“No, sir. I am not BUR, sir. There is no pack in this city as I am certain your eminence is well aware. We are under your lord's jurisdiction.”
Lyall nodded, crossing his arms. “Yet, you are not one of the Woolsey Castle pups. I would know.”
“No, sir. No pack, sir.”
Lyall's lip curled. “Loner.” Instinctively, his hackles raised. Loners were dangerous: community-oriented animals cut off from the very social structure that kept them sane and controlled. Alpha challenges invariably came from within the pack, following official lines, with Conall Maccon's unexpected ascension to power the most recent exception to that rule. But brawling, violence, feasting on human flesh, and other such illogical carnage—that was the loner's game. They were more common than vampire roves, and far more dangerous.
The loner clutched his hat tighter at Lyall's sneer, hunching down. If he had been in wolf shape, his tail would be tucked tight between his back legs.
“Yes, sir. I set a watch to this office waiting for the Woolsey Alpha to send someone to investigate. My claviger told me you had arrived. I thought I had best come myself and ascertain if you wanted an official report, sir. I am old enough to stand daylight for a little while.”
“I am here on hive, not pack, business,” Lyall admitted, impatient to get to the point.
The man looked genuinely surprised. “Sir?”
Lyall did not like being confused. He did not know what was going on, and he did not appreciate being put at a disadvantage, especially not in front of a loner. “Report!” he barked.
The man straightened, trying not to cower at the irate tone in the Beta's voice. Unlike George Greemes, he had no doubt of Professor Lyall's fighting capabilities. “They have stopped, sir.”
“What has stopped?” Lyall's voice took on a soft deadly timbre.
The man swallowed, twisting his hat about further. Professor Lyall began to suspect the bowler might not survive this interview. “The disappearances, sir.”
Lyall was exasperated. “I know that! I just found out from Greemes.” The man looked confused. “But he is on vampires.”
“It is werewolves who have gone missing, sir. You know, the Alpha had most of us loners stashed along the coast round these parts; keeps us well out of London's way. Also ensures we stay busy fighting pirates rather than each other.”
The man cringed back. “Thought you knew, sir. Thought the Alpha had started and then stopped it. It has been going several months now.”
“You thought it might be Lord Maccon doing a culling, did you?”
“Packs never take to loners, sir. He is a new Alpha, needs to establish his authority.”
Professor Lyall could not argue with that reasoning. “I have got to get moving,” he said. “If these disappearances start up again, you will let us know immediately.”
The man cleared his throat subserviently. “Cannot do that, sir. All apologies, sir.”
Lyall gave him a hard look.
The man hooked a finger in his cravat to pull it down and expose his neck defensively. “Sorry, sir, but I am the only one left.”
A cold shiver caused all the hairs on Professor Lyall's body to stick up on end.
Instead of going on to Brighton, he caught the next stagecoach back to London.
Our Heroine Ignores Good Advice
Alexia was embarrassed to find that she was reduced to shamefully sneaking out of her own home. It simply would not do to tell her mama she was paying a late-night call on a vampire hive. Floote, though disapproving, proved an able ally in her transgression. Floote had been Alessandro Tarabotti's valet before Alexia was even a twinkle in that outrageous gentleman's eye. As such, he knew a lot more than just how to butler, and that included a thing or two on the organization of misdemeanors. He hustled his “young miss” out of the servants' entrance at the back of the house. He had her carefully shrouded in the scullery maid's old cloak and managed to stuff her into a hired cab maintaining a stiff but capable silence all the while.
The hackney rattled through the darkened streets. Miss Tarabotti, mindful of her hat and hair, nevertheless drew down the widow sash and stuck her head out into the night. The moon, three-quarters and gaining, had not yet risen above the building tops. Above, Alexia thought she could make out a lone dirigible, taking advantage of the darkness to parade stars and city lights before one last load of passengers. For once, she did not envy them their flight. The air was cool and probably unbearably chilly so high up; this was no surprise, as London was generally a city not celebrated for its balmy evenings. She shivered and closed the window.
The carriage finally stopped at a good-enough address in one of the more fashionable ends of town, although not an end Miss Tarabotti's particular collection of acquaintances tended to frequent. Anticipating a brief engagement, she paid the hackney to wait and hurried up the front steps, holding high the skirts of her best green and gray check visiting dress.
A young maid opened the door at her approach and curtsied. She was almost too pretty, with dark blond hair and enormous violet eyes, and neat as a new penny in a black dress and white apron.
“Miz Tarabotti?” she asked in a heavy French accent.
Alexia nodded, pulling at her dress to rid it of travel wrinkles.
“Zi comtesse, she iz expecting you. Right diz way.” The maid led her down a long hallway. She seemed to sway as she moved with a dancer's grace and liquid movements. Alexia felt large, dark, and clumsy next to her.
The house was typical of its kind, though perhaps a touch more luxurious than most, and outfitted with every possible modern convenience. Miss Tarabotti could not help but compare it to the Duchess of Snodgrove's palatial residence. Here there was more real affluence and grandeur, the kind that did not need to display itself openly—it simply was. The carpets were thick and soft, in coordinating shades of deep red, probably imported directly from the Ottoman Empire three hundred years ago. There were beautiful works of art hanging on the walls. Some were very old; some were more contemporary canvases signed with names Alexia knew from newspaper gallery announcements. Luxuriant mahogany furniture showcased beautiful statues: Roman busts in creamy marble, lapis-encrusted Egyptian gods, and modern pieces in granite and onyx. Rounding a corner, Miss Tarabotti was treated to an entire hallway of polished machinery, displayed much as the statuary had been and with the same studied care. There was the first steam engine ever built, and, after it, a silver and gold monowheel; and, Alexia gasped, was that a model of the Babbage engine? Everything was perfectly clean and chosen with utter precision, each object occupying the space it had been given with immense dignity. It was more impressive than any museum Alexia had ever visited—and she was fond of museums. There were drones everywhere, all attractive and perfectly dressed, efficiently going about the business of running daylight interference and nighttime entertainment for the hive. They, too, were works of art, dressed in subdued elegance to match the tenor of the house, and collected with care.
Alexia did not have the soul to truly appreciate any of it. However, she understood style well enough to know that it surrounded her. It made her very nervous. She smoothed down her dress self-consciously, worried it might be considered too simple. Then she straightened her spine. A plain tan spinster like her could never compete with such grandeur; best take advantage of what assets she did have. She puffed up her chest slightly and took a calming breath.
The French maid opened a door to a large drawing room and curtsied her inside before gliding off, her feet silent on the red carpet, her hips swaying back and forth.
“Ah, Miss Tarabotti! Welcome to the Westminster hive.” The woman who came forward to greet Alexia was not at all what she had expected. The lady was short, plump, and comfortable-looking, her cheeks rosy and her cornflower-blue eyes sparkling. She looked like a country shepherdess stepped out of a Renaissance painting. Alexia glanced about for her flock. They were there, of a kind.
“Countess Nadasdy?” she asked tentatively.
“Yes, my dear! And this is Lord Ambrose. That is Dr. Caedes. That gentlemen there is His Grace the Duke of Hematol, and you know Miss Dair.” She gestured as she spoke. Her movements were simultaneously too graceful and too contrived. They looked as though they had been well studied, as carefully articulated as a linguist speaking a foreign tongue.
Aside from Miss Dair, who smiled kindly from her place on the settee, no one seemed particularly pleased to see her. Miss Dair was also the only drone present. Alexia was certain the other three were vampires. Though she knew none of them socially, she had read some of Dr. Caedes's research during her more adventurous academic pursuits.
“How do you do?” said Miss Tarabotti politely.
The party all made the requisite social murmurings.
Lord Ambrose was a large, exceedingly comely man, looking the way romantic schoolroom girls expect vampires to look—dark and broodingly arrogant with aquiline features and deep meaningful eyes. Dr. Caedes was also tall but skinny as a walking stick, with thinning hair stopped mid-retreat by metamorphosis. He had with him a doctor's bag, though Alexia knew from her readings that his Royal Society membership rested on his extensive engineering work, not a physician's license. The last hive member, the Duke of Hematol, was nondescript in a premeditated way that reminded Alexia of Professor Lyall. Consequently, she regarded him with great wariness and respect.
“If you do not mind, my dear, might I shake your hand?” The Westminster queen moved toward her with that abrupt and smooth supernatural suddenness.
Alexia was taken aback.
Up close, Countess Nadasdy looked less jolly, and it was clear her rosy cheeks were the product of artifice, not sunlight. Under layers of cream and powder, her skin was ashen white. Her eyes did not sparkle. They glittered as hard as the dark glass used by astronomers to examine the sun.
Miss Tarabotti backed away.
“We need to confirm your state,” the hive queen explained, still coming at her.
She grabbed Alexia's wrist firmly. The countess's tiny hand was impossibly strong. The moment they touched, much of the hive queen's hardness vanished, and Miss Tarabotti was left wondering if once, long, long ago Countess Nadasdy had actually been a shepherdess.
The vampire smiled at her. No fangs.
“I object most strenuously to this action, my queen. I want it known before the hive that I disagree with this approach to our situation,” Lord Ambrose spoke curtly.
Alexia was not certain if he was angry at her preternatural state or at her physical effect on his queen.
Countess Nadasdy let go of her wrist. Her fangs reappeared. They were long and thin, almost biologically spiny, with what looked like barbed tips. Then, with a lightning-fast movement, she lashed out to the side with sharp clawlike fingernails. A long line of red appeared on Lord Ambrose's face. “You overstep your bond duties, child of my blood.”
Lord Ambrose bowed his dark head, the shallow wound already closing and healing itself. “Forgive me, my queen; it is only your safety that concerns me.”
“Which is why you are my praetoriani.” In an abrupt change of mood, Countess Nadasdy reached to caress the very part of Lord Ambrose's face she had just sliced open.
“He speaks nothing but truth. You allow a soul-sucker to touch you, and once you are mortal, all it takes is one fatal injury.” This time is was Dr. Caedes who spoke. His voice was slightly too high-pitched, with a fuzziness around the edges, a sound wasps make before they swarm.
To Alexia's surprise, the countess did not claw his face open. Instead she smiled, showing off the full length of her sharp barbed fangs. Alexia wondered if they had been filed into that extraordinary shape.
“And yet, this girl does nothing more threatening than stand before us. You are all too young to remember what real danger is inherent in her kind.”
“We remember well enough,” said the Duke of Hematol. His voice was calmer than the other two but more malicious in cadence—soft and hissing like steam escaping a boiling kettle.
The hive queen took Miss Tarabotti gently by the arm. She seemed to breathe in deeply, as though Alexia smelled of some scent she loathed but was trying desperately to identify. “We were never in any direct danger from the female preternaturals; it was only ever the males.” She spoke to Alexia in a conspiratorial whisper. “Men, they do so enjoy the hunt, do they not?”
“It is not the ability to kill that worries me. Quite the opposite,” said the duke softly.
“In which case it is you gentlemen who should avoid her and not I,” replied the countess slyly.
Lord Ambrose laughed snidely at that remark.
Miss Tarabotti narrowed her eyes. “You asked me to come here. I do not wish to be an imposition, and I will not be made to feel unwelcome.” She jerked her arm away, sharp enough to break the countess's grip, and turned to leave.