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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
I swatted his arm, then clutched it. “You won’t tell, right?”
He patted me, just as Bea had. As if I was a child. “I’m a professional brigand, bébé. Keeping secrets is what I do best.”
I raised my eyebrows at him and stared hard at his mouth. “Maybe second best,” was all I said.
* * *
Falling asleep at Paradis was never easy. The high of performing, the dizzy fizz of the absinthe, my worries about Cherie, my mixed feelings about Vale and Lenoir, the secretive whispers and bare feet of the daimons returning from their assignations: no matter how long I stared at the patterned ceiling of my room, things never coalesced into a complete picture. It was like being too close to a Monet painting, and I couldn’t step back to see what all the smeary dots meant.
Tonight, at least, my body was exhausted and sated and deliciously boneless. Part of me was utterly shocked at what had happened on the trapeze. Most of me felt a grand sense of relief. Being around sex and lust day after day was pretty boring when you weren’t feeling it yourself, but this was different. Unlike the men in the audience, Vale liked me for more than my body. And yes, I knew I had a crush on him. Back in Criminy’s caravan, I’d dreamed of a man—not a boy but a man who was dangerous but safe, funny but effective, strong but willing to support me instead of caging me. To think that I’d found all these qualities in an entirely hot man I didn’t want to eat? Unbelievable. And after tonight, I had to hope he felt the same way. Surely a man didn’t do that to a woman on a trapeze without caring about her?
The fact that he’d willingly ingested my blud also spoke volumes. Other than Maestro Casper Sterling’s time in the caravan, when it’d been a bit of a joke how willing he was to trade blud for temporary freedom, I’d never known a non-Bludman besides Tish who was willing to risk the trade. Could Abyssinians even be pushed toward madness by blud? Veruca the sword swallower was the only other Abyssinian I’d known, and she’d mostly kept to herself.
For the millionth time since waking up in Sang, I wished for a laptop and a fast Internet connection. It was painful, not being able to access information immediately in a private manner. I wanted to know more about Paris, about Paradis, about Lenoir, and mostly about Vale. I chuckled at the ceiling, picturing what a wild brigand’s Facebook page would look like. And then I thought about how in another world, there would be fewer places where my best friend could be hidden. Technology made things more transparent, but magic only obscured things further.
I dreamed of dancing in a grand ballroom, a huge, bell-shaped dress swirling around me. But I couldn’t see the dark figure who held me in the cage of his arms.
* * *
After sleeping in and enjoying a good scrubbing at my ewer the next morning, I sauntered into the theater to find an enormous chandelier hovering a few feet off the ground.
“I kind of thought you guys were joking about this.”
Charline tapped her pen against her notebook, which was her polite way of showing annoyance, now that I was a star. Just a few hours ago, as I’d drunk my blood and smiled at an innocent and still-sleepy Blaise, they’d delivered my finished poster to my room. It was like the gorgeous love child of Mucha and Lautrec, with “La Demitasse” emblazoned across the top on a banner and an overly stylized version of me doing the can-can with impossibly bent legs and, of course, the dreaded cup on my hat.
It was possibly the only thing more ridiculous than the giant chandelier, which had been cleverly fashioned to include plenty of places for me to sit, swing, dangle, and contort. And Charline had already handed me a sheet of paper covered in her tiny, perfect script, outlining exactly what I was expected to do. I folded it up and tucked it into my corset.
“Can I go now?”
Her face screwed up, and she went red all over. “Of course you cannot go! We have a new show to rehearse! The entire theater is sold out, including the boxes. This poster is being pasted on every wall in the city. They say princes from all over the world will be flying in on their private dirigibles. We’re planning a masked ball. You must be perfect.”
“I’m always perfect. And Lenoir is expecting me.”
She rolled her eyes. “Lenoir can wait. Now, on the chandelier and into position.”
I glared at her and lifted my lip to show a fang.
“If you please, Mademoiselle Demitasse,” she added, although it pained her.
I stared longingly at the door, where Auguste waited, hat in hand. All too easily, I could imagine Lenoir waiting in his attic, mixing his paints, pouring our absinthe, watching the sunlight move across my empty chair while his cats stared disdainfully at the door. My own distress bothered me more than his anger. He couldn’t ruin me now, even if he didn’t finish the painting. But I wanted him to finish it, wanted to spend those swooning, magical, timeless hours under the spell of his brush and the dark scrutiny of his cloudy eyes. Whether it was the fellow feeling of the only other Bludman in the city or the pull of a knowing and charismatic older man, I felt the distance between us like a slender string pulling me from afar.
“S’il vous plaît, Demitasse.” Charline waited, arm out invitingly, skin the warning red of a stop sign. “I’ll call out your marks.”
I sighed. “Of course. But only once through. And then I must go to Lenoir.”
“Of course,” she answered with a cold smile. “But first, you earn it.”
* * *
When I finally reached Lenoir’s doorstep, I knocked with trepidation, hoping the bruises on my arms and legs would fade before the master could paint them. Practice had taken longer than I’d hoped, and my anxiousness to finish had meant that I’d made foolish mistakes. New equipment always meant new sore spots, and Lenoir’s low-necked gown would show dark blooms that most Sangish clothes covered up. I didn’t want him to see me any less than perfect.
After a few moments of silence, I knocked again, but still he didn’t come. I stepped back and looked up, but the windows were all covered with gauzy curtains, blocking my view. One of the curtains quivered, and a Siamese cat’s face appeared, glaring at me like the judgment of God. With a grunt of frustration, I dropped the knocker and pounded on the door with my bare fist.
No footsteps in the hall. No open door.
I wiped away a blud-tinged tear and let Auguste help me back into the conveyance, where I flopped in a heap of dejection and loss that seemed utterly useless and stupid even as I was crushed under it. It was like having vampire PMS.
That night, after the performance, I drank so hungrily from my suitor that I was afraid he might stop breathing. Clumsily plundering his sleeping body, I accidentally popped off one of the buttons on his pants and wasn’t sure if I’d put all his effects back where I’d found them. I ended up just stuffing all his papers down the front of his vest and getting drunk on the subpar bloodwine he’d brought as I kept vigil by his unconscious body. I didn’t leave until he murmured in his sleep and reached for me. Exhausted, bruised, and frustrated, I crawled around the screen to the bed in the elephant’s belly and pulled the thick covers over my head. I fell asleep there to the tune of his snores, feeling utterly lost and a million miles from home and still hungry.
* * *
The next morning, I found a fang on my pillow. There was no note.
There was no hangover like a bloodwine hangover. Well, unless you included the way I had felt when I woke up in Sang after nearly dying of alcohol poisoning on Earth. Being simultaneously hungry and nauseated was even worse when the only thing you could ingest was blood. I dragged myself back to my own bed before dawn, puking sour blood in an urn on the way. When Blaise appeared with my teacup a few grueling hours later, I grabbed at the cup as if I might die without it. Blaise stared at me with pity and disgust as I licked at the dry red droplets that had fallen on the handle.
“Are you well, mademoiselle?”
I looked closer at Blaise. I’d taken him for granted, which I often did with children, as I felt myself too young to have them and too old to consider them people. Blaise was young but seemed like an old soul; he was probably seven or so. I’d seen him running errands or crouching quietly in every corner of Paradis but never in the elephant. He was a lighter shade of blue than Bea, almost like an ink wash instead of a solid hue. And I’d never seen him change color. His hair was black and unruly, his eyes yellow, with horizontal black pupils. He was very strange but very beautiful, as most daimons were.
Before he noticed me staring, I cleared my throat and smiled at him, relatively sure the blood wouldn’t come back up.
“I’m okay, Blaise. How are you?”
He shrugged with that careless grace of young boys, suggesting that it was ridiculous even to contemplate how one might or might not be, most likely because one was too young to have a raging headache, a roiling gut, and a guilty conscience from almost murdering a randy old dude the night before. I didn’t really know how to talk to the kid, but I wanted and needed to know more about him.
Which gave me an idea.
“Blaise, is it hard to learn sign language?”
“I do not know, mademoiselle. What is it?”
“Talking with your hands. So I could understand Bea.”
His shoulders rose up to his ears. “I do not know, mademoiselle. I have always known how to do it.”
“Could you teach me a little every morning? Maybe just a couple of words?”
He glanced quickly at the door and fidgeted.
“How about one word?”
“Perhaps. Which word do you want?”
I thought a second, dragging my pinky around the dregs of the cup to capture every drop. Blaise danced from foot to foot, anxious to be gone and about his business again.
“What’s the word for scared?”
He showed me, his hands hovering over his torso as if electricity and fear were shooting through his body. No problem remembering that one.
“Is that all, mademoiselle?”
I smiled and signed Thank you, and he nodded and ran off.
I needed a better teacher. Or better yet, a book. If Mel, Bea, and Blaise didn’t know that I understood their personal language, I might pick up on something that was assumed to be private. There was something important and silent going on in Paradis, and I wanted to know what it was.
* * *
“So can you get it?” I tugged at my gloves, cheeks hot under Vale’s cool glare.
“Depends. You got money, bébé?”
Vale was acting more distant and Franchian than usual, blocking my way to the conveyance outside and my much-anticipated date with Lenoir. Surely the peculiar painter would let me in today? If Vale would get out of the way and do as I asked in time for me to beat the golden morning sunlight to Lenoir’s attic, I would at least have a chance.
I rolled my eyes and edged toward the door.
“Of course I don’t have money. They haven’t paid me yet.”
“Then I can’t get you a book, bébé. They’re expensive. But we could barter.”
His eyes slid sideways, and I had the distinct impression that he was punishing me for falling asleep in the elephant and missing his delivery last night. Stuck-up bastard probably thought I’d actually enjoyed the wrinkly old guy who’d paid for the privilege of feeling my teeth and nearly died for it. But that was my business. If Vale wanted to court me properly, or even say something kind, I would soften. But if he wanted to be nasty, I could play that game, too.
“Fine. What do you want, brigand?”
A slow, dark smile spread across his face, showing straight white teeth. And in that moment, I knew exactly what he wanted. But he tsked and shook a finger at me.
“It’s not me we’re talking about. It’s what I can sell to get what you want. And the most expensive thing you have is under your skin. Blud is worth more than gold.”
I almost told him to fuck off, but then I thought about it. “More than gold? Seriously?”
“You are the only Bludman in Mortmartre. One of only a handful in Paris and a few dozen in Franchia. And as you’ve seen, the rich men of Paris will pay anything to taste something new, exotic, and rare.”
I’d always hated needles. Even though I knew there were no germs in Sang, I’d seen the unkempt and rusty tools in every chirurgeon’s black bag. There was simply something dirty about the process of selling a piece of myself, not to mention the thought of part of my body being used, enjoyed, outside of my knowledge. And I knew well enough, thanks to Criminy’s warnings, what happened to humans who drank too much and became addicted. It was an ugly life and a slippery slope that was too steep to ever climb out of for all but the most wealthy and determined halfbluds.
So that basically made me the Sang equivalent of a meth cooker.
Was I willing to sell myself to save Cherie?
Hell, yes, I was.
If the rich old bastards accepted the consequences, that was their problem.
“How does it work?”
He shrugged and leaned back. “I know someone. Will you be working late again tonight, or . . .?”
I sighed and sidled closer to the door. “Or will I meet you outside the giant copper elephant and crawl through the catacombs to see your shady friend who’ll remove my blud and pay me for it so you can buy me a book? Yeah, it’s a date. Now, move it.”
With a disgustingly handsome grin and a chuckle, he moved aside and opened the door for me. I couldn’t help flouncing out and bouncing through the carriage door.
“See you tonight, bébé.”
I waved a dismissive hand at him as I settled onto the seat.
“And wear something dark, would you? Try not to look like a courtesan.”