Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)


Floote did not look reassured. He snorted in a most unbutlerlike manner and shut the carriage door firmly.

Being vampires, Miss Tarabotti's BUR guards needed no cab of their own. Of course, they probably would have preferred one. It was not quite apropos to the supernatural mystique, jogging after a public transport. But they experienced no physical taxation of any kind from the exertion. So that is precisely what Miss Tarabotti forced them to do, instructing her driver to walk on, before they had a chance to find a conveyance of their own.

Miss Tarabotti's little cab wended its way slowly through the throngs of moon-party traffic, ending up in front of one of the most dashing abodes in London, the town residence of Lord Akeldama.

The foppish vampire was waiting for her at the door when she alighted from the cab. “Alexia, sugar plumiest of the plums, what a lovely way to spend the full moon, in your ambrosial company! Who could possibly wish for anything else in life?”

Miss Tarabotti smiled at the excessive gallantry, knowing full well Lord Akeldama would far rather be at the opera, or the theater, or the duchess's rout, or even down the West End in the blood-whores' den gorging himself until he could not see straight. Vampires liked to misbehave on full moon.

She paid the cab and made her way up the front steps. “Lord Akeldama, how lovely to see you again so soon. I am delighted you could accommodate my visit at such short notice. I have much to talk with you about.”

Lord Akeldama looked pleased. Just about the only thing that could keep him home at full moon was information. In fact, he had been motivated to change his plans at Miss Tarabotti's request in light of the fact that she would only contact him if she needed to know something. And if she needed to know something, she must perforce know something else significant already. The vampire rubbed his elegant white hands together in delight. Information: reason for living. Well, that and fashion.

Lord Akeldama was dressed to the pink for the evening. His coat was of exquisite plum-colored velvet paired with a satin waistcoat of sea-foam green and mauve plaid. His britches were of a perfectly coordinated lavender, and his formal cravat a treble bow of white lawn secured with a massive amethyst and gold pin. His Hessian boots were polished to a mirror shine, and his top hat was plum velvet to match the coat. Miss Tarabotti was not certain if this elaborate outfit was because he intended to go out after the assignation, if he actually considered her that important, or if he just always dressed like a sideshow performer on full moon. Regardless, she felt shabby and severe by comparison in her outmoded gown and practical shoes. She was glad they were not going out on the town together. How the ton would laugh at such a mismatched pair!

Lord Akeldama guided her solicitously up the last few steps. He paused on the stoop and looked back over his plum-colored shoulder at the spot where her cab had been and now was not anymore. “Your shadows will have to stay outside my domain, little creampuff. You know vampire territory laws, don't you, my dove? Not even your safety, or their jobs at BUR, can countermand such regulations. They are more than law; they are instinct.”

Miss Tarabotti looked at him, wide-eyed. “If you deem it necessary, my lord, of course they must stay off the premises.”

“Well, my ravishing one, even if you do not comprehend to what I am referring, they certainly do.” His eyes slitted as he glared out into the street.

Miss Tarabotti could not see what drew his attention, but she knew that did not mean they were not there: two vampire guards, standing supernaturally still in the night, watching them. She looked closely at her friend's face.

For a moment, Miss Tarabotti thought Lord Akeldama's eyes actually glowed, a sheen of warding, a spark of possession. She wondered if that look was the vampire equivalent of a dog peeing to mark his territory. Stay out, said Lord Akeldama's expression. Mine. What, then, did werewolves do? Lord Maccon had implied they were not as territorial as vampires, but still. The packs tended to stick to certain geographic regions; there was no doubt of that. Miss Tarabotti mentally shrugged. They actually were wolves, at least part of the time, and scent did seem to be particularly important to werewolves. They probably did pee. The thought of Lord Maccon cocking a leg to mark Woolsey Castle parklands was so absurd that Miss Tarabotti actually had to stop herself from chortling aloud. She filed the image away as an excellent and insulting question to ask the earl at an utterly inappropriate future moment.

A shadow across the street, empty darkness contrasting the light cast by flickering gas, materialized into the figure of two men. They doffed their hats at Lord Akeldama, who merely sniffed. Then they faded out of view once more.

Lord Akeldama grabbed Miss Tarabotti's hand, affectionately tucking it over his arm, and steered her into his fabulous house.

“Come along, my dearest girl.” The sheen in his eyes vanished, as if it had never been, and he was back to his usual debonair self.

He shook his head as his butler closed the front door behind them. “Little better than drones, youngsters of the hive. They cannot even be bothered to think for themselves! First, obey the queen; second, obey BUR, spending their strongest years simply jumping from one set of orders to the next like trumped-up soldiers. Still, it is an uncomplicated life for the primitive of intellect.” His tone was rancorous, but Miss Tarabotti thought she could detect an undercurrent of regret. He had a faraway look in his eyes, as if he were visiting some long-forgotten and far simpler time.

“Is that why you became a rove—too many orders?” Miss Tarabotti asked.

“What was that, my diminutive gherkin?” Lord Akeldama shook himself and blinked as though waking up from a long sleep. “Orders? No, the split was due to circumstances far more labyrinthine than that. It all started when gold buckles came back into vogue, progressed to heights of bitterness over spats versus gaiters, and wended down a slippery slope from there. I believe the defining moment was when certain persons, who shall remain nameless, objected to my fuchsia silk striped waistcoat. I loved that waistcoat. I put my foot down, right then and there; I do not mind telling you!” To punctuate his deeply offended feelings, he stamped one silver-and-pearl-decorated high heel firmly. “No one tells me what I can and cannot wear!” He snapped up a lace fan from where it lay on a hall table and fanned himself vigorously with it for emphasis.

It was clear he was skidding the conversation off track, but Miss Tarabotti did not mind. She responded to his distress with a noncommittal murmur of sympathy.

“Pardon me, my fluffy cockatoo,” he said, pretending to rein in an excessively emotional state. “Please ignore my ramblings as those of a madman. It is just so uncomfortable to have two not of m/bloodline in proximity to my home, you understand? It is a little like having those disagreeable shivers constantly running up and down one's spine. Something does not feel right with the universe when one's territory is invaded. I can bear it, but I do not like it. It makes me quite edgy and off kilter.”

Lord Akeldama put the fan down. A personable young man appeared at his elbow with a solicitous cooling cloth draped artistically on a silver tray. Lord Akeldama dabbed at his brow delicately. “Oh, thank you, Biffy. So thoughtful.” Biffy winked and skipped off again. He displayed impressive musculature for all his grace. Acrobat? wondered Alexia. Lord Akeldama watched the young man walk away appreciatively. “I should not have favorites, of course…” He sighed and turned to Miss Tarabotti. “But, now, on to more important topics! Such as your scrumptious self. To what do I owe the singular pleasure of your company this evening?”

Miss Tarabotti refrained from any direct answer. Instead, she looked about the interior of his house. She had never been inside before, and she was overwhelmed. Everything was to the height of style, if one were thinking in terms of style round about a hundred years ago. Lord Akeldama possessed real, substantial wealth and was not afraid to display it openly. Nothing in his home was substandard, or faux, or imitation, and all of it was well beyond the pale. The carpets were not Persian but were instead vibrant flower-ridden images of shepherds seducing shepherdesses under intense blue skies. Were those puffy white clouds? Yes, they were. The arched ceiling of the entrance hall was actually frescoed like the Sistine Chapel, only Lord Akeldama's ceiling depicted cheeky-looking cherubs up to nefarious activities. Alexia blushed. All kinds of nefarious activities. She turned her eyes hurriedly back down. Small Corinthian columns stood proudly all around, supporting marble statues of naked male gods that Miss Tarabotti had no doubt were authentically ancient Greek in origin.

The vampire led her through to his drawing room. It contained none of the style clutter but instead harkened back to a time before the French Revolution. The furniture was all white or gilded gold, upholstered in cream and gold striped brocade and riddled with fringe and tassels. Heavy layers of gold velvet curtains shielded the windows, and the plush rug on the floor sported yet another proximate shepherding event. Lord Akeldama's had only two nods to modern life. The first was evident in the room being well lit, with multiple gas lamps no less, elaborate candelabras appearing to be only for decorative purposes. The second facet of modernity took the form of a gilded pipe with multiple joints, mounted on the mantel. Alexia figured it must be some modern artwork. Such an expense! thought Miss Tarabotti.

She took a seat in a thronelike armchair and removed her hat and gloves. Lord Akeldama sat across from her. He produced the strange crystal tuning fork device, flicking it into dissonant resonance and placing it on a side table.

Alexia wondered that he thought such caution necessary inside his own home. Then she figured no one would be more worried about eavesdropping than a lifelong eavesdropper.

“Well,” he demanded, “what do you think of my humble abode?”

For all its gilt pomposity and grandeur, the room had a feeling of regular use. There were multiple hats and gloves strewn about, here-and-there notes on slips of paper, and the odd abandoned snuffbox. A fat calico cat lounged in possession of an overstuffed hassock and one or two dead tassels near the fire. A grand piano stood prominently in one corner, well dusted, with sheets of music lying atop it. It clearly underwent more regular use than the one in the Loontwills' front parlor.

“It is unexpectedly welcoming,” Miss Tarabotti replied.

Lord Akeldama laughed. “So speaks one who has visited the Westminster hive.”

“It is also very, uh, Rococo,” she said, attempting not to intimate she found it at all old-fashioned.

Lord Akeldama clapped his hands delightedly. “Isn't it just? I am afraid I never quite left that particular era. It was such a glorious time to be alive, when men finally and truly got to wear sparkly things, and there was lace and velvet everywhere.”

A gentle hubbub arose outside the drawing room door, then subsided, and then broke into raucous laughter.

Lord Akeldama smiled affectionately. His fangs showed clearly in the bright light. “There are my little ' drone-y-poos!” He shook his head. “Ah, to be young again.”

They were left untroubled by whatever it was that was occurring in the hallway. Apparently a closed door meant a well-respected “stay out” in Lord Akeldama's household. However, Alexia soon discovered that her vampire friend's domicile seemed to exist in a constant state of tumult-in-the-hallway.

Miss Tarabotti imagined this must be what it was like inside a gentlemen's club. She knew that there were no women among Lord Akeldama's drones. Even if his taste had extended in that direction, Lord Akeldama could hardly hope to present a female to Countess Nadasdy for metamorphosis. No queen would willingly turn a woman of a rove household; the chance of making a renegade queen, however slim, would never be risked. The countess probably only bit Lord Akeldama's male drones under sufferance—for the good of increasing the population. Unless, of course. Lord Akeldama was allied to a different hive. Miss Tarabotti did not ask. She suspected such a question might be impertinent.

Lord Akeldama sat back and twiddled his amethyst cravat pin with thumb and forefinger, pinky raised high into the air. “Well, my captivating crumpet, tell me about your visit to the hive!”

Alexia told him, as briefly as possible, about the experience and her evaluation of the characters involved.

Lord Akeldama seemed to agree with her general assessments. “Lord Ambrose you can disregard; he is her pet favorite but hasn't the brains of a peahen, I am afraid, for all his pulchritude. Such a waste!” He tut-tutted and shook his blond head sadly. “Now, the Duke of Hematol, he is a tricky character and in an outright sense of a one-on-one match, the most perilous of the Westminster inner circle.”

Alexia ruminated on that nondescript vampire who had reminded her so strongly of Professor Lyall. She nodded. “He certainly gave that impression.”

Lord Akeldama laughed. “Poor old Bertie, he works so hard nor to!” Miss Tarabotti raised her eyebrows. “Which is exactly why he does.”