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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“You have no money. I don’t have much. If we had more, I could grease some palms, open some doors. And you could drink fresh blood and sleep on a pillow. Oui?”
“Somewhat tentative oui.”
“But if you have nothing to sell, we are at an impasse.” He reached out to tug a curl that had fallen from my updo. “I would offer to sell your hair to the apothecary, but I think you will need it to become a star.” Leaning closer, he whispered, “Also, I like the way it curls.”
I shook my head and slipped the curl behind my ear, grateful that he’d given me an out . . . and a compliment. I would sell my hair for Cherie, if that was what it took. But I agreed with him; short hair didn’t suit me, and it definitely wasn’t the fashion in Paris. The way Vale was looking at me, though, as if weighing me—there was something he wasn’t telling me.
“What?” I asked.
Shrugging it off with a falsely bright laugh, he patted my shoulder. I immediately felt I’d failed Cherie with my fear.
“Don’t worry about it, bébé. You won’t start earning until you’re onstage, so you’ll just have to put on a brave face until then. Oh.” Vale reached into his vest pocket. “It’s not much. But I thought this might make it easier.” As he curled my fingers around something hard wrapped in a handkerchief, voices came down the hall, and he whispered, “Keep it hidden.”
I felt around my new costume for a place to hide the mysterious package, and he stepped away to a less personal distance as a group of daimons appeared.
“Allo, new girl! Mademoiselle Charline is looking for you.” I didn’t recognize any of the arms, but I nodded and thanked the pink-skinned daimon.
“Why, Vale Hildebrand,” she cooed, catching sight of him. “Brought us anything good today?”
The girls circled him, and his grin slid from me to them. I snorted and turned, doing my best not to storm off to the stage, considering how quickly his attention had shifted.
I just held up a glove, wondering what was the Franchian equivalent of talk to the hand ’cause the face don’t wanna hear it. He didn’t call to me again, and even though I slowed down a little to give him the chance to catch up, no hand landed on my shoulder. It made me feel rejected, even though it was childish and ridiculous. I had grown used to Criminy’s brand of brigandry, in which he held the utmost loyalty to his people and especially to his wife but gave the world the face of an outlaw. Even though we’d barely shared a few hours of each other’s company and one kiss almost gone deadly, I had no real reason to feel that Vale owed me anything, much less loyalty. His relationships with the daimons appeared long-standing, warm, and real. Who was I, one desperate Bludwoman, to suddenly show up and turn the world on its head?
That’s what I told myself, but it still rankled. I might have been the predator, but I wanted to be chased, damn it all.
“Idiot, come here.”
Mademoiselle Charline tapped a long, elegant foot beside a rope ladder. I walked to her, chin high. I wasn’t going to start by apologizing—not to her, not to anybody.
“You’re hard to kill, which means you’re a natural for the catwalk. Climb up and replace the cold bulbs, oui?” Blaise scurried out from the wings with a wooden box of milky glass. I was unsure how they could possibly expect even a Bludman to climb a ladder carrying a box, but he showed me how to hitch it onto my back with two wide leather straps.
“Yes, Mademoiselle Charline.”
Thus began a long list of mundane tasks, the sort of manual labor that had been done by subservient humans in Criminy’s caravan, mostly Vil. Maybe I was spoiled, but it seemed counterproductive to waste my potential with mops and feather dusters and gallivanting high above the ground if it wasn’t related to an act. I watched the daimons below, first as they stretched and worked in small groups, then, after noon, when they ran a rehearsal for the night’s show in full costume. Charline ran a tight ship, much tighter than Criminy, who had mostly allowed his carnivalleros to control their own acts. More than one daimon girl was rewarded with a whack from a small leather whip after missing a cue or not smiling brightly enough. Watching Charline’s face, I couldn’t tell which sort of daimon she was, the sort that thrived on success or on pain. She seemed to enjoy a perfectly executed act as much as she enjoyed snapping her whip.
I was again walking the catwalk, this time knocking down rogue bird nests and dusting cobwebs, when I bent too far and felt the package Vale had given me dig into my side. Pulling it out and unwrapping the handkerchief, I found the glowing green pendant he’d worn in the catacombs. I’d told him I hated the dark, and he’d given me his light, given me comfort. And I’d snubbed him for smiling at his friends.
“Idiot,” I muttered to myself, twisting the mechanism that made it light up.
And that’s when I heard the metal rails creak.
“Poor little Cendrillon. No one will let her go to the ball.”
I didn’t have to turn around to know who addressed me. “Bonjour, Limone.”
“Not such a bon jour for you, is it? Didn’t think you’d actually have to do work, I bet. Thought you’d just waltz in and be a star?”
I shrugged, careful not to show weakness as her footsteps made the catwalk sway between us. Her aerial hoop waited just beyond me. It must have been time for her rehearsal.
“Bad news, bloodsucker. Here in Paradis, you have to work for what you want.”
She stopped behind me, and I swept an especially large cobweb from a corner and turned to face her, letting the gray tendrils trail over her face and making her cough and swipe at it. Her acid-yellow skin flushed an ugly dappled mustard.
“I’m working. I’m not complaining. What’s your problem?”
Purposefully taking up as much of the catwalk as possible, I returned to dusting. Making enemies hadn’t been part of the plan, but I absolutely refused to grin and give way. Being nearly immortal had given me an attitude I’d never had as a human. If Limone was so very determined to hate me, I’d rather give her a good reason than suck up to her. If I wanted to be a diva, I had to act like a diva.
I waited for her to say something else, to shove past me, to turn and stomp down the catwalk and demand that I be ejected from Paradis.
When I began to think that perhaps I had won, that’s when I felt firm hands clutch my shoulders and push, hard. Before I understood what was happening, she had tipped me over the metal rail, and I fell from the catwalk, trailing feathers and cobwebs.
It was a long way down, so long that I had time to realize that I was falling and wheel my arms and legs, trying to land any way but head-first. I was nearly invulnerable, but “nearly” left a lot of wiggle room. I managed to get flat, like a starfish, and that’s how I landed: on my back, splayed out, still holding the damn duster in one hand. Vale’s green pendant had shattered on the boards beside me.
Daimons screamed and scurried about as if I might explode. But I just lay there, contemplating the bizarre pain of falling a hundred feet and landing on solid wood planks that had shivered beneath me, probably sending dust into the catacombs just below, where I’d once stood with Vale. Everything onstage moved in slow motion, the rainbow-hued circle of faces now gathering above me making the cheerful noise of dolphins laughing underwater.
I just shook my head weakly. My teeth were clenched so hard I could feel my fangs digging into my gums. Something blue waved and wiggled to get my attention, and I squinted. It was Bea. She made the universal sign for Okay? And I barely managed to connect my thumb and forefinger. She smiled, and I allowed my eyes to close. Dozens of fingers helped lift me, and I went limp and boneless as they carried me away. Looking up, I saw an acid-green face far, far away, high in the sky, glaring at me with eyes like lasers. I bared my teeth in a smile.
Limone wanted me dead. I had not obliged. And that made me happy.
* * *
The daimons deposited me in my bed, which now had a much thicker blanket. I was curious if it was from Vale, but everyone was fussing too much to listen to me. Finally, Mel cleared them all out until it was only her and Bea, tucking me in.
“Come on, y’all. I’m fine.”
Mel tsked. “Oh, la. That was a big fall, chère. We need a chirurgeon to check your bones. You might have broken something.” The green shards of the pendant matched her skin as she gently placed the remains of Vale’s gift on the table beside my bed. “Sorry about your heartstone.”
“Vale used to have one. They’re very special to his people. Maybe he can find a replacement.”
Tossing off the blanket, I rolled to my feet and stretched, cracking my spine in four places as if that would help heal the part that ached inside when I looked at the broken necklace. Vale had told me to be careful with it, and it had been special, and I had let it get destroyed. Growling, I did a backbend, satisfied at the pops in my hips. The green girl in the tutu and the blue girl in the shepherdess costume both stared at me as if I was the strange one.
“Why aren’t you dead? Why are you standing? What happened?” Mel asked, her arms held out to catch me should I suddenly topple over.
“I was on the catwalk. Limone started an argument and pushed me off.”
Mel sucked air in through her teeth and tapped her toe shoe. “Oh, la. I saw her skulking off while everyone gathered around you. If Mademoiselle Charline finds out, they will take Limone to the gendarmes, and they are . . . not kind to us.”
Bea tapped Mel on the arm and signed something in a flurry.
“Are you going to tell?” Mel asked.
“Who, me?” I thought for a moment, understanding that I was being given some sort of test. “No, of course not. I’m not hurt. Besides, if she ran away, my problem is over, right?”
Bea held up a finger, then fled the room. Moments later, she returned and signed to Mel.
“She’s gone. Her room is a mess. Looks like you’ve rid us of some trouble.”
I chuckled. “I didn’t really do much. Just fell. But who will . . .” A milky, old-fashioned lightbulb flashed over my head, and I grinned. “Wait. I have an idea. Will you help me?”
Their eyes met, shifty and suspicious but curious. Bea shrugged a How?
“First of all, go put Limone’s room back in order, and don’t tell anyone she’s gone. Second, can you find a makeup kit? With paint?”
I twisted back and forth, getting limber. I had work to do.
* * *
I spent the rest of the afternoon holed up in Limone’s room, planted in front of her full-length mirror. Her door actually had a lock, a good one, and no matter how many people knocked, I ignored it. The ewer held rose-scented water, and the first thing I did was take what my grandmother always called a whore bath, exhaling in relief as the dirt I’d carried with me from Sangland dribbled down onto a plush rug. Limone’s closet held almost everything I needed, but I struggled with the final piece of the puzzle. Without needle, thread, or scissors, I couldn’t make what certainly felt like the most important part of my wardrobe.
Therefore, it seemed like more than providence when I heard Blue’s voice on the other side of the door.
“Limone, dear, I have a special delivery for you.” Her wheezing told me she was in on the joke, and I cracked the door open just wide enough to let her slip in. Her eyes twinkled as she held out a pile of cloth. “That’s what you needed, yes?”
I held out the bloomers and smiled. “Exactly. But how did you know?”
“You have your secrets, and I have mine. Now, let me help you not muck it up.”
The basket she set on the floor held all the little details that only a costumer remembered, and I was soon ready to put my plan into motion.
“Break a leg, dear,” Blue said as she hobbled back out the door. “I’ll be watching.” She winked and was gone, and I checked the clock under glass on Limone’s dresser. Her room was three times the size of mine and much more beautifully appointed. And if tonight went as planned, it would be mine completely tomorrow.
A soft scratch on the door startled me. “It’s time,” Mel whispered. I gave her a few minutes to get into place, as being seen with me could get her thrown out of the cabaret—at least, until my plan reached victory.
I took one last look in the mirror, and damn if I wasn’t impressed. Each of the cabaret’s daimons had a personality or theme, and her costumes and colors reflected it. Bea was a dainty shepherdess, Charline was an Egyptian queen, Mel was a butterfly. And now I was marked in every way as exactly what I was: a blood drinker. The deep-red jacket, short but billowing black skirts, red lipstick, kohl-lined eyes, and red-lacquered claws would stand out even among the bright daimons.
With a deep breath, I opened the door and hurried down the hallway, down the stairs, and past the niche in the brick where Vale had kissed me. Without really meaning to, I trailed the points of my claws along the bricks, a little hitch in my breath and a tingle in my belly. Would he be in the audience, watching? God, I hoped so.
I pulled the veil from my small top hat down over my face. The double layer of black lace hid my features, but still I hurried before anyone bothered to ask who I was and what I was doing. The first act was in progress, the audience warming up with swirling dancers and the pounding of feet on boards—the very boards that had shuddered underneath me when I fell. The cabaret hadn’t paused for even a moment; rehearsal had gone on, and neither Madame Sylvie nor Mademoiselle Charline had been up to check on me, that I knew of. If it hadn’t suited my purposes so well, I would have been insulted. Criminy would have been there for an hour, holding my hand and stroking my hair back with a concerned look on his sharp eyebrows and threatening to kill me if I told anyone of his soft heart in regard to a scruffy little orphan like myself.