|Home > Delilah S. Dawson > Blud > Wicked After Midnight (Page 1)|
|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
Here is a painful truth: the circus is a magical place only so long as you’re allowed to leave when the show is over. My first year in the caravan was a dream. The next three years were purgatorial, and the last two were a nightmare, the kind where you endlessly grind your teeth to dust. And that’s why the ringmaster now loomed over me, lips drawn back over his fangs in a hiss so long and soft that it had become a silent sigh that smelled of blood and wine. He was beautiful, murderous, and maddening, and I was completely in his power. And that really, really pissed me off.
I glared at the man who had killed me and saved me all in one fell swoop. In another life, he might have been attractive. Sexy, even. But here, now, he was simply annoying.
“You’re not my dad, Criminy.”
“I’m the closest thing you’ve got, love. And more important, I’m your employer.”
I rolled my eyes. “Then I quit.”
Criminy threw his head back and laughed. My eyes shot to Tish, but she was wearing a Mona Lisa smile.
“This isn’t our world, Demi,” she said gently. “This isn’t Earth. You can’t just walk out the door and find an apartment and a job online. As much as I believe in being an independent woman, Sang simply isn’t set up that way. As a female and a Bludman, you have almost no rights here. And, for the record, if Crim’s your dad, I’m way too young to be your mom.”
I smirked at that. She was only a few years older than me, even if I still looked like the college coed I’d been before one drink too many put me in the coma that transported me to Sang. When I arrived in this freaky parallel world naked and confused, the only thing that had saved me from death by a warren of murderous bludbunnies was Criminy Stain with his ability to turn humans into nearly invincible blood drinkers, Bludmen like himself. Tish was from Earth, too, and we’d had some heart-to-hearts over the last couple of years, reminiscing about movie stars and music and a world where women who weren’t swaggering airship captains could actually walk around alone safely. But just like a real mom, she would never take my side over Criminy’s.
“Besides,” Tish added, “have you been to the cities? They’re awful.” She held up a creased newspaper from Criminy’s desk. “I’ve seen Manchester, London, Brighton. You couldn’t pay me to live behind those high, cramped walls. And it’s much worse for Bludmen, to be quite honest.”
Her voice went bitter as her eyes went far away, and I couldn’t help noticing the crow’s feet that hadn’t been there last year. Tish had told me about the witch’s curse and the enchanted locket that made her age far faster than was fair, the price for her life in Sang. My best friend, Cherie, and I had bets regarding how long she would hold off being bludded so she could stay with Criminy without regrets and wrinkles. Tish had told me her grandmother was in the final stages of her third round of breast cancer and that once the tough old bird had passed on, Tish would most likely join us in the life of a predator. More years, more resilience, more beauty, and all you lost as a Bludman was a taste for food and any real rights once you were inside the city. It was a far cry from the sparkly rich vampire stories I’d salivated over back home.
For example, I was twenty-six but looked seventeen, and I was currently so hungry that I could smell Tish’s blood on the air, as yummy as baking cookies used to be. I swallowed and looked away.
When Criminy spoke again, his voice was gentle and kind. “The point, my darling girls, is that this is the best life I can offer you in Sangland. What precisely do you lack?”
I fluffed my bangs and stared down at my black-scaled hands. So gross, even with the nails painted hot pink. “Parties. Independence. Adventure,” I muttered, not meeting his eyes.
“I think she means boys,” Tish whispered.
Criminy snorted and looked offended. “There are boys in the caravan. Plenty of them.”
“Charlie Dregs is not ‘boys.’ ”
“You should have snapped up Casper when you had the chance. Or one of the daimon lads.”
I spun away as if in anger, hoping I’d done it fast enough to hide my blush. I had, in fact, snatched up one of the daimon boys. Luc had been the most mysterious guy I’d met since waking up in Sang, but he was part of the reason I now wanted to leave the caravan. Underneath his suave, bad-boy exterior, he was as sweet and gushy as the filling in a jelly doughnut. The way he was following me around, mooning over me, begging me to be his petite amie—so not sexy. Even the hot Franchian accent didn’t help.
Tish was wrong about one thing: I didn’t need a boy. I needed a man.
“Cherie and I have been talking.” I paused, chewing my lip carefully with too-sharp teeth. “We’d like to try London.”
“Over my dead body!”
I’d heard Criminy could be terrifying, but I’d never believed it, not until that moment. He seemed to rise over me and spread out a vulture’s dark wings, his sharp features going sharper and his hair crackling with lightning that wasn’t there. I shrank down, all my bravado fled.
“You don’t want to go to London,” Tish started, and Criminy hissed, cutting her off.
“She’s not going to London. I’ll never allow it.”
Before he was done talking, I rose from the chair, feeling the sparks in my own dark hair. “You can’t stop me! You don’t own me. I’m not just another freak in your sideshow.”
He chuckled darkly and leaned back, crossing his arms and going cold. “I can stop you, actually. I made your papers, and I hold them. Without papers, you don’t exist. You can’t get into any cities.”
“I can forge new papers.”
“With what money?”
“I’ll . . . I’ll . . .” I swallowed hard, the anger draining out through my toes and leaving me cold and empty inside.
He was right, the smug asshat. Without those papers and the years of back pay stored in the safe hidden in his wagon, I wasn’t going anywhere. And Cherie was no better off. For all the freedom he claimed we had, we were trapped in his caravan like canaries with clipped wings—albeit fanged canaries in a very pretty cage.
I caught the sob, sniffling it back down. “I don’t want to grow old here, Crim. Nothing ever changes. I never change. Let me fly free.”
“Demi, love . . .”
I looked up at him, straight into those cloudy gray eyes. When I first saw a mirror after he bludded me, I had been horrified at the dancing shadows in my own sky-blue eyes. They snapped like the fire of a Bunsen burner. But when I cried, the tears were tinged with red. And I didn’t want to cry right now. I’d been good for so long, but the rebellion had been simmering underneath. I hated, just hated, being told what to do, what to be. Maybe I couldn’t get what I wanted by shouting, but I would get it. Or else.
“You have to kick the baby bird out of the nest sometime,” Tish said, and I smiled my thanks.
“Around here, baby birds that fall without flying get eaten in seconds. The bludbunnies wait underneath the nests all spring, drooling.” Crim waved a hand at me when I tried to interject. “You’re no baby bird, Demi. But Letitia is right. A lone female in the city will generally become a victim. London is out of the question. But I do have contacts in other cities. What about Ruin?”
I plundered my memory, trying to match the one-off names of Sang to my own world. “Is that in Franchia?”
“Not too far from Paris but safe enough. There’s a university there. They allow women, although you might be the only Bludman. The daimons aren’t so picky, if you aren’t.”
I didn’t breathe for a moment. Not too far from Paris. Images from the capital of France in my former life crashed with what I knew of the Paris of Sang like badly shuffled cards. The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame were the same in existence, if not in name, and much of the history I’d studied in high school and the art I’d studied in college were mirrored in Franchia. I was especially intrigued at the thought of finally seeing the famous paintings that straddled both of our worlds, live and without pesky guards and cameras. Paris called to me in both universes. But the colorful daimons who peopled the closest country across the sea changed the flavor entirely, and I had heard that there, the Green Fairy was more than just a potent drink. London felt safe and exciting, a short jaunt from which Criminy could easily rescue me. Franchia, however, was a different story.
And I liked that even better.
“Why Ruin?” I asked.
“Not too far from Sangland. Civilized, mostly safe. The university has everything a young lass could want—literature, languages, painting. Handsome young scholars. Baggy, unflattering robes.”
“I thought Bludmen weren’t allowed to go to university.”
His smile quirked up. “Only in Sangland, ma petite. Can’t have you getting any ideas in that pretty head of yours and trying to eat the Magistrate.” His gaze traveled up and down me, sharp eyebrows cutting down. “I’ll cover matriculation and a stipend. For you and Cherie. I know it’s not the glamorous escape you’ve been hoping for, but will it suffice?”
I didn’t want to go back to college. Even though I’d been stuck in Sang for years, some small part of me kept expecting that one day, I would collapse, as Tish sometimes did, and wake up in my own world and go back to school as if nothing had ever happened. If I committed to college here, it was not only giving up that pleasant dream but also dooming myself to the same reality that had once brought me nothing but misery and a fatal drinking problem. Even in Franchia, college would be an acquiescence to doom, not a bright future. But if Ruin was near Paris, that meant it was near the famous cabarets. And I could always find a place in the cabarets. I gave a small smile, knowing Criminy would be watching closely.
“Yes. Thank you.”
He nodded abruptly and turned back to his desk, rummaging in the drawers and pulling out papers and stamps. Tish rose and cocked her chin at the door.
“Crim—” I started, but Tish shook her head and pulled me gently out onto the stairs of their wagon, shutting the door behind us.
It was afternoon, in that pleasant lull between lunch and show time, and the caravan was limned in sunlight and surrounded by the usual gently rolling hills of the Sang version of an English countryside. I couldn’t help frowning. I was sick to death of the usual gently rolling hills.
“Is he mad at me?”
Tish patted me on the arm, and we sat on the bottom step, her wide skirts tumbling over into the lap of my more spare contortionist’s costume.
“He doesn’t want to lose you, Demi. You struck him pretty hard, I think, when you said he wasn’t your father.”
“But he’s not.”
“But he thinks of himself as your guardian. He saved you, and he’s gone to a lot of trouble keeping you safe all these years. This may not be an exciting life to you, but that’s because you’re already living it. To your average Sang girl in a city, trapped behind thick walls, you’re the luckiest girl on the planet.”
“Doesn’t feel like it.” I kind of hated myself for grumbling like the ungrateful teen I resembled. I was twenty-six. I should have been past the theatrics. But that was part of the problem. How was I supposed to grow up when everything always stayed the same?
Tish’s hand landed on my shoulder, and I struggled not to bite it. “Look, Demi. I know you don’t like to talk about it. But before you came here, what did you want out of life?”
“Nggggggh.” I shrugged away from her hand and put my head between my knees. “I wanted to get away from my parents, go to parties, get drunk, and figure out what I wanted out of life.”
“Did you ever figure it out?”
I glared at her and exhaled through my nose. “I was doing shots of Jaeger, and then I woke up here, naked and covered in rabbits and my own blood, with Criminy’s wrist in my mouth. Since then, I’ve been wrapping my body around my best friend while strangers whisper about what freakish monsters we are. I don’t know what I want, but I know this sure as hell ain’t it.”
“Then Franchia is bound to be better, right?”
Tish stood and turned to face me. She said she had been a nurse back home, and I could see the steel rod up her butt from telling people what to do all day. But I could also see that she wore her heart in her eyes. “Easy things aren’t worth much, and you never have adventures if you stay in one place. So take Criminy’s letter and go to Ruin with Cherie. If it sucks, come back here. What have you got to lose?”
I couldn’t help smirking. “Nothing, I guess. When you put it that way, I sound like a scaredy cat.”
“So don’t be scared.”
“Easy for you to say, considering you won’t get bludded.”
Tish gasped, and I immediately felt like crap.
“I didn’t mean that, I’m just . . .”
Hands on her hips and hat blocking the sun, Tish glared down at me. “If you want to grow up, quit acting like a baby. I didn’t want to be here any more than you do, at first. I fought it every damn step of the way. The only reason I won’t get bludded is that I’m afraid it’ll mean I can’t get back home to be there when my grandmother dies. If you’re unhappy here, do something about it. You’re just lucky Criminy loves you enough to let you go. And you’d better be smart and grateful enough to stay alive, for his sake. The caravan may seem safe and boring, but Sang is scary as hell out there.”
I grinned. “But I’m a predator.”