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When a young American lady of good standing is indiscreet, kind parents retire her quietly to the country with a maiden aunt and a modest stipend. Faith’s parents decided to marry her off to a werewolf.
“Though you’re too soiled for even those unnatural beasts.” Faith’s mother was not looking at her. Mrs Wigglesworth hadn’t really looked at her daughter for nearly two months. Faith was more reassured by this than not. To be noticed might tempt her mother’s temper, and that was never pretty.
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So, she was careful with her words. “Now, Mother, I don’t think they quibble about such things, so long as I’m fresh meat.”
“None of your lip, girl. That’s what got you into this predicament.” Faith’s mother had a voice like cracked peppercorns and the face of an offended jackrabbit – all ears, red-rimmed eyes, and wrinkled nose.
No, it isn’t what got me here, thought Faith. In fact, it was the opposite. If I'd said something – if I'd lied about it – there would have been shame but no ruination.
“Face it, my dear, she’s spoiled goods by everyone’s standards. Even the werewolves.” Mr Wigglesworth chewed his overcooked beef wetly, with a sound like the squelching of boots in a vat of gravy.
“I don’t know where we went wrong with her. The others all turned out well enough.” Mrs Wigglesworth gave a long-suffering sigh. “I did so well with them, and then this one. Rotten to the core.”
Faith looked down at her food. It sat untouched. She didn’t feel like eating; nothing worked to fill that odd lingering emptiness. Certainly not beef, at any rate. She speared a potato and ruminated over its roundness.
They must be desperate to be rid of me, she thought, to be considering werewolves. Or Mother hates werewolves so much, she would use me to punish them.
Prior to this particular conversation, Faith could not remember the word werewolf ever spoken in the Wigglesworth household, let alone at the dinner table. For while the packs may have helped the North with their Union troubles, they still weren’t considered civilized. Now they weren’t even allowed into the city without escort. A werewolf was lower than a Californian, all things considered – rough rural hillbillies with too much hair. And open shirt collars. And no table manners.
Faith shivered in titillated horror. Werewolves were not permitted in any of Boston society’s conservatories, let alone received into drawing rooms. Certainly not by the Wigglesworths. No one would make the mistake of calling Faith’s papa a progressive. But he was a pragmatist. And everyone in Boston now knew of his daughter’s shame. And Faith’s mother? Well, she made no bones about her hatred for the beasts.
Her mother’s hand, suddenly and without warning, slapped the table. “Don’t play with your food, girl.” She barked the words so sharply that spittle sprayed the table.
Faith put down her fork.
Her mother went back to not looking at Faith. Already, in one of those lightning mood switches that had so terrified Faith as a child, Mrs Wigglesworth was directing soft lips and coy eyes at her husband and his indifference. “You see what a bother she is to me? To this family?”
“So, how do we safely dispose of her?” Mr Wigglesworth asked his wife, because it really was Mrs Wigglesworth’s responsibility. A daughter embroiled in scandal was of little political value to him. He’d never paid Faith any attention anyway, not until her indiscretion.
Mrs Wigglesworth sighed again, louder and with more force. “We must still try for an advantageous match. Your cousin offers us a relatively inexpensive option – a London season.” She tapped the letter that had started the whole conversation. “Since I’d never allow American werewolves to darken our door, I was thinking of something grander. England. Some of those British monsters are even titled.”
Faith couldn’t face the potato. She slid it off her fork untouched. Not more society. Critical eyes, and uncomfortable clothes, mixed with monsters. The potato wobbled. Imagine having to sit across the table from a real vampire. Those fangs. Do they suck blood at dinner? She shuddered.
Mrs Wigglesworth continued, “Then she might marry and stay across the ocean.”
“To rot,” added Faith under her breath. The subtext being that then the Wigglesworths would never have to see their youngest daughter again.
Her mother gave a tight smile. “Cursing some monster with her wicked ways and amoral behavior, instead of us and our good name.”
Faith tried not to find that funny. Isn’t that what they call the irresistible need to shapeshift every full moon – werewolf’s curse? Midnight special, she thought, curse now comes with your very own indiscreet American fortune hunter. Buy while fresh.
Papa made his decision. “Send her to England then, my dear. No one will have heard of her shame there.”
No one will have heard of me at all. Faith was cheered by that thought. Oh, the joy of anonymity.
“Hardly matters. Werewolves don’t have standards.” Mrs Wigglesworth spoke with unsubstantiated confidence.
Faith actually didn’t mind overmuch. Anything to get out of the house. Apparently, she hadn’t any standards either.
Her mother glared at her, sharp and vicious. “We are being whispered about. In the streets! Mrs Kensington cut me in the park yesterday. Me! I want you gone from here and forgotten. You will find yourself a werewolf, girl. You aren’t good enough for a human man. Not even an English one.”
Faith hung her head. She wants me shamed for the rest of my life. Tied forever to the same supernatural creatures that deceived and ruined me. All because she is being whispered about this month in a minor scandal that will be forgotten by summer.
So it was that Faith, with only her maid Minnie as chaperone, and last season’s dresses (which might themselves be considered a chaperone, for the discouragement that they afforded) and a few outfits Faith had made in secret (even more discouraging to prospective suitors, as these involved menswear), were packed into a dirigible and floated off to England. Properly, Mrs Wigglesworth ought to have gone along, but Faith’s mother obviously thought nothing worse could happen to her daughter.
She was, of course, entirely wrong.
Faith enjoyed the Atlantic crossing. Their dirigible, the Flotty, was a spacious, comfortable craft with amiable staff and excellent south-facing aspects. Their room was underdone, like raw pastry – damp and cool and unfinished – but Faith suspected her parents of penny-pinching in that regard and did not blame the ship. Poor Minnie was airsick the entire passage, but Faith was a strong floater with a head for heights. She spent most of her time abovedecks, enjoying the peaceful grey of the aetheric void. The prevailing cotton-wooly numbness suited her mood perfectly. Looking into the aether was like looking into her own soul – an empty void. She enjoyed it. It suited her to delve into a funk.
“Miss, you shouldn’t allow yourself to be maudlin.” Minnie roused herself enough to be critical when Faith came in one evening to change before a meal.
“Why shouldn’t I be maudlin? If anyone has the right, it’s me.”
“Now, miss, you’ve resisted it so far.”
“That was before they packed me off to England to catch myself a wolf.”
“Could be worse fates,” said Minnie.
“Could have airsickness like me.” Minnie was turning green again even as they spoke.
“Yes, you’re right, poor dear. More cold cloths? Could you manage a little barley water?”
Minnie clutched her tummy and moaned at the very idea of barley water, reaching for a bucket.
Faith made a hasty retreat in search of cold cloths and ginger nubbins.
They landed in London three days later, two hours after sunset. The city was beautiful, all lit up by gas lanterns, with other airships drifting about through halfhearted clouds. The moon was a slim crescent low on the horizon.
“I thought it was supposed to be a dirty, grungy place.” Minnie had finally made it up onto the squeak deck for the depuffing.
Faith frowned down at their new home. “It seems nice enough.”
Minnie did not look convinced.
They could see the Hyde Park embarkation green now, well lit to guide in the long-haul transports puffing in at night. She thought the park was probably pretty during the day, and much bigger than she’d anticipated.
Minnie glared at her mistress and not the view. “Will you be changing, miss?” Her tone suggested that Faith's outfit deserved nothing but censure.
Faith firmed her resolve. “I will not.”
“Oh, miss.” Minnie looked ill once more.
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Their dirigible depuffed in stages. Minnie, while green, managed to maintain her dignity as the Flotty sunk with all dignified gravitas.
Once all the way down, the gangplank lowered, and porters swarmed up it. Minnie instantly commandeered one for their luggage. Faith trailed dutifully after.
Major Channing Channing of the Chesterfield Channings crossed his arms over his not-insignificant chest and growled. Since he was usually growling about something, most of his field agents ignored both noise and stance. Some of the newer ones moved a little faster about their assigned tasks, glancing at him sideways. He only sneered at them.
It wasn’t that they were being particularly incompetent. Nor that the mission was going any less slowly than expected. Just that Major Channing liked to growl. Being a werewolf, it was somewhat expected of him.
He was not excited about having to board and search this incoming dirigible. He wasn’t confident in their information, Americans were innately untrustworthy, and the airship was also American make, registry, and crew, so it wouldn’t be easy to investigate without giving offense.
But it must be done.
Reports indicated a shipment of Sundowner bullets was aboard, sent to arm the London Separatist movement and facilitate their anarchical agenda. Channing’s agents in America had tracked the bullets to Boston, but there the trail went cold. It was only supposition that they were headed to London. Certainly, the Bostonians could make good use of such an armament themselves, America being a generally hostile place where immortals were concerned.
In England, such bullets were controlled and licensed strictly to Sundowners – those few people authorized to kill vampires and werewolves. More importantly, they were extremely expensive to produce. Channing was motivated to find them. Firstly, to keep them out of enemy hands, and secondly, so that he might restock his own supplies.
As the head of BUR, Channing was a licensed Sundowner himself. The possibility of new bullets was extremely tempting. Channing liked killing things, even his fellow immortals. Especially them, more of a challenge. After all, everyone needs a hobby.
Unfortunately, in this instance Channing was anticipating failure. And no killing. He had a feeling the bullets weren’t on this dirigible, or if they were, they’d be too well hidden to discover without giving unpardonable offense to passengers through confiscation. This was one instance where even a werewolf’s nose could be fooled, and BUR had, of course, no idea what the enemy looked like.
Major Channing was always one to gather as much information as possible before codifying a mission; forewarned was forearmed, as the saying went. In this case there wasn’t enough to be going in with, and it was less four-armed than three-legged.
His men, three of them, all human, moved to stand next to the gangplank as the dirigible depuffed to ground. They looked with fierce assessing eyes at the debarking passengers. Transport vessel Floatsome Jetsome Comefloatington, or Flotty for short, was heavy with humans and baggage. The porters had their work cut out for them.
Come for the season, no doubt. Channing grimaced in disgust.
London had seen an influx recently of American upstarts on the British marriage mart, most of them interested in the cachet of a title. Brash young women desperate to find an Englishman with conservative political leanings to match their own upbringing. They saw it, in part, as missionary work. Americans supplied females full of wholesome ideals and strong anti-supernatural values (and, of course, money) to the upper crust of London’s high society. It was as if the colonies were returning home to save the British from themselves and the monsters they had become.
Channing’s lip curled despite his best efforts.
He couldn’t abide Americans.
Fritz-Lloyd Kerr, one of his newer agents, focused on a young lady, her maid, and their porter. The porter was struggling to load what looked to be a leather attaché case that had tumbled off the stacked baggage. The maid nipped in to rescue a wobbling sewing box while the porter hoisted the case back onto the pile. It was clearly much heavier than it ought to be.
Of course, one’s mind went instantly to bullets.
Mr Kerr approached. “Miss, pardon the intrusion, but we are investigating an issue of contraband. May I examine the contents of that case, please?”
His tone made it clear this was not a request but a demand.
The young lady, a pretty little blonde chit in something that looked more like a bicycling outfit than a traveling gown, bristled and blushed at the same time. “No, you can’t!”
Channing winced. That accent. So harsh. Pity, coming from such a prettily shaped mouth.
“I am afraid I must insist, miss.” Mr Kerr was firm. Channing approved.
“Under what authority?” The American female was firm right back.
Mr Kerr reached into his waistcoat pocket and produced his license. “BUR, miss. Name’s Kerr.”
“And what, Mr Kerr, is this BUR that you represent?”
“The Bureau of Unnatural Registry, miss.”
She jerked away at that, blue eyes wide in shock, glancing from Kerr to the other agents to Major Channing. Her maid gave a small gasp of horror.
Channing didn’t move under their panicked regard, arms crossed firmly, making it clear he was in charge.
“Supernaturals?” the American girl squeaked. “Are you…” She trailed off, clearly upset.
Now it was Kerr’s turn to blush. “No, miss.” But he did slide his eyes over to Channing.
Stupid man. He should control his reactions better than that! Channing frowned. Mr Kerr would have to go back in for more training. He clearly wasn’t yet ready for fieldwork when faced with an attractive blonde.
The young lady followed Kerr’s gaze and her eyes went, if possible, even wider. Her blush deepened in color. Flustered, she seemed so vulnerable, and as a result quite tasty, which only served to irritate Channing further. The wolf in him wanted to hunt.
He marched over. Without saying anything, he confiscated the leather case in contention. It was indeed suspiciously heavy.
The girl, as it transpired, was no milk-water miss. He should have known that by the fact that she was apparently attired in… Is that a split skirt or trousers?What are the young women wearing these days? Or perhaps it’s simply a plague of the colonies.
“Stop! That’s mine. Don’t you dare. Don’t touch it!” So much for her being flustered.
She followed her case, unafraid of Channing.
That is rather novel.
She smelled wonderful, he realized dispassionately. Like port and mincemeat pie, at once both sweet and richly intoxicating.
Channing ignored her, rested the leather case on a folding card table he’d set up expressly for this purpose. Then he popped the lid open.
Now, what is she so desperate to hide?
Faith could not deny that the offensive gentleman was ridiculously handsome. So much so, it hurt to look at him. But he clearly knew well how effective his looks were. This served to mitigate any possible appeal. There was also no doubt in Faith’s mind that he was a vampire. His slave (or drone, or whatever a servant was called) had indicated him as the immortal in charge of this harassment.
He wore no uniform, but he had the feel of arrogance and authority. Every line of his posture bespoke not only elevated breeding but military training. Instructions were barked at her in the manner of a militia captain or a French chef.
At the moment, he was silent and the muscles in his jaw rippled as he clenched his teeth.
Obviously a vampire. He had the pale skin she’d been told to expect. He was tall and lean and cut-glass pretty, blond and sharp-featured with too many teeth, like an ice sculpture wearing dentures.
He was also extraordinarily rude. To steal her specimen case without asking!
The first thing I do in a new country is subject myself to official humiliation. Oh, why did I insist on bringing my collection with me?
Faith knew why. Because her parents would have unceremoniously thrown it all away despite the fact that it was the work of years. Faith had begun collecting when she was only ten. Her mother had prayed she’d grow out of the obsession, but Faith never did. Faith intended to keep collecting until she died, despite the embarrassment of such an unwomanly hobby. Her collecting missions were exciting without too much risk. She found the associated cataloging afterwards restful, and the scholarly papers that resulted? Well, they were very well received in certain circles, thank you very much. Although published under a male pseudonym.
Of course, it was not the kind of hobby a young lady was supposed to cultivate. Botany, particularly botanical sketching, was about as far as respectable women were supposed to go into the natural sciences.
Not rocks. Never rocks.
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Faith bit her lip and knew she was blushing. For the gorgeous vampire was about to expose her sins to the world. Or at least the small corner of it in Hyde Park that evening.
He lifted the lid for her case and then removed the thick woolen shawl she’d tucked in to seal the top. The case was velvet-lined, unnecessary, and subdivided into squares, necessary. It held several shelves stacked atop each other, so that the one could be lifted out to show the next underneath like a very large and very sturdy jewelry box or small treasure chest.
Faith was proud of the design. She’d commissioned it herself with carefully hoarded pin money. Her mother was exasperated upon discovering the unnecessary expense. Why not buy some new fans, child? Fans are so much more useful to a girl.
This was before the incident, when Mrs. Wigglesworth was more tolerant of Faith’s eccentricities. Before her indiscretion. Before her shame. Now her collection was just one more thing that made her unbearable to be around, a dishonor to the family.
Here I arrive in a foreign land, all prepared to do it right this time, or at least to try my level best, and already I’m failing.
The vampire lifted out the first shelf. And then the second. And then the third, and set them out on the table. His face had gone from suspicious and guarded to a certain blankness that might indicate surprise.
“Rocks.” He spoke at last. His voice was somehow the most British-sounding thing ever. His vowels were all wet and round.
Faith moved closer and huffed at him. “Yes, sir. Rocks. Well, and a few minerals. Even a fossil or two. What did you think they were?”
“That” – his tone was sharp and curt – “is absolutely none of your concern. Why are you gallivanting about the aetherosphere with a ruddy great load of rocks?”
“No need to take that tone with me, sir!” Faith glared. She shouldn’t have to defend herself. After all, rocks weren’t contraband. Not that she knew of, anyway.
Minnie, heretofore wide-eyed and terrified, recognized Faith’s tone and plucked up enough courage to say, “Now, miss, don’t be hasty.”
Faith ignored her maid and put her hands on her hips. “Is there something wrong with my collection? Are the British opposed to the immigration of foreign rocks in principle or just in theory? Is there a standing law against the importation of stones?”
He looked nonplussed at her attack.
Faith gave him a small, pitying smile.
Minnie backed away, no doubt putting herself out of shrapnel distance.
Very little made Faith genuinely angry; she worked hard against it, what with her mother’s irrational temper as a shining example of how not to behave. However, she would tolerate no criticism of her collection, not from geologically ignorant vampires!
“I assure you, sir, these rocks are mostly harmless. Your virtue is safe from nefarious rock infiltration. As, for that matter, is England’s.”
“Do you talk nonsense by habit, Miss – what is your name, by the way? – or is it an act of defiance?”
Faith drew herself up; two could play at this game. “I’m moved to absurdity when faced with unwarranted unpacking of my private possessions. I assure you, those are my rocks. I’ve collected them in good standing. I’ve records for each and every one. A few of the rarer specimens are even registered with my local chapter of the North Eastern Minerals Examination and Reportage Collective. And it’s Miss None-of-your-business, sir.”
The offensive gentleman picked up one of her more precious pieces, a palm-sized deep blue rock with black and yellow striations. “What is this one?”
“Lapis lazuli, metamorphic, all the way from Colorado. It’s pretty, isn’t it? Oh, would you like me to prove my expertise?” Faith instantly lost some of her anger to the rush of information and pride in her own knowledge. “The main mineral is lazurite. It was highly prized in antiquity.” She barreled on with a will. “Until recently, it was also used in oil painting and—”
“I’m sure it’s most fascinating, miss.”
“Yes, yes, it is. But I understand if you’re too limited in your interests to share my passion. I understand you immortals lose your capacity for such foibles.”
The man turned the lapis lazuli about in his hand, white fingers a startling contrast to the blue. His nails were very short and his skin looked smooth. “Are rocks a customary course of study for American girls of decent upbringing?” Either he’d given her split skirts a professional assessment and found the fabric acceptably expensive, or his use of the word decent was all sarcasm. Faith bristled. Cranberry taffeta might be considered a little loud for an unmarried lady, but her shirtwaist was wool plaid, which she felt toned it down considerably. No one could critique the logic of dress reform for floating; Faith hadn’t even needed skirt tapes!
Faith was seized with the urge to be slightly evil. “You mean it isn’t, in London?” She made her voice go breathy. “Geology is all the rage back home. Any lady worth her salt knows her minerals by rote.”
“You are having me on.” He did not sound amused.
Faith widened her eyes at him and tried to look innocent.
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He fondled the lapis lazuli a moment longer. Then said, sounding pained, “It is the color of your eyes.”
Faith could only blink at that. She thought her eyes were not so dark a blue, but she would take the compliment, if that’s what it was.
There was a commotion with one of the other BUR officers, or whatever they were called, that drew the much lighter blue gaze of the vampire away from Faith.
She thought she saw a moment of relief cross his perfect face.
“Oh, very well, take your rocks and be on your way, miss.”
“I don’t see that I need your permission. Good evening to you, sir.” Faith began packing up the case herself, batting away the helpful hands of Mr Kerr, who seemed to feel some guilt over his part in waylaying her.
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The vampire, whom Faith was beginning to suspect was also a scoundrel, said, grinning, “Welcome to London, Miss Lazuli.”