Home > The Damsel and the Daggerman (Blud #2.5)

The Damsel and the Daggerman (Blud #2.5)
Author: Delilah S. Dawson


Every female eye was drawn to the same man, and for once, it wasn’t Criminy Stain. The ringmaster seldom came to sit around the bonfire with his carnivalleros at the end of a long day’s setup, and it had been ages since there had been any eligible fellow worth glancing at across the flames. Ever since Marco Taresque had stalked out of the moors, he’d been the topic of many a whispered conversation. And many a feverish dream in the secret cocoon of a caravan wagon.

Marco sprawled against a velvet settee that was one broken leg away from firewood. The knife thrower took up more space than most men, and the other carnivalleros naturally shifted away to accommodate the dangerous aura that surrounded him. The fire lit his dark hair; the ever-present shadow of a beard highlighted exotically high cheekbones. He used kohl as the Bludmen did, which only served to make his violet eyes smolder more ferociously, reflecting the smoke and the cherry-hot flames.

Directly opposite him, contortionist Demi Ward leaned back against a barrel and sighed with longing. She was half in love with Marco after only a few days, but she resented the hell out of those violet eyes. The romance books she’d read at home on Earth before an accident brought her to Sang had always featured supernaturally beautiful he**ines with eyes in unbelievable shades that real life failed to produce. She’d resented the characters then, and now she resented the devilishly hot guy who refused to acknowledge her, or any of the carnival girls. As Demi pretended not to watch, Emerlie edged closer and closer to Marco, trying to draw him into her chatter. He merely rolled his eyes and pulled deeper on his hot cider, ignoring the tightrope walker and resident busybody—which was no mean task.

In her fantasies, Demi stood and tossed her dark hair, which was much longer and straighter and silkier than it was in real life. She walked directly through the fire like some half-daimon sorceress instead of just another Bludwoman, and one who looked deceptively young enough to be the daggerman’s daughter. In the dream, Marco’s eyes finally settled on her face, his breath catching. He stopped turning the dagger over and over in his gloved hands and stood, facing her. The world stopped. The fire ceased to dance. The other carnivalleros disappeared. It was just them, Demi and Marco, drawn to each other like bludbunnies to a scream. He held out his arms, and she walked into them, and he kissed her until her knees melted and the world dissolved in starlight. And then he threw her onto the back of a bludmare and galloped away into the night, on to bigger adventures.

“I’m tired.” Demi’s best friend and contortionist partner, Cherie, elbowed her in the ribs, and the fantasy blurred into smoke. “Let’s go back to the wagon.”

“I want to stay.”

Cherie leaned close. “Stop mooning over him. Marco’s too old for you. And he’s dangerous.”

Demi groaned and leaned her head back on Cherie’s shoulder. “I know. But he’s so undeniably hot.”

“You’re just infatuated with the new shiny.” Cherie stood, shaking out curly blond hair peppered with straw, bits of silk, and dust from a day spent sinking posts, shining automatons, and raising the patchwork tent under which they now sat, protected by the circled wagons of Criminy’s Clockwork Caravan. “He’ll still be here tomorrow, you know.”

Demi squinted through the smoke. Marco’s face was lost in the flame. His expression was unreadable and far away, and his mouth turned down, just a little. It only made her want to kiss him more and taste a passion she hadn’t known in her world or in Sang, where the only guys in the caravan were freaks, loners, or boring. She’d had her eye on one of the new daimon boys, the older son of the dancing mistress, Mademoiselle Caprice. He was tall and Franchian and had an air of savoir faire that appealed to her. But once Marco arrived, Demi developed a one-track mind.

When Cherie rose and held out her hand, Demi took it and stood as gracefully as she could. Despite a day of drudgery and manual labor, she’d been careful to dress in clothes that showed off her lithe figure and accentuated the parts that boys liked to ogle. Every day, she was thankful that Criminy Stain had found her, bleeding on the moor, and brought her to the least boring life in Sang—and the one with the least frumpy clothes. Her artfully ripped lace leggings, high boots, short skirt, and corset did a good job of bringing in the customers on show nights, and now she felt the flicker of pride as male eyes snapped up around the fire to watch her stretch. Just because she wasn’t interested in the caravan guys didn’t mean they weren’t attracted to her—or that she didn’t like the attention. Even the lizard boy perked up, just a little, as she drew in a deep breath and pushed out her chest with a yawn.

Cherie swatted her and snorted. “Stop showing off. He’s not even looking. Come on, before I fall over.”

With a last, resigned look at the daydreaming knife thrower who didn’t know she existed, Demi followed Cherie to the clockwork bird guarding the carnivalleros’ tent from the outside world. It was colder beyond the gap, and they slipped past and hurried to their wagon, already shivering.

“Wait. What’s that?”

Cherie had stopped, staring out onto the moon-dappled moor, and Demi was so deep in daydreams that she nearly ran into her smaller friend. Forced to look up, she saw something on the hill above where absolutely nothing but a rogue bludbunny should have been.

“A conveyance? Out here? But we’re miles from Scarborough.”

A shadow fell over them, and Demi spun, hands automatically curling into claws. When she saw the stark figure standing guard behind them, focused on the mysterious vehicle, she relaxed.

“What is it, Crim?”

The ringmaster’s gray eyes went as black as the night sky, his nostrils flared to scent the intruder. He bared his teeth and turned it into a reassuring smile.

“Hop into your wagon, my dears. I’ll have it sorted out in a jiff.”

Demi enjoyed a closer relationship with Criminy Stain than anyone in the caravan other than Tish, considering he had saved Demi’s life and all but adopted her. Still, she knew as well as anyone that when he was in this mood, half animal and half devil, it was best to nod and lock the door. The ringmaster would do anything to protect his caravan, and in the heat of the moment, details over who was dying weren’t always sorted out comfortably.

Inside the stuffy wagon, she put a hand against the solid wood wall and wondered what Criminy would find after he’d stalked across the moor to the curious vehicle waiting in the moonlight.

“I wish these frigging boxes had windows,” she said with a sigh. “All the fun stuff happens outside.”


When the clockwork dog took up its mechanical barking, Jacinda Harville snapped her pocket watch closed and smiled to herself. She’d heard Criminy Stain was keen as a blade, that between his magic and his madness, nothing got past the wily Bludman. She’d also heard he hated journalists above all else. Time to see which other rumors were true about the famous ringmaster.

“Hush, Brutus.”

The metal beast quieted immediately. Jacinda slipped on her favorite bracelet and adjusted her hat in the mirror firmly affixed to the wall of her conveyance. The live-in vehicle was modeled on a bus-tank but only large enough to support a Murphy bed, a small desk, and her traveling trunk. Her leather pith helmet sat smartly on red hair the color of a bludfox’s pelt, and the matching leather corset below had been made by the same artisan to straddle the line between protection and beauty. She had worn both on purpose, knowing that it would be well in character for Master Stain to send his two-headed Bludman, a wolf man, or even a venomous lizard boy to frighten her away.

The knock was sharp, and she counted to ten before walking to the door. In spite of the cool, confident nerves she’d cultivated over a series of death-defying adventures, when she saw who glared at her from the other side of the peephole, she was slightly intimidated.

So he’d come himself. Interesting.

She opened the door and looked down. “Good evening, Master Stain.”

“Who the devil are you?” He breathed in deeply, and his lip lifted in a snarl. “Besides a dead reporter.”

She tipped her helmet and forced a smile. “Jacinda Harville, adventuress and journalist, at your service.”

“If you wish to serve me, pet, best turn this monstrosity around and rumble back to town. I don’t allow the press through the turnstiles.” He looked up at her, his top hat slipping back to show wicked eyes and a smirk. “And if they do slip through, they don’t make it back out again. I mount typewriters on the wall instead of hunting trophies.”

Good thing she kept her beloved Underwood tucked away in a trunk. Infamous ringmaster Criminy Stain loomed over me like a dark angel, she thought, fingers twitching for cold metal keys, like an incubus drawn in ink on stark white paper. She’d type it up later. The Bludman was a force of nature, she’d give him that. Her late husband had been a rather dashing and leonine blond, but she’d gotten a taste for the dusky and exotic since his tragic passing in Egypt. Criminy Stain was wickedly handsome, but he made her edgy, and she tapped her hip in a distinct pattern, relaxing just a bit when Brutus settled on smoothly oiled haunches, its sensitive nose pressed against her leg.

“I think we can find a mutually beneficial arrangement, Mr. Stain.”

“As do I, Miss Harville. You turn around and leave, and I won’t kill you. It works out rather nicely for both of us.”

“It’s Mrs. I’m a widow, and you’ll find I don’t give up that easily.” She knocked a leather-gloved fist against her helmet. “Hardheaded does not begin to cover it.”

The corner of Criminy’s mouth twitched, and he looked past Jacinda’s unusual outfit of canvas, leather, and fur and into the small space beyond her. Masks of wood and bone covered the walls, along with bits of scroll and tablet and a few crumbling relics on ledges. A great striped bludzebra pelt covered much of the wood floor, and the fierce but startled face of a bludgazelle glared from above the steering wheel. Her bed was folded into the wall to reveal her worktable, and just to the side was a desk crammed with papers and . . .

“Books. Why am I constantly afflicted with uppity women and their blasted books?” The look he gave her was weary but just the tiniest bit curious, and she struggled not to crow in triumph. “What is it you want, Mrs. Harville?”

“Something only you can give me, Master Stain.”

He chuckled darkly. “Bad news, pet. I’ve a wife. And she’s a fortune-teller. And as she hasn’t killed me in my sleep, that means it’s not in the cards for us.”

“Bit full of yourself, aren’t you? But I expected nothing less.” She looked him up and down with no attempt to hide her appreciation. “Fortunately, that’s not what I want.” His eyebrows rose in lieu of repeating his question. “I’m here for a story.”

“Unless the headline is ‘Famous Reporter’s Bones Found Near Scarborough,’ I can’t help you.”

“Ah, but you can. I’ve built my career writing about the most hidden, exciting, mysterious places in Sang. And now I want to write about something the city folk can’t begin to fathom: life in a caravan.”

“You’re funny, I’ll give you that. Good night.”

Criminy tipped his hat and turned to go, shaking his head in amusement. As a younger woman, Jacinda would have panicked. Instead, she said, “Brutus, record.” Clearing her throat, she spoke loudly and carefully. “World-renowned caravan ringmaster Criminy Stain was the most handsome man I’d ever met, and also the most dangerous. Luckily, he underestimated me, and that’s how I came to be pointing a salt-dipped arrow at his back.”

Criminy froze, and she struggled not to laugh.

“I understand that you lie for a living, love, but you tread on dangerous ground,” he said through clenched teeth.

“Turn around and call me a liar again.”

Criminy’s hands made fists at his sides, and he spun smoothly to face her, his eyes shining in the night like an animal’s. She waggled the little crossbow just a little, letting the warm light of the conveyance twinkle against the salt clinging to the arrow’s barbed tip.

“How the hell did you manage that?” He seemed more amused than angry, which was what she’d banked on.

“I keep it hanging beside the door in case unsavory characters come knocking.”

“And have they?”

“They have. And I have the scars to prove it.”

“And yet here you are, on my caravan’s doorstep.”

“That’s how dedicated I am to my calling, Master Stain. I intend to write a book about your caravan. I wish to interview your carnivalleros, provided they’re willing to share their stories with me. Tales, illustrations, and a very fine engraving of the dashing gent in charge. Do I have your attention?”

He grinned. “Depends on what my cut of the profits would be.”

She didn’t even have to think. “Seventy/thirty, and you pay for printing.”

“Sixty/forty, but you must be terribly flattering toward the rakish gent who runs the show. I get full editorial privilege. And I expect color illustrations. And gilt on the cover, which will be red.”

“I’d already decided as such, so I’m agreeable.”

She stuck out her ungloved hand, which he shook firmly.

“To an exciting partnership,” she said.

“And to my rules, which you’ll follow to the letter.”

Jacinda withdrew her hand and cocked the crossbow. “I’m not overly fond of rules.”

“Consider them nonnegotiable. First, you submit to being glanced upon by my wife, Lady Letitia, and agree to leave immediately if she demands it. No one gains access to the internal workings of the caravan until she’s touched them and determined they mean us no harm.” She nodded, and he stepped up into the doorway of her wagon. Despite the crossbow between them, it felt far too close. “I protect my own, Mrs. Harville.”

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