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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“His shift ended at midnight. After that, who knows? Perhaps he is at the club now.”
I nodded. That made sense. As many times as the daimon had delivered me to the elephant or to Lenoir’s doorstep, I’d never seen him when I returned from my assignations or on that delicious night when Vale had found me on the trapeze.
“I can’t believe he would do that to Bea. To anyone.” I shivered, and Vale slung an arm around my waist, grounding me. I still hadn’t fully recovered from Lenoir’s potion.
“Other species do not share your moral code, bébé. Daimons who feed on lust think monogamy is a laughable idea, and dark daimons don’t care any more for their prey than bludrats worry over a crying infant. But if Auguste is there and the girls find him, he will be ripped to pieces. He has most likely been acting as a spy, tipping off his masters. And betraying a daimon to help a human is unforgivable among their kind.”
I searched around my emotions like a tongue pressing around a rotten tooth, hunting for the pocket of pain. Nope. I felt no regret for Auguste. He’d known exactly what he was doing, delivering me to Lenoir’s studio.
Finally, the door opened, and Mel and Bea stepped out, their hands firmly clasped and glowing turquoise. Bea’s eyes were wet and tear-stained, but her dimpled little chin was set in determination. With one hand, she pointed to the stairs. We didn’t need a translation to know it was time to go and fight.
Bea led us down the stairs, through the hallway, and straight to the trapdoor in the stage, the very one through which I’d entered this twisted cabaret of mixed beauty and grotesquerie just a short time ago. It seemed as if a lifetime had passed, as if I’d shed my skin and now longed to have it back as easily as my clothes. Vale pulled open the trapdoor as the girls lifted old-fashioned kerosene lamps from a shelf behind the bar and lit them with long matches. Even the bartender was with us, her human mask gone to reveal speckled skin that matched the oranges she’d once guarded. She handed me a vial of blood and held up a softly glowing lantern.
“Best drink up, pet. It’s about to get dark.”
I gulped the blood and flopped onto my belly, sliding my legs into the square of darkness and poking around with my boot toes to find the rungs. Ever since we’d visited Monsieur Charmant, the catacombs below Paris felt sinister, coiled like a sleeping snake and waiting to devour me after any wrong step. The underground of Paris had vomited forth the bludhounds and driven tortured daimon girls to death. What would it do to me, where we were going? But the blood settled in my belly and radiated outward, giving me new strength. And when I realized that I was finally on the right track to Cherie, I moved faster down the rungs with a fierce grin on my face.
Finally, a real enemy. Finally, something to fight.
Strong hands gripped my waist and steadied me as I stepped to the uneven ground, enveloped by darkness.
“Did you bring your pendant, bébé?”
I flooded red with shame. “It broke. My first day at Paradis, when Limone pushed me off the catwalk. I was fine, but it shattered.” Strong fingers urged my chin up; I couldn’t see his eyes, but I could feel them, probing and gentle. “I’m so sorry, Vale. I saved the pieces. I know it was special.”
“I am the one who’s sorry. I wanted to give you comfort, not bits of crystal.”
“You did. You do. Don’t we need to hurry?”
His hands didn’t budge from my hips. “Stay with me in the back, bébé. At least until we get close.”
“So I can do this.”
He lifted me, twirling me around and pressing my back against the cold stones. I gasped, and his mouth settled over mine, catching me wide open. I had to hold myself carefully back, mindful of my fangs but filled with an animal hunger for him, for his strange taste, for the hot hardness of his knee rammed between mine and whatever instinct told animals to rut before a battle. His hands slid under my jacket and stroked the curve up and down my corset, his thumbs brushing hard over the nipples exposed by his sweeping fingers. I moaned and pressed against him, arching my back off the bricks.
As I changed the angle and pulled his face closer, I heard an answering moan that most definitely wasn’t Vale. My eyes flew open. Three daimon girls stood behind him with lanterns held high, their faces on us and dreamy yet focused like birds waiting for a worm to surface from rain-wet ground. I pulled away from the kiss and snapped my knees together, forcing Vale away.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
One of the girls, a violet-skinned daimon named Lexie, shrugged unashamedly. “Little snack before the fight can only help, non?”
I scowled over Vale’s shoulder as he held in a chuckle. I could only suppose he was more accustomed to being daimon fodder than I was.
“Please don’t . . . I don’t know. Don’t eat me. Or whatever you call it.”
“Pfft. We don’t eat people.” She gave me a significant look that made me blush. “But love and lust are free game.”
I grabbed Vale’s hand and stormed down the corridor, following the bobbing lights up ahead.
“Try some anger, then,” I growled as we passed.
Vale allowed me to pull him along, but he stayed safely silent. Which was good, as I couldn’t think of anything he could say that wouldn’t annoy me. Still, he slowed down as we approached the bigger group of determined girls stomping on bits of bone as they marched down the tunnel, shedding fluttery bits of feathers in the dank water.
“Love and lust, bébé?” he finally asked, giving my hand a squeeze.
I ignored it and hurried faster.
“You have nothing to say?”
He stopped walking but didn’t let go of my hand, and I was forced to halt or jerk my shoulder out of the socket. So I stopped, because I couldn’t kill people with a bum shoulder. But I didn’t turn around. I didn’t want him to see my face flushed red. The three daimon girls hurried past on the other side of the water trough, giggling. One left a lamp at our feet; another carried a large ball of yarn that she’d tied to the ladder rungs, and the bright red string unfurled behind her, leaving a path.
“Let’s go, Vale. We have an evil cabal to destroy.”
“They’ll keep five minutes. And what is the point of vanquishing evil if you are not sure you will get what you want afterward, anyway?” He wiggled my arm until I turned around, chin firmly down.
“I don’t want to talk about this now. I can’t. I need to fight. I need my head in the game. Lenoir almost . . . I don’t know. Killed me? Paralyzed me and raped my soul? I don’t know what that was. But you saved me from it, and I haven’t thanked you. So thank you.”
His fingers lit on my shoulders, crept on moth feet down my arms to my hands. “There. That wasn’t so hard, was it, bébé?”
“I’m fine at gratefulness.”
“But commitment is another story?”
“A completely different book. A library on a different planet.”
His finger grazed my cheek, a hot brand I felt all the way down to my toes. “Bébé, you are talking to a nomad. I have never lived in one place longer than a couple of months.” He stepped closer, tipped up my face. I could barely see him in the low light, but I could feel his breath on my lips, feel a tense tremble in his muscles. “Here is the thing about brigands: when they see something they want, they find a way to take it. Sometimes by force but most often by patience and cleverness. Following, studying, waiting for the perfect time to swoop in.”
“What are you saying?”
He kissed me again, softer this time. As I always did whether I wished it or not, I melted into him, opening for him. Kissing boys on Earth and in the caravan had always been exciting but taxing, as if it took work, took something out of me. But kissing Vale was a gift, filling me with strength and comfort. I guessed the daimons were right; love and lust were free game, as far as sustenance went.
“Oh la la,” I muttered as he drew away.
“Then it is settled.” Entwining his fingers with mine, he started back down the corridor.
I didn’t move. “Nothing is settled, Vale. Nothing.”
“I mean, is that how brigands do it? One kiss, and everything’s done? I feel like I know you so well, but I don’t know what you want for the future. I don’t know what you dream about, if you want kids, how your career as a brigand would support us, what parts of you they would cut off if they caught you stealing. Are you going to challenge your father or get in a cage match with your brother? If he didn’t slice you in half, where would we live? Which continent? In a wagon? In a tent? What if I want to keep performing? I’m never going to settle down and be some grouchy old woman cooking stew I can’t eat around a campfire for a dozen good-looking, green-eyed children, you know. I’m never going to be tamed.”
“I would never want you tamed.”
“I don’t want a wagon or a house or a clockwork dog.”
“Kind of important ones. And what if we did have kids? They would be, let’s see, a quarter Abyssinian, a quarter human, and half Bludman. What do you even call that?”
He chuckled to himself. “A dangerous little fiend, that’s what.”
I almost growled but started walking instead. He wouldn’t let go of my hand, and enough of me wanted to let him keep holding it that I didn’t fight it. At least he walked with me this time, once he’d scooped up the lantern.
With the flow of water dripping down the trough, we had to walk one in front of the other down the ledge, with my arm pulled behind me. It was strange to remember the last time we’d walked down here, me so uncertain and frightened, him steady and playing the clown, trying to keep my spirits up. Maybe I didn’t have all the answers I wanted from him, but I understood that in a short period of time, he’d come to be a solid part of my life in Paris, a wall I could always count on to hold me up. And this fight we were having now, if you could even call it a fight, was more like married people bickering than new lovers having a quarrel. And he knew it, which was why he let me tug him along.
Truth was, he’d swooped in long ago, and I’d let him.
“Tell me, then,” I said softly.
As I kept my eyes trained on the lanterns up ahead, he murmured in a voice low enough for my ears only. “I want to marry you. I want to run away with you. I want to have children with you but not so many that you go crazy. I don’t want you to grow old by a campfire. I want to travel, see the world, pursue the sun. I don’t want to lead, but I don’t want to follow. I don’t ever want you to stop being wild, but I wouldn’t mind harnessing your ferocity. Perhaps we could start our own cabaret, treat the girls better. I don’t know. I have only been thinking about this most nights while I stare at the stars and wait for your light to go out so I know you’re alone when it does.”
I tensed, fingers squeezing his tightly. “You’ve been spying on me?”
“I’ve been protecting you, bébé. I knew that one of these days, no matter how strong and smart you are, the men of Mortmartre would find a way to put an end to your teasing and claim you once and for all, against your wishes and protestations. And I wasn’t going to let it happen.”
“I don’t know whether to be grateful or furious.”
“Jesus, Vale. How are you so goddamn blasé about this? You love me, you want to marry me and start a cabaret, you’ve been stalking me, but it’s for my own good. And we’re walking into the lion’s den right this moment, and you don’t seem to give a shit. Do you ever take anything seriously?”
He laughed outright then. “I take everything seriously; I simply refuse to be serious about it. What is, is. What is done, is done. You don’t think much like a Bludman. And whoever said I loved you, bébé?”
I skidded to a stop, half terrified and half furious. “But you—”
“I do, though. Quite honestly, I feel on track for the first time in my life. I actually want to do the thing that needs doing, and you’re right here with me, hand in mine. The worst that can happen is I die fighting for my woman, and for a brigand, that is an enviable way to go.”
“You won’t die. I can always . . .” I trailed off.
“You can’t. That’s the irony, non? I’m the only one you cannot turn into a Bludman.”
My heart clutched itself behind my corset, and that’s when I knew how much I cared about him. The biggest weapon in my arsenal was being a Bludman. I was hard to kill, a dangerous predator in my own right, and gifted with the ability to turn a dying human into one of my own, thereby saving his life. But since I couldn’t drink Vale’s half-Abyssinian blood, he was right. I couldn’t turn him. I realized I was crushing his fingers and relaxed my hand, suddenly seeing him as fragile as a butterfly.
And he recognized it instantly and squeezed harder. “Don’t be careful of me, bébé. I am still difficult to kill in my own right, and I grew up in a brigand’s camp. I always have weapons up my sleeves, you know.”
“I forbid you to worry about me. Worry about Cherie instead.”
We were almost caught up to the group of girls, and they turned as one down another tunnel to the right, fanning out behind Bea. Unlike the well-defined archways that led to the other turn-offs and crypts, this entrance was like the crack in a broken tooth, and I paused before stepping over the jagged bricks and turned to face the man who loved me.