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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
But we weren’t in Sangland anymore.
Finally backstage, I wrapped my hands around the rope ladder and climbed quickly and without looking down, lest someone see my face. The first act ended, and I hurried faster as the daimon girls ran behind the curtain. Halfway up, I checked to see that Mel and Bea were in their places. Mel gave me a smile, and Bea giggled silently into her hand, each where she was supposed to be, waiting to play her part in the plan that would either make me or break me.
The catwalk swayed as I hurried past the place where Limone had pushed me. What a gift the bitch had given me. Stepping out over thin air, I caught her hoop and settled myself on it in the same position she had taken the first night I’d come to Paradis. I’d never used a hoop before, but my body knew exactly what to do. It felt sturdy, cold, and sure beneath my bare hands. The second I found my mark, the anxiety melted into the same beautiful calm I felt every time the spotlights came on. Performing had become part of me, the place where I knew myself and my body and my part in the world. And tonight I would steal the goddamn show.
The audience went quiet, and the curtains parted with the whisper of velvet on wood. The hoop trembled, and I began to descend. As the spotlight hit me and the hoop stopped in midair, I let go with one hand and swung back into a dramatic arch that Limone herself couldn’t have achieved. Lifting one leg in a perfect point, I let my skirts fall down to reveal black fishnet stockings and a high-heeled red boot. The crowd went mad.
Instead of Limone’s signature music, Mel had managed to coax the orchestra into producing “The Infernal Galop,” and I went through a series of contortions on the hoop, writhing around it as Limone had but with more finesse, more flexibility, and more daring. She had slithered around the metal circle, but I contorted around it, bending and arching. At just the right moment, I swung down, a move I’d never practiced but which I knew I could stick.
I hung from my hands now, my heavy skirts pulling toward the stage. The hoop began to descend, right on cue, and I willed Bea’s hands to speed up, to ensure that I hit the ground exactly when I wanted to. On a whim, I scissored my legs out and around and got the hoop spinning, letting my skirts flail out in a move that got an appreciative howl from the crowd. Thank heavens for Blue’s bloomers.
After landing daintily in the center of the stage, I got into place, hands on my hips. And then the music hit precisely the right moment, and I threw back my veil, tossed off my hat, and became the first girl in the Paris of Sang to dance the can-can.
The first time my leg rose over my head straight up, the crowd gasped and whispered. Then again and again, and they roared. They fucking roared! I kicked high, kicked in circles, and even did that little leg-shake thing that made my skirts fall all the way back to show the lacy bloomers. At that sight, the men nearest the stage took to their feet and surged forward, clamoring. I moved toward them with a suggestive smile and began kicking the top hats off their heads to laughs of disbelief and the hot growls of universal lust. Francs and roses rained at my feet and clattered under my boot heels.
I glanced offstage and found Mel and Bea watching me anxiously, their arms entwined. Jerking my head, I held out my hands to them, and Mel laughed and rushed onstage, linking arms with me and matching her kicks to mine as well as a regular body allowed. Bea was beside her in seconds. More and more of the audience left their seats to rush the stage, and Mel thrummed with joy. For a daimon, this sort of response had to be like an ice cream buffet for a little kid. She waved offstage, and other daimons joined us, linking arms into a long line as they learned quickly how to do my bastard version of the can-can. I briefly wondered what they wore under their skirts and whether they were truly giving the audience a show, but it had been their choice to join me, so I wasn’t going to worry about it.
The song was drawing to a close when the first of the men clambered onto the stage. The curtain fell early to cut him off as the orchestra fumbled to a halt. Mayhem followed, with men in tuxedos trying to crawl under the weighted velvet curtain and Charline darting back and forth with her whip and cane, trying to smack them away. The mustachioed male daimon I’d seen behind the bar that first night grabbed the push broom and tried to hold the men off of us, his barbed tail wagging dangerously over his shoulder. The daimon girls had glassy eyes and couldn’t stop laughing, and I was filled with the power of the stage, with the knowledge that I’d started a complete and utter sensation. It was getting dangerous behind the curtain, but it felt good, and no one made a move to leave.
Strong fingers dug into my wrist. Even when Madame Sylvie dragged me offstage and shoved me hard against the brick wall, I couldn’t stop smiling.
“What is this farce?” she growled, her face hot, bright red under flaking flesh-colored paint.
“It’s not a farce. It’s a dance. I call it the can-can.”
“How dare you! I take you in off the street, and you drive away one of my stars and take over the show? Unforgivable.”
I swallowed my grin, tried to look contrite. I failed. As I licked my lips and tried to plan my next words carefully, Blaise tugged on Madame Sylvie’s jacket.
“Away, boy. This is business.”
“But madame. This note is from the duke.”
The paper he held out was pristine and creamy and thick, the seal that held it still wet and glistening with a rampant gryphon. A hungry look passed over Madame Sylvie’s face, and she let go with one hand, still pinning me to the wall with the other. After ripping the note open with her teeth, she read it one-handed and sucked in her breath. Ever so gently, she untangled her fingers from the front of my jacket and placed me back on the ground as if I were made of porcelain.
“There are more, madame.” Blaise held out a fan of paper in his other hand, and Madame Sylvie took them with a giddy chuckle.
“Would you like to be the mistress of a duke, my Demitasse?” She raised one eyebrow at me as if gracefully conceding defeat and moving on to the next stage of negotiations.
“I’d like to meet him first.”
She stepped back, tucked the duke’s note into her cleavage, and brushed down the front of my jacket where she’d wrinkled it with her fist. “The can-can, eh? You’ve named a dance ‘the scandal.’ ”
“We are also sold out for tomorrow night, madame.” Blaise melted into the shadows.
Madame Sylvie crowed and looked at me as if I was edible—but in a regular way and not the harmless daimon way. “And what a scandal it is! Already sold out for tomorrow, and it’s not even intermission. I would call you an instant success if it didn’t cause me pain to do so.” She took a deep breath and put her hands on her hips. “Outfoxed by a Bludman. What have I come to?”
“A grand success, tons of publicity, and oodles of money?” I ventured.
She patted me on the head. “Just so. Now, off to your room and lock the door before they find you. You’ve driven them to a frenzy, you know.”
I straightened my jacket and put up my chin. “I’m taking Limone’s room.”
Her mouth quirked up, and she looked me up and down. “Fair enough. Just stay away from La Goulue, or she’ll stab you in the throat.”
“I’ve already died once on your stage. I’m not scared of round two.”
“Be scared of tomorrow, my dear. There will be even more men in the audience. And this time, they’ll be waiting to eat you alive.”
“Not if I eat them first.”
My eyes dared her to retort. She raised her chin a notch. On a whim, I caught the corner of the duke’s note and whipped it out of her corset, tucking it into my own cleavage instead. Her gaze continued to measure me, and I raised my eyebrows.
As I turned to hide my smile and take the stairs, she called, “Speaking of which, I’ll send out for some blood, shall I? Can’t have you getting too hungry.”
I raised a hand in thanks and muttered to myself, “You have no idea just how hungry I am.”
My elation and smug self-satisfaction lasted until I opened the door to Limone’s room and found a man standing by my open window, his face obscured by billowing white curtains.
“Shut the door and close your eyes,” he said.
“Honestly, Vale. Breaking in?”
He shrugged and grinned, his hands behind his back. “The window was open, bébé.” His finger sketched a circle in the air. “Now, at least turn around and shut the door.”
I leaned back against the wood, my breath catching as the door clicked shut. Last night’s room had been a closet with a cot, but Limone’s room was like a lady’s sitting room, with pretty damask wallpaper and rugs and a fire in the grate. The bed was sumptuous, iron with posts and draped in swaths of gauze and vines made of paper. I’d spent the afternoon trapped in here, waiting for my moment, but I hadn’t given the actual surroundings much thought. Now, with nothing between me and Vale but warm, smoky air scented with cinnamon and flowers and a jacket I’d already unbuttoned, it felt like a room made for seduction.
I nodded and closed my eyes, just to see if he would kiss me again.
A cork popped, and liquid glugged against glass. He stepped close enough for me to feel the warmth radiating from his skin and wrapped my fingers around the belly of a goblet. Gently, slowly, he brought it to my nose.
“Smell that, bébé?”
Breathing in deep, I smelled a million things. Blood, lots of it. Red wine, deep and perfectly aged and carrying hints of berries and vanilla and summer fruit I hadn’t tasted since passing out in Earth on my dorm room floor. He hadn’t let go of my hand, and his other hand now wrapped around it and brought the rim of the glass to my lips as he stepped even closer.
The scent of the wine was overwhelmed by the scent of him, just as powerful, just as dangerous.
“Careful, now. Just a taste.”
The goblet tipped up, and I opened my mouth, taking the small sip that he allowed me.
“Keep your eyes closed. What do you taste?”
I rolled the wine around my mouth, letting it wash over my tongue. “Blood. Wine. It’s greater than the sum of its parts.”
“There’s something else. Try again.”
I swallowed the wine, felt it caress my throat all the way down to my belly, where it settled, hot and mellow. I’d had bloodwine a few times since coming to Sang but not much. Criminy didn’t want any risk of his carnivalleros descending into drink or other illicit substances that tended to make one lazy or feral. But Vale was right—the wine he pressed insistently against my lips was different. I drank deeper this time, wrapping a hand around his wrist to hold it there. The flavor eluded me, and I opened my eyes. Vale was smirking, delighted. My fingers tightened around his arm as suspicion rose in my gullet.
“Is it your blood, Vale?”
“No. Of course not. I don’t want to make you go mad, bébé.” He winked. “At least, not that way.”
My fingers didn’t relax, and his bones ground together in my grasp, but to his credit, he didn’t flinch.
“What, then? Something dangerous? Magic?”
A peculiar distrust rippled through me. I dropped his wrist and threw the glass into the fire, where it shattered and sent sparkly red flames roaring up the chimney. I bared my teeth, my heart speeding up as I tried to puzzle out what he had given me, what he had done.
I had grown too comfortable with Criminy’s honor among thieves and had given this avowed brigand more trust than was wise. He could have poisoned me all too easily simply because I had a schoolgirl crush on him and felt as if I was filled with helium every time he stepped near. Funny, to think I had survived college frat parties without getting roofied, only to fall for the first drink set to my lips in Sang. I didn’t want to believe he was a villain, but that smirk he’d given me . . .
He took a step back, hands down, eyes wary. “Bébé, you’re taking it all wrong. It was unicorn blud, nothing more. There’s a certain cabaret where the Maestro and his Freesian Tsarina stay sometimes, and they keep the cellar stocked with special vintages of bloodwine. I nipped one and thought I’d surprise you. I assumed you would recognize the taste of unicorn. I’m told your people prize it.”
I licked my lips. True, I hadn’t tasted such magic before, and I was angry now but not insane. “Is it supposed to taste . . . fizzy? Warm?”
“Airy, yes. Effervescent, they say. That bottle of wine is one of the most expensive ones in the city, but they were unloading a crate as I came through the catacombs.” He carefully moved the bottle away from the edge of the desk, pushing it closer to a brilliant bouquet of mad sunflowers in a matching golden pot marked with a card that read “Limone.” “I thought it might make a nice gift to celebrate your debut,” although I was saving it for Saturday.
I moved to inspect the bottle, struggling to read the Sanguine type. Criminy and Cherie both had tried to teach me the rudiments of the Bludmen’s mostly secret tongue, but it didn’t follow the usual rules of language, and I’d given up. The bottle was thick, green glass, the label hand-painted with tiny letters and edged with gold. A fierce unicorn stood rampant on it, and I didn’t need to read the writing to know I’d just thrown a hissy fit over something completely stupid. The taste still tickled my throat, utterly delectable. I had to change the subject or start crying over what an idiot I was for doubting him. Rattled by annoyance, I snatched the card from the flowers and tossed it into the fire.
“Did you see it?” I blurted out.
I kept my back turned so he couldn’t see my reaction. “The show.”