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Queen Victoria dismisses her from the Shadow Council, and the only person who can explain anything, Lord Akeldama, unexpectedly leaves town. To top it all off, Alexia is attacked by homicidal mechanical ladybugs, indicating, as only ladybugs can, the fact that all of London’s vampires are now very much interested in seeing Alexia quite thoroughly dead.
While Lord Maccon elects to get progressively more inebriated and Professor Lyall desperately tries to hold the Woolsey werewolf pack together, Alexia flees England for Italy in search of the mysterious Templars. Only they know enough about the preternatural to explain her increasingly inconvenient condition, but they may be worse than the vampires — and they’re armed with pesto.
Blameless is the third book of the Parasol Protectorate series: a comedy of manners set in Victorian London, full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea-drinking.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Heartless
A Preview of The Shambling Guide to New York City
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Wherein the Misses Loontwill Cope with Scandal in Their Midst
How much longer, Mama, must we tolerate this gross humiliation?"
Lady Alexia Maccon paused before entering the breakfast room. Cutting through the comfortable sounds of chinking teacups and scrunching toast shrilled her sister's less-than-dulcet tones. In an unsurprising morning duet of well-practiced whining, Felicity's voice was soon followed by Evylin's.
"Yes, Mumsy darling, such a scandal under our roof. We really shouldn't be expected to put up with it any longer."
Felicity championed the cause once more. "This is ruining our chances"—crunch, crunch—"beyond all recuperation. It isn't to be borne. It really isn't."
Alexia made a show of checking her appearance in the hall mirror, hoping to overhear more. Much to her consternation, the Loontwill's new butler, Swilkins, came through with a tray of kippers. He gave her a disapproving glare that said much on his opinion of a young lady caught eavesdropping on her own family. Eavesdropping was, by rights, a butler's proprietary art form.
"Good morning, Lady Maccon," he said loudly enough for the family to hear even through their chatting and clattering, "you received several messages yesterday." He handed Alexia two folded and sealed letters and then waited pointedly for her to precede him into the breakfast room.
"Yesterday! Yesterday! And why, pray tell, did you not give them to me yesterday?"
Swilkins did not reply.
Nasty bit of bother, this new butler. Alexia was finding that little was worse in life than existing in a state of hostility with one's domestic staff.
Entering the breakfast room, Alexia actually flounced slightly in her annoyance and turned her ire upon those seated before her. "Good morning, dearest family."
As she made her way to the only empty chair, four pairs of blue eyes watched her progress with an air of condemnation. Well, three pairs—the Right Honorable Squire Loontwill was entirely taken with the correct cracking of his soft-boiled egg. This involved the application of an ingenious little device, rather like a handheld sideways guillotine, that nipped the tip off the egg in perfect, chipless circularity. Thus happily engrossed, he did not bother to attend to the arrival of his stepdaughter.
Alexia poured herself a glass of barley water and took a piece of toast from the rack, no butter, trying to ignore the smoky smell of breakfast. It had once been her favorite meal; now it invariably curdled her stomach. So far, the infant-inconvenience—as she'd taken to thinking of it—was proving itself far more tiresome than one would have thought possible, considering it was years away from either speech or action.
Mrs. Loontwill looked with manifest approval at her daughter's meager selection. "I shall be comforted," she said to the table at large, "by the fact that our poor dear Alexia is practically wasting away for want of her husband's affection. Such fine feelings of sentimentality." She clearly perceived Alexia's breakfast-starvation tactics as symptoms of a superior bout of wallowing.
Alexia gave her mother an annoyed glance and inflicted minor wrath upon her toast with the butter knife. Since the infant-inconvenience had added a small amount of weight to Alexia's already substantial figure, she was several stone away from "wasting." Nor was she of a personality inclined toward wallowing. In addition, she resented the fact that Lord Maccon might be thought to have anything whatsoever to do with the fact—aside from the obvious, of which her family was as yet unaware—that she was off her food. She opened her mouth to correct her mother in this regard, but Felicity interrupted her.
"Oh, Mama, I hardly think Alexia is the type to die of a broken heart."
"Nor is she the type to be gastronomically challenged," shot back Mrs. Loontwill.
"I, on the other hand," interjected Evylin, helping herself to a plateful of kippers, "may jolly well do both."
"Language, Evy darling, please." Mrs. Loontwill snapped a piece of toast in half in her distress.
The youngest Miss Loontwill rounded on Alexia, pointing a forkful of egg at her accusingly. "Captain Featherstonehaugh has thrown me over! How do you like that? We received a note only this morning."
"Captain Featherstonehaugh?" Alexia muttered to herself. "I thought he was engaged to Ivy Hisselpenny and you were engaged to someone else. How confusing."
"No, no, Evy's engaged to him now. Or was. How long have you been staying with us? Nearly two weeks? Do pay attention, Alexia dear," Mrs. Loontwill admonished.
Evylin sighed dramatically. "And the dress is already bought and everything. I shall have to have it entirely made over."
"He did have very nice eyebrows," consoled Mrs. Loontwill.
"Exactly," crowed Evylin. "Where will I find another pair of eyebrows like that? Devastated, I tell you, Alexia. I am utterly devastated. And it is all your fault."
Evylin, it must be noted, did not look nearly so bothered as one rightly ought over the loss of a fiancé, especially one reputed to possess such heights of eyebrow preeminence. She stuffed the egg into her mouth and chewed methodically. She had taken it into her head recently that chewing every bite of food twenty times over would keep her slender. What it did was keep her at the dinner table longer than anyone else.
"He cited philosophical differences, but we all know why he really broke things off." Felicity waved a gold-edged note at Alexia—a note that clearly contained the good captain's deepest regrets, a note that, judging from the stains about itself, had received the concerted attention of everyone at the breakfast table, including the kippers.
"I agree." Alexia calmly sipped her barley water. "Philosophical differences? That cannot be true. You don't actually have a philosophy about anything, do you, Evylin dear?"
"So you admit responsibility?" Evylin was moved to swallow early so she could launch the attack once more. She tossed her blond curls, only one or two shades removed from the color of her egg.
"Certainly not. I never even met the man."
"But it is still your fault. Abandoning your husband like that, staying with us instead of him. It is outrageous. People. Are. Talking." Evylin emphasized her words by stabbing ruthlessly at a sausage.
"People do tend to talk. I believe it is generally considered one of the better modes of communication."
"Oh, why must you be so impossible? Mama, do something about her." Evylin gave up on the sausage and went on to a second fried egg.
"You hardly seem very cut up about it." Alexia watched as her sister chewed away.
"Oh, I assure you, poor Evy is deeply effected. Shockingly overwrought," said Mrs. Loontwill.
"Surely you mean affected?" Alexia was not above a barb or two where her family was concerned.
At the end of the table, Squire Loontwill, the only one likely to understand a literary joke, softly chortled.
"Herbert," his wife reprimanded immediately, "don't encourage her to be pert. Most unattractive quality in a married lady, pertness." She turned back to Alexia. Mrs. Loontwill's face, that of a pretty woman who had aged without realizing it, screwed itself up into a grimace Alexia supposed was meant to simulate motherly concern. Instead she looked like a Pekingese with digestive complaints. "Is that what the estrangement with him is over, Alexia? You weren't… brainy… with him, were you, dear?" Mrs. Loontwill had refrained from referring to Lord Maccon by name ever since her daughter's marriage, as if by doing so she might hold on to the fact that Alexia had married—a condition believed by most to be highly unlikely right up until the fateful event—without having to remember what she had married. A peer of the realm, it was true, and one of Her Majesty's finest, to be certain, but also a werewolf. It hadn't helped that Lord Maccon loathed Mrs. Loontwill and didn't mind who knew it, including Mrs. Loontwill. Why, Alexia remembered, once, he had even—She stopped herself from further thought of her husband, squashing the memory ruthlessly. Unfortunately, she found that the agitation of her thoughts had resulted in toast mutilated beyond all hope of consumption. With a sigh, she helped herself to another piece.
"It seems clear to me," interjected Felicity with an air of finality, "that your presence here, Alexia, has somehow overset Evy's engagement. Even you cannot argue your way out of that, sister dear."
Felicity and Evylin were Alexia's younger half-sisters by birth and were entirely unrelated if one took into account any other factors. They were short, blond, and slender, while Alexia was tall, dark, and, quite frankly, not so very slender. Alexia was known throughout London for her intellectual prowess, patronage of the scientific community, and biting wit. Felicity and Evylin were known for their puffed sleeves. The world, as a result, was generally more peaceful when the three were not living under the same roof.
"And we are all aware of how considered and unbiased your opinion is on the matter, Felicity." Alexia's tone was unruffled.
Felicity picked up the scandal section of the Lady's Daily Chirrup, clearly indicating she wanted nothing more to do with the conversation.
Mrs. Loontwill dove courageously on. "Surely, Alexia, darling, it is high time you returned home to Woolsey? I mean to say, you've been with us nearly a week, and, of course, we do love having you, but he is rumored to be back from Scotland now."
"Bully for him."
"Alexia! What a shocking thing to say!"
Evylin interjected. "No one has seen him in town, of course, but they say he returned to Woolsey yesterday."
Felicity crinkled the gossip section of the paper explanatorily.
"He must be pining for you, my dear," Mrs. Loontwill resumed the attack. "Pining away, miserable for want of your…" She flailed.
"For want of my what, Mama?"
"Uh, scintillating companionship."
Alexia snorted—at the dining table. Conall may have enjoyed her bluntness on rare occasion, but if he missed anything, she doubted her wit was top of the list. Lord Maccon was a werewolf of hearty appetites, to say the least. What he would miss most about his wife was located substantially lower than her tongue. An image of her husband's face momentarily broke her resolve. That look in his eyes the last time they saw each other—so betrayed. But what he believed of her, the fact that he doubted her in such a way, was inexcusable. How dare he leave her remembering some lost-puppy look simply to toy with her sympathies! Alexia Maccon made herself relive the things he had said to her, right then and there. She was never going to go back to that—her mind grappled for a description—that untrusting nitwit!
Lady Alexia Maccon was the type of woman who, if thrown into a briar patch, would start to tidy it up by stripping off all the thorns. Over the past few weeks and throughout the course of an inexcusably foul train journey back from Scotland, she thought she had come to terms with her husband's rejection of both her and their child. She was finding, however, at the oddest and most irregular moments, that she hadn't. She would feel the betrayal, like some writhing ache just under her ribs, and become both incredibly hurt and transcendently angry without warning. It was exactly like an acute attack of indigestion—only with one's finer feelings involved. In her more lucid moments, Alexia reasoned that the cause of this sensation was the unjustness of it all. She was quite accustomed to defending herself for having done something inappropriate, but defending herself when completely innocent made for a dissimilar, and far more frustrating, experience. Not even Bogglington's Best Darjeeling succeeded in soothing her temper. And if tea wasn't good enough, well, what was a lady to do? It was not, certainly not, that she still loved the man. That was entirely illogical. But the fact remained that Alexia's temper was tender about the edges. Her family ought to have recognized the signs.
Felicity snapped the paper closed suddenly, her face an uncharacteristic red color.
"Oh, dear." Mrs. Loontwill fanned herself with a starched doily. "What now?"
Squire Loontwill glanced up and then took refuge in close examination of his egg.
"Nothing." Felicity tried to shove the paper under her plate.
Evylin was having none of it. She reached over, snatched it away, and began scanning through it, looking for whatever juicy tittle-tattle had so disturbed her sister.
Felicity nibbled on a scone and looked guiltily at Alexia.
Alexia had a sudden sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She finished her barley water with some difficulty and sat back in her chair.
"Oh, golly!" Evylin seemed to have found the troublesome passage. She read it out for all to hear. " 'London was flabbergasted last week when news reached this reporter's ears that Lady Maccon, previously Alexia Tarabotti, daughter of Mrs. Loontwill, sister to Felicity and Evylin, and stepdaughter to the Honorable Squire Loontwill, had quit her husband's house, after returning from Scotland without said husband. Speculation as to the reason has been ample, ranging from suspicions as to Lady Maccon's intimate relationship with the rove vampire Lord Akeldama, to suspected family differences hinted at by the Misses Loontwill'—oh look, Felicity, they mentioned us twice!—'and certain lower-class social acquaintances. Lady Maccon cut quite a fashionable swath through London society after her marriage'—la, la, la… Ah! Here it picks up again—'but it has been revealed by sources intimately connected to the noble couple that Lady Maccon is, in fact, in a most delicate condition. Given Lord Maccon's age, supernatural inclination, and legally recognized postnecrosis status, it must be assumed that Lady Maccon has been indiscreet. While we await physical confirmation, all signs point to The Scandal of the Century.' "
Everyone looked at Alexia and began talking at once.
Evylin snapped the paper closed, the crisp noise silencing her family. "Well, that explains that! Captain Featherstonehaugh must have read this. Which is why he broke off our engagement this morning. Felicity was right! This really is your fault! How could you be so thoughtless, Alexia?"
"No wonder she's been off her feed," commented Squire Loontwill unhelpfully.
Mrs. Loontwill rose to the occasion. "This is simply too much for a mother to endure. Too much! Alexia, how did you manage to bungle matters so completely? Didn't I raise you to be a good, respectful girl? Oh, I don't know what to say!" Words failed Mrs. Loontwill. Luckily, she did not try to strike her daughter. She had done that once, and it hadn't worked out well for anyone. Alexia had ended up married as a result.
Alexia stood. Angry again. I spend a considerable time out of temper these days, she reflected. Only four people had known of her unseemly condition. Three of them would never even consider talking to the press. Which left only one option, an option that was currently wearing the most reprehensible blue lace dress, sporting a suspiciously red face, and sitting across from her at the breakfast table.
"Felicity, I should have realized you wouldn't be able to keep your trap shut!"
"It wasn't me!" Felicity instantly leaped to the defensive. "It must have been Madame Lefoux. You know how these Frenchwomen are! They'll say anything for a modicum of fame and money."
"Felicity, you knew about Alexia's condition and did not inform me?" Mrs. Loontwill recovered from her shock just in time to be shocked again. That Alexia would keep a secret from her own mother was to be expected, but Felicity was supposed to be on Mrs. Loontwill's side. The chit had been bribed with enough pairs of shoes over the years.
Lady Alexia Maccon slammed one hand down on the tabletop, causing teacups to rattle ominously, and leaned forward toward her sister. It was an unconscious application of intimidation tactics learned during several months spent living with a werewolf pack. She was nowhere near as hairy as was generally required for the maneuver, but she still managed to execute it flawlessly. "Madame Lefoux would do no such thing. I happen to know for a fact she is the soul of discretion. Only one person would talk, and that person is not French. You promised me, Felicity. I gave you my favorite amethyst necklace to keep silent."
"Is that how you got it?" Evylin was envious.
"Who is the father, then?" asked Squire Loontwill, apparently feeling he ought to try and steer the conversation in a more productive direction. The ladies, fluttering agitatedly all around the table, entirely ignored him. This was a state comfortable to them all. The squire sucked his teeth in resignation and went back to his breakfast.
Felicity went from defensive to sulky. "It was only Miss Wibbley and Miss Twittergaddle. How was I to know they would go running off to the press?"
"Miss Twittergaddle's father owns the Chirrup. As you are very well aware!" But then Alexia's anger simmered off slightly. The fact that Felicity had held her tongue for several weeks was practically a miracle of the third age of mankind. Undoubtedly, Felicity had told the young ladies in order to garner attention, but she probably also knew such gossip would effectively dissolve Evylin's engagement and ruin Alexia's life. Sometime after Alexia's wedding, Felicity had evolved from frivolous to outright spiteful, which, combined with a gooseberry-sized brain, resulted in her being an acutely disastrous human being.
"After all this family has done for you, Alexia!" Mrs. Loontwill continued to heap recriminations on her daughter. "After Herbert permitted you back into the safety of his bosom!" Squire Loontwill looked up at that turn of phrase, then down at his portly frame with disbelief. "After the pains I went through to see you safely married. To go outside of all standards of decency like a common strumpet. It is simply intolerable."
"Exactly my point all along," stated Felicity smugly.
Driven to heights of exasperation, Alexia reached for the plate of kippers and, after due consideration of about three seconds, upended it over her sister's head.
Felicity shrieked something fierce.
"But," Alexia muttered under the resulting pandemonium, "it is his child."
"What was that?" Squire Loontwill brought a hand down sharply on the tabletop this time.
"It is his bloody child. I have not been with anyone else." Alexia yelled it over Felicity's whimpering.
"Alexia! Don't be crass. There is no need for specifics. Everyone is well aware that is not possible. Your husband is basically dead, or was basically dead and is mostly dead now." Mrs. Loontwill appeared to be confusing herself. She shook her head like a wet poodle and sallied stoically on with her diatribe. "Regardless, a werewolf fathering a child is like a vampire or a ghost producing offspring—patently ridiculous."
"Well, so is this family, but you all appear to exist in accordance with the natural order."
"What was that?"
"In this case, 'ridiculous' would seem to require a redefinition." Blast this child to all four corners of hell, anyway, thought Alexia.
"You see how she is?" interjected Felicity, picking kipper off herself and glowering murderously. "She just keeps talking like that. Won't admit to doing a single thing wrong. He has chucked her over—are you aware of that? She is not returning to Woolsey because she cannot return. Lord Maccon cast her out. That is why we left Scotland."
"Oh, my goodness. Herbert! Herbert, did you hear that?" Mrs. Loontwill looked about ready to have the vapors.
Alexia wasn't certain if this was manufactured distress at Conall publicly booting Alexia or if it was genuine horror at the prospect of having to board her eldest for the foreseeable future.
"Herbert, do something!" Mrs. Loontwill wailed.
"I have died and gone to the land of bad novels," was Squire Loontwill's response. "I am ill-equipped to cope with such an occurrence. Leticia, my dear, I leave it entirely in your capable hands."
A more inappropriate phrase had never yet been applied to his wife, whose hands were capable of nothing more complex than the occasional, highly stressful, bout of embroidery. Mrs. Loontwill cast said hands heavenward and sagged back into her chair in a partial faint.
"Oh, no, you don't, Papa." An edge of steel entered Felicity's tone. "Forgive me for being autocratic, but you must understand Alexia's continued presence under our roof is entirely untenable. Such a scandal as this will substantially hinder our chances of matrimony, even without her actual attendance. You must send her away and forbid her further contact with the family. I recommend we quit London immediately. Perhaps for a European tour?"
Evylin clapped her hands, and Alexia was left wondering how much planning Felicity had put into this little betrayal. She looked hard into her sister's unexpectedly pitiless face. Deceitful little plonker! I should have hit her with something harder than kippers.
Squire Loontwill was taken aback by Felicity's forthright talk, but always a man to take the path of least resistance, he took stock of his collapsed wife and fierce-faced daughter and rang the bell for the butler.
"Swilkins, go upstairs immediately and pack Lady Maccon's things."
Swilkins remained motionless, impassive in his surprise.
"Now, man!" snapped Felicity.
Alexia made a little huffing noise of exasperation. Just wait until she told Conall about this latest familial absurdity. Why he'd… Ah, yes, never mind. Her anger once again died, buckling under the ache of a werewolf-sized hole. Attempting to fill up the void with something, she helped herself to a dollop of marmalade and, because she had nothing left to lose, ate it directly off the spoon.
At that, Mrs. Loontwill actually did faint.
Squire Loontwill gave his wife's limp form a long look and then, with due consideration, left her there for the time being and retreated to the smoking room.
Alexia remembered her mail, and since she needed a distraction and would rather do anything other than converse further with her sisters, she picked up the first letter and broke the seal. Until that moment, she had actually thought things couldn't get any worse.
The seal on the letter was unmistakable—a lion and a unicorn with a crown in between. The message on the interior was equally forthright. Lady Maccon's presence was no longer welcome at Buckingham Palace. The Queen of England would henceforth be unable to receive her. Lady Maccon's duties as a member of the Shadow Council were suspended until further notice. She no longer carried Her Majesty's confidence or authority. The position of muhjah was once more vacant. She was thanked kindly for her previous services and wished a pleasant day.
Alexia Maccon stood up very decidedly, left the breakfast room, and walked directly into the kitchen, ignoring the startled servants. With barely a pause, she marched over and stuffed the official missive into the huge iron range that dominated the room. It caught fire and immolated instantly. Craving solitude, she went from the kitchen into the back parlor, rather than back to the breakfast room. She wanted to retire to her room and crawl back under the bed covers in a tiny—well, not that tiny—ball. But she was already dressed, and principles must be maintained even in the direst of times.
She should not have been surprised. For all her progressive politics, Queen Victoria was morally conservative. She still wore mourning for her husband, dead, ghosted, and gone for over a decade. And if any woman didn't look good in black, it was Queen Victoria. There was no way that the queen would allow Lady Maccon to continue in her clandestine role of preternatural advisor and field agent, even if it remained an entirely secret and classified position. Lady Maccon could not possibly have even a hint of an association with the queen, not now that she had become a social pariah. The morning's news was probably already common knowledge.
Alexia sighed. The potentate and the dewan, fellow members of the Shadow Council, would be delighted to see her gone. She hadn't exactly made life easy for them. That, too, had been part of the job requirements. She experienced a shiver of apprehension. Without Conall and the Woolsey Pack to protect her, there were probably quite a number of individuals who would count her as better off deceased. She rang the bell for one of the maids and sent her to retrieve her parasol-cum-weapon before the butler packed it away. The maid returned shortly, and Alexia felt slightly comforted by having her favorite accessory on hand.
Her thoughts, unbidden, returned once more to her husband, who had so thoughtfully gifted her with the deadly ornament. Damn and blast Conall. Why didn't he believe her? So what if all known history contradicted her? History wasn't precisely revered for its accuracy at the best of times. Nor was it overflowing with female preternaturals. Scientifically, no one understood how she was what she was or did what she did even now, with all England's vaunted technology. So what if he was mostly dead? Her touch turned him mortal, didn't it? Why couldn't it also turn him human enough to be able to give her a child? Was that so impossible to believe? Horrible man. So like a werewolf to get overly emotional and fluff up the duster like that.
Just thinking about him and Alexia became overcome with sentiment. Annoyed at her own weakness, she dabbed the tears away and looked to her other note, expecting more bad news. However, the writing on this one, bold and entirely too flowery, made her give a watery smile. She'd sent a card 'round shortly after she returned to London. She wouldn't be so rude as to ask, but she had hinted at her uncomfortable domestic situation, and he, of course, would know what had happened. He always knew what was happening.
"My darling Chamomile Button!" he wrote. "I received your card, and given certain recent intelligence, it has occurred to me that you may be in ever-increasing need of accommodation but were far too polite to request it openly. Let me tender my most humble offer, to the only person in all of England currently thought more outrageous than myself. You would be welcome to share my unworthy domicile and hospitality, such as they are. Yours, et cetera, Lord Akeldama."
- "Soulless is a character-driven romp with great worldbuilding and delicious rapier wit that recalls Austen and P.G. Wodehouse."— io9.com on Soulless
- "The dialogue is as smart and snappy as ever, full of intelligent humor and artful verbal sparring."—All Things Urban Fantasy on Changeless
- "A tapestry that is simultaneously witty, charming, exhilarating and downright fun."—fantasyliterature.com on Blameless
- "This is as much fun as the previous two books."—Charlaine Harris on Blameless
- On Sale
- Sep 1, 2010
- Page Count
- 384 pages