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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
The driver muttered, “An address?” and I racked my brain before spitting out the number from the painter’s door. “Oui, mademoiselle.” He revved the engine, hurtling us into the street. I held back the curtain and looked up to my old room.
So that was the end of my time at Paradis.
I would miss Mel and Bea, especially, and Blue and Blaise and the other girls I hadn’t gotten to know. I would miss the hot lights of the stage and the feel of the ladder under my feet as I ascended to the catwalk. But there were other cabarets and other cities, and I refused to believe that Blue’s five scarred fingers represented every option I had. Hell, at the very least, I could always walk back to Callais, busking to pay for a quick air trip across the Channel. Criminy would take me back. He’d very likely dock my pay—which he’d basically been holding hostage, anyway. But maybe I could persuade him to use his money, his reach, and his magic to find Cherie. I just had to survive long enough.
The streets glowed with gas lamps, the traffic still lively even after midnight. It was Mortmartre, after all, and I passed open carriages that left echoing laughter and billowing feathers and glitter in their wake, the scent of lust heavy on the air. Every cabaret spewed its own brand of color and light and music, while windows lit with red bulbs beckoned lonely fellows upstairs for a treat, if they had the francs. We passed a gendarme on the corner, his arm taut as a giant bludhound strained at the end of its chain, the ridiculous poof of hair on the thing’s head at odds with the silver muzzle cap tightly squeezing its mouth shut but revealing its madly twitching nose. We locked eyes, and it shivered all over and lunged for my carriage until the gendarme yanked it back.
Finally, we stopped in front of the familiar town house, and relief flooded me. The invitation had merely named the date, not the time, so technically, I was here by request, even if many hours early and half-dressed. Lenoir would understand. He always understood. And a drop of bloodwine and absinthe wouldn’t go amiss, shaken as I was.
I hopped out of the carriage before the driver could help me and tossed my golden hoop earrings into his lap.
“Jewelry is not accepted currency,” he said with a Franchian sniff.
“What about blood?” I smiled, showing my fangs. He drove off in a hell of a hurry.
While the cabaret districts had been lively, this was a residential area, and my knock rang loud in the shadowy night. I shivered on the doorstep. Not from the cold, because it wasn’t a cold night and I was a Bludman. But because I was just a half-naked girl in a strange city, reduced to begging from a benefactor. And I hated it.
After a long while, a light went on upstairs, and the door opened to reveal Lenoir. He was fully dressed, not a hair out of place and eyes bright and amused as ever despite his stern mouth. And he seemed entirely unsurprised to see me.
“My dear mademoiselle. You’ve the date right, but your clock appears to be incorrect.”
I almost apologized and then thought better of it. I was a Bludman and a star. Not a lost little girl, even if that’s exactly what I’d felt like right up till he’d opened the door.
“It would appear my living arrangements have changed, monsieur. Do you perhaps have a guest bedroom where I could freshen up?”
His lip quirked up, just the barest bit. “Thrown out of a cabaret? Good heavens. I can’t imagine what sort of shenanigans you’ve perpetrated.”
He stood in the doorway a fraction longer than he needed to, and I understood that he was letting me know who was in charge. That he could still slam the door, ruin my reputation, or toss me out on my bustle. But luckily, he stepped back, gave a slight bow, and held the door open.
“Of course, my dear. You know my home is open to you. But I take it this means the prince has lost his bet?”
I stepped inside, where the air was still and cold, the lamps unlit.
He locked the door, turned to the stairs, and motioned for me to follow. I briefly wondered if I’d gone from the frying pan into the fire, if his price for sanctuary was as high as what I’d been expected to give to the prince. Scurrying in his wake, I was glad that this time, he led. With my back exposed, I felt vulnerable and breathless in the chill of the shadows, and I didn’t wish the great painter to see the goose bumps rising over my spine.
“Surely you knew. You’re on the books. Any new and interesting girl is. There are numbers for who will bed her first, whether she’s a virgin, if she’ll moan or cry or claw his back. Your odds were terribly high, but the prince eclipsed every other bet. A very confident man, Seti.”
“He said he would have me drained.”
“Then you definitely turned him down.” I thought he would stop on the second level, where I had assumed the bedrooms were, but he continued to the attic. As he twisted the gaslights on and flicked the switches of a few electric lamps, he kept his back to me. “Thank you for that. I was betting rather heavily against him.”
“I can’t imagine you need money, monsieur.” I glanced around at the subtle trappings of his wealth, scattered around the atelier. The marble statues and urns of hothouse flowers and little salt dishes filled with jewels, not to mention the rich paints and soft sable brushes.
“It’s not about money, ma chérie. It’s about prestige. Pride. A man’s reputation is a precious thing, you see.”
“How much did you win?” I asked, but he ignored me and gestured toward the changing screen with an open arm.
With the window showing cloudy darkness and the sconces burning orange, the room didn’t carry its usual haze of golden sunshine, but he went about his paint preparations as if it were a normal afternoon, as if he’d been expecting me. With a shrug at the oddness of it all, I gladly changed out of the scrap of a toga and into the chocolate-plum dress. It felt deliciously heavy and cool against my skin, and I sighed as I hurled the toga into the fire already burning in the grate. Stretching until my back popped, I walked around the screen in bare feet and melted into my usual chair.
The goblet was in my hand before I’d noticed Lenoir at my side, and I sipped it gladly, anxious for a taste of dreamy oblivion, for the strange passage of time that made me feel like a butterfly caught in amber. I felt as if I couldn’t exhale, as if all the anger and fear and worry were bottled up inside my chest and the drink would help it unwind like pulling a bit of yarn to unravel a sweater. As the liqueur slid down my throat and into my belly, a strange feeling overcame me. Instead of making everything warm and fuzzy and glittering, it seeped into me with cold tendrils like liquid ice. I licked my lips.
Lenoir appeared by my side again, not in his usual painting coat but in a high-necked white jacket that looked like something a doctor might wear. In his hand was a brass syringe, the sort I’d seen hanging on the wall at Monsieur Charmant’s shop, beside the dentist’s chair. This one was smaller and far cleaner, but the needle still reached past my Bludman’s bravado to the human deep within and terrified me.
“I won a great prize, mademoiselle.”
The goblet dropped from my trembling fingers, which had gone numb. I couldn’t close my mouth, couldn’t move my arms. As if from the bottom of a frozen pond, I saw Lenoir loom overhead as he pulled an artificer’s complicated goggles down over his eyes and settled the lens attachments with one hand, his other hand tense on the syringe. My eyes were open and tearing and cold, locked onto the small gold pin attached to his high collar.
Raven skull, bat wings, top hat.
“Are you ready, mademoiselle, to see the Malediction Club?”
No, no, no. I couldn’t shake my head, couldn’t speak. When the needle pierced my neck, right over my jugular, it was like cracking through a crust of ice. I had no choice but to watch in horror as he pulled back the plunger and sucked out my blud, my soul.
Forever and forever we were locked there, me frozen and him killing me. He was taking more than my blud, somehow, drawing some necessary life force from me, stealing all my warmth. And I could do nothing about it, could only choke silently on the freezing potion coating my throat. Lenoir didn’t speak, but he did smile for real for the first time, and it was the hangman’s cruel grin, a skeleton’s fangs that shone in the light.
When he was done, I was but an empty husk filled with panic and shadows. He held the syringe as if it was filled with liquid gold and carried it reverently to his canvas. With a flourish, he turned the uncovered painting toward me, letting me see his work for the first time.
Terrified, frozen, broken, drained, and dying, still I was awed by the perfection of it. It wasn’t me, not quite. But it was the most beautiful painting I’d ever seen.
“I can see from your eyes that you’re pleased. It’s a masterpiece. But it still needs one final touch.” His head swiveled around like a snake. “Your blud. Mixed properly with Charmant’s draught and a few of my own inventions. I’ll trap your very soul in the painting, lighting it from within. No one will be immune to its spell. It will hang in the Louvre, and they’ll line up to see it. They’ll weep. And no one will know that they are looking at your soul, and you are trapped within, looking back.” His smile curled. “And then I’ll switch it with a clever reproduction and hang the real you somewhere much, much darker.”
I couldn’t even cry. Couldn’t even whimper.
My blud oozed out of the syringe and onto a rainbow-splattered wooden palette. He selected a brush made of dainty silver-white hair, utterly pure and sparkling with a magical glow
“Unicorn-tail hair, they said.” He held it up to the light. “But I knew it for what it was. The virgin hair of a Blud Princess. Even more magical than a unicorn’s pelt, for my needs. Worth every silver.”
He licked his fangs as he mixed the deep red blud with his paints, adding a splash of some clear liquid, a pinch of something glittery, a sparkle of gold dust. Still I couldn’t move, could do nothing but look on in horror and hope that his words weren’t true. To be trapped in a painting? Even in Sang, it didn’t seem possible. And yet, thinking back to the malevolence surrounding Limone’s portrait at the Louvre, I finally understood why it had unsettled me so.
Her foul soul was trapped in the paint.
With tiny strokes that melted into the canvas, the brush caressed my hair, my lips, my fingertips. Each part he touched went dead, beyond numb. My heart cried out, straining against my chest, the only part of me that could protest.
“What’s that, ma chérie? You wonder what will happen to your body? Do you feel it emptying, becoming merely a comely shell?”
He paused as if I could speak, as if he could hear me silently screaming. His smile was dark, dark as the hole in Monsieur Charmant’s floor.
“We have uses for pretty flesh at the Malediction Club.”
Inside, I howled and beat upon the cage of my own bones, the blud slowing in my veins. But there was nothing I could do. Nothing I could move. Nothing I could say. I couldn’t even cry, couldn’t even close my eyes.
“And you’ll be our second Bludman. Finally, a matched set.”
Lenoir’s eyes flicked to his palette, and he picked up the syringe to squeeze more blud into the puddle of glistening paint. And that’s why he didn’t notice the strangely glimmering object that flew across the room to lodge in his side.
But I recognized it. The silver thing looked like Wolverine’s claws. As Lenoir spun, hands curling into talons, Vale hurtled out of the darkness and punched him square in the teeth. Even from where I lounged, immobile and terrified, it seemed a foolish move, busting his knuckles into a Bludman’s mouth, until I smelled something sharp.
Lenoir reflexively licked his lips as he ripped the claws from his side, painting the floor with blud. “You idiot. Do you have any idea who you’re dealing with?”
Vale shook his hand out, sending splatters of his own blood everywhere. Red danced in my eyes, spots and streaks like the scattered stains left by the white-haired paintbrush Lenoir had dropped on the carpet.
“I did not know you were a Bludman, at first.” Vale straightened and walked over to the crouched and wounded artist as if inspecting the painting. “Rather lucky for me, don’t you agree?”
Lenoir had one arm over the three puncture wounds dribbling red through his jacket and one hand to his mouth, scrubbing at his pale lips as if he could erase the blood he’d already ingested. “Abyssinian,” he wheezed. His skin was going over pale, his nostrils wide and his eyes all black with widening pupils.
“Tell me how to save her, and I will give you a gift.” Reaching into his black waistcoat, Vale pulled out a tiny glass vial that glistened metallic gold. “An antidote.”
“No antidote.” Lenoir hissed. “For what you are.”
“But of course there is. We just keep it a secret so bloodsuckers like you will avoid us.” He held up the vial, just within snatching reach of Lenoir, who made a clumsy grab for it. Vale danced back. “Talk first.”
Lenoir’s legs buckled, and he fell to the floor, curled around like a dying centipede, legs twitching.
Vale kneeled over him, wiggling the little bottle back and forth.
Finally, Lenoir sucked in a long breath and exhaled two whispered words. “Burn it.”
He reached for the glass antidote bottle, but Vale ignored him completely and grabbed a paintbrush from Lenoir’s jar of spirits. An evil stench went up when he stuck it in the fire, and it got even worse when he held the flaming brush to the painting of me. Lenoir let out an unholy wail as bright blue flames licked over the canvas and caught, the entire thing suddenly alight and crackling.