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.
The Sacred Snuff Box
Lady Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama was enjoying her evening exceedingly. The evening, unfortunately, did not feel the same about Lady Prudence. She inspired, at even the best balls, a sensation of immanent dread. It was one of the reasons she was always at the top of all invitation lists. Dread had such an agreeable effect on society’s upper crust.
“Private balls are so much more diverting than public ones.” Rue, unaware of the dread, chirruped in delight to her dearest friend, the Honourable Miss Primrose Tunstell.
Rue was busy drifting around the room with Primrose trailing obligingly after her, the smell of expensive rose perfume following them both.
“You are too easily amused, Rue. Do try for a tone of disinterested refinement.” Prim had spent her whole life trailing behind Rue and was unfussed by this role. She had started when they were both in nappies and had never bothered to alter a pattern of some twenty-odd years. Admittedly, these days they both smelled a good deal better.
Prim made elegant eyes at a young officer near the punch. She was wearing an exquisite dress of iridescent ivory taffeta with rust-coloured velvet flowers about the bodice to which the officer gave due appreciation.
Rue only grinned at Primrose’s rebuke – a very unrefined grin.
They made a damnably appealing pair, as one smitten admirer put it, in his cups or he would have known better than to put it to Rue herself. “Both of you smallish, roundish, and sweetly wholesome, like perfectly exquisite dinner rolls.” “Thank you for my part,” was Rue’s acerbic reply to the poor sot, “but if I must be a baked good, at least make me a hot cross bun.”
Rue possessed precisely the kind of personality to make her own amusement out of intimacy, especially when a gathering proved limited in scope. This was another reason she was so often invited to private balls. The widely held theory was that Lady Akeldama would become the party were the party to be lifeless, invaded by undead, or otherwise sub-par.
This particular ball did not need her help. Their hosts had installed a marvellous floating chandelier that looked like hundreds of tiny well-lit dirigibles wafting about the room. The attendees were charmed, mostly by the expense. In addition, the punch flowed freely out of a multi-dispensing ambulatory fountain, a string quartet tinkled robustly in one corner, and the conversation frothed with wit. Rue floated through it all on a puffy cloud of ulterior motives.
Rue might have attended, even without motives. The Fenchurches were always worth a look-in – being very wealthy, very inbred, and very conscientious of both, thus the most appalling sorts of people. Rue was never one to prefer one entertainment when she could have several. If she might amuse herself and infiltrate in pursuit of snuff boxes at the same time, all the better.
“Where did he say it was kept?” Prim leaned in, her focus on their task now that the young officer had gone off to dance with some other lady.
“Oh, Prim, must you always forget the details halfway through the first waltz?” Rue rebuked her friend without rancour, more out of habit than aggravation.
“So says the lady who hasn’t waltzed with Mr Rabiffano.” Prim turned to face the floor and twinkled at her former dance partner. The impeccably dressed gentleman in question raised his glass of champagne at her from across the room. “Aside from which, Mr Rabiffano is so very proud and melancholy. It is an appealing combination with that pretty face and vast millinery expertise. He always smiles as though it pains him to do so. It’s quite . . . intoxicating.”
“Oh, really, Prim, I know he looks no more than twenty but he’s a werewolf and twice your age.”
“Like fine brandy, most of the best men are,” was Prim’s cheeky answer.
“He’s also one of my uncles.”
“All the most eligible men in London seem to be related to you in some way or other.”
“We must get you out of London then, mustn’t we? Now, can we get on? I suspect the snuff box is in the card room.”
Prim’s expression indicated that she failed to see how anything could be more important than the general availability of men in London, but she replied gamely, “And how are we, young ladies of respectable standing, to make our way into the gentlemen’s card room?”
Rue grinned. “You watch and be prepared to cover my retreat.”
However, before Rue could get off on to the snuff box, a mild voice said, “What are you about, little niece?” The recently discussed Mr Rabiffano had made his way through the crowd and come up behind them at a speed only achieved by supernatural creatures.
Rue would hate to choose among her Paw’s pack but if pressed, Paw’s Beta, Uncle Rabiffano, was her favourite. He was more older brother than uncle, his connection to his humanity still strong, and his sense of humour often tickled by Rue’s stubbornness.
“Wait and see,” replied Rue pertly.
Prim said, as if she couldn’t help herself, “You aren’t in attendance solely to watch Rue, are you, Mr Rabiffano? Could it be that you are here because of me as well?”
Sandalio de Rabiffano, second in command of the London Pack and proprietor of the most fashionable hat shop in all of England, smiled softly at Prim’s blatant flirting. “It would be a privilege, of course, Miss Tunstell, but I believe that gentleman there . . . ?” He nodded in the direction of an Egyptian fellow who lurked uncomfortably in a corner.
“Poor Gahiji. Two decades fraternising with the British, and he still can’t manage.” Prim tutted at the vampire’s evident misery. “I don’t know why Queen Mums sends him. Poor dear – he does so hate society.”
Rue began tapping her foot. Prim wouldn’t notice but Uncle Rabiffano would most certainly hear.
Rabiffano turned towards her, grateful for the interruption. “Very well, if you persist in meddling, go meddle.”
“As if I needed pack sanction.”
“Convinced of that, are you?” Rabiffano tilted his head eloquently.
Sometimes it was awfully challenging to be the daughter of an Alpha werewolf.
Deciding she’d better act before Uncle Rabiffano changed his mind on her father’s behalf, Rue glided away, a purposeful waft of pale pink and black lace. She hadn’t Prim’s elegance, but she could make a good impression if she tried. Her hair was piled high atop her head and was crowned by a wreath of pink roses – Uncle Rabiffano’s work from earlier that evening. He always made her feel pretty and . . . tall. Well, taller.
She paused at the refreshment table, collecting four glasses of bubbly and concocting a plan.
At the card room door, Rue reached for a measure of her dear mother’s personality, sweeping it about herself like a satin capelet. Personalities, like supernatural shapes, came easily to Rue. It was a skill Dama had cultivated. “Were you anyone else’s daughter,” he once said, “I should encourage you to tread the boards, Puggle dearest. As it stands, we’ll have to make shift in less public venues.”
Thus when Rue nodded at the footman to open the card room door it was with the austere expression of a bossy matron three times her age.
“But, miss, you can’t!” The man trembled in his knee britches.
“The door, my good man,” insisted Rue, her voice a little deeper and more commanding.
The footman was not one to resist so firm an order, even if it came from an unattached young lady. He opened the door.
Rue was met by a cloud of cigar smoke and the raucous laughter of men without women. The door closed behind her. She looked about the interior, narrowing in on the many snuff boxes scattered around the room. The chamber, decorated without fuss in brown leather, sage, and gold, seemed to house a great many snuff boxes.
“Lady Prudence, what are you doing in here?”
Rue was not, as many of her age and station might have been, overset by the presence of a great number of men. She had been raised by a great number of men – some of them the type to confine themselves to card rooms at private balls, some of them the type to be in the thick of the dancing, plying eyelashes and gossip in measures to match the ladies. The men of the card room were, in Rue’s experience, much easier to handle. She dropped her mother’s personality – no help from that here – and reached for someone different. She went for Aunt Ivy mixed with Aunt Evelyn. Slightly silly, but perceptive, flirtatious, unthreatening. Her posture shifted, tail-bone relaxing back and down into the hips, giving her walk more sway, shoulders back, jutting the cleavage forward, eyelids slightly lowered. She gave the collective gentlemen before her an engaging good-humoured grin.
“Oh dear, I do beg your pardon. You mean this isn’t the ladies’ embroidery circle?”
“As you see, quite not.”
“Oh, how foolish of me.” Rue compared each visible snuff box against the sketch she’d been shown, and dismissed each in turn. She wiggled further into the room as though drawn by pure love of masculinity, eyelashes fluttering.
Then Lord Fenchurch, unsure of how to cope with a young lady lodged in sacred man-space, desperately removed a snuff box from his waistcoat pocket and took a pinch.
There was her target. She swanned over to the lord in question, champagne sloshing. She tripped slightly and giggled at her own clumsiness, careful not to spill a drop, ending with all four glasses in front of Lord Fenchurch.
“For our gracious host – I do apologise for disturbing your game.”
Lord Fenchurch set the snuff box down and picked up one of the glasses of champagne with a smile. “How thoughtful, Lady Prudence.”
Rue leaned in towards him conspiratorially. “Now, don’t tell my father I was in here, will you? He might take it amiss. Never know who he’d blame.”
Lord Fenchurch looked alarmed.
Rue lurched forward as if under the influence of too much bubbly herself, and snaked the snuff box off the table and into a hidden pocket of her fluffy pink ball gown. All her ball gowns had hidden pockets no matter how fluffy – or how pink, for that matter.
As Rue made her way out of the room, she heard Lord Fenchurch say, worried, to his card partner, “Which father do you think she means?”
The other gentleman, an elderly sort who knew his way around London politics, answered with, “Bad either way, old man.”
With which the door behind her closed and Rue was back in the cheer of the ballroom and its frolicking occupants – snuff box successfully poached. She dropped the silly persona as if shedding shape, although with considerably less pain and cost to her apparel. Across the room she met Prim’s gaze and signalled autocratically.
Primrose bobbed a curtsey to Uncle Rabiffano and made her way over. “Rue dear, your wreath has slipped to a decidedly jaunty angle. Trouble must be afoot.”
Rue stood patiently while her friend made the necessary adjustments. “I like trouble. What were you and Uncle Rabiffano getting chummy about?” Rue was casual with Prim on the subject; she really didn’t want to encourage her friend. It wasn’t that Rue didn’t adore Uncle Rabiffano – she loved all her werewolf uncles, each in his own special way. But she’d never seen Uncle Rabiffano walk out with a lady. Prim, Rue felt, wasn’t yet ready for that kind of rejection.
“We were discussing my venerated Queen Mums, if you can believe it.”
Rue couldn’t believe it. “Goodness, Uncle Rabiffano usually doesn’t have much time for Aunt Ivy. Although he never turns down an invitation to visit her with a select offering of his latest hat designs. He thinks she’s terribly frivolous. As if a man who spends that much time in front of the looking glass of an
evening fussing with his hair should have anything to say on the subject of frivolity.”
“Be fair, Rue my dear. Mr Rabiffano has very fine hair and my mother is frivolous. I take it you got the item?”
The two ladies drifted behind a cluster of potted palms near the conservatory door. Rue reached into her pocket and pulled out the lozenge-shaped snuff box. It was about the size to hold a pair of spectacles, lacquered in black with an inlay of mother-of-pearl flowers on the lid.
“A tad fuddy-duddy, wouldn’t you think, for your Dama’s taste?” Prim said. She would think in terms of fashion.
Rue ran her thumb over the inlay. “I’m not entirely convinced he wants the box.”
“I believe it’s the contents that interest him.”
“He can’t possibly enjoy snuff.”
“He’ll tell us why he wants it when we get back.”
Prim was sceptical. “That vampire never reveals anything if he can possibly help it.”
“Ah, but I won’t give the box to him until he does.”
“You’re lucky he loves you.”
Rue smiled. “Yes, yes I am.” She caught sight of Lord Fenchurch emerging from the card room. He did not look pleased with life, unexpected in a gentlemen whose ball was so well attended.
Lord Fenchurch was not a large man but he looked intimidating, like a ferocious tea-cup poodle. Small dogs, Rue knew from personal experience, could do a great deal of damage when not mollified. Pacification unfortunately was not her strong point. She had learnt many things from her irregular set of parental models, but calming troubled seas with diplomacy was not one of them.
“What do we do now, O wise compatriot?” asked Prim.
Rue considered her options. “Run.”
Primrose looked her up and down doubtfully. Rue’s pink dress was stylishly tight in the bodice and had a hem replete with such complexities of jet beadwork as to make it impossible to take a full stride without harm.
Rue disregarded her own fashionable restrictions and Prim’s delicate gesture indicating that her own gown was even tighter, the bodice more elaborate and the skirt more fitted.
“No, no, not that kind of running. Do you think you could get Uncle Rabiffano to come over? I feel it unwise to leave the safety of the potted plants.”
Prim narrowed her eyes. “That is a horrid idea. You’ll ruin your dress. It’s new. And it’s a Worth.”
“I thought you liked Mr Rabiffano? And all my dresses are Worth. Dama would hardly condone anything less.” Rue deliberately misinterpreted her friend’s objection, at the same time handing Prim the snuff box, her gloves, and her reticule. “Oh, and fetch my wrap, please? It’s over on that chair.”
Prim tisked in annoyance but drifted off with alacrity, making first for Rue’s discarded shawl and then for the boyishly handsome werewolf. Moments later she returned with both in tow.
Without asking for permission – most of the time she would be flatly denied and it was better to acquire permission after the fact she had learned – Rue touched the side of her uncle’s face with her bare hand.
Naked flesh to naked flesh had interesting consequences with Rue and werewolves. She wouldn’t say she relished the results, but she had grown accustomed to them.
It was painful, her bones breaking and re-forming into new shapes. Her wavy brown hair flowed and crept over her body, turning to fur. Smell dominated her senses rather than sight. But unlike most werewolves, Rue kept her wits about her the entire time, never going moon mad or lusting for human flesh.
Simply put, Rue stole the werewolf’s abilities but not his failings, leaving her victim mortal until sunrise, distance, or a preternatural separated them. In this case, her victim was her unfortunate Uncle Rabiffano.
Everyone called it stealing, but Rue’s wolf form was her own: smallish and brindled black, chestnut, and gold. No matter who she stole from, her eyes remained the same tawny yellow inherited from her father. Sadly, the consequences to one’s wardrobe were always the same. Her dress ripped as she dropped to all fours, beads scattering. The rose coronet remained in place, looped over one ear, as did her bloomers, although her tail tore open the back seam.
Uncle Rabiffano was mildly disgruntled to find himself mortal. “Really, young lady, I thought you’d grown out of surprise shape theft. This is most inconvenient.” He checked the fall of his cravat and smoothed down the front of his peacock-blue waistcoat, as though mortality might somehow rumple clothing.
Rue cocked her head at him, hating the disappointment in his voice. Uncle Rabiffano smelled of wet felt and Bond Street’s best pomade. It was the same kind of hair wax that Dama used. She would have apologised but all she could do was bow her head in supplication and give a little whine. His boots smelled of blacking.
“You look ridiculous in bloomers.” Prim came to Uncle Rabiffano’s assistance.
The gentleman gave Rue a critical examination. “I am rather loathe to admit it, niece, and if you tell any one of your parents I will deny it utterly, but if you are going to go around changing shape willy-nilly, you really must reject female underpinnings, and not only the stays. They simply aren’t conducive to shape-shifting.”
Prim gasped. “Really, Mr Rabiffano! We are at a ball, a private one notwithstanding. Please do not say such shocking things out loud.”
Uncle Rabiffano bowed, colouring slightly. “Forgive me, Miss Tunstell, the stress of finding oneself suddenly human. Too much time with the pack recently, such brash men. I rather forgot myself and the company. I hope you understand.”
Prim allowed him the gaffe with a small nod, but some measure of her romantic interest was now tainted. That will teach her to think of Uncle Rabiffano as anything but a savage beast, thought Rue with some relief. I should have told her of his expertise in feminine underthings years ago. Uncle Rabiffano’s interest in female fashions, under or over, was purely academic, but Prim didn’t need to know that.
He’s probably right. I should give up underpinnings. Only that puts me horribly close to becoming a common strumpet.
Speaking of fashion. Rue shook her back paws out of the dancing slippers and nudged them at Prim with her nose. Leather softened with mutton suet, resin, castor oil, and lanolin, her nose told her.
Prim scooped them up, adding them to the bundle she’d formed out of Rue’s wrap. “Any jewellery?”
Rue snorted at her. She’d stopped wearing jewellery several years back – it complicated matters. People accommodated wolves on the streets of London but they got strangely upset upon encountering a wolf dripping in diamonds. Dama found this deeply distressing on Rue’s behalf. “But, Puggle, darling, you are wealthy, you simply must wear something that sparkles!” A compromise had been reached with the occasional tiara or wreath of silk flowers. Rue contemplated shaking the roses off her head, but Uncle Rabiffano might take offence and she’d already insulted him once this evening.
She barked at Prim.
Prim made a polite curtsey. “Good evening, Mr Rabiffano. A most enjoyable dance, but Rue and I simply must be off.”
“I’m telling your parents about this,” threatened Uncle Rabiffano without rancour.
Rue growled at him.
He waggled a finger at her. “Oh now, little one, don’t think you can threaten me. We both know you aren’t supposed to change without asking, and in public, and without a cloak. They are all going to be angry with you.”
Uncle Rabiffano stuck his nose in the air in pretend affront and drifted away. As she watched her beloved uncle twirl gaily about with a giggling young lady in a buttercup-yellow dress – he looked so carefree and cheerful – she did wonder, and not for the first time, why Uncle Rabiffano didn’t want to be a werewolf. The idea was pure fancy, of course. Most of the rules of polite society existed to keep vampires and werewolves from changing anyone without an extended period of introduction, intimacy, training, and preparation. And her Paw would never metamorphose anyone against his will. And yet . . .
Prim climbed onto Rue’s back. Prim’s scent was mostly rose oil with a hint of soap-nuts and poppy seeds about the hair.
Given that Rue had the same mass in wolf form as she did in human, Primrose riding her was an awkward undertaking. Prim had to drape the train of her ball gown over Rue’s tail to keep it from trailing on the floor. She also had to hook up her feet to keep them from dangling, which she did by leaning forward so that she was sprawled atop Rue with her head on the silk roses.
She accomplished this with more grace than might be expected given that Prim always wore complete underpinnings. She had been doing it her whole life. Rue could be either a vampire or a werewolf, as long as there was a supernatural nearby to steal from, but when given the option, werewolf was more fun. They’d started very young and never given up on the rides.
Prim wrapped her hands about Rue’s neck and whispered, “Ready.”
Rue burst forth from the potted palms, conscious of what an absurd picture they made – Prim draped over her, ivory gown spiked up over Rue’s tail, flying like a banner. Rue’s hind legs were still clothed in her fuchsia silk bloomers, and the wreath draped jauntily over one pointed ear.
She charged through the throng, revelling in her supernatural strength. As people scattered before her she smelled each and every perfume, profiterole, and privy visit. Yes, peons, flee before me! she commanded mentally in an overly melodramatic dictatorial voice.
“Ruddy werewolves,” she heard one elderly gentleman grumble. “Why is London so lousy with them these days?”
“All the best parties have one,” she heard another respond.
“The Maccons have a lot to answer for,” complained a matron of advanced years.
Perhaps under the opinion that Prim was being kidnapped, a footman sprang valiantly forward. Mrs Fenchurch liked her footmen brawny and this one grabbed for Rue’s tail, but when she stopped, turned, and growled at him, baring all her large and sharp teeth, he thought better of it and backed away. Rue put on a burst of speed and they were out the front door and onto the busy street below.
London whisked by as Rue ran. She moved by scent, arrowing towards the familiar taverns and dustbins, street wares and bakers’ stalls of her home neighbourhood. The fishy underbelly of the ever-present Themes – in potency or retreat – formed a map for her nose. She enjoyed the nimbleness with which she could dodge in and around hansoms and hackneys, steam tricycles and quadricycles, and the occasional articulated coach.
Of course it didn’t last – several streets away from the party, her tether to Uncle Rabiffano reached its limit and snapped.
* * *
Rue transformed spontaneously back into a normal young lady – or as normal as is possible with a metanatural. She and Prim ended their run on their posteriors at the side of the road. Prim quickly stood, undid her bundle, and threw the rose shawl about Rue’s naked form.
“Spiffing! What a whiz. Now, hail a hack, would you, please, Prim?” Rue tucked the shawl about her as neatly as possible and reseated the wreath about her head. It was all hopeless – her hair was loose, her feet bare – but with no other options, Rue found it best to make an effort to ensure one’s appearance seemed intentional.
Prim handed over the dancing slippers.
Rue put them on, trying not to feel the aeration of her nether region. Not so long ago, split bloomers had been all the rage – she couldn’t imagine why. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, knowing she looked like a light skirt. Only with no skirt.
Fortunately for them, the hackney cab driver had seen far stranger things around London in his day. “Ladies,” he tipped his hat. He was clearly taking his cues from Prim’s impeccable gown rather than Rue’s ridiculous lack of one. He also seemed taken with Prim’s winning smile and long lashes.
“Oh, how kind of you to stop, good sir,” Prim simpered.
As if it weren’t his job, thought Rue, but let her friend work her magic. Taking her cue from the simpering to act the part of an invalid.
Primrose recited Dama’s address. “Quickly, if you please – we are in some distress.”
The driver was concerned. “Is the young lady well?”
Rue stumbled helpfully, pretending faintness as she climbed into the cab. She didn’t have anyone to imitate in this matter; everyone she knew was in excellent health. Thus the act might be a tad overdramatic, but the driver looked adequately troubled on her behalf.
“Oh, sir!” Prim widened her eyes, pulling his attention back. She wobbled her lower lip. “Tragical accident.”
“I’ll get you there as quickly as possible, miss.” Suddenly converted into a white knight, the driver whipped his horse to a trot.
* * *
Rue’s adopted father was a rove vampire of considerable style and vast means. He operated outside hive sanctions and fashionable restrictions – always claiming that the latter was the reason he left. He controlled a gossip network of dozens of fashionable young dandies, several exotic trade concerns, the political position of potentate advisor to Her Majesty Queen Victoria and, perhaps most importantly, had been the dominant influence on male evening dress in London since the death of Beau Brummell half a century earlier.
He received the two young ladies in his drawing room with both arms extended and his new favourite toy, a large multiphase appearance reparation kit, strapped to one arm. “My darlings, my darling girls. My Puggle! My little rosehip! How lovely. How very lovely to see you both.” Dama always behaved as if he hadn’t seen an acquaintance in years. “Time between visits,” he usually said, “is irrelevant to vampires.We are old and often forgotten – people know we will always be there, thus we vampires very much like to be remembered.” He wielded verbal italics as if they were capable of actual bodily harm. Not as unlikely as one might think since, with him, word emphasis sometimes did cause incalculable pain.
Primrose ran into the vampire’s arms with alacrity, hugging him in an excess of emotion for a young lady of quality. She was rather too fond of the rove for her hive-bound mother’s comfort, and thus did not get to visit him as frequently as she liked.
Rue, although equally pleased to see him, was confined to clutching his gloved hands and exchanging air kisses in the French manner, a technique they had adopted to prevent her skin from touching his inadvertently. Tonight, caution was required in spades as she wore nothing more protective over her ruined bloomers than a Chinese silk dressing-gown she’d grabbed on her way in.
Dama would comment on her improper state of dress. “Puggle, lovest, must you appear in such a very Grecian manner?” He winced as if ruminating on an overabundance of chitons with which he had once had personal affiliation. Which he might have. Rumour had it that Dama was very old indeed. Rue never asked; it was considered beyond the pale to ask a vampire his age – literally. But she paid attention to the precise way he executed certain vowels when speaking. If anyone consulted her – which no one ever had – she would have said Greek in origin.
“I’m wearing a very respectable dressing gown,” she protested. Dama’s drones kept a full selection on hand in the front parlour for when Little Miss returned in a state as they called it. The drones always chose beautiful, highly decorated, full coverage dressing-gowns. They were terribly concerned with Lady Prudence’s dignity and reputation. More so than she, much to their distress.
“Yes, dear, but this is my drawing room, not a Turkish bathing house.”
“Your drawing room, Dama dearest, has seen far worse.”
“Too true, too true. There might be something in the idea, come to think on it. Bath houses ought to come back into fashion soon, everything is about steam this century already. I should invest. Here, put this in your hair at least.” He popped open his appearance kit and ejected a ribbon and two long emerald hair pins.
Rue took them with an arched eyebrow. “Silver-tipped? You expecting trouble from the neighbours?”
“One can never be too careful with werewolves around.” The vampire gestured for the two ladies to sit, pausing to remove his gloves and hat. Rue only then registered that he had been about to go out.
Prim took possession of the end of a gold and cream brocade chaise next to an aged calico cat, trying not to disturb the decrepit creature. The cat opened one bleary eye and croaked at her politely. Prim scratched the animal’s head in response.
Dama watched in approval. “You look very nice this evening, Primrose, my petal! I take it your mother did not have a hand in choosing that particular dress?”
Prim flushed at the compliment. “Certainly not! Fortunately for me, her attention is otherwise occupied with hive matters and my wardrobe is mostly my own to command. Although she still doesn’t trust me with hats.”
Rue bounced over to sit next to Dama, pulling out the snuff box.
The vampire leaned away from it, peering through a monocle he didn’t require, as though intellectually intrigued. “Was it difficult, my sugarplum?”
“Not at all. I wasn’t able to be quite as subtle as I hoped, so had to borrow wolf off Uncle Rabiffano to escape.”
“Oh, poor boy.” The briefest of pauses and then Dama flittered his fingers in the air. “Given your birth parents, my pudding, I suspect subtlety will forever be beyond your ken. Perhaps we should work on that?”
Rue wasn’t offended. Why be subtle when a good dose of the supernatural worked perfectly in most situations? “You’re probably right.”
“You know, Rue, someday you will be in a pickle with no vampire or werewolf nearby and then what will you do?” Prim was ever the voice of reason.
Rue considered. “Act like you, of course, dear Dama.”
The vampire was not to be flattered out of his parental concern. “And if that doesn’t work?”
“Probably hurl a heavy object.”
Prim muttered to the cat, “Lacking subtlety is not the only familial similarity.”
“What was that?” Rue looked at her sharply.
“Nothing at all.” Prim widened her eyes and continued petting the feline.
Rue said, in an effort to shift matters, “Dama, I do wish you’d give me something more challenging to do.”
“All in good time, my sweet.” The vampire reached for the snuff box but Rue held it away from him protectively in her bare hand, a hand he wouldn’t dare touch.
“What’s this, Puggle?” Dama tossed his blond locks and pouted. Given that he had what one admirer had once described as the face of Ganymede on earth, the pout looked very well on him. Which he knew, of course.
“Nope,” Rue could resist the pout. “First tell me why it’s so important.”
The lower lip wobbled.
Primrose hid a smile at the vampire’s theatrics, so very like her own earlier that evening.
Rue waggled the little box temptingly back and forth out of the vampire’s reach.
They all knew he could not take the box away from her, even with supernatural speed. The moment he touched her skin, Rue would have his vampire abilities and still be in possession of the snuff box. The vampires called her soul-stealer, the werewolves called her flayer, the scientists metanatural, and there hadn’t been one like her for thousands of years. She’d spent her childhood spoiled and studied in turn, combating three overbearing parents. It made for interesting results. Results like the fact that even the most powerful rove in the whole of the British Empire could not extract one snuff box from her if she didn’t want him too.
“Troublesome infant,” grumbled Dama, and stopped the simulated pouting.
“It’s not the snuff box, nor the snuff, my little limpet.”
Dama crossed his arms. “Did you examine it closely?”
The vampire arched one perfect blond eyebrow – exactly the correct shade, slightly darker than his hair. Artificially darkened, of course, but then his hair was artificially lightened every evening. Dama left nothing to chance, least of all his own appearance.
Rue stood and went to retrieve a pair of high powered glassicals from a nearby sideboard. She popped them on, the single magnification lens emphasising her left eye to such an extent as to seem grotesque. Even though, if asked, Rue would have said her eyes were her best feature.
She checked the snuff box over carefully, running her hands along the sides. Soon she spotted the secondary catch inside the box, buried in snuff. It was tiny and hidden beneath the lid’s silver hinge.
“Careful!” warned Dama, too late.
Rue pressed the catch. The top of the inside of the box flipped open to reveal a hidden chamber underneath. Of course, this sprayed snuff everywhere, covering Rue’s head and chest in a fine coating of peppery smelling brown powder. The glassicals protected her eyes and Rue was so taken with her discovery that she didn’t bother to brush the snuff from her hair and décolletage.
Prim stood – the cat murmured an objection – and marched over, partly to examine the discovery, partly to repair the damage to Rue’s appearance.
“What is it? More snuff?” she asked, applying her handkerchief with vigour.
Inside the bottom compartment of the box was more vegetative matter.
Rue shook her head, snuff puffed out of her hair. “No, the leaf is too big. A new breed of pipe tobacco?” She was already sticking her nose down to sniff. She couldn’t get through the scent of snuff, however. She wasn’t in wolf form, so she hadn’t the nose to distinguish nuances.
The vampire tut-tutted and used a silk scarf to clean his adopted daughter’s face. “No, darling, no, not tobacco.”
Rue crowed out the only other possibility. “Tea!”
Dama nodded. “Indeed. A new kind, Puggle. They tell me it grows better, faster and in a wider range of climates than the Chinese varieties. Can you imagine the possibilities in India if this turns out to be a viable beverage?”
Rue frowned. “You’d be stomping all over Bloody John’s territory. No wonder you wanted this to be secretive.” The East India Company was referred to as Bloody John as it was mostly backed by vampire hives. If Dama wanted a controlling interest in a tea farm overseas, he was going up against other vampires. Vampires whose interest – as potentate – he was supposed to protect. A delicate matter indeed.
Dama twinkled at her. “I’m going to check this leaf against the British pallet. If it’s drinkable, I’m investing in eight thousand plants and you, my darling Puggle-girl, are going to India to meet said plants, ascertain the location and acquisition of land, hire supervisors, and commence distribution.”
Primrose was pleased. “India? Lovely! Weren’t you just saying we should get out of London, Rue?” She looked to her friend for approbation.
No one, not even Dama, questioned the fact that Primrose would go with Rue. Prim always went with Rue. Besides, Rue couldn’t very well travel as an unmarried young lady alone.
“Dama. What a delightful scheme. But – and I don’t mean to throw a spanner – what do I know about tea-growing? I’ll need native contacts familiar with the territory and climate.” But Rue was already considering her options, and Dama only nodded. “And, more importantly, who are you going to test the tea on?”
“Your mother, of course, Puggle,” replied the vampire. “Can you think of a better option?”
“Unfortunately, no.” Rue grimaced, snapped the secret compartment shut and closed the snuff box. She went to hand it over to Dama but then held on to it.
“India, did you say, Dama?”
“India, my darling heart. I have specialist tea contacts in that area ready to meet with you and facilitate this endeavour.”
“Of course you do.” But Rue was smiling.
“Doesn’t everyone have specialist tea contacts?” Dama smiled back.
“Mother and Paw approve your plan?”
“Ah, yes, well, I haven’t exactly talked to your blood parents on the subject yet.”
“Oh dear,” said Prim. She adored Dama and his drones, and could cope very well with vampires, having been raised in a hive, but she was rather terrified of Rue’s blood parents. The formidable Lord and Lady Maccon were both prone to yelling loudly and bashing the noggins of those whose opinions did not mesh with theirs. Even though they had grown up best friends, Primrose had rarely been exposed to them. Rue had rarely been exposed to them, for that matter.
Primrose was frowning. “How will we get to India?”
Dama brightened. He had been waiting for this question. “Aha! Now that, my posy, is an answer I believe Puggle here will very much enjoy.”
Rue, intrigued, gave him what he wanted – the snuff box.
Dama took it carefully so as not to disturb the contents or to touch her hand. He slid it inside his waistcoat pocket. The waistcoat was made of gold lace over fine teal silk with jet buttons, and looked to be so tight a pocket would not accommodate a gooseberry, let alone a snuff box. Nevertheless, it
disappeared within, as if by magic.
The vampire was about to tell them more when his head jerked up. He bared his fangs, showing the full length. His nostrils flared as if he scented something in the air.
Rue was instantly on guard. “What?”
Dama held up one unnaturally pale hand to quiet her. His perfect face, too beautiful, narrowed and became hunter-like.
The door knocker reverberated sharp and loud.
They all jumped to stand. A rustle and a clatter emanated from the hallway and a drone’s pleasant voice said, “What ho?” to whomever was on the other side of the door. There was a soft murmur of exchanged pleasantries. Then the drone said loudly, trained to be at a level that his vampire master could hear from the drawing room, “No, you may not come in. Not invited. But I’ll fetch her for you, if you insist.”
A moment later a tentative knock came at the drawing room door. “My lord?”
Winkle trotted in. Winkle was one of Dama’s current favourites. He was a devilishly exotic-looking chap, with features that hinted at Far Eastern or possibly Pan Pacific ancestry. His hair was as glossy and as black as jet mourning jewellery, his dark eyes tilted becomingly and his face was completely free of any topiary. He smiled easily and often with the merest hint of dimples. He also spoke several languages and played the clarinet beautifully. Good traits to look for in any man, Dama informed her, as it led to a very strong tongue. Rue had made a mental note of the advice and tried not to wonder as to the particulars.
“Wimbledon hive vampire at the door, my lord, sent to fetch Miss Tunstell.”
Prim stamped her little foot in annoyance. “Queen Mums. Bother her.”
Winkle grinned. “You know she doesn’t approve when you visit this house. She’d rather you chose the den next door and kept up the pretence of only associating with werewolves.”
“I wish it were only a matter of vampire politics,” grumbled Primrose. “Excuse me, my lord, but you must know, Queen Mums simply doesn’t approve of you. I think it’s your fashion choices.”
Dama did not look offended. “My dear, I cannot think of a better reason to dislike a person! I must say, for my part, I strenuously object to her hats. Positively everywhere these days, massive hats, massive hair. It’s so regrettably poofy.”
Prim looked frustrated with them both. “Oh really, vampires!”
Winkle was relatively new to Dama’s household and had not yet determined the intricacies of the relationship between Lord and Lady Maccon, their daughter, Lord Akeldama, Baroness Tunstell, and her daughter. As far as he could gather, politics dictated that Lady Prudence be adopted by a rove vampire to keep her safe from the hive vampires’ fear of metanaturals, hence Lord Akeldama’s bringing her up rather than her blood parents. Lady Maccon and Baroness Tunstell had been friends since childhood, as incomprehensible as such a relationship might seem, hence Miss Primrose’s companionship of Lady Prudence. But why some of them didn’t get along, and others avoided all contact, remained a mystery. So he said tentatively, “Your mother prefers her child visit werewolves over a rove?”
Prim shrugged. “Odd vampire to have any children at all, you might say.”
What Winkle didn’t know was that Ivy Tunstell’s metamorphosis to vampire queen had been unplanned, unexpected, unprecedented, and highly unlikely. The entirety of London had yet to recover from the decades-old shock. The fashion for overly decorated hats was only the latest marker of Baroness Tunstell’s sudden – by vampire standards – presence in supernatural high society. The fact that as a newly made queen she’d arrived with a complete hive of four male vampires – all of them quite old, quite rich, and quite powerful – and six foreign drones was beyond the limits of acceptability. The fact that all were Egyptian was beneath contempt. The consequences of such horrendous behaviour was as expected – Queen Victoria gave Mrs Tunstell a baronetcy. What else could the aristocracy do with such a travesty in its midst but absorb it entirely? The baroness had been declared an original and integrated into the ton. Her family’s connection to trade and her actor husband were quietly forgotten, the skin colour of her hive members was blatantly ignored, and she was invited to dine at all the best houses. Not that she could leave her hive as a tethered queen, but invitations were sent. Her ridiculous hats were accepted by ladies of standing and ill repute with equal alacrity. Even the Parisian designers were producing the occasional platter-shaped monstrosity replete with entire scenes of crocheted sheepdog herding. Within a year of contact with the Wimbledon Egyptians, as the hive was sometimes called, the more daring London dandies had taken to coloured shirts, sashes about the waist, and the odd gold bracelet or two. Dama had needed to be very firm indeed with his more modish drones. Mr Rabiffano, as the world’s only fashionable werewolf, had remained amused and aloof from it all.
Baroness Tunstell, though a vampire queen, never lost her suspicion of other vampires. Her close friendship with Rue’s soulless mother and werewolf Paw left her pro-werewolf in a way that had not been seen in a vampire for centuries. Thus Baroness Tunstell was considered by the supernatural set to be quite modern. Countess Nadasdy, queen of the nearby Woolsey Hive had been heard to call her, on more than one occasion, both fast and forward. In vampires, that was almost a sign of respect.
But for Primrose, who’d gone up against the Baroness of Wimbledon’s overprotective nature since she was born, and for Rue, who’d often been included in the smothering, Aunt Ivy was a problem. Being a vampire queen in control of a twitchy transplanted hive full of foreigners only exacerbated a temperament ill-suited to either command or parenting. It was just like Aunt Ivy to send one of her vampires after her daughter when there was no sign of danger. And even more like her not to acknowledge what a tremendous social faux pas this was.
Primrose was mortified. “Oh, Lord Akeldama, I do apologise! How horribly rude. I am abjectly sorry.”
The blond vampire relaxed, but only slightly. A hivebound vampire simply did not visit the house of a rove without sending a card first! Such matters of etiquette existed for very good reasons.
Rue was annoyed on Dama’s behalf and amused by her friend’s discomfort. Prim was usually so poised. “Really, Prim, doesn’t your mother ever learn?”
Prim hurried to gather up her wrap and reticule. “Sadly, no. I apologise again, Lord Akeldama. Please excuse me. Rue, I’ll call tomorrow. Just after sunset?” She bobbed a curtsey and blew them both a quick kiss before hurrying to intercept her mother’s vampire before he actually caused an incident by trying
to enter Dama’s home, without invitation.
Rue watched her friend depart. “Why must we be cursed with such troublesome parents?”
“My dear Puggle,” objected her Dama in mock injury, “what could you possibly be implying?”
Rue shifted next to him and carefully rested her head on his well-padded shoulder. “Oh, not you, of course, Dama. Never you.”
“That’s my girl.”