“Did you catch that?” Alexia asked Madame Lefoux in a whispered tone.
The Frenchwoman shook her head. “I do not speak Italian. You?”
“Apparently not well enough.”
“Real y? Italian and French?”
“And a little Spanish and some Latin.” Alexia grinned. She was proud of her academic achievements. “We had this fantastic governess for a while. Unfortunately, Mama found out that she was fil ing my head with useful information and dismissed her in favor of a dance instructor.”
The servant reappeared with a tray covered in a white linen cloth. The preceptor lifted this with a flourish to reveal not tea but a piece of mechanical gadgetry.
Madame Lefoux was immediately intrigued. She apparently preferred such things to tea. There was no accounting for taste.
The preceptor al owed the inventor to examine the device at length.
Alexia thought it looked… uncomfortable.
“Some sort of analog transducer? It bears a passing resemblance to a galvanometer but it isn’t, is it? Is it a magnetometer of some kind?”
The Templar shook his head, face stiff. Alexia realized what it was that bothered her so excessively about this man—his eyes were flat and expressionless.
“You are clearly an expert in your field, Madame Lefoux, but no. Not a magnetometer.
You wil not have seen one of these before. Not even in one of England’s famed Royal Society reports. Although, you may know of its inventor, a German: Mr. Lange-Wilsdorf?”
“Real y?” Alexia perked up at that name.
Both Floote and Madame Lefoux shot her dirty looks.
Alexia backed hurriedly away from any show of enthusiasm. “I may have read one or two of his papers.”
The preceptor gave her a sharp glance out of his dead eyes but seemed to accept her statement. “Of course you would have. He is an expert in your field; that is”—the man flashed her another nonsmile of perfect teeth—“in the field of you, as it were. A remarkable mind, Mr. Lange-Wilsdorf. Unfortunately, we found his faith”—he paused meaningful y—“inconsistent. Stil , he did devise this wonderful little tool for us.”
“And what is it designed to detect?” Madame Lefoux was stil troubled by her own inability to understand the gadget.
The Templar answered her with action. He cranked a handle vigorously, and the machine whirred to life, humming softly. A little wand was attached to it by means of a long cord. There was a rubber stopper at the wand’s base, which corked up a glass jar in which the end of the wand resided. The preceptor pul ed off the glass, exposing the wand to the air. Immediately, the smal contraption began to emit a metal ic pinging noise.
Madame Lefoux crossed her arms skeptical y. “It is an oxygen detector?”
The Templar shook his head.
“A methane detector?”
Yet another shake met that guess.
“It cannot possibly be aether. Can it?”
Madame Lefoux was impressed. “A miraculous invention, indeed. Does it resonate to alpha or beta particles?” Madame Lefoux was a fol ower of the latest theory out of Germany that divided up the lower atmosphere into various breathable gases and divided the upper atmosphere and its travel currents into oxygen and two types of aetheric particles.
“Unfortunately, it is not that precise. Or, I should say, we do not know.”
“Stil , any mechanism for measuring aether ought rightly to be considered a major scientific breakthrough.” Madame Lefoux bent once more over the contraption, enraptured.
“Ah, not quite so important as al that.” The preceptor reined in Madame Lefoux’s enthusiasm. “It is more a device for registering the absence of aetheric particles, rather than measuring their presence and quantity.”
Madame Lefoux looked disappointed.
The Templar elaborated further. “Mr. Lange-Wilsdorf referred to it as an aether absorption counter. Would you al ow me to demonstrate its application?”
Without further ado, the man placed the wand into his mouth, closing his lips about the rubber stopper. No change occurred. The machine continued to emit the same metal ic clicking noise.
“It is stil registering.”
The preceptor removed the wand. “Exactly!” He careful y wiped the wand down with a smal piece of cloth soaked in some kind of yel ow alcohol. “Now, My Soul ess One, if you would be so kind?”
Eyebrows arched with interest, Alexia took the wand and did as he had done, closing her lips about the end. The wand tasted pleasantly of some sweetened lemony liquor. Whatever the preceptor had used to clean it was mighty tasty. Distracted by the taste, it took Alexia a moment to notice that the clicking noise had entirely stopped.
“Bless my soul!” exclaimed Madame Lefoux, perhaps not so wary as she should have been over her use of religious language in the house of Christ’s most devout warriors.
“Merph!” said Alexia with feeling.
“Wel , then, it cannot possibly be registering aether. Aether is around and inside of everything, perhaps in more minor quantities groundside than it is up in the aether-atmospheric layer, but it is here. To silence it like that, Alexia would have to be dead.”
“Merph,” agreed Alexia.
“So we have previously thought.”
Alexia was moved by a need to speak and so removed the wand from her mouth.
The device began ticking again. “Are you saying the soul is composed of aether? That is practical y a sacrilegious concept.” She cleaned the end as the preceptor had done, with more of the yel ow alcohol, and passed it to Madame Lefoux.
Madame Lefoux turned the wand about, examining it with interest before popping it into her own mouth. It continued ticking. “Merfeaux” was her considered opinion.
The preceptor’s flat, blank eyes did not stop staring at Alexia. “Not exactly. More that the lack of a soul is characterized by increased absorption of ambient aetheric particles into the skin, much in the way that a vacuum sucks air in to fil its void. Mr. Lange-Wilsdorf has theorized for years that preternatural abilities are the result of a lack of internal y produced aether, and to compensate, the preternatural body seeks to absorb ambient aether from the outside. He invented this machine to test the theory.”
Floote shifted slightly from his customary stance near the door, then stil ed.
“When it is in my mouth, it detects nothing because I have nothing to detect?
Because I am absorbing it al through my skin instead?”
Madame Lefoux asked brightly, “So could this device detect excess soul?”
“Sadly, no. Only the absence of soul. And since most preternaturals are registered with the local government, or are at least known, such an instrument is mainly useless except to confirm identity. As I have just done with you, My Soul ess One. I must say, your presence presents me with a bit of a conundrum.” He took the wand back from Madame Lefoux, cleaned it once more, and switched the machine off. It let out one little wheeze and then the metal ic clicking noise stopped.
Alexia stared at it while the preceptor capped the wand with the little glass jar and then covered the machine with the white linen cloth. It was odd to encounter an instrument that existed solely for one purpose—to tel the world that she was different.
“What do you Templars cal that little device?” Alexia was curious, for he had specified that “aether absorption counter” was Mr. Lange-Wilsdorf’s name for it.
The preceptor did not flinch. “A daemon detector, of course.”
Alexia was decidedly taken aback. “Is that what I am?” She turned to look accusingly at Madame Lefoux. “You would tel me if I suddenly developed a forked red tail, wouldn’t you?”
Madame Lefoux pursed her lips provocatively. “Would you like me to check under your skirts?”
Alexia backpedaled hurriedly. “On second thought, I think I should notice such a protuberance myself.”
Floote wrinkled one corner of his nose in a remarkably understated sneer. “You are a daemon to them, madam.”
“Now, gentlemen.” Madame Lefoux leaned back, crossed her arms, and dimpled at them al . “Be fair. The last I heard was that the church was referring to preternaturals as devil spawn.”
Alexia was confused. “But you gave me a bed… and this rather excitable nightgown… and a robe. That is hardly the way to treat devil spawn.”
“Yes, but you can see why none of the brothers would talk to you.” Madame Lefoux was clearly finding this part of the conversation amusing.
“And you understand the nature of our difficulty with your presence among us?” The preceptor seemed to think this fact obvious.
Floote interjected, his tone gruff. “You have found good use for her kind before, sir.”
“In the past,” the preceptor said to Floote, “we rarely had to deal with females, and we had the daemons control ed and isolated from the rest of the Order.”
Floote acted as though the Templar had inadvertently given up some vital piece of information. “In the past, sir? Have you given up your breeding program?”
The man looked thoughtful y at Alessandro Tarabotti’s former valet and bit his lip as if wishing he could retract the information. “You have been gone from Italy a long time, Mr.
Floote. I am under the impression that England’s Sir Francis Galton has some interest in expanding our initial research. ‘Eugenics,’ he is cal ing it. Presumably, he would need a method of measuring the soul first.”
Madame Lefoux sucked in her breath. “Galton is a purist? I thought he was a progressive.”
The Templar only blinked disdainful y at that. “Perhaps we should pause at this juncture. Would you like to see the city? Florence is very beautiful even at this time of year, if a trifle”—he glanced at Alexia—“orange. A little walk along the Arno, perhaps? Or would you prefer a nap? Tomorrow I have a smal jaunt planned for your entertainment. I think you wil enjoy it.”
Apparently their audience with the preceptor had ended.
Alexia and Madame Lefoux took the hint.
The Templar looked at Floote. “I trust you can find your way back to your rooms? You wil understand, it is impossible for me to ask a sanctified servant or brother to escort you.”
“Oh, I understand perfectly, sir.” Floote led the way from the room in what might have been, for him, a huff.
They began the long trek back to their quarters. The Florentine Temple was indeed vast. Alexia would have gotten hopelessly lost, but Floote appeared to know where to go.
“Wel , he was certainly very chatty.”
Floote glanced at his mistress. “Too chatty, madam.” Floote’s walk was stiff—wel , stiffer than normal—which meant he was upset about something.
“And what does that mean?” Madame Lefoux, who had been distracted by a crude black onyx statue of a pig, trotted to catch up.
“He does not intend to let us go, madam.”
“But he just offered to al ow us to explore Florence on our own.” Alexia was getting ever more confused by the highly contrary nature of these Templars and by Floote’s opinion of them. “We would be fol owed, you believe?”
“Without question, madam.”
“But why would they have anything to do with me? If they see me as some kind of soul-sucking daemon of spiritual annihilation?”
“The Templars couple war with faith. They see you as incapable of salvation but stil useful to them. You are a weapon, madam.”
It was becoming evident that Floote had had far more exposure to the Templars than Alexia had previously thought. She had read many of her father’s journals, but clearly he had not written down everything.
“If it is dangerous for me here, why did you agree to the jaunt?”
Floote looked mildly disappointed with her. “Aside from not having a choice? You did insist on Italy. There are different kinds of danger, madam. After al , good warriors take particular care of their weapons. And the Templars are very good warriors.”
Alexia nodded. “Oh, I see. To stay alive, I must ensure they continue to think of me as such? I am beginning to wonder if proving to my bloody-minded husband that he is an imbecile is worth al this bother.”
They arrived at their rooms and paused in the hal way before dispersing.
“I do not mean to be cal ous, but I am finding I do not at al like this preceptor fel ow,”
declared Alexia firmly.
“Apart from the obvious, why is that?” Madame Lefoux asked.
“His eyes are peculiar. There is nothing in them, like an éclair without the cream fil ing. It’s wrong, lack of cream.”
“It is as good a reason as any not to like a person,” replied Madame Lefoux. “Are you quite certain you do not wish me to check for that tail?”