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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
I could only nod.
“Come on, then. There is still time, if we hurry. Something tells me this club stays wicked long after midnight.”
I was curious about whether he knew a secret way up to the bedrooms, but we took the usual hallway and stairs.
“What about Charline and Sylvie?”
“They’re both absinthe addicts. Hence why it’s forbidden. Probably collapsed in one of their rooms next to a bottle. Sisters, you know.”
Upstairs, the low-burning gaslights revealed a new sign on the door where my own name had hung just a few short hours ago. Looked like La Goulue would get her chance to rule Paradis next, and she was welcome to it. No sounds came from Mel and Bea’s room, and I hesitated to knock, knowing that whatever Bea had to say, she was going to be even more upset than she had been earlier, when Mel had asked us to leave.
Before I could get up my nerve, Vale knocked gently. There was rustling inside, and the door opened just a sliver.
“It’s late,” Mel said, worried eyes darting from me to Vale. “And we’re not allowed to talk to her.”
“We must speak with Bea,” Vale said. “It is imperative.”
She chewed her green lip, still streaked with red paint. “Oh, la. I think that’s a bad idea.”
“Is Blaise with you?”
“No. He’s with Blue tonight.”
Vale nodded to himself and pulled the canvas tube from his collar and unrolled it. I held out the gold pin.
“I know it is bad, Mel, and I hate to ask. But Lenoir tried to kill Demi tonight, and we killed him instead. We have only a few hours to find the Malediction Club and shut it down. Permanently.”
Mel’s skin shivered over to a pale and sickly light green, her eyes going wide and scared as she stared at Lenoir’s painting of Bea. Finally, she took a shuddering breath and stood back to let us in. Bea was a blue smudge by a bedside lamp turned low, her arms spotted under a colorful afghan. Before she could sit up enough to withdraw her hands and sign anything, Vale held up the painting. She slumped to the side, pale blue against her white pillow, her shoulders heaving as she shook her head back and forth in useless negation.
Mel crossed the room on bare feet and curled around Bea, stroking her gently and murmuring to her in Franchian.
Vale’s voice was gentler than I’d ever heard it, as if he stood over a newborn foal, something spindly and easily snapped. “Bea, we’re so sorry, chère. We need to know about Lenoir and the Malediction Club.”
She shook her head, her eyes squeezed shut. No no no no no.
Mel caught her hands and held them up. “Yes, love. Yes. You have to. Did they do this to you?” One green finger gestured to Bea’s throat.
Bea’s hands went up and clenched, and her face screwed up as if she were were caught between trying to throw up and trying to hold something in. Her teeth chattered and clacked, her eyes starting to bulge as some secret, silent battle raged in her chest.
Vale exhaled hard beside me, his pale eyes filled with grief and worry. His hands went to fists at his sides, as if he could feel Bea’s pain. And then his fingers snapped open. “Wait. Let me try something.”
He looked from Bea’s painting to her tortured face, then thrust the canvas into the banked fire in their grate, where it caught with the same blue sparks as mine had. Bea’s eyes flew open, her hands to her heart, and Mel wrapped her arms firmly around Bea’s shoulders, their skin merging into teal.
The room was silent but for the painting’s crackling, all of us transfixed as the dancing figure dissolved into ash. When it collapsed into the grate, Bea let out a silent but massive sigh, shook Mel off, and sat up against the headboard with a determined set to her chin and a spark to her eyes I’d never seen before. They exchanged a glance, and then Bea’s hands began to fly, fast and furious, Mel’s voice soft and halting at first, then hurrying to keep up and shaking with rage.
“She could not say it before now, could not communicate anything about Lenoir and the Malediction Club. There was magic in the painting to stop her, imperfect but clever. She is sorry that she was unable to tell you.” Mel stroked Bea’s arm fondly, tears in her eyes. “Oh, la. Mon amour, of course.”
Bea flapped her hand at Mel, who said, “I’m sorry. I know it’s important. But you’re important, too, love.” Mel chuckled and dashed away tears. “Bea says it happened eight years ago. She had just come to Paris, still had her voice. She had no plans to join the cabaret, was talented enough to perform on the true stage. Lenoir heard her practicing in the Tuileries one day and came back another time to sketch her and listen to her sing.” Her hand landed on Bea’s knee, soft as a dove. “She had a beautiful voice, then, and was going to be a star in the opera. Lenoir sent a card, invited her to sit for a painting. He wasn’t famous yet, just rich and mysterious. She went, and he gave her daimon drinks and told her she was beautiful. She felt homesick and alone and enjoyed the peace she found in his atelier.”
Something twisted in my gut. I knew exactly how she felt.
Bea stopped a moment, her hands fallen in her lap. As she gazed into the pitch-black night, beyond the window Mel’s fingers traced her shoulders and neck and back, one going lower to rub what I suspected was the large, painful scar that had once carried a tail.
“Then, one night, he put something strange in her drink. She fell asleep. When she woke up, she was in a . . . a dungeon. Somewhere deep underground, cold, all stone. Looked as old as the catacombs, maybe older. There were skulls everywhere, and it was very dark, and she was so scared. She could hear bludrats eating something and the sounds of women crying and screaming. Soon men in strange, pointed masks and long black cloaks came. They took her down, they . . .”
Mel trailed off, let out a few hiccupping sobs. Vale’s eyes met mine; we knew exactly who those men were. But Bea was intent, her signs angry and forceful.
“I’m sorry, ma chère, I just can’t . . . it hurts me to think of that happening to you.” Mel scooted closer to hug Bea, but Bea shooed her away and gestured. “Okay. Okay. I’ll finish,” Mel said.
“Bea feeds on comfort and joy. When she was hanging in the dungeon, she was starving. There was no comfort or joy. So when the men took her down—she could smell they were men, you see. Human men. Didn’t have to see their faces or bodies to know they used the same soaps and colognes as the cabaret clientele. But they took her down and used her, and the only way to stay alive was to feed on their lust and passion for hurting her.” She shook her head, her eyes pleading with us. “It was barely enough. You can’t understand how awful that is, for a daimon. For a woman. It’s the worst kind of torture.”
I nodded numbly.
And Vale stepped closer. “How did you escape?”
Bea tapped her throat as Mel translated.
“She had singing magic, but the men kept her gagged and her tail bound. They didn’t amputate for the opera. One night, she managed to work the gag loose. She sang the bludrats to her, had them fetch powders and potions from the men’s laboratory. She was able to dissolve her manacles and get a few other girls down before someone came to check on them—one of the dark daimons who worked for the wealthy humans. When she started singing her magic, he took her voice.” Bea’s slender blue hands circled her throat, her mouth opening and closing like a fish. “He knew what she was. They fought, and he killed one of the other girls. Bea wounded him and managed to escape with one other daimon. They wandered the catacombs for days, trying to keep each other alive. Bea found enough comfort in being away from her captors and having another girl with her. But without her voice, Bea couldn’t do enough to sustain the other girl, who needed lust and happiness to survive. She starved and withered before they could find sunlight.”
Bea doubled over, sobbing silently, her shoulders heaving and the white of her chemise splattered with tears. But her fingers kept moving, even as they trembled.
“She had to leave the other girl’s body in the darkness. The next day, she stumbled into the ladder to Paradis. Blue was the one who found her and took her in and found the books on sign language so she could talk. I went with her to have her tail removed so she could stay here. And when we found out Bea was pregnant a few months later, everyone helped out. We never knew . . .” Mel pulled Bea close. “She wouldn’t tell us where she came from, who Blaise’s father was, why she couldn’t talk. I had always assumed she was born mute; it never mattered to me. But I understand, ma chère. I understand why you wouldn’t tell.” Because of the magic. Because they would kill me, Bea signed. They would kill Blaise.
“How would they know?” Vale asked.
Bea sat up very straight, eyes burning. Her fingers spelled one word. Auguste.
“Auguste is one of them?”
Her hands moved jerkily, as if she was tearing flesh into strips.
“Auguste was the daimon who tried to stop her from escaping. A few years after she arrived here and had Blaise, he showed up to sweep the floors and tend bar. He never spoke to her. But he watched her. And he . . .”
Mel’s jaw dropped, and she grasped Bea’s hands. “He uses her when he wants to. In return for not telling the Malediction Club she’s here. Oh, Beatrice. Oh, why didn’t you say?”
The girls fell on each other, crying, one loudly and one silently.
Vale stepped closer, slipped an arm around me, and pulled my body against him as if I, too, fed on comfort. And it did help. Even with the blood I’d guzzled downstairs, I still felt wobbly, especially after hearing Bea’s story. We now knew we had a unified enemy: the Malediction Club was behind Cherie’s abduction on the road, my attempted kidnapping in the elephant, Lenoir’s plot to steal my soul, and Bea’s abuse and the theft of her voice.
“You know we will kill Auguste when we find them, yes?”
Bea gave Vale a wobbly, determined smile and signed something short and sharp.
“She says.” Mel cleared her throat. “ ‘Kill them all.’ ”
I couldn’t be silent anymore. “We killed Lenoir and couldn’t find anything in his studio that had an address or a map. And we couldn’t hunt through Fermin’s lab. Do you know any other members? Can we question Auguste?”
Bea snorted and shook her head no, and my hopes fell. But then she signed something
In a very quiet voice, Mel said, “She knows where they meet. She couldn’t tell us, but she has always known.”
Bea tapped her throat again.
“Because she left her magic there.”
“So you could lead us there?” Vale shifted, stretching his shoulders and twitching his fingers as if longing to feel his claw in his fist.
“She says . . . you don’t understand. They’re too powerful. The richest men in Paris. Barons and chirurgeons and gendarmes and barristers. They’re everywhere. They have money and magic and weapons and servants, and they’re accustomed to taking what they want. By force.”
Bea’s slender arms gestured to each of us in turn. Sitting there, raw and empty of tears, she reminded me of a plant that had been crushed but kept growing anyway. “The four of us against the Malediction Club? It’s laughable,” Mel said for her.
All I could think about was Cherie, shackled to a stone wall, deep underground, maybe dying. Broken bodies, crushed minds, empty hearts, all kept like pets by men who’d forgotten that women were people, if they’d ever known at all.
“I bet every girl in this cabaret has lost a friend or someone she loved,” I murmured.
Mel nodded. “Oh, la. So many girls disappear. We never know what happens to them.”
“We know now,” Vale said.
“And if we hurry, before they know we know, maybe we can do something about it.”
They all stopped to stare at me.
“Get up, and get dressed. Put on your thickest corset and heaviest boots. I’ve got an idea.”
We went from door to door down the hall of Paradis, knocking until the sleepy-eyed daimon girls answered, clutching thin shawls and rumpled sheets around their shoulders against the spring chill. Vale and I gave each girl the same message: “We’re taking down the Malediction Club tonight. They have hostages. If you’ve lost someone you loved and don’t wish to live in fear, bring every weapon you have, and come fight with us.”
Most of them nodded, their eyes going sharp and hard. In ones and twos, the hallway filled with dancers turned assassins, standing tall in their steel-boned corsets paired with leggings and boots and skirts slit for fighting. Some were armed with knives or claws; some had only letter openers or hammers found lying innocently around the theater. A few had small crossbows or strange leather satchels, rigid and hinged like an old-fashioned doctor’s bag, and I was curious about what they hid inside. Criminy had one like that in his wagon, tucked tidily under his desk. There was so much I still didn’t know about my coworkers.
One of the newer daimon girls had shyly handed me a pile of my own clothes, given to her a few short hours ago, after the prince had left the cabaret in a petulant storm. I thanked her and ducked into her room to trade Lenoir’s hateful heavy gown for leggings, a thick corset, a buttoned jacket, and scuffed boots. Considering that we were on our way to fight, I left off the bustle and skirts, as did many of the daimons. There was no sign of the posh star of Mortmartre in the spitfire Bludman hissing at me in the mirror. And I liked myself better this way.
“Where’s Auguste?” I whispered to Vale while we waited for Mel and Bea to emerge from their room.