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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
After my second sip, he nodded slowly, his dark eyes smoldering like storm clouds at night. “That’s better, chérie. Lean back. And hold still.”
Taking his half-empty glass with him, he found his place behind the easel. After a brief pause, his brush began to move furiously, faster than seemed possible. The oily tang of paint filled the air. Moments later, the sun lit on my hair, warming me all over with the feel of crayons melting on a radiator. I took another sip and relaxed, my eyes caught on the glittering motes of dust dancing in the sunbeam. They looked like fairies, and if I squeezed my eyes shut and watched through my eyelashes, I could almost see their wings.
“Your head, chérie.” He waved at the air, and I realized my cheek had fallen over completely.
I righted myself and felt the room spin sweetly, but something he’d said had caught my attention.
“Cherie,” I murmured.
Cherie sounded the same as chérie. I giggled. That wasn’t the way to go about it.
“You paint lots of girls, don’t you, monsieur?”
He peeked around the easel, brush moving furiously. “You know I do. Have you been to the Louvre yet?”
“No. But I’ve seen reproductions. When I was in Sangland.”
“I’m sure one of your paramours will take you there soon. A reproduction misses the life, the subtlety, of the original.”
“Have you ever painted a Bludman before?”
“Of course. A private client. Ahnastasia Feodor, the Tsarina herself. She’s in Paris often so her mate can perform, you know. Such ostentation.” He sighed and sipped his bloodwine. Or absinthe. Bloodsinthe? I giggled again.
“So most of your victims are daimons?”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “Of course. As this is the pleasure district of Mortmartre, most of my subjects are daimons. There’s occasionally a human girl in the mix, but honestly, who could expect a mere human to keep up with the performance a daimon can provide? When you feed on joy or lust, you’re always going to have more to give to your work.” His eyes twinkled for just a moment. “To be quite honest, it’s been so long since I’ve painted a girl with flesh-colored flesh that I know I’ll have to mix and remix the colors, trying to capture all the subtleties. Blue and red are so much more straightforward.”
Glancing down at his empty wineglass, he seemed surprised to see that he’d drunk it all. When I looked down at my own glass, barely a few deep-red drops remained, and it hung from my talons just a few bare inches from the plush carpet. I had completely forgotten I was holding it. Talking to Lenoir was hypnotic, like having tunnel vision. When I was around him, he was all there was, a vacuum.
I looked up. The afternoon sun had moved all the way across me and now painted me with dark shades of red, like a rash.
“Monsieur, it’s late! Past time to go. I must perform soon.”
He looked confused for the briefest moment, before placing his brush reverently on his table. “Is it? Time does have that tendency to fly.” I rushed to the door, and he stopped me with a hand on my arm. “Your dress, chérie,” he said gently, his voice low and husky. I realized for the first time that he’d taken off his gloves to paint me, and his hands were dark like mine, their nails white and sharp. I’d never been touched by the bare hands of a male Bludman, if you didn’t count Criminy, and I shivered all over like a spooked horse.
All I could do was nod and rush back to the screen. I didn’t look back at him as I changed into my layers, more glad than ever for the Sang cover of a corset and the safety of petticoats. The cats attacked my skirts and the laces of my boots but darted away when I tried to pet them, slicing at me with their claws. When I was mostly dressed, I looked for a mirror in which to arrange my hair, as fashionable ladies never walked the streets with their hair loose.
He appeared behind me, his fingers nimble as they twirled my hair into a low chignon and pinned it swiftly into place. I wanted to bolt; I wanted to stay; I wanted to turn and kiss him and see if he tasted of absinthe and blood. Lenoir sent confusing signals through me, but I understood that my predator’s blud respected the inherent danger in the famous painter and wished to flop on the floor and show him my belly as the lesser creature.
“Where did you learn to dress a lady’s hair?”
He leaned down, his lips against my ear. “You’re no lady.”
I jerked away and spun to face him, mouth open to shout about who got to tell me what I was.
“You’re a Bludman, Demi. You might forget it among the daimons, but at least here, in this room, under my brush, you can be exactly what you are.” I closed my mouth. He smirked. “And it’s not difficult. One night backstage at a cabaret could teach an idiot how to pin a chignon.”
“So you’ve worked backstage?”
He stood at the door, waiting. “I didn’t say that. Au revoir, mademoiselle.”
I hurried past him and down the stairs, a blush hot in my cheeks. Throwing open the door, I found the conveyance outside and Auguste sitting on the steps wearing a forlorn expression.
“I’m sorry, Auguste—”
He looked up and saw Lenoir standing in the doorway, a dark and silent form. Shaking his head mournfully, the daimon only said, “My pleasure, miss. Let me help you up. We must hurry.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow morning, mademoiselle.”
Lenoir stood in his door like a god atop a mountain. His dark eyes didn’t blink, just stared at me, capturing me, searing me with an odd sort of ownership that my body wasn’t fighting as hard as it should have.
“Yes, monsieur,” was all I could say.
* * *
That night, I went to the pachyderm feeling optimistic and hungry, which was a great change from my usual nervousness. Although I’d had the two vials to which I was accustomed, not to mention whatever blood was in Lenoir’s wine, I felt sapped and more tired than usual. A hot, willing victim would be more than welcome. As I hurried to the mirror to touch up my face and hair, I pondered what vintage I would have tonight. Rich, of course. But young or old? Shy or confident? I could taste the men’s personalities in their blood, and it was fascinating.
I was powdering my nose behind the screen when the door opened.
“Are you ready, La Demitasse?” a man’s voice called.
I emerged from the bedroom, one hand to my bosom and a confused look on my face. “Monsieur?”
I didn’t recognize the slender gentleman waiting in top hat and coat by the door. A velvet cape hung over his arm, and his red beard glinted in the gaslight.
“Didn’t they tell you? We’re going out. Have you ever seen the pleasure gardens?”
“But monsieur, I thought . . . that is, I usually make a gentleman’s acquaintance here . . .”
He waved that away with the enthusiasm of a young boy utterly unaccustomed to hearing the word no. “The Tuileries. The fruit trees are in flower and lit up. It’s like a fairyland. We’ll ride donkeys. Come along.”
I glanced around the pachyderm, with its rich appointments and nods to sensuality. Could it be possible that a client had paid for the privilege of taking me out on a date in the most fun and fashionable garden in the world? I had to admit he looked pleasant enough, young and bright-eyed and dapper. And what was he going to do, anyway? I was almost invincible, and I was very nearly bigger than him, and Jack the Ripper was at work in London, not Paris.
I smiled and reached out for the cloak he waggled enticingly.
“I’d be delighted, Monsieur . . .?”
He laughed and wrapped the cloak around me. “Does my name really matter?”
I gave him the most genuine smile I’d worn all week. “I guess not.”
Taking his hand, I let him pull me down the stairs, laughing all the way.
When they called the Tuileries the “pleasure gardens,” they meant it.
In this peculiar parallel universe, they were more like Central Park than a palace, and what happened under the acres of leafy boughs was far from governmental. My date didn’t give me his last name or the important title I’m sure he held, based on the cut of his clothes and the servant daimon who followed us at a respectful distance with a large bag of coins and a small crossbow. But he did give me a spectacular night that reaffirmed my reason for leaving Criminy’s caravan in the first place. And with a saucy wink, he told me to call him Louis.
We saw ballerinas and operettas and parades and a puppet show almost as good as that of Charlie Dregs. Louis enjoyed flagon after flagon of beer and surprised me by purchasing a snow cone and pouring a vial of blood from his pocket over the grainy white hill of ice made by a clockwork machine. Considering that I hadn’t had a popsicle in six years, it was quite a treat. We had carousel rides and donkey races and dancing, and I laughed so hard that I fell down on my ass—and not the donkey.
Paris was beautiful at night, and had I been there at the right time with the right person, I would have understood why they called it the City of Love. The trees were in bloom, as Louis had promised, and strung with millions of twinkling lights like stars caught in nets of silk. As we promenaded down the Boulevard Mortmartre, the golden lights glowing on either side cast the cobblestones in indigo shadows, as if we might keep walking on and on forever and never reach the horizon. The crowds were jewel-bright and filled with joy, the daimons mixing among the humans and sighing happily as they sold balloons and toys and nosegays. The Tower was likewise strung with lights and rose over the city like a doting parent, calmly keeping watch yet always waiting for lightning to strike.
Louis was excellent company, in part because he wanted nothing more from me than a lovely evening. I suspected he was glad to spend time with someone who had no expectations and treated him like an equal, as everything about him pointed to royalty. I also guessed, judging by the way his eyes roved to gentlemen’s backsides, that his interests lay in other domains. But I hadn’t laughed so hard in years, and I almost forgot all my problems and ambitions, for a time. It was relaxing, being with someone who had no expectations of me, either.
Right up till I saw the blond girl, I had one of the greatest nights of my life. Even though I hadn’t had a drop of bloodwine, I still felt half-drunk and free and easy, and I was leaning on Louis’s shoulder and giggling over a gendarme’s misbuttoned pants when a flash of light blond caught my attention. The girl passed under a gas lamp at a fast clip, trailing a cloak, and I knew instantly that it was Cherie.
“Excuse me, monsieur.” I untangled my arm from Louis’s and bolted off the walk and across the green, my boot heels sinking into the soil. “Cherie!”
She didn’t turn, and I didn’t stop running. All around me, female heads shot up—of course, because chérie was the most common name men in Franchia used to address women they were sweet on. I twisted through the crowd, my breath short in the spring night, hoping I could catch her before she disappeared. I didn’t know why she would run from me, but I was damned well going to find out.
Her heels clicked onto the cobbles as she ducked down an alley. A human or a daimon would have stopped, but not me. Bludrats scattered with Franchian disdain as she stopped at a narrow door, knocking frantically. But I was faster than whoever was inside, and with talons dug into her shoulder, I spun her around. She lurched back, banging her head against the door.
She was already sobbing. “Please, mademoiselle. Please let me go.”
It wasn’t Cherie; I knew that the second I saw her face. But she was the closest thing I’d seen to my friend, and the disappointment hit harder than a fist in the gut. This girl was a human, and a sickly one at that. I could smell her, but she evoked more pity than hunger, as if there wasn’t enough of a meal to bother breaking the skin.
I let go of her shoulders and took a step back. The door opened, revealing an indigo-skinned daimon, her cheeks drawn and her hair braided back tightly. Behind her, colorful ribbons hung from hooks along with sausages and strips of meat. The scent of magic was just as heavy on the air as the copper tang of bloody meat.
“Zis is not ze place for you,” she said with a heavy Franchian accent, ushering in the human girl. The door slammed in my face. I looked up, curious about what the building was, if perhaps it was a beggar’s house or a soup kitchen or a hospital, some place that took in pitiful, fleshless wretches. There was no sign, no daimon code like at the inn. I walked around to the front and found only a butcher shop, with lank pink meat hanging in the window and a pig’s face staring at me, the eyes flat and bulging. The Parisians seemed to favor fanciful door knockers; this one was a cow’s behind, the clapper a long, curled tail. Perhaps the girl was a servant here, a pig girl or some such. In any case, she wasn’t my business; Cherie was. And that meant I had to get back to Louis and feed my way into his good graces, if need be. His pockets were surely full of secrets.
I hurried back toward the laughter and music of the Tuileries, which reminded me more than a little of Criminy’s caravan—the way the light drew you forward and each new act within seemed more magical and colorful than the last. Perhaps the daimons used some of the same spells as my clever godfather. In any case, I felt at home here, more than I had since leaving my wagon.
As I entered the crowd, hand after hand landed on my arm. Whether they knew who I was or were simply drawn to a pretty girl without a man by her side, I didn’t know. But I shrugged them off, one after the other, telling them with a fake smile to come to Paradis and see me. It was exhausting, or maybe I was just coming down from the elation and adrenaline of thinking I’d finally found Cherie. By the time I found Louis, deep in his cups by the donkeys, all I wanted was to drag him back to the pachyderm and drain him half dry for the contact high.