“But you are, my daffodil, and I do not mean to cause offense, a tad insignificant fox his attentions. The duke contents himself mainly with attempting to rule the world and other suchlike nonsense. When one is guiding the patterns of the social universe, a single spinster preternatural is unlikely to cause one undue distress.”
Miss Tarabotti fully understood where he was coming from and was not in the least offended.
Lord Akeldama continued. “But, my treasure, under your particular circumstances, I suggest Dr. Caedes is the one to be most wary of. More mobile than the countess, and he is... How do I put this?” He stopped spinning his amethyst pin and began tapping it with one finger. “He is interested in minutia. You know he takes an interest in modern inventions?”
“That was his collection on display in the hallway of the hive house?”
Lord Akeldama nodded. “He dabbles himself, as well as investing and collecting like-minded drones. He is also not altogether compos mentis in the daylight sense of the term.”
“As opposed to?” Alexia was confused. Sanity was sanity, was it not?
“Ah”—Lord Akeldama paused—”we vampires tend to have an unfettered approach to the concept of mental health.” He twiddled his fingers in the air. “One's moral clarity goes a little fuzzy after the first two centuries or so.”
Miss Tarabotti said, “I see,” although she did not.
There came a timid knock on the drawing room door.
Lord Akeldama stilled the vibrating sound disrupter device. “Come!” he then sang out. It opened to reveal a gaggle of grinning young men, captained by the one Lord Akeldama had referred to earlier as Biffy. All of them were handsome, charming, and in high spirits. They bustled into the room. “My lord, we are going out to enjoy the full moon,” said Biffy, top hat in hand. Lord Akeldama nodded. “The usual instructions, my dear boys.”
Biffy and the other young bloods nodded, their smiles slipping ever so slightly. They were all dressed to the nines—dandified gentry of the kind welcome at any gathering and noticed at none. Alexia reasoned no man of Lord Akeldama's household would ever be less than perfectly fashionable, entirely presentable, and patently invisible as a result. A few favored his more outrageous mode of costuming, but most were toned-down, less eccentric versions of their lord. A few looked faintly familiar, but Alexia could not, for the life of her, pinpoint where or when she had seen them before. They were simply so very good at being exactly what was expected.
Biffy looked hesitantly at Miss Tarabotti before asking Lord Akeldama, “Anything in particular desired for this evening, my lord?”
Lord Akeldama waggled a wrist limply in the air. “There is a sizable game in motion, my darlings. I depend upon you all to play it with your usual consummate skill.”
The young men released a spontaneous cheer, sounding like they had already got into Lord Akeldama's champagne, and trundled out.
Biffy paused in the doorway, looking less jolly and more apprehensive. “You will be all right without us, my lord? I could stay if you wished.” There was something in his eyes that suggested he would very much like to do just that, and not only out of concern for his master's welfare.
Lord Akeldama stood and minced over to the doorway. He pecked the young man on the cheek, which was for show, and then stroked it gently with the back of his hand, which was not. “I must know the players.” He used no excessive emphasis when he spoke: no italic intonation, no endearments—just the flat sure voice of authority. He sounded old and tired.
Biffy looked down at the toe tips of his shiny boots. “Yes, my lord.”
Alexia felt a little discomfited, as though she were witnessing an intimate moment in the bedchamber. Her face heated with embarrassment, and she looked away, feigning sudden interest in the piano.
Biffy placed his top hat on his head, nodded once, and left the room.
Lord Akeldama closed the door behind him softly and returned to sit next to Miss Tarabotti.
Greatly daring, she put a hand on his arm. His fangs retracted. The human in him, buried by time, surfaced at her touch. Soul-sucker, the vampires called her, yet Alexia always felt it was only in these moments that she actually got close to seeing the true nature of Lord Akeldama's soul.
“They will be fine,” Miss Tarabotti said, trying to sound reassuring.
“I suspect that state would tend to depend on what my boys find out, and whether anyone thinks they have found out anything of import.” He sounded very paternal.
“So far, no drones have gone missing,” said Alexia, thinking about the French maid taking refuge at the Westminster hive, her rove master gone.
“Is that the official word? Or information from the source itself?” asked Lord Akeldama, patting the top of her hand with one of his appreciatively.
Alexia knew he was asking about BUR records. Since she did not know, she explained. “Lord Maccon and I are currently not on speaking terms.”
“Good gracious me, why ever not? It is so much more fun when you are.” Lord Akeldama had seen Miss Tarabotti and the earl through many an argument, but neither had ever resorted to silence before. That would defeat the purpose of their association.
“My mother wants him to marry me. And he agreed!” said Miss Tarabotti, as though that explained everything.
Lord Akeldama clapped a hand over his mouth in startlement, looking once more like his old frivolous self. He stared down into Alexia's upturned face to determine the veracity of her words. Upon realization that she was in earnest, he threw his head back and let out a quite unvampirelike bark of laughter.
“Showing his hand at last, is he?” He chuckled further, extracting a large perfumed mauve handkerchief from one waistcoat pocket to dab at his streaming eyes. “Lordy, what will the dewan have to say about such a union? Preternatural and supernatural! That has not happened in my lifetime. And Lord Maccon already so powerful. The hives will be outraged. And the potentate! Ha.”
“Now, hold just a moment,” insisted Alexia. “I refused him.”
“You did what?” Now Lord Akeldama really was startled. “After leading him on for so many years! That is just plain cruel, my rosebud. How could you? He is only a werewolf, and they can be terribly emotional creatures, you understand? Quite sensitive about these things. You could do permanent damage!”
Miss Tarabotti frowned at this unexpected diatribe. Wasn't her friend supposed to be on her side? It did not occur to her how confoundingly odd it was for a vampire to be lauding a werewolf.
The vampire in question continued his admonition. “What is wrong with him? A little crude, I grant you, but a robust young beastie? And, rumor has it, he is endowed most generously with copious other... attributes.” i«
Miss Tarabotti let go of his hand and crossed her arms. “I would not have him coerced into matrimony, simply because we were caught in flagrante delicto.”
“You were caught... what? This simply gets better and better! I demand all the particulars!” Lord Akeldama looked like he anticipated a deliciously vicarious experience.
Outside in the hallway came another of those hubbubs that frequented the Akeldama household. For the moment, both were so involved in Alexia's gossip, neither remembered the house was supposed to be empty of such activity.
The door to the drawing room burst open.
“Here!” said the man at the entrance. A man who was not well dressed and clearly did not belong in Lord Akeldama's splendid house.
Lord Akeldama and Alexia both stood. Alexia grabbed her brass parasol, gripping it firmly in both hands. Lord Akeldama reached for the gold pipe art piece from the mantel. He pressed hard at a hidden button in the midpoint, and a curved, hooklike blade sprang out each end of the pipe and clicked into place. One was sharpened ironwood, the other solid silver. Not art, as it turned out.
“Where are my on-premises drones?” wondered Lord Akeldama.
“Never mind that,” said Alexia. “Where are my vampire guards?”
The man in the doorway had no answer for either of them. He did not even appear to hear. He did not approach but merely stood, blocking their sole avenue of escape.
“He has got a female with him,” he shouted back to someone in the hallway.
“Well, bring them both,” came the sharp reply. Then some kind of complex Latin phrases were issued. The terms used were outside of Miss Tarabotti's limited education and spoken in such a strange old-fashioned accent as to make them particularly difficult to decode.
Lord Akeldama tensed. He clearly understood what was said, or at least what it implied. “No. That is impossible!” he whispered.
Miss Tarabotti felt that if he had not been vampire-white already, he would have blanched. His supernatural reflexes seemed stalled by some horrific realization.
The stranger in the doorway vanished to be replaced by an all-too-familiar figure: a man with a stagnant, wax-like face.
For the Good of the Commonwealth
Miss Tarabotti's nemesis held a brown glass bottle up high in one hand. She was momentarily hypnotized by the repulsive fact that he seemed to have no fingernails.
Closing the door firmly behind him, the wax-faced man advanced toward Miss Tarabotti and Lord Akeldama, un-stopping the bottle and spilling its contents about the room as he went. He did so with infinite care, as a conscientious flower girl scatters petals before an advancing bride.
Invisible fumes rose up from the drops of liquid, and an odd smell permeated the air. Alexia knew that odor well by now: sugary turpentine.
Miss Tarabotti held her breath, plugging her nose with one hand and raising her parasol into guard position with the other. She heard a dull thud as Lord Akeldama collapsed to the floor, his golden pipe weapon rolled away, unused. Clearly, all his plethora of information did not include the latest medical pamphlets on the application, use, and smell of chloroform. Either that, or vampires were more quickly affected by the drug than preternaturals.
Alexia felt light-headed, not certain how long she could hold her breath. She fought the sensation as much as possible and then broke toward the drawing room door and fresh air.
The wax-faced man, apparently unaffected by the fumes, shifted to prevent her egress. Miss Tarabotti remembered from the night before how fast he could move. Supernatural? Perhaps not if the chloroform had no effect. But assuredly faster than she was. Miss Tarabotti cursed herself briefly for not bringing her conversation with Lord Akeldama more rapidly around to the topic of this man. She had meant to ask. It was just, now... too late.
She swung her deleterious parasol. Brass haft and silver tip made satisfying contact with the man's skull, yet neither seemed to have any effect.
She hit him again just below the shoulder. He brushed her weapon aside with the flick of one arm.
Alexia could not help but gasp in astonishment. She had hit him very hard. But no sound of breaking bone came when buckshot-filled ferrule met arm.
The wax-faced man grinned his horrible not-teeth grin.
Too late. Miss Tarabotti realized that she had breathed inward in her surprise. She cursed herself roundly for a fool. But self-recriminations were to no benefit. The sweet chemical smell of the chloroform invaded her mouth, permeated her nose and throat, and then her lungs. Blast it, thought Alexia, borrowing one of Lord Maccon's favorite curses.
She hit the wax-faced man one last time, mostly out of orneriness. She knew it would result in nothing. Her lips began to tingle and her head spun. She swayed dangerously and reached forward with her nonparasol hand, groping for the wax man, preternatural her last resort. Her hand came to rest against his horrible smooth temple, just below the Von VIXI. His skin felt cold and hard. Nothing at all happened to him at the contact. No change back to normal human, no return to life, no soul-sucking. Definitely not supernatural. Here, Miss Tarabotti realized, was the real monster.
“But,” Alexia whispered, “I am the soulless one...” And with that, she dropped her parasol and pitched forward into darkness.
Lord Maccon arrived home in the nick of time. His carriage clattered up the long cobbled drive to Woolsey Castle just as the sun set behind the high trees planted along the western edge of its extensive grounds.
Woolsey Castle stood a respectable distance from town—far enough away for the pack to run and close enough for them to take advantage of all the amusements London afforded. Woolsey Castle was also not the impenetrable fortress its name implied but instead a sort of trumped-up family manor house with multiple stories and excessively excitable buttresses. Its most important feature, so far as the werewolves were concerned, was a very large and secure dungeon, designed to accommodate multiple guests. The original owner and designer was reputed to have had some rather indecent proclivities, outside of his fondness for flying buttresses. Whatever the cause, the dungeons were extensive. Also key, in the pack's