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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Where’s Bea?” I asked, and Mel blushed green. She shook her head, eyes tearing up, and ran out of the room. “What—?”
Blue grabbed my wrist and yanked me to the makeup counter, not gently.
“Don’t poke your nose into nasty things, kid,” she barked. “Might get bitten.”
“I’m not poking for fun.”
She held my chin and turned my face back and forth, wiping off chunks of bludhound gore that Vale had missed.
I tolerated it for a moment before leaning forward to whisper, “Have you heard of the Malediction Club? I think they’re the ones who tried to kidnap me.”
Her eyes went flat as she attacked me with a kabuki brush of powder. “Tsk. The gendarmes will sort it.” Every time I tried to open my mouth to argue, she stuck the brush into it.
I went into a coughing fit, hoping she’d used the new-fangled powder that didn’t contain belladonna. When I could speak again, I put my mouth to her ear and breathed, “The gendarmes burned his body, Blue. They’re covering it up.”
She leaned back, gave me a look so sharp it felt like a slap. “If the gendarmes are scared, you want to pry deeper? Malediction’s no sewing circle.” Pinching my chin so firmly I felt sure she’d leave marks, she lined my eyes and smudged the kohl.
I shook her off. “They tried to take me. They might have my friend Cherie. And I’m not going to stop looking.”
She shook her head sadly, looking a thousand years old. “Bad things happen to girls who get nosy. Make sure you’re not one of ’em, eh?” She spun me around and patted me on the bustle. “Get in costume. Show starts soon.”
“Is Mel coming back?”
The old blue daimon glanced at the ledger I’d seen on my first day in her domain, the one filled with crossed-out names.
“Hope so. Too many don’t.”
I scanned the faces around me, my heart heavy with how many names I hadn’t learned. Had more gone missing in just a week? When had Jess and Edwige disappeared? Why did no one talk about it?
Madame Sylvie’s husky purr rang out over the tumult of the dressing room, welcoming the audience and urging them to clap and stomp and begin their salivating. The girls bustling around me went quiet and hurried to their places. I ran for the ladder and scurried up to my perch, content to wrap chalked hands around the smooth metal of my chandelier and grateful that since my earlier fall, Madame Sylvie had assigned Auguste to check the ropes, equipment, and catwalk before each performance.
I felt safe, so high up. No one could touch me here. This was real. This was solid. This was who I was, what I did. The fame, the gilt, the feathers, the princes, the parties—none of that was real. At the heart of my identity, I was a contortionist, a performer, a dancer in the sky. And although it made me miss Cherie more than ever, I was glad to climb onto the metal cage and get into position, stretching out my limbs and pointing my toes and waiting for the jerk of rope that would lower me into the spotlight. It was good simply to be exactly what I was.
My performance was flawless, every move sinuous and graceful. The applause thundered, the men standing to stomp their feet and whistle through fingers still sweaty from expensive gloves. I bowed, I danced, I linked arms with daimons and kicked high in the can-can that everyone thought I had invented. But as I looked around at the glitter, the glitz, the madness, the daimons’ smooth skirts unmarred by waving tails, I felt a grand emptiness. The caravan may have been boring, but at least it was more real than this seductive farce.
After the last bow, I scurried backstage in the rustling crowd, breathless and weary. A gentle hand on my elbow pulled me aside. I expected Vale, but it was Auguste.
“You’re wanted in the costumer’s, miss,” he said in his usual quiet tones.
Charline and Blue jumped on me at the door, drawing me inside and undressing me with plucking fingers before I could protest. The outfit they tossed over my head was barely half a bed sheet, draped like a toga on a nymphomaniac Greek goddess and secured with tiny gold buttons at the shoulders. They pulled the pins from my hair and lured it to tumble down my bare back in dark waves and slipped sandals on my feet.
“What the hell?”
Madame Sylvie appeared in the door to look me up and down as if I was a show dog, as if she was hunting for faults or bared teeth. “Hush. Tonight is the night.”
Charline stepped to Sylvie’s side. Their avid eyes made my blud run cold, their horizontal pupils unblinking and their arms crossed. Sylvie’s flesh-colored powder completely creeped me out; surely that didn’t fool the men? Or perhaps that was why she mostly stayed hidden in her room—who knew what her skin truly showed?
“Tonight’s what night?” I asked.
Charline smiled too brightly. “The night.”
Blue darted in with her brush, painting my lips with a blood-red Cupid’s bow. Her own mouth was drawn down in a frown, darker blue in the wrinkles.
Madame Sylvie’s eyebrows shot up in drawn-on arches. “You know what to do, n’est-ce pas? Where everything goes? In theory if not in practice?”
I went stock-still, frozen. They still thought I was a virgin. And they still thought I was for sale. And apparently, they had finally earned a price high enough to ensure that they got a receipt, elephant or no.
“I’m not a whore.” My voice was tiny, needle-thin. But as strong as a needle, too.
“Of course not.” Charline patted me as if I was a fractious lapdog. “You’re a courtesan. And the highest-paid one in all of Paris. Possibly all the world one day, if you’re any good at it. Impress him, and you might find yourself on the Maybuck.”
Bile rose in my throat. When had I eaten last? Ah, yes. A vampire poodle. No wonder it tasted gamey. I swallowed it back down. “I don’t want to go on an airship brothel. And I’m not sleeping with whatever rich asshole you sold me to. Period.”
“That’s no way—” Charline began.
“How dare you—” Madame Sylvie barked at the same time.
But Blue held up a hand. I was utterly surprised when both Sylvie’s and Charline’s mouths snapped shut, and Blue gave them both a benevolent and forgiving nod. “You’re a girl. A beautiful, talented girl with a unique flair that draws men to you like bludbunnies to a baby carriage. What are your choices?” She counted the options off on her stubby blue fingers. “Marry well. Unlikely, as you’re not landed or human. Make enough money in the cabarets to set up your life. Probable, if you don’t make enemies, but they’ll always want more. Stand your man up tonight, and you might wind up dead, for he’s not the forgiving type.” She pinned me with a gimlet eye. “You could be someone’s mistress. Possible, but you’ll need to be damn fine in bed and willing to put up with a nagging wife in the background. Become the greatest and most well-paid courtesan in Paris, with just an hour’s worth of work.” Her last finger was a thumb, scarred with years of sewing and needle pricks. She pointed it at my chest. “Or get kicked out of here and fall into the gutter as so many girls do. Take less and less money for doing more and more against the filthy bricks of back alleys. Waste away on drops of absinthe. Fade into nothing.”
The thumb disappeared.
“You’ve got five other fingers,” I hissed.
Blue held up a fist. “Only if you’re a man.”
“He’s waiting, darling. We know you’ll choose wisely,” Charline said.
“Or else,” Madame Sylvie added.
Charline’s hands curled around my shoulders and squeezed, ushering me toward the door. My feet were leaden in gold sandals so thin I could feel the nails in the floorboards through their soles.
“If all else fails, just moan and think of the Tower,” Blue called.
That struck me as odd. In my world, they told people to think about England.
“Why the Tower?”
The old blue daimon snorted. “Because if you want to die, you need only touch it.”
* * *
Nothing but twisted moorings and broken concrete remained of the copper pachyderm where I’d once met my suitors. Instead, Charline pulled me down the hall and up the stairs, and a cold foreboding descended on me. So the deed was to happen in my own room? The only privacy I had in all of Paris? The place I had stolen and claimed for my own?
But when she opened the door . . . it wasn’t my room anymore.
It was a bower. A beautiful, otherworldly bower. They’d brought in potted trees, draped flowering vines across the walls, and hung warmly glowing lights between them. My bed had been replaced by a monstrous boat of a four-poster thing, draped with fluttering white gauze. The windows were thrown wide open to let in the breeze, and a tiny sliver of moonlight shone upon the thick rugs and furs they’d draped everywhere, as if the magic depended on one’s feet never touching the ground.
Charline sat me on the bed, my limbs wooden and numb in her claws. Madame Sylvie watched from the door, a skeletal and austere shadow. Twisting my shoulders away, Charline slipped leather straps over my arms and buckled them tightly. Something soft and ticklish brushed my bare back and the tender skin of my elbows.
I had wings.
“This is a nightmare,” I whispered.
“Only for you. For him, it is heaven. Paradis.”
“Paradise Lost,” I mumbled.
I yelped as she grabbed a twist of skin inside my arm and pinched hard. “Enough. You’ve been given everything. Now it’s time to earn your keep. He owns you now, that man. At least for tonight. If you don’t wish to be tied down, beaten, and raped into silence, I would suggest you pretend that he is worthy of worship, that his every touch excites you beyond belief.”
I turned slowly, eyes wide. “You would let him . . . do that to me?”
Madame Sylvie stepped close, into the warmth of the lights. I saw her color change, even through the heavy layers of paint and powder that made one forget she was a daimon at all. She shivered over with faint leopard spots, fierce and suddenly alien. “For the night, he has bought all of Paradis. You two will be the only ones in the entire cabaret.” She leaned close, her breath heating me with sulfur and brimstone. “No one would hear you scream. And no one would find your body.”
I flinched as if she’d slapped me, and she took a step back, letting her normal color descend and putting on that charming crocodile’s grin.
“Bonne chance, my dove!”
She was out the door in a heartbeat, with Charline in her wake, and I hissed at the trembling door that slammed and locked behind them.
I had forgotten to ask who had bought me.
It didn’t really matter.
* * *
My mysterious master kept me waiting, and I alternated between fear and fury. I paced the room, the furs tickling my feet through the sandals and the long, feathered wings trembling against the backs of my legs through the thin muslin of the shift. Pausing in front of the mirror on my vanity, I ran a hand through the flames of an army of dripping candles. Lifting my red-painted lips, I inspected my fangs.
My bed was gone and, with it, Cherie’s fangs. Vale had bought them from Monsieur Charmant for some mysterious sum that he refused to discuss, and they had become relics, reminders of my quest, of what was at stake. I scrabbled through the compartments of my vanity and ripped the graceful vines off my armoire to dig through the drawers. The fangs were gone, as was my lucky bludbunny foot. And that was what finally tipped me over the edge.
My choices were play nice, get raped, or die?
“Demitasse, ma chérie?”
I knew that oily, insinuating voice.
It was the prince. Again. Of course. Apparently, twenty-four hours after your preferred virgin’s kidnapping was a sufficient time to wait to claim your prize. My lips drew back, my hands curling into claws tipped with blood-red enamel.
The door opened slowly, and Prince Seti stepped inside in another vibrant folly of a sultan’s costume, his perfectly trimmed beard tied in a braid and his eyes outlined in kohl, an insult to Bludmen everywhere. In his onion-head hat and ridiculous vest and striped silk pants, he was meant to look kingly, exotic. To me, he looked like a sad little man playing at being important. A collection of amulets jangled on his chest, and I saw something there that cinched it for me: a gold disk with a raven’s skull, bat wings, and a top hat. I took a step back, the billowing curtains brushing my calves.
“Long have I awaited this moment,” he breathed. The bells on the curly toes of his stupid harem shoes jingled as he crossed the carpets toward where I waited, one hand on the windowsill.
“Me, too,” I murmured.
With trembling hands, I undid the soft leather straps, turned my back to him, and let the angel wings flutter to the ground, revealing my naked back.
“Is my beautiful angel ready to fall?”
Instead of answering, I parted the curtains and jumped out the window.
Or at least, he thought I did. Instead, I hooked a hand on the sill and swung over to the side, rushing along the ledge with a Bludman’s speed and grace to scurry down the drain spout, the toga flapping around me in the wild night wind.
Prince Seti’s stupid beard poked out the window as he stared down at the empty street in confusion. Then he looked to the side and saw me clinging to the gargoyle heads like a mad squirrel, climbing away from him as fast as my claws could carry me. His face went dark, his voice changing entirely. “I will see you drained for this.” His head disappeared as I landed on the cobbles and hailed the first closed conveyance that would stop.
“To Lenoir’s studio,” I called, wishing that I could go to wherever Vale stayed, when he wasn’t climbing in my window. But I didn’t know anything about his life in Paris, and I couldn’t linger where the prince could find me.