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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
Finding my center, I exhaled and slowly rolled to the side until I held the split upside down, my head and arms dangling between Vale and the desk and my ankle cradling his neck. Before he could freak out, I grasped his leg, just above the knee, and used it to gracefully kick down from the split. Standing before the grand desk, I wrapped a leg around my own neck and curtsied.
Madame Sylvie’s face didn’t change. “Can you fit into a hatbox?” she snapped.
“Are you a front bender or a back bender?”
“Are you frightened of heights?”
“Only if there’s a tank of seawater below.”
“So long as the mouth grip has extra padding for my fangs.”
I sighed and rolled my eyes. “Yes. Oui, oui, oui. Anything your daimons can do, I can do better.”
“I’m the perfect rag doll.”
“Have you worked with a partner?”
My throat closed, and I struggled to swallow. “I have.”
“But your partner is not with you?”
I shook my head no, blud tears burning hot in the corners of my eyes.
Vale rushed to fill the silence I couldn’t touch. “Her partner was stolen by slavers outside of Ruin. They reached the catacombs before we could catch them.”
Madame Sylvie’s eyes sharpened, boring into me. “Will this loss affect your performance? I can’t have heartbreak on my stage. It shows.”
“I’m a professional above all else.” I glanced at Vale, my eyes pleading, and he shrugged as if to say, You’re on your own now. “This is my dream, Madame Sylvie. I’ve been traveling Sangland in a caravan for six years, and I’ve always wanted to be a star. I’m a hard worker, no bad habits, no vices, no biting, and I’m willing to do anything.”
One sharp eyebrow went up. “Anything?”
It was as if the air was sucked out of the room, as if all of Paris waited to hear what I would say. The word fell heavy as an anchor. “Anything,” I answered.
Vale looked pained, which in turn pained me. I would have to talk to him later. He had to understand that I would have said anything to get my foot in the door, to stand on Madame Sylvie’s fine stage and feel a thousand eyes on me, a thousand hands clapping, my name on everyone’s lips, their whispers and cheers carrying me to the top, all to find Cherie and share the spotlight as I’d promised.
But that one word—anything. It didn’t mean what he thought it meant. I wouldn’t be a courtesan. I wouldn’t sink into the dirty side of Mortmartre, become just another lost girl with smeared lipstick and dead eyes. I had read enough about Sang and seen enough movies on Earth to know that my current position was dangerous. But I was a Bludman, and I was determined, and no matter what I told Madame Sylvie, I would be able to withstand the darkness, the temptation. I would keep my pride. For myself and for Cherie.
The daimon nodded once, and a transformative smile spread across her thickly powdered face. “Zat is the answer I like to hear,” she said, the tiniest bit of a Franchian accent leaking out. “It will be a trial period, at first. The daimon girls will not like it, and I’m not sure how the humans in the audience will feel. If you are anything other than a rousing success, I will kick you out on your derrière, you understand?”
I couldn’t hold back my gummy smile. “You won’t be disappointed, madame.”
I turned to leave, and she snorted behind me. “We are not done. One more thing.”
I had to breathe in through my nose to hold in the Bludman’s beast-rage. To give me what I wanted and then take it away? It was unbearable. I held out one hand as if testing for rain.
“There is a final test. Just because you two children say something is so does not make it so. We will see what you are capable of, ma chère.”
I couldn’t contain my annoyance any longer. “I am beyond capable. Find a single daimon in Paris who can match me, pose for pose, and I’ll walk out now.”
Her smile was irritatingly pleasant. I wanted to slice it off with my talons. “No, dear. Your contortion is clearly exquisite. I had never considered that a Bludman’s resiliency and flexibility could be harnessed for such beautiful and effective work.” She paused for a moment, allowing me to soak up the compliment before the kicker. “But I must ensure that you will not eat the guests.” She plucked a brass bell from a row on her desk and rang it delicately between thumb and forefinger.
I looked to Vale, who only gave a Gallic shrug. Anger shook me for a moment before I realized that he was possibly doing me a great favor. He seemed to annoy Sylvie as much as he annoyed his father, and perhaps his silence wasn’t so much cowardice or bewilderment as it was the gift of not getting us thrown out of the cabaret on our butts for saying something disrespectful.
Within seconds, there was a soft knock on the door.
“Entrez,” Madame Sylvie called, and the little blue daimon boy poked his head in.
“Bring me Monsieur Philippe. Tell him I have a surprise.”
The boy nodded once, ink-black hair shaking, and was gone. Madame Sylvie ignored us, straightening and sorting various papers on her desk and momentarily hefting her bag of coins as if reassuring herself that we hadn’t stolen a single sou. When my eyes met Vale’s wine-gold ones, he mouthed I don’t know what she wants with exaggerated care that made me giggle.
When the knock came next on the door, Madame Sylvie stood gracefully and struck a pose that highlighted her height and grace.
“Entrez, s’il vous plaît, monsieur,” she purred.
I composed my posture and brushed down my rumpled skirts, hoping the sewer spatters of the journey weren’t apparent. Vale was the picture of rakish vagabondry and merely stood, hands on hips and eyes narrowed, as if daring the person coming through the door to say a single thing about his wrinkled, tear-stained shirt.
The man opened the door, and already I could smell him. Overweight humans were a rarity in Sang, thanks to diminishing food supplies and an environment pushed to the brink of disaster by chemical fug and fear. But this Monsieur Philippe could have fed a dozen Bludmen happily, which meant he had to be very, very rich and therefore a very, very good customer. My eyes shot sideways to Madame Sylvie, whose professional smile didn’t waver. It had to be quite the gamble for her—either I passed her little test and was accepted into the company, or I went insane with bloodlust and ripped open the florid neck of the biggest man I’d seen since passing out on the floor of my dorm room on Earth.
“Madame Sylvie, what a pleasure to see you again.” His accent was classically French, to my ears, his eyes beetle-bright over an impeccably cut suit. But no tailor’s tricks could make this man handsome. The scent that rose from his flesh when he looked at me was lust, pure and hot. I struggled not to shudder.
“Monsieur Philippe, you are known for unparalleled taste and an eye for quality. This young girl would like to join our company. I was hoping you might be so kind as to share your opinion.”
He quivered with pleasure, his eyes narrowing further to regard me sharply. Stepping close, lighter on his feet than I expected, he held out a bare hand. Unsure what he wanted, I put out my own tentatively. He didn’t take it.
A snort and an eye roll. “Gloves. Must be Sanglish. What’s your name, dear?”
The Demi who had died on the floor on Earth would have been meek, deferential, desperate, pleading with the man who now held my future and possibly Cherie’s life in his hands. But the Demi on Sang was a Bludman, a predator, and a performer. She was reckless and knew her job. I gave Monsieur Philippe my most sultry smile and used my teeth to loosen the fingers of my glove. A slight intake of breath told me he’d noticed the fangs. Locking my eyes with his, I sensually rolled the glove off my hand. The other one, too. After they both lay on the ground, I smirked at his still-outstretched hand and leaned close, up on tiptoes and hands light on his wide shoulders, to kiss him on both cheeks in the Franchian style.
“Je m’appelle Demi Ward. Monsieur.”
I could smell his prey response, the deep-down knowledge that sent him conflicting signals to hold still and run away. And judging by the look in his eyes, he hadn’t had as much familiarity with Bludmen as most Sanglish Pinkies. From what Luc had told me, the racial breakdown of Paris was about fifty-fifty daimons and humans, with less than one percent of the population made up of Bludmen. After all, why would humans go to the trouble to give up their own blood when trading in emotions was far more painless and often involved being purposefully amused or pleasured? I had been just as exotic to Luc as he had been to me. At first.
“And what is it you do, Demi?”
On Earth and in Sangland, they’d pronounced my name with an emphasis on Dem, but in Franchia, it took on an entirely new flavor that I wished to practice alone and taste on my own tongue.
De-MEE. Yes, I could get used to that.
I smiled at Monsieur Philippe and stepped as close as his stomach would allow. To his credit, he didn’t back away, although the way his nostrils flared like a frightened horse told me he wanted to. I leaned forward, just enough to almost press my chest into his body, raising my right leg behind me until I could reach overhead and catch my own foot. My skirt cascaded down around me, and I heard Vale grunt behind me; he now had a prime view. But all my attention, of course, was for Monsieur Philippe. Leaning forward and gently pressing my torso against him, I brought my foot up until it was inches away from his face, showing just the tiniest sliver of skin between my leggings and the top of my boot.
“I’m a contortionist, monsieur. The best Paris has ever seen.”
I placed one splayed hand against his chest and let my lips nearly brush his before pushing away, arcing gracefully and falling into a split on the ground. Monsieur Philippe cleared his throat and fussed with his coat. From my vantage point on the floor, I could see the effect I was having. And I struggled not to get smug.
“I can see that. But ma chère, a Bludman in a cabaret? It’s unheard of!”
“Then hear of it,” I said.
I stood with a twirl and took a deep breath. I didn’t want to do what I was going to do, but I didn’t see that I had a choice. With Mademoiselle Caprice’s lessons in my head and steel in my spine, I stepped close to him and lifted his hands, placing them in their proper places at my waist and in my other hand. Palm to palm, he was warm and clammy, with just the faintest tremor of unease, and his blood burned high in his cheeks, spicing the air with nervousness and desire. The blood hunger tugged at me but wasn’t problematic. I’d seen other Bludmen lose it—especially Catarrh and Quincy, the two-headed twins at the caravan, who’d run hotter than most and needed to keep both mouths satisfied. Even Criminy got peckish if he went too long without feeding. But for me, it had always been like this, the same sort of polite hunger you would get waiting for a meal while staring at food behind a glass display. Sure, you wanted it. But you weren’t about to break the glass and steal it.
I began to hum a well-known waltz, and after a beat, he moved with me, surprisingly light on his feet. Madame Sylvie took up the song with a strange quaver in her voice, which freed me to talk.
“You see, monsieur. I am a very unusual woman. I was raised in a caravan, performing for humans every night. I’ve never drunk from a live subject. I don’t even know how to break the skin. My hunger is as inconsequential as my talent is enormous.” I leaned close, my lips brushing his ear. “I am as tame as tame can be.”
He twirled me out and stared at me, just flat-out stared, as if he couldn’t quite figure out what sort of curiosity I might be but wanted to put me in a locked glass case in his bedroom. I swept a deep curtsy, knowing it would show off the tight fabric over my bosom to best advantage.
“How much, madame?”
Madame Sylvie chuckled, low and husky. “I don’t believe the girl wishes to offer such services, monsieur.”
All three of them looked to me. I hid my panic behind an enigmatic smile, as Criminy had taught me long ago.
“Is that true, Mademoiselle Ward?”
I winked. “For now. But please, monsieur, keep asking.”
He shivered all over and closed his eyes as if he couldn’t take another moment of looking at me without carrying me away to a bed, and that’s when I knew I’d won.
“She will be in tomorrow’s show?”
Madame Sylvie regarded me, taking in, I’m sure, my ragged hems and tangled hair. “Her debut will be Saturday night, I think. That gives us three days to get her in shape.” She walked close, lifting a lank curl that had fallen from my updo. “Interesting coloring, though. Blue eyes and hair the color of thick coffee.”
Monsieur Philippe nodded hungrily. “Exotic, just so.” He gasped and chuckled to himself. “That’s it. La Demitasse. The cup. Delicate and small and curved, perfect for holding both darkness and sweetness, yes?”
Much to my surprise, Madame Sylvie’s skin shivered over pink as she laughed and clapped her hands like a little girl. “But monsieur, that is brilliant! We’ll have to have posters made up tout de suite. I wonder if Monsieur Lenoir would . . . but no. He won’t even look at her until we’ve made her a star. I’ll send for Steinlen. If you believe she is safe?”
Monsieur Philippe licked his lips like a toad. “Perhaps . . . one last test?”
I struggled not to bare my teeth and hiss at the expectant silence that followed. My eyes flashed to Vale, his jaw so hard that I winced as if struck somewhere soft. The interview was getting out of hand, testing the bounds of that one word: anything. One step after another. And now it all came down to something I very much didn’t want to do. Something that meant nothing to me and yet also meant everything.