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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
Luc fidgeted in his usual corner booth with his brother, and I steered Cherie in the opposite direction, toward the cauldron that held the blood vials. I’d managed to avoid Luc all last night, and I didn’t want to deal with his lovesick-puppy routine this morning, not with my stomach in upheaval and my heart telling my head not to have second thoughts. After grabbing a vial at random, I sat in an empty booth so that I wouldn’t have to make small talk or choose whom to sit with for the last time.
I rolled my vial across the table to Cherie, who struggled to pop the cork with her talons covered in kid gloves.
“Eat fast, ma chérie. I can’t wait to allez-hop out of here.”
She just stuck her tongue out at me, then sucked it right back in with a blush.
I looked up to find Luc’s mother, Mademoiselle Caprice, standing over us, her black hair tightly braided and her red-skinned hands on her hips, black nails tapping. She normally wore flamenco-style dresses that accentuated her dance moves and flowed like an extension of her skin. But today she had on a traveling gown just as stylishly constricting as mine. She raised an eyebrow at me and waited expectantly.
Cherie’s eyes met mine. Neither of us knew the haughty daimon well. She was probably glad to get rid of me so her son would stop staring and writing horrible poetry to slip under my door.
“Don’t worry. We’ll go soon,” I said, and she nodded and left the dining car without a word to her sons.
Cherie gulped down both vials quickly and then looked as if she might lose them to nerves. The moment she was done, we both stood and hurried to the door. Being on the road would be better than dealing with this awkwardness a moment longer.
A small party waited outside our wagon. Tish kept dashing tears away, while Criminy did his best to maintain his usual smirk.
“Mr. Murdoch put this together for you, honey.” Tish handed me a train case that was unusually warm, and inside I found a dozen vials of blood nestled in little holes. It felt like an incubator.
“This, too.” I was surprised to see the reclusive Mr. Murdoch himself. He’d ventured outside his car more frequently since Imogen had come along, but I couldn’t recall if he had ever spoken directly to me before, not in all my years of traveling with the carnival. Imogen and I got along fine, though, and I’d spent some rainy afternoons reading beside her fire while a butterfly flapped lazily on my shoulder; there was a swallowtail in her butterfly circus that seemed to favor me.
The reclusive artificer stepped back to reveal our trunk raised up on a small conveyance, almost like a wagon, with a steering wheel and a clockwork winding box on the back.
“Wind the key, and as long as you’re on the road or flat ground, at least one of you can ride. Sell it in Dover for traveling money.” His gloved hand lingered on the key as if he were adopting out a puppy of which he had grown fond.
“Thank you so much,” I said, and Imogen stepped forward.
“It was my idea, you know. But Henry’s design.”
“Good Lord, woman. What isn’t?” He sounded gruff, but he pulled her close and kissed her hair with a fondness that made my lonely heart ache.
Jacinda Harville stepped up next, handing me a knife in a leather sheath. “One of Marco’s. Stay lively so I can read about you in the Franchian papers, yes?”
I’d liked the journalist ever since she’d drawn a flattering picture of me for her book on the caravan, and although her beloved knife thrower was a man of few words, he winked and nodded. Funny to think I’d crushed on him once. It felt as if it was a million years ago that I’d watched him across the fire, dreaming of passion and adventure that I still hadn’t found.
“Maybe we’ll see you there soon,” Jacinda added. “Lots of juicy stories in Franchia.”
“Lass is getting restless for adventure,” Marco said, and I would’ve sworn he goosed her.
All the smiling faces were making me feel wobbly inside. Criminy and Tish, Mr. Murdoch and Imogen, Jacinda and her daggerman. They all had what I longed for: someone to love and a place to belong. I fought back tears and was about to launch into a big speech when Mademoiselle Caprice appeared, a valise in her hand.
“Allons-y,” she said with great fanfare.
“Let’s go where?” I asked.
Caprice looked at me as if I was a complete idiot. Criminy tried not to laugh and failed.
“To Ruin, of course.” She pinned Criminy with a harsh glare. “Luc said she was intelligent, and you concurred. Am I missing something?”
Despite the fact that I was well aware that Criminy was the most vicious predator for hundreds of miles, I still bared my teeth at him and growled. “A chaperone? You’re sending us with a chaperone?”
Tish almost stepped forward, but Criminy caught her, probably recognizing that she was an excellent target for an angry Bludman’s fangs.
“Demi. Poppet. Darling. Surely you don’t think I’m sending two young, innocent girls to Franchia by themselves? You’ve never been there. You don’t know how to negotiate air travel. You don’t speak the language. And even if I was willing to take the chance, no one will do business with young human girls unchaperoned in the Pinky world.”
“We’re not young. We’re in our twenties. And we’re dangerous.”
He smiled, rubbing my shoulders with both hands as if calming a dog. I snapped at him, my fangs closing on air. “You are dangerous, yes. And Mademoiselle Caprice will keep you under leash until you’re in a safe place. Franchia is a different country. Daimons have different rules. She’ll fill you in and make sure no one takes advantage of you.”
“No one can—”
He put a finger against my lips. “You lost this round, pet. Count your blessings, and write me an angry letter from Ruin, yes?”
I spluttered, and Tish stepped in to hug me again. Then, suddenly, Mademoiselle Caprice and Cherie were walking toward Mr. Murdoch’s wheeled trunk conveyance. The twin tracks cut by our wagon caravan dwarfed it on either side as they stretched across the moors, back toward the port city of Dover. I was just about to ask who would ride first when Mademoiselle Caprice leaped up with a daimon’s grace and settled her skirts over our trunk. Cherie and I exchanged glances; walking was so unglamorous.
“Have fun, honey,” Tish said.
“Good luck, ma petite,” Crim added, slipping something into my hand. A bludbunny foot on a chain. I stuffed it into my pocket and tried not to cry and mess up my kohl again. Criminy strapped the train case of blood and Caprice’s valise on a ledge behind the clockwork box and wound the key on the back. Before I was really ready, I was walking across the moors, stumbling over tussocks of grass as I followed my own rumbling trunk.
It was the strangest good-bye of my life, but I was on my way to Ruin.
I intended to punish my companions with my silence, but Mademoiselle Caprice spoke enough for all three of us. As elegant and aloof as she’d been in the caravan, the daimon changed utterly once we were over the first hill. She was an endless font of dry stories, anecdotes about life in Toulouse, and tips for not getting drained by big-city gendarmes, the Franchian version of police. In Sangland, the Coppers had evolved to keep the Bludmen down, but in Franchia, the gendarmes worked to promote peace among the daimons, the humans, and the few rare Bludmen within the city walls. But they still carried seawater guns, just in case.
“Such fortunate girls you are, to have a champion like Monsieur Stain. The university is beautiful—lovely buildings and soaring windows and the very best professors. You can study art or music or dancing.”
“Or business or bone setting or law,” I added, bristling for the twentieth time since she’d opened her mouth. No matter that I’d been in Sang for more than half a decade, I still had trouble swallowing the misogyny with a polite smile. And considering that my livelihood no longer demanded that I play nice with customers, I didn’t have to take it anymore.
She laughed brightly. “Oh la la. Luc did say you were a bold little thing.”
“What’s the city like?” Cherie asked.
The trunk conveyance stopped just then, and Caprice hopped gracefully down to rewind it with arms corded with muscles. When it was ready again, Cherie made a move to take her turn. But Caprice beat her to it, hopping back up to ride sidesaddle as we took off again.
“Ruin is like all Franchian cities: built with order and loveliness in mind. White stone, stained glass, statuary. We daimons require that things be beautiful, you know. Not like those wretched Pinkies behind their walls, living lives of fear. Although I do hear the Bludmen’s cities of Muscovy and Constantinoble are equally beautiful. How fortunate that your people and mine need not grub in the dirt for sustenance.”
“Do you not eat anything, then?” Cherie asked, before blushing and looking down. “If the question is not too personal.”
Caprice flapped an elegant hand at her. “Eating is a messy business, is it not? As plants derive nutrition from the sun, so do we daimons draw energy from emotions. There are different classes of daimon, but you can’t tell by looking what a daimon requires for health. I feed on passion. Some depend on comfort, happiness, awe. The dark daimons hunger for sadness, hopelessness, rage, pain. They cannot help craving such things, but it does tend to turn them to malevolent pursuits. Unfortunate, really, but they are the exception. Most daimons feast on forms of happiness and lust, of which there is always plenty. And we do drink, as you do, to relax and cavort. Our drinks are mostly made of fermented flowers and magic. But we don’t need it. It’s more like liquor is to the Pinkies.”
“How very fascinating,” Cherie murmured, and I realized I’d never asked Luc what he fed on. Considering his lackluster skills in the bedroom and the way he followed me around mooning, it had to be comfort. Before she’d hooked up with Marco, Jacinda once told me about an affair she’d had with a daimon in Paris, and it had given me high hopes for the dancing mistress’s son. But Luc had been a complete disappointment.
I had to find one of these daimon men who fed on passion.
“So the cabarets are as much for the girls as for the audience, then?” I asked.
Caprice leaned back to gaze at the airships bobbing over Dover as they played hide-and-seek with the low-hanging clouds.
“You would think that. But they are often required to do more than they originally bargained for. The wealthiest and most powerful men of Franchia are humans, for what daimon cares for all that work and responsibility? We have ways of keeping the laws in line with our ways, but the cabaret audiences are mostly Pinky gents. And that sort of man, so accustomed to taking what he wants, will not pay to be teased again and again unless he eventually gets his reward, non?”
“That sounds wretched.” Cherie crossed her arms and shivered. “At least Criminy keeps us safe.”
“Ah, yes. Monsieur Stain is a truly unique creature. You would not find such care in Mortmartre, no matter how delightful the show looks from the outside.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
Her skin had always appeared red, but now it shivered over briefly into an angrier, glowing burgundy shot through with stripes like a tiger’s. Luc had explained to me once that every daimon was born a certain color and wore it when resting or not concentrating, but they could change colors and patterns like chameleons to varying degrees, both on purpose and when particularly affected by emotions. Luc himself had changed to a bizarre fuchsia every time he’d kissed me, which startled the crap out of me the first time.
Caprice closed her eyes, concentrating until the furious stripes melted back into velvety red. “I know because my father sold me to a cabaret when I was only sixteen to pay for his gambling debts. It happens often, when a daimon hungers for anticipation and chance but isn’t rewarded with luck. Let us say only that I was fed well but heartsick, and I will stay with Monsieur Stain as long as he will have me.” Her face was pointed toward the airships, but her mind was clearly in the past and troubled. She lay back on the trunk and closed her eyes, trusting the conveyance to carry her down the straight lines toward the port.
“See, Demi? I told you Paris was horrid.”
I flapped a hand at Cherie, just as Caprice had. “You forget: we’re not daimons. It would be different for a Bludman.”
“Everything is,” Cherie grumbled.
I slung an arm around her waist and walked in step with her. Speeding up the pace, we hurried ahead of Caprice, who was emitting soft snores. “You’re looking at it the wrong way, honey. We’re out of the caravan. We have a little money. We can do anything we want to. The world is our oyster.”
Her gray eyes went wide and shocked as she stopped and pulled away from me.
“Demi, no. No! I don’t know what an oyster is, and I don’t want to. You’re the one who’s looking at it the wrong way. We’re being given the chance of a lifetime. Do you have any idea how rare it is for girls like us to go to university? I didn’t want to be part of this plan, but now I’ve never felt so grateful. Don’t botch it up just because you always want more.”
“Of course I always want more. A hungry animal lives longer.”
Her gloved hands went reflexively to her stomach. “I almost starved to death as a child in Freesia. I don’t want to be hungry ever again.”
Just ahead, at Dover, all the possibilities in the world waited, tethered to the docks by long ropes. Mademoiselle Caprice would soon haggle our passage to Callais, probably on one of the large, fast passenger airships, where we’d huddle on the open deck and try to keep hold of our hats. Then we would spend our first night in Franchia at an inn before taking a carriage to Ruin. I dreaded spending more than six hours trapped in a tiny, airless, jouncing box with humans, even if Criminy had given us a vial of salve to rub on our collars to lessen the smell of their blood. The bottled goo stank of Vicks VapoRub mixed with perfume, and for me, at least, hunger would be less painful. I was better at controlling the blood hunger than Cherie, who’d been raised far away from humans and, unlike me, had never been one of them.