Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)


Alexia shuddered at the idea of what such a study might entail.

Mr. MacDougall looked thoughtful and then stood and pulled his companion out into the hallway. They engaged in a whispered conversation. During their brief absence, Miss Tarabotti tried frantically to slip free of her handcuffs. She had a sinking suspicion that she would not like anything they wanted to do to her in this ghastly place. But she could not even manage to stand upright.

She heard Mr. Siemons say, “It is an excellent suggestion and could not hurt. If she is as intelligent as you purport, she may yet perceive the merits of our work. It would certainly be novel to engage with a willing participant. “

The most miraculous change in Miss Tarabotti's circumstances then proceeded to occur. She found herself gently lifted by a pair of subdued lackeys. She was carried upstairs into the lavish precincts of the foyer, with its plush Oriental carpets and luxuriant furnishings. Her restraints were unlocked and removed, and she was given a small private dressing room in which to wash and compose herself. Her ivory taffeta dress was a little worse for the experience; one of the puffed sleeves and some of the gold lace had ripped, and it was stained beyond redemption in several places. Alexia was annoyed. True, it was out of fashion, but she had liked the gown. She sighed and did her best to smooth out the wrinkles while looking with interest around the dressing room.

There was no means of escape, but there was a bit of ribbon for her to tie back her unruly hair and a looking glass in which she could check up on the generally disreputable state of her appearance. The mirror was ornate, framed but carved gilded wood, more suited to Lord Akeldama's house than a modern setting. The frame seemed to be made up of a long chain of octopuses, arms linked. Alexia was beginning to find the whole octopus prevalence slightly sinister.

She broke the looking glass as quietly as possible, tapping with the back of the ivory hairbrush she had been given. She wrapped a sharp shard of glass carefully in a handkerchief and tucked it down the front of her bodice, between dress and corset, for safekeeping.

Feeling slightly more the thing, she exited the changing room and was escorted downstairs back into the receiving area, with its brown leather armchair. There she found a hot cup of tea and an interesting proposition awaiting her.

Mr. MacDougall made introductions.

“Miss Tarabotti, this is Mr. Siemons. Mr. Siemons, Miss Alexia Tarabotti.”

“Enchanted,” said the pipe-smoking gentleman, bending over Alexia's hand as though he had not just abducted her, imprisoned her for several hours, and probably done unspeakable things to one of her dearest friends.

Miss Tarabotti decided to play whatever hand was dealt her, at least until she learned the rules of the game. It was typical of her character that she simply assumed she would, eventually, gain control over the situation. Only one man had ever consistently bested her in life's ongoing vocal scuffle, and Lord Maccon used underhanded nonverbal tactics. Thinking of Lord Maccon made Alexia cast a covert glance about the room, wondering if they had brought her parasol when they nabbed her.

“Let me come straight to the point, Alexia,” said her jailer. Alexia had no doubt that, while her immediate bonds had been removed, she was still very far from free.

He sat in the leather chair and gestured for her to sit opposite him on a red chaise lounge.

She did so. “Please do, Mr. Siemons. Directness is a very admirable quality in kidnappers”—she paused in thought—“and scientists.” She was nothing if not fair, and she had read her share of scientific articles that prevaricated and waffled most dreadfully. A strong thesis was very important.

Mr. Siemons proceeded on.

Miss Tarabotti sipped her tea and noted that the silver studs on the leather armchair were also very small octopuses. Really, why the obsession with invertebrates?

Mr. MacDougall hurried about worriedly while Mr. Siemons spoke, fetching this and that to make Alexia more comfortable. Would she like a cushion? Some sugar? Another spot of tea? Was she warm enough? Had the restraints harmed her wrists in any way?

Finally Mr. Siemons rounded on the young man and glared him into silent stillness.

“We should like very much to study you,” he explained to Alexia. “And we should like to do so with your cooperation. It would be much easier and more civilized for all concerned if you were a willing participant in the proceedings.” He sat back, a strange look of eagerness on his jowly face.

Alexia was confused. “You must understand,” she said at length, “that I have several questions. Although, as you intend my participation whether willing or not, you can naturally refrain from answering them.”

The man laughed. “I am a scientist. Miss Tarabotti. I appreciate a curious mind.”

Miss Tarabotti raised her eyebrows. “Why do you wish to study me? What information do you hope to acquire? And what would these studies entail, exactly?”

He smiled. “Good questions, all of them, but none very enlightened in essence. Obviously, we wish to study you because you are a preternatural. And while both you and BUR might know much of what that means, we know very little and are quite eager to comprehend the whole. We hope, most importantly, to understand the sum components of your ability to cancel out the supernatural. To distill that ability and harness it, what a weapon you might make!” He rubbed his hands together gleefully. “Also, it would be a true joy simply to watch you in action.”

“And the studies themselves?” Miss Tarabotti was beginning to feel most apprehensive, though she prided herself on the fact that it was not visible in her general demeanor.

“I understand you have heard some of Mr. MacDougall's theories?”

Miss Tarabotti thought back to that morning drive. It seemed to have occurred an age ago, to a different person, in a different time. However, she did remember much of the conversation, for it had been most diverting. “I recall some,” she replied cautiously, “to the best of my recollection and limited feminine capacities, of course.” Alexia hated to do it, but it was always advantageous to undermine one's enemy's confidence in one's intelligence.

Mr. MacDougall gave her a shocked glance.

As subtly as possible, Alexia winked at him.

He looked as though he might faint but sat back in his chair, clearly of a mind to let her deal with the situation in whatever way she saw fit.

Miss Tarabotti had the transitory idea that he might be suitable husband material after all. And then realized that a lifelong alliance with a man of such weak character would certainly turn her into a veritable tyrant.

She said, pretending timidity and lack of understanding, “He believes that the supernatural may either be blood-borne, a type of disease, or present as a special organ that those who can become supernatural possess and the rest of us do not.”

Siemons smiled in a superior manner at this explanation. Alexia was seized with a quite unladylike desire to slap the smug expression right off his fat face. With those jowls, her hand would probably make a very satisfying smack. She took a hurried gulp of tea instead.

“That is near enough to the truth,” he said. “We at the Hypocras Club find his theories intriguing but instead favor the idea that metamorphosis occurs as a result of energy transmission: a type of electricity. Although, a small minority holds out for aetheromagnetic fields. Have you heard of electricity, Miss Tarabotti?”

Of course I have, you nincompoop, was what Alexia wanted to say. Instead she said, “I believe I have read something on the subject. Why do you think this might be the answer?”

“Because supernatural beings react to light: were-wolves to the moon and vampires to the sun. Light, we are beginning to theorize, is but another form of electricity; thus, we believe the two may be connected.”

Mr. MacDougall leaned forward and joined in the conversation, as it had become one safely within his purview. “Some have suggested that the two theories are not mutually exclusive. After my lecture this evening, there was discussion of possible electricity within blood transfer, or organs whose purpose is to process this light-borne energy. In other words, that the two hypotheses could be combined.”

Miss Tarabotti was interested despite herself. “And it is the capacity to process this electrical energy that you believe correlates to the soul?”

The two scientists nodded.

“How do I fit into this?”

The two men looked at each other.

Finally, Mr. Siemons said, “That is what we hope to find out. Do you somehow dampen this energy? We know that certain materials do not conduct electricity. Are preternaturals the living equivalent of a grounding agent?”

Great, Alexia thought, I have gone from soul-sucker to electrical ground. The epithets just get sweeter and sweeter. “And how, exactly, do you plan to figure this out?”

She did not expect them to say they wanted to cut her open. Though she had a pretty good idea that Mr. Siemons, at least, rather relished such an eventuality.

“Perhaps it would be best if we showed you some of our experimental equipment so you can get an idea of how we conduct research,” suggested Mr. Siemons.

Mr. MacDougall blanched at that. “Are you certain that is such a good plan, sir? She is a lady of gentle breeding, after all. It might be a bit much. “

Mr. Siemons gave Miss Tarabotti an assessing look. “Oh, I think she is of a strong enough constitution. Besides, it might… encourage… her willing participation.”

Mr. MacDougall looked whiter at that. “Oh dear,” he muttered under his breath, his forehead creased in a frown. He shoved his spectacles up his nose nervously.

“Come, come, my dear sir,” said Mr. Siemons jovially. “Nothing is so bad as all that! We have a preternatural to study. Science will rejoice—our mission's conclusion is finally in sight.”

Miss Tarabotti looked at him with narrowed eyes. “And what exactly is your mission, Mr. Siemons?”

“Why, to protect the commonwealth, of course,” he replied.

Miss Tarabotti asked the obvious question. “From whom?”

“From the supernatural threat, what else? We Englishmen have allowed vampires and werewolves to roam openly among us since King Henry's mandate without a clear understanding of what they really are. They are predators. For thousands of years, they fed upon us and attacked us. What they have given us in military knowledge has allowed us to build an empire, true, but at what cost?” He became impassioned, his tone the high-voiced raving of a fanatic. “They permeate our government and our defenses, but they are not motivated to protect the best interest of the fully human species. They are only concerned with advancing their own agenda! We believe that agenda to be world domination at the very least. Our goal is mobilization of research in order to secure the home-land from supernatural attack and covert infiltration. This is an exceedingly complex and delicate mission, requiring the focused effort from our entire association. Our main scientific objective is to provide a framework of understanding that shall eventually lead to a unified national effort toward wide-scale extermination!”

Supernatural genocide, Alexia thought, feeling her face blanch. “Good Lord, you are not papal Templars, are you?” She looked about for religious paraphernalia. Was that the meaning of the octopuses?

Both men laughed.

“Those fanatics,” said the pipe man. “Certainly not. Although some of their tactics have proved moderately useful in our collection expeditions. And, of course, we have recently realized that Templars have in the past employed preternaturals as covert agents. We had thought those rumors mere religious embellishment, the power of faith to cancel the devil's abilities. Now we see there were scientific underpinnings. Some of their information, should we manage to get possession of it, will pave the way toward better understanding of your physiology, if nothing else. But, to answer your question, no, we of the Hypocras Club are of a purely scientific bent.”

“Though advocating a political agenda,” accused Miss Tarabotti, forgetting her ploy to lull them into a false sense of her stupidity in her amazement at such flagrant disregard for the tenets of scientific objectivity.

“Say instead, Miss Tarabotti, that we have nobility of purpose,” said Mr. Siemons. But his smile was not unlike that of a religious fanatic. “We are preserving the freedom of those who matter.”

Alexia was confused. “Then why are you creating more of them? Why the experiments?”

Mr. Siemons said, “Know thy enemy, Miss Tarabotti. To eliminate the supernatural, we must first understand the supernatural. Of course, now that we have you, further supernatural vivisections may be unnecessary. We can turn all our attention to deducing the nature and reproducibility of the preternatural instead.”

The two men escorted her proudly through the seemingly endless labyrinthine white laboratories of that nightmarish club. Each contained complex machinery of some kind. Most appeared to be steam-powered. There were great pumping bellows with enormous gears and coils to facilitate up-and-down motion. There were shiny engines, smaller than hatboxes, with overly organic curves that were, in their way, more terrifying than the larger contraptions. They all, regardless of size, boasted a brass octopus, riveted somewhere about their casings. The contrast of engine and invertebrate was oddly sinister.