Wicked Ever After
There were no fences, no walls, no high, striped tent for this night circus. There wasn’t even a sign, but the crowd knew what to do, tramping down the aisle neatly mown through the high grass and forming an orderly line at the single beribboned turnstile. No one dared step beyond the charmed velvet ropes and into the darkness, knowing full well what dangers awaited beyond. They jostled and whispered, keeping their elbows tight to their sides as they stood on tiptoe to see what waited in the puddle of light ahead. Alone on the moor, ringed only with a circle of fairy lanterns strung on posts, the caravan waited for me like a hungry friend whose teeth had grown too sharp.
But I wasn’t scared of sharp teeth, so I smiled back.
The ground bumped along under my worn boots, the tall grass rustling against the hem of my taffeta skirt. It was almost my turn to pay. In front of me stood a stout matron with a lace parasol, her tiny husband clinging to her arm. Behind me, a crowd of young ruffians in short jackets whispered about how easy it might be to sneak in. And then, after noticing the cleverness of the eyes of the fellow at the turnstile, they turned to discussing how much simpler it would be to steal my purse.
I turned my head, just a little. “I wouldn’t.”
A smallish foot pinned my skirt, just to show it could.
“Course you wouldn’t. Ol’ lady.”
Quick as a blink, quicker than I should have been able to, I snatched something from the tall grass and spun to brandish it at the clutch of would-be thieves. “Say hello to my little friend.”
“I ain’t scared,” spit a brave one. But I noticed the foot was gone from my hem.
With a little shrug, I inspected the rabbit I held by the scruff of the neck, pointing it at them like a weapon. “Good for you, lad. Hold out a finger, then. Let’s see how not scared you are.”
He shook his head. And stepped back. One of his fellow gangsters sniffled and wiped a nose on his sleeve.
My grin grew, and I shoved the rabbit at them. “Just a bunny, boys. Who wants a little?”
When the rabbit’s jaw dropped open, revealing dripping fangs and blood-crusted lips, they screamed and ran for the back of the line. It was all I could do to keep from lobbing the bunny after them, just to watch them scatter. How easy it was to forget the very real danger of a frightened crowd running willy-nilly into the waiting night.
“Well played, rabbit,” I muttered, turning the bludbunny to face me and watching its jaws work as it snapped at plain air.
“You can’t pay with that, you know.”
A strange pull turned my attention to the front of the line, where a brightly striped pavilion rose from the moor like a night-blooming flower. A little tremor ran over my skin as I turned to find the barker staring at me, his red-gloved hands curled possessively around the bar separating me from the carnival on the other side. Seeing his face, I dropped the rabbit and gave my attention to the real predator. I, apparently, was next in line.
“Whyever not? It was a perfectly good rabbit.”
“Meat’s not currency, no matter how delicious.”
I let my smile match his and leaned closer. “Blood’s currency.”
The rabbit went for my ankle, and I speared it with a heel without even looking down.
With a low chuckle, the man leaned over his turnstile, his grin encircling me like a snake, strong and silky and ever constricting. His dark hair rippled in the moor wind but somehow never covered his cloudy gray eyes.
“Oh, I’ll take your blood and gladly, poppet. Just not his. Especially not now. Dead things have no spice.” He dragged a velvet-tipped finger over my cheek, and every hair on my body rose under the thick cloth covering me from chin to toes. “But you have plenty of spice, don’t you, love?”
That broke the spell. I pulled away, turning my face with a blush. “Not anymore,” I muttered.
Dropping a copper coin into the box, I pushed through the turnstile and tripped, falling hard on my hands and knees. The blasted rabbit was still speared on my sharp heel. Stupid. I knew better than to wear stilettos outside of a city’s stone streets. With a grunt, I yanked the still form off and threw it into the waist-high grass, its passing marked by shuddering green blades as the rest of the warren tidily devoured their brother’s remains. They’d have stripped my bones as happily.
A tall black boot cut the grass before me, punting another soft brown rabbit into the night before a red-gloved hand appeared in my tear-blurred vision.
He’d followed me from the turnstile, resplendent in his ringmaster’s kit and high top hat. I took his hand, cursing him for how smooth I knew it was under his glove, how unmarred his handsome face was by time and his many cares. Bludmen had all the luck in the looks and near-indestructibility departments; this dangerously gorgeous specimen would live to be at least three hundred and would look just as suave right up to two hundred fifty or so, provided no one tossed him into the salty and poisonous sea or drained him for impertinence. Whereas I was thirty-two, looked sixty, and would die before forty if my curse continued to cause supernatural aging. A human, and a poor excuse for one at that. It did not pay to bargain with witches in this world.
“Your lady? Ha! Your wrinkled apple, more like,” I muttered as he helped me to my feet.
I wobbled, but then again, I was wearing stiletto-heeled boots. Because surely it wasn’t that come-hither look in his eye that made me feel all wobbly in the middle.
But it was. Even after six years by his side, I still got chills when he looked at me like that.
“Fine wines only grow sweeter with age, Letitia,” he said gently.
I snatched my hand from his grasp. “Don’t call me that!”
“But it’s your name.”
“It’s an old-lady name!”
“And you’re not an old lady.” As I stomped toward the caravan’s circle of warmth, he paced alongside me, barely out of breath. “Or at least . . . you needn’t be.”
Ripping off my dirt-smudged glove, I felt the skin around my eyes with my fingertips. Wrinkled, pitted with lines of laughter and sorrow, lines that had deepened in six short years from the good-natured grin of my thirties to the crepey ditches of a woman in her sixties. It wasn’t fair, dammit, and how dare he say that, much less in public? The only other woman he’d ever loved had been a Bludwoman and beautiful. If Merissa had appeared before us just then, she would have looked half my age and had twice my magic and talents. It was unbearable, being trapped in a body that didn’t feel like mine and constantly comparing myself with the unattainable Bludwomen who threw themselves at Criminy as if I were just a tired old plaything.
“Again with that ‘immortal kiss’ crap? ‘Oh, I’m such a sexy vampire. Let me drink all your blood and spit it back into your mouth, and blah blah blah, you can never go back to Earth and see your grandmother again, much less help her die with any kind of dignity, even though you live with insane amounts of stress every single day that you’re in Sang with the devilishly good-looking ringmaster you love while your grandmother is two wheezy breaths away from kicking the damn bucket.’ ”
Firm hands settled on my waist, snatching me backward, lifting me in an effortless swirl of skirts that felt oh-so-Disney, or would have if he hadn’t been grinning at me with fangs in his mouth, lust in his eyes, and a mostly ornamental whip coiled on his hip.
“The moment I blud you, love, those wrinkles that I definitely don’t see will melt right into soft, youthful skin like fresh cream kissed with roses. You’ll still be terribly young, for a Bludwoman. Until that moment, I’ll love you, just as I do now, just as I always have. My ‘immortal kiss,’ as you call it, just waits for your word. This problem will solve itself.”
He tucked my hand into the crook of his elbow, checked that Vil was tending the turnstile, and towed me toward his damn caravan. And I let him, because despite the fact that I’d just had a hissy fit, I knew in my heart he was right.
Criminy Stain was always right.
I couldn’t enjoy the caravan after that. I should have known better. The magic I’d felt my first night there could never be replicated. More and more often these days, I found myself chasing old joys, hunting for thrills that had dissipated. I drank more red wine than usual, persuaded Emerlie to teach me tightrope, and spent evenings testing my edibility and resilience by wandering the moors to see which blud creatures might challenge me. I’d had enough of Criminy’s blud by now to be not quite human, and I required at least a few drops a day to stay sane. The blud madness crept closer with every sip, urging me to drink deeper and release the beast waiting, curled, within me. Urging me to hunt. It was the worst of both worlds: I had to remain human to visit my grandmother on Earth, but every day I waited aged me a week and hurled me deeper into what felt like an abyss of monstrousness. Some nights, I woke up on the moors, fingernails ripped and bloody, mouth redolent of cabernet, surrounded by fanged forest creatures I couldn’t remember tearing to shreds.
After being forced to kill a particularly hungry bludstag and carry it home on my shoulders for the cook pot, I’d kept closer to the safety of the caravan lights. I still couldn’t accept that parts of me were slowly edging into bludded territory, even though I was haunted nightly by my fortune-teller vision of my own hands turned black and clawed. Which was worse, to age unnaturally fast or to accept that you were becoming something different against your will?
I’d asked Casper about it once, when we were in London. When he’d first sampled blud from every Bludman he’d met, my fellow Stranger from Earth had merely thought to render himself unappetizing to his friends. Eventually, however, it had taken him over completely and nearly driven him mad. And yet that recklessness had helped bring him his perfect match, his Ahnastasia.
Becoming a Bludman had ensured that all his dreams had come true.
“Do you regret it?” I’d asked, not quite meeting his too-bright eyes.
He’d laughed the Bludman’s carefree laugh, leonine head thrown back and dimples deeper than ever. “Darlin’, just be what you are,” he’d said. “Come to the Dark Side. We got cookies.”
Criminy never stopped glaring at his onetime rival for my affections, but he did mutter, “Bloody bastard’s got a point.”
I thought that visiting the caravan the way the humans did, with fresh eyes, might wake me up a little. But the way Crim was looking at me now, with pity and sorrow—so not magical. In a bad mood over ruining my boot and my night, I slipped my hand from his arm. “Go run your damn caravan. I’m going to visit Nana.”
“Shall I tuck you in, love?” Sharp black eyebrows waggled, and my skin went on red alert at the dark promise in his eyes.
“There should be nothing sexy about visiting my grandmother. You can tuck me in later. I’m too . . .” I waved my hands as tears threatened. “Too damn human to go to bed with you right now.”
Faster than lightning, he caught my hands, threading his gloved fingers through mine, and spun me around to press my back against the cool wood of the nearest shadowed caravan wagon. His lips found mine, hot and greedy, and I melted against the urgency of his hips through layers of fashionable petticoats. Every nerve in my body rose to his touch, the breath catching in my throat at the sweet wine taste of his tongue. His kiss drove every thought from my head, pushed me out of my constantly worrying mind and straight into animal mode, all lust and teeth and hunger hammering to the clatter of calliope pipes.
“Didn’t say anything about going to bed, poppet,” he murmured, teeth grazing my ear.
“Bludhoney trash,” someone muttered, passing by with the crowd. It was impossible to forget what humans thought of Bludmen, and especially of the women who kept company with them.
Criminy growled, and the spell broke as he spun around with murder in his eyes. I reached for his coattails to tug him back.
“Crim! You’re not allowed to kill customers.” I yanked almost hard enough to split the heavy fabric, and he turned back to me, the beast fading in his eyes.
“They paid for a show. It’s my job to give them one.”
I stepped out from the wagon’s overhang, adjusting my hat and blushing. “Not now. Not murder, not sex. I still need to feel human sometimes. Any messages for Nana?”
Without a hair out of place, he grinned the most charming grin a predator could possess. “Tell her my next move is Knight to Pawn Three. Let the old bat deal with that.” And with a tip of his hat and a whirl of his cape, he was gone.