|Home > Delilah S. Dawson > Blud > Wicked After Midnight (Page 8)|
|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“And then I ran away,” I said finally.
He reached for me, his fingers stretched out toward my face, and I closed my eyes and parted my lips slightly, needing to feel something, anything, other than crushing defeat. Instead, I heard a blood-curdling scream, and Vale’s arm flung me into the stone wall before drawing away suddenly.
I opened my eyes, heart beating an insane cadence, and found only darkness.
I reached for him, but he was gone. “Vale? What the hell!”
He was breathing heavily—that meant he was alive, at least, his boots scuffling on stone. There was another creature with us, something that smelled as stale and deep as the catacombs. And underneath that mildewy reek, there was pumping blood.
“Is it a bludrat? Can I help? God, it’s so dark. I can’t see anything. I frigging hate the dark!”
He growled and shuffled, and I wasn’t sure whether to run or fight or scream for his dad to come back. I was just about to start feeling around with my toe for something useful to kick when I heard the solid thump of stone hitting flesh.
“Mangy. Little. Bastard!” Each word was punctuated by a thump, the last one accented with a gushy splat that peppered the air with the reek of hot blud.
He grunted with effort, and something dropped into the water. After a few moments of fiddling and cursing, his green light flickered back on, showing black splatters up his arms, a few on his cheeks. “Remember what I said about bludrats getting underground and going bad?” He pointed down, and the twitching thing I saw smashed at his feet looked more like a shaved capybara than a rat, its pale skin sprinkled with wiry pink hairs and its sunken eyes white and unseeing.
“Are you okay? Did it bite you?”
With a laugh that echoed through the tunnel, he kicked the scrawny carcass into the water, where it bobbed and floated sluggishly with the flow, webbed feet up. “It tried. And failed. Let this be a lesson to you: don’t try to kiss anybody in the catacombs.”
I was blushing before he’d turned around and started walking. I’m pretty sure he knew.
* * *
Time went as thick and slow as the water beside us as we trudged through the underground tunnels. We chatted of silly things to keep our minds off reality and flirted as much as a giant graveyard allowed. But we never got close enough to attempt another foolish, desperate kiss. Then, all at once, the air congealed, and I knew the tunnel was about to end.
Although slogging through sewers and catacombs wasn’t my ideal day, much less date, it had been all too easy to concentrate on the immediate, on the shiver that thrummed through me when I took Vale’s hand to step over rubble and long-gray bones. I was in the worst trouble of my life, beyond terrified for my best friend, but every time he touched me, my betraying skin jumped, my heart raced. Being on the move at his side was far preferable to holding still. I sensed the stone wall before Vale stopped but let myself run into him anyway. Whatever happened next, his warmth was a comfort, and this might be my last chance to indulge.
“Shh, bébé. The door to the cabaret is just overhead.”
It was darker here, and the scent of cold stone was overlaid with a fine patina of spilled liquor and echoes of cheap perfume and something else. Something rotten. A shimmering rectangle of gold light limned a trapdoor in the ceiling, and as I looked up, pounding feet sent dust to scatter over my cheeks.
“What’s it called?” My own voice startled me in the darkness, almost overbright with worry I could no longer hide.
“Paradis,” Vale said. “It means—”
I gripped the bludbunny foot in my pocket. “Paradise. I know. But probably not a paradise for me.”
“Madame Sylvie’s not so bad. She doesn’t hit her girls, at least. She won’t allow opium or absinthe or bludwine among the performers. And the daimon girls are . . .”
I could hear his smile, the ass. “Accommodating?” The word dripped icicles..
He cleared his throat. “They’re lovely girls. Just watch out for Limone. That name’s no coincidence. Sour as hell, that girl.”
Looking up at the trapdoor, I pinched my cheeks and rubbed my lips with the back of my glove, hoping to bring some pink to the surface so I wouldn’t look like the grime-speckled, scared-to-death monster I was.
Vale put a hot hand on my shoulder. “Are you sure this is what you want?”
I drew myself up tall, as if pushing back my shoulders could send the filth dripping off my back like a discarded cape. “If my only choices are giving up on my best friend and going back to the caravan or becoming a star in the cabaret while I hunt for her, I choose cabaret. All the way.”
“You’re crazy, bébé. And I don’t like it.”
“You don’t have to like it.” I smiled, then frowned. My mouth didn’t know what to do with the odd mixture of excitement, terror, and expectation. “You don’t think they’ll mind me?”
He snorted and rubbed dust off my cheek with a wide thumb, sending unexpected shivers down my skin. “A pretty girl in a cabaret? No, I don’t believe they will mind at all.”
That wasn’t what I meant, and he knew it. “Where I come from, they consider me dangerous.”
Vale held up his pendant, and the green glow bloomed between us. Honestly, he looked as nervous as I felt. “They’ll take you in because you’re beautiful. They’ll keep you because you’re talented. And because you have fangs, they won’t try to take what you don’t wish to give.” His eyes met mine and went soft under long lashes.
I swallowed, digesting his words. “And what about you, Vale?”
Looking up at the trapdoor as I just had, he gave a lopsided grin that made his teeth a ghastly, electric green that reminded me of ghosts and raves and phosphorescent waves in the ocean, of too many things roiling under the surface. “I told you, bébé. I don’t want what isn’t given.”
The green still meant he couldn’t see me blush. I hoped. “Not . . . that. Up there. Are you coming with me?”
Reaching up, he flicked a lock and threw back the door, blinding me with lights as hot and welcome as the morning sun after an endless nightmare. “You heard my father. I have no money. I can’t go home, either. So I’ll follow you to Paris and Paradise.” He winked. “You’re going to need my help finding your friend, bébé. It’s a big city.”
Bits of feather and glitter fell down from the shaft of light, and someone called, “Oh la la! Careful, chérie!”
My heart leaped, hearing my friend’s name. Vale’s hand on my shoulder reminded me almost instantly that chérie was one of the most common words that might be uttered in a cabaret. Darling. Dearest. People might be calling me that soon, if things went according to plan. A shadow appeared, and I put up a hand to shield my eyes. The face that peered down through the explosion of light was shamrock green, dusted with diamonds and graced with eyelashes as long as plumes.
“Bonjour, darling!” Vale called, with lusty cheer that made my hackles rise.
“Vale? But why are you coming in the back door? You know that is not allowed here.”
His face burned bright red, and the daimon laughed gaily and held out a hand clad in an emerald-green elbow-length glove. He recovered quickly, at least. “I’ve brought a surprise for Madame Sylvie. Let us up, will you, Mel?”
The face disappeared, and Vale nudged me toward the ladder with a gentle push that involved the warmth of his hand searing my back. Twitching my long bustle behind me, I took a deep breath and climbed upward into the light. Before, I would have been vexed that he was watching my butt. Now I was careful to move gracefully, making the skirts sway with my hips. Why I wanted to impress the vagabond, I wasn’t exactly sure. Maybe it was the way the daimon’s eyes had twinkled at him with secrets fondly remembered and excitement over future possibilities. Or maybe it was the memory of every single touch we’d shared and the fact that he had been about to kiss me before a mutant mole-rat tried to kill him. Maybe it was because he was the only friend I had here, and I’d already told him half my secrets, and if my ass would keep him close, I would take whatever advantage it gave me.
When my head rose through the trapdoor, it took a few moments for the scene to coalesce into any sort of sense. We were backstage, the red velvet curtains casting everything in a blushing glow. Stage lights shone in every direction, blinding me no matter which way I turned. Girls ran back and forth, dozens of daimons in a rainbow of colors, speckled all over with satin and sequins, which made me feel a little at home, at least. The face I’d just seen, Mel’s, waited just a few feet away, attached to a petite but stunning body with proportions molded by years of tight corseting. I briefly wondered where the girl kept her innards and if daimons even had innards, seeing as how they fed off of human emotions. Did you need a liver to digest joy? Before I could speak, Vale popped up behind me and swung the trapdoor closed, where it merged seamlessly with the boards.
Oddly, I felt more trapped upstairs in the soaring theater than I had in the dark, dank, crumbling catacombs. Up here, everything felt very final. For so long, I had dreamed of the cabarets of Paris. But now that I was here, I felt like a very small, bloodthirsty fish in a very big pond filled with colorful frogs. I had always hoped to tread the boards for the first time with Cherie by my side, and missing her was like losing a limb, an ache that wouldn’t go away.
“Not here for ze show tonight, eh?” Mel stared pointedly at Vale’s empty hands and smirked. Her accent was heavy, her green lips plump and welcoming. I put a hand on Vale’s forearm on the pretense of steadying myself. “And not making a delivery. So what is ze occasion, monsieur le brigand?”
“A delivery of a sort. I’ve brought you a new girl. Where’s Sylvie?”
“Oh, la. Two moments until show time. Stand still long enough, and she’ll find you. But I wouldn’t recommend that. Shoo. Go to the hallway and wait. Or watch from the back, if you wish. Just don’t let Auguste see you.” She winked, eyelashes brushing her green cheek like a bird’s blessing. “You know how he is about strangers backstage.”
“Merci, Mel. You look gorgeous.”
Mel fluttered a hand at him and focused on me, cocking her head. “What’s your name, chérie?”
I hoped she didn’t see me flinch. “Demi Ward.” I gave her a big, charismatic smile.
She leaned closer, breathing in with an open mouth like cats back home would do when smelling something rank. Her eyes flew wide, and I saw that her pupils had points like stars. “Do you know what she is?”
Vale grinned. “Oh, I know.”
“But there has never been—”
“Such a pretty girl with such an unusual talent. Trust me, Mel. Even daimons can’t do what Demi can. Not even Limone.”
A sick, acid yellow washed over Mel’s skin for just a second before it returned to a glistening emerald green. “Don’t even say that. Zis new girl doesn’t need help finding enemies here.”
The crowd beyond went quiet, and a woman’s dusky voice rang out as if seeking every hidden corner of the theater with silken fingers.
“My fine Parisian messieurs, have you been good?”
A cheer shook the rafters, making the curtains wobble beside us.
“I must go. Good luck.” Mel grasped my wrist for just a second before running off to find her place in the flock of brightly clad daimons waiting closer to the curtains. Vale drew me back into the shadows toward a dark hall, but I balked. I didn’t want to miss the final moments of calm before the show began. It was my favorite part of the spectacle, but I was far more accustomed to being part of it, to taking that deep breath that would hold until the curtain rose. This was where I belonged, not out there, among the rabble. The cheers quieted suddenly, as if someone had sucked the air from the room. The voice went on.
“Have you been very, very good?” A meaningful pause and a low, sexy chuckle. “Or have you been . . . wicked?”
The yelling and whistling intensified. My skin prickled all over, considering how very large the theater must be to hold so many voices. Even parked right outside London, the caravan had never drawn such crowds. I ached to be in front of them, to feel their excitement and hear them calling my name. I swallowed hard, felt every hair on my body rise. Even here, beyond the curtain, I could smell the hot blood pulsing through the building, the sweat rising off their skin, the goatlike stink of overexcited men and their lust. The immediacy of the stage struck through my homesickness and heartsickness, lighting me up from the inside with the otherworldly transcendence of lightning striking the Tower.
“Then let me be the first to welcome you . . . to Paradis!”
If I thought the cheers had been loud for the first two invitations, the third round was deafening. The orchestra began with a frenzy, and I shivered all over as the dancers went completely still on their marks.
So this was Paradis. Heaven. Although I had neglected to mention it to Cherie, I had been an art history major once, and I had spent an entire semester delving into the Impressionists and the Paris they’d envisioned in paint and dreams. In my world, Montmartre had featured, among the Moulin Rouge and the other cabarets, two clubs with very different names that did basically the same thing. Whether you were in Paradis or Enfer in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, you were still in for the bawdiest, most daring, most exciting shows in the world.
As I watched the daimon girls rustle, I noted that they all looked bright, healthy, excited, and colorful, nothing like the dark daimons I’d occasionally encountered while in Criminy’s coterie. They reminded me of Mademoiselle Caprice and her sons, and I felt a brief twinge over breaking Luc’s heart which quickly dissolved into the girls’ bright chatter. The cabarets were meant for stealing hearts, not pondering regrets. And possibly for breaking hearts, too, since many daimons would gorge on heartbreak. If Paradis was filled with good daimons, who were the denizens of Enfer?