Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)


Curious that any man from a conservative family might opt to try for metamorphosis, she asked, “Why on earth did your brother turn in the first place?”

“It was against his will. I think the hive queen did it to prove a point. We MacDougalls have always voted against change—antiprogressive to the last breath and influential in government where it counts most.”

Miss Tarabotti nodded. She had surmised his family's influence from the money he obviously possessed. She touched the fine leather of the buggy seat with one hand. Here was a scientist who needed no patronage. Strange place, that overseas land, where religion and wealth did the talking and history and age held so little sway.

Mr. MacDougall continued. “I think the hive thought that turning the eldest might make us MacDougalls all think differently.”

“Did it?”

“None except me. I loved my older brother, you see? I saw him once after he'd changed. He was still the same person: stronger, paler, night-born, yes, but essentially the same. He probably still would have voted conservative, if they'd let him vote.” He smiled slightly, and then his face fell back to round pudding blandness. “So I switched from banking to biology and have been studying the supernatural ever since.”

Miss Tarabotti shook her head unhappily. Such a sad beginning. She contemplated the sunny day: the lovely green of Hyde Park, the bright hats and dresses of ladies walking arm in arm across the grass, the two plump dirigibles gliding sedately overhead. “BUR would never allow such behavior from any vampire —to bite without permission! Let alone for a hive queen to bite the unwilling with the intent to metamorphose! Such shocking behavior.”

Mr. MacDougall sighed. “Yours is a very different world, my dear Miss Tarabotti. Very different. Mine is a land still at war with itself. The fact that the vampires sided with the Confederates still has not been forgiven.”

Alexia did not wish to insult her new friend, so she refrained from criticizing his government. But what did the Americans expect if they refused to integrate the supernatural set into their society in any way? When they forced vampires and werewolves to hide and skulk about in a shoddy imitation of the European Dark Ages?

“Have you rejected your family's puritanical tenets?” Miss Tarabotti looked inquiringly at her companion. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a flash of tan trench coat. It must be tough on Professor Lyall to be outside in all this sun, especially when full moon was soon due. She felt a moment's pity but was pleased to know that it was he who had relieved the night watch guard. It meant Lord Maccon was still thinking of her. Of course, he was thinking of her as a problem… but that was better than not thinking of her at all, was it not? Alexia touched her lips softly with one hand and then forcibly stopped all ruminations on the mental state of the Earl of Woolsey.

Mr. MacDougall answered her question. “You mean, have I abandoned the belief that supernatural folk have sold their souls to Satan?”

Miss Tarabotti nodded.

“Yes. But not necessarily because of my brother's misfortune. The idea was never scientific enough for me. My parents knew not what they risked, sending me to Oxford. You know, I studied for some time in this country? Several of the dons are vampires. I have come 'round to the Royal Society's way of thinking, that the soul must formulate a quantifiable entity. Some individuals have less of this soul-matter, and some have more. And those who have more can be changed into immortals, and those who have less cannot. Thus it is not lack of soul but overabundance that the puritans feared. And that very concept is heresy in my family.”

Alexia agreed. She kept abreast of the Society's publications. They had yet to find out about preternaturals and the truly soulless. BUR was content to let daylight scientists blunder about without access to that particular knowledge. But Miss Tarabotti felt it was only a matter of time in this enlightened age before her kind were analyzed and dissected.

“You have been devising a way to measure the soul ever since?” She checked about casually for her supernatural shadow. Professor Lyall paced them several yards away, doffing his hat to ladies walking by: an everyday middle-class gentleman apparently unaware of their buggy nearby. But Alexia knew he was watching her the entire time. Professor Lyall knew his duty.

Mr. MacDougall nodded. “Wouldn't you like to know? Especially as a woman? I mean, ladies have a high risk of failing to survive metamorphosis.”

Miss Tarabotti smiled. “I know exactly how much soul I have, thank you, sir. I need no scientist to tell me that. “

Mr. MacDougall laughed, taking her confidence for jest.

A gaggle of dandified young men passed by. All were decked to the height of fashion: three-buttoned swallowtails instead of frock coats, knotted silk cravats, and high collars. Alexia was certain she knew several of them from somewhere, but she did not recognize them well enough to name. These tipped their hats to her. One tallish specimen in blueberry satin breeches slowed to look with inexplicable interest at Mr. MacDougall before being whisked onward by his cohorts. Off to one side, Professor Lyall took note of their antics with interest.

Alexia glanced at her companion. “If you are successful in the measuring of souls, Mr. MacDougall, shouldn't you be worried such knowledge might be misused?”

“By scientists?”

“By scientists, by hives, by packs, by governments. Right now, what keeps the power of the supernatural set in check is their small numbers. If they knew ahead of time who to recruit, they could turn more females and increase their population drastically, and the very fabric of our social world would be rearranged.”

“Yet the fact that they need us to procreate gives us normal folk some small advantage,” he demurred.

It occurred to Miss Tarabotti that hives and packs had probably been working to uncover a way to measure the human soul for hundreds of years. This young man stood little chance of success where generations of advanced supernatural researchers had failed. But she held her tongue. Who was she to destroy a man's dreams?

She pretended interest in a group of swans floating across a pond to one side of the track. In truth, it was Professor Lyall who had caught her attention. Had he stumbled? It looked as though he had, falling against another gentleman and causing that man to drop some sort of metal device.

“So what topic will you address at the Hypocras inauguration?” Miss Tarabotti asked.

Mr. MacDougall coughed. “Well”—he looked embarrassed—”primarily what I have found the soul not to be. My initial research would seem to indicate that it is not an aura of any kind nor a pigmentation of the skin. There are several working theories: some think it may reside in part of the brain; others believe it to be a fluid element in the eyes or perhaps electrical in nature.”

“What do you think?” Alexia was still feigning interest in the swans. Professor Lyall seemed to recover himself. It was hard to tell at this distance, but, under his John Bull hat, his angular face seemed oddly pale.

“From what I know of metamorphosis—and I have never been privileged enough to observe it in action, mind you—I believe the conversion to be the result of a blood-borne pathogen. The same kind of pathogen Dr. Snow has suggested resulted in the recent cholera outbreaks.”

“You oppose the miasmatic hypothesis of disease transfer?”

The scientist inclined his head, delighted to converse with a woman so well educated in modern medical theory.

Miss Tarabotti said, “Dr. Snow suggests cholera transmission occurred through the ingestion of contaminated water. How exactly would you suggest supernatural transmission occurs?”

“That remains a mystery. As does the reason why some respond positively and others do not.”

“A condition that we currently refer to as the presence or absence of excess soul?” suggested Alexia.

“Exactly.” The scientist's eyes brightened with enthusiasm. “Identifying a pathogen will only show us what occurs to drive metamorphosis. It will not tell us why or how. My research until now has focused on hematology, but I am beginning to think I have been pursuing the wrong hypothetical angle.”

“You need to deduce what is different between those who die and those who survive?” Alexia tapped the brass handle of her parasol with her fingertips.

“And what the survivor is like before and after metamorphosis.” Mr. MacDougall drew the horses up so he could turn fully to face Alexia, animated in his enthusiasm. “If the soul has substance, if it is an organ or part of an organ that some possess and others do not—the heart, perhaps, or the lungs—”

Miss Tarabotti was equally enthusiastic; she finished the hypothesis for him. “Then it should be quantifiable!” Her dark eyes sparkled with the very idea of such a thing. Brilliant in concept, but it would require much further study. She understood now why he had not thought his research appropriate dinner conversation the evening before. “You are undertaking a number of cadaverous dissections?” she asked.

Mr. MacDougall nodded, having forgotten her ladylike sensibilities in his excitement. “But I am finding it most difficult to acquire dead werewolves and vampires for comparison. Particularly in the United States.”

Miss Tarabotti shuddered. No need to ask why. Everyone knew the Americans burned to death any accused of being supernatural, leaving little behind for any scientist to study. “You think to procure specimens here and transport them back?”

The scientist nodded. “I hope that it will be considered in the best interest of science to pursue this kind of inquiry.”

“Well,” Alexia said, “your speech at Hypocras should pave the way if it at all approaches the conversation we are having. You have some of the newest and best ideas I have yet heard on the subject. You would have my vote of confidence, were I allowed to be a member of the club.”

The young man grinned at her praise and began to think ever more fondly of Miss Tarabotti, who possessed enough intelligence to not only follow his thoughts, but perceive their worth as well. He tsked his horses into motion once more, guiding them off to one side of the path. “Did I mention how lovely you are looking today, Miss Tarabotti?” He pulled the carriage to a full stop.

Of course. Alexia could hardly point out the many flaws in his theories after such a compliment. So instead she steered their conversation on to more general topics. Mr. MacDougall cranked up the mechanical water boiler and brewed a pot of tea. Alexia used the carriage's monocular distance viewing device while he did so. She tilted the lenses about, commenting on the pleasures of a sunny day and the statuesque grace of distant dirigibles floating above the park. She also trained them briefly on Professor Lyall, who was leaning in the shade of a tree a little way away, only to find he had donned his glassicals and was watching her through them. She hurriedly put the optical magnification device down and turned amiably back to her host and tea.

While she sipped cautiously at the tin mug, surprised to find the offering a delicious Assam, he lit up the small hydraulic engine she had noticed at the back of the carriage. With much creaking and groaning, a massive parasol pulled itself upright and then unfolded to shade the open carriage. Alexia snapped her own small parasol shut, glaring at it with an entirely unwarranted sense of inadequacy. It was a good little parasol and hardly deserving of such a jaundiced look.

They passed a distinctly pleasant additional hour in each other's company, sipping tea and nibbling a box of rosewater and lemon Turkish delight that Mr. MacDougall had invested in for this occasion especially. In no time, it seemed, Mr. MacDougall was lowering the gigantic parasol and driving Miss Tarabotti back home.

The young gentleman helped her down from his carriage at the Loontwills' front steps feeling justifiably pleased with the success of their outing, but Alexia forestalled him when he tried to see her all the way to the door.

“Please do not mistake my refusal for rudeness,” she explained delicately. “But you do not wish to encounter my relations just now. They are not up to your caliber of intellect, I am ashamed to say.” She suspected her mother and sisters were out shopping, but she needed some excuse. The way his eyes looked right now, he might make a declaration, and then where would she be?

The scientist nodded gravely. “I completely understand, my dear Miss Tarabotti. My own relatives are similarly afflicted. May I call again?”

Alexia did not smile. It would not do to be coy when she had no intention of returning his advances. “You may, but not tomorrow, Mr. MacDougall. You will be preparing for your speech.”

“The next day?” He was persistent. “That way I can tell you how the opening celebrations went.”

Very forward, American men. Alexia sighed inwardly but nodded her acquiescence.

Mr. MacDougall assumed the driver's seat, tipped his hat, and urged his chestnut beauties into a sedate withdrawal.