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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
The clockwork orangutan clattered back upstairs and gently shoved me aside with a knuckle and an apologetic, tinny “Ooh ooh.” It picked up another bludhound and carried it downstairs over one arm like a coat as the two men glared at each other. I wasn’t sure how or why, but the copper ape looked downright sad.
Vale crossed his arms, the silver claw dangling over his taut bicep. “You’ll tell us, yes.”
Charmant finally giggled, an oddly mad sound. “Depends on what you’re going to give me for the information, I suppose. A few of her fangs? A tube of your mixed bastard blood? A favor? Your firstborn? Perhaps you have a unicorn horn or a selkie skin to trade or some lovely Yssian scales?” Charmant’s eyebrows waggled like dying caterpillars.
Without a word, Vale reached into his shirt and withdrew a silk scarf, testing its weight on his palm. Charmant snatched it up without touching Vale and unwrapped it like a kid at Christmas.
“Oh la la,” he purred. “A bludmare’s lucky horseshoe. A fine trade, indeed.”
Charmant caressed the rusty U in a thoroughly unappetizing way, then tucked it lovingly into his jacket and dusted off his hands. Turning on one heel, he disappeared into the hole in the ground, tail slithering, snakelike, behind him. I was about to protest his abandonment, but Vale put a hand on my arm and shook his head. After a few moments of silence, the orangutan swung up and knuckle-walked to Vale. Its long arm extended, a folded card grasped in dexterous fingers. Vale opened it so we both could read it.
“Anatole Fermin, Artificer, Boulevard Saint-Germain.”
“Do you know who that is?” I asked.
Vale shook his head, angry. “Let’s go find out.”
The orangutan held open the door, its mournful red eyes tracing our steps as we left, as if somewhere under the metal plates and gears, the thing had a heart and had lost all hope long ago.
“Ooh ooh,” it said again, and I wasn’t sure if it meant good luck or good-bye.
Tears pricked my eyes for a reason I couldn’t name, and I held out a hand. The orangutan’s fingers softly wrapped around mine, its eyes blinking up.
“Thank you, Coco,” I said as we hurried away.
* * *
Outside, even the dim light of a cloudy afternoon felt suddenly bright. Vale pulled me aside in the doorway of an empty shop and licked the pad of his thumb to scrub at my face.
“Back off, Mom.” I wriggled away.
“You’re covered in wolf blud, bébé. We’ll never make it to Saint-Germain unless I can clean you off a little.” I sighed and held up my face. To my surprise, he planted a kiss on my lips before dabbing at me again and again with his thumb. “Thank heavens you were wearing burgundy today.”
My eyes were drawn to a flash of golden skin through his black jacket. And beneath that, blood. Half-Abyssinian blood that smelled all kinds of wrong. I wrinkled up my nose and grabbed him.
He shrugged. “That’s what killed the last one. I told you, bébé. My blood is dangerous stuff.”
“It won’t turn you into a . . . like, a werewolf or anything, will it?”
He snickered and pulled my jacket over my chest, buttoning it up to my chin. I hadn’t been so covered up since the carriage ride with Cherie, and it rankled. And choked. I tried to yank the stiff collar away from my throat, and Vale gently pulled my hands down.
“Do not worry about me. Worry about you.” He caught my hand, his thumb caressing my palm. “If you lost your gloves, use your pockets. It’ll be easier if you act like you’re not the famous lone Bludman of Mortmartre.”
I smiled to myself. The second Bludman of Mortmartre, actually. But he couldn’t know about Lenoir.
We hurried out of Deep Darkside, and I didn’t look back. Except at the end, because I had the strangest feeling, as if we were being followed. I didn’t smell anything unusual, but after being attacked by gigantic rabid monster poodles, I wasn’t going to start trusting reality.
The world brightened even more noticeably as we passed under the archway and reentered the colorful domain of the daimons. Street after street, Vale pulled me along by my elbow, silent, intent on his errand.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. As we reached a quiet place on a bridge, I murmured, “How much did they cost you?”
“Ne t’en fais pas, bébé.”
“What does that mean?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
I stopped and, God help me, stamped my foot. “I know what it means, ass! How much, Vale?”
He turned to face me, gone from gruff to amused in a heartbeat, thanks to my little snit.
“A gentleman doesn’t name prices.”
“Well, I just . . . I mean . . . thank you.”
He grinned, a spark of humor back in his eyes. “De rien, mon chou.”
“I’m not your cabbage. Cabbages don’t drink blood,” I grumbled.
“So you do know some Franchian.” He eyed the slant of the sun and jerked his chin toward the other end of the bridge. “If you want to find out who this mysterious Fermin is and get back in time to perform, we must hurry.”
My eyes were drawn to the water as we scurried over the river. I couldn’t help jealously eyeing the carefree daimons and children laughing in large paddle boats shaped like demented pink swans or tossing crumbs at regular ducks and geese from dinghies floating in the teal-blue water. Bathers reclined on the grassy shores in straw hats and the sort of half-revealing bathing suits no one in Sangland would touch, even if they had a death wish. Sure, they were guarded by an electrified fence and a guard with a seawater gun and a bludrat net, but they still looked mostly relaxed. I’d spent one giddy night at the Tuileries and one brief and stolen night at the Louvre, but no one had ever offered to show me the beauties of Paris during the daylight, and it made me desperately sad. I hadn’t been born a creature of the darkness.
Soon we were on the other side of the river. The Tower loomed over us, closer than I’d ever seen it, spindly and wrapped with wires and lights and spikes to keep the pigeons from roosting. Surrounding the elevator at its base was an unwieldy metal generator crackling with electricity like something out of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. After another block, the palpable buzz in the air subsided, and we entered a district that smelled of coal, fire, and iron. Some of the storefronts had been hollowed out and equipped with iron gates to show soot-stained daimon blacksmiths, swordsmiths, and jewelry artisans hard at work pumping bellows and hammering cherry-hot steel with a cacophonous clanking that felt like horses galloping over my brain.
“Ugh. Please tell me we’re not going to hang around here long.”
“I do not know what we’re looking for, really. This is Boulevard Saint-Germain. I haven’t spent much time here, for obvious reasons.” He nudged me in the side. “At least it’s not the leather-tanning district, n’est-ce pas? Or the one where they process civet and ambergris?”
As we passed between the forges and storefronts, reading every sign, the sun slowly sank. We didn’t have much time left before I was expected to be in costume and on a chandelier. When we came upon a blacksmith taking a rest on a bench outside his forge, Vale bowed slightly and said, “Pardon, but do you know where we might find the artificer?”
The blacksmith grunted, his thick tail twitching against the cobbles. “We’re all artificers, monsieur. Which one in particular?”
The blacksmith pointed a black-singed finger down the street, ahead of us.
“Idiot got himself crushed. They are moving his junk now.” He shook his head, his curly mustache and muscles making my heart ache with thoughts of the buff but kindly strong man, Torno, back at the carnival.
We jogged down the street, and I noticed for the first time how Vale’s fighting claw slid into a sort of scabbard along his thigh. A bludmare screamed up ahead, marking our destination: a shop being emptied, the goods stacked outside as daimon workers packed them into crates and hammered boards over the tops before stacking them on a pallet behind the coal-black horse. The tasteful sign over the storefront read simply, “A. Fermin, Artificer,” and the air around the open doors stank with an odd and familiar mix of oil, metal, and magic.
Vale being Vale, he maneuvered around the crates, ignored the daimons’ shouts of protest, and slid in through the door as if he belonged there. Me being me, I followed him.
“Can I help you, monsieur? Mademoiselle?”
The voice was cold, and the man it belonged to was even colder. His sneer made it clear that we had been instantly judged inferior, which made me automatically hate him. He even had a little Hitler mustache and a monocle.
“We seek Anatole Fermin,” Vale said.
“You can check the morgue. Good day.”
The man cleared his throat and looked down at his clipboard. My eyes were drawn to the pin on his cravat: a gold sigil that I now knew well. So I did what any cabaret girl would do when confronted with an uppity fellow who had something she wanted. I simpered.
“Ooh, monsieur.” I moved up close, setting my chest practically on his clipboard and batting my eyelashes. “What a pretty pin. Trade it for a kiss?”
His lip quirked up in disgust, and he took a step back, dusting off his paperwork. “Mademoiselle, you’re embarrassing yourself. Please vacate the premises before I call the gendarmes.”
“Some fellows can’t get it up,” I whispered to Vale, elbowing him in the ribs and making him cough.
I couldn’t help it. I hated the snotty guy with the clipboard.
And he hated me, as he was turning such a bright shade of burgundy that he was beginning to resemble a daimon. Stepping so close I could smell the cloves and tobacco on his fetid breath, he whispered, “I could have you killed ten different ways by Sunday. Get out before I change my mind.”
Vale was between us in a heartbeat, his fist wound into the guy’s shirt. “How dare you insult the lady? You will not live to see Sunday, talking like that.”
The man jerked back and tried to straighten his shirt and jacket, failing utterly. “Consider yourself a dead man.” He spit on the floor, a quivering glob.
“Not yet.” Vale gave him a cocky grin. “But we’ll take our leave.” He all but dragged me out by my elbow.
Once we were out the door, he pulled me against the brick wall, out of sight of Ugly McClipboard and his beady little pig eyes. With an impish grin, Vale held out his hand to show me the gold pin he’d ripped from the man’s paisley cravat during their scuffle.
“That’s two,” he said.
I heard a gasp. One of the daimons loading crates close by watched us anxiously. When he saw me returning his stare, his eyes went wide, and he hurriedly walked in the other direction, darting down an alley.
“Come on,” I murmured, and Vale followed me.
The daimon was quick, but my nose was quicker, and I finally cornered him behind a sculptor’s studio, hiding behind a stone statue still covered in dust, shaking with fear.
“You know something,” I said.
“And we’ll pay you to tell us,” Vale added, holding out a shiny franc.
The face that peeked around the statue was the flaccid purple of near-death, one eye covered with a cheap silk patch and the other round and wide. Twisted scars cut across his face as if he’d been whipped with a metal-tipped lash. He gulped as he stepped into view, and I noted he had no tail. And that he was very young, barely a teenager.
“I have seen that before,” he said, nodding at Vale’s fist. Vale’s fingers uncurled, showing a glint of gold, and the daimon flinched as if he’d been struck. Putting sticky-padded hands to the wall, he scurried straight up the building, quick as a lizard, disappearing onto the roof.
The words were whispered from the sky, silky and foreboding.
“That’s the crest of the Malediction Club,” he said.
Vale tossed the coin straight up. It never landed.
I looked up and muttered, “Why do they always run?”
Vale rubbed his chin. “They are most likely still alive because they always run. It does not matter; we have what we needed.”
“We know the rumors about the Malediction Club are true. Considering Anatole Fermin was an artificer recently crushed, we must assume he is the same madman who tried to kidnap you while wearing one of these pins, yes? Perhaps to take you to the club?”
“I don’t know. This is your crazy city. No one’s ever tried to kidnap me in an elephant before.”
Vale shook his head and started walking. The sun was setting, the purple clouds streaked with blood red and blazing orange. Black columns of smoke rose from the artificers’ roofs, and I was glad enough to breathe the slightly fresher, cleaner air as we crossed the bridge.
We came to a major cross street, and Vale swung out his fist, hailing a rickshaw powered by half a clockwork horse and driven by a monkey of a man perched on its neck like a jockey. Handing me up into the carriage, Vale kissed my hand quickly.
“I have more questions to ask, bébé. Be careful tonight.”
“What? Where are you going? Vale!”
He handed the man a twist of coins and rapped on the buggy, shouting, “Paradis in Mortmartre. Vite vite!”
With a creak and a clatter, the driver began pedaling, and the rickshaw pulled into traffic. I sat up and looked behind me, hunting for a close-cropped head and the wink of bright green eyes.
But he was gone.
* * *
Paradis welcomed me back like an angry mother hen. Charline met me at the door, tutting in Franchian under her breath and shedding ostrich feathers from her robe as she ushered me into Blue’s room. The girls were in their final preparations for the night, gluing on their eyelashes and contouring their cheeks and fluffing each other’s skirts. Mel ran up to grab my hands and kiss me on my cheeks as if I’d been gone a long time, and I hunted around her for a familiar blue face.