Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)


“Wait!” The hive queen's voice was sharp.

Miss Tarabotti continued moving toward the door. Fear made her throat tight. She comprehended what it must be like to be some trapped furry creature in a reptilian den. She stopped when she found her way barred. Lord Ambrose had moved with a vampire's characteristic swiftness to prevent her departure. He sneered at her, tall and distressingly gorgeous. Alexia found she much preferred Lord Maccon's brand of largeness: gruff and a little scruffy round the edges.

“Remove yourself from my path, sir!” hissed Miss Tarabotti, wishing she had brought her brass parasol. Why had she left it behind? What this man seemed most in need of was a good sharp prod to the nether regions.

Miss Dair stood and came over to her, all blond ringlets and troubled blue eyes. “Please, Miss Tarabotti. Do not leave just yet. It is only that their memories are longer than their tempers.” She gave Lord Ambrose an evil look. Taking Alexia solicitously by the elbow, she led her firmly toward a chair.

Miss Tarabotti acquiesced, sitting with a rustle of green and gray taffeta and feeling even more at a disadvantage until the hive queen sat down across from her.

Miss Dair rang the bell rope. The pretty violet-eyed maid appeared in the doorway. “Tea, please, Angelique.”

The French maid vanished and moments later reappeared pushing a fully laden tea trolley, complete with cucumber sandwiches, pickled gherkins, candied lemon peel, and Battenberg.

Countess Nadasdy served the tea. Miss Tarabotti took hers with milk, Miss Dair took hers with lemon, and the vampires took theirs with a dollop of blood, still warm and poured out of a crystal pitcher. Alexia tried not to think too hard about its origin. Then the scientific part of her wondered what would happen if that jug contained preternatural blood. Would it be toxic or just convert them to human state for a certain length of time?

Alexia and Miss Dair helped themselves to food, but no one else in the room bothered to partake. Unlike Lord Akeldama, they clearly did not appreciate the taste of food nor feel compelled by common courtesy to make a show of consuming it. Alexia felt awkward eating while her hostess touched nothing, but she was not the type to ever be put off good food, and the tea, like everything else in the hive house, was of the very highest quality. She refused to rush, sipping slowly from the exquisite blue and white bone china cup and even asking for a second helping.

Countess Nadasdy waited until Miss Tarabotti was halfway through a cucumber sandwich to reopen their conversation. They talked on safe and banal subjects: a new play down the West End, the latest art exhibit, the fact that full moon was just around the corner. Full moon was a regular holiday for working vampires, since were-wolves had to absent themselves.

“I hear a new gentleman's club has opened near the Snodgrove town house,” Miss Tarabotti offered, getting into the spirit of the small talk.

Countess Nadasdy laughed. “I understand the duchess is in high dudgeon. Apparently, it brings down the whole tenor of the neighborhood. She should count her blessings; if you ask me, it could be decidedly worse.”

“It could be Boodles,” giggled Miss Dair, clearly thinking how embarrassing the duchess would find country squires hanging about all day and night.

The duke added, “Or scandal of scandals, it could be Claret's.” He named the gentleman's club that catered to werewolves.

The vampires all laughed uproariously at that. It was creepy in its lack of decorum.

Miss Tarabotti decided in an instant that she did not like the Duke of Hematol one jot.

“Speaking of the Duchess Snodgrove.” The hive queen segued in a slithery fashion onto the subject she had really summoned Alexia in to discuss. “What was it that happened during her ball the night before last, Miss Tarabotti?”

Alexia put her teacup down carefully into its saucer, then set both onto the tea trolley with a faint clatter. “The papers described it accurately enough.”

“Except that you were not named in any of them,” said Lord Ambrose.

“And there was also no mention of the deceased young man being supernatural,” added Dr. Caedes.

“And no reference to the fact that you had executed the killing blow.” Countess Nadasdy sat back, a faint smile on her round pleasant face. The smile did not sit well there, not with the four fangs and the little dents they left in those full shepherdess lips.

Miss Tarabotti crossed her arms. “You seem well informed. Why do you need me here?”

No one said anything.

“It was an accident,” grumbled Alexia, relaxing her defensive posture. She took a bite of Battenberg without really tasting it. It was an insult to the little cake, for it was usually good and worth appreciating: thick sponge with homemade marmalade and crystallized almond paste on the outside. This sponge seemed dry and the almond paste gritty.

“It was a very tidy stake to the heart,” corrected Dr. Caedes.

Alexia went immediately on the defensive. “Too tidy: he barely bled. Do not blindside me with accusations, venerable ones, I did not drive him to starvation.” No sane person would ever describe Miss Tarabotti as a shrinking violet. When attacked, she fought back with interest. It could have been the result of her preternatural state; then again, it could simply be a ridiculously stubborn disposition. She spoke decidedly, as though to a sulking child. “That vampire was suffering from serious hive neglect. He had not even been trained out of larvae stage well enough to recognize me for what I clearly am.” If Alexia had been sitting close enough, she probably would have prodded the queen with a sharp finger to the sternum. Scratch me, Alexia thought. I'd like to see her try! She contented herself with frowning fiercely.

Countess Nadasdy looked taken aback, not having anticipated such a shift. “He was not one of mine!” she said defensively.

Miss Tarabotti stood, back straight, glad for once that she had an assertive figure: tall enough to tower over every one but Lord Ambrose and Dr. Caedes. “Why do you play these games with me, venerable one? Lord Maccon said he could smell your bloodline in that dead boy. He must have been metamorphosed by you or one of your get. You've no right to pin your carelessness and inability to safeguard your own interests upon me, especially when I only acted in self-defense.” She held up a hand to forestall interruption. “True, I have better defensive mechanisms than most daylight folk, but I am not the one being careless with hive blood.”

Lord Ambrose hissed, his fangs fully extended, “You go too far, Soulless.”

Miss Dair stood, one hand raised to her mouth in shock at such indelicate behavior. Her big blue eyes were wide and shifted between Alexia and Countess Nadasdy like those of a frightened rabbit.

Miss Tarabotti ignored Lord Ambrose, which was difficult, as her skin was prickling in reaction, and the prey part of her brain wanted desperately to run and hide behind the chaise lounge. She forced down the instinct. It was preternaturals who hunted vampires, not the other way around. Technically, Lord Ambrose was her rightful prey. He should be trembling behind the sofa! She leaned on the tea trolley, bending toward the queen. She tried to loom like Lord Maccon loomed, but suspected her green and gray check visiting dress and ample bosom mitigated any threatening aspect.

Affecting indifference, Alexia spiked a second piece of Battenberg hard with a fork. Metal clanked loudly against serving plate. Miss Dair jumped.

“You are correct in one aspect. Miss Tarabotti. This is our problem,” said the queen, “hive business. You should not be involved. BUR should not be involved, although they will continue to interfere. Not until we know more about the situation anyway. The werewolves should certainly keep their furry noses out of it!”

Miss Tarabotti pounced on the hive queen's indiscretion. “So there has been more than one of these mysterious vampire appearances?” Countess Nadasdy sneered at her.

Alexia said, “The more BUR knows, the easier it will be to figure out why and how this is happening.”

“This is hive business; it is not a matter for the Registry,” the queen reiterated, saying nothing more.

“Not if unregistered roves are roaming London outside hive dominion. Then it is BUR business. Do you want to go back to the Dark Ages, when humans feared you and preternaturals hunted you? Vampires must at least appear to be under government control; that is part of BUR's mandate. You and I both know that. Everyone in this room must know that!” Miss Tarabotti spoke firmly.

“Roves! Do not talk to me about roves—nasty, ungoverned madmen, the lot of them.” Countess Nadasdy bit her lip. It was a strangely endearing gesture from one of the oldest immortals in England.

At that sign of confusion, Alexia finally realized what was really going on. The hive queen was frightened. Like Lord Akeldama, she expected to fully comprehend what occurred in her territory. Hundreds of years of experience colored every new occurrence with predictability and ennui. Yet this was something new and thus outside her comprehension. Vampires did not like surprises.

“Tell me, please.” Miss Tarabotti mollified her tone. It had worked with Lord Maccon. Perhaps the trick to dealing with the supernatural set was merely to play the social submissive. “How many have there been?”

“My queen, be cautious,” the Duke of Hematol advised.

Countess Nadasdy sighed. She looked from one to the next of the three male vampires. Then she said, “Three in the past two weeks. We managed to catch two of them. They know nothing of vampire etiquette, are confused and disoriented, and usually die within a few days despite our best efforts. As you say, they are ignorant of the preternatural threat, of the proper respect due to a hive queen, and even the office of the potentate. They know little of BUR and its laws of registration. It's as though they sprung, fully formed, onto the streets of London— like Athena from the mind of Zeus.”

“Athena was the goddess of war,” said Alexia nervously.

“In all my centuries, nothing like this has ever occurred. There were vampire hives on this tiny island before there were human governments. The feudal system was based on hive and pack dynamics. The Roman Empire took its style of organization and efficiency from our kind. The hive structure is more than just a social institution. It is supernatural instinct. No vampire is born outside the hive, because only a queen can bring about metamorphosis. It has been our greatest strength, the control this engenders, but it has also been our greatest weakness.” The countess looked down at her small hands.

Miss Tarabotti sat silent throughout this speech, watching the hive queen's face. Countess Nadasdy was definitely scared, but there was an edge of hunger to her fear. To make vampires without a queen! The hive wanted to know how it was occurring so they could master the technique themselves. Such a technology was more than any vampire could wish. It was one of the reasons they invested so heavily in the modern sciences. The gadgetry in the receiving room alone was meant for more than just to amaze and delight. The hive must boast several inventor drones. There were rumors Westminster held a controlling interest in the Giffard dirigible company. But their real hope was always for just such a scientific breakthrough— supernatural birth without blood bite. Miraculous, indeed.

“What will you do next?” Miss Tarabotti asked.

“I have already done it. I have involved a preternatural in hive business.”

“The potentate will not be pleased.” The Duke of Hematol seemed more resigned than annoyed. It was, in the end, his duty to support his queen and her decisions.

The potentate served as advisor to Queen Victoria, acting the vampire equivalent of a prime minister. Usually a well-known rove of extensive political acumen, the potentate was elected to the position by vote from all hives in the United Kingdom and served until someone better came along. It was the only way a rove could achieve any kind of serious social standing among the vampires of the ton. The current potentate had occupied the position since Queen Elizabeth I sat on the throne of England. Queen Victoria was reported to find his advice invaluable, and there were rumors that the success of the British Empire was due in large part to his skills. Of course, they said the same thing about the dewan, Her Majesty's werewolf advisor. He was a loner who had been around almost as long as the potentate, concerned himself mostly in military matters, and stayed out of pack squabbling. The two stood head and tail above other pack and hive outsiders as invaluable political liaisons to the daylight camp. But like all outsiders in good faith with the establishment, they tended to forget their revolutionary roots and side with the establishment. The potentate would bow to the hives in the end.

“The potentate is not a queen. This is hive business, not politics,” countered Countess Nadasdy sharply.

“Nevertheless, he will have to be told,” insisted the duke, running a fine-boned hand through his thinning hair.

“Why?” Lord Ambrose was clearly disinclined to tell anyone. He obviously objected to Alexia being consulted, and he certainly did not like the idea of involving a politician.