Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

6,023
07.03.2019

opinion, was the large number of private bedchambers above dungeon level. Woolsey Castle had to house a goodly number of residents: werewolves, clavigers, and servants.

Lord Maccon jumped out of his carriage, already feeling those heady tingles and carnivorous urges only the full moon whipped into rampancy. He could smell the blood of prey on the evening air, and the urge to hunt, and maim, and kill, was approaching with the moon.

His clavigers were waiting for him in a large tense group at the door to the castle.

“You are cutting it a bit close for comfort, my lord,” remonstrated Rumpet, head butler, taking the Alpha's cloak.

Lord Maccon grunted, shedding his hat and gloves onto a long hallway stand designed expressly for that purpose.

He squinted into the assembled masses, searching for Tunstell. Tunstell was his personal valet and default captain of the household clavigers. Spotting the gangly redhead, Lord Maccon barked, “Tunstell, you dreadful young blunt, report.”

Tunstell bounced up and flourished a bow. His customary smile dimpled his freckled face. “All the pack's accounted for and locked down, sir. Your cell is clean and waiting. Best we get you down there right quick, I'm thinking.”

“There you go with the thinking thing. What have I told you?”

Tunstell only grinned wider.

Lord Maccon held his wrists outward. “Precautionary measures, Tunstell.” Tunstell's chipper smile diminished. “Are you certain that is necessary, sir?”

The earl felt his bones beginning to self-fracture. “Drat it, Tunstell, are you questioning orders?” The small part of his logical brain still functioning was saddened by this lapse. He had great affection for the boy, but every time he thought Tunstell might be ready for the bite, he behaved like a fathead. He seemed to have plenty of soul, but did he have enough sense to become supernatural? Pack protocol was not to be taken lightly. If the redhead survived the change but continued with this cavalier attitude toward regulations, would anyone be secure?

Rumpet came to his rescue. Rumpet was no claviger. He had no intention of bidding for metamorphosis, but he did enjoy executing his job efficiently. He had been butler to the pack for a long time and was easily double the age of any of the clavigers present in that hallway. Usually he exhibited more aptitude than all of them combined.

Actors, thought Lord Maccon in exasperation. It was one of the downsides of fleecing that particular profession. Men of the stage were not always men of sagacity.

The butler proffered a copper tray with a set of iron manacles atop it. “Mr. Tunstell, if you would be so kind,” he said.

The redheaded claviger already carried his own set of handcuffs, as all clavigers did. He sighed resignedly, plucking them off the tray and snapping them firmly around his master's wrists.

Lord Maccon sighed in relief. “Quickly,” he insisted, already slurring his words as the change re-formed his jawbone away from any capacity for human speech. The pain was intensifying as well, the horrible bone-wrenching agony to which, in all his long life, Lord Maccon had never yet become accustomed.

The proto-pack of clavigers surrounded him and hustled him down the winding stone staircase and into the castle dungeon. Some, the earl noticed in relief, were sensibly armored and armed. All wore sharp silver cravat pins. A few carried silver knives sheathed at their waists. These stayed to the outskirts of the crowd, carefully distanced from him, until such a time when he might make it necessary for them to use those knives.

The Woolsey Castle dungeon was full of snarling, slathering occupants. The youngest pups of Lord Maccon's pack could not resist change for several nights leading up to the full moon, let alone the moon itself. These had been in residence for days. The rest went with the sun as soon as it set on the actual night. Only Lord Maccon was strong enough to still be outside of confinement so late in the evening.

Professor Lyall was sitting suavely on a small three-legged footstool in one corner of his cell, wearing only his ridiculous glassicals and reading the evening paper. He was struggling to slow the change. Most of the pack simply let themselves be taken, but Lyall always resisted as long as he could, testing his will against the inevitability of the moon. Through the heavy iron bars of his Beta's cell, Lord Maccon could see that Lyall's spine was curled forward inhumanly far, and he boasted considerably more hair than was acceptable for any more social occasion than reading the evening paper in the privacy of one's own… prison.

The professor gave his Alpha a long look from yellow eyes over the tops of his spectacles. Lord Maccon, holding his manacled hands stiffly in front of him, ignored his Beta in a very pronounced manner. He suspected Lyall would have said something embarrassing about Alexia if his Beta's jaw were not already changed well beyond human speech.

The earl continued down the passageway. His pack settled down as he passed. As each wolf caught sight and scent of the Alpha, he instinctively quieted. Several flattened down their forelegs in a kind of bow, and one or two rolled over, presenting their stomachs. Even in the thrall of full moon, they acknowledged his dominance. None wished to even hint at a challenge. He would brook no disobedience, on this of all nights, and they knew it.

The earl stepped inside his own waiting cell. It was the largest but also the most secure, empty except for chains and bolts. Nothing was safe when he changed. No foot-stool or periodical was in residence, just stone and iron and emptiness. He sighed heavily.

His clavigers slammed and triple bolted the iron door behind him. They stationed themselves outside it but across the passageway, so as to be entirely out of reach. In this, at least, they followed his orders impeccably.

The moon rose above the horizon. Several youngsters of the pack began to howl.

Lord Maccon felt his bones completely breaking and reforming, his skin stretching and shrinking, his tendons realigning, his hair shifting downward and becoming fur. His sense of smell sharpened. He caught a faint whiff of some familiar scent riding an air current down from the castle above.

Those few older members of the pack still partly human completed their final changes with him. The air was rent with growls and whines as the dregs of daylight disappeared. Bodies always resisted the cursed change, making the pain ever more excruciating. With flesh held together only by the threads of what remained of their souls, all sensibility converted to frenzy. The noise they made was the rampaging death-lust cry of the damned.

Any who heard those particular howls felt nothing but fear: vampire, ghost, human, or animal, it mattered not. Nor would it, in the end, for any werewolf freed of his fetters would kill indiscriminately. On full-moon night, the blood moon, it was not a matter of choice or necessity. It simply was.

However, when Lord Maccon raised his muzzle up to howl, his was not a mindless cry of wrath. The low tones of the Alpha's voice were immeasurably mournful. For he had finally recognized the smell wafting down into the dungeon. Too late to say anything in human tongue. Too late to warn his clavigers.

Conall Maccon, Earl of Woolsey, crashed up against the bars of his cell, the last vestiges of his human side crying out: not to kill, not to be free, but to protect.

Too late.

For that little whiff bore the scent of sweet turpentine, and it was getting stronger.

The sign above the door to the Hypocras Club read PROTEGO RES PUBLICA, engraved into white Italian marble. Miss Alexia Tarabotti, gagged, trussed, bound, and carried by two men—one holding her shoulders, the other her feet—read the words upside down. She had a screaming headache, and it took her a moment to translate the phrase through the nauseating aftereffects of chloroform exposure.

Finally she deduced its meaning: to protect the commonwealth.

Huh, she thought. / do not buy it. I definitely do not feel protected.

There also appeared to be the emblem of some kind bracketing either side of the words. A symbol or some sort of excitable invertebrate? Was it a brass octopus?

Miss Tarabotti was strangely unsurprised to be brought to the Hypocras Club. She remembered Felicity reading out the Post's proclamation detailing the “inception of an innovative social establishment catering to gentlemen of a scientific inclination.” Of course, she realized, now that it made perfect sense. After all, it was at the duchess's ball, right next door to the new club, that she had killed that first mysterious vampire who started it all. This made for a rather tidy full circle. And, with all that chloroform, there would have to be scientists involved.

Had Lord Maccon discovered this as well? she wondered. Did he suspect just the club, or was the Royal Society itself implicated? Alexia doubted even the earl's suspicious nature would stretch as far as that.

Her captors carried her into a small boxlike room with a concertina-style grating for a door. She could turn her head just enough to see the violet-clad form of Lord Akeldama being treated with equal disrespect: slung over someone's shoulder like a side of beef and crammed into the tiny room with her.

Well, Miss Tarabotti reasoned, at least we are still together.

The wax-faced man, unfortunately still with them, was not engaged directly in Tarabotti/Akeldama transport. He closed the grated door and then cranked some sort of pulley device inset into one wall of the chamber. The most peculiar thing resulted. The whole of the tiny room began to move listlessly downward, carrying everyone inside with it. It was like falling slowly, and Alexia's stomach, combining this with the added bonus of chloroform exposure, was not particularly thrilled by the experience.

She choked down a convulsive gag.

“This one does not like our ascension room,” snickered the man who held her feet, jiggling her rudely. One of the other men grunted his agreement.

Through the grating, a flabbergasted Alexia watched as the first floor of the club vanished, and the ground itself appeared, then the foundations of the building, then a new ceiling, and, finally, the furniture and floor of underground chambers. It was really quite a remarkable experience.

The tiny room jolted to a stop. Miss Tarabotti's stomach joined up with them shortly thereafter. The human transport flunkies slid back the grating, carried her and Lord Akeldama out, and laid them side by side on a plush Oriental carpet in the middle of a respectably sized receiving room. One of them took the precautionary measure of sitting on Lord Akeldama's legs, although he was still asleep. They did not seem to feel Alexia warranted the same level of consideration.

A man, sitting in a comfortable brown leather armchair with silver studs and smoking a large ivory pipe, stood up at their arrival and walked over to look down at the two prisoners.

“Excellent work, gentlemen!” He bit down on his pipe and rubbed his hands together enthusiastically. “Akeldama, according to the BUR records, is one of the oldest vampires in London. Next to one of their queens, his blood should be the most potent we have yet analyzed. We are in the middle of a transverse- sanguinity procedure at the moment, so put him into storage for now. And what is this?” He turned to look down at Alexia.

There was something familiar about the set of his face, although at that particular angle it was almost completely in shadow. That shadow was also familiar. The man from the carriage! Miss Tarabotti had almost forgotten about him in the horror of her recent encounters with the wax-faced monster.

He clearly had not forgotten about her. “Well, what do you know? This one simply keeps turning up, does she not?” He puffed thoughtfully on his pipe. “First visiting the Westminster hive, now found in the august presence of specimen Akeldama. How does she fit into the picture?”

“We do not know yet, sir. We will have to consult the records. She is no vamp: has neither the teeth nor queen-level protection. Though she did have two vampire guards tailing her. “

“Ah, so, and…?”

“We eliminated them, of course. Could be BUR agents; difficult to tell these days. What do you want done in the meantime?”

Puff, puff, puff. “Put her into storage as well. If we cannot find anything out about how she fits into our investigations, we will have to force it out of her. Terribly gauche thing to do to a lady, of course, but she is clearly fraternizing with the enemy, and sometimes sacrifices must be made.”

Miss Tarabotti was confused by the players in this little game. These men did not seem to know who or, more precisely, what she was. Yet, clearly they were the ones who wanted her. They had sent the wax-faced man to her house in the middle of the night only recently. Unless there existed two wax-faced men in London, both of them after her. Alexia shuddered at the very idea. They must have gotten her home address from her BUR records. Yet, now they did not seem to know who she was. It was as though they were thinking of her as two separate persons. The one who kept interfering with their plans, and the Miss Alexia Tarabotti, preternatural, of BUR's records.

Then Alexia recalled that BUR did not keep sketches on file, for safety reasons. Her record contained only words, notes, and brief descriptive details, and most of that in code. These men had not made the connection to the fact that she was Alexia Tarabotti, because they did not know what Alexia Tarabotti looked like. Excepting only the wax-faced man, who would have seen her face in her bedroom window. She wondered why he had not revealed her secret.

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