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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Wait. Aren’t there any Bludmen in Paris at all?”
“There are a couple in Paris but not Mortmartre. As it’s the pleasure district and gentlemen can’t spend money or unlace their breeches if they’re scared, the gendarmes guard the wall very carefully. Only humans, daimons, and a few harmless freaks like myself are allowed in.” He rubbed his head again, a nervous habit that I found endearing in spite of myself, like a little kid rubbing his nose. “Technically, I’m not allowed in, thanks to some rather choice warrants, but I stay far away from the walls and the billy clubs.”
“Then why haven’t they come for me?”
His eyes went tender-soft with pity. “Oh, bébé. You’re so very naïve. They did come for you. That night after your fall, after your first show, where you took over Limone’s act and sent the crowd mad. Limone must’ve tipped off the local gendarmes.”
I felt cold all over, synapses firing uselessly. “Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t they take me away?”
“Because Charline met them at the door and paid them a very large sum to let you stay.” His gaze was kindly, fond, almost parental. “And they wouldn’t have taken you away. They would have killed you.”
“I’m hard to kill.”
This time, when he reached to stroke my cheek, I let him. Cold as I was in the early spring night and filled as I was with rage and fear, his touch seared me.
“Good,” was all he said.
I stood up on my tiptoes to kiss his cheek, the fang wrapped in my fist where it lay on his shoulder. “Thank you.”
“De rien, bébé. Pay me back later.”
His playful grin was back, and my wobbling smile joined it as I pulled away and turned to go. I slipped through the door and up to my room, never meeting a single soul. My cheeks were red, my eyes bright with unshed tears. I wasn’t sure what to do with the fang, so I tied it up in a piece of lace and tucked it into the armoire drawer next to the remains of Vale’s pendant and Cherie’s lost fascinator.
I’d put my life and my friend back together piece by piece, if I had to. At least now I knew she was nearby.
As I fought wakefulness, knowing that Lenoir wanted me early and fresh, I couldn’t help wondering exactly how much Charline had paid for my life. And exactly how much interest she would charge me. For as I was learning, everything in Paris came with a price.
And an expiration date.
I had to find Cherie before she lost more than a fang.
I awoke in a panic. Without alarm clocks or school or a nine-to-five job, it had been years since I’d worried about a wake-up call. Everyone slept past noon in the caravan. But my window was tinted lavender with early dawn, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Angering Lenoir would be dangerous in more ways than one. I still had time.
The hallway was empty, but the animal part of my Bludman nature could sense wakefulness somewhere beyond the closed doors. I was right—as I passed, one opened to reveal Mel and Bea. Their eyes were bright, their lips turned down. They’d been waiting for me, then.
“Oh, la, chérie. You’re going to Lenoir, aren’t you?” Mel asked, arranging a curl over my shoulder with a kind but sad smile.
Bea’s fingers flew excitedly, her eyes wide.
“She says to be careful,” Mel supplied.
“Be careful? Why?”
We both stared at Bea, who blanched ice-white and fidgeted, her eyes darting back and forth. She signed slowly, as if trying to find the words, and Mel translated.
“ ‘I can’t say why, but he scares me. Always has. The streets aren’t safe. Just be careful.’ ”
The poor girl was so flustered that I reached out to hug her. Over her shoulder, I saw a small pallet in the corner of the room and Blaise’s blue face relaxed in sleep. Something clicked into place in my mind, but I only said, “Don’t worry, y’all. I know what I’m doing.”
Mel patted my arm. “Tell us all about it later, eh? We could use some good gossip.”
Bea signed Good-bye and something that looked like Good luck. I took the stairs to the brick hallway, careful not to let my new dress catch on the loose nails. As I had expected, Auguste waited by the door in street clothes. He looked different, dressed in waistcoat, tailcoat, and trousers, complete with a slit for his tail. His face was kind but guarded as usual.
“I’m to deliver you to Monsieur Lenoir’s studio, miss. Oh, and there’s this.”
He held out a brown paper bag, as if someone had packed my lunch. Inside was a vial of blood, and I turned my back to him politely as I drank it. No point in taking to the streets with any lingering hunger, although the old man’s blood last night had fortified me well enough. At least it wouldn’t be a problem, trapped in Lenoir’s studio all morning, as he wasn’t the human everyone assumed him to be.
I had expected to walk, but a posh conveyance waited outside, chugging in a puff of smoke that matched the violet clouds and lingering drizzle of early morning. I hadn’t seen many private vehicles in Sangland, as everyone came to the caravan in heavily built, carefully guarded bus-tanks. This vehicle was shaped like a fussy miniature boat, with carved ribbons, flowers, and fleurs-de-lis, and the prow was a carousel-type horse, as if they just couldn’t give up the idea that horses had to pull carriages. Auguste helped me up the step, and I settled onto the cushy mauve bench within.
Perfume was heavy in the air, and handprints marred the porthole-shaped windows. I guessed how the passengers generally kept busy. Auguste climbed into the front compartment and pressed buttons with patient familiarity, and I watched the streets with interest as the conveyance rattled away. The pastel-painted buildings lining the gray-cobbled avenues were tall and angular and squashed together, with long windows and ironwork balconies and doors painted in bright colors. It was too early for promenading, and most of the figures I saw were dashing about in a businesslike manner, with iron-gray umbrellas bobbing overhead. It looked a little like my mental image of Paris, down to the bludrats that scattered in the gutters, which were a lighter burgundy than the ones in Sangland and somehow managed to look a little more chic and slightly less bloodthirsty.
I couldn’t keep track of the turns we made or the landmarks we passed, although the scent wafting from a lavender-painted bakery made me simultaneously nauseated and heartsick for my human life. We finally screeched to a stop outside a building like any other, the walls a smoky bluish-gray with elegant copper statues of dancers flanking the doors. Auguste left the conveyance chugging and held a black parasol over my head as he helped me down to the street and walked me up the steep stairs to the front door.
“Bonne chance,” he murmured. He was gone before I could ask him how I was expected to get back to Paradis.
I took a deep breath and drew back my shoulders as I lifted the door knocker. It was shaped like a lion with gigantic fangs, and my three knocks rang up and down the alley and sent a flock of pigeons squawking into the grayish-purple clouds. Footsteps echoed within, and soon the door opened to reveal Lenoir himself in an impeccably clean artist’s smock. He didn’t smile, but then again, I didn’t expect him to.
“You’re barely on time.”
“And you’re barely personable. I expected better, monsieur.”
That earned a snort but still no smile. “Come in, then, and enjoy my hospitality.”
“Said the spider to the fly,” I murmured under my breath. But if he heard, he made no comment.
I stepped into his foyer, which was ten degrees colder and a deep shade of ombre. Lenoir was already taking the stairs, which were thickly padded by a carpet patterned in thorns and roses. I hurried after him, hoping not to displease him further. Something about him felt dangerous in a very welcome way, and I wanted to learn more of his secrets. Two Siamese cats the color of marshmallows with singed corners darted past us, silently preceding us up the staircase. I longed to touch them, as the only cat I’d seen in six years had been the tailor’s cat in the caravan.
Lenoir passed the second level, and I only had a moment to glance down the orange-lit hallway at two closed doors and an elegant table holding a huge bouquet of flowers. My nose crinkled at the vegetal decay of funeral lilies, but I suspected that to a human or daimon, the odor would have been pleasant. Still Lenoir didn’t speak, and still I followed him, past two more floors likewise beautifully closed off, up to the very top floor, where the cats posed daintily on a chaise. The plush carpet ended in a frayed strip, and then dusty wood floors the color of new honey spread out, their smooth stripes broken only by the occasional stain of spilled paint.
A grand window let in a strip of sun as narrow and targeted as a laser, with the promise of a gold-rimed sunbath once morning was officially in full force. Directly in front of it was a rug so deep and luscious-looking that I wanted to rub my cheek against it. A velvet chair with curling arms sat at an angle, a cushy pillow and a whisper-soft blanket thrown over it. Lenoir turned to me with a dress draped over both arms as if the body inside had simply dissolved.
“Put this on, and take your hair down. There’s a screen.” He jerked his chin at the corner and dumped the dress into my arms. It was a heavy thing and had the old, rubbed look of a royal gown from the previous century. The deep chocolate-plum would perfectly complement my hair, eyes, and skin, and Lenoir knew it.
The screen was a paltry thing, paper and ripped in places. A pair of forgotten stockings were draped over it like shed snakeskins. I checked that Lenoir was readying his palette before turning my back to the slightly chill room and quickly slipping from the many layers of cabaret attire to the rich, hand-stitched dress. It was off-the-shoulder and sleeveless, hanging like a bell from my hips. When I took down my hairpins and shook the black curls over my shoulders, I couldn’t help smiling. It felt a little like I was going to vampire prom. And yet something about the costume made me feel vulnerable and small, like a child playing dress-up. Like one shove at my shoulders would draw it down and leave me completely bare in seconds.
“Hurry, Mademoiselle. We need the light.”
I walked to the chair and sat down.
“Too prim. You’re a sensual woman, Demi. Sit in the chair like a lazing queen.”
His dark eyes engulfed me, one fist under his chin. I slumped back and slid down, hooking a leg over the chair arm and letting my head fall to the side. His mouth barely twitched.
He had an easel ready, a large canvas waiting. But he didn’t start painting. Merely scrutinized me as if something still weren’t quite right.
“You’re too tense. The painting will appear unnatural. But I know what will help.”
I shifted the cushion to where my leg met the chair arm and watched Lenoir open a cabinet filled with bottles of all shapes and sizes. He selected a wine bottle and a shorter squat thing of heavy green glass. I narrowed my eyes as he pulled a leaf-shaped flat spoon from a drawer.
“Monsieur, forgive me, but I don’t care for absinthe.”
I didn’t actually know if I cared for it; I just knew that I didn’t want any. I’d heard enough stories in Sangland, read enough penny-dreadfuls, and studied enough art history on Earth to know that Sang’s combination of wormwood and laudanum would render me a useless, addicted zombie.
“My dear, this isn’t the rot-gut they sell on the street. This is an herbal preparation by the esteemed Dr. Ordinaire. I take just the tiniest drop in my own bloodwine.”
He added a dash of green liquid to a wineglass, placed the flat spoon over the rim, set a sugar cube on it, set the sugar on fire, and poured a full glass of red bloodwine over the blue-flaming sugar cube, causing most of it to melt away. After stirring the deep purple mixture, he poured half the liquid into another wineglass and brought it to me. I took it as if grasping a viper. I was suspicious, angry, and scared, but the dare in his eyes kept me from flinging the unwanted drink across the studio. Angering Lenoir could be the end of my stardom; one word from him, one breath that he’d rejected me, and the seats of Paradis would be empty, the paper full of lies surrounding my name. I would never be snatched up and delivered to Cherie, to save her from whatever hell held her. This man—this strange, dark, secretive man—held the keys to Mortmartre.
It also didn’t escape me that girls disappeared all the time in Paris with no repercussions, no justice. I was better equipped to survive than most, but no one knew my weaknesses as well as a fellow Bludman. The bravado I’d shown Vale was no longer justified.
Lenoir clinked his glass against mine and sipped, his mouth curving up in a lazy, sensual smile that served as a dare. We both knew he was proving that it wasn’t poison. We both knew I now had no choice but to taste it.
“To the Red Fairy,” he said.
I held the glass to my nose and sniffed. It was a cacophony of smells good and bad: the sharpness of anise, the maple-syrupy sweetness of fennel, the bite of wormwood, the sour velvet of wine, and, most attractive, the warm, salty goodness of fresh blood. I wanted to taste it. And I hated myself for that.
Lenoir took another sip and raised his eyebrows. “You didn’t strike me as the sort of woman easily frightened by rumors and a few bits of plant. Would I be drinking it myself if it were deleterious? Would I stand where I stand, hold the power I hold, if this drink was dangerous?” He sipped again, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Drink, Demi.”
I touched my lips to the glass, let the plummy liquid wash against my mouth. The Red Fairy, he’d called it. Taste exploded over my tongue, and without another thought, I sipped it. What was the point of being nearly indestructible if you didn’t enjoy the hell out of yourself every now and then?