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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Look, Charline. I refuse to wear a hat shaped like a coffee cup, even if it works with the name.”
“But this costume you propose is . . .”
“This is Paris. We set the fashion. So let’s set it. Besides, very little skin is revealed. They’ll see more when the other girls dance than they see when I contort.”
Angry mauve spread over Charline’s gold skin like ink on tissue. “Must you be utterly contrary at every juncture, mademoiselle?”
I shrugged and settled back against my pillow. “Why not? Someone needs to. You don’t become a star by doing the same thing everyone else is doing. N’est-ce pas?”
“Perhaps. But you don’t keep the established clientele by suddenly changing everything they’ve come to expect.”
“So keep everything the same.”
She smiled in triumph.
“Except for my act.”
The smile died.
“My act should be last, and it should start the same way, on the hoop. Or maybe a trapeze. Lower me to eye level, I’ll do my thing, then bring all the girls out to dance the can-can together with locked arms. Easy.”
“And for the costumes?”
A brief image of one of my favorite childhood movies flashed through my head, and I grinned. “Dress them as forks, napkins, salt cellars, sugar bowls, teacups. Like a giant table, putting on a show just for the diners. Inviting the audience to be our guests.”
One eyebrow went up as she considered it. “I regret to say that it’s not entirely horrible. Perhaps instead of a hoop, you could emerge on a giant chandelier?”
I nodded eagerly, imagining it. Me, sliding down the rope to a majestic chandelier of gold and jewels, slithering around it as it slowly descended to the floor. Paris had surely never seen its like, and that was exactly what I was hoping for in my act.
“It will take a week to prepare this grand finale. Until then, can we count on an exact replication of last night’s sensation?”
“But I have a rider.”
She cocked her head. “Do you require . . . a horse? Perhaps a saddle?”
I laughed. I guess she’d never heard of M&M’s, either. “It’s a list of demands. I want posters of me. And a better costume for the interim.”
She snorted a very Franchian snort and rolled her eyes. “Both requests are already in process. We are not idiots, mademoiselle. If the people want you, we shall give you to them, and gladly.”
I nodded and sipped my blood, picking up a magazine. Recognizing that she’d been released, Charline spun on her slipper and left, muttering under her breath in Franchian. Her last line bothered me still. I had felt powerful all morning, knowing that I had proven myself, made a good bet, and cast myself one step closer to the stardom I’d always craved.
But her carelessly tossed words reminded me who was really in charge of my future: the people. More specifically, a slavering crowd of rich, lustful men who weren’t accustomed to being told no. Were they really so different from the slavers who had stolen Cherie? The duke’s response had been amusing, but the fact remained that he hadn’t written “I appreciate your rejection and respect your empowerment,” he had simply upped his price.
I was still for sale; the bids would just have to get a lot higher.
* * *
The show went off without a hitch that night, and the crowd’s mad yammering and stomping filled me with elation and terror. The purple daimon dude, Auguste, ushered me out of view before they could storm the stage and tear me apart, his hand wrapped around the top of my arm, gentle but firm. He was like a bouncer, Mel had informed me, working many of the cabaret tasks that couldn’t or wouldn’t be performed by the girls. But Auguste didn’t escort me to my room upstairs. Instead, he dragged me down the opposite side of the wings, through a maze of hallways, and outside into the starlit night.
The air was chill and as clear as the air in a Sang city could get, and I opened my eyes as wide as possible, until I blinked away tears. I hadn’t been out of doors since I stepped into the catacombs with Vale, and Paris was ridiculously, impossibly beautiful. The City of Light merged the pictures in my world mixed with the topsy-turvy paintings of absinthe-riddled artists to shimmer with brighter-than-life colors and energy and movement. The effect was beyond distracting.
Overhead, the clouds swirled and curled around the stars in a dreamy dance. The moon was a perfect crescent, the warm yellow of fine cheese, its glow painting indigo mountains and throwing sharp black trees into shadow. The sky mesmerized me so completely that I nearly tripped on my own feet as Auguste pulled me toward a towering elephant of copper and glittering enamel, its giant legs each the size of a lighthouse and the rivets that held it together as big as my fist.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered.
As he opened a hatch in its front left leg and yanked me inside, I felt the first sting of panic. Where was he taking me? Then I heard the first calls of the crowd on our tail. It was pitch black and cold inside, and Auguste let go of me long enough to turn the wheel behind us, locking the door.
“Steps, miss,” he said softly, and I reached out a toe until I felt the first one.
Up and up we went in a tight spiral. I kept one hand on the smooth copper wall, running fingers over solder and rivets and cringing as gentlemen’s fists banged on the metal. Outside, Madame Sylvie’s voice carried, but I couldn’t catch any words. Had they sold me, or had I been given away? Was this ridiculous elephant my new room? Something about it—maybe the echo of my steps or the cold scent of metal on the air—felt like a prison even a Bludman couldn’t escape. My heart sped up. Could this be where they kept Cherie?
A glow ahead made my feet move faster, and I soon stood in the most opulent room I’d seen yet in Paris. It was the elephant’s belly, the glowing copper hung with velvet and silks like a maharaja’s palace, with expensive furniture pressed close to the curved walls. The floor, at least, was flat, the wood boards new and polished and covered with sumptuous rugs. A painted screen broke the space up into two distinct rooms, and I would have bet everything I owned that a bed was on the other side of it. But there was no one else there; it was empty. And not a single sniff of Bludman rode the air. No Cherie.
Not that kind of prison, then. Unfortunately.
“You’ll stay here tonight. Outfit’s on the other side of the screen. Best get ready.”
“Get ready for what, Auguste?”
His smirk was pitying and a little leering. “What do you think, mademoiselle? Being a star ain’t free.”
With a faux-courtly bow of his head, he ducked back into the elephant’s leg, leaving me alone. Unnerved but still amped from my performance, I went to the gramophone on a small table and pressed the button without checking to see what music waited on the disc. Having grown accustomed to Casper’s masterly playing in the caravan, I was generally disappointed by popular music, but I needed something soothing. The song that started after a mechanical buzz was slow and sleazy. I was flipping through the other records when I heard footsteps on the copper stairs. I gasped and ran behind the screen.
Oh, what a bed. Round and covered in a mound of pillows, it was clear that only fools would sleep on such a sexy piece of furnishing before they’d completely exhausted each other. All around the bed, the copper walls were painted with bright blue skies, pink-tinged clouds, and daimon children dressed as cherubs with mechanical wings and crossbows. Hanging from a hook on the wall was a delicate wire hanger, and hanging from that by two pathetic silken strings was the slinkiest, most nonexistent dress I’d seen since waking up in Sang, half-dead and craving blood.
A foot landed on the wooden boards with a creak.
“La Demitasse?” a cultured but unfamiliar voice called gently.
The breath caught in my throat. Who was it? Surely not the duke. Or was it? And not Monsieur Philippe, thank heavens. But that left an awful lot of rich, horny men in tuxedos who might have bought their way into my life.
“Just a moment, monsieur,” I called, keeping my voice low and light.
“I’ll pour the wine, chérie, while I wait.”
The offhand use of my best friend’s name was all it took to propel me into motion. Every man I got close to here was one more suspect on my list, one more possibility. With my sharp sense of smell, I would know immediately if he’d been near her. And that meant that I had to slither into the dress on the hanger and make nice with whatever silver-tongued predator had landed on the doorstep.
My hands were numb as I untied the skirt and undid all the layers of my costume. I almost missed the impenetrable armor of a corset, but in this case, every breath was welcome. The gramophone music buzzed and wheedled, echoing off the metal and filling the room with the promise of sensuality. After checking that the gentleman’s back was turned, his hands busy with cutting the wax and uncorking and pouring the wine, I stripped off my costume and kicked it under the bed.
The male form I’d seen had been utterly unremarkable in every way. Darkish hair, slimmish figure, the same black tux required of every visitor to Paradis. His hat sat on the table beside him, and a long coat was draped possessively over a chaise. Before he could turn around, I tugged the dress down over my head, the soft cotton and filmy lace whispering over my bare skin. I kept on the new bloomers Blue had made for me, this pair in black lace with foamy layers of ruffles. A full-length mirror by the bed showed a slight rumple at the waist, as the negligee wasn’t designed to conceal anything, but I wasn’t about to go into this unexpected meeting without underwear on.
I was a fool for being at all surprised. I had been warned in different ways that being a star came with certain requirements, including spending time with the customers, who paid heavily for the privilege. But I had never agreed, in writing or in words, to barter my body or sexual favors of any sort. No matter what the gent in the other room might have been thinking, no matter what he thought he had paid for, no matter how Sylvie defined “anything,” I didn’t owe him shit, and I wouldn’t forget that. I’d tease the hell out of him, but I wasn’t going to be a whore. Not now, not ever.
The cork popped. Liquid gently gurgled.
“The wine is ready, mademoiselle. Won’t you join me?”
I shivered at the confident, low timbre of his voice. This was a man accustomed to getting what he wanted, what he’d paid for. Like the duke—and maybe he really was the duke—he thought I was for sale. Time to inform him differently.
“Alas, monsieur. I cannot partake.”
A soft laugh. “I beg you to reconsider. It’s a special vintage from the Tsarina’s personal cellar. Tell me, Demitasse. Have you ever tasted unicorn blud?”
I struggled not to giggle. I bet I knew what was on the label and whose pockets had been lined through its procurement. At least I’d get to taste it this time without suspicion.
But wait. Just because Vale hadn’t drugged me didn’t mean this so-called gentleman shared the brigand’s scruples. I had a lot of questions for the girls of Paradis regarding taking drinks from patrons and what could be slipped into those drinks that a girl might find reason to regret later. For now, I was stuck. But considering that he hadn’t watched American television, perhaps he didn’t know all the same tricks that I did.
Checking myself in the mirror, I used a finger to wipe off stray lip paint and compose my smile. The dress hung daintily from my shoulders and billowed around me, short and voluminous, and I slipped my feet into a pair of kitten-heeled slippers lined up below the coat hanger. The look wasn’t unflattering, but I hadn’t seen such a fashion in Sang, much less Paris. I felt a little like a child in a nightgown, which was creepy in an entirely different way. Taking a deep breath, I curled fingers around the painted screen and cooed, “Perhaps I will reconsider, then.”
His head snapped around, and I was disappointed. He was older, distinguished, not unattractive, but nowhere near my age and tastes in men. Not that it mattered. I had enough problems with handsome men who kept turning up and setting my heart thumping. Seeing me, he grinned with tobacco-stained teeth and ran a hand through his slicked-back hair, which was graying at the temples. His eyes would have been kindly if they hadn’t been filled with dark, avid lust.
“Saint Ermenegilda, preserve me. You’ve forgotten your stays, ma chérie.”
I blushed, suddenly understanding why the short gown was so voluminous. Of course. It was meant to go under a corset and balloon out prettily, highlighting my small waist. Except for bludded carnival contortionists, no woman in Sang went out without a corset. It was the equivalent of walking out of the house topless. But the hunger in his eyes ratcheted up a notch as his gaze crawled over me. I took a half-step behind the screen to cover my embarrassment.
“Leave it off. Please. I have never seen anything so ravishing.”
I’d broken another rule. And it was already paying off. As I’d learned long ago in a different world, when men started thinking below the belt, they stopped thinking above the neck.
I smiled and struggled not to cross my arms over my cleavage. Letting my hips sway, I walked to the table, where a familiar bottle of wine sat, open. One wineglass sat beside it, the deep red liquid seeming to slosh gently on its own, glitter swirling like silt. I didn’t know enough about that drink or this world, and I wasn’t about to sip from the glass he must have brought himself, as it hadn’t been here before I’d disappeared behind the screen.
I wanted to drink it. I just didn’t want to end up unconscious and assaulted for my curiosity.