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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
And then there was Criminy’s glance, which made a little more sense now.
But it didn’t matter. The witch was going to pay.
“Let me tell your fortune,” I said. “So we’ll be even.”
“You saw nothing,” she said, drawing up and pulling her cloak tightly around her.
“Suit yourself,” I said.
Pushing away from Criminy, I rubbed my temples and stretched my shoulders, feeling tired to the bone. When I stepped up to the counter, Madam Burial looked just a little more lively, the lines on her face smoother and her smug smile brimming with joy at having bested me. But underneath it, I could tell that she was just a little bit scared of me. Good.
I snatched the little bottle off the counter and looked her dead in the eye.
“I know how you die. It’s going to hurt. And you don’t have long,” I said.
The horror in her eyes made me smile as I grabbed Criminy’s hand and dragged him back across the road.
As I stepped into the conveyance, I called over my shoulder, “And watch out for flying monkeys, you old bitch!”
I couldn’t stop staring at myself in the mirror Criminy had dug out of his waistcoat. Was that my first wrinkle, or had I just slept on my arm? Were the bags under my eyes from exhaustion or dehydration or something more sinister?
“But I don’t want to be thirty-one,” I moaned.
Criminy glanced at me lovingly and said, “Darling, you don’t look a day over twenty-six.”
“I can’t believe I fell for it. You told me there would be a catch, but I was just so certain that I knew what I was doing. I let her steal five years of my life. Five years, gone in seconds.” I sighed. “And as long as the locket’s around, I’m getting older even faster. I didn’t even get to have a big party for turning thirty.”
“I’m nearly a century older than you are, if it makes you feel any better,” he said.
“And you actually don’t look a day over twenty-five,” I said wistfully. “I guess being a Bludman has its advantages.”
“I like to think so,” he said with his most dashing grin. “But there’s still plenty of time for that. The important thing is that you have what you wanted.”
I looked at the little bottle. I didn’t really want it. But I didn’t want him to know that. And I wasn’t ready to admit that I had given up five years of my life just to feel independent and strong.
“I guess,” I said.
I hoped I would never run into Madam Burial again.
But of course, I knew I would.
After that, we met no travelers on the road. I fell into an uneasy sleep until a giant bus tank passed us. We had to veer off the road in response to its vicious honking. The driver, just a pair of goggles behind the dirty windshield, would have mowed us down without a thought.
“Foolish Pinkies fleeing Brighton, no doubt,” Criminy muttered. “Run over their own grandmothers to get to safety.”
“Durgoin da Manblaster?” I slurred, still half-asleep.
“Yes, love,” Criminy said with a smile. “They’re probably going to Manchester. For all we know, Jonah Goodwill is throwing a ball to celebrate, and they want to shake his hand.”
I rubbed my eyes and sat up with a jaw-cracking yawn. “Are we there yet?” I asked.
Criminy pulled out his compass with one hand, and the carriage jiggled all over the road.
“Bugger,” he said, shoving the little brass object back into his pocket. “I can’t tell for certain. I’d guess we’re an hour or so from the caravan. It’ll be good to be home, eh?”
“Yes,” I said archly, “it would be great to be home. With my grandmother and my cat. Which is why we’re going to Manchester now.”
“Sorry, sweetheart, but our first stop’s the caravan.” With both hands on the wheel, he gave me a quick grin and shrugged. “I have my responsibilities, and they might have news. And we need to get cleaned up before we head into the city. You’ll scandalize the kingdom in that get-up, if the rats don’t get to you first.”
He had a point. But that didn’t mean I liked it.
“Don’t sulk, precious,” Criminy said. “But speaking of the dangers ahead, there’s something I need to ask you.”
I waited. His fingers drummed on the steering wheel. It was as close as I’d ever seen him to nervous and fidgety.
“There’s no good way to put it. But do you want to be bludded?”
“I’ve already told you no,” I said patiently. “I appreciate the thought, but I’m not ready to go that route yet. No eternal kiss for me.”
“Eternal kiss?” he asked. “That’s a bunch of poppycock. It’s simply practical. It would be so much safer if you were a predator instead of a delicious little morsel. We’re about to go into a city where there’s a price on your head and try to sneak into the well-guarded house of a very powerful man to steal a magical object—which is all in a day’s work for me, of course. But you could be killed. And worrying about you being killed makes me more likely to get us both killed. And there are still plenty of things around here that want to eat you.”
“When you put it that way,” I answered, “I guess it is pretty practical. But here’s the thing. I don’t know what would happen when I got back to my world. If I would be my world’s first Bludwoman or a vampire or a corpse. I’m not going to risk it, even if it would make life a lot easier here.” Aiming for silly, I added, “Besides, blood’s icky.”
“Oh, Letitia,” he mused, but I could hear pain lurking underneath. “Will you ever accept that this is serious? Do you think me a schoolboy, mooning after a pretty lass? I wonder if you even care for me. If you’re just toying with my heart.”
“Quit acting soft,” I muttered. “Quit playing.”
“I think you’re the one who’s playing,” he snapped. “What you’re seeing is pain. And you’re the only one who sees it,” he said more softly. “You’re the only one who can cut me, and you wound me deep.”
I watched him for a moment, his jaw clenched as he gripped the steering wheel, as if his will and his hands were the only things holding the conveyance together and keeping it on the road. His eyes were focused far ahead, and he let out the saddest sigh.
“I can tell you care for me,” he said. “Your smile, your touch, your trust. The way you rouse to me. But your feelings are incomplete. Like there’s some missing piece I can’t puzzle out.”
“I do care for you,” I whispered. “In my own way.”
He closed his eyes briefly, let that sink in. But then his jaw tightened. “And what way is that?” he shot back. “You’re not a little girl playing dress-up. You can’t just float along, letting things happen to you. You have to choose, Letitia. Once we find the locket, you have to choose.”
“I’m not thinking that far ahead,” I said. “I need more time.”
“Well, I’m thinking about it,” Criminy said. “And I want to know. Once you have the locket, will you go back to your world and leave me with a frail, insensible body that will wither and die here? Will you break the locket, will you take my blud? Or will you go back and forth, never sleeping, until you grow old or go mad?”
“You’re forgetting that I could leave now if I wanted to,” I said. Here he was, trying to force me into making a choice.How could he know me so well and not understand what he was doing? “I have the potion. I could take you back, or him. It’s my choice.”
“Yes, it is. And what will you choose?”
I turned away. My eyes scanned the horizon, watching the never-ending grasses flow into hills and mountains, a world hazy around the edges where the sky always hung too low. There was an entire world here at my fingertips, and I’d only seen one small corner. Somewhere, far across these grasses, a beautiful man from my own world waited for me, filled with hope and playing familiar songs on a harpsichord and aching for the life he’d lost. And somewhere, even farther away, Nana waited, her time being stolen even more surely than mine.
“I can’t tell you now,” I said.
He had given me three choices, and I had added two more. I didn’t like a single one of them.
But then again, I’d already seen the future, and it grew darker with every glance.
Something was wrong. Criminy had grown more and more agitated as we rumbled north, but now he was downright twitchy. And he wouldn’t put down the spyglass, even though he could barely control the jittering conveyance with one hand.
“What is it?” I asked when I couldn’t stand the tense silence anymore.
“The wagons are still circled. The caravan hasn’t moved,” he said. “My orders were to follow the schedule, and they should be on the way to Liverpool by now.”
I could see it then, the far-off shadows against the cloudy sky. I had a feeling of homecoming that surprised me, and I thought of the comforts of my wagon. I actually missed the wallpaper. And the thought of my own little basin of water to wash in and a soft, silk-covered bed … oh, it was heaven on wheels.
The conveyance, unfortunately, had only two speeds: stop and go. The traveling speed depended entirely on the tension in the winding key, and we were near the end of a round, so it was taking a painfully long time to climb the last hill.
Finally, he jerked the conveyance off the road and pulled the brake. It shuddered to a halt, and we jumped out and ran through the thick, stringy grass. Not a single figure lurked outside the caravan. It was eerie.
Something dark moved toward us across the moor, and I saw Criminy’s arm swing into motion. But he didn’t go for the bolus or the knife in his boot. He just held his arm out, palm open. With a coppery flash, Pemberly swung onto his shoulder by her tail.
“Don’t just sit there, Pem. Assess!” he said peevishly, and she swung back down and hurtled toward the caravan. It was amazing to me how he always remembered to use her. I guess it was like me and the watch I wore to check a patient’s blood pressure or tell time. I was so accustomed to seeing her on his shoulder that he had seemed a little incomplete without her on the last leg of our journey.
My little Uro had only come in handy once so far, and that was all Criminy’s doing. I had been too busy peeing myself in the locked lighthouse to think about my robot guardian’s door-unlocking capabilities. The bracelet bumped against my wrist, useless for now.
The ground around the wagons was trampled. Big crowds had been there. But no one was practicing now, as they should have been. The clockworks were motionless between the wagons, their eyes open and unseeing. All was quiet. And that wasn’t good.
Criminy veered left, and I followed him to Mrs. Cleavers’s wagon. He paused in front of the steps, panting, and regained his composure before knocking politely. I was in much worse shape, doubled over, huffing and puffing in my stained, torn men’s clothes.
We waited by the door. Nothing happened. Not a sound came from within, and the lack of her customary shrill reception was ominous. Criminy tried the handle, and the door squeaked open.
The room was always a jumble, but it had recently been the site of a struggle. Dress forms were toppled over, pools of fabric and pincushions sprawled in front of the broken mirror.
Criminy closed his eyes and sniffed. “Pinkies,” he said. “Coppers.”
At that moment, Pemberly skittered into the room, her tail high. Criminy swung her up onto his shoulder, and she opened her mouth. A thin white ribbon inched out and curled under her chin. Criminy ripped the paper and read, “Living: 19. Dead: 0. Blood: 0 ml. Caravan: Safe.”
“Well, it doesn’t seem bloody safe, and we’re missing twelve and a half,” he muttered, tossing the paper to the ground.
“Twelve and a half?” I asked.
“Catarrh and Quincy are gone. Two heads, one body.”
We poked around the wagon but couldn’t find any clues amid the destruction. Without speaking, we walked back outside and headed in the same direction, toward the dining car. As we passed Emerlie and Veruca’s wagon, there was a subtle scrape from within, and Criminy had his ear to the lime-green wall in an instant.
“Someone’s inside,” he said softly, motioning me to the little wedge of space between two wagons next to Cadmus the cassowary. As I hid behind the still form of the giant brass bird, he knocked on the door and called, “Ladies?”
“Who’s there?” came the harsh cawing from within. Emerlie, of course.
“It’s Criminy Stain,” he said. “Open the door, Em.”
The door flew open so quickly it almost smacked him in the face, and Emerlie came very close to throwing herself into his arms. At the last moment, her lifelong prejudice kept her from seeking shelter in the comforting embrace of her boss the bloodsucker.
“Oh, sir, I’m that glad to see you!” she cried. “We don’t know what’s to be done.”
“What’s happened?” he asked, but of course, she ignored that.
“Oh, and that lady of yours, sir? Did the Coppers get her? Or is she dead? That poor lass, I told her, I told her to be careful. But she didn’t listen a bit.”
“Letitia, come out,” he called.
When I stepped out from my hiding place in my rumpled men’s clothes and waved sheepishly, Emerlie’s jaw dropped, but she ran to hug me just the same. Any port in a storm, I guessed. I patted her awkwardly.
“It’s awful, what they did,” she said, sniffling.