Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

6,021
07.03.2019

Lord Maccon looked exasperated, marched over and snatched the stack of rolls away. They fell to the floor with a clatter and he cursed his sun-born clumsiness. But for all his sham annoyance at her presence, the earl was secretly pleased to have someone with whom to talk out his theories. Usually he used his Beta in that capacity, but with Lyall out of town, he'd been pacing about muttering to himself. “If he does have a permit, it is not in the London registry.”

“Could he have come from outside the capital?” suggested Alexia.

Lord Maccon shrugged. “You know how territorial vampires are. Even without any hive ties, they tend to stay in the area of original blood metamorphosis. It is possible he traveled, but from where and why? What grave purpose would drive a vampire from his natural habitat? That is the information I've sent Lyall to hunt down.”

Miss Tarabotti understood. BUR headquarters were stationed in central London, but they had offices all over England that kept tabs on the supernatural set in other parts of the country. During the Age of Enlightenment, when the supernatural became accepted instead of persecuted, what had been born out of a need to control turned into a means of understanding. BUR, a creature of that understanding, now employed werewolves and vampires, as well as mortals and even a ghost or two. Alexia also suspected there were a few sundowners still left among the ranks, though not used much anymore.

Lord Maccon continued. “He will travel by stagecoach during the day and in wolf form at night. He should be back before the full moon with a report from all six nearby cities. That is what I am hoping for, at any roads.”

“Professor Lyall started in Canterbury?” Miss Tarabotti guessed.

Lord Maccon spun to stare at her intently. His eyes were more yellow than tawny gold, and particularly sharp in the dimly lit room. “I hate it when you do that,” he growled. “What, guess correctly?” Alexia's dark eyes crinkled in amusement.

“No, make me feel predictable.” Alexia smiled. “Canterbury is a port city and a center for travel. If our mystery vampire came from anywhere, it was most likely there. But you do not think he came from outside London, do you?” Lord Maccon shook his head. “No, that does not feel right. He smelled local. All vampires get some indicative scent from their maker, particularly when they have been recently changed. Our little friend had the death odor of the Westminster hive about him.”

Miss Tarabotti blinked, startled. Her father's books said nothing on this subject. Werewolves could smell vampire bloodlines? Could vampires tell the difference between werewolf packs as well? “Have you spoken with the local queen?” she said.

The earl nodded. “I went straight to the hive house after leaving you that night. She completely denies any association with your attacker. If it was possible for Countess Nadasdy to be surprised, I would have said she looked shocked at my news. Of course, she would have to pretend such an appearance if she had metamorphosed a new vampire without proper paperwork. But usually the hive is proud to have made larvae. They host a ball, demand turnday presents, call in all the field drones, that kind of extravagance. BUR registry is customarily part of the ceremony. Local werewolves are even invited.” His lip curled, showing several pointed teeth. “It is a sort of 'stick it in your face' to the packs. We have not gained any new members in over a decade.” It was no secret how hard it was to make new supernaturals. Since it was impossible to tell beforehand how much soul a normal human had, it was a deadly gamble for humans to try and turn. Since many drones and clavigers made the attempt early on in life so their immortality might be blessed with youth, the deaths were all the more keenly felt. Of course BUR knew, and so did Miss Tarabotti, that low population numbers were part of what kept the supernatural set safe from public outcry. When they had first presented themselves to the modern world, daylight humans had overcome age-old terrors only upon realization of how few supernatural folk there really were in existence. Lord Maccon's pack numbered eleven in all, and the Westminster hive was slightly smaller—both were considered impressively large.

Miss Tarabotti cocked her head to one side. “Where does that leave you, my lord?”

“Suspecting that there is a rove queen making vampires illegally and outside of hive and BUR authority.”

Alexia swallowed. “Inside Westminster territory?”

The earl nodded. “And of Countess Nadasdy's blood-line.”

“The countess must be biting mad.”

“You put it mildly, my dear Miss Tarabotti. As queen, of course, she insists your homicidal friend was from outside London. She has no understanding of how bloodlines smell. But Lyall identified the body as her get without doubt. He has generations of experience with the Westminster Hive and the best nose of any of us. You know Lyall's been with the Woolsey Pack far longer than I?”

Alexia nodded. Everyone knew how recently Lord Maccon had risen to the earldom. She was given to wonder idly why Professor Lyall had not tried for Alpha himself. Then she assessed Lord Maccon's undoubtedly muscular form and imposing appearance and deduced the reason. Professor Lyall was no coward, but he was also no idiot.

The Alpha continued. “He could have been a direct metamorphic from one of Countess Nadasdy's bite-daughters. But then again, Lyall also noted that the countess has not managed to change over a female drone in his lifetime. She is understandably bitter over this fact.”

Miss Tarabotti frowned. “So you have a genuine mystery on your plate. Only a female vampire, a queen, can metamorphose a new vampire. Yet here we find ourselves with a new vampire and no maker. Either Professor Lyall's nose or Countess Nadasdy's tongue is lying.” Which explained more than anything else Lord Maccon's haggard appearance. Nothing was worse than werewolf and vampire at cross purposes, especially in this kind of investigation. “Let us hope Professor Lyall finds you some answers to these questions,” she said with feeling.

Lord Maccon rang the bell for fresh tea. “Indeed. And, now, enough of my problems. Perhaps we might press on to what brought you to my doorstep at this ungodly hour.”

Alexia, who was poking through another pile of rove paperwork she had scooped off the floor, waved one of the metal sheets at him. “He did.”

Lord Maccon grabbed the metal she had gesticulated with out of her hand, looked at it, and huffed in annoyance. “Why do you persist in associating with that creature?”

Miss Tarabotti straightened her skirts, draping the pleated hem more carefully over her kid boots. She demurred. “I like Lord Akeldama.”

The earl abruptly looked more livid than tired. “Do you, by George! What has he been luring you in with? Little pip-squeak, I shall wallop his scrawny hide to ribbons.”

“I suspect he might enjoy that,” murmured Alexia, thinking of what little she knew of her vampire friend's proclivities. The werewolf did not hear her. Or perhaps he simply chose not to use his supernatural auditory abilities. He paced about, looking vaguely magnificent. His teeth were now definitely showing.

Miss Tarabotti stood, marched over, and grabbed Lord Maccon's wrist. His teeth retracted instantly. The earl's yellow eyes went back to amber-brown. It was the color they must have been years ago before he yielded to the bite that made him supernatural. He also appeared slightly less shaggy, although no less large and angry. Remembering Lord Akeldama's comment on the subject of using feminine wiles. Alexia placed a second hand pleadingly above the first on his upper arm.

What she wanted to say was. Do not be an idiot. What she actually said was, “I needed Lord Akeldama's advice on supernatural matters. I did not want to disturb you for anything trivial.” As if she would ever willingly go to Lord Maccon for help. She was only in his office now under duress. She widened her large brown eyes, tilted her head in a way she hoped might minimize her nose, and lowered her eyelashes beseechingly. Alexia had very long eyelashes. She also had very fierce eyebrows, but Lord Maccon seemed more interested in the former than repelled by the latter. He covered her small brown hand with his massive one.

Miss Tarabotti's hand became very warm, and she was finding that her knees reacted in a decidedly wobbly way to such close proximity to the earl. Stop it! she instructed them fiercely. What was she supposed to say next? Right: Do not be an idiot. And then: I needed help with a vampire, so I went to a vampire for help. No, that was not right. What would Ivy say? Oh yes. “I was so upset, you see? I encountered a drone in the park yesterday, and Countess Nadasdy has requested my presence, this very night. “

That distracted Lord Maccon from his homicidal thoughts of Lord Akeldama. He refused to analyze why he was so opposed to the concept of Alexia liking the vampire. Lord Akeldama was a perfectly well-behaved rove, if slightly silly, always keeping himself and his drones in flawless order. Sometimes too flawless. Alexia should be entirely allowed to like such a man. His lip curled once more at the very idea. He shook himself and went on to the disturbing, in quite a different manner, idea of Miss Alexia Tarabotti and Countess Nadasdy in the same room together.

He hustled Alexia over to a small couch and sat them both, with a crackle, on top of the airship transit maps scattered across it.

“Start from the beginning,” he instructed.

Miss Tarabotti commenced with Felicity reading aloud the newspaper, went on to the walk with Ivy and the meeting with Miss Dair, and ended with Lord Akeldama's perspective on the situation. “You know,” she added when she felt the earl tense at the vampire's name, “he was the one who suggested I see you.”

“What!”

“I must know as much as possible about this situation if I am to go into a hive alone. Most supernatural battles are over information. If Countess Nadasdy wants something from me, it is far better if I know what it is and whether I am capable of providing it.”

Lord Maccon stood, slightly panicked, and said exactly the wrong thing. “I forbid you to go!” He had no idea what it was about this particular woman that made him lose all sense of verbal decorum. But there it was: the unfortunate words were out.

Miss Tarabotti stood as well, instantaneously angry, her chest heaving in agitation. “You have no right!”

He circled her wrists with an iron grip. “I am BUR's chief sundowner, I'll have you know. Preternaturals fall under my jurisdiction.”

“But we are allowed the same degree of freedom as members of the supernatural set, are we not? Full societal integration, among other things. The countess has asked me to attend her for one evening, nothing more.”

“Alexia!” Lord Maccon groaned his frustration.

Miss Tarabotti realized that the earl's use of her given name indicated a certain degree of irritation on his part.

The werewolf took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. It did not work, because he was too close to Alexia. Vampires smelled of stale blood and family lines. His fellow werewolves smelled of fur and wet nights. And humans? Even after all this time of trapping himself away at full moon, the hunt forbidden, humans smelled like food. But Alexia's scent was something else, something… not meat. She smelled warm and spicy sweet, like some old-fashioned Italian pastry his body could no longer process but whose taste he remembered and craved.

He leaned into her.

Miss Tarabotti characteristically swatted him. “Lord Maccon! You forget yourself!”

Which was, Lord Maccon thought, exactly the problem. He let go of her wrists and felt the werewolf return: that strength and heightened senses a partial death had given him all those decades ago. “The hive will not trust you. Miss Tarabotti. You must understand: They believe you to be their natural enemy. Do you keep abreast of the latest scientific discoveries?” He rummaged about on his desk and produced a small weekly news pamphlet. The lead article was titled the counterbalance theorem as applied to horticultural pursuits.

Alexia blinked at it, not comprehending. She turned the paper over: published by Hypocras Press. That did not help either. She knew of the counterbalance theorem, of course. In fact, she found the tenets, in principle, rather appealing.

She said, “Counterbalance is the scientific idea that any given force has an innate opposite. For example, every naturally occurring poison has a naturally occurring antidote—usually located in proximity. Much in the way that the juice of crushed nettle leaves applied to the skin relieves the nettle sting. What has this to do with me?”

“Well, vampires believe that preternaturals are their counterbalance. That it is your elemental purpose to neutralize them.”

Now it was Miss Tarabotti's turn to snort. “Preposterous!”

“Vampires have long memories, my dear. Longer even than us werewolves, for we fight too often among ourselves and die centuries too young. When we supernaturals hid in the night and hunted humankind, it was your preternatural ancestors who hunted us. It was a violent kind of balance. The vampires will always hate you and ghosts always fear you. We werewolves are not so certain. For us, metamorphosis is part curse, one that sees us imprisoned each month for everyone's safety. Some of us see preternaturals as the cure for the full moon's curse. There are stories of werewolves who turned themselves to pets, hunting their own as payment for a preternatural's touch.” He looked disgusted. “All this is better understood since the Age of Reason brought about the concept of a measured soul and the Church of England broke with Rome. But new science, such as this theorem, raises old memories in the vampires. They named preternaturals soul-suckers for good reason. You are the only one registered in this area. And you have just killed a vampire.”

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