Heartless (Parasol Protectorate #4)

Chapter 23

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Lord Maccon’s head suddenly cocked—supernatural hearing making out some new sound that Alexia could not discern.

“There is someone at the door.” He put down the image he had been toying with and turned to face the entrance, crossing his arms.

His wife picked up her parasol.

*   *   *

The ghost was confused. She spent a good deal of her time confused these nights. She was also alone. Everyone had gone, to the very last, so that she floated in her madness, losing her afterlife into silence and aether. Threads of her true self were drifting away. And there was no friendly face to sit with her while she died a second time.

She remembered that there was something unfinished. Was it her life?

She remembered there was something she still needed to do. Was it die?

She remembered that there was something wrong. She had tried to fix it, hadn’t she? What should she care for the living?

Wrong, it was all wrong. She was wrong. And soon she wouldn’t be. That was wrong, too.

CHAPTER NINE

In Which the Past Complicates the Present

A knock came at the back parlor door, and Floote stuck his debonair head around the side. “Madame Lefoux to see you, madam.”

Lady Maccon placed her parasol carefully to one side, pretending her husband had not just given her due warning. “Ah, yes, show her into the front parlor, would you, please, Floote? I’ll be in shortly. We simply can’t have company in this room yet—it’s not decent.”

“Very good, madam.”

Alexia turned back to her husband, beckoning with one hand to get him to come help her stand. He did, bracing himself.

“Oomph,” she said, attaining her feet. “Very well, I shall add Lord Woolsey to our ever-growing list of suspects who are now dead and thus useless. Death can be jolly well inconvenient, if you ask me. We can’t possibly prove his involvement.”

“Or what bearing it might have on this new threat to the queen.” The earl placed a casual arm about his wife, assistance couched in a more Alexia-acceptable act of affection. Nearly a year of marriage and he was finally learning.

“True, true.” His wife leaned against him.

Another knock sounded at the back parlor door.

“What now!” growled Lord Maccon.

Professor Lyall’s sandy head popped in this time. “You’re wanted, my lord, on a matter of pack business.”

“Oh, very well.” The earl helped his wife waddle down the hallway. He abandoned her at the door to the front parlor and then followed his Beta out into the night.

“Hat, my lord,” came Professor Lyall’s mild rebuke, a disembodied voice from the darkness.

Conall came back inside, scooped a convenient top hat off of the hall stand, and disappeared outside again.

Alexia paused at the door to the front parlor. Floote had left it slightly ajar, and she overheard conversation drifting from within, Madame Lefoux’s mellow voice and that of another, clear and erudite, confident with age and authority.

“Mr. Tarabotti had significant romantic success. I often wondered if the soulless weren’t dangerously attractive to those with too much soul. You, for example, probably have excess. You like her, don’t you?”

“Oh, really, Mr. Floote, why this sudden interest in my romantic inclinations?”

Lady Maccon started at that. She might have recognized Floote’s voice, of course, except that she had never heard him string so many words together at once. It must be admitted, she had privately doubted his ability to formulate a complete sentence. Or at least his willingness to do so.

“Be careful, madam.” The butler’s voice was stiff with rebuke.

Alexia flushed slightly at the very idea of her staff taking such a tone with a guest!

“Is it my care you are concerned with or Alexia’s?” Madame Lefoux seemed well able to withstand such a grave breach in domestic protocol.

“Both.”

“Very well. Now, would you be so kind as to check up on Her Highness? I am in a bit of a rush and the evening isn’t getting any longer.”

At this juncture, Lady Maccon made a great blundering noise and entered the room.

Floote, unflappable, backed away from his intimate proximity to the French inventor as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

“Madame Lefoux, to what do I owe the pleasure of your company? I seem to have just left you.” Alexia made her way laboriously across the room.

“I have that information you were looking for. About the teapots.” The inventor handed over a sheaf of old parchment paper, yellowed about the edges, thick and ridged, marked by hand and the assistance of a straight edge into some sort of ledger. “It’s in my aunt’s code, which I am certain you could decipher if you wished. But essentially it indicates that she had only one order for the teapot invention that year, but it was a big one. It didn’t come through any suspicious channels. That’s the intriguing part. It was a government order, out of London, with funds originating in the Bureau of Unnatural Registry.”

Lady Maccon’s mouth opened slightly, then snapped shut. “Ivy’s Agent Doom was at BUR?” She sighed. “Well, I suppose that puts Lord Woolsey to the top of my suspect list. He would have held my husband’s position at the time.”

Floote, in the act of shutting the door behind himself, paused on the threshold. “Lord Woolsey, madam?”

Alexia looked at him, all big-eyed and innocuous. “Yes. I’m beginning to think he must have had a hand in the Kingair assassination attempt.”

Madame Lefoux looked entirely uninterested at this. Her present concerns must be outweighing any curiosity over the past. “I do hope the information will be of some use, Alexia. When you’re finished, could I please have those records back? I like to keep these things in proper order. You understand, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

“And now, I hate to be so abrupt, but I must get back to it.”

“Of course, of course. Do try to get some rest, please, Genevieve?”

“I’ll rest when the souls do,” quipped the inventor with a shrug. Then she left the room, only to return a moment later. “Have you seen my top hat?”

“The gray one out in the hall?” Lady Maccon’s stomach fell in a way that had nothing whatsoever to do with the child.

“Yes.”

“I believe my husband may have accidentally absconded with it. Was it special?”

“Only in that it was my favorite hat. I can’t imagine it fit him. Must be several sizes too small.”

Lady Maccon closed her eyes at the very idea. “Oh, he must look quite a picture. I do apologize, Genevieve. He is so very bad about these things. I’ll have it sent over as soon as he returns.”

“Oh, no trouble. I do, after all, own a hat shop.” The inventor flashed a dimpled smile, and Alexia felt a strange bump of pleasure at the sight. It had been so long since Genevieve had smiled fully.

Floote saw the Frenchwoman to the door, but before he could even attempt to resume his regular duties, Lady Maccon called him back into her presence.

“Floote, a moment of your time.”

Floote came to stand before her, wary. His face, as always, was impassive, but Alexia had learned over the years to watch the set of his shoulders for clues as to his real feelings.

“Floote, I wouldn’t wish to be an eavesdropper, not on my friends or my staff—that is, by rights, your provenance. However, I couldn’t help but overhear some bit of your conversation with Madame Lefoux before I entered this room. Really, I didn’t know you had it in you. Several sentences in a row. And some of them quite sharp.”

“Madam?” The shoulders twitched.

Floote really didn’t have much of a sense of humor, poor man. Lady Maccon stopped teasing him and moved on to the meat of the matter. “You were discussing my father, weren’t you?”

“In a manner, madam.”

“And?”

“Madame Lefoux pays you a good deal of conspicuous attention.”

“Yes. I always figured it was her way. If you take my meaning.”

“I do, madam.”

“But you think it is something more?”

His shoulders tensed and Floote looked, if such a thing were to be conceived, uncomfortable. “I have made observations over the years.”

“Yes?” Having a conversation with Floote was about as easy as explaining the formulation of the counterbalance theorem to a bowl of macaroni pudding.

“On the nature of preternatural interactions, if you would, madam.”

“Yes, I would. Go on.”

Floote spoke slowly, choosing his words with care. “I have arrived at certain conclusions.”

“Concerning what, exactly?” Coaxing, coaxing, thought Alexia. Never her strong point in a conversation, letting others take their time getting to a point. Still, the company of Lord Akeldama had taught her much in the way of it.

“There may be attraction between those who have excess soul and those who have none at all, madam.”

“You mean preternatural and supernatural?”

“Or preternatural and natural folk with supernatural potential.”

“What kind of attraction?” asked Lady Maccon rather injudiciously.

Floote raised an eloquent eyebrow.

“Did my father—” Alexia stopped, trying to come up with the correct phrasing. This was a strange sensation for her, thinking before she spoke. Her husband was much the same way or they might never have tolerated each other. Floote was notoriously reluctant to talk about his former employer, citing classified protection of international relations and the safety of the empire. Lady Maccon tried again. “Did my father exercise this appeal on purpose?”

“Not to my knowledge.” Suddenly Floote switched topics, volunteering information in a most unexpected and un-Floote-like manner. “Do you know why the Templars gave up their preternatural breeding program, madam?”

Alexia’s brain tried to change gears, a steam engine caught on the wrong track. “Uh, no.”

“They never could entirely control preternaturals. It’s your pragmatism. Your kind cannot be persuaded by faith; pure logic must be applied.”

Alexia’s very pragmatic nature was confused as to why normally taciturn Floote was telling her this, and right now. “Is that what happened to my father? Did he lose faith?”

“Not exactly faith, madam.”

“What do you mean, precisely, Floote? Enough shilly-shallying.”

“He engaged in an exchange of loyalties.”

Alexia frowned. She was beginning to suspect there were far fewer coincidences in life than she had previously believed. “Let me guess. This occurred about twenty years ago?”

“Nearer to thirty, but if you are asking if the three events are linked, the answer is yes.”

“My father rejecting the Templars, his death, and the Kingair assassination attempt? But when the Kingair Pack tried to kill the queen, he was already dead.”

“My point exactly, madam.”

A loud crashing and banging came at the front door. Lady Maccon would have liked to query Floote further, but pressing noises seemed to be calling on his butler attentions.

Floote glided out, all calmness and dignity, to see what the fuss was about. Whoever it was, however, pushed past him and came rushing into the front parlor, crying, “Lady Maccon! Lady Maccon, you are needed most urgently!”

The intrusion resolved itself into the form of two of Lord Akeldama’s boys, Boots and a young viscount by the name of Trizdale. They were overwrought and disheveled—conditions highly out of character for any of Lord Akeldama’s drones. One sleeve of Boots’s favorite green jacket was torn, and Tizzy’s boots actually looked to be scuffed in places. Scuffed, indeed!

“My goodness me, gentlemen, has there been an incident?”

“Oh, my lady, I can hardly bear to say it. But we are being assaulted!”

“Oh, my.” Lady Maccon signaled them to come closer. “Don’t stand there gawping—help me to rise. What can I do?”

“Well, my lady, we are under attack from a werewolf!”

Alexia paled considerably. “In a vampire’s abode? Deary me! What is this world coming to?”

Boots said, “That’s just the thing, my lady. We thought it best to fetch you. The creature is on a bender.”

Lady Maccon grabbed up her parasol and her reticule. “Of course, of course. I’ll come directly. Lend me your arm, please, Mr. Bootbottle-Fipps.”

As quickly as possible, the two young dandies helped Alexia to waddle out the front door and along the path past the lilac bushes into Lord Akeldama’s house.

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