Home > The Mysterious Madam Morpho (Blud #1.5)

The Mysterious Madam Morpho (Blud #1.5)
Author: Delilah S. Dawson

1

“You were right again, love,” Criminy said.

Tish rolled over in bed to face him, her eyes hazy and still smudged with yesterday’s kohl. After a long night’s glancing, she usually slept deeply until afternoon, and she still didn’t understand how a man as busy as Criminy Stain always managed to be there when she woke up.

“You’re the one who says glancers are always right,” she answered, stretching and sighing under the quilt of patchwork silks. “In my world, the only way to learn the future is with a Magic 8 Ball.”

“You slay me, pet,” he said. “You and your fantastical imaginings.”

The gypsy king sat at his desk in nothing but breeches and argyle stockings, his hair loose and skimming over the pale skin of his chest like ink spilled on parchment. The newspaper in his hands had been found after last night’s show, probably dropped by one of the Clockwork Caravan’s uptight and paranoid Pinky customers. No matter how many signs and certificates they posted assuring the visitors that it was perfectly safe, the silly humans still carried their parasols like weapons and jumped whenever they were addressed by someone not laced into layers of fashionable clothing. And they dropped all manner of odd objects, including piles of newspapers.

Since Criminy himself avoided cities like the plague and didn’t trust the Coppers to leave his carnivalleros unmolested within the high, guarded walls, they didn’t get news as often as Tish would have liked. Accustomed as she was to the Internet and talk radio when at home in Atlanta, she found it frustrating that fascinating things happened all over Sang that she wouldn’t learn about for several months. For example, it had taken an entire year for Criminy to learn that the Blud princesses of Freesia had disappeared, and he was still furious whenever the topic came up. As far as Tish could tell, they were the Bludmen’s version of the British royal family and much adored, especially the youngest princess.

“Has there been news of Ahnastasia—” He looked up, cloudy eyes sharp, and she stopped herself just in time. “Never mind. Just tell me what I was right about so I can act smug.”

“I seem to recall you telling our Maestro that loss would be his salvation or some such rot, yes?”

Tish smiled and allowed herself a moment to feel wistful over the Maestro, who had left the carnival when Tish chose a vagabond life with Criminy over a settled marriage with the talented musician. She had first met Casper Sterling in her own world, where he was an unresponsive patient on her nightly rounds as a hospice nurse. And meeting him in Sang, awake and devastatingly handsome and most very responsive, had definitely been a shock. When she had touched Casper and glanced on his future, she had seen dizzying greatness followed by a fall from glory followed by hard-won redemption. Now she had to wonder which part of her glance Criminy was referring to.

“Something like that,” she murmured.

With his usual flair for the dramatic, Criminy flicked the paper around to show her the front page, which featured an ink drawing that perfectly captured Casper, right down to his nimble fingers, flowing hair, and dimples. Unfortunately, it also showed him vomiting into the strings of a harpsichord while wearing a woman’s bonnet on his head.

She grinned. “And to think that I passed that up for you.”

“Turns out our lad has just been tossed out of the London Opera,” Criminy said. “The Magistrate canceled his appointment due to disgraceful behavior and conduct unbecoming a professional.” He peered close, sharp eyebrow raised. “He’d have done better to stay here.”

“What, so you could gloat?”

Criminy’s roar of laughter filled the wagon, and Tish grinned. It was one of her favorite sounds, that wild, unselfconscious barking. Even now, after two years with him in the caravan, it still felt as if she had won a prize.

“No, love,” he answered. “So he would remember his place. Give a weak man the world, and he’ll just make a mess of it.”

“Well, I feel sorry for him,” Tish said. “He might not have been the right man for me, but there’s someone out there for everyone. And he’s so very—”

“Good-looking?”

“Talented. Much better than that ridiculous goof we’ve got on the calliope now.”

“Carnivalleros come and go, my love, but to hell with the Maestro. He’s a lot better off here than he was in your world, anyway.” He folded the paper fastidiously, rolled it up, and stuffed it into one of the pigeonholes in his desk before standing to stalk to the bed with his usual predatory grace, and Tish smiled and scooted over to make room for him. When she became tangled in the mess of sheets and blankets, he pounced on her, pinning her wrists on either side of her head.

“Besides, he could never have tickled your ivories as I do, my delicious little pianoforte,” he whispered in her ear. “I know just where to put my fingers . . .”

A shiver ran over her as he began kissing his way up her neck. Before he could reach her mouth and claim her in one of those desperate, fiery kisses she loved so well, someone knocked on the door of the wagon.

“Bugger off!” he yelled. “We’re busy studying musical theory.”

He licked his lips and smirked at Tish, showing pointy teeth.

“Now, where were we, my little harp that needs plucking?”

The knock came again, and he leaped to the wagon’s floor with a howl.

“What part of bugger off sounds like keep knocking?” he said, growling.

Someone mumbled from the other side of the wood, and he ran a hand through his hair and groaned as he pulled on a loose white shirt and slipped on his boots. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath through his nose.

“You’d best get dressed, too,” he said. “It’s a stranger.”

“A Stranger?” Tish hurried out of bed, fumbling into a thick silk kimono. She wasn’t hopeless with a corset and bustle anymore, but she definitely didn’t have time to squeeze into all the layers of her usual costume.

“It’s endearing, how irrationally fond you are of people from your world,” Criminy said, smoothing his hair and tying on an indigo cravat. “But you know I can’t smell that on a person. It’s simply a Pinky lady, and she positively reeks of the city. It had better not be some bloody sightseer or doxy or reporter or undercover Copper. Or a traveling saleswoman. May Aztarte crucify her if it’s one of those.”

With a nod at Tish’s tied kimono, he shook himself like a dog shedding water and put on his most forbidding, superior face. Tish couldn’t see around him as he threw open the door, but she noticed the immediate change in his manner as he went from terrifying to polite and solicitous in response to whoever waited on the other side.

“I’m very sorry to bother you,” said a woman’s low voice in a cultured London accent, “but Mr. Dregs mentioned that I might find you here and politely inquire regarding employment.”

“Well, that depends,” Criminy said in a more kindly fashion than Tish would have expected. “What is it that you do?”

“Myself, I do very little,” the woman said, and Criminy moved aside to reveal a pale but pretty woman in a tall hat who reminded Tish of Mary Poppins, a large steamer trunk on the ground beside her. “But my act is hidden in this portmanteau.”

2

“Ah,” Criminy said, rubbing his hands together. “A mystery! They’re so very rare these days. Where would you like to set up your act? Indoors, outside, on top of the wagon? My lady wife and I could use some good amusement.”

The woman raised her chin, neglecting to fidget at all, which was rare for humans in front of a powerful Bludman like Criminy.

“After an unfortunate disagreement in the city, I am left with only my performers and no equipment. But I assure you that of all the creatures in your caravan, they eat the least, make the least noise, and require the least resources. And are the most extinct.”

Overcome with curiosity, Tish joined Criminy in the doorway, and the woman bowed with dignity.

“I like her,” Criminy whispered to Tish. “She smells of books.”

The woman smiled. “Forgive me for not introducing myself. Please call me Madam Morpho.”

“That sounds promising,” Criminy said.

Tish smacked his arm and said, “Manners.”

“I’m Criminy Stain, and this is my wife, Letitia,” he said with his own bow. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. Let’s see what’s in your trunk, and then we can speak further of employment. As much as I admire a flair for the dramatic, I never hire an act until I’ve seen it performed.”

Madam Morpho’s face fell for just a moment, but she recovered quickly. With a determined nod, she turned to unlatch the trunk. Tish was surprised at her outfit, which was a dull, worn black that resembled a graduation gown. In her experience of citydom, the clothes were as bright and colorful as possible to combat a dreary life between stone walls.

“My wards haven’t seen sunlight in years,” Madam Morpho said. “But I will wake one for you.”

When she threw back the lid of the trunk, Criminy stepped protectively in front of Tish, but he had nothing to fear. The portmanteau was full of old leather books.

“They are a fearsome lot,” Criminy said. “But I’m well acquainted with a few of them.”

He reached for a copy of Sagacity and Susceptibility, which Tish knew to be one of his favorites. She had been surprised, upon reading it, to learn that in Sang, Mr. Willowbee had eloped with Miss Maryann and run away with the circus, leaving the Colonel behind to hang himself in his enormous house.

Madam Morpho stopped him with a tsk and reached for the book herself.

“Ah, one of my favorites,” she said. “The Duke of Burgundy.”

Holding the book on one palm as if it were made of glass, she gently opened the cover. Tish and Criminy leaned in. The middle of the book had been hollowed out, the pages carefully sliced to create a rectangular pocket. In that pocket was a nest of soft cotton, and on that cotton lay the body of a butterfly, its brown wings folded.

“I’m not denying it’s beautiful, madam,” Criminy said with a smirk, “but we do prefer our performers to be a bit more lively.”

With an answering smirk, Madam Morpho put her mouth very close to the book and whispered something. As she straightened up, the butterfly wobbled to standing, flapping its orange-dotted wings slowly as if just waking up and in need of a good stretch.

“Curious,” Criminy said. “And impressive magic. But still not enough, unfortunately.”

Madam Morpho held a black-gloved finger to the butterfly, and it stepped up like a trained bird, careful and sure.

“I mentioned my travails in London,” she said as if addressing the butterfly. “Due to a grave misunderstanding, I cannot return there. But you’ll find I won’t drive a hard bargain, salary-wise. And given a few days’ time, I am confident that I can construct the props my performers need to amaze any audience. I don’t think I need tell you that most city dwellers have never seen a live butterfly and even the London Zoo is without a living specimen. I could easily sell this collection, even dead, for a large enough sum to purchase my own island and retire in reclusive comfort.”

“Why don’t you, then?” Criminy said sharply.

Madam Morpho stroked the butterfly’s quivering antenna and said, “I would sooner sell my own children.”

Hands on slender hips, Criminy sighed and stared down into the depths of the trunk. Other than a bulk of black cloth strapped into the lid, it held nothing but dozens and dozens of books, each of which, one had to assume, held a rare, beautiful butterfly.

Tish put a hand on Criminy’s shoulder and gave him a meaningful look. “I think I can solve this conflict easily enough.”

He chuckled and nodded. “Smart lass.”

“If you’ll be so kind as to remove the glove on your right hand,” Tish said with a smile. The first time she had spoken the words before touching someone and reading his future, she had felt like a fraud, but now she had a professional grace and confidence about her glancing.

Madam Morpho cocked her head, making her tall hat list to the side dangerously, but she slipped off her glove without complaint and held out her hand. Tish grasped it and shuddered briefly before relaxing with a smile. She leaned over and whispered into Criminy’s ear, and he burst out in laughter so loud that the nosy tightrope girl came running from her wagon to see what all the fuss was about.

“I don’t understand,” Madam Morpho said.

“You’re hired,” Criminy said. “And that’s that.”

3

After a comfortable night listening to the muffled but oddly melodic snoring of Abilene the Bearded Lady, Madam Morpho found herself standing under a watery morning sun. Before her was the forbidding door of a wagon painted the glittery gray of pyrite. Calligraphed in the familiar carnival curlicues were the words The Mysterious Mr. Murdoch, and underneath that, in smaller letters, Artificer and Metallurgical Zoologist. She smoothed down her jacket, made sure her hat was on straight, and knocked on the door.

She didn’t like to think of herself as one of those foolish, tremulous women who needed their hands held through life. In fact, she had elbowed her way through university with more fortitude than all the males in her class, smirking to herself each time one of them dropped like a dead fly under the pressure. She was one of the tenacious few who had earned top marks and a degree in eclipsazoology, and it had been a struggle every day, both within the classroom and without. There was no way this Mr. Murdoch was going to be a harder creature than the world-renowned Professor Beauregard under whom she had studied . . . in more ways than one.

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