|Home > Delilah S. Dawson > Blud > Wicked After Midnight (Page 21)|
|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
He tipped his head, just the tiniest gesture, and his mouth quirked up in a sly grin. I gasped when I saw his fangs, and with that gulp of air came the full power of his scent. Not Cherie, then; I had smelled his own blud.
“And now you know my secret.”
His voice was butter and bourbon, sipped in a lightless room. The accent was mostly Sanglish but rich and royal. He stood, his shadow-gray suit as crisp as if he’d just had it starched for the first time. He was all angles and corners as he bent at the waist and reached for my hand. My bare fingers were dark against his white kidskin glove, and I shivered when his mustache and lips brushed the back of my hand.
I bobbed my head and looked up through my eyelashes. “We’re all filled with secrets, monsieur. But you have surprised me, which is one point in your favor.”
He grinned in a way that reminded me very much of Criminy Stain, except that a bit of playful good humor lurked always behind Crim’s wickedness. I suspected Lenoir held all of the danger and none of the amusement that made my mentor so very lovable. And yet I couldn’t help mimicking the smile. We were both dangerous things, weren’t we?
“So you’re saying you owe me, then, mademoiselle? Fine. I accept the debt. I wish to paint you.”
“I’m flattered, monsieur.”
“Don’t be. You knew I’d come for you. They all do.”
“All of whom?”
“Coyness doesn’t become you, Demi. The girls I paint know I will come for them because that’s exactly what they want. After I paint you, you’ll be immortal, your name on every man’s tongue. You’re a rising star, but I will turn you into the sun.”
His grin widened, went darker, if that was possible. “Oh, little one. You have no idea.” He returned to the couch, taking up a sketchbook and leaning back. “Stand there, one hand on the table. Don’t look at me. Look at . . . oh, say, that painting.”
Bemused, I did as I was told. He shook his head in annoyance and walked to me quickly, his gloved hands businesslike and cold as they posed my arms and changed the angle of my torso. I’d felt like an object ever since arriving in Paris, but under his posing, I felt less like a morsel or a doll and more like a vase of flowers that just wouldn’t cooperate. When he’d finally contorted me into the correct pose, he returned to the couch and began sketching, the pencil’s rasp harsh in the silence.
“I thought Bludmen weren’t allowed in Mortmartre,” I murmured through mostly closed lips.
“And yet here we are, you and I. The thing is, once you’re in, it’s awfully hard to get you back out. And if you were here all along and have never taken off your gloves and can’t be seen to smile very often under your mustache, no one ever looks closely enough to tell. It’s the beauty of daimons; since we’re no danger to them, they don’t really notice the difference.”
“And none of your . . . subjects has ever noticed?”
He stopped sketching to glare at me from under heavy brows. “You say subjects, but you mean lovers.”
“I am a student of history, monsieur, and I understand that an artist’s muse often finds his bed as well as his brush.”
He chuckled as he made angry slashes with his lead. “A muse is a muse, and a portrait subject is a thing. One is more trouble than the other. Your head should be tilted, Demi.”
I dutifully tilted it. Maybe he was gay? He certainly didn’t look upon me with lust, at least not the open, crass sort I’d grown accustomed to when performing. But there was something deeply sensual in his close scrutiny, in the calculations going on behind his eyes. Whatever he wanted, it wasn’t some giggling daimon dancer. And whatever path he chose, I suspected, would be thorough and purposeful and would allow no turning back.
When I shivered, he only murmured, “Hold still.”
It might have been ten seconds or ten minutes or ten hours later before the mad scritching stopped and he looked at me as if I was a person again.
“You may sit.”
I stretched and twisted, cracking my spine in four places. Odd parts of me were asleep, and my eyes were dry as if I’d held them open too long at the beach.
“Tiring, isn’t it? Holding one attitude too long.”
I shrugged elegantly. “I’m a performer. I perform.”
Lenoir nodded thoughtfully. “So you do.” I was about to sit and lure him deeper into conversation, hoping to discover more about his past and how he’d hidden so long in plain sight and if he knew any other Bludmen in Paris, but he stood abruptly and tucked his sketchbook under one arm.
“I’ll expect you tomorrow morning. Before nine, while the light is still good. Take extra blood, as I’ll want pink in your cheeks and lips. I’ll have a costume ready. I utterly defy you to be shy.” He slipped a card into my hand and turned for the door with a whirl of his gray coat. A breath of lavender and anise trailed him, and I took two steps toward his retreat.
“You wouldn’t care to stay, monsieur? I could order up a teacup, perhaps a cigar?” Considering that he’d most likely paid through the nose for the privilege of my time, I didn’t want him to leave disappointed.
He didn’t turn back to me, merely shook his head as he put on his top hat. “Bonsoir, mademoiselle. I need you rested. Do not disappoint me.”
And with a tip of his hat, he was gone, footsteps echoing against the copper as he hurried down the stairs.
He was one of the strangest men I’d ever met.
And despite Vale’s dire warnings, I was riveted.
* * *
Last night, I’d been anxious to flee the giant elephant and hide in my room. But tonight the door was locked from the outside, and no amount of banging on the metal brought any sort of help. With my patron gone under his own odd auspices and no use for the sleeping powder in my pocket, I settled into the plush circular bed in a huff to flip through racy postcards, pornographic playing cards, and books about sensual bootblacks and burly firefighters who caught and ravished swooning women. I’d found an elegant hatbox brimming with such gems sitting on a tuffet, and it felt more than a little surreal, reclining in a metal pachyderm and staring at photos that were currently the height of vulgar pornography but showed less than a geriatric lap swimmer’s bathing suit from my own world. If these guys saw my triangle bikini, they’d probably have an apoplexy.
So that was one more thing I could “invent” in Sang.
I was grinning to myself and planning a cabaret-style version of Beach Blanket Bingo when the door opened far below and footsteps tapped up the circular stairs. I’d never moved as fast as I did then, tossing the photos and cards and books back into the hatbox and shoving it under the bed before the owner of the footsteps appeared. Even if it was just Auguste or one of the daimon girls, I didn’t want to be seen looking at porn.
I groaned silently. It wasn’t a familiar voice, but it carried the same apologetic ownership as the duke’s had. Charline must have double-booked me, the greedy bitch.
I didn’t have to put out or even fend him off. Just play nice for a few minutes and feed, then use the sleeping powder. They’d sent up room service that paid for itself.
I grinned. “On the bed, monsieur,” I cooed.
A red-faced elderly man appeared around the screen, cane in hand. I patted the bed.
“Mon dieu, but you are even prettier up close, ma chérie. Can you believe I’ve never met a Bludman before? I’ve long waited to make your acquaintance.”
I stood and draped an arm around his neck. “And I yours,” I whispered into his ear.
* * *
It was too easy. Far too easy. One caress, and he had what he needed, while I earned a full belly. I sprinkled a few grains of sleeping powder over his head, and soon he was snoring softly on the bed, fully dressed and cheeks enflamed with imagined passion. With a grimace of distaste, I gave him a thorough pat-down but found nothing useful. A wallet, several nice handkerchiefs, a horribly creepy-looking condom that looked as if it had been used before stuffed in a small book of Saint Ermenegilda’s better quotes. There wasn’t a whiff of Bludman about him or the stench of magic and catacombs.
Before descending the stairs, I slipped a calling card from his wallet and used his handkerchief to dab the blood away from the little rip in his neck. I would add his name to the “Innocent” column of my spreadsheet. He said he’d never met a Bludman before, and oddly enough, I believed him. In six years among Crim, Tish, and the people of the caravan, I’d learned to read faces, and as far as I could tell, he hadn’t lied.
I slipped off my boots so I could take the metal stairs silently. Pebbles bit into my stockinged feet as I fled across the uneven cobbles to the back door of Paradis. With one ear against the door, I made certain that it was quiet inside. The only thing I wanted less than to further entertain the old man was to encounter the other girls doing the walk of shame and have to answer questions about why I was so quick at my work. The hallway seemed empty, and I turned the doorknob as slowly as I could, knowing after last night that it had an unfortunate tendency to squeak.
“You work fast, bébé.”
I bit back a scream and spun, hands curled into claws. Vale’s amused and skeptical calm made me even more likely to rake out his eyeballs.
“So—what, Vale? You’re following me now?”
“Don’t flatter yourself. Stargazing in the courtyard of the—” He chuckled and rubbed the back of his head. “Yes, I’m following you. But only because I have something that I thought you’d want to see, as soon as you were done . . . entertaining the great artist.”
Rage shot up my spine, making me clench my teeth with a click that rang in the night. “First of all, entertainment is my job. Second, entertaining is not code for sex. Third, I just assumed you’d kissed half the daimons here, and I’ve never thrown that in your face. So how dare you judge me?”
He stepped closer, reaching for my hands. I jerked them back, feeling all too inhuman.
“Simmer down, bébé. I didn’t come here to start a fight.”
“Then keep your meaningful, judgmental pauses to yourself.” He tried to take my hand, and I smacked his wrist. “Keep your paws to yourself, too. I’ve had enough of being grabbed at.”
Hands in the air, he stepped backward, and I shook myself like a dog shedding water, feeling tightly wound and unpredictable in my anger. It was true, what I’d told him. Except when I was in my own bed, I spent a lot of time being touched against my will. Whether Charline was placing my hands on the hoop or Blue was dressing me or Mel and Bea were fixing my hair and makeup, I was sick to death of being touched like an object.
“Fair enough, bébé. I don’t want to make you unhappy. But look.”
The thing between his fingers was so small that I couldn’t see it without stepping close. Duh—he’d been trying to hand it to me.
It was a tooth. A fang, actually.
I took it with shaking fingers, holding it up to the meager orange glow of the gaslight.
“I know there is no way to know if it belongs to your Cherie, and I know it’s unsettling, but . . .”
“But if you’re using a Bludman as a slave or a concubine, she’d be less dangerous without her fangs.”
“That’s what I was thinking.”
The fang matched mine, bright white and smooth, with a long, two-pronged root. I had a sudden curiosity regarding whether little Bludmen lost their fangs and hid them under their pillows for a creepy, blud-spattered Tooth Fairy.
“Where did you find it?”
I held it out to him reluctantly, but he shook his head and crossed his arms. It felt good in my hand, curled within my fingers. Macabre as it might be, he was right; this was actually a good sign. After all, it could have been a fanged skull.
“Well, you see . . .”
“Stop acting cagey, brigand.”
“Being a brigand involves a certain amount of smuggling and trading, and from time to time, unusual objects come into my possession. Dragon claws, unicorn hairs, mysterious valises covered with stamps—”
“The Freesian Tsarina’s bloodwine?”
“That, too. Francs and silvers aren’t the only form of payment, after all, and I know the sort of folk who need certain things and the sort of folk who pay with certain things, and I connect them.”
“All very legal, I’m sure. Totally aboveboard.”
He chuckled into his fist. “Believe whatever you wish, bébé. But it just so happens that tonight’s bounty included a handful of glittery little trinkets, and that was among them. I asked for some background—which is all part of the game—and the gentleman in question got very nervous and would only say again and again that it was very fresh and he’d won it at cards. Which means, if it’s hers, that she is in Paris.”
My hand stole to my own fangs, which felt foreign even after six years in Sang. I still remembered the strange, searing pain as the old canines had fallen out, the tips of the new fangs pushing through right behind them with a dull ache in my jaw. I’d been terrified. But back then, everything had been terrifying. Now I was mostly angry. When I found who had done this to my best friend, who had torn off part of her body just to make her weaker and more helpless, I would sink my claws into the bastard. And I would bleed him dry in some very choice, very painful spots, withholding the magic that gave the feeding any sort of pleasantness. I would teach him what a Bludman truly was.
But that made me think again of Lenoir’s secret.