From New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger comes a new novel in the world of the Parasol Protectorate starring Prudence, the daughter of Alexia Tarabotti!
In Which Queen Victoria Is Not Amused
“We are not pleased, young lady. Not pleased at all.”
Despite the acute sensation of being crushed under a hot fruitcake of embarrassment, Rue was impressed by Queen Victoria’s ability to eviscerate in so few words. The Empress of India was short in stature, wide in girth, and wore a black silk dress positively drowning in ball fringe. She looked like an extraordinarily angry hassock. To the best of her knowledge, Rue had never before been scolded by a footstool.
“Imagine circumventing the Crown’s authority in such a manner. Did we grant you any kind of diplomatic autonomy? No, we most certainly did not!”
Rue hadn’t enough self- preservation to keep her mouth shut at that. “But you conferred sundowner status upon me. If a lady can kill supernaturals under legal sanction, isn’t that a kind of diplomatic autonomy?”
Primrose, had she been present, would have fainted at the very idea of arguing with the Queen of England. But Rue was accustomed to quarrelling with powerful people. To be fair, when the most powerful woman on the planet looked like a hassock, it made quarrelling easier.
Said hassock, however, was having none of it. “Which was intended for you to clean up a supernatural mess, not cause more of one.”
Rue thought that unfair. After all, she had prevented a major military action and saved a number of lives. Admittedly, she had sacrificed a great deal of tea. Unfortunately, if past record was anything to go on, Queen Victoria was a bloodthirsty little thing. She probably wouldn’t have cared about the lives and was more upset over the tea.
The queen settled into her scolding. “So you establish an illegal concordance between the Shadow Council and a group of vagrant weremonkeys without any kind of by- your- leave? What sort of precedent does that set? A clandestine agreement between disparate groups of supernatural creatures – no government sanction, no proper treaty, no taxation! Young lady, may we remind you, we have ambassadors for this kind of thing, not” – Queen Victoria sputtered to a pause, taking in Rue’s outfit with a critical eye – “round velveteen schoolgirls!”
Rue had thought her brown velvet and gold striped visiting dress most proper for a royal summons. It was sombre in coloration and striped. Queen Victoria was reputed to be fond of stripes. Or was that plaid?
But the “round” stung. Rue thought that insult quite ripe when coming from the queen, who was very round indeed. By comparison, Rue felt she was only moderately round.
“We are most seriously displeased,” ranted her high-and-mighty roundness.
“I beg your pardon, Your Majesty.” Rue resorted to placations.
Fortunately for Rue, Queen Victoria elected not to clap her in irons. Instead she took a more direct course. “We hereby strip you of sundowner status.”
Rue swallowed her objection. I didn’t even get to use it properly!
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“And all other legal protections and rights previously granted unto you.”
Rue frowned. What other protections had she enjoyed? And why had she needed them? She opened her mouth to ask and then shut it at a glare from her most royal of majesties.
“Now remove yourself from our presence, and if you know what’s good for you, avoid royal notice for the foreseeable future.”
Rue backed away a few steps, dropped a deep curtsey, and scuttled to the door.
She heard the queen say to one of her hovering advisers, “I did hope she would turn out more stable than her parents.”
To which the gentleman answered, “A girl who can change into any supernatural creature she touches? Stability was never likely a companion personality trait.”
“Well, she’s no longer our concern.” The queen sounded almost smug.
Rue straightened her back, standing as tall as her – round! – frame would allow and bit the inside of her cheek so as not to cry. It was one thing to be told off by a queen, quite another when some court nobody took against her.
Rue strode out of the palace in high dudgeon. Her long skirts swished. There was a shocking amount of leg outline visible with each step because she eschewed the requisite number of underskirts – even when visiting the queen. Society condemned this as a modern affectation brought about by her travels abroad, but Rue simply found it easier to change shape when she hadn’t an overabundance of underthings.
She paused outside the gates, breathing the night air in angry pants like a perturbed bellows. It was a crisp evening, the gibbous moon illuminating a busy street. London was awake and bustling, for while the season was over, the supernatural set still carried the torch.
Dama’s carriage was waiting for her. Her father had insisted she travel to the palace in style, although his aesthetic – one of gilt and ribbons and plush velvets – was not to Rue’s particular taste. Dama was peeved with her over the loss of his tea but refused to let that affect standards in conveyance arrangements.
“Don’t trouble yourself, Winkle.” Rue waved off the drone on the driving box when he made to hop down and help her inside. She swung herself up easily; fewer skirts and a lack of corset improved one’s mobility in a marked manner.
Winkle made an affronted noise but it was too late to insist. He whipped the horses up and they set forth at a brisk clip.
Inside the cab, Rue slouched into her lace collar, feeling sorry for herself.
Sooner than they ought, Winkle drew the carriage to a halt. There was no way they had traversed all of Mayfair. Rue leaned dangerously far out the window and craned her neck to see the box. There was some kind of commotion going on in the middle of Oxford Circus near the recently reopened Claret’s.
“Turn back and go around, Winkle, do.”
“Everyone seems to have the same idea, miss.”
There was quite the ruckus surrounding them. Conveyances of all types were circling and trapping each other at odd angles as they jockeyed for position.
“Has there been an accident? Should I get out and see?”
Winkle had a much superior vantage point. “I don’t think that particularly wise, miss.”
Which, naturally, caused Rue to pop open the carriage door and swing down.
The first thing she noticed was that there was a great deal of yipping and some growling. Someone was also singing a bawdy song, off-key, at the top of his not-inconsiderable lungs.
“What the devil?”
Rue pushed through the confused mess of carriages, steam-powered Coccinellidae, monowheels, and assorted bicycles. She then forced her way to the front of a jeering crowd. It surrounded the dramatically carved marble entryway of Claret’s Gentleman’s Club, out the mahogany door from which oozed a stumbling mass of masculine rabble composed of several officers of Her Royal Majesty’s service, a handful of tight- trouser- wearing thespians, and one or two large dogs in top hats and cravats.
Ah, not dogs, wolves.
There were only eleven members of Paw’s werewolf pack, but as they tended to be rather large dramatic specimens, there always seemed to be more of them than there actually were.
Most of them were now in front of her and, much to Rue’s horror, at their cups. Now, far be it for Rue to object on principle to the consumption of the divine pip: even werewolves should be allowed a snootful on occasion. No, it was the fact that, ordinarily, werewolves did not get soused in the way of mortal men. They required a great deal of formaldehyde, of the type used to embalm human remains, not surprising since they were technically undead. Yet the pack before her was so very juicy that they had taken to, and there was no nicer way of putting it – troubling a group of beautiful and beautifully dressed ladies and gentlemen.
The beautiful group was not amused by this attention. There was something to their quick movements and very high collars that spoke of training and the covering of neck bites.
These were not the highly dressed pinks of the type her dear Dama collected. These drones must belong to one of the London hive queens.
One of the werewolves was harrying them, darting in and out like a sheepdog, only bigger and meaner. It had to be Channing; none of the others had a pure white coat. He was a beautiful wolf, if not very friendly with teeth bared and tail lashing.
“What in heaven’s name is going on?” Rue demanded of no one in particular.
Channing ignored her.
One of the other uncles, Rafe, still in human form, looked up. “Infant! What are you doing here? No place for a chit.”
Rue planted her hands on her hips. “You are no longer inside your club, you do realise? This is a respectable thoroughfare and I’m perfectly within my rights to be— Wait a moment. Stop distracting me. What is wrong with the pack? Corned beef, the lot of you. Oh, do stop it, Uncle Channing! You can’t go around growling at someone’s drones in public. It’s not done.”
They ignored her. Although Hemming, who made for a handsome wolf with his black and gold markings on creamy white, lurched in her direction – possibly operating under some latent need to protect.
Rue took that as permission and pulled off her gloves.
From behind her, Winkle said, “Miss, I don’t think—” but it was too late.
Rue buried her hand in Hemming’s thick coat, seeking his skin. That was all it took. There she went, bones breaking and re-forming, eyesight and hearing shifting, sense of smell increasing. Rue the brindled wolf stood among the tatters of a lovely striped gold and brown velvet visiting dress. And Hemming lay quite naked and somewhat less handsome as a confused man.
Winkle scooped up Rue’s dress and draped it over the now mortal werewolf. The drone was quite brainy enough to know, at this juncture, there was no way he could safely interfere.
Rue leapt to protect the frightened huddle of drones. In actuality, they weren’t that pathetic, but she liked to think of herself as coming to the heroic defence of the innocent.
Hackles up, she bared her teeth at Uncle Channing, backing him away, challenging him.
Channing was not the kind of wolf to resist a challenge. As a major in the British Army, there had even been several duels, much more messy than a wolf brawl. Duels were illegal and had to be stuffed under carpets at great expense to avoid scandal. Channing had a vast collection of lumpy carpets. Rue usually allowed him some leeway because he was obviously a wounded soul of some sullen Shakespearian ilk, plus he wore angry petulance so beautifully. But tonight he was drunk, and she wasn’t going to put up with any of his nonsense.
Uncle Channing, unfortunately, was so far gone into the pickle that he either didn’t care or didn’t recognise that Rue was Rue and not some male werewolf actually challenging him.
He growled and crouched to leap.
Rue was loosely aware that the drones had taken Uncle Channing’s distraction as an opportunity to get away but that other pack members were corralling them. It wasn’t only Uncle Channing acting irrationally; it was the entire pack. Even Uncle Bluebutton who was practically civilised – he owned a smoking jacket and everything – was participating.
What had gotten into them? Certainly Rue noticed that the pack was generally more rowdy since she returned from India, but she hadn’t thought it would come to brawling in the street. Where was their restraint? Where was Paw? Paw was Alpha and he was supposed to have them under control. This was outrageous! They should all be disciplined. Paw was always one for a good fight. He was positively cheerful about it. When Dama and Mother weren’t looking, he even encouraged Rue to train with the pack.
Which is how Rue knew to fluff up her ruff in an attempt to look bigger. If someone had to fight for their sobriety, she would do what must be done.
Look at me, she thought. I’m joining the Teatotal Abstinence Society.
Uncle Channing tensed.
Rue, never one to back down from a challenge either, reared up. She was under no delusion as to her chances. Uncle Channing was the pack Gamma, not to mention a professional soldier. He was a tall rangy fellow who made for a big rangy wolf, but any leanness was deceptive, as in both forms he was composed mainly of muscle. Rue, on the other hand, made a tough-looking scrappy sort of wolf, but she wasn’t big, vicious, or muscly. This was not going to be a fair fight. But she might distract the pack long enough for the drones to get away.
Uncle Channing leapt, teeth bared.
And was knocked out of the way by another wolf, slighter than Channing, with dark brown colouring and blood-red chest fur.
Uncle Rabiffano was – technically – pack Beta, although he never much acted like it physically. He ran a very well-regarded hat shop not too far down the street from Claret’s.
Rue had never seen Rabiffano fight. In fact, if anyone asked, she would have said he couldn’t. He was more the type to shame a fellow into doing what he wanted. A few slow blinks of disapproval from those sad eyes and perhaps a cutting remark, and nearly any werewolf would do as Uncle Rabiffano suggested, even Paw.
However, it turned out he could fight.
He might be smaller than Uncle Channing, but he was also sober, and quick. Really, very quick!
Rue sat back on her haunches in shock, watching as the most urbane and sweet- natured of her uncles turned into a whirling dervish of teeth and claws.
Channing, surprised by the attack and by its ferocity, whined and whimpered as his tender nose and ears were savaged. He wobbled to his side and then flopped on his back, presenting his stomach as quickly as possible.
Rabiffano took this as his due with one final nip of reproach.
Channing subdued, the oxblood wolf turned his angry yellow glare on the rest of the pack.
The ones sober enough to have realised what had just happened were already backing away from the drones. Hemming, whose form Rue had stolen, was sitting at Winkle’s feet, wrapped in her striped dress like a bathing towel and looking thoroughly ashamed. Channing remained lying on his back. Which, given Rabiffano’s expression of annoyance, was a good decision.
Two of the pack, Ulric and Quinn, in human form, were too far gone on the formaldehyde. Oblivious to the fight, they were actually pushing at the drones – male ones, thank heavens; at least they weren’t so stupid as to shove a lady. But still . . . pushing . . . in public!
Rabiffano attacked them. He leapt against Ulric, teeth going for his neck and fortunately getting only shoulder. He took a bite out of the meaty part of the man’s upper arm, ruining Ulric’s coat and leaving him surprised and bloody, lying in the street.
Then Rabiffano went for Quinn. The simpleton met him head- on, without bothering to shift. Rabiffano sliced for the man’s face. When Quinn flinched away, showing his neck in sudden realisation of who had attacked, Rabiffano veered off, only to chomp Quinn’s thigh. Again he was gnawing at a meaty part that wouldn’t cause any real damage.
It must hurt Rabiffano terribly to have to enact justice. Not only because he liked his fellow pack members, but also because he disliked the wanton destruction of perfectly good clothing. It was Uncle Rabiffano, after all, who took most of the pack shopping.
He’s disciplining them, Rue realised. But that’s Paw’s job! Except Paw wasn’t there. She looked around, hoping to see her father’s massive brindled form barrelling through the crowd, but nothing disturbed the fascinated onlookers.
The whole uncouth business had taken only a few minutes, but it was a scandal so outrageous it could not possibly be kept secret. The entire London Pack had just behaved very badly indeed, and their Alpha was missing. The morning papers were going to make mincemeat out of progressive integration policies.
On the bright side, Rue thought, my transgressions will be forgotten while the three parentals deal with this mess. That’s something.
Nevertheless, she couldn’t suppress her fear. This was the London Pack, the tamest werewolves in the country. They didn’t drink, certainly not in public! Something must be very wrong for them to be so out of control. Rue had the horrible feeling it was to do with Paw. All those rumours she had tried not to hear, to deny. All those pitying looks.
She shook herself like a wet dog. No! He’s fine, simply getting a little absentminded in his old age.
It was only a matter of time before BUR appeared with the Staking Constabulary in tow. Rue would rather not be in wolf form when they did so. Supernatural creatures may be out in society but they weren’t permitted to be untidy about it. Reports would need to be filed. Uncle Rabiffano would have to explain everything. The others were clearly not capable of coherent speech. Rue thought it best – given Queen Victoria’s oh-so-recent admonition to stay out of trouble – that she make herself scarce.
She nodded to Rabiffano, who was circulating, keeping a careful eye on the remaining pack. He inclined his head in response. Then, tail high, decorum paramount, Rue relieved Uncle Hemming of her gown, leaving him bare. His dignity didn’t concern her. With a toss of her head, she flicked the dress to drape over her back so as to drag as little as possible. Holding it carefully with her teeth, she trotted towards Dama’s carriage.
Winkle, shaking his head, followed.
Ten minutes of manoeuvring later, Winkle managed to extract them from the crush, by which point BUR had arrived and hustled all those involved back inside Claret’s for questioning. The spectacle was over.
Once they were far enough out, Rue’s tether to Uncle Hemming snapped and her human form returned. She pulled the striped dress back on. It was a little worse for its werewolf encounter, but then wasn’t everyone?
She bit her lip and fretted. Paw hadn’t turned up at all, not even with BUR. Was he sick? Missing? Dead? Well, more dead than normal? She would not let herself think that he was losing control. Missing or sick would be preferable.
“Winkle, please hurry,” she yelled out of the window. “I do believe something awful may have happened to one of my parents.”