The final novel in this frightfully fun urban fantasy series full of goblins, corsets and undead aristocrats – set in an alternate world where the Victorian age never ended . . . Enjoy the first chapter of Long Live the Queen by Kate Locke!
AND HAIL THEIR QUEEN,
FAIR REGENT OF THE NIGHT
I had a corpse over my shoulder when I walked into the goblin den. It had been dropped off outside my house by a cheerful young man who seemed to have smoked a full stone of marijuana before getting behind the wheel. My nose still tickled from the scent.
Far beneath the streets of Mayfair, below the wreckage of Down Street station and beyond, was where my goblins made their home. They lived in catacombs and grottos amongst forgotten treasure, astonishing technology and inexplicably thriving horticulture. Pieces of pottery had been worked into the patching of a wall, and a tattered medieval leather shoe had been repurposed into a child’s doll.
I almost stepped on the doll as I entered the great hall. I skipped over it just in time, the corpse on my shoulder almost sliding down my back. I hitched it into a better position before laying it down on a stone altar/sideboard against the far wall.
The goblins knew I had arrived, and word spread throughout the den. By the time I unzipped the mortuary bag, tens of furry bodies were crowding behind me as the smell of flesh mixed with the smells of the den – earthy smells, with a touch of metal and fuel from the Met trains.
The girl inside was human, a little on the plump side and totally naked. A Y-shaped scar divided her torso. She looked younger than I’d been told she was, but it didn’t matter now. Her blood was of no interest to the hospital, nor was her DNA. She was an organ donor who had signed her body over for medical research and who had no trace of aristocracy in her blood at all.
I suppose feeding my gobs could be loosely filed under “medical”. Her heart and eyes had gone on to help others who needed them, and the rest of her would keep the plague from hunting. It was a winning situation for all. One body didn’t supply a lot of meat when divided between every gob in the den, but they ate animal flesh as well, and were omnivorous. Human was what they hungered for most, and what made them strong, but they didn’t have to eat it all the time.
I pushed the bag off the girl’s shoulders and manoeuvred it beneath her until it slid free altogether. I wasn’t even squeamish over handling her – or what was to become of her. She’d feed my flock, and then her bones would be incorporated into furniture, her hair braided into rope. Nothing went to waste in the plague den.
I stood back and gestured to the feast I’d provided. “Eat.”
They did not need to be told twice. The goblins descended upon the corpse with delighted yips and growls. I’d already eaten, so I left them to it and went in search of William, my second in command and friend. Usually he greeted me when I came to the den. I was a bit peevish that he chose tonight to deviate from that habit.
I’d discovered I was a goblin a few months ago now, back in the spring/summer. I looked like most other half-bloods out there, with my candy-red hair and lack of fur and snout, but inside . . . well, I was a wee bit of a monster.
Imagine my surprise to discover that I liked it.
In the social hierarchy of my world, Queen Victoria was at the top. She was the first vampire queen and had ruled the British Empire for 175 years. At the top of the food chain, however, were goblins.
As a furless goblin who could walk in the sunlight, I was considered dangerous. Extremely dangerous. I think I’d disappointed quite a few people by not living up to the hype. I’d a hunch that there were those who were just waiting for me to steal a baby or something. Maybe eat a nun while defecating on the grave of William the Conqueror.
If only they knew. Ha. If they knew, I’d be dead. There’d be a bounty on my head bigger than Victoria’s ego.
As I wandered through the halls and catacombs of what was essentially my kingdom, I let my nose lead me to my prince. Goblins had an earthy scent, like smoke and damp earth, and each was unique. I reached a room at the end of a darkened corridor. Something sweet hung thick and heavy in the air, irritating the inside of my nose and making me want to sneeze, only this time it wasn’t pot.
Opium. I ought to be accustomed to it by now.
The door was shut, but I knocked once and opened it. I didn’t care that we had an opium den. If humans were hatters enough to get fucked up at the mercy of shameless flesheaters, that was their problem. Free will and all that.
And no, I didn’t tell myself that to make me feel better about the situation. I honestly didn’t care about the human users who frequented this dark place. It wasn’t as though they were lured down here like rats mesmerised by a magic piper. They came here because they’d already screwed over and stolen from everyone who ever loved them, and a few who hated them. They came to the goblins because they were so in debt no one cobbleside would sell to them.
A billowing cloud rolled over the threshold to meet me. I didn’t bother holding my breath; any effect from the drug would wear off soon enough.
The room was dark save for a few candles. I was surprised to find only two people in it. Well, neither of them was technically “people”, as that was a word generally applied to humans. One was William, and the other was Rye Winter.
Rye was a surprise. He lay on one of the narrow cots with a pipe, and a small smile on his lips. He looked more like the boy I’d once loved rather than the scarred and broken man I’d rescued from a laboratory that used halfies – half-bloods – as mice. They’d experimented on him for years.
William looked up from where he stood at Rye’s bedside. He made a motion with his hand/paw for me to leave, and then started towards me on slightly haunched legs.
I ducked out and he immediately followed, closing the door behind him. My head began to clear almost instantly.
“Xandra, lady. A pleasure.” His voice was low and growly. At one time it inspired so much loathing and fear that it made me want to vomit. Now, I found it comforting.
“William, what the ruddy hell is Rye doing getting dazed in the den?” I frowned. “And why didn’t I know about it?”
He took my arm and drew me further away from the door – presumably so that Rye wouldn’t hear us through his poppy-glazed haze. “One month has the wolfling sought our help.”
“I don’t think getting him wasted is entirely helpful.”
William smiled without baring his teeth, the silky sides of his muzzle pulling up. He was wearing a new eyepatch – this one was burgundy leather, tooled with an intricate design.
“The wolfling had become dependent on laudanum in the Tower. The plague will wean him like a pup.”
That analogy conjured the not so pleasant image of William holding Rye to his breast. “You’re trying to get him off the dragon?” It was a tricky process. Halfies metabolised alcohol and drugs very quickly. Rye had been almost constantly sedated for years. Trying to come off that would be dangerous indeed.
“Aye, my Xandra lady is correct.”
It would be remiss of me not to notice that since I’d become queen, the goblins in this den had improved their speech somewhat. Normally William sounded like a dyslexic Shakespearean actor on mushrooms, so any improvement was just that – an improvement.
“That doesn’t explain why I wasn’t told.”
William regarded me with his one good eye. The warm amber had more than a century of wisdom in its depths. “The wolfling asked that the lady not be told.”
“And you agreed?” A frown pinched my brow. “What the hell for?”
“Upon our honour the wolfling requested our silence.”
I made a face – a very attractive one, I wager. “You and your bloody honour.” A thought suddenly occurred to me. “Does Vex know?”
Vexation MacLaughlin was alpha of the UK wolf pack, and my mate – for lack of a better term. As a wolf half-blood, Rye was under his care. Vex wasn’t obliged to care for the kingdom’s wolves, but he extended the blanket of pack and protection to all who wanted it. It was one of the things I respected most about him.
William’s muzzle twitched. Look at that, I’d made the big bad goblin uncomfortable. This killing machine was intimidated by my little self. Brilliant. My temper wasn’t that terrible.
“It was your wolf that brought your halfling to your prince.”
My wolf. My halfling. My prince. It wasn’t lost on me that when William used “your” in this context, it was meant as a . . . suck up, a ploy to puff me up with my own importance. Most times it worked.
This wasn’t one of them.
I wasn’t pissed off – right, that’s a lie. I was pissed off, but I wasn’t certain on whose head to lay my anger. To be fair, I could also see why the three of them would leave me out – empathise, even. I simply didn’t like it.
“William, I know your word is your honour, but please don’t keep things from me.”
He bowed his shaggy, furry head. “Aye, lady.”
Scowling, I gave one of his ragged ears a tug. “Stop that. I hate it when you play at that subservient rubbish.”
He bowed his head further, but not before I saw a flash of fang. He was grinning. “Your word is rule, lady.”
I gave him a shove. “You arse.”
Goblin laughter can be a terrifying sound. Depending on the goblin, it can sound like growls, whines, yips, or like a Dobermann being eaten alive. I was becoming used to it as well. Turns out gobs have more of a sense of humour than I would have previously given them credit for.
A few months ago I wouldn’t have thought it possible to feel anything but hatred and fear for goblins, let alone the protective love I now had for the furry little bastards. Yes, they were monsters, but they were my monsters.
There were still a few who weren’t overjoyed at the prospect of having me as their matriarch, but I was determined to be a good queen. The goblins had never once let me down, and I was beginning to think of William as more of a father figure than the man responsible for my vampire half – the half that was mixed with the genes passed through my mother when she was attacked while pregnant with me. The combination of all that aristocrat, plague-bearing blood was what made me a goblin.
The waves of plague that had struck Europe over the centuries had caused the mutations within certain people – mostly those of noble blood – that resulted in vampire and werewolf births. Both groups could be found in all European countries, and in very small numbers in other parts of the world. Genes were genes, and the peerage of Europe liked to spread theirs around. There were even full-bloods in America. The ones publicly “out” were mostly actors, models and socialites.
I’ll say this for the Yanks, the majority of them might have sprung from common stock, but they didn’t treat their full-bloods like monsters. They made them into celebrities. I supposed if it all went to pot in the UK, I could always move to New York and make a sex video cylinder – get myself some notoriety.
“I brought meat,” I said. Using that slang term in regard to humans still felt wrong, even though I had little love for a lot of them, but it was better than saying “a corpse”.
From my pocket I took a package neatly wrapped in butcher’s paper and tucked inside a plastic bag. Blood clung to the inside of the bag where it had soaked through the paper. It wasn’t the first time I’d come into this den with a treat for him. “This is for you and baby Alexandra.”
William accepted it like a child receiving a present on Christmas morning. He sniffed, and I knew he could smell it through the plastic. If I could, he could. His one eye widened. “Lady?”
I put my hand on his wide shoulder. The fine burgundy wool of his coat was dusty and shabby, but he still managed to look regal in it. “It was already dead when I got it, don’t worry. I didn’t kill for it.” I wouldn’t – not for what was in that package.
That took some of the shock out of his expression. “Your prince would share . . . ”
“No.” I said it with a smile, despite the silent screaming of my conscience. There were some lines I refused to cross, and tender young meat was one of them. Not because I was morally opposed to it – which I was – but because I was horribly certain I’d like it.
It was one thing to think of yourself as a monster; quite another to prove it so.
“I will take this to the pup now. She grows stronger every day.”
Little Alexandra was the first goblin born in . . . well, I don’t remember how long William had said it had been. That made her special enough, but she’d been named after me, and that made her even more special.
“What about Rye?” I asked.
He glanced at the door, then consulted his pocket watch. The shiny metal looked out of place in his leathery, fur-trimmed hands. “The lady’s other wolfling will shortly arrive to take him home.”
My other wolfling? Aw, bloody hell. “Ophelia?” Was I the only one not included? I should have known that Fee would be involved. My half-sister was one of Vex’s half-bloods. She was also part of our mother’s group of Insurrectionists who wanted to overthrow the aristocratic rule. Still, Vex treated her as his, despite her duplicitous nature.
When William had left, I stood in front of the heavy door and peered through the small window in it at the man lying peacefully on the bed. He wasn’t the boy I’d once loved any more. Those feelings had drifted away as I mourned him. I cared about him, but I didn’t love him like I used to.
There were lines on his face, but he was still beautiful. He’d put some weight on, which was good, and his skin had a healthier colour to it. If anyone could help him kick the dragon it was the prince, my trusted right hand. But it would be Fee who got the credit for saving his life. I’d pulled him out of that laboratory, but she was the one bringing him back to the world.
Speak of the devil. I turned my head and met my sister’s wide blue gaze. Her eyes were almost the same salt-water blue as her hair. I had the Vardan green eyes that all my paternal siblings possessed while Ophelia looked more like our mother, though there was no denying that we were sisters.
“Hello, Fee. Come to fetch Rye, have you?” And being sisters meant I could take the piss out of her for a moment or six, so I adopted a very chipper demeanour – one she would be certain to interpret as restrained aggression.
She regarded me warily. I reckon she hadn’t quite got over the time when I tried to rip her throat out with my teeth. “Yes.”
“He’s still asleep. Do you need help with him?”
She squirmed – literally squirmed. “Uh, no.”
That was when I smelled him. Maybe it was the fact that his scent clung to me anyway, but I knew Vex was there before he came around the corner.
Over six feet of Scottish alpha, Vex was muscular without being bulky. His reddish-brown hair was naturally wavy and his eyes were a faded blue-grey that reflected the knowledge of over a century of living. He wore the MacLaughlin tartan, rugged black boots, a cream-coloured sweater and a black leather frock coat. He looked good enough to eat, while I had my hair up in a messy bun and was wearing old bloomers, a plain corset and a nondescript knitted top. At least my boots had a bit of flash – pink and burgundy with an hourglass heel. While I was comparing our combined fashion sense, Vex stood quietly watching me. It wasn’t until I returned my gaze to his that he spoke, “I will take him.”
Carrying a full-grown halfie would be nothing to him. I opened the door and stepped back as the last of the smoke drifted out. Vex walked in, scooped up Rye and came back out in the length of time it took me to glance at Ophelia. She looked sheepish, but not afraid. Good. Family shouldn’t be afraid of each other. I believed that even though I knew it was naïve.
Vex looked down at me. I looked up at him. There wasn’t a flicker of guilt in his gaze. Right then, I knew no one meant to slight me. Rye had trusted them in a way he couldn’t trust me.
No, that was self-pitying bollocks. Rye hadn’t wanted me – his first love – to see him as weak, and that was it. I didn’t like it, but I had to respect his wishes. I would have done the same were the situation reversed.
“Don’t tell him I know,” I said.
Vex inclined his head. “See you later?”
I nodded. “I’ll be home by midnight or so.”
“Coming?” he asked Ophelia.
“In a mo,” my sister replied. “I just need to speak to Xandra.”
We both watched him walk away, though I noticed Ophelia’s gaze wasn’t as appreciative as I imagined mine to be, which was all the better for her.
“What?” I asked.
“There’s a raid planned on an aristo facility tonight,” my sister replied. “Want to come? Vex is leading us in.”
I did, actually, but I’d forgotten it was happening that night. “I can’t. I have an audience with Her Majesty in half an hour.”
Fee looked horrified at the prospect – a fact that did nothing to make me feel better. When the most reckless, daring woman you know looks as though she’d rather step in front of a train than trade places with you . . . well, that’s when you know you’re doing something really stupid.
“You’re not going alone, are you?”
I chuckled. And just what was so comical? “Yes, I am actually.”
She grabbed my arm. “Xandra, she’ll kill you if she gets the chance.”
It was no secret that I didn’t care much for the Queen, and that she cared even less for me. Historically, queens of England have reacted poorly to new queens popping up – like blade-of-an-axe poorly.
“If she kills me, she’ll have the goblins after her, and she doesn’t want that. If the humans rise up and war comes, she wants to know the goblins will fight for the right side.”
“I’ll give her more credit than that. We’ll tear apart anyone who challenges our safety, and Queen V knows it.”
“That whole enemy-of-my-enemy thing?”
“Something like that.” She still looked a little twitchy. “Something else, Fee?”
My sister glanced about as though making certain we were alone. It was a little ridiculous, because goblins had incredible hearing – as did wolves.
“Have you talked to Mum lately?”
Not what I expected. “No.” To be honest, it was still a bit of a sore spot. I hadn’t even known the woman was alive – and relatively sane – until she popped up as leader of the Insurrectionists and my youngest sister Dede’s new role model.
“She’s been acting off lately. All secretive and smiley. Sneaking about. The other night I heard her talking to someone on her rotary. She said something about giving them a tour of ‘the facility’ and then got all giggly at something they said in response. It’s not like her.”
Ah. “She’s having it off.” When Ophelia blinked at me, I explained. “You know, having sex.” I could tell this hadn’t occurred to my sister – in true daughter fashion. Who wanted to think of their parents bonking?
“But she’s sneaking out.” Fee frowned. “She’s seeing someone from outside Bedlam.”
I almost asked what the big deal was, but then my brain caught up to my mouth. For years our mother hadn’t left Bedlam for any reason other than to check up on me and lead a few rescue missions. She was seeing someone Ophelia didn’t know, and more importantly, someone she didn’t know if she could trust.
“Follow her,” I suggested. “She hasn’t said anything to me, but if you’re worried, go and find out what she’s doing. And who.” I laughed at the face she made.
I checked my pocket watch. “I’d best be off. Her Nibs hates to be kept waiting.”
“Hey, Xandra?” Fee fell into step beside me.
“Don’t be too angry with him, okay?”
“Who? Vex? Nah, we’re good.”
“No, I mean with Rye. Don’t be angry with him.”
I stopped walking and turned to face her so she could see my expression. “I’m not.”
“Good, because he doesn’t want you to see him as less.”
“He survived for years in one of their labs. He’s one of the strongest people I know.”
Her gaze locked with mine. We were about the same height, so it was easily done. “He still fancies you. He says that thoughts of you were what got him through.”
Was that jealousy I heard in her tone? “That’s lovely, but he’ll soon figure out I’m no one’s fantasy, won’t he?” When she didn’t immediately respond with a smile, I frowned. There were times when being . . . unpredictable was a pain in the arse. “He’s in no danger from me, Fee. The last thing I want to do is hurt him, but I let him go a long time ago. My hopes for him have nothing to do with romance.”
She nodded. “Fair enough.”
Of course, I wanted to ask if she had hopes of romance where Rye was concerned, but I held my tongue. It was none of my business, and she and I weren’t quite at the share-everything level of sisterhood just yet.
“Be careful tonight,” she told me as we parted company cobbleside. Wise girl that she was, she hadn’t asked any questions about the feast my goblins were having. And she’d kept her gaze focused straight ahead when we walked past the great hall. I knew that she could smell it, however.
“You too,” I replied. “People have killed to protect those labs and what goes on there. I don’t want you to be another casualty.” The facility I’d rescued Rye from had been under the control of my stepmother – the Duchess Vardan. She’d ended up dead before I could get any information out of her. Pity, that. I’d been so looking forward to slapping her about a bit.
My sister smiled. “Aww, look at you being all caring and what not.”
I grimaced. “Don’t get used to it. Off with you, wench.”
She drove away in a little bright red Daimler sporty thing. For someone constantly in trouble with the law, she certainly liked to draw attention to herself. How many strings did Vex have to pull as her alpha to keep her out of Newgate? As I took the lift up to my flat, I decided I didn’t care.
A few months ago, I’d moved into the building above the old Down Street station, which marked the entrance to the goblin den. It was a good location for me as their queen; it meant I didn’t have to live underground, which I simply refused to do. I would miss daylight, and I didn’t want my comings and goings watched.
And if I was completely honest, I would have to admit that giving myself over that completely to being a goblin was terrifying. Being part of the pack was fabulous – leader of it even better – but I needed to hang on to what was left of the old me for a little while longer.
I unlocked my front door and stepped inside. There were boxes stacked in almost every room – bits and bobs that had yet to be unpacked and put in their place. Some of the contents had belonged to my sister Dede. She’d been dead almost six months and I still couldn’t bring myself to look at her things. I couldn’t bear to part with them either, so here they sat, boxed up and waiting.
The place was nice – a little old-fashioned, with its Georgian façade and Robert Adam plasterwork, but I liked it: it was just a touch shy of pretentious, with a side order of obnoxious tossed in. All the pale blues and greens on the walls had been painted over with reds and violets – strong colours – and I’d taken down the crystal chandeliers and wall sconces and had them replaced with ones that were a tad more art nouveau.
I ran up to my en suite to brush my teeth – I’d fed before the goblin den – and check my appearance. There was blood on my shoulder from the corpse . . . er, meat, and I smelled of opium. Brilliant. I had enough time to change my shirt but that was it. Her Majesty would just have to put up with my scent.
Now, what did one queen wear to meet another? I wondered as I opened my wardrobe. The first thing that came to mind was easy.
Armour. Especially around the neck.