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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“You’re the first woman who’s run from my charms,” he said with a slur. But he was smiling.
“I wasn’t running from your charms, cher. I thought I saw an old friend and wanted to introduce you.” I sat in the chair by his side, draping an arm over his shoulders, and he melted against me. I’d long ago struck his name from my mental spreadsheet of suspects. There wasn’t an evil bone in his body.
“Shall we head back to the pachyderm, then? You must be exhausted. I don’t know how you girls do it, putting on such an energetic show and then entertaining the lads until dawn.”
I nodded, finally understanding completely why the halls were always empty when I returned from the elephant. I guess I’d already known—had been told repeatedly but hadn’t really internalized—that the girls sold their bodies to the clients of Paradis. I hadn’t fully explored the entire cabaret, but there had to be other apartments somewhere, places far more sumptuous than the tiny, threadbare rooms where they slept. Mel and Bea and the rest . . . they were prostitutes.
It didn’t sit right with me. But again, it wasn’t my business. I’d seen in Sangland that women were in every way less free than they were on Earth, but I hated to think that the beautiful, talented, kind girls I knew here had turned to bartering their bodies for their livelihood.
Louis stood, wobbling, and held out a hand. Arms around each other’s shoulders, I half dragged him back to Paradis. I had to help him up the winding stairs and onto the plushy couch, where he collapsed in a lanky, boneless heap, wrapped in his wool coat like a very wealthy and elegant burrito.
“I’ve heard you don’t do . . . what the other girls do.” He blinked at me through glowing ginger eyelashes.
“Well, monsieur—” I pursed my lips, but he waved his arms to stop me.
“No, I’m saying that’s why I chose you. I have . . . other tastes. But I’ve never met a Bludman before, and it’s very rare that I find something to pique my interest. Is it true you drink from your paramours?”
I cocked my head at him. What a peculiar man. “It’s true.”
“I’m told it feels rather pleasant. That some men find independent release in your arms.”
“That is also true.”
“Then will you drink from me? I’ll probably make you drunk, at this rate. But I like new experiences.”
And so, taking him in my arms, I gently tipped back his head and pierced the tender skin of his neck.
I couldn’t help grinning. I had studied history along with art, and after an evening on his arm, I knew what I was doing.
I was feeding on the future king of Franchia.
* * *
It was a pleasure to root around the rich fabrics of his costume, looking for clues that I knew weren’t there. All I found were bits of horrible poetry, licorice pastilles, a tight roll of silvers, and some mustache wax in an adorable tin. Louis looked so sweet, innocently sucking his thumb in untroubled sleep. But I left him there as I left all of them, hurrying through the courtyard and back to my room. I didn’t stop at the door to Paradis to listen for footsteps; either they were elsewhere doing their work or asleep, exhausted, in their beds. And I didn’t see Vale, either.
As I brushed out my hair and prepared for bed, all I could think about was how much easier life would have been if I’d never left the caravan. Safe under Criminy’s wing, I’d resented the endless, marching army of dull nights and duller days. But now, on an adventure and facing challenges that definitely seemed insurmountable, I missed knowing exactly where I stood. My heart was buffeted on all sides by feelings I didn’t want to have. One minute, I was dragged down by sorrow and loss and hopelessness over Cherie. Moments later, I was buoyed by determination and confidence regarding my career and talent. And then my skin and belly swirled with confusion and lust whenever Vale came near, as if my brain completely shut off. And just now, I was overcome by an odd, floaty, tipsy sensation that made me dream of dancing.
I didn’t feel like myself. But I didn’t know who I was anymore, either.
Besides the future king’s wine-drenched blood, what had gotten into me?
* * *
The next morning, I arrived on Lenoir’s doorstep a few moments too late, late enough that he gave me a cold, disapproving stare.
“Cavorting with princes is no excuse.”
Instead of answering him, I stared him down. I didn’t owe him anything, and if he thought I did, he’d spent too much time around weak-willed humans and emotionally dependent daimons. He snorted and jerked his chin toward the stairs. With grace and without hurrying, I walked the stairs to the attic studio and went directly to the screen to change. When I emerged, a glass of bloodwine with the strange, plum-sparkly hint of absinthe sat beside my chair, and Lenoir stood behind his easel. The cats appraised me coldly from their chaise, their green eyes the color of Limone’s skin.
“Monsieur, I told you, I don’t care for absinthe.”
He chuckled, a dark and humorless sound that made my eyes stray to his lips. “Your empty glass from yesterday says differently. Whether or not you care for it, you enjoyed it. Now, sit. Drink. I have work to do, and I need your limbs to be pliant.”
I took a step toward his easel, curious about what his furious brushstrokes had accomplished yesterday. A paint-stained cloth hung over the canvas, blocking my view entirely.
He shook his head and tsked at me. “No one sees my paintings until they are complete.”
“Not even a peek?”
“Don’t even try.”
With a melodramatic sigh, I flopped into the chair and tried to find my pose. As I adjusted the pillow under my leg, I watched him through my bangs. He whipped off the cloth, his eyes shining with love and fervor as he looked at his work. Damn, but the man was sexy, and without really trying. Every heterosexual gentleman I’d met in Sang had fawned over me like an overanxious puppy, but Lenoir treated me as if I was the poorly trained dog. The suave elegance of his every movement, the sharp cut of his mustache and beard, the perfectly tousled and European way his hair was swept back, just the tiniest bit overlong—this must be how my mom had felt about Sean Connery. When I was around him, I felt his pull like gravity.
The glass was to my lips before I realized I’d picked it up. The liquid washed over my tongue like a symphony, welcome and nourishing and dizzying all at once. I drank half the goblet before setting it down and settling into my pose. As the liquor spread, I could feel my heartbeat slowing, my limbs lengthening, and my spine going soft and loose as I all but melted into the chair. Squinting my eyes, I looked again for the sunbeam fairies. They danced in time with Lenoir’s brush, and time fell away into ribbons of gold.
* * *
I didn’t show up for rehearsal—and why should I have? I’d never made a mistake, never taken a single misstep or botched my cue. What I was doing here, with the country’s most influential painter and tastemaker, was far more important. I sat for Lenoir until evening, somehow ended up in the conveyance back to Paradis, albeit upside down, and went straight to Mel and Bea’s room for makeup. Auguste avoided my eyes and didn’t say a word. I had barely arrived in time for the show.
“What is he like?” Mel asked, as she attached extra-long eyelashes to my half-mast lids with tiny dabs of glue.
Bea signed something, and after several days in her company, I didn’t need a translation.
“He scares you, Bea? Why?”
In response, she just shivered and shook her head, her skin quivering into a milky ice-blue, like the heart of a glacier. She didn’t know. Or she wouldn’t say.
“Hmm.” I blinked my eyes, focusing on the flutter of false lashes made of bits of feather. “What’s Lenoir like? Austere. A little scary. Stern. But a genius, so you put up with it.”
Mel held my chin firmly as she lined my lips. “How’s the painting coming along?”
I shrugged. “I have no idea. He keeps it covered. Won’t let me see it until it’s done. He says he always does a grand unveiling at the Louvre, a big party. I’ll see it then, when everyone else does.”
Mel sighed with longing. “Painted by Lenoir. Every cabaret girl’s dream. He started one of Limone, you know, but she made him so mad he never finished it. That’s why she never really became a star, they say. Always on ze edge but never quite arrived.”
I tucked that bit away for later: so it was possible to anger Lenoir to the point of no return. Every day, I felt as if I’d come close to trespassing on his last nerve. But I also left his studio feeling as if I’d been manipulated, treated like a thing instead of a person. And yet I wanted to go back and didn’t want to lose his approval. I needed to know exactly where the boundary between spirited and destroyed might lie.
Mel ducked her head close to mine to whisper in my ear. “Does he give you absinthe?”
I felt cagey answering, and I felt even worse for lying. “I told him I don’t care for it.”
“They say he’s an addict, that his genius is fueled by the Green Fairy.”
“Such is the price of greatness, I suppose.”
Bea shook her head and signed. “ ‘Not worth it,’ ” Mel translated for me.
“Just be careful, yes?” Mel squeezed my arm briefly. “Paris is dangerous, outside of Paradis.”
I squeezed her back. “Is it dangerous . . . inside Paradis?” My eyes flitted to the bed.
She looked at me, and I looked at her, and she dropped her head, blushing dark green. “Oh, la. Not like you think. It’s different for daimons. You do what you must to feed, and so do we. There’s no shame in it. There’s no real danger. It’s an exchange of spirit, of emotion, of hunger for satiety.”
“Then why are you blushing?”
She looked up, caught my eyes in an angry glare. “Because you’re making me feel like there is something to be ashamed of.”
It was my turn to look down and blush. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I don’t know much about daimons. But I’m willing to learn.”
Bea patted my hand and signed.
“ ‘There is much to fear, much darkness,’ ” Mel translated slowly. “ ‘Especially outside the cabaret.’ ”
“I’m being careful,” I said, and the look they gave me was one of pity.
“You can never be careful enough,” Mel said.
* * *
That night’s gentleman caller arrived in the copper pachyderm with a bouquet of flowers that smelled like death. Unsurprisingly, he was another shy but domineering old man. I flirted with him for an appropriate amount of time, sat in his lap, wiggled a little, and drank enough blood for us both to feel satisfied. I left him there on the couch with a stain on his breeches, hoping he wouldn’t have a heart attack and die. With the absinthe still echoing in my blood, I skipped downstairs and across the courtyard. But considering that I wasn’t sleepy at all and it was relatively early, I decided that it was high time I explored more of my gilded cage.
There was a brick hallway, then the backstage of the theater, and then another brick hallway mirrored on the other side. Aside from Blue’s costume room, Madame Sylvie’s room, and the secret tunnel Bea had shown me, I didn’t know what might lie behind any of the other doors along either passage. I felt a little giddy, a little wicked, as I slipped off my red boots and tiptoed down the wooden boards to discover the secrets of Paradis.
The first door I opened was filled floor-to-ceiling with dusty, broken things. Bits of stage, old doors, steamer trunks, sand bags, and coils of rough rope piled so high that I couldn’t even step inside. Seeing that the dust lay undisturbed, I closed the door gently.
The next room was locked, but I’d been under Criminy’s tutelage for long enough to know how to pop a lock with a hairpin. I had the door open in moments and pressed the light switch, burning with curiosity. Barrels of spirits, wooden boxes filled with wine bottles, and racks and racks of glasses were pushed neatly against the walls, a few tables and chairs stacked in a corner. My eye was drawn to a wooden crate that held vibrant oranges, a rare sight in Sang. A narrow door in the far wall surely connected to the bar. If I’d been a normal girl with a taste for liquor, it would have been heaven. But considering that I only liked my wine mixed with the finest blood, I relocked the door and slipped back out into the hallway.
Backstage was a little creepy when dark, with ropes and curtains swaying in a nonexistent breeze and unidentified lumps throwing shadows on the ground. I hurried across to the other hallway and past Blue’s door, running a hand along the niche where Vale had once kissed me. The bricks there were a slightly different shade from the rest, and I was curious about what had been there and why someone had sealed it off. So many mysteries abounded in Paris, even in places that seemed safe. The next door opened silently, and I stepped into a high-ceilinged practice room I’d never seen before, mainly because, again, I didn’t really need practice.
The floor was polished and waxed and warm as sunshine, and one wall was all shiny mirrors and a barre. Costumes on racks took up another wall. But what really delighted me were the circus props that we’d never had at the caravan. A Spanish web rope, a trapeze, silks, and a practice hoop hung from the ceiling on adjustable pulleys, while a giant wooden ball and balance boards rested in a corner. Charmed and curious, I went to the wall and let the trapeze down to a height I could reach from the floor. I’d never done aerial work until the moment I’d stepped onto Limone’s hoop, and I’d always wanted to try the trapeze. Flying would have been better, but this would do.