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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“That’s no way to speak to a lady,” he barked at the reporter as he dragged him out of the room and slammed the door.
“Oh, mon dieu. We’ll be on the front page of all the papers,” Charline wailed, an elegant arm over her eyes, probably to hide the dollar signs that had appeared there.
“I’m Monsieur Bonchance, and this is my associate, Monsieur Legrand. We’re sure you’re upset and in need of recovering, mademoiselle, but we do need to ask you just a few questions so that we can better understand what happened yesterday,” the mustachioed gendarme said, his voice gentle, as if I were a dog that might bite him. “Did you know the fellow in question?”
“I’m afraid not. I was expecting Prince Seti, but then the elephant just started walking. I climbed up into the engine room and asked him who he was and what he was doing, but all he said was ‘Mal.’ Do you know what that means?”
“We’ll ask the questions here!” the younger gendarme barked, and I raised an eyebrow.
“I think what Monsieur Legrand means is that as the gentleman died in your presence and under curious circumstances . . .”
“The little doxy drained a human being, inches away from us! In broad daylight!” Legrand barked.
“It wasn’t daylight; it was after midnight,” Mel burst in as Bea wagged a finger in the surprised policeman’s face.
“Monsieur, I do believe that under the circumstances, it is considered self-defense, n’est-ce pas?” Charline lovingly dragged Mel and Bea out the door. “If she were a Pinky—I mean, a human—and she had used a hammer or a knife to dispatch her kidnapper, would that not be perfectly within the law?”
Legrand sneered. “All due respect, madame, but a hammer ain’t teeth. Teeth’s personal.”
I glanced at the clock and blanched. “Messieurs, might I make an appointment to speak with you personally, in private, that we might share information on this incident?” I batted my lashes and slunk around the screen, almost dressed, to take Legrand’s narrow, pale hand in mine. He blushed beet-red, perfuming the air with the scent of blood. When I licked my lips, I’m sure he thought it meant something other than polite hunger.
Bonchance answered for him. “That would be satisfactory, mademoiselle. We shall expect you tomorrow morning.”
“Merci mille fois, monsieur.” I bowed over his hand and gave him my most charming smile.
“And I do hope you fine gentlemen will accept these tickets to tonight’s show? Mademoiselle Demitasse is understandably too upset to perform, but the daimon girls will astound you.”
The younger, angrier gendarme accepted the gold-trimmed tickets and cleared his throat. “We’ll leave you to your business, then, mesdames. Good day.”
Once the gendarmes were out the door, Charline turned to me, her eyes as sharp as a crow’s on a busy highway. “You,” she started, and I held up a hand.
“I’m off. You promised.”
She sighed heavily. “Tomorrow,” she said slowly, “will not prove to be your favorite day.”
I buttoned up my jacket and gave her my most charming smile. “Provided an enormous copper elephant doesn’t fall on me, I suspect I’ve experienced worse.”
I didn’t understand half the things she muttered in Franchian as I sashayed out the door, and I didn’t care.
I was going to see Lenoir.
When Lenoir met me at the door to his flat, my heart stuttered prettily.
“I heard you went for quite a ride last night, my Demitasse. I didn’t expect you.”
“Water under the bridge, monsieur.” I fluttered my eyes behind my fan. “But today, I am yours.”
Rare and bright, his smile startled me. “And I couldn’t be more pleased.”
I followed him upstairs, mentally comparing his body with Vale’s as the cats twined around my ankles. The two men were built differently, and Lenoir was much older, but I had no complaints. In a way, I felt a little sorry for the men of Sang. With so many petticoats and hoops and bustles, they had no way to judge a woman’s true shape until they got her undressed, which didn’t happen often. In Sangland, from what I understood, the Pinky women were so terrified to reveal their skin to the noses of bludrats that they rarely removed all their clothes, even for lovemaking. Sometimes I regretted being bludded, but when it came to personal freedoms and safety and how good it felt to take off thirty pounds of fabric and breathe at night, I was definitely on the right team.
Upstairs, I changed quickly and relaxed into my chair with a tranquil sigh. Although it had been gray and oppressive outside, the sun danced in prettily through the window, the motes of dust falling like magic snow upon my arms, where the tiny hairs stood up in ripples. A narrow crystal flute appeared in my hand, pink bubbles fizzing.
“This is not the usual drink,” I murmured, taking a sip and then a deeper one.
“Blood and champagne, my dear. They call it the Tsarina’s kiss. It’s too early for absinthe.” He smiled again. “For now.”
I nodded, enjoying the sweet fizz tickling my nose. In moments, I’d downed the blood-tinted liquor and wiped a rogue bit of foam off my nose. I had forgotten since landing in Sang how satisfying and refreshing carbonated drinks could be. As a little girl, I had often awoken in the middle of the night so parched I thought I would die, and nothing felt as marvelous as gulping down soda straight from the bottle in the fridge. Before I could mention it, Lenoir had exchanged my flute for another, which I sipped more slowly, as the first one was already bubbling straight up to my head.
I sank deeper into the chair, slowly unfurling in the sunbeam the way a flower greeted the morning. The champagne glittered in my goblet like laughter made liquid, like the lighter, sweeter, more forgiving sister of the dark red wine laced with blood and absinthe he usually gave me for our meetings. With every sip, I told myself it was only a prelude to the bliss yet to come. I let my eyes go soft, trading focus for the fuzzy, dreamy world of Lenoir’s studio. I didn’t realize I was sighing until Lenoir looked around the canvas at me, his eyes the opaque dark blue of blackberries and threatening to seep in and fill me completely.
“Close your mouth.”
I smirked and licked my lips, missing the bright pink gloss I would have worn in my own world.
“I’m not your plaything,” I said. “For all that I’m merely an object in your still life, I still have free will. And I’ll sigh if I goddamn want to.”
“You’re harder to paint than a horse. At least they express their annoyance through twitching tails and ears.”
The champagne had to be getting to me, for the answer fell from my lips like ripe fruit from a tree. “Horses, monsieur, are best kept for riding.”
One eyebrow shot up, and I knew my little barb had found the target. Finally, the stark, austere man showed some sign of passion outside of his paint. “I have no time for leisurely riding, mademoiselle. And my interests lie outside the acceptable.” His words were clipped as he disappeared behind the canvas, his twitching brush belying the break in his usual coolness.
I took another sip, rolling the champagne and blood over my tongue. There was something else there, something sweet and cloying and syrupy. Not absinthe, not even a hint of wormwood and anise, and I didn’t know if that was disappointing or comforting. But whatever the unknown addition was, it made my spine go loose, my arms limp, my lips numb. Might as well have been absinthe, for still it made the dust motes dance like fairies, just out of the edges of my vision. But what had he said about his interests?
“Do you know, my dear, that I have traveled?”
My mouth quirked up, and the empty glass spun lazily in my fingers, which seemed altogether too long and as if they had grown another joint. “I would assume so, monsieur. A man of your age and tastes would wish to experience the world.”
His night-blue eyes peeked around the canvas like a child cheating at hide-and-seek. “I’ve been to every corner of the globe. Which has no corners, as I suspect you are aware. I’ve sampled the . . .” He paused daintily, and I could imagine his spade beard twitching as he chose between the word women and the word blood. “Wares of every bazaar, every bodega, every grand hotel.”
I was surprised to hear footsteps and looked up to find Lenoir staring down at me, his eyes gone the indigo of caverns cleaved in rock where things are buried forever, hidden until they crumble away to shadowy loam. He looked cold and remote in a way Criminy never had, as if growing older had ossified his heart and caused his veins to shrivel into sharp things, claws that forever grasped. He leaned over, and I found my hands hovering over my chest as if begging him not to snatch out my heart in his twisted talons.
“And I have found that everything in this world has a price.” He leaned closer, close enough that I could smell the blood on his breath. “Except, perhaps, yourself. And do you know what that tells me, mademoiselle?”
My breath caught, and I tried to smile and utterly failed. “That you need a bigger checkbook, monsieur?”
Although I’d considered every smile from the suave older man a triumph, the one he gave now chilled me to the bone. “It tells me that I simply need to find the right cage and the right lock.”
I took a shuddering breath and sat up, my backbone suddenly going from gaseous to solid, sublimating into rage and defiance. “There’s no cage,” I said distinctly, “that can hold me. I’ve broken out of four so far, and I’ll beat my wings against the bars of the next one, too. Right until it fucking breaks.”
I was so scared that my knees trembled under my skirt, but his eyes were pinned on my face, and so perhaps he didn’t see. And yet something about the way his nostrils flared, like a dog scenting a mailman, told me that he knew. And he liked it.
Lenoir raised his chin, spun, and returned to his palette and canvas slowly, his boots silent on the thick carpet, as if he walked on the moon.
“The funny thing about cages, Mademoiselle Ward, is that if you build them just right”—he winked at me before disappearing behind his canvas—“the creature within need never know it’s been trapped.”
I heard the rasp of dry bristles on canvas and instinctively moved my arm back into place, my mouth freezing of its own volition into a smile I no longer felt. Not until the cool glass kissed my lips did I realize that he’d moved to my side and refilled my champagne flute, that the glass pressed heavily against my mouth, demanding to be consumed. But the liquid within wasn’t light and bubbly and as frivolous as butterfly wings and fairy glitter. No. The moment I scented it, I knew it for what it was. Absinthe. And blood. And other things that, I knew now, had been there all along, hiding under the heavy nightmare of anise and the coppery heat of hunger. His fingers pressed the glass to my lips, urging them apart. My own hands were frozen on the chair. I had no choice but to drink.
By the second sip, I no longer cared what it was.
By the third, I’d forgotten I had wings at all.
After that, time ceased to pass. I seem to recall cool hands on my arms, pulling laces, tugging on shoes, moving me like a grand, cold doll. I remember a slight thump as my head hit the wall on the way down the stairs. I recall, like some faraway dream, Auguste’s shocked gasp and his soft murmur. “Monsieur, is she even alive? It’s too much.” And then the beat of an engine, the rocking of the stairs, and the beloved, dark, infinite quiet of silk sheets sliding over my body.
When I slept, I dreamed of dark angels and deep wells of wine, floating with bones. And dancing. Always dancing.
* * *
Heavy knocking roused me, just a little. My eyes were smeary, my limbs forged of lead. I tried to move, but I was all tangled up on my bed.
“Demi? Are you here?”
I had to swallow a few times to find my tongue. “Entrez. Or something,” I called, struggling to figure out which way was up. My head felt as if it was stuffed with wine-soaked cotton balls, heavy and wobbly.
The curtains parted, and Vale appeared like a giant bat: upside down and flapping. I laughed my ass off.
“Oh, no, bébé. What have you done?” The words were lazy, slow, and overloud, as if he were shouting underwater, and yet his steps were oddly fast as he crossed the soft rugs to reach me.
“Might still be a bit drunk,” I answered, staring at his boots, which were wet and caked in filth. He’d come from the sewers under the city, then. “And you’re getting shit on my rug.”
Warm hands caught me under my knees and behind my shoulders, and my stomach flipped for a dozen reasons as he set me upright, or what I had to assume was upright, as everything suddenly ceased being upside down. He kneeled, his golden-green eyes boring into mine like corkscrew grass. I opened my mouth a little, hoping he might kiss me while I was too drunk to act surprised about it. But instead of settling his lips over mine, he simply breathed me in.
“Drunk on what?”
I licked my lips, marveling that the champagne and wine and anise and wormwood and red blood could merge to taste like candy, hours after the fact.
My voice went low, playful. Rebellious. “This is Paris. What do you think I’ve been drinking? Café au lait?”
“Absinthe. Mon dieu, bébé. How much?” He shook my shoulders, making my teeth rattle like the bone dice Louis had shaken in a cup in the pleasure gardens.
I wiggled out of his grasp and turned onto my hip to splay myself gracefully over the bed in a similar attitude to the pose I’d adopted for the artist. I’d sat this way for hours, my face frozen in a teasing Mona Lisa smile, waiting like Pavlov’s dog for the moments when Monsieur Lenoir would set down his brush and refill my goblet with a splash of his potent cocktail. Funny, how things as normally repellent as red wine, absinthe, and blood could mix together and not curdle in the glass. But the taste was a thousand times better than any ingredient alone, and the high was the opposite of caffeine.