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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
I scooted toward the headboard and picked up a pillow, snuggling it against my face to stanch my silent tears. I was glad he couldn’t see me crying. He sat on the edge of the bed with his back to me and put his head in his hands.
“I would burn down the world for you,” he whispered fiercely. “Your world or my own. I would rip down this entire city with my bare hands without a second thought. I don’t need to taste anything else, I don’t need a comparison. I always thought that when you came to me, you’d feel that way, too.”
“Did you ever think that maybe I wasn’t worthy of such love?” I whispered.
“Not until you brought it up, no,” he said softly.
“But it still doesn’t change my feelings,” he said, standing up and shaking himself back into his flinty, hard mood. “And we’ll have to see what happens when your choices are laid bare. Now, wash up and get decent, because we’ve got a party to attend.”
Lacing a corset was difficult and uncomfortable. Lacing an invisible corset on an invisible body was like taking the SAT blind, in Sanskrit, with a stubby crayon, during a hurricane.
By the time we had found all of my clothing and gotten it back on me using only the sense of touch, we were fifteen minutes late for the party, and I was hopelessly mussed. I helped Criminy straighten his shirt and picked the lint off the velvet jacket that stretched over his own shoulders but appeared to droop somewhat over Rafael’s hunched body. The difference between what my eyes saw and what my hands felt was disconcerting.
Next, he shook some sort of powder all over me.
“To dull your scent,” he said.
“I don’t smell anything.”
“But why don’t Pinkies use this stuff all the time?” I asked, thinking about Casper and wondering how much blud he’d ingested for just such an effect.
“Because it’s expensive, involves complex magic, doesn’t last very long, and is made of … well … you don’t want to know,” he explained, avoiding my eyes.
“Letitia, this is important, love,” he said, feeling around to grasp my hand. “We’re trying to gather any information possible. However they do it, Coppers are at this party. Without Pemberly, I’m flying a little blind. Your job is to stay out of the way and watch people. Listen to side conversations. Lean in if anyone whispers. Look for holes in the wall or eyes in paintings, where they might be watching.”
“I can do that,” I said through a mouthful of cold wrappy that I had pulled from our sack. I watched in the mirror as the burrito disappeared bite by bite into thin air. I was more than starving and hunted around the bag for tangerines.
“Above all, don’t touch anyone. Don’t knock anything over. And don’t make a noise. Just find a quiet corner and stay there.”
“Aye-aye, captain,” I said, licking my fingers.
I was actually looking forward to it—being invisible at a party of Bludmen. I didn’t have to worry about introducing myself, or figure out what to do with my hands, or talk about the weather with boring people. I could stare and eavesdrop to my heart’s content, collecting the information that we hoped would tell us more about Goodwill’s game.
I followed Rafael downstairs. The yappy Bludwoman hostess shooed him into a room that reminded me of the Billiard Room in Clue, from the white-checkered floor to the wood-paneled walls and bookshelves crowded with leather volumes. A pool table with eight pockets dominated the space. Red velvet drapes bracketed the windows and doorways, and sickly potted plants loafed in the corners. Miniature vials of blood warmed in buckets over braziers on every table.
The people were even more interesting—all Bludmen, of course. Men and women of all ages wore the typical brightly colored clothes and chatted in small clusters. A few of the wealthier lodgers had clockworks, including monkeys, snake baubles both smaller and larger than my own, and a beautiful jeweled peacock. Rafael ventured toward a knot of older men playing poker. I drifted to a corner behind some young dandies playing billiards.
Time to play spy.
A hen party of women stood near me in fashionable gowns, chatting about bonnet styles and ribbons. Not helpful. On a couch a little apart from them, a middle-aged couple in outdated clothes sipped blood from their snifters in bemused silence. Snippets of conversations floated past, but I couldn’t pull any meaning from the words.
Instead, I focused on scanning the room for clues. There were paintings, but they were mostly large landscapes of coursing bludmares and fox hunts. Instead of foxes, there were humans cowering in fear before the riders. Not a single fancy portrait had white eyeballs glinting through holes in the canvas.
I was just about to tiptoe across the room when I noticed Master Holofernes sitting in a wing-backed chair, his face impassive and dark. He was one of the few people not drinking from a snifter. People avoided him and cast odd glances at him, but for the most part, he was ignored, so I ignored him, too.
I waited until the nearest young Bludman had made his shot and set down his cue, then darted around the billiard table to the other side of the room. A teenage girl sat down at a harpsichord and began playing a sad, soft waltz. Her music was going to hinder my eavesdropping, so I slid around the wall to a group of older ladies huddled around teacups.
“It ain’t right, that’s what,” said an old biddy in a gown that was worn and several centuries out of style. “My cousin was in Brighton, a milliner, not even a factory slave. No one in my family’s drunk from a body in two hundred years. And what’s the thanks we get? Fire.”
“Hush, Tavia,” said her friend, nudging her in the ribs. “Don’t say such things.”
“I’m a paying guest, and I’ll speak free.” Tavia sniffed. “Besides, we’re all among kin here, are we not?”
“It’s dark times,” said an old lady with a tall beehive of white curls, “and I plan to live through them. Again.” She got up and sashayed to a bookcase, swinging her padded hips.
“Cowards,” muttered Tavia.
“We have to be, dear,” said her friend, patting her hand.
I looked for Rafael and found him trying to speak to Master Holofernes, who just wagged his head and remained silent. Rafael shrugged good-naturedly and moved toward the harpsichord, but he was waylaid by the talkative desk clerk, who urged him toward the refreshment table.
I moved closer to hear the interplay.
“I brought my own blood from home and already drank, miss,” said Rafael. “Waste not, want not, my mother always said.”
“Nonsense, then, Mr. Fester. You’ve paid your coppers, same as anyone, and you’re entitled to your blood. Didn’t you say you were going to indulge yourself? Half a vial will sit right nicely. And soon Judith will sing!”
“I couldn’t possibly—” Rafael began, but he turned to face an opening door and stopped talking for a moment. Then he swallowed and continued in a lower voice, saying, “Really, I couldn’t, miss. You’re too kind. Please excuse a peculiar old man’s small-town ways.”
Ignoring her pleas, he sidled away to the far corner to examine the bookshelf and make polite talk with the old lady with the beehive hair. The girl at the harpsichord finished the waltz and started playing another sad song and warbling along off-key. Casper was right—he could make a killing here, if that was his only competition.
I was blocked by the men at the billiard table and couldn’t see what had spooked Rafael. I began to edge along the wall, anxious to get around the screen of bodies. Then a voice rang out over the harpsichord player’s softer soprano, and everyone turned to look. The old men parted, and into the room strutted Miss Tabitha Scowl, singing like an angel.
And around her snow-white neck was my locket.
I had never hated anyone the way I hated Tabitha Scowl.
She was tiny and effortlessly beautiful. She had an amazing voice, whereas when I sang, it sounded as if I was gargling with concrete. She had poise and style and confidence and passion.
And, most important, she had my locket. And she probably didn’t even know how to use it.
Swishing the long teal bustle of her gown behind her, she put on a coquette’s smile as she finished the song and approached the two youngest and most handsome Bludmen in the room. They abandoned their game, holding their pool cues nonchalantly as they chatted with the belle of the ball. I moved closer to listen, but it was just ridiculous flirting. Nothing helpful.
But why was she there? Why did Goodwill trust her with my locket? Was she one of the reasons the Coppers always knew what transpired at this party? And if so, why wasn’t she saying anything interesting?
I edged closer to her and leaned in, but she was just complimenting a young Bludman’s well-muscled arm. Mere feet away, the locket glinted at me, hanging just below her corset-enhanced bosom. She was too small for it to hang over her heart, as it did on me. I was transfixed, watching it sway as she moved, lovingly noting the deep crimson of the ruby and the interesting engravings on the shining gold.
Mine, I thought.
Something nudged me from behind, and one of the old ladies cried, “Pardon me, sir!” and cast a vicious glare at one of the young men, adding, “If you’re going to go smacking people with your stick, you’d best learn some manners.”
The young man stared at his pool cue in confusion and apologized. I had to be more careful, before someone really bumped into me and caused a ruckus.
I held up my skirts and tiptoed around Tabitha until my back was to the wall behind her. I could see Rafael by the bookcase watching her around the woman’s towering white beehive, his old man’s brow furrowed in worry. Then he looked frantically around the room, searching for me even though I was invisible.
I flattened myself against the wall as a Bludman pushed past to join Tabitha’s circle of admirers. I couldn’t help but breathe the air in his wake. Yuck. Old-man breath, with an overpowering stench of blood—even worse than Tabitha. No wonder Emerlie thought Bludmen smelled bad.
Tabitha was laughing now, and I could see the chain around the back of her neck, tangling in the loose hairs of her updo. Every fiber of my being yearned to tackle her and rip the locket off and run with it, but I knew that would be a disaster. I just had to stay close and follow her when she left the party. Still, the necklace drew me, and as much as I hated her, I couldn’t help creeping closer and closer until I was near enough to touch the glinting gold.
The door behind us opened, and the busy clerk ushered in a new couple. A gust of air rushed in behind them as the door slammed shut, and my skirts whooshed around me. Tabitha stiffened, and before I could react, she spun around and raked the air with her gloves. I tried to leap backward, but it was too late. Her hands clutched the ruffles on my dress, and she shrieked in triumph.
“I’ve got her!” she called. “Party’s over!”
Master Holofernes leaped up like a much younger man and wrestled with my invisible form, pinning my arms behind my back. I couldn’t see Criminy, but I hoped he was already safely hidden and planning my rescue.
I struggled, stomping hard on the boot of Master Holofernes. A young man’s voice screeched from his mouth, “She kicked me! The Bludhoney kicked me, Tab!” And then he cuffed me so hard I saw stars. I guessed Criminy wasn’t the only magician in town who could craft a disguising spell.
“I’ve got the other. It’s our new Mr. Fester!” cried the talkative clerk from somewhere out of my sight.
The bitch, it seemed, had won.
Back in our room, we watched two Coppers toss our bed and rummage through Criminy’s sack, which held nothing but spare clothes and a few vials of blood. I wondered if any of them were mine.
Criminy stood proudly between two more Coppers, still wearing his Rafael disguise, his old man’s arms pinned tightly behind his back. I was held likewise. They apparently hadn’t invented handcuffs in this world. Outside, the storm raged, the heavy clouds finally unleashing their tempest.
Looking in my general direction, Rafael flicked his tongue out at me. It seemed a strange time to be rude, and I returned the gesture before remembering that he couldn’t see me. Then he did it again, more slowly. Like a snake.
Aha! I had forgotten Uro around my wrist. The Coppers holding my arms probably didn’t know that I had my own invisible clockwork protector. I felt along the bracelet and pressed the head scale. At that moment, another Copper joined us, carrying a thin, coiled rope over one arm.
Tabitha looked up from her rifling to hiss, “Well? Tie them, idiot.”
Rafael’s eyes narrowed as he looked at the rope, but Tabitha laughed and said, “You escape, she dies. I’ll drain her myself.”
That was enough to keep him still with fury as they bound his arms. In addition to being a magician, I hoped he was an escape artist, because I was starting to form a plan. But I didn’t know if I could save us both.
The Copper with the rope moved toward me next, looking confused. How, exactly, does one tie up an invisible woman? But he could see where his comrade held my arms, so he aimed for those. I held the uncoiled snake, waiting. The timing had to be just right; he couldn’t know what I was doing.
“You’re about to feel my bite,” I said calmly, but I put a particular emphasis on certain words.
What I’d actually said was “URO bout to feel my BITE.”
It sounded ridiculous, but it worked. The little snake struck, cold and hard and quick. I caught him as the bitten Copper screamed and started dancing around and swatting the air.
The other two Coppers turned their attention to his bizarre behavior. I jerked my arms loose and lunged at Tabitha, who was just turning around in irritation. After snatching the locket off over her head, I ran for the door, flinging it open and running for the stairs. I heard tumult behind me, and I imagined that Criminy was doing everything in his power to hinder pursuit.