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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Well, I think it’s important that we—”
I never found out what was important. Two sharp thuds outside set the bludmares screaming as the scent of fire reached my sensitive nose. Cherie’s head whipped around, her eyes wide and alert. The coach shuddered with sudden violence, throwing us against each other and the walls. Flames caught at the curtains, black smoke rolling into the stuffy, airless space. The gentleman who’d ogled us earlier threw open the door and froze before tumbling out onto the ground, a flaming arrow lodged in his jabot.
I leaped out, tugging Cherie behind me, trying to make sense of the chaos, while the young girl behind us clutched at her nurse with one hand and the carriage seat with the other and screamed bloody murder. I forgot myself and turned to hiss at her, which only made her more annoyingly hysterical.
A loud screech in the road caught my attention. It was a metal conveyance, shaking and belching smoke as it skidded to a halt. Masked figures with bird beaks and round goggles appeared in the haze, and I started to run in the opposite direction. Cherie was motionless beside me, stiff with fear.
“Run, you idiot!” I hissed.
The figures hovered closer, dark arms up as if to calm us, as if creepy, masked monsters could ever calm anyone. I grabbed her hand and pulled, but she was rooted to the ground and stronger than she looked. Gritting my teeth, I slapped Cherie’s white face. “You’re a goddamn predator, Cherie. Act like it. Run.”
“I can’t. I’m . . . I’m scared of fire, Demi. You don’t understand. I never told you—”
With a growl, I scooped her up over my shoulder and dodged around the thrashing, burning, screaming bodies of the once-white bludmares to charge into the waist-high grass of the moors. Crossbow arrows thwacked over my head, carrying nets instead of killing points. I tripped and fell face-first into the grass. Cherie slipped out of my grasp and landed with a groan just ahead of me. I couldn’t see her, but the plants up ahead swayed with her passing, her frantic breathing and grunts as clear as the sounds of prey being hunted.
I stayed low to the ground and followed her, but the smoke was everywhere now, blocking my view and filling my lungs with the greasy funk of magic. I didn’t dare call to Cherie, but I had lost her in the maze of foggy grass. Waving the smoke away, I clawed through the chaos and into a thick pricker bush that would have torn apart anyone not wearing so many layers of city clothes.
“Come on. Come on come on come on,” I chanted, listening for Cherie, waiting for her to join me.
I’d given up on sight, but my eyes were screwed, too. With the screaming of the girl in the coach and the bludmares dying on the ground, the conveyance’s rattling, the roaring of fire, and the thrashing of the grass as the cloaked figures hunted us through the smoke, I couldn’t hear anything. I didn’t dare peek up or call out for Cherie. I would have to hope that her inner strength had overcome her fear, that she was waiting somewhere, crouched, as I was, hiding under the heavy gray sky. I was one of the few people who understood Cherie’s quiet tenacity and power, and I prayed it wouldn’t fail her now.
The screaming stopped all at once, leaving only the rumbling of the conveyance, the crackling of the fire, and the eerie whispering of the wind in the grass. I took a deep breath, trying to scent Cherie, but I smelled only smoke and charred meat. When the conveyance’s racket quieted, I rubbed my ears. It took me an extra moment to realize the sound was fading as the vehicle moved rapidly away. I stood in a crouch and found a trail of black exhaust lingering over the road as the mixture of smoke and magic lifted. The machine was far off now, low-slung, dark, and mean, like a blackened raven’s skull. And faster than anything I’d seen since coming to Sang.
The only sound that reached me was the creaking of the burning coach as the timbers collapsed. I was about to rush over and hunt for Cherie amid the flaming pyre when I heard the loud, nasal sound of a horn. Were they coming back?
I dropped to the ground behind the bush, the adrenaline finally running out of my veins and leaving me cold and wobbly. A bludbunny darted past me with a bleeding human finger in its mouth. The next one stopped by my boot to hiss, nearly dropping an ear. I shook my head to dislodge the woozy funk of magic and smoke, and one of the rabbits hissed at me.
“I’m not that desperate,” I muttered. When I started to sit up, I only fell back, dizzy.
My head was pounding—at least, I thought it was. Then the pounding turned into the slamming of hoofbeats against packed dirt. I froze. I needed to find Cherie and get back on the road without interference. The only thing I needed less than further trouble was a cadre of helpful Pinkies and Franchian gendarmes asking too many questions I couldn’t answer.
“Damn. Just missed them!” an older man’s gruff, gravelly voice shouted.
“Nicely done, Vale.” That voice was younger, smug and nasty.
“Yes, of course. Blame the guy who had to take a piss.” A third voice, sarcastic and dry. All three voices were heavily tinged with the boozy kiss of a French accent, which told me they were likely humans, as only daimons actually spoke Franchian in Sang.
The horses skidded to a stop somewhere to my left. I pried a hole in the bush but could only see more grass and a column of white smoke. That had to be the coach. I could smell it, wood and flesh melding into the now repellent scent of barbecued pork. Horses whinnied and pawed the earth somewhere nearby, far more beasts than were necessary for the three voices I’d heard. I struggled to hold very, very still. Bludman or not, with a crowd of any males, the likelihood of being raped was just as high here as at a frat party back home.
“You three, after the slavers. Another man in each direction, hunting for survivors. Don’t return until you hear the horn. Lorn and Vale, with me.” The old man sighed, and I could imagine him. Paunchy, starting to stoop, a barbarian in decline, wiping his balding head under the Franchian sun. “I’m getting too old for this merde.”
Even with my eyes closed and my body hidden, I could sense a strange tension in the following silence.
“I’m going to look over there,” said the dry voice.
“There’s nothing over there, Vale.”
Soft footsteps spelled anger in the dirt. He was moving toward me, and if he got too close, the patchy bushes and grasses wouldn’t conceal my overly bright teal dress. Dammit. Why couldn’t I have just stayed unconscious for this part or dressed in the boring green of the moors? And where was Cherie?
“Only the coachman and a gentleman, Father. No women.” The smug voice was far away and muffled, and I could easily imagine a piratical man with the arm of his floofy blouse over his mouth and nose to keep out the scent of burning flesh.
Nearer me, the man they’d called Vale struck the bushes. Breathing in, I scented a strange mélange of good and bad and spices. He reminded me a little of Veruca the Abyssinian, and I assumed he was a half-breed of some sort.
“No bodies over here. Just a bush.” The shout was sarcastic and falsely bright, and I struggled not to grin. My teeth clacked together seconds later as his stick poked my thigh through several layers of skirt. “What ze hell?”
His hands parted the twigs, and in a moment of panic, I sat straight up and grabbed him by the collar, yanking him through the bush and dangerously close without taking time to look at his face. To his credit, he didn’t topple over or shout.
Into a caramel-tan ear with three gold rings in the lobe, I whispered, “I am not in the mood to be found. Or raped.”
With a soft laugh, he whispered, “Excellent. I’m not in the mood to rape.”
When he didn’t shout or otherwise broadcast my existence, I let go of his shirt, noting that he smelled like a chai latte mixed with hearth smoke and starlight, with an undercurrent of something . . . wrong. But oddly tempting. He pulled away gently, no sudden moves, and studied me. I scooted back and wrapped my arms around my trembling knees, realizing how close my lips had been to a seriously hot guy. Peridot-colored eyes lined in black and set in molten tan skin regarded me with a cat’s mixed disdain and curiosity. He had a two-day beard that framed full lips and matched his recently shorn hair, which wasn’t normally my preference but worked in his favor. He was dressed in all black like the Dread Pirate Roberts, sitting back on his haunches with a loose-limbed confidence that made my limbs a little looser, too. His eyes blended in with the moors perfectly, an endless shifting amber green, like a glass of chilled wine that made me feel thirsty all over for something other than blood.
“Anything behind that bush, Vale?”
I jerked and flailed at his father’s shouted words, and Vale’s lips curled up, revealing white teeth.
His eyes raked from my mussed hat down to the tall leather boots peeking out from beneath foamy black layers of petticoats, as if he was pondering which end of a Chinese buffet to start at. I’d felt like a stone-cold predator since waking in Sang under Criminy’s bloody wrist, but now my middle went hot and soft.
“Just ze prettiest girl I have ever seen.”
My mouth dropped open.
“Lazy, lying bugger!”
Something plinked against Vale’s back, and he laughed and held up a river-smooth stone for me to see.
“Get to work, you worthless ass!”
Vale shrugged, unaffected. Barely loudly enough to be heard, he said, “Sometimes I tell ze truth. It keeps them guessing.” Another stone thwacked him in the head, and he rubbed it with a black-gloved hand. “Stay here. I will return.” Before I could respond, he had disappeared, leaving shivering grass and skin in his wake.
I flopped onto my back, just in case one of the other men should doubt his lie this time. Eyes open, staring at the lavender-gray clouds, I listened for more footsteps. Partly because I wanted to avoid notice and partly because I wanted Vale to come back and look at me as if I was a candy apple waiting to be licked all over. But most of all, I wanted them all to leave so I could find Cherie.
I didn’t smell her anywhere near, couldn’t smell anything over the smoke and now the highwaymen and their predatory mounts. But from the men’s shouts, at least I knew they hadn’t found her body. Cherie was small and agile and clever, and I could only hope she was hiding in another copse or backed into an empty bludbadger den, waiting for the pesky band of brigands to finish their plundering and go the hell home. Maybe Cherie was a predator, but she was also a beautiful young woman, and all we knew of Franchia was ancient history from the daimon dancing mistress and tips on navigating city life. Who knew what dangers actually lurked here in the wilds?
The hooves of a single horse pounded close, the bludmare’s scream protesting her rider’s harsh treatment.
“You were right, boss. Usual slavers riding hell-bent for Paris in that damnable fast conveyance. Farther along than we thought. But the others might still catch them before they reach the underground.”
“Great humping Hades!” I could hear echoes of the old man’s greatness in the bellow of his baritone. Bludmare squeals and the squeaks of butts in saddles meant I would soon be alone again. “Lorn, you’re with me. Vale, you continue investigating your precious bushes. Dig through ze rubble. Bring in at least a silver’s worth of plunder, or don’t bother to come home, you spineless coward.” He spit in the dirt, and despite my ambivalence, I flinched. That was some cold shit.
I barely heard Vale’s muttered, “Have fun in ze catacombs, arsehole.”
The horn sounded, and the horses took off amid the men’s whoops and hollers. I sat up before Vale could pry his way through the bushes, smoothing my bangs and licking my lips and hoping I looked less like a terrified girl and more like a sophisticated, exotic, and possibly dangerous lady on a mission gone awry.
“We keep meeting like zis.” He grinned and held out a hand, and I took it, well aware that the two gloves between us lessened the heat no more than grabbing a hot cast-iron skillet with a paper towel. I stood, but he didn’t let me loose. “I’m Vale Hildebrand, first son of Curse Hildebrand.” He paused as if waiting for a response. “Lord of ze infamous Brigands of Ruin. Nothing? Really?” Dark eyebrows swept up, and he rubbed the stubble on his chin. “Damn. You’re very hard to impress.”
In just a few moments, his hot Franchian accent had become my new normal. I could have listened to him talk all day—if I hadn’t been so hellbent on finding Cherie.
“I’m not from around here. Name’s Demi Ward.” Then, before he could derail me, “Have you seen another girl about my age and size but blond?”
“Unfortunately, you’re the only one today. Perhaps I should start setting snares.”
He released my hand, and I stood tall but not quite tall enough to look him in the eye.
“My best friend is gone. We were on the coach together—it was just us and another girl and her chaper-one and a gentleman. Headed to Paris.”
He put a hand on the small crossbow on his belt but refused to look away. “Who wore the pumpkin-colored dress?”
“The chaperone. An old nursemaid.”
Vale exhaled and jerked his head toward the smoking coach. “There is a blood-stained scrap of orange fabric caught on an arrow. Two men are dead and burned. I see no sign of your friend or the other girl.” His hand landed on the puffed shoulder of my gown, and I took a deep breath to meet it. “I’m sorry. We try to catch the slavers before they swoop in, but they’re fast.”
“We call them slavers, although we don’t honestly know what happens to their victims once they abscond to the catacombs under Paris. They mostly take young girls, although they’ll sometimes take an older woman or a young man. We believe they take girls off the streets, too. And from the cabarets. We try to track them, but . . .” He shook his head. “They simply disappear. Like smoke.”