Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)


Miss Tarabotti winced. Usually Lord Akeldama was sensitive to her dislike of the term. He had been the first to use it in her presence, on the night he had finally realized what she was. For once in his long life, he had lost his perfectly donned charisma in shock at discovering a preternatural in the guise of a forthright spinster. Miss Tarabotti, understandably, had not taken to the notion of being called a soul-sucker. Lord Akeldama was careful never to use it again, except to make a point. Now he had a point to make.

Floote arrived with the soup, a creamy cucumber and watercress. Lord Akeldama received no nourishment from the consumption of food, but he appreciated the taste. Unlike some of the more repulsive members of his set, he did not engage in that tradition established by ancient Roman vampires. There was no need for Alexia to call for a purge bucket. He merely sampled each dish politely and then left the rest for the servants to partake of later. No sense in wasting good soup. And it was quite good. One could say a number of impolite things about the Loontwills, but no one had ever accused them of frugality. Even Alexia, spinster that she was, was given an allowance large enough to dress her to the height of fashion— although she did tend to stick to trends a little too precisely. The poor thing could not help it. Her choice of clothing simply lacked soul. Regardless, the Loontwills' extravagance extended to the keeping of a very fine cook.

Floote slid away softly to retrieve the next course.

Alexia removed her hand from her friend's grasp and, never one for dissembling, got straight to the point. “Lord Akeldama, please tell me, what is going on? Who was the vampire who attacked me last night? How could he not know who I was? He did not even know what I was, as if no one had told him preternaturals existed at all. I am well aware that BUR keeps us secret from the general public, but packs and hives are well informed as a rule.”

Lord Akeldama reached forward and flicked the two tuning forks on the resonator again. “My dearest young friend. There, I believe, you have the very issue in hand. Unfortunately for you, since you eliminated the individual in question, every interested supernatural party is beginning to believe you are the one who knows the answers to those very questions. Speculation abounds, and vampires are a suspicious lot. Some already hold that the hives are being kept purposefully in ignorance by either you, or BUR, or most likely both.” He smiled, all fangs, and sipped his champagne.

Alexia sat back and let out a whoosh of air. “Well, that explains her rather forceful invitation.”

Lord Akeldama did not move from his relaxed position, but he seemed to be sitting up straighter. “Her? Her who? Whose invitation, my dearest petunia blossom?”

“Countess Nadasdy's.”

Lord Akeldama actually did sit up straight at that. His waterfall of a cravat quivered in agitation. “Queen of the Westminster hive,” he hissed, his fangs showing. “There are words to describe her, my dear, but one does not repeat them in polite company.”

Floote came in with the fish course, a simple fillet of sole with thyme and lemon. He glanced with raised eyebrows at the humming auditory device and then at the agitated Lord Akeldama. Alexia shook her head slightly when he would have remained protectively in the room.

Miss Tarabotti studied Lord Akeldama's face closely. He was a rove—a hiveless vampire. Roves were rare among the bloodsucking set. It took a lot of political, psychological, and supernatural strength for a vampire to separate from his hive. And once autonomous units, roves tended to go a bit funny about the noggin and slide toward the eccentric end of societal acceptability. In deference to this status, Lord Akeldama kept all his papers in impeccable order and was fully registered with BUR. However, it did mean he was a mite prejudiced against the hives.

The vampire sampled the fish, but the delicious taste did not seem to improve his temper. He pushed the dish away peevishly and sat back, tapping one expensive shoe against the other.

“Don't you like the Westminster hive queen?” asked Alexia with wide dark eyes and a great show of assumed innocence.

Lord Akeldama seemed to remember himself. The foppishness reappeared in spades. His wrists went limp and wiggly. “La, my dear daffodil, the hive queen and I, we… have our differences. I am under the distressing impression she finds me a tad”—he paused as though searching for the right word —“flamboyant.”

Miss Tarabotti looked at him, evaluating both his words and the meaning behind them. “And here I thought it was you who did not like Countess Nadasdy.”

“Now, sweetheart, who has been telling you little stories like that?”

Alexia tucked into her fish, a clear indication that she declined to reveal her source. After she had finished, there was a moment of silence while Floote removed the plates and placed the main course before them: a delicious arrangement of braised pork chop, apple compote, and slow roasted baby potatoes. Once the butler had gone again, Miss Tarabotti decided to ask her guest the more important question she had invited him over to answer.

“What do you think she wants of me, my lord?”

Lord Akeldama's eyes narrowed. He ignored the chop and fiddled idly with his massive ruby cravat pin. “As I see it, there are two reasons. Either she knows exactly what happened last night at the ball and she wants to bribe you into silence, or she has no idea who that vampire was and what he was doing in her territory, and she thinks you do.”

“In either case, it would behoove me to be better informed than I currently am,” Miss Tarabotti said, eating a buttery little potato.

He nodded empathetically.

“Are you positive you do not know anything more?” she asked.

“My dearest girl, who do you think I am? Lord Maccon, perhaps?” He picked up his champagne glass and twirled it by the stem, gazing thoughtfully at the tiny bubbles. “Now there is an idea, my treasure. Why not go to the werewolves? They may know more of the relevant facts. Lord Maccon, of course, being BUR will know most of all.”

Alexia tried to look nonchalant. “But as a minister of BUR's secrets, he is also the least likely to relay any cogent details,” she countered.

Lord Akeldama laughed in a tinkling manner that indicated more artifice than real amusement. “Then there is nothing for it, sweetest of Alexias, but to use your plethora of feminine wiles upon him. Werewolves have been susceptible to the gentler sex for as long as I can remember, and that is a very long time, indeed.” He wiggled his eyebrows, knowing he did not look a day over twenty-three, his original age at metamorphosis. He continued. “Favorable toward women, those darling beaslies, even if they are a tad brutish.” He shivered lasciviously. “Particularly Lord Maccon. So big and rough.” He made a little growling noise.

Miss Tarabotti giggled. Nothing was funnier than watching a vampire try to emulate a werewolf.

“I advise you most strongly to visit him tomorrow before you see the Westminster queen.” Lord Akeldama reached forward and grasped her wrist. His fangs vanished, and his eyes suddenly looked as old as he really was. He had never told Alexia quite how old. “La, darling,” he always said, “a vampire, like a lady, never reveals his true age.” But he had described to her in detail the dark days before the supernatural was revealed to daylight folk. Before the hives and packs made themselves known on the British Isle. Before that prestigious revolution in philosophy and science that their emergence triggered, known to some as the Renaissance but to vampires as the Age of Enlightenment. Supernatural folk called the time before the Dark Ages, for obvious reasons. For them it had been an age spent skulking through the night. Several bottles of champagne were usually required to get Lord Akeldama to talk of it at all. Still, it meant, by Alexia's calculations, that he was at least over four hundred years old.

She looked more closely at her friend. Was that fear?

His face was honestly serious, and he said, “My dove, I do not know what is transpiring here. Me, ignorant! Please take the gravest of care in this matter.”

Miss Tarabotti now knew the real source of her friend's trepidation. Lord Akeldama had no idea what was going on. For years, he had held the trump card in every major London political situation. He was accustomed to having possession of all pertinent facts before anybody else. Yet at this moment, he was as mystified as she.

“Promise me,” he said earnestly, “you will see what information you can extract from Lord Maccon on this matter before you go into that hive.”

Alexia smiled. “To better your understanding?”

He shook his blond head. “No, sweetheart, to better yours.”


Our Heroine Heeds Some Good Advice

Bollocks,” said Lord Maccon upon seeing who stood before him. “Miss Tarabotti. What did I do to merit a visit from you first thing in the morning? I have not even had my second cup of tea yet.” He loomed at the entrance to his office.

Alexia ignored his unfortunate choice of greeting and swept past him into the room. The act of sweeping, and the fact that the doorway was quite narrow while Alexia's bosoms (even corseted) were not, brought her into intimate contact with the earl. Alexia was embarrassed to note she tingled a little bit, clearly a reaction to the repulsive state of the man's office.

There were papers everywhere, piled in corners and spread out over what might have been a desk—it was difficult to tell underneath all the muddle. There were also rolls of etched metal and stacks of tubes she suspected contained more of the same. Alexia wondered why he needed metal record-keeping; from the sheer quantity, she suspected it must be a cogent one. She counted at least six used cups and saucers and a platter covered in the remains of a large joint of raw meat. Miss Tarabotti had been in Lord Maccon's office once or twice before. It had always appeared a tad masculine for her taste but never so unsightly as this.

“Good gracious me!” she said, shaking off the tingles. Then she asked the obvious question. “Where is Professor Lyall, then?”

Lord Maccon scrubbed his face with his hand, reached desperately for a nearby teapot, and drained it through the spout.

Miss Tarabotti looked away from the horrible sight. Who was it that had said “only just civilized”? She closed her eyes and considered, realizing it must have been she. She fluttered one hand to her throat. “Please, Lord Maccon, use one of the cups. My delicate sensibilities.”

The earl actually snorted. “My dear Miss Tarabotti, if you possessed any such things, you certainly have never shown them to me.” But he did put down the teapot.

Alexia looked more closely at Lord Maccon. He did not seem entirely well. Her heart moved with a funny little flipping motion in her chest. His mahogany-colored hair was standing up at the front, as though he had been running his hands through it repeatedly. Everything about his appearance seemed even more unkempt than usual. In the dim light, it also looked as though his canines were showing—a certain sign of distress. Alexia squinted to make certain. She wondered how close they were to full moon. The worry in her dark eyes, expressive even in their soullessness, softened her teapot-inspired disapproving expression.

“BUR business.” Lord Maccon endeavored to explain away Professor's Lyall's absence and the state of his office in one curt phrase. He pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger.

Alexia nodded. “I did not really expect to find you here, my lord, in the daytime. Shouldn't you be sleeping at this hour?”

The werewolf shook his head. “I can take the full sun for a few days running, especially when there's such a mystery as this. Alpha's not simply a meaningless title, you know? We can do things regular werewolves cannot. Besides which, Queen Victoria is curious.” In addition to being BUR's supernatural liaison and Alpha of the Woolsey Castle pack, Lord Maccon was an agent of Queen Victoria's Shadow Parliament.

“Well, never mind that; you look positively ghastly,” said Alexia baldly.

“Gee, thank you very much for your concern, Miss Tarabotti,” replied the earl, straightening up and widening his eyes in an attempt to look more alert.

“What have you been doing to yourself?” asked his lady guest with all her customary bluntness. “I have not slept since you were attacked,” said Lord Maccon.

Alexia blushed slightly. “Concerned for my well-being? Why, Lord Maccon, now it is I who am touched.”

“Hardly,” he replied ungallantly. “Overseeing investigations, for the most part. Any concern you may note is over the idea that someone else may be attacked. You can obviously see to yourself.”

Miss Tarabotti was torn between being crushed that he did not care one fig for her safety and pleased that he trusted in her competence.

She gathered up a small pile of metal slates from a side chair and sat down. Lifting one roll of thin metal, she held it open to examine with interest. She had to tilt it away from the shadows in order to make out the etched notations. “Rove vampire registration permits,” she remarked. “You think the man who attacked me last night might have had a permit?”