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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
I couldn’t breathe, and my back felt more boneless than usual. “Do you never find them? The girls?”
“Not once they’re underground.” His eyes went skittery, and I knew he was lying.
“What about my friend?”
He squeezed my shoulder and gave me the warm but useless smile someone might give a child at a funeral. “I know I’m a complete failure, but the rest of our band are sharp as hell and twice as fast, I promise you. There is still time.”
I nodded once and walked to his giant black-and-white-spotted bludmare where she stomped around a picket driven deep into the earth. She tossed her muzzle at me, and I shoved the metal cap away, sending bloody froth flying.
Vale blanched. “Please, Demi. You will want to—”
“Hang on to your waist really tightly? Yeah, I know. Let’s go.”
He allowed himself a smirk. “Look, bébé. I beg you. Just wait until the rest of the band returns. We’ll take you to our camp, and the women can feed you and help you wash up. We’re brigands, but we are honorable, and we can get you home safely in a wagon with far less bouncing and biting.” He winked. “Not that I would mind you bumping against me.”
“You’re wasting time, Vale.”
“And you waste your breath. Nice girls don’t ride into Paris bareback on a brigand’s hellbitch.”
With a snort, I stepped out of the mare’s reach, took a deep breath, and bent over backward into a C. From the backbend, I walked my hands between my feet, curling under until my forearms were on the ground beneath my skirt. Putting my boots on my own shoulders, I felt the frothy layers of the dress fall down around me, giving him a fine look at the slim-fitting trousers I favored for just such an occasion.
“I’m not that nice. And I’m not just a girl.” I grinned, showing fangs.
To his credit, he didn’t freak out. Just put his head to the side like a crow watching a jewel glint in the sun. For the first time, his tone went serious, quiet. “Now, that I did not expect. Tell me, Demi. What is it that you want?”
“Right now?” I did a front walkover and turned to face him with a swirl of skirts. “I want you to take me to Paris and help me find my best friend.”
“Say we find her. Say we don’t. What’s your endgame, bébé?”
I windmilled my arms, loosening up. I was a little sore after the crash, not to mention the previous hours I’d spent crammed between Cherie’s shoulder and the wooden wall of the carriage. Just to see what he would do, and to stretch out further, I slowly lifted one leg until it was right beside my ear, perfectly pointed straight up.
“I want to find Cherie and then go to Mortmartre and be the stars of the cabaret, of course.”
“There are no Bludmen in the cabarets—”
“Not yet. There will be. Once I find Cherie, there will be two. We’re an act.” I dropped my leg—and my smile. “But I have to find her first. So are we going now or what?”
He shook his head, earrings winking. “But where will you stay, bébé? Where will you sleep? How will you feed? If you drink from a human, they’ll drain you. Unless you have money, which I don’t believe you do, you are destitute. Even with my connections there, I cannot keep you.”
My narrowed eyes shot to him, my shoulders rising and my mouth drawing down as I prepared to give an earful about what exactly he could keep.
He cut me off before I could start, a hand slicing the air. “Forgive me. The language barrier is perhaps as unkind as your tongue. I don’t mean to keep you like a pet. I mean that nothing is free, more so in Paris perhaps than elsewhere.” But his eyes said something different about keeping me.
“Then take me to a cabaret, and let me earn my blood. It’ll be a good base of operations.”
He exhaled, his head on the side. “You understand that women here are sometimes sold into cabarets as chattel. That it’s a life no sane girl with options would choose.”
I swallowed hard against a lump in my throat approximately the size of Cherie’s white fist. “Then I’m not sane, and I don’t have options. I’m choosing it.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and looked off into the hazy distance, where a single dark spear pierced the clouds. The Tower, they called it—some daimon scientist’s clever way to attract and channel lightning into electricity for the City of Light. Funny, how it looked exactly like the Eiffel Tower from my world but actually served a purpose here. Paris wasn’t tall and humpbacked like Sanglish cities but sprawled, orderly, and leisurely, in neat squares. The daimons weren’t known for leading lives of fear, nor were the humans who had taken up residence alongside them. There was a wall around the city, of course, but they’d given the artists free rein to make it beautiful, from what I’d heard. Daimons made things much nicer than Pinkies, as I was learning since touching down in Franchia.
I’d always wanted to see Paris on Earth. And now it was the key to finding Cherie in Sang.
Vale followed my gaze and nodded, rubbing his buzzed head. “It will be a hard ride. If you fall off, I will laugh at you. Odalisque is a bitch of a mare, and there’s no room for you on the saddle.” He met my eyes, steady and unblinking. “And odds are we will not find your friend.”
“I’m not scared. And I will find her.”
“Perhaps you are deaf. Do you understand that girls are kidnapped from the city, too? The brightest stars of the cabaret are often among the victims. It may be your dream, but ma chère, it could become your nightmare. The safest thing for you to do is let me return you to your people, or at least to mine. Getting taken yourself will not bring your friend back.”
I rolled my eyes. “But it sounds like getting taken is the fastest way to find her. Can we go now? At least try to catch her?” I paused, let a little of the brave front down to show him the blud tears gathering. “We have to try. She’s all I have.”
He held out his hands as if grasping for sense and finding nothing but air, a gesture I recognized from both Criminy and Cherie when dealing with me. “It’s suicide, bébé. Life in the cabarets isn’t easy, even if they will hire you on. And if you survive the ride to Paris, sneaking in will be messy.” He looked me up and down, and I gave him my Bludman’s stare, promising all sorts of yummy violence. “But if you really are that determined, I will take you.”
“If you don’t take me now, I’ll start walking.” I realized what I’d said a heartbeat after he did and almost dived back into the bush to die of embarrassment in peace.
His grin was luscious. “How can a gentleman turn down a threat like that?”
With practiced movements, he snatched out the mare’s tether and slid the picket spike through a slot in her metal muzzle cap to make reins. He threw them over Odalisque’s head as she danced, then put a foot into the wide stirrup to leap into the saddle. Still grinning, he held down an arm for me. I took it, surprised at his strength as he swung me up behind him, his wide crystal-green eyes showing in turn his own surprise at my agility. The mare screamed and crow-hopped, trying to shake me loose, and he jerked the reins and kicked her. Odalisque reared and bucked before collecting herself for a pounding gallop.
I fastened my arms around Vale’s lean waist and settled my cheek against his back, inhaling deeply and willing the beast to run faster toward Cherie. Back in the caravan, I had ached for a goal, an adventure, for something to care about. My wish had definitely been answered but not in the way I had hoped. The adventure wasn’t important anymore, not until I got my best friend back.
“Aren’t you afraid I’m going to rip you to shreds?” I asked, trying to cover the fact that I’d all but nuzzled the hard muscles of his back through the worn black shirt.
“I’m half Abyssinian. My blood would drive you mad and kill you,” he shouted into the wind. “But please, bébé, keep trying.”
I snuggled against his back as the bludmare thundered toward Paris, my cheek nestled up to his ribs, hoping he couldn’t feel my tears soaking into his shirt. I might have shown him my brave face before, but inside, I was falling apart. Cherie had trusted me, and I had brought her nothing but disaster. I let out a racking sob, and Vale tensed in the cage of my arms, muscles taut as the horse leaped and skidded across the road. Finally, he exhaled in a sigh I felt more than heard, and his hand reached down to squeeze mine where it held on to him for dear life.
He didn’t let go.
We didn’t talk much, which I appreciated. Staying on the horse’s wildly undulating rump was a struggle, even with my performance-honed muscles. The cacophony of hoofbeats made conversation almost impossible, and every time I opened my mouth, I got a face full of shirt scented with woodsmoke and herbs, which wasn’t so bad but definitely distracted me from my strategizing.
“Not much longer.” His words thrummed against my chest before the wind snatched them away from my ears. “Are you perhaps scared of dark, dangerous places full of bones?”
“Not if Cherie is waiting on the other side.”
Thunder vibrated the clouds, and the mare tossed her head and screamed a dare at the sky. It was darker over Paris, and a bolt of blue-white lightning arced from the gray thunderheads to the Tower and briefly lit the stark black skeleton of iron beams like a neon sign. A fat raindrop plunked on my cheek, and I burrowed further against Vale’s back, glad for my hat’s wide brim and annoyed with all the layers of my Pinky costume, which would soon be soaked and weighing me down when I wished to be fast and unencumbered.
The road turned from hard-packed dirt to a slick slurry that slid beneath the mare’s hooves. When Vale turned her off the road and into the waist-high grass, I was glad to be on more solid ground. The wall was finally in view, but we were galloping swiftly away from the grand iron gates. Vale angled the mare toward a dark, boggy area surrounded by cattails. An enormous pipe jutted from the earth like a fallen Tower of Pisa, broken and overgrown with moss and filth. I smelled it then—deep, old death soaking up through the ground. Even closer, jagged tombstones poked up from the sludge like black pegs of rotten teeth. No one but the richest families in Sang buried bodies anymore, thanks to the lack of land within the cities and the possibility of a funeral party being eaten by a troop of bludsquirrels. Cremation and pretty urns were the fashion. Not surprisingly, the graveyard was long abandoned, untended, and falling back into the earth.
So this was the door to the famous catacombs, the portal into the decaying underbelly of Franchia’s greatest city. The stories were true.
“Are you sure this is the path you wish to follow?” Vale asked, slowing the horse to a trot.
My teeth clacked as I jounced behind him, wrapping my aching thighs more tightly around the mare’s barrel belly and against the backs of his legs. I dashed away old tears and ran fingers under my eyes, hoping to clean up the kohl I’d smeared all over his back.
“Looks like fun. I’ve been needing a vacation.” In my mind, it sounded jaunty and brave, but it came out with a hitch that I couldn’t hold in. Poor Cherie. She had to be terrified, if she was in there. She hated being dirty.
The bludmare picked her way through bunches of cattails, sometimes plunging into a boggy bit as we aimed for the yawning mouth of the pipe.
“Oddly enough, it’s not so bad once you’re inside. The rain and sewage collect and pool out here over the graves, but underground it’s channeled through rock. The threat of horror keeps most people out, though. Not to mention the blud creatures. Just remember not to touch any of the bones. They’re cursed.”
“You actually believe that?”
He chuckled. “Let us consider. Touch moldy bones and see if I’m cursed forever, or keep my hands to myself? Not a difficult decision.”
We reached the pipe, where a trickle of grayish water splattered to the boggy ground. The mare sneezed against her metal muzzle, adding bloody foam to the sludge. Vale edged the horse closer to an old log, and without being told, I leaped off her back and landed heavily on what felt like permanently bowed legs. Vale dropped beside me, steadying me with a firm hand as the log wobbled. He slapped the mare’s rump, and she took off with a splash, her hoofbeats merging with the near-constant thunder overhead.
“Won’t she run away?”
He smirked and stared after her high-flung tail. “We plant a carcass nearby to draw the bludmares and leave a young lad to catch and picket them. Hungry predators aren’t so smart when it comes to half a bloody pig on the moor.”
It was my turn to smirk with a flash of fang. “Funny, I’m pretty good at resisting bloody pigs.”
“One point to the mademoiselle.” Vale tipped an imaginary hat; I pictured a fedora and couldn’t stop myself from giggling.
Surefooted as a fussy cat, he leaped onto the lip of the pipe and straddled the slushy water. I followed him into the darkness, my skin prickling as I left the weak light of a cloudy day for the sucking shadows of the cylinder. Just before the pipe’s curve shifted to aged stone, the light gave out. Vale pulled a heavy pendant from the neck of his shirt and twisted its base, and a gentle green glow filled the space, showing a long tunnel of orderly bricks and stones. Perfectly set in patterned niches were artful groupings of smooth white bones and polished skulls. Sluggish, lumpy water flowed down a channel set in the middle, just wide enough to straddle. Each side had just enough space for a slender person to walk without turning sideways. Vale’s shoulders were almost too broad and occasionally bumped the wall as he led me down a ladder and deeper into the catacombs. I threw out my senses, hoping for any sign of Cherie.