepare to meet your doom!”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Stay here,” he said, his voice low.
He stepped down from the carriage and shut the door in my face. I peeked through the curtains and found myself in awe, yet again, that Sang could be so impossibly bizarre.
Dozens of bludbunnies surrounded our carriage, all dead. Parked on the opposite side of the road was an old-fashioned gypsy wagon hooked up to a white bludmare, her grizzled head hanging dejectedly. The sign nailed to the faded red wagon read, Madam Burial’s Snake Oils: Liniments, Salves, Potions, and Tinctures for Ev’ry Malady of Boddy and Spirit. The wagon was locked up tight, and the driver’s box was empty. Someone swung gently in a hammock chair on a little back porch, a thin stream of smoke billowing from a long pipe.
“I’ve been looking for you,” called a rich, husky voice.
“I see you changed your last name, Hepzibah,” he answered.
“Merrywell didn’t suit,” she said. “At least it almost rhymes.”
“I’m here, madam,” he said, his voice tired and annoyed. “What more do you require?”
“Of you? Nothing,” she said. The shape in the chair unfolded and stood in a haze of smoke. I couldn’t see her face from my window, but somehow I knew that she was staring right at me. The pipe pointed in my direction. “It’s her as needs something. Is it not so?”
Criminy turned to look at me, his face pained and resigned. “Letitia, love. Would you come speak with us, please?”
Another mysterious woman from Criminy’s past. How did they all manage to find him? When I had touched him the first time, I had seen only the future, not his speckled history, and I was beginning to think that was a good thing.
With my back straight and my chin up, I walked to Criminy’s side. He took my hand and squeezed it. “Letitia, my love, this is Madam Hepzibah Burial. She’s the one who gave me the spell for your locket.”
Ah, so a late-turned Bludwoman, then. Up close, her face was like that of an old woman whose wrinkles had been erased and softened or maybe smudged with wax. She had drawn sweeping black cat’s eyes over her lids, and her lips were deep burgundy. Her hair was in long dreadlocks of black and red, and she was entirely covered by a wool cloak.
“Hello, my dear,” she said with a knowing smile.
“Hello,” I answered. Criminy squeezed my hand. I said no more.
“You’ve lost your locket,” she said. “That was careless of you.”
“It was stolen,” Criminy said. “We are currently en route to retrieve it.”
“It’s not the only way, Stranger,” she said to me. “Come.”
She ducked into her wagon. With a loud crack, the shutters flew open under the sign. Leaning through the window, framed by shelves of magical-looking bottles and objects, she crossed her arms on the counter and smiled like a hungry crocodile.
“Don’t be afraid, little Pinky,” she purred. “Madam Burial knows what you need.”
I looked at Criminy, trying to project my extreme doubt and bone-deep fear into my eyes.
“Don’t worry, love,” he said, resigned. “I’m with you.”
I walked up to the window and stopped just beyond arm’s reach. Criminy leaned against the wagon, feigning amusement, but I could see the tension in his jaw and the anger in his eyes. The man certainly didn’t like a foxhole without an emergency exit. We were apparently stuck with the old broad until she decided otherwise.
Madam Burial placed a dainty glass bottle on the counter, and her mouth twitched in grim amusement. “See that, Dorothy? That’s your ticket home. Those are your ruby slippers, right there.”
“She speaks in riddles,” Criminy muttered. “Sometimes I think she actually believes them.”
But I knew exactly what she meant, of course. Any Stranger would.
“Before I click my heels three times, what’s the catch?” I asked, and she chuckled.
“You learn quickly, Letitia. The catch is this: it takes two people. You can’t go alone. The spell only works with two people holding hands, a complete circle. So you can take your fine magician there, or you can take … someone else.” She said this last bit with a sly wink and added, “I laid out the cards. You’ve stolen two hearts in our strange land. You work fast.”
I was flustered, and Criminy glared at the Bludwoman with disgust.
“So the harpsichordist is infatuated with her,” he scoffed. “He’s insignificant.”
“So say you,” she shot back. “But she can give him back his life, take him home to Grandma. She can take back her safe, comfortable world. She doesn’t need your land of lies and blood.”
“You don’t know what she needs,” he growled.
“How does it work?” I asked, and Criminy turned to me, taking both my hands.
“Letitia, love, you can’t seriously be considering a bargain with this monster?”
“Takes one to know one,” she said, puffing on her pipe.
“You bargained with her once,” I said. “I just want to know my options.”
“It works like this,” she said. “In return for a small token, I give you this bottle. When you’re ready to go home, you take the potion into your mouth and kiss your chosen companion, sharing and swallowing it while holding both hands. Then you say exactly where you want to go, and you’re there.”
“And what’s the small token?”
“Just this: tell me my fortune.”
“You can give me a potion that’ll take me to another world, but you can’t tell your own future?” I asked.
“One day, you’ll learn that power doesn’t work that way,” she said with another deep chuckle. “Every time I lay my cards, I draw the Witch. Every time I look into my own teacup, I see a tempest. And my palms are smooth as glass.”
“Fine,” I said quietly. “I’ll tell your future.”
Criminy broke in, almost pleading. “Letitia, love, there’s bound to be a catch. A trick. She won’t give you something for nothing.”
“Glancing isn’t nothing,” I said, my hackles rising. “It’s a valuable talent. You said so yourself.”
“It’s very valuable,” he agreed. “But there’s something else she wants, or it wouldn’t be so simple.”
We had a little staring contest, each willing the other to give in. I refused to drop my eyes. What Madam Burial wanted seemed a simple enough request. He just didn’t want me to have that potion. And it wasn’t even that I wanted it so badly, not really. I just wanted my own bolt hole, my escape hatch in case the locket was broken or gone forever. I wanted a choice.
I took off my glove, and Madam Burial smiled like a vulture folding its wings over a carcass.
“Don’t touch her!” Criminy snapped. “Don’t do this. Love, she tricked me once, and she won’t let you go so easily. I promise you.”
“Don’t tell her what to do, Master Stain,” she warned. “Your sweet little kitten doesn’t like that.”
Caught between the two of them, I was furious. And I wasn’t about to back down.
Madam Burial took off her black lace glove, and her scaled hand hovered in the air, waiting. I grasped it and gasped. The jolt was explosive and strange, a black vortex drawing me in deeply. I dropped her hand as if it was on fire and staggered backward.
Criminy was there immediately, his arms around me, asking, “Are you all right, love?”
“And what did you see?” Madam Burial asked, her tone conversational and teasing.
“How much did you take?” I said, my voice low and dark. I had a sudden vision of what it would be like to rip her throat out with my blunt little Pinky teeth.
“Just five years,” she said. “A pittance. I’m surprised you even noticed. Yet.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She giggled, a high, mad sound. The hair on my arms rose.
“Can’t you feel it, little kitten? Doesn’t time here seem to run fast for you? Haven’t you noticed the crow’s feet marching across your face? That locket draws the years from you as surely as my hands. You’ll wither in his arms yet, if you don’t make your choice soon. Or break the locket.”
“Is it true, Criminy?” I asked, my ungloved fingers going automatically to my face, to the tiny ridges that I was sure hadn’t been there yesterday, that maybe hadn’t been there five minutes ago. “Am I really older?”
“There’s always a catch, my love,” he said. “But you’re beautiful to me, no matter what.”
So I couldn’t have both worlds, both lives. I’d seen it all in that desperately dark and dizzying glance. The locket was stealing my life, taking my time, drawing my youth and transferring it to the witch as I aged supernaturally fast. I was going to have to choose, and choose soon. It all came down to the potion, the blud, or the locket. Every moment I spent in Sang as a human meant that I grew older faster. My dream of having everything was gone, replaced by images of my hair turning gray with a locket around my neck and a forever-young lover in my arms.