Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)


Alexia finally recovered from her surprise and frowned. She had no concrete plans, but she did not want to go into a vampire hive uninformed. So she said firmly, “Unfortunately, I am unavailable tonight.” She made a quick decision to send her card round to Lord Akeldama, requesting he stop by for dinner. He might be able to fill her in on some of the local hive activities. Lord Akeldama liked perfumed handkerchiefs and pink neckties, but he also liked to know things.

“Tomorrow night, then?” The actress looked hopeful. This request must be particularly important to her mistress.

Alexia dipped her head in agreement. The long cascade feather on her felt hat tickled the back of her neck. “Where am I expected to go?”

Miss Dair leaned forward from her box seat, keeping a steady hand to her frisky horses, and handed Alexia a small sealed envelope. “I must ask you not to share the address with anyone. My apologies, Miss Hisselpenny. You understand the delicacy of the situation, I am sure.”

Ivy held up her hands placatingly and blushed delicately. “No offense taken, Miss Dair. This entire affair is none of my concern.” Even Ivy knew better than to ask questions of hive business.

“For whom do I inquire?” asked Miss Tarabotti, turning the envelope about in her hands but not opening it.

“Countess Nadasdy.”

That was a name Alexia knew. Countess Nadasdy was purported to be one of the oldest living vampires, incredibly beautiful, impossibly cruel, and extremely polite. She was queen of the Westminster Hive. Lord Maccon might have learned to play the social game with aplomb, but Countess Nadasdy was its master.

Miss Tarabotti looked long and hard at the bubbly blond actress. “You have hidden depths, Miss Dair.” Alexia was not supposed to know many of the things that went on in Countess Nadasdy's circle, let alone her hive, but she read too much. Many of the books in the Loontwills' library were left over from her father's day. Alessandro Tarabotti had clearly felt a strong inclination toward literature concerning the supernatural, so Alexia had a tolerably clear concept of what occurred in a vampire hive. Miss Dair certainly must be something more than blond curls, dimples, and a perfectly-turned-out rose dress.

Miss Dair bobbed her ringlets at them. “Whatever the gossip columns may say, Countess Nadasdy is a good mistress.” Her smile was slightly quirky. “If you like that sort of thing. It has been delightful to meet you ladies.” She tightened the reins to her blacks and snapped them smartly. The phaeton jerked forward sharply on the uneven grass, but Miss Dair maintained a perfect seat. In mere moments, the high flyer was gone, rattling down the footpath and disappearing behind the small coppice of birch trees.

The two girls followed, the airship in all its technological glory having suddenly lost its appeal. Other more exciting events were afoot. They walked a little more slowly, conversing in a subdued manner. Alexia turned the small envelope around in her hands.

The jaunt through Hyde Park appeared to be doing the trick as far as Alexia's prickly feelings were concerned. All of her anger at Lord Maccon had dissipated to be replaced by apprehension.

Ivy looked pale. Well, paler than usual. Finally she pointed to the sealed envelope Alexia was fiddling with nervously. “You know what that is?”

Miss Tarabotti swallowed. “Of course I know.” But she said it so quietly Ivy did not really hear her.

“You have been given the actual address of a hive, Alexia. They are either going to recruit you or drain you dry. No daylight humans but drones are allowed to have that kind of information.”

Alexia looked uncomfortable. “I know!” She was wondering how a hive might react to a preternatural in their midst. Not very kindly, she suspected. She worried her lower lip. “I simply must speak with Lord Akeldama.”

Miss Hisselpenny looked, if possible, even more worried. “Oh really, must you? He is so very outrageous.” Outrageous was a very good way of describing Lord Akeldama. Alexia was not afraid of outrageousness any more than she was afraid of vampires, which was good because Lord Akeldama was both.

He minced into the room, teetering about on three-inch heels with ruby and gold buckles. “My darling, darling Alexia.” Lord Akeldama had adopted use of her given name within minutes of their first meeting. He had said that he just knew they would be friends, and there was no point in prevaricating. “Darling!” He also seemed to speak predominantly in italics. “How perfectly, deliciously, delightful of you to invite me to dinner. Darling.”

Miss Tarabotti smiled at him. It was impossible not to grin at Lord Akeldama; his attire was so consistently absurd. In addition to the heels, he wore yellow checked gaiters, gold satin breeches, an orange and lemon striped waistcoat, and an evening jacket of sunny pink brocade. His cravat was a frothy flowing waterfall of orange, yellow, and pink Chinese silk, barely contained by a magnificently huge ruby pin. His ethereal face was powdered quite unnecessarily, for he was already completely pale, a predilection of his kind. He sported round spots of pink blush on each cheek like a Punch and Judy puppet. He also affected a gold monocle, although, like all vampires, he had perfect vision.

With fluid poise, he settled himself on the settee opposite Alexia, a small neatly laid supper table between them.

Miss Tarabotti had decided to host him, much to her mother's chagrin, alone in her private drawing room. Alexia tried to explain that the vampire's supposed inability to enter private residences uninvited was a myth based upon their collective obsession with proper social etiquette, but her mother refused to believe her. After some minor hysterics, Mrs. Loontwill thought better of her objections to the arrangement. Realizing that the event would occur whether she willed it or no, Alexia being assertive—Italian blood— she hastily took the two younger girls and Squire Loontwill off to an evening card party at Lady Blingchester's. Mrs. Loontwill was very good at operating on the theory that what she did not know could not hurt her, particularly regarding Alexia and the supernatural.

So Alexia had the house to herself, and Lord Akeldama's entrance was appreciated by no one more important than Floote, the Loontwills' long-suffering butler. This caused Lord Akeldama distress, for he sat so dramatically and posed with such grace, that he clearly anticipated a much larger audience. The vampire took out a scented handkerchief and bopped Miss Tarabotti playfully on the shoulder with it. “I hear, my little sugarplum, that you were a naughty, naughty girl at the duchess's ball last night.”

Lord Akeldama might look and act like a supercilious buffoon of the highest order, but he had one of the sharpest minds in the whole of London. The Morning Post would pay half its weekly income for the kind of information he seemed to have access to at any time of night. Alexia privately suspected him of having drones among the servants in every major household, not to mention ghost spies tethered to key public institutions.

Miss Tarabotti refused to give her guest the satisfaction of asking how he knew of the previous evening's episode. Instead she smiled in what she hoped was an enigmatic manner and poured the champagne.

Lord Akeldama never drank anything but champagne. Well, that is to say, except when he was drinking blood. He was reputed to have once said that the best drink in existence was a blending of the two, a mix he referred to fondly as a Pink Slurp.

“You know why I invited you over, then?” Alexia asked instead, offering him a cheese swizzle.

Lord Akeldama waved a limp wrist about dismissively before taking the swizzle and nibbling its tip. “La, my dearest girl, you invited me because you could not bear to be without my company a single moment longer. And I shall be cut to the very quick of my extensive soul if your reason is anything else.”

Miss Tarabotti waved a hand at the butler. Floote issued her a look of mild disapproval and vanished in search of the first course.

“That is, naturally, exactly why I invited you. Besides which I am certain you missed me just as much, as we have not seen each other in an age. I am convinced that your visit has absolutely nothing to do with an avid curiosity as to how I managed to kill a vampire yesterday evening,” she said mildly.

Lord Akeldama held up a hand. “A moment please, my dear.” Then he reached into a waistcoat pocket and produced a small spiky device. It looked like two tuning forks sunk into a faceted crystal. He flicked the first fork with his thumbnail, waited a moment, and then flicked the second. The two made a dissonant, low-pitched strumming sound, like the hum of two different kinds of bee arguing, that seemed to be amplified by the crystal. He placed the device carefully in the center of the table, where it continued to hum away discordantly. It was not entirely irritating but seemed like it might grow to be.

“One gets accustomed to it after a while,” explained Lord Akeldama apologetically.

“What is it?” wondered Alexia.

“That little gem is a harmonic auditory resonance disruptor. One of my boys picked it up in gay Paris recently. Charming, isn't it?”

“Yes, but what does it do?” Alexia wanted to know.

“Not much in this room, but if anyone is trying to listen in from a distance with, say, an ear trumpet or other eavesdropping device, it creates a kind of screaming sound that results in the most tremendous headache. I tested it.”

“Remarkable,” said Alexia, impressed despite herself. “Are we likely to be saying things people might want to overhear?”

“Well, we were discussing how you managed to kill a vampire, were we not? And while I know exactly how you did it, petal, you may not want the rest of the world to know as well.” Alexia was affronted. “Oh really, and how did I do it?”

Lord Akeldama laughed, showing off a set of particularly white and particularly sharp fangs. “Oh, princess.” In one of those lightning-fast movements that only the best athletes or a supernatural person could execute, he grabbed her free hand. His deadly fangs vanished. The ethereal beauty in his face became ever so slightly too effeminate, and his strength dissipated. “This is how.”

Alexia nodded. It had taken Lord Akeldama four meetings to deduce she was preternatural. Estranged from the hives as he was, he had never been officially informed of her existence. He considered this an embarrassing blight on his long career as a snoop. His only possible excuse for the blunder was the fact that, while preternatural men were rare, preternatural woman were practically nonexistent. He simply had not expected to find one in the form of an overly assertive spinster, enmeshed in the thick of London society, companioned by two silly sisters and a sillier mama. As a result, he took any opportunity to remind himself of what she was, grabbing her hand or arm on the merest whim.

In this particular instance, he stroked her hand fondly. There was no attraction in the movement. “Sweetling,” he had once said, “you are at no more risk with me in that regard than you are in danger of me unexpectedly biting you—both being equal impossibilities. In the one case, I do not possess the necessary equipment upon contact, in the other case you do not.” Her father's library had provided Alexia with any

further explanation she might require. Alessandro Tarabotti had engaged in quite an adventurous life before marriage and collected books from all around the Empire, some of them with very fascinating pictures, indeed. He had an apparent passion for explanatory studies on primitive peoples, which resulted in the kind of documentation that might encourage even Evylin to enter a library—had she been made aware of their existence. Luckily, the entirety of Alexia's family felt that if it did not originate in the gossip section of the Morning Post, it was probably not worth reading. Alexia, as a result, knew considerably more on the ways of the flesh than any English spinster ought to know, and certainly enough not to mind Lord Akeldama's little gestures of affection.

“You have no idea how deliciously restful I find the miracle of your company,” he had remarked the first time he touched her. “It's like swimming in too-warm bath-water most of one's life and suddenly plunging into an icy mountain stream. Shocking but, I believe, good for the soul.” He had shrugged delicately. “I enjoy feeling mortal again, if only for one moment and only in your glorious presence.” Miss Tarabotti had granted him very unspinster-like permission to grasp her hand whenever he wished—so long as it was always done in complete privacy.

Alexia sipped her champagne. “That vampire in the library last night did not know what I was,” she said. “He came charging right at me, went straight for my neck, and then lost his fangs. I thought most of your lot knew by now. BUR undoubtedly keeps close enough track of me. Lord Maccon certainly appeared last night more quickly than was to be expected. Even for him.”

Lord Akeldama nodded. His hair glinted in the flickering flame from a nearby candle. The Loontwills had installed the latest in gas lighting, but Alexia preferred beeswax, unless she was reading. In the candlelight, Lord Akeldama's hair was as gold as the buckles on his shoes. One always expected vampiresto be dark and slightly doomy. Lord Akeldama was the antithesis of all such expectations. He wore his blonde hair long and queued back in a manner stylish hundreds of years ago. He looked up at her, and his face was suddenly old and serious, seeming not at all as ridiculous as his attire should make him. “They do mostly know of you, my pearl. All four of the official hives tell their larvae directly after metamorphosis that there is a soul-sucker living in London.”