Heartless (Parasol Protectorate #4)

Chapter 14

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As ever, Lady Maccon took in her surroundings with a kind of reverence that was part appreciation, part horror. There were engines and mysterious constructs galore, some of them running, many of them disassembled into component parts. There were diagrams and sketches of larger projects strewn about, mostly aeronautical devices such as ornithopters, as aetheric travel was one of Madame Lefoux’s specialties. It smelled of oil.

“Oh, my, is that a new commission?” Alexia picked her way slowly through the clutter, holding her skirts well out of the way of any possible grease stains.

Dominating the chamber was a partly assembled transport contraption. Or Alexia assumed it was a transport—as yet, it had no apparent wheels, rails, or legs. It was shaped like a massive bowler hat without a brim, so she supposed it might be an underwater conveyance. Inside were levers and pull cords, an operator’s seat, and two small slits at the front for visibility. It was almost buglike and well outside of the Frenchwoman’s ordinary principles of subtlety. Alexia’s parasol with all its secret pockets and component parts was far more to Genevieve’s taste. Traditionally, she did not go in for big and flashy.

“Something I’ve been working on of late.”

“Is it armored?” Lady Maccon had an embarrassingly unladylike interest in modern technology.

“In part.” Something in Madame Lefoux’s tone warned Alexia off.

“Oh, dear, is it under contract from the War Office? I’m probably not supposed to know. I do apologize for asking. We shall say no more about it.”

“Thank you.” Madame Lefoux smiled in tired gratitude. Her dimples barely showed.

Government defense commissions were lucrative but not something one could speak of openly, even to the queen’s muhjah. The inventor moved to take Alexia’s hand, her own work-hardened by decades of tool use. Alexia could feel the roughness even through her gloves, along with a companion thrill she had grown to accept was part of the price of intimacy with this woman. Genevieve was so very intriguing.

“Was there something specific you wanted, my dear Alexia?”

Alexia hesitated and then, without subtlety, jumped right to the point. “Genevieve, do you know anything about the Kingair assassination attempt on Queen Victoria of twenty years ago? I mean, anything from the Order of the Brass Octopus?”

Madame Lefoux started in genuine surprise. “My goodness, what has brought you back around to that?”

“Let us say I made a contact recently who has led me into explorations of the past.”

Madame Lefoux crossed her arms and leaned back against a coiled roll of brass plating. “Hmm. I personally know nothing. I would have been no more than thirteen at the time, but we could ask my aunt. I’m not certain how useful she might be but the attempt can’t hurt.”

“Your aunt? Oh you mean?.?.?.??”

Madame Lefoux nodded, her face sad. “She’s finally undergoing diminished spectral cohesion. Even with all my preservation techniques and chemical expertise, it was inevitable. However, she does have her lucid moments.”

Alexia realized this must be the true source of Genevieve’s distress. She was losing a treasured family member. The woman who had raised her. Genevieve may have a well-developed mystique, but she was not emotionally reserved and she loved deeply. Alexia moved to her friend and stroked her upper arm where the muscles tensed. “Oh, Genevieve, I am so very sorry.”

The inventor’s face crumpled slightly at the sympathy. “I cannot help but think that this is to be my fate, too. First Angelique and now Beatrice.”

“Oh, surely not! You cannot be so confident you have excess soul.” Alexia would have offered to ensure exorcism, but Genevieve had been so angry when she performed the service for Angelique.

“No, you are correct. I have been traveling, researching, studying, trying to find a way to extend my aunt’s afterlife. But there is nothing.” Her tone was anguished, that of a scientist who sees a problem but no solution.

“Oh, but you have done your level best! You have given her years, far longer than any ghost has a right to expect.”

“Years for what? Humiliation and madness?” Genevieve took a breath, then placed her hand over Alexia’s where it stroked her arm, stilling the movement. “I do apologize, my lovely Alexia. This is not your burden. You still wish to speak to her?”

“Would she talk to me, do you think?”

“We can but try.”

Lady Maccon nodded and attempted to shrug herself out of her normally regal posture, trying to be less overbearing and physically threatening. She didn’t want to scare the ghost. Not that a woman in her corpulent condition boasted so fearsome a visage.

Madame Lefoux yelled, her normally melodious voice sharp, “Aunt, where are you? Aunt!”

Several moments later, a ghostly form shimmered into existence out of the side of a conveyer belt spool, looking grumpy.

“Yes, Niece, you summoned me?” Formerly Beatrice Lefoux had been in life an angular spinster of severe attitude and limited affection. She might once have been pretty but obviously never allowed herself, nor others, to enjoy that fact. There was much of her in Madame Lefoux, tempered by a level of good humor and mischief that the aunt had never bothered to cultivate. The specter was beginning to go fuzzy, not so badly as Alexia’s ghostly messenger but enough for it to be clear she wasn’t long for this world.

As soon as she spotted Lady Maccon, the ghost drew herself inward, appearing to wrap the drifting threads of her noncorporeal self closer, as a werewolf wraps his cloak around after shifting.

“Why, you have the soulless visiting you, Niece. Honestly, I don’t know why you persist in such an association.” The ghost’s voice was bitter, but more out of habit than any real offense. Then she seemed to lose track of what she was saying. “Where? What? Where am I? Genevieve, why, you are so old. Where is my little girl?” She swirled in a circle. “You have built an octomaton? I said never again. What could possibly be so dire?” As she spoke, the ghost shifted between French and heavily accented English. Luckily, Alexia was tolerably competent in both.

Madame Lefoux, her expression stiff in an attempt to hide distress, snapped her fingers in front of her deceased aunt’s face. “Now, Aunt, please pay attention. Lady Maccon here has something very serious to ask of you. Go on, Alexia.”

“Formerly Lefoux, are you familiar with the attempt on Queen Victoria’s life that took place in the winter of 1853? A Scottish werewolf pack was implicated. It was a matter of poison.”

The ghost bobbled up and down in surprise, losing some small measure of control over bits of herself. An eyebrow detached from her forehead. “Oh, why, yes. Although not intimately, of course. Not from the actual assassination perspective but more from the sidelines. I lost one of my students because of it.”

“Oh?”

“Why, yes. Lost her to the mist of the moor. Lost her to duty. So promising, so strong, so?.?.?.?wait. What were you asking? What are we discussing? Why must I forget things all the time?”

“The Kingair assassination attempt,” Alexia prompted.

“Silly dogfight. Poor girl. Imagine having to take on that kind of responsibility. At sixteen! And over werewolves. Werewolves who planned a poisoning. So many things wrong with the very idea. So many things out of character. Out of the supernatural order. Was it ever put right, I wonder?”

Alexia pulled a measure of this rambling together. “Sidheag Maccon was your student?”

The ghost’s head tilted. “Sidheag. That name is familiar. Oh, why, yes. So hard to finish in one way, so easy to finish in another. A strong girl, good at finishing. But then again, strength in girls is not so much valued as it ought to be.”

Lady Maccon, as interested as she was in anything to do with her husband’s great-great-great-granddaughter, now one of the only female werewolves in England and Alpha of the Kingair Pack, felt she must still steer the ghost back onto more relevant matters. “Did you happen to hear, at the time, whether there was a connection between the assassination attempt and the Order of the Brass Octopus?”

“Connection? Connection? Of course not.”

Alexia was taken aback by the firm confidence in the ghost’s voice. “How can you be so certain?”

“How can I not? Imagine such a thing. No, no, not against the queen. Never against Queen Victoria. We would have known. I would have known. Someone would have told me.” Formerly Beatrice Lefoux swirled about in her distress, once more catching sight of Madame Lefoux’s latest project. She paused as though hypnotized by the imposing thing. “Oh, Genevieve, I can’t believe you would. I can’t. Not for anything. Why, child, why? I must tell. I must convince?.?.?.” She ended up facing Alexia once more and, as though seeing her for the first time, said, “You! Soulless. You will stop everything in the end, won’t you? Even me.”

Madame Lefoux pressed her lips together, closed her eyes, and gave a sad sigh. “There she goes. We won’t get any more sense out of her this evening. I’m sorry, Alexia.”

“Oh, no, that’s quite all right. It wasn’t precisely what I was hoping for, but it has convinced me that I must contact Lady Kingair as soon as possible. I must convince my husband’s old pack to reveal the details of the original plot. Only they can fully unravel this mystery. I can’t believe that the OBO was not involved, but if your aunt says so with such conviction, only the source of the threat itself can reveal the truth of the matter.”

“And, of course, my aunt was never a member of the Order.”

“She wasn’t?” Alexia was genuinely surprised.

“Absolutely not. Women weren’t allowed to join back in her day. It’s difficult enough now.” The French inventor, one of the smartest people Alexia had ever met, reached behind her neck to finger the octopus tattoo that lay hidden there, just under the curls of her scandalously short hair. Alexia tried to imagine Genevieve without her secret underground world. Impossible.

Alexia said, “I shall have to send someone to Scotland. I don’t suppose?.?.?.??”

Madame Lefoux looked even more unhappy. “Oh, no. I am sorry, my dearest Alexia, but I cannot afford the time. Not right now. I have this”—she waved a hand at the monstrous thing she was building—“to finish. And my aunt to think of. I should be with her, now that the end is near.”

Lady Maccon turned to the inventor and, because she seemed to need it more than anything else, embraced her gently. It was awkward given Alexia’s belly but worth it for the slight lessening Alexia could feel in Genevieve’s stiffened shoulders. “Would you like me to send her on?” she asked in a hushed voice.

“No, thank you. I am not yet ready to let her go. You understand?”

Alexia sighed and released her friend. “Well, worry not on this particular matter. I will get to the bottom of it. Even if I have to send Ivy Tunstell to Scotland for me!”

Fated words that, as is often the case with frivolous speech, Alexia was going to come to regret.

CHAPTER SIX

In Which Mrs. Tunstell Proves Useful

Were they not recently moved into new accommodations, Lady Maccon might have made a different choice—one of Woolsey’s older clavigers, perhaps. But the pack was in chaos over the relocation. They were nowhere near as tethered to a place as vampires, but werewolves were, in simple terms, tethered to each other and were creatures of profound habit. Such arbitrary reorganization ruffled the fur. Solidarity and proximity became ever more necessary for the pack’s continued cohesion. Were BUR not occupied with its own investigation as to the current threat against Queen Victoria, Alexia might have tapped Haverbink or another experienced investigator. And, finally, were the Shadow Council supplied with its own agents, the muhjah would have had manpower to call upon. However, with none of these options readily available, Lady Maccon cast about herself and found that she had only one possible choice—as unlikely and as addlepated as that choice might be.

Mrs. Tunstell ran a tight household, despite overseeing her rented accommodations with a floppy hand and absentminded disposition. Her abode was clean and neat, and callers could be assured of a decent cup of tea or candy dish of raw meat, depending upon taste and inclination. Despite an interior resplendent in every shade of pastel, Ivy’s home was a popular watering hole. As a result, the Tunstells had developed a name for themselves among the more esoteric members of the West End as agreeable hosts interested in a wide range of topics and ever willing to open their door to the friendly visitor. This meant that, at any given time, one was practically guaranteed to find some breed of indifferent poet or insipid sculptor in residence.

So it was that when Lady Maccon called around teatime that summer afternoon, a delighted Mrs. Tunstell welcomed her inside with assurances that while they had indeed adopted a stray poet, that versifier was quite firmly asleep and had been for the better part of three days.

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