“She was with the Earl of Woolsey,” said Professor Lyall firmly, in a tone of voice that brooked no objection, as though that settled the matter.
Mrs. Loontwill ignored his tone entirely and made a move as if to strike her daughter. “Alexia! You wanton hussy!”
Professor Lyall twisted fast so that his charge, still held in his arms, was well out of the woman's reach and glared furiously.
Mrs. Loontwill turned her wrath on him, like a rabid poodle. “I will have you know, young man, no daughter of mine spends an entire night away from home with a gentleman without being securely married to that gentleman first! I do not care if he is an earl. You werewolf types may have different rules for this kind of affair, but this is the nineteenth century, and we do not hold with such shenanigans. Why, I ought to have my husband call your Alpha out right now!”
Professor Lyall raised one refined brow. “He is welcome to the attempt. I would not recommend that particular course of action. To the best of my recollection, Lord Maccon has never actually lost a fight.” He looked down at Alexia. “Except to Miss Tarabotti, of course.”
Alexia grinned up at him. “You can put me down now, Professor. I am quite awake and able to stand. Mama will do that to a person. She is like a glass of cold water.”
Professor Lyall did as she requested.
Miss Tarabotti found that she had not actually spoken the truth. Her whole body ached most awfully, and her feet did not seem to wish to work as instructed. She stumbled heavily to one side. Professor Lyall made to grab her and missed.
With the majestic efficiency of all good butlers, Floote appeared at her side and took her arm, preventing her from falling.
“Thank you, Floote,” said Alexia, leaning gratefully against him. Felicity and Evylin, both properly attired in cotton day dresses, reappeared and went immediately to sit on the chesterfield before they could be told to leave.
Alexia looked about and noticed one family member still absent. “Where is the squire?”
“Never you mind that, missy. What is going on? I demand an immediate explanation,” insisted her mother, waggling a finger.
Just then, there came the most imperious knocking on the front door. Floote transferred Alexia back to Professor Lyall and went to answer it. Lyall ushered Miss Tarabotti over to the wingback chair. With a nostalgic smile. Alexia sat down in it.
“We are not at home!” yelled Mrs. Loontwill after Floote. “To anyone!”
“You are at home to me, madam,” said a very autocratic voice.
The Queen of England swept into the room: a petite woman, in late middle life but wearing it very well.
Floote trailed in after and said, in tones of shock Alexia had never thought to hear from her unflappable butler, “Her Most Royal Highness, Queen Victoria, to see Miss Tarabotti.” Mrs. Loontwill fainted.
Alexia thought it the best, most sensible thing her mama had done in a very long while. Floote uncorked a bottle of smelling salts and went to revive her, but Alexia shook her head firmly. Then she made to rise and curtsy, but the queen raised her hand.
“No formality, Miss Tarabotti. I understand you have had an interesting night,” she said.
Miss Tarabotti nodded mutely and made a polite gesture for the queen to sit. She was mortified by what now seemed the shabby clutter of her family's front parlor. Her Most Royal Highness did not seem to notice, sitting down on a mahogany side chair next to Alexia, moving it so her back was to the collapsed form of Mrs. Loontwill.
Miss Tarabotti turned to her sisters. Both had their mouths open and were flapping about like ineffectual fish.
“Felicity, Evylin, out, now,” she ordered quite curtly.
Professor Lyall helped hustle the two girls from the room and would have followed, but the queen said curtly, “Stay, Professor. We may need your expertise.”
Floote glided out with an expression that said he would keep all prying ears at bay, although probably not his own.
The queen looked at Alexia a long moment. “You are not at all what I expected,” she said at last. Miss Tarabotti refrained from saying, “Neither are you.” Instead she said, “You knew to expect something?”
“Dear girl, you are one of the only preternaturals on British soil. We approved your father's immigration papers all those many years ago. We were informed the moment of your birth. We have watched your progress since then with interest. We even considered interfering when all this folderol with Lord Maccon began to complicate matters. It has gone on quite long enough. You will be marrying him, I understand?”
Alexia nodded mutely.
“Good, we approve.” She nodded as though she had somehow had a hand in this outcome. Professor Lyall said, “Not everyone does.”
The queen actually snorted at that. “We are the one whose opinion counts, are we not? The potentate and the dewan are trusted advisors, but they are only that: advisors. No legal records for our empire or any previous one forbid marriage between supernatural and preternatural outright. Yes, the potentate informs us hive tradition bans such a union, and werewolf legend warns against fraternization, but we require this business settled. We will not have our best BUR agent distracted, and we need this young lady married.”
“Why?” Alexia asked, confused that her single state should concern the Queen of England.
“Ah, that. You are aware of the Shadow Council?” The queen settled herself in the hard chair, as much as queens do, which is to say her shoulders relaxed slightly.
Alexia nodded. “The potentate acts as your official vampire consultant and the dewan in the werewolf capacity. Rumors are that most of your political acumen comes from the potentate's advice and your military skill from the dewan's.”
“Alexia,” Professor Lyall growled a warning.
The queen looked more amused than insulted at this. She even dropped the royal “we” for the space of a few moments. “Well, I suppose my enemies must blame somebody. I will say that those two are invaluable, when they are not bickering with each other. But there is a third post that has been vacant since before my time. An advisor meant to break the stalemate between the other two.”
Miss Tarabotti frowned. “A ghost?”
“No, no. We have plenty of those flitting around Buckingham Palace; cannot keep them quiet half the time. We certainly do not need one in any official capacity. Not when they cannot maintain solidity that long. No, what we require is a muhjah.”
Alexia looked confused.
The queen explained. “Traditionally the third member of the Shadow Council is a preternatural, the muhjah. Your father declined the post.” She sniffed. “Italians. Now, there simply is not enough of your set left to vote on your nomination, so it will have to be an appointed position. But voting is mostly a formality, even for the positions of dewan and potentate. At least it has been during my reign.”
“No one else wants the job,” said Professor Lyall with feeling.
The queen gave him a reproving look.
He leaned forward and explained further. “It is a political post,” he said. “Lots of arguing and paperwork and books being consulted all the time. It is not at all like BUR, you understand?”
Miss Tarabotti's eyes positively sparkled. “Sounds delightful.” Yet she remained suspicious. “Why me? What could I possibly offer against two such experienced voices?”
The queen was not used to being questioned. She looked at Professor Lyall.
He said, “I told you she was difficult.”
“Aside from breaking a stalemate, our muhjah is the only truly mobile unit of the three councilors. Our potentate is confined to a narrow territory, like most vampires, and cannot function during the day. Our dewan is more mobile, but he cannot travel by dirigible and is incapacitated every full moon. We have relied upon BUR to make up for the Shadow Council's weakness in this regard, but we would prefer a muhjah whose attention is solely on the Crown's concerns and who can come to us directly.”
“So there will be some active duty?” Miss Tarabotti was even more intrigued.
“Uh-oh,” muttered Professor Lyall, “I do not think Lord Maccon fully comprehended this aspect of the position. “
“The muhjah is the voice of the modern age. We have faith in our potentate and our dewan, but they are old and set in their ways. They require balance from someone who keeps up with current lines of scientific inquiry, not to mention the interests and suspicions of the daylight world. We are concerned that this Hypocras Club is a symptom of greater unrest. We are worried that our BUR agents did not uncover it sooner. You have proven yourself an able investigator and a well-read young woman. As Lady Maccon, you would also possess the standing needed to infiltrate the highest levels of society.”
Alexia looked between Professor Lyall and the queen. Lyall looked worried. That decided her. “Very well, I accept.”
The queen nodded happily. “Your future husband indicated you would not be averse to the position. Most excellent! We convene twice a week, Thursday and Sunday nights, unless there is a crisis of some kind, in which case you are expected to be readily available. You will be answerable to the Crown alone. We will expect you to start the week after your wedding. So do hurry it up.”
Alexia smiled foolishly and looked at Professor Lyall from under her lashes. “Conall approves?”
The werewolf grinned. “He recommended you to the job months ago. The first time you interfered in one of his operations and he knew BUR would not be allowed to hire you. Of course, he did not know the muhjah engaged in active investigations on the queen's behalf.”
The queen said, “Of course, initially we objected to the recommendation. We cannot have a single young lady in such a powerful position. It simply is not done.” She looked almost mischievous and lowered her voice. “In all confidentiality, my dear, we do believe the Woolsey Alpha thinks being muhjah will keep you out of his way.”
Alexia slapped a hand to her mouth in an excess of embarrassment. To have the Queen of England thinking of her as an interfering busybody!
Professor Lyall crossed his arms and said, “Begging your pardon, Your Majesty, but I think he wants to set Miss Tarabotti at the dewan and watch the fur fly.”
Queen Victoria smiled. “They never have gotten along, those two.” Professor Lyall nodded. “Both are too much alpha.”
Miss Tarabotti looked suddenly worried. “That is not why he is marrying me, is it? So I can be muhjah?” A little bit of her old insecurity came back to haunt her.
“Do not be ridiculous,” admonished the queen curtly. “He has been mad for you these many months, ever since you prodded him in the nether regions with a hedgehog. It has been driving everyone balmy, all this dancing about. Glad it is finally getting settled. This wedding of yours is going to be the social event of the season. Half the guests in attendance will be there simply to make certain you both go through with it. Outside of enough, that is our opinion.”
Miss Tarabotti, for one of the first and last times in her life, was entirely at a loss for words.
The queen stood up. “Well, that is settled, then. We are most pleased. And now we suggest you go to bed, young lady. You look exhausted.” With that, she swept from the house.
“She is so short,” said Miss Tarabotti to Professor Lyall once the queen had gone.
“Alexia,” said a tremulous voice from the other side of the room, “what is going on?”
Alexia sighed and struggled to her feet, wobbling over to her confused mama. All of Mrs. Loontwill's anger had evaporated upon waking to find her daughter in conversation with the Queen of England.
“Why was the queen here? Why were you discussing the Shadow Council? What is a muhjah?” Mrs. Loontwill was very confused. She seemed to have utterly lost control of the situation.
Me, thought Alexia with pleasure. I will be muhjah. This is going to be such fun. Aloud she said the only thing calculated to shut her mother up. “Do not worry about a thing, Mama. I am going to marry Lord Maccon.”
It worked. Mrs. Loontwill's mouth snapped closed. Her expression evolved rapidly from perturbation to uncontrollable elation. “You caught him!” she breathed in delight.
Felicity and Evylin reentered the room, both wide-eyed. For the first time in their entire lives, they regarded their older sister with something other than mild contempt.
Noticing her other two daughters had arrived, Mrs. Loontwill added hastily, “Not that I approve your methods of catching him, of course. Out all night, indeed. But thank heavens you did!” Then in an aside, “Girls, your sister is going to marry Lord Maccon.”
Felicity and Evylin looked even more shocked, but they recovered quickly enough.
“But, Mama, why was the queen here?” Evylin wanted to know.