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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“I wouldn’t be too proud of being a cup, if I were you.”
I recognized Limone’s neon green skin and matching acidic tone.
“If you are not a daimon, why are you here?” asked another girl, this one bright orange.
“She’s new, aren’t you, doll?” Mel rushed forward, her skin the cheerful green of four-leaf clovers. She put a bare arm over my shoulders and drew me close in a sisterly side hug. “Vale brought her up from the catacombs tonight. And if you’re up here, I suppose you got the job?” I nodded, and she pulled me into a real hug. “Good for you, darling. And this is your room? Ah, bon! But it’s empty, isn’t it?”
La Goulue shrugged as if she’d seen a million girls come and go. She walked past us and into her room, slamming the door. Everyone else pushed toward my open door and peered inside.
“You have nothing? But that is so sad, chérie. Where is your trunk?”
“Were you robbed?”
“Paris was so nice before all the humans showed up, non?”
As if on cue, they gave a collective sigh.
“Except for you, Demi, darling,” said a purple daimon as she patted my arm.
I was boggled, yet again, by the fact that daimons, so sensitive to every emotional change in a person’s heart and mind, could fail to see or smell the difference between a human and a Bludman, a predator and the prey, until they got very close, as Mel had, or saw the telltale fangs. But I wanted to start out here as myself and avoid the sort of lies that might make the daimons hate or resent me later. I wouldn’t tell them I was a Stranger, but I would let them know exactly what I was.
“Oh, I’m not human,” I said. I grinned, showing off my fangs, and the daimon girls drew back with a gasp.
“It can’t be.”
“She’ll eat all the customers!”
“Will she eat us?”
“I don’t think so. We don’t taste so good, on the inside.”
Mel let out a piercing whistle, and the other daimons stopped sidling backward and chattering and instead stared at me as if I was a bludbear walking on two legs in galoshes.
“Silly things. Do you think Madame Sylvie would let her into the cabaret if she was dangerous?” She turned to me and put a hand on my shoulder as if to help me prove my point. “Demi, darling. Have you ever killed anyone?”
“Never. I’ve never even drunk from a live body. And Bludmen don’t care for daimon blood.”
The girls began whispering again, and Blaise stepped out of their throng.
“It’s true. Madame Sylvie tested her against Monsieur Philippe. She kissed him on the cheek.”
The purple daimon let out a glittering laugh. “If you can get close to that buffet of flesh without drawing blood, you can withstand anything.”
“I almost killed him just last week, and I can’t even eat him,” added a pink daimon.
They all laughed and crept forward, and I closed my lips over my fangs to smile.
Limone pushed her way past the girls and stood to face me. Her cheekbones were hard-cut, her face pointed and austere. Hers was a cruel beauty, and in a way, I envied her. Even after being bludded, I still felt too soft, too curved, too pink-cheeked. No one would mess with Limone.
“Just because a dog licks your hand does not mean it won’t turn on you.”
I showed my fangs, my posture as straight and aggressive as hers. “I don’t plan on licking you or turning on you,” I said. “I’d rather be friends.”
Her nostrils flared, her eyes narrowing to glittery green slits like cracked glass. “I don’t have friends. And I don’t keep dogs. And if you ever try to lick me, I’ll cut off your tongue.” Her long fingers waggled in the air, their wicked points even more dangerous-looking than my actual talons. “You don’t belong here, Demi. Go back to Darkside where you belong.”
My human instincts told me to cower. My Bludman instincts told me to murder. I fought them both and took a step toward her with a steely smile. “Oh, I belong here.”
She snorted and shoved past me, knocking into my shoulder in a way that made me bite back a hiss. “Not for long.”
After her door slammed behind her, Mel pulled me close again by my shoulder. “Here, Demi. I think I have a spare blanket. And Leola, didn’t you keep one of Mireille’s night shifts?”
With nods and murmurs, the other daimon girls disappeared into their rooms, returning swiftly with small gifts that I didn’t know how to repay, considering I had nothing but what was on my back. The talents that would earn my keep in Paris were no good to them.
Tears filled my eyes, and I clutched the worn old nightgown to my chest as Mel fluttered her hands at two girls carrying pillows and blankets. A blue daimon with a cheerful smile made the bed carefully, tucking the ripped quilt as if it were made of finest silk and fluffing the old pillow.
“I can’t thank y’all enough,” I stammered. “Your kindness is too much. I can’t repay—”
Mel held my face in her hands and closed her eyes, breathing in deeply. “You already are, chérie. We can taste your thanks on the air. Your heart is sweet, like flowers in the spring.”
I noticed that the other girls had set my bed to rights and were also smiling dreamily, their mouths open as they breathed.
“It will be good to have you around. Like a midnight snack, yes?” Mel said.
The violet daimon nodded eagerly. “Lads below bring only lust and the smallest bit of amazement. But you’re still fresh, you see.” Her short, curly hair reminded me of Emerlie, and I gave her a wobbly smile.
“I’m Lexie,” she said with a curtsey. “Even if the door says Alexandra.”
“And this is Beatrice, though we call her Bea.” The blue girl who had made my bed nodded and gave a little wave with long, elegant fingers. Mel slung an arm around Bea’s waist, and Bea put her head against Mel’s shoulder. “She can’t talk, but you’ll pick up some signs pretty quickly.”
Remembering a few simple bits of sign language I’d learned in elementary school, I signed Thank you, hoping that the gestures carried the same meaning. Bea’s face lit up, a shiver of sky blue rippling over her skin. Her fingers flew excitedly with a flurry of signs, but I didn’t recognize anything else, except something that looked like crabapple, which wasn’t helpful.
“I’m sorry. That’s all I can remember. But I’d like to learn more.”Bea waved a hand, and I didn’t need to wait for Mel to translate Don’t worry about it. Thanks is enough.
A gong rang below, and most of the daimons scurried out my door. As they disappeared, I felt the warmth go with them.
Mel turned around, her grin quirking up like it had when she talked to Vale. “It’s only intermission. We still have the second half of the show. And after . . .”
Lexie snorted, and Leola sighed heavily and blew a puff of air into her bangs.
“What happens after?”
Mel rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Nothing you need to worry about tonight. Get some sleep. Tomorrow we’ll teach you the ropes.”
“Oh, I’m from a caravan. Shouldn’t be a problem.”
All three of them burst into laughter.
“Oh, la,” Mel said. “You have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into.”
Falling asleep was all but impossible, thanks to the whoops and catcalls and clapping and stomping and music, always music, beneath the floor. That was one thing I’d taken for granted about caravan life: for the most part, it was quiet and allowed for privacy. After the last round of applause and demands for an encore died away in the theater below, I enjoyed a brief period of soft murmurings and shufflings as the house cleared out. And then silence. I waited for the girls to thunder upstairs again, but they didn’t. Only a few tired footsteps and gently closing doors broke the calm. I was on the verge of sleep then, but I did note that there should have been more of them, and I wondered where the others were. It bothered me but not enough to keep me awake.
It had been a long, long day, as if an entire week had passed since I’d stepped out the door of the inn in Callais, giggling and whispering with Cherie, Mademoiselle Caprice’s silvers heavy in my pocket. Now all I had there were a few francs and a bludbunny foot that had proven far from lucky. Funny how I had skipped the city of Ruin only to find true ruin. My outfit was destroyed, most of my money long gone. The only thing I had in excess were hairbobs, mine and Cherie’s.
When I woke up the next morning to the sound of a woman’s harsh, nasal cawing, I was clutching the bedraggled feathers of Cherie’s fascinator in my hand as if it had been my friend’s fingers. My dreams had been only of smoke.
“Vite! Vite! Vite! Wake up, my little hens. It is time.”
My door flew open, and I sat up blearily. The daimon staring at me from the hallway was a stranger, but that didn’t stop her from rushing across the room and dumping me out of the bed onto the dusty floor. She hadn’t very far to go, after all.
“Oh, so zis is the little tame Bludman I hear so much about, eh? Ze Demitasse? Looks like ze cup is half empty this morning. Vite, now! Hurry! The sun is up, and so will you be!”
I was too sleepy still to bother hissing and simply stared at her as if she had three eyes, mainly because she did. Of course, the third one was painted on her forehead in what would have been an Egyptian style on Earth. She wore a cobra headdress and golden robes and sandals. Her skin was the molten gold of sand in the sunset, and she was long-limbed and unnaturally skinny. She leaned down to slap me across the cheek but gently. I bit my lip to hold in a growl.
“Now,” she said firmly. “Or you’re out on the streets.”
I could only nod.
She flapped out the door like a crane that had crashed through a costume shop, and I stood, still a little sore from my time on horseback. Funny, how I could contort my body into all sorts of unnatural positions but could barely walk after a few hours of riding behind Vale. I closed the door and dressed quickly without benefit of the ewer of water that seemed the bare minimum for bathing in Sang. Yesterday’s clothes were now dirt-infused rags that needed to be boiled in lye, but I couldn’t very well go out in the cobweb-thin nightgown I’d been given. With no mirror, I could only pat my hair and hope there was a dressing room somewhere below so that I wouldn’t seem an utter mess to my new coworkers.
There was no lock on the door, but I checked that it was closed firmly before slipping a small pouch from my pocket and stuffing it into a hole in the mattress. I hadn’t told Vale about the few coins that remained from Mademoiselle Caprice’s stash, not to mention my stolen supply of Criminy’s sleeping powder. As of right now, they were the most valuable things I owned.
Outside in the hall, I ran into Bea and gave her what I hoped was the sign for Good morning and not I spit on you and chop off your arm. It must have been close, because she gave me a radiant smile and repeated the gesture. The one she tried next was familiar.
“Eat?” I shrugged. “I don’t eat.”
She shook her head no and did another sign.
“Mouth rain?” I guessed. “Drool?”
With a silent laugh, she made fangs of her fingers and tapped them against her neck.
“Oh! Do I need blood?”
An enthusiastic nod.
“It would help.”
She inclined her head, and I followed her down the stairs. In the hallway, my eyes went straight for the niche where Vale had kissed me—and I had kissed him back. Part of me hoped to see him there, maybe leaning against the brick wall nonchalantly and smirking, waiting for me. But he wasn’t there, of course. If all was going according to plan, he was out in the city, trying to find information on a pretty blond Bludman who had recently appeared under mysterious circumstances.
I almost missed it when Bea ducked down a different niche that was actually a hallway. Just a little ways in, she opened a hobbit-sized door and scrunched over before disappearing inside. With little choice, I followed her into the dark. Small tendrils of light occasionally filtered in from up high, but below my knees it was so dark that I couldn’t tell if the sandy debris under my feet was dirt, stone, or more crushed bone. When Bea finally knocked softly on a wooden door, I stopped behind her and held my breath, hoping for fresh air. At least I wasn’t trapped in here with a yummy human.
The door opened a few inches.
The face that appeared in the gap surprised the hell out of me, as I’d written a paper on the symbolism of, well, pretty much her. It was the girl from Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, except that her eyes weren’t dead. They were narrowed and annoyed under hay-colored bangs that had lost any luster they originally possessed.
Bea mimed the same thing she’d originally tried with me, the one that looked like mouth rain.
“No blood magic, Beatrice,” the girl said severely. “You know how Madame Sylvie feels about . . . oh.”
Bea had moved aside to reveal me, doubled over in the tunnel. “Hi,” I said with a little wave.
The girl sucked air in through her teeth. “Must be the new Bludman.” She put a reddened hand to her plump white neck, rendered pale by the deep blue velvet of her gown. “Are you as tame as they say?”
I grinned. “Want to step into the tunnel to find out or just give me some blood to be sure?”
Bea shook with a silent laugh, and the girl shrugged as if cleverness was an itchy flea in an especially tender place. The door closed, leaving Bea and me in the dark, her breathing strangely silent.