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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
When the door opened again, the girl shoved a chilled vial into my hand. “It’s cold and old. But if you slip me a few coppers, I can maybe find some fresh.”
“I don’t have coppers now, but I will soon.”
She raised one plucked eyebrow. “I don’t have fresh blood now, but I will . . . then.”
The door closed, and Bea’s hand patted my forearm swiftly in apology.
“It’s okay. Everybody gives the new girl trouble, right?”
I caught a flash of her nod as she moved around me and back down the hall the way we had come. Considering that I couldn’t sip without throwing back my head, I curled my hands around the vial to warm it while I followed Bea out. I did notice a little gust of air about halfway through, and when I looked up, I saw a flash of lavender clouds lit by the weak sun. I hadn’t seen a window since entering Paradis, so it was the first time I’d seen the sky since stepping into the catacombs with Vale. The scent of ozone and impending storm filtered down like dust, and a lone raindrop sizzled on my cheek. Up ahead, Bea tapped the walls, and I hurried on.
I stepped out and straightened, leaning backward to crack my spine. As I lifted the vial to pop the top, Bea grabbed my arm and dragged me away, and I chugged it just as we entered the wings of the stage.
Paradis looked different in the morning. With no crowds, only half the lights, and a chill in the air, it called to mind a cavernous old church built on the bones of sacrifices and still echoing with noise that had fled. The girls were gathered in small groups or standing alone, practicing dance steps and bits of arias and acrobatics. A few daimon men moved among them, their foppish clothes and bored gazes indicating they had no interest in the rainbow of sleepy cabaret girls running through their acts in various states of undress.
“Did you get any sleep, chérie?”
Mel was the same emerald green she’d been when I’d met her last night, a color almost exactly the opposite of Mademoiselle Caprice and her sons in Criminy’s caravan, at least according to the color wheel. She was dressed in what amounted to a ballet costume on Earth—a leotard, tights, toe shoes, and a ragged tutu the color of dust. Four more daimons in similar costumes waited in a half-circle, whispering behind their hands and staring at me.
“A little,” I said. “After things got quiet.”
She laughed. “Oh, la. That’s probably the last time you’ll have the opportunity to sleep at all while Paradis is open. You’ll be so exhausted tonight you’ll barely be able to fall into your own bed.”
“I’m sorry, Mademoiselle Demi, but is honest work a problem for you?” The daimon who had so rudely awoken me appeared, toes tapping beneath her golden gown.
“Mademoiselle Charline. Your choreographer.”
I snorted to myself. Of course. Of course there would be a Sang version of Charles Zidler, the famous mastermind behind the Moulin Rouge.
In response, I was slapped across the face for the second time that morning, and this time, I most certainly did hiss. She didn’t even flinch. “If you wish to work at ze most famous cabaret in the entire world, you will learn respect, hard work, and my goddamn name, you vicious little scab.”
I swallowed down my desperate need to rip her to shreds but only for Cherie’s sake. “Yes, Mademoiselle Charline.”
Her mouth pursed. “Better. Now. Show me every single trick of which you are capable.”
All the other daimons had stopped their own practice to stare at me, and I felt the full force of a hundred eyes of all different colors and shapes, some with unnerving horizontal pupils like a goat’s.
It was Mademoiselle Charline’s turn to snort, but hers was an elegant French snort.
“Fifty daimon dancing girls will be just as cruel as a thousand rich Parisian gentlemen. There’s no better trial of your mettle.”
I nodded. I could do this.
“I need three chairs, a mouth stand, a glass box, and a large ball.”
Mademoiselle Charline jerked her chin at the daimon girls standing behind Mel, and they scurried into the wings like terrified mice. Charline’s foot tapped as we waited, and I went through the abbreviated series of stretches Cherie had taught me years ago, the bare minimum that would limber up my body enough to perform the full range of motion required by someone in my profession. It was rote now, as natural as taking a shower or making a bed.
After years of careful practice, my elbows and shoulders could hyperextend easily, and my spine could curve in unnatural ways that I tried not to contemplate too deeply. I’d taken gymnastics as a child on Earth, but being a Bludman made my entire skeleton feel like a Slinky. I forgot, most of the time, that I wasn’t human anymore, but it was never more apparent than when I was contorted like a snake, my fangs digging into the stand while I balanced my feet on my head and salivated over the audience.
The daimon ballerinas reappeared, carrying much-mended practice pieces, not the more showy equipment that would be used during actual performances. I checked each item carefully to ensure that if I embarrassed myself, it would at least be on my own and not because of a weak chair leg or cracked mouth stand. Satisfied, I replicated the setup I had used at Criminy’s Clockwork Caravan and stood gracefully, arms up and show persona in place.
“Music?” I asked.
Charline nodded. “What do you wish?”
Did I detect the barest note of curiosity in Charline’s voice? I had to hope so. And I had to choose carefully . . . and quickly.
I glanced at the collected company, wishing everyone was in costume so I would know which niches might still be available to exploit and therefore which music to request. One group of girls wore Egyptian-style costumes that matched Madame Charline, and there were several butterflies, tons of ballerinas, and a collection of rococo-style ballgowns, but that didn’t help.
“What’s the most popular song for the can-can?” I finally asked.
Mademoiselle Charline raised one thin eyebrow. “What, pray tell, is the can-can?”
I barely restrained myself from bursting out into a Bludman’s characteristic, devil-may-care laughter. If the can-can hadn’t yet been invented in the Mortmartre of Sang’s Paris, then I suddenly knew exactly how I would make my name as a performer.
Was it cheating? Maybe.
Did I care? Hell, no.
Especially considering that popularity would, I hoped, bring me to Cherie. If Casper Sterling could become the world’s most talented musician just because Sang didn’t have a Beethoven, then Demi Ward would become La Demitasse by teaching the daimons how to kick their legs in the air. But I wouldn’t show that off today, where Charline might claim it for herself. No, I would wait until I was onstage and unstoppable, facing thousands of soon-to-be adoring fans. I’d wanted stardom before, but now that it was my key to being taken by the slavers and finding my best friend, I wanted it even more.
“Well, Mademoiselle Ward?”
“Do you have ‘The Infernal Galop’?”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course. We did the operetta last season.” When she snapped her fingers, Blaise ran from the wings with a disc and placed it reverently on the flower-shaped gramophone half-hidden by the curtains.
After a few moments of fuzz, the song began, tinkling along, and I went into my act with the quiet professionalism of a well-oiled and many-jointed robot. I hadn’t performed to the song before, but I knew it well enough from a lifetime of Earth cartoons and movies that I could anticipate the changes in pace and work them into my routine.
Although I had used a few flashy moves to persuade first Vale and then Madame Sylvie to take me on, I understood that this wasn’t a job interview; it was a dictionary of Demi, a catalog of my abilities that would determine my place in the show. Mademoiselle Charline alternated between scribbling in a notebook and staring at me with narrow, dark eyes, her small lips pursed like a dog’s ass.
I was flawless, of course. After doing the same routine for years on top of my wagon, I knew the moves by heart. The only thing missing from my act was a partner. Without Cherie, I had to skip the trickier parts or rely on the stacked chairs or mouth stand or ball to make it interesting.
“That move is traditionally done with a partner. Would you like to borrow someone?”
As my teeth gripped the stand, I glanced at Mademoiselle Charline in annoyance. Elegantly stepping out of the move with a flourish, I murmured, “I am a solo act, mademoiselle.”
“But you had a partner.”
“Yes. Had. And I don’t care for another.”
More scribbling, and I bent over backward into the next move.
When I was done, the crowd clapped politely. There had even been some whispering during the trickier parts that Criminy had devised for Cherie and me, moves that couldn’t be accomplished by a human or daimon. But Mademoiselle Charline had never cracked a smile or stopped her frantic note-taking; she and Madame Sylvie had to be a true force of nature when they were both in the same room and focused on the same thing. Now she closed the red leather book and stared at me so hard that I felt as if someone had set a lit match under my nose. Even her third, painted eye seemed in on the scrutiny.
“This song—why did you choose it?”
A light laugh hid my crafty smile. “The operetta is traditionally performed by daimons, and that song is about a party in hell, correct?”
“Of course. Everyone knows this.”
“Then debut the Bludman as the queen of hell. Let there be a party of dancers around me as I writhe. Fake fire, imps, whatever. Make it a spectacle.”
“Hmm.” More scribbling. “You did not answer the question.”
So I told her the truth. “Because it’s wild and unstoppable and dark and mad.”
“Interesting. You’re dismissed to costuming. Tonight you will be backstage, helping with makeup and dress. Learn as much as possible. You’ll debut Saturday. Our biggest night. I’ll have notes to you after tonight’s show, including choreography.”
“No. You will say, ‘Merci, Mademoiselle Charline.’ ” The sizzle of her gaze lit my cheeks.
“Thank you, Mademoiselle Charline.”
“Now go. Vite. We have things to do besides stare at your pasty flesh.”
She turned and began yelling at Mel and her friends, and I felt a tug on my bustle. Blaise.
“Hurry, Demi. Before she notices you a second time.”
I followed the daimon boy across the stage and into a new hallway, one I hadn’t seen before. He waved and abandoned me in front of an open door, and I tentatively knocked on the jamb, just loudly enough to be heard over the sound of the sewing machine within.
The daimon hunched over the black machine was the oldest-looking creature I’d seen in Sang thus far. She was going gray all over, the stripes of her wrinkles dusted with what must have once been the same blue skin shared by Bea and Blaise. The bright orange wig on her head and the paint on her lips showed that she was still trying, and her obvious disdain for the aging process made me smile.
“Hmm. The Bludman. Don’t typically care for your kind. But Bea says you’re a good egg, so I suppose I won’t sew poison into your skirt.” Unlike the other daimons, she didn’t have a wholly Franchian accent, and I suspected she had spent time in Sangland.
“Uh . . . thank you?”
She finally looked up, giving me the same all-over scrutiny that was starting to feel invasive and annoying. I had been with Criminy’s caravan so long that I had forgotten what it was like to be the new kid. Fortunately, my natural Bludman’s pride superseded my human insecurity, and I stared her down as I had everyone else, as I would continue to do until eyes met me with curiosity and interest instead of doubt and suspicion.
“I’m well aware. My coach was attacked by slavers, and then I spent most of yesterday on horseback or in the catacombs.”
She wheezed laughter. “Smoke, horse, and shit. We need to burn those rags. Take ’em off. Toss ’em in the fire.”
I searched the room for a changing screen and found nothing but the open door and racks and racks of the same sort of costumery that filled Master Antonin’s wagon in the caravan.
“Is there a changing room?”
Another wheeze. “You’re in it, kid.”
Close to the fire, I stripped off my boots and stepped out of the leggings that had once been artfully ripped and ruffled but now resembled mummy wrappings. I’d left my corset off that morning, knowing I would need to either perform or practice, both of which were almost impossible with tight steel bones running up my ribs. I briefly had bruises after showing off yesterday in my Pinky costume. Feeling cold and tender, I untied my bustle.
“Is this salvageable, at least?”
She squinted. “Two years out of season. Won’t do. Burn it.”
Luckily, I remembered to remove my lucky bludbunny foot before tossing the mud-rimed skirt into the fire, where it smoked with the dark hint of bone rot and mud. Now I was in nothing but my short chemise, my jacket, and the abbreviated bloomers I’d introduced around the caravan. It had been disturbing enough to learn that in Sang, I would hunger for and drink only blood. It had been even worse to discover that no one had yet invented a decent set of women’s undergarments, and most women just let the breeze blow by. After several exhaustive sketches and very ticklish measurements, Master Antonin had finally caved and constructed bloomers that were tight and stretchy but perfect for performing. The lace-ruffled edge was his own design and itched me horribly.