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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
Then I heard a small thwack. When I next looked at Rodvey, there was a short, thick arrow sprouting from his chest. Criminy had stopped jerking around, and Rodvey’s miniature crossbow was in his hands, with one bolt missing.
“You’re a good shot,” I said.
“So is this stuff actually going to kill me? Because that blood tasted delightful. Like you.”
“No, it’s clean,” I said. “But we’ve got to run. In about five minutes, Goodwill’s going to notice something is wrong.”
“Can’t I just pretend to be dead for a while so you can escape out the window?” Criminy asked. “Pretending to be dead is rather enjoyable.”
“No time to pretend,” I said, throwing open the curtains. “Back in my world, I injected his body with insulin. If it works the way I think it does, he’ll be dead here in ten minutes. It’s got some lag time, but he’s going to know there’s something wrong. We’ve got to get out of here.”
The window was all panes and couldn’t be opened, exactly what you’d expect from an antiquated, paranoid lunatic. I turned to search the room, but Criminy’s boot shot through the window, kicking out wooden slats and panes of glass into the bed of orange lilies outside. Taking my hand, he led me out into the bright morning sun. The day was gorgeous, glinting with raindrops and prisms and happy plants.
But there was no time to enjoy the rare sight of a nice day in Manchester. We took off running toward the far wall of the priory, and I could only assume that Criminy was going to find a way to boost me over the smooth white stones that rose at least eight feet tall.
“This would be a lot easier if I had enough time for a glamour. Can’t you run any faster, love?” he inquired, not even panting.
“It’s been a long couple of days,” I said, most definitely panting. “You’re lucky I haven’t fallen and dragged you down with me.”
“That sounds like my kind of fun,” he said. He laughed as he ran, and my heart swelled with unexpected love.
We were in the orchard then, running in a straight line between two rows of trees. The dappled shade flickered as we flew over the earth, and the cow stopped grazing to watch our progress with interest. It was probably the most exciting thing she’d seen in her entire life.
It felt as if we had been running forever and would run forever, as if the trees would just go on and on, one after the other. But the wall was closer, and my chest was going to burst soon, and Criminy slowed down as he angled toward a giant old oak tree with branches that swung conveniently near the high wall.
“Let me boost you up,” he said.
I lifted my boot, and he practically tossed me onto the lowest branch. I landed on my belly, my wind knocked out, and reached for the next branch. The slippery glove was almost my downfall, and I removed both of the stupid satin things and tossed them to the ground. The billowy sailor dress caught on twigs and under my toes and made upward movement almost impossible, but I tugged myself over two more branches and edged out, holding on to smaller branches to steady myself.
I could see the gritty streets of Manchester over the wall. It was amazing how filthy and bustling the world was outside Jonah Goodwill’s private Eden. A little girl in a full-body pinafore tugging a wooden duck on a string stopped to point at me, and her nanny scolded her for woolgathering.
“You’ve got to hurry, love,” Criminy urged.
I turned to snap at him, and my hand slipped. I nearly fell, swinging around and ending up with my back to the trunk, scrabbling for purchase on a crooked branch with arms flung outward.
It was no good. I was slipping, and Criminy was too far below me to help.
I felt a sharp tug on my neck as I slipped. My locket. It was caught on the sharp end of a broken branch.
Even before I had registered what was happening, I fell.
A heartbeat later, my boots landed on a lower branch, and Criminy’s arms steadied me, pinning me to the trunk. I hugged the tree, with tears squirting out of my closed eyes, trying to make my throat work again. With one hand clinging to a branch, I felt my neck.
The locket was gone.
I opened my eyes and looked down.
“Shit,” I said softly.
Criminy stood one branch below me, frowning at the ground. The locket lay in a patch of grass, ruby side up and glinting in the morning sun. When he gazed up at me, Criminy’s eyes were more fierce and wild than they had been even when he faced the bludstag. Everything in him that wasn’t human was written in that glance.
“I promised,” he said.
And then he jumped.
My attention was pulled from Criminy’s leap by an odd noise, like a lawn mower. Whatever it was, it was getting louder, and fast. I pushed a leafy branch aside but couldn’t see what was coming.
Criminy landed on the ground in a crouch, scooping up the locket and tucking it into his waistcoat in one smooth motion. Then he leaped, his lean body arching like a cat’s as his gloveless claws sought purchase in the bark. As his feet touched the first branch and propelled him upward, a crossbow bolt lodged in the tree trunk and quivered.
A three-wheeled vehicle skidded to a halt below us, a strange contraption that looked like a golf cart crossed with a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci. A Copper in full uniform was driving, and Jonah Goodwill was slumped in the passenger seat, a large crossbow in his arms. Another bolt whistled through the air by Criminy’s hand as the Copper joined the bow fight. Criminy pulled himself up, climbing like a squirrel. As he stood, Goodwill’s next bolt rustled the leaves over Criminy’s head. I was amazed that the old man was still conscious, and for a terrified moment, I wondered if I had been wrong. Maybe killing his body in my world wouldn’t kill him here. Then we’d be in serious trouble.
“I don’t know what you’ve done,” the old man shouted in his deep Southern drawl, all Sangish affectation forgotten. “But I’ll kill you for it!”
“You have to get over the wall,” Criminy grunted as his belly hit the branch by my boots. He held out a hand to me, and I took the locket from his black-scaled fingers and shoved it down the tight neck of my gown.
“Come on,” I begged, grasping his hand to pull him up. “You’re almost here. We can do it.”
He chuckled sadly and looked down.
And that’s when I saw the crossbow bolt through his calf, pinning him to the heavy branch below.
“You can do it, Letitia,” he said. “Just get over the wall and go to Antonin. I’ll find a way. I’ll find you again.”
“You only have to last another minute,” I said, frantic and unwilling to abandon him. “The old man—”
And then I heard a thwack, and a crossbow bolt bloomed from his throat.
Blood spattered over my face and my dress, but I was already in shock. His eyes went wide with surprise. He looked down at the metal point dripping with his blud, then fell slowly backward. It was almost graceful, until the bolt in his leg stopped his downward motion. His body jerked around it and spun, leaving him hanging upside down by the arrow’s shaft.
For only a moment, he floated in space, his hair blowing in the breeze. Then the arrow broke, and he fell to the ground with a nasty thud.
Goodwill cackled in triumph.
I took one last look at freedom over the wall. Just a few more feet, and I would have been out of the orchard and on my way to the tailor’s shop. But I couldn’t leave Criminy. I began to climb down. I skidded and slipped, just as I had going up, and the bark tore at my hands and wrists, where I’d pulled off my gloves to climb. A broken branch ripped open my left palm, but I didn’t register the pain. I swung down from the lowest branch and landed in the dirt beside Criminy’s still form.
Ignoring Goodwill, I rolled Criminy over so that he was on his back and cradled his head in my lap. It wasn’t easy, with the arrow shaft poking out through both sides of his neck. When I saw that he was breathing, I started breathing again, too. Maybe there was still time to save him.
“What’d you do to me, girly?” Goodwill asked, and I could hear the slurring in his voice. I couldn’t believe he wasn’t dead yet.
“I told you to watch out for dark-haired strangers, Mr. Grove,” I said, my voice breaking.
As he struggled to aim his crossbow at me, I bent my head over Criminy and stroked his face with my bare hands. I felt his lips twitch as he smelled the fresh blood on the scratches. When his tongue shot out and started licking the wound on my palm, I cradled his head and shook with sobs, my now loose hair flopping over us both. Whatever pleasure he could get from the blood, I hoped it would help make his last moments better.
“You knew,” the old man said, accusing. “All along.”
“I knew enough to find you,” I said. “And I knew enough to kill you.”
Goodwill flopped over, the crossbow in his hands shaking. He was breathing heavily, sweating and shaking.
“Keep your crossbow ready. I want answers before she dies,” Goodwill said to the Copper, but he was struggling to stay conscious. His head flipped back, his eyes open to the sky.
“Twenty years you’ve been here,” I said. “And your grandson let me in your door with a bottle of insulin. Too bad you weren’t around to teach that boy not to open the door to strangers.”
“That blood,” Goodwill said. “Wasn’t even tainted, was it?”
“Nope,” I said. “But yours is.”
“You can … shoot her now … Ferling,” Goodwill said, panting and fighting for consciousness.
But Ferling put down his crossbow and said, “I don’t think I will, begging your pardon, sir. She done me a favor once. Saved my life.”
The old man was panting, and his hand shook as he lifted the crossbow and pointed it at me, point-blank range. Before he could shoot, it clattered to the ground. He fell back, clutching something under his shirt, his hand trembling.
“You know why Evangel never loved you?” I said, my voice raw. “Not because you were human. Not because Bludmen have magic.” I watched him gasp.
“Because you’re a bad person.”
I looked up then to watch the moment when Jonah Goodwill left this world. His old body shuddered and went limp, his face to the clouds. I briefly wondered whether he would wake up in Anderson for just a second, just long enough to see the magnolia’s shadow dancing on the wall and my body splayed out on the floor.
“Excuse me, madam,” Ferling said. “But I believe I hear someone calling me from the house.”
He got up and walked away, as simple as that. I guess the Copper had taken my advice and found peace with his wife. And Criminy had taken care of Rodvey. My glancing had been helpful all around, and Ferling had indeed remembered my final words. Maybe all Coppers weren’t that bad.
But glancing couldn’t help me now. The future I’d seen was shattered. I looked down at the pale face in my lap, the arrow quivering obscenely. Just a tiny trickle of blud eased down his neck into his shirt.
“What do I do?” I whispered.
“Pull it out,” he wheezed.
So I gritted my teeth and grabbed the red-stained shaft behind the cruel, metal point and gently tugged.
He groaned and hissed. “Pull harder.”
I was panicking, and I could feel my heartbeat in my temples. I was a nurse, dammit, but I wasn’t trained for a world this hard. I grasped the arrow again, put a hand on Criminy’s neck for leverage, and yanked straight up as smoothly as I could.
The arrow caught for a second, then slithered out of his throat with a wet, sucking sound. He drew a deep breath, but it whistled. I was watching him, evaluating him for signs of anoxia, biting my lip. Waiting for him to die and leave me alone in a strange country, among enemies.
For just a second there, I wished I had had the witch’s potion with me. In my world, I could save him. But the little bottle was far away, sitting on the bedside table in my wagon. He would have wanted to die under the heavy sky of Sang, anyway, not trapped in a hospital in my world, far from the touch of magic.
He coughed and spasmed, and blood sprayed from his mouth.
It was the end.
I bowed my head and sobbed, thinking of everything I wished I had told him. I couldn’t find the words, couldn’t articulate what he meant to me, what he had taught me about myself in such a short time. I hadn’t understood, not until just then, how one could be both captured and tamed at the same time. I cried for all of the adventures with him that I was going to miss now and how there was nothing more for me in Sang. I cried for how colorless and bland my own world would seem, endless days of helping people die and eating tomato soup with my cat and knowing that I had held something fine and not understood its value until I lost it.
His chest stopped moving, his eyes open to the sky.
He was gone.
Then he lurched up, sitting—and laughed.
“Well, that was fun, eh?” he said.
I choked on nothing, and he smacked my back.
“What the hell?” I shrieked. “I’m watching you die. You’re dying!”
“Not any more than usual,” he said with a shrug and a grin.
I hiccuped. I sniffled. And then I went back to crying my eyes out, but in relief this time. He whipped out the remaining bit of arrow still in his calf and rubbed the blud off his boot. Tossing the arrow aside, he pulled me against his chest, shushing me and patting me. I felt very much like a lost kitten.
“You nearly died.” I snuffled. “Shouldn’t I be comforting you?”