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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
The trunk’s clockwork key had worn down, and it slowly rolled to a halt behind us. Caprice sat up like a zombie coming awake, rubbing her eyes with red fingers. She hopped down from the trunk with a dancer’s flair and stretched, cracking her back and settling her voluminous skirts.
“We will all walk from here, my dears. Demi, pull the trunk along manually. We cannot have the people of Callais eyeing our goods until they’ve paid, non?”
I was glad to pull the handle and lag behind Caprice and Cherie. As I watched their skirts sway and listened to the sort of polite conversation that bored me to blud tears, the airships played peekaboo with my hopes. We were so close to freedom. And I didn’t want to go to Ruin. No matter what Caprice said, my heart hungered for the cabarets of Paris.
Cherie never liked my ideas at first. But eventually, she always admitted that I was right.
She’d thank me later.
* * *
The airship ride was exhilarating, even if we weren’t allowed to stand up for fear that our skirts would fill with air and carry us over the railing and into the fatally salty sea below. Cherie buried her face in my shoulder, and I wrapped my arm around her and inhaled the brisk, briny air. I’d loved the ocean before becoming a Bludman. Now it could kill me. Half my senses wanted to suck in the sea spray, and the other half wanted to hold my breath until we were safely on the other side of the Channel.
No one seemed to have noticed that we weren’t human, which was helpful. I’d seen a couple of Bludmen being abused in the streets of Dover, and it took everything I had not to bare my fangs and come to their rescue. Thanks to Criminy’s ability to forge papers and Antonin’s costuming prowess, we were safe from being flogged by some shaky-legged old Pinky man with a monocle. But it was hard for a Bludman to pretend to be anything less than an apex predator, and I was glad to get off the streets and into the privacy of the boardinghouse Caprice had selected for us. Not too fancy, not run-down, and just a block away from the depot, where carriages would line up in the morning to take us to Ruin. The daimon certainly served her purpose as a chaperone, as I still had trouble converting coppers and silvers into francs in my head and had no idea how to tell an inn from an apartment until she explained what the daimon symbols painted on the signs meant. I paid special attention to her lessons.
Upstairs at the inn, I fell onto one of the three narrow beds and kicked off my boots, grateful to be horizontal. Cherie went straight for the train case of blood and downed two vials, handing me a third. I sipped it carefully without sitting up.
“I’m going down for supper, mes filles.” Mademoiselle Caprice smoothed her glossy hair and straightened her dress. “Drink your blood, and get some sleep. We shall leave at dawn.”
“Yes, mademoiselle,” Cherie said.
“Good luck finding some sexy victims,” I added.
Caprice shot me a glare. “You should take care to curb your attitude before you reach university, my dear. The professors have been known to strike deserving miscreants with a cane. Bludmen are not exempt from manners.”
As soon as she was gone, I sat up and held out my hand to Cherie, so she could see what nestled in my palm.
“Demi. You didn’t.” She poked the pile of coins with a finger.
I grinned. “Criminy taught me well.”
“We can’t use it. Even if I agreed, even if I wanted to go to Paris, all the carriages in Callais leave from the same place. She would find us in a heartbeat.”
Tucking the coins back into my pocket, I sighed deeply. “I guess you’re right. No point in trying to give her the slip. Oh, well. Good night, Cherie,”
She looked me up and down. “You’re not going to change into your nightclothes?”
“Of course not. Good Pinky girls don’t change in inns. Who knows if they have bludrats?”
“Excellent point. You’re finally starting to be sensible.”
She lay down on the bed beside mine, fully clothed, and blinked sleepily at me.
“It’s strange, going to bed this way. I’m so used to being in the top bunk with you below me. And now you’re staring at me. And we’re in Franchia.”
I rolled over, showing her my back. “Creepy staring problem solved. Don’t worry, honey. Everything will be better in the morning.”
But I hadn’t shown her what was in my other pocket. And I wasn’t going to sleep yet, either.
* * *
“Cherie, wake up. We have to hurry.” I rolled her shoulder gently and glanced over her at Mademoiselle Caprice, who let out a roaring snore.
“Why? Are we late for the carriage?”
“We will be.” I slipped a vial into her hand and guided it, uncorked, to her lips.
She chugged it agreeably and blinked at me. “Where’s Mademoiselle Caprice?”
I stifled a giggle. “Sleeping off too many daimon drinks, I suppose.”
But Cherie knew me too well. Her eyes went to slits. “What did you do, Demi?”
“Well, Cherie, I might have brought a bag of Criminy’s famous sleeping powder. And I might have used it on her after she went to sleep. And I might have grabbed our papers and carriage tickets from her reticule. And she might be sleeping for another day, at least, because I might have used more powder than was necessary.” I held up our forged papers in one hand and a sack of coins in the other and waggled my eyebrows.
Cherie groaned and stood, looking down at our insensate chaperone with her usual concern. “Oh, dear Aztarte. You are a horrible person and a bad influence, and Criminy is going to kill us, and we’re just going to sit right here and wait until she wakes up and pretend like nothing ever happened, because I really don’t want Criminy to kill us.”
“Criminy has to find us before he can kill us, and he’s not going to find us.” I smiled and patted her shoulder. “At least, not until we’re the most celebrated act in the cabarets of Mortmartre.”
“No. No no no no no. I’m going to Ruin. I’m going to university. I am not, under any circumstances, going to Paris. And I’m definitely not going to the cabarets. Did you even listen to Caprice yesterday? It’s dangerous. Even for us.”
“And it’s the only way to be a star.”
“I. Don’t. Want. To. Be. A. Star.” She punctuated each word with a little slap on top of my head.
“I don’t want anything else but to be a star. Besides, you’re going to live to be three hundred. You’ve got plenty of time to make youthful errors. You can always use your mad cash from the cabaret to go to university later, after you sow your wild oats.”
Cherie sat down and put her head in her hands.
“What are oats, and why should I sew them? I hate sewing. Honestly, Demi, I feel like a mother with an out-of-control child. You won’t listen to anyone. Not me, not Mademoiselle Caprice, not even Criminy and Letitia. Why can’t you just be happy with what you have?”
I stared into her cloudy gray eyes, begging her to understand, as pink-tinged tears spilled down my cheeks unbidden and unwanted. “Because I’m not happy, Cherie. I’m hungry. Why are you so ready to be complacent? Why don’t you want more?”
She scooted over to me, folded our black-scaled fingers together. “I don’t know how to get through to you. You’re my best friend, and you’ll never be happy until you’ve destroyed us both.”
I shook my head. “It’s not destruction. It’s reinvention. Trust me. It’s going to be the biggest adventure of our lives. We just have to reach out and take it.”
She sighed deeply and reached to pull the coverlet over Mademoiselle Caprice’s shoulder. “You’ll never give up, will you?” she asked quietly. “No matter what?”
“Not until I get what I want.”
“So my only choices are to join you on this mad caper to Paris or stay here alone and explain to Mademoiselle Caprice why I let you go?”
She took two more vials from the train case and twined her arm around mine. We uncorked the vials and sipped them at the same time, a Bludman’s pinkie promise. Her eyes were sad and rueful, maybe the tiniest bit amused.
“Then I guess, yet again, I’ll give in to you.”
“It’s going to be amazing, Cherie. I promise.”
She tossed her empty vial at my chest. “If you’re wrong, I’m going to kill you myself.”
“Fair enough. But I’m going to be right.”
We slipped out the door with nothing but the train case of blood vials, our papers, and a pocket full of dreams.
And by dreams, I mean money I nicked off our sleeping chaperone.
Little did I know how quickly we would lose them all.
I was giddy as I watched the muffin-shaped haystacks roll past like a live Monet painting, the sky shimmering pink behind them. Beside me, Cherie vibrated like a frightened chihuahua.
“Criminy’s going to kill us.”
“You’ve already said that a thousand times. It’s too late to worry about it.”
“It’s never too late to worry.”
I rolled my eyes at her and leaned my head against the worn cushion of the jouncing carriage, which was moving across the fields of Franchia at a fast clip, spiriting us from Callais to Paris. My best friend was starting to sound way too much like my conscience. I was fairly certain she would nag me to death before we even reached our destination, much less before Criminy found out.
“He’s got to find us before he can kill us. And Paris is a big city, mon petit chouchou.” I elbowed her in the ribs.
“And what is that supposed to mean, Demi?” She elbowed me right back.
“It means I called you a cabbage. It’s a French—I mean, Franchian—term of endearment. And did you know you have seriously pointy elbows?”
Her voice went so quiet that surely the Pinkies in the carriage wouldn’t hear. “I just don’t think it’s right, running out on Mademoiselle Caprice and taking all her francs. Criminy’s going to kill her, too, for being a bad chaperone. What was so horrible about going to the University of Ruin, anyway?”
We hit a pothole, and my head knocked against the wood, loosening a dark brown curl to dangle in my eyes. I sat up straighter and shrugged. “I left her enough money to get back to the caravan. And Ruin wasn’t horrible; I just wanted an adventure. I don’t want to be a boring contortionist in the boring caravan anymore, and I don’t want to go back to college, either.”
“Back to college?”
I wedged my head onto her shoulder, my mouth to her ear behind a curled glove. The other passengers didn’t know we were Bludmen or that I was a Stranger from Earth. We would be in serious trouble if they found out we were bloodsuckers—not the nice, normal, Pinky girls we appeared to be. “I guess I never told you. I was at university when I . . . when I ended up in Sangland. When Criminy found me and saved me. I was a student, in my world. I hated it.”
“Why did you never say? And why did you hate it so?”
I scowled behind my hand, but her confusion was genuine.
It was easy to forget that Cherie had grown up poor and freezing in the forests of Freesia after her family fell out of favor with the Tsarina. To her, the caravan was a life of warmth and security. And I had taken that from her when I decided to leave. Breathing in the scent of her hair, I felt a rush of love for the first person who’d reached out to me when I arrived in Criminy’s caravan, naked and confused and newly blood-hungry. She’d hugged me and taken me in like a lost kitten, teaching me how to drink blood from vials without staining my clothes and showing me how to line my eyes with kohl like the other girls. When I looked at her, I saw only my dear friend, the closest thing I’d ever had to a sister. Golden curls, eyes too innocent for a Bludwoman, pink cheeks, and an upturned nose. She looked like an American Girl doll, not a well-disguised wolf.
But to her, the University of Ruin represented untold wealth and opportunity. Most likely, no one in her entire family had ever been to university, much less a woman. I would have to keep reminding myself, before we landed in Paris, that women in Sang didn’t have the sort of freedom I had known back home in Greenville, South Carolina. I hadn’t spoken much of my life before Sang, it was true. But I owed her a better explanation for why I’d forced her to join me on a risky adventure.
“I never told you because I wanted a clean start, wanted to forget how I ended up here. Earth is different. Safer. I guess I thought that once I left home and got to a new city for college, everything would be different. That I would make friends and get a boyfriend and do well in my classes without really trying and that a degree in art history would actually get me a job. I thought life would be as pretty as it looked in the brochures, in the advertisements. I thought that just getting away from my parents would suddenly make everything better.”
“Nope. Kind of the opposite. It just made me more depressed and alone.”
The Pinky gentleman across the carriage watched our whispered closeness with an unhealthy fascination, a creepy gleam growing behind his spectacles. My instinct was to flash my fangs at him and hiss, but that would get us thrown off the carriage, if not killed. Instead, I pulled my head away from Cherie and locked eyes with the older man. After a few moments of my intense glaring, he cleared his throat juicily and looked away. The prim nursemaid beside him sniffed in disdain and sidled closer to her charge, a girl of about seventeen. The girl gave us an innocent, hopeful smile, which I was sure Cherie would return behind closed lips. We might have looked her age, but we were probably ten years older. There were benefits to being bludded, after all.