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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“My father’s band is ahead of us somewhere. The slavers never return by the same route, and there are endless tunnels and ladders and stairs and secret niches set into the maze of underground crypts. The good news is that I haven’t seen blood or signs of combat yet, but the bad news is that if they reach their destination in the city and get topside before the brigands find them, we will have no idea where your friend was taken.”
“Then what?” My boots rasped on the stone, and the smell shifted from death and decay to something slightly more tolerable, a mineral smell tinged with iron.
“Then whatever the lady wishes. I can return you to Callais, take you back to our camp, or deliver you to your new life in Paris.”
“Dropped on the front step of a cabaret like a baby in a basket,” I muttered.
He turned to give me a horrified look. “I do believe they call that murder in the city. The bludrats of Paris are monsters. And so are some of the men who frequent the cabarets.”
The American teenager in me peered down into the water with a frown. “Speaking of which, anything nasty live in the catacombs?”
Vale chuckled and kept walking by the light of his pendant. A flash to the side caught my eye, and I watched him twirl a wicked-looking blade. “That depends on your definition of nasty.”
“Dude, don’t try to scare and impress me. I seriously want to know.”
We passed an open tunnel, and I heard faraway shouting and felt a damp breeze. When I paused, he gently grabbed my wrist to pull me along. “Paris looks ordinary topside, all orderly rows and squares. But down here, in the old city, things are twisted and strange. There is no complete map, no limit to how wide or low the tunnels can go. Men have gotten lost and never come back. Or they’ve come back changed. Some say that even deeper than the tunnels, there are caverns filled with glowing crystals and albino bats. Sometimes bludrats find their way down here and go blind and bald. Sometimes feral dogs find a cavern and live like wild, half-mad creatures.” He trailed off, his footsteps the only sound. But I smelled a lie.
“There’s something you’re not telling me, Vale.”
He exhaled, shaking his head sadly. “Sometimes we find daimons down here. Ruined. Walking corpses. Mostly women.”
“And you don’t know what happened to them?”
“Not a clue. The best we can figure is that they got lost and went mad with it. No emotions to feed on, no clean water, no light. After a few weeks of wandering around down here with nothing but the sewage and pitch-black darkness, it makes sense.” He stopped and spun, blocking my path. The green light lit him from below, a fiendish ghoul, all sharp edges and shadows. “I see that you wish to ask, so I will tell you. We kill them. Quickly and as kindly as possible. If you bring them topside, they scream and panic. Father brought one back to camp once, and she killed a child.”
“Life is dark, and then you die, bébé. Just let it be a reminder that you never want to get lost down here. And if you do, go very quiet and follow the sound of water.”
Up ahead, a burble of voices. Vale stilled, and I nearly ran into his back before he relaxed.
“It’s my father. And he’s angry.”
I held my breath but caught no sound of Cherie, no soft rasp of skirts against stone. What little hope I had tumbled away in the darkness. “Bad news, then.”
“Today does not appear to be your lucky day, no.”
I fingered the rabbit’s foot still hidden in my pocket. “And how’s your day?”
He drew a deep breath and gave the call of a hunting owl, which was swiftly answered from the bowels of the tunnel. Leaning his shoulders against the wall, he regarded me, smirk back in place. “Could be worse. No silvers, but I already made my hunting quota for the week, catching you behind that bush. Such a big, tame bludbunny would win prizes at any festival.”
“I bet you say that to all the girls.”
He sighed, almost sadly, before turning to greet the group of men materializing from the shadows, lit by the glowing green of their own pendants. Their leader exactly matched my mental image for Vale’s father, leader of the brigands. A pro-wrestler type going to seed, with a paunch that stretched his vest, gray hair marching backward off the top of his head, and a scarred leather eye patch.
“Lose the trail? Lorn’s fault, I’m sure.” Vale’s voice was dry and silky, every word a dare.
The old man shot a disgusted look at his older son. “Your responsible brother is still tracking the bloody bastards. They’re faster than ever. Didn’t see a single one. Found this, though.”
I peeked around Vale and almost oozed into the water when I saw Cherie’s hairbob.
“That’s hers. My friend Cherie’s.”
The old man squinted at me with his one good eye. “Who the hell is that?”
Vale winked at me over his shoulder. “The girl I found behind the bush.”
“I thought you were lying as usual.”
“Then you owe me an apology, old man.”
The head brigand turned red, which was quite an accomplishment in the green light. “I don’t owe you a goddamn thing, son. You want something, you take it. If you can.”
Vale stilled in front of me, going stiff all over like a stalking cat. He snatched the hairbob and handed it to me. As I fingered the ribbons that I had helped tie under Cherie’s hair just that morning, Vale hopped across the water to the ledge on the other side of the tunnel.
“Care to join me, bébé?” He held out his hand.
His father glared at me, his single eye going narrow. “Mademoiselle, we’d be glad to escort you to safety. Despite Vale’s bad manners, the Hildebrand tribe is known for stout hearts and valor.” His eye roved over me, as if calculating the worth of my figure and costume. When he smiled, it was cold, like a shark.
I smiled sweetly, showing fangs. “Stout hearts? But I thought you were thieves.”
Vale swallowed a laugh, and I took his hand and leaped lightly to the other side, where he caught me with a palm splayed across my back.
“Vale, it’s your duty—”
“To escort this mademoiselle to her destination in the city. Don’t worry, Father. I’ll be home eventually.”
“Already told you, don’t come home unless you plan on living up to your birthright.”
Someone snickered behind the old man, and Vale released me and walked stiffly along the ledge, away from his father and deeper down the tunnel toward Paris.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” I said with a wave as I followed him.
The ledge wasn’t as well kept on this side. It crumbled in places and felt almost spongy in others. Whenever there was a rough spot, Vale slowed and held out a hand to help me across. I could feel conflict and unease roiling in him, and I wasn’t exactly calm myself. I wanted to break free, to run, to howl, to show my fangs to whatever creature had dared to take my friend Cherie. The ghostly plague doctors in the smoke now seemed like nothing more than nightmare visions I’d conjured myself. All we had was the hairbob clutched in my gloves. The anger and helplessness were maddening, but we had no choice but to creep along carefully, feeling our way down the narrow ledge, half-blind in eye and heart.
Which was probably why I decided to badger my savior.
“So . . . your dad.”
“He is a terror, no?”
“Is he trying to start a fight or something?”
Vale chuckled. “Something like that.”
“You want to talk about it?”
“You want to be tossed into the sewage?”
“Shutting up now.”
The next few moments were tense and silent, and when we came to a jumble of femurs, I hopped back over to the other side of the water.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“The silence is so thick over there I couldn’t breathe. Figured the air might be a little more clear on this side of the crap river.”
He failed to hold in a chuckle and leaped to my side. “Touché, bébé. Here’s the thing. The Brigands of Ruin are patriarchal, which means leadership is expected to pass from father to son. Follow?”
“My Abyssinian mother was part of the camp only long enough to bewitch my father and leave me behind, which means I have less status and don’t fit the pattern. I have always been rather a disappointment, while my brother, Lorn, is a boot-licking bludweasel with champion bloodlines.” I cleared my throat, and he smirked. “Pardon the comparison. In any case, my father is past his prime, and I am expected to challenge him for leadership, but everyone knows I would be horrible at it. The obvious choice would be for my brother to challenge me, but he knows it would kill my father if something bad were to happen to either of us. So we’re all bound by ridiculous traditions, and no one can do what he wishes.” He reached back to help me over a little avalanche of broken stone. “But he is still a nasty little bludweasel.”
“So run away.”
Vale snorted. “Everyone half hopes I will. But that’s the thing. As much as I don’t wish to be responsible for dozens of families and a hundred mares, I love my father and don’t care to disappoint him. So I abide, getting on everyone’s nerves and mucking things up, hoping the slavers will just shoot me with a flaming arrow so the whole damned thing will be over.”
I turned and put a hand on his shoulder, stopping him in mid-step. “There’s no shame in being unsuited to your expected role.”
He cocked his head, considering.
“At least, that’s what my guidance counselor told me once when I disappointed my parents in high school. Wouldn’t it be better to just make the choice and leave and have it be over with?”
Vale looked down, face lit by the green glow. “Not if I have to see my father’s heart break when I tell him.” He motioned forward with his chin, and I obliged him by continuing along the ledge. After a few footsteps, he went on, voice low and sad. “When I was ten, I asked him if I could go stay with my mother, learn more about her people and their ways, and he turned me over his knee and whipped my arse until I bled. Not only because no Brigand of Ruin had ever asked to leave the tribe before but also because it showed the people I would one day lead that I didn’t feel proper responsibility for their safekeeping. That I would leave my duties and go to stay with foreigners, giving up my place as a man. It was the worst thing I could have done to him. Emasculated by a weak son, disappointed in his firstborn, and then the poor man had to make me cry to save face.” He snorted softly, sounding much like his mare. “I don’t think either of us can withstand a repeat of that night. No amount of freedom is worth that price. Not that he could whip me now. I’m much faster than he.”
I tried to imagine a tiny version of Vale going through the regular preteen rebellion. I couldn’t help smiling, just a little.
“How were things, after that?” I asked him.
“Ah, yes. The fallout. You see, after that, I had to prove myself, do something to save even more face on behalf of myself and my family. It was simply understood. So when my father and his men galloped away on their next raid, I took up my bolo and an old man’s neglected gear and slipped away to capture my first bludmare. I returned that evening missing a chunk of my arm and riding Odalisque’s mother, Olympe, leading a wobbly little filly behind me. Men of my tribe are supposed to go through careful training and ritual before they bring home their first horse, and I skipped all that and just took what I wanted, times two.” He laughed and rubbed the back of his head, the rasp of skin on stubble the only sound in the tunnel and one I already recognized even though I couldn’t see it. “Best mares in the camp, and I’d pulled it off four years before tradition allowed.”
“And then he beat me again for breaking the law. And complimented my horsemanship. And told me he’d done the same thing at my age and my grand rebellion had just convinced the camp that I was the one who must lead them one day.”
“Is there no other choice? No other role you could fulfill?”
He held up his fingers, counting them down. “Target? Eunuch? Laughingstock? Stew meat? Bludmare bait? Sadly, nothing appeals.”
“But what do you want to do? With your life?”
He exhaled raggedly, leaped over the water, and ricocheted off the far bank and back to my side, landing in front of me without missing a beat. As if I didn’t even exist, he started moving again, this time with more purpose and anger. I scurried behind him, boots slipping on bits of rock and bone.
“If I knew what I wanted to do, if there was some secret calling in my soul, then I could walk away from Ruin and my father’s tears with a light heart. If there was meaning, if there was passion, if there was anything I was good at besides thievery and sarcasm, he would understand. As it is, I have no plans. No future. No wish. I am merely a rebellious bastard and a well-trained brigand who no longer cares to brig.”
“I used to be that way, too.”
The words were tiny, swallowed up by the huge weight of an entire city overhead, but I know he heard them, because he stopped moving.
“And what happened then, Demi? What did you do?”
“I got depressed and almost died.” I paused, not sure how much to tell, how many secrets the darkness and his desperation could coax out of me. “And then I woke up hungry.”
I giggled at a line from a movie he’d never seen because there are no movies in Sang, and for just a moment, I felt infinitely far away from anything resembling home or comfort, the weight of an entire country pressing down on me with the feather touch of a girl’s hairbob clutched in one hand. He turned to stare at me, Chardonnay-green eyes glowing, and something in my chest shifted.