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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Are you wearing a diaper, girl?” Finally, I had the old daimon’s attention.
“I call them bloomers. Women’s undergarments.”
She stood and hobbled over to me on feet so curled I wondered if daimons had ever practiced foot binding. Gnarled gray fingers poked me with impersonal curiosity, tugging at the fabric and pinching the tea-stained ruffles. “Don’t know why I never thought of that,” she finally said.
“Does that mean I don’t have to burn them?”
“Leave ’em there, in the bin. I’ll have ’em laundered and tear ‘em apart to make a pattern. I take it you’ll want more?”
“If it’s not too much trouble. I’m not accustomed to . . .” The Earth girl inside me almost said “free-ballin’ it,” but the Bludman of Sang interceded. “Feeling a breeze down there.”
Another wheeze. “You’d better get accustomed to a breeze, chérie. This is Paradis. The day may start off still and fair, but it’s bound to end in a hurricane. Fancy bloomies won’t change that.”
“Yes, yes. Take ’em off, and get over here. You’re wasting my time, and I don’t have much left.”
With a last glance at the open door, I stripped off my jacket and chemise and, last, the bloomers, leaving them in a heap on the floor. When the old daimon snapped her fingers and pointed to her side, I walked to the appointed spot and stood, naked and not quite shivering, as Bludmen didn’t do that. But it still felt completely freaky, being stripped down to the soft parts. Everyone in the caravan, especially in Sangland, was so careful to keep skin carefully covered, in part because of people like me. But I’d developed a habit of using my clothes as armor, perhaps, and that was to end now.
“Is this for my act?” I asked, and she wheezed away.
“You don’t get your own costume until Mademoiselle Charline orders it. This is to keep your measurements on hand and get you decent enough to run around backstage. You want to be fancy, you have to earn it.”
She bade me step up on a box before a mirror and took my measurements with sharp efficiency. I did my best to hold still and not hiss when she hit a particularly tender area. She didn’t write any numbers down until the end, when she entered them in a large ledger, licking the point of a pencil in between. I glanced over her shoulder, noting line upon line of names and measurements in neat columns. Several of them had been crossed out with one definitive stroke of her pencil.
Noticing my interest, she snapped the ledger shut and went to sort through a long rack of clothes, clearly the everyday stuff. The colors were washed-out and simple, probably made from old sheets or refashioned from the last generation of attire. I longed to run my hands over the hanging racks of brightly glittering costumes. Clouds of tulle and shimmering sequins and the spark of glitter called to me, and I couldn’t wait for the day when I would go backstage to dress and wait for that breathless moment before the curtain rose.
“Petticoats: black. Skirt: dark blue. Chemise: eh, used to be white.” She shoved a stack of fabric into my arms and shooed me away while she turned back to the rack. I dutifully slipped on the chemise and stepped into the petticoats, tying the frayed cord tightly. The skirt had to go over my head to fall over them both and had buttons up the back. The first few times I’d gotten dressed in Sang, back when Mrs. Cleavers had ruled the caravan’s costume wagon with an iron, pointy fist, I’d mucked it all up, trying to step into the skirt or putting my corset on before my boots. Now it was as simple as putting on underwear, jeans, and a T-shirt. I had long ago given up hope of ever ending up in a world where you could walk outside in only one layer of clothing or show sleek, tanned legs in shorts.
At least I got to enjoy the sensation of life without the typical corset. Most girls in mainland Sangland put on a corset at age twelve and only took it off for half an hour at a time for the bare minimum of bathing. By the time they were my age, they were permanently molded into hourglass form, most of them, and couldn’t laugh deeply for want of lung space. My life, although strange, was an improvement on that front.
Speaking of which . . . “Is there a shower?”
The costumer didn’t turn around. “There’s rain.”
“Then how can I get clean?”
“I told you: there’s rain.” She wheezed herself into a coughing fit. “But if you don’t like shaking your rump in the alleys, it’s ewer and cloth, same as anywhere.” I sniffed my armpit and grimaced. “What, you don’t have a ewer in your room?”
“Tsk. Girls around here. Sticky, sticky fingers. And not just the ones that were born with ’em. I’ll have that fixed.”
That earned a genuine smile from me. “Thank you.”
She handed me a capelike jacket and went to rummage in a drawer. “Never been as fine a life as it looks like from the audience. Out there, they only see the lights, the glamour, the feathers. Never see the freezing attics in winter, the bruises on your waist, the girls who’ll stab you in the back just to swallow your pain and fear. Never think about how the brightest stars wink out the fastest. All the magic happens onstage, and real life starts when the curtain goes down. Back here, behind the curtain, the world stands still.”
“Are you saying I should find other employment?”
She smirked. “You’re a lifer, honey. We can smell our own. I’m just saying to watch your back. Wherever you came from, it’s a smaller, sweeter place than this. Don’t let Mortmartre kill what’s best in you.”
I was so intent on her words that I accidentally misbuttoned the jacket, and she smacked my fussing hands away to fix it herself.
“And watch out for Limone. That girl’s as sour as they come. Men like that, for some reason.” She handed me a pair of worn linen slippers, which were a little loose without . . .
She wagged her head. “No point. Not in here. Not until show time. No men and no customers allowed past the door until dusk, and then only in black tie and after paying. Girls here have already seen everything you’ve got and then some.”
Although the air felt good on my legs after so long in dirty leggings, I wished for the millionth time that they made disposable five-blade razors in Sang. I’d never appreciated drugstores until I woke up in a place where toiletries were sold by traveling tinkers or mixed up from a magician’s grimoire.
When the old daimon handed me a brush, I pulled down the rest of my hair, making a neat stack of pins on her table. As I gently brushed the dried sweat out of my dark waves, she shoved me back and pressed my shoulders until I landed with a thump in her chair. Soon the brush was in her claw, and she was ripping through my hair until it snapped with static. Once it was all done, she began braiding it so tightly the corners of my eyes pinched. I had grown up calling it a French braid. But here it was a Franchian braid, and if I remembered correctly from the papers, it had fallen out of favor with anyone of taste and class.
I sighed, and she patted my shoulder.
“You’ll be onstage soon enough, dear. Impatience is a bitch of a mistress.”
“I could perform now.”
“Ah, but you won’t.”
Her hand stayed on my shoulder as if she understood that my every instinct screamed for me to leap up and run away. I wasn’t sure which bothered me more, that I wasn’t allowed to get onstage and begin my ascendency to stardom or that Cherie felt farther away than ever while I sat here, hopeless, doing nothing. I looked up at the bare lightbulb shining directly onto the sewing machine and realized that I wanted—no, needed—to see the sky. Criminy had always told me that cities were awful for Bludmen, and I began to understand what he meant. We were wild things, predators who didn’t take well to obedience. We belonged out in the wild, no matter how nicely we dressed up to pass, harmless, among our prey. I’d felt more myself bareback on Vale’s mare than I did sitting here, still, tightly braided, and obedient.
“Go on, then. They’ll be expecting you backstage.” I perked up, and she added, “To sweep up feathers, probably, or act as a pretty net for the high fliers. Don’t get excited yet.”
“At least my feet will be on the stage.”
“That’s the spirit, kid.”
I stood and stared at the open door. It stared right back.
“Thanks for your help and advice . . .”
“They just call me Blue.”
“Be careful out there, kid. You will never be the most dangerous predator in Paradis.”
I nodded, one hand on the doorjamb. I really didn’t want to go out there. I was far more terrified of being backstage than I was of feeling the spotlight and a thousand eyes. I already knew how to perform. I didn’t know how to fit in with my new coworkers, especially without Cherie at my side. In the past six years, I’d come to rely on her, for her knowledge, friendship, and understanding. Now I was alone. And I couldn’t get through the door.
Until I heard a certain familiar voice on the other side.
Vale’s voice pulled me through the door, grinning in anticipation.
The grin died when I saw that he hadn’t been talking to me.
“Bonjour, Monsieur Hildebrand,” trilled a daimon girl in a tutu. She put her hands on his shoulders and went up on pointe to kiss him on both cheeks, a gesture he returned. In the process, her skin shivered over to a warm caramel that matched his, which contrasted oddly with her maroon hair. Vale hadn’t noticed me yet, but if the heat I felt in my cheeks was any indication, I was turning as red as a daimon myself.
“You haven’t been around lately.” The daimon girl pretended to pout, pooching out her lips and sucking in her cheeks.
“I’m a busy man.”
“Mm. I know how you like to get . . . busy.”
As she stepped closer to him, he saw me over her shoulder and took a step away from her reaching hands. She stumbled on her toe shoes and caught herself against the wall with a muttered, “What’s wrong with you?”
His eyes didn’t leave mine as he stepped around her.
“Told you. Busy. Later, Jess.”
She did her best to storm away, but it’s awfully difficult to stomp successfully in toe shoes and a tutu.
“Bonjour, Monsieur Hildebrand,” I said, mimicking her exaggerated Franchian accent as soon as she was out of hearing range.
“What can I say? The girls love me.”
“I can guess why.”
“You would guess wrong.”
I raised one eyebrow.
“Fine. Half wrong.”
“What else do you give ze mademoiselles besides ze kisses?”
“Let’s not talk about me. Let’s talk about you. How is your first day at the cabaret?”
I sighed. “I thought I would be a star tonight. Instead, I’m an errand girl. Or something. They dressed me like a servant and told me to go backstage. Not cool.”
He snatched my hand and twirled me around. “Looks fine to me, bébé. We all have to wear costumes in Mortmartre.”
And it was true. He’d traded in his all-black outfit for clothes that would blend in with the crowds I’d seen at the caravan recently. Criminy had never let me into the cities, and the papers we got were often out of date or missing the pertinent bits on fashion, so the only comparison I had for menswear came from noticing the customers while balancing upside down on top of my wagon. Tight, striped trousers, waistcoat and shirt, cravat, pointed boots. And yet he gave Parisian normalcy a dangerous edge.
“Aw. You’re trying to look respectable.”
“Trying?” He clutched his chest and staggered backward. “Bébé, you wound me. I am very respectable.”
He grinned. “Today, yes.”
“Have you heard anything about Cherie? Or the slavers?”
He shook his head. “Such things take time. I can’t just appear in the streets with a poster, shouting. In Paris, especially in the dangerous parts, the more they know you want something, the higher they set the price. And if they know you cannot afford it, the more locks they put on the door that hides it. So I’m making my usual rounds, taking my usual orders, dropping hints nonchalantly over a glass of bad wine. I’ve only hit three cabarets.”
“The three biggest ones, bébé.” He put a hand on my shoulder, and little thrills sang through me. I’d grown so accustomed to the touch of gloves that there was a new intimacy to the warmth of a man’s hand felt through my jacket. “I will go out again this evening. I told you we would not find your friend overnight.”
“So no one’s seen anything? At all?”
He let go of my shoulder and leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms and smoldering at me. “What am I going to say? ‘Oh, bonjour. Been buying any illegal slaves? Because I would like to take one back. Without paying. And I won’t tell anyone about the butchering slavers who kidnapped her. Brigand’s honor.’ ” One finger crossed an X over his heart and then went to his lips to mime silence, and I giggled despite my instant depression.
“I guess not. But there has to be something I can do.”
His eyes skittered away, uneasy. “Besides rise to stardom and get kidnapped yourself?” He shook his head bitterly. “I still do not like this idea. Are you sure you have nothing of value to sell?”
I crossed my arms and leaned back, shrugging my shoulders against the brick wall. I wouldn’t give him my only coins. I wasn’t even sure I could trust him. “Nothing.”