The second 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 The Queen is Dead by Kate Locke!
BATTLE NOT WITH MONSTERS LEST YOU BECOME ONE
There was a dead rat nailed to my door.
“Poor thing.” I grasped the thick spike and pulled it free of the heavy wood. The small furry corpse fell into my hand. It was still warm. Left during daylight hours. Cowards.
Probably the Human League. They were the only ones who blamed rats for the plague responsible for vampires, were- wolves, half-bloods, and . . . things like me. They also suffered from the mistaken belief that they were safe during the day. They weren’t. No more than we were safe from them at night.
Underneath the murdered rodent was a copy of the front page of The Times from last Monday. There was a photo of me – now stained with rat blood – leaving the house, and above it the headline: MONSTER IN OUR MIDST: Frightened residents want goblin “queen” away from their children. Of course, no names were given, because I might decide to exact revenge upon those good citizens who hated me simply because of what I was.
In a way I understood – I was frightened of me sometimes as well – but the press, and the Human League, made me sound like some kind of bogeyman. A child killer. It was becoming a tad tedious, to be honest.
I buried the rat – and the paper – in the back garden, where I’d buried the last two to have been left on my step. Since the neighbourhood of Leicester Square learned they had a goblin in their midst – to be exact, Xandra Vardan, the reluctant “Queen of Goblins” – they’d become a bit . . . enthusiastic in their desire to convince me to pack my bags.
I was about to throw the spike into the hole as well when I noticed a small scrap of fabric attached. Part of a shirt sleeve if I wasn’t mistaken. I pulled it off the iron and lifted it to my nose. Rat. Blood. Cotton. Newsprint . . . Ah, there it was.
Sometimes a superior sense of smell was a disgusting afflic- tion, other times it came in rather handy. This was one of those times. I took another sniff and walked around to the front of the house.
I lived in what had once been an old public house in Leicester Square – still had the sign above the door. I stopped on the pavement and took a deep breath.
West. That’s where the little tosser went.
I set off down the street. The sun was still sinking in the sky, casting the city and its inhabitants in a mellow summer glow. I squinted behind my sunglasses. Unlike my furry subter- ranean brethren, I could brave sunlight, a fact that would surprise my rat killer. It didn’t blister me or burn my eyes like it did to aristocrats – a term now used to describe vampires, weres and even goblins, though goblins thought themselves separate. I needed dark glasses and sunscreen, but I was okay.
All around me humans hurried here and there, either on foot or by motor carriage. I’d lived in Leicester Square for two months now, ever since moving out of the house I used to share with my sister Avery. She was still pissed off at me for keeping secrets from her, and for being a goblin. As if I had a choice in the matter.
Perhaps choosing to live in a predominantly human neighbourhood wasn’t the most intelligent of decisions, given increasing human hostility, but it kept me reasonably far away from Queen Victoria’s spies, and that was what mattered. I’d earned the disfavour of Britain’s vampire monarch by being made queen by the goblins. Historically, the queens of Britain didn’t look kindly on other queens infringing on their territory.
People looked at me as they passed by. A halvie wasn’t that much of an oddity in these parts, though certainly not com- monplace. Unfortunately word had got out, thanks to the rags, that there was a freaky new goblin in town. My photo had been in every paper a couple of months ago, first because of my love life, and then because of the scandal of my genes. I was something of a celebrity, though without the chat show appearances.
I had my guard up. This unusual heat was making people nervous, myself included. Some huey and halvie deaths over the summer, including Dede and a friend of hers from Bedlam, had the humans twitchy. The Queen’s jubilee in May hadn’t helped either. You could practically feel tension rising in the city.
A mother put herself between me and her child, as if she was any sort of protection if I decided I wanted to have the kid for tea. I smiled at her, but kept walking, following the scent of my rodent killer. I didn’t want trouble – except with the person I was trailing.
I tracked him to an estate in Haymarket. It was one of those kinds that had terrace upon terrace of flats, but while his scent drifted up a set of stairs, it was strongest towards a small park area upwind, behind the three buildings.
I paused, stuffed my hair beneath my bowler hat so the unusual red didn’t immediately give me away, slouched my shoulders and set off toward the boys gathered around a jungle gym. My thick-soled boots, short skirt, stockings and corseted waistcoat didn’t look too expensive, and fitted in with current human fashion.
Six young blokes with hats pulled low over spot-riddled faces adorned with tatts and piercings looked up as I approached.
“Oi, what’s this?” One elbowed another.
I rolled my eyes as they chuckled, thinking I couldn’t hear them. I could hear them breathing, little wanks.
“Hullo,” I said to the one whose stench filled my nostrils. He was probably seventeen, with sapphire-streaked blond hair that hung in his blue eyes and a silver stud in his cheek. He had spools in the sides of his nostrils, and cigarette smoke drifted out of them as he smirked at me.
“Hi,” he said back. “What are you looking for, little merk?”
I didn’t appreciate being referred to as a vaginal wig, no matter how trendy it was. “You, actually.” I pouted. “Don’t you recognise me?”
His friends chuckled when he did. “Should I?”
My left hand lashed out, catching him around the throat. His startled expression made me grin. The world brightened just a little as I let my fangs out – the goblin in me making my sight keener, my hunger sharper. I managed to keep the bones in my face from shifting, however. Didn’t want the little lamb to pass out on me.
“Breaks my heart to think you might be murdering rats for other girls, my pretty boy.”
“Fuck me!” yelped one of the boys, scampering higher on the metal climbing bars.
I ignored him. He wasn’t a danger unless he decided to jump on me – which would just be stupid. The ones that needed watching were the ones who stayed close, even when they realised who – what – I was.
“Get lost,” I snarled, all fang and spit. Out of the corner of my eye I saw them withdraw further. I didn’t care if they watched, so long as they stayed out of it.
“It weren’t nothing personal,” rasped the boy.
I tilted my head, holding eye contact. He smelled good. Good enough to eat. I could take a bite from a place he’d never miss it . . . but I wouldn’t. I had yet to give in to the craving for human flesh.
“Hard not to take something like that personally, my friend. Surely you can see how I might be . . . upset?”
He swallowed hard against my palm, jerked his head in a nod. I was impressed that he hadn’t pissed himself yet. His face was turning purple. “He paid me.”
I eased up on the pressure. “What’s that?”
The kid drew a deep breath. “Some toff gave me a hundred quid to do it. He even gave me the rat.” His gaze flitted briefly from mine. He hadn’t liked killing the rat. It was something that was going to stick with him for a while.
I knew that feeling, though my moral code was slipping more and more every day. I wanted to kill this kid. His fear made my mouth tingle. It wasn’t the violence that got my sali- vary glands all aflutter – it was the idea of the blood, the meat. He wasn’t a prime specimen, and he reeked of drugs and stale fags, but he’d still taste ruddy good.
And I was starving.
“What did he look like?”
“I dunno. A toff.” I squeezed his throat again and his eyes bulged. “He was blond – almost albino. And pale. Blue eyes. Real thin. Aristo.”
My eyes narrowed, and I relaxed my fingers. “How could you tell?”
“Vamped out on me, didn’t he? All toothsome. Threatened to kill me if I said a word about it.”
“And yet here you are, telling me.” Either this kid wasn’t too bright, or . . .
“He weren’t nearly as scary as you.”
Well, that was something, wasn’t it? I released him alto- gether. He sagged in on himself as his feet hit the patchy grass, like a rag doll, hand going to his bruised throat. “What else?”
The kid’s expression was one of sheer panic. His friends had scattered, brave lot that they were. “There isn’t anything else!” Of course there was. “How was he dressed? What sort of vehicle did he have? What exactly did he say?”
“He wore a dark grey suit. Looked like a rag ad for cologne or something. He had a motor carriage and a driver, but I didn’t see either of them, I swear. He said, ‘I’ll give you one hundred pounds to nail this unfortunate beast to the door of the goblin queen.’ I took his money and that’s when he said he’d end me if I told.”
“If anyone’s going to kill you, it’s going to be me,” I told him. His face went completely white. Fang me, he wasn’t going to faint, was he? “I’m not going to kill you, you stupid git. No one is.” Especially not me. I was stronger than that.
Poor thing was trembling now. “You got a pen?”
He seemed surprised by the question, but pulled one out of his jacket pocket. I took it and grabbed his hand, turning it palm up. “If he comes to you again, I want you to ring me on this number.” I jotted my mobile number on the ball of his thumb. “If I start getting prank calls, I’ll rip your tongue out and eat it in front of you, understood?”
He nodded, then shuddered a little, but still no piss. He really was a brave one. Being a hormonal teenage halfwit helped.
“What’s your name?”
“David.” His voice was hoarse. He’d barely be able to talk tomorrow.
“David, if an aristo or anyone else offers you money to do anything so fucking stupid in the future, I want you to be a good boy and say no, all right? Whatever they offer won’t be worth it.”
Another nod. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
I rolled my eyes. “Sod off. Now go home. Tomorrow your cowardly friends will be impressed that you spent ten minutes alone with me and survived. Just don’t tell them what we talked about. I don’t want word getting back to your aristo friend that you betrayed him.”
He nodded yet again, and walked away with his fists shoved in the pockets of his jacket. I watched him go, smiling when he finally gave in and started to run.
I walked home, stopping for a coffee and a box of doughnuts along the way. The middle-aged human lady behind the counter didn’t know – or maybe didn’t care – who I was, and put a valiant effort into appearing friendly, but her indif- ference was written all over her slack features and sloped shoulders. It was actually nice to be treated with general disdain as opposed to abject terror.
A few months ago – when I believed I was nothing more than a regular halvie trying to make a name for myself with the Royal Guard – I thought I knew what it was like to be hated and feared. That was before I found out I was a monster. A pretty one, but a monster nevertheless, despite my barley-sugar-red hair and furless body. I was strong, very fast and generally considered ill-tempered. And as far as I knew, I was the only one of my kind. Not exactly something I aspired to.
I was eating the fourth of the doughnuts – bless my goblin metabolism – when I reached my house. It was still standing, which was good. Nothing dead on my step. No albino aristocrats.
There was, however, a halvie sitting there. I’d know her candy-floss-pink hair anywhere. “What the hell do you want?” I demanded.
My sister Avery rose to her feet. Her wide green eyes – the same colour mine had been before my goblin genes turned them slightly gold – were red, and her face had the haggard appearance of someone who hadn’t slept recently. “I need to talk to you.”
“You said enough when you kicked me out.” I brushed past her and dug my keys out of the pocket sewn into the waistband of my skirt. Fang me, my fingers were shaking.
“It’s important,” she told my rigid back.
“I’m sure it is.” I unlocked the door. “Why don’t you send me a digigram instead?” I stepped over the threshold.
“Damn it, Xandy! It’s Val.”
I stopped, then turned my head to face her. Val was our brother, and Avery wouldn’t have let go of her grudge to talk to me unless it was serious. Fuck it all. “You’d better come in.”
I made tea because it was the civil thing to do. And I shared my doughnuts because, despite not speaking to me for two months, Avery was my sister and I loved her. And because she looked like shit.
We were in the part of my rented home that used to be the main room of the pub – equipped with original nineteenth-century bar and fixtures. I was behind the bar while Avery sat on a stool at the counter.
“What’s going on?” I asked as I poured hot water into the pot. The scent of Earl Grey wafted up, delicious and sharp. This was like Dede all over again. Avery and I had had tea that night too. I didn’t want to think about that.
She pulled apart a chocolate doughnut. “I haven’t heard from Val in almost three days.”
“And you came to me?” What, she couldn’t just call? “How the hell would I know what he’s up to?”
“I reckoned you and he would be tight again by now.”
“Well, your reckoning is shit.” I should have taken better care to hide how much she and Val had hurt me. “You certain he’s not on a case?”
Val was Special Branch of Scotland Yard and worked all halvie and aristo-related cases. It wasn’t unusual for him to disappear for days at a time. But Avery had said the same about Dede, and she’d got herself involved with traitors and then killed.
“I called his SI.” She shot me a glance. “She thought I was you.”
“Obviously you got over it. What did she say?”
“That she couldn’t give me any details on Val or the case he was on.”
“There, he’s on the hunt. No big deal.” Maybe Avery had invented all of this as an excuse to break the silence between us.
“She told me that his brother Takeshi had called as well.”
“I fucking hate it when they call Penny by that name.” Takeshi was better known as Penny Dreadful, one of the sweetest, most gorgeous trannies you’d ever meet. She was not Val’s brother – not to me. She was his sister. She was practically family, even though she wasn’t related to me by blood. She and Val shared the same mother, but not the same father.
“I know, but Penny said she found Val’s rotary at Freak Show.”
I poured tea into Avery’s cup and then my own. “Not like him to forget his rote, but then he has a separate one for work, right?”
“Dunno. Perhaps.” She dumped several sugar cubes into her cup. “Val never said anything about an investigation.”
“Sounds like he wasn’t allowed.”
“And he didn’t say anything to you at all? Nothing about a case involving the Human League or anything?”
I stared at her. Was she fucking mental, or just not listening? “I haven’t seen Val for two months. You both decided to disown me, remember?”
“I kept quiet so the two of you wouldn’t get dragged down if it all went to hell – which it did. And I lied about me because I was just finding out the truth for myself. Thank you, by the way, for kicking me out when I needed you most.”
“I didn’t kick you out, you fucking left.”
“Because you didn’t want me in the house.”
“Who the bloody hell told you that?”
“Vardan.” Our father.
Her expression hardened. “He had no right.”
I sighed and plucked a doughnut dripping with frosting from the box. “It doesn’t matter now. Besides, Victoria made it clear she didn’t want me in her territory.”
She arched a brow. “Victoria, eh? On first-name terms, are you?”
I rolled my eyes. “Hardly. Regardless, what do you want me to do?”
Cheeks bulging with cakey goodness, my sister looked as surprised as a spinster matron in an all-boys shower. “Can’t you . . . you know, talk to the goblins or something? Get his phone from Penny?”
“Why don’t you go to Penny? And what makes you think the gobs know anything? Or do you think they’ve got him flavouring a stew as we speak?” I was going for a slightly more caustic tone that the incredulous one that clung to my words.
“They knew what happened to Dede, didn’t they?”
Yes, they had. That would explain the déjà vu. “And look where that got me. Us.”
Avery glanced up, cheeks normal, eyes wide. “Xandy, this is Val we’re talking about. Our brother, who always came running any time you or I called.”
I refused to be guilted – mostly out of spite. “If something happened with his case, then the entire Yard is out looking for him.”
“The Yard doesn’t have access to the goblins, or to you. If anyone can find him, you can.”
I ought to have been touched by the sentiment, and to an extent I was. I was still pissed off that Val had to get into shit for her to finally speak to me. “You going to help?”
Her cheeks flushed. “I can’t. I promised Em I wouldn’t go off courting trouble.”
But I could. If it weren’t for a promise to her fiancée, Avery would be out looking for Val right now, and I’d be none the wiser.
What a proper pair we were. At least I wouldn’t go fooling myself into thinking I’d be accepted back into the family fold any time soon. Which was ironic when you consider that family was what had got me into this mess to begin with.
“Fine,” I said finally, running my finger over the polished but scarred surface of the bar. “I’ll ask around.”
She opened her purse. “I can give you a few quid—”
My hand shot out and snapped the clasp shut. Avery squealed as the metal pinched her fingers. “You think I need money?”
Glaring and pouting at the same time, she shook her smart- ing hand. “I don’t know. The RG fired you.”
“I have my allowance,” I reminded her, not wanting to think of how my supervisor in the Royal Guard had informed me that my services were no longer required. You had to be a half-blood to be an RG, and I was no longer a halvie. Never had been.
“Besides,” I said lightly – I’d chew on silver razor blades before I’d let her think of me as a poor relation – “you know what they say about goblins and treasure.”
She frowned. “I thought that was dwarves.”
Albert’s fangs. It was an old curse, a blasphemy of the late Prince Consort, and I used it without an ounce of remorse. “Dwarves,” I ground out, “don’t exist.”
Avery shot me a droll look as she polished off her dough- nut. “Until two months ago, neither did a furless goblin who could walk in the sun.”
Touché. “I don’t need or want your money.”
“You’re so fucking proud.” She made it sound like a bad thing. “That’s why I didn’t want to come.”
“Right, it’s all my fault.”
She slapped the flat of her hand down on the bar. “It is! If you hadn’t been so afraid of what we’d think, or so dead set on protecting us, we could have helped you, Xandra. We could have been there for you, and for Dede. Now she’s dead and you’re living in an old pub in a human part of town, Val’s gone and Churchill’s supposedly on the run.”
The mention of his name made my heart skip. “I haven’t heard from him either.” No one would. Not ever again.
“Just as well. They’d probably give him a medal for killing her.”
At least that was something we agreed on. “Probably.”
She checked her watch and sighed. “I have to go. You’ll call me if you find anything?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“Ruddy hell, Avery!” I silently counted to ten and met her earnest gaze. “I promise. Now get the hell out, will you?” The longer she stayed, the more alone I was going to feel when she left.
As luck would have it, my sister seemed to understand exactly what I was feeling – the bitch. She nodded glumly, slipped off the stool and started for the door. I walked her out.
She paused at the threshold. “You’ll be careful, won’t you, Xandy?” She wasn’t just talking about my promise to check up on Val.
I nodded. “I will be.”
She smiled – just a little. “Good. If I hug you, will you hit me?”
“Not unless you want me to.”
She was just a tiny bit shorter than me, so as her arms went around me, our cheeks brushed. Hers was wet. Hesitantly, I returned the embrace. Something in my chest twanged painfully.
Just as suddenly, she released me. “Goodbye.” Then she ran down the few steps to where her shiny motorrad sat waiting. The two-wheeled vehicle roared to life and then sped off down the street. I hoped she’d stopped crying, because driving with blurry vision was hardly safe.
I closed the door, armed the alarm and went back to the bar. This time I poured something a mite stronger than tea. My heart was heavy but my eyes were blessedly dry.