Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

6,040
07.03.2019

“Promise?” said the vampire, hanging limply upside down.

Miss Tarabotti said, “I promise,” hoping she would have the chance to live up to her vow.

With that, Lord Akeldama was carried from the room. The door was closed and bolted behind him. Miss Tarabotti, with nothing but her own thoughts for company, was left alone in the dark. She was particularly annoyed with herself; she had meant to ask about the brass octopuses appearing everywhere.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Among the Machines

Miss Tarabotti could think of nothing to do but wiggle her hands and feet to keep up blood circulation within the tight confines of the manacles. She lay there for what seemed like an age, simply wiggling. She was beginning to infer she had been forgotten, for no one came to check up on her, nor, indeed, showed any interest at all in her physical condition. She was quite uncomfortable, for corsets, bustles, and all other accoutrements of a lady's appropriate dress were not conducive to lying, bound, on a hard floor. She shifted, sighed, and stared up at the ceiling, trying to think about anything but Lord Maccon, her current predicament, or Lord Akeldama's safety. Which meant she could do nothing but reflect on the complex plight of her mama's most recent embroidery project. This, in itself, was a worse torture than any her captors could devise.

Eventually, she was saved from her own masochistic meditations by the sound of two voices in the corridor outside her cell. Both seemed vaguely familiar. The conversation, when they were in close enough proximity for Alexia to overhear the particulars, bore a distinct semblance to a guided museum tour.

“Of course, you must acknowledge that in order to eliminate the supernatural threat, we must first understand it. Professor Sneezewort's most worthwhile research has shown… Ah, in this cell, we have another rove vampire: splendid example of Homo sanguis, although rather young for exsanguination.

Unfortunately, his origin and original hive association are unknown. This is the sad result of having to rely so heavily on rove specimens. But, you understand, here in England, members of a hive tend to be too much in the public eye and too well guarded. We are having a very difficult time convincing this one to speak. He was transported over from France, you see, and has not been quite right in the head since. There appear to be some serious physical and mental repercussions when one removes a vampire from his immediate localized area: tremulations, disorientation, dementia, and the like. We have not determined the exact mathematical nature of the distance, whether bodies of water are key factors, and so forth, but it promises to be a fascinating branch of research. One of our younger, more enthusiastic, investigators is producing some interesting work utilizing this particular specimen as his main study source. He has been trying to convince us to mount a collecting trip across the Channel into the farther reaches of Eastern Europe. I believe he wants Russian specimens, but we are concerned with remaining inconspicuous at the moment. I am certain you understand. And, of course, there is the cost to consider.”

A second male voice answered in a flattish accent, “This is quite fascinating. I had heard of the territorial aspect of vampire psychology. I did not know of the physiological repercussions. I would be quite interested to read the research once it is published. What little gem do you hold in the last cell?”

“Ah, well, it did house Akeldama, one of the oldest vampires in London. His capture this evening was quite the coup. But he is already on the exsanguination table, so we have our mystery guest in residence for the moment. “

“A mystery?” The second voice sounded intrigued.

Miss Tarabotti was still unable to determine why this voice seemed so very familiar. “Indeed,” answered the first, “a spinsterly young lady of moderate breeding who has persisted in turning up during the course of our investigations. After one too many appearances, we brought her in.” The second voice said, shocked, “You have imprisoned a lady?”

“Unfortunately, she has made it increasingly necessary. It is the end result of her own meddling. Quite a puzzle she is too.” The first man was sounding equal parts annoyed and enthralled. He continued. “Would you be interested in meeting her? You might be able to provide some insight. You are, after all, approaching the supernatural problem from an entirely unique perspective, and we would value your input.”

The second man sounded genuinely pleased. “I would be delighted to offer my assistance. How kind of you to ask.”

Miss Tarabotti frowned in ever increasing frustration at her terribly inconvenient inability to place the man's voice. There was something about his accent. What was it? Fortunately (or more accurately unfortunately), she did not have to live in confusion much longer. The door to her closet of a prison swung open.

Miss Tarabotti blinked and inadvertently coiled away from the seemingly blinding light of the hallway. Someone gasped. “Why, Miss Tarabotti!”

Miss Tarabotti, eyes watering, squinted at the two backlit figures. Eventually, her eyes adjusted to the unsteady light of the oil lamps. She squirmed about, trying to assume a more elegant position on the floor. She was only mildly successful, remaining ungracefully prone and manacled. She did manage a better angle, which enabled her to see her visitors with greater clarity.

One proved to be the shadowed man, and for the first time in their unsavory acquaintance, his face was not actually in complete shadow. It was he who was playing the part of tour guide. Seeing his countenance at last was an unsatisfactory experience. Alexia had hoped for something particularly horrific and evil. But it was nothing singular, comprised of large graying muttonchops, excessive jowls, and watery blue eyes. She had expected at least some kind of dramatic scar. But there stood her great and sinister nemesis, and he was disappointingly ordinary.

The other man was plumpish, bespectacled, and in possession of a hairline midretreat. His was a countenance Alexia was quite familiar with.

“Good evening, Mr. MacDougall,” she said. Even when one was horizontally prone, there was no call for rudeness. “How nice to see you again.”

The young scientist, with a cry of profound surprise, came instantly over to kneel solicitously next to her. He helped her gently into a sitting position, apologizing profusely for having to manhandle her person.

Miss Tarabotti did not mind in the least; for, once upright, she felt considerably more dignified. She was also pleased to know Mr. MacDougall had no intentional hand in her abduction. That would have grieved her sorely, for she liked the young man and did not wish to think ill of him. She had no doubt his surprise and concern were genuine. She might, she thought, even be able to turn his presence to her advantage.

Miss Tarabotti then realized the state of her hair and was mortified. Her captors had, of course, removed her hair ribbon and her two deadly hair pins—the one of wood and the other of silver. Without them, heavy dark curls fell down her back in wild abandon. Pathetically, she raised a shoulder and bent to the side, trying to push it away from her face, not realizing, of course, how fetchingly exotic she looked with loose hair in combination with her strong features, wide mouth, and tan skin.

Very Italian, thought Mr. MacDougall when he could spare a moment in his concern for her well-being. He was genuinely worried. He also felt guilty, for if Miss Tarabotti was caught up in this mess, it must be of his doing. Had he not encouraged her interest in the supernatural during their drive together? And her, a lady of good breeding! What could he have been thinking to talk so unguardedly of scientific pursuits? A woman of Miss Tarabotti's caliber would not be content to let matters lie, if she was really intrigued. It must be his fault that she had been imprisoned.

“You know the young lady?” asked the shadowed man, pulling out his pipe and a small velvet tobacco pouch. There was an octopus embroidered on the outside of the pouch, golden thread on chocolate brown velvet.

Mr. MacDougall looked up from where he knelt. “I certainly do. This is Miss Alexia Tarabotti,” he said angrily before Miss Tarabotti could stop him.

Oh dear, Alexia thought philosophically, the cat is well and truly out of the bag now.

Mr. MacDougall continued speaking, a flush staining his pasty, pudgy cheeks and a small sheen of sweat lining his brow. “To treat a young lady of such standing as shabbily as this!” he sputtered. “It is a grave blow, not only to the honor of the club, but also to that of the scientific profession as a whole. We should remove her restraints this moment! Shame on you.”

How did that saying go? Alexia wondered. Ah, yes, “Brash as an American.” Well, they had won their independence somehow, and it was not with politeness.

The man with the muttonchops filled his pipe bowl and nipped back into the hallway briefly to light it with one of the oil lamps. “Why does that name sound familiar?” He turned back and puffed for a moment, blowing fragrant vanilla-scented smoke into the cell. “Of course— the BUR records! Are you telling me this is the Alexia Tarabotti?” He took the pipe out of his mouth and pointed the long ivory stem at Alexia for emphasis.

“The only one I've met in your country so far,” answered Mr. MacDougall, sounding unbelievably rude — even for an American.

“Of course.” The shadowed man finally put two and two together. “This explains everything: her involvement with BUR, her visiting the hive, and her association with Lord Akeldama!” He looked to Miss Tarabotti severely. “You have led us a merry dance, young lady.” Then he looked back at Mr. MacDougall. “Do you know what she is?”

“Aside from manacled? Which she should not be. Mr. Siemons, give me the keys this minute!”

Miss Tarabotti was suitably impressed by Mr. Mac-Dougall's insistence. She had not thought he would be such a champion or possess such backbone.

“Ah, yes, of course,” Mr. Siemons said. At last the shadow man had a name. He leaned backward out the doorway and yelled up the hallway. Then he came inside the cell and bent down toward Miss Tarabotti. He grabbed her face quite roughly and turned her toward the light in the hall. He continued to puff on his pipe, blowing smoke into her eyes.

Alexia coughed pointedly.

Mr. MacDougall was further shocked. “Really, Mr. Siemons, such crass treatment!”

“Amazing,” said Siemons. “She seems perfectly normal. One would never be able to tell simply by looking, would one?”

Mr. MacDougall finally got over his gentlemanly instincts enough to allow the scientific part of his mental faculties to participate in the conversation. In a voice colored with both hesitation and dread, he asked, “Why shouldn't she be?”

Mr. Siemons stopped blowing smoke in Miss Tarabotti's face and blew it instead at the American scientist. “This young lady is a preternatural: a Homo exanimus. We have been looking for her since we first deduced her existence here in London. Which, I might add, was only shortly after finding out that preternaturals existed at all. Of course, if you follow the counterbalance theorem, her kind seems perfectly logical. I am surprised we never before thought to look. And, of course, we knew the supernatural set had ancient legends pertaining to certain dangerous creatures that were born to hunt them. The werewolves have their curse-breakers, the vampires their soul-suckers, and the ghosts their exorcists. But we did not know they were all the same organism and that that organism was a scientific fact, not a myth. They are startlingly uncommon, as it turns out. Miss Tarabotti here is a rare beast, indeed.”

Mr. MacDougall looked shocked. “A what?”

Mr. Siemons did not share his shock; in fact, he looked particularly delighted all of a sudden—a lightning change of mood that did not strike Miss Tarabotti as entirely sane.

“A preternatural!” He grinned, waving his pipe about haphazardly. “Fantastic! There are so many things we need to know about her.”

Alexia said,” You stole the paperwork from BUR.”

Mr. Siemons shook his head. “No, my dear, we liberated and then secured important documents in order to prevent dangerous societal elements from fraudulently identifying themselves as normal. Our initiative in this matter will enhance our ability to assess threat and confirm identity of those enabling the supernatural conspiracy.”

“She is one of them?” Mr. MacDougall said, still stuck on Miss Tarabotti's preternatural state. He jerked away from her and thus stopped supporting Alexia in her seated position. Luckily, she managed not to fall backward.

He seemed almost repelled by her. Alexia began to wonder about the story of his brother becoming a vampire. How much of that had been truth?

Mr. Siemons slapped Mr. MacDougall's back delightedly. “No, no, no, my good man. Quite the opposite! She is the antidote to the supernatural. If you can think of an entire living organism as an antidote. Now that we have her, the opportunities for study are endless! Simply think of what we could accomplish. Such possibilities.” He was positively gregarious. His watery blue eyes shone with an excess of scientific enthusiasm.

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