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|Wicked After Midnight(Blud #3) by Delilah S. Dawson|
“Something else is bothering you, Vale. I can smell you again, and you smell of worry.”
“Ah, yes.” He chuckled, and I breathed in the strange spice as the blood hit his cheeks in a blush. “You never answered me. I basically poured out my heart to you, very unbrigandly, I might add, and you just continued walking.”
I glanced through the crack in the bricks. Somewhere up ahead, the girls had stopped. They all held their lanterns aloft, and I could just barely see a set of stone steps going, oddly, downward. A bizarre melange of smells reached me: fine cologne and old Scotch, oil and metal, sex and sadness, all overlaid with the greasy sweetness of dark magic. We had reached our destination. And the daimons of Paradis were waiting for us to lead them.
I went up on tiptoe to plant a firm kiss on Vale’s lips.
“I think I love you. Now, shut up and help me kill a bunch of people so we can figure out the rest.”
As I passed through the cluster of daimon girls, I felt hands fall softly on my arms, light touches on my shoulders and back and a few on my head, as if they could draw strength from me along with sustenance. Or maybe they were offering blessings. I felt a brief moment of shame that I had spent so much time in their world, living among them, and had never really taken the time to learn about them and their ways.
“What now?” Mel whispered.
“Stick to the plan,” I whispered back.
We’d figured it out while waiting in the hall, and it had spread from girl to girl like flames licking a cursed painting. Just like onstage, everyone knew her own part and was ready to play it. The daimons set down their lanterns against the wall, away from the rippling skirts that many of them had worn and carried high above the water of the catacombs. The weapons they’d held while walking disappeared into the corsets, up their sleeves, under their hats, tucked into blouses behind their backs. They twisted their heads to crack their necks and twitched their shoulders, limbering up. Those high kicks we’d been practicing were about to come in handy. The next step was a strange one, but we’d discussed it back at Paradis, and at least the first installment of the plan was familiar to them. Bea had told us exactly what would be waiting beyond the door.
Vale gave my hand a final squeeze and melted back behind the group. I took the steep steps carefully, my skin going frigid as I descended. Instead of a trapdoor with a ladder like the one at Paradis or a hole in the floor with steps like Monsieur Charmant’s, this entrance was more civilized, as if the denizens within didn’t care to sully their hands or boots with climbing or crawling. Even the door was elegant—dark wood, oiled and carved. I was willing to bet the hinges wouldn’t dare to squeak.
Ever so slowly, I turned the knob, but the door wouldn’t budge. I had no pins in my hair, and with their tails removed, the daimon girls had no magic of their own. Even with all of our stashed weapons, no one had an ax.
Beside me, Vale put a hand on my shoulder. “Let the brigand handle that, bébé.” He fiddled with the keyhole for a moment and stepped back with a cocky grin. “Your turn.”
This time, the knob turned easily. I sidled through, drawn to a break between indigo velvet curtains that hid the door from the larger room beyond. Peeking through the crack as if yet again in the wings of a grand theater, I shook my head at the perfection, the gilded beauty, the most very definite wrongness of the scene. It was like a grand church mixed with a cabaret, far below Paris. Music floated in from a three-piece band of bright-eyed daimon men who, I noticed, still wore their tails. The room beyond the band was large and open, a ballroom like one might find in a public dance hall or a rich man’s mansion. The floor was light and polished, reflecting the bright chandeliers overhead and the swirling, jewel-hued skirts of the girls who danced in the arms of tuxedo-clad gentlemen. I had expected to find them in the bird masks I’d seen at the carriage fire, but what need did they have to hide here, in their secret club, where their victims would never escape the catacombs with their minds and hearts intact? There had to be at least three dozen of the bastards, although only half of them were dancing.
My heart wrenched as I inspected the girls more closely. They moved with daimon grace, dressed like dolls in revealing cabaret clothes. But their faces were blank, their eyes wide, and their mouths slack and unsmiling. They were drugged or ensorcelled, in some sort of stupor, dancing as if caught in someone else’s dream. On tables and in corners, partners and more unorthodox groupings of partially clad bodies writhed in ways that drew moans only from the men.
The daimons of Paradis gathered around me, vibrating with anger and fear. I looked to my left and my right, and the girls I had come to know on sight had changed utterly. Their skins, always a riotous rainbow, were now all the same color, the ephemeral smoky gray of shadows and darkness. As we’d discussed, they split into two groups. One group shimmied and shook themselves until they were back to their bright, beautiful selves. The other group remained shadow-dark and disrobed completely.
The naked girls became chameleons, every part of their bodies and hair blending in with their surroundings as they skirted the dance floor, slinking like cougars. There were about twenty of them, and I quickly lost sight of their bodies as I tossed their clothes back through the door and into the tunnel. The remaining girls fixed each other’s hair and fluffed skirts as they did backstage at Paradis. Then, as if we’d coordinated it perfectly, a grandfather clock struck two, and they sashayed past the curtains and onto the dance floor, hips swinging and smiles wide.
They’d caught the men mid-waltz, and with practiced motions, each girl found her mark and twirled the gentleman right out of his partner’s grasp. The nearly invisible girls guided their sleepwalking sisters to the curtains, herding them toward us like confused cattle. Bea, Mel, Vale, and I darted out to grab them, grasping each dazed victim’s arm through the curtain and carefully propelling them toward the door to the catacombs, where more girls waited to lead them back to Paradis, following that red string through the maze of tunnels.
The first girl I grabbed was pliant, her eyes dumb and her steps sluggish in slippers worn down to nothing. I didn’t realize until I was pressing her hurriedly forward that it was Limone—or what was left of her. The proud acid-green of her gold-dusted skin had faded to the the color of a molded lemon. All the hate I’d felt, facing her portrait in the Louvre, was gone. She was empty, a shell, but her hair was in perfect ringlets, and her eyelashes were long and false, proving what was more important to her captors.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered over her shoulder, the heat in my cheeks acknowledging that she wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t shown up exactly when I did to steal her spotlight.
Once I’d shoved her through the curtain as gently as I could, I ventured out farther for two more girls, tugging them behind me as if we were dancing. The daimons of Paradis were doing their job well, keeping their partners’ faces turned away from the curtains. Somehow, the men missed the fierce cast of their smiles; the girls were working their seduction as an act of revenge, and it was as natural as a lioness hunting the man who had taken her cubs.
I was going back for my fourth girl when a scuffle began, and one of the men shouted, “Dammit, girl. Let go of me!”
The sound of his open hand striking her cheek didn’t even stop the musicians. But the sound of her boot cracking his chin did.
“You dare to strike your master?”
In answer, she kicked him again. The room went so quiet that I heard the clatter of his tooth hitting the floor. Vale rushed past me, carrying two girls under his arms like sacks of flour. I fetched the last drooping daimon victim through the curtain as the girls stepped away from their partners and drew their weapons.
“Magician! What is the meaning of this?” a familiar voice called, and I followed the duke’s gaze to a balcony up above, where an acid-yellow daimon stood in a red-and-white-striped suit, his taloned hands curled around the balustrade. Without a word, Monsieur Charmant turned and fled.
“It means your little club’s over, monsieur le duc,” the nearest girl spat. The duke grabbed her hair and yanked it, and she shoved a letter opener deep into his stomach. With that thrust, the fight was on.
The daimon girls had originally taken on the matching skin tones of the dancing partners they’d replaced. But as they whipped out their weapons and howled their war cries, they burst into vibrant, angry hues of red and black and fierce tiger stripes. Vale rushed past me and waded into the fray, the ornate silver Wolverine claw sweeping before him and striking home in the back of a double-wide tuxedo. Of course, he was here, my first interviewer, the gatekeeper. Monsieur Philippe. The blades slipped into the black fabric, right under his ribs where the kidneys nestled in fat, smooth as butter. Philippe fell to his knees hard enough to make the floorboards creak. I should have been fighting, should have taken up a weapon, but I couldn’t stop watching Vale. His fragility terrified me, but the man was damned beautiful in a fight.
Vale ripped out the claw and wiped the blood spatter from his cheek before kicking Philippe over. The overfed gentleman sobbed on the floor, flailing like a turtle on its back.
“You’re, what, Philippe—the curator? You choose the girls?”
“I meant no harm. I didn’t know—”
“You were dancing with Limone. You knew exactly what you were doing.”
Philippe covered his eyes with sweaty fists. “Please, monsieur. I beg you. Whatever you wish is yours.”
“There’s only one thing you have that I want.”
“Women? Money? Riches?”
Vale snorted, his humor gone completely. “Revenge.”
I turned away before I saw the final slash of the claw, but I couldn’t plug my ears against Monsieur Philippe’s gurgles and the wet sound of gizzards hitting the wood. Then I smelled the blood and remembered my best weapon. Vale’s hand brushed over my cheek as he went to help Lexie, who was struggling with two men. His knuckles had painted me with a slash of red, and I licked it greedily from my lips.
“They owe you blood, bébé,” he said, voice husky. “Take your due.”
I nodded and turned away from what was left of Philippe. He was cooling quickly, so I scented the air for something strong that needed to be destroyed. My hands were already curled into claws before I found my prey, and I was across the dance floor, leaping over bodies and slipping in puddles of blood, aiming for his throat.
The gentleman was familiar to me, one of dozens of nameless faces from the boxes of Paradis. His fine, smooth hands were wrapped around Leola’s slender neck, his thumbs boring into her windpipe as her eyes rolled back. I slashed his throat open with my claws and began drinking before he’d even let her loose. Leola shook herself and stood.
“Merci,” she mumbled, before wading in to help the next struggling girl.
Something tugged my leggings while I drank, and I spun around, hissing. It was the prince, as I’d never seen him before. Dirty, deflated, bruised, covered in blood, and sniveling in a puddle of snot, his colorful suit stained and slashed to show pasty white skin underneath.
“Demitasse, my beloved. Help me. Heal me.”
I shook him off and wiped my mouth with the back of my wrist. Licking the blood from my chin, I tossed the man in my arms halfway across the room and stared at the prince as if he were an alien. An animal. A fluffy little bunny.
It was difficult remembering how to use words and talk around my fangs. “Heal you?”
He rubbed his face on my ankle, and I kicked him away. “Your blud. Make me what you are. We will rule together. You will be my queen.”
I remembered how to laugh then. Throwing my head back in a wild half-cackle, half-howl, I kneeled over him, noting the pulls in the silk of his silly jacket. A few sad worms of hair scraggled over the bald pate he’d hidden under his turban.
Putting on a kind smile, I leaned over him until my lips brushed his ear. “No one owns me,” I whispered. “No one ever will.”
I bit down too hard, and it was over quickly. His blood tasted of far-off spices and too much wine. And I smelled something else, something familiar. Abandoning his pulsing jugular, I put my nose to his collar, his lapel, his lips.
He smelled of Cherie.
I jerked away before he was completely dead and surveyed the scene. Most of the men were down, and the girls were working in pairs now to dispatch the rest, calling Vale and his claw over to finish off the gents who struggled. There was no sympathy in my heart for these men, not from the predator or from the girl. It was bad enough that they came to the cabarets and bought their pleasures with oranges and francs and empty promises. It was more damning that they forced the girls to give up their tails and their magic, an intrinsic part of their lives that they would never see again. Knowing that the dead-eyed girls had been brought to this underground lair of debauchery and used—the men deserved even worse than what they’d gotten.
But there was more I needed to know, and so I hunted out the one who was still the most alive and undamaged. Unsurprisingly, it was Auguste, the slippery bastard. Three girls had him cornered, but he still had his tail, and it curved over his head like a scorpion’s stinger, pointing at each girl in turn as she approached.
“Save him for me,” I growled.
Auguste’s head snapped up, and he spit on the ground at my feet, his normally pleasant face twisted into a sneer and his once-indigo skin as yellow as Charmant’s. “You should have done as you were told, bloodsucker. This is on your head.”
His tail pointed at me, his hands balled in fists at his sides. My nose quivered, but my eyes didn’t budge from his. I had to keep him talking. “Yeah, I’m pretty proud of that. So how much did they pay you to torture your friends?”