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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
I dug a bare toe into a knot in the wood floor. “I can’t. Tomorrow’s the finale and some sort of ball. I have to get sleep.”
He shook his head. “Oh, bébé. I do not understand you. You’ll go to the gardens, you’ll meet men in that ridiculous pachyderm, you’ll go to Lenoir. But I try to help you find your friend, and you brush me off like a pestering child. Have you forgotten the whole reason you’re here?”
Anger flared, my cheeks going hot and my fangs bared. “I didn’t forget. I can’t stop thinking about Cherie. Everything I do is for the sole purpose of staying here, to buy more time, to find more clues.” I held up the ticket. “See this? The duke was at the Louvre today, and there’s some sort of code on here, but I can’t even go there by myself to investigate because I have no freedom during museum hours. I’m constantly trapped. I don’t like what I do. I need the blood to live, and I need the men for the blood, and I need the performing for the men. I’m caught here.”
“You’re not caught right now. Come with me. We’ll be back in an hour.”
I shook my head again but with warning this time. “I told you. I can’t.”
For a moment, he just breathed, watching me. “You’ll do anything for anyone. Except me. And except Cherie.”
“Oh, I’m the one who won’t do what I’m supposed to? Aren’t you supposed to be taking over the family business? Aren’t you running away, too, hiding in Paris from your real responsibilities?”
“For you, bébé! For you!” The shout was sharp, and he strangled it quickly. He looked me up and down in my ridiculous costume and chuckled bitterly. “We both have issues with men who want things we don’t wish to give, I suppose. Except I run away from mine, and you run right toward yours and start sucking on it.”
I exhaled in a growl and poked him in the chest. “I like you, but you make it so damned hard, Vale! Everyone else here worships me, and you just push and push and push.”
“I could not have said it better myself.”
“I thought after last night—”
His grin curled up, his eyes dancing. “What about last night?”
“I thought we’d found something good.”
“Oh, we did. I would like to find it again.” He licked his lip, and my knees nearly melted.
“Then stop pissing me off and pushing me away, and start wooing me, you ass.”
I spun around to flounce away, but he caught a fistful of my bustle and yanked me back. No man I’d met yet in Sang would have dared it, but he held me there with a chuckle.
“As you like, bébé. Leave with me now, and I’ll woo you in the most romantic place in Paris.”
Stifling a yawn and twitching my skirt out of his grasp, I turned. “More romantic than the catacombs?”
“Oh, you’ll enjoy this place. It is dark, private, and filled with surprises. It was once a fortress, then a palace, now a national treasure. And at this time of night, you can touch . . . whatever you wish.”
He pulled me close, and the breath caught in my throat. “You want to break into the Louvre?”
His hands tightened on my waist. “Break in? We won’t break anything. It is considered trespassing only if they catch you. And no one ever catches me.” He held up the duke’s ticket, which I had slipped into my pocket moments ago. “These are directions to a painting’s placement in the gallery. Let’s go see what it is that so interests your duke, shall we?”
“He’s not my duke.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” he whispered in my ear.
* * *
I borrowed a cloak and some boots from Blue’s empty room and felt the first fine thrill of being bad. We left through the same door I used for my assignations, and I stared up through the rain at the copper elephant with foreboding as we slipped around its giant legs, Vale’s fingers entwined with mine. Lights shone from the portholes and hung from the ornate headdress and enameled howdah on the pachyderm’s back, and I saw what looked like a gazebo on top. I’d never been up there, but then again, all my suitors really wanted were my teeth and my body, not the foolish pretense of romance. I ducked back under the umbrella.
Once we hit the street, Vale whistled for a conveyance—a cheaper one than I’d used before and so small that we were stuffed together, touching from shoulder to ankle. Vale gave the dull-faced driver an unfamiliar address instead of giving the museum’s name, and the trap took off at killer speeds, leaving a puff of violet smoke hanging in the gaslight behind us. The machinery was so loud that we had trouble hearing each other, but there was a new intimacy to being so close and doing something so normal. He was wearing his striped pants and vest, and the umbrella sat sentry between our knees like a bony chaperone.
In lieu of talking, he walked his fingers up my arm every time I paid attention to something else that wasn’t him. Each time I swatted him away, we both knew it was only a matter of time before I would pretend to stare at something else.
Rain dotted the roof as the conveyance pulled to a stop, and Vale slipped a franc into the man’s filthy fist and helped me down. My boots slipped on the cobbles, and I tried to orient myself. As usual with Vale, we were in a dark alley in a place where no lady would go during daylight.
As if reading my mind, Vale opened the umbrella over my head and pulled me deeper into the shadows with a murmured “Quiet, now, bébé. I would normally go underground, but I am attempting to woo you, which requires a giddy stroll through an evening rain, yes?”
I glanced at the soot-streaked bricks and piles of bones and rocks. “It’s just like I always dreamed—slimy carcasses and all.”
“I would kiss you to keep you silent, but around here, we might be eaten.”
The words sent shivers to dance along my spine, but I took his hint and went quiet as he pulled me into a maze of ramshackle buildings and fallen walls. There had been a fire here; my nose told me that more than my eyes did. But they were rebuilding, and the scaffolds and piles of stone and wood left plenty of shadows to shield us from prying eyes. When Vale lifted the edge of a manhole cover, I realized why he’d encouraged me to leave my bustle at home and tried to put on a brave face as I followed him into the yawning hole.
Once we were both underground and standing on stone, he produced a metal object from his pocket. With a few flicks of a switch, a fire bloomed, and I was delighted to see my first cigarette lighter in six years. He hooked the umbrella over my arm and handed the lighter to me so that he could replace the manhole cover above, and I admired the flower and vine design chased in the brass. I almost asked him about his green pendant before remembering that he had given it to me, and I had broken it the same day during an attempted murder. Oops.
With a heavy clunk, the tunnel went pitch-black around my small flame. Vale landed beside me. He took the lighter gently, careful not to hurt me or let the fire go out, his fingers caressing mine.
“It’s not far,” he said, and I shrugged.
“I’m pretty tough.”
He pointed to my borrowed boots. “I would not wish you to get blisters.”
That small kindness reached past my cold heart, the warmth spreading as he held out a hand and guided me over a puddle. Rain plinked overhead, and further down the tunnel, I could hear more water moving. As we walked, Vale held up the lighter to show me an ancient rock wall that subtly curved.
“We are just outside the base of the original fortress. A great daimon king built it to protect the city from humans who wished to overrun it. Legend says the daimons repelled the humans with magic and by catapulting bludrats into the human armies.”
“That’s smart. Ratapults.”
Vale laughed, and it warmed the cold tunnel like a blast of sunshine. “Come, my clever bébé. You’re about to see the inside of the gentleman’s loo. Brace yourself.”
We turned off into an empty chamber with a high ceiling. Vale handed me the lighter before whipping away a moldering old cloth to reveal a wooden ladder, which he leaned against the stone wall. He climbed carefully as I waited below, holding up the lighter to enjoy the rare chance to see him from a different angle. He was about twenty feet up when tiny rays of light struck his face in a sunburst pattern, shining through a drain. After putting his ear up to the ceiling, he slid a chunk of stone to the side with a grunt. A beam of light shot into the chamber, illuminating a beautiful mural of daimons in medieval armor, rippling flags held aloft by their tails.
“It’s clear, bébé. If you’d care to join me?”
I clicked the lighter shut, tucked it into my pocket, and started climbing. On Earth, I couldn’t imagine how terrifying this entire outing would be: navigating a treacherous city after midnight with a strange and dangerous man, followed by tromping through the sewers and climbing thirty feet into the air over stone and into a government building. But considering who I was and where I was, it was an exciting trip. And that’s when it hit me: I was about to have unfettered access to the greatest art museum in the entire world of Sang.
I had to hold in the squeal as Vale gently took my arms and helped drag me onto the tiles above. I stood and dusted off my leggings . . . and looked directly into a urinal.
“You weren’t kidding.”
“It gets better, I promise you.”
Taking my elbow, he led me out into a wide hall. I sucked in a deep breath, considering how many atoms of paint and oil and genius I might be taking into my body forever with each lungful of air. I wasn’t sure exactly how much this Louvre had in common with the one on Earth, but it was close enough to make me drunk on art-nerd giddiness.
“Where do we start? Is there a map? Do you have Impressionists here yet?”
“Let me see your ticket again, and I will tell you.”
Vale flicked on the lighter, and I handed him the crumpled paper. The building around us was utterly silent and beautiful in its moonlit austerity, and it took every ounce of self-control I possessed to stop myself from running down the long hall, doing cartwheels and whooping with joy.
When Vale took off, I followed. There was scant light from the moon outside, and I wished to see more, but he didn’t ask for his lighter again. Bumbling around in a high-profile building with fire probably wasn’t the best way to remain unnoticed, after all. I didn’t know much about the layout of this Louvre or the one in my original world, so I just tried to take in as much as the shadows allowed, soaking in the sculptures, paintings, and ancient wonders when I wasn’t watching Vale’s butt. He walked with determination, moving through the Louvre as if he owned the place, and I liked that. It didn’t hurt that he was bringing me closer to what I hoped would be a clue about Cherie.
“The gallery should be through here . . .”
He turned left, and I followed so closely that when he drew up short, I ran into him. Normally, I think he would have rather enjoyed having my front plastered to his back, but this time, he was so tense and alert that he didn’t even notice.
We stood in the doorway to a portrait gallery, surrounded by daimons frowning, laughing, dancing, and seated astride screaming bludmares. Almost one entire wall was a version of La Grande Jatte but with daimons mixed among the humans and a clockwork monkey playing with the puppies in front. I hurried over to read the card and see if Seurat existed in Sang and was surprised to learn that it was the first painting created solely by automaton in a style entirely new.
“Bébé, you need to see this.”
Vale was a dark and stalwart shadow before a wall of dancing girls, many of them doppelgängers of paintings from my own world but with the twist that these girls were daimons instead of humans. The canvases were in all shapes and sizes, each in a heavy gilt frame. Vale flicked open the lighter, and a hand to my pocket told me that yet again, I’d been pickpocketed without my knowledge. He raised the flame, and I nearly barfed duke blood onto the dainty tiles of the Louvre.
The image of Limone didn’t look like Lenoir’s work, and the brass plaque on the frame was blank. In my world, this masterpiece by Toulouse Lautrec showed the Moulin Rouge, so this evil twin most likely showed the inside of the Moulin Bleu of Sang. In the bottom right corner, lit in lurid absinthe-green, was an image of Limone so true to life that I could feel hatred and disgust radiating from it in waves. I stepped closer, but Vale threw an arm out to hold me back.
“When was the last time someone saw Limone?” I asked.
“The day after she pushed you.”
“She went to the Moulin Bleu, didn’t she?”
He nodded. “There’s dark magic at work here,” he said, and I gulped and shivered but didn’t move forward again.
I could feel Limone’s cold presence in the room with me, and I spun suddenly, certain that I would feel her hard hands pushing me off into space. But the gallery was empty, peopled only with whispering shadows. I looked from portrait to portrait, trying to sense if perhaps it was only my history with Limone and the perfection of her likeness that was freaking me out. I saw faces I half recognized, a maroon girl stretching in a tutu and a pink-skinned girl laughing. But I couldn’t remember their names or when I’d seen them last.
I pointed with a trembling finger. “I know those girls . . .”
“Jess and Edwige. They went missing from Paradis. Together.” His voice was dark, torn between anger and sadness. “Neither painting shows the artist’s name, but at least it was not Lenoir.” His fists clenched at his sides.
“Why did you bring me here?” I asked.