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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
He set down the dagger, clearing his throat and straightening the collar of his coat. I wasn’t the only one acting fidgety. He wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“Something else is bothering you,” I said.
“I’m not sure how to ask, but aren’t you worried about the … consequences of our actions?” he said. He looked up with a wry grin. “Half-bluds don’t lead a merry life here. I’m surprised you’re not taking precautions. I can get you the herbs, if you wish.”
“Oh, that,” I said with a small, sad smile. “No, I’m not worried. I had … I had a loss, in my world. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced, and I decided that I wasn’t ready to try again. I get a special shot, special medicine, once a year, to keep that from happening.”
“That’s handy magic,” he said, considering. “Not that I’d be sorry otherwise. Just so you know. And I’m sorry for the things that have pained you in your past.” He held my face, rubbing my cheek with his gloved thumb. “Got a bit of stag blood there,” he said.
I reached toward the sparkling pool to get some water, but he stopped me.
“The water needs to stay pure,” he said. “But if you’re ready, I’ll take that drop of blood now.”
I shrugged. He was already holding my hand, so he just removed the glove. It was businesslike this time, nothing sexy about it. With the dagger, he pricked my finger and squeezed a drop of blood into the pool, where it landed with a plop and swirled around, melting into the currents of the small spring below the surface. He placed my hand back in my lap and reached for the bottle.
Pouring a thin stream of blue liquid into the pool, he said, “Where is Jonah Goodwill?”
The water rippled, and a picture formed, just on the surface, like a reflection in window glass. It was Jonah Goodwill. In an airy room with white walls and dark wood beams, the kindly-looking old man with the walrus mustache sat at a table, eating his dinner. He seemed so harmless, just an elderly gentleman running to fat, slurping his soup. A servant stood nearby with a towel over his arm, framed by a picture window showing the church steeple of Manchester.
On the white wall behind Goodwill, dozens of black eyes glistened on hunting trophies. I could tell that they were all creatures of blud—they looked bigger, meaner, more vicious than their softer counterparts. The moose in the center looked as if it could take the leg off a rhinoceros.
“Well, that’s handy,” murmured Criminy. “Now we know he’s home.” Then he waved a hand over the pool, saying, “Where is my ruby locket?”
The water swirled by itself, the vision of Goodwill wavering and shifting to an empty bedroom with the same white walls and ceiling timbers. The locket lay on an elegant dresser. Beside it sat an old black-and-white photograph of a girl with bobbed black hair holding a bouquet of flowers.
“Good,” Criminy muttered. “All of our bludbunnies in one burrow. Now, why does Jonah Goodwill want Letitia?”
The pond rippled, and the vision dissipated. A new scene shimmered into being.
It was Darkside in Manchester. All around the streets, dead Bludmen and women and children were scattered, their bodies spindly and pale and riddled with sores. Then the vision spun to another city, another Darkside, more bodies. Then another, and another. It showed us a world where all Bludmen were dead. The world Jonah Goodwill hoped to bring into being.
And at the center of the vision, surrounded by death, was me, the ruby locket hanging around my neck.
The walk to Manchester was both easier and more difficult after that. Easier because Criminy was bloated with stag blood and full of energy and because I was gnawing on a leg bone of quickly roasted, mostly rare venison. More difficult because Criminy was carrying the stag’s lopped-off head by its enormous rack of antlers, a humble gift to Magistrate Goodwill, collector of blud trophies. We hoped it would be our ticket into his presence.
“Do you really think it’ll work?” I asked, sidestepping random blood droplets that leaked from the severed neck.
“No way to tell,” Criminy said. “Maybe he’ll take it, maybe not. If not, I’ll throw it at him and knock him down, maybe puncture a lung with a lucky antler. He won’t be expecting that.”
“But wouldn’t it just be easier to let ourselves be captured?”
“Not unless you’d like to see exactly how much blud’s in my body, love,” he said grimly. “They’ll drain me without a thought. Always better to sneak in unawares, keep that ace hidden up your sleeve.”
“Your sleeve’s covered in stag blood, Master Stain. And you deserve some sort of prize for carrying something that heavy on foot,” I said, and then it hit me. “Wait. Why aren’t we riding in the wind-up carriage?”
“There’s two good reasons, pet,” he said. “One, if we arrive at their front gate in something that old and unusual, we might as well show up riding a unicorn. And two, it must go back to Master Haggard undamaged. I don’t want a Bludman that old and powerful angry at me.”
Back on the road, we soon saw Manchester shimmering against the dark, oily clouds. I could smell the storm coming, and just being near the city made me queasy.
Think of Nana, I said to myself. Think of her chicken ’n’ dumplings and how she smiles every morning when you walk through her door. Think of all the Bludmen you can save, all of the children who will have a better life if you can stop Jonah Goodwill. You’re going into Manchester, no matter what.
Then Criminy grunted and shifted the stag’s head onto his other shoulder, and my thoughts came back to him. I smiled at the broad shoulders, the unstudied and catlike grace, the powerful body writhing with wiry muscles and striding so easily and boldly with a grim smile through a dangerous world. There was a soft place in my heart for him. More than that. He wanted me to be exactly who I was, and he completed a part of me that I hadn’t known existed. I didn’t want to lose that, either.
I had chosen him over Casper, but I hadn’t yet decided what to do about the locket and the potion. The choice he had demanded that I make came closer and closer with every footfall toward the whited sepulcher of Manchester. If we made it that far. If we got through the gate. If we found Jonah Goodwill before he found us. If Tabitha Scowl hadn’t found him first. And if the locket wasn’t broken, and we could get it and me to a safe sleeping place.
That was an awful lot of ifs.
Criminy glanced over his shoulder with his mouth quirked up. “You thinking about changing your mind, love?” he said. “Now’s the time. Run away with the caravan, get bludded, have an easy life with a handsome rogue?”
“There’s more than my future riding on that locket now. And easy things aren’t worth much,” I said.
He laughed. “Then the hard things had better be,” he said.
When we were almost close enough to Manchester’s wall to attract notice, Criminy ducked behind a screen of wild hedges and boulders. He set down the huge stag’s head, squatted on the grass, and beckoned to me. I joined him, careful to keep my skirts clear of the oozing trophy.
“It’ll have to be magic, love,” he said. “They’re looking for us. So you’re going to be invisible, and I’m going to be in disguise. I’m throwing a harder spell this time, one that won’t take so much of my energy to sustain. You’ll be invisible until I break the spell, but you’ll still be corporeal. You’ll have to stay right next to me so we don’t get separated, and you’ll have to be absolutely silent. And you’ll have to accept that if you get hurt, you’re on your own. Can you do it?”
“I can do anything,” I said.
He plucked a fallen hair from my shoulder and said, “That was easier than usual. Didn’t even get to make you squeal.”
He removed his glove, laid the hair over his black-scaled hand, and set it on fire with a word. As it burned, he sang things in an odd, musical language until it was ash. Then he kissed me swiftly and sprinkled the ashes over my head.
Even though it was impossible, I felt them land in my hair and melt like snowflakes. Criminy smiled as I faded from view. It was my third time being invisible, and it was just as disconcerting as ever. But this time, I couldn’t see myself, not even a little bit, not even like glass or water. I was one hundred percent not there, my clothes and Uro with me.
“Now it’s my turn,” he said. He nipped his finger and drew lines across his face with the blood, murmuring another song. It was his same blood that had brought me here, bursting from the locket and leaving pockmarks on my bathroom counter and permanent stains on my hand. And it was inside me now, too. It had to be very powerful stuff.
He bent down to put his glove back on, and when he looked up, I gasped.
He was now an elderly man with light brown skin and small tufts of white hair behind his ears. His chocolate-brown eyes grinned at me with mischief, and his quirked smile still held the same pointy teeth.
“How do you feel about older men, little pet?” he said with a raspy voice.
“You look like Antonin’s grandfather,” I said.
He laughed and rose from the ground with an exaggerated stoop. As he shouldered the stag’s head and started limping toward the city, I followed in his wake, the grasses parting for my invisible dress.
Right before we got within hailing distance of the gates, I whispered, “Stop to lace your boot, would you?”
He obeyed, dropping the stag’s head and kneeling with exaggerated stiffness to fiddle with the high laces of his boot. I knelt next to him, took his face in mine, and kissed him hard. He raised his arms to pull me closer, then remembered where we were and what we were doing. He scratched his head instead, all the while kissing me back fiercely.
“Whatever happens, I think I love you,” I whispered in his ear as I pulled away.
The features he wore weren’t his own, but the expression of relief and triumph was.
“I knew you’d come around, pet. Whatever happens, I love you, too,” he whispered back. “I always have.”
Then he rose from the ground a different man in more ways than one. He shuffled to the guard’s post, holding the stag’s head on his shoulder and fumbling in his waistcoat for the documents we’d forged that morning, before we knew Goodwill’s ultimate plan.
“Papers,” came the flat voice.
The old man put the papers in the box and waited as the guard examined them.
“Rafael Fester of Nag’s Head,” the guard barked. “State your business.”
“Good evening, sir,” the old man said, his voice a mixture of sunshine and subservience. “Heard Magistrate Goodwill collected curiosities and thought he might accept a humble token of esteem from the people of Nag’s Head. This monster devoured eight Pinky children at a picnic afore my son kilt it and died in the bargain.”
“You have papers for Viviel Fester,” the guard said. “Where is she?”
I had an invisible Oh, shit! moment. We had both forgotten about our original, two-visible-people plan—the one we’d made up before the spring showed us the truth of things.
But Criminy was clever and quick as ever. The old man’s face was pained, and he softly said, “My wife passed last year, sir. I keep her papers with mine out of habit. Lived together two hundred years, we did.” A few red tears rolled down his face.
The guard crumpled the extra set of papers and tossed them onto the ground in his booth, the bastard. No wonder everyone hated Coppers.
“Toll has gone up,” the guard barked. “Eight coppers or two vials.”
The old man set down the stag head and hunted through his pockets, gathering change. He counted out eight copper pennies and set them in the box. It flicked in, then back out with his papers.
The guard cleared his throat. “It is decreed that all Bludmen register for a badge at the House of Holofernes in Darkside upon entering the city. Bludmen without badges will be subject to inquisition and possible draining. Have you seen either of these people before?” He held up inked drawings of Criminy and me. The word WANTED slithered across the top of each image in elegant calligraphy. The drawing of Criminy was spot-on, but the one of me was more than a little imaginative.
I looked like an evil seductress, some sort of vampy witch-queen.
I liked it.
I wanted a copy for my wagon.
“Never seen the devils, sir, but never been out of Nag’s Head till this week, neither. I’ll be on the lookout, though. And how can I get to see Magistrate Goodwill, sir?”
In answer, the guard pulled his lever, and the giant door squealed open.
Scratching his head and looking up at the huge doors, Criminy was having a marvelous time acting like a country rube. He picked up the stag’s head and wandered through the door. I was close on his heels.
After the door slammed shut behind us, he whispered, “You there, pet?”
In answer, I stroked his back softly, right where I had once clawed him.
“Yeah, you’re there,” he muttered. “Try to keep up.”
Keeping up his country-mouse act, Rafael Fester goggled at the shops and the people and generally got in everyone’s way, accidentally smacking a grand Pinky dame with his bloody trophy at one point. He asked random people for directions to Darkside, then took pains to go the wrong way.
Still, I knew that he knew exactly where he was going, and I stayed as close to him as possible, trying to remember not to bump into anyone myself. I saw a filthy urchin sidling close to pick his pocket at one point and almost intervened, but Criminy spun around quickly and pegged the kid with an antler, shouting, “What, who said that?” like deaf old men everywhere. The urchin slunk back into the shadows, rubbing a lump on his forehead.