Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)


Miss Tarabotti sniffed.

“Speaking of which, how was the duchess's ball last night?” Ivy was always one for gossip. Her family being too nearly middle class to be invited to any but the largest of balls, she had to rely on Alexia for such detail as went unreported by the Morning Post. Sadly for Ivy, her dear friend was not the most reliable or loquacious source. “Was it perfectly dreadful? Who was there? What were they wearing?”

Alexia rolled her eyes. “Ivy, please, one question at a time.”

“Well, was it a pleasant event?”

“Not a bit of it. Would you believe there were no comestibles on offer? Nothing but punch! I had to go to the library and order tea.” Alexia spun her parasol in agitation. Ivy was shocked. “You did not!”

Miss Tarabotti raised her black eyebrows. “I most certainly did. You wouldn't believe the fracas that resulted. As if that was not bad enough, then Lord Maccon insisted on showing up.”

Miss Hisselpenny paused in her tracks to look closely into her friend's face. Alexia's expression showed nothing but annoyance, but there was something about the precise way she always spoke about the Earl of Woolsey that roused Ivy's suspicions.

Still she played the sympathy card. “Oh dear, was he utterly horrid?” Privately, Ivy felt Lord Maccon entirely respectable for a werewolf, but he was a little too, well, much for her particular taste. He was so very large and so very gruff that he rather terrified her, but he always behaved correctly in public, and there was a lot to be said for a man who sported such well-tailored jackets—even if he did change into a ferocious beast once a month.

Alexia actually snorted. “Pah. No more than normal. I think it must have something to do with being Alpha. He is simply too accustomed to having his orders followed all the time. It puts me completely out of humor.” She paused. “A vampire attacked me last night.”

Ivy pretended a faint.

Alexia kept her friend forcibly upright by stiffening her linked arm. “Stop being so squiffy,” she said. “There is no one important around to catch you.”

Ivy recovered herself and said vehemently, “Good heavens, Alexia. How do you get yourself into these situations?”

Alexia shrugged and commenced walking more briskly so that Ivy had to trot a few steps to keep up. “What did you do?” She was not to be dissuaded. “Hit him with my parasol, of course.”

“You did not!”

“Right upside the head. I would do the same to anyone who attacked me, supernatural or not. He simply came right at me, no introduction, no nothing!” Miss Tarabotti was feeling a tad defensive on the subject.

“But, Alexia, really, it simply is not the done thing to hit a vampire, with a parasol or otherwise!”

Miss Tarabotti sighed but secretly agreed with her friend. There weren't very many vampires skulking around London society, never had been, but the few hives that were in residence included politicians, landholders, and some very important noblemen among their membership. To indiscriminately whack about with one's parasol among such luminaries was social suicide.

Miss Hisselpenny continued. “It's simply too outrageous. What's next? Charging indiscriminately about the House of Lords, throwing jam at the local supernatural set during nighttime session?”

Alexia giggled at the leaps made by Ivy's imagination. “Oh no, now I am giving you ideas.” Ivy pressed her forehead dramatically with one gloved hand. “What exactly happened?”

Alexia told her.

“You killed him?” This time Miss Hisselpenny looked like she might really faint.

“It was by accident!” insisted Miss Tarabotti, taking her friend's arm in a firmer grip.

“That was you in the Morning Post? The lady who found the dead man at the Duchess of Snodgrove's ball last night?” Ivy was all agog.

Alexia nodded.

“Well, Lord Maccon certainly covered things up adequately. There was no mention of your name or family.” Ivy was relieved for her friend's sake.

“Or the fact that the dead man was a vampire, thank goodness. Can you imagine what my dear mother would say?” Alexia glanced heavenward.

“Or the detrimental effect on your marriage prospects, to be found unchaperoned in a library with a dead vampire!”

Alexia's expression told Ivy exactly what she felt about that comment.

Miss Hisselpenny moved on. “You do realize you owe Lord Maccon a tremendous debt of gratitude?”

Miss Tarabotti looked exactly as if she had swallowed a live eel. “I should think not. Ivy. It is his job to keep these things secret: Chief Minister in Charge of Supernatural-Natural Liaison for the Greater London Area, or whatever his BUR title is. I am certainly under no obligation to a man who was only doing his civic duty. Besides, knowing what I do of the Woolsey Pack's social dynamics, I would guess that Professor Lyall, not Lord Maccon, dealt with the newspapermen.”

Ivy privately felt her friend did not give the earl enough credit. Simply because Alexia was immune to his charm did not mean the rest of the world felt such indifference. He was Scottish, to be sure, but he had been Alpha for what, twenty years or so? Not long by supernatural standards, but good enough for the less discriminating of daylight society. There were rumors as to how he had defeated the last Woolsey Alpha. They said it had been far too rough for modern standards, though still legal under pack protocol. However, the preceding earl was generally known to have been a depraved individual wanting in all aspects of civility and decorum. For Lord Maccon to have appeared out of nowhere and eliminated him, however draconian his methods, had left London society part shocked, part thrilled. The truth of the matter was that most Alphas and hive queens in the modern age held power by the same civilized means as everyone else: money, social standing, and politics. Lord Maccon might be new to this, but twenty years in, he was now better at it than most. Ivy was young enough to be impressed and wise enough not to dwell on his northern origin.

“I really do think you are terribly hard on the earl, Alexia,” said Ivy as the two ladies turned down a side path, away from the main promenade.

“It cannot be helped,” Miss Tarabotti replied. “I have never liked the man.”

“So you say,” agreed Miss Hisselpenny.

They circumvented a coppice of birch trees and slowed to a stop at the edge of a wide grassy area. Recently, this particular meadow, open to the sky and off the beaten track, had come into use by a dirigible company. They flew Giffard-style steam-powered airships with de Lome propellers. It was the latest and greatest in leisurely travel. The upper crust, in particular, had taken to the skies with enthusiasm. Floating had almost eclipsed hunting as the preferred pastime of the aristocracy. The ships were a sight to behold, and Alexia was particularly fond of them. She hoped one day to ride in one. The views were reportedly breathtaking, and they were rumored to serve an excellent high tea on board.

The two ladies stood watching as one of the dirigibles came in for a landing. From a distance, the airship looked like nothing so much as a prodigiously long skinny balloon, with a basket suspended from it. Closer up, however, it became clear that the balloon was partly reinforced into semirigidity, and the basket was more like an overlarge barge. The barge part was painted with the Giffard company logo in bright black and white and suspended by a thousand wires from the balloon above. It maneuvered in toward the meadow and then, as the two ladies watched, cut and cranked down its propeller before sinking softly into a landing.

“What remarkable times we live in,” commented Alexia, her eyes sparkling at the spectacular sight.

Ivy was not as impressed. “It is not natural, mankind taking to the skies.”

Alexia tsked at her in annoyance. “Ivy, why do you have to be such an old fuddy-duddy? This is the age of miraculous invention and extraordinary science. The working of those contraptions is really quite fascinating. Why, the calculations for liftoff alone are—”

She was interrupted by a mellow feminine voice.

Ivy let her breath out in a huff of relief—anything to keep Alexia off all that loopy intellectual mumbo jumbo.

The two ladies turned away from the dirigible and all its wonders. Alexia reluctantly and Ivy with great alacrity. They found themselves facing an entirely different kind of spectacle.

The voice had come from atop a wholly fabulous phaeton that had drawn to a stop behind them without either woman noticing. The carriage was a high flyer: a dangerous open-topped contraption, rarely driven by a woman. Yet there, behind a team of perfectly matched blacks, sat a slightly chubby lady with blond hair and a friendly smile. Everything clashed about the arrangement; from the lady, who wore an afternoon tea gown of becoming dusty rose trimmed in burgundy rather than a carriage dress, to the high-spirited mounts, who seemed far better suited to draw some dandy of the Corinthian set. She had a pleasant expression and bobbing ringlets but kept iron-steady hands on the reins. Unfamiliar with the woman, the two young ladies would have turned back to their observations, presuming the interruption an embarrassing case of mistaken identity, except that the pretty young lady spoke to them again.

“Do I have the pleasure of addressing Miss Tarabotti?”

Ivy and Alexia looked at each other. It was such a remarkable thing to happen—in the middle of the park, by the airfield, and without any introduction—that Alexia answered in spite of herself. “Yes. How do you do?”

“Beautiful day for it, wouldn't you say?” The lady gestured with her whip at the dirigible, which had now completed its landing and was preparing to disgorge its passengers.

“Indeed,” replied Alexia crisply, a bit put off by the woman's brash and familiar tone. “Have we met?” she inquired pointedly.

The lady laughed, a mellow tinkling sound. “I am Miss Mabel Dair, and now we have.”

Alexia decided she must be dealing with an original.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” she replied cautiously. “Miss Dair, might I introduce Miss Ivy Hisselpenny?”

Ivy bobbed a curtsy, at the same time tugging on Alexia's velvet-trimmed sleeve. “The actress,” she hissed in Alexia's ear. “You know! Oh, I say, Alexia, you really must know.”

Miss Tarabotti, who did not know, surmised that she ought to. “Oh,” she said blankly, and then quietly to Ivy, “Should we be talking to an actress in the middle of Hyde Park?” She glanced covertly at the disembarking dirigible passengers. No one was paying them any notice.

Miss Hisselpenny hid a smile under one gloved hand. “This from the woman who last night accidentally”—she paused—“parasoled a man. I should think that talking to an actress in public would be the least of your worries.”

Miss Dair's bright blue eyes followed this exchange. She laughed again. “That incident, my dears, would be the reason for this rather discourteous meeting.”

Alexia and Ivy were surprised that she knew what they were whispering about.

“You must forgive my brazenness and this intrusion on your private confidences.”

“Must we?” wondered Alexia under her breath.

Ivy elbowed her in the ribs.

Miss Dair explained herself at last. “You see, my mistress would like to visit with you, Miss Tarabotti.”

“Your mistress?”

The actress nodded, blond ringlets bouncing. “Oh, I know they do not normally go in for the bolder artistic types. Actresses, I am under the impression, tend to become clavigers, since werewolves are far more intrigued by the performing arts.”

Miss Tarabotti realized what was going on. “My goodness, you are a drone!”

Miss Dair smiled and nodded her acknowledgment. She had dimples as well as ringlets, most distressing.

Alexia was still very confused. Drones were vampire companions, servants, and caretakers who were paid with the possibility of eventually becoming immortal themselves. But vampires rarely chose drones from among those who occupied the limelight. They preferred a more behind-the-scenes approach to soul hunting: recruiting painters, poets, sculptors, and the like. The flashier side of creativity was universally acknowledged werewolf territory, who chose thespians, opera singers, and ballet dancers to become clavigers. Of course, both supernatural sets preferred the artistic element in a companion, for there was always a better chance of excess soul in a creative person and therefore a higher likelihood that he or she would survive metamorphosis. But for a vampire to choose an actress was rather unusual.

“But you are a woman!” objected Miss Hisselpenny, shocked. An even more well-known fact about drones or clavigers was that they tended to be male. Women were much less likely to survive being turned. No one knew why, though scientists suggested the female's weaker constitution.

The actress smiled. “Not all drones are after eternal life, you realize? Some of us just enjoy the patronage. I have no particular interest in becoming supernatural, but my mistress provides for me in many other ways. Speaking of which, are you free this evening, Miss Tarabotti?”