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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Piffle,” he said. “I’m hardier than that. I told you Bludmen are hard to kill. But you, lass! Oh, you were magnificent. You tricked that old bastard right into his grave. You saved thousands of people. And your dress is truly hideous. I demand you take it off at the earliest possible convenience.”
I giggled a little and pulled away. He smiled at me, and I put a finger to the ragged hole in his throat.
“Just a flesh wound,” he said. It was already starting to close up. He puffed out his cheeks, and a little fizzle of air hissed under my finger and made me laugh.
“Please don’t try that trick at the caravan,” I sniffed. “I don’t like it a bit.”
“Same to you,” he said, hopping to his feet and pulling me up after him. “Except that bit with the tongue kissing and the mouthful of blood. I rather enjoyed that.”
We limped to the tree, but he pulled my hand back and kissed the ragged palm.
“I’ve got to ask you for a favor, love,” he said.
“Name it,” I said. But I already knew what he was going to ask.
“I need some blood,” he said. “To help me heal, so I can get you over that wall and to safety before the Coppers realize what’s happened. I’m half-drained. But I know where his secret cellar is now, so the whole torture thing wasn’t a total loss.”
I reached up to the high neck of my gown and pulled at the laces as seductively as possible, but the damned things caught, and I felt like an idiot. He chuckled and leaned over me, and I felt like Little Red Riding Hood, caught in the shadow of a wolf.
He unlaced the neck gently and brushed my lips with his before nuzzling my throat.
“I love you, you know,” he whispered in my ear, and then I felt the small gash of his sharp teeth in my skin. Not puncture wounds—more like a little rip, like when you rub past a nail. I whimpered and couldn’t decide if it hurt or not. He pressed against me, and I pressed into the tree, and I had a little flashback of our time in the copse. Had it really been only two days ago? Once I started thinking about that, it started feeling better. He gulped twice more, then pulled away with a dreamy look on his face, eyes rolled back in his head.
“That’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life,” he said. “Lift your skirt.”
“No time for love, Criminy Stain,” I said, rolling the neck of my ugly dress back up. “Let’s get over that wall and out of Eden.”
It was getting awfully handy, knowing a magician. We wouldn’t have gotten across the street without a glamour, not covered with all that blood. Criminy was still limping as we jogged toward Darkside, but the wound in his neck was nearly closed.
“One day, you’ll forget it was ever there,” he said.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that, actually,” was my response.
We were darting through the crowd when we heard the church bell tolling, a dark and dismal sound, ringing again and again. The people all stopped where they were and looked up to the top of the city, where the church’s spire rose into the white-blue sky. It was helpful—they were a lot easier to dodge when they all held still.
“What’s happened?” an old man said, looking around frantically.
“Someone’s died,” a young man answered.
“Lucky him,” remarked the old man.
We didn’t stop, though—we used the weird calm to get farther toward safety. When the bell was done ringing, we could hear shouts, and then all of the Coppers abandoned their posts and rushed uphill toward the church on their bludmares, knocking people aside in their haste.
By the time we reached Antonin’s shop, everyone knew.
Jonah Goodwill, Magistrate of Manchester, was dead.
“An apoplexy,” whispered a fashionable young matron having her sash fixed. “He passed on in his garden, smiling among the apple trees that fed the poor and brought him so much joy. Such a dear man.”
Every customer brought the tailor another juicy tidbit, most of them patently false. But the true ones were even better.
“They’ll name the city Goodwill in his honor,” said an old biddy.
“He left a will, but his successor was found dead with an arrow in his chest next to a Bluddy doxy in Mr. Goodwill’s own guest room,” whispered a barrister’s overfed housewife. “Ooh, the scandal!”
“You didn’t hear it from me, but the Coppers had been planning to kill off all the Bludmen,” said a bald, bookish man with glasses. “They even had a secret cabal.”
“He was really an alien from another world,” said a little boy getting his first breeches, and his mother flicked his ear for lying.
As Antonin knelt at my feet, hemming my new emerald-green dress and grinning through a mouthful of pins, I shook with repressed giggles.
We had a good laugh in the lemon-yellow room that night as my hideous, blood-spattered sailor dress crackled merrily in the stove. The Bludmen clinked their teacups together, and I inhaled a steaming, curry-flavored wrappy fresh from a street vendor. As far as I was concerned, it was a lovely celebration.
Later, curled together in the spare bed in Antonin’s attic garret, Criminy rose on his elbow to look at me in the glow of our candle. His smile was warm and gentle, softening the hard lines of his face.
“Of all the ways it could have gone,” he said, “I’d say it went pretty well.”
“We were lucky,” I said.
“There was some luck. But also a good bit of cleverness and lying and placing the right bets,” he said, and he kissed the tip of my nose. “You did well, love.”
“I did what I had to,” I said modestly.
“The way I felt, when they had me tied to that chair and gagged,” he muttered, looking into the dark corners of the attic and scowling. “I’m sorry it was you who had to save me,” he said quietly.
“I think we saved each other,” I said.
“I’m going to miss you so much, my love.” He sighed, lying back down with his hands behind his head. “But I’ll guard your body with my life, I promise. I wonder—if you take off the necklace over there, do you disappear here?”
“I didn’t even think to check,” I said. “I was too worried about you. But I don’t think so. I mean, my body stayed there while I was over here, but time didn’t move, and I woke up covered in urine, and … it’s all really confusing.”
He traced the chain down my neck and rubbed his thumb over the jewel of the locket.
“It was all worth it,” he said to himself. “All the trouble. It was worth it.”
I picked up the locket and studied it, then turned it over. There on the back were the words, just as I’d seen them that first night in my bathroom at home.
“Viernes toa meo,” I said. “What does it mean?”
He smiled. “Come to me,” he said. “In Sanguine.”
“A dead language.”
“But it’s very magical and romantic,” he admonished. “You had to say the words, and touch my blood, and see my picture for it to work. You had to want to come. It was all part of the spell.”
I thought about it for a second. Any one of those random choices made differently, and I would be waking up next to Mr. Surly right now, getting ready to go to Nana’s house and make scrambled eggs. Changing IVs, driving my car, drinking my coffee, wondering if there was something more out there.
Now I knew.
“Thank you,” I said. “For calling me here. For finding the locket. For everything you’ve done. I know I haven’t been easy.”
“Easy’s not worth anything,” he said. “And you knew I’d find the locket or die trying.”
“You had to,” I said quietly. “To save your people.”
“That may be true. But jumping out of the tree, that was just for you. What do I care for freedom if I can’t have the only thing I want?”
I smirked. “Liar. You want lots of things.”
“I can lie to anyone but you, love,” he said with a chuckle. “And I do want lots of things, most of which are under your dress. But I would never break my promise. Especially not with the chance that you’d change your mind.”
I fidgeted with the locket, pressing the ruby to open the catch. Holding the limning up to the light, I squinted from him to his painted image.
“It’s you exactly,” I said, and my voice broke. “The first time I saw it, all I could think was that whoever he was, he was handsome, and he was daring me to do something wild.”
“I suppose I was,” he agreed. “Loving a caravan man is adventure enough.”
“That it is,” I said, and he put his forehead to mine as I sniffled.
“You’ve got your locket on, then. It’s bedtime. You’re all ready. Let me kiss you before you go,” he said softly. “So you’ll remember.”
Before I could protest that remembering him would not be a problem or even explain how the locket worked, he was kissing me with longing and fire and passion, his hands cradling my face, his gloved thumbs tracing my cheekbones. I kissed him back, trying to capture the moment in my memory forever. But I couldn’t think, couldn’t capture anything.
He was too immediate. Too real. Too primal.
Criminy Stain wasn’t something I could own or tame. And I didn’t want to.
He had awakened things in me that I didn’t even know were sleeping. He made me feel alive and vital, and his world, strange as it was, called to my heart. He’d never meant to trap me, and I’d never meant to be caught, yet here we were.
But he’d gotten something wrong, and I had my own surprise for him.
I broke from the kiss and pulled away with a sly smile.
“Close your eyes,” I said. “I’m going to do magic.”
With his mouth quirked up, he indulged me by rolling over onto his back and shutting his eyes.
I silently pulled the locket over my head and hid it under the pillow.
“What’s the trick, love?” he said.
I hitched up my new dress and straddled him, then dove back into kissing him. I slowly nibbled my way up to his ear.
“I can make a locket disappear,” I whispered.
There’s always an epilogue, isn’t there?
The chapter that tells you what happened afterward, tying up the story in a nice big bow?
I can’t exactly do that. My story doesn’t work that way, all nice and tidy. I could maybe have some sort of messy raffia bow that looks as if a haystack exploded, like what my Nana uses when wrapping presents in newspaper. Or twine, the kind they use to tie up mysterious packages in brown paper.
But I’ll try to make it neat.
I slept that night. Really, really well. After a week of sleeplessness and traveling and starvation and enough squirts of adrenaline to kill a polanda bear, it was good to sink finally into real, deep sleep. If I had dreams, I don’t remember them. But I woke up smiling.
And next to me was a Bludman, a blood-drinking creature from another world, where everyone dressed like Victorian prudes and rode around in genuine horseless carriages and submarines. A world where the sky was too low and the names were off just enough to make it interesting.
I’ve always had colorful dreams, but even I couldn’t have conjured Criminy Stain, magician and gypsy king. Whatever forces drew us together seemed haphazard and random. But in each other, we both found that elusive something, the drive that keeps an animal hunting and hoping.
There was still work to do, of course. He had the caravan to tend to, and I had to return to my world to swallow a mouthful of my own blood and report that Jonathan Grove, philanthropist and preacher, had finally succumbed to his condition. My fears about a murder or police questioning were, of course, unfounded. Nurse Carrie just melted away into the night. After twenty-five years of his bleeding the family’s inheritance dry, everyone was more than happy to assume that he had died of old age or complications. It was actually a miracle that he had lasted so long.
The political situation of Manchester is still tense. Without Goodwill at the helm of the second-largest city in Sangland, there’s hope. With Rodvey gone, Ferling was next in line, and his stance toward Bludmen has been noticeably kinder. Antonin’s shop was allowed to move back to High Street, and the latest newspapers say that Bludmen might begin getting votes in London’s Parliament. For once, the gossip was true—there was talk of renaming Manchester as Goodwill, but the Bludmen put up a revolt, and it was abandoned.
As we travel the island, I learn more and more about the wonders of this strange world that distorts history as I know it like a carnival mirror. In Freesia, which corresponds to Russia, the Bludmen rule over terrified Pinkies from an icy palace deep in an enchanted forest. In Franchia, colorful daimons dance in the cabarets under the giddy thumb of the Sun King. In Almanica, Sanglish pioneers press ever farther into the frontier of a world ruled by natives described as half-animal warriors. The stories grow only more fabulous, and I want to see it all. The caravan remains a haven from politics and dogma. But in stopping Goodwill, we helped to make Sang a better place, and I think both worlds are better for his absence.
And I know, because I live in both worlds. While I can.
During the day, I take care of my grandmother, doing my best to make her last time on earth warm and loving and comfortable. We play rummy, and I try to talk her into giving me the recipe for her special chocolate pie. I see my other patients, except for Mr. Sterling. I couldn’t bring myself to return to the pretty town home and touch the beautiful, wasted body. I couldn’t handle the guilt of knowing that I could have given him everything he thought he wanted. I’d seen it in the glance, and even if I’d toyed with the idea of choosing him, I’d always known it wouldn’t happen. He left the caravan for London, and the newspapers say he’s the most eligible bachelor in town. My own glance tells me that he still has a journey ahead of him, but if he plays the right notes, he’ll find love himself before long.