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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
A firm hand wrapped around my wrist and tugged me back into reality and down a pitch-black hallway just as I felt the air change and the curtain rise.
“We can watch from out here. Being caught backstage is not the best way to make an impression with Madame Sylvie.”
Vale could have let go then, but he didn’t, and I liked that, liked the feeling of being dragged along on an adventure. Even with a Bludman’s eyes, it was hard to see back here, and I had to wonder just how intimate he was with Paradis that he could navigate the twists and turns of the corridor without running into anything. When he finally slid a door open and pulled me through behind him, I was nearly overwhelmed by a riot of color and heat overlaid by the delicious scent of bodies crushed together. We were in the back of the theater, behind the crowd. Hundreds of men and a very few women sat at round tables packed tightly on a well-polished dance floor, while dozens more watched avidly from plush velvet boxes and booths around the periphery. It was a sea of black and white and flesh tones and a few blooms of color, with every single human or daimon in some version of a classic black tuxedo, even the women. Onstage, dozens of daimons danced in a line, their skins and dresses arranged according to the rainbow’s spectrum. Oddly, they weren’t doing the cancan, or even raising their legs overhead to reveal the colorful petticoats under their skirts. Still, their performance was masterly. Even I could feel the palpable excitement and joy rising from the crowd. For the daimons, it had to be like the breakfast buffet at the Ritz.
And of course, it was slightly painful to me, as I’d taken no blood since before the slavers’ attack. I rubbed my nose, curling a finger to block my nostrils. I hadn’t been hammered with so much humanity in an enclosed space since being bludded in Sang. It was lucky I had such excellent self-control, as if my body still remembered human food and was barely willing to settle for blood. I’d never experienced that rabid hunger that Pinkies expected from my kind, but if I wanted to stay focused and at Paradis, I was going to have to remain well fed. All the barely contained blood made it hard to concentrate.
“Impressive, is it not?” Vale elbowed me in the side, forcing me to suck in another breath of warm, enclosed person-stink.
“I’d be more impressed if I didn’t want to eat the audience.”
He grimaced and glanced at the bar, where a male daimon with purple skin, slicked-back hair, and a mustache shook and poured drinks faster than seemed possible. “Oh la la. I forgot about your troublesome appetite They don’t often serve Bludmen here, but I’ll ask at the bar. Can you wait?”
I rolled my eyes and held up my hands, curling them into faux claws inside their gloves. “No. I’m totally going to kill everybody. Roar. Rawr.”
His teeth flashed when he laughed. “Try not to, for both our sakes. I’ll be right back.”
I watched him leave, unable to escape the fact that his worn but well-fitted breeches were a thousand times more impressive than all the expensive tuxes in the room. If there was one thing that was true in Sang and on Earth, it was that money could buy a lot of things, but a tight butt and sexy swagger weren’t among them.
In order to tamp down my hunger, I focused on the daimons onstage. The music changed, and dancers hurried off in a flurry of petticoats. The crowd hushed as a large silver ring descended from the ceiling, twirling slowly on a rope. It was empty, and for a moment, I thought perhaps they’d already botched the show. But no. A spotlight clicked on, and golden dust danced in the harsh glare like glittery pollen. A lithe body slid down the rope with snakelike grace, the beautiful daimon girl writhing and posing around the hoop with boneless precision. In the interest of professional disdain, I studied her form, her movements. She was flawless, really, with long limbs of shining gold carefully hung with a minimal costume of cloth as flowing and languid as liquid. The tinkling music playing behind her made me think of fairies and sunlight and dainty things easily broken. But the girl’s face told me she wasn’t the fragile sort. She was concentrating, every line focused and harsh. Her painted mouth may have fooled the crowd, but my Bludman’s eyes could see the tiny lines of annoyance that assured me that she didn’t find the joy in her act that her movements suggested to the ignorant and mesmerized crowd.
I smelled Vale before I saw him, already attuned to his strange half-Abyssinian odor. The vial he presented was cool in my hand, refrigerated instead of warmed. I sucked in air through my teeth.
“It’s cold, I know. Sorry about that, ma petite. Can you choke it down?”
I popped the cork, held my nose, and tossed back the slightly clumpy blood, thankful that in Sang, for some strange reason, there were no germs, no blood-borne pathogens, no way for me to get sick from old blood. Even if it was like slurping a liquefied scab.
The taste was rancid in my mouth, and when Vale pressed a glass of red wine into my other hand, I rinsed and swallowed before thinking. The blood was so bad that the wine wasn’t disgusting.
“Thanks for that.” He took the wineglass from my hand and finished it off himself, which caught me by surprise. I wasn’t accustomed to daimons and humans wanting much to do with Bludmen or anything our foul, murderous, bloody mouths had touched. Being half-Abyssinian must have made a big difference to his worldview.
After slipping the wineglass onto a passing daimon waiter’s tray, Vale gestured with his chin to the golden girl dangling from the hoop. “That’s Limone. She is bad news.”
“Bad news how? Does she feed on pain?”
He chuckled. “Thankfully, no. But she is the cruelest daimon here. I would avoid her if I were you.”
I cocked my head, watching Limone swing and spin and flip through her ring. “It’s a shame that someone so beautiful should be so nasty.”
Limone struck a final pose as the ring smoothly rose into the ceiling like a full moon, taking her with it. The crowd whispered excitedly as a trio of daimons dressed as parrots ran out onto the stage. I stifled a chuckle, considering how insulted the tightrope girl in Criminy’s caravan would be if she knew that the Parisian daimons were pulling her shtick and making a total joke of it. Emerlie had favored the brightest costumes in the show back home. Although I’d never really liked the nosy busybody, she’d been a hell of a performer, riding her unicycle on a slender rope in leather tutus of lurid green and pink while the humans below trembled in fear for her.
My heart wrenched momentarily. Would I ever see Criminy and the caravan again? And what about Cherie? She should have been there at my side, her arm linked through mine as we witnessed the cabaret for the first time. We were a duo. Partners. Best friends. And there was no way for me to find her unless I could persuade the cabaret’s mistress to hire me and let me stay here while I searched for clues. If only I had let the slavers steal me, too. Now all I wanted was to be one of the girls who disappeared, because it would get me one step closer to Cherie.
But first, I had to secure a place right here, at Paradis.
“So how do I nail this job interview?”
Vale turned, looking me up and down with a critical eye that seemed more for his personal enjoyment than any professional critique. “Beauty won’t be the issue. Neither will temperament or skill. What you must do is make Madame Sylvie feel that she can’t do without you. That if she doesn’t hire you, you will run along to the next cabaret and bring in such a crowd that she’ll stand in her office and weep.” He put a finger under my chin and tilted my head up, and I jerked my face away and snapped at his fingers in faux annoyance. He grinned. “That. That, right there. Dance the line between dangerous and desirous, and she won’t be able to turn you away.”
“And don’t kill anyone.”
“Well, obviously, ma petite. Professionals rarely eat their customers.”
Vale snatched another glass of wine from the tray of a passing daimon man dressed as a waiter. With a shouted “Merci!” he flipped a franc onto the platter as he led me away. I walked backward, watching the coin twirl for a moment, and my hand clamped down on Vale’s wrist and drew him to a halt.
“Wait, I thought you said you didn’t have any silvers.”
Vale grinned, light eyes dancing above the wine like footlights. “I don’t have any silvers. I do, however, have a limited supply of francs.”
“But you said . . .”
“I said if you delved too deeply into my business, I would gladly toss you into the sewer.” He looked around the room, posh and sensuous down to the carvings in the scarred bar. “Although I suppose up here, I’d have to settle for dumping some third-tier gin on your pretty head. Rest assured I don’t have enough for a third glass. Yet. Come, now. Madame Sylvie should be in her office, counting her own silvers. Let’s catch her while she’s still optimistic, yes?”
He reached for my hand, and if he felt the same strange chemistry I did at the touch, he didn’t show it. In moments, I understood that it was a utilitarian gesture, that it was the only way to stay connected as the crowd pressed dangerously close. We wove in and out among tuxedo-clad, overexcited gentlemen, and I pinched my nose closed against their extreme edibility. When I felt a hand caress my bustle, I had to bite back a snarl. Getting into a fight and throwing hot, tempting blood into the mix of posh black and white was no way to get a job.
Vale twitched a damask curtain aside and pulled me into the plush darkness of a hidden hallway. For just a moment, it was like being in the bowels of a great, velvety beast, and then another curtain moved aside to show a simple brick wall that looked like the backdrop for a mass murder by confetti cannon. Glitter, ribbons, and feathers littered the dusty boards, and a slender young daimon boy with bright blue skin hurried by, his arms laden with the biggest hoop skirts I’d ever seen.
We halted before an unmarked door.
“Any last words of encouragement?” I asked.
Vale squeezed my hand and let go. “Don’t fail.”
Vale knocked on the door, three quick raps. An annoyed sigh echoed within, followed by the sound of a heavy bag filled with metal clanking on wood.
He squeezed my shoulder briefly and opened the door, holding out an arm to usher me inside. A large, heavy desk dominated the elegant office, framed by thick velvet curtains and a window of opaque black glass. The aging daimon sitting at the desk reminded me of a ballerina in slow decline. Her erect posture, swanlike neck, slender carriage, and studied grace marked her instantly as a past performer, and I relaxed just a bit. Someone who knew what it was like to be onstage would be far easier to deal with than someone whose only skills lay in managing artists as if they were as foolish as wayward kittens.
Still, the well-powdered and stern lines around her mouth spoke of discipline and snobbery and a woman who didn’t take rebellion lightly. To almost anyone else, she might have appeared human, with her dark hair and milk-and-roses complexion. But I could smell her, and she was daimon through and through.
Vale tilted his head. “Bonsoir, Madame Sylvie.”
She tilted her head in almost mocking return. Even though she was seated, she still seemed to regard us from on high over the top of her half-moon glasses.
“Bonsoir, Monsieur Hildebrand. What have you brought me?”
Her voice was cultured, careful, and sultry. Madame Sylvie must have been an unstoppable force of nature when she was younger. Even now, she was in total command of the room. I couldn’t help imagining what would happen if she and Criminy were to meet. Would the cabaret explode?
“Madame, this is Demi Ward, recently of Sangland. She wishes to secure a place in your cabaret.”
“We don’t take Bludmen, fool. You know that. Why are you wasting my time?”
Dipping a hand into the bag sitting on her desk, she rattled the coins within and raised an eyebrow at us. Vale looked at me expectantly and mouthed, “Your turn.”
I took a deep breath to center myself. In one smooth leap, I landed on top of Madame Sylvie’s desk, balancing on my toes and fluidly transitioning into a backbend. Walking my hands under my skirts as I had for Vale, I lifted each leg into the air with practiced sureness until I held a perfect handstand. Balancing on just one hand, legs spread and skirts aflutter, I plucked Madame Sylvie’s quill from its stand, dipped it into her ink, and wrote, “Contortionist extraordinaire, at your service.”
“How fascinating.” She snatched the quill from my hand and stuck it back in place. “But this is a daimon cabaret. Try Darkside instead.”
“I’m the most tame Bludman you’ll ever meet. I dare you to test it.”
“She did walk through your crowd without so much as a drop of drool, Sylvie.”
The daimon’s fingers drummed on the polished wood, the pointed tips of her red-lacquered nails making staccato clicks that grated on my nerves. “Show me something else.”
I kicked over and stood, my toes in the small space recently taken by my hands. With a dancer’s flair, I twisted and curled a finger at Vale. As if we’d done this a thousand times, he stepped forward as I beckoned and stopped when I held out a flat palm.
“Hold still,” I said.
I lifted my leg straight up until it was beside my ear. Then, with perfect grace, I fell forward until my ankle landed on Vale’s shoulder. To his credit, he made no sound and barely shifted, easily absorbing the impact as I used him as the stand for my split, one toe on Madame Sylvie’s desk and one ankle on the brigand’s shoulder. I straightened my torso and held my arms up like a ballerina. My splits had always been perfect, and even Cherie had trouble keeping her legs so straight, taut, and unshaking.
“Really, this time, don’t move.”