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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“And in London, a suffering minority. Franchia could be good for you. New things to learn, new things to see, living among the daimons. But you’re going to have to be careful about those Franchian men. They’re not all lovesick softies like Luc.”
“You knew about that?”
I saw a Bludman’s humor in her smile. “I’m a fortune-teller, Demi. I know everything. Do you remember what I told you the first time I touched your hand?”
It was my turn to grin. “You said, ‘I see feathers, fairies, mortal danger, a handsome stranger, and a trip to hell.’ ”
“I didn’t see those things here in the caravan, honey. You need to go out there and make ’em happen.”
“Even the mortal danger?”
Her fingers went to the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. She stared past me as if she could see through the glossy maroon wall of the wagon she shared with Criminy. “A little mortal danger never killed anybody,” she murmured. “At least, not a Bludman.”
“I guess I have to go, then. Maybe I can find that handsome stranger you mentioned.”
She looked down, the spell broken and her eyes crinkled up with humor. “Then go tell Cherie and get packing. I’ll set up the bon voyage party.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I said, and we both chuckled.
“I’d hug you, honey, but you look hungry.”
“I am hungry.” I sighed. “For so many things.”
I stood and dusted off my breeches and bustle. Only in the caravan could I get away with a style like that, one that would have been outrageous in the cities of Sangland. But the breeches felt like skinny jeans, and I would miss them once I was costumed in fifty pounds of ruffles to blend with the humans for the trip. With a smile and a wave, I headed toward my wagon.
The only problem was that I had lied to Criminy. Cherie had no idea we were going away. And she wasn’t going to like it one bit.
“No! I won’t do it! You’re insane!”
In six years of sharing a wagon and often two square feet of space on a very small chair, I had never seen Cherie so furious. I’d seen her homesick, shy, kind, and often prissy. But until that very moment, I had doubted her ability to feel passion of any sort. It brought out her Freesian accent a little more, too.
“But it’s so boring here, Cherie. Nothing ever changes. And you’ve always wanted to see Franchia.”
She paced the train car, skirts snapping. “Not at university! Not sitting still, having numbers drilled into my head. I like the caravan.”
“Then we’ll skip out of Ruin and go to Paris. Be the stars of a cabaret.”
“The caravan is respectable, but the cabaret? I am not some tawdry showgirl!”
I shrugged. “You’re a girl who performs in a show. Same difference.”
She stopped in front of me, shaking a manicured talon in my face. “No. No. No. This is different. The caravan, it’s an art. With Master Criminy, we are safe, cared for. Legitimate. But once you’re in the cabarets . . . you don’t understand. The men, they expect things from the girls there. It is not all dancing and then back into your wagons like good little ducks.”
I sighed and flopped down on the bottom bunk of the bed we shared. “It wouldn’t be like that. We’re Bludmen. Predators. The men will probably be scared of us. But whatever. I’m going.”
“All this time, and still I do not understand this ‘whatever.’ You, who fight against being told what to do all the time—do you not understand that all men are not as good as Master Crim? In Paris, we would be playthings, feathers to be batted about on the wind. It is debauched, dangerous. Bludmen are not so loved. You cannot go out alone.”
She returned to her pacing, her blond curls flouncing in her wake. For a bloodthirsty killer, she looked like a china doll from back home, like Claudia from Interview with a Vampire. Except that she really was as sweet as she looked and swore she’d never drunk from a live human in her entire twenty-five years. Cherie was content in the caravan, happy with what seemed to her an easy life compared with the tiny wagon she’d grown up in, somewhere in a freezing forest. With carnivalleros coming and going over the years, she was sure the perfect man would arrive at the perfect time to sweep her off her slippered feet. Maybe because she’d been born a Bludman, she had a better sense of how very long three hundred years of life could be, how very much time she could give that mysterious man to arrive. Having been born human, I possessed a sense of urgency about life that she couldn’t quite fathom.
I stood and stopped her with firm hands on her slender shoulders. “Cherie, I need something new. I can’t stay here. I can’t do this anymore. I have to leave, with you or without you. But I’d prefer with.”
A battle of wills ensued, a test of friendship spoken only with the eyes.
I felt her deflate and knew then that I had won.
“Fine. But only Ruin. Not Paris. Just promise me that if it’s wretched, we can come back here. Where it’s safe.”
“Of course. We can always come back.”
She drew me into a hug, and I inhaled a cloud of her hair, scented with her favorite shampoo, a soft mix of Freesian pine and vanilla that she splurged on with her carefully saved coppers. Most of her earnings were shipped back to her family in Freesia a few times a year, whenever we were near London and Criminy gathered up the caravan’s post.
“You’re going to love it.” I patted her back and pulled away to look into her eyes, which were as cloudy gray as Criminy’s but balmy and pleasant. Criminy felt like a storm, but Cherie was like a quiet rainy day spent reading by an open window, as different as two Bludmen could be. “We’re going to have an adventure!”
“Hmmph.” She shook a finger in my face. “The things I do for you.”
I just smiled. It was going to be fantastic. She would see.
* * *
Everyone in the caravan had some piece of advice for our trip to Franchia.
“Speak softly and carry a big knife!” Torno the strongman roared. “These city men, they will take advantage of a sweet girl like you. You must be careful, ma donna. And you must take a man with you. For protection.”
I snorted and shook my head. “No way. That’s the whole point.”
“If you were my daughter . . .” Torno’s face went even redder than usual under his tight hat.
I patted the stretched leather over his bulging bicep. “If I were your daughter, you would have a lot of explaining to do.”
He choked and turned puce, opting to dive into his trailer rather than continue to blush in my presence. Eblick laughed from where he lay on a log beside Torno’s weights, his forked tongue flapping against pebbled green skin.
“You ever been to Franchia?” I asked him. For once, he didn’t flinch or cower from me.
“Only home and the caravan, mistress. But I chose the caravan.”
“Don’t you ever wish for adventure?”
He sat up and looked over the hills, his strange eyes following the twin lines the caravan train had cut through the moor grasses. We’d been near Dover last week, and he’d been especially quiet in sight of the sea cliffs. He’d gone out one day for a swim and returned with skin an odd combination of red and black that had earned him more coppers than usual in the freak tent. No one in the caravan knew where he had come from or where he had gone, but the sea made him noticeably melancholy.
“Caravan’s all the adventure I need. But I understand better than most why you need to leave.”
I couldn’t touch him—no one ever did. But I bowed my head slightly before walking on. “Thanks, Eblick.”
I passed Veruca the Abyssinian sword swallower next, and she leaned on her scimitar and eyed me thoughtfully. She was possibly the only person in the caravan more standoffish than Eblick, and I had no idea where she was from, either. Refusing to follow either Bludman or Pinky fashion, she sweet-talked the costumer into making tight leather outfits for her that showcased her muscles and revealed her dark brown skin. She always smelled like almond oil and spice to me, and one of Criminy’s first warnings had been never to drink from an Abyssinian. Their blood would make a Bludman go mad and then die; the way he described it, it was a lot like instant rabies combined with LSD.
“You remind me of a jaguar,” she finally said.
I stopped and grinned. “Lithe and dangerous as a jungle cat?”
“They fall asleep in the trees, thinking they are safe. A savvy hunter need only yank them down by the tail for a fancy new jacket. So I say to you, Demi: don’t let anyone yank your tail.”
With a curt nod, I was dismissed. I didn’t really want to keep walking, though. I could already see Charlie Dregs sitting, distant and forlorn, by his puppets. Mr. Punch sagged over an arm as Charlie retied the hideous little man’s strings. When Charlie’s eyes caught me, I stopped, very much against my will. He always looked so sad and hopeful to me, like one of the Beatles crossed with a basset hound. I’d heard stories that he’d loved a girl once and lost her, a Stranger like me. Something drew me toward him against my will.
“So it’s true, then, Demi. You’re leaving?”
I mustered up a smile. “Yep.”
“Need an escort?”
“I’m a big girl.”
“Even big girls can find bad ends, lass. Promise me you’ll take care.”
I put my hand on his shoulder, and his mournful eyes focused on my wrist before squeezing shut as if in pain. He patted my hand with his red glove. “I hope you find what you’re looking for, Demi. I really do.”
That’s what finally drove home the sadness: realizing that it might be the last time I would see Charlie Dregs. I’d never really looked at him as a man—more like a fixture, a dedicated dog, a cousin, maybe. I’d never seen him as a man, but now, for a moment, I could see the boy he had once been.
“What was her name, Charlie?”
He looked down, rubbed a heart tattooed on his wrist. “Lydia.”
He was gone in a flash, his shirt a spot of white against the moors. I didn’t want to be like him, a pitied cog in the grand machinery of the caravan, joyless and ageless and never smiling, following Emerlie the tightrope walker around like an unwanted guard dog that never received even the stingiest pat on the head. Seeing that moment of grief in him hardened my heart further. I would get to Paris, somehow.
Looking around at the rest of the carnivalleros who had become family, I gave up and sought refuge in my own car. I didn’t have much to pack in the trunk I shared with Cherie, but the wagon looked pathetically empty without our crap strewn all over it. It reminded me of the way my childhood bedroom had looked after I packed for college. Empty, like a cicada’s husk. Unnaturally tidy. My mom had cried then—a lot. I hadn’t. But I did now.
At lunchtime, I redid the tear-smudged kohl around my eyes and walked to the dining car. Even without a Bludman’s keen hearing and nose, I would have known that a party waited within. It wasn’t often someone left the caravan—and if they did, they disappeared after dark or were dragged off, shackled in the custody of the Coppers. With a deep breath, I smoothed my bangs and opened the door.
The entire caravan was there, shouting, “Surprise!”
I put on my most professional smile and pretended that I wasn’t going to miss them. The jerks.
* * *
I was awake and ready before dawn the next morning, prodding Cherie with a foot until she tumbled from the top bunk and landed in a Bludman’s crouch. She hissed at me like an angry cat, and I just poked her in the nose with my toe. With a sigh of resignation, she stood and yawned.
“Is it too late to back out? I like sleeping late. You can do that in the caravan but not at university. And clearly not on the day that I’m forced to dress up like a terrified human and leave my home.”
“You’re just grouchy because you’re excited,” I said.
She rubbed her eyes and fluffed her hair, giving me a stare that would have knocked down a bludstag. “You’re giving me your vial at breakfast, foul thing.”
I just nodded. I was too anxious to eat, anyway.
Together we dragged our trunk down the steps to the front of our car and left it there while we went to the costumer’s wagon for our disguises. Antonin was polite and distant as ever, offering us each a selection of slightly out-of-date but decent enough Pinky outfits. No one knew where the tailor obtained his cache of dresses and costumes, but I was glad enough to slip on the billowing taffeta dress over the slim-fit trousers made for me by the previous costumer. When many of your best tricks involve handstands or being upside down and you live in a world without underwear, it’s smart to plan ahead.
My dress was bright teal, and Cherie’s was a salmon pink that would have seemed frivolous on anyone else. But it just made her look like a fresh-faced country girl, especially when I helped her lace up the cuffs and button the neck tightly. When she laced me into mine, I wanted to claw the cloth away from my throat.
“Jesus Christ. Being eaten by bludrats has to be better than suffocating to death,” I growled.
Antonin pulled my hands away and loosened the collar by one button. “Suffocating is better than draining, which is what the Pinkies will do if they discover you. So get used to it, and fast. The humans of the cities get crazy when they’re scared. Remember what happened to the last costumer?”
I nodded. I’d watched the Coppers drag her away, kicking and clawing and tied to the back of a galloping bludmare. She hadn’t returned.
Antonin brought us gloves and hats and handkerchiefs and sent us along to the dining car. Which I dreaded, because there’s nothing more awkward than walking into a room full of people who had all drunkenly told you good-bye the day before. I couldn’t tell if Crim and Tish were there, as they usually dined in their private booth with the curtains drawn, and there were too many smells to pick them out. Crim had avoided me since our fight the day before, but I wanted to leave on good terms. I really did love the uppity bastard, probably more than my real dad.